Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections: Catching Fire

Adam C. Zern opines on Suzanne Collins's Catching Fire:

"The Hunger Games didn't necessarily end with a thud or as a cliffhanger, aside from wondering what will happen with the main character's personal life, it just ended.  The author's intention for a sequel was very clear, and from a long-term, global perspective, a sequel was deserved within the context of the story.  The focus of the first book was almost totally the main characters' struggle to survive during the brutal Hunger Games with a few hints of revolution against the Capitol.  From the second book, I wanted the story to start moving into that realm of revolution and radical change.  The book, however, doesn't move down that path as much as I hoped or expected.  Yet, it's still an enjoyable book, and is designed, mostly, as a book to raise the stakes for the third and final chapter.

Catching Fire is somewhat of a slow-burn (no pun intended); although, it's not crippling to the book's overall pacing.  The reader is subjected to a little too much romantic vacillation from Katniss, the main character, as she strives to define and determine her love or lack thereof for Gale and/or Peeta.  Having said that, the feelings that Katniss develops for both characters gives sufficient and understandable motivation to Katniss and it eventually works for the story.  The author clearly saw a need to continue the main plot point and conflicts from the first book.  The way she does this at first felt contrived and a little cheap.  However, after some thought, I was willing to accept her premise and reasoning and willingly allow myself to be immersed in the story.

The best part of Catching Fire is mostly certainly the end.  With around ten pages left in the book, I began to be very curious as to how the author was going to conclude the second book in her trilogy.  The ending is excellent.  It pushes the stakes to an entirely new level for the series and its characters.  It's compelling and interesting and finally gets the story to where it needed to be.

Catching Fire is a strong follow-up to The Hunger Games.  Although it hangs on a little too tightly to the conventions and conflicts of the first book, it does move into new and interesting territory.  Above all, Catching Fire gives the reader plenty of reason to finish The Hunger Games saga."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Reflections: A Christmas Carol

Adam C. Zern opines on Charles Dickens' classic short story:

"To say that Charles Dickens' story, A Christmas Carol, is well-known is wholly inadequate.  During the Christmas season, and sometimes during other seasons (think An American Carol), A Christmas Carol can feel ubiquitous.  I, like so many others, have seen several film versions of Dickens' famous tale.  The different versions can be incredibly varied; for example, The Muppet Christmas Carol and Scrooged are made for very different audiences.  After watching so many different adaptions, I was very curious to see how the original story held up and if it was worth all the attention it has received over the years.

In all honesty, I don't know if I have read an author who is as talented and adriot as Charles Dickens.  Although A Christmas Carol is very short, a short story really, it has Dickens' flair and powerful prose.  Brevity is perhaps the story's greatest strength.  In only a few paragraphs the read has a complete understanding of the level of Ebenezer's Scrooge's cynicism and bitterness.  The visiting spirits come in quick succession and each didactic episode is as instructive for the audience as it is for Scrooge.  There are several themes in the story that I think resonate strongly with readers - being given a second chance (redemption) is but one of them.  And perhaps that's the great secret of A Christmas Carol.

I did wonder if A Christmas Carol was possibly one of the first stories to use melodrama as a viable storytelling technique.  Regardless, I can't help but think that the semi-crippled, perfectly natured Tiny Tim is a character contrived to not only force an emotional reaction from Scrooge but also from the audience.  I couldn't help but wonder if A Christmas Carol were publised recently whether a modern, cynical audience might scoff at Tiny Tim instead of being endeared to him.  (Or perhaps that's just my own cynical self talking?).

Why is A Christmas Carol such a memorable tale?  Charles Dickens.  It certainly helps that the story shares a powerful message, but such a profound message needs to be told in a profound way.  No other author can do it quite like Charles Dickens.  It's an enjoyable and meaningful read."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reflections: The Thirteen American Arguments

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Howard Fineman's The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates that Define and Inspire Our Country:

"I found Mr. Fineman's book at the Book Warehouse for pretty cheap.  The title and and subject matter intrigued me; although, I love just about anything that deals with American history.  Shortly after beginning to read the book I realized I wasn't getting exactly what I was looking for  So, what was I looking for?  I wanted a book similar to Thomas Sowell's masterful work A Conflict of Visions.  I wanted an in-depth compare and contrast, an objective, intellectual look at both sides of some of the debates and dilemmas that have shaped America.  Mr. Fineman's book came close at times, but never really measures up when compared to other more enriching books.

Mr. Fineman's book isn't bad.  But it's not all that great either.  At the beginning of each chapter, he begins by establishing the fundamentals of these so-called "American Arguments."  He discusses some of their origins and how they have transformed over the years to play an important role in contemporary politics.  It sounds like such a good idea, and it really is.  It just ends up being a little too shallow by the end of many of the chapters.  The focus on modern politics makes sense, but it leads Mr. Fineman down a subjective path more often than I would have liked.

