• Category Archives cultural ramblings
  • Books, movies, music…

  • I Am Not Your Negro

    Morning weigh-in: 191.0#, 13.5% BF

    We saw I Am Not Your Negro last night, the the documentary about James Baldwin. Unbelievably good — it cut between Baldwin himself in speeches, interviews etc, other documentary footage from various eras (60’s era riots, lynchings, Ferguson) and movie footage, especially of movies from when he was a kid, with a voice-over of his writings (mostly musings from an unfinished project, a tribute to Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King — “three friends who had been murdered” as he put it at one point), read by Samuel L. Jackson. More a “time to face some things you already know but have trouble admitting” story than an eye-opener, the structure, and Baldwin’s own powerful words, made for a very intense movie.

    Highly recommended — go see it.

    Afterward we went to a nearby pub that shall remain nameless, where the food was good and the beer was pretty decent, but it seemed one of those places — there are a number of them in the Valley, on the outskirts of urban areas — where there were noticeably no black people. (Admittedly, there were few people at all in there, and those few were annoying, so maybe I had a sour view of things.) There was also a whiskey ad on the wall, a mocking take on “Black Lives Matter.” Nothing serious, maybe a bit “edgy,” passive-aggressive even, but hey free speech and where’s your sense of humor?

    It could almost have been a scene from the movie, like a substitute for the outtakes from “The Pajama Game,” while the voice-over talks about white apathy and the emptiness of American lives. I guess that’s what great art does to you, it sensitizes you to the things it showed you.

    Anyway, not much else got done yesterday, though I did manage to lose another half pound. No ride today, since I’m going over to volunteer at the Museum, but possibly a road ride tomorrow.


  • Spook Country

    Next up on my reading list: Spook Country by William Gibson. This completes — years later, and read out of order — his post-911 trilogy (along with Pattern Recognition, the first, which I read first, and Zero History, the last). This suffered from Gibson’s usual outdated spy-cool and brand-name-dropping, and his penchant for odd technological whiffs, but I think it was the best of the three: besides and despite his flaws, it displayed his talent to build a gripping story (especially in the second half of the book), with realistic and engaging characters. I still think that the Sprawl trilogy was his best, but this was a good bedside companion for a week or so.


  • Hidden Figures

    We saw it the other day, basically as soon as it was out in a nearby theater. We happened to go on a weekday matinée, which is what we usually do, but unlike other matinées the place was packed — it looks like we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see this movie. And it did not disappoint: this was one of the few times where the movie audience applauded at the end. My advice: go see it. (You’re welcome.)

    The story follows three black women who work as “human computers” for NASA in the early 1960’s. “Computer” was actually what they were called; it was a real but low-status job for low-status (female, black) math whizzes in the days before electronic computers, and there were rooms full of them, like steno pools, at NASA. This being Virginia in 1961, our three heroines were relegated even further into the segregated “colored computers” pool. So with the budding Civil Rights movement as backdrop — and this movie excelled at backdrops, with an awesome period score and loads of what looked at least like archival footage — these women broke through racist and misogynist barriers, and got John Glenn into orbit.

    And then, just as electronic computers started to threaten their human computing jobs, they figured out how to be the ones to do the necessary work of programming those computers. (It wasn’t in the movie, but programming back then — difficult, exacting, requiring daily brilliance just like now — was another low-status job for “girls.”)

    One thing caught me though, not in the story itself but in how the movie was put together. I remember reading once about how some movies were subjected to audience polling, and changes based on that polling, before final release — I wasn’t quite aghast, but it kind of irked me that this was done, and I started seeing what I thought was poll-driven editing everywhere in the  movies I watched, and I thought I spotted it here.

    There were two (three) parallel stories going on: one (two) involving lowly employee showing them how it’s done, and the other showing the futuristic but inert IBM that NASA purchased being brought to life. The stories were finally brought together, mostly by the  juxtaposition of the two “TRIUMPH! THE END” endings, but at one point there seemed to be an aborted attempt at a connection…

    The top NASA engineers are trying to figure out some orbital mechanics and realize that they need a different mathematical approach, and Katherine Johnson says “Euler’s Method!” Eureka! But then that’s it: other than a scene where she reads up on the method  in an old text, there’s no follow-up. The thing is though, Euler’s method is a numerical method, made up of many simple calculations instead of a few sophisticated ones, and it’s prohibitively impractical as a tool without the electronic computer. I can almost see the missing scenes, where Katherine’s superiors despair of getting the answer in time because there’s just too many calculations, just as Dorothy Vaughan got that old IBM up and running in time to save the day — oh what might have been! …but that’s getting nitpicky, me dreaming up extra scenes, just because I wanted the movie to go on and on.

    This movie was morally affirming — righteous even, and patriotic — without being preachy, pro-science without being hokey, and overall a pleasure to watch. Go see it, and see if you don’t applaud too at the end.


  • Hillbilly Elegy

    I just finished another of my Christmas books, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. This was basically the author’s memoir of growing up, in Ohio, as the grandson of Kentucky hill folk who’d moved there looking for a better life, and his struggles with poverty and family dysfunction before his own escape up the socioeconomic ladder. The book has a bit of celebrity status right now, as various blue-state types try to figure out what’s going on in the Appalachian and Rust Belt hinterlands, and what went wrong in the last election…

    The first thing I’ll say is the good news: this book is a fast and interesting read, and the author is personable, and engaging if occasionally prone to humble-bragging, and he writes well. Parts of the story reminded me of my own family history, and the class anxieties that come with upward mobility over generations, while other parts were an unsparing look into the darker aspects of his own subculture.

    But the bad news is, he never seems to get to the heart of the problems among the Hillbilly Diaspora. He sometimes resorts to church-and-family bromides, and other times seems to warn against the debilitating effects of welfare, but it’s mostly like he’s dancing around a garden variety conservatism. He never really came to any solid conclusion.

    I finished the book feeling a bit let down.


  • Chinese Three-Novel Problem

    I just finished one of my Christmas gifts, the Chinese sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin and translated by Ken Liu. It’s basically a “first  contact” thriller, with an enemy alien invasion looming, a secret society helping the invaders, and the governments of the world secretly planning together for war against both the aliens and the secret society, all set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.

    The novel suffers from both stilted dialogue and “stilted” plot turns; some of these may be the effects of translation, or even just its essential Chinese-ness, but it’s also true that the author and translator are both in the “hard sci-fi” camp, which is not known for its Literature-With-A-Capital-L virtues. Anyway, the ideas are big and the action moves at a page-turning pace — it’s definitely a good read.

    My biggest problem with this book is that it’s the first of a trilogy, and now I have to read the others to find out how it all ends.


  • That Was Easy

    Lately I’ve been getting rid of the books I no longer want, by sticking them in a nearby Little Free Library, but  the truth is that I no longer want them because I’m tired of re-re-reading them, and I really need some new books. Christmas is coming, so I updated my Amazon Wish List, and our recent Philly visit for Ben’s birthday included a bit of “one for you and one for me” Christmas shopping at Penn Books. In each situation I looked through the books I’d be likely to enjoy, and one in particular kept coming up: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, but I decided against getting it in both cases.

    Yesterday found me walking past the Little Free Library, and I took a look inside to see how my books were doing — most had been taken, though a few were surprisingly still there — and what do I see but a copy of Ready Player One? So, on the way back from my walk I stopped again at the library, and, in a first for me, I took the book home.

    Bottom line: I think I’ll push myself and finish it, but I am really glad I didn’t pay money for this book, or talk a friend or relative into buying it for me. The protagonist is annoying and unlikeable (this may be on purpose though, since he’s a maladjusted 13-year-old at the start of the story), the premise is hackneyed, and — this is a pet peeve of mine — the cultural references are basically our own recent past because, while the story occurs about 50 years into the future, the people there are conveniently obsessed with 80’s electronics, video games, and pop trivia. Lazy…

    When I’m done with it — and this might not mean actually getting to the end, just to the point where I get sick of reading it — this book is going straight back to the free library.


  • That Fit Feeling

    We did a run this morning and some errands later, so there was no bike ride for me today — maybe tomorrow, when the weather will be better, if a bit colder than today. Meantime, we hit the weights yesterday, including squats…

    I woke up this morning sore, mostly my biceps and upper back: recovery, prostaglandins, the usual fallout I guess. I also have been finding myself needing a bit more sleep in general lately — I’ve also been a bit of a night owl recently though, and that may be why mornings are drifting later, but I suspect that it’s my typical reaction to heavier exercise: I need a lot more sleep.

    By the way, WXPN is playing their entire song library, from A to Z. They’re deep into the L’s right now, and I’m jamming out to Gary Wright’s “Love is Alive,” super loud — the truth is, I’ve had it cranked since “Louie Louie.” My soul’s like a wheel that’s turning…

    Now they’re playing “Love Is All Around” by the Troggs.


  • Two More for the Trash Bin of History Books

    I was reading these before I decided on that book cull (and one was actually a re-read) but here are two more for the discard pile:

    Into the Land of Bones, by Frank L Holt, a look at Alexander the Great’s campaigns in Afghanistan, from the perspective of modern scholarship, as a way of looking at our current war in Afghanistan. This is a subject I thought I knew a bit about, though my own knowledge was formed by older scholarship of the “we really don’t know what happened in Bactria” school, and the book was an eye-opener, especially on the subject of how successful Alexander was in subduing the country (answer: not very).  A very good read, but one I’ve now read twice and it’s time to move on.

