Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reflections: Mockingjay

Adam C. Zern opines on the finale of The Hunger Games trilogy - Mockingjay:

"Books don't seem to have the same chronic issue that many film franchises have when it comes to their sequels being of less quality then the originals.  The Hunger Games trilogy seems unique in my mind because the first book is a very distinct experience.  The second and third book had to move the story forward and as the series continues the less and less it resembles the first book, although the author intelligently perpetuates themes and motifs from the first book.

Mockingjay is a fantastic finale for the trilogy and a wonderful book.  The characters are set in the greatest Hunger Games of all: war.  The stakes are irreversibly high, life and death.  Tragedy is inevitable.  The last 100 - 150 pages of the books is a whirlwind of drama and brutality.  In fact, I was a little worried when, with only a few pages left, the trilogy's main character seemed nearly beyond repair, physically and mentally.  However, the author expertly transforms what could have been a depressing and disheartening conclusion into a beautiful and refined one.

In my opinion, Mockingjay is without a question the best book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  It doesn't simply conclude the main plot of the series and the ancillary character story lines, it explores meaningful themes and subject matters and culminates into a personal and touching commentary on the human spirit.  I loved Mockingjay, and I would recommend the entire Hunger Games trilogy on its merits alone."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reflections: Ideas Have Consequences

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Richard M. Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences:

"I find books in several different ways.  One way I like to find books is by reading what others have referenced.  I have bought and read several books because they were referenced in a speech or talk.  I have bought and read others because they were referenced in another book, and I checked the sources.  Richard M. Weaver's book was referenced twice, multiple times in each case, in two books that I enjoyed: Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions and George Roche's A World Without Heroes.  I loved what seemed to be the thrust of Weaver's book, and I decided to give it a try.

To begin with, the theme of Ideas Have Consequences is absolutely what I was looking for in a book.  I love books that deal with big ideas and the big consequences those ideas can have in society.  I was really looking forward to reading Weaver's book, but unfortunately I can't recommend it with much confidence.  The book is esoteric, in every sense of the word.  Sometimes I found the book simply incoherent.  That's not to say that the book is actually incoherently written; rather, I just couldn't keep up with what the author was saying.  He seems to assume a great deal of what the reader should already know, including aspects of art history, and if you aren't familiar with those nuances then you'll be left behind.  The author didn't seem to care much.

Having said that, the book isn't all bad.  There are moments of genuine brilliance and keen insight.  Some of his viewpoints would be seen as downright archaic today, but his reasoning is fascinating and at times challenging.  I definitely didn't agree with everything he had to say - his thoughts on industrialization seemed to be somewhat myopic - but he did have some good things to say.

I wanted to love this book, but I just couldn't.  I couldn't love it because I couldn't understand much of it.  I would skip this book.  There are other books that deal with big ideas and their big consequences that are intellectual and profound but are actually readable."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Reflections: Shadow Puppets

Adam C. Zern opines on Orson Scott Card's 7th book in the Ender series - Shadow Puppets:

"Seven books into a series, what can an author do to keep the stories and characters interesting?  How does the author keep the drama, humor, and the other various elements of a story from becoming stultified?  Having read Shadow Puppets I have to conclude that Orson Scott Card may be losing his stride.  Granted, Shadow Puppets is really the third book in the Bean (Shadow) trilogy, which began with Ender's Shadow, but that makes Shadow Puppets even more of a disappointment.  The Shadow series shouldn't feel this flat only three books into it.

The biggest problem with Shadow Puppets is that it introduces very little new information into the overall story and the conflicts are almost identical to Shadow of the Hegemon.  The biggest conflict of all, thus far, is resolved, but even that resolution is anticlimactic.  It just sort of happens with no real drama or emotion to accompany the event.  It was probably the biggest disappointment of the book.

Grumbling aside, I'm invested in these characters.  I will finish the Ender series to the bitter end.  I care for the characters, and I want to see the ultimate resolution of their story arcs.  I do hope, however, that Orson Scott Card flexed his creative muscles quite a bit more strenuously for the later Ender books."

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Reflections: Death Be Not Proud

Adam C. Zern opines on John J. Gunther's memoir Death Be Not Proud:

"It's somewhat of a recurring story for me: I found Death Be Not Proud at the Book Warehouse for cheap.  I was looking in the 'Classics' section and read on the cover of Mr. Gunther's book that it was a 'Modern Classic.'  This lofty classification caught my attention, and I was willing to give the book a chance.

