To Be An Expert

I recently read that in order to become an expert in a particular field or subject one must practice/engage/hone a specific skill for a minimum of 10,000 hours (the equivalent of 1,250 8-hour work days)–which brings me to a subject that seems to become increasingly more important as I get older–that of expertise.

I think a necessary aspect of humanity is that of drive, which is nothing more than the abstract representation of a desire for expertise.

We all long to be the best. Be it an athlete, mathematician, writer, scientist, competitive eater, no matter what the field our passion to be the greatest is the very essence that gets us up in the morning. It’s that which keeps us in the gym after work and the lights on well-past quitting time.

Personally, I aspire to be a writer. This isn’t a secret, nor is it something I hide from my friends, family, fiancé. They all know it, and encourage, and I’m thankful for their encouragement. With that said, based on the above it’ll be a staggering number of years before I’m ever able to consider myself an “expert” in writing. I can teach the craft to high-school students until my lips turn blue, and for some reason that edge toward expertise will never be reached–the carrot perpetually dangled but never fully grasped.

Philosophically, I wonder if anyone ever truly considers themselves “experts” in their field. The examples of humility from the greats are too many to count. Haruki Murakami didn’t start writing until his early 40’s and yet, despite global success as an author, he still exhibits the puerile sense of language that borders on the jejune. He’s an adolescent trapped in an elderly man’s body that consistently turns out some of the most intriguing prose today.

Take sushi chef Jiro Ono who has literally devoted his entire life to making the world’s best sushi (see Jiro Dreams of Sushi). Here’s a man who slaves over literally every intricacy of his food, his craft, his livlihood in order to make it supremely “perfect.” Expert? Absolutely. Although, I would wager to bet that were Jiro Ono asked about his own expertise, he’d claim he’s still learning. He’s still growing. He’s still honing his skills to somehow, someway, get better.

But such dedication is necessary toward pursuing that which makes us whole, and growth is always at the forefront of experience. I just wonder if expertise is the intangible equivalent of finance–the idea that there’s never enough money in the bank to satiate our limitless desires.

Expertise itself seems to be the spawn of what makes Buddhism such a universally satisfying ideology in that it professes relinquishment of the very thing that drives us–it professes the need to rid ourselves of want, of desire, of hunger itself.

But the point still stands. We all have an innate sense of thirst or hunger for the need to be an expert.

What’s your expertise?

White Teeth and Contemporary Fundamentalism

In an effort to somehow equalize the glaring disparity of male/female novel reviews on The Book Guy Review, I give you Zadie Smith’s uproariously comic and true-to-life ode to cultural fundamentalism that is White Teeth.

Set between 1970-1999 London, White Teeth is a farcical meditation on the extent to which fundamentalism (in all aspects of society) extends its grip into contemporary culture. Smith wields a multitude of discourses stretching from Anglo-Pakistani enunciatory tendency to the Carribean-centric post-colonial Jamaican drawl (that’s been bastardized by modern culture into something inherently stoned) into a glorious foray into the world of the contemporarily diverse culture.

The book itself is something of a marvel. A London native herself, Smith’s voice at the same time fresh and reminiscent of the English masters (Greene, Conrad, Lawrence, et. al.). Her prose is flawless and lyrical, oftentimes poetic in a zany John-Irving-esque variety.

The best part though, is that Smith takes no cheap shots. Utilizing a wide array of characters stretching from the emotionally defunct Englishman resurrected through former Jamaican Later-Day-Saint wife to Pakistani émigré and even Raggastani gang members–Smith tells the tale of modern London and society’s reluctance to acquiesce to cultural change and evolution like you’ve never read before.

In a story that is heart-felt and honest, laughable and riotous, Smith delves into the fact that we’re a mongrel, hodge-podge species with blended blood, and try as we might, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re all in this together. And (because I have to), underlying it all is the truth that we’ve all, in our possession, a set of pearly White Teeth–poised at the ready for whatever needs be.

Her characters are notorious and morally confused in the same sense that society today is morally confused. She tells the story of fundamentalism of familial values, the (non)importance of religious devotion, one’s duty to uphold the fundamentals of what it means to be a citizen of a greater nation, and the fundamentalism behind what it means to be a citizen of Earth.

