Saturday, November 28, 2015

Reflections: American Lion

American Lion by Jon Meacham shows the amazing nuances which accompanies any sincere look at history.  Andrew Jackson was a controversial figure during his time as president and remains to be so today.  His presence on the twenty-dollar bill is a subject of no small debate in some circles.  I must admit I was unaware as to why someone like himself would find such an honored place in our history until I read American Lion.  The book doesn't glorify the man but respects the contributions he made, as well as highlight the weaknesses he had.

What I certainly did not appreciate was Jackson's efforts to preserve the Union.  The political battles he fought during his presidency were the same battles fought prior the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.  (In fact, Abraham Lincoln referenced Jackson and his efforts during Lincoln's presidency).  I reflected on that fact over and over again while reading American Lion.  What political battles are we having today that will eventually be decided, in civil and not so civil ways, twenty or thirty years from now? 

Regarding the Native Americans, reading American Lion can help you understand Jackson's perspective, even if you don't agree with it, as we all would not.  Students of history have to understand historical figures and personalities in the context of when they lived, how they lived, etc.  Jackson held slaves, as did American giants like George Washington.  Jackson held beliefs related to the Native Americans we would consider backward and harmful, but his reasoning, which revolved mostly around security and protection from an internal threat, was sound during his time.  Having said that, America has always had its contrarians, and Jackson was severely opposed on all of his policies, the Native Americans and slaveholding included.  American Lion does a wonderful job of showing these conflicts in their gritty and fascinating detail.

Another wonderful contribution American Lion makes to the annals of American history is its incredible detail on how the personal lives of political figures can affect the governing of a nation and the administering of a government.  You can always tell when an author has plenty of personal details, letters, etc., to work with and when an author does not.  Meacham appeared to have a host of letters, journals, and records to piece together the compelling and interesting story of Jackson and his family. 

American Lion is a great addition to my ever-growing list of American history books.  I learned a great deal more about the man whose image graces every twenty-dollar bill, and I appreciate the contributions he made and the mistakes he displayed.  There is plenty to learn from Andrew Jackson and American Lion is a great place to learn it. 

Other Topics of Interest:
What Every American Should Read
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Restoring the Lost Constitution

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Reflections: The Martian Chronicles

As I've written before, Ray Bradbury is "one of the finest writers I have ever had the pleasure and unforgettable experience of reading."  The Martian Chronicles is quintessential Bradbury with its short story structure, surrealistic commentaries (Usher II), and science fiction backdrop.  Although I don't consider the book to be one of Bradbury's best, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes take that honor, The Martian Chronicles does weave a better tale and smarter entertainment than most books belonging to the same genre.

The Martian Chronicles is a future history which borrows heavily from our past history.  This lends itself perfectly to a whole host of commentaries regarding mankind's failings, most of which commentaries are subtle but deliberate.  I especially enjoyed the story Usher II and its rather blunt estimation of what Bradbury calls "the sophisticates."  That story, perhaps more than all the others, shows the author's unique balance of macabre humor and storytelling.  Mars becomes at different times and in different stories the Wild West, the New Frontier, but also the scene of intimate domestic conflicts, such as parents struggling with the grief of losing a child.  The focus in this book is most assuredly not the science but the fiction. 

The short story structure of the book isn't for everyone.  Some may want a more cohesive story with characters who inhabit most, if not every, page.  Indeed that is one downfall of the book.  Although Bradbury is truly a master of storytelling and is able to do more with ten pages than most authors can do with four hundred, it is difficult to establish the same kind of emotional connection with a character with only a handful of interactions with them.  Some characters do make encore appearances to tie everything together, but it's not nearly enough to give the book anything that looks like a standard protagonist. 

When I read a Bradbury book I compare it with other Bradbury books because I personally place him in a category and genre all by himself; he's just that good of an author.  The Martian Chronicles isn't one of my favorite of his books, but when I compare it to other science fiction stories it stands quite tall.  No doubt at some point in the future, after reading a handful of mediocre and less inspired works of fiction, I'll come back to Bradbury and remember yet again the pure magic of a story and its telling by a master of his craft. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Ray Bradbury and Me
Reflections: A Princess of Mars
Memorable Moments: The Illustrated Man - 'Make a wish! Make a wish!'

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass

Life at the Bottom is a book that would have driven my college sociology professor insane, which is one reason why I loved it so much.  Colleges and universities proudly tout their incomparable ability to be open-minded and diverse in their thinking; however, in my experience, I was often the one who had to bring a diverse opinion to the classroom rather than being exposed to it by the professors.  Life at the Bottom in many ways represents and showcases a truly contrarian view on the underclass, the poor, and why they are so.  It's a provocative book with exceptional and staggering claims, and it's a book deserving to be read by all, regardless of their ideological viewpoint.

The main thrust of Life at the Bottom is that the central problem with poverty and the underclass is not circumstances, family history, or the environment in which the poor find themselves; rather, the main problem are poisonous and ruinous ideas which originated in intelligentsia and academia and oozed (a word Theodore Dalrymple, the author, would be comfortable with) their way into the population's psyche.  Bad ideas are at the heart of poverty.  These ideas, such as the devaluing of personal responsibility and accountability, have turned otherwise reasonable human beings into inconsiderate, to put it nicely, and barbarous, to put it harshly, dependents of the state and their circumstances.  His experience working as a medical doctor in a hospital which serves a very poor population, as well as his work within the British penal system, provide him a unique insight into the state of the mind of the underclass.  Dalrymple's commentaries are pointed and poignant, at times even scathing. 

No doubt some academics would take issue with Dalrymple's conclusions since they're, from an academic's point of view, based mostly on anecdotal evidence.  I think Dalrymple would agree with that to a point.  He looks at trends, such as a rising crime rate, and connects his experiences with those trends.  I don't think anyone could rightly say Dalrymple lacks legitimacy in his opinion, even if you vehemently disagree with him.  Life at the Bottom highlights what might be one of the biggest problems with social engineers' and sociologists' attempts to correct the ills of society.  Instead of looking at actual, real people and the good and bad ideas they have that drive their thinking and subsequently their actions, they only see data-sets, numbers which are collected, collated, conflated, and ultimately confused.  This inevitably leads to an idea that people aren't agents unto themselves, free to think and choose for themselves, but rather cogs in a great cycle of poverty from which there is no escape, regardless of the ideas the underclass have embraced.  Life at the Bottom is an acute denunciation and refutation of this mind-set and worldview, and it's an exceptionally good one. 

It is obvious Dalrymple holds very little esteem for liberal ideas and ideals.  Although he has his reasoning, I think he somewhat overstates his case in regards to who is to blame.  Liberals, as well as Conservatives, have done their fair-share in spreading lousy ideas, whether they're in the British Parliament or in the American Congress.  I think this singling out of Liberals would put off some readers, but that probably would have been the case anyway.  Genuinely interested parties, regardless of their political or ideological affiliation and affinity, should read Life at the Bottom.  I have no respect for Karl Marx and his lousy ideas, but I enjoyed reading The Communist Manifesto.  I find Saul Alinsky's outlook on humanity and activism to be reprehensible and destructive, but I consider his book Rules for Radicals to be a must read for anyone wanting to understand the world from someone else's point of view.  Life at the Bottom is one of the most important books I have read in a long, long time and readers should study it for its perspective and honesty, even if they disagree with its premise or conclusions. 

Life at the Bottom is a must-read.  Theodore Dalrymple is an exceptionally talented thinker and writer, and he has provided within this book's pages a unique and compelling perspective on poverty and the underclass which ought not to be ignored.  I consider it to be one of the most influential books I have ever read when it comes to my own thinking and perspective.  This is definitely one I will be mentioning and referencing for a long time to come.

Other Topics of Interest:
Bosom Buddy Books: The Prince and the Radical
What Every High School Student Should Read but Probably Doesn't
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Reflections: Gates of Fire

Our popular culture took a special interest into the battle of Thermopylae in 2006 when the film 300 was released.  The battle itself, and the heroism of the Spartan warriors and their allies, is referenced in a variety of settings, including religious.  We stand in awe of the Spartan Dienekes who, once being told the Persians' archers' arrows would blot out the sun, said: "So much the better.  We shall fight in the shade."  Steven Pressfield, in his book Gates of Fire, has taken this incredible historical event and written an incredible historical novel to showcase what courage, honor, bravery, and the brutality of war looks like.

Gates of Fire is quite possibly the bloodiest and goriest book I have ever read.  Yet, I would not classify the book as gratuitous.  I realize that may seem incongruous, but I maintain that the violence on display in this book serves a bigger purpose than violence for violence's sake.  The sword and sandal warfare of the Spartans' era was a face-to-face, nose-to-nose bloodbath.  Pressfield attempts and largely succeeds in making the violence in this book as intimate, for lack of a better word, to the reader as it is for the characters.  I would practically exhale in relief when a battle scene would come to its bloody end.  Gates of Fire is not for those readers who are uncomfortable with violence and all of its inevitable gory consequences. 

Having said all of that, a bloody and violent story which is nothing but that is hardly worth reading, if at all.  Pressfield has not only re-created military situations with convincing adroitness, he has also populated those situations, and especially the build up to them, with genuine and memorable characters.  In fact, a large part of the book, the majority really, is not about warfare but the lead up to it.  It reminded me of The Two Towers film adaptation; the film takes an inordinate amount of time building up to the monumental conflict you have paid money to see.  That build up, that tension, is what makes the final showdown so compelling and engrossing.  What this provides are the emotional crescendos and the heartbreaking realities of war.  There are some genuinely emotional moments in this book.  In the end, even the stoicism of the Spartans cannot contain the unbridled outcry of a broken heart.  Like other tales of war, such as the Lone Survivor, Gates of Fire shows how men behave when placed in the most terrible of situations, both the best and worst of mankind.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the book's examination of the Spartan worldview, the ethos of its people.  Modern nations and cultures boast a much more prolonged quantity of life, but I believe the quality of that life is highly debatable.  Sparta, although existing with and embracing rules of conduct and expectations of lifestyle most, including myself, would bristle at, could teach us something about embracing the most important ideas.  Freedom, honor, courage.  It goes without saying that these ideals aren't the ultimate goals of millennials; rather, our world thrives on security, ease of lifestyle, and entitlements.  Again, Sparta is on one hand an extreme, and we largely live in another extreme, but I believe Gates of Fire can teach us something about ourselves and how to find a better balance.

Gates of Fire is an excellent book; it's one of the finest historical novels I have read in a long, long time.  It's brutal and bloody and not meant for readers who are uncomfortable with such violence.  Like some of the most memorable works of non-fiction relating to war and mankind's inveterate need to engage in it, I will not soon forget Gates of Fire, if at all. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Lone Survivor
Reflections: Heart of Darkness
Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris

Friday, September 4, 2015

Reflections: Temple and Cosmos

For Latter-day Saints, Hugh Nibley is a household name.  He was a prominent Mormon scholar for decades and is probably still the most well-known.  His writing and speeches are works of sometimes dizzying intellect.  I was very excited to read one volume of his collected works series, Temple and Cosmos.  After having been fairly underwhelmed by W. Cleon Skousen's The First Two Thousand Years, it was wonderful to read a book of both doctrinal and intellectual significance as interesting and provocative as Temple and Cosmos.

Of all Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice, there is perhaps none more mysterious and enigmatic to non-members and outside observers than our temple worship.  (This is also the case for some members of the Church who have not been able to experience the temple endowment and sealing yet or have and still find it all inscrutable).  Nibley's academic work on tracing the origins of the temple, not just Latter-day Saint temple worship but temple practices and rituals around the world and throughout all civilizations, provides a valuable perspective on how central it was and is to the human experience.  In many ways, reading Temple and Cosmos was very similar to reading Joseph Campbell's challenging but remarkable The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  There are commonalities between cultures, between peoples, between rituals that are so striking they cannot be ignored.  There are patterns on earth within the human experience which are continually being played out.  The tantalizing question is where the pattern originates from?  Nibley, while focusing on the central importance of the temple, attemps to answer that question with exhaustive research and references from ancient writings and evidences.  The academic work showcased within this one volume of his collection is staggering.

Therein lies one of the problems with a book like Temple and Cosmos.  These collected writings are culled from speeches, academic papers—some previously unpublished—which aren't exactly written for a lay audience.  Nibley's writing, much like his speaking, moves at a breakneck speed.  You've barely had a moment to digest a particularly interesting quotation or comment, and he has already thrown four more at you.  It's difficult to keep up.  In addition, with very little background in ancient cultures or civilizations, a reader like me can't actually compare a statement by Nibley with a contradictory statement by another scholar; I wouldn't even know where to look.  However, Nibley does a fine job, much better than Skousen ever thought of doing in The First Two Thousand Years, of presenting some opposing viewpoints.  It is true he mostly does this to create a springboard from which to disprove the statement; however, it's serviceable nonetheless.

Although this volume, which is the twelfth in the series, is titled Temple and Cosmos and mostly focuses on that topic, it does take some odd deviations.  (Of course this doesn't really have anything to do with Nibley since these are his collected works, which I'm assuming were put together without any direction from Nibley).  Having said that, some of those "deviation" chapters proved to be some of the most valuable.  Nibley's essay Does History and Religion Conflict is one of the finest I have ever read.  I consumed it ravenously and will forever consider it a high-water mark of academic commentary and critique.  Nibley, although steeped in academia, appears to have had a healthy distrust of it, which I can certainly appreciate (see my commentary Academic Humility).

Temple and Cosmos is wonderful.  From a Latter-day Saint perspective it is an unbelievably valuable addition to our personal libraries and to our understanding of the temple ordinances; in fact, for someone who has "gone through" (common Mormon vernacular) the temple, Temple and Cosmos may make you feel a tad bit uncomfortable at times as it describes in some detail ancient patterns of temple worship.  Those patterns and other details, as delineated in apocryphal writings, show why our scripture would describe the gospel as being "new and everlasting."  I will absolutely read Nibley's other volumes of collected works.  In regards to Temple and Cosmos, it is a significant and important academic achievement which Latter-day Saints should take special interest in.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The First Two Thousand Years
Brow Bruising Reads: The Hardest Book I have Ever Read
Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture