Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best Books of 2012

Adam C. Zern shares his selections of the two best books he read in 2012:

"As I have mentioned in years past, the following two books, and the honorable mentions, are not the most perfect books I read in 2012.  They are the books that intrigued, educated, entertained, or enlightened me the most.  If I were forced to examine and evaluate all of the books I read in 2012 and could only recommend two books, these would be the two.

Non-fiction - Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty by Randy Barnett

I knew going into Randy Barnett's Restoring the Lost Constitution that I was in for a treat.  I had listened to several of his lectures and they were excellent.  I have been extremely impressed by Professor Barnett's intellectual prowess and compelling logic.  Restoring the Lost Constitution is all of his libertarian genius on paper.  It is extremely compelling, sometimes challenging, but never unreasonably esoteric.  True, the reader will certainly need a relatively strong background in Constitutional law and legal theory to appreciate this book, but once the reader has reached that level of understanding this is a must-read.  Randy Barnett's ideas are worth investigation for individuals from all sides of the ideological scale.

 Honorable Mentions:
A People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture by Terryl Givens
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

Fiction - Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

What could I possibly say to convince readers that Ray Bradbury is one of the finest authors of the 20th century?  Dandelion Wine is probably the book I would recommend to convince other readers of that fact.  As his most 'mainstream' (for lack of a better word) book, Dandelion Wine is a great entry-point for readers who haven't read Bradbury before.  Many of his books and short stories can be a little off-center for many readers and may even put some off.  (I love them all).  This book, however, is a story about childhood, summer afternoons, and the magic that permeates our lives, whether we notice it or not.  It's a beautiful book and one that I would enthusiastically recommend to anyone.

Honorable Mentions:
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Reflections: Gods and Generals

Sarah J. Zern opines on Jeff Shaara's Gods and Generals:

"The Civil War was always a topic that my father took great pride in teaching to his children.  One of our ancestors, General Joseph E. Johnston, played a fairly important role in the Confederacy, and so discussing the war has a very special place in my family’s hearts.  Because of my family’s roots in the Confederate Army and growing up in the South, I was always taught about the “real” reasons that the Southern States went to war against the North.  As I started to read Gods and Generals, I found that these reasons were very fairly voiced, and so I instantly became very intrigued with how the author would treat the historical events of the bloodiest war that America has ever seen.

This book follows four main characters, two of which join the Union Army, and two of which join the Confederacy.  The author did an excellent job of giving a detailed and very humanistic background of each of these men.  I was emotionally attached to each the more I read about them, and had a greater understanding about why each of them decided to join the side of the war that they did.  All were men who did not believe in slavery, the topic that is most credited with beginning the Civil War, yet they were divided as to which cause they supported due to so many factors.  I thought that the author was extremely fair and respectful as he discussed each of these great men.  I never felt any bias one way or another from the author, which was incredibly refreshing.

This book takes the reader from the days leading up to the Civil War all the way to the Battle of Gettysburg, which is covered in the next book of the trilogy The Killer Angels.  Because I so enjoyed the accurate and emotional way in which the author writes about history, I immediately picked up the next book in the trilogy so that I could see what happens to the men so reverently spoken of in Gods and Generals.  This is undoubtedly one of the best books I have read this year."

Reflections: Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Ezra Taft Benson's biography by Sheri L. Dew:

"Ezra Taft Benson is my most admired statesmen.  I have read dozens of his speeches, one of his books (An Enemy Hath Done This), as well as reading books he endorsed, such as The American Tradition by Clarence B. Carson.  In fact, I have gone so far as to read a biography of a personality, Robert A. Taft, because Ezra Taft Benson listed him as one of his most admired statesmen.  After reading his official biography by Sheri Dew, I am as impressed and endeared to him as I have ever been.  I just wish he could have gotten a more talented author to have written about his life.

Sheri Dew does an adequate job, but that's the most that could be said.  Her writing is dull, sometimes boring, and focuses on providing a travelogue rather than truly revealing a personality.  Sheri Dew does mention in the preface to her book that she purposely avoided controversy that at times swirled around Ezra Taft Benson, but it sometimes left the book feeling overly sanitized.  The reason Ezra Taft Benson is such a fascinating and admirable personality is because regardless of the controversy created by his convictions he held impressively firm.  His feelings on freedom, the U.S. Constitution, as well as mothers working outside of the home, and his subsequent outspoken quality make him the statesmen and spiritual leader I admire.  I could only hope I would be as devoted to truth as he was, and I wish the author would have elaborated in greater detail on what the consequences can sometimes be when one stands for truth and won't budge.

