I started to write this review last night, and went looking for Wil Wheaton's blog, where many of the stories came from, so I can link to it from my rI started to write this review last night, and went looking for Wil Wheaton's blog, where many of the stories came from, so I can link to it from my review.
It was getting late, I was tired, and so I was a bit disoriented for a few seconds when I saw my own words flash up on the screen. At the time, his most recent story had excerpted my review of paper books. Wow, I thought. This never happens when I'm about to review Dickens. And actually, it's never happened before, ever. I'll admit to owning a big grin when I saw that one of my favorite authors liked one of my blog posts.
And Wil Wheaton is one of my favorite authors for sure. I enjoy reading others too, of course, but Wil's writing is something I can really identify with like no other. My parents were never in a London debtor's prison like Dickens' were; I was never a promising medical student like A. C. Doyle. But I was, and am, a geek, and Wil Wheaton captures that more perfectly than anyone. After I read Just a Geek a few years ago, I gave it to my wife to read, claiming it would help her understand me better. I think it did.
In The Happiest Days of Our Lives, Wil recounts memories of his childhood, and of more recent days. He talks of flashbacks to his elementary school days, when he and his classmates tried to have the coolest Star Wars action figures (for me: calculator watches). Or how his aunt introduced him to D&D, which reminded me of how my uncle got me interested in computers. Teaching himself D&D was an escape for the geeky kid that wasn't good at sports, as teaching myself Pascal and C was for me. Between us, the names and activities are different, but the story is the same.
I particularly appreciated Wil's reflections on his teenage years. Like him, at that age, I often found myself as the youngest person in a room full of adults. Yet I was still a teenager, and like any teenager, did some things that I look back on with some embarrassment now. Wil was completely honest with himself -- he admitted crashing a golf cart on the Paramount studio lot, for instance, but also reminds me that he was a teenager then. He recognizes that he didn't always make the best choices and wasn't always successful with what he did, but isn't ashamed of himself either. That's helpful for me to remember; I shouldn't be unreasonably harsh on my 16-year-old self, and need to remember that I had to be a teenager too.
I also identify with him as a dad. He wrote of counting the days until he could teach his boys about D&D, about passing on being a geek to his sons. I've had a similar excitement about being able to help Jacob build his first computer. Already Jacob, who is 3, loves using the manual typewriter I cleaned up for him, and spent an hour using the adding machine I dug out on Sunday while I was watching the boys. (I regret that I didn't have time to take it apart and show him how it worked right then when he asked). And perhaps his 2nd-favorite present of Christmas was the $3.50 large-button calculator with solar cell power I got him as an impulse buy at the pharmacy the other day. He is particularly enamored with the square root button because a single press replaces all the numbers on the screen with completely different numbers!
I can't find the exact passage now, but Wil wrote at one point about his transition from a career in acting to a career in writing. He said that he likes the feeling he gets when his writing can touch people. He's been able to redefine himself not as a guy that "used to be an actor on Star Trek" but a person that is a good author, now. I agree, and think his best work has been done with a keyboard instead of a camera.
And that leaves me wondering where my career will take me. Yes, I'm an author, but of technical books. Authors of technical books rarely touch people's hearts. There's a reason we read Shakespeare and Dickens in literature classes, but no high school English teacher has ever assigned Newton's Opticks, despite its incredible importance to the world. Newton revolutionized science, mathematics, and philosophy, but Opticks doesn't speak to the modern heart like Romeo and Jiuliet still does. Generations of people have learned more about the world from Shakespeare than from Newton.
I don't have Wil's gift for writing such touching stories. I've only been able to even approach that sort of thing once or twice, and it certainly won't make a career for me.
Like Wil, I'm rarely the youngest person in the room anymore. His days of being a famous teenage actor on a scifi series are long gone, as are mine of single-handedly defeating entire teams at jr. high programming contests. (OK, that's a stretch, but at the time it sure felt exciting.) But unlike him, I'm not completely content with my niche yet. I blog about being a geek in rural Kansas, where there still aren't many. I'm a dad, with an incredible family. And I write about programming, volunteer for Debian and a few other causes, and have a surprisingly satisfying job working for a company that builds lawn mowers. And yet, I have this unshakable feeling of unsettledness. That I need to stop and think more about what I really want to do with my life, perhaps cultivate some talents I don't yet have, or perhaps find a way to make my current path more meaningful.
So I will take Wil's book as a challenge, to all those that were once sure of what their lives would look like, and are less sure with each passing year: take a chance, and make it yours.
And on that score, perhaps I've done more than I had realized at first. Terah and I took a big chance moving to Kansas, and another one when we bought my grandparents' run-down house to fix up and live in. Perhaps it's not a bad idea to pause every few years and ask the question: "Do I still like the direction I'm heading? Can I change it?"
Wil Wheaton gives me lots to think about, in the form of easy-to-read reflections on his own life. I heartily recommend both Just a Geek and The Happiest Days of Our Lives.
(And that has nothing to do with the fact that the Ubuntu machine he used to write the book probably had installed on it a few pieces of code that I wrote, I promise you.)
Uncubicled starts out with one of the best beginnings of any book I've read. It's hilarious, totally predictable in places, and completely UNpredictabUncubicled starts out with one of the best beginnings of any book I've read. It's hilarious, totally predictable in places, and completely UNpredictable in others, and the mystery starts from the very beginning.
The book is thoroughly gripping, and usually hard to put down. Plot twists and turns abound, and a fair number of jarring revelations occur. There is humor, too, especially in the first third of the book.
The book has a nonlinear timeline. At times, this is made somewhat explicit: "Monday 5PM" might occur earlier in the book than "Monday 2:13PM". At times, it is less explicit. It's an interesting device, but overused. I found myself almost wanting to take notes sometimes: I'd pick up the book, see a chapter number and a random time staring at me, and have to flip back to prior chapters to compare timestamps to see where this fit in to the chronology.
As the book progresses, these jumps in place and time are often used to introduce the backstory of a character. At first, that was interesting and sometimes even heightened the suspense. But by the time we shifted from a gripping scene to suddenly a farm in Indiana some hours earlier, it has passed from interesting, through annoying, all the way to downright frustrating. I usually took my cue to stop reading Uncubicled at those points, instead of staying up later into the night to find out what happens as I would have otherwise. It was too annoying to be ripped out of an engaging plot for awhile, frustrating at having to keep the chronology straight in my mind. Though I can't deny it was an effective and interesting device at times, it was just overused.
I found the ending a real letdown. I'm not one of those people that tends to enjoy a book where you think everything has been resolved, and then on the last page or two suddenly realize that it hasn't. I would have been happier if it ended before the epilogue. As it is, I feel like I'm being suckered into reading the sequel. Which I will probably do anyway, though with less enthusiasm than if I hadn't been suckered into it. And I say that even though a sequel doesn't exist yet. It feels THAT strongly.
In all, it feels like one of the recent James Bond movies: so action-packed, time- and place-shifting, that it holds your attention, but never lets you really figure out what the story even is until later. I'm not sure I really like that.
But, I've got to say this: the author strikes me as a really interesting guy. Josh has some novel ways of promoting the book and making his entrance into the world of publishing. I hope he continues writing, continues working in unconventional ways. Although I'm not giving this an entirely glowing review, I think it *is* a promising first novel for Josh. I hope he keeps at it, and I look forward to reading his future work.
As to the rating: at the beginning of the book, I thought I'd be giving it 5 stars. By the time I got to the end, it was a debate between three or four.
One other comment: the Kindle version had somewhat odd formatting. There was no indication of a new paragraph: no indentation, no line breaks. It made it hard to read at first, though I adjusted by the end. Still, that ought to be fixed.
Highly recommended to anyone. I'm glad I read it. ...more
Rick Steves is known for writing books, and producing public TV shows, about travel to Europe. He encourages people to get out of their comfort zone,Rick Steves is known for writing books, and producing public TV shows, about travel to Europe. He encourages people to get out of their comfort zone, advocates staying in homes instead of hotels, and giving yourself permission to struggle to communicate in a land of unfamiliar language. That way, you get to experience not just the landmarks, but the culture and history. That was the approach we favored in our recent trip to Europe, and after being there (and seeing tour groups), I think Rick Steves is right on.
On the plane to Europe, I read his Travel as a Political Act. This is not a guidebook, but more a book about the philosophy of travel. As usual with my book reviews, unless indicated otherwise, all quotes here come from the book. He starts out with this statement:
I've taught people how to travel. I focus mostly on the logistics: finding the right hotel, avoiding long lines... But that's not why we travel. We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow. Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped.
I read this book mostly on the plane to Hamburg, or the week prior to leaving. I can credit Rick Steves directly for encouraging me to strike up a conversation with a random German on the bus from Hamburg to Lübeck, which I'll discuss here in a couple of days. Probably the biggest lament from Rick Steves is that the people that really ought to travel -- the ones that are so sure that their ways are correct and best -- are least likely to do so.
Make a decision that on any trip you take, you'll make a point to be open to new experiences, seek options that get you out of your comfort zone, and be a cultural chameleon--trying on new ways of looking at things and striving to become a "temporary local." ... My best vacations have been both fun and intensely educational ... Travel challenges truths that we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given. Leaving home, we learn that other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room.
The book is set with an introductory encouragement to travel, followed by seven vignettes of different countries he's visited, and descriptions of how it's impacted him. He gave a lesson of the opening of the German Reichstag (parliament building), which he was present for in 1999. He was surrounded by teary-eyed Germans -- and a few tourists "so preoccupied with trivialities -- forgotten camera batteries, needing a Coke, the lack of air-conditioning -- that they were missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate a great moment with the German people."
He comments that we can learn from other countries -- that no one country has a monopoly on good ideas, and it is plenty patriotic to insist what we adopt good ideas (such as drug policy) from other countries and adopt them for our own.
Particularly touching to me was the description and photo of a memorial in El Salvador, very much looking like the American Vietnam memorial -- except that one remembering loved ones lost fighting the United States. How many Americans even know that we were involved in a damaging war in El Salvador?
