Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages

by Ammon Shea

Reading OED

The moment I first held the book in my hands, I felt a kinship with the author. As a kid, I read dictionary. It wasn’t exactly by choice but rather because it was the only book in my whole family collection besides my text book. Obviously I was not interested in reading text book more than absolute necessity – except the part about reproduction that the teacher totally skipped over – and while dictionary is not up there in the fun list, it could be entertaining to stumble upon new words, and it sure helps boost my vocabulary. So there I was, sitting on the couch with the student version of OED in my lap, until the day a classmate’s mom took me to a magical place called library. I haven’t seriously read a dictionary since, but I always feel like it is a treasure chest, and whenever I open one up, I always end up reading more than one entry.

At first I thought this book may be a little boring, as much fun as reading a shopping list, but the author’s witty, humorous comments on his juicy choice of dictionary entries, interlaced with his personal musings and experience, makes the read a sheer delight.

Some of my favorite entries (italics is dictionary definition, dash indicates the author’s annonations, and parenthesis my thoughts):

Advesperate (v) To approach evening.
– For all intents and purposes this word is almost useless, for I doubt that anyone will ever use it in converstaion with me, and I fervently hope that I myself am never prone to utterances such as “Let’s hurry! It’ advesperating!” Nevertheless, this word brings me a great deal of pleasure, as occasionally when I am walking down the street and the light of day is about to change to the light of early evening, the word will flit through my mind, and I have a rush of joy from knowing how to name such an ephermeral moment.
((I whisper the word, advesperate. It’s not that far from “desperate”, but it sounds much softer, with a wispy quality to it, like sharing a beautiful secret. As if you are do not want to scare away the faeries that are coming out, or disturb the dancing of light, or be disrespectful of the glorious sunset.)

Antithalian (adj.) Opposed to fun or merriment.
Am I just being too serious in life, or am I Antithalian?

Conspue (v.) To spit on someone or something with contempt.
-I have not yet found any word that defines the action of spitting on someone or something for a reason other than contempt (can you split on someone out of friendship or admiration?), and I have a strong suspicion that I will not. One who conspues is referred to as a consputator.
(Boy, a consputator sounds like worthy of an arrest!)

-ee (suffix) One who is the recipient or beneficiary of a specific action or thing.
– …In the interest of expanding your descriptive range I have included the following examples:
Beatee – a person who has been beaten, as oposed to beater.
Boree – one who is bored.
Flingee – a person at whom something is fling.
Gazee – a person who is stared at.
Laughee – someone who is laughed at.

Elucubration (n.) Studying or writing by candlelight.
– From the Latin elucubrare (to compose by candlelight), elucubration is the word to describe staying up late while engaged in putatively productive endeavors, as opposed to just staying up late and watching TV.

Fard (v.) To paint the face with cosmetics, so as to hide blemishes.
– I suspect there is a reason no one ever gets up from the table and says, “Excuse me while I go to the ladies’ room and fard.” It seems to be very difficult to make a four-letter word that begins with f sound like an activity that is polite to discuss at the dinner table.

Finifugal (adj.) Shunning the end of anything.
– Many things in life deserve being finifugal about: the last twenty pages of a good book, a special meal that someone has just spent hours preparing for you, a slow walk in a light rain.

Gymnologize (v.) “To dispute naked, like an Indian philosopher.”
– There are only several plausible reasons I can think of for having an argument while naked, and none of them happens to involve Indian philosophers.
(Who thinks you can laugh out loud reading a dictionary?)

Heterophemize (v.) To say something different from what you mean to say.
(So there IS a word for it…)

Introuvable (adj.) Not capable of being found, specifically of books.
(No kidding, there IS a word for this? And does it mean it’s the books’ problem, not mine? I don’t have too many books, just some that happen to be sneaky and introuvable.)

Jehu (n.) A fast or reckless driver.
– Jehu was a king of Isreal in the ninth century BCE, renowned for both his furious chariot driving and his extermination of the worshippers of Baal.
(Fast and Furious, BCE version?)

