"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera

For ordinary readers looking for a light read, I can assure you: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” can be unbearable for you. Though raised and educated in the mid-20th century France, the author Milan Kundera is Czech by birth. Therefore, we readers can expect what is so typical of Soviet-era Eastern European writings…replete with melancholy and drab colours, even when the backdrop of the story hovers between Zurich, Vienna and Prague.

However, there are several excellent qualities that make it worthy of read.

Reading the book is akin to what a man feels when he takes a stroll in the park, sees a beautiful stranger, brings her home and afterwards sleeps with her. Then, he starts peeling in detail, layer by layer, on that fleeting experience with the stranger. What does the experience of being in love feel like? When we love someone, does the volition to own the other’s body necessarily carry the weight of unifying one’s body to the partner’s? Is the activity of sex an obligation, a pursuit of pleasure, or both? How can love carry more weight when it is devoid of sex (and vice versa)?

Consider this example.  The main female protagonist of the story, Tereza, is married to a man, Tomas, who sleeps around with other women. She is fully aware of this fact, yet she willingly gives in to Tomas’ pursuits of outside pleasures, since she contends that he is merely satisfying the bodily needs while his soul belongs to her alone.

Or is it so?

Because at times she postulates that since the activity of sex itself does not necessarily define the emotions of love with it, she should be perfectly fine with it. In other words, she is not jealous of her husband when he seeks pleasure from other women. She is only jealous when her body is treated like other women’s. On this aspect, she compartmentalises herself, becoming a detached observer to the marital conundrums.

The banality of life is another interesting topic that Kundera has touched with his two separate yet interconnected stories. When the pleasures of life have become one’s routine, is it possible to rekindle the flames that had once surfaced when we experienced it for the first time? For example, going on a hike for the 100th time may not carry the same excitement and adrenaline rush as when we were about to do it for the first time ever. Marital and love can also carry out the same dissatisfaction due to this very reason: it becomes banal.

Though the topics dealt in the book revolve around love and pleasure, this is not a romance book. Far from it, even. Kundera has peeled each of the layers that each of us carries when the notion of romantic love, namely eros, and helps us to define how we see them and why we see them the way we do. We may not agree with his opinions, but at least we can give them a try.

Verdict:  8 out of 10 stars


on Getting intellectual nourishment

Working as a librarian in the busiest public library branch in Kentucky has gained me nearly unlimited access to every single book that has ever been published in English since the 1930s, which is great considering that my very definition of a paradise includes reading a good novel with the company of a few friends.

Starting from the second week of March, I have decided to start posting my own reviews of some books I have read - either those in the distant past or those I came upon recently. This new project of mine has nothing to do with any classes I am taking at community college.

Quite the contrary, I have been dying of thirst for intellectual nourishment...and enrolling in a small-town community college sates me none of that.

Hence my book reviews, which I will faithfully post every Saturday.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who at the dawn of the 1980s promulgated the notion of “cultural capital”: the idea that aesthetic choices are an artifact of socioeconomic position. He documented a correlation between taste and class position: The scarcer or more difficult to access an aesthetic experience is –literary world very much included- the greater its ability to set us apart from those further down the social ladder. This kind of value is, in his analysis, the only real value that “refined” tastes have. My book review project would hopefully help me in fulfilling my own need for reaching that aesthetic ideals.

Most will be fiction, some will be non-fiction, depending on whatever genre I feel like reading at the time. As a general rule, I would never post reviews on chick-lit or horror or Christian fictions, though I may find exceptions every now and then.

Unlike my old project of translating Indonesian songs once a week, I will not take suggestions from anybody on what books I should read or review. I will review the books when I feel like it, but one thing for sure, I can promise you a book review for your weekends.



Tomorrow (27 March) will be my last day of work as a cashier in the gas station.

Though in one part I am relieved not having to work on Christmas, Thanksgiving, or New Year's any longer, it still saddens me somehow, leaving the coworkers I have grown attached to during the last two years.

Hence I still shall come and see them every once in a while.

And starting Wednesday onward I shall become an ordinary college student with only 15 hours on my part-time librarian job.

Oh, Life.

How I've missed you so much!


"Coraline: Graphic Novel" by Neil Gaiman

It took me slightly more than one hour to finish reading this graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's work, for the first time ever.

I must admit, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had always thought of Neil Gaiman to be some hollowed-out fantasy author, but after reading this graphic novel, I think I may reconsider...

"Coraline: Graphic Novel" takes fantasy into a teenager's psyche and transforms it into what not only seems otherworldly, but also...real. Sort of like children-friendly Kafka. I have known only a few authors other than Gaiman who can create such a distinctive quality.

