Archive for August, 2007

Different Biography

Monday, August 27th, 2007

Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama, 2004

First published in 1995 before Obama won his first election as a state of Illinois Senator, this is not your typical political biography, just as Obama is not your typical politician.

Obama was born in Honolulu in 1961 early in Hawaii’s statehood. His mother’s parents were from Kansas, his grandfather serving WWII in Patton’s army but seeing little actual fighting, his grandmother working in an aircraft manufacturing plant in Wichita. After the war the grandparents moved to Texas then Seattle, then Honolulu where his grandfather worked as a furniture salesman. Obama seems to view them as Midwest conservatives and a bit bigoted but they seem pretty progressive, open, and tolerant. They received no end of teasing from Obama and his mother for voting for Nixon in 1968.

His mother attended the U of Hawaii where she met, fell in love, and married an African student, supposedly the first to attend the U of H. The African, the original Barack Obama, a Luo from Kenya, was already married and with two children. When he was accepted to Harvard graduate school, he left his American wife and son behind.

Obama’ s mother then met, fell in love, and married an Indonesian foreign student probably an East-West Center grantee. In 1967 Obama and his mother accompanied the Indonesian known here only as “Lulu” back to Djakarta. Obama attended a Catholic then a Muslim school. He learned Indonesian.

In 1965 Indonesia saw the overthrow of the Sukarno government to be replaced by the military rule of Suharto. The violence of the overthrow soon erupted in a mass scale slaughter of as many as 500,000 mostly ethnic Chinese living in Java. The excuse was that the Chinese were sympathetic to the Communist government in China but the real reason was the hatred of their success and dominance in business. Lulu was soon drawn into ethical compromises and shady dealings and Obama’s mother worried about Lulu’s influence over Obama. In 1971 she send Obama back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents.

Punahoe Logo

An influential business associate of his grandfather got Obama, age 10, accepted to the prestigious Punahou prep school in Honolulu. At this point Obama’s future was assured. Hawaii is multi-ethnic without any one group having complete dominance; The Japanese are dominant in politics and government bureaucracy; the Chinese in banking and finance whites as the heads of corporations. Punahou reflects this distribution. There were maybe three black students at Punahoe at the time. Obama could have relaxed into his white heritage and intelligence but instead started to obsess about his black roots. This is probably due to his father’s abandonment and absence of other black influences in Hawaii. He talks about U of H basketball which became prominent for a couple of years in the early 70’s when a white former NBA player became coach and recruited an all black team from the military ranks then in Hawaii. The team won enough in its second year to get invited to the NIT tournament gaining national recognition. With this, the coach was able to recruit some top mainland players (come to beautiful tropic Hawaii with no racial bigotry), several of which went on the NBA careers. Obama took up basketball and became a Punahou (not exactly a powerhouse) player.

Punahou Campus
Punahou Campus

Obama’s search for roots in Hawaii took him to military base black parties, to reading Harlem renaissance writers like Langston Hughes and later Chicago’s James Baldwin and Malcolm X. He listened to Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder. His father returned to Honolulu briefly when Obama was 10 and spoke at Punahou.

Obama’s grandfather played checkers in Ali’i park and had a wide variety of friends including an old black poet living in a shack in Waikiki. The poet gave Obama wise advice just as Obama was leaving Hawaii for college;

You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going to get trained. They’ll train you to want what you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you to forget what it is that you already know. They’ll train you so good , you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that shit. They’ll give you a corner office and invite you to fancy dinners, and tell you you’re a credit to your race. Until you want to actually start running things, and then they’ll yank your chain and let you know that you may be a well-trained, well paid nigger, but you’re a nigger just the same.

Obama went to college in Los Angeles and New York. His father died when he was in New York, age 21, and he didn’t take a planned trip to Kenya at that time. Instead he took a job for a while then became a political community organizer in South Chicago. He decided to return to law school at Harvard but took some time to travel in Europe and finally go to Kenya to meet his family for the first time.

The remainder of the book is an account of his trip to Kenya and meeting members of his extended family and their complex relationships. His grandmother was able to give him a clear picture of the lives of his grandfather living in British controlled Kenya and of his father. The picture was very different from the idealized, false picture Obama had built in his mind. A Kenyan historian tells Obama;

You know, young black Americans tend to romanticize Africa so. When your father and I were young, it was just the opposite – we expected to find all the answers in America. Harlem. Chicago. Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. That’s where we drew our inspiration. And the Kennedys – they were very popular. The chance to study in America was very important. A hopeful time. Of course, when we returned we realized that our education did not always serve so well. Or the people who had sent us. There was all this messy history to deal with.

One of the strangest things in this biography is the absence of Obama’s mother. She is obviously the most important influence on Obama’s development as a moral and ethical liberal yet she hardly appears at all and one gets very little sense of her as an independent character. Its like the anchor that made Obama possible got lost in his search for a mythical black heritage that turns out to be largely illusionary in light of the true story from Kenya. But finally, the honesty, humility, and openness of this account comes through and leaves one to wonder what will become of this unusual character.

The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama, 2006

Obama Family

This book is dedicated to Obama’s mother and maternal grandmother. In his chapter on faith he acknowledges the influence of his mother on his life.

And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice, and scorned those who were indifferent to both.

Unlike his secular mother, as an adult Obama felt the need to be baptized in a moderate protestant church.

This second book is largely a polemic by professor Obama on various subjects; political parties, values, the constitution, opportunity, faith, race, the world. Still peaking through are occasional glimpses of the personal candor and humor of the first book; wrestling with whether to fly on personal jets rather than commercial airlines; temptations to engage candidate and fellow Harvard man, Alan Keyes, a mess of a politician perfectly capable of losing his own race without any help from Obama; the megalomania of politicians in general himself included and still able to see the humor in this; family get to gathers resembling mini-UN meetings with one relative resembling Margaret Thatcher.

In the family chapter, Obama voices his doubts about being a good father having grown up without one. He acknowledges his debt to his wife, Michelle, he enjoys the stability of her own family. Michelle, on her part, seems to enjoy the relative chaos and adventure of Obama’s wide ranging relatives.

Burmese Prison

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

The Lizard Cage, Karen Connelly,2005

The Lizard Cage Karen Connelly

This Canadian’s first novel is drawn from her experience living for two years on the Thailand Burma border. The cage is a fictional Burmese prison where the songbird, a songwriter singer, has been kept in solitary confinement in the teak box for seven years. His father died in prison while a political prisoner and his brother is a freedom fighter near the border. His mother sends him food and supplies, most of which are stolen by the guards. The songbird is reduced to catching and eating the small lizards that live in his cell, hence the name of the novel.

The novel is populated by a psychopathic, stupid guard who endangers everyone with his violence; by a humane guard who helps the songbird when he can and comes to know the songbird’s mother; and by a twelve year old orphan who has lived in the prison since his father, and employee at the prison, was killed by a truck when the boy was seven. Also figuring are other prison characters, the tiger, boss of the criminals, the fat corrupt cook, the huge silent Indian, and various other guards and inmates, and of course Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s symbol of democratic freedom.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

The novel could be compared to the works of Alexander Solzenitzen on life in the Soviet Gulag; dark, soulless godless, places. Connelly’s songbird sees his imprisonment as an opportunity to meditate, fast, and seek enlightenment or Nirvana. The influences of Buddhism are everywhere in this novel as they are in Burmese life in spite of the repressive military dictatorship. The prison has an ancient tree that the inmates have turned into a Buddhist shrine.

The novel centers on a simple pen, originally intended to entrap the songbird and thus extend his prison sentence but instead becomes the mechanism changing the life of the orphan and allowing a poetic account of the cage to be smuggled to the world at large. The novel is well written and captivating.

Bengal Voice

Monday, August 20th, 2007

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth, 1993

Born in Calcutta, Bengali Seth was educated at Oxford and Stanford, even attended school in Nanjing.

This massive 1500 page novel, one of the longest ever published, is centered on four very different families in the early 50s just after Independence.

The mother of 19 year old Lata is determined to find a suitable boy to marry Lata, just as Lata is determined to make up her own mind in the matter. She is to choose among three suitors; Kabir, Haresh and Amit.


Calcutta House

Amit is a British educated, published Bengali poet, belonging to a wealthy Anglicized Calcutta family headed by an influential judge. Brother Dipankar is drawn to the mystic, and beautiful and amoral sisters Meenakshi and Kakoli, continually exchange verse couplets in a match of wits. Meenakshi is married to Lata’s brother.

Burning Ghat Varanasi

The Kapoor’s charming son Maan, falls hopelessly in love with a Muslim singer and courtesan.


Haresh is a somewhat crude but good hearted and ambitious shoe manufacturing executive determined to break into the Czech dominated Bata quality shoe company near Calcutta.

The novel covers the period’s inter-sectarian animosity, the status of lower caste peoples such as the jatav, land reform and the eclipse of the feudal princes and landlords, politics, and academic affairs.

An Equal Music, Vikram Seth, 1999

This novel has nothing to do with India or Indians. It is a tale of the inner life of an English string quartet, Maggiore. The leader of the quartet, Michael, a poor working class boy, plays a valuable violin on permanent loan to the quartet. We see the jealousies and frictions among the members of the quartet forced to travel and spent most of their time together. We see the inner workings of booking agents and arranging tours for a successful but far from famous group.

Sheet Music

The central plot starts when Michael discovers a version of Beethoven’s String Trio in C Minor, op. 1, no. 3 arranged for a string quintet in a dusty music store in London. The piece has not been performed in recent history or recorded by a modern string group. He wants the group to perform the challenging work in Vienna and to record it, but he must play second violin to make it work. He wants to play first violin. The Beethoven piece turns out to be a part of Michael’s romantic history from when he was studying in Vienna ten years ago. The group breaks up after the recording.

The novel really succeeds in taking you into the inner workings of a string quartet and the world of concert performances. Of the experience of writing this novel Seth has said “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

BW Quartet Instruments

Chinese Antiquities

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

Lost in Translation, Nicole Mones, 1998

Peking Man
Peking Man
This book is not to be confused with Sofia Coppola’s 2003 movie of the same name set in Tokyo. This novel, winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, focuses on the mystery of Peking Man, the homo erectus remains found in Beijing in the 1920’s. Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was involved in the discovery, but was ordered by the church not to publish on the subject of evolution during his lifetime. Peking Man was lost during the Japanese occupation. The remains have never been found but the Chinese government formed a committee in 2005 to look for them officially.

In the novel an American archeologist has uncovered new information about the whereabouts of the remains he thinks were hidden by Teilhard de Chardin himself. He comes to China, hires an American woman living in Beijing, fluent in Chinese, as his interpreter and starts his search. The Chinese government assign two Chinese professors to accompany the Americans. Spies are everywhere. Their search takes them to the remote desserts of Northwest China. The interpreter becomes interested in the 23 year relationship between American Lucile Swan and Teilhard de Chardin whose voluninous letters to each other have just been published. Will they find the remains?

A Cup of Light, Nicole Mones, 2003

Southern Sung Celadon Cup Southern Sung Celadon Cup

In this novel an American porcelain expert who speaks, reads, and writes, Chinese comes to Beijing to evaluate a newly uncovered collection of porcelain that may have belongs to the Imperial court. She is shocked to find 800 pieces of authentic looking porcelain worth maybe $150 million. Her expert colleague gets appendicitis and is left behind in Japan to recover so she must work alone.

She wears a visible hearing aid which she turns off when she wants to concentrate. Her special skill is a phenomenonally developed memory using imperial examination cubicles as a mnemonic device. She find several near perfect fakes but believes the collection to be largely authentic. One of the fakes is a Chenghua chicken cup. An original just sold at auction for $3.75 million.

Chenghua Chicken Cup Chicken Cup

The big question for her is where did this large, previously unknown collection come from? There are sophisticated artwork smugglers (the penalty for getting caught is immediate execution), modern moguls, art dealers, and very talented modern day pot makers.

The heroin travels to Jingdezhen, center of porcelain production to the imperial court for a thousand years. During Mao’s time, huge factories turned out mass produced China to be exported to the world. Now Jingdezhen is reverting to its old cottage industry with small scale artisans producing high quality work. She has come looking for the notorious Master of the Ruffled Feather producer of some the finest fakes to reach museums in the West. The name comes from slight flourish in a painted feather which is the humerous signature of this forger. She is directed to an old master only to discover the notorious forger is his grandaughter, maybe 15. Her work has fooled experts around the world.

A Chinese Oregan software Billionaire and his wife are considering buying the entire collection. Is it authentic? If so, where has it been since leaving the forbidden city? Can it be smuggled out of China to Hong Kong? Of course, there is romance along the way.

Tailors of Bombay

Monday, August 13th, 2007

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry, 1995

A Fine Balance

This novel by Bombay born Parsi Mistry won the Giller Prize, the Royal Society of Literature’s Winfried Holtby Prize, and the 1996 Los Angeles Times Award for fiction. Set in India during 1975-76 the time of Indira Gandhi’s massive corruption after she defied a court order to resign as prime minister by declaring a state of emergency. The daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi led India into its worst period threatening the very roots of democracy.

In this novel two untouchables of a sub caste condemned to leather tanning learn tailoring to escape their fate. When the local village tailor is forced out of business by mass-produced clothing, the tailors an uncle and nephew travel to Bombay to seek employment. They are hired by a Parsi widow determined to maintain an independent life by subcontracting to a woman selling designer women’s dresses for export.

The tailors rent sewing machines and move into a shantytown. Thugs recruiting slave workers for a pit mine abduct them. They escape. Greedy developers working with corrupt politicians destroy their shantytown. They help a beggar who turns out to be the king of beggars and he offers to protect, in return for money, the Parsi widow from her greedy landlord, who is trying to evict her. The nephew saves for a bride but when he returns to his village to arrange a marriage, he is abducted and forcibly sterilized under a population limit program gone horribly out of control with financial incentives, bribery, and quotas.


Overall a very sad book, perhaps the best novel depicting life for the powerless during this dark period of recent Indian history. Mistry, a marvelous storyteller, now lives in Canada. When he flies, he says he is always targeted for interrogation by security.

Dowager Empress

Monday, August 6th, 2007

Three Books on Tzu Hsi, Empress of China 1861-1908

Empress Orchid, Anchee Min, 2004

Empress Orchid Anchee Min
All Photos for covers and author by Lei Q. Min

A fictional account based on extensive research of the early life of Orchid, known as Lady Yehonala or Tzu Hsi, the last Empress of China who ruled China for a 46 years beginning in 1861 when she is 26 years old.
In the novel, Tzu Hsi is chosen as a forth rank concubine to the Emporor when she comes to Beijing at age 16. Her life in the Forbidden City is miserable and she is ignored by the Emporer. She allies herself with an intelligent young Machivellian eunich, An-te-hai, and together they bribe and plot her way to the attention of the emporor. She gives birth to the Emporer’s only son, escapes assassination and other eunich conspiracies and emerges with her eunich ally as the powerful Dowager we have come to remember. Along the way she allies herself with her brother-in-law Prince Kung and falls in love with general Yung Lu, a love she must hide at all costs.

The Last Empress, Anchee Min, 2006

The Last Empress

This novel picks up the story of Tzu Hsi after the Opium wars, at the start of her widow’s life. The novel presents all these events and turbulent times from the point of view of self educated, tough Tzu Hsi. An-te-hai is murdered with the permission of first wife Nuharoo. Her son grows up without wisdom and discipline. His cousin Prince Kung’s son leads him into drugs, pornography, and common brothels. He acquires venereal disease and then dies of smallpox at age 19.

Tung Chih was like those winter plum trees…Since birth, he had been bent and twisted into a showpiece…His schooling included everything but common sense. He was taught pride but not understanding, revenge but not compassion, and universal wisdon but not truth…How could he not have grown sideways.

Tzu Hsi and first wife Nuharoo adopt three year old Guang-hsu, son of Tzu Hsi’s mad sister and her younger brother-in-law. Tzu Hsi and Nuharoo remain regents and Tzu Hsi continues to rule China. During this period the most serious threats to China came from Britain who had annexed Burma, France who took control of Vietnam, and Meiji Japan, who invaded Korea and China and annexed the Ryuku Islands and Taiwan. Emporer Meiji’s life 1952-1912 largely overlaps that of Tzu Hsi but their rule had very different outcomes.

Guang-hsu was sickly and unable to father children. This is just as well since his mother was mad and he married his first cousin. He was also weak minded and fell under the influence of his tutor and a radical reformer, Kang Yu-wei, who naively wanted to reform China along the same lines as Meiji had done in Japan. When the hundred day reforms was put down and its leaders executed, Kang Yu-wei was rescued by the Japanese and he lived the rest of his life in Japan where he continued to spread false rumors throughout the Western and Japanese press about the evils within the Chinese court.

For the second time in her life at court Tzu Hsi was forced into exile away from the capital. Tzu Hsi was asked by conservatives at court to resume her regency in the face of mounting problems from foreign intrigue and the conservative backed Boxers rebellion.

Talented and loyal Li Hung-chang had to negotiate with Japan after the Japanese invasions and with all foreign powers after the Boxer rebellion and legation crisis. After each negotiation, China lost territory, natural resource rights, and increased her load of indemnities.

Tzu Hsi outlived weak Guang-hsu and presided over the selection of Puyi, grandson of general Yung Lu and son of Guang-hsu’s youngest brother as The Last Emperor ( subject of the 1987 movie by Bernardo Bertolucci) in 1908. Puyi was three years old. Tzu Hsi ordered that no woman should ever be named regent in China again. China became a Republic in 1911.

Two Years In The Forbidden City, Princess Der Ling, 1911

This Book is a non fiction account of life in the Forbidden City by the daughter of a Chinese diplomat, lord Yu Keng , Princess Der Ling, who was appointed first lady in waiting to Tzu Hsi from 1903 to 1905. It is available for reading online.

Der Ling and Empress Tzu Hsi Der Ling

After her father served as Chinese Minister to France, Princess Der Ling returned to China with her family in 1903 . Her mother, sister, and she were ordered to the Forbidden City to serve Tzu Hsi, then in her late sixties, who was still curious about life and customs in Paris and the West. Tzu Hsi had seldom been able to meet with foreigners during her reign. Tzu Hsi finally met Sir Robert Hart, the Englishman who served as head customs official for China for more than 40 years and who was responsible for collecting as much as one third of all court revenues, in 1902. During Der Ling’s time at court Tzu Hsi occasionally met with foreigners and the wives of foreign officials.

Der Ling in Western Dress Der Ling and Family

The Empress Dowager ordered Der Ling to wear western clothes for a time so she could see and study western fashion while she served in her court. Princess Der Ling was fluent in French and English and served the mistrustful Tzu Hsi as informal interpreter during meetings with Western dignitaries. A fascinating look at life in the inner court and its intrigues as its moves from winter to summer residences.

A previously published work China Under the Empress Dowager, Sir Edmund Backhouse, Oxford Press 1910 was exposed in 1974 as a fraud with counterfeited documents. It is this and other accounts that have led Tzu Hsi to be viewed in China and the West as “…a mastermind of pure evil and intrigue.” (from a Communist Chinese textbook)

One of the ancient sages of China foretold that “China will be destroyed by a woman.” The prophesy is approaching fulfillment. (Dr. George Ernest Morrison London Times 1892-1912)

Tzu Tsi birth chart

Culinary Mystery

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

The Last Chinese Chef, Nicole Mones, 2007

The Last Chinese Chef

A novel combining the story of a family of chefs who last served in the imperial court with a mystery surrounding the death of an American food writer’ s husband, against whom a paternity suit has been filed in China. This work serves primarily as an introduction to Chinese culture through the cuisine. Each chapter begins with a quotation from a book written by the last Chinese chef:

As men we are the sum of our forbears, the great thinkers, great masters, great chefs. He (Plato) teaches them that food is the opposite of art, a routine undertaken to satisfy human need, no more — worse a form of flattery. We Chinese look, instead, to the Analects of Confucius, where it is written that there is “no objection to the finest food, nor the finest shredding.”

Traditional Beijing House Beijing House

The chef’ s grandson, an American with a Jewish mother has returned to China to learn cooking and open a restaurant in his family’s traditional house in Beijing. He is entered into a contest to select the two best Chef’ s representing the cuisine of Beijing for the upcoming Olympic games.

ancient Chinese_feast painting

On designing a menu for a banquet:

The hors d’oeuvres should amuse while they set the them of the meal and fix its style. Then the main courses. Start with something fried, light, gossamer thin, something to dazzle. Then a soup, rich and thick with seafood. After that an unexpected poultry. Then a light, healthful vegetable, to clarify, then a second soup, different from the first.

After this you reach the place where the menu goes beyond food to become a dance of the mind. This is where you play with the diner. Here we have dishes of artifice, dishes that come to the table as one thing and turn out to be something else. We might have dishes that flatter the diner’ s knowledge of painting, poetry, or opera. Or dishes that prompt the creation of poetry at the table. Many things can provoke the intellect, but only if they are fully imagined and boldly carried out.

To begin the final stage, the chef serves a roast duck. Then a third soup, again different. The last course is usually a whole fish. The fish must be so good that even though the diners are sated they fall upon it with delight.

Shanghai Style Feast Shanghai Feast