Please Be Quiet

One of my absolute pet hates is small talk.  I will be honest with you – I completely and utterly suck at it and I used to spend hours planning what I was going to talk to my hairdresser about.  I was also probably the only person on this planet who found the perspective of having to go and have their hair cut equal to being given a life sentence for a crime they hadn’t committed.  That was until I found a hairdresser who despises small talk as much as I do and we either talk about ‘interesting stuff’ or I withdraw quietly into my headspace and she cuts my hair. Perfect.

It turns out that there is a reason why I loathe small talk, spent most of my childhood preferring to sit quietly and daydream instead of playing with lots of noisy and annoying kids and consider an evening with a book ‘socialising’.  I may be farther along the introvert spectrum than I thought, as Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain enlightens me.

After having filled in her Are you an introvert? checklist I find out that I am 60% introvert and about 40% extrovert (I answered a few questions with ‘it depends’ instead of a straight yes or no).  Almost an ambivert and to quote the writer: “yes, there really is such a word.”  This is why even though I like my quiet time and occasionally disappear into my ‘restorative niche’ I also occasionally crave the company of my fellow humans and enjoy presenting in front of groups of people  – I am more or less in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum.

A few aspects of the book are interesting and the author presents the data in a (mostly) very accessible and anecdotal style, like when she attends a variety of workshops and conferences that promise to turn their participants into amazing salesmen/talkers etc. as being an extrovert equals success, charisma and confidence.  And as it turns out in a lot of cases, the promise of a miraculous transformation comes with a hefty price tag.

In America, extroverted parents have been known to send their introverted children to psychiatrists and have them put on medication to have their introversion ‘treated’.  If socialising is an extreme sport at the Harvard Business School I would never even come close to an Olympic medal.

In fact, it is both fascinating and scary to realise how modern society has moved from the ‘Cult of Character’ to the ‘Cult of Personality’ and is structured around cultivating the characteristics associated with extroverts and their inconsequential small talk.  Most shockingly, we design school classrooms and workplaces to primarily conform to the extrovert ideal: open plan offices, brainstorming sessions, promoting Group-think and not much else.  I must say I liked Susan Cain’s suggestion to create offices that have open-plan bits for the extroverts and nooks and crannies where the quiet people can have their quiet time.

If Peanut has inherited the ‘introvert gene’ and tells me one day that he would rather read a book or draw or daydream instead of going to another birthday party (‘parents’ small talk hell’) then fine by me.  However, I also would like for him to try things out and take occasional risks (OK, then we may go to every second birthday party, I can cope with that and there is always the option of hiding with a book in the toilet)

In many ways Quiet is an important book.  It is timely, engaging and tells its readers (who I assume would be predominantly introverts) what empathic, modest and great thinkers they are; instead of nerdy, quirky, odd and shy losers.

However, it loses its appeal at times, especially during the chapters where she cites endless fMRI studies.  And it is a shame that ambiverts, or almost-ambiverts do not get much mention or in fact any at all.  There is a lot of talk of how introverts adapted to the extroverted world, but what about those of us who are in the middle (almost) of the spectrum?

Susan Cain here is an idea for a sequel.

Whether you are an introvert, extrovert or have the best of both worlds, you will most likely find this book interesting.

For now, I am off to start a quiet revolution.  Psst…


Disclosure: I was provided with a free copy of  Quiet and I received no other payment to write this review.  I really enjoyed this book and all opinions are my own.  I would not have it any other way.  You can find Quiet in your local bookshops and libraries. 

The Buddha in the Attic – Review

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There were about 175 of us.  There were working mothers and stay at home mothers among us.  Every single one of us was writing a blog.

Some of us had a flock of offspring and found it easy, some of us struggled to get one toddler out of the house on time.  Some of us had partners and were lonely, some of us were single parents and rarely out of help.  Some of us missed the days of clubbing and Friday Happy Hours at a pub down the road from the office, some of us adapted to a life of icing cupcakes and soft plays and did not complain.  The rest of us resorted to gin.  And chocolate.

