Sunday, January 30, 2011

Taking the long way.

Dear Peter Weir,

I just wanted to say thank you for making the actors in your film The Way Back use the accents of the languages they're actually supposed to be speaking, instead of just having everyone use a sort of British-y accent so the audience knows they're foreign. How refreshing.

I was not really sure what to expect from The Way Back.  The book is based on the very popular  The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, published in 1956, which purports to tell the story of his escape from a Soviet gulag and slow trek through Mongolia and China on the way to India in the company of a polyglot group of prisoners. There have been serious doubts about the validity of Rawicz's story, including a lack of anyone who can corroborate his tale. However, a second survivor of the gulag system, Witold Glinski, claims that Rawicz and his ghostwriter stole his escape story.

Hugh Levinson produced a documentary for the BBC on The Long Walk, and while he doubts that Rawicz's tale is true, he did find shreds of evidence that someone made the trip, including a report from a British intelligence officer in India who claimed to have debriefed a group of emaciated Poles who arrived in India and reported that they had escaped from a Soviet gulag. Interestingly, some of the comments on the BBC site report similar tales of thousands-kilometers long treks to escape the Soviet prison system.

Whether or not Rawicz's particular tale is true, Weir has translated the story into a very visually arresting tale that keeps the tension high despite the lengthy running time. The landscapes in the movie are simply beautiful, from the rolling, white tree-covered hills of Siberia to the vast wasteland of Mongolia and the yellow dunes of the Gobi desert.

Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a Polish army officer who is denounced by his wife after she's tortured and sentenced to 25 years in the gulag after refusing to sign a confession of espionage. During a raging snowstorm, he and a handful of other prisoners escape, including Colin Farrell's tattooed, twitchy Russian criminal Valka and Ed Harris' bitter, stoic Mr. Smith. The Siberian forest quickly claims one of their party, but the men continue on until they cross paths with another runaway, Saoirse Rodan's Irena, one of the Polish "lost children" who were separated from their parents and shunted into Soviet orphanages. The group makes it to Mongolia, only to find that Communism has beaten them to it.

Nature is the group's real enemy. After a frenetic chase scene when they flee the gulag, they don't encounter any roving bands of Communist die-hards looking to arrest them and ship them back. Instead, they battle snow, wolves, starvation, heat, and thirst, becoming increasingly more haggard and desperate.

There are many beautifully framed scenes in the movie, including a few that are nearly Taymoresque, such as when Irena, wearing a hat woven out of sticks and clutching pale blue fabric to shield her from the sun, begins to resemble a Renaissance Madonna, or when one of the men wraps a soaked cloth around his head that reduces the contours of his face to a death mask. Weir does not devote a considerable amount of time to the relationships between the group and there is actually less fractiousness than one may expect from a Donner-party-on-steroids tale of survival. The members of the group show a remarkable amount of humanity towards one another, even the wolfish Valka, and their protectiveness towards the delicate Irena seems completely untinged by any sort of exploitation or violence.

The film's last sequence seems clunky and badly executed in comparison to the startlingly haunting cinematography that preceded it and the ending seems rather superfluous, but it is a fantastic story very beautifully told.

Daily humor, despot's edition

The most recent edition of Foreign Policy was oddly prescient. Maybe not in the way that they intended, but they published a full page of jokes about Hosni Mubarak. Given that the people of Egypt have had thirty years to perfect them, many of them are quite hilarious. According to the article, joking about Mubarak is sort of a national pastime, and why wouldn't it be? Imagine how much deeper and more nuanced our SNL presidential imitations would be if the actors had three decades in which to hone their craft.

Which also brings me to this hilarious Lonely Island video about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Daily Show interview with the creators of Parazit. Satire has a long and colorful history in repressive regimes (all of that great Russian literature that will make you alternately laugh and want to hang yourself! That tradition is being carried on by the satirical #kermlin Twitter feed) and there's also a reason that repressive regimes don't like satire - it's dangerous because it's true.

But because we fortunately live in a country with an open Internet, despite all the best efforts by the loonies at the FCC, we can watch funny videos that would probably get you disappeared in other countries. Which is just one of the many reasons I'm glad I'm here and not there.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thank you for clearing that up, modern art edition.

So, this sculpture in Del Ray made the front of the Metro section in today's Washington Post. It's apparently eggs. Three of them. In space.

We drove past Three Eggs in Space last summer for the first time, and everyone stared at it for a second, and then all three of us blurted out some variation of what the accompanying article delicately calls "lady part."

Glad to know we're not the only ones. Also, according to artist Karen Bailey, the titular three eggs are not, as one may think, the three limestone ovals. The third egg is the space inside the limestone oval. Which would make the third limestone oval...something else. I would argue one could have left off the third limestone oval completely and just declared the general shape of the universe to be the third egg, but whatever. I don't particularly care for the sculpture - it looks like every other pieces of bland art parked in front of every other apartment building - but I guess it's better than the spiky steel egg that sits down the street from Ballston Metro. I like to call that one the Choke Pear.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bits and pieces

My friend Catherine's blog Nomad is now linked. Catherine is spending a year in Cairo and is taking lots of amazing pictures of her adventures.

