Lehigh mug is lihai.

The Mandarin expression 厉害 (lìhài) means ‘awesome’ or ‘powerful’, among other things.

I heard the expression several times while watching Kung Fu Yoga, so when I next looked at this mug, I saw it in a whole new light, even though I’ve had it for years.

I toured the New Jersey plant belonging to Lehigh Press (a Von Hoffmann company) at some point when I was working in the production department of Princeton University Press (2005–2008).

The place was full of huge, expensive German printing machines and stacks and stacks of different kinds of paper.

The company printed the book cover (but I think not the pages) for some of our titles. They also printed Harry Potter book covers!

Before we left, they gave us some company-brand swag stuff like this mug, plus samples of things they’d printed with fancy techniques.

Lehigh Press closed down in 2008.

It was home to the country’s largest vacuum collator, an assembly-line machine that uses suction force to stack sheets of printed paper or plastic film in order.

That was awesome.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

I’d bet far more people have heard of this influential Chinese classic than have read it.

The military strategist to whom The Art of War is attributed is known in English as “Sun Tzu”, which I’m guessing most people pronounce like “sun zoo”, but which is actually supposed to be something more like “soon dzuh”. (The pinyin is Sun Zi, and the characters are 孙子.)

I’m a poor historian, so it’s hard for me to judge the impact of Sun Tzu’s text either on the battles of his own time or on those fought in the centuries since then. Its impact on the world of contemporary English-language publishing, however, is readily apparent thanks to the proliferation of books that bear titles such as The Art of War for ExecutivesThe Art of War for Small Business, and even The Art of War for Dating. Surely the work that inspired all these copycats is worth a look.

The edition I read is based on the 1910 translation by Lionel Giles, and contains his notes inserted directly in the text. The notes explain or expand on the advice in more detail or give examples from world history of the situations described, showing how the advice applies in specific instances.

Hannibal defeated the Romans because breakfast.

I found the translation suitably dignified but modern enough to sound sensible. The version I read (ISBN 9781444727364, 102 pages) was edited and has a foreword by James Clavell, author of Shogun and a series of other long, popular novels set in Asia.

Here are some links to free versions of The Art of War at gutenberg.org:

Click to read my post on The Art of War over at Asian Books Blog to find out what you need to know to decide whether you should bother, or how to talk about it even if you never do!

Meanwhile, China, realising that sometimes cultural products are famous for being famous, has attempted to capitalise on The Art of War by using its fame as a lure for tourists… and to buttress its image as a cooperative world power. It’s worth a try, I guess.

When and Why I Read The Art of War

Re-reading this classic for Asian Books Blog.

Genre: non-fiction (Chinese history, military strategy)
Date started / date finished:  03-Jul-17 to 14-Jul-17

The Bar Code Trilogy by Suzanne Weyn

There are some interesting dystopian sci-fi ideas in this trilogy. They sort of trail off into a kind of Childhood’s End–kind of human psychic evolution mysticism, though, which I think is a pity.

In the near future, albeit one that seems to lack smartphones, a giant corporation allied with government connections all over the world is starting to require adults to be tattooed with identifying bar codes that can be connected to bank accounts and medical records—for convenience, obviously. Nothing ominous about it! Right?

Except there is. The bar code seems to be the cause of personal disasters ranging from job loss and bankruptcy to madness and suicide.

The teen protagonist Kayla smells a rat. Can she withstand the pressure to conform and get the tattoo (which she needs if she wants to go to art school)? Will she go mad if she gets one? Do the resistance groups, whether violent or not, have any chance of success defending citizens’ right to choice? What is the corporation hiding? Why is the corporation looking for her specifically, and who’s that girl on TV who looks just like Kayla? How can anyone survive off the grid in a world where everyone is ID’d and tracked? What if experiments with human genes stand in the way of amazing natural evolutionary breakthroughs in human potential?

Read the series and find out.

It reminds me vaguely of the movie Gattaca, the television series Orphan Black, and the YA novel series Bzrk.

It’s frustrating that the third book and the first two are different sizes. I had no idea when I ordered the third book on Amazon that it wouldn’t be a match. I thought, Oh, my mistake, I ordered the wrong one. However, as far as I can tell, there is no edition of the book in the mass-market paperback size.

When and Why I Read The Bar Code Trilogy

Re-reading this trilogy now that I finally have the third book. Annoyingly, the third paperback is a different size.

Genre: fiction (young-adult sci-fi)
Date started / date finished:  08-Jul-17 to 11-Jul-17
Length: 719 pages
ISBN: 0439395623, 9780439803854, 9780545425308
Originally published in: 2004, 2006, 2012
Amazon link: The Bar Code Tattoo

The Ghost Who Bled by Gregory Norminton

I haven’t read many short stories, I think because I prefer immersion in long epics to skipping across a series of unrelated tales, especially when the tales are ambiguous rather than fully self-contained, but I enjoyed The Ghost Who Bled (or at any rate, parts of it) more than I expected to.

Check out the Asian Books Blog Q&A with Gregory Norminton.

When and Why I Read The Ghost Who Bled

So what IS a short story, anyway, apart from the obvious? Maybe I’ll learn something.

Genre: fiction (short stories)
Date started / date finished:  30-Jun-17 to 03-Jul-17
Length: 184 pages
ISBN: 9781905583560
Originally published in: 2017
Amazon link: The Ghost Who Bled

What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 by Tina Seelig

What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World tells you to follow your passion from Stanford or wherever into a career where you will work hard, work smart, think different, connect, innovate, and disrupt while proactively overcoming internal and external obstacles to your creativity and cheerfully treating each failure as a step towards success.

It’s every graduation-day, carpe-diem, Silicon Valley start-up cliche ever, and more cherry-picked inspiring anecdotes than two decades of Sunday sermons.

Change the world or go home! Heaven help you if you’re an introvert, or cautious and meticulous rather than bold and decisive, or if you have the slightest fondness for rules, hierarchies, or specific, well-defined goals. You’ll have to buy someone else’s crash course on making (or just finding) your place in the world. Like maybe Susan Cain’s.

Speaking of rules… Tina Seelig’s title breaks one. It should say “What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 20″. I thought maybe the error was the result of a decision made by the publisher for the sake of brevity; many people probably wouldn’t notice the error, but might be turned off by the clunkiness of a past perfect verb. However, the author (a Stanford University professor) uses the same phrasing at least twice in the acknowledgments, so I have to assume the wording is hers.

I can accept that the author’s specialty isn’t the nit-picky details of writing but some big-picture entrepreneurial stuff. Still, the publisher should have had a sensible copyeditor involved somewhere along the way. I’d like to think any copyeditor would have noticed. A good copyeditor would also have fixed the handful of typos I noticed. It’s a really short book. There shouldn’t be any.

Ah, well. Clearly I’m missing the point.

When and Why I Read What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20

… how to use past perfect verbs.

Genre: non-fiction (self-improvement, entrepreneurship)
Date started / date finished:  29-Jun-17 to 30-Jun-17
Length: 190 pages
ISBN: 9780032047410
Originally published in: 2009
Amazon link: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20

Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Reading Magic promotes the idea of teaching literacy from the top down rather than from the bottom up. The author believes parents and teachers should start with stories, then sentences, then words, then letters; that children who can sound out words in a book but who don’t understand them aren’t reading, but that children who tell a story using the pictures on the pages to make their own meaning are.

Although I don’t think Mem Fox is all wrong, I think she’s misguided.

I definitely believe parents should read to their children, and that amazing, wonderful, terrific things can and do happen when reading is part of the family routine. “Read to your kids” is a message that deserves to be shouted from the mountaintops, and to be listened to and enacted.

However, while it may be the case that literate, supportive families can immerse children in books to such an extent that some bookwardly inclined children learn to read effortlessly and joyfully—accidentally, even!—at age 3 or 4, that is not a helpful one-size-fits-all solution to the general problem of literacy instruction, and in particular, encouraging children to interact happily with texts until they get the hang of reading is not a practical strategy that teachers can implement in their classrooms. Teachers really are better off with “letter A makes a as in ‘apple’, letter T makes t as in ‘table’, and when you put A and T together, you get ‘at’.”

The tone of the book is self-congratulatory and anecdotal; there’s no science or statistics here, so I don’t feel there’s much reason I should believe what Mem Fox has to say, even if it sounded intuitively correct, which it doesn’t; in fact it contradicts my experience as a reading teacher.

For more on what I liked and disliked about the book and why, see below.

Continue reading Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Genome by Matt Ridley

Previously, I read Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist. This book, Genome, is no less sanguine about science, humans, and the future. Fascinating stuff, even if the completion of the mapping of the human genome is old news now. The scientific mysteries of 1999 are by no means all solved.

See below for what stood out and a list of related books as well as when and why I read this one.

Continue reading Genome by Matt Ridley

Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is (supposedly) a combination of memoir, genealogy, and historical fiction focusing on the enslaved African ancestor of black American author Alex Haley. While acknowledging the significance of this unprecedented, popular, and culturally important work, I must say I think it fails as a work of fiction.

I expected the book to be more like other historical epics I’ve read. Such works contain seeds of truth and the fruits of long hours of research, but are ultimately stories crafted to entertain, so they have a classic, recognizable rising-falling structure, or many such structures strung together or nested one inside the other.

While reading Roots, I kept trying to sniff out plot points, only slowly realizing that Roots is just a straightforward book chronicling people’s lives. People’s lives don’t have plots, unless you graft them on after the fact, and that’s not what Haley chose to do. You could say he “fictionalized” the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants, but the detail that he added was documentary rather than dramatic in style. From a structural standpoint, Haley’s massive work is little more than an 888-page list of who begat whom.

Sadly, if the accusations against Haley are true, the work also fails as non-fiction; the story may very well be less factual than he claimed.

See below for a summary, what stood out, and my thoughts on the authenticity of the novel.

Continue reading Roots by Alex Haley

I’ll Tell You Mine by Pip Harry

Clearly I need to read more Australian books. The vocabulary in I’ll Tell You Mine felt quite alien. I’d say everything (apart from “daggy”) is pretty clear from context, or from conversations I’ve had with Australians and New Zealanders I’ve met in Singapore.

Still, I had no idea until I looked it up why a truck would be called a “ute”. (It’s a strange word, one that would sound like Vinny in My Cousin Vinny saying “youth”.) The first time I saw “ute” on the page, it looked like a typo that was meant to be a longer word, or an acronym that was meant to be put in all caps, or at least a brand name that was meant to start with a capital letter. But no, “ute” is a word that’s short for “utility”. Apparently it refers to something that might be a pick-up truck or something like a cross between a normal car and a pick-up truck. Such vehicles are said to have “trays”. Learn something new every day.

Update: I have now been to Australia and seen a ute. Behold!

That is NOT a pickup truck. Also, it is NOT a car.

Other stuff that sounds weird to an American, even one with expat friends:

  • chemist (pharmacy)
  • lollies (any sweets or candies)
  • bogged (rather than “bogged down”)
  • pies (for savory meat pastries)
  • jumper (sweater)
  • to dob (to snitch or tell on someone)
  • schmick (new/stylish)
  • tatty (opposite of schmick)
  • living out of home (living away from home)
  • holidays (vacations)
  • cuppa (cup of presumably tea)
  • a chinwag (a chat)
  • a barbie (a barbecue grill, or the event)
  • brekkie (breakfast)
  • bikkie (biscuit, which might or might not be a cookie)
  • loos (bathrooms/restrooms)
  • mates (friends)
  • plaits (braids)
  • dodgy (sketchy)
  • pinboard (bulletin board, cork board)
  • tuckshop (snack bar/convenience store)
  • texta (permanent marker, like a Sharpie but not)
  • turps (turpentine, for cleaning off Sharpie writing)
  • shops (stores)
  • bathers, swimmers (bathing suit, swimsuit)
  • daggy (okay, I can’t really explain this one; ask Wikipedia)

I love the word “dodgy”, but I dislike all the Ozzie diminutives. I’ve pretty much stopped saying “vacations” since no one around me says it, and as I’ve mentioned, it’s getting harder for me to call a place where you buy something a “store”.

I’ve left out (or “missed out”) words relating to school stuff (Year Elevens), place names (Wagga Wagga), and sports (netball).

These days I don’t even notice most British spellings (organisation, centimetre, flavour), though “gaol” is still pretty strange.

I wish I’d kept a list of interesting words and expressions as I was reading the book. The list would be twice as long!

When and Why I Read I’ll Tell You Mine

This Australian author is in my YA writing group.

Genre: fiction (Young Adult)
Date started / date finished:  28-May-17 to 29-May-17
Length: 254 pages
ISBN: 9780702239380
Originally published in: 2012
Amazon link: I’ll Tell You Mine