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Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year, sort of

It seems trivial in light of Benazir's murder and the will-they-or-won't-they uncertainty about elections (here's a hint: It looks like they won't, at least for a while), but in the interests of trying to retain a positive attitude toward things like, um, life, here are a few signs that 2008 might actually be somewhat more hopeful than 2007 turned out to be, for me at least.

1. My new book, Monster, 1959 comes out on February 19.

2. Uzee's new book, The Geometry of God, was released on December 19 in India and has made its way here to Pakistan already. With luck, she will get some great reviews and attention for it; she's also having a number of European editions published. (You can order it online, from Liberty Books in Karachi: . It's roughly ten bucks for a hardcover, not bad.

3. The New England Patriots football team, which has gone for a perfect season of 16-0 for the first time in the 88-year history of the National Football League, looks poised to win their two playoff games and go into Super Bowl. If they win, it will be their fourth championship since the 2001 season and they will be recognized as, in all likelihood, the greatest football team in history.

4. Sooner or later--probably later--elections probably will take place here in Pakistan. Whatever the outcome, it will be a first step out of the military-controlled government of the past several years, which can only be a good thing.

5. In November, elections probably will take place in the United States. Whatever the outcome, it will probably mark an end the the militaristic right-wing xenophobia of the past several years, which can only be a good thing. (Note the use of the word "probably." Democrats can be just as militarily xenophobic as Rpublicans, kids. They just revel in it a little less, usually.)

6. As a result of [5.], there may be some serious movement on carbon-emissions regulation or other anti-global-warming initiatives. (Though we're probably moving past 2008 with this item...)

7. I will hopefully get my hands on The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection, Volume 2--which was actually released in 2007--thus allowing me to watch classics of film genius such as The Leech Woman (1960), The Deadly Mantis (1957), Dr. Cyclops (1940), and Cult of the Cobra (1957). For some time now I've been writing a guide book to monster movies like these from the 1950s; whether it will ever see the light of day, I don't know. But meanwhile I'm having a great time watching these movies, and 2008 holds these and a few more in store for me, I think.

I wanted to make a list of 10 items but at the moment I'm blanking out after seven. Okay then, watch this space. No doubt I'll think of three more the second I log off. And of course, your suggestions are always welcome...

Don't forget the poll at the bottom of this page! So far we have a clear front-runner, in case you haven't been following the campaign...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Benazir's murder

In 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto--Benazir's father--was hanged by the government of then-military ruler Zia-ul-Haq. Zia had taken power in a coup, overthrowing Bhutto, who was Pakistan's first democratically elected Prime Minster.

Zia got lots of money from the USA.

When Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan was declared a front-line state, a strategic ally against Soviet expansion, etc. Zia's government was funded to the tune of millions of dollars. Democracy in Pakistan could take a back seat to US interests: there was a war on.

Fast forward to December 2007. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, is shot and killed at a political rally while the country again wilts under a US-financed military dictatorship. General (now "Mister") Musharraf has received $10 billion in assistance since 2002. Pakistan is once again a front-line state, a strategic ally against terrorism (now fighting the "extremists" who were previously financed by the US to fight against the Soviets). Not surprisingly, democracy in Pakistan has again taken a back seat to US interests. After all, there's a war on. Again.

Isn't it odd, then, that George Bush and Condi Rice were unable to wait even a day after Benazir's death before piling on the pressure: "Elections must go forward!" or words to that effect. Many people here in Pakiston wonder: where was this pressure in 2006? Or 2005? Or 2003? Or in March, when Musharraf sacked the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, suspended the Constitution, all the while pocketing billions in US aid?

And more sinisterly, people are wondering this: With the two largest opposition parties either leaderless (PPP) or boycotting the election (PML), what's the point of having elections at all? The only conceivable outcome will be the rubber-stamping of the current regime, giving them a phony legitimacy for another five years. So an illegal, amoral and militaristic regime, backed by US money, will be here to stay. There are many here who believe that this is precisely what the Americans want. There are many precedents--Iraq in the '80s, Iran in the '60s and '70s, Latin America: make your own list.

I have no way of knowing who was responsible for Benazir's murder. "Al-Qaeda" could be anybody. "Extremists," ditto. The government today released a statement that Benazir wasn't killed by gunfire, but by knocking her head against the sunroof of her car. It sounds like a sick joke, but that's the official position. This, despite the attending surgeon's statement that she was killed by bullet wounds; despite a film that shows the assailant firing a pistol from a distance of three meters; despite the reports of eyewitnesses riding inside the car, that Benazir was hit twice by gunfire in the neck and head.

I don't know the purpose of the government's outlandish story--maybe to shift blame away from their inadequate security arrangements. Many are accusing Musharraf of complicity, and perhaps he is trying to dampen the conspiracy theorists. If that is his intent, it's failing. Someone should tell him: you don't douse suspicions by issuing patently ludicrous statements. And someone should tell Bush: you don't foster democracy by funding dictators.

Here's a link to the newspaper stories carrying the goverment's claims. and

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir murdered

I was no fan of Benazir Bhutto; she was as corrupt as any politician I know. But, she didn't deserve a bullet through the neck, and Pakistan doesn't deserve the mayhem that will undoubtedly result from it. So, RIP, Benazir.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

All Things Considered...

National Public radio (NPR) asked me to participate in a holiday program in which writers talk about books that they associate with the holidays. Since I'm not a Christmas Carol kind of guy, I wrote about Animal Farm, which is maybe not a typical yuletide book, but there you go. In theory I was going to read this essay on the air during the show, but my being here in Pakistan made that somewhat difficult, so instead they just posted it online.

Here's the link:

What's interesting is that I actually sent them two essays, overachiever that I am, because I couldn't decide whether to go highbrow (Animal Farm) or honest (The Martian Chronicles). Not surprisingly, NPR went highbrow, even though the Bradbury book is really more of a Christmas book for me because my sister Eleanor gave it to me one year. Anyway, for those of you who are interested, here is the alternative NPR essay that wasn't used:

"For Christmas 1979 my sister gave me an oversized, illustrated edition of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. 28 years later I still have it, and expect to go on having it for another 28. It’s pretty beat; a yellow stain splashes aross the front cover, probably incurred when being transported to Boston after college or Arizona for grad school, or shipped to Morocco or Pakistan later on. Maybe it’s beer, or tea, or just rainwater. But the pages are still clean, and Ian Miller’s illustrations, all straight lines and geometric curves that look etched or lithographed, are as sharp as ever. The pictures are sense-impressions inspired by the story’s poetry, rather than simple realistic drawings; they’re unsettling, and they keep surprising me no matter how many times I go back to them.

"I have strong holiday associations with Bradbury’s book because it’s the first one, maybe the only one, that I remember asking for as a present. Seven bucks was a lot for a book in those days of 99 cent paperbacks, and its large nine-by-six inch format made it special. It was the first book that I had ever wanted even though I’d already read it; this copy was something to reread it. This was new. I remember the feeling, as I peeled off the wrapping paper, that I was looking at a really adult book.

I was right.
The Martian Chronicles is, as far as I’m concerned, a 20th century American classic, something that ought to be read in college alongside Hemingway and Zora Neale Hurston, but its presence in the science fiction ghetto has prevented widespread appreciation. It’s a book that deals with thematic issues shunned by many better-known books—exploitation and colonialism, race and class, manifest destiny versus environmental pillage. Its pages are permeated by a sense of loss, wistfulness, mourning. There are chapters that induce chuckles, and others that are plain terrifying.

It evokes images that have stayed with me for decades. Bradbury’s evocation of an alien world of red deserts, dessicated oceans and dusty canals is as remote as anything could be from my wintry Connecticut holidays with their snow-shrouded hemlocks. But somehow, he made that landscape speak to me. From that book, I learned about the importance of setting, that a place can play as much of a role in the story as any character. I also learned that reality needn’t be much of a barrier to a writer seeking to wrest some emotional response from the reader. In fact, sometimes the job is made easier by leaving strict realism behind. I took this lesson to heart.

I read
The Martian Chronicles that winter during Christmas break, and several times since. It never fails to surprise and impress me. It’s one of those books that has so much packed into its 28 chapters, its dozens of little vignettes, that it will always reflect something different each time you look. Just like the moon, or maybe two of them, passing across the sky at night."

What's amazing is that you can now buy a used copy on Amazon for about four bucks. Does this count as progress? You decide...

Eid Mubarak - Happy Hannukah - Merry Christmas - Happy New Year

Monday, December 10, 2007

An author worth looking up

I've just finished a book called Leo the African by Amin Maalouf. Another great book by a great writer, some of whose other novels include Balthazar's Odyssey, Samarkand, The Gardens of Light and The Rock of Tanios. All these are terrific reads.

Maalouf writes historical novels. His obsession lies with the age of empire; not just western empires, but eastern ones too, and especially, how they clashed and melted and merged. Given the current geopolitical situation, this is healthy stuff to think about. Leo the African, which is based on the life story of a genuine historical figure, begins with the fall of Granada when the (Inquisition-lovin') Spanish conquered it; then moves to Fez, then on to Cairo just as the Ottomans show up to trash the place; before winding up in Rome, as it's about to be swamped by German Lutherans. It seems astonishing that one guy could see the collapse and sacking of no fewer than three major cities in one lifetime, but there you go. Mixed in with all this is the engaging human story of Hasan (later Leo)'s own life, family, wife, children etc. It's a fairly astonishing piece of storytelling, and it just flows right along.

All of Maalouf's books have this richness, and this momentum. He's from Lebanon, poised precariously between east and west, so I suppose his writing reflects the comsmopolitanism (is that a word?) of his worldview. In other words, a lot goes in, so a lot comes out. Samarkand is about Omar Khayyam, who wrote the Rubayyait; it takes place both centuries ago, when Omar wrote it, and now, when the manuscript itself is at the heart of a mystery. Balthazar's Oddysey again takes in the 17th-century Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Italy and England. His books are always full of people going somewhere, and chatting breezily as they do so, and I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.

I also hugely enjoyed The Gardens of Light, a book about a boy named Mani who grows up in the third century AD in this strange, ultra-ascetic order of men--think of an uber-Taliban before there was any Islam--and who rejects it to go off and become a sort of all-purpose mystic. Eventually he founds a religious/philosphical school called Manicheanism, which is rejected as blasphemous by just about everyone you can imagine. Again, it's impressive the way Maalouf intertwines strands of philosophy with everyday, dirt-under-your-fingernails concerns.

So, great books, a great writer.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Cooking Tips for Bachelors #3: Mastadon Steaks

1. Sharpen spear. (Note: If available, "flint-tip" variety works better than "sharp stick.")
2. Locate mastadon herd.
3. Choose target. NB: Immature or elderly individuals work best. Try to avoid obviously sick animals, although they may appear appealingly vulnerable.
4. Throw spear at mastadon. Aim for the "kill spot" just behind the ear.
5. If necessary, repeat step (4.)
6. If necessary, repeat step (4.) many times with great haste. NB: a supply of spears is essential for this. Making a supply beforehand is a good idea.
7. Once mastadon is slain, knock together fist-sized rocks until one has a sharp edge. Use this "scraper" tool to hack off meat.
8. Invent "fire." NB: The opening to your cave is a good spot for this.
9. Roast meat over "fire" till tender.
10. Share roasted steaks with other members of your tribe, esp lithe nubile members of the opposite gender (or your own gender if preferred). Bask in their grateful glances.
11. With full bellies, watch the moon rise. Invent stories that explain creation. Exchange meaningful glances with other tribe members.
12. Repeat as necessary.
13. Later: invent wheel.
14. Later still: Go into a quiet cave somewhere and paint some stuff.

Remember to take the poll at the bottom of this page!

Friday, December 7, 2007

I can't vouch for this organization, but it seems interesting

I got this email in my box today, entitled "A National radio Broadcast for Prisoners." I thought I would pass it along to anyone who is interested. The organization is called Thousand Kites.

"Dear Friend,

The Thousand Kites Team would like to ask for your support for a special radio project called Calls from Home. Calls from Home is a simple project. We open our recording studio's toll-free number from 3-11pm (eastern time) on December 11th and record calls from prisoner families and supporters from across the country. We then broadcast the program on over 120 radio stations across the country and bring hundreds of voices (people singing songs, reading poems, and speaking from the heart) to hundreds of thousands of prisoners. We need your help in spreading the word and making the program as strong as possible. Here is how you can help us: Call in to the show on Dec. 11th from 3-11pm eastern time. Call toll free at 888-396-1208 and the Thousand Kites team will be there to take your call. We usually just say "Caller, you're on the air, who would you like to send a message to tonight?" (If you want to call a message in right now you can call our answering machine at 877-518-0606.) Spread the word to other people. Please pass this on and ask other folks to get involved. You can learn more at our website at

After the show is recorded we put it up for free downloads. Download it and get it played our your local community radio station, play a section at a meeting, get it played at a church, class, or even in a prison and hold a discussion about incarceration in the United States.


Thousand Kites Team

Phone: (606) 633-0108Email: Thousand Kites, a national dialogue project on the U.S. criminal justice system. Look for our new website in mid-December. "

I don't know any more than this, except that the US has the largest prison population by percentage of any industriaized nation, and that it can't be too enjoyable to be in there, maybe especially at holiday time. And yes, lots of those people are rapists and murderers and so on, who deserve to be there. But some are people who got arrested with two pot cigarettes or whatever, or who go convicted of crimes they didn't commit, or even--imagine!--who have repented.

If anyone knows any more about this, I'm curious.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Back online!

Well, hello there. For the past 17 days I've been unable to access this blog, whether for technical reasons or political ones, I don't know. My good pal Margaret has done a couple postings for me from the USA, and I hit a net cafe a couple days ago. But that's all behind me now. I hope. Great!

Let's review recent developments:

1. Musharraf has resigned as Chief of Army. (In theory, good; in practice, so what? He's amended the Constitution--y'know, the one he suspended--so that he can't be prosecuted for anything he's done as President, nor can he be deposed.)

2. Moosh has also announced elections on January 8. (In theory, good; in practice, hmm. The opposition parties are discussing whether to take part, or to boycott. The fear is the elections will be rigged, quite a likely scenario. If they are, and the opposition contests them only to "lose," they will be contributing a veneer of credibility to Moosh's "victory." Whereas if they don't participate at all, the elections will plainly lack credibility from the get-go.)

3. Some people are still in jail for protesting the emergency. (Bad)

4. Other people are out of jail and/or house arrest, including Benazir, Asma Jehangir, and Imran Khan, while Nawaz Sharif has returned from exile--again--and is being allowed to stay this time. (In theory, this is all good, but see #2 above. Apart from Asma, these are all politicians, and they may or may not contest the election anyway.)

5. Pakistan is getting absolutely demolished by India in the ongoing cricket series. (Very very bad, both in theory and--especially--practice.)

6. Uzee saw bee-eaters on the front balcony the other day. (Very very good.)

There is, in theory, the chance that I will be appearing on National Public radio's "All Things Considered" program in the weeks ahead as part of some sort of "books and holidays" series of broadcasts. I don't know much about it, but stay tuned. In the meantime, you can amuse yourself with my article on if you haven't already(see the entry below) and also Uzee's blog with its numerous interesting articles (address on the sidebar). And of course, don't forget the poll at the bottom of this page!

Next time: a little bit about Monster, 1959.