I have just finished reading Tom Claivn’s biography of the baseball playing DiMaggio brothers, Vince, Joe, and Dominic. As a baseball fan and a historian, I found it to be a very enjoyable read and an interesting insight into part of the story of the game that is little told – West Coast baseball before the Major Leagues made it to the Pacific. The books is the story of the American dream – children of a poor Sicilian fisherman, moved to San Francisco, and made their fortune playing the All-American game. I found the family dynamics to be particularly interesting – including the parallelization of the DiMaggios to the Corleones of the Godfather. For anyone interested in the history of baseball, I would strongly recommend this book.
So, last night I finished reading Mockingjay, the last of the famous “Hunger Games” Trilogy. I found the series to be certainly entertaining and an interesting read, especially since I teach teenagers many of whom are obsessed with the books and movies. I found the first two books, “The Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire” to be fast-paced and engaging. They were a very thought-provoking depiction of a distopian, post-apocalyptic America that still has its ridiculous obsession with reality TV combined with the bread and circuses of the Roman Arena. The stories of Katniss and Peeta becoming the tributes of District 12 and being forced to fight for their very survival was well-written and easily readable.
Like many other reviewers, however, I thought that the third book, “Mockingjay,” felt forced and relied a little too heavily on gimmicks to be as enjoyable. I found it be a somewhat disappointing and forced end to the trilogy. Collins made the third book too complicated and introduced too many new plot elements to resolve satisfactorily in the space she gave herself, and as such, the ending seemed trite and predictable. For example, the end of Catching Fire, and indeed, the end of almost every chapter in Mockingjay involves a cliff hanger in some way. While the cliff hanger is a tried and true way of building suspense, Collins used it so frequently that I began expecting it which means it loses its effectiveness. In short, the cliff hanger became a crutch. There is a reason that network TV shows only have one or two “To be continued…” episodes per season. If that happened every week, it would get old. And that is what happened in Mockingjay. All of that being said, I thought the story, as a whole was a pretty good one, if somewhat predictable. And once you have read the first two books, you will be hooked and have to read the third to know how the heroes’ story ends. As with most extremely popular literature, these books are easily readable and widely accessible across many audiences and age groups. As a high school teacher, I am glad to have read them if for no other reason that it brings something else into my tool chest to connect history with the modern world.
So, I am finally broken down and am reading the Hunger Games books. I figure as a high school teacher, I should probably be informed on all the books and movie involve. I have finished both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire and am currently working through Mockingjay, when I am not at school – I currently am doing an extended substitute job for a friend of mine whose wife recently had their first child, so my reading time is a little limited. I will write an extended post about my thoughts of the entire trilogy once I finish Mockingjay.
Yesterday’s Gospel passage from Matthew around the Catholic world included the very famous, and for me, newly striking phrase: “This is my beloved Son. In Him I am well-pleased.” How many of us would not love to hear this from our father? Here, Jesus gets to hear it from the father of all fathers. What an amazing moment. How amazing would it be to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your father was “well-pleased” with what your life is right now! The reaffirmation of all of your decisions – big and small – by one of the people that really mean everything, by one of the people who gave you life, without whom you would not exist.
Until I heard this passage on Sunday, I had always looked at this reading from the perspective of a son – never from that of a father. But by the next time this reading comes around, next January, I will be a father of either a little boy or girl. I already am a father, but my child is not born yet. What responsibility! Shaping a child, helping them become someone to be proud of. Someone who makes a mark in the world. A father must be firm enough to keep the child on a good path, but not so firm so to crush the dreams and hopes of an independent life. As a father, I must be an eternal support for my child to help them grow up in this ever-changing modern world, so that someday I can look at them and say “You are my son or daughter. In you I am well-pleased.”
This afternoon I watched the cult classic “American Psycho” starring Christian Bale for the first time. My initial reaction was that this was one of the strangest movies I have seen in a very long time. It certainly does not fall into a standard storytelling conventions, as the movie is mostly one long confession by a high-rolling Wall Street executive who also happens to be a serial killer. His colleagues fail to see any signs and even when he admits it to his attorney, the lawyer not believe him. I felt that the film was quite shallow and was so on purpose as a way to demonstrate the shallowness of its characters – Wall Street executives of the late 1980s. The social commentary on the Yuppie culture is what I really think this movie is about – not the actual protagonist, Patrick Bateman. The responses of his peers, even as he brutally murders them, is to overlook his obvious dementia to stay in their own comfortable zone.
The culture that is depicted in this film is emblematic of what is broken with the American Wall Street culture. The characters in the film only care about the appearance of having it all together – from their exercise and tanning routines to the font and color of their business cards. This shows the ultimate tragedy of American individualism – that it may lead to arrogance and selfishness to an extreme degree. When people are told that they, as an individual, are all that matters – that other people, the rest of society, are there only to serve them – greed and selfishness is the natural result. The scene where Bateman kills a homeless man for no reason other than “we have nothing in common” shows the disturbing trend in the US where people only care about and identify individuals like them. The rights of the individual is a key on which this country was founded is one of the touches of genius from the founding fathers, in response to oppression that can happen when the legal system is based on the group, individuals may fall through the gasp. However, in recent decades the tragedy of individualism has shown through in an American culture that has allowed things like the housing crisis and irresponsible trading by big banks to occur. When bankers use their clients’ money to further their own desires as opposed to what they are entrusted to do is reprehensible and shows how sociopathic behavior can be encouraged in an individualistic society. While American Psycho is a disturbing, and, honestly, strange, movie, it is certainly a very interesting take on life in modern America and should make us all think about our responsibilities to each other over and above the responsibilities to our own selfish desires.
So last night, I finished reading a modern fable – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. This book was very enjoyable with all the fast-paced action of the modern tech world (Google employees are a huge part) and tradition of antique books (and their secret society-cult they have going on). In an attempt not to give away spoilers, I will limit my discussions a bit. When it comes right down to it, this book is not about Google, or secret societies, or typesettings, or even books – it’s about a very real and very common dream of many of us – the pursuit of immortality. I am sure that almost everyone has at some point or another dreamt of living forever; I know I have. This book particularly spoke to me because of how the characters go about their quest – through books, through research, through codes. I have been known to daydream sometimes about how amazing it would be to, in my research, find an ancient and lost tome that describes the path to immortality. Or perhaps find a code that needs broken that leads to ultimate secrets. But then again, it is only ever a dream – a fantasy that leads to hope when times seem dark. Immortality, at least in our limited 21st century imaginations, cannot practically be about living on through our work, our creations, our deeds. Maybe someday more will be possible, but I doubt it.
Most world religions involve this quest – searching for meaning (and lengthening) of this brief time we all have. Art, movies, literature have all dealt with this theme as a common motif throughout human history. The tale of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore is a recent retelling of this quest – told in unabashedly modern terms – Twitter, iPhones, Kindles and the awesome power of Google feature prominently, but in technology is only as capable as the programmer. This book is a delightful and easy read with a very nice moral at the end, like any good fable should. For some, it may seem as a bit of a cop out, but the moral is one that I am convinced we all need to be reminded of from time to time. Take a look at this book to see how Mr. Sloan weaves this tale of secrecy, tradition and technology – with a healthy dose of a narrator with a wonderfully dry sense of the ridiculous and of humor.