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.
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