    The Lost World of Byzantium, by Jonathan Harris, yet another book about the Byzantine Empire, but shorter, less expansive than most, one that focuses on the empire’s resilience and ability to change with the times, and the changes that eventually brought it down. Another good read, but not as good as that first one — I had to push through to finish, and it’s definitely a one-and-done.

     


  • Deep Cull, Shallow Cull

    After a long period thinking about it, I finally got around to downsizing my book collection. Some of my books I read on a regular  basis, and others have sentimental value for me, but few are what anyone would call a collectible, and there are plenty I don’t read, don’t particularly like, and would be better off without — could theoretically be better off without, hence the equivocation/procrastination incubation period…

    But I’m doing it. What triggered all this sudden activity was something that happened during my recent search (for that book on Indian Paths), which unearthed a bunch of other books I realized I hadn’t thought about in a while.

    There was one I ran across called Deep Survival, which I bought years ago, disliked, and never finished. I picked it up and started reading again, and was intrigued enough to continue for a bit. But like the first time, my annoyance grew as I continued reading, and though this time I did make it through to the end, I had to force myself to finish. My original assessment stands: the author had a fetish for fighter-pilot types — which was his own background and also that of his father — and the book was an unfocused paean to militaristic, “can-do” attitudes. I was so annoyed I decided to get rid of the book, and to rid my collection of others I don’t want to ever read again. I made a discard pile, and at the start of a recent hike I took it over to one of those free mini-libraries nearby and made a donation.

    Unfortunately, when I got home I found I’d left the Deep Survival book behind, so I started making another cull pile. That’s when I realized I really had two piles to make: one of books I definitely don’t want, and another of books that I probably wouldn’t want, but never read through to the end, and should finish before discarding — I guess you could say I’m back to sentimentalizing/procrastinating…

    The first book I took up was Alan Garner’s Red Shift, which so far seems better than I remember, though it has its annoyances: it reads like YA literature (which it is, kind of), and everyone seems to be named either John or Tom, and it has the clever clipped dialogue that reminds me of all the other late-Sixties-early-Seventies British YA literature I’ve been annoyed with (and subsequently forgotten) over the years. I’m about halfway through, and I really am enjoying it, but I can already tell it’s going in the discard pile.

    What comes next? I have a lot of choices…


  • Blast From The Past

    Among my more prized possessions is a book called Indian Paths of Pennsylvania, by Paul A. Wallace. I was struck by a sudden enthusiasm the other day, and wanted to take a look at something in it, but could not find the book — I tore the house apart but it was nowhere to be found. Along the way though, I did manage to run across one of my first MTB guide books, Joe Surkiewicz‘s The Mountain Biker’s Guide to Central Appalachia. This was a book that I got more than 20 years ago, one of several I bought in my early, “explorer” phase, long before GPS or online maps, and though I used it mainly for Pocahontas County (West Virginia), and Michaux State Forest here in PA, there were a few other trails and areas I checked out, including a ride I did once in Bald Eagle State Forest.

    This Bald Eagle ride started from a trailhead off of I-80, and I mean immediately off I-80, at an exit that ended with a Forest Service parking area. It was the strangest Interstate exit I’d ever seen. (I remember the author also found this “inexplicable” exit notable.) This odd trailhead actually was the only part of the ride that made an impression on me: although I had fun — and saw a bear up close too, which luckily ran from me because my brakes were so squeaky — I spent most of my time semi-lost, and the trails I saw really didn’t excite me. I never went back.

    Fast forward about 5-10 years, and I bought another MTB guide, this one of Pennsylvania, from local author Rob Ginieczki. It quickly became one of my favorite guide books, mainly because the author’s ideas about trail characteristics and quality closely matched my own. I trusted his assessments, and I made a point of checking out as many of his recommended rides as I could, including one he listed as “Cowbell Hollow” — a 29-mile loop starting from R.B. Winter State Park, over mixed jeep roads and singletrack, whose high points are Cowbell Hollow Trail and Top Mountain Trail. It is now one of my favorite “destination” rides, and for years I made a point of putting together a group ride there once or twice a year. (Unfortunately, I was not able to make it out to these two on my most recent visits, though I did get to discover a whole bunch of similarly awesome trails a bit further west.) One thing caught my eye though — every drive out to R.B. Winter, I’d go past what I could swear was that crazy exit on I-80, just east of the R.B. Winter exit.

    Fast forward another 10+ years to just the other day, when I unearthed that first guide book. Since we had been up in that part of the state recently, I immediately thought of that ride with the trailhead on I-80… I flipped open the guide, found the ride with the “inexplicable Interstate exit,” and the loop was basically Cowbell Hollow and Top Mountain Trail.

    Well I’ll be jiggered.