It's hard for me to criticize Death Be Not Proud.  The only reason for this is because of the subject of the memoir.  John Gunther, Jr., the son of the author and the subject of the memoir, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and the book details the last several months of the boy's life.  The author makes sure to let the reader know of his son's best qualities and attempts to endear the reader to him.  Sadly, though, I felt very little connection to the son aside from an expected and normal human sympathy that I would feel toward anyone who was so afflicted.

My theory as to why I felt such little attachment is also my biggest criticism of Death Be Not Proud.  It's all a bit too clinical.  The author seems to want to avoid becoming maudlin or assigning philosophical meaning to much of anything.  Ironically, when he does become philosophical or obviously emotional the book is its strongest.  But he does it rarely.  It gives the reader very little reason to continue reading aside from reading a somewhat more personal albeit clinical account of a patient with a brain tumor.  In fact, after the author has finished his narrative, he includes dozens and dozens of pages of his son's letters and diary entries that, if read without the context of the book, would have absolutely nothing to do with the son's struggle, at least most of them.  The best part of the book is what the son's mother writes in regards to the experience, but it's only a few pages.

Clearly the publisher feels that Death Be Not Proud is a 'modern classic.'  I would most certainly differ with that assessment.  I don't like criticizing the book for human reasons and not academic ones.  Unfortunately, I didn't think the book was human or academic enough to be well remembered."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Best Books of 2011

Adam C. Zern offers his thoughts on the best books he read in 2011:

When I say "best" I don't necessarily mean the best written, or the best story, or the best prose, or the best themes, etc . . . I'm only attempting to identify two books, one fiction and one non-fiction, that were the most memorable, the most compelling, and the most entertaining for me personally.

Non-Fiction - A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell
It wasn't hard for me to decide which non-fiction book I liked the most from last year.  Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions was simply superb.  I have recommended the book to many, many people since reading it, and I will continue to do so.  It is a book that deserves to be read.  Its compare and contrast and explanation of ideology is, as far as I have read thus far, without parallel.  I knew a good deal about ideology and political theory before reading Mr. Sowell's book but reading it was a revelation.  I recommend it without reservation.

Honorable Mentions:
The Candy Bombers by Andrei Cherny
The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

Fiction - Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
Attempting to determine the best work of fiction I read last year was a little more difficult.  I eventually decided on Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn because of its creativity and compelling story.  Sanderson has created characters, a universe, conflicts, and a magic system that is wonderfully creative.  Certainly the book, and the series for that matter, has some classic fantasy elements that are easily recognizable.  Yet, I never felt the book was being cheap.  It's well-thought, deliberate, and I was thrilled to have come across Mistborn because it gave me a new trilogy, and universe, to really sink my teeth into.

Honorable Mentions:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Reflections: The Mansion

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Henry Van Dyke's less well-known Christmas tale - The Mansion:

"At a recent Christmas Devotional, the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thomas S. Monson, listed three works that he reads each year around Christmas-time: The Gospel According to Luke, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and The Mansion by Henry Van Dyke.  The first two were, of course, very familiar to me, but I had never heard of The Mansion.  I became curious and the source of the recommendation was more than enough to get me to read Henry Van Dyke's obscure Christmas-tale.

If one is familiar with A Christmas Carol, which I'm sure most people are, some similarities between it and The Mansion will immediately be apparent.  However, The Mansion deals with a slightly different theme and message than A Christmas Carol.  Unlike Dickens' thoroughly bad Ebenezer Scrooge, Van Dyke's main character, John Weightman, is not a bad man.  In fact, he is a pretty honorable man by most definitions.  He does good things and expects good things to be returned to him because of it.  And therein lays the main message of The Mansion.  Van Dyke seems to construct his entire story around a simple principle delineated in the New Testament: "Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.  Verily I say unto you, They have their reward" (Matthew 6:2).

In my opinion, A Christmas Carol is about a bad man becoming good while The Mansion is about a good man becoming better.  The Mansion doesn't seem to stay with you the way that A Christmas Carol does, which is too bad.  I wanted to like The Mansion a lot more than I did.  I felt like it had so many opportunities to powerfully and elegantly portray its message, but it all seemed a little flat.

It's a very short read, much like A Christmas Carol, and it presents an interesting message.  It certainly wasn't my favorite nor did I think it was exceptionally memorable.  Much like its main character, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't that great either."