Archive for October, 2011

Remember when iconic, fictional Carrie Bradshaw decides to pay Big’s ex a visit? When Carrie discovers that Barbara is part of a children’s book publishing unit, she famously makes up a story, about dear Little Cathy.

Barbara: What makes Little Cathy special?

Carrie: Well, she’s got these magic cigarettes….Little Cathy and her magic cigarettes. Whenever she lights up, she can go anywhere in the whole wide world…Arabia, New Jersey…

Barbara: You want to write a children’s book about smoking?

Carrie: It’s a children’s book for adults.

Barbara: You’re outrageous. I love it!

Jeff Kinney has probably without doubt succeeded where Carrie failed. Wimpy kid, Greg Heffley is a hit, among the kids.

I saw my first Wimpy Kid book in an eight year old’s book shelf. He was a collector and was looking forward to the release of the latest book in the series. I spent a few seconds flipping through the book and decided the format looked interesting. I was also curious about eight year olds’ reading preferences (the parent in me speaking). And so when I saw a rare Wimpy Kid book lurking on the bookshelves of the local library, I considered myself fortunate that it was not on hold for some kid, and checked it out right away. I happen to like sardonic humor, and all the cynicism and sarcasm was not totally lost on me. Middle school, high school or even college, tend not to be the shiniest years for many adults, and (for some) it can perhaps be funny reminiscing about all the fun times when some of us were pimply, gauche adolescents trying desperately to be cool (or not to be uncool).

While I found the book funny, funny enough that I would consider reading another book in the series, I also felt uncomfortable that this was being marketed as a children’s book. I can’t really put my finger on it – there is nothing that screams ‘inappropriate’ to me, but somehow an adult’s recollection of middle school misery, funny as it may be, may not necessarily be suitable for middle schoolers. I can imagine that many kids would ‘identify’ with Greg – who doesn’t like to read ‘classics’ like Little Women, likes to spend most of his time either playing video games or sleeping, is socially awkward, is beginning to find the opposite sex attractive, who is lazy and doesn’t like to eat his vegetables. In other words, he is not particularly likeable. He, however, does seem to be wise beyond his years (not in a very good way) and has a dry sense of humor that is perhaps somewhat unusual for kids his age (or not?).

I found out the reason Mom took us to the water park today: It was half price for families.

I don’t believe that protagonists have to be particularly pleasant – in fact wicked can be spectacularly funny. I also don’t believe that all books have to dole out life lessons. But I am an adult.

I understand that my memories of being a child are from over a decade ago, and that reading and other entertainment preferences for children have since then evolved. But I am not sure I want my child to appreciate this kind of dry humor so early in life – it seems that it would be tantamount to losing one’s childhood. I would be very sad indeed if children these days bid a premature farewell to childhood even before they hit their tenth birthdays. Though the book does deal with real feelings that many of us go through: wanting to be popular, being aware of what one has and what one does not have, wanting to go up against parental authority, feeling misunderstood; I am not sure if the book would really help a child deal with these feelings, other than reinforce the idea that unpleasantness and laziness can be cool.

On the other hand, if I was a kid growing up today, I’m sure I would feel that the adult in me was being unjustifiably paranoid. After all, the book is funny.

The series is certainly a good candidate for summer reading for young adults (I am still not sure it is suitable for children), especially if they are not a big fan of the Reading is Fun club. They might not read their Little Women, but they’ll gladly read the Diary.


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A different vision of life

A different language is a different vision of life – Fredrico Fellini

It really is. Deborah Fallows’ book Dreaming in Chinese. Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language is a collection of anecdotes that are part of her Mandarin learning adventure. Fallows, a trained linguist, approaches Mandarin, naturally much more systematically than I did when I tried my hand at Japanese. Learning a language can be a unique experience depending on one’s native language. Fallows writes that “Chinese is one of the world’s most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, along with several others, like Japanese, Russian and Arabic”. Though I’ve never nearly learned another foreign language, and I am no way fluent in Japanese, I cannot say I found the experience to be difficult (even though it was certainly challenging). Honorifics aside, Japanese sentence construction seemed very like my own native language, and while I did not sail through it, I certainly progressed faster than if I had been learning Chinese. I am not sure if Chinese (Mandarin) would qualify as (one of) the world’s most difficult languages, period (unless, of course, you spoke one the languages in the same general family). Fallows makes no bones about her own struggles in trying to increase her skill with Mandarin (and she is a linguist – a Harvard graduate with a PhD in Linguistics, no less).

(I was) a bit heartsick, that after two years of being in China, I could understand more Spanish than Chinese – and the closest I had ever come to studying Spanish was French!

Oh, and if you are wondering what that video is about – it is a reading of a popular story in Classical Chinese, The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den, that famously captures the extent of homophony in Chinese (Mandarin), that makes it notoriously difficult to learn Of course, the tones don’t make it any easier.

If you are like me and have no intention to learn Chinese (any of the languages that can be put in that bucket), and hence have no reason to be disheartened by how forbiddingly complex the language seems, then these stories about everyday life in China – early morning tai chi, Blind-man massage, and Chinese Taco Bell, amuse and delight.

Another book on China, which also uses Chinese words to capture the essence of different aspects of Chinese life, that I thoroughly enjoyed is River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze.

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