Saturday, February 2, 2013

Notable women in the two of the male-oriented books I've read somewhat recently

I am extremely impressed by the ways in which the works I have read, while ostensibly about men, treat the female characters with which they deal. I've already written about In the Heart of the Sea, which devotes a whole chapter towards a group of the population that won't even leave shore with the focal group, the crew of the whaleship Essex. The Limits of Glory and Mornings on Horseback were similarly impressive and made concerted efforts to examine, in a complimentary way, the female characters of the stories.
Anyway, here are a few strong female characters I've come across in books, movies, and tv shows ostensibly about men. I recommend checking these out. They're not, in most cases, why I read the books or watched the movies/tv shows. But I give credit to the creators of these works for squeezing in strong female characters not to make a point or pat themselves on the back but simply because in their minds these women were people of substance, like the male characters covered, whose stories deserved to be heard.
Magdalene De Lancey in The Limits of Glory: In a book about a famous battle and the men who fought in it, author James McDonough devotes a considerable amount of attention to Chief of Staff William De Lancey's young bride. And, as the author makes clear in the introduction, he considers her bravery and sacrifice to be no less great than the men on the battlefield. This is a novel, and De Lancey writes that she "Played a part as meaningful as any in the drama" (McDonough x). That part was not in killing men but in taking care of people, specifically, her husband. Because McDononough writes of war "In the end it was just killing and dying" (can't find page yet...), it is clear that he finds her restorative caretaker role to be as noble as those in the battlefield. Now I didn't read this book for Magdalene De Lancey, I read it for Wellington, Bl├╝cher, Macdonell, Napoleon, Ney, and the rest of the military leaders. That is, I imagine, why most people would choose to read this book (it's like the Killer Angels, also an outstanding book as evidenced by the fact that I read it 10 years ago and still rave about it).
Anna "Bamie" Roosevelt and Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt in Mornings on Horseback: David McCullough's book isn't just a celebration of Teddy Roosevelt as an individual. It's also a look at the family and background that created such a remarkable man and President (I am an unabashed Teddy fan, which likely colored my interpretation of this book). Mittie Bulloch is an interesting character because she grew up in the slavery era South in a high society family and dealt with the unsurprising amount of drama that accompanies marrying a man from the slave-free North who disapproves of the practice. While you, like I, may have some trouble sympathizing with rich slaveowners, McCullough also makes sure to note that it was Mittie, not Theodore Sr., who inspired Roosevelt with thrilling stories at bed. These piqued his curiosity and inspired his imagination. I would also like to take this moment to register a complaint with Sports Illustrated for writing an entire article about how Kobe Bryant didn't get his fire from his father and throwing in briefly that oh by the way Kobe gets his fire--his defining personality trait--from his mom. And they had the nerve to publish it the week of Mother's Day! Moving on... Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt is clearly an interesting character, but I found Teddy's sister Bamie to be even more so. While the book is a biography of Teddy, known as "Teedie" when he was little, and the medical struggles he endured, McCullough also makes clear that Bamie endured trials of her own because of spine curvature issues (it's in the first chapter), but writes of these with admiration, rather than pity: "Bamie was strength. Bamie was good sense, the one to lean on, to turn for help" (35).
To say that these women were the reasons I read or enjoyed the books would be disingenuous. But I did appreciate the way these works paid close attention to their characters and I can out with a great appreciation for all of them (though again, admiration is a bit strong for a former slave owner like Mittie, though I recognize the conflict the war brought to her). I wonder if this attention derives from the historical nature of these works. (Technically The Limits of Glory is a novel, but McDonough makes clear that he keeps to historical facts and only fictionalizes feelings.) We make a big deal about the need for strong, interesting female characters in the media, and I agree with this push, but in our own lives perhaps we should be looking not to imaginary worlds but to the worlds of the past. For the most part, the girls and women we read about in history books may not have had the career opportunities we would hope for ourselves and for our friends, but they do demonstrate strength of character, uniqueness, and complexity--exactly the kinds of things you would expect from real, interesting people. Perhaps, rather than focusing so intently on how the media portrays us (us human beings, not members of a given gender), perhaps we should look at the ways nominally powerless individuals were able to be influential in their worlds and use it as inspiration for how we might use the qualities we possess in a world in which we do have real, tangible opportunities. To quote Teddy himself, "Do what you can with what you have where you are."
And yes, you really should read Mornings on Horseback and The Limits of Glory.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

