Tag Archives: life

Woe of Hours Wasted

IMG_9339This afternoon I read a sci fi short story entitled “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” by Frederik Pohl (1973). In it, a scientist devises a plan to strand eight people on a spacecraft bound for Alpha Centauri on a contrived mission to colonize a planet that doesn’t really exist. He does this because he believes that if you put humans into a situation away from distractions and modern convenience and allow them to focus solely on solving difficult problems that the results will be profound and sufficient to change the world. The story, in its detail, is fairly preposterous but I think that there may be a hefty thread of truth winding through this concept.

If you look at our modern workaday world in historical context, we’ve got some amazing advantages over our forebearers only 100 years ago. We have more leisure time than any group of humans ever. Our access to information is mind-boggling; if you want to study the mating habits of Nicaraguan sea turtles you can have access to that information in under 60 seconds. While disposable income varies wildly, the internet allows us to obtain just about anything you can imagine. We are the most intellectually empowered species in the history of this planet.

But what do we actually do with all that power? There are, of course, the elite few who are putting their brains to the proverbial grindstone and pushing to make the world a better place but it seems that for the vast majority of us (and I do not absolve myself from this one iota) we go to work at jobs that don’t really challenge us and then come home to lives that don’t really put us to the test or stretch us as people and simply float by on a cloud of recreation waiting for the next life event to come to pass. In every sense of it this is a terrible waste of an amazing opportunity.

Speaking personally, I look back on previous versions of myself (at times represented in this blog) and I yearn for that person that I used to be. I was far from ideal to be sure but I did more. I wrote more keenly; I thought more profoundly. Perhaps not with so much wisdom as I might hope for now but there was an energy that I haven’t found again. Ironically, I’m much more empowered in every sense than I was 10 years ago yet I’ve still lost something.

Looking at the world as a whole, I believe that collectively we have all the energy both mental and physical to solve all of our problems 1000 times over. What we lack is leadership and direction to point us in the right direction and when humans lack direction, leadership and inspiration the collective psyche devolves to watching cat videos, random complaining, and heavy drinking. I can’t deny that I’ve certainly frittered my share of hours away and dream keenly of what better use they could have been put to.

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How to be a Victorian – Notes, Chapter 1

g2573Everything below came to my attention because of one little book. Well, a rather large book. If you want the real stuff and not my notes, go buy a copy here.  I won’t be held responsible for any loss of productivity you might encounter because of it, however.

So what was life like in Britain between 1837 and 1901?  Chapter 1 describes basic personal care from the era.

  • Most people in the Victorian era rose with the sun.  If you were a factory worker or someone who had to get up earlier, you could hire a knocker-upper to come wake you up at the appointed time since timepieces were rather expensive.
  • Windows were left open no matter the weather because stale air was considered deadly.  Therefore a nice bedside mat was considered a wonderfully luxury for those that could afford to keep their feet warm when first rising from bed.
  • The majority of people washed in a water-filled basin beside the bed.  Once a week the luxury of using hot water was common in many households.  Since the windows were wide open, most washed in their clothes to keep from freezing.
  • Before Victorian times, people didn’t wash with water at all as this was thought to invite disease.  Instead they rubbed themselves down with a dry pad and changed their underwear with greater frequency.
  • Scientists at the time thought the skin contributed greatly to respiration.  In one experiment they varnished an entire horse.  It quickly died from heat exhaustion.
  • Soap was expensive with a 4oz bar of soap costing as much as a joint of roast.  Washing and laundry could consume 5% of the typical household budget.
  • Ammonia or vinegar was a common deodorant.
  • Carbolic acid was a common disinfectant and even today its sharp smell is considered an indication of cleanliness
  • Tooth care products were often home made; their key ingredients were soot, salt or charcoal.  More expensive products purchased from apothecaries had many other added ingredients to make them taste better but tended to be pink rather than white.
  • Women’s sanitary needs were suspended from a belt or even slung over the shoulders since bloomers were not supportive enough to keep them in place.  Sanitary napkins were sometimes mail ordered or simply rags that were washed month after month.