Latter-day Saints will no doubt be the most interested to read this book.  Ezra Taft Benson eventually became the 13th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  What makes him unique, however, was his extensive work in the public arena, which included being the Secretary of Agriculture for all eight years of Dwight Eisenhower's administration.  His devotion to his own convictions can be appreciated by any, even if you find yourself disagreeing with him.  I hope that he would be remembered in a positive light, even by his critics, because of the integrity that he exhibited.

In the final analysis, an interesting life makes for an interesting book, even if the writing isn't all that interesting."

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Reflections: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Adam C. Zern offers a few thoughts on Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl:

"I like reading books that end up on a list of 'classics.'  I am forever curious as to why certain books become so much a part of our cultural and academic experiences while others are buried in obscurity.  Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is ubiquitous on most lists of classics.  After reading it for myself, I believe it deserves a spot on that list.

The Diary of a Young Girl is special because it's so unique in origins.  Who would have thought, Anne Frank certainly had no idea, that a 15 year old girl's journal would come to influence so many others in such a profound way?  This impact partly comes from the circumstances in which the diary is written.  The situation, like most events associated with the Holocaust, is so shocking it leaves one staggered and stunned that such realities ever existed, especially when considering the devastating consequences on humanity.  Anne Frank's diary is a window into a very human experience, one which leaves the reader pondering well after the book is finished.

The situation in which the diary was written is not the only reason the diary has reached such a vast audience.  Anne Frank's writing, even though it's very conversational and sometimes quite scattered, is excellent.  It feels as if she knew millions would eventually read what she had to say, but she certainly had no idea.  Her experiences, as recorded in her diary, reveals a family dynamic that is not unlike your own.  Perhaps that's one reason why the book's content linger for so long.  Anne Frank belonged to an ordinary family who were suddenly thrust into a extraordinary and terrifying new situation, but families are still families, and teenage girls are still teenage girls.  Anne's constant musings and misgivings regarding her parents, her young love,  her insecurities, and sometimes confidence and arrogance, didn't annoy but enlighten me.  She has plenty to say, and due to her writing ability and sincerity, I enjoyed every last word.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl belongs on a 'classics' list.  It's a powerful testament of how we are all so very much like one another.  Considering her final fate along with most of her family and friends, the book is implicitly sad.  However, it's many revelations regarding the human family are encouraging in a world of hate and fear.   I will remember it for many years to come."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reflections: Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark

Brad Howes opines on Ridley Pearson's Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark:

"It is true that a book written for middle school-aged children could give a (mostly) grown man nightmares. Kingdom Keepers provides a unique journey through the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, specifically after the turnstiles stop, well, turning. In Toy Story-esque fashion, the rides come to life once the lights go down. And once the lights go down, it is a classic story of good versus evil. The evil witch Maleficent is part of a group that call themselves the Overtakers, who plan to take over not only the Magic Kingdom and Disney World, but the entire globe. Of course, she calls upon the Pirates from the famous ride, and pulls some dirty tricks on other not-so-scary rides in her efforts.

It’s up to Finn, a middle-school student who is a hologram by night, along with other holograms to defeat the Undertakers. The highest level of intrigue comes when Kingdom Keepers meets National Treasure as Finn and his buddies seek to find secret clues throughout the park left by Walt himself that will help good reign victorious.

Let it be known, this review is not exactly an endorsement as I wonder to myself whether I will continue the ride through three other sequels (and another due out Spring 2013) or take an emergency exit. It’s true, I couldn’t put the book down. However, it was the intricate descriptions of the park itself, as well as the hidden mysteries that kept me involved, not the plot itself. References to the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, the Ticket and Transportation Center, and the underground tunnels make me want more, not the little creepy children from It’s a Small World coming to life and attacking the riders. That’s what gave me the nightmares."

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Reflections: A War of Gifts: An Ender Story

Adam C. Zern opines on Orson Scott Card's A War of Gifts:

"What does Christmas look like in the Ender universe?  I wasn't quite sure what I was getting when I bought A War of Gifts: An Ender Story (not to be confused with 'A Christmas Story'), but when I finally realized that it was actually a Christmas story set in the Ender universe I was quite pleased.  A War of Gifts is really a glorified short story, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Someone could actually enjoy the book if they had only read Ender's Game since it takes place during Ender's time at Battle School.  Like the other stories presented in Ender's universe, there are some interesting ideas to grapple with and ponder.  I thought it was a creative way of exploring the 'true meaning' of Christmas.  And, as always in Card's Ender books, I was eager to get to know and understand the characters presented.

Is A War of Gifts a cheap cash-in on Card's part?  I don't think so.  I think Orson Scott Card really loves his Ender universe and the characters that inhabit it, but so do I.  I keep coming back to the Ender universe, even for its one-off Christmas stories, because I'm consistently entertained and every now and again enlightened."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reflections: The Wisdom of Teams

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on John R. Katzenbach's and Douglas K. Smith's The Wisdom of Teams:

"My current occupation is as a Business Analyst for a specialty pharmacy.  It has been a wonderful learning experience as I've acclimated to the role and its requirements.  Just like with other areas of my life, I dislike not knowing what can be known.  Generally, my non-fiction reading list is packed full of political science and historical books since I have such a passion for both.  Yet, especially over the last several months, I have felt a desire to increase my understanding of business and practices related to it.  Mostly by accident, I started this new intellectual journey by reading The Wisdom of Teams by John R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith.  I hope the journey gets better from here.

The Wisdom of Teams has plenty of good to provide, but it only needed about 150 pages to provide it.  Although it's not a very long book, the epilogue is all finished up by 265 pages, it feels long.  It feels repetitive and redundant.  On so many occasions I could hear myself saying internally: "I know, I know, teams are good."  The book lacked a feeling of importance, even though the authors mentioned on multiple occasions how important their ideas really are.

I did learn a handful of valuable things, but I wish it didn't take 265 pages to learn them.  (Keep in mind, I don't shy away from reading some pretty hefty books; they just better be good).  I think there are plenty of people, professionals, who go from day to day in their careers without ever thinking all that critically regarding their job performance, the organization they operate in, and how a few really good ideas could make things better.  That's where I think a book like The Wisdom of Teams could have a positive impact on a professional's career.  It can provide those ideas that a professional has never considered before.  Alas, in the case of The Wisdom of Teams, a few good ideas were buried by a clunky book.

I freely admit my issue may be less with The Wisdom of Teams and more with the entire genre of business books.  I hope that's not the case because I do plan on reading more business-related books in hopes of finding some more great ideas.  I just hope they're presented in a more reasonable, enjoyable, and affecting way."

Sunday, November 18, 2012

What You Don't Know is the Reason

Adam C. Zern expresses his conviction on why we should read:

"A Lost Lady was my 300th book.  At times, I am immensely pleased at that number and other times it causes me little pride.  I've been on this earth for 27 years.  How could I have read only 300 books?  My insecurity in what I haven't read comes from my own intimate knowledge of my deeply felt ignorance.  However, considering the reading habits of most people, I can't help but feel justified in a little self-congratulation since I've made reading a priority in my life.

And why isn't reading a priority for so many others?  I was recently speaking with a co-worker and she expressed the common refrains of why someone doesn't read, such as: it's boring, I can't remember what I've read, I don't have any time, etc.  Yet, as is almost always the case, she expressed her wish that she did read and her personal conviction that she should read but doesn't.  I gave some encouragement, told her getting into a reading habit is similar to establishing any other kind of habit, and provided a title of a book (it happened to be The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom) I guessed she might find interesting, based on her admitted interests.  I hope she reads it, and I hope the act becomes habitual.

What we don't know—that's what should drive us to read.  And that shouldn't limit us to reading non-fiction.  The little-p prophets of literature have provided insights into mankind, society, and philosophy (among other things) in a more poignant fashion than most non-fiction books I have read.  (I just wish more contemporary authors actually wrote literature and not the self-absorbed and dank nonsense they do).  I talk to so many who don't read and subsequently don't know so much.  Reading fills you up, not with useless facts and figures (although I suppose it could if you limit your reading to only the useless books variety), but with ideas, perspectives, and thoughts.  You have something to talk about when you read and that something is usually pretty important.

When so many don't know or can't talk about it, whatever 'it' happens to be at the moment, and I'm not referring to our mostly barren pop culture, I hope more people would take the time to read.  I don't remember a single person who has ever said: 'I really regret taking the time to read.'  On the other hand, I've heard plenty of people say in plenty of ways how they regret not reading or taking so much time doing things that aren't reading.  What you don't know, which is, oh, so very much, should drive you to read.  That is exactly what has driven me, and with 300 books clattering around in my brain I'm convinced I've got a long, long way to go."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reflections: Jane Austen In Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs

Cortney Howes shares her thoughts on  Paula Marantz Cohen's Jane Austen In Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs:

"At the library I came across Jane Austen in Scarsdale: Or Love, Death, and the SATs. Since I am a huge Jane Austen fan I felt that I had to read this book since her name was in the title

Anne Ehrlich is a high-school guidance counselor who dedicates her life to helping the students in her care get into the college of their dreams. She was raised in a very wealthy family and attended Columbia University. As a young college student she fell in love with a man that did not live up to her family's financial expectations. When it came time for them to take the next step her family convinced her that he was not right for her. Now, thirteen years later, her family has lost their fortune, she is single and he is back in town. This book takes the reader on her journey on figuring out if they were really meant to be or if she is just holding onto something that is no longer hers.

