Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Since Bridget's in London

I thought I'd add this from the Writers' Almanac:
It's the birthday of journalist and social critic Malcom Muggeridge born in Croydon, Surrey, England (1903). In 1953 he became the editor of the British humor magazine Punch. Muggeridge eventually left after he got tired of his staff; he said they were "all anguished men, trying to discover what, if anything, was funny." He said, "It was a somber place, haunted by old jokes and lost laughter. Life, as I discovered, holds no more wretched occupation than trying to make the English laugh." He also said, "Bad humor is an evasion of reality; good humor is an acceptance of it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Pearl Jacket

The Pearl Jacket and Other Stories: Flash Fiction from Contemporary China is a collection of short short stories which let readers see modern China from a variety of angles. Divided into sections such as family, portraits, society, truth and art, the book consists of stories, no more than four pages long, which remind me of O. Henry stories. They present sharply focused scenes of both country and city life with a dash of sentimentality and a surprise ending. Here's an example:
Happy Family
by Wu Du

Like any other day he returns home from work. He is about to take out the key to open the door when the door opens. She stands by the door, a smile on her face. One, two, three kids peek from inside to greet him, “Welcome home, dad.”
The three kids are beautiful. So is she. The kids busy themselves around him excitedly, getting him his slippers, his tea, his newspapers. He sits down in the cushioned chair, rests his head against its back, and takes a deep breath. It feels so different with a woman around the house. He notices she has cleaned the curtains and the cushions and tidied up things. Somehow the entire room looks much brighter than before.

The kids are bright and thoughtful. They all come over to kiss him, the youngest one still smells like a baby. They “pester” him for a while, asking if he is exhausted from work, if he knows the latest news, and so on. They are sensitive to even his facial expressions so they know how far they can go and what questions they should not ask. They are experienced. Third Hair, the youngest, even recites a Tang poem for him. He is amazed. It's taught by the kindergarten teacher, he is told. He likes to call the kids this way, “Big Hair, Second Hair, Third Hair.” They are like the kids he has seen on television. The boy has long, like a girl, his eyes big and deep. The girls have on cute skirts and squat on the floor like little princesses.

He likes to call her “Mei.” She comes out from the kitchen. She is beautiful, but not the obvious kind of beauty. It's the housewife kind of beauty, not quite that of a young secretary or a film star. She has on just a little make up. Her thin lips fresh red. She tells him what kind of dishes she has prepared. They are all his favorite.

During dinner he sits at the head of the table where the head of a family is supposed to sit. The kids are enthusiastic and chatter with him nonstop. They are ready to answer any question he asks. He asks, “How do you like Uncle Qin?” The kids reply without hesitation, “Dad, we like you better.” She stops her chopsticks, smiles and exchanges a knowing glance between them. Heavens how can he not melt into all this? Third Hair prints on his face one last kiss with the same baby fragrant mouth. They are all neatly dressed as if they are gong somewhere. They all say “goodbye” so sweetly. Just before they leave, he hands her an envelope with money in it. She hands him a card, the same promotion card of their company, which he has seen so many times before. Yet he reads it one more time:

Good news for single people in the world: Our company provides happy families of all stripes and types to meet the emotional needs of all kids of single, lonely people . . . .

He breaks into a smile. Perhaps he should try a different flavor next time, a hot and spicy one that gives you no peace whatsoever. Old Qin said, “You should try that kind of family life, too. It can be exciting."
It's a good book to pick up and read a story or two now and then.

I'm going to share a few with my students. The language is simple, while the irony and descriptions add a bit of sophistication.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Defining Moment by Jonathan Alter



Eminently readable.

I read it because it's one of the books our new president is reading because, you know, our new president reads.

From the start, I was learning. There were many details of the Depression of which I was unaware. It was troubling how many of them mirrored today's headlines. But do the solutions attempted during the Depression have any applicability to today's circumstances?

Alter makes the argument that the key to the New Deal was the persona of the newly elected president and his willingness to basically just keep throwing darts at the dart board. According to Alter, Roosevelt didn't have so much a vision regarding what to do as a drive to simply do something. The appearance of activity went a long way in creating optimism.

Alter creates a revealing, well-balanced portrait of FDR. While his focus is the first 100 days of FDR's presidency, he provides plenty of lead in and follow up which gives the reader a solid overview of the entire era and a great deal of detail about the defining moment.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Give Me Liberty by Naomi Wolf

While Wolf hooked me with The End of America, she loses me with Give Me Liberty.

She comes across as a left-wing conspiracy theory nut who, prior to the 2009 Inauguration, questions whether the Republican administration of George Bush will allow the newly elected president to be sworn in.

Now, as far as I'm concerned, there were so many legitimate accusations to level at the Bush administration that it really calls Wolf's credibility into question for her to move so far into the realm of panic.

Wolf's book does provide an interesting dissection of the obstacles to exercising one's First Amendment rights of speech, assembly and petition erected by our various local, state and federal governments.

The book is not totally without merit as it marches us through Wolf's often less than successful attempts to be politically active and then provides us with a roadmap for overcoming the difficulties she encountered but like most books of its genre, whether right or left, it must be taken with a grain of salt, culling out the reasonable from the inflammatory.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Losing the Race

In Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black AmericaJames McWhorter examines why African American students underachieve academically, not just those from low income homes, but those in all socio-economic strata. He presents a lot of data that I'd never seen and argues his points logically and persuasively. The book is trenchant and brave, in that he often says things that will get him in hot water, that other Black scholars don't want to address. It's a good book for anyone interested in addressing the achievement gap and for anyone who wants to learn how to argue well. How to present your side and refute critics.

As a language teacher, I enjoyed his explanations of linguistics and Black English. I admire him for standing alone in the Ebonics controversy. Others might find those passages off-topic.

I can see that some will use his thesis to bolster their prejudices and to say we can't help "some people."

When I get home, I plan to read his next book Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America.Evidently, he doesn't merely criticize and diagnose, he presents a solution.