Sunday, October 26, 2014

FOOD: A LOVE STORY by Jim Gaffigan

DAD IS FAT by Jim Gaffigan was a rabid mix of blog posts, essays, observations, and stand up comedy related to his real life experiences raising five kids in a two-bedroom walkup. Topical gallows humor taken from his stand-up routines for various comedy clubs and late night shows like Letterman were combined to produce his first actual book. (Previously his Mr. Universe, Beyond the Pale, King Baby, and Doing My Time were only audiobook stand-up routines, so the complaint that some of that material was reproduced there was not a valid one.) Once Jim had an actual book to sign at bookstores, he toured the country, culminating in performances at universities, arts centers, and the Mirage Hotel in Vegas. While another complaint about that hilarious book is that it mostly relates to the trials of being a parent, (and the loss of sleep and eating habits resulting from being caught in those particular cross-hairs), I believe that this too was a plus. Being a bachelor without kids, I can learn and laugh over what it tells me about that side of life---(what might have been, had I been wise or stupid enough to leap/stumble into that wonderful/horrid situation.) My only complaint about the subject matter can be seen in the stand-up video below. Humor is made by laughing at any possibility of choice we have regarding pop culture and eating at McDonalds. His new book FOOD: A LOVE STORY continues on this theme, saying he's given up trying to resist all the ads for junk food, while embracing the American obsession with basic food porn and overeating. And maybe he's right. The patriotic thing to do does, these days, seem to be: get a cheeseburger topped with a ham sandwich and two donuts. "We eat for the rest of the world," he jokes, "so maybe the solution to starvation is that we eat those who don't have anything to eat, too." Reading this sentiment sounds outrageous, so I recommend hearing these books on audio. This is satire, and audio is the only way to listen to a comic, to get their gist and nuance reading words, unless the writer is as good as Woody Allen, writing in The New Yorker. Gaffigan is no Woody, but neither are most comics. (Ed. note: Most Americans are not into written satire, anyway, but rather blunt jokes, and escapes. This is why sports and gaming are two of the most indulged fantasies on Earth. Seems we only surface long enough for another Baconator and a few one-liners from the news media, consumed like fries. It’s like we’re on this giant merry-go-round, Jim seems to be saying, with lots of bells and whistles, going in circles, and what do we do instead of getting off? Play the ponies. Pretend we’re racing.) Most of the audiobook is comedy about various foods, while Jim has no idea why anyone is vegetarian or a health nut. Taste is all that seems to matter to him. You shouldn't eat for any other reason. Except for that feeling of fullness: "I know I haven't finished eating until I'm sick." Luckily he hasn't discovered drugs yet. If he was serious---and you can't tell if he ever is---perhaps his gravestone would read LIVED FAST, DIED YOUNG. The stone would, no doubt, resemble a strip of bacon. (BTW, one doesn't get cholesterol by eating bacon, which he says we've known "for thousands of years," yet doesn't care. Read this. And pigs are treated cruelly, and do feel pain. Read this.) Just imagine Rush Limbaugh or another sociopath reading here; it's very funny. Maybe you'll even understand the facile, gluttonous motivations of Fox News icons better, too!  

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong

In her provocative new book FIELDS OF BLOOD: Religion and the History of Violence, author and scholar Karen Armstrong argues that violence is not synonymous with religion, but is rather adopted by radicals who cherry-pick verses in order to justify their political objectives. She examines religions throughout history, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and others, bringing to bear statistics and quotations, both written and oral. Specific incidents are downplayed in favor of a wider view of these religions from their founding until now. The big picture, she says, is that religion permeated agrarian societies in which wealthy landowners brutalized peasants to keep them in line. Agrarian aggression begat the warrior ethos, and warriors used (and continue to use) religion to justify their atrocities, speaking of the “glories” of battle and the sense of camaraderie and hero status attained by “winning” in an emotional setting. (Young men are most likely to be aggressive since their relative status is based on physical superiority over peers, while the US vs. THEM message of nationalism is a tune played by all nations, even at the Olympics.) The carryover into today is that terrorists have been brainwashed (and/or are brainwashing themselves) into believing they are “fighting the good fight,” which the foundations of their religions do not support. Ayaan Hirsi Ali would disagree with this, but regardless of one’s take on this complex subject, Armstrong can be commended for not pushing her own agenda in presenting this detailed history, unless you believe peace and cooperation is an agenda. Usually an author doesn’t read their own book for audio (unless it’s an autobiography or humor book), but Armstrong here demonstrates narrative skills and acumen in writing too. She has won a TED prize, and is working on the Charter for Compassion. In addition, she was awarded the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal, and the British Academy’s Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Transcultural Understanding. Regardless of one’s religious or political views, I recommend this book simply for framing the debate, and the rich scholarship displayed in laying out the history. It is well written and well narrated as a bonus. AUDIOBOOK OF THE MONTH.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr

It is always fascinating to ponder the motivations of human beings, especially when people are not aware of what influences them, or how they will react in certain situations. Often we say we will do something (regarding a purchase or a vote or a hypothetical choice), but research reveals that we didn't do what we thought we would. In THE GLASS CAGE by Nicholas Carr, the author examines how technology has changed us, and how our relationship with it is fraught with an uneasy tension. As automation replaces jobs, and robots perform skills once requiring human hands and minds, the displaced workers may find other jobs sitting in front of computer terminals, but they are trading the source of tactile and physical satisfaction they once got with increasing leisure, which leads to boredom and health concerns. The author argues that technology is inevitable, and has changed the world more than any other influence (including wars or expanding empires), so it is not the enemy, (and can be used to expand human experience and solve problems), but we need to understand how it influences us in order to avoid its pitfalls. Read by Jeff Cummings, the audiobook is rich in the cognitive sciences of psychology and medicine, plus robotics and also philosophy. The focus is on achieving equilibrium in order to assure a happier future, with historical contexts supplied to widen our conception of both our past and future horizons. The future is unknowable, and so predictions of it (particularly involving computer intelligence) can be dicey, but Carr is certainly one of the most grounded and listenable of science writers, lent more listenable here by a skillful narrator who never lets loose of his narrative reins.     

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

LOSING OUR WAY by Bob Herbert

Bob Herbert is a former New York Times columnist and think tank fellow with a new book praised by Bill Moyers titled LOSING OUR WAY, An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. It’s all here, both fact and opinion on fact: the disparity of income between the wildly rich (who, if white, hide their wealth or, if black, flaunt it,) and kids of all races who want to go to school mainly because there’s something to eat there. Except school programs are being cut while infrastructure in America collapses, (even as the NFL builds stadiums and we divert more money to the military than the next twenty top countries combined.) Herbert interviews ordinary people who are struggling to find jobs while the middle class is facing extinction, thanks to policies that favor the so-called “winners:” those who were born into the right families, on the right side of the tracks. Sure, the opportunities in America are still present in today’s society, but Herbert seems to be saying that our culture has ironically embraced luck as the means to success, since working hard no longer guarantees one can feed their family, while the rich (instead of helping by hiring) make it more difficult to do so daily, many hiding their wealth in offshore accounts. (Ask the super rich the best way to get richer, and they will say “through legislation”…by buying the right politicians.) So the game is now rigged from top to bottom, while we are spied on to maintain control, and to steer opinion with subtle indoctrination, (with Coca-Cola telling us to “open happiness,” the truth being that soda aids cancer, and the cost of cancer drugs is now the #1 cause of nest egg bankruptcy.) No happy pill can save us from ourselves, Herbert reminds us, if we don’t do an about-face and reject the flag-waving ignorance that has us fighting endless wars which only result in more dead and disabled young men, who may return as “heroes,” but may also commit suicide due to the madness of our delusions. This is an audiobook, read by the author, which will make listeners see America’s Got Talent in a whole new way: do you “succeed” in America by winning a talent competition, spinning plates made in China, and judged by people who make twenty times what the ultimate (and single) winner does? The flags waved on game show stages (and in Congress, as politicians play Solitaire while waiting to raise the debt ceiling,) hide a bitter truth that doesn’t make Yahoo Trends: we have largely become pawns or knights of kingpins who see the world as a stage to boost their profits and egos via gamesmanship, and are unwilling to let us have back the reins until we have all sacrificed ourselves in their service. AUDIOBOOK OF THE MONTH.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

WAKING UP by Sam Harris

Prominent atheist Sam Harris is making headlines from his debate with Ben Affleck over Islam on the Bill Maher show. To hear his latest audiobook WAKING UP, and audio samples of his other books, click on the title. It's read by the author. 

