Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for August, 2012

Troublemaker: One Man’s Crusade Against China’s Cruelty

Posted by nliakos on August 25, 2012

by Harry Wu with George Vecsey (Random House/Times Books 1996)

Harry Wu is the Chinese American dissident who was arrested trying to enter China in 1995 and held for two months while the United States tried to secure his release. Wu, who spent 19 years in a prison labor camp, or laogai. Although he was ultimately released and permitted to leave China for the United States, he returned to China several times to document the labor camps, hidden away in remote parts of China or in plain view.  He has made it his life’s work to expose the laogai system to the world. One might say he is obsessed with this work, and although he insists that he does not want to be a martyr, he keeps placing himself in danger by returning to China, where he is, not surprisingly, not welcome.

Interspersed into the story of the arrest, detention and questioning, release and homecoming are the memories of Wu’s childhood, a young adulthood spent entirely in the prison camps and mines, emigration, his early days in America, his marriages in China and (the one that lasted) the U.S., and his previous trips back to document the laogai. Parts of the book are difficult to read because the reader imagines the feeling of complete powerlessness against the Chinese state, which is portrayed as uncaring and cruel. The most horrific parts of the book deal with the harvesting of organs (kidneys and corneas) from executed prisoners.

Wu wrote in the book that he wanted to establish a museum about the laogai similar to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I discovered that he has accomplished his dream: the Laogai Museum  opened in Washington in 2008. Perhaps I will visit it one day!

I heard on the radio today that the United States incarcerates the largest proportion of its population. But China has so many people (including some ethnic groups that Wu claims the Chinese consider to be somewhat less than human) that it does not need to care if some of its prisoners were imprisoned for things that they did not do. I want this not to be true, but reading Troublemaker made me fear that it is.

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Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes

Posted by nliakos on August 19, 2012

by Mark J. Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne (Twelve, 2007)

Mark Penn is a pollster and advisor to politicians. In this book, he explains how today’s technology, which allows people to find other people outside their usual community who share their ideas and preferences, has changed the world from a world of Ford (any color you want, so long as it’s black) to a world of Starbucks (choose your own drink, size, blend, flavoring, sweetener…).  The “societal atoms” that he calls microtrends are statistically significant changes in what we do, what we eat, how we dress, how we live our lives, what we are willing to tolerate, who we vote for…. pretty much everything. And he has the numbers to prove it (exhaustively documented in 38 pages at the end of the book).

Penn shows how what amounts to a minuscule fraction of the population (say, one percent) can still represent a doubling or tripling or quadrupling of adherents to a particular group in a very short time. At the very least, continuing growth along those lines could soon mean a significant shift in the larger population.

Penn chose 75 microtrends and distributed them into 15 broad categories: (1) love, sex, and relationships; (2) work life; (3) race and religion; (4) health and wellness; (5)family life; (6) politics; (7) teens; (8) food, drink, and diet; (9) lifestyle; (10) money and class; (11) looks and fashion; (12) technology; (13) leisure and entertainment; (14) education; and (15) international.  A lot of the trends he described are things I have observed (but did not realize the extent of), such as retired people who work, teen-aged entrepreneurs, and people who have extremely long commutes.  Others came as a surprise to me, like teens who aspire to become military snipers when they grow up, Christians who want to marry Jews, and educated people who vote not on issues but on candidates’ personalities.  Like someone reading a detective novel, I found myself loathe to put the book down. Each time I finished a chapter, the next microtrend beckoned me to keep reading.

Of course, this book came out in 2007–before the housing crash and the Great Recession, and before the election of Barack Obama (although he was already campaigning), so some of the trends noted here (like middle-class second home buyers) have probably been reversed. On the other hand, it was interesting to see Penn’s predictions and to note how many have been borne out, like the individualization of advertising on the Internet made possible by the collection of personal data by companies such as Google. Everything is becoming a niche market, just as Penn predicted.

In his conclusion, Penn writes, “The simple truth is that most of the time we can’t see the true patterns of people’s lives, except through statistics.” Using statistics, Penn shows us how we can go deeper, how we can, “by focusing on the facts and the numbers, … see almost a parallel universe–generally hidden, and yet staring us right in the face.”

As I read, I tried to keep in mind how anyone can use numbers to say whatever they want to say. Penn assures us that “almost everything” in the book is based on information which is publicly available to anyone who cares to look, thanks to the Internet. Of course, we may not be able to believe everything we find there; still, Mark Penn’s book is a fascinating glimpse into the world of the future (maybe), and even so many years after its publication is well worth reading.

I thank Hiromi Sato for recommending this book to me.

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Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam

Posted by nliakos on August 15, 2012

by Asra Q. Nomani (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006)

Asra Nomani was born in India but raised mostly in the United States. This book describes how she confronted her own faith by going on the Hajj with her parents, her niece and nephew, and her baby son, Shibli. The book describes in detail her experiences before, during, and after the Hajj and then follows her as she musters up the courage to speak out for the rights of women in Islam in the United States, and at her own home mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia in particular.

Along the way, Nomani shares what she is learning about her religion. I knew some but learned much that I did not know about Islam–its history, principles, practices, sects. Nomani writes that the Prophet intended women to play an important role in Islam, but that his progressive vision has been hijacked by conservative men seeking to consolidate their power over women. (Interestingly, in Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes the opposite claim: according to her, Islam is basically skewed against women. Who is right? Does it depend on which hadith (saying attributed to the Prophet) you believe?)

Nomani expects to find discrimination and judgment in Mecca; instead, she finds that men, women and children pray together in Islam’s holiest places during the Hajj. Subsequently, she is surprised and hurt by the vehemence of the resistance she encounters back in Morgantown when she attempts to open the mosque to women (who are traditionally expected to use a separate entrance and to pray in a separate part of the mosque where they cannot see or hear the prayer leader well, if they choose to pray in the mosque, which is not even expected of them).  Her parents, in particular her father, support her throughout her struggle to convince or force the mosque leaders to grant women equal access to the mosque. In her frustration, she sometimes rewards him by scolding him, as if he were to blame, but he remains her staunch supporter.

Reading the book showed me many sides of Islam. Like Christianity, it is not one thing. This should be obvious, but I don’t think it is to many people. Readers of Standing Alone in Mecca will finish the book with a much greater understanding of Islam than they had when they began it.

Posted in Non-fiction | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »