Book Review: Sicily

Sicily:  An Island At The Crossroads Of History, by John Julius Norwich

In this book the author captures the melancholy of Sicilian history.  What is it that makes an area of sunshine and agricultural wealth (at least from the time of the Greeks and Romans) so gloomy and so sad?  One might be tempted to blame it on the mafia, but the mafia is a relatively recent (albeit powerful) source of violence on the island.  Indeed, the island has been, as the author says, at the crossroads of history for a long time, a place full of conflict for nearly 3000 years now, and a place that has frequently found itself as the object of control for a great many outsiders as diverse as the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, and Italians.  Its strategic location at the boundary between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, so close both to mainland Europe and to North Africa, has given it a great deal of importance in the geopolitical calculations of many a ruler, with the result of a great deal of unhappiness for its people throughout history.  As fun as it might seem to be in such a strategic area, it tends not to be a good thing, as the history of Sicily makes all too plain.

The author cover the subject of the history of Sicily in 17 chapters that cover more than 300 pages.  First the author begins with the Greeks and Carthaginians who fought over the island, although neither was a native–the native Sicels appear not to have made any cities or had a written language of their own (1,2).  The author then breezes over the next few hundred years when Sicily was ruled over by the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and Arabs in a single chapter (3) because little of record happened on the island during those few hundred years aside from some slave revolts.  After that the author spends a couple of chapters on the Norman rulers who then conquered the island and set up a kingdom there (4, 5) and another chapter on Frederick II, who was descended from the Normans and was fond of the island (6), and then a chapter on the Vespers (7) that accompanied the French ambitions to rule Sicily under the House of Anjou.  Another chapter covers the domination of the Spanish (8), the problems of piracy and political revolution (9), and teh coming of the Bourbons (10).  The author gets a chance to talk about the Hamiltons, Nelson, and Napoleon after that (11), as well as a couple of chapters on Naples during the Napoleonic war and the fate of the Murats (12, 13).  From there we move on to the tumultuous early part of the 19th century (14) and the efforts by Cavour and Garibaldi to bring Sicily into a Piedmont-ruled Italian kingdom (15).  A chapter on the mafia and fascism (16) and one on the second world war (17) close the main material, after which the book ends with an epilogue, acknowledgments, illustration credits, bibliography, and index.

As strange as it may seem, Sicily has never had an indigenous civilization of its own.  Every realm that has included Sicily, every time where Sicily has been unified or part of a larger government, has been formed and ruled by outsiders who have tended to view Sicily as a source of taxation, food, and manpower for wars fought elsewhere or palaces mostly built elsewhere.  That sort of experience cannot help but be deeply dispiriting to a people who has nonetheless not proven itself to be able to unify on its own or to govern itself.  While Sicily has on occasion risen up against invaders who were particularly exploitative, for long periods of time Sicily has been quiescent with the alien rulers who have ruled over it, and that is certainly a puzzle that is worth pondering over as well.  Perhaps Sicily has, in some ways, resigned itself to the rule of others so long as that rule is not too exploitative or too demanding of blood and treasure.  Such lowered expectations are a bit tragic, to be sure, but the alternatives to it can be pretty terrifying, as the occasionally violent history of the island bears out.

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Book Review: La Cosa Nostra

La Cosa Nostra:  A History Of The Sicilian Mafia, by John Dickie

This particular book is a history of the mafia and its parasitic relationship with the Italian state that was constructed from the 1860’s onward, demonstrating that far from an ancient phenomenon, the mafia is in fact relatively new, having been noticed (but not treated seriously by most Italian rulers) shortly after it began, and demonstrating the conditions of profit and power that led the mafia to form both in Italy and later in the United States.  As someone who does not read very much about the history of the criminal class, I found this a deeply interesting book and I think it is a subject I will read about more, given its general interest for those who are interested in the history of corruption and the relationship of politics and society as a whole.  On a general level, this book is an example of the limits of being able to hide a conspiracy, and how the best way to hide something from those who matter is to co-opt them or tie them in some fashion to the secret society that one wishes to make, even if one’s actions cannot be entirely hidden.

This volume is about 350 pages and it contains a history of the mafia from its founding to the early 2000’s or so.  The author begins with the origins of the mafia in Sicily’s citrus industry in the mid 1800’s (1) and how it got its name.  After that the author discusses the ways the mafia entered Italy’s political system (2) in the last quarter of the 19th century and how its influence corrupted Italian politics at the highest level from that point onward (3).  There is a discussion of the relationship between socialism and fascism and the mafia, which opposed both movements in general (4), as well as a look at the way the mafia established itself in America (5) and was reborn by the American victory over fascism (6).  This leads to a discussion about the mafia interest in construction and drug trafficking in the postwar period (7) as well as the first (8) and second (9) mafia wars and their consequences.  The author then concludes the book with a discussion of the efforts by Italy’s virtuous minority to curb the mafia, despite the high death toll that resulted from these efforts (8) and the bombing in the 1990’s and early 2000’s that led the mafia to go under at least temporarily in the face of social outrage (9), after which the book concludes with acknowledgements, a bibliography and notes on sources, and an index.

The author has clearly gone to a great deal of effort in order to uncover forgotten and neglected research that demonstrates the way that the mafia was known from the very beginning by those around it, some of whom were brave opponents of the mafia and its system of violence and oppression.  The author maintains a grim sense of humor, discussing the counterproductive attempts of the mafia to influence politics through violence and the way that just as the mafia is a parasitic element of Italian (and American) society, so too is the Corleone leadership, which maintains power through its interests in Palermo, parasitic on the mafia itself.  What is most surprising in reading a book like this is the fact that there have been so few histories of the mafia and that it took so long for people to think that the mafia was a worthy subject of historical discussion despite its obvious importance to Sicilian and Italian-American aspects of history and contemporary culture.  This book will likely encourage a great many more people to read and perhaps even write about the mafia themselves.

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A Preliminary Defense Of The Music Of 1986

Recently Todd In The Shadows, a music channel I enjoy watching and a twitter figure I occasionally interact with, posted that he thought that 1986 was a particularly bad year for music, and posted its year end hot 100 list.  I looked at the chart and didn’t see a bad year for music at all.  Admittedly, my taste in music is a lot different from most people, in that I grew up fondly listening to the adult contemporary and soft rock of the 1980’s and generally saw the music as responding to my own complicated and generally downbeat emotional state.  It must be clearly admitted that if you do not have the same fondness for sad and slow music that I do that 1986 will be a terrible year, but if you have my taste in music it is one of the best years of the decade.  It’s not as good as 1983, but it’s a very good year, better than anything in the 2010’s by my own personal standards at least.  And while I do not intend on putting together a top 10 (at least not yet, unless you ask very nicely) or bottom 10 of this list, I would like to at least break out the list into various tiers so that the reader can see (if one is interested) what sort of songs that were popular in 1986 really resonated with me.  And just for the sake of simplicity, I am choosing to order the songs within tiers based on the position of the song within the year end hot 100, rather than my own preference.  It would take more time and effort to refine the list to a true ranking, but this is the first step of such a process.  With that said, let’s go.

Among the best songs of the decade/all time:

5. Broken Wings – Mr. Mister
9. Kyrie – Mr. Mister
10. Addicted To Love – Robert Palmer
14. Glory Of Love – Peter Cetera
22. Holding Back The Years – Simply Red
23. Sledgehammer – Peter Gabriel
25. Human – The Human League
27. Take My Breath Away – Berlin
33. These Dreams – Heart
34. Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone) – Glass Tiger (with an uncredited feature by Bryan Adams)
35. Live To Tell – Madonna
37. Something About You – Level 42
41. True Colors – Cyndi Lauper
44. No One Is To Blame – Howard Jones
47. Words Get In The Way – Miami Sound Machine
49. Walk of Life – Dire Straits
57. Talk To Me – Stevie Nicks
59. Take Me Home Tonight – Eddie Money
60. We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off – Jermaine Stewart
62. Your Love – The Outfield
68. Word Up! – Cameo
74. All I Need Is A Miracle – Mike & The Mechanics
78. Life In A Northern Town – Dream Academy
87. Nikita – Elton John
91. Your Wildest Dreams – Moody Blues
96. King For A Day – Thompson Twins
99. I’ll Be Over You – Toto

Good:

