Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Review: Ours--A Russian Family Album, by Sergei Dovlatov

Mark Twain once said, “The quality of humor is the commonest thing in the world. I mean the perceptive quality of humor. In this sense every man in the world is a humorist. The creative quality of humor - the ability to throw a humorous cast over a set of circumstances that before had seemed colorless is, of course, a different thing.” The Russian √©migr√©, Sergei Dovlatov, traces four generations of his family’s life with the circumspect of the truly creative humorist. Through the likes of Uncle Aron, Cousin Boris, Grandpa Isaak, and a terrier named Glasha, we discover the amusing, comical, incongruous, and absurdity that goes hand in glove with the very course of Soviet history. The chaos of the past is remembered and intermingled with a sense of recovery. Even though each life is unique, all lives are familiar to us. So with Cousin Boris, the boy who started with such promise, and was always held up as an example to Sergei (yet somehow kept ending up in prison), we get this—“ I finally understood the ruling trait in my cousin’s character: he was a natural-born existentialist. He could act only in extreme situations: build a career only in prison, fight for life only on the edge of the abyss.” And with Glasha, the terrier—“She was surrounded by esoteric poets, Suprematist painters, composers of atonal music, and sculptors of non-representational constructions. All of them were indefatigable critics of the regime, especially when in their cups. With friends like that, she could hardly have turned out politically loyal. Actually, she herself behaved no better. To be specific, she barked at policemen and generally hated all uniforms, whether on soldiers, sailors, or ticket collectors. Along with this, her displeasure was aroused by red banners and billboards bearing revolutionary slogans, and to top it off, she liked to relieve herself behind a certain building, at the base of a four-meter-tall portrait of Brezhnev.”

The Education Problem in America

When considering the appalling state of education in America, we need to approach the problem and the challenge in an imaginative and innovative way. The old strategy no longer works. So please stop thinking about better unions and throwing huge sums of money at antiquated systems. As odd as this concept may seem to many people, entrenched in their particular paradigms, breakthrough ideas are the answer. Then, and more importantly, we need to take action on these ideas.

First we need to identify what our challenges are (poverty, teacher training, etc.), and then to recognize our goals. This can start with our dissatisfaction—then move to our desires.

I know most of you hate this part, simply because we are used to thinking that “studying something” usually means just putting something off. But it is crucial to access and review all the data we have. You can not innovate without having an objective beginning point.

Once we begin to understand what the problems are, we can then understand the challenges inherent in them. This will help us to focus on what the REAL problems are. We want to come up with the right answers to the right problems.

We must be vigilant about deferring judgment about new ideas. This is where being stuck in old paradigms keeps us from proper exploration. To often these ideas are labeled as wild, outrageous, and out-of-the-box. Making creative connections, taking risks, and trying new associations will lead to potentially innovative scenarios.

Finally, we must generate a barometer needed to analyze and critique these ideas for change, in order to find out which of these are the best ideas.

This country was based and developed on the premise and fruition of great ideas and the action taken to realize them.

Lets do what we’re good at.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Review: Mona And Other Tales, by Reinaldo Arenas

Mona and Other TalesMona and Other Tales by Reinaldo Arenas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a work of stories and other pieces of short fiction, much of which appeared to be experimental, or so it seemed to me because it resembled a bad nightmare. I’m not fond of reading ten or twenty pages and when I’m done I just shake my head and say, “What the F***?” In all fairness though, I did find one story, “Mona,” to be very engaging and thoroughly kept my disposition to incredulity aux abois. I know that Arenas is supposed to be one of the Latin American greats (and they made a movie about his life), but I guess I’ll leave the experts to their precincts, and go search out my copy Ring Lardner short stories.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Review: The Engagement, by Georges Simenon

The Engagement (New York Review Books Classics)The Engagement by Georges Simenon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one Simenon’s more compelling psychological novels (1933). In it we follow Mr. Hire, a solitary man with a dubious past, who is framed for a murder he did not commit. Mr. Hire’s bleak existence is seen only through the author’s juxtaposition of character, which slowly emerges, against the settings in which he navigates his daily routine (his commute, his business, and his various other habits). He is illusive and remains isolated as this trap conspires around him, and a constantly heightened tension creates an oppressive environment. Part psychology, part thriller, and definitely part eerie. This one is a must read for Simenon neophytes or any one into books with plenty of atmosphere, character, intensity, humor, and an understanding of the afflictive mob.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

To Cry for the Moon

from Circus by Moonlight

so jesus said to be like doves
and you squated to drop an egg
legs unstable, not sure from which
orifice it would leap out

developing perseverance, i saw
this on your two minds attempting
to evoke the inexpressible
symbols (harps, crowns, and gold)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Book Review: Understanding Cosmology, by the Editors of Scientific American

Understanding CosmologyUnderstanding Cosmology by Scientific American

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got bumped from the Russian Soyuz. They overbooked, I guess. Anyway, $40 million was a little steep, I think. So before I make that mistake again, and book a flight with Boeing-Space Adventures, I thought I’d check out what all the hubbub was about. Actually, I was interested in the idea of whether today’s Cosmologists were nothing more than modern day alchemists. Also, it would be interesting to see if there was any theology threads weaved through this tapestry of science. “Understanding Cosmology,” in the most pedestrian language scientists are capable of (many times completely incomprehensible) attempts to bring the reader closer to the truth of how the universe formed, evolved and developed, and what it means to us. During the parts that I could understand, I found out that the Big Bang Theory is old news. There is so much more that they know now, like what happened before the Big Bang. WHAT? Yeah--before. What you come away with is that there are whole new worlds of thought, which are now unimagined, and will eventually become commonplace theories in the future. Oh, and by the way, it turns out that the Cosmologists are in fact closet alchemists—the big question for them being: is if there could be a theory of everything so simple and so elegant that its basic concepts could be understood by a child.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book Review: The Princess, the King, and the Anarchist. By Robert Pagani.

This is the first novel by Swiss play write Robert Pagani, and is as shallow as two of its two title characters who I will nickname, the “painfully full bladder” and the “erection.” The book takes place on May 31, 1906, the wedding day of King Alfonso XIII of Spain to British Princess Maria Eugenia of Battenberg. It was short-listed for the Prix du Premier Roman in France. Why? You got me. But this is coming from a race of people who think Jerry Lewis is a genius. During a time when people were beginning to question the idea that royal blood transcends mortality, instead of an insightful exploration of corporeal beings being subject to injury and death, we get something that never comes close to shaking the body politic. The Princess is concerned with how badly she needs to urinate, in the middle of all the carnage (a bomb is thrown at the wedding procession). “Pipi, always pipi,” and “Pipi--It was beginning to be painful.” The King on the other hand, suffers from Priapism, and simply can’t wait to pop the royal cherry. The end is too ludicrous to even bother covering, but I’ll give you a hint. There was no stain on the sheet.

How the Koran Burning Story Became As Big As It Did

How can the story of one unknown preacher in Florida, with a congregation of around fifty, get world wide news coverage about what was supposed to be a gimmick to attract more congregants?

In the age of the twenty four hour news cycle and the insatiable appetite for more and more opinion dominated coverage masked as fact, stories with significant political symbols can go viral.

A symbol is something used by human beings to index meanings that are not inherent, nor discernable from, the object itself. It can be defined as a thing the value or meaning of which is in no instance derived from or determined by properties intrinsic in its physical form. John Locke termed it as having “their signification,” from “the arbitrary imposition of men.”

In this case, the Koran is the political symbol for different individuals’ meaning to the same object. And because socially significant symbols arise and are sustained through a system of social interaction, they become regarded as elements of a culture.

When this happens, within the current media environment, individuals ignore personally irrelevant messages and pay attention to the kinds of things they need and agree with. The reasons may be behavioral, emotional, or intellectual. They tend to use the media to gain a sense of security and social adequacy. They feel gratification when the media reinforce what they believe they already know. When people only focus on what is personally useful and gratifying to them, they will then naturally ignore other pieces of information, regardless of its political and social significance (especially if the information disturbs their peace of mind, and conflicts with their political and social tastes, feelings and attitudes).

The next factor that comes into play is that the media as gatekeepers to information, tell people in fairly uniform fashion which individual issues and activities are most significant and deserved to ranked high on everybody’s agenda. Most of us easily accept and adopt the media’s agenda of importance. When the media make events seem important, politicians quickly run to the nearest camera to comment about them and to take action.

When these symbols become political, they quickly become characterized by a variety of myths, assumptions, and prescriptions regarding nature, man, and society. However, symbols should stand apart from the meanings they index at the cultural level, just as they should at the individual level. When the media gets involved, along with the subsequent politicizing, the cultural meaning of these symbols comes from the interpretations popularly accorded it. In our case, the Koran, becomes divorced from the cultural meaning with which it was once associated. It now has taken on a life of its own.

Television and the internet have created a new, impressionable public, who are highly susceptible to these symbolic cues. Today the sheer volume of new information has created a more involved public. The symbols that come into the twenty four hour news cycle serve to distinguish groups as well as unify them. It is therefore easy to see how they can also play a role in the dynamics of creating social conflict.

And this is why they are potent and this is why they can go viral.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

TinkersTinkers by Paul Harding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Warning!!! This book has no vampires, wizards in training, or is on any best sellers list. This means, you’ve probably never heard of it. But it is a good book from a small press (Belleview Literary Press). This is like many other books from small presses, where good writers are desperately trying to connect their work with readers. This one happened to get word-of-mouth momentum and found its audience. Then something strange happened—it won the Pulitzer Prize. I found it to be an enjoyable read, and I confess I was rooting for the home team (my books are published by a small press). I especially enjoyed the descriptive fiction about growing up and living in rural Maine. I did though have problems with the parts that sounded like a graduate writing school assignment (impossible to understand). These passages are in a language only spoken in English Departments. Many writers unfortunately suffer from what I call the Gabriel Garcia Marquez wannabe syndrome (if its mystical sounding enough, it has to be good) It just makes me feel dumb. I never went to that school.

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied VictoryOperation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben MacIntyre

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting tale of espionage, deception, and intrigue during WWII. The tale was told in the 1956 film "The Man Who Never Was," staring Clifton Webb. But now documents have been unsealed and we know who the corpse was, Glyndwr Michael, a Welsh suicide victim. Author makes mistake of including photos of the decaying corpse. Just because you have all the information, doesn't mean it has to be included. This image haunted me during the remainder of the book. Too creapy!

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