Monday, December 30, 2013

Reflections: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

My opinion of Daughter of Smoke and Bone looks a lot like a valley.  Looking at it from left to right, my opinion of the book was pretty high but begins to dip as I get closer to the other side.  It hits the bottom and starts to rise again until finally it reaches a peak that looks a lot like the other side of the valley.  Daughter of Smoke and Bone is wonderfully creative and mysterious but temporarily gets bogged down by its own clunky romance and stuttering storytelling.  By the end, however, the book is as fun and engaging as it was at the beginning and it's worth reading.

Laini Taylor has created a very unique and interesting fantasy world.  It's especially interesting when she dives into her fantasy head first and leaves behind the secret world within our real world fantasy that has been over-utilized.  It's there and it serves a purpose, but it doesn't over-stay its welcome.  Daughter of Smoke and Bone really shines when it presents story details and fantastical elements that are consistently surprising and unique.  Reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone reminded me in a strange way of reading Mistborn for the first time.  Both presented fantasy worlds that had semblances of other fantasy stories but really charted out their own space.  Furthermore, Daughter of Smoke and Bone has enough interesting characters to give the reader a reason to care about the fantasy world they're a part of.  Karou, the main character, is a strong female protagonist who I want to spend more time with in the follow-up titles.

The single biggest problem with Daughter of Smoke and Bone is its middle.  There is a romantic story thread that feels so contrived and rushed that it nearly stamped out my liking for the book.  Thankfully, by the end of the book the romance becomes a critical story element rather than a forced necessity because of the genre the book belongs to.  I still look back at that dithering middle section of the book and wish the author would have taken a different approach, but I'm willing to mostly overlook the book's flaws because I did enjoy it a great deal.

And will I continue reading the series?  I think I will.  I was left engaged and intrigued enough to want to know what becomes of the characters and the world they inhabit.  I'm not so compelled I'll read the sequels in quick succession, but I'll certainly get around to it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Divergent
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah: Debating Divergent
Books to Movies: The Host

Monday, December 23, 2013

Best Books of 2013: Non-fiction

I've already selected the best fiction books I read in 2013, but I also wanted to select several non-fiction titles that stood out this year.  Non-fiction doesn't get nearly as much love as it should, but hopefully there will be some readers out there willingly to spend some time with the below books.

The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg

When I wrote my review for The Prince of Frogtown I didn't have a single bad thing to say about the book, and I still don't.  The Prince of Frogtown is non-fiction, a combination of biography and autobiography, but it is every bit as artistic and profound as the best fictional narrative.  Rick Bragg is truly one of the finest authors I have ever read and The Prince of Frogtown is a masterpiece that no reader should miss.  (It would be a good idea, of course, to read the two books that came before it). 

The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

Works of non-fiction, especially something that sounds as ambitious as The Lessons of History, can require a great deal of time and attention that many are not willing to invest.  Lessons of History, however, is very, very short, and in its brevity it provides something different from other momentous works of fiction which have great value but lack any readers. Will and Ariel Durant write in an approachable way and make poignant observations about human history that are worth reading and pondering regardless of whether or not you agree with them.

Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Birth of a New Nation by David A. Price

The best part about Love and Hate in Jamestown is that I found it completely by accident.  Having a sincere fascination with American history, learning about the Jamestown period was a great idea and reading Love and Hate in Jamestown was a great way to do it.  David A. Price wrote a truly interesting and perfectly readable account of what took place and who was involved.  After reading Price's book, it wasn't hard to see how the Jamestown events and the personalities involved shaped the eventual political and societal future of the American continent.

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2013: Fiction
Best Books of 2012
Best Books of 2011

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Best Books of 2013: Fiction

"I love when the end of the year comes around, and I'm able to pick the best books I've read that year.  As I've mentioned before, my selections are not books that were published during that year but rather books I had the pleasure of reading during it.  In years past, I have chosen one fiction and one non-fiction book to highlight; however, this year I was greatly impressed by several books in both broad categories and decided to list several in each instead of just one.  Below are my picks for best fiction books I read in 2013.

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Wandering around on Amazon one day, I came across Tinkers by Paul Harding.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2010, which is why it was being featured.  Knowing nothing about it, I added it to My Wishlist and finally bought it this year.  Perhaps most surprising of all was my liking it so much when it had so many elements that I normally dislike.  First off, it's modern literature, which I generally very much dislike.  Secondly, it has a very short-story type feel.  The book, which is most certainly not a collection of short stories, feels like closely connected vignettes—normally a storytelling method I have very little affinity for.  Yet, I was deeply impacted by Tinkers.  As I mentioned in my review, Tinkers stuck with me, and it will be a book I remember for a long, long time. 

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Reading Dracula was a revelation.  There are cultural characters you become so accustomed to you take them entirely for granted.  A literary character like Dracula has been iterated upon so many times it's hard to know what the source material looks and feels like unless you've experienced it for yourself.  Experiencing Dracula, the original and frankly untainted version, taught me a lot about how not to adapt characters.  It also taught me a lot about how so many can, while I'm sure being eager to show respect for the source material, truly miss the elements that make the original so good.  Dracula is a fantastic book and deserves a better representation in other mediums.

