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Friday, May 28, 2010

Fight Club

Today, we're talking about Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.  This book and the movie that resulted from it has become a cultural touchstone for generation X men.  The underlying theme is that modern life has made this generation of men a soft feminine generation.  Raised by our mothers and television we care more about our furniture and our bank account than we care about what really matters, but the existential truth is that nothing really matters.  It's an Oedipal complex writ large but where do you direct your anger when your father was never there?  With our basis needs assured we are left with nothing but our jobs where we do meaningless work so that we can stack our homes with meaningless stuff.

As those of you who have seen the movie know, the solution that the protagonist "Jack" comes up with is to develop an alternate personality called  Tyler Durden, start a revolution, and blow up all the big banks so that we can start over as a society.  Jack presumes that the world will become wild again, men will become men again and all will be well.    The book ends a bit differently from the movie in the movie Jack and Marla look over the new world as the cityscape goes up in smoke, in the book Tyler is disposed of by Jack shooting himself.  Don't worry though, Jack  survives and so does project mayhem.

Chuck was on Carson Daly the other night and in the interview he appears much more buttoned down than his Wikipedia entry suggests although writers usually are.  No matter how fantastic your celebrity gets or how much larger than life you are on the page, if you're going to keep writing successfully you need to spend hundreds of hours in solitude and so a certain amount of reticence is required to be built into your personality.

Is generation X a lost generation?  Perhaps, in fact the Blumenthal story from last week seems to indicate that men who live a quiet successful life in the world of cubicles are perhaps though of as lesser men.  Our masculine traditions have ceased to be passed down by fathers and are now passed down by blogs like the Art of Manliness blog.  While I don't think that the destruction of the world is a solution, I'm glad that Chuck gave me an opportunity to review my values.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Melancholy Baby

This time Sunny Randall is hired by a teenager to find out who her real parents are.  Turns out all is not kosher in Boston and a girl who suspects that she was adopted is trying to get her parents to admit that she is from another family.

Sunny Randall deals with more drama with her ex-husband who is getting married and the world turns.  So does my interest in mystery books.  I think I've had my nine dollars worth and it's time to rove on to a new genre.

Friday, May 7, 2010

E=MC2

There is no better recession buster than a borrowed book.  This one came to me courtesy of Michael Orr, so thanks Michael!  The book is the 100th anniversary edition of Einstein's paper on relativity.  I didn't cheat on this one, I did read all the words.  I do have to be honest though and say that I didn't understand much of it after chapter XVII when he leaps into the special theory of relativity.  I'm either a few Physics or Math classes short of understanding it or, it pains me to even say this, maybe I aint no Einstein.

Einstein has the heart of a teacher,  he starts out slow.  In the first chapter he gives a physical definition of geometry, in the second he defines geometric space.  He then moves on to define distance, not distance in the arbitrary sense, like how far is a meter or a mile, but distance in the physical sense, how long does it take for an object with a constant speed to travel from A to B.  If you can define that you can break it up however you want.  After that things get trippy.

He starts out by showing that if a person is dropping a stone off of a train, the two will describe the movement differently, then he shows that if one person observes two pulses of light at the same time, a person moving toward one of the pulses will see them at different times.  So now we can agree that time itself is relative to your movement.  After that we start to define that if one person is moving relative to another that length, mass, and time are all different for the two of them.  He even demonstrates that on a rotating body two people at different places will perceive time and space differently.  That's some mind blowing stuff right there. and that's about the sum of what I was able to understand and pretty much the limit of my math skills.  I forged ahead but most of the rest of the book just served to highlight my ignorance.

Once he had defined that he leaps into four dimensional space, the fourth dimension being time, so now we're talking space time, gravity and why Mercury wobbles in its orbit due to the gravitational pull of the Sun.  Of course it's not a simple wobble caused by an oddity of gravity  but actually the effect of the sun changing space time itself.  Of course all the planets are effected by this but at the time of Einstein's publication the wobble was only detectable in Mercury's orbit.

In later chapters he discusses a cool imaginary experiment where if you were in an elevator that was accelerating at the same speed as gravity it would feel just like gravity.  Then another chapter is a deep essay on how our shared experiences and even our definitions of  before and after are just compensating mechanisms that our minds use to try to make sense of the world and the universe.

While I was reading the book my wife and I had an argument.  It was one of those where I thought I'd said one thing and she thought I'd said another.  Thanks to Einstein I was able to see that maybe it was possible that both of us were right, and equally as possible that both of us were wrong, or maybe she was even right but I was so mad I couldn't come to accept that part of the equation at the time.

So while I may never understand how to calculate how much a ray of light bends towards the red spectrum while passing through the gravitational field of a baseball, I've found that I can absolutely understand how someone could see the world a little different from how I see it. The universe is in fact different if you're viewing it from a different place.

So remember to support your local library, borrowed books are the best books.  Thank you Einstein and thank you Michael, this was in a subtle way a life changing book.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Potshot

Somebody had a deadline.  Sometimes when you play paperback roulette you lose and this was one of those occasions.  Potshot is another Spenser book from the big pile of paperbacks, this time the Bostonian detective decided to work a case in Southern California.

Spenser is called in to solve the murder of a woman's husband,  she of course is the wrongly suspected damsel in distress and of course the mystery ends up bigger than it initially appears.  Once Spenser gets to town he discovers that the town is overrun with a gang of thugs that are extorting local businesses and bleeding the town dry.  For some reason he decides it's his duty to clean it up and calls in the crew.  Now according to the reviews, if you're a long time Spenser fan this book is a rewarding treat where all the old characters come on stage for a reunion and you get some joy out of reading about a road trip made up of morally ambiguous caricatures.  I however am here to testify that when you line up a whole row of potboiler stereotypes it makes for a sad scene that highlights how unrealistic and silly detective novel stereotypes are when you take them out of their element.

I'll give you a spoiler alert here and give you a recommendation to skip this book so if you want to take my advice read ahead.  So Spenser discovers that the townies are corrupt.  The woman that hired him is at the head of a ring of land speculators who have purchased all the land around town but need to clear out the gang in the hills to make the investment pay off.  For some reason even after discovering this Spenser and his crew decide to have it out with the squatters and since he doesn't really have any evidence the land speculators pretty much go free.  Lame!

I don't know if this was intended to be a morally ambiguous McMurtry style western but if it was the poor decision to use a well known Boston detective as the protagonist pretty much ruins the book.  Not to mention that Parker doesn't have the right set of skills to pull off a McMurtry style drama, it's still written like a mystery until the last 50 pages , then like a western for 30 and then a half crocked wrap up and we're done.

My summary of this book is that someone was cashing in, and it wasn't the fictional land speculators of Potshot.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Poker Nation

This was the first book I picked up at the used book store that just opened in Nashua.  I was so excited to hear about this place.  When I was in my twenties I spent hour after hour in used book stores looking for books.  Those were the days when I made a little over four dollars and hour and had hours to spend reading.  I never appreciated how valuable time to read a book is and I wish I would have enjoyed it rather than dreading the long stretches of time laying around on a couch in my friend's basement or on the floor of an apartment before I could afford a couch.  I'm afraid if I could have appreciated how enjoyable it is to while away an afternoon I may still be waiting tables in a Mexican restaurant and going home to a small one bedroom apartment with no TV and the furniture that came with the place.  I would still read Vonnegut books and Tom Robbins and wonder why life is so pointless and pick up extra shifts so that I could afford to go home early on my regular ones.

So Poker Nation spends a good share of it's time wandering over well tread ground.  The first paragraphs of every chapter made me grown in agony because Andy Bellin starts out each chapter assuming the reader has never played a hand of poker in their life.  I checked the copyright to see if this was published back in 1980 but it was first seen in print in 2002 right in the middle of the poker boom.  I wish he would have made an assumption that his core audience may have played a hand or two and read a poker book or two.  Every chapter is filled with the stories that everyone who has done any semi-serious reading about poker has heard.  The story of Benny Binion, how the W.S.O.P. got it's start, the famous game in front of Binion's between Nick the Greek and Johnny Moss, it's all there in detail.  Painful detail if you read the genre enough, he even has a section where he explains the order of hands.  The book has a few charts on odds and probability and I, who am no statistician, quickly found errors in two of them.

I wanted to hate this book so bad my teeth hurt but I couldn't.  Andy did what good poker writers do and tells his own story.  How he ended up as a professional player, what happened to all the girlfriends who thought dating a professional gambler would be a blast, he even committed the primary gambling sin and admitted to cheating a time or two.  Although of course he is reformed now so if you see him at the tables you can trust him right?

Since Bellin's primary stomping grounds were the underground clubs in New York City he gives you a good picture of how the scene looks  in a jurisdiction where poker isn't technically legal but the police have higher priorities than to break up poker games.  This was the part of Rounders I was most interested in but the part that got completely overshadowed by Matt Damon's perverse feeling of responsibility for Edward Norton.  Now that was a story I had no problems hating.

So if you haven't read a mountain of poker books I would highly recommend this book.  If you have I'd say it's worth a whirl but don't expect that more than half of what's covered will feel new to you.