Saturday, November 29, 2014

Reading Goals for 2014: A Review

So how did I do with my reading goals in 2014?  Unfortunately, not great.  I fell into somewhat of a slump this year with my reading.  My reading goal each year is 24 books.  As it stands now, I have read 349 books and will more than likely only be able to add one, maybe two, books to that count by the end of this year.  The news isn't all bad, however, and here's why.

I read some hefty books this year.  Richard L. Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling was a weighty thing and ended up being a fine, fine read, not to mention a candidate for my best non-fiction book of the year.  I also read the Apocrypha, which certainly isn't as long as the Bible but is written with the same bygone prose which can be cumbersome to read and difficult to comprehend.  I also read Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage, which is no slouch of a book in terms of its length and detail.  From a non-fiction perspective, it was a pretty good year.  In fact, it was a great year.  Too Big to Know and Manning Up are also non-fiction of the year contenders, and I look forward to debating with myself about which one deserves the prize.  I didn't read some of the non-fiction I was hoping to get to, like Nudge or The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but the ones I read certainly weren't a waste of time.

On the fiction front it was a so-so year.  I did read Their Eyes Were Watching God, which had been on my list for years; I also specifically mentioned it in my Reading Goals for 2014 last year.  It was an excellent book with an unforgettable central character, and I gave it high praises in my reflectionA Canticle for Leibowitz was a truly remarkable book I read this year, and it gained a spot on the Thousander Must-Read list, a signal honor.  I can only imagine it will claim the best fiction book I read this year.  Separate from those books, there wasn't much fiction that really moved me.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I was very eager and interested to read, was enjoyable and creative but not a personally memorable experience.  Life of Pi had its virtues but also fell into the ever-expanding category of "Not Bad, but Not Great."  There were some others, but all-in-all it was somewhat of a sparse year in unforgettable fictional experiences.

It was a good but not a great year for my reading.  Coming under my yearly goal of twenty-four books is particularly disappointing.  I do have to remind myself I started a second job as an Online Instructor as well so that cuts down on my spare reading time.  Yet, it's more of a time management problem than it is of not having time.  Here's hoping 2015 will be better or even great.  Maybe I'll finally read The Fellowship of the Ring?

Other Topics of Interest:
Reading Goals for 2014
Best Books of 2013: Fiction
Best Books of 2013: Non-fiction

Friday, November 21, 2014

Reflections: Mass Effect: Revelation

I have tried reading books based on popular video game series before, including World of Warcraft: Tides of Darkness by Aaron Rosenberg and Starcraft: Liberty's Crusade by Jeff Grubb.  Both books were very poor.  They're more concerned about maintaining a fast pace than developing characters and providing action set pieces than intriguing plot.  It really is a shame because both of those books come from mythologies which are robust and interesting.  I wasn't expecting A Canticle for Leibowitz when I read either one, but I was hopeful they wouldn't be written strictly for an audience which just hit puberty.  When I finally decided to read Mass Effect: Revelation I did so with my previous experiences in mind and with hope the book would be a little bit better than the others which share a similar sub-genre. 

The greatest praise I can give to Mass Effect: Revelation is that it's not terrible.  I loved the Mass Effect series of games.  Their storylines, their characters, and their lore rival some of the greatest science fiction tales ever created.  I wanted to get back into the universe, and with the next game's release date still under wraps, and more than likely quite a ways off, reading Mass Effect: Revelation, which is a prequel to the original Mass Effect game, seemed like a perfect way to do it.  The book doesn't in anyway match the game seriers's incredible experience, but it's a mildly entertaining addition to the overall universe nonetheless. 

Like any prequel, Mass Effect: Revelation spends most of its time providing insights into characters the reading audience, who have most definitely played the games, already know about.  Anderson, Sanders, Saren, these are names the readers will already be familiar with.  Saren is the most compelling to read about it in the book, albeit mostly one-sided and uncomplicated.  Anderson and Sanders follow unsurprising character tropes, and their relationship is largely uninteresting. 

The story itself has the requisite science fiction mystery and mercenaries.  Again, no real surprises to be found.  The book's biggest asset isn't its story or characters but its setting.  The Mass Effect universe, as I mentioned previously, is incredibly robust, which I love spending time in.  As seems to often be the case for many books, there is a mad rush toward the end to bring the plot to a close.  It felt like the author was working under a rigid deadline; I don’t know if that’s actually true. 

There is no reason to read Mass Effect: Revelation unless you've played the game series and loved it.  I enjoyed the book as much as I did mainly and mostly for that reason.  I do think the book is better written than World of Warcraft: Tides of Darkness and Starcraft: Liberty's Crusade, but it doesn't exactly stand head and shoulders above them.  I'm prone to read the other Mass Effect books which have been published in hopes they'll also not be terrible as I bide my time before the next Mass Effect game releases.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
3 Reasons Why We Need & Love Stories

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Reflections: Apocrypha

The Apochypha is specifically referenced in Latter-day Saint doctrine.  Joseph Smith prayed to know if he should revise the translation of the Apocrypha and here is the response in full:

"Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated. Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom; And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen" (D&C 91).

The Apocrypha isn't completely absent from Latter-day Saint discussion, Elder Holland quoted from it in his talk The Tongue of Angels, but it's pretty close.  Many Latter-day Saints probably don't even know what it is, which of course suggests that even more don't know what it contains.  As an aside, when I served my two-year full time mission in Las Vegas, Nevada, a faithful Catholic debated the value of the Apocrypha and expressed his utter incredulity that it wasn't a part of our canon.  Especially since that experience, I have had a lingering desire to read the Apocrypha and know for myself what it contains. 

The King James version of the Apocrypha, which is the version I read, reads and feels like the Old Testament.  In fact, considering most people's lack of familiarity with the Old Testament, I would posit large portions of the Apocrypha could be read to a group of contemporary Christians, Latter-day Saints included, and they wouldn't be able to determine the source as the Old Testament or the Apocrypha.  As familiar as the language is, the stories, whether true or not, are unique and, for the most part, quite interesting.

Perhaps one of the largest contributions the Apocrypha makes to established biblical canons is the inclusion of more stories in which women are key players or a major focus.  There is an expanded story regarding Esther and entirely new stories about a woman named Judith and Susanna.  The book of Judith is particularly meaningful for women since it shows a woman not only in a position of authority but one who demonstrates great courage and faithfulness.  The book The History of Susanna centers more around legal and ethical justice rather than womanly triumph but is nonetheless an important story about protecting the innocent. 

The other books throughout the Apocrypha follow similar patterns present in the Bible, such as: a collection of pithy sayings and words of wisdom, historical accounts of corrupt leaders, people, and the inevitable justice of God, and heavenly visions and visitations.  If you've read and studied the Bible, you'll be right at home.  The interesting exercise, especially as a Latter-day Saint, is attempting to determine what is inspired and what is not.  I certainly didn't make any kind of extensive and prayerful examination of the text and its spiritual truthfulness, but I did find valuable spiritual insights which are more than likely true.  (Coming back to Holland's talk, if he feels comfortable enough to quote from it in General Conference we can be assured at least some of it is true just as Doctrine and Covenants section 91 states).  On the other hand, I could see, especially in the second book of Maccabees, some curious and frankly out of place commentaries which gave me pause regarding their veracity.  Just as the first book of Maccabees states: "Also that the Jews and priests were well pleased that Simon should be their governor and high priest for ever, until there should arise a faithful prophet" (Emphasis added).  Without a prophet, who is actually doing the writing and is it actually endorsed by the Lord?

In the end, the Apocrypha is a fascinating addition to existing scriptural knowledge, albeit unnecessary from a devout Christian's perspective.  It doesn't reveal too much regarding the Christian faiths, mostly because there are so many Christians who don't accept and embrace it in the same way they do the Bible.  I enjoyed reading it and love being able to say I have, but I have no plans to continue my study of it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Brow Bruising Reads
The Hardest Book I have Ever Read

Friday, October 17, 2014

Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz

In 1961, A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo Award, which is one of Science Fiction's most prestigious awards.  It has subsequently been honored on many best of science fiction lists, and I believe it deserves every honor.  A Canticle for Leibowitz is a unique, entertaining, and frankly a brilliant book.  It's not only one of the best science fiction books I have ever read, it's one of the best books I have ever read.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is in some ways a fictionalized version of the Durant's excellent little book The Lessons of History.  The way in which the cyclical nature of history is explored in Canticle is masterful.  Broken up into three main sections, the book spans hundreds of years.  The characters change, just as civilizations and populations do, but the themes do not.  Humanity, burdened with its perpetual weaknesses and battling its persistent demons, has to face the horror of its own nature cycle after cycle after cycle.  Can the eventual and cataclysmic conclusion ever be changed or avoided?  A Canticle for Leibowitz asks questions like these and presents our uniquely human moral and ethical dilemmas with such skill it is as didactic as fiction can be without being overwrought, overbearing, or heavy-handed. 

One of the most admirable things about A Canticle for Leibowitz is that the book takes a well-worn, exhausted idea and setting, i.e. a post-apocalyptic world, and does more with it, fictionally, artistically, and thematically, than the myriad of other books which share a genre and setting with it.  Canticle proves that even though there is no truly unique story, a single well written and well thought out story can still overshadow in every way the mountains of fictional rubbish which is published each year.  I can't help but think of our current craze for young adult fiction, which has found a niche in the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, and hope that one day a book like Canticle will be read, digested, adapted, and embraced as much as some of the more popular, albeit less thought-provoking, fiction.  Furthermore, I insist this desire isn't some arrogant elitist attitude toward the unwashed plebeian masses.  I want people to read A Canticle for Leibowitz for the same reason I would want them to read To Kill a Mockingbird or A Tale of Two Cities.  There are important and fundamental ideas and debates presented in Canticle, just like some of humanity's more well-known literary achievements, and they should be read, understood, debated, and explored. 

Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is an excellent book, even a classic.  It's well worth reading, exploring, and discussing.  If you're a lover of science fiction, it's an indispensable addition to your collection.  If you love books and the important ideas they can showcase, you should read this book and maybe humanity can learn a thing or two. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Reflections: Hyperion
3 Reasons Why We Need and Love Stories

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

Shortly before Joseph Smith was martyred, he said: "No man knows my history."  I have been pondering what he meant.  I can say now after reading Richard L. Bushman's excellent book Rough Stone Rolling that I know Joseph Smith and his history a little bit more. 

Joseph Smith has to be one of the most fascinating personalities to have ever graced the American scene.  I say this not because he had eccentric ideas but because those ideas stuck.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is 15 million strong and is growing rapidly every year.  More and more people are coming to know Joseph Smith as a prophet of God in our latter-days and are joining themselves to a Church which claims Joseph as their "prophet of the restoration."  Like the great men and women we study and admire who left an imprint on human history, religious and otherwise, Joseph Smith deserves attention.

The culture of the time is as much a focus of Rough Stone Rolling as Joseph Smith is.  (No wonder the book's subtitle is "A Cultural Biography of Mormonism's Founder").  One of the most difficult aspects of studying history is understanding the culture and milieu of the place and time you're studying.  We too often inflict historical personalities with our own sanctimonious judgments regarding correct behavior and correct viewpoints.  Bushman does a wonderful job of comparing Joseph against his contemporaries and highlighting how we was the same in some ways and different in other ways.  Joseph, like us all, was in a few ways, but certainly not all, a product of his circumstances.

Considering what Joseph Smith accomplished during his forty-four years of life is staggering.  Latter-day Saints believe what John Taylor, third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said: "Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it" (D&C 135:3).  Even from a non-religious and purely secular perspective, one has to recognize Joseph did some extraordinary things, building cities as much as translating ancient records.  Even with near constant and virulent opposition, Joseph and the early Latter-day Saints accomplished incredible feats.  Rough Stone Rolling provides a rich history which I believe Mormon and non-Mormon alike can appreciate.  The book presents an incredibly dramatic American saga, which any lover of history can benefit from by adding it to their reading collection.

When I began reading Rough Stone Rolling I stated my hope as follows: "I'd like to break down some of the barriers between myself and Joseph as a human being and get to know him as I would if he visited my home and shared dinner with my family."  And what is my verdict?  In large measure, yes, Rough Stone Rolling made Joseph more human, more understandable, and perhaps in some ways even more inexplicable.  He made some decisions which, especially in light of the Saints' precarious position in Illinois in the early 1840s, that simply don't make any sense, such as instituting and practising polygamy.  The question of why is unavoidable.  At this point the opinions diverge.  Latter-day Saints will say he was commanded by God and as a true prophet he would obey, regardless of the consequences.  Non-Mormons have plenty of explanations for why he did what he did, most of them less than positive.  For my part, I believe the former.  I believe he was a prophet of God who acted in good faith toward God and men.  He was human as we all are and his weaknesses and faults are more abundantly testified of by his detractors exactly because he claimed to be a prophet.  It's a lofty and lonely position. 

At the most recent General Conference, Elder Neil A. Anderson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stated: "The negative commentary about the Prophet Joseph Smith will increase as we move toward the Second Coming of the Savior."  It is noteworthy to point out that Latter-day Saints link the attacks on Joseph's reputation as one of the signs signalling the second coming of Jesus Christ.  Enemies of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know, as well do the Latter-day Saints, that the foundation of the Church's position rests on Joseph Smith's claims to be a prophet called of God.  If he wasn't, then the Church he founded, and the line of priesthood succession continuing through him, must be a fraud.  If he was, then the implications of such a fact are immense, affecting every human life on earth and their life in eternity.  Rough Stone Rolling doesn't answer that question, but it does present an American drama so extraordinary it begs to be read.  Rough Stone Rolling isn't the only worthwhile account, but it is certainly a valuable addition to what will no doubt be a growing literature on Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints.

Other Topics of Interest:
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 1
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 2
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 3

Friday, October 3, 2014

Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 3

I know the story of Joseph Smith.  I've studied the stories about the early Latter-day Saints' struggles and suffering, including their expulsion from three States, to wit: Ohio, Illinois, and most infamously Missouri.  What Rough Stone Rolling has done thus far is provide a layer of depth and complexity I scarcely could imagine.  The early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were messy.  The nascent world organization which we know today—organized, uniform, rigidly hierarchical when it comes to canonized doctrine and policy—looked a lot different in its infancy.  This is expected but nonetheless surprising when my whole experience with the Church has been one of witnessing its clockwork regularity. 

What Rough Stone Rolling does not do is present an image and picture of Joseph Smith that is Job-like; in other words, Joseph had struggles and sacrificed a great deal, but Richard L. Bushman does not describe Joseph as "perfect and upright" (Job 1:1).  The book certainly isn't antagonistic toward Joseph, but it presents a sometimes angry prophet, even impetuous.  It's a side of the prophet, if true, that is a marked difference in how Latter-day Saints normally view him.  Bushman also describes moments of genuine caring and compassion, which is more aligned with Latter-day Saints' common understanding of Joseph, but Bushman appears eager to present another side of this complex personality.  Having said that, Rough Stone Rolling highlights how momentous and staggering Joseph's goals and accomplishments were, and why his failures were so heartbreaking.  Joseph Smith was as much a city-builder as he was a prophet according to Bushman.  He was truly a Moses in his day, regardless of how one may feel about the verity of his mission or claims.

In the controlled chaos of the early days of the Church, there was a flood of revelation given through Joseph to the Latter-day Saints and subsequently the world.  It was almost as if heaven was fed up with holding back the light and truth it regards so dearly and used Joseph as a spigot.  As these revelations poured through Joseph, the new truths, the new visions of heaven, hell, and the gospel of Jesus Christ, caused uproar not only among those on the outside of the Church but on the inside as well.  That aspect of Rough Stone Rolling has been one of the more fascinating historical precedents.  When Joseph revealed Doctrine and Covenants section 76, known in his day simply as the "Vision," some Latter-day Saints were so off-put by its seeming re-definition of heaven and hell they left the Church.  They couldn't reconcile this new revelation with the teachings of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, which both teach a very binary view of the afterlife.  (The Bible at least hints at elements more fully described in section 76, whereas the Book of Mormon is totally silent on the matter).  These doctrinal dilemmas, personal opinions crashing up harshly against newly revealed doctrine, is still very much a part of a modern Latter-day Saints' experience with the Church.  It is true we don't experience the same kind of flood of revelation which was almost a constant during the early days of the Church, but we are certainly not without controversy within the Church.  (In our day, it appears the trend is to try and change established doctrine instead of struggling with the reception of new doctrine; the Church's position on homosexuality and ordination of women to the priesthood are good examples of this). 

Although Rough Stone Rolling provides incredible detail of Joseph's life, it is important to point out the book strives to be a cultural biography of Joseph.  In consequence, a great deal of his personal life, especially with Emma, his wife, is omitted from Bushman's book.  I find this to be an enormous weakness of the book.  I'm not suggesting the book needed to be an additional 500 pages in order to chronicle all of his familial relations; rather, I believe it's a necessity to read other works to understand Joseph's personal life.  Emma is an indispensable part of Joseph's saga and the history of the Church he established.  Her reputation among Latter-day Saints still prompts debate, albeit the controversy isn't divisive today like it was after Joseph's death.  Joseph dearly loved Emma, and her struggles, especially when it came to Joseph's taking multiple wives, informs our understanding of Joseph Smith and some of the actions he took shortly before his martyrdom. 

I am on the home-stretch of finishing Bushman's incredible Rough Stone Rolling.  My overall opinion of the book is essentially settled, and my excitement to finish the book increases with every page which brings me closer to the dramatic end of Joseph's life.

Other Topics of Interest:
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 1
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 2

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bosom Buddy Books: Exodus and The Haj

If I were to ever sit down and write a most influential ten or twenty or fifty books I've read, more than likely Exodus by Leon Uris would appear somewhere on that list; however, I can't mention Uris's excellent Exodus without recognizing his equally excellent book, The HajExodus famously chronicles in classic historical fiction fashion the migration of Jews to Palestine during the 1940s and the eventual establishment of the State of Israel.  The Haj, on the other hand, tells the story of those people who saw the Jews as interlopers and enemies forcing their way into a land claimed by too many people. 

Reading Exodus was enlightening and solidified much of my already existing sympathetic feelings toward the State of Israel.  The book isn't written as an apology for Israelis or their nation, but it certainly gives reasons for supporting the creation of a Jewish state and justification for that state to defend itself.  Exodus received plenty of acclaim in its day and was adapted into a major motion picture starring Paul Newman.  The book is one of the finest historical novels I've ever read, and I would recommend it to most anyone without hesitation.

The Haj is little known, and I think that's a shame.  The Haj tells the story of an Arab family that is unavoidably caught up in the drama and struggle of the Jewish state and its people.  The book has been criticized for lacking perspective and a fair treatment of the Arabs.  Considering how polarizing the issue continues to be today, which now takes the form of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, no book dealing with the issue, it seems, can truly be immune to accusations of bias, in one way or another.  The Haj may show some of the darker sides of the Arab culture, but there is plenty of evidence to show those cultural deficiencies (for such they are) were present at the time the book was set and continue on to this very day.  The Haj does leave the reader with little hope for the Arab people and their plight, mostly due to their own actions and cultural weaknesses.  (It reminded me of the hopelessly depressing end to Lawrence of Arabia in which the Arabs have conquered their external enemies and then become enemies to each other).  That viewpoint may be right or wrong, but the book, in my opinion, is written well enough and is interesting enough to warrant a reading.  Even if one disagrees, I think understanding the viewpoint of the Arabs the book presents is a valuable exercise.

Looking at two different perspectives in reference to the same conflict (although some would argue The Haj is not a different perspective) is one of the most efficacious ways we learn.  Yet, I don't wish to portray The Haj as a history book.  The fiction part of its historical setting is a large part of why the book is as entertaining as it is.  Like Exodus, I was most involved and interested in the characters, which Uris is an expert at creating.  I came for the characters, I stayed for the characters, and my natural inclination toward the setting and time period was an added bonus. 

If a reader takes the time to enjoy Exodus, then I think it's a natural and necessary next step to read The Haj.  It's not a direct sequel or prequel, but the themes are so similar and the struggles so common it feels as if you're reading chapters from Exodus that Uris forgot to include.  From a fairness perspective, that may be a disadvantage instead of an advantage, but I enjoyed reading The Haj as much as I did Exodus.  And when you consider the fact that Exodus is one of my favorite books of all time, that's a very meaningful compliment for The Haj.

Other Topics of Interest:
Writing History I can't Forget: Leon Uris
Bosom Buddy Books: The Prince and the Radical

Monday, September 15, 2014

Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 2

Reading about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feels like I'm reading about my own personal history.  Its history became my own when I was born since I was born and raised in a Mormon family, but it has become my history by choice as I have embraced the Church's teachings and membership.  Joseph Smith's life and experiences are inextricably connected with the rise and nascent progress of the Church.  Therefore, reading about Joseph Smith's history feels as if I'm reading my own expanded family history. 

Rough Stone Rolling has thus far provided wonderful insight into Joseph's life, more so than other books or articles I have previously read.  Bushman's method of writing, even though he's a Latter-day Saint, is detached and clinical.  You won't find him describing odd elements (from a modern reader's standpoint) of Joseph's life and family and then hurry to say: "But he was a prophet because . . ."  Not having read all of the historical documents myself, the book seems honest and fair.  By virtue of what Joseph Smith not only claimed to have seen, heard, and eventually taught, what he accomplished begs investigation and discussion.  Joseph was and still is a personality to be reckoned with.  Even if one believes he was a charlatan, a pretender, delusional, or whatever else, one still has to try and make sense of what he did and the religious organization he began, which is now global in its reach and growing rapidly. 

The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, which subtitle was added much, much later, is used by Latter-day Saints, their missionaries, including myself when I served a mission, to prove that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.  Often Latter-day Saints will read Matthew 7:15 - 20 and contest that since The Book of Mormon is "good fruit" it must have come from a good source, even a prophet.  Rough Stone Rolling provides an exceptionally interesting perspective on The Book of Mormon and the various explanations for its existence.  I was unaware of many of the secular explanations extant and was truly surprised by some of them.  Granted, many are surprised by the theological and orthodox explanation of The Book of Mormon's existence.  I recognize my incredulity toward secular explanations are mirrored and re-doubled by those not claiming my faith as they try and make sense of The Book of Mormon.  Richard Bushman truly gave me a greater appreciation for how miraculous the book is, and how to understand others' doubt regarding it.

Thus far, I have thoroughly enjoyed Rough Stone Rolling.  The tone of the book is academic but respectful.  With each developing episode in Joseph's life, I have become increasingly eager to read the book.  I'm looking forward to continuing my association with Joseph and the Latter-day Saints in the forthcoming chapters of Rough Stone Rolling.

Other Topics of Interest:
Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 1
Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Rolling with the Rough Stone, Part 1

I've read some mammoth books, brow bruising as I have referred to them before.  Some books are just flat out long and others are difficult, sometimes they're both.  Recently I have decided to take on Richard L. Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling, which weighs in at 561 pages, not including the notes and bibliography, and has a quite few words on every page.  From the onset, the book appears detailed, thorough, and wholly fascinating.

I'm a Latter-day Saint; therefore, my interest in Joseph Smith is natural since my theology and faith is supported a great deal on what he did during his lifetime.  The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, which Joseph Smith claims to have translated by the gift and power of God, is the keystone of the denomination I belong to.  Joseph's "First Vision" signaled the ushering in of "the dispensation of the fulness of times" (Ephesians 1:10) and is akin to the celestial visions experienced by the great patriarchs and prophets chronicled in the Bible.  Above all, Joseph's first-hand witness of the Savior Jesus Christ provides clarity to biblical truths and assures a modern world that God isn't too far away after all.  In short, Joseph Smith has had and does have a profound impact on me as a human being.  So who was he?

I wanted to get a greater insight into Joseph when I read The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother.  Alas, I found little I didn't already know and very little in terms of genuine insight into Joseph's character and personality.  Furthermore, Lucy Mack Smith's history more often than not was a chronicle of her own life instead of Joseph's.  I longed for an intellectual and spiritual experience reminiscent of when I read James E. Talmage's masterful Jesus the Christ.  Jesus, who I knew and worshiped as my Savior, was never actually a person who walked, talked, ached, wept, and rejoiced until I read Jesus the Christ.  I'd like to have a similar experience reading Rough Stone Rolling

Although Latter-day Saints don't worship Joseph Smith, and are quite sensitive toward accusations that we do, we do have a certain reverence for him and the role he played in God's restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  That reverence, albeit appropriate, can make Joseph Smith feel distant, perhaps even untouchable.  I'd like to break down some of the barriers between myself and Joseph as a human being and get to know him as I would if he visited my home and shared dinner with my family.  It's a high expectation, and I have no idea if Rough Stone Rolling will be able to deliver on my hope, but I'm willing to spend the next several weeks, probably months, in pursuit of that hope. 

Considering how long the book is and how little time I have to read, I may post a few thoughts here on the Thousander Club blog to act as a public journal during my reading journey.  Again, I may have to spend a few months to get through Rough Stone Rolling, and I really, really hope it's worth the time. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother
Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture
Brow Bruising Reads: The Hardest Book I have Ever Read

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Reflections: First Meetings in Ender's Universe

Jumping back into the Ender universe is a little like going home.  First Meetings in the Ender Universe is the tenth book I have read in the series, and I still remain committed to reading each book Orson Scott Card has to offer from this universe.  The series itself has had its ups and downs, some great and some not so much, but I'm invested and interested enough to see the series to its end.  First Meetings is a fine addition to the overall series and provides some welcome depth to the universe.

First Meetings has several short stories, all entertaining and unique episodes, and the original Ender's Game novella, which Card eventually turned into his excellent and famous novel of the same name.  The novella is the oddest addition to this particular collection.  It's out of place, especially considering it spoils the key surprise of the novel.  Readers should be discouraged from reading First Meetings first since some of the stories take place before the original Ender's Game.  The novella is perfectly readable and actually acted as a great refresher on some of the core conflicts of the novel, but I would have preferred another unique short story in its place.

The short stories involving Ender's father, one of which describes the first introduction between Ender's father and mother, are nice little insights into how the International Fleet had been watching Ender's family even before he was born.  Ender's father proves to be an interesting character in his own right, and his mother could have used a short story of her own in this collection.  As is obvious from aspects of Ender's Game and the subsequent Shadow series, not to mention the chronicle of Ender and Valentine after Ender's Game, the story of Ender is also a story about his family.  First Meetings reinforces that story arc.

Lastly, there is a fun short story about Ender attempting to deal with the implications of paying taxes on investments and holdings which have been growing in size and complexity while he has been traversing the universe at near light-speed.  It starts off as an amusing, albeit unnecessary, episode until Card introduces the artificial intelligence Jane.  Readers of the Ender Quartet are very much aware of the profound impact Jane has on the Ender universe, and I thoroughly enjoyed her introduction and the genesis of her and Ender's friendship. 

First Meetings isn't exactly a must-read, but it was fun.  It's for the hard-core fans of the Ender universe.  I will say, however, that it did show me how a television show based on Card's characters and stories would work splendidly.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A War of Gifts: An Ender Story
Books to Movies: Ender's Game
Memorable Moments: Ender's Game - Terrible Reality

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Reflections: Contagious: Why Things Catch On

When it comes to the digital frontier and those "thinkers" who inhabit it, they all want to know how to get their idea noticed.  To be creator of a viral video, article, meme, or whatever else, is a badge of honor in the information age.  Jonah Berger claims in his book, Contagious, to have decoded the patterns and elements of what makes something viral.  He's got them all listed out, but is it convincing?

Answer: maybe.  Contagious does do more than other books with a similar theme, like Gladwell's The Tipping Point, by going beyond how something becomes viral to why something becomes viral.  Having dabbled with social media and trying to get an idea to take off (I do run an online book club after all), I have been as befuddled as many others as to why some posts are popular and others are duds.  Furthermore, there is a general fascination with viral content online.  (Sites like The Daily Beast track and list the most viral videos each week).  Jonah Berger's attempt to give definitive reasons for why something becomes viral is very ambitious, but I'm not particularly convinced he found any secret sauce.

Berger relies a lot on social research, which is difficult to get right and burdened with innumerable variables.  The book does a nice job of setting up each of his principles with a story and then provides evidence to support Berger's theories.  It's interesting enough to read and ponder, after all he may be right, but there was nothing in the book which led me to any kind of "Aha!" moment.  It was all pretty standard in its approach.

One nice thing about Berger's book is that it highlights very ordinary people who were able to create something, even if it was a video about preparing corn, that found an incredibly large audience.  It's a great reminder how small our world can really be.  It also illustrates how the internet has leveled the playing field in many ways.  There are internet celebrities, even if it was temporary, who gained exposure and attention that many corporations are willing to pay millions for.  We live in a fascinating age.

Contagious is readable, even enjoyable, but I didn't find anything in it that would give someone a perfect recipe for creating viral content.  In my mind, sometimes people just get lucky.  In a way, a little mystery is fun because then you truly never know if you'll become an internet celebrity. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reflections: The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October is one of my favorite films of all time.  It seemed reasonable that I would eventually read the source material.  Having never read a Tom Clancy book, I still had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into.  Thankfully, the book was entertaining, although lacking focus at times, and well worth the read.

One thing to keep in mind while reading a Tom Clancy book is that military jargon is to his books what romance is to young adult books.  It's a vital and integral part of the story; it's what makes the book a Tom Clancy book, which, in a way, has become a genre unto itself.  Clancy wants to immerse his reader in a world of CIA and KGB spies, Admirals and Generals, and Cold War tactics.  For the most part, it works quite well.  I am fascinated by the Cold War, and the book's focus on the distrust and military baiting back and forth between the United States and Soviet Union were especially entertaining.  Clancy's theoretical situation of a defecting Soviet submarine captain and his officers plays out extremely well.  The mystery, the hunt for the Red October, is why the story is so compelling; Clancy's playing off of the general Cold War mood and tension is an added bonus.

Having said that, the book does lose some of its focus as it attempts to bite off more than it can chew.  There is a sub-plot with a Senator, his aid, and KGB infiltration, which does very little to forward the story.  It was an unnecessary sidebar and shows a little too much eagerness on Clancy’s part to immerse his readers in the Cold War environment too far above the elbows.   

Clancy uses The Hunt for Red October to introduce his audience to Jack Ryan, who will become his most well-known fictional character.  I was somewhat surprised at how little Ryan is involved during the middle of the book.  He plays a huge role at the beginning and a somewhat ancillary role at the end, but his involvement is almost totally non-existent during the story's rising action.  He's a strong enough character and acts as a good reflection for readers since he's more of a layman and fish out of water (pun unintended) than the other characters in the book.  True, he's a part of the CIA but only as an analyst.  He, like any one of us, feels appropriately terrified to be on a submarine, even navigating it, and simply wants the nightmare to end.  He's a likeable character, especially as a family man wanting to get home before Christmas, and has a sufficient introduction in Red October

I very much enjoyed The Hunt for Red October.  About half-way through the book I wasn't sure if I would ever go back to the Clancy well; however, now that I've read Red October, I could see myself returning to read another of Ryan's adventures.  There are aspects of the book which I waded through rather than enjoyed, such as the military jargon, but, at least in Red October, it was off-set enough by characters I liked and tensions I wanted to see resolved. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris
Reflections: The Rising Tide
Reflections: Gods and Generals

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mooncalf: Inspirations and Recollections

On December 2, 2013, I posted my review of Linda L. Zern's Mooncalf.  It was one of the best books I read in 2013, and I was happy to help the author put together this short video.  Linda L. Zern shares some thoughts on how her elementary school became a large inspiration for Mooncalf and recollects some of her memories from that school.

Finally, the author offers some advice to her children and grandchildren and by extension to all of us.  Mooncalf is still one of the finest books I've read, and I highly recommend it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2013: Fiction
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah - Young Adult Fiction

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Personal growth and development books always strive to be their own type of scripture.  Normally there is some kind of comment from the author at the beginning of their book which advises the readers they need to make a consistent study of the book and return to it again and again.  I've never done this.  I'm not sure how many people do.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is superior to other personal growth books, but it still falls into the same traps and tropes, and I won't be returning to it again and again as Mr. Covey would have liked.

The most unique aspect of 7 Habits is that it pulls so heavily from the religious faith of its author.  As a Latter-day Saint, it wasn't difficult to identify the doctrinal influences which were informing Stephen R. Covey's conclusions.  In fact, sometimes the book acts as a barely veiled reiteration of Latter-day Saint doctrine.  I was impressed by this because I know how much Latter-day Saint doctrine has to offer and how valuable it can be in guiding a life.  Mr. Covey is certainly not coy about his beliefs, and I respect him for that.

What this focus on belief leads to is a book that is centered mostly on principle and values rather than techniques and tricks.  I enjoyed this aspect of the book the most.  I believe in a certain moral ecology and Mr. Covey posits his theories of human behavior and relationships within that kind of a framework.  I found his advice, therefore, much more salient and meaningful than I would have otherwise.  It's a viewpoint not widely shared today, but I nonetheless believe it's true.

The problem with 7 Habits is the same as most other personal growth books.  It's bloated and too long.  If the book had been 200 pages I think it could have been as close to perfect as a personal development book can get; however, weighing in at 319 pages, the book becomes bogged down in its own love for lists, paradigms, and diagrams.  A reader simply won't remember much of it.  This is why authors of these types of books encourage their readers to return to a study of their words again and again, but I'm just not going to do that.  In consequence, the book loses some of its value as it attempts to provide more and more of it by filling its pages with insights, theories, and methods.

I enjoyed 7 Habits for what it is.  It's one of the better personal development books, and a staple of the genre.  It has been read by millions of people, and it does deserve a wide audience.  Yet, in the end, it feels a lot like a lot of the other personal development books, and I've never been much of a fan of those kinds of books.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Wisdom of Teams
Reflections: How to Win Friends and Influence People

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reflections: Their Eyes Were Watching God

For the most part, I have very positive feelings toward Southern Literature.  Books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Mooncalf are some of my absolute favorites.  When I began reading Their Eyes Were Watching God I assumed it would be similar to other Southern Literature books like To Kill a Mockingbird, which focuses on larger social issues like racism and justice.  However, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a very different book with a very familiar setting and tone.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is about Janie Crawford.  She is a fully realized, complicated, and human character.  She is one of the better characters I have come across in some time.  Throughout the book's pages, there is a genuine story arc for Janie.  She progresses, has flaws, strengths, and is a different person at the end of the book than from who she was at the beginning of the book.  When so many characters in other books are so flat, Janie Crawford is a fine example of a fine fictional character.

In addition to Janie, Their Eyes Were Watching God is filled with memorable and fully realized characters.  Although the secondary characters don't have the same kind of story arc that Janie does, a reader would find it difficult to identify any character in the book which does not serve a valuable purpose.  Tea Cake, for example, is an exceptionally written character.  Hurston forces the reader to feel the uncertainty and doubt that Janie does.  For a short time in the book, the reader is not entirely sure of Tea Cake's motives nor his loyalties.  It was the best of mysteries, if it can be called that, which once answered, is fulfilling and heartbreaking when taken into context with the end of the book.

The one significant flaw I think the book does have is its inconsistency of themes, namely that of God and his role in our lives.  The book dances around the question, but never fully embraces it or examines it.  It's a passing thought, which is all the more ironic since the name of the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, suggests a deeper examination of the question.  The reader won't find that examination here.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a beautifully written and deeply saddening story.  From a character study perspective, it's superb.  I consider it unique among the Southern Literature books I have read because it doesn't focus on the themes and social issues one would expect.  Rather, it focuses on one woman, who she is and who she wants to be.  I enjoyed reading about Janie Crawford, and Zora Neale Hurston deserves the credit she has received for creating such a vibrant and real character.

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

Monday, May 26, 2014

Reflections: Too Big to Know

Ever since reading a A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell, I have had a fascination with why and how people can disagree so vehemently about issues.  The world is a complicated place, sure, but how is it that with all of our knowledge, all of our data, and all of our analysis, we can still come to so disparate conclusions?  David Weinberger's Too Big to Know provides some fascinating insights into this phenomenon and into others.  His book is well written, informative, and probably quite prescient.

The main thrust of the book is a discussion about how the very nature of knowledge is changing.  We don't have our "guardians" of knowledge like we used to.  Experts aren't the experts of yesteryear anymore.  Libraries and librarians don't fulfill the same role they used to.  The foundations of what we considered knowledge or truth is being eroded if not totally replaced by something far more squishier in its definition and application.  Knowledge, like data and information, due to the internet, has been democratized.  So what does that mean for us?  Are we smarter now because we have so much more?  Or are we dumber because we don't know how to manage this new frontier of information?  Such questions, along with other incredibly tantalizing ones, are posited and discussed in Too Big to Know.  It's a great book to discuss since it provides such meaty material.

The book's brevity is a great asset since it effectively avoids too much repetition and belaboring of any one point.  It's very readable, very interesting, and well worth any reader's time who has any interest at all about how societies manage knowledge and determine truth.  Perhaps one of the ironies of the book is that any conclusions it does come to is immediately thrown into question based simply on the title of the book.  One additional topic the book could have benefited from was discussing the problem of determining what knowledge is the most valuable to know, if we can.  It's a little too pessimistic to say the world is too complicated to ever know what we need to when one can make educated, reasonable, and informed decisions on what to learn and what not to. 

I highly recommend Too Big to Know.  The book outlines some wonderfully complicated problems while making them enjoyable enough to ponder without making the reader feel forlorn.  I credit David Weinberger for bringing such an important issue into the public square of debate in such a positive and interesting way.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A Conflict of Visions
What You Don't Know is the Reason

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reflections: The Worst Hard Time

I love history.  Reading about the events and people of the past is almost always stimulating, enlightening, and enjoyable.  Sometimes, however, it's terrifying.  The Worst Hard Time, the 2006 National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction, tells the story of the Dust Bowl and those who stayed behind in a broken land.

Timothy Egan, the book's author, focuses on the people who were the most directly affected by the Dust Bowl but also on the causes of it.  You'll find the normal problems associated with American western expansion, such as Native American expulsion, but you'll also find an interesting conflict between ranchers and farmers, misplaced government incentive, and dubious claims from investment seeking, over-eager real estate agents.  But it's the people who came to parts of Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska that deserve our greatest attention for their story is the most interesting and the most horrific.

Egan does a fine job of expressing the desperation that farmers felt during the Dust Bowl.  True, unrestrained and undisciplined agriculture led to the most punishing effects of the Dust Bowl, but that doesn't make the people's suffering any less painful.  The Worst Hard Time is a hard book to read at times.  It's an unblinking magnification of the worst aspects of the Dust Bowl.  Combining its impact with the terrible consequences of the Great Depression, one can't help but wonder how anyone survived it at all or even why they would want to.  It's also a testament to how resilient people can be and how attached they can become to the place they call home, even when home is a nightmare.

The Worst Hard Time is a book to give you nightmares; at least, it did for me.  The Great Depression was bad enough, but the farmers and ranchers of the mid-west not only fought against the effects of an economic disaster but also a natural one.  It's a truly harrowing story.  I'll never forget the book or the story it tells."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Lessons of History
Reflections: The Prince of Frogtown
Her Name is Scout

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Reflections: Life of Pi

Life of Pi walks a precarious line between realism and surrealism.  For the most part, the book does well with both.  Having won the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and being adapted into a motion picture in 2002 by the very accomplished director Ang Lee, Life of Pi is supposed to be great, a classic even.  And it's pretty good, but I wouldn't consider it a classic.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I saw the film before I read the book.  Seeing the film first, of course, removed a great deal of the mystery of the story, which is ironic for a story that stresses heavily the themes of faith, knowledge, and reason.  In my case, "knowing" too much diminished the experience of "believing" the story.  The pay-off of Life of Pi is surprising and thought provoking, but just like other stories that rely on a big reveal at the end, once you've seen it or read it once then the impact is greatly reduced.  Furthermore, I thought the film adaptation was terribly heavy handed in its explanation of what happened and who was who.  It was reminiscent, in a very bad way, of the end of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy looks around the room and says: "And you were there, and you, and you."  Surprisingly, the book does essentially the same thing.  It's clunky and uninspired and could have been done so much better.

Yann Martel is a talented writer but not on every page.  In fact, the first 100 pages were filled with wonderful phrases and memorable prose.  Yet, once Piscine finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with his bizarre menagerie, the writing feels very different.  There are pockets of artistry sprinkled throughout its pages, but I was hoping the author would have shown a more interesting perspective throughout the duration of the entire book. 

Life of Pi is a good book, but I didn't find it to be a great one.  The film, which I may have more to say about in a different post, had its own value and problems.  Even though I didn’t love Life of Pi, I can at least be a part of the conversation if it ever comes up.  (Granted, I’m a little late to the party). 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Heart of Darkness
Reflections: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
3 Reasons Why We Need and Love Stories

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture

One of my favorite quotes regarding culture comes from an ecclesiastical leader named David R. Stone.  He said:

"Our culture tends to determine what foods we like, how we dress, what constitutes polite behavior, what sports we should follow, what our taste in music should be, the importance of education, and our attitudes toward honesty. It also influences men as to the importance of recreation or religion, influences women about the priority of career or childbearing, and has a powerful effect on how we approach procreation and moral issues. All too often, we are like puppets on a string, as our culture determines what is 'cool.'"

I am fascinated by culture, the own I am a part of and the various ones around the world and throughout history.  Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches by Marvin Harris is a book written just for me.  All of the books I have read that have dealt with culture in one way or another, whether that be The Hero with a Thousand Faces or People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, has had enough interesting things to say that I felt they were worth reading, even if I didn't agree with some portions of them.  Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches falls in that same category--interesting, thoughtful, sometimes right, and sometimes wrong, in my opinion.

 Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches selectively explains, but the author purposefully mentions his intent is not to explain everything, a few cultural attributes that existed in the world at different periods of time and attempts to give a reasonable and rational reason for their being a part of the culture.  Harris does this with a fine academic mind and from a secular perspective.  More often than thought, I was able to follow the author's reasoning and understand, at least, the conclusions he came to and how he got there.  At other times, such as his explanation of the true character and history of Jesus Christ, left me scratching my head.  I have read the New Testament four times, and I was highly skeptical of some of Harris's interpretations and conjectures.  There is plenty here to discuss and debate.

The book ends with a commentary on the culture of Harris's time, which was several decades ago, that took some of the momentum away from the book since it was so topical for the time it was written but no so much today.  I enjoyed Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches because it gave me plenty to think about.  It also proved to me, once again, how much we don't know as opposed to how much we do.  Culture is deviously complicated, but Marvin Harris's attempt to explain it is interesting enough to be read.

Other Topics of Interest: