Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Mark Twain, Kung-Fu Hustle, Martin Gardner

I've been reading slowly lately, not sure why.

Saw the Kung-Fu Hustle, it's fun. Not as fun as Shaolin Soccer, but fun.

I've started reading one of Martin Gardner's collection of mathematical puzzles from Scientific America.

I recently almost finished The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories by Mark Twain. It's no Huck Finn, but it's pretty good.
I didn't finish it only because i lost it.

The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
I'm not sure why this is such a celebrated story. Yes, it's well-written and pretty funny, but it's only like ten pages long and not as funny as other stuff by twain.

The 1,000,000-Pound Bank Note
A story about a man who has literally nothing to his name except an uncashable 1,000,000-Pound bank note. I wonder if this was partial inspiration for Fitzgerald's Diamond As Big As The Ritz. Moderately entertaining.

The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
Now this! This is good stuff! I confess it gets a bit messy towards the end, and i skipped probably the last quarter of the story, but i'll remember enjoying this over chips and salsa for the rest of my days.

The Mysterious Stranger
This is a strange one for Twain. Published only posthumously, it's a pretty hard-hitting allegory which rips open the rotten underbelly of humanity with much more directness than Twain's usual style. It's almost science-fiction or fantasy, i guess you could call it magical realism. Essentially he sets up several naked vignettes of human visciousness and pettiness and comments on them directly.

I'm also about halfway thru Twain's Roughing It. This apparently is the admittedly embellished but basically true story of Twain's youth in the American West. It's pretty good stuff, and deeply charming if you have any affection for the Western deserts. He also makes pretty free with his opinions, and says Mormonism is stupid, in pretty much so many words, and his racism towards Indians is pretty embarassingly displayed. When i read some of his passages describing Indians, i keep waiting for it to become clear that it's tongue-in-cheek or in some satirical mode, but it's not. Twain's racism seems to be adressed here: Mark Twain, Indian Hater.

Below are two quotes from the book, the first a pleasant Twainery, the second his description of the "Goshoot Indians"

Twain on the Humboldt river:
After leaving the Sink, we traveled along the Humboldt river a little way. People accustomed to the monster mile-wide Mississippi, grow accustomed to associating the term "river" with a high degree of watery grandeur. Consequently, such people feel rather disappointed when they stand on the shores of the Humboldt or the Carson and find that a "river" in Nevada is a sickly rivulet which is just the counterpart of the Erie canal in all respects save that the canal is twice as long and four times as deep. One of the pleasantest and most invigorating exercises one can contrive is to run and jump across the Humboldt river till he is overheated, and then drink it dry.

Twain on Indians:
On the morning of the sixteenth day out from St. Joseph we arrived at the entrance of Rocky Canyon, two hundred and fifty miles from Salt Lake. It was along in this wild country somewhere, and far from any habitation of white men, except the stage stations, that we came across the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen, up to this writing. I refer to the Goshoot Indians. From what we could see and all we could learn, they are very considerably inferior to even the despised Digger Indians of California; inferior to all races of savages on our continent; inferior to even the Tierra del Fuegans; inferior to the Hottentots, and actually inferior in some respects to the Kytches of Africa. Indeed, I have been obliged to look the bulky volumes of Wood's Uncivilized Races of Men clear through in order to find a savage tribe degraded enough to take rank with the Goshoots. I find but one people fairly open to that shameful verdict. It is the Bosjesmans (Bushmen) of South Africa. Such of the Goshoots as we saw, along the road and hanging about the stations, were small, lean, "scrawny" creatures; in complexion a dull black like the ordinary American negro; their faces and hands bearing dirt which they had been hoarding and accumulating for months, years, and even generations, according to the age of the proprietor; a silent, sneaking, treacherous looking race; taking note of everything, covertly, like all the other "Noble Red Men" that we (do not) read about, and betraying no sign in their countenances; indolent, everlastingly patient and tireless, like all other Indians; priceless beggars-for if the beggar instinct were left out of an Indian he would not "go," any more than a clock without a pendulum; hungry, always hungry, and yet never refusing anything that a hog would eat, though often eating what a hog would decline; hunters, but having no higher ambition than to kill and eat jackass rabbits, crickets and grasshoppers, and embezzle carrion from the buzzards and cayotes; savages who, when asked if they have the common Indian belief in a Great Spirit show a something which almost amounts to emotion, thinking whisky is referred to; a thin, scattering race of almost naked black children, these Goshoots are, who produce nothing at all, and have no villages, and no gatherings together into strictly defined tribal communities´┐Ża people whose only shelter is a rag cast on a bush to keep off a portion of the snow, and yet who inhabit one of the most rocky, wintry, repulsive wastes that our country or any other can exhibit.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Movies: The Downfall, Sahara, Wisconsin Death Trip

Mykle and i were in Denver with little to do, so we saw The Downfall and Sahara.

The Downfall is a portrayal of the last two weeks or so inside Hitler's bunker.
The Cinematography, Acting, Sets, and general Production are top-notch, excellent.
It's quite depressing.
I have some reservation about the humanizing of high-level Nazis, however. With the exception of a very few apparently bad eggs like Hitler & Goebbels, the Nazi elite are pretty much presented as reasonable, human characters, and in some cases downright compassionate.
I hear the Jewish community finds this offensive, but i feel that all communities should find this offensive. Even without the holocaust, the German motivation in World War Two was the same as in all wars of agression, and the leaders of a war are pretty much by definition horrible people.
So - that's the Downfall. An excellent movie with some questionable humanizing portrayals.

Sahara is a really, really good bad movie. It's all about ex-navy surfers with a wry Harrison Ford Grintm.

Wisconsin Death Trip - gag. This is one horrible movie. It's really more like a slideshow. It's really more like a slideshow of questionable original worth thrown up in the air, shuffled, and put into the projector with a crappy piano soundtrack and half an hour's worth of "Behind The Scenes" directorial masturbation. I won't even say what it's about. Okay. It's allegedly a documentary about a series of murders & suicides in wisconsin in the 1800s. Write bad reviews of this movie where ever you can.

We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families

By Philip Gourevitch, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families is a collection of stories, interviews, news summaries and commentary about the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and its aftermath. Philip visited Rwanda many times during 1995-1998, and cultivated relationships with a variety of people, including the poor, near-heads of state, and relief workers. The movie Hotel Rwanda is based on a part of this book.


Rwanda contains two ethnicities, Hutus and Tutsis. The Tutsis have historically been the more economically well-off, and number about fifteen or twenty percent of the population. According to Gourevitch, the Hutus and Tutsis lived in harmony until European colonialism (Mainly from the Dutch) asserted its backward ways on the natives, notably subjugating the Hutus to the Tutsis. Thru much confusion since then, Hutu/Tutsi strife ended up in 1994 with the Hutus dominant and supported most notably by the French. In 1994, for reasons which remain unclear to me, the Hutus massacred about 800,000 Tutsis in just a couple months or less. The strange thing is that unlike Nazi Germany, the slaughter was carried out by a large percentage of the Hutu population itself, and was not even remotely secret. So you have perhaps 30% of the population as murderers, and undoubtedly more as abbetters.

Calls for international aide were famously ignored.

Finally the largely Tutsi army which had been training across the border was able to invade Rwanda and win. During this battle the French apparently directly helped the Hutu immensely.

After this war, hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled Rwanda to 'refugee camps' in Zaire and elsewhere. They fled for three reasons.

  1. They were Genocidaires (instrumental in the genocide) and feared Tutsi retribution.
  2. They were innocent Hutus (innocent = did not kill anyone in the genocide) but who feared Tutsi retribution.
  3. They were innocent Hutus directly threatened by the Genocidaires to flee, to provide a human shield and camoflage for the real instigators. (Threatening in this case, means the killing of one's family)
The international aid community unfortunately mangled its handling of these camps and basically behaved as if everyone in the camps were in category two: innocent Hutus. In fact, the camps were highly organized military camps actively importing weapons and continuing to carry out the slaughter of Tutsis and undesirable Hutus across the border in Rwanda. The humanitarian organizations in charge of the camps were aware of this, but continued behaving as if they weren't. The difficulty in closing the camps was that innocent Hutus *would* be killed by the Geonocidaires if they left the camp. The new Rwandan government promised a new, integrated society, and seems to have made as good as possible on that promise, but at the time, innocent Hutus could not know that, especially under the propoganda broadcast by the leaders of the Hutu Power.

Finally the Rwandan government could wait no longer for the international community to stop supporting in essence the continuation of the genocide, and moved militarily to close the camps.

This is where i lose the thread.

The camps were largely closed, but new ones kept being set up and humanitarian aid kept going horribly, horribly awry. Revolution in Zaire was involved, with Zaire emerging with a new government and its old name, The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Philip Gourevitch: would a timeline have been too much to ask for ? Maybe a timeline with a channel for each of the major players in this story ?

At the close of the book, Rwanda is largely re-integrated, with many people living literally down the street from people whom they saw kill their family. The relative peace present in this situation is largely credited to the far-sightedness of the new Rwandan government.

The overall tone is hopefull for the next generation of Rwandansa and believes that all of Africa is finally shaking free of the lack of autonomy imposed by the old colonialism.

Gourevitch writes fairly well, altho i have to say Analogy and Parable is not quite his forte.
The book is stronger without his soft analysis.

All in all a fine book, highly informative and fairly well composed. I recommend.

Friday, April 08, 2005

All Tomorrow's Parties

I forgot that i finished All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson recently. Basically it was kind of a let down after Pattern Recognition set me on a Gibson spree. It's a fine book, and Gibson's cyberpunk is as usual well done, but really it's only fairly well done. The technology and characters are pretty archetypical and familiar. Also there's sort of a blank spot where the climax is supposed to be. Something happened, i know, i think, but i have no idea what it was. "Everything Changed" was an often repeated phrase, the characters seeing some sort of entire paradigm shift in the world, but i frankly missed it even 'tho i was looking. - Was it just the Pinoccio machine-made-flesh of the virtual girl ? I suppose so, but Gibson sort of left it as a crumb at the edge of the table after eating a large meal of definitely weird but basically random and unrelated characters and plot elements. So, worth reading if you like cyber punk, but probably not otherwise.

I also read a small 1960s book of short stories from Weird Stories magazine. Some of them were pretty good, some weren't. Weird Stories published Lovecraft in his day and as such is a pillar of horror & science-fiction genesis. Highly recommended, 'tho mostly for its pre-1960 charm.

Am winding up We Wish To Inform You. Summary to come.

Monday, April 04, 2005

All Tomorrow's Parties

Am about halfway thru Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties. It's good.

I saw Sin City over the weekend. What was i thinking ????
Way too violent for poor little O. I did not, however, walk out, but i'm not sure why not.

Still reading We wish to inform you. The actual genocide is done and he's talking about the uh, humanitarian effort which followed and how it went terribly awry.