More controversy regarding the Catholic church can be found in another book... One amazing fact about the novel The DaVinci Code is that it was so controversial that there were classes on the controversy at churches around the world, and at colleges, and dozens of books were written about the controversy afterward. Why is this amazing? Because it was a novel, a work of fiction. Dan Brown was silent during the controversy, avoiding interviews, allowing sales to accumulate to such a degree that the novel eventually sold more copies than any in history. Did Brown make the story up? Yes. He based it on arcane facts, but also on fabrication and poetic license. It shows that if you challenge religious history, and add a dimension of drama and originality of expression, everyone wants in on it. Now comes a new book, one which claims not to be fiction, but a biography of Jesus. Its author is not in hiding, as Brown was. And it is even more controversial. How so? Because in ZEALOT--The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, author Reza Aslan has offered both contextual and historical evidence that both the Catholic and Protestant faiths are in error regarding Jesus. He shows that Catholic insistence on Peter as champion of Christianity after Jesus died rests solely on one verse, while arcane historical records and over a dozen verses show that James (the brother of Christ) was designated the true leader of the faith. "On this rock I will build my church" referred not to all of Christianity in Peter's case, but merely to one church. Likewise, the letters of Paul, adopted by Protestants to establish the alternative to Catholic doctrine, were denounced by James and other apostles, who chastised Paul for trying to hijack the faith. Paul was called "the enemy," and bitterly fought to pull the reins away from James (and into his own control.) There's more. According to Aslan, Jesus was but one of many would-be messiahs who claimed divinity and authority over corrupt and bloody practices, and were then crucified for challenging Roman rule. What Jesus had, he says, was the best story, later tweaked by followers plugging all the holes in it (and writing decades after the disputed facts.) What does it mean that Peter and Paul are here discounted in favor of James? It means that all those robed priests and prosperity gospel televangelists out there are wrong. (Read James 1:11 to see why.) It also means that Aslan's book is far more controversial than The DaVinci Code had ever hoped to be. As narrated by the author, this book should incite strong emotions from all sides, especially since the author is a religious historian who has meticulously researched the subject for twenty years (and is a professor of Islamic studies to boot!) I use the phrase "should incite" for many reasons. In our own cultural context, of course, we are more intrigued by drama, conspiracy, and special effects. We dispute all dry facts as relative and unknowable, including global warming and the age of the Earth. Foundational religious history is obscure to us, lost in time and interpretation. All we have left is faith, dependent on emotions. So it's not likely that any book without the dimension of sensational Hollywood fiction will go viral. Although maybe it should. To wit, it's not just a story and its controversy that matters, but how it is told...and by whom. In the age of commercial spin where we live, and where corporate CEOs control us instead of Emperors, manufactured perception is reality, and style wins over content every time.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

Neil Patrick Harris has a hilarious and original audiobook out titled CHOOSE YOUR OWN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, which he reads himself on audio. A special PDF included has recipes and a crossword puzzle. That's a first. He's pulled off the ultimate Selfie: not only is it about him, but it's about you becoming him. The adaptation of the print book by Harris is read by, well, Barney Stinson and Doogie Howser (along with other alter egos,) and is naturally the best way to “read” an audiobook because you get to enjoy his comedic timing while imagining those skills to be your own as you travel on his yellow brick road to fame…or infamy. He also gets help with these egos from award-winning English actor/narrator Simon Prebble, who lends ironic dignity to the otherwise "always on" hyperbole. So it's a traditional biography, but on steroids. Or pixie dust. He describes riding in Rolls with Elton John in France, hosting multiple awards shows, being in dozens of made-for-TV movies, along with other movies from Starship Troopers to Harold & Kumar to The Next Best Thing (with Madonna) to Broadway shows. He also has a spot in Gone Girl, and is next slated to star in a Pixar feature The Good Dinosaur in 2015. My question is, where does he find the time to write books, amid all his other projects? Next, after hearing Ronald Kessler’s audiobook FIRST FAMILY DETAIL, I’m wondering if they shouldn’t call it The WHITEWASH House. Kessler updates information previously covered in “In the President’s Secret Service” and “Inside the White House” with new revelations. The information comes from present and former Secret Service agents, some of whom were told not to cooperate with the journalist when it was learned he was writing this book. Was Richard Nixon a sociopath? All the traits were there: charming, ruthless, opportunistic, and dismissive of critics and dying soldiers. Johnson was even more of a klutz than Ford (who was cheap and a bad tipper, while pocketing mini bottles from parties.) Clinton was (and still is?) a horn dog, with multiple mistresses, and always on the prowl. Hillary? She always knew, didn’t care, and didn’t want to hear more and have to face questions. Bill’s presidency was called by agents as “one long pizza party,” in which anyone would show up at any time to throw ideas around, regardless of how it inconvenienced agent planning. Reagan, Bush 41 and George W, (and their wives) were loved by agents for being on time and respectful, while the Clintons were never on time and dismissive. Jenna Bush (codenamed “Twinkle”), though, despised being watched by agents, and snuck out whenever she wanted with her sister. (Remember the movie First Daughter starring Katie Holmes?) Vice presidents and their relationships with agents is even more interesting. Joe Biden is described as wasting taxpayer funds by taking over 200 costly trips on jets like Air Force 2 mainly to play golf while “putting America at risk” by not giving the Service sufficient notice of his plans (or being out of contact with nuclear codes.) Al Gore disliked agents too, and he “farted in the limo, and didn’t care.” Agnew was a moral majority icon without morals or ethics himself, willing to take bribes and denigrate those opposing Vietnam as “unAmerican.” Dick Cheney was more of an enigma, but was liked by agents since he was professional and “businesslike.” (Perhaps like at Halliburton?) Regarding Romney’s clash with agents over his protection, and Obama himself, there’s not much until the last hour. And you’ll have to hear that for yourself. All in all, another interesting book by an author interviewed at this site, with lots of information about how the Secret Service operates. Bear in mind that this book mostly takes various agent’s views of who they guard, and doesn’t go much into their policies or the effects of their policies on history and on the future. The Secret Service itself comes into the crosshairs too, in places, as its failures and inefficiency are noted in passing. Recommend the book STREET SMARTS by Quantum Fund founder Jim Rogers, too. This Wall Street commodities legend talks about how the real world works, and why people should switch away from stocks and bonds and into consumables.