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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Personal growth and development books always strive to be their own type of scripture.  Normally there is some kind of comment from the author at the beginning of their book which advises the readers they need to make a consistent study of the book and return to it again and again.  I've never done this.  I'm not sure how many people do.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is superior to other personal growth books, but it still falls into the same traps and tropes, and I won't be returning to it again and again as Mr. Covey would have liked.

The most unique aspect of 7 Habits is that it pulls so heavily from the religious faith of its author.  As a Latter-day Saint, it wasn't difficult to identify the doctrinal influences which were informing Stephen R. Covey's conclusions.  In fact, sometimes the book acts as a barely veiled reiteration of Latter-day Saint doctrine.  I was impressed by this because I know how much Latter-day Saint doctrine has to offer and how valuable it can be in guiding a life.  Mr. Covey is certainly not coy about his beliefs, and I respect him for that.

What this focus on belief leads to is a book that is centered mostly on principle and values rather than techniques and tricks.  I enjoyed this aspect of the book the most.  I believe in a certain moral ecology and Mr. Covey posits his theories of human behavior and relationships within that kind of a framework.  I found his advice, therefore, much more salient and meaningful than I would have otherwise.  It's a viewpoint not widely shared today, but I nonetheless believe it's true.

The problem with 7 Habits is the same as most other personal growth books.  It's bloated and too long.  If the book had been 200 pages I think it could have been as close to perfect as a personal development book can get; however, weighing in at 319 pages, the book becomes bogged down in its own love for lists, paradigms, and diagrams.  A reader simply won't remember much of it.  This is why authors of these types of books encourage their readers to return to a study of their words again and again, but I'm just not going to do that.  In consequence, the book loses some of its value as it attempts to provide more and more of it by filling its pages with insights, theories, and methods.

I enjoyed 7 Habits for what it is.  It's one of the better personal development books, and a staple of the genre.  It has been read by millions of people, and it does deserve a wide audience.  Yet, in the end, it feels a lot like a lot of the other personal development books, and I've never been much of a fan of those kinds of books.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Wisdom of Teams
Reflections: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reflections: Their Eyes Were Watching God

For the most part, I have very positive feelings toward Southern Literature.  Books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Mooncalf are some of my absolute favorites.  When I began reading Their Eyes Were Watching God I assumed it would be similar to other Southern Literature books like To Kill a Mockingbird, which focuses on larger social issues like racism and justice.  However, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a very different book with a very familiar setting and tone.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is about Janie Crawford.  She is a fully realized, complicated, and human character.  She is one of the better characters I have come across in some time.  Throughout the book's pages, there is a genuine story arc for Janie.  She progresses, has flaws, strengths, and is a different person at the end of the book than from who she was at the beginning of the book.  When so many characters in other books are so flat, Janie Crawford is a fine example of a fine fictional character.

In addition to Janie, Their Eyes Were Watching God is filled with memorable and fully realized characters.  Although the secondary characters don't have the same kind of story arc that Janie does, a reader would find it difficult to identify any character in the book which does not serve a valuable purpose.  Tea Cake, for example, is an exceptionally written character.  Hurston forces the reader to feel the uncertainty and doubt that Janie does.  For a short time in the book, the reader is not entirely sure of Tea Cake's motives nor his loyalties.  It was the best of mysteries, if it can be called that, which once answered, is fulfilling and heartbreaking when taken into context with the end of the book.

The one significant flaw I think the book does have is its inconsistency of themes, namely that of God and his role in our lives.  The book dances around the question, but never fully embraces it or examines it.  It's a passing thought, which is all the more ironic since the name of the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, suggests a deeper examination of the question.  The reader won't find that examination here.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a beautifully written and deeply saddening story.  From a character study perspective, it's superb.  I consider it unique among the Southern Literature books I have read because it doesn't focus on the themes and social issues one would expect.  Rather, it focuses on one woman, who she is and who she wants to be.  I enjoyed reading about Janie Crawford, and Zora Neale Hurston deserves the credit she has received for creating such a vibrant and real character.

Other Topics of Interest:
Her Name is Scout
Reflections: Mooncalf
Reflections: The Prince of Frogtown

Monday, May 26, 2014

Reflections: Too Big to Know

Ever since reading a A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell, I have had a fascination with why and how people can disagree so vehemently about issues.  The world is a complicated place, sure, but how is it that with all of our knowledge, all of our data, and all of our analysis, we can still come to so disparate conclusions?  David Weinberger's Too Big to Know provides some fascinating insights into this phenomenon and into others.  His book is well written, informative, and probably quite prescient.

The main thrust of the book is a discussion about how the very nature of knowledge is changing.  We don't have our "guardians" of knowledge like we used to.  Experts aren't the experts of yesteryear anymore.  Libraries and librarians don't fulfill the same role they used to.  The foundations of what we considered knowledge or truth is being eroded if not totally replaced by something far more squishier in its definition and application.  Knowledge, like data and information, due to the internet, has been democratized.  So what does that mean for us?  Are we smarter now because we have so much more?  Or are we dumber because we don't know how to manage this new frontier of information?  Such questions, along with other incredibly tantalizing ones, are posited and discussed in Too Big to Know.  It's a great book to discuss since it provides such meaty material.

The book's brevity is a great asset since it effectively avoids too much repetition and belaboring of any one point.  It's very readable, very interesting, and well worth any reader's time who has any interest at all about how societies manage knowledge and determine truth.  Perhaps one of the ironies of the book is that any conclusions it does come to is immediately thrown into question based simply on the title of the book.  One additional topic the book could have benefited from was discussing the problem of determining what knowledge is the most valuable to know, if we can.  It's a little too pessimistic to say the world is too complicated to ever know what we need to when one can make educated, reasonable, and informed decisions on what to learn and what not to. 

I highly recommend Too Big to Know.  The book outlines some wonderfully complicated problems while making them enjoyable enough to ponder without making the reader feel forlorn.  I credit David Weinberger for bringing such an important issue into the public square of debate in such a positive and interesting way.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A Conflict of Visions
What You Don't Know is the Reason

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reflections: The Worst Hard Time

I love history.  Reading about the events and people of the past is almost always stimulating, enlightening, and enjoyable.  Sometimes, however, it's terrifying.  The Worst Hard Time, the 2006 National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction, tells the story of the Dust Bowl and those who stayed behind in a broken land.

Timothy Egan, the book's author, focuses on the people who were the most directly affected by the Dust Bowl but also on the causes of it.  You'll find the normal problems associated with American western expansion, such as Native American expulsion, but you'll also find an interesting conflict between ranchers and farmers, misplaced government incentive, and dubious claims from investment seeking, over-eager real estate agents.  But it's the people who came to parts of Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska that deserve our greatest attention for their story is the most interesting and the most horrific.

Egan does a fine job of expressing the desperation that farmers felt during the Dust Bowl.  True, unrestrained and undisciplined agriculture led to the most punishing effects of the Dust Bowl, but that doesn't make the people's suffering any less painful.  The Worst Hard Time is a hard book to read at times.  It's an unblinking magnification of the worst aspects of the Dust Bowl.  Combining its impact with the terrible consequences of the Great Depression, one can't help but wonder how anyone survived it at all or even why they would want to.  It's also a testament to how resilient people can be and how attached they can become to the place they call home, even when home is a nightmare.

The Worst Hard Time is a book to give you nightmares; at least, it did for me.  The Great Depression was bad enough, but the farmers and ranchers of the mid-west not only fought against the effects of an economic disaster but also a natural one.  It's a truly harrowing story.  I'll never forget the book or the story it tells."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Lessons of History
Reflections: The Prince of Frogtown
Her Name is Scout