The Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank lacht naar de schoolfotograaf

…I seem to have everything, except my one true friend.  All I think about when I’m with friends is having a good time.  I can’t bring myself to talk about anything but ordinary everyday things.  We don’t seem to be able to get any closer, and that’s the problem.

As I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time, two things really struck me.  The first was that humans, ordinary humans, can turn cruel so quickly and completely.  The second was that, even as an adult, I could see pieces of my own life in Anne’s, because her writing, in so many ways, is ageless.

It’s one of the most famous memoirs of all time, so many people know the story: a Jewish family in Holland is compelled to go into hiding after the Nazi takeover, and the youngest daughter records their experiences in her diary.  I had heard much about the book but put off reading it, due to my emotional experience with similar memoirs (The Hiding Place, Night, and From the Ashes of Sobibor).  Though different in scope and perspective from those other books, The Diary is every bit as emotional and, while difficult to put down, cannot be read lightly.

Anne’s first entries show the Frank family before they went into hiding, making the best life they could under an increasingly oppressive police state.  When she was about twelve, Anne and her sister were forced to transfer to the Jewish Lyceum school due to segregation by Nazi mandate.  Always intent to be cheerful, she writes joyfully of her friends and admirers at the new school.  Of the discrimination against Jews – from harsh curfews to exclusion from public transportation – she writes very matter-of-factly, in a bluntness that carries through the rest of the diary.

Even at thirteen, when she began writing, Anne seemed to have a sense for what was important to record; later, she told her imaginary friend “Kitty” that she wanted to become a writer or journalist when she grew up.  What results is a fascinating combination of personal (even intimate) anecdotes and journalistic writing about the family’s day-to-day activities and the progress of the war. 

The Frank family was not alone; they shared the “Secret Annex” with the van Daan family and a middle-aged bachelor, Mr. Dussel.  For two years, the eight people were cooped up together in the tiny hidden rooms, fearful of making noise or being seen by the outside world.  Understandably, tempers often ran high.  Much of the book covers the conflict between Anne and everyone else, as it seems (at least from her perspective) she was frequently the target of the grown-ups’ frustrations.  In the Definitive Edition which I read, even the arguments between Anne and her mother are included.  The whole dynamic is extremely believable, and I would imagine the situation caused the majority of the friction between people who would otherwise have got along pretty well.

What is most enduring to me about Anne’s diary is just that: its honesty.  There’s the day-to-day dramas, traumas, and bathroom jokes, which make the characterizations so real.  Then there’s the introspection, self-analysis, and over-analysis which ring true for a girl in her early teens.  Anne’s desire to be taken seriously and understood is something I could so well relate to at that age, and reading it now was like a flashback to my own diary.  Less relatable for me was her enthusiasm about puberty and “growing up,” but I think a lot of other readers would be able to relate to that.

There were many great quotes, but I wanted to end with one that I found especially insightful, as well as chilling:

I don’t believe the war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists.  Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago!  There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder, and kill.  And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!
– May 3, 1944

The Frank family, the van Daans, and Mr. Dussel were eventually captured on August 4, 1944. Anne and her sister Margot were separated from their parents and, within about six months, had been murdered through the terrible conditions in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor.

As I remember Anne Frank and her family, I also pray for those who are suffering persecution today, such as Pastor Wang Yi.  We shouldn’t forget that history is repeating itself, even today, all over the world.

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains – Penguin Great Journeys

I knew Isabella Bird was a Victorian solo traveler, who had visited far-off places such as China on her own. What I didn’t know was what a great writer she actually was.

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains contains excerpts from her book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879). Surprisingly for a travelogue, here you’ll find a variety of experiences and emotions – from courage and trepidation to hilarity and friendship. I was really impressed by Isabella’s fearlessness, paired with her knitting needles and an honest confession of her physical weaknesses. Still, this middle-aged lady exhibits far more stamina than I could ever dream of, whether it’s braving out the freezing cold in a cabin or helping cowboys round up their cattle! Through it all, she focuses on the exhilarating beauty of the Rocky Mountain landscape, which is the subject of all her voluntary hardships and a lesson to all of us (privileged to travel comfortably) not to take it for granted.

Among other quirky characters, Mr. “Mountain Jim” Nugent features frequently: a handsome, rugged desperado who is determined Isabella shall achieve her goal of climbing Pikes Peak, Colorado. Behind the genteel prose, it’s clear Ms. Bird and Mountain Jim have a thing for each other, but Jim’s criminal past and alcoholism makes it a futile (and bittersweet) romance.

Modern readers should know that Isabella was a person of her time in many ways, so there are some derogatory references to Native and African Americans early in the book. Interestingly, in a later letter, she does strongly condemn the way the U.S. government treated the Native Americans (p. 93–94).

In both history and human element, Adventures in the Rocky Mountains packs a lot of punch for a mere collection of excerpts. When I got to the end, I regretted not having read the full original, and I probably will someday. Recommended if you want to read an eye-witness account of the Old West from a unique perspective.

The Cobra’s Heart – Penguin Great Journeys

The Cobra’s Heart is a succinct yet expansive book about a Polish journalist’s experiences and observations in 20th-century Africa.  Just under 100 pages, it’s merely an excerpt of Ryszard Kapuściński’s full-length book, The Shadow of the Sun.  Upon finishing it, I was happy to find the full version already on my to-read list (added, though forgotten apparently, in 2013) as well as pleasantly surprised that this miniature made me want to read the full book.

Though the titular chapter – in which the author has a close call with a deadly cobra – is interesting enough, it’s the historical-political anecdotes that I found the most intriguing.  In “I, a White Man,” he talks about the feeling of apartheid in Dar es Salaam, a coastal city in Tanzania which encompasses neighborhoods from the comfortable, predominantly white Oyster Bay to the dry, dusty African suburbs away from the water.  He explains how, upon the eventual departure of the Europeans, a new elite class emerged which continued to exploit the common people and led to events such as the 1966 military coup d’etat in Nigeria. In “Amin,” Kapuściński paints a portrait of Idi Amin, the notoriously brutal dictator of Uganda in the 70s.

The fishermen threw their catch onto a table, and when the onlookers saw it, they grew still and silent. The fish was fat, enormous . . . Everyone knew that for a long time now Amin’s henchmen had been dumping the bodies of their victims in the lake, and that crocodiles and meat-eating fish must have been feasting on them. The crowd remained quiet.

Kapuściński has a great writing style, descriptive but not too wordy or overly “clever.” Some reviewers have described his full-length book as too bleak or negative.  I can’t speak to that (yet), but I think these excerpts show someone with real interest in the subject and empathy with the people he is describing.

Lord of the Flies Revisited

William Golding 1983
William Golding – [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl],
via Wikimedia Commons

However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.

Earlier this year, I considered the question “What Is a Classic?”, in part as a mental exercise and in part to determine what I could reasonably talk about on my podcast.  With a detour to Ishiguro, my general conclusion was that classics are determined by the culture, and as “the culture” in a generic sense becomes surpassed by infinite subcultures, the classics will eventually consist of whatever disparate books are revered by those subcultures.

If you’re still with me… I didn’t really talk about the books I, as a subculture of one, consider to be classics.  If I created a personal list of classics, it would not be equivalent to my “axes” or favorites, though there’d likely be some overlap.  I guess that’s because I see the former list evolving as my values evolve, and the latter list comprising fixed milestones.  Anyways, more on that later.

I first read Lord of the Flies as assigned reading, around the age of 13, I think.  I was a faster reader back then, with a higher tolerance of grim plots, having binge-read most of Agatha Christie in my tweens.  That’s not to say I wasn’t disturbed by Lord of the Flies.  But the finer points of the novel were lost on me, and due to the subject matter I wasn’t itching to pick it up again until very recently.

For those who don’t know the premise: A massive war – either WWII or its successor – is being fought, and in the middle of this, a plane full of British boys is shot down over the ocean.  It crashes horrifically on a desert island, leaving the boys without any technology, supplies, or communication with the outside world.  To their mixed terror and delight, they are also left without any grown-ups to tell them what to do.

In an effort to survive, the boys begin organizing themselves, and soon there are two factions: the introspective Ralph, his reluctant sidekick “Piggy,” and all those who follow the rule of the conch shell, versus the aggressive Jack and his loyal following of ex-choir boys.  What begins as a game morphs into a very real battle for resources, shelter, and, most importantly, power.  At the same time, sightings of an ambiguous yet terrifying enemy – known as the Beast – further divide the survivors.

Reading this short novel as an adult, I found much to unpack in the story and so many angles you can read it from.  What had been particularly lost on me as a younger reader was the buildup of horrors from the very beginning.  Something awful happens in nearly every chapter, but if you’re not reading carefully, you might not realize the weight of it.

In chapter one, we have the crash of the plane and the brutal albeit “off-screen” death of the pilot.  In chapter two, “Piggy” is denigrated to being a nonperson, the object of cruel jokes, while the disappearances of several little boys – and the cause of their disappearance – is a tragedy just alluded to.  In chapter three, there is Simon, probably suffering from trauma, who goes off to hide by himself.  This is just the beginning of the book; already the moral breakdown is in motion.

Golding’s style is masterful in both its approach and its execution.  The book is written in third-person but clearly from Ralph’s perspective.  While we have the benefit of an omniscient narrator, we’re also left with the raw, flawed lens of Ralph’s experience.  That is why we are never told Piggy’s real name, and why we always see Jack as if he were standing beside us, but not as if we were inside his head.  The one exception to this is Simon, through whose eyes we are confronted with the most primal horrors of the island, except at the ultimate crisis.  We are “stuck” with Ralph, and through this limitation of the narrative, feel sharply his misery of being stuck on the island.

While Lord of the Flies is a potent human drama, it’s clear from the subtext this is an allegory about the world more than about an island, and about adults more than about boys.  The biggest crime in the book is there is no civilization to return to.  The physical and psychological machinery of WWII has destroyed whatever respect for human life had existed before, while at the same time, Ralph discovers the intrinsic violence of mankind, which depending on your viewpoint is traceable to either evolutionary adaptation or original sin.

Overall I was deeply impressed and still believe Lord of the Flies is a true classic.  The writing alone made me want to drop everything and read everything by William Golding as soon as I can.  Certainly, I’ll be looking for other books by him in the near future.

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping – Thoughts & Review, Part 3

How does one become the President of China?

If the electoral college seems at times hard to fathom, an election in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is even more esoteric.  According to Kerry Brown, author of CEO, China and former diplomat, the rise of Xi Jinping to the supreme leadership role in China “belonged more to the realm of magic than political science” (p. 92).  The process by which Xi replaced Hu Jintao (2003–2013) was unlike a democratic election, in part because it required a consensus amongst the Party: a one-party state cannot be seen as divided.  This image of unity is one which brought Xi to power and which continues to challenge him as he seeks to maintain that power.

(Note: This is a multi-part review, though each part can be read on its own.  Please see Part I and Part II, if you’d like to read more.)

Defense.gov photo essay 110110-F-6655M-017
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, 2011 –
by Jerry Morrison

Coincidence and Conviction

Xi’s life has been filled with the unexpected – from privileges as the young son of a lauded communist fighter, to harassment in the hands of Red Guard youth, and finally a prestigious career as a provincial manager and globally wise leader.  Was it all luck, or was there something he did to further his appointment as the core leader of China?

From Brown (p. 75–76), we learn that during the mid-2000s there were three candidates with the most potential to replace Hu.  These men were Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, and Xi Jinping, with Xi literally coming in third place at this point.  It was a tight “race,” to put it in Western terms, and what Brown suggests as having settled it were the downsides to the Lis, as opposed to a definite preference for Xi.  

  • Li Keqiang, who is now the premier (head of government), had displayed some inefficacy while dealing with crises in provinces under his care.  His current premiership puts him second-place in hierarchy, behind Xi who once trailed him.  
  • Li Yuanchao, also a former provincial leader, was “more open-minded and international in his outlook than his peers” (p.76) and was relegated to vice presidency, a somewhat nominal role.  In March 2018, his relatively brief term ended, even as Xi’s term was secured for life.  Li Yuanchao’s rapid transition from potential president to possible early retiree says as much about the Party as it does about him.

Was the Lis’ ill-fortune the only reason Xi rose to the top, or was there an additional factor?  While not understating the role of luck, Brown suggests the latter as well, and he goes back to the importance of the ideological, even spiritual, side of Xi.

He is a man who conveys the sense that he does actually believe and buy into a worldview that has arisen from his own experience rather than been handed to him or acquired through years of attending Party meetings. (p. 13)

Essentially, Xi – like every compelling leader, good or bad – presents his story as part of what he brings to the table.  He is the living evidence of his own ideological convictions and his faith in the Party (p. 96).  This is what the Party desires and one of the reasons he gained preeminence, while not obviously appearing to do so.

The Future According to President Xi

The second half of CEO, China is different from the first, but no less fascinating.  In three chapters, Brown covers with insight and detail some topics which take up the entirety of other books:

  • The Political Programme of Xi Jinping (Chapter 4)
  • How Does Xi Jinping See the Outside World? (Chapter 5)
  • What Does Xi Want in the Next Two Decades? (Chapter 6)

It would be inadequate for me to try to summarize these chapters.  What I can do is highlight some of the topics that caught my eye in these sections.

Money, Corruption, and – Democracy?

As China continues to grow, Xi has to address issues such as private enterprise, taxation, and the political implications of both.  For example, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) make up half of the government’s revenue, but they are also becoming increasingly less profitable, even compared to non-SOEs (p. 155)  SOEs are also entities that attract corrupt officials, who are interested in siphoning off profits for themselves.

Taxation is a requirement for maintaining Chinese socialism, but this, too, must be handled with care.  The Chinese taxpayer is not immune to their own interests, and even to allow provincials governments more power in this area is playing with political fire (p. 157, 159).  How can the Party maintain central power, while still meeting the local needs of the common man?  For a nation in which the state has exerted its primacy, this is a challenge that cannot be avoided.  It is not impossible China may give the provinces more fiscal leeway, even while keeping a tight hold on the one-party system.

Technology as Power

Just this month, a young woman named Dong Yaoqiong disappeared after protesting against Xi and the CCP; her Twitter account was deleted, and Radio Free Asia reports she is being detained in a psychiatric hospital.  Last fall, The Washington Post reported that Christian symbols were being forcibly replaced by images of Xi, as part of an anti-religion campaign announced through various media, including the internet.

While China maintains the “Great Firewall,” blocking such sites as YouTube and Twitter (with mixed success), Xi like most modern leaders has realized he can use social media to gain insights into Chinese citizens’ opinions and wants.  Xi can choose his own methods of reaching the people, in the same vein as Mao and Deng Xiaoping (p. 177).  Ironically, Xi can in this way circumvent Party censorship and spread the message he wishes to share.

Globalism and the Two Centenaries

China has one ruling Party, and it takes advantage of this fact by setting very longterm goals.  By 2021, the 100th anniversary of the CCP, it intends to have achieved a “moderately well-off” status in areas such as urbanization, wealth, technology, and energy.  By 2049, the 100th anniversary of the PRC, it expects to be the paradigm of a “modern socialist country.”  Together, these two goals will supply the concrete results of what Xi calls the “Chinese Dream.”

In relation to the world at large, China expects to play an important role.  It will continue to maintain a complicated relationship with the U.S. and the E.U., working together with us on issues such as the environment (p. 182) while competing in other areas such as world finance.  The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is poised to rival the D.C.-based IMF and World Bank, having (as of this year) 87 member nations, with the United States and Japan voluntarily among the excluded.

China’s interests in neighboring countries has grown to include Africa – see China’s Second Continent by journalist Howard French.  Additionally, Xi’s renaissance of the Silk Road, now called “The Belt and Road,” contains a vast plan to bolster the Chinese economy by investing in other countries’ infrastructures.  The end result would seem to be a new polarization of the globe, with Xi’s China as the new socialist leader (as opposed to Putin’s Russia) on the one hand and the U.S. on the other.

Xi may or may not live to see the second Centenary.  His legacy, however, is already inextricably connected with China’s future.

In Summary

CEO, China is not just a biography.  I enjoyed the broader scope of the book and thought Brown was overall a fair author, coming from a Western perspective and yet mostly objective in his analysis.  It’s one of my favorite books from this year, filling a hole in my knowledge and provoking me to learn more. Of Xi, I’ve gained a useful portrait; his life story is an impressive one.  That said, current events and China’s human rights violations leave me wary of his leadership and what the ultimate outcome will be.