The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling

This book is alive and kicking after more than sixty years, so it must be popular with kids… but to an adult reader, The Chocolate Touch is not going to come across as subtle. In any way whatsoever.

John Midas (yes, like King Midas who turned everything to gold) eats too much candy. And it’s not just that, he’s selfish about it, too. So he gets a magical come-uppance by means of a mysterious coin that he spends in a mysterious store on a mysterious box of chocolates containing only one chocolate that makes everything he puts to his mouth turn to chocolate—including, as you might guess from this spectacularly badly chosen cover illustration, his mother. Then he repents and all is well again. (Didactic, much?)

The bright spot is this line spoken by John’s teacher Miss Plimsole in English class: “The more words you know, the more exactly you can think.” True dat.

But then the vocabulary words for the day are ‘avarice’, ‘indigestion’, ‘acidity’, ‘unhealthiness’, ‘moderation’, and ‘digestibility’. Hm. Do you think these words might be related to the book’s message at all? Even the character notices! “[I]t seemed to John as though they all had a special bearing on his present uncomfortable condition.” Sigh.

Then there are the names: John Midas, Doctor Cranium, Mrs. Quaver (the music teacher), Susan Buttercup (a classmate and friend with yellow curls). I am rolling my eyes.

Still, I think the book does a great job of conveying how the boy feels about chocolate, how he feels when the magic starts to happen, how he feels when it starts to go bad, how he feels as it gets worse, and how he feels when the crisis is over.

When and Why I Read It

Bought it at a thrift store in Colorado because I remembered reading it or at least seeing it when I was younger.

Genre: illustrated children’s chapter book
Date started / date finished:  03-Jul-16 to 03-Jul-16
Length: 87 pages
ISBN: 0553152874 (1984 paperback)
Originally published in: 1952
Amazon link: The Chocolate Touch

Related Books

I like Edward Eager’s 1950s ordinary-kids-with-magic-gone-wrong stories better. And the 1900s ones by Edith Nesbit, too, for that matter. And maybe I should revisit the (out-of-print) books of Scott Corbett, which I remember from the public library in my neighbourhood, where they sat next to Ruth Chew’s endearing matter-of-fact magic books.

And for chapter books about kids in school, I prefer Andrew Clements of Frindle fame.

Hey, look! This year the Edward Eager books are being reissued! This pleases me for two reasons: it means the books are still selling, and it means they’ve redone the cover illustrations. (I didn’t like the Quentin Blake ones, because they make me think of Roald Dahl, whom I don’t like.)

T’ung Shu: The Ancient Chinese Almanac

T’ung Shu: The Ancient Chinese Almanac is not the almanac itself, but rather an explanation and sample of what is in the almanac, a yearly publication with hundreds of years of history in Chinese culture.

My copy of this explanatory book is a quality hardcover with printing in both red ink and black ink on some pages. See below for what stood out, and when and why I read it.

I’ve never bought a copy of the actual almanac, though I’m sure it’s available in Singapore. Here’s an online version: http://www.dragon-gate.com/tool/almanac/

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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Amazingly innovative, Cloud Atlas is a book that’s hard to describe and even harder to put down. I didn’t like it, but I absolutely think you should read it because it’s that interesting.

The (presumably rather Westernized) Buddhist themes of reincarnation and interconnectedness didn’t really bother me, though I prefer their opposites, transience and individuality. I think the movie scores better on individuality: there’s maybe as much emphasis on the line, “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” as there is on “Our lives are not our own; we are bound to others, past and present.” In both the book and the movie, the nature of truth is a major theme, and one I like.

In the book (but not the movie), two of the six protagonists were rather despicable, and the book’s view of humanity is bleak: the message seems to be that we keep repeating the same mistakes and don’t deserve a civilization, since we keep wrecking it in various ways, heroes notwithstanding.

For a kind of overview and more on what I thought including SPOILERS, keep reading, but only if you’ve read the book or don’t intend to.

Also see my post on the movie Cloud Atlas (2012).

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Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None) by Agatha Christie

I don’t like murder mysteries because I don’t enjoy contemplating early deaths. Any justice achieved at the end of the story is rather after the fact for at least one victim. And Then There Were None is no exception.

However, in part because it is the celebrated work of a celebrated author, I’m not sorry I read it. For more thoughts on the the book (no big spoilers), see below.

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Cheap used books from Colorado

I purposely did not go in any used bookstores while I was in the U.S. (though I admit I was tempted). Still, somehow I wound up returning from Denver to Singapore with these 21 used books. I bought them at two thrift stores where I went to buy pants. (Trousers? Whatever.)

These books cost me less than US$23.00 in total. (For the sake of comparison, note that the website of the most prominent bookstore in Singapore, Kinokuniya, lists new copies of the hardcover Four for the equivalent of about US$19.00.)

From a content standpoint, the book I’m most excited about is probably the psychology textbook. From a collecting standpoint, I’m most excited about Wolf Wing and the Percy Jackson books, because they match books I already own.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Concluding remarks by George Murray Smith, the editor of The Cornhill Magazine, in which the installments of the unfinished novel Wives and Daughters were first published serially:

While you read any one of the last three books we have named [i.e, Wives and Daughters, Cousin Phillis, and Sylvia’s Lovers], you feel yourself caught out of an abominable wicked world, crawling with selfishness and reeking with base passions, into one where there is much weakness, many mistakes, sufferings long and bitter, but where it is possible for people to live calm and wholesome lives; and, what is more, you feel that this is at least as real a world as the other. The kindly spirit which thinks no ill looks out of her pages irradiate; and while we read them, we breathe the purer intelligence which prefers to deal with emotions and passions which have a living root in minds within the pale of salvation, and not with those which rot without it.

In other words, it is a book well worth reading. For more on what stood out, when and why I read it, and related works, see below.

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The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen

Andrew Keen’s rant, The Cult of the Amateur, is, like all rants, intellectually undermined by its angry tone. The book contains a substantial amount of scorn and Chicken Little–style alarmism, with, unsurprisingly, a dash of nostalgia for the good old days.

Nevertheless, the book has real polemical value insofar as it raises awareness of quality and the expertise required to achieve it.

If you want to hear more about this book from an expert reader (and amateur reviewer), keep reading.

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The Origins of Chinese Characters by Wang Hongyuan

Ever wondered what etymology is like in the Chinese language?

It’s like this.

origins-of-chinese-characters-interior

So, is Chinese ‘pictographic’?

Well, does the ‘zhōng’ in ‘Zhōngguó’ (‘China’) look like part of a sundial? Because that’s what it is.

Drawing of a pole with some decorative streamers. The pole was placed in the center of a circle or dial so that a shadow cast by the sun on a calibrated dial could measure solar time—much like the gnomon or style of a sundial.

So yeah, ‘zhōng’ means ‘middle’ (as in ‘middle kingdom’), but it’s not because the line passes through the middle of the box. Rather, it’s because the whole stick thing (which has lost its notably asymmetrical streamers) is in the middle of a sundial.

I don’t know enough Chinese to benefit much from this book, but here and there I found something interesting, and the whole things reinforces the idea that the Chinese writing system is old, old, old. Examining how the characters evolved is like looking back in time. Reading the book made me feel like an archaeologist holding up a burning torch to peer at mysterious lines scrawled on the walls of a cave. The oldest characters embody the basic concepts of the society in which they were invented: food and shelter, war, birth and life and death…

When and Why I Read It

It was a gift to me from my husband’s parents years ago (sometime between 2003 and 2005). At the time, it was even more over my head than it is now, so it just sat there.

Frankly, I’m shocked that it’s still in print. It’s even got three reviews on Amazon. And since it’s selling at at a moderate price and a 15% discount, it’s not one of those print-on-demand inventory items.

Genre: Non-fiction (language, Chinese)
Date started / date finished:  22-Mar-16 to 11-May-16
Length: 200 pages
ISBN: 7800522431 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1993
Amazon link: The Origins of Chinese Characters

A Complaint Free World by Will Bowen

A Complaint Free World claims it can change readers’ lives and make the world a better place. And maybe to some extent it can and it has. But I’ve heard this kind of claim before. Every other self-help book takes its mission just as seriously. No matter how successful any one book is, or even how much I agree with a book’s message, the claim always sounds overblown.

I guess the thing to keep in mind is that the real value of a self-help book is not just in the core ideas it contains but in the way those ideas are explained and embedded in a compelling story that speaks to you.

Did this book speak to me? In a word, no. It does have a couple of good ideas, but there were a lot of bad ideas in there, too. Read below to find out what parts of the book I saw as valuable and what parts were not suited to my taste.

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Two Travelogues by Guy Delisle

There’s a huge difference in style (as well as size) between the Guy Delisle book about Shenzhen and the Guy Delisle book about Jerusalem. In the Shenzhen book, the drawings are darker and fuzzier like pencil or charcoal sketches, whereas the drawings in the Jerusalem book are very clean, with splashes of color added.

I think part of the reason is the separation in time between the books. The Shenzhen book was published in 2006 about a trip in 1997, and the Jerusalem book was published in 2012 about a trip in 2008.

In terms of content, I think I enjoyed the Shenzhen book more. China feels frustrating and foreign… but you’d expect it to. Jerusalem feels if anything more frustrating, since in theory it’s less foreign. The ongoing conflicts there involve the political ideologies and religions of the West. In reading this book, I realized I know very little about those conflicts…

As always, I admire the artist’s nonchalance in the face of daunting situations, and his ability and willingness to transmit his experiences to us in words and pictures. Sometimes the episodes depicted are funny and sometimes they’re not, but they are eye-opening.

More on when and why I read the books below.

Continue reading Two Travelogues by Guy Delisle