Hindsight

Every now and then, I’m overcome with nostalgia for things I enjoyed when younger. Some pleasures are fleeting, but others you can rekindle. I often revisit songs, books and movies I loved once upon a time. The pleasure experienced is never exactly the same, of course. As Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  However, it can be similar enough and it just might be even better because of new insights brought on by it.

Unfortunately, a couple of my old favorites haven’t withstood the test of time, precisely because I have experienced new things since I last read or watched them. I have developed a more refined critical eye, especially when it comes to social and racial issues. Society itself has changed since my old favorites were popular. If they were released today, I hope they would be subject to strong critiques.

What are these two old favorites? What’s the problem with them?230px-The_Cricket_in_Times_Square_Cover

Both A Cricket in Times Square and Breakfast at Tiffany’s feature ugly  stereotypes of Asian men.

When I was younger, I adored George Selden’s Cricket in Times Square. It was such a charming story about Chester, a country cricket, who accidentally ends up in the middle of New York City via the remains of someone’s picnic lunch. This held special appeal for me, since I daydreamed about going to the city, where exciting things happened. I was such a country bumpkin and didn’t know how good I had it back then.

Luckily, Chester is rescued by young Mario Bellini who helps his parents run a struggling news stand near the subway. Chester helps Mario bring business to the newsstand by chirping melodies from operas. His talent is such that he is featured in the city paper.

“Chester’s playing filled the station. Like ripples around a stone dropped into still water, the circles of silence spread out from the newsstand. And as people listened, a change came over their faces. Eyes that looked worried grew soft and peaceful; tongues left off chattering; and ears full of the city’s rustling were rested by the cricket’s melody.”
― George Selden, The Cricket in Times Square

Since that was all I remembered about the book, I didn’t have any qualms about reading it to my children when they were in elementary school. That is, until I got to the scene where Sai Fong was introduced. I can’t believe the author meant to be disrespectful, since Sai Fong imparts a great deal of wisdom to both Chester and Mario, but the clumsy attempt at rendering the linguistic characteristics of a Chinese man speaking English made me cringe. I’m sure you can imagine what I’m talking about: the jumbled up syntax, replacements of L-sounds with R-sounds, etc. When I read his parts, Sai Fong ended up sounding more like Eliza Doolittle after she had recited “It rains on the plains in Spain,” enough times to satisfy Professor Higgins.

breakfastSimilarly, I had fond memories of Breakfast at Tiffany’s stemming back to that long summer when all my friends were out of town and I was left on my own, swimming in the mornings and watching old movies in our family room where I went to escape the mid-afternoon heat. I was entranced by Holly Go-Lightly’s glamorous wardrobe and cosmopolitan lifestyle (again, I was fascinated with city life). Also, being the huge romantic that I am, scenes of Holly’s encounters with Paul Varjak, the novelist, ran on perpetual loop in my imagination.

Sadly, the movie has one of the most obnoxiously racist depictions of a Japanese man to be found anywhere. Mickey Rooney plays Holly’s Japanese landlord. That’s right, a white man hell bent on garnering laughs, pretends to be Japanese by wearing fake teeth, speaking in a garbled and heavily accented fashion, and just acting like a buffoon.

mickeyrooney
Ugh. Just no.

I don’t know if I can ever fully enjoy either one of these again. Cricket is a little easier to process because I can edit it in my mind, but the movie is so IN YOUR FACE that I ended up turning it off halfway through the last time I tried re-watching it.

Have you ever had this experience with old favorites? Can you overlook what you now see as serious problems with them?

Knitting Ganseys, Revised and Updated by Beth Brown-Reinsel

ganseys-frontBeth Brown-Reinsel’s book, Knitting Ganseys, has been a classic for 25 years. The first edition impressed knitters with the well-researched history of these garments worn by British and Scottish fishermen in the 19th century; the detailed analysis of the sweaters’ anatomy from decorative cast-on to underarm gusset and neckline variations; and clear instructions for knitting one of your own, either from a pattern or your own unique design.

One thing that many readers loved about the previous edition was the sampler sweater. That’s still a main feature of the book so you can practice the sometimes challenging techniques before embarking on knitting a full-sized sweater. You can also make your teddy bear the best dressed guy on the block.

Ms. Brown-Reisel has updated the book by adding more information to each section, sharing more historic photos and including more patterns. The styling and photos will appeal to modern readers too. Photos are in color, clear and show both the entire garment and important details.

