Friday, February 19, 2010


Dumas’s Funny in Farsi is a humorous collection of stories about a young Iranian immigrant to the United States as she deals with her parents and her new life, from elementary school to her marriage. A wonderful addition to the growing body of immigrant literature, there are heartwarming and funny tales of her father’s frugality, people’s kindnesses and ignorance, memories of family and homeland. There are plenty of insights into Iranian culture, both overseas and here, as well as simple family dynamics, told with a humorous view. Her experience visiting Paris is delightful, as is the story of her father’s incompetent repair skills. Anyone interested in a quick laugh should pick up this book.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


As the world becomes smaller, traditional cultures are heavily influenced by encroachments of modern life, so much so that in time many eventually disappear. I recall recently that the last known member of a native East Indian group passed, taking with her the language and culture of her people. And this process, of course, is not new, though modern technology seems to have accelerated it. In Nick Reding’s Last Cowboys at the End of the World the author sought to come to some understanding about the changes experienced by one group, the gauchos of Chile (who migrated out of Argentina as it was modernized). In Patagonia these independent and tough individuals (who often prefer being alone) work as sheep and cattle raisers in the high mountains of southern South America. Although not very religious, they are strong believers in the Devil and witchcraft. They resist newcomers, to the point of extreme shyness, and suffer the effects of isolation in such a hard country. In fact, boredom and isolation seem to be the root of violence and drunkenness. Reding spent most of his time living with Duck and Edith, and their three children; Duck was the foreman on an absentee-owner ranch. One of the most harrowing incidents happens when the author is attacked by his host, seemingly (as later explained) because he is trying to elicit some sort of emotional response from the writer, who had tried to maintain his distance and objectivity. There are fascinating and funny details of cultural nuances, from the manner of drinking and sharing mate (tea), which can reveal the unspoken intentions of the host. Although the book is uneven, there are wonderful parts, such as his description of his participation on a cattle drive (after he lied about knowing how to ride a horse), attending a dance, tagging along with a cattle rustler into the neighboring Argentina, facing a street gang in one of the towns. I loved when Duck turned to Reding, who had screwed up royally, and says, "If idiots like you could fly, Nico, the sky would be cloudy every day." I also was fascinated by the collogialisms, such as when a person tells another that they know they are holding back on some tidbit of information, "I can see the tail of the rat in your trap." These are stubborn and proud people, and yet there is humor and desire, jealousy and spite, sadness and despair. Although I was acquainted with the gauchos’ history somewhat, this book was an interesting, revealing exploration that broadened my limited knowledge. I think it is a good addition to the literature on the effect of modernization in Latin America.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Addiction. It is a terrible thing. And not all addictions are of the alcohol-and-drugs variety. Some people are attracted to the adrenaline rush experienced by putting one’s life in peril. And at times the search for this escalating rush borderlines on a death wish and puts others in jeopardy as well. It is this addiction that is explored in The Hurt Locker, a movie that follows a U.S. Army bomb-disposal squad the latter stages of their deployment in Iraq. Without being overtly patriotic or critical, the film highlights as well the trials of military duty in a war zone, the camaraderie and bonds among service people, the emotional responses to deadly duties in the extreme. It avoids artificially raising the tension with music and overwrought dialogue. The photography is gritty and realistic (at least it seemed so to me). Jeremy Renner stars as the adrenaline junkie bomb tech determined not only to defuse IEDs, but to understand the devices and the bomb makers. He was wonderful in the part, as were his top sergeant, played by Anthony Mackey, and specialist, played by Brian Geraghty. Ralph Finnes has a nice cameo role as a CIA contractor trying to cash in on the capture of two high-profile Iraqis. But the film is not star driven. I haven’t spoken to any soldiers who served over there, and I am quite interested in finding out how they reacted to the story. I have a feeling many will say that its portrayal of life there is spot on.

Monday, February 15, 2010


One of the slight downfalls of single parenting is occasionally having to sit through a movie that you don't find all that appealing or interesting. In this case, it was Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. It just didn't make much sense (and that is bad, even for a fantasy). Do we really expect he will be this wonderful fighter in one day? Some of the fights and challenges were weak. Ok, I did enjoy the Las Vegas challenge. The two lead actors seemed lame to me. The guy who played the satyr did an okay job. Still, it was rewarding because my sons enjoyed it, and that makes it worthwhile. But it wasn't much advanced over what they watch on Saturday mornings. I do see the comparisons some have made to the successful (and far superior) Harry Potter movies. I wonder if the books, which I have yet to try with my boys, might be better.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


How can they chirp, those mindless bugs?
Soon to expire in gecko’s mouth-hugs.

But now they hop on the warm’d sand,
as if they’d found fertile new land.

Dumped out of an old coffee can
into glass-box---quickly they ran.

Some climb up warming-rock cords
find escapees along our baseboards.

Those who remain sing in that space,
must know time’s short for cricket race.

Anaximander, oh. . .that’s his silly name
he’ll hunt down each of his insect game.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


W. P. Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Conspiracy is a delightful blend of magical realism and baseball history. The protagonist, Gideon Clarke, has been infected by his dead father's seemingly sole knowledge of a month-long supra-extra-innings 1908 baseball tilt between the Chicago Cubs and an all-star team of Iowa farmers from a local baseball league, whose entire history (along with that of the original town) seems to have been collectively and completely wiped from people's memories. No archive or newspaper of the day records such a notable tilt. Yet Clarke, and his father before him, are obsessed with researching (in vain) and proving (nearly in vain) the existence of the confederation. Although tantalizing clues and memories surface, it is not until a special night that Gideon, along with his best friend, slip through a dimensional crack in the time-space continuum (yeah, I watch Star Trek!), and the truth of the forgotten events come to light. As with all of Kinsella's books that I have tried, there is a soft humor and evident love of baseball, and his stories often unravel comfortably (can anyone really say they didn't like the movie Field of Dreams, which is based on Kinsella's stories). Although at times it can lag, you come to care for the characters and root for them, and you want to know their ultimate fate. For me, one character, Sunny, Gideon's wife, touched me the most, because she seems to be suffering from the same condition that my ex-wife had (borderline personality disorder). There are many subthemes, such as loyalty and friendship, Native American rights and mysticism, unrequited love, determination and obssession). It is a nice read and I recommend it.

Monday, February 1, 2010


If the brutal description of a man literally melting to death in a basement laboratory after a psychotic episode led him to pour chemicals down a drainpipe and then light a cigarette, as well as details of mental and physical ravages caused by addiction to this drug, does not rivet one’s attention to the dangers of this "epidemic" in America, I don’t know what can. Nick Reding has written a riveting account of the impact of meth on a small town in Iowa, particularly factors that contributed both to its manifestation and adaptation, in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. Anyone interested in the fight against drugs and the battle for the American heartland should read this book.

There are villains aplenty. One could pillory the producers, dealers, and users---and certainly they bear a large responsibility for their plight---but Reding focuses on economic and cultural pressures that allowed the "epidemic" to nearly destroy small towns throughout the country. There are many groups whose culpability is shocking and unforgivable. Huge pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists, helped along by willing lawmakers, blocked any regulation of ephedrines (sold in cold medicines) because of the huge profits (as well as failed to impose effective immigration controls); corporations (in this case agricultural and food processing) wiped out good-paying jobs and reduced employment rolls, then brought in low-paid illegal laborers (mostly from Mexico), which helped gut local communities, destroy households, plow under family farms, and burden health services; small-time producers who hooked several generations, only to be swept aside by a rapacious and aggressive group of Mexican cartels; illogical and ineffective punishments and policies that failed to address underlying causes. A common theme is that an unwillingness and laxity in protecting the American people because of greed or failure of nerve will be taken advantage of by corrupt individuals smart enough to realize an opportunity for a quick buck. The route taken by drug dealers is especially worrisome, in addition to the damage done to individuals and society (both directly and residually), because other groups such as terrorist organizations, also capitalize on the flaws in our system. Against this juggernaut a few hardy souls were determined to save their communities, and fought to restructure their towns in response to changing times. I will never drive through the Midwest again without passages from the book ringing in my head. Although there are signs of hope, this book should make readers angry and (in good muckraking fashion) make people call for better policing, policy making, and protection of small businesses.