Saturday, March 28, 2015

Reflections: Ender in Exile


Orson Scott Card has a good gig.  He has been writing about the same characters and essentially the same conflicts for decades.  Although some authors may tire of spending so much time in the same setting and with some of the same characters, Card seems to be perfectly content and is willing to explore the most obtuse and banal motivations and circumstances his characters can experience.  And me?  Yeah, I'm okay with it too.

In my reflection of the last book I read in the Enderverse, which was First Meetings, I wrote: "Jumping back into the Ender universe is a little like going home."  I still stand by that having read Ender in Exile.  Yet, a book like Ender in Exile, in my opinion, doesn't really have any need to exist.  Card insists in his afterward that the book was needed to tell the story of the soldier, Ender Wiggin, after the war.  Ender's struggles in this book, however, aren't that much different from his struggles in other books.  Furthermore, Card sets up some fairly bland conflicts.  Fumbling Admiral Morgan barely represents a threat to Ender and the entire duel of wits lacks any real sense of suspense.  In addition, the majority of the book surrounds that stand-off; it's a lot of wasted time.  Ender in Exile probably would have been better served as loosely connected short stories which deals with some of the key events, to wit: Admiral Morgan, reaching the colony, discovering the Formic's message, and Bean and Petra's lost son.  A few of the characters, such as Alessandro or Dorabella Toscano, don't really have any reason to exist.

Card's signature psychology and historical commentary is on display here.  From a science fiction standpoint, there are some interesting things to be found.  I was especially intrigued by the exploration of the idea of colonizing new worlds and all that it means for the generations of human beings involved.  Card, being a student of history, doesn't treat these ideas flippantly, and I appreciate the thought and reasonable conjecture he instils into this book.  (It was from an afterward that Card wrote that I learned about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel; agree or disagree with Card, he is working with established ideas and projecting them into the future).  Like in other Ender books, the constant psycho-analysis between characters can become tiresome, but it's a well-established theme throughout each of the Ender books. 

In the final analysis, I liked Ender in Exile fine, but it's not a particularly strong addition to the canon.  This is now the 11th book I have read in this series, and I have a few more to look forward to.  And I do look forward to them for whatever unexplainable reasonable.  With so many books and so many authors in the wild to enjoy, I'm not exactly sure why I keep coming back to the Ender well.  Regardless of whether I figure it out or not, I'll be back to take another drink and more than likely enjoy the taste just fine.

Other Topics of Interest:
Memorable Moments: Ender's Game - Terrible Reality
Reflections: First Meetings in Ender's Universe
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Reflections: Steve Jobs

One of the things Steve Jobs is known for is his piercing stare.  As a young man he fine-tuned and perfected the ability to stare at someone without blinking as a way to intimidate them into doing what he wanted.  (The cover of Steve Jobs's biography has a portrait of Jobs with what appears to be that glare, and if you really focus on it you may get a small glimpse of what that stare must have felt like in person).  That odd trait also illustrates the incredible focus Jobs had as a visionary and businessman.  He was indeed brilliant and shepherded new products that have had an incredible impact on the entire planet, but he was also a bulldozer who trampled those around him to achieve his goals.  Reading about the life of Steve Jobs will both leave you in awe and with a bad taste in your mouth.

Steve Jobs the biography is the best business book I've ever read.  I have tried on several occasions to read business-oriented books, such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Wisdom of Teams, and Who Moved My Cheese?, and have always walked away feeling somewhat disappointed.  Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs, however, puts on display a business leader who showcases some of the best business acumen ever known, as well as someone who was a nightmarish manager who prided himself on having no filter.  He was the embodiment of unrestrained honesty.  He saw the world in binary terms.  Products and people were either brilliant or sucked.  (Steve Jobs often used more colorful language).  It's incredible how much there is to discuss and debate in this book.  It should be required reading for anyone wanting to learn about business, marketing, and consumer products.  Furthermore, Steve Jobs the biography provides a wonderfully intimate and honest glimpse into the world of corporate CEOs.

As much as we can justifiably admire Steve Jobs for his contributions to the human experience, we are also faced with his glaring frailties and weaknesses.  Steve Jobs the biography appears to be a honest rehearsal of who the man really was, warts and all.  (I appreciate this because I have read other biographies that appear to be far too sanitized and subsequently lose sight of what makes their subject interesting).  He could be incredibly cruel to people, including his own family.  He was inconsiderate and brutal in his evaluations of others; yet, he also drove people to accomplish things even they didn't believe they could.  That was part of his genius.  Some of those who worked for and with him came to appreciate and value that.  Others were just left behind.  Perhaps just like the people who associated with him, I found myself both loving and loathing Steve Jobs, sometimes from one page to the next.  He's worthy of admiration in some ways, and unworthy of imitation in other ways. 

Steve Jobs the biography caused me more reflection of my own life and contribution than perhaps any other book in years.  Especially as Steve Jobs gets close to the end of his life, he, as well as the reader, begins to ponder about their legacy, what they're leaving behind, and what's most important.  The book causes introspection, self-evaluation, and probably some self-correction.  This was one of the best biographies I've ever read.

This is a great book.  It's compelling, fascinating, and, at least for me, motivational in a way I was not expecting.  One can learn a great deal from Steve Jobs's life, as much about what to do as what not to do.  And if you can learn from that, then Steve Jobs's impact in your life will extend beyond the consumer products he helped design, create, and make a part of our every day life and experience.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Reflections: Too Big To Know
Thousander Must-Reads

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reflections: The Westing Game

The Westing Game is a wonderful book if you're intrigued by mysteries, especially those of the less bloody or violent kind. I enjoyed The Westing Game in a superficial way and was perfectly content in allowing it to take me along on a topsy-turvy and unique adventure and spend it with some equally unique characters. Yet, in the end, I didn't exactly understand the point of The Westing Game and, frankly, why it, both the titular game and the book itself, exists.

To begin with, Ellen Raskin should be commended for the characters she has created in this book. They are all far more developed, in small and memorable ways, than many characters in other books ever are, even with a great deal more time to be developed. I remembered the characters, which is a signature accomplishment. (Although, I will say that reading The Westing Game in only a few sittings is probably the best option since it could be very easy to lose track of events after a moderate lapse of time). As wonderfully distinct as the characters are, some of their motivations seemed a little suspect to me by the end of the book.

I liked The Westing Game far more than I didn't; however, it has, in my opinion, a singular flaw. I don't know why the game itself exists. It's a fun ride, but is that the main reason? The book dances around a possible reason for the game, but the game seems so elaborate and so complex that I couldn't help but think there was an easier way to accomplish it. Why the secrecy? Why the MacGuffins and distractions? The book is intended for a younger audience which may not care nearly as much as I about such an element, but it nevertheless left me puzzled. (Perhaps that's the point?).

I think aspiring mystery writers could learn a thing or two from The Westing Game. It leaves an effective path of bread crumbs which eventually culminates into a reveal that isn't earth-shattering but isn't obnoxious either. To use a trite phrase, The Westing Game is good, clean fun, even if the fun doesn't have much point outside of itself.

The Westing Game won the Newbery Medal in 1979.

Other Topics of Interest:
Thousander Must-Reads Vol. 2
What Should a 9th Grader Read?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mooncalf: Book Trailer

I have championed Linda L. Zern's Mooncalf in the past, both in my review and listing it as one of my favorite books I read in 2013.  Here is an except from my original review: "I can't help but compare Mooncalf to To Kill a Mockingbird.  The setting, its message, its mood, and its characters all lend themselves to that comparison, and it's a fine comparison to make.  Harper Lee told a great story and so has Linda L. Zern.  Mooncalf should be read.  It's one of the best books I've read this year and most certainly one of the most memorable I've ever read.  I wouldn't miss the chance to enjoy it, learn from it, and have your heart broken by it."  Check out the book trailer below, which was put together by Nathan Schmoe.





Mooncalf Book Trailer from Nathan Schmoe on Vimeo.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mooncalf
Mooncalf: Inspirations and Recollections
Best Books of 2013

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reflections: Lone Survivor

There are only a handful of books like Lone Survivor in existence.  The reason for this is very simple; there aren't many human beings on this planet who experience something like Marcus Luttrell did and then are able to live to tell the tale.  Lone Survivor, like other true accounts of war and bloodshed, can sometimes only be described as stranger than fiction.  The book is at different times completely and totally heartbreaking as well as triumphant.  This is a book not to be missed.

A book like Lone Survivor cannot avoid comparisons to Mark Bowden's masterpiece Black Hawk Down.  I admit I wanted a book as riveting and emotionally engaging as Black Hawn Down when I started reading Lone Survivor.  Yet, they have different stories to tell.  Luttrell, even with the help of Patrick Robinson, is not as powerful a writer as Mark Bowden, which is not surprising when you consider Bowden's career as opposed to Luttrell’s, but Marcus just might be more raw.  Luttrell unabashedly makes commentaries on the liberal media, rules of engagement, the injustices of war, and pandering politicians.  Lone Survivor reads more like a journal than Black Hawk Down.  In the case of both books, however, I could not stop reading.

One of the events in Lone Survivor which sets it apart from other accounts of war is the gut-wrenchingly difficult moral question which is presented to Marcus and his SEAL team members when they are mistakenly discovered by Afghan goat-herders.  To let the goat-herders go, who are not particularly friendly but are certainly not armed, could mean their informing a small army of Taliban or al Qaeda operatives of the SEAL's location.  To kill them, and thereby protect themselves from unwanted discovery, brings with it the obvious moral implications, as well as the legal ramifications of the Western world.  The debate and subsequent decision is totally gripping.  It's an almost unthinkable situation which no doubt gives most of pause as we attempt to wrestle with questions regarding the definition of murder, self-preservation, and the protection of others.  With the decision made, Lone Survivor becomes an account of an incredible battle between four highly trained Navy SEALs and an opposing force many times their size.  It is gripping, shocking, unbelievable, and, in the end, terribly heartbreaking. 

Perhaps above all things, Lone Survivor reveals a breed of person that is unique and, quite frankly, awe-inspiring.  The individuals who become Navy SEALs are staggering in their persistence, dedication, focus, and loyalty.  Marcus's detailed explanation of Navy SEAL training, although it drags on too long, is a glimpse into a world most of us will never understand.  There are rough men, who go to rough places, and who do rough things, sometimes terrible things, but stand between the most violent forces and people in the world and the rest of us.  Lone Survivor proves the world can be a violent, terrible place, but also that there are good people that live in it. 

Lone Survivor is a book that really shouldn't be missed.  It's most lingering element is the moral dilemma at the heart of the book, but the re-telling of the consequences of that decision are no less inspiring or heartbreaking; in fact, the book brought me to tears.  Although Marcus's prose proves he isn't as adroit as Bowden as a writer, but his indomitable personality, humor, and honesty are on full display.  Lone Survivor will stay with me for a long, long time, if not forever, and perhaps in that way Marcus Luttrell, nor his beloved comrades, will never be left alone again.

Other Topics of Interest:
Page-Turners: Black Hawk Down
Memorable Moments: Heart of Darkness - 'The horror! The horror!