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Read ‘Dignity’ To Stay Connected While In Quarantine

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After being basically locked indoors for over a month, it is very easy to feel sorry for oneself. Elon Musk is getting lambasted on Twitter for his declarations of independence, but even so I think most people can understand where he’s coming from. Because of the coronavirus, many of us have lost our main source of income, and even those that haven’t feel trapped in and desirous of resuming normal social life. Before the quarantine, it was easy to get “stuck in one’s own little bubble.” Now, it is impossible to get out of it.

This makes Chris Arnade’s book “Dignity” all the more important at the present moment. I purchased “Dignity” on Amazon a few months ago after reading a score of glowing reviews from people whose opinions I value. When the book arrived on my doorstep, I was a bit nonplussed: It did not look at all like I expected. The book is big and square, shaped more or less like a coffee table book. This was surprising, since the book is described as Arnade’s attempt to chronicle the lives of what he calls “the back row” of America. Who wants to leave out photographs of America’s most destitute to help entertain visitors? Disappointed, I placed “Dignity” on my bookshelf, thinking the purchase had been a mistake.

During quarantine, I, like many others, have not been wanting for time. I have done more reading in the past two months than I’ve done in years, and before long I found that I had run out of material. I considered turning to Amazon to find something new, but I was hesitant about putting any more strain on a logistical system also designed to deliver essentials. Instead, I went to my bookshelf. There I found, of course, “Dignity.” I decided to read it.

Like any coffee table book, “Dignity” includes photographs. Unlike any coffee table book I have ever seen, the pictures can by no means be described as beautiful or aesthetic or any adjective indicating that they are pleasant to look at. What they are is “real.” Following the tradition of reformers like Jacob Riis, Arnade sheds a light on America’s forgotten people. They include drug dealers, prostitutes, preachers and McDonald’s workers. They come from different parts of the country and vote in different ways. But they are all American.

As the subtitle of “Dignity” puts it, these are all people “seeking respect in America.” Arnade doesn’t just show their pictures; he also tells their stories. This kind of story is hard to find these days. Sure, you may see a prestige television take on HBO or Netflix, but such depictions are dramatized and exaggerated. To the contrary, Arnade’s descriptions feel lived-in. No embellishments necessary.

If you find yourself looking for something to do as the quarantine goes on, consider picking up this book. While you are stuck at home, it is a way for you to stay connected with the rest of the country; and not just those you are friends with on the internet.

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Books

Book Review: “A Concise History of Hungary”

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People are looking to move. I have no idea if the numbers back this up, but anecdotally at least there is talk in the air about leaving the United States for greener pastures. As the most powerful institutions in America grow ever more hostile to those adhering to traditional ways of living, it’s difficult not to ask: “Is there a better place for me?”

Many people are looking to Hungary. Not only is it one of the only countries in the Western World not to be completely subsumed in the acid bath of modernity, but it also encourages repatriation by those with Hungarian ancestry. In Ireland, famous for its lax bloodline citizenship laws, you need to have had grandparents born in the Old Country. In Hungary, there is no limit to how far back you can go to prove your Hungarian heritage.

There is a catch. The Hungarian government only wants new citizens who are committed to being Hungarian. As such, you have to pass a language test in order to be eligible. And you should probably demonstrate more than just cursory knowledge about the country you are trying to be a part of. Being familiar with paprika and goulash is not going to cut it. You’ve got to try to learn about the history.

That’s where the book “A Concise History of Hungary” comes in. Given the upsurge in interest in migrating to Hungary, it is a shock that there are so few English-language books about the storied nation.

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A Concise History Of Hungary (Cambridge Concise Histories) — $20.63

Do a search on Amazon for books about Hungarian history, and you will find your results to be limited. No matter, because Miklós Molnár’s work is an excellent place to start. This historical survey traces the story of Hungary all the way back to before King Saint Stephen became Hungary’s first king, to even before the Magyars conquered the Carpathian Basin. It tells about the many wars in which Hungary has been embroiled, from the wars against the Ottomans to the World Wars in the 20th century.

I don’t know much about Miklós Molnár, but after reading his bio on the book jacket, I was skeptical of his ability to be unbiased. The blurb notes that he was the editor of a communist newspaper (“Irodalmi Ujság”). Those familiar with the intricacies of Hungarian history will not be surprised there is no love lost between Molnár and the Soviet Communists who ruled his country for four decades; in fact Molnár fled the country like Imre Nagy after the Revolution of 1956.

So readers should not be worried about the author being to sympathetic to communists. However, there is some animus in this book, especially toward the Habsburgs, who controlled Hungary for two centuries. Also, as the events depicted get closer and closer to present day, Molnár’s descriptions of political parties and movements become more clouded by his own thinking.

Overall, I do recommend “A Concise History Of Hungary,” if only because there is so little else out there. Until it reaches the 18th century, the book is remarkably even-handed, almost academic in tone despite its eminent readability. If I am to be a Hungarian citizen, I would like to have read more books on Hungary than just this one. But I think it is a great place to start.

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Books

Read These Christmas Books On Christmas Eve

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There’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas. I’m not sure exactly how we got here, but Christmas Eve has come at last. For obvious reasons, this entire Christmas season has been more subdued than most; all across the world the phrase “Silent Night” may never have been so apt.

With all sorts of traditional holiday traditions being in flux, this got me thinking to a quieter way to spend the night before Christmas. This year provides a great occasion to re-read and re-familiarize yourself with some Christmas classics.

If you don’t know where to start, I’ve listed some of my favorite Christmas books below. They include a mix of both short children’s books and longer novels. And although you won’t be able to order any of them now and have them arrive before Christmas Day, Kindle and Audible are both available options.

A Christmas Carol: and Other Holiday Treasures by Charles Dickens

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A Christmas Carol” had to top the list. Everyone is familiar with Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three ghosts, but how many have read the source material? A good collection of “A Christmas Carol” will include some of Dickens other Yuletide stories, including “The Cricket on the Hearth,” which earned him the epithet “The Man who Invented Christmas.”

The Night Before Christmas by Charles Dickens

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When I was growing up, it was a tradition for everyone to gather around on Christmas Eve for a reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” Like “A Christmas Carol,” Clement C. Moore’s poem will never get old.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

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Dylan Thomas’s prose poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” may not be as universally well known as “The Night Before Christmas,” but it is just as highly regarded.

Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

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Don’t let the creepy Tom Hanks movie turn you off to the book version of “Polar Express,” which belongs on every child’s bookshelf.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss

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The Jim Carrey rendition of Dr. Seuss’s Mt. Crumpit dweller was panned when it first hit theatres two decades ago, but constant airtime has turned it into a minor holiday classic. After re-reading “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” it is impressive how much depth and detail Ron Howard’s team was able to add to such a refreshingly simple work.

Skipping Christmas by John Grisham

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While we are on the topic of books turned into films, let’s talk about John Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas.” You know this story better as “Christmas with the Kranks.” This novel is a departure for the master of the legal thriller, but if you like Grisham’s writing style (and can’t get enough of Luther, Nora, and their rooftop Frosty), then give “Skipping Christmas” a read.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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The Corrections” is my favorite Christmas book, as well as one of my favorite books of all time. Despite reading it nearly every December for the past seven years, I still can’t make it to the end without crying.

Letters From Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien

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A late edition to this list, I’ve actually never read Tolkien’s beloved Christmas letters. But a special 100th anniversary edition of “Letters from Father Christmas” was published this year, so it may be time to see if lives up to its reputation.

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

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The first time I read “The Gift of the Magi,” I was surprised at how short it was. If you know the general story of impoverished couple Della and Jim, then you know the entire contents of O. Henry’s classic tale. Unlike “A Christmas Carol,” the written version of “The Gift of the Magi” is not filled with details that never make their way to the screen. If anything, that sparsity of extraneous information adds depth and poignancy to the story’s resolution.

Did I miss any of your favorites Christmas books? If so, let me know in the comments, and I will update the list. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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Sparking Interest in Chess, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Offers Hope

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“The Queen’s Gambit,” the latest hit show from Netflix, could not have come at a better time. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people are not only starving for content but also for more active diversions to help them occupy their time.

“The Queen’s Gambit” fills both of these voids. To start, it is a short but meaty 7-episode mini-series, beautifully shot and rife with interesting situations for a viewer to imagine herself in. Perhaps more importantly, it introduces a whole new generation to the game of kings. According to news reports, chess sets have been flying off the (virtual) shelves since the series dropped on Netflix. The New York Times even features on article on how to make your own chess set at home, for those who can’t find one available online.

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Chess Armory Travel Chess Set 9.5″ x 9.5″- Plastic Chess Set with Folding Magnetic Chess Board, Staunton Chess Pieces, & Storage Box – Portable Chess Set Board Game — $14.99

The numbers are jarring. Sales of chess sets were already on the rise at the start of the pandemic. You may remember a slate of articles from the spring detailing celebrities, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who were spending their time in quarantine playing the game. (Chess’s famous fans were not limited to those with impossible to spell names; presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were also said to have played.) But since “The Queen’s Gambit,” chess set sales have skyrocketed anywhere from 125% to 1,048%.

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Chess Armory 15″ Wooden Chess Set with Felted Game Board Interior for Storage — $28.99

This is nothing if not an extremely positive development. After reading dispiriting stories about how the nation’s young ones are wiling away the hours on online video game platforms like Roblox and Fortnite, or else watching other people’s content on TikTok and YouTube, it is nice to see people take up a hobby that requires them to use their brains. You don’t need to be able to think as many moves ahead as Beth Harmon or Benny Watts to get something out of playing chess. Furthermore, chess is a game that bridges generational gaps. Whether you are a Zoomer or a Boomer, your learning curve will be exactly the same. If there is something our society needs more of, it is spending time with those with different life experiences. Chess can help facilitate that.

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“The Queen’s Gambit: A Novel” by Walter Tevis — $11.78

I’m not sure when they starting making “The Queen’s Gambit,” but I sure am grateful they did. I suppose we also owe a debt of gratitude to Walter Tevis, who wrote the novel the show is based on. Also the author of “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money,” Tevis had a knack for cinematic storytelling. I am looking forward to reading “The Queen’s Gambit” to see if it can provide yet another outlet for recreation and leisure when we need it most.

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