Lonely at the Playground

How often do you see parents reading at the playground anymore? Or chatting amongst themselves? Or even looking at their phones?

Not much, I’d guess.

I’ve spent a few months in the US, and the experience of going to the playground is entirely different here.

In Germany, parents would congregate in one area of the playground. Grownups would stand around chatting with each other, occasionally helping a child out, kissing a booboo or intervening when children’s interactions came to tears.

Otherwise, though, parents mainly talked amongst themselves, leaving the kids to do their thing.

Here, it’s completely different.

In the last few months of visiting various playgrounds in our new town, the only parents I have chatted with have been almost exclusively Germans. I’ve only had a nice conversation with one American Mom.

Most of the time I find myself sitting on a bench by myself, watching my kids play.

The other day, I realized what’s happening.

Parents aren’t interacting with each other because they’re too busy entertaining their kids.

Longing for playground socializing

As a newcomer to the area, I thought taking my kids to the playground would be a great way to meet other parents. Not so.

Small chats do happen, and people aren’t unfriendly. But most folks are so busy with their kids that they won’t stop long to talk.

At first it made me wonder if I was doing something wrong or somehow neglecting my children. Then I looked around and spotted my boys, one happily playing on the slides, another dangling upside-down from the monkey bars. They were fine.

They didn’t want or need me to entertain them. And frankly, I wasn’t much interested in the monkey bars.

So now I bring my book

Perhaps it makes me look antisocial, sitting there reading. I try to glance up regularly to look around and see if there are any other parents hankering for a good old-fashioned playground chat.

If you see me reading at the playground, don’t worry about interrupting. Chances are, I’d welcome the opportunity to meet someone new.

200th Anniversary of Pride & Prejudice

Okay, so the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was actually back on January 28th.  However, as it is such an important novel I’m going to make it okay to celebrate the book and its author all throughout 2013.  Yes, I can do that.  (They’re doing it in the UK so it’s allowed, okay??)

“Oh no, another chick who is crazy about Jane Austen,” you say?

Yes.  Yes, I am crazy about Jane Austen.  My most prized possession is a 1975 London Folio Society box set of her complete works.  I have read them all at least once, and most I have read more than once.  Persuasion is my very favorite, though of course Pride and Prejudice is the acknowledged masterpiece.

As anyone who loves costume dramas knows, there have been numerous dramatizations of Pride and Prejudice (some better than others, I suspect).  Who could forget Bridget Jones’ Diary?  (Yes, in case you didn’t know, that is based on Pride and Prejudice like Clueless is based on Emma.)  The most recent film adaptation stars Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen (not my favorite) and perhaps the most popular version (and what set off the latest Jane Austen craze) is the BBC’s 1995 TV adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.

Hey Girl Mr. Darcy
If this confuses you, look up Ryan Gosling and “hey girl”.

Over the past year (since April 9, 2012), the classic has inspired the online YouTube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  I stumbled across this series via Facebook and spent almost an entire afternoon watching the 5-minute videos from the first episode.  The vlogging (that’s “video blogging”) setting gets old pretty quickly (especially when you watch them all in quick succession), but it’s a clever and fun way to bring Pride and Prejudice to life for a modern audience.

But what, you may ask, is it about this novel that makes it so enduringly popular?  Many like to say it’s the romance.  Even Henry James apparently complained at the end of the 19th century that people (read: women) were reading Austin for the romance.  I have to admit that I was disappointed to read the BBC’s emphasis on the romantic side of the story in their coverage of the 200th anniversary.

Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice especially, are more than romance novels or the origins of what naysayers call “chick lit”.  They are, in essence, comedies, which in the Shakespearian tradition end with a wedding.  They are far more subtle, though, than most comedies and chick lit.  They are written with an undercurrent of social commentary and with fabulous wit, intelligence and insight.

If you were to actually pick up Pride and Prejudice, you would immediately realize that Austen possessed an incredible understanding of human nature, and was blessed with the genius to convey her insights in engaging language.  Who cannot sympathize when Elizabeth Bennet says, “Till this moment, I never knew myself”?  Without being pedantic or preachy, Austen gives Elizabeth (and us) a lesson in self-understanding to which most readers can relate.

So if up to now you have rejected Pride and Prejudice as “chick lit” or a romance novel, I encourage you to try reading the first three chapters (they’re short).  Yes, the romantic story of love thwarted and then resolved is there, but it acts as a vehicle for so much more.  Read it for the wit (because it really is funny), and read it as a testament to the value of good, strong understanding of self and others.


And in case you were wondering, yes.  I am re-reading Pride and Prejudice right now.  Whee!

Book Review: Learning to Die in Miami

This weekend I finished Learning to Die in Miami, (2010) by Carlos Eire.

Learning to Die in MiamiThis is the follow up memoir to Waiting for Snow in Havana, published in 2003, which told the story of Eire’s childhood in Havana, Cuba.  Born there in 1950, Eire grew up with his older brother Tony and his parents, whom he refers to as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (due, apparently, to his father’s belief that he was the reincarnation of the beheaded king of France).  The book ends when he and his brother are evacuated from Cuba in 1962 as part of Operation Peter Pan.

After seven years, in Learning to Die in Miami Eire brings us back to that moment when he and his brother landed in Florida.  As you can probably imagine, this is not a light, easy read.  Already in Waiting for Snow in Havana, you know that the seeds of heartbreak are sewn in his family.  His father is distant and unable to express his affection.  He adopts Ernesto into the family, but is blind to his abusive behavior.

Learning to Die in Miami takes us through the many deaths of Carlos, Charles, Chuck and Charlie.  Eire writes with heart-wrenching eloquence about a young boy’s fear of total loneliness (the Void, as he calls it), and his desperate desire to let his past die and fully become an American boy.  We learn of his brother Tony’s distancing behind a wall of isolation and his descent into an unescapable abyss.  He examines his father’s motives behind his choices, and his mother’s unceasing efforts to follow her sons out of Cuba.

Though while he touches on the flaws and failures of his family, Eire does not spend his memoir witnessing for the sins of others.  Nor does he assign blame to anyone or write about them as anything other than entirely human.

What is most captivating to me about this memoir is how Eire seems to step outside of himself to look back in.  He uses language that makes him seem apart from his experiences in order to make us understand, but at the same time he does not remove his feelings, his reactions or his fears from them.

I am also fascinated by his clinging to spirituality, despite the horrors of an abusive foster home, and constant abandonment by people he comes to trust.  It is this spirituality, and his coming to believe in an unending source of grace, which give this memoir an edge of humor and of hope.

It would be dangerous to say more, for fear of giving too much away.  If you haven’t read Waiting for Snow in Havana, I highly recommend picking it up, especially as a vehicle towards Learning to Die in Miami.  Carlos Eire’s memoirs are heartbreaking yet life, faith, and family-affirming.

Reading them will take you out of your comfort zone and challenge you to see the world through the eyes of a boy whose life’s path has most likely been so unlike your own.  But it will not seem unfamiliar.

Brain Candy

I do love myself a little brain candy.  “Brain candy” is something enjoyable that doesn’t require much thought, effort or mental exertion.  It’s candy for the brain!

Everyone likes a little brain candy every now and then, right?  I mean, if we were to always read heavy, intellectual books, or always watch dark and challenging films and always have deep, harrowing conversations would we feel all warm and fuzzy inside?  It certainly never hurts to push the limits of our understanding and expand our education, but sometimes a girl just wants to relax a little and giggle.  While some like to get their brain candy by watching TV, romantic comedies or reading fashion magazines, I like to get mine by reading book series like the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

1-no-1-ladies-detective-agency-450hI love these books because, as an unnamed reviewer from the Daily Mail apparently wrote (according to the dustcover) “Tolerance and humanity underpin the whole of this wonderful, hilarious, totally addictive series.”  Well said, Daily Mail reviewer!  There is just enough tension to keep you hooked on the stories, and McCall Smith’s simple, straightforward prose catches you in its rhythm.  As you read of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi’s adventures, you can almost see the Botswana landscape and feel the hot African sun on your shoulders.

McCall Smith, a Scottish medical law professor, was born in what is now Zimbabwe and spent several years teaching law at the University of Botswana in Gaborone.  That must have been when his love affair with Botswana began; you can sense his love and respect for this peaceful southern African nation all throughout his series.  Never having been to Botswana myself, I cannot attest for how accurate his portrayal of local life and culture is, and he could very well be writing about an idealized place that exists only in his imagination.

