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A Girl Named Zippy

Source: goodreads

Source: goodreads

Mooreland, Indiana was in the news recently. According to Health News from NPR, shortly after buying a house in Mooreland and moving in, a family discovered that it had been once used as a meth lab. I read about meth houses from time to time, and this article would not have been very remarkable except for the fact that I also happened to be reading a memoir of Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. I had never heard of Mooreland before.

I grew up in cities, but I have heard some older family members remember life in small towns (in India) that had just two streets, a ‘main’ street running north to south, and one or two smaller streets running east to west—a town where everyone knew everyone else, a town with just one tailor, one priest, one school, and one grocery store. Mooreland is that town.  Only, there is no dull soul in Zippy’s Mooreland. There are people with peculiar talents: they can sit really still or sneeze so loud that “the whole house rocked”; they have very little hair as babies (Zippy); or are so ancient that they “seem as inevitable as the moon”.  Zippy’s stories are funny, small-town accounts of friendship, family, poverty, school, pets, and encounters with scary grown ups. They are told in the voice of an adult’s recollection of her around seven-year old self, so while the seven-year old Zippy can say the things that only seven-year olds can, she wouldn’t be able to pull off her deadpanning without the benefit of adult hindsight.

Here is what Zippy has to say about her father:

My father was a great smoker and driver of vehicles. Also he could whistle like a bird and could perform any task with either his left or right hand, a condition he taught me was called “ambisexual”…He could hold a full coffee cup while driving and never spill a drop, even going over bumps, He lost his temper faster than anyone.

But on to Zippy herself now. Zippy (otherwise known as Haven Kimmel, the author) is featured on the cover of the book, a smart marketing move, as Zippy’s face is anything but meh. What she lacks in hair, she makes up in spirit. You can tell that this child is not sweet and kind and good and angelic and all honey. Zippy is better than that—she is wicked and witty and wicked. Zippy is fearless. Zippy has personality with a capital P. I also thought it was refreshing to see a little girl dressed in all blue, a baby blue, but a blue that has been foisted on boys, and boys only in the past several years.

A Girl Named Zippy made me think again about what it means to have an ‘ordinary childhood’ and how ‘unusual’ and ‘remarkable’ sometimes need the context of a time and place. Zippy’s Mooreland childhood was perhaps less remarkable and exotic than that of Sissy Bellings, another Mooreland citizen, who lived with her fifteen siblings and half-siblings in a two-room house next to Mooreland’s only diner. Three years ago, I read and enjoyed Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, another childhood memoir of growing up poor in small towns in an unorthodox family. Sometime earlier, I tried to read another childhood memoir, Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, which I found eccentric and bizarre in an off-putting way. Zippy is neither irresistible nor  unpleasant. It has a very understated poignancy, a deliberately impassive humor, and an abundance of quirky individuals. A note on the flavor of humor—it is not the kind that inspires deep belly laughs, nor is it the warm kind that leaves a general feeling of contentment; it is entertaining and funny overall, and I half-laughed three or four times, but it is not the kind of humor I would be compelled to revisit, or even find funny upon rereading, such as this passage:

Mom kindly refrained from mentioning my many, many visits to the emergency room. She also kindly refrained mentioning the little incident last summer which had resulted in my losing two toenails, severely abrading the top of my foot, and breaking two toes. At the hospital the nurse had asked how I’d done it, and I had to admit that the injuries were because of my foot being run over while it was upside-down, by a bicycle I myself was riding.

I’ll admit it was funny the first time I read, but now as I am reading it again, even my inner smile isn’t awakened.

Zippy is a smart and funny book, and perhaps people who grew up in small towns or have second-hand memories of growing up in small towns might find it especially meaningful. It did make me imagine growing up two minutes from everywhere—the Main Street, the Diner, the School, the Drugstore, and all my friend’s homes, a town where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was the same race. It made me think of how different such a life would be. It made me think about how it would not necessarily be a simpler life.

On the whole, I feel mostly ambivalent about A Girl Named Zippy, although I can see it has its charm.

Side note: It is so much more fun to write about a book that elevated me in some way, or even better, that aggravated me. Why am I writing this then? Early this year, I resolved to write at least about one book a month, a very unambitious goal to begin with, but I suppose I was secretly hoping that it would then be easier to exceed my insignificant expectations, and write twice a month, or even once every week. January was a successful month, and I wrote about the singularly interesting Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The next six months are a different story. This July, as I turned a year older, I resolved to write again even if Zippy didn’t inspire me or amuse me as much as it has some others. Simply because writing makes me happy.

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The art of Osamu Tezuka

I am only familiar with two of Tezuka’s works: the Buddha series that I am reading and collecting, and the Adolf ni Tsugu (Message to Adolf) series that I just finished reading, both historical manga, so I can’t say that I am particularly familiar with Tezuka. But I couldn’t resist reading the biography of someone often called Manga no kami-sama (The God of Manga).

The Art of Osama Tezuka: God of Manga by Helen McCarthy (2009) traces Tezuka’s life from his childhood to his growth to a manga titan, with plenty of pictures, illustrations and strips from his comics, and discusses his work and his legacy.

 So, who was Osama Tezuka (1928-1989) and why is he such a major force in Japanese pop culture?

…an innovator in animation, a creator of vast comic book sagas founded on a wide knowledge of international culture and literature, a fantasist who mined his innermost self for universal stories, a significant science fiction author, and a scientist who popularized technology, but also warned of its dangers to the planet and to mankind years before environmental concerns became fashionable.

Tezuka was also a medical doctor who received a PhD from a medical university for a thesis entitled A Microscopic Study of the Membrane Structure of Heterotropic Spermatids – imagine a scientific thesis illustrated by the God of Manga! Tezuka, however, never practiced medicine, even though he descended from an illustrious family – one of his ancestors was the first to practice Western-style medicine in Japan; another ancestor was Hanzo Hattori (whom Tarantino immortalized in Kill Bill). Tezuka chose, instead, to become a manga artist at a time when the job was neither considered particularly prestigious or well-paying.

Clearly, Tezuka’s family and early childhood played a significant role in sparking and developing his artistic tendencies, and I found the pages about Tezuka as a young artist particularly fascinating. Tezuka’s father, Yutaka, wrote haiku and comics for his own amusement, and was a keen photographer (and the reason for the family photographs which feature a young Tezuka and his siblings). Yutaka screened cartoons from Europe, America and Japan on family film nights, and encouraged his children to draw and share their own comics. Tezuka’s mother, Fumio, introduced the children to theater and concerts, and was a skilled storyteller. Fumio and Yutaka would leave a pencil and paper on the children’s table, and they often entertained themselves during illnesses and sleepless nights by cartooning – drawing on all of the movies, stories, shows and comics that they read and watched, and also fed by their own imagination. When Tezuka filled his drawing books, Fumio gave him his grandfather’s huge legal books to make flicker-book animation. By age nine, Tezuka had a firm grasp of presenting distances, shadows, lights, drama and comedy in his comics. Is it any wonder then that the boy grew up to create his own posse of characters?

Tezuka was not the founder of manga, but he did breathe fresh air into it. What had thus far been something to just cheer people graduated to a serious art form that “could change the way [people] saw the world”. Tezuka came of age right around World War II and his works reflect both his anguish, at seeing the charred remains of his country and its people, his constant questioning of how different cultures can live together in peace, and his desire for people to live in harmony with nature. Common themes found in his manga include destroyed families, abandonment by a father, survival, hope, the senselessness of war, questioning the wisdom of blind faith in technology and science, conflict between cultures, the need to respect nature, along with some darker, and even adult themes. Many of his manga are science fiction, and are set in the future, and his drawings of technology seem prescient (you must remember that he drew many of them in  the period 1940 – 1960). His themes and plots are varied as a rainbow. Consider this plot:

Kenichi’s uncle invents a drug that can shrink humans to the size of bacteria. The pair enter the body of a sick boy and find a huge hole in his lung. To their amazement, they find that the bacilli that cause tuberculosis are intelligent beings. A cute bacillum named Mode…is sent by her people to learn human language, and she befriends Kenichi and his uncle.”

– Tuberculose (1948).

Tezuka also pioneered the use of cinematic devices in manga (using close-ups, pans, zooms, changing viewpoints, action lines). These had been used in manga before, but Tezuka took them to a whole new level. Tezuka was also the first to organize his characters into a “star system” – he built  a cast of actors (imagine a set of Hollywood actors who play different roles in different movies), who would play different roles in different manga. The star of one manga could have another name in another manga, or be a supporting actor. Tezuka himself played a role in several of his manga, stepping in and out of his own stories (like Scott McCloud does in his comics about comics). Also, Tezuka created a code for diagrams of line style, shading, backgrounds, and effects, tone and color. He then hired assistants who were instructed through this system of codes to do exactly what he wanted them to. He grew his empire. Tezuka’s manga often uses character development to build stories, and deals with serious themes, such as social awareness and gender roles. He “demonstrated that cartoons could be used to convery profound ideas and explore terrifying aspects of humanity, that they could not only compete on level terms with the science fiction novel and the political polemic but could stand on an equal footing with literary classics both in form and content”. And that is why he is Manga no kami-sama. Tezuka also “had great faith in children, in their optimism, their ability to make the best of circumstances, and their openness to new experiences. He constantly emphasized the need to encourage children to cherish life and learn about the wonders of nature”.

