Saturday, January 31, 2009

My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan

Mahvish Khan was the rare combination of a law student and a fluent Pashto speaker. This made her attractive to the pro bono habeas lawyers who were attempting to represent the detainees at Guantanamo. While still in law school, she signed on with a firm to serve as its interpreter.

This book is the result of her observations and experiences in Guantanamo, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Khan is a less than artful wordsmith. She ends up coming off a bit like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, young, at times shallow and yet at other times startlingly graphic and nuanced. Her book alternates between being painful due to her prose and painful due to her subject while also managing to work in a surprisingly personal perspective and a deep degree of empathy for the detainees with whom she deals.

Khan claims to be objective,

Though it may appear to some readers that I give ample, and perhaps naive, credence to prisoners' points of view, I have made every effor to verify their accounts and to explore the military's contrasting perspective . . . My objective is simply to tell the stories of some of the men held captive by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, the stories they themselves have never been able to tell.

but saying it's so doesn't make it so. She is clearly charmed by all of the detainees she met, even Taj Mohammad, the suspicious "goatherd" whose story, she admits, never added up. She concludes by stating,

I can honestly say that I don't believe any of the Afghans I met were guilty of crimes against the United States. Certainly, some of the Guantanamo detainees were, just not the men I met.

Were the men she met truly not guilty or were they simply not guilty because she met them?

And yet, that's not the point. Guilty or not, the abuses that Khan details are appalling. Members of the US military performed ghastly acts. Commander Jeffery Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, comes across as particularly ignorant, defensive and asinine.

And in the end, there is no disagreeing with Khan's central point,

Some readers may also argue that detainees, or "enemy combatants," as the Defense Department calls them, aren't entitled to the protections of U.S. law. This is an argument I reject. While I believe that Guantanamo may hold evil men as well as innocent ones, I also believe that only a full and fair hearing can separate the good from the bad.

And that is the point.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Passage to India

Again this book wasn't what I expected. I'd heard of E.M. Forster's A Passage to Indiaand expected it to be a romantic novel (not like a Harlequin) wherein the characters come to acclimate to India. Not at all. Rather it's the story of the divide between the English and the Indians, a divide that will not ever be mended or understood no matter how eager some of the expats were to get to see the "real India."

The story features long time expats who're ossified in their understanding of Indians and are quite racist in their thinking. Then there are some newcomers who dislike how their fellow English look down on the Indians. They do try to get acquainted with Indians like Dr. Aziz and try to experience the culture rather than just importing their own in this new country. Yet despite their best efforts misunderstanding and confusion thwart them. In fact, their impact on Indian may have been more harmful than their compatriots'.

It is rather sad, but probably very true. Forster presents what was no doubt the real situation between these two groups. It's very honest and realistic.

Barzun on Race

Race a Study in Superstitionwasn't exactly what I expected. It was first published in 1937, which explains why the author's perspective was not what I was used to. Don't get me wrong, Barzun is not a racist or anything, it's just that the book examines the history of how 19th century social scientists and thinkers thought about race. Primarily, Barzun compares how the French classified themselves and how Nordics did, etc. He shows how this was nonsense, but nowadays we all agree.

He did begin by mentioning how no sooner is say Department 1 devided into two new groups and the people who were once "one of us" are now those annoying idiots on the second floor. We do have to fight that propensity.

It was an interesting book to pair with A Passage to India.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

If my shopping cart weren't so full, I'd get this

A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics

Donald Richie's A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics is a fascinating exploration of Japanese philosophy(ies) of beauty. It's written in a zuihitsu ((随筆) style. Meaning random thoughts, zuithitsu essay is very much, I think, written by instinct and the subconscious. The wisdom therein often surprises the author.

So in this book Richie, one of my favorite authors and Japanophiles, describes or explains Japanese terms and concepts like wabi, sabi, gyo, shin, so, etc. I realize that sounds like the book is basically a dictionary. It isn't. The best way to convey the book is to give you a sample of the text.
Shibui. . . is a term one sometimes encounters in ordinary conversation, and everyone still knows more or less what it means. I was recently complimented on a necktie that was approvingly see as shibui. It was a subdued tie, brownish, slightly murky, but wiht a neary indiscernible touch of dark green threaded in it.
Ah, I don't think that or any quote taken from the whole really does give you a good sense of the book's power. So you'll have to trust me. If you're interested in Japanese culture, Richie conveys its meanings and experiences with trenchant insight.

The Japanese have all these rich words that need to be experienced rather than just defined. Wabi sabi is one (technically they're two terms frequently combined like salt and pepper) that could be defined as old and tattered yet beautiful. A Japanese friend explained them as " . . . imagine you've hiked a long way up a hill or mountain and come upon a temple and just feel very . . . ahhhh!" Well, that's sort of it. And with Japanese culture there's a lot of "sort ofs". You have to be comfortable with the ineffable or indeterminate to thrive in Japan, I think.

