Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Best and Brightest book list - Part I

I've been working on my "greatest books" list for some time, but as the list is constantly changing, and as I continue to read new and fascinating books, it becomes ever more difficult to lock down a top ten list.
With that being said (one of my favorite phrases in the English language), I've narrowed the list down enough to where I can create a Top Ten list, in no particular order, that - goes without saying - is subject to change.
Some of these books are classics, and therefore are well known by many people, while others are somewhat lesser well known, and are dear to me for a plethora of reasons, ranging from nostalgia to life reference. However, all of them are very good (they wouldn't be on the list otherwise), and therefore I would have no qualms about suggesting them to any and all who read this blog.


The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien) - I know that this book will be virtually unknown to most people, even those who have read the Lord of the Rings trilogy and/or The Hobbit. And while I'm not a huge fan of the fantasy genre, I find this book to be uniquely beautiful, both in language and scope, of any book that I've read before. Tolkien purists might find the fact that Tolkien's son, Christopher Tolkien, essentially pieced this book together (even adding a little where a story needed some completion) from old writings to take away from the book, but just reading the book from a non-biased perspective, I find the tapestry created by the various stories to be absolutely beautiful.

100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) - What Marquez does here with story is amazing. Working in the genre of "magical realism", the characters, events, and overall story are fluid. Because of this, it can be a difficult read the first time through. Multiple people I've suggested this book to have told me that the repetitive use of names for various characters proved to be very confusing. However, as with myself, in subsequent readings they've had no trouble. But, what I learned from this repeated critique is that I need to preempt readers by telling them not to focus too much on exactly which characters are doing what or when, and more focus on the beauty of the writing, the winding path of the family, and the overarching events that take place.

Foucault's Pendulum (Umberto Eco) - For any of you out there that read The Da Vinci Code, and felt that both the writing, story and symbology were bad, then this is the book for you. Eco delves into the world of the occult, and the thing that separates him from Dan Brown (Da Vinci author) is that Eco actually knows what he's talking about; he'd either done extensive research on symbology and the occult, and/or has a scholastic background in it. Plus, the writing is good and in-depth, and though the book is large - probably close to 700 pages - this book is engrossing, and therefore can be a quick read.

Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) - People always ask me how I can read and like Ayn Rand, especially considering my political philosophy. While I guess I understand why people would ask the question, I don't understand the question. I don't necessarily read books - especially fiction - because I agree with the underlying "message" (if one exists). Therefore, I appreciate Atlas Shrugged (and The Fountainhead, as well) because I think that Ayn Rand is very good at writing characters. Her characters have depth, and she gives them real personalities, and we get to know them well, and begin to understand why and how they think what they think and do what they do. In addition, if I was to care about the message in her books, I think I would at least try to understand where and why she was coming from where the was coming from - and I do. Therefore, I don't find it so hard to recognize why in her books she condemns [what she views as] a system that crushes individualism and the human spirit. If you're interested in something resembling an autobiography, just read her first book, We the Living, it will make all of her other books, and her overarching philosophy, make much more sense.

Black Holes and Time Warps (Kip Thorne) - This book absolutely blew my mind. While I guess I was nominally interested in science before reading this book, once I was finished I was completely fascinated in learning as much as I could about astrophysics. I'm no math wiz, and there were definitely certain concepts in the book that went over my head, but overall I felt that the book was very approachable. Thorne does a great job (as only an incredibly intelligent person can) of explaining very difficult concepts in very simplistic terms. After reading this book, I subsequently went on to read numerous other astrophysics texts, both some more math-oriented, and also some more theoretical. If you're looking to be inspired to learn more about a new field, check this book out.

That concludes Part I of the Best and Brightest book list. Let me know what you think of these books, as well as others that you would suggest.

