Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Reflections: Go Forward with Faith

Sheri Dew has a special talent in taking fascinating, extraordinary personalities and making them boring.  Go Forward with Faith is the second biography I have read which was written by the popular LDS author and former Deseret Book CEO.  Although I recognize the difficulty of her task, I am once again disappointed by the result of her work. 

Gordon B. Hinckley was the prophet of my youth, a phrase and feeling other Latter-day Saints will understand.  I have long felt a strong affinity for Hinckley and my admiration and respect for him has only grown over the years.  When I have an itch to listen to older General Conference talks, I often listen to his talks because of their wit, candor, and sincerity.  Reading a biography about Gordon B. Hinckley was a natural and expected way to become more acquainted with a man I hold in high esteem.

The biography begins with some promise but quickly backslides into an interminable travelogue, especially during the middle of the book.  The end shows the same promise as the beginning but never fully lets the reader appreciate Gordon B. Hinckley for the visionary leader he was.  The book often insists on simply telling you his qualities rather than portraying them in a meaningful and compelling way.  One of the most aggravating weaknesses of the book is that Dew hardly ever provides any context for circumstances and events Hinckley was a part of.  When she does provide context, such as during the missionary/draft controversy related to the Korean War, the book is its most interesting.  Hinckley was a part of a real world with real people; however, more often than not, Dew writes in such a way that Hinckley appears to exist in a vacuum whose efforts are admirable but somewhat disconnected from the rest of human history and experience. 

In addition, as with Ezra Taft Benson's biography, Dew deals with some of the most difficult moments of Hinckley's tenure as a General Authority with a certain unwillingness and a "there's nothing to see here" mentality.  I am by no means a critic of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; in fact, I probably couldn't be farther from it.  Yet, I recognize the value of truly understanding an event within its proper context.  It often can illuminate the brilliance and honor of an individual by understanding why their critics disliked them so much.  What about Hinckley angered his critics so deeply?  And how did Hinckley manfully handle their reproaches?  Again and again the book skirts a sensitive issue but doesn't necessarily replace it with anything of interest.  Whenever Dew suffered from writer's block while writing this biography her working and writing philosophy must have been: [Insert travel itinerary here].

As badly structured and written Go Forward with Faith is, it's rather remarkable that Gordon B. Hinckley comes alive as much as he does.  Indeed, the book is at its best when Dew steps back and lets Hinckley speak for himself.  He was an incredible man with a very, very special set of skills.  I learned quite a bit from the descriptions of how he handled certain administrative problems, his work philosophy and ethic, and, of course, his testimony and vision of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He was a special soul designated for a special time, and I will forever remember him with tender feelings.

Other Topics of Interest:
Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

Friday, January 1, 2016

Best Books of 2015

Yet another year of some incredible non-fiction reading and some uneven fiction reading.  I still believe strongly in the power fiction, but I must admit my frustration in trying to find truly great fiction.  It's out there; I've read quite a bit of it.  Looking at my past Best Books of the Year postings, I'm reminded of how wonderful fiction can be: Mooncalf, Tinkers, Dracula, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Dandelion Wine, Mistborn.  I search on for the greatest, most entertaining, and most meaningful works of fiction.  On the other hand, there appears to be no shortage of phenomenoal works of non-fiction; here is my favorite from 2015.

Non-Fiction: Temple and Cosmos by Hugh Nibley
2015 was an especially difficult year in selecting the best non-fiction book.  I read a lot of amazing non-fiction books: Lone Survivor, Steve Jobs, Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Lord's Way, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Temple and Cosmos, and Life at the Bottom.  These are most, although not all, of the non-fiction books I read last year.  But which one will be the most memorable?  Taking that as my main criteria, I'll have to choose Temple and Cosmos by Hugh Nibley.

As a religious treatise for Latter-day Saints, the book is invaluable, providing a mountain of insights and additional knowledge into not only the temple ceremony but into the worldview, indeed the universal view, of Mormonism.  The book was challenging and a bit arcane at times, but it was never so esoteric it couldn't be appreciated by the academic novice.  Nibley's writing and prose is funny, witty, engaging, and quick.  Sometimes the prose moves a bit too quick as Nibley bounces from one idea to another to another and another before you have a chance to digest the first idea.  A book like Temple and Cosmos is a playground for my intellectual curiosity.  It deals with themes I'm fascinated in.  The recurring nature of the human experience, human wisdom and knowledge, and eternal realities.  It's a heady book, a cerebral book, and a book I will never forget. 

