Thursday, August 29, 2013

For December:Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press

On the Swiss border with Austria in 1938, a police captain refuses to enforce a law barring Jewish refugees from entering his country. In the Balkans half a century later, a Serb from the war-blasted city of Vukovar defies his superiors in order to save the lives of Croats. At the height of the Second Intifada, a member of Israel’s most elite military unit informs his commander he doesn’t want to serve in the occupied territories. 
Fifty years after Hannah Arendt examined the dynamics of conformity in her seminal account of the Eichmann trial, Beautiful Souls explores the flipside of the banality of evil, mapping out what impels ordinary people to defy the sway of authority and convention. Through the dramatic stories of unlikely resisters who feel the flicker of conscience when thrust into morally compromising situations, Eyal Press shows that the boldest acts of dissent are often carried out not by radicals seeking to overthrow the system but by true believers who cling with unusual fierceness to their convictions. Drawing on groundbreaking research by moral psychologists and neuroscientists, Beautiful Souls culminates with the story of a financial industry whistleblower who loses her job after refusing to sell a toxic product she rightly suspects is being misleadingly advertised. At a time of economic calamity and political unrest, this deeply reported work of narrative journalism examines the choices and dilemmas we all face when our principles collide with the loyalties we harbor and the duties we are expected to fulfill.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Rights Rhythm: Spain in My Heart

Last week I kicked off our discussion of Rebecca Pawel's Watcher in the Pine with Pete Seeger's take on the Spanish Civil War song 'Viva La Quinte Brigada.' How about we close out with a little more music? This is from an album of contemporary musicians putting their spin on anthems of the era, Spain in My Heart: Songs of the Spanish Civil War. The album includes Pete and Arlo Guthrie singing Woody Guthrie's song 'Jarama Valley', another version of 'Viva La Quinte Brigada' by East LA natives Queztal and the always inspiring Lila Downs (see video above) with 'El Quinto Regimiento.'

The idealistic appeal of "fighting the good fight" against the fascist troops of General Francisco Franco as he warred against Spain’s democratically elected government drew more than 45,000 volunteer soldiers from over 50 countries during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). This influx created a canon of war-related songs sung by the freedom fighters and revived during the American folk boom of the Fifties. Rather than emulating the strident chaos of battle, the CD conveys more subtle aspects of the conflict – yearning for simpler times ("Asturias," "En La Plaza De Mi Pueblo"); longing for distant loved ones ("The Bantry Girls’ Lament"); the equal significance of life, love and death ("Llegó Con Tres Heridas"). The war and the bravery of the anti-fascist forces are addressed in such songs as "Jarama Valley," "El Quinto Regimiento," "Taste of Ashes," and "The Abraham Lincoln Brigade." No matter in what language the songs are performed, the bravery, pain and loss felt by soldiers and civilians alike are rendered with a conviction and feeling that transcends words and forges an aching link with the listener.
Sample more tracks from the album below.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Rights Reel: The Mexican Suitcase

Who doesn't love a lost treasure story? As a film supplement to our reading of Rebecca Pawel's Watcher in the Pine, a mystery set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, I'd like to recommend the documentary The Mexican Suitcase. The film tells the story of three lost boxes found in a closet in Mexico City in 2007. The boxes, misplaced in the chaos at the start of WWII, contained many of the Spanish Civil War negatives by the legendary photographer Robert Capa and fellow photographers Gerda Taro and David "Chim" Seymour.  The film traces the path of the negatives from Spain to France to Mexico and highlights the role Mexico played in the civil war and its significance for refugees from Spain. The film also examines the attitude of today’s Spaniards towards the fate of their ancestors who lost their lives in the war. You can stream it on Netflix or Amazon Instant.

You can also learn more and browse through a gallery of photos at the International Center for Photography website and the story and photos are also available in book form.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Franco's Ghost

Here's a few additional resources on the Spanish Civil War in case you wanted to put our August book, Watcher in the Pine, in context. Google Cultural Institute has an easily digestible multimedia spread that gives you the basics. For a little additional period color, you can watch The Spanish Earth, a 1937 pro-Republican propaganda film narrated by Ernest Hemingway. If you'd like a little more depth, try this podcast from the BBC In Our Time Series.

As with many divisive periods in a nation's life (I'm thinking of our recent reading of Anna Funder's Stasiland about East and West Germany) the process of reconciliation is ongoing. Just this year, Amnesty International released a report, "Time Passes, Impunity Remains", criticizing the Spanish government for blocking investigations into Franco-era crimes,
“The fact that Spain is neither investigating nor cooperating with proceedings relating to crimes committed during the Civil War by both parties to the conflict or under Franco is a slap in the face of all the relatives of those who were abused and disappeared at the time,” said Esteban Beltrán, Director of Amnesty International Spain. 
“We have seen a tendency for these cases to be closed without further investigation but the situation has worsened recently after the Supreme Court ruled that it was not for Spanish judges to prosecute these crimes. The only avenue of judicial investigation available in Spain it seems to be shut down.”
Amnesty is urging authorities in Spain to investigate and prosecute crimes or offences under international law and to assist fully with any request for cooperation it receives from foreign courts that decide to investigate these crimes.  For more on how Spaniards are confronting the legacy of the Franco era, watch "Franco's Ghost" above.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Our August Author: Rebecca Pawel

It's time to get to know Rebecca Pawel, author of our enaging "Mystery Month" selection Watcher in the Pine.  First stop is her website,, which has the usual biography and info about her other books. In the Links section, she has helpful pointers to the sources she consulted to create the Spanish Civil War setting for her books, something I was curious about, but unfortunately many of the links are now defunct. This one which will give you a little tour of Liébana and Potes, still works.  The New York Sun also has a brief profile of the Pawel here.  Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of interviews with this author available online. Fellow crime fiction writer Cara Black gets her on record with her favorite writers and films and other assorted trivia here, but the most interesting stuff can be found at Morpheme Tales where she discusses creating the central character, Tejada, how she worked to get the historical details right and the reception of her first book Death of a Nationalist, in Spain. Probably the best news is that although she has completed the Tejada series, her next book will be in Renaissance Flanders during the Eighty Years War. I'm not sure that's going to bring her back to Rights Readers, but it'll be on my personal "to read" list for sure.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Back to Picasso's War

I was excited we chose Rebecca Pawel's Watcher in the Pine as our "Mystery Month" selection thinking it was great that we were going to discuss a new topic, the Spanish Civil War. Somehow, I had completely forgotten how much we had enjoyed reading Russell Martin's Picasso's War: The Destruction of Guernica and the Masterpiece That Changed the World. If you want to jog your memory about the painting, the book and the history behind it in preparation for reading this month's mystery, the Picasso's War website is a fun place to start.

For more visuals of the era, check out UCSD's collection of posters from the Spanish Civil War or Columbia University's collection of children's drawings from the period.  I would love to find more books like Picasso's War that offer great works of art as an entry point into a discussion of history and human rights. Let me know if you know of any or nominate some works of art for this treatment in comments!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Rights Rhythm: Defeat Facism with Pete Seeger!

Let's warm up for the discussion of our August mystery, Rebecca Pawel's Watcher in the Pine, set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War with a recent performance of Pete Seeger and grandson performing in front of a massive audience in Barcelona in the video above. Pete recalls the solidarity album he and other American anti-fascists helped put together in 1943, Songs of the Spanish Civil War 1: Lincoln Brigadeand urges the crowd on just as vigorously as back in the day. Pete would want you to sing along: find the lyrics here. Sample the original album below. Rumba la rumba la rumba la!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Back to Burma with Emma Larkin

Some years ago we read and enjoyed Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma, in which the author explores both the life of the British writer, whose experience as an officer in the British Imperial Police in Burma was formative of his political consciousness, and life for ordinary people under the 'Orwellian' control of the ruling junta's repressive  government.

She followed up that book with Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma an account of the impact of Cyclone Nargis on Burma. Tens of thousands of people were killed as a result of the cylone and the Burmese regime not only failed to organize domestic relief efforts but also barred international aid, causing untold needless suffering. It was always my intention to put this book into our selection pool, but it appeared not to be available in paper, one of our criteria for selection. In the meantime, as so often happens after a major catastrophe, the exposure of the regime's underlying weakness in failing to provide for it's people has led to reforms, including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political dissidents from house arrest or prison, and parliamentary elections held over a year ago. Eventually I learned that the book was available in paper, but the title of the book had been changed (No Bad News for the King: The True Story of Cyclone Nargis and Its Aftermath in Burma). But the disaster topic now seemed a little dated. (Note to publishers: Don't change titles in midstream!) Nevertheless, I went ahead and read the book and quite enjoyed it, even if it leaves off before the going gets good, and just wanted to put this out there for those who enjoyed the Orwell journey and would like a follow-up. What I am really hoping now is that Ms. Larkin is out there gathering up stories-- from what we hope is a Burma transitioning to democracy-- and a new book will let us know how that project is going soon. In the meantime, you can read a New Republic article by Larkin, "The Awakening" which reports on the post-Nargis human rights thaw, and check out her book recommendations at Five Books

You can read more about Amnesty International's concerns for the current human rights concerns in Burma (Myanmar) and take action on behalf of a detained Burmese activist here.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Rights Reel: The Attack

A few years ago, we read Yasmina Khadra's book, The Attackabout a suicide bombing and a Palestinian doctor's quest for answers in it's wake. I'll be honest and say it wasn't one of our favorites and we thought we might have done better with one of the Algerian writer's other novels, such as the The Swallows of Kabul. But Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri thought otherwise and has made the book into a film. At Word and Film he explains, 
It’s a love story. It’s about taking your character and stonewalling him and making his quest harder. It’s about the ambivalence of living in two societies. Like I do. I’m still juggling between the Arabic society and my life in the West. And let’s not kid ourselves: It’s a great book. We changed the book; we changed its ending and added music and visuals. But the material is great. It’s not an intellectual book. It’s about a man who cannot comprehend what happened to him. This is emotional; it’s not analytical. 
Doueiri's film has received quite positive reviews and this may be one of those cases where the film improves on the book. Robert Worth, writing in a fascinating essay for the New York Times, "Can we imagine the life of a terrorist?" thinks so, especially praising Doueri's reluctance to assign motivation to the terrorist, and hinting that Khadra's military background may cause him to offer up unrealistic rationality in his fictional terrorist characters. I'm looking forward to seeing the film.

One place it won't be seen is the Middle East. The Arab League has banned the film, ostensibly because of a work rule that bars Lebanese, like director Ziad Doueiri, from working in Israel, where the movie was filmed. Doueiri believes that the film's sympathetic portrait of Israelis was the real motivation behind the Arab League boycott. Khadra is also incensed by the censorship, 
“While Syria is going up in flames, Iraq is suffering from countless suicide bombings, and Libya is sinking into disarray, the Arab League is taking it out on an artist,” Khadra said to The Times of Israel this week after the movie’s French premiere. “Isn’t that the height of obscenity?”
For more on how director Ziad Doueiri changed the novel and how his study of film, including Alan Resnais' Night and Fog transformed his view of Israelis listen to this interview from WBEZ's Worldview.

