Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reviews: Books without Plots; House of Blues

 If someone were to recommend a book to you, and tell you it had no plot, you might look at them a bit strangely.  What is a fiction book without the dynamic plot twists, the beginning, middle, and denouement that we so desire?  And believe me, I've read books like that.  Trying to get through a Don Delillo book was enough to give me a nervous breakdown.  But believe me when I say that some of the best books are those that have no plot, because the plot is simply a vehicle to provide philosophy, or a diatribe that would not otherwise be read.  Sorta like this blog.  Take for instance Neal Stephenson's Anathem, reviewed here, which is much like taking Plato and putting him in a science fiction setting.  A marvelous book, but one which is at its best when the plot takes a back seat.  In fact, the end is only non-satisfying because it has to end with plot resolution.

Other wonderful books without plot:

You must read Michael Nesmith's The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora. Yes, he is one of the singers of The Monkees, the best one, in my opinion, and yes, his mother invented liquid paper. So he has time to write books and do whatever he wants to do.  The book is as relaxing as his music, as thoughtful and lyrical...well, until the end when a bad guy shows up (symbolizing the epitome of capitalism gone extremely wrong) and the book abruptly ends.  You can read the first 6 chapters of the book here.

The Island by Gary Paulsen reads very much like Thoreau's Walden, and must have been a work of meditation while working on other books like The Hatchet, as the main character basically gets into his boat and wanders around the lake and sees birds and parts of nature and expounds upon them and life.  Sounds extremely boring for a kid's book, but it's wonderful, for those that want that sort of thing.

Also along that same line is the Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen, which is philosophical and very relaxing, from the mountains of Idaho to the train ride through the plain states to Chicago.  Then the plot takes over and it seemed like the book just wanted to end.  In my opinion, the book was much better when it meandered around endlessly, much like the travels of the narrator.

I say all this to recommend The Elegance of a Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Two apartment dwellers, in upper class Paris, a concierge in her 50's, alone, with a phobia about people discovering that she is extremely intelligent,  and discusses in her journal post-modern French philosophy to Japanese films to still-life art.  Intertwined, of course, with a similarly brilliant 12 year old girl who writes journals about the small things in life, determined to find a reason worth living before she kills herself on her 13th birthday.  Amazing work  in the vignettes in each chapter, looking at life in a new way.  There was a review that I read, said that the reviewer's psychologist  recommended this book over taking Prozac.  Don't know if I'd carry it that far, as the ending comes right out of a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, as if Barbery just needed an ending that tied up the pieces.  It would work better if the journals were carried out longer, with the interactions between the characters longer.  It would work well as an online-blog-story.  So I enjoyed the book very much, but only if the plot stayed far back behind the words.  On a personal note, this was the last book I read while eating lunch in the Borders break room.  Now I have to read using my Kobo or a regular book (of which I have multitudes), but I will have to find a way to do it at home.  Too many electronic distractions....must get around that.

Review: Hugh Laurie's album Let Them Talk

Why do all Actors want to be Singers? (or for that matter, why do all Singers want to be Actors?) Turns out, it's because there are quite a few people that have multiple talents.  Go watch Jimmy Fallon's Late Night on NBC (watch the Linoleum peel while Jay Leno's on, it's about the same amount of entertainment).  He can do anything he wants, from singing to playing instruments to dancing...comedy... amazing stuff.  He's about as close to Johnny Carson as you're gonna get these days.  Or Wayne Brady, on Who's Line he did most anything for a laugh. Or Justin Timberlake , but I've discussed him here.

Turns out, Hugh Laurie fits this mold, too.  Originally a British comedian (yes, I know he's British, but he did a comedy routine in Great Britain), his role of Dr. House on House leaves me in stitches, while being perfectly serious.  An anti-hero in the vein of Thomas Covenant in Stephen R. Donaldson's books.  But if you watch the TV show, you see him take down a guitar or play at a piano.  Well, that's him, it's not stunt fingers.  Turns out, he's been a fan of Blues music since he was a little tike, forced to take piano lessons.  The only song he liked playing in the instruction booklet was "Suwanee River."  So now that he has all this fame and fortune, he sought out masters of the Blues genre and they accompany him on different tracks.  You can read reviews online, and you'll find them praising his instrumental talent, but not liking his voice.  I disagree with them, since I've been a fan of folk music like Bob Dylan and David Gray, the nasal voice is something I enjoy.  I agree with Shawn Mullins in his album notes from No. 9, that recording blues and folk should be an instantaneous act, with imperfections included, because without that, it's not real.  It's just professionally made crap that everyone else makes.  But to feel like your in one of the bars in New Orleans, or on the streets listening to a musician that hasn't had a day of voice training in his whole life, where the song comes from emotion and grit, from someplace down in his guts.... that's the real stuff.  That's what this album is.  As usual, I'll add a video from youtube, this time an introduction to his music (probably off of the deluxe edition.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Angry Birds Vs. Gears of War.

