One afternoon a few weeks ago, I joined in with a small demonstration that has been held on Monday afternoons at the top of Solano Avenue. Our friend Harry Brill has been the organizer. That’s Harry, beside me. Behind us are members of the Occupella singing group. It’s called the “Tax the Rich” demonstration. It has some persistence: nearly 5 years now, I believe. Mostly retired professors and teachers. Turns out, according to my surgeon, I shouldn’t have been out walking so much, so that was an anomaly. Since then I’ve not gone on so many walks. It’s more important to do my exercises than try to walk distances.
My knees get better all the time, but it is really slow. Apparently the pain should be pretty much gone at the end of 3 months, or 6, depending on whom you talk to; the healing really takes a year (now they tell me). The body experiences this kind of surgery like a serious car accident. I mainly do my exercises and read. California is enjoying a big storm, two weeks of steady rain, some strong winds. We joke that it’s like Seattle.
What I Am Reading
I didn’t want to read anything long until 4 weeks after the surgery, which took place on November 22, the day Kennedy was assassinated. Up until then, it was mostly The London Review of Books, etc.
But now, early January, I have a longer attention span. Here are some of the books spread out on chairs, floor, sofas and coffee table in the living room.
I will divide them into three kinds. First, books about Viet Nam written by Vietnamese-American authors. Second, books by Svetlana Alexeivitch, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Third, books I read or listen to as audio books, to relax.
Books by Vietnamese-American Authors
These books give me views of Viet Nam from the perspective of Viet-Kieu, or “overseas Vietnamese.” They in turn help me understand the perspective of Vietnamese we met in Viet Nam who were from South Vietnamese families that had worked for the French or the Americans, or who had come to South Vietnam from the North after 1956 (Catholics, but not only Catholics – Nationalists were among these); they illuminate the attitudes of people who, for whatever other reason, did not flee or escape to the US.
If I think of a triangle with someone at each point, one point would be us, US citizens from the anti-war generation, remembering the 1970s and visiting in 2015; a second point would be the Vietnamese we met there, born in 1995 or 2000, mostly three generations away from the war (noticeably absent are the voices of the Vietnamese generation that corresponds to ours; and the third point would be the ‘overseas” Vietnamese, the ones who made it over to the US after 1975. These books fill in some background on that third point. They help me understand the passionate hunger of young Vietnamese, including our students, to become “global people,” along with the push at TDTU to learn and speak English. I also feel I can better appreciate the moment when, last January, one of our Ton Duc Thang students, a girl with a beautiful voice, sang “Hello, Vietnam” to the Cornell students, one of whom was a Viet-Kieu. I remember the heart-struck expression on his face as he watched he and listened to her.
Nguyen, Viet Than. 2016. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Harvard University Press. This book, which is a collection of essays or meditations, is better than his Pulitzer winning mystery/spy novel, The Sympathizer, but still not very good. See my blog entry on The Sympathizer from last winter. Nguyen is a Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC. His writing feels like literary philosophizing. One chapter, On Becoming Human, is about going to the War Museum of Korea, in Seoul. He chooses to focus on the exhibit that depicts the role of the Korean military in Viet Nam. His critique has some edge; it would be a measure against which to compare at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. After reading Pham’s books, which are much tougher and stronger, I feel as if I understand why Nguyen seemed cautious when being interviewed about his Pulitzer, insisting, for example, that he was writing for the Vietnamese community, not for the general public.
Pham, Andrew X. 2008. The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars. Harmony House (part of Crown Books). This feels close to being a book you could trust to be a true story. It’s sufficiently full of accidents, contradictions, and choices made under conditions of insufficient information, so that I didn’t feel as if I am being pandered to. It’s the story of Pham’s father who grew up in the North, in a wealthy Nationalist family; was re-grouped to the South in 1955-56, got drafted into the South Vietnamese army, witnessed every kind of heroism and corruption, kindness and cruelty, spent time in a re-education/labor camp and then escaped in a boat with his family to America. This book was not available for sale on museum bookshelves in Viet Nam.
Pham, Andrew X. 1999. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the landscape and memory of Viet Nam. Picador Press: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Much of this overlaps with The Eaves of Heaven, but it’s a rougher, more brutal book. The story of the father is woven together with the story of Pham who, as a young man who has grown up in San Jose, California, decides to ride his bike north from San Francisco, down Japan, and through Viet Nam. With enough detail to make it seem as if he’s working from the daily notes in a journal, he takes us from Saigon to Hanoi, through the various towns that he knew as a child – Vang Tau, Phan Thiet where he was born, Nha Trang Hoi An, and others. It’s both a bike-riding adventure and a young man’s search for identity story, and it’s powerful and good in both ways. He’s writing about Viet Nam in about 1996, just after the embargo has been lifted but before the opening of the economy to market capitalism had really taken hold. He describes poverty that is much worse than what Joe and I saw last year. The question of how the war has dropped a knife between him, his family, young men of his age group –whether Vietnamese or not – and older Vietnamese rises behind every encounter, whether it’s with corrupt police, girls selling themselves as prostitutes, other European travellers. He goes into great detail about what he eats, where he sleeps, how his stomach handles or doesn’t handle the food and water. Despite being a personal history and a bike riding adventure, two genres that don’t usually build into a revelation, this does.
Some stories only get a chapter or a bit more: one example of a story that looms larger than what he tells us is a quick view of a monster Colonel, father of one of Pham’s girlfriends, a bully who wants to rouse the Vietnamese peasantry into revolt – and who seems to have shown up again in Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning book. Another powerful, necessarily incomplete story is that of his older sister, Chi, who runs away into the streets as a teenager and becomes a man named Minh.
Lam, Andrew. 2010 East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. Heyday Press. Back in the 1980’s I was teaching English at what is now Berkeley City College. People could take classes there that would count toward a more expensive degree at UCB, just up the street, so many students were getting rid of their requirements at BCC. One of my students was a young Vietnamese man who wrote a memoir essay that was at least in part about his grandfather’s home in Viet Nam – verandas overlooking rice paddies, the graves of ancestors in the fields. I remember telling him how good it was, and then as months and hears went by, seeing his name in different places – the Nation magazine, for example, and on NPR. Years passed. Now I’m reading a lot about Viet Nam and I get a lot of books out of the library. I open this one, thinking, “I’ll bet this is that kid I had in class thirty years ago.” So I open up a chapter in this book and there he is, saying, “After reading one of my short stories, Helen, my first creative writing teacher, decided that I was to be a writer.” This is on page 39. When I read this, I shouted out loud and passed the book over to Joe.
I have another book by Andrew Lam: Perfume Dreams. Short essays, very well written, about what it is like to be Vietnamese American. From what I can see, this book is a lot like East Eats West. I am glad I didn’t read these books before going to Viet Nam, however.
Svetlana Alexeivich, interviews
The second category of books helps me deal with the election of Donald Trump. These are two books by Svetlana Alexievitch. They are about another period of rapid, profound transition, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Nothing I was reading right after the election that was written for periodicals seemed to go far enough into the real darkness unleashed by the Trump election; it was as if they were written fast, to fill pages that were unexpectedly left blank. They revealed that no one – at least no one who writes for the things I read – really believed Trump would win. But Alexievich really goes there.
Alexeivitch, Svetlana. 2016. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, an Oral History. Random House. These are interviews with people who lived during the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, done between 1991 and 2012 to capture the experience of a whole nation that was taking itself apart piece by piece. This is better than typical Studs Terkel interview collections. They are arranged and edited with a stronger hand (you don’t get the feeling that she’s just typing up a tape recording). I can’t think of anything comparable, anywhere. She does some long (60) page interviews and some chapters that are collections of brief excerpts from interviews. She’s got everyone from low-level Communist Party apparatchiks to guards at labor camps to professors to farmers. There are people who are doing well, making big money in the new economy, and people who are heartbroken at the loss of the society they thought they were building.
She won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, but not for Secondhand Time.
Alexeivitch opens Secondhand Time with the following sentences (page 3):
Communism had an insane plan: to remake the “old breed of man,” ancient Adam. And it really worked…Perhaps it was communism’s only achievement. Seventy plus years in the Marxist-Leninist laboratory gave rise to a new man: homo sovieticus. Some see him as a tragic figure; others call him a sovok. I feel like I know this person…. We’re easy to spot! People who come out of socialism are both like and unlike the rest of humanity…
Homo sovieticus: a person who could be both the local union president and the HR manager of a company. Another reason I want to know what people watching the Soviet Union fall apart had to say is because a curriculum like the one we were originally asked to use at Ton Duc Thang, that teaches students to be good at sport, love education, work hard, be more productive workers and join the union, is the kind of curriculum that would have been designed for that new socialist man, homo sovieticus. It’s not inconsistent with the fact that many of the older professors in universities we visited had received their PhD’s in Russia.
Training students to become homo sovieticus would be fine if Viet Nam were still socialist, or if these students were not going to be working for FDI firms from Japan, South Korea, Australia, the US and elsewhere. But since our students are going to be working, mostly, in firms that compete in the context of global capitalism, we have to teach them why, if they are union leaders, they can’t also be human resource managers, or vice versa. We have to teach them to begin their understanding of industrial relations by assuming that there is class conflict. Homo Sovieticus would get smashed in contemporary US-style industrial situations. We have to teach them how to advocate for workers and fight to keep the share of the productivity that they deserve, and not assume that the employer has their best interests at heart, or that they are part of a big family that will take care of them, or that socialism will provide for them according to their needs if they contribute according to their abilities.
Another book: Alexeivitch, Svetlana. 2011. Voices from Chernobyl. This is the only book I’ve read in recent months that goes as far into the dark as our whole country has gone politically. This is really a book for the end of times. She puts great art into the editing and pacing of these over 100 interviews so the book has a cumulative rhythm and logic.
The landscape around Chernobyl sounds like western Connecticut; pretty, orchards, small mountains, valleys, little rivers flowing into a bigger river, rich fields full of vegetables, corn and potatoes. But the houses are empty. Chernobyl blew in 1986, under Gorbachev. Today, a lot of the poisoned houses are actually inhabited, by people fleeing the many other wars in Chechnya Tajikistan, Afghanistan. Why not? Everything looks as if it’s fine. Even some birds have come back.
An aside: The descriptions of re-occupied Chernobyl reminded me of Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, in which LeGuin describes a civilization that has started to reconstitute itself. One out of four children are born “sith,” or disabled in some way, and we assume it comes from a nuclear or toxic chemical disaster a few generations ago.
The New Socialist Man and the Harvard Russian Project
Alexeivich’s words about homo sovieticus, or socialist man, reminded me of a treasure trove of an archive that I stumbled upon twenty or thirty years ago when I was trying to figure out how the work of the Soviet psychologist, L.S. Vygotsky, came to the US. There was a relationship between my professor at Harvard, Jerome Bruner, and Vygotsky. Bruner had introduced the just-published first collection of Vygotsky’s work into his social relations class as part of general ongoing support of academic exchange across borders and cultures about psychology. I happened to take that class, back in 1961.
Bruner himself had been part of the Harvard Russian Project. This project was a response to the fact that, following WWII, thousands of Soviet academics and intellectuals were among the waves of refugees pouring into the West, mainly Germany, where they found housing in refugee camps as displaced persons. They came from all over, but mostly Belorussia, Ukraine, and Great Russia. This created the opportunity for a “natural experiment.” The capitalist west, looking ahead into the decades of the Cold War, needed to know if they were facing a different kind of person.
