Friday, December 25, 2015

Reading Goals for 2015: A Review

Amazingly another year is about to pass away.  2015 was, I am happy to report, much better for my reading than was 2014.  I was able to read 22 books this year.  With a goal of 24 each year, I'd say I didn't do terrible.  Similar to 2014, my non-fiction reading was superb, but I struggled to consistently find works of fiction that were meaningful and compelling enough to really leave an indelible impression in the annals of my reading history.

Beginning with non-fiction, I read some excellent books of non-fiction, ranging from social commentaries, to religious treatises, to biographies.  Steve Jobs was one of the finest if not the best biography I've ever read.  The Lord's Way was an incredible commentary on Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice, especially best practices of priesthood leadership.  Along those same lines, reading Hugh Nibley's Temple and Cosmos was truly enlightening.  Reading Lolita in Tehran and From Beirut to Jerusalem were wonderful explorations into the cultures and people of the Middle East, which I will not soon forget.  From a more political and ideological perspective, Life at the Bottom was provocative and challenging.  I could list more works of non-fiction I read this year which are well worth the read.  I know that choosing my favorite work of non-fiction this year will be a special challenge. 

A few weeks back someone mentioned to me that they don't read fiction because it's a waste of time.  I certainly don't agree with that standpoint, and I believe we can learn profound truths from fiction we simply can't learn in any other way.  We need stories for a variety of reasons; however, I recognize the difficulty of finding good fiction.  I was painfully reminded of that struggle this year.  Freedom was an excruciating reminder of what can go so terribly wrong with modern fiction.  Most of the other works of fiction I read this year were very vanilla, hardly memorable, albeit they had some redeeming qualities.  Even Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles didn't thrill me in the way his other books have.  Although young adult fiction is not normally a preferred genre, I was entertained by Beyond the Strandline, which had interesting characters and a breakneck plot.  In addition, Gates of Fire was a brutal, bloody, and wonderful work of historical fiction--a definite highlight in my fiction reading this year.  Lastly, I finally read The Fellowship of the Ring this year.  I enjoyed it well enough and will certainly finish the series over the coming years.

2015 was a pretty good year numbers-wise.  I didn't quite reach my yearly goal, but for me and my schedule I was happy.  I learned a lot this year from my non-fiction reading and still appreciate the value of fiction, although I feel it's getting a little harder to find the truly great works of fiction.  And so we go into another year of reading, learning, and further into the intellectual frontier.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reading Goals for 2015
Reading Goals for 2014: A Review
3 Reasons Why We Need & Love Stories

Friday, December 18, 2015

Reflections: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

My oldest daughter, Emma, is a huge fan of Rick Riordan's series of adventures, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which takes place in a contemporary setting but uses classic Greek characters and events to populate it.  (Emma recommended The Lightning Thief as a worthwhile summer read earlier this year).  I must admit I don't normally have much interest in books such as the Percy Jackson series, but I wanted to fulfill a long-time request from Emma to finally read it. 

Overall I enjoyed The Lightning Thief for what it was.  In fact, at times I find the writing quite good, even witty, but it always came back to the genre it knew it was.  The characters, being pre-teens, are sometimes irritating and the choices they make can be downright stupid.  Yet, the target audience for a book like The Lightning Thief won't be perturbed by the same problems as I would be.  In the end, books like these are simple, straightforward adventures, and most ten year old readers are pretty okay with that.

As would be expected, after having finished the first of the Percy Jackson books Emma was eager to know if I would continue to read the series.  Perhaps.  As mentioned, books like these don't usually pique my interest, but I could see myself reading them so I can talk to Emma about them.  Aside from that, I don't have much interest.  The mysteries and questions left lingering at the end of The Lightning Thief are fun enough to explore and Riordan has obviously made a nice living for himself doing just that.  Emma will more than likely keep he and his family fed for some time; at least, until she grows up a bit more and craves adventures that look and feel a little bit different than something like The Lightning Thief.  I certainly don't want to rush that day, and it was fun to read Percy's first adventure so I could discuss it with a fellow avid reader.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
What Should a 9th Grader Read?
3 Reasons Why We Need and Love Stories

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Reflections: American Lion

American Lion by Jon Meacham shows the amazing nuances which accompanies any sincere look at history.  Andrew Jackson was a controversial figure during his time as president and remains to be so today.  His presence on the twenty-dollar bill is a subject of no small debate in some circles.  I must admit I was unaware as to why someone like himself would find such an honored place in our history until I read American Lion.  The book doesn't glorify the man but respects the contributions he made, as well as highlight the weaknesses he had.

What I certainly did not appreciate was Jackson's efforts to preserve the Union.  The political battles he fought during his presidency were the same battles fought prior the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.  (In fact, Abraham Lincoln referenced Jackson and his efforts during Lincoln's presidency).  I reflected on that fact over and over again while reading American Lion.  What political battles are we having today that will eventually be decided, in civil and not so civil ways, twenty or thirty years from now? 

Regarding the Native Americans, reading American Lion can help you understand Jackson's perspective, even if you don't agree with it, as we all would not.  Students of history have to understand historical figures and personalities in the context of when they lived, how they lived, etc.  Jackson held slaves, as did American giants like George Washington.  Jackson held beliefs related to the Native Americans we would consider backward and harmful, but his reasoning, which revolved mostly around security and protection from an internal threat, was sound during his time.  Having said that, America has always had its contrarians, and Jackson was severely opposed on all of his policies, the Native Americans and slaveholding included.  American Lion does a wonderful job of showing these conflicts in their gritty and fascinating detail.

Another wonderful contribution American Lion makes to the annals of American history is its incredible detail on how the personal lives of political figures can affect the governing of a nation and the administering of a government.  You can always tell when an author has plenty of personal details, letters, etc., to work with and when an author does not.  Meacham appeared to have a host of letters, journals, and records to piece together the compelling and interesting story of Jackson and his family. 

American Lion is a great addition to my ever-growing list of American history books.  I learned a great deal more about the man whose image graces every twenty-dollar bill, and I appreciate the contributions he made and the mistakes he displayed.  There is plenty to learn from Andrew Jackson and American Lion is a great place to learn it. 

Other Topics of Interest:
What Every American Should Read
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Restoring the Lost Constitution

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Reflections: The Martian Chronicles

As I've written before, Ray Bradbury is "one of the finest writers I have ever had the pleasure and unforgettable experience of reading."  The Martian Chronicles is quintessential Bradbury with its short story structure, surrealistic commentaries (Usher II), and science fiction backdrop.  Although I don't consider the book to be one of Bradbury's best, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes take that honor, The Martian Chronicles does weave a better tale and smarter entertainment than most books belonging to the same genre.

The Martian Chronicles is a future history which borrows heavily from our past history.  This lends itself perfectly to a whole host of commentaries regarding mankind's failings, most of which commentaries are subtle but deliberate.  I especially enjoyed the story Usher II and its rather blunt estimation of what Bradbury calls "the sophisticates."  That story, perhaps more than all the others, shows the author's unique balance of macabre humor and storytelling.  Mars becomes at different times and in different stories the Wild West, the New Frontier, but also the scene of intimate domestic conflicts, such as parents struggling with the grief of losing a child.  The focus in this book is most assuredly not the science but the fiction. 

The short story structure of the book isn't for everyone.  Some may want a more cohesive story with characters who inhabit most, if not every, page.  Indeed that is one downfall of the book.  Although Bradbury is truly a master of storytelling and is able to do more with ten pages than most authors can do with four hundred, it is difficult to establish the same kind of emotional connection with a character with only a handful of interactions with them.  Some characters do make encore appearances to tie everything together, but it's not nearly enough to give the book anything that looks like a standard protagonist. 

When I read a Bradbury book I compare it with other Bradbury books because I personally place him in a category and genre all by himself; he's just that good of an author.  The Martian Chronicles isn't one of my favorite of his books, but when I compare it to other science fiction stories it stands quite tall.  No doubt at some point in the future, after reading a handful of mediocre and less inspired works of fiction, I'll come back to Bradbury and remember yet again the pure magic of a story and its telling by a master of his craft. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Ray Bradbury and Me
Reflections: A Princess of Mars
Memorable Moments: The Illustrated Man - 'Make a wish! Make a wish!'

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass

Life at the Bottom is a book that would have driven my college sociology professor insane, which is one reason why I loved it so much.  Colleges and universities proudly tout their incomparable ability to be open-minded and diverse in their thinking; however, in my experience, I was often the one who had to bring a diverse opinion to the classroom rather than being exposed to it by the professors.  Life at the Bottom in many ways represents and showcases a truly contrarian view on the underclass, the poor, and why they are so.  It's a provocative book with exceptional and staggering claims, and it's a book deserving to be read by all, regardless of their ideological viewpoint.

The main thrust of Life at the Bottom is that the central problem with poverty and the underclass is not circumstances, family history, or the environment in which the poor find themselves; rather, the main problem are poisonous and ruinous ideas which originated in intelligentsia and academia and oozed (a word Theodore Dalrymple, the author, would be comfortable with) their way into the population's psyche.  Bad ideas are at the heart of poverty.  These ideas, such as the devaluing of personal responsibility and accountability, have turned otherwise reasonable human beings into inconsiderate, to put it nicely, and barbarous, to put it harshly, dependents of the state and their circumstances.  His experience working as a medical doctor in a hospital which serves a very poor population, as well as his work within the British penal system, provide him a unique insight into the state of the mind of the underclass.  Dalrymple's commentaries are pointed and poignant, at times even scathing. 

No doubt some academics would take issue with Dalrymple's conclusions since they're, from an academic's point of view, based mostly on anecdotal evidence.  I think Dalrymple would agree with that to a point.  He looks at trends, such as a rising crime rate, and connects his experiences with those trends.  I don't think anyone could rightly say Dalrymple lacks legitimacy in his opinion, even if you vehemently disagree with him.  Life at the Bottom highlights what might be one of the biggest problems with social engineers' and sociologists' attempts to correct the ills of society.  Instead of looking at actual, real people and the good and bad ideas they have that drive their thinking and subsequently their actions, they only see data-sets, numbers which are collected, collated, conflated, and ultimately confused.  This inevitably leads to an idea that people aren't agents unto themselves, free to think and choose for themselves, but rather cogs in a great cycle of poverty from which there is no escape, regardless of the ideas the underclass have embraced.  Life at the Bottom is an acute denunciation and refutation of this mind-set and worldview, and it's an exceptionally good one. 

It is obvious Dalrymple holds very little esteem for liberal ideas and ideals.  Although he has his reasoning, I think he somewhat overstates his case in regards to who is to blame.  Liberals, as well as Conservatives, have done their fair-share in spreading lousy ideas, whether they're in the British Parliament or in the American Congress.  I think this singling out of Liberals would put off some readers, but that probably would have been the case anyway.  Genuinely interested parties, regardless of their political or ideological affiliation and affinity, should read Life at the Bottom.  I have no respect for Karl Marx and his lousy ideas, but I enjoyed reading The Communist Manifesto.  I find Saul Alinsky's outlook on humanity and activism to be reprehensible and destructive, but I consider his book Rules for Radicals to be a must read for anyone wanting to understand the world from someone else's point of view.  Life at the Bottom is one of the most important books I have read in a long, long time and readers should study it for its perspective and honesty, even if they disagree with its premise or conclusions. 

Life at the Bottom is a must-read.  Theodore Dalrymple is an exceptionally talented thinker and writer, and he has provided within this book's pages a unique and compelling perspective on poverty and the underclass which ought not to be ignored.  I consider it to be one of the most influential books I have ever read when it comes to my own thinking and perspective.  This is definitely one I will be mentioning and referencing for a long time to come.

Other Topics of Interest:
Bosom Buddy Books: The Prince and the Radical
What Every High School Student Should Read but Probably Doesn't
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Reflections: Gates of Fire

Our popular culture took a special interest into the battle of Thermopylae in 2006 when the film 300 was released.  The battle itself, and the heroism of the Spartan warriors and their allies, is referenced in a variety of settings, including religious.  We stand in awe of the Spartan Dienekes who, once being told the Persians' archers' arrows would blot out the sun, said: "So much the better.  We shall fight in the shade."  Steven Pressfield, in his book Gates of Fire, has taken this incredible historical event and written an incredible historical novel to showcase what courage, honor, bravery, and the brutality of war looks like.

Gates of Fire is quite possibly the bloodiest and goriest book I have ever read.  Yet, I would not classify the book as gratuitous.  I realize that may seem incongruous, but I maintain that the violence on display in this book serves a bigger purpose than violence for violence's sake.  The sword and sandal warfare of the Spartans' era was a face-to-face, nose-to-nose bloodbath.  Pressfield attempts and largely succeeds in making the violence in this book as intimate, for lack of a better word, to the reader as it is for the characters.  I would practically exhale in relief when a battle scene would come to its bloody end.  Gates of Fire is not for those readers who are uncomfortable with violence and all of its inevitable gory consequences. 

Having said all of that, a bloody and violent story which is nothing but that is hardly worth reading, if at all.  Pressfield has not only re-created military situations with convincing adroitness, he has also populated those situations, and especially the build up to them, with genuine and memorable characters.  In fact, a large part of the book, the majority really, is not about warfare but the lead up to it.  It reminded me of The Two Towers film adaptation; the film takes an inordinate amount of time building up to the monumental conflict you have paid money to see.  That build up, that tension, is what makes the final showdown so compelling and engrossing.  What this provides are the emotional crescendos and the heartbreaking realities of war.  There are some genuinely emotional moments in this book.  In the end, even the stoicism of the Spartans cannot contain the unbridled outcry of a broken heart.  Like other tales of war, such as the Lone Survivor, Gates of Fire shows how men behave when placed in the most terrible of situations, both the best and worst of mankind.

Perhaps most interesting to me was the book's examination of the Spartan worldview, the ethos of its people.  Modern nations and cultures boast a much more prolonged quantity of life, but I believe the quality of that life is highly debatable.  Sparta, although existing with and embracing rules of conduct and expectations of lifestyle most, including myself, would bristle at, could teach us something about embracing the most important ideas.  Freedom, honor, courage.  It goes without saying that these ideals aren't the ultimate goals of millennials; rather, our world thrives on security, ease of lifestyle, and entitlements.  Again, Sparta is on one hand an extreme, and we largely live in another extreme, but I believe Gates of Fire can teach us something about ourselves and how to find a better balance.

Gates of Fire is an excellent book; it's one of the finest historical novels I have read in a long, long time.  It's brutal and bloody and not meant for readers who are uncomfortable with such violence.  Like some of the most memorable works of non-fiction relating to war and mankind's inveterate need to engage in it, I will not soon forget Gates of Fire, if at all. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Lone Survivor
Reflections: Heart of Darkness
Writing History I Can't Forget: Leon Uris

Friday, September 4, 2015

Reflections: Temple and Cosmos

For Latter-day Saints, Hugh Nibley is a household name.  He was a prominent Mormon scholar for decades and is probably still the most well-known.  His writing and speeches are works of sometimes dizzying intellect.  I was very excited to read one volume of his collected works series, Temple and Cosmos.  After having been fairly underwhelmed by W. Cleon Skousen's The First Two Thousand Years, it was wonderful to read a book of both doctrinal and intellectual significance as interesting and provocative as Temple and Cosmos.

Of all Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice, there is perhaps none more mysterious and enigmatic to non-members and outside observers than our temple worship.  (This is also the case for some members of the Church who have not been able to experience the temple endowment and sealing yet or have and still find it all inscrutable).  Nibley's academic work on tracing the origins of the temple, not just Latter-day Saint temple worship but temple practices and rituals around the world and throughout all civilizations, provides a valuable perspective on how central it was and is to the human experience.  In many ways, reading Temple and Cosmos was very similar to reading Joseph Campbell's challenging but remarkable The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  There are commonalities between cultures, between peoples, between rituals that are so striking they cannot be ignored.  There are patterns on earth within the human experience which are continually being played out.  The tantalizing question is where the pattern originates from?  Nibley, while focusing on the central importance of the temple, attemps to answer that question with exhaustive research and references from ancient writings and evidences.  The academic work showcased within this one volume of his collection is staggering.

Therein lies one of the problems with a book like Temple and Cosmos.  These collected writings are culled from speeches, academic papers—some previously unpublished—which aren't exactly written for a lay audience.  Nibley's writing, much like his speaking, moves at a breakneck speed.  You've barely had a moment to digest a particularly interesting quotation or comment, and he has already thrown four more at you.  It's difficult to keep up.  In addition, with very little background in ancient cultures or civilizations, a reader like me can't actually compare a statement by Nibley with a contradictory statement by another scholar; I wouldn't even know where to look.  However, Nibley does a fine job, much better than Skousen ever thought of doing in The First Two Thousand Years, of presenting some opposing viewpoints.  It is true he mostly does this to create a springboard from which to disprove the statement; however, it's serviceable nonetheless.

Although this volume, which is the twelfth in the series, is titled Temple and Cosmos and mostly focuses on that topic, it does take some odd deviations.  (Of course this doesn't really have anything to do with Nibley since these are his collected works, which I'm assuming were put together without any direction from Nibley).  Having said that, some of those "deviation" chapters proved to be some of the most valuable.  Nibley's essay Does History and Religion Conflict is one of the finest I have ever read.  I consumed it ravenously and will forever consider it a high-water mark of academic commentary and critique.  Nibley, although steeped in academia, appears to have had a healthy distrust of it, which I can certainly appreciate (see my commentary Academic Humility).

Temple and Cosmos is wonderful.  From a Latter-day Saint perspective it is an unbelievably valuable addition to our personal libraries and to our understanding of the temple ordinances; in fact, for someone who has "gone through" (common Mormon vernacular) the temple, Temple and Cosmos may make you feel a tad bit uncomfortable at times as it describes in some detail ancient patterns of temple worship.  Those patterns and other details, as delineated in apocryphal writings, show why our scripture would describe the gospel as being "new and everlasting."  I will absolutely read Nibley's other volumes of collected works.  In regards to Temple and Cosmos, it is a significant and important academic achievement which Latter-day Saints should take special interest in.


Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The First Two Thousand Years
Brow Bruising Reads: The Hardest Book I have Ever Read
Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Being a Lousy Book Blogger

Most Book Bloggers, like any good aficionados of a particular entertainment industry, thrive on the cutting edge, the new releases, the newest and hottest craze, and the year's award winners.  I am not that Book Blogger.  I am behind the times; I lack insight and interest into the newest releases or the most promising new authors.  To be frank, my method of finding and reading books doesn't lend itself well to Book Blogging at all. 

A few years ago I went to Books-A-Million to pick up a copy of Divergent.  The film was coming out, and I was looking to increase traffic to my Blog.  I figured reading and reviewing Divergent could help drive a few more views.  (In reality it did just that; my review of Divergent is one of my more widely read posts).  I found Veronica Roth's book, put it under my arm, and began to casually peruse the rest of the store.  At that point I began to debate with myself.  Should I spend 10+ dollars on a young adult fiction book I don't really care about or pick up a book I feel would be more substantial and far more interesting?  I tried to remember why I was there.  Read and review a currently popular book to increase views on my Blog!  Simple mission.  Simple task.  I ended up walking out of the bookstore with Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  (As previously mentioned, I did eventually buy a copy of Divergent and gave it a scathing review; sometimes my first impressions are correct). 

Herein lies my problem.  I don't care that much about what is popular, what is "fresh."  I just want to find and read amazing books.  Often times that criterion doesn't align all that well with new and popular books.  I also don't care when the book was published.  I am prone to get just as excited about reading a book published twenty years ago as I am with a book published twenty days ago.  While attending Church several months ago, I came across a large box full of books that someone was giving away.  I searched through the books ravenously.  I picked out two books—From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman, published in 1989, and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, published in 1927.  I was as excited to get those books as I would have been if I had pre-ordered Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee and Amazon delivered it the day of its release.  This is exactly why I pay no attention to published date when I select my Best Books of the Year.  I don't care when they were published.  What matters to me is when I read them. 

In addition to a lack of concern for what's current or new, I also find myself gravitating to some books which may not have the largest audience or market penetration.  This is mostly done accidentally and not deliberately.  In other words, I don't go out of my way to be a contrarian.  My interests sometimes don't align with many others.  As many are reading the latest James Patterson book, I'm wading through Two Treatises on Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration by John Locke.  I can't even keep my reading habits narrow enough to be a Science Fiction or Fantasy Book Blogger.  I like both genres, but I don't read either exclusively or even the majority of the time.  Just this last year, I went from reading The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien to reading The Lord's Way by Dallin H. Oaks.  Considering my goal of reading 1,000 books in my lifetime, it would be much easier to read mystery novel after mystery novel and admire my quickly rising Books I Have Read list total.  Yet, I have no interest in that.  I love variety—science fiction to American history, fantasy to social commentary, southern literature to biography.  All of this is great as an intellectual exercise, but it's not great for Book Blogging.

And so I read on and blog on.  I'm not a terribly great Blogger, but I can read with the best of them.  Although the books I'm interested in may not find happy homes on many bookshelves, I certainly know I have found some extraordinary books which may not have found an extraordinarily large audience.  And when it comes to my readers, I guarantee that at least a few times I'll be able to point you in the right direction.  The books may not be current, may not be the most widely read, but they'll absolutely be worth reading. 

Other Topics of Interest:
President's Message: Shake it Up
Thousander Must-Reads

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reflections: Beyond the Strandline

Beyond the Strandline by Linda L. Zern
Beyond the Strandline is the pop culture version of Alas, Babylon.  Set in Florida, after the collapse of civilization as we know it, it's a story of normal people trying to survive in an extraordinary situation (at least from our current, modern perspective).  The book can be bleak at times but is never oppressive to read (I'm looking at you The Road!).  The young adult genre guides the book's narrative and characters into somewhat familiar and derivative territory, but it never feels cheap (I'm looking at you Divergent!).  This is a unique story with three-dimensional characters that live and breathe and it's a story worth experiencing.

The book's setting is dangerous turf for authors who become too infatuated with their own fictional world.  Other books in this type of genre can become overly concerned with describing grid collapse and entertaining preppers and not telling a meaningful story or providing an emotional experience.  Beyond the Strandline begins, ends, and revolves around characters.  It certainly takes advantage of its setting by casually mentioning arcane facts about surviving the end of modern civilization, something all preppers could appreciate, but it never becomes the focus.  Once again, similar to the author's previous work, the exceptional Mooncalf, Florida, where the book is set, nearly becomes a character in itself.  Florida will forever be a magical place to set a story and Linda L. Zern takes full advantage of it here.  Anyone familiar with the geography and somewhat bizarre weather patterns of Florida will immediately and throughout the book recognize these unique characteristics.
 
Beyond the Strandline truly shines when the author slows down the narrative and lets her characters breath.  Whereas in so many other books in which motivations are taken for granted and characters are merely tools by which the author moves along the dictatorial plot (I'm looking at you One Second After!), Strandline insists on the reader feeling something for the people in its pages.  In some ways the characters in Strandline are its most derivative aspect; we have the elusive and battle-hardened alpha male—Richmond Parrish—and the audacious, somewhat erratic, but indomitable female protagonist—Tessla (Tess) Lane.  Yet, both of these characters have a back-story and depth other young adult fiction falters in providing to the reader.  Their inevitable romance, a seemingly indispensable attribute of young adult fiction, will no doubt bring grins and giggles to all of the female readers of the book.  The author appears to be just as comfortable and confident writing about electrical romantic sensations up and down legs and arms as she is about the more gruesome aspects of a post-civilization world.  The romance, in a very purposeful way, is one aspect of the book that keeps it from becoming too dire to enjoy.

In fear of sounding trite, the book is certainly a page-turner.  Strandline opens with a truly compelling scene and more or else doesn't let up until the conclusion.  Admittedly, this is where the book falters some as more and more complications start to crop up—natural, human, and otherwise.  No doubt living in such a world would more than likely be one complication after another, but I felt a little whiplash as characters went from place to place to manage one crisis after another.  In the end, as aforementioned, the book's greatest strength is when it reminds you why you're reading—the characters.  That's the real reason why you want to get to the next page to see how they all fare in a dark and unforgiving world.

Beyond the Strandline, in the end, is good fun.  It's not so depressive or heavy-handed it's difficult to get through.  On the other hand, it doesn't shy away from what would be very real possibilities in a post-civilization world.  Perhaps what is most admirable about this book is that it fits as comfortably within the young adult fiction genre as Mooncalf did with its literary cousins.  It's a testament to Linda L. Zern's writing talent.  As would be expected, Beyond the Strandline ends with certain questions unanswered and with the reader hanging onto certain cliffs. I hope Strandline finds the audience it needs to compel the author to show us where all of her memorable characters end up.

*The Thousand Club received an advanced reading copy from the author.

Other Topics of Interest:
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah - Young Adult Fiction
Reflections: One Second After
Mooncalf: Book Trailer

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Reflections: The Forever War

It is not often that I struggle to find something to say about a book.  If it's great, I can give a list of reasons why.  If it's terrible, I can say why.  Even if a book is mediocre, I can share why I think that is the case.  The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, however, is so unmemorable and placid I'm really struggling to say much about it at all. 

The one element of the book I do want to make mention of is that the book's use of time and space travel was a unique way to emphasize the idea of a forever war.  As soldiers rocket across the universe they age more slowly than those on Earth; this leads to some interesting dynamics as soldiers try to re-acclimate to Earth-life, which is especially difficult because it might be 50-100 years after their initial departure instead of only a few years.  As a commentary on the Vietnam War, the book works fine.  Although, I would much sooner recommend The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien than I would The Forever War.  In addition to being a commentary on the Vietnam War, it also is a commentary on the army and military life.  But yet again, I would point to the ultimate commentary on the military, Catch-22, instead of The Forever War as the book which really has something to contribute.

As a work of science fiction, the book is fairly unremarkable in my opinion.  The writing, the world-building, it's all so consistently sterile and flat nothing left a lasting impression.  I don't dispute the creativity of the book or the considerable thought that must have gone into it; I just didn't find it interesting or meaningful enough to make a difference to the overall story-arc.  In a way the book is its own activity of attrition as you push yourself to finish the book while losing motivation after each page.

I didn't care for The Forever War, obviously.  It wasn't necessarily a bad book; it simply made no impression.  When reading books and experiencing stories, there is not much else I could say as a harsher criticism.  I didn't care; therefore, I won't remember. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Things They Carried
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Page-Turners: Black Hawk Down

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reflections: From Beirut to Jerusalem

Many years ago, while attending Valencia Community College (now Valencia College), I wrote a research paper titled "Little Israel."  At the time it was a culmination of years of fascination and study for one of the most intriguing and captivating events in modern history.  Since then my study and focus on Israel has waned, but I've never lost what seems to be an innate interest in the country, its people, and its circumstances.  Thomas L. Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem was a reminder of why that region of the world is so bewitching.  Friedman's detailed and excellent personal account of his time in Lebanon and Israel feels like an indispensable part of my personal education on those important places and the Middle East overall.

The most striking thing about Friedman's book is that it was published in 1989.  The reason that is so striking is because the book feels like current history.  It's a testament to how entrenched conflicts are in the Middle East, how far back and how deep they go.  The Middle East, as From Beirut to Jerusalem showcases, is a world apart from common-place Western ethics, morals, and politics.  Friedman's accounts and experiences are extraordinary when read from a Western arm-chair but all too familiar when read from a Middle-Eastern one.  On so many levels, we just don't truly understand how things operate over there.  It is a world of constant moves and counter-moves, of ageless rivalries, tribal conflicts, and Bedouin conflict management, which mostly means if you have a bigger stick and swing it harder than your foe, then you successfully manage the conflict to your personal or tribe's advantage.

From Beirut to Jerusalem is akin to a book like Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville in a way.  For example, Tocqueville was an outsider, a French political thinker and early sociologist, who came to America, observed people, circumstances, and conditions, wrote it all down, and shared it with the world.  Friedman feels the same to me.  Although he is an American Jew, Friedman, as a journalist, fits the definition of an outsider who goes to a foreign, a truly foreign place, makes observations, writes it all down, and has shared it with us all.  Friedman's commentaries are interesting, reasonable, and, at times, quite profound.  There is plenty to aggravate both Israelis and Palestinians and their supporters in this book.  What From Beirut to Jerusalem does very well is to show a level of nuance to the conflict and peoples that is rarely, if ever, highlighted in normal newscasts or newspaper articles.  My feelings toward the ongoing conflict have largely stayed the same since reading the book, but my understanding of those who disagree with me has been greatly enhanced.

The Middle East and its peoples, especially Israel, is a small hinge upon which a large door of world politics and American interests swings.  It is no mistake that so much conflict revolves around such a small area.  There is a history, secular and religious, wrapped up in little Israel and its neighbors that touches the hearts and souls, to say nothing of national interests, of literally billions of people.  From Beirut to Jerusalem may only focus on a particular decade, in this case the 1980s, but its insight and value extend far, far beyond that limited time-frame.  This is ancient and modern history so tightly knit together it's sometimes hard to tell them apart.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Democracy in America
Reflections: Reading Lolita in Tehran
Bosom Buddy Books: Exodus and The Haj

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Reflections: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Anyone familiar with the Science Fiction genre of books knows about Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  It's a well-known, well-regarded work that inspired, albeit loosely, one of the greatest science fiction films (so says a lot of media outlets) of all time, Blade RunnerDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? feels almost as esoteric as it sounds with its opaque examination of life, consciousness, and empathy.  It's an interesting book, even entertaining at times, but in the end it left me a little abandoned in its own musings.

The single most fascinating and entertaining story element of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is its purposeful misdirections regarding who is an android and who is not.  In this world, one can be an android and not know it.  Memories can be fabricated.  Perception can be faked.  There are a series of reversals during the middle of the book that left me questioning my own understanding of who was an android and who wasn't and what that would mean for the story overall.  It was a great sequence.  (A film, although not a great one, that does something similar with great effect is Where Eagles Dare; there are probably half a dozen twists within the span of one ten-minute scene).  Yet, as entertaining as this segment was, it doesn't last long. The book quickly re-focuses on its core philosophical and metaphysical elements.  That's not a slight, however.  I'm pretty open to all things philosophical and metaphysical, but this book provides more enjoyment in the discussing of it than in the reading of it.
 
The stranger elements of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, such as Mercerism, are balanced out with a very thought-provoking view of the future.  With essentially all animal life obliterated by a Nuclear War (World War Terminus; what a great and imposing name!), humanity is emigrating en masse away from Earth.  Those of us left behind struggle with what it means to be human and the proper way to value life.  Animals, and by extension life itself, have become a rare commodity indeed, and much of humanity long so badly for an animal that they pay large sums of money to own them or buy ersatz animals to fulfill the need.  Rick Deckard, the book's main protagonist, begins the book with an electric sheep but works at eliminating several androids to collect the bounty and buy a live animal; it seems that's all he really wants.  This unique set of problems and motivations certainly gives the book a special flavor; thus far, I haven't read another science fiction book quite like it.  Although I think the book veers a little too far into obtuse commentary, it does leave some tantalizing questions unanswered which would certainly drive the most literal among us a little crazy.

Philip K. Dick and his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? will forever be regarded as one of the finest works of science fiction we have.  That is, after all, how I came across it again, and again, and again.  It appeared on just about every best of science fiction list I reviewed.  For my part, it was a book I liked but didn't love.  I'd enjoy discussing it with others but don't have much reason to soak in its material more on my own.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Hyperion
Reflections: A Princess of Mars
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Reflections: The First 2,000 Years

In every cultural group there are household names.  W. Cleon Skousen is one of those names among Latter-day Saints.  In fact, like Hugh Nibley, Skousen is a Latter-day Saint academic that achieved enough prominence and visibility that some members of the Church incorrectly referred to him as "Elder" Skousen, inadvertently suggesting he was a Apostle, which he was not.  Skousen achieved this level of visibility by writing books like The First 2,000 Years and its subsequent follow-ups, as well as other treatises relating to government, communism, and Latter-day Saint doctrine.  The First 2,000 Years is the second book I have read from Skousen, the first being The 5,000 Year Leap.  Although I enjoyed the The First 2,000 Years, it was very front-loaded and lacked less and less interesting insight the further I got into it. 

If anything is immediately associated with Skousen when mentioned to Latter-day Saints, it would probably be the word speculation.  Although Skousen is constantly referencing scripture, his interpretations and conclusions may sometimes surprise readers, even Latter-day Saints.  What's most interesting about these speculations to me is that Skousen writes with total confidence.  (I will say, however, that I find Skousen's explanation of the Atonement and why it was necessary to be extremely compelling and reasonable).  He rarely provides multiple opinions and then delineates why he falls on one side or the other of a particular issue or topic.  I find this to be the weakest aspect of Skousen's writings.  I love the compare and contrast method of learning (see The Lord's Way or A Conflict of Visions as examples).  The First 2,000 Years is a direct and concise commentary from one author; it could have offered more by pulling from other authors, both academic and ecclesiastical. 

Skousen has the most to contribute when it comes to the beginning of all things, at least the beginning of our earth and related universe.  Latter-day Saint scripture is far more robust and expansive than contemporary Christianity, and Skousen takes full advantage of unique details and doctrines Latter-day Saints consider canonized scripture.  This is there the majority of the speculation can be found.  Some of the commentary is a little too literal from my perspective but interesting nonetheless.  As in science so in theology, if you go far enough back, the details of what actually happened and when they actually happened becomes fuzzier and fuzzier.  (I'm mostly speaking of the creation of the Earth and our pre-mortal experience).  What surprised me most regarding The First 2,000 Years is that Skousen pays little attention to what has been said by modern Prophets and Apostles regarding the topics he's discussing and elaborating on.  A good example of an author who does pay a great deal of attention to what has been said by modern Prophets and Apostles while still maintaining his own speculations and conclusions is the book Earth in the Beginning, also written by a Skousen but I'm not sure of the relationship. 

