Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reflections: Lone Survivor

There are only a handful of books like Lone Survivor in existence.  The reason for this is very simple; there aren't many human beings on this planet who experience something like Marcus Luttrell did and then are able to live to tell the tale.  Lone Survivor, like other true accounts of war and bloodshed, can sometimes only be described as stranger than fiction.  The book is at different times completely and totally heartbreaking as well as triumphant.  This is a book not to be missed.

A book like Lone Survivor cannot avoid comparisons to Mark Bowden's masterpiece Black Hawk Down.  I admit I wanted a book as riveting and emotionally engaging as Black Hawn Down when I started reading Lone Survivor.  Yet, they have different stories to tell.  Luttrell, even with the help of Patrick Robinson, is not as powerful a writer as Mark Bowden, which is not surprising when you consider Bowden's career as opposed to Luttrell’s, but Marcus just might be more raw.  Luttrell unabashedly makes commentaries on the liberal media, rules of engagement, the injustices of war, and pandering politicians.  Lone Survivor reads more like a journal than Black Hawk Down.  In the case of both books, however, I could not stop reading.

One of the events in Lone Survivor which sets it apart from other accounts of war is the gut-wrenchingly difficult moral question which is presented to Marcus and his SEAL team members when they are mistakenly discovered by Afghan goat-herders.  To let the goat-herders go, who are not particularly friendly but are certainly not armed, could mean their informing a small army of Taliban or al Qaeda operatives of the SEAL's location.  To kill them, and thereby protect themselves from unwanted discovery, brings with it the obvious moral implications, as well as the legal ramifications of the Western world.  The debate and subsequent decision is totally gripping.  It's an almost unthinkable situation which no doubt gives most of pause as we attempt to wrestle with questions regarding the definition of murder, self-preservation, and the protection of others.  With the decision made, Lone Survivor becomes an account of an incredible battle between four highly trained Navy SEALs and an opposing force many times their size.  It is gripping, shocking, unbelievable, and, in the end, terribly heartbreaking. 

Perhaps above all things, Lone Survivor reveals a breed of person that is unique and, quite frankly, awe-inspiring.  The individuals who become Navy SEALs are staggering in their persistence, dedication, focus, and loyalty.  Marcus's detailed explanation of Navy SEAL training, although it drags on too long, is a glimpse into a world most of us will never understand.  There are rough men, who go to rough places, and who do rough things, sometimes terrible things, but stand between the most violent forces and people in the world and the rest of us.  Lone Survivor proves the world can be a violent, terrible place, but also that there are good people that live in it. 

Lone Survivor is a book that really shouldn't be missed.  It's most lingering element is the moral dilemma at the heart of the book, but the re-telling of the consequences of that decision are no less inspiring or heartbreaking; in fact, the book brought me to tears.  Although Marcus's prose proves he isn't as adroit as Bowden as a writer, but his indomitable personality, humor, and honesty are on full display.  Lone Survivor will stay with me for a long, long time, if not forever, and perhaps in that way Marcus Luttrell, nor his beloved comrades, will never be left alone again.

Other Topics of Interest:
Page-Turners: Black Hawk Down
Memorable Moments: Heart of Darkness - 'The horror! The horror!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Reflections: Dracula the Un-Dead

Dracula was one of my favorite books I read in 2013.  I loved the book's storytelling, atmosphere, characters, and literary prose.  After finishing Dracula and writing my reflection on it, I wrote some brief comments about the need for another and better adaptation of Stoker's excellent story.  I never, however, thought that creating a sequel to the original story was warranted or preferable.  Ian Holt, a Dracula enthusiast and writer, and Dacre Stoker, a grandnephew of Bram Stoker, saw opportunity in continuing the Dracula saga by capitalizing on the somewhat ambiguous ending of the original novel, and the result is Dracula the Un-Dead.  (The Un-Dead, by the way, was Stoker's original title, but he changed it at the last minute to Dracula). 

It is immediately apparent that Dracula the Un-Dead has much more modern sensibilities than its predecessor.  The original book relied on mood and atmosphere to create its greatest tension and suspense.  Dracula the Un-Dead is bloody, at times coarse, and far, far more violent in every way.  This is to say nothing about the writing itself, which is extremely utilitarian and doesn't provide much insight other than to push the story along.  The original Dracula can rightly be classified as literature--providing perspective on human nature, good and evil, among other important and interesting topics; this sequel isn't written with much more finesse or art than a normal crime or mystery novel.  Furthermore, I really disliked the handling of vampires in general in this book.  I find vampires to be mysterious and fascinating, and they are rarely treated with any kind of restraint, except in the original Dracula story.  Dracula the Un-Dead stumbles down the familiar paths of epic, fantastical, and bloody fight scenes which drag on too long and feel far too much like a comic book. 

I credit the authors for attempting to make historical events and personalities the connective tissue in a story about a supernatural being who lives on human blood.  Most interesting of all is the fact that Bram Stoker is a character in the story.  The authors weave into the back-story of the fictional portrayal of Stoker real people and real events from his past.  It's quite entertaining, but the purpose for their doing it leads to certain revelations that I found a little unsatisfying.  Dracula the Un-Dead tries quite literally to be a book about the untold story of Dracula and attempts to re-frame the character in a new light.  It works on some levels and doesn't on others.  In the end, I love the original character of Dracula so much, at least what I think I know about him, I wasn't terribly satisfied with the re-imagining of the character.  Furthermore, in the midst of all this mystery and intrigue, some of the characters' motivations become suspect for their dubious and irrational nature. 

Dracula the Un-Dead is a creative book; I don't wish to take anything away from it or the authors, who clearly put a lot of love and research into writing it.  Unfortunately, I can't say the book could really stand on its own two legs without the arresting character of Dracula and the lore that surrounds him.  And when I realize I wasn't very satisfied with what they eventually did with Dracula or the supporting characters, such as Mina and Jonathan Harker, I must confess the book is a brief, slightly enjoyable distraction, but not much more.

I bought Dracula the Un-Dead on a whim.  I have tried these "unofficial" follow-up books before; for example, I loved Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and I read Susan Heyboer O'Keefe's Frankenstein's Monster and really, really disliked it.  When I find characters or a story I dearly love, such as Dracula or Frankenstein, I want more of them or more of that type of story.  However, sometimes the original is so good it doesn't need a sequel or prequel to never die.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Dracula
Adaptation, Please: Dracula
Reflections: Frankenstein's Monster

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Reflections: Who Moved My Cheese?

In the professional world, who hasn't heard of Spencer Johnson's Who Moved My Cheese?  The book's title is referenced in a variety of situations, sometimes out of context.  I've heard the phrase repeatedly over the years and came across a very cheap copy of it at Goodwill.  I've given it a read and now have no idea what all the fuss is about.

Who Moved My Cheese? is, in my opinion, a very juvenile book.  Perhaps its accessibility is one reason why so many have found value in it, but I found it to be silly.  It's not necessarily that its ideas are silly; rather, the presentation is childish and pandering.  I was often shaking my head in disbelief as I was the reading book wondering why so many have heaped so much praise on it. 

The book's brevity, another asset for its accessibility, allows a reader to finish the book in a few hours of semi-attentive reading.  And, as always, there is a suggestion to read the book multiple times to truly appreciate what the book has to say.  (The more professional books I read the more I annoyed I become with the authors who want you to treat their book like it's some kind of additional canonized scripture).  I was glad the book was short because that I meant I could move on.  I didn't want to spend any more time with it than was absolutely necessary.

Who Moved My Cheese? is a quick and mostly vapid read.  Are the ideas valuable?  Sure.  But when they're presented in such a juvenile way, the book should be marketed to children and not to working professionals.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Reflections: How to Win Friends and Influence People
Reflections: The Wisdom of Teams

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Reflections: Peter Pan

Peter Pan is a lovely book; I also found it heartbreaking.  J.M. Barrie's brief but meaningful story has deep roots in Western culture.  There always seem to be some type of adaptation or variation of the Pan story out on the horizon.  (Joe Wright's upcoming Pan, a prequel to Barrie's original story, is the latest film to fly to Neverland, but will undoubtedly not be the last; I must also mention that Hook is one of my favorite films).  Children and adults are forever fascinated with imagination and where it can take us, and Peter Pan is a story that typifies that experience.  However, Peter Pan has a lot more to say than that.

The most distinguishing theme of Peter Pan is children and their mothers or the longing for a mother.  I found this theme the most touching and affecting.  When Peter attempts to sabotage Wendy and her brothers' return to their mother but is stopped by the sight of their mother's tears, it's a genuinely touching moment.  Motherhood is such a basic and fundamental idea that it can be understood by most everyone.  Perhaps that's one reason why Peter Pan has had such lasting appeal.  There are tender and insightful moments in Peter Pan I'm glad I experienced.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the book is also heartbreaking.  As much as it celebrates childhood and imagination, it also illustrates the loss of childhood belief, imagination, and carelessness.  There is a part of you that doesn't want Wendy and her brothers to grow up.  On the other hand, the book highlights some of the negative effects of that carelessness.  Peter Pan the character is an embodiment of the good and bad of children.  Imaginative and fun, yes, but also inconsiderate and neglectful. 

I greatly enjoyed the way J.M. Barrie wrote the story.  He often breaks the "fourth wall" by making comments directly to the reading audience or even asking the audiences questions regarding which element of the story he should tell next.  It's a whimsical and endearing way to tell a story that doesn't feel contrived or pandering.  J.M. Barrie has told a great little story in Peter Pan, and it's one of the classics that makes since being so.

Often certain stories have been told and re-told so many times when you come to the source material it can be a little jarring.  I was never in love with the Disney version of Peter Pan, but I have had a very real affinity for the film Hook.  In my own way, I have been a fan of the Peter Pan story for many years.  Now I have a much better understanding as to why the source material is so well-loved.  It's a wonderful love letter to imagination, mothers, childhood, and why it hurts so much when we have to grow up.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Peter and the Starcatchers
Reflections: Treasure Island
Reflections: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland