Monday, April 23, 2012

links I was reading this in the paper the other day and thought I would highlight it on the blog. It's from: US drone strikes in Yemen crucial to prevent terrorist threat, Panetta says by Even MacAskill in The Guardian

But Mary Ellen O'Connell, an international law specialist at Notre Dame university, challenged the legality of the strikes. She expressed unease with what she described as a return to the ugly strategy used by the US in the Vietnam war and in Central America.

O'Connell, who is also vice-president of the American Society of International Law and who has testified to Congress on legal issues, said of the proposed expansion in Yemen: "In other words, the CIA is seeking to escalate an already unlawful campaign of targeted killing at the very time Yemen needs support building the rule of law and ending violence and military conflict. The last time the CIA had this much freedom to kill was in Vietnam. It killed 25,000 people, and the US lost the war."

 She said that the Obama administration had decided that detaining people was causing political difficulties so they are just killing them instead, and governments round the world are quiescent. She noted that Obama is a law professor and expressed surprise that this should be happening on his watch.

 And this article I thought was also worth reading:
 No real justice in Guantanamo: Trying accused terrorists before military commissions won't meet international standards by Reed Brody from the Los Angeles Times

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

(Book Review)

Before my trip to Malaysia, a co-worker asked me what my interest in the country was.

“It just sounds like it has a fascinating mix of cultures,” I said. “The native Malays, the Indians, the Chinese, and then the British colonial influence all together in one country.”

The next day he handed me this book. “I think you’ll enjoy this,” he said. “This novel does a good job of describing all the multi-culturalism of Malaysia that you mentioned, plus it throws in the Japanese occupation during World War II.”

And so that’s how this novel was sold to me.

And there are passages of the novel that do hint at Malaysia’s cultural complexity.

On page 66, the narrator reflects, “It was only just starting to occur to me what a strange place I had grown up in—a Malayan country ruled by the British with strong Chinese, Indian, and Siamese influences. Within the Island [of Penang] I could move from world to world merely by crossing a street.

Several pages later, on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Malaya, the narrator reflects:

Looking back, it was strange that everyone, every Chinese, every Malay and Indian, knew with complete certainty that the Japanese would eventually invade Malaya. The Chinese feared that the Japanese would extend their massacre of the people of Nanjing into Malaya, while the Malay and Indian communities hoped that the Japanese would free them from colonial rule. The majority of the English scoffed at the notion that Malaya would be attacked, feeling secure behind the naval batteries of Singapore.” (p. 133)

However these passages aside, for most of the book the Indian and native Malay elements of Malaya are removed to the background, and the story concentrates almost exclusively on the conflict between the British, the Chinese, and the Japanese.

(The story takes place in the island of Penang which, along with Singapore, was one of the centers of the Chinese population in British Malaya.)

The book is written by a Chinese-Malaysian author, Tan Twan Eng, who himself was born in Penang. It is the fictional story of a half-Chinese, half British teenage boy in Penang who befriends a Japanese diplomat on the eve of the Japanese invasion.

This book was (apparently) highly praised by critics upon its release, and even nominated for the Booker Prize.

You can take the opinion of the experts, or you can take mine, but I didn’t care for it all that much. I thought the writing style of this book was over the top, as if the author were trying too hard to impress the reader with his literary talents.

I’ll quote below a typical example, and you can make up your own mind:

She told me her name, with an expectation that seemed to suggest I had been waiting for her. Yet it still took me a few seconds to find a mention of her in the vastness of my memory.
I had heard her spoken of only once before, by a wistful voice in a distant time. I tried to think of a reason to turn her away but could find none that was acceptable, for I felt that this woman had, ever since that moment, been set upon a path that would lead her to the door of my home. I took the gloved hand she offered. With its scarce flesh and thin prominent bones it felt like a bird, a sparrow with its wings wrapped around itself.
I nodded, smiled sadly, and led her through the house, pausing to put the lights on as we passed each room. The clouds had brought the night in early and the servants had gone home. The marble floors were cold, absorbing the chill of the air but not the echo of our footsteps.
We went out to the terrace and into the garden. We passed a collection of marble statues, a few with broken limbs lying on the grass, mold eating away their luminosity like an incurable skin disease. She followed me silently, and we stopped under the casuarina tree that grew on the edge of the small cliff overlooking the sea. The tree, as old as I, gnarled and tired, gave us a small measure of shelter as the wind shook flecks of water from the leaves into our faces.
“He lies across there,” I said, pointing to the island. Though less than a mile from the shore, it appeared like a gray smudge on the sea, almost invisible through the light veil of rain. The obligation to a guest, however unsettling her presence, compelled me to ask, “You’ll stay for dinner?”
She nodded. Then, in a swift movement that belied her age, she knelt on the wet earth and brought her head to rest on the grass. I left her there, bowing to the grave of her friend. For the moment we both knew silence was sufficient. The things to be said would come later.
(pages 2-3)

If you enjoyed that passage, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

If, like me, you found it slightly bordering on pretentiousness, than this is how the rest of the book is written.
Also if you thought you maybe noticed an over-use of similes in that short passage, this is also typical of the author’s style.

When I first started reading the book, I found this incredibly distracting. The good news was that as I kept reading, I became used to the author’s style, and once I was a couple hundred pages into the book it didn’t bother me so much. So if the first couple pages put you off, it might be worth persevering, form a stylistic point of view anyway.

The plot, though, is another story.
The narrative of the book is unfortunately like the prose: overdone and completely lacking in subtlety.
It’s a war story about the Japanese occupation of Malaya. During the Japanese occupation, the Chinese population of Malaya in particular suffered horribly and this book tries to convey that enormous suffering.

But after a while everything seemed so overdone I couldn’t take it seriously anymore. In order to show us the war-time suffering of the people of Malaya, it wasn’t enough that some of the main character’s friends and family had to die. All of them, without exception, had to die. And so by the end of the book the narrator’s entire family is wiped out, as well as any friends he ever had.

In real life, surely there must have been some people left alive in Penang after the Japanese left? Doesn’t it seem a bit over the top that everyone he knows has to die?

By the way, I spoil nothing by revealing this information. The story is told in flashbacks, and so the from the beginning of the book the reader already knows that the War is responsible for wiping out the narrator’s whole family.
This is a questionable narrative technique. Granted it does increase the reader’s curiosity at the beginning, but then later on in the flashback scenes, when each successive member of the narrator’s family is killed, the reaction of the reader is not shock or horror but simply a bored: “Yep, knew that was going to happen eventually.”
The reader must simply stick around until everyone is finally dead, and then the story is allowed to conclude itself.

Furthermore, I had a difficult time becoming invested in any of these characters, because none of them ever managed to seem like real people to me. They all just seemed like characters in a book. They do have some individual characteristics, but the author is not good at letting these characteristics come through naturally in the narrative, and so there are a lot of exposition passages describing what the personalities of different characters are like.


Despite this book’s many flaws, I’m glad I read it. It served as an excellent introduction to the Island of Penang.

The book is filled with references to actual places in Penang, and, despite the slightly pretentious prose, the author generally does a good job of describing colonial Penang with all its sights, sounds, and smells.

I read this book while travelling through Malaysia, and by the time I got to Penang I was excited to see everything the author had described.

Present day Penang appears to be thoroughly modern city, with traffic jams, large shopping centers, Starbucks and McDonalds, and outwardly bears little resemblance to the old British colonial island described in this book.
But then that is this is one of the themes of this book as well. Since the story is told in flashbacks, the narrator in the present day continually laments how the Penang of his boyhood has been swallowed up by the modern world. And you can see this very clearly if you visit Penang.

Not all the remnants of the colonial days have entirely disappeared though, and many of these surviving remnants the author has done a good job of integrating into his story.
For example, the author makes a big deal of describing Penang Hill, and the colonial-era British summer homes at the top of the hill.
When I went to Penang, I made a special point of checking out the hill, and was delighted to see all the old colonial-era houses much as author Tan Twang Eng had described it.
The colonial era railway car up to the top of the hill is also described in this book, and so I was interested in riding up that as well. (It’s been rebuilt and modernized several times over the years, but still takes the same path as the original 1923 funicular railway car.)

On page 18, the book mentions, “A constant flow of vehicles went around the clock tower donated by a local millionaire to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.”
This clock tower was something else I made a point of checking out while in Penang, and was further surprised/delighted when one of my Malaysian friends revealed to me she was the great-granddaughter of that Victorian era local-millionaire.

The British Fort Cornwallis, which plays a big part in the second half of the book, was another thing I checked out.

When my friends took me to see the Batu Ferringhi coast, I was pleased to remember it as one of the places described in the book.
The Penang Swimming Club (visible from my hotel room) is mentioned in this book.
The legendary haunted house (mentioned on page 19 of this book) my friends also made a point of showing me as we drove past.

Also because of this book, when one of my Malaysian friends asked me, with a mischievous look in her eyes, if I knew what the word ang-moh meant, I was able to show off my linguistic knowledge and reply that it meant red hair. (It’s mentioned in this book as a way the Chinese-Malaysians refer to the white people.)

In short, if you’re planning a trip to Penang, this is the perfect book to read while you’re there.


Historical Accuracy:

In the author’s note at the end, the author acknowledges that the book is not entirely historically accurate.

Historians however will quickly recognize that I have taken certain liberties with events. There was, for example, no ceremony on the surrender of the island of Penang to the Imperial Japanese Army and the occasion depicted herein is based on the actual surrender in Singapore.
Also, while the Emperor Kuang Hsu and the Dowager Empress Tzu Xsi were actual historical figures, the “Forgotten Emperor” Wen Zu, is entirely my own invention. The reform movement under the Ching Dynasty occurred only once, in 1898, and my description of its recurrence in a weakened form eight years later is merely dramatic license
. (p. 433)

Perhaps I’m a purist, but I’m less inclined to forgive these liberties. My general view is that if I want history to be re-written to serve the cheap dramatic points of the story, then that’s what I have Hollywood movies for. If I’m going to take the time and energy to read through an historical novel, I prefer it to be as historical accurate as possible.