Lipoxeny (n.) The deserting of a host by the parasites that have been living on it.
– Lipoxeny is a very serious and very technical botanical word. Under no ciercumstances should you ever use it in a manner that is not respectful of the English language and the biologists who worked tirelessly to fill it with words such as this.

Microphily (n.) The friendship between people who are not equals in intelligence of status.

Obmutescence (n.) The state or condition of obstinately or willfully refusing to speak.
– Anyone who has even been the parent of, or been related to, or been in the same room with an obstinate child will immediately recognize the behavior defined by the word. On the one hand obmutescence can hardly be characterized as a sterling trait, but on the other hand, it is far preferable to a tantrum.

Onomatomania (n.) Vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word.
(I am afraid I am no more likely to remember the word describing the vexation I have than resolving the vexation itself.)

Petecure (n.) Modest cooking; cooking on a small scale.
– Very few people eat in an epicurean fashion, yet many of them know what the word epicure means. A great many people eat in a simple fashion, and yet no one knows the word for this.
(Perchance because it sounds too much like pedicure?

Propassion (n.) The initial stirrings of a passion.

Psithurism (n.) The whispering of leaves moved by the wind.
(another word, like Advesperate, that is fun to sound out.

Residentarian (n.) A person who is given to remaining at table.

Scourge (v.) To inconvenience or discomfort a person by pressing against him or her or by standing too close.
– For passengers of modern transportation everywhere, this word has tremendous and unfortunate resonance. It falls firmly within the category of words that one wishes one did not have occasion to use on a daily basis, but are fascinating nonetheless.
(Another one of these really-there-is-a-word-for-it? words. Ahh indeed an unfortunate resonance. It’s part of the reason why I loved America when I first moved here. No more scourging on the bus or metro with nasty men. Incidentally, sourging is the reason why I still have that habit of not putting on lipstick till I arrive at work. I sincerely hope that I had never caused any marital discord when I accidentally rubbed my lipstick on some guy’s shirt when the bus jerked to a stop…)

Shot-clog (n.) An unwelcome companion tolerated because he pays the shot for the rest.

Silentiary (n.) An official whose job it is to command silence.

Somnificator (n.) One who induces sleep in others.

Twi-thought (n.) A vague or indistinct thought.
((I like this word. Not quite a thought, just something drifting in the mind, fledging, teasing…)

Unbepissed (adj.) Not having been urinated on; unwet with urine.
– Who ever thought there was an actual need for such a word? Is it possible that at some time there was such a profusion of things that had been urinated on that there was a pressing need to distinguish those that had not?
(Troubling thought indeed.)

“I’m reading the OED so you don’t have to. If you are interested in vocabulary that is both spectacularly useful and beautifully useless, read on…” says the author.

Now, I’ve written a review and excerpt of the book, so you don’t even have to read his. No, I’m just kidding. Really, it’s a great book. Enjoyable even if you are not word-obsessed. Really, you should go read it, even if you don’t ever plan to read a page of the OED.

Published in: on October 12, 2012 at 11:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Horse Boy: A Memoir of Healing

by Rupert Isaacson

horse boy

When his son Rowan was diagnosed with autism at age two, Rupert Isaacson was devastated, feeling that all the dreams he and his wife had of their child shattered away. Their lives become an exhaustive nightmare of tantrums, care, treatments and diagnosis. But one day something extraordinary happened. Rowan met Betsy, a neighbor’s mare, and a special bond seems to develop between the child and the animal. When Rupert took Rowan riding on Betsy, Rowan improved remarkably. He was struck with a crazy idea: why not take Rowan to Mongolia, the one place in the world where horses and shamanic healing intersected?

A heartwarming, spellbounding journey of a family to Mongolia, in hope of healing its autistic son. Isaacson is a travel writer, so he captures the details of the trip vividly. There are joy, set backs, doubts, fears and acceptance. I also get to understand better what autism is like. I now know not to harshly judge people as bad parents if their kids are throwing a tantrum or behaving inappropriately.

It’s also interesting how the author’s wife comment that an autistic child seems to have the essence of total enlightenment. Indeed I remember reading that detachment means that your emotion is like a sword in the water or the air, it goes through without a trace. I don’t think most people are able to do that, but Rowan does seem remarkably able to let bygone be bygone. I am also intrigued by the author’s comment of how some shamans display autistic characteristics and also how some of the shamans say that Rowan will grow up to be a shaman.

The book described a brief interview with Temple Grandin. I happened to have attended one of her presentations a few months ago (and truth be told, only knew of her then.) Listening to her then, and reading this book now, makes me wonder how autism affects a person. Can all autistic people, given the right condition, be able to blossom into someone who are not only self-sufficient, but great achievers? Or are they cases of savantism?

I highly recommend going to the Horse Boy movie site to view the photos and videos. It has some of the photos in this book’s insert and more, and it’s so much nicer to see them displayed in full color glory.

And here’s update about Rowan’s life.
http://www.horseboyworld.com/?cat=5&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=117

Published in: on October 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mr. Ding’s Chicken Feet: On a Slow Boat from Shanghai to Texas

by Gillian Kendall

mr ding

English graduate student Kendall was low on funds when she spotted a help-wanted ad at her university: “English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher Needed. Salary – Generous.” Intrigued, as well as needing the money, she answered the ad and soon found herself accompanying a cruise from Shanghai to Galveston, Texas, teaching ESL en route to Chinese seamen, ship’s officers, and mechanical engineers. The lone woman among all the Y chromosomes, and one of the two non-Chinese.

Quite an interesting travelogue, as I don’t imagine many people doing what she did (or not least writing about it), and I was a bit surprised at how well the job paid. No wonder there are so many classrooms on the sea cruises around.

I find a certain kindred spirit in the author, who stoutly refused to throw garbage overboard, a treehugger like me. I also learned a few tricks about teaching. What is amazing is that she managed to magically make all those chain-smoking, greasy, sweaty and probably swearing seamen sound downright adorable, you almost want to date one!

While this is technically a travelogue, as the author moved from point A to point B, there wasn’t much to record as scenery, in the middle of a vast ocean. The focus turns to little things in life, such as the joy of watching the dolphins, and her interaction with the crew. Those small moments manage to sustain the book, making the journey more interesting and pleasurable than it was likely in reality.

As the book leaves it rather open ended, for those curious about how her relationship w her boyfriend goes… from what I gather from her website, she has a female partner now. I am curious what those Chinese seaman will think of it?

Published in: on August 10, 2012 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  

31 Months in Japan

31 months

by Larry K. Collins and Lorna Collins

Larry and Lorna are two Californians who became part of the Universal Studio team to oversees the construction of the theme park in Osaka, Japan.

Anybody who has traveled or stayed in Japan will resonates with the authors’ experience:  the inconvenience of changing slippers inside the houses, the complicated recycling and trash schedule, the confusing street layouts, the friendliness and honesty of Japanese, the overcrowded subway, the miniature size of everything, and the various food items.  Anybody who has done business with the Japanese will also nod sagely about all that tatemae, nemawashi, meshi exchange, saving faces and keiretsu that requires business handbooks to decipher…

The stay happened in the 90’s, so by now, most of those experiences have been written a million times over and sound a bit old.  The authors were able to develop close relationship with some of their Japanese friends and coworkers, so some chapters provide in depth looks into Japanese lives usually not captured by a gaijin’s eyes.

What fascinates me most, in this book, is the story about the construction of a theme park.  Little did I know so much goes on behind everything when I visited a theme park!  Who knew that they need water quality control for all the pools and lakes, includes the water that may splash on you in a ride?  How they have to measure the water level every 1/10 second?  What the crew went through to get the right look of a setting?  The construction project is complex enough without the complication of translation and cultural difference.  The incident of Jurassic Bonsai makes me smile.  As a project engineer, Larry provided a lot of interesting anecdotes that will surely make me look at the rides anew the next time I visit Orlando.