This book is an easy, light read. There are a lot of references to things that go on in a school workplace and will be found very entertaining to those who are familiar with these settings. I would recommend it if you are looking for something to help clear your mind. I plan on reading Paula Cohens other book, Jane Austen in Boca, in the near future."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reflections: A Lost Lady

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Willa Cather's A Lost Lady:

"In terms of entertainment, subtlety is mostly a vestige of the past.  I have pondered before on what a film like Citizen Kane would look like if it were made today.  A Lost Lady by Willa Cather is a book that would have a hard time being written today.  It is indeed subtle.  In fact, during the initial introduction of the characters, one needs to pay especially close attention to the subtleties exhibited in order to enjoy the conclusion and pay-off the book offers.

As the title of the book suggests, the focus of the book is the main female character—Marian Forrester.  She is, however, not the protagonist through which the audience witnesses the narrative.  Niel Herbert is the main character through which the audience experiences most of the story; although, there are some interesting breaks from his point of view.  This point of view helps the narrative a great deal, in my opinion, since this gives the audience more latitude to examine and even judge Mrs. Forrester for what they think she is and is not.  Readers of the book will come to slightly different conclusions regarding Mrs. Forrester and her character or lack thereof.

The biggest problem with A Lost Lady is its finding an audience.  I'm not sure too many people would be too interested to read it.  It's an obscure book from an obscure author.  (I'm told Willa Cather is supposedly well-known in literary circles; obviously I'm not a part of those circles).  Yet, the longer I've thought about A Lost Lady the more I've liked it.  I hope it finds an audience, even if it's a small one.

A Lost Lady is a good book.  It's not an exhibition of staggering genius, but it does provide enough to chew on and debate.  I was very unsure of the book's quality when I initially started reading, but I quickly found myself enjoying it.  It's worth reading."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reflections: Swamplandia!

Adam C. Zern opines on Karen Russell's Swamplandia!:

"It's the same old story.  I hear of a supposed new modern classic by a new talented and exceptional author.  I decide to take a chance and use my precious book buying dollars to give it a read, and I end up turning the last moribund page with a sag in my shoulders and a shake of my head.

I wanted to love Swamplandia!  I really did.  The initial 50 pages of the book are excellent, so things got off to a promising start.  Mood, tenor, themes, characters—it's filled with all of the right ingredients.  And for a book that is so much about souls, sacrifice, and family, it felt surprisingly soulless to me.  There were various times in which I could see the author taking the story in one of several directions, and she always seemed to take it in a direction I didn't want it to go.  Clearly this is an extremely subjective criticism, but I'm the reader and am willing to embrace my subjectivity.  Karen Russell is a fine writer, but I didn't care for her story.  (Not to mention I think she takes one too many shortcuts in terms of plot details, almost like she was saying—"oh, yeah, I forgot to mention!").

I will mention that the State of Florida is an absolutely wonderful place to set a story.  It's natural environments and even its cultural scenery is filled with magic and mystery.  Many people come to Florida to make believe, and Karen Russell does a wonderful job in exploiting symbols of Florida, cultural and natural, to elevate her story.  She really did take full advantage of her setting, and it allows for Swamplandia!'s more interesting elements, such as when you're trying to discern whether or not the story's more fantastical elements are real or a fiction.  You feel in many ways what the main character, Ava, feels.

I wouldn't recommend Swamplandia!  Its virtues don't outweigh its weaknesses in my mind.  I was hoping for more, but this just wasn't the story I wanted to read."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Reflections: The Time Machine

Sarah J. Zern shares her thoughts on H.G. Wells' The Time Machine:

"I grew up in a home where old movies were venerated.  It had to be a timeless classic if it were in black and white, and if it included spontaneous singing and dancing, it was most likely one of the greatest movies of all time.  One of these little gems that my father insisted on showing us kids was the 1960’s classic The Time Machine, starring Rod Taylor.  Any time that Dad saw from the TV guide that it would be coming on, the TV was off-limits to any other program during its air-time.  Needless to say, I have some very strong, and very fond, memories of watching the “Time Traveler” (as he is referred to in the book) zoom into the future of the Morlocks and the Eloi.

The only background I had on H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine was the aforementioned 1960s film, although I do have some VERY vague memories of a recent cinematic remake that was obviously ultimately forgettable.  Although a work of fiction, this book feels very much like a commentary on society as it is and as it should be, with a few interesting characters inserted along the way.  Not that the characters themselves are very distinct—the main character is never actually given a name other than the time traveler, and his female counterpart is a woman of the future that he calls Weena, but who never actually speaks at all.  Given the fact the characters in this book are so undeveloped, it lends reason to the idea that Wells’ intended purpose for this story was to offer up his own thoughts on society and its predestined future.  So, if you are interested in reading a book that has wonderfully developed characters and plot, this one is a skipper.

Although I am generally very attracted to literature that has great plot development and is character driven, I very much enjoyed reading The Time Machine.  You can see the Socialistic and Communistic themes very clearly in this book, but I don’t see it as a book that ultimately championed either philosophy.  The time traveler thinks that humankind has reached its pinnacle of existence by achieving a society in which no one must work and everyone is frail and beautiful, but that myth is very quickly debunked by our author, who I am told was in fact quite the Socialist in his day.  I found it very ironic that this futuristic society was so flawed and corrupt, yet so pleasing to the uninformed eye. 

Although there is really no way to spoil the ending of this book because it is told as a flashback from the point of view of our time traveler, I hesitate to spoil any more of the storyline.  It is a very quick read at a brief 120 or so pages, so I recommend this book to anyone with a little time and a little curiosity.  It is definitely worth the read."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reflections: Democracy in America

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and Two Essays on America:

"The Penguin classics version of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America weighs in at 935 pages, which includes the appendices, notes, and two essays about America.  Flipping that last page, similar to when I finished Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, was wonderfully fulfilling.  Tocqueville's exploration of 1830 America is a book about contradictions.  It highlights America's successes, its failures, and the exceptional quality of its citizens as well as their depravities.  Tocqueville is extremely laudatory of America's accomplishments, for reasons which the author outlines in detail, but also offers his warnings and concerns for all democratic societies.

Tocqueville organizes his book by separating it into two volumes.  The first volume is extraordinary.  There was hardly a page that didn't engage my attention and enlighten my mind.  The second volume felt less focused and less valuable overall than the first, but it also offers plenty to appreciate.  To a certain degree, Tocqueville writes in large generalizations, which is where many of the contradictions come from (Americans are greedy yet generous).  When he speaks of "Americans" he was referring to a population of millions and it would be difficult then as well as now to suggest that all of the citizens included in the generalization held the same morals, motivations, and outlook.  Yet, his commentaries regarding what made America unique and successful are, I believe, in many respects true.  His honesty can be seen throughout the book, and the reader can clearly discern the convictions of the author.

Perhaps of more value than any other topic addressed by the author, his commentaries on democracy, its value and its dangers, are shockingly prescient.  More than a few times I stopped reading in stunned amazement that the pitfalls Tocqueville was describing in detail had come to pass in our modern age.  There were other dangers he saw afar off in 1830 that are at our doorstep in 2012.  Tocqueville should be given credit for not limiting himself to myopic observations of his day but looking ahead and delineating the snares democratic societies would trap themselves in.

Democracy in America is an excellent book, and it's not for everyone.  Most would find plenty of benefit reading it in segments or sections, as many apparently have already*.  It's another one of my 'accomplishment' books, and I'll surely use it as a reference in the future.  I'll display it proudly on my Thousander Bookshelf.

*Interestingly, I became aware of Democracy of America because of a powerful quote that was supposedly pulled from it.  When I began reading the book, I read with anticipation to finally come across the quote from the actual primary source.  After reading around 800 pages, I began to doubt it actually existed in the book.  To my utter chagrin, I learned the quote was never spoken or written by Tocqueville and somehow became a popularized quote attributed to him without any referential support.  The experience reminded me of how the simplest of mistakes in the recording of history can lead to large misunderstandings."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Reflections: Anthem

Adam C. Zern offers his thoughts on Ayn Rand's Anthem:

"Anthem is now the only non-scriptural book I have ever read twice.  This isn't any overwhelming accomplishment considering its brevity, but it is significant because it is one of the few books worth reading twice.  Ayn Rand is a polemic in the best way possible.  Her ideas, largely ignored by academics who should know better, are riveting and controversial and deserve to be taught, debated, refuted, and embraced.

The most horrifying truth about Ayn Rand and her philosophy, Objectivism, is not what it teaches; rather, it's that so few know anything about her and her philosophy.  Her philosophy is the absolute opposite to all forms of collectivism, an ideology and philosophy that is constantly promulgated and often heralded by academics and politicians.  Anthem is a perfect springboard to become familiar with Ayn Rand's philosophy.  It presents the core and the beating heart of her philosophy.

Finishing Anthem the second time was an interesting experience since I read the book the first time when I was in my late teens.  I don't think I appreciated the nuances as much back then, and reading it at my current age, with the experiences I've had over the last decade, and with my current perspective made me squirm a little bit more than I remember the first time.  I think I appreciated to a greater extent how much in conflict some tenets of her philosophy is in relation to my own.  Having said that, I love Ayn Rand; I love her ideas, and I love what she offers to a thoughtful and rational mind.  Her writings have influenced my ideology to a greater degree than any other author I have ever read, and I believe she merits the highest of regard in academic circles and in society as as whole.

Read Ayn Rand!  If you never have, then I feel the impetus is even greater to become acquainted with a woman and a philosophy that should hold as much sway in our political and ideological debates as Karl Marx.  If you've read her before, then I would encourage a greater exploration of what she had to say and why it could matter.  The attention I have given to Ayn Rand's writing has made me a devotee, admirer, and critic of Ayn Rand, and that's the greatest compliment I could give."

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reflections: Shadow of the Giant

Adam C. Zern offers his thoughts on Orson Scott Card's Shadow of the Giant:

"When I completed Shadow Puppets I was as hesitant as I’ve ever been to continue reading the Shadow series, which is an extension of the Ender series.  I felt the book was extremely weak in both story and character.  It made me feel as if Orson Scott Card was wandering helplessly in the desert of his own imagination and never finding an oasis of meaningful creativity.  Happily, Shadow of the Giant, the 4th book in the Shadow series, is a solid return to the character-driven, emotional core that made Card’s other Ender and Shadow books so good.

The best part of Shadow of the Giant is that one of the main conflicts and with it the main antagonist—Achilles—is gone.  Bean’s personal war with Achilles was overwrought and its subsequent resolution was surprisingly weak.  Now that it’s over it feels as if Card doesn’t have to slavishly return to the conflict as he repeatedly did in the last book.  The meat of this book is the confrontations between a variety of characters and countries, which allows for more diverse and interesting scenarios.  In other words, Shadow of the Giant is a whole lot more entertaining than Card’s last entry in the series.

Anyone familiar with any of the books in the Ender or Shadow series knows that they’re based on psychology as well as science fiction.  Card sometimes meanders into too much psychoanalysis of his characters, which he accomplishes through stilted dialogue, but the characters remain fascinating.  As I have said before, I am invested in these characters and will continue reading what Card has to offer in this universe even after the Ender and Shadow series are over.

By reading in their entirety the Ender and Shadow series in the Ender’s Game universe, I can honestly and confidently say that there are two books which are must-reads—Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow.  The other books in the two sagas or worthwhile but only after deciding if the characters deserve your time."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Reflections: One Second After

Adam C. Zern offers his thoughts on William R. Forstchen's One Second After:

"Reading post-apocalyptic books is almost always a form of self-induced torture.  (A notable exception would be Alas, Babylon).  They're depressing, sometimes crushingly so (think The Road by Cormac McCarthy), fatalstic, and possibly prescient, but who can really know?  Therefore, you might be torturing yourself for nothing. Unfortunately, William Forstchen's One Second After didn't do much to break away from the self-induced torture genre and even overlaid an excessively desperate story with groan producing melodrama and sloppy patriotism.  In other words, One Second After is not a very good book.

One Second After is a novelization of a survival guide rather than being a novel about characters trying to survive.  Revolving around an unexpected EMP attack on the United States (and elsewhere), the author relentlessly piles on one 'did you think of that?' survival fact after another.  In my opinion, Mr. Forstchen was far more concerned with sharing his research findings regarding how lousy things would get if we were attacked with an EMP than he is with developing relationships between characters and creating emotional crescendos.  That's not to say he doesn't try at times.  There was one or two genuinely touching scenes, but in a 528 page book that's frustratingly insufficient.  I felt bad for some characters, yes, but I felt worse that the book wasn't over.

One Second After does serve a purpose.  It's a springboard for conversations about the end-times—where will you be and what will you do?  But can't that purpose be served with a well-written article in Discover Magazine or Scientific American?  Clearly I was not impressed with One Second After, and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else’s Thousander list."

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Reflections: The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

Adam C. Zern offers his thoughts on Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court:

"It probably is true that average citizens know the least about the Supreme Court than any other branch of the federal government, and most probably do not understand the far-reaching impact the Supreme Court's decisions can have on individual liberty, the scope and power of government, and subsequently on everyday life.  Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine does an adequate job in providing enlightening evidence regarding how much the Supreme Court can affect our lives, the flawed people who make up the Court, and the political and ideological conflicts that surround the Court.  However, the book also has some significant faults that make it more mediocre than I hoped.

To begin with, the subtext of the book—'Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court'—is partly true.  You are given an internal glance at how the Court functions, how individuals are nominated for the Court, confirmed, and how they interact on the Court; yet, the book's true focus is on what the author classifies as the Conservative ‘counter-revolution' as well as what the author has determined as being Conservative's machinations to control the Court.  He also spends a great deal of time expounding on the Conservative justices' supposed judicial activism.  I wanted a more hardline historical account of the Court, even if it only dealt with the last several decades, instead of the somewhat shrouded commentary provided by Toobin.  He quite flippantly throws around terms like extremism, nativism, liberal, and the all-important term of moderate to explain the views of various justices, and I believe those terms are painfully deficient to express the many nuances of a justice's opinion.

Having said that, the book is cleanly written.  Rarely does the writing feel clunky or difficult.  Also, I was very eager to continue to read the book and found the historical anecdotes (hopefully accurate) regarding the personalities and relationships connected with the Court as interesting as any other historical accounts I've read. 

I do feel I received a greater understanding of the Supreme Court, but I also feel compelled to find less commentary-driven books on the subject.  In the final analysis, I liked The Nine.  It will more than likely serve as a springboard for a greater personal exploration of the 'secret world' of the Supreme Court."

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Reflections: The Lost World

Adam C. Zern opines on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World:

"Among all of the classic adventure tales I've read so far, which includes Treasure Island, Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine, among others, I have liked The Lost World the most.  I think its charm lies in its themes, even if they're somewhat subtle.  Doyle's interesting insights into the subjects of science, faith, love, and truth make the book meaningful when the moments of grandeur, awe, and danger come.  It's not too heavy, however, so the book can be enjoyed even with a somewhat distracted reading.

Luckily, The Lost World doesn't fall into the same trap that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea did by needlessly cataloging a myriad of plant and animal life, although the potential for it was there.  The film version of Jurassic Park gives me the same feeling as Doyle's book.  The new world, the lost world, is full of wonderful creatures and things, but it's also incredibly dangerous.  You feel a sense of reverence for these new discoveries, and then something tries to eat you.  I could have done without the conflict between the Indians and the ape-men, but that is a minor complaint.

Among all the adventure books I've read, I would recommend The Lost World first.  It's a quick read but still meaningful.  It, thankfully, avoids some of the common weaknesses of other 'classic' adventure stories, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and its incessant and obnoxious cataloging.  The Lost World has also given me an impetus to read some of Doyle's other works, such as his Sherlock Holmes stories, and that's the best compliment I could give."

Friday, July 6, 2012

Reflections: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

 Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Joseph J. Ellis's Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:

"Reading a book like Founding Brothers reminds me why I love American History so much.  Although I also enjoy more hardline, fact-filled, and focused historical accounts, I thoroughly enjoyed Founding Brothers because of its greater focus on individual personalities (although there was no shortage of historical facts).  Founding Brothers provides wonderful insights into some of our most revered founder fathers, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison.  After reading the book, I feel more convinced than ever that the founding fathers were both as flawed as any other human being but were also exceptionally special and important people.

It's quite staggering to realize that so many talented and remarkable people were all so intimately involved in such singular events as the American revolution and the subsequent drafting of the Constitution and the literal building of a new nation.  Ellis's book highlights some of the consequential moments during those events, but more especially highlights the personalities that were involved.  You get a glimpse of how they agreed with each other and especially how they disagree—sometimes resulting in decades long feuds.  Ellis provides numerous interpretations into why certain founders did or said certain things, most of which seem perfectly valid.  There is, of course, a great deal that goes unrecorded, but what is recorded provides the basis for Ellis's excellent book.

I would strongly recommend Founding Brothers.  It's well-written and coming in at only 304 pages (that includes all of the notes and bibliography) it's not an overly taxing book, whereas many history-based books can be.  I feel much more aware of some of the founding fathers' personalities and their personal interactions with each other.  And when it comes to the founding fathers, that subject will always interest me."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Reflections: Crime and Punishment

Cliff Ward opines on Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment:

"I am more of a human being for having read this novel. I hope it lasts.

This and Anna Karenina are almost tied for the best and most elevating novels I've ever read (though Anna Karenina holds a hardy first). It made me cry and wrench in emotional anguish more than most books and less than Dostoevsky likely intended. The Greeks valued this kind of tragedy for its cathartic effect, but I know of no group of sufferers so adept at writing them than Russians. It was meant to evoke pity and disgust and love and pure hope. And that is what it did for me.

I loved this book like I would love a person. Although, it is one that you need to be ready for. You have to want to be made better by it, not just entertained. For example, it’s easy for some parents to give up on a child who seems to be forever lost. But it’s the parents who endure with hope, even amidst seemingly insuperable suffering, that find out what parenthood is really about—they discover, through overcoming, the infinite nature of love. The same type of thing will inevitably happen if you can resist giving up, avoid hanging yourself, and read Crime and Punishment in its soul-informing entirety.

Thank you Dostoevsky for your obvious suffering and for doing something with that suffering."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Reflections: Dandelion Wine

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine:

"It was a total coincidence that I began reading Dandelion Wine the very day that Ray Bradbury passed away.  Although I felt genuinely sad that he passed away, I was also genuinely excited to begin reading what I knew would be an interesting, creative, and meaningful narrative.  I recently complained that modern authors lack the ability to write truly great literature, but Ray Bradbury is an exception in a sea of modern mediocrity.  To describe him as a great author who writes great literature barely does him justice.

Dandelion Wine is definitely one of Bradbury's more traditional tales.  It's a tale of nostalgia and longing for childhood summers.  Although it's a domestic tale, it's still laced with Bradbury's signature flavor of fantasy, albeit very subtle in this story, and imagination.  At times it feels like it could have been a collection of short stories, but Bradbury beautifully knits the various vignettes together through his main characters, Douglas and Tom Spaulding.  If you have read Bradbury's writings before, it's entirely unnecessary to say that the writing is good; in fact, it's great.

In conclusion, I think Dandelion Wine is a wonderful book.  I also think it's a great book for anyone who has not read Bradbury to introduce themselves to his work.  With the passing of Ray Bradbury and my reading of Dandelion Wine, I have realized once again how great writers never actually die."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Reflections: Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Randy Barnett's Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty:

"Randy Barnett's Restoring the Lost Constitution is an 'achievement' book.  Although not as long or as difficult to read as some books I have read, finishing Restoring the Lost Constitution left me feeling filled and enlightened, even accomplished on a small scale.  There is a tremendous amount of information - historical, legal, ideological - in Randy Barnett's book.  Completing it made me feel like a genuinely smarter person.

I love American history and studying the Constitution and law from an academic perspective.  I have wanted to read Mr. Barnett's book for many months.  The book is not a primer.  It assumes knowledge of certain basic legal and constitutional theories, arguments, etc.  In that regard, there are more readable and approachable books that deal with this particular topic.  (The Dirty Dozen by Robert Levy and William Mellor would be one example).  However, if one feels comfortable wading into academically charged Constitutional waters, this book is an absolute joy.  The arguments are interesting, although reiterated one too many times, the historical information presented is enlightening, and the main thrust of the book-the presumption of liberty-is worth understanding for anyone, regardless of ideology.

I would highly recommend Restoring the Lost Constitution to anyone with an established knowledge of Constitutional law (although additional knowledge in ideology and political science would be helpful).  Otherwise, most people would get completely buried in the book's contents.  I loved the book and will point to it as a fine, albeit small, accomplishment having read it."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reflections: Saturday

Adam C. Zern opines on Ian McEwan's Saturday:

"Some books are truly unforgettable.  A few that comes to mind are Leon Uris's Exodus, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, John Gardner's Freddy's Book, Ayn Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Joseph Cambpell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I could name many others.  There are other books that are completely forgettable, which is why I have no desire to list them here.  I think Ian McEwan's Saturday will become one of those books.

The front and back cover of the book is filled with praise from reputable, so they say, sources.  I was hopeful the book would be as good as its biggest fans were saying.  I'm still on the look-out for a great, a truly great, contemporary work of literature.  I don't think Saturday is it.

The prose is good but not stellar.  The characters are uninteresting; the narrative has potential but only comes about half-way to what it should have been.  The book at times felt like a fictional channel for the author to voice his non-fiction feelings.  All authors do this, of course, to a certain extent.  But it doesn't have to feel like they're doing it.  They give their characters the ability to voice thoughts and opinions.  In Saturday, it feels like the characters are a shortcut to expression for the author.

I will forget Saturday.  It had a good line here and there, but it didn't give me what I wanted—what I'll remember—which is greatness.  So the contemporary literature curse continues, and I'll go back to what I know to be great."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Reflections: Mere Christianity

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity:

"C.S. Lewis is of course most well-known for his Chronicles of Narnia series.  I think far more compelling, however, are his commentaries on Christian theology, which include extra-scriptural explications on everything from psychology to sociology.  Thus far I have read two of Lewis's commentaries, The Four Loves and now Mere Christianity.  I liked them both equally, but I had a unique reaction to various aspects of Mere Christianity.

I don't think it would be inappropriate to label a large portion of Mere Christianity as brilliant, even inspired.  His writings on human nature, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the personality and historicity of Christ, and his logical connections, his prose, and his analogies are truly thought-provoking.  The first three quarters of the book are well-worth a recommendation for others to read the book.

However, and I realize the criticisms that follow are totally subjective and based on personal theological disagreements, the last quarter of the book kind of fell off of a cliff for me.  In my opinion, not even C.S. Lewis, even with all his brilliance and insight, can make the doctrine of the Trinity make any sense at all; although, I will admit that he has come closer than any other Christian I have spoken with or read.  Lewis becomes more of a logician than theologian (which he wouldn't claim to be anyway) toward the end of the book, working himself into logical pretzels that became, in my mind, somewhat nonsensical.

Mere Christianity is a great book, definitely worth reading.  Even if you have doctrinal disagreements with Lewis, which I certainly had, there is plenty to ponder in this relatively short book.  Lewis gave more reasons than not to continue to read his other writings.  I genuinely want to know what he thought, and I can't say that about many authors."