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Posts Tagged ‘Highly Recommended Reading’

Travels With Charley – In Search Of America – book review
Today’s review is for one of John Steinbeck’s later works, “Travels With Charley” (1962©).  The book is a “supposedly” non-fiction relating of a road trip Steinbeck made around the continental United States (about 10,000 miles).  Roughly, the trip is from his home in New York, up to Maine, across the northern states to Seattle, down through California, back east to New Orleans (via Texas), then up the Eastern seaboard back to his home.  Steinbeck says the trip is to allow him to get back in touch with the common American whom Steinbeck feels he based much of his writing on.  Having lost “touch” with his roots, Steinbeck seeks to rediscover America by seeing it again with his own eyes.  Steinbeck makes the trip in a truck with a custom built camper shell.  The truck is named “Rocinante” –  for the horse ridden by Don Quixote.
Although quite a number of books touch me (as a reader), there are relatively few which seem to strike an internal chord.  I am not a musician, so forgive me if I am misusing the term “chord”, but it is more than a single note.   It is a combination of notes which creates their own harmony.  This book is one of those few for me.  It is hard for me to adequately put into words the effect this book had except to say I consistently felt Steinbeck was writing it just to let me know I am not alone in how I feel about certain things.  From his description of his perpetual wanderlust, to his affection for his pet dog (Charley), to his observations about America – its history and its people – its cities and our civilization – I just felt a powerful bond of kinship with Steinbeck.
In the martial arts, it is frequently said that when the student is ready, the teacher will find him.  I think it ironic for me to “discover” this work as I turn sixty (“ish”) and that I feel its call to me to continue chasing my own windmills.  “On, Rocinante!!”  I cannot promise you this book will touch you as powerfully as it did me, but my final recommendation is Highly Recommended Book / Reading.
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On This Day In:
2014 Changing Frequently
2013 Trifles
2012 Simple, Ordinary And Wonderous
2011 Humane Writers

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Today’s book review is for “Casca: The War Lord” (1980©) written by Barry Sadler.   This is book three in the “Casca – The Eternal Mercenary” series.  This is a re-read for me.  My first reading would have been sometime in the early to mid-1980’s.
Casca is Casca Rufio Longinus, the legendary Roman soldier who slayed Christ with a spear.  Just prior to dying, the Messiah tells Casca: “You are satisfied with what you are and so you shall remain until we meet again.”  Thus began the (series and) adventures of Casca across two-thousand years (and counting).
In this volume, Casca decides to make his first visit to China.  As is the case with most of series, Casca has various adventures along the way, the most memorable being the temporary loss of his left hand in the discovery of the “Brotherhood of the Lamb”.  Of course, because he can never die and must remain as he is (was), his hand painfully reattaches.  The “Brotherhood” is a league of “crazy” religious fanatics who seek to follow and keep track of Casca, so they can honor Jesus and hasten the 2nd coming.  Of course, they hate Casca and seek to cause him as much physical pain as they can while waiting for Jesus.
Anyway, after multiple adventures, Casca ends up meeting and serving the Emperor, for which he is granted the title.
The book is a fast read as is typical of this series and many of the “male adventure-series” from that time period.  If you are “into” this genre (and I am), you will thoroughly enjoy this book (and I did).  I particularly like the historical fiction aspect of the series.  Highly recommended.
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On This Day In:
2014 Orange October (II) – Giants Win NLDS Game 2 In 18 Innings (2 to 1)!!
Acknowledging Doubt
2013 Fulfilled Acceptance
2012 Error Is Tolerated Here (So Far)
2011 In Defense Of Pain

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Thursday I completed the novel “Ender’s Game” (1985©), written by Orson Scott Card.  The novel is an expanded version of a short story Card wrote back in 1977 for a SciFi magazine.  The book is fairly well know in SciFi circles and won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel.  Both awards are for best SciF novel with the Nebula being the American award and the Hugo being the international version of same.  In addition to the “normal” SciFi crowd, the book is popular in the military community and is “expected” reading in at least one branch (U.S. Marine Corps).
Basically, the book is a coming of age story for a young (pre-teen) Caesar / Napoleonic / Alexander character who, through an undiscussed eugenics process, has been bred to lead the combined Earth forces in an interplanetary war against a race of giant ants called the “Formics”.  They are more “affectionately” called “bugs” or “buggers”.  The story traces his (Andrew “Ender” Wiggin) life from just before he leaves his family, through his “growing-up” at a military academy to the end of the war.  To say much more is to give away a substantial amount of the ending.
Despite the implausibility of a story about an 11 year old being granted the authority to lead an interplanetary armada and the short span of time between “know-nothing” to force commander, the story is a pretty good one.  The story is very much “Lord of the Flies” -In-Space, but I still found the book and the twist at the end enjoyable.  In fairness to the reader coming at the book for the first time, I must admit, I saw the movie version first and enjoyed it too.  The movie (same name) was released in late 2013, and having seen the previews, it piqued my interest.  In the end, I never saw it at the theater because I thought it was going to be a “young Harry Potter saves the world from aliens” kid’s movie.  Anyway, I remembered the movie preview and when I got a chance to catch it on the tube, I took advantage of the opportunity.  I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed it as much as I did.  This in turn led me to be on the look-out for the book(s) – there is a whole series – which I have finally gotten into.
The movie tracks the book pretty accurately, so the book’s ending wasn’t the surprise it might have been, but I felt (as usual) the book had the time and space to explain what was happening a lot better than the movie did.  This isn’t a criticism of the movie as much as it is an acknowledgement that action movies don’t lend themselves to narration accept at the beginning and ending.  In between, it’s the action which is supposed to tell the story (normally).