…the true Manga God as captured by the remote control camera is someone who takes 3-hour snoozes every three days, gathers his ideas whilst eating take-out fried rice and who gives his all to draw manga.

The Art of Osama Tezuka: God of Manga also includes a 45-minute DVD of Tezuka doing his thing – making manga. Since he died in 1989, the video must have been filmed sometimes in the 1980s, and the viewer cannot help but be acutely aware of this – the hair is 80s, the dresses are 80s, the polo shirts are 80s, and the televisions are very 80s. Tezuka sits in a red, plastic-wrapped low-backed chair at his desk (I guess ergonomic was not yet popular) with classical music at full blast, and works with both hands (both hands!). He then visits his offices, where I think I caught a glimpse of one female artist, but with the 80s hair I could be wrong. Tezuka keeps his trademark beret on, even when he does a mid-session head stand, and agonizes over his inability to draw a smooth circle anymore and bemoans looming deadlines. “…I would keep drawing for the next 40 years. I have a lot of ideas”, he says. This statement is particularly poignant because he  died about a year later.

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Targets

Week 25 of 2011 is coming has come to an end, and I am woefully behind (25 books) my goal of 60 books this year.  I used to fare better when I was a commuter, getting 3 hours or so of mostly uninterrupted reading every day, or most days until I gave in to a fight with sleep. Now, that my commuter days seem a thing of the past, it seems easier to make book lists than actually read some. 25 books is hardly an achievement…

  1. Running with scissors
  2. Still life*
  3. American Born Chinese*
  4. The rape of Nanking*
  5. Mary, Mary*
  6. A widow’s story*
  7. Battle hymn of the tiger mother*
  8. Open*
  9. Written in blood*
  10. Half the sky**
  11. The Kid**
  12. Tiger in the kitchen
  13. The sweetness at the bottom of the pie*
  14. Poison*
  15. The girls who went away**
  16. Killer dolphin*
  17. The happiness project*
  18. The chimney sweeper’s boy*
  19. An exact replica of a figment of my imagination**
  20. River town**
  21. Sum of our days**
  22. A fatal inversion*
  23. Nickel and dimed**
  24. Two cents plain**
  25. Devotion of suspect X

but they were mostly satisfying. The breakdown indicates:

  • I found 8/25 brilliant (in that interesting shade of brown-green)
  • 14/25 were fairly good reads
  • 11/25 were memoirs
  • 3/25 were sociological analyses
  • 15 were non-fiction
  • 10 were fiction, out of them 9 mystery
I probably think about Nickel and Dimed at least once every day, usually when I am cleaning the kitchen counter, mopping the kitchen floor, vacuum cleaning the living room, or scrubbing the kitchen sink clean (in case you are wondering, there is more to my life than that, much more). Nickel and Dimed is journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s captivating (undercover) accounts of trying to live on low-wages jobs, such as a being waitress, a nursing room aide, a Wal-Mart salesperson, and for me most notably as a house cleaner. Of course, Ehrenreich’s story is much more than just an account of how the ‘working poor’ get by (or not), but it also made me rethink outsourcing house cleaning.
Ehrenreich’s writes about the training videos, mandatory ‘learning’ tools  for entry level trainees, which emphasize dirt (and germ) redistribution, a sort of cosmetic rearrangement, whereby the house looks neater, and cleaner.
But germs are never mentioned in the videos provided by The Maids. Our antagonists exist entirely in the visible world – soap scum, dust, counter crud, dog hair, stains and smears – are to be attacked by damp rag or,  in hardcore cases by Dobie. We scrub only to remove impurities that might be detectable to a customer by hand or by eye; otherwise our only job is to wipe. Nothing is said about the possibility of transporting bacteria, by rag or by hand, from bathroom to kitchen, or even from one house to the next. It is the “cosmetic touches” that the videos emphasize…Fluff up all throw pillows and arrange them symetrically. Brighten up stainless steel sinks with baby oil. Leave all spice jars, shampoos, etc. with their labels facing outward. Comb out the fringes of Persian carpets with a pick. Use the vacuum cleaner to create a special, fernlike pattern in the carpets. The loose ends of toilet paper and paper towel rolls have to be given a special fold…
While this crash course on ‘how to make your house look clean if your husband’s boss is making an unscheduled appearance and you have an hour’ might make my home look very much like the seaside motel we stayed in at our last vacation, it also makes me less than eager to hire a cleaning service the next time I think I need some ‘pampering’ (not to mention the dismal hourly salary earned by these housemaids – they might not clean very well, but the vacuuming can still be back breaking).
I am still trying to create art on my living room carpets with my vacuum cleaner.
Note: I don’t think I pamper myself by hiring a house cleaner, or by gifting myself a bread machine on my birthday.

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