Friday, February 29, 2008

The Story of Philosophy / by Will Durant

Philosophy, so far as it's known in the western world, pursues wisdom through abstract principles. Compiled through the centuries by numerous learned individuals, the annals of philosophy (in all contexts) are far-reaching and deeply entrenched. So it's no shock that many fail to grasp its focal point, if merely due to the frustration involved in nailing down the pertinent facts. Will Durant was a man who held this issue on his conscience as he strove throughout his life to make fundamental philosophy (and other liberal arts) accessible to the common man. In his dual-volume epic The Story of Philosophy, he lays down the origins, heritage, and natural evolution of Western thought.

This book essentially details the who, what, and where of Western Philosophy up until the mid-20th century; detailing the main tenants of each concept while illuminating the major players involved. Plato, Augustine, Descartes ... all the way up to John Dewey--one of Durant's own contemporaries--are shown as men contributing to the greater realm of ideas. Unlike 'great men of...' things like chemistry, literature, mathematics, or innovation, the great thinkers show that philosophy at its core undertakes the essence of being--not 'doing' or 'creating'. It's not that grounded concepts aren't employed in the arrangement of said 'ideas'; indeed, it's only too necessary. Ideologically speaking, philosophers deal in the 'theoretical'; appraising and analyzing non-empirical entities (ideas) that man engages through conscious experience. Reading Durant may require some effort, but his ability to make the connection between 'man' and 'principle' on such a wide scale is truly unique.

Monday, February 25, 2008

I Am Charlotte Simmons / by Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe has published dozens of books (The Pump House Gang, The Right Stuff, Bonfire of Vanities, etc.) during his tenure as one of America's foremost contemporary authors. Here he chronicles the freshman year of a poor scholarship student at a prestigious eastern university where wealth and privelege seem to necessitate debauchery and corruption.

Well-nestled (read: isolated) in Appalachia is the town of Sparta, North Carolina--lifelong home to one Charlotte Simmons. Accolades aplenty have showered Charlotte for her scholastic merits; culminating in a full-ride scholarship to illustrious DuPont University. It's here where "she's certain to find people like herself, people who actually have a life of the mind, people whose concept of the future is something beyond Saturday night . . ." (p.19). In a general sense there are people like her at DuPont; but more generally there's the insatiable depravity of everyone else: vulgar boys in her dorm's only co-ed bathroom, a roommate who "sexiles" her to the hallway, protocol binge drinking, drug use, obligatory profanity, rampant cheating, smut-laced lyrics blasted 24/7, etc. It's as far from intellectual utopia (or even Sparta's redneck n'er-do-wells) as her beloved Beethoven is from Dr. Diss's perversity-fueled raps.

Fortunately not all's examined through Charlotte's eyes. Other parts of the college swirl are experienced through peripheral characters like frat boy Hoyt Thorpe, nerd Adam Gelin, and basketball player Joseph 'Jo-Jo' Johansen. It's a world where "hookups" are tantamount to social validation, where 'winter formal' is code for 'decadent orgy', and where the lifeblood of academia--the faculty--must submit to a bureaucratic empire or face termination.

Anyone who loathes hearing the words "read" and "book" in the same sentence should provide for this one exception. Wolfe gets it. He is as good as it is (in the English language) with descriptive realism and social dynamics. Some people (everyone) may be more than a little unsettled by the raunchy-ness of it all, albeit genuine Americana. But forget Animal House or any of its pathetic derivatives. Wolfe refuses to lampoon degenerate behavior without revealing its frighteningly destructive consequences. In essence, 'Charlotte Simmons' elucidates twenty-first century youth culture; reinventing the wheel to some degree with its depiction of the collegiate microcosm.

Ironic Footnote: Wolfe researched several colleges for this book including Duke University, where he noticed the vigorous influence of lacrosse players on the raucous campus social scene. 'Charlotte Simmons' was published in 2004.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Browning Version (DVD) 1951 / w/ Michael Redgrave and Nigel Patrick

A teacher of the Classics all his life, Andrew Crocker-Harris has epitomized the stuffy, hard-edged instructor unpopular with students and faculty. His dismal reputation is well-evidenced through wordless displeasure and mocking epithets ("Himmler of the lower fifth"), as only the pitying interest of a few provide an ear for his once-revered intellectual aptitude. Now on his last day before a pension-less "retirement", he tries to reconcile his mediocre achievements to the teaching ethics he's always maintained. Outside the classroom his personal life is a colossal degradation. In a brutal show of repulsion, his much-younger wife Millie openly flaunts her extramarital affair with a fellow teacher; exploiting every opportunity to obliterate Andrew's already tortured soul. With only his farewell speech remaining, Andrew's life and legacy are now held in the balance of his own convictions.

