#TryPod Day 3: Maeve in America


All this month, I’ve heard about the campaign to spread the news of podcasts called TryPod.  As I am a voracious listener of podcasts (you can see the complete list of my current subscriptions and other recommendations on my podcast page), I figured I ought to participate while I can.  So I will post about one of my favorite podcasts every day for the last 9 days of March.

Maeve in America stars Irish-born comedian Maeve Higgins who interviews a different immigrant to the United States learning their stories and struggles in the anti-immigrant mood of present-day America.

Some favorite episodes:

Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders


Another week, another protest, although it feels as if I should be marching in a demonstration daily.

This time is was the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Massachusetts’ Protest Against the Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders in Boston’s Copley Square.

Here on the steps of Boston’s most architecturally renown Christian church, Massachusetts’ political leaders and religious leaders of different faith traditions (including my friend Reverend Laura Everett) spoke of our promise to love and defend our Muslim neighbors and welcome immigrants and refugees of all backgrounds.

This all happened steps away from where two immigrant brothers detonated bombs that murdered three and wounded hundreds, purportedly in the defense of Islam.  The 25,000 people who marched today know that banning Muslims and rejecting refugees does nothing to protect us from attacks like the one on Boylston Street, and if anything further fan the flames of hatred.

“Let’s be clear: Donald Trump’s order has nothing to do with security. Little girls who flee murderers are not a threat to the United States. Elderly grandparents in airports are not a threat to the United States.

“No, this order is not about terrorist threats. This order is about religious tests, and the United States does not impose religious tests—period.” – Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker


Author: Helene Wecker
TitleThe Golem and the Jinni
Narrator: George Guidall
Publication Info: Blackstone Audiobooks (2014)
Summary/Review:

This engaging novel is set in the immigrant communities of lower Manhattan circa 1900. A woman made of clay – a golem named Chava – finds herself stranded alone in the Lower East Side after the man who would’ve been her master dies on the passage across the Atlantic.  A jinni named Ahmad is freed from a metal flask after 1000 years of captivity to fin himself at a tinsmith in Little Syria.  Both Chava and Ahmad have to find ways to fit in with their human society, but it’s interesting that Chava, created to be a slave, has trouble adjusting to having free will, while Ahmad, once a powerful king, has to adjust to his more humble circumstances.  That they meet and befriend one another is no surprise, and it’s a relationship that proves mutually beneficial.  In many ways this is an immigrant tale within a magical realism setting.  Eventually, an old antagonist arrives, and the golem and the jinni need to fight to save themselves, which I understand is necessary to create conflict and resolution, but ultimately I enjoy the earlier parts of the novel where they are establishing themselves and finding their place better. There is a host of endearing supporting characters including Rabbi Meyer who recognizes Chava as a golem and takes her under his wing and Boutros Arbeely who forms a partnership with Ahmad in tinsmithing.  Guidall does some incredible voicework bringing all the characters to life in the audiobook.

Recommended booksThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Brooklyn (2015)


TitleBrooklyn
Release Date: 2015
DirectorJohn Crowley
Summary/Review:

I love immigration stories, and Irish immigration stories especially.  I’m sentimental that. But I really struggled reading the novel Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín.   It’s a beautifully written book that depicts the everyday challenges of a young woman alone in New York half a world away from her family, but I found it frustrating because Eilis seems to have no agency and allows other people to make every decision for her. So it was with some trepidation that I went to see the movie adaptation.

While following the same basic plot line, the film has more humor and allows Eilis to have much greater agency.  In fact, the through line of the film is Eilis developing her confidence and her decisions at the end of the film are much more definite than in the book.  So basically, the story was Hollywood-ized.

And I’m okay with that.  This is a rare occasion – perhaps the second time after The Natural – where I actually think the Hollywood ending makes the movie better than the book.  It helps considerably that Eilis is portrayed wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan who takes the challenge of portraying a character we mostly see from the interior in the book and making her thoughts and feelings clear through her expressions and few words.  There’s also beautiful cinematography and costuming that capture the look and feel of the Irish countryside and the bustle of 1950s Brooklyn and their people.
Rating: ****

Book Review: A Home on the Field by Paul Cuadros


A Home on the Field (2007) by Paul Cuadros is the story of rapid cultural changes in the small agricultural town of Siler City, NC.  Prompted by offers of work from chicken processing plants and construction firms, more and more Latin Immigrants are settling into this community with their children.  Cuadros, a journalist, went to rural North Carolina in search of a story about this quiet immigration but instead found himself advocating for a soccer team at the local high school.  Soccer was a way that Cuadros felt would help assimilate that newcomers as well as keeping young men in school and helping them learn loyalty and discipline.

