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Archive for the ‘Setting: Asia’ Category

12. “White Tiger,” Aravind Adiga

April 14, 2011 1 comment

Took me a while to get into it because it is “tricky.” The narrator is slick and dances around things a lot. Suddenly at around eighty pages, I was completely engrossed and I don’t know how it happened.

Page count: 304

Page total: 3,305

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7. “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” Mary Roach

December 24, 2010 1 comment

Mary Roach looks at the history of the US (and Russia’s) space program to feel out the feasibility of a future peopled mission to Mars.

This is the sort of thing Mary Roach does well: exhaustive Googling paired with access to important people and a willingness to ask questions that embarrass both of them. Poop factoids abound and it is a fun and quick read.

Note to self: Read Mike Mullane’s biography. Apparently he is one of the astronauts most willing to make a good poop joke.

Page count: 321
Page total: 1,865

5. “Covering,” Kenji Yoshino

December 4, 2010 Leave a comment

I would think, I wish I were dead. I did not think of it as a suicidal thought. My poet’s parsing mind read the first “I” and the second “I” as different “I”s. The first “I” was the whole watching the self, while the second “I”– the one I wanted to kill– was the gay “I” nested inside it. It was less a suicidal impulse than a homicidal one. (8)

While I tried to speak calmly, Bill has since told me I failed. He said I reminded him of the dinner parties he was attending in those days. At the mainly straight parties, his age peers would jabber on about their children. At the gay dinners, they’d jabber on about their coming out. This made him think coming out is the closest many gay men will come to giving birth. The act of giving birth to oneself is miraculous and terrifying, but unlikely to be calm. (13-14)

It is worth quoting Yoshino’s definitions of a few terms at length.

My struggle to arrive at a gay identity occurred in three phases, which I could also trace in the lives of gay peers. In the first phase, I sought to become straight. When I went to the chapel at Oxford, I prayed not to be what I was. I will call this desire for conversion. In the second phase, I accepted my homosexuality, but concealed it from others. By the time I talked to Bill about his class, I was no longer trying to convert. I was, however, trying to hide my identity from my classmates. I will call this desire for passing. Finally, long after I had generally come out of the closet, I still muted my orientation by not writing on gay topics or engaging in public displays of affection. This was not the same as passing, because my colleges knew I was gay. Yet I did not know a word for this attempt to tone down my known gayness.
Then I found my word, in sociologist Erving Goffman’s book Stigma. Published in 1963, the book describes how various groups– including the disabled, the elderly, and the obese– manage their “spoiled” identities. After discussing passing, Goffman observes that “persons who are ready to admit the possession of a stigma… may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.” His calls this behavior “covering.” Goffman distinguishes passing from covering by noting that passing pertains to the visibility of a particular trait, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness. He relates how Franklin Roosevelt always stationed himself behind a table before his advisers came in for a meeting. Roosevelt was not passing, since everyone knew he used a wheelchair. He was covering, downplaying his disability so people would focus on his more conventionally presidential qualities.” (17-18)

I could keep going and quote the entire book, but that should be enough to make you want to give Yoshino a high five. Not only is he immensely readable (which I am coming to feel more and more is something embodied theory must be), but his application of covering is very timely. This book is theory told through memoir and is poetic and incisive.

Page count: 203
Page total: 1,544

54. “A Fish Caught in Time,” Samantha Weinberg

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment

A quick and very readable history of the re-discovery of the coelacanth, a fish more than 80 million years old and which was believed until 1938 to be extinct.

Weinberg tells the story of the coelacanth through the people who become obsessed with finding it, entwining their lives and their search. I think I caught coelacanth fever, because I keep finding myself fantasizing about how fucking amazing it would be to catch a living fossil, something people believed no longer existed, and something people still hope can tell us more about the moment we climbed from the deep.