Well, Gears of War 3 came out today.  I saw the commercial for it last night, as well as one called Rage.  To be honest, and I know this will probably send someone into fits, but they look pretty much the same. To be honest, I've never been a big 1st person shooter player, well, except for Half-Life, which was an amazing game! Maybe it was the memories of the time around playing it, in college, usually with friends, etc... and so that got me thinking about the difference between these games, the ones that I like playing (I'm playing now Alice: Madness Returns, the follow up to American McGee's Alice), and the addicting games that are on Facebook or on Android, such as Angry Birds

First off, I don't see the hype in Angry Birds.  I tried playing it once, and found it low key and either really easy or really hard.  There wasn't really anything to keep me playing. No explosions or power-ups to stimulate my ADHD mentality, nor anything brain-bending to keep my brain interested in the game.  I would much rather play a round of Worms: Armageddon where a Holy Hand Grenade or Exploding Sheep can be used as weapons.  And there you have to take into consideration wind speed and angle...etc.... and you can play with friends in multiplayer mode.

I've always thought of video games as being something better done in isolation, strictly a one-player affair.  When my friends were over playing games, I never saw the point, as it didn't allow for any interaction between me and whoever it was that was over.  Imagine the interaction between friends as arrows, and then if we're playing a board game, or something like Basketball outside, the interactions are directly between one person and the other.  But when watching TV or playing Video games, the interaction is with the screen, and so there's no real bonding occurring.  With today's technology, multiplayer games, from one computer to another, from one country to another, is possible, linking people all over the world, and you see the other person as the sniper on the building, or the guy with the giant energy blaster shooting you to smithereens.  The interaction actually goes through the monitor and into the other person.  Friendship is still possible in this way, unlike the more passive approach of just watching someone play a game on one monitor.

Unfortunately, I've never been very good at the games that are popular right now.  My brother can, as a sniper, see that pixel way off in the distance, pick it off, and sure enough, it's another player.  And in the realm of StarCraft, I tend to be more build oriented, more defensive, whereas those that play it with any regularity like attacking and destroying.  It's why I liked Spore so much, until it got to the stages that resembled Warcraft and the like. This probably has something to do with me actually being anti-social.... I just don't like playing such games, where I have to interact with people I've either never seen before, or I end up just being an easy kill and there's no fun in it.

So let's return to Gears of War vs. Angry Birds. Taking the social aspect out of playing a video game for a second, playing either game does basically the same thing neurologically. I've often talked about video games as being a method of escape, much like reading or watching television. It's a stimulation that engages the visual senses (Neil Postman would have a ball with today's technology and how we use it to communicate with one another), engages the emotions, increases adrenaline, gives us the taste for victory that we once had winning the war on actual battlefields. We can play NFL football without actually being athletes, wearing jock straps, getting ourselves injured, or being in front of thousands of fans. But we get the same rush when our pixelated wide receiver runs into the end zone for a touchdown.

So does playing Bejeweled Blitz, for instance, provide the same biological needs as going out and buying Gears of War 3? There are so many games on the Internet now, through, ironically, social media, that are free, stimulating, and more time consuming, than paying $250 dollars for a console, $60 for a game, and then bringing it home. Granted, it is well worth it to play the masterpieces in Video Game Art as they come out. The computer I have now I originally bought so I could play games like Psychonauts, as the older one I had wouldn't even play the games I saw at Big Lots. And it's well worth playing Little Big Planet for the music soundtrack alone. Those experiences are worth it. The game designers are much like filmmakers, writers, or artists, in that the world they create is as much a part of the creative process as Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa, or Schumann composing "Arabesque." Some video games are experiences that can affect one emotionally, or, dare I say it, change a life. This is something that endless hours of Angry Birds can't do, other than adding pounds around the waist.

In the end, it's about how we spend our time. James Taylor wrote, "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time." Daivd Crosby wrote a song, "Time is the Final Currency." We work and spend our money so that we might enjoy the time we have on Earth. It just depends on how we want to enjoy that time spent. Do we want to fling birds at pigs, or combine 3 of the same jewels, or do we want to engage ourselves in masterpieces of alternate realities? I guess it all depends on how much time we have to play.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

To Think or not to Think.

[Reason] is a faculty that man has to exercise by choice. Thinking is not an automatic function. In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort.
Ayn Rand “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 20.

I've come to believe that metacognition is what keeps me going.  In other words, thinking on how we think.  Working retail is not so bad when you are seeing in every selection and deselection the thoughts behind each customer. For instance, the squalling kids who just want their parents to buy them something, not out of hunger or desire for the object, but merely for the attention that they get as their parents' hand them the trinket.  Materialism is actually a sign of love.  Or perhaps the children who open up the box or the toy in the middle of the floor and start playing with it, as if it were their own, without realization that what they have isn't theirs to begin with.  Of course, that has nothing to do with ownership, but frankly because they could care less about the object they have in their hands.  It's the idea of material inflation.  The more we have, the less we care about what we have. 

Then there's the customer who must decide what they want by eliminating everything else from sight first hand.  I found a couple of interesting examples one day while working in the kids' section.  The parent kept asking the child, "What do you want? Make up your mind."  The obvious answer to this is, she wants everything.  And when she kept changing her mind, much to the consternation of her mom, she realized it was upsetting her mom, so she kept at it, playing a game of ambivalence just to see if she could.  Pressing her mom's buttons.  Because she truly did want everything.  The only way to ask the question is, "What do you not want?  Because then she is forced to eliminate everything she truly doesn't want and then pick from those remaining.  It sounds really hard, but it's not.... trust me.   Because I see it everyday.  At the grocery store, I would have customers come up to the register with 100's of dollars of groceries, but only have $30.  Therefore they would then decide, having eliminated the rest of the store, what they don'twant from the rest, and keep on filtering out the "No's" until they have reached their financial goal.  It's often the duality of thought that makes the little decisions of life interesting, because what you are really thinking is the exact opposite of what you think you are thinking. 

So when I realized the "duality" of thought is actually quite wonderful to think about, I ran across the Ayn Rand quote above.  Sometimes, in thinking things through, we are actually not thinking at all.  Letting our inhibitions and self-control go.  This can easily be seen in the riots after sporting events, (which I've talked about before), where what they are thinking, what they are truly thinking, and the fact that they are basically not thinking at all, are different.  Take the past riots in London.  They started because of a racial issue in one of London's suburbs, but soon, it became more about the class structure in Great Britain brought about by entitlement spending and a Progressive government that has felt the strain on its budget much like the rest of the world.  In other words, the riots were about the cuts in government hand-outs, although they were supposed to be about police brutality and race.  What actually happened was that the youth of Great Britain wanted to be seen rioting and have fun while getting on YouTube, all the while stealing and taking advantage of lawlessness to attain material things that they would have had to pay money for.  In other words, they weren't thinking at all.  It all went to the subconscious "monster" that Jung talked about, that below the rational thoughts of the human mind there is the base desires of an animal that decrees those desires are above all else.  And those who cannot control their subconscious demons are doomed to act in those manners, and will generally end up in jail, or worse.  

So it came to pass, that after I saw this quote, two stories popped up online to illustrate my point.  I am all for putting media in my blogs when it supports my ideas, and these work wonders.  First, the story in Australia, where a teenager decides to run out in front of a train.  He didn't have anyone with a camera, so being on YouTube wasn't his motive.  He wasn't suicidal, cause he wouldn't have dodged the locomotive. He simply wanted to see if he could do it.  And that isn't thinking at all!  That's not to say that we all haven't done stupid things without thinking (or perhaps with thinking, as he had to time his rush across the tracks to the point where he would almost but not quite get hit by it), and I've done a couple of insane things.   I remember one time I had done something or another, and my dad got really mad and was coming down the hallway.  So I decided to see what would happen if I tripped him.  So I stuck my leg out...and he tripped.  There was no thinking involved in the act, just pure stupidity.... much like touching the base of an iron, or sticking your finger in the car cigarette lighter (both of which I've done).  It's an infantile move, just to experience something, the rush of adrenaline, the heat of the flame, the cold on the tongue as you lick a metal pole ("I double dog dare ya!").  It's what we do.  And as we get older, the desire to do something just to satisfy the curiosity of the subconscious mind, it is replaced by the discipline of conscious thought.  Except..... sometimes that doesn't work.  We go skydiving, or bungee jumping, or we walk across the Oconee River train track bridge just to see if we can do it.

Does the human mind have the ability to think at all?  Are we simply holding back the battering ram of the subconscious mind as it attempts to break down the barriers we've put in it's way?  And when we speak of today's youth, languishing in public schools or in universities, are they just as apt to study for their PhD as visit the bars every night and get themselves killed in car wrecks or wind up vomiting in the public bathrooms in their dorms? Is there any hope for the human race when thinking is not considered "cool?" Public opinion thinking people has probably not been as low as it has today, unless we count the Medieval times when the Lords or the Church kept people under their stern watch. Those that are famous have become stupid on purpose, and those that are intelligent are made fun of.  Look at the sit-coms of today's television.  Those that are intelligent are naturally nerds, probably gay, and social outcasts.  Those that are dumb are so often rich and usually wind up getting their way despite any lack of "smarticals." 

The answer is, I think, "yes."  There are some people in this world who will overcome the outside world and use their minds to become producers and masters.  Makers and Philosophers.  And they will sit atop the towers of the cities and look down on us in pity, perhaps humorously, as Mustapha did in Brave New World, while the primitives are easily manipulated, controlled, by those who would keep them enslaved by contentment in mediocrity.  Take, for instance, the next story below, about a boy who, being only 12, has read books and educated himself about medicine and the like.  As he was watching TV at 2 in the morning, a show about showgirls (probably Real Sex on HBO,) he heard his mom, 9 months pregnant, call for him.  She was giving birth.  I would have froze, called 911, and panicked, but this particular child delivered the baby there in his home, using the information he had read in his studies.  So there is hope, after all, that today's world will not slip into the mindless, unthinking, audience of the flickering TVs that shine lights in strobe effects out the windows. 

There might be a few men or women that will use the mind to progress past the conveniences they have been given and venture forth, and the thoughts will not be of desires alone, but to apply knowledge towards a goal, permanent, miraculous, that will satiate the needs of both conscious and subconscious minds.