Tuesday, February 13, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air (2): Quotes

The following are several quotes from When Breath Becomes Air that struck me:

The challenges of being a doctor
“In my life, had I ever made a decision harder than choosing between a French dip and a Reuben? How could I ever learn to make, and live with, [emphasis mine] such judgment calls? I still had a lot of practical medicine to learn, but would knowledge alone be enough, with life and death hanging in the balance? Surely intelligence wasn’t enough; moral clarity was needed as well. Somehow, I had to believe, I would gain not only knowledge but wisdom, too.” (66)

“The reason doctors don’t give patients specific prognoses is not merely because they cannot. . . Getting too deeply into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.” (134-5).

Speaking of all the deaths and traumas he’d witnessed, “At moments, the weight of it all became palpable. It was in the air, the stress and misery. Normally, you breathed it in, without noticing it. But some days, like a humid muggy day, it had a suffocating weight of its own. Some days, this is how it felt when I was in the hospital: trapped in an endless jungle summer, wet with sweat, the rain of tears of the families of the dying pouring down.” (78)

Finding Meaning 
“All of medicine, not just cadaver dissection, trespasses into sacred spheres. Doctors invade the body in every way imaginable. They see people at their most vulnerable, their most scared, their most private. They escort them into the world, and then back out. Seeing the body as matter and mechanism is the flip side to easing the most profound human suffering. By the same token, the most profound human suffering becomes a mere pedagogical tool.” (49-50)

“The questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context.” (70) . .. every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of ourselves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact. . . Because the brain mediates our experiences of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” (71)

“I had started in this career, in part, to pursue death: to grasp it, uncloak it, and see it eye-to-eye, unblinking. Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death. I had thought that a life spent in the space between the two would grant me not merely a stage for compassionate action but an elevation of my own being: getting as far away from petty materialism, from self-important trivia, getting right there, to the heart of the matter, to truly life-and-death decisions and struggles . . . surely a kind of transcendence would be found there? But in residency, something else was gradually unfolding. In the midst of this endless barrage of head injuries, I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature, like trying to learn astronomy by staring directly at the sun. I was not yet with patients in their pivotal moments, I was merely at those pivotal moments. I observed a lot of suffering; worse, I became inured to it. Drowning, even in blood, one adapts, learns to float, to swim, even to enjoy life, bonding with the nurses, doctors, and others who are clinging to the same raft, caught in the same tide.” (81-2)
I expect every profession has its areas where we all stand too close to the light.

“Amid the tragedies and failures, I feared I was losing sight of the singular importance of human relationships, not between patients and their families but between doctor and patient. Technical excellence was not enough. As a resident, my highest ideal was not saving lives – everyone dies eventually – but guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness.” (86).

When he discovers the stage-four cancer, he notes “One chapter of my life seemed to have ended; perhaps the whole book was closing. Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding a life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused. Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering. It felt less like an epiphany- a piercing burst of light, illuminating What Really Matters – and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward.” (120)

On faith: “Although I had been raised in a devout Christian family, where prayer and Scripture readings were a nightly ritual, I, like most scientific types, came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality, an ultimately scientific worldview that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus outmoded concepts like souls, God, and bearded white men in robes. I spent a great deal of my twenties trying to build a frame for such an endeavor. The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning – to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in. That’s not to say that if you believe in meaning, you must also believe in God. It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you are almost obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any.” (168-9)
“Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.” (170)

Words to his daughter at the end of the book: “When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.” (199)
This illustrates how sometimes it is not our best efforts that bring joy, but simply who we are.

Other Quotes
“As a doctor, you have a sense of what it’s like to be sick, but until you’ve gone through it yourself, you don’t really know. It’s like falling in love or having a kid. You don’t appreciate the mounds of paperwork that come along with it, or the little things. When you get an IV placed, for example, you can actually taste the salt when they start infusing it.” (140)

“It was the relational side of humans – i.e., “human relationahlity”- that undergirded meaning. Yet somehow, this process existed in brains and bodies, subject to their own physiologic imperatives, prone to breaking and failing. There must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced – of passion, of hunger, of love – bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.” (39)

After the suicidal death of a colleague, a friend, he notes how they “had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of life. We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” (115-6)

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2017)

It is a strange book, but when I really appreciated for its honesty and its hope. It was also helpful for me for understanding the experience of those at the university who are in the sciences, especially females and those without tenure.

