The best books you’ve never read

 

 

The purpose of this post is share my all time best literary “finds”.  My definition of a “find” is a work that is not mainstream but undeniably brilliant.  These books are, in my opinion, masterpieces.  A masterpiece is, in my experience,  a book that is usually not very accessible at first but once you’ve entered it’s universe you feel your mind literally expanding.  It’s technically brilliant, it offers unique perspectives and tackles multiple universal themes simultaneously.  You can revisit/reread these works many times and you’ll learn something new.  Hamlet, Moby Dick, The Invisible Man and The Iliad are some of my favorite works and are undeniable masterpieces,  but they aren’t exactly finds. I’d like to start a dialogue in which we share our favorite, lesser known books.  In essence, I’m saying “Trust me, you might not have heard of this book, but it’s well worth your time”  So, without further ado, below a few of my best, unexpected finds.

  • “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz:  This one almost qualifies as mainstream as it had much critical praise and won many literary awards when it was published.  There is a relatively small but fervent bad of “Oscar Wao”-heads and I count myself among them.  This book deserves a much wider audience, I think, now more than ever.  “Oscar Wao” is ostensibly about a sensitive, obese young Dominican nerd growing up between NJ and the Dominican Republic in the late 70s and into the 80s.  It explores so many themes so well that I actually had to put the book down a few times when I first read it – from sheer exhilaration.  My mind was blown.  I have reread this many, many times.  Some books will make you laugh and some will make you cry, but Oscar Wao is the only book I’ve read that will make you do both.  For real, don’t read this on the subway or you risk making a scene of yourself.  (Sidenote:  I grew up in the Caribbean (in a country veeerrry close to the DR – hint) during the time this book takes place and also spend a certain amount of amongst Caribbean communities on the US East Coast so the book resonates even with me, a quiche-eating gringo/blan.  The language, the descriptions of Caribbean history and culture, comic books, youth culture of the time, hip-hop, the outrageously debilitating “fineness” of Dominican women, it’s all there.)
  • The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra:  The subtitle of this books is “An Explanation of the Parallels of Eastern Mysticism and Modern Physics” which sums it up pretty neatly.  I love this book for many reasons, not the least being that it’s a “period” piece.  This book could only have been written in California in the early 70s.  It fairly reeks of patchiouli oil and acid trips, but I mean that in a positive sense.  Fritjof Capra was a renowned Quantum physicists whose “aha” moment came, as one might imagine, whilst he was tripping balls at Big Sur.  If you’ve ever wondered why leading physicists such as Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr were adepts of Eastern Mystical traditions long before they became trendy in the west, this book answers that question.  Granted, some of the physics is somewhat dated (at least in my old edition) but the basic premise remains valid.  Capra succeeds in describing the basics of each tradition and the underlying theories of Quantum physics and ties them neatly together.  I’ve read and reread this book many times and will often just revisit specific chapters.
  • The Zanzibar Chest” by Aidan Hartley:  This book is very much off the radar, I suspect.  It’s a nonfiction work that tells the story of the author’s work as a Nairobi based Reuters correspondent in the 90s.  It’s also part family history as Hartley frames his story in the wider context of his family who were British colonial expats par excellence.  As a correspondent, Hartley covered most of the well-known “micro” wars from the Balkans to Rwanda, Somalia and beyond.  This book was criticized when it was published for lacking politically correctness.  Hartley is both a product of British colonialism and a war correspondent.  He doesn’t try, however,  to whitewash his past or his some of his behavior, about which he himself is very conflicted.  Hartley’s own story, and stories he reports on, are very Joseph Conrad-ian in tenor.  In the age of the Oxfam scandal (in my “home” country no less, and no, not at all surprised – such behavior is the rule, not the exception.) this book is perhaps a bit less shocking.  As somebody who has lived and worked a fair bit in various parts of Africa, as student of history and as a human being I found this book to be riveting.  It’s book that stays with you long after you’ve read it and one that you will most probably read more than once.

3 lesser known books that are well worth your time.  What are your favorite finds?  Please comment down below.

