Good Read Alert: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

Fiction requires the suspension of disbelief. Novels aren’t true but they have to feel that way, whether they’re about Hobbits from the Shire or jaded exiles in 1920s Paris.

I started Moonglow by Michael Chabon and put it down halfway through. The book strides the line between memoir and novel and succeeds at neither. There’s a scene where Chabon’s grandfather and another man attach explosives to the Key Bridge during WWII to tweak local authorities. Maybe because I live in Washington, and have crossed the bridge numerous times, but this scene did not ring true with me. The tale seemed impossible, as did Moonglow, which read like a shaggy dog story, despite the good reviews.

I did not have that problem with The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which captured me instantly, from the very first line:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

The book is a confession, written to his jailer, as a nameless secret agent recounts his sins during the Vietnam War. We get his story, and the story of the war from the Vietnamese perspective, as well as a wry account of refugees in America in this tour-de-force of a novel.

It’s a little too long. A hundred pages could be excised from its length but there’s hardly been a novel published in the past ten years that I haven’t felt the same about. Still, there’s not a false word in this work of fiction. Nothing breaks the spell of disbelief.

The Sympathizer deserves the Pulitzer Prize for that reason. It’s a powerful story that feels true. And that’s the test of great fiction.

Canon G9 X Update: Love This Little Camera

Sometimes, you don’t want to shoulder the DSLR. But you want something that’s better than the iPhone. The Canon G9 X is ideal for this kind of everyday shooting.

Saturday was a day that began in ice but ended with dry roads and blue skies. Once the melting began, I hopped on Capital Bikeshare and headed for Hains Point. Popular with area cyclists, it’s a peninsula that juts out into the Potomac. People like to ride loops around the park. But on Saturday, with a good chunk of the region still dealing with icy roads, the park was deserted.

In the pocket of my jacket, I stuck my Canon G9 X. I’ve been really happy with this purchase. It’s the perfect camera for impromptu adventures, featuring the ability to take great photos – and it do it with a camera that’s not much bigger than an iPhone. You can even shoot one-handed with it. I did so while pedaling on my bike, which is something you can’t do with a DSLR.

It has its weaknesses, of course. No camera is perfect. It lacks a big zoom and the quality of the photos are DSLR-like but will never be as good as a DSLR with a big piece of glass mounted on it.

But, as the camera you stick in your pocket as you head out the door – the Canon G9 X is absolutely perfect for that, offering the ability to take lots of great photos with a convenient and easy-to-use camera. I’ve grown to love this little camera.

Photos from Saturday’s adventure with the Canon G9 X!

reflections on the Potomac River

the graceful lines of East Potomac Park

glowing sun over National Airport

Took this photo with one hand, while biking.

Bikeshare at Hains Point

between the bridges

 

Riide Electric Bike: Review

Riide bike
Muy macho in black, this electric bike is perfect for the city.

I had the chance to do a test ride on a Riide electric bike. Billed as “e-bikes for urban commuters,” this DC company has made the nicest-looking electric bike I’ve ever seen. I own two bikes already – a Specialized Sirrus and a Breezer folding bike – but I really wanted to try a Riide. Perfectly targeted for everyday cyclists like myself, it’s the first electric bike I could see myself owning.

But what is it like to ride one? First, it’s a beautiful bike, with a black matte paint job that makes it the coolest thing on the road. 

What surprised me was the weight – it’s lighter than I imagined. Billed at 40 pounds, it seems lighter. It’s not a road bike, but it weighs less than a Capital Bikeshare bike. The narrow top tube makes it easy to pick up and carry.

Missing: a kickstand. It’s a little big and awkward to lean against stuff. Running errands around town on one of these, I’d want a kickstand.

With a flat bar and an upright position, the geometry is very similar to my hybrid Sirrus. It makes a comfortable ride and is ideal for city riding, where you want to see what’s ahead of you.

the "power strip"
Note the power button at top – I didn’t. Also, check out those massive tires.

The Riide folks are super-nice. For the test ride, they just gave me a bike and told me to take off. I started pedaling. The group I was with disappeared into the distance. Why is my bike so slow? I went all the way around Union Market before discovering what I had done wrong: I didn’t turn it on! Am I an idiot or is the user always right? I prefer the latter explanation.

Electric bikes work better with electricity. But my mishap taught me that it’s certainly possible to pedal a Riide around without power. With one-speed and flat pedals, it felt like I was on a CaBi.

Riide motor
Electric motor on the rear wheel.

With the bike powered up, I took off again around Union Market. It’s got a throttle like a moped. Twist and go. It was a blast to feel the g-forces as the bike zipped up to 20 mph. Amazing to go up hills on it, without even pedaling.

Super-grippy disc brakes give you enormous confidence in every situation.

But let me rave about the tires! Riding around on my Sirrus, I feel everyone of DC’s one-million potholes. I scan the road ahead of me for ruts, gravel and holes. But with a pair of fat Schwalbe Energizer Plus tires, the Riide just goes everything, like you’re riding on a carpet of air.

Disc brakes and big tires - perfect for the city
Disc brakes to quickly stop.

I keep comparing the Riide to a CaBi because I think this is the perfect bike for CaBi users who want more. With a range of 25 miles, it’s ideal for people who want a sweat-free commute or who want to bop around town on the weekends. Riide is the bike for people who find everyday biking too difficult/complicated/sweaty.

The RiidePass program, where you can lease one for $79 a month, is perfectly aligned for that audience. Just ride and let Riide take care of the bike. It will replace Metro/CaBi/Uber for a lot of people who live in DC or the close suburbs. It will save them money and be way more fun than being stuck on a Metro train.

But would I get one? If I had to continue commuting to Silver Spring – definitely. It would be perfect for climbing the hills between Logan Circle and my contractor gig at NOAA. But I want to return to DC, where my non-electric bikes will be more than sufficient. Everyone has a different transportation situation; for a lot of people, the Riide will be perfect.

I definitely want some Schwalbe tires, though. That makes a huge difference in city riding.

Art, Coffee, Bikes… Frederick?

I’m kinda old to be a social media hipster but I was recently selected to be part of Enterprise Carshare’s #CarShareDC crew. Guess they liked my Instagram shots of beer and bikes.

As a member of the crew, I get to take three free day trips this summer courtesy of Enterprise. Anywhere within 100 miles of DC is within my domain. In return, I have to take photos and share them on social media. I’d do this all on the iPhone, of course.

For my first auto excursion, I went to beautiful downtown Frederick to have lunch with my talented photographer friend Mary-Kate McKenna.

Here are some pics from the trip:

Foldy bike and Enterprise CarShare
Enterprise has cars around the city. I chose a Ford Escape, which was parked in an an alley about a block from where I live. It handled DC’s potholes with aplomb and was surprisingly maneuverable. Accompanying me, as always, was the foldy bike.
folded
Plenty of room for my foldy! Next time, I’ll have to bring my real bike.
Untitled
Gas is included but you may have to fill up the tank yourself. A gas card is in the glove compartment.
City of spires
Downtown Frederick. It’s about an hour from DC. Leaving after rush hour, I didn’t run into any traffic.
Me and MK
Miss seeing this girl! I worked with MK at NOAA before she went away to bigger and better things.
MK at the canal
MK at Carrol Creek in Frederick.
I'm in Frederick
I’m selfieing along Carrol Creek, which is a linear park which runs through downtown Frederick.
Pretzel & Pizza
Lunch was at Pretzel & Pizza.
downtown mural
Earthbound, part of Angels in the Architecture by William Cochran. Frederick has a lot of art like this downtown.
Gravel & Grind
Vintage bikes! Coffee! All my dreams in one store: Gravel & Grind.
Cortado at Gravel n Grind in Frederick MD
Cortado.
vintage bikes
Vintage bikes which have been fixed-up and modified.
Liked this bike
A thing of beauty. Love that rack on the front.
Baker Park in Frederick, MD
After coffee, I took my foldy bike for a little spin around Baker Park.
Keys go here when you're done
When you’re all done, you return the car to its reserved parking space. To end your trip, you put the keys in the glove compartment holder and swipe your Enterprise card on the windshield sensor.
Best deal in the city - $4 beer at Glen's Garden Market #igdc #beer #lifeiswanderfood #dupontcircle
Trip #1 was a success! After I put the car away, I went to Glen’s for a $4 beer.

Look for more adventures in carsharing coming this summer!

The War That Ended Peace

the war that ended peaceIt was the war they said couldn’t happen. Europe had enjoyed a century of peace. Commerce between the nations was exploding thanks to new inventions and ways of doing business. Knit together by trade, communications and royal marriages, a war in Europe was unthinkable.

Moreover, the leaders of the European powers knew that a general war would lead to the end of their empires. Russia had barely survived its defeat by the Japanese in 1905. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a seething cauldron of nationalities desiring freedom. Turkey was the sick man of Europe, with France and England eying its territory. The German Kaiser feared a revolt against his rule as much as he did the coming war, while the British felt necessary to fight to maintain their global empire.

In the years leading up to 1914, the Europeans had muddled through crisis after crisis, deftly avoiding a general conflagration. Yet, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the continent slowly slid into the war that would consume them all.

This vital period is the subject of Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. She deftly examines the motivations of the Great Powers, as well as the men that led them. War was not inevitable, but the result of mistakes and miscalculations. Europe could have remained at peace, for there was a burgeoning anti-war movement in France and other countries, as well as the first stirrings of international labor. With her profiles of the people and nations of the period, she is careful not to assign blame, writing sympathetically from the perspective of the combatants, whose aims and beliefs were not that different from our own. This was a war in which everyone could claim to be acting in self-defense. Austria-Hungary went to war to punish the Serbs, Russia mobilized to protect Serbia, and Germany felt compelled to quickly defeat France before it would be overwhelmed by the Tsar’s troops.

One hundred years ago, the center of world civilization consumed itself in an unnecessary war. The War That Ended Peace should be required reading for today’s leaders, who glibly assure us that everything will remain as it’s always been. History has shown us the folly of this thinking.

 

Savage Harvest: Among the Cannibals

Carl Hoffman, author of Savage Harvest
Carl Hoffman, author of Savage Harvest

Humans were made to eat like Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, not farmers.
– Chris Kresser, Your Personal Paleo Code

Americans are in love with the Stone Age. They long for the nirvana of the Paleo era, when we ate nothing but free-range mammoths and were strong, healthy and free of neuroses. Chris Kresser claims that our health has declined since the Stone Age while doomster Jared Diamond has called agriculture “the worst mistake in human history.”

It’s the ultimate form of liberal guilt. Our civilization has ruined the land with freeways, processed food and vaccinations. And there’s far too many of us. Man is a plague on the earth, according to Sir David Attenborough.

If only we could go back to when we lived as hunter-gatherers and ate nothing but locally-sourced organic food.

You can. And it all takes is a trip to New Guinea.

Savage HarvestIn researching his book Savage Harvest, author Carl Hoffman spent months with the indigenous Asmat people of New Guinea in his quest to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller. When he vanished in 1961, Rockefeller was one of the wealthiest men in the world and was collecting primitive art for his new museum.

Hoffman told the fascinating story behind this mystery at Salon Contra, an arts salon sponsored by Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project. He spoke before an intimate audience of the culturally curious who sipped white wine and politely asked questions.

To understand what happened to Rockefeller, Hoffman realized he had to understand the Asmat people and their culture which, until recently, included head-hunting and cannibalism. Living in huts in a swamp, the Asmat subsist on the sago palm and small crabs. Hoffman said he didn’t see a green vegetable for months. (There’s some speculation that cannibalism is a necessity for hunter-gatherers who don’t get enough protein and fat.)

In the patriarchal Asmat culture, the women do all the work, traveling every morning to the sea to cast nets for crabs. Most children are unschooled. The men spend the day smoking, drumming and engaging in sex with each other.  While nominally Catholic, they believe that spirits cause people to die and that the world must be balanced between the living and the dead. This need for vengeance to balance out the world has had tragic consequences – the Asmat live in two feuding villages separated by a no-man’s land.

But they are also known for their beautiful woodcarvings, which is what drew Rockefeller to the region in 1961. In Savage Harvest, author Hoffman retraces the steps of Rockefeller in an attempt to solve the decades-old mystery of his disappearance. It’s a true journey into the heart of darkness, conducted by a man who immersed himself inthe spiritual world of the Asmat.

Before you seek nirvana in the Stone Age, check out Savage Harvest. Read this fascinating mystery from the comfort of your air-conditioned home, with a glass of clean water at your side, protected from cannibals, and ponder the benefits of civilization.

Tell It Slant: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsLiterary fiction gets a bad rap. It doesn’t have to be ponderous, inscrutable, unreadable. Literary fiction doesn’t have to mean some doorstop of a book that will be earnestly discussed in quiet voices on NPR, the kind of thousand-page novel that everyone buys and no one reads. Literary fiction can be more than just a marker of elite taste – literary fiction can be fun, inventive and playful. It can have a plot. It can be enjoyed.

Authors like Michael Chabon, TC Boyle and Gary Shteyngart demonstrate that you can write sophisticated fiction that’s loved by the public.

Kristopher Jansma shows how its done in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. This debut novel, now available in paperback, follows the worldwide travels of the ultimate unreliable narrator. It’s like ten books in one – a Southern coming of age story, an academic farce, a New York excursion and an expat’s tall tale – propelled forward by neatly contained chapters (which are like stories within stories). The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is compulsively readable, filled with oddball characters, strange situations and sudden turns of fate, all told by a sort of Nick Carroway, looking on enviously at the Gatsbys all around him.

My only criticism: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards switches scenes too quickly. Plot threads are picked up and dropped. Sometimes, you want to know more about that couple in Dubai. You want more – a good sign in a novel.

Ultimately, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a book about stories, the ones that are true, and the ones we tell ourselves. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson says, a mantra that runs throughout this novel. With their ability to tell it slant, novels contain truths that you won’t find in the newspaper.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards demonstrates the power of literary fiction to provide enlightenment through entertainment. Great storytelling is a kind of trick, an ancient one that we’re programmed to enjoy. Like listening to some stranger’s shaggy dog tale, we know that what we’re hearing is not technically true. But we have to know how it ends. Great literary fiction is like that, wrapping us up in an engaging story that tells it slant.

Instagram Does Video!

I’ve never been much of a YouTube user. I never saw the point in Vine. I was impressed with the video capability of the iPhone 5, but didn’t use it much, without the ability to share the clips.

Until now. Instagram does video!

The little square photos that Instagram produces are cheesy and amateurish, like Polaroids sitting in an old shoebox. That’s the point – Instagram is a fun way to share pictures of daily life.

And now you can create short video clips in Instagram. It works the same as taking a picture except you the hold down the video camera button in the app. You can take 15 seconds worth of video, in one long clip or several smaller clips. Video stabilization is on automatically. Once you’re done, you can apply filters to give it that Super-8 look or just use it as is.

You can’t edit your clip. It’s pretty much point, shoot, share.

For photos, I shoot with the iPhone Camera app first and then import the ones I like into Instagram. You can’t do that with videos. You can only shoot clips using Instagram.

Without the ability to edit, and having to use the Instagram app, you have to plan out your video shoots. You only have one take to get it right.

I shot this at Gravelly Point, near Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. I wanted to get a video of a plane of going over the bike trail as it came in to land.

In my first take, I ran out of film. I hit the video button when the jet turned toward National but it didn’t reach me before my 15 seconds were up. For the next shot, I waited until the airplane got closer and panned up as it went over my head – the video stabilization was impressive!

Instagram Video is not quite dummy-proof (it took me a couple tries to figure out) but it’s pretty damn close. While it has some major limitations (no way to edit), it’s the easiest way to share short video clips.

You can save your clips to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even FourSquare but not Flickr or YouTube.

Mind-boggling to think how far iPhone video has come in just the last couple of years. In the old days – 2010 – you needed a video camera, a Mac and Final Cut Pro to make a movie. Your iPhone has replaced all those tools.

Oh, and I used Embed Instragram to embed this video.

Always Right: Margaret Thatcher and 1979

Always RightBritain in 1979 was the sick man of Europe. Militant trade unions controlled the country, overthrowing successive governments. General strikes made life miserable. Britons suffered through a “winter of discontent” with power cuts, transport strikes and trash piled up in the streets. Inflation as high as 21% wiped out the savings of people who had scrimped and saved their entire lives.

This is the context that’s been missing in discussions of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, and one that’s provided by Always Right by Niall Ferguson. In this Kindle single, he shows how the benefit of hindsight has diminished our view of Thatcher’s achievements.

As Thatcher stated before taking the job of Prime Minister in 1979, “My job is to keep Britain from going red.”

This was a real danger. I did a study-abroad program in London in the mid-80s. As part of the class, we visited a Labour MP in Parliament. After he got done insulting us as spoiled rich kids, he shared his aim of imposing socialism across the country. Real socialism, not the Obama kind, but a political system where the government controls where you live, what you do and how much you make. The Soviet Union was held up as a model to emulate.

It’s hard to believe but millions of people shared this belief.

Thatcher was right, of course, and they were wrong. And the elite classes of England hate her for it, to this day. Despite being the most famous graduate of Oxford, the university never gave her an honorary degree. The middle-class grocer’s daughter is not one of us…

We’re fortunate to live in a better time. As bad as things are, it’s not 1979. Always Right is a look back, without the benefit of hindsight, at the parlous era and the Iron Lady who changed it.

Book Launch: I'm Scared & Doing It Anyway

Book launch for I'm Scared and Doing It Anyway
Lauree Ostrofsky at the book launch for I'm scared and doing it anyway

Lauree Ostrofsky had a brain tumor. Twenty-nine years old and it seemed like her life was over before it had really begun.

This brush with mortality was a clarifying moment. She didn’t want a brain tumor – she wanted to be healthy. Sometimes we only discover our true wants in opposition to something else. For Lauree, she wanted to be healthy once again.

And she wanted so much more – she wanted to live a life where she was scared and doing it anyway. Lauree would meet her fears and go past them.

Three surgeries later, the tumor was gone. But the changes had just begun. This experience with death taught her the importance of a positive outlook on life and how much potential we have to affect change. Over the past decade, Lauree has been a speaker, author, PR strategist and life coach, as well as leading a hug tour.

She describes the journey in her new book, I’m scared & doing it anyway. As she explained in the book launch at the Science Club, she wrote the book that she wanted to read after her tumor diagnosis. It’s a book for anyone going though a trying situation. Which, sooner or later, is just about everyone.