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Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Reading: Literature vs. Pedigree-Free Books

In Books, Writing on December 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm
Magical Children's Books...

Magical Children’s Books…

I firmly believe that readers are born the minute they are gifted with a book that speaks to them. As a child, I remember being captivated by books about mermaids, kids who lived ‘alone’ (Pippi Longstocking), heartbreaking Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales (The Little Match Girl) and anything with animals who wore clothes, furnished the hollow insides of trees and spoke.

Once I escaped  into a good book, and deduced there were thousands more out there- as yet unread- I knew I’d found the key that would unlock doors to worlds I would otherwise never experience. As I grew older, I remained a voracious reader, and am, to this day, rarely without a book (or ten!) Truth be told, I don’t know how people who don’t read even get through life!

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I’ve always had what I call a ‘book sense’- I can sniff out a book I’d like from a mile away. The cover art, the blurbs, the whole ‘feel’ of a book, all add up to an inkling that is usually on target. This isn’t to say that I stay within my comfort zone all of the time. As David Foster Wallace was so fond of saying ‘good reading is sometimes hard reading’ and I do flex my reading and vocabulary skills to keep them sharp. Sometimes I read four or five pages of my thesaurus, which is helpful for both reading and writing. I sometimes read to learn about a particular subject. The thought of a reading list is ludicrous to me- who could ever run out of books to read, and who (good lord!) needs Oprah to tell them what to read? I can steer my own ship, thankyouverymuch! (And Oprah, just because you stand next to a book, or read it, you shouldn’t get credit for the author’s precious ideas!)

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I often wonder how many potential readers were turned off to reading by the books they were assigned in school. I loved a lot of the  reading we did- ‘The Cricket In Times Square’, ‘Charlottes Web’,”Black Beauty’, ‘Aesop’s Fables’ in elementary school, ‘Go Ask Alice’,  ‘The Outsiders’,’Watership Down’ and ‘Catcher In The Rye’ in middle school.  But there were others- the so-called ‘literature’ that turned me off- that somehow turned reading into a chore, especially in high school.  The Greek tragedies, the Romans.. Chaucer, Moby Dick…Don’t get me wrong. I get it (good reading isn’t always easy) but to me- if I wasn’t engaged, what was the point?

I just didn’t feel anything for these people and their (often) privileged angst and formal manner. The assignments that went along with these books were a constant interrogation- endless discussions and tests which graded my interpretation (there was always a ‘right’ answer for how I should have  ‘thought’ about these stories and writers. My thoughts and takeaways aren’t governed by mimeographed test sheets) If I could be turned off to reading (my favorite ‘sport’) by these books, god help the kids that didn’t like to read in the first place.

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Who decides what worthy reading is? Who were the reading connoisseurs who decided what is good for us all? Schools believe we have to ‘prove’ we can ingest these works, but what makes them superior to other (more relevant) writing? It seems if writing is complicated and difficult, and reading a particular book is a chore, then one is rewarded with the gold star of having gotten through it. As though they survived a battle. Which they did, in my humble opinion. Why would it be such a crime to tailor reading to what someone might actually enjoy, a book that would set them on a reading path that may eventually lead them to the classics willingly, up for the challenge?

So much ‘snooty’ literature- that which are discussed over the finest of wines and moldiest of cheese, are tales of morality and woe -are lessons, if you will. Tales of those who had it ‘all’ (superficially) and one day gave into their human desires- be it lust, greed, cruelty, gluttony….People who wear masks for so long, the sweat drips down their faces, the elastic binds their skulls until -whoosh!-they snap! And (usually) reveal their ‘human-ness after all! (shocker!) -as if anyone believed for a second that they were anything but.

These books are being read at all of the ‘good schools’, by the children of inherited wealth, as they were read by their parents, and their parents before them. Books, filled with warnings and red flags, leather-bound books that line their private libraries (first editions!) Yet-somehow- no one sees themselves on the page. For people who consider themselves to be educated (though one must point out: never confuse education with intelligence) it is an amazing oversight. These stories present the foibles of man, but seem to speak to no one man in particular in these dens of the upper class.

The very people who brag about ‘literature’ they’ve read, are often committing the very same morality crimes themselves- for money or pleasure. They still fall on the same swords themselves, ne’er the wiser! Obviously, there is a disconnect between the reader and what they read! I want to scream: these are not instruction manuals! If they speak so deeply, why does no one seem to listen? Or better yet: did they really read them?

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I like to think of the books that I have read and enjoyed, and the things I’ve (happily) learned from them. To look below the surface of a person, that our experiences are often universal, that humor is gold, that you should treat others as you want to be treated, that war is a horrible tragedy and never works, that animals and nature are fascinating, that introverts often have the loudest minds, that love is the only thing of real value, and that to be happy is the real lottery win. And the truth is-  I’d put an understated Anne Tyler novel up against a Greek tragedy any day of the week.

They Might Be Hanging Out Without You

In Books, Television on August 15, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Right off the bat, I’ll make it clear that I am not a huge Mindy Kaling fan, though I  thought ‘The Office’ was well written. Mindy was co-executive producer of the show, and wrote many of the episodes (including ‘Niagra, a personal favorite) She was also a cast member, playing the insufferable Kelly Kapoor, a girl who just doesn’t get it! Therefore, I do respect for her career achievements, and I’ve fulfilled the ‘say something nice’ part of my opinion piece. haha.

I first really noticed Ms. Kaling   when I became aware of her book “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?’ which was heavily promoted even before it’s release, and had an avalanche of great press afterwards. I remember thinking: ‘This must be some book! Either that, or she knows a lot of heavy-hitters in the publishing industry!’ Although I found the character she played on ‘The Office’ extremely annoying (as she was written)- it wouldn’t be the first time someone ratcheted up my opinion of them based on their writing skills, and sense of humor.

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In any event, I got my hands on the book, and settled in for an enjoyable, funny memoir, as I had no reason to suspect otherwise.  The book was high on all the non-fiction best-seller lists, and was selling up a storm. However,  from the get go, I got my back up, when Ms. Kaling casually compared her book to Chelsea Handler’s ‘Where Are You Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea’-a book I thoroughly enjoyed, and which stayed on the top of the best-seller lists for over a year. (Chelsea, though not a ‘writer’s’ writer, has several very readable books written in her deadpan delivery style and has been at the top of the New York Times bestseller list several times.. no mean feat!)

This being the case, I found it a little presumptuous of Mindy to just throw herself in the mix, like it’s something she thinks secretly, but probably shouldn’t say.  She also tries way too hard to assume a familiarity with the reader that she hasn’t earned. Similar to  when someone says ‘I know what you’re thinking’ and it’s not even close. But about half-way through the book,  I stopped reading, looked at the cover- just to be sure I had the right book, and thought ‘This is what all the hoopla is about?!’ Not only was it lacking in the ‘here are my interesting stories’ department, it also presented Mindy as a classic, high- school mean girl, very  clique-y and judgmental, and not all that nice. (Women don’t have to be ‘nice’- but there’s a certain self-effacing quality that I appreciate-the all important ‘down-to-earth’ quality)

In her book, Mindy trashes her friends in high-school- going as far as to say she hoped an equestrian loving ex-friend found a great horse to marry. I mean: Rrrearrr! She talks about how unpopular she was in high school (she wasn’t) and how high school doesn’t even matter- but she’s still really angry about not being the center of attention there. Which of course, happens to everyone on the planet, but famous people, I notice, are often very bitter about the first decade-and-three-quarters when they were treated like-God forbid!- everyone else!   When the world failed  to clamor around them, recognize how special they were, and shower them with adoration..  The bottom line is that I felt Mindy Kaling’s book was over-rated, and was disappointed because of it.  And it didn’t help that she seemed oblivious to the cattiness of her stories, like completely unaware.

People love this girl! I am clearly in the minority with my opinion. It’s to such a degree that I wonder if my initial impression is ‘off’. There are just too many good books rolling off the presses, for me to try hers again (and she has a new thing: a card game full of topics to talk about with your girlfriends. I can’t imagine needing to fish for topics, but I guess it beats another round of Monopoly) I will say,  that my initial review of ‘Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me’ -wherein I point out how underwhelming this book is- has gotten way more ‘likes’ on a certain book reading site than the rest of my reviews combined- with a few ‘finally someone said it’ comments as well.

The above Flavorwire article about Ms. Kaling’s recent tv show (“The Mindy Project’ which I haven’t seen)  defends her personality based on the fact that she’s a woman- and says, in effect, that a man (who’s an asshole) would be applauded for the same things Kaling is criticized for. Alec Baldwin notwithstanding (they keep insisting he’s a pretentious bore and a jerk to boot- but I can’t stop loving him) I don’t think difficult men are revered- I think they are tolerated if they have creative powers. I believe people much prefer a John Ritter type (who I understood was a kind man) over a Charlie Sheen any day of the week. I don’t know the fate of Kaling’s show, but I do wonder if it is as overrated as her book.

I guess the point I’m making is that, according to the ‘Let Mindy Kaling Be An Asshole’ commentary, there is nothing obnoxious or arrogant  she can do or say that can’t be explained away by sexism. She’s got a license to do whatever she wants- like a foreign dignitary! That just because some successful men are pricks, women should be, too. Lean In and annihilate! Strap on your armor! Swing your big stick! Etcetera! But  I don’t buy it. As my mother used to say, in cliche-but-true mom-speak: Two wrongs, don’t make a right!….. And emulating the stereo-typical, brazen, self-serving jack-ass (think Donald Trump) does not seem the path to fulfillment! And it’s definitely not something to strive for.

Ladies-we’re better than that!

BOOKS AND HOW TO GET THEM

In Books on August 7, 2013 at 3:12 pm

 

Books have always been my best friends. Even before I could read, I loved to look at the bright, colorful pictures and strange configuration of typeset (when you are three, and not yet a reader, English looks exactly like SPAM from Thailand) I would beg anyone taller than me to read me the stories, and when that didn’t work I’d make up my own story, basing it on the illustrations.

‘Girl plays with kitten Aww!! Now she run! ( Turn page.. gasp! Look! She came back!) Heady stuff. I’m told I had an imaginary friend, Annie, until I was about four. I used her to blame stuff on, and as an audience to my stories. So it wouldn’t be unusual to walk into a room and see me with a book in my lap, animatedly talking to no one, my arm draped over the non-existent shoulder of my invisible best friend, discussing the latest release in the Golden Press line. (I adored their hologram covers and puppet photographs! Or should I say “we” adored them…)

This just might be my favorite book ever...

This just might be my favorite book ever…

Learning to read was like mastering time travel: with the turn of a page, off I would go to other lands, and other lives, other generations, other universes! Backwards, forwards, upside down- books could go anywhere and do anything! I could live a million different lives if I could read as many books! To this day I don’t understand how anyone gets through life without reading all of the books they can get their hands on (and then some!) but I’m so grateful to be one of the lucky ones who’s hooked on books. Yeah- I could swoon about books for hours, but I’d like to talk about the best places to get them, and how I manage to get the most mileage-and bang for my buck- out of reading.

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BOOK STORES

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This is obvious- keep the book stores alive! This is how I do bookstores on a budget: When an author I really like is coming out with a new one, I make an effort to buy it from a bricks and mortar bookstore. It’s sporadic, but I purchase what I can, and I happily add these books to my permanent collection, on route to filling yet another bookshelf. Not only do I get a nice hardcover, but I also support my the wonderful existence of bookstores.

THE LIBRARY

The library is essentially a FREE BOOK STORE! Think about it: if Barnes & Noble announced they were having a 100% off sale this weekend (‘We’re Giving It All Away!”) would you be there? Would you maybe sleep in the parking lot overnight to be among the first in the store when it opened in the morning? Of course you would! And this is why I can’t believe there are people out there who DO NOT use the library! You can get free DVD’s as well- and the selection is surprisingly good. You can use their computers, you can buy hardcover books for $2.00 or less! you can read the latest magazines for free-and even check out and bring home the back issues. The Library is Utopia.

The path to great places...

The path to great places…

The library website is a treasure trove as well. You can put books on hold (My hold list is never empty. I also currently have seven books checked out. At my local library, you have SIX whole days to pick up your holds. (Again, this would be like calling the book store, ordering a book, and picking it up for free! Amazing!) On the library’s website you can also access many resources, like Consumer Reports (free!) a plethora of Art and various niche magazines-even  Chilton’s Auto Repair manuals. You can even order free downloads of books, movies and music, which they will zap right over to your Smart- phone, Kindle or laptop. (Though why anyone wouldn’t actually prefer to walk into a giant building filled with books is beyond me! Every time I pull into a parking space at my library I think: ‘This  spot shouldn’t even be available. This place should be so full of people, I should have to park around the block!’) I adore my Library!

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LIBRARYTHING

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LibraryThing is a book website that I would recommend to any avid reader. Here, you can list all of the books you’ve read, are reading, or want to read- and you can even create a virtual library using the covers of said books. You can read and write reviews, and if you want you can interact with other readers. But the really great thing about LibraryThing is that they have an ‘Early Reviewers’ Program, which allows you to select soon to be published books, and win them in exchange for a review (you only need write a sentence or two, not the on-and-on I usually do) In five years, I have won 60 Early Reviewer books (!) with one on the way as we speak! The Early Reviewer program runs once a month, and you choose which books appeal to you. You then have a chance to be picked to receive a free copy.  I’ve gotten autographed books, as well as book bags and other ‘book swag’ from Early Reviewer books! In addition, there are also author giveaways (more freebies), book recommendations based on your likes, and a whole host of other book-related information and activities. LibraryThing is free for you to list up to 200 books, and after that they have a sliding scale of prices per year- from $3.00 and up- you can literally pick your own price. It’s beyond worth it if you are a serious reader. I LOVE LibrayThing! To see my book list, read my Early Reviews or just say hi- I’m listed as ‘Litgirl7′ (that stands for literature, not keg stands…although…I’ve been in the vicinity of a few keg stands…just sayin’)

THRIFT STORES

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Thrift Stores are an excellent place to find cheap and interesting books. If you have young kids, you can buy used copies of their favorite books (sometimes 4 for $1.00!) and let them go to town with their messy hands, drooling, crinkling and tearing.  It’s a great way to not have to hover over a $15.00 kids book that you’d like to keep in their collection sans teeth marks. Many of these books are in great shape- if not new!

Also, If you have a fondness for vintage books from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, the thrift store is the place for you. Not only can you find some childhood favorites, but in many cases you’ll be amazed at the absurd book titles, advice, and trends from the past- and all for a song! How else would I have found ‘The Drinker’s Cookbook’ from 1961, chock full of boozy recipes and comics about the hilarity of driving drunk? Or Cookbooks for Dads who Barbecue, with advice such as ‘pick the steak with the most fat’ and ‘keep the wife away from the grill?’ Or ‘Naughty Cakes’ with the step-by-step directions for ‘booty cake?’

Fabulous Bloody Mary recipe....

Fabulous Bloody Mary recipe….

If you’re crafty, you can buy cheap books and use the pictures or text for all kinds of projects (though it pains me to destroy a book, and I’ll always try and scan it first, then print out what I want to use, but sometimes a book is too busted for repair) You can make personalized cards for friends, wrapping paper, use pictures on your blog- the list is endless. You can also buy ‘gag’ gift-books for the the holidays. Say, a 1965 ‘I am a Beautician’ for a hairdresser friend’s birthday, or “Jerry Springer’s Wildest Shows Ever!” for your T.V. snob friend, or “Your Youth: Getting The Best Out Of It” circa 1971 for a 40th birthday. You might even stumble upon first editions of old favorites, like ‘Blacky The Crow’ or ‘The Lonely Doll’ series. Sometimes, you’ll even find notes or old  photographs tucked away inside! (This, to me, is nirvana!) Though it’s hit or miss, it’s a rare trip to a thrift where I don’t find something! 

In conclusion, books are everywhere, and they can take you everywhere as well. When I hear people say they are bored I think to myself: That will never happen to me. As long as the world has books!

I hear deer urine works...

I hear deer urine works…

WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple

In Books on April 27, 2013 at 2:57 pm

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Every now and then, you read a book that makes you wish that you could be friends with the writer – be privy to their ruminations on even the most ordinary of things, be able to tap into their brain at a moment’s notice. Maria Semple is one of those authors. Not only her- but to know her characters in real life- well, that would really be an excellent adventure!

Bernadette is a smart, wisecracking, straight-shooter of a woman- a quirky, but loving Mom, former architect/artist, living in Seattle- the wife of a Microsoft big-wig/geek, a man renowned for having the fourth most viewed TEDtalk, a man some called a ‘Tech Rockstar’. I don’t want be a spoiler, so story specifics are out- but I will say- predictable this book is not!

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Seattle

It’s hard to ‘cherry pick’ favorite moments, and like I said, I don’t want to reveal any of the many twists and turns presented in the story, so I’ll just quickly discuss my second favorite character and be done with it. Bee (Bernadette’s extremely bright-but not perfect!) daughter. Take for example: upon traveling through a poverty-stricken barrio she says: 

‘Kids were kicking a ball among trash, running with mangy dogs among trash, even squatting to wash their clothes among trash. It was totally annoying, like, would one of you just pick up the trash?’

Only an affluent, private-schooled eighth-grader could come up with that one. (Not saying I don’t think environment can effect the esteem of it’s inhabitants. As the aforementioned scene just proved on both sides)

On the other hand, I like Bee’s very sophisticated outlook on her father’s invention, Samantha 2- a servant robot, who does menial chores through voice command- for me it also rings true for so much of technology and where we’re heading (for better or worse) 

‘What’s Samantha 2? It’s just something so people can sit around and have a robot do all their shit for them. You spend ten years of your life and billions of dollars inventing something so people don’t have to live their own lives.’

Amen, Sister! It made me try and think more clearly about what it is that bothers me about technology- while at the same time embracing it. We seem to be finding all of these ways to eliminate minutia and menial tasks, like we’re clearing the decks so we can finally concentrate and put our full attention on: what, exactly? So we can spend even more time being ‘watchers?’- watchers of internet content? Maybe it’s the chores, the effort of keeping  our life on track that make our lives fulfilling. What if we clear all of our decks just to find out we’re all assholes, and that we were better off being distracted from our narcissistic minds for at least several hours a day? What if a lack of purpose turns out to lead us down the idyll- minds -devils- workshop path,(symbolically, of course) only now we have 24/7 to hone our errant craft?  What if all of the things we do reluctantly are the very things that test (and build) our mettle?

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Rant over. Bernadette is by far the best fictional character I’ve ‘met’ in a long time. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a thought-provoking, fun, satirical look at family, parenting, the importance of following your own drummer, and a whip-smart, middle-aged woman who’s the most interesting woman in the room-and I’m talking any room!

Kids Books: 1

In Books on December 31, 2012 at 12:59 pm

A Look Inside Some Thrift-Store Finds: Bookshelf Edition:

MUD PIES AND OTHER RECIPES, 1961
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I really love this thrift-store find “MUD PIES AND OTHER RECIPES’ by MarjorieWinslow, illustrations by Erik Blegvad. This charming little book was published in 1961, and is ‘a cookbook for dolls.’ It is written for ‘kind climates and summertime’ and kids who actually play outdoors.. It includes recipes for Rainspout Tea and Dollypops: (pick a dandelion from the lawn carefully, so as not to disturb the fluff. Hand it to your doll and tell her to lick’)

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This book brings such fond memories of a different time, when as children we spent practically the entire day outside, entrusted to ourselves and able to play very intricate and involved games of house and school, tell each other stories, make up games, improvise, share, argue, and resolve (without parents stepping in) We didn’t have ‘play-dates’ we just played. And, as very smart person once said “Play is the highest form of research”. 

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It’s an adorable book, that touches the heart of anyone who remembers games of make-believe played outside with good friends, in all four seasons, incorporating all of nature’s offerings into our play and our lives. 

A KID’S TV GUIDE – 1979

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This is an interesting throw-back, full of television watching rules (don’t wear sunglasses when you watch tv) and although much of what they present is true, you can’t help but think that television was like an avalanche, one that would not -could not- be stopped. Nowadays we walk around with tv on our phones, and it’s hard to find a person in public that isn’t looking down at them! Or who isn’t constantly occupied and/or distracted by them. It’s almost as if ‘they knew!’ (the authors)

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This book lays all the television rules out for kids and then warns about the dangers:

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TV might tempt a child into creating a bomb, or worse (imagine what the authors think of the Internet!)

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…and not only might the child get into mischief, but he will be flagrant and defiant about it!! The child in this picture has not only gotten his hands on a stick of dynamite, but has also sought out warning signs against what he is about to do and parked himself in front of them like the flagrant little anarchist he is. Not to mention that his location an outright taunting of Smokey The Bear!

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Television can also lure children into biker gangs. I know this is true because every time I watch  ‘Sons Of Anarchy’ I have an urge to ‘take a ride’ with Jax Teller, and I have no doubt that I would if the situation presented itself. Ahem!

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I think this is the best page in the book. Relevant to how we live now, and the place that Entertainment (TV, Internet, Social Media, etc) has in our lives. Some might say we’ve gained a lot- while others lament that we’ve lost a lot. But either way- it’s obvious- you can’t un-ring a bell.

DAVEY AND GOLIATH: BLIND MAN’S BLUFF, 2005

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I was surprised to see that this book is only eight years old. I figured it to be from nineteen-seventy something. Anyway- it’s all about race relations. Evidently, Goliath is a closet racist, and has been one all along. It’s quite jarring:

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and then he goes all Archie Bunker on the visiting dog!!

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But Davey’s got his hands full with his good friend’s cousin, Scottie:

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You have to wonder just how racist this Scottie is, if his reputation precedes him this blatantly! (If only this were published in the seventies! It would have made a great After School Special: “Scottie: The Boy Who Hates White Kids’) Anyway- Davey rushes over to hang with the kid who hates him (who could resist?) only to discover a twist in the days plans:

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Turns out, Scottie has had a little accident (I suspect he’d been watching tv and was under the influence of it: see ‘A Kid’s Guide to TV’, above )…..one that has rendered him blind for the week (that’s one precise diagnosis!) and therefore, ripe for Davey’s psychological experiment. 

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Luckily, we’re now privy to Scottie’s completely valid and rational reason for being a racist:

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Davey and Scottie have quite the day together- sharing hot dogs, hanging out in the hood (I think?) and bonding:

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A somewhat creepy conversation about Davey’s sister commences……leaving me with a hefty dose of that ‘Wait.What?’ feeling…

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Finally, the day the bandages come off arrives. Davey, of course, is front and center for the unveiling. (I know I always brought my friends to my doctor’s appointments as a young child.) And much like George Jefferson meeting Jenny’s parents for the first time, our Mr. Scottie is less than pleased:

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Just when it seems that Davey will expire from the sadness he feels about Scottie rejecting him, Goliath confesses that he’s no longer racist, and will now be hanging out with the white spotted dog. And for reasons very unclear (Pssst! I think I know the secret: the book is near the end) Scottie ‘Jefferson-Bunker’ has decided to open his mind and befriend other races.  The End. Someone cue the music. (May I suggest Aerosmith/Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ perhaps?)

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