Sunday, September 20, 2015

Our September Author: Elizabeth Pisani

This month our discussion takes us to Southeast Asia courtesy of author Elizabeth Pisani's Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation. The book is much more than a travel diary of her journey around the archipelago, filled as it is with insights from her years as a reporter and public health worker. Nevertheless, you will inevitably want to see and hear some the sights and sounds described in the book and conveniently enough she has video and slides on her website, Indonesia Etc, that you won't want to miss.  If you haven't read the book and want a taste of the issues the book covers, this Radio New Zealand interview is a good place to start. In addition to the TED talk on the complexities of corruption above, you can check out her TED talk on AIDS prevention here. As follow up to the book, you might want to read her recent articles in The New Yorker, on the dangers of political dynasties and the death penalty in Indonesia. Or check out this Huffpost article with policy recommendations for the new Indonesian president.

Now that I've taken this informative journey with the author, I'm looking back with new insight at some of Amnesty International's human rights concerns for the island nation. Be sure to browse AIUSA's press releases and blog entries on Indonesia and last but not least, learn about prisoner of conscience Filep Karma, a case many of our Loyal Readers have taken action on before, for renewed insight into his plight.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Our August Author: Henning Mankell

In August we generally relax a little an read detective fiction, but although our selection this month, A Treacherous Paradise comes to us from the author of the Wallander mystery series, Henning Mankell, it isn't a traditional who-done-it. In this Guardian profile, Mankell explains the origin of the book:
“Normally it is very difficult to say exactly when a novel starts,” he says, “but in this case I can say exactly what happened. It was an early morning some 10 years ago in Maputo. I was in the theatre and a friend of mine — a Swedish scientist who was working in the Portuguese colonial archives — came to me and said: ‘Hey, Henning, I have found something very strange.’ Then he told me that in the tax archives at the beginning of the 20th century, there had been a Swedish woman who had been one of the biggest taxpayers, and she was the owner of the largest brothel in the town. She came from nowhere, owned the brothel for three years, then disappeared. I found this story enormously intriguing and tried to find out more about her, but it was impossible, so in the end it became a story about the little we know and a lot we don’t know.”
Read the full article for more insights or explore his personal website for about this author's diverse interests and talents. If you'd like some interesting visuals to help transport you back to colonial Mozambique while you read the book, check out this site for some old photographs of Maputo.

For a rundown on contemporary human rights concerns in Mozambique see this page from Amnesty International and while you are there take action on behalf of two Mozambicans who face charges for free expression of their political beliefs on Facebook.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Our July Author: Louisa Lim

This month we are reading The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by NPR China correspondent Louisa Lim. This look back at the events of 1989 and their resonance 25 years later, is my favorite of our selections so far this year. As usual, we have a few supplemental links to help expand our understanding of the book.

Lim has a website for the book which offers up many links to her media promotion for the book and further commentaries on topics such as Hong Kong's recent "Umbrella" democracy protests. Her public Facebook page also provides some good links.

For anyone looking for a shortcut into the discussion, both the Milken Institute and the Library of Congress have good videos of Lim presentations. For a more free-flowing conversation, try the Council on Foreign Relations panel discussion, moderated by Orville Schell, author of the previous book we read about Tiananmen, Mandate Of Heaven.

In a National Geographic interview, Lim details how two of the subjects profiled in the book, artist Chen Guang and Tiananmen mother Zhang Xianling came to be detained at the time of the book's publication in June of 2014.

Additonal interviews to check out:

The Diplomat
The 1989 protest movement remains so potent because many of its demands – for greater political participation, for action against corruption, nepotism and official profiteering – are not just unresolved, but more pressing than ever. In addition to those demands, a constellation of new concerns has emerged including anger over land seizures by local governments, the widening wealth chasm and China’s environmental problems...
The Shanghaist
I was surprised to find that my own book was classified in the Library of Congress cataloguing system under “Tiananmen Square Incident, 1989”, which is the bland nomenclature favoured by the Chinese government itself. To me, calling the murderous suppression of protests an “incident” is not just an act of omission. It’s an act of mendacity.
Voices from Tiananmen, a multimedia presentation on Tiananmen from the South China Morning Post, is a great way to learn about or review the events of spring 1989.  Human Rights in China's June Fourth Overview has comprehensive links including lists of victims, prisoners, oral histories, essays, poetry as well as HRIC's ongoing concerns surrounding accountability for the event and it's commemoration.  The website for the film Tiananmen: The Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is mentioned in the book, also contains some good resources including an old-fashioned print bibliography. It's a great film if you get a chance to see it.

Luckily, PBS Frontline's film, The Tank Man, is available to view online and the associated website has additional resources. The side by side comparisons of web searches in and outside of China are especially interesting.  The New York Times Lens blog has a nice feature about the famous photograph(s) with commentary from the photographers.  For fun checkout Mashable's round-up of Tank Man memes. And PRI catches a few more, including the Angry Bird and Simpson's versions.  Then finish up by comparing the icon to Ferguson Missouri's 'tank man' and Hong Kong's 'umbrella man'. (Bonus: watch Lim try to explain Hong Kong's protest movement to Stephen Colbert.)

Finally, even if Chen Guang's art cannot be shown in China, you can still appreciate it on this blog. You can also sign the Tiananmen Mothers petition and learn more about Amnesty International's human rights concerns in China here. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Our June Author: Andre Brink

This month we are reading Philida, a novel by the late South African writer, AndrĂ© Brink.

The story is set in 1832, a year before slavery is abolished in South Africa, and the titular character was inspired by an actual slave woman related to Brink's family. The historical skeleton came to Brink via the Solms Delta Museum van de Caab which unfortunately doesn't have much of a web presence. The Stellenbosh Village Museum's website, (a village that also appears in the book) is a little more extensive and offers this tour through various historical eras:

I also found South African History Online a useful site to orient myself to historical events mentioned in the book such as Galant and the 1825 slave uprising.

In brief interviews for The Guardian and NPR, Brink talks about writing from the point of view of a black woman and the historical basis for the novel.  In addition I found this interview from The Biblio File (also available via iTunes) useful for learning more about the author as it mostly concerns his memoir, A Fork in the Road.

Philida has been made into a musical! Brink's wife has posted photos of the production on her blog.

Finally, check out Amnesty International's human rights concerns in present day South Africa here.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Our May Author: Emily Parker

This month we are reading Emily Parker's Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground, a look at the role of internet activism in China, Cuba and Russia. Parker has a personal website with biographical information and links to articles she has written, all worth a look. She would be fit right in at a Rights Readers discussion based on the Wall Street Journal profiles she has written of such luminaries as Marjane Satrapi, Mario Vargas Llhosa, Alaa Al Aswany, Junot Diaz, Muhammad Yunus, Ha Jin, Salmon Rushdie and Haruki Murakami, all of whom we have read. Of course reading a book like this gets you to wondering about the role of technology in other countries and I've personally bookmarked her articles for The New Yorker on Vietnam and Hong Kong for follow-up.

For a TED-like summary of the contents of the book, I recommend this video from Personal Democracy Forum. If you've read the book already, I recommend Parker's conversation with Ann Marie Slaughter above or this offering from the National Endowment for Democracy, both of which feature well-informed interlocutors and great audience questions.

Interviews are available at The Rumpus and The Diplomat.  I especially enjoyed Guernica's exchange between Parker and novelist Yiyun Li. You'll want to move her novel onto your "to-read" pile. The Los Angeles Review of Books assigned a different reviewer to each of the sections of her book which provides great insights into the strengths and weaknesses of her arguments.

Finally, be sure to check out Amnesty International's concerns regarding internet censorship and take action on behalf of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Our April Author: Patricio Pron

This month we are reading Argentinian novelist Patricio Pron's My Fathers' Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain. Visit Pron's personal website,, to get acquainted with this young writer. Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of interview and discussion material available in English (though plenty in Spanish if you are so inclined), but here are a few items worth checking out:

The book is based on Pron's father's experiences and his father has contributed reactions and annotations to his son's novel which can be found in English here.

Hispanic New York has a lengthy interview on a variety of topics such as his first memorable read,
I recall myself reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days on a very hot summer in the northwest of the country in 1981 or 1982 and thinking—maybe for the first time—that there was a world out there—I mean, out of the oppressive realities of the Argentine dictatorship that each one of us perceived in a different way— and that freedom and love and adventure were there. And I also recall myself thinking about writers as people living all these things—the freedom, the love, the adventure Verne had written about—and coming back to tell us about them, and thinking about how great their service was.
Publisher's Weekly has a shorter interview with some useful insights into the construction of the novel and this response to a question about the novel's reception in Argentina
It’s been quite controversial because people didn’t expect a young writer, someone in my generation, to take part in discussing this history. The expectation is that the witnesses and protagonists will write about it, and I wanted to say that we who were children then, the unintended witnesses of the circumstances, also have things to say.
This short piece, The present of the past of things, written for English PEN, explores themes similar to the novel- collective guilt, personal responsibility, national history and family stories. 

If you want to sample more, Paris Review (Ideas) and Guernica (Bees) both offer up Pron short stories. Or explore Madrid with Pron at Words Without Borders.

Finally, check out Amnesty International's human rights concerns for Argentina here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

For April: My Father's Ghost is Climbing in the Rain

Join us this month as we read My Fathers' Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron, one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists:
A young writer, living abroad, makes the journey home to South America to say good-bye to his dying father. In his parents’ house, he finds a cache of documents—articles, maps, photographs—and unwittingly begins to unearth his father’s obsession with the disappearance of a local man. Suddenly he comes face-to-face with the ghosts of Argentina’s dark political past and with the long-hidden memories of his family’s underground resistance against an oppressive military regime. As the fragments of the narrator’s investigation fall into place—revealing not only a part of his father’s life he had tried to forget but also the legacy of an entire generation—this audacious novel tells a completely original story of corruption and responsibility, history and remembrance.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Our March Author: Masha Gessen

This month we are reading Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen. You can get biographical details on the author of this book detailing the history and trials of the Russian art collective Pussy Riot via Wikipedia. This Guardian article, My life as an out gay person in Russia, is a bit dated now, but explains why she felt the need to leave Russia for her family's safety, and gives you a more intimate look at her personal history and motivations.

