Tag Archives: Overrated

Only a personal opinion.

UGLY AMERICAN

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.com

Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You AreCustoms of the World

Written by: The Great Courses

Narration by:  Professor David Livermore

DAVID LIVERMORE (PROFESSOR, AUTHOR, Ph.D IN INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION FROM MICHIGAN STATE)
DAVID LIVERMORE (PROFESSOR, AUTHOR, Ph.D IN INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION FROM MICHIGAN STATE)

As an American traveling to other countries, there is a nervousness about being classified as an “ugly American”.  Buying and listening to the Great Course’s lectures titled “Customs of the World” is a reflection of that nervousness.

Americans are generally ignorant of other cultures; partly because of a failure to learn much about American history.  Add ignorance of world geography and other languages to American education and the “ugly…” appellation bares truth.    This lecture series only scratches the surface of most American traveler’s cultural ignorance.  Worse, it fails to make listeners any less nervous about being bad representatives of America.

American cultural ignorance begins in kindergarten and is reinforced by an education system that ignores foreign languages until it is too late for young brains to proficiently adapt to more than one language. Nearly all post-industrial nations require a passable understanding of English before graduating from high school, but not America.  To make foreign cultural ignorance even worse, America’s understanding of other national cultures is filtered by English-only’ bias.

Livermore begins his lectures with a statement that “…culture matters…”.  He regales American listeners with platitudes about cultural intelligence.  He begins by presuming most Americans are ignorant of other citizen’s cultures which is probably true.  But, Livermore suggests that ignorance can largely be overcome by listening and not proactively engaging conversation with non-Americans.  How is that unique?  That suggestion is as true for an American meeting any stranger; regardless of their culture.

Next, Livermore suggests the importance of understanding the predominate religion of other nations.  Certainly that is relevant but it is equally relevant in one’s approach to some Americans in our own country.  Finally, there is Livermore’s caution of stereotyping people based on what is said to be common in particular cultures.  Again, that is a fault that exists in America among people in our own culture; e.g. black American’s perceptions of white American’s, American Latinos perceptions of black or white Americans, and vice versa.

Livermore proceeds by offering stereotypical characteristics of other countries’ citizens with examples of Nordic, Germanic, Eastern European, Latin European, Latin American, Confucian Asian, South Asian, Sub-Saharan African, and Arab cultures.  Livermore compounds one’s fear of being classified as an “ugly American” with platitudes like “People from many cultures are uncomfortable talking about themselves with a stranger…”  How is that a revelation?  The same discomfort exists in most cultures.

Livermore’s admonition to research other countries histories is important when traveling.  Having some understanding of a country’s history helps one communicate with citizens of a different country.  Research tempers one’s conversation and decreases the possibility of embarrassing oneself or the person being asked questions.  Livermore notes some fundamental differences between cultures like that which is collectivist (socialist or communist), another that is individualistic (democratic or egalitarian), or one that is totalitarian.  Livermore is quite correct in suggesting cultures are different and can lead to gross misunderstandings but common sense is as likely to ameliorate an “ugly American” persona as these audio book’ lectures.

Livermore’s suggestion that Americans need to raise their cultural IQ-s is certainly relevant but his lectures fail to go beyond common sense platitudes.  American cultural IQ-s will remain low as long as research commitments and language arts are relegated to high school and college classes.  At best, Livermore raises the issue of American cultural ignorance.  He does little to reduce it.  The potential for being an “ugly American” is extant both inside and outside the United States.

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PERFECT BEAUTY

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.com

An Ember in the AshesAn Ember in the Ashes

Written by: Sabaa Tahir

Narration by:  Fiona Hardingham, Steve West

SABAA TAHIR (AUTHOR)
SABAA TAHIR (AUTHOR)

“An Ember in the Ashes” resurrects the myth of perfect beauty.  Like Helen of Troy, Sabaa Tahir creates Laia whose beauty seduces the high and mighty, the immoral and licentious, and the low and rebellious.  Laia is a beauty with perfect proportion and symmetry; without guile, self-awareness, or conceit.  A fan of life knows perfect beauty is a myth but, as a premise for a story, it is irresistible.  The myth launches a thousand ships in the “Trojan War”, destroys a life in “Anne Karenina”, and calms a savage beast in “King Kong”.  A fan succumbs to stories of perfect beauty’s mythical allure.

The course of a world’s history in Tahir’s “An Ember in the Ashes” is changed by perfect beauty.  Tahir creates a fantasy world where might is right and rebellion is imminent.  Like in Plato’s “Republic”, society is stratified with a ruling-elite, a warrior class, and everyone else.   The warrior class is built from children born of warriors; taken from their families, and trained through adulthood to protect the Republic.  Unlike Plato’s “Republic”, the ruling class is not meant to create philosopher kings but to mold rulers for a totalitarian state.  The ruling class is focused on training and selecting the next Emperor for “absolute power”, without any necessary qualification for the “common good”.  The “everyone else” is made of merchants, slaves, and the hoi polloi.