4. On My Own – Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald
6. How I Will Know – Whitney Houston
13. Friends and Lovers – Gloria Loring and Carl Anderson
15. West End Girls – Pet Shop Girls
16. There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry) – Billy Ocean
17. Never – Heart
18. Kiss – Prince and The Revolution
19. Higher Love – Steve Winwood
20. Stuck With You – Huey Lewis and the News
24. Sara – Starship
26. I Can’t Wait – Nu Shooz
28. Rock Me Amadeus – Falco
29. Papa Don’t Preach – Madonna
30. You Give Love A Bad Name – Bon Jovi
31. When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going – Billy Ocean
32. When I Think Of You – Janet Jackson
36. Mad About You – Belinda Carlise
38. Venus – Bananarama
42. Danger Zone – Kenny Loggins
43. What Have You Done For Me Lately? – Janet Jackson
45. Let’s Go All The Way – Sly Fox
46. I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On – Robert Palmer
48. Manic Monday – The Bangles
50. Amanda – Boston
52. Crush On You – The Jets
54. Invisible Touch – Genesis
55. The Sweetest Taboo- Sade
56. What You Need – INXS
58. Nasty – Janet Jackson
63. I’m Your Man – Wham!
64. Perfect Way – Scritti Politti
65. Living In America – James Brown
66. R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. – John Cougar Mellencamp
67. Who’s Johnny – El DeBarge
69. Why Can’t This Be Love – Van Halen
70. Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) – Mike & The Mechanics
73. Tarzan Boy – Baltimora
75. Sweet Freedom – Michael McDonald
81. Tonight She Comes – The Cars
83. A Love Bizarre – Sheila E.
84. Throwing It All Away – Genesis
88. Take Me Home – Genesis
89. Walk This Way – Run D.M.C. featuring Aerosmith
90. Sweet Love – Anita Baker
92. Spies Like Us – Paul McCartney

Decent/Meh:

  1.  That’s What Friends Are For – Dionne and Friends
  2. Say You, Say Me – Lionel Richie
  3. I Miss You – Klymaxx
    11. Greatest Love Of All – Whitney Houston
    12. Secret Lovers – Atlantic Starr
    17. Alive And Kicking – Simple Minds
    39. Dancing On The Ceiling – Lionel Richie
    40. Conga – Miami Sound Machine
    51. Two Of Hearts – Stacey Q
    53. If You Leave – Orchestral Movies In The Dark
    61. All Cried Out – Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam
    71. Typical Male – Tina Turner
    72. Small Town – John Cougar Mellencamp
    97. Love Will Conquer All – Lionel Richie

Bad:

7. Party All The Time – Eddie Murphy
82. Love Touch – Rod Stewart

Terrible:

(the sound of crickets chirping, at least so far)

I need to listen more to decide:

8. Burning Heart – Survivor
76. True Blue – Madonna
77. Rumors – Timex Social Club
79. Bad Boy – Miami Sound Machine
80. Sleeping Bag – ZZ Top
85. Baby Love – Regina
86. Election Day – Arcadia
93. Object Of My Desire – Starpoint
94. Dreamtime – Daryl Hall
95. Tender Love – Force MDs
98. A Different Corner – George Michael
100. Go Home – Stevie Wonder

[Edit:  See below for how I placed these songs.]

8. Burning Heart – Survivor – Good
76. True Blue – Madonna – Good
77. Rumors – Timex Social Club – Decent/Meh
79. Bad Boy – Miami Sound Machine – Good
80. Sleeping Bag – ZZ Top – Decent/Meh
85. Baby Love – Regina – Good
86. Election Day – Arcadia – Good
93. Object Of My Desire – Starpoint – Good
94. Dreamtime – Daryl Hall – Good
95. Tender Love – Force MDs – Best of Decade/All Time
98. A Different Corner – George Michael – Decent/Meh
100. Go Home – Stevie Wonder – Good

***

Looking at this list, I have to say that it would be very hard to come up with a best and worst list for me.  If I include only those songs that I think are among the best all time, coming up with a top ten would fill out my honorable mentions with songs that I think are among my favorite songs ever.  And then there would still be a lot of other songs that I think of as good that would deserve at least some mention, which would make up the vast majority of the chart (if not quite as many as 1983).  On the other hand, there is a collection of songs that I simply don’t know, at least by their names, and would have to listen to in order to place them on the list, and I’m not going to assume that all or even most of them will be on the bad side.  This means that a worst ten list would include plenty of songs that I think are decent but which were killed due to overplay (Small Town by John Cougar Mellencamp belongs in this category) or that I am just indifferent to but not actively hostile to them (most of the songs on the list).  There are only two songs in the list that I am aware of having an actively negative view towards, and even these are not ones I view with revulsion, but rather just see as cringy and not very good, like, say, the level of Drake’s Scorpion album last year, but not at the level of a true atrocity like Takashi 69 or XXXTentacion, for example.

It must be emphasized that this is my own personal, subjective opinion.  For me, I think the music of 1986 certainly resonated with my own melancholy and reflective personality, to the point where even relatively upbeat songs like Sly Fox’s “Let’s Go All The Way” were attempting to motivate people to act on behalf of the various problems that could be found in society and were not the sort of optimistic songs that others would find more appealing.  There are some people (Todd In The Shadows among them) who view Peter Cetera’s voice as among the worst things ever, which is definitely not the case for me.  As for me, 1986 is a great year in music, one that contains a large number of songs that I still actively seek out to listen to or to watch the music videos of and have written about at some length, and a great many more songs that I enjoy whenever I hear them.  My taste may not be everyone else’s, to be sure, but for me 1986 is one of the best years of music of the 1980’s, and there are not very many years whose music I would prefer overall.

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Why Aren’t They In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame: The Marshall Tucker Band

Can a one-hit wonder deserve a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?  I have asked that question before and answered in the affirmative, as when one deals with a band like Talk Talk, their one hit does not even begin to hint at their influence in creating whole genres of music.  In most cases where an artist or band worthy of entering into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has only one hit, there is a massive gulf between the achievements of the act and the popular appreciation of that act at the time.  For example, Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead are both one-hit wonders and both are already in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and obviously so.  The question is not always so much how many hits a band has made, but how much they influenced the music of others.  As we have already written about the worthiness of Charlie Daniels for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it is worthwhile to consider at the same time the worth of the Marshall Tucker Band, who in many ways is deeply connected with Charlie Daniels as a blend of that Southern rock and country tendency that Charlie Daniels also had, in a case where both acts mutually influenced each other as well as a wide variety of artists that followed in their wake.

The Influence Of The Marshall Tucker Band

In order to understand the influence of the Marshall Tucker Band, it is important to note the way their music served to shape and influence others.  For example, their first single was “Can’t You See,” a song that did not chart for them but charted for a Waylon Jennings cover version and later on a version by the Zac Brown Band with Kid Rock.  Already we can begin to see the sort of massive influence that the Marshall Tucker Band has had on others through their compositions.  Their first top 40 hit, the #38 charting “Fire On The Mountain,” had been written by a member of the band in hopes that it would be recorded by Charlie Daniels, but it didn’t happen and the band recorded it and made a minor hit out of it.  Their only real hit was the #14 “Heard It In A Love Song,” and that particular tune has been covered by Mark Chesnutt and Crossfire.  Although southern rock acts are often thought of as being very similar to country bands, and even though quite a few country acts have covered The Marshall Tucker Band, they only had one country top 40 hit with 1990’s “Stay In The Country.”  With the Marshall Tucker Band we see a band that had at best modest success with its singles but made songs that a lot of other artists have appreciated and covered, which is a clear sign of influence.

Why The Marshall Tucker Band Belongs In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

We have already seen that the Marshall Tucker Band was closely related to Charlie Daniels (they even shared a producer in Paul Hornsby) and that they wrote songs that have resonated with later musicians in a way that makes them the Laura Nyro of southern rock (which is not the worst thing to be).  Did their own material resonate with fans, though?  Obviously, they have enough fans to make a request of me to write about them, so that is a start.  Of their seven Capricorn releases, six of them hit at least gold, with 1977’s Carolina Dreams going platinum [1].  The fact that these certification levels were hit without having very much in the way of hits, simply out of the music resonating with a body of fans, suggests that they were indeed a band that is worthy of induction on the quality of their music.  Their music is still covered and appreciated to this day, and that’s a solid case for induction.

Why Aren’t The Marshall Tucker Band In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

I’m not sure.  It’s quite possible that few people in the nominating committee realize how iconic they are and don’t tie them to the songs of theirs that have been covered by so many others.  In addition, Southern rock is definitely an underrepresented genre when it comes to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame so there’s that too.

Verdict:  Put them in.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Marshall_Tucker_Band

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Book Review: The Sword Of Summer (Magnus Chase And The Gods Of Asgard #1)

The Sword Of Summer, by Rick Riordan (Magnus Chase And The Gods Of Asgard #1)

This book is the start of another series that seeks to mine the mythos of heathen European religious past for a polytheistic perspective that wishes to deny ultimate truth and an authoritative God.  This book is part of a shared universe that views Boston as the portal to the nine worlds of Scandinavian myth, just as New York is viewed as the portal to Mt. Olympus in the contemporary world, showing Riordan as one of those blowhard people from the east coast who thinks that they are the center of the universe.  The hero of this book, one homeless orphan Magnus Chase, happens to be the paternal cousin of Annabelle Chase, Percy Jackson’s girlfriend from one of the author’s other series.  The author’s creation of a shared universe of various polytheistic gods all of which have different apocalyptic scenarios coming from different threats tends to lower the stakes, as these gods are simply not very powerful if teenagers can thwart their will and resist what is supposed to be their fate.  I know that resisting one’s supposed fate plays well with younger readers, but the world that the author is building is a real mess.

The plot of this book is not particularly surprising if one is familiar with the author’s work in general, just with a different polytheistic mythos.  Magnus Chase is a homeless boy who has just turned sixteen and finds that some of his friends are not who he thought they were (surprise!) and that he is being targeted by some evil forces that wish to destroy him and the world (surprise!) and that he magically summons a sword of his father’s the minor Norse god Frey, which turns out to have a personality of its own.  Magnus’ sacrifice sends him to Valhalla, where he shows some elf-magic that surprises others, and where he finds himself in a quest to stop Ragnarok from happening that involves some close encounters with Norse gods, Loki, various evil giants, and being chased by angry Valkaries who want to summon Magnus and his associates to justice, including a Muslim girl engaged to be married to a cousin who happens to be an illegitimate daughter of Loki herself, and a renegade Valkarie to boot.  The book involves a lot of adventures, a compressed time period involving an astronomical phenomenon, and cosmic stakes, which is fairly cliche in the author’s writing.

There are really two big problems with this book, especially in its aspect of being a shared universe with the author’s previous work about the Greek gods.  For one, the author doubles down on his hostility to the order and legitimacy of a moral universe by having an even more diverse set of not very impressive gods and other beings who actively rebel against their fate and that lack moral coherence.  This is not a new problem, as it has been present in all of the author’s work and likely reflects the author’s own rebellion against the Judeo-Christian moral order.  The other problem with this novel is a new one, though, and that is the way that adding yet another heathen pantheon to the author’s shared universe weakens the importance of the novels themselves, since multiple heathen pantheons with their own apocalypses cannot help but dilute the problems that each of them provides individually in the absence of an overall moral authority to determine matters.  An apocalypse that only threatens New York or only threatens Boston is not really that much of an apocalypse, since it does not appear as if Kronos and Loki are cooperating in their schemes, after all, but rather working on their own separate plans for destruction that center on bratty and rebellious American teens all too much like their intended readers.

 

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Book Review: The Titan’s Curse (Percy Jackson & The Olympians #3)

The Titan’s Curse (Percy Jackson & The Olympians #3), by Rick Riordan

When ordering this book and a couple of others from the library, I was unaware that this book was out of sequence from the first book of the series, but that is not overall such a big problem given the way that this book can stand on its own even if it is part of an obvious series.  Percy Jackson is still the same sort of rebellious but somehow successful character he was in the first novel, and a little older if not very much wiser as a result of his experiences.  He finds himself baffled by the deference shown to him by various sea creatures and even seeks to defend an innocent seacow from being used by Kronos in his evil plans, and even finds himself holding the weight of the sky on his back before managing to trick Atlas back into holding it.  Again, the author finds himself borrowing from the mythos of the Greeks and not doing anything particularly exciting about it, and the stakes don’t seem quite as high as the author seems to make them out to be, showing himself to be only a modestly talented writer, even unable or unwilling to give detail about how it felt for a teen to hold the weight of the atmosphere, something that should have crushed him.

This book, of about 300 pages, has a familiar feel to it.  Percy is back to living at the camp for demigods, and somehow manages to finagle his way onto a quest with a mixed group of fellow campers, including one who is part of a trap and who ends up sacrificing herself for the others, and another who was one of the maidens who were supposed to guard the apples of Hera and failed in her task thanks to Hercules and who speaks with a stilted and old-fashioned accent.  The quest involves traveling across the country and rescuing people, including the narrator’s love interest, and saving Olympis from the plans of the evil Kronos and his supporters, all of which is pretty familiar, even stale, by this point.  For whatever reason, the narrator wants himself to be the hero of a prophecy which apparently resolves the series as a whole in the fourth volume of the series, if I get around to reading it.  As far as derivative fiction goes, this is not the worst waste of time but it’s no great literature either.