In addition to the video above from the University of Chicago, I recommend Gessen's audio interview with Fresh Air. Or if you prefer print, Guernica goes deep with her on LGBT rights and the Russian protest movement in general: Gay Propaganda and Russia’s Shrinking Public Space. In more recent news, you might want to catch up with her views on the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov either on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show or in an opinion piece for the New York Times for the New York Times.

Of course a book like this demands a video supplement just for Pussy Riot performances. Open Culture has conveniently assembled the band's more significant videos in one place. There are many post-prison interviews with Nadia and Maria available, but why not go with this one from Amnesty International United Kingdom. Then, if you are a House of Cards fan, you can relive their third season cameo appearance courtesy of Slate.  And not to be missed, there is their just-released Ferguson video I Can't Breathe.

For a little more in depth analysis, I like this insight on the punk sensibilities of both Pussy Riot and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei:

I also found this BBC audio program helpful in understanding why Pussy Riot targeted the Russian Orthodox Chruch: Putin, the Patriarch and Pussy Riot.

Be sure to follow up your Pussy Riot explorations with a look at Amnesty International's human rights concerns in the Russian Federation including the murder of Boris Nemtsov, LGBT rights and take action for the free speech rights of other Russian activists.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

This month we are discussing Masha Gessen's book about the Russian art collective Pussy Riot, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.  If you want to join in the conversation this Sunday but didn't have time for the book or just want a visual supplement for your reading, you can stream the documentary
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer on Amazon Instant video,

On February 21, 2012, five young women entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. In neon-colored dresses, tights, and balaclavas, they performed a “punk prayer” beseeching the “Mother of God” to “get rid of Putin.” They were quickly shut down by security, and in the weeks and months that followed, three of the women were arrested and tried, and two were sentenced to a remote prison colony. But the incident captured international headlines, and footage of it went viral. People across the globe recognized not only a fierce act of political confrontation but also an inspired work of art that, in a time and place saturated with lies, found a new way to speak the truth. 
Masha Gessen’s riveting account tells how such a phenomenon came about. Drawing on her exclusive, extensive access to the members of Pussy Riot and their families and associates, she reconstructs the fascinating personal journeys that transformed a group of young women into artists with a shared vision, gave them the courage and imagination to express it unforgettably, and endowed them with the strength to endure the devastating loneliness and isolation that have been the price of their triumph.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Our February Author: Alexander Maksik

This month we are reading Alexander Maksik's novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, the story of a young Liberian woman struggling to survive on a European island and to find a way forward from the trauma of war. Visit the author's website for a full listing of interviews and articles as well as a brief biography.

In addition to the book trailer above, a longer video presentation and reading by Maksik is available from The American Library in Paris. Audio interviews are available from The Public and KCRW's Bookworm, where Michael Silverblatt tests out a provocative take on the end of the novel.

A couple of print interviews worth exploring:

The title—A Marker to Measure Drift—how does it relate to this decision that Jacqueline’s making, the decision to carry on? 
Alexander Maksik: The phrase comes from an essay I wrote years ago about sensualism, and from an image I kept returning to—trips to the beach with my parents when I was a kid. They had a little red Igloo Playmate cooler, where we would keep sandwiches. When I was out swimming, I would float with the current, and keep an eye on the cooler to measure how far I’d drifted. In the novel, Jacqueline is trying to find something like that—a solid point that she can use to evaluate the distance she has traveled, to measure how far she has drifted from a previous life.
Harper's Magazine
I don’t see Jacqueline as weak or desperate. She is strong and independent and determined to the point of making her life unnecessarily difficult. On the other hand, it is her determination, her pride and dignity, that allow her to survive. 
Of course, our Loyal Readers will be reminded of Helene Cooper's memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, when reading Marker, and it's no accident as Maksik acknowledges as part of his preparation for this novel. The interviewer at Epiphany detected another influence, J.M. Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K. Maksik also credits as inspiration a film about the Liberian conflict by journalist Tim Hetherington that is unfortunately not easy to find. But as it happens, PBS Frontline has a new documentary out, Firestone and the Warlord, (available online and via iTunes) which I found quite resonant with the novel.

Finally, check in here for Amnesty International's take on human rights in Liberia and here for an overview of refugee and migrant rights.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Our January Author: CJ Chivers

This month we are reading New York Times reporter, C.J. Chivers' history of the AK-47, The Gun.  I highly recommend a visit to Mr. Chivers' website In addition to biographical info, the author blogs from his reporter's notebook covering such issues as the arms trade, the Ukraine and Syrian conflicts, and his recent reporting on chemical exposure of U.S. troops in the Iraq War. (For more on that see this NYT documentary.)

Good interviews providing an introduction to the book come from NPR's Fresh Air and the World Affairs Council. Also of interest is this interview with Chivers after he received the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for reporting from Syria. And for kicks here is on The Colbert Report also talking about Syria.

Supplement your reading of the book by learning more about Amnesty International's work on the arms trade here or visit Control Arms to learn more about the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.

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