I found the military tactics, personal combat, team building, working on one’s craft, and the personal/internal conflict about the morality of inflicting pain and death on an enemy to all be accurate within my (very) limited experience of each.  Fortunately, I was never placed in a position to shoot / kill someone, but I still have distinct memories of basic training and realizing there was a reason the “targets” were silhouettes of the enemy instead of simple concentric rings.  We were being trained to shoot at other humans, not at bull’s-eyes’.
I found the movie interesting and enjoyable, but also troubling.  Because the book explains more, it is more troubling.  So my final recommendation for the movie is recommended, and, for the book, highly recommended.  If it’s good enough for the Marine Corps “Recommended Reading List”, it’s good enough for me!
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On This Day In:
2014 Two Thoughts
2013 RIP – Dear Abby
Half-Life Problems
2012 To The Soul…
2011 Reverted!!

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Book Review:
Last week I finished reading “Skin Game” (2014©), written by Jim Butcher.  This is the fifteenth book in the Dresden Files fantasy / horror / detective / adventure series.  The series traces the life of Harry Dresden, who is a practicing wizard, working in Chicago as a private detective / investigator.  In this volume, Harry joins up with a band of bad guys to try to steal some holy relics from a safe in Hades.
If you are not familiar with the series, it is quite formulaic: good guy (Harry) is placed in an awkward position and must overcome a series of bad guys in order to resolve the novel’s main story, while devoting about 10% of the book to furthering the main arc of the series – Harry’s continuing process of discovering the hero in himself while fighting to overcome evil.  Like all volumes in the series, it mostly stands on its own, but will be a lot more enjoyable if you’ve read all the preceding volumes.
Obviously, as I’ve now read fifteen of them, I’m a fan of the series and the author.  Are these “great” novels?  No.  Are they (is it) well written and enjoyable reads?  Yes!  So, highly recommended…  Again, as stated in reviews of the prior volumes, while the series is intended for the “young adult” reader, it (the series and this volume) contain graphically described violence and are probably not appropriate for most young teens and definitely not pre-teens.  This series is NOT Harry Potter for slightly older children.
As an additional mention, two things I learned from reading this book are: Hades is the name for the Greek god who rules “the underworld” and it has also come to be the name used for the “underworld” and precedes the Christian term “Hell”.  (I guess I already knew these things, but they never really settled into my conscious mind.)  The second thing I learned is that the Greek god Hades is not the equivalent of the Christian devil (“Satan”).  Hades is, in fact, more closer to a final judge of souls than a promoter of “evil” on Earth.
Movie Review:
Today I had my initial viewing of the movie (on DVD) “Ip Man: The Legend Is Born“.   Dennis To stars in the title role.  The movie came out in 2010 and is the third in the series of four, although it is fourth in my viewing order simply because that’s the order I was able to purchase them.  “Series” is a bit misleading, as the movies are not really chronological or meant to be viewed in any particular order.  They’ve simply been very popular and therefore additional portions of Mr. Ip’s life have been dramatized.  The movie comes with English language translation, so you don’t have to read sub-titles.
If the movies were an actual series, this movie would be the prequel to the first movie as this covers his life from childhood through early manhood, roughly up to the Sino-Japanese War.
So, is it any good and how does it rank vis-à-vis the others in the series?  I think it is number two, after only the original (Ip Man).  The fights are energetic, well choreographed and well filmed without too much wire-work, which is popular in China, but detracts from a movie’s realism (IMHO).
All in all, I rate this movie as highly recommended both as a movie and as a pure martial arts film.
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On This Day In:
2013 Real Honor
Catching Up
2012 Thoughts And Communications
2011 But How Does Peter Feel?
2010 Name That Regret

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Today I am home ill with what seems to be an ear infection.  Every few years, I get this swollen sensation on the right side of my head.  It feels like my head has a weighted balloon attached to the right side.  When I turn my head, stand or look quickly in any direction, I get a light-headedness and it feels like my vision/brain is continuing to move after my head (or eyeballs) have stopped.  Several years ago I had to go to the ER to get seen by a doctor about this condition.  Then, I also had an associated fever, which I fortunately don’t have this time.  In any case, I take some decongestants and my vertigo pill and I kind of spend the day in a half-stupor of fatigue and dizziness.
This morning I completed a book I’ve been reading off and on for several years now.  Our local library system has an annual shelf clearing book give-away each August and they have about 800 to 1,000 boxes of books which are set out for anyone to take what they want – as much as you can carry, and come back tomorrow.  Today’s book was one of these and I picked it up about three years ago.  It has mostly sat in my car waiting to be read.  I would grab it whenever I had a doctor / dentist visit to have something to read in the waiting room.  Unfortunately, if you don’t wait much, you don’t read much, so this has taken quite a while to get through.
The book is titled: “The Modern Samurai Society: Duty and Dependence in Contemporary Japan“, (1982©) and was written by Mitsuyuki Masatsugu.  The book attempts to explain contemporary (circa 1982) corporate Japan in terms of the historical legacy of the Samurai (“samurai” means “one who serves”) society which held sway in Japan for several centuries.  The samurai tradition fell out of favor with the coming of the industrial revolution in the last half of the 19th century.  (As an aside, part of this transition was portrayed in the Tom Cruise movie: “The Last Samurai“.)  In essence, it attempts to explain Japanese business management techniques to non-Japanese.