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So I’m pretty much AmaZoned Out

Amazon_2014_03I have to admit that I’ve always been a man driven by obsessions. For half a decade or more I ran a baseball card business that turned no discernible profit yet consumed all my free time. I’ve had jobs that consumed my life and people that consumed my life and hobbies that consumed my life and blogs that consumed my life and through all of it I was deliciously and completely enraptured by the idea of just being busy. Busy with something. Busy writing blogs that nobody read or selling crap on eBay or amassing a ludicrously large collection of rocks. It was always something and I was always busy and the busy seemed to be the primary goal and whatever the other was completely … not primary. It just was.

For the past year or more my ‘busy’ has been Amazon reviews. I reviewed every blasted thing I could get my hands on clawing my way from being ranked 16,000,000 to now ranked #279. That’s a lot of clawing. I feel pretty accomplished when you consider that I did it without being part of the “Amazon Vine” program in which Amazon sends you free stuff to review before anyone else can even have a chance. Those people permeate the stratosphere of review rankings and I’m just a visitor in their lofty realm. For months I busted my ass to get here and now that I’m here the only thing I can really say is, “Why?”

Yes, there are perks, of course. I have more free books sent to me by authors than I can possibly read. Tomorrow I’m going to drag a large box of electronic gadgets in to work for my co-workers to provide feedback on. Yes, there’s lots of free stuff but when you consider the hours it took to cultivate this ranking it works out to earning about $0.27 an hour and most of that is paid in books that are sub-par and electronic gadgets that I don’t really have any use for. Luckily the people at work do sometimes but they’d never have bought them on purpose. I’ve spent all my free time, once again, on vacuous and pointless garbage.

What I regret most is how this whole thing has changed my relationship with books. When I was a wee lad I read in order to escape from my life. In 6th grade I was required to do 10 book reports in a year; I turned in 150. As an adult I became the guy who took notes on every book he read and figured out how he could work ‘pulchritude’ into his daily speech. I was a studious reader who used books for self-improvement. Now, after months of being a slave to the grind of Amazon reviews, I find myself read-skimming just enough to write an informed response. After I’ve produced the required output I find that I remember no more about the book than I could have easily discerned from the dust jacket. I’ve gone from savoring literature to pounding it down my throat like candy on Halloween night.

Luckily for my sanity I feel that my obsession has played itself out. I’m ready for a new something or other. Let’s face it, it’s far too much a part of my personality to claim that I’ll do without one. Obsessing is who I am. The real question is whether I’ll find something that actually means something or that adds to the world in any meaningful way. Telling Amazon customers that a particular book will scare the crap out of their children is marginally helpful to the world but has a decidedly limited impact. There are so many choices… The spring approaches, perhaps it’s time to go utterly crazy on the photography side of things again. Or maybe go back to DuoLingo…. or maybe go back to blogging regularly and promulgate the joyful randomness of all the crap I learn in a day.

There are just so many choices and the only issue is that none of the choices seem to matter. In the end, what can I possibly do with my copious first-world free time that will make any difference at all and will also keep me vaguely entertained and properly obsessed? Because trust me…. I’m a powder keg of energy just waiting for the fuse to be lit….

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Movie Reviews: Girlfriend 19 – Not really any plot to speak of but instead detailed emotional forensics on what it’s like to break up with someone

Please click the photo to visit the review on Amazon and vote it helpful. While you’re there watch the movie and leave your own review.

I watched this movie because it looked lonely and unreviewed on Amazon Instant Watch and I’m reasonably glad I did but it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

First and foremost, this movie is not broken. It starts out with about 60 seconds of complete blackness and almost no audio and very slowly brightens to reveal a woman’s hand. We scrambled around a bit wondering why the movie wasn’t starting only to realize that the movie was starting but very slowly. So be aware of that oddity.

So, the plot is really not much of a plot so it’s impossible to “spoiler” much of anything. The slowly-appearing opening scene features a couple in bed yet also in the process of breaking up. About 5 minutes into it he’s finally out the door and the rest of the movie covers the next 2-3 days as she deals with the emotional aftermath of the situation. It’s a deep and (I’m told) accurate view of breaking up from the woman’s perspective but it’s not a movie driven by events. She talks to her friends, she flashes back to before the relationship, she talks to her ex, she flashes back to events with her ex, around and around for 90 minutes.

In summary, it wasn’t a movie that took our breath away but it was reasonably thought provoking. Guys will have a bit more trouble with this movie since it’s not really their perspective on things but it’s a pretty accurate and it will spur some potential conversation if you’re open-minded about the whole topic. Most definitely not a first-date movie though.

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Reviews: Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him

Click the image to see the review on Amazon

Firstly and as usual, I received this book for because someone was giving it away in exchange for a review. Despite that kindness I’ll give my candid opinions below.

This book is at once a biography and a textbook on sociology. The opening chapters focus on black comedy and the environment into which Pryor entered the entertainment world. Throughout the book the names fall like rain and anybody who ever was or hoped to be anybody entered the scene for at least a bit. About a third of the way in we get down to the man himself.

On the positive side, the background presented in this book is thoroughly entertaining and much of the information was eye-opening and uniquely informative. I found myself scrounging YouTube looking for snippets of the people and bits referred to. It’s a fascinating period of history. As to the bits about Pryor himself, the story of his life is at once horrifying and hilarious. This lived a life of incredible pain, as with most comedians, and the book doesn’t hesitate one bit to be absolutely candid about what happened. From the sexual abuse he suffered as a child to the night he set himself on fire, this book goes into it all in sometimes painful detail.

On the negative side, all that detail can sometimes be a bit much. The story is only roughly chronological and meanders in sometimes confusing fashion. All the parts of a great story are here but they need to be straightened out a bit into a more cohesive whole. I felt at times that we were just jumping about for no good reason. There’s a real lack of cohesion.

In summary, after the first third of the book I thought this would be a keeper. I tend to get rid of almost all the review books I get but on rare occasion I’ll keep one about permanently for future rereading. After getting to the end though, it’s just not quite earned the bookshelf space. The first half makes me want to find a more general book about show business in the 60s-70s and put THAT on the shelf instead of this.

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This Dark Road to Mercy – Wiley Cash

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

As usual I received this book via the grand courtesy of the publisher through a Shelf Awareness giveaway. Despite that great kindness my candid opinions follow.

The summary of this one is a bit tough because it’s so many things at once. It is, in equal parts, the story of children forced to grow up before their time, dark criminal suspense and sad story of parenthood failed. As if that’s not enough, there’s also a thread of baseball history and doping thrown in for good measure. The narrative is done in a panoramic style as we hear in first person from the oldest child, the hero and the villain in approximately equal parts.

On the positive side, the circumspect narrative style really gives the reader a detailed look at the situation from all sides. The story has a lot to say about fatherhood and whether that title is given by right or must be earned and delves into the complex situations of parenting in an intriguing way that’s not often seen in such an otherwise gritty novel. The author’s female characters are charming and evoke a great deal of pity from the reader and one inwardly roots for them as they make their way through the short span of time portrayed in the book. This one touches a lot of genres at once and never fails to keep the reader guessing.

To the negative, the narrative switches can sometimes be rather jarring and confusing. The first transition comes 35 pages in and I completely missed it and had to go back and reread a few pages to figure out why the eldest daughter was suddenly sitting in a bar. Once primed to expect it things settled down but this wasn’t the best executed thing about the book. Also, the female characters were very lifelike but the villain seemed rather flat and we missed his back story. He and his heroic counterpart lacked “pop” and didn’t quite pull the reader along behind them as the girls did. Lastly, on the topic of language, it’s worth noting that the narrators tell the story in their own distinct southern vernacular and this is not limited to actual dialog. So those who are appalled by “ain’t got no” and “ain’t hardly no” should be steeled for the fact that these characters have uniquely southern voices.

In summary, a very diverse and well executed book with something for everyone. Fans of gritty crime suspense will find a bit of something to tantalize them; those looking for child-welfare drama will be well served and baseball fans can relive a bit of the late-90s doping drama.

This title will be released January 28, 2014 by Harper Collins. They have my infinite gratitude for the advance copy.

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These Week(s) in Review…

There’s no denying that I’ve been massively remiss in posting as of late.  Perhaps it’s better if I post things as they come up rather than trying to wait for the end of the week which will inevitably become several weeks.  Anyway, click on the book covers to view the full review.

 

Firstly, and as usual, it must be noted that I didn’t buy this book. Instead, it came to me for free as the result of a Shelf Awareness giveaway. Despite that kind consideration, I give my candid opinions in this review. Also, it should be noted that I’m not a Christian so it may seem a bit odd for me to be reviewing Christian literature. Nonetheless, I’ll review this book based on its literary merits and ignore any philosophical differences I may have with the genre.

On the positive side, the book is very competently executed and it’s set in a period of history that’s always amusing and vastly underutilized in literature. Pittman gives us a colorful and alluring rendering of the era and some fairly interesting characters.

To the negative, the Christian aspects of the novel seem to be an affectation and are poorly integrated. It’s almost as if the author recognized that no mention of religion has been made in X number of pages and therefore has the characters suddenly decide to pray. I have great respect for literature in which the characters make Christian choices and live Christian lives but Pittman’s novel seems to include prayerful interludes just for the sake of staying in the Christian genre. Lastly, the cover art appears to be a fairly horrifying photoshop job. Others in my family saw the cover sitting on the shelf and stated rather quizzically, “Doesn’t really look like your sort of book…?” without even cracking the cover.

In summary, this would make an interesting novel if it would only make up its mind what it wanted to be.

 

On the positive side, the author has chosen a great theme. He takes on childhood illness from the viewpoint of the patient and this always makes for a powerful and evocative story. We all too often fail to realize the weight of such circumstances on the afflicted especially when they’re so young.

Sadly, the negative side of this book far overshadows anything positive I could possibly say about it. The editing is atrocious; the text is filled with typographical and grammatical errors. The dialog is stiff and robotic and the vivid descriptions of the sick child are interlaced with this bizarre science fiction sub-plot akin to “Osmosis Jones” or “Fantastic Voyage”. I’m agog that the author would take the book in such a direction. What could have been a heart-rending portrayal of a dire situation is turned into a literary laughing-stock.

In summary, this book is just not worth the time. Generally, I never give out less than three stars unless the book is unreadable or socially irresponsible. This book is as close to unreadable as I’ve seen in quite a while. I hung on to it tenaciously for a long time in hopes it would have great soul but it turned out to be a train wreck. I like the idea but the execution was completely lacking.

 

Firstly, it should be noted that I religiously avoid reading the back jackets of books, so going into this one I had only the cover and the subtitle “A ghost story” to go on. Because of that I spent a fair amount of time looking for the literal ghost only to find that the ghosts that haunt William Bellman are of a completely different sort than one generally expects from children’s literature.

On the positive side of things, this book is a deliciously subtle story of one man’s haunted life. Setterfield weaves her story and her characters together with a sagacious and haunting assiduousness that pulls the reader gently along from one short chapter to the next. This is an acutely wrought novel with a tenacious grip on realism while still washing the entire scene in an afterglow of the supernatural. I’ve not read anything this well written in quite some time. Our author brings us a tale as unhurried and as natural as life itself.

The only real negative I can put forth is really more of a warning to potential readers. This is a great book but it’s likely not for everyone. For those accustomed to the pablum of easy modern literature, I suggest humbly that you look elsewhere. For those reading by the pool in the joyous light of day, perhaps your time is better spent between other pages. But if you find yourself in a darkened room listening to the rumble of far-away thunder, then this may be the book for just that setting. It is not a gripping thrill ride, but it does take you gently by the hand and pull you quietly into another world where the sky harbors a thousand watching eyes and time does not undo all wrongs nor heal all wrongs.

 

Since this is a children’s book it should be noted that I approach the review from a different viewpoint, focusing on appropriateness for young readers and general coherence and execution.

On the question of appropriateness for young readers, this book has done marvelously. In general I scowl at any children’s book that contains sexual or drug content and this novel contains neither problem. It does have some light violence but nothing that kids won’t have picked up from any mainstream cartoon. In the vein of profanity I don’t tend to judge harshly but this novel even avoids that problem and does so in a clever and entertaining way that’s consistent with the general story line. Dukes’ novel is as pure as the driven snow and somehow still remains very real and entertaining. It doesn’t SEEM sanitized but through some miracle of authorship it really is.

Stepping back and speaking more generally about the novel, the author has provided a brilliant and witty take on what is, I’m am sure, a standard daydream of every young person. Our protagonist has ultimate and unlimited freedom but what happens when suddenly he doesn’t? What tangled complications await in a world with no responsibility and limitless possibilities? In addition to its tendency to provoke deep contemplation, the writing style is witty and made even me, a perennial curmudgeon, laugh aloud in spots. The writer has found that intangible balance between teaching the reader something and entertaining them at the same time. Any teen will stumble upon a hoard of new words begging to be looked up in the dictionary and probably spare at least a few cycles for the complexities of causality and consequences of seemingly simple actions. That lesson is worth the price of admission.

In summary, this one was a rare treat. After a long recent string of losers, ‘Caught in a Moment’ is just the sort of book I’d want my own kids to read. Clean, erudite and with a moral or two hidden in spots for those who will only seek.

 

I’d put this book in the genre of concentric psychological horror. The main character is a published novelist and short-story writer and his stories appear as brief vignettes within the main body of the work. I assume that these stories are examples of Conlon’s own short story work. So this is a novel that is several stories embedded in a larger encapsulating (though mostly unrelated) narrative.

To the positive side, Conlon has an immaculate grasp of how to say just enough about a situation to get the reader’s attention and erect an air of tension in a situation. His imagery is vivid and surreal yet still retains an element of plausibility that is rare in any novel dealing primarily with the metaphysical. Conlon’s work reminds me strongly of Lovecraft in its deep yet inexplicable feeling of terror. The reader is on edge but can’t quite explain why that is so. One factor in which he deviates strongly from turn of the century horror though is his raw and unapologetic portrayals of sexuality. While I would not go so far as to call the results erotic, he is certainly not afraid to deal candidly and skillfully with the topic.

To the negative side, the novel as a whole did seem to lack the incisiveness of the individual sub-stories. As a reader I’m tempted to go back and re-read the stories within the story and ignore the more protracted narrative. In the vein of the larger narrative, it seemed to stumble a bit as it tried to explain the metaphysical aspects of a particular event in the story. I was severely jolted out of my reverie of enjoyment at the first mention of the words “soul catcher” and subsequent explanation. I will say no more for fear of spoilers but know simply there are a few rough spots that are easily enough ignored.

In summary, the novel demonstrates a great deal of artistry. The book is very much worth while though at times skimmable to cut down a bit on bulk. The stories-within-a-story are pure gems and if you read nothing else then take the time to read those. They are easily picked out as they are printed in a different font than the rest of the novel.

 

In a nutshell, this is the retelling of the King Author myth spanning from Author’s birth through his rise to the kingship. As Authurian legends go, this one tends towards the strictly realistic and pulls no punches about the state of the world at the time.

On the positive side, Hume’s writing is beyond reproach. I found myself constantly entertained at her use of appropriate and timely language which pulled me to my dictionary repeatedly and with unbridled glee. This is a book that educates while it entertains. Anything she chooses to write in the future will have my utmost attention. Here is a tale that is woven with intricacy and detail that is unrivaled.

On the negative side, and this is a negative side that is rather implied by my perceptions of the tastes of other readers, this is not a book that speeds along with any great rapidity. The book goes on for almost 500 pages and while I was entranced by the intricacies, I can imagine other readers finding themselves in the arms of a rather intransigent ennui. The book does move slowly but the arc that it traces is an epic one.

In summary, this is a book to approach in an unhurried and open-minded manner. It has much to teach you, not the least of which is vocabulary. It’s not a book for a single solitary rainy afternoon but instead one to be taken a few chapters at a time over the course of a week. It is a book to be pondered over and digested slowly. As epic tales go, this is a fresh and delightful retelling but don’t expect to swallow it in one go. Take the time to savor and learn from what it has to tell you. I look forward to the subsequent volumes. This is a book for the thinkers among us.

 

I’m exceptionally late to the party on this book so I won’t attempt the usual Positives/Negatives bit as I usually do. This book was a real perplexity for me. I spent the majority of the text trying to figure out if the central figure of “Life” (as described in the back-cover description) was an actual physical person or a metaphor for human existence. Unfortunately, even after 486 pages I still don’t really know for sure.

This book has a property that I’ve not found in a title for quite some time. I consider myself a fairly attentive and avid reader but it’s seldom that a book makes me late to work and then late to bed and generally takes over my life. For the few days it took to finish it I did little else but read this book and find ways to compress my other daily duties to accommodate more time for it. I learned during this period just the perfect way to balance a bowl of morning cereal while reading. The only problem with all this is that I’m not actually entirely sure why it was such a fascinating book.

At least in part the ambiguity of one of the main characters has a role to play in this miniature obsession. I love nothing more than a good mystery to be unraveled and even now I’m left rather unsatisfied and confused on this topic. It’s also, perhaps, because I can relate to the main character. She shuts herself off from others with lies and keeps the world at a distance. This resonates with me personally but my weapon of choice is humor and deflection. Books are often very personal and in many ways this one was a mirror. At times a terrifying mirror, but a mirror nonetheless.

In summary, I was utterly enthralled by this book. At least to some extent probably irrationally because I’ve failed to understand the concept of “Life Audits” that may be commonplace in Ireland, but still the fact remains that this book really roped me in. It’s probably a good thing I’m not trying to come up with positive/negative analysis because I’d be hard pressed to criticize a book that consumed my entire life rather joyfully for two solid days.

 

In a nutshell, this is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in half a century on the planet. Walls’ story of her childhood is not only easy for me to relate to but it also makes me just downright angry. Her parents reeked of an abominable failure to be responsible and look out for their own children that just shakes me to my very core. While this is 300 pages of small type this is just the sort of book you could inhale at one passionate gulp sitting outside on a summers say. If you start reading you’ll be lucky to escape before the last page.

Generally, I try to balance my reviews by describing both the positive and the negative of a novel but in this case I’m hard pressed. “The Glass Castle” could easily be described as a modern classic as it sums up with great vividness an all too common situation in the half-century. The free-thinking hippies cum parents who completely failed to give a damn about their own children are all too prolific and Walls describes her own beautifully. My only realistic negative results from the ending which seems clipped and far too succinct. I suppose in this format there’s little choice in the matter but I could have anticipated another 300 pages or complete omission of the end.

In summary, this is by far the best memoir I have read in recent recollection. The author’s view is candid and heartfelt but does not commit the sin of meandering into self-pity like many would in this situation. This title is a best seller with a heart and soul and a pointed comment to any parent who fails to recognize the needs of their own child. I cannot recommend this one enough.

And so ends the weeks that were. As always, click any of the book covers to visit the reviews in question and feel free to vote them ‘helpful’ if you find them so once you get there.

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The Biology of Luck by Jacob M. Appel – Release Date October 7, 2013

The Biology of LuckThe Biology of Luck by Jacob M. Appel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As usual I received this book free of charge; specifically, through the grace of a LibraryThing monthly giveaway. Despite that kind and frequent consideration, I give my candid opinions below.

“Biology” is an enigmatic little tale of an ugly and unfortunate man. The chapters alternate between the narrative of his real life and chapters from the book he’s written, named somewhat concentrically, “The Biology of Luck.” His real life is a rather frustrated tale of a man looking for love while book he’s written is a highly optimized and optimistic view on the same events.

On the positive side, this book is highly surreal and captures the dichotomy between our real lives and what we would wish them to be. Our main character builds up his book-within-a-book around the life of his prospective lover and an unlikely series of events that it is hoped will bring her ultimately to his arms for good and all. Other reviewers have called this book “funny” but personally I didn’t find it funny at all but rather dark and far too easy to relate to. The protagonist is a sad little man who makes one big wish and releases it into the world in book form.

To the negative, I would only warn readers that this is not a typical happy go lucky romance novel. This is very deep, patient and thought provoking work and those looking for fluffy romance or a grand payoff at the end will be disappointed. Read this book when you want to spend a day in contemplation, not for an afternoon by the side of the pool. For some this will be a warning and others a recommendation. I leave it to you to decide which category you fall into.

In summary, this novel is a highly literary and complex tale of love, lust and human desire. It also has a lot to tell us about how we perceive others and exhibits the great talent of the human mind for taking tiny shreds of information about people and weaving them into exorbitant narratives that generally have no relationship whatsoever to reality. Just the sort of book you could read three times and get more and more and more from it on each reading.

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Bootstrapping your way to Polyglot status

When I was a wee lad, many, many, MANY years ago, I found the coolest thing in a local bookstore.  Well, ok, I thought it was the coolest thing in the universe but you’re very likely to think differently.  It was a book, written in French, that taught the reader Arabic.  At the time, it caught my attention for two reasons.  The first is that you don’t really see a lot of Arabic textbooks around.  At least not in 1985 you didn’t and especially not Arabic textbooks written, as this one was, back in the 50s.  For whatever reason, Arabic just wasn’t respected as a language so it was hard to find resources to learn it.  Now, of course, with the recent conflicts in the Middle East, every aspiring private in Signal’s Intelligence is interested in picking up a bit of Arabic or Farsi or whatever happens to be handy.  But back “in the day” as they say, it was rather unheard of.

The second thing that caught my attention was that it was a book, written in a language I don’t know, intended to teach yet another language I don’t know.  Since the first day I laid my monolingual eyes on that book I have been struck by the awesome majesty of the idea that you could learn one language, then use that new language to learn a third and thus reinforce the second.  Proceeding thusly you could daisy-chain your way into the sort of polyglot status one tends to read about in Jane Austen novels.  The world would be your oyster.

One funny thing about reading a lot of 19th century literature as a child is that it gives you a rather warped sense of what’s important.  Again, when I was a wee lad, I read about characters who could converse fluently in English, German, French, Spanish and had a smattering of Portuguese (note the omission of the barbaric Arabic) and I was in awe.  As far as I’m concerned, if I could converse in five languages then little else would matter.  My value system for personal accomplishment is founded in a day long past.  Sure, I can pick apart C++ or C# or even Pascal.  I can go on and on about why JavaScript is the work of Satan.  But I’d trade all that computer programming mumbo-jumbo for a working knowledge of French verb conjugation.

The bitter irony of all this, of course, is that despite a reasonably competent command of the even English language, I’m too fucking shy to talk to 99% of the people in the universe anyway.  So yes, I could put forth a grand effort to learn French and then be even more shy about talking to people in that language.  I would postulate, if placed under close cross-examination, that most of my fascination with language is really just an attempt to overcome the bitter distance I feel separates me from the people I’d really like to be having a conversation with in the first place.  It is a useless attempt to learn my way out of a personality deficiency.  At any rate, that is a grand digression.

Returning to the here and now, my current area of pursuit is German.  My eldest is taking German in high school so it would be a good reinforcement for me to learn along with her or at least be able to encourage her.  To that end I’m piddling along to at least stay abreast of her class.  I’ve got several years of Spanish under my belt, so I’m hoping to refresh that by doing dual “homework” in Spanish and German.  At the least I’ll pick up a few key phrases and make Hogan’s Heroes all the funnier.  Which, if you really think about it, is the only real reason to do anything.  Oh, that Sargent Schulz!

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Flies, their Lords, and Amateur Literary Interpretation

This summer my eldest daughter was tasked with reading “Lord of the Flies” for her AP English class. All summer I heard, “Dad. I hate this book. It’s boring.”
“What’s it about?” I’d inquire, despite knowing darn good and well what it was about.
“It’s about some kids on an island.”
“OH! Is it an adventure story? Or maybe young romance?” I’d posit.
“No. It’s just boring.”

And so it went on and on through the summer. Finally, the summer came to an end and it was time to for the kids to talk about the book in class. After a few days Amanda came home with a 3-page worksheet of questions about the first chapter of the book. (As an aside, it turns out the teacher found this list of questions online and printed it for the class to answer. Imagine the teacher’s naive surprise when the kids found the same study guide through a quick Google search, including the answers, and handed in identical perfect papers. But I digress…) Frustrated, Amanda came to me and asked for help, “This question says ‘what is the meaning of *dumb* in the phrase, ‘the hot, dumb sand‘?  what does that even mean?”

We went through the usual ritual…

Me: “Did you look up the meanings of the word *dumb*? Are there any alternate meanings that might apply?”
Amanda: “It means silent, not saying anything.
Me: “OK, so how might you apply that to the sand?”
Amanda: “Well, duh, the sand isn’t saying anything.”
Me: “Of course not, but why is that important? Why would it? Are the kids in a happy situation… or a bad one…”
And so it went…

After several minutes we came back around to “the old drone of ‘I hate this book, it’s boring'”.

“But why don’t you like the book? Why is it boring? What makes it different from other books you did like,” I inquired. Then came the shining moment; I didn’t really know where this was going until these words bounded out of her mouth and around the room.

Amanda: “I read it but I just didn’t really care. I didn’t care about the characters. They were just on the island and some stuff happened. People died and it was like ‘so what’?”

It was just as the ‘so what’ was coming out that the lightning bolt hit me and an epic diatribe formed in my mind the likes of which I’ve not had since. I’m far from a master of literary interpretation and it’s probable that everything that came out of my mouth for the next 10 minutes was complete hogwash but at the time…. it felt fairly inspired. What I said went something along the lines of what follows.

“You say that people died in the book and you didn’t care. But is that normal? Are you supposed to care when people die or are you supposed to just move on with whatever you’re doing? Do you think your reaction is an appropriate one given the situation? I think what you’ve hit upon is the exact point of the book. When someone died on the island did the island care? Did the birds fall out of the sky? Did the sun stop beating down? Did that hot, dumb sand object? No, of course not. Things just went on as normal and nobody really gave a damn. Perhaps the real genius of the book isn’t the story, but instead how it makes its insidious way into the mind of the reader. All the main characters are dropping dead and the world didn’t care. The trees didn’t care. The animals didn’t care. Not even the READER cares. Isn’t that the true power of writing? To somehow subtly bring someone’s mind around to a certain way of thinking, and in the most ingenious of cases, do it without the reader even realizing it? What you have cited as the ‘boring’ part of the book, my dear child, is exactly the point of the whole thing and you have fallen wholly and completely into its trap without even realizing it.”

I like to think that on some level my impassioned speech found fertile ground in her mind. For a brief moment I saw a bit of awestruck realization on her face. Of course a few days later she was back to “this is boring” but that is the teenage mindset. After my outburst Laura said to me that she wishes her own English teachers had been so eloquent on the topic of literature. I may not know much of anything about the literary process or proper form but it seems that I sure can get wound up about it and boy I sure do adore the stuff.  Even if my interpretations are rather unique creations.

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