Archive for March, 2016

Shy White Mouse

Grandmother pronounced the soul to be
a shy white mouse that seeks
to nest in the proximity of our heartbeats.

Restless and adventurous at bedtime,
she cautioned, it will evoke
the yawn’s opening tickle in the throat.

That’s why tired boys must go to sleep,
otherwise, a mouth agape
might allow its wandering tail to escape.

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Nagasaki : Life After Nuclear War / Susan Southard

Hibakusha is a Japanese word used to describe the surviving victims of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The term literally translates as “explosion-affected people.” In this book, Susan Southard highlights the lives of five hibakusha: Dó-oh Mineko, Nagano Etsuko, Taniguchi Sudmitera, Wada Kóichi, and Yoshida Katsuji. Each of them were teenagers in Nagasaki on the the day of the bombing, suffering serious injuries as a result.

The opening chapters make for a chilling read. Southard does a marvelous job of bringing to life what was occurring in Nagasaki shortly before the bombing, and more importantly, the devastation the blast caused. More than 30,000 people were killed immediately, while more than 40,000 died from their injuries by the end of 1945. By focusing on these five individual survivors, the author is able to put a human face to the horror experienced by the citizens of Nagasaki.

The second half of the book is much less gripping, although just as important. It tracks the lingering effects of nuclear fallout on the country’s survivors. Many suffered punishing injuries that lasted a lifetime, including acute and late-life onset radiation-related illnesses, as well as post traumatic stress disorders. The five hibakusha featured here became vocal spokespeople campaigning against the use of nuclear weapons.

Her book also highlights the extent the United States government went to cover up the lasting effects that the bombings had on the survivors. To this day, our government still claims that the use of nuclear weapons was necessary to save the lives of American soldiers and to bring about Japan’s eventual surrender. Southard presents convincing evidence that surrender was likely even without the use of nuclear weapons. But she also describes how many ultra-nationalists in Japan refuse, to this day, to admit their country’s own war crimes during the conflict.

While the threat of nuclear war has diminished in recent years, the possibility is still a sword that hangs over our heads. As Southard reveals, many Americans have no knowledge of what occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her account does an excellent job of ensuring that the legacy of these bombings is never forgotten. The people she profiles spent their lives working to make sure that Nagasaki remains the last atomic-bombed city in history. Let us pray the injuries and the horrors they experienced are a lesson that humankind takes to heart.

Cyberphobia : Identity, Trust, Security And The Internet / Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas is a senior editor at the Economist and he has covered the Eastern Europe beat since 1986. And as this 2015 book shows, he knows a thing or two about cybercrime and online security. If the average Internet user wasn’t worried about their own online security before reading this book, they certainly will be by the the time they finish it.

Throughout Cyberphobia, Lucas pounds home the uncomfortable fact that as it is currently configured, the Internet is inherently unsafe. Lacking strong regulation, it is easy for hackers and criminals to introduce malicious software on anyone’s computer. Hijacking personal information and stealing personal information often takes place without the individual realizing it has happened. He points out that the software we use on the Internet for free comes with a huge cost. It easy for the nefarious to exploit its flaws to infiltrate our personal computers.

Making matters worse, the average Internet users are lax when it comes to protecting their own personal information, and this puts all users at risk, even those who have followed recommended security protocols. Lucas provides ample proof that these recommendations are ineffectual. A determined hacker would have little difficulty in cracking most password protected sites and firewalls as they are currently configured.

The issue of computer security is important on an individual basis, business-wise, and for nations, too. With increasing frequency, corporations are being targeted for their technology secrets and the personal information they have amassed. Nations are now engaging in computer warfare as they probe each others’ networks for vulnerabilities. Despite these growing threats, the computer industry has been slow to react. In this book, Lucas highlights the tiny nation of Estonia as being the only country that has stepped forward to create a more secure network for its citizens.

Cyberphobia makes for a gloomy read. While highlighting the problem, it offers few solutions for the average computer user. All remain vulnerable even if they follow the recommended security measures the author presents. The problem I have with the book has to do with its length. Lucas often repeats points he’s already made. It probably would have been more effective to condense it to a long essay instead.

Nonetheless, the topic is indeed a timely one. Even if the average user has not been hacked, they probably know someone who has been. Since knowledge is indeed a strength, Cyberphobia does a good job of informing us of the problem we are facing. Now we need to take steps to reinvent the system to ensure it is a product all of us can safely use.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler / Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino has a long string of books to his credit. This novel was my first introduction to his work. Cuban born and raised in Italy, Calvino died in 1985 at the age of sixty-one. During his lifetime, he gained international fame as a gifted storyteller.  If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is considered my many to be his greatest achievement. And for me, it certainly lived up to the hype.

While some might consider it a bizarre novel, and overly clever, I found it to be an engaging read from the first page to the last. What makes it unique is the ingenious format. Within the novel, Calvino weaves ten pastiches. The story features two main characters, The Reader and the Other Reader. When The Reader begins a new novel by Calvino (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler), he discovers his copy is corrupted. Returning it, he finds the book is actually by another author and is given a replacement copy. But this book proves to be an entirely different novel. And so his chase is on to solve the mystery of this printing error. In the end, The Reader is lead to ten different novels, each of which is taken from him prematurely, just when the story has begun to captive The Reader (and this reader, too).

Each of The Reader’s novels has a different structure: pulp noir, movie script, spaghetti western, mystery story, spy thriller, and so on. Pieced together, they form a labyrinth that captivated my attention entirely. These stories, although featuring different narrators, are certainly entwined. Broadly speaking, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler deals with the difficulties of writing and the solitary nature of reading. It also creatively shows how, for those who love to read, one story bleeds into the next, suggesting that every book shares a common inspiration. Wrapped inside all of this, Calvino even managed to weave a love story, as male (The Reader) and female (the Other Reader) court through a shared interest in reading.

Critics have described Calvino as a postmodern writer and a magical realist. Knowing this, I feared that If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler might be a difficult read, and too academic for my taste. I was wrong on both counts. One would think that a book that interrupts each of its stories at a moment of suspense would make for a frustrating read. Instead, in Calvino’s capable hands, it charms, entertains, challenges, and delights “the reader” all the more.

The Way We Live Now / Anthony Trollope

The Way We Live Now was my first introduction to Anthony Trollope’s work. Published in 1875, the novel at first seems to be your basic love story, one that follows the usual template where if at first you do not succeed, try, try again. However, it soon becomes evident that Trollope has a more important message to deliver, providing a commentary on greed and the corrupting power of inherited wealth.

His focus is on the British aristocracy, highlighting how its sons lack the energy or desire to be productive members of society. Instead, they spend their nights gambling and carousing. Unlike Dickens, he does not provide counter examples of members from the hard working lower classes. And this is a shame since most of elite portrayed are individuals who fail to engage the interest or sympathy of the reader.

The characters with the most gumption are both American, Mrs. Hurtle and Mr. Hamilton Fisher. While they might be volatile emotionally, they have good heads on their shoulders and are able to do what is best to advance their own interests. The British nobility portrayed, however, seem to trapped in the past and are ill-prepared for life in a rapidly industrializing society.

Augustus Melmotte, a financier with a shady past, is the black sun that draws these hapless sons of the aristocracy into his orbit. He is clearly running a Ponzi scheme, but everyone involved hopes to get rich before his house of cards comes crashing down. While he is someone they disdain, he seems their best chance to escape from the debts their opulent lifestyles have incurred. Throughout the book, Trollope seems to take delight in showing the reader that behind closed doors, these aristocrats are living in rather shabby conditions.

The young lovers in the book, Paul and Hetta, are likable enough, still there is nothing unique about their love story. What makes the novel notable and interesting is its rich subplots which dramatize the corruption that had permeated not only the business world and political parties of the time, but more importantly, infected intellectual life as well. Unfortunately, these subplots do not strike the modern reader as antiquated. Rather, they feel as if they have been ripped from today’s headlines. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Loner

I hug the silence to my chest
and sometimes believe that I can hear
two heartbeats. I long for
the courage to spill my inky thoughts
across a white billboard.
In repetition, I define the boundaries
of my days. Tongue-tied,
I face each conversation as a subject
I’ll fail upon examination.
On crowded streets, I remain alone.
If I have a guardian angel,
it is the comfort knowing that we all
share a common mortality.
But just as God inhabits the sparrow
dressed in drab attire,
I, too, am capable of waking dawn
with the beauty of my song.
Unshackled by gravity or language,
in dreams, wings melting,
I’ve soared melodic with happiness,
a member of the flock.
Should you be kind enough to ask,
my silence longs to answer.

Forgiveness

Since he took a life precious to her,
she demands that he
not be allowed another day of happiness.
That shackled and solitary,
he never again be comforted by a smile.
The only friends allowed
to visit him be loneliness and misery.
With his two enemies,
depression and regret, given a key to
his every waking thought.
That in dreams, the joy of childhood
remains forever a stranger.
Let melancholy’s cacophony play in
his head for eternity.
Little realizing, her bitter bewitching
carries a hefty price.
Anger unassuaged by forgiveness,
she too is sentenced to
share the narrow confines of his cell.