I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains [Real and Imagined] (Book Review)

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I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains is a book with a really interesting concept but unfortunately a poor execution. Chuck Klosterman examines recent pop culture within the last fifty years with the overarching theme of villainy. Klosterman examines villains both real and imagined, while also turning on it’s head some of our ideas about villains based on their roles. The idea of a book about villainy is something that has interested me but the book itself just felt like taking a random assortment of individuals within the past fifty years who were labeled as mainstream society as “villains”. In doing so, Klosterman often also takes figures that people either don’t associate to be villains or even consider heroes and shows how they can also be considered villains using the same brush. Unfortunately, the overarching point gets lost in the philosophical discussion for me.

The book has its strong points for sure, and the book itself was fairly well written. I enjoyed Klosterman’s examination of the Ali vs. Frazier rivalry, how Ali used comments about race to paint some unfair and unrealistic depiction of Joe Frazier as some man who is merely subservient of the white man. I thought the book could have used more examinations like this, incidents that either modern audiences aren’t aware of or have completely forgotten about. Instead, Klosterman examines figures like O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton or the Oakland Raiders.

I also feel like the author reaches in order to try and make his point at times. The best example of this in the book is the comparison of Batman and Bernhard Goetz, a man known for shooting four young black men who supposedly try to mug him on a New York subway in the 1980s. Klosterman seems to be making a larger point about vigilantism and how people would perceive Batman if he were real in the context of knowing nothing about him. However, Klosterman immediately defeats his own point by trying to argue how people would see Batman if he randomly killed a dude one person. Except, Batman wouldn’t do that because he’s Batman. Klosterman keeps referring back to Batman’s motivations but he fails to remember the crux that separates Batman from the man who killed his parents is his lack of going around killing everyone like Dirty Harry.

Overall, I Wear the Black Hat is a book I was for hoping more out of but unfortunately didn’t get. Other readers might enjoy the execution and book itself better than I did.

Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley (Review)

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Seconds features Katie, a talented young chef who at 29 is facing down 30 as graceful as shoppers on Black Friday. She runs a successful restaurant (the titled Seconds), and finally has scrounged up enough money to open up her dream restaurant. Of course, not everything stays perfect forever as Katie’s life begins to fall apart. Complicating things is her ex-boyfriend of four years, Max, reappearing and her dream restaurant resembles more of a nightmare. Most people in her situation would wish they have a second chance at things and Katie’s situation is no different. Except, she gets her second chance.

A mysterious girl shows up, some magical mushrooms later (classic video game reference anyone?) and Katie suddenly finds she can do over her mistakes and make her life as perfect as she always wanted it to be.

Seconds explores the classic theme of “be careful what you wish for” and the time travel trope in it’s own quirky little way that only Bryan Lee O’Malley can pull off. Katie is an extremely self-absorbed person when Seconds begins and this is not ignored whatsoever. It’s extremely similar to O’Malley’s first graphic novel, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. However, it’s worth noting that comparisons of quality to Scott Pilgrim are ultimately unfair to both pieces of work since their main similarity is the same author. Seconds stands on it’s own as a body of work, with some great humor throughout and some great lessons taught.

As someone who is approaching his own mid twenties, I can understand and even begin to relate to the anxiety that Katie feels throughout the graphic novel. Katie’s drive for perfection and fear of failure is wrapped in humor and quirkness but it’s all too real. It really makes her a character that is relatable. Gone in this story are the constant video game references like in Scott Pilgrim but when stripped away it creates a different story all of it’s own.

Also worth noting in Seconds is the beautiful artwork. It’s simply stunning and something I wouldn’t mind looking at all day. I particularly enjoy the artwork and how they are able to make the characters interact so well with the environment. Plus the artwork makes the humor even better.

Overall, Seconds is a really wonderful story with some really tremendous artwork. Whether you were a fan of Scott Pilgrim or not, I think you’ll find something to enjoy out of this graphic novel. Fans of good storytelling will also appreciate this work and what it brings to the table.

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (Book Review)

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I want to open this review by saying that I hope the NSA enjoys my review as much as I enjoyed writing it.

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State is a powerful read for a multitude of reasons. Greenwald shines the light on some of the most damning actions of the NSA in a post 9/11 America that were taken in the name of public safety while examining it in the context of what has become the U.S. Surveillance State. Greenwald also takes the time to tell Edward Snowden’s story, a figure who has become so controversial that he has overshadowed the leaks that brought him to prominence in the first place. Although I’m sure that the Government isn’t upset by that one bit. Greenwald also takes the time to share his own story and the criticism that he has received after working with Snowden.

Greenwald opens the book by telling how he got to meet Snowden and receive all the confidential information that would soon cause an upheaval in the intelligence community and public at large. We get to meet Snowden from the point of the view of the man who would soon make him one of the most infamous figures in recent history.

The meat of the book is contained within the discussion of some of the NSA’s most damning programs that Greenwald shares with readers in the middle of the book. Programs like PRISM and the NSA eavesdropping programs are breathtaking for the volume of information that the Government is collecting on it’s citizens alone. This coupled with the lack of transparency and accountability is a sad realization of just how far our government has gone down the rabbit hole in a post 9/11 world. Our Government has taken to collecting information on American citizens like a Pokemon trainer in the Safari Zone, gotta collect it all.

Greenwald’s chapter about the harm that the Surveillance State apparatus has caused is also worth reading. The devaluing of privacy in the digital age with the complete backing of some of the major social media companies we use every day really reframes the debate. Nothing to hide quickly becomes no place to hide when you decide to take a position that goes against the current views of the Government. As cliche as it sounds, it all quickly becomes Big Brother as the activist community is hindered by the possible existence of being spied on alone. Greenwald also argues that our current apparatus actually makes fighting terrorism harder, a point I am inclined to agree with. Especially in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and the countless other events that despite all of this collection of volume, the Government has failed to stop countless times.

The last chapter of the book is perhaps Greenwald’s most damning in a book that already causes quite the stir. Greenwald discusses the “Fourth Estate” or the media and how the establishment media is in bed with the U.S. Government when it comes to information. Government leaks aren’t okay when Greenwald does it, but it’s okay when Bob Woodward does it or when Administration officials leak things to the media to gain some sort of interest. Greenwald quickly pokes holes in the argument that leaks are uncommon and extremely damaging by pointing out that the number of leaks in Washington on a regular basis could replace the Mississippi River.

What is perhaps most stunning out of this book is not the actions of the U.S. Government, in fact, their actions for better or worse are the easiest to understand and most rational of any of the actors in this book. The U.S. Government has control and wishes to keep it by collecting information because they realize information is power. It’s not ethical as we’ve seen and can be dangerous, but it makes sense. Instead, the most appalling thing in this book is the attempt by mainstream journalists to cut Greenwald out of the discussion by trying to completely redefine what a journalist is, instead using terms like activist or blogger to discredit him among others. It’s a very dangerous road to be walking down, but the mainstream media such as the New York Times and Washington Post just don’t walk down it but tap dance alongside the U.S. Government.

Corporate Journalism in a Post 9/11 world is one of the scariest things as Greenwald quickly proves. The idea that journalism has to be objective when current journalism serves one interest or another is a complete joke. One of the few institutions that people should be able to rely on and trust comes off as trustworthy as Congress around budget season (or any season for that matter).

My only real problems with this book is that Greenwald can be a bit preachy at times, and I would have liked to see more discussion of NSA documents. I feel like while they were stories worth telling, Greenwald’s amount of focus on his and Snowden’s story has the effect of taking away a bit the conclusions of what was leaked. On a more minor note, I can believe the stories in this book because Greenwald acts fairly stupid at times. He blows Snowden off for months (which he admits), but he jumps on Skype immediately after reading in one of the leak documents how it’s compromised as a way to privately talk to someone as a way to contact The Guardian about this story. Later, apparently not having learned his lesson, Greenwald once again jumps on Skype to talk with his partner David about possibly sending over documents to David’s laptop (which he never did) and David’s laptop goes missing. I understand technology can be a bit difficult to understand at first to those who are a bit older, but this amounts to plain stupidity.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Liberal, Conservative, Tea Party, Progressive, Socialist, Libertarian, or some mixture of one or all of the following, read this book. No matter what your background might be, the stories and conclusions of this book should make the hair on any American’s arms stand up.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (Book Review)

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A book is a book is a book is a book. Robert Evans’s autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture is the story one of the most famous movie producers in cinema history and certainly one of the most colorful. The Kid Stays in the Picturefollows Evans’s life from his early childhood to his short-lived acting career, and of course his time as a producer in Hollywood. Mixed in between all this were all the women he managed to become entangled with (a good number) and his marriages (also a good number). Evans has no problem giving himself credit where it’s due, but he also has no issue admitting when he’s wrong.

This book is hilarious and extremely entertaining. Evans knows how to tell a story and more importantly deliver a punchline to it. Whether it’s going on a date with Grace Kelly or getting Al Pacino for The Godfather, you’ll find yourself throughly entertained. Evans was an interesting guy, someone who managed to be close friends with Jack Nicholson and Henry Kissinger. Not exactly two men you ever figure would be friends with the same person, but Evans was that kind of guy.

What particularly drew me to this book was the number of films that Evans helped bring to fruition or produce at Paramount, as he brought them to 9th to 1st in a five year period. Evans doesn’t disappoint as he gives some of the behind the scenes details about how some of the most famous movies of the 1970s were produced. In particular, I enjoyed reading about his involvement in The Godfather and Chinatown. The fact Evans was involved in helping create films like Serpico and The Conversation only increases his esteem in my eyes. It’s unfortunate that the book was written in ’94 and that Evans’s career tapers off after that. The man clearly had an eye for talent, and with the right people had a hand in making some of the greatest films ever created. Not bad for a guy who never produced a film before becoming the head of Paramount.

Overall, The Kid Stays in the Picture can feel a bit long at over 400 pages but there’s enough entertaining stories and heartfelt moments to keep you reeled in. To channel Evans, was this a good book? You bet your ass it was.

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (Book Review)

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Segaaaaa

I was a Sega Genesis kid.

Sonic the Hedgehog, Toejam and Earl, Echo the Dolphin, Aladdin, Super Street Fighter 2, NBA Jam, NHL 94, and other games defined my early videogaming childhood. Even today, I still use phrases from NBA Jam in conversation when possible, and still hear the 8-bit versions of the songs from Aladdin instead of the actual soundtrack from the movie. Sega (for better or worse) set me on the path of videogaming that would eventually lead to my love of the Playstation as well. Childhood me was sorely disappointed when the Dreamcast ended up being a relative commercial failure and Sega got out of the console making business.

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation details the rise and fall for one of history’s greatest video game companies, Sega. Although there are times when the book focuses on Nintendo, the book is largely recreated from the view point of Tom Kalinske, President and CEO of Sega of America from 1990 to 1996. The book is written in a third person narrative as Kalinske joins Sega from Mattel to overthrow the giant Nintendo, who at the time of Kalinske’s hiring had over 90% of the market share while Sega had 5%. The book was recreated thanks to interviews with over 200 with former Sega and Nintendo employees.

Whether you love Sony or Microsoft, all video game consoles and publishers (except Nintendo) owe a debt to Sega. Kalinske came into Sega and challenged Nintendo, who had such an advantage in the industry that many called it a monopoly. Publishers were unhappy with Nintendo because of their perceived arrogant attitude, but nobody had the slingshot to take down Goliath until David (Sega) came along. Sega showed there was a market for video games for more than just kids, making games that teens and adults would enjoy thoroughly as well. Games such as Mortal Kombat, which ultimately drew the company and industry a great deal of criticism and ire from Congress (since they apparently had nothing better to do than try and regulate video games).

Sega took risks as a company, having an in-your-face attitude and gave consumers an alternative to Nintendo. No matter what your feelings about Nintendo might be, it’d be hard for anyone to deny that competition in the video game industry is good or having a variety of choices makes for better games. Sega also deserves credit for bringing us a standard release day among other innovations both technological and marketing wise. Although it’s worth noting that the companies sometimes brought out the worst in each other. This also includes the eventual civil war between Sega of America and Sega of Japan which destroyed the company more than anything.

The book is a fairly straightforward account of Sega and to a smaller extent Nintendo, from Kalinske’s arrival in 1990 until his resignation in 1996. The book does take the time at different points to examine the earlier history of both Sega and Nintendo. The book also takes the time to look at Sony, a company whose’s new console “Playstation” would in a few years take the world by storm. The book offers up some extremely interesting what-if moments, including the almost partnership between Sega and Sony. It’s fascinating to imagine a Sega Dreamcast with games possibly such as Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot, etc.

The book does take the time to mention the games, but it spends more time focusing on the behind the scenes marketing, advertising, politics, and business of the industry and company at the time. It’s really interesting getting to learn the story behind some of the most beloved video game characters or events. Personally, I like the author’s approach because we already know about the games, heck, a lot of us played them to death. So any criticism that it focuses too much on the business side of things is looking at it wrongly.

Overall, any fan of video games, any fan of Sega, or any fan of a generally good story should consider picking up Console Wars. I know reading this book makes me want to break out my Sega Genesis and play some Sonic the Hedgehog.

Action Comics, Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel (Review)

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Superman is arguably the most iconic comic book character of all time, perhaps only being eclipsed by Batman within the last two or three years. Action Comics is iconic too considering it was the first Superman comic and the real comic that kicked off the superhero craze that currently earns billions of dollars a year between all the comics, movies, and merchandise. Really makes people regret burning comics in the 50′s, huh? So point being, there is obviously a lot of pressure on whatever writer gets the reins for the reboot in the New 52 and on DC itself.

Superman as a character generally never interested me too much growing up, I was admittingly more of a Batman kid. My problem with Superman was he came off as a God in a world (excluding characters like Wonder Woman) generally weren’t Gods or had God-like powers. Outside of his policy on killing, Superman always felt like a character that belonged more in Marvel’s universe. Also, 90′s Superman with the mullet among the different colors of Superman didn’t help matters.

DC decided to reboot their line of comics in 2011 (wow, it’s already been 3 years this month) to streamline continuity and make it easier for new readers to jump on. Something that I agree with since seeing #705 on the shelf can be daunting and often comics are their own worst enemy by being bogged down by continuity. All of that being said, DC decided to give the reins of Action Comics #1 to Grant Morrison, who was in the midst of finishing an 8 year run on Batman and had previous work including Animal Man and Justice League. I was a fan of the latter two work by Morrison but hated his Batman run.

My verdict on his Superman run through the first volume? Mixed.

Pros: Superman is humanish! My biggest problem with Superman as a character in recent years as written as some god-like being who readers can’t connect with as a character. He feels pain, he laughs, but generally he just has emotions. Not only that, being a deaged Superman, Morrison has done a good job of writing a young Superman that is cocky and quite confident in his abilities. I also have to give him a great deal of credit for his series involving Clark Kent, although I question so many people already knowing his “secret” identity.

I thought it was good of Morrison to introduce iconic Superman villains Lex Luthor and Brainiac (maybe?) in the first arc, something that was a must considering the stakes of the success for the New 52. I also enjoyed Steel helping Superman save the day.

Arguably my favorite part of Vol 1. were the backstories to be quite honest. Not just the stories involving Steel but the ones involving Jonathan Kent and Martha Kent. Also the story of Superman leaving Smallville for Metropolis. Which brings me to…

Cons: No Martha and Jon Kent. I’m not sure if this was an editorial mandate from DC (I assume it was) so I can’t blame Morrison for this one likely but the lack of Superman’s parents in the New 52 is sorely disappointing. Ma and Pa Kent were his anchors to humanity and added an extra touch of emotion to stories. I’m not really sure what was DC’s thinking on this one but I feel they really dropped the ball.

The origin story was done weird I thought, especially since this was the same guy who gave us All-Star Superman. Furthermore, I felt that the execution of Lex Luthor was done semi-poorly and I thought that it was confusing for readers whether the Colony (which it’s referred to at first) is Brainiac or sent by Brainiac but it’s never really explained. After issue four I felt there was a disconnect between what happened in the first four issues and it really hurt the second half of the arc.

On an unrelated note, I did enjoy the art for the most part throughout the first Volume.

Overall, Action Comics, Vol 1 is worth reading as an introduction to Superman in the New 52 but the second half of the first volume makes me question the direction that the book is taking. But I guess my thoughts on that will be left for Volume 2.

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Book Review)

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Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by (now President) Barack Obama is a book that cannot be judged from an entirely objective standpoint. It’s impossible to pretend otherwise considering your views on President Obama or his policies both consciously and unconsciously seep into your mindset of how you ultimately feel about this book. Some individuals will cherry pick what they would like from this book, whether they agree or hate Obama. In fact, some of the passages from this book (his prior drug use, hanging out with Marxist professors, etc) was used against him in 2008, and as was his association with Rev. Wright. Which is a name I haven’t heard in years despite for how many weeks, if not months the media went on about it.

At it’s core, Dreams from My Father is a book about a young man’s journey to find his place not only in the world but within himself. Written in 1995, long before any Presidential aspirations, Obama wrote what can be considered one of the most candid books of any politician. Especially one that would later run for office. Obama has no qualms about sharing his prior drug use as previously stated, but we also learn about his childhood and family history in the process. We learn as Obama comes to terms about who he is as an individual and his inheritance. As a white man, I can never begin to imagine the internal debate that he must have gone through, considering his background.

We also get to learn about Obama’s community organizer days before we proceed to see his first trip to Kenya, his father’s homeland. We see the stark differences of not only how Obama is treated here versus the United States but how he feels about matters from a family standpoint. His desire for acceptance and community are things that any individual, no matter what their background might be, can relate and emphasize with.

He is candid in his introduction, even pointing out that he feels he could cut 50 pages out of the book (it could use a little trimming) but overall it is an absolutely wonderful read. Considering it’s his first book as an author especially, Obama’s writing skills shine through in this book and even then he was a really good writer. His prose is extremely easy to read, and his points are succinct.

Overall, Dreams from My Father is worth reading for a multitude of reasons, but especially because ultimately it is a well-written book that just so happens to be written by the future President of the United States. Any individual could find something to take out of this book no matter what their background or political views might be.