Friday, December 23, 2011

For April: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

We have selected Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife for April. Obreht. The novel won the Orange Prize and Obreht is the youngest writer ever to receive the award. She is also the youngest of the featured authors in this year's New Yorker '20 under 40' edition and The Tiger's Wife was chosen as one of the top five fiction books this year.  Please join us in learning more about this new talent and her tale of the Balkan war,
In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. Secrets her outwardly cheerful hosts have chosen not to tell her. Secrets involving the strange family digging for something in the surrounding vineyards. Secrets hidden in the landscape itself. 
But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. After telling her grandmother that he was on his way to meet Natalia, he instead set off for a ramshackle settlement none of their family had ever heard of and died there alone. A famed physician, her grandfather must have known that he was too ill to travel. Why he left home becomes a riddle Natalia is compelled to unravel. 
Grief struck and searching for clues to her grandfather’s final state of mind, she turns to the stories he told her when she was a child. On their weekly trips to the zoo he would read to her from a worn copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which he carried with him everywhere; later, he told her stories of his own encounters over many years with “the deathless man,” a vagabond who claimed to be immortal and appeared never to age. But the most extraordinary story of all is the one her grandfather never told her, the one Natalia must discover for herself. One winter during the Second World War, his childhood village was snowbound, cut off even from the encroaching German invaders but haunted by another, fierce presence: a tiger who comes ever closer under cover of darkness. “These stories,” Natalia comes to understand, “run like secret rivers through all the other stories” of her grandfather’s life. And it is ultimately within these rich, luminous narratives that she will find the answer she is looking for.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

New Developments in Gao Zhisheng Case

Amnesty International has issued a press release deploring the latest developments in the case of 'disappeared' and now it seems, imprisoned, Chinese human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng,
Following Chinese state media reports that Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng violated probation and will be sent back to prison, Catherine Baber, Asia-Pacific deputy director at Amnesty International issued the following statement: 
"This is truly shocking news. We have not heard from Gao Zhisheng in 20 months - his family has not known if he is dead or alive and now the authorities send out a cryptic announcement that his so-called probation has been revoked. 
"There is nothing lawful about the way the authorities have handled Gao Zhisheng's case. The authorities have tortured Gao Zhisheng, subjected him to 20 months enforced disappearance, held him captive and separated him from his family, causing unbelievable stress to his loved ones. This inhumane treatment must stop. He has suffered enough. His family has suffered enough. He must be freed. 
"The authorities’ belated attempt to cast a veneer of legality over their treatment of Gao Zhisheng is truly shameful. Through a combination of illegal house arrest followed by enforced disappearance, Gao Zhisheng has already been captive for nearly double his original 'suspended' sentence. 
"The international community, diplomats, politicians and others have made Gao Zhisheng a high priority case in meetings with Chinese officials. But this has not been enough. We urge the international community to continue to press the Chinese government for Gao's release. The international community must not let up in their condemnation of this travesty of justice."
The U.S. Department of State also expressed concern regarding this news at it's Friday press briefing.  The Washington Post reported that Gao's brother suggested that the news raised more questions about where he has been and where they are sending him, while his wife, Geng He's reaction was relief that he was alive. Unfortunately, with so little information available, it's difficult to completely rule out his death and we must continue to press for more details about his whereabouts and health condition and demand his immediate release. Take action online now.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Fukushima to Haiti: What Disasters Reveal

This month we have been discussing Haruki Murakami's short story collection, After the Quake and as an adjunct to that I wanted to bring attention to novelist Junot Diaz' essay, Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal, from the Boston Review last May. (He also discusses the essay on NPR's On Point.) Diaz looks at the potential of apocalyptic events such as natural disasters to reveal and clarify our world,
After all, if these types of apocalyptic catastrophes have any value it is that in the process of causing things to fall apart they also give us a chance to see the aspects of our world that we as a society seek to run from, that we hide behind veils of denials.
Apocalyptic catastrophes don’t just raze cities and drown coastlines; these events, in David Brooks’s words, “wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities.” And, equally important, they allow us insight into the conditions that led to the catastrophe, whether we are talking about Haiti or Japan. (I do believe the tsunami-earthquake that ravaged Sendai this past March will eventually reveal much about our irresponsible reliance on nuclear power and the sinister collusion between local and international actors that led to the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe.) If, as Roethke writes, “in a dark time, the eye begins to see,” apocalypse is a darkness that gives us light.
Diaz goes on to discuss how natural disasters expose the kinds of societal choices (eg. the neglect of the levee system that protects New Orleans) that create social disasters, and to explore the way in which the communities most vulnerable in a disaster, such as Haiti, are those least likely to benefit from the trend towards greater global inequality. I urge you to read the entire essay.

Having previously blogged about a documentary narrated by another of our authors which won a regional Emmy, I wanted to note that the Miami Herald recently won an Emmy for it's documentary, Nou Bouke,  narrated by Edwidge Danticat (Brother I'm Dying), a good visual complement to Diaz' piece,
Nou Bouke, a Creole term for "We're Tired," focuses on Haiti's past, present and future in light of the apocalyptic January 12, 2010 earthquake that now marks a new chapter in the nation's history. The documentary presents a comprehensive look at the Haitian polemic as the Caribbean nation faces its most challenging crossroads due to the immense loss of life and destruction. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Murakami and After the Quake: Reality Check

The video above is the trailer for a play by Frank Galati formed from two of the stories in Haruki Murakami's short story collection After the Quake, yet another of the creative spin-offs of his work.  In the book, the actual earthquake takes place offstage. As a reality check, here's a bit of BBC coverage of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Of course, it's impossible to read this collection now and not think about the more recent Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. Must reading in that regard is Murakami's acceptance speech ("As an Unrealistic Dreamer") given for the Catalunya International Prize in Barcelona this summer. In it, he talks about the resilience of the Japanese people in the face of natural disaster but focuses most of his attention on the relationship of Japan and nuclear power,
We should have been working to develop alternative energy sources to replace nuclear power at a national level, by harvesting all existing
technologies, wisdom and social capital. Even if people throughout the world had mocked us, saying, “Nuclear power is the most effective power generation system, and Japanese people are really stupid not to use it”, we should have retained the aversion to nuclear power that was triggered by our experience of nuclear weapons. 
We should have made the development of non-nuclear power generation the cornerstone of our policy after World War II. This should have been the way to assume our collective responsibility for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Japan, we needed strong ethics, strong values, and a strong social message. This would have been a chance for the Japanese people to make a real contribution to the world. We neglected to take that important road, however, preferring to pursue the fast track of “efficiency” in support of our rapid economic development.
This month National Geographic has a package with photoessays (Japan Nuclear Zone) of scenes from within the "exclusion zone" and nuclear radiation clean-up, an area already beginning to resemble Chernobyl, a disaster we've read about and discussed here previously.

The New York Times also has a fresh multi-media report out on the clean-up,
So far, the government is following a pattern set since the nuclear accident, dismissing dangers, often prematurely, and laboring to minimize the scope of the catastrophe. Already, the trial cleanups have stalled: the government failed to anticipate communities’ reluctance to store tons of soil to be scraped from contaminated yards and fields.
If you're looking for a more upbeat story about the disaster, I enjoyed this PBS Newshour piece about scientist-activists working with citizens to crowdsource radiation data in the interests of providing information about the safety of living conditions.

Murakami donated the prize money from the Catalunya prize to earthquake victims.  I just wanted to note here too, that another of our favorite authors, Naomi Hirahara (Summer of the Big Bachi) contributed a short story to the Kindle collection Shaken: Stories from Japan which benefits Japan America Society of Southern California's 2011 Japan Relief Fund. Loyal Readers might want to check that out.

More Murakami posts can be found here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

More Murakami: Representations and Translations

This post is mostly an excuse to share the video above showing the creation of a mural inspired by "Super Frog Saves Tokyo" from the short story collection After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. The work, by artist Mark Licari,  was installed at Equator Books in Venice which unfortunately has closed. I hope the new tenants in the space are appreciative. Still photographs of the mural can be found at for closer inspection, but I think seeing the process of creation speaks to the improvisatory wonder of Murakami's work.

So just to throw a few more links into the discussion mix, I wanted to acknowledge the translator of After the Quake, Jay Rubin. Here is a brief interview with Publisher's Weekly and another brief audio interview with the New Yorker. And Rubin covers the same territory a bit more expansively in this UC-Berkeley panel discussion (Haruki Murakami: Japanese Literature on the Global Stage). The discussion also includes some other interesting presentations, including an exploration of the use of language in the story "Thailand", also from After the Quake, but requires some serious dedication at 2 and 1/2 hours and is probably only for language-nerds and Asian-lit geeks like yours truly.

See our other Murakami discussion posts here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rights Reel: Murakami on Film

I was surprised to learn that there is a 2008 movie version of the Haruki Murakami short story "All God's Children Can Dance" from the collection After the Quake, our discussion selection for this month. The climactic scene at the baseball park can be seen above and although it is not clear from that excerpt, the director, Robert Logevall, transferred the story to Koreatown in Los Angeles (You can definitely see some familiar terrain in the trailer). The film does not appear to have gotten any US distribution, nor even a straight-to-DVD release, so chances of seeing it are slim.

On the other hand, the film version of Murakami's Norwegian Wood (Tagline: A story of love and heartbreak in a time of global instability) will be released early in January. So if After the Quake was tempting enough for you to consider trying another book by the author, maybe that's the one you should pick up. The film is directed by Tran Anh Hung, who also did the wonderful The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, so it will definitely be on my list. (And come to think of it, those two movies would be great to revisit before next month's discussion of Eaves of Heaven.) More on the film Norwegian Wood here.

And on the subject of more Murakami, you might want to check out the Slate article Which Books Should I Read First? which indeed recommends Norwegian Wood and if you have more questions about how to go about it you can consult the companion Slate article Is the Japanese novelist a great writer? or The Daily Beast How to Read Haruki Murakami. The gist is something like, "Don't sweat the details, just enjoy the ride!"  See other Murakami posts here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Our December Author: Haruki Murakami

We are reading Haruki Murakami this month, but unlike the rest of the blogosphere, we are not reading 1Q84, but opted for the more modest short story collection After the Quake. In the video above, the author reads one of the stories, "Super Frog Saves Tokyo."  Random House has a slick multi-media Murakami website where you can get a musical playlist for your reading pleasure or a screensaver, or connect with other fans, but this website might actually be more useful for finding links to articles and interviews, although I found many expired links.  Here are a few interviews and articles I found useful for reading After the Quake and for general introduction to Murakami's work:

In a comprehensive 2004 interview (The Art of Fiction No. 182) with the Paris Review, among other interesting insights, Murakami denies that Japanese manga were the inspiration for "Super Frog Save Tokyo" but allows for some folkloric influence,
When I was a child, I was told many Japanese folktales and old stories. Those stories are critical when you are growing up. That Super-Frog figure, for example, might come from that reservoir of stories. You have your reservoir of American folklore, Germans have theirs, Russians have theirs. But there is also a mutual reservoir we can draw from: The Little Prince, McDonald’s, or the Beatles.
In a recent Guardian profile ('I took a gamble and survived'), Murakami comments on the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami,
He was in Honolulu earlier this year when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. It has changed the country, he says. "People lost their confidence. We had been working so hard, after the end of the war. For 60 years. The richer we became, the happier we become. But at the end, we didn't get happy, however hard we worked. And the earthquake came, and so many people had to be evacuated, to abandon their houses and homeland. It's a tragedy. And we were proud of our technology, but our nuclear power plant turned out to be a nightmare. So people started to think, we have to change drastically the way of life. I think that is a big turning point in Japan."
Charles Baxter, writing about 1Q84 in the New York Review of Books (Behind Murakami’s Mirror) made this observation which I feel is also helpful for reading many of the stories in After the Quake,
Murakami’s novels, stories, and nonfiction ... display, often very bravely and beautifully, the pull of the unreal and the fantastical on ordinary citizens who, unable to bear the world they have been given, desperately wish to go somewhere else. The resulting narratives conform to what I have called Unrealism. In Unrealism, characters join cults. They believe in the apocalypse and Armageddon, or they go down various rabbit holes and arrive in what Murakami himself, in a bow to Lewis Carroll, calls Wonderland. They long for the end times. Magical thinking dominates. Not everyone wants to be in such a dislocated locale, and the novels are often about heroic efforts to get out of Wonderland, but it is a primary destination site, like Las Vegas. As one character in 1Q84 says, “Everybody needs some kind of fantasy to go on living, don’t you think?”
And in the lengthy New York Times Magazine profile (The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami) which explores the geography of Murakami's world there is this observation,
The defining disasters of modern Japan — the subway sarin-gas attack, the Kobe earthquake, the recent tsunami — are, to an amazing extent, Murakami disasters: spasms of underground violence, deep unseen trauma that manifests itself as massive destruction to daily life on the surface. He is notoriously obsessed with metaphors of depth: characters climbing down empty wells to enter secret worlds or encountering dark creatures underneath Tokyo’s subway tunnels. (He once told an interviewer that he had to stop himself from using well imagery, after his eighth novel, because the frequency of it was starting to embarrass him.) He imagines his own creativity in terms of depth as well. Every morning at his desk, during his trance of total focus, Murakami becomes a Murakami character: an ordinary man who spelunks the caverns of his creative unconscious and faithfully reports what he finds.
Murakami is an author who inspires his readers to react creatively to his work--take for instance this musical fundraiser for quake victims inspired by the short stories in After the Quake. We will be featuring additional homages in posts later this week as well as additional insights into the author and the subject of the literature of disaster.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Write for Rights: Urge China to free Liu Xiaobo and Gao Zhisheng!

Yesterday, Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of our November book, The Honor Code, and President of PEN USA, taped the appeal above for Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo one year after he was unable to attend the Nobel ceremony due to his imprisonment in China. US Ambassador to China, Gary Locke also released a statement calling for the release of Liu and added pleas for his wife Liu Xia, 'disappeared' lawyer Gao Zhisheng (the case that the Pasadena chapter of Amnesty International has adopted) and another human rights defender, Chen Guangcheng
While China has undoubtedly made great strides in developing its economy, the imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and restrictions on the freedoms of his spouse Liu Xia, the illegal “disappearing” of Gao Zhisheng, the unlawful detention of Chinese citizens such as lawyer Chen Guangcheng, and constraints on the religious freedom and practices of Tibetan, Uighur and Christian communities do not bring China closer to achieving its stated goals. 
There is much work to be done by all governments to fully live up to the principles that all persons are created free and equal in dignity and rights. Today, I urge the People’s Republic of China to uphold its commitments to the Universal Declaration.
You can help Appiah and Locke make this point to the Chinese government. We know you've already made great contributions this weekend to the Write for Rights campaign, but please take a couple more minutes to take these easy online actions on behalf of Chinese human rights defenders. Thank you!
Take Action for Liu Xiaobo 
Take Action for Gao Zhisheng 
Additional Actions for Chinese Human Rights Defenders 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Writing and Reading for Human Rights!

Today is International Human Rights Day, the day the Nobel Prizes are awarded and the day Amnesty International (1977 Nobel Peace Prize recipient) urges people around the world to write letters on behalf of victims of human rights abuses around the world. Amnesty International is also celebrating it's 50th anniversary this year and the video above gives a capsule history. The highlight for our Loyal Readers will be the cameo of Kim Song-Man, the South Korean prisoner of conscience testifying to the importance of these letter-writing campaigns for those languishing in 'forgotten' prisons. We read about the many faceted campaign on the part of Amnesty activists in Normal, Illinois to free him in Enduring the Darkness : A Story of Conscience, Hope, and Triumph : Letters from Kim Song-Man, an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. To learn more about Amnesty's history, explore AIUSA's Amnesty at 50 section or these articles from the Guardian.  I especially want to recommend England's Children's Book Laureate Michael Morpurgo's piece, where he imagines how literature could make Amnesty's letter-writing campaigns obsolete and which is as good a justification for Rights Readers existence as any,
It is through literature, not simply literacy, that we learn to understand and empathise. As readers, we learn about the lives of others, other places and cultures, other ways of seeing the world. We find out about the past, understand better how it made our today and how our today makes our tomorrow. We learn we are not alone in our feelings, that joy and pain are universal, that humanity is to be celebrated for its diversity but is ultimately one humanity. Through literature, we can find our place in the world, feel we belong and discover our sense of responsibility. 
Amnesty understands this very well and it seeks out, encourages and endorses literature that it believes can help children develop this great skill of empathy, a skill that is vital for tolerance to grow, hatred to diminish and human rights to flourish.
And as you can see from the cover of his latest book, Shadow, about a springer spaniel in Afghanistan, what better place to start to build empathy than with a dog? I have a special springer in my life, so I will definitely be tracking this one down.  So after you've participated in your local Write for Rights event, and checked out the global Flickr pool of others participating in the the marathon, pick up a book and Read for Rights!

Monday, December 05, 2011

Join Us for Amnesty International's Global Write-a-thon!

Each year in early December, Amnesty International activists and friends gather to write letters on behalf of human rights defenders around the world as a way to commemorate International Human Rights Day (December 10). Cases include Jalila al-Salman & Mahdi Abu Dheeb, teachers detained for supporting pro-reform efforts in Bahrain,
Jalila al-Salman and Mahdi ‘Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb, former vice-president and president of the Bahrain Teachers' Association, were detained in March after their association reportedly supported a teachers' strike amid widescale pro-reform protests in Bahrain. Jalila (photo left) was reportedly held in solitary confinement and subjected to beatings for several days. She was released on bail in August, but Mahdi Abu Dheeb remains detained. Jalila al-Salman and Mahdi Abu Dheeb were sentenced by a military court in September 2011 to prison terms of 3 years and 10 years, respectively. They had been charged with a variety of offenses, including "inciting hatred towards the regime," "calling to overthrow and change the regime by force," "calling on parents not to send their children to school," and "calling on teachers to stop working and participate in strikes and demonstrations." Amnesty International believes they may have been arrested solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and association.
According to local human rights organizations, many teachers and members of the BTA were detained, harassed and tortured or otherwise ill-treated in detention for their participation in protests earlier this year. At least 500 people have been detained in Bahrain since pro-reform protests began in February, and four have died in custody on suspicious circumstances. More than 2,500 people have been dismissed or suspended from work. 
If you ever loved a teacher, this is the action for you! The Pasadena chapter of Amnesty will hold its Write-a-thon on Saturday, Dec. 10, any time between 9 AM - 4 PM at Zephyr Café, 2419 E. Colorado Blvd in Pasadena (626-793-7330). Please join us to send cards to victims of human-rights abuses like the Bahraini teachers, but also to engage in friendly conversation and enjoy the delicious food at Zephyr Café.  If you don't live in the area or can't make it, check the AIUSA website to find an event near you or to download letter-writing instructions to use on your own.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Rights Rhythm: Note of Hope

Last year at this time we were discussing Alex Wilkinson's book about Pete Seeger, The Protest Singer and wondering where our generation's protest singers and songs were. Then a couple months later, some good folks in Wisconsin got a little upset when some of their rights got taken away and they started to sing.  Here they are jamming with Arlo Guthrie.  Did you know the Solidarity Sing Along is still going strong every weekday at the capitol?  They've even created a special holiday songbook to bring some seasonal cheer to the 'people's house.'

If they need still more new material, there's a new album, Note of Hope, of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics freshly set to music by artists like Lou Reed, Ani Difranco, Jackson Browne, Tom Morello and Pete Seeger.  This is all a warm-up for next year's Woody Guthrie Centennial. For more on the album, see Guthrie's daughter and album co-producer Nora Guthrie's interviews with WNYC and American Songwriter,
There are some real activist artists on the records like Ani DiFranco, Tom Morello, Pete Seeger; was that a conscious decision? 
One of the things I found are so many people are activists in their own ways. We just don’t hear about it. They each have a cause or a picket line that they’re involved with. Woody’s kind of activism is a 360 degree kind of activism — he’s not just focused on unions. But when you listen to Jackson Browne’s love song, when they’re sitting on the bench at night and the stars are shining and what is this young couple talking about and whispering into each other’s ears? Some of the lines are “and we talked about this and we talked about that, and we talked about the union. I was like “wow, Woody wrote the union into this romantic song.”
So you don’t have to be a political activist, you can be a lover and find ways to bring all these ideas and stuff into your conversation into your home and into your town. I kind of found out that all these people are activists in a way, and to me, the thing is to find words or a lyric that match up with that.
Here's that Jackson Browne track for union romantics and sample the others below that.  You might also want to see the Tom Morello track put to use in a video supporting the Occupy movement. Sing out!


Thursday, December 01, 2011

World AIDS Day Reflections

I just finished reading Patti Smith's Just Kids, the poet-musician's celebration of her life with the artist Robert Maplethorpe. This brought to mind a visit I made, at the height of the controversy over his homoerotic photographs, to a small gallery in Berkeley, to take in the sensual bends and folds of his flowers and nudes. With the account of his death from AIDS and World AIDS Day (today) in mind, I also found myself remembering the very moving annual candelight AIDS Posada, where we chalked the names of our friends as well as those of famous people like Maplethorpe on the pavement in front of Pasadena City Hall.  And then there was the time that the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt blanketed the Rose Bowl. As thankful as I am that the urgency of that time has waned as treatments have progressed, what happened to the movement in Pasadena? As it happens, Pasadena Weekly has a timely article describing Pasadena's early leadership role in organizing AIDS awareness and the relative apathy of today,
Local activists are battling not just a diminishing public interest in the cause, but also a continued decrease in funding and donations at the local, state and federal levels.
Visit the AIDS Service Center's website to find out how you can support AIDS programs in the Pasadena area.
Today, the center, located at 909 S. Fair Oaks Ave. in Pasadena, supports more than 1,000 clients living with the disease and offers services to another 4,000 residents in the form of HIV/AIDS 101 education programs and testing, according to Director of Marketing and Development Anthony Guthmiller.
We've also become fans of Paul Farmer's work on AIDS, as detailed by Tracy Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains. This would be a good time to check into the Partners in Health website and see how their innovative approach is affecting HIV/AIDS treatment worldwide.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I am Thankful for...

I am thankful for... good books, the old friends to share them with and the inspiring people and new ideas we meet through them...

Loyal Readers Joyce Wolfe (left) and Veronica Raymond (below) were thrilled to meet up with tireless anti-torture campaigner Palden Gaytso at the Amnesty International Western Regional Conference in October. He is the author of Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk.

He is also the subject of the documentary film Fire Under the Snow.  Take action on behalf of human rights defenders under threat of torture in Chinese prisons here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thankful for Language Diversity

We've explored the issue of endangered languages with a few books, mainly Mark Abley's Spoken Here. Travels Among Endangered Languages and Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, recognizing language preservation as an important part of our shared cultural heritage. I recommend taking some time out from turkey and football over the long weekend to watch We Still Live Here (via PBS Independent Lens) about the efforts of a group of Wampanoag in Massachusetts working to revive their language over 100 years after the last native speakers died. The film will add new layers to your understanding of the cultural exchange between this tribe and the Pilgrims that we celebrate at Thanksgiving. Be sure also to explore the recommended Our Mother Tongues interactive website, to learn more about other Native American languages.

Hey, I'm not finished with your Thanksgiving assignment yet! Another excellent documentary available for online viewing from Twin Cities Public Television, First Speakers: Exploring the Ojibwe Language was a recent Upper Midwest Emmy winner. The film is narrated by another author, and language student, we love, Louise Erdrich (Tracks). The Ojibwe have the advantage of native elders who speak their language to guide them as they seek to develop immersion curricula for their schools. Both films are fascinating!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

For March: A Woman Among Warlords by Malalai Joya

For March, we have chosen A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice by Malalai Joya. Mark your calendars (March 18, 6:30 PM at Vroman's in Pasadena) for discussion of this inspiring young woman's life and Afghanistan's future,
Malalai Joya was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2010. An extraordinary young woman raised in the refugee camps of Iran and Pakistan, Joya became a teacher in secret girls’ schools, hiding her books under her burqa so the Taliban couldn’t find them; she helped establish a free medical clinic and orphanage in her impoverished home province of Farah; and at a constitutional assembly in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2003, she stood up and denounced her country’s powerful NATO-backed warlords. She was twenty-five years old. Two years later, she became the youngest person elected to Afghanistan’s new Parliament. In 2007, she was suspended from Parliament for her persistent criticism of the warlords and drug barons and their cronies. She has survived four assassination attempts to date, is accompanied at all times by armed guards, and sleeps only in safe houses. 
Joya takes us inside this massively important and insufficiently understood country, shows us the desperate day-to-day situations its remarkable people face at every turn, and recounts some of the many acts of rebellion that are helping to change it. A controversial political figure in one of the most dangerous places on earth, Malalai Joya is a hero for our times.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

More on Honor Killing

As a supplement to our book this month, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Kwame Anthony Appiah, we have a few bonus links on 'honor killing' and the courageous women who campaign to end the practice:

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting has a fresh collection of articles on Pakistani women who have received death threats from family members and who seek protection in shelters while they struggle to obtain justice through the legal system.

PBS Wide Angle has a documentary available, Contestant No. 2, for viewing on line about an Arab Israeli teenager whose life is threatened after she enters a beauty contest.

Hina Jilani and her sister Asma Jahangir, whose work on behalf of Pakistani women was described in the book, were recognized by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights Speak Truth to Power Series. Another human rights defender honored by the RFK center is the very impressive Jordanian journalist/advocate, Rana Husseini.  She speaks about 'honor killing' in the Al Jazeera video below, along with Turkish sociologist, Yakin Erturk.

Part 2 of the interview here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rights Readers Authors on Occupy Wall Street

Before I survey the commentary on the Occupy movement from authors we have read, and in view of the police actions we've seen in the last 24 hours I'd just like to point out to my Esteemed Readers this October 27 press release, Amnesty International Urges Restraint as Police Clamp Down on Occupy Wall Street Protests and with a further nod to PEN, their press release from yesterday, PEN Calls for Press Freedom at Occupy Sites.

Salman Rushdie at Occupy Wall Street NYC, 10/16/11 from cathleen falsani on Vimeo.

To date the website OccupyWriters has collected hundreds of endorsements from authors in support of the Ocuppy movement. In addition to Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children), some of the writers our Loyal Readers will recognize are Lawrence Weschler (Calamities of Exile), Ann Patchett (Bel Canto), Lorraine Adams (Harbor), Daniel Alarcón (Lost City Radio), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Greg Campbell (Blood Diamonds), Adam Hochschild (King Leopold's ghost) and Barbara Ehrenreich.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, is probably the least surprising name on that list. Her book about living among low-wage earners is ten years old and available in a newly revised edition. She was interviewed at WNYC about it last August. As the Occupy movement took off, she explored the intersection between the protestors and the homeless community,

In Portland, Austin and Philadelphia, the Occupy Wall Street movement is taking up the cause of the homeless as its own, which of course it is. Homelessness is not a side issue unconnected to plutocracy and greed. It’s where we’re all eventually headed—the 99 percent, or at least the 70 percent, of us, every debt-loaded college grad, out-of-work school teacher and impoverished senior—unless this revolution succeeds.
Sonali Kolhatkar's Uprising radio also features this interview on the topic with Ehrenreich.

Other authors have weighed in around the country and abroad:

Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walkingstopped by Occupy Portland,
The Occupy Portland folk are protesting corporate greed, the concept of corporate citizenship (foisted upon us courtesy of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision) and the lack of accountability of the government to the people. At the same time, they are promoting local, sustainable, diverse economies; the right to privacy and Internet freedoms; free education; clean air and water; meaningful work and fair taxes. 
There’s been a lot of talk in the media about how “incoherent” the Occupy events are, but that seems to me like a pretty coherent program for a people-focused democracy, in place of a congress beholden to corporate interests.
Preach it, Sister!

Mark Abley (Spoken Here. Travels Among Endangered Languageswriting his language column from Montreal, explores the layered meaning of the movement's terminology,
An occupation is a job. But it's also a seizing of control...
Amira Hass (Drinking the sea at Gaza), also reporting from Montreal, discovers another layer of meaning for members of Canada's first nations who,
find the choice of the term "occupy" very disturbing. For them it represents a very real history of the dictatorship of the material profit mentality, to the degree of genocides. Are we part of the 99 percent or outside it, they ask themselves.
Mark Hertsgaard (Earth Odyssey), focuses on the success of the Keystone Pipepline protests at the White House,
Already, the political conversation has changed in the US. Although much of the media coverage of the Occupy movement has been simple-minded or even hostile, there has been a great deal of it, and the effect has been to amplify the movement's message and gain it followers. Now, budget cuts for workers and pensioners are no longer the sole focus of political debate; requiring corporations and the rich to pay their fair share of taxes is also on the agenda.
Arundhati Roy (The Cost of Living), interviewed on Democracy Now, has a different kind of pipeline in mind,
[The] vision has to be the dismantling of this particular model, in which a few people can be allowed to have an unlimited amount of wealth, of power, both political as well as corporate... And that has to be the aim of this movement. And that has to then move down into countries like mine, where people look at the U.S. as some great, aspirational model. And I can tell you that there is such a lot of beauty still in India. There’s such a lot of ferocity there that actually can provide a lot of political understanding, even to the protest on Wall Street. To me, the forests of central India and the protesters in Wall Street are connected by a big pipeline, and I am one of those people in that pipeline.
Last but not least, of course Pete Seeger (The Protest Singer) showed up:

More on the Occupy movement and human rights in another post.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Day of the Imprisoned Writer

Today is the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, an annual, international day intended to recognize and support writers who resist repression of the right to freedom of expression, sponsored by PEN. Because we are reading Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen this month, and Appiah is the current President of PEN USA, I wanted to be sure to not let the day pass by unacknowledged.  Here he is talking about PEN's work on behalf of imprisoned Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo:

At the PEN website, be sure to check out the suggested actions on behalf of writers in Ethiopia, China, Mexico, Bahrain and Turkey. Write a letter today or print them out and bring them to Amnesty International's Global Write-a-thon in December.

You can take action for Liu Xiaobo here. Imprisonment won't keep him silent though. The Guardian reports on the first collection of his work in English, No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, coming out in January.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Rights Reel: Catching up with Marjane Satrapi

Checking in with Marjane Satrapi, author of the graphic novel Persepolis, her tale of growing up during the Iranian revolution which we enjoyed a few years back, it seems the animated-film version of the comic was shown in Tunisia recently and not everyone was happy about it. Protestors objected to a scene in which God is depicted teaching Satrapi about forgiveness. The Guardian reports,
Police arrested around 50 Islamists before they could reach the offices of the Nessma private television channel, which broadcast Persepolis on Friday. "Three hundred people attacked our offices and tried to set fire to them," Nessma chairman Nebil Karoui told AFP.
Conservative Muslims have become increasingly vocal in Tunisia since the fall of long-time president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali following an uprising in January. However, the main Islamic party condemned the demonstration. Ennahda, which is expected to do well in elections for a constitutional assembly in a fortnight's time, described the incident as "isolated" and said it should not spark concern.
In happier news for the Satrapi, she has a new film out in Europe (no US release date that I can find yet) based on her book Chicken with Plums.  Variety likes it:
What Satrapi and Paronnaud have really achieved is an evocation of a lost world, much as they did in "Persepolis." They've beautifully re-created the fiercely proud, Western-leaning life of the Persian middle class of the 1950s... 
Check out the trailer:

Meanwhile, there's another Iranian comic, a sort of Persepolis: The Next Generation, called Zahra's Paradise, we may want to read in 2012:
Set in the aftermath of Iran’s fraudulent elections of 2009, Zahra’s Paradise is the fictional story of the search for Mehdi, a young protestor who has vanished into an extrajudicial twilight zone. What’s keeping his memory from being obliterated is not the law. It is the grit and guts of his mother, who refuses to surrender her son to fate, and the tenacity of his brother, a blogger, who fuses tradition and technology to explore and explode the void in which Mehdi has vanished.
Read sample chapters at Reza Aslan's (No god but God) Aslan Media Group is discussing it this month. You can participate via Good Reads or Aslan Media Book Salon.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Our November Author: Kwame Anthony Appiah

This month we are reading The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Kwame Anthony Appiah.  Appiah has his own website that provides a lengthy biography, copious linkage to his print and audio interviews and in the "updates" section some friendly blog posts. You'll even find a friendly plug for Amnesty's Global Ethics Book Series.

Here's a brief personal introduction:

A few recommendations from interviews I sampled: Radio Open Source (great discussion about honor and the Iraq war), Appiah in conversation with Jack Miles in LAPL's ALOUD series, at the Aspen Institute (disappointed in his answer on the death penalty but otherwise interesting observations on our political polarization) or for a free-ranging discussion less tethered to the book, try APM's On Being. If you haven't read the book, these interviews should give you enough background to participate in the discussion, and if you have, the Q&As are good for seeing the variety of social problems one might want to apply these insights to. Check out these Bloomberg ("Princeton's Appiah sees role of honor in finance, gay-bashing") and WaPo ("What will future generations condemn us for?") articles for more potential moral revolutions in progress or in our future.

Finally, in this interview at the Browser he recommends five books related to The Honor Code, I was fascinated by this passage from the interview,
It turns out that one of the biggest things that explain the different murder rates in different parts of the American South is whether you’re in a region that was significantly settled by Scots-Irish. If you are from a region that was significantly settled by Scots-Irish who brought with them the kind of honour code that comes from a rural society that kept cattle, in those regions the rate of honour-related reasons (you flirted with my wife and such) are much higher than in other parts of the United States. 
Is that now? 
These data would be from the 60s, 70s, 80s. 
That’s bizarre. 
In fact, attitudes to honour in the South are very different from attitudes to honour in the North. Someone did a nice survey recently where they sent imaginary CVs applying for jobs, and in these CVs there were people who been in prison. If the CV showed that the reason they were in prison was that they had reacted violently to a threat to their honour, then in the South they could get a job but in the North they couldn’t. The point is that there is plenty of evidence of the pervasiveness of these issues of honour today, including in such things as the murder rates and the rates of assault. You have to face up to that and look for the possibilities for reform – unless you think you can get rid of it, and I don’t think you can. So, as I say, it can be and has been reformed and been moralised. It has changed from motivating people to do what’s bad to motivating them to do what’s good. Hard as it is to imagine when you’re stuck in the middle, we have historical evidence to show that it can be changed.
Hmmm... going back to his weak answer to an audience question about honor and the death penalty in the Aspen interview, let me see if I can help Appiah out. If the states of the former Confederacy accounted for approximately 90 percent of total executions  in the two decades following reinstatement of the death penalty in the late 70s, could attitudes about honor be a factor in some way? Could it explain the disconnect between the audience reaction to Rick Perry's execution record at the recent Republican debate, and that damned Yankee moderator Brian William's surprise at the cheers? Discuss...

What other disconnects between honor and morality occurred to you as you read, or what moral revolutions do you want to see happen?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

For February: A Person of Interest by Susan Choi

For February, we have selected Susan Choi's novel of paranoia in the age of terrorism, A Person of Interest,
With its propulsive drive, vividly realized characters, and profound observations about soul and society, Pulitzer Prize–finalist Susan Choi’s latest novel is as thrilling as it is lyrical, and confirms her place as one of the most important novelists chronicling the American experience. Intricately plotted and psychologically acute, A Person of Interest exposes the fault lines of paranoia and dread that have fractured American life and asks how far one man must go to escape his regrets. Professor Lee, an Asian-born mathematician near retirement age would seem the last person to attract the attention of FBI agents. Yet after a colleague becomes the latest victim of a serial bomber, Lee must endure the undermining power of suspicion and face the ghosts of his past.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

For January: The Eaves of Heaven by Andrew X. Pham

For January, we have selected The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars, by Andrew X. Pham. A few years back, we read and greatly enjoyed Pham's Catfish and Mandala and I am looking forward to reading this critically-acclaimed book about his father,
Once wealthy landowners, Thong Van Pham’s family was shattered by the tumultuous events of the twentieth century: the French occupation of Indochina, the Japanese invasion during World War II, and the Vietnam War. Told in dazzling chapters that alternate between events in the past and those closer to the present, The Eaves of Heaven brilliantly re-creates the trials of everyday life in Vietnam as endured by one man, from the fall of Hanoi and the collapse of French colonialism to the frenzied evacuation of Saigon. Pham offers a rare portal into a lost world as he chronicles Thong Van Pham’s heartbreaks, triumphs, and bizarre reversals of fortune, whether as a South Vietnamese soldier pinned down by enemy fire, a prisoner of the North Vietnamese under brutal interrogation, or a refugee desperately trying to escape Vietnam after the last American helicopter has abandoned Saigon. This is the story of a man caught in the maelstrom of twentieth-century politics, a gripping memoir told with the urgency of a wartime dispatch by a writer of surpassing talent.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Our October Author: Kim Young-ha

This month we are reading Your Republic Is Calling You by the  South Korean novelist Kim Young-ha. The author has a website with biographical information and an overview of his other books and a Facebook page which offers a few links to interviews and events. Interviews and material in English are a little scarce, but there is this PEN American Center panel appearance--you may want to start around the 37 minute mark for where Kim comes in:

For the nickel summary of this panel check out this blog post from 3%.

Much of the material from this interview in the Beijinger deals with works other than Republic, but there are some interesting insights, like this:
Between a widespread diaspora and the division of North and South, Korean identity is wrought with questions of nation, race, belonging ... how much does this background influence your desire to write, and your choices for the topics of each book?When I was a child, my father was an army officer. My family had to live near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where I was always hearing the North Korean propaganda speeches. That experience made me think a bit about strange themes like border, nation, prohibition, death, belief and so on. Growing up near the DMZ, one of the most dangerous areas in the world, is quite a rare experience. I think my childhood was the most crucial thing for my ability to write novels. Your Republic Is Calling You, my fourth novel, is the story about a forgotten North Korean spy. It is not just a coincidence that I pick this kind of 'borderline' character. He lives half his life in the North and the other half in the South. I have always felt myself standing on that border.
A few more nuggets might be gleaned from this KBS interview.
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