Book Recommendations – Volume VII

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been lucky enough to do some good reading. Each of these three books are enjoyable, interesting and which hold different lessons about the state of the world and humanity at large. These three books come highly recommended from myself and are well worth the time invested to read them. If you are looking for a few books to read, as spring becomes summer, below you will see the 7th edition of my book recommendations which highlights Submission by Michel Houellebecq, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and A World in Disarray by Richard Haass.

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1.) Submission by Michel Houellebecq is an enjoyable and humorous take on French politics in the 21st The French author is known for his edgy content and his nihilistic take on modern life. Houellebecq is not known for writing about satire and for those who are a fan of his works, this novel was a sharp turn away from the other topics that he usually focuses on. Personally, I haven’t read the other novels associated with this writer but I really enjoyed this satirical look at French politics.

The premise of the novel is that there is a new political crisis in France. In order to stave off a win in the 2022 French presidential elections from Marine Le Pen’s National Front party, the Socialist party and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement party are forced to align with a newly formed Muslim Brotherhood party led by its charismatic leader, Mohammed Ben-Abbes in order to achieve victory as a coalition. The main character, Francois, is a middle-aged Literature professor at the Sorbonne is going through his own mid-life crisis. While he enjoys teaching at the university and cavorting physically with some of his students, he struggles to find meaning in his life and is distraught at the loss of both of his parents. This is on top of the fact that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood party will affect his ability to keep his full pension and be able to keep his job.                                                                                                                       

On top of the probability of losing his teaching job at the Sorbonne as well as the fleeing of his steady Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, who leaves France for Israel in the face of rising anti-Semitism, Francois contemplates suicide but decides instead to seek refuge in a monastery in the town of Martel. Ironically, Francois, after going through a self-imposed exile for a few weeks, comes to realize that the world didn’t end when the Muslim Brotherhood party takes power. Instead of fighting the changes going on at the Sorbonne, Francois is intrigued by the fact that if he converts or ‘submits’ to Islam, he will be able to still find a prestigious job, keep his lucrative pension, and be able to have a few wives chosen for him since polygamy had become legal in France. The main character, Francois, is a spectator to the changing political landscape rather than an active player.

While this book is known for being controversial, I find it to be full of slapstick humor in making fun of the main character’s overly dramatic take on life. Francois is a mere spectator whose desire for alcohol, food, and sex overrides any core convictions that he may have politically. Mainly, Houellebecq is making fun of French intellectuals who can’t be bothered to invest in them beyond their own hedonistic desires.

His take on the political situation in France is an obvious dramatization and I don’t believe that he was looking to ruffle any feathers. The rise of an Islamic nationalist party in France in 2022 would be completely unrealistic which is what the author was making clear in focusing on the political satire associated with that idea. Overall, it is a witty, entertaining novel, which tells us more about human nature than it does about the precarious state of French politics in the 21st century.

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2.) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is one of the best books I have ever read. In all likelihood, this is the kind of book that you can come back to multiple times and still enjoy it. This is not your average history book in that it focuses more on the big ideas and developments associated with each era of human history rather than diving into the endless details and events related to each period. Instead of a 4,000 page behemoth focused on human history, Harari does a great job in condensing the how and why of Homo sapiens into only 400+ pages.

While I was reading this book, it didn’t feel laborious at all and was a real page-turner. Harari’s main argument in the book is that the homo sapien (the modern human) were able to dominate the Earth because of our ability to cooperate and share with each other in large numbers. The downfall of pre-homo sapiens such as the Neanderthals along with various other extinct animals and plants was the result of the Cognitive Revolution, which occurred at around 70,000 BCE.

The exciting developments related to the establishment of shared human myths and imaginary mainstays such as money, religions, human rights, nation-states, etc. directly tied to Homo Sapien culture put sapiens on the path to long-term survival and flourishing. Harari convincingly argues that the history of humanity can be broken down into four parts: the Cognitive Revolution (the development of imagination), the Agricultural Revolution (the formation of collective societies), the Unification of humankind (the rise of empires and nations), along with the Scientific Revolution (the emergence of scientific knowledge) which is the stage where sapiens currently find ourselves in.

Harari believes that the rise of Homo sapiens as a species has had significant consequences on the planet we all inhabit as well as the harsh treatment of animals that has resulted from being at the top of the food chain. Also, while the Agricultural revolution led to the creation of large human societies and eventually sprawling empires, the shift from hunter gathering to farming caused the human diet and lifestyle to suffer as a direct result. Human beings after agriculture became less self-reliant and had to rely on a king, an emperor, or the state itself to provide food, water, and other necessities. Out of all of the developments in human history, the rise of agriculture was a fundamental shift in our thinking, which still affects us in the modern society we all inhabit today.

Overall, Sapiens is an excellent, informative, and timely read that I would recommend to anyone. It’s an easy book to pick up and a hard one to put down. I am currently reading another book of his, which is the sequel to Sapiens, this book and the one that follows it just shows how good of an author and intellectual that Mr. Harari is.

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3.) A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Older by Richard Haass is a refreshing take on the topsy-turvy world of international relations in this current period. Mr. Haass, who is currently the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has advised previous U.S. presidents and worked as the Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department during the Bush Administration, is an expert on world affairs who has published multiple books and this one in particular could not be timelier.

While the U.S. remains the most powerful country in the world both economically and militarily, it has started to lose ground in terms of its ability to sway world opinion and events due to failures of U.S. foreign policy in the early years of the 21st century. The lack of success in denuclearizing of the Korean peninsula, the rise of Iran as a regional power in the Middle East, and the mixed results of the East Asia ‘pivot’ from the Obama administration have created a worldwide power vacuum. Also, due to the long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both U.S. prestige and values were harmed by these adventures in the Middle East. Haass argues correctly that the post-WWII order that the United States and its European allies helped create is fraying due to the failure of its leaders, institutions, and policies to maintain stability across the globe.             

There are real challenges to contend with that the United States won’t be able to solve on its own. The threat of climate change, the challenge of cyber-security, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons require a unified approach that has been lacking between the U.S. and its European allies. The events of Brexit, the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ isolationist policies, and the great power rivalries going on between Russia, China, and India have thrown the world in disarray. The days where the U.S. could have great influence and sway over events around the world may be drawing to a close. Haass sees that the U.S. is just one of the great global powers and must be willing to cooperate, collaborate with other powers in order to achieve results when the main issues of today are multilateral in nature.

In order for the world to follow America’s lead, Haass aptly understands that we must get our own house in order first. The rising national debt, the ongoing problems with investing in education, infrastructure, and health care prevent the United States from acting as an example to the rest of the world. A dysfunctional political process as well as a President who doesn’t believe in leading the international, post WWII order are preventing the United States from realizing its full potential as a global power.

For anyone who is new to international relations, A World In Disarray, is an excellent take on the history of the international system after World War II and how did we get to this point where the world seems more chaotic and unstable than ever. Mr. Haass understands the limits of American power and that in order to lead on the world stage; the U.S. must undertake reforms to benefit our own citizens at home. In order to solve complex, multilateral issues, the U.S. must value diplomacy and the relationships that we have with our allies. Where the U.S. used to be the only global superpower, after the fall of the Soviet Union, America is just one of the great powers now. In order to solve the multilateral issues of the 21st century, the United States cannot do it alone and we must be willing to use effective diplomacy and other forms of soft power to create peace and prosperity.

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Book Recommendations – Volume VI

As we go into the month of December, the winds start to blow, the snow starts to fall, and the cold begins to set in, it’s no better a time during the year to crack open a book to catch up on some reading. The three books I’ve read at this time and am highlighting in this ‘Book Recommendations’ post focus on current events. I tend to stay away from politics but these books do a good job of reflecting upon the political moment we are living in here in the United States.

All three of these books come from authors who have a wealth of life experiences and are considered to be experts in what they do. If you’re not into non-fiction books, you may want to skip these ones but if you want to understand more about the United States in 2017, you should give each of these books a honest read.

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1. The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward G. Luce is an excellent take on the current state of liberal democracy in Western countries. Due to growing income inequality, the failure of institutions to handle complex issues involving immigration, health care, infrastructure, etc. causes more and more citizens to doubt the benefits of the current democratic system. Luce pulls no punches and does a good job summarizing the pressing problems that ail the United States and Western Europe.

While not the cause of these problems that have been building up for decades, Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties throughout Europe are symptoms of a virus that is weakening the fundamentals of liberalism. For every action, there is a reaction and the negligence shown by political and economic elites in the Western world has caused there to be a backlash against our system of governance. Luce believes that there has been a lot of doing away with the principles that made democracy work for the past couple of centuries. In the 21st century, the current political system has not adapted to technological, economic, and social changes that have occurred at a quickening pace. Unless more attention is paid to those men and women not succeeding in today’s globalized economy, there will continue to be political dysfunction within the democratic system.

Unless the Western countries can guarantee that political liberties and freedoms can go hand in hand with an economic system that works for the many and not the few, the status quo will not last. Mr. Luce is not hesitant in using the rise of authoritarianism in countries such as Russia, Turkey, and the Philippines to draw a distinct parallel as to an alternative form of government that is becoming more prominent. The Western system used to be an example of good governance to the rest of the world but is that still the case today?

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2. Tribe by Sebastian Junger deals more with modern psychology than modern politics but you can gain a lot of insight into what drives us as human beings from reading this book. Mr. Junger is a war correspondent that has covered the front lines for over a decade in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From his experiences, he was able to form the hypothesis that there are certain living conditions that bring out the best of us. When a person is surrounded by the members of the same ‘tribe’, usually about 20-30 people, who he or she has something in common with and for whom survival is not guaranteed but fought for every day, that goes back to our early days on the planet as hunter-gatherers.

