domingo, julho 19, 2015

Tales of Iceland, or Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight, by Stephen Markley

One of the things I like to do when I travel is to buy books from local authors, or about the places I'm visiting. So, in Iceland last month, I bought a few Icelandic books at one of the Eymundsson bookshops, and as I was browsing the shelves, this little book about a trip to Iceland by a young American caught my eye. I bought it, read a few random pages as I was travelling across the country, and after coming back home read it from beginning to end. It's a nice book, an account of three young Americans' trip to Iceland and their impressions of the country. Loving to travel and to compare opinions, I found it mostly funny and entertaining, even if the twenty-something-ish kind of experiences and humour are quite far from my own. Maybe sometimes it gets a bit too silly, but all in all I enjoyed reading it. And through it I discovered the Give Live Explore project of one of the guys, Matt Trinetti, that is very uplifting and interesting, and to which I subscribed and plan to follow online. So many different things one can get from travelling!

So, website suggestion:

The Wire - Season 4 (and the other seasons are also great)

I don't remember when I last posted about a TV series - I watch a lot of them, and some are quite good, others just visual chewing gum or eye candy, but almost all forgettable. Then, in the last few months, I have been watching The Wire, after a friend highly recommended it to me, and I'm liking it immensely. It's great televised fiction, rough and poetic, realist and idealistic. I have liked all the seasons so far, but the 4th stroke me particularly - focused on education, it's really heartbreaking. The script is incredibly strong, the performances all top notch. It's so good to watch a series that is certainly not forgettable, like one can't forget other old series (Brideshead Revisited comes to mind, in a totally different key). I highly recommend it.

terça-feira, julho 14, 2015

Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe, tome 2, de François-René de Chateaubriand

I like to read memoirs and biographies, and I absolutely love the French language. I started reading Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'Outre Tombe a few years ago on the internet, in project Gutenberg, but then they didn't have the second volume, so the reading was interrupted; I bought the second volume in Paris and it had been on my shelf for a couple of years, and now I read it. It's a very good read; Chateaubriand's conservative and religious convictions are sometimes very annoying, but he's a very keen observant and the period through which he lived is fascinating. This second volume deals mostly with the Napoleonic period, and what an incredible time it was. I guess Chateaubriand would be a kind of social democrat today, he valued freedom and morals above all. His descriptions are always vivid and he writes in the most beautiful French. I will order the other volumes of his memoirs soon.

A trip to Iceland

I had been wanting to visit Iceland for a long time, and this year I finally made it. I chose the end of June, to take advantage of the light all day long and because it's not too cold, and I loved the trip. Iceland is a kind of amplified blend between the Azores and Norway, but with its own unique character.

We arrived at Reykjavik at night, but it was light, since the sun doesn't set at this time of year. In the morning, we headed from our hotel to the city, guided by the bulky silhouette of Hallgrimsjirkja, a church that is so much bigger than the city around it that can be seen from everywhere dominating the city landscape. With a design inspired by the geometric basalt formations ubiquitous all through the island, the church is a beautiful building, with a spacious and very brightly lit interior and a terrific view from the tower over the city: the colourful houses, the blue sea and the snowy mountains in the horizon, a good introduction to Iceland.

From the church, we strolled down through the city to the harbour, then up again to the Parliament square and the lake; Reykjavik is a small city but with a cosmopolitan look, with all the tourists and the terraces of the cafés, and in a strikingly beautiful setting by the sea. It was sunny and warm, so we enjoyed the outdoors and spent some quality time sipping drinks in café terraces. The next day it wasn't so sunny - the weather in Iceland is very windy and it changes often in a matter of minutes - so we visited the Settlement Exhibition, the Iceland national Museum (both very good) and the Art Museum dedicated to contemporary art (mostly awful). We strolled by the seaside from the Harpa modern building to the beautiful Sun Voyager sculpture (with the inevitable Japanese tourists taking selfies) and the next day started our road trip around the island.

The car rental girl told us about the insurance conditions, how it covered gravel scratches - lots of gravel roads in Iceland - but not sandstorms' accidents and, before leaving, she said casually "Oh, and be careful when you open the doors, if the wind rips them away, it's not covered by the insurance either". We were a little perplexed, but later we would understand her point.

Road number 1, also known as the Ring Road, circles the whole island and is the best road in Iceland - which doesn't mean it's not gravel in some places. A rainy drive took us to Gullfoss, our first stop in the so called Golden Circle (Gullfoss, the Geysir and Þingvellir). Gullfoss it's an incredible waterfall, huge and stunningly beautiful. It was very cold, with the wind and the water blown from the waterfall, but I didn't think about it while I was watching it from every possible angle. After Gullfoss, we went to see the Geysir. The Geysir itself is inactive, but its neighbour the Strokkur erupts every 5 to 10 minutes and provides a gorgeous sight. Then, the Þingvellir Park is terrifically beautiful, we walked in the rift that separates the American from the European tectonic plaques, with the site of the ancient Icelandic parliament marked with a flag and a powerful waterfall with a pool where they used to drown women guilty of adultery.

After spending the night at Stokkseyri, a small fishing village, we went back east to the Reykjanes peninsula, a harsh landscape of lava fields with grey-green moss and a savage rocky coast beaten by wind and sea. In the middle, we had the experience of the Blue Lagoon, the beautiful very blue thermal pools that are the most visited tourist attraction in Iceland. Very touristily organized, it's worth the visit - the water is delightfully hot and the pools insanely beautiful, and it's a somewhat surreal experience to be immersed in the hot water in the drizzling cold rain, surrounded by the mist from the water vapour. The details of the organization are also interesting, especially the "shower police" (people who watch if you really shower naked before entering the pools).

Heading west along the south coast, we stopped at Hverasvaedid, a site with volcanic activity full of bubbling mudpots and sulphur stinking smokes, then at the beautiful waterfall of Skógafoss and drove across green pastures full of sheep and horses (of which there are lots in Iceland) and across the barren black basalt ashen deserts along the famous Eyjafjallajökull glacier that reminded me of the Capelinhos region in Faial, Azores, and arrived at the pretty village of Kirkjabaejaklaustur, with its scenic twin cataracts and the tallest trees in Iceland (a mostly treeless country) for the night. The Icelandic names are often long and difficult to pronounce, usually joining words - like klaustur (monastery), fjall (mountain), kirkja (church), foss (waterfall), etc. Sheep in Iceland are everywhere, fat, woolly, short-legged and totally unconcerned by the traffic - they crossed the roads anytime and one must pay them attention while driving. Horses are short and stocky, with long manes, very beautiful.

The next highlight was the Skaftafell Park, by the Vatnajökull glacier, the biggest glacier in Europe. The views of the glacier are stunning, and we walked across green slopes and several waterfalls until Svartifoss, a beautiful waterfall in a basalt cliff with hexagonal columns on both sides. From there, a short drive took us into one of the most surreally beautiful places in Iceland - Jökulsárlón, a lake full of big ice blocks in different shapes that come cut loose from the glacier and flow down to the sea. It's a really strange sight, from another world, the bluish blocks of ice in the lake, and then we can see them on the black sand beach and being washed to the sea. It was there that we understood the remark by the girl from the rental car, because the man at the hotel in Kirkjabaejaklaustur had told us that a few weeks before a wind storm had washed away to the see all the ice blocks, leaving the lake empty. After having seen the lake and the blocks, we believed that kind of wind could perfectly rip a door from a car.

In Höfn, a small town - every town is small in Iceland - we tasted the famous langoustine, which was very good, a "glacier beer" and a nice dessert imaginatively called "skyr volcano". Skyr is an Icelandic food that looks like yoghurt but is actually a kind of cream cheese, very tasty. There are very good fish dishes, namely soups; as for other Iceland delicacies, dried fish looks and tastes like carton, fermented shark is just plain awful (tastes like rotten meat, which is what it is) and I didn't tried sheep's head or ram's testicles. I was surprised to see whale meat on sale, I figured a civilised country like Iceland would support the ban on that meat.

The next night was spent at Vinland, near Egilsstadir, near the big lake of Lagarfljót, that claims to have a monster like Nessie. From there, we went to visit the Eastern Fjords. We headed first to Mjóifjördur; the road was gravel, and from a sunny and reasonably warm day we entered a region that was colder and colder, mistier and mistier, the road was getting worse and worse, and we ended up in a kind of Narnia in the fog, the road impassable without a 4 wheel drive, and turned back. So we went to Seydisfjördur instead, up a steep slope, across a snowy plateau, and down another steep slope, coming into this prettiest of places: the lovely harbour town of Seydisfjordur, with its colourful Norwegian wooden houses, in this scenic setting by the blue sea and among tall snowy mountains with small waterfalls running down.

Back on the Ring Road, we drove towards the Mývatn region, in North Iceland. The first stop was at Krafla, one of the most active volcanic regions. After a hike through lava fields and over snowy passes, we reached an area of sulphataras and hot ground, with very recent craters. Back to the road, we stopped then at another field of bubbling mudpots, before spending a very enjoyable couple of hours at the warm pools, under a blue sky and with a beautiful view over the lake Mývatn. The lake is beautiful, and we could see why it got its name - lake of the midges - after being attacked by swarms of tiny midges, annoying but much less than their Australian cousins in the Red Centre.

From Mývatn, we went east and stopped at the amazing Godafoss, still another waterfall, appropriately named the Waterfall of the Gods And then arrived of the scenic place of Draflastadir, with its church, graveyard and a couple of houses, and a very nice guesthouse. After a few days on the road, and having listened to all our cds in the car, we were listening to Icelandic radio - they have very nice music, and the sound of the language is sweet, with its ss it sounds a little provincial, and sometimes like people speaking Castillian.

Akureyri, the second city of Iceland, has about 17500 inhabitants, so it's a very small town, with a big church, a lively main street with cafés and shops and a colourful harbour. From there, we went through Blönduós, where we stayed at a very nice cabin by the river, and from there to the Snaefelsnes peninsula, in West Iceland. We passed fields with horses and sheep, mountains, and stopped at the beautiful ancient church at Hólar.

The Snaefellsnes peninsula is beautiful, with its coast of rocks and basalt beaches. The town of Stykkishólmur has a wonderful harbour and a strange new Age church, the small glacier Snaefellsjökul is beautiful, as are the villages of Hellnar and Arnarstapi, where Jules Verne placed the entrance to the centre of the Earth. The basalt cliffs are full of sea birds and the views are amazing. Then there's the pretty little church in Búdir, and the road along the coast to Borgarnes, another small harbour town.

We stayed at the Fossatún guesthouse, in a most beautiful place by a river with waterfalls; the next day we saw th Hraunfossar and Barnfoss, more waterfalls, and then went back to Reykjavik. On our last day in the city, we strolled through the streets, ate lobster soup at the harbour, drank beer in outside terraces and visited the sculpture museum ofÁsmundur Sveinsson.

So, all in all I really enjoyed this trip and loved the country, and hope to go back, and explore more, there's so much to see, and more places are available driving a 4x4 vehicle. And the people are mostly nice and helpful. Beautiful nature, a cosmopolitan city and nice people; what more can one ask for?

sábado, julho 11, 2015

Heaven and Hell, by Jón Kalmar Stefánsson

One of the things I enjoy doing while travelling abroad is to buy local books and get to know something of a country's literature. So, I bought a few Icelandic books in Reykjavik, and started with this one.

It's a good book, about life in a harsh place, growing up, dealing with death and learning to live. And I like I can visualize the places and understand it better after having been there; before, I had no idea Iceland was such a harsh place in terms of climate, I knew it was cold, but had not felt the wind or seen the savage barrenness of the lava fields or the rugged mountains. It's very interesting how there is a kind of "tone" to several of the Nordic authors I've read so far - reading Stefánsson reminded me somehow of the rhythm of Knut Hamsun, Casper Jensen, Peter Hoeg or Willem Moberg; this particular "tone" was one of the main reasons I started learning Swedish, I would like one day to be able to read it in the original. It sounds kind of austerely poetic, cannot put it in another way.

sexta-feira, julho 10, 2015

A case of the effects of religion

Having always been an atheist and being fortunate to live in a country where religion is mostly a non issue, I sometimes tend to forget how pernicious the influence of religion, and especially of religious conmen, can be. But then I am reminded.

There is this kid in our dialysis unit, he got HIV infection through vertical transmission, a couple of very foolish parents who never got him adequately treated and that eventually died of AIDS related diseases for lack of treating themselves. He stopped going to follow-up appointments in his teens and then showed up at 22 with full blown AIDS, with tuberculosis and HIV associated nephropathy that left him on dialysis. He was always a very sweet kid, and we all in the dialysis unit, full mostly of old people, cherished him dearly. He was never particularly responsible, and we always had a hard time making him go to medical appointments and take regularly his medications.

Then, last year, he became involved with a religious group, one of those Evangelical sects that started to bloom in Lisbon suburbs when we had a wave of Brazilian immigration in the 1990s. He was reading and studying "theology". We didn't care much, after all nobody cares much about religion and he seemed happy with it. Until, a few weeks ago, he stopped going to dialysis and left a message saying he was going to a religious retreat to get cured. We were obviously very concerned, but couldn't talk him out of it, and as an adult we couldn't stop him from doing what he wanted. We waited then, hoping he would come back when he would start feeling unwell.

After a couple of weeks, he showed up, looking emaciated, swollen and stinking of uremia. But he was convinced he was cured, and he wanted us to run some blood tests to confirm it. We told him we doubted it, and we did the blood tests to show him. As expected, the tests showed urea over 400 mg/dl and creatinine about 16 mg/dl. He couldn't believe it, he just looked at the results and cried, because he was so absolutely convinced he should have been cured by his faith. We tried to talk him into restarting dialysis, but he left saying he would think about it.

Another week went by, and then he was brought into the ER in acute pulmonary edema - when the retained fluids get into the lungs and cause respiratory distress - and he suffered a respiratory and cardiac stop, and was ressuscitated in the ER after 14 minutes in apnea, which is quite a while, but a young body can endure a lot. We dialysed him, and he woke up the next day, fortunately with no apparent neurologic deficits.

And the we heard his pastor had told them that we - the dialysis doctors, the dialysis nurses and his aunt, who is also a doctor - were the cause of his not being cured: our scepticism weakened his faith, and that was why he was still ill. How can you argue with that? It's the religious logic: if your prayers didn't work, it was because your faith was not strong enough. And we are the bad guys. I really don't know what will happen next, for the moment he seems really grateful to us for having saved him, but we have yet to see how he will feel after the crisis.

He's a grown up man, and responsible for his choices, but it's really infuriating to think of these pastors taking advantage of immaturity and despair and putting people's lives in danger. Let's just hope this kid sees what's really good for him; will he?

domingo, junho 28, 2015

Les Rois Maudits - La Loi des Mâles et La Louve de France, de Maurice Druon

Another two volumes of the historical series Les Rois Maudits. Thrilling and engaging, very much like A Game of Thrones for real, with no need for the supernatural, and much better written. A kind of I, Claudius in the Middle Ages, which is a compliment.

Nemesis, by Jo Nesbo

For a few years now, since I discovered them through a Norwegian friend, the excellent Jo Nesbo's thrillers have been my holidays reading. And they never let me down - it's just what you want from a thriller - intricate plots, twists, likeable characters. Harry Hole is a modern Philip Marlowe, and Oslo and Norway the perfect setting. Enjoyed it as always.

quinta-feira, junho 11, 2015

My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit

I liked this book, I think it's a very good book about Israel, its history and the problems it has faced through its few decades of existence and the challenges it faces today. Sometimes I thought it too guilt-ridden, almost a jeremiad, but all in all I found it quite balanced; one can see the author loves his country and tries to discuss openly its existential problems.

A few excerpts I found particularly relevant:

On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened. Both occupation and intimidation make the Israeli condition unique. Intimidation and occupation have become the two pillars of our condition. Most observers and analysts deny this duality. The ones on the left address occupation and overlook intimidation, while the ones on the right address intimidation and dismiss occupation.

...I worked out a theory of the Israeli Left: its fundamental flaw is that it had never distinguished between the issue of occupation and the issue of peace. Regarding the occupation, the Left was absolutely right. It realized the occupation was a moral, demographic, and political disaster. But regarding peace, the Left was somewhat naïve. It counted on a peace partner that was not really there. It assumed that because peace was needed, peace was feasible.

During these years, the percentage of school-aged children attending ultra-Orthodox schools has risen from 4 percent to nearly 20 percent. The percentage of school-aged children attending Arab schools has risen from 20 percent to 28 percent. So today, 48 percent of all school-aged children are enrolled in either ultra-Orthodox or Arab schools. An additional 14 percent are modern Orthodox. Only 38 percent are secular. That means that by 2030, Israel's shrinking secular Jewish majority will become a minority. Israel's cultural identity will change, and so will its socio-economic profile. Secular Israelis are the ones working, producing, and paying taxes. [...] Meanwhile, successive dysfunctional Israeli governments are doing the very opposite: they reward the non-working minorities and subsidize them and do not require them to take up modern and democratic education. [...] Fewer and fewer Israelis work more and more to feed nonworking Israelis. A flawed political system guarantees the special interests of the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, and the megarich.

Well, it's not all pessimism or gloom and doom. But it is very informative and I think it depicts the major issues in an honest way. A good read.

domingo, junho 07, 2015

The Good Nurse, by Charles Graeber

A very good book, in the tradition of the "journalistic novel", like In Cold Blood (without the writing virtuosity of Capote, though). It reads like a thriller, particularly the investigation part - it's as good as the TV series The Wire - and it feels like a horror story. Because it's really creepy. Worse than the murderous nurse's crimes, it's the hospitals' administrations attitude, worried about their reputation and not patients' safety. Actually what it most strikes one is that this guy wasn't particularly intelligent or careful - after all, it's very easy to kill patients in serious conditions in the ICU without arising suspicions. This nurse was sloppy and incompetent, he had a personal history of mental disturbances known to all, he was fired from multiple hospitals, but still he found it easy to be hired and put in the care of vulnerable patients. And not one of them was criminally prosecuted, even after having tried to stall the investigation in every way they could. Then, in the end, there's the surrealistic story of the kidney donation... All in all, chilling.