Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee - Have you ever wondered where fortune cookies come from? Or how General Tso's Chicken got its name? This book is an odyssey of Chinese food in America (specifically American Chinese), but also serves as a kind of lens through which one can view the Chinese-immigrant experience in America. It is a fascinating read, interesting AND well-written, even if I was a little worn by the time I got to the later chapters, including 'The Greatest Chinese Restaurant in the World,' which in my opinion was self-indulgent, unnecessary, and stole thunder from the focus of the rest of the book. This book made me feel incredibly patriotic and really damn lucky to have been born in the USA. You will never eat Chinese food of any sort in the same way, again. One of the best books I've read this year.
Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing by Charles Richard Johnson - I'm not quite sure how this book fell in my hands, but I'm fairly certain it had something to do with Black History Month. The essays on writing made me feel like I was in good company (they were better articulated thoughts of many things I've thought myself, particularly on the learning and teaching of the art.) The essays on Buddhism were a little trickier, a kind of litmus test of what I do and don't know, also providing an interesting lens for this year's Lenten challenge, which has resolved itself as Perfect Speech. He included this passage attributed to the Buddha from 'The Sutra of the Forty-Two Sections:'
"Lie not, but be truthful, and speak truth with discretion, not so as to do harm, but in a loving heart and wisely. Invent not evil reports, neither do ye repeat them. Carp not, but look for the good sides of your fellow beings, so that you may with sincerity may defend them against their enemies... Waste not the time with empty words, but speak to the purpose or keep silence. Covet not, nor envy, but rejoice at the fortunes of other people.... Cherish no hatred, not even against your slanderer, nor against those that would do you harm, but embrace all living beings with kindness and benevolence... He must not flatter his vanity by seeking the company of the great. Not must he keep company with persons who are frivolous and immoral... He must not take delight in quarrelous disputations or engage in controversies so as to show the superiority of his talents, but be calm and composed."
And I thought Jesus was a tough act to follow!
However, the Buddhism sections also made me aware of the profound debt of gratitude I owe to many of my teachers and friends. It also gave me a short answer for the way I feel about The BP: he set me on the path of dharma and for that---though I am not particularly Buddhist in outlook or tradition---I will be forever thankful.
Also: what feels like a million books for children. I am feeling a little overwhelmed by that aspect right now, especially as a lot of them haven't been that memorable or that great. A particularly weird one as I was beefing up on Sid Fleischman (mini-bio to go up on B&N on Tuesday) was The Entertainer and the Dybbuk about an American ventriloquist GI who is possessed by the ghost of a Jewish child murdered in the Holocaust. The dybbuk helps him with his ventriloquist act while he is supposed to help the dybbuk get his bar mitzvah and avenge his death on the SS officer that shot him. Nazi atrocities abound, primarily anecdotally---poison ws often used to off children so as not to waste bullets---as does sharp humor at the expense of Nazis. This was a very hard book for me, even if many of the jokes were good, because it raises the problem of a blindness in an eye-for-eye world. How do we find justice for atrocity? How do we put to rest these spirits which obviously still haunt us, otherwise we wouldn't still be writing for them? The book was funny, but also kind of strange and offensive, and, I can't say why, but it seemed somehow out-of-focus. In fact, it disturbed me enough that I almost reconsidered my tribute, but lacking time, I just decided not to mention this particular book in it.
Also, I have posted bits about Lyonesse everywhere, but this is another series I find a little off. I raise the questions I feel it should be asking in my review, but the book seemed a little more 'sing ho!' in its heroism. There is an eeriness to this particular vision---like something out of a dream---I kept feeling like this was a world I'd visited in my nightmares before. The second book was not so bravely original as the first, though the ending---SPOILERS AHOY!---where Idris decides to drown his land rather than let is suffer in poison, was very hard and very real to me. (I've definitely had that dream before. I've also had the dream where I've poisoned the land rather than allow it to be exploited by people whose harmless intentions did more violence than poison would.) The environmental metaphors are strong, the world-building is original, and yet... the second book, especially, felt underdeveloped, like there was a whole big world here that was mentioned in passing---like scenes from a railcar---when there was so much more worth looking at, developing, or discarding. It was neither one nor the other. And I suspect the publisher may have decided they couldn't sell the series and hacked this book down to something shorter, ending in deluge, with an opening for more, but with enough resolution to call it quits if the books didn't sell. I still don't find myself LIKING Llewellyn's vision of Arthur, but it haunts me, and that is testament enough. (Oh, and his Aegypt material was just wyrd... one of the characters becomes inadvertently bonded to an Old One in the shape of a tree and a good portion of the novel is trying to subvert the boundaries which this entity jealously guards and try to remove this character from the influence of both space and spirit. I didn't even know HOW to address this in the review, so I didn't.)
I've been thinking a lot about the fascism, nationalism, and misogyny inherent in many hero tales. Changing the heroes sex does not change the underlying ideology. And if I must be honest the thing that scares me most looking to the future is not the looming environmental crisis---should we live so long to see it!---it's the polarization of viewpoints, not just politically, but even in everyday life, there are these strange outcroppings of 'unconscious material' that do not bode well for what lies beneath. Thinking critically is nor merely a matter of 'You're wrong and I'm right' it's being able to pick something up, observe its facets, and describe them without descending into either animal rage or righteous indignation. Critical thinking need not lack passion in its expression, but should be dispassionate in its observation. (She says sagely, but totally unable to follow her own advice.) I feel like I need to fit the word 'compassionate' in their somewhere, but it has been overused by me as of late, so I'll leave that piece of the puzzle to you.
I'm not sure what else to write about in terms of what I've been reading or thinking. (There's a lot more than appears here,) but I wanted to make sure I got these adult titles down, they have been like islands of sanity in a sea of what feels increasingly like a quicksand of commodity for kids.