Reading Journal Entry: "A Problem From Hell": America in the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power

This book now has a place on the list of 10 most important books I've ever read. Thorough, well-research, and, well, great cover art.

Power systematically examines the American response to genocide from the Armenian genocide, through the Holocaust, to Cambodia, Rwanda, and events in the former Yugoslavia. Power first describes the course of events leading to violence, then describes the American and international response to each occurrence. That response has been typified by indifference and reluctance to intervene. What shocked me wasn't the lack of US interest in intervening militarily; it was US reluctance to acknowledge that anything was happening or to use even the most basic diplomatic or economic measures to condemn atrocity. There are heros here, starting with Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide and lobbied untiringly for the Genocide Convention (not ratified by the US unitl 1988). But there are more scoundrels than heros. It's wrenching to read the horrific accounts of survivors and refugees, and the stories of frustration from mid-level officials, and realize that so little was done. When the US and other Western countries issued statements condemning genocidal regimes, Power shows that this DID make a difference. Sanctions made a difference against Iraq. Thousands of lives, probably hundreds of thousands, have been saved by diplomatic means alone.

It's frightening to realize that genocidal atrocities have been occurring more and more frequently. 30 years passed between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Another 30 years passed between the end of WWII and Cambodia. Then Rwanda, Bosnia, Srebrenica, Kosovo, and now Darfur.

That's right, a genocide is occurring right now and as far as I can tell, the US isn't doing anything to stop it. Again. Government-funded militias are ravaging the black population of southern Sudan. The estimates for deaths are in the hundreds of thousands, with over 2 million displaced fleeing the country.

The following article from The New York Times details the events:

Power makes it clear that the only thing that has spurred US government officials to act is the pressure of public opinion. She even quotes an official as telling a human rights group 'the phones aren't ringing'. So I'm going to do something today, and I'm asking you to do the same thing. I'm going to call my representative and ask him to condemn the genocide in Darfur.

If you don't know who your representative is, you can find out at this website:

Then call 202-244-3121.

I'm also going to write letters (letters, not emails) to my representative, my senators, and President Bush.

Please make the phones ring. Individuals can make a difference. Please call and let our government know we don't want to stand by and let genocide happen. Please let them know we want 'never again' to mean something.

Le Grand Mealnes, by Alain Fournier

Lovely. Charming. Touching. Very French. Made me cry. Definitely an influence on Camus. I hesitate to label it with so pedestrian a term as a 'coming of age story'. The story is told from the POV of a teenage boy, and is about his friend, Meaulnes. It's about promises and mysteries and endlessly searching for the lost love. And it contained imagery that made my hair stand on end.

It's lovely to read some good fiction again after so long. I love the characters in this book. The author died at the age of 27 in WWI - I have to wonder whether he was more like the timid narrator, or the daring, 'grand', Meaulnes.

Reading Journal Entry: The World's Stupidest Inventions, by Adam Hart Davis

There are actually some pretty clever ideas in this book, that weren't implemented well or were 'before their time'. The illustrations and diagrams make this a fun book. A good gift for engineers.

Rashomon, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, trans. by Glenn Shaw

Rashomon is one of Akira Kurosawa's movies - I haven't seen it, but was vaguely familiar with the name. The short story doesn't appear to be much like the movie. Harrison Public Library has, for some reason, a collection of stories by Akutagawa that appears to have been originally published in Japan - all the notes, copyright information, etc. is in Japanese, and it is a side-by-side translation with English on one side and Japanese on the other. No Amazon quicklink for this one.

Accordingly, I don't know anything about these stories other than what I can gather from internal information. My guess is early twentieth century, although there is a fairy-tale quality that suggests the author drew heavily on traditional stories.

Once again, I don't have the cultural context to correctly interpret some of these stories. But they are beautiful, multilayered puzzles to ponder over. I most enjoyed 'The Handkerchief', in which a professor encounters an expression of human emotion, and 'The Spider's Thread' in which the Buddha attempts to rescue a soul from Hell. The imagery Akutagawa uses is transfixing.

Aesop's Fables

I listened to an audio version of, I think, ALL of Aesop's Fables. Most probably you are familiar with the format - they are very short anecdotes which convey a moral of some kind, either explicit or implicit. These are cultural staples, and the tropes of Aesop's Fables has entered the language: 'sour grapes', 'pride goes before a fall', etc. Although I had encountered individual fables before in other formats, most of these were unfamiliar to me. Some were baffling - I just couldn't figure out what was meant. The context that made them meaningful must have faded away (who knew lions were supposed to be afraid of roosters?).

I liked that this was unabridged, and I enjoyed hearing the original source of these familiar sayings. I've heard the phrase 'a dog in the manger' used to describe unreasonable jealousy before, but I didn't know what it really meant. (The dog in the manger growled at the cows and kept them from their food, even though he couldn't eat it himself). Whose pride went before a fall? A rooster.

Aesop's Fables are often used as a basis for children's stories, but I would hesitate to listen to this one in the car with kids. Sure, it's full of talking animals, but they're always trying to kill each other.

The American Dream, by Edward Albee

Edward Albee's most well-known work is 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', but for some reason the LA Times chose this earlier work instead for their '100 works for the Modern Person' list. 'The American Dream' is paired with his very first work 'The Zoo Story', apparently for the editorial pleasure of bookending the alphabet.

It's always difficult trying to read plays; I know this is a comedy, but read silently, most of the fun is leached out of it and all that remains is bitter criticism. The 'American Dream' of the title has multiple meanings; the play is about a prototypical American middle-class family, Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma, whose prosperity can be said to embody the ambitions of the 1950s. The dialogue has a dream-like quality; the characters have no proper names, only vague, barely-defined relationships. What the play is more or less 'about', if anything, is Mommy and Daddy's disappointment with their adopted child; in the third act, a replacement son shows up, a strapping young man without a heart whom Grandma also gives the appellation of the American Dream.

The dream of American prosperity is a soulless, real values have been exchanged for appearances, blah, blah, blah. I'm sure this was much more impressive and shocking in 1962. In the 21st century we're not so impressed by people taking off their clothes on stage.

ps - I wonder if this was an influence on 'American Beauty'?

The Life of Samuel Johnson, Part 1 of 2

If Adams' is the original autobiography, this is the prototypical biography. Samuel Johnson was a respected man of letters in the 18th century, and his life was written by his great friend and traveling companion James Boswell. I've been looking forward to reading this for many years, because there are so many references to Dr. Johnson's travels scattered throughout historical fiction. So I am extraordinarily disappointed to find it so boring. Boswell came to know Johnson in the later part of his life, after he had achieved professional success. Therefore the early years, in which he struggled, are sketched in from other sources. After Boswell comes onto the picture, the 'life' degenerates into a seemingly endless string of dinners, conversations, letters, and road trips. I have heard much of their famous trip to the Hebrides, but because their earlier books sold so widely, Boswell refrains from discussing it and merely refers readers to their previous publications. The letters are sometimes frustrating - I know this is a life of Johnson, not Boswell, but he would have done better to provide some basic facts about his family for context. Johnson constantly harps, in his letters, on Boswell's wife's dislike for him - is he joking or serious? Given the purported slovenliness of his personal habits, I wouldn't be surprised to find he was an unpleasant houseguest. Obscure references to Boswell's offspring also distracted me with wondering whether he lost a child at one point.

Johnson was famous as a conversationalist and Boswell (exhaustingly, slavishly, adoringly) details their club parties and Johnson's bon mots. Unfortunately the cultural context for many of them seems to have faded, leaching most them of their piquancy. I am getting the greatest value from the description of their literary circles, which is really, well, not all that interesting.

There are another 12 cassettes in 'part 2' of the 'Life' so I sure hope something happens in the last part of Johnson's life. Otherwise I might fall asleep at the wheel and end up in a ditch.

Reading Journal Entry: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

I listened to the audio version from Isis, narrated by Nigel Planer. This is one of my favorite Discworld novels, as it introduces several characters who Pratchett develops in interesting ways in future installments of this going-on-thirty series. I've never listened to an audio version and it was great. Maybe it's only Americans who feel this way and Brits can already hear the accents in their heads, but it really adds an extra layer to characterization to know that Nobby sounds a little bit Cockney and Carrot sounds a bit gormless and Vimes, for some strange reason, has a cold.

I don't recommend Guards! Guards! as an introduction to the Discworld (because why? I dunno. It's just not the easiest. Suggestions welcome. Maybe Mort). But it's funny and clever and has some great subtle commentary on human character and on the nature of government. If I ever have a male pet, I now plan to name him Errol.

There was one drawback. Pratchett's writing tends to be very episodic. The narrative jumps frequently between multiple plotlines, times, and locations. It's easier to keep track of this when there's the visual cue of the chapter break or the big expanse of white paper between chapter sections. Listening to the audio book, I often missed these transitions.

In sum: read the Discworld, but don't start with this one, and if you want to listen to them on CD it's loads of fun but limit yourself to ones you've already read.

Reading Journal Entry: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J. K. Rowling

Spoiler free:

Less seems to happen in this book, although there is a whiz-bang ending. The 'theme' or 'threat' Rowling uses to tie together the events of the school year is weaker than previous, but still has interesting consequences. Too many flashbacks. Too much snogging. My main complaint is that the bok has a half-finished feel - the story arcs aren't quite there. Rowling is usually an expert at pacing, but it seemed like fewer neat things happened and the energy was just not there.

Plus there was a typo on page ten.


I thought Harry's romance with Ginny was handled significantly worse than his romance with Cho, which, although excruciatingly painful, was at least realistic. The way H and G finally got together was, frankly, a complete cop-out, and the break-up at the end did not ring true.

I'm trying to find more to say about the book, and I'm having a hard time. The dealie with the Horcruxes was intriguing but not really a complete arc. The whole Snape thing seemed contrived. And once again, why not kill Harry? Because Lord Voldemort wants to lock him up in a cell with a single guard? The only theory I've heard that's interesting is that Harry somehow is one of the Horcruxes. It'd better be that or it better be a super-secret-special-triple cross because, well, otherwise it's just a bit lame.


I'm on vacation. No reviews for you until Tues.

Reading Journal Entry: What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank

Is anyone sensing a theme here? Yes, I'm liberal.

Frank is incisive and scathing and occasionally very amusing in this analysis of how the Republican party has won the heart of the heartland and co-opted the language of persecution that was once the prerogative of the left.

It was good, but not as good as I had hoped - perhaps a bit over-hyped. Frank intersperses solid observational analysis drawn from interviews and personal experience with less interesting (and grounded) criticism of conservative commentators. Some things, also, he fails to address, such as the success of the paternalistic conservative stance.

He confines his suggestions for the Democratic party to the epilogue and new afterword. Frank blames the loss of support for the party among the lower economic classes to the Democratic turn towards the center and 'pro-business' interests. But I just can't think that's enough of an explanation for the loss of the outrageously active Populist movements of the past. There IS a moral divide on issues like abortion, religion, etc., between liberals and the people he's talking about, there had to be for the neo-cons to exploit it. Why? Was it always there? Who changed?

Reading Journal Entry: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I'm brushing up on my Harry in preparation for this week's release of book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I listened to the audio version read by Jim Dale, who is a genius. Seriously, the Harry Potter audio books are the best I have ever listened to. His performance is superb, and if you've watched the movies, you can really tell how his voices influenced the actors portraying the characters.

I like the Harry Potter books a lot. Every time I start thinking that Rowling is just writing cute kid's books she surprises me....the structure of the books is excellent. Everything ties together and into the emotional climax/conclusion. I'm impressed that she dealt with a difficult subject (death) in such a mature, thorough way.

In sum, buy it. And then buy the next one.

Reading Journal Entry: Death: At Death's Door, by Jill Thompson

Punk/goth meets anime in this retelling, from Death's perspective, of certain events originally told in the Sandman series. Hell is closed - and the dead start showing up at Death's door. And her sister Delirium throws a party for them.

It's fun. The art is fun, the writing is fun, the idea of Edgar Allen Poe with a crush on Despair is fun. I'm not too sure what the point is - and I can't recommend this as a starting point for the Sandman universe - but it's fun.

Happy Birthday, Dear Car....

Reading Journal Entry: Promises Betrayed: Waking Up From the American Dream, by Bob Herbert

Bob Herbert is op-ed columnist for the New York Times. This is a collection of columns from the past several years, grouped thematically. They address a litany of liberal issues, from the domestic (institutionalized racism economic inequity corruption in the justice system unemployment violence crime) to the foreign (terrorism mismanagement of the war in iraq no weapons of mass destruction wounded soldiers vietnam bush looks like a monkey). It is what it is - a collection of columns - and as such it doesn't have much coherence of theme.

I had read many of these columns before, and re-reading them was like opening an old wound. It makes me depressed about the future of the United States (hell, of the human race) to know that things like the prosecution scandal in Tulia, Texas are happening.

Reading story after horrible story I wondered why Bob Herbert doesn't run out of outrage. How does he manage to look at these issues day in and day out without going blind or throwing up. Why hasn't he quit his job at the New York Times and gone to work proof-reading romance novels or repairing TV sets? He must have more intestinal fortitude than I do.

I just joined Code Pink because of this damn book.

Mountain biking is fun. Posted by Picasa

Forthcoming: An Unreasonable Woman, by Diane Wilson

I met Diane at the BEA and got an advance copy of the book she wrote about her experience fighting pollution in Texas. She's one of the few people I've ever met who are neither redheads nor short whom I can honestly describe as a firecracker. She's been an activist for a lot of years, and she's one of the founders of CODE PINK: Women For Peace. An Unreasonable Woman is the story of the fight against Formosa that began her career as an environmental activist. She's a shrimper and a mother and she doesn't like the idea of her bay or her kids getting messed up by industrial chemicals. When she finds out that she lives in the most polluted county in the USA, she decides to do something about it. She calls a meeting. And a lot of people get nervous about it. What follows from there is a snow-balling intrigue of political pressure and intrigue - the only unusual thing about this story is that Diane Wilson stuck it out. She didn't give up and she didn't give in and eventually - after hunger strikes and press conferences and trips to Taiwan and threats and bribery - she wore them out.

I'd call this a literary memoir if I didn't think that was too limiting a term. Diane's voice (I think of her on a first-name basis now) is a little salty but oh-so-rich and fluid. She did not have a collaborator on this book; it is 100% authentically her own. She does justice equally to the shrimping community and its politics, and to the bay and its tides. She conveys her own thoughts and the feelings of each moment as it happened, and she reaches way down to the bottom of her heart and spreads out the messy tangle of her own motivations and her own family and history just like it's one of the shrimp nets she mends.

I fell in love with Diane reading this book. Despite what her editor said to me, the book probably did need a little more editing because at a few points I just wasn't sure what was going on (darn boat jargon). But it's really worth sticking out. Highly recommended.

Reading Journal Entry: 50 Hikes in the Lower Hudson Valley

This is the best walk/hike book I know of for the New York City and vicinity area. A variety of hikes are described, from easy strolls to multiple-day Applachian Train outings. The 'basics' are broken down in a grid, making it easy to see the essential information about each trail: how hard it is, how many feet of elevation is travelled, what access is allowed, what attractions are nearby.

The directions to the beginning of each hike have been very clear; the descriptions of the trails themselves could be a little more fleshed out but are up-to-date. There are maps included for each hike, but they are not sufficiently detailed for orienting yourself if you decide to stray from the suggested route. Each hike description is seasoned with just enough historical or geological information to be interesting without burying the trail directions.

I love hiking in this area, which is truly beautiful, and I'm very thankful to the New York-New Jersey Trail conference for the tireless work they put into maintaining and preserving public access. Authors Stella Green and H. Neil Zimmerman are past officials of the conference, and I'm glad I gave them my money.


Upcoming: My Freshman Year, by Rebekah Nathan

Rebekah Nathan is the pseudonym chosen by a university professor to protect her identity, and that of her school, for this unusual ethnographic study. After fifteen years of teaching, Nathan feels disconnected from her students, and finds that her colleagues often have the same questions she does about student behavior. Why don't they do the reading, attend office hours, or engage in class discussion? Why do they feel it's ok to eat in class, arrive late, or even come to class in pajamas? Why are they more likely to cheat?

So, at over fifty, she decides to 'go undercover'. She applies to attend classes as an undergraduate at the same school (which she calls 'AnyU') using only her high school transcript, and after she's accepted, reserves a room in one of the freshmen dorms. This is the story of her freshmen year. Her identity morphs from professor to student, with an attendant surreal change in perspective. She observes her classmates and the other students in her dorm, and conducts formal research and interviews as well, comparing it to the time she spent doing ethnographic research in a remote third-world village.

Nathan's observations are fascinating. I kept chuckling and trying to read passages out loud to my husband (note to self: he hates that). She reveals a number of disconnects in university life. Students receive dual messages: obey the rules, but it's ok to disobey them if you don't make it obvious. The administration's view of why students are there differs fundamentally from students' own goals: AnyU thinks they are there to get an education, while students are primarily there to have fun and prepare themselves for a career. Goals which both administration and the student body think they share, like advancing 'community', fall down due to fundamentally different world views; each party has a different concept of 'community' and they don't realize they're not talking about the same thing. Finally Nathan discusses the strategies that 'successful' students, juniors and seniors, use to succeed; how they 'manage' their schedules, their professors, their workloads, and the competing demands of jobs, internships, and studying.

I loved the book; it was insightful and rang so very true with my own college experience. I predict this will become a must-read for much of the university community. I wish Nathan had explored more of her experience of transformation. If she had been more personal in her perspective, this could have been a popular best-seller; as it is the tone and treatment are too academic for the wider community. Those currently or formerly residing in ivory towers will love it. Highly recommended.

Letter From Peking, by Pearl S. Buck

The entire works of Pearl Buck are on 'the list' because she's a Nobel Laureate (Literature, 1938). I read The Good Earth in high school and loved it. Letter from Peking was originally published in 1975, and I listened to an audio version narrated by Bonnie Huren. I was disappointed.

The book is set in 1950 and written in the form of a diary of Elizabeth MacLeod, an American woman who has lived most of her adult wife in Peking with her bi-racial husband. After the war and the Communist takeover of China, she and her son flee China while her husband remains in China. As the book opens, Elizabeth and her son Rennie have been living in rural Vermont for five years, and she has just received what she believes will be Gerald's last letter.

The secret of this letter is not revealed for several chapters, while Elizabeth remenisces about her idyllic life in Peking and her perfect relationship with her (absent) husband. Once the nature of their relationship has been dwelt on sufficiently, Buck reveals that the letter from Gerald is a request for her permission for him to take a Chinese wife, which the government is pressuring him to do. Meanwhile Elizabeth, alone in America, must deal with her teenage's son first amorous relationship, and her aging father-in-law's descent into senility.

I listened to this book with growing frustration and dislike for the narrator. She constantly maintains the perfection of her husband's love for her, and blames political forces for forcing them asunder unwillingly. She insists, to her son and suitors, that Gerald did not 'choose' to leave her, and that he could not leave his country and the responsibilities of his job. But of course, he did choose to leave her. She chose to leave her country and join him at the beginning of her marriage, but he did not do the same. She relentlessly refuses to feel any anger or resentment toward him and doesn't even acknowledge that he's abandoned his family responsibilities entirely to her care.

Elizabeth is not very likeable, either. She's arrogant as hell. She uses the myth of her perfect marriage to look down on others; Rennie's first girlfriend and her family only have hearts 'the size of a cup', according to her, and she ruthlessly uses Rennie's Chinese heritage against him to end the relationship. She has a brief correspondence with Gerald's new wife, who, she judges from a few letters, is also small-hearted. She has what she feels is a supernatural experience and she eagerly invites the wife of her hired hand to tell her about similar visions, then pointedly remarks how ignorant she is. Twice.

All of this is doubly revolting because she so obviously considers herself to be a very broad-minded, wise person.

This had the potential to be an interesting treatment of racial identity, but with such an unlikeable main character, it rather irritates than enlightens.

This is only the beginning....

You may have noticed a new title.

'Adventures in Reading' seemed a bit generic. Now that I've been doing this for about 6 months I realize that I actually do read about 5 books a week. Disgusting. And I'm disgustingly proud of it. I keep bragging about it. To my husband. As if he hadn't noticed I read a lot.

Figured I might as well trade on it, because while there's a whole bunch of other schmucks out there reading and reviewing books, I'm betting there aren't a whole lot of other people doing so on a daily basis.

Before long I expect to actually be changing, say, the text and background color! Keep an eye out for more exciting formatting changes!

Reading Journal Entry: Adventures of Riley: Mission to Madagascar

I liked this book so much I asked for two free copies, one for each of the children to whom I am auntie. The visuals are stupendous, combining energetic art with photographs to showcase the flora and fauna of Madagascar. Lots of facts and a fun storyline will make this a favorite of kids who like animals and parents who like their kids to learn.