Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

When I started my goal to read 40-50 books in 2012, I found that the majority of the books I started reading early in the year were written by non-American authors.  I seemed to be on a World Literature kick, if you will.  As I review my list of completed readings, I have discovered that the last six books I have read were written by American authors.  The sixth, and latest, book I have read is the John Steinbeck class, The Pearl.  A shorter novel, The Pearl is nonetheless a powerful novel that speaks to all readers of all generations in all cultures.

Unlike many of his other books, The Pearl is not a period piece in the classic Steinbeck fashion.  While the main character is poor, just like many of Steinbeck's protagonists, he is not poor because of the Great Depression or any other life catastrophe.  Kino is poor because his people are oppressed and that is the way it has always been for him.  A Native American, Kino and his family are often times cheated and taken advantage of by the white men who run the town.

Kino's troubles seem to be over when he finds the largest pearl ever discovered.  For a moment, it seems that all the good things that Kino and his wife, Juana, thought were impossible all of sudden came within their grasp.  However, with the hope and joy that comes with unanticipated wealth also comes evil and jealousy.  While Kino dreams of providing for Juana and their son, Coyotito, others plot how to steal his happiness from him.

The beautiful thing about The Pearl is that the Pearl of the World can be a symbol for any goal, any dream, or any ambition that any person might have.  A dream can be desirable up until the moment it is realized; after that, well, one must face the bad along with the good.  The pursuit of the dream can bring more trials than one realizes at first, and things more precious than the dream can be lost.  Kino learns this lesson the hard way, and the reader cannot help but feel an unsatisfying connection to him; unsatisfying because the reader identifies his own weaknesses in Kino.  The differences are not subtle, they are like flares firing into the sky on a clear, dark night.

It is because of this connection that the reader must keep reading Steinbeck's parable; it is so easy to identify with Kino that one must find out if he is going to realize his hopes and ambitions.  The reader pulls so hard for Kino because he feels that if Kino is able to succeed despite his weaknesses, then the reader will be able to also.

That is, however, not possible.  As Steinbeck so plainly shows us, one needs to realize personal weakness before success is possible.  Facing weaknesses in yourself leads to growth, and growth is what will lead to success.  There can be no shortcuts, even if the shortcuts seem sent by heaven.

Steinbeck's prose is brilliantly simple, in that it is complex yet easy to read.  It is complicated, but easy to understand.  Parents can read this story to their children and they will be able to understand.  This facet, this talent that is presented in all of Steinbeck's novels leave no doubt as to his place among the great American writers.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book Review: The Great Gatzby

My resolution to read 40-50 books in this calendar year led me to read a book that, frankly, I should have read a couple years ago, The Great Gatzby.  An American classic, the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the most famous literary works written in the twentieth century and is required reading in numerous high school and college literary classes.  Due to this, a wide variety of papers, articles, and criticism has been written about this book, and I am sure that anything I have to add will be nothing more than redundant rambling to anyone who has studied it in depth.  However, as many people have not read the book and as I cannot but help give my opinions and criticisms, here I am giving my two cents.

The Great Gatzby is a novel about Nick Carraway, who, trying to make a name for himself in New York, meets and becomes well acquainted with Jay Gatzby, a mysterious multimillionaire with a secretive past.  Gatzby is known for throwing wild parties at his mansion, parties that start on Friday nights and go until Sunday morning.  This is, of course, contrary to what is expected of people who are of such means as Gatzby, and most of New York's elite scoff at him publicly (although they secretly enjoy attending his parties).  Among other things, Fitzgerald's novel is a harsh criticism of America's upper class in the 1920's, evident by the distaste Carraway (the narrator) has for most of the people he meets through his adventures with Gatzby.  Fitzgerald does such a brilliant job at showing the absolute worst personality traits of the rich (snobbery, self-contempt, superiority, etc.) that the reader at times also feels the same disdain.

Perhaps the most famous and, therefore, most over-taught themes of The Great Gatzby is the theme of colors.  Fitzgerald's use of colors to describe lights, nature, clothes, and various everyday objects symbolize various virtues, vices, and other subtle themes.  As noted, this is a subject that, I feel, is so overly touched upon that I can add no original thoughts to it, so I will not.  If this is a topic that interests you, it would be worth your time to look into some scholarly literary journals for articles and papers that are dedicated to it.

The theme that I think is the main idea of the novel is the idea that one cannot recreate the past, and that once one realizes it, one can either give up on life altogether or make the best of the situation.  Throughout the book, Gatzby is trying to revisit and rekindle his romance with his beloved Daisy (Nick Carraway's second cousin, twice removed), whom he had fallen in love with right before he had to leave and fight in World War I.  While he was gone, Daisy married Tom Buchanan, a burly member of her high society who epitomizes everything Fitzgerald feels is wrong with the upper class.  When Gatzby is unable to relive the same feelings he felt years before, and is unable to make her feel them as well, he basically gives up on achieving any happiness in life.  As it turns out, Gatzby spent so much time living in the past that he was unable to sustain any real friendships, and no one shows up for his funeral except his father and Carraway.

The Great Gatzby is truly one of the great American novels and will continue to be studied and read for many years to come.  One reason for this, in addition to all of the literary themes, is that the author's own life was very similar to those of his characters.  It would be well worth one's time to research and draw comparisons between events in the book with events in Fitzgerald's life.  In any case, it is a great culture piece as it depicts what life was like in the American 1920's, an age many find intriguing.  It is a short novel, easily read in two or three days; it is, however, full of subtle messages that take much longer to comprehend and understand.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Book Review: Calico Joe by John Grisham

For those of you that know me, and I mean really know me, when asked if you knew who my favorite author was, you say something like: "pssh... that John Grisham guy."  You would, no doubt, have a tinge of exasperation in your voice as you have more than likely heard me recommend his books to you on countless occasions.  Sadly, however, many of you have not taken my advice to read his books and experience the brilliance with which he tells his stories.  Perhaps it was because you do not like crime or lawyer type books, and that is not a terrible position to have.  However, Grisham has now released Calico Joe, a novel that involves baseball, family, and forgiveness.  If you could not identify with any of my recommendations before, believe me that if you are interested in or have a passion for any of those three topics just mentioned, you will adore this book.

Calico Joe is the story of a boy, Paul Tracey, the son of fictional New York Mets pitcher Warren Tracey, a below average, mean-spirited, child-beating drunk who happens to have enough raw talent to make a major league roster.  As most 11 year-old boys do, Paul idolizes the best players in the game of baseball.  In 1973, when the book takes place, these players include Willie Mays, Catfish Hunter, Tom Seaver, and Hank Aaron.  All of a sudden, a Chicago Cub first baseman named Joe Castle is brought up mid-season and starts breaking all kinds of records.  Joe, who is from Calico, Arkansas, becomes young Paul's new hero.  When Warren Tracey and Joe Castle finally meet in a game, something happens that will change the lives of both men and that of young Paul Tracey.

Compared to his other novels, Calico Joe is relatively short, a little less than 200 pages.  However, while the book is roughly half the length of his usual work, Grisham is able to convey twice the amount of emotion and internal conflict than in any of his previous work.  Perhaps it is because readers can relate more to baseball, broken families, and crushed dreams better than they can a young lawyer who is caught up in a multi-million dollar conspiracy, but there is just something about Calico Joe that I feel speaks to every individual person, whether they are a baseball fan or not.

The book is formatted so that it is told from both the first and third person points of view.  Paul Tracey recalls what happens on that fateful summer day in 1973 as he deals with his father's approaching death and the feelings (or lack there of) that he experiences as a result.  The experience of the reader, then, is a phenomena of reading a sort of story within a story as they anxiously await knowledge of both what has happened and what will happen.  Right from the onset, the reader is aware that something awful is going to, or rather, has already happened.  One story has already happened and is being revealed to the reader at the narrator's discretion; the other unfolds in "real time" and the reader finds out what happens along with the characters.  It appears to be so simple when presented on the page, but quite brilliant when one sits down and thinks about it.

The aspect of the book that I found most impressive was the degree to which I felt Paul's hatred and anger towards his father right along with him.  It is not difficult, I suppose, for a reader to dislike or hate a character who is cruel, abusive, and downright mean.  However, Grisham tells his story in such a way that I felt that Warren had not only hurt Paul, but also me... personally.  The deep, unforgiving execration Paul felt towards his father is something I found myself feeling as well.  No book has provided me with that kind of experience, feeling along with a character as if I was the character.

Why might this be?  Perhaps it is because baseball season is just started and I am feeling nostalgic about the many happy memories I have watching, playing and cheering with my own dad, while Warren completely ruins the game for his son.  To me, baseball is one of the staples of my childhood, something that I don't remember not liking or playing.  To see a father take what is, in a word, sacred to me and my memories of my dad and ruin it for his son offends me to an astounding degree.  It takes a special storyteller to provoke such connections, and Grisham does this for anyone who has baseball memories with his/her parent.

This book was released to the public today and I finished it in roughly three hours.  It is not a long and complicated read; it is not simple either.  I am sure people who have had poor relationships with their fathers may find this a hard book to read.  However, the story is easy to follow and beautifully told, showing once again why John Grisham is the best storyteller in America.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Movie Review: Hugo

Even though the Academy Awards have come and gone, I still have a lot of the nominated movies to watch before I can render opinions as to whether or not the academy got it right (note: it is likely that they didn't because they never really do; Hollywood is so political it picks the "best" movies and actors about as well as Obama's administration balances a checkbook).  This process will take a long time as there were dozens of movies nominated, and to be honest I have no desire to see some of them.  However, I do intend to see all of the movies nominated for Best Picture and all the movies in which the actors and actresses who received nominations for their performances.

Going into the ceremony, I had only seen of the nominations for Best Picture The Artist (which won the award) and Midnight in Paris.  The movie that intrigued me the most of all the others that I had not seen was HugoHugo is the story of a orphaned boy living in a Paris train station who is trying to fix a complex machine he and his father had begun to repair before his father was killed in a fire.  Throughout the movie, Hugo is challenged to find his purpose in life and is lead to help other people he encounters to find theirs as well.

As a huge Scorsese fan, I held high expectations for the movie; however, I also reserved some doubt due to the fact that it is a much different kind of movie than any the director has ever taken part of prior.  As I watched Hugo, I witnessed the brilliance and genius of Scorsese manifest itself once again in the way that his characters not only told a story, but made the viewer contemplate the deeper, underlying messages of the movie.  It takes a special director to both entertain and challenge audiences, and Scorsese once again showed why he should be considered one of the best directors of all time in his depiction of Hugo.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Hugo is the intense graphics, visuals, and effects the movie contains.  Not surprisingly, of the five Oscars that the movie won, three of them had to do with visuals and camera work (Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects; the other two were for sound: Sound Editing and Sound Mixing).  Scorsese, who is always willing to try something new with the camera, employed various camera tricks and ploys that made scenes more exciting and real to the viewer.  In a movie that examines and praises all that is good about movies, Hugo especially emphasizes the wonders that good camera work can bring to a film.

What I enjoyed most about Hugo, as I do in all of Scorsese's movies, is the underlying theme/message that the director is trying to convey to his audience.  It is well known that Scorsese does not do a movie that he doesn't feel is important or shares a thought-provoking message.  In Hugo, Scorsese takes on the question of purpose and whether or not each person has a purpose in this world.  The scene in which Hugo compares the world to a machine and explains that no machine has extra parts that it doesn't need, and therefore there are no extra people who serve no purpose, is perhaps one of the deepest scenes ever to involve a child actor.  It was absolutely brilliant.

The main question now is whether or not I think that Hugo should have won the Best Picture award over The Artist.  The answer to that question is a difficult one to reach.  However, as much as I enjoyed Hugo and look forward to watching it over and over again, I must admit that I agree that the academy was correct in awarding it to The Artist over Hugo (whether it deserves it over all of the others is yet to be determined).  That being said, I do think Scorsese was passed over once again for Best Director (this is a stance that might also change once I see more of the nominated movies).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games trilogy is one of the most entertaining and brilliant series of books that I have ever read.  When the movie was announced, I was both excited and skeptical at the same time.  Excited because I could not wait to see certain events and objects portrayed on the big screen; skeptical because Hollywood has a tendency to change many aspects of a book's plot and enrage anyone who has read the book before seeing the movie.  After seeing the movie, both my excitement and skepticism were confirmed.  The movie was nowhere close to being as entertaining as the book, nor (I think) could it.

Do not get me wrong, as far as a movie goes, The Hunger Games was entertaining enough.  I think the movie makers did an exceptional job dulling down the violence (as much as is possible in a post apocalyptic world in which 24 children fight to the death) while getting the point across that this is an incredibly violent society.  However, while it was entertaining enough, there were so many parts of the games that were left out of the movie that I felt made the book as entertaining as it was.  The movie, like almost all movies based off of books, was inferior to the book because it eliminated so many aspects that made the book's plot famous.  I don't understand why they change these things, since it is these things that helped the book so popular that they could make it into a movie.

The casualties of the movie version were not limited to just parts of the plot.  Characters who played a significant role in the first Hunger Games book (and, furthermore, are of more importance in the later books) were not present in this movie or had their roles reduced to those of nonspeaking parts or insignificant cameo appearances.  For example, in the book Katniss receives her mockingjay pin from Madge, the mayor's daughter, after she is volunteers for the games.  This is an important component of her own character development and feelings in the later books.  In the movie, Madge does not even make an appearance; instead, Katniss gets the pin for her sister at the Hob (a kind of black market) and her sister gives it back to her when she leaves.  Another example is that of her prep team, who are obnoxious to her at first in the book, but become very important parts of her resistance in the second and third books.  When the next two movies are released, I will be very interested to see how they remedy the decision to diminish their parts in this first movie.

I do, however, realize that some things needed to be cut.  The movie is almost two and a half hours long as is and including everything would be near impossible (although they could pull a Twilight/Harry Potter deal and divide each book into two movies, but that of course is probably out of the realm of possibilities).  A few things that they did not cut that I found to be striking in the movie were the costumes that Cinna, Katniss and Peeta's stylist, designed for them.  While the computer animation of these costumes was painfully obvious, I enjoyed seeing the effects on the big screen because my limited imagination had a hard time picturing them while I read the book.

Perhaps the greatest part of the movie was the character development, an aspect of the book that I feel is its greatest quality as well.  This is sometimes hard to portray in a movie because it requires incredible talent on the part of the actors to bring it out.  Very rarely do I see a movie like The Hunger Games and feel like there is no weak actor in the cast.  There was absolutely no weakness in the actors of The Hunger Games; I felt that it was quite possibly the strongest cast they could have assembled for this movie.  While there are not many big-name actors (Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson are the biggest names in the cast), the young actors in the cast create  believable and stunning depictions of Suzanne Collins's characters.

