Saturday, January 31, 2009

78 (2009 #3). Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar…

by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein,
read by Johnny Heller

Subtitled Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, I picked up this audiobook at the library because the title intrigued me. It’s an attempt to make various philosophical perspectives and principles more accessible through jokes. It wasn’t entirely successful. It may have been due to the audiobook format (I learned with a couple of Stephen Hawking books that science and audiobooks don’t mix well for me) making it hard to concentrate on the philosophy. Or, as indicated by some reviews on Amazon, it may be more that many of the jokes don’t really illustrate the philosophical concepts they are supposed to clarify.

I enjoyed listening to the audiobook. Narrator Johnny Heller, a stand-up comedian, used varying accents for different jokes, and I always had a couple really funny ones I could tell my husband each day (it took me four days to listen to this audiobook during my commute). However, many of the jokes were old ones and/or really weren’t that funny, and some were either not politically correct or were a bit smutty. I thought about buying this book for my dad for his upcoming 80th birthday because he was a philosophy major, but for the same reason, I’ve decided not to. In sum – I don’t regret listening to this book, but I don’t think it accomplishes its stated purpose, and I can’t really recommend it to anyone else.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

77 (2009 #2). The Bad Girl

by Mario Vargas Llosa,
translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman

The main character in this novel, Ricardo Somocurcio, is obsessed with a woman he first meets as the “Chilean girl” Lily in his native Peru in 1950. She reappears in the early 60s in Paris as guerrilla-fighter-in-training “Comrade Arlette.” She goes to Cuba where she becomes the lover of a Cuban revolutionary commander and later the wife of French diplomat Robert Arnoux and winds up back in Paris. She steals his money and later turns up in swinging London in the late 60s and early 70s, as Mrs. David Richardson, the Mexican wife of a rich English horse fan. Leaving him when she’s found to be a bigamist, she turns up in Tokyo in 1979 as Kuriko, mistress and smuggler for the sadistic gangster Fukuda.

Ricardo keeps running into her in his job as a translator and interpreter based in Paris. The “love story” of this “bad girl” with “good boy” Ricardo is secondary to the story of Ricardo’s life in these places as well as in Lima, Madrid, and Paris again in the 80s. Throughout it all, Ricardo comments on the politics and history of Peru (not surprisingly, Peruvian Llosa has been active in his country’s government through the years).

The love story is fascinating but not particularly believable. Ricardo must be a masochist (he once dubs her “my praying mantis”), to put up with the abusive treatment he gets from the bad girl who repeatedly calls him a “little pissant” [sic] who says “cheap, sentimental things” to her. Ricardo’s fixation on her reminds me of Florentino Ariza's fifty-year obsession for Fermina Daza in Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, but without the magical realism. He tries to move on with his life, but doesn’t really change or develop. The bad girl shows some redeeming qualities by the end of the book, and there is some explanation for why she might be the way she is. I found the minor characters, Ricardo’s various friends and relatives, to be the most interesting and better evolved.

This was not an easy read – the chapters were few but extremely long. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the descriptions of the various locales and events of the times, and yes, the rather graphic sexual scenes. I found myself looking forward to the next appearance of the bad girl to find out what would happen next in hers and Ricardo’s crazy relationship. And I love the book’s cover!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

76 (2009 #1). The Cat Who Went to Heaven

by Elizabeth Coatsworth

This 1931 Newbery winner is a short novella about a poor Japanese artist who adopts a cat he names Good Fortune. The artist is commissioned to paint a picture of the death of Buddha. The cat brings good fortune to the artist and in the end is rewarded by becoming a part of the painting.

Elizabeth Coatsworth was inspired to write this book by her travels in Asia. According to her editor and Vassar classmate, Louise Seaman Bechtel, in her essay “From Java to Maine with Elizabeth Coatsworth” in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955 (Boston, Horn Book Inc., 1955, pp. 94-98), Coatsworth said:
Its main inspiration was the Buddhist temples of Borobodur, in Java, a magnificent carved stupa, standing, scarcely in ruins, in a plain surrounded by volcanoes. Among the many carvings on its terraces are some of the animal rebirths of Buddha, which very much took my imagination. Many years later, in the Pasadena Library, I was to read translations of the rebirths and string them together on the thread of a Japanese legend which we had been told in a Kyoto temple, one day in the enchanted October of 1916. Later, Tom Handforth* sent me a print, which, like the temple scroll, showed a cat coming to mourn the death of Buddha. It was unusual to see a cat among the other animals. These things lay, with a thousand other impressions, long in my mind, and happened to be the ones I could use.

[*As an aside: Tom Handforth is probably Thomas Scofield Handforth (1897–1948), an American artist and etcher who wrote and illustrated the 1939 Caldecott Medalist Mei Li about his personal experiences in China.]

The animal rebirth stories would be the Jataka, fables Buddha originally told to his disciples to illustrate his teachings. Like Aesop, each tale features animal characters, as well as an incarnation of the Buddha from an earlier life, usually as an animal himself. These amusing parables embody some of the central tenets of Buddhist principles of wisdom, heroic action, nonviolence and compassion. Other stories are from the Buddha’s life or other sources.

The snail (pp. 21-22) comes from “The Snail Martyrs” (scroll down to that section of the web page), a story that explains Buddha’s hair curls. The elephant tale (p. 24) can be found at the website Himalayan Art, which has translations of Jataka tales from Tibet.

Kanthaka (p. 26) was the favorite horse of Prince Siddhartha, who later became the Buddha, while the tale about the horse who captured seven kings (pp. 26-28) is this one, "Siddhartha and the swan (p. 31) is in a number of places; I also found it in Buddhist Stories (2006, pp. 9-10) by Anita Ganeri.

The buffalo story (p. 34) appears to be "The Ox Who Won the Forfeit" from Jataka Tales: Animal Stories retold by Ellen C. Babbitt and published in 1912. I can see how a water buffalo and an ox might be confused.

The story about the dog Shippeitaro (pp. 36-37) can be found in Mary F. Nixon-Roulet’s Japanese Folk-Stories and Fairy Tales (1908). The deer tale(pp. 43-44) is “The Banyan Deer”, also from Babbitt’s 1912 Jataka Tales.

After this story, Coatsworth mentions a number of other animals that “in each of them the spirit of the Buddha had at one time lived, or it had rendered service to him when he was a prince on earth” (p. 46). Many of the tales of these animals – the woodpecker, the lion and hawks, the goose with golden feathers, and the wise goat and the wolves, can be found in Babbitt’s 1922 More Jataka Tales. The story about “the hare who jumped into the frying pan of the beggar” can be found in Eastern Stories and Legends, by Marie L. Shedlock, published in 1920.

The monkey or ape story (pp. 46-48) appears to be “The Story of the Great Ape,” which can be read in The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha by Dr C. B. Varma, a multimedia collection based on the digital collections of the Indira Ghandi National Centre for the Arts in India.

The reference about the tiger (p. 51) is from The Light of Asia, Book 2, by Edwin Arnold, originally published in 1879.

And what about the cat? On the Laws of Japanese Painting: An Introduction to the Study of the Art of Japan by Henry P. Bowie, published in 1911, has this to say on page 97:
Shaka’s [a Japanese term for Buddha] death is commemorated in the picture called NEHAN, nirvana. The lord, Buddha, is stretched upon a bier tranquilly dying, an angelic smile lighting his countenance, while around are gathered … the different animals of creation, all weeping. A rat having gone to call Mayabunin, mother of Buddha, has been pounced upon by a cat and torn to pieces. For this reason in paintings of this moving scene of Shaka’s death no cat is to be found among the mourning animals. The artist Cho Densu, however, in his great painting of NEHAN (still preserved in the Temple To Fuku Ji at Kyoto) introduces the portrait of a cat. It is related that, while Cho Densu was painting, the cat came daily to his side and continually mewing and expressing its grief, would not leave him. Finally Cho Densu, out of pity, painted the cat into the picture and thereupon the animal out of joy fell over dead.

Similarly, in her book Cat (2006) Katharine M. Rogers writes (on pages 28 and 30):
In Buddhist folklore, a rat was sent for medicine to cure the Buddha when he was mortally ill, but it could not fulfil [sic] its mission because a cat seized and ate it on its way. In another version, the cat was the only animal not overwhelmed with awe when the Buddha was passing into Nirvana: it was too intent on eyeing the rat.

And on page 75:
a cat came regularly to sit by the famous late medieval artist Cho Densu in the monastery Tofuko-ji, where he was painting an enormous picture of the entrance of Buddha into Nirvana. One day he ran short of ultramarine blue, and he joked to the cat, "If you would be good enough to procure for me the mineral [lapis lazuli] powder that I need, I will portray you in this painting of Nirvana.” The next day, the cat not only brought him some powder but showed him where an ample supply could be found. In recompense, the artist included the cat in his composition, and thereby improved its moral reputation throughout the country. This rehabilitation was important, because in Buddhist tradition the cat was often disparaged as impious for showing disrespectful unconcern when Buddha ascended into Nirvana.

From all this, I would say Coatsworth’s book is well-researched and true to the cultures it is trying to portray, blending Buddhist folklore and Japanese legend she first learned about on her own travels. Perhaps calling it “The Cat Who Went to Nirvana” would have been more politically correct, but I believe the book is more accessible to children with its present title.

The cat on the cover is probably a Japanese bobtail, which are “considered symbols of good fortune in Japan.”

[Also posted at The Newbery Project and referred to by PaperTigers blog.]