musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘New York Times’

Hillary Clinton’s Reading Choices

Hillary Clinton has been back in the news lately, thanks to the backlash about the outrageously high fees that she commands for speaking engagements, the publication of her new book, and a few choice comments she made about current US foreign policy.

HiIlary Rodham Clinton

About two months ago there was a short interview with Clinton in the New York Times, one that focused on books that she enjoys reading. This book interview column is a regular feature in the New York Times and I always find it fascinating to find out what various authors like to read when they are not writing, what they read when they were growing up, or in some cases the classic books that they admit to not having read yet. Here are a couple of excerpts from the column that featured Clinton:

Who are your favorite contemporary writers? Are there any writers whose books you automatically read when they come out?

“I will read anything by Laura Hillenbrand, Walter Isaacson, Barbara Kingsolver, John le Carre, John Grisham, Hilary Mantel, Toni Morrison, Anna Quindlen, and Alice Walker. And I love series that follow particular characters over time and through their experiences, so I automatically read the latest installments from Alex Berenson, Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton, Donna Leon, Katherine Hall Page, Louise Penny, Daniel Silva, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd, and Jacqueline Winspear.”

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

“At the risk of appearing predictable, the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.”

 

Well, she had me pleasantly surprised there for a while, picking authors that I also enjoy reading such as Daniel Silva, Alex Berenson, Laura Hillenbrand, and Alexander McCall Smith. But then she blew it with the lame Bible pick. I’m not sure if that was an “astute political choice” or truly a sincere personal pick, but either way it dismisses her in my mind as yet another religious wacko.

I’ve made these comments in past posts, but my feelings remain the same if not stronger: religion has no place in politics. If you are telling me that the Bible influences your way of thinking and how you make decisions, then I sure as hell (or should I capitalize that as a proper place name?) don’t want you holding elective office and making laws that affect my life.

In the United States a big deal was made about fifty years ago when John F. Kennedy was elected president, making him the first Catholic to hold the nation’s highest office. In the last US presidential election the fact that Mitt Romney was the first Mormon to run for office was also a source of curiosity. Personally, I’m waiting for the first atheist to run for office, someone who has the intelligence and fortitude to declare that they are not a superstitious half-wit who belongs to an organized religion. Please, just give me one such honest person.

I get so sick of seeing the same types of people elected to office in the USA. Most are career politicians with backgrounds in law, or perhaps they have some business experience. But do we really want more lawyers and MBA types running our government? Why don’t we elect scientists, teachers, economists, or people that actually have the brains and experience to effect change and make our lives better? Enough with these money-raising talking haircuts and dangerous religious fundamentalists; it’s time for real change. And even though she would be the first female president if elected, an insider like Hillary Clinton — especially one that apparently holds diehard religious beliefs — does not represent change for the better. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/15/books/review/hillary-rodham-clinton-by-the-book.html?ref=books&_r=0

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The Need to Work

Earlier this week I had phone calls from two friends, both now working in countries where they were not born, trying to acclimate to a new language, new culture, new environment; the whole works. Since I pretty much did the same thing nearly twenty years ago, I can relate to their situation, although the obstacles and struggles that these two young men have faced pale in comparison to what I had to adjust to when I moved from the United States to Thailand.

 mtricesteam

The first caller was Yan Naing Soe from Myanmar. I met him about five years ago when he was a teenager working at that Minthiha teashop in Mandalay. He always struck me as a bright, personable kid with poise, someone who would do well for himself if given the opportunity. But with only a sixth-grade education, his options were limited. He saved his meager salary from working long days at the teashop and used some of the money to study English when he had free time in the evenings. He left the teashop earlier this year to take an overseas job in Malaysia. Before he left I asked him if he felt scared to make such a move. “Yes,” he laughed. “I don’t know what will happen.”

But so far, so good. Yan Naing Soe  is working for a landscaping company in the Kuala Lumpur area, “cutting lots of trees” and working in the steamy outdoors. He gets Sundays off, which is a better deal than when he was working at the teashop and had no days off. He’s also making a higher salary, which I don’t doubt he’ll be saving and wiring home to his mother who lives near Bagan in Nyaung U. He sounds happy and content in his new home, working with a handful of other young Burmese men. I hope that I’ll see him again soon, probably in Malaysia next time.

 yannaingsoe1

My other “foreign” friend is Chiet from Cambodia. He is back working a construction job in Thailand for the second straight year. This time around he is working at a construction site about an hour outside of Bangkok, in Pathum Thani province. He gets two days off work each week. Well, sometimes. The work schedule is erratic and in recent months he and the other workers have had to put in extra hours on the weekend to make up for any days that were rained out. Chiet is making only 280 Thai baht per day (less than US$10), but it’s still a higher salary than he got working jobs as a welder and security guard in Siem Reap. I hadn’t seen him since I was in Siem Reap earlier this year, but he came to visit me at my bookshop last week during a break from work. He’s still the same sweet and goofy kid that I’ve known for twelve years, but gaining confidence and experience. He’s learned a bit of Thai during his time here and he gets a kick out of trying to speak the language with me.

I thought again of my two friends when I read an editorial by Charles Blow in the New York Times last week. He was discussing a Republican senator in the US who did not support extending unemployment benefits past the current limit of 26 weeks. The Republican philosophy seems to be that helping people does them a “disservice” and unemployment benefits should be capped. But as Blow pointed out, this unemployment “safety net” is more than just a “handout” for many people, especially in these bleak times. Here is one excerpt from his editorial:

“Whereas I am sure that some people will abuse any form of help, I’m by no means convinced that this is the exclusive domain of the poor and put-upon. Businesses and the wealthy regularly take advantage of subsidies and tax loopholes without blinking an eye. But somehow, when some poor people, or those who unexpectedly fall on hard times, take advantage of benefits for which they are eligible it’s an indictment of the morality and character of the poor as a whole. The poor are easy to pick on. They are the great boogeymen and women, dragging us down, costing us money, gobbling up resources. That seems to be the conservative sentiment.”

Of course the dire unemployment situation and the perception of “poor people asking for handouts” is not just unique to the United States. A lot of people, most people in fact, want to work or need to work, but either can’t find a job or can’t find one that pays a living wage. Here in Southeast Asia, the meager employment prospects in many countries has caused an exodus of people — such as my friends Yan Naing Soe and Chiet — who have found higher-paying work in other countries.

 yn0110

No, these people are not lazy and like the growing legions of out-of-work Americans they aren’t looking for handouts either. They just want to be able to earn a decent living and help their families. I agree with another thing that Blow wrote in his editorial: poor people are some of the hardest working people I have ever known.

I think about my own situation here in Thailand and consider myself very, very lucky. Not just because I’m living in a country that I love, but also because I’m now in a situation where I am self-employed and able to earn a sufficient salary for my needs. But if I was living back in the United States I shudder to think what I would be doing for a job. Would a company hire a middle-aged man like me? Let’s see; I have experience managing retail businesses (CD stores and bookshops) and also as a journalist. But those are not exactly high-demand professions nowadays. Would I be able to scrape together enough money to open my own retail business again? And if so, would it be able to turn a profit in this unpredictable, portable, online age? These are scary times and I fear they are only going to get scarier.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/12/opinion/blow-the-appalling-stance-of-rand-paul.html?ref=opinion

 

 

Anthony Shadid

Amidst the shock over Whitney Houston’s premature passing last week, comes news of another tragic death, that of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid. Like Houston, Shadid also left this world much too soon; he was only 43 years old. Although he risked his life many times covering stories during war and conflict, Shadid’s death appears to have resulted from an asthma attack.

Shadid spent many years covering stories in various countries in the Middle East, such as Iraq, Syria, and Libya. He was employed by the New York Times at the time of his death, but also wrote for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Associated Press during his career. I first noticed his articles about the war in Iraq in 2003. I was living in Cambodia at the time, and his wire service reports ran in an English language newspaper published in Phnom Penh. Shadid’s reporting stood out for its honesty and objectivity. Clearly, he had a passion and empathy for the people of the country he was covering, and he didn’t gloss over the atrocities committed by the US military or the American government’s many missteps. Later, I read his excellent book, Night Draws Near, about the effect of the war on the Iraqi people.

Shadid was obviously a talented writer, but he also possessed a poet’s grace and soul. He was one of the few journalists working today who I think embodied the true spirit and integrity of the profession. Unlike so many working in journalism nowadays, Shadid was no muckraker or sensation seeker, but a true reporter who went out of his way to seek the truth. I find it immensely sad that he has passed away so soon.

A new memoir by Shadid, House of Stone, is slated to be published in the US next month. This book explores his life growing up in the US, his family’s “roots” in Lebanon, and his work around the Middle East. Even in advance of its release, the book is garnering rave reviews. It’s one I’ll definitely want to read.

 

Primary Politics

In the New York Times last week, columnist Frank Bruni provided readers with a deliciously cutting analysis of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his flip-floppy tendency of changing — or adjusting — his position on various issues:

 

But if Romney nabs the nomination, his malleability may be an asset, allowing Obama-soured voters to talk themselves into him. After all, a creature without passionate conviction doesn’t cling to extremes. He surveys the scenery and makes sure his outfit doesn’t clash.

 

That hits the nail on the head! Looking at the dysfunctional field of freakish candidates for president in the Republican Party this year, most of whom are religious nuts from the far right wing, Romney is considered by most pundits to be the “most electable.” He certainly has the best hair. But amongst that motley crew, Jon Huntsman appears to be the most sane and intelligent of the bunch. Of course “sane and intelligent” are hardly apt descriptions for most politicians nowadays, and certainly no indicator of electability. Money still talks, and makes all the difference in the outcome. Americans may like to crow about their “free and fair” democratic process, but the reality is that elections are all still governed — and won — by big money.

 

Here in Thailand, the political scene is equally weird and warped, the participants more akin to the revolving cast in a bad TV soap opera. This year will see former politicians from the disbanded Thai Rak Thai party worm their way back into greasy grid when their five-year ban from politics expires;  although that ban didn’t stop many of them from operating from the sidelines as very active advisors, or acting as “persons of influence” in recent years.

 

Just last week an MP from Thailand’s Democrat Party was charged with murdering a rival politician from the Pheua Thai Party (they prefer to now spell it Pheu, which is as idiotic as their policies). This being Thailand, however, the murder suspect has used his MP status to avoid arrest and has failed to respond to two court orders demanding that he furnish two pieces of evidence in the case — those being his pickup truck and a Glock gun. When investigators when to the MP’s home on Sunday, the suspect’s mother told them that her son wasn’t at home and “did not wish to receive” the court order. Oh, to have such options!

http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/273457/police-step-up-pressure-on-khanchit

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/opinion/mitt-the-paisley-tiger.html?_r=1&ref=opinion

 

Colin Cotterill

Thailand-based author Colin Cotterill dropped by my bookshop earlier this month. I won’t tell you what he bought, because I am sworn to secrecy, but it did surprise me that he was such a big fan of harlequin romance novels. Ha, just kidding! He didn’t buy anything that remotely bizarre, but he was his usual charming self and we had a very pleasant conversation. I thought about bugging him for an interview, but he was preparing to leave for a trip to the US (no book tour, just regular touring), so I decided to spare him the torture. The week before, there had been a glowing review of his new book, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, in the New York Times. This was not the first time that Colin has received very favorable coverage in that famous paper, so I asked him if had any friends employed there. “No, I don’t know anyone there at all,” he shrugged, and then grinned. “But they do seem to like me.”

Indeed they do. And so do a growing number of other discerning readers around the planet. If you haven’t read any of Cotterill’s delightful Dr. Siri mysteries (there are seven in the series), all set in Vientiane, Laos, it’s time to get started. Cotterill’s books have been compared to Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Club” series, mainly due to the rustic foreign setting (Botswana is a long way from Laos, but at least there is the common denominator of farm animals), using more humor than horror, and employing a charismatic and unconventional protagonist. Cotterill’s books are a bit more bloody (no gratuitous violence, but real dead bodies turn up, as opposed to the dead car batteries in the Smith books), but that’s not a surprise since a coroner is the main character. It’s not exactly comic crime, but closer to that classification than some sort of creepy serial murder thriller.

The Dr. Siri series is definitely one of the more charmingly unique ones in the current crime fiction genre. Not only is it set in communist Laos during the 1970s, the main protagonist is a feisty doctor in his early 70s who is unexpectedly appointed the national coroner just as he is planning to enjoy his retirement years. Besides being an adventurous, opinionated and well-read fellow, Dr. Siri also channels the spirit of an ancient Hmong shaman. He’s definitely not your typical crime-solver, but that’s a big part of his appeal. Earlier this year, I finished the last two books in the series, The Merry Misogynist and Love Songs from a Shallow Grave. It’s said that some writers get better as a series progresses, and I think that’s the case for Cotterill and these books. Absolutely top notch stuff.

Cotterill recently wrapped up the Dr. Siri series, but by no means has he stopped writing. His new novel, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, finds him offering readers a brand new protagonist, Jimm Jurree, a female Thai journalist who has recently moved with her rather colorful family from Chiang Mai to a small beach town in Southern Thailand. Jimm finds there isn’t much to do, or write about, in this sleepy hamlet until a couple of dead bodies show up. A few days later a monk is found dead and suddenly there is a lot to do and write about. Like the other Cotterill books, this is a breezy, addictive read with lots of playful dialogue, and a wacky cast of characters. Looks like another fun addition to Cotterill’s growing catalog of mysteries, one that will keep readers enthralled.

http://www.colincotterill.com/

Prayers and Pathetic Politicians

I woke up one morning last week and realized that Yingluck Shinawatra was now the Prime Minister of Thailand. Pinch me. Slap me. A bad dream becomes reality. Is this another episode of that absurd soap opera known as Thai politics, or a harbinger of worse things to come?

 

You know, it would be a marvelous thing to celebrate the fact that Thailand now has its first ever female prime minister, a sign perhaps that Thailand is growing up and that government is no longer just another good old boys club. But the fact that Yinkgluck’s party was elected by Thai voters is no sign of anything, other than sheer nepotism and the return of a dubious cadre of well-connected politicians.

 

Yingluck is unashamedly a proxy for her older brother, the controversial ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. She was even referred to as “my clone” by Thaksin himself during the campaign. I’ve heard it said that it’s a shame that Yingluck won’t be allowed make decisions on her own without consulting big brother. But maybe that’s for the best. Yingluck is a political novice who has never held elected office of any kind. She has held staplers and fashion magazines. As an “executive” in the Shinawatra family’s telecommunications and property development businesses, it’s not clear what she exactly did. But hey, whatever it was, it’s apparently enough to make her a valid head of state in the eyes of the voting public.

 

As frustrating and silly as things can get here in Thailand, I keep thanking my lucky guavas that I’m not living back in the USA, where citizens are trying to salvage their sanity — and bank accounts — amidst the latest crippling waves of political and economic turbulence. Barack Obama seems keen on proving that he can be just as awful a president as George W. Bush was. That may sound like an absurd statement, seeing as how Bush was one of the very worst US presidents ever, but the reality is that Obama is doing a pretty awful job of his own so far. Granted, he has been hamstrung by obstructive Right-Wing Republicans and misguided Tea Party loonies, but his inability to prioritize job creation, his well-intentioned but horribly-executed health care plan, and making too many concessions to the Republicans in the recent debt ceiling fiasco, all make for a fairly miserable report card. What happened to Obama’s vision, his hoped-for leadership, and his ability to inspire? At this point, the silver-tongued fellow in the oval office can’t inspire anyone more than his wealthy core of campaign donors. (Read this week’s excellent opinion piece by Drew Westen in the New York Times for more on the “missing Obama.”)

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/opinion/sunday/what-happened-to-obamas-passion.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all&src=ISMR_AP_LO_MST_FB)

 

Meanwhile, the US economy continues to sputter, millions remain unemployed, and yet the profits of big corporations are soaring and the wealthy elite are paying a paltry percentage of taxes. There is an ugly, ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in the US, and a lot of citizens are very angry. Will people really be shocked when London-like riots erupt in American cities in the near future?

 

Obama would be looking very much like a one-term prez at this point except for the incredibly lame lineup of Republicans who have announced their candidacy for the 2012 race. One of those potential candidates is Rick Perry, the current governor of Texas. This guy is so off-the-wall that he makes Sarah Palin look normal. But he’s a born-again Christian, so that explains the weirdo angle. Yes, another one of those crackpots who dismisses the threat of climate change and thinks that prayer is the answer to solving any problem. A column this week by Timothy Egan in the New York Times provided an excellent look at Prayin’ Perry. Here is one excerpt:

“ … Perry’s tendency to use prayer as public policy demonstrates, in the midst of a truly painful, wide-ranging and potentially catastrophic crisis in the nation’s second most-populous state, how he would govern if he became president.

Perry: “I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God: You’re going to have to fix this,’” he said in a speech in May, explaining how some of the nation’s most serious problems could be solved.

That was a warm-up of sorts for his prayer-fest, 30,000 evangelicals in Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Saturday. From this gathering came a very specific prayer for economic recovery. On the following Monday, the first day God could do anything about it, Wall Street suffered its worst one-day collapse since the 2008 crisis. The Dow sunk by 635 points … given how Perry has said he would govern by outsourcing to the supernatural, it’s worth asking if God is ignoring him.”

 

Sure, it’s easy to make fun of kooky politicians like Perry, but he’s already served three terms as governor, so most of his constituents must be happy with the job he’s doing (which includes executing more prisoners than any other state in the country). And the sad truth is that unabashed Christian politicians, the so-called Evangelicals, like Perry are the norm not the exception in the USA. In fact, if you are not a bible-toting, Jesus-loving, happily married, family values kind of guy — or gal — you have zero chance of being elected to the highest office in the United States of Amnesia.

 

Having faith in a higher power is one thing, but when those religious beliefs lead to bullying people and making illogical decisions based on “faith”, then it becomes a problem. An emotional crutch for one person becomes a danger to others. It should be obvious to any sane individual that religion should be kept out of politics. So why is it that so many people support religious zealots like Perry? Maybe it’s just the sobering fact most of the voting public are religious zealots themselves and have no qualms about their leaders being similarly delusional. They certainly don’t seem fazed when their elected leaders resort to voodoo-like superstitions like praying, expecting to receive divine guidance for answers. Personally, I would prefer my elected leaders to think about matters intelligently, using facts and logic to come up with solutions. They’re going to pray about it? That should frighten people. In God We Trust? There’s your problem right there.

 

You hear all this talk about respect for other religions and tolerance for those with different beliefs, but I think it’s better to turn that notion around: there should be zero tolerance for religion in politics, and zero tolerance for religious groups who attempt to impose their hackneyed beliefs on others. As the wise philosopher George Clinton once said: “Free your mind … and your ass will follow.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/11/rick-perrys-unanswered-prayers/?ref=opinion

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