Mooncalf by Linda L. Zern

Mooncalf is not a book you put down and flippantly forget.  Mooncalf will be clattering around in my head for many years to come.  Its symbols, its messages, and most especially its conclusion is deeply affecting.  The tragedy the book presents isn't so oppressive one can't enjoy the love shared by the two main characters—Leah and Olympia—but its inevitability in the book forces one to hope that similar inevitabilities don't have to occur in reality.  As a work of fiction as well as historical fiction, Mooncalf is excellent and moving.  As a teaching tool it's truly unforgettable."

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2011
Best Books of 2012
Best Books You Haven't Read: Freddy's Book

Monday, December 2, 2013

Reflections: Mooncalf

Good writing is hard to find.  I've read dozens of books this year, most of them have been mediocre.  But there have been some really good ones, even some great ones.  Mooncalf is a great book, and I hope it finds as large an audience as possible.

One of the most admirable things about Mooncalf is that it's difficult to find a single wasted word in the entire book.  Granted the book is short; yet, it is very rare to find a book which treats with such delicacy the choosing of each word--each adjective, verb, and noun.  Themes, motifs, and symbols are everywhere throughout Mooncalf, and most impressive of all none of it is discarded.  Motifs and themes exist in big and small circles in Mooncalf, circling back in on themselves as well as intertwining themselves with the plot and the characters that inhabit it.  And those motifs and themes, those messages and those symbols, don't go away once you've finished the book.  They stick with you.  It's hard to forget Mooncalf.

Linda L. Zern does an outstanding job of creating a place and time.  Florida is uniquely equipped for stories.  Swamplandia! was also able to evoke a similar feeling of being in a particular place at a particular time.  (Too bad Swamplandia! wasn't very good).  But creating a geographic location and a specific point in history doesn't make for a great story.  Readers need characters to love or hate.  Mooncalf has both types of characters.  The two protagonists, young girls named Leah and Olympia, are vivid and real.  You'll hope for them and hurt for them.  They are what sticks with you when you complete Mooncalf and wonder what could have been different for them both.

Mooncalf is not perfect.  My biggest grumble about the book are the illustrations.  Although rendered well enough, with some being quite evocative, they felt superfluous and at times distracted from the story.  The writing is more than sufficient to create a place and time, as mentioned earlier, and the addition of the illustrations wasn't really needed.  Additionally, there is one particular perspective shift in the story (a shift to first person) that was extremely jarring from a reader's perspective and took me out of the story.  Make no mistake, there is far, far more to love about Mooncalf than to not.

Mooncalf is a tragedy and, therefore, won't be for everyone.  I even wonder if the story, especially its ending, could have been different and still been as poignant.  Yet, after thinking it over several times, I wouldn't change a thing.  There are several moments in the book that hit me as a reader like a punch to the chest and subsequently ripped my heart out.  In the final analysis, it's a sad, sad book, but not hopeless.  I think there is enough love between Leah and Olympia to show the audience that things could be different if we want them to be.

I can't help but compare Mooncalf to To Kill a Mockingbird.  The setting, its message, its mood, and its characters all lend themselves to that comparison, and it's a fine comparison to make.  Harper Lee told a great story and so has Linda L. Zern.  Mooncalf should be read.  It's one of the best books I've read this year and most certainly one of the most memorable I've ever read.  I wouldn't miss the chance to enjoy it, learn from it, and have your heart broken by it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Her Name is Scout
Reflections: The Prince of Frogtown
Reflections: Swamplandia!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Books to Movies: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Adam C. Zern opines on the film adaptation of Catching Fire:

"Watching an excellent adaptation of a book play out before my eyes is one of my favorite things.  Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, was a fine and entertaining book, but its film adaptation has successfully surpassed it in almost every way.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a great film and is a perfect example of how a film adaptation of a book can be accomplished.

First off, the filmmakers reveal very early on in the Catching Fire film what the main conflict of The Hunger Games trilogy is, and it's not Katniss and her vacillating feelings of love.  Katniss acts as the catalyst for the rebellion against The Capitol and that is exactly what the Catching Fire film focuses on, even if it's done in the shadows—'moves and counter-moves.'  Katniss's first-person perspective in The Hunger Games books is terribly limiting for a film and those involved in adapting the stories have wisely abandoned that more restrictive storytelling technique.  In the Catching Fire film the audience is privy to the devious machinations of President Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee and gets to watch with an informed eye the fallout of their actions.

Clearly there was a great deal more money supporting the telling of the Catching Fire story and the film is much better for it.  (Thankfully the ridiculous clothing fire effect from the first film was replaced with something worth looking at).  The imagery is crisp and often is quite evocative.  Take, for example, the sequence directly after Katniss shoots the forcefield/dome with the electrified arrow and the arena begins to fall apart.  President Snow looks on in horror as his world, his tightly controlled arena, crumbles around him and he sees the coming fire, the war, falling down on top of him.  Furthermore, as Katniss is lifted into the hovercraft, arms spread apart in a classic image of saviors and sacrifices, she is, in effect, a caged bird, even if she is being lifted to safety by the 'good' guys.  The reader wasn't able to experience any of that wonderful imagery watching the world only through Katniss's eyes.

