Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Caine Mutiny - 100in1001 book

Ah, what a relief. After several slogs through important, but not always exhilarating, reads, I got The Caine Mutiny. Another WWII themed novel, this one revolves around an eventual mutiny on a ship in the Pacific. There is, of course, a love story thrown in, but it doesn't overwhelm the meat of the tale as they often do and I actually thought it added to the story. The courtroom drama was great, enjoyed how the lawyers made their questions and arguments too. I think I got the most enjoyment out of the characters though, especially Willie Kieth's growth from a rebellious young seaman into a man of more perspective. I may particularly relate to this story now because Kieth's age is at least in the ballpark of mine: someone coming out of college and learning the ropes of the "real" world. There are also some other great characters, one whom I saw through right away I'm proud to say, and this one has a little bit of everything: drama, action, comedy, and love. It kept me interested and coming back for more, especially once Kieth gets out to sea roughly one quarter to one third of the way through the book. I didn't have to renew it so that should say something! I'll rate this one as a Damn Good Tale.

I didn't find the writing to be quite as good as that in A Death in the Family but the story is better and the writing and dialog are always solid, great in places. One bit that made me laugh and has stuck with me is Wouk describes the fireworks and ammunition set off when the boats find out Japan has surrendered:

Now the deck overhead began to thunder with the dancing and jumping of the sailors. And still the bursts of color rose from Okinawa in million-dollar streams, a glory of triumphant waste, and the rattle and roar of the guns came rolling over the water...

"A glory of triumphant waste" was really what got me on that one. Another, with emphasis on the middle sentence:

I'll remember it on my deathbed, if I die in a bed, or wherever I die. Everybody's life pivots on one or maybe two moments. I had my moment this morning.

And finally, just because it struck me, at one point Willie Kieth puts on a "beautiful soft tan suit which had cost two hundred dollars at Abercrombie and Fitch." I didn't know A&F was such an old brand, nor that they actually had quality clothes at one point!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Death in the Family - 100in1001

Finished A Death in the Family today and I'm not sure what to think really. This is not a book that you read for the plot, not much at all happens really. Similarly, the characters do not evolve nor are they terribly interesting. What is great about the book though is the writing is absolutely top notch, I can see Agee pouring over his words more like a poet than an author. I did end up enjoying the book because, rather than a frenzied plot, scenes proceed slowly and you really dig deep into what people are thinking and what goes unsaid. The book goes by in sections, mostly on a chapter-by-chapter basis, where Agee centers on one particular character's thoughts while telling the overall tale. The parts where he focuses on the children I thought were especially good because he so well conveys a child's perspective and understanding. I got through this book in one check-out from the library, so I guess that says something for it being at least somewhat interesting to read. The last couple of books have taken me a couple renewals. That being said, I didn't really attack this book either. Overall thumbs up, if only mildly enthusiastically.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Way West and catching up on the others - 100in1001

*** Edit: see the section where I discuss Andersonville

Before getting to The Way West I want to go over the other books I've read from the Pulitzer list so far just because they haven't received much, or in some cases any, mention here.

The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway was not the first one I attempted but it stands out for reasons to be explained in a minute. It was an easy read and was very approachable. The tale is engaging and, in a rare combination, there's plenty of depth if you're the type to analyze the books you read. I feel like this is something I should have read in high school or thereabouts for the lessons on life that can be extracted. I am going to try to watch the movie based on the book simply because I don't think the story as told by the book is very film-able, there just isn't much to engage a reader: it's mostly a guy on a boat trying to tire a fish out. If it were filmed today I'm sure the fish would be of River Monsters caliber and would have killed many people in the village already, including some sort of teenagers having fun in the opening scene and the old man wouldn't be so much tiring the fish as wrestling it in a mano-a-fisho 30-minute action sequence. But that's off topic. Overall the book is a good read for just about anyone.

Next up are the rest in reverse chronological order: Andersonville by Kantor, Guard of Honor by Cozznes, and Tales of the South Pacific by Michener. The reason I feel they, along with The Way West, can be grouped together is because they are all centered about defining moments in American history. GoH and TotSP both center around WWII with the former concentrating on the home front in Florida and the latter on the (duh) Pacific theater, with little (TotSP) to no combat (GoH) involved. Andersonville meanwhile centers on the Civil War-era prisoner camp of the same name run by the Confederates (word of the day: eponymous) and The Way West on the settling of the west, specifically Oregon.

Excluding The Way West, I found these books a bit hard to read. TotSP is a bunch of loosely connected narratives, so you get some recurring characters but sometimes by the time they came back around in later tales I had forgotten what their contribution was earlier in the story. There was one bit in the book where a dogfight between some planes is described that actually had me laughing out loud, an unexpected treat. I'm not sure every version has them, but it had wonderful illustrations throughout. There are good characters and stories here, though because of the "tales" nature there isn't the amount of development that you find in a regular novel. I did appreciate the picture of the hidden war away from the frontlines.

I didn't get much joy of of GoH really and that may have been because I found its characters even harder to follow. The characters don't come in and out like in TotSP but the author more strictly sticks to the military titles, so it's easy to get lost in the flood of Generals, Majors, etc. Worse, sometimes he does refer to them by first name so it takes a while to connect "Major Doe" with "John." Like TotSP it gives an interesting perspective on the war, this time how the military at home were doing about business, but I didn't find the characters all that interesting and there's not much plot at all to speak of. By the end I appreciated TotSP, but not GoH. I'm sad to say that many times it felt like a chore to sit down and read GoH.

Andersonville is almost half short stories and half novel. Early on the book introduces you to some civilians living around the prison camp and then the military as the camp site is chosen and built. After this there is a lot of concentration on the lives of the prisoners, and this is where the tales-style storytelling comes in. Many chapters focus on an individual or a group doing something, like digging an escape tunnel, and they are genuinely good reads, but then they are often left out from the rest of the novel or die at the end of the chapter. There are characters that span most or all of the camp part of the tale though, so there is some sense of continuance and you do get one long narrative strain, that of order vs evil/chaos. The end of the book is really excellent; the story of the cripple, no-long-soldier Confederate helping an escaped Union cripple and the conclusion of the civilian arc were great and I had genuine interest in these characters. Kantor did an extremely thorough job researching and referencing works about the prison. Some of the military characters are actual people, one of them being the gruff Wirz, who was one of my favorite characters, and Kantor apparently spent 25 years making the book! Really a must read for anyone interested in the Civil War. The narrative threads and characters, especially the fictional civilians, are solid as long as you can get over some dying or being written off just as you are getting interested in their tale. I think it is a worthwhile read, again, to get the perspective on an important time in American history. *** EDIT *** One thing I forgot to mention here is that this book does not use quotes for dialog. If you think it sounds bad try reading it, very easy to get lost in whether something is dialog or narration, especially when a new paragraph begins. Is the same speaker still going or or did someone new just start or is no one now talking? Ack!


Now, finally, The Way West by Guthrie. I have to get this out of the way first: I lived a deprived childhood and DID NOT play Oregon Trail; I will say that no one dies of dysentery in the book. In contrast to the other American history books discussed above, this is an actual novel that follows key characters as they form a company and then drive their wagon train to Oregon. The characters are well developed, though only a couple are that memorable, and the train driving along kept me driving through the book. There are moments of action, but the reason to read this is to get insight into what a great feat settling the west was for early Americans. It is also interesting to see the general disdain for the "Injuns" for their "uncivilized" ways and British for their interests in settling Oregon and the west to claim it for themselves. Indeed, one character's motivation to go to Oregon is to help the US populate it so the British can't take it. Overall a good, but not great read, that is worth it yet again for the perspective on history.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

One year and a half update - 100in1001

Wow, time has gone by fast. I'm somewhere around the half-way point of my 100things and I feel like I've made good progres on many items. As I've been wanting to do for quite some time, I just went through the list and deleted or refined many of the entries. Many of these changes or purges were due to ill-defined goals, such as "doing something every week" or things like that, which just aren't realistic. So, for example, "do Pilates 3 times a week" has been changed to a more concrete (for me at least) goal of getting through the entire reformer workout.

So why have I not been making many posts over the last year or so? Well I discovered that I don't really have much to talk about on a weekly basis. Especially considering my awful fall and my recent move to an apartment, I've had many things keeping me from completing items. As I look at what's left for me to do it is quite a staggering amount of things. The Pulitzers in fiction is going to be a real bear. I have added a new item or two recently, like home-brewing a beer, but I'm still well under 100 items. Come on imagination!

The new plan is to simply post when I've accomplished something of note, however frequent or infrequent. When I finish a book or watch one of the movies, I'll post at least a mini-review. When I make it to that foreign country (looking like it will be Egypt) I'll be sure to give that a good write up. This should make the whole blogging end of this list better for me and higher quality posts.

That's all for now, stay tuned for a post soon about the Pulitzer winners I've been reading.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A simple idea to help some major issues

I think two of the defining moments of recent history have been health care reform and the Great Recession. Whatever you opinions are on what HFR will do to our country and what to do about the GR, I believe I have a simple idea that will simultaneously improve economic productivity and efficiency (economists and Wall Street really loves that!) and public health.

What is this magical idea? Eliminate smoke breaks. No, I'm serious, hear me out.

In the area of economic productivity and efficiency I believe there are a lot of gains here. Every job I have worked at, and especially the current one, whenever I go in or out of the building there is a large posse of smokers basically wasting time outside. You have probably witnessed or participated these groups outside your workplace. These smoke breaks appear to be very leisurely and I often see people remain after finishing their cigarette. Obviously the more time workers are smoking the less time they are being productive. Additionally, something less obvious, would be increasing workplace fairness and thus (probably) increasing worker happiness, which leads to better productivity. This comes about because sometimes non-smokers (quite rightfully) feel that smokers are unfairly given extra breaks. Finally, do not think that I am saying no one should get breaks. Everyone needs occasional moments to step away from the work and mentally and physically refresh themselves, I'm just saying smokers shouldn't get extra privileges.

The health public health benefits should be fairly obvious: no secondhand smoke cloud at the exits for non-smokers and encouraging less smoking or quitting altogether for smokers.

Now that I've saved the country I'm going to get back to playing some video games...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Can we fully blame Toyota?

The news world is aflutter at the moment over yet another piece of bad news for Toyota: Consumer Reports has given the 2010 Lexus GX 460 a "Don't Buy" rating over a safety issue. For more about it, go to their site.

On reading their recommendation I can't help but think that drivers are partially at fault for this particular safety issue. The claim is that the SUV fishtails more than other tested SUVs in cornering/turning situations and this could possibly lead to rollovers if the driver lets his foot off the accelerator too quickly once in the turn. Let's look at the situation carefully. The root cause all goes back to the driver: entering a turn too quickly and not handling that situation appropriately. I am far from a perfect driver but I know that I, and most likely you, observe terrible driving all the time on the roads. Perhaps if people were better trained and more observant drivers to begin with things like this wouldn't be such an issue. Now, this isn't trying to take the blame off Toyota entirely because ESC is there to help you when in emergency situations, but if we're saying we need to rely entirely on a car's electrical components to keep us safe then there are far larger problems that need discussing.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Proof Humans are Doomed

What's the proof? Snow shovels. That's right, the things you use to scrape the snow off your sidewalk and driveway.

This weekend is the great Snowapalooza on the east coast, TONS of snow expected. It is all the news stations can talk about it seems, even the more heady NPR seems caught up in the ridiculousness. I heard an interview today with a store owner saying they were selling out of everything, including several hundred snow shovels and they were expecting another truck with more to arrive to meet the demand.

This seems to happen *every* time there is a snow storm. If it simply happened the first storm of the season I could understand: people have to replace broken/lost/old equipment and people new to the area may have to grab some new shovels. However, it doesn't just happen the first snow, it happens every time there's a bit of a threat of possibly snowing. The first snow should have taken care of everyone that needed one for the season. But no, people keep buying them up. DC, for instance, already had one gigantic snow storm around Christmas where everyone panicked. So what's the story here? Either people are dumb enough to wait until halfway through the season to get a shovel or somehow they are losing or throwing their old ones out in a month's time. Either way, it does not bode well for our survival as a race.