 

The gansey tradition encompasses so many aspects of life: the practicality of clothing your family, the financial aspects of knitting for pay, the broader economic context of supporting fishing industry workers, the social history of knitters who relied on knitting for comfort and pleasure in the off hours after a hard day’s work. That era has passed, and yet, every day I teach I see aspects of this tradition continuing: the bonding between knitters and the creative passion to knit something warm and beautiful for oneself or a loved one.

~ Beth Brown-Reinsel, Knitting Ganseys, Revised & Updated

Both knitters and non-knitters might be fascinated by the history of these sweaters. Ms. Brown-Reisel is careful not to romanticize it. She notes that some of pictures of women knitting while waiting at the port for their husbands to come home might look charming, but they really show exploited people who were “desperate to increase inadequate and irregular incomes.”

While I have not tested out any of the instructions, they appear clear enough to me. Parts are written out using standard abbreviations. Patterns are clearly charted. If you’re not familiar with knitting from a chart, there is a page explaining how to do so. One of the things I like the best are the many, many charts for different patterning. Even if I didn’t want to knit a full-sized sweater, I could add these patterns to other projects like a hat or a cowl.

ganseys-backWhen I was first paging through this book, I wondered, what’s the difference between an aran sweater and a gansey? My question was clearly answered on page 41. The two styles are compared based on provenance, style, construction, gauge, spin of yarn, ply of yarn, color, surface design, special features and purpose.  One of the main differences was that arans feature complex cables while ganseys usually feature knit / purl patterns and a few simple cables.

In fact, any time a question popped into my mind, I only had to flip through a few more pages or skim through the index to find the answers I wanted. How to knit cables without a cable needle? Check. How to adjust fit? Check. How to do a channel-isle cast on? Check.

The complex design process was made as simple as humanly possible. There’s a sample schematic, tables of key measurements in both centimeters and inches, and a worksheet to record your notes in an organized fashion. It makes this process seem completely do-able to me, who usually prefers to knit from a commercial pattern.

In short, this is a fantastic knitting book. It’s an entirely worthy successor to the classic printed 25 years ago. It is going to be a great addition to my knitting library.

N.B. I received a courtesy copy of this book from Netgalley for an honest review. The book is due out on July 31, 2018.

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Short Stories

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Favorite Novellas/Short Stories.

1. Girl  by Jamaica Kinkaid. This piece’s structure will challenge your notion of what makes a good short story. It’s only once sentence in which a mother advises and chastises her daughter. The phrases pile up on one another, generating an almost unbearable intensity. You can practically feel how much pressure is on a woman in a certain society and how impossible it is for her to please. You can listen to the author reading this short, short piece below. Her warm voice and lovely accent are pleasurable to hear.

twenty grand2. Sno-Cone Cart by Rebecca Curtis (from Twenty Grand). A young woman wants to buy a sno-cone cart for her niece. Through her dogged attempts to buy the toy, and her interactions with her family members, we realize the depth of her longing to connect with others but her inability to perceive their slights. This may be both a blessing and a curse.

Pastoralia3. Sea Oak by George Saunders (from  Pastoralia) . The main character in this story is a male stripper who works at a club called Joysticks. He’s been rated a “honeybee” by patrons, which feeds his ego. Surprisingly, the focus of the story is not on his work but on his home life. In the subsidized housing where he lives with a crowd of relatives, his Aunt Bernie, newly risen from the dead, advises everyone on how to improve their lives. It’s weird. It’s profane. It’s hilarious. On top of all that, it’s touching.

Sea Oak has been made into a TV show. I can’t quite fathom how that would work out,  but many skeptics ended up enjoying it. It’s in my queue.

4. How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie) by Junot Diaz. This is a satirical instruction manual on how to date a girl depending upon her race and social class. It is a master class in code switching. Stylistically, it’s also an excellent example of a short story written in the second person.

hialeah5. Noche Buena by Jennine Capo Crucet ( from How to Leave Hialeah). This story captures all the boisterousness of a Cuban American family celebration in Miami. You’ll love the vivid characters, descriptions of food and unique traditions such as the parade of well-loved family cars. 

