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:

"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."