The Harvard Russian Project asked if the changed economic and cultural relationships of socialism could have produced a different psychology that could actually be called “socialist man.” Over 700 people were interviewed. These interviews, along with supplementary materials, ended up in this archive that is now on line.
Another person to look is Raymond Bauer, who was part of that project and became a professor at Harvard Business School. His papers related to the Harvard refugee interview projects are at;
I read a book of his many years ago, which I am trying to find now. His answer to the question, “Is there such a thing as the “new socialist man?” was yes. I am trying to find that book. What I can see online right now is a different book by him, from MIT Press: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/nine-soviet-portraits. This book portrays nine Soviet role types which he says are “the crucial group to examine in order to appreciate the problems of social control in the Soviet Union.
Finally, books I am reading to relax
Ghodsee, Kristen. 2015 The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfullfilled promise of communism in Eastern Europe. Duke University Press. This unusual book wraps together at least two stories (I’m about half way through). One is the story of EP Thomson’s brother, Frank, who was in the British military and as a Communist managed to get assignments that eventually brought him to travelling and fighting with a Communist partisan group in the mountains of Bulgaria, supposedly preparing the people to welcome the Russian Army when it showed up from the east (I also remember seeing a movie about this, where the Russians show up and everyone is happy until they start looting and raping). Letters from Thompson to Iris Murdoch (of all people) and others were in an archive that the author was able to get into; she also got into archives in Bulgaria where she found documents related to the partisan group that Thompson was connected to. One of the leaders of this group was a girl who was still alive when Ghodsee was doing her research, and many pages include transcripts of interviews with this woman, Elena Lagadinova. The book is much more concrete than the title suggests.
Mann, Thomas. 1924. The Magic Mountain. Vintage, translation Woods, 1995. Alyosha gave this to me to read while I recover. I read it once many years ago and seem to remember bailing mid-book. I think it is supposed to be funny. I think you are supposed to laugh out loud. In fact, today this book would probably be a graphic novel. Every scene is described so clearly, even to the postures and gestures of the individuals involved in a conversation, that you can picture them. But the whole thing is so ironic: Hans Castorp, swaddled in his fur sleeping bag and camels’ hair blankets, taking his nightly rest cure by the orange glow of his table lamp, out on the balcony overlooking the lights of Davos-Platz, high in the Alps.
And then there are Audio Books
Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath. Likes to play with ideas that touch down near sciences, statistics, technology. Good for listening to while exercising.
July, Miranda. 2015? The First Bad Man. I stopped in the middle of this one. Narrator is a masochist.
Mantel, Hilary. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Three jewel-like, perfectly written, uncomfortable and chilling stories.
Pratchett, Terry. Dodger. I will read almost anything by Terry Pratchett. This seems to be a sort of young adult novel. One of the characters in it is Charles Dickens, who uses Dodger to solve a mystery. I have also down loaded Going Postal, which I have read once, and the Science of Discworld, which seems to be a serious science series.
Smiley, Jane. Early Warning: An Iowa Family Saga. This is organized like a diary. Takes a whole Iowa family from one end of the 1950s through the 1980s. I listened to this while doing exercises down in the back yard, where the sun shines hot even on a cold day. I also listened to it while going to sleep. The idea might have been pretty powerful, but if you are writing a book that bridges a generation, you have the opportunity to choose something that barely penetrates public consciousness when it starts, but then has a life-or-death consequence twenty years later. You can show how events don’t just happen and pass away, they carve out the future. Smiley completely misses this. It’s as if she googled the headlines for each year and makes sure that one of her characters is on the periphery of some famous events – the Moratorium march, the Jim Jones massacre, the farm crisis. But a dozen years later, these events have not left a mark.
Another photo of the Tax The Rich demonstration. I have heard that there is more civil society organizing going on these days in the US than anyone has ever documented in the past. Makes sense, but you have to organize among people who are not like yourselves.