Category Archives: Culture

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

behind the beautiful forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Random House, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my local library.

Since I have spent several months reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children,  I thought I should read something about present day India.  Katherine Boo’s superb study of life in a Mumbai undercity, like Rushdie’s novel, took my breath away.

Following Abdul, a young garbage sorter, his family and the families and individuals that live in Annawadi, a half acre slum made up of garbage dumps, thrown together shacks and a large sewage pond, Boo spent more then three years living behind the concrete wall that hides this place and its people from the eyes of those traveling to and from the Mumbai airport. Abdul and those around him dream of better lives and, with sweat and ingenuity, begin to gain and edge, only to be thwarted by a corrupt police force and justice system.

     The idea was to get terrified prisoners to pay everything they had, and everything they could secure from a moneylender, to stop a false criminal charge from being recorded.  Beatings, though outlawed in the human rights code, were practical, as they increased the price that detainees would pay for their release. The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood.  Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.  From page 107.

Through observation, with insight and a gentle hand, Ms. Boo brings this place and its people to life.  Their desperately hard work, their desires and their failures are reported with clarity and without judgement.  This is a brilliant piece of journalism.

What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too.  In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament.  Poor people didn’t unite; they competed furiously among themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional.  And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of society at large.  The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached.  The politicians held forth on the middle class. the poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.  From page 237.

There is a wonderful interview with Katherine Boo here.

2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Economics, India, Journalism, Nonfiction, Society, Thoughts

Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet

Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

I first heard of Jeff Sharlet when he published a fine article in Harper’s titled Jesus plus nothing.   Five years later that article morphed into a book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.  I have been a fan ever since.

With the subtitle Faith, Faithlessness and the Country in Between  Sharlet’s newest book is a collection essays that shines a blinding light on how we, as Americans, find, lose and regain faith.  How we sometimes blindly accept faith with nothing more than a song and a bottle of whiskey to guide us.  There is always a song.

Often compared to writers focusing on life in America, from Mark Twain to Joan Didion,  Sharlet searches along the borders where  our culture and our religion meet,  he is willing to look deep into the mix of religion and politics.   Often driven to the edge he finds himself looking over, into the depths of the American heart.

     …We hope when the odds, no matter how good, are still that: odds, chance, a gamble in which the rules may change at any time,  for any reason, with or without our acquiescence.  We hope when we understand that circumstances are beyond our control, when will is not equal to effect, when we are not the subjects of the story but its objects.  Hope isn’t optimistic;  it’s the face of despair.  My grandmother taught me that, not long before she died.  “Despair,” she said, was her favorite word.  “It’s not a bad thing.  It’s a gift.  A recognition.”  It is the opposite of dread.  Perception, not speculation. You accept the facts of your fate rather than reading them as evidence of a judgement or a moral.  Some people might call that quitting.  From page 249.

I find Jeff  Sharlet’s writing fearless, his honesty inspiring and often his words strike my heart.  I read two blogs that he helped start, The Revealer and Killing the Buddha,  regularly.

5 Comments

Filed under Culture, Essays, Religion, Review

Iphigenia in Forest Hills – A Short Review

Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial by Janet Malcolm

Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011

Borrowed from the library.

I first read Malcolm’s report of the murder trial of Mazoltuv “Marina” Borukhova and the man she was accused of hiring to kill her ex-husband, in the New Yorker.  This book is expanded from that article and is  the best depiction, in fiction or nonfiction,  of the ambiguity and uncertainty that takes place in a U.S. court of law that I have read.

A jury trial is supposed to review all the “evidence” in a case and decide what “really happened”,  leading to just decision of guilt or innocence.  Malcolm’s  book make it clear that the structure of a trial, the personalities involved and the media and journalism that surrounds it, can lead to something that feels the opposite of  justice.  This is a fascinating read, one I highly recommend.   I will read other books by Janet Malcolm.

3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Current Events, Litigation, Nonfiction, Review

Underground by Haruki Murakami

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel

Vintage International, New York, 2001

Borrowed from my local Library.

After reading Kafka on the Shore, and not being sure what I thought of Haruki Murakami, I decided to read his book on the 1995  Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo gas attacks.  Murakami says in his introduction that he was motivated to write Underground because he had been living away from Japan, wanted a deeper understanding of his home country and felt an obligation to those who had died in and survived the attack.  He wanted to have their voices heard.

Underground is actually two books that were published separately in 1997 and 1998.   The first part,. Underground, is made up of interviews with survivors of the 1995  attack in the Tokyo subway system, the second part, The Place That Was Promised, contains interviews with people who had been involved with Aum Shinrikyo.

From the interview with Toshiaki Toyoda, a Subway Authority workman.

    There were ordinary passengers who unfortunately lost their lives or suffered injuries just because they were traveling on the subway.  People who are still suffering mentally or are in pain.  When I consider their lot, I don’t have the luxury to keep seeing myself as a victim.  That’s why I say: “I’m not a sarin victim, I’m a survivor.”  Frankly, there are some latent symptoms, but nothing to keep me bedridden.  I’m just glad I survived.

The fear, the mental wounds are still with me, of course, but there is no way to flush them out of my system.  I could never find words to explain it to the families of those who died or sacrificed their lives on the job.  From page 38.

Murakami shows great respect for the people he interviewed, never interfering with their answers and yet drawing them out.  I am deeply impressed by his level of caring and by his commitment to his fellow citizens.  I am also moved by the survivors, their willingness to share their stories and their commitment to their culture and to each other. I find the difference between our two culture profound.

I also really appreciate the depth of Murakami’s intelligence, his clarity of thought and willingness to probe deeply into his own psyche.

From Blind Nightmare: Where Are We Japanese Going?

            …I am a novelist, and as we know a novelist is someone who works with “narratives”, who spins “stories” professionally.  Which meant to me that the task at hand was like a gigantic sword dangling over my head.  It’s something I’m going to have to deal with much more seriously from here on.  I know I’m going to have to construct a “cosmic communication device” of my own.  I’ll probably piece together every last scrap of junk, every weakness, every deficiency inside me to do it.  (There, I’ve gone and said it – but the real surprise is that it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do as a writer all along!)

So then, what about you? (I’m using the second person, but of course that includes me.)

Haven’t you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and taken on a “narrative” in return?  Haven’t we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of “insanity”?  Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own?  Are your dreams really your own dreams?  Might not they be someone else’s visions that could sooner or later turn into nightmares?  From page 233.

The second part of this book is made up of interviews with people connected to Aum Shinrikyo at the time of the attacks.  It is chilling how easily these people, all of whom seem intelligent and humane, were disconnected from their families, their peers and any sense of empathy or compassion.  They became “mindless” but sincerely thought otherwise.  Read that quote from Blind Nightmare again.

I will definitely read more of Murakami’s work, even as I struggle to make sense of it.

Other reviews:

Bibliojunkie

Dolce Bellezza

Mystica

The Parrish Lantern

things mean a lot

Thyme for tea


19 Comments

Filed under Culture, History, InTranslation, JapaneseLiteratureChallenge 5, Nonfiction, Review

Sunday Salon – Sharing the Local Harvest

Happy Sunday to you.  The last couple of weeks before school is out find me over-extended and unable to sit down and focus on writing reviews or post for this blog.  My reading has definitely suffered but I di gwt to the library this week.   Things should settle down soon.

In the mean time the weather has turned somewhat spring-like, I have beans, peas and squash coming up in the garden and the neighborhood Farmer’s Markets are open!

Following a friend’s link I discovered this website.  For those of you wanting fresh, locally grown fruits and veggies, or wanting information on farms and CSAs in your area, Local Harvest is a wonderful resource.  Enjoy!

11 Comments

Filed under Culture, Farms, Sunday Salon

The Wayfinders by Wade Davis

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

By Wade Davis

House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2009

This book comprises the 2009 Massey Lectures broadcast in November, 2009, as part of the CBC Idea Series.  I borrowed it from my library but am adding it to my holiday wish list.

When I was last at university I planned on getting a degree in Cultural Anthropology.  Due to changes in my life this didn’t work out, but I am still fascinated by the subject.

Wade Davis, now the Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society, has spent decades living with and getting to know different peoples all over the Earth.  While we are all aware and disturbed by the loss of species, both flora and fauna, across the planet, few know that many anthropologists believe that we will lose fifty percent of the 7,000 languages spoken around the world today within next 50 years.  Human cultures are going extinct at an alarming rate.

From the islands of Polynesia to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria of Columbia and the High Arctic of Greenland, Davis tells of the people who live and thrive in these many different environments.  Their skills and accomplishments are amazing.  Take for example the Polynesian Wayfinder, navigator of the canoe Hokule’a.

It is one thing, for example, to measure the speed of the Hokule’a with a simple calculation:  the time a bit of foam or flotsam, or prehaps a mere bubble, takes to pass the known length separating  the crossbeams of the canoe.   Three seconds and the speed will be 8.5 knots, 15 seconds and the vessel slogs at  a mere 1.5 knots.
But it is quite another to make such calculations continually, day and night, while also taking the measure of stars breaking the horizon, winds shifting both in speed and direction, swells moving through the canoe, clouds and waves.  The science and art of navigation is holistic.  The Navigator must process an endless flow of data , intuitions and insights derived from observations and dynamic rhythms and interactions of the winds, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef – in short the constantly changing world of  weather and the sea.  From page 60.

Most of these people are what Westerners would consider poor and suffer for lack of modern conveniences,  but they carry within their cultures the abilities to adapt and survive in marginal landscapes.  They are physically and spiritual connected to the land they where they live and, it seems, wonder at us and all we have and do.  Some of them want what we have, many do not, regardless of what those of us who cry for development and modernization choose to believe.

What made this book wonderful for me was the level of description and detail, the care Davis’ has taken with each person he writes about, each story he tells.  Davis has spent years visiting with and living with many different individuals who are part of these many different cultures.  He has come up with some interesting observations.

The problem is not change.  We have this conceit in the West that while we have been celebrating and developing technological wizardry, somehow the other peoples of the world have been static and intellectually idle.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Change is the one constant in history.  All peoples in all places are always dancing with new possibilities for life.  Nor is technology per se a threat to the integrity of culture.  The Lakota did not stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow for the rifle any more than a rancher from Medicine Hat ceased being a Canadian when he gave up the horse and buggy in favour of the automobile.  It is neither change nor technology that threatens the integrity of culture.  It is power, the crude face of domination.  We have this idea that these indigenous peoples,  these distant others, quaint and colourful as they may be, are somehow destined to fade away, as if by natural law, as if they are failed attempts at being modern, failed attempts at being us.  This is simply not true.  In every case these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiably and overwhelming external forces.  This is actually a optimistic observation, for it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be the facilitators of cultural survival.  From page 166/167.

In the end, Davis believes that we in the West have much to learn from indigenous cultures.  In fact, in order for us to survive climate change and our massive impact on the planet, we need to realize and honor the fact that there are different ways for human beings to live, to thrive in social and spiritual connection with each other and with their home ground.  I was enthralled by this book, saddened in some ways, but also filled with joy in the knowledge that these people are out there, living in ways that are not destroying the planet.  There are some wonderful videos on this subject here.

Other reviews:

she reads and reads

6 Comments

Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Culture, Nonfiction, Review

Animals by Don LePan

Animals by Don LePan

Soft Skull Press, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

Sam is deaf and lives during a time when people with disabilities are being abandoned by society.  There is no effort to help the blind and deaf, no system for children born with a chronic  illness.  No one tries to find out what is wrong, Sam is just different, and he is eventually classified as “mongrel”.  His mother, left in dire financial straits, is forced to abandon him, hoping the family she leaves him with will adopt him as a pet.  A pet?

I am not cute.   I  am not a pet.  I am not a mongrel.  I am a child, that’s all.

Animals is told in two parts.  The first part is a manuscript telling Sam’s story, the story of his birth family and his adoptive family, written by Naomi Okun, the girl whose family does take him in.  The second part is an explanation, with abundant footnotes, by someone named Broderick Clark, of this autobiographical manuscript.  LePan has used an interesting structure to deal with a difficult subject, one many of us would just as soon ignore.

This is speculative fiction, fiction that, given the present circumstances, points towards a possible future.  It reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.

There is no easy way to write about this.  We are in the future.  Due to factory farming and over use of antibiotics there has been a “great extinction”.  All of our domestic animals and pets have died.  There is a lack of protein and people are struggling.  There is a campaign stressing the dangers of soy.  The gap between rich and poor has widened exponentially. The world is edging towards chaos.

As more and more “sub-normal” people are marginalized and de-humanized, some are adopted as  “pets” and some are classified as chattel.  Eventually the chattel are gathered together, their labor is utilized and they become a food source.  Like I said, there is no easy way to write about this.

LaPan claims his main argument is against factory-farming and for the humane treatment of our food animals but I was left with a much broader sense of let’s stop eating meat(and fish), period.  This is a difficult and challenging book.  I feel like I need to put some distance between my first reading and then read it again.

I need to say that over the past few years I have grown closer and closer to becoming a true vegetarian.  There are occasions when I eat chicken or fish, and I am not vegan by any means, but something in me has me turning away from eating flesh.  Maybe it’s my knowledge of factory farms, or my awareness of the growing understanding of animal behavior and animal “consciousness”.  Maybe it’s the Buddhist idea of Ahimsa –  do no harm.  I buy organic when I can.  I eat tofu, legumes and lots of vegetables.  Animals, a deeply disturbing book, only reinforces my thoughts about food, about how we raise and slaughter what we eat.

Now I want to read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

9 Comments

Filed under 42SciFiChallenge, Animals, CanadianBookChallenge4, Culture, New Authors 2010, Review, SpeculativeFiction