Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What is all the commotion about? A review of "The Hunger Games" trilogy

Why I read this book:

After reading over one thousand pages of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich", I needed a change of pace. Pouring over an unflinching, dry account of history is hard work. I needed something light, something popular, something sweet after eating my vegetables, if you know what I mean (yup, it is still true: you cannot say "if you know what I mean" without it sounding like sexual innuendo... if you know what I mean). 

Perfect timing for "The Hunger Games" trilogy, and besides - people cannot seem to stop talking about it. I even read that archery is exploding in popularity due to these book and the movie (I swear, you can make anything cool if you put it in a movie). Sure, I am late to the party, but I am late to everything - I did not even learn how to ride a bike until I was twelve, so being behind the curve does not phase me. Besides, what better way to change direction away from World War II than to read about children being pitted against each other in a death match? Right... Oh well, too late now - I already purchased the books. 


1. You have a decent chance of finding something better by sticking your hand down a dumpster bin.
2. You can find something better in a thrift shop, and not in a cool way like Macklemore and Lewis.
3. You can find this book at your corner CVS. You can probably save a bit at Walmart, but you are willing to pay for convenience.
4. This book should come with a gift wrap, paper mache, and cinnamon sticks.
5. This book belongs in your private collection, next to the busts of Augustus and Bach. 


These are my thoughts as I made my way through the trilogy:

“The writing is rather simplistic. The sentences are short, and she writes like she is speaking.”
“This book is clearly aimed for 14-year olds and the unwashed masses. Everyone around me is a peasant.”
“Oh no, am I just getting old and bitter and out of touch?”
“This little sister angle is totally working. If I ever write anything, I must use that.”
“OK, I have to admit the concept is pretty clever.”
“Crap, it’s 12:30am.”
“I need to totally open a Hunger Games course. Some sort of a hybrid between a survival camp and paintball. Maybe have ziplining? No, that’s stupid. The ziplining, that is – the Hunger Games course is so money.”
"I wonder what Suzanne Collins looks like. I am picturing a Suzie Orman, but with dark hair."

No, YOU stop it, Suze Orman!

"Crap, it's 12:30am again."
"There is so much girl power in this book! I like that. If I were in a book club, I would definitely focus on that aspect of the book and the broader societal implications it carries. I should join a book club."
"If I find out Suzanne Collins is some crazy Glenn Beck fan, and this book is really her vision of what happens when Obamacare is fully implemented, I am going to be pissed."
"A book club with a manly twist. Maybe a Crossfit/book club hybrid? Today's workout: 15 minutes to find your one rep max squat snatch, 10 minutes to discuss the Hunger Games, then 'Fran'. Man, I am on fire!" 
"Wow, I was way off:"
In case you were wondering: Suzanne Collins does not look like Suze Orman.

"Crossfit/book club combination!? That is so STUPID. What was I thinking yesterday?"
"Still on board with the Hunger Games survival course idea, people would eat that up. If people pay good money to have their testicles zapped in ToughMudder/Zombie-thon/whatever, they will definitely pay for the Hunger Games survival course. Suzanne and I will split the profits 30/70. Ok, 40/60."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A glimpse into Hell on Earth: a review of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich"

Why I read this book:

My initial introduction to William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" came several years ago when my friend Dexter*, whom I introduced earlier in this blog, and I were trading stories about ambitious projects - books of heft in theme and volume, the kind that cool the passions of bookworms everywhere. At the time, I was inspired to pick up "War and Peace" (I made it to page 300 - no small feat; the book has been sitting open on that very page on my night stand for the last two years); Dexter suffered the same fate with "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich".

With that introduction to this book, I was only too happy to pick up "The Rise and Fall" when Amazon offered it as a Kindle Daily deal. So many pages of knowledge for so little money - let's do this thing, Shirer!


1. A casting net - seriously, that's just insulting. These gladiators are trying to kill me, and you outfit me for crabbing in the Chesapeake bay.
2. A dagger - Excellent for slicing an apple, not so much to defend against the a-hole in the chariot.
3. A spear - "Hey, look, did Caesar just vomit all over the Assyrian Prime Minister?" (spear in the back). It could work...
4. A trident - It's all relative; I could have been that poor guy with the net.
5. A sword and shield - the complete package 


Before you open this book, make sure that you first visit the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. Go there because a book, no matter how powerful or revealing, cannot strike your most primal sensations as your eyes or your ears can. Go there and walk the exhibits; read the correspondence from Nazi bureaucrats who treated death as a production process as they casually noted that the methods of mass murder at their disposal were not killing people fast enough. Feel the shiver run down your back as your mind slowly registers the horrid contrast between the numbers and projections stated as a matter of fact in a manner devoid of any emotion, as if the work were producing nuts and bolts, and the brutality that lies behind those words. Go there and stare at the mountain of shoes as it finally dawns on you that people, no different than you and I, walked in those shoes right up to the moment they were slaughtered on a scale that has known no precedent in its calculated brutality and magnitude. Go there because chances are that you grew up in a part of the world that grew prosperous and peaceful on the rubble of the most devastating war the world has ever known. Go there because you cannot really fathom what happened during the reign of the Third Reich because your parents taught you to share when you were a child, and your Mom cried when you pushed that annoying kid in kindergarten when he tried to take your fire truck even though he already had the police car AND the ambulance, and you found the whole experience so stressful that the lines between what is wrong and what is right, and what  the boundaries of conduct are, became engrained in you at an early age. Go there because your upbringing and the fortunate timing of your existence has shielded you from realizing the true depths of evil that humans are capable of. Go there so that you may realize that humans have the capacity to organize all their resourcefulness, intelligence, and passion into such hatred, cruelty, and genocidal atrocities that even the imagination of early civilizations and religions could not replicate it in their representations of evil.    

After you internalize in your psyche the human capacity for unspeakable evil, you should proceed to read "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich". For even as the book cannot make you feel the sheer terror of what transpired during World War II, these pages will meticulously catalog every minute detail  of the events that plunged the world into utter destruction and help you understand the events that transpired, the causes of this madness, and ultimately, what we can do to prevent something like from ever happening again. For a history book, the writing is surprisingly smooth; an impressive accomplishment given the subject and the incredible array of sources that the author has meticulously compiled for this authoritative study.

How did this horror happen? The rise of the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany unequivocally owes its success to the unbending will and determination of a mad, but brilliant, maniac, albeit Hitler's crude, hateful philosophy found a fertile environment. Shirer argues that Hitler's dreams of German conquest and expansion resonated strongly with a people with a long martial history.
He does have a point - naming your reign the THIRD Reich does imply some continuity (the first Reich was the Holy Roman Empire and the second Reich was the Hohenzollern Empire). Shirer also draws interesting parallels between Hitler's philosophical foundations behind his mad rants in Mein Kempf and the works of some of the influential thinkers in German history. Shirer paints a damning portrait of the complicity or lack of resistance to Germany's descent into an instrument of the most immoral destruction in history by the most powerful elements of the German society: the old guard of the government, the business interests, and the Army. Once Hitler ascended to power, becoming bigger than God and Law, and turned his maniacal hatred outside Germany's boundaries, the duty of stopping him fell to the fragmented, selfish, and mutually distrusting world powers. Disaster was already guaranteed to Germany's neighbours by the time a wavering Britain, defeatist France, treacherous Soviet Union, and an aloof United States realized the extent and brutality of Hitler's aims. Among these titans, historians of the Western world have reserved the greatest condemnation for Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler's lies and unchallenged takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia. This hardly seems fair - while Chamberlain certainly misjudged Hitler's capacity for lying, treachery, and barbarism, the United States was only too happy to stay on the sidelines while the Old World destroyed itself into oblivion, and the Soviet Union was busy scheming with Hitler to take its share of conquests! These historians have clearly fallen for the "oldest sibling" bias: when the parents get home to find the couch on fire and the chandelier sticking out of the television, the oldest child gets punished on the principle of bearing responsibility for the domain in the parents' absence. Never mind that the middle child decided to practice her aim with a bow and lit arrows a la the Hunger games; never mind that the youngest decided that he is Tarzan; the oldest child shoulders the blame. In the case of Chamberlain, it must be noted that while history has judged the old gentleman harshly, he fought for peace with tenacity and conviction; and once he realized that he was faced with an aggressor with a bloodthirst that could not be satisfied, Chamberlain was resolute and steadfast in his opposition to farther Nazi aggression.

Chamberlain did not have a precedent for the cunning and evil that was his adversary. In no prior time in human history has such madness of hatred united with such daring in manipulation of human desire for reason and peace , and with the world's most powerful military at the disposal of a ruthless maniac.

But we do have that precedent now. And even as the last of the generation that defended the world from the horror of Nazism pass on, books like "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" live on to remind us that the quest for global peace and harmony cannot be a fool's utopian errand, but must rather be the essential goal to ensure that we do not destroy each other. This book is a reminder that war is hell, and that we cannot unleash it lightly; and just as we must resist the temptation of war when the national mood is that of bloodlust, we must not give in to naiveté and weakness when we are faced with an insatiable evil.

*Dexter - as in the kid from "Dexter's laboratory", not the serial killer from Showtime's "Dexter".

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Happy New Year: A taste of Bay Area Crossfit gyms

I met the New Year in San Francisco, and, along with walking the crooked streets and tasting the local fair-trade, all-organic fair, I could not pass up this opportunity to visit some of the Crossfit gyms in the area. This trip was the first time I have had a chance to see how gyms other than my own box operate, and I really enjoyed the experience.

The first gym I visited is Crossfit Santa Cruz. For Crossfit aficionados, this place holds some mystical significance: this is the "original" Crossfit, the place where Prometheus stole fire from the gods, and where the original disciples received the gospel of Greg Glassman. True to form, CF Santa Cruz sits inconspicuously in a row of the uniform garages that, for some reason, seem to house in equal proportion vintage clothes shops, industrial paint dealers, and chain-smoking Eastern European mechanics who specialize in oil changes and tint jobs.

You know you have found a true Crossfit box if you can get 20" rims next door while you work out.

The gym is small, about half the size of my home gym. Despite the fact that it was 9am on New Year's Eve, there were about fifteen people already warming up, dispelling my fear about possibly being the only people to show up. People consistently came up to us (my friend Maximus* and I) to introduce themselves, and that was before we officially went around in a circle to introduce us to start the class. When I joked about the West Coast friendliness, a guy later confessed that the owner makes the regulars do burpees if the gym members do not introduce themselves to visitors. From this, I formed several conclusions:
1. No one likes burpees.
2. The gym must get a lot of visitors.
3. West Coasters are still way friendlier than us (it took six months for our Navy jock-nerds to acknowledge my presence when I first joined).

I was surprised to find no overt indication of the gym's legacy as the original gym. Only a careful scan of the records on the wall, where "Back Squat - 450" was scribbled along with the name "P. Barber", betrayed the rich history of this unassuming place. I felt like an archeologist examining the ruins of the Jerusalem Old Town. Danielle, the owner and coach, was tireless in her coaching, and I learned a lot during the class.

This is what Pat Barber does when he is NOT working out. Imagine what he does at the gym!

The next day I went to check out San Francisco Crossfit. This place has apparently gained some fame in the Crossfit community. It is an outdoor facility in full view of the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, and coached by mobility expert Kelly Starrett and gymnastics guru Carl Paoli. I was amused to note that quite a few of our ladies who mentioned these guys and their gym to me assumed the same "he-is-so-dreamy" tone that they use when talking about Hugh Jackman or Patrick Dempsey. Guys, take note: mobility is sexy. And while I, regrettably, did not get a chance to meet the dreamboats themselves, I can certainly attest to the gym's emphasis on mobility. We did enough one-armed overhead squats to last me a lifetime, and my shoulders are still sore even as I write these words.

San Francisco crossfit has a lot of space, and there were a lot of people at the class (to be fair, this was the only class offered on New Year's Day). The coaches told everyone to turn to their neighbors and introduce each other, and I understood that there were a lot of drop ins in the class. That, plus the sheer number of people in the class made the experience feel quite impersonal even though I chatted with my neighbors, and the coaches were helpful and friendly. I am glad I dragged myself to experience a workout at San Francisco Crossfit - they are soon leaving their open-air spot with a grand view of the Golden Gate bridge for a state-of-the-art facility somewhere else in the city.

Incredible picture of the Golden Gate bridge courtesy of Maximus.

My biggest takeaway from my trip is that size matters. A small gym fosters relationships and translates into results. The coaches know their flock and understand their particular needs, strengths, and weaknesses. In the small confines of Crossfit Santa Cruz, Danielle (the coach) wasted no time critiquing my overhead squat even though I had known her for all of fifteen minutes. We get this level of coaching at my home gym. The gym members get to know each other, and this familiarity is a powerful motivator. Everyone wants to be fit and strong and to have the ability to do splits like Van Damme (when did the sun set on that career? And why did I not get a say in that decision?), but that abstract desire dissipates when you first open your eyes on a Monday morning or start shutting down your workspace after a tiring work day. Knowing that people you know are waiting at the gym to go through the class with you and push you along is the most effective way to bring you closer to the results you desire.

JCVD would probably like San Francisco Crossfit.
*Maximus is not his real name (yes, I also kind of wish it were).
I do not own all of the images used in this post, and I am grateful for the implicit permission of the owners as to their use.