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.

sexta-feira, junho 05, 2015

A trip to Israel and Jordan

I went to Israel again, for the third time - there is a lot to see in this small Mediterranean country, with all its History and cultural diversity. This time I headed South, with a side trip to Jordan.

On arrival, I spent a day in Tel Aviv; having been there twice before, I just walked along the beach and the bustling streets in the centre, had dinner by the sea and rented a car to go south.

It was not easy to get out of Tel Aviv - lousy directions - but we made it and drove to Ashkelon, where we met a great Israeli friend, and had lunch in her garden, a most pleasant time of conversation over excellent Israeli food. Then we drove along a beautiful road across the Negev desert until Eilat - impressive landscape of rugged dry cliffs. Lots of warning signs about camels, but we saw none (we would later see several by the road in Jordan, in the same kind of desert landscape).

Eilat is not very interesting, just a resort like in the Algarve, very kitsh, with all the hotels and the roundabouts, but with a view over Jordan to the East and Egypt to the West, and a nice underwater observatory.

From Eilat, we went to Jordan, to visit Petra. The border crossing was uneventful - a no-men's-land between Israel and Jordan, lots of stamps in our passports, and then Aqaba, a small Arab town, with a lot of hotels and new buildings made possible by the touristic boom. Our Jordanian guide told us how the tourism had gone down because of the IS problems in the Middle East; they don't have any problems in Jordan - for the moment - but people are scared of going there anyway.

Southern Jordan is just a desert, there are some camels and Bedouins with goats along the road. We slept at Wadi Musa, and in the morning went to Petra.

Petra is an uber-famous place, and so I was expecting to be a little disappointed, but I wasn't. It actually deserves all its fame, it's stunning. First of all, the location - surrounded by mountains, only accessible through a narrow gorge, the Siq. From the site entry to the canyon, there are several carved rocks, tombs, houses and palaces, just a foretaste of what's to come. The Siq itself is one of the most impressive sights - the winding canyon, with a few carved tombs and palaces, the colours of the rock, the ancient waterpipe still visible today. And at the end, the sudden sight of the Tresoury, the most famous façade in Petra, it's absolutely beautiful.

After the Treasory, with all the tourist bustle, the camels and souvenir sellers, the ancient city opens before us - the gorgeous façades, the theater, the Roman ruins. We took a donkey ride to the Monastery, the second most famous site. It was a first for me, but I managed to stay seated until the end of the steep climb, even if I found the ride not that comfortable and the donkey a little hectic. But the Monastery was worth the ride, and we rested in a café in a cave lined with Bedouin rugs and a little skinny lamb greeted us there. We walked the way down, enjoying the beautiful views.

If it was cool in the morning when we arrived at Petra, it was quite hot when we left it, so we took the horse ride from the Siq until the entrance - another first for me, but I realized a horse is a much more comfortable ride than a donkey!

After a hearty Jordanian lunch, we headed South and took a jeep tour of Wadi Rum, which was also quite impressive. The desert landscape is beautiful in a unique way (and how very different this desert was, for example, from the red desert of Central Australia!), with the sand dunes, the basalt and limestone cliffs. We saw the ancient Bedouin inscriptions in the cliffs and camels movng slowly in the sun as they have done for centuries. Our guide, Sallah, was a very nice and sunny dispositioned young man, he took us for tea in the Lawrence canyon and, after talking about camel races, he took us to a camel race track where they were training young camels.

We went back to Eilat; I really enjoyed this side trip in Jordan, a country that seemed quiet and with nice people yearning for prosperity, as in any other place, I think. I'm sure there is much more to see, maybe I'll go back some day.

The road from Eilat to the Dead Sea, along the Jordanian border, is totally uninteresting - desert, without the rock formations we saw crossing the Negev on our way South. So the Dead Sea appears as quite a beautiful sight - a bright and shining green lake in the middle of the brown barrenness. We stopped at Ein Bokek - a hideous waterside resort, full of Russians - to have the bathing experience. It's true the water feels different, and the impulsion is much bigger than usual, but one cannot still walk over the water! I guess it's worth to try it once.

We slept at the Masada Hostel, and headed for the fortress in the morning. Masada is really stunning - the location is incredibly beautiful, a true eagle's nest over the bright Dead Sea. We took the cable car, figuring the ascent on foot by the Snake Path would be too burdensome. The views are amazing, as are the ruins. One can just imagine how impressive Herod's palace must have been when it was still standing - three terraces over the abyss. The Roman attack ramp is equally impressive, and it gives an idea of the Roman's military prowess. There were people celebrating in the remnants of the oldest surviving synagogue, and a happy bar mitzvah party, whose musicians went down with us in the cable car.

We drove then North to Jerusalem. It was my third time there, and I never get tired of that beautiful and fascinating city. There is more sightseeing than one can do in a lifetime, and all the History and the cultural and ethnic diversity are just delightful.

As a not religious - actually anti-religious - there are some things that annoy me in Jerusalem: the lots of ultra-orthodox Jews one sees everywhere, the way angry young Arabs and soldiers shoo us away when we come near the accesses to the Temple Mount, the people on their knees rubbing candles and images on the stone at the Holy Sepulchre, the crowds of Russian pilgrims in holy tours. But then, as someone who has been always fascinated by History, I remember all the complex - and so important for our own European history - it have been all the changes this city has endured, all the peoples and cultures and religions so affected by its life, and I regard those aspects as the expression of the intricate cultural melting pot it has become. Also, I feel I'm looking at a pivotal place in a young country in one of the most troubled regions in the world, where one can sense history happening, and not being sure of how the outcome will look like in a few years, which is extremely interesting. So, if you add the incredible beauty of the city, you can see how one can never get tired of it.

This time, I visited the Citadel, the fortress in the Old City, the Israel Museum - a very good archeological museum, especially the pre-Roman part - and wondered through the Old City, buying tiles in the Armenian shops and enjoying the sights. It was the centennial of the Armenian genocide, so there was a ceremony at the Holy Sepulchre and we watched the Orthodox priests go by, in their solemn black robes and hats and gold pectoral crosses.

And we had dinner again with another dear Israeli friend in the beautiful YMCA building, and once again I was pleased to hear a real - and intelligent - Israeli voice talking about the problems they face there, with all the nuances and human details that never reach us throught the media, always shallowly promoting a black and white picture of the situation.

So, I'm glad I went to Israel again, and Jordan, and I hope I will be back.

domingo, maio 10, 2015

Le Côté de Guermantes, de Marcel Proust

What a pleasure to read Proust. Le Côté de Guermantes is huge, in form and content. The long scenes of the soirée chez Madame de Villeparisis and the dinner at the Guermantes' are masterpieces, and the description of the Grandmother's illness and death realistic and touching. I never get tired of reading Proust, and I'm looking forward for Sodome et Gomorrhe to arrive so I can go on.

quarta-feira, abril 29, 2015

Les Rois Maudits - Le Roi de Fer, La Reine Étranglée, Les Poisons de la Couronne - de Maurice Druon

I always liked historical novels, it's such a pleasant way to learn about the past, especially when they're serious and well researched and are also enjoyable to read. The novels in this cycle of Les Rois Maudits are all this, so they were a most fortunate find. And one can see, reading these accounts of real events, that series like A Game of Thrones are not that far fetched... Already ordered the other 4 books of the series!

domingo, abril 12, 2015

You Can't Read This Book, by Nick Cohen

I like to read Nick Cohen's newspaper column, and I likde very much his book What's Left?. I think his is a sensible voice in a not usually sensible press in not that much sensible times. I totally agree with his views about the loony left and the present day censure, which he exposes so well in the cases of religion, the workplace and the state. A very good read.