Saturday, September 26, 2015

Reflections: Gates of Fire

Our popular culture took a special interest into the battle of Thermopylae in 2006 when the film 300 was released.  The battle itself, and the heroism of the Spartan warriors and their allies, is referenced in a variety of settings, including religious.  We stand in awe of the Spartan Dienekes who, once being told the Persians' archers' arrows would blot out the sun, said: "So much the better.  We shall fight in the shade."  Steven Pressfield, in his book Gates of Fire, has taken this incredible historical event and written an incredible historical novel to showcase what courage, honor, bravery, and the brutality of war looks like.

Gates of Fire is quite possibly the bloodiest and goriest book I have ever read.  Yet, I would not classify the book as gratuitous.  I realize that may seem incongruous, but I maintain that the violence on display in this book serves a bigger purpose than violence for violence's sake.  The sword and sandal warfare of the Spartans' era was a face-to-face, nose-to-nose bloodbath.  Pressfield attempts and largely succeeds in making the violence in this book as intimate, for lack of a better word, to the reader as it is for the characters.  I would practically exhale in relief when a battle scene would come to its bloody end.  Gates of Fire is not for those readers who are uncomfortable with violence and all of its inevitable gory consequences. 

Having said all of that, a bloody and violent story which is nothing but that is hardly worth reading, if at all.  Pressfield has not only re-created military situations with convincing adroitness, he has also populated those situations, and especially the build up to them, with genuine and memorable characters.  In fact, a large part of the book, the majority really, is not about warfare but the lead up to it.  It reminded me of The Two Towers film adaptation; the film takes an inordinate amount of time building up to the monumental conflict you have paid money to see.  That build up, that tension, is what makes the final showdown so compelling and engrossing.  What this provides are the emotional crescendos and the heartbreaking realities of war.  There are some genuinely emotional moments in this book.  In the end, even the stoicism of the Spartans cannot contain the unbridled outcry of a broken heart.  Like other tales of war, such as the Lone Survivor, Gates of Fire shows how men behave when placed in the most terrible of situations, both the best and worst of mankind.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the book's examination of the Spartan worldview, the ethos of its people.  Modern nations and cultures boast a much more prolonged quantity of life, but I believe the quality of that life is highly debatable.  Sparta, although existing with and embracing rules of conduct and expectations of lifestyle most, including myself, would bristle at, could teach us something about embracing the most important ideas.  Freedom, honor, courage.  It goes without saying that these ideals aren't the ultimate goals of millennials; rather, our world thrives on security, ease of lifestyle, and entitlements.  Again, Sparta is on one hand an extreme, and we largely live in another extreme, but I believe Gates of Fire can teach us something about ourselves and how to find a better balance.

Gates of Fire is an excellent book; it's one of the finest historical novels I have read in a long, long time.  It's brutal and bloody and not meant for readers who are uncomfortable with such violence.  Like some of the most memorable works of non-fiction relating to war and mankind's inveterate need to engage in it, I will not soon forget Gates of Fire, if at all. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Lone Survivor
Reflections: Heart of Darkness
Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris

Friday, September 4, 2015

Reflections: Temple and Cosmos

For Latter-day Saints, Hugh Nibley is a household name.  He was a prominent Mormon scholar for decades and is probably still the most well-known.  His writing and speeches are works of sometimes dizzying intellect.  I was very excited to read one volume of his collected works series, Temple and Cosmos.  After having been fairly underwhelmed by W. Cleon Skousen's The First Two Thousand Years, it was wonderful to read a book of both doctrinal and intellectual significance as interesting and provocative as Temple and Cosmos.

Of all Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice, there is perhaps none more mysterious and enigmatic to non-members and outside observers than our temple worship.  (This is also the case for some members of the Church who have not been able to experience the temple endowment and sealing yet or have and still find it all inscrutable).  Nibley's academic work on tracing the origins of the temple, not just Latter-day Saint temple worship but temple practices and rituals around the world and throughout all civilizations, provides a valuable perspective on how central it was and is to the human experience.  In many ways, reading Temple and Cosmos was very similar to reading Joseph Campbell's challenging but remarkable The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  There are commonalities between cultures, between peoples, between rituals that are so striking they cannot be ignored.  There are patterns on earth within the human experience which are continually being played out.  The tantalizing question is where the pattern originates from?  Nibley, while focusing on the central importance of the temple, attemps to answer that question with exhaustive research and references from ancient writings and evidences.  The academic work showcased within this one volume of his collection is staggering.

Therein lies one of the problems with a book like Temple and Cosmos.  These collected writings are culled from speeches, academic papers—some previously unpublished—which aren't exactly written for a lay audience.  Nibley's writing, much like his speaking, moves at a breakneck speed.  You've barely had a moment to digest a particularly interesting quotation or comment, and he has already thrown four more at you.  It's difficult to keep up.  In addition, with very little background in ancient cultures or civilizations, a reader like me can't actually compare a statement by Nibley with a contradictory statement by another scholar; I wouldn't even know where to look.  However, Nibley does a fine job, much better than Skousen ever thought of doing in The First Two Thousand Years, of presenting some opposing viewpoints.  It is true he mostly does this to create a springboard from which to disprove the statement; however, it's serviceable nonetheless.

Although this volume, which is the twelfth in the series, is titled Temple and Cosmos and mostly focuses on that topic, it does take some odd deviations.  (Of course this doesn't really have anything to do with Nibley since these are his collected works, which I'm assuming were put together without any direction from Nibley).  Having said that, some of those "deviation" chapters proved to be some of the most valuable.  Nibley's essay Does History and Religion Conflict is one of the finest I have ever read.  I consumed it ravenously and will forever consider it a high-water mark of academic commentary and critique.  Nibley, although steeped in academia, appears to have had a healthy distrust of it, which I can certainly appreciate (see my commentary Academic Humility).

Temple and Cosmos is wonderful.  From a Latter-day Saint perspective it is an unbelievably valuable addition to our personal libraries and to our understanding of the temple ordinances; in fact, for someone who has "gone through" (common Mormon vernacular) the temple, Temple and Cosmos may make you feel a tad bit uncomfortable at times as it describes in some detail ancient patterns of temple worship.  Those patterns and other details, as delineated in apocryphal writings, show why our scripture would describe the gospel as being "new and everlasting."  I will absolutely read Nibley's other volumes of collected works.  In regards to Temple and Cosmos, it is a significant and important academic achievement which Latter-day Saints should take special interest in.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The First Two Thousand Years
Brow Bruising Reads: The Hardest Book I have Ever Read
Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Being a Lousy Book Blogger

Most Book Bloggers, like any good aficionados of a particular entertainment industry, thrive on the cutting edge, the new releases, the newest and hottest craze, and the year's award winners.  I am not that Book Blogger.  I am behind the times; I lack insight and interest into the newest releases or the most promising new authors.  To be frank, my method of finding and reading books doesn't lend itself well to Book Blogging at all. 

A few years ago I went to Books-A-Million to pick up a copy of Divergent.  The film was coming out, and I was looking to increase traffic to my Blog.  I figured reading and reviewing Divergent could help drive a few more views.  (In reality it did just that; my review of Divergent is one of my more widely read posts).  I found Veronica Roth's book, put it under my arm, and began to casually peruse the rest of the store.  At that point I began to debate with myself.  Should I spend 10+ dollars on a young adult fiction book I don't really care about or pick up a book I feel would be more substantial and far more interesting?  I tried to remember why I was there.  Read and review a currently popular book to increase views on my Blog!  Simple mission.  Simple task.  I ended up walking out of the bookstore with Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  (As previously mentioned, I did eventually buy a copy of Divergent and gave it a scathing review; sometimes my first impressions are correct). 

Herein lies my problem.  I don't care that much about what is popular, what is "fresh."  I just want to find and read amazing books.  Often times that criterion doesn't align all that well with new and popular books.  I also don't care when the book was published.  I am prone to get just as excited about reading a book published twenty years ago as I am with a book published twenty days ago.  While attending Church several months ago, I came across a large box full of books that someone was giving away.  I searched through the books ravenously.  I picked out two books—From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman, published in 1989, and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, published in 1927.  I was as excited to get those books as I would have been if I had pre-ordered Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee and Amazon delivered it the day of its release.  This is exactly why I pay no attention to published date when I select my Best Books of the Year.  I don't care when they were published.  What matters to me is when I read them. 

In addition to a lack of concern for what's current or new, I also find myself gravitating to some books which may not have the largest audience or market penetration.  This is mostly done accidentally and not deliberately.  In other words, I don't go out of my way to be a contrarian.  My interests sometimes don't align with many others.  As many are reading the latest James Patterson book, I'm wading through Two Treatises on Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke.  I can't even keep my reading habits narrow enough to be a Science Fiction or Fantasy Book Blogger.  I like both genres, but I don't read either exclusively or even the majority of the time.  Just this last year, I went from reading The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien to reading The Lord's Way by Dallin H. Oaks.  Considering my goal of reading 1,000 books in my lifetime, it would be much easier to read mystery novel after mystery novel and admire my quickly rising Books I Have Read list total.  Yet, I have no interest in that.  I love variety—science fiction to American history, fantasy to social commentary, southern literature to biography.  All of this is great as an intellectual exercise, but it's not great for Book Blogging.

And so I read on and blog on.  I'm not a terribly great Blogger, but I can read with the best of them.  Although the books I'm interested in may not find happy homes on many bookshelves, I certainly know I have found some extraordinary books which may not have found an extraordinarily large audience.  And when it comes to my readers, I guarantee that at least a few times I'll be able to point you in the right direction.  The books may not be current, may not be the most widely read, but they'll absolutely be worth reading. 

Other Topics of Interest:
President's Message: Shake it Up
Thousander Must-Reads

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reflections: Beyond the Strandline

Beyond the Strandline is the pop culture version of Alas, Babylon.  Set in Florida, after the collapse of civilization as we know it, it's a story of normal people trying to survive in an extraordinary situation (at least from our current, modern perspective).  The book can be bleak at times but is never oppressive to read (I'm looking at you The Road!).  The young adult genre guides the book's narrative and characters into somewhat familiar and derivative territory, but it never feels cheap (I'm looking at you Divergent!).  This is a unique story with three-dimensional characters that live and breathe and it's a story worth experiencing. 

The book's setting is dangerous turf for authors who become too infatuated with their own fictional world.  Other books in this type of genre can become overly concerned with describing grid collapse and entertaining preppers and not telling a meaningful story or providing an emotional experience.  Beyond the Strandline begins, ends, and revolves around characters.  It certainly takes advantage of its setting by casually mentioning arcane facts about surviving the end of modern civilization, something all preppers could appreciate, but it never becomes the focus.  Once again, similar to the author's previous work, the exceptional Mooncalf, Florida, where the book is set, nearly becomes a character in itself.  Florida will forever be a magical place to set a story and Linda L. Zern takes full advantage of it here.  Anyone familiar with the geography and somewhat bizarre weather patterns of Florida will immediately and throughout the book recognize these unique characteristics.
Beyond the Strandline truly shines when the author slows down the narrative and lets her characters breath.  Whereas in so many other books in which motivations are taken for granted and characters are merely tools by which the author moves along the dictatorial plot (I'm looking at you One Second After!), Strandline insists on the reader feeling something for the people in its pages.  In some ways the characters in Strandline are its most derivative aspect; we have the elusive and battle-hardened alpha male—Richmond Parrish—and the audacious, somewhat erratic, but indomitable female protagonist—Tessla (Tess) Lane.  Yet, both of these characters have a back-story and depth other young adult fiction falters in providing to the reader.  Their inevitable romance, a seemingly indispensable attribute of young adult fiction, will no doubt bring grins and giggles to all of the female readers of the book.  The author appears to be just as comfortable and confident writing about electrical romantic sensations up and down legs and arms as she is about the more gruesome aspects of a post-civilization world.  The romance, in a very purposeful way, is one aspect of the book that keeps it from becoming too dire to enjoy. 

In fear of sounding trite, the book is certainly a page-turner.  Strandline opens with a truly compelling scene and more or else doesn't let up until the conclusion.  Admittedly, this is where the book falters some as more and more complications start to crop up—natural, human, and otherwise.  No doubt living in such a world would more than likely be one complication after another, but I felt a little whiplash as characters went from place to place to manage one crisis after another.  In the end, as aforementioned, the book's greatest strength is when it reminds you why you're reading—the characters.  That's the real reason why you want to get to the next page to see how they all fare in a dark and unforgiving world.

Beyond the Strandline, in the end, is good fun.  It's not so depressive or heavy-handed it's difficult to get through.  On the other hand, it doesn't shy away from what would be very real possibilities in a post-civilization world.  Perhaps what is most admirable about this book is that it fits as comfortably within the young adult fiction genre as Mooncalf did with its literary cousins.  It's a testament to Linda L. Zern's writing talent.  As would be expected, Beyond the Strandline ends with certain questions unanswered and with the reader hanging onto certain cliffs. I hope Strandline finds the audience it needs to compel the author to show us where all of her memorable characters end up.

*The Thousand Club received an advanced reading copy from the author.

Other Topics of Interest:
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah - Young Adult Fiction
Reflections: One Second After
Mooncalf: Book Trailer

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Reflections: The Forever War

It is not often that I struggle to find something to say about a book.  If it's great, I can give a list of reasons why.  If it's terrible, I can say why.  Even if a book is mediocre, I can share why I think that is the case.  The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, however, is so unmemorable and placid I'm really struggling to say much about it at all. 

The one element of the book I do want to make mention of is that the book's use of time and space travel was a unique way to emphasize the idea of a forever war.  As soldiers rocket across the universe they age more slowly than those on Earth; this leads to some interesting dynamics as soldiers try to re-acclimate to Earth-life, which is especially difficult because it might be 50-100 years after their initial departure instead of only a few years.  As a commentary on the Vietnam War, the book works fine.  Although, I would much sooner recommend The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien than I would The Forever War.  In addition to being a commentary on the Vietnam War, it also is a commentary on the army and military life.  But yet again, I would point to the ultimate commentary on the military, Catch-22, instead of The Forever War as the book which really has something to contribute.

As a work of science fiction, the book is fairly unremarkable in my opinion.  The writing, the world-building, it's all so consistently sterile and flat nothing left a lasting impression.  I don't dispute the creativity of the book or the considerable thought that must have gone into it; I just didn't find it interesting or meaningful enough to make a difference to the overall story-arc.  In a way the book is its own activity of attrition as you push yourself to finish the book while losing motivation after each page.

I didn't care for The Forever War, obviously.  It wasn't necessarily a bad book; it simply made no impression.  When reading books and experiencing stories, there is not much else I could say as a harsher criticism.  I didn't care; therefore, I won't remember. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Things They Carried
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Page-Turners: Black Hawk Down