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Päntsdrunk (Kalsariänni)

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In the new books section at the library, a little book called Päntsdrunk (Kalsariänni) by Miska Rantanen beckoned. The illustrated book reminded me of The Little Book of Hygge so I took it home. Päntsdrunk is a Finnish word to describe the sloth and aimlessness of activities like hanging around the house after work drinking alcohol in your underwear. As that’s not exactly my thing even when I’m stressed, I didn’t love the book. However, it’s written with dry wit and is a quick read so I didn’t hate it either. It’s a gentle poke at Denmark’s hygge culture. It won’t make you laugh out loud and didn’t make me want to book a trip to Helsinki, but it’s cute.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2019 in fiction, non-fiction

 

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In a Sunburned Country

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I just finished listening to Bill Bryson narrating his book In a Sunburned Country. This tale of traveling around Australia made me want to return to see the Devil’s Marbles, Ayer’s Rock, Shark Bay, Bondi Bay and even the Telegraph Station museum in Alice Springs, a town Lonely Planet proclaims, “won’t win any beauty contests.” Bryson includes lots of background information on nature and history and its all flavored with his dry wit.

Even when things go wrong and he and his old friend arrive late, have to pay too much or can’t get a hotel room, the story entertains. I learned so much about the origins of the aborigines, how many extraordinarily poisonous creatures populate Australia and how incredibly diverse the flora and fauna are — and I knew there was a lot of natural diversity. I hadn’t known that a 19th century explorer discovered the only species that gave birth through its mouth and then soon ate the only two specimens or that there are so many animals, insects and plants that haven’t been discovered in Australian and that many are few in number and have or will go extinct before they’re discovered and catalogued. I was amazed to learn the theory that because of the extreme climates and conditions in Australian, it’s hard for plants to survive. The earth in a particular place may contain and extraordinary amount of nickel or copper and thus a plant that can thrive in such a spot has taken root there. Then the unique plant life was most fitting for exotic animals to thrive.

I learned what stromatolites are and how they seem dull and inconsequential but were instrumental in increasing the oxygen on earth and hence should not be scoffed at.

The human history and anthropology was as fascinating as the natural history. It’s believed that humans have lived in Australia as far back as 65,000 years ago with some experts putting the date back 100,000 years. The history has its share of tragedy and exploitation, but there’s also plenty of courage and exploration. I learned that the first European explorers to go to Australia were the Dutch and that Napoleon had sent an explorer to claim Australia for the French but he arrived just a couple weeks after the British.

In a Sunburned Country was a joy to listen to (or read) and I didn’t want it to end. While Bryson wanted to stay on to see the mountains of Bungle Bungle, obligations back home made him put off that desire. All detours seem to be long in Australia and alas, Bryson couldn’t make time for the bee hive-like mountains of Bungle Bungle.

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Bungle Bungle

 

 

Some favorite quotes:

“Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.”

“It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. …It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as the players-more if they are moderately restless.”

“In the morning a new man was behind the front desk. “And how did you enjoy your stay, Sir?” he asked smoothly.
“It was singularly execrable,” I replied.
“Oh, excellent,” he purred, taking my card.
“In fact, I would go so far as to say that the principal value of a stay in this establishment is that it is bound to make all subsequent service-related experiences seem, in comparison, refreshing.”
He made a deeply appreciative expression as if to say, “Praise indeed,” and presnted my bill for signature. “Well, we hope you’ll come again.”
“I would sooner have bowel surgery in the woods with a a stick.”
His expression wavered, then held there for a long moment. “Excellent,” he said again, but without a great show of conviction.

“Australia is mostly empty and a long way away. Its population is small and its role in the world consequently peripheral. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly overfish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or throw its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t need watching, and so we don’t. But I will tell you this: the loss is entirely ours.”

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2019 in book review, humor, Travel Writing

 

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The Man Who Loved China

Simon Winchester‘s The Man Who Loved China chronicles the life of Joseph Needham (a.k.a. 李约瑟), a British scientist whose work and writings taught the West about China’s scientific firsts. Needham was a curious, eccentric guy. He made a splash at Cambridge as an embryologist. In his spare time, he was a nudist, socialist, philanderer, liberal Christian who loved Morris Dancing.

The first part of the book introduces readers to Needham, his background and all his quirks. Also it covers his engagement and marriage to Dorothy Moyle, another scientist, who studied muscles and who was very tolerant of her husband’s affairs. She wasn’t threatened by Needham’s mistress Lu Gwei-djen, a Chinese scientist who captured his heart and eventually moved down the street from the Needhams. Meeting Lu sparked Needham’s affection for China.

The middle third (more or less) recounts Needham’s time in Chongching during World War II. Actually, I was surprised that Needham only spent 5 years in China and that he’d come so recently. Before reading the gook I had the notion that Needham was a contemporary of say Lafcadio Hearn, the Japanophile who lived in Japan in the 19th century. Wrong.

Since Needham had mastered Chinese and was keen to travel to the Middle Kingdom, the British government sent him there to aid Chinese scientists who had fled into the western parts of China to escape the Japanese. Needham traveled the country meeting scientists and gathering data for what would be his opus, a multi-volume Science and Civilization in China. His travails are fascinating. Yet, before you know it Needham must head back to England.

The last third of the book describes the conflicts and eventually illness that Needham faces back in Europe. Since he was in China, he couldn’t develop his relationships at Cambridge so he doesn’t have the supporters he needs when he falls into trouble through naivete and poor judgment. He has to weather some harsh storms after heading a committee and unwittingly playing a patsy for the Chinese government during the McCarthy era.

I found the first two thirds of the book most interesting, and the final third lost momentum, but then that’s the case for a lot of people’s lives. The story of Needham writing and publishing a major work of scientific history is hard to make compelling.

I liked learning tidbits about China that I can throw into conversation. They invented toilet paper and stirrups, which were a small but important advance that helped the military and others ride for longer periods of time. Since the Chinese built really good stone bridges throughout the country even in kind of no man’s lands, it was hard for invaders to take over the country. The Chinese could move about the network of roads with bridges so easily. Many of these bridges are still in use. (Funny that building well, for the long term has stopped here.)

Reading about Needham was fascinating, probably more than really knowing him. He’s the kind of guy I’d roll my eyes at. The ex pat who comes to Asia and within a week is dressing in silk robes, someone who has to be more Chinese than the Chinese around him, I’m guessing. I did like that WInchester inserted a lot of objective insights. So he let us know that while Needham thought Chongqing was a heavenly city, other expats weren’t as enchanted and complained about the smells and filth. That’s how things really are. There’s always a range of reactions of opinions and attitudes amongst expats of their adopted home. It was good to see this aspect included.

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2012 in non-fiction

 

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Confucius Lives Next Door

To get more insight into the Confucian-influenced psyche, I read T. R. Reid’s Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West. A reporter for The Washington Post Reid and his family lived in Japan for many years. His work took him throughout the region and he wanted to figure out just how Confucian philosophy influences Asians.

In some respects the title is quite literal. Reid learned heaps from his next door neighbor Matsuda san, who handled complaining about loud rock music emanating from Reid’s son’s room so differently from the American way. Rather than calling and yelling, Matsuda san knocked on Reid’s door, came in for tea, chatted about all sorts of inconsequential matters and then cleared his throat to introduce the meiwaku or trouble you’re causing those around you. We really don’t have a specific word for that, do we? Reid explains how other meiwaku’s have been handled in business and politics. He provides readers with facts they may not know about Confucius and how he strove to make communication more direct and social relations more balanced.

It is fascinating to read about how children in Japan are educated and how societies from Singapore to China in various ways infuse more moral good citizen messages throughout the environment. He acknowledges that the average American would find this rather hokey, but that many of us do wish for more consideration from those around us.

I did think he presented some statistics and facts on literacy and school achievement that were questionable. He’d never met an illiterate Japanese person, but I have. He reports that if one or two children in a class don’t meet the grade level standard, it’s an emergency in the faculty room, but from my time teaching in rural Japan, I’ll tell you that a lot of teachers don’t worry about failure since the society has a spot for underachievers. My students were from low status families. So I’d read parts with a grain of salt, but I do recommend reading it.

The book is very Japan-centered and I did expect more about at least Korea and China, which are covered, but so briefly. Each country takes on Confucius thought differently. I wished that could be examined. Also, it was written in the late 1990’s and seems a bit dated.

The book reveals a lot about Japanese business practice and social policy and makes it clear that many countries look at the US and think, “Okay, you are number one, economically and militarily, but you sure pay a high price for that in social costs. Your streets aren’t all that safe. Your prisons are overflowing. People fear losing their jobs. Your schools don’t teach students well.” (Yes, I think the Japanese literacy rate is under the 98% they report, but I bet it is higher than ours.)

When I finished, I felt eager to read the real thing. Looking forward to famed lines like:

Isn’t it a pleasure when you can make practical use of the things you have studied? Isn’t it a pleasure to have an old friend visit from afar? Isn’t it the sure sign of a gentleman, that he does not take offense when others fail to recognize his ability?

One thing Reid does that I liked is that he added an atogaki, a traditional afterword in Japanese books in which the author points out the weaknesses in his or her own thesis to make sure the cracks in the wall are acknowledged. The idea is that the author thinks s/he had built a good wall, but wants the readers to see the cracks too. Then everyone can see the problems and contribute to an improved thesis down the road. Quite a communal approach, huh?

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2011 in contemporary, non-fiction

 

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