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Reading Report: Books and Me in 2011

In Book Reviews, Culture, Reading, Writers, Writing on October 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm

My goal for this year was to read 80 books. I didn’t have a list of which ones; I learned my lesson a couple of years ago: I don’t stick to lists. I’m too ADD. I hear of a book that sounds interesting and I immediately get it out of the library, just so I have it at hand. I currently have approximately 75 books out of the two libraries I go to. (My husband works at one of them, so I can get out as many as I want on his card.)

I’m actually three ahead of where I need to be to finish 80 books by the end of the year. I’ve read 65 and those are just the ones that I actually finished. There are at least a dozen more that I got halfway through before I decided that they weren’t worth my time to finish them. They weren’t necessarily bad books; I just didn’t care for them or couldn’t get into them for some reason. And of course there’s always another book or more that’s tantalizing me from my bookshelf.

Recently I’ve been on a Scandinavian kick. Ever since I read Smilla’s Sense of Snow years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the Scandinavian novel. There’s something about their atmosphere that draws me to them. And then of course there was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who…  series which I finally read this year. From there I jumped to Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo and just the other day I got two books by an Icelandic author named Arnaldur Indridason that are supposed to be good. (Jar City and Silence of the Grave.)

I also continued my love affair with Philip Kerr‘s novels, particularly the Bernard Gunther detective series (which are set in Germany) and started a new one with Val McDermid. Kerr and McDermid both happen to be Scottish. Another Scottish writer I like is Ian Rankin. All of the above are mystery writers.

I have a theory about the mystery genre. Some people consider any genre writing to be commercial or even junk. While that may be true of some of it (James Patterson’s later novels come to mind), it is a gross misrepresentation of the better examples. I get a lot of flack for being a devourer of mysteries. Reading mysteries is considered to be like eating popcorn or penny candy, while literary fiction is likened to a gourmet meal.

I don’t buy that. I see literary novels as an acquired taste, like eating caviar. You’re not sure what you’ve gotten into and you may never be sure if it was worth the bother (and the cost, in time).  But with genre fiction, you know what to expect. The worst examples are the ones that are so formulaic all you have to do is insert new names and settings and you’ve got a new book. But the best … oh, the best are the ones that surprise you. You start out thinking that you’re going to read a mystery and you end up feeling like you’ve been given so much more.

Val McDermid does it with the character Tony Hill, a neurotic psychologist who aids the police in their investigations. Ian Rankin does it with the gritty pictures he draws of life in Edinburgh. Philip Kerr does it with his “inside look” at Germany before, during and after the Second World War. And the Scandinavian authors do it with a sense of place that lends itself to a particular life philosophy.

Mysteries provide us with a view of human nature at its worst and its best.  The criminals might be bad, but sometimes the heroes aren’t much better. And, like puzzles, they stimulate our intellect. Mystery readers are not typically passive readers. They become involved. Mysteries bring out the participant in us. In that sense, they are like movies of the mind. It’s no accident that mystery novels are made into movies more than any other kind of literary genre.

Every novel should have suspense in it, because that’s the way we live life. We never know what’s going to happen next. That’s why I like writing with surprises. It doesn’t have to be a mystery, or even fiction. Some of the nonfiction books I read this year earn high marks for bringing new insights and information into my life. I loved The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Midnight Disease, for instance.

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Thoughts About Islam

In Charity, Culture, Religion on November 20, 2009 at 12:23 pm

It’s been two months since I said my Shahada at the masjid on the last day of Ramadan. It was a pretty special, if hectic, day. I was so nervous. I’d never even been to a mosque before and everything except for my friends was strange. We were almost late for prayers and I ended up saying Shahada in the mosque office in front of my friends, the secretary and a man whose name I forget now. (He gave me a slip of paper with his name and phone number on it, but I don’t know where I put it!) Then we rushed upstairs while prayers were starting.

I’m not exactly unfamiliar with the experience of arriving late to church, but it’s a lot different from arriving late to prayers. Especially in the women’s room, I think. We just kind of joined right in. I didn’t know how to do my prayers at all at that point so I just followed my friends’ lead. Now I know the Fatihah and I’m working on the Tashahud. It’s a little hard right now to say my prayers because I broke my foot two weeks ago and I have to do them sitting down. I don’t like that much–it doesn’t feel right. But I’m trying to be patient.

I’m having trouble being patient about any of this, though. Now we’re in the holy days before the day of Arafat and this is all new to me, too. I don’t intend to slaughter a sheep but I will fast the day before. I don’t even know how to celebrate the Eid. I wish I could fix a meal and invite my kids to it. None of them has asked me anything about my new faith, not even if I can celebrate Christmas. (They do all know that I’m getting them presents.)

I just checked out a couple of sources about whether or not Muslims can celebrate Christmas. The general consensus seems to be that while we can’t celebrate it ourselves, we can be present for non-Muslim celebrations and even give gifts. Of course we’re to abstain from pork and alcohol. I find it convenient this year that Eid Al-Adha is on Thanksgiving (or the day after, I’m not sure which). It wouldn’t be if the kids and we were celebrating Thanksgiving on the actual holiday but we’re not, so I can fast that day.

I just donated $50 to the Mid-Ohio Foodbank in Connie’s name. I was prompted to do so because of the holy days we’re in right now. Hopefully my donation will bear great fruit (no pun intended). The web site said that each dollar donated is worth $8 of groceries. Good to know that I might be helping to buy $400 worth.

And that’s one thing that I like about Islam. There are all these reminders of what you should be doing for others. That’s not to say that Christians or Jews aren’t also urged to give, but they don’t have as many specific goals. And human beings need goals. That’s just the way we are. And besides, when you do give or do something for others, it’s okay if you tell other people about it if you’re saying that you do it because Allah tells us to; it’s one of the pillars of Islam.

I don’t know why Christianity didn’t awaken my philanthropic impulses the way Islam has. Why it’s easier for me to set goals for myself as a Muslim than it was when I was a Christian. There isn’t a huge difference in the way that Muslims and Christians look at many things (or Jews either), but for some reason, the way Islam puts things speaks to me more clearly.

Returning to Active Status

In Culture, Religion, Self Improvement on October 4, 2009 at 6:29 pm

I wrote in an earlier post that I was going through an existential crisis and I implied that the reason I haven’t been writing here is because I needed to resolve the crisis first. That is mainly true. I’ve also been having trouble writing posts in general, for any of my blogs, because I’ve been preoccupied with other activities.

I didn’t think that I’d be ready to announce what my crisis was for a while, because I thought it would take some time before I resolved it. As it turned out, though, things went pretty quickly and I’m now ready to reveal what has been keeping me from writing: I have become a Muslim.

There have been two parts to my struggle: one was deciding for myself what I believed and the other was telling others what I’ve decided. And obviously I had to tell family and close friends before I could blurt it out in one of my blogs.

I discussed it with my husband before I took the step. I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t been supportive, but I needn’t have worried: he’s been great. Then I told my daughters who were also accepting (if surprised). At that time I decided to say my profession of belief, or the Shahada, which is all you need to do to become a Muslim. I said it in the privacy of my own home, in front of a close Muslim friend and then finally in the mosque on the last day of Ramadan.

I had been observing Ramadan in my own way, which was to give up smoking. I haven’t smoked since August 22nd, and I don’t feel the urge to. I hadn’t had the nerve to fast, and didn’t feel that I had the right to anyway, since I wasn’t Muslim. After I made my Shahada the first time, which was about ten days before the end of Ramadan, I did attempt to fast, but I wasn’t very good at it. The Ramadan fast is a total fast (not even water) from dawn to dusk and I couldn’t do without some coffee in the morning to get me going. I wasn’t praying at that point, except for my own little baby prayers, but I still got up before dawn so that I could eat some breakfast before the fast officially started.