6. Apollo by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. Two boys develop an intimate relationship while laid low with Apollo (colloquialism for conjunctivitis or pink-eye). One is Okenwa, the son of a wealthy landowner and the other is Raphael, a servant.  Location and disease may be the only thing they have in common. Their relationship is hobbled by differences in class and opportunity. The narrator, sweetly naive at the beginning of the story, doesn’t properly appreciate this until much later. The story demonstrates how coming-of-age and sexual awakening cannot be divorced from the social context in which it occurs. It evokes all of the elation and heartbreak one experiences at this time of life. It’s beautifully told.

7. Dungeon Master by Sam Lipsyte. “The Dungeon Master has detention.” Isn’t that an incredible first line? It captures both the indignity these characters suffer in their mundane lives and the inflated roles they give themselves in their fantasy world. This story is hilarious. I love to quote some of its choicer lines:

“Father,” the Dungeon Master will say, “stay the fuck out of my mind realm.”

But it’s also bleak and poignant. It has made me reach for the box of kleenexes a number of times.

8. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Conner. This story pierces the heart. In the most simplistic terms, it’s about a family trip gone horribly, horribly wrong. There’s no clear consensus on what the story means, but there’s a lot of food for thought on the topics of faith, righteousness and good vs. evil.

9. Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway. Two characters sit in a bar while waiting for a train to come. Their conversation starts out with banal observations about the location and moves onto a topic that’s immensely important to both of them, but which they never name explicitly.

10. Here We Are by Dorothy Parker. A young couple embarks on their honeymoon. Both are at a loss to process their status as newlyweds. They struggle to sum up the import of this change in their lives, reflect on their wedding and the people who attended, and avoid hurting one another’s feelings. All of their chatter dances around the topic that weighs heavily in both their minds: the imminent consummation of their marriage.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

“The ease. Us, the children … I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”

― Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

60931If you were to hand me Kindred and tell me to shelve it in the appropriate section of the bookstore, I’d be stymied. It defies categorization. While it’s often billed as the first science fiction written by a black woman, I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. It is a novel of rich literary complexity written by a black woman; however, it’s not exactly science fiction. One of its key elements is time travel, but the book provides no pseudo scientific explanation for how that occurs. Kindred is more accurately an amalgamation of fantasy, historical fiction and slave narrative. It’s a unique and powerful story about power.

Dana, the main character, is a 26 year-old woman living in California in 1976. She has a white husband, aspires to be a writer and works degrading jobs to make ends meet. Ironically, she and her fellow temps refer to the staffing agency as the “slave market.”

One day, without any warning, she is thrust back in time to antebellum Maryland. There, she rescues a young white boy from drowning and faces down the barrel of a shotgun. Abruptly, she ends back in her own time and place. Over and over again, she travels back and forth between the two times, each time to rescue the same young man, who she learns is a slaveholder and her distant relative. She grows to understand that she needs to keep him alive long enough to father her great-grandmother.

While I had an academic understanding of how awful the treatment of slaves was, this book made me feel it on a more visceral level. Dana often admits that she, a modern woman, does not have the fortitude to endure what many of the slaves took for granted. You or I might think to ourselves, I’d never put up with that. I’d run away. The book makes it abundantly clear how impossible that would actually seem to a person caught in that world.

Kindred also explores how there can be a strange mixture of love and hate for someone who has absolute control over your life. At times, Dana experienced maternal and sisterly feelings towards the slaveholder. Many other times, she struggled with her revulsion and her need to comply.

Notably, Dana’s mission in the past was not to undermine the oppressive system. She had to endure it, like so many before her. The experience changes her utterly. It complicates her relationship with her white husband, and her family and friends. A piece of her will always be left in the past–as I think is true for anyone with such a traumatic and dehumanizing heritage.

“I began writing about power because I had so little.”

~Octavia E. Butler

Curious about Octavia Butler? Here’s a great piece on her in the Independent. An aunt told her “Honey, Negroes can’t be writers.” Fortunately for us, she ignored that advice.

First Line Fridays

What’s the first line of the closest book to you? Leave me a comment, then head over to Hoarding Books for more great lines from great authors!

My first line is from Matched by Ally Condie.

Now that I’ve found the way to fly, which direction should I go into the night? My wings aren’t white or feathered; they’re green, made of green silk, which shudders in the wind and bends when I move–first in a circle, then in a line, finally in a shape of my own invention. The black behind me doesn’t worry me; neither do the stars ahead.

What’s it about? 41dURop3wzL._SY346_Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander’s face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate . . . until she sees Ky Markham’s face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.

The Society tells her it’s a glitch, a rare malfunction, and that she should focus on the happy life she’s destined to lead with Xander. But Cassia can’t stop thinking about Ky, and as they slowly fall in love, Cassia begins to doubt the Society’s infallibility and is faced with an impossible choice: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s known and a path that no one else has dared to follow.


Today’s featured book was suggested by my daughter, Claire. She’s 14. I asked her a few questions:

Q. What made you want to read the book? 

A. Some friends recommended it to me. Also, it kind of reminded me of The Hunger Games, because it’s a different sort of world where something happens when you turn a certain age, and your life is totally different.

Q. The blurb on the front of the book says “Love triangle + struggle against the powers that be = perfect escape.” What did you think of the love triangle?

A. It was interesting. *blushes*

Q. Did you enjoy the book?

A. It was confusing at first, but after awhile, I got really into it. I liked it. It was kind of hard, but I’m a better reader now.


firstlinefridaysI haven’t read the book myself, but my impression from the book blurb was something like the following:

Cool, I like dystopian fiction. Oh god, another love triangle? Oh jeez. Arranged marriages?

Well, at least she’s reading.

Top Five Character Driven Novels

Here are some of my favorite books where the characters shine.

5154BYCeUEL._SY346_1. Emma by Jane Austen. Emma is a wealthy and charming young woman who sees no need to leave her comfortable home with her father. While she has no romantic aspirations at the beginning of the novel, she enjoys playing matchmaker for others. She has a lot to learn about humility, charity and the capacity of her own heart.

I have a special place in my heart for this book because I wrote my senior paper on it. It was called Erring Knights and Distressing Damsels.

httpecx.images-amazon.comimagesI517p1odJdbL._SX319_BO1204203200_.jpg2. The Elegance of a Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. This book has two of my favorite characters in it: 54 year-old Renee, the curmudgeonly concierge from humble beginnings who has cultivated a tasted for esoteric literature and the arts; and 12 year-old Paloma who despises her privileged family and their snobbery. These two characters become unlikely friends, bonding over discussions about truth, beauty and the meaning of life. They gradually encourage one another to become less prickly. [Read my review.]

oliphant3. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This book blesses us with a peek inside an eccentric character’s mind. She lacks social skills, is excessively regimented and keeps to herself. Until she had a chance encounter with a stranger, her life looked like it would continue as it always had, which would have been a shame. Painful and frightening at times, the changes she goes through brings her the human connection that helps her blossom.

ove4. A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman. Ove is a curmudgeon. He is committed to his long-standing principles, impatient with his neighbors, and blunt in his criticisms. He’s also deeply lonely. When a boisterous family moves in next door, we expect him to explode, but they weasel their way into his heart and he into theirs.

Ove reminded me of my father in some ways. Dad wasn’t nearly as rude as Ove, but he had his quirks–and a big heart to match.

anne of green gables5. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.  When this spunky orphan arrives at the Cuthberts’ farm on Prince Edward Island, she is heartbroken to learn they had wanted to adopt a boy to help them out with the farmwork. She sets out to win them over, but not by hiding her personality. She’s as large as life.

This is one of my all-time favorite books. I have read it and its sequels many times over. I wanted to be Anne Shirley when I was younger.

Blackbird by L.E. Harrison

Blackbird

Summary:

Ten years ago, Michael left an alternate world where a druid-like tribe worshiped the shape shifting god, Corvus. He sought asylum in Maine. During his exile, he developed a rare disease, which he believed could only be cured by returning home to seek out the magic of his people.

Alena is strongly attracted to Michael from the first moment she sets eyes upon him. Should she heed her instincts or comply with tribal rule, which would have her shun him?

 

What I Liked:

crow Originality

Blackbird puts an original spin on the werewolf/shapeshifter genre that has become so popular these days. In it, you will not find the typical pack full of buff men and lithe women who strut around in the nude all the time because of magically induced wardrobe malfunctions. There is no snarky heroine who is reluctantly brought into the fold. There are power struggles, but not between alphas and betas where fur flies and blood spills. Instead, there are back room deals and betrayals. There’s intimidation and manipulation. Magic is both part of religious worship and oppression.

Continue reading “Blackbird by L.E. Harrison”