The perfect beauty, Laia, has a brother; i.e. one of the hoi polloi; who is arrested by the ruling class.  In the course of arrest, Laia’s grandparents are murdered which leaves her with no living relatives other than her arrested brother.  Laia seeks help of an underground rebel group, originally started by her deceased parents, to fight totalitarian government.  A mystery surrounds the underground group and the lives and deaths of her parents.  Laia finds the new leaders of the underground and is recruited to infiltrate the state hierarchy as a slave of the powerful and malicious matron of the warrior school.

Tahir creates a turning point in her fantasy world’s history.  The next Emperor is to be selected from the warrior class in a competition.  There are four selected aspirants for the position; i.e. one woman, and three men.  The woman aspirant is in love with one of the men, Elias, who considers her a best friend but not a matrimonial mate.  The other two male aspirants are twin brothers; one of which is a cruel, amoral tyrant, and the other a pliant follower of his sibling.

Elias is the son of the powerful and malicious matron who runs the Warrior school and owns Laia.  Elias despises his mother for having abandoned him in the desert when he is born–another mystery.  The hate Elias has for his mother grows more virulent with years of training at the Warrior school.  Elias first sees Laia in his mother’s presence and is emotionally overwhelmed by Laia’s perfect beauty.

To enhance Tahir’s fantasy world, there are mythical creatures; e.g. Ghuls, Jinni, and immortal watchers that manipulate this world’s culture.  The watchers are called Augurs, with the principal Augur named Cain.  Cain is a lynch pin between totalitarian government and individual freedom.

“An Ember in the Ashes” is an adventure and entertainment in the Marvel’ mode.   The book’s last chapters twist and turn to offer a tale told in different languages, cultures, and eras.  It is a comic book version of trials in human governance.  It is masked in the myth of perfect beauty.  The audio book version is well done and finely produced but the story is hackneyed; and ironically, a probable best seller.

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BOMBASTIC FAILURE

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.com

My Life as a Foreign CountryMy Life as a Foreign Country

Written by: Brian Turner

Narration by:  Kevin T. Collins

BRIAN TURNER (FORMER SOLDIER,POET, AND AUTHOR)
BRIAN TURNER (FORMER SOLDIER,POET, AND AUTHOR)

“My Life as A Foreign Country” is a bombastic failure as an audio book.  Brian Turner is an ex-soldier and current author/poet.  He is poorly served by Kevin Collins’ narration of an insightful contrast of soldiers fighting past and present wars.  Turner’s meaning is mangled by the narrative actor.  The listener hears a narrator’s acting voice more than the literal confusion, frustration, and terror of an American soldier fighting a war in a foreign country.  The author’s words describing post-traumatic stress are inadvertently trivialized because meaning is lost in the narrator’s bluster.

“My Life as A Foreign Country” is a memoir by Sergeant Brian Turner, a real soldier in 2003 who leads other soldiers in Iraq.  He re-creates his personal trail of tears; his pre-deployment training, his war experiences, his homecoming, and his struggle to return to a normal life.  What Turner writes reminds readers of what they have read as bibliophile, or experienced as returning veterans.  Turner writes of a veteran’s return to society; i.e. of moving from one place to another in hopes of leaving the past, and finding a future in the present.  He writes of wandering into and out of self-indulgent experiences in the hope of finding something dependable, more permanent, and worth living for.  Turner remembers faces of the enemy in his dreams.  He re-lives the violence and emotions of combat.

Turner is a multi-generational soldier.  He contrasts what he believes is his grandfather’s, father’s and uncle’s experiences, in earlier wars, with his experience in Kosovo and Iraq.  The remote killing of drones is revealed as a technological advance that carries the same psychological damage as being a pilot in WWII or Vietnam.  “My Life as A Foreign Country” needs to be re-produced as an audio book to fulfill its promise as a memoir of modern war.  Kevin Collins’ audio book version of “My Life as a Foreign Country” is disappointing.

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HEDONISTIC ABANDON

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.com

Midnight in EuropeMidnight in Europe By: Alan Furst

Narrated by: Daniel Gerroll

ALAN FURST
ALAN FURST

Alan Furst creates a sense of foreboding, isolation, and hedonistic abandon before WWII in Midnight in Europe. It is 1938. The Spanish Civil War is raging. France and England are kowtowing to Hitler’s land-grabbing demands and false concessions. By the end of the year, the Franco/English appeasement agreement in Munich will be signed and Czechoslovakia will be ceded to the Nazis.

Spies lurk in Paris’ bars and crooks work on the fringes of clandestine arms’ and munitions’ deals. The spies are working for their governments. The crooks are lining their pockets at the expense of nationalist patriots.

Furst creates Cristian Ferrar, a successful corporate attorney living in Paris that is recruited by an underground Spanish resistance group. The resistance is to Franco’s government in Spain. The Paris based resistance’ cell is recruiting Spanish ex-patriots like Ferrar to help acquire arms and munitions to fight Franco.

Furst paints a picture of foreboding, isolation, and hedonistic escapism by telling stories of Ferrar’s experience in 1938. Every new person Ferrar meets is dour, ironic, or nervous except when intimate. Everyone has secrets. Sex shuts out personal’ isolation of Furst’s hero, but after intimacy, the feeling of isolation reasserts itself with the imminence of war.

There are several tales of derring-do in Furst’s book but this genre of fiction is overdone and nothing new about pre-war Europe seems revealed by Furst’s effort. Furst is a good writer but he needs a new story line.

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WASTED IMAGINATION

Book Review Personal Library By: Chet Yarbrough

The Casual Vacancythe casual vacancy By: J.K. Rowling

J. K. ROWLING (MOST FAMOUS FOR THE HARRY POTTER SERIES)
J. K. ROWLING (MOST FAMOUS FOR THE HARRY POTTER SERIES)

J. K. Rowling’s book, The Casual Vacancy, is wasted imagination by a talented and successful writer. Rowling takes a break from magic to create a reality-based story about societal decay. It is a story of human degradation and society’s inability to deal with human nature’s frailties; frailties that engender poverty, addiction, child abuse, and psychosis–the ills of human’ history.

The Casual Vacancy disappoints. One expects better from Rowling. This 2012’ fiction seems unlikely to be read by many, without Rowling being known as author.

Rowling introduces her story by telling of an unexpected death of a Parish Councilman. The unexpected death creates a “…Casual Vacancy”, which is a Parish’ term meaning an unexpected political vacancy has occurred, and an election must be held. The vacancy is in the Pagford Parish, a middle class community that provides some social services to the adjacent community, The Fields. These two communities represent most of the ineradicable ills of society. The required election exposes some of those ills.

The preeminent ill is poverty. It is clearly exhibited in The Fields community. Pagford Parish is populated by residents that are outwardly more prosperous but inwardly troubled by the same human’ frailties as The Fields. Family tensions are displayed by Rowling’s story. Children are trying to find their way in life. Adults are equally busy finding themselves; each deal with their own insecurities and desires. Rowling shows how families suffer from lack of attention to relationship, their directionlessness, and fleeting empathy; i.e. many parents abuse without realizing; children rebel without purpose, and families forget others’ suffering.

Rowling mixes lives in these two parishes; the mixing magnifies the human’ consequence of poverty. Though addiction, child abuse, and psychosis are evident in both communities, the reality of poverty and its consequence are life threatening in The Fields. The family described in The Fields is poor and poorly educated with a single parent that is addicted to drugs. The Fields’ family’ story ends with accidental death and suicide.

The families in Pagford Parish are middle class, and better educated. The Pagford Parish families’ story ends with a funeral. The funeral is for two deaths in The Field’s family. The funeral is a symbol of the difference between struggling poor families and struggling middle class families; i.e. a fleeting reminder to Pagford’ residents of why empathy and care for others is important. It is fleeting because the funeral is only a symbol. It is only an event. It infers societal’ change is unlikely.  When a funeral is over, insight often becomes buried with the dead.

Reading The Casual Vacancy is like watching an episode of a television’ reality series; i.e. tragic or cloyingly saccharine events unfold but nothing new or enlightening is revealed. The Casual Vacancy is formulaic—event full (at least at the end), but empty of anything new; a wasted imagination.

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ROBIN HOOD

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.com 

IvanhoeIvanhoe

By Sir Walter Scott 

Narrated by Jim Killavey

Aside from being a source for the legend of Robin Hood, “Ivanhoe” is a boring adventure with a smattering of muddled history, stilted romance, and legendary valor.

SIR WALTER SCOTT (1771-1832)
SIR WALTER SCOTT (1771-1832)

This is a story of twelfth century England, a time of great conflict between Christians, other-believers like Muslims and Jews, and non-believers (pagans that believe in many gods or no God).  Layered into this religious conflict is Anglo/Saxon resentment of Norman control of England.  “Ivanhoe” creates the legend of Robin Hood with an introduction of Norman-King Richard the Lionheart and his brother, Prince John, to characterize the era.  This is during the time of the Crusades when Saladin is spreading Muslim beliefs through the world with conquests in Syria and the Middle East.

