Monday, April 29, 2013

Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel

Adam C. Zern offers some thoughts on Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel:

guns, germs, and steel"I have discovered many, many books while skimming through reference pages of other books or speeches.  In the case of Guns, Germs, and Steel, I became aware of it while reading the afterward of Orson Scott Card's book Shadow of the Hegemon.  Card's book focused a great deal on the machinations of nations and their eventual successes or failures.  Card referenced Guns, Germs, and Steel as a book to be read if one wants to understand the nature of nations and societies and why they rise or fall.  Having a desire to know, I've given Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel a read, and I'm moderately satisfied.

To begin with, it's important to understand how Guns, Germs, and Steel attempts to reach its conclusions.  Guns, Germs, and Steel has a very specific premise: evolution is the driving force of development and change in our world.  Therefore, all of the book's conclusions are supported by a premise which I don't subscribe to.  Furthermore, so much of the data available for investigation is, in my opinion and as admitted to by the author several times, lacking.  Deduction and assumptions, varying in size and complexity, abound in the book, as is admitted by the author multiple times.  It's a book that knows it's making some extremely large claims with some but not all the evidence but doesn't worry too much about it.  I enjoyed the book for one reason; I understand to a greater extent how academia and the intellectual class view the world's history—accidental and circumstantial.

I respect Jared Diamond for attempting to write such an ambitious book.  Make no mistake, it is an extremely ambitious book.  I just don't agree with a lot of it.  I believe that matters of culture ('customs' as Alexis de Tocqueville would say), ideology, philosophy, and faith and religion play a huge role in human events.  Guns, Germs, and Steel shreds these variables (although the author does give them a passing notice in his Epilogue) in favor of a total focus on environmental factors and how they shaped human events.  Human history, its course and development, has been an environmental accident, not much else.  I have a very hard time swallowing such a worldview.  Not to say there isn't some exceptionally fascinating information presented in the book.  It's just ancillary in its importance when compared to the main theory and conclusions of the book.

I would recommend Guns, Germs, and Steel.  It's an interesting read written with an obvious passion and intellectual interest.  It's a great insight into how academia tries to make sense of our world, and it's a great example of what I firmly do not believe."

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Reflections: Eat, Pray, Love

Megan Kline Shimer shares her thoughts on Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love:

"Critics and readers alike out there have already sung the praises of Eat, Pray, Love for many years; now that I have read it myself I can affirm that all of the accolades are extremely well deserved. I became interested in Elizabeth Gilbert a few months ago when I came across her contribution to Ted Talks. I could see that she was an amazing person in just that short speech and I wanted to get to know her better. What better way than to read her 'freakish success' (as she calls it) of a book, Eat, Pray, Love.

The book begins with Liz (the author) in serious trouble. She knows she is unhappy and decides to pray for help. She says her first ever prayer on her bathroom floor in the middle of the night and it starts her incredible journey to better know God. She comes up with a plan to get out of her own element and really explore the world and its cultures to figure out what the best path is to find God in her own life. This starts with a messy and unfortunate divorce from which it takes a lot of time to recover. She decides she will live out the next year as follows: 4 months in Italy (eating), 4 months in an ashram in India (praying), and will round off her journey with 4 months in Bali (unplanned at the time, but this becomes the loving). Originally her plan was a little different, but she learns how sometimes you must be flexible and intuitive to go where your own personal journey will lead you.

What I have described so far could easily be mistaken for a review of the film based off this book, but let me assure you (as is usually the case) the book is so much better than the movie. The movie covers the high points of the plot and, to be fair, does a very good job of telling the main story – the road to self-understanding and God. The book just has so much more to offer. I learned what an insider’s take is on the cultures Liz visited, not just a travel guidebook snippet. I learned fascinating things like the true reasons and thinking behind the practice of yoga, that ashrams are non-denominational and facilitate all seekers of God, and that pizza margherita tastes best when eaten in Naples, Italy.

Eat, Pray, Love taught me that a balanced life is something that takes discipline and devotion to achieve; and balance can only be found when you let God in show him your gratitude each and every day. How fantastic is it to find a (technically) secular book that promotes a personal relationship with God?! It may sound cliché, but I feel like I am a better person for reading this book, and I only hope that I can employ just a few of the lessons in my own life because I know it would only increase my own happiness."