Have you seen the film? What did you think?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan Coming Up for Cleveland

Spread the word! Cleveland Rights Readers will be reading In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner for September. The book was a PEN/Hemingway Award Finalist this year (along with our previous selection Jennifer DuBois A Partial History of Lost Causes.)  The discussion will be held at 6:30 PM on September 8 at Mac's Backs. Here's more on this novel inspired by the author's experiences as a Cambodian refugee,
For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. 
Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is testament to the transcendent power of narrative and a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Imperial Reckoning: A Human Rights Victory

This is old news since the settlement was in June, but I thought it was important to bring our reading of Caroline Elkin's Pulitzer-winning book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya some closure by acknowledging the victory in court of the elderly Mau Mau survivors who finally gained compensation from the British government for injuries sustained during detention in the 1950s. According to the LA Times
Five elderly Kenyans filed claims against the British government in 2009, but the law firm Leigh Day eventually represented the 5,228 Kenyan claimants. Among the original claimants, Paulo Muoka Nzili testified that he was castrated by British soldiers. Wambuga Wa Nyingi was in the Hola prison camp in 1959 when British guards carried out horrific beatings, killing 11 people. He was beaten with clubs and passed out. Jane Muthoni Mara suffered sexual abuse in a prison camp.
Caroline Elkins details her experience with the case both in submitting the evidence she used for Imperial Reckoning, and her work as an expert witness sifting through 300 newly discovered boxes of material, and finally sharing in the emotional outcome with Kenyan survivors, in The Guardian.
Ultimately, the Mau Mau case is as symbolic as it is instructive. Regardless of future claims, Britons can no longer hide behind the rhetoric of unequivocal imperial success. Instead, British liberalism in the empire – with its alleged spread of civilisation, progress, liberty and rule of law justifying any coercive actions – has been irreversibly exposed. 
Instead of being one-offs, Britain's colonial violence was as systematised as its efforts at cover-up. The British validation of the Mau Mau claims – and its first form of an apology for modern empire – offers its citizens an opportunity to understand more fully the unholy relationship between liberalism and imperialism, and the impacts not only on the elderly Kikuyu, but on themselves.
Imperial Reckoning was probably the most academic book we've read and one of the most challenging due to the unrelenting horror of the subject matter, but it's also likely the only book where we can draw a direct line between the testimony unearthed by the book's author and an important victory for the cause of human rights. That in itself is an inspiring story for authors, readers and activists.

Something to keep an eye on going forward: the law firm that drove the case is now looking for compensation for Caribbean slavery from France, Britain and the Netherlands.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Trouble on the Mekong

A few summers ago, we journeyed down the Mekong river from it's headwaters in Tibet to the delta in Vietnam courtesy of Edward Gargan's The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong.  The video above gives us an update on the massive dam projects now underway in Thailand, Laos, and China that
are disrupting the livelihoods of the people who live in the region and producing ecological damage that extends all the way to the Mekong delta. Learn more at

Monday, August 05, 2013

For November: Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa

Several years ago, we read Ken Wiwa's memoir, In the Shadow of a Saint, a memoir about his relationship with his father, the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigeria government in November 1995. The book was one of our favorites. Now our Pasadena group has chosen a book for this coming November by his daughter Noo: Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria. I'm really looking forward to Noo as our guide to life in contemporary Nigeria.
Noo Saro-Wiwa was brought up in England, but every summer she was dragged back to visit her father in Nigeria — a country she viewed as an annoying parallel universe where she had to relinquish all her creature comforts and sense of individuality. After her father, activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, was killed there, she didn’t return for several years. Recently, she decided to come to terms with the country her father given his life for. 
Saro-Wiwa travels from the exuberant chaos of Lagos to the calm beauty of the eastern mountains; from the eccentricity of a Nigerian dog show to the decrepit kitsch of the Transwonderland Amusement Park. She explores Nigerian Christianity, delves into the country’s history of slavery, examines the corrupting effect of oil, and ponders the huge success of Nollywood. 
She finds the country as exasperating as ever, and frequently despairs at the corruption and inefficiency she encounters. But she also discovers that it si far more beautiful and varied than she had ever imagined, with its captivating thick tropical rainforest and ancient palaces and monuments. Most engagingly of all, she introduces us to the many people she meets, and gives us hilarious insights into the African character, its passion, wit and ingenuity. 
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