Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reflections: From Beirut to Jerusalem

Many years ago, while attending Valencia Community College (now Valencia College), I wrote a research paper titled "Little Israel."  At the time it was a culmination of years of fascination and study for one of the most intriguing and captivating events in modern history.  Since then my study and focus on Israel has waned, but I've never lost what seems to be an innate interest in the country, its people, and its circumstances.  Thomas L. Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem was a reminder of why that region of the world is so bewitching.  Friedman's detailed and excellent personal account of his time in Lebanon and Israel feels like an indispensable part of my personal education on those important places and the Middle East overall.

The most striking thing about Friedman's book is that it was published in 1989.  The reason that is so striking is because the book feels like current history.  It's a testament to how entrenched conflicts are in the Middle East, how far back and how deep they go.  The Middle East, as From Beirut to Jerusalem showcases, is a world apart from common-place Western ethics, morals, and politics.  Friedman's accounts and experiences are extraordinary when read from a Western arm-chair but all too familiar when read from a Middle-Eastern one.  On so many levels, we just don't truly understand how things operate over there.  It is a world of constant moves and counter-moves, of ageless rivalries, tribal conflicts, and Bedouin conflict management, which mostly means if you have a bigger stick and swing it harder than your foe, then you successfully manage the conflict to your personal or tribe's advantage.

From Beirut to Jerusalem is akin to a book like Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville in a way.  For example, Tocqueville was an outsider, a French political thinker and early sociologist, who came to America, observed people, circumstances, and conditions, wrote it all down, and shared it with the world.  Friedman feels the same to me.  Although he is an American Jew, Friedman, as a journalist, fits the definition of an outsider who goes to a foreign, a truly foreign place, makes observations, writes it all down, and has shared it with us all.  Friedman's commentaries are interesting, reasonable, and, at times, quite profound.  There is plenty to aggravate both Israelis and Palestinians and their supporters in this book.  What From Beirut to Jerusalem does very well is to show a level of nuance to the conflict and peoples that is rarely, if ever, highlighted in normal newscasts or newspaper articles.  My feelings toward the ongoing conflict have largely stayed the same since reading the book, but my understanding of those who disagree with me has been greatly enhanced.

The Middle East and its peoples, especially Israel, is a small hinge upon which a large door of world politics and American interests swings.  It is no mistake that so much conflict revolves around such a small area.  There is a history, secular and religious, wrapped up in little Israel and its neighbors that touches the hearts and souls, to say nothing of national interests, of literally billions of people.  From Beirut to Jerusalem may only focus on a particular decade, in this case the 1980s, but its insight and value extend far, far beyond that limited time-frame.  This is ancient and modern history so tightly knit together it's sometimes hard to tell them apart.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Reading Lolita in Tehran
Bosom Buddy Books: Exodus and The Haj

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Reflections: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Anyone familiar with the Science Fiction genre of books knows about Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  It's a well-known, well-regarded work that inspired, albeit loosely, one of the greatest science fiction films (so says a lot of media outlets) of all time, Blade RunnerDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? feels almost as esoteric as it sounds with its opaque examination of life, consciousness, and empathy.  It's an interesting book, even entertaining at times, but in the end it left me a little abandoned in its own musings.

The single most fascinating and entertaining story element of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is its purposeful misdirections regarding who is an android and who is not.  In this world, one can be an android and not know it.  Memories can be fabricated.  Perception can be faked.  There are a series of reversals during the middle of the book that left me questioning my own understanding of who was an android and who wasn't and what that would mean for the story overall.  It was a great sequence.  (A film, although not a great one, that does something similar with great effect is Where Eagles Dare; there are probably half a dozen twists within the span of one ten-minute scene).  Yet, as entertaining as this segment was, it doesn't last long. The book quickly re-focuses on its core philosophical and metaphysical elements.  That's not a slight, however.  I'm pretty open to all things philosophical and metaphysical, but this book provides more enjoyment in the discussing of it than in the reading of it.
 
The stranger elements of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, such as Mercerism, are balanced out with a very thought-provoking view of the future.  With essentially all animal life obliterated by a Nuclear War (World War Terminus; what a great and imposing name!), humanity is emigrating en masse away from Earth.  Those of us left behind struggle with what it means to be human and the proper way to value life.  Animals, and by extension life itself, have become a rare commodity indeed, and much of humanity long so badly for an animal that they pay large sums of money to own them or buy ersatz animals to fulfill the need.  Rick Deckard, the book's main protagonist, begins the book with an electric sheep but works at eliminating several androids to collect the bounty and buy a live animal; it seems that's all he really wants.  This unique set of problems and motivations certainly gives the book a special flavor; thus far, I haven't read another science fiction book quite like it.  Although I think the book veers a little too far into obtuse commentary, it does leave some tantalizing questions unanswered which would certainly drive the most literal among us a little crazy.

Philip K. Dick and his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? will forever be regarded as one of the finest works of science fiction we have.  That is, after all, how I came across it again, and again, and again.  It appeared on just about every best of science fiction list I reviewed.  For my part, it was a book I liked but didn't love.  I'd enjoy discussing it with others but don't have much reason to soak in its material more on my own.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Hyperion
Reflections: A Princess of Mars
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Reflections: The First 2,000 Years

In every cultural group there are household names.  W. Cleon Skousen is one of those names among Latter-day Saints.  In fact, like Hugh Nibley, Skousen is a Latter-day Saint academic that achieved enough prominence and visibility that some members of the Church incorrectly referred to him as "Elder" Skousen, inadvertently suggesting he was a Apostle, which he was not.  Skousen achieved this level of visibility by writing books like The First 2,000 Years and its subsequent follow-ups, as well as other treatises relating to government, communism, and Latter-day Saint doctrine.  The First 2,000 Years is the second book I have read from Skousen, the first being The 5,000 Year Leap.  Although I enjoyed the The First 2,000 Years, it was very front-loaded and lacked less and less interesting insight the further I got into it. 

If anything is immediately associated with Skousen when mentioned to Latter-day Saints, it would probably be the word speculation.  Although Skousen is constantly referencing scripture, his interpretations and conclusions may sometimes surprise readers, even Latter-day Saints.  What's most interesting about these speculations to me is that Skousen writes with total confidence.  (I will say, however, that I find Skousen's explanation of the Atonement and why it was necessary to be extremely compelling and reasonable).  He rarely provides multiple opinions and then delineates why he falls on one side or the other of a particular issue or topic.  I find this to be the weakest aspect of Skousen's writings.  I love the compare and contrast method of learning (see The Lord's Way or A Conflict of Visions as examples).  The First 2,000 Years is a direct and concise commentary from one author; it could have offered more by pulling from other authors, both academic and ecclesiastical. 

Skousen has the most to contribute when it comes to the beginning of all things, at least the beginning of our earth and related universe.  Latter-day Saint scripture is far more robust and expansive than contemporary Christianity, and Skousen takes full advantage of unique details and doctrines Latter-day Saints consider canonized scripture.  This is there the majority of the speculation can be found.  Some of the commentary is a little too literal from my perspective but interesting nonetheless.  As in science so in theology, if you go far enough back, the details of what actually happened and when they actually happened becomes fuzzier and fuzzier.  (I'm mostly speaking of the creation of the Earth and our pre-mortal experience).  What surprised me most regarding The First 2,000 Years is that Skousen pays little attention to what has been said by modern Prophets and Apostles regarding the topics he's discussing and elaborating on.  A good example of an author who does pay a great deal of attention to what has been said by modern Prophets and Apostles while still maintaining his own speculations and conclusions is the book Earth in the Beginning, also written by a Skousen but I'm not sure of the relationship. 

The first quarter or half of The First 2,000 Years is far more interesting and intriguing than the second half of the book.  Once the Abraham epoch and commentary begins it feels like more of a scavenger hunt for who was born and when.  There were a few insights here and there that I found intriguing but certainly nothing provocative. 

The First 2,000 Years is the first of several books of commentary written by Skousen regarding the Bible, as well as other Latter-day Saint scripture.  It was a passing amusement, but I'm not sure if I'll read the other books in this particular series.  The book provides some interesting doctrinal topics of conversation, even if it only acts as a springboard, but I don't find much more value in it than that.   

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Lord's Way
Reflections: The Apocrypha
Reflections: Faith Precedes the Miracle

Friday, June 12, 2015

What to Read this Summer (2015)

As an avid reader I figure I'm able to tabulate a list of great summer reads just as much as anyone.  My list is certainly not comprehensive seeing as how I'm only one guy, and I haven't read a mere fraction of the books, some great and lots terrible, that are in circulation today.  Having said that, there are a few I think we can all enjoy while sitting by the beach, lake, or pool.  To me a summer read doesn't necessarily constitute a book that is intended only for cheap entertainment, although those are good some times.  I think if someone reads their way through summer they should pick up some popular fiction as well as thought-provoking, brow-furrowing books of quality.  Here are a few I think won't disappoint.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
What can I possibly say about Dandelion Wine or Ray Bradbury?  I started reading Dandelion Wine the very day Ray Bradbury died, all by coincidence.  This book is probably Bradbury's most approachable.  Avoiding the heaviness of something like Fahrenheit 451 and the more fantastic elements of a book like Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine strikes a balance of magical nostalgia in a seemingly mundane domestic setting.  But there is nothing truly mundane about this book.  It is a beautiful and intriguing work of fiction which transports the reader back to the rowdy and glorious days of childhood. 

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
Cold Sassy Tree has one of the most shocking moments I've ever read in fiction.  And I'll do you all the service of not spoiling what the shock is.  It's probably been close to a decade since I've read Cold Sassy Tree, but I still remember the feeling of reading the book.  I have read hundreds of books since then, and I can't remember most of them very well or at all.  When I look over my list of books I have read I often pause and say to myself: "Oh yeah, I did read that."  But I have never done that and will never do that when it comes to Cold Sassy Tree.  Set in a Georgia town during 1906, the book is truly evocative.  The characters are charming and memorable.  It's a great deal of fun to read.  It's not as heady or heavy as a lot of Southern Literature tends to be, and in this case that's a good thing.  It's a wonderful book to read while listening to the churn of the surf.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
I like fantasy, and I like science fiction.  Often times the stories are overlooked in those genres to make way for the author's oh-so-original take on well-worn themes and settings.  Mistborn, however, presents an extremely unique set of fantasy rules while still providing an entertaining story and mostly memorable characters.  The book certainly has its problems, but it's a fun escape.  It deals with big ideas just enough to ensure the story doesn't become stale or insipid, but it doesn't inundate the reader with incomprehensible or esoteric moral dilemmas that most of us probably wouldn't care about anyway on a lazy summer afternoon.  In addition, Mistborn is the first of a trilogy which may provide a very good reason to continue reading the series.  It's not a bad thing to not only find one new book during the summer but discover a whole new series you can enjoy. 


All Over But the Shoutin', Ava's Man, and The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg
There are probably not enough positive adjectives I could pull out of my cranium to fully express my effusive love for these books.  Rick Bragg is better than just about every non-fiction writer I've read, and he's better than most fiction writers as well.  This biographical/autobiographical "trilogy," for lack of a better term, truly showcases some of the best writing I have ever had the joy of reading.  And when you're looking for a good summer book, why not read some of the best writing you can?  Although some summer readers may not want to wade into non-fiction while they're relaxing and possibly want to escape reality, I would still recommend these books to anyone.  They're tough books at times and deal with difficult family and domestic issues, but they're beautiful works of art that a summer reader would be hard-pressed not to appreciate.

Crimes Against Logic by Jamie Whyte
Jamie Whyte's treatise on the use or more appropriately the misuse of logic is short, entertaining, and more than likely a little condemning.  Most of us have committed one or two or three of the crimes, as defined by Whyte, highlighted in this little book.  It's a fun exercise to absorb what Whyte has to say about the crimes against logic and see those crimes pervasively perpetuated all around us.  Crimes Against Logic won't necessarily change your philosophical position on life, love, or happiness, but it's an extremely approachable book that can more than sufficiently divert and indulge your intellect without ever becoming too burdensome.

As a special treat, my daughter Emma, a voracious and inveterate reader herself, has a book recommendation for this summer that she thinks anyone can enjoy:

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
"I like the Percy Jackson series because it is about the Greek gods.  And it is a book series about Greek mythology.  And most gods have powers.  My two favorite characters are Percy and Annabeth.  I really like the Percy Jackson series because it is an adventure."

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Reflections: Freedom

After reading around three quarters of Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom I searched for reviews of the book.  I almost never do this; I do like to look at lists that collate the best books of a genre or decade or some other grouping, but I'm not prone to read reviews of a book.  I don't exactly remember when I heard about Freedom, but I do remember it was within a very favorable context.  (I'm pretty sure it was during an interview on National Public Radio; after some brief research, I saw that the book received numerous awards and was a #1 National Bestseller).  I navigated to the first review that came back in the search results, which was a New York Times review by Sam Tanenhaus who said in part: ". . . 'Freedom'. . . is a masterpiece of American fiction."  I stumbled over the word "masterpiece" and had once again the painful realization that our modern masterpieces of literature are so very different from some of our archived masterpieces of yesteryear.  Furthermore, I realized, yet again, why I hate modern literature so much.

Freedom is well written.  It has a fascinating narrative structure which jumps backward and forward in time but never left me disoriented.  The characters are fully developed human beings; the dialogue is genuine and engaging.  These characters feel like they could be real.  The interweaving of seemingly disparate topics and events is a testament to the author's ability for storytelling.  From a writing perspective, there is plenty to recommend Freedom; however, I am loathe to recommend the book to anyone, ever.

"Modern" literature loves to swim in the deep end of morality and ethics.  It seeks to challenge our notions of right and wrong or even explore what a word like freedom even means, as Franzen's novel does.  All of this is fine, interesting even.  Yet, Franzen has presented characters who are so morally depraved and mentally broken it's a chore to read anything about them.  At some points I genuinely hated some of the characters.  Perhaps this was one of Franzen's objectives, and producing such feelings in your readers could have merit.  Unfortunately, in this book it's mostly obnoxious.  Modern literature strives, struggles, and over-strains itself to be profound.  Generally speaking, most of its insights aren't profound but vapid conclusions based on the author's own pessimistic perspective of reality.  By the end of a book like Freedom, after having to endure the characters' numerous infidelities, betrayals, and even one of them digging through their own excrement to find a swallowed wedding ring, I don't really care what the point is; I only care about finishing the book and moving on.

What is so unpleasant about Freedom is its characters' unrelenting need to be nasty to themselves, each other, and just about everyone else.  There are only a few characters who warrant much sympathy or compassion.  And, of course, even the best among them falls victim to the injustice of our volatile world and the rakish behavior of others.  Franzen attempts to put most of his characters back together by the end of the book, after emotionally and mentally brutalizing most of them, but when the bow is tied it's neither pretty or meaningful.  The characters' happiness or lack thereof wasn't much of a concern for me.  No, I don't always need a perfect ending to the stories I enjoy (see Mooncalf or Their Eyes Were Watching God).  (In fact, when it doesn't make sense for the story and belittles the drama the story had created, see Star Trek Into Darkness, I find it somewhat cheap).  Rather, I want a reason for the right ending, an acceptable outcome, even if one is not arrived at.  Freedom provides no such thing.

I truly disliked Freedom.  I can admire the author's efforts and give credit where credit is due, but I have no desire to spend any more time with these characters or the author who created them.  Freedom is another fine example of what I don't like about modern literature.  This might be, as the New York Times reviewer said, a new "masterpiece of American fiction," but that only proves to me how little time I want to spend with these modern masterpieces of fiction.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Tinkers
Overrated: The Road
Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction