Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 1

I've read some mammoth books, brow bruising as I have referred to them before.  Some books are just flat out long and others are difficult, sometimes they're both.  Recently I have decided to take on Richard L. Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling, which weighs in at 561 pages, not including the notes and bibliography, and has a quite few words on every page.  From the onset, the book appears detailed, thorough, and wholly fascinating.

I'm a Latter-day Saint; therefore, my interest in Joseph Smith is natural since my theology and faith is supported a great deal on what he did during his lifetime.  The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, which Joseph Smith claims to have translated by the gift and power of God, is the keystone of the denomination I belong to.  Joseph's "First Vision" signaled the ushering in of "the dispensation of the fulness of times" (Ephesians 1:10) and is akin to the celestial visions experienced by the great patriarchs and prophets chronicled in the Bible.  Above all, Joseph's first-hand witness of the Savior Jesus Christ provides clarity to biblical truths and assures a modern world that God isn't too far away after all.  In short, Joseph Smith has had and does have a profound impact on me as a human being.  So who was he?

I wanted to get a greater insight into Joseph when I read The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother.  Alas, I found little I didn't already know and very little in terms of genuine insight into Joseph's character and personality.  Furthermore, Lucy Mack Smith's history more often than not was a chronicle of her own life instead of Joseph's.  I longed for an intellectual and spiritual experience reminiscent of when I read James E. Talmage's masterful Jesus the Christ.  Jesus, who I knew and worshiped as my Savior, was never actually a person who walked, talked, ached, wept, and rejoiced until I read Jesus the Christ.  I'd like to have a similar experience reading Rough Stone Rolling

Although Latter-day Saints don't worship Joseph Smith, and are quite sensitive toward accusations that we do, we do have a certain reverence for him and the role he played in God's restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  That reverence, albeit appropriate, can make Joseph Smith feel distant, perhaps even untouchable.  I'd like to break down some of the barriers between myself and Joseph as a human being and get to know him as I would if he visited my home and shared dinner with my family.  It's a high expectation, and I have no idea if Rough Stone Rolling will be able to deliver on my hope, but I'm willing to spend the next several weeks, probably months, in pursuit of that hope. 

Considering how long the book is and how little time I have to read, I may post a few thoughts here on the Thousander Club blog to act as a public journal during my reading journey.  Again, I may have to spend a few months to get through Rough Stone Rolling, and I really, really hope it's worth the time. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother
Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture
Brow Bruising Reads: The Hardest Book I have Ever Read

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Reflections: First Meetings in Ender's Universe

Jumping back into the Ender universe is a little like going home.  First Meetings in the Ender Universe is the tenth book I have read in the series, and I still remain committed to reading each book Orson Scott Card has to offer from this universe.  The series itself has had its ups and downs, some great and some not so much, but I'm invested and interested enough to see the series to its end.  First Meetings is a fine addition to the overall series and provides some welcome depth to the universe.

First Meetings has several short stories, all entertaining and unique episodes, and the original Ender's Game novella, which Card eventually turned into his excellent and famous novel of the same name.  The novella is the oddest addition to this particular collection.  It's out of place, especially considering it spoils the key surprise of the novel.  Readers should be discouraged from reading First Meetings first since some of the stories take place before the original Ender's Game.  The novella is perfectly readable and actually acted as a great refresher on some of the core conflicts of the novel, but I would have preferred another unique short story in its place.

The short stories involving Ender's father, one of which describes the first introduction between Ender's father and mother, are nice little insights into how the International Fleet had been watching Ender's family even before he was born.  Ender's father proves to be an interesting character in his own right, and his mother could have used a short story of her own in this collection.  As is obvious from aspects of Ender's Game and the subsequent Shadow series, not to mention the chronicle of Ender and Valentine after Ender's Game, the story of Ender is also a story about his family.  First Meetings reinforces that story arc.

Lastly, there is a fun short story about Ender attempting to deal with the implications of paying taxes on investments and holdings which have been growing in size and complexity while he has been traversing the universe at near light-speed.  It starts off as an amusing, albeit unnecessary, episode until Card introduces the artificial intelligence Jane.  Readers of the Ender Quartet are very much aware of the profound impact Jane has on the Ender universe, and I thoroughly enjoyed her introduction and the genesis of her and Ender's friendship. 

First Meetings isn't exactly a must-read, but it was fun.  It's for the hard-core fans of the Ender universe.  I will say, however, that it did show me how a television show based on Card's characters and stories would work splendidly.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A War of Gifts: An Ender Story
Books to Movies: Ender's Game
Memorable Moments: Ender's Game - Terrible Reality

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Reflections: Contagious: Why Things Catch On

When it comes to the digital frontier and those "thinkers" who inhabit it, they all want to know how to get their idea noticed.  To be creator of a viral video, article, meme, or whatever else, is a badge of honor in the information age.  Jonah Berger claims in his book, Contagious, to have decoded the patterns and elements of what makes something viral.  He's got them all listed out, but is it convincing?

Answer: maybe.  Contagious does do more than other books with a similar theme, like Gladwell's The Tipping Point, by going beyond how something becomes viral to why something becomes viral.  Having dabbled with social media and trying to get an idea to take off (I do run an online book club after all), I have been as befuddled as many others as to why some posts are popular and others are duds.  Furthermore, there is a general fascination with viral content online.  (Sites like The Daily Beast track and list the most viral videos each week).  Jonah Berger's attempt to give definitive reasons for why something becomes viral is very ambitious, but I'm not particularly convinced he found any secret sauce.

Berger relies a lot on social research, which is difficult to get right and burdened with innumerable variables.  The book does a nice job of setting up each of his principles with a story and then provides evidence to support Berger's theories.  It's interesting enough to read and ponder, after all he may be right, but there was nothing in the book which led me to any kind of "Aha!" moment.  It was all pretty standard in its approach.

One nice thing about Berger's book is that it highlights very ordinary people who were able to create something, even if it was a video about preparing corn, that found an incredibly large audience.  It's a great reminder how small our world can really be.  It also illustrates how the internet has leveled the playing field in many ways.  There are internet celebrities, even if it was temporary, who gained exposure and attention that many corporations are willing to pay millions for.  We live in a fascinating age.

Contagious is readable, even enjoyable, but I didn't find anything in it that would give someone a perfect recipe for creating viral content.  In my mind, sometimes people just get lucky.  In a way, a little mystery is fun because then you truly never know if you'll become an internet celebrity. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reflections: The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October is one of my favorite films of all time.  It seemed reasonable that I would eventually read the source material.  Having never read a Tom Clancy book, I still had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into.  Thankfully, the book was entertaining, although lacking focus at times, and well worth the read.

One thing to keep in mind while reading a Tom Clancy book is that military jargon is to his books what romance is to young adult books.  It's a vital and integral part of the story; it's what makes the book a Tom Clancy book, which, in a way, has become a genre unto itself.  Clancy wants to immerse his reader in a world of CIA and KGB spies, Admirals and Generals, and Cold War tactics.  For the most part, it works quite well.  I am fascinated by the Cold War, and the book's focus on the distrust and military baiting back and forth between the United States and Soviet Union were especially entertaining.  Clancy's theoretical situation of a defecting Soviet submarine captain and his officers plays out extremely well.  The mystery, the hunt for the Red October, is why the story is so compelling; Clancy's playing off of the general Cold War mood and tension is an added bonus.

Having said that, the book does lose some of its focus as it attempts to bite off more than it can chew.  There is a sub-plot with a Senator, his aid, and KGB infiltration, which does very little to forward the story.  It was an unnecessary sidebar and shows a little too much eagerness on Clancy’s part to immerse his readers in the Cold War environment too far above the elbows.   

Clancy uses The Hunt for Red October to introduce his audience to Jack Ryan, who will become his most well-known fictional character.  I was somewhat surprised at how little Ryan is involved during the middle of the book.  He plays a huge role at the beginning and a somewhat ancillary role at the end, but his involvement is almost totally non-existent during the story's rising action.  He's a strong enough character and acts as a good reflection for readers since he's more of a layman and fish out of water (pun unintended) than the other characters in the book.  True, he's a part of the CIA but only as an analyst.  He, like any one of us, feels appropriately terrified to be on a submarine, even navigating it, and simply wants the nightmare to end.  He's a likeable character, especially as a family man wanting to get home before Christmas, and has a sufficient introduction in Red October

I very much enjoyed The Hunt for Red October.  About half-way through the book I wasn't sure if I would ever go back to the Clancy well; however, now that I've read Red October, I could see myself returning to read another of Ryan's adventures.  There are aspects of the book which I waded through rather than enjoyed, such as the military jargon, but, at least in Red October, it was off-set enough by characters I liked and tensions I wanted to see resolved. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris
Reflections: The Rising Tide
Reflections: Gods and Generals

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mooncalf: Inspirations and Recollections

On December 2, 2013, I posted my review of Linda L. Zern's Mooncalf.  It was one of the best books I read in 2013, and I was happy to help the author put together this short video.  Linda L. Zern shares some thoughts on how her elementary school became a large inspiration for Mooncalf and recollects some of her memories from that school.

Finally, the author offers some advice to her children and grandchildren and by extension to all of us.  Mooncalf is still one of the finest books I've read, and I highly recommend it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2013: Fiction
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah - Young Adult Fiction