After I said my Shahada, it was explained to me that 1) all my sins from before were washed away; and 2) that Ramadan was a most auspicious time to make my decision. However, I recognize that celebrating Ramadan, in my feeble way, had a lot to do with my being ready to embrace Islam. The excitement level was so high and there was this hyper-awareness of the Islamic religion in the air, it was hard for me to not think about Islam. I tried to keep what I was feeling to the pages of my journal, but I finally had to talk it over with some of my Muslim friends. They answered a lot of my questions but didn’t try to push me one way or another.

I still have a lot of questions–I know nothing but the basics about the religion–and there’s a lot I have to get used to. Like praying five times a day. Deciding what to do about the headscarf  (I do wear it when I pray and at the mosque). Learning where to shop and how to cook halal (permitted) food. But those are all externals. What really matters is what’s going on in my heart.

And at least there I feel at peace.

Where I’d Like to Live

In Culture, International, Opinion, Reading, Travel on September 8, 2009 at 7:45 am

One of my daughters asked me the other day where I would live if I could live anywhere I wanted to. I had a hard time answering that question. I haven’t been to all that many places and I almost always find something to love in every one of them.

If I could live anywhere, regardless of cost or opportunity, it wouldn’t be in the United States. I love the States and I’m proud to be an American, but I would love to live in Europe, preferably in Germany where I sort of know the language and have in-laws.  The problem with living in Europe is that I’d be so far away from my children and grandchild. Ideally I would live in Germany half the year and the States the other half. And when I was in Germany, they could always come and visit. (Remember, I said regardless of cost.)

I was in Germany when 9/11 occurred and the sympathy and outrage the German people expressed was moving. It made me realize that we’re all in this together on this planet. If I’d been in the States when it happened I think I would have experienced it much differently. More parochially.

I loved being in Europe because it’s so communal. Whether they like it or not, all these countries are within hours of each other. In the time it would take to drive from the East coast to the West coast in the U.S., you could travel all around Europe and still have time left over. That’s an exciting concept. I still remember how thrilling it was to me as a child whenever we visited Canada. The differences were obvious as soon as we crossed the border, let alone when we drove 300 miles north of Toronto. Even something as small as the lack of trash blowing around the streets and highways made me realize that we were in a different land.

I don’t necessarily have to move somewhere to add it to my life experience. Once I’ve traveled to a place, and particularly if I spend some time there, I can imagine living there even if I never go there again. That’s why travel is so important. The next most important activity you can engage in is reading. Not your average travelogue, but a novel perhaps. For example, I once read a novel set in Papua New Guinea (I wish I could remember the name) and now I feel like I’ve been there more than I think I would if I’d just watched a video. Being put in the place of the narrator will do that for–and to–you.  A couple years later I chose Papua New Guinea as a country to study in an agricultural economics course and found that many of my assumptions about life there were true. It was a rewarding experience.

So until I have enough money to travel more, I’ll keep on reading. And imagining.

“Natural Born” Presidents

In Culture, International, Opinion, Politics on July 28, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Michael Lind asks on Salon.com why an immigrant couldn’t be President of the United States. It’s an interesting article, and one that the so-called “Birthers” should read. He lists the three ways you can become a citizen of the United States and explains the probable reason why the “natural born” qualification was was included in the Constitution. (If, as the Birthers would have it, “natural born” means being born on American soil, then even John McCain wasn’t eligible: he was born in the Panama Canal Zone.)

Why are the Birthers so upset about this issue? What would be so bad about having a president who was foreign born? Read the article. It will make you think.

Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

In Book Reviews, Culture, International, Reading on July 8, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi


My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
A wonderful mix of literary criticism and political history, this is the author’s recounting of the years she spent in her native country, Iran. She lived there during the Revolution and her description of what happened then is harrowing, but oddly fatalistic. She writes about friends being executed, of the morality police making surprise home inspections (looking for satellite dishes), of the oppression of women with as much (or less) passion than she writes about Nabakov, Jane Austen and others. A great look into one person’s everyday life while her world is falling apart around her.

View all my reviews.

My New View of God

In Culture, International, Opinion, Religion on June 6, 2009 at 11:42 am

After reading A History of God by Karen Armstrong (most of which was beyond me, I admit) I have come to the conclusion that it is sacriligeous for any of us to say that we have the last word on God. Why? Because God, by His very nature, is beyond our comprehension. It’s even sacriligeous for us to call Him “Him.” That’s one reason why I always capitalize pronouns that refer to God, to differentiate between Him and a human man. I would call Him “She” except that would be perpetuating the same misconception. And since I can’t quite handle calling God “It,” I use the male pronouns.

But the probable truth is, God is “It.” The “It.” Like most “its,” He is subject to misunderstandings and met with confusion. And humans don’t like to be in the dark about their gods. Any of our gods. We want to have total grasp of any and all subjects: biology, psychology, chemistry, physics, theology–the list is legion. And when we don’t–or can’t–have total understanding, we make things up to make ourselves feel better.

I wouldn’t say that I have lost my faith, because I still believe in God. I just think it is limiting to latch onto one interpretation of His nature, whether that be Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Druidism or whatever. I think some explanations have more merit than others, but it is hard for me to say–at this point in my life–that any one explanation is the only true or full explanation. How can God be captured like that?

If we were to be totally honest, isn’t it more accurate to say that “this is the way I experience God”? And since we are all products of our upbringing, history, culture and psychology, doesn’t it make sense that we are going to have different experiences? I believe that God exists, but I also think that people try to make Him fit into their version of reality. People who need a great deal of structure in their life are going to be more likely to identify with a specific set of doctrines, for instance. Or people who see God as an agent in history (or rather, the Agent in history) are going to experience Him in the context of their history.

Thus the Jews hold onto their conception of the Creator God and themselves as His chosen people. Christians have shaped their religion around the philosophies of the church fathers and have identified with a Triune God.  And Muslims see God as the last word in faith and history (according to Mohammad). Obviously I am oversimplifying here. And I’m leaving out the other belief and thought systems. But these are just examples.

I was raised as a Christian. Not only that, but as a Lutheran. I learned to identify with Martin Luther, the apostle Paul and Jesus Christ. (Not necessarily in that order.) It all made perfect sense to me. I was never beset with doubts about the Trinity or the resurrection of the body.  When I became an adult, I joined the Methodist church where I learned about John Wesley and the doctrine of works, not just faith, and the second blessing. Not long after that, I became a born-again Christian. I remained in the Methodist church, but identified with non-denominationals, probably because I felt constricted by the Methodist–and Lutheran–doctrines. I sensed that denominational differences had more to do with historical events and persons than with revelation.

Lately, I have been learning more about Islam and I realize that it, too, fits the culture out of which it grew. I don’t come out of that culture; hence, it seems foreign to me. At the same time, I recognize that Allah is as valid a concept as the God of Israel or the Triune God.  What, other than my background, keeps me from “trying on” another belief system? If I try to use reason and base my choice on comparisons among religions, I come away with the realization that they all have something to recommend them. But they also all have things that don’t make sense to me, or I don’t agree with, or I can’t see making such a big deal about. And I have to take that all into account. I can’t experience God without being who I am.

“Religulous”

In Culture, Opinion, Religion, Self Improvement on May 16, 2009 at 6:41 am

My husband and I watched Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous” the other night. I had a pretty good idea what itwould be like: Maher drilling holes in the beliefs of religious people. I know his style from his stand-up comedy. You could say that he’s the epitome of irreligious. He’s also pretty darn irreverent. Some of his act is just that: an act. But I got the impression that he was serious when he argued with and at times ridiculed the people he was interviewing.

He was asked by a couple of people in the film: “What if you’re wrong (about not believing in God)?” One time he answered, “Well, that’s a pretty lame reason to believe in God.” (I’m paraphrasing; I don’t remember what was said word for word.) Another time he asked back: “What if you’re wrong?” I don’t think he thought that through. If a Christian is wrong, it’s not like he is going to have something bad happen to him. He’ll just die and that’s it. But if an unbeliever is wrong (about the afterlife), he’s going to be mighty unhappy about the outcome.

I agree with Maher that that’s not the most ideal reason to believe in God. That’s not true faith anyway; that’s just fear. I suppose that’s not the worst reason to believe in God: because you’re afraid of Him. But as a Christian, I don’t believe that’s what God intended. He wants us to do what we do out of gratitude and love. I’m not going to get preachy here. I have my own doubts. And in that I agree with Mayer: having doubts is a sign of maturity.

If we believe out of fear, or habit, or only because we were raised in a particular faith, our belief system will be weak. It’s only when we have thoroughly examined God, our church’s doctrine and our own beliefs that we can consider ourselves grown-up. Anything less is for babies. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be immature sometimes, especially when we’re first starting out. But hopefully, we will allow room in our souls for honest inquiry.

True Leadership

In Culture, Politics, Self Improvement on May 7, 2009 at 7:18 am

“A true leader does not take the public to where the public happens to be, because the public is already there. A leader takes the public to where the public should be, according to that leader’s view of the society’s highest ideals – ideals that the public shares but which have not yet been realized.”

So says Robert Reich in a post this morning on Salon.com.  This is one of the best definitions of a leader that I have ever read.

Only time will tell if this definition applies to Obama, but so far he seems to fit the criteria. There have been many examples, but one that strikes me the most is his stance on gay marriage. He hasn’t said overtly that he is for gay marriage, but he has been totally supportive of gay rights, and ultimately those rights include the right to marry. Since he’s been in office, several states have either changed their laws to allow gay marriage or are in the process of revisiting them. But before Obama became President, the states seemed to be influenced by the Religious Right and conservatives in general.

Even so, there has been a relaxing of this society’s antipathy toward homosexuality over the past decades. Witness shows like “Grace and Will”, movies like “Philadelphia” and the acceptance of Ellen Degeneres, an “open” lesbian, as a talk show host. And these are but a few examples. Acceptance has been slow but steady. It is only a matter of time before most of the states recognize the validity of gay marriages. But it has taken a true leader to give the public the encouragement it needed to follow its instincts.

You could argue that the public doesn’t know what it wants, but only follows the lead of those at the top. But that argument underestimates the public’s ability to rock the boat when its leaders set a firm course toward a destination it does not desire. Most people are not activists. They prefer to stay in the background and to preserve the status quo. It has been easier for the past eight years to follow the path set by Bush and his ilk, partly because he led by fear-mongering: fear of change, of challenging traditional values, of breaking with the past. However, that doesn’t mean that the majority actually believed the same way Bush did.

I believe that most people believe in their innermost beings that being tolerant is the most important characteristic to have if we are to solve our societal problems. They demonstrated their tolerance when they voted Obama into office. If you would have told me right after 9/11 that we would, a scant eight years later, elect a president whose middle name was Hussein, I would have said you were crazy. I never expected to see a black president in my lifetime. People were ready for change, not so much because they embrace it (most people don’t), but because Obama provided what they had been needing: a leader who will bring out the best in them.

For the past eight years we have been locked into a mentality that chafed us. We didn’t want to be racist, to be a nation of xenophobes, to go to war, to turn our back on the most unfortunate in our society. We wanted to be open and accepting–that has always been the American way. Yes, I know that there are still plenty of bigots and isolationists who would be happy to turn things back to the ’50s. But most people would rather look ahead and explore a world that has been waiting to be born.

And thank God, we have a leader who is ready to assist in the delivery.

Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) Is Back

In Culture, Music on May 6, 2009 at 1:35 pm

One of my all-time favorite records is Tea For the Tillerman by Cat Stevens. I was as mystified as anyone when he dropped out of the music scene and converted to Islam. The latest issue of Newsweek has an article about his recent reemergence in the music scene. Here is a 36-minute documentary about his journey.