There are laughs and tears, sweet moments of friendship and exhilaration of a job completed.  As the authors group their experience under topic rather than timeline, once in a while things get a bit confusing.  The writing at times feels like a journalistic reporting and mildly impersonal.  Some editing would make the book more enjoyable.  Overall, it’s a good read for the unique experience the authors present.

Published in: on March 2, 2012 at 11:46 am  Comments (1)  

Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over

by Geraldine Brooks

When I read the the description on the dust jacket, I know that I want to read this book. It’s the memoir of a woman who decided to travel around the world to look up her childhood pen pals, a journey which takes her to France, the Middle East, and America.

I don’t know if kids nowadays have pen pals. Even if they do, with Internet, digital photos, web cam and all that, the experience will likely be very different from my generation. The weeks, if not months, of eager waiting for a reply letter. The exotic stamps on the envelop. Holding the occasional pictures and postcards in hand, trying to imagine life in an unknown world an ocean away. What fond memories.

It’s only when I register this book on BookCrossing that I notice the author’s name. Geraldine Brooks? There can’t be more than one famous Geraldine Brooks!! Turn out this book is written by one of my favorite authors!! What pleasant surprise!

While I have expected the book to be a travelogue, turns out it’s more a memoir, about growing up in Australia, and her pen pals growing up in their own countries, as well as a tribute to her father. Before Geraldine Brooks the adult became a Foreign Correspondent at Wall Street Journal, Geraldine Brooks the little girl living at the edge of world had carried on plenty of foreign correspondence. Politics seem to loom large, partly because she and her friends grew up turbulent 60s and 70s, partly because her father has cultivated such interest in her, and most definitely because of Brooks’ career.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy that book. Our childhood pen pals is our first gateway to the outside world: the colorful stamps, unfamiliar landscape on postcards, street names that couldn’t be pronounced… it beckons us to explore the world beyond our home. In some way, the pen pals are our first glimpse to what is out there to explore, the first seeds of our wanderlust. I am, of course, talking of a time when the world was not as small and flat as it is today.

Reading the book makes me nostalgic of my own foreign correspondence. It brought up forgotten memories of myself scrolling Pen Pals Wanted ads in magazines, debating whom to write to with the seriousness of finding a life partner. The book makes me curious what happen to my friends since we stop corresponding, around the time we enter high school. Will they embrace me like some of Brooks’ penpals do, or stare at me with suspicion should I one day should up at their doorsteps?

Published in: on June 3, 2011 at 10:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Harry, A History

by Melissa Anelli

Anelli, the webmistress of the Leaky Cauldron website, wrote this lovely tribute to Harry Potter, a must-read for any Harry Potter fan. It recalls how Anellis fell in love with the books, and how she got drawn deeper and deeper into the magical world created by J K Rowling. Her excitement and passion is infectious, and together with the reader she relives the moments of the book releases and movie releases. It makes me want to read the books and watch the movies again. Just like a chatting friend, Anellis gushes about meeting J K Rowling and the actors of the movies, as well as the various music bands and fan fic writers, in ways that makes you both happy for her but also a bit jealous too.

There are some trivia that is interesting, though I suspect that a true Potter fan would likely have read of it somewhere else already. Dumbledore’s sexual orientation, for example, is no news to my friend when I told her about it. The author also tries to make the book more substantial by including some facts and stats about the Potter phenomenon and other social/cultural aspects, though her attempt is not very skilled. I also wish there is more Harry/Rowling and less Harry. Or maybe a more accurate title, for the book is not quite a comprehensive book about Harry; it’s a girl’s fascination with a book and a fan’s view and experience.