The Thirteen American Arguments isn't without worth, but I wouldn't recommend it to others simply because I know there are much better books out there - A Conflict of Visions being just one.  If you have liked Howard Fineman's reporting or previous work he has done, give the book a read.  If not, there is not much reason to add this one to your Thousander list with so many other books, much better books, available."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Reflections: The Hunger Games

Adam C. Zern shares some thoughts on Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games:

"My feelings toward young adult fiction has changed quite a bit over the last several years.  When I used to think of young adult fiction, the first thing that would come to mind is Goosebumps for some reason.  That stereotype and my aversion to young adult fiction stopped when I read Lois Lowry's The Giver.  I saw how something so simple could be exceptionally powerful and moving.  Since reading that book, I have been much more open to young adult fiction.

Which brings me to The Hunger Games.  The first book in a trilogy (a seeming necessity these days), The Hunger Games is a very good read.  It's thrilling and suspenseful and in parts very, very tender.  One of the book's greatest strengths is its ability to deal with some rather gruesome scenarios, such as a fight to the death game between 12-17 year-olds, without becoming morbid or gratuitous.  In fact, in what could have been the most excruciating scene in the book, the death of a particular character actually ends up becoming the most meaningful and moving (I won't spoil anything) moment in the book.

The book is not without its problems.  The nature of the main audience, young adults, does demand some storytelling silliness from the author.  For example, the motivation of a particular character will be very clear through skilled writing, and then the author will use her main character to purposefully and unmistakably say or think out loud for the audience what they should have been able to deduce without hand-holding.  It's a small annoyance that shows up a little, but it is sad that some subtly had to be sacrificed.  I also think the author could have used the nature of her story, which is very compelling and intriguing-including the sci-fi world she has created-to explore some other powerful themes.  But the main audience may have dictated some pruning, which might not have been required otherwise.

In the final analysis, I think The Hunger Games is just fine the way it is.  I might have wanted some more from the book, but I greatly enjoyed what the author gave me.  I'll probably finish the trilogy, and I hope I enjoy the next two books as much as I did the first."

Other Topics of Interest:
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Reflections: Catching Fire
Reflections: Mockingjay

Friday, November 25, 2011

Reflections: The Red Badge of Courage

Adam C. Zern opines on Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage:

"I knew very little about The Red Badge of Courage before reading it.  I knew it was considered a 'classic' American book, but that's about as far as my knowledge went.  As I have said in the past, I enjoy reading the classics for several different reasons; such as, I like to determine what all the fuss is about.  Some classics deserve their status while others leave me incredulous as to why they're regarded so highly.  I think The Red Badge of Courage falls into the latter category. -->


The book is not written poorly.  In fact, the first quarter of the book is excellent.  The observations about war, human nature, and personal courage and cowardice are really compelling.  And then something happens, and I'm not even sure what.  Instead of being compelling, the book's more interesting elements became redundant and tiresome, which seems odd since the book is only about 155 pages in length.  Perhaps part of the problem was I had no real connection or concern for the main character, Private Henry Fleming or as the author often refers to him—"the youth."

How modern the book felt surprised me.  I must admit I wasn't sure what to expect from a war novel published in 1895 but it felt much more fresh than I was anticipating.  I couldn't help but make comparisons to more modern war novels like Tim O’Brien's The Things They Carried, but I then realized that the comparison is backwards.  No doubt books like The Things They Carried owe something to The Red Badge of Courage, which has so many of the aspects of a war story that we have come to expect.

I didn't care for The Red Badge of Courage.  Although it was short, it felt too long.  It starts as a fascinating story about a young soldier trying to deal with very human fears and inadequacies but ends with a thud.  I'm willing to hear other opinions defending this book's status as a classic, but I didn't catch the vision on this one."

Reflections: The Hunger Games

Sarah J. Zern shares her thoughts on Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games:

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"In the past week, I have literally devoured The Hunger Games.  I had my qualms going into reading this book; I heard many people comment that it was similar to The Giver, a book that physically disturbed me, so I was definitely unsure of how I’d feel about Suzanne Collins’ Bestseller.  Although it was definitely gritty and violent, I found it also to be touching and well constructed.
Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games, is a very likeable character.  I very much appreciated that she was not whiny and weak.  She was capable, intelligent, street smart, and fiercely protective of those she loved.  She volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Prim in the sadistic Hunger Games that the Capitol puts on every year.  In these games, one girl and one boy in each of the 12 districts of Panem fight to the death on national television—serving as not only sick entertainment, but also as punishment for the districts’ uprising against the Capitol seventy years ago.
Enough of the background information.  I liked this book a lot because I didn’t feel emotionally robbed.  This book, unlike The Giver, establishes lots of human relationships that are strong and deep.  I like some stability when it comes to characters—I don’t really like it when a character comes across as great all along, but then is suddenly terribly flawed by the book's end.  So, for that reason, I really enjoyed coming to conclusions about characters and being right.  I was glad that even though Katniss feels and acts like she is a loner, she is actually surrounded by people who love and support her.  I felt such a human connection with her and her loved ones that I was okay with other people’s hardships in the games—even the characters I really liked.  Obviously, quite a few folks die, and in pretty gruesome ways.  But for some reason, having an anchor of emotional stability within Katniss’s circle of friends and family made all of the tragedy okay.  I felt like I could trust the author to get the most important characters through the story without killing them off just for shock effect.
I highly recommend this book!  I’m already half-way through the second book in this series, Catching Fire, and I haven’t been disappointed yet.  In conclusion, I’d have to say that The Hunger Games is sweetly satiating."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reflections: The Road to Serfdom

 Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom:

"I could use a few different adjectives to describe F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom: heady, cerebral, highbrow, erudite, etc.  Put simply, it's not a book that can be leisurely and negligently perused or skimmedThe Road to Serfdom has to be consumed through study and intellectual concentration.  You can't cheat your way through the book through inattention and still appreciate its true value or perhaps much value at all.
 