Verdict: 8 out of 10 stars


"Cakep banget deh dia!"

Oh crap.

I was commenting to my sister Melody about someone I just saw when I realised that half of the room actually understood Indonesian.

I had some stares back at me, but since the person in question did not understand one word of it, they kinda let it go.

Mom, Melody, and I were on a Christmas party in Southern Ohio hosted by an Indonesian American family. There were around.... 30 (or 40?) people altogether who came to the meeting, some naturalised citizens, some here on student visa, some married to Caucasian American men, and some are sons and daughters of Indonesian immigrants.

Here's the thing about Indonesian Americans: just like other Asian communities in USA, we hardly speak our own native tongue.

A typical Asian American family today looks like this:

  1. The mother, who is Asian, speaks both English and her mother tongue fluently.
  2. The father, who is Caucasian American, only speaks English. He can only understand his wife's language a little.
  3. The kids, who are born and raised in USA, only speaks English. They can have true Asian names (such as Arjuna, Rio, etc... and these are real examples!) but they don't understand one word of their Mom's language.
So the lingua franca of the group is still English.

Which is not bad, considering that the only reason I came to the group gathering was for the food.

Until Mom and I discovered that there are several sparse enclaves of Indonesian American families scattered throughout Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky region, we thought that we were the only ones of Indonesian ethnicity within a radius of 50 miles. Then she got introduced to a Chinese Indonesian from Surabaya.

Invitations came, warmly welcoming us to get to know some others too.

So we got to know one. And another. And another.

My sister got especially delighted that one of the women in the group was an alumni of a secondary school she went to in South Tangerang, Banten.

And I got introduced to someone who went to school to Singapore too.

What a small world.

So now, let's talk about the food. Indonesian food!

We had a lot of them, starting from prawn crackers, risoles, bolu kukus, Fried rice, bakso, sayur asam, inter alia.

Each of us had our own specialties that we brought to the gathering. The only meals that Mom is accustomed to make are Fried rice and Gado-gado, which she brings to the gatherings every once in a while.

Thank goodness nobody brought Sate Padang, which would have ruined my entire appetite that day. Even the smell of it can make me nauseous.

They conduct such gatherings every now and then, but since it usually falls on a Saturday (when I have a class), I could rarely come.

Also, I have not tasted Martabak Manis yet. The only one food that I absolutely love the most. I heard that somebody brought it to the gatherings one day. Alas, I had to go to work, so there went my chance!

A pity, since that is the one meal I would pay hundreds of dollars for.

* (translation of title: "Damn, she's cute!")


Vlog entry #2: on Recent Tornadoes


"Nathaniel's Nutmeg" by Giles Milton

"Nathaniel’s Nutmeg" is a historical account which neatly chronicles the race of all the major powers in Western Europe to corner the spice market. One of the most sought-after spice at that time was nutmeg, a native plant of Banda Islands, East Indies (now known as Indonesia).

Some of us might be wondering: What is nutmeg? Why was it so popular? Well, back then, it was a fruit known to kill the smell and taste of rotten meat (which is true). It was also believed to have powerful medical properties (which turned out to be merely a placebo effect, causing its decline in popularity centuries later). The way it is unthinkable for people to die for nutmeg trade back then is akin to our desire for oil trade today. Several hundred years from now, when vehicles are powered by free renewable resources such as hydrogen and sunlight, our posterity will ask a similar question: “Why on earth would our ancestors go to war in the Middle East just to secure access to oil resources?”

Fleets of ships would go to both ends of the world in search of spice resources, and it is evident how those early fleets were lacking many important skills such as determining geographical coordinates, how to prevent scurvy, or what important commodities are valued in the east. On the whole, the author Milton has adeptly drawn a narrative of how the governments of those Western European powers learn from their early mistakes and correct them.

The author studied at Bristol University. A writer and journalist, he specialises in the history of travel and exploration, with books published in seventeen languages. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg happens to be his best known work.

The book’s title, however, is a tad misleading. It seems to have been chosen for rhyming effect instead of any substantial role played by Nathaniel Courthope. His name was hardly mentioned at all in the book. The very first mention of his name is found on page 78, and even then it is just in passing, as if he is some minor character in the whole story.

The sources are mostly secondary, since the story is compiled from original hand-written journals of English explorers, Ambon (in today’s Maluku province, Indonesia) library collections, and five thousand pages of Jacobean script. The author Milton also refers to obscure Dutch chronicles which had been translated into fluent English.