I'm not sure what to make of the interspersed chapters on plant biology. They were fascinating, although it felt a bit like it got in the way of the story I wanted to hear more about, even as much as Jahren's telling us of the biology of trees is as much a part of her story as all the (mis)adventures that she had. As she puts it: “People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.” (18)

What this is a story of: “there’s still no journal where I can tell the story of how my science is done with both the heart and the hands.” (20) Where I can tell of all the non-successes that obviously don’t make it into journals. “I have become proficient at producing a rare species of prose capable of distilling ten years of work by five people into six published pages, written in a language that very few people can read and that no one ever speaks. This writing relates the details of my work with the precision of a laser scalpel, but its streamlined beauty is a type of artifice, a size-zero mannequin designed to showcase the glory of a dress that would be much less perfect on a real person.” (20)

What does it say about academia (science)?
"Next time you meet a science professor, ask her if she ever worries that her findings might be wrong. If she worries that she chose an impossible problem to study, or that she overlooked some important evidence along the way. If she worries that one of the many roads not taken was perhaps the road to the right answer that she’s still looking for. Ask a science professor what she worries about. It won’t take long. She’ll look you in the eye and say one word: “Money.” " 124-125

“As hard as I worked, I just couldn’t get ahead. Showers became a biweekly ritual. My breakfast and lunch were reduced to a couple of cans of Ensure from the cases that I kept under my desk. . . I passed the workday biting my nails with ferocity. None of the single guys that I met could understand why I worked all of the time, and nobody wanted to listen to me talk about plants for hours, anyway. Everything about my life looked pretty well messed up compared with how adulthood had always been advertised to me.” (130)

What does it say about being female in academia?She struggled with fitting in as a female, with being accepted and getting enough funding. Despite being someone who won some prominent awards (and was on the tenure track at 26 already!), funding was clearly a problem for at least ten years. She speaks about being taken advantage of by another lab in the building; of being yelled at during a conference presentation, of receiving weird and clearly mean feedback on paper/grant submissions, and being utterly ignored socially at conferences by the senior scientists in her field.

“I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother – or because I felt like nobody’s daughter – or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout. I had worked and waited for this day. In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known. In the years to come, I would create a new sort of normal for myself within my own laboratory. I would have a brother close than any of my siblings, someone I could call any hour of the day or night. . . I would nurture a new generation of students, / some of whom were just hungry for attention, and a very few who would live up to the potential that I saw in them.” Jahren, Hope. Lab Girl (p. 71-2).

What does it say about mental illness?
"Tiny but determined, I navigated the confusing and unstable path of being what you are while knowing that it’s more than people want to see." 16
The honesty is a bit disconcerting, as we hear more than we might want to know. For instance, she describes full-blown mania: “You don’t fear life and you don’t fear death. You don’t fear anything. There is no sadness and there is no grief. You feel your sub-conscious formulating the answers to all the collective miserable searching that man has ever done. You have indisputable proof of God and the creation of the universe. You are the one for whom the world has waited. And you will give it all back; you will pour out all you know and then wallow knee-deep in thick viscous love, love, love.” (145)

What does it say about religion?“My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all the things that I am getting done. . . My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am. . . . My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. I know whom I’ll probably see, and I know how they’ll probably act. I know there’ll be silence; I know there’ll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. . . And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.” (19)

What does it say about friendship?Her relationship with Bill makes me think of Spiritual Friendship (see book by Wesley Hill and website) and the deep goodness of this strange family-like relationship. She describes her friendship in the following way: “He is strong where I am weak, and so together we make one complete person, each of us gaining half of what we need from the world and the other half from each other. I inwardly vowed to do whatever it took to raise more salary for him and to keep us going. . . Within two separate but adjacent rooms, we tuned two radios to different stations and went back to our work, having once again reassured each other that we are not alone.” (25-26).

