Monday, December 24, 2012

The Soviets have so much to answer for....

The Hunger AngelThe Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just when you think that you have read enough about Soviet slave labour camps or gulags or senseless human suffering, along comes a book that is a beautifully written testament to the pain, longing, suffering of our fellow humans. This book is about the fate of German Rumanians after WW2 and the penance they had to pay, demanded by the Soviets, for the Fascist past. The focus of the story is how people deal with persistent, long-term hunger. The author also does an amazing job describing the problems/difficulties of re-entry into a 'free' society after life in the camps. There are some interesting similarities to The Orphan Master's Son, about life in North Korea. Herta Mueller's work makes for difficult reading, but each of her books is worth the effort. No surprise that she is a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The perfect autumn read

The OrchardistThe Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was so sad to come to the end of this story! This book is beautiful: the language, the landscape, the characters, the story line. The descriptions of the land, as poetic as they are, did not sound forced or romantic/nostalgic. This author has written such a wonderful book, and her first, that I am looking forward to many more by her.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Syria: The Destruction Project

Exterior, Krak des Chevaliers
 The deaths of 20,000 Syrian people in the last 17 months is a travesty and horror.

Inside the wall, Krak des Chevaliers
Collateral damage in this on-going conflict has spread to historic sites and world treasures. A student published an article in the Wall Street Journal on 20 August listing places in Syria that have suffered damage, some perhaps irreversible. Photos of many of these sites have been posted on this blog. The photos here of the world treasures mentioned in the article were taken on a trip to Syria n May-June 2010. Most of these places are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Chapel, KdC
I do not have photos of all the sites described. The first place mentioned in the article is the crusader fortress, Krak des Chevaliers, near Homs, the center of early assaults by the Assad regime.

Temple of Bel, Palmyra
Beginning of the Valley of the Tombs
Next on the list is Palmyra in the eastern desert oasis of Syria.  Three places mentioned are the Temple of Bel, the colonnaded avenue, and the Valley of the Tombs.

Colonnaded Avenue, Palmyra

 The Roman city of Apamea, near Hama, has also suffered damage and the wholesale looting of the incredible mosaics lovingly repaired and kept for safe keeping for decades. Hama suffered bombing by Assad's father in 1982 when tens of thousands of citizens were killed and the Old City destroyed. It was also brutally shelled in the current fighting.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Syria is a two thousand year construction project

Entrance to the Citadel
View of the Citadel entrance from the plaza
The news from Syria is disturbing on all levels. For thoughtful commentary, Jonathan Landis' blog is reliable.  Yesterday, the New York Times Arts section had a piece on the concern conservators have for the survival/destruction of ancient artifacts and places. Buildings go up, buildings are destroyed, buildings await completion: Syrian built environments are in a continuous state of flux.

Courtyard of Abraham's Mosque within the Citadel grounds
 Aleppo and Damascus are two of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world (Aleppo claims it is; Damascus also makes that claim. They also each claim the greatest population).  Along with the NYT article on the damage to the Citadel in Aleppo, there is also a video of government forces within the Citadel. Compare the images in the video with those here.

 The Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning it belongs to the people of the world. These are some photos we took of the Citadel in May/June 2010.

View of the bathhouse dome within the Citadel grounds
 The photo on the left shows a bathhouse dome, but not the one seen on below.
The ceiling of the bathhouse dome
View from the Citadel of the grand mosque
The reception room in the Citadel

Sunday, August 12, 2012

And in the meantime.....

The news from the Olympic Games, local election issues, summertime, blogging at Blog. Unfortunately, life is not so pleasant for others: atrocities still continue in Syria, the vulnerable still remain vulnerable, and Roma (most recently in the news, those in France) and immigrants/migrant workers the world over (in this case, those in Greece) still suffer abuse at the hands of the small-minded. The rise of nationalism and fascist inclinations should be a cause for concern. Read Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Chinese claim a new approach for Africa...and other problems

The Chinese President, Hu Jintao, made an announcement at a conference of African leaders that China is embarking on a new approach to its loans to and investments in African nations with resources needed by the Chinese.  An article in the New York Times on 19 July 2012 outlined the new approach as one that will " focus on grass-roots projects" rather than on "projects — roads, pipelines and ports — (which have) have focused on benefiting China’s extractive industries, not African people, critics say. The infrastructure is generally built with Chinese labor." Between the Chinese and the Islamists, wounds will fester in a number of countries.

Most people are aware of the militant Islamists in Mali who have been in the news recently. Also about the Islamists in Nigeria, Sudan, and elsewhere. What many may not be aware of is the quiet expansion of Islam in South Africa.  Muslim communities have a long, interesting history in South Africa arriving with imported labour, slave, indentured, and otherwise from India, Malaysia, Indonesia. Muslim communities have been concentrated primarily in Cape Town and Durban.

Three incidents, one in 1996 and two in 2005, brought home to me some interesting trends. In 1996, I was party to the video taping of an imam in Durban lecturing us on the "black dogs" he was converting to Islam: these people were sitting right there in the mosque with us! He continued to rant on the corruption and depravity of the West, warning that the West was in the grip of Satan.

Then, in 2005, we were driving from Durban to Port St. John via Transkei. We observed few small churches out in the rural areas, but plenty of small mosques. We were told that the 'new' missionaries were no longer Christians, but rather Muslims who built mosques and madrases. The latter was particularly interesting and disturbing given the mess the education system still is in so many years after the end of Apartheid. In Port St. John, we were told that the Muslims controlled all the local businesses and would only employ people who had converted to Islam. These are small incidents with large implications.
Beach at Port St. John

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Big Wood=Big Oil=Big Wall Street

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved AmericaThe Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is as good as Norman Maclean's book on the fire of 1949: Young Men and Fire.  Riveting in its build up, clear in descriptions of the people, politics, and place.  What resonated as much as anything was Teddy Roosevelt and his excoriating harangues on the big money and tycoons of the day:  sounds like Bush era all over again:  complete disregard for common social decency.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Spice Wars, Opium Wars, Slave Traders: the Past is Still Present

A recent story on the BBC about Afo, the mother clove tree in Indonesia that survived Dutch 'extirpation', rounded out a number of stories about the early days of European exploration and trade development and exploitation that I have found compelling and thought provoking.  Barry Unsworth, who died 5 June 2012, wrote Sacred Hunger, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1992.  Sacred Hunger is a journey through the Atlantic Slave Trade, from the building of a slave ship to picking up and delivering the 'cargo' to the destruction of the slave ship.  The characters are not stereotypes, the tension and drama is palpable on every page.  This exploration of greed, selfishness, moral and philosophical blindness in the name of 'sacred hunger'...the profit a cautionary tale for our times.

Four other books on the general theme of Europeans displacing Arabs in controlling the spice and slave trades, are The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, Kalimantaan by C.S Godshalk (a terrible piece of fiction, but fascinating story of a real-life person/situation), and Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke.

All of the authors mentioned above spent quality and quantity time and energy researching these topics:  the reader has no excuse for ignorance!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Another triumph for Toni Morrison

HomeHome by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Toni Morrison has done it again:  think The Bluest Eye and Beloved...this little book is as powerful, beautiful, horrific, and painful as both of those.  It is hurtful and healing. The appalling violence on so many levels, the damage done to people:  it is all there, told in an unforgettable voice and language to die for.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Land Grabs in Africa

The Chinese are making resource and land grabs in Africa and South America (I have pointed this out in previous posts).  Adding insult to injury, investors from various parts of the world looking for places to park their money have chosen, in this case, Mozambique.  Dan Charles, an NPR reporter, did a two-part story on this topic.  Part One was on 14 June and Part Two on 15 June.  Here is a quotation regarding from those who are concerned about this:
"This spring, 750 Wall Street types crowded into New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for a conference on investing in global agriculture. Philippe de Laperouse, managing director of HighQuest Partners, which organized the event, says those investors started out just looking for a safe haven for their money. But with food demand up and future production uncertain, many of them have caught the scent of future profits.
Many development NGOs and advocacy organizations have sounded an alarm about this surge of private money. (Here are critical reports from GRAIN, Oxfam, the Oakland Institute and even that paragon of mainstream thinking, the World Bank.) Many of them call it a global "land grab."

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Snap Judgement, a very interesting show hosted by Glynn Washington, is a program of stories, usually grouped around a theme.  This last week the theme was "Apocolypse...the end of the world as we know it".  These themes are often not what they appear to be and the stories can be intensely personal or more general.  One of the storytellers on this show was a poet, Gypsee Yo (Jonida Beqo), who emigrated from Albania.  Her story, in the form of a poem, was about two boys in her childhood whose personal violence stemmed from the horrors of the communist era in Albania. Jonida Bego has published collections of poetry in English and audio collections in Albanian.  For many years, Albania was as isolated as North Korea.  I have written about Albania twice before (1 October 2008 and 21 September 2010) and referred to it in a larger literary context on 23 October 2008. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A bright spot

The New York Times reported today that Malawi's new president, Joyce Banda, declared on Friday she wanted to repeal Malawi's laws against homosexuality.  Malawi may be a small country, but this is huge news on a continent that has become an increasingly dangerous place for gays and lesbians to live.  In neighbouring Swaziland, the national newspaper has called homosexuals 'satanic' and 'evil'. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Revealed Lives

Half-Blood BluesHalf-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel is tightly written and strings the reader along as the author reveals, not just an aspect of history not well known, the painful past of the characters and how some of them seek resolution in their old age.  This is  Esi Edugyan's second novel and it was a finalist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, a well-deserved honour.  Check out her website. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Lost Opportunity

Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona SimaiteEpistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Simaite by Julija Sukys

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book had so many possibilities for greater success! The letters and diaries of Ona Simaite reminded me of Victor Klemperer's "I Will Bear Witness" diaries: the difficulties of daily life, the minutia, the ordinary, let alone the extraordinary, these are invaluable lessons. I felt the author, Julija Sukys, couldn't decide how to deal with so much material and began to take the work too personally, projecting too much of her own needs/thoughts/ideas to make it about Simaite. There were also numerous dating/time passage errors and grammatical errors that ought to have been caught by a good editor.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Grace in the midst of evil

Between Shades of GrayBetween Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the world claims to not know, we are all complicit.  This book is not just a testament to the power of survival and grace, it is a demonstration that when humans are trapped in evil it takes courage for someone to stand up and say no.  Read this book and contemplate the evils of the 20th century and the current evils we are abetting by not standing up and saying no.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Censorship in Africa: the Chinese Influence

Thanks to Mohamed Keita, the Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, for his opinion piece in today's New York Times.  The title of his commentary is "Africa's Press Problem".   This press "problem" is one is related to other "problems" I have commented on in previous posts and concerns...China.  Yes, not only is China bribing its way into Africa's vast resources, promising jobs, growth, development in the African nations it is exploiting, but now it is engaging in the censorship of the press corps of Africa's nations.  So, while China complains of interference by foreigners in its affairs regarding Human Rights and other Universal Rights, claiming that Chinese history and culture exempt it from scrutiny and judgement by the rest of the world, it not only interferes in politics and economies of  Africa, but also in those very same rights it claims is hands off to the rest of the world.  Talk about double speak and duplicity.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


                                                                 Bamboo rustles
                                                          The soughing eucalyptus
                                                                Thoughts of Ariel     

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cypress Trees

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle EastHouse of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is told in two concurrent parts:  Anthony Shadid's family history as shaped by the Levant and the emigration to America, and his restoration of his family's home in Lebanon, also in the context of the disappearance of the Levant and the rise of the troubles of the Middle East.  I enjoyed the story of his family more than the repetition and trials of the difficulties of renovation.  I appreciated the importance of the restoration to him and the arc of the story, but it needed further editing.  This book is most important now as a testament the the loss and absence of this remarkable reporter, so young in his years.  There is a creepy foreshadowing in his restoration:  he was warned not to plant the cypress trees so close to his home, they were trees meant for a cemetery:  doing so meant an early death.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The San Andreas Fault

It is very strange to visit the San Andreas Fault.  I blogged about this last year upon seeing it from above at Joshua Tree National Park.  Here is a photo seen from there:

The two photos below show the Fault at ground level in the Coachella Valley Preserve:  those butte-like formations in the foreground is the Fault

Monday, March 5, 2012

Overlords and the Underworld

Interesting commentary in Sunday's New York Times about the leader of North Korea and his family: while the people of North Korea starve, the members of the Kim family have been acting like mafia dons:  they have put millions into criminal enterprises.

There have also been both print and radio reports about the increase in criminal activity regarding endangered wildlife species.  As more Chinese get wealthier, the demand for elephant tusks, rhino horns, etc as gone up exponentially.  The access to poachers has been facilitated by the large numbers of Chinese working in Africa on resource and infrastructure projects.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Slaves at sea

A horror story:  an investigation of chartered commercial fishing vessels.  Shame on the government of New Zealand.  Shame on the chartered commercial fishing vessels.  Shame on the slave runners. Read the story by clicking on the highlighted sentence above.

Monday, February 27, 2012

How Rome almost succeeded in burying Lucretius

The Swerve: How the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Such a great romp through the classics: history and literature; complete with scheming and corrupt churchmen, book hunters, purges, and discovery.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thursday, February 16, 2012


ShardsShards by Ismet Prcic

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The crazy-making that is war.  The warping that is the result of growing up in war.  The living in the present-past, past-present.  The misshapen soul that results from all the above when children have to invent themselves over and over and try to survive.  This book describes it well.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Syria: Beauty and Pain

A great story on PRI's The World today  about Syrian composer Malek Jandali

And here is another video of a different type from PRI

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Snow in the Northwest

It is so quiet, due to almost no traffic, it really is like living deep in the woods.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The ANC turns 100

The 100th anniversary of the founding of the ANC is a milestone to be contemplated and considered.  That it took 82 years to bring about the official end of Apartheid, as South Africans had their first free election in 1994, says something about the difficulty of  change and the tenacity of the freedom fighters.  Two articles this last week, one in the New York Times and another in the Financial Times, highlight many of the issues and problems facing the organisation today.   The biggest challenge they face today is themselves: cronyism, nepotism, greed, corruption, unfulfilled promises, and authentic leadership.
Nelson Mandela (stamp)

Helen Suzman

Desmond Tutu