I agree with Michael Dunn who writes in The Japan Times that:
This is no "How to look at Japanese Culture Lite," and Richie neither condescends nor dumbs down. He presumes that his readers are able not only to think for themselves, but also intuit the subtleties of Japanese aesthetic sensitivities clarified in his concise prose. So concise in fact that with fewer than 80 pages this little book is, in itself, a distilled demonstration of "less is more" — one of the prime tenets of so many Japanese arts. It provides essential and profound reading for anyone having even a passing interest in Japanese culture, and is small, portable, and affordable enough for ever-present reference.

Wikipedia on Zuihitsu
a blog called Zuihitsu
An brief example of zuihitsu:
"Trust, even when misplaced, creates stability." from a blog called Thought.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bill of Wrongs by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose

As a bit of a latecomer to Molly Ivins, I'm sure that I'm just discovering what others have known for some time. Molly Ivins was fabulous. Three pages into the introduction, I was exclaiming out loud that everyone should read this book.

Witty, compelling and with no fear of skillfully using profanity to make their point, Ivins and Dubose shine a light on the crimes of the Bush administration against the constitution, American citizens and people of the world.

They present a picture that is at times triumphal and at times frustrating but is always appalling.

They also provide a vision of hope in the courage and strength of everyday Americans willing to stand up to the abuses of a rogue administration.

Growing up in a relatively conservative environment, I used to be frustrated by the ACLU's interventionalism in various matters which I saw as ridiculous meddling. After reading this book, I say, thank god for the ACLU.

Monday, January 12, 2009

For Writers

On Writing, Editing and Publishing (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, & Publishing) by historian and scholar, Jacques Barzun is a collection of his essays on writing. It's witty, trenchant and useful. His essay "The Paradoxes of Publishing" is a hoot. The one on Lincoln's style is thoughtful. Barzun is quite accessible.

I borrowed the library's copy. On Amazon, this out-of-print edition is going for a whopping $103! In the UK it's up to $285!

Now I'm reading his Race a Study in Superstitionand for my book club I'm reading A Passage to India,which is a fortuitous combination.

Geeks on Call

Since my sister's PayPal account got hacked into I thought Geeks On Call Security and Privacy: 5-Minute Fixeswas worth picking up at the libary. It does help users set their computers and download helpful security software--some free, some not. Better safe than sorry.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Critical by Tom Daschle

It's difficult for me to be objective about this issue.

It is not difficult for me to be pessimistic about this issue.

I truly get the feeling that the people who realize just how complicated this issue is are exceedingly rare. And this is what leads to my pessimism.

And yet, I don't question in the least that the system is broken. In fact, I often can be heard telling people just that.

And perhaps it'll take someone or some ones willfully ignoring the depth of the complexity of the situation to fashion a workable solution. Because, god knows, it certainly seems an insurmountable problem to most who pay attention to the details.

With his thin book, Daschle can't be accused of getting mired down in details. It is a superficial look at the problem. The anecdotes he trots out to illustrate his points are compelling on the surface but frustrating in their omissions. Omissions which are not obvious to most but will strike those who work in the industry.

Daschle's basic idea is that a board akin to the Federal Reserve Board should be set up to manage health care decisions, just as the Fed manages interest rate decisions. Given the current financial crisis, the suggestion that anything should be modeled after the Fed is a bit unfortunate. And yet, the reasoning behind his approach seems sound. A board of qualified individuals in position to make difficult and painful decisions, insulated from political pressures but with transparency so there is trust and buy-in.

It does seem utopian. I don't much trust utopian . . .

It's a scary time to be in the industry and to be trying to make decisions with long-term repercussions when the premises upon which those decisions must be based have their foundations in shifting sand.

I'm just going to hang on tight for a wild ride.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides

Another one of our purchases during our Santa Fe trip.

Blood and Thunder tells the story of Manifest Destiny and the expansion of the United States using Kit Carson as its fulcrum. Sides follows Carson from his birthplace in Kentucky to his childhood home in Missouri and then, finally in his myriad, fascinating journeys around the West as Carson, sometimes unwittingly, serves as one of the key architects of Westward Expansion.

A master storyteller telling an epic story, Sides enthralls the reader by weaving a complex tapestry filled with illuminating detail. Sides never takes the easy way out of making any of the players one dimensional. There are no absolute villains or no heroes, although there is plenty of villainy and heroics.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Christmas Pig

Kinky Friedman's The Christmas Pig: A Fableis a fun fable about King Jonjo Mayo I, his sycophant advisor Feinberg, a peasant boy who never speaks but is a tremendous artist, and a talking pig. The king needs a masterful portrait of the nativity scene by Midnight mass on Christmas Eve. There isn't much time. Feinberg suggests a 10 year old genius, who of course is quirky. It's a gamble. Will he finish in time? Will the picture be just to weird? Will the king and the crowd like it or want to throw tomatoes and all involved?

Friedman employs all the conventions of the fable to a witty, fun, brief story. Of course, there's a message. Readers can anticipate the moral, but it's satisfying.