Admirable Women – Hidden Leaders

21 02 2011

From elementary school through to about my sophomore year in college the only books I touched were manga, sheet music, and those scholarly tomes foisted upon me by the demands of my education. Then something changed and I developed a deep love of reading practically overnight. One of the first books I picked up after going through this metamorphosis was one that I had heard about a couple years before and had just never got around to picking up – Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. That book immediately became a favorite of mine and remains one to this day. It is the story of how Dr. Nafisi taught forbidden western literature to a handful of young women in Iran in the 90’s, a bit of her biography, an analysis of a handful of popular pieces of classic literature, a discussion of the poisonous effects of religious fervor and anti-intellectualism run amok, a reminder to never take simple things for granted, and a look at the contemporary history of Iran from the 1979 Revolution and the optimism that followed to its current repressive, backward state all at the same time. I had encountered much of the literature she referenced in various classes and the personal perspective she brought to what Iran was about 35 years ago versus what it is (or was as of the mid 1990’s) was enlightening. I loved the book for all of its exotic as well as familiar elements, but that is not why I admire its author.

Teaching the material she was teaching in Iran was an incredibly risky undertaking and that in and of itself is worthy of a hat tip, but the fact that the whole endeavor was borne from a deep dedication to education and to this particular group of students is equally commendable. I have had the good fortune of being taught by some exceptional teachers and the thing they all had in common was that kind of dedication and love of what they were doing with their lives. I had said that the women I admire are leaders and I think that Dr. Nafisi is one. While she didn’t lead a nation or a national movement of any kind, she was a leader to this small group of women in a Tehran living room. Leaders aren’t always in the places you’re used to looking for them. Sometimes these hidden leaders have a greater effect on us than an auditorium full of dignitaries.

Incidentally, Azar Nafisi, now residing in the US, still teaches. How cool is that? She has also written another book, Things I’ve Been Silent About , which I have yet to read though I am very anxious to do so.

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A Short Review For a Short Book- Coffee, Tea, or Kool-aid: Which Party Politics Are You Swallowing?

28 11 2010

Since I didn’t totally fail at reviewing I thought I’d write another.
With the growing amount of beverage-based politics out there, Erin McHuge’s book Coffee, Tea, or Kool-Aid: Which Party Politics Are You Swallowing? takes a look at it all with more than a bit of sarcasm tossed in to make it fun. If you’re looking for in-depth, serious, non-partisan analysis of our current political weirdness, this isn’t it. I read the e-book and it was only 68 pages. In-depth analysis of any complex issue takes more than 68 pages. While it does have a lot of factual information in it, there is too much snarky humor in it to call it serious. That type of humor can turn people off, but I like it (Surprise, surprise).

The bigger point that needs to be made is that, though the title is even-handed enough, the book is not without an ideological tilt. The author does take swings at both the Tea Party and the Coffee Party, but her take on the Tea Party is harsher. In my opinion, it would’ve been less obvious if she didn’t refer to tea party supporters as “teabaggers” throughout the book. The way I read it, the tea partiers come off as ultra-reactionary, occasionally short on facts, specifics, etc…, and, whether intentionally or not, providing some sense of legitimacy for every kind of conservative kook who eventually act up and cause problems and bad publicity for the group. The coffee partiers, on the other hand, are painted as well-intentioned, good-natured concerned citizens, but ultimately all of their ideas don’t amount to too much and the group is a bit meek for the full-contact sport that is American politics.

Despite the playful tone of the book, there is a good bit of useful information in it. It also provide a good comparison of the two movements. So, while it might not be for everyone, a liberal with a… refined sense of humor would probably like it for a quick read and a few chuckles. Also, since the holiday season has officially descended upon us, I should point out that the paperback version of this is pretty small. Stocking stuffer size, one could say. So there you go, a little gift idea for a book-loving liberal with an attitude.





My Attempted Book Review – Obama’s Wars

8 10 2010

Before I get into my review, I’m going to warn you that it’s not, strictly speaking, my thing. My cousin reviews books and authors a lot on her blog, but she is pursuing her MFA in creative fiction from Fairfield University and knows the technical components which distinguish a good book from a pile of dung with a dust jacket. Alas, she is not writing this review, I am. I apologize in advance.

The first thing that becomes clear when you start reading Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward’s latest foray inside the Oval Office, is that there was a lot of cooperation from the administration. An exposé this is not. President Obama even sat for an on the record interview with Woodward. Quotes from that interview, which appears to have been conducted at the end of this process, are interspersed throughout the book. This is also not a light read by any stretch of the imagination. It’s packed with facts and figures. At 380 pages (hardcover version) I figured it would take me a day or so to read – it took five and then another day to review it. I liked it, but I like policy stuff. If you’re looking for suspense and fast-paced action, pick up some Tom Clancy. If you’re looking for some insight as to how military actions are decided upon in the Obama White House, this is the book for you.

This book is not going to make you like or hate any of the people in it if you don’t already but it does bring them down from their senior staff pedestals and humanizes them all a bit – some more than others. It also shows some people in a manner they aren’t usually seen. Joe Biden, the goofy, gaffe-prone Vice President comes across as a lot smarter than he’s usually given credit for being. General Petraeus, in addition to being an exemplary military man, is also quite the politician and knows how to get his friends in the Senate to make his case when he can’t. The mistakes made in Vietnam are never far from any of their minds and neither is politics – either the 2008 presidential race or the 2010 mid-terms. It’s omnipresent. The book also casts a harsh light on the situation in Afghanistan – just how bad things were over there, how much of the problem is in Pakistan, and the problems we face with our allies in those two countries. If you take one thing away from Obama’s Wars, it is that essentially “pausing” the conflict in Afghan was a huge mistake that left us in a very bad way.

I liked the book, but I’m a bit of a policy geek – well, I’m actually just a bit of a geek in general. If you to know what went on in the Situation Room that lead to 30,000 troops being sent to Afghanistan, it’s right here. It’s not action-packed, but it is what happened.





My Quest for Books…

18 03 2010

… is unending and increasingly difficult. Allow me to explain.

I like books NOBODY reads.

Life would be so much more simple if I enjoyed those ever-present romance novels with the half-naked, kilt-clad, long-haired men on the cover, but by and large, I’m not a fan. Don’t get me wrong, every now and then I’ll pick one up, but I really have to be in the mood for a paper-thin plot and gratuitous euphemisms for body parts. I prefer more substantive reading – philosophy, biographies – most of them international political figures and even more of them liberal in ideology, and fiction thats plot can’t be summed up in diagrams. This all sounds easy enough to find and it was until I decided to complicate my life by reading in Italian and French. I’ve studied French, though not very seriously, for many years and I have a reasonable amount of skill with Italian – mostly thanks to my study of music but I did take some classes. If, and given my current financial status that is a huge if, I ever have the slightest hope of furthering my educational goals by studying for my Master’s and possibly even contemplating a Ph. D in my chosen field of music history, I have to be able to read and understand German, French, and/or Italian. Teaching myself German – the written language and grammar as well as the spoken word – seems like too much to ask, so I’ve decided to continue with what trained teachers have started. I have always been better at reading than writing and worlds better at both of those than I am at speaking, so this task is not as hard as it sounds. I had talked about my musically based goals with Tony Amato, the artistic director of the Amato Opera Company, before it closed and he suggested that, before spending a bunch of money to relearn things I have already been taught, I should buy a few books – even if I have to start with children’s books – in Italian and French and read them. He said that, at the very least, I would be able to better gauge my skill level so I didn’t sign up for the wrong class. That all sounds great, but there’s one problem with this blissfully simple plan – where do you find books in the US that aren’t in English, Spanish, or Japanese?
English and Spanish are spoken everywhere and Japanese is “the cool language” to study, (Yes, I have heard it described that way.) but finding books written in French and more so with those in Italian – even on Amazon.com – is a lesson in patience coupled with a dose of luck. Once you find them, they’re also expensive which is no fun. Amazon.fr (French Amazon) is well-stocked and has good prices, but shipping costs are kind of high since it’s an international order and it takes a while. I found one site – IBS.it – that specializes in Italian books, but it’s expensive and also an international order. In short, this is proving harder than I’d first anticipated. That’s why my quest is now a blog post. I figured that if anyone happens to read this, maybe that someone might be able to point me in the direction of some livres and romanzi. Let me know if you have a possible source.

I’ll also see if there are any well-stocked international bookstore in Manhattan that carry French and Italian contemporary fiction – my quarry of choice. I can think of three Japanese bookstores, but none that stock any western european languages other than Spanish which, as I mentioned before, is everywhere. I would love a trip to the city and books are as good an excuse as any.