Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nonfiction Book of the Month: We've Got Issues

Cover image for We've Got Issues by Judith Warner

We've Got Issues by Judith Warner discusses different factors that account for the sorry state of mental health services for children and early intervention for learning disabilities in the U.S. There's much to debate in this book, but even if you disagree with some of the premises or feel that she needs to dig deeper into some of the issues, I think you'll find that her approach is refreshing, as she doesn't blindly demonize people, whether they be parents, psychiatrists, or teachers. She also points out flaws in much of how the media reports on children's mental health, including their misinterpretations of data and their use of children as mere symbols representing larger societal problems.

Week in Seven Words #168

I keep hearing that we're living in an evil age, more evil than ever. I'm not convinced. People have always been capable of atrocities and day-to-day cruelty. Now, however, we have the Internet, which can tell us about every crime in every town the world over, giving us the illusion that evil has suddenly exploded everywhere.

"Emile! Zola!" he cries, but his dogs have already broken free to chase a squirrel across the grass.

While taking photos of flowering trees in the garden, I hear, beyond the shrubs, two people breaking up, their voices low and pained.

Cherry blossoms frosting the rim of the reservoir.

When does news reporting cross the line into voyeurism?

The argument over whether salt was expensive or not in the Middle Ages threatens to disrupt the harmony of the meal.

Some of the magnolia blossoms stretch towards the darkening sky. Others are captured in lamplight.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Three Tales from The Thirteen Problems

Collection: The Thirteen Problems
Author: Agatha Christie

In The Thirteen Problems, all of the stories, except for the last one, emerge in the following way. A group of people meet at someone's home and take turns sharing real-life mysteries. The story-teller knows the solution to the mystery, and the others have to guess it based on the clues provided.

Miss Jane Marple is present in each group, and because she's an old-fashioned, unprepossessing spinster who's lived in a small village all her life, nobody thinks to include her at first. They don't know that living in a village has given her many opportunities to study human nature, and behind her gentle demeanor is a steeltrap mind that misses little. Unsurprisingly, she amazes them all.

What I liked about the collection as a whole was that it shows some of Christie's strengths as a writer. Each tale is a puzzle that the reader can try to solve before Miss Marple presents the solution; the reader feels like one of the participating guests. In each tale, Christie does a number of things efficiently. She carefully lays out each mystery, using well-sketched characters and clever misdirection. She also highlights the personality of each story-teller based on what he or she chooses to share with the guests, who often rib each other and make amusing or interesting remarks as the tale unfolds. As such, she's sustaining two levels of story, one with the circle of guests, and the other with the tales they share.

Three of the tales stood out for me enough to write about them here.

Gorgeous Orchids - Part I




A first taste of what I saw at the New York Botanical Garden on Sunday, the second to last day of their Orchid Show.

I don't think I'd ever been to the botanical garden before; it's a dream, especially this time of year.

Week in Seven Words #167

She drinks from a dirty glass and eats tongue between slices of old brown bread.

Music from the IRS hotline tinkles in my ear, as I try to write while on hold.

The blankets are rumpled and strewn with pie dishes and tin trays. People stand around talking and sizing each other up. Every conversation I'm a part of seems to involve a game that I don't want to play.

The sky growls thunder and hisses a promise of rain. Still, we must stop for frozen yogurt.

Depending on who you ask in the room, the dog is an adorable treasure or, at best, a nuisance.

Discovering that I need to fill out a five-page tax form that comes with at least 50 pages of instructions.

Along with the five-page form, there's another form. And another. There are always more forms.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Taking a break from watching the Boston coverage

My main sources of information about the Boston Marathon bombings over the past few days have been BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com, but I realized today that I have to give those a break, after seeing essentially the same message ("suspect remains at large") repeated several times over the course of the day with different wordings ("manhunt underway," "suspect on the loose," etc.) to give the impression that there are new developments.

This is a nightmarish situation, but for people who aren't currently in the thick of it, let's step back. People who ought to know better are pouncing on every bit of new information and running with it, regardless of whether it's confirmed or not. Same goes for trying to come up with a narrative, right this moment, to explain the attackers' motives, when they were just identified yesterday and we still don't know everything about them and how they got to the point in their lives where they thought it would be an awesome idea to kill and maim random people. I hope the surviving one is captured soon. But please let's deal with this patiently. I understand the urge to speculate, but doing so publicly, while re-tweeting rumors and fake photos and delivering broadcasts based on information from unofficial sources, is irresponsible.

Not that I think this post will have an effect on that. Just wanted to vent a little.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Week in Seven Words #166

The kids in his class keep an eye on each other's reading levels, indicated by colors assigned by the teacher. The information isn't advertised, but they all know anyway from sneaking peeks into each other's notebooks and folders; the competitiveness is fierce, even at this young age. Instead of asking him where he stands in relation to the other kids, I tell him to focus on his own progress. And he really has improved. He's less prone to skipping over words he doesn't know or mumbling them quietly. Instead, he stops, tries to pronounce them (out loud or to himself), and asks if he doesn't know. He's starting to dip into simple chapter books. Does the competitiveness help? If it gets students to read more and maybe enjoy reading too, does it matter?

In the game of monkey in the middle, it seems there are two monkeys, and neither is in the middle.

On a lazy holiday afternoon, I'm reading in the sunshine.

Discovering delicate purple crocuses among the daffodils.

Food is coming out of my pores, I'm so full.

He spins the globe as a self-soothing mechanism. The sound of the world rattling around and around calms him.

She's memorized the book so she can read it to me even without knowing all the words. Then she can focus more on the acting: belting out dialogue in different voices or speaking in a stage whisper.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Worth Watching: Mildred Pierce (1945)

Title: Mildred Pierce
Director: Michael Curtiz
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

The movie opens with a man getting murdered. "Mildred" is the last thing he says. From there, the setting shifts to a nearby dock, where Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is walking by moonlight. Is she the murderer?

Mildred is the kind of person who could have enjoyed much more success and contentment in life had she not been in the habit of nursing vipers at her breast. One of them is her daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), who's monstrously spoiled.

Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth as Mildred and Veda in Mildred Pierce

The other is Monty (Zachary Scott), a man whose character is so cloying and rotten I found him physically revolting. He starts off as Mildred's lover. Then he becomes her second husband. He's like fruit that's been lying out in the sun for days; he just makes you want to gag.

Joan Crawford and Zachary Scott in Mildred Pierce

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Several Tales from 50 Great American Short Stories

Collection: 50 Great American Short Stories
Editor: Milton Crane

Title: Cluney McFarrar's Hardtack
Author: John McNulty

During the Second World War, a veteran of the First World War talks about some of his experiences fighting overseas. He focuses on one night, after a battle, when he doubles back to snatch up some hardtack dropped by a fallen soldier. Everything in the story gathers towards the moment when he's about to enter the dark and silent wood full of the bodies of dead soldiers.


Title: A Dead Issue
Author: Charles M. Flandrau

This one is written elegantly and incisively, about a man in his early thirties who turns out looking foolish when he returns to teach at his alma mater, Harvard. Even though he's at least a decade older than most of them, he fraternizes with the undergraduates at the club he used to belong to when he was a student; at the same time, he feels isolated from people closer to his own age.

The story brilliantly shows his need to be liked and to belong somewhere, and how he has trouble leaving the security of that old club and its easy associations. Maybe he recalls with nostalgia the friendship of his own classmates, bonds of fellowship that he thought would stay with him and support him throughout his life; he thinks he can recreate those bonds with a younger generation. Because he hasn't moved on, he risks compromising his principles as a teacher to be chummy with the students. They're young and self-centered and carefree, and they show him an easygoing friendliness that doesn't mean much. How will the main character find his place in life as he grows older, with his face still turned towards the past?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Week in Seven Words #165

By the end of the Seder, it's pretty much just the two of us singing determinedly. Occasionally someone else joins in, then drifts out again.

At the start of my cold, when the symptoms are heaviest, I wish I could set up a forcefield around me to ward people off, both for their sake and for my own. Then I can sneeze and cough as much and as loudly as I want without drawing comments.

Dew settles gently into dark places.

I can't shake off the feeling that the only way they make money online is by selling books and courses on how to make money online.

Every year we ask the same questions, which is good, as we've sometimes forgotten the answers.

She's cooked heaps of delicious food, but I wish she would enjoy her own cooking more. She gets up often, sits at the edge of her seat, and monitors the meal. Maybe she wants to confirm that her food is being enjoyed the way she feels it should.

The tulips, drooping in the purple vase, soon rise towards the desk lamp.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Worth Watching: Like Stars on Earth (2007)

Title: Like Stars on Earth
Director: Aamir Khan
Language: Hindi
Rating: PG

A smiling, young Indian boy sits at a desk with his head resting on his folded arms in front of him. Behind him and to his right, a young Indian man is doing the same and is looking at the boy. Above them is the film's title "Taare Zameen Par" with the subtitle of "Every Child is Special". Drawings of a bird, plane, octopus, and fish are in the background.
From Wikipedia, Fair use

People who are markedly different are sometimes celebrated for the gifts they bring to the world. But most of the time, other people seem determined to crush them.

There's a Japanese proverb: "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." Fit in, fall in line, and life will be easier for you; you'll find no understanding or accommodation from the rest of us.

Like Stars on Earth is set in a middle-class suburb in India and centers on Ishaan Awasthi (Darsheel Safary), a young boy who makes basic mistakes in math and writing, follows his drifting attention wherever it takes him, and also has abundant talent in art.

The movie has some colorful animated sequences, and one of them shows us his reasoning as he writes down 3 as the answer to 9 times 3 on an exam. Spaceships are involved.

His parents are distraught, though his mother is more sympathetic to him than his father, who sees his behavior simply in terms of disobedience. He has an older brother, also sympathetic to him, who's the model son: an excellent student, an athlete, the pride of the family. Ishaan, on the other hand, can't seem to get anything right, and no one understands him and why he has so much trouble at school.

Eventually he's sent to a different school, with stricter discipline, that's meant to straighten him out. There he lapses into depression, until a substitute art teacher (played by the movie's director, Aamir Khan) notices his plight and figures out how to reach him.

Some scenes are overly long, and there are times when you can feel the filmmakers shamelessly grabbing onto your heartstrings and refusing to let go. I still think it's a movie worth watching, and Darsheel Safary is an excellent (and adorable) young actor who inhabits the role of Ishaan. The movie becomes a celebration of different kinds of human expression, with a focus on the voice and art of a boy who has dyslexia. The hope is that people will pay sincere attention to and understand those who are often lazily dismissed as troublemakers, idiots, and freaks.