A large part of his book was, for me, "preaching to the choir," as this comment illustrated:
In the European view, America is trapped in an inescapable cycle to feed its military-industrial complex: As we bulk up our military, we look for opportunities to make use of it. (When your only tool is a hammer, you treat every problem like a nail.) And then, when we employ our military unwisely, we create more enemies...which makes us feel the need to grow our military even more. If an American diplomat complained to his European counterpart, "America is doing all the heavly lifting when it comes to military," the European might respond, "Well, you seem to be enjoying it. We're building roads and bridges instead."
That's a sentiment I've agreed with for quite some time already, and as such, some parts of the book moved slowly for me -- though I imagine his target audience included people that had never seriously considered these arguments before. Then there were surprising facts:
by the end of World War I, an estimated half of all the men in France between the ages of 15 and 30 were casualties. When some Americans, frustrated at France's reluctance to follow us into a war, call the French "surrender monkeys," I believe it shows their ignorance of history.
And again, I'd agree with him on that point.
The vignette on Iran was particularly interesting, as he described his experiences in person, they sounded far different than the picture we often get in the media.
I have realized, incidentally, that I am terrible at writing book reviews. So rather than inflict more paragraphs upon you with this one, I'll summarize by saying that this is a touching, informative, and motivational book, which I highly recommend. I'll leave you with this quote:
Mark Twain wrote, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." These wise words can be a reallying cry for all travelers once comfortably back home. When courageous leaders in our community combat small-mindedness and ignorance... travelers can stand with them in solidarity.
I didn't travel to make some sort of statement or as a "political act." But I was enriched in many ways by travel -- of course the obvious ones of contemplating the history of a 900-year-old beautiful church, but also in seeing the different character of different cities, being with two families for a couple of days, and seeing different approaches to common problems. I am very glad I wasn't shut off from this behind a tinted window in a tour bus.
If I think back to fond memories of being with my dad during my childhood, there’s one thing that always comes back first. It’s those late summer evenIf I think back to fond memories of being with my dad during my childhood, there’s one thing that always comes back first. It’s those late summer evenings outside. Dad often had outdoor projects going on of some sort. I’d go out there hanging around, maybe chatting, maybe playing with cats, or maybe doing something of my own.
Dad often had an old AM radio sitting around and would be listening to a baseball game while working. As it got darker, lights would come on, and the bugs would start flying near them. Sometimes dad would be working just inside the barn, and the bugs would start flying in there, while some light poured out the big front door. There’s something about that scratchy AM signal, the evening slowly getting darker, the slow pace of the baseball game, and just being around dad and a peripheral part of whatever he was doing that stirs a wonderfully fond recollection in me.
I don’t remember the specifics of any one of those times, nor do I really remember how often it happened, but it does stick with me.
We’ve had a routine in our house, starting early enough that neither of our boys know anything different, where right before bed, I read a book and sing a song to each of them individually.
Last November, I was looking for some books to challenge Jacob a little more than what we had been reading. I found The Complete Winnie the Pooh used for $4 on Amazon. This contains the original A. A. Milne stories, not the Disney series. It had a few line drawings, but there were many pages without any. It’s 352 pages and written in a rather dated form of British English. So for all these reasons, I wasn’t sure if Jacob would like it. But it was $4 so I bought it.
And Jacob was hooked. Each evening, we start bedtime with looking at the “map” of the 100-acre forest, just inside the cover. He gets to pick out 4 things for me to describe, and then we turn to our story. We usually read somewhere between 2 and 5 pages at bedtime, depending on how well he got ready without wasting time. And then we sing.
A. A. Milne has his Pooh character make up songs throughout the book. They are printed with words only, no tune, so I make up a tune for them as we go. Jacob has taken to requesting these songs for his bedtime song as well.
Jacob always gets to choose his bedtime story, and sometimes he chooses a different one — but about 75% of the time, it’s been Pooh.
A few weeks ago, he started noticing that we were almost to the end. He got very concerned, asking what we’d do next. I suggested a different book, which he didn’t like. Then I pointed out that we could restart the Pooh stories from the beginning, which was exciting for him.
Last night, we finished the book. The very last story was an interesting one, suggesting Christopher Robin growing up and no longer having imaginary adventures with the animals, but making Pooh promise to always be there for him. I don’t think Jacob caught onto that meaning, though. When we finished it, we had this conversation:
Jacob: “Dad, is that the end?”
Jacob, getting a big smile: “Yay! So can we start back at the beginning tomorrow?”
Jacob then gave a clap, shouted “Yay!” again, and was a very happy boy.
Sometimes I wonder what our boys will remember in 25 years of their fun times with me. I don’t know if Jacob will remember all the days reading about the animals in the 100-acre wood when he was 4, or maybe he’ll remember watching train and combine videos, or playing radio hide-and-seek, or maybe something entirely different.
But I have no doubt that I will remember sitting on the couch in his room, holding him on my lap, and reading a 350-page book to a loving 4-year-old. As Pooh aptly put it, “Sometimes, the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”