31 May 2014

Review of Jorge Luis Borges's A Personal Anthology

A Personal AnthologyA Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite anthologies. I continue to re-read several of the stories, poems and essays. Borges was a master of the author-identity concept. Many authors attempt to spin an identity separate from the "real" them which is the identity they present to their public, to their readers.

Borges writes that he wants the works in this anthology to be representative of his work; he wants these works to speak for him.

I don't read Spanish, yet, so I can't say how close to the original these translations are, but they are wonderful to read and I imagine are very good.

If you're interested in identity in literature, Latin American literature, influence, or in literature in general, read this. I highly recommend anything by Borges, but like any literature, you have to read for yourself to truly to discover if you will enjoy it. And, with Borges, you should try to read a wide swath of his work, because it varies. That's what makes this a great choice for introduction to his work, it gives a taste of his fiction, poetry and essays (which, you may know are not always non-fiction).


View all my reviews

Get yourself a copy here:
A Personal Anthology

25 May 2014

Early Review of Richard Jackson's Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel

Confessions of a Terrorist: A NovelConfessions of a Terrorist: A Novel by Richard Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Advanced Reader's Copy Review:

The night I began reading Richard Jackson's Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel, I didn't stop before finishing a third of it, it was difficult to put it down. Part of this is the style, it is written in the format of a Top Secret transcription of an audio or video recording of an interrogation of a MI5 agent and a terrorist/militant. There are no chapter breaks, so it's easy to just keep right on reading and the content makes it hard to simply close it and put it down.

Jackson, with this novel, seeks to shake up his readers' preconceptions and notions concerning those labeled as terrorists by the media. That seems to be one of his few aims: to show that those so quickly tagged as terrorists are human beings, having people they love, who love them; and who want people to hear them. Jackson writes: “I have rarely found artistic or media depictions of terrorists that seemed authentic or which corresponded to the completely normal, often intelligent, complex and committed people I had personally spoken to” (319). He presents the terrorist in this light; i.e. the opposite of the way they are usually presented in films and the media.

The author wants to put the readers in the room during the interrogation, to help them ask tough questions. Jackson lives up to his goal, stated on the jacket copy, to blur the line between the interrogator and the terrorist. There are passages that could catch readers nodding their heads in agreement and then, catch them feeling a twinge of guilt for doing so.

I read that it is in the style of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I agree with that in that it is a story that takes place in an intense conversation between two characters: one a Westerner, the other a suspected terrorist. There the similarity breaks down. Jackson's novel is presented as a trascript (as I've already stated), with anotations by those higher up the chain of command; annotations that the fictional authority writes to convince others to expunge parts of the recording and the transcription to cover their collective backsides. Jackson recommends those who are inclined, should try to find as much information as they can, and to talk to militants, if possible.

If you enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist, or are interested in a different perspective view on the issue of terrorists and their behavior, I highly recommend this novel. The author writes, “A novel like this is a small step, but a necessary one, to tearing down the veil of ignorance which currently lies over most of what we currently say and do about terrorism” (322). He also includes a suggested reading list for those interested in knocking down that “veil of ignorance.” I plan to re-read this novel, and to work my way through Jackson's "Recommended Reading" list on terrorism and terrorists.

View all my reviews

Get the Kindle version, here (the hardcopy is due out 3 June 2014):
Confessions of a Terrorist

04 May 2014

Review of Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church by Jonathan Wright

Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern ChurchHeretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church by Jonathan Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an informative book, well-written and with an easy to read style/voice. It's good enough that I plan to re-read it, hoping to get even more out of it. I'm very interested in Church/Christian History as a whole, but especially enjoy reading history from an objective perspective. I don't get the sense that I'm reading a particular brand of Christianity's history, or even a history with too much slant on it, i.e. it’s not making up my mind for me, but simply presenting information and allowing me to think and make conclusions for myself.

According to Wright without heresy, orthodoxy may never have been solidified. He writes, “Heresy certainly helped define orthodoxy, but it still required a bold leap to equate that orthodoxy with the only reputable version of Christianity” (82). This last statement is a thought I have often had, but have not been able to put into words as clearly as Wright does. Wright is not giving a prescription, here, but rather a description. Again, he lets the reader come to their own conclusions.

Wright presents representative arguments from all sides before, during and after the seemingly all-important councils. The arguments on the Trinity vs. Unitarian concepts; the god-nature vs. human nature of Jesus Christ. He discusses how the Holy Spirit slowly changed from an almost afterthought to one third of the Trinity. He gives information on the various heresies and the people who were accused of holding them and what happened to them. And, as Wright states, “we are reminded that the line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy was always very thin” (104). This is even more true today.

According to others (e.g. Ross Douthat) heresy is now almost the norm, having overcome the most staid and staunch orthodoxy. Wright takes a different thought, writing that “[i]t is hard to reach a firm conclusion. Was there really more heresy during the medieval era, or simply more attempts to seek it out and eradicate it?” (135). I tend to be between the two ideas, that there is heresy. I think it’s prominent because of modern knowledge (particularly scientific knowledge). In order to keep people interested, the leaders in churches have to avoid deep theological issues. In order for people to feel congruent, they have to hold unorthodox ideas. Some orthodox concepts are quite hard to jibe with what is experienced on a daily basis. I have a feeling that most of what we call Christianity, today, would have been considered heresy in the Middle Ages. Wright may agree. He writes, “There was no more conspicuous example of medieval Christianity’s inability to neatly define the borders between heresy and orthodoxy than the Beguines, who were welcomed, at first, by paeans of support and ended up being thrown into the flames” (142).

One good thing about the tolerance of/freedom of religion we enjoy, at least in most Western countries, few are dying for their unorthodox beliefs and thoughts. “It has recently been calculated that, across Europe in the sixteenth century, as many as five thousand people were legally executed for their supposedly heterodox religious beliefs” (Wright 181). That is progress, but others (again, Douthat) seem to bemoan this change. I’m probably reading to much into those ideas, but I prefer heresy to mass killings of supposed heretics.

Wright also presents the concept “In one of the more notable plus ca change moments of European history, the persecuted quickly became the persecutors” (187). This continued throughout church history.

I appreciate how Wright gives equal ink to both sides of the issue; he keeps a pretty objective voice throughout and makes it easy for the reader to come to their own conclusion. He also has a good scholarly apparatus: i.e. notes, bibliography, index.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it highly. If you are interested in history in general or Church/Christian history in particular, this is an excellent book to increase your knowledge of this subject.

View all my reviews

03 May 2014

Short Review of Heretics by Jonathan Wright

Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern ChurchHeretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church by Jonathan Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an informative book, well-written and with an easy to read style/voice. It's good enough that I plan to re-read it, hoping to get even more out of it. I'm very interested in Church/Christian History as a whole, but especially enjoy reading history from an objective-ish perspective. I don't get the sense that I'm reading a particular brand of Christianity's history, or even a history with too much slant on it.

I hope I can write more about this, later. But, for now, if you are interested in history in general or Church/Christian history in particular, I recommend this book.

View all my reviews

02 May 2014

Review of Living Beyond Terrorism by Zieva Dauber Konvisser

The first thing that I noticed and something that kept coming up is that the book is a testament to “the strength of the human spirit” (xxiii).  Another recurring thought is that of resilience.  I will attempt to write this review without giving away too much of the book.  There is just so much that touched me and I want to do the work justice.  It is an important book and I hope it gains a wide readership.  It’s a book about hope and healing, and that is for anyone. 

Konvisser has an wonderful writing voice; while her book is well-researched and scholarly, the style and the voice keeps it accessible for the lay reader.  In my humble opinion, she does an excellent job of writing a book for both audiences without skimping on either side.  She also includes representatives from several groups of people: Jewish-Israelis, Arab-Israelis, and others from other countries who have made Israel their home.  While presenting the stories of these people, she attempts to keep it about them and how they have coped with, and how their lives have changed since, the traumatic events of terrorist attacks; she attempts to keep the book from being political.  And, she does a pretty good job of that, too. (xxxiii)

Konvisser wants to make it clear, by letting these people tell their own stories, that these survivors are human beings, not merely numbers we hear on the evening news.  Real people with hopes, dreams, loves, worries, fears, and lives and people who love them and whom they love.  She writes: “By telling and retelling their stories, we celebrate their lives as people—as human beings—not simply as players in a larger story or as numbers.  By telling their stories we bear witness” (xxvii).  The book is an anthology of the stories of not victims but, survivors (this is an important distinction for them) of terrorist attacks: which include shootings, car bombings, and suicide bombings.  Konvisser considers this text, this work, as a tribute and a responsibility. 

It seems that those in this area of the globe, are experiencing something similar to the state of the United States before the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Violence obviously is not working, and maybe they should try non-violence.  This book could be helpful in establishing the dialogue that can bring these two groups of people closer to peace. There is a bulleted list of “Lessons Learned” in the preface, which according to the author was developed from all the stories of the survivors and of the bereaved.  I won’t include it here, but recommend the reader to not skip the preface and so miss this important part of the work.

It’s not just Jewish-Israelis who are the victims/survivors; the Arab people living in this area also suffer: some are killed, some maimed and many are treated like criminals just for being Arab and being in the area of a terrorist event.  So, their trauma is double maybe even tripled or quadrupled.  While most of the people’s stories talk about the post-traumatic stress that they suffered, they also depict post-traumatic growth.  This latter, the way I understand it, would be like a kind of awakening brought on by the trauma and the recovery from it.

Even in the midst of the terrible events and the subsequent recovery, most of the stories presented here show amazing amount of hope.  The survivors talk about people asking why they keep living there, to which they answer, “This is my house and my family…” In a sense, “How can I leave my home?”  These survivors realize what’s important: family, friends, sense of place and belonging, and not letting the terrorists win. (264)  The survivors also talk about increased gratitude, along with a fear of returning to the place of the attack. (266)  This realization of what’s important and gratitude are also recurring concepts in these stories.

For the Arabs, there was a distancing by Jewish colleagues and a feeling of being under suspicion. (21) This is unfortunate, because the survivors were just as much targets of the terrorist attacks as their Jewish counterparts.  After years, they still struggle to deal with the after-effects, trying to be strong. (23)

The take-home seems to be that even if we never have the misfortune of experiencing a terrorist attack, we can learn ways of thriving when we face other traumatic events, or loss. (262)  Somehow, the perpetrators and retaliators have to realize that the violence is not solving their issues.  It seems the terror works for a short time, but only a short time.  The survivors will not let the fear win, so the terrorism loses its venom.  As one survivor says, “I had a new chance, a new life, to be more or less whole” (41), and “In the beginning it has to destroy you in order for you to survive” (42). 

This is a book about surviving, and in many cases flourishing, even after being involved in some of the worst events a person can imagine: terrorist attack.  The atrocities take their toll, but the survivors, at least those who share their stories here, come out stronger and with a great appreciation of life. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in terrorism and dealing with it; trauma and healing after trauma; war and survival.  It has given me a new perspective on my own problems, making them seem almost non-existent in comparison.  However, neither Konvisser nor the story-telling survivors ever trivialize the trauma of others.  They demonstrate that it is significant and people can get through it.  I hope many readers find hope in this book, or at the very least, that they gain a new perspective on the world around them.

01 May 2014

Making a Life That Matters

Sometimes I wonder if my life simply matters because it is, or if I have to DO certain things: you know, achieve GREATNESS!!!: to make my life matter. 

I hold to the idea of a certain innate human importance: i.e. human beings matter simply because they are.  That’s not really what I’m talking about here; this isn’t one of the questions I’m asking of myself.

My question is more about life as it’s lived; the life situation (as Eckhart Tolle calls it).  You know: career, hobbies, exercise, learning, relationships.  What is really important?  What really matters?  Am I supposed to be happy with my life as it is, as many of the self-help gurus say?  Am I supposed to realize that I’m really deeply unhappy and so I have to DO all these special steps to find happiness?

When I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the first time, I immediately had an interpretation of the meaning of that book.  It was: The Road is about focusing on what’s important. 

Later, I arrived at more elaborate interpretations, but that initial focus on what’s important idea has stood the test of time.  For the man (in case you haven’t read it and plan to, I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum) who unnamed, the boy is “what’s important.”  Everything in the story deals with keeping that boy alive, or to die trying.

Since reading that novel, I have often thought about my own children and how important they are to me.  I’ve thought about the other members of my family and how they are also important to me.  I look at what I have (of course, if someone else had what I have they may not experience gratitude, but rather despair) and am grateful. 

So, what is really important?  Air to breathe.  Water to drink.  Food.  A roof over my head.  All of those things are nice to have, esp. the three basic needs: and those are also covered in McCarthy’s book. 
Ultimately, what is the most important thing?  It’s not really a thing at all.

I read a lot of literature and it is important to me.  I often get very informative answers from literature, and mind-saving info, too.  There have been a number of times that I have read a certain passage from a novel or play or poem and it has given me a new perspective on life.

Yet, literature is not the most important thing, either.  Although literature often contains a portrayal of it, or an attempt at it. 

The most important thing is love.  There, I said it.  I’m not talking only about love between a man and woman, because that is only one narrow aspect of love and is often misunderstood (that’s the stuff for a-whole-nother post).  I’m talking about love that is willing to give itself completely.  Sometimes the love between a man and woman is like that, but more often that kind of love is the love of a parent for a child.  A love that would die, fight, scrape, do whatever to make sure that child is safe and will grow to be the best human being he or she can be.  That’s the kind of love I saw that the man had for his son in The Road.

So, what does that have to do with a life that matters?  Everything.  Everything and more.

Socrates supposedly said that the unexamined life is not worth living.  That may be true, or it may not.  But, if we don’t examine our lives we will have a difficult time building one that matters.  That’s not to say that we have to run off to every self-help seminar, or buy every book and CD/DVD program at the local bookstore on 23 Steps to Super-Over-Mega-Achieving Every Single Goal in Your Stupendous Mind, or something.  What it means is that we take stock.  We really look at what we believe about the important things.  We then have to get down to the real thing: What is really important?

Now, we’re right back where we were up there ^.  The important thing is love.  It’s important that we rebel against the “natural” instincts and that we love, have compassion for our fellow human beings.  If we can get to the level/degree of the love a parent has for a child (those few exceptions notwithstanding), that’s great.  The thing is, we have to begin.  We have to begin wherever we happen to be.  It’s like that old film says: “Baby steps.” 

This isn’t a command. I have no authority for such things.  From me, it’s just a suggestion and a thought about what’s important.  Now, if you happen to be Christian, then, you do have a command to love… Sorry, I can’t be held responsible for that. 

Joking aside, how much better would our world be if everyone just began to love one another a little more than they do now?  Just try to picture it.  Just try to imagine it.

I hope this doesn’t sound preachy.  That was/is not my intention.  I’m merely thinking aloud, so to speak, and hope that you will think along with me on this important issue.

Over the years I have walked many different paths: some exclusive, some inclusive.  Now, my heart is heavy because I miss people from all the different walks of life I have been in and as I age on the outward plane, I grow to realize the truly important thing can also be an urgent thing.  The trick, I think, is to not let it become an overwhelming thing.  People are important and relationships with people we care about are important.  Love is the most important thing.  It is the better thing. 

Please remember to tell the people who you find important, how important they are to you and how much you appreciate them. 

Now, say, “Yes, mother!” and go do it. :-)