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Eight Feet in the Andes

andes

Dervla Murphy’s travels are always absorbing and often humorous. I’ve read her Eight Feet in the Andes thanking God I’m not on this four month trek with a mule and a 9 year old (who’s amazingly patient, uncomplaining and intelligent). I wouldn’t be able to stand all the bugs, the 25 mile hikes up worn out trails that barely hug the mountains, the eating just ship’s biscuits and canned sardines for days till the next town which could be a week away.

Yet I find the book enthralling. The Murphy’s encounter people with histories and cultures I’d never heard of, some are amazingly hospitable and some are very cold and aloof. I love how Murphy tells it like it is. She doesn’t glorify all the native cultures or demonize all the mestizos. Each encounter is related as objectively as is humanly possible.

I’ve also learned so much about the Spanish and the Incas, how they clashed and how that affected numerous ethnic groups who were in the way. I’ll add a few good quotations later in the week, God willing, as it’s time to return to my end of term grading.

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The Moonstone

moonstone

Told by a several different narrators, all with different personalities and motives, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone entertains from start to finish. It begins with a family’s black sheep bequeathing a large, expensive jewel, the moonstone of the title, to his niece Rachel. The moonstone originally was a sacred jewel in India and three former Brahmans have come to England to get it back no matter what.

Rachel receives the moonstone on her 18th birthday when many have gathered for her party. She flaunts the stone all night and then puts it in a cabinet in her bedroom. During the night it’s stolen. Who did it? The Indian jugglers, who came by out of the blue? One of the servants–particularly the maid who had been caught stealing by her previous employer? Or a guest who’s in need of money? It could be anyone and Collins keeps the surprises coming chapter after chapter.

I enjoyed the humor and how the story was as much about the personalities of the characters and their relationships as it was about finding the culprit who took the cursed moonstone. I will soon read another Wilkie Collins’ story, that’s for sure.

North and South

In June my online book club read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Since I’v seen the BBC series, I knew I’d like it, but I really liked it more than I expected. North and South has been billed as a Pride and Prejudice with social issues thrown in. That’s not a bad quick summary of the novel.

Briefly, it’s the story of country girl, Margaret Hale getting uprooted from her lovely pastoral Helstone and plucked down in gritty, smoky Milton a factory town in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. There she comes to know both the Higgins family, who work in the mills and whose daughter is sickened due to the horrible conditions in her mill and the Thornton’s whose grown son owns a major mill.

Gaskell’s got a light touch so the story’s not overwhelmed by the social issues, yet in her lifetime, many readers criticized her for siding with the workers to the degree that she did.

I liked the characters Gaskell crafted and the even-handed debates they had on labor relations. As you might guess, Margaret and Mr. Thornton are polar opposites for most of the story, yet develop an attraction. While that’s nothing new, Gaskell handles the relationship well, so you’re pulled in.

The story moves a long and contains several quotations that I’ve marked.

A good read, indeed.

King Coal

By Upton Sinclair, who always takes the side of the underdog and shows people how hard and unfair life was for the lower classes in his time (i.e. early 20th century), King Coal is about a well-to-do college student, who leans to the left politically. His older brother and friends tell him that all the news and complaints of poor treatment of coal minors is hog wash. He decides to spend his summer as a miner.

He takes on the clothing of a working man and goes to North Valley where he gets work in a mine. He has no idea how much worse things were than he imagined. He makes friends with the workers, lives amongst them and sympathizes with them. He gets the same bad treatment. He faces the same problems – high rents in the mining housing, bad food at the canteen, exorbitant prices at the general store. When he helps the men organize and request, not a union, but someone to check that the coal loads are weighed right, he lands in jail. The judge is in bed with the mine owners. Upon release he’s followed and when a reporter prints his story . . . well, on and on it goes, injustice upon injustice.

The story is compelling and Sinclair creates likable characters a few that middle class and progressive wealthy folk would take to. It’s still a relevant story and should be read in history classes. If I taught history, I’d have some students read this, others read The Jungle and others read Oil! and then compare notes.

The Film Snob’s Dictionary

filmsnobdict

Written by David Kamp, The Film Snob’s Dictionary is a fun little reference book with a tongue-in-cheek tone that can help readers learn to b.s. their way through an erudite conversation on film or just help readers learn a little more about filmmakers and terms related to film.