This book is AWESOME: The Limits of Glory

As the title suggests, I am working my way through James McDonough's The Limits of Glory. I still have about 100 pages to go so this is not meant in any way as a review of the book. It's likened to Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels (you should go buy that book now if you weren't lucky enough to have been given a copy in 7th grade English): it tells true historical facts of a legendary and important battle but with imagined thoughts of the generals. McDonough is an Army colonel, a West Point graduate, and Director at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth. So his ideas of what these generals were thinking is probably pretty accurate. Moreover, the structure enables him to engage in an interest dialogue about war without having to refer to his own personal experiences or in any way critique US military policy. Brilliant.
The following passage stood out:
"It was his duty but he did not feel noble about it. War was a form of murder after all--mass murder. These young men--boys, many of them--would go to their deaths on his orders. That he himself might die did not diminish the suffering they would endure, did not lessen the responsibility he felt for their lives. But his duty was to command and he would see his duty through" (McDonough 104).
I particularly enjoyed the third sentence (bolded) because it makes you think about the people who have the power to declare war. What gives someone else the power to tell you what is worth sacrificing your life toward? Does one's willingness to risk his or her own life entitle him/her to demand that of others?
Basically, I'm really enjoying The Limits of Glory because instead of just being a thriller-type book, the author really makes an effort to use this famous battle to examine the implications of a serious topic and highly relevant topic (war) with which the author has much familiarity. I'm really excited to see what he does with the rest of the book.
And on a much lighter note, here is a link to the Abba song "Waterloo".

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Rush Hour: The Running Backs Post (A.D. for MVP)

In honor of Adrian Peterson (The A.D. stands for All Day) being totally deserving of the NFL MVP award, I decided to post a few fun facts about running backs rather than devote the entire post to a debate about why exactly Peterson deserves MVP over Peyton Manning.
(Reasons that come to mind are: Broncos made playoffs and beat Steelers with Tim Tebow, Denver didn't beat anyone especially good in its win streak, Denver has good defense, Minnesota's defense isn't particularly good and its offense runs around Adrian Peterson, Vikings were 3-13 last year and made the playoffs this year, Peterson had nearly record-breaking yardage and was 3rd in touchdowns, Manning was 6th in the league in yards and 3rd in Touchdowns and had more picks than Brady and Rodgers, and as a side note I tend to think articles about "intangibles" and "leadership" are shortsighted when they assume that only quarterbacks can have such qualities--throwing such words around isn't evidence, it's a feeling, it's fine, feelings are great, but admit that it's nothing more.)
Anyway...
Jim Brown: two sport GOAT?
Brown ranks as high in the lacrosse world than he does in the football world. Growing up with a stick in my hand, I knew more about Brown's exploits on the lacrosse field than the gridiron. When I read an article in Lacrosse Magazine a long while back that said some people considered Brown to be the greatest running back ever, I thought it might just be the lacrosse world trying to support its own. Now, of course, I realize the error of my ways. (Thank you, NEJ, for this video.)
Now if you actually believe Brown to be the best running back ever and the greatest lacrosse player ever, where does that place him in all time athlete rankings? How would he compare with, say Michael Jordan? Or someone like Jim Thorpe or Bo Jackson A lot of your opinion probably depends on what your opinion of lacrosse.
But if you're wondering what Brown thinks, he said "I'd rather play lacrosse six days a week and football on the seventh."
Check out this interview as well
And am searching hard for a Jim Brown lacrosse highlights video. Haven't had much luck yet.
Two Greatest Americans?
At Pittsburgh International Airport, there are statues of two great men: George Washington and Franco Harris. It's hard to say which one has had a greater influence on the course of our nation's history.
Okay, maybe not, but from what I hear, Harris is a super nice guy. And for those of you who haven't seen the Immaculate Reception, I'm not even judging, just sorry that your lives haven't yet been enriched by this feat of athletic brilliance. You can rectify that now.
Adrian Peterson is an inspiration.
Rather than give some short quick summary, I'll send you to this Sports Illustrated piece. It's not very long, so I recommend the whole piece.
A few lines that proved to be prophetic:
He's a young Eric Dickerson. And this guy runs angry." [Said a scouting director]
The comparison with Dickerson, the Hall of Famer who still owns the NFL's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, isn't restricted to personnel circles. Current players also see it. "He's big, strong and fast--and he runs with passion," says Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman. "That's a hell of a combination, and I definitely think he'll succeed."
Wherever Peterson goes on draft day, this much is certain: He'll take on his next challenge the only way he knows--running headlong, fast and furious, plowing through the pain. 
I really hope Peterson wins MVP not only because his on-field performance demands it but because of how he's persevered through his life.
Ray Rice is an incredibly positive role model
So Ray Rice is from my area, so I had heard of him before he became an NFL star, back when the local papers were covering him at Rutgers and people were wondering if it would be possible for Rice to make it as a pro despite his size.
Well, that question's been answered. What I really admire about Rice, though, is his commitment to giving back to his community and to being a positive role model. I am legitimately jealous of middle schoolers when Ray Rice day goes around, and local middle school boys and girls get a free football tutorial from Rice and his Ravens and Rutgers teammates as well as tons of free things and autographed pictures. Additionally, Rice's facebook page (which I "like" by the way) is always promoting kindness and positivity, and condemning bullying. Rice makes a great effort towards serving Baltimore and New Rochelle and being the kind of guy that gives athletes a new name.
On the complete opposite side of the moral spectrum, OJ Simpson is a terrible, terrible human being. Also, he was in The Naked Gun.
This of course raises the question of who the best athlete to appear in a Neilsen film was: Simpson or Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
From Airplane!: "Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes."

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Why Moby Dick is Better than the Great Gatsby

Ads for the movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby coincided with my reading of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. I read only the former in high school (I bought Moby Dick on a whim and ended up loving it) and find myself much more likely to come across people who have read Nick's account of Jay Gatsby than Ishmael's of Captain Ahab. This is too bad, because Melville's work is, in my opinion, far superior. Probably because it's a far more hardcore book, and Melville actually worked as a whaler, giving him the real life legitimacy to write such an epic story that is based on a true shipwreck that actually happened.
Reasons why I prefer Moby Dick (as Collin points out, I have much more to say on Moby Dick than on The Great Gatsby but whatever I wasn't going to reread a book from jr year of hs just for a blog post):
Fascination with Whales > Fascination with Rich
Well, for starters, I find the "The Hollowness of the Upper Class", as the theme is described on SparkNotes to be somewhat generic: our society has always been obsessed with following the rich and charting how their lives are incomplete, how they aren't superior, and how money doesn't bring happiness. I'm not saying it's not true, but to me the setting is hardly exciting. Elites aren't uninteresting, just a known quantity.
The whaling industry, on the other hand, is a historical topic that easily merits more discussion than it typically receives. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Puts into historical perspective dependence on oil. Nantucket and New Bedford were hugely important when they were able to bring in oil. Now I know more about Nantucket's history than New Bedford's, but I do know that both of them saw a dramatic decline in their prosperity and relevance when they were no longer suppliers of oil. Nantucket reemerged as a tourism hotspot, as the islanders discovered that relics of the whaling age were interesting to outsiders. (This is a huge oversimplification.) I find this fascinating given oil's role in policy discussions in areas such as international relations, economics, and conservation.
2. As the book's opener shows, the whale has long inhabited the imaginations of mankind, and Ishmael frequently references Biblical interest in the Leviathan. In Moby Dick, whales are great powers of nature and God with which men must struggle, and the book's title character proves to be too strong for Ahab and the Pequod to handle. This powerful whale is part of what seems to be an invincibile sea. In the book's closing line (not nearly as famous as "Call me Ishmael"), Melville writes, "the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago" (Melville 551). The notion of the invincibile sea is one that permeated the minds of many, even Rachel Carson, who later reversed courses. In an era in which the sea occupants' vulnerability is increasingly evident, we struggle to detach ourselves from the notion of the sea's invincibility. At the same time, what Ishmael says remains true for those who deal with water more closely. The sea cares naught for our trials, and we must be very cautious when facing its dangers.
3. The culture of whaling is fascinating. The killing required in whaling contrasts with the Nantucket Quaker culture from which many whaling ships, captains, and mates hailed. Moby Dick shows contrasting views towards whales through the characters of Captain Ahab  and Mates Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. Ahab, of course, is the raving lunatic, hellbent on revenge against the whale who took his leg. His bloodlust is made clear through every interaction he has throughout the book. Starbuck, meanwhile, is a principled Quaker, who whales for profit, rather than out of any sense of personal grievance. He provides the voice of reason throughout the book. For this reason (and perhaps because of this line "it's a coffee-pot, Mr. Starbuck; he's coming off to make us our coffee, is the Yarman" (Melville 340)), he makes an excellent inspiration for Starbucks coffee (that is where they got the name). (I'm too lazy to write about the others--hit up this Spark Notes article).
Ishmael > Nick
Nothing against Nick, really. He's a smart, moral, open-minded guy, AND he's from Minnesota. But Nick just hangs out with rich people, while Ishmael shares a bed with a cannibal he doesn't know and then becomes best friends with him, goes on a whaling voyage led by a madman, learns everything he can about the history and mythology of whales, gets a tattoo of a whale, and survives a shipwreck on a coffin his cannibal friend built. Ishmael is way more legit.
(If you're curious about what happened to the survivors of the boat Essex that played a major role in inspiring the Pequod, read In the Heart of the Sea. Seriously.)
Moby Dick (the actual whale) > Daisy
Not sure what it says about the state of female characters in literature that I find myself comparing a woman with a whale. But both Moby Dick and Daisy are objects of desire of their books' iconic eccentric men and both "smash things up". But whereas Daisy is shallow, and her unattainability doesn't make her seem strong, just too easily coerced by material comfort, Moby Dick is simply too powerful and awesome to comprehend. Ishmael can't even completely describe the whale to the reader, no matter how many chapters he devotes to it.
Ahab > Gatsby
I actually liked the character of Gatsby back when I read the book in high school and of all these comparisons, I'll concede that my preference of Ahab is the weakest of these. But Gatsby tries to be smooth but is awkward. Gatsby doesn't go by his old name of James Gatz. Ahab never tries to be anything other than the absolutely insane person he is. Having read plenty of books in high school English classes where characters have internal personas I have to annoy myself with trying to piece apart, I find it refreshing to deal with a character who is exactly who he appears to be.