"They Called Themselves the K.K.K." by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Most of us today would probably identify KKK as an anti-Christian cult in some action movies. But the truth remains that just like other extremist groups that exist today, this hate group was born out of a dissatisfied "losers" in the post-Civil War era. These bigots then attempted to answer such deficiencies with hatred towards "others", akin to the way some German politicians gave birth to the Nazism using Versailles Treaty as an excuse.

The book, however, does not attempt to give a voice to the culprits. Rather, it portrays them as a dark spot in our history that must never be forgotten. Because, as a famous politician said one day, history is bound to repeat itself if we forget. May such a culture of hate and terror be extinguished one day.

Verdict: 6 out of 10 stars


British Ambassador to North Korea: the Unluckiest Diplomatic Post Today

Karen Wolstenholme must have done something terribly wrong.

She is in what is probably the most unfortunate diplomatic post in the world: to become the British ambassador to the hermit country of Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Instead of an honour, it sounds more like a punishment, especially since she used to have diplomatic posts in popular "vacation spots" such as Vienna, Den Haag, and Paris.

Granted, as a foreign diplomat, she must have been given access to what most citizens of North Korea consider a luxury, such as three meals a day, basic sanitation and running water, and access to internet. She might even be allowed to play golf with some top North Korean government officials.

However, it is still a shitty job: there is no denying that.

Not only she can't speak out against the regime (otherwise risk deportation/expulsion), she also has little freedom to travel anywhere in the country without proper authorisations.


"The Piano Teacher" by Elfriede Jelinek

I have never understood why this book is so popular that it gains the title of classic. There is hardly any salacious scenes as those so-called top-notch reviewers say, and instead of putting those scenes into her real life, the author Jelinek has linked most of the story with odd Freudian fantasies of the main protagonist... Such an uneasy combination, I say.

For you ordinary mortals out there, don't waste your time reading this book. I read it until the very last page, hoping to find any redeeming quality that I may be able to put here. But rest assured, there are none.

"The Piano Teacher" is, in short, a complete disappointment and an utter waste of time.

Verdict: 1 out of 10 stars


Why Animal-Lovers Tend to be Kind-Hearted

Milan Kundera once said that

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power.

In her fourth work of Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling also put these words on Dumbledore’s mouth,

If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.

Indeed, when we decide adopt pets and decide to take care and nourish them, we have shown God and society that we are capable of love towards even the littlest of God’s creature. Even when we receive nothing in return from them.

I own a domestic shorthair cat myself. I also adore others out there who have pets of their own, especially cat- and dog-owners. Often they are busy, working parents with full-time jobs and several kids, but they still manage to find time and energy to bathe and walk their pets too.

Animal-lovers are indeed amazing people. If you are one, I give a pat on the back for ya!

Your love towards your pets (and vice versa) is called unconditional love, and perhaps it is the only type of unconditional love there is.


"The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World Via Its Worst Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes" by Carl Hoffman

What does it feel like traveling 50,000 miles across the globe on what statistically appear to be the most dangerous flights, boats and buses?

Ask Carl Hoffman.

His book “The Lunatic Express” piqued my interest as I browsed its cover flap and found author Hoffman summarizing the dangers of sinking in an Indonesian ferry. And guess what? He took one of the most notoriously and statistically  dangerous ferries from Jakarta to the strife-stricken city of Ambon (I have taken an Indonesian ferry myself, and “safe” and “comfortable” were not among the first adjectives I’d use to describe that experience).

Having worked for National Geographic for decades, Hoffman is accustomed to the occasional dangers and quirks posed by the demands of his job. However, in a style reminiscent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s travels in “Eat, Pray, Love,” Hoffman tries to search his soul while simultaneously taking a break from his crumbling marriage by seeing the world via some of its most inconvenient, filthy, and downright scary methods of transportation.

All the flights he jotted down have been banned from entering European Union airspace, as he dubbed them “flying coffins.”

What a whacky way to travel, no?

My main critique of “Lunatic Express” are the missing legs of the journey. Having written in detail about the discomfort of taking the Peruvian bus, or getting acquainted with fellow passengers on Bangladeshi ferries, one could not help but wonder how he could have intentionally neglected to mention anything on his flight from Peru to Kenya, or from Vladivostok back to Los Angeles, for example. It would be entirely excusable if he had written that he had taken some safer flight, but Hoffman skipped such a disclaimer.

In certain chapters, Hoffman may also seem to be contradicting himself by complaining how much he misses home and how his travels have separated him from his (ex? current? He doesn’t really say!) wife ... even though it is obvious from the very first chapter that he says that this journey is 100 percent of his own volition.

On the whole, however, “Lunatic Express” was a rich travel narrative over five months. The author Hoffman deserved a movie-remake much more than Elizabeth Gilbert did. It would make a gripping Anthony Bourdain-esque thriller.

Verdict: 9 out of 10 stars

This post is republished in The Jakarta Globe on 17th of April, 2012.


Why True Love is a Myth and It's Plato’s Fault

The modern notion of “soul mate”, that there is someone out there who is just the right mate for us, is actually based on an old myth.

Plato is to blame. He included a famous myth in his work of Symposium that “people were hermaphrodites until God split them in two, and now all the halves wander the world over seeking one another. Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.”

Though I used to argue from the other side of the fence, I had ceased believing in Plato’s delusive concept myself, that there is someone out there waiting to share her life with me. The sooner we all make peace with that fact, the better we would feel.

Even the idea that “we should marry for love” is fairly novel too. For those of us whose ancestry hail from Asia and Africa, we can recall how our grandparents or some great-grandparents got united under “arranged marriages”. Does that mean that love founded after such a marriage is sealed is less real than Plato’s idea of true love, then?

Not necessarily.

In some cases, it is due to the less expectation of our partner that makes the love even more fulfilling.
Hence theone question we should ask ourselves.

Which school of thought do you believe in: Plato’s idea of “other half” or the traditional concept of “arranged love”?

Post’script ~
Lest I seem to contradict myself, I do not believe in the traditional concept of “arranged love” either. My feet are firmly planted on the middle ground. I like to play it by ear.


"All Our Worldly Goods" by Irène Némirovsky

Reading this book sort of reminds me of the movie  "L'Heure d'été" by Olivier Assayas. As typical of French provincial stories are, they evoke a sense of modest amounts of artistry blended with sweet melancholy.

In other words, they are similar to British provincial stories, if not for the fact that the French ones are more infused with subtle emotions.

In this novel we will see how marriages were still arranged in the early 20th century, albeit the claims that European families of those days were getting more and more "contemporary" and "liberal".

The conflicts within the characters tend to run minimal. Even the tragedies, though they inflict deep scars, tend to unite the family members closer.

The way that the love runs deep between the two protagonists, Pierre and Agnes, despite the ongoing continent-wide WW2 that drafts him into the military has been depicted beautifully.

I only lament the book synopsis on the back cover which may be more directed toward contemporary US readers who are in thirst of more passionate dramas.

Consider this synopsis below:

Pierre and Agnes marry for love against the wishes of his parents and his grandfather, the tyrannical family patriarch. Their marriage provokes a family feud that cascades down the generations.

It sounds too American, I say. Such showy acts of passion are in fact, absent for the most part.

But overall I admire Némirovsky's beautful style of prose (albeit she was not French herself), and I look forward into reading some more of her works...

Verdict: 7 out of 10 stars


List of cities with more population than Wyoming

Living in Wyoming, where the population is only around 580,000, must be extremely boring.

For one, it is the 10th largest state in USA. However, in terms of population, it is the smallest state in the country.

In case you don't know what a population of 580,000 would look like, I'll give you international readers some comparison. The following are mid-sized cities around the world that have more approximate population than the entire state of Wyoming combined:

  1. Leeds, England (799,000) 
  2. Kagoshima, Japan (600,000)
  3. Bandar Lampung, Indonesia (790,000)
  4. Vancouver, BC, Canada (600,000)
  5. Louisville, KY, USA (597,000)
Sad, ain't it?

I am having a hard time myself living in a mid-sized town like this one in Northern Kentucky. Outside of work, going to campus, and occasional hanging out with pals, it is dull here.

I can't imagine what how dismal life could look like if I were to relocate there.


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