Be that the case or not, I still love these books.  They’re hilarious!  And they don’t just paint a rosy picture of warm and fuzzy humanity.  These are, after all, detective stories involving theft, violence, jealousy and other examples of the evil of which we human beings are capable.  And they’re not always tied up in a neat little bow at the end.  There is always an acknowledgement that sometimes there is nothing we can do about some ignorance, irrational hatred, or close-mindedness.  Mma Ramotswe and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni show us that all we can do is our very best to love, understand, respect, forgive and listen.

I choose to enjoy this kind of brain candy, because it is candy with some substance.  It’s like a chocolate covered strawberry: there’s the sweet of the chocolate as well as the vitamins and healthy properties of the fruit!  And, to quote St. Paul “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Review: Sea of Poppies

My rating on Goodreads: 3 stars out of 5.

sea_of_poppies2I was disappointed by “Sea of Poppies” (2008) by Amitav Ghosh. Having read “The Glass Palace” (2000), I was expecting a novel of similar quality from “Sea of Poppies.” This book is set up as an epic novel, and while it is certainly epic in scope and in the number of characters it encompasses, I find it is also epic in its failure to give the reader any character of much value or substance. Its reach is too broad, and it is missing a central, strong character to tie it all together.

I will start by saying that I did find the story gripping. Ghosh tells a good tale, and his ability to evoke landscape, color and space make it easy to picture the vivid fields of poppies, the slums of Calcutta and the desolate stretch of an empty ocean. That’s why I’ve given the book three stars: Ghosh knows how to place a cliff-hanger, and the novel’s got an exciting story.

My main complaint, however, is how flat, one-dimensional and completely obvious the characters are. Ghosh leaves no room for interpretation of the cast of “Sea of Poppies.” They are very black-and-white, both in the good-and-bad sense, and, unfortunately, in the sense that white is bad and black is good. There is a clear distinction between the “good” and “bad” characters: all the English characters are brutes, sexual deviants, clueless matrons or gluttons while all the non-English characters are virtuous, unselfish and sympathetic. There are a few exceptions, including Singh and Deeti’s in-laws, and Paulette and her father, who, of course, are not English but French, and have integrated somewhat into local culture, learned the language and rejected the social mores of the dominant Brits. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that the practices of the English as colonizers were in any way excusable, and I am not trying to apologize for colonization. Far from it. But a human being is a subtle and complicated creature, and his or her character is not so easily placed in a category of “good” or “bad” as Ghosh has so disappointingly done.

The “good” characters are, predictably, the coolies, the lascars, the mixed-race second mate Zachary, the metamorphosing gomusta, and the disgraced raja.  Bad and good characters, English and non alike, are portrayed as so flat as to make them completely unbelievable. This is in stark contrast to the character of Rajkumar in “The Glass Palace” whom Ghosh writes as so brilliantly complex and intensely real. We love him at times and despise him at others; Ghosh allows us that freedom. But not so with the cast of “Sea of Poppies.” We are told exactly how we are to think of each character, which completely killed any sense of interest or connection I had to this book.

The one exception is Neel, the disgraced raja. I found him to be the most real of all the personalities portrayed: willfully blind to the folly of his business practices as raja, he is humbled in every way imaginable. His disbelief, defiance, rejection and slow resignation to his fate I found to be the most realistically human aspect of this novel. In this person, I saw some flickers of the brilliant characterization of which Ghosh is capable.

I got the impression that Ghosh was trying too hard to make his novel epic by going into the minds of each character at a time. When you think of classic epic novels like “David Copperfield,” or “The Lord of the Rings” (yes, I did just put them into the same category), and even “The Glass Palace,” they all focus on one person as the main character (Copperfield, Frodo, Rajkumar). While we get some deeper glimpses into other characters, the central personality of the novel is the main focal point which brings the others together. In “Sea of Poppies”, the ship “Ibis” seems meant to be this character, but it completely fails to act as anything other than the physical space which the characters share. (Carlos Ruiz Zafon, in “Shadow of the Wind,” uses the city of Barcelona as an influential character which brings the others together, but he also has his main character of Daniel to be the human glue of the novel.)

These reasons, and the fact that I felt like “Sea of Poppies” left me with no better understanding of anything other than human cruelty, mean that I will not be continuing with this trilogy. This book had nothing original to say other than try to tell an interesting story. It felt like I was watching endless episodes of a soap opera, one in which none of the characters are particularly compelling. So I do not feel compelled to pick up book two in the series.

If you’re looking for a good trilogy, check out the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz.