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