Monday, August 31, 2009

Haifa painted by local artists

Yesterday I visited an exhibition entitled "Haifa From Here" at the Karo Arts Gallery. This focused on paintings of Haifa by local Haifa artists. In this exhibition, all the artists were immigrants from various parts of the former Soviet Union. Each artist was represented by 2-4 paintings. Some were realistic, others more impressionistic. The scenes showed included places I recognized and some of Haifa's typical buildings and views. There seemed to be a greater focus on the mountain than the sea, and all the paintings captured different aspects of Haifa's unique character, as a wooded city on a mountain, with a rich diversity of architectural styles and residents.

I was particularly impressed by the work of Victor Muchin (b. 1949), who grew up in Tajikistan and immigrated to Israel in 1992. His style is realistic, with surrealistic influences, and his paintings are done from life, not from photos. Four works were shown in the exhibition, and I hope to be able to see more of his work in the future.

The other artists represented were: Andrei Chrenekov, who was born in Russia in 1969 and immigrated to Israel at an early age. He is an artist, graphic designer and also works as a set designer in cinema and television. His style was a bit more impressionistic. This view of the wooded slopes of the Carmel is the sort of panorama I often see from various parts of the city.

Oxana Molojanova was born in Kiev in 1964 and has been living in Israel since 1995. I understand that she has only been painting for the past six years or so, and has not had formal training. Her paintings were impressionistic, and characterized by vivid colours. Here she depicts some of the typical old houses and stairways of Haifa.

Boris Arenhause was born in the Ukraine in 1938 and came to Israel in 1994. His painting shows a view towards the Haifa port, with the sparkles of light echoing the lines of the cranes in the port.

Tatiana Belokonenko has been in Israel since 1999, and is also a designer and set designer. Her paintings are atmospheric. The night view from her home seemed very familiar to me, showing the mixture of trees, houses and lights on the Carmel.

Robert Rozenberg was born in Kazakhstan in 1962 and came to Israel in 1994. His painting of the Kishon port, with a view of Mount Carmel in the background, was the only picture really showing the sea and Haifa's maritime aspect.

I highly recommend this exhibition, which will be open until September 11, 2009, at Karo Arts Gallery, 19 Jerusalem St., Haifa. The gallery itself is in a lovely building in the historic Hadar neighbourhood.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Reality and Fiction's First Birthday!

Today is exactly one year since I started publishing this blog. I have been writing once or twice a week for a whole year.

As the title suggests, I write about issues from real life and about books I read. I have written about most of the books I read this year, and about issues I thought would be interesting. Some of my posts I even considered controversial. I know the blog covers a wide scope, and this reflects my own varied interests. At the moment I am writing mainly for myself and just hoping this will interest other readers.

I admit, I have not done much to promote this blog so far. When I write something relevant to translators, I sometimes mention it on translators' lists. I suppose it would be worth linking to posts about books from the comments sections of the authors' blogs, or from sites selling the books. I think I was waiting to see what the blog would become before deciding how and where to promote it.

I would love to receive more comments from readers. If you read this blog regularly, please feel free to comment and tell me what you think. Would you like more about reality or more about fiction? If I start getting more comments, the blog could be tailored more to the expectations of my regular readers.

I also invite new readers to look at the list of previous posts. Perhaps you'll see some interesting titles or topics there.

I hope to continue publishing my thoughts here for a long time, and look forward to reaching more readers.

Happy Birthday, Reality and Fiction!

Monday, August 24, 2009

A.S. Byatt - The Children's Book

A.S. Byatt, The Children's Book, Chatto & Windus, 2009.

Spoiler warning!

This novel follows the lives of several English characters for twenty years, between 1895 and 1915. This was a time of technological innovation and social change, with a particular focus on the changing role of women. Some of the characters are involved in the literary and artistic movements of the time; others are politically or socially active.

The book manages to combine a very intimate description of the lives of individuals and how the era influenced their lives with an impressive overview of the period. It contains some digressions not directly related to the plot, showing what was happening in the world around the characters, sometimes referring to, or quoting, real historical figures. These digressions indicate the depth of the author's research, and are well-written and relevant. However, some readers may become impatient to learn about the characters and the development of the plot. It seems to me that authors sometimes feel they have done so much research that it would be a waste not to write about it. There is always a fine balance regarding how much factual background should be included in a historical novel, and since many fiction readers will never read non-fictional history, this may be their only exposure to such facts. In this case, I think readers who do become impatient and skip over the historical digressions to the next section including the fictional characters will not lose much, while those who enjoy reading the entire book will benefit.

The main characters are of two generations, parents and children, at the time of the story's beginning. Among the parent generation are Olive Wellwood, an author of children's stories; Prosper Cain, a curator at a new London museum; and Benedict Fludd, a gifted but disturbed potter. The story follows them, some of their friends and relatives, and their children. Among the children, Olive's daughter Dorothy, who decides to become a doctor, which was very rare and difficult for women at the time; and Philip Warren, who becomes an apprentice to Benedict Fludd.

Olive is a matriarch, enjoying the company of her large family and many friends. She has a complex relationship with her husband and sister. She writes stories for each of her children, some of which are quoted in the novel. Byatt gets the tone and attitude of this sort of writing just right. The novel describes several social gatherings - parties, picnics, plays, bicycle rides, lectures and summer camps. It also follows some of the characters' intimate thoughts and decisions. The story is full of dramatic events and revelations, such as the discovery of people's true parentage, suicide, unwanted pregnancy and the dark secrets that motivate some of the artistic expression of the main characters.

As the children grow up, they have to find their way in the changing world, choosing careers, studies, political activism and relationships. Towards the end of the novel, the historically aware reader is dreading the arrival of the First World War, with the loss of young lives it brought. Not surprisingly, some of the young men are killed, while those who return are changed. This section may have a stronger impact on readers in war-free countries. I read it in a country that has had wars every few years since its foundation, and expects to have war casualties in every generation, though obviously not as numerous as those of the world wars.

I enjoyed this book very much, as I have enjoyed Byatt's previous work. The writing is outstanding, the characters are realistic, vivid, and aware of their own flaws, and the setting is presented realistically. I particularly liked the depiction of the ethos of childhood. As a young child in England, I grew up reading many children's books written during this period, which my mother and grandmother, and perhaps also great-grandmother, had read as children. In this way, I imbibed some of the era's attitude towards childhood. Children were not quite equal, but were part of the family and were considered to have their own individual personalities and preferences. They were encouraged to read books, engage in arts and crafts, participate in parties, plays and picnics and generally develop themselves.

I recommend this book both to readers familiar with the history and literature of the period and to those for whom this will be a journey of discovery.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Avoid three common mistakes in English

I never wanted to be an English teacher. My interest in the English language is as a reader, writer, editor and translator. But I am becoming increasingly irritated by a few common mistakes made by native speakers of English, so I thought I would use this blog to help clarify them.

1. When to use "... and I" and "... and me".

This is very easy and obvious once you know the principles behind the correct usage. People don't usually make mistakes when the sentence involves only "I" or only "me", but when it is combined with another personal pronoun (like "he and I") or a name ("Mark and I"), they no longer feel certain which to use. The easy tip is to try the sentence without the other person.

"I" marks the subject of the sentence, the person doing the action. "Me" is used when the action is done by someone else. The "I" or "me" should always go after the other person.

Here are some examples:
* My friends and I did our homework.
* The teacher gave my friends and me homework.
* Sarah and I went to the beach.
* Sarah's boyfriend came with her and me to the beach.

Sometimes I hear people trying to avoid this problem by using "myself" instead. This word should only be used in reflexive sentences like "I saw myself in the mirror", or "I bought myself a birthday present".

2. How to pronounce "processes".

I often hear people, particularly Americans, say "processes" as if its last syllable was "ease". The correct way to pronounce this word rhymes with "dresses". This mistake seems to have arisen from a false parallel to words of Greek origin ending with "", whose plural is "". The plural words "analyses", "theses", "hypotheses" and "synopses" are indeed correctly pronounced with the last syllable sounding like "ease". But as anyone can see, "process" does not end in "".

3. Data is a plural word!

I often see or hear phrases such as "the data shows...", using the word "data" as if it were singular. In fact, "data" is a Latin word, the plural of "datum" meaning given or fact. Some Latin and Greek words ending in "" have been given the English plural form (e.g., "museums" instead of the original "musea"), but datum seems to have avoided this fate, probably because the plural form was more commonly used. One way of remembering this is that "data" means facts, not information. Imagine a spreadsheet full of facts and figures. These are the "data".

I believe English speakers (and learners of English as a second language) who find that they make mistakes would do well to educate themselves. One resource for this is the podcast by Grammar Girl (also available on iTunes). Ignorance is not cool!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Michael W. Dean - A User's Manual for the Human Experience

Michael W. Dean, A User's Manual for the Human Experience, Kittyfeet Press, 2009.

Also available as a free download under Creative Commons License, and a free audiobook (also on iTunes and Podiobooks). Audiobook read by the author.

This book combines a structured self-help manual with autobiography. The author draws on his own life experience in order to explain the system that helped him. This reflects a holistic approach to life, where every aspect in a person's experience is connected to everything else. Readers can experience this book on two levels simultaneously: trying to take from the system the things that they believe will work for them in their lives, and getting to know the author's life and attitudes.

I chose to listen to the audiobook, read by the author, and this was a very intimate experience. Hearing someone speak about his own life and the lessons he has learned made it feel like a (one-sided) conversation. As I have noted in previous posts, I love listening to lectures, and this was one of the attractions of podcasts in the first place. But most lectures are somewhat, or very, distanced from the lecturer's inner life, and few have the sincerity and authenticity of this audiobook.

The self-help system, known as LifeAmp (short for Life Amplification), consists of two main parts: removing negative influences from your life, and working towards doing what you love for a living. The first part builds extensively on the author's experiences in overcoming addictions through Twelve-Step programs. He adapts the methodology, along with his own insights, and applies it to removing negative people from your life.

Readers may wonder if a method based on recovery from addiction is applicable to people who have never been addicted. LifeAmp assumes that many people may never have been addicted to substances and destructive behaviours, but that remaining in negative relationships is also a form of addiction. Many people are in codependent relationships, or simply allow others to waste their time and drain their energy. The method calls upon people to free themselves from these destructive relationships and become self-sufficient.

The second part of the book aims to help readers realize their dreams and work at the things they love. It includes a time management system that is so simple I expect many people have thought of it independently of each other. There is also advice on collaborating in small teams on various projects.

Not much of the advice here is new in any way, but that is to be expected in such works. The innovation is in the combination of the self-help with the autobiography, so that readers can understand how the author reached his conclusions from his own life experience.

Michael W. Dean's life is an interesting story, told with great passion and sincerity. He has been through a lot that most readers may find difficult to identify with: addiction to alcohol and narcotics, several destructive relationships, the death of his daughter (one of the most touching descriptions), and eventual recovery and success. He has become a healthy, happy, productive and useful person, and is devoting his life to helping others recover and thrive.

Another aspect of the book is the author's libertarian ideology, which permeates every aspect of the program (and of his life). I have encountered this sort of ideology mainly in my reading of various science fiction authors, and feel very ambivalent about it. This is an issue that will require further study for me, and I intend to write on it further one day. In the context of this book, the libertarian ideas of freedom and individual self-sufficiency make sense, both for recovery and for thriving as a productive person. But I am aware that many readers may feel some discomfort about some of the ideas presented. As with any experience, wise readers will take what they feel is good from this work and apply it to their lives.

I enjoyed the company of Michael W. Dean for the duration of the audiobook, and felt I understood what he was trying to get across, despite the great differences in our life experiences. I found him a sympathetic character, respected his toughness, admired his honesty, and was pleased to discover that, like me, he is a cat-lover! And for similar reasons. The writing style was casual and chatty, and his reading voice in the audiobook was pleasant and professional.

This book has given me much to think about and inspired me in many ways. It may not appeal to everyone, and has the tag-line "Not your mother's self-help book" (though surely some of the readers must be someone's mother?!), but I consider it worth a try, particularly (but not only) for those who find some of the ideas mentioned here relevant.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Turning 40

This week I celebrated my fortieth birthday. My thoughts naturally turned to the meaning, or insignificance, of chronological age.

On the one hand, our counting of time is quite arbitrary. I have been alive for 40 orbits of the planet around its star, but so what!? We use the decimal system because we have ten digits on our hands. Using other methods of counting, my age would be completely different. Also, what is so special about round numbers?

But in our society, people tend to think that age has some importance. People's achievements are compared with their age, and with the achievements of others at that age. It is considered important to know whether individuals do things that are normal for their age, or earlier or later than other people do those things. People's appearance is also judged in relation to their age.

I have always wanted to think that age didn't matter to me, and that I did what I considered to be right at the time that was right for me, regardless of society's opinions. For instance, I married unusually young, and got a driving licence at a relatively late age. These were the right choices for me.

However, there is some truth in the generalization that people go through a series of stages in life, that to some extent match their age. This is because we accumulate and apply life experience over time. Children are learning things for the first time. Adolescents are searching for their identity. During their twenties, people usually make decisions about their lifestyle that determine much of their future. In their thirties, people often continue to grow and develop. By the time they reach 40, people have normally acquired a wealth of life experience and can use this to their advantage.

I consider myself to have some continuity throughout my life. This means that in some ways, I am still the same person I was at various stages in my past. Much of my theoretical understanding of the world was acquired early, but since then I have had real-life experience of various situations, and this informs my identity in a way that is subtly different from the abstract knowledge I had before the experiences.

During my twenties, I chose my profession, expanded my self-understanding and my knowledge of who I was. During my thirties I worked on my self-development. There were things about myself that I chose to change, and I gradually abandoned the idea that a personality is a fixed, predetermined thing. I worked on becoming a better, happier person not held back by my past.

Now, as I enter my fifth decade, I intend to use all my accumulated knowledge and experience, and the changes I have introduced into my own personality, to achieve the things I have been planning and dreaming all my life. I feel liberated and empowered by my age and wisdom. The coming decade will be one of fulfilment, and it will be fun!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Haifa Zoo

Haifa Educational Zoo is located on a slope of the Carmel range, down the wadi known as the Lotem River, from Gan HaEm in the Carmel Centre. It is a medium-sized zoo, with a wide range of animals housed in naturalistic enclosures, separated from visitors by glass walls (which are good for viewing, but sometimes make photography difficult). The route around the zoo requires walking downhill and then back uphill, like so many place in Haifa.

We visited on a hot summer day, and spent about two hours walking around. In better conditions we might have stayed longer. I hope to return when it is cooler (a comment I overheard other visitors making).

Among the animals we saw: flamingos, lemurs, meerkats, capuchin monkeys, owls, wild boars, jackals, fennec fox, white tigers, leopard, alpacas, hyenas, caracals, wolves, brown bears, camels, and various snakes. We didn't see all the animals, which would have required a longer visit. The lions, for example, were hiding from the heat, so we didn't see them at all.

I was particularly interested in seeing the white tigers, who arrived in the zoo earlier this year. They have grown a bit since the photos published upon their arrival, but I think they are not yet fully grown, judging by their large paws. When we arrived, they were bathing in their pond, but later they came out, paced around, played with a tyre and chewed on some grass and leaves.

I also enjoyed seeing the lemurs, who were all cuddling together in the shade of their house. This led to a discussion about whether the heat generated by sleeping in a group outweighed the benefit of being in the shade! Naturally, the children (my niece and nephew) recognized them from the film Madagascar.

Whenever I think about the abundant variety of life on this planet, it is humbling to realize that there are so many ways of being alive, and we are just one form that has been successful. I love observing animal behaviour. I am honoured to share my life with two domestic cats, and have learned to understand them and communicate with them. Before we encounter life-forms from other planets, there is so much to learn about our own biosphere. I believe that a relationship with a pet animal and respect for all animals enrich our human experience and give us a sense of proportion in life. Most of the things that occupy our time are purely human concerns, while the world is so much larger and more varied.