Book Recommendations – Volume VIII

As always, the summer season is an excellent time to be catching up on personal reading. One of my favorite activities during the summer is to lie out in the park or at the beach and dive into some books that have piqued my interest. Whether you are a fiction fan or a non-fiction fan, there are a lot of excellent books out there to keep you occupied. My three choices for reading this summer deal with non-fiction topics yet I hope they peak your interest as well even if you are a fiction fan.

1.) “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari

Click Me!

The follow-up to Harari’s first book, ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ dives into the promise, the challenges, and the problems facing humanity as we go through the 21st century and beyond. ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ looks at how human beings got to this point in our collective history and how we will need to come up with new solutions whether political, economic, or social to adapt to this current age of rapid technological and climatic change. Clearly, this book deals with more speculation on the part of Harari as he lays out a number of possibilities that could come about in this century and beyond, rather than solely focusing on past human history as ‘Sapiens’ did.

Harari devotes a large part of the book to the fact at how much progress has been made across humankind in terms of eradicating disease, famine, and also how war has been limited in a time of relative peace and prosperity. The question that Harari poses is what will humanity focus its efforts on now that we have been able to get past in large part major sources of human suffering in the form of disease, famine, and war. Mr. Harari makes the argument that humanity will focus a lot of its collective effort on artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, machine learning, etc.

The goal particularly of the rich and wealthy will be to conquer death and achieve immortality through various means that the author goes more into detail about. However, how will social harmony be insured as artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning wipe out a large percentage of human jobs over the next few decades? Will the rights of the individual be maintained when a large part of the population no longer are able to find work or where they can receive adequate educational training for the jobs of tomorrow?

Harari is a sociologist so the details of the actual engineering and technology that would need to occur to make this shift happen is lacking in the book. However, he poses urgent questions for policymakers, economists, and other leaders as to what will happen when ‘big data’ algorithms know us and our desires better than they ever have. How will the meaning of ‘work, leisure, and relationships’ change as artificial intelligence continues to advance? Increasingly, Mr. Harari concludes that humans and machines will complement each other in various ways whether its in education, technology, the workplace, etc. and there can be nothing done to avoid this shift from happening in our lifetimes. What remains to be seen is how human societies react to a future where people must adapt to these technological changes to survive, prosper and how man and machine will act as they merge together beyond what was considered possible just a century ago.

2.) “Us v. Them: The Failure of Globalism” by Ian Bremmer

Click Me!

Ian Bremmer, a notable political scientist has written a new book on the populist resurgence in the United States and around the world. He tackles the failure of ‘globalism’ as an ideology and how unfortunately it doesn’t look like we will all be able to live and thrive in a truly borderless world without political, economic, and social differences getting in the way. The fear of the ‘other’ and the tendency for human beings to organize themselves in separate tribes whether it’s the form of nations, races, and religions takes precedence even today as the reaction to globalism.

Mr. Bremmer makes the argument that ‘globalism’ and ‘globalization’ are separate in their meanings as ‘globalism’ as a term is primarily political in nature while ‘globalization’ is primarily economic. Globalization will continue to expand and thrive because its’ practical for nations to engage in trade and finance at the international level to boost and grow their national economies. As long as it is economically advantageous for nations to trade and do business with each other, globalization will continue to be a mainstay in economic relations.

‘Globalism’ however has received a backlash from the rise of political populism primarily in the Western world (the U.S., the U.K.) but also in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland), and also in developing nations like India, Mexico, Turkey, etc. Issues of mass migration, cultural shifts in nations, growing income inequality have led populations to look towards protectionism and ‘strongmen-lite’ politicians to address these systemic issues. In my opinion, Bremmer correctly argues that while the world is collectively doing well in terms of economic growth and the subsequent rise in living standards, there is still a serious political recession going on with far left and far right politicians gaining stream in terms of popularity.

‘Us v. Them’ reflect the growing unease and anxiety that a lot of people have regarding ‘globalism.’ Besides the cosmopolitan populations that live in the major cities of the world and who have benefited from the cross-cultural exchange of peoples, trade, finance, etc., there are many others who feel threatened by the ‘other’ and how their country and culture may be changing as a result. Mr. Bremmer sees the happening of Brexit, the election of Trump, and the rise of strongmen around the world as a reaction to ‘globalism’, and how there are drawbacks in that many people feel left behind by their political and economic elites who enacted these policies without their support. ‘Us v. Them’ is something that has occurred throughout human history and to myself, it goes back to our fundamental nature of our willingness to divide ourselves into separate tribes and to look upon the ‘other’ with suspicion and fear.

According to Mr. Bremmer, political populism is not likely to go away anytime soon and the rise of automation, an increase in artificial intelligence, the weakening of the middle class in both the developed and developing world are likely to put continued pressure on weakening political institutions who may or may not be agile and forward-thinking enough to come up with satisfactory solutions to these 21st century issues.

3.) “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World” by Suzy Hansen

Click Me!

‘Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World’ by Suzy Hansen is a refreshing take on the way American foreign policy decisions have affected the U.S.’s relationships with certain countries such as Iran, Greece, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, and specifically the people who feel that they have been negatively affected by those decisions. The average American is likely to be unaware of how large of a role the country has played beyond its borders and how some of those decisions have left deep, festering wounds in the people of those countries who were directly affected and still haven’t forgotten.

Ms. Hansen who came from a personal background similar to mine has lived in Turkey for over ten years and has traveled to the Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Egypt looking for the perspectives of those citizens in regards to how America changed their countries, mainly for the worse. Her personal background growing up was very insular and she went to travel and live overseas in order to see her country differently.

From reading this book, it was refreshing to see Ms. Hansen do her research about the countries she was living in and visiting as well as interviewing many people in those countries to hear their stories and their perspectives. I believe that her book does a great job of enlightening Americans about negative foreign policy decisions made in the past that our country may not like to remember but is still forefront in many other countries’ perspective of the United States.

As Hansen left home and lived overseas, her innocence and that of America is stripped away because it’s a harsh truth to face yet it is one that we must all face is that America has not always done good in the world and there have been negative effects of past U.S. foreign policy decisions that heavily resonate with those peoples to this day. The key aspect of this mix of journalism and personal memoir makes this book stand out as a referendum on America’s role in the world, and how its likely to decline in the future. While our impact may lessen on our nations in the future, Hansen sees that as a possible good occurrence do the damage that has already been done.

My main critiques of this book is that while Ms. Hansen diagnoses that issues with U.S. foreign policy, I do wish there was an addition to the book where the author discusses how America can better its foreign relations in the future and to move forward positively with the countries she has become familiar with. However, to be fair, that would take a whole another book to diagnose how U.S. foreign policy should move forward. Also, I believe that this book was a bit too negative in its perspective on America and it could have been more balanced in its overall viewpoint. Ms. Hansen’s book pulls no punches and is a clear-eyed look on the blindspots of American exceptionalism and how our values have not always been well received beyond our borders.

Advertisements

Cartagena v. San Andres Island – A Comparison

24d0cbb9d14b491b89c035b207c4597c
“San Andres Island: Located Northwest of mainland Colombia and closest to the coast of Nicaragua. Very small island as you can see from this map.

If you’re in a cold, winter climate right now and you’re looking to escape the frigid temperatures and snowy weather for a little while, you should consider the following two destinations for a vacation. Recently, I was lucky enough to take two, separate trips in December to the San Andres Island in Colombia and then to the coastal, colonial city of Cartagena, which is also located in Colombia. While these destinations are similar in many respects, they are still unique in a number of ways. Depending on what you’re looking for in a tropical destination, both San Andres and Cartagena have a lot to offer for the average traveler.

San Andres Island

After visiting the San Andres Island in early December, I consider it to be a hidden gem of the Caribbean. I write this because I find it to be much less of a tourist destination than other tropical islands such as the Bahamas, Bermuda, U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba, etc. and small countries such as Jamaica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. What it lacks in notoriety and sheer size, San Andres is just as much of a Caribbean destination than other more popular islands.

The island is rich in both biodiversity and sheer crystal blue beaches that you can swim in, go snorkeling, or go riding around in a boat or Jet Ski. San Andres is blessed with vibrant coral reefs, sand banks, and outer cays, which are easy to explore by foot or by boat. You can snorkel with the fishes or go scuba diving with them depending upon your personal preference. The island is smaller than most tropical destinations at only 26 square kilometers in total area but I consider it an advantage to be able to see a good amount of the island in only a week if that’s how long you plan to stay.

There are a number of ways to get around the island including local buses, which will do a circular loop around the island and can be hailed from anywhere you are in the main street. You can also rent your own scooter or golf buggy cart to get around the island for a day or more. Taxis are also plentiful in most areas but tend to be more expensive depending on where you’re going on the island.

Most restaurants, hotels are located in the northern part of the island and tend to be a little bit cheaper than Cartagena in terms of pricing. The great thing about San Andres is that there is a number of bed and breakfast places available, which are cheaper than the major hotel chains if you’re looking to save some money. The smaller hotel chains and the bed and breakfasts are usually located closer to the island’s less popular but still very beautiful beaches, which are also less touristy overall.

During the low season for San Andres’s tourism, it’s possible to find a beach where there are few tourists around and where there’s still white sand and crystal blue waters. All you would have to do is make sure you do your research and find out where these lesser-known beaches are and take public transportation or your own scooter there for the day. You won’t find these beaches in El Centro or in the north of the island.

Luckily, I was able to find a beach like that ten minutes south of where I was staying by bus, which was the highlight of my trip. If you’re looking to visit San Andres, make sure you visit during the low season and be ready to explore the island beyond just the touristy areas. In addition to being accessible by plane from Colombia, which is the owner of the island, you can also get to San Andres from the countries of Panama and Costa Rica. With the right planning and set-up, you’ll be able to walk to the nearest tropical beach when you stay in San Andres for your visit.

Cartagena

A city with an interesting mixture of colorful, colonial buildings and modern, towering skyscrapers, Cartagena is the most popular tourist destination in all of Colombia and has been growing in popularity in recent years. Known most for being the location of the oldest Spanish colony in the Americas, Cartagena offers a lot of history, culture, and diversity to those tourists who visit its’ colonial streets, coastal beaches, or plentiful hotels. Cartagena is very easy to get to by bus, by boat, or by plane with its’ modern international airport named after former President of Colombia, Rafael Nunez who was a Cartagenero.

If you’re short on time, it would not be a complete trip to Cartagena without visiting sites like the Felipe de San Barajas Castle, which was a Spanish fortress designed to protect the city from foreign invaders and from scheming pirates. There’s also the walled colonial city with its’ colorful buildings, which have been somewhat transformed to offer restaurants, boutique hotels, and artisanal shopping to its many tourists. In my opinion, the walled colonial city still has a lot of character and its architecture is really pleasing to the eye. Costenas are among the friendliest people in Colombia and are truly welcoming to the sheer amount of tourists that come to the city each year.

While I was not able to go there during my recent trip, the La Popa hill has great views of Cartagena and you can take a tour of a monastery there with a history dating back to the 17th century. While Cartagena has a number of beaches, the best ones take some effort to get to, which can take a whole day trip back and forth. The most famous beach in the area is La Playa Blanca located on the Baru Island, where you can find white sand beaches and the crystal blue water that can’t be easily found elsewhere in Cartagena. Lastly, Cartagena is a big city with over a million residents and thousands of tourists. If you don’t get to do everything in one trip, you can rest assured knowing that it’s a city that is worth more than one visit.

Comparison

Overall, I had an excellent time during my two separate visits to Cartagena and San Andres Island. Both of these destinations have a lot to offer to the average tourist and are relatively affordable and easy to get to from other parts of the Americas. If you’re looking for a warm destination with friendly and open people, these two locations should be high on your list.

If I were to give recommendations based on what each place can offer as its’ specialty, you’ll want to give San Andres the edge in terms of its’ beaches and its’ water sports activities. The manageable size of the island to navigate along with its various modes of transportation makes it easy for the traveler to explore different beaches, coral reefs, and outer cays without having to go very far. San Andres is also a bit cheaper of a destination in terms of average lodging and food costs compared with Cartagena.

While San Andres has the advantage with its’ beaches and its’ overall costs, Cartagena shines when it comes to the history of the city, its’ open and friendly people along with the numerous options for dining and lodging. In all of the cities of Colombia, the walled colonial city of Cartagena is very special along with the San Felipe de Barajas Castle. The restaurant and nightlife scene is also much more vibrant giving the average tourist a lot to do, see, and explore at nighttime compared with San Andres.

I would suggest that while Cartagena has a number of accessible beaches, the special ones like Playa Blanca take some time to get to and are not located within the city. When it comes to crystal blue waters and white sand beaches, San Andres Island is a destination that offers that in a number of locations without too much effort needed.

The beauty of these two destinations is that they each have something special to offer the tourist, the traveler, or the backpacker. If you’re looking for beautiful beaches and water sports activities, head to San Andres Island but if you’re looking to learn more about history, culture and to experience good restaurants and nightlife, head to the city of Cartagena. Either destination has its’ own specialties and advantages. You won’t regret your time in either destination and it will be a good travel experience that you’ll have fond memories about.

‘Lost In Translation’ – Film Review and Analysis

suntory-time
“For a relaxing time, make it…Suntory time.”

One of the great films of the 2000’s, Lost In Translation is a film that is often underrated but which deserves a lot of praise and acclamation. Directed and produced by Sofia Coppola, daughter of the highly acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola, Lost In Translation is the story of two Americans of different ages who are visiting Japan for different reasons but who are struggling with similar existential crises.

Bob Harris, played by the wonderful Bill Murray, is an aging actor and movie star from Hollywood who is struggling with a mid-life crisis. He comes to Tokyo to film whiskey commercials and appear on some popular Japanese talk shows. In one of her first roles on film, the talented Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a young college graduate from Yale, who is struggling to figure out what she wants to do in her life.

While Bob and Charlotte come from different backgrounds and are of different ages, they are both struggling with adult concerns such as marriage, work, and the search for overall meaning. Bob has been married for twenty-five years whereas Charlotte has only been marries for two years. While they are at different stages in their marriages, both of them have doubts about being or staying with their partners. In addition, once they meet each other in the hotel lounge for the first time, they are drawn to each other’s personality, humor, and the fact that they are adjusting to Japanese culture for the first time.

One of the best things about Lost In Translation is the way Tokyo, Japan becomes a character in the film. The city is a sprawling metropolis with a population of over twenty million people that seems to go on forever. Since Charlotte’s husband is a director and is busy shooting for a new film and Bob’s wife is five thousand miles away, they both find time to explore and immerse themselves in the bright lights and diverse sounds of Tokyo.

The most illustrative scenes in describing the developing relationship of Bob and Charlotte take place in the karaoke bars and the hibachi restaurants where they try to adapt to the culture shock and the persistent jet-lag together. Despite being married, they feel alone and unhappy in their relationships for different reasons.

They take solace and comfort in each other’s company as they navigate the intricacies of Japanese language and culture. They start off as complete strangers in the hotel bar but then become friends over the course of their stay. Bob also acts as a life mentor to Charlotte who is in her early 20’s by giving her lessons on life, marriage, and what it’s like to have children. Bill Murray’s character comes across as someone who’s halfway through life and is honest to Charlotte about the ups’ and downs’ of it all.

Charlotte’s youth and curiosity about the world helps to change Bob too as he rediscovers the joys and thrills of being care-free and being able to laugh with someone who puts no pressure on him. After appearing on cheesy talk shows and doing uninspiring whiskey commercials, Bob is able to have fun and enjoy himself around Charlotte. From the one-sided phone conversations you hear from Bob and his wife back in Los Angeles, neither of them seem happy or fulfilled about their marriage. I don’t want to spoil the ending for those of you who haven’t watched the film but it is possible that Bob and Charlotte will find romance or love when they least expected it to happen.

I have to admit that the first time I saw Lost In Translation, it made me really want to visit Japan. The nightlife and crowded streets of Tokyo interest me quite a bit. I was also intrigued by a scene from the movie that was set in Kyoto, where Charlotte takes a high-speed train to the city to see the Shinto temples and the beautiful cherry blossoms. The cinematography and settings of the film are very moving and beautiful. Lost In Translation has a reputation of being a serious and deep film with little humor mixed in.

However, I would disagree with this assessment because there are a lot of scenes of light-hearted humor especially when Bob Harris, Bill Murray’s character is on the set for a Japanese commercial. Many things are ‘lost in translation’ as he looks for guidance and help from his translator but she never gives him the full story of what the Japanese director wants. There are other humorous scenes where Bob appears as a guest on a goofy talk show with a quirky host. Another classic moment is when a Japanese escort is sent to Bob’s hotel room and asks Mr. Bob Harris to “lip her stockings.” It’s a subtle English faux pas but I found it hilarious the first time I watched it.

Two strangers who meet in a hotel bar and get to know each other over a drink is not a new movie concept. However, the relationship that develops after that chance meeting is what makes Lost In Translation a great film. The on-screen chemistry between the two great actors, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson also draws the viewers in to the plot. There can be few other cities as magical, crazy, and hypnotizing as modern Tokyo.

The neon lights, huge skyscrapers, and hoards of people make it a unique setting, which is rarely used in Hollywood films. Lost In Translation isn’t your typical romance movie and it doesn’t have a clear-cut ending. What it does offer the viewer are the special moments of two lost souls making a deep connection with each other in a foreign city, and enjoying those experiences during the short time that they have together.

 

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.

Book Recommendations – Volume II

Being the voracious reader that I am, I have a couple of great selections for my readers out there who are looking for some excellent books to devour through during this upcoming winter. Hopefully, you’ll find Volume 2 of my recommendations as enjoyable and as entertaining as I did. Thank you.

modernromance

1.) Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg is an intriguing and insightful new book that looks at how romance and dating has been affected by the digital age. I have been a huge fan of Aziz’s comedic talents for a few years now but I was skeptical when I first purchased this book believing that he wouldn’t be able to dive that deeply into a subject as complicated as examining human relationships in the 21st century. However, he pulls this challenge off with the help of renowned sociologist, Mr. Eric Klinenberg.

Part of the appeal of this book is that its authors are serious with their research using surveys and graphs to push the argument forward but it’s not too dense so as to confuse or bore the average reader. The levity and humor added by Aziz every now and then to lighten up a heavy subject is also appreciated and is enough to keep you flipping through the pages. In addition to exploring the rise of dating apps such as Tinder and OKCupid, Aziz and Eric also travel to different countries like Argentina, Japan, France, and elsewhere to examine the cultural dating differences and similarities when compared to the U.S. For anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of today’s dating climate and how its’ vastly different from that of your parents and grandparents, then this book is for you.

sexatdawn-bookcover

2.) Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan, PHD and Cacilda Jetha, MD is an extremely fascinating book with an underrepresented and well-argued take on how and why humans mate with and stray from each other. Diving deep into our ancestral origins, Dr. Ryan and Dr. Jetha argue that in pre-agricultural / hunter-gatherer societies, men and women were more suited to sharing everything with each other such as food, water, child care, and even sexual partners.

‘Monogamy’ was not the basis for how early humans acted towards one each other in expressing sexuality. In addition, the authors’ conduct detailed research on how close humans in our physical and physiological makeup are to our closest genetic relatives, the Bonobos and the Chimps. The mating system of early humans before agriculture was very close to the way bonobos and chimps mate as well. What I found most reasonable from this book was the conclusion that the deep communal, close bonds between pre-agricultural human tribes was a less stressful, more peaceful, and overall a better way of living than what would come later in history as a result of agricultural and industrial development.

Jonathan_Franzen,_Purity,_cover

3.) Purity by Jonathan Franzen is another excellent offering by this well-renowned and talented author who previously wrote ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Corrections.’ Unlike his other novels, ‘Purity’ is a truly global novel in terms of its settings and its characters. From a squatter house in Oakland, California to a secretive compound in the highlands of Bolivia, Mr. Franzen jumps from locale to locale while following the characters that make up this intriguing story.

Without giving away too much of the details, our main protagonist is Pip ‘Purity’ Tyler who begins the novel seeking a direction and purpose after graduating from college with $130,000 in student debt. Seeking to escape from her neurotic mother and wanting to find out the identity of her unknown father, Pip makes contact with Andreas Wolf, a German man who is the founder of The Sunlight Project, an organization similar to Wikileaks who acts at the novel’s fictional competitor to Julian Assange. Pip and Andreas come into contact with each other through the wonders of modern technology leading to much more details about how their paths in life are intertwined along with those of their close family members. ‘Purity’ is a true page-turner that has deep characters with unique personalities. For fans of Mr. Franzen who enjoyed ‘Freedom’ and ‘The Corrections.’ I highly recommend ‘Purity’ as a must-read for all.

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.