In addition, amazingly the casting was as tight as I possibly could have imagined; albeit, I feel now more than ever that Woody Harrelsom may have been miscast, but he doesn't necessarily hurt the film.  He just doesn't add much to it.  Francis Lawrence, the director of Catching Fire, did a truly outstanding job giving time for characters to be characters, for sunsets to be sunsets, and for not allowing the gratuity of the Games to overshadow themes, relationships, and story.  He knew what he was doing and the film shows the careful crafting of someone who understands the nuances of film. 

I could not have been more pleased with the Catching Fire film adaptation.  It was a great film, an excellent adaptation, and I look forward to having it in my movie collection.  I am very pleased to admit I was wrong in my lack of excitement to see Catching Fire.  And best of all, in my opinion, the film worked wonderfully as just the right transition into what I consider the best of The Hungers Games trilogy—Mockingjay.  With Francis Lawrence at the helm for parts 1 and 2 of Mockingjay, I couldn't be more hopeful and excited for those adaptations to hit the big screen."

Other Topics of Interest:
Books to Movies: The Hunger Games
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Reflections: Catching Fire

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Reflections: The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother

Adam C. Zern sounds off on Lucy Mack Smith's The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother:

"I am a Latter-day Saint and have read and written about other 'mormon-centric' books in the past.  The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother seems like a pillar of church history.  It's a highly referenced book, which reveals something about Joseph and especially his family that other books simply aren’t able to do; it was written by his mother after all.  Although I think it's somewhat of a misnomer to call the book The History of Joseph Smith since its focus wanders from Lucy Mack Smith's own life, her husband's, Joseph's brothers and sisters, and occasionally focuses on Joseph's, what it does reveal about Joseph and his family is definitely worth knowing and pondering.  Joseph Smith is now revered (and hated) by millions across the planet and The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother highlights the extraordinary family that surrounded, supported, and loved him during his life.

Lucy Mack Smith is not a historian; therefore, the structure of her book seems a little random at times, even though it flows almost entirely in a chronological pattern.  It has always fascinated me to try and understand why an author would include some details while excluding so many others.  As a Latter-day Saint, I understand how important the Nauvoo temple was and is in our history.  However, Lucy Mack Smith makes no mention of it whatsoever in her history.  Yet, other important events in Latter-day Saint history are featured quite prominently, such as: the discovery and translation of the Book of Mormon, the Missouri persecutions, and, of course, the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.  There wasn't anything in the book that wasn't of particular interest.  I found myself engaged in each episode of Lucy's life or the life of her children. 

What I didn't get from The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother which I expected to get was a new or different perspective of Joseph Smith.  I wanted to see him from a more personal viewpoint, but I was, for the most part, disappointed in that hope.  You get glimpses of who Joseph was, as a boy and man, but nothing that moved me on a more intimate level.  I can't help but think of Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage and how profoundly that book affected my interpretation of who Jesus was and is.  Then again, Jesus the Christ was a book dedicated entirely to understanding one person, whereas The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother isn't really about Joseph Smith but his family.

The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother is an excellent book to understand some of the nuances of Joseph Smith, his family, and the beginning of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Joseph Smith will only become a more well-known figure throughout the world as the years roll on and it's not a bad idea to understand his beginnings—especially his sprightly and dynamic mother—and a little more about his life, even if you're not a Latter-day Saint.  As a Latter-day Saint, reading The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother gave me more to believe and appreciate about the Church I belong to and why I care so deeply about it."

Other Topics of Interest:
People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture
The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt
Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book of the Month: Mooncalf

The Book of the Month for December will be Linda L. Zern's Mooncalf.  Here is a brief synopsis of Mooncalf:

"Over Olympia and Leah's heads, Americans race the Russians to the moon; on their television sets young men fight and struggle in the mud of Viet Nam; and America holds its breath between heartbreaking tragedies. But on Miss Brinker's school bus, in the seat with the rip in the green plastic, Olympia and Leah fall in love, the way children do: immediately, completely, and without knowing or caring why they shouldn't. Olympia Crooms, with her happy hair, and Leah Breck, with her silly red dog, are two smart girls. Olympia's father works other men's orange groves in rural Central Florida and tells his daughter that school is the best way to reach for the stars. Leah's father moves his family from the Space Coast to the country where she and her brother can climb orange trees, imagine lions in the tall grass, and learn to feed baby cows milk from a bottle. At Evegan Elementary, two smart girls find each other and have to decide if they will learn the hardest lessons of all: the false traditions of their fathers."

Click here to visit the author's website:

See the full Book of the Month list click here.  To vote for the Book of the Month in the coming months make sure to 'Like' us on Facebook.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Why I'm not that Excited for Catching Fire

 Adam C. Zern opines on his lack of excitement to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:

"My wife and I have friends attending The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opening on November 21st, the day before its official opening.  Normally I would be very anxious to see a film of its hype and promotion as soon as I could.  Yet, for Catching Fire, my excitement to see it has remained tepid.  In fact, I was far more anxious to see the original The Hunger Games film adaptation when it was released in 2012.  But why is that?

