Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reflections: Animal Farm

Adam C. Zern opines on George Orwell's Animal Farm:

"I'm not sure I could say anything about Orwell's Animal Farm that hasn't been said before by students of varying educational levels.  I vaguely remember reading it when I was younger, but time withered my memory of the book.  It's a very short book, which makes a second reading of it quite convenient.  It's a classic; it deserves to be such.

Just like Orwell's more adult work, 1984, Animal Farm is laser-focused on the subject of totalitarianism.  The book is traditionally understood to be an unambiguous condemnation of Communism, an ideology worthy of condemnation at every opportunity, but it could easily be applied to any form of totalitarianism.  In fact, the so-called 'satire' of the book can hardly can be called that.  Even the most outlandish methods of control perpetuated by Napoleon and his fellow Pig-rulers are hardly exaggerations.  Dictators of all sorts, and from everywhere, will try, have tried, and will forever try whatever is necessary to maintain and perpetuate their own power.  Animal Farm is brilliant in that it is such a simple and poignant testimony of that reality.

The ending of Animal Farm is unforgettable.  The effects of absolute power are devastating, especially for those who deserve the greatest protection.  Regardless of whether or not I read the book already, it was worth reading again.  Animal Farm is a reminder of what we all too often forget."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Terryl Givens's People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture:

"I am a devout Latter-day Saint, and I am interested in Latter-day Saint culture.  It might seem intellectually redundant to both live in a culture and then make a special effort to learn of that culture, but just like a fish doesn't appreciate water, we often don't appreciate the environment and culture we are daily surrounded by and participate in.  I stumbled upon Terryl Givens's People of Paradox while reading a post on the official LDS Newsroom.  Its subtitle—A History of Mormon Culture—was enough of an impetus to buy the book and add it to my Thousander list.

As with any book that attempts to achieve a truly lofty goal, such as documenting the cultural history of an entire people, People of Paradox attempts to provide sufficient detail to the cultural history of the Mormon people without becoming superfluos in its details.  Apparently in an effort to focus the thrust and purpose of the book, Terryl Givens attempts to focus on the 'paradoxes' of Mormon culture and spends significant attention to the conflicts that arise therefrom.   Some of these conflicts include the Latter-day Saints' uncompromising belief in the moral agency (freedom to choose) of each human soul while at the same time being stubbornly to loyal Priesthood leadership as well as moral and cultural standards in opposition to unhindered artistic expression.  The book is at its strongest when it outlines LDS beliefs and their impacts on LDS culture.  The book wavers a little bit when the author seemed to become more of a movie/literarture/architecture/art critic instead of a historian.  The episodes are relatively short-lived, but they do hurt the book, in my opinion.

The most challenging, compelling, and irritating parts of the book are the ones that deal with the conflict between religious orthodoxy and Mormon intellectuality.  At times it was challenging to make perfect sense of the balance between LDS beliefs and secular knowledge.  At others times it was compelling because of the Mormon cultural and doctrinal expectation to embrace all truth, whatever its source and wherever it is found, and the impact that has on Latter-day Saints.  And at still other times it was irritating because it appears that many LDS intellectuals whine too much and the author gives them far too much credit.

Overall, I really enjoyed People of Paradox.  As a Latter-day Saint, I have a greater appreciation for the water that I swim.  At the very least, I know it exists, and I think coming to that knowledge alone justifies the reading of People of Paradox."

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Reflections: Killing Lincoln

Sarah J. Zern opines on Bill O'Reilly's and Martin Dugard's Killing Lincoln:

"I have always been fascinated by a good, real-life mystery.  Amelia Earhart, JFK, and the Russian princess Anastasia are just a few of the historical mysteries that have always intrigued me.  I had never really thought of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as much of a mystery though.  Everyone knows that John Wilkes Booth, the crazy actor, shot Lincoln while he was in the theater watching a play.  Most people are even familiar with his shout of 'Sic semper tyrranus!'  However, after watching The Conspirator recently (interesting film by the way—not Oscar worthy, but amazingly acted) my interest in Abraham Lincoln history was peaked.  This particular film surrounds the accusation and trial of Mary Surratt, the mother of one of the conspirators associated with John Wilkes Booth.  When my mother received this book as a Christmas present, I borrowed it as soon as I could.

The book is split into thirds.  The first section gives you the history of the final days of the Civil War.  This is very relevant because Lincoln’s assassination was literally on the heels of the Union’s victory.  Now, when I say relevant, I mean it makes sense that it was included.  However, it was included a little too much in my opinion.  After fifty or so pages, I was completely over it.  Not to diminish the historic and horrifying events of our nation’s bloodiest battle, but I had picked this book up to learn about Lincoln’s assassination, not the last battle of the Civil War.  It was interesting, but a little too much.  In my opinion, it was included to beef up the book.

The next two sections of the book get to the 'good stuff.'  You learn the background of John Wilkes Booth and the many people he lured in to assassinate the president.  Booth’s first plan was actually to kidnap President Lincoln and smuggle him down to the Southern states, where he would be held accountable for his 'crimes' against the Confederacy.  Mary Surratt’s son John was initially involved in the kidnapping conspiracy, but it is unclear if he was ever privy to Booth’s insane Plan B.  In any case, this part of the book is fascinating to me.  Lots of cool facts and lots of loose ends that no one has ever been able to fully tie up.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in history and a good look into the mind of one very crazy man.  There were so many interesting little details I had never heard about Lincoln and some of the ironies surrounding his death.  I don’t want to give away any of the details, but I assure you this book is worth the read to get them!  If you can get through the first section, which again is very interesting, just not super relevant to Lincoln’s assassination, you will find a very enjoyable read."