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