Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Recommended reading

A friend and a fellow blogger has recently written a short story, recollecting the military draft physical he was subjected to in the spring of 1966. Reading it, I felt the horror of the planned bureaucratization of human bodies, wondering about the implicit, unquestioning consent of majority of men to be reduced to a number, proded and penetrated by the government for a higher purpose. 

Is this how the state mates with the body politic?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Reviews #9

East of the Mountains by David Guterson

A story of one man's dealing with mortality in the face of a terminal illness. Planning suicide in order to preempt a more ignominious death, the main character goes on a journey through the verdant landscapes of Pacific Northwest. The epic-sounding title, however, positions his suicide mission within the bigger and delicately suggested narrative of (religious?) hope in the midst of the perceived lack of personal agency. As in his other novels, Guterson's prose is evocative and gentle, conveying both the sense of frailty of the human condition and the indomitable power of the spirit.

Wilderness Seasons: Life and Adventure in Canada's North by Ian and Sally Wilson

First published in the '80s, still brimming with freshness and optimism of two city slickers embarking on a journey into the wild. After reading it I had an overpowering wish to erect my own log cabin, make bannock and adopt several different kinds of rodents, among other things. Thoroughly enjoyable, although the Wilsons' reports make seem living in the harsh conditions of Canada's north perhaps a bit too fun.

Quaker Indictment by Irene Allen

Another in Allen's series of Quaker-themed crime novels. Elizabeth Elliot, an elderly Quaker with a propensity for encountering gruesome acts of crime in the most unlikely places, solves another mystery thanks to her power of deduction and devout allegiance to Quaker ethics. Sweet.

Antigone's Claim by Judith Butler

One of the leading contemporary theorists revisits Sophocles' Antigone and presents her analysis of the complex intersection of gender, kinship, custom and ethics. Not so much a treatise on Antigone per se, the book is a continuation of gender theories introduced in her earlier works. In a nutshell: power structures and norms function only as long as individual human beings consent to them, there is nothing foreordained and cut-in-stone about them. Plus: universal is actually pseudo and the "genuine" is never really genuine.

Fisherman's Son by Michael Koepf

Flashbacks from a difficult childhood merge with the present struggle for life. Numerous elements were employed in the skillful weaving of this story: portrayal of economic hardships, racial tensions, coming-of-age process, paternal absenteeism... There's a touch of certain gender stereotyping in presenting male characters (fathers, more specifically) as grand, stoic figures who withstand it all. Still, a good read.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two books of yearning and desire

I have never read or seen any of Hal Porter's plays. Even on Amazon they seem difficult to find. Were it not for his 1977 autobiography "The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony" that had accidentally come my way, I wouldn't even be familiar with the name. Australia is a land far away, and its mid-20th century literature seems even more nebulous.

I can't say whether Porter's works were emblematic of Australian fiction of the time, nor whether his growing up, as he described it, was in any way typical to that of other young Aussie males in the period between the two World Wars (Porter was born in 1911, died in 1984). However, his personal narrative did question some preconceived notions of Australia that I used to have, casting a different light on its Commonwealth cultural baggage, racial injustices that scar the land to this day, and the myth of its rugged machismo. It was very refreshing to read a first-hand account that seemed to have no motive other than to truthfully witness to an era, its people and social mores, from describing odd dining rituals in a lower-middle class family to writing about various unmentionable things that hot-blooded young men feel compelled to do among themselves. Autobiography though it was, it felt like a thorough, well-illustrated lesson in social psychology and cultural history.

Emboldened by "The Watcher", I started reading another autobiography, namely Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Living History". These are two very different books to say the least, and not only in the most obvious sense - Porter being a prolific writer and wordsmith, and Clinton a lawyer with a successful political career - circumstances conducive to two dissimilar literary styles. But it's deeper than that.

Porter's life was one of lustful experimentation and unpremeditated life-altering decisions, bohemian as it were (as a side note, I wonder whether this is/was also something of a cultural attitude). Clinton's, the way she writes about herself, has been quite the opposite, with a single focus on public prominence and success in the political arena. Her writing tends to be much more factual: true to its title, it is a history book, albeit personal. We learn who said what to whom on a particular date, what diner she and her colleagues went to after a specific event... Lying behind all these facts and details (sometimes a bit dull to read through) is the singular drive toward political success and the power it affords, plus the nobility of her objectives in the grand scheme of things. On her linear path to public office, plans do get changed, life does get in the way here and there, but not for long; sooner rather than later she's back on track. Written at the height of her pre-Obama career (the book was published in April 2004), one can be left with the impression that this is political campaign material; memoirs of prominent politicians often are.

Hal Porter's deep insights and reminiscences were a joy to read. Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoirs were perhaps not as rewarding in a literary sense, but did manage to drive the intended message home. Both books are a testimony to a zest for living and self-realization.

Monday, March 09, 2009

On why I love Leviticus

I recently had an email exchange with a friend over the Book of Leviticus. He suggested I should post some extracts from my email here. Thanks for your comments, Ken.

You wondered why I consider Leviticus one my favorite books of the Bible. Couple of reasons. I am still a historian at heart and I find Leviticus extremely rich in historical data on the Jewish society of the period, their fears, frustrations, attitudes to physical and mental purity, understanding of expiation, attitude towards different classes within the society, etc. Much of what we know about the Greek society has also been extracted from its laws preserved on stone monuments. It can be quite tedious to read legal documents, ancient or modern for that matter, but I have come to appreciate them for the abundance of details they provide on the inner workings of a system. I don't come from a fundamentalist background, so I have personally never experienced cultural conditioning that would attempt to implement OT legal strictures today. I feel free to read Leviticus as it is. And when actually placed in its proper context of mid-1st millennium BCE Mediterranean, it is quite progressive in comparison with the legislation found elsewhere in the region.

[Leviticus] is a collection of ancient documents that cannot (and, really, does not need to) compete with modern science or withstand its scrutiny. Fundamentalist religion does need to do these things, but that's a self-imposed race against both time and common sense. I see the Bible standing as a silent witness to their folly. The Bible actually does make sense when read contextually, and the more seemingly tedious or backward a text is, the more sensible and meaningful it becomes when put in its historical and social context. In that sense, Leviticus is firmly grounded in a particular time period and gives a vivid portrayal of the people, whereas some other books or narratives within them do not. The creation narratives, a lot of the Psalms, Job and some others are timeless and universal. Leviticus, being a legal code, is very specific and grounded in time. While it may not have the poetic beauty of some of the other texts, it is still invaluable.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bible meet correction tape dispenser

Couple of days ago I finished my grand project of 2008. I can now say that I have actually read the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. It was a great quest, one that leaves you with even more questions than you had initially. (I took that as a good sign.)

Apart from having a better grasp of the Bible, the most important lesson I have learned is that very often translators cannot be trusted. Being a translator myself the notion hardly surprised me: innocent mistakes are made and personal judgment is not always right. But for some reason I expected the Bible translators to subscribe to particularly high standards, unattainable to us mere mortals, the Bible being sacred writ and all. For instance, one would normally not expect to find bits and pieces deliberately mistranslated for the purpose of turning the Bible into a weapon in the ongoing culture wars. Right?

I started with this project in the spring and for that purpose I had bought the lovely designed English Standard Version (ESV) Journaling Bible. I have blogged about this edition earlier, uncritically and with some naivete. I still love it for its extra wide margins for personal journal entries and, more importantly, for the way it reads. Anyone used to the language of the Revised Standard Version or its celebrated ancestor, the King James Version, is likely to be happy with the ESV. Others might complain that its English sounds a bit unnatural and awkward. However, that is a matter of personal taste resulting from being steeped into a particular tradition.

But then came the famous "clobber passages" and the infamous insertion of words, phrases and concepts that simply are not there in the original languages, not unlike the interpretations found in other, socially conservative translations. Basically, depending on where they (or, rather, their financiers) stand, translators will resort to pretty much anything to prove their political point. Although, I am not being fair to real translators. People behind the ESV were involved in an adaptation, not the translation. Besides, most of them are not known to be linguists of experts in Hebrew or Greek to begin with. It does say that it is merely an adaptation in the book itself, in the proverbial small print that I initially failed to notice, where it is stated that the text of the ESV is adapted from the Revised Standard Version, an earlier translation considered too liberal by some and now made new and improved for the conservative evangelical audience, carrying its predictable baggage.

The realization made me angry at first. I even entertained the thought of getting rid of the ESV altogether and starting afresh with a different and more reliable version. But I persevered, because at some point the editors' biased choice of words began to matter hardly at all. The Book and I have had months and months of shared experiences behind us. I read from it every morning before going to work and every night before going to bed. I had it with me on my journeys, I continue to write notes and comments on its carefully studied pages... When I turn to, say, Nehemiah chapter 5 I instantly get the image of a crisp early morning at the seaside where I first read from the prophet. It is too late now: there are factors of shared history and emotional attachment involved. It has become mine.

After a while I figured out how to live with its shortcomings: by liberating it from its re-writers' political agenda with a little help from the texts in the original languages and a humble correction tape dispenser. I am absolutely positive that my intention is by no means more blasphemous (if at all) than the numerous textual interventions done by the "translators." Besides, the letter killeth and the spirit giveth life.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Quarterly Book Reviews #8

Peace Like A River by Leif Enger

A perfect book for those chilly late autumn evenings. This book is a wonderful story of faith, hope and opportunities for mercy in the midst of family tragedy. I seldom make notes in books I read, but while reading this one I had to have a pencil and post-it flags at hand. One of my favorite sentences: "...exile is a country of shifting borders, hard to quit yet hard to endure, no matter how wide your shoulders, no matter your toughened heart." Enger is now officially one of my all-time favorite authors.

The Holy Wild by Mark Buchanan

Walk with God can be, and often is, a troubling affair. Prayers go unanswered, the whole world seems to conspire against you, there are dangers and difficulties regardless of one's piety and devotion. Buchanan writes about experiencing God in the midst of hardship and heartache, explaining that the God of Judeo-Christianity is both unpredictable and dangerous on one hand, loving and faithful on the other. For those struggling with the eternal question of why would a good God allow bad things to happen, this book may provide some insights.

The Pietists, edited by Emilie Griffin and Peter C. Erb

Does the name Jacob Spener sound familiar? August Hermann Francke? Johann Anastasius Freylingausen? Probably not, yet those are some of the leading people of an influential spiritual movement of the 17th and 18th century Christianity, known today as Pietism. It's surprising how little we know of them today. Placing emphasis on one's personal relationship with God, they heavily influenced Wesley and the nascent Methodist movement. They seem to be the first ones who came up with the idea of Bible study groups. This collection serves as a reminder on the origins of some of the beliefs and practices that contemporary Christianity takes for granted, but which were quite revolutionary at the time.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Chris McCandless had a burning wish to abandon a life of materialism, meaningless college diplomas and dehumanizing 9-5 jobs. The wish became a journey of a lifetime that ultimately led him to Alaskan wilderness where he tragically died. Krakauer has done a superb job investigating McCandless' enigmatic personality and narrating his heartbreaking story. Makes you question your ideals and how far you're ready to go in pursuit of happiness. Inspirational and cautionary.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pyrrhic victory

The leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) thought that their support for Proposition 8 in California would consolidate the Church's moral teaching and that by fighting alongside conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Evangelicals they would come a few steps closer to the desired ideal of being perceived as a mainstream Christian denomination.

What happened instead was that quite a few devout Mormons came out strongly in defense of a Mormon principle spelled out in one of the standard works of the Church: "We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government." Moreover, the Church is now under spotlight for the way it has been treating sexual minorities throughout its 20th century history, from aversion therapy (with electric shocks and all) to excommunications to Prop 8. They did not see the backlash coming in these latter days.

For more information and relevant up-to-date resources, have a look at Signing for Something, Mormons for Marriage and Seeking Forgiveness.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Carbon Calculator

PETA has recently launched a new carbon calculator that projects how many animals and how much CO2 you will save during your lifetime based on your age and diet (apparently, 12880 animals will live thanks to me!). You can try it here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


It wasn't easy to pick these few from among 300+, but let's say they are a fair representation of what I would see on a typical July/August day during my vacation on the Adriatic coast.

This one was day 1 in Karin. I blogged about the place this time last year, so read through that post, too.

Here's the story behind the picture: I've had another sleepless night (maybe due to centipedes in my room, real or imagined, or the hot weather, or that late cup of coffee) and decided to get up around 5am. It's 6.15 and the sun is rising behind the hill opposite our summer house. I'm likely plowing through my Bible, continuing with my read-the-Bible-in-a-year project.

And here I am actually doing it on the terrace; the Good Book, coffee, post-it pen and all.

Another early morning pic. The small island in the middle will disappear in less than half an hour due to a rising tide. Next morning it'll be there again, each time shaped differently.

The beach near our house is largely empty until about 10am. People still tend to go swimming and sunbathing at the hours when they really shouldn't be out in the sun. As for me, having the beach all to myself is one of the perks of being an early riser.

The place lovingly referred to as "the mud." It's supposed to have healing properties, but only if you apply it to your body following very strict and ancient rules (possibly made up by my mom). Without being ethnically prejudicial, you really can tell a German tourist by how deep they're willing to sink in. There's a Franciscan convent in the background...

... and much prettier scenery to the right: Mt Velebit, with Alan, one of the highest mountain peaks in Croatia. Any afternoon spent on that beach is pure serenity.

I was worried about these guys for the first couple of days, as I couldn't spot a single one. It turned out they had migrated about half a mile northward, toward the confluence of the Karisnica river. I know they are nothing much to look at, but they're the true natives there and one has to respect that. And if you've read that blog post of a year ago, you'd know how much I like them.

A fairly typical sunset.

At the spring of Karisnica. There's not much water at this time of year, though. Lovely old stone mills on the way there. Moving on...

My family, catching some breath from sightseeing (and shopping); visiting relatives on the island of Hvar.

More of Hvar; the central square with the Cathedral.

Typical architecture of Stari grad on the same island.

I do love shopping and Plodine is my favourite Croatian supermarket chain. The new store in Benkovac.

Back in Karin; the medieval Franciscan convent, completely destroyed in the civil conflict of the 1991-95, recently rebuilt according to the original architectural plans.

One of two phallic structures conveniently placed at the convent's entrance; originally erected by an Illyrian tribe living in these parts about 2,000 years ago.

In the city of Zadar.

I've already posted more pictures than I originally intended, so this is it. I might post some more on Facebook soon.

Six miles a Sunday

Having got used to spending all those calories at the seaside over the previous month, I had to think of something new to do back home. I hate team sports, running and/or jogging scare me as I think I'm on the verge of a heart attack each time I jog for more than sixty seconds... So I took up walking! I thought, could anything possibly be more unassuming than that?

Actually, try googling "walking" and you'll soon be overwhelmed with all the resources available online on what kind of shoes you're supposed to wear, how fast you should walk, what is the ideal arm movement, what to eat and drink before, during and after your walking session... Most of these tips are just plain common sense. Take this one for example, found on About.com's Walking section: Your eyes should focus on the street or track 10 - 20 feet ahead. You'll avoid doggy doo-doo, find cracks in the sidewalk, spot potential muggers, and still collect the occasional coin.

What I decided to do was simply walk as much as I can, whenever I can. This newly established routine is, for one, definitely changing how I see the neighbourhood and the city I live in. There's more attention to detail, in that I now notice so many things that were previously just blurs, semi consciously perceived from the public transport I normally using. A thirty-minute bus ride to church on a Sunday morning has transformed into a wonderful 90-minute, 6-mile walk through parts of the city I had previously rarely ventured into. Now it's turned into a pilgrimage of sorts.

And, of course, there's Thoreau and his sauntering in Concord (this is a saunterer's journal, after all!). Even though my walking gear is probably all wrong, as well as my posture and my eating habits, I think he would have approved.