Mr. Junger makes excellent points throughout the book that we started out thousands of years ago as a communal society moving from place to place and relying on each other to survive against the elements and against other creatures. He argues consistently that we may do best when we work with each other instead of against each other for a common goal or purpose. The alienation, individualism, and me-first culture in modern Western societies is out of line with our evolutionary history and may be the cause of the mental illnesses and anxieties that have been shown to be on the rise. Combat veterans who come home from war often miss the bonds of brotherhood that were formed from fighting for the guy or girl on the left or the right of you. They often miss the bonds created during battle that are impossible to recreate after re-entry into modern society.

The author uses an example from early American history when some English settlers would leave the colonial towns to join the Indian society, which was exactly like the tribal lifestyle, and the reverse would never be the same. There were no Indians who would leave their tribe to join the English settlers in their more modern colony set-up. In tribal communities where everybody has a say and where everybody has a role to play, it’s easy to make the argument that there would be less stress, less anxiety, and more purpose for those apart of it. Mr. Junger also brings up the example of Great Britain’s citizens during World War II and how only adversity would bring that modern society together.

A lot of Britons felt more patriotic and more cooperative each other during the war than compared to before and after the war. Adversity, struggle, and the fight for survival can be more meaningful to people than the safe and sanitized existences that make up the modern West. The time spent living through natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes can stir up people’s memories more than the average vacation or wedding. Tribe is an excellent, must-read book that pulls different elements of history, anthropology, and sociology to make a compelling argument that the average person should think deeply about.

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3. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen is not your average American history book. Mr. Andersen spends about 500 pages summing up 500 years of American history through the lens of what’s fantasy and what’s real. Fantastical thinking, Andersen argues, has been apart of American culture since the first pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. In order to understand what’s going on in the America of 2017, he does a good job of bringing out examples from past centuries to explain how we got to this unique point in our history.

The ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, and other fantastical phrases that have become part of the national dialect are not outlandish in the sense that they have always been apart of the national character. Citing examples such as the extremes of Puritan beliefs, the Salem witch trials, P.T. Barnum and show business, the anything-goes ‘cultural revolution’ of the 1960’s, the spread of Hollywood and celebrity culture, etc., each century in America has brought about new fantasies to become part of the national fabric.

The individualistic nature of American culture has led to dreamers, believers, and magical thinkers being indulged rather than the other way around as done in other countries. The idea that you can be whom you want and believe what you want in America has become a national rallying cry, especially in recent decades. Our belief in the stuff of fantasy (ghosts, extraterrestrials, is the Earth flat?) has made America an international outlier among the industrialized nations.

Mr. Andersen argues that with the rise of Donald Trump and the excessive polarization along cultural and political fault lines that we may have hit a point of no return. The lines of fantasy and reality are becoming increasingly blurred whereas in our past, fantasy and reality were competing ideas in American society but never overtook each other to reign supreme. An amazing and timely non-fiction book that is an easy page-turner, Fantasyland is a must-read in 2017 and will help you understand how we Americans ended up here over the span of centuries.

Book Recommendations – Volume V

Similarly to the months to come during the heart of wintertime, the current summer season is a great chance to catch up on reading new books or books you have yet to finish. Whether you’re at the beach, hanging out in the backyard, or are going on a long road trip, reading a good book is a good way to pass the time.

My last ‘Book Recommendations’ post came in February so it’s time for another volume of recommendations for you to consider when it comes to your next book purchases. While you may not be interested in the same book genres or same authors as myself, I still encourage you to read a book before the end of the summer. Whether it’s through Amazon, your local mom and pop bookstore, or at a book fair, you owe it to yourself to put down the iPhone and pick up a good book instead.

1.) Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden (2001) is a non-fiction, and detailed take on the combined efforts by the Colombian and United States governments to bring down the infamous Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel. Mr. Bowden, known foremost for his take on the Battle of Mogadishu between U.S. special forces and Somali militants in the critically acclaimed novel, Black Hawk Down (1999) is a great journalist with over thirty years of covering recent events involving war, peace, and international affairs.

Mr. Bowden is a reporter and a journalist who does his research when it comes to Killing Pablo, and this book is a real page-turner. The author covers both the early years of Pablo’s empire to his international rise as the #1 drug kingpin in the world to his eventual downfall at the home of Search Bloc and Los Pepes. With many interviews from U.S. and Colombian government officials, as well as a lot of research into the terrible events that transpired in the 1980s and 1990s, Mark Bowden gives a comprehensive account of the manhunt for Pablo Escobar, and how his eventual death came to be.

There is often a lot of speculation and rumors surrounding the Medellin cartel that are unfounded which is why reading ‘Killing Pablo’ is a refreshing take on what really happened and who was involved in the drug kingpin’s demise. This is a great book if you’re interested in learning the true story behind the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar.

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Killing Pablo: The Hunt for The World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden

2. Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) is an excellent and comprehensive look at each of the world’s major bodies of water, and how they each affect world geopolitics in different ways.

With over thirty years of experience in the United States Navy having commandeered every kind of amphibious vessel that you can think of, Admiral Stavridis has the life experience and intellectual background necessary to make this book quite a compelling read. As the only admiral in the history of NATO to serve as its’ Supreme Allied Commander, Mr. Stavridis is well poised to look at the state of the world through its’ largest and most valuable commodity, the oceans and the seas that make up over 70% of this planet.

If you’re new to geopolitics or don’t know much about the significance of the world’s oceans, Admiral Stavridis breaks down the history, the culture, and the geopolitical importance of each body of water throughout the book. From the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, the author discusses who are the countries involved in the area, what should the role of the United States be, and how can we ensure that this body of water stays conflict free, and friendly to international commerce into the far future.

Since the release of this book in June of 2017, it has risen to the top of many best sellers’ lists and for good reason. In a geopolitical area that doesn’t get much focus, Admiral Stavridis reminds us of the sheer importance of the world’s oceans and seas. In a 21st century world filled with uncertainty and ambiguity, The admiral’s book is a clear-cut, well-reasoned take on the geopolitics of the oceans, and how their collective future is tied to each and every one of us.

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Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

3. The Quiet American by Graham Greene is an exceptional book that is well written, has deep and complex characters, and involves a time period in world history that is often overlooked. The novel takes place during the early 1950s as the French Army is entangled in skirmishes and indirect conflict with the Vietminh. Meanwhile, the new presence of American aid workers including a young economic attaché, Alden Pyle, whose motives for being in French colonial-era Vietnam are considered to be suspect to the narrator, a British journalist named Thomas Fowler. Not only do the two men come into conflict regarding the future of Western influence in Vietnam but they also are at odds in a romantic triangle with a Vietnamese woman known as Phuong.

The two main characters, Fowler and Pyle, could not be more different in their outlook. Fowler is cynical about the West’s involvement in Vietnam, and is jaded by politics and war. Pyle is a young, idealistic, and naïve American who is reserved in his personal manners, but is unafraid to interfere in Vietnamese affairs by acting as a ‘third force’ to help bring change to the country by economic and military means.

Phuong is the young Vietnamese woman who is caught between Fowler and Pyle, as she is desired by both men but for different reasons. While Fowler regards her simply as his lover, Pyle wants to protect her. It is implied in the book that Pyle’s desire for Phuong is reflected in his desire to have a non-communist South Vietnam through any means necessary. Fowler does not go along with Pyle’s thinking and regards his belief in ‘American exceptionalism’ to be shortsighted.

An interesting novel and an engaging read, The Quiet American has become a mainstay in popular fictional literature and has been adapted into two major motion pictures, one in 1958, and more recently in 2002, which starred Michael Caine (Fowler) and Brendan Fraser (Pyle). This fictional novel is based off of real events in the 1950s when French colonial rule in Vietnam was coming to an end.

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The Quiet American by Graham Greene

While reading books during the summer season may seem like a chore to some people, for others, it’s a great time to kick back, relax, and dive into different genres, and characters that offer a refreshing reprieve from the humdrum of our busy lives.

 

‘Sideways’ – Film Review and Analysis

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“Miles is not drinking any Merlot!”

Sideways (2004) is an excellent film about the topsy-turvy nature of middle-age life and how to cope with the curveballs that life throws at us to challenge us. Critically acclaimed at the time and nominated for many awards, Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne is a good tale about male friendship, how to deal with mid-life problems, and finding love and purpose during difficult times.

The very title of the film ‘Sideways’ is symbolic of the best way in which wine bottles should be preserved by being laid on its’ side in order to age properly. Also, men and women who are going through their mid-life ‘sideways’ must embrace the challenges that lie ahead and the changes that come to them with this part of life in order to grow and mature as a person.

The basic premise of the film ‘Sideways’ involves two middle-aged men who are close friends, Miles Raymond (played by Paul Giamatti) and Jack Cole (starring Thomas Haden Church) that decide to take a week long Bachelor’s trip up to the wine country of Napa Valley in California to celebrate Jack’s upcoming wedding and the end of his singledom. Both of these men are in their forties and have a sinking feeling that the best of life is behind them.

Miles is in a depressive state due to the fact that he feels like a failed writer due to the uncertain future success of his yet-to-be published book. While he has a steady job as a high school English teacher, he feels unfulfilled by his life and wants to achieve greater success as a novelist but has yet to break through. On top of that, he has gone through a recent divorce that he has yet to recover from fully and is newly single.

Luckily or unluckily for Miles, he has a friend, Jack, who is hoping to have a good time for his last few days as a single man. Jack Cole, Miles’ friend is an actor who may be past his prime. While he used to be a TV soap opera star years ago, now, he is mostly relegated to doing voiceovers for silly commercials and seems to be getting tired of the acting business. Jack loves his fiancé but has the problem of not being able to control him when it comes to women.

Unlike Miles, Jack is not a big wine connoisseur and is more into playing golf and hooking up with a local woman before he takes those fateful steps down the aisle. Jack is hoping to not screw up his marriage but he obviously misses the single life while his friend, Miles dreads being single again. Jack may love his fiancée but he is also hoping to get involved with the real estate business that his soon-to-be father-in-law is running in Los Angeles, which Jack wants to be apart of in order to get away from acting once and for all.

Beyond just writing novels and teaching his students, Miles’s true passion in life is wine, which is why he proposes Jack that they go to Napa Valley to drink some great wine, play some golf, and eat some good food together. While Jack enjoys all of those activities, he has other plans in mind for his last days as a single guy leading to hilarious and disturbing results for the both of them. Before Jack wants to get married, he wants one last fling as a ‘single’ guy before he becomes the husband to his wife. In the meantime, Miles encounters a woman he never expected to meet.

Maya, (played by Virginia Madsen), is a kind and intelligent waitress at a local restaurant in Napa Valley known as ‘The Hitching Post II.’ She is someone who Miles has encountered before during his previous solo trips to Napa Valley. While they were friendly to each other, it’s only on this Bachelor’s trip to the wine country where Miles with the help of Jack’s support gets to know Maya better. Maya and Miles really hit it off with each other especially over their shared love of good wine and they start to develop a relationship.

Luckily for Jack, Maya knows a local wine keeper, Stephanie, (played by Sharon Oh), who has a lot of the characteristics that Jack likes in a woman. The two men end up dating and hooking up with both women but with unforeseen and negative consequences. Jack’s adulterous philandering almost catches up with him and causes Miles a lot of unneeded stress. Miles also suffers during this trip from the lack of hope for his novel in finding a publisher to sell and advertise it.

He also struggles to give up on his ex-wife, Vicki, who he did cheat on leading to their divorce and breakup. The almost breaking point for Miles comes when he finds out that his ex-wife, Vicki, got re-married and has a newborn daughter causing him to regret his divorce from her. While his wife has moved on from him, he still struggles with the fact that his book is going nowhere, he is single in his 40’s, and has no legacy or children at the moment.

Despite all of mid-life struggles that both Miles and Jack go through during the film, they remain loyal and true friends despite the pain and suffering they cause each other. Miles and Jack are almost complete opposites of each other in terms of their personality and character. Miles is serious yet forlorn and an intelligent, well-spoken man while Jack is a cocky womanizer who never really grew out of his teenage years.

However, despite their differences from each other, they do help lift each other out from their problems. Jack gives Miles encouragement to keep working on his novel and to self-publish it if he has to. He wants Miles to succeed at starting a relationship with Maya and really gets him to start going out with her. Miles saves Jack from himself multiple times throughout the film and even though Jack’s integrity is compromised, Miles is there to clean up the damage and makes sure that his friend follows through on his marriage commitment to his fiancée, Stephanie.

Every character in this film is flawed in some way and even though each of them, both men and women, are in their forties, they still have some growing up to do and don’t have everything figured out when it comes to life. Each of these characters has their own personal demons with Miles having depression and a lack of success in his passion and Jack being an adulterer and a compulsive liar.

While they are not perfect men and the women they are involved with make that clear to them, they are still good guys at heart and want to do the right thing. Life has thrown them ‘Sideways’ and they are trying to keep up with all of the curveballs that they must dodge and move forward against. It is really no surprise to me that similar to ‘Lost In Translation’, this film has become a cult classic that can warrant multiple viewings.

While it may not be your typical feel good movie, it’s a ‘real’ film about ‘real’ people who are trying to succeed both personally and professionally against the odds. If you decide to watch ‘Sideways’ for the first time, you’re going to be rooting for each of these characters to find happiness. They are endearing to us as the audience because they make mistakes and have setbacks just like those of us watching the film. In addition to the brilliant acting especially by Virginia Madsen, Paul Giamatti, and Thomas Haden Church, the adapted screenplay is brilliantly written and thought out.

Even though most viewers would consider it a dark, morose film, it also has a lot of comedy in it and some great lines about wine. There are a lot of moments in ‘Sideways’ that will make you sad, happy, angry, and even make you relate to the characters themselves. A great film overall directed by Alexander Payne, Sideways was released way back in 2004 but still remains a popular and heart-warming film that will leave you satisfied. I highly recommend checking ‘Sideways’ out when you get the chance and to remember after watching the whole film to never order a tall glass of Merlot again.

Book Recommendations – Volume IV

Wintertime is often the best time to settle down with a cup of hot coffee / tea and open up a new book or fire up your Kindle to catch up on some reading. When it’s cold and snowy out, there is no better way to pass the time than to sit down with a good book in order to learn something new or to be entertained by a particular story. If you’re looking for some good recommendations, here are three books that I have read recently that I think avid readers would enjoy especially if you like non-fiction material. If you happen to read any of these three recommendations, please let me know what you thought of these books in the comments section below.

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1.) The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson is a current New York Times bestseller and is not your typical self-development book. I have been following Mark’s writings for a couple of years now and I hold him in high regard. He has helped change my life for the better with his unconventional life advice and his second book is a great read. Contrary to some self-help books that advertise a philosophy of feeling good all the time and always being positive, Mark instead advocates for a more balanced approach to life. It’s important to embrace the negatives and setbacks in life because you’ll be a stronger and a more mature person for it.

It’s a common truth that not everything will go well in life so it’s better to make due with that than to have a ‘pie in the sky’ attitude all of the time. Mark asks the reader to think about the fact that going through negative experiences is actually a positive experience and can teach us a lot about ourselves. Having solely positive experiences without any adversity or setbacks is itself a negative experience as well because you didn’t struggle and fight for it, which means that it wasn’t that much of a big deal in retrospect. Learning from our past mistakes and our failures is just as important, if not more so, as having massive success according to Mark’s thesis.

The title of the book itself, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, doesn’t imply that we as human beings shouldn’t care about anything going on in our lives but rather that we should be more selective about the things that we can truly control and have some input in. You shouldn’t give a f*ck about everything, only the things that matter the most to you and that truly impact your life in some way. Overall, this book is a really thoughtful perspective on living one’s life in a mature and thoughtful manner and has some really practical advice for any demographic of reader.

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2.) Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel is a well-researched, thought out look about the cyber security challenges facing the United States especially when it comes to the national energy grid that makes it possible for Americans to live a 21st century lifestyle. I remember watching Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline when I was a child and he always impressed me with his ability to look at a story he was reporting on from all angles and do a thorough job with interviewing different people involved with the issue. This book written by Mr. Koppel is no exception. Mr. Koppel does great investigative reporting on what is being done and what isn’t being done to prevent such a cyber attack from happening.

With the increasing amount of focus being put on cyber security as it affects different businesses, individuals, and governments, this book is a must-read as it considers the areas in which we are most vulnerable to attack. Mr. Koppel looks at how we can address the current gaps in cyber security such as when it comes to our different energy grids across the United States and what should be done about it in order to prevent an attack from happening in the near future. Mr. Koppel interviews a wide variety of people involved with cyber security from the Secretary of Homeland Security to leaders of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City to ‘preppers’ across the U.S. who make it a lifestyle habit of preparing themselves and their families with emergency supplies and goods in case a cyber attack happens and the electric grid goes down.

The frightening possibility of a regional and national blackout happening in the United States is discussed in detail as to what would be the consequences and how long it would take for the electric grid to go back online. The current picture isn’t very rosy and a lot of work needs to be done according to Mr. Koppel. Hopefully, the policy makers and leaders of government take notice of this book as it is both a warning and a call to action for those people in power to do more about this situation and to help protect against such a potential disastrous scenario.

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3.) Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance was one of the most important books of 2016 for its’ insight into a part of the United States that rarely gets much in-depth coverage. This book is a mix of a personal memoir of Mr. Vance’s life who is a native of the hills of Kentucky and who grew up in southern Ohio and also a retrospective on the economic and social conditions that are affecting Appalachia to this day. Mr. Vance goes into great detail about the struggles of the white, working class, both self-inflicted and those wounds placed on them by economic decline and societal decay that’s out of their control. It’s a community that doesn’t get much fanfare but who still have a political impact as showcased in the recent 2016 election.

Even with a troubled family that both uplifts him and casts him down, Mr. Vance through his hard-work and intellect makes it out of Appalachia and was a member of the Marine corps, a law school graduate and now a successful writer. However, it could be argued that he is the exception and not the norm when it comes to the current state of Appalachian communities. Upward mobility can be hard to believe in for today’s America with stories like Mr. Vance’s becoming less and less common. For this course to reverse itself, economic vitality has to come back to forgotten regions like the Rust Belt and Appalachia. The current social malaise and dispirited communities may be able to improve if the local economy were to improve for families like the Vance’s.

You root for the people of Appalachia highlighted in this memoir who have been dealt a bad hand in life but still try to make the best of things and want to help their family members achieve the American dream, even if it appears out of reach to most. One such example that sticks in my mind from this book is ‘Mamaw’, Mr. Vance’s grandmother and one of the few steady and pragmatic influences in his life that helped make him who he is today. To change a community and a society, it starts with the family but it doesn’t end there. Families in these communities need a future and they need prospects, both educational and job-wise. Let’s see if this book has an impact as well on the policymakers, think tanks, and government leaders. It’s a must-read and I highly recommend it.

 

 

An Urban Transformation

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“The kids were cheering me on.”

I had the pleasure recently of visiting Comuna 13, a neighborhood in Medellin that has had a difficult history with gang violence and the illegal drug trade but which is showing signs of both progress and renewal. Due to the investments made by both the local and city government, Comuna 13 has become a hotbed for beautiful street art and graffiti murals, which has attracted many local artists to make a positive mark on this community. Many of these artists are from Medellin and grew up in the neighborhoods of Comuna 13. Rather than discuss the past of Comuna 13, I would rather talk about why this particular community is poised to have a brighter future.

Beyond just the new street art and the graffiti murals that you can find around Comuna 13 are the relatively new escalators that connect the San Javier metro station to the communities located in the hills surrounding this transportation hub. These escalators make it a lot easier for both students and workers to gain easier access to the rest of the Medellin metropolitan area and are an easy way to get from point A to point B. The escalators are free to use for all people including the tourists who come to visit this part of the city.

While the escalators are not so numerous, it is possible that more of them will be added to other parts of the city in the future if I were to haphazard a guess. Medellin can set an example to other urban cities on how to connect neighborhoods efficiently with the use of escalators, especially those with sloping hills and steep mountains within the city limits. For the elderly and children as well, these escalators can be quite useful in helping them get around the neighborhood without too much trouble.

If you don’t feel like taking the escalators, there are concrete staircases adjacent to the new escalators so you can choose which way you want to go up or go down. The escalators are weatherproof as well which is quite genius when you think about. On your way to the metro, the overhang, which is a bright, fluorescent orange color, will protect you fully from the elements such as rain, snow, hail, etc. It only takes about five to ten minutes to get from the top of the escalators to the bottom of the escalators so if you’re in a rush, you won’t have to go through too many escalators to get to your final destination.

The city government of Medellin and local police has done a great job in my opinion with regards to keeping this part of Comuna 13 safe and secure. I noticed during my visit that locals and volunteers are instrumental in helping to keep the area around the escalators clean and orderly. There are park benches and small parks nearby to encourage community get-togethers as well as the fact that there is a big slide where the local children can use to slide up and down to have some fun in the neighborhood. Being the kid at heart that I am, I partook in one of the slides because it is pretty enjoyable and you do go down at a pretty fast speed.

Beyond just the new escalators, the cool slides, and the park benches, there are also now a few library parks, which are free for members of the community to enjoy, explore, and learn. In addition to being places for education, the libraries are great meeting places for the community and can strengthen neighborhood ties. You can also hold cultural, recreational, and educational activities such as group English classes or a family birthday party. Books in these libraries are free to borrow and use.

Everyone can use them regardless of their age, educational level or social status. The mind is a terrible thing to waste and because of the twelve library parks in Comuna 13 and other parts of Medellin, city residents here have a real chance to learn new things and satisfy their curiosity. One particular volunteer group that I’m interested in learning about is called ‘Stairway to English’, which provides free English classes with native speakers to members of the Comuna 13 community.

My visit to Comuna 13 left quite an impact on me. I did go through an organized tour this time, which I do recommend to people visiting this webpage. It was really useful to learn about the history, background, and the progress being made for this part of Medellin. Medellin is quite a large city and it can be easy to get caught up in only staying within your own neighborhood and to not see other parts of the city. Personally, I do hope that other escalator projects in urban areas will become popular in Colombia and other parts of the world.

Human beings are increasingly becoming more urban with over 70% of the world’s population projected to be living in cities by mid-century. This puts the onus on local, city, and national governments to adapt to this reality and try to make life easier and better for the millions of people who call a city their home. Other cities should take note of the social progress being made in Comuna 13 and I can only hope that more and more residents of Medellin will be able to improve their lives in different ways because of urban projects like building library parks or constructing escalator routes.

If you’re in Medellin sometime and you’re curious to check out the positive urban transformation that is ongoing in Comuna 13 and other parts of the city, I would recommend using Comuna 13 Tours, which has a very knowledgeable, kind, and helpful staff members who are bilingual and want to share their city with foreigners out of the goodness in their heart. This is not an official endorsement and I don’t get paid or receive any benefits from mentioning this tour on my website.

I’m doing it because I really enjoyed the experience I had recently with them and I think other visitors who come to Medellin should do the same based off my positive experience using this tour group. Perhaps, most importantly of all, you’ll meet a few locals during your tour and you can see how hospitable, kind, and open they are in Comuna 13. My only advice is to be careful about your photo taking, and to be respectful of both the tour guide and the locals who are kind enough to take some time out of their day to share with you. I look forward to visiting Comuna 13 again someday and I hope to use that giant slide again too.

For more information: http://www.comuna13tours.com/

Book Recommendations – Volume III

After a five-month break, I’m back with another edition of “Book Recommendations.” I’ve had some free time on my hands lately which has allowed me to read these really great books. I would like to share my latest selections with my visitors and hope that you will check these books out for yourself.

Note: I have also posted the links to these books so you can check them out on Amazon.com. You simply need to click on the books’ images below in order to be re-directed to the Amazon page of the book itself. Enjoy.

1.) And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades In The Middle East by Richard Engel, Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC News

As someone who has studied the Middle East region extensively in college and has made a few trips to the region (Turkey, Israel, Jordan), I continue to enjoy learning about this tumultuous part of the world despite its rough past and present.

This book by Richard Engel is excellent because it comes from someone who understands the complexities and historical background of the region. He is also a great correspondent and storyteller who weaves his own history of working in the Middle East alongside the tumultuous events over the past two decades, which have fundamentally transformed the region.

Mr. Engel has been a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for over twenty years now. In this book, he clearly displays his vast knowledge of its’ history, culture, societies, and the troubles that continue to plague the region. Engel is fluent in Arabic, Italian, and Spanish. He has worked for NBC News and other major news organizations for over two decades. He re-tells his firsthand experiences and stories of starting out as a freelance journalist for the Agence France-Presse in the late 1990’s during the time of Mubarak’s Egypt. He goes on to discuss his experiences of working and living in Iraq during the collapse of Saddam’s regime and the subsequent U.S. occupation of Iraq.

In addition, Mr. Engel has also spent a lot of time covering the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the recent civil war in Syria. Richard Engel has also endured some trauma during his career as he was captured and kidnapped by ISIS in late 2012. For the readers of his book, we get personal insight into the hellish situations he has been drawn into through his accounts of witnessing the deaths and injuries of many of his journalist colleagues over the past twenty years. This book is fundamentally a more personal story as he recounts how his 20 years of covering the Middle East had affected his marriage, his friendships, and his mental state.

What I like most about this book is that Mr. Engel gives you the historical background and the straight facts of what happened in the region and why it happened. You can tell that he was both physically and emotionally affected by the wars and insurgencies that he bravely covered for the U.S. media. More than anything else, it is a well-written account of what it means to be a journalist in a very difficult region of the world for journalists. Richard Engel doesn’t preach about what should have happened or what could have been different in terms of the politics but he simply relays his past experiences for those of us who want a more personal, firsthand account of what it is like to cover the Middle East.

2.) Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Cultural Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

A world-renowned traveler, famous television show host, coolest American alive over 50 years of age. You can also add best selling-author to this list as if it wasn’t long enough. These are just a few of the titles that Mr. Bourdain has earned over the course of his life. However, most people forget that he was a very successful chef in New York City and elsewhere during the 1980’s and 1990’s. He is especially known for being the executive chef at the famed restaurant of ‘Les Halles’ in Manhattan, NY.

Due to his years in the kitchen, Kitchen Confidential is an in-depth, intriguing look into the actual process of how the food we eat in restaurants ends up on our plates. You may not feel very hungry after reading this book due to the expose on some food industry practices that could be considered unsatisfactory in terms of health regulations. I know now that I won’t ever order fish or any other seafood from a restaurant if it’s a Monday.

This book is an unfiltered look into life as a cook and Bourdain hilariously delves into stories from his past and the characters he encounters in the various kitchens he’s worked in. He discusses how he worked alongside drug dealers, degenerates, thieves, loose cannons, etc. in the kitchen but that didn’t detract from the excellent chefs that they made themselves out to be. If anything, Bourdain argues, their eccentricities and attention to details help make these people into great cooks.

Kitchen Confidential is also useful in that Bourdain gives tips and advice to his readers on how to cook and prepare food better. His advice ranges from what kind of knives are best to which simple gadgets make the most difference in having a decent kitchen to cook in. If you like his travel shows and his antics as a TV host, you will most certainly enjoy this book.

3.) Connectography: Mapping The Future of Global Civilization by Parag Khanna

The race to win the 21st century will not be a race between militaries, or of competing arms but of overall connectivity. Mr. Khanna argues that whichever country becomes the most connected to the global supply chains of trade, finance, technology, infrastructure, etc. will stand to benefit most in our current globalized world. A geopolitical strategist, consultant, and world traveler, Mr. Khanna displays his in-depth knowledge of international affairs and geopolitics from his past travels and from his extensive research.

From Ukraine to the UAE and from China to Nigeria, Mr. Khanna details how national borders are no match for the global supply chains that are increasingly emerging. Physical boundaries of geography are becoming less important than the priorities of developing high-speed rail lines, building intercontinental pipelines, expanding the World Wide Web, along with increasing energy outputs and resource trading among many different nations.

While some prominent figures in politics are advocating for resurgent nationalism and wall-building, Mr. Khanna understands that this perspective is detrimental in a world which is becoming more fundamentally connected. In the 21st century, countries and continents need each other now more than ever. With ten trillion dollars and growing being spent per year on infrastructure, transportation, energy, and communications, this trend is likely to continue unabated.

Among the notable ideas in this great book that Mr. Khanna highlights are the emerging North American Union with related maps in the book showing how the United States, Canada, and Mexico are becoming more interdependent. China is also connecting itself to many of its neighbors in Eurasia through gas, oil pipelines and freight rail networks.

In Connectography, Mr. Khanna gives us an in-depth perspective on the world’s growing interdependence and how its’ affecting our everyday lives. While there are numerous challenges to this worldwide trend, which are also highlighted in the book, Mr. Khanna strikes on a final note of optimism. Even with the difficulties and struggles of climate change, terrorism, civil wars, etc., only a more inclusive, connected global society can meet these challenges head on and succeed together.