After an accident with glass that left splinters of glass all over the lab – and didn’t harm her only because at that moment she’d been fiddling with the radio (as if this isn’t God’s providence!), Hope’s anxiety arises as she sits outside biting her hands. Bill is present, and he notes that he had a dog who used to bite her hands. Hope acknowledges that it’s gross, as she is also flooded with shame. Bill’s response was “no, she was a great dog. When you have a dog that good, you let it do whatever it wants.’

Other quotes that I appreciated: 
“Science didn’t talk about books that had been written to analyze other books that had originally been written as retellings of ancient books; it talked about what was happening now and of a future that might yet be.” (18)

“At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still day. As we dug in our garden, I listened to the lazy buzzing of bees as they staggered drunkenly from flower to flower, the petty, sniping chirps of the cardinals remarking upon our bird feeder, the scraping or our trowels through the dirt, and the authoritative whistle of the factory, blown each day at noon.” (14)

“Time has changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.” (29)

In speaking of her time visiting the psych ward (while she was working for a hospital pharmacy. “The first time that I entered through the double-locked doors of the psych ward I was terrified, believing for no real reason that such places harbored evil souls ready to assault me at any moment. But once inside I found it to be the slowest-moving place on Earth, and I saw that these patients were unique only in that time had stopped inside their wounds, which were seemingly never to heal. The pain was so thick and palpable in the psych ward that a visitor could breathe it like the heavy humidity of summer air, and I soon realized that the challenge would not be to defend myself from patients, but to defend myself against my own increasing indifference toward them.” (49)

Us Versus Us by Andrew Marin (2016)

According to the research given in Us Versus Us, 86% of people who identify as LGBTQ+ were raised in a faith community (from ages 0-18). That means that the discussion of what to do about homosexuality isn't a fight between us - folks in the church who are anti-homosexual - and them - those people, outside of the church, with their gay agenda. Instead, it ought to be a conversation between who are a lot more alike than we often recognize, especially when it comes to faith.

As Andrew notes, "Marin gives a detailed discussion about how the LGBTQ+ movement is not simply a movement outside of the church. Members of our churches right now are wrestling with this issue in their own lives, particularly high school students in youth groups.
The book is based upon a research study done by the Marin Foundation, and the book is broken up into six chapters, each one based on a striking statistic found from the survey, such as '76% of LGBTQ+ people are open to returning to their religious communities and its practices.' The 2006 study was done with over 1,712 usable surveys of people all across the United States, and it contains multiple open-ended questions to allow for full responses. Most important to this survey, the responses were all anonymous, allowing for honesty without reprimand. Marin also notes how 96% of LGBTQ+ have prayed to God to stop their homosexual desires."

Spirituality in the Mother Zone by Trudelle Thomas (2005)

In Spirituality in the Mother Zone Thomas expresses the complicated reality of becoming a mom, including how hard it is to be honest about it:
"While it's acceptable to talk about the intense love of new motherhood, mothers are often reluctant to mention the 'darker' emotions that are often just as powerful. They may complain, even joke, about outward difficulties like hours of labor, sore episiotomy stitches, and sleepless nights, but few will speak candidly of the confusion, rage, and grief that may come with the territory of new motherhood and last far longer.
No religious initiation is any more intense than the deprivations new mothers face: interrupted sleep; seeing your once orderly home strewn with receiving blankets and dirty dishes; the vigilance of trying to understand a baby's unfamiliar cries; often not being able to eat, dress, shower, or even use the bathroom at will [for me it was not being able to go to sleep when I wanted or needed]; suddenly having to learn all the practical skills of breastfeeding, dressing, bathing, and attending to the medical needs of a helpless human being.
Even amidst the joys, it is a painful time of surrendering to a new way of life, of being stripped of the familiar." (page 33)
While I only got about halfway into the book, I found it encouraging and honest. It helped me better to understand my own complicated feelings of becoming a mother, the anxiety, joys, and helplessness.

