Thursday, March 27, 2008

Valis by Philip K. Dick

Like most of Philip K. Dick’s novels, the main characters around which the story of Valis revolves are engaging, sympathetic, and mirrors of the social and psychological complexities faced by mankind. Unlike his other novels, however, the main characters in Valis are actually PKD himself. This results in the occasional switch from first and third person narrative, and several instances in which the author and the author surrogate interact with one another.

Valis (the name assigned by the main characters to their vision of God) is less of a novel than it is a fictionalized account of PKD’s own spiritual journey. Because of this, a good portion of the middle becomes bogged down with in depth descriptions of PKD’s theological views and theories. Anyone not well versed in Gnosticism and Metaphysical Theory will be tempted to skim several pages of text at a time, and might even debate whether finishing the book is worth the trouble. This will be especially true of readers who are only familiar with his early science fiction work and not prepared for a crash course in PKD’s exegesis. In some ways, Valis could be considered PKD’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, except the focus of this road trip isn’t the American Dream, but the True Nature of God.

Above all else, PKD is a master storyteller, and this is what saves Valis from being a stuffy and unintelligible pseudo-memoir about a spiritual journey. The uncertainty of the narrator’s true identity (both to the reader and the narrator), as well as the sympathetic nature of his plight and the conspiracy-drenched plot twists reminiscent of Robert Anton Wilson (whom PKD mentions in the book) will keep you interested enough to struggle through the denser passages. But you also find yourself riveted as you gain closer insight into the mind of one of the greatest science fiction authors of the last century.

Valis is a perfect snapshot of a time not so long ago, when there existed a movement of authors that eagerly blended the lines between science-fiction and spiritualism. It was a time when optimism regarding mankind’s future potential was almost intoxicating, and the experimental expansion of the mind and spirit were deemed as important as technological advancements. Looking back, it may seem a bit naive and fanciful, but it was also full of hope and wonder, two traits that seem to be lacking more and more with today’s sci-fi authors.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Hedge Hunters by Katherine Burton

When I picked up Hedge Hunters by Katherine Burton, I had no idea what a hedge fund was. Now that I’m finished with it, I’m still not sure what they are all about. But that’s okay, because the book’s goal isn’t to explain hedge funds. Its purpose is to give the reader a glimpse at the diverse personalities and backgrounds of the most influential and successful of these maverick investors.

Burton does so expertly, sharing biographies and investment strategies of both long-term masters of the field and the up-and-coming talent that threaten to take over the field in the years to come.

The business strategies and attitudes of these hedge barons are as diverse and eclectic as the market itself, as are their motivations and origins, and each bio offers an interesting perspective that will keep you reading until the very end.

So you may not understand hedge funds any more than you did before you read Hedge Hunters, but you will definitely have a better understanding of the traders who have mastered them.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

On Becoming an Alchemist: A Guide for the Modern Magician by Catherine MacCoun

Having read several self-help and personal-improvement books over the past few years, the recent trends are hard to ignore. Most of the books on the market covering these themes tend to simplify life changes and introspective reevaluation to the point of claiming it is as easy as saying ‘Yes I Can’. With the popularity of The Secret and guided imagery, even talking to yourself is taken out of the equation, and simply wishing or imagining personal improvements is supposed to be enough to bring about radical change.

So reading Catherine MacCoun’s book, On Becoming an Alchemist: A Guide for the Modern Magician, is a much needed breath of fresh air in what has always seemed a cliché and uninspired genre.

MacCoun’s title and subject matter may at first put some readers off with its references to arcane alchemical arts and magical properties. But what she has actually managed is to offer a fresh perspective into how people make choices, perceive the world around them, and live their lives. She does so by introducing us to an innovative blend of spiritualism and psychology, in much the same way that Alchemy itself blends scientific observation with objective mysticism.

Granted, chapters like the one that uses scenes and terminology from Harry Potter to illustrate a point may take the magician aspect of the book a tad too far for some people. But the message within is much more grounded in reality than some of the ‘guided imagery’ feel-good books cluttering the bookstore shelves these days.

The true test of any book of this nature is the ability of the reader to glean something constructive and useful from its pages, even if they do not buy into the author’s overall message. Readers of MacCoun’s latest will undoubtedly have no trouble walking away wiser and more aware, no matter their take on becoming a Modern Magician. And that, as they say, is magic.

Chris Wallace and Brown-Haired-Guy-Who-Is-Not-Steve-Doocy team up against Fox & Friends

Every now and then, a tiny sliver of sunlight breaks through the dismal clouds of despair that forever obscure the blue skies of hopefulness. It is during these brief moments, when unexpected miracles prove my cynical world-views to be less then concrete, that I find myself wondering if maybe there isn't a higher power who loves us all and is slowly guiding us towards the utopian existence that all mankind truly deserves.

Of course, I could just be experiencing an extreme case of sugar poisoning from the seventy-two Cadbury Eggs I ingested this morning.

Or, it could be the complete mental shock from seeing not one, but TWO Fox News Zombies rebel against their soulless masters and speak out in favor of a little rational debate.

First, the Brown-Haired-Guy-Who-Is-Not-Steve-Doocy makes the mistake of trying to inject a little intellectual honesty into the F&F "Typical White Person" Obama quote, and finds out exactly how painful it is to smack your head up against that particular brick wall:

Then, just to sweeten the pie, Chris Wallace comes on (apparently to talk about such hot-button political topics as his bathroom and his tie) and takes a moment to scold the kids on F&F:

In case you missed it, not only did Wallace accuse the F&F goons of being deceptive and unfair, he also wondered aloud if the News Media as a whole isn't responsible for this pointless diversions that keep us away from discussing any real facts or issues.

I could just kiss the camera guy for the quick flashes of the F&F host's faces as Wallace broke ranks and criticized his own for being exceptionally inane. Not even Doocy's smarmy Pseudo-Hannity shit-eating-grin could mask his displeasure at being scolded by the news reporter and a guest. And isn't it cute how Gretchen keeps trying to act like the intelligent voice of reason? She might come of a bit more likable and less irritating if she stopped ad-libbing and treating her co-anchor position more like her Miss America position, which is most likely what the Fox heads expected when they signed her up.

Say what you want about Wallace (I have no real love for the man myself), he sure new how to slap Doocy down when he claimed that Wallace hadn't heard everything they said. "Well, I heard enough." *snicker*

I haven't had this much fun watching Fox since the time Geraldo Rivera and Shepard Smith both rebelled against Hannity while reporting live from New Orleans during the Katrina Debacle:

Happy Easter. Let's hope this is only the beginning.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Book Review: Orpheus in the Bronx by Reginald Shepherd

Having never heard of Reginald Shepherd before picking up Orpheus in the Bronx, I was expecting nothing more than a collection of poems interspersed with dry musings on poetry and life. What I found myself immediately engrossed in, however, was a rich examination of the life and mind of a bold and unflinching artist.

In this collection of essays, Shepherd not only shares his thoughts on other poets and poetic forms; he also examines the personal influences on his own creative output. Partly autobiographical in nature, the book delves into the author’s struggles as a child growing up in the ghetto, but existing and surviving as a gay black man as well. His recollections are both stark and poignant, and give the reader a better understanding of the poet’s soul.

While knowing and understanding poetry will make certain sections of this book much more enjoyable, there is plenty of philosophy, civil/cultural debate, and insightful reflection to draw in intelligent readers of all creative backgrounds.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Book Review: The Jerusalem Diet

Diet books tend to fall into two major categories: those truly designed to help people, and those shamelessly designed to exploit a readership desperately searching for help. The Jerusalem Diet, sad to say, seems to fall firmly into the latter category.

The book starts to fall apart before you even open the cover. The Jerusalem Diet is not (as the authors repeatedly admit) a diet book. This is easy enough to believe, considering the book contains no specific nutritional information, but rather vague hints and suggestions, like eat healthier foods, and don’t eat cake. Cake is actually one of the few foods mentioned specifically, and it is brought up repeatedly throughout the first third of the book. Apparently, the authors believe that the overwhelming cause of obesity is an overabundance of cake eating.

It also has nothing to do with Jerusalem, other than that the principles of the book are loosely founded on the teachings of a deceased spiritual guru based in Jerusalem. The introduction claims that the book is dedicated to her memory, although the actual dedication singles out the daughters of the authors instead. The picture of a nondescript wall on the cover (behind a silhouette of a thin woman wearing a tape measure like a belt, of course), while made out of Jerusalem Stone, has nothing to do with anything, to say the least.

Two misrepresentations and a contradiction, and we aren’t even into the diet part of the book yet.

Not that there’s anything resembling a diet in there. Barely any nutritional information is mentioned, and what little that does appear is frustratingly vague. Oh, there is mention of calories, carbs, and deciding between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, but the reader is pretty much left to decipher the meanings behind these for themselves.

Instead, the JD spends most of its time proposing thinking exercises reminiscent of The Secret. Why offer a structured diet plan with menu suggestions when you can tell your reader to ask themselves “Am I eating this to make myself thin” before each meal? Where most diet books would offer recipes and healthy snack alternatives, roughly two-thirds of the JD consists of imaging exercises designed to help you think yourself thin, like fixing a clock or trying to get your fist out of a jar. My personal favorite: visualize yourself unzipping a fat suit and stepping out of it. Yes sir, I can feel the pounds melting away with that one.

The implication behind most of these thought exercises is that overweight people are that way due solely to impulsive and emotional eating habits (like eating too much cake, as the author repeatedly admonishes). This attitude doesn’t take into account weight problems brought on by undiagnosed medical problems, varying metabolic rates, and poor nutritional education. Such an approach also gives the authors any easy out; if the diet doesn’t work for you, than you obviously don’t want to be thin, or are subconsciously sabotaging yourself. What’s worse, this kind of diet approach turns the dieter against themselves, making it a battle against some phantom enemy within rather than the fight to control the body’s consumption of calories for energy.

Of course, I might feel this way about the JD because I’m a man. The authors state in the beginning of the book that, while men might read the JD, it is really meant for women. (Why not mention this somewhere on the cover?). The reason, according to the author, is that men and women eat for different reasons. This is news to me. Men may be from Mars and women may be from Venus, but both are motivated to eat by hunger, comfort, and habit. And both are capable of losing weight.

Then again, maybe I’m biased because I don’t trust a diet book written by a Psychologist and an Editor, neither with a nutritional background. Or maybe I just can't any diet book seriously that suggests the reader purchase a journal and plenty of crayons. A scale and a pedometer, maybe. A coloring book, no can do.

If you are the kind of person who believes that simply thinking about good things actually makes them happen, by all means, enjoy The Jerusalem Diet. If you a rational human being in serious need of weight loss guidance, then your money will be better spent on a visit with a nutritionist and healthy cookbook.