Saturday, November 29, 2014

Reading Goals for 2014: A Review

So how did I do with my reading goals in 2014?  Unfortunately, not great.  I fell into somewhat of a slump this year with my reading.  My reading goal each year is 24 books.  As it stands now, I have read 349 books and will more than likely only be able to add one, maybe two, books to that count by the end of this year.  The news isn't all bad, however, and here's why.

I read some hefty books this year.  Richard L. Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling was a weighty thing and ended up being a fine, fine read, not to mention a candidate for my best non-fiction book of the year.  I also read the Apocrypha, which certainly isn't as long as the Bible but is written with the same bygone prose which can be cumbersome to read and difficult to comprehend.  I also read Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage, which is no slouch of a book in terms of its length and detail.  From a non-fiction perspective, it was a pretty good year.  In fact, it was a great year.  Too Big to Know and Manning Up are also non-fiction of the year contenders, and I look forward to debating with myself about which one deserves the prize.  I didn't read some of the non-fiction I was hoping to get to, like Nudge or The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but the ones I read certainly weren't a waste of time.

On the fiction front it was a so-so year.  I did read Their Eyes Were Watching God, which had been on my list for years; I also specifically mentioned it in my Reading Goals for 2014 last year.  It was an excellent book with an unforgettable central character, and I gave it high praises in my reflectionA Canticle for Leibowitz was a truly remarkable book I read this year, and it gained a spot on the Thousander Must-Read list, a signal honor.  I can only imagine it will claim the best fiction book I read this year.  Separate from those books, there wasn't much fiction that really moved me.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I was very eager and interested to read, was enjoyable and creative but not a personally memorable experience.  Life of Pi had its virtues but also fell into the ever-expanding category of "Not Bad, but Not Great."  There were some others, but all-in-all it was somewhat of a sparse year in unforgettable fictional experiences.

It was a good but not a great year for my reading.  Coming under my yearly goal of twenty-four books is particularly disappointing.  I do have to remind myself I started a second job as an
Online Instructor as well so that cuts down on my spare reading time.  Yet, it's more of a time management problem than it is of not having time.  Here's hoping 2015 will be better or even great.  Maybe I'll finally read The Fellowship of the Ring?

Other Topics of Interest:
Reading Goals for 2014
Best Books of 2013: Fiction
Best Books of 2013: Non-fiction

Friday, November 21, 2014

Reflections: Mass Effect: Revelation

I have tried reading books based on popular video game series before, including World of Warcraft: Tides of Darkness by Aaron Rosenberg and Starcraft: Liberty's Crusade by Jeff Grubb.  Both books were very poor.  They're more concerned about maintaining a fast pace than developing characters and providing action set pieces than intriguing plot.  It really is a shame because both of those books come from mythologies which are robust and interesting.  I wasn't expecting A Canticle for Leibowitz when I read either one, but I was hopeful they wouldn't be written strictly for an audience which just hit puberty.  When I finally decided to read Mass Effect: Revelation I did so with my previous experiences in mind and with hope the book would be a little bit better than the others which share a similar sub-genre. 

The greatest praise I can give to Mass Effect: Revelation is that it's not terrible.  I loved the Mass Effect series of games.  Their storylines, their characters, and their lore rival some of the greatest science fiction tales ever created.  I wanted to get back into the universe, and with the next game's release date still under wraps, and more than likely quite a ways off, reading Mass Effect: Revelation, which is a prequel to the original Mass Effect game, seemed like a perfect way to do it.  The book doesn't in anyway match the game seriers's incredible experience, but it's a mildly entertaining addition to the overall universe nonetheless. 

Like any prequel, Mass Effect: Revelation spends most of its time providing insights into characters the reading audience, who have most definitely played the games, already know about.  Anderson, Sanders, Saren, these are names the readers will already be familiar with.  Saren is the most compelling to read about it in the book, albeit mostly one-sided and uncomplicated.  Anderson and Sanders follow unsurprising character tropes, and their relationship is largely uninteresting. 

The story itself has the requisite science fiction mystery and mercenaries.  Again, no real surprises to be found.  The book's biggest asset isn't its story or characters but its setting.  The Mass Effect universe, as I mentioned previously, is incredibly robust, which I love spending time in.  As seems to often be the case for many books, there is a mad rush toward the end to bring the plot to a close.  It felt like the author was working under a rigid deadline; I don’t know if that’s actually true. 

There is no reason to read Mass Effect: Revelation unless you've played the game series and loved it.  I enjoyed the book as much as I did mainly and mostly for that reason.  I do think the book is better written than World of Warcraft: Tides of Darkness and Starcraft: Liberty's Crusade, but it doesn't exactly stand head and shoulders above them.  I'm prone to read the other Mass Effect books which have been published in hopes they'll also not be terrible as I bide my time before the next Mass Effect game releases.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
3 Reasons Why We Need & Love Stories

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Reflections: Apocrypha

The Apochypha is specifically referenced in Latter-day Saint doctrine.  Joseph Smith prayed to know if he should revise the translation of the Apocrypha and here is the response in full:

"Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated. Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen" (D&C 91).

The Apocrypha isn't completely absent from Latter-day Saint discussion, Elder Holland quoted from it in his talk The Tongue of Angels, but it's pretty close.  Many Latter-day Saints probably don't even know what it is, which of course suggests that even more don't know what it contains.  As an aside, when I served my two-year full time mission in Las Vegas, Nevada, a faithful Catholic debated the value of the Apocrypha and expressed his utter incredulity that it wasn't a part of our canon.  Especially since that experience, I have had a lingering desire to read the Apocrypha and know for myself what it contains. 

The King James version of the Apocrypha, which is the version I read, reads and feels like the Old Testament.  In fact, considering most people's lack of familiarity with the Old Testament, I would posit large portions of the Apocrypha could be read to a group of contemporary Christians, Latter-day Saints included, and they wouldn't be able to determine the source as the Old Testament or the Apocrypha.  As familiar as the language is, the stories, whether true or not, are unique and, for the most part, quite interesting.

Perhaps one of the largest contributions the Apocrypha makes to established biblical canons is the inclusion of more stories in which women are key players or a major focus.  There is an expanded story regarding Esther and entirely new stories about a woman named Judith and Susanna.  The book of Judith is particularly meaningful for women since it shows a woman not only in a position of authority but one who demonstrates great courage and faithfulness.  The book The History of Susanna centers more around legal and ethical justice rather than womanly triumph but is nonetheless an important story about protecting the innocent. 

The other books throughout the Apocrypha follow similar patterns present in the Bible, such as: a collection of pithy sayings and words of wisdom, historical accounts of corrupt leaders, people, and the inevitable justice of God, and heavenly visions and visitations.  If you've read and studied the Bible, you'll be right at home.  The interesting exercise, especially as a Latter-day Saint, is attempting to determine what is inspired and what is not.  I certainly didn't make any kind of extensive and prayerful examination of the text and its spiritual truthfulness, but I did find valuable spiritual insights which are more than likely true.  (Coming back to Holland's talk, if he feels comfortable enough to quote from it in General Conference we can be assured at least some of it is true just as Doctrine and Covenants section 91 states).  On the other hand, I could see, especially in the second book of Maccabees, some curious and frankly out of place commentaries which gave me pause regarding their veracity.  Just as the first book of Maccabees states: "Also that the Jews and priests were well pleased that Simon should be their governor and high priest for ever, until there should arise a faithful prophet" (Emphasis added).  Without a prophet, who is actually doing the writing and is it actually endorsed by the Lord?

In the end, the Apocrypha is a fascinating addition to existing scriptural knowledge, albeit unnecessary from a devout Christian's perspective.  It doesn't reveal too much regarding the Christian faiths, mostly because there are so many Christians who don't accept and embrace it in the same way they do the Bible.  I enjoyed reading it and love being able to say I have, but I have no plans to continue my study of it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Brow Bruising Reads
The Hardest Book I have Ever Read

Friday, October 17, 2014

Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz

In 1961, A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo Award, which is one of Science Fiction's most prestigious awards.  It has subsequently been honored on many best of science fiction lists, and I believe it deserves every honor.  A Canticle for Leibowitz is a unique, entertaining, and frankly a brilliant book.  It's not only one of the best science fiction books I have ever read, it's one of the best books I have ever read.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is in some ways a fictionalized version of the Durant's excellent little book The Lessons of History.  The way in which the cyclical nature of history is explored in Canticle is masterful.  Broken up into three main sections, the book spans hundreds of years.  The characters change, just as civilizations and populations do, but the themes do not.  Humanity, burdened with its perpetual weaknesses and battling its persistent demons, has to face the horror of its own nature cycle after cycle after cycle.  Can the eventual and cataclysmic conclusion ever be changed or avoided?  A Canticle for Leibowitz asks questions like these and presents our uniquely human moral and ethical dilemmas with such skill it is as didactic as fiction can be without being overwrought, overbearing, or heavy-handed. 

One of the most admirable things about A Canticle for Leibowitz is that the book takes a well-worn, exhausted idea and setting, i.e. a post-apocalyptic world, and does more with it, fictionally, artistically, and thematically, than the myriad of other books which share a genre and setting with it.  Canticle proves that even though there is no truly unique story, a single well written and well thought out story can still overshadow in every way the mountains of fictional rubbish which is published each year.  I can't help but think of our current craze for young adult fiction, which has found a niche in the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, and hope that one day a book like Canticle will be read, digested, adapted, and embraced as much as some of the more popular, albeit less thought-provoking, fiction.  Furthermore, I insist this desire isn't some arrogant elitist attitude toward the unwashed plebeian masses.  I want people to read A Canticle for Leibowitz for the same reason I would want them to read To Kill a Mockingbird or A Tale of Two Cities.  There are important and fundamental ideas and debates presented in Canticle, just like some of humanity's more well-known literary achievements, and they should be read, understood, debated, and explored. 

Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is an excellent book, even a classic.  It's well worth reading, exploring, and discussing.  If you're a lover of science fiction, it's an indispensable addition to your collection.  If you love books and the important ideas they can showcase, you should read this book and maybe humanity can learn a thing or two. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Reflections: Hyperion
3 Reasons Why We Need and Love Stories

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

Shortly before Joseph Smith was martyred, he said: "No man knows my history."  I have been pondering what he meant.  I can say now after reading Richard L. Bushman's excellent book Rough Stone Rolling that I know Joseph Smith and his history a little bit more. 

Joseph Smith has to be one of the most fascinating personalities to have ever graced the American scene.  I say this not because he had eccentric ideas but because those ideas stuck.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is 15 million strong and is growing rapidly every year.  More and more people are coming to know Joseph Smith as a prophet of God in our latter-days and are joining themselves to a Church which claims Joseph as their "prophet of the restoration."  Like the great men and women we study and admire who left an imprint on human history, religious and otherwise, Joseph Smith deserves attention.

The culture of the time is as much a focus of Rough Stone Rolling as Joseph Smith is.  (No wonder the book's subtitle is "A Cultural Biography of Mormonism's Founder").  One of the most difficult aspects of studying history is understanding the culture and milieu of the place and time you're studying.  We too often inflict historical personalities with our own sanctimonious judgments regarding correct behavior and correct viewpoints.  Bushman does a wonderful job of comparing Joseph against his contemporaries and highlighting how we was the same in some ways and different in other ways.  Joseph, like us all, was in a few ways, but certainly not all, a product of his circumstances.

Considering what Joseph Smith accomplished during his forty-four years of life is staggering.  Latter-day Saints believe what John Taylor, third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said: "Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it" (D&C 135:3).  Even from a non-religious and purely secular perspective, one has to recognize Joseph did some extraordinary things, building cities as much as translating ancient records.  Even with near constant and virulent opposition, Joseph and the early Latter-day Saints accomplished incredible feats.  Rough Stone Rolling provides a rich history which I believe Mormon and non-Mormon alike can appreciate.  The book presents an incredibly dramatic American saga, which any lover of history can benefit from by adding it to their reading collection.

When I began reading Rough Stone Rolling I stated my hope as follows: "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."  And what is my verdict?  In large measure, yes, Rough Stone Rolling made Joseph more human, more understandable, and perhaps in some ways even more inexplicable.  He made some decisions which, especially in light of the Saints' precarious position in Illinois in the early 1840s, that simply don't make any sense, such as instituting and practising polygamy.  The question of why is unavoidable.  At this point the opinions diverge.  Latter-day Saints will say he was commanded by God and as a true prophet he would obey, regardless of the consequences.  Non-Mormons have plenty of explanations for why he did what he did, most of them less than positive.  For my part, I believe the former.  I believe he was a prophet of God who acted in good faith toward God and men.  He was human as we all are and his weaknesses and faults are more abundantly testified of by his detractors exactly because he claimed to be a prophet.  It's a lofty and lonely position. 

At the most recent General Conference, Elder Neil A. Anderson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stated: "The negative commentary about the Prophet Joseph Smith will increase as we move toward the Second Coming of the Savior."  It is noteworthy to point out that Latter-day Saints link the attacks on Joseph's reputation as one of the signs signalling the second coming of Jesus Christ.  Enemies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know, as well do the Latter-day Saints, that the foundation of the Church's position rests on Joseph Smith's claims to be a prophet called of God.  If he wasn't, then the Church he founded, and the line of priesthood succession continuing through him, must be a fraud.  If he was, then the implications of such a fact are immense, affecting every human life on earth and their life in eternity.  Rough Stone Rolling doesn't answer that question, but it does present an American drama so extraordinary it begs to be read.  Rough Stone Rolling isn't the only worthwhile account, but it is certainly a valuable addition to what will no doubt be a growing literature on Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints.

Other Topics of Interest:
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 1
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 2
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 3