The title 'Browning Version' is in reference to poet Robert Browning's translation of "Agamemnon", a Greek tragedy detailing the emotional whiplash of one man's death at the hands of his wife and her lover. Originally a play itself, 'Browning Version' is a 'dead-on' depiction of death experienced not physically, but through an emotional deterioration of the soul. Andrew's circumstances aren't just 'Everyman'; they're an abasement so severe that he's at the mercy of children for any emotional sustenance.

In a way, 'Browning Version' is sort-of like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Dead Poets Society with its marital discord and academic backdrop. The three or four primary characters exist within a strained consciousness, even in the context of very few words or gestures. Millie depends on Andrew, if merely as an object for derision, even as Andrew leans heavily on [student] Gilbert's scant appraisal of a long-forgotten book. Subtly, but not out of place, is the theme of achievement and its legitimacy as a catalyst towards self-worth and social entitlement.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Who Moved My Cheese / by Spencer Johnson, M.D.

A #1 bestseller several years ago, this psychoanalytical book advocates 'simplification' of life's challenges through the altering of one's perspective on crisis management. The book is written as an allegory shown through the endeavors of two mice and two 'little people' as they seek a piece of cheese within a maze. Locating their reward requires each pair (and subsequently each individual) to navigate obstacles, react to unexpected changes, and employ necessary contingencies. Along the walls of the maze are constant instructions directed at participants--hinted at metaphorically as "The Writing on the Wall".

Physically, the book itself is as non-imposing as any mid-level children's book with its giant print and short, memo-style chapters accompanied by cartoonish, reader-friendly illustrations. A self-evident parable for life experience; it's imbued with a frank awareness of life's inevitable instability and consequential nature. Each attribute of the maze mirrors the intangible ups and downs of the human condition, inherent with its desire for fulfillment--cheese. But unlike Dr. Seuss or Aesops' Fables, this isn't a morality tale. Change (read: mistakes/mishaps) within each character's trek through the maze may imply crisis while simultaneously initiating opportunity.

Without targeting a desired audience, 'Cheese' was able to create and sustain a sort-of universal methodology toward problem solving. Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard, the book's co-author, have previously written the bestselling book The One Minute Manager.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Witnessing History, by Jennifer Zeng

I found this book informative not just about the human rights violations that the Chinese authorities are committing in detaining and torturing Falun Gong practitioners like Jennifer Zeng, but also in regard to the teachings of Falun Gong. While some Westerners also practice Falun Gong, which is made up of meditation, exercise, and spiritual teaching, we have not experienced the kind of massive growth of its followers that China has.

Zeng gives an honest account of her understanding of Li Hongzhi‘s teachings, the movement’s originator. The physical exercises are meant to open and purify the body and mind, similar to Tai Chi. The directives regarding behavior say to be truthful, and to have compassion and forbearance. When Zeng is tested through harsh prison conditions, slave labor, and torture through enforced squatting in place for hours without respite, she bears up and is resolved to continue following Falun Gong.

Whether because of her high status (having a graduate degree and having been employed as an investment counselor), Zeng witnesses but is not subject to the more extreme tortures of sleep deprivation, electric shocks and burnings. Eventually she decides to “reform” so she can escape imprisonment. She is encouraged by statements Li Hongzhi made in the news media (from outside China) regarding other disciples who ‘reformed’ and denounced Falun Gong, that since they were tortured they weren’t responsible for their actions. However, Zeng finally becomes convinced that she was responsible and that she retracted from pride and justified her actions out of fear.

Now she lives in Australia and takes part in nationwide protests against China for its treatment of Falun Gong followers. Zeng believes that since China controls by power, then any movement exhibiting strength is an enemy for China’s government. This book is worth reading, if only for the questions it raises.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Puppet Master: the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover
by Michael Hack

A figure of enormous scrutiny both before and after his death, J. Edgar Hoover held the office of FBI Chief from its inception in the 1930’s (himself the founder) until his death in 1972. Often deemed the most powerful lawman in America by enemies and contemporaries alike, his career spanned 6 presidential administrations and five decades. His legacy, however, has been continuously flogged by rumors concerning his somewhat bizarre private life.

The Warning: Accident at Three Mile Island
by Mike Gray

At a Nuclear Plant in Eastern Pennsylvania in 1979, several overlooked mechanical failures caused a reactor meltdown resulting in a severe radiation fallout. While the accident was, in actuality, only a near fatal catastrophe (the meltdown was stopped in time to prevent widespread damage) not equal to Russia’s Chernobyl disaster, the incident created a panic throughout the country and within the core of American industrial bureaucracy. How safe was nuclear power and to what extent were security measures side-stepped in place of higher production levels? A fascinating look at nuclear power and its potential for destruction.

The Great Monkey Trial
by L. Sprague De Camp

At the time it was the trial of the century. The Scopes Monkey Trial of Tennessee in the 1920’s pitted evolution against the religious right after a school teacher, John Scopes, was fired for teaching the theory of evolution contrary to overwhelming local convictions of Biblical creationism. Lawyer, statesman, and one-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan was selected as part of the litigation team while the case engaged a huge media frenzy that soon became popularized in book form. Later it formed the plot for the movie Inherit the Wind starring Gene Kelley and Spencer Tracy.

Teapot Dome: Oil and Politics In the 1920’s
by Burl Noggle

The secret sale of government owned oil-reserves in Wyoming by members of the Harding administration in the 1920’s created one of the largest political scandals of the day. Noggle’s book goes in depth to uncover the background and hidden secrets behind these covert operations even investigating as to whether Harding himself, who died in office prior to the scandal, had any direct knowledge about the sale.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Like a Punch in the Stomach

Dear John is about a guy--named John--who meets a girl, Savannah. They fall in love and are happy until John goes off to war. When they don't see each other for a while, Savannah drops him. John is heartbroken and wants to die. Some other stuff happens in between.

A while back, Stephen King wrote a book called Misery where author Paul Sheldon earns a fortune peddling garbage romance novels despite an utter abhorrance for his own work. It's only when his latest book kills off the heroine that Paul discovers just how maniacally devoted some fans can be. This is what comes to mind with Nicholas Sparks; a man who must begin each novel thinking "What feat of mindless claptrap can be achieved here?".

Sparks should indeed be commended (no, really) as an individual who's perfected a very marketable craft. He's not just about giving readers what they want to hear, but what they want to feel. While much is mere formulaic dribble--savvy convenience of plot conditions meshed with timing and sentiment--it's the constancy of personalized reactions and churning emotions that reinforce sympathy (and lure in the saps) for characters like John. It's also something romance/domestic/cozy/contemporary fiction hasn't seen too much of: the affected sensitivity of a type-a male protagonist.

American Gospel

'One Nation Under God' or 'Nation Under One God'?

At its inception, America was as contentious over religion as it is today; a fact less surprising considering the 'Age of Revolution' stood on the shoulders of reformation, enlightenment, and puritan separatism. Whatever attitudes persist now about religious freedom it must be acknowledged that, from the outset, the individual's declaration of faith played an integral part in
Constitutional development. From John Adams' Episcopalian affinities to Jefferson's anti-dogmatic attitudes, this books explores the faith behind the men who were the founding fathers and the successors of their legacy.

Without overdoing the theology involved, Meacham strictly observes the facts rather than hint at a faith-forged national identity or speculate about religious influence on party politics. No president is disavowed or shown inordinate praise despite several lengthy sections concering the tenures of Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Though a cultural diaspora is acknowledged, rarely does a specific doctrine, denomination, or 'movement' contribute to any one presidential policy. Presidents tend toward coalition beliefs more often than not. Soft on criticism, the author is equally omissive of any 'alternative' beliefs; essentially eliminating the possibility of a head of state ever being heretical or apostate.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Laugh Out Loud Reads

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
by Bill Bryson
American expatriate and travel writer Bryson has written several books of wide appeal. In this personal memoir, he takes a look back at his Iowa childhood in 1950’s America depicting such humorous past times as neighborhood brawls (with girls), sneaking into carnival tents, and 3 TV channels to choose from.

Brain Droppings
by George Carlin

Veteran stand-up comedian George Carlin offers his two-bits on life, liberty, and the humorous side of truth. Never one to mince words, Carlin’s edgy style speaks pointedly about life’s foibles and everyday comedic occurrences.

I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight
by Margaret Cho

Left-leaning feminist comed-ienne Cho presents her attitudes and outlooks with a variety of loosely put together essays on race, politics, religion, family, dating, and sex. In the past decade, Cho has found a loyal following among Generation X’ers and her material in this book will resonate well with the 20 or 30-something age group.

by Larry the Cable Guy
Known for his appearances on the blue-collar comedy tour, Larry the Cable Guy has become a hugely popular entertainer, well-renowned for his offhanded bluntness and crude but honest depictions of personal hygiene, bathroom humor and Southern crassness.

Yeah, I Said It
by Wanda Sykes

Confrontational, wise-cracking comedian Sykes has used her attitude-driven personality to entertain and enlighten audiences over the past few years. Known for her high-pitched tone Sykes has also been a prominent voice-over actor in many cartoons and movies.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Abortionist's Daughter / by Elisabeth Hyde

Diane Duprey is a well-known (and well-worn) A.D.--Abortion Doctor. A center of controversy in a no-less controversial town, she's long been targeted by right wingers, pro-lifers, and aggressive evangelicals. So it's no surprise when her dead body's found floating in her indoor pool one night, still bleeding after a fatal blow to the head. While CSI types mull over evidence, it's her husband Frank who, having found the body, must bear the shock along with 19 year-old Megan--their only child. With the investigation going nowhere, it's obvious there's some alterior angles at the root of what appears a cold case; the only real lead pointing to Frank who refuses to reveal his whereabouts on the night in question.

For readers who like 'ending-first' mysteries, this recent standalone brings the goods with some edgy side-drama to boot. The child of liberals, Megan is no innocent and there must be something deeply disturbing Frank who persists in keeping quiet even though he's an attorney with the D.A.'s office! Secondary people also start to figure into things. Head of the pro-life coalition Rev. O'Connell has his self-evident reasons, but murder? Then there's Megan's ex--Branson, who's clean on the surface but, as we soon find out, can be kind of touchy about rejection.

This story's religious hypocrisy element was woefully unnecessary and it appears Hyde intended sympathy solely for Diane: Frank is a stick in the mud, Megan's integrity is called into question, and Branson is anybody's fool. Other than that, readers should be pleasantly surprised (maybe a little disappointed) with the outcome of this whodunit.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Challenger Park / by Stephen Harrigan

Lucy Kincheloe is no ordinary working-mom. A wife, mother, and NASA astronaut, her life holds a cosmic element even if currently her dream of spaceflight looms in bureaucratic limbo. For now she's focused on her young daughter and seriously asthmatic son while husband Brian--also an astronaut--orbits the earth overhead in his second trip to outerspace. When, upon return, a shuttle mishap is informally acknowledged as Brian's fault, his resentment boils over at home creating instability in the couple's already tenuous marriage. A slot on the next shuttle mission allocated for Lucy--her lifelong dream--does little to alleviate tension; only inflating Brian's resentment. Between her child's near fatal asthma attacks, Brian's sulky attitude, and her own deathly fear of catastrophe, stress presses down hard on Lucy causing cracks in her always-stable identity.

Spliced into the drama is an emerging relationship between Lucy and recently-widowed, mission coordinator Walt Womack; a man taunted by his own internal demons. Desperately needing escape from a nonstop world of demands, their professional lives soon merge into an affair which, despite heed to the potential consequences, overwhelms their conscious resolve. With the take-off date nearing Lucy deals with more than the rigors of pre-flight preparation: she faces the unavoidable decision to leave her family for Walt.

Aside from well-plugged, can't-miss-it local color, this read offers what so many "space" books don't--real life stuff. Harrigan, a frequent contributor to Texas Monthly, does a good job to juggle the techie space protocol and interpersonal drama without diluting the primary storyline: an account of one woman's voyage into outerspace.