To Masatsugu, successful Japanese management stems from eight factors which incorporate two features from Japanese culture.  The eight factors (guiding principles) to success are:
1) Paternalism;
2) Guaranteed lifetime employment;
3) Seniority-based promotion;
4) In-company unions;
5) Periodic transfers;
6) Overtime work as a safety valve;
7) Enriched welfare program; and,
8) A selective retirement system.
The two features which Masatsugu believes to be uniquely emphasized in Japanese society are:
1) Diligence – the duty each individual has towards their country in general and towards their company in particular.  And,
2) Dependence – a recognition that even though the employees are individuals, they must work together to surpass non-Japanese companies.
Like any “valid” theoretical explanation, management theories must meet a minimum of two criteria: does it accurately describe what is currently happening, and two, does it have predictive value either for when external conditions change or when internal structures are abandoned (or both).  In this book’s case, we now have the benefit of thirty-two years history to see that Masatsugu’s proposal was pretty spot on.
Since the book’s release Japan has suffered both a housing boom collapse and an economic drought now approaching the middle of its third decade.  The housing collapse happened in the 1980’s and the start of Japan’s economic drought (I hesitate to call it a collapse as Japan has only recently been surpassed by China as THE economic power in Asia) occurred in the 1990’s.  In fact, the 1990’s is sometimes referred to in Japan as “the lost decade” because there was so little economic growth.
Specifically, Masatsugu suggests the structure of Japan’s economic strength is based on these principles and if any one (or combination) fails, the entire structure will waver and ultimately collapse.  Masatsugu predicts the gradual incorporation of western management will bring about an economic failure.  He leans towards the abandonment of guaranteed lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion when “times get hard”.  Masatsugu says that in past times, management held to principle and the economy eventually turned around.  He cautions that future management might not have the fortitude to withstand to pressure to abandon principle in an effort to meet “western style” quarterly objectives.  We now know Japanese management has moved away from guaranteed lifetime employment, seniority-based promotion and selective retirement.  All of these actions have had a detrimental effect on business (and societal) productivity in the U.S. over the last 40 years.  It will be interesting to see if the same happens in Japan and how long it will take to happen (if it does).
I doubt very much that this book could be written in today’s “politically correct” world as it has several racist and sexist comments which, in context, seem common sense, but are actually inculcated cultural biases.  For example, women are generally considered unequal to men in the business world, because…  Wait for it…  Because they are!  (Well, except when they aren’t.)  In the author’s view, a woman can be one of the main reasons a man succeeds in business.  But, a female can never succeed in Japanese business on her own.  In all, though, these are trivial reasons to be critical of a book which I believe is overwhelmingly a valuable (if dated) insight into Japanese business culture.  Highly recommended!
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On This Day In:
2013 Doin’
2012 A Lover
2011 What Have We Found Here
Words

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Book Review:
Last night I completed the book: “Genius – The Life and Science of Richard Feynman“, (1992©) written by James Gleick.  As I had already read four of Dr. Feynman’s anecdotal books, most of the main content was already known to me.  What was “new” and interesting was the placing of Dr. Feynman’s work in context with the rest of the world (in general) and physics (in particular).  This is not a particularly “scientific” book.  There are no formulas and what nuclear physics which is discussed is not explained in any great detail.  Lots of things – quarks, spin, muans, top, tensor, scalar, photons, etc – are named, but very little is “explained”.  Probably because to do so would require math skills which so much of the general reading public lacks (myself included).  Or it could just be that the words naming things don’t translate into other words which explain them clearly.  I feel the latter is just as likely as the former.
Essentially, Feynman made his name by working on the creation of the “bomb” (the Manhattan Project), while he was in his early twenties.  He received his Nobel Prize (for physics) in 1965 and then achieved “popular” fame when he was on the commission to review the Challenger Shuttle disaster in the 1980’s.  There, he famously demonstrated how / why the “O-rings” failed by taking a piece of a ring and placing it in ice water during one of the televised sessions.  He then pressed on the chilled rubber and when it failed to return to “normal” shape, he explained this was the cause for the subsequent catastrophic failure (“explosion”) of the shuttle.
The good Dr. is “humanized” by repeatedly reporting on his sexual escapades and his other personal peccadilloes.  One is left with the impression that although brilliant, he was not necessarily a good / nice person.  Having said that, my experience is that focused and driven individuals rarely are – good or nice.  They rarely have the time or feel the need to make the effort to be “normal” in everyday society.
Anyone interested in seeing Dr. Feynman can look him up on YouTube and his world famous “red book” series are still widely available as references for Physics.  I’m told (actually I’ve read) you can practically hear the joy of science in Dr. Feynman’s lecture notes.  You can also find the books on-line for free, if you care to download them.
Final Recommendation:  Gleick is a very good writer and this is a fascinating (if deep) book.  If you are looking to try to understand the role of Physics in the 20th century, this is an excellent primer.  It is also an interesting biography of a true scientific iconoclast.  As mentioned, it is not for the faint of heart, but I’d say anyone with a deep (loving) curiosity of the world would get something out of this book.  Highly recommended.  And, of course, a good number of quotes will follow in the coming days…
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On This Day In:
2013 Serve The World
2012 Acquaintance, n.
2011 On Why His Father Was A Great Teacher
A Baker’s Dozen

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Over the weekend I discovered a new (to me) used book store.  The store is named: Berkshire Books.  It turns out it’s been there just over ten years, but I don’t often get on that road and when I do, I tend to be looking the other way, so I just never saw it before.  Soooo, I popped in to see what’s up.  The store is pretty poorly lit and has that old book musty smell.  Now, to my taste, that’s bad and great.  There’s no place to sit because there are books everywhere – and I do mean everywhere.  To be honest, except for the lighting, I kinda felt like I’d died and when to heaven.  Anyway, the prices aren’t great, but they’re not too bad either.  I will definitely be going back, but not to buy stacks at a time like I can from the two dollar racks at my local Half-Price Books store.
My selection was an oldie, but a goodie: “The Power“, written by Frank M. Robinson.  The original version is copywrited in 1956, while the revised version is 1999©.  I don’t think the book was intended to be a children’s book, but I first read it back in the mid-1960’s when I was around 11 or 12.  It is considered to be a “classic” of SciFi literature.  The book was adapted into a movie (released in 1968) which starred George Hamilton as the principal character and Michael Rennie (“Klaatu, Barada Nikto”) as the bad guy.  This was the first time I remember ever reading a book before seeing the movie and then being sharply disappointed that the movie didn’t live up to my imagination.
Anyhow, the book is about a team of scientists who discover there are “super” men among us who can control us physically (via telekinesis) and who can also implant thoughts and remove memories.  They also possess superior strength and reflexes themselves.  The main character must try to discover which team member is the super-man while living long enough to kill him.  Of course, all the while, the super-man is killing off the rest of the team.
When I found the book, I thought, “Wow! This was from my childhood!“.  It wasn’t until later that I discovered it wasn’t the “same” book at all.  This was the “revised” version, basically the same, but updated with comments about Vietnam and the first Gulf War.  Did it make a difference?  Ultimately, I think it did.  As I read the book, I began to doubt my memories.  Some of the books passages prompted vivid memories – like when you eat or smell something and you’re instantly transported back to another place and time.  Other times, it was: “Huh?
I do believe the book is a legitimate classic in the SciFi genre, but I would say it is more of a young adult book than a mature adult book.  It is about 220 pages and a very fast read.  Highly recommended!
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On This Day In:
2013 Legal (Almost)
2012 Great Scots!
2011 The GI Bill – A Simple History Lesson
Breaking Even

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A couple of months ago, I was talking to my nephew and he told me he was a Jew.
I asked if he had ever been to a synagogue.  No.  I asked if he had ever read the Torah or the Talmud.  No.  I asked if he had ever read the complete Old Testament from the Bible.  No.  I asked if he had ever spoken to a Rabbi about the Jewish faith.  No.
After chuckling, I asked him why he thought he was Jewish.  He advised me that Jesus was Jewish and he was a follower of Jesus, so he was Jewish, too.  Needless to say (after another chuckle), I advised him that declaring yourself to be of a certain faith does not “make” you a member of that faith if you do nothing else to demonstrate your beliefs.
Later, though, it occurred to me that I know almost nothing about the Jewish faith either.  Yes, I’ve read some of the Old Testament, but I’ve never read any of the Torah and would not be able to tell you the first thing about any differences between it and the Old Testament.  So, when I was visiting my local second hand book shop and I stumbled upon a copy of a book which professed to be an “everymans” guide to orthodox Judaism, I picked it up and added it to the reading list.  As it happens, I rested the book close to my computer and it “called” to me repeatedly – so I bumped it up the list.  I finished it last week and the rest of this posting is my review…
The book is titled: “This Is My God” (1988©), and was written by Herman Wouk.  The book was originally published back in 1959, but this is a republishing with a chapter update about Israel (the nation-state).  Mr. Wouk wrote the book because a friend came up to him and said his son knew next to nothing about Judaism and the friend knew Wouk to be a practicing Jew and could he recommend a good “starter” book for him to give to his son with the hope the son might gain some appreciation for their heritage.
Now Wouk admits to not being a Rabbi (a teacher of the Torah) and could not think of (or find) such a book – even after asking around himself – so he decided to write one.  After about a year or so of intense research, he did.  And this book is the result of Wouk’s effort.
I have not read any of Wouk’s other works, but he is a terrific writer!  The book is obviously a very simplistic introduction to Judaism.  That does not mean it is not worth reading.  It merely recognize’s there are whole libraries devoted to the various aspects of Judaism and anything other than an overview would have taken many, many volumes.  Having said this, I felt reading this book was an insightful introduction to this faith upon which my own was based.  Indeed, it is the faith on which both Christianity and Islam are based.  All three faiths are the “children” of Abraham.
Although I don’t usually attribute such sentiments to books, this book has been a blessing to my own personal faith.  (I am a practicing Roman Catholic.)  Wouk’s words are kind and wise, yet humble and moving.  And most of all, they are educational.  There were several times I said to myself, “Wow! I never knew that!” or “So that’s why…”
Two quick examples are: there is no requirement for a person to be a Jew to enter Heaven.  One only needs to live a good life to be judged worthy of Heaven.  And second, not all the stories in the Bible are about Jews.  Some “holy” men are not Jews at all.  Job for example.  This was a real “Wow!” moment for me as I’d always just assumed Job was Hebrew.  Wouk explains why this is not so, but I still could hardly believe it so I had to do some additional research on the internet.  As near as I can tell, there is no proof he (Job) existed let alone that he was Jewish.  Like I said, the book is full of little “gems” to help you explore your faith (if you are a Christian).
The book is a fast read at only a little over two hundred and eighty pages and is so well written it doesn’t even feel that long.  There is a fifty page “Notes” area which has clarifications and recommendations for further readings and an eight page Glossary at the very end.
So, final recommendation:  Highly recommended!  You will, of course, see several quotes from this book over the next few months as I try to share some of Wouk’s writing with you…
So I called up my nephew to thank him for “prompting” me to learn about Judaism as the basis of my own faith.  His response: “Uncle Kevin, I never meant for you to read a book about it!”  I guess he just doesn’t know me that well…
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On This Day In:
2012 When Young
2011 14 Ways To A Better Judgement

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Today’s posting is about a book I’ve just completed last night and a movie I saw today.
The book is titled: “Disraeli: A Picture of the Victorian Age“, (1936©) reprinted in 1980, and written by André Maurois.  Maurois is actually the nom de plume for Émile Salomon Wilhelm Herzog, but interesting enough, he legally changed his real name to that for which he was famous.  Maurois was in the French military when he wrote his first book and the military was banned from publishing.
This book is the second I’ve read from the Time-Life Reading Program series which I collected back in the 1980’s.  More specifically, this is the book upon which I based my decision to begin purchasing the series.  I originally read this book in my young teenage years.  I don’t recall if I was in the eighth grade of grammar school or a freshman in high school.  At any rate, it was a fantastic look at another time (Victorian Age) and political system (British Parliament) which combined political maneuvers with a true romantic background story and it captivated me.
After his wife (Mary Anne) dies from old age (and cancer), Disraeli begins going through their effects in preparation for moving out of her ancestral home which must be passed on to its inheritor:
“Every fortnight for thirty-three years, Mary Anne had cut her husband’s hair, and every time the harvest had been garnered in a small sealed packet.  He found hundreds of them.”
This struck me, even as a teen, as such a personal and loving act (both the cutting and the saving of the cuttings) that I believe it set a standard for me to judge male/female relationships.  To this day, when I watch the movie “Phenomenon“, starring John Travolta and Kyra Sedgwick (and Forest Whitaker), I am reminded of this book.  If you’ve never seen the movie, there is a tremendously sensual scene in the movie where Sedgwick shaves Travolta and cuts his hair.  By “sensual” I mean it exudes sexuality without having any “sex” in the scene at all.
By way of contrast, I discussed the above quote with my daughter and she felt is was “creepy” and “like a stalker”.  She felt there was no romance/affection in either act, at all.
Another point, which may be of interest to only me – I’ve been “saving” this book for almost 40 years, knowing I was going to re-read it, but in no hurry, because it was going to be like re-meeting an old friend.  I don’t often re-read books because most of my reading tends to be technical in nature.  I do enjoy re-reading some books – novels in particular.  I assume it is because they engage me without trying to teach me.  (That’s just a guess…)  In this case, I was waiting for the above story, but I did not recall it was told after the wife’s passing.  When Mary Anne died from cancer, I briefly convinced myself that I must have read a different book when I was young and I had purchased the series based on a complete mistake!  Not that it would have mattered so much, but it seemed an irony that I was looking forward to meeting my old friend, only to find out I would be meeting a distant relative (a book about the same topic, but by a different author).  So I got a chuckle (to myself) when I found it was the correct book.
No, I haven’t said much about the book – by way of review, anyway.  Suffice it to say, it’s a very well written book, a fast read, a romanticized biography, and a fascinating story of a man who rises to great stature on the strength of his intelligence, ability and determination.  Highly recommended!!  As an aside, on researching Maurois, I found dozens of great quotes which you will no doubt be seeing over the coming months.
Today’s movie was: “Lee Daniel’s The Butler“, which depicts a fictionalized version of true story about a man (Eugene Allen) who served eight U.S. President’s over a 34 year period of working in the White House.  The story is one of quiet dignity and strength contrasted against a turbulent period of time which covers the “Civil Rights” movement during the latter half of the 20th century.  The main character (Cecil Gaines is the name used in the movie) is played by Forest Whitaker who I feel will almost certainly get a Best Actor nomination, if not win the Oscar, for this performance.  He is brilliant!  Oprah Winfrey does a very good job in playing the spouse and there is an all-star cast filling out many of the other roles.
In a manner similar to “Forrest Gump“, the movie intersperses historical TV footage with acting.  To this extent, the film is certainly not original, but it is no less powerful.  If anything, there is almost too much happening in Civil Rights for one to take it all in.  Young viewers may be surprised to see how far the nation has come in just the single life-times of their parents or grand-parents.  Having grown up and lived through the period, I was profoundly moved by the entire film.
Is this a “made for Oscar” movie?  Yes, blatantly so.  It vividly shows the horrors of racism and contrasts that with the dignity of a working man who only seeks a safe life for his family and a better life for his children.  The cast is strong and the story is accurate chronologically (if not entirely factual to Allen’s life).  More importantly, it touched me as a father, a working man and a family man with similar goals.  I saw this movie with my mother, sister and nephew (Kyle) and my mom and sister were tearing up just as much as me.  This is a MUST see movie and I highly recommend it!!
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On This Day In:
2012 Just Like Bubbles
2011 Caring and Driving
Achieve Greatly
2010 Unwise To Trust
Attitude
If The Mind Is Not Tired
Irrationally Crazy
2nd Pair – Shoe Review
Ahnu – Gesundheit!
 2009 As for me…
Health Care Reform Now!!

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Last night I completed, “In Defense Of Women“, written by H. L. Mencken and originally published back in 1918. The book took me about thirty-five years to finish (well, to start and finish).
I purchased this book as one of a series of titles under the banner of Time-Life Books. Part of the Time Reading Program Special Edition.  This just means I bought two books a month for a couple of years.  Way back when I got out of the Army, I decided I wanted to become more “learned”, more sophisticated, so I thought I would accomplish this by reading great books or great literature.  I couldn’t afford the “Great Books” series itself, so I decided to settle for some lesser works.  Hence, this series.
Each month I would dutifully receive them and then place them on my bookshelf, quite proud of myself that I was starting my own library.  Now the books were sold (advertised) as secondary works of great authors.  You weren’t reading their “acknowledged” best work, but you were reading something which had been deemed close.  This attitude of, “No, I haven’t read that, but everyone has…  Have you read this other work by him (/her)?”  seemed to feed easily into my ego.
To make a longer story shorter, I’ve never read any of the books.  More precisely, I have read one of them, but that was before buying it as part of the collection and that was back in my high school days.  So, about three months ago, I decided to crack into one of them.  There was no particular reason to choose this one over the other 30 or so except that my journal has a few quotes from the author (Mencken).
So, what do I think of the book?  Despite the fact it was written almost 100 years ago, it remains remarkably relevant.  It is, however, incredibly non-PC (politically correct).  The author has a fairly low opinion of humankind in general and men in specific.  Compared to men, Mencken finds women to be more than capable in most things.  In those things which Mencken finds tiresome (business and politics), he believes women can do no worse than men, but should not try as this will only lower them to the status of men, not raise those functions to a status worthy of women.
Mencken is a terrific (if flowery) writer of prose and the book is both funny and easy to read.  By easy to read I mean his ideas seem reasonable and coherently presented.  The topics are wide ranging – from marriage, to sex, to suffrage, to roles in modern society.  The only problem I had was sometimes the writing was so flowery, it was almost like walking through treacle – sweet, sticky and almost sickly.
I believe many who read this book will find it objectionable, but there is much to be said for any series of observations which can still raise ire even after this much time.  They each contain the kernel of truth upon which both good writing and good comedy depend to make their audience uncomfortable.  This is a classic and it is free to download from multiple sites.  Highly recommended!!
In case you’re wondering what’s “special” about the Special Edition, the books are published in fake leather red binding.  They are actually cardboard, but with gold lettering and trim, they appear quite a proper addition to a personal library.
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On This Day In:
2012 Brain, n.
2011 Styles Of Leadership
2010 Face Front!

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Today’s post is kind of a tape delay.  The first book (“The Great Gatsby“) was finished a couple of weeks ago.  No real reason for the delay, except that I’ve been watching a fair amount of baseball and just haven’t made the time.  The second book (“The Prince“) was finished today.  The first movie (“The Caine Mutiny“) was watched on Saturday afternoon last, while the second (“Iron Man 3“) was watched yesterday.
The Great Gatsby was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925©) and is about a young man trying to find himself in New York in the 1920’s.  The man (Nick Carraway) is from the mid-west and goes east to seek his fortune in the big city.  It should be noted that he is already from a well-off family.  His job is in the city, but his residence is in a wealthy suburb where he meets the title character, a wealthy “business” man named Jay Gatsby.  Anyway, blah, blah, blah, life of extravagance / lost love / more blah, blah, / accident / death, end of story.
Widely considered a classic and “the great American novel”, the book is mostly read in high school and is now the basis for a soon to be released motion picture.  Actually, this is a remake.  There are four other versions, but one is “lost” (1926) and another is a made for TV (2000), so I’m not sure it really counts.  The most recent is from 1974 and starred Robert Redford as Gatsby.  I’ve never seen that version, so if I’m lucky, it’ll appear on TV soon as a promo for the new release which is due out this coming Friday.  The new version stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Tobey Maguire as Carraway.
I originally read this novel back in the Army when I hoped to get better educated in some of the “great” pieces of literature.  I escaped it while I was in high school.
Is it great?  No, at least I didn’t think so.  Is it a “classic”?  Yes.  When I first read it, I remember finishing it and thinking “Wow! That was a great book, but I have no idea what it will mean in my life because there was no basis for common experience.”  Okay, maybe a twenty year old sergeant in the Army didn’t think in those exact words, but that was the gist of my reaction.  Thirty plus years later, if you asked me what it was about, I’d have told you, “rich guys in the ’20’s”.  And that’s it…   So, was it worth reading again?  Only to the extent that it prepares me for watching the new movie.  Would I recommend reading it?  Yes, but with qualifications.  If you are interested in one of the great works of fiction by one of the bohemian writers from the early 20th century – definitely.  If you want to see a “crafted” novel (I’m not sure what that means, but I keep seeing the description in reader reviews) – definitely.   If you’re trying to better understand the American rich of the 1920’s – definitely.  If you’re trying to find a novel which will change your life?  Well, it didn’t do it for me back in the ’70’s and even less so with a second go.  Final recommendation – moderate recommend; but I’d wait and just go see the movie.  It will cause you less time from your life.  (I hope to review the movie next week, so you may want to hold off.)
The Prince” was written by Niccolò Machiavelli (1513).  Any book on politics which survives 400 years is bound to be considered a “classic” and this is (both considered and IS).  There are a multitude of observations about gaining and keeping power in the city/state of the Renaissance Era Italy.  I think, with a bit of careful consideration and some adaptation, many of Machiavelli’s ideas are still valid.  I rather doubt gathering one’s enemies in a room and strangling them, would be considered appropriate in this day and age – even in Italy.  Anyway, I found the book to be extremely interesting and I highly recommend it for its historical value even if not for its application in today’s world.
One negative for this version (Wordsworth Reference [1993©]) is the translation seems to be quite literal from Italian and therefore the language is extremely flowery which makes for difficult reading, but otherwise, it’s a fast read and well worth reading and consideration among the other classics in politics.  And, of course, this means you will now see Machiavellian quotes from time to time.
As mentioned above, I watched “The Caine Mutiny” on Saturday.  I must admit, I’ve seen the movie several times in my lifetime, but I never remember much about it except the roles played by Humphrey Bogart and José Ferrer.  Everyone else is good, too, but these two are great.  If you liked the military courtroom drama of “A Few Good Men” or “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell“, then I think you’ll like this movie too.  This is a CLASSIC Bogart role and you can’t honestly say you are a Bogart fan unless you’ve watched this movie.  Of course, Bogart’s testimony at the trial is what makes the movie.  This is a must-see movie!!
The second movie I’m reviewing is the recently released “Iron Man 3“.  In full disclosure mode, I must admit that I spent many hours of my childhood reading (and collecting) Marvel Comics, so of course I have a natural bias for ALL Marvel Comic movie adaptations.  Having said that, this is a VERY good movie!  It’s entertaining with a plot, comedy (slap-stick and quips), action (fights and explosions), excellent special effects and once again, Robert Downey, Jr. ROCKS as Tony Stark (the man inside the suit), particularly when he’s NOT inside the suit.
Was the movie accurate to the comics? No.  Particularly as it relates to the Mandarin (who is Chinese in the comics but British in the movie).  Does it matter?  Nah.  What did (slightly) miff me was that there were no power-rings.  Instead there was a weak terrorist group called “The Ten Rings”.  Really?  Really?  Nah, it didn’t work for me.  Other than that, I thought this was a sound effort, particularly after the “relative” let down (well, I was very let down) of “Iron Man 2“.  Again, is it great cinema: No.  Is it an entertaining movie: heck YEAH!  Final recommendation: Highly recommended!
I can’t wait for the DVD so I can have a marathon viewing!
Oh yeah, in the Disney “Small World” vein: José Ferrer was in “The Caine Mutiny” and his son (who is a virtual ringer), Miguel José Ferrer, is in “Iron Man 3“.  Daddy was terrific.  Son, less so.
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On This Day In:
2012 God’s Requirements
2011 Greater Purity

 

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Yesterday I suffered another bad bout with my kidney stones.  I took advantage of the time off to finish the book: “American Shaolin“, by Matthew Polly (2007©).  This is a story about a young man who drops out of college to travel to the middle of China to spend two years learning about Kung-Fu.  Because he has been raised as a “nerdy” romantic from the mid-west (Kansas), it’s not good enough to just study Kung-Fu in America, he has to go all the way to the Shaolin temple.
The book is more about coming of age and Chinese culture than it is about martial arts.  Kung-Fu is really just the vehicle to carry us through the author’s voyage / passage into adulthood.  The story is a very fast read even though it’s over 350 pages.  Basically, I read it in one full day and one half day.
As per usual, I came upon the motivation to read this book quite by serendipity.  I found the book at Half-Price Books for $2 a couple of months ago, so I picked it up thinking I’ll add it to my martial arts library and maybe get around to reading it eventually.   Well, it turns out one of the blogs I follow has an interview with the author discussing learning – basically, the rule of 10,000.  Since I knew I had the book on my shelf, I thought this is the universe’s way of telling me to read it.  So, “eventually” came sooner than I expected.
If you are at all interested in Chinese culture, you should read this book.  It is a gold mine – a treasure trove.  For example, the Chinese begin bargaining with a cigarette.  It is usually offered by the seller and depending on how quickly you take it (if at all) and how you take it (with humility) and what type you ask for (American – expensive; Chinese – cheaper), you set the tone for the entire negotiation.  This is the kind of real world experience you can only get by spending a fair amount of time living with and reflecting on a particular culture.
There is not much in the book about fighting or Kung-Fu, but that’s okay.  Many times the best books about a culture have nothing to do with the vehicle for examining the culture and everything to do with the view as you travel.  In other words, it is the Chinese people who make this a entertaining and fascinating book.  Not the martial art.  Highly recommended!!
Oh, incidentally, the “rule of 10,000” is that you must practice something 10,000 times before you can become proficient at it.  From there, you can begin to achieve mastery.
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I believe I learned about military science fiction on black and white TV long before I discovered it in books.  I think when that happens, a child assumes there is more there (in literature) than there actually is.   I remember watching the “Twilight Zone” and “One Step Beyond” as well as a host of cheap Saturday afternoon movies on TV which tied in my admiration for the military with the wonders of future science.  Of course, adolescent reading included “The Red Badge of Courage” and “All Quiet On the Western Front“, but these were traditional (historic) military stories, not SciFi.
Sometime in my mid-teens, the older sister of a friend turned me on to Robert Heinlein.  She had about a dozen of his novels, including “Starship Troopers“, which she loaned me.  Addicts really are the public-facing pushers of their particular addictions.  Prior to this, my only collections were baseball cards (long lost in the shrouds of history) and comic books (Marvel not DC).  Although my mother always tried to supply us with ample reading, the reality of our family finances dictated more trips to the public (or school) library than to the local bookstore.  Anyway, this began my love affair with collecting books…
As mentioned, my first recollection of reading military Sci-Fi was “Starship Troopers“.  After that, I think there was a close tie between the adventures of (Jerry Pournelle’s) John Christian Falkenberg and (David Drake’s) Alois Hammer.  Between them, they make up two of the great mercenary future history series: Falkenberg’s Legions and Hammer’s Slammers.  The former being infantry and the latter primarily about an armored regiment.  I have collected the novels of all three since then, but most of them went the same way as my baseball cards of youth – lost in my frequent moves from house to house and continent to continent.
Well, lo and behold, wandering around in my local Barnes & Nobel’s I found a collected works of Drake’s Hammer’s series: “The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, vol 1“, (2009©).  This is the first in a three volume series.  It consists of twenty-one (mostly) short stories about men in combat in the future.  There is a nod to SciFi in order to make the stories seem futuristic, but the stories are really about the people (men and women), not about the weapons.  Even the couple of short stories which try to focus on the weapons, really end up talking about individuals who use the weapons.  For my dime, this makes the stories universal.
Many war story novels almost seem to glorify war and combat.  This book does not.  You are left with the smells, tastes and feel of war and it is acrid, foul and gritty.  But, and this is a BIG but, combat is also primal, tempering and – occasionally – ennobling of individuals.  This is the contradiction of struggle and survival – some become savages and some become noble savages.  In fairness to those who have served in actual combat – and I have not – these are only my impressions as a reader of fiction novels and factual accounts of historical conflicts.  Obviously, “history” is written by the victors, so victory will almost always be written as ennobling for the “right” side and debasing for the losing side.
Of the stories in this book, three particularly touched me and I had to pause briefly in my reading to think about the story for a while.  Based on this need to “pause and think” alone, I rate this book as a highly recommended!
I know this has turned into a lengthy blog, but hang in there a bit longer…
The second part of today’s title refers to one of the best “Romance” movies (chick-flick), I’ve ever seen: “Bed of Roses” (1996).  The movie stars Christian Slater and Mary Stuart Masterson.  The basic plot is boy sees unknown girl crying and gives her flowers.  Girl and boy fall in love, but both have “issues”.  Boy and girl separate over issues.  Boy and girl get back together and live happily every after (we assume).
This is a fairy tale movie.  If you like fairy tales, (I DO), you’ll enjoy this movie (I did).  If you aren’t into fairly tales, you probably will find this movie trite and contrived.  In which case, all I can offer is: “Get over it.”
I really enjoyed this movie!  The first time I saw it, I was in Saudi Arabia, while my wife and family were back in Liverpool.  It was on cable and I must have watched it ten times the first month it came on.  Why?  Because if you’ve ever spent time alone and lonely, and then you meet someone you fall in love with, your greatest fear will be losing that someone.  At least that has almost always been among my greatest fears.  If you do lose that someone and are fortunate enough to find a second someone, you are faced with the decision to hide (wallow in your loss) or to love even more freely.  In this movie, Slater’s character decides on the latter course – and it makes all the difference in the world.  (Like I said, a fairy tale.)  I think the “loss” of my wife (albeit temporary), made the movie touch me and my fears all the more.
Anyway, the movie is softly shot and there are lots of beautiful flowers (and sentiment) – another plus in my book.  I believe at the time, Slater was an action-movie actor and this role was kind of out of character for him, but I liked him in the role.  I don’t really know anything about Masterson.  She’s attractive enough in this role, but she doesn’t strike me as someone the camera “just” loves.  I don’t recall her in much else and I don’t really know why, because she seems really good in this role.  I would like to also give a shout out to Pamela Adlon, who plays Masterson’s character’s best friend – Kim.  Again, this is an actress I’ve not seen much of, but she’s terrific in this supporting role.  Something about her scratchy voice is just really attractive/likeable.  That and her frumpy clothes choice (in the movie).
As I said, this is one of the best romantic movies I’ve ever seen – particularly of the modern era – highly recommended!!
If there is one bad thing about the DVD – there are no extra scenes.  The preview, which is included on the DVD, has a couple of scenes which didn’t make it into the final movie.  I would have liked to see them in special features.  Sadly, no dice…
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Movie Review:
James and I went to the movies this afternoon to see “Priest“.  This was a movie I thought I wanted to see for some time.  It’s been advertised as a coming attraction for several months now.  Then, last night and this morning I lost my taste for it because I’d read some reviews and they were pretty bad.  Well, we went anyway and it was a pretty good movie!  Not terrific.  Not life-changing.  But definitely a good, entertaining summer action movie.
I gather the movie is based on some graphic novel and the movie is clearly set up to be the start of a franchise (which I would definitely see at least one more of).  I wanted to see it because I recognized the star (Paul Bettany) from the movie: “The DaVinci Code“.   I thought he was weird in the role of a monk-assassin, but it was strangely suitable.  I wanted to see this movie to see if that was a fluke or if he is an actor I want to watch out for.  After “Priest“, I think I need to see a lot more of his work, because he was again excellent in this role.
Now, don’t get me wrong, vampire movies are not normally my thing (although I have enjoyed the “Underworld” series).  But, this was (for me) an interesting and entertaining movie.  Like most “comic” book adaptation, it doesn’t bear close logical scrutiny – but for the price of a matinée ticket, it is a good way to spend an afternoon.
Book Review:
Today, I also finished a book: “If Not Now, When?“, written by Colonel Jack Jacobs (Ret.) and Douglas Century (2008).   Colonel Jacobs is a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient for action during the Vietnam War.  The sub-title is: “Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need“.
The book is autobiographical and it is incredibly funny, touching and up-lifting —  all at the same time.  This was another of the $2 books I’ve gotten at Half-Price books and I can honestly say this was among the two of the best dollars I’ve ever spent in my life.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the type of person America and the U.S. military can produce – and what type of man goes on to earn a Medal of Honor.
I will be using the book as a source for many quotes.  Just a terrific read!!
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