Wednesday, June 21, 2017

To Destroy You Is No Loss

To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family, by Teeda Butt Mam and Joan D. Criddle

I found the follow-up to this memoir, Bamboo and Butterflies, at my library, where it was being weeded because it's falling apart.   Once I figured out that it was a follow-up, I went looking for the first volume, and thus I have my #3 summer read.

Teeda Butt was 15 years old and part of a fairly well-to-do Phnom Penh family when the Khmer Rouge won its war against the Khmer Republic government (which had itself come into power through a coup only five years before).  Everyone was just happy for the war to be over; they figured that China seemed to be doing okay under Communism, so it wouldn't be too much worse than the last few governments.  The Khmer Rouge, however, was run by radicals who planned to remake society entirely.

Phnom Penh was emptied and the people told to leave for ancestral villages.  No supplies were given at all: no water, food, or anything.  Teeda's large family was determined to stay together, and they had stashed food pretty carefully, so they did make it to the village where her father had once been an official.  He was taken away for 're-education.'  The next four years would consist of utter poverty, slave labor, and constant fear, always subject to the Angka Loeu, the High Organization that issued all orders.  Angka was the wall that Pol Pot and his fellow despots hid behind; instead of a cult of personality, like so many Communist regimes have imposed, the Khmer Rouge leaders stayed anonymous, purposely giving an impression of remote mystery.

Teeda's story is spellbinding and terrible.  The whole time, I kept thinking of how the Khmer Rouge illustrated the dangers inherent in radicalism and group-think.  Here you had a group that allowed no disagreement or debate whatsoever, and certainly not any criticism.  In their self-inflicted echo chamber, they imagined a society to fit some very strange ideals, not to fit human beings.  They got away with as much as they did because they cut the whole country off from the outside and used classic tactics to keep their population off-balance, hungry, uncertain, and afraid.  In their madness, they were prepared to murder millions; in fact, they eventually planned to kill everyone who had been over the age of twelve at their victory.

The family story goes up to the invasion by Vietnam, which Cambodians saw as a liberation (albeit one not to be trusted very far) because it freed them from Angka.  Teeda's family walked to Thailand in hopes of crossing the border, which they did -- only to be transported back when the Thai refugee camps overflowed.  So they did it all again, determined to get to America.  Teeda finishes with an account of how all her family members did for the next several years, and it's a dizzying story of hard work and accomplishment.

Every time I read about Cambodia, I realize again how very much worse the Khmer Rouge was than I manage to remember.  (And I just read about Cambodia....).  The scale and nature of this murderous regime is just mind-boggling; in only four years, they managed to murder a good 25% of their own people, probably around two million, but it could be three.  Not wishing to waste bullets, they did it mostly by hand (or by starvation and lack of real medical care).  Everyone was enslaved.  And they destroyed most of the country's material cultural heritage too.  Their attitude was exemplified by the slogan that inspired the book's title: "To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss."

This is a really good memoir of a point in history that everyone ought to know about.  I'll be reading the follow-up soon, too, which is about their adjustment to American life.



Friday, June 16, 2017

The Widow Killer

The Widow Killer, by Pavel Kohout

I've been reading this book forever, or at least that's what it feels like!  Despite being a quite exciting murder mystery/thriller set in Prague at the end of World War II, I had a hard time getting into the story and was very slow about reading it.  It was good, though.

We follow three men: Jan Morava, young Czech detective in occupied Prague, Erwin Buback, disillusioned Gestapo agent, and the murderer himself, who is a serial killer insanely obsessed with widows.  Over the months it takes for the case to unfold, the Russians move ever closer to the city and both Jan and Buback find love.  The killer just finds new victims and drives poor Jan mad with frustration.

It's a long, intricate story and I was glad I read it, slowly though I went.  I partly grabbed the book because of the author; Kohout was a Czech Communist who became a dissident -- a leader of the 1968 Prague Spring, expelled from the Party and the country, and one of the architects of Charta 77, along with  Václav Havel and others.  Kohout is still around today and has written poetry and plays as well as novels.  So I was intrigued by that and wanted to see what he had to say.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Bad News

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, by Anjan Sundaram

This one has been on my wishlist for some time, since Jenny at Reading the End talked about it (go read her version, it's more eloquent than mine).  Boy howdy, is it good -- if by 'good' we mean 'riveting, important, and depressing.'

Anjam Sundaram, living in Rwanda, is teaching journalism classes to train Rwandan journalists as part of a general grant.  Rwandan journalism is in deep trouble, as is speech in general, because the president of Rwanda is a dictator and getting more controlling all the time, rewriting reality and exchanging lies for truth.  Journalists are alternately threatened and bribed, or just plain jailed, and the few who do not break down and become fawning lackeys usually end up fleeing the country and going into hiding. 

The situation just gets more and more grim through the book.  The Rwandan government uses all the best DDR tricks to keep surveillance on every citizen all the time.  No one dares to speak out, and with the inability to speak or criticize comes, eventually, an inability to imagine anything different.   As Sundaram sees his closest friends and colleagues hounded into escape, paranoia, or jail, he wonders how the future of the whole country can be salvaged.

Riveting, as I said, and I recommend it.  This is also my #2 Book of Summer, but I'm not counting it for the Reading All Around the World project as it is not written by a Rwandan.  I'll have to find something else for that!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Blue Sky

The Blue Sky, by Galsan Tschinag

Dshurukuwaa is a young Tuvan shepherd boy in Mongolia.  His nomadic family lives in the Altai mountains; there are a few relatives in their remote settlement, but the little boy's world mainly consists of his immediate family, his beloved dog Arsylang, and the flocks of sheep.  He is closest to his adopted grandmother, who cares for him, and he has a happy life deeply rooted in Tuvan ways.  Through the story he suffers loss after loss, as his older brother and sister are sent to a Soviet boarding school, his grandmother dies, and, most shattering of all, Arsylang is killed by poison meant for marauding wolves.

This is the first of an autobiographical trilogy of novels.  The next two are The Gray Earth (which I will be sure to pick up soon) and The White Mountain, which will only be published in English later this fall.  Tschinag, having lived the Tuvan life and then forcefully educated as a Soviet, spent years in East Germany and chose German as the language he would use to write about his Mongolian homeland.  He is a prolific writer, but few of his books have been available to English-speaking audiences.  Tschinag is now a writer and shaman who travels between Mongolia and Europe, working to preserve his Tuvan culture, which was ravaged by Soviet rule.

It's a short novel, simple and profound in its story, and lovely in execution.  Really, it was wonderful to read.  With all its loss, this is the most pleasant part of the trilogy, as Dshurukuwaa will grow up to be oppressed in a Soviet school and struggle with living in two radically different cultures.  I'll definitely be reading the next two books.

And, bonus material: here is Tschinag singing a shamanic song.




Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Stolen Words

Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books, by Mark Glickman

[Aside before this Very Serious Book Post: Last time I blogged, over a week ago, I was all pleased because I had actually cleared my desk of books to write about -- for the first time in at least a year.  Then I had a busy week that involved a whole lot of driving around.  I even went out of town for a few days, which was fun, especially since I really had nothing to do except deliver a kid and then listen to her perform two days later, so I went to a bookstore and generally goofed off.....and now I have six books on my desk and haven't posted a thing for days.  Summer is eating up my time in an even more odious manner than usual; I'm not working, there's no school, and yet I have less free time than before.  How does that work?  We haven't even gone swimming yet!  Well, anyway...]