To get a very clear idea as to the main thrust of The Road to Serfdom you have to take a quick glance at who Hayek dedicated the book to: "To the socialists of all parties" (Emphasis added).  His initial argument and impetus for writing the book was to show how the rise of Nazism and other forms of totalitarianism is directly related to socialist principles, such as centralized economic planning, advocated by many well-meaning people.  One big take-away for me, although there were many, was the following statement: "There can be no doubt that most socialists here still believe profoundly in the liberal ideal of freedom and that they would recoil if they became convinced that the realization of their program would mean the destruction of freedom."  

His discussion of ideology and placing it within an appropriate context is excellent.  I haven't read such a vigorous criticism of the intelligentsia since reading Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.  (All of the principles discussed in Hayek's book can be applied today, but I think his criticism of many of the academics in his generation are especially applicable today).  The Road to Serfdom is about principles, ideology, liberty, security, human nature, economics, and other critical matters.  It's an important book, and not just because I find myself in agreement with much of what Hayek explicates.  Rather, it's an important book for the same reason The Communist Manifesto is an important tract.  It highlights and elaborates on some of the great and consequential questions humanity must wrestle with.  I believe Hayek has more value to provide society and civilization than Marx, but I never could have come to that conviction without first examining both authors' works.

The book's biggest flaw is its readability.  But even to say that is somewhat misleading.  The book is readable, but it does take work.  Hayek's prose is not the most fluid and graceful.  Some sentences can feel a bit clunky since they can be congested with too many subjects or topics.  The inevitable consequence is that some of his points and conclusions can easily get lost in the intellectual clutter he creates.  Although, I do have to mention some of this might be due to the fact that English is not his native language.  With that fact in mind, his writing far exceeds the average American writing skill and rivals most academics as well.

The Road to Serfdom is a great book.  There is plenty of intellectual "meat" to chew on, and I will use the book as a reference for years to come.  I look forward to reading some of Hayek's other works - The Constitution of Liberty has been on my Wish List for some time.  Put in the time and effort and F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom is an intellectual treat."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Brow Bruising Reads

Adam C. Zern on a few of his most challenging reads:

"There have only been a few books that have been a true challenge for me to complete.  Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky was exceptionally difficult for me to finish.  It was a lengthy book, yes, but it was the tone, tenor, and mood of the book that made it so difficult for me to slog through.  I genuinely felt depressed while reading that book.

Still other books are hard to finish simply because of their immense size.  Last year I read The Wealth of Nations or An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.  That mighty tome weighs in at over 1200 pages in length (at least my paperback version did).  I felt compelled to read it in an effort to feel more educated on some of the basics of economics.  It's such a foundational work that I felt it was appropriate to start there and work my way into newer works of economic literature.  It was worth reading but it took a lot of reading.

My single greatest achievement in terms of length of book has been the Bible.  I had read the New Testament four or five times before attempting to read the entire Old Testament.  In a spirit of full disclosure, it was the motivating influence of my wife that led me to finally commit to read the entire Old Testament for she had done so herself.  Opening to the first page of the Old Testament and reading those powerful words "In the beginning . . ." (Genesis 1:1) left me feeling both excited and overwhelmed.  Truly that was the beginning of a reading adventure that lasted for about two years.  I made a commitment to read at least four pages of the Old Testament everyday until I had finished.  I was moderately successful with that goal.  Between Genesis 1:1 and Malachi 4:6 I found plenty of "word[s] fitly spoken" and they truly were "like apples of gold in pictures of silver" (Proverbs 25:11).  Finishing that last verse was a wonderful feeling.  And as a reader, but especially as a Christian and Latter-day Saint, reading the entire Bible seemed, quite frankly, like the right thing to do."

Other topics of interest:
Page-turners: Black Hawk Down
Overrated: The Da Vinci Code
Boring Books: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Reflections: The Well of Ascension

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Brandon Sanderson's second book in his Mistbon trilogy-The Well of Ascension:

"I read the first book in Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy several months ago.  I enjoyed it quite a bit and was pleased to have found a new series to read.  I was a little surprised by how excited I was when I opened The Well of Ascension.  I remembered how much I enjoyed Sanderson's magic system, which is the most unique I've come across, the political backdrop of the story, the overall setting and universe, and the characters that act and react within it.

The Well of Ascension definitely feels like the second book in a trilogy.  It continues to explore and adds additional layers to mysteries established in the first book while also creating some new conflicts and mysteries to be resolved by the characters in the final book-The Hero of Ages.  Sanderson uses the same narrator technique he did in the first book-Mistborn-and adds a very unexpected and entertaining twist at the end.  The last one-hundred pages of the book are very exciting and I was genuinely anxious to see how this part of Sanderson's story was resolved.

The problems I thought existed in the first book show up again this time around.  The character dialogue is adequate but not terribly effective in getting across certain elements like humor and sarcasm.  I still think Sanderson spends too much time having his characters talk about doing things instead of having them do those things.  In fact, I thought the book could have been significantly shorter and still have gotten the same important points across if Sanderson did some tuning. 

Sanderson has raised the stakes appropriately high for the last book in his series, and I'm excited to read it.  If you've read the first book and enjoyed it then there really shouldn't be any reason not to read The Well of Ascension."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Reflections: Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt

Adam C. Zern opines on Parley P. Pratt's autobiography:

"I love history.  I especially love American history and the history surrounding the reformation.  One area of history in which I have felt eager to learn more about but haven't done so is the history of the establishment and progress of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I, of course, knew all of the basics, the key players, the major events, but my specific knowledge was lacking.  I wanted to learn more about individual personalities and events that can only be learned from a record like Parley P. Pratt's autobiography.

It's a hefty book, but it's relatively accessible.  Parley's personal story is truly fascinating.  His life was so intertwined with the rise and progress of the LDS Church as one of the original Apostles that to learn about Parley is to learn about the LDS Church in some ways.  Some of my favorite parts of Parley's history were his interactions with antagonistic clergymen, his passionate sermons and testimonies of the gospel, and the tremendous detail he provides regarding the severe persecutions the Latter-day Saints experienced in Missouri.

Historical writings, such as Parley's autobiography, always give me pause when I think about all that is being left out of the history.  Parley writes extensively about the Latter-day Saints' experiences in Missouri but seems to shorten up his narrative quite a bit when discussing the persecutions in Illinois.  Also, I was very surprised that Parley left out so much about his family life, including his marrying of multiple wives.  If it wasn't for the footnotes found in the Revised and Enhanced edition of his autobiography, I would have known very little about what I thought would be large aspects of Parley's life.

I really enjoyed the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt.  It has given me an even greater desire to learn the history, especially its nuances, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day SaintsParley's autobiography is a worthy addition to my Thousander list."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reflections: Driving Blind

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Ray Bradbury's short story collection Driving Blind:

"Due to so many books being written each year and by so many different authors, I often find myself shying away from reading multiple books by the same author.  I think there is value in spending precious reading time with a diversified group of authors because they all, by nature of their individuality, bring their own peculiar set of knowledge and experience.  Yet, every once in a little while, an author so impresses me I'm willing to spend a hugely disproportionate amount of time with their work in comparison to other authors.  For me, one of those authors is Ray Bradbury.  I have read many of his books; I loved most of them and hated none of them.  I find his imagination, his characters, his stories, and his prose so compelling, inventive, and entertaining that I have gone back to him again and again and fully expect to continue to do so in the future.

Driving Blind is the third collection of short stories I have read from Ray Bradbury.  Although I felt it was the weakest of the three, The Illustrated Man and The October Country are the other two, it still was worth reading.  Most of the stories in Driving Blind are far less fantastical than he seems wont to write.  It could be seen as an interesting change of pace for him, but I felt it made many of his stories less intriguing and less memorable.  There are several stories from The Illustrated Man especially I will never forget, and they were based heavily in science fiction or in some other kind of fantasy element.

Yet, as much as I liked his other collection of short stories better, I had to still admire Bradbury for what he's best at.  He is a wonderful writer, and he provides some great stories within this collection.  The dark, domestic tale Fee Fie Foe Fum is twisted and extremely entertaining.  House Divided is probably one of the most honest narratives I've read of a child coming into adolescence.  It's so true it made me feel uncomfortable.  There are certainly others worth mentioning, but to say the collection as a whole is worth reading is sufficient.

I have yet to read a bad Bradbury book.  Driving Blind is no exception.  It's not his best work.  But one of Bradbury's 'so-so' works of fiction tramples into dust most other contemporary writing.  He very deservedly claims one of my most favorite authors honor, and I look forward to the next book I read of his."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reflections: The Candy Bombers

Adam C. Zern shares a few insights into Andrei Cherny's The Candy Bombers:

"I've only cried while reading two books.  One of those books took me completely by surprise.  I have long been a huge Leon Uris fan.  I have read every single one of his books (some of them great, some good, and some quite bad).  While reading Armageddon, his historical novel of post World War 2 Berlin, I was first introduced to the Berlin Airlift.  I had never heard of the event up to that point, which is quite sad.  One aspect of the Berlin Airlift that most impressed me, and ended up making me cry, was the story of American pilots creating makeshift parachutes, attaching them to small packages of candy, and dropping them out of their airplanes as they flew over the children of Berlin.  It was the most purely humanitarian act I had ever heard of.  Aside from Uris's book, however, I haven't heard much or anything about the Berlin Airlift, which really was America's finest hour and the first real showdown in the Cold War.  Luckily, The Candy Bombers provides a good historical account of the Berlin Airlift and its significance in American history.

