Books

The Sympathizer- book review

Lots of books have been written about the Vietnam War but those mostly are about the US experience. The Sympathizer is a novel about the war from a Vietnamese perspective, but even this is a little complicated. The protagonist is a South Vietnamese captain and aide of a special police general, both of whom flee to the US after the fall of Saigon to the victorious North Vietnamese. But he is also a long-time mole who reports on the general and other South Vietnamese in the US for the North Vietnamese. This makes for a very intriguing novel that blends a war story with an immigrant’s tale and a suspense thriller with a bit of history and politics as well. This potent mix is why the Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 as well as several other major book prizes.

However, the story doesn’t end in the US but surprisingly returns to Vietnam, which was unified after the North defeated and overran the South, in an agonizing finale. Since I don’t want to disclose the ending, I’m being intentionally vague. I will say the conclusion comes after the general and other South Vietnamese refugees in the US plot a covert invasion of their home country, which the captain struggles to decide whether to take part in.

The book is starkly fascinating, starting in Saigon during its last days as the capital of South Vietnam, with the desperation of people to flee being especially palpable, mixed with the despair and defiance of soldiers like the general and the captain’s comrade as they contemplate futile resistance. After the captain and the general make it to the US, they struggle to make a living in vastly humbler circumstances, a common experience of many immigrants. During this whole period, readers discover the captain’s origins, being the illegitimate love child of a French Catholic priest and a local village woman, which makes him a bastard, a Eurasian and scorned by many of his compatriots. Yet it is never clear why he chooses to serve the North, other than that his village was in the north.
There is a strange interlude in the middle of the novel where the captain serves as an advisor during the filming of a Hollywood movie about the war, which bears similarities to Apocalypse Now.

Vietnam, to me, is an intriguing country whose history (both recent and past), culture, and society are often overlooked and underrepresented in Western media. The Vietnam War was a significant tragedy for the US, which can be seen in American movies, TV series and novels about the war, but this obscures the fact that the Vietnamese suffered the most, even if they were the ultimate victors. The Sympathizer can only portray a bit of the effect of the war and its aftermath on the Vietnamese, but this is more than enough to present the trauma and tensions vividly.

I found the book a little too dark and tragic to be truly enjoyable, but it is highly captivating.

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Books

The Triple Package- book review

It might be a sensitive topic, but academic and economic success varies among different ethnic and cultural groups in the US. What makes ethnic groups like South Asians, Jewish, or East Asians such high performers in the US? The Triple Package- How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America  argues that three factors foster the success of certain groups.

Some readers might recognize co-author Amy Chua for her 2011 book Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother, a memoir of how she parented her two daughters based on strict “Chinese” values as opposed to American/Western compassion. In The Triple Package, Chua and co-author Jed Rubenfeld (also Chua’s husband and fellow Yale professor) explain that three main traits are essential — superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control (discipline). Superiority and insecurity seem contradictory, but they go together because groups need to both have a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence while also feeling insecure enough to keep striving and pushing themselves. Impulse control is also important, so for Mormons, their austere upbringing as well as the two-year service for many young Mormon adults who go on evangelical missions worldwide, is a great benefit.

All three traits are vital because if a group lacks even one of them, they will not be successful. For example, the authors explain that black Americans (those whose ancestors came to the US as slaves) lack a sense of superiority due to enduring persistent discrimination, which hinders them from being successful, whereas Nigerian-Americans, one of the successful groups mentioned in the book, and other African immigrants don’t. Another example is the Amish, who live even more austere lives (no electricity!) and possess more discipline than the Mormons, but they do not have a sense of superiority and have little desire to compete and advance in modern society.

Most of the groups like Chinese-Americans and Nigerian-Americans are immigrants or have only been in the US for 2-3 generations, though the Jewish community and Mormons are exceptions. However, decline usually sets in for immigrants after two generations so that for example, “first- and second-generation Asian students outperform whites, whereas there is no difference between third-generation Asians and whites.”

While the subject matter is rather sensitive, the writing is rather nuanced and not inflammatory or exaggerated. The authors also devote a chapter to exploring the downside of the triple package traits in cultures, which manifests in insularity, high pressure and psychological problems. Asian-Americans often do very well in academics and are one of the highest earning groups in the US, but some young Asian-Americans chafe under the high expectations and try to break out of the narrow stereotypical mold they grow up under.

While groups might rise, they can also decline as they become complacent and lose the discipline or drive to strive harder. Interestingly, the authors apply this to explain the recent fortunes of the US as a whole. This is because the US can be considered the ultimate “Triple Package” nation- a young upstart that harboured a strong desire to prove itself compared to the much older and cultured European powers, whilst also possessing a sense of “exceptionalism” as a nation forged from a desire to be free, and a “Puritanical inheritance of impulse control” including moderation, saving and industry. But having risen to become the world’s superpower, America lost its discipline and sense of insecurity and became too confident. The world has become very turbulent and unstable but the authors say this is the right time for the US to recover its “Triple Package” due to insecurity presented by threats of terrorism, China, and financial woes. It will be interesting if the US can recover its status as a “Triple Package” nation.

Ultimately, the success of ethnic groups may not be simply due to these three factors, but the authors make convincing arguments that they are key.

Books · Taiwan

Green Island- book review

I find it a very ironic time to have read Green Island, a novel about the life of a Taiwanese man imprisoned after the 228 Tragedy in 1948 and his family as they endure Taiwan’s decades of repressive martial law before it became a democracy in the late 1980s. I say this because of recent developments in China, where the president has become an “emperor,” (he even threatened Taiwan today in a speech at a national congress) and worsening political repression and government announcements seem to be harkening back to the sixties and seventies. Single-party authoritarian rule and political repression are what Taiwan, a proud democracy since the late 80s, suffered for decades, during which the events in Green Island take place against.

There are not many novels about Taiwan, so Green Island is rather unique. And by focusing on Taiwan’s turbulent period of martial law, also known as the White Terror, starting with the brutal massacre of the 228 Tragedy, the book is even more special.

The 228 Tragedy was a mass killing of Taiwanese by Republic of China troops after mass riots erupted in 1948 sparked by the beating of a cigarette vendor. Having been a Japanese colony, Taiwan was granted to the ROC in 1945, who behaved like oppressive occupiers, fuelling serious tensions with the locals. The death toll has never been verified but was at least several hundred, though some believe the number was in the thousands. The narrator’s father, a doctor who speaks up for during a public hearing a few days after the tragedy, is arrested in the ensuing crackdown. His family never gets any news of his arrest or whether he is in prison or dead. The narrator was born on the day the tragedy began – February 28 (a public holiday now in Taiwan in commemoration of the victims) and grows up as the youngest child and daughter without knowing her father until he suddenly appears 11 years later.

But instead of a joyful reunion, the father’s reappearance causes complications with the family with his haunted and stern presence. As the narrator grows up, she is introduced to a son of a family friend studying in the US and marries him. Moving to the US in the early 1980s, they start a family in California where the husband teaches at a local university. He is involved in a Taiwanese dissident movement, and when the couple take in a Taiwanese academic who has fled Taiwan, Taiwanese government agents shadow them. This is a chilling echo of reality in those days when Taiwanese agents and thugs spied on and intimidated activists in the US, even committing murder, something that happens in the novel as well. When the dissident decides to write a book about Taiwan, the narrator helps him translate it into English. But a Taiwanese consulate agent contacts the woman and tries to intimidate and bribe her to spy on the dissident. Things become murky as the narrator struggles to decide whether to accept and fear and paranoia creep into her relations with her husband and the dissident. The situation seems hopeless for the dissident movement as the regime continues to rule by intimidation and terror (a state of affairs that would not seem out of place in Taiwan’s giant neighbour across the Strait right now). The book ends with a return to Taipei in the midst of the SARS virus epidemic in 2003.

While I have a general understanding of Taiwan’s 20th century history such as the 228 Tragedy and the White Terror, which lasted from the late 40s to the 80s, I did not grasp the sheer brutality and climate of fear and repression that occurred during that time. Reading Green Island brought this dark period to life and increased my appreciation of how much Taiwan has progressed to become what it is today. What makes this period even more striking is that the 70s was when Taiwan left the UN after the organization decided to accept China and then saw its chief ally, the US break off official relations with it in favour of China. Taiwan’s ensuing international isolation,  which still exists today with less than 20 countries officially recognizing Taiwan, was a big blow to the ruling KMT regime. I got the sense from reading the book that this loss of international legitimacy weakened the KMT and somehow helped Taiwan’s eventual democratization to occur.

At times while reading the book, I thought how Taiwan back then was so similar to China, both being one-party states ruled by dictators (Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo, China by Mao Tse-tung) and with censorship; mass killings; citizen surveillance, secret detention, torture and killings of dissidents. The big difference is that China now still has some of these things. Taiwan now is a completely different place and sometimes given the country’s openness and easy-going nature, it is easy to forget that decades ago, it was under a terrible dictatorship that committed killings and repressive jailing of its citizens. There are some torture and killing described in the book, all the more chilling because it is not over-the-top gory but realistic and based on reality.

Green Island refers to a small isle off Taiwan’s east coast that was used to imprison dissidents like the father, so the main criticism I have about the book is that the father’s 11 years of imprisonment are not described at all. After he is captured and jailed, time goes by and the family picks up their lives until suddenly one day he reappears. While the father’s Green Island imprisonment is traumatic and affects his personality, the isle itself does not feature so I think  the book being named after it is misleading.

You could say Green Island is both the story of a country and a family, both a political thriller and a family drama. There is an air of sadness and fear throughout the book, but it is lightened by the fact that in real life, we all know which side won in Taiwan between the authoritarian regime and the resistance.

Green Island is one of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read and there were a couple of times when I felt emotional and I rarely do so for books. Green Island is not an uplifting tale of heroism and happiness, but a somber story of survival and family that is also the story of a nation.

Africa · Books

Behold the Dreamers- book review

The American Dream has long been held up as the ultimate goal for people from all over the world, who brave all means to reach what they believe is the fabled land of hope and opportunity and try to make a good life for themselves and their families. Behold the Dreamers is about a Cameroonian couple, Jende and Neni, who try to accomplish this dream amid the turmoil of the 2008 financial crisis. Having overstayed his temporary visa to remain in the US for several years, Jende has gotten a lucrative opportunity to become the personal chauffeur of a Wall Street high flyer while applying for refugee asylum. His wife Neni is studying for a nursing degree while looking after their young son. Author Imbolo Mbue has crafted a compelling novel that goes beyond sentimentality and fanciful hopes to provide a raw and poignant take on the contemporary American Dream.

Through Jende and Neni’s challenging lives, Mbue shows that the American Dream is not always so fantastic nor attainable. Despite being set in the bright lights of New York City, which Jende and Neni both love, Mbue doesn’t hold back in portraying the grimness and sacrifice they put into trying to build a life in America, having to carefully balance their budget and diet while having to be obsequious at work (Jende not only has to drive Clark, but his wife and children, each of whom Jende treats as a master).

However, Behold the Dreamers is not just an immigrant story. Mbue seamlessly intertwines Jende and Neni’s story with that of Clarke’s well-off American family. Jende’s boss, Clarke, is an executive at Lehman Brothers, which became the most well-known victim of the crisis as it basically collapsed, so we know things won’t go too well for him. His wife is not as happy as she looks, and his elder son has a worldview very much at odds with him and much of society in general. Clarke balances work problems with maintaining a facade of a good family, which also doesn’t go too well and in a very sad way, he actually suffers more than Jende. I don’t know if it’s deliberate but Mbue makes Clarke a more empathetic character than one would have thought. Clarke’s lack of resolve with his home issues also drags in Jende and Neni and the result is tragic.

The novel was highly acclaimed and chosen by Oprah as one of her 2017 book selections, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had thought I would. For one, the main characters didn’t interest me that much and I wasn’t too sympathetic to their personal circumstances. In the middle of the novel, Neni commits a blatant act of extortion on a vulnerable employer that basically eliminated any sympathy I had for her. The ending provides some redemption as Jende makes a courageous decision, which I almost though he would go back on, and goes through with it. The ending will surprise a lot of readers and raise some issues to think about, such as rethinking what exactly is the American Dream worth.

China

China enters a new “imperial” age

This week’s biggest news in Asia confirmed what many people have already been thinking. The announcement in China on Sunday that term limits on the presidency were to be scrapped effectively means that Xi Jinping can remain as leader indefinitely. The significance of this is not just that Xi can stay in power forever without stepping down, but that it ends a decades-long safeguard that was put in place by Deng Xiaoping specifically to prevent anybody from consolidating power like Mao Zedong by staying in power indefinitely.

But yet, the move was not totally unexpected as Xi has been trying to follow in the footsteps of Mao, gathering up personal power, creating a personality cult and launching massive crackdowns on society while continuously limiting freedom of expression. However, though Xi might be a powerful leader, China’s most powerful one since Deng, but he is not a great leader. Cracking down on corrupt officials, which also conveniently got rid of lots of potential rivals and their followers; coming up with the grand-sounding but dubious Belt and Road “initiative”; as well as acting belligerent with the US, Japan and Taiwan might seem impressive to some Chinese, but in reality, demonstrates little. The more Xi consolidates power, the more stronger China might seem, but in the long run I think this will be detrimental to China. This move also puts China back in the very slim ranks of nations where unelected leaders stay in power for as long as they wanted, like North Korea and Cuba. Even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe just stepped down last November after decades in power, and he actually won elections. Previously, the 10-year limit on Chinese leaders meant that China could claim to have a more professional and efficient leadership that was authoritarian but not dictatorial. Xi’s desire to stay in power beyond 10 years, without any limits, means that the leadership is now solely about him.

The announcement was made on Sunday in a lowkey manner, but as the news spread amongst Chinese people, the authorities were quick to begin censoring opposing opinions. Hilariously, they were paranoid enough to also censor keywords like “emigrate,” “migration” and “Winnie the Pooh.” In case you are wondering why a fuzzy, harmless cartoon bear would be banned from China’s online space, it’s because Xi kind of resembles Winnie. There are reports that Wechat and Weibo posts that were critical of this news have been deleted, as many Chinese who previously might have been neutral or silent towards domestic politics have become alarmed.

We are living in dark times with a reckless imbecile in charge of the world’s most powerful nation and a wannabe emperor in Xi leading the second-most powerful one. Just as how Trump’s victory occurred despite many Americans knowing that he would be a terrible president, Xi’s course of action took place despite the apprehension of many Chinese. Just as bad is that the people of the world, most especially Taiwan and neighbouring countries, might have to suffer as well.

Taiwan might have cause to worry the most because one of Xi’s goals is to unify China and Taiwan, by force if necessary. Never mind this is something hardly any Taiwanese wants, but given Xi has no qualms about using force  and repression on his own people, as well as Chinese with foreign citizenship, there is little reason to doubt he won’t hesitate using force on Taiwan. Taiwan will need to stay vigilant, boost its military and economy, and not back down on its sovereignty despite Xi and his regime’s threats.

The only positive I can see in all this is that Xi’s ambition is now out in the open, and people can now more clearly see the real nature of Xi and his regime.

Books

Elon Musk- book review

I only just completed Elon Musk’s biography earlier this week so it is fitting that his SpaceX just successfully launched its largest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, on February 7. Elon Musk- How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future provides a fascinating glimpse into how significant the accomplishments of one of the world’s most famous billionaire entrepreneurs have been. Besides SpaceX, whose ultimate aim is to transport humans to Mars to sustain a colony, Musk also heads Tesla, the world’s most well-known and successful electric carmaker.

What the book vividly shows is not merely Musk’s success, but how impressive (and near-impossible) it was for it to have happened. With Tesla, Musk put electric cars in the spotlight and in SpaceX, he built a rocket company virtually from scratch, with the help of co-founders, to launch rockets into space and compete with industry giants like Lockheed. In addition, under his direction, SpaceX found a way to make its rockets reusable by controlling their orbit back into Earth after they had launched into space. Previously, rockets were just used once and were useless afterwards. SpaceX runs into many financial and technical challenges and there are precarious moments, but it is extraordinary how Musk drove and willed his vision into coming true. Besides SpaceX being a startup competing against industry giants and rocking an aging space industry, the fact it manufactured much of its own parts and systems (in the US too) rather than outsource them to contractors like the large companies, increased the incredible nature of its success. As if space rockets and electric cars weren’t enough to manage, Musk is also chairman of SolarCity, a solar panel systems company which Musk’s cousins started up.

Besides Tesla and Space X, the book also details Musk’s earliest ventures such as Zip2, an online listings for businesses, and Paypal, where things got a little messy and Musk was ousted as CEO. While Paypal is known today as an online payment processing site, Musk’s vision had actually been to create an online banking institution which would offer products like mutual funds. Of course, this did not happen but at least you can see how Musk from early on in his career had a thing for wanting to disrupt industries. Musk’s upbringing in South Africa, which includes a difficult relationship with his father (who is barred from meeting Musk’s children), and his marriages and divorces (with the same person) are also detailed. Yet all this is just a sideshow to the most fascinating parts in the book which are about Musk’s work with SpaceX and Tesla.

Musk is portrayed as a visionary, obsessed with huge goals like bringing people to Mars or creating a nationwide gas-free infrastructure for electric cars, but also a brilliant engineer and scientist who knew the physics and engineering behind what his companies were doing. He is also a very demanding boss and micro-manager, who could be kind of vicious at times, which make him sound similar to Steve Jobs, though Musk is slightly nicer, according to people in the book. But the real difference is that while Jobs strove for great design and consumer technology, Musk has a much greater vision for the world that seeks to improve the environment, through using electric cars and utilizing solar energy, and make space travel a reality. While the latter might be a bit too much of a reach, it is hard to dispute the significance of his energy and environmental goals on society in general.

In some ways, Musk came off as a real-life version of Tony Stark, the Marvel tech billionaire who fights evil as Iron Man, and Robert Downey Jr, the actor who played Tony Stark, actually visited Musk at his business. I actually had little interest in Elon Musk and his work, not being a particular fan of space technology or electric cars, but reading this biography has made me admire him a lot. I actually carried this book with me on a short trip and because it turned out to be more interesting than I’d thought, I had to ration the pages near the end so that I wouldn’t finish it too quickly.

Books · Sports

NFL Confidential- book review

Some people think American football is one of the most boring or nonsensical sports, but I was actually a big fan of it. There’s something about American football that other sports just don’t have, which is probably why it has become the most popular sport in the US. The heightened tension of each individual play, amplified by the pauses between each play, and the quick athleticism and brutality on display makes each game a fierce and dramatic battle. I used to be a big NFL and American football fan during my university years in Canada and would catch the games every weekend.

Since coming to Asia, the early times of the games meant I wasn’t able to continue my NFL viewing and I’m no longer a major fan. However I still retain some interest, despite the serious concussion issue and other controversies. I still enjoy reading about the NFL when I can, which is how I read NFL Confidential- True Confessions from the Gutter of Football, a tell-all book written by a former player of an entire season in the league. He also claims to hate the league, which is why he wrote it anonymously.

The book exposes a lot of the drama that goes on behind the scenes as a NFL player, from racial cliques to bullying coaches to the precariousness of player employment. But somehow, the fact that it was written under a pseudonym and a lot of the names and details are deliberately falsified or omitted takes away from the supposed authenticity. After all, we don’t even know the team the player is part of nor any of his teammates, who he assigns nicknames to like GI Joe and Dante the diva receiver. The writer is also an offensive lineman, one of those huge blockers who protect the quarterback and plough holes for the running back.

The player starts off as a backup, which was his ambition since it meant he could get paid to do nothing during an entire year. Midway, injuries to starters means he is needed to start and soon he becomes a key part of the team. One would think this fortuitous change would shift his feelings but instead he realizes while he still loves the game, he still hates the business of the league. Along the way, he writes about his his longtime girlfriend, who he has gone out with since high school. And his feelings towards her veer towards a casual ambivalence which eventually sees an end to the relationship.

Those who are NFL fans will certainly find it interesting, but readers who want to learn about how an NFL team operates will also get something from it. That said, the premise of the book — the writer’s assertion about the problems with the league stemming from its thirst for profit — provides a somber, realistic take on the NFL that takes away from its guts and glory image.

China · Taiwan

China: great, invader, empire, pretender, threat – article roundup

It’s only the beginning of 2018 but there have been a bunch of major China articles which make some vital points about the ramifications of Chinaon the world. Some of the articles are long but they are worth reading.
Check them out below:

It is widely believed China has plans to invade Taiwan but by 2020? This writer thinks so as China might fear running out of time to achieve unification. Taiwanese, or at least 99.9% of them, want no part of being part of China and Xi Jinping seems to be very aware of this. Among the reasons for China to invade by 2020, the writer claims that “more and more Chinese are calling for unification by force,” which if true is very worrying, and that the Communist Party will mark its 100th anniversary in 2021.

From the NY Times’ correspondent Edward Wong who is leaving after 10 years covering China, he states China is trying to recreate an empire. Except it is one propped up by force and repression, not by ideas or ideology. This is a very long article that covers China’s change throughout the author’s time there, and by the end, it is clear he is not too positive. The paragraph below explains it all and might reflect the feeling of many China expats and observers.
Though unabashedly authoritarian, China was a magnet. I was among many who thought it might forge a confident and more open identity while ushering in a vibrant era of new ideas, values and culture, one befitting its superpower status. When I ended my China assignment last year, I no longer had such expectations.”

China has recently been caught attempting to influence local politics and spy on governments in Australia and New Zealand through various means. All this is part of China’s attempt to interfere, influence and even intimidate democratic countries and in large parts they have been succeeding such as getting foreign leaders to stop meeting the Dalai Lama and forcing British publishers to self-censor. Western countries are at a disadvantage, because they are competing against a country in which the ruling regime (CCP) controls everything from the government, corporations, media, courts, and even churches. By this, I mean the party, which puts itself above the country in the constitution and to whom the military swears loyalty, can utilize all aspects of society to do its will (directing companies to make investments in foreign countries such as regarding the Belt and Road “initiative”, funding foreign Chinese student organizations etc). Civil society is almost non-existent as unions and religious bodies are all affiliated with the party.

Evan Osnos, a former China correspondent, thinks Xi Jinping is making China great, thanks largely to Donald Trump relinquishing US dominance and influence in the world. Osnos is a very good writer, but citing the Belt and Road as an example of China’s greatness is flimsy, given it is largely a vague, dubious “initiative” that keeps being talked about but has few concrete benefits for countries other than China. Also, it is not so much China is becoming greater but that the US is willingly retreating, as the Chinese academic below says.
I dropped by to see one of the city’s wisest observers of America, Jia Qingguo, the dean of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University. “The U.S. is not losing leadership. You’re giving it up. You’re not even selling it,” he said. 

However, Elizabeth Economy, from the Council of Foreign Relations, says not so fast about China ascending the world’s superpower throne. China faces serious economic and environmental problems, and most of all, does not have any true allies or inspire any significant trust and respect abroad. In short, would you want your country to be like China? Would you willingly move your family to China and take Chinese citizenship? Fittingly, Economy’s conclusion is exactly how I feel about China and its claims to world leadership.

Uncategorized

Goodbye (and good riddance) to 2017

With days left until the end of 2017, it is with a lot of disappointment that I look back at this year and a lot of concern to the new year.
The world is no less messed up than it was at the beginning of the year, and as if to underscore the point, December saw several major tragedies including a deadly train crash in the US, a massive mall fire in the Philippines, a tragic gym fire in South Korea, a mass shooting in an Egyptian church, as well as terrible fires in New York and Mumbai just this week.

The American president continued to make a mess, while the UK struggled to come to terms with its Brexit decision. There is already more than enough written about the US president and his antics online and in print, so there’s no need to mention him further here. China under Xi sees itself as the world’s true superpower, though cracks appeared in its facade, most notably with its recent forced eviction of tens of thousands of its poorest people from Beijing. As China seems to get stronger, its economic debt problems might worsen next year while its technology-enhanced grip on society and information shows no sign of abating. Also, it has kept up a belligerent approach towards Taiwan, with a Chinese diplomat warning China would invade Taiwan if any US naval ship was to visit, and ramping up military drills around Taiwan and claiming this would become normal in the future. However, China has faced pushback from countries like Australia and New Zealand about its illicit activities overseas, as well as increased resistance to its nebulous Belt and Road “project.”

The Rohingya tragedy stunned the world when over 600,000 Rohingya were forced to flee Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh after a military campaign to destroy their settlements and kill Rohingya. It is a massive disappointment given how far the country had come from its authoritarian past in just a few years, and Aung San Suu Kyi went from a symbol of hope to one of disappointment and complicity to what many saw as genocide.

But beyond human rights and the continued political theater of the US and Europe, one of the biggest developments in the West was a backlash against technology as people started to realize that not everything related to technology was positive. Not only does technology not solve everything, it can make things worse as with the proliferation of fake news and propaganda on social media. And worse yet is that the growing use of technology such as smartphones can have a detrimental and addictive effect on people. Major tech executives and insiders have spoken out about the dangers of tech and social media, going so far as to ban their own kids from using it. The growing glorification of tech in the past few years has seen tech entrepreneurs acclaimed as superstars, obscene amounts of money thrown into all kinds of start-ups, and “hip” companies acclaimed as vital disruptors of “staid” industries.

The other big development in the West was a stunning wave of sexual harassment cases that started with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and grew to include directors, actors, chefs, comedians, tech executives, politicians, and even a former US president. It seemed like every day brought some new story about a different famous person, even those who were previously admired or liked a lot, being accused of serious sexual harassment behavior.

Hong Kong saw the selection in March of a new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who became the first woman to lead HK. But it also saw political farce in its legislation as four pro-democracy legislators were expelled from office for supposed problems when taking their oaths, as spurious a reason to eject elected lawmakers from office there is. Beijing continued to tighten its grip on HK and erode the “One Country, Two Systems” that enforces HK’s distinct status, including approving joint checkpoints (mainland officials will be stationed inside the station and mainland law will apply to those parts, thus violating HK’s mini constitution) at HK’s new high-speed rail station and openly urging HK to accept that it is “part of red China.”

Taiwan saw a few serious protests during the year as the ruling DPP, under president Tsai Ing-wen, found it a little rocky when they implemented or backtracked on some tough measures relating to labour hours and wages and pensions. Internationally Taiwan continued to be bullied by China, which besides increasing military flights near Taiwan and making belligerent statements, lured Panama away to leave Taiwan’ official allies at 20.

There are several other major tragedies elsewhere, such as Yemen and Syria (where civil war has raged since 2011), though at least ISIS has been defeated and in Europe the refugee crisis has improved from 2016. North Korea, with its childish madman leader, has kept on ramping up tensions, making nuclear war a growing, significant concern. This post is already quite long and I don’t want to keep going on about terrible events in 2017.

But while it might appear that a lot of this world is falling apart or in danger of doing so, maybe this is a necessary period of turbulence before serious improvement (politically, economic, cultural, etc) can occur.

With all that in mind, let’s look forward to the new year. Surely, 2018 can’t be worse, right?

Books

A Brief History of Seven Killings- book review

If you want a raw, fascinating and sensational novel that shocks and confounds, then I highly recommend A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. This is mostly set in Jamaica, but not of sandy beaches and smiling, charismatic superstars like Usain Bolt, but the violent slums of 1970s downtown Kingston. Amid this carnage and despair, the legendary Bob Marley spreads his songs of hope and cultural commentary to the country and the world. But even he is not immune to the violence in Jamaica when one night, seven gunmen burst into his home to try to assassinate him. The novel follows a cast of over a dozen people, including these gunmen, from before and after the murder attempt, through three decades as they deal with the repercussions of this act. The final section goes from Jamaica to the US as certain gangsters move from ghetto wars to the international cocaine and crack trade.

At first, it was challenging to really get into the book due to the language (Jamaican patois) and the constant change of characters. Each chapter is a narrative from the viewpoint of a single character, ranging from gangsters to the local CIA station chief to a writer desperately trying to get a story, as well as a woman who had a one-night stand with Bob Marley. As such, the language varies from proper English to Jamaican patois (“Police only have to see that me don’t have no shoes before he say what the bloodcloth you nasty naiggers doing round decent people,” “But then me no get far when bullet start chase after me”). It is mostly understandeable but it took a little effort to get used to entire chapters written in that way. Even though I’m from another English-speaking Caribbean country which also has a dialect, Jamaican patois is still very different.

But the more I read it, the more engrossed I became. The plot interweaves the Cold War, geopolitics and local elections, criminal underworld and the supernatural. Jamaican politics in the 1970s was a deadly affair, with the two main parties backing gangs in Kingston who each controlled their own slums and literally waged war on each other for their parties. Behind the scenes, the US administration was concerned about the Jamaican prime minister moving to socialism and linking with Fidel Castro, so it provided tacit support for the opposition and ways to undermine the government. By the time the story reaches the American parts, the political angle fades and it becomes almost solely about crime with a bit of diaspora issues included.

The book is full of cursing and coarse language, but even that is an understatement. The dialogue is raw and nothing regarding race, sex, or basic human dignity is out of bounds. At times, it got kind of visceral reading the book, so much that I could almost feel the terror and brutality, which I’ve gotten from very few books. Killing, maiming and raping all take place. Interestingly, homophobia, which Jamaica is notorious for, is also a major attribute of certain characters, who true to gangster personas, openly espouse contempt for homosexuals.

This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015, making James the first Jamaican author to win it, and a few other awards and made many best book of the year lists. In my view, there is absolutely no question why.