Not too mention having fun and kicking some butt.  Once Cuadros fields a team they immediate success in their conference and participate in the state championship tournament in each of the three seasons documented in this book.  But getting on the field is a challenge of its own as Cuadros has to fight the power elite of the school system and face down racist opposition from David Duke himself!

In many ways this book is very similar to Outcasts United – a Southern town, an influx of immigrants, culture clashes, and ultimately hope for America’s future.  There’s also the tough but caring coach.  Cuadros is no Luma Mufleh on the harshness scale, but he does end up suspending star players before a key game due to fighting.  The big difference in this book is that the coach is also the author.  I found Cuadros’ writing style a bit dull at first, and considered giving up after 50-pages.  The game descriptions in particular seemed cliched in that they always began in media res and then pulled back for the big picture of the game in progress.

But I’m glad I stuck with this book as I really warmed up to Cuadros and his players and their story.  Cuadros also has some really insightful commentary on the controversy over immigration.  Cuadros also relates some harrowing tales of his players making journeys across the border returning from visits to family.  These boys grow up way too fast.

Cuadros also offers some critique of the way soccer is played in the United States as a “country club” diversion of suburban middle class who stick to a boring and predictable style of the play.  Hopefully scouts from Major League Soccer, NCAA schools, and US Soccer will read this book and Outcasts United.  The children of immigrants are the future of our nation and should figure in our national soccer scene as well.

Favorite Passages

“[Duke] had said it all for everyone in America who views the migration and Latinos the way he does.  They didn’t want the workers or their families living in their towns but the sure wanted their chicken.  And that was all that mattered.  America spoke with its stomach and it wanted its tomatoes picked, its cucumbers gathered, its blueberries busheled, its hamburger ground, its pork processed, its Thanksgiving Day turkeys slaughtered, its Christmas trees cut, and its chickens butchered, and it didn’t care much how that was done as long as the people who brought its food were kept invisible and cheap.

Duke had spent two hours bashing the very workers who had brought him his fried chicken.  He didn’t even realize the full extent of his hypocrisy. … If they were sincere about recuding illegal immigration, they could take a stand and refuse to buy these products.  They could stop eating fried chicken, bacon, hamburgers, steaks, lettuce, turkey, hot dogs, tomatoes, grapes, wine; and stop purchasing other products like furniture and textiles; and deny themselves services like landscaping and construction.  But I suspect that, like Duke, most would simply help themselves to a nice plate of chicken.” – p. 55-56

Author : Cuadros, Paul.

Title : A home on the field : how one championship team inspires hope for the revival of small town America / Paul Cuadros.

Edition : 1st ed.

Published : New York : Rayo, c2006.

Book Review: Outcasts United by Warren St. John


Outcasts United (2009) by Warren St. John tells a story about something I never even knew was going on in America today.  Large numbers of refugees from war-torn nations worldwide are relocated to new homes in the US, but instead of blending into immigrant communities in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, they are moved wholesale into small towns, often ones that have hit economic hard times and need an infusion of new residents.  One of these locations is Clarkston, Georgia, a small town near Atlanta that in the last decade has seen an influx of refugees from Liberia, Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Congo and dozens of other countries.  St. John paints a surreal portrait of housing projects packed with people of many cultures and languages with virtually no interaction with people born in America.  The long term residents have either moved away or are obstinately trying to reclaim their small-town lifestyle by ostracizing and mocking the refugees, keeping them under police survaillance and restricting where they can go or work.

Fortunately, for this book to have a shred of hope there are also people who more charitably are working to help the refugees acclimate to life in America and escape from poverty (often brought on by debt for paying one-way fares to the US and exacerbated by cultural and language gaps in finding good work).  One of these people is Luma Mufleh, a woman born in Jordan and educated in Western-style schools.  She studied abroad at Smith College and at the cost of being disowned by her parents chose to remain in America after college for the greater opportunities afforded to women.  She is the creator and coach of the Fugees soccer team which allows the “misfit” boys of Clarkston to come together to share a common bond on the field.  Luma is a strict coach with rules that must be followed by any boy who wants to play on her team.  She kind of reminds me of University of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summit in that she sounds very harsh but still commands the respect and admiration of her players.  Luma also gets result as her Fugees with very little in the way of equipment, uniforms, and as documented in this book, even trouble getting a decent practice field, still are able to compete with and defeat teams from Atlanta’s wealthy white suburbs.