With scant reference to this historic backdrop, Scott creates characters like the “Black Knight”, Robin Hood, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, and the Knights-Templars.  The “Black Knight” is King Richard in disguise, Robin Hood is Prince Locksley in disguise, and Wilfred of Ivanhoe is a pilgrim in disguise.  Wilfred is returning from the holy land as a soldier in King Richard’s army.  The Knights-Templars are a military wing of the Christian church made up of characters with all the good and bad qualities of human beings.

Richard the Lionheart returns from the Crusades to find his brother, Prince John, trying to wrest the throne from Richard’s hands.  With the help of Robin Hood, Richard reclaims the throne.  Richard is a reckless King that lives life for the thrill of adventure and forgives his brother in spite of his obvious treachery.  The King forgives Robin Hood and his band of merry men for poaching on his land and robbing the countryside’s rich in return for a pledge of allegiance and structured limits to his band’s illegal poaching.  Wilfred of Ivanhoe marries his childhood sweetheart and resumes a filial relationship with his Norman-hating father that acknowledges Richard’s place on the throne.

For its time, “Ivanhoe” may have been controversial because of its slightly more beneficent characterization of Jews in history but it is a far cry from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that forthrightly attacks the evil of discrimination.  Rebecca and her Jewish father show familial love that symbolizes common feelings of all loving families but Scott regurgitates the skewed stereotypical and negative characterization of Jews as rapacious money lenders and Jesus-killers.  The spectacularly beautiful Rebecca falls in love with Ivanhoe but without reciprocal feeling from the valiant knight.  Though Ivanhoe defends Rebecca’s honor she, to him, is only a damsel in distress; not a human being, but a Jewess that could never be a lawful part of a noble’s life.  Rebecca chooses to leave England when she sees no prospect of a future.  Ironically, a Muslim ruled country is chosen over a Christian ruled country because of Muslim tolerance of other religions.

Sir Walter Scott may be a better writer than is shown in “Ivanhoe” but for adventure and romance, Alexander Dumas is a better practitioner of the art.

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PHYSICS WIMPs

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.com

A USER'S GUIDE TO THE UNIVERSEA User’s Guide to the Universe

By: Dave Goldberg, Jeff Blomquist 

Narrated by: Mark F. Smith

Dave Goldberg is a physicist with a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Princeton University

and Jeff Blomquist is an engineer at Boeing Aerospace.

DAVE GOLDBERG
DAVE GOLDBERG

Goldberg and Blomquist attempt to glorify and simplify the

JEFF BLOMQUIST
JEFF BLOMQUIST

study of physics by praising its inherent fascination and potential for answering questions about the universe.  However, “A User’s Guide to the Universe” fails to enlighten the uninformed; i.e. it fails because no more is understood about physics than a child knows about birth when told that babies come from mother’s wombs rather than stork’s beaks.

The authors gain attention by asking simple questions like “What is empty space made of?” but lose their audience by giving weak answers; e.g. the authors answer is that 75% of space is dark matter and energy; and then quote a science fiction spoof called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”—“Space…is big. Really big”; so, the listener is lead to understand space is big and made up of 75% of something unknown.  It is not that the information is inaccurate or incomplete based on current science, but it is unsatisfying.

The authors go on to explain the Large Hadron Collider is searching for Higgs-Boson particles that may be quite large, and may be Physics WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles) that hold matter together like invisible glue.

New words like Higgs-Boson and WIMP are mixed with old words like “big” and “glue” but “What is empty space made of?”  The operative word “may” means no one presently knows.

In fairness, Goldberg and Blomquist help one understand some of the vocabulary of physics and cosmology but naming and explaining are two different arguments that confuse their answers; in part, because answers remain as unverifiable to physicists as the general public.

A unified field theory was a life-long pursuit of Albert Einstein; however, neither he nor any of his successor physicists have been able to find the golden key that explains everything about everything.  String theory is an elegant idea that may be the golden key; on the other hand, it may be a dead-end because a string’s miniscule size is currently un-measurable, and consequently untestable.  Additionally, for the theory to work, strings require 7 or 8 more spatial dimensions than the known 3 dimensional world (excluding time).

The authors spend a good deal of time explaining how movies and books ignore the fundamental physics of the universe.  They note that time travel to a past, before a time machine’s invention, is impossible.  This is not about physics; i.e. it is about logic.

Goldberg and Blomquist explore the theoretical frame-work of life by explaining how the “Big Bang” is the beginning of the physical universe, verified by measurements of an expanding universe and celestial noise that infers an original event.  This is a well-trodden explanation of the beginning of the universe but no new insight is given to what existed before the “…Bang” or what caused the singularity.

No “…Users Guide to the Universe” would be complete without a discussion of extraterrestrial life but the limits of the discussion are the probabilistic nature of many planets in many universes that might have capacity to support life.

So, like the child that asks where we came from when told “children do come from mother’s wombs; not stork’s beaks”, one is no better informed about physics from “A User’s Guide to the Universe” than a child’s question about his origin.

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