The Greatest

Hanging out with friends the other night, comparing who had sung the greatest National Anthem of all time - I had always supported the Whitney faction, while others were in Mariah's corner - I stumbled across a true gem that I had never heard before. Alright, before I go on, I must say that there are others that are pretty good - Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, R. Kelly even has a pretty good one (although it seems like a carbon-copy of the Marvin Gaye version) - but all, including the Whitney and Mariah versions pale in comparison to the great Marvin Gaye. To say I was blown away would be an understatement. If you have not watched this video on youtube, do you yourself a favor and check it out.
The thing that makes this version so amazing is that it's basically taking a song that is typically untouchable, and modifying it. From the start, this cat struts out wearing his sunglasses and polyester, and in the background is a beat that I can assure you has never before - nor since - been used for the National Anthem. It's a smooth, soulful beat that keeps time as he steps to the microphone; not that typical magisterial, pompous beat that is typical for the anthem. He then proceeds to slowly sing out the song in long, slow sentences, as if wooing a woman to bed, instead of singing the praises of the battle at Fort McHenry. The song lasts all of two and half minutes, but it seems to go on forever; and in that short span, the crowd - and all-star basketball game crowd - has become enthralled, and is cheering Marvin's every line. He finishes in the same manner as the rest of the song, slow and seductive, and brings it home with a long vibrato on the word "braaaaaaaaave". Hats off to you, Marvin, hats off.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hypocritical, self-deluding murderer

I've had this discussion several times with many different people, but I figured that it deserved a deeper delving than I'd been giving it (or maybe it doesn't, but I'm going to do so anyway).
Indiana Jones is a murderer. Bottom line. I mean, we as an audience can justify to ourselves all of the different reasons why he had to kill this person or that, but the fact remains that he's running all over the globe in search of these artifacts, and he's killing anyone along the way that tries to stop him. Why is he the righteous collector, and all of the others are criminals or villains? Look at The Last Crusade; Indy steals - literally steals - the Cross of Coronado from the archeological expedition, and then he gets pissed when the guy brings the police to retrieve the stolen goods. I mean, what do you expect, Indy?
In the first movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, we're supposed to feel bad for Indy for getting the golden monkey head stolen, first by his guide (played by a young Alfred Molina), and then by Belloq along with the help of the Hovitos. If Indy would have thought to learn Hovitos, and then solicit the help of the indigenous tribe, he would have done so. Belloq was just one step ahead of him.
A glaring example of Indy's disregard for human life is in the market in Cairo. Marion has been taken, and Indy is looking for her. He runs through the market knocking over any and all baskets looking for Marion, completely oblivious to the fact that he's pissing everyone off. Then, we have a man with a Scimitar challenge Indy to a fight (with some waving of the sword). Indy just pulls his gun out and murders the man in cold blood. In fact, he gets kind of a cool smirk on his face, like he's a badass for doing so, when, in fact, he's just cold-blooded.
Then we have Indy out at the Tanis excavation, and here is where the dude truly goes off (as does Marion). Listen, I know that the Nazi's were awful, and therefore there's little pity for some dead Nazi's, but that still doesn't mean that some sociopathic archaeologist can just murder them by the handful without any consequences. I mean, they are people, right? But he goes out to find the ark, and once they're onto his game, he decides he needs to bail, and kills anyone in his way to do so.
In the third movie dude is killing Nazis all over the place. In the castle, on the road, in the desert, on a tank. Indy is just a straight up killer, and not only a Nazi killer, but a killer of anyone that will stand between him and his rare antiquities. I guess I could forgive the Nazi killing for a second if it wasn't problematic to me that Indy seems to be completely remorseless for killing anyone, and never stops to make sure that he's killed the right or wrong person, and it never comes back to him that he has killed so many people - he's emotionless about it. Not to mention the fact that the guy is a globetrotting murderer, and yet he never seems to have any problems with the law, or create some sort of international incident, even though he's killing citizens from many countries scattered throughout the world.
Added to the fact that he's an unrepentant murderer, Indiana Jones is also a womanizer, who treats women like trash. In Raiders, it is revealed that he has been in a previous relationship with Marion, and that he broke her heart. He comes back into her life to find an antiquity (cares nothing about her feelings, or how having not seen him for several years will have affected her), and then once he's collected his antiquity he will be on his way. But his mission is complicated by the fact that she's kidnapped and seemingly killed. He mourns on this over a bottle of alcohol, and then seems perfectly fine as he continued upon his mission to find the ark. Once he finds Marion in a tent, and realizes that she's not dead, he kisses her for about .2 seconds, and then tells her that he can't untie her or help her escape, because then they would know Indy was around, and would prevent him from finding the ark. I mean, dude didn't know what the Nazis had in mind for her. Maybe they were routinely raping her, and they were going to perform medical experiments on her body, and he just leaves her there to deal with whatever they plan on giving her. Then there is some sort of reconciliation at the end, but we realize this is short-lived when Indy shows up in Temple of Doom Marion-less.
In Temple, we have the beautiful wife of Steven Spielberg, Kate Capshaw, playing "Willie", a nightclub singer and dancer who has a penchant for adventurous men and the finer things in life. She gets caught up in the whole mess Indy creates, and he proceeds to treat her like garbage throughout the rest of the movie, and only gives her affection from time to time when either he wants something from her, or he needs to get a little booty. Again, Willie disappears after Temple, never be seen or heard from again.
The most interesting relationship of the trilogy (I don't include The Crystal Skull as a real Indiana Jones movie) is that with Dr. Schneider. Frau Schneider is a very strong woman, and therefore Indy likes her very much. Even after she betrays him, he still tries to save her at the end. But the rest of the movie he's pushing her around, yelling at her, and basically just treating her like a dog.
Bottom line: Indiana Jones cares about nothing and no one but himself.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The new lost generation?

I was reading an interesting article today about the slow (very slow) maturation of the "Generation Y". While the generational definitions are rather fluid, and I guess I would fall somewhere in between Gen X and Gen Y, I think that my allegiance (and outlook on life) would fall more in line with Gen Y.
Looking around me, I see an army of unmarried and often unemployed (or sporadically employed) mid- to late- 20 somethings (or very early 30 somethings) that really are a new sort of Lost Generation. We're not lost in the way that Hemingway, Stein, Pound and Fitzgerald were lost. Their malaise was caused by a global shift in power caused by the sudden onset of WWI, and a shifting power dynamic in Europe caused by it, along with the rise of American military and economy might that crashed suddenly, and then rebounded for the next fifty years.
No, our malaise is caused by something very different. Unlike our predecessors inGen X, and especially in the Baby Boomer generation, we're learning from the mistakes of our parents and grandparents, and it's causing some major unrest. We're not uncomfortable with the idea of a career, but we're uncomfortable with working the same mundane job that we don't necessarily like for the rest of our lives just to support ourselves and a family, and in hopes that one day we can retire and enjoy the fruits our long and unfulfilling labor. We're not uncomfortable with the idea of marriage, but we don't want to jump into anything that isn't going to make us happy in the long run just to live a "normal" life and make our parents and grandparents happy; especially since we've seen divorce rates skyrocket in the last 40 years, and the misery that we as a generation have sustained as children of these divorces. We're not uncomfortable with the idea of having children, but we've learned that children will completely change your life; most likely in a good way, but it will be completely changed nonetheless. Maybe it's selfishness that causes us to have children later, or maybe we want to focus on our careers (or finding one, because as I stated before we're having trouble figuring out what we want to do with our lives), but either way, we're finding that children are a better option once we're "ready" (whatever that means).
Another defining characteristic of the Y Generation is our penchant for asking 'why'? Why do I need to get married right now? Why do I need to have kids right now? Why do I need to find a career right now? Why do I need to make my bed? Why do I need to take out the garbage? These small, inconsequential questions are simply a proxy for the greater existential issues that we're facing as a generation to figure out what we want and what we're all about. We spend our time fighting for causes, or endlessly going to college, or endlessly pursuing sex in an attempt to find out where our passions lie. But, while we wait for the 'BAM' moment, when all of the sudden our lives make sense to us, we're slowly letting more and more sand slip out of the hourglass. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we're wasting our lives, I'm just saying that our lives have a different structure and focus than those of the generations before us*.
I look around me, and I have many friends who are now married. I have friends who are now having kids (CONGRATULATIONS, I'm very happy for you guys!). I have friends who are well established in their careers, and are "moving on up", or continuing to pursue higher and higher avenues for success. But I also look around me and see many others that staid. Working this job or that, or not at all, and basically just floundering waiting for a big ah-hah to finally send them on their journey. Life is happening right now, and we need to take full advantage while we've got it.

*The Baby Boomer generation shook things up for a brief period in the 60s and 70s, and made a major cultural and social impact on the fabric of our country. However, their generational mind shift was temporary, and though they may have rejected the 'ticky-tacky' existence of their parents, they were quite content moving to the suburbs and getting corporate jobs in the 1980s. They might still vote Democrat (or maybe not), and they volunteer at the homeless shelter, protest the Iraq war, and give money to the Sierra Club, but their revolutionary spirit died out as the 70s sputtered on, and was completely severed when Ronald Reagan was elected president, and coincidentally their kids were born starting in 1980.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Do we have SARS?

So I went to the doctor the other day to get some lab work done, and I asked the woman at the counter if it mattered that I had a little bit of a chest cold. She assured me that it would not affect the test in any way, so don't worry about it. Another woman at the counter overheard the conversation, and told me that 'just to be safe' I should grab one of the surgical masks from the box that was conspicuously hanging from the wall. I was somewhat taken aback at this; first of all because I had never been requested to do so before, and the prospect of sitting there in the waiting room looking like a crazy SARS-feared Chinese woman made me a little uneasy, but also because there was only one other person in the waiting room, and since we're in the doctor's office I guess I just typically assume that everyone there is sick anyway.
However, after my initial shock from the request wore off, I started thinking about how much sense this makes, and how I couldn't believe that I'd never seen people wearing masks in the waiting room before. The doctors and nurses wear masks, and they certainly don't do it for my sake, but instead for their own. So of course if there are people hanging out in the waiting room of a clinic, there are germs flying everywhere, and it only makes sense that everyone should keep their germs to themselves.
I guess my point is that I am baffled that the people behind the counter don't make everyone put on masks, regardless of whether they're sick or not, because it protects all in the waiting room from either giving or receiving the awful germs that are sure to be circulating in a room full of people waiting to see a doctor. I'm not saying I'm going to start wearing a surgical mask on the street - although it probably isn't a bad idea, but there's a point where we have to decided whether we want to be perceived as crazy, or be healthy, and I think that crosses into the "look at that crazy person" realm - but I certainly will think more about putting a mask on any and every time I find myself in a hospital or doctor's office waiting room.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

This picture has become somewhat of an internet phenomenon over the past several days. It's been in newspapers, on television and nearly ubiquitous in the blogosphere, and therefore I really did not want to write anything about it. However, I felt it apropos because of my post yesterday regarding the potential Obama/Clinton ticket in 2012.
Many people analyzing this picture see it as show of strength for the president. He's casually sitting there with a serious look on his face, surrounded by generals, Pentagon officials and cabinet staff. He has an air of unquestioned authority. He isn't sitting front and center in a big throne, because he doesn't have to. Nobody wonders whether or not he's in charge; his team works for him, but they also all work together - including the president. The phrase 'Protector in Chief" has been used to describe his new role, as defined by the picture, and I can't disagree; solemn, serious, but not in an approachable way. He comes off in the picture as someone that we can trust to make the right decision, but he'll also comfort us if that decision is a tough one.
Hillary Clinton has a completely different look in the picture, but tells a lot as well. Her hand to the mouth has been assumed by many to be a gasp, when in fact she says that she was simply covering a yawn. Either way, I think her placement and stature in the picture shows that she's one of the main players. Where the president's role is unquestioned, and therefore he needs no show, cabinet members have specific roles that seem to overlap in situations such as these, and therefore it can create tricky situations as to whose in charge and whose responsible for what. But as we see here, Hillary Clinton is sitting next to the Secretary of Defense, in a prominent position of both power and decision-making. She's not as dressed down as the other people in the room, and looks like she's either wearing what she's been wearing all day, or she dressed back up for what she knew would be an important occasion. She could very well be the president in this situation, with Obama as a cabinet member had history been just a little different (although I assume he would have dressed up a little more).
Final Note: I've found it interesting that so many of the blogs that have spoken of this picture talk about the prominent positions of a black man and two men in the room. While I think that it's great there is a little diversity in the room, we're still looking at a picture in 2011 of the president's situation room that has only one racial minority, and two women out of fourteen inhabitants (or at least pictured inhabitants). The ration of male to female in this country is nearly 1 to 1, and minorities in this country make up nearly 30% of the population. Why aren't those same ratio's being seen in these important decision-making rooms?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Arises from the dead to be assassinated

Let me say right off the bat that I have no sympathy for Osama Bin Laden. It doesn't break my heart that he's met his (un)timely demise. However, I must confess that I find it a little unnerving the amount of celebration and rah-rah American-ness that has been taking place since the news rocked this country that our arch-nemesis has been slain, not by drones in the sky, or the Pakistani intelligence, but instead by our own elite Navy SEALs.
Sure, I will freely admit that I think it's good for our national consciousness to have this terrorist eliminated. We've been dragging around this heavy weight for the last ten years; pushing the search for Bin Laden to the back of our minds, and trying the forget that he was the reason we removed the Taliban, bombed and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians in Afghanistan, and somehow tried to legitimize our attack and occupation of Iraq because of either the ties to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, or because we were worried that Saddam Hussein was going to become another terrorist (I could never exactly figure out their excuse - I don't think I'm alone on this one). Now, at last, the dark cloud has parted, and we can finally say - as a country - that we killed the man responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center. It is sort of a national catharsis that I think we're in desperate need of, and I think it actually might have an amazing effect on our economy, the salty political discourse, as well as our foreign policy.
Now don't let my hopeful words above in any way legitimize the United States' actions over the past ten years. We've been the opposite of rational and virtuous at nearly every turn, and the assassination of a terrorist mastermind doesn't exactly negate all of that. However, the fact that it happened under a new president with a new strategy, along with an amazing speech that emphasizes the fact that our country is not, and never was, at war with Islam, but that we can be (though the Tea Party, or many other intolerant people people would say otherwise) a nation that embraces diversity - diversity of religion, racial diversity, sexual diversity, gender diversity - and can be a place that the rest of the world will look at and wonder at how well our heterogeneous country, the most heterogeneous on the planet, work so well.
Sorry for the patriotic stuff, but I think our country has gotten a bad rap for the actions of a minority of greedy and ignorant people, who we had absolutely no control over (well, I guess the mid-term elections would say we do have control over them, but with a voting vote in the 40% range, it doesn't exactly speak well to democracy). I think that Obama, regardless of his action involvement in giving the go-ahead with this operation, has just secured his second term. I know it may be a little premature, and I don't want to jinx him in any way (I don't actually believe in jinx's, so it doesn't exactly matter), but I don't really see the Republican argument against a president who is working hard to drive the unemployment numbers down, the economy up, and just killed public enemy number one. The daze will wear off from Bin Laden's death, but short of a dramatic downward shift in the economy, or something unforseen (I guess that's always what has the effects, huh), I think we're looking at Obama/Clinton in 2012. Yes, I think Hillary Clinton will be Obama's running mate in 2012 - setting herself up for another run in 2016.