Cherny does a good job of establishing the personalities and historical events that eventually led to the Berlin Airlift.  Although you'll probably have to flip back and forth between a few pages to make sure you're getting all of the personalities straight, it will be well worth it by the end of the book.  Learning of the political realities of not only Berlin, but also of America at the time of the Berlin Airlift was very interesting and a welcome addition to the book.  The Candy Bombers is truly a human story in the best possible way.  I didn't realize how affecting the candy drops were - not only for impoverished and brutalized Berliners but also for America and her citizens.  The Berlin Airlift is one of the most buried events of all American history, which is a tragedy.  It not only exemplifies the goodness of America and her citizens, but also highlights the worries and fears that was a natural part of the Cold War.


People should think seriously about reading The Candy Bombers simply because it's probably a piece of American history that they know little or nothing about.  Cherny has put together a fine work of history that is totally accessible and readable.  I would recommend The Candy Bombers without any reservations."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reflections: The Secret Life of Bees

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Marie Teemant shares some feelings on Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees:

"The book has been sitting on my shelves for the last several years, waiting to be picked up. I saw the movie and it only made me want to read the book more. This summer I made the goal to finally do it! I was going to get this one off the shelf and dust off the pages. Definitely worth the effort to set aside the school work for.

The Secret Lives of Bees is one of those books by a woman and very much written for women. With a subtle backdrop of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement ever present, this book is more about the connections of the main character, Lily, to the women in her life. First and foremost, the mother who died when she was young, followed by her caretaker Rosaleen, the Boatwright sisters (all named after summer months) who they live with, and finally with a divine mother figure, the Black Mary statue that becomes the symbol of religious belief among the characters.

The pacing of the novel is its biggest strength. The up and down of life is felt in the incidents that flow from the decisions of both major characters and others that would, by virtue of circumstance, influence them. Nothing feels out of place, but if you’re expecting a large build up to one major conflict, you may find yourself a little disappointed. In fact, what may be the largest matter of conflict builds about two-thirds of the way through, and nothing else can seem to overshadow this event, even the closing moment of tension. This, though, makes you feel as though you’re reading a journal or memoir—where even the worst tragedies don’t have the power to bring the world to a halt, but hopefully leave us with some sense of how to move forward and learn from them.

The characters themselves also move along everything that happens with their decisions, which is a quality in literature that I always appreciate. The variety of personalities are well described by Kidd through dialogue as well as action. Lily’s reactions to each of these women teaches us not only about them, but about Lily and the view of the world that has been handed down to her.

Overall, I would recommend this to any woman looking for a great read to uplift and inspire. For the men out there… you may enjoy it as well, but I can’t guarantee that you’ll quite connect to the spirit of the novel as a whole."

You can find more of Marie Teemant's writings and photos at her blogs:  Judge by the Cover, Rie Around the World, and Rie Reads.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reflections: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Adam C. Zern offers a few thoughts on Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:

"I wanted to like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I really, really did.  I burned through the first few dozen pages because I was so intrigued, so interested, so eager to know what would happen within Jules Verne's story and what he would do with his characters.  The main protagonist, whose personal account is the actual book, Scientist and Naturalist Pierre Aronnax, and his two companions then end up as passengers/captives on Captain Nemo's famous Nautilus submarine and Verne effectively murders his story.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a surprisingly dull and meandering book.  Each and every time Verne creates any kind of tension, suspense, and interest in his stories and characters he smothers it by pages and pages of pointless and excessive exposition and cataloguing of sea animals and the environments they inhabit-pages, and pages, and pages of it.  I would repeatedly close the book in frustration after reading a particularly interesting part because Verne would inevitably return to Aronnax and his obnoxious cataloguing.  In fact, Verne seems aware of what he's doing and how annoying it is.  Take, for example, the following thought from Verne's protagonist:

"I here end this somewhat dry, perhaps, but very exact catalogue, with the series of bony fish I observed . . ."

I wish I could recommend reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea simply because it's considered a classic and one of the first of its kind.  Those facts are all fine, and I'm willing to give credit where credit is due.  However, those achievements do not make Verne's book any good.  The saddest part of it all is that the book could have been great!  Captain Nemo is a wonderful character to read about and to try and decipher.  In fact, he is probably the most wasted literary character I have ever come across.  The setting is exciting and there were moments in the book when I genuinely felt a sense of grandeur and a feeling of awe for the living seas.  But, as I said before, it all gets pummeled under the heavy burden of superflous garbage.

Unless you have a goal to read all or as many of the classics as you can, I would not recommend 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I, of course, understand that the book was written before the information age and authors wrote differently because of it, but I don't think that makes the chore that is reading the book anymore worth it or enjoyable.  It was definitely one of the least enjoyable books I have read this year."

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Reflections: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Adam C. Zern opines on Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War:

"Reading a book like the Mayflower immediately brings several things to mind: the nuanced nature of history, and the inherent limitations of understanding and interpreting history while dealing with a lack of information.  Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower is a very good book, one well worth reading.  It's a book that doesn't try too hard to tell a story of history that "changes everything" or tries to "turn the world upside down."  It's a book written by an author who seems to try diligently and honestly to provide a historical account based on the information available.

One can clearly see that the information available to the author is limited.  For example, the records that tell the story of the Mayflower and the subsequent struggle to establish a settlement, a community of Saints, is told almost exclusively from the point of view of the settlers.  Some oral traditions and legends were passed down among the Native Americans, but even those are shrouded in mythology.  You can also see when more records were being written because the author spends a disproportionate amount of time on what came to be known as King Philip's War - a war between many of the Native inhabitants of New England and the first generation descendants of the Pilgrims.  In the end, it doesn't change the overall impact and value of the book, but one has to wonder what else we could have learned if more records were kept by all people involved.

I learned a lot by reading the Mayflower.  One of the most rewarding tangential benefits of reading a book chronicling history is that it often brings to your attention other books that you probably never would have heard of otherwise.  For example, Mary Rowlandson's The Sovereignty and Goodness of God was mentioned a great deal in Philbrick's book, and I would love to read it some time in the future.  The Mayflower is a book definitely worth reading.  It provides a fascinating glimpse into the story of the much  heralded Pilgrims, the Puritans who came in their footsteps, the Native inhabitants who tried to share a land with them both, and the legacy that they left for a Nation not yet born."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Love & Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Reflections: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Adam C. Zern offers a few thoughts on J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

"I lost a bet.  But I say that in the nicest way possible.  My wife and I, before a game of Scrabble, bet that whoever won would get to choose a book the other would have to read.  I lost, which I usually do when playing Sarah in Scrabble.  She chose that I read her favorite Harry Potter book: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  I, however, had only read the first Potter book as an assignment in a Mythology class.  I'm terribly anal about reading books in order and decided that I would need to read the second Potter book before reading the third.

I had seen the film version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and was pretty unimpressed.  In fact, after watching it one time I don't think I've ever gone back to watch it again.  Therefore, I wasn't overly excited to read the book.  Yet, after having read it, I think I can understand a little bit more the fervor that fans of the books feel when they watch the movie versions that are clunky, confusing, and incomplete.  There is just a whole lot more story, exposition, and character in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets the book, and that makes it much more enjoyable to read than to watch.

About 130 pages into the book I was wondering if anything was actually going to happen.  Rowling was clearly having a good time with her wizarding world - its spells, its enchantments, its oddities, and putting her characters in the middle of it all - but that's not a story.  There is some foreshadowing and some plot points that become important later in the book, but it seemed like an overly slow burn to get her book going.  The story does eventually get going, and I was willingly taken along.

The characters are fun and distinct (especially the main three: Harry, Ron, and Hermione).  The recurring joke of Ron's broken wand is entertaining and culminates into an appropriate pay-off.  The dialogue usually works and seems appropriate to each individual character.  However, the final confrontation with Tom Riddle is hopelessly bad.  It almost felt like Rowling wrote all of Riddle's dialogue when she was really tired and couldn't think of anything creative for him to say.  The story is, of course, wrapped up nicely into a bow at the end and everything works out fine, as well as everyone who was in a dire situation being conveniently revived to health by the story's end.  It's a very quick read.

Especially since it was one of the earlier Potter books, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is written for children/young adults, and it reads like it as well.  There are certainly better books and stories out there, and I wonder why some books/movies grab the public's attention and become enshrined in popular culture while others do not.  But, for what it's worth, I liked Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  In order to fulfill my debt, I will be reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban eventually.  I suppose the true test of whether or not I will continue reading the Potter books will be once I finish the third one and have no external motivation to continue with Potter and his adventures.  We shall see."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Reflections: The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom

 Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Robert Levy and William Mellor's Supreme Court commentary The Dirty Dozen:

"In my ongoing quest to better understand the United States Constitution and American history, I have been spending a great deal of time reading books that deal with American history and/or the Constitution in some way.  I have recently become very interested in America's judicial system, especially on a federal level.  The Dirty Dozen is a libertarian commentary on the twelve worst, according to the opinion of the authors, supreme court decisions.  The authors make their opinion and viewpoint on American constitutionalism very, very clear at the beginning of the book, which I appreciated.  I was already aware of their ideological feelings when I bought the book, but I think it's good practice to do as the authors did and make sure the reader understands completely the source of much of their reasoning.

I'm prone to relate to and agree with much of libertarian thinking.  I learned about The Dirty Dozen because I am a frequent visitor to cato.org and Robert Levy is the Cato Institute's Chairman.  I chose to read The Dirty Dozen specifically because it was written by Libertarian thinkers (William Mellor is with the Institute for Justice).  I wanted that type of a perspective on the Supreme Court cases they chose.  The authors are not neophytes to the area of constitutional law and the Supreme Court.  Their logic is reasonable, well-stated, and worth understanding for all concerned citizens from both sides of the ideological spectrum. 

The book is perfectly readable.  It only gets lost in the legal weeds several times, but even then you can find your way out if your patient and stretch your intellectual muscle.  However, like Antonin Scalia's A Matter of Interpretation, which I also read recently, if you are not particularly interested in the Supreme Court or the significant decisions they have made, this book will be difficult to get through.  In a sense, I feel like a topic such as the Supreme Court should be of some interest to everyone, but I know that's not the case.  Read it if your interested, which you should be on some level; if not, it will be a slog."

Monday, July 4, 2011

Reflections: The Beetle

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Richard Marsh's strange tale - The Beetle:

"The Beetle is an exceptionally strange book; at least, it is for a while.  As you continue to read, the weird and bizarre feeling diminishes as you learn more about the 'beetle' and the various odd occurrences surrounding its presence.  Yet, when the book finishes, you are still left with very little information regarding what it all means; in fact, the ending of the book is, in my opinion, a total let down and a sad disappointment.

I heard about The Beetle from fellow Thousander Cortney Howes.  She had to read it for a school assignment and knowing I was a huge fan of Frankenstein, she recommended The Beetle.  It definitely has the horror/eerie feeling that was common among books of its kind (it was a contemporary of Bram Stoker's Dracula and initially outsold Stoker's now famous book).  Some parts of the book are truly unsettling.  The writing is excellent; the dialogue is wonderfully expressive of the individual characters; the commentaries and asides about human nature, existence, and the beyond are thought-provoking; in other words, it's not modern fiction.

It has some very distinct strengths - absolutely.  But the choice of narrative that Richard Marsh chooses I think hurts the flow of the book.  The story is told from several different characters' perspectives and they often overlap when discussing events, but each character is able to provide new and additional details to those events.  The narrative structure seems to drag the story down, however.  There were several times in which I felt like I read quite a bit and hadn't really gotten that much farther in the story.  Also, the reader understands the creepiness of the 'beetle' almost from the start of the book, but we don't really understand how dangerous the 'beetle' is until far too late in the book.  It missed some perfect moments of suspense because of this.

The Beetle is well-written, but it's not a great book.  If someone were to ask me what book to read that is within the vein of The Beetle, I would recommend Frankenstein.  I enjoyed it, but I didn't love it."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Reflections: All the President's Men

Adam C. Zern shares a few thoughts on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men:

"I, like most people, have heard of Watergate.  I've heard the sound bites of Richard Nixon announcing his resignation as President of the United States - a sadly historic event.  It was all because of Watergate, but what was Watergate all about?  What exactly happened and who was involved?  All the President's Men is the detailed journalistic story of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their Pulitzer Prize winning efforts to investigate the Watergate controversy and its complicated cover-up.

All the President's Men is surprisingly entertaining.  Many times it feels like a genuine crime/spy/thriller with all of the inrigue that accompanied the Watergate cover-up.  It was quite shocking to learn how many people were involved in the Watergate controversy and cover-up, which really was the manifestation of the worst part of Nixon's ethically questionable and sometimes illegal political activities.  Literally dozens and dozens of people knew something at some point and the main thrust of the book is the quest of figuring out who knew what and when.  Similar to watching a movie like Apollo 13, you know how the story ends, but the story is strangely suspenseful in spite of what the reader already knows.

The single greatest insight that the book gave to me was of the journalistic creation of a story.  Woodward and Bernstein chase down lead after lead after lead.  Some are helpful.  Some are not.  Some are misleading. Sources don't want to be named - including the famous 'Deep Throat.'  The two journalists argue with each other, with their editors, make mistakes, misjudge when to run a story, among other things.  At one particular tense part in the book, Woodward and Bernstein become desperate for information and start to track down jurors who have been sworn to secrecy and try to get them to talk.  Judge "Maximum John" Sirica founds out about it and no one is quite sure, including the reader, if Woodward and Berstein will be sent to jail.  I think the pressures, setbacks, and rewards of investigative reporting all came into focus while reading the book.  For that reason alone I think the book is worth reading.

I enjoyed All the President's Men far more than I thought I would.  It is a fascinating glimpse into the world of Beltway politics and the free press, investigative journalism, and of course into a very sad moment in our Nation's history.  It's worth reading."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Reflections: Shadow of the Hegemon

Adam C. Zern opines on the sixth book in the 'Ender' series Shadow of the Hegemon by Orson Scott Card:

"Several years ago I read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.  I really, really enjoyed the book and became more acquainted with its main character—Andrew (Ender) Wiggin—by reading Card’s follow-up novels—Speaker for theDead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind.  The fifth book in the series—Ender’s Shadow—doesn’t continue down the timeline of the last three, which take place thousands of years after the events of the first book (science fiction allows interesting ways to mess with time in such a drastic way).  Ender’s Shadow might very well be my favorite ‘Ender’ book and is also the first book that changes the narrative focus away from Ender, although he is always hugely important and affects, directly and indirectly, just about everything.  The narrative focus turns to Bean, one of Ender’s most trusted friends.  Shadow of the Hegemon continues the narrative path that readers are introduced to in Ender’s Shadow.  Unlike all of the 5 previous books, Shadow of the Hegemon takes place on earth and focuses on Earth’s political and military upheavals after the dreaded ‘Bugger’ threat is eliminated by Ender and his loyal team of genius children. 

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As is expected, a reader won't enjoy Shadow of the Hegemon without reading some of the previous Ender books.  However, a reader would be able to enjoy Shadow of the Hegemon after reading Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow and won't need to read the other three I've already mentioned.  The story in Shadow of the Hegemon is very compelling, but the characters were slightly underwhelming.  It was difficult to not feel more annoyed with Card's characters than actually have empathy or sympathy or even interest at times.  They're children geniuses, yes, but sometimes they act too much like petty and bickering children - Peter Wiggin, Ender's infamous brother, was especially disappointing.

Having said that, the story of the book saves it from some of its characters' adolescent annoyances.  I was completely enthralled in the geo-political difficulties that were at the core of the book's story.  What would happen if mankind's existential threat and therefore its greatest unifier was suddenly eradicated?  Which countries and for what reasons would try to gain dominance over other countries?  Furthermore, if a gaggle of military geniuses who happened to be children were returning to Earth from their universal conflict, to what lengths would countries go to ensure their cooperation and loyalty?  One of Card's greatest strengths as a writer is to present extremely interesting and sometimes brutally difficult ethical, moral, and now with Shadow of the Hegemon, international questions and complications.

Shadow of the Hegemon is definitely not the best book in the 'Ender' canon.  However, it's not a bad read.  If you have liked previous 'Ender' books, then Shadow of the Hegemon is more than worth reading to once again be absorbed in Card's fascinating universe."

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reflections: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Adam C. Zern provides offers a few thoughts on Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People:

“If others’ experience is anything like mine, whenever I heard the title of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was when someone made a sarcastic comment about someone else’s poor handling of human relations.  Very, very rarely was the book referenced in a serious and practical manner.  Having said that, How to Win Friends and Influence People has had such sticking power (my edition of the book from the 1980s boasted that there were 15,000,000 copies in print) because people are responding to something Mr. Carnegie has to say and are persuaded that the principles he advocates are effectual tools in human relations.

Since Mr. Carnegie’s book was written and published so long ago, and according to the author it was the first of its kind, it seems to have taken a unique place in the genre of Self-Help/Business.  The principles of influencing people that Mr. Carnegie discusses are perfectly reasonable; in fact, some of them are elementary (e.g., smile or remember people’s names).  At certain points while reading the book I wondered why anyone, including myself, would need to be told to do such things since they seemed so self-evident.  However, it’s easy to get complacent and How to Win Friends and Influence People is a good reminder of what one should inculcate into their interactions with others to be truly influential.

The premise of the book is simple enough: present a principle and follow-up with several anecdotes including some from history.  I enjoyed the anecdotes from history being as interested as I am with historical personalities.  By the end of the book, however, many of the stories became tiresome, hardly distinguishable from the dozens of others the author presented, and they end up having little lasting impact.  The format of the book makes it easy to reference and review if one ever felt so prompted.

How to Win Friends and Influence People is a type of book that I don't usually read.  After reading it I haven't changed my opinion much on the genre it belongs to.  The book certainly has useful things to say but only if they're applied in real human relationships; otherwise, the book and its well-known title will remain a punch-line and nothing more."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

250 Books: Looking Back at Being 'Literate'

Reading for me is one part entertaining and one part enlightening.  Some books provide more of one thing than the other, but I sincerely try to read books that can provide at least a little bit of both.  To paraphrase Ezra Taft Benson, one sign of wisdom is not only knowing what to read but also what not to read.  There are literally millions of books in print and hundreds of thousands more are printed in the United States each year.  Clearly, even a meaningful goal, such as 1,000 books in a lifetime, can feel somewhat minimal or lacking in scope.  Therefore, I don’t want to feel like I have wasted my time once I’ve finished a book. 

I recently reached the first tier of my 1,000 books goal—250 books (my wife beat me to that tier by finishing her 250th book while I was finishing up my 249th).  Looking over my current list of 250 books, I wanted to cull several books that for one reason or another have stuck with me in an exceptional way after I read them.  Not all of the books will appeal to everyone, but I think anyone could get a sufficient amount of entertainment and/or enlightenment from each.  (As with all lists that attempt to tally the ‘best’ of anything, I will naturally and unfortunately leave out books that should probably be included).

Fiction/Historical Fiction/Narrative
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card
Exodus by Leon Uris
The Haj by Leon Uris
Armageddon by Leon Uris
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
Anthem by Ayn Rand
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Freddy’s Book by John Gardner
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
True Grit by Charles Portis
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Giver by Lois Lowry

Non-Fiction
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage
Eat the Rich by P.J. O’Rourke
Man . . . His Origin and Destiny by Joseph Fielding Smith
The Federalist Papers by James Madison, James Madison, John Jay
The American Tradition by Clarence B. Carson
The True Believer by Eric Hoffer
Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden