Sunday, June 30, 2013

Page-Turners: Black Hawk Down

Adam C. Zern shares a few thoughts on a book he simply could not put down - Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden:

"I remember sitting in a movie theater, waiting to see Iron Man 2, and reading by the dim lights Mark Bowden's incredible chronicle Black Hawk Down.  At that moment I realized I couldn't remember the last time I had been so engrossed, so enthralled, and so invested in a book that I truly felt like I couldn't put it down.  I was surprised that Black Hawk Down would be the book, but it was a 'page-turner' in the truest sense of the word.

Bowden's adroit writing bounces between brutal and violent encounters in the streets of Mogadishu, endearing and humorous stories of the American soldiers involved, and stress-filled command rooms of military leaders attempting to make sense out of the chaos and bring their troops back safely.  The pace of Black Hawk Down is unrelenting but not oppressive.  Bowden does give the reader enough breaks so as to give the audience a chance to breath, but once you have done so you are dumped right back into the fray.  The harrowing experience of the American soldiers involved was so vividly told and brilliantly realized it's hard for me to point to many other non-fiction books as being any better.

A 'page-turner' is usually thought of within the context of fiction, but Black Hawk Down proves that non-fiction books can be just as compelling as the most elaborate fiction.  In fact, in so many ways, reality, expertly chronicled and expressed, can be far more fascinating than any fiction dreamed up by even the most talented writer.  A friend recently told me he was going to start reading Black Hawk Down.  My response was simple: 'Buckle up.'  It's a wild ride which you won't want to end."

Other topics of interest:
Boring Books: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Overrated: The Da Vinci Code

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Thousander Must-Reads Vol. 3

A few Thousanders share their "Must-Reads" for everyone's Thousander List:

Emmaleigh Burtoft - The Road by Cormac McCarthy

"With the surplus of apocalyptic-themed movies at the box office this summer, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road, may not look any different at first glance: a nameless man and his young son are two of humanity’s few survivors from a mysterious catastrophic event that has left Earth so desolate that they are scrounging for remnants of canned food and hiding from gangs of cannibals. Yet the horrific situation only serves as a quiet backdrop to the true centerpiece of the novel: the bond between the man and his son. McCarthy’s exploration of that relationship makes The Road one of the most remarkable and heartrending books I have ever read.

The Road reads like a long conversation—and in fact, McCarthy says that many of the conversations detailed happened in real life with his son, John. The language is so sparse that it becomes poetry, and the boy’s simple questions and silent internalizations of the world around him encourage deep and reflective soul searching. The man struggles with the weighty burden of protecting his son at all costs, while at the same honoring the boy’s many compassionate impulses toward the people they meet. Somehow, through it all, the boy retains his humanity. And that humanity becomes a glimmer of hope, for the future of this wasted world, and for readers: to know that there is inherent goodness in each of us, so long as we do not allow it to become buried."

Robert Sullivan - The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

"The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic tale of getting even and tragedy. Edmond is betrayed by those closest to him and after several years of solitude and confinement he devises a web of intricate revenge. Using new found riches, Edmond makes himself a count. Prestige and money buy him favors for sweet revenge. The story is complicated, involved, exciting and detailed. If you've only seen the movie, you have no idea what the story is really about. The twists and turns keep you reading even with Dumas' old style writing. A must read for every thousander."

Other topics of interest:
Thousander Must-Reads Vol. 1
Thousander Must-Reads Vol. 2
Books to Movies: The Count of Monte Cristo

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Boring Books: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Adam C. Zern shares some thoughts on an exceptionally boring book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea:

"Overall I haven't read too many books that were so boring or so dull that they would put me to sleep. Generally speaking I'm very good at directing my attention to what I'm reading with a reasonable level of interest, and I've read some hefty and difficult books—A Wealth of Nations, A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Democracy in America, to name a few. I enjoyed all of those books, but there have been a handful of books that were so dense or dull they tested my attention and sometimes my wakefulness.

Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is an extremely well-known book, a 'classic' even according to some, and I could barely get through it. I understand the book was written during a different time and expectations of what is entertaining and what is not looks a little different today, but it doesn’t change some of my modern sensibilities. Furthermore, Verne's Around the World in 80 Days is most definitely not like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in its obnoxious cataloguing of things that don't matter. Also, a somewhat contemporaneous novel of adventure, The Time Machine (published in 1895), didn't fall into the same trap as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was published in 1870. As I waded through page after page of non-critical and superfluous information I longed for the moment when I could turn the last page of the book.

And perhaps the most frustrating part of the book is that it could have been incredible. Captain Nemo is a truly fascinating character who is utterly wasted. The visual template and mood established in the book is really quite striking; the haunting visuals Verne creates, which include the infamous giant squid and a sunken ship with her drowned passengers, are extremely poignant. It's just not a part of the story enough to salvage the book from itself.

I would rarely classify a book as 'boring,' but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fits that definition in my opinion. It's hundreds of pages of wasted characters and a wasted story, and it's one of the most boring books I have ever read."

Other topics of interest:
Overrated: The Da Vinci Code
Reflections: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Memorable Moments: Ender's Game - Terrible Reality

Adam C. Zern reflects on an unforgettable scene from a favorite book, Ender's Game (Spoiler Alert!):

Ender's Game"Books, like films, are usually remembered by one or two scenes that are so powerful, so shocking, or so emotional they cannot be forgotten.  Having read hundreds of books, my memory of many of the details, plot points, or dialogue is extremely limited.  Yet, even with reflections of hundreds of books clattering around in my brain I still remember certain keys scenes from a handful of books which I am unlikely to forget any time soon.  One book and one scene in particular I'll never forget is the incredible revelation at the end of Ender's Game.

Ender' GameEnder, just like the reader, is unaware that all of his time at Command School has been a virtual representation of what is actually occurring in reality.  During an epic, supposedly virtual, battle with the extra-terrestrial Formics, Ender is presented with an impossible situation and takes the most dramatic action he could.  He launches the 'Little Doctor,' an unparalleled weapon of mass destruction, and essentially commits, as far as anyone understood, xenocide—the total annihilation of an entire species.  Ender, still unaware as to what has occurred, turns and sees a bizarre response: 'Men in uniform were hugging each other, laughing, shouting; others were weeping; some knelt or lay prostrate, and Ender knew they were caught up in prayer.'

They believed humanity had been saved, pre-emptively and totally. The moral implications and complications immediately become apparent.  Is Ender a savior or a war criminal?  When the full impact of what was done falls upon Ender, who was always a reluctant soldier and commander, it also falls upon the reader and neither will ever forget that terrible moment.  Colonel Graff, Ender's sometimes mentor and sometimes enemy, exclaims with tears rolling down his cheeks: 'Thank you, thank you, Ender.  Thank God for you, Ender.'

But the reader and Ender isn't sure what to think.  Ender, and possibly the reader as well, feels betrayed, tricked.  But has the ultimate good been done?  If so, then perhaps Ender is to be thanked, as Colonel Graff did.  If not, what should our reaction be?  It's a wonderful moment in a great book which accomplishes exactly what is intended, and it's hard to forget the scene and the questions that come along with it."

Reflections: Peter and the Starcatchers

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's Peter and the Starcatchers:

"Peter and the Starcatchers is not a book I would have picked up and read on my own without external motivation.  Thousanders voted that Peter and the Starcatchers, a prequel to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, be the book of the month for June so I had enough reason to read it.  Having done so, I think the book should be applauded for what it does well; however, it also has some significant problems that dissuade me from continuing the series, which includes two other books.

Peter and the Starcatchers is, of course, written for a younger audience; therefore, I'm not applying the same level of scrutiny and expectations that I would for books written for a more mature audience.  The book still does some things pretty well, especially toward the beginning of the book.  I think the authors did a relatively good job establishing a sense of mystery and intrigue as well as giving the reader a handful of characters to care about.  There are some fun moments, certainly not laugh-out-loud moments, to be had, and the book moves along at a very quick pace.  Younger audiences I think would respond well to the pacing and the intrigue.

But that's where Peter and the Starcatchers tends to break down in my mind.  The pace is so quick most of the characters get left behind.  My biggest gripe about the book is that it becomes a checklist of how things came to be in Never Land.  How Black Stache (soon to be Hook) lost his hand.  Check.  How Never Land got its name.  Check.  Why Peter can fly and never gets old.  Check.  Where Tinker Bell came from.  Check.  It's hard to avoid this, I suppose, when writing a prequel to an extremely well-known story, but it makes for very stilted plot development.  By the end of the book, I had lost most of my interest in the characters and the story and haven't had much reason to look back after sailing away from Never Land.

Younger audiences might enjoy this book and its sequels.  It wasn't one I ended up enjoying all that much, although initially I did.  I guess this wasn't a great candidate for my liking since I've never had an enormous love for the original Peter Pan story (even the Disney film never did much for me when I was a child).  Peter and the Starcatchers is a quick read, but I wouldn't take the time."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Books to Movies: The Princess Bride

Adam C. Zern has some thoughts  on the film adaptation of The Princess Bride:

"The Princess Bride is a beloved film for a lot of people.  I just didn't get it for a long, long time.  It seemed like a silly fantasy-comedy-romance that clearly had an endearing personality, but nothing that would motivate me to label it as a 'classic.'  But then I read the book that was its inspiration and my attitude changed.

The Princess Bride the book and film is a rare situation in which the two enhance the experiences of each other.  Often times we segregate books from their film adaptations.  It's not uncommon to talk about the book as being better for this or that reason or the film as being better, think Jaws, or at least different, think The Hunger Games, for this or that reason.  It's tough for me to think about The Princess Bride the film without the book in mind and vice versa.

What the film and book versions of The Princess Bride capture flawlessly is a feeling.  I think that feeling is what I was missing before I read book.  Once I had done so, I realized how adroitly the film translated the book's whimsical and entertaining tone, and I could watch the film from a new perspective that gave me the secret to that film I had apparently been missing before. 

I'm a big fan of The Princess Bride now, both the film and the book.  I think it's one of those rare cases in which I greatly prefer the existence of both portrayals whereas in many other cases I would be perfectly content with either the film or the book.  (The Prestige is a good example of this; I would be perfectly happy with only the film).  Considering most of the people I know who have seen the film and love it but have not read the book, I'm always eager to encourage them to do so because I think by doing so the film would be endeared to them even more.  And that's not a bad thing."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What Every High School Student Should Read but Probably Doesn't

Adam C. Zern has a reading recommendation for high school students:

"I love the Back to School section at Books-a-Million.  I enjoy very much checking off the books I've read, the books I haven't, and the books I never want to.  It got me thinking about which books, if I were in charge, I would require all high school students to read.  What book is so important that essentially every high school student should read it during their years of pre-college education?  I could pick an obvious one that is already on most lists, such as: To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, etc.  However, I would rather pick a book that isn't normally on the list and give a few reasons why.

Every high school student should read A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell.  The brilliance of Sowell's treatise on ideology and why people believe what they do is not that it aligns well with what I believe; rather, the book is more of an investigation of ideological belief rather than an endorsement of a particular ideology.  It's explication of opposing visions, even if it's incomplete (but no treatise on this subject matter could ever be entirely complete), is masterful and enlightening.  Ideology impacts so much of our world that it is invaluable to understand why others, especially those in opposition to you, believe contrary to what you do.  It doesn't necessarily resolve conflicts, but it does manage them and can make them more reasonable. 

If high school students had a better idea of not only why opposing visions exist but that it's appropriate for them to exist, they will, in my opinion, become more capable critical thinkers and less prone to willingly regurgitate what educators, especially at college, spoon-feed them.  Furthermore, I think high school students, if their opinions are already established, will be benefited by using Sowell's insights to reflect upon their own beliefs and wonder why exactly they believe the way they do. 

A Conflict of Visions is a worthy book for any reader, but I think high school students would have a tremendous advantage entering the workplace or higher education having read it.  It provides an excellent foundation for critical thinking, and it discusses some of the most important and influential matters of any society.  But since I'm not in charge of public education, A Conflict of Visions may never become required curriculum, but high school students should read it all the same."

Monday, June 10, 2013

Reflections: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

"I really dislike crime procedural shows like CSI, Law and Order, etc.  I don't dispute that some of them possibly have decent writing, adequate acting, and provides a certain level of entertainment for many people, but I don't even like the concept of the shows.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is that exact premise in book form and obviously the first of its kind.  Therefore, I struggled to get through The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes while others, my wife included, enjoyed it quite a bit, but she likes crime procedural shows and this book was a perfect fit for her.

I really, really enjoyed The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle.  I fully expected to enjoy The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes just as much, but they are very different books and very different experiences.  The stories in the Sherlock Holmes books were too disjointed for me to ever care all that much about the characters.  The point of the stories are most assuredly the mystery and eventual resolution of it and not character developments, aside from some passing idiosyncrasies displayed by Sherlock.  Dr. Watson is an empty pair of eyes whose only purpose is to record Sherlock's methods and episodes.  If one could go back in time and Doyle was to re-write the stories without Watson it essentially would not have changed the stories in any substantial or important ways. 

Perhaps the only value I received from reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was that it informed the various television and film versions of the character.  I haven't exactly been a devoted fan to the new films or to the television shows, but I think I gained a greater appreciation for them.  That's a small benefit, however, considering how little I care about the films and television shows.

I didn't care for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  I found it to be uninteresting and boring.  But it's a form of entertainment I know a lot of other people really enjoy; I'll leave the crime procedural television shows and short stories for them."

Overrated: The Da Vinci Code

Adam C. Zern has a few thoughts on an overrated book:

"Toy Story 3 was one of the highest rated films on Rotten Tomatoes (if not the highest rated) the year it came out, 2010.  I didn't rush to the theatre to see it but eventually saw it on DVD and sat dumbfounded at the conclusion wondering why so many loved it and with so much passion.  I have had similar experiences with certain books that have received such effusive praise but disappointed me thoroughly.  One book in particular I will never forget as a colossal disappointment was Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code

I'm not sure if others remember how pervasive that book felt in our American culture for a period of time.  It seemed to be everywhere.  It supposedly revealed shocking revelations about Jesus Christ to shake the very foundation of Christendom; readers would simply be blown away, never be the same again, etc., etc.  All of this was wrapped up in the facade of a fast-paced caper of sorts to entertain and keep the interest of the average reader.  My desire to read The Da Vinci Code actually increased after reading Angels and Demons, also by Dan Brown, because I thought it was a decent, fun, and tightly-paced thriller.  What could go wrong with the Robert Langdon follow-up which promised so much? 

Well, apparently plenty can go wrong.  As I slogged my way through The Da Vinci Code, I kept wondering what the heck other people were reading.  I found The Da Vinci Code to be cheap in its thrills, contrived in its plot, and hopelessly inadequate in its 'unspeakable' revelations.  And I wondered yet again why some books get into the public zeitgeist and stick and others, often times much better books, are quickly forgotten or never even noticed.

The Da Vinci Code was certainly not the only book I have felt was incredibly overrated, but it's one that stands out the most in my memory.  No doubt there will be plenty more to come, including so-called classics, which will make me scratch my head in utter incredulity.  In a way, reading an overrated book provides its own level of entertainment.  I'm usually smiling when I'm thinking to myself: 'what the heck is everyone else reading?'"

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Ray Bradbury and Me

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts about one of his favorite authors:

"There are very few authors I return to again and again.  I believe in variety and like to read books from a multitude of authors.  Yet, some authors are so good, their writing so unique and excellent, that they almost demand a reader to return to their writing again and again.  Ray Bradbury is one of the finest writers I have ever had the pleasure and unforgettable experience of reading.  His books and short stories ought to find a place on every reader's book shelves.

I think the first Bradbury book I ever read, like many people, was Fahrenheit 451, which I was very much affected by.  Deciding to read more of his books was barely a conscious decision.  After reading Something Wicked This Way Comes I have never once hesitated to pick up another Bradbury book or collection of short stories.  His writing has a way of capturing my imagination in a way that other authors have never been able to do.  I will never forget the way that From the Dust Returned tore through my imagination and sent me into the clouds along with Bradbury's characters long after I read the last word of the book.  Even Bradbury's more subtle book, Dandelion Wine, and its domestic and slightly magical tale of yesterday's summers gave me more to ponder and reflect on than the vast majority of books I have read.

It was a total coincidence that I started reading Dandelion Wine the day that Ray Bradbury died.  I remember very vividly hearing the news, and it was the first time I felt a genuine pang of sadness to hear that an author had died.  Bradbury's books were really at the beginning of my reading adventure, and they have continued to entertain and enlighten me as I've continued that adventure.  My hope for my fellow readers is that they will experience Ray Bradbury's wonderful art—for such it is—and not just his most well-known book—Fahrenheit 451—but his other tales of mystery, fantasy, horror, and family.  I plan on going back again, and I look forward to discovering what I'll find."