On living by Kerry Egan (2016)

Kerry Egan, in her book On living, provides the following description for her work as a chaplain:

"Every one of us will go through things that destroy our inner compass and pull meaning out from under us. Everyone who does not die young will go through some sort of spiritual crisis, where we have lost our sense of what is right and wrong, possible and impossible, real and not real. Never underestimate how frightening, angering, confusing, devastating it is to be in that place. Making meaning of what is meaningless is hard work. Soul-searching is painful. This process of making or finding meaning at the end of life is what the chaplain facilitates. The chaplain doesn't do the work. The patient does. The chaplain isn't wrestling with the events of a life that doesn't match up with everything you were taught was true, but she won't turn away in fear, either. She won't try to give you pat answers to get you to stop talking about pain, or shut you down with platitudes that make her feel better but do nothing to resolve the confusion and yearning you feel. A chaplain is not the one laboring to make meaning, but she's been with other people who have. She knows what tends to be helpful and what doesn't. She might ask questions you would never have considered, or that help you remember other times you survived something hard and other ways you made sense of what seemed senseless. She can reframe the story, and can offer a different interpretation to consider, accept, or reject. She can remind you of the larger story of your life, or the wisdom of your faith tradition. She can hold open a space of prayer or meditation or reflection when you don't have the energy or strength to keep the walls from collapsing. She will not leave you. And maybe most important: She knows the work can be done. She knows you can do it and not crumble into dust. . . . . 
But the fact remains that before a chaplain gets to that place with a patient - the place where the patient can share into a deep hole of meaninglessness, or even leap right into it and wrestle down in the lonely existential muck until a ladder of sorts begins to appear - and somehow, somehow, in ways I still can't fully explain, a ladder always does appear - before all that, the chaplain has to create a sacred space, and to do that, she has to offer her loving presence first."               - Kerry Egan, On living, pages 18-20
Some of my work with Campus Edge is like this - a creating of sacred space to re-find meaning. Yet, too often I feel like I am trying to check off a list of things that need to be done instead of being present with others, expectant that God is working in that moment. The challenge is that many of the moments in my work are not momentous, and it is harder to remember that in the ordinary moments God is not any less present and working.

Part of this appeared earlier on my personal blog.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Dangerous Territory by Amy Peterson (2016)

I found Amy Peterson's book, Dangerous Territory, intriguing and encouraging. A lot of that has to do with how she makes few claims about what she had done to save the world, but instead she chronicles how God both saved and worked among those no one expected to be saved and then allowed her to be separated from them. Not only was she separated from them, but she was stuck in the ambiguous situation of being a missionary in a country where it was questionable whether they were actually necessary, as she seemed to be teaching rich folks English who had no interest in spiritual things.

Yet, God's work was also ambiguous - because God could have done so much more: protecting those she cared about, directing her to be wiser (and allowing her to return), causing more fruit to grow from missionary endeavors - and people to be wiser about them. Her honesty about how God has a tendency to act in ways that we don't understand concurs with how I see God presented in the Old Testament - almighty, but not so manageable (or not safe, as the Christianity Today review points out).

On a secondary note, I also appreciated the quiet focus she put on her integrating into the culture and how that was an important part of how she approached her task as a missionary (she probably wouldn't use the word calling, at least not anymore). 

Christianity Today gave a very positive review of the book and was the reason that I picked it up in the first place: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/april-web-only/most-dangerous-thing-missionary-hostile-country.html.

Although the following review is somewhat negative, as the author is disappointed with how she doesn't also include a more positive, less ambiguous side to missions, it does give another helpful perspective and overview of the book: http://englewoodreview.org/amy-peterson-dangerous-territory-feature-review/

Thursday, March 24, 2016

When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

When breath becomes air is a memoir from a young neurosurgeon who gets cancer. He started it when he was in the midst of fighting cancer and hopeful that he would have much more time to live. It was (not quite) finished when he passed away.

It is a sad but profound book, well-written and moving. The book highlights Kalanithi's exploration of how life has meaning - both as a doctor fascinated by the mind and relating well to patients and as a patient who was trying to make choices when faced with uncertainty about how long he had to live.

I have purchased the book as part of my work (in campus ministry), as I think this is the sort of thing that all medical students ought to read. I also believe that the book raises helpful questions for everyone to ponder. His description of his learning how to become a better doctor presents a picture of an honest struggle about how to be present and honest to those we relate to. His description of being a patient helps those of us "in charge" to have empathy for those we serve, but also raises questions about the meaning of life and how to live honestly and fully in the midst of deep challenges.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor (John Piper and D.A. Carson)

Review of The Pastor as Scholar & the Scholar as Pastor:Reflections on Life and Ministry
John Piper and D.A. Carson, edited by Owen Strachan; David Mathis
n.b. I downloaded a pdf version of the book free at some point in time, and the numbering comes from that version.

In general, I appreciated this booklet. There were a number of good points, and it would be a godo read for those from more conservative, evangelical backgrounds to read in order to appreciate both the scholarly and pastoral nature of working with the Bible. However, I did at times find its strong evangelical focus to detract from the overall relevance of the book.

The following are several quotes from the book and my reflections on them:
page 52 (John Piper):“So the mind is supposed to be engaged in seeing reality for what it is, and awakening the heart to love God for all that he is. If I were to claim the role of pastor-scholar, this is what I would mean by it. Think rightly and deeply about the Word and the world with a view to seeing the greatness of God and his works (especially the work of Christ) so that the affections of our hearts might rest on a true foundation and God might be honored by how we feel toward him and by the behaviors that flow from this heart.”
 I agree with what he is saying here actually, although I would look at it somewhat differently. I would identify it as being more caught up in the mystery and wonder, i.e., astonished by what cannot be known.

After Piper quotes Matthew 21:23-27 and the Pharisess refusal for giving Jesus an answer to a question, simply saying “I don’t know,” Piper has the following to say: “Frankly, that behavior makes me angry. We are surrounded in America by people like that. Instead of using their minds to come to strong convictions and let the chips fall where they will and suffer for what’s true, they are repeatedly angling to get out of traps. Don’t be like this, if for no other reason than because it is bad scholarship! If your mind, in studying the truth, leads you to a conviction that will get you into trouble, believe it! Speak it! There are so many pastors who conceal their convictions from their people because they are afraid of conflict.” (page 58)
 I don’t disagree with him here so much as I disagree with how he says this. There’s a way of speaking one’s mind and saying the truth without being beligerent about it. That could be related better in this paragraph, not only in the message he presents but also the way in which he presents his message.

page 75 (Carson): “Since all truth is God’s truth, we are not far from the inference that all Christian intellectual endeavor offered cheerfully and wholeheartedly to God—that is, all Christian scholarship—lies close to the heart of our calling. Whether you are tackling the exegesis of Psalm 110 or examining the tail feathers of a pileated woodpecker, you are to offer the work to God and see such intellectual endeavor, such scholarship, as part and parcel of worship.”
My response is simply: Amen.

page 76 (Carson): “So just because I study the half-life of a quark, a pileated woodpecker. . . or a Hebrew infinitive construct does not guarantee that I love God better. In fact, it may seduce me into thinking I am more holy and more pleasing to God, when all I am doing is pleasing myself: I like to study. After all, plenty of secularists are fine technical scholars who enjoy their work and make excellent discoveries and write great tomes, without deluding themselves into thinking that they thereby prove they love God and deserve high praise in the spiritual sphere. Nothing is quite as deceitful as an evangelical scholarly mind that thinks it is especially close to God because of its scholarship rather than because of Jesus.” (These thoughts are also continued on the following page.) 
I find these to be helpful words when talking about the academic endeavour from a Christian perspective. They are worth thinking about more.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Lying by Sam Harris

A friend on Facebook recommended this book - and posted the link to the (then) free pdf. I downloaded the book with the hopes of reading it some day. As this category - hope to some day - describes too many books/things in my life, it says something that I managed to read the whole book.

The book itself is short - about 50 pages - which makes it inherently readable and something one can read through on a train ride or several lunch breaks. The topic, lying, is also of interest today, especially as we have often become a culture of nice, in which insignificant lies seem inevitable. Harris challenges, rightly I think, whether lies, insignificant or not, are appropriate.

As a Christian, I believe lying is categorically wrong, even nice lies. Harris provides in his book a more sociological reasoning for why lying is wrong. Ultimataely, he argues that lying is unfair to others. It is done out of our own selfishness and not out of goodwill for others. After all, if someone really does look fat in a dress, doesn't it help her more to honestly say that so that she doesn't buy it and continue to look bad in it - or so that she considers losing weight? Of course, it needs to be done tactfully - but even a "thanks for the present, I don't think this is my style" can be done tactfully. After all, isn't that more tactful than disappointing the person because they never see you wear it?

The book is worth picking up and thinking about. I think it would also make a good book for a discussion group. If you'd like to borrow my copy, let me know and I'll send it to you.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Murder in Amsterdam by Ian Buruma (2006)

Someone outside of the Netherlands had recommended this book, and I finally got around to reading it this summer. For anyone interested in Dutch culture today, it is definitely worth reading. It summarizes well events connected to Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Furthermore, he accurately highlights some of the underlying assumptions found in Dutch politics and society - something that both insiders and outsiders would do well to read.

A good review of the book can be found online at the Guardian - Review: Murder in Amsterdam. 

On a personal note, Buruma also helped me understand better why people have reacted how they have to Hirsi Ali (the author of Infidel). He describes her as being almost religiously devoted to the Enlightenment (and hence her quick acceptance within Dutch political circles). She also seems to expect that once a Muslim is enlightened he or, more so, she would then leave their religion. Buruma even gives an example of her dismissing women who validate their being Muslim. As much as her questions about the influence, radicalism, and intoleration of Islamism are good to think about, her enlightenment devotion and her refusal to listen to others holding different beliefs makes her a less than ideal advocate for Christians.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pretty Woman (2006) by Karen Schwarze, Marianne Berger, Edith Geurts

This book, written in Dutch, gives practical information about how teen prostitution and how one can help. It is based on the experience of the Pretty Women Foundation.The book is specifically designed for those who work with teenagers. The first half of the book focuses on the problem of teenage prostitution and how Pretty Women gives presentations to on this topic, and specifically to teenagers. The second half of the book specifies how Pretty Women reaches out to teenage girls through individual contact and group settings.

For those working directly with teenagers, it is a helpful resource. For those, like me, who are somewhat more removed from the target group, it is less helpful. Yet, two overviews are worth reporting here - not because they are so much new or unique to this book, but because they have been presented here in a clear and accessible manner - and these two overviews are: the means in which teenage girls are often led into prostitution and the risk factors for entering prostitution.

The means in which teenage girls are often led into prostitution by a pimp/loverboy (pages 13-14)
- led away and isolated from family and friends (and thus dependent, especially emotionally, on the one pushing them into prostitution)
- physical violence
- psychological pressure - e.g., pressure on her to repay the gifts/attention to her, threats against family, threatening to disclose to family and/or culture group how she has harmed the honour of her family.
- false promises - especially that of a good future together
- addiction to drugs

Risk factors in teenage girls (pages 18-20) - both for going into prostitution or already being involved in it:
- dysfunctional family background, notably the absence of one or both parents and, more so, a lack of supervision.
- problems at school - this can be both a cause or a result of prostitution
- drug or alcohol problems - this can lead to prostitution but also can be a means of surviving prostitution
- psychological problems,
- traumatic youth, especially sexual abuse. This leads to unhealthy perspectives on both sex and relationships.
- problems with relationship (e.g., dating older men, highly influenced by other's opinions, and/or social isolation),
- runaways (both as cause or result of prostitution)
- time spent in the foster care system - here teenagers who are less socially competent are exposed to those who are already involved with prostitution,
- strong sexual morals of family - if a girl breaks these, she is more likely to be cut off from her family/culture and potential help.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Achter het raam bij Patricia Perquin

This book comes after a series of articles in Het Parool written by Patricia, someone who claimed to work several years as a prostitute in the Red Light District. For those who read Dutch and want to learn more about prostitution from more of an insider's perspective, I would definitely recommend this book. Based on my conversations with the women working and what I've read about prostitution, it seems to provide a fairly balanced picture. Not all prostitutes are victims of human trafficking, nor under the influence of loverboys or pimps. Neither is the work glamorous, as one might conclude from the recent book, Ouwehoeren. Instead, for many women, prostitution is something in between or, perhaps, another category completely.

