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24 October 2011

'A Beautiful Mind' by Sylvia Nasar

To bring to life, in writing, a man and his life, as in this excellent biography, is difficult.  To also bring to life his passion and genius for mathematics is art.  The book puts into context the society, academic status and madness of John Nash Jr.  As I read this book and reflected on the paranoid, homophobic, academically conservative world he walked in, I wondered why there were not more insane men from the McCarthy era.

Freedom feels like a real myth; something that probably did not exist, except as an ideal.  When I read about the paranoia and prejudices of the 1950s and I look at our world today with in addition its loss of freedom in exchange for security, nothing much seems to have changed.

John Nash Jr. craved freedom in every way.  His story highlights how his lovers (male and female), partners and colleagues also wanted freedom to love, to work, to succeed and to be proud.  A fundamental difference, of course, is that his illness exaggerated some of these traits and desires.  There is nothing insane about wanting freedom.  It was a repressive environment and political influence that branded such desires from men and women as insanity.  Schizophrenia makes one hypersensitive.  Nash's friends and relations constantly reminded themselves and John of his sanity, for were not them all also a little insane? They reminded him of his accomplishments, his friendships, his loves and his magnificent, creative intellect.

Princeton university as well as Dr. Nash's friends and admirers in the mathematics community showed him kindness and faith.  They gave him as many opportunities as he needed to overcome his illness and help himself get better.  The women in his life, though, are even more extraordinary.  Alicia and Meredith deserve biographies of their own.  They showed resilience and strength.  These educated women, an engineer and a nurse respectively, suffered the stigma of being single mothers and the stigma of being women who wanted to work.  It was heartrending and humiliating to read at times.  Alicia helped Nash come out of his illness; she provided protection and support even after their divorce.  Meredith, alone and unmarried, raised a lovely child.

Beautiful book, beautiful story... No wonder it was made into a movie.  Could the ending be any more 'Hollywood'?  A work of fiction could not have sustained such an ending.  Thank God life is still stranger than fiction.

ISBN: 9780571212927

21 October 2011

Reading the News Online

Journalists have been persecuted for telling, withholding, misrepresenting or even making fun of the news (also called "the truth", or optimistically, "the facts" for a given value of truth or facts.)  Journalists know that derision and incredulity comes with the territory.  It cannot be easy to be so religiously disliked.   What I mean is that everyone reads or listens to the news regardless of how unpleasant the event is or how badly it is presented.  After all, people usually avoid unpleasant situations or unpleasant persons; with the exception of those strange dudes that chase tornadoes or anyone addressed as "mama" on a regular basis.  But, I am regressing.

Journalism seems to be getting even lower in quality.  So far, my complaint is not news, if you'll pardon the joke.  Recently, lower quality includes reports on news websites so badly written that non-sequiturs, incomplete sentences or even the completely wrong words, obviously placed there by eager software, are often seen on respected websites like BBC news or even Reuters.  In their rush to post a story first, they fail to even proof read.

Now, "first with the story" is becoming a very relative term.  After all, events like the Arab uprisings were posted on youtube, facebook and twitter way before journalists picked up the story.  "First" loses value when it has to be amended to, "well, faster than Sky and CNN anyway."  My suggestion is that journalists stop distracting me from the journalism with bad writing.  "Best with the news" could catch on.

TV journalists (presenters) are notoriously incorrect when it comes to basics like grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation.  Sometimes looks take precedence over a degree in journalism.  Journalists who report in writing though, write for a living.  There is no excuse.  I find it careless. If he or she is careless with simple sentence structure how careless is he or she with content?

Obviously, I am not literary perfection, but I don't have to be.  In any case, I hope to improve with practice and care.  Perhaps better lighting and a new lap top would help too (hint, hint to my beloved proof reader.)  This bad writing on news websites cannot be blamed on Murdoch, censorship, or a mean Spanish teacher.  If you do not care when you report, it shows. After all your name is attached to the article.

16 October 2011

'1222' by Anne Holt

This locked room mystery is fun

My first instinct is to cheer a woman who does not get physical in order to kick ass.  This locked room mystery is fun.  The protagonist is intelligent, sensitive and cynical.  Physical circumstances did not compromise her freedom of choice to act, to think, to solve a problem or even to make or not make friends.

I worry about women depicted as cooperative and quietly intelligent; women that should not put themselves forward or heaven forbid, be more intelligent than the men around them.  Discretion is the only tool available to this crime stopping woman.  Not crime fighting.  Women don't fight crime like men do, they stop it.  I like a grumpy, closed, uncompromising protagonist.  It feels true to her life and physical circumstances.  Women often have to apologize for having ambition, or lacking social graces, even in literature.  It is a shallow view of women, and too often untrue. 

The book itself did not take me long to read and some of it was predictable, but I was not expecting Pulitzer material.  I had fun and it did not ruin my tea.  Moreover, I read it in Summer and it is refreshing to read about a massive blizzard in the heat.

ISBN: 9781848876095

'The Shining' by Stephen King

No shit, this is a great book.  I know millions have read it and most probably agree.  What you have to understand is that I am a horror coward, both films and books.  I saw 'Poltergeist' a  little young and never got over it.

So, I had to watch 'The Shining' for a film course in college. Got scared. Bought it and gave it to my mother as a gift.  It was a proper scare, because while evil monsters that talk to children and live in a closet over a graveyard are quite scary; there is no monster like the monster residing in your family or yourself.  But, it has taken me nearly 20 years to read the book of a film I consider a classic and enjoy every time.

It is a rare book indeed that is so satisfying when I close it.  It was two in the morning and I had been scared, but once it was over I felt I had been assaulted by excellent story telling.  Even writers have ambition and too often it overwhelms what should be their most important ambition: to tell a story well.  I don't care if you make me laugh or scare me enough to make me turn the lights on in the bedroom all night.  I want to be told a story well and there is a fundamental difference between having clever gimmicks and creating a consistent believable world.  Some writers can create effects or engaging characters, or the best one liners, but a good writer makes you feel in safe hands and eager for the telling.  It is like people who are described as excellent raconteurs.  Lots of people can be entertaining or funny at the table, but how many do you know whom you would describe as a true raconteur?

Stephen King made me feel safe, cared for and entertained.  I did not have to "suspend my disbelief".  He discreetly suspended it for me and I enjoyed myself.

ISBN: 9780340951392

'Perdido Street Station' by China Mieville

I have never showered so often during the reading of a book  It was rather like reading 'Chocolat' and needing chocolates beside me.  This man loves dirt and the underside of just about anything.  He is not only interested in garbage but he likes to turn over the bin and see what is crawling underneath.  The dirt is detailed, the horror is detailed, the dirty sheets are detailed.  He describes a truly decadent city.  You feel dirty reading this book.  I am surprised and pleased with how so much slime can beautifully discuss heavy topics.

The story itself is simple.  A family of monsters are unintentionally set lose on this dirty city.  Any monster that can terrorize this city is a monster of the first class.  The most fundamental topic is freedom of choice, even if all the choices are bad.  Are promises important?  Is betrayal necessary?  Of course, the story also contains courage, cowardice and pragmatism.  Even triumph is full of fear and misunderstanding.  The author constantly changes our perspective both physically and morally.  The bird's eye views of the city and its characters are as amazing and disgusting as the street view.  The air itself becomes soiled not just by smog, but by our own evil.

As a reader you want a happily ever after, but the characters themselves never expected one.  I always hold my breath while I read Mieville's books.  As I close the books it feels like I have been running.  This book is a marathon.  China Mieville has a lot of patience with the reader.  I know it sounds weird, but it feels like he has compassion for our desire. Life and books do not have perfect endings.

China Mieville
ISBN: 9780330534239
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15 October 2011

'The Monsters & the Critics & Other Essays' by J. R. R. Tolkien

"Cool look at Tolkien's interests and passions as an academic; where his curiosity lay?"

My favorite lecture is 'Fairies and Elves' followed by the one about invented languages.  The lectures themselves were entertaining especially when he spoke about himself.

Amongst the lectures Tolkien discusses fatherhood and what to read to your children.  Amazing view!  A man so blind to women was quite able to view children as intelligent humans, whole beings with views and tastes; in one word, discernment.  I was surprised that his views on children’s intelligence and curiosity were so open and positive, since his view of women in his body of work often lacked depth.  Women were not worth exploring beyond their God given role?  That is, passive and platonic.

I am a fan of Tolkien's fiction and I read this book as an introduction to Tolkien, the academic.  I was not disappointed.

J.R.R. Tolkien
ISBN: 9780261102637
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