To begin with, Catching Fire the book has lost some of its shimmer since I read it.  I enjoyed it.  I even liked it more than the original book, but I still felt it was a stepping stone to the book and story that really mattered, which is Mockingjay.  (I felt Mockingjay was the strongest book in the series by the way, but I am definitely in the minority in my opinion).  Catching Fire is the The Empire Strikes Back for The Hungers Games trilogy while lacking some of the more interesting elements of a story like The Empire Strikes Back.  I still feel Suzanne Collins's method of forcing Katniss and Peeta back into the ring was slightly factitious; albeit, I was willing to swallow the contrivance in the book and probably will accept it just fine in the film.  Once Katniss and Peetah entered the dreaded arena, the story's focus changes from global concerns to individual struggles and the story loses some impact at that point.  It was still an enjoyable read, but one in which I wanted the ending to come a little too much instead of enjoying the ride.

Having said all of that, perhaps when I go to see the film I will be pleasantly surprised by its focus on the political machinations that eventually lead to the series' breakneck finale.  The trailers have certainly played up the political and societal impact of Katniss's first participation in the games.  I'm hoping we'll get more of the additional insight into the scheming which Katniss is ignorant of but what made the first film an excellent adaptation.  I have no indication that they will neglect the story-beats that made the first film so enjoyable (and far more tense), but having, in the end, only the book to make a judgment, I can only expect what I've read.  Furthermore, I’m hopeful I’ll be pulled back into the story due to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as I was in the first film.  She is perhaps the single most important reason The Hungers Games film worked as well as it did.  Hopefully she’ll do it again for Catching Fire and have some additional help as well. 

Will I see Catching Fire in the theater?  Of course.  I am still interested in seeing it, but I'm not nearly as excited as I thought I would be.  My hope is that once I do see it I will be so thrilled with it and the story it tells I'll be more anxious than ever to finally watch The Hunger Games story I care most about—Mockingjay.  Here's hoping."

Other Topics of Interest:
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Reflections: Catching Fire
Reflections: Mockingjay

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Reflections: Heart of Darkness

Adam C. Zern opines on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness:

"If you're not familiar with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, then you’re at least familiar with its influence.  Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam-war film, is widely known.  (And in a different medium, a recent video game, Spec Ops: The Line, was based on Conrad's novella).  The classic line, which I was not aware comes from Heart of Darkness, "The horror! The horror!" is often repeated but little understood in context.  Heart of Darkness earns its place in literature not because of its explicitness but because of its psychological impact.

As its title implies, Heart of Darkness is not a cheerful book.  It explores themes and ideas of barbarism, atavism, racism, colonialism, moral relativism, avarice, obsession, among others.  Obviously Conrad's novella has something to say and it's said in such a way that it sticks to you.  Ever since finishing the book, I have been pondering its implications and lessons.  For that reason alone Heart of Darkness is worth reading.  It gives one something to think about, even if that something isn't terribly pleasant. 

I found Heart of Darkness to be a somewhat odd story.  So much of the 'darkness' referenced is not actually seen by the reader.  The reader doesn't see Kurtz, the infamous and notorious symbol of fallen man, until late in the book, and at that point the transformation is complete and the man himself is merely a shade of what he once was.  The dark deeds have already been done.  The reader experiences the after-effects, the fall-out, but not the events.  Yet, somehow Conrad was able to drill into me the import of what had occurred, and I felt a conflicting sense of pity and repulsion toward Kurtz.  It's a testament of how a story can be told powerfully without being gratuitous. 

Heart of Darkness is definitely worth reading.  It's a fascinating example of how a story can act like a scalpel in opening up the human psyche and give readers a glance inside.  What we see inside can be debated, but Heart of Darkness appears to have already made a diagnosis.  For my part, I was interested in its conclusion."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Island of Doctor Moreau
Overrated: The Road
Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Books to Movies: Ender's Game

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on the film adaptation of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game:

"As a long time fan of the Ender's Game book and the subsequent franchise that has grown up around it, sequels, prequels, and expanded universe, I was incredibly excited to hear that the book would be adapted into a film.  I was always thought Ender's Game could be made into an outstanding film--the ending alone is perfectly cinematic--but it would certainly be challenging.

My first and biggest worry for the film adaptation was the man tapped to direct it.  Gavin Hood is not a particularly talented director, in my opinion.  X-Men Origins: Wolverine was absolutely abysmal, and to move from that project and take on Orson Scott Card's science fiction opus was not encouraging to me.  Although I feel Gavin Hood did better than I was expecting, I still think he made a very mediocre film which lacked the attention to detail that a story like Ender's Game required.  As I've written before, there were a few key elements I felt should have been a part of any Ender's Game film adaptation and Gavin Hood wasn't able to truly express any of them in a skillful way.

The biggest problem with the Ender's Game story from a film adaptation standpoint is the fact that it surrounds children.  It seems quite apparent that a Haley Joel Osment only comes around every once in a while.  Needless to say, trying to get a room full of child actors of that quality is a daunting if not impossible task. I still don't think the acting in the Ender's Game film had to be as poor as it was.  (I feel like The Sandlot had better acting in some instances).  It wasn't all bad in the acting department, though.  Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff was a perfect casting decision and he did an outstanding job.

Most depressing of all is that the film's ending, so brilliantly portrayed in the book, is kind of a dud in the film.  The scene is one of my favorites out of all of the books I have ever read, but the scene in the film makes little more than a whimper.  The set up for the Battle Room and Command School was very striking and interesting, but it never culminates into anything as emotionally involving as what the book offers.

Sometimes the film adaptations outpace and go beyond the books that inspired them.  Ender's Game the film is not one of those cases.  It's a mediocre film based on an excellent book, but I do think it was good enough to warrant sequels and thus my hope still lingers that the Ender's Game franchise will eventually get the attention and skilled talent it deserves."

Other Topics of Interest:
Books to Movies: The Hunger Games
Books to Movies: The Host
Memorable Moments: Ender's Game - Terribly Reality

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Book of the Month: November

The Book of the Month for November will be Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Considered one of the finest science fiction novels ever written, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1967.  Set in 2075 the book follows a lunar colony that rebels against the Lunar Authority, which attempts to control the colony from Earth.  The book deals with ideas and concepts like human freedom, passion, politics, and technical speculation. 

See the full Book of the Month list here.  To vote for the Book of the Month in the coming months make sure to 'Like' us on Facebook.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Reflections: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Adam C. Zern sounds off on Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography:

"You hear stories about famous books by famous people.  Sometimes it's classics that everyone simply must read.  Sometimes it's new releases that are too good to ignore.  And sometimes everyone is right and sometimes they're all wrong together (based on my subjective opinion, of course!).  The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of those books I've been hearing about for years.  In fact, when I have mentioned to others in the past my love for American history, especially the revolutionary war days, they have asked—‘have you read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin?’  I always felt a little left out when I had to respond—‘no.’ Now that I've read it I'm left wondering—why all the fuss?

There are moments of true insight peppered throughout Mr. Franklin's Autobiography, but there are only a few.  The vast majority of the book is Franklin's travelogue, and it's not all that interesting.  Furthermore, the most interesting and consequential part of Franklin's life, his involvement in the American revolution is completely unrecorded in this autobiography.  What I wanted, what I was hoping for, was far more anecdotes with Franklin interacting with the other critical personalities involved in the American revolution.  I learned a great deal about this unique brotherhood while reading Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis, but I wanted a first-hand account of some of those exchanges between some of the most talented and important people in human history.  It was not to be found here. 

Those true moments of insights aforementioned are there, and they are memorable.  Franklin's plan of perfection is particularly compelling and inspiring.  Reading of his experiences as an entrepreneur, small business owner, and scientist were extremely interesting to me.  Of very personal interest to me were Franklin’s thoughts on God, religion, and his own spirituality, which there is some to be had.  I also enjoyed Franklin's philosophy on discussion and debate.  As a person who has a tendency to be very absolute in my debating style, his method of softening the message was intriguing and probably far more useful than being a blunt polemical object during debates.  Oddly enough, some of the pithiest comments to be had in the autobiography were in the Appendix, which had a small collection of Poor Richard's proverbs.

I think someone would get just as much out of Franklin's autobiography by reading specific excerpts than by reading the entire work.  In my opinion, there just isn't that much to recommend the rest of the autobiography, aside from being a purely historical document.  If you do choose to read the entire autobiography, watch out for the bursts of insight and endure the rest of it."

Other Topics of Interest:
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Democracy in America
Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft

Saturday, October 19, 2013

3 Reasons Why We Need & Love Stories

 Adam C. Zern shares 3 reasons why we need and love stories:

"We keep telling stories—make-believe stuff, fairy tales, hero's journeys.  Why?  For my part, I love, love, love stories.  I can't get enough—whether it's a video game, book, or film.  I love being engaged by them, being entertained by them, discussing them, pondering them.  But why?  Why do I, why do we, care so much?

1.) My Brain Made Me Do It
The Hero with a Thousand Faces was the most difficult book I've ever read, but it has proven to be one of the most rewarding.  It taught me a lot about stories, and why we keep telling them, even the same ones over and over again.  We're hard-wired to tell stories.  There is apparently a biological, neurological, psychological, however you want to say it, need to tell stories.  That need is probably connected with other needs, societal and otherwise, of course, but that fact in itself is an intriguing insight into what makes us humans the interesting creations we are. 

2.) Laboratory Experiments
What if I had a machine that could duplicate a human being, albeit the original 'copy' was killed in the process?  What would I do?  Christopher Priest created just such a machine in his novel The Prestige.  What would happen if Satan, that great embodiment of evil in the Christian religions, were able to be killed?  What would be the subsequent consequences for our world?  John Gardner speculated on such a scenario in Freddy's Book.  Stories allow us to pose theories, speculate without restraints, and place people, characters in a story's case, into impossibly difficult or vacuously mundane situations and watch and see what those people do.  Social science is exceptionally difficult to do correctly considering all of the myriad variables all clattering around in and around a human being at one time, but imagine trying to do a social experiment in which a human being is intended to murder another they deem of less value and then study the social effects of such a choice?  Such an experiment was conducted by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and he didn't have to go to jail for it; although, his character eventually did.

3.) Let Me Entertain You
It's almost too elementary to mention, but we like stories because they entertain us; they intrigue us; they engage us.  I will never forget how wildly entertained I was by Bioshock Infinite's dimension-traversing adventure or how enthralled I was by this year's Man of Steel, not to mention the hundreds of other stories I've enjoyed in various mediums.  We like having an escape hatch—something that lets us out of our current reality.  The entertainment value of stories is inexhaustible.  True, we crave originality, but that want is somewhat superficial.  Most stories we enjoy look an awful lot alike, but as long as it's told well we'll enjoy it all the same.

So tell on storytellers!  Your audience will literally never go away."

Other Topics of Interest:
 Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction
3 Reasons Why You Should Read
The Hardest Book I have Ever Read

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Books to Movies: The Host

Adam C. Zern opines on the film adaptation Stephenie Meyer's The Host:

"What can I say about Stephenie Meyer's The Host?  Well, it's not very good; therefore, it's no surprise that the film is inspired is also pretty lousy.  Although, I'm not convinced the basic premise of the book and film are inherently flawed but actually have decent potential.

I think the concept of The Host works much better on paper than it does on film.  You get a real sense of this as soon as Wanderer, the alien body-snatcher, starts tacitly arguing with her human host, Melanie.  On paper the exchanges could have worked except for Meyer's lacking tact for dialogue and monologue.  On film, the internal struggle between Wanderer, who eventually adopts the name of Wanda, and Melanie are downright laughable and far too often painful.  With one mentionable exception, thanks entirely to the acting ability of Saoirse Ronan, the internal dialogue between Wanda and Melanie, which should be the central conflict and most important narrative feature of the story, becomes the single worst aspect of the film.   I would also add that I felt Diane Kruger did a respectable job in the role she had and with what she had to work with.

What I really don't understand about the film adaptation of The Host is why its screenwriter and director, Andrew Niccol, seems to show such little skill in portraying emotion and character.  Gattaca, also written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is an outstanding film—one of my favorites.  Yet, it was made in 1997 and he has yet to make a film of any consequence or quality since.  When I heard he was taking on Meyer's The Host I had a sincere hope he could turn it into something special, but I should have known better based on his more recent filmography.  The Host would have been a difficult story to adapt into a film for any filmmaker (what the heck do you do with your characters in that stupid cave for that long?) and Andrew Niccol obviously wasn't able to salvage a bad book and lame story from itself.

The Host the book and film are pretty equal.  They're both lousy.  I'm impressed, somewhat staggered actually, by the success attained by Stephenie Meyer.  She's obviously struck a chord within popular culture, albeit her star is fading, but her stories, The Host, book and film included, don't sing much for me."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Host
Books to Movies: The Hungers Games
Books to Movies: The Princess Bride

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Reflections: The Island of Doctor Moreau

Adam C. Zern opines on H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau:

"Having read The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, I knew H.G. Wells could put together an entertaining and intriguing story.  The Island of Dr. Moreau is intriguing at times but not terribly entertaining.  Its more macabre story has some symbolism worth debating but the overall narrative fell a little flat.

To begin with, I didn't care all that much about the protagonist, Edward Pendrick.  As a reader, you don't know that much about him and aren't exactly filled with compassion when his life is imperiled.  Pendrick reacts to his circumstances and provides an outlet for the audience to feel as confused and uncertain as he does but there's not much else to him.  Neither Montgomery or Moreau, the other two main human characters in the story, give very much to sympathize with.  Moreau's efforts in vivisection and subsequently re-writing the rules of nature aren't explored enough in the book, except for a brief speech by Moreau and the time the reader is given to spend with his creations, to truly understand Moreau or care about what he's doing, whether that caring were to lead to approbation or hatred. 

The most interesting aspect of the story is the pseudo-society established by Moreau's creations.  Their Law and its controlling influence has a parallel to human societies and their morals, mores, and laws.  I think it's hard to ignore Wells' slight at religion in The Island of Dr. Moreau, but that's merely my perception of what the story was attempting to portray.  That portion of the book is the one worth debating.  None would defend vivisection but I think there can be a very vigorous debate had regarding what law, religious or otherwise, does for our human nature.  Is there such a thing as human nature or are we merely just showing a more refined sense of our animal nature?  Can our more bestial tendencies truly be tamed?  The Island of Dr. Moreau at least provides an avenue to discuss those interesting topics.

Of the three H.G. Wells books I've read thus far, The Island of Dr. Moreau was definitely my least favorite.  It came and went without my noticing all that much.  There are a few ideas in the book worth pondering, but nothing compelling enough to recommend it above other far more interesting books."

Other Topics of Interest
Reflections: The Time Machine
Reflections: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Reflections: The Lost World
Book of the Month: October

Monday, October 7, 2013

Best Books You Haven't Read: Freddy's Book

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on one of the best books he's ever read but not many others have:

"We love tallying things up—the best films, books, games, whatever, of all time.  I enjoy looking these lists over just as much as the next person.  (I especially love ticking off the ones I have read already).  There are usually a few books—To Kill a Mockingbird or A Tale of Two Cities, for example—that always end up on lists like that.  Most of the time it's justified and sometimes it's not.  I've been pondering as of late the books which are so good, so interesting, or so compelling everyone should give them a read but usually don't end up on the lists we usually come across.

Ever heard of a book called Freddy's Book by John Gardner?  I would be impressed if you had, and I would be even more impressed, shocked even, if you had actually read it.  I came across it completely by accident.  I was stumbling around in my parents' makeshift library when I came across it.  The cover was worn and unattractive and the title—Freddy's Book—wasn't exactly thrilling stuff.  John Gardner wasn't an author I was familiar with, but for some reason I decided to give Freddy's Book some time.