All of us belonged to the Penguin/Britmums Bookclub.  All of us were waiting in anticipation for the postman to push a brown envelope through the door.  All of us could not wait to read Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka.

When the books reached us we sighed with a relief.  We hid the novel in suitcases and took it on exotic holidays, to read when our children napped and husbands drank their way through the cocktail menus.  We put it on kitchen tables to steal a moment here and there, in between cooking, washing up and wiping dirty bums.  We put it at our bedsides and promised ourselves to read it before we fell asleep.  I will manage to stay awake this time.  Honestly.

Some of us could not wait to read the story, opened the book as soon as it arrived, disappeared into the first words and did not want to come back.

‘Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing. Some of us were farmers’ daughters from Yamaguchi with thick wrists and broad shoulders who had never gone to bed after nine. ’

We read it while sitting on dusty staircases.  We read it while waiting outside schools and nurseries.  We hid it among important documents at work.  We read it while doing shopping in supermarkets.  We devoured it on buses, trains, the London Underground and while cycling into lampposts.  Some of us had to wait until the other halves were finished with it and we were left with the tease of the enthusiastic comments on the book club website.

Most of us could not put it down until we got to the very last word.

Julie Otsuka showed us a world few of us knew much about – Japanese mail-order brides shipped to California in the early 1900s.  Some of the stories rang familiar to those of us who had ever tried Internet dating.  The disappointment at the first meeting and discovering that the photo we marvelled at was taken 20 years ago when the man had all his hair and teeth and was a few stone lighter.  Or that the picture was not of him but a better looking friend or a stranger.

We admired the simple language of a novel that read like a poem.  No word was out of place.  Very few of us minded the ‘we’ and not ‘I’ telling the story.

We gasped at some of the accounts of the Japanese wives’ first nights with their husbands:

‘That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word… .’

We thought about what it must have been like to live in an alien culture knowing that the gate back home was shut.  Some of us knew the feeling.  Some of us had heard the stories of promised lands, did not believe them and this book only confirmed what our hearts told us.

Some of us identified with the mothers and their heartbreak of having to abandon their little ones every day for hard work and toil.

‘In early summer, in Stockton, we left them in nearby gullies while we dug up and sacked onions and began picking the first plums. We gave them sticks to play with in our absence and called out to them from time to time to let them know we were still there. Don’t bother the dogs. Don’t touch the bees. … And at the end of the day when there was no more light in the sky we woke them up from wherever it was they lay sleeping and brushed the dirt from their hair. It’s time to go home.’

We understood the pain of watching our children slipping away from us, becoming a part of ‘their’ and not ‘our’ world and we wanted to know what happened next.

We learned about the history of prejudice, hostility and the internment camps that came after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  The tension and paranoia rising and ‘the Japanese disappearing’ almost overnight from farms and towns, off the streets and out of an white  average American’s life.

‘Kiyono left the farm on White Road convinced she was being punished for a sin she had committed in a previous life. I must have stepped on a spider. . . . Fumiko left a boarding house in Courtland apologizing for any trouble she might have caused. . . . Haruko left a tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day.’

Not all of us liked that fact that the last chapter went from ‘we, the Japanese women’ to ‘we, the white Americans.’  But some of us thought it was a clever way of pointing the finger at the reader and forcing them to take responsibility for the women’s fate.  Experience what it must have been like to disappear and to be forgotten.

We could not wait to talk about this book.  We passed it on to friends and families, colleagues and strangers who looked like they needed a good read.  We blogged and blathered about it.

We did not want those women to disappear.

We were determined not to forget.

About the author:

Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California.  After studying art as an undergraduate at Yale University she pursued a career as a painter for several years before turning to fiction writing.  Her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine is about the internment of a Japanese-American family during World War II.  The Buddha in the Attic is her second novel.

The Buddha in the Attic is available in your local bookshops.

Disclosure: I was provided with a free copy of The Buddha in the Attic and I received no other payment to write this review.  I really loved this book and all opinions are my own.  I would not have it any other way.

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