fallingI’m reading a lot of books at the moment. I’m reading Flowers for Algernon and The Great Gastby (again) as part of my summer school ELA teaching experience. I’m also reading Flip Your Classroom in preparation for the next school year. Most importantly, I’m re-reading When You’re Falling, Dive which was given to me by a dear friend a few years ago and has been quite influential on me.

When You’re Falling is basically about acceptance of life as it really is, and about counteracting the conditioning that we’ve learned over the years. Here are a few quotes for the first section followed by my current thoughts on each:

“It’s not that we gain the power to change circumstances; we develop the skill to determine our experience of those circumstances.” (page 4)

This is one I really picked up on the first time I read it. Now, when I’m feeling blue (for a reason or just because I’m having an “off” day) I let myself experience it. I don’t try to fight it; I accept that being sad at times is part of life.

“I’ve stopped trying to make myself better, and I’m happier.” (page 43)

This one is particularly interesting. When you think about it, self-help books in general are feeding the conditioning that says “I am not good enough as I am” under the guise of helping you.

“…dissatisfaction is at the root of our addiction to distraction.” (page 52)

How much of life is about distraction?  Entertainment or work or even love can be a way to distract ourselves from the reality of life. What are we afraid to face?

Review Roundup

May 5, 2013

oblivionI’ve been to the movies recently to see two very different films…

Oblivion is a sci-fi film that, like many recent films in the genre (In Time, The Hunger Games, ) lets an interesting premise down with some plot holes and an ending that is a bit silly. Tom Cruise stars as one of the few people still on Earth. He works to maintain defense droids that protect giant water sucking machines (to be sent to Titan, where humans have been relocated after a war with aliens). His memory has been wiped out for security reasons but he dreams of his past and of his love, which leads him to some interesting discoveries. Worth seeing if you like sci-fi and/or Morgan Freeman. ★★½ out of 4.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a gritty film starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, though the two only appear in one scene together. The first part of the film is about Gosling’s character, a carnival performer who decided to try to take care of a child he just discovered he had. The second act follows Cooper’s rookie cop character as he struggles with corruption within the force. Finally, a 15-year jump in time brings the next generation together. It’s the kind of movie that makes you uncomfortable at times. It’s well made but not terribly enjoyable to watch.  ★★★ out of 4.

To prepare for a couple of upcoming releases, I’ve also read a couple of books in the last few weeks. Continuing the string of classics I’ve tackled the last couple of years was The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve been drawn to this book recently by a recent podcast about the author and his wife Zelda as well as their appearance in my current favorite “background” movie (something I put on if I’m working on something or having trouble sleeping), Midnight in Paris.

I’d never read the book before (an indictment of the Plainfield Public School System) and thought it was good, though I had to kind of make myself pick it up each night. I found Fitzgerald’s use of language to be interesting and will probably read it again after I see the film (starring Leonardo DiCaprio).

Literary purists will think me crazy, but World War Z by Max Brooks engrossed me in a  way that Gatsby didn’t. I just couldn’t put it down and read the whole thing in just a few days. It’s a big-picture Zombie story told as a collection of stories spanning the entire war told by survivors from around the world. The film, starring Brad Pitt, is surely not going to be faithful to the book since it will focus on Pitt’s character who presumably will be everywhere the action is, which is implausible even for a zombie movie.

Millenium Rock

February 25, 2013

gibraltarI’ve been on a fiction craze lately and have finished another series of books. I was totally captivated by the Millennium series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first and most famous of this trilogy). Apart from learning about Sweden (where they take place) and about the interesting story of the author (who died not long after submitting the completed trilogy to his publisher), there were other interesting tidbits I latched onto.

One of those is the territory of Gibraltar. It’s famous for its location (at the straight that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea) and for eponymous rock mountain. The limestone rock is roughly 1,400 feet tall and dominates the landscape, as you can tell from this photo. While this photo is taken from Spain, Gibraltar itself is a British Overseas Territory and the 30,000 inhabitants squeezed onto 2.6 square miles are mostly British citizens. Naturally Spain isn’t too pleased with this arrangement, but they are being a bit hypocritical since they have a similar setup in Morocco on the other side of the straight, a mere 10 miles away.

Addicted to heroines

February 10, 2013

heroinesI’ve recently noticed that my favorite characters is popular fiction tend to be similar in a lot of ways.

1. They’re almost always women or girls.

2. They are usually the smartest characters.

3. They are highly capable.

4. They don’t really fit in / they aren’t popular.

5. They don’t care that they aren’t popular.

6. They challenge societal norms and follow their own paths.

7. They have their own personal belief system.

Lisbeth, Hermione (doesn’t follow #6 as well) and Arya generally fit these criteria. Dagny Taggart (Atlas Shrugged) is also a good example as she’s bright, capable, principled and liberated. Elizabeth Bennett (Pride & Prejudice) also fits this mold, as does Lyra Belacqua (The Golden Compass).

Dust, Labor and Grapes

September 15, 2012

My tour of the classics marches on. The latest box I’ve checked is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (I’m still trying to figure out how I was never assigned to read any of these books in high school – what the heck were we doing in English class?) For those of you who also went to crappy high schools and never read it here’s an ultra-quick non-spoiler recap: A farming family flees the dust bowl in Oklahoma (see photo above), travels to California and tries to make ends meet.

I enjoyed the book very much, though not to the level of East of Eden, which I’m already itching to read again. East had a couple of characters (Sam Hamilton and Lee) who were more likeable and philosophical than anyone in Grapes. The preacher comes closest, but he’s not as prominent a character.

More than being about the characters, Grapes is about the time period. It’s historical fiction at its best, and I learned a lot about The Dust Bowl (caused by drought and a lack of crop rotation), old cars, discrimination (people moving west were called by the derogatory term “Okies” whether they came from Oklahoma or not), and the labor movement.

Those of you who know me and my libertarian ways are aware that I’m not a fan of labor unions. I spent two years as a member of one when I was teaching in Central Falls and saw firsthand how dysfunctional and counterproductive they can be. But I do realize that there was a time when they were necessary; a time when some employers would use malicious tactics to get ever-cheaper labor from a non-mobile and desperate workforce. For instance, luring 10 times as many workers as needed to a place by promising work, and then paying an absurdly low rate once they get there due to the high demand for the jobs.

Unions today are another story. The most prominent unions are in the public sector, which baffles me. The purpose of unions is to protect workers from unfair labor practices by unethical employers, with protections ensured by the government. But why would these workers need to be protected from the very same governments that are enforcing those protections? If Mitt or Barack want my vote in November all one of them has to do is promise to create an executive order disbanding public sector unions. It would be a visionary move, since those unions are going to be a major stumbling block for balancing budgets as our state and federal government face major budget shortfalls in the coming decades. I’m not holding my breath though.

Musketeer Musings

August 24, 2012

Thanks to an Audible download snafu, I listened to an episode of Stuff You Should Know yesterday and learned about the Three Musketeers. They were the titular characters of a series of books written by Alexandre Dumas from 1840-1860. The books take place in the early 17th century and feature real-life characters and events, making it much like the popular historical fiction you find today (though if you want to read it look in the Literature section instead).

The name Musketeer comes from the fact that they carried (and were skilled with) muskets. The musket spelled the end of armored knights since this projectile weapon could pierce plate mail, rendering it obsolete. Ironically, the fictional Musketeers rarely used their guns and swordplay is the primary mode of combat in the books. Anyone who carried a musket was technically a musketeer, and when we think of this “special forces” of great warriors we’re referring to the Musketeer of the Guard. And there were more than three of them – at some points there were as many as 150.

The main character of the books is actually d’Artagnan, a country lad who want to join the Musketeers. He does so (spoiler alert) so their elite-within-elite group is actually comprised of four Musketeers.

The numbers game gets even messier when we start talking about the candy bar. Originally, a 3 Musketeers bar consisted of three mini-candy bars of three different flavors (chocolate, strawberry, vanilla) but was changed in 1945 to what is essentially a Milky Way without the caramel.

Trivia challenge: Without looking it up, can you name the Three Musketeers?

South of Silicon

April 2, 2012

I’ve noticed a pull on me towards Paris for the last year or so, but lately I’ve also started being pulled west. I’ve never been to California and it’s vying to be my next destination. I have zero interest in Los Angeles so northern California would be my target. In the map to the left I’ve highlighted two prominent valleys in the area. In purple is Silicon Valley, and in Yellow is Salinas Valley of John Steinbeck fame. Salinas Valley has nearly ideal farming conditions for a number of crops including  lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, and broccoli, leading to the valley’s nickname “America’s Salad Bowl.” Floral crops and wine grapes also thrive in the 90 mile corridor, however.

Most of my travel inclinations are fueled by literature (though The Brothers Karamazov didn’t really give me the urge to travel to Russia – Dostoyevsky isn’t nearly as descriptive of places as Steinbeck) so the book I read after this one could help shape any future travel plans. I’m sticking with classics for a while, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (a book about the cathedral and not the bell ringer as the title implies) is on my Kindle and ready to go to nudge me back towards Europe. And a recent podcast about the Bronte sisters has put Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the queue as well. But I doubt that either of those will be influential sinceI have little inclination to go to England because of the weather.

Angry Capsters

March 5, 2012

So I finally listened to a Missed in History podcast yesterday. It’s been a while because I’ve been enthralled in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in audiobook form (a great format for Russian literature since pronouncing the names is tricky for English speakers). The podcast was about the Lincoln assassination, but sadly there was little I didn’t already know since I watched a documentary about it a year or so ago. But in their wrap-up they mentioned Mad Hatters in a literal sense, which compelled me to look it up later.

It turns out that in 18th and 19th century England mercury was used in the production of felt that was used in the making of hats. The workers in these factories (the “hatters”) were exposed to significant quantities of the toxic substance and some suffered from dementia as a result of mercury poisoning. It was common enough that “mad as a hatter” came to be synonymous with “crazy person” during this period.

The phrase is usually associated with the character The Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland,” which was written in 1865 (Lewis Carroll never actually uses the term “Mad Hatter,” though the character is clearly insane and the Cheshire Cat refers to him as “mad”). Carroll grew up in Stockport, where hat-making was a prominent trade, so he would have very likely been aware of the phrase.