The Fugees are in fact three teams – under 13, under 15, and under 17.  The central drama of this book regards the U15 squad which Luma actually dissolves early in the season when too many players refuse to follow the rules like getting haircuts and showing up on time for the bus to a game.   Yet a core group of players are able to convince Luma to reconstitute the team with tryouts for new players even though there’s little chance the team can gain any ground in the standings so far into the season.  The U13 team also shows considerable success in making it to a local tournament.

This is a well-written book centered on soccer but more about the life of refugee peoples in this small town in Georgia.  It’s quite remarkable and thankfully quite hopeful.  I learned a lot from this book and highly recommend it.

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town by Warren St. John. Spiegel & Grau (no date), Hardcover, 320 pages

Book Review: Empire Rising by Thomas Kelly


On a flight to Portland, OR a little over 10 years ago I read Payback a novel by Irish-American writer Thomas Kelly.  It told the story set in the mid-1980’s about Sandhogs, construction workers who build tunnels, with a mix union-management strife, corrupt politicians, Irish gangsters, and family squabbles turned violent.  It was a breezy read full of violence and machismo, but intelligent as well.

Now I’ve listened to Empire Rising (2005) read by Michael Deehy, which is a similar story but set in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, amid Prohibition, with the construction of the Empire State Building at it’s centerpiece.

  • Michael Briody – a recent emigrant from Ireland.  Fought with the British in WWI, against the British in the Anglo-Irish War, and against the Free State in the Irish Civil War.  Briody lives in the Bronx, works on a team of iron workers on the Empire State Building, and is an amature boxer.  Also he continues to do jobs for the IRA and for Tommy Twohey.  Oh yeah, and he also wins the heart of Grace in this novel’s central romance.
  • Grace Masterson – an Irish woman with a troubled past who settles on a house boat in Brooklyn.  She visits construction sites to sketch and paint the workers.  As Lewis Hine’s assistant she’s able to enter the ESB site.  She’s also the paramour for Johnny Farrell who has her “deliver money” to banks around town.  Scarred by life, she’s surprised that Briody wins her heart despite everything.
  • Johnny Farrell – the head honcho of Tammany Hall behind the Walker administration.  A finger in every pot, whether legal or illegal.  Not too pleased to learn that Grace is having liasions with Briody.
  • Tom Twohey – a boyhood friend of Farrell’s who is the chief gangster in their Bronx neighborhood.  Also runs guns for the IRA.  Finds himself making an uneasy allliance with the Italian mob.

Kelly’s fictional characters mix with real-life historical figures such as Mayor Jimmy Walker, Governor Franklin Roosevelt, photographer Lewis Hine,  failed presidential candidate Al Smith (also head of the Empire State Building project) and Judge Joseph Crater (working in an answer to Crater’s mysterious disappearance).

For the most part this is an entertaining book weaving together New York City history, the Irish-American experience, and the romance of the era.  Towards the end it gets over the top as seemingly everyone wants to kill Briody, and for good reasons too as he’s got himself mixed up in everything.

Author Kelly, Thomas, 1961-
Title Empire rising [sound recording] / Thomas Kelly.
Publication Info. Hampton, N.H. : BBC Audiobooks America, p2005.
Description 13 sound discs (974 min.) : digitally mastered.

Book Review: The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon


The Lazarus Project (2008) by Bosnian-American author Aleksander Hemon represents Bosnia and Herzegovina in my Around the World For a Good Book project, albeit only a small portion of the novel takes place in that stricken country.  Still it captures the spirit of ATWFAGB in the way it travels between the “countries” of America and Europe, and of past and present. The author Hemon was born in Sarajevo of Ukrainian and Serbian ancestry. He went to Chicago in 1990 and found himself unable to return home once the war began.

The Lazarus Project tells two stories.  First, there’s Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jew who having survived a pogrom emigrates with his sister to Chicago.  There on March 2, 1908, Lazarus attempted to deliver a letter to the chief of police, the latter refusing the letter and instead shooting and killing Lazarus.  Amplifying the attrocity, the police chief concocts a tale that Lazarus was a dangerous anarchist.  From this kernel of a true story Hemon draws out the aftermath of the anti-anarchist hysteria on Lazarus’ sister Olga and his colleague Isador.

The second story, in alternating chapters, is the contemporary tale of Brik, a man much like Hemon himself – an immigrant from Sarajevo suffering a sort of survivor’s guilt for not being at home during the war and attrocities.  He’s out of work and in a loveless marriage with an American-born neurosurgeon, but holds on to the promise of writing a book about Lazarus Averbuch.  Receiving grant money for his research, he sets of on a journey through Eastern Europe to follow Lazarus’ path to America.

Accompanying Brik is a friend and photographer Rora.  Each chapter begins with a beautiful photograph with the conceit that they are from the lens of Rora himself.  Rora is also a  counterpart to Brik as a survivor of the war, participating in a paramilitary group in Sarajevo.  Rora’s stories of the war and Brik’s ceaseless curiosity about them are a major theme in this book.

This is not a cheerful book.  Brik and Rora’s journey seems to be through an Eastern Europe full of sad prostitutes, mobsters, and sterile fast-food chains.  Olga and Isador must survive insults and degradation.  It would be hard to read this book without gaining a sense of fatalism.  Yet, Hemon’s way with language redeems the book, drawing beauty out of suffering.

Book Review: Manhattan ’45 by Jan Morris


Manhattan ’45 (1985) by Jan Morris attempts to capture New York City at the time of its greatest success, optimism, influence and power, just as the Second World War comes to an end. This is not a travel book so much as an historical recreation.  The author never even visited New York until nearly a decade later.  Writing in 1985, the book is full of copious footnotes where Morris tells us what is gone and different.  Reading this an additional 25 years later my mind adds another layer of meta-analysis of things further lost and changed in Manhattan’s continuous build and demolish cycle.

This book is filled with details of life and how it was lived in 1945 mostly from books, letters, photographs and interviews.  Everything’s discussed in categories and in a gossipy tone that covers people, places, race, class, shopping, transportation, music, technology, slums, mansions, art, parties, and schools.  I kind of wish I’d taken better notes on this book since it’s full of fun little tidbits, but no great memorable themes.  I’d like to read it again, perhaps while in Manhattan, the book tucked under my arm as I visit what’s there and what once was.

I’ve previously read the following books by Morris: The World of Venice and Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress.

Author Morris, Jan, 1926-
Title Manhattan ’45 / Jan Morris. —
Publication Info. New York : Oxford University Press, 1987.
Description 273 p., [12] p. of plates : ill. ; 22 cm.

Book Review: The Fabric of America by Andro Linklater


The Fabric of America: how our borders and boundaries shaped the country and forged our national identity (2007) by Andro Linklater is built on a thesis that the idea of the United States being defined by the frontier and rugged individualism – with Frederick Jackson Turner as a major proponent – is not true.  Instead of the frontier, Linklater believes that our nation is defined by our frontiers, the national boundaries fixed by government agencies.  Within these boundaries, Linklater contends instead of wanting less government, pioneers brought government with them in the form of surveying, land claims, squatters’ rights, and establishment of local governments.

Most of the book doesn’t really stick with the thesis but instead is a history of the United States’ borders.  A major portion of the book tells the story of Andrew Ellicot who surveyed the boundaries of Pennsylvania (picking up where Mason & Dixon left off), Washington, DC, and the boundary between the U.S. and Spanish Florida. There are lots of interesting historical facts about how the nation and states took their shape as well as the practice of surveying, of which Ellicot was an innovator.

The portions of the book from Ellicot’s death in 1820 to the present feel rushed and unfocused.   Linklater’s theory about how our nation’s boundaries defined us feel tacked on to the more interesting historical narrative.  Still, this was an interesting and quick historical read.

Book Review: New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg


Following up on Ric Burns’ New York, I read New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007) edited by one of the stars of that series Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

This collection of essays looks back with some nostalgia and some disgust at the City in the 70s, 80s, & 90s.  For most of the authors, New York once was full of crime, sex, and drugs, yet the rents were low and the City maintained its own character.  Today they sneer that interlopers have moved in, built luxury lofts, priced out everything that made New York unique and replaced it with typical American suburbia. Most of the essayists to some extent sink into insufferable self-importance which makes this book hard to read at times.

There’s a lot of hyperbole, but there’s truth mixed in.  And there’s still a lot to love about New York.  Each borough gets its own tribute, with the one on Staten Island being the most illuminating since I know little about that area.  There are also great stories on graffiti, civil rights, art, rock music, and ethnic foods.  If you love New York, this book is worth checking out.  If you hate New York, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

New York calling : from blackout to Bloomberg / edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.
Publication Info. London : Reaktion, 2007.
Description 368 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.

Movie Review: New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns


New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part film made by Ric Burns that debuted on PBS in 1999 (except for episode 8, which is from 2003).  Thanks to Netflix, I’ve finally seen this epic documentary about my ancestral homeland and one of my favorite cities.

Ric Burns’ style is similar to his brother Ken in that their is a rich wealth of archival images, photos and films, supported by contemporary film interspersed with interviews with a variety of experts and dramatic renditions of quotations by historical figures.  It’s an effective technique, albeit one that could use a few adjustments.  I particularly like hearing from the experts, a grab bag of historians, writers, politicians, architects, and New Yorkers.  Standouts among the crowd include urbanist Marshall Berman, soft-spoken historian Craig Steven Wilde, and architect Robert A. M. Stern (as an aside, it seems to me that architects are often great speakers as well).  I would prefer longer clips of these people speaking about New York in place of the narration, no offense to David Ogden Stiers.  It would be one way to reduce the cliches that plague this film.  If you had a dollar for every time the words “Capitol of the World” are uttered, you could take me out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and probably get change.  Similarly, the contemporary film of soaring over the Manhattan skyline is overused creating a visual cliche.

These are minor quibbles though.  I would expect that many viewers would criticize the filmmakers for leaving things out although it would be impossible to cover every detail of city as large and historic as New York.  I would have liked to have seen more about New York’s role in popular culture such as radio, film, tv, and sports, not to mention more details about the four boroughs not named Manhattan, but so be it. I also felt that the 70 years covered in episodes #6 & 7 could have branched out to include more than road building, public housing, and white flight, since so much else happened in those times.  But then again this is the time of my life, and my parents, and my grandparents so I’m much more connected to it through personal experience and stories

The film covers New York History chronologically, with each episode culminating in a Big Event that kind of ties together the historical and cultural processes discussed in the episode.  These include 1. the Erie Canal, 2. the Civil War Draft Riots, 3. the Consolidation of  Greater New York, 4. the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, 5. the construction of the Empire State Building, 6. the Great Depression and the 1939 World’s Fair, 7. the 1975 Fiscal Crisis, and 8. the World Trade Center & September 11th Attacks.  I think a more effective approach would have been to ditch the chronological approach and made the episodes specifically about these events: what led up to them, what effects did they have, how they influenced the people and their times, et al.  Episode 8 about the World Trade Center does in fact follow this method by tracing the history of the buildings construction, use, and desctruction, subtly creating a microcosm of New York history from the 1950’s to 2001.

Each episode also has a Big Person, a New Yorker of great prominence and influence who somehow personifies his times (and they are all “he’s”).  These include 1. Alexander Hamilton, 2. Walt Whitman, 3. William Tweed, 4. Al Smith, 5. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6. Fiorello LaGuardia, 7. Robert Moses, and 8. no one really but high-wire artist Philippe Petit is the surprising heart of this episode.  I like this aspect less if only because it seems to lead to lionizing “great men” and repetition of more cliches (with the exception of Robert Moses about whom opinions were more neutral to negative, appropriate since Moses was eeeeeeeevil).

My overall impression Ric Burns’ New York is positive.  Episode 4: The Power and the People and Episode 8: The Center of the World are standout episodes that particularly bring the history of the city to life.  The former episode covers some of my favorite topics such as immigration and labor, while the latter profoundly recreates the horror of the September 11th attacks, but also the hope and heroism in the aftermath.  If you like New York, history, and/or documentaries check this one out.

Book Review: The Deportees and Other Stories by Roddy Doyle


Over the past decade or so, while the US economy has gone down the toilet, the dollar has crashed and burned, and xenophobia blossomed to the point of building fences on our borders, Ireland has become a prosperous nation built on new industries, the strength of the European Union, and the rising Euro. As a result, a centuries-long trend of Irish emigration has been reversed and now Ireland is a destination for the world’s poor and dispossessed looking to make a new life. One of Ireland’s premier contemporary writers Roddy Doyle takes on the challenges of the emerging multi-cultural society in his collection of short stories The Deportees and Other Stories (2008). The eight stories are built on the simple premise: “someone born in Ireland meets someone who has come to live there.”

Doyle is one of my favorite authors and I’ve enjoyed many of his novels including The Barrytown Trilogy: The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, and my favorite Doyle novel A Star Called Henry (sadly,a sequel to Henry called Oh, Play that Thing, was uneven to put it politely). Doyle may be the most appropriate author to write about this new Ireland. He has an eye for detail and ear for language, and his stories are comfortable in the space between poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. Doyle originally published these stories as part of a regular column (in 800 word increments) fo Ireland’s multicultural newspaper Metro Eireann.

My favorite stories include:

  • The title story in which Jimmy Rabbite of The Commitments decides to put together a new band, this time with no native Irish musicians, to play the songs of Woody Guthrie. I’d pay money to see that band.
  • “New Boy” in which a boy named Joseph who escaped political violence in his native Africa has to stand up to playground violence on his first day at an Irish school. This story hits the nail on the head in showing a child’s perspective on being the new kid in class.
  • “Black Hoodie” in which an Irish boy in a hooded sweatshirt and his Nigerian maybe-girlfriend lead store security guards on while their friend in a wheelchair robs the store blind. Its all part of a business proposition to test stereotypes and collect consulting fees from the store managers. It’s almost too clever for its own good.

By the way, watching the video below will apparently play a part in determining how Irish you are:

New York: Viking Penguin, 2008.

Links of the Day for 9 January 2008


Sacco and Vanzetti: 80 Years Later


On this day in 1927, Italian immigrants and anarchist leaders Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were put to death by electrocution in Charlestown, MA for a crime they probably did not commit.  The story of Sacco and Vanzetti continues to be studied as an example of xenophobia and failures of the criminal justice system in America.  As much as we’ve advanced in the past 80 years there’s still a lot that hasn’t changed.  In the 1920’s, Italians were seen as fearsome foreigners while today Italian-Americans are part of the mainstream American population that can look at new immigrants and foreigners as criminals.  Similarly, those with unpopular political views are not always granted free speech and sometimes are punished for their views.  I don’t know what lesson there is here other than looking back at the past as the good old days or saying that we’re better now than we were then are both wrong.

More on the anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution at:

Replaying injustice: Sacco and Venzetti, 80 years later by Mike Milliard, Boston Phoenix

Lessons of Sacco and Vanzetti by Peter Miller, The Huffington Post

Sacco and Vanzetti: Innocent or Guilty by Jack Kelly, American Heritage

Italy’s American Baggage byAndrea Cammileri, The New York Times

Movie Review: Sweet Land: A Love Story


Sweet Land: A Love Story (2006) is simple, tender love story set in rural Minnesota just after World War I.  Inge (the lovely Elizabeth Reaser) is a mail-order bride from Germany who arrives to marry the shy and serious Norwegian-American farmer Olaf (Tim Guinee).  The plan runs into a snag when the local minister (John Heard) refuses to marry them because Inge doesn’t have the right immigration papers.  These papers prove hard to get due to her being German and the scare over socialism.  Inge and Olaf attempt to muddle through as best as possible, slowly falling in love, but meet with increasing disapproval from the town folk and then are expelled from the church by the minister.  When Olaf’s friend Frandsen (the comical Alan Cumming) house goes on the auction block, Olaf bids and wins the house even though he can’t afford.  Olaf’s bold motion wins back his approval from the town and the minister.

This movie manages to be sentimental without being hokey.  A couple of scenes remind me of other movies.  When Inge and Olaf are thrown out of the church it’s similar to a scene in The Field, albeit less justified in this case.  The town folk rallying to raise the money to help Olaf pay off Frandsen’s mortgage is of course reminiscent of It’s A Wonderful Life, except these restrained Minnesotans don’t join in singing Christmas carols unlike those rambunctious New Yorkers.  The film includes a double framing device and it could do without both of them.  First, Olaf and Inge’s grandson is mulling selling the farm after Inge’s death in modern day, then he flashes back to when Olaf died in the 1970’s for some wisdom from Grandma.  The main story is great though, and so beautifully filmed.  I almost want to travel to Minnesota this summer.

Burning of the Ursuline Convent In Charlestown


Today is the anniversary of a rather ignominious date in Boston.  An anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant mob vented their rage by burning down and Ursuline convent that stood on Ploughed Hill in Charlestown.  Today the hill’s been torn down and the site of the convent is now within the boundaries of Somerville near the site of the East Somerville branch of the public library.  One of the things that fascinates me about this story is that the ruins of the convent remained on the hill for decades after its destruction as if to reproach those who burned it.  For more about the burning of the Charlestown convent I recommend reading  Fire and Roses by Nancy Lusignan Schultz, an excellent history of this event.

Views on Immigration


The debate over immigration is a major topic this summer.  I’ve been collecting articles about immigration the past couple of months and here are some of the many views expressed on the issue.

Previous post on this issue.

A Legal and Economical View: Why restrict immigration at all? By Becky Akers and Donald J. Boudreaux
Christian Science Monitor, June 7, 2007

As technology and globalization continue shrinking the world, people and ideas move more quickly and freely. Political borders become increasingly irrelevant. But that’s fine because the qualities that define Americans don’t depend on geography. Rather, it’s their history of liberty, pluck, ingenuity, optimism, and the pursuit of happiness. Culture is a matter of mind and spirit. Why entrust it to politicians, border guards, and green cards?

The ideal immigration policy for this smaller world would harmonize with both the Constitution and common decency. It wouldn’t deny anyone the inalienable right to come and go.

A Catholic View: A Catholic View on Immigration Policy By Steve Bogner
Catholicism, holiness, and spirituality, June 12, 2007

The Catholic Bishops do not condone unlawful entry or circumventions of our nation’s immigration laws. The bishops believe that reforms are necessary in order for our nation’s immigration system to respond to the realities of separated families and labor demands that compel people to immigrate to the United States, whether in an authorized or unauthorized fashion.

Our nation’s economy demands foreign labor, yet there are insufficient visas to meet this demand. Close family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents face interminable separations, sometimes of twenty years or longer, due to backlogs of available visas. U.S. immigration laws and policies need to be updated to reflect these realties.

A Political View: Why the Immigration Bill Died in the Senate — and Will Keep Dying By Joshua Holland
AlterNet, June 12, 2007.

The compromise’s unexpectedly swift destruction reveals a little-discussed aspect of the immigration debate today: It is not an epic battle between America’s two major parties, and it’s not a grand clash of political ideologies. It is a debate between a supermajority of pragmatic Americans in both parties who favor a comprehensive approach to immigration control, and a small but extremely loud group of immigration hardliners who want a predominantly punitive approach to the issue — with a focus on “enforcement” first and foremost — and have proven that they will do whatever they can to obstruct any bill that allows undocumented workers who meet certain conditions to come out of the shadows.

A Long View: Immigration: The Long View By Larry James
Larry James’ Urban Daily, June 12, 2007

The compromise’s unexpectedly swift destruction reveals a little-discussed aspect of the immigration debate today: It is not an epic battle between America’s two major parties, and it’s not a grand clash of political ideologies. It is a debate between a supermajority of pragmatic Americans in both parties who favor a comprehensive approach to immigration control, and a small but extremely loud group of immigration hardliners who want a predominantly punitive approach to the issue — with a focus on “enforcement” first and foremost — and have proven that they will do whatever they can to obstruct any bill that allows undocumented workers who meet certain conditions to come out of the shadows.

A Film View: Immigration’s beauty, and brutality By Wesley Morris
Boston Globe, June 15, 2007

A Biblical View: Immigrants and the Hebrew Bible By Larry James
Larry James’ Urban Daily, June 17, 2007

“The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

A Local View: Immigration debate reaches Somerville By George P. Hasset
Somerville News, July 6, 2007

Curtatone said he continues to stand by the resolution he proposed last year and that the documentation status of Somerville residents is not something city departments should be concerned with.

“I’m not going to break the trust we have built up with the immigrant community to enforce the misguided policies of the federal government,” he said.

View from the Sanctuary: Illegal immigrants find refuge in holy places by Emily Bazar
USA Today, July 9, 2007

Hundreds of immigrants have sought help from the church movement recently, but congregations typically give sanctuary only to those who fit a profile. They seek immigrants facing deportation who have children, parents or other close relatives in the USA legally, to emphasize immigration laws’ impact on families. Such immigrants must be willing to speak publicly to draw attention to the cause.

So far, eight immigrants across the nation are getting financial, legal and other help from the movement. Four of them, including Liliana and Jose, are staying in church buildings. Most speak to reporters on the condition their last names not be publicized, for fear their families would be harassed.

Sanctuary can take various forms. Congregations supply lawyers or medical care, provide financial assistance or offer moral support at immigration hearings. Immigrants who seek shelter – not all want it, and not all congregations involved can provide it – never leave church grounds.

Church leaders usually make a three-month sanctuary pledge to the immigrants but acknowledge it may last much longer. The immigrants say they will remain cloistered until their legal cases are resolved or until Congress approves a plan to help lead to their legalization.

A Library’s View: VA Counties Target Illegal Immigrants; Libraries May Be Put in a Bind by Jennifer Pinkowski
Library Journal, July 31, 2007

Asking librarians to deny services based on immigration status violates the American Library Association (ALA) Bill of Rights, ALA president Loriene Roy reminded Library Journal. Most U.S. libraries include the guidelines in staff or policy literature (as does Prince William County; LJ was unable to confirm by press time whether Loudoun does). Article V states, “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” In January, the ALA Council also passed the Resolution in Support of Immigrant Rights, which declares the organization’s opposition to legislation that seeks to limit anyone’s access to libraries, regardless of citizenship status.

A Day Laborers’ View: Laborers lining up on Mass. streets: Worker markets spread to East By Maria Sacchetti
Boston Globe, August 4, 2007

The attorney general’s office said all workers, even those here illegally, are entitled to wages if they work. The office does not question workers’ legal status if they complain.

Union officials and immigration-control activists have called on state and federal officials to crack down on unscrupulous employers. In February, Governor Deval Patrick said state contractors who hire immigrants here illegally will lose their contracts and face fines.

Tim Sullivan, a spokesman for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said the day-labor stands may have contributed to a spike in injuries among immigrant laborers. He said cash-only jobs deprive the state of millions in tax revenue and workers of health coverage and other benefits.

“It continues to feed an underground economy where everybody has to play by these race-to-the-bottom rules,” Sullivan said. “It’s really not good for anybody except for people who are worried about their bottom line.”

That’s it for now, but I’ll probably be adding more in comments as they come up.

Movie Review: The New World


As a follow-up to Jamestown’s 400th anniversary, Susan and I watched the latest cinematic interpretation of the Jamestown story The New World (2005). In the movie we meet our lead characters John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pochahantas/Matoaka/Rebecca (Q’Orianka Kilcher). Smith wanders sullenly through the tall grasses of the Virginia swamps and laconically avoids conversation with his fellow settlers. You can tell he’s a a true devotee of emo and at times you can almost see the earbuds of his iPod where he listens to an endless shuffle of Thom Yorke. Pochahantas by contrast is a crunchy, hippy girl who dances around the groovy Powhatan village. This extremely well-developed 10-year old and the English pedophile are of course destined for star-crossed love.

Not that they put it that way, but despite claiming to base the film on the latest historical research and even giving a nod to Bill Kelso in the credits, the filmmakers chose to put the mythical romance of Captain Smith and Pochahantas at the center of the story. Like the story of Jesus and Mary Magdelene as lovers the Smith/Pochantas tale at one time may have been an interesting “what if?” but by now is trite and I wonder why authors, artists, and filmmakers keep dipping back into that dry well. Especially since the true story is much more interesting.

Apart from historical innacuracy, weird editing is the bane of this film. Like a music video the movie cuts quickly from image to image, rarely allowing time for a coherent scene. Look Pochantas is patting John Smith’s cheek! Now she’s fifty feet away gesturing to the gods in the sky! Now there’s Chief Powhatan looking grumpy!

Meanwhile back in the fort, a number of extras from Monty Python and David Lynch films are standing around not doing much. A real settlement would require constant tree felling, building, hunting, cooking, preparing goods for the winter, but at this Jamestown there is only room for malaise. They do shoot each other every once in a while for no particular reason, and act creepy to keep things interesting.
Not that it’s all bad. It’s better than the Disney film or the dramatic production “Journey of Destiny.” The cinematography is beautiful, capturing the lush wilderness of Virginia and the courtly world of England equally well. In fact, like the train wreck of Gangs of New York the filmmakers paid great attention to detail in getting the costumes, props and sets to match exacting historical detail. They just didn’t bother to do that with the plot.

So if you like tragic romances, watch this film with the caveat that it is not a true story. If you like history, watch it for the sets and costumes. If you’re annoyed by failure to adhere to a simple historical narrative, don’t watch it all.

Two Commentaries on Immigration


“It is just so difficult to think that they don’t want us” in Larry James’ Urban Daily written in response to a municipal law requiring proof of citizenship from tenants.

Supporters of the ordinance claim that these hard working, undocumented families use up the scarce resources of the community, including public education and health care. Few will acknowledge the fact that these families pay all sorts of taxes, including sales tax, federal withholding taxes, property taxes and Social Security taxes that they will never be able to reclaim. Undocumented workers are in essence paying for my retirement, with no hope of receiving such benefits themselves no matter how hard or long they work.

The New Bedford Raid and Its Aftermath in Dispatch from the Trenches focuses on how corporate policy — aided and abetted by the government — perpetuates the illegal immigration problem.

It’s the picture of city officials so blindly pro-business that they could walk through that hell-hole of a sweatshop and come away thinking only about how they could help Insolia make more money that puts the 19th century attitudes of modern America into sharp relief. Not one of them appears to have considered for a moment that there was anything wrong or at least suspicious about the crowded, filthy conditions or thought to wonder if these rows and rows of Hispanic women were all legal. Not one of them so much as asked a question about how the workers were treated or raised so much as an eyebrow over an obviously unhealthy workplace. Neither was of the least importance to them. They were focused on one thing and one thing alone: help the owner make more money.