Overall, I give the movie a 6.5/10.  I cannot overlook things that I feel are vital to the overall plot of the trilogy that were left out.  However, the action was solid and the character development was strong.  I certainly would watch the movie again, but the book is so much better than the movie and I will not be able to watch the movie without constantly critiquing and comparing it to the book.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Review: Mockingjay

So rarely is there any trilogy in which the books get better as the series goes on.  Usually trilogies tend to become boring, redundant, and drawn out past the point of being able to detect any trace of entertainment.  That being said, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy is one of the most entertaining trilogies I have ever read.  Not only did it keep me up at night, turning page after page because I could not rest until my inquiries were resolved, it also made me ponder social issues, political beliefs, and the concept of human morality.

All of these themes come to a head in Mockingjay, the third book of the trilogy.  The rebellion has begun, Katniss is being asked to be the rebels' symbol, Peeta has been captured by the capitol, and the reader is led on a winding and twisting adventure of a young person coming to understand who she is and what is really most important in life.  This is a struggle that everyone can identify with on some level, although not everyone (hopefully) has gone through what Katniss has faced.

Admittedly, I did not like Katniss for 99% of the trilogy.  I have always thought she was a brilliant character in that her personality and development are masterfully portrayed throughout the series.  However, I always found her to be selfish, cold, distant, and cruel.  She, of course, has been through a great deal of tribulation, but I could not help but dislike her because she could not admit her flaws to herself.  It was always her against the world, a world that included everyone from the government to her own family at times.  In Mockingjay, she finally is able to admit that she needs help from others, that she has hurt people in ways that she never thought possible, and that she needs to change.  I feel like I could finally like her at the end.

The plot of this third book is not much different than the others.  There is no Hunger Games, but Collins portrays the war as a Hunger Games in and of itself.  The result is a fairly humanitarian view of war.  Mockingjay is also anti-Machiavellian, in that Collins makes it clear that she does not believe that the end justifies the means.  She also portrays the horrors and psychological affects of war in such masterful reality that the reader cannot help but feel sorry for anyone who has had to be in war.

I could go on forever about the positive aspects of this book, the depth of the characters, and the complexity of the themes.  However, such a post would turn out to be another book in and of itself.   

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review: Catching Fire

Last year, my literary world literally exploded when I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  I had not read a book that was so gripping, violent (yet not gory), disturbing (but not overly), and complicated all at the same time.  One might ask, "What's so complicated?  She takes her sister's place, the boy falls in love with her, kids kill kids, and she defies the government."  This is all true, but Collins captures a depth, a complexity in the character of Katniss Everdene that is rarely achieved by any author, ever.  In the first book, the reader was intrigued and drawn into Katniss's struggle.  Not only her struggle for survival, but for identity.  Due to the horrible situation that she is in, it is easy to forget that she is only a 16 year old girl (in the first book); she is still trying to find out who she really is.  As the second book, Catching Fire, begins, the reader is led further down the path she is traveling towards adulthood and maturity.

That being said, I HATE Katniss Everdene!  Let me explain: I do not hate her existence and I do not hate that she is the way she is.  In order for this series to be as entertaining as it is, Katniss must enrage the reader (or cause the reader to sympathize with her).  I am sure more female readers who are attracted to or can identify with the choices Katniss must make between two boys that she has feelings for will be more apt to sympathize with her.  But as a male, I cannot help but detest her.  I think she is selfish, rash, uncaring, and too impulsive. 

I realize, of course, that she is going through a difficult situation that I cannot by any means identify with; I have never been the face of a national rebellion nor have I had to fight to death.  Such a situation would certainly have psychological effects on a person, and while Collins does not mention them specifically, she portrays them in the character of Katniss (and the other tributes) masterfully.

Why then do I hate her?  I cannot help but feel that any friend she has, any selfless action she does, or any action left undone has an ulterior, selfish motive.  When she has to choose which boy to be with (and she will have to make that choice), she cannot choose and plays both of them like a set of fiddles.  Again, I know the circumstances; I know she did not choose for one of them to come into her life.  But he did, and she reciprocated his feelings, made him believe she loved him too.

Catching Fire is engrossing, entertaining, and simply a master piece.  All of these emotions the reader has about the characters are extended and built upon in the second book.  This is not a one chapter a day book; this is a "I must finish this book in at least two days or I will not be able to live on" books.

I realize I spent a lot of time on Katniss, and even though I don't like her, I love the fact the she exists in literature.  I am looking forward to finishing the trilogy so that I can better and more completely understand her.  When I do, watch out for the blog/essay that compares Katniss Everdene with Lisabeth Salander.

Book Review: Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

There are few books that I have read that have literally changed my life, Mere Christianity and the Bible being two of them.  I now have another book to add to that list: Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller.  Keller, who is a Presbyterian minister, has an extensive philosophy background presents evidence and common sense observations for the existence and supremacy of God.  In my opinion, this is the best Christian defense written since C.S. published Mere Christianity.

It is probably not a coincidence, then, that Keller quotes Lewis's works extensively.  However, before you start to think that he only quotes Christian writers and pastors, you may be interested to know that the person Keller quotes the most is renowned atheist and theoretical physicist Richard Dawkins.  This is because the first half of the book is spent respectfully rebutting common misconceptions and issues people have about Christianity.  As a pastor in Manhattan, Keller has incredible experience ministering to skeptics and understands their doubts, as he confesses he also had the same doubts as a young college student.  Skeptics of Christianity will find Keller enraging, not because he is disrespectful to their argument (he is actually sympathetic and understanding), but because he challenges their worldview.

Christians will feel the same way.  No one likes being corrected or shown that there are flaws in their worldview, but Keller challenges all people, Christians and skeptics alike, to really examine their beliefs for what their foundations are.  Do you believe what you believe because you were raised that way?  Is your lack of belief the result of a horrid experience?  What is at the core of your foundation?  Reading the book exposes the reader to himself.  I found myself finding flaws in my own thinking with every turn of the page, not that what Keller writes is pure gospel, but that he is right.  He backs up his claims with Scripture as well as with writings from famous philosophers and writers, people respected by Christians and non-Christians alike. 

The biggest difference between Keller and other Christian philosophers like C.S. Lewis is that Keller writes in language that the everyday person can understand.  Lewis was a product of an intellectual family and prestigious education, and as such his writings, while beautifully written, contain language that the average person does not understand.  Keller, on the other hand, is the product of an average American upbringing and ministers to a diverse Manhattan population with a diverse range of educational levels.  Keller's book, as a result, is a work that all people regardless of education or religious background will be able to understand.

The most comforting thing about this book is that Keller points out that it is okay to have doubts; he even points to instances in the Bible where people doubted God's presence and power, and how God helped them through their doubts.  As a life-long Christian, I often felt guilty about doubts that creep into my heart; but as Keller points out, doubt is a wonderful opportunity to increase faith as long as you look for the answer to your doubts.  Doubts left unchecked destroy faith; doubts that lead to the discovery of correct answers can increase faith.

