Ruby Ramblings

Tuesday Teaser – Ella Minnow Pea
May 25, 2010, 4:04 pm
Filed under: Books

Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters

“Their offense? Each member in deliberate provocation of the High Island Council had marched single file into last Tuesday’s open session wearing cartoon masks and making loud duck sounds – sounds which any sentient Nollopian knows by now are forbidden – while holding aloft large cardboard containers of a certain recently outlawed brand of American oatmeal.”
– Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

I’m going to leave it up to Bybee to decide what has just been made illegal on the island of Nollop.

Tuesday Teasers are hosted by Should Be Reading.

Drizzly Saturday
May 24, 2010, 3:55 am
Filed under: Korea, Politics, Travel, War

It’s no surprise to me that a torpedo was found in the wreckage of the Cheonan ship that sunk a few weeks ago. Really, I didn’t believe it all when the news here was saying that it was an internal mechanical problem. I haven’t heard anyone talking about it here at all. Maybe it’s my neighborhood, or who I’m talking to, but life in my area hasn’t even blinked. My friends in the US, on the other hand, are practically calling a four alarm fire. I’ve gotten multiple messages and chat boxes asking what the atmosphere is like here. Apparently this is huge news back home. I don’t think people here are shocked, or even that interested, in the antics of the northern neighbor.

One of my military friends pointed out a feature in the skyline that I had noticed, but hadn’t thought about before. The tops of a lot of the high rise apartment buildings in the Seoul area, and even in my neighborhood in Incheon, are flat. I thought maybe it was solar technology or something, but I’ve been informed that they are actually helicopter landing pads. Whether for military or hospital use, I guess it depends on what’s going on at the time.

So on Saturday, while I was not being worried in the least about N. Korea, I went downtown to finally see the Steve McCurry exhibit at Sejong Center For the Arts. You know, the famous National Geographic cover “Unguarded Moment” of the young Afghani girl with the green eyes. That is just one of a truly amazing body of work from Afghanistan, Burma, Nepal, India, and an unbelievable photo from 9/11. It is kind of astounding that one of the world’s best photographers happened to be there at that moment to catch the essence of the tragedy.

There was a family of Americans behind me for most of the time I was in the museum and they were the classic example of why some Koreans don’t like foreigners. They were loud, obnoxious, and loudly presented their opinion on every piece with no regard for the fact that the museum was extremely crowded. The mom kept walking up to the placards, looking at the location of each photo, and then declaring it loudly in a tone of voice meant to convey that she knew the exact location of each photo by sight, not because she had rushed up to read it before the rest of her family got there. I finally managed to wiggle away from them and realized the photos were causing tears to come to my eyes, not the piercing sound of that woman’s voice.

There is a huge difference between my experiences as a child growing up in rural Maine with miles of woods to satisfy my whims, and rivers, streams, and of course the Ocean, to inspire the imagination. My students here grow up in a concrete jungle and even forays into nature in Korea are highly controlled and manicured. I think Seoul makes some good efforts to add some natural elements to one of the largest cities in the world, and the kiddos were taking full advantage during the rain on Saturday. I did find my adult mind wondering how their moms were going to get them home sopping wet on the subway.

I decided to take advantage of the handy-dandy little poll making thing that wordpress has. Sorry about the period instead of the question mark at the end of the poll question, but I’m not willing to recreate the poll to change it.

Lantern Festival Parade – Buddha’s Birthday
May 17, 2010, 4:33 pm
Filed under: Buddhism, Korea, Travel

I feel super lucky that my friend Talya thought to invite me to the Lantern Parade on Sunday. I had no idea it was happening, but it was perfect. We managed to score some seats in the “foreigner section” right up front too.

Taxi drivers showing Buddha spirit:

The highlight was the animated, fire-breathing lanterns. My camera ran out of battery before the dragons got to us, but I did manage to catch the elephant and the peacocks.

A House in Fez – Tuesday Teaser
May 11, 2010, 2:26 am
Filed under: Books


“Whole families were out for an evening stroll – children riding on their fathers’ shoulders, boys playing vigorous games of soccer, people stopping to greet one another and chat in the warm night air. This was what living in a city without cars meant.” pg. 10 A House in Fez by Suzanna Clarke

Interview with the author:

Video of some young westerners and the house they are living in:

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading.

April Reads
May 3, 2010, 3:53 pm
Filed under: Books

Same as last month – only six books, although pretty good quality. I did not finish any of the book club books, but, on a positive note, I have switched to Better World Books for my book buying links, which means my international friends can now click on books with cheap shipping. This is generally a much better deal for the few folks who do buy books from my blog, but, let me tell you, the embedding is a hell of lot more difficult than Amazon or Powell’s.

ClayClay: The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship by Suzanne Stoubach
For a former archaeology tech, this book was a fantastic mix of history, humor, and showed clear signs of the kind of obsessive personality that makes a good archaeologist and historian.

Good Omens
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Although I’m a fan of Gaiman, I’ve generally avoided Pratchett and the like. Although I do enjoy a good sci-fi or fantasty once in a while, I guess I’m kind of a snob about it. This was okay. Pretty funny, and I enjoyed the character of the young witch. Overall, I’m a little confused as to why it has reached the cult status that it has.

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai
If Good Omens is a parody of Armageddon, Hallabaloo is a parody of the Hindi Sadhu worship of India. A malcontent postal worker walk away from his job, and through a series of ridiculous events changes his life from the most lackluster of situations to becoming an aesthetic who sits in a tree commanding monkeys to do his bidding and telling fortunes. Somehow the population of the town never figures out that he knows everyone’s secrets because of his years of postal lobby gossip.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Kindle Version

I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up. Somehow, I missed all the book and subsequent movie hype. The former editor of French Elle has a massive stroke that leaves him in “locked-in” disease. His brain is perfect, but he can move nothing except for one eye-lid. The entire book is written by him blinking for which letters he needs. Which is why it is so short, but it is also gorgeous and extremely well thought out.

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriquez
Kindle Version

This books wins my vote for favorite of the month hands down. I saw the documentary based on this book ages ago, but I don’t remember that going as in depth to the author’s actual life in Afghanisstan. On the run from an abusive husband, Rodriguez gets swept up in a national charity campaign and ends up opening a school for women in Afghanistan to help them have independent means.

What surprised me most, and in some ways I could really strangely sympathize with, was when Rodriquez allowed her Afghani friends to arrange a marriage for her with a local man who was already married. She became the western 2nd wife to an Afghani who barely speaks English. I think the important thing about this book is that this is one of those places that people in the west think they know a lot about, but really the on ground experience is sure to be quite different.

green ghosts
From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe
I have been wanting to get my hands on this book for quite some time. By chance, a copy came up on bookmooch. It is a great book about an area that doesn’t have that much authentic narrative available. Thwe meets a man while waiting tables during university, and his life is changed. The book isn’t really about that though, it’s about his life in Burma before escaping to England and the rise of the military coup. He played a prominent part in the rebel resistance and tells an amazing story of jungle fighting, losing many friends, and refugee camps in Thailand.

I volunteered at a refugee camp on the edge of Burma in 2001. I didn’t really understand any of the politics at the time and this book brings to light the resilience of those kids even more than my memories.

Better World Books is collecting donations for books to rebuild libraries in Haiti.

Send books postage paid to:

Better World Books
Attn: Help Haiti
55740 Currant Rd.
Mishawaka, IN 46545

Please send only books in good condition. Note: Book donations are not tax deductible.

Walking Taipei and the Taipei 101 Building
May 2, 2010, 8:41 am
Filed under: Taiwan, Travel | Tags: , ,

At some point during the second day of my trip in Taipei, I realized the city is much smaller than it appears. After taking a little rest for the morning, I headed out on foot to find the next relic of my religious architecture tour. A mosque that was built in Taipei in 1960 and today serves as a worship place for the small number of Muslims living in Taipei, as well as a Chinese/Muslim cultural exchange center. I thought it was a lovely building, and it wasn’t a far walk from the hostel I was staying in at all.

When I got to the Mosque, I had a clear shot of the Taipei 101 building, another destination for the day, so I decided to walk there, just using the building as a guide. It ended up taking only a couple of hours to walk all the way across town. I’m really glad that I did it and had a few nice detours on the way. I stopped at a Sat./Sun. flea market that is one of those places that people who only stick the subway would never find. A parking lot for the surrounding businesses during the week, it turns into a great local wares market on the weekends. An older man who spoke fantastic English invited me to sit down for a cup of tea. It turned out he used to live in Texas for a few years, and was happy to meet a travelling American. We had a great conversation about Asian relations, teaching English in Taiwan, and a little comparison of Taiwan to Korea. He couldn’t help making a little jab at Korea when I mentioned how friendly I found Taiwanese people. “Korea is a colder place, so Korean people are a little bit colder.” I’m not sure if this is justifiable, but his small showing of Taiwanese loyalty was appreciated.

The warmer nature of Taiwan definitely shows in the landscape. The parks are filled with palm trees, and it was a good 15F warmer than Korea. The vegetation was completely different, and after hearing horror stories of what a crowded, industrial place Taipei is, I actually found it to be amazingly green and lush. They’ve done a lot of work to create gorgeous public spaces, and the hills surrounding the city were already completely green compared to the barely sprouting spring at home.

All over the city orchids hung from trees in front of the nicer arpartments.

Following the 101 building.

Considering how crowded Taipei is, it’s actually a much, much smaller city than Seoul. By some accounts Seoul is the second largest city in the world at 20 million people. But I almost never feel crowded in Seoul (well, except for yesterday, the Saturday holiday in Myeongdong – that was kind of nightmarish). It’s a spread out city that covers a huge geographical area. Taipei was a rather small city, and at less than 3 million isn’t that populated, but at a density of 10,000 people per square km, it feels a lot bigger. Seoul’s population density is less than half that at about 4,000 people per square km.

The Taipei 101 building is a feat of engineering. Taiwan gets frequent earthquakes (they had a 6.9 the morning after I left), and this is literally the only tall building in the city. But they didn’t build it to be the only tall building, until the Burj Dubai was finished last year, it was the tallest building in the world. (Korea has a Lotte World building in Busan planned that is proposed to be taller than Taipei 101, but shorter than then Burj Dubai). So much planning had to go into the anti-earthquake technology, that an entire Discovery documentary was done just on this building.

Don’t hate me for saying this, but my honest opinion of the 101 building is that it looks like a bunch of Chinese take-out boxes stacked up on top of each other. I had a great Indian food lunch in the international cafe on the basement floor of the building. One really nice thing is that there is a free shuttle bus from the 101 mall to the closest subway station (which to someone who just walked across the entire city, was not really all that close.)

Andrew Zimmerman’s show Bizarre Foods did an episode on Taiwan. It was cool to go back and watch this after I had been there. It’s always exciting to see an exotic street you’ve walked down on TV. There was a horrible, horrible rotting stench that existed on almost every food street. I assumed it was rotting trash, but I was informed that it is actually the smell of “stinky tofu” the national “treat” of Taiwan. A highly fermented half-rotten delicacy of tofu.

A tour of the food court in Taipei 101. There was actually a ton of Korean food.