Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Book review: "The Bird and The Fish: Memoir of a Temporary Marriage" by Miriam Valmont




The title of this book is a striking image appropriate to its two protagonists.  Imagine a swimming fish looking up to see a bird, and a bird flying low over water looking down to see a fish.  Unable to join each other for more than a brief interval, they must live most of their lives in mutually incompatible mediums.  And yet, they make a concerted effort to see each other quite clearly.

This book is a page-turner--I felt gripped by the story and wanted to know what would happen next--but I could not read it quickly.  I regularly felt a need to step back and mull.  In the end, the narrative held together under constant scrutiny, despite its startling premise which I sometimes wanted to reject, in part because of its unusual delving into the murky waters of the human need for connection and affiliation.


The story is not all about grand themes; it works for me on many levels, exploring differences of nationality, religion, culture, political system, gender, parenting, and aging.  In particular, it challenges the concept of marriage and singleness in American society.  And it deals openly with an aspect of life that we mostly try to ignore--the fleeting temporariness of everything, including life itself.   The surprising thing is that there could be any useful communication at all between our two protagonists, yet their imperfect but determined relationship rang true repeatedly despite all my almost-objections.  I was left understanding that  labels for relationships, intimate or otherwise, may be too simplistic and limiting, and that there can be value in pushing  beyond the simplicities of labels to experience the full richness of life.  It is also a hopeful message, because both protagonists were able to overcome the stereotypical expectations placed upon them while remaining within the plausible and believable.  It is a delicate balancing act that I can only admire.

Read this book.  You may think you don't want to, but you do.  And you won't be sorry.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Film review: 'Trumbo' - two thumbs up, way up

Since seeing the film Trumbo last night, I've read several reviews of this film which are somewhat negative, and I must say that I don't understand those reviews at all. I wonder if perhaps they are reacting to seeing some film idols of yore, such as John Wayne, portrayed in a not-so-flattering light. Something hidden is causing those bad reviews; I didn't see any justification for them. In fact, I think this is one of the best films I've seen this year--and it's been a better-than-usual year for films in recent months, so that's saying a lot.  And I don't want to tell you much about it for fear of ruining it for you.

Suffice it to say that, by the end of the film, the audience was dead silent, entranced, and it was clear that the meaning of the film encompassed more than just the dilemma over communism that had occurred in American society--it reached the dilemma of all those caught up in the horrors of World War II, who so often had to balance survival against human decency.  Few of us know how we would react if placed in similar circumstances--and there is the true power of this film.

Hey, don't just take my word for it.  Kirk Douglas gives it 2 thumbs up, in all its offbeat aspects, including the parrot he once gifted to Dalton Trumbo.  "It's a very good film," 98-year-old Douglas is quoted as saying, "and its spirit is true to the man I admired." 

The film Trumbo is showing at both the Princeton Garden Theater and in Montgomery. Go if you can! Bryan Cranston, with his gnarly face in the lead role, manages to portray both the heartbreaking and hilarious aspects of the situation. Bonus: you get to see Helen Mirren playing a Very Nasty Person (for a change).
  

Friday, October 10, 2014

A thoughtful response to the book review (on my blog) of "The General's Son"

This response was sent to me privately, which I very much appreciate.  It contains a lot of food for thought, for me, and might be of use to others as well.  I do not know if he has read the book or not, but I do know he has been able to travel to the region, has relatives there, and is a fair-minded and kind person.  So I take everything that he says very seriously.

---- private message follows, name withheld ----

Hi Pat,

I found your blog review of the book about the West Bank and Gaza to be well intended, but full of bias - it's not clear whether you intend the bias or not.

You encourage readers to gloss over the author's own background. You gloss over the fact that his sister died in a suicide bombing. Your comment about personal experience with Israelis was that your Israeli classmate scared you because his personality was intense. Would you say "I had a black classmate who scared me because he was intense?"

I don't deny that intensity is a stereotypical Israeli character trait, but I also think it's simplistic to characterize Israelis as intense. I suppose the intensity comes from being surrounded by hostile and desperate people in proportions of more than 100 to 1, who can't solve their own problems and so they choose to direct their wrath and frustrations at you. I think don't think I'd characterize Israelis as scary in general.

If you think the American press has a strong pro-Israel bias, you don't listen to or read the same press that I do. If you are anti-Israel and pro-Palestine, then it is possible that even a press that isn't sufficiently pro-Palestine would show too much pro-Israel bias.

You quote the author as saying that Gaza has turned into an "enormous concentration camp." I see the author said that, and you can say that it's his words not yours, but it is a very biased statement. It's possible that you mean that a bunch of people live in an urban area, and they don't have the freedom to travel everywhere they want. That's a possible definition of concentration camp.

But when you say concentration camp, anyone except a holocaust denier will conjure up thoughts of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, where millions of Jews and others were murdered.

Gaza is not like that at all. It's a 20 mile strip of land on the Mediterranean coast, about 5 miles deep. Between 1967 and 2005, Jews lived in Gaza (and many Arabs too), both long term residents and ones who moved there during that period. In 2005, Israel forced all the Jews (about 10,000) out of Gaza (against their will). Do you think Israel did this so that they could turn Gaza into a concentration camp? Do you think Israel did it with bad intentions?

This may seem pedantic, but let me discuss for a moment the difference between a concentration camp and Gaza.

Concentration camps had millions of people shipped to them in freight trains, and those people were murdered in ovens.

Gaza is a region on the Mediterranean shore, with luxury resorts and shopping malls and beaches, and a community with a very wealthy leadership with several billionaires and many millionaires who steal money from the public coffers, and the people vote for Hamas to govern them, and Hamas steals from them and shoots many thousands of rockets at Israel and does other hostile acts against Israel, and also much aggression toward residents of Gaza.

Gaza is not surrounded by Israel. It is bordered on the east by Israel but Gaza also has a border of 5 miles or so with Egypt in the south, over which Israel has zero control. Implying that Gaza is a concentration camp because Israel has full control over Gaza's borders is just not true. There were times when there was reasonably free flow of people and goods between Jewish and Arab areas in Israel. It was only restricted, to everyone's inconvenience, after many many lethal attacks by Muslims against Jews.

I agree that Gaza has poverty, but like in some American cities, there are poor and rich areas. Camden is a poor area, but I assume you don't have the same disdain for the middle class folks who live near there that you have for the folks who live near Gaza. And Camden doesn't shoot rockets at its neighbors.

Yes, Gaza has big problems. Yes, Israel makes it unpleasant for Gazans. That is true because Gaza is very hostile toward Israel. Consider that Israel is surrounded by Arabs and Muslims, Palestinian and otherwise, and also that many Muslims live in Israel as normal citizens. The standard of living for Muslims and Arabs in Israel is higher than almost anywhere in the Arab world, unless you're a sheik. Israeli Arabs have longer healthier lives, have more freedom to practice religion and live as they please, and so on.

Note lastly that Israelis have plenty of reasons to want peace, because they have a prosperous society. If Gaza and the Palestinians on the west bank made peace with the Israel, they would be stuck having to focus on their own enormous problems. They would be in a situation akin to the other horrible ones in that area from now and from recent history. Because of the corruption and the division, it would be like the Lebanese civil war of the 80s, or the current brutal situations in Syria, Iraq, or Egypt. Anyone who is familiar with that region on any side knows this.

So yes, it makes sense that you would read a book written by a liberal Israeli and it would make you feel hopeful. That's because most Israelis are liberal, and they aspire to peace (that is, to a resolution of their conflicts with all their Arab/Muslim neighbors), probably somewhat like you do. The problem is that most Palestinians don't aspire to peace with Israel, not because they don't love peace, but for the very good reason that peace with Israel it doesn't solve a real problem for them. I get that Palestinians want Israel out of their lives. But even if Israel didn't exist at all and Palestinians controlled the whole land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, what do you think would be happening now in that place?

If you're optimistic, you could say, maybe it would be somewhat peaceful, like Jordan. Not likely though. Jordan's population is majority Palestinian, but its peace is maintained by their (imported benevolent) Hashemite monarchy, which is more or less Saudi. When the Palestinian people become free, they will be out of the frying pan and into the fire. You might think I'm a bigot to say this, but it's pretty clearly true, and I think most people, Jews, Muslims, and otherwise, accept this. (And this is related to what Israeli leaders mean when they say "we have no negotiating partner.)

I understand from your notes that you don't intend to be biased, and that you have good intentions. I would suggest that you travel to Israel and to Palestine, and elsewhere around the Arab world, and see for yourself. If you do that, I have a feeling your perspective would change a fair amount.

Best regards,

(a friend whose name I am protecting)

Book review: "The General's Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine" by Miko Peled


I liked this book very much despite some unevenness in the narrative.  Read it! Please, please read it. Forgive its long introduction where the author describes his family background in detail--the real narrative begins somewhere in the middle. Just read it. It gives me hope.

In my experience, the only folks who would normally use "Palestine" to describe today's West Bank or Gaza Strip would be Palestinians themselves.  I can only imagine the courage it has taken the author, an Israeli with roots firmly in Zionism, to become an outspoken peace activist willing to befriend, talk to, and visit with his Palestinian counterparts.

In the 1990's, Miko Peled was raising a family in California, running his own martial arts dojo, when back in Jerusalem his sister's 14-year-old daughter died in a suicide bombing.  Instead of desiring revenge, this tragic event caused the author to search his soul and call for dialog between former enemies.   This was at the time unheard of.  As Mr. Peled started his own small steps toward such dialog on a personal level, he recounts feeling physically nauseous when realizing that some deep-seated views he had been raised to believe were simply untrue.

I can relate to the nausea and disorientation of realizing things are not what I believed.  I too have felt an utter resistance to changing my views.   Back in the 1990's, I had a co-worker from Palestine who befriended me.  Over lunches and after intense work meetings (which he led), he talked to me, somewhat against my will, about conditions on the ground in Palestine (a word I had never heard outside the Bible in modern times).  He refused to call the West Bank, where he had been born, "Israel".  At first, I did not believe some of the things he told me.  I had never heard of "settlements" and I began to look into what they were.   As a result of my enquiries, I began to suspect that Palestinians living within Israel were ill-treated minorities without full political or economic rights, and Palestinians living in the areas immediately surrounding Israel (i.e., especially Gaza and West Bank) are being forced to live in increasing impossible circumstances.

It has worried me deeply that, since those 1990's when I first met my Palestinian friend, an entire generation of Palestinian youth has grown up in increasingly desperate, make-shift straits.

I believe that the free press in our own country has been afraid to talk about these sticky-wicket issues.  As happened to me on a personal level, any attempt to enquire about Jewish settlements, and the possible zealotry behind them (these guarded enclaves situated right in the middle of Palestinian communities, which permanently chop up the land so that Palestinians cannot travel even short distances without making circuitous detours), would lead me to be accused to anti-semitism, would lead my very questions to be shouted down and me to be shamed and shunned or verbally attacked.  In such an environment, I had given up any hope of talking about the situation in Israel with any of my many, many Jewish friends and acquaintance.  I felt helpless and frustrated about it, and that had been my situation for years, as I read the mainstream news spun typically to a pro-Israeli-military slant.   Then there was my classmate at Penn who was a former military policeman in the Israeli army, whose presence on more than one occasion actually physically scared me, such was the intensity of his persona.

Enter this book.  First, the things it talks about are seldom talked about without heat, as they are in this book.  Second, the author has walked the walk and talked the talk, so he has the public credentials to speak on these matters.  Third, what he says confirms what I had feared to be the (unspoken about) situation.

Until people turn from violence, it cannot stop.  Until people can even talk about turning from violence, it cannot stop.  It has been, for decades, impossible to talk about it.  But the importance of a man who has walked across the divide to speak with, and learn to understand, his supposed enemies, should not be discounted.  This book should be read, even if it is to be criticized.

About Gaza, Miko Peled writes: "The situation is so severe in Gaza that it makes domination of the West Bank seem practically benign.  Israel's restrictions on travel and movement and the import and export of goods, plus the occupier's complete control over land and sea, have created a siege that is choking one and a half million people, including 800,000 children.  Gaza has essentially been turned into an enormous concentration camp.  On top of that, Israela military incursions have left countless civilians, including children, maimed and traumatized, both physically and emotionally, and usually without access to treatment."

Further: "None of this was caused by a natural disaster.  It was caused because Israel deliberately created these conditions, and on one in America says a thing."  That is because they are not allowed to.  The thought police will not allow any dialog to take place.

I know for sure only that it's very complicated.  I wish the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories might be explored more calmly, past mistakes admitted and all options explored (even if eventually debunked).  As it stands, the empasse only grows worse because people are afraid to question anything.

This is a fairly short book.  It will only take you a few hours.  Please read it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Book review: "Hard Choices" by Hilary Clinton


For those who appreciate Hilary Clinton's astonishing resilience, her new book "Hard Choices" would seem like required reading.  Dutifully, I checked it out of the library.  I would like to say that I then read it, but I didn't exactly.  I attempted to read it.   I carefully read the first 50  pages or so, then became bogged down.  In the end, I skimmed through the middle parts to the last 50 odd pages or so, which I also read carefully.  The interim parts seem to be a catalog of her travels and travails as Secretary of State, and as expected from someone who may yet run for president of the U.S., the entire book is an advertisement of her recent accomplishments.  She writes as well as she speaks--very well indeed--and yet I found the material a bit more steeped in details of foreign policy than I wanted.  Not that the material isn't important; those interested in the shenanigans of politics and public figures will want to read more diligently than I did.

One set of facts stuck in my mind.  According to the book, the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development employ 70,000 people around the world.  I stared at that staggering number, but I was even more shocked to learn that the U. S. Defense Department employs 3,000,000 people around the world.  What a sad thing it is for the American public to be saddled such a discrepancy of emphasis on diplomatic vs. military matters.

Despite my failure as a reader, I truly love the book's marvelous photographs, including the iconic one on the inside cover (reproduced here).  If you love Hilary, don't hesitate to visit this book.  If you dislike Hilary, save yourself the aggravation.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book review: "Flash Boys" by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis, author of the acclaimed "Blind Side" and "Money Ball", recently published a book about high speed trading on Wall Street.  His new book is called "Flash Boys", and this is a review of it.  A very positive review of it.  Michael Lewis has done it again.

About ten years ago, at a party in Princeton, NJ, I (who am a computer programmer who was then teaching computer science at the Univ. of Penn.) had a long conversation with a young mathematician working on a high-speed trading platform for "a small company" in Princeton, NJ.  This young man was full of enthusiasm for his work--it was going to be wonderful (and I was thinking, it's going to make someone a ton of money--but not for people like me).  I listened with half an ear and an inner sense of disgust.

In "Flash Boys", there is described just such a group of high-speed trading software developers, in (of all places) Princeton, NJ at about the time I met this young man.  As with each of Lewis' previous books, which I have also read, this one is a tour de force.  If most of us already wondered, in regards to financial matters on Wall Street, whether the whole thing were not rigged against us, the average EveryMan, now we can be certain of it.  Because Lewis can tell the story in terms that lay people can understand.  And it is a story that, until recently, even supposed experts in financial matters were not necessarily sure of.

It didn't take long for me to develop a feel for the odd, and to me unfamiliar, lingo of the financial world: "the flow", "flash trades", "the hammer", "prop shops", and arbitrage, to name a few.  The appearance of "Boys" in the title is accurate: this is a world of men, testosterone, vicious competition, and high risk.  It is no longer a safe world for EveryMan's retirement investments, or at least, not unless people are willing to pay the hidden, unacknowledged "tax", or percentage of all trades being skimmed off by the high-speed traders on practically every transaction now occurring on stock markets.  The hidden tax does not benefit anyone, except the rarified owners, employees and partners of high-speed trading ventures.

And how do they do it?  This work of non-fiction unfolds like a detective story.  It is, perhaps, mainly the story of one small group of financial workers, sheltered within one Canadian bank, who set out to try and find out what was really happening, and eventually succeeded in uncovering (and explaining to Michael Lewis) how the hidden tax works, how it is inadvertently legal, and why the government regulators have no incentives to stop it (their career path, if they leave the government, is in fact to be hired by high-speed tradings).

The reviews of Lewis' book that I have read, including the New York Times Book Review, do not do this book justice.  If anything, they tend to dismiss the author as paranoid, or exaggerating, or mistaken.  His is "just an opinion".  What?  Not only does he provide names and dates for every nail he drives into this story, but it also dovetails with everything I had perceived over the years, having been acquainted in my profession with both telecom matters and financial programming salary incentives and the rumored drive for ever-increasing speed in trading platforms.  I don't detect anything of paranoia at all.  Nor even of the kind of rage and frustration that many of us of the EveryMan variety must feel towards Wall Street, which has abused the public trust far beyond the wildest expectations even of a sceptic like myself.

The most amazing thing is that Lewis has also managed to make the sobering and sorry tale into a gripping, and sometimes amusing, story.  That is his talent, to expose complex material to lay persons in that field and to bring not only understanding but compassion to the process.

Even if you are certain that you hate Wall Street and all matters financial, consider reading this excellent book.  It will further your understanding of how the world now works, even of how it has always worked, and you may find yourself amused along the way.  And you might just decide to manage your financial resources a little bit differently as a result.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Film Review: "Chef" with spoilers

Someone said it was fun, so I decided to see "Chef", with little prior information.  I can see why it could become popular, because there are some real pluses--it being, to some extent, a rather joyous romp celebrating common  human foibles, social media, high energy music, food as art and comfort, and an all-round likeable cast.

The good news was that the men in this film loved cooking.  That our chef looked like he was going to keel over from high cholesterol or die of a heart attack at any moment did not deter this lively fantasy of a film, or its hordes of athletic, sexy, thin eaters depicted as fanatically desiring these death-dealing cholesterol bombs.   No salads, oh no, not this film.  No vegetables.  Rich deserts abound, though.  Bar-b-que, whole dead pigs, marinated meat, dairy, and white bread, depicted as Latino comfort food.  Watching this film, the pack of aging, over-weight, middle-aged men of this world will feel hope that the babes will still go for them despite their paunches. 

The depicted world is plump with suggestions that are far removed from any reality I've even known.  All real chefs (and even their assistants) are males, young boys are technical wizards, it doesn't matter how overweight men become, women look good, don't gain weight, and love their men no matter what.  In my world, skewed in the other direction, only the women cook and get fat.  And the young men decidedly do NOT appreciate them for either.

As a purely escapist romp, it succeeds.  As a celebration of grossly unhealthy comfort food (that will kill you, but let's don't talk about that), it succeeds.  As something that will remain in my mind for longer than the ten minutes it takes to write the review, it fails.  It is what it is.   If you don't eat meat, are dieting, or value honesty about food, money or sex, or even if you're an intelligent female, be cautioned about what you'll find.

I have to hand it to this film, though.  It is remarkable in that: 1) No one dies.  2) No one gets sick.  3) No guns are depicted.  4) No one smokes (except once, in a bar), and 5) Nothing blows up.  It is by far less violent than the average film.  There are no explicit sex scenes.  So its overall enjoyability, despite my objections, goes up pretty high just by comparison to the average and disgusting amount of violence and explicit sex depicted in almost every film being made today.

Finally, Dustin Hoffman is in it!  And he plays a not-so-nice guy, to the hilt as always.  It's almost worth seeing just for Dustin.