Milton uses a simple language, which makes it easy for the general public to read. Every several chapters there are also maps and pictures drawn in the 17th century to accompany the readers’ imagination when reading the stories. If you are a fan of the Pirates of The Caribbean movie franchise or any other seafaring stories, you will definitely enjoy this book. Despite it being written as nonfiction, the narrative that Milton uses in this book can altogether causes it to be read like a fiction.

Milton’s use of irony was adroitly placed, often he shows sympathy with the poor natives who are paid small amount of fee for their nutmeg which could be resold very expensively in Europe. However, the irony also works on both sides: the natives of Banda Islands are shown to be “profiting” from the trade by getting European knives and clothes (which worth almost nothing in Europe but worth a lot in East Indies) by trading their nutmegs (which worth almost nothing in East Indies but worth a lot in Europe).

However, as an Englishman, Milton is not free from bias. He can at times seem to glorify the English, while putting some of their bitter rivals, such as the Dutch, in a less delicate light...even when both sides are acting more or less with an equal deplorability. When describing the English diplomacy with the natives, he used positive-sounding adjectives such as “apt” and “ingenious”, while when describing the Dutch and Portuguese’ attempts in dealing with the natives, he used negative-sounding adjectives such as “guileful” and “ruthless”.

Throughout the book, there are several historical events that are worth noted, as it is absent from most major historical books today. First, is that the popularity of nutmeg caused the rise of the East India Company, which becomes the British overseas representation of His (or Her) Majesty’s government. If not for the East India Company, the people of India and Singapore today (where the majority of the people are not descended from White Europeans like Australians or Americans) would not be speaking English as a lingua franca. Secondly, is the signing of the Treaty of Breda in 1667, which brought swift end to the Second Anglo-Dutch War. This treaty marks the exchange of the sole Dutch region in North America, Nieuw Amsterdam to the English, in return for having the English giving up their claim on Run, the most isolated island of the Banda Islands. The treaty worked well on both sides: The Dutch was able to secure their worldwide monopoly on nutmeg. What about for the English? Well, most people have never heard of this, but that formerly-Dutch region of Nieuw Amsterdam was renamed by the English into what is today known as New York City. If not for the treaty, the metropolitan area of New York City today would have a significant Dutch-speaking population, just like the people of Louisiana today have a significant French (Cajun)-speaking population.

Verdict: 7 out of 10 stars


on Small towns

Living in the suburbs has plenty of perks.

For one, it is much safer than big cities. Unless I'm parking the car for the night, most of the time I leave my car doors unlocked. Nobody steals cars here.

But I'm afraid I've overstayed my welcome.

I have nothing against staying in Kentucky. It's just that I was raised as a city person. Living in a small town/suburbs like this gives me an endless sense of boredom. Sometimes I lie awake at night thinking how beautiful life would be if I could just pack and move to some nice cities such as Washington DC.

Seriously, it's dull living here. No excitement, no nightlife, nothing. Unlike back in New York, you can't find Chinese restaurants open past midnight.

Even the McDonald's close at Midnight.

I need to move out!

Granted that everything goes according to plan, I am slated to graduate with a Bachelor degree from university in 2014. At the point of which I am thinking of resettling in Charlotte, NC or Savannah, GA...where the tropics and the beaches are always within reach.

Or even the birthplace of my sister...Richmond, VA.

Damn, I absolutely love that city!

An ideal one would be a city that's not too expensive to live in (in terms of housing and groceries), has a metro train system (I love commuting by train since it reminds me of Singapore) and does not speak Spanish.

This leaves most of Florida and Texas out of the equation.

Let's just see later, I guess.


Shafia Family and the Delusion of Honour

First of all, take a look at the picture of this young woman below.

Zainab Shafia

An exceptional beauty, isn't she?

Unfortunately, she's dead.

Being a regular reader of the Canadian magazine Maclean's, I have recently taken some interest in the Shafia family murder trials, which covered honour killing committed by a wealthy Afghani-Canadian family in Kingston, Ontario.

In 2009, Mohammad Shafia, his second wife Tooba Yahya, and their first son Hamed allegedly drowned three of the oldest daughters in the family, Zainab (19), Sahar (17), and Geeti (13) inside a Nissan Sentra in a river in Ontario. The first wife of Moh. Shafia, Rona Amir, was also drowned inside the car, apparently as an "throw-in" prize for Tooba, since Tooba is always the "preferred wife" of that polygamous household.

The victim's "crimes"?

Those three daughters of Moh. Shafia had "disgraced the family name and Islam" by "wearing make-up and Western clothing", "dating boys", and "hanging around with Canadian friends too often".

In other words, the daughters are merely "guilty" of teenage misdemeanours that, had it occurred in other ordinary families in the West, would not provoke the slightest angers from their parents.

Eventually, the verdict on 29 January 2012 stated that all three suspects are guilty of four counts of first-degree murders. In Canada, it carries an automatic life sentence in prison without a possibility of parole for 25 years.

Seriously, how sick can those trio be? If they can't cope with having their kids Westernised, why not return to Afghanistan and implement their honour code there?

To note, I have absolutely nothing against codes of honour implemented by families anywhere else in the world. However, any immigrants to a Western country should always remember that the local law triumphs. There is absolutely no place for such barbaric brutality here.

Meanwhile, it is with deep sadness that I see the pictures of the three deceased Shafia girls. This is the only one news that kept me thinking: what a waste. What a shame. They could've had a bright future ahead.

Instead, the family is broken up. Four are dead, three are in prison for first-degree murders, and three of the younger children are placed in foster homes.

May Roona, Zainab, Sahar, and Geeti rest in peace.


"Habibi" by Craig Thompson

This graphic novel is replete with references to the Qur'an, hadiths, and Rumi poetry that one would be forgiven for thinking that it was penned by a Muslim.

However, "Habibi", which is targeted more towards a mature audience in the West, can serve as an excellent introduction to plebeian's lives in the Islamic world.

Yet the messages are universal.

The story revolves on an epic love story which follows a couple from their shared childhood of struggle together in the lower stratum of a fictitious Middle Eastern country called Wannatolia (which I suspect is modeled on today's United Arab Emirates). In Wannatolia, the citizens have mostly forgotten the true path of Islam (or any other faith, for that matter) and submitted themselves to lecherous ways of life, filled with greed, corruption, and deception.

However, the two protagonists of the story always try their best to stay true to the path of Islam. Being poor, they are neither literate, nor do they own a copy of the Qur'an. Even the people of Wannatolia seem to have little (if not nonexistent) interest at all to their glorious Islamic past. But Habibi and Dodola keep reminiscing on the stories of the prophets (e.g. Adam, Abraham, Noah, inter alia) so that they could differentiate what is right and wrong in the injustices of today's corrupt world.

Perhaps to make some stories more familiar to Western audience, the reminiscences are sometimes paralleled to Judeo-Christian stories too, such as when there is a difference between Abraham's intent to sacrifice his son (was it Isaac or was it Ishmael? This book includes both).

The conclusion, which ultimately results in a poignant ending, is granted to leave the audience deeply inspired. It leaves non-Muslims in the post-9/11 world with a better understanding of the soul of Islam which is steeped in tradition, compassion, and peace...a far cry from the supposedly "violent" jihadist ideology that the mass media display on a daily basis these days.

Perhaps by understanding Islam better, we Westerners can have more better relations with the Muslim world. Because in case we don't realise it, we have more in common with them than we think...we strive and struggle on the same path of suffering for the cultivation of peace too.

As an outsider to the belief himself, Craig Thompson could not have conveyed it better. Kudos for such a magnificent work!

Verdict: 8 out of 10 stars


Facebook Timeline's Top 6 Friends

Before we start, take a look at your "Top-6-Friends" display on your own Facebook Timeline.

Odd, isn't it?

Of the 15 people who constantly show up interchangeably on my Facebook timeline display, I have not interacted with eight of them for at least the last six months.

Which means that either I stalk their Facebook profiles regularly, or they stalk mine.

What an odd algorithm.

(This is just my speculation, though...)


The Blues of March

Since becoming a librarian at one of the main public libraries in Kentucky, I have been working two jobs. It was fine so far, until the manager at my first job decided that she won't accommodate the schedule around my library job any longer.

Hence I am quitting.

I shall deliver the company my resignation letter before the end of this week, which would mark me quitting the one job I have been working the longest (for 26 months).

Plus, I am still enrolled as a full time student in this nondescript Midwest community college. After two months at it, it has come to my realisation that working two jobs while still at college is a tough call.

I will be transferring from my two-year-college to either one of the two biggest public libraries in Kentucky...either Northern Kentucky University or University of Kentucky. As of today, I have not yet decided which university I am going to transfer to.

Well, I still have four months to go before I go there anyway. After the point of which, my main concern would only be to graduate latest by Fall 2014 semester.

By the way.

Blogger has changed! It looks much simpler now (kinda MS Word-ish), and frankly I like it.


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