We all know that the Nazis had every intention of destroying all vestiges of Jewish culture and influence, and in early days they would collect 'Jewish' books and stage book-burnings.  Book-burnings were a lot of fun and made great night events, but had the disadvantage of drawing the scorn of every civilized nation and showing the Nazis up as brutish thugs -- plus books are hard work to burn anyway.  So their ideas changed a bit, and -- here is the bit you probably didn't know -- they decided to collect Jewish books instead and build massive libraries which were going to showcase the great culture conquered and demolished by Aryan might.  So as Nazis plundered treasures and artworks all around Europe, they were also deliberately plundering Jewish libraries and making Jewish books of all kinds disappear.
Glickman starts out with a short history of Jewish literacy and writing, starting with Moses.  In a fascinating couple of chapters, he'll whisk you through a few thousand years of Torah scrolls, Maccabee revolts, rabbinic teachings, amazing books combining texts and commentaries -- conversations that stretched over centuries -- and the constant threat of losing those books when various powerful types decided that Jewish learning was dangerous stuff.  (NB: In one of those coincidences that pop up in a reading life, I learned that the extremely pious French king Louis IX planned to burn Jewish books at the pope's behest, was dissuaded by a sympathetic cardinal, and then did it anyway after the cardinal dropped dead, since that was obviously a sign of God's wrath.  Louis IX, and his psalter, is also the subject of Picturing Kingship, the book Harvey Stahl, Jewish himself, spent his life writing.  I have it right now on ILL, though it's much too large and scholarly for me to really read properly.  And of course, I got it after reading Last Things a few weeks ago.)

After this introduction, we move on to Nazi theory and the importance of Jewish books.  The Nazis started off with lots of emotional appeal and mob action, and early book-burnings were part of this, but even more than they wanted to be masters of whipped-up mobs, the Nazis wanted very badly rational and scientific.  So pretty soon, they turned from haphazard, slapdash book-burnings to systematic, intellectual efforts to justify anti-Semitism.  They would use anthropology and biology to design "a science of supremacism."  This was hugely appealing to an awful lot of people, who jumped right on the bandwagon, and it gave rise to two organizations within the Nazi power structure (which was in fact not rational at all, since it was based around vying for Hitler's attention) which focused entirely on collecting Jewish books for a massive institute of anti-Semitic research.  Even as the war machine ripped through Europe, officials came right behind them and packed up innumerable Jewish libraries for shipping back to Germany.
indeed to be modern, respectable, and above all,

Plate tipped in to repatriated books
OK, I'm getting waaaay too wordy here, but the rest of the book is just as gripping as the first few chapters.  Hiding books in ghettos!  Post-war warehouses of books to sort through!  How do you repatriate a library, and what if that library is now in Stalin's also-anti-Semitic grasp?  Hannah Arendt!

I found this book to be utterly fascinating; it illuminated a corner of World War II that few noticed at the time, but which had massive cultural reverberations.  It's well-written, and I kept reading bits aloud to whoever was handy; my 16-year-old daughter was quite intrigued as well.  I do kind of wish I'd read this book before I read Outwitting History, because chronologically they would have gone better that way, but it doesn't really matter.



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

20 Books of Summer

o posted a summer project that I do not remember running into before, though I must have.  Karen at 746 Books hosts The 20 Books of Summer challenge:

For anyone who hasn’t taken part before, 20 Books of Summer is a reading challenge I do each year from 1 June to 3 September where I read 20 books from my TBR in three months. ...  As ever, there will be a 15 books and 10 books option and as previous years, a few Australians might take part and rename it the 20 books of winter! I’ll have a Master Post with a linky where you can share your reading lists and the #20booksofsummer hashtag will be buzzing again.
So that seems like fun!  I'll be choosing a mix of library and actual TBR books, since as I showed the other day, my library TBR pile is nearly as large as the pile of books I actually own.   Here are my picks; I accidentally included two extra and then couldn't figure out which to take out, so now I have wiggle room, I guess?
  1. Limonov, by Emmanuel Carrere
  2. Half a Crown, by Jo Walton
  3. Bai Ganyo, Konstantinov
  4. Rashomon, by Ryünosuke Akutagawa
  5. Marie Grubbe, by Jens Peter Jacobsen
  6. Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon
  7. At the Pulpit: 185 Years of Discourses by Latter-day Saint Women
  8. The Dybbuk and Other Writings, by Ansky
  9. The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah
  10. Bad News, by Anjan Sundaram
  11. Train to Pakistan, by Khushwant Singh
  12. To Destroy You Is No Loss / Bamboo and Butterflies, by Joan Criddle
  13. The Foundation Pit, by Platonov
  14. Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol
  15. The Blue Sky, by Tshinag
  16. A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam
  17. Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand
  18. The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay
  19. The Go-between, by L. P. Hartley
  20. The Story of My Teeth, by Luiselli
  21. Lyrics Alley, by Leila Aboulela
  22. This Earth of Mankind, by Toer
I don't see how I could possibly read all that and Thucydides too, but we shall see.  It's good to have goals, right?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

LOTR Readalong: The Return of the King

The Return of the King, by J. R. R. Tolkien

I enjoyed this final installment so much!  It's a very long time since I read it, and I'd forgotten how rich and detailed it all is.  Gandalf is already in Gondor, preparing it for battle.  Aragorn and Theoden are mustering all the troops they can to go fight for Gondor, and it takes a long time, just like real life.  Aragorn decides to go down the Paths of the Dead.  But all of their dramatic fighting (which would normally be the crucial scene) will be useless unless Frodo and Sam get to Mount Doom, and providing cover for them is half the point of all that battle.  Sauron has tremendous resources and is only poking at Gondor so far.

What I really had the most fun with was Tolkien's use of changing writing styles and dialogue.  He just lets himself go in this volume!  People describing battles, or even just talking around the battles, sound exactly like Beowulf, with lots of alliteration.  Gimli is particularly strong with it ("With its own weapons was it worsted!"), but Gandalf and others use it too.  The parts about Aragorn's coronation and the events around that sound straight out of high-style Arthurian tales, but when it comes time to clear out the Shire, everything is straightforward and down-to-earth.  Sam's style takes over, and only the other three Fellowship hobbits talk a little more poetically.

The very end of the story is full of renewal and rebirth for Men, and (most) Hobbits in the dawn of the Fourth Age.  Middle-Earth, much of which has been desolate or blasted since the last war, is going to be repopulated and rebuilt, and it's Men that are going to do it.  Well, mostly.  The Ents have already started at Orthanc, having turned the whole ugly, mechanical gouge in the earth into gardens, orchards, and a clean lake.  It seems they're getting a little domesticated, like the lost Entwives.  Faramir and Eowyn plan to do similar work in Ithilien.  The Shire, after its cleaning, is going to be more fertile and friendly than ever.  Most of the cast travels back over their route, setting each place in order for the renewal.  (Most authors would not bother with this at all, but Tolkien feels it absolutely necessary.)

The Elves, however, are going to go away.  They have been diminishing for a long time -- I suppose ever since the last war -- and soon only a few will remain.  Gandalf, whose job was fighting Sauron, is going too, and so is Frodo, who is no longer really of the world at all, having been too badly maimed during his quest.  They shall all leave Middle-Earth, and so even in the midst of all this happy renewal, there is a melancholic strain that takes over the end.

I'm very glad Brona decided to host this readalong - it's been great!  Now, I wonder if I should read the Silmarillion, which I have never read at all, nor the Children of Hurin.


As a farewell to Middle-Earth, let's have "Bilbo's Last Song:"

 Day is ended, dim my eyes,
but journey long before me lies.
Farewell, friends! I hear the call.
The ship's beside the stony wall.
Foam is white and waves are grey;
beyond the sunset leads my way.
Foam is salt, the wind is free;
I hear the rising of the Sea.

Farewell, friends! The sails are set,
the wind is east, the moorings fret.
Shadows long before me lie,
beneath the ever-bending sky,
but islands lie behind the Sun
that I shall raise ere all is done;
lands there are to west of West,
where night is quiet and sleep is rest.

Guided by the Lonely Star,
beyond the utmost harbour-bar
I'll find the havens fair and free,
and beaches of the Starlit Sea.
Ship, my ship! I seek the West,
and fields and mountains over blest.
Farewell to middle-earth at last.
I see the Star above your mast!

Monday, May 29, 2017

What's in your personal canon?

By now everyone has published, or at least seen, a personal canon post.  The idea is to compile a list of books that have had a real and lasting effect on us, and that we consider 'great,' whether or not they're classics in the usual sense.  So here we go, a list (inevitably partial) of books that have had a lot of impact on me.

I used to have this poster on my wall!
 First, I have to list an awful lot of children's authors.  The inside of my head was, to a large extent, built or influenced by these names, and even if I don't read them as often now, they are still some of my most important.  Since I read as much as I could of each of these, I'm not going to put individual book titles down.

Diana Wynne Jones
Daniel Pinkwater
Madeleine L'Engle
Eleanor Farjeon
C. S. Lewis
L. M. Boston
John Bellairs
Tove Jansson

Now for the books I read when I was more of an adult, in no particular order at all:

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
The Quest of the Holy Grail
My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
The Queen's Diadem, by C. J. L. Almqvist
Arranged Marriage (and other works), by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years - Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber
The Book of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan
Patterns of Thought, by Robert Foster
A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman
The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Discarded Image, by C. S. Lewis
Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
Kindly Inquisitors, by Jonathan Rauch
A Time of Gifts and sequels, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Up From Slavery, by Booker T. Washington
Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen
 In the First Circle, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
Eugene Onegin, by Pushkin
The Rosemary Tree, by Elizabeth Goudge

If you haven't done a personal canon post yet, I hope you will soon!  I've loved reading others' posts.

Acquired this one a few years ago :)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Burning Page

The Burning Page, by Genevieve Cogman

This is the third Invisible Library novel!  Irene and Kai are on probation, so they're stuck with a lot of scutwork jobs, but then a straightforward return to the Library blows up in their faces.  The Library is under attack by Alberich, who's got a scheme nobody has figured out yet -- nobody thought it was even possible to attack the Library at all. 

I'm enjoying this series a lot, because the stories are not repetitive.  Irene's situation keeps changing, depth is added, we find out more, and there's just a lot of well-developed story.  Now there's this question about her parents, and her detective buddy Vale has this really interesting problem where he might become a Fae, and all sorts of interesting possible stories coming up.

A really pretty good YA fantasy series, lots of fun.  I love these books.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Against Empathy

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is a psychology professor at Yale, specializing in child development and morality (among other things) and I reviewed his earlier book, Just Babies, a couple of years ago.  Here, he tackles empathy: what is it, do we need more or less or it, and what is it good for?  Since more empathy is often said to be the solution for many of our problems, what would that mean?

Part of the trouble is that empathy is a word that is a little difficult to pin down.  Strictly speaking, empathy is entering into the feelings of others; feeling just what the other person feels.  Not the same thing as understanding others' feelings or feeling pity for them, but actually feeling what they feel.   However, the word is often used in a looser sense.  Bloom is careful to differentiate and write about empathy in the strict sense.

So wouldn't it be great if we were all more empathetic with each other?  Isn't that where morality comes from, and the basis of all good policy?  (These are actual claims.)  Well, maybe.  Partly.  Possibly not.  There are a lot of problems with empathy, such as...

It's limited in number.  It's not possible for human beings to empathize with large swathes of people.

Empathy is biased; we tend to empathize far more easily with our own than with others.  It's also narrowly focused, considering just one story at a time.  Empathy is a great propaganda tool, because you can capture votes with a harrowing story even if the numbers show that the most good is achieved through some other method.

Empathy very frequently leads to less-effective outcomes, and can easily result in outright cruelty.  It's easy for empathy to become a warm, fuzzy, self-righteous form of plain old prejudice.

Bloom concludes that empathy, like anger, is a good servant but a terrible master.  He advocates instead for rational compassion that looks carefully at all sides of a problem, weighs the many factors, and tries to come to a fair solution.

 An interesting book, and full of things to think about.  I liked it.