Book Talk

Darn font size issues, anyway!

The first books I have to talk about are Philip Ardagh's Eddie Dickens series, which N & I have been enjoying right out the wazoo. I have to say that my favorite is the second in the trilogy, Dreadful Acts, which starts out with the explanation in the Foreword

"[This book is] set in England sometime during the reign of Queen Victoria (who sat on the throne for more than sixty-three years, so let's hope she had a cushion) . . . "

Here's another good excerpt, one that made both N & me laugh, N at the beginning, me at the end:

"What you need is a nice hot cup of tea," said the policeman.
"Thank you," said Eddie, accepting the drink.
"What you get is a lukewarm mug of water. What do you think this is, the Fitz?" The Fitz was a newly opened restaurant in London that was so posh, even the doorman was the Earl of Uffington and the washer-upper was a much-decorated soldier - he had three layers of wallpaper under his uniform.
"How much longer are you going to keep me here?" asked Eddie.
"Have you heard of habeas corpus?" asked the peeler.
Eddie shook his head. (His own head, that is. He knew that shaking the policeman's head might annoy him.)
"Then we can keep you here as long as we like," said the peeler.

You get the picture. Sort of Douglas Adams for kids. Lots of fun, and highly gratifying to see one's child developing a good sense of humor.

Now for a highly disappointing book - no, I won't bother. I'm just going to list Neal Karlen's Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew on paperbackswap and get rid of it. I could not get through it: the fellow wasn't happy being Jewish, wished he could be happy being Jewish, and apparently (though I never got that far) ended up becoming a born-again Jew, but he was such an obnoxious boor through the whole process that I just quit reading. I don't enjoy reading about people who are obnoxious, period.

Well, okay, let me backtrack just a bit on that. Philip Lee Williams' Perfect Timing is about a fellow I consider rather obnoxious, in that he can't get over his obsession with himself. But the other characters in the book are so funny & endearing that I couldn't stop reading it - I had to find out what happened to them! Clarence Clayton, his cousin, is my favorite. He got religion in jail; while he's a little iffy on the details of the bible, he's quite comfortable making up anything he might not know definitively:

"The heavenly band of angels, lo, they playeth on harps. And harmonicas."
We all stared at him. I was startled by his apparent lunacy, but Mom was becoming more wrung out with each of his words. I was going to let it drop. Mom couldn't. It wasn't in her nature.
"What?" she said. "Did you say angels play on harmonicas?" Her voice rose a bit near the end of the sentence."
"The children of Israel took out they timbrels and danced. I read it. I couldn't figure what a timbrel might be, but it's got to be a harmonica because it's small enough to take out from somewhere."
"And what did they play on the harmonica?" asked Mom. Her voice was too loud.
"Country music," said Clarence.
"Country music!" yelled Mom.
"Yeah," he went on. "See, most of theseth Israelinos wasn't from the city, they was from the country, so I figure when they made music, it was country music."

Clarence isn't the only marvelous character in the book. Worth reading, for sure.

Finally, we have (in our completely mixed bag today), Haruki Murakami's After Dark. A rather unsatisfying novel, I felt, with a cover that I keep staring at (usually I don't pay this much attention to covers, but I tell you, it's got a GREAT cover!!!). Mari Asai's sister, Eri, has decided to go to sleep and not wake up. She hasn't committed suicide - she's just sleeping. She apparently wakes every so often to go to the bathroom, bathe and eat, but not when anyone sees her do it. Mari is the only one in the family who is distressed by it. The novel consists of one night in Mari's life, during which she has long conversations with a boy who knows both her and her sister (though neither of them well), and some other encounters with night people.

It's a strange and compelling novel, and I did want to read it all the way through. And I realize there was plenty going on under the surface. But at the end I felt as if I'd eaten a marshmallow - lots of air and no real substance. Lots & lots of symbolism without much heft.

I've read a lot of other things I didn't post about, but I don't remember any more, it's been such a long time!


The Calvinist Taoist OR Chicken Little and the Doctrine of Emptiness

My student Joe recently loaned me A.C. Graham's translation of the Liehtzu, a Taoist work I had not previously read. Much of it has to do either with emptiness or, interestingly enough, with the interplay between something Graham translates as "endeavor" (I wish I had the Chinese original) and "destiny" (which I assume is ming).

When speaking of emptiness, he reminds me of a discussion I had last semester with a student about when Buddhism came to China; Scott (a Buddhist) suggested that Buddhism must have arrived before Taoist thought arose, influencing it heavily. At the time, I pooh-poohed his suggestion. After reading the Liehtzu, I am not so sure. The passages concerning emptiness read like something out of a Zen classic (if such could be said to exist). Here's my favorite one - sorry it's so long, but it's really good:

There was a man of Ch'i county who was so worried that heaven and earth might fall down, and his body would have nowhere to lodge, that he forgot to eat and sleep. There was another man who was worried that he should be so worried about it, and therefore went to enlighten him.
'Heaven is nothing but the accumulated air; there is no place where there is not air. You walk and stand all day inside heaven, stretching and bending, breathing in and breathing out; why should you worry about falling down?'
'If heaven really is accumulated air, shouldn't the sun and moon and stars fall down?'
'The sun and moon and stars are air which shines inside the accumulated air. Even if they did fall down, they couldn't hit or harm anyone.'
'What about the earth giving way?'
'The earth is nothing but accumulated soil, filling the void in all four directions; there is no place where there is not soil. You walk and stand all day on the earth, stamping about with abrupt spurts and halts; whyshould you worry about it giving way?'
The man was satisfied and greatly cheered; and so was the man who enlightened him.

As I said, Chicken Little . . . .

Here is one of the many things the Liehtzu has to say about Destiny:

. . . The wisdom of sages cannot defy this,
Demons and goblins cannot cheat this.
Being of themselves as they are
Silently brings them about,
Gives them serenity, gives them peace,
Escorts them as they go and welcomes them as they come.

Finally, a story that made me smile, and that reminds me of the joke about the old Jewish man who prays every day to win the lottery:

There was a man of Sung who was strolling in the street and picked up a half tally someone had lost. He took it home and stored it away, and secretly counted the indentations of the broken edge. He told a neighbor, 'I shall be rich any day now.'

Good read, Joe. Thanks!



Pogo and Plastic Bags

I was listening to "Here & Now" on WHYY the other day and heard an interview with Bob Lilienfeld on the issue of "paper vs. plastic." It's one of those issues that makes my head hurt because of the complexity.

First we welcomed plastic bags because we could stop using paper bags and "save the trees." Now plastic has taken over the landfills, bags are hanging shredded from trees along the highways, and they're spilling from our closets as we collect them to take to the grocery to recycle them - assuming our stores actually do recycle them, and not just pitch them (as some do).

Did you know, for example, that 50% of all the plastic bags collected for recycling by grocery stores such as ours (Giant) are not made into more grocery bags, but instead into faux wood decking? Which is good, in that they don't wind up caught in trees along the highways or in landfills, but bad in that eventually they do end up in landfills when the decks are no longer wanted, and then they will take even longer to break down. It also means that more plastic bags are manufactured from scratch to take the place of the ones that are made into faux wood decking instead of into recycled plastic bags.

Is the faux wood decking worse than using real wood? Hm, says Lilienfeld, maybe not, because we have to factor in the chemicals used to pressure treat real wood if it's going to be made into decks (so that it won't rot - i.e. biodegrade), and if you paint it, those chemicals as well. What goes into making the paint & the chemicals? And of course, how long does it take the paint & chemicals to break down (and what do they do to the environment when they enter the soil)? Not so easy to determine which is greener.

Say, how about those new biodegradable plastic bags? They sound better than they are, according to Lilienfeld. The problem is that the one grocery stores are beginning to use cannot biodegrade in ordinary landfills, but must be buried in special landfills, meaning that municipalities must set up their own plants that can process
polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) (yes, I had to look that word up - my memory for chemical compounds isn't that good!). Here's the only article I could find on it quickly.

What about everything we've heard about those great "compostable" plastic bags? Well, I haven't spoken with anyone who has used them, so I don't know. This site and this one
both promise "no actual polyethylene," but why add the word "actual"? Do they contain "virtual" polyethylene? I just wonder about that wording. Lilienfeld warns that these so-called "biodegradable plastic bags" are NOT compostable and should NOT be put in compost that is used on vegetables.

A caller to the show pointed out that another problem with using cornhusks, the most common ingredient in these alternative plastic bags, is that it means fewer cornhusks are plowed under. The benefit of plowing cornhusks into the soil is that they prevent soil erosion. Make enough of these cornhusks into plastic bags, and more erosion results. Sheesh, I would never have thought of that, but it makes sense!

As Pogo said, "it's all connected."

So what's the solution? Reusable bags, for one. We have a bunch of cloth bags, and we have a few that fold up pretty small to be stuffed in pockets, and we can carry them around just in case. If stores stopped giving away bags, people would start carrying their own (after they spent a mighty long time bitching about poor service).

Ah, it doesn't really solve the problem, does it?



It's Still Me!

So, N wanted her own blog. I decided to let her do it, since she wants to do all the writing herself, and it's good typing practice (does anyone call it typing any more, or is it all keyboarding?) as well as spelling, though I'm helping her with both at her request. Feel free to leave her comments. For all I know, her first post will be her last.

In order to give her a photo of her own, and her own name, I had to take mine off. I also took my account off the books, so to speak, so no one can find it in searches, since I've no idea what she'll want to post in the way of family photos or photos of herself. I guess this is the elementary school version of MySpace.