Fiction: Gates of Fire by Steve Pressfield
As mentioned earlier, my fiction reading wasn't as fruitful and rewarding in 2015; however, that does make it easier to select the best fiction book I read last year.  Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire is a bloody, brutal, and bold work of historical fiction.  In my review I said Gates of Fire may have been the bloodiest and goriest book I have ever read but yet was not gratuitous.  The book truly has some of the most engrossing violence I've read, which often crescendos into an emotional capstone that leaves the reader exhausted and moved.  There are true moments of heartbreak in Gates of Fire; it's not merely a work of fiction focusing on war for war's sake.  Rather, it's a book more like Black Hawk Down, which drops its readers into the thick of the violence so the reader can in a small, small way have a human experience.

In the end, after the war scenes had passed, after the blood had been spilled, I sat pondering about Gates of Fire.  I thought about its characters, their heroism, the ideas they lived and died for.  There is a lot to be found in this book.  Gates of Fire is a great example of how valuable fiction can be.  There are no doubt works of non-fiction dealing the same subject matter, but I doubt anyone of them can make a reader feel what this book does.

Honorable Mention: Beyond the Strandline by Linda L. Zern
I have to mention the young adult adventure Beyond the Strandline when discussing some of the best books I read this year.  I'm not a big fan of young adult fiction, as most people know.  However, Beyond the Strandline engaged me in a way most young adult fiction does not.  Its characters were real people, existing in a real place.  I also have to recognize the versatility of the author whose previous work, Mooncalf, was one of my favorite books from a previous year.  It comfortably exists in a totally separate genre, southern literature, and yet Beyond the Strandline exists perfectly well in its genre.  The author knows how to write for any audience and for any genre.

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2014
Best Books of 2013: Fiction
Best Books of 2013: Non-fiction

Friday, December 25, 2015

Reading Goals for 2015: A Review

Amazingly another year is about to pass away.  2015 was, I am happy to report, much better for my reading than was 2014.  I was able to read 22 books this year.  With a goal of 24 each year, I'd say I didn't do terrible.  Similar to 2014, my non-fiction reading was superb, but I struggled to consistently find works of fiction that were meaningful and compelling enough to really leave an indelible impression in the annals of my reading history.

Beginning with non-fiction, I read some excellent books of non-fiction, ranging from social commentaries, to religious treatises, to biographies.  Steve Jobs was one of the finest if not the best biography I've ever read.  The Lord's Way was an incredible commentary on Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice, especially best practices of priesthood leadership.  Along those same lines, reading Hugh Nibley's Temple and Cosmos was truly enlightening.  Reading Lolita in Tehran and From Beirut to Jerusalem were wonderful explorations into the cultures and people of the Middle East, which I will not soon forget.  From a more political and ideological perspective, Life at the Bottom was provocative and challenging.  I could list more works of non-fiction I read this year which are well worth the read.  I know that choosing my favorite work of non-fiction this year will be a special challenge. 

A few weeks back someone mentioned to me that they don't read fiction because it's a waste of time.  I certainly don't agree with that standpoint, and I believe we can learn profound truths from fiction we simply can't learn in any other way.  We need stories for a variety of reasons; however, I recognize the difficulty of finding good fiction.  I was painfully reminded of that struggle this year.  Freedom was an excruciating reminder of what can go so terribly wrong with modern fiction.  Most of the other works of fiction I read this year were very vanilla, hardly memorable, albeit they had some redeeming qualities.  Even Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles didn't thrill me in the way his other books have.  Although young adult fiction is not normally a preferred genre, I was entertained by Beyond the Strandline, which had interesting characters and a breakneck plot.  In addition, Gates of Fire was a brutal, bloody, and wonderful work of historical fiction--a definite highlight in my fiction reading this year.  Lastly, I finally read The Fellowship of the Ring this year.  I enjoyed it well enough and will certainly finish the series over the coming years.

2015 was a pretty good year numbers-wise.  I didn't quite reach my yearly goal, but for me and my schedule I was happy.  I learned a lot this year from my non-fiction reading and still appreciate the value of fiction, although I feel it's getting a little harder to find the truly great works of fiction.  And so we go into another year of reading, learning, and further into the intellectual frontier.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reading Goals for 2015
Reading Goals for 2014: A Review
3 Reasons Why We Need & Love Stories

Friday, December 18, 2015

Reflections: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

My oldest daughter, Emma, is a huge fan of Rick Riordan's series of adventures, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which takes place in a contemporary setting but uses classic Greek characters and events to populate it.  (Emma recommended The Lightning Thief as a worthwhile summer read earlier this year).  I must admit I don't normally have much interest in books such as the Percy Jackson series, but I wanted to fulfill a long-time request from Emma to finally read it. 

Overall I enjoyed The Lightning Thief for what it was.  In fact, at times I find the writing quite good, even witty, but it always came back to the genre it knew it was.  The characters, being pre-teens, are sometimes irritating and the choices they make can be downright stupid.  Yet, the target audience for a book like The Lightning Thief won't be perturbed by the same problems as I would be.  In the end, books like these are simple, straightforward adventures, and most ten year old readers are pretty okay with that.

As would be expected, after having finished the first of the Percy Jackson books Emma was eager to know if I would continue to read the series.  Perhaps.  As mentioned, books like these don't usually pique my interest, but I could see myself reading them so I can talk to Emma about them.  Aside from that, I don't have much interest.  The mysteries and questions left lingering at the end of The Lightning Thief are fun enough to explore and Riordan has obviously made a nice living for himself doing just that.  Emma will more than likely keep he and his family fed for some time; at least, until she grows up a bit more and craves adventures that look and feel a little bit different than something like The Lightning Thief.  I certainly don't want to rush that day, and it was fun to read Percy's first adventure so I could discuss it with a fellow avid reader.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
What Should a 9th Grader Read?
3 Reasons Why We Need and Love Stories

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Reflections: American Lion

American Lion by Jon Meacham shows the amazing nuances which accompanies any sincere look at history.  Andrew Jackson was a controversial figure during his time as president and remains to be so today.  His presence on the twenty-dollar bill is a subject of no small debate in some circles.  I must admit I was unaware as to why someone like himself would find such an honored place in our history until I read American Lion.  The book doesn't glorify the man but respects the contributions he made, as well as highlight the weaknesses he had.

What I certainly did not appreciate was Jackson's efforts to preserve the Union.  The political battles he fought during his presidency were the same battles fought prior the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.  (In fact, Abraham Lincoln referenced Jackson and his efforts during Lincoln's presidency).  I reflected on that fact over and over again while reading American Lion.  What political battles are we having today that will eventually be decided, in civil and not so civil ways, twenty or thirty years from now? 

Regarding the Native Americans, reading American Lion can help you understand Jackson's perspective, even if you don't agree with it, as we all would not.  Students of history have to understand historical figures and personalities in the context of when they lived, how they lived, etc.  Jackson held slaves, as did American giants like George Washington.  Jackson held beliefs related to the Native Americans we would consider backward and harmful, but his reasoning, which revolved mostly around security and protection from an internal threat, was sound during his time.  Having said that, America has always had its contrarians, and Jackson was severely opposed on all of his policies, the Native Americans and slaveholding included.  American Lion does a wonderful job of showing these conflicts in their gritty and fascinating detail.

Another wonderful contribution American Lion makes to the annals of American history is its incredible detail on how the personal lives of political figures can affect the governing of a nation and the administering of a government.  You can always tell when an author has plenty of personal details, letters, etc., to work with and when an author does not.  Meacham appeared to have a host of letters, journals, and records to piece together the compelling and interesting story of Jackson and his family. 

American Lion is a great addition to my ever-growing list of American history books.  I learned a great deal more about the man whose image graces every twenty-dollar bill, and I appreciate the contributions he made and the mistakes he displayed.  There is plenty to learn from Andrew Jackson and American Lion is a great place to learn it. 

Other Topics of Interest:
What Every American Should Read
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Restoring the Lost Constitution