The first quarter or half of The First 2,000 Years is far more interesting and intriguing than the second half of the book.  Once the Abraham epoch and commentary begins it feels like more of a scavenger hunt for who was born and when.  There were a few insights here and there that I found intriguing but certainly nothing provocative. 

The First 2,000 Years is the first of several books of commentary written by Skousen regarding the Bible, as well as other Latter-day Saint scripture.  It was a passing amusement, but I'm not sure if I'll read the other books in this particular series.  The book provides some interesting doctrinal topics of conversation, even if it only acts as a springboard, but I don't find much more value in it than that.   

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Lord's Way
Reflections: The Apocrypha
Reflections: Faith Precedes the Miracle

Friday, June 12, 2015

What to Read this Summer (2015)

As an avid reader I figure I'm able to tabulate a list of great summer reads just as much as anyone.  My list is certainly not comprehensive seeing as how I'm only one guy, and I haven't read a mere fraction of the books, some great and lots terrible, that are in circulation today.  Having said that, there are a few I think we can all enjoy while sitting by the beach, lake, or pool.  To me a summer read doesn't necessarily constitute a book that is intended only for cheap entertainment, although those are good some times.  I think if someone reads their way through summer they should pick up some popular fiction as well as thought-provoking, brow-furrowing books of quality.  Here are a few I think won't disappoint.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
What can I possibly say about Dandelion Wine or Ray Bradbury?  I started reading Dandelion Wine the very day Ray Bradbury died, all by coincidence.  This book is probably Bradbury's most approachable.  Avoiding the heaviness of something like Fahrenheit 451 and the more fantastic elements of a book like Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine strikes a balance of magical nostalgia in a seemingly mundane domestic setting.  But there is nothing truly mundane about this book.  It is a beautiful and intriguing work of fiction which transports the reader back to the rowdy and glorious days of childhood. 

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
Cold Sassy Tree has one of the most shocking moments I've ever read in fiction.  And I'll do you all the service of not spoiling what the shock is.  It's probably been close to a decade since I've read Cold Sassy Tree, but I still remember the feeling of reading the book.  I have read hundreds of books since then, and I can't remember most of them very well or at all.  When I look over my list of books I have read I often pause and say to myself: "Oh yeah, I did read that."  But I have never done that and will never do that when it comes to Cold Sassy Tree.  Set in a Georgia town during 1906, the book is truly evocative.  The characters are charming and memorable.  It's a great deal of fun to read.  It's not as heady or heavy as a lot of Southern Literature tends to be, and in this case that's a good thing.  It's a wonderful book to read while listening to the churn of the surf.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
I like fantasy, and I like science fiction.  Often times the stories are overlooked in those genres to make way for the author's oh-so-original take on well-worn themes and settings.  Mistborn, however, presents an extremely unique set of fantasy rules while still providing an entertaining story and mostly memorable characters.  The book certainly has its problems, but it's a fun escape.  It deals with big ideas just enough to ensure the story doesn't become stale or insipid, but it doesn't inundate the reader with incomprehensible or esoteric moral dilemmas that most of us probably wouldn't care about anyway on a lazy summer afternoon.  In addition, Mistborn is the first of a trilogy which may provide a very good reason to continue reading the series.  It's not a bad thing to not only find one new book during the summer but discover a whole new series you can enjoy. 


All Over But the Shoutin', Ava's Man, and The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg
There are probably not enough positive adjectives I could pull out of my cranium to fully express my effusive love for these books.  Rick Bragg is better than just about every non-fiction writer I've read, and he's better than most fiction writers as well.  This biographical/autobiographical "trilogy," for lack of a better term, truly showcases some of the best writing I have ever had the joy of reading.  And when you're looking for a good summer book, why not read some of the best writing you can?  Although some summer readers may not want to wade into non-fiction while they're relaxing and possibly want to escape reality, I would still recommend these books to anyone.  They're tough books at times and deal with difficult family and domestic issues, but they're beautiful works of art that a summer reader would be hard-pressed not to appreciate.

Crimes Against Logic by Jamie Whyte
Jamie Whyte's treatise on the use or more appropriately the misuse of logic is short, entertaining, and more than likely a little condemning.  Most of us have committed one or two or three of the crimes, as defined by Whyte, highlighted in this little book.  It's a fun exercise to absorb what Whyte has to say about the crimes against logic and see those crimes pervasively perpetuated all around us.  Crimes Against Logic won't necessarily change your philosophical position on life, love, or happiness, but it's an extremely approachable book that can more than sufficiently divert and indulge your intellect without ever becoming too burdensome.

As a special treat, my daughter Emma, a voracious and inveterate reader herself, has a book recommendation for this summer that she thinks anyone can enjoy:

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
"I like the Percy Jackson series because it is about the Greek gods.  And it is a book series about Greek mythology.  And most gods have powers.  My two favorite characters are Percy and Annabeth.  I really like the Percy Jackson series because it is an adventure."

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Reflections: Freedom

After reading around three quarters of Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom I searched for reviews of the book.  I almost never do this; I do like to look at lists that collate the best books of a genre or decade or some other grouping, but I'm not prone to read reviews of a book.  I don't exactly remember when I heard about Freedom, but I do remember it was within a very favorable context.  (I'm pretty sure it was during an interview on National Public Radio; after some brief research, I saw that the book received numerous awards and was a #1 National Bestseller).  I navigated to the first review that came back in the search results, which was a New York Times review by Sam Tanenhaus who said in part: ". . . 'Freedom'. . . is a masterpiece of American fiction."  I stumbled over the word "masterpiece" and had once again the painful realization that our modern masterpieces of literature are so very different from some of our archived masterpieces of yesteryear.  Furthermore, I realized, yet again, why I hate modern literature so much.

