Monday, January 31, 2011

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Last Christmas, instead of buying my wife something she didn't really need with money we didn't really have, I donated some money to the Central Asia Institute in her name. Being the socially conscious, compassionate person that she is I figured the gesture would be appreciated. It was, but I didn't do it just to win points with her. I did it because after reading both this book and Stones into Schools I discovered a cause I am now passionate about. 

I believe that one of the greatest threats to our freedom as individuals is radical fundamentalism. This comes not just in the Islamic flavor (al-Qaeda) but Western ultra-conservative Christian as well (the CCoA) and anywhere that intolerance trumps altruism as the order of the day. I also believe that the root cause of intolerance is ignorance. Greg Mortenson believes this too, and he has set out to remedy it by building secular schools (mostly for girls) in some of the most  remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. A balanced education and hope for the future will do more for the people of this region than military might can ever accomplish. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. 

My only small criticism of the book is a stylistic one. At times David Relin writes in a gushing, aw-shucks fashion about Mortenson's accomplishments. This makes him sound like a super-human living saint while at the same time, the quotes that Mortenson himself provides are very humble and self-deprecating. I much prefer the first-person style of Stones into Schools where the humility is front and center.

This book is now required reading for senior U.S. military commanders, Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan. It should also top the reading list of everyone who needs a little reassurance that there are still people out there fighting the good fight. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Genre Spotlight: Science Fiction

What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Sci-Fi? A 35-year-old guy in his parents basement studying the Klingon language? A giant toy robot from Mars destroying a scale model of New York City? William Shatner? That's all part of it, but that's like saying Harlequin Romance novels tell us everything we need to know about love.

The secret to Sci-Fi's success and recent surge in popularity (an Oscar nod for Inception and most of the new shows on television) is the rich, fertile ground it offers for great storytelling. Its speculative nature offers a unique way to view and make sense of the world. Whether it's District 9's take on Apartheid in South Africa or Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics which are now essential for "real world" artificial intelligence research, science fiction will always find new ways to challenge, inspire and sometimes frighten us. Even if your Klingon is a bit rusty.

Here are a few of my favorite wordsmiths in this wonderful genre:

Peter F. Hamilton
His Nights Dawn trilogy is space opera at its finest. A huge cast of characters, a dilemma that threatens the entire human race and some of the most memorable moments in modern fiction make this an instant classic. His most recent Void Trilogy has kept me up way past my bed time, bending my mind with wonderfully complex ideas.

 Richard Morgan
Sometimes the best thing about a novel is a great protagonist. Meet Takeshi Kovacs, the anti-hero of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies. He is smart, funny and just a little bit psychotic. He kills with savage indifference and consistently outmaneuvers the powerful forces aligned against him. You can't help but love a guy that makes James Bond look like a spineless pansy.

Iain M. Banks
Nobody does far-future science fiction better than this guy. His Culture series takes place during a golden age of human civilization. This "post-scarcity" society has evolved beyond primitive things like economics, poverty and biological death. People are free to do what they want, as long as it doesn't interfere with the  omnipotent A.I. starships called "Minds" that watch over us. Each novel set in this Universe is a completely unique and wonderful blend of humor, action and deep philosophical questions.

Dan Simmons
No longer a strict Sci-Fi scribe, Dan Simmons' first offerings to the reading public were some of the most emotionally resonant space faring yarns ever spun. I'm talking, of course about the Hyperion series. Originally conceived as a story to entertain his elementary school students, Dan took this fable filled with Time Tombs, Farcasters and a mysterious bladed creature known as The Shrike and turned it into a five novel opus that is easily one of the most entertaining things I have ever read.

Let's dismiss the notion right now that you have to hang out at comic book conventions and possess a scale model of The Enterprise in order to "get" this stuff. Science Fiction is for everyone, so let your geek flag fly! You might even learn something about theoretical physics or quantum mechanics. Or you can just enjoy evil aliens getting blown up by laser guns. Whatever makes you happy.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

Aristotle was a pretty interesting guy. According to Annabel Lyon's fictionalization of this intellectual giant he was also wracked with self loathing, burdened by bipolar illness and forced to endure his own brilliance during an era of ignorance and warmongering. This account of his relationship with a young Alexander the Great starts off wonderfully but loses its way at the midpoint. The focus shifts jarringly from an exploration of interesting characters to a more broad (and far less engaging) exploration of historical events. I really wanted to love this book, and I almost did. But just as Aristotle learns while trying to teach compassion to a young Macedonian who was weaned on war; you can't change the nature of something to fit your own idea of greatness.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Raising a Reader

Now that my wife is back to work and we are socked in with snow, my daughter and I are hanging out with lots of free time on our hands. I figure this is a great opportunity to teach her the joys of reading. So far she is laughing at Dr. Seuss and drooling on Hemingway. She seems to prefer fiction and has a penchant for peek-a-boo narratives. Any plot that involves stuffed bunny rabbits hiding behind flaps or textured glitter pictures are a hit.

As I make my way through Three Cups of Tea, I am constantly reminded how fortunate we are that every person in this country has the right to a quality education (whether or not that quality is actually provided is another matter). I just hope that my daughter continues to share my love of reading and learning as she gets older and becomes a rebellious teen. Literacy is the most important gift I can give her.

Now, on to chewing Salman Rushdie!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Ever been inside the head of a five year old boy? It's a funny place; filled with cartoon puppy fireworks and lots of questions about the world. Meet Jack, the voice of Room and a voice that is going to be in your head for a very long time.  Emma Donoghue has pulled off something astonishing here. We see everything through the eyes of a little boy who's only frame of reference for making sense of the world is an 11 X 11 foot room, the few things inside it and his Ma who is stuck in there with him. The way Jack anthropomorphizes everything  like Meltedy Spoon, who got to close to Oven once is downright adorable and sorta' heartbreaking all at once. The way Jack and Ma's story plays out will have you up all night worrying about them.

The Matter with Morris by David Bergen

This is a book about a guy, written for guys by a guy. Not to say that ladies shouldn't read it, but I don't think  they would get the same punch-in-the-guts emotional payback. Morris is in full midlife crisis mode, struggling with the death of his son in Afghanistan. He is estranged from his wife, he liquidates all of his assets and he hires escorts to satisfy his sexual appetites. He is utterly lost in a hell of his own creation. I dare you not to cheer for him though. Despite his unsavory characteristics, his redemption becomes something we long for by the end.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I'm not a Franzenite. I didn't follow his Oprah-anointed rise to demi-god status. I've never washed his car or been in his living room. I thought this was his first book. Damn you, Jonathan Fanzen; who ARE you?!? You  won't find him in these pages and that anonymity is his greatest asset. Freedom isn't about Jonathan Franzen, it is a return to an almost Dickensian style of pure narrative. Characters rule the day. Characters so finely drawn that you will be unable to put this novel down for fear of what might happen to them in your absence.

Quitting Facebook = Quitting Smoking

I quit smoking about seven years ago and man, it was hard. The withdraw and the inability to do anything I associated with it like drinking coffee, having a couple of beers or driving to work on a cold January morning was almost too much to bear. Most of my friends were still smoking so it also made me feel like a bit of an outsider to be the guy who spent his 15 minute break in the cafeteria reading his book, rather than outside having a butt and socializing.

I was out of the somewhat secret Social Smokers Network. Don't kid yourself, there are some pretty monumental secrets and juicy bits of gossip being traded out there on those partially enclosed patios ten feet from the entrance to any public building. Non smokers would lose sleep if they knew a fraction of what was being discussed. Mr. Assange, are you getting this?

I didn't really want to do it. I had to do it because it was bad for me. The worst cravings lasted about 14 days and despite the best efforts of my dubiously intentioned smoker friends, i.e: "Hey Ward, you want a smoke? Ha. Ha." I was able to stay clean and remain so to this day.

Yesterday I quit Facebook because I realized it was bad for me too. It was my first (and sometimes only) online destination despite the wealth of good stuff on the net. I needed it in the morning with my coffee. I liked to look an it and post on it in the evening while I was having a couple of beers, and I couldn't drive to work on a cold January morning without first updating my status. As my narcissistic fire was stoked by the idea of hundreds of "friends" that actually cared what I was doing on Saturday night my family was waiting for me to get off the computer and come open the Christmas presents while I was busy typing "Merry Christmas Everyone!" into the What's on your mind? widget.  I'm no psychiatrist, but I'd be willing to bet this behavior falls well within the criteria for addiction.. I would not be at all surprised to see support groups for Facebook addicts start popping up in the next few years.

When I booted up my computer to do the deed, the first thing I discovered was Facebook doesn't want you to quit. Big surprise. Tobacco companies didn't want me to quit either. I could deactivate my account, but isn't this the same thing as trying to kick the nicotine habit while you still have half a pack of smokes in your pocket? Also, the deactivation page has pictures of your friends saying "I'll miss you...". I won't really miss them though, because I see most of them at work every day. This kind of emotional blackmail is beneath even you, Mr. Zuckerberg and I've seen The Social Network. I know what you are capable of.

A helpful tech forum (forums are one of the greatest things about the 'net) provided me with instructions for permanently deleting my account. That's more like it: Cold turkey.

Telling Facebook why you are leaving is disturbingly mandatory. I felt a little indignant at being forced to explain myself so I chose the "other: please explain" option from the list and wrote:

This is nothing more than a highly sophisticated marketing tool. 
My personality is not for sale.
I prefer real interactions with actual people.

I hit "submit" and Facebook informed me that they will permanently delete my account in 14 days. If I log in before that time expires, it will be like I never even tried to quit at all. 

Looks like it's back to the cafeteria with a good book.