Post-Colonialism, Post-Soviet Style

Post this under “recently read.”  The book club read Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan–set in post-Soviet Azerbaijan–a few months ago, and then, after finding the book incredibly sexist, decided to read a female take on the changes in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. For that Tea Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife–set in the former Yugoslavia–by fit the bill perfectly.

A propos of Absurdistan is the featured book on the Leonard Lopate show book club on WNYC-FM. Shteyngart will be on to discuss his novel on January 10, 2012.

On the Lopate Book Club page, you can find interviews with Salman Rushdie on Midnight’s Children (also one of our book club post-colonial-themed reads).

On Absurdistan, I found it interesting that Halliburton and the oil industry have replaced the Soviets as a colonizing force. One of our members felt the main character had some of the characteristics in the “holy fool” tradition in Russian literature. Others disliked the book–either because the satire didn’t ring true, they were offended by the profoundly negative and sexualized depiction of women. That all the female characters were prostitutes or near-prostitutes bothered me as well. It seemed to me to be a cheap path for an author to take, although I did find the humor and the critique of post-Soviet globalization sharp and incisive.


The World as It Should Be

Tintin at Sea

Over the holiday, I saw three movies that I really liked. Tintin, Hugo, and The Descendants. Of the three, I found Tintin to be the most unusual. This New York Times review by Charles McGrath pinpoints some of the reasons why. And this New Yorker review by “Front Row” blogger Richard Brody teases out a few more reasons why.

McGrath points out that Tintin is an unusual adventure hero, having no extraordinary powers. Brodie underlines the lack of violence and murder despite the tremendously fast pace of the film.

These two reasons are probably why I enjoyed the film so much. It was tremendously charming and fast moving, without ever creating the anxiety that adventure films usually do, even though there was plenty of fighting and numerous explosions. Part of this was the result of the visual beauty of the film.

It’s always nice to see someone win superhuman struggles without having access to superhero strengths. It appeals to my sense of justice in an unjust time — the world as it should be, not as it is.

Great Read

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

I loved this book. Takes one from Proust’s Paris to contemporary Japan, via Vienna and the Holocaust. A history of Jews and anti-Semitism by following a tiny netsuke hare down the rabbit hole. Told by a ceramist with an eye for craft, kitsch, and beauty.

Novels about Colonialism

For March the reading is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Novels about Colonialism:

Everyone in the Reading Group enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. It’s about Dutch colonialism (or trade at least) in the Pacific and the relationship with Japan.

My own thoughts: I especially liked the first and third parts. The second part seemed to me to be a variation on vampire stories (monks killing women and babies to gain immortal life). It was a quick, exciting read, with a dashing denoument. However, I tend to like a slightly deeper treatment of real historical and social circumstances (with plenty of thrills, of course). For many of the members, it was a bit difficult to get into as they found the opening slow.

My preference by way of historical, but still exciting, fiction about colonialism is  Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. It’s a difficult read because of the rich use of many languages (Bengali, Hindi, English, French), but extremely rewarding. The book illustrates the social, gender, caste, and class boundaries encountered by Indians, British, Americans (including a mixed race American) in a way that is fascinating and provocative. It will set you thinking about the limitations that our origins impose on us; and about how many limitations and boundaries were affected by colonization by Europeans throughout the 17th-19th centuries. Plus there’s  a fabulous, swashbuckling finish!

The next part of what promises to be a trilogy, centered around Britain’s Opium Wars in China, will be published this coming fall. I can’t wait!


The group just finished Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.

Despite the 20-year-old protagonist being a bit too precocious, the verdict was a strong thumbs-up. An insightful portrait of the contemporary American scene, with elements of tragedy and sardonic humor.

Next up is David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet about a Dutch trader in Japan in 1799. History! Romance! Action! Suspense!

Sounds like fun.

Lyon Dreams

New Reading

The group: Brother’s Karamazov.

On my own: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Hugo’s Les Miserables, Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories.

I’ll post soon on recent group reading and reactions.

Criminal Negligence

Casualties of Disaster

Gale Mead, who wrote the song and shot the video above, says this about the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico:

Carpets of crinoids – cousins of the sea-star – stretched their long limbs languidly into the current for morsels of planktonic food. Colorful tropical fish drifted among gracefully spiraling wire corals. Somber-faced grouper hovered warily while jacks and sharks cruised by, curious about the submersibles lights. Fifty miles south of Mississippi, I was the first human ever to lay eyes on the teeming, thriving, dazzling undersea metropolis that was Salt Dome Mountain. As rich and diverse as Texas Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to the west, or Floridas coral reefs to the south, but a little deeper, and totally unexplored.

It was July 29, 2002, and I was a submersible pilot with the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a joint project of National Geographic and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, led by my mother, Dr. Sylvia Earle. Fishermen and oilmen have long known the Gulf of Mexico by what they could extract from it with their nets and their drilling rigs. We were there to study it from the inside out.

Salt Dome Mountain is an unexpectedly shallow seamount rising from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico to within 200 feet of the surface. Its just south of the Mississippi coast, just north of where a raging gusher of oil now spews death and destruction with no end in sight. And no beginning in sight either, as the vast majority of this catastrophe is occurring underwater, beyond the reach of television news cameras. The video below is a compilation of images from my dive eight years ago, posted with permission from Sustainable Seas Expeditions. You can find more videos of the undersea life near the blowout by using Google Ocean.

It remains to be seen when or even whether the raging torrent of oil can be stopped, but even in the best case scenario, the damage already done far exceeds what most of us can yet get our minds around. May it at least not pass unnoticed. And may we at long last consider that the consequences of our actions should be weighed before, and not after, the damage is done.

Yes, we can

Universal health care — we can….and we will.