Monday, August 30, 2010


The stoning of a human to death, even if the crime being punished is horrendous, is one of the most inhumane, barbaric, dehumanizing, and cruel tortures that can be inflicted upon a person, especially if the community carrying out the sentence knows the victim. The horror is magnified when the person is innocent of the crime they are accused of. Stoning still exists in Iran, and its use there is but one criticism the world hurtles (justifiably) at the fundamentalist state. While some feel little sympathy for criminals, the punishment can also be carried out against those accused of adultery, a heavy penalty for an all too human sin. But in Iran some victims are most vulnerable to this terrible fate---women. Recently the case of Sakineh Ashtiani (a forty-three year old woman who apparently may have been coerced into admitting wrongdoing and also had language problems) has garnered international attention and condemnation. It is within this atmosphere that the movie The Stoning of Soroya M. vividly demonstrates not only the horrors of stoning, but also the misogynistic state of affairs in Iran. Based on a true story, it recounts the heroic efforts of Zahra (beautifully played by the lovely and husky voiced Shohreh Aghdashloo), wilfull and determined, who tries to protect her niece (the mother of four children) from the machinations of her spouse Ali (effectively and menacingly played by Navid Negahban), who wants to obtain a divorce on the cheap in order to marry a fourteen year old. Ali is a greedy, corrupt, manipulative, and brutal man, who terrorizes his family. Yet he has powerful allies in his little village (a mullah with questionable past and a weak mayor), and after weakening her position financially, and then actively soliciting her help to aid a newly widowed man and his son, they use false claims of adultery (as well as strong-arm tactics against the widower) to railroad Soroya straight into a hole and a rain of stones. Zahra then makes it her mission that she will not allow the story (and her niece’s bravery) to go unreported, and she enlists a French/Iranian journalist’s help. The movie pulls few punches and is vivid and direct, and emotionally draining. It is a heavy indictment against radical fundamentalism, woman-hatred, poor education, and male-dominated dictatorship. Although some scenes are very difficult to stomach, I encourage everyone to see it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Just watched a nice documentary titled The Cats of Mirikitani, about Jimmy Mirikitani, a scrappy, independent eighty-year old Japanese-American artist who was living on the streets of New York City and doing his paintings and drawings (staying at this time at night in the enclosed plastic flower display area owned by a Korean shopkeeper), until the filmmaker happens upon him and ends up taking him home and assisting him to get into better housing (initially as a result of the results of the 9/11 disaster that happened as she was filming him nearby), while recording his work and memories. He was born in Sacramento and interned at Tule Lake during WWII, and that experience heavily influenced his art. He was separated from his family and apparently had not communicated to any of them (most of his mother's family were killed at Hiroshima) for more than 50 years, as he moved east (first somewhat forced to work on a farm, and then to New York, where he claimed to have cooked for Jackson Pollack and served as a chauffeur in NYC). The film is a loving portrait of an artist and tough man, and in the end he forgives his anger after visiting Tule and reconnecting with his sister. His art is amazing (and one wonders how great he could have been if he had been allowed freedom and wasn't discriminated against).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Bich Minh Nguyen's Stealing Buddha's Dinner is a very nice memoir of one Vietnamese girl's experience growing up as a refugee immigrant in Grand Rapids, Michigan; her family's hurried escape from Vietnam as the communists won; and her view of life as an outsider within American society (mostly school), as well as her role in an unusual family. It is a sad story, in many ways, especially as the truth of her family in revealed and the pain that can be inflicted by intolerance. Food is a unifying theme throughout the story (and also literature). My favorite members of the family are her grandmother Noi (serene, loving, unperturbable, devout) and, oddly enough, her stepmother Rosa (who reminded me much of my mother, with a slightly more activist bent, who seemed to keep that family together, and deserved more creidt and love [at least from my perspective]). Some of the author's troubles resulted from the kind of person she was: shy, studious, middle child, self-critical. Much of her story resonated for me, as I was not an immigrant (although my mother came from Ukraine when she was about sixteen) and I didn't look ethnically different than most of my classmates, but because many of her feelings are universal. Her story made me think about my family who were caught in the post WWII diaspora, some of whom made it to America, many of whom I have never met or only barely met when I was very little. (I also have a large family on my Dad's side that I didn't even know about until a few years back, and I have never met, but that's another story). Although my childhood was roughly a year before her's, I still connected to the cultural landmarks she mentions (music, tv shows). But I felt that she was truly blessed to be raised by members of her family and near people of similar background---my ex-wife is Vietnamese, but she was orphaned (and adopted at age 2 by a white family in northeastern South Carolina) and grew up with few connections to Vietnamese culture, but she experienced many of the struggles and challenges of being different (or being treated as different). Of course, every person's experience is different, no matter their background, and growing up is a challenge for most of us, but it is interesting to see how others dealth with their worlds, or remembered how they did so. This is a good addition to the growing body of literature of the immigrant experience.

Monday, August 23, 2010


For anyone who enjoys the humor-laced travelogues of British writer Michael Palin or American Bill Bryson, I heartily recommend adding the work of Canadian Will Ferguson to your list. Although this recommendation is based solely on the highly entertaining Hitching Rides with Buddha, I suspect that I will be delving into his other books soon in hopes they are as good as this effort. Ferguson, who taught English in Japan and is workably fluent in Japanese, decides to hitchhike from the southern end of the island(s) country to its northern –most point, roughly corresponding with the seasonal flowering of the sakura (cherry trees). Largely comprised of small vignettes covering successive rides or stays in different locations, Ferguson deftly lays bare (nay---punctures) many of the myths and attitudes held by Japanese about their country, people, and standing in the world, as well as their fascination/disgust/fear of the outside world, especially America. What emerges is a land of diversity; of people with enormous generosity, friendliness, wonder, balanced by narrow-mindedness, racist-thinking, and over-inflated egos. No doubt there will be some in Japan who will call for his passport to be permanently confiscated and his carcass banned from reentry (what would he care! He stole his wife from them already) because of his often less-than-flattering portrayal, but it seems to me that he has a great deal of affection and respect for the people, even while puncturing their contradictions and egomanias. The Japanese come off often as something akin to enthusiastic, cautious, conformist plowhorses with their blinders firmly affixed. While the author has penned standard travel-guide material, this account will keep you laughing, while at the same time open your eyes to a wonderful and contradictory nation.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


In this time of bubbling racism and bigotry that percolates from the murky depths of hatred and narrow-mindedness, blinding Americans to the constitutional rights of citizenship and freedom of religion, it is a good thing to read of past mistreatment of minorities in this country (and in other countries as well). The forced internment of loyal Japanese Americans from western states is a terrible blight on American history, and it is fairly familiar to most schoolchildren, largely because of books such as Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar.

But the mistreatment of citizens of Japanese descent also occurred in Canada---in some ways parallel to that experienced in the United States, in other ways more severe and long-lasting. Along the western coastline, their property was confiscated (if not outright looted) and the victims were forced into holding facilities or to locations in the interior. Some could argue that it was necessary for wartime protection, but what happened thereafter was an even greater crime, as they were forbidden to return to their homes and farms following the war, and were made to disperse throughout the country or return to Japan. This story is forcefully and beautifully recounted in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (more a memoir than a piece of fiction), which has become her best-known work.

Kogawa’s primary skill is poetry, and it shows in her prose. She lovingly, yet firmly, portrays the plight and resilience of a family as it deals with separation and loss, both of individuals and community (not once, but twice). An example of her prose is, “The dust, light-winged as soot, is swarming thickly across the flashlight beam. . . everything, I suppose, turns to dust eventually. A man’s memories end up in some attic or in a Salvation Army bin. His name becomes a fleeting statistic and his face is lost in fading photographs, the clothing quaint, the anecdotes gone. . . Potent and pervasive as a prairie dust storm, memories and dreams seep and mingle through cracks, settling on furniture and into upholstery. . .” Kogawa frequently shifts from the narrative into sidebars of near poetry.

The story is told through the eyes of Naomi, a kindergarten-aged child, as she struggles to understand the loss of her parents (father was a doctor) and grandparents [as well as her encounter with a pedophiliac neighbor before the war], as her aunt (and later uncle) and neighbors are relocated to Slocum. The mystery of her mother’s fate, trapped in Japan when she goes just before the outbreak of hostilties to care for her sick parent and never returns, is slowly revealed. Her father manages to return, for a short while, but then likewise disappears from their lives. She is forced to live in a small home nestled near a mountainside, but at least they still have a community. After the war this community is destroyed and dispersed, and (as if they are being punished for their heritage) they are forced to labor on a beet farm (“perhaps some genealogist [sic?] of the future will come across this patch of bones and wonder why so many fishermen died on the prairies.”). Luckily, she has the loving care of her Obasan (aunt) and uncle (a master boatbuilder and carpenter), as well as her music-loving brother (determined to ignore his Japanese roots as much as possible). Although the story is sad, heartrending, there is also much beauty and love in it. I will likely try the sequel, Itsuka.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Tonight I watched two documentaries about Myrnmar (Burma) and the democracy movement against the brutal military dictatorship there. The first, BURMA VJ, follows the efforts of a small group of underground reporters with handheld video cameras as they attempt to document a 2007 uprising led by the monks. The people are suffering from famine, ethnic cleansing, poor medical access, no freedoms, political repression, torture, and worse. The second, CROSSING MIDNIGHT, focuses on the plight of ethnic minorities (one-third of the nation) as they flee from military oppression (mostly in the countryside), and the efforts of a small group of doctors and teachers who have established a medical/social-servive compound in Thailand and who cross the border to provide medical care (often via backpacking) and other social and educational services. Both documentaries are riveting and heartrending, and they open a small window into the internal affairs of a terrible regime. I heartily recommend these films to anyone interested in international affairs, and more specifically, the plight of the Burmese people. I am lucky to have about a dozen Burmese living near me. I talked with one today (I think he was ex-military) who has been my neighbor for about three years, and he said they were very truthful.

Monday, August 9, 2010


When will my days of joyfull reading cease?
Not til I can't make another spine crease!

Friday, August 6, 2010


"Bushisms, which I collected for many years, often hinged on a single grammatical or factual error. Palinisms, by contrast, consist of a unitary stream of patriotic, populist blather. It's like Fox News without the punctuation." [Jacob Weisberg, A Grand Unified Theory of Palinisms, SLATE, 6 Aug 2010)

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Flap of wings, so lightly dusted,
this withdrawal barely trusted
sweet nectar to her now-furl'd lip
into the breezes wings do slip,
off she goes, toward other bliss
receding wave from a beach kiss,
and like a setting sun is stilled
the early eve is quickly chilled.