Catherine, if you are reading this, you better be wearing sunscreen.

Also, many thanks to Pete Earley, author of Crazy for writing me a kind e-mail thanking me for reviewing his book. Although his son Mike continued to struggle with his mental illness, he's been stable for several years now. As the fallout from Tucson continues, Pete appeared on CNN and has published several articles that I think go a long way to explaining why no one could have effectively stopped Loughner.

And, I find tumblr sites like Microagressions mesmerizing. They're like little mah jongg or Scrabble tiles of rage.

In exile in my own land.

I was extraordinarily excited to read a review of Siobhan Fallon's You Know When The Men Are Gone in today's Washington Post Style section. You Know is Fallon's first book, a collection of short stories set in and around Fort Hood, Texas, during the deployment of the 1st Cav to Iraq.

I lived in Fort Hood for a few years, pre 9/11, and my father deployed with 1st Cav afterwards, although we had already departed for Virginia. But I remember Fort Hood with more detail than I'd like to, down to the small, dirt-colored road runner I saw racing up the middle of the street outside our house on one of the first mornings we were there, before the jet lag had worn off. Because the Texas school system starts ridiculously early, one of the first things I had to do was go to the local middle school to register. They were renovating it and the linoleum was paved with the crushed bodies of four-inch long palmetto bugs, their tobacco-colored insides oozing out of their armored bodies.

I remember thinking that it was a really bad sign.

Fallon's writing is intimately attuned to the unique rhythm on the military base, which has a sort of relentless cadence. Even the baby booms happen in sync. Mom would come home with stacks of baby blankets embroidered with the unit's insignia to give to the newborns exactly nine months after the soldiers got R&R. And when the men are gone, there is a different rhythm, which is what Fallon picks apart in her mostly solid collection of stories that are centered around waiting, hope and hopelessness, betrayal, and faith.

Her first story, "You Know When The Men Are Gone," introduces readers to the tedium of life on the base after deployment. The base's reason for existing, its vitality, is gone, and the women left behind scramble for substitutes with which to fill up their days. Meg, a childless Army spouse (a very rare creature on Fort Hood), occupies her time listening to the life of another Army wife on the other side of their shared wall. Natalya, a bride from Serbia, is isolated from the other Army wives by her accent, her flashy looks, and her standoffishness, but Meg becomes obsessed with decoding the rhythm of Natalya's life, until she finds herself unexpectedly involved.

"Camp Liberty" shifts from Fort Hood to Baghdad, where former investment banker David Mogeson, enlisted after 9/11, makes an unlikely soldier but a surprisingly competent sergeant until the disappearance of an interpreter rocks his emotional center. In "Remission," an Army spouse with cancer struggles to cope with her disintegrating body and relationship with her children. In "The Last Stand," a returning soldier also tries to cope with his injuries and the dissolution of his young marriage.

"Leave" is the most terrifying of Fallon's stories. A soldier who suspects his wife of cheating returns from Iraq and breaks into their house, setting up camp in the basement while his wife and child continue their lives, unsuspecting, above him while he waits for evidence of his wife's infidelity.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome and betrayal are common themes of Fallon's stories, from cheating wives and husbands to chaotic homecomings. You Know contains the same group of characters in each story, which helps link them together and mimics the insular world of the military base, where everyone knows everyone else (and you keep running into the same people year after year, in country after country, whether it's the American South, Western Europe, or Korea).

Fallon's writing is solid if unsurprising. Her stories do not ambush you; rather, they build up a steady drumbeat, and her portrayal of rage, grief, and pain are sturdily drawn. Her stories fit together like interlocking blocks, and while I'm curious to see if she can handle the nuances of a longer work of fiction, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more writing from Fallon.

Historical sin.

In Bucharest there is a graveyard with two rows of graves whose tombstones are the same size and shape. The dates on the stones are all the same, too: January 21 - 23, 1941. Almost all of Bucharest's Jewish inhabitants were murdered in the Bucharest pogrom, including a group of Jews who were kidnapped by the ultra-nationalist fascist League of the Archangel Michael, taken to Bucharest's slaughterhouse, and killed on the same equipment used to kill cattle. Their mutilated bodies, some stamped with meat inspection stamps, were hung from the slaughterhouse meat hooks.

There are not many memorials to the murdered Jews of Romania. After World War II, Romania descended behind the 'iron curtain' of the USSR. Romania and its neighbors remained isolated, shadowy countries as Western Europe rebuilt. After the USSR began to collapse, the Balkans emerged as some of the most deprived, poor, and broken countries in the world, only to explode again in violence in the mid-1990s as the rest of the world scrambled to figure out what the hell was happening in countries that were only a few hours by car from Germany and France but seemed a world away.