When I read Freddy's Book it was one of the most bizarre books I have ever read.  From its odd beginning right up until its exceptionally fascinating ending, Freddy's Book challenges the reader to think, to ponder, and to speculate.  It is one of the few books I have thought very seriously about re-reading since I'm sure I would perceive the book's philosophical implications differently, perhaps dramatically.  Similar to other books like it, the meanings and messages derived from its story will vary based on the reader's previous knowledge, perceptions, and prejudices.  Personally, I saw it as allegorical tale of the innate evil that resides in human nature and is expressed even without external influence.  But the next reader might conclude it's about . . .  

Freddy's Book is a fascinating book everyone should enjoy at least once.  More than likely it won't appear on too many "Must-Read" lists (aside from The Thousander Club's!), but it's absolutely worth the time—it's relatively short—and intellectual effort it takes to read it."

 Other Topics of Interest:
Thousander Must-Reads
What Every American Should Read
What Every High School Student Should Read but Probably Doesn't

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Reflections: The Lessons of History

Adam C. Zern opines on Will and Ariel Durants' The Lessons of History:

"I love finding diamonds in the rough.  There are hundreds of thousands of books published every year.  Most people will only read a handful each year and leave all the rest on store shelves (and now neglected in cloud databases).  And that's to say nothing of the myriad of books from years gone by which are definitely worth reading, but no longer demand an audience in any substantial or consequential way.  The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant is a great little book, which I would have known nothing about if I hadn't come across a speech from an ecclesiastical leader several years ago that included a quote from it.  The book is worth reading, pondering, and debating; I'm glad I read it.

Even though the book was written in 1965 it still feels surprisingly topical.  And that's one of the 'lessons' of history the Durants would point to; to wit, history repeats itself and the course of history is much more cyclical than we realize.  The points made by the Durants in this little book are almost always poignant and interesting.  The authors do a fine job of culling from their vast knowledge of history (they wrote an eleven-volume Story of Civilization) to highlight the salient points, not an easy task by any means.  There was plenty in the book I could reasonably disagree with, but those conclusions, arrived at by the Durants, were always worth investigating.

The book's greatest strength, its brevity, is also its greatest weakness.  Without a doubt, the average reader would be much more willing to read a small book like The Lessons of History before they would ever attempt the Durants' ten-volume opus.  Having said that, its terseness sometimes leaves much to be desired in terms of supporting their arguments.  Although I would agree that a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel can be overwhelming and at times feel a bit redundant in stating its conclusions, it definitely gives a lot more time for those conclusions to sink in. 

The Lessons of History is a great addition to any library.  Its accessibility is one of the main reasons to recommend it, but it doesn't mean it has little academic value.  I enjoyed The Lessons of History quite a bit and am glad it has a place on my shelf."

Other Topics of Interest:
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Ideas have Consequences
Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris
Thousander Books of the Month

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Adaptation, Please: Dracula

"I loved Dracula.  As I said in my reflection, it is one of the best books I've read this year.  I also mentioned how it is so interesting to me to read the source material of some of our cultural icons—like Dracula or Frankenstein's monster—and see how misunderstood they are and how far adaptations deviate from their inspirations.  While reading Dracula I couldn't help but envision the incredible film it could be adapted into.  It has literally everything a talented filmmaker would need to create a visual tale that could leave an indelible impression. 

I realize Dracula has already been adapted into several films, perhaps the most famous being Nosferatu.  In fact, several days after finishing Dracula I stumbled across Argento's Dracula 3-D on Apple Movie Trailers, which made me laugh incredulously as I acknowledged once again how badly some of our literary characters are represented.  What I would like to see from yet another film adaptation of Dracula is a denial of the urge to turn Dracula into a story that appeals to our baser desires.  For example, a film like Bram Stoker's Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was hyper-sexualized, which the book is not, and gratuitously bloody, which the book is not.  Are there undertones of sexuality?  Of course!  Dracula is the ultimate predator.  In fact, I would even argue that Dracula's original story had undertones of pedophilia.  But the film is not explicit in any way.  In fact, the book has no sexually explicit scenes, because it's entirely unnecessary for the story's purpose, and only several scenes of blood; however, the graphic nature of those scenes serve to make the characters' trial, and by extension the audiences' involvement in them, that much more grueling.

A true adaptation of Dracula should focus on what the book focuses on—characters.  One of the central elements of the book is the love that is shattered by the creature Dracula and how to save the love he tries to shatter.  It's about honorable men trying to save the noble women they love from a dishonorable influence.  I think an actor like Michael Fassbender would be an outstanding choice to play Arthur Holmwood.  His struggle in particular is especially tragic as he watches his beloved Lucy fall prey to Dracula's diabolical desires and eventually has to be the instrument of her eternal soul's rescue.  What a true film adaptation should not do is spend too much time on Dracula.  He is the cause of the conflict in the book but not the point of it.  The true point, the reason to read or the reason to watch, are the people Dracula is terrorizing and their eventual triumph over him.  That would be a huge deviation from previous film adaptations and the film would be better for it.

I would love to see another film adaptation of Dracula, but not the kind of film adaptation we've gotten in the past.  Nosferatu at least captured the feeling of Dracula's presence, but there is no other film adaptation I'm aware of that truly captured the brilliance of Stoker's dark tale.  It deserves another attempt, a better attempt.  It's good enough to justify it."

Other Topics of Interest:
Adaptation, Please: Mistborn
Adaptation, Please: The Candy Bombers
Reflections: Dracula

Monday, September 30, 2013

Book of the Month: October

The votes are in and the book of the month for The Thousander Club in October will be The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells.

The Island of Dr. Moreau was written in 1896 and has become a well-known science fiction tale, along with H.G. Wells' other works--War of the Worlds and The Time MachineThe Island of Dr. Moreau is seen by many as an examination into the ethics of natural science, the differences between man and beast, and a philosophical exploration.  The most recent film adaptation was released in 1996, starring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, but it was very poorly received.

To see the full list of Books of the Month click here.  To vote for the upcoming books of the month make sure to 'like' us on Facebook.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Reflections: The Prince of Frogtown

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Rick Bragg's The Prince of Frogtown:

"About ten years ago I read All Over but the Shoutin', which I still consider one of the finest books I've read.  About four or five years ago I read Ava's Man, which is the follow-up to All Over but the Shoutin'.  Although I wasn't as affected by Ava's Man, it was still a wonderful piece of writing and well worth reading.  A few months back I came across The Prince of Frogtown.  It took me a minute or two to realize it was the third book in Bragg's unofficial autobiographical/biographical trilogy of his and his family's life.  It only took reading a page of The Prince of Frogtown to remember how impressively talented Rick Bragg is as a writer and how poignantly he can tell a story.

The Prince of Frogtown is, without any hesitation on my part, one of the best books I have ever read.  On the back of the hardback copy I have, a reviewer compares Rick Bragg to Harper Lee in terms of his abilities as a writer.  That praise is deserved and well-founded.  His portrayals of his life in the deep South of Alabama and the tragedy, heartbreak, and even the good times have not been matched anywhere that I know of.  There are plenty of autobiographies about drunk fathers and the bruised children they leave behind, but Rick Bragg is able to say it all better than anyone else.  What would be throw away sentences if I or most authors were writing become poetic and pithy and absolutely essential in Bragg's establishment of tenor, place, and time.  He is just that good.  No, he's great.

I have nothing negative to say about The Prince of Frogtown.  It's a masterpiece, in my opinion.  When I turned the last page I was so affected by what I had read I just sat in my car, pondering, remembering.  At times I laughed out loud reading The Prince of Frogtown.  Other times I wanted to cry.  But at all times I wanted to keep reading. 

To truly appreciate what Bragg has done, a reader should read all three books--All Over but the Shoutin', Ava's Man, and The Prince of Frogtown.  There simply aren't many books out in the wild that can compare to what Bragg has written in those three books, especially when compared to our contemporary selection of books.  Read these books.  I can't give any stronger endorsement than that."

Other Topics of Interest:
Her Name is Scout
Dandelion Wine

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book of the Month: October Survey

Vote for The Thousander Club's Book of the Month in October, which is dedicated to scary and creepy books.  Make your choice below (If you're having trouble seeing the question below then click here):

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See the full list of Books of the Month Here.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reflections: Dracula

Adam C. Zern opines on Bram Stoker's Dracula:

"Reading Dracula was similar to reading Frankenstein.  An iconic character like Dracula, just like Frankenstein, has been iterated upon again, and again, and again.  Through all those versions and variations there will inevitably be some missteps and mistakes made by storytellers trying to meld their creativity with Bram Stoker's.  Reading Dracula proves once again that sometimes the source material, the original, is superior to everything that has been built on top of it, and it also proves why so many storytellers have tried to grapple with Dracula and make him their own.  Dracula is an excellent book.

Dracula is a lot of things.  It's a mystery, thriller, horror, and romance novel.  It has elements of a multitude of genres and it does it all so very well.  The feeling of tension created by Stoker's shifting narrative made me on multiple occasions gasp out loud as the tension reached its peak.  I knew bad things were going to happen to certain characters, and I really, really didn't want it to.  Yet, when they did happen it always felt surprising and, at times, sickening.  And therein lays the brilliance of Stoker's story—characters.  I cared about them, felt for them, and hoped for them.  Dracula, as a character, is surprisingly absent through most of the story.  (Albeit, his presence is felt throughout the entirety of the book).  The real beating heart of Dracula are the characters affected by the menace surrounding and caused by him.

Frankly, I felt Dracula was as flawless as a book could get until the ending.  There is a devilishly tense chase as Dracula attempts to flee London and return to his prison-castle in Transylvania, and, as a reader, you would reasonably expect a momentous pay-off.  Sadly, it doesn't really happen.  Yes, there is a conclusion; however, after all that the characters have endured, the story would have benefited from a more memorable closure. 

Dracula is a fantastic book.  It is without hesitation one of the best books I have read this year.  Its writing is brilliant; its story is compelling; its characters are unforgettable; it's another reason why I read books.  (It also has one of the most memorable moments I have ever come across in any book—poor, poor Miss Lucy).  Sometimes the original is just better in every way; Dracula proves the point."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Beetle
Reflections: Frankenstein's Monster
Reflections: Paradise Lost