Page count: 226
Page total: 14,602
Call number: QL638.L26 W45 2001x

35. “The Ridiculous Race,” Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran

June 13, 2010 Leave a comment

This book was actually legitimately funny, which is a welcome change in most things labeled “humor.” In a largely-true story, two friends decide to travel around the world in opposite directions without using airplanes. The prize is “a bottle of Kinclaith 1969. This was the most expensive Scotch available in Los Angeles. It cost so much that upon paying for it I thought I might throw up.”1 Flights of fancy do not count as flying, though they do explain my characterization of this book as “largely” true.

Along the way, they become interested more in the unspoken Awesome Contest, with Steve taking a container ship from LA to Beijing, trekking through Mongolia, riding the Orient Express. Vali starts with an excursion to a Mexican Jetpack maker and wends his way through the middle east and Cairo.

Page count: 315
Page total: 8,752

1. It’s so expensive that if you run a search for “Kinclaith 1969,” the price will not pop up. This is to protect your fragile sensibilities. I finally found it listed as £531.91, which I refuse to convert into actual dollars.

30. “The Book of Salt,” Monique Truong

May 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Really beautiful, but incredibly dense. It took me forever to get through.

This is the first-person account of Binh, GertrudeStein and Alice B. Toklas’ Paris cook.

Page count: 261
Page total: 7,534

18. “The Wisdom of Big Bird,” Caroll Spinney

March 24, 2010 1 comment

I expected this book to be closer to what the title implies: cheesy bits of wisdom wrung from Sesame Street quotes. Instead, it was a thoughtful little memoir about Spinney’s puppetry career and life on the Street.

I thought the bit about Jim Hansen’s funeral was particularly touching. Spinney counted Hansen as one of his heroes even before being asked to join Sesame Street and became friends with him during his tenure. Hansen was renowned for his incredibly elaborate parties and apparently Hansen had said years before that at his funeral that people should wear bright colors and tell happy stories. His celebration (to use Spinney’s term, which is great) was open to the public and thousands of people came for it. People sang “It’s not Easy Being Green.”

I have always felt that my family does funerals right. Though I’ve fortunately been to only a few of them, we usually eat a lot and tell a lot of stories, which I like. When I was quite young, I went with my mom and her best friend, Bev, to the mall because Bev needed to buy a new dress for a funeral. I remember her talking about how cruel and ridiculous it is to make people who are grieving go out to buy new clothes, a chore that sucks under the best of circumstances. She declared that when she died, she wanted everyone to come in jeans, which always made sense to me. You go as the person you lost knew you. You go as the person they loved.

(Also, Bev decided to simply tuck in the tags on her dress and return it after the service, because she wasn’t dropping money on a black dress she wouldn’t wear again. Which is so Bev.)

So I was already predisposed to like Hansen when Spinney quoted from a letter Hansen had left one of his sons: “Be good to each other. Love and forgive everybody.” Which seems just like something Vonnegut would write to his son, and seems fitting advice from the most famous puppeteer in the world, a man who used that craft to teach children the alphabet and compassion.

Spinney says that he was struck with the importance of teaching children to be compassionate when he was walking home from the studio one night and passed a man standing in the snow, shuffling his feet on the corner of the curb. He initially brushed past the man, thinking he was homeless or drunk or dangerous, but when he glanced back, he saw it was an old man. He asked if the man was okay and the man responded that he was scared to step off the curb because it was icy and he might fall. (I’ll give your heart a minute to break.) Spinney walked the man home and the following day went to the producer about his idea for using Big Bird to teach children to be compassionate, which is obviously a tall order. Spinney resolved to simply be compassionate as Big Bird and make sure the Bird’s heart was always in the right place. Which has surely worked.

It seems also that Spinney is responsible (at least in part) for making the muppets into child-like characters. Originally, Big Bird was a “hillbilly” or “yokel” character, but when Spinney got a script about Big Bird wanting to be able to go into a daycare with the human children, Spinney realized that that action doesn’t make sense unless Big Bird is another kid.

While my favorite Sesame Street character is and always will be Oscar the Grouch (also played by Spinney), I have a special place in my heart for Big Bird. When I was little, my sister and I had a ViewMaster of “Follow that Bird,” and for some reason, Big Bird makes me feel close to her.

Pages: 154

Page total: 4,238