The book does a good job in raising good questions and it especially gives a good picture of how emotionally difficult the work can be - from a lack of respect given to those working behind the windows to the complicated relationships with the other women to the demands on her person. It details a bit of the actual work that she does but she doesn't let that overwhelm the book - partly because she doesn't sensationalize it. And she raises questions about what might not be good about how we respond to the work she does: how helpful are the umpteen organisations offering help? how easy is it to leave the work? should the work not be more regulated (i.e., should someone who can speak neither English nor Dutch be allowed to work in the Red Light District? What receipts can actually be claimed for taxes? Should there be a maximum hours per week that someone can work?). I know a number of others who have now read the book, and I look forward to talking more about it and the questions it raises.

Because Patricia remains anonymous and because her words correspond well with the 1012 project to clean up the Wallen, this leads to suspicious about how true her story really is. One fascinating reaction along that lines is found on the blog, "the experiences of a prostitute." (before you click on the link, you should be warned that crass language is involved and it's in dutch)." The writer of the blog is rather sceptical of Patricia and negative about what she has written. Yet, she also has some things to say about prostitution that I think ought to be heard. The following is a translation of a few sentences middle in the blog entry linked to above:

"Prostitutes are often depicted as murder victims in crime shows and books. Not surprising, as many people consider prostitutes not to be real people. We are seen as inferior, and people who want to harm others find it easier to do that to prostitutes. That is a problem and a danger.... We are not actually outlaws, but we are more vulnerable because many people believe that we are. And thus we must learn to stand up for ourselves..."

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fietsen met God: van Canterbury naar Rome (2007): by Monic Slingerland and Alja Tollefsen

the following has been least partially copied from my other blog: brendahey.blogspot.com
In anticipation of my father-in-law's bike trip to Rome, I borrowed the book, Fietsen met God (biking with God) from my in-laws. It tells the story of three women who made a pilgrimage to Rome: one a Catholic, another an Anglican priest, and the third Reformed (vrijgemaakt - Canadian Reformed). I had planned to read it slowly, so that I could have a picture in my head of what my father-in-law was experiencing. But I just found it so fascinating that I couldn't help but continue reading! (Unfortunately, it hasn't been translated into English).

It tells not only of the physical challenge of the adventure but also of the exploration of three different expressions of the Christian faith. Although Monic could handle the physical challenge of it, the other two both had moments when it was too much for them. And while Monic had expected the physical exertion to be the challenge, she soon discovered that this paled in comparison to the challenge of learning how to wait patiently for the others.

The most fascinating part of the book for me was the desire of the women to discover what their faith traditions had in common -  to explore their ecumenicity. It was interesting to see that it wasn't simply doctrines that were different - it was a complete manner of looking at the world that was different. And it was here that Agnes, the one from the Reformed Church, stuck out for me: her stubborn determination to search for the truth and to place that truth only in what the Bible says (and ignoring both the mystery of the faith and years of church tradition). And her scorn for relics and holy water (hocus pocus) caused friction. And it made me somewhat disappointed to be from that tradition. It was obvious that faith isn't simply what you believe, but also how you believe.

And yet, despite the differences in each of the women, it was obvious from the beginning that they needed each other. And learning how to need each other, while both acknowleding and honouring the differences, is a challenge - not only for a bike trip - but also anytime different Christian traditions come together.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Echte mannen eten geen kaas (2008) by Maria Mosterd

This book is a story of a teenage girl who claimed to have been involved in prostitution via a relationship with a loverboy. As I've once again been reading books about prostitution and trafficking, it seemed only appropriate to read one of the most famous ones. The edition I had from 2009 was the 22nd printing of the book (sequels were written, numerous interviews were made, and film writes had been sold,) - and then came the scandal. The true story was filled with lies (see the dutch article on wikipedia). Most notably, the lawsuit against the school for neglect was dismissed - in the book, Maria claims to have attended class only on days when there were tests, which should have raised questions and caused the school to contact her mother, at the very least. Maria did not skip class at any level of significance (and significant contact was attempted with her mother). Classmates/friends of Maria testified in public to her presence around school - and that she had a good imagination. There is little doubt any more that significant parts of the book are fictional.

Before reading the book, I knew about the scandal - and I'm sure that influenced my reading. I found the book itself hard to believe; yet, at the same time, in the midst of this rather nasty and depressing story, I am concerned about the fact that at least some of it isn't fiction. As for the parts about power and violence, I tended to skip over - they seemed untrustworthy enough that it wasn't worth the effort to sort through their validity. And the way that Maria related to her loverboy also came across as strange - because it was the wrong kind of strange. The relationship with a "loverboy" - a dutch term for a guy that uses the guise of love and promise of a future together in order to convince a woman to prostitute herself for his benefit - is for me, by definition, strange: a woman, because she has "fallen in love", accepts things that are not loving. The relationship gets more complicated with time, but the desire of the woman for her loverboy and his (positive) attention to her remains, irrelevant of everything that has happened. Maria tries to convey that desire, but it falls flat as it misses the echos of a longing for an addiction that you know you need to rid yourself of.

Maria herself, as she presents herself in the book, is not a sympathetic character. She is unmotivated and lazy with regard to school and studies. She claims to be looking for trouble in the beginning of the book. She claims to know how to manipulate people well. She acknowledges lying (or at least withholding information) in regard to police actions in a rape case. She regularly does drugs. She doesn't appear to care much about other people - she expresses some desire of protection for her friend and sister - but generally seems indifferent. If such a character were to write a book, what kind of book could we expect? A book that bends the truth and tells people what they want to hear (i.e., manipulates) seems not unlikely.

Yet, even if I find Maria rather unlikable, I do find it a pity that her story has been completely dismissed. Her book suggests that she knows a lot about having sex with strangers - and not good sex, and only partially because she was a minor when it happened. It is also obvious that she was mixed up and hanging out with a bad crowd. Both of these things should raise questions amongst Christians and Dutch society (see Guardian article from 2009) in general. It should also raise questions about how much catering to popular taste messes with truth - both on the side of the writer and on the side of the reader. Have we avoided the real story - both with Maria and others - because a story was written that would sell?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Emperor of all maladies: a biography of cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee; in translation

As it was only possible to get ahold of the Dutch translation of Emperor of all Maladies in the libraries here, this is what I read. I found it a fascinating book. The storyline, with its underlying question of how what I now know about cancer fits with the history of development of treatment, was laid out very well. He also sorts through the information in an incredible way - somehow organising and connecting what is obviously a wide range of efforts to fight cancer - despite those efforts being often made disjointly from each other.

He also does a good job of giving a face to cancer: besides the numerous stories of the researchers and doctors and lobbyers fighting cancer, he also tells the tales of those who have cancer, both those who survive and those who don't. Cancer becomes real in a new way to the reader.

Although I found the scientific part of the book incredibly fascinating, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed by the humanside. Listening to others praise the book, especially the human side of it, I've tried to figure out why I was disappointed. I wonder if reading it in translation hindered my catching all the nuances - and made the individuals slightly flatter. I also wonder if the individuals I know who have had cancer, a number of whom have died, have coloured my understanding of the human side of cancer too much: no matter how many faces or people Mukherjee names, there remains always something slightly less human in a brief synopsis of someone's struggle with cancer when it compares to the reality of having watched a 23-year-old international student lose his fight with stomach cancer.

Another (positive) review of the book can be found at the website from Mountain View Public Library