Published in: on January 15, 2011 at 10:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Accidental Explorer

by Sherry Simpson

One day Sherry Simpson realizes that she has never scaled the mountains or trekked across wild tundra, despiting having lived in Alaska since the age of seven. However, what is wilderness in a place where black bears can wander into your backyard. Or consider the fact that natives who survive for thousands of years on these lands explorers tried and often failed to conquer?

This book is not such much about travelling, but rumination of it. The mapping and the map, the finding versus the found. It is a very honest and humble reminiscence that touches the heart of the reader.

“On that first difficult day, I realized I am not one of those people of whom it is said, after something terrible happens to them outdoors, ‘She died doing wht she loved.’ I did not want to die out here at all.”

I just read Into The Wild a few weeks ago so it was interesting to read of Simpson’s visit to the bus, the site where McCandless died. I also enjoyed her description of Inuksuit, as I’ve fallen in love with those human-shaped cairns when I visited Vancouver.

Another passage that made me paused for thoughts:
“One night in bed, I said (to her husband), You’re a speed bump in my life. It may have bee the cruelest thing I’ve ever said.”

I thought about it. Maybe a speed bump is not a bad thing. It makes you slow down when you are going too fast. It gives me time to notice the neighborhood. If you relax you can even enjoy that funny little wiggle as the car rolls over the bump. In some way I guess I am thankful to my husband, for being the speed bump in my life.

Published in: on October 18, 2010 at 3:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl

by Stacey O’Brien

I admit I am an animal lover, so any book about animals will touch a soft spot in my heart, and give my tear ducts a good flush.

Five minutes into reading the book, I was like, I want an owl!! I want my own baby owl to pamper and cuddle. A few more minutes and I was like, I wish I had become a biologist!! Why didn’t I want to be a biologist when I was a kid? Took me a few more minutes to remember that the reason I didn’t pick biology was that I love animals too much to be dissecting them. That was at a less enlightened time and place, unlike today when more students voice their objection to dissecting animals and animal experiments, and are given alternatives.

O’Brien was a student researcher at Caltech, and when an injured four-day-old barn owl was found, and it was determined that he could not survive in the wild, the young girl adopted him. She cared for him, and forged a deep relationship with the at-times wild, at-times adorable bird. Her observation provided valuable scientific information about owls, and the tidbits about weird biologists and animal trivia make it an even more captivating read. What makes this outstanding though, was the abundance of love between a bird and his human: the commitment and sacrifice the author made for the owl, and the owl’s love and trust in return.

Like Marley and Me, it has plenty of funny moments, and some sad ones that make me cry. Totally heart warming, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Published in: on October 5, 2010 at 2:50 am  Comments (1)  

Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads With an Indian Elder

by Kent Nerburn

I won this book in an BookObsessed’s swap, which begets the question: if I stole neither wolf nor dog, what did I get? A coyote? A German Shephard?

Against an unflinching backdrop of contemporary reservation life and the majestic spaces of the western Dakotas, Neither Wolf Nor Dog tells the story of two men, one white and one Indian, locked in their own understandings yet struggling to find a common voice. Each of the men is just one individual, yet each is very aware that he is the representation of the race, and every word, every action, every mistake, is magnified as a stereotype. With the bloody history between the two races, a history still young, the scar still unhealed, this is indeed some very thin ice the author is treading on. He is really brave in undertaking the writing of the book, and baring so much of himself. I hope Dan and his granddaughters, and Grover are happy with the book. I suppose they are happy enough to let it be published, but I am curious what their comments are. I try to imagine… just a non commital grunt? A smile?

Being someone of neither race, I am able to observe the interaction from a more removed standpoint. It is easy to share the sentiments Dan (the Indian elder) expressed about white men and their treatment and discrimination of other races.

I hope by quoting Dan’s words I am not reducing him to an Indian elder spurting mystic wisdom while smoking a pipe, but when I read the book, sometimes his eloquent words move me so much I just have to bookmark the page, so I can copy down the words to be treasured.

“…anger is only for the one who speaks. It never opens the heart of one who listens… The enemy is blindness to each other’s ways.”

“There are leadres and there are rulers… When our leaders don’t lead, we walk away from them. When they lead well, we stay with them… How can a calendar tell us how long a person is a leader? That’s crazy. Aleader is a leader as long as the people believe in him andas long as he is the best person to lead us. You can only lead as long as the people will follow. In the past when we needed a warrior wemade a warrior our leader. But when the war was over and we needed a healer to lead us, he became our leader. Or maybe we needed a great speaker or a deep thinker.”

“The most important thing for white people is freedom. The most important thing for Indian people is honor. But the Indian has always been free. We have always been freer thnthe white man, even when he first came here… Your world was made of cages and you thought ours was, too… Your turned the land into cages… You made all the cages then you wondered why you didn’t feel free.”

Published in: on May 21, 2010 at 3:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Bound Feet and Western Dress

by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

When this book first came out, I became interested mostly because of Hsu Chi-mo, considered one of the most famous poets in recent Chinese history. As dreamy high school girls my friends and I were in love with his romantic poems, such as Farewell to Cambridge Again:

That pool under the shade of elm trees
Holds not water but the rainbow from the sky;
Shattered to pieces among the duckweeds
Is the sediment of a rainbow-like dream.

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here;
Gently I flick my sleeves
Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away

While the name Chang Yu-i was mentioned in the poet’s biography, it was simply a oneliner as an old fashioned arranged marriage forced on by his parents, a far more mundane character than the racy Xiaoman who bewitched the poet.

In other words, my interest in this book is not the life of Yu-i but rather what it says about Chih-mo.

However, I was glad that the author managed to get this story out of Yu-i before she passed away. This biography is valuable, for giving us the other side of the story, and for so vividly depicting China in the early 20th century. A turbalent time when old China collided with the West.

Born in 1900, Chang Yu-i was a victim of the tension between Western ideas and Chinese tradition. Her parents were progressive enough that she was the first daughter not to have her feet bound; nonetheless, while her brothers studied in Europe, their parents considered a girl’s schooling of no significance and a girl’s purpose in life is to marry. A fact that kept Yu-i wondering in her old age: if she were more educated, maybe her husband would have liked her better? While she eventually became the president of a bank, her action and her speech revealed her deeply ingrained traditional breeding: her duty to her parent-in-laws and her family, and her reluctance to badmouth her husband and other people.

As a dutiful daughter, Yu-i accepted the arranged marriage to Hsu Chi-mo (Xu Zhimo), one of the most famous Chinese poets in the 20th century. Chi-mo hated Yu-i with a vengance, and declared his intention to have the first Western-style divorce in China. It’s likely more for the old traditions she represented than for her personally. I really felt sorry for the abuse she had to go through. While I have grown less naive with age, it still disturbs me to know of people who act amicably and charmingly among others but treat their spouses despicably. It’s very hard for me to see Chih-mo’s handsome face and read his beautiful, romantic poems and imagine the hurt he heartlessly caused. Shouldn’t a poet be more sensitive to feelings and emotions? While one can argue that he had freed Yu-i to be herself, and in some way she had been better off for it, surely he can do it in a nicer way?

But then I remember they were both really teenagers then, living in a difficult time in history. Maybe Chih-mo was afterall just a rebellious teen, hating anything forced onto him by his parents, and being selfish and inconsiderate just as many teenagers could be. A rebel, a genius, a dreamer… one who can produce great works of art but woe to those who love him?

Published in: on April 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Voluntary Madness

by Norah Vincent

This is an excellent read, for its subject matter and the many thoughts it provokes.

Back when I read Self Made Man, I lent it to a friend, and she commented that she couldn’t understand why the author made a big deal out of some “insights” that could otherwise be deducted or found by reading articles. When I read Voluntary Madness, I am reminded of her words, for indeed what Vincent discovered in her experience is probably reported in some research papers already. I do appreciate Vincent as a hands-on learner and her determination to plunge herself in for a first hand experience, instead of our approach to just contend with reading about somthing and taking it as a fact.

Vincent visited three insituations, which varies from an almost jail-like, intimidating environment, to an enriching, resort-like care center. Her first hand experience provides clear looks into how the difference in treatment can affect one’s psyche and make one improve or deterioate. The book starts out as a journalistic investigation, and ends as a poignant memoir of the author’s own transformation. The best parts of the book are when she remunates over her experience and the overall mental care system: if the will of the patient is the most crucial difference, how does one justify spending more money on the system? Is psychiatry a science if the diagnosis is based solely on what the patient says? When insitutions like Meriwether deprive patients of human interaction, are they keeping the patients from getting better?

And the funniest part of the book: When the author offered to reimburse her insurance for the stay at the mental insitution (as it would be a research expense on writing the book, although the claim as a NYT bestseller author comes out suspiciously psychotic), the insurance company called to evaluate if she’s really mental.

Published in: on February 20, 2010 at 5:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Flamboya Tree: Memories of a Mother’s Wartime Courage

by Clara Olink Kelly

WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

This is such a beautiful and captivating story, of a strong mother protecting her three children (one of them only a few weeks old) during the four-life existence at a concentration camp in Java during WWII. The Japanese took control of the South Pacific Islands to ensure that no reinforcement or supplies can enter China during the war, and to obtain access to the valuable natural resourses such as oil and rubber. All the men and teenage boys were sent to labor camps, while the women and children lived in fenced villages under the sadistic rule of the Japanese soldiers.

This is indeed, a lesser known part of the history of WWII. I did not know, for example, that the local people at that time were so hostile to the Dutch rule and longing for independence, that a prisoner escaping from a camp would face greater danger among the natives and murdered brutally, that the hostile villagers would hurl stones and insults to the prisoners inside, rather than smuggling in food out of kindness. When the author’s brother was happily flying a kite he made, no doubt a lovely escape from his dreadful living condition, his kite was cruelly cut down amidst sneers and cheers from the other side of the fence. How heart wrenching it must be for the litte boy.

For me, the saddest part is not the period during the camp, but when they were in Bangkok waiting to return to Holland. For in the camp, the situation was horrendous with its constant threat of cruel punishment, humiliation and starvation, but it was similar to and not necessarily worse than what millions were suffering during the same time in history. By no way am I suggesting that they did not suffer enough, just that when one have read enough war memoirs, one gets some idea already what life was like under those circumstances.

Therefore, what was more shocking to me was their treatment after liberation. When the author was sick in the hospital, they put her on a table and poured water over her to wash her, collecting the water in a basin to be used for the next patient. She and her younger brother were too weak to feed themselves, so her older brother ate their bowl of rice gruel (could hardly blame the starving little boy); no nurse cared, until her mother was able to visit and found them near dying and had to carry them, one tucked under each arm, to take a bus back to their “home”. As the author said, the children didn’t care as they never knew, or hardly remember anything better, but for all the adults who know what normal life is like (being expatriates, many of the Europeans had lived life of luxury, pampered by servants), that must be despressing indeed not to find comfort and relief after liberation. It was the hope that had sustained them during the hardship of the camp. As the mother told the children stories about Holland, about snow, about Christmas and other things, they are fantasies for the children, but for her, it was a longing, a determination to experience these things again.

It was also painful to read of their grandmother’s initial reaction upon their return. Her remark of “Why didn’t you escape?” and her inability to understand how her grandchildren had such horrendous manners and didn’t wolf down the food she prepared (their stomach just couldn’t take in all that food).

This is a great testimony to a mother’s love for her children.

Published in: on January 30, 2009 at 6:41 pm  Comments (2)  

Finding George Orwell in Burma

by Emma Larkin

Emma Larkin is the pseudonym for an American journalist born in Asia. She embarked on a journey to visit places in Burma, following the footsteps of the author George Orwell. George Orwell was stationed in Burma during his youth, his first post as an imperial policeman. Burma was an unpopular first choice for overseas posting, but was Orwell’s because of his family connections, his mother having grown up in Burma and part of the maternal family still living there.

In Burma (now Myanmar, although the new name is not recognized by opposing parties and minorities within the country), George Orwell was known more than an author though. He was known as “the prophet”, because his work, 1984 and Animal Farms, had eerily described the future of Burma, as the military took control, oppressed democracy and turned the country into a totalitarian regime who seriously repressing its citizen. Current residents feel that they are living through the story of 1984, where their every move and word is censored and reported.

Larkin travelled through Burma, to cities such as Mandalay and Rangoon. While many travellers see the poetic scenery and gentle people, a peaceful tropical paradise, (as a matter of fact, Burma used to be among the richest Asian countries and a major exporter of rice grown from its rich, delta soil) Larkin reported the undercurrent of oppression and hardship. She recorded some of the experience of ex-political prisoners and other freedom fighters, but the thickness of the air permiated the book: in conversations which ended mid-sentence, until a comment of food or weather brought the topic back on safer grounds; in mysteriously appeared men who suggested the author to retreat to her hotel; in the author’s growing paranoia: is the potted plant next to her coffee table bugged? Did someone steal her diary?

The quoted passages from George Orwell’s books echoed the present condition of the Burmese, as Larkin travelled in the seemingly timeless landscape, imagining Orwell’s life as she stood among the ruins of the colonial buildings. An excellent travelogue that capture the essence of the places she visited, interweaving fiction and fact, past and present. Well worth a read.

Published in: on December 27, 2008 at 9:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jungle Child

by Sabine Kuegler

The book is way better than I thought it would be.

It begins with a idyllic childhood in the remote West Papua jungle, where her family went to live with the Fayu tribe, hitherto untouched by modern civilization. There Sabine ran wild in the jungle, swinging from vines like Tarzan, trading her family’s pots and pans for a baby crocodile, and throwing snakes at her sister. I won’t want Sabine as a sister… she is more a terror than my baby brother!

While the childhood is interesting, and the details of tribal life makes an intriguing anthropological read, and would make an entertaining book on its own, I enjoy even more how the book goes deeper into Sabine’s psychological confusion, as the girl grows up and realizes she is an in-between: totally unadapted to live in the complicated Western world, but also gone is the carefree girl who can run wild with her native friends. As her sister puts it: who will want to steal them as brides? They who don’t know how to prepare food or manage a household properly.

I really admire the author’s courage to live her life. I would love, howver, to hear more how the villagers are faring. While it is an inevitable fact of life, it is a pity to read about how as the author grows up, the siblings and her childhood friends go their own way. But at least she has a lovely, unforgettable childhood to treasure, and to give her strength.

The book’s website: http://www.junglechild.co.uk/ There is an extract of the book. I do wish though she would post some of the photos there.

Published in: on October 25, 2008 at 2:30 am  Comments (1)  

How Proust Can Change Your Life

by Alain de Botton

Honestly I know very little of Proust’s work, just that he wrote sentences a mile long, so I am certainly not reading it because I am a fan. I do, however, find the book interestingly written enough that for someone unfamiliar with Proust and his work.

As I read on, I was thinking that maybe as the author and Proust himself suggested, an author’s book can be more interesting than the real person as it is a distillation of his best idea; and I certainly began to feel that I won’t particularly want to meet Proust himself. While he has keen insight of nature and mankind, his writings give me much to muse about, his personality doesn’t sound too pleasing. So I was somewhat surprised that Proust friends speak so highly of him, and I found it endearing that he could devote full attention to whoever he is speaking to and never consider people too lowly for conversation. Most people can certainly benefit from his example.

As an introvert booklover, I also find most amusing Proust’s comment that he considers book superior companion to human friends. If a book is boring, you can give a loud yawn, slap the book shut and shove it back onto the shelf without any guilt or apology.

Published in: on October 1, 2008 at 2:35 am  Leave a Comment