A New Adventure Awaits

peace_corps
U.S. Peace Corps in Colombia – I’m excited to serve and ready for this journey to begin.

In just one week from now, I will begin my training to become a Volunteer for the United States Peace Corps in Colombia starting in mid-January of 2016. For my three months of training, I will be living in a town called Santo Tomas, which is about 45 minutes outside of Barranquilla. For my work and living situation, after I’m sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I will be located in a site close to the Atlantic Coast of Colombia close to the cities of either Barranquilla, Santa Marta, or Cartagena. The school where I will be teaching and the community that I will be living in has not been announced yet due to the fact that I haven’t completed my training yet.

This will not be my first time living overseas for an extended period of time. Previously, I lived in Istanbul, Turkey last year as an ESL teacher at a private high school. I also studied for a semester at Bogazici University in Istanbul as well when I was in college. My first overseas living experience occurred when I was 16 years old in Costa Rica where I studied Spanish for a summer there in a language homestay program. I have become quite comfortable with adjusting to a new lifestyle and territory by now. However, it still may take me a few months to adapt to the new culture and hot climate.

My family and my friends have been very supportive of my decision over the past year and a half to pursue service in the U.S. Peace Corps. It’s not easy to be away from your family and friends for a long period of time but they all know about the good work that I will be doing in Colombia. They understand the importance of volunteering and serving. I would not be where I am today without the support of my father, mother, and my brother especially. They have been great to me throughout the whole application and selection process.

My main project while serving in Colombia will be developing, and improving upon the ‘Teaching English for Livelihoods’ program. I hope to work with local Colombian teachers to advance the English curriculum and materials that they are using to teach the students. I believe that with hard work and effort, we can make real progress in creating an effective way of teaching English and improving the English proficiency levels of the Colombian students. I also would like to expand upon tutoring and after-school programs related to English learning and making sure that the students see learning English as fun and useful to them.

I look forward to being apart of a new school and a new community. I am excited to explore my surroundings and to learn about the Colombian culture and their customs. I will be very happy to work with my Colombian colleagues as well at the school and hope that I can make a real difference in improving the English level of the students that I hope to help during my service. I want to immerse myself in becoming fluent in Spanish, learning the local dances, and tasting the Colombian cuisine as well.

My motivation to join Peace Corps was because of a number of different factors. I had a desire to volunteer and serve a purpose greater than myself. I felt that I could contribute a lot to the Peace Corps’ Education sector given my previous background and experiences as an ESL teacher. I wanted to explore a new country and a new culture as well. Spanish was the first foreign language that I learned as well so I hope to use this exciting opportunity to become fluent and to connect more easily with the locals in my community. It was also important to me to volunteer and contribute to the wider world in some way. I hope I can be an example to other Americans who want to be part of something bigger than themselves but are not sure where to begin.

When I leave Colombia, I want to leave behind a school and community that is better off than it was before I arrived. My main goal is to help the local teachers to develop an effective English language curriculum that will last for many years after I depart them. I hope to foster better relations between Americans and Colombians through my actions and my relationships that I hope to build between our two peoples.

I wish to help as many students as possible with their English language skills whether its through tutoring, after-school programs, etc. so that they can become bilingual and have a brighter future. Above all else, I would like to make new, lasting friendships and to be considered an honorary member of their community by the time I leave.

I leave in less than a week and I’m excited to begin and complete my training over the next three months. All I have left is the final packing of my bags and I’m off to Miami for the staging event!

There will be a change of focus for my blog from this point forward as I will focus on writing about my experiences and adventures living in Colombia. I hope to write about the cuisine, customs, culture, and food of my adopted country for the next 27 months. I hope that you will follow me on this exciting journey. Thank you very much for your continuing viewership and support. (Muchas Gracias y Saludos para todos! Vamonos!)

The Season for Gratitude

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“What are you grateful for?”

Gratitude is an important attribute that often gets overlooked nowadays with the fact that the instant gratification and fast-paced living of our culture takes precedence. However, in light of the recent terrible and horrific events that have occurred in Beirut, Paris, Ankara, and elsewhere, it’s important to take note before the upcoming holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the upcoming New Year of what we should be thankful for having in our lives.

It is relatively easy for people to take for granted the luxuries and conveniences that we have in the modern world. Most of us should look inwards to realize just how lucky and fortunate we are. There are people within our own country and other countries around the world that still struggle with poverty, homelessness, disease, violence, war, environmental changes, and terrorism. While we may not all suffer from the same problems depending on the country, we share the planet together and the empathy to understand that the whole of humanity is still in this together. I plan to use the upcoming holiday season, especially Thanksgiving, to reflect on what I am thankful for in this world and to reflect on this past year.

That is the true spirit and meaning of these holidays. It is the chance to spend time with loved ones, enjoy great food and drinks, but to also reflect and think of how fortunate you may be in this crazy world of ours. The new iPhone or the next gadget is not what makes the holiday season special. It’s our strong connection to our friends and family, our ability to reflect on the recent changes of our lives, and to be thankful for how good the world can be sometimes regardless of how ugly it can look to us at other times.

Here are the reasons why I’m thankful in 2015:

-I have a great family and a solid group of friends who will have my back and support me in whatever I choose to pursue, even if I decide to move halfway around the world on a whim. My parents, my brother, and other close family and friends help me to be a better person and inspire me to achieve more and set my goals higher.

-I live in a great country, which affords me a lot of opportunities if you work for them and have an open mind. It may have its flaws like any country does in this world but I’m proud to be a citizen of this nation and I’m grateful to have been born and grown up here.

-I have access to clean water, electricity, good food, and great health facilities that allow me to stay healthy and live well compared to others in this world that aren’t as fortunate.

-I can read countless books, educate myself in various subjects, and access the Internet to help me understand the world better and learn more to obtain more knowledge, make myself smarter. I don’t know what I would do without access to the Internet but for countless millions, they still aren’t able to take advantage of this precious resource.

-I enjoy making money from a profession that helps people in different countries around the world and it is a fulfilling job that I really like and has benefited my life in different ways.

-I am glad that I started this blog of mine two months ago, which has helped me to develop my writing abilities and make this hobby of mine a reality. I have some big plans for this website in 2016 and I am looking forward to sharing my future plans with my loyal readers very soon.

-I am happy to have had the unique ability to travel to many countries around the world so far at my age and I have learned so much from those experiences. It’s provided me great insight about different histories, cultures, foods, and societies, which is why it is so important to get your passport and get out there. Not many people are able to travel unfortunately and I hope that will change in the future as the world becomes more and more globalized. However, I’m not done traveling yet and I am looking forward to continuing my adventures in 2016 and beyond.

I will be taking a bit of a hiatus from my blog over the next two weeks to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. In the meantime, check out my blog entry archives, look at my travel photography, and get in touch with me if you would like to.

I wish my readers in the United States a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving(!). For my international readers from around the world, I encourage and implore you all to realize the importance of having gratitude within you and to share it with your fellow man and woman.

 

 

The Culture of Dressing Down

Personal appearance is very important to how human beings generally judge one another even before we have a chance to open our mouths to to say something verbally. That’s a harsh truth for some to deal with but it is absolutely correct that what you wear can leave a positive or negative impact on how you are perceived by others. A major factor that plays into our overall appearance is how we dress ourselves. I am no fashion expert by any means but I have noticed recently and many others have as well that our culture has embraced dressing down in almost every situation, whether in a public or private setting. Instead of putting some work into our style and our appearance, most people today do not put in any effort at all and it’s very disappointing to see on a daily basis.

"Women in the 1940's - Fashion"
“Women in the 1940’s – Fashion”

Going back to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations by looking at old photographs, watching old movies from that era, and seeing the attire that both men and women committed themselves to, it’s quite impressive to witness when compared to the lack of effort that most people subscribe to nowadays. Whether it was going to the supermarket, watching a film or play, and especially going out to a restaurant, both the rich and the poor, the young and the old, did their best to look their best. I would say that it’s becoming increasingly rare for most people to dress up even if its’ just to go out to dinner or to see a live show.

There was a recent news story that caught my attention where it showed the photographs of people in line to go see ‘Les Miserables’ on Broadway in New York City but instead of wearing suits and dresses, the photos showed most of the theater-goers wearing cargo shorts, tank tops, and flip flops. I can’t fault these people for not knowing how others dressed in the past to watch plays, or enjoy the opera but it shows a lack of awareness of the situation and type of event that you’re going to. When you’re going to the theater or the opera, you shouldn’t be dressing up like you’re attending a baseball game.

"Men in the 1950's - Fashion"
“Men in the 1950’s – Fashion”

Some may say that how we dressed in previous generations was conformist, boring, and dated but you cannot doubt that those same folks displayed class, sophistication, and attention to detail at the same time. No generation is perfect or has all of the answers but the fact that they put effort into their appearance and how they looked everyday says a lot overall. ‘Dressing Up’ didn’t use to be for only a special occasion but was a day-to-day ritual for most. I also believe that nice dress clothes were more affordable back then and, the major clothing companies encouraged their sale to the American public. It’s only been since the 1960’s and onwards where casual became cool and wearing blue jeans, shirts, and shorts out in public became normal and culturally acceptable.

"Compare and contrast the fashion today with that of the 1940's and 1950's..."
“This picture is a great example of how not to dress when going to the theater…”

I have to admit that I am guilty of not dressing up for most social occasions these days but it is something in my own life that I am going to start changing. Recently, I’ve made it a point to look my best if it’s for a dinner out on the town, a theater play, or another classier type of social gathering. I don’t envision most people suddenly changing their ways too much where men will wear suits to the grocery store or women will wear dresses when going to the dry cleaners but I think that a balance between casual and formal wear has to be struck.

Instead of wearing a tank top, shorts, and flip flops when you’re shopping and/or running errands, try to wear a button-down shirt, a pair of khakis, and a nicer pair of shoes. You may be surprised on how much more seriously people will begin to take you in your personal and professional life if you start taking care of your appearance and your style. Regardless, if you’re attending a nighttime gala or heading to the local supermarket to get groceries, clothes will always make the man or woman.

John Coltrane: A Retrospective

“A true legend of his time, John Coltrane changed Jazz music forever by introducing free and experimental forms to the genre.”

“John Coltrane was a key figure in jazz, a pioneer in world music, and an intensely emotional force whose following continues to grow.”

This succinct description by author Lewis Porter in his book about the legendary Jazz musician, John Coltrane, is completely accurate. John Coltrane is to Jazz music what Neil Armstrong was to the successful Moon landings of 1960’s. He is revered not just by those involved in the world of Jazz but by people from around the world for his deep spirituality and his recognition and support of the civil rights movement in the early 1960’s.

To this day, John Coltrane remains to be the only Jazz musician to have become a saint post-humous, which was given to him by the African Orthodox Church. He also was one of the few Jazz musicians who could compete with the emerging Rock n’ Roll scene in the early 1960’s. His most famous album, titled “Love Supreme” released in 1964 was partially why Coltrane surged to popularity at a level equal to bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. What he lacked in terms of longevity in his career and sadly, his life, John Coltrane’s passion for Jazz and the spirituality his music had along with the masterful skill, improvisation he displayed playing the tenor saxophone continues to resonate today. Along with Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane is one of the few Jazz musicians to have received a Special Citation for the Pulitzer Prize in the study of music.

As a musician, John Coltrane’s contributions were immense especially during the relatively short amount of years he was on the top of the Jazz scene compared to other legends of the era. He was influential in promoting new forms of Jazz such as avant-garde and free form, which became popular during the 1960’s. Throughout his career, Coltrane was the leader of more than fifty recording sessions and then partnered along other musicians such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane started recording music in 1945 right after the conclusion of World War II for which he was enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

One of the first musicians to recognize John Coltrane’s inherent musical talent was fellow saxophonist, Charlie Parker, who played and recorded together with Coltrane during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. His most famous albums included Giant Steps (1960), My Favorite Things (1961) and A Love Supreme (1965). All three of these Jazz albums that he produced with Atlantic and then Impulse! Records are some of the best-selling albums of all time. He is also noted for collaborating with Miles Davis on some of his most famous recordings including Kind of Blue (1959) and Milestones (1958). In addition, over the course of his career, John Coltrane created many standards in Jazz music such as “Moment’s Notice”, “Lazy Bird”, “Impressions”, “My Favorite Things” and “I Want to Talk About You.”

The influence of spirituality and religion on Coltrane’s life and music is what makes him unique and rememberable more than forty years after his death. While Ornette Coleman was the musician who is credited with leading the “Free Jazz” and “Avant Garde” movements, it completely changed the perceptions of what Jazz should be to young musicians like Coltrane who were originally more technical in their play originally who adapted more of a free-form style as they encountered different influences and perspectives. His philosophy on music and life in general was that it had to be “a whole expression of one’s being.”

More than most Jazz artists of his time and era, John Coltrane was a deeply spiritual and religious person who sought out the teachings and beliefs of not just Christianity but also Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Coltrane is said to have had a religious experience, which may have held him break his heroin and alcohol addictions in the late 1950’s. When asked about this pivotal point in his life that allowed him to produce the landmark records of A Love Supreme and Meditations, Coltrane states that, “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, which has led me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” John Coltrane made many references to spirituality and different religions in many of his songs and albums. Specifically, those songs titles, “Ascension”, “Om” (Hinduism), “Amen”, “Dear Lord”, and the opening movement of Meditations which is titled, “the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” He studied the Bible, Qu’ran, Kabbalah and other Buddhist and Hindu texts making him more of a Universalist than a subscriber to any certain religion. He incorporated chants and sayings into the few lyrics within his songs as well. Coltrane worked with Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar and even named his first son after him.

Beyond Jazz, John Coltrane dove into an idea of a universal musical structure and to take these spiritual influences from around the world and implement them within his own play and style. He was not political but he desired for his own country to get beyond racial and ethnic differences such as those that were plaguing America during the early 1960’s. Through his music, he spoke out against discrimination and supported the civil rights movement and gave an emotional ode to Dr. King in the song, “Alabama” after his assassination. Despite his death at the age of 40, Coltrane inspired a new generation of Jazz musicians to carry on his free-form style and his ability to reach out to different genres of music. He has been immortalized in certain Christian churches as a saint and his birthday is often a cause of celebration around the world. It is clear that he was not over-rated and that his legacy will continue to go on as long as his music is played for all.

Sources

  1. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/john-coltrane-mn0000175553
  2. http://www.pulitzer.org/citation/2007-Special-Awards-and-Citations
  3. http://coltrane.room34.com/thesis
  4. http://www.johncoltrane.com/biography.html
  5. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/01/us/01religion.html
  6. http://thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/john-coltrane_divine-wind
  7. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3324621/Secret-of-John-Coltranes-high-notes-revealed.html

The Case Against Tipping

Tipping

A story that has captured the headlines of most major media outlets recently is New York City restaurateur, Danny Meyer’s decision to end the practice of tipping in his many well-known dining establishments in the city. Unsurprisingly, this caused a bit of an uproar as some people praised him for this decision while others fumed about how this would cause poorer service and lead to higher food prices when dining out at a restaurant. This small decision could eventually gain momentum and cause dining establishments around the country to end an outdated cultural practice here that has been prevalent since the early 1900’s but has been absent in most European countries, Japan, China, and elsewhere.

Both viewpoints hold valid concerns, however, I believe that the overall culture of tipping while helpful to servers, waiters, bartenders, hairdressers in helping them to make a living now is not the best that our society can do for them in the long run. When the minimum wage for tipped workers federally is still an extremely $2.13 per hour, and you have to fight and scrap for tips to make up the difference to crack the $7.25 per hour minimum wage that is in place for non-tipped workers, I believe we have a problem.

More and more U.S. states have taken it upon themselves to raise the minimum wage for both tipped and non-tipped workers, and I applaud those actions. However, eliminating the ‘tipped worker’ minimum wage standard along with the raising the federal wage for both tipped and non-tipped workers to between $15-$20 an hour would be the right and just thing to do. Tipped workers should be able to earn a guaranteed hourly wage that is fair and livable just like every other hard worker in the United States. Yes, with tipping involved, a server and a bartender could make more than $20 an hour especially if they provide great service but that’s not always the case and I can imagine that they could come up short of what they were expecting to make during some hours of their daily shift.

If I were a worker in the service industry, I would rather be paid a $15 or higher wage per hour than have to fight for tips each and every workday. Distribution of tips is not always equal in that not every worker from the dishwasher to the bus boy gets compensated fairly in terms of payment. Cooks and other workers at the back end of the restaurant have to compete with the servers for their tips, which could create an uneasy, and hostile work environment. Also, there are racial and gender biases that come into play as well when it comes to tipping workers that has been a problem in the past and still today.

The argument that by getting rid of tipping, the waiters, bartenders, hairdressers, etc. would then provide mediocre or worse service to their customers is a faulty one. If tipped workers suddenly found themselves making a $15 or $20 minimum wage and had a chance to advance in their business or industry through other incentives like vacation time, health care coverage, sick days off, etc. then they would feel better about their jobs. They would want to provide good service because how much better their employers would be treating them due to the changes in laws and regulations. I have traveled to countries in Europe and the Middle East where there is little to no tipping culture yet the service is still fine. The servers there may not have asked me how my meal was but I got used to it after a while and appreciated that they would let me eat and talk in peace. If I needed something from them, I would just call them over politely as well. I also left them an extra 10% on top of the cost of my meal despite the tip not being mandatory to show my appreciation for their hard work.

Lastly, when the time the bill comes, it’s often a struggle to figure about how much of a percentage out of the total to give the waiter/waitress, whether or not the service charge is already included or not, what is the amount of tax added on to the food, and/or alcohol that was ordered. To me, it’s always been a giant headache to pay the bill at the end of the meal, especially in larger groups. It’s because you end up doing the calculations on your own and you never know how much you’ll be paying in total until the end. I would prefer to have the extra costs of the service and taxes be added onto the costs of the food. This is what type of system that Danny Meyer and others will be implementing in their business. If this change gets implemented on a wide scale, every customer will know exactly what is to be paid at the end of the meal. By the time you sit down and look at the menu, you will know how much everything will cost and how much money you’ll be throwing down to pay without worrying about the added tip and tax.

As it still stands now, the culture of tipping in the United States is heavily entrenched and has been around for over a hundred years now. However, given that some leading restaurant business owners are starting to set their own policies, against using the service/tip charge than maybe a real change is finally going to happen. I believe that these tipped workers in different sectors will be happy with these changes to the industry and will still provide ‘service with a smile.’

Duke Ellington: A Retrospective

'Jazz Legend' Duke Ellington: Playing the Piano (Circa -1940's)
‘Jazz Legend’ Duke Ellington: Playing the Piano (Circa -1940’s)

Edward Kennedy Ellington is rightly considered to be one of the leading figures and original titans of Jazz music. In addition to writing over 1,500 compositions, he was one of the most successful bandleaders and pianists of his time. To this day, he has stood the test of time and is one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century as well. Along with being a major figure in Jazz, Ellington’s music also delved into other musical genres such as blues, gospel, classical music and popular film scores.

His career was one of the longest of all the Jazz legends, spanning about 50 years from the 1920s to the 1970s. He was a versatile musician and was extremely dedicated to this work. In addition to running his big band and orchestra, Ellington composed new songs, put on many world tours and also scored the music for stage musicals and films. Many of his instrumental works have become Jazz standards that the average listener should be well aware of and familiar with many of Ellington’s compositions.

His ability to be an entertainer as well as a performer helped elevate Jazz to a level where it was considered to be equal or even more influential than most other genres of music during the early 20th century. He was the first musician to really incorporate the idea of using a big band and/or orchestra to really propel jazz/swing as being distinct forms of music with their own style and substance. Ellington came from a modest upbringing in a middle class black neighborhood in Washington D.C. and was considered by others to charismatic, compassionate and a brilliant and dedicated musician. He is as well known for his ability to entertain people as he is for his excellent piano playing.

Ellington would often refer to the music he played not as jazz but as “American” or “Negro” music and helped his orchestra’s musicians and others to develop their own jazz standards and compose for them. Some of the names for which he helped out so graciously were for Johnny Hodges’s “Jeep’s Blues”, Cootie Williams’ “Concerto for Cootie” and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” Many of his band members stayed with him throughout the five decades for which they were active. In addition to his band members, Ellington also worked alongside other musicians of the time such as Billy Strayhorn, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. Some of Ellington’s best known songs include, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”, “Mood Indigo”, “Black and Tan Fantasy”, “Sophisticated Lady” and “Satin Doll” among many others. While which song exactly made the Duke most famous is a hotly debated topic, some argue that it is “Mood Indigo” which thrust him upon the world stage and gave him global fame for the rest of his career. When Ellington was once asked, what made him inspired to write, record and play music, he replied, “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people.”

Location played an important role in influencing Duke Ellington’s musical contributions to society. With each song he wrote and composed, he would try to tell a story about his community, his life and his race. It is no coincidence due to the Duke’s popularity and his wide following throughout America as one of the first prominent black musicians that he was often times referred to as a “race man.” People referred to him as this because of the cultural and social impact that he had as a popular musician representing the African-American community at a time when there were few black performers and entertainers in music. This was particularly due at the time to Jim Crow laws and general intolerance, racism towards the African-American community in many parts of the United States. Duke Ellington in a way broke through the color barrier along with Louis Armstrong because of those who came before them when it came to music in America during the early 1900’s. Ellington was an instrumental musician in bringing Jazz music outside of New Orleans to towns and cities across the country especially in New York City when he hit the big time and made his home starting in 1927, at the famous “Cotton Club” in Harlem. From that and other clubs, his big band/orchestra set the bar high when it came to playing brilliant jazz, swing, classical and other forms of music. Over the course of his career, He made jazz and swing music into American music as he traveled around the world for thousands of performances in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There is no doubt to the average learner and student of Jazz that Duke Ellington is one of it’s most important figures in its’ history. He was the genre’s most important composer, one of its’ most highly regarded performers and band leaders who employed many talented black and white musicians believing that everyone should have the chance to play regardless of the color of their skin. Ellington’s compositions are studied and played over and over by many musicians today and his prowess at the piano is often overlooked but was also instrumental in talking about his legacy as a musician. It’s fair to say that there will only ever be one “The Duke” and those who follow his lead. His work is also very important in describing American culture and music. His legacy is still vibrant today as many young people continue to pursue the arts and perform in music groups. They strive to play jazz and other types of music because of men like the Duke himself.

Book Recommendations – Volume I

As the Fall season turns into Winter and people start going into hibernation mode as the weather gets cold and snowy, here is my 1st volume of book recommendations that will last you through the next few months:

catch-22_cover

 1.) Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is my favorite book of all-time and has been ever since I read it at the young age of 16. This was the first novel that I had read which was satirical in content and utilized the concept the dark humor, which made it an enjoyable and fun read. Main characters such as Yossarian, Orr, Chaplain, Nately, Snowden, etc. were all really well-developed so you know who they were and their individual backgrounds before the end of the novel. It did help that for the first part of the book, each of the first eleven chapters were told from a different character’s perspective rather than focusing on Capt. John Yossarian for every chapter.

Describing the events from different points of view through the third-person in a non-chronological order really made it unique in a way. This made Catch-22 an easier read as this kind of format gave me as the reader the chance to put the different events together into a singular plotline rather than spell it all out for me as other non-fiction novels usually do. This novel also introduced to me several important themes that I have thought about or come into conflict with in my own life. Examples of some of these themes being: Absurdity, ridiculousness of bureaucracy, questioning one’s religious faith, and the power, influence of greed and capitalism over others.

freedom-cover

2.) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is another favorite and an excellent fiction novel focusing on an American family, the Berglund’s, and the complex relationships that they have with each other, their friends, and their lovers. Their story takes place over the course of one generation from the late 1970’s up until the beginning year of the Obama administration, in 2009. Each family member is well represented in Franzen’s novel with the narrative flow going from Walter (the father) to Patty (the mother), and then on to the children of Joey and Jessica. Franzen also develops his supporting characters to be an integral part of the story such as Richard Katz, Lalitha, Connie, and Jenna who all play a role in the unfolding of the novel. Freedom also successfully goes back and forth from first-person to third-person narrative quite easily and without any major hiccups.

One of my favorite things about this novel is that incorporates into the plot the major events in American history and society that have happened over the past generation. Examples of these events in the book include the burgeoning environmentalist movement, 9/11, the Iraq war, and the rise of social media. I believe Franzen does a great job of bringing out the peculiarities and absurdities that encompasses American suburban life and he really shows you how the family changes over the years due to these outside events but also the changing relationships that mark these people’s lives. A fascinating novel overall, I highly recommend it.

unwindingbook

3.) The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer is my favorite non-fiction novel and a book that should be read by any American who wants to understand the current state of our society, culture and our politics. Packer is an excellent reporter for The New Yorker who previously wrote a book about the struggles of the U.S. endeavor in Iraq in The Assassin’s Gate. Packer got the inspiration for writing this novel after he comes home from Iraq and witnesses the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the markets. Along with the auto industry, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he realizes that the major institutions that have held America together with a sense of unity were falling all around him. The author does an excellent job of focusing on three ordinary Americans and detailing their personal history from the beginning of ‘The Unwinding’ in the late 1970’s up until the 2012 election.

These three people are Dean Price, a struggling tobacco farmer in North Carolina who wants to revitalize the farmland by providing biofuel to school buses; Tammy Thomas, a black woman from Youngstown, Ohio who becomes a community organizer after losing her job multiple times from the closure of the factory plants along this rust belt city; and Jeff Connaughton, who comes to Washington as a staffer for Senator Joe Biden but becomes disillusioned by the lobbying, big finance levers that are pulling the strings of our politicians and leaders. One of my favorite things about this book is that Packer contrasts these three ordinary Americans with the giants of American pop culture, politics, music, and society by giving brief chapters devoted to the success of individuals of Oprah, Peter Thiel, Sam Walton, Jay-Z, Newt Gingrich, Alice Waters, etc. A must read in my opinion.

thesocialanimal

4.) The Social Animal by David Brooks is another great non-fiction novel that I have read and re-read over the past couple of years. Out of all the books on this list, it has probably influenced me the most as a person. I usually disagree with Brooks’ op-ed columns in The New York Times due to his conservative leanings but when it comes to sociology, human psychology and understanding the sub-conscious, Brooks has done the research and it really shows through in this book. The most fascinating aspect of this book is how he sets it up as a fictional novel with a male and a female character named Harold and Erica respectively.

Mr. Brooks uses a lot of recent research and findings to assert conclusions and summaries while charting an imaginary course for these two characters’ lives from Birth/Early Life to Death. My favorite chapter of the book and an area that relates to me personally is when Brooks describes the recent phenomenon of ‘The Odyssey Years’ or a person’s twenties where they are deciding what to do with career, marriage, and whether or not to have children. Brooks contrasts the ‘On The Road’ vs. ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ type of lifestyles that young people often choose between as they come out of the Odyssey years. He details the differences of how to live such as ‘Single v. Married’ and decides its better for a person to establish roots in a community rather than going from place to place indefinitely. He makes a compelling argument using recent research for explaining what molds us into who we become in each major stage of our lives.

howardzinn
5.) A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn should be mandatory reading for any high school student in America who’s enrolled in a U.S. history class. Unfortunately, it wasn’t required reading for me in my Advanced Placement course which was a shame. Luckily, I was able to read it during my senior year of high school when a family member recommended the book to me and left me with a copy. The lasting appeal of Zinn’s novel is that unlike many other history books, it deals with the lives of ordinary Americans struggling through the different, tumultuous periods of our short history and the author does an excellent job of relying upon interviews, data, and statistics to give their side of the story.

Learning about the struggles of the Native Americans, the Women’s Rights movement, Civil Rights movement and other marginalized Socialists and Labor Rights activists like Eugene V. Debs was illuminating for millions of readers and myself. If only more politicians and the elite would read Zinn’s words, perhaps we as Americans would learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past and truly realize the notion of “Equality for all.” Lastly, one chapter of A People’s History that I continue to believe is very prescient even today is titled, “The Coming Revolt of The Guards” where Zinn hints at the discontent of American society even back in the early 2000’s due to the collapse of organized labor, growing wealth inequality, and the marginalization of the poor. Even though it’s a non-fiction book rooted in the past, Mr. Zinn had a lot of words of warning for our collective future.

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