Aging, self-image and weight-training

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How old do you feel?  How old do you look?  If you’re past the age of 40, in your minds-eye, what version of you is your self-image based on?  Maybe this is a purely masculine thing, but if I was honest my “mental avatar” is me, albeit circa 29 years old.  I mean that is the physical template my mind accepts as my true physical manifestation.  It’s not that I don’t accept myself as I am now, I do, but if I can’t help notice a subtle mental recalibration going on in the background when looking in the mirror.  It’s my subconscious going, ” Ok, the dude in the mirror?  That is actually you so get with the program. ”

Why 29/30?  Why not 21 or 35?  Perhaps it corresponds with some Jungian idea of male archetypes (anima, hero, etc).  There must be a reason.  Am I happier and wiser now than when I was 30?  Hell, yeah.  Was I at my physical peak back then?  Yes and no.  I was in pretty good shape in a very superficial sense.  I had a six pack, some development of the “disco muscles” (shoulders, arms, chest) and decent cardio-vascular shape.  But I could have been in much better shape had I, for example, followed the same training program I do now.  Therein, I think, lies the answer.  29 or 30 years old represents a sort of sweet spot in mental, intellectual and physical maturity.  It is, was or should have been you when you had the most raw potential.  You’d have completed years of education, should be at least 8 or so years into a career, and hormonal health is still firing on all cylinders.

I was orders of magnitude wiser and happier at 30 than I was at 21.  I remember thinking I wouldn’t go back to 21 for anything.  And that trend has continued while I do have to make some concessions to aging.  In my case, I don’t lose weight as easily as before, my eyesight got a little weaker and my temples went grey.  Other than that, the main difference between my 30 year old self and me now is “life wisdom” which is both a burden and advantage.  Youth, the saying goes, is wasted on the young which I interpret as while you’re getting wiser and happier, your physical vitality is waning.

It does, but I think how quickly it does is something you might be able to control.  Partially its genetic, yes, but it’s a least 50 percent lifestyle choices.  Purely coincidentally, I became serious about weight training in my 40s.  As a flood of recent, peer-review studies has shown,  strength training with compound movements (deadlifts, squat, presses, etc) is probably the single best form of physical training for older people.  It builds muscle, maintains bone density, ramps up hormonal efficiency (production of testosterone, human growth hormone and others) and increases metabolic efficiency.    This is not news to any of my middle-aged powerlifting brothers and sisters.  Honestly, what is cooler or flat-out funnier than getting really strong at an age when most people take up golfing?

Personally speaking, I unwittingly had 2 advantages when I started lifting.  First, I had no expectations or ego when I began.  Started really light and added a little bit of weight each week – classic linear progression, though I hadn’t heard the term at that time.  Anybody can do it and everyone will inevitably see results of they keep it up.  Secondly, hormonal health has never been an issue for me.  As a young man, it was a problem in that high levels of T meant I had bad skin.  (Interestingly, subsequent studies have backed up anecdotal evidence from dermatolgists that former acne sufferers’ skin ages slower than the average populace due to longer alleles in their genes.  Seems to be my case as well, so perhaps the universe does have a sense of justice).  As an older man, it meant that, to my surprise,  putting on muscle wasn’t too difficult.

Whether or not you have an advantage when you begin lifting, the result will be the same for everyone.  If you put in the work week in and week out, your body will change.  You’ll gain muscle and feel physically vital (Ok, except for those mornings after a heavy squat or deadlift sessions when crawling out of bed while groaning is the norm).  I’m 51 and I feel great, I feel strong. I feel as if I’ve made some progress towards exploiting my physical potential.  I could have easily spent the last decade doing nothing.  Had I done that, I’m fairly certain that I’d feel a lot weaker, a lot more frail…old, if you will.

In short, I don’t feel 51 so I assume that is why my minds-eye reflects somebody a bit younger.  I don’t mean to imply there is anything wrong with aging.  It’s part of life.  It’s how you react to aging that makes the difference.  One of the benefits of age is gratitude.  The older you get the more you know how often life doesn’t go as scripted.  So many things can go wrong at any time.  To be alive and to have relatively good health for yourself and your loved ones is already such a blessing.  Physical training is not a “drudge” or hard work, it’s an almost decadent opportunity to turbo-charge that blessing.