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."