Sunday, January 30, 2011

Olvera Street and Lockdown

Just catching up on a few things around here...

Everyone had the day off on MLK day so instead of just sitting around the house we decided to go somewhere and do something.  After mulling over a few options we finally decided to go down to Olvera Street which is where the original Mexican settlement was located, and invited the Jorgenson's to go with us.  In spite of living here for 8 years now, only a couple of the kids had ever been there.  But instead of just driving down and parking we decided to get there by bus - I haven't ridden a bus in years but it turned out to be pretty easy.  The Orange Line (which travels on a busway) goes to the Red Line (I'd heard rumors there was a subway in LA but hadn't seen it) which ends at Union Station (which was pretty cool) which is across the street from Olvera Street.  In the end, I think the bus and subway rides were the highlight of the day for the kids - Olvera Street ended up being basically a market for cheap junk.  Oh well, lunch was very nice and we toured the oldest house in Los Angeles.  Pictures below.

Also, maybe you've heard the kid's school's were locked down a week or so ago?  The story was that the police officer confronted a man breaking into cars and was shot by him.  It turns out the officer lied and may have accidentally shot himself (this amid other rumors).  Maybe he was playing around with his gun?  I don't know... but they had another lockdown this week when someone thought they saw someone with a weapon on campus - I never did hear how that turned out, but that lockdown didn't last long.  At any rate, I want to express my gratitude to the teachers and school administrators at El Camino and Hale who made sure the kids were safe.  It was a real pain for everyone, and I know there were some complaints, but if it had really been a dangerous situation I'd have hoped they did just what they did.  So, Thank you!

Get on the bus...

Inside Union Station

At the head of Olvera Street

In the courtyard of the oldest house in Los Angeles

Taylor goofing off (?) on the subway

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Invisible Wall (Valentine's Day #3)

The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke BarriersWhen I first heard about The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers in the news a few years ago, I was already hooked. Harry Bernstein, in his 90's and lonely after the death of his wife of 60+ years, writes his memories of growing up in a Lancashire mill town in England in the early 1900's. He describes the "invisible wall" that ran down the middle of his street, keeping the Jews on his side and the Christians on the other mostly separate. The only thing they really had in common was poverty and a distrust of each other. It's an amazing memoir as he remembers some of the incidents that happened on his street, such as going to school for the first time, his sister Lily winning a scholarship to the grammar school, and the young men who went to fight in World War I. He tells of the sacrifices his mother made for her children, and how mean and uncaring his father was. The one thing that sort of brought the two sides together was when his sister fell in love with a Christian boy.

Mr. Bernstein's memoir is difficult to put down from the first sentence. The writing is beautiful and descriptive, and gives a sense of the hardships the working poor faced. But it's not all sadness, and there are some bright moments, although it reads much like a Dickens novel in many respects. The bigotry of both sides of the street is detailed and told without bitterness. And Bernstein makes his family and neighbors come alive - you feel real sympathy for his mother and sister and their hopes and dreams, and even some for his alcoholic father. It's difficult to describe the emotions in the book, and yet I couldn't wait to keep reading it. I'm not a fan of memoirs, but it was an outstanding book which I highly recommend.

So, those are my recommendations for Valentine's Day-themed reading. I hope you find something that appeals to you.

Monday, January 24, 2011

2 halves of an old jazz record (Valentine's Day #2)

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is the second of my suggested books for Valentine's Day reading. When Henry Lee, an older man of Chinese descent, sees a group of people gathering at the old closed-up Panama Hotel, he is flooded with memories of his childhood. During restoration, the new owner found a room in the basement full of the belongings of Seattle's Japanese families who were sent to internment camps in 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Alternating between 1942 and 1986, the book tells the story of Henry's life as a 12 year old boy when he fell in love with a Japanese girl, and his present life after the death of his wife, Ethel.

This book is more like the kind of fiction I usually enjoy reading, and I appreciated the historical aspects of a powerful story full of sympathetic characters. The conflicts are shown with emotional detail: the resentment towards Japanese-Americans, the anger Henry's nationalistic father has for his son's friendship with Keiko (China had been at war with Japan since 1933), and the compassion that popped up in the least expected places. Many of the details about Japanese internment life were consistent with what I've read in other books, but the real strength of this novel is the way the various relationships are portrayed. There might be a couple of historical discrepancies, and even though Henry is only 56 in 1986 he comes off as much older - very old, in fact. But these melt away under a heartfelt story. In fact, the whole family listened to it in the car and loved it - the kids even begging to listen to it again or sitting in the driveway after we'd arrived home to keep listening. They still talk about it occasionally.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fortune cookie say... (Valentine's Day #1)

Sweet Misfortune: A NovelSince Valentine's Day is coming up I thought I'd offer a few reading suggestions to go along with that DVD of "Sleepless in Seattle" you were planning to watch again. Sweet Misfortune by Kevin Alan Milne is the story of Sophie Jones, who was dumped by her fiancée without explanation only weeks before their wedding. She takes it as proof that true happiness lies beyond her reach (her parents were killed in a car crash on her 9th birthday), and channels her hurt into a new creation in her specialty chocolate store: misfortune cookies. Dipped in bitter chocolate and containing a cynical "misfortune" they turn out to be a hit with her customers. But when her ex-fiancée, Garrett, returns a year later she's not interested in hearing his excuse. Garrett refuses to give up so easily, however, and agrees to a bet: if he can get at least 100 legitimate responses to a classified ad saying "Wanted: Happiness," Sophie will go out on one more date with him.

I got this book from Amazon Vine for Jamie last year but thought the idea sounded interesting and decided to read it, too. It's certainly not the kind of book I usually read but it didn't take long to get sucked in and before I knew it I couldn't put it down. Jamie couldn't stop reading either, and had to finish it just so she "could get back to her life." It's definitely got 'made-for-Lifetime-television' written all over it, but it's a nice, clean, and enjoyable story.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Quotes I like (Kepler)

Johannes Kepler was a brilliant German mathematician and astronomer in the 17th century (at the same time as Galileo) who discovered important laws about the motion of the planets.  I ran across these quotes by him in a book called The Clockwork Universe (which I'll review after I finish it).

"My brain gets tired when I try to understand what I wrote, and I find it hard to rediscover the connection between the figures and the text, that I established myself." (pg 158)

"I have consummated the work to which I pledged myself, using all the abilities that You (God) gave me; I have shown the glory of Your works to men, but if I have pursued my own glory among men while engaged in a work intended for Your glory, be merciful, be compassionate, and forgive." (pg 167)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Learning the lessons of war

"Distance was a cleansing agent for everything... 'When you are not straining and gasping to save your life, the act of doing so can seem adventurous and exciting from a distance.  The greater the distance, the greater the adventure.'" (pg 39)

The distance of time has a way of changing our perceptions. Now we can look back on World War II with patriotic pride and feelings of accomplishment, but it certainly didn't start out that way. It should be obvious how unprepared we were for Pearl Harbor but we tend to forget how unprepared we were to fight a Pacific war at all, and how painful the losses were until we learned how to fight. In Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal, James Hornfisher discusses the clumsy role the US Navy played in those early days.

Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at GuadalcanalIn spite of the Navy's success at Midway, Hornfisher says that "combat readiness simply wasn't the order of the day" (pg 87). Over the course of about four months in late 1942 the Navy engaged in several sea battles with ships from the Japanese fleet (IJN) off the coast of a small island in the south Pacific named Guadalcanal. This was different from Midway, where planes fought each other hundreds of miles from their carriers. At Guadalcanal the fighting was mostly battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, and a lot of them went to the bottom of Ironbottom Sound taking a lot of men with them. US commanders were frequently caught unawares and generally failed to take advantage of radar technology, and friendly fire was responsible for a large portion of the casualties. In spite of that, losses and casualties at sea were about the same on both sides, and the US held on to the island. But it was a costly experience for the navy to learn how to fight in a new age.

Neptune's Inferno focuses more on the naval side of the battle than the conflicts on the island, and Hornfisher makes each battle come alive. He doesn't write for the novice history reader, but those who are already used to reading such books will love the excitement of his narratives. There were a lot of people, places, ships, and even planes involved, and it can seem a bit overwhelming at times. I find I enjoy it more when I don't worry so much about trying to remember every name and detail or keep everything straight but just enjoy the history.

