Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Pianist from Syria by Aeham Ahmad


I am listening to Adagios, The Best Classical Relaxing Music.



This is one of the most poignant, painful and necessary reads for everyone who lives in the First World.

Aeham Ahmad starts the book describing his life as a Palestinian refugee in Yarmouk, a suburb of Damascas. Life isn't easy with a scary government, and corruption in every facet of life. Even getting a decent schooling is extremely hard to attain. Even if you are rich and can afford the best schools, many of the teachers there got their positions by means other than ability, so good luck with that.

On top of that, Ahmad, coming from a lower class, is treated with contempt. Nevertheless he and his father, both musicians, are determined to pursue Ahmad's dream of being a concert pianist.

After school, Ahmad, with his father start a musical instrument business where they provide both instruments and lessons. He gets married, has children.

As a Westerner, I found Ahmad's descriptions of his life and culture, how he met and married his wife (very different from here) interesting from a cultural point of view. His family immediate and extended live in the same apartment building. Life without your family members is unthinkable.

Life in Yarmouk is walking on eggshells to make sure you do nothing to tick off the government and end up in one of their torture chambers, conveniently located beneath the government capital. This is normal. His brother disappeared for an unknown reason and has never been seen again.

As difficult maintaining this balance is, it all comes crashing down as war between Isis and the government escalates. By the end of a year, Yarmouk is a pile of rubble. People are eating grass to survive.

Yet, Aeham Ahmad is determined to continue his life as a musician as much as possible. Their store is demolished, but no one can afford lessons or instruments anyway. Aeham salvages one piano, beat up and out of tune, and with his friends, they push it around the city and sing and play. They write songs, other citizens give them poems that they put music to. They start a children's choir.

Then one of their singers, a little girl, is shot down by a sniper. Snipers are everywhere. Some are Isis, some are the government's snipers. Lines a mile long snake around an area where the UN is providing food baskets, but only old people and children may get in line. If a young man gets in line, he is in danger of getting shot down by a sniper.

Does anyone in the West know what this is like? Trying to travel anywhere involves checkpoints and lots and lots of money to grease hands. If a soldier is in a bad mood, he won't let you pass. If you're belligerent, or if the soldier doesn't like your face, you're taken away, sometimes never to return or to return a battered shell of what you once were.

Finally, Aeham was able to leave Syria and move to Germany, but that journey is a harrowing read all by itself. He had to leave his family, some of them permanently, others, his wife and children were able to come a couple of years later.

I am looking at what is going on in my country with looting and rioting, tearing down statues of men long dead. Maybe those disgruntled First Worlders need to go live in a country like Syria for a while and get some perspective. Maybe even some gratitude for living in a country where you're not in fear all the time.

I wish Ahmad all the best and my prayers go out to every person living in such sad situations around the world.

 Here is a link to Aeham playing in Syria.  The video is in German, but you can see him playing on the streets in Yarmouk.


The Pianist from Syria 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Darwin: Portrait of a Genius by Paul Johnson

Here are the Sonatas by Johannes Brahms.

Darwin: Portrait of a GeniusDarwin: Portrait of a Genius by Paul  Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I never thought I'd read a book about Darwin, but I'm glad I did. This was a good biography, although not exhaustive.

Johnson describes Darwin's family background, his devotion to his wife who was a committed Christian, as well as his reluctance in telling her he was not a believer. It turns out her love was unconditional and he needn't have worried.

Several interesting points. First Darwin's travels to the Galapagos island, his observations of plant life and small animal life, how there seemed to be a gradation in life form from simple to complex and his conclusion that the simpler forms must have developed into the more complex.

While he does not cite anything he actually observed, such as life forms in transition from one to the other, he jumps to this conclusion. He does not explain why, if this were so, why the simpler forms still existed. He must have concluded that only some of the simpler forms evolved while others remained. Or perhaps that there were even simpler life forms invisible to the eye. Ironically, his book "Origins" does not address the origin of all life form.

His theory of evolution involves the process of natural selection. Weaker life forms are destroyed by stronger life forms, thereby directing the development of genes into stronger, more adaptable life. Darwin saw natural selection as cruel and savage and also absolutely necessary for evolution.

Furthermore, Darwin did not stop with animal life. He concluded that this was the process by which man survives. He based this observation on the "savage" life style of the primitive tribes he encountered and also the brutal methods used by European colonialists on less developed people groups. He concluded that since they were less developed in technology, culture and morals they must also be simpler and less evolved and therefore, the process of natural selection, the stronger destroying the weak was inevitable.

Darwin was against birth control and the advancement of medicine because he believed it interfered with this natural process.

The author takes an interesting, if inconsistent stance. While he agrees with Darwin's theory of the evolution of animal life, he draws the line at man's inhumanity to man, but why? Isn't that the logical conclusion of such a theory?

Hitler, Nietzsche and Mao Zedong thought so. So did Pol Pot.

"Pol Pot, introduced by his professor Jean-Paul Sartre to the idea of evolution to higher forms, translated the theory in terms of Cambodia into an urban-rural struggle in which one fourth of the population died.

In the twentieth century, it is likely that over 100 million people were killed or starved to death as a result of totalitarian regimes infected with varieties of social Darwinism.

But then Darwin himself had always insisted on the high percentage of destruction involved in breeding, whether of seeds, embryos, births, of even mature birds, mammals and species in general.

Nature, he believed, is always profuse, in death as well as life, and if he had been asked to reflect on the human toll of 'struggle' in the twentieth century, he would certainly have pointed out that the world population nevertheless dramatically increased throughout the period." (pg. 158, Chapter 7)

I have to quote an enlightening passage on pg. 132:

"It is curious that, although sterilization has been practiced on a large scale all over the world, especially in Scandinavia, no investigation has been made to discover whether national dysgenic programs have had any statistically discernible effect on societies. Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Estonia all passed laws, and Sweden actually sterilized 65,000 people....Except for Canada, the British Empire rejected sterilization, thanks largely to a vigorous campaign conducted by G.K. Chesterton...he was helped by Aldous Huxley in 1932 (who wrote) Brave New World, which pictured a 'dark Utopia' in which science was used in innumerable ways to create a hygienically perfect but docile and submissive population."

Johnson continues on pg. 133 to describe George Eliot's concern that,

"Darwinian natural selection was a dangerous form of determinism, which would extinguish free will and the human instinct for freedom. It was also a sally against the bright utopia preached by H.G. Wells, in which science was king. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and many other socialist intellectuals favored both eugenics and dysgenics and would have condemned to sterilization or even death all the mentally unfit if they could have brought to power a government to their taste."

Good old Chesterton. I always knew I loved that guy.

As a Christian, I believe God designed us perfectly, with the fall of man entered corruption both physically and mentally and I think that anyone who could justify murdering even one person regardless of the health, mental abilities or in utero believes so because their minds are depraved and only reinforces my belief in the veracity of Scripture "The heart of man is desperately wicked. Who can discern it?" Jeremiah 17:9

Next on my list is Origins. I'm eager to read it now.

View all my reviews

                  Oil on wood.  I had a lot of fun making this.

And when, as a joke, I showed how I got blue paint in my hair to friends, they all complimented me on my hair streaks.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes by Anita Loos

Here are Haydn's Paris Symphonies.

See the pretty little pink bits?  I managed to occupy Hercule the Destroyer with an eraser while I typed.  Like to see what I'm typing on? I'd like to ring my little Ringneck's neck.  Unfortunately parrots are like three year olds holding scissors that you can never discipline.

And I got to type with Percy on my head.  I wish you could hear him whistling along with Haydn.

Gentlemen Prefer BlondesGentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the story, first person diary form, of a little blonde girl from Little Rock, Arkansas who is apparently so mesmerizingly pretty that every man who comes into contact with her wants her for himself and finds himself, not always willingly, spending oodles of money on her, in New York and abroad. This little blonde is able to swindle any man, married or single. She is the ultimate gold digger.

The writing is fluid and funny in that the protagonist, Lorelei Lee, writes like she is some wide-eyed air head, yet she knows what she wants. Stuff. Expensive stuff and lots of it. Men are her means of getting it. One wonders if she knows this is a young woman's profession and she might want to get a nursing degree or something before she ages out of her career.

While initially I enjoyed the book, it got a little monotonous and, frankly, I didn't like Lorelei very much. She gives a bad name to women, although I know the author, Loos, was parodying a type, I found myself rooting for the stupid men she came across.

The book is much better than the movie. Unless you like watching Marilyn Monroe and Rosalind Russell pose around, singing inane songs.

View all my reviews

 But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady (20th-century Classics)But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady by Anita Loos

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes is the follow up to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Both are tongue in cheek satire on the expected inter relationship between men and women as portrayed in Hollywood movies. Rich man falls in love with poor, sweet, innocent girl from nowhere.

Except though Loos' women may be innocent, they're not stupid. Men seem to helplessly fall in love, or at least have wolfish objectives, yet the women somehow come out on top. Often this seems to be due to dumb luck, more than anything.

In this book, Lorelei is still writing in her diary, but this time instead of writing about herself and her love life, she writes about her friend Dorothy, whom we met in the first book as a sidekick of Lorelei's.

We learn Dorothy grew up in a carnival, but was "rescued" by a sheriff who had "noble intentions" to make her an honest woman. It turns out the sheriff is not able to carry out his heroic plan due to a blonde secretary that apparently has enough information on him to keep him away from Dorothy.

So Dorothy ends up eventually in New York where she joins Zigfeld Follies and is discovered by a rich man who wants to marry her, however, his mother does not think she is quite their kind. All sorts of shenanigans follow, a la Buster Keaton and Dorothy ends up marrying a sax player who ends up being a lout, so the rich guy pays for her to travel to Paris to get a divorce, only the mother pays for a lawyer to make it so Dorothy has no grounds for divorce.

It's all very silly, but written with such fluid grace and wit that it is easy to zoom through the whole book, rather like riding a toboggan down a snowy hill.

I don't know if I'll read more of Loos. The two books I've read were all fun and games, however, I think I'm satiated with her brand of social satire. But who knows?

View all my reviews


Sunday, August 9, 2020

Washington's Monument and the Fascinating History of the Obelisk by John Steele Gordon; The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes Edited by Lucy H Spelman, DVM and Ted Y. Mashima, DVM; A Cotswold Mystery by Rebecca Tope

Here is piano music by Jeroen van Veen.

I've been reading a lot of books and frankly, I don't have time for indepth reviews for the moment, so here's the skinny on the last three books I've read:

Washington's Monument: And the Fascinating History of the ObeliskWashington's Monument: And the Fascinating History of the Obelisk by John Steele Gordon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a lively and fascinating account of how an obelisk was chosen and built to commemorate our first president. It also provides an interesting history of the obelisk itself and how European countries and later America came to possess some of these ancient relics of the past.

It sounds like it would be mundane, but some of the best parts was learning about the men who carried out the transporting of these giant stone structures and how they did it. No mean feat before modern technology.

View all my reviews

The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes: And Other Surprising True Stories of Zoo Vets and their PatientsThe Rhino with Glue-On Shoes: And Other Surprising True Stories of Zoo Vets and their Patients by Lucy H. Spelman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a lucky impulse buy. I couldn't resist the title and the book did not disappoint.

Spelman, a veterinarian, has compiled a large collection of essays by her fellow veterinarians who have exotic animals for patients.

We not only meet a rhino whose sore, blistering feet from the cement in the zoo, gets temporary shoes until a viable habitat is made, we also meet a moray eel who refuses to eat, an ill octopus, a polar bear with a stomach ulcer, a giraffe who needs a leg brace, a hippo who gets a root canal, even a pet goldfish with cancer.

All of the essays are written with charm and by vets who dearly love their patients. Any animal lover would enjoy this book.

View all my reviews

A Cotswold Mystery (Thea Osborne, #4)A Cotswold Mystery by Rebecca Tope

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thea is back and this time she's not only house-sitting, she's granny-sitting as well.

The couple she is sitting for have an elderly mother living next door and, while she's not supposed to really interact with her, or let her into the house. She is somehow supposed to stay on top of her and know when she leaves her home (there's a buzzer connected to the front door).

The old lady, Gladys, is a mysterious character. She acts flighty and senile half the time, but the other half, she's quite lucid and shrewd.

Her daughter, Jessica, has come to stay with her. She has just had a traumatic experience as a rookie cop. She needs a mother's reassurance. However, Thea has her own angst and there is a tug of war as mother and daughter struggle through their relationship with each other.

On top of all that, Thea finds a dead body next door. The dead man, an elderly friend of Gladys, has been stabbed and then dragged into the kitchen. Why? What is the motive? Who had the means and opportunity?

That is the outline, in the meantime we see Thea as she relates with her daughter and how she regards her budding relationship with the police inspector Phil, whom she met in the first of this series.

The characters in this Cotswold village give this American another slice of what small English village life is like, which I enjoy.

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 2, 2020

A Cotswald Killing by Rebecca Tope

I'm listening to works for the Viola de Gamba by the French composer Marin Marais.

A Cotswold Killing (Thea Osborne, #1)A Cotswold Killing by Rebecca Tope

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OK, I have to start this review with a little story. As my blog followers know, I belong to an international postcard club. I receive cards from all over the world from interesting people. It's been great fun.

Recently, I received a nice card from the UK by a woman who enjoys writing. Well, I am supportive of aspiring writers and told her I would like to read some of her stuff. She directed me to Amazon where I bought a Kindle version of a Cotswold Killing. Shortly into the book I realized that if this was an aspiring writer she was extremely good. I've read and reviewed so much tripe from people asking me to review their book that I've stopped accepting review requests.

This was not tripe. This was a great read. I believe it falls under the category of cozy mystery and it was just a lot of fun. I should also mention that Rebecca Tope is not an aspiring writer but has three best selling crime series under her belt. Yes, my face is a little red.

But who cares? I'm glad to discover more wonderful weekend reads.

A newly widowed woman, Thea, and her spaniel Hepzibah, have decided to house sit around the Cotswalds. Her first job house sitting brings her to a murder in her very backyard.

And that is the premise. I don't want to give any of the plot away, because the whole point of a mystery is to be mystified until the end.

But I want to tell you what I liked about the story in order to allow all of you to be able to make an informed decision about whether Ms. Tope's writing is your cup of tea or not. I say that because some of the reviewers on Amazon were critical of the very thing that I liked about her story.

We read the story from Thea's perspective in the limited third perspective. This is my favorite method of narration. Either in first person or limited third, I like following along inside the head of one person, getting their perspective, whether reliable or not, because a good writer can present reality through an unreliable narrator.

Thea is a flawed individual. She's depressed. The pain of losing her husband is very raw. She's tired of hurting and she tries to distract herself by hurting herself and by getting out of the environment she spent with her husband. I'll admit that someone hurting herself (not self-mutilation, she keeps a thumbnail sore and bleeding with a pin) was a bit strange to me.

But I decided that this really happens. People who are severely depressed are trying to crawl out of their hole. Other than that little bit, Thea is pretty normal.

Thea's character as well as the other characters are very real and convincing. At first I felt the other characters were all going to be mere shadows. Unpleasant people who make Thea feel like an outsider and they initially come across that way: distant, suspicious, unhelpful.

However, a number of them start to thaw and show a human side to her. Nevertheless, somebody murdered a local farmer and from the evidence they could not have done it alone, so as to be expected, not everyone is going to be friendly and helpful.

But is it as simple as that? Are the unfriendly people guilty of murder or do the friendly people have something to hide as well? There are wheels within wheels.

While starting a bit dark in tone, we see glimmers of light through every character trying to live their lives as best they can while all of them must come to terms with the tragedy that has been thrust upon them.

And, of course for the reader is the question, why was the farmer murdered?

Quibbles? I found it hard to keep track of everyone, but I think a lot of this was due to reading on a Kindle and I don't know how to go back and forth on it so I had to remember the best I could who went with what name. Not very hard, but that is my only complaint.

I look forward to reading more from Ms. Tope.

View all my reviews