Monday, May 18, 2015

Reflections: 1776


1776's greatest value is in its focus.  Instead of attempting to cover the whole of the American Revolutionary War, David McCullough focuses instead on one pivotal year, 1776, with some minor establishing elements from 1775 and some lead-out elements from 1777.  In the annals of American history, 1776 is remembered for the writing and publishing of the Declaration of Independence, a monumental document which has had an impact on the entire human race.  Yet, as with all of history, there is always a different perspective, sometimes less celebratory and often times a lot harsher.  1776 is an intriguing look at the struggle connected with American independence and shows just how dire the chances for the new nation's survival truly was.

1776 is very accessible, albeit lacking much memorable prose from the author.  The real luminaries are the incredible figures who were involved in America's war for independence, such as George Washington and his trusted and not so trusted associates.   1776 provides not only a glimpse into the character of these human beings but into the characteristics of human nature.  As with most things, the truth is far more complicated than we're usually able to examine and digest with our limited attention.  America's first standing army boasted true heroes and patriots but also was afflicted with cowardice, disobedience, and depravity, to say nothing of its material lackings, which were many and debilitating.  All of this makes the accomplishments of the Continental Army and its green leaders so much more staggering when viewed in full historical context.

I really enjoyed 1776's very limited examination of America's founding.  Often times books of history attempt to provide a scope of information so large it becomes oppressive from a reader's perspective.  There are so many places, so many names, so many documents, so many twists of fate, it's impossible to truly follow it all without dedicating a level of attention many readers simply don't have.  At the same time, this is not a 1776 for Dummies book nor does it attempt to diminish its subjects simply to achieve brevity for brevity's sake.  There is plenty here.  Yet, it doesn't try to explore the debate surrounding the Declaration of Independence while at the same time delineating military strategy, choice, and consequence.  This book is largely about military events and leaves the in-depth exploration of political events to other books and other authors.  In the case of 1776, this works wonderfully.

As already mentioned, McCullough's writing is perfectly adequate; it does lack, however, a distinctive voice.  His writing is slightly too utilitarian and doesn't have enough pathos.  As important as it is to show history as clearly and unfiltered as possible, these were real people whose story is extraordinary, and they could use an extraordinary storyteller.  I have read some incredible non-fiction books, some of which rival literary efforts to impress feelings upon the reader, and David McCullough doesn't have that spark.  I'm sure its expertly researched and it's clearly an excellent work of history, but it's a history somewhat devoid of real humanity. 

A mark of a great history book is that it not only provides an education on the subject matter at hand but also whets the appetite of the reader to further explore the personalities and events it examines.  In this case, 1776 helped me remember, yet again, why I love so dearly American history.  I feel a distinct affinity for our American forefathers and founding fathers (as well as our foremothers and founding mothers) and want to know more about them and the lives they lived.  1776 provided an intriguing and engaging look at a very specific point in time of America's history.  Although I was somewhat underwhelmed by its prose, 1776 certainly earned its place on my growing list of books relating to the history of the United States of America.


Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Reflections: Abigail and John: A Portrait of a Marriage
What Every American Should Read

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Reflections: The Lord's Way

Any member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would benefit greatly by reading Elder Dallin H. Oaks's The Lord's Way; however, those that would benefit the most, in my opinion, are any who have positions of leaderships, especially priesthood leadership.  The Lord's Way is exactly what I want in a book which examines intellectual, and in this case spiritual, topics and difficult issues.  Oaks's method of compare and contrast between the world's modus operandi and the Lord's is truly enlightening and edifying. 

It is a flaw with some "Church" books that they fall into the trap of merely regurgitating information and quoting a lot of scriptures in an attempt to appear spiritual and insightful from a gospel perspective.  The Lord's Way does it exactly right.  It is filled with scriptural references, but those references are used to provide a foundation from which to discuss the issues and topics at hand.  They're not merely trying to fill pages or feign spiritual authority.  Elder Oaks has done plenty of his own thinking with this book and has plenty to say based on his own experience and his own conclusions.  (He includes an obligatory disclaimer that the book "is a personal expression and is not an official statement of the doctrines or procedures" of the LDS Church; his opinions, however, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, are certainly worth more weight than most).

One of the most worthwhile aspects of The Lord's Way is that the book deals with little discussed topics.  For example, not many members of the LDS Church have ever had a conversation regarding when it is appropriate to participate in litigation, especially when taking into consideration gospel standards.  Elder Oaks also deals with Church discipline, contention, criticism (especially of Church leadership), reason and faith, miracles and science, and general principles of welfare.  His analysis of the contrast existing between the world's view and the Lord's view is superb.  (His legal background was no doubt a great boon to him during the writing process).  His method and presentation of the material is why this book is so valuable and so educational.  I love works of comparison because I believe we can learn a great deal from contrast.  This was the case in Thomas Sowell's masterful A Conflict of Visions, and it's the case with The Lord's Way

I would recommend The Lord's Way to any member of the LDS Church looking to expand their understanding of the Lord's worldview and how the gospel intersects with real world situations which can be terribly difficult to disentangle from a moral perspective.  It has been said and will be said again that the end justifies the means.  In other words, the way something is done may not matter as much as the outcome that it provides.  The Lord's Way is a compelling refutation of that standard or lack thereof.  It's an excellent book.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture
Reflections: Rough Stone Rolling
What Every High School Student Should Read but Probably Doesn't

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Reflections: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring has been on my reading list for years.  Like many others, I greatly enjoyed The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.  (As a side note, I saw The Return of the King in the theater five times).  I have been less enamored of the film adaptation(s) of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, but I haven't lost any of my love of the original trilogy.  I'm glad to have started on my own personal journey to read Tolkien's source material.

If you talk to just about anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings books they will all tell you how much they enjoyed the books and how dense and difficult they are.  It's a huge barrier of entry for many readers, myself included, to explore Tolkien's world.  It becomes very, very apparent very, very early on in the reading of The Fellowship that Tolkien loves the world he has created; its detail is entirely unmatched by any other fantasy book I have read thus far.  It can also be totally superfluous to the story, which at times nearly brings the story to a grinding and unwelcome halt.  I found myself intrigued by this fantastical world Tolkien had created with all of its geographic locations, historic monuments and events, and ages of time.  It's overwhelming, and that's not always a good thing.  Although I was intrigued with Tolkien's detailed world, whenever Tolkien did wander back to his story I remembered why I was actually reading the book.

The story itself is a grand, albeit simple, adventure.  It's a basic but bold story of good and evil.  When the story was flowing I was enthralled and entertained.  Having watched the films, it was a fun exercise to identify all of the areas and elements that were changed for the film adaptation.  (Most of them, quite frankly, were desperately needed; perhaps more on that later).  Tolkien's dialogue feels flat but can often be profound.  Most of his characters are in desperate need of timetime to speak, act, and generally be characters.  With the amount of walking and waiting that goes on in the story, you would think Tolkien could have taken more advantage of the time he insists you spend with the characters to actually tell you more about them or better yet show you who they are.  Instead, we’re left with brief encounters and brief explanations of motivations.  It leaves characters that should be three-dimensional stuck in a somewhat two-dimensional frame. 

The Fellowship of the Ring, along with the other books in the series, must be recognized for their contribution to literature and book genres in general.  Tolkien created a living, breathing place, even if his characters don't do as much of those two things as they should.  While reading about these magical places, I wanted to go to those places.  An author can't accomplish a feeling like that without providing a commensurate amount of detail.  However, there is a balance in setting a scene, creating a world, and telling a story.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien falters on the storytelling tight-rope. 

I will finish The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring, but I wanted to love it.  I enjoy the Fantasy genre and feel it's only right to pay my dues to the monumental books that created it.  Thus far, the story has been worth experiencing even if it sometimes feels like Tolkien's secondary concern.

Other Topics of Interest:
Adaptation, Please: Mistborn
Reflections: The Hero of Ages
Reading Goals for 2014

Saturday, April 18, 2015

In Defense of Sad Endings

Author Linda L. Zern shares some passionate thoughts in defense of sad endings:

"I wrote a book with a hard ending.

Mooncalf is a work of historical fiction for middle grades. It is set in the mid-60’s, halfway between the assassination of President Kennedy and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. America was racing the Russians to the moon. Skirts were short; hair was long. Schools in Seminole county, Florida, were still segregated.

After reading Mooncalf, one reader told me, 'I liked Olympia and Leah so much. I just wanted them to go off in the orange grove and start a babysitter’s club.'

Spoiler alert: That’s not how it ends.

Comments from readers have included:

'I cried.'

'I was so angry.'

'I was crushed. You warned me, and I was still crushed.'

'Shocking.'

'It didn’t have to end that way.'

One young woman refused to read the book, having heard that it had a sad ending. She doesn’t do sad endings.

As an author, I sometimes wonder if I should have softened the blow, written a happier ending, given the readers a way to dream away the reality, but then I listened again to my readers. Tears. Anger. Shock.

I knew then that it was exactly as it should be.

In the world of my childhood, little girls of different colors did not go off and organize inter-racial glee clubs. We learned the hateful lessons our adults taught us and we cried."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mooncalf
Mooncalf: Book Trailer
Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Reflections: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is a masterful work of non-fiction exactly because it intersects so movingly with works of fiction.  If the book were written as a standard autobiography it more than likely would have focused on names, dates, and strictly adhered to a rigid chronology.  Reading Lolita in Tehran, however, is not a standard work of non-fiction; it crisscrosses several genres, and in so doing places itself apart from other works of non-fiction as a memorable, personal, and moving book. 

The element which makes Reading Lolita in Tehran so unique, its literary criticism and exploration, is also the element which threatens to make it the most inaccessible to readers.  Nafisi's commentaries on Nabokov, James, Austen, among others, are thoughtful and at times esoteric, at least for the non-literary crowd.  I haven't read Nabokov, which actually was a barrier of entry for me to actually pick up Nafisi's book.  There were only a few pages in the book in which I felt like an uninvited guest, as if I had stumbled into a literature class and had no idea what everyone was talking about.  The feeling evaporated quickly, though.  Luckily, Nafisi spends a lot more time weaving the ideas of her favorite literature into a social commentary of living in the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Reading Lolita in Tehran is gripping.  It's so hard for me to visualize a place which is so oppressive, especially in regards to some of the smallest and most petty behaviors--a strand of hair out of place, painted fingernails, pink socks.  It's unfathomable living in a society which in many ways flaunts sexuality.  The insights gained from reading this book are priceless.  It's hard to not see people in a nation as one homogeneous group.  Reading this book gives the reader a perspective on individuals rather than on national or global events, although there are some allusions to them but it's always in the context of what it does to individuals; what is it like to be a woman in Iran?  What does frustration look like for them?  What are their passions and interests?  And how are they suppressed both by the regime and by their own complicit actions?  The book offers glimpses and reflections that are both inspiring and disheartening.

When I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan I kept thinking to myself: "Why would anyone stay there?  Why not pack up your things, your family, and your pride and leave?"  Reading Lolita in Tehran is another testament to the power of the idea of home.  Even with the nearly unendurable hardships faced by people in Iran, most of them stay.  They want to reform their home if it's broken, not abandon it.  Deciding to leave an oppressive State may not be as easy as we would like to believe.  There is a loyalty which seems to grow in people for their homeland, hometown, whatever.  This hearkens back to the importance of fiction and literature so as to understand places that are not your homeland and people who are not a part of your tribe.  The small group of women who were a part of Nafisi's reading group show how fiction can impact the heart and the mind but may or may not motivate the feet. 

I enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran as much for its commentaries on fiction and literature as I did for its commentary on the Islamic Republic of Iran.  There are dark places and dark people in the world we hope we only have to visit and meet in fiction, but there are a lot of people who live and try to thrive in a world which should be fictional, at least from my sheltered perspective, where the great debates of humanity are the most brutal and bloody.  (Azar Nafisi's book is also a great reminder that freedom can be lost anywhere regardless of a nation’s current strength, past successes, or its longitude or latitude).  I would classify Reading Lolita in Tehran as a sticky book; in other words, the subject matter, the experiences, and the words stick with you; they linger with you and inevitably affect you.  They certainly did me. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Why I Read
3 Reasons Why We Need & Love Stories
3 Rules of Book Etiquette