Freedom is well written.  It has a fascinating narrative structure which jumps backward and forward in time but never left me disoriented.  The characters are fully developed human beings; the dialogue is genuine and engaging.  These characters feel like they could be real.  The interweaving of seemingly disparate topics and events is a testament to the author's ability for storytelling.  From a writing perspective, there is plenty to recommend Freedom; however, I am loathe to recommend the book to anyone, ever.

"Modern" literature loves to swim in the deep end of morality and ethics.  It seeks to challenge our notions of right and wrong or even explore what a word like freedom even means, as Franzen's novel does.  All of this is fine, interesting even.  Yet, Franzen has presented characters who are so morally depraved and mentally broken it's a chore to read anything about them.  At some points I genuinely hated some of the characters.  Perhaps this was one of Franzen's objectives, and producing such feelings in your readers could have merit.  Unfortunately, in this book it's mostly obnoxious.  Modern literature strives, struggles, and over-strains itself to be profound.  Generally speaking, most of its insights aren't profound but vapid conclusions based on the author's own pessimistic perspective of reality.  By the end of a book like Freedom, after having to endure the characters' numerous infidelities, betrayals, and even one of them digging through their own excrement to find a swallowed wedding ring, I don't really care what the point is; I only care about finishing the book and moving on.

What is so unpleasant about Freedom is its characters' unrelenting need to be nasty to themselves, each other, and just about everyone else.  There are only a few characters who warrant much sympathy or compassion.  And, of course, even the best among them falls victim to the injustice of our volatile world and the rakish behavior of others.  Franzen attempts to put most of his characters back together by the end of the book, after emotionally and mentally brutalizing most of them, but when the bow is tied it's neither pretty or meaningful.  The characters' happiness or lack thereof wasn't much of a concern for me.  No, I don't always need a perfect ending to the stories I enjoy (see Mooncalf or Their Eyes Were Watching God).  (In fact, when it doesn't make sense for the story and belittles the drama the story had created, see Star Trek Into Darkness, I find it somewhat cheap).  Rather, I want a reason for the right ending, an acceptable outcome, even if one is not arrived at.  Freedom provides no such thing.

I truly disliked Freedom.  I can admire the author's efforts and give credit where credit is due, but I have no desire to spend any more time with these characters or the author who created them.  Freedom is another fine example of what I don't like about modern literature.  This might be, as the New York Times reviewer said, a new "masterpiece of American fiction," but that only proves to me how little time I want to spend with these modern masterpieces of fiction.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Tinkers
Overrated: The Road
Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction

Monday, May 18, 2015

Reflections: 1776


1776's greatest value is in its focus.  Instead of attempting to cover the whole of the American Revolutionary War, David McCullough focuses instead on one pivotal year, 1776, with some minor establishing elements from 1775 and some lead-out elements from 1777.  In the annals of American history, 1776 is remembered for the writing and publishing of the Declaration of Independence, a monumental document which has had an impact on the entire human race.  Yet, as with all of history, there is always a different perspective, sometimes less celebratory and often times a lot harsher.  1776 is an intriguing look at the struggle connected with American independence and shows just how dire the chances for the new nation's survival truly was.

1776 is very accessible, albeit lacking much memorable prose from the author.  The real luminaries are the incredible figures who were involved in America's war for independence, such as George Washington and his trusted and not so trusted associates.   1776 provides not only a glimpse into the character of these human beings but into the characteristics of human nature.  As with most things, the truth is far more complicated than we're usually able to examine and digest with our limited attention.  America's first standing army boasted true heroes and patriots but also was afflicted with cowardice, disobedience, and depravity, to say nothing of its material lackings, which were many and debilitating.  All of this makes the accomplishments of the Continental Army and its green leaders so much more staggering when viewed in full historical context.

I really enjoyed 1776's very limited examination of America's founding.  Often times books of history attempt to provide a scope of information so large it becomes oppressive from a reader's perspective.  There are so many places, so many names, so many documents, so many twists of fate, it's impossible to truly follow it all without dedicating a level of attention many readers simply don't have.  At the same time, this is not a 1776 for Dummies book nor does it attempt to diminish its subjects simply to achieve brevity for brevity's sake.  There is plenty here.  Yet, it doesn't try to explore the debate surrounding the Declaration of Independence while at the same time delineating military strategy, choice, and consequence.  This book is largely about military events and leaves the in-depth exploration of political events to other books and other authors.  In the case of 1776, this works wonderfully.

As already mentioned, McCullough's writing is perfectly adequate; it does lack, however, a distinctive voice.  His writing is slightly too utilitarian and doesn't have enough pathos.  As important as it is to show history as clearly and unfiltered as possible, these were real people whose story is extraordinary, and they could use an extraordinary storyteller.  I have read some incredible non-fiction books, some of which rival literary efforts to impress feelings upon the reader, and David McCullough doesn't have that spark.  I'm sure its expertly researched and it's clearly an excellent work of history, but it's a history somewhat devoid of real humanity. 

A mark of a great history book is that it not only provides an education on the subject matter at hand but also whets the appetite of the reader to further explore the personalities and events it examines.  In this case, 1776 helped me remember, yet again, why I love so dearly American history.  I feel a distinct affinity for our American forefathers and founding fathers (as well as our foremothers and founding mothers) and want to know more about them and the lives they lived.  1776 provided an intriguing and engaging look at a very specific point in time of America's history.  Although I was somewhat underwhelmed by its prose, 1776 certainly earned its place on my growing list of books relating to the history of the United States of America.


Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Reflections: Abigail and John: A Portrait of a Marriage
What Every American Should Read