But Hornfisher has an amazing way with words, and his writing pulls you into the story making it hard to put down. What I like most is how insightful his books are. He includes the experiences of everyone from admirals to regular sailors, and sets it all against the greater backdrop of events to pull out the important lessons. He points out that major navies during WWII were "between the age of fighting sail and the age of nuclear propulsion when fuel was consumable and therefore a critical limit on their reach" (pg 37) and explains how this factored into objectives and events. His first book, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour is one of my all-time favorites, and if this one lacks anything in comparison it's the more inspirational ending of the other. Nonetheless, highly recommended reading for those interested in WWII history. (I received this book from Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"King George is not a frivolous man"

I'd like to introduce you to one of the most charming characters to come along in a good long time. Flavia de Luce has a passion for poison, the vocabulary of an adult, and a bicycle named Gladys (she's only 11 years old and yes, this is a book for grownups). Her mother died climbing mountains in the Himalayas and her father, Colonel de Luce, is just about as distant, showing more interest in his stamp collection than his daughters. It's part of the whole English reluctance to show affection and keeping a stiff upper lip, or something like that...

Flavia and her two older sisters live in an old mansion called Buckshaw in the sleepy little English town of Bishop's Lacey around 1950. But things get shaken up in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (which I received from Amazon Vine) when a dead blackbird shows up on the porch with a penny stamp stuck to it's beak. The next morning Flavia finds a dead man in the cucumber patch - well, he's not dead yet, but expires with a final word: "Vale." But who was he, and more important, who killed him? Was it her father who had secretly argued with the stranger the night before, or Dogger, the dependable but unstable gardener who still suffers from his experiences in Japanese POW camps? Maybe he died from eating a slice of Mrs. Mullet's horrible cream pie? Whoever it was, Flavia is determined to find out with the help of her chemistry knowledge and Gladys.

In The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag Flavia gets tangled up with a travelling puppet show, one that's already famous on the new medium of television (Buckshaw doesn't yet have such a wasteful and silly device). She does her best to help Nialla, the troubled (and abused) assistant to the well-known Rupert Porson, but when Rupert is murdered everyone is suspect, from Nialla to the vicar to the BBC producer to the crazy old woman in the woods. Rupert, it turns out, had many secrets involving people in Bishop's Lacey, but it takes Flavia to untangle it all.

What I love most about the Flavia books is the extraordinarily clever language. Alan Bradley has a style that reminded me of Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader but even more clever and charming. It's what the English like to call "wickedly funny," which apparently means that it's funny in a clever and witty way with a good helping of subtle sarcasm. And even though it's written more for grown-ups (don't worry, there's nothing inappropriate here!) older kids will probably enjoy it just as well (most of it would just go over the heads of younger kids). Braiden and I loved both books and we're looking forward to another 'slice' when A Red Herring Without Mustard comes out in February.

A Red Herring Without Mustard: A Flavia de Luce Mystery (Flavia De Luce Mysteries)The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce MysteryThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery (Flavia De Luce Mysteries)

Friday, January 7, 2011

The beach house

Normally we spend a week at the beach house in the fall, but this year the timing just didn't work out.  So instead we swapped for the week starting with New Year's Eve (see this post for some pics of our celebrations).  And Jamie tells me I should make one correction to that prior post: it turns out she made up the story of the Irish New Year's tradition!  Well, it sounded good enough that we all fell for it even if we weren't the most enthusiastic participants. 

We had worried about the weather - we've never gone this time of year and the forecast said it was going to rain all week!  Luckily it only rained on Sunday, and the rest of the week was actually pretty nice - a little cool some days, but nice.  Also, during the winter they push a large berm of sand in front of all the houses, but it wasn't a big deal: the kids had fun sliding down it on boogie boards.  I couldn't take the whole week off (year-end, you know) and ended up working a couple of days and logging in from the beach the others, but it was still nice just to be there.  I enjoyed visiting the bird refuge at the salt marsh early in the mornings - by myself.  In addition to the usual birds (like great and snowy egrets, blue herons, and all the various stilts and shore birds) there were a LOT of ducks (the usual mallards of course, but also: American widgeons, both blue and green wing teal, pintails, buffleheads, scaups, and even a ruddy duck - I had to get out a field guide to identify them all).

But mostly we just enjoyed playing on the sand, riding bikes around town, watching sunsets and the waves roll in from atop our lofty perch on the berm, and doing a whole lot of nothing.  I can't wait to do it again.

Katie feeding the giraffes at the Santa Barbara zoo.

Maddie was a bit nervous about that big long tongue.

Claire, Kate, Haley, Maddie, and Addy watching the sunset.

Braiden making some furry friends on the beach.

Taylor riding a bike on the berm (which didn't work out so well).

Haley and Maddie playing ball.

The seal sanctuary from atop the bluffs.

Kate at a sycamore tree estimated to be about 250 years old!

Sunset on our last evening at the beach house... sigh!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Real Housewives of Wang Lung

Many times I've seen discussions about the usefulness of reading "classics." Some argue they only turn kids off from reading, and that a better choice would be current novels like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. Others argue they are important for reasons such as their expert use of language, or the themes they explore, or the culture and history they represent, etc. I don't know if kids today would like it, but I enjoyed The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, and thought it was an interesting insight into a foreign culture. (I was never assigned to read it in school, but I see a lot of used copies at the library bookstore, so some local teacher must be assigning it.)

The Good Earth (Blackstone Audio Classic Collection)It was originally published in 1931, and exposed Americans to the Chinese and may have even created sympathy for China when it was soon afterward invaded by Japan. But according to my friend Nate M., who is very familiar with modern-day China, there's a big difference between rural and urban China, and presumably this is a reasonably accurate portrait of rural customs, attitudes, and lives in the early 1900s.

The Good Earth tells the story of Wang Lung (it was pronounced "Wan Loong" in the audio version read by Anthony Heald), a poor Chinese farmer, beginning with his marriage to O-Lan, a slave in the House of Hwang, who is not pretty but is especially hard-working. (I was reminded of the song that says "If you want to be happy for the rest of your life...") Together they work the land and begin to raise a family, and through their industry Wang Lung is able to buy land from O-Lan's former masters, who are in decline due to excessive spending and opium use. In times of unusual hardship, such as during a famine when they flee south with other refugees, Wang Lung's work ethic and O-Lan's resourcefulness see them through, and when they return they are able to buy even more land. By the end of the book, Wang Lung becomes more and more like Hwang, both in wealth and in vices.

I found the portrayal of family life especially interesting. Wang Lung and O-Lan do not share a romantic love for each other, and their relationship with their children is different from Western culture. The relationships instead are multigenerational, even extending to the dead. Wang Lung reveres and supports his father in his old age, and treats his uncle the same even though it is done unwillingly as the uncle is manipulative and parasitically abuses the family ties. Children don't even seem to have names beyond Eldest son, etc., until they are sent to school. Two relationships were most interesting to me. First is Wang Lung's with his oldest daughter, called the Poor Fool, who becomes mentally retarded due to malnutrition during the famine. Although she is a burden and consideration is given to selling her as a slave to a wealthy home, seeing her smile softens his heart, and he protects and cares for her throughout his life.

The other is his relationship with O-Lan, and it exposes many of the poor attitudes toward women, who are seen merely as chattel and called "slaves." Wang Lung secretly respects and admires O-Lan for her incredible tolerance for hard work and competence and frugality. But while he inwardly takes pride in her abilities, he never asks about her background or servitude. Later, when he has achieved a measure of wealth and selfishly takes a concubine, he regrets the hurt he has caused O-Lan but never acknowledges it. I was also bothered by the references to foot-binding among the upper classes, and the handicap it caused women.

But the progression from poor farmer to wealthy landowner was also interesting. Wang Lung's sons become like the sons of Hwang. In contrast to Wang Lung's poor beginnings, they are blessed with an education. But they do not appreciate the land and its importance as does their father, not knowing the value of the land nor how to work it. They marry into wealthy families with demanding wives who insist upon physical comfort - very much in contrast to their self-sacrificing mother. And while some parts of the book became extremely annoying (such as the bickering between the many women), I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the story. Although happiness was never a constant in any of their lives, it was an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year - 2011

The older kids enjoying carne asada at the beach house...

... and the younger kids enjoying (or not) a dark walk on the beach on New Year's Eve. Jamie read somewhere that the Irish have an old tradition of throwing stones into the ocean, with each one throwing away a bad habit or remembering something from the year past... or something like that. 

Logan and the girls checking out the tide pools (and a very low low tide) on New Year's Day.

Jamie's dad came down to spend the week with us.