No matter where you are in your spiritual life, whether it be devout and faithful or faithless and skeptical, this book will be a challenge to your opinions.  It is not a bad challenge, though, because it works in you to understand your beliefs, whether you believe in God or not.  Keller presents his point of view much better than I can summarize it, so I highly encourage you to read this book.  It will change your life.  Guarantee it.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Movies You Can't Not Watch

This morning as I was driving to work, the radio host brought up an interesting topic.  He had a list of 10 movies that a blogger claimed no man could see was on television and not watch.  Some of this guy's choices were excellent and true, such as The Godfather.  However, some of them were really dumb; what guy puts Gone With The Wind on his list of top 10 movies that he must watch if he sees it is on?!  He might as well put Pretty in Pink or Pretty Woman on his list.  He did have The Breakfast Club and while it is a good movie, I wouldn't call it a "guy's" movie and certainly not one that any man should stop channel surfing and watch.  A few callers chimed in a listed some alternative to put on the list; of course, I think I know better than all of them and made my own list.  Before you read it, let me say that there were some tough cuts and there will be an honorable mention list given as well.  These are not in any particular order, so don't think I'm saying that the #1 movie is better than #10, although it very well may be.  However, that is not the point.  So without any further ranting and needless build-up, here is my list of the top 10 movies any guy should stop and watch if he sees it on television:

1. Dirty Harry- If you turn the channel when you see this movie on, Clint Eastwood is going to show up at your house with a .44 and make your day.  Sure the special effects are old and the graphics leave a lot to be desired, but all that is overshadowed by the screen presence of Eastwood's tough, mean San Fransisco cop.  While we're on this subject, if you happen to see of the sequels on television, watch those too.

2. Field of Dreams- I think the show How I Met Your Mother made it perfectly clear that all men must watch this movie (in the episode where Robin calls it a stupid movie and all the guys get offended).  No, it's not an action movie.  Yes, it has a touching plot.  But you cannot be a man and not have some kind of attachment to this movie.  If you don't feel you do, then get your purse and go get your mammogram.

3. Blazing Saddles- There is only one reason to change the channel if this movie comes on: if it is an edited version.  Most t.v. versions of this movie leave out the classic bean/fart scene.  Stupid humor, perhaps; but that doesn't change the fact that it is funny every single time.  If it comes on and it is not edited, you better not change the channel or I will question the presence of your schnitzingruben.

4. Saving Private Ryan- I know it's long and I know television editors will take a lot of the gore out; but it is still one of the best movies ever and amazingly depicts the bond that can form between men who fight side by side.  Don't make Tom Hanks journey for days, killing Nazis, to find you and make you watch the movie.  He won't be happy and Vin Diesel's character can only die once (unfortunately).

5. The Godfather- The blogger hit the nail on the head here.  What isn't there to like about his movie?  It's got everything a guy could possibly want in a movie.  In addition, it has just about everything any movie lover would want.  Good acting, good plot, and plenty of twists and turns.  What would be even better is if you got the second one on right after it.  Yes, it would take all day to watch, but if you don't you might find a horse head in bed with you when you wake up.

6. Unforgiven- Yes, another Clint Eastwood movie.  It's not my fault he made a ton of movies that appeal to guys and that they happen to be good movies overall.  This one has the Best Picture Oscar to prove it (it's 1 of 3 Westerns to win best picture).  Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, and Richard Harris; need I say more?  Four of the best men's men who ever acted in a movie put together into one production, and you have yourself a classic.  Don't make Eastwood come out of retirement to blow your head off for not watching, this movie shows he's capable of it.

7. Shawshank Redemption- Whether any guy will admit it or not, we all think about busting out of prison even if we are not in prison.  For whatever reason it is just something that every guy would like to do sometime (without committing the crime to get himself into prison; and not have to go through the part with the Sisters).  I know there's no graphic violence and no women, but they are not needed to make this movie awesome. 

8. The Outlaw Josey Wales- Okay, I know; this is the third Eastwood movie on here.  But like I said, the guy makes good movies.  I have easily seen this movie 30 times in my life.  Yes, it is long, but it is a phenomenally good movie.  Not only that, but the kid that rides with him at the beginning looks like a young Larry Bird.

9. Ocean's 11- I know that the new one is pretty good, but the one I'm referencing here is the original.  You know, the one with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and the rest of the rat pack.  No list of guy's movies would be complete without the Rat Pack.  This is back when it was cool for guys to sing and dance.  There are no cool spy/master criminal effects, but it is retro Hollywood and takes us back to when men were much more cooler than they are today.

10. The 3 Stooges- They just don't make comedies like they used to, and the Stooges are by far and away funnier than anything today.  If you are in a room with guys when any of the Stooges' shorts come on and you change the channel, I hope they go all Moe and Larry on you. 

Honorable Mention: Rocky (only the first one); Pulp Fiction; Young Frankenstein; The Matrix (again, only the first one); The Departed (it pained me to not put it in the top 10); Happy Gilmore; Caddyshack; Raiders of the Lost Ark

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Horents' Nest

Trilogies.  We are all familiar with them.  We love them, but there is a consistent fact that is true for most trilogies we entertain ourselves with: the first and third installments are favored while the second installment is less popular and, seemingly, of a lesser quality.  Take Star Wars for example: A New Hope, a classic; Empire Strikes Back, not so good; Return of the Jedi, return to greatness.  The same can be said of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Steig Larson.  The first book was phenomonenal and is now a major motion picture in which Rooney Mara who plays Lisbeth Salander is up for Best Actress in a Leading Role.  You can read my review of that book here.  The second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, was also entertaining, but in my opinion was a far cry from what made the first installment a success.  It dragged in many places and while the end was exciting, it took the reader a while to get into it.  I personally felt that there was too much needless sex scenes in it was well.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it and you can read my review of that book here.  After reading the second book, I was a little skeptical of the third.  True, I did enjoy the second book; but the decline in the quality of the story telling was obvious and I feared a further decline in the third installment.  However, the second book ended with such a cliffhanger that I just HAD to read the last book, and am I ever glad that I did!

The best thing about the second installment in any trilogy is that it sets up the third installment for great success.  After reading The Girl Who Played With Fire, I was so excited to find out how the story would be resolved.  There were so many loose ends, so may questions to be answered, and The Girl Who Kick the Hornets' Nest fulfilled all wants and expectations.  I remember being totally engrossed in the first book; I started it while on vacation and was able to finish it in about two weeks.  While it is still my favorite book in this series, this most recent book captured me from the moment I opened the cover.  Events from the first two books were explained, connections between characters were made and further developed, and before I knew I it I had finished the book in four days time.

Lisbeth Salander continues to be one of the best heroines in modern fiction.  Larson's development of her character throughout his trilogy is nothing short of masterful.  Salander is a social misfit, the result of a lifetime of physical abuse and government conspiracy against her.  This final book is the culmination of her sociability and she begins to let more and more people into her life.  Reading the books is kind of like watching a person who has had no human contact throughout their life be suddenly shoved into the middle of New York City.  That person would not know how to act towards others, would not trust others, and would proceed with caution at every turn with every new face.  The same is true of Lisbeth Salander.  At the beginning of the series, she would talk to no one, cared for no one except her mother, and had no close friends.  At the end of this third book, she holds onto some of her previous antisocial habits, but is more accepting and more trusting of the people who say they want to help her and call her a friend.  The transformation is mind-blowing.

The story itself in the third book is very different from the stories portrayed in the previous two.  The first book was a psychological crime thriller and the second was a slow moving detective novel.  This third book is a crime drama, a courtroom novel with many scenes one would expect to find on an episode of Matlock or portrayed in a John Grisham novel.  The author obviously did a great deal of research in order to make each of his books different, and the result is incredible.  While there were fewer action scenes in this book than in the previous two, the drama was so captivating, the conspiracies so enthralling that it did not matter if nothing seemed to be going on that was of any importance.  Deep down, the reader will know that something is going to happen, something that will blow the story wide open and every turn of the page has the capability of revealing that secret.

The pace of the novel is just right.  The only time I felt it slow down a little too much was during one of the courtroom scenes.  However, as I mentioned before, I just knew that something in that courtroom was going to answer every question and address every fear I had for Salander.  That strong emotion that any reader will find is easy to build with Salander will keep the reader captivated, unable to put the book down for any long period of time.

Unlike the first two books, it did not take long to really get into the meat of this plot.  My criticism of the first two books is mainly that it takes so long for the story to really get going.  Hornets' Nest, though, grabs the reader from the very beginning.  Part of this is due to the fact that Larson does such a great job of leaving the reader hanging at the end of the second book.  The reader is not sure how things will be resolved and the resolution begins from the very beginning.  New problems also arise throughout this book and are woven into previous issues and make sense of so many unsolved mysteries and questions.

Summer will be here in less than four months, and that is a time where many people pick up books that have been sitting around because they now have time to read them.  I could not recommend this trilogy any stronger than I do.  It is captivating, emotional, and entertaining.  There are a great deal of disturbing scenes, and that is a turn-off to many readers.  Do not read these books expecting a love story or classic happy ending.  They are dark; but if you do not mind dark novels, these will certainly become some of your favorites.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why Research the History of Church vs. State?

I have begun my research process into the history of the relationship between religion and government.  While I have been unable to examine any sources yet due to a busy work schedule, I have been able to write a reason for research.  This is what I have thus far; more will be added especially when I am able to go through some sources.  Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.

            There is a great deal of history that modern historians do not know about prehistoric and ancient civilizations.  Cultural characteristics such as language, social morality, economic structure, and education systems are in many cases lost to the passing of time, never to be discovered until this world ends.  However, there are two basic features of all civilizations that can be found in almost every people, tribe, and nation that modern archeologists and historians have discovered: religion and government.  Sometimes it is impossible to determine the exact practices or identities of these two cultural main-stays, but it would not be false to say that some kind of religion and some form of government are present in every civilization, great or small, significant or insignificant, that has ever existed.
            Due to this truth that every people practiced some religion and was governed by some structure of government, it would also be true that religion and government have played an extremely vital role in shaping the history of the world as we know it.  One needs only to look at the influence of the Roman Empire on the regions it conquered, or the Roman Catholic Church on the countries of Europe during the Middle Ages, or the teachings of Islam on Muslim governments both past and present.  Religion and government have affected the lives of people from the beginning of time, and since they have both been in existence for as long as human records can show, it can also be argued that there has been a relationship between the two.
            This relationship has come under close observation in the United States in recent months.  The recent legislation of the Obama administration that would require the Roman Catholic Church in America to provide contraception (a practice that the Church believes to be immoral) free of charge to its employees under their insurance plans has caused many Americans to reevaluate the true meaning of their culture’s beliefs concerning the relationship of Church and State.  In America, the official relationship is one of separation: Church cannot influence government and government cannot influence the Church.  This is not an original stance that a civilization has taken: there are many instances of (and reasons for) the separation of religion and government. 
            The question that many people today are unable to answer is to why their culture implements the relationship between religion and government that they do.  The answer, of course, is found in the pages of history.  Each individual modern country is able to decide for itself what relationship religion and government should have within its borders.  The reasons for each country’s decision are based on various historical events, philosophies, and beliefs.  Whether everyday citizens realize it or not, the current relationship between religion and various governments is a result of a long conflict that has been in existence since time began.  This conflict at times was minuscule, but at other times incredibly controversial.  It is the times in which there was intense controversy between religion and government that our modern view of what the relationship should be was brought into being.
            This is why the understanding of the history between the relationship between religion and government is so vital.  How can one be expected to truly appreciate and understand their beliefs if they do not know the origin of sad beliefs?  It is important to note also that when religion is mention, it includes more than just the Christian Church.  When the relationship between religion and government is mentioned, many automatically assume that Christianity is the religion in question.  In order to understand the full magnitude of the present, global conflict between the two entities, it is important to also analyze the relationship between government and other religions, such as Judaism and Islam.  If the Western world allows its view of the history of this conflict to be narrowed, blinded even, by its own experiences and nothing else, an incomplete understanding will be the result; and if an understanding is incomplete it might as well be entirely wrong  because nothing can truly be partially right or wrong.  It must be one or the other.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist

It's that time of year again: Oscar Season!  In precisely one week from the very moment millions of Americans will be sitting down in front of their television sets to see what movies and what actors will walk away with the most coveted awards in the entertainment industry.  2011 was a good year for movies, and one does not have to look farther for evidence thereof than looking at this years nominees.  One of the titles America will hear not once, not twice, but TEN times next week is a movie simply called The Artist.  Due to its high number of nominations, I just had to go and see it before the Academy Awards, and it certainly lived up to expectations.

In an era of high technology and intense special effects, it is extraordinarily rare that a movie such as The Artist receives the kind of acclamation that it has thus far.  You see, The Artist is quite simply an artful movie, a throwback to the days of silent films and family-friendly entertainment.  There is no bloody fight scene, no scandalous or controversial sex scene, and the worst word used that the audience could hear/read was "damn."  In fact, although the audience could see the brilliant chemistry and love story building between the two main characters, there wasn't even a kiss!  Any other movie today with such "lack of interesting content" would be either cast aside as an overly conservative push to bring morality back to Hollywood or a cute children's movie (which today contain much more unpleasant material than The Artist; and that says an extreme amount about the decline of moral standards in America, but that is a separate issue).

What was there not to love about this movie?  Well, if you like talking there is a lot not to love.  It's a silent movie.  Do not be like the fools in Europe who went to see it and demanded their money back because "they couldn't hear the dialogue over the music."  If you can get past the lack of voice dialogue and submit yourself to a retro attitude towards movie-watching, then there is nothing that you won't love.  While sitting in the audience, I realized that I was watching a recreation of what made Hollywood great, of what actors used to be capable of (it's a helluva lot more than today's actors), and why Americans have gone too see movies for nearly 100 years.

Due to the fact that it is a silent film, the actors were required to do much more facial and physical acting than they normally do.  Sound and voice can add a great deal to a character, but when that is unavailable actors must make up for it in other ways.  There are a select few actors out there than can do this, but the majority of actors today rely on physical appearance or their voices to help create their characters.  In The Artist, the actors displayed perfectly their characters' feelings, emotions, and even thoughts without the audience being able to hear them.  This is no small feat, making Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo most deserving of their nominations as Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role respectively.

Also due to the fact that it is a silent film (and in black and white), there needed to be great cinematography and directing in order to make The Artist a success.  The camera work and transitions between scenes were superb throwbacks to the way silent movies of the past used to be made.  It would have been easy for a modern movie-goer to become bored with the lack of special effects, but the camera work helped keep the attention of the audience and created a most entertaining production.  This is perhaps why nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Director are among the 10 Oscar nominations this movie has received.