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Reflections: Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer

Brad Howes shares his thoughts on John Grisham's Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer:

"Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer is actually the first John Grisham book I've ever read. Maybe it was the years of law school that steered me clear of Grisham's legal fiction...or maybe it was just that every Grisham book I had heard of was written for the adult reader. Thankfully, for readers like myself (who live and die for young adult fiction), Grisham decided to try his hand at entertaining the next generation (or those who enjoy reading their books).

I've said it once and I'll say it over and over -- the reason I love young adult fiction is because I can finish a book in a few days and don't have to go back and re-read or think too hard. Sure, I love a good thinker book every now and then, but books are my escape, my relaxation. What I'm trying to say is that I finished Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer in about three days and that Grisham is a heck of a writer. Theo Boone is the son of two lawyers -- 'Kid thinks he's a lawyer. Knows every cop, every judge, every court clerk. Hangs around courtrooms, probably knows more law than most lawyers.' Theo Boone is also just thirteen. That doesn't stop him from becoming enthralled with the town's biggest trial ever. But Theo transitions from enthralled to heavily involved without meaning to. He's faced with decisions that lawyers and judges don't often face. With help from his parents and his Uncle Ike, Theo becomes a hero in an unlikely way.

The book doesn't come to a resolution until about page 255 of 263, which I enjoy; however, it was quite brief. This leads me to believe that the second book, Theodore Boone: The Abduction, picks right up where Kid Lawyer left off. In fact, I'm headed to pick up The Abduction tomorrow (as well as The Accused to save me a trip to the library). This is a great read and I anticipate the others will be just as good. Ultimately, it doesn't inspire me to read Grisham's adult fiction, but mainly because I enjoyed the superficial discussion of legal theory and courtroom antics that is probably unique to the Theodore Boone series."

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Books to Movies: The Count of Monte Cristo

Adam C. Zern shares some thoughts on the film adaptation of  Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo:

"Before I knew much of anything regarding Alexandar Dumas' masterpiece The Count of Monte of Cristo I saw the film adaptation directed by Kevin Reynolds and adapted by Jay Wolpert. I found it to be a great adventure film—emotional, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining. Then I read the book and discovered that the film was an adequate but not a brilliant adaptation of a truly marvelous book.

The book surpasses its film adaptation in every way imaginable. It's more exciting, more thrilling, more filled with intrigue, character, passion, and everything else that makes a great adventure, revenge, and redemption story. Edmond Dantes, once he becomes the Count we all know so well, is one of the most memorable characters I have ever come across—being compassionate and merciful as well as ruthless and implacable. As I turned the last page of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo it instantly became one of my most beloved books. Simply put, there are very few other books I love as much as I do The Count of Monte Cristo.

So what of the movie? It's not a bad film, not by any measurement, even when it's compared to the book which inspired it. The film of necessity slims down characters and plot as well as 'hollywood-dizes' several relationships, most notably Mercedes and Edmond Dantes. Overall, these are wise decisions for a film adaptation, although I would have liked the relationship between Mercedes and Dantes to have mirrored the book more since I felt it was more emotionally charged and heartbreaking. Furthermore, the filmmakers should have taken more chances with some of the more complicated but interesting plot points and character relationships the book handles so well.  Above all, what the film doesn't do is leave an impression the way the book does. I think often of the book and rarely about the film even though I own it and enjoy it quite a bit.

Taken together, The Count of Monte Cristo book and film are worth anyone's time, but the original work of Alexandar Dumas is truly unforgettable. In hindsight, it was probably a good thing I saw the film first and then read the book since I would have hoped for more and possibly would have been disappointed in the film. My advice to others would be to do the same. But if you only had a choice between the two, do yourself a favor and read the book. You'll never forget it."

Friday, April 12, 2013

Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris

"I once interviewed to work at the Osceola County Library.  (One of my dream 'retirement' jobs is to work at a bookstore or library).  As part of the interview, I was asked to name one of my favorite authors.  I have a handful of authors I have returned to again and again without hesitation but only a few.  One of those authors, and whose name I offered to the interviewer, was Leon Uris, a master, in my opinion, of historical novelization.

Exodus, which was adapted into a film starring Paul Newman, no doubt is Uris's most well-known work, and it was the first book I read which was written by Uris.  My interest in the book was certainly helped by my then-obsession of the modern State of Israel.  Enthralled is probably the best word to describe how I felt when I read Exodus.  It was exciting, intriguing, enlightening, and I wanted more when I finished, which I got by reading The Haj years later and loved it even more than Exodus.  I eventually read every Leon Uris book he ever wrote except for the non-fiction books he worked on.

Uris was best at characters, both fictional and those based on real personalities.  As the reader, you care a lot about his characters.  You want to know what happens to them, where they go, who they love, and who they hate.  They are three-dimensional and memorable.  Furthermore, Uris was adroit at putting really interesting characters into some pretty fascinating stories, made more so because they're based partly in historical fact. 

Uris definitely wrote some stinkers—A God in Ruins comes sadly to mind.  He had some mediocre ones, such as Mila 18.  But I remember him most for his great books, perhaps even masterpieces—Exodus, The Haj, and Armageddon.  He will always be one of my favorite authors.  He wrote a history I will never forget."

*Leon Uris passed away June 21 2003.  He was 78 years old.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Reflections: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

"It is a testament to how deeply the 1939 film—The Wizard of Oz—is ingrained in our cultural psyche that for years I didn't even realize the film was based on a book.  L. Frank Baum's myth for children feels like the classic fairy tales we've all heard before, both in our childhood and in adulthood.  It's simple in its prose and execution and that's probably why it has become such a part of our culture.  It's a story, first and foremost, and we love stories.

For those who have watched the 1939 film, and especially for those who love the 1939 film, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz may feel a little jarring.  The plot points, character details, back-stories or lack thereof, is quite apparent at the beginning of the book.  The infamous cyclone which carries Dorothy away to Oz occurs within the first or second page of the book, not after the reader is sufficiently introduced to Dorothy, farm hands, or grumpy, bike-riding ladies.  The book is far more violent, although not gratuitous, than the film.  The ruby slippers aren't ruby at all in the book but silver.  I could list other differences, but I think we get the point.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the source material for one of America's most beloved films, but perhaps there is a reason that the book doesn’t seem as beloved.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz didn't stay with me the way that other surreal childhood stories have, such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  Although they're not perfectly comparable, they're pretty close.  Without delving too deeply into literary criticism, I liked Alice's Adventures in Wonderland more.  I think children would like either story well enough. (In fact, at several points during my reading of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz my oldest daughters asked me to read it out loud and remained relatively attentive). 

I enjoyed The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  I like having it on my Thousander List since it is the source material for one of America's most enduring and recognizable films and all of the cultural references and influences it brings.  I liked it but didn't love it as a book.  But I was never in love with the film either."

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Reflections: Love & Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on David A. Price's Love and Hate in Jamestown:

love and hate in jamestown"Last year I went on a family vacation to Virginia.  We stayed in an antebellum home overlooking the James River.  As part of our trip, we visited the historical site of Jamestown, which was truly a pleasure since I have such an interest in America history.  I wandered around the gift shop of the Jamestown museum and one book in particular—Love & Hate in Jamestown—caught my eye.  Recognizing my own ignorance of much of the details of the Jamestown saga I decided to read what David A. Price had to say about a pivotal moment in our nation's history before it was our nation.

Love & Hate in Jamestown is a great book.  Its brevity is certainly a strength for many readers who aren't willing to dedicate weeks and weeks, hours and hours reading about one particular topic.  At the same time, the book doesn't feel as if it's being unfair to the personalities and events it discusses.  I would have liked some additional details at various points in the book and was disappointed when the author moved in another direction so quickly, but the complaint is minor seeing as how there is a multitude of books on the same topic which could enrich my knowledge even more of this important time.

David A. Price does a wonderful job, in my opinion, of being fair while dealing with some very harsh realities between the colonists of Jamestown and the 'savages' in their midst.  It reminded me so much of reading Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower as he described the pilgrim's interactions with the natives in Massachusetts.  There were faults, misunderstandings, civility, incivility, kindness, and brutality from both sides.  The treatment of the Native Americans during the colonization era can be politically charged, but Love & Hate in Jamestown leaves most of the politics behind and allows the reader to merely observe.

Love & Hate in Jamestown is very much worth reading, and I would recommend it without hesitation.  It's not burdensome to read, and it reveals a fascinating part of America's past before it was America.  Love & Hate in Jamestown is a fine choice for any Thousander's list."