and that’s getting up before dawn to workout.  I’m pretty sure this dates back to my high school days when we would have conditioning workouts for wrestling that would start at 6am.  I remember trudging through the hallways and running up and down flights of stairs and telling myself that once the season was over, I would never, ever be punishing myself like that again.

          Then came OCS and, of course, that promise went to hell.  Apparently, Marine Corps Drill Instructors don’t much care for personal covenants- especially those that eschew running before the sunrise.

          After I commissioned, I once again told myself “Never Again”, and this time, I was pretty good at keeping to my word.  For three years, I never saw the sunrise in anything other than pajamas or a uniform, and I was more than content with that.

          Believe it or not, my fiancée, and I always thought she was certifiable due to this, has always been a proponent of the early morning workout.  Of course, the inevitable happened, and she finally suggested that we workout together.  I resisted for years, but finally, and I’m sorry to say this, last month I cracked under her indomitable willpower and the tacit threat of her pulling a Lysistrata on me.

          There has been an upside, however.  My afternoons and evenings are now entirely free, so I have been able to devote most of that time to reading and the occasional episode (ok…three or four episodes) of 24. 

Even more disturbing- and it pains me to say this- I might actually enjoy working out in the mornings.  It’s not that I like getting up early, but I do thoroughly enjoy having the gym practically to myself.  I may have to keep this up for a while.  Of course, if anyone asks me why, it’s only so I can reach my goal of 150 books.

 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize, and unlike The Hours, by Michael Cunningham (the last Pulitzer Prize winner I read), this book did not suck.  Quite the opposite.  In fact, I thought it was spectacular.

It’s been eleven years since Diaz’s first (and only) book Drown, a collection of short stories, hit the shelves.  However, from the first page of Oscar Wao, it is apparent that Diaz has not lost his unique voice, and his ability to captivate his audience has not suffered from over a decade of disuse.

Our title character, Oscar, is a 300+ pound nerd who has such little game with the ladies that it embarrasses his Dominican family.  His great aspiration in life is to become the Dominican equivalent of J.R.R Tolkien, Stephen King, and Robert Heinlein rolled into one.  When he’s not striking out with las chicas, he spends his time writing, watching cartoons, and playing fantasy role playing games.  This is also the multi-generational story of his Dominican family, and the “curse” that has hounded them for the past half-century.

I’m not sure what Diaz has been doing for the past eleven years, though I’m fairly positive that the majority of the time was not spent reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.   From page one of Oscar Wao, and throughout the entire book, the dialogue is peppered with Spanish words and Dominican slang (In case you have not been lucky enough to read Strunk and White’s seminal little book, the usage of foreign language is either #1 or #2 on their list of things to avoid while writing).  Some, particularly those whose only exposure to Spanish has been by telenovella, will find this distracting, if not frustrating.  I thought it added a certain amount of authenticity to the dialogue and helped me get more into the story and the characters.  Still, even I will admit that glossary of terms would have been helpful.

Another aspect of the story that I enjoyed, but which others might have been annoyed by, if they even caught the references at all, was the repeated usage of science-fiction and fantasy themes as metaphors.  Oscar is the consummate nerd- loves apanimation, role playing games, and science-fiction pulp stories, so I thought it fitting, not to mention refreshing, to see references made to Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Starwars, and Lord of the Rings.  Of course, if you’ve had no exposure to realm of sci-fi and fantasy, the scope and meaning of those metaphors would have been lost on you.

If you know no Spanish and think science-fiction and fantasy are for losers, you probably will not understand half of this book, yet you may develop a little bit of sympathy for the consummate Dungeons and Dragons nerd.

 

Why is it that despite the billions of dollars of foreign aid Africa receives, it continues to struggle or, some might say, even regress?

 

In The Trouble with Africa, Robert Calderisi offers up some answers to that question.  Drawing upon his experience as a World Bank official in Africa, Calderisi is able to augment his analysis with personal anecdotes from his time on the continent and his extensive interactions with various heads of state.

            The conclusions that he comes to are sure to surprise some.  He brushes aside the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism as non-factors.  Nor is it globalization or world trade which has brought the continent to her knees.  Rather, he argues, the problems are of Africa’s own making; they stem from kleptocracy, widespread corruption, the discouragement of private investment and new businesses, as well the ignorance of the growing AIDS epidemic.  It’s his belief that Africans are too complacent with their status and, as a cultural collective, have a defeatist attitude.

            In case you thought the Western World is off the hook, think again.  Our political correctness in dealing with the issues in Africa has only exacerbated the problems in Africa, according to Calderisi, and he feels that the kid gloves need to come off when it comes to providing foreign aid to the continent.

            I found this book enjoyable and very readable.  It provides some compelling answers to a question that comes up regularly, not only in discussion, but also in public policy.  I think it was Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.  Unfortunately, it is apparent that most of the providers of foreign aid to Africa were practitioners of Chaos Theory, rather than Relativity.

             

Well, in the past two weeks I have managed to read six books- four non-fiction and two fiction.  I’ve done a decent job identifying books that I’ll enjoy (or at least that I’ll be interested in); of the six, I’ve only struggled through one of them.  And don’t worry, more reviews are forthcoming.  I just need to figure out what I’m going to say, haha.

I still need some recommendations for both non-fiction and fiction, though for the moment I’m OK since there are at least thirty books at home which I haven’t had the chance to read yet.

At the moment, I’m on pace to read 159 books by January 19th 2010.  So far, so good.

I hope that there’s a special spot in hell reserved for those people, those literary elites, those murders of fiction (Harold Bloom I’m thinking of you) who have the nerve to make someone feel bad for reading something that isn’t up to their “standards.”   We all know someone like this.  Here’s how the scene would play out:

 

Joe is sitting at a table during a break from work.  On his lap is the latest short story collection by Stephen King.  Simon is sitting across from him, eating his granola, while frowning over the Wall Street Journal.  Simon is a condescending asshole and know-it-all, who just happens to be a few rungs up the ladder from Joe in the company.

 

Simon, aka Murderer of Fiction (henceforth: MoF):  What are you reading there, Joe? Another of those elves and demons and fairies books?

 

Joe (thanks Baby Jesus that at least he finished Lord of the Rings the night before.  He looks down at the Stephen King book, wishes it was something of “worth”, considers seppuku, but he has left his replica Samurai sword at home and only packed a plastic knife with his tuna fish):  The new Stephen King short story collection, Simon.

 

MoF (looks down his nose and grimaces as if he’s ingested non-organic granola from Jersey instead of his trusty organic granola made in California where there is nothing but sunshine, new-wave music, and wine tasting) Oh.  Horror.  Never could understand why anyone reads that guy.  Me, I’m sorry that van didn’t finish him off a few years ago. What a crime it is that Stephen King lived and David Foster Wallace killed himself.

 

Joe (again wishes he had samurai sword):  I don’t know, Simon, this story I’m reading now is very good.  You see, in it, there’s this guy and he gets locked in a Port-O-Potty.  Can you imagine how awful that would be?

 

MoF blanches.  He has a weak stomach

 

So there he is.  Stuck in this Port-O-Potty with all of this shit on him.  Literally, I mean shit, Simon. And not even his own.  Other peoples’

.

            MoF sucks in his breath and now opts for verdure over innocence, color-scheme wise, at least

 

And guess how he gets out?  He climbs through the toilet, kind of like in Trainspotting, but this time in a Port-O-Potty.  Sort of like he’s bobbing for apples now in the muck, and forces himself through a crack in the bottom of the Port-O-Potty.  It’s all the easier because he’s all lubed up with…well you know.  Almost like the Port-O-Potty gave birth.  Very beautiful.

 

            Like MegaMaid from Spaceballs, our Murderer of Fiction goes from suck to blow and deposits some sun shined, wine tasted, new-wave music’d, good ole fashion organic granola all over the desk.

 

            Our Hero, that would be me, smiles and finishes his tuna fish.

 

 

I know that some of you out there probably scoff at the idea of reading fiction.  You might say to yourself, Why waste a day, hell, even a week, reading something that isn’t going to broaden my horizons?

I don’t know if this school of thought is a holdover from our high school days- where reading was forced upon us like extra helpings at grandmother’s dinner table, or if it had its genesis in some other way. 

Me?  I love fiction.  Always have.  Over the years, I think I’ve learned as much through works of fiction as I have through the many non-fiction books I have read (or at least I remember more, and that’s all the really counts, right?).  For their stories to work, authors need to have some sort of credibility with their audience.  Mostly, they need to be believable.  While I don’t like most of his work, there is little doubt that John Grisham knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the law- the man is a lawyer.  The same can be said about the late Michael Crichton.  I was in fifth grade learning about DNA while reading Jurassic Park.  It may have been science-fiction, but the “science” aspect was plausible enough (I’m sure it helped that Crichton was a medical doctor and was able to break things down into layman’s terms).

Whether it’s whaling in Moby Dick, seamanship and naval history in Master and Commander, the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath, genetic engineering in Jurassic Park, or Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter, there is usually something to be learned from a work of fiction, whether you are paying attention to it or not.

Parallel to this, people seem to have forgotten that reading is supposed to be fun.  Do the same folks who only read non-fiction also only watch documentaries?  Now, I understand that some people genuinely enjoy non-fiction more than fiction.  Still, I bet that for every person who prefers Thomas Friedman or William F. Buckley over Stephen King or JK Rowling or Junot Diaz, there are ten more folks on the train, clutching their pristine copies of the newest non-fiction rave, hearkening back to the days when they used to read The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or (heavens forbid!) the latest issue of X-Men, remembering when reading used to be fun, and they didn’t have to put on a show for the literary elites on the subway or in their office.

 

Another excellent short story collection from the world’s most popular author.  In a later post, perhaps I’ll defend Stephen King against those who feel he’s a hack, but for now I don’t want to take anything away from Just After Sunset.

This collection of short stories and one novella is as versatile as anything he has ever done.  While there is never a doubt that you are reading a “Stephen King” story, the themes of this collection run the gamut from fantasy to horror to psychological realism.

One thing that I’ve always admired about King, and it’s on display again in this collection, is that despite the sheer breadth of his work, his writing is sharp and nuanced enough to create characters and situations that stand out from his other work.  The Dave Matthews Band “all my songs kind of sound the same” effect has never been a problem for Stephen King.

If you have never read Stephen King before, this collection would not be a bad place to start.  Of course, if you are someone who sleeps with the lights on or has obsessive compulsive tendencies (like me); I would recommend skipping the story “N”.  You just might find yourself becoming all too familiar with what sunrise looks like…

 

Damn you, Jack Bauer.  Damn you.  How am I supposed to reach my goal of 150 books in one year if hours of my life are being sucked away by 24?  Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Joe, don’t worry, the season will be over soon enough.  Plus it’s only an hour, one night a week.”

            Well, sportsfans, that’s where you are wrong.  Somehow, and I’ll blame it on the haze otherwise known as college, I missed out on the phenomenon of 24.   I just started watching the show last month, and I already ache for it more than a long-haul trucker yearns for crystal meth.

I’m halfway through Season 3 right now.  If I recall correctly, Season 7 is currently running right now, so I still have three and a half more seasons to watch before I’m somewhat caught up.  That’s three and a half days of reading time down the tubes.  Something’s gonna have to give to make up for that.  Probably work.  Or sleep.  Giving up on Jack is certainly not an option.

 

 

One concept that seems to baffle people when I tell them about being in the military is the idea of “duty.”  Duty, in this case, is not something that I am expected to do due to moral or legal obligation; rather, it is referring to having to spend one day out of every six on the ship (for a full twenty-four hours).  Basically, the ship has to be ready to get underway at a moment’s notice; therefore, it is always manned with the sufficient complement of personnel needed to head out to sea.  If you take the total complement of personnel on the ship and divide that by the minimum amount needed to get the ship underway, you will get a number (most likely single digit) that indicates the number of sections the ship should be broken down into.  For example, if a ship has 300 people and the Captain feels that he needs at least 50 people to get the ship underway safely, then there will be six duty sections.  If you have a CO that’s particularly conservative and feels that they need 60 people to get underway, then there will be five duty sections.  Pretty simple, right?  Oh, and this isn’t like elementary school, we always round down.  So if there are 300 people on board and the CO feels that only 45 personnel are needed to get underway, we would still be in 6 section duty, though 300/45 is 6.66.

            So what does that mean?  It means that if you have duty, you need to spend the night on the ship until you relieve the following day.  Think of how firemen do it.  It pretty much works the same way for us, except we don’t have any greased poles to slide down (I understand that I just set myself up for a rather crude joke- possibly related to submarines. Please see past this).  So every six days I have to spend the night on the ship.  During the week, it’s not awful, but when you have duty on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, it can be pretty miserable.

            One of the positives is that it does leave quite a bit of time for reading (there’s not a whole lot else to do) and many of the books I’ve read in the past two and a half years were hammered out while I was stuck on the ship.

write it in a blog.  Ok, so perhaps that isn’t the philosophy that Mom prescribed to, but desperate times call for desperate measures and out of concern for public safety, I need to warn against reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond.  That is, unless you desire a soporific infinitely more potent than a cocktail of liquor, ‘ludes, and Ambien.  This book should come with the warning, “Do Not Operate Heavy Equipment While this Text is in Your Possession.”

Not only was I not blown away by this “life-altering”, “all-encompassing”, “important” book, I was downright bored.  I derived no pleasure from reading this book.  It felt more like work than my actual job does, and that’s saying something. 

I am not saying that this book is worthless.  It isn’t.  With an endless supply of coffee and a Ritalin prescription, you can probably read this book in a week, and you might actually learn something useful.  Or you might just want to wet your fingers, dip them in rock salt, and gouge your eyes out. 

August 2017
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