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31 January 2012

'The Big Book of Being Rude' by Jonathon Green

I recently rediscovered this book in the detritus of my closet.  I had bought it as a gift for someone, can't remember whom and obviously, can't remember when.  So I put it in the best place to peruse this kind of book, the bathroom.  It is an exceptionally long list (7000) of insults covering several centuries, most continents and every type of person or group imaginable; no censorship, no apologies.

Every time I open it at random I have a great laugh.  I am also receiving an education which my mother will argue is redundant, given my own personal history and habits.  Most truly interesting words or phrases I cannot repeat here, but a few, well...  For instance, I just found out that a derogatory term (amongst many) for  psychiatrists is "squirrel", apparently they collect nuts.  That gave something to think about, in the bathroom, if you take my meaning.  Under what circumstances would anyone use this term?
                "My mom needs to see a squirrel to relax."
                "The squirrel yawned while I was talking."
                "Will our insurance cover a squirrel? or would she accept walnuts?"
So forth and so on.

Moreover, there are some insults that only sound beautiful in the accent of origin.  Try getting someone to curse if they are true Cockney's or from Edinburg.  Then we have some wonderful retorts and phrases that work if you are from Perth, Australia.  I should mention in passing that the inhabitants of Australia as a group are creative as well as hilarious in their insults.  Context is important for disparaging effectively but accent, turn of phrase and or attitude makes it unforgettable.  Here is an example: how do you sound if you call someone "Blooming six foot of tripe" with a Texas accent instead of English?  The phrase, if you are curious, is a 19th century term for a large policeman, it means "six feet of nonsense".  It does not work with the wrong accent, if you tried it out loud everyone within hearing thinks you are insane, but I bet you are smiling.

I have not yet read every insult in the book as just the section on "bollocks" was overwhelming but I look forward to going to the bathroom these days, if only to try some words out loud in the only place in the house where I can lock the door.

ISBN: 9780304355143

14 January 2012

'Dearly Devoted Dexter' by Jeff Lindsay

I thought this series looked a little different from average thrillers and a light read.  It turned out to be a fun book ( and series so far, this is book 2).  It is a real escape in the best sense of the word.  Another person's mind is as far away as an alien planet;  Dexter's is indeed so far gone, phrases like "event horizon" come to mind.  I have never seen the show so I do not know how it translates on to the screen.  In writing, the jokes are as funny as they are macabre.  A serial killer that only kills serial killers is intriguing, the warped humor is a plus.  It is not an especially difficult or deep book.  On the other hand, I like the risk the author took with such an anti hero.

I was surprised to find the book cathartic.  Most mothers and a lot of decent, virtuous people never the less fantasize about busting a ring of criminals and dispensing suitable, occasionally creative amounts of justice.  To live in a moral world governed by consistent laws (we are lucky) and to be moral beings that voluntarily abide by these laws means that we do not blow up or torture drug pushers, pedophiles, etc.  We trust (hope) that we can bring them to justice with our laws and humanist ideals.  Unfortunately, we know that many murderers never get caught.

Ok, so now a book describes a serial killer who has been taught by a moral (but frustrated) policeman to channel his violent, conscience free inner nature and help make this world a better place.  Dexter goes after other serial killers and prides himself on the quality of his work.  The jokes are good because we sympathize with Dexter, which is weird and then see life through his eyes, which is weirder.

People's emotions and therefore motivations are a mystery to Dexter.  It feels to me that Dexter views people the way I view an iPhone; what goes on inside may as well be magic.  People speak volumes with looks and body language.  Dexter can only imitate not understand.  The situations and occasional misunderstandings are great.  Lindsay does a hilarious job of reminding the reader about points of view, degrees of morality, and justice as an abstract concept as opposed to a sharp (and pointy) reality.

ISBN: 9780752877884

10 January 2012

'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen

Years before I saw the BBC production of this book, Mrs. Bennett's voice was distinct, clear and annoying in my head.  I was relieved to hear the same voice in the mini series.  Jane Austen had absolutely conveyed a character; her job is so well done that we still enjoy her stories 200 years later.  The book itself is one of my favorites.

At first, of course, Elizabeth had my attention and she often still does.  She embodies the wit, charm and strength of character I wish I had had in combination at her age ("not yet one and twenty").  Moreover she has the most unbelievable patience with her mother.  Talk about embarrassing parents, Mrs. Bennett is the blue print for all the rest of us.  The behavior displayed by Mrs. Bennett (and even occasionally Mr. Bennett) causes Elizabeth and her sister, Jane, material harm... for a time.  Lose tongues and no brains have sadly not remained in the 19th century.

Jane Austen's ability to create unique characters that are familiar and recognizable make her books special and enjoyable even in the age of smart phones.  Human nature has not changed, so what we communicate has not changed, only how.  We all know one of those people who move through life a la Lydia Bennett, selfish and ignorant, who never the less have luck in life (or more luck than we think they deserve).  Nothing happens to make them believe that their behavior will not continue to get them what they want.  Often a husband, father or sister has had to fix, pay or apologize but rarely are the Lydias of this world held personally accountable.  Why though?  Maybe it is our own laziness.  I do not want to have that kind of fight or discussion.  Three different characters speak to Lydia about her thoughtless behavior without causing a moment of hesitation or conscience on her part.  Jane Austen does not get frustrated.  She has a laugh; this is the way of the world, she seems to say, why not laugh about it and get on with your life, like Elizabeth and Jane, things will work out for you as well.

Other characters are equally interesting.  Sir William Lucas is inoffensive and friendly.  The author has a laugh with him as well.  He asks polite questions and receives loaded answers.  There is one in every group.  That one person who is friendly and innocent of whatever the circumstances are, but puts his or her foot in it quite regularly?  This book is full of character studies.  I read Pride and Prejudice about once a year, if not then another of Jane Austen's novels instead. Her books are always fresh because I can focus on other things aside from the obvious story.

The Mrs. Bennetts in my life (yes I have more than one) make me insane when we are in the same room.  Contrary to my ironic instincts, laughing at someone like Mrs. Bennett can be considered cruel.  I was caught laughing once.  Jane Austen must have been quite brave or quite certain that no one ever associates themselves with the irritating, ignorant, selfish, officious or stupid.  You are more likely to sympathize with Hannibal Lecter than think that you are truly the most boring patient your therapist has.  Jane Austen's joke is on us, the readers, who are clearly Elizas and Darcys all.

ISBN: 9781853260001

07 January 2012

Embarrassing Parenting

Teenagers are notoriously embarrassed. They will be embarrassed if we are breathing, standing some ten meters from them. And lets be clear on this: They are embarrassed by us, the parents. There are different degrees of embarrassing, according to my son, an expert. What I am trying to point out is that parenting books so very rarely mention this phenomenon. I have read several books on the topic of parenting and raising children. Parents or parents-to-be are given plenty of advice; do’s and don’ts, as well as encouragement. It all boils down to love, patience, attentiveness, consistency, humor and no small amount of courage. Nevertheless, no page said “YOU WILL EMBARRASS YOUR CHILD.”

My husband and I are still happily married, which in this day and age should be a source of pride. We’ve stuck long enough to each other to be parents to teenagers: our teenagers. We are publicly affectionate i.e. we hold hands in public and go out to lunch together because we feel like it. This is profoundly embarrassing for my teenager. No clue why this is and I have asked him. It is ten times worse though if I try to hold his hand instead. At first I ignored him but then I noted some important correlations between the level of embarrassment and the behavior of the teenager, and not just my teenager. 

Acute embarrassment makes them stop communicating and not just at that moment. They do not wish to communicate a difficult topic and absolutely do not want your embarrassing reaction to a difficult topic. Ever asked your child if he or she needs condoms? Some children stop talking to their parents almost completely. Moreover the teenager then has feelings of shame and guilt. Not even a teenager wants to be embarrassed by his parents, especially when he can not explain why to himself, never mind his parents. Then of course, there are degrees of embarrassment. No matter how cool you think you are, the only children that think you are cool are other people’s children, with luck. 

My own memories of embarrassing moments are coupled with shame as I now feel there was no need. On the other hand, my mother asked me quite loudly at my school once if I was ashamed of her, because I kept walking away. That was so embarrassing. I now know asking almost anything out loud is a mistake. As a 20 year old friend, who has a good relationship with her mother, told me ‘sometimes she doesn’t take the hint to just go!’ Timing (as in outstaying a welcome) as well as privacy are important to socially hyper aware teenagers. Sometimes parents tell me that their children should have nothing to hide from them. But that is not the point. Kids just want to talk to kids about ‘you know, stuff’. God knows I have nothing to hide from my kids but I still like some privacy. In fact, some conversations I still do not share with my parents. 

Parenting guides often advice ‘taking an interest’ in your children’s activities. "Keep lines of communication open and listen to your children." But this advice can be taken to an extreme. I know a few parents who actively chose and monitor or organise all their teenager’s activities. Conversations with friends are often joined (because they want to get to know the teenager’s friends) and permission to go out as well as money are tightly controlled. Some of these same teenagers constantly sneak out of the house, take money out of their mother’s wallet and avoid her if they happen to be at the same school or sports event. Some of this behavior may or may not be due to too much parenting but funny enough, their biggest complaint is of being embarrassed by their compulsively interested parents. As an example, I know a mother who joins her sons at a table full of teenagers in spite of vocal pleas from her sons to leave them in peace. 

Permission and money are always topics that cause disagreements, but I do need to know where he is going, with whom and when he thinks he will be back. As for the money, he receives a monthly allowance and has to learn to live with it. Just like the rest of us. With regards to the activities, he can choose a sport or a club he enjoys. I like to know who his friends are but do not force them to talk to me every time I spot them. I must add, with some pride, that I rank quite low on the embarrassing parents scale according to my son’s friends. When I entered a pizza place I greeted my son and friends and then sat clear across the restaurant with my other child. If I desperately need to know if he needs Clearasil, I text him. He answers quickly (as he is checking his phone every two minutes) and it is far less embarrassing than asking.

How can I differentiate between general teenage embarrassment, which is not just towards me but also concerns their own pimples and the state of their hair, from say, embarrassing him by asking in front of his friends if he still needs that Clearasil? My son can not help me on this one. He has assured me that the reason I happen to be embarrassing is that I exist on the same continent. But I am sure I could pull it off across continents as well if I put a bit of effort into it.