Overall, though, this is not a story really worth the amount of time that one can spend wondering about the sudden hostility of Nico when he finds out that his sister is dead, or wondering why Percy the numbskull doesn’t tell any of the adult authority figures that Nico and his sister were children of Hades born before the pact between the three of them not to have any more kids.  Again, as was the case previously, this book is based on a worldview that provides moral space by having flawed authorities at its peak who need, in many ways, the help and support of human beings and demigods like Percy.  The series is designed to appeal to teens who feel different and don’t fit in and wonder if there is something special about them that separates them from others, the same sort of appeal that makes all kinds of teen books and YA fiction like this (and like Harry Potter and Divergent and many, many, many others like them) popular to this audience.  But even though the author knows what appeals to his audience, he doesn’t have the skill to make his borrowed world all that effective or interesting to people who aren’t a part of the target demographic he is aiming at.

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Book Review: The Lightning Thief (Percy & The Olympians #1)

The Lightning Thief (Percy & The Olympians #1), by Rick Riordan, illutrated by John Rocco

It’s hard to see why this book got enough hype in order to have a failed movie series based on it.  This is not a terrible book, it has some charm, but this book does not quite have the epic scope and amazing worldbuilding that makes for either compelling writing or compelling film.  The author is clearly in a lower tier when it comes to teen fantasy, trying to draw on the power of Greek mythology without having much of worth to offer himself.  This is a derivative work, nowhere near as compelling a universe of magic users and outsiders in a special camp/school as would be the case in, say, Harry Potter, and definitely a second tier work of the order of the Maze Runner series in terms of appeal.  Perhaps that is good enough to earn it a movie, but not enough cultural heft to make it appealing to a larger audience or to make fidelity to the source material all that important.  Moreover, there are some real important problems with the moral worldview of the author as expressed in this book that are worth exploring in greater detail as well.

This particular version of the novel is 200 or so large pages with some illustrations.  We begin with a look at Percy Jackson, a teenager who struggles to control his temper and one who has found himself with problems staying in schools.  Over the course of the novel he finds himself drawing the attention of some very unsavory sort of beings, like harpies and a minotaur who attacks him and his mother and his fawn friend/former classmate when they are trying to get to a safe place, a camp run by a grumpy Dionysus who is currently being exiled from Olympus due to some indiscretions with a wood-nymph.  Percy makes some friends/frenemies and is sent on a quest across the United States where he meets up with Ares and seeks to thwart the plan of the Titan Kronos to return from the dead, even as he seeks to impress his dear old dad–Poseidon.  The plot goes just about as well as you would expect, with the usual moments of action and the last minute twist and the somewhat misleading chapter titles that show Percy as a hero of a particularly contemporary kind that panders to the rebelliousness and ambitions of the book’s target audience.

And it is precisely that rebelliousness that makes this such a problematic novel.  This is not a novel that seeks to elevate the morality or worldview of its readers, but rather one that panders to it.  One can even sense that the writer himself has chosen a polytheistic world full of quarreling gods and demigods precisely so that there is no unified moral center with an all-powerful Lord and Master who can enforce His will upon rebellious humanity and to provide space so that a clever but ignorant and foolishly confident teenager can act in ways that have cosmic significance without requiring the sort of moral reformation that would be involved if the author had a biblical worldview.  In fact, this book (and the author’s entire body of work from what I can see) demonstrates that the longing for a polytheistic world and the hostility to God’s laws and ways are often deeply intertwined, for if gods are beings much like ourselves, flawed and imperfect, then we can silence the demands that we reform and correct ourselves.  If this book is not good and if its worldview is decidedly defective, it is at least the sort of book which reveals much about the moral rebelliousness of its author and others like him, which is at least some purpose, if not the purpose the author probably wishes.

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America’s Team

Yesterday someone thought that they were going to provide a unifying sort of example when they said that at least America or the Twitterverse could agree that Atlanta was America’s team.  I, of course, loathe the Atlanta Braves.  It is one thing that they prevented the Pirates from having a couple of chances to win the World Series while doing absolutely nothing with their own chances those years, but there is a more fundamental reason why I intensely hate the Braves, even if they have not been as dominant in recent years as they were during the 1990’s in the NL East.  And that reason is precisely because the Braves’ longtime owner Ted Turner advertised them starting in the 1970’s as America’s team.  They are obviously not America’s team, since all but one of the teams currently in Major League Baseball (namely the Toronto Blue Jays) play in the United States of America.  The Atlanta Braves are one of 29 American teams, all of which have their own regional base where they are most popular, and even if Atlanta’s regional base is larger than most, it is by no means a nationwide phenomenon.

It is not only the Brave’s that I hate because they are falsely labeled as America’s Team.  The same is true of the Dallas Cowboys, who again are one of 32 teams that are in the United States of America and that have their own generally regional base of support.  I am not aware of whether any teams in other leagues are called America’s Teams, but I would hate them on the same grounds merely for their presumption in assuming and being marketed as a national team when they were in fact a local team in a large group of other local teams.  Indeed, the same general principle would be met if Azteca was called Mexico’s team or Manchester United was called England’s team or Celtic or Rangers (either of them) were called Scotland’s team and so on and so forth.  The only teams that deserve to be called national teams of any kind are those which participate in international competition where they represent the best athletes of the nations as a whole.  America’s summer or winter Olympics teams are America’s Team.  America’s soccer or hockey or baseball teams in various international competitions are America’s teams.  The Atlanta Braves and Dallas Cowboys are not America’s teams.  Period.

Why does this matter?  A great many people are simply uninterested in sports, and do not understand why it would be so contentious that some people would label themselves as America’s teams despite playing in leagues against dozens of other teams from the same country.  The essential problem is:  team sports are very tribal in nature.  Think of them like competing local shrines in various polytheistic religious systems that struggle for dominance in a world where there is nonetheless a great deal of collegiality and attempts at enforcing equality via revenue transfers and luxury taxes that would be highly socialistic in any other realm.  Professional sports are a protected realm where people are paid large amounts of money for a short term career of entertaining others and bringing pride to local areas.  it is a world where there is an active interest in taking down dynasties that get too successful through the imposition of various limits on their actions where the economics of trying to keep superstars happy past their prime does not do the job well enough to begin with.  It is this essentially competitive polytheism that makes spending money on sports teams as well as the devotion of large amounts of time and effort to promoting these games something of a religious phenomenon.

It should also be noted that there is a firm relationship between sports teams and various questions of identity as well.  Having been born on the outskirts of Pittsburgh and still identifying with the region despite not having lived there much of my life, I tend to support Pittsburgh’s teams wherever I have lived, even if that can be rather unpopular in some places.  In visiting other countries, I have found that the support of various teams has as lot to do with with ethnic and political identity.  For example, to support Colo Colo in Chile is to make a statement that one supports the various native tribes like the Mapuche as opposed to the predominant mestizo and criollo culture that has long dominated the country.  And there is a sense of comfort in traveling or moving different places and still being able to find people who support the same teams that one does.  In quite a few places I have been known by the teams I support, be it USC at one of the restaurants I eat at weekly, or Steelers fan by someone who was an upset Seahawks fan in a particular situation.  Nor is this an isolated experience.  There is no sports team in a national league that can be considered a national league because in sports, as in everything else, we are divided people being pit against each other in the competitive desire for power and glory.

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Book Review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People

The Almost Nearly Perfect People:  Behind The Myth Of The Scandinavian Utopia, by Michael Booth

It is hard to tell whether the author really wished to damn the Scandinavian cultures with faint praise by exposing the darker side of the supposed utopia that exists in the region or whether the author was trying to praise the countries while also discussing some areas of improvement that they can make.  In reading this book, I did not feel as if the Scandinavian countries would be remotely ideal for someone like myself, which is why I have never considered living there, even though I would like to visit and make my own critical comments based on what my own experiences there would be.  Given the way that the societies of Scandinavia reward mediocrity and tend to be hostile to those who are odd, who stand out, and who are religious, such societies would not be ones that I would consider as the sorts of places where I would feel comfortable.  The author, to his discredit, does apparently feel comfortable enough to live in Denmark with his Danish wife and to show horror that far right parties have media figures who appear pretty reasonable when he talks to them in person, even if he (and others) view them as far more extreme than they would appear.

This particular book is divided into five parts with numerous smaller chapters as the author seeks to uncover what is at the core of what it means to be Scandinavian.  He begins in Denmark, where he happens to live, and explores Danish history, politics, literature, culture, and cuisine.  He discusses the high tax rates and crumbling infrastructure of areas outside of the regions big cities in most countries, complains about the smugness of hygge and the delusion of Danish happiness.  He then goes to Iceland and explores their risky behavior and their ambivalent relationship with Denmark.  After that the author goes to Norway and looks at the way that oil wealth there has sabotaged the work ethic and creativity of the Norwegians.  He then discusses Finland in a few chapters, looking at their drinking, their relationship with Sweden and Russia, as well as the taciturn nature of the Finnish and their love of saunas.  He turns his attention to Sweden and looks at the problematic nature of Scandinavian royalty as well as the immigration problems that have beset Sweden and which the nation seems in denial about, having found in Sweden the quintessential Scandinavian culture by which all others are compared.  After that he concludes with an epilogue, acknowledgements, and an index.

Are the Scandinavians an almost-perfect people?  Not really.  To be sure, there are some things that they have done well, like providing the sort of culture where mediocre people who do not stand out and who are content with trusting government to provide many of their needs can do moderately well, for the most part.  If such a fate is not all that appealing to you, then there are probably going to be many issues that you have with these societies.  In many cases, the apparent success of the Scandinavian countries appears to be due to problems with bias and definitions, but there are certainly a lot of people, particularly those with political views left of center, that will find these societies appealing, not least because they are mediocre people of a highly secularist bent who don’t stand out, don’t have much ambition or drive, and trust government to take care of them.  If this does not apply to you, though, as a reader, you will probably find a great deal in this book that is horrifying, and you will wonder why the author is not more savage than he is about the myths of the culture of Scandinavia.

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Book Review: The Smartest Kids In The World

The Smartest Kids In The World And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley

In reading this book I could not help but find it particularly amusing the way that the author dealt with the subject of comparing America’s woefully mediocre education with those nations that succeed the best around the world through the eyes of three American foreign exchange students in different countries abroad by commenting on her general attempts to avoid writing about education at all costs as a reporter.  It is not difficult to understand why writing about education is such a difficult and frequently unpleasant matter.  After all, writing about education in the United States (or any other country) involves perverse incentives that are dealt with as well as a high degree of entrenched political interests and the difficulty in providing any meaningful improvement despite the continual push for reforms that usually just make education more expensive without making it better.  The author shows a highly critical attitude towards American approaches in education, including our unrequited love affair for technology and a distinct lack of focus in the importance of rigor when it comes to learning.  The author suggests, not very subtly, that America has the sort of education system that we deserve based on our own priorities.

This book is a short one at a bit less than 250 pages and is divided into three parts.  In the first part of the book the author examines the rankings for the best education systems in the world (1) and explores three teens leaving home and seeking to go abroad in the fall, Kim, a dissatisfied high school student in Oklahoma who decides to go to Finland, Eric, a (formerly) closeted IB graduate from Minnesota who decides to do a gap year in South Korea, and Tom, a Gettysburg high school student who decides to study in Poland.  The author then explores the education systems of these countries through the children, showing Finland’s focus on tough standards for teachers that increases their credibility, South Korea’s pressure cooker atmosphere, and Poland’s rise from mediocrity to recognition for high standards and achievement at present.  And through it all the author looks at the ups and downs faced by the Americans abroad and, perhaps most intriguingly, what awaited them upon their return to the United States and their efforts at furthering their education and learning from the experiences they had, along with some discussions about some of the people they met along the way.

The book as a whole is a winning account of the struggles and achievements faced by ambitious American exchange students seeking to understand life and education abroad.  Whether it is in struggling with foreign languages or dealing with the different approaches that foreign countries take to education, the author is able to come up with some sensible ways that America could, if it wanted to, improve its standing in education with the rest of the world in some very simple ways.  First, education itself, and not merely self-esteem or sports, needs to be made the priority by parents and teachers and students alike.  Second, standards need to be increased by teachers.  People cannot instill a love for learning–especially subjects like math–if they are afraid of the subjects themselves.  Far too many people get education degrees and there is far too little prestige in the field as a whole, and if we want better education, that has to change.  In addition, students need to learn a fair amount of rigor–perhaps not to the level of South Korea, but certainly more than we have at present.  Learning is hard work, and people need to equip themselves to do it, if they want to learn.

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