In addition to what the author admits to in his afterwards, there were some other historical inaccuracies I found:

* On page 150, it is said that the Perak Civil Wars of Malaya, during which opposing Chinese triads fought each other, occurred in the 1880s.
--A conflict like this is described in “A History of Malaysia” but dating from 1867 to the early 1870s. (Although I suppose it’s possible there was another one in the 1880s maybe, I’m no expert.)

* On page 326, it is claimed that the Malayan Communist Party was active in the late 1920s.
--According to “A History of Malaysia” the Malayan Communist Party was not founded until 1930.

* In this book, the Malayan Communist Party is initially portrayed as being the dupes of the Japanese army. In this fictional story, prior to the Japanese invasion, the Malayan Communist Party, lured by promises of freedom from British colonialism, attempt to carry out an anti-British terrorist bombing on behalf of the Japanese army.

In reality, the Chinese dominated Malayan Communist Party was fervently anti-Japanese long before the Japanese invasion of Malaya ever took place (because of what the Japanese were doing in China.)
The author Tan Twan Eng tries to get around this by making the terrorist bomber be an Indian-Malayan Communist. And it is true that some Indians did welcome the Japanese invasion under the hopes that the Japanese would free them from the British. But the Malayan Communist Party certainly did not take this line.
This is somewhat a matter of interpretation, but I’m going to say it is misleading for Tan Twan Eng to imply that the communists were collaborating with the Japanese at any period.

After the Japanese invasion happens, Tan Twan Eng does show that the Malayan Communist Party fiercely fought against the Japanese, but he continues to portray the communists as mindless thugs.

This is typical of his one-note characterizations for many of the characters in this novel. The Japanese characters are portrayed in the same way.
The book is not anti-Japanese. There are many good Japanese portrayed in the novel as well as many bad Japanese. But, like the communists, the bad Japanese are all one note characterizations— brutal thugs with no further complexity or motivation.

Final verdict: It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read. I might give this a cautious recommendation to anyone interested. And if you’re travelling through Penang, it’s definitely worth reading.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Occupy's potential now, moving forward after their initial tactic -- 2/21/12

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

This Means War

(Movie Review)

The other day, I was in the shopping mall with a friend, and on a whim we decided to take in a movie. Neither of us had any idea what was playing, but we were in the mood to sit down in an air-conditioned theater for a couple hours and try to escape the sun, so we weren’t feeling picky.

This was the only movie showing at the local theater at that time. I had never heard of it, but I decided to take a chance. In the back of my mind I was thinking, “Well, it can’t be that bad, right? Competition for movie theater screens these days is so fierce that really bad movies don’t get a theatrical release anymore.”

Oh, was I ever wrong about that.

Within the first 5 minutes of this movie, I knew I had wasted my money.

Right from the beginning of this movie it’s painfully obvious that nobody involved in it really cared at all about the quality.

I guess this is one of those movies whose soul purpose is just to make a quick buck. Very little money is spent on screen writing or directing. If the movie is lucky, it manages to suck in a few poor saps who didn’t read the reviews, and it manages to easily recoup its low production costs.
And then it disappears into oblivion with all the other utterly forgettable movies. (5 years from now, no one will even remember this movie ever existed.)

The movie starts out immediately with incredibly cheesy dialogue that makes you think, “Did people actually get paid to write this?”

Then, without bothering to do any sort of build up or suspense at all, the entire film just breaks into this huge gun fight within the first 5 minutes.
The fighting isn’t very well choreographed, and so they try to distract from this by just doing a lot of quick edits. Which makes the whole thing very distracting and hard to follow. And (at least in my theater) the volume was cranked up way too loudly, so whenever someone got hit with a movie punch, there was this ridiculously over the top fake slap noise.

That’s just the first 5 minutes. But once you see how little thought and care is put into it, you can pretty much predict the rest of the quality of the movie. And you wouldn’t be wrong.

The genre is supposed to be a combination of action plus romantic comedy, but the comedy parts aren’t very funny. (It’s obvious no one spent a lot of time on this script.)
The action scenes are poorly choreographed and poorly edited.
And the romantic parts are pretty bad as well.

Granted I’m not generally a big fan of romance movies, so I’ll leave it to the fans of the genre to critique these parts better than I can. But since all of the characters were more plot devices than actual people, I found myself unable to care who ended up with which girl.

On the plus side:
The best thing I can say about this film is that it managed to cater very well to my short attention span. I’ve seen movies that were a lot more boring, but at least the pace of this movie kept things movie right along. Sure, each individual scene might be terrible, but thankfully none of the scenes last all that long.

Also the soundtrack is decent.

Link of the Day
Selective Memory and a Dishonest Doctrine