Power vs Empathy: Yapa’s debut novel

Your Heart is a MuscleI’m looking forward to more from Sunil Yapa. His debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, is thought-provoking and heartbreaking.

Yapa takes us back to Seattle, 1999, on the first day of the WTO meeting and the protests that turned into the “Battle of Seattle.” Using multiple points of view, he delves into the question of what it means to empathize, and how empathy can leave you vulnerable or make you strong. We witness three police officers, two protesters, one witness-cum-protester, and one WTO delegate’s perspectives as the day progresses.

The topic is utterly relevant today, with the continued unrest and protests that began with the WTO protests back in 1999. I’m thinking of Naomi Klein’s most recent book, This Changes Everything – how relevant the movement of what some saw as “spoiled hippies” is in terms of continued climate devastation and economic inequality, both domestically and globally.

While I recommend the novel, there are definitely some issues. For me, the novel should have ended after chapter 42 – the epilogue seems like something a publisher pushed to add on and leaves a saccharine sweetness that doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the novel. The perspective changes have a few hiccups with at least two chapters with an omniscient narration – which takes the reader out of the flow.

Looking forward to more, as the novel is utterly thought-provoking and the pacing is pretty spot on perfect. A few melodramatic and uneven spots.

Ptolemy Grey, physician-assisted suicide, and the Kantian question of the future

This conversation is one of the things I like about my job. I wish more people could have these kinds of discussions. Perhaps we wouldn’t be so averse to real questions of end-of-life decision-making if more people had time and luxury of thinking about the big questions.

I’ll just add that Danielle was a hold off too on this point – the podcast will release on Monday so you can hear the whole debate.

Lisa Schweitzer

Yesterday we had our Bedrosian Center book group discussion of the Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley. I am a great fan of Mosley’s writing in general, and this book has become one of my favorites. It is a very difficult book because of its complexity and tone, which is sad.

I brought up what I considered to be the central policy issue in the book–there are many–and I was surprised to discover that I was the only reader who viewed the central decision in the book to be about physician-assisted suicide. In short: Mr. Grey is 91 years old at the start of the book, and he is confused. He has been suffering dementia for some time, and he is living in squalor, among things he inexplicably hoards. He can’t seem to understand much of what is going on around him, but he does understand that his…

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8 film companions for the great Drought

So … reading Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner was intense. The great and terrible history of the American quest to tame the desert is one in which the intentions never matched the outcomes. It added one more thing to my guilt load. Discussing this with a few other women, we had the same reoccurring thought “what should we do?”

I don’t know. I live in Los Angeles and I LOVE it. Los Angeles is an amazing, vibrant, scary, surreal, beautiful … dry, dusty, desert city. I conserve water. Am, as I can afford it, re-gardening with native (read: drought tolerant) plants. But I’m one of millions. The answer will have to come from us as a civilization. We have so much work to do.

So lets put our collective minds together and solve this. Don’t have time to read Cadillac Desert? Take a few hours and watch these films that address some of the broader issues we face:

Young Ones (2014) is an intense family drama set in the near future and water is scarce. So many elements of Reisner’s story are captured in this atmospheric tale. Some large political machination work to divert water to the wealthy city, while small farmers must strive in the dust to try to carve some sort of safety and save their land. pointlessness the struggle is what really brings the parallels to the surface. Maybe one year there will be water for the crops, but what about the next? Or the next? Our own vast history in the west exemplified by one family’s struggle. Strong performances by Michael Shannon and Nicholas Hoult make this worth watching. When I first watched it, I would have given it 3 out of 5 stars – after having read Cadillac Desert … I give it 4.5. Water and our constant need to tame the land, the futility of the effort, and ultimately the destruction that comes about because of it. (on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video)

Solarbabies (1986) is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. A 1980s film for sure. A group of kids in a state-run orphanage in another near future, must use their special skate-ball skills (like a cross between lacrosse and roller derby) to fight the evil Warden (played by Charles Durning) and the even more evil company who has stolen the water and scorched the Earth. Our evil corporation leaders are played by Richard Jordan, who will show up later in this post, and Sarah Douglas who is perhaps best known for her role as Ursa in Superman II. The intrepid kids are led by Jami Gertz and Jason Patrick – 80s fans will recognize the pairing. They follow the youngest team member’s (sigh, Lukas Haas) hunch that the magic orb they find will help free them from the Warden and free the water the corporation keeps behind a great dam wall. The image of the dam breaking at the end, water gushing out and the formerly enslaved kids frolicking in the waves might be a little cheesy but it strikes me as fitting that this movie came out the same year as Cadillac Desert. Were we really beginning to think more deeply about our relationship to water? (on Amazon Instant Video)

If so, I wonder why we’ve done so little. NO answer. This is a fun movie. It may not have held the test of time, though I, having been a teen when seeing it the first time, still love this. It makes me giggle every time.

Even before Solarbabies was David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune (1984). You’ll meet plenty of people who think this film was a travesty. I am not one of them. This is a gorgeous and quite brilliant adaptation of the novel and I love every second of it. A young man must step up to lead a great army of desert warriors against an enemy that assassinates his father and would steal the planet (Arrakis) and its vital resource: Spice. I’m listing this here because of the desert people’s relationship with water. Rather than adapt the land to the need, the people adapt to the land. I imagine some time in the future, LA fashion will involve special suits to recycle our pee. We’re already talking about recycling our sewer water … Frank Herbert. Futurist. (on Amazon Instant Video)

Of course I have to include Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) on this list. Ostensibly this movie is about power and survival in a lawless future world in which powerful overlords keep humanity in check by consolidating resources. The villain, Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, recognizable from the original films in the Mad Max oeuvre) rules with an iron fist, and sole control of water. It’s one of the more striking images from the trailers – water gushing to the parched land and people below from great skull-like windows of the mountain dam. Water here is both literal and a metaphor for freedom. If you haven’t seen this yet, it’s an amazing film. It’s an action film that also got a bit of plot and is gorgeous to look at. (Theaters near you … )

O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) represents a bit of a change of pace. This retelling of the “Odyssey” is set during the great depression. Effects of the Dust Bowl which bombarded the west penetrated the country – and the building of great public works were  both a way to get people to work and bring much-needed water and power to the ever-expanding population. Ulysses, played by George Clooney, escapes from prison and the film follows his epic journey home to find hidden loot. Along the way, Ulysses and his clumsy companions are met with many water and man-made obstacles, including sirens along the river and a house soon to be flooded as a new dam opens. (Stream it on Amazon Instant Video)

Chinatown (1974) uses the crazy story of how Los Angeles stole water from the Owens Valley as backdrop for a typically LA noir murder. Corruption, greed, land grabs, and murder … all related to the thirsty city’s water supply. This classic stars Jack Nicolson and Faye Dunaway, and if you haven’t yet seen it, do.

What’s striking about this list so far is how white it is. We really have work to do, don’t we … especially since the story of water in America includes the vast dehumanization and destruction of indigenous lands and water.

The Cherokee Word for Water (2013) is set in the 1980s and focuses on a woman’s drive to help the Cherokee Nation reclaim water for the community, where many houses lacked running water (yes, even in the 1980s). While more a biopic, this important film touches on some important water rights issues. Native American water rights are hardly touched upon in Cadillac Desert, Reisner may have been more of an environmentalist than a humanist. This film looks at the community (Available on iTunes)

To cool you off, here’s a reminder that not all of the Western land should be inhabited by humans. Craters of the Moon (2011) is described as a horror film, it’s the story of a couple who get lost and then stuck in the middle of the deserts of Idaho. Where the landscape and each other become the horror, not some monster or evil corporation. I haven’t found this streaming yet, but look for it soon … and if you happen to be in LA on November 12-22, 2015, it’ll screen at the Red Nation Film Festival.


What’s your favorite water conscious film?

Review: Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner

Marc Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert covers the history of water in the Western United States. The book looks at the first white explorers to the grand dams, powerplants, and canals of the US Bureau of Reclamation. Reisner took great pains to document the political machinations through 1986. It is a deep dive into the transformation of the American West from a desert not fit for human life to an agricultural and urban behemoth.

Reisner didn’t hide his opinion: “The drought itself, which may end up a more costly disaster than all of these combined, qualifies best as punishment meted out to an impudent culture by an indignant God.” He felt that careerist bureaucrats, bloated land barons, greedy politicians “tamed” the wild rivers of the West in the search for cheap water and money. As the free and plentiful water drew more and more people to the desert, the plenty of it became more and more challenged. Surprisingly, not much has changed in the realm of water & the West in the last 30 years. The issues have gotten more pressing as groundwater depletion worsened through years of drought. The state of California is only now taking some of the ideas in this book into accord. But water remains prioritized to farms. Farms which left to nature would be “reclaimed” by the desert in the blink of an eye. Population growth in the Southwest exacerbate the problem to an immeasurable degree. 

What struck me through reading was how little has changed. Through a rigged political system, a few wealthy white men pull strings to make their accounts larger, and work in concert with the to affect outcomes in such a grand scale. While we can give most of the people involved the benefit of the doubt, the problems multiply as they try to solve one water issue. Dams work for so long … and then they don’t. Irrigation of the desert might not have been the country’s finest idea. 

So what do we do next?

On Such a Full Sea

a novel by Chang-rae Lee

This podcast contains spoilers – how do you talk about this amazing novel without talking about it?

One thing we didn’t get to talk about is the nature of the narration in terms of what is actually known in the novel and what is the narrator making up. What are the stories we tell ourselves? How do they both give us hope and keep us compliant in an unhealthy world filled with inequality?

The “we” of Lee’s novel can only say for sure that Fan left B-Mor (and what a lovely name, be more … what? Dutiful? Compliant?). Once she leaves, there seems to be little evidence that they could actually follow her journey. So they ask themselves, why did she leave duty and home and safety, and what will she face outside these walls?

This novel takes scissors to so many cultural knots … my whole world view unravels in the face of this “we” who both need the hope of escape and the safety of what they know.

A Neighborhood That Never Changes

NeighborhoodCoverThis is a podcast that I produce at USC, this edition features Raphael Bostic, Sarah Mawhorter, Brettany Shannon, David Sloane, and Tess Thorman

We chose the book A Neighborhood That Never Changesby Japonica Brown-Saracino and explore how nostalgia and authenticity play a role in how people move into and out of neighborhoods. Brown-Saracino studies residents in four different neighborhoods, redefines types of newcomers and how they interact with the standing neighborhood and neighbors. This ethnography, while not the easiest read, has much to say to people who are interested in the places they live. Place does matter – and what happens when you move into a place. What happens to the “feel” and “physicality” of the neighborhood? Who else does your decision affect?

To listen to the Bedrosian Book Club Podcast discussion of A Neighborhood That Never Changes, click the orange arrow in the Soundcloud player at the top of this post. Or you can download it and subscribe to the through Soundcloud or iTunes!

Next Month …

17707526Tune in next time for a conversation about On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee – the acclaimed novel set in an unsettling near future. This brilliant novel will begin a two month-long look at how envisioning the future is necessary to thinking about the present, and in our line of work, planning for a better future. I planned to be a discussant on this edition – this is a favorite read from last year, but it turns out that I’ll be away for a bit and have to miss it. But you’ll get to meet Jeremy, our amazing student who graduates this year – his last hurrah.

The On Such a Full Sea episode will air at the end of May, read along and share your thoughts on Facebook. Email me if you want to join the Facebook group!