My first foray into the world of Zadie Smith was a smashing success, and I absolutely cannot wait to read more from this hopefully literary superstar.

Stars = 5/5

The First Bad Man: Idiosyncrasy Incarnate

Filmmaker, artist, and now most impressively novelist, Miranda July’s debut The First Bad Man is a stunning original with a cringe-worthy amount of idiosyncratic voice and self-delusion. In a brief 200 pages, July exemplifies what it means to be not just a woman in the 21st century, but a human being.

The book itself is about the life and times of Cheryl Glickman, a holistic seeking pseudo-naturalist (?) who works as an office manager taking notes for board meetings at Open Palm. She is the embodiment of the facade of order–everything has its place, books are meant to stand on shelves–not to be taken off of shelves. Cups and dishes are for company only–why not eat out of the pan itself? She undergoes chromotherapy (literally, color therapy) and refuses to wash her pans after cooking because it “builds flavor.”

For her, life is a staunch opposition to decrepitude and disorder. And then comes Clee. At the behest of her boss, Cheryl must open her doors and life to his daughter. Order meets chaos in the form of a young blonde bombshell whose feet stink, never seems to shower, parties, and sleeps around. Her general volatility serves as the perfect foil for Cheryl’s fetishized fantasies of personal sexual gratification–and the two unwind perfectly. They even end up raising a child and what follows is one of the most brilliantly original and truly remarkable books of the year.

The First Bad Man is hyper-modern. There’s a sheen and order to the prose that is so refreshingly grounded in both reality and fantasy.

But the beauty of the novel really comes through the dialogue. It’s hilarious. Characters converse in dead-pan interchanges no more than a few words in length like a Wes Anderson script–but the humor is more than just coarse conversation. It’s truth. The lines and fantasies are initially hysterical, but become strangely intimate as how actually real they are. Every page reflects a society in mental upheaval. We identify with idiosyncrasy and uniqueness, but hide it for fear of ridicule. Well, hide no more, Cheryl Glickman is the new poster-child for eccentric quirkiness.

Needless to say, July has crafted something here exceptional and original. This will be a cult classic–if not a true classic in it’s own right, and I can’t wait for more to come from this phenomenal debut author.

Stars = 5/5

Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky

Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel about post-colonial Northern Africa is a torrent of existential malaise and estrangement from familiarity in a time where disconnection was more than the abandonment of technology–it was the abandonment of self.

The novel follows American couple Port Moresby and wife Kit as they attempt to reconcile marital issues via travel through Moroccan North Africa.

That said, what follows is the existential/psychological effects of separation of all that is habitual, commonplace, and routine, and how sometimes the best way to discover your truest sense of identity is to forgo the comforts of home and tap into the great beyond via travel.

Named one of TIME magazine’s top 100, this one is sure to astound in it’s simplicity and brilliance.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Michael Chabon’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of the most strikingly original and entertaining reads out there.

Set in mid-war 1940’s New York and spanning several decades, generations, and lives, Chabon cleverly recreates the 1950’s comic book industry boom through the rise of the “Escapist” and his harrowing adventures amidst the turmoil of a city reeling from the effects of global warfare.

Part war-story adventure, part romance, part thriller, Chabon deftly interweaves the intricacies and lives of two of the most original protagonists (Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay) in contemporary literature.

Don’t miss this brilliant pulitzer prize winner–it’s one of a kind.

The Turkey Chronicle: Awaiting Departure

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This is the first of what will become a sort of travel log of my time spent in Turkey. Book Guy Reviews will be taking a relative hiatus from the standard “musings and reviews” and transition for the next three weeks into a travel blog.

My girlfriend and I are officially en route to Istanbul and could not be more excited.

I’m sitting a hard-pack leather seat in gate C-36 awaiting what I’m sure will be yet another phenomenal trip to exotic lands and climes. What awaits is the unexpected, the unexplored (at least by me), and the inexperienced (again, by me). Travel is something that is entirely different from what is normally the standard vacation.

Vacation is the pool replete with cocktails, sunshine, and the comforts of conditions that are normally not experienced during home-life. There’s a sort of estimable luxury behind vacation that is nice for a brief stint. Nice at least until excess gets the best of us and we recognize our sloth.

Travel on the other hand is something far more mysterious–something unforeseen and fortuitous that cannot be expected, nor necessarily planned for. It is oftentimes difficult, but as I’ve posted about numerous times before, life is best lived in the middle ground–that wonderful liminal space between the positive and the negative–the ground that levels out between the highs and lows.

I’m thrilled to know that what comes is uncertainty, and there’s something special about that.

Expect a chronicle of life off the relatively beaten path and something that I hope will prove insouciant and insightful. Check back regularly for wonderful updates and insights as I experience another side of the globe!

House of Leaves

Mark D. Danielewski’s labyrinthian book House of Leaves is a terrifying, strikingly original multi-layered horror story.

It’s a book about a book about a movie. So yeah, wrap your head around that for a second while I synopsize the plot. The initial layer of the chimerical novel follows tattoo artist Johnny as he sifts through a chest of writing collected by the half-mad and reclusive Zampanò.

The tertiary layers deal with Zampanò’s writing: a chronicle of the life of the Navidson family who moves into a home that they soon discover is larger on the inside than it is on the outside.

What follows is a brilliantly captivating tale of exploration, madness, psychological intrigue and and terror. It’s wonderful.

The text itself is another masterful matter altogether: the book is written to mirror the content of the story itself. Danielewski’s textual layout is nothing short of astounding as the writing bends, turns, misleads, and misconstrues information much like the elusive and ever-expanding interior of the Navidson’s home. This is not a light read. The interior of the book is deliberately confusing oftentimes including references to appendices that don’t exist, and footnotes that lead nowhere.

Be that as it may, the book is a wonderfully constructed masterpiece. I cannot recommend this one enough.

Black Hole: Burns and Adolescent Grotesquerie

There’s such a thing as “cold” reading in which I’ll delve into a book with zero background knowledge about author or subject matter. Sometimes such a savoy into uncharted waters proves faulted by a lackluster piece that neither captures the imagination, nor holds attention.

Though, sometimes, and such is the case with Charles Burns’ seminal work Black Hole, I stumble across something genius. I’m now kicking myself for not finding this one sooner.

Black Hole is nothing short of astounding. It’s a graphic novel about the grotesqueries of adolescence and uncertainties that come alongside individual development.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, adolescence is one of those subjects that’s been overwrought by pouty faced ennui-ridden authors attempting to convey that profound sense of fragility and isolation that comes alongside physical and mental development.

Black Hole is neither mopey, nor is it fragile. It is a carnal voyage into the intimacies, insecurities, and isolations of development.

The story follows several teenagers in the 1970’s (Seattle?) who contract a sort of plague through sexual contact. Not an STD outright, nor a disease, it’s simply dubbed “The Bug” and is the equivalent to a degreed type of leprosy. Those unlucky enough to contract the bug suffer from traits ranging from excessive physical deformity and epidermic deterioration to something more concealable and benign (like a tail).

The symbolism here is profound. Burns dutifully covers the fears, worries, and psychoses that resonate with those who suffer from some sort of socially shunned ailment, and the results are weighty and terrifying.

It’s a graphic novel. I get it for those of you who abstain from comics out of some sense of literary snobbery. But I can’t stress this enough. Black Hole is as profound a novel as anything out there. It’s as “literary” and conceptually well-developed as is foreseeably possible.

The artwork itself is stunning. Burns wields a deft hand and his illustrations are creative and insightful, oftentimes bordering on textual mimesis and mimicry (the text mirrors the images perfectly). The words often sync up with the chaos or symmetry of the imagery well enough to create something other than just words and pictures. I’ve heard the term “graphia” thrown around, and I’ll use it here. Burns’ “graphia” is profound and beautiful.

I will extend a word of caution. That which is aesthetically significant is oftentimes mature in its inception, and Black Hole is no different. It is explicit and not for the youthful viewer out there (kiddos, ask your parents before reading).

And with that, go delve into the horrifying and heartfelt world that is Charles Burns’ Black Hole.

Stars = 5/5

Joyland: King Takes on the Whodunnit

When I heard King was taking on the dime-store mystery game I was excited. Really I “heard” about it as in I walked into a book store and, lo and behold, King had come out with yet another book (one of his seemingly 4 yearly). Thus, Joyland.

The book is about twenty-one year old Devin Jones as he takes a job in a North Carolinian amusement park. What follows is a fast-paced murder mystery that winds and turns down the aisles and lanes of small town theme parks long-since overshadowed by the monolithic Six Flags or Universal Studios.

Through Devin we meet carnies talking The Talk, Rubes (patrons) taking in the sights, and witness what it’s like to become a part of a family about as atypical of “family” as we’ll ever get.

And underlying it all is the mysterious murder of Linda Gray, the lone beauty killed in Joyland’s very own Horror House. In Joyland we meet the characteristically masculine and overtly confident protagonist, witness telepathy, and the underlying creepiness that made books like It and The Stand the hallmarks of storytelling that they are. Thus King is comfortable within his wheelhouse of phycosomatic trauma and internal strife.

Although it’s not all a smashing success.

The only relative downfall of this book (which is rather large) is the vapidity of the narrator. Although dime-store novels are grounded in inauthenticity and melodrama, Devin’s voice and overall attitude is neither young nor old. He’s supposed to be a college kid, but demonstrates the sure-footedness and gumption of a seasoned adult. He’s supposed to be the lovelorn twenty-something still lamenting the loss of his girlfriend, and yet is more than capable of dialing up his social aplomb and rubbing elbows with attractive widows and their kids. For this alone, I’m knocking the book down a few pegs.

Regardless, Joyland is definitely worth a read. Part whodunnit, part bildungsroman, part nostalgic romp into 70’s Carnival culture, it’s the perfect book to kick off those glorious summer months of free-reading. It’s pure fun.

Stars = 3/5

Occupational Fulfillment

I’m a teacher.

56_1I work a busier-than-thou schedule from August to June, leaving June and July open for reading, writing, relaxation, and travel. Most teachers elect for the vocational job during the summer months to help make ends meet–me, though, I’ll take the time off, thank you.

Now that I’m twenty-seven and moving from the quarter-life crisis of my collegiate context to that of real adulthood it’s dawning on me that I still relish in the yearly calendrical practices of a child. My occupation merits that I have the luxury of ending a year in June and beginning a new year in August, thus, I look forward to the end of the school year with the glee and jubilation of a ten year old.

My heart goes out to those who have succumbed to the tediums of the working world–who have forgotten what it’s like to wake up that first week of summer, and smile at the fact that there is sunshine, warmth, greenery, and oodles and oodles of time to pursue whatever comes to mind.

I don’t write this to flaunt, but I do find it fascinating that occupational calendars correlate to mind-set. There’s just something about teaching that guarantees a sort of childish-assimilation with youth. But speaking broadly, it’s fascinating how we revolve around our occupations like tiny planets around a larger host of livelihood. Our schedules dictate not only our physical place in time, but our mental one as well.

From a yearly observational standpoint my brain is done right now. I’m tying up the loose ends of another school year and tenuously prepping for next year. I’m “Summerizing.”

And like clockwork, in two months I’ll be gearing up for another year of molding minds into brain-like shapes (hopefully). The point is that both periods are essential for my own state of being–I’ve grown accustomed to each state that they’re now a requirement for my own happiness.

But at what point does our occupation become that singular source of fulfillment? Those that are happiest seem to find purpose in some healthy symbiosis with occupation and free-time, whereas others seem to live more in the moments when they’re out of work. Those moments when they’ve punched out and gone home to pursue that which they deem truly valuable for their own fulfillment.

I find that work fulfills pieces of my life that my down-time does not. But by the same token, my downtime is fulfilling in ways work is not. I need to be able to immerse myself in both to truly be happy. One without the other is a sort of unfavorable tip of the scale that leads to discontent.

Be that as it may, calendrically speaking, I’m still entering the phase of my year where I possibility feels limitless and I have that welcome moment to breathe. To sit and relish in an open day and bask in the glory of possibility–and it feels good. In fact, it feels great.