In the wake of any genocide there is inevitably a chorus of how the world misunderstood, misread, misanalyzed the situation, didn't have the right information, couldn't get a handle on the history, thought they were seeing something other than what was there. And the Balkans is probably more confusing than most countries. Hidden in the sphere of the USSR for years, with a muddy, medieval history punctuated by the conquest by the Ottoman Turks, a polyglot and multi-religious population, and shifting boundaries, the neatly colored blocks that make up European maps start to get blurry when you head east and south of Poland and Austria.

Robert Kaplan's elegy to the Balkans, Balkan Ghosts, is not so much an attempt to unravel the Balkans' snarled history - a Sisyphean task - as an attempt to follow the strands. Part travelogue, part history primer, Balkan Ghosts is also a farewell to a country as it staggers under the weight of its history and the bitterness of its past.

Balkan Ghosts is divided into four parts: Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. Following the route that Rebecca West took in Black Lamb, Gray Falcon, Kaplan set out from Austria, the cradle of Nazism, and traveled to Croatia. As West was traveling ahead of a calamity - the Croatian king had just been murdered by the Ustashe, one of the harbingers of World War II - so Kaplan was traveling to Yugoslavia before its dissolution.

What he found was a country mired in history. Unlike Western Europe, which had picked itself up, scrubbed itself off, and carefully exorcised its demons by building memorials and holding ceremonies, Croatia, Serbia, and Albania had never healed, and not only from the wounds of the two World Wars. Their anger went back much further and the injuries of the distant past were felt just as keenly. The injustices of the conquest by the Ottoman Turks and the brutal rule that followed, the steady loss of territory, and the veneration of the doomed martyrs in the struggle against Turkish rule combined to create a feeling of destiny thwarted. As a Serbian nun bitterly told Kaplan, "we would have been even greater than the Italians, were it not for the Turks."

In Bucharest, Moldavia, Bucovina, and Transylvania, the same bitterness pervaded. The repression of history under the Communist leaders seems to have led to a sort of scabbing over, underneath which an infection continued to rage. Unlike Germany, the Balkans was not rejoining the rest of the world, and did not have to atone for its sins or face its own atrocities, and so the accepted version of history was one that allowed the Balkans to find itself blameless. Caught between two powers, Germany and Russia, the Balkans went from one form of fascism to another.

Kaplan's inclusion of Greece in Balkan Ghosts may be considered unorthodox, but he views Greece as a "western mistress, eastern bride" - although Greece flirted with the West, in practice it remained aligned with the repression of the East, culimating in the rule of Andreas Papanadreou - perhaps the penultimate irony, given Greece's now-cliched moniker as the birthplace of democracy.

As a Westerner, an American, a journalist, Kaplan never found a shortage of people desperate to talk to him, to tell him their version of history, to alternately excoriate and excuse their country. His conversations with people as varied as author Slavenka Drakulic, a Saxon family from Transylvania (descendants of the Saxons who settled in former Hungary under the Magyar king, Geza II), and one of Bucharest's few surviving Jews provide the human legacy of the history that Kaplan relates. By not following a chronological model, Kaplan succeeds in showing how the machinations of kings and armies resulted in the morass of the twentieth-century Balkans.

Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts may not be able to unravel Balkan history, but it does something much more valuable - it shows the human price behind the historic events that shaped the Balkans.

Author, historian, and columnist Anne Applebaum's "Real-Life Look at the Gulag" is in today's Washington Post. Applebaum, the author of Gulag, served as a historical consultant for filmmaker Peter Weir's new movie, The Way Back. Starring Ed Harris, Colin Firth, and Saiorse Ronan, The Way Back is based on the true story of a group of prisoners who walk nearly 4,000 from Siberia to India to escape from a gulag.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Crazy nation.

In the wake of Jared Loughner's shooting spree in Arizona, there's been a deluge of articles and commentary and cable-news handwringing about the state of America's mental health care system.

Hahahaha. In answer, you may ask, what mental health care system? The same questions came up after the Virginia Tech rampage, and the one before that, and the one before that - but for Virginia specifically, the same problems that plague what shreds of a mental health system that can be said to exist are the same problems that plague the rest of the country.

For answers to the question why someone so apparently unbalanced can't be committed you have to go back...way back, to the 1970s and the end of the civil rights movement, when the philosophical foundations of how America could treat the mentally unwell were fundamentally changed.

Pete Earley, a former reporter for the Washington Post, nonfiction author of several works that touch on criminal justice in America, and novelist, does that and more in Crazy. Earley began work on Crazy after his son Mike was arrested in Fairfax County after suffering a psychotic break. Mike, who had no prior history of drug use or erratic behavior, or any family history of mental illness, was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. As Earley strugged to navigate the unfamiliar world of mental illness, he leveraged his knowledge on criminal justice and skills as a reporter to begin his own investigation.

What he found should be shocking, should spur reform, should do this and should do that. Realistically, it's not going to, and Earley himself points out why.

Earley starts out with his own story. His college-age son, Mike, had begun acting erratically while attending school out of state, which Mike blamed on the stress of college and overwork. After getting alarmed enough about his behavior to bring Mike back home, Mike ended up suffering a psychotic break and broke into an empty house in suburban Fairfax, where he was arrested by deputies responding to the alarm. Although Earley thought that he could get help for Mike after he was arrested, he soon learned that because of the interpretation of current mental health treatment laws - laws developed in 1970 - there was no way that Mike could be involuntarily committed or treated with medication until he harmed himself or someone else. Meanwhile, Mike was facing two felony charges.

After beginning the labyrinthine legal process to both try Mike and try to get him help, and running into obstacle after obstacle, Earley went to Miami-Dade County, Florida, to try to figure out why getting his son help was so hard.

Why Miami-Dade? Well, not only is the name Miami-Dade synonymous with government incompetence, Miami-Dade has an astronomically high rate of mental illness and homelessness. After Kennedy told Cuba that Cubans fleeing Communism would be welcomed with open arms, Castro took the opportunity to empty Cuba's mental asylums and jails and send 'em on over, where many stayed. Consequently, Miami-Dade's already dysfunctional mental health system was overwhelmed.

Then the 1970s hit, and things got worse. Thorazine had been on the market for a few years, touted as a wonder drug for treating a wide range of seemingly intractable mental disorders. And Thorazine did work for many patients, but for others, it turned them into zombies. Overmedicating became routine, and a growing backlash against medicating patients involuntarily, coupled with a shift in the philosophy surrounding civil rights and high-profile lawsuits triggered on behalf of institutionalized patients resulted in the passage of several laws that fundamentally changed how mental health could be treated.

This was the genesis of the "harm to self or others law" that effectively ties the hands of anyone seeking treatment on behalf of a mentally ill person. The problem is rather obvious, as "harm to self and others" is a very vague definition of who can be involuntarily treated. And furthermore, Earley argues that treating a mentally ill person involuntarily is a Catch-22, as most mentally ill people need treatment first in order to be rational enough to decide whether to continue receiving medication. But by wording the law this way, America was able to empty and shutter its state-run treatment facilities and effectively wash its collective hands of treating the mentally ill by claiming that patients could only be voluntarily committed and treated except under the most stringent guidelines. As a result, only patients who had already harmed themselves or someone else could receive treatment, at which point they were much more likely to be jailed instead of hospitalized.

The end result is the warehousing of the mentally ill in jails, without effective treatment and most often in horrendous conditions, without any hope of recovering or receiving adequate medical care. There's simply no other place to put them.

In Florida, Earley met with both the mentally ill and those trying to help them, including the overburdened psychiatrists and nurses in Miami-Dade's penal system who struggle against overwhelming odds. Earley visited the notorious ninth floor of the Miami-Dade Country Pretrial Detention Center and records the medieval conditions, overcrowding, and brutal treatment by the prison guards. The purpose of the Pretrial Detention Center is to make prisoners competent enough to stand trial, although as Earley would find out, some prisoners spent years shuttling between detention centers and the courtroom as their condition continued to deteriorate. As Earley points out, the result of the closing of facilities and the termination of treatment options has led us back to the inhumane conditions of early mental instutitions, an especially cruel irony given that many of the lawsuits that forced the closing of those institutions were made under the auspices of protecting the mentally ill. The end result did close institutions that were subpar, but no alternatives were made available, and the vast majority of those institutionalized ended up homeless and later, incarcerated.

Which brings us back to Arizona, which is facing a massive budget shortfall that has put mental health programs on the chopping block. Ironically, Governor Jan Brewer's son is schizophrenic and has been institutionalized for over two decades after being ruled incompetent to stand trial for kidnapping and assault, and Brewer has made efforts to protect Arizona's mental health programs.

However, as Earley explains, simply upping the federal funding or number of programs doesn't help when the law effectively ties the hands of anyone trying to find treatment for a mentally unwell person. Earley makes a compelling argument against the current legal framework, particularly given that most of the laws regulating how and when a person can be compelled to enter treatment were written before much of what we now know about disorders like schizophrenia were discovered.

Crazy doesn't have a happy ending. Although Earley does find some bright spots in the work of the dedicated individuals who provide treatment, it's clear that the 'mental health care system,' such as it is, is not going to get fixed any time soon. At the end of the book, Earley's son Mike has improved and is living a relatively independent life - but as Earley knows, Mike will spend the rest of his life fighting his disease.

The next time someone asks why you can't just lock 'em up, give them a copy of Earley's book. Crazy does a thorough and quick job of explaining why America's "mental health care system" is more hallucination than reality.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Man of steel.

I've always been fascinated by Stalin.

Hitler did everybody the favor of looking like a madman - the plastered down hair, the permagrimace, the spitting when he talked. In the photos in Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin, Stalin's friendly wrinkles, shapeless, battered tunics, and grubby boots make him look like someone's avuncular grandfather. The photographs show Stalin clowning around with his inner circle, posing with his beloved daughter Svetlana, and poking around in the gardens of his dacha. He doesn't look like the kind of guy who ordered so many of his friends killed that he often forgot who was dead and who was alive.

Montefiore, author of Sashenka and the husband of novelist Santa Montefiore, has written a very narrowly focused book despite its clocking in at nearly 800 pages. Strictly speaking, Stalin really isn't a biography. Although Montefiore touches on some aspects of Stalin's early life, particularly his time in prison as a young revolutionary, Montefiore is more interested in tracing the contradictions and complexities of the relationships of the tightly wound circle that surrounded Stalin before and during his rise to power and slow, torturous decline.

Montefiore is very skilled at showing how claustrophobic, paranoid, and incestuous Stalin's inner circle was. The Old Bolsheviks who surrounded him during his ascendancy (most of whom he later liquidated) were related by blood or marriage, and sometimes blood and marriage. Divorces and remarriages were also common among the same small group, and infidelity within the circle commonplace.

Montefiore begins his book with the suicide of Stalin's wife, Nadya, in 1932. It's clear that Montefiore views Nadya's death as some sort of turning point for Stalin, although I think this point is arguable, as I doubt he would have been any different had Nadya lived. In fact, given Nadya's own rabid Bolshevism, I think it's more likely that she would have contributed to the viciousness of Stalin's court. But either way, beginning with Nadya's suicide is a compelling opening, and Montefiore devotes the next few chapters to chronicling the peripatetic movement of Stalin and his court as they moved to consolidate their power and secure their positions within the Party.

After Nadya's suicide, Montefiore skips backwards to 1878, before Stalin was Stalin, when Joseph met the schoolgirl Nadya, twenty-two years his junior. Joseph first met Nadya when she was a toddler and he was a young man. Both were Bolsheviks, although Joseph's background as the son of a Georgian drunkard and a peasant woman (or perhaps a priest...the question of Stalin's paternity is another one of the many questions that swirl around him) gave him more street cred, as did getting exiled to Siberia six times.

Stalin was there at the beginning, serving as one of Lenin's henchmen and slowly consolidating his power base, including angling to remove Trotsky, the only other serious contender for power after Lenin's death. Montefiore makes it clear that the murderousness of Stalin and his cohort had its roots in the Bolshevism of Lenin's rule, when Stalin first began using methods that would later coalesce into the Ukrainian famine, the genocide of the peasants, and the Terror.

At this point, Stalin becomes positively dizzying, as Stalin's peripatetic cohort bounce around from holiday to holiday and dacha to dacha, while organizing the Ukrainian famine and the imprisonment and deportation of the 'kulaks.' Montefiore focuses on the endless strings of letters, commands, and files that flew back and forth between Stalin and clique as they traveled, Stalin's commands scrawled in his trademark colored crayon.

The closeness of Stalin's inner circle is both weirdly touching and horribly sad, as none of the families would escape unscathed from the Terror and his subsequent purges. Starkly put, no one was safe from Stalin, especially as his paranoia grew. Using personal correspondence and interviews with the surviving offspring of Stalin's circle, Montefiore shows the paradoxical sides of the man who could lovingly inquire after the health of one's daughter, just after ordering her mother's death.

Although Stalin certainly had consolidated his iron grip on power by the late 1930s, it was after Russia's victory over Germany in World War II that he emerged as the omnipotent Generalissimo. Montefiore performs a delicate juggling act, showing both Stalin as the personification of Russia's Communist strength and the increasingly isolated, lonely, and regretful man whose mental faculties seemed to be deteriorating and who destroyed everyone close to him.

Stalin remained dangerous to the end as he descended into irrational senility but continued to rule with a capricious and lethal force. With his equally murderous cronies Malenkov, Molotov, Beria, and Khruschev, the last few years of Stalin's rule were marked with frantic denunciations and the imprisonment and execution of many of his closest allies, including the Soviet generals who had rescued Russia's victory over Germany from Stalin's incompetent military command.

The Court of the Red Tsar is certainly not the first (or second, or even third) book one should read about the Soviet Union and Stalin's rule. Global events remain peripheral to the main thrust of the book, which is examining in minute detail the relationships and correspondence between Stalin and his inner circle, as various players rose to and fell from power, almost always fatally. Without a relatively solid grasp of the timeline of the Bolshevik Revolution and World War II, most readers would be hopelessly lost. However, The Court of the Red Tsar is an absolutely fascinating look at the inner workings of the tangled and venemous Stalinist court and the fear that drove much of the muderous behavior of its inhabitants.

Red Tsar was published four years before Montefiore's novel Saschenka, but thankfully doesn't have the florid language that makes Sashenka almost comical. Instead, Montefiore shows remarkable restraint (except perhaps when succumbing to the temptation to psychoanalyze Stalin, which I personally believe is an impossible endeavor) throughout the book, allowing the letters and interviews, along with his painstaking research, to paint a very intimate look into the heart of Stalin's murderous empire.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Weekend roundup

This weekend I went to the D.C. Tattoo Arts Expo.

It was pretty cool - the Expo is equally for the tattooers and the tattooed, so not only could you drop trou' and get that rose you've always wanted on your butt, but you can buy tattooing equipment and ink. Georgetown Cupcake contributed a giant cupcake sculpture of a ship and banner, and there was a lot of local representation of tattoo parlors.

I did not get a new tattoo but it was cool to see all of the various tattoo-related artwork and, for once, not be the most heavily tattooed person in the room.

Today, while out shopping, I saw this amazing thing:

Here's a close-up with more detail:

It's like a disco ball mated with an antelope and this is the sparkly, sparkly result. Why? Wherefore? No one knows.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What your juice says about you.

Therapist? I don't need no stinking therapist. The Dole corporation can tell me all about myself just based on what type of juice I'm chugging. See?? Not only is my favorite activity warming up the house with the smell of pancakes (I put the juice on the counter next to a bowl and a whisk and an hour later, still no damn pancakes) but I also enjoy watching sunrises and singing in the shower.

Seriously? I'm tired of getting psychoanalyzed by the stuff I buy. Goldfish started it with their side-of-the-carton profiles (Cheddar? You're a dopy, preppy fish with a permasmile. Pretzel? You're a smirking cool fish-dude! Original? Oooh, sorry. Psycho killer with a propensity for wearing women's undergarments.)

Then Playtex got in the game, and the next thing I know, my tampon wrappers are telling me that sports build character and exhorting me to try explore new forms of fearlessness, and perhaps most creepily, some of the wrappers say "I'm on your team!" Like that's somehow comforting. I'm afraid the next one is going to say "I watch while you sleep" or "Your habit of nibbling all the skin on your lower lip off is truly grotesque."

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bloody harvest

Chuck Sudetic, the author of Blood and Vengeance, wrote an article that ran today in the Washington Post about the damning report on organized crime in Kosovo by the Council of Europe.

According to the report's authors allege that Kosovo's leaders have participated in crimes including human trafficking, drug trade, and the mid-1990 abduction and murder of hundreds of ethnic Albanians and Serbs. The report blames the lack of response from the European community and America on reluctance to jeopardize Kosovo's political stability - and probably owes a fair amount to Rwanda syndrome, too, with the residual guilt over not intervening during the genocide of 1995.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Twenty-first century chains

It's fitting that right as I finished reading E. Benjamin Skinner's A Crime So Monstrous, an e-mail popped up from the Holocaust Memorial reminding me about Sudan's referendum on Sunday. A large part of Skinner's book covers the slave trade still going on in Sudan, exacerbated by the continuing north-south conflict.

It is truly mystifying how little attention slavery gets today (and I don't tack on the 'modern-day' sobriquet). Aside from the prurient drooling of the Evangelical right over sex slavery, debt-bondage, child labor, domestic slavery, and other, more nebulous forms of slavery get scant attention from the media and governments.

Crime opens with an author's note that asks the reader to imagine an alternate history in which the Confederate States of America won the Civil War, spreading slavery to the Northern states, or if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor and incurred the wrath of America, but confined its slavery to Asia. In short, Skinner wants you to think about what the global situation would be like if the ideology of slavery had not been confronted in the Civil War or World War II. Then Skinner points out the schizophrenic reality of a world in which America, purportedly the shining beacon of hope to the beknighted, has roughly half a million slaves living in it right now, with nearly 20,000 trafficked to America every year.

Skinner is a travel writer, and he uses that background to ingenious effect in Crime. Following the path of both slaver and slave, Skinner starts chapter one at UN Headquarters in New York before taking the reader on the relatively short journey to Haiti, where domestic and sexual slavery (which is often one and the same) are rampant. In Haiti, Skinner tries to buy a child from a genial middleman, who cheerfully offers to sell the writer a 12 year old girl for $50. Leaving Port au Prince, Skinner goes to the Haitian countryside, where most of the enslaved children come from, to talk to the parents who sell their children, and finds himself in the unlikely position of rescuer. He's able to reunite a woman with her child who vanished into Port au Prince after being entrusted to a woman who promised to send her to school.

Skinner then takes us on to Sudan, where slavery has fostered some strange political bedfellows. American Evangelicals, moved by the enslavement of the mostly Christian south Sudanese by the mostly Islamic, Arabic-speaking north Sudanese, have bankrolled 'redemption' missions, carried out by characters like John Eibner, who travels across Sudan with a cadre of frightening mercenaries who call themselves the Archangel Group, composed of former Green Berets, Britain's SAS, and the Soviet Special Forces. Skinner has his doubts about the veracity of both Eibner's organization and his mission, but he relates the brutality of the Sudanese slave trade and the government's complicity in harshly evocative language.

Next, Skinner heads to Europe by way of Amsterdam, Moldova, and Romania, where he finds a journalist who can introduce him to contacts in the underworld of Eastern Europe's sex trade. There, Skinner goes to Bucharest and finds a man willing to sell him a teenager for a used car and a handful of Euros. In one of the book's most horrific passages, when Skinner demands to see the goods, the man returns with a weeping teenager with Down's syndrome.

It's here that Skinner becomes almost incandescent with rage, rage at the hypocrisy of the Netherlands' government at allowing a shadow slave trade to flourish in its red-light district, rage at the corrupt police force in the former Soviet satellite countries that ignore the human traffickers in favor of imprisoning the trafficked, and rage at the toothless flailing of the 'calcified' United Nations. Heading through the backwater of Moldova and retracing the path that many trafficked women take, Skinner finds ghost towns where less than 15% of the women remain, the rest having scattered to Western Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East.

Next up is India, to document the practice of debt bondage that leaves millions in slavery that stretches from generation to generation to repay dubious 'debts' to the owners of rock quarries, textile factories, and farms. Skinner chronicles the life of one family, whose bondage to a sadistic quarry owner has lasted nearly three generations, while local officials insist that slavery doesn't exist in their district. This chapter has one of the infrequent bright spots, with the successful rebellion of the enslaved inhabitants of one mining district, but overall the numbers are grim, as is the international community (and America's) reluctance to confront a valuable trading partner over the issue.

In the suburbs of Florida Skinner meets with Williathe, a Haitian girl nicknamed "Little Hope" who lived in domestic and sexual slavery for years in Pembroke Pines, outside of Miami. Taken from Haiti in 1996, at the age of nine, Williathe lived in Marie Pompee's house, regularly beaten and routinely raped by Marie's 20 year old son. It took three years for school administrators to notice anything, and as a result of utter, epic incompetence, Marie's son and husband were able to escape to Haiti and disappeared. Marie herself only received 6 months in jail.

Along the way, Skinner explains why governments, ours included, have been so reticent to address the issue. A confluence of things - the reluctance to define slavery as slavery, the disagreement over what constitutes slavery, the focus on sex trafficking to the exclusion of other forms of slavery, and simply that slavery helps drive the economic engine of countries like India - has contributed to the weak international response to trafficking and slavery, whereas outright corruption has contributed to persecution of the victims in many places that benefit from slavery.

Skinner's writing is blunt and forward, and his loyalties are obvious (the "calcified" UN, the hypocritical European governments) but his bravery is undoubtable. Skinner met with traffickers in Romania's most notorious prison, risked arrest at several borders, and endured disease and danger in Sudan, India, and the underworlds of several different countries to document the experiences of slaves and the official response (or lack thereof) to trafficking. He also does an excellent job in communicating the sheer, crushing weight of such an intractable problem and his own inability to stay disengaged from his subjects.

Skinner leaves the reader with a number of strategies to combat slavery in his epilogue, from calling for governments to enforce anti-slavery laws already in existence to partnerships between humanitarian organizations and government organs to end the demand and shrink the supply of slaves. However, it's incredibly hard to read any of Skinner's suggested without acidity or cynicism, given the monstrous failures so far.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Future shock.

Mockingjay is the final book in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy and by far the goriest and most violent.

Katniss Everdeen's home district, District 12, has been bombed into oblivion by the Capitol's gunships following her destruction of the Hunger Games arena at the end of Catching Fire. Gale, Katniss' resourceful childhood friend, managed to save her family and a handful of other Seam residents, and they've been taken in by District 13.

The mysterious District 13 turns out to be a nuclear-armed Sparta that exists in uneasy detente with the Capitol. District 13's inhabitants live a regimented, highly structured life in a huge underground complex, having spent the century since the Dark Days preparing for another assault by the Capitol. District 13 is led by the stern, authoritarian President Coin, who, with her cadre of advisors, is coordinating the Districts' rebellion against the Capitol.

Coin understands Katniss' value as the symbol of the rebellion and a propaganda tool, but after Peeta's capture and the horror of her second Hunger Games and the bombing of 12, Katniss is clinging to sanity and distrustful of Coin and her plans. Finally, Katniss agrees to cooperate, and with the help of the renegade Gamemaker Plutarch,and her kidnapped prep team, Katniss begins starring in staged battles against the Capitol's troops. Think of it as a reality show crossed with a snuff film.

Of course, things begin to go awry when Katniss realizes that Coin is playing a dangerous game of her own. As the Districts rebels begin to pour into the heart of the Capitol, Katniss and a team of District 13 soldiers, including victor Finnick and Peeta (now dangerously unbalanced after being tortured by President Snow's goons) go rogue and set off after President Snow on their own.

Fortunately, Collins' didn't exhaust her inventiveness in the first two books, and although there aren't any Arenas, the Capitol is filled with a particularly nasty assortment of booby traps. She amps up the blood and gore but dials down the romance - it's hard to be in the mood when you're running for your life - and Mockingjay's climax is horrific and surprising, although the ending feels rather wan. Although Collins still relies on expository language and soul-searching questions that seem kind of obvious, there's a lot more subtext going on here than in the first two books, particularly with the excellently imagined Coin as a different but no less dangerous type of dictator, and the book's inventive use of media and propaganda - like Lord of the Flies for the Facebook set.

The Hunger Games trilogy gets my praise for its inventiveness, gritty storytelling, powerful heroine, and Collins' refusal to pull her punches. Sadly, the trilogy falls short in character development (Katniss' mother is a particularly weakly drawn character) and Collins' treatment of her characters' emotions is lacking in subtlety or depth, but overall, this trilogy is one of the better offerings in young adult fiction.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Got Ninety-Nine Problems

Actually, Golden Richards has more than just ninety-nine problems. Richards, a member of a small and conservative wing of Mormonism, has four wives, twenty-eight children, an out-of-control home life, a failing business, a crushing load of grief, and an uncontrollable crush on his boss's wife.

Polygamy was a thing in 2010 - National Geographic did a big story on the FLDS after the raids in Utah and a companion TV episode, "The Polygamists." There was also HBO's Big Love and TLC's Sister Wives, which featured a quad of dumpy housewives and their creepy, 80s-coifed husband.

So Brady Udall's novel is certainly timely, as least in the context of our weird national obsessions, and Udall makes a masterful move in making Golden, the novel's protagonist, an utterly harmless, shambling retriever of a man, dopy, big-hearted, and sympathetic, very different from the Elizabeth Smart kidnapper or the suspected child rapists of the FLDS raids.

At the novel's outset, Golden and his four wives are all dealing with their own griefs. Golden still fiercely mourns the loss of his daughter, Glory, the only one of his children with whom he really connected. Trying to resurrect an ailing construction company, he's making a brutal commute to the Nevada desert to build a brothel for an erratic boss. His youngest wife, Trish, is trying to cope with the emotional aftermath of a still-birth, and his other three wives have their litter of children, internicine squabbling, and dearth of connection and attention to their husband to handle.

As Golden's attention is further distracted from his deteriorating domestic situation by his boss's entrancing wife, tensions at his house reach a fever pitch as one particularly difficult child, Rusty, develops a dangerous relationship with an explosives-obsessed loner who leads a hermit-like existence in the desert.

Udall's description of the crowded, chaotic plural lifestyle have a ring of authenticity. His "plyg" children are not the docile, Little-House-on-the-Prairie dress wearing girls or dweeby boys of the National Geographic article. Instead, they're more like pack animals, exquisitely attuned to any sign of favoritism, the way children who are chronically starved of love or attention are, and quite often cruel to each other. Udall makes it very hard for the reader to dislike Golden, taking a detour through his lonely childhood and complicated, often heart-breaking relationship with his wives and children.

The chunks of expository chapters plunked in here and there (helpfully italicized, too!) seem clunky and unnecessary - there's really no reason for the author to take us on a tour of "the boy's" misery or "Wife #1's" obsessive need for control - Udall's a good enough writer that he doesn't need to spell it out for the reader, and it makes it seem like he either doesn't trust his reader to get it or his writing to get the point across, so he has to belabor the point. The ending is also somewhat of a let-down, as neither Golden nor his wives seem able to address the yawning emotional gulfs underneath their relationship, and instead careen in the opposite direction and enlarge the family even more.

I get the sense that Udall is treading carefully here. No one wants to endorse polygamy - heavens, no, what with all those creepy old men in Utah and Smart's crazy-eyed captor, so he very scrupulously makes it plain that Golden is not interested in sixteen year olds, no sir! Although a plyg lost boy (those supernumerous sons who are expelled from Mormom compounds since there aren't enough sixteen year olds for all those creepy guys to go around without chucking out some of the male children once they hit young adulthood) turns up, Udall ignores the issues that make polygamy so distasteful in the United States - child trafficking, statutory rape, child abandonment.

Instead, the issues the plural family faces here are not that much different than any other family with a similar dearth of time, love, money, and a few unresolved emotional problems. While that, and Udall's deftly drawn characters, is certainly compelling, I can't help by feel that Udall's cheating a bit here.