Monday, December 30, 2013

Think you know China?

Review of Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Most often when I review a popular book I like I look to the one-star reviews rather than those with five. This is more so I'm not influenced by the words and sentiments in the raves. I want the review to reflect my own reading experience, not the viewpoint of others. The pans are usually good for a laugh, and they often give me a starting point for my own assessment of the book.

I've come to Wild Swans late, learning of it only recently from a friend who lived in China awhile teaching English. Ordinarily averse to reading books others recommend to me (don't really know why) this time it worked, in part I suspect because my friend in describing some of the fascinating revelations it contained tugged back the hem of a curtain I hadn't realized was blocking my view of a land and a culture far beyond anything I had imagined. Many of the handful of disappointed readers bemoaned that Wild Swans didn't excite them, didn't have enough dialogue to suit their taste for action. They compared the book to works of fiction or fictionalized biographies. They must have missed the parts describing the incomprehensible horrors the Japanese committed on the Chinese in World War II, and then by the Chinese themselves in the subsequent struggles for political control and ultimately by the prevailing Communist Party and by the regime headed by Mao Zedong, a certifiable madman who relentlessly set his subjects against each other by the millions, urging them to torture and beat each other to death and drive one another to insanity and suicide.

I'm surprised anyone who claims to have been bored by author Jung Chang's descriptions of such horrific atrocities as “singing fountains”, in which Red Guards split victims' heads open to entertain onlookers with the subsequent screaming and geysers of blood can read at all. Or maybe they miss the dramatic foreground music that prompts them to glance up from their cellphones in time to catch violent depictions on their wide-screen TVs.

Jung Chang builds her story, an account of China's tumultuous history during the 20th century, around the lives of three generations of women – her grandmother, mother and herself, the “wild swans” of the title. Eventually allowed to leave her politically oppressive homeland for England as a visiting scholar, she began writing Wild Swans after a visit of several months from her mother. Finally free of the restrictions to talk about anything that might be perceived as showing China in a negative light, Jung Chang's mother starting telling her daughter things she'd bottled up most of her life. She talked almost nonstop, even when she couldn't be with her daughter. Jung Chang said her mother left some 60 hours of taped narrative before returning to China. I could go on for pages describing the horrors these women suffered and the incredible heroism they displayed under conditions brought about by the most wicked behavior the human species has ever displayed.

This statement is bound to arouse suspicion that I'm a political shill or at least am exaggerating beyond reason, but from reading Wild Swans I can say with complete confidence Mao Zedong was a genius of the most evil design ever seen on the planet. If only for the sheer magnitude of Mao's murderous subjugation of China's hundreds of millions, Hitler and Stalin were pipsqueaks in comparison. As Jung Chang observed, Hitler and Stalin relied on elites and secret police to enforce their totalitarian regimes. Mao cowed and brainwashed his subjects with cunning, bringing out their worst instincts toward service without question of his every whim. One consequence was the starvation of millions during a famine brought about solely by Mao's vanity and ignorance.

My vague, naïve sense of China left me woefully unprepared for Jung Chang's deceptively dispassionate revelations. Her straightforward, uncontrived presentation, which has a diary feel at times, gives the horrors she describes a poignance that wrenches the heart. Not that all is ghastly and bleak. Alongside the indelible image of the “singing fountains” is her childhood remembrance of having deliberately swallowed an orange seed. A family member had warned her not to swallow the seeds or orange trees would grow out of her head. She admitted having trouble getting to sleep that night worrying about it.

I prefer this memory to the other, although I know both will ever remain with me. 

[ Click title to buy Wild Swans on Amazon]

Monday, December 23, 2013

Santa Detained at Guantanamo

Santa Detained at Guantanamo
         by Jordan Paust

Santa has been detained at Guantanamo Bay as a person who poses a potential threat to national security. In commenting on the detention, a White House “official” admitted that Santa does not presently threaten national security but stressed nonetheless that Santa:
1. hides his face with a beard
2. wears red (an ominous form of coloring under prior U.K. antiterrorism laws)
3. has a male’s first name ending with an “a” that sounds “foreign”
4. flies into and out of the U.S. without going through airport security checks or immigration controls and flies outside air traffic routes without filing any sort of flight plan
5. brings items of value into the U.S. in a large sack in violation of U.S. customs laws
6. has been alleged (in unsworn statements) to have traveled yearly within countries such as Cuba, Iran, and even North Korea and, thus, has “known links” with such countries and various types of persons therein
7. surreptitiously enters buildings through chimneys
8. as indicated by home searches here and abroad, he transferred items of value to opposition leaders in several countries, which the leaders do not declare for tax or any other governmental purposes
9. harbors strange persons at his compound who perform labor without pay
10. has never taken an oath of allegiance to the U.S. or to preserve and defend the U.S. Constitution, is not known to be a national of any country and, indeed, is an alien
11. has never registered to vote in any election or served on jury duty
12. has opposed war in any form, even if authorized by the U.N. Security Council
13. summaries of secret surveillance demonstrate that he has been seen often with a white powdery substance on his boots
14. somehow knows when any person is sleeping or awake
15. opposes NRA members and anyone else hunting deer
16. FBI mail checks indicate that children of various government officials and others write to him and hearsay and undisclosed informants indicate that he keeps a secret book with the children’s names and addresses
17. an alleged terrorist named Rudolph has been captured, and Santa has a known acquaintance named Rudolph

In lieu of the above, the Administration will raise the alert to “red” in December when his organization’s patterns of activities and relevant “chatter” seem heightened. The Administration has also identified things that we and/or the Administration can do in December:
1. seal off your fireplace openings with duct tape
2. kill all deer in Alaska and ask our Canadian friends do to the same in Canada
3. Homeland Security will authorize companies to clear-cut all potential Christmas trees in Alaska and elsewhere in the U.S.
4. intercept letters to Santa from your children and turn these over to the FBI
5. avoid traveling to department stores
6. do not help to finance any charities using his image
7. capture metal pots on tripods manned by Salvation Army look-a-likes as these are actually suspected weapons of mass destruction
8. destroy any Salvation Army trucks engaged in furtive behavior, since drawings from the State Department indicate that they are actually involved in the delivery of the pots
9. remind the world that we are at “war” with his organization and its message of peace
10. Homeland Security will hunt down any elves with “known links” to him or his compound
11. the Administration will launch a preemptive strike against his compound and toy-making schools
12. the Administration may try him in a military commission because much of the abovementioned evidence will not be admissible in a court of law, where he would also have the rights to judicial review of the propriety of his detention, to have access to counsel of his choice, to challenge members of the court for cause, to examine all witnesses against him, to fair procedure and fair rules of evidence, to equal protection of the laws, and to appeal to a real court exercising judicial powers.
 [Jordan J. Paust is the Mike and Teresa Baker Law Center professor of international law at the University of Houston.]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Chapter 46 (1st draft -- Presidential Gas)

Charlotte Remora's attitude morphed through several faces as she sat with the others. Professional blank initially, to conceal her rage at losing exclusivity for her station within minutes of airing quite likely the century's hottest story. Startled next to realize her mouth was hanging open and she'd forgotten to breathe as the full import of President Morowitz's disaster established itself in the room. Finally her camera-ready complexion betrayed from beneath by the clammy pallor of helpless fear, which reflected a growing despair shared by the small group.

They were slumped on the studio's folding chairs. All but Dr. Knoe, who sat tending the president on his cot in the alcove, and Brad Morowitz, dutifully manning the camera for the record and whatever outlets remained tapped into the feed. The sound was off, so the feed carried little more than a still frame of an unconscious president. Even Dr. Knoe for the most part remained outside the view. It seemed to Remora that although Ruth Rose looked as worried as everyone else she'd become by default the center of gravity in the room. Something in her comportment, an implicit poise manifested so far as Remora could see only by a tilt of the head, as if the former president was leading with her chin and daring anyone to take a shot. Ruth's presence mitigated for Remora a creeping sense of claustrophobia. Nonetheless, she suspected that were it not for her appreciation of the irony of being the only news reporter trapped in the eye of the cataclysm she would spontaneously atomize to a mist of shrieking terror. As it was, she joined warily with the others in the frozen surrender of supplicants. Other than slight movements when Ruth and Joan Stonebraker occasionally reached outside the bunker via their cellphones the small group resembled mannequins in a department store window.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


This cell the sole certainty,

all else steeped in mystery.

Why should we be here?

Eyes peer through bars.

Intrepid reach for stars,

or respite from some fear?

Is the secret cloistered

in a heart not nurtured

by the cleansing tear?

Eyes without meet eyes within,

two pair sparkling serious whim.

So why damned bars to interfere?