Here are a few entries, chosen randomly, to give you a taste of the book:

Film Threat. Surprisingly buoyant, unsmug Web ‘zine (originally a print magazine) devoted to independent film. Where snobs go to read fulsome appreciations of Sam Raimi and interviews of such Queens of the B’s as Debbie Rochon and Tina Krause. (N.B. The website was bought and taken offline so where will we read these articles about people I never heard of?)

Mankiewicz, Herman. Gruff, whiskey-soaked, cigar chomping, old-school screenwriter par excellence (1807-1953)who bolted from his comfy perch at the Algonquin Round Table to write titles for silent films and screenplays for talkies, famously summoning his friend Ven Hecht west with te line “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition are idiots.” A dab hand at many genres–he wrote or cowrote Dinner at Eight, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and The Pride of the Yankees . . . .

Third Row, The. The only appropriate place for a true cinephile to sit, as per the dictum of  the late snob overlord and belle-lettrist Susan Sontag. Though the third row is said to provide the ideal perch from which to comfortably take in the MISE-EN-SCENE while unobstructed by fellow audience members, New York’s Anthology Film Archives, in 1970, catered to the socio-pathology of Film Snobs by opening its Invisible Cinema . . . .

The Horizontal Man

In 1947 Helen Eustis won the Edgar Award for best mystery for The Horizontal Man. Set at a small New England women’s college where a young Irish English professor, Kevin Boyle is murdered; someone took a fireplace poker and bashed him over the head with it. Soon Molly Morrison, an introverted freshman with a huge crush on Prof. Boyle has a breakdown and while in the school infirmary confesses to the murder.

No one buys that and she’s eventually cleared, but the question remains: Who killed Boyle? As the novel progresses Eustis provides an up close look into the psychology of the students and professors. Surprisingly, police and detectives play a small role in the novel, a technique I can’t remember seeing in other mysteries.

I liked her precise style, which transported me to the late 1940s.

Notes from the Underground

Yesterday I attended my library’s Great Books discussion. We talked about Fyodor Doestoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is a troubling book to read but a terrific book to discuss. The narrator is neurotic or possibly psychotic. He introduces himself saying:

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. However, I don’t know beans about my disease, and I am not sure what is bothering me. I don’t treat it and never have, though I respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, let’s say sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I refuse to treat it out of spite. You probably will not understand that. Well, but I understand it. Of course I can’t explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case by my spite. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “get even” with the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t treat it, its is out of spite. My liver is bad, well then– let it get even worse!” 

Part One of the story continues with this tone as the narrator, whose name we never learn, rants and raves about society. He’s a 40-something civil servant who delights in being rude to the public he’s supposed to serve. (Haven’t we seen those types in government offices and private sector customer service desks?) He has no filter and like a Russian Trump will call a spade a spade, the stupid, stupid.

In Part Two, Doestoevsky switches from a monologue to a narrative and goes back in time to when the narrator was 20. He’s (no big surprise) alienated from his peers, unhappy with the world, which fails to see how brilliant he is, and manages to misread every social situation and make problems spread and grow.

Now why would anyone want to read about such a misanthrope?

The answer’s because Doestoevsky makes us think and delights us with fine prose. He poses interesting questions:

“And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive–in other words, only what is conducive to welfare–is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact.”

His book still is relevant as it shows the shortcomings of “enlightened self-interest” or rational egoism, philosophies that aren’t quite dead, that fail to show the need for sacrifice and empathy and the limits of rationality on its own.

Eugenie Grandet

By Honoré Balzac, Eugenie Grandet had a plot that surprised me. A friend suggested reading and discussing this novel online and I’m glad he did. For most of the book I wondered why it was entitled Eugenie Grandet because for 85-90% of the book is dominated by her father’s character.

Set in the provinces, early on readers meet Monsieur Grandet a miser who counts every egg and sugar cube in his pantry. He’s a shrewd businessman who constantly cries poor constantly. His neighbours distrust and dislike him and pit his wife, daughter Eugenie and servant Nanon, who live like peasants in a cold, dark house eating meagre rations and going along without complaint as justified as it would be.

Since Eugenie is of marriageable age, and clearly would inherit father’s fortune, two families compete so their son will win her hand — and possibly heart. The marriage race is neck and neck and Papa Grandet enjoys the futile race, which he knows no one can win since he has no plans to agree with either proposal.

When a rich Parisian cousin Charles comes to visit, Eugenie falls in love and her father wonders how the Parisian social status can help him. When papa gets a letter from his Parisian brother admitting that he’s lost all his money and since he’s bankrupt will commit suicide, the Grandet’s household is turned upside down. Eugenie, whose grown up more or less in seclusion sympathises and falls for her cousin (marrying cousins was okay back then). Though he’s got a high class love back in Paris, he’s struck by Eugenie’s pure love. Still Charles must go to the New World to earn some money and restore his father’s reputation.

Balzac gives us a witty insider’s view of each character taking us down an original story path. Monsieur Grandet dominates the story and his daughter’s life even after he’s dead.

Though Papa Grandet is a one dimensional character, the story is witty and absorbing, well worth reading.

A Few Favorite Quotations:

“Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold.”

“The grain of gold dropped by his mother into his heart was beaten thin in the smithy of Parisian society; he had spread it superficially, and it was worn away by the friction of life” (About Charles)

“It is part of the French nature to grow enthusiastic, or angry, or fervent about some meteor of the moment. Can it be that collective beings, nationalities, peoples, are devoid of memory?”

Country Driving

country drivint

China expert Peter Hessler’s Country Driving is wild and crazy ride through a China in transition. Part travelogue, part memoir, Hessler begins by describing  his trips from Beijing out west along the Great Wall (make that Great Walls, because it never was one wall, but the Europeans thought it was and kept referring it to as the Great Wall so in the end the Chinese figured, “just go with it.”) He drove beaters he rented from a chain smoker who’d just laugh whenever Hessler broke the company’s rules. Throughout part one he sprinkles the questions from the drivers’ test.

133. If you drive for four hours, you must stop the car and take a mandatory rest of at least

a) 10 minutes

b) 15 minutes

c) 20 minutes.

356. If you give somebody a ride and they realize he left something in your car, you should:

a) keep it for yourself

b) return it to the person or his place of work as quickly as possible

c) call him and offer to return it for a reward.

My favourite part of the book was part two when Hessler rented a small house in rural Sancha, two hours outside of Beijing. In time Hesssler becomes “Uncle Monster,” almost part of the Wei family. Here I learned so much about life in rural China. The Wei’s are a young couple and parents of the only child in the village (because most young villagers went off to seek their fortunes). Hessler gets involved with the Wei’s who rented him the home on behalf of their cousins. When their 5 year old son gets a rare blood condition and the family is given the brush off at a hospital in a city near the village, Hessler steps up to get better healthcare in Beijing. I was stunned by how uncaring and out of touch the healthcare professionals were. Hessler saw that the parents were getting 2nd class treatment because they looked like peasants. He then began asking questions on the parents’ behalf. He wanted to make sure the boy got clean blood, but the doctor he spoke with kept insisting there was no way to be sure the blood wasn’t contaminated with HIV or hepatitis. She didn’t believe there were tests for these diseases!

I also was particularly struck by Hessler’s description of teacher-parent conferences. All the parents sit in rows of chairs as the teacher describes each child’s behaviour and progress for all to hear. “Xiao Gao always wets his pants and starts fights with other boys.” “Xiao Wang is horrible in math and is lazy.” No privacy here. When the boy was publicly called out for not sitting still his parents beat him and teased him mercilessly.

In the last part of the book, Hessler goes south to see how a rural community changes with its first wave of manufacturing comes to town. He sees the change through a relationship he cultivates with men starting a factory that makes bra wings. I know more about these metal pieces on bra straps than I ever dreamed. I also learned that most of this manufacturing boom is lead by teams where the highest level of education for its leaders may be middle school, that most factories prefer to hire young girls with little experience or education as such girls cause the least amount of “trouble.” If you lie in a job interview, even if you provide a fake ID and misrepresent who you are, you are likely to be most valued because it’s assumed you “really want work.” As I read, I couldn’t stop thinking what a house of cards this whole boom is.

Tooting My Own Horn

Congratulations! We are interested in using your submission entitled “Make ‘Em Laugh: Make ‘Em Think” in the New Ways in Teaching with Humor volume, to be published by TESOL Press.

If you are still interested in being included in this volume, please confirm as soon as possible. There may be minor revisions required with your submission, but after confirmation we can begin the revision process. You will have several weeks in order to prepare any final revisions.

Thank you again for your submission and we look forward to hearing from you.

Best Regards,

Mr. __________, Editor

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