Tea Time With Jesse

Six of One, Half Dozen the Other

Archive for July, 2011

Thinking About Books – Jumping on the Bandwagon

Posted by middlerage on July 28, 2011

It’s not all fun and games, here at Tea Time, what with reading about Chinese history or Japanese POW camps. Sometimes middlerage knuckles down to some escapist fiction. Like, say, a giant fantasy series. Tough work, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Thus it is that I’ve jumped on the bandwagon for George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, better known as the Game of Thrones books.  I’m really enjoying it and have (so far) devoured two and half books of the five book series. I had never even heard about the series, until it started creeping into headline news by virtue of being made into a current HBO miniseries. So I put it onto my to-read list (see previous post) and headed off to the library to check it out. The library is an awesome resource, and I’ve been able to enjoy so many books, CDs, and DVDs for free. However it is not the place for a super-super popular book. I got placed on the waitlist at position 50. Ughh! Being a denizen of the 21st century, I have instant gratitude issues. There is a famous study where psychologists offered young children a marshmallow now, or two marshmallows in an hour (or some X amount of time). Longitudinally tracking the kids showed that the ones who held out for the reward of 2 marshmallows, did better in life. Alas, I think I’m a marshmallow NOW bloke, and so I hauled myself down to the local Barnes and Noble. I reckon it’s about time I gave the book industry a bit of cash, considering all the free books I borrow (ignore the property tax man behind the curtain).

So I plunked down $17 plus tax for book one of the series. It would’ve been only $9 for a paperback, but middlerage is definitely in middle age and my eyes and arms much prefer the larger size of trade paperbacks. Sure, Amazon would’ve had it cheaper, but see above point about marshmallows.

I like the series because it has an intense realism to it. The story is rife with good old fashioned medieval brutality, and state intrigue. I don’t think I would like it half so much, if I wasn’t already acquainted with English history or the historical fiction of Bernard Cornwell (famous for the Sharpes Rifles series, but he’s also written lots about brutal Dark Ages Britain). No plucky hobbits fighting evil in a black and white world, here.

If the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble are any indication, Fantasy is a huge genre, and I confess I know very little about it. I have good friends who could probably write white papers on the genre, and explain gobs about it to me. Being a non-expert, I measure everything against Lord of the Rings, and LOTR is a classic. The classic. One I  revisit every two or three years. As I said above, I am thoroughly enjoying Game of Thrones, but I might – might – read it once more in my lifetime. This isn’t a criticism, but an honest pondering of what makes a classic. My jest about plucky hobbits was actually not in earnest. There is just something so elegant and elevated about LOTR that makes one want to be a better person. And it also isn’t very “real” ( I know – an oxymoron when discussing fantasy) allowing for yummy escapism, whereas The Game of Thrones strength is, in fact, its searing realism. I recently ran across an interweb dustup over Martin’s use of rape. I recommended and then retracted my recommendation to a friend after I realized it was too violent for her taste. A good friend of mine (Bill H.) calls it the War of the Roses with magic. He also admitted to coming into work a zombie after many a night not being able to put down the books. Having recently read some Tudor history (Henry VIII’s bff Thomas More burns several heretics at the stake, before later getting himself beheaded) has made me quite receptive to Martin’s violence. Stormbringer informed me that, in the world of fantasy, there were two competing series: The Song of Ice and Fire versus the Wheel of Time series. I guess, fans of each stepped off against the other, and apparently spittle flew and costumes were ripped. Then the author of the Wheel of Time series up and died without completing it. George Martin, author of Game of Thrones, has only recently released book five after a 6 year wait, and he looks…errrr…old. So I hope I’m not setting myself up for an incomplete story. I am, after all, paying money for this – egads!

[A quick side trip to Wikipedia confirms the death of the Wheel of Time author, Robert Jordan, but also says the series is being finished based on notes the author left. Additionally, Wikipedia says the Song of Fire and Ice is planned to be seven books in length. Here’s hoping the author leaves copious notes.]

As a final thought, I have to say that when the Mozart of your field is J. R. R. Tolkien, and your name is George R. R. Martin, drop the middle initials. Have some respect. But that is just a peccadillo. Like I say, I am really enjoying the read.

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Thinking About Books – The Unexpected

Posted by middlerage on July 26, 2011

I have a list of books-to-read that I keep on my computer, and whenever I run across mention of an interesting book I add it to the list. So I don’t ferget. It used to be a list of books-to-buy, or to hand the lovely one when she says, “Your birthday (or xmas) is coming up, what do you want?” But really, soooo many books ….soooo little shelf space. Then the city built a library branch just down the road, and the list-to-buy morphed into the list-to-read. Now I hand the beautiful one a list of music CDs instead.

As an aside, there’s lots of talk about how libraries are obsolete, or redundant, or useless. But man! When that branch was built, our quality of life was greatly enhanced. If I had Bill Gates wallet, I’d build a library on every street corner. Don’t count the library out!

Anyhoo. I’ve just crossed a couple of books off my to-read list (thanks to the library), and I enjoyed both of them a lot. However, what was interesting about the reading experience – and the point of this blog post – was the side dish of unexpected knowledge that was not part of the story I thought I was reading.

First up is a novel (fiction) by Christos Tsiolkas titled “The Slap.” The book is a well written, multistream account (each chapter is from a different character’s perspective) of the aftermath of a neighborhood block party in which somebody’s little brat goes too far and ends up getting slapped. By an adult. Who isn’t the parent(!). I learned of the book from an author interview on some NPR show. It’s a good read and I can recommend it; maybe more interesting to those of us who are parents, but I believe there is plenty in the book that would appeal to non-parents.

However, this post isn’t about the books’ main stories, it’s about what I wasn’t expecting. In the case of The Slap, I didn’t realize that it is actually an Australian book – written by an Aussie, set in Australia. And what surprised me, and what I bet the author wasn’t intending to portray, was just how nihilistic that culture is. I always think of Aussies as sort of fun-loving Americans with funny accents. But the story is rife with unapologetic drug taking, adultery, and self centeredness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude, nor am I trying to be nationalistic. Americans are plenty self-centered, boozing bed-hoppers. It was just strange, feeling this undercurrent, (an undercurrent extremely difficult to put into words so as to explain to my readers) but I just felt, while reading, that (and here I get uncomfortably close to nationalism) Americans are popping Ecstasy while on their way to doing something. It’s the frosting on the cake. Conversely, in Australia (or at least the culture as described by this single book), it is the cake. I’m really at a loss to put my gut reaction into suitable words, but I just got this sense that the Aussies have this nihilistic existence: They go to meaningless jobs to make the money to pay for dope; they get married and breed families, just to have parties and meet someone to have an affair with; they have children not because they have hope for the world, but just to have someone who will accept them for the boozing adulterers they are.

I haven’t gone interwebbing to read reviews of the book, so I have no idea if others got the same unexpected side dish. And I want to reiterate that despite my gloomy sounding reaction, it really was an enjoyable story and one I can recommend you check out.

My second experience in the things-I-wasn’t-expecting experience is a non-fiction account of a POW prison escape during WWII. The book is Escape From Davao, by John D. Lukas, and it chronicles the amazing struggle of the only mass prisoner escape from a Japanese POW camp. Some of us baby boomer history buffs are familiar with POW stories from the European conflict, and we’ve probably all seen Steve McQueen jump his motorcycle in The Great Escape. However, it turns out, that in the Pacific theater very few prisoners managed to escape. This is because, unlike the Euro theater where you escape on land as a white guy amongst white guys, in the Pacific you were a large white guy, in a region of small dark people, with thousands of miles of ocean between you and freedom. Apparently, there were several mass prisoner escapes (not all succesful) from German POW camps, but only one mass escape attempted from a Japanese camp.

The story begins with the  surrender of U.S. forces after the Japanese invasion of the Philippines (expected and known because U.S. forces were woefully underprepared – here I use “expected” to identify the components that were not a surprise to me), continues with the Bataan Death March (expected and infuriating), moves on to a stopover POW camp that is more a death camp (The Japanese were not signatories of the Geneva Convention and also considered surrender as deeply shameful, thus they had  an “imperial right” to treat prisoners with brutality) (expected engaging and engrossing), and finally the Davao prison camp from whence the escape was successfully attempted a year later (expected and exhilarating). If you are into WWII history, this is a riveting, engaging narrative I highly recommend.

So what is the unexpected part of this story for me, and hence worthy of inclusion in this blog post? It was what happened after the boys got back home to America.

All they wanted was get back to HQ and alert America of the horrible camp conditions, as well as the as-yet unknown horror of the Bataan Death march. They wanted to organize immediate rescue. Instead, they were sworn to secrecy by the war leaders and the president. WTF? and why?

It seems the establishment had a whole host of agendas that did not include messy information about Japanese brutality. Number one was a “Europe-first” strategy that required defeating Hitler, and then turning our attention to the Pacific war.  Number two, the establishment was frightened of how average Americans would react to news of the horrors of Japanese brutality. This ranged from worries of Americans demanding abandonment of the European war to worries of Americans demanding withdrawal from the Pacific and just “hunkering down.” There were also disingenuous theories that broadcasting evidence of Japanese brutality would just make it worse for the remaining prisoners, or hinder Red Cross shipments. Actually, most experts who were not a part of the Washington establishment felt that letting the Japanese know we knew would shame them into treating the prisoners better. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so to speak. In sum, the Pacific war was going very badly, and Washington was worried about demoralizing Americans, and drying up sales of war bonds. Disingenuous indeed.

I just can’t imagine living through two years of hell, only to return to a leadership that didn’t care and had no interest in helping. Shocking. Unexpected.

Eventually, the news did get out, but Washington was able to influence the leak well enough to exploit it for bond drives. Nowadays, Bataan Death March veterans are some of our most well-known heroes, but for two dark years in the middle of WWII, their tribulations were a dirty secret for less than savory reasons. Something I did not know.

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An Immediate Update to Phrases I Like

Posted by middlerage on July 24, 2011

Dr. Tea is back in da howssss, after a blissful week at the beach. In the meantime, my readers have rocked and supplied all sorts of new updates to my Phrases I Like category.

First off, Anonynurse and Niewguyski contributed enough ideas for Tavern names, that I am inspired to add a whole new cubbyhole to the category. Anonynurse contibutes the name “Revolve Tavern” and the more I chew on it, the more I like it, and all its multi-layered-nougaty goodness. Niewguyski’s contribution is peanuty awesome and I can’t help but to block quote ‘im ‘ere:

Taverns have open-beam ceilings, not that you can see the beams, because it’s too dim; but there’s soot on them beams, from the tapers (if not torches) that originally lit the place — which were in turn replaced with lanterns or gas-lamps. Taverns have stone-work, dark corners, secluded booths, and one-eyed publicans with cauliflower ears. Taverns need ominous, or even foreboding names, like “The Mangy Cur,” or “The Tolling Bell,” or “The Listing Lighthouse,” or “The Brooding Raven.”

Ha! Every one of those has me laughingly admiring and admiringly laughing. To be sure, his taverns are more the place to hire cutthroats and scallywags, while I am after a more light and airy place for hosting elite political conversations, poetry readings, and revolution plotting. Maybe I’ll just have to have two joints – so I can own The Mangy Cur.

Meanwhile Anonynurse stepped up to the mission of T-Shirt slogans with:

Just Because I’m a Dentist, I’m Not Thinking About How to Fix Your Awful Gap-Tooth Smile (- although on this one I disagree – I just bet a dentist can’t help but think about the fix); Just Because I’m a Teacher, It Doesn’t Mean I’m Wondering whether You’re Mentally Challenged; Just Because I’m Short, It Doesn’t Mean I Look Up To You; Just Because I Forgot What I Was Doing, It Doesn’t Mean I Want Your Help; and (MY PERSONAL FAVORITE – middlerage) – Just Because You Thought It was Funny, It Doesn’t Make It Funny

Finally, the muddledrambler contributes a fine phrase for the hot heat (as I write this, it is 102°F, and the A/C is broke. Never fear, a service man is on his way to take my money, and allow me to breathe):

It’s hotter ‘n two rats fucking in a wool sock.

Yeesh! Hot and muggy is the way that sounds.

Update. Two hours later: The A/C guy has come and gone. Five minutes to replace a capacitor and a $250 charge. Weeze all in dah wrong bidnis.

The continuing Roster of Phrases I like:

  • Truth is stranger than fiction
  • Peace through superior firepower
  • Shut your freakin’ piehole
  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
  • Expect the worst, hope for the best
  • He’s so big he must go bear huntin’ with a switch
  • As big as your head
  • Better than a sharp poke in the eye
  • Piss or get off the pot
  • Tear him/her a new asshole
  • Put some mustard on it
  • Now you’re shittin’ in tall cotton
  • Raining to beat the band
  • Back-handed compliment (Damning with faint praise)
  • Hotter than a two dollar pistol
  • Brown as a berry

Contributions from readers and the Phrases They like:

  • Hottern’ two rats fucking in a wool sock (from the muddledrambler)
  • Gird your loins (from Mark C.)
  • Put your best foot forward (from Mark C, who actually dislikes this phrase, haha)
  • Grinnin’ like a fox eatin’ shit from a wire brush (from Mark L.)
  • This is a fine kettle of fish (from anonynurse)
  • Chile so hot it burns twice (from Fatman)

There oughta be a T-shirt:

  • Just because you thought it was funny doesn’t mean it is
  • Just because I’m short, doesn’t mean I look up to you
  • Just because I forgot what I’m doing, doesn’t mean I want your help
  • Just because I’m vegetarian, doesn’t mean I’m judging you

Phrases I don’t necessarily like, but find useful:

  • It ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity
  • No Such Thing As a Free Lunch
  • Once Bitten Twice Shy

Possible Tavern Names:

  • Revolve
  • The Mangy Cur
  • The Tolling Bell
  • The Brooding Raven
  • The Listing Lighthouse

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