The Artist has also been nominated for Best Picture, and it certainly deserves the nomination.  Whether it will win or not, or for that matter whether it should win or not, I cannot say because I have only seen one other movie that is up for Best Picture.  I can say, however, that it is one of the most original and creative movies that I have seen in a long time and that I do hope it does well.  I am of the opinion that Hollywood has become stuck in its ways and that there is not much originality being produced.  While The Artist is a throwback to an earlier film style, it is at least something different for today's generation of movie-watchers and there is something to be said for that. Hopefully this movie's success will influence movie makers to "return to the basics," as it were, to create a movie-going experience that is new and different for today's viewers.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: The Problem of Pain

C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, and also one of the great Christian apologists in the modern era, wrote The Problem of Pain in a time and place where nearly everyone around him was dealing with a considerable amount of pain (of some kind or another).  Lewis, writing in London as the Nazi bombs fell from the sky, makes an incredible stance in the defense of how pain and suffering do not disprove God, but rather are proof of Him.  The question of how a good God can allow for so many bad things to occur is one that was asked frequently during Lewis's life and, perhaps, more so (though less deservedly) today.

While I cannot claim to understand everything that Lewis was trying to convey to his readers (it may take several years and several re-reads for that to happen), I can say, with conviction, that The Problem of Pain is a great resource for any person (Christian or otherwise) who wonders why pain and suffering exist in a world that is ruled by a supposedly good God.  As mentioned above, Lewis takes the position that instead of being evidence against a good God or the goodness of God, pain and suffering are in fact evidences of a good God, so abounding in love that we cannot begin to understand the level of such a love.  As a former atheist, Lewis understands how unbelievers think because he himself used to think that way.  He uses his past beliefs to identify with non-Christians and his current beliefs to reach out to practicing Christians.

In order to grasp the basic thesis of the book, one would have to read it several times.  This is not a detriment to talent or presentation of the author, but rather a testament to the complexity of the subject.  As sinful human beings, it is incredibly hard to grasp the perfection of God, and because we cannot understand perfection we cannot understand how there can be a perfect being who allows imperfection to exist.  In so many words, Lewis answers this dilemma by pointing to God's love.  God created man with free will; He made man not to love Himself, but so that He could love them.  Because He loves man, He gave man free will.  With this free will came the option to not love God.  When Adam and Eve sinned, they chose not to love God.  This first sin marked the entrance of pain into the world.

I cannot begin to explain as well as Lewis the logic behind his arguments, but he basically argues that because of the goodness of God, because of his presence, we are also aware of the opposite of goodness; which is, of course, evil.  One cannot have good without evil or evil without good.  That is just the way it is.  If you are confused, I don't blame you; it is a very difficult question and a very difficult thing to understand.

What it all comes down to is faith.  As sinful beings, we cannot begin to grasp the knowledge of God or the motivations that guide His thoughts.  Faith, though, creates in us a trust that God knows what is best for us.  If this is not a good enough explanation, I strongly urge you to read The Problem of Pain.  C.S. Lewis is much more intelligent than I and can explain things in a way that I can only hope to be able to.  If it doesn't change your thinking, it will certainly make you think some more.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Getting Back Into History

I can only take so much Science before I can't take not immersing myself in History again.  Don't get me wrong, I love teaching and I actually am having fun teaching Science.  However, History is what I am passionate about and after spending 5 years of my life studying it on a high level, it is a hard subject to just drop.  Unfortunately, it does not seem like I will be able to teach History for a while; unfortunate because I miss it, not for any other reason.  Therefore, I have decided to undertake my own research project to keep my research skills sharp and my appetite for History fulfilled.

This post then, is a kind of research proposal.  The last research paper I wrote was about the development of chivalry during the Middle Ages.  This research project is going to be a little different.  For some time now I have been fascinated with the relationship between religion and government.  In America, we have a separation of church and state, which leads us to assume that religious thought has no impact of government policy and vise versa.  However, recently President Obama has made a law that will make Catholic medical groups (hospitals, clinics, health care providers) provide insurance for abortions, contraception, and other controversial practices part of their health insurance plans, even though they do not believe those practices to be morally acceptable.  This is an interesting development because most people are more weary of the church affecting government; here we are seeing the opposite.  Elsewhere in the world, Islamic governments enforce laws that are in line with fundamental Muslim beliefs.

The relationship between religion and government is as old as religion and government themselves.  I would like to take a look at how the relationship developed over time and how they affected each other.  I do not yet know what my thesis will be, but I am hoping that one will make itself known to me as I start my research.  I plan on taking a look at ancient governments and religions (including those in the Old Testament), the power struggle between the Catholic Church and European monarchs during the Middle Ages, the separation of church and state in America, and the relationship between Islam and the Middle Eastern governments.

The purpose of this was to get some of my thoughts out, and I have done so.  I realize I am all over the map on some ideas, but I have just begun thinking about it.  Look for a more organized proposal in the upcoming days/weeks.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Book Review: The Five Pearls

After spending the better part of the first month of 2012 reading classical literature and two certain Swedish books that have become popular as of late, I decided to read something different.  Unlike the previous books I have read this year, The Five Pearls was a.) American, b.) easy to understand, and c.) something I could relate to.  As a matter of fact, any teacher, or parent for that matter, would be able to identify with at least one of the characters in this book.  Furthermore, any young teenager who is searching for an identity would find hope in this book and, hopefully, a renewed sense of inspiration.

Barry James Hickey, a relatively new author who has worked as a screenwriter, tells the story of five young teenagers that society has given up on.  Amber is an expecting mother who refuses to tell anyone who the father is and lives in a half-way house of sorts for troubled young women.  Marie is a fun-loving (and boy-loving) young girl who flaunts her looks and acts promiscuous (but never really does anything all that bad; as she says, "nothing below the waste").  Julio is 20, overweight, has a huge chip on his shoulder, and likes to make everyone else feel bad; don't let him fool you though, he's a giant teddy bear way down deep.  Toby is ashamed; not of himself or anything he has done; his parents are deaf and no one can know about it.  It would make him uncool, or so he thinks.  Matt is a great athlete, but he can never join any teams because he's too busy babysitting his mom and step-dad's other three children... in their trailer.  Five different kids, five different broken homes; the only thing that they have in common is that they distrust authority, and all their authority figures give them no reason to trust them.  As a result, they ditch school, commit petty thefts, and find themselves on step away from a prison sentence.

Enter John "Battle," a man recently released from prison.  His crime: killing his wife and two of his children by driving them home drunk.  Only he and his infant daughter survived.  After 15 years and a brain cancer diagnosis, he is released from prison.  Having only a few months (if that) to live, he first sells one of his kidneys in Mexico to score some quick cash and makes his way back to Colorado to make things right.

The character of John Battle is an endearing one.  As a matured, dying man he has made peace with God and looks to make sure that his daughter will be provided for after he is gone.  He becomes the after school teach for the five troubled teens (nicknamed the Tadpoles) and he challenges them not to accept the verdict that society has handed down to them.  He tells them they are not tadpoles, but instead five pearls.  Pearls because they are not beautiful at first, but need to be polished and cut for many years before they can reach their full potential.

This book is certainly a must read for young adults and educators alike.  In many of the classroom scenes, Battle presents an interesting teaching philosophy and style that is a rarity in many classrooms.  He is a throwback to Socrates, answering questions with questions and helping his students find answers on their own; he teaches them how to think and challenges them to achieve things that they never thought they could, like their high school diplomas.

I will not ruin the book for you, nor will I tell you who Battle's child is, but it is one of the pearls.  It is a sad book at times (Battle is dying of cancer after all), but it does end well.  Within its pages are messages of hope, both for young adults and those they look up to.  Life does not have to be what society deems it to be; a person does not have to give in to social stereotypes.  Everyone has a purpose, a soul, a something that makes them special and priceless. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights

As a constant student of history and literature, the stories of King Arthur and his Court have always been interesting in both of my favorite areas of study.  The stories of Arthur portray a society of early England that we know very little about while providing the reader with captivating stories that have withstood the test of time and have resulted in countless depictions in television, movies, and various books.  When reading, it is utterly apparent why these tales have been popular among a wide variety of readers, as their many action/fighting scenes appeal to male readers while the chivalrous/romance scenes appeal to to female readers.

I enjoy history and literature so much, that in college I made them my major and my minor respectively.  When studying history, I decided to focus on European history and spent a lot of time researching and writing about the Middle Ages and was especially captivated by the idea of chivalry.  Chivalry, of course, is a central theme to The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights and is still a popular idea in the minds of many hopeless romantics today.  What I found in my studies is that chivalry as it is represented in the stories of Arthur is not remotely close to what true chivalry was.  I remember reading that knights were more apt to rape a damsel in distress than to rescue her from it.  The idea of chivalry and romance was a popular idea with noble women in the Middle Ages who hired musicians and storytellers to come into their courts and entertain them with stories of love and romance (which is something that they lacked in their own lives).

Now that I have gotten my historical rant out of the way (and that was the condensed version; the long version is my 46-page senior seminar paper), I can get into what I thought of the book.  As far as entertainment is concerned, The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights is phenomenal.  There is a reason those stories have lasted for over 1,500 years.  The book is not one story in and of itself, but rather a collection of short stories and legends about various members of the Round Table.  Due to this format, a reader is not left hanging or wondering what will happen next at the end of a chapter because the end of any particular chapter is the end of that story. 

While this allows for a variety of stories to be told and characters to be introduced, it is not the best format to have good character development.  Many knights, such as Sir Bors, were extremely captivating and I would have loved to have seen more of them in the stories that were included in this work, but I was not able to see them develop much at all because none of the stories were really connected in any way.  There are many stories about Arthur and his knights that were not included in this volume, so it would not be impossible to find more information and more stories on any of the characters, but that kind of defeats the purpose of reading.  The point being that if one is looking for a book in which a connection with the characters can be made, The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights is not for you.

That being said, it is certainly a book worth reading.  The legend of the quest for the Holy Grail is a timeless classic and was incredibly enjoyable.  In all the stories, though, the reader needs to just accept that there are going to be certain events that just happen to occur to keep the heroes alive.  For instance, Sir Lancelot will be fighting and almost be beaten, but then out of nowhere will come Sir Gawain who had been two days behind him at the beginning of the story to save him.  Things that would not possibly happen in real life happen in these stories.  That is part of what makes them so interesting; readers are constantly in suspense as to what might happen to help the heroes overcome insurmountable odds.

This was definitely a quality read, and any lover of history, literature, or romantic stories will enjoy it.  I must warn you, though, that the final chapter is about the war between Arthur and Lancelot and the Death of Arthur, so do not expect a happy ending to the book.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Remember the Best or Remember the Worst

Joe Paterno died yesterday of complications due to lung cancer.  While he is the winningest coach in NCAA football history, he tarnished his legacy by not report sexual abuse allegations directed towards his friend and long-time assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, and was fired early in the 2011 season for his transgression.  After his dismissal, the statue of him outside of Penn State's football stadium was removed and he left the game in shame.  Many, including myself, had strong feelings of disdain towards Joe Paterno.  I am a teacher and when the scandal broke, all I could think about was that it could have been one of my students... and that made me enraged.

Now Joe Paterno is dead and has met the only Judge whose ruling really matters.  Here on Earth, though, we have a new question to ask: how should we remember Joe Paterno?  This thought came to sweeping over me as I read an article by Rick Reilly, and it can be found here.  The basic point of the article is that what Paterno did, or in this case failed to do, was horrendous; but should we only remember him for this one, albeit devastating, mistake.  Reilly then tells the story of a young football player who Paterno mentored and supported through a long paralysis battle.  A very touching story, indeed.

On one hand there is Joe Paterno the football coach, who pushed his players not only to be good athletes but also to be good people; he would do literally anything for his guys' good.  On the other hand, there is Joe Paterno the concealer, one of many men who could have saved dozens of children from a life time of shame and embarrassment (it is only fair and right that it be noted that Paterno was not the only guilty party).  What should he be remembered for?

I think about this, and then I think about my own life.  I have made plenty of mistakes, and I do not know of anyone who could say differently about me or, furthermore, about themselves.  If I were to die, I would want to be remembered for the good that I have done, not for my mistakes.  I am confident that Joe Paterno desired the same.  Many people say that he forfeited that right when he failed to do anything about the sex abuse that was happening right under his nose.  I, however, disagree.  I am not saying that we should not remember that or disassociate him with the scandal because he is dead; he made a mistake and his namesake will have to deal with the consequences of it.  We cannot, though, ignore the good that he did during his life as well.  There will always be a huge black spot on his legacy, and deservedly so.  I still am furious that these children were not protected and that nothing was done to help them.  However, we also need to think about the dozens of young men that he pushed to be better than they were, not only on the field but as aspiring businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and other workers.

It is a shame that in one instance he could not follow his own teachings.  But before you disagree with me, I want you to think about your darkest secret, the thing you would be horrified about if the world knew all about it.  And now think about it coming to light a couple months before your death.  How would you want to be remembered?  We ask ourselves if we should remember the best or remember the worst.  I say that it is only fair to remember both.

Book Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Due to our culture's recent obsession and fascination with vampires and the popularity of movie series such as Twilight and Underworld, I decided to read the novel that started it all.  Of course there were many vampire stories, myths, and legends before Dracula, but none have made as much of an impact on our culture as the timeless classic by Bram Stoker.  As I read the classic novel, the captivating plot and brilliant narration style made it quite obvious as to why this book has become one of the most popular horror novels of all time.  The many Dracula movies and television depictions of the title character are a testament to the genius of the novel and are proof that it belongs in any list of greatest books of all time.

When reading a novel, one can expect it to be one of two narration styles: third-person with the author being the omniscient narrator, or first-person with the main character telling the story from their narrowed point-of-view.  The brilliance of Dracula is that it is a combination of both.  Stoker wrote the book as if it were a compilation of various diaries, newspaper articles, letters, and memorandums written by several of the main characters.  These various writing were put in chronological order by the characters in order that they can best study the mystery as to how to find and destroy Count Dracula.  The result is a wide variety of first-person accounts that when put together create the same reading sensation as if the entire story were told in the third-person by an omniscient narrator.  This concept is not particular to this book, however; more recently Rick Riordan has used a similar technique in The Red Pyramid, a story about a brother and sister who are in a conflict with the Egyptian gods.  Dracula, no doubt, may have influenced Riordan to write in this style.

As far as character development goes, the book is an absolute masterpiece.  Most times, a reader only sees a character develop from the perspective of the narrator, whether it be in the first or third person.  In Dracula, readers are able to see characters develop from a multitude of perspectives due to the narration style chosen by Stoker.  The result is a deep understanding of each character and an attachment to certain characters that is rarely achieved in any book.

There were times, I must admit, that the language was lost on me.  The book comes from a different country in a different time and had many terms and phrases that are unfamiliar to the modern reader.  I did have the benefit of reading it on my Kindle and could look up many of the words' definitions just by moving by cursor in front of the word.  There were, however, some Latin words and phrases that I could not translate right away and was, for the moment, left to use context clues as what their meaning could be.  These instances, though, did not deter from a high level of enjoyment and entertainment while reading.

Having read Dracula, I feel like I have a better understanding and appreciation for the images and movies that are played during the Halloween festivities.  The book itself was not nearly as gory as modern movies portray vampires, but it was highly suspenseful and had, in my opinion, a more shocking affect than any Hollywood movie could achieve.  This is perhaps why it has been a favorite amongst vampire enthusiasts and literary fans for over 100 years.  It takes a very special book and a brilliant author in order to achieve such a level, and Bram Stoker's genius narrating style and enthralling character development have made Dracula into one of the best books of all time.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Society of Irresponsibility

It does not take much to convince anyone that society, as a whole, has become more irresponsible in recent years than it has ever been.  All one has to do is open any newspaper or any news website and read about the latest criminal who has been arrested or being searched for murder, theft, embezzlement, or any combination of crimes.  Sometimes it seems like reading a daily newspaper is like reading a violent crime novel.  Or, take for instance, the growing rate of infant death because of negligence by their parents, who are too irresponsible to buy a decent crib for their child and instead place on the mattress next to them when they sleep.  One can also look at the recent outcry of the "Occupy Movement," which states that the government should repay all college students' loans for them and that corporate America should dish out jobs to them, but not make too much money because it is not fair that there be some rich people and some poor people.  Yes, it does not take much to see that society has become repugnant, irresponsible, and lazy while adopting an attitude of entitlement.  Where did this attitude come from?  Why has society taken a turn for the worse?  One only has to look to the government who leads this ungrateful and spoiled population.  How can the American people be expected to be resourceful, financially responsible, and morally upstanding if the government that leads them has been found incapable of doing so itself?

It does not take long to find the moral bankruptcy of our current administration.  On May 8, 2009, President Obama's budget eliminated a great deal of funding for abstinence only education in schools; In August of 2010, he cut funding to 176 abstinence education programs; in 2007, while still a senator, Obama voted against banning partial birth abortions.  While some may disagree and say that abortion is not immoral, it is important to keep in mind that oppressive, cruel governments like China also legalize abortion.

It also does not take long to find the financial irresponsibility of the current administration.  In the last three years the national debt has almost doubled.  This country has gone through a failed stimulus, a growing unemployment rate, a decline in the middle class, and the worst economic situation since the Great Depression.  One would assume that any leader of a country that is facing such an economic downfall would jump at any opportunity to get money into the economy.  This administration, however, did not.  The Canadian government approached the United States with a proposal to build a pipeline from Canada into the United States so that America could buy more oil from Canada and less from the Middle East.  In addition to the $7.6 billion Canada was willing to spend on this pipeline, this would have also created hundreds or thousands of jobs for Americans to help build it.  Furthermore, the oil America would buy from Canada instead of the Middle East would save this country billions of dollars.  This would certainly not solve the debt crisis, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction.

Due to this administration's lack of moral integrity and financial ineptness, how can it be a surprise that more and more Americans fall into debt while spending what little money they have on devices and vices that they should not spend any money on in the first place.  The government hands out money to people in poverty, which is fine in a sense, but what happens to that money?  There are a number of people who are working hard and are trying to use that money that they get from the government to make themselves more independent.  But there is a great number of people who let the government money create in themselves a sense of dependency, and out of this feeling comes an attitude of entitlement. 

Who can blame them, though?  They are led by a government who wastes, fails to save, and refuses to accept projects that will make money.  It is not surprise then that Americans waste money, have little to save, and would rather be given money than make money.  Irresponsible government has created our irresponsible society.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Book number two of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was an epic sequel to the first book that has become so popular in America recently with the release of the movie by the same title.  The second book picks up about a year and a half after the first book ends.  Whereas this kind of time leap is difficult to portray while keeping the story flowing at a reasonable pace, Stieg Larsson did a marvelous job connecting the two stories.  More than once I found myself thinking back to the first book in a moment of revelation in which I finally realized why many of the descriptions of Lisbeth Salander's life and personality were put into the book.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is a riveting crime-thriller that keeps the reader up late at night turning page by page, always engaged in the story that unfolds with every chapter.  Many conflicts that are left unsolved in the first book are resolved in this sequel, but their resolution brings on a whole new set of life-threatening issues.  Many characters who played a minor role in the first book have a much larger role in the second.  Because of this, the character development is continued from the first book into the second book, something that is very hard to do well.  New characters are introduced and the reader finds himself becoming attached to the new characters in the same way that the old characters do within the story.  This makes the reader feel like a part of the story and when two new characters are brutally murdered, one cannot help but take it personally and desire justice on a similar level to that of the other characters in the book.

With the release of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the increased popularity of it due to the new movie, Lisbeth Salander has become one of the most popular and intriguing fictional heroines in recent literature.  She is such a mysterious and perplexing character to both the other characters in the book and to readers because it is difficult to identify with her all the time.  However, she has such a strong sense right and wrong as well as sturdy rationalization for her actions and beliefs.  This is why readers embrace her.  The Girl Who Played With Fire explains her past and the reader finally finds out what "All the Evil" is, the incident which led to her being institutionalized when she was 12.  What the reader realizes is that they, along with many others within the story, have misjudged Salander whether it be intended or not.  Many sequels do not satisfy the desires of readers to learn more, especially when there is a third book because the author intentionally leaves things unresolved in order to sell the third book.  This second book, though, satisfies the reader's thirst for explanations and solutions while unwrapping new problems that need to be solved in the next installment.

While this book was not as dark as the first (I don't know if there is really anything as dark as the first book), it does have some similarities to it.  For instance, the amount of sex in the book is, in a word, overwhelming.  While the second half of the book is relatively clear of any sexual content, the first half is over-ridden with it at times.  I found myself putting the book down at times because one can only read so much of that kind of material before it becomes too much.  Another similarity is the family conflict that is portrayed in the novel: while the first novel is centered on the search of a missing girl who was a member of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden, this story focuses on Salander's family and the circumstances that surrounded her past.  It does not take the reader long to theorize that Larsson did not have a good family life, or at least did not have a high opinion of the nuclear family, because there are no healthy families in his books.  It is a theme that perhaps reflects the decline of the traditional family in modern culture as more and more marriages end in divorce and more and more children are born out of wedlock.  It is not surprising, then, that his books are so violent and disturbing as there is no family foundation on which their lives could have been built.

This book was a thrilling read and I am very excited to read the final book in the trilogy.  While Larsson has resolved nearly all the conflicts from the first book, new issues and mysteries have been uncovered and will, presumably, be solved in the next book.  A highly recommended read, especially after such a dark beginning to the crime-thriller trilogy.  It keeps the suspense going while easing off of the disturbing material that haunted readers and movie-goers.  Crime-thrillers are among the most entertaining books to read, and Stieg Larsson's trilogy is the most entertaining right now.