Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best Books of 2016

2016 was a great year for reading.  Most of my non-fiction selections were excellent and well worth my time but more encouraging and exciting were the fiction books I read in 2016.  Although my selection for my favorite fiction book was mostly undisputed in my mind, that did not mean there wasn't a wonderful selection of fiction I read this year.  In too many years past I have struggled to find works of fiction which inspire and enlighten.  Happily, 2016 was not one of those years.  Therefore, since this year was such a wonderful year for my fiction reading, I'll start with my favorite fiction book of 2016.

Fiction: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I read Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop early in the year.  It's sometimes easy to forget about books which you read earlier in the year because so much can come after it, not just in terms of reading but also in terms of life.  Death Comes for the Archbishop has stuck with me from the moment I turned the last page.  Its evocative setting, its endearing characters, its hopeful message—it all stuck with me and continued to affect my thinking.  Even though I read several great works of fiction this year, there was never any doubt that Death Comes for the Archbishop would be my favorite this year.

I found Death Comes for the Archbishop deeply personal.  Its a story about believing souls trying to change the world, slowly but ever so surely.  At one point Cather writes "...it was no easy matter for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history."  What a powerful statement!  Having served as a religious missionary it's difficult for me to articulate how much that statement moves me.  Furthermore, the myriad of simple but incredible insights from the book, such as "[m]an was lost and saved in a garden," elevate its prose from mere plot plodding to literary lessons indelibly impressed upon me.  Death Comes for the Archbishop isn't exactly a well-known masterpiece of literature; yet, for me, it's exactly that—a masterpiece.

Non-fiction: The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman

Neal A. Maxwell is no slouch when it comes to selecting the "best books" (D&C 88:118) and I always pay attention to any author, article, or book Maxwell quotes from.  The March of Folly is a book I more than likely never would have found except by listening to and paying close attention to a talk by Maxwell.  And I'm so glad I found it.

The March of Folly is a dense book—detailed and challenging.  Although many non-fiction books attempt to document several events or chronicle a personality's life, Tuchman's book is an exploration of a historical theory; to wit, that governments and leaders often act against their own self-interest and engage in demonstrably poor policy decisions which eventually leads to their losing power and influence.  The book explores the mythical story of Troy—which I loved because I believe myth and story can teach us a great deal—the American Revolution from the perspective of the British, the Popes shortly before the Reformation, and the Vietnam War.  In all cases, I was enthralled by Tuchman's commentaries and insights.  Whereas a book like The Lessons of History by the Durants attempts to look at history at 50,000 feet, The March of Folly looks at history under a microscope.  Both are valuable, of course, and The March of Folly is a truly effective microscope.

Like most years, I read a lot of very good non-fiction books in 2016, but the one that really stuck with me and continues to actively influence my thinking was The March of Folly.  It should not be overlooked.

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2015
Best Books of 2014
Thousander Must-Reads

Monday, December 12, 2016

Reading Goals for 2016: A Review

2016 was a great year of reading—both for non-fiction and fiction. Too often fiction lags behind in quality year over year, but that was absolutely not the case in 2016. When I look at the non-fiction and fiction books I read this past year, it is an excellent lineup of excellent writing.

Starting with fiction, I finally got around to completing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I read The Fellowship of the Ring in 2015 and liked it fine, but it wasn't until I read The Two Towers that I finally saw and felt the vision of those books. In fact, after reading The Two Towers, I read a non-fiction book—as is my pattern—and then immediately went back to Tolkien to read The Return of the King. I rarely read books in a series back to back. I usually like to take a breath and a break from a series so when I return to the series it can feel fresh. I didn't need any break between The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Furthermore, I had a few wonderful surprises in my fiction reading this year as well. World War Z was far better than it probably should have been being a book about zombies. Also, Good Omens was funny and entertaining, and a great diversion away from some of the more cerebral books I'm prone to read. The Once and Future King was another epic book that shocked me, surprised me, entertained me, and moved me. It should not be missed. Finally, though, I can't help but mention what will more than likely be my favorite fiction book I read in 2016—Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. It is a truly lovely book—genuinely emotional, personal, and, for me, unforgettable.

And what of non-fiction? As with most years, I read an incredible assortment of non-fiction books this year.  The first which comes to mind is probably The March of Folly.  It was a detailed and challenging work of historical commentary that I have returned to on many occasions over the last year for insight.  Although not the best of biographies, Bonhoeffer was a book about a heroic man during a terrifying time.  It reminded me that even when evil appears to be taking hold and madness is taking over there are always good men and women doing what they can to push back against it.  I finally got around to reading The Tragedy of American Compassion, which has been on my reading list literally for years.  I have to mention as well Daniel Kahneman's fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Although it became a bit of a slog and a little distended by the end, the book compels the reader to re-evaluate their ability to think clearly and objectively.  It reinforced my skepticism but also gave me more reasons to be humble, and that's a good thing.

A big development for my reading habits this year was a new commitment to read more business and management oriented books.  I have started to write blog posts and articles related to the professional world, and I, therefore, committed myself to dive deeper into that world by reading what others have to say about it.  Some were decent, such as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  Others not so much, such as The One Minute Manager.  I admit I struggle to find books of interest in the professional world, but I know they're out there, and I think I can become a more capable and well-rounded professional by learning from others who have more knowledge and experience than myself.  In addition, this new commitment will lead me to some unexpected but fascinating books like The Marshmallow Test.  I look forward to continuing this new area of learning.

2016 was a really good year for my reading.  Not everything impressed me, but the good and great books far outnumbered the mediocre and lousy books.  2017 is looking like a great year as well, and I look forward to reaching 400 books (I'm so, so close!), and moving ever closer to 500, 750, and 1,000.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reading Goals for 2015: A Review
Thousander Guidelines
Thousander Must-Reads

Monday, December 5, 2016

Reflections: Earth Unaware

I now have read twelve books in the Ender Universe.  And, sadly, I think I'm done reading books in that universe.  The last book I read from Scott Card was Ender in Exile, and I largely left off reading that book with a positive feeling.  I wrote in part: "With so many books and so many authors in the wild to enjoy, I'm not exactly sure why I keep coming back to the Ender well.  Regardless of whether I figure it out or not, I'll be back to take another drink and more than likely enjoy the taste just fine."  Yet, going into Earth Unaware my mood and feeling changed.  I realized that with so many books to read and so many authors to enjoy, it may be time to leave behind characters I have come to love.

The most interesting aspect of Earth Unaware is the new cast of characters.  As I have read about Ender and the characters that surround him, such as his family, I have come to know them in an intimate way, even personal.  Furthermore, with Scott Card's signature psycho-analysis, the reader came to know the characters at a very deep, albeit sometimes trite, way.  Earth Unaware only tries to bridge the current story with the future story by briefly introducing but just as quickly leaving behind the war hero Mazer Rackham.  I was fine with the introduction but also the quick departure from him.  We have learned enough about the characters from the original Ender stories.  It was time for new blood, new motivations, and new conflicts.  The new characters are adequate but mostly forgettable.  Furthermore, the story that surrounds them is also forgettable; therefore, as you can imagine, a forgettable story and forgettable characters makes for a forgettable book.

Prequels often seem like a good idea on paper; yet, they quickly become bad ideas in their execution.  Ender's Game is rightfully considered a classic of science fiction.  Logic would suggest that the story that led to Ender's Game would be just as interesting.  In this case, as in the case with many other prequels, it's just not true.  Sometimes there is great value in mystery.  When it comes to fiction, we don't have to know everything.  In Ender's Game the characters, including Andrew Wiggin, and the reader are given only glimpses into the First Formic War.  Wouldn't it be fascinating to get the detailed story?  Not really.  Storytellers should remember the lesson of the Star Wars prequels.  Do we really want to know how Darth Vader became Darth Vader?  It seems like a no-brainer, but the end result is pretty lousy. 

It's entirely possible I'll end up reading some more books in the Enderverse.  It won't be for some time.  I have no desire to continue the Earth trilogy nor the Shadow series; therefore, I don't really have too many places to go.  Yet, with twelve books in my collection, I would say I put in my time as a faithful fan.  At this point, I think I'm okay with remembering the great stories Scott Card gave me and forgetting the mediocre ones.  Earth Unaware is the latter.

Other Topics of Interest:
Memorable Moments: Ender's Game - Terribly Reality
Reflections: Ender in Exile
Reflections: The Forever War

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Look around for recommended books from academics and business commentators and you probably won't get too far without running into Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. I heard and saw it referenced again and again. Partly because of the scope of the book, there aren't too many areas that aren't commented on in one way or another in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Certainly some areas are a bigger focus than others, but I think many experts from many fields find something of value in this book. I also found it valuable and gained a great many fascinating insights from it, but I also found it tiresome and overly long.

You won't be reading Thinking, Fast and Slow for too long before you realize it reads very much like a "Greatest Hits" of psychology and social science research with a little bit of economics and other disciplines thrown in as well. Each chapter focuses on one or several academic studies which purport to explain some element of human existence and decision-making.  Kahneman is actually a decent writer, but he spends the vast amount of time explaining how a particular research study was done, writing out percentages, and detailing sample sizes. I'm fine with this to confirm the science was done correctly or so the reader can have some semblance of confidence in the findings; however, the book drags on too long, like many business and academic books, and the reading becomes tedious. The book tried to be too comprehensive and would have benefited from limiting its scope a bit.  Furthermore, Kahneman is an entertaining writer and can be very pithy and even funny.  His personality didn't come through enough. 

Kahneman attempts to coalesce the many findings in his book by using a pragmatic framework for discussion.  He separates our decision make processes into two parts—System 1—our intuition and quick judgments—and System 2—our deliberate thought processes and rationality. It works well enough and is easily recalled when reflecting on what you've read.  Simplifying what is essentially an incredibly complex topic is very useful when writing a book meant to be enjoyed by a wider audience and not necessarily only those in a particular academic discpline.  Thinking, Fast and Slow should make most of us think twice (or three or four times) about how we actually think.  Is my response to a particular situation part of System 1 or 2?  How or why should I trust my own judgment?  Am I seeing the world as it really is?  These are difficult questions once you've read Kahneman's book.  I have both a profound love for learning and an inherent faith in our ability to progress and improve ourselves.  At the same time, I have a deep skepticism of human knowledge and decision-making.  For me, Thinking, Fast and Slow, tends to feed my skepticism more than my confidence.

As overstuffed as the book is, the information it presents is almost universally applicable—politics, academia, business, religion, family life, all of it.  Yet, just as the book suggests, one should, in my opinion, be careful with some of the conclusions found within the book.  Just as the author repeatedly reiterates the dubious nature of human perception and decision-making, it also makes bold claims about those very things.  It should give us pause.  It should make us question without necessarily becoming cynical.

Thinking, Fast and Slow does deserve the attention it gets for the ideas it brings to the table, not necessarily as a book which is structured particularity well.  The best recommendation I can give for the book is that it already has seeped into my thinking.  I think I have a greater propensity to be cautious in my thinking, whether it's fast or slow.  And any book which influences you to change your thinking or behavior is worth paying attention to.

Notable Quotes:
  •  "Experts are human in the end. They are dazzled by their own brilliance and hate to be wrong."
  •  "The illusion that one has understood the past feeds the further illusion that one can predict and control the future."
  •  "The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: Contagious
What You Don't Know is the Reason

Monday, November 14, 2016

Reflections: The Victory of Reason

The Victory of Reason begins with a truly provocative idea, especially in our age of secular-centric historical commentary. Scholar Rodney Stark posits that the driving force of Western success was due to ideas inculcated in Christianity. With Christianity, and much of faith in general, being as unpopular as it is in academia, this is a disruptive idea. Stark attempts to prove his outlook in The Victory of Reason and does so with mild success.

I have long believed that ideas matter and have consequences. Although that seems elementary, certain scholars would not necessarily agree, especially depending on their field of study. To read a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, would make one believe that the progress of humanity has little to do with the volition of humans. Rather, the irresistible forces of evolution and chance, including something as mundane as longitude and latitude, determine the destiny of humanity. The Victory of Reason presents a very different world and outlook, a world driven by the choices of humans—collectively or individually—and those choices are driven by ideas, such as those found within Christianity.

So does Stark make his case successfully? Yes and no. The book is detailed, albeit not exhaustive, and historical evidence is confidently presented.  The trouble starts to occur with the analysis of certain historical periods, such as the Dark Ages, in which Stark rejects the common interpretation of history regarding that time period. Although most of the information is interesting, it feels farther and farther away from the original theory the more you keep reading. (I will say certain passages in the book reminded me of reading The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith; the in-depth analysis of potato growing or wool production can make for some less than thrilling reading). Stark does eventually circumscribe his historical musings into the framework of his theory, but it doesn't happen enough and the book sometimes feels disconnected from the main idea.

Stark's personality was on display in his writing much more than many other scholars. I could appreciate his contrarian viewpoints being a contrarian myself. The writing feels caustic in some ways, but his rejection of several common beliefs is always followed by persuasive historical evidence. The profundity of the premise—that the ideas of Christianity are primarily responsible for the momentous advances in western civilization—demands a commiserate level of profundity in writing and historical commentary. The Victory of Reason as an explication fell a bit short in proving its main premise, although I don't believe Stark is wrong. Although I am very sympathetic to Stark's assertion, I wish his book would have been put together a bit more coherently and circumspectly.

The Victory of Reason is a valuable book to read and study due to its mostly contrarian viewpoint on momentous historical circumstances. The premise is fascinating, as well as much of the content, but the book doesn't quite come together the way it needs to. Having said that, this is the first book of Rodney Stark's I have read, and I look forward to reading and enjoying more of his work. He has some fascinating things to say, and I'm eager to explore more of the world from Rodney Stark's viewpoint.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Reflections: The Lessons of History
Brow Bruising Reads

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Reflections: World War Z

World War Z by Max Brooks is much better than a book about zombies should be. Although zombies have been a large part of our cultural zeitgeist for years, I have largely ignored their many incarnations, iterations, and versions. I was able to stomach two episodes of The Walking Dead and promptly gave it up because I found it gruesome and gratuitous. Furthermore, the many films and video games which have zombies as the primary antagonists have gone mostly unnoticed by me. (One exception is the original Resident Evil, which remake I recently got for my PS4 and have been having an absolute blast playing again; I played the original game on the original Playstation).   As you can imagine, World War Z had a lot going against it in my mind, but it subverted my expectations, and I found it to be smart, tense, scary, and, ironically, very, very human.

World War Z abandons the normal narrative structure and instead presents a series of vignettes (normally not my favorite storytelling method) that highlights the human impact of the arrival of the undead. The diversity of experiences presented in the vignettes is the most impressive aspect of the book. The reader is presented with devastating scenarios and situations in China, then South Africa, then India, then Japan, and so on and so forth. It's really quite impressive how convincing each experience is. Max Brooks writes with confidence from each perspective, whether it be on a Chinese nuclear sub or on the International Space Station. If the dead did start to re-animate, then how would people in all of these places and cultures react? It's a fun thought experience, but it's also extremely unsettling.

World War Z presents nightmare scenarios, but it doesn't require zombies to be a nightmare. In fact, the scariest aspects of the book are in the epidemic consequences of the story rather than the undead. In so many ways, any civilization's peace and tranquility hovers precariously on a very thin line between order and chaos. It's not difficult to see the chaos which can result when law and order breaks down; it's currently happening in many places around the world and always has. It doesn't take zombies to do that. World War Z smartly reminds the reader of the realities of our modern world and then tears it all to pieces. Having said that, of all of the end of the world type stories I've read, World War Z is possibly the most hopeful. It showcases devastation, yes, but it also showcases the triumph of human reason and adaptation.

Max Brooks has written a truly human tale, even though it doesn't focus on one protagonist or even several. Brooks has exposed the common human emotions expressed in the midst of tragedy and desolation. World War Z is much, much more than a zombie book. In some vignettes, zombies are almost an afterthought. The living, not the undead, are the focus of this book, and for that reason I found it extremely troubling, engaging, and entertaining. I still don't have much interest in zombies, but World War Z is well worth a recommendation.

 Notable Quotes:
  • "The monsters that rose from the dead, they are nothing compared to the ones we carry in our hearts."
  • "The UN is a bureaucratic masterpiece, so many nuggets of valuable data buried in mountains of unread reports."
  • "Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they're used."
Books to Movies: I had watched the film adaptation of World War Z with Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Forster before reading the book; however, the film adaptation is an adaptation in name only. Although I enjoyed the film—especially the first half—the book is much smarter and more interesting than the film.

Other Topics of Interest
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Reflections: Good Omens
Reflections: Dracula

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Reflections: The Tragedy of American Compassion

By far one of the most interesting non-fiction books I read last year was Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple. It presented a view of poverty that was provocative and challenging. In addition, its focus was on the ideas which create and perpetuate poverty, which is a little understood and often ignored element of the problem. The Tragedy of American Compassion takes a similar approach. The author, Marvin Olasky, seeks to delineate the pervasive ideas of those who combated poverty in the 18th and 19th century and how those ideas truly helped the poor, as opposed to the ideas of today which hurt the poor. Like Life at the Bottom, it's a provocative book which should not be ignored in the wider discussion about poverty.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Tragedy of American Compassion is its re-alignment of the word compassion. As with many words in politics, compassion becomes a word used as often in political attacks as it does to encourage others to actually have compassion. Furthermore, as Olasky shows, the word compassion meant something very, very different to those charity workers of the 18th and 19th century than it does to our professional social workers and bureaucrats of today. Perhaps the most challenging idea posited in the book is that some forms of charity are more harmful than doing nothing at all. In other words, Olasky suggests many of our modern prescriptions to cure poverty—such as the Great Society—has perpetuated and exacerbated some of the most pernicious problems of poverty, such as unwed pregnancy and family abandonment by fathers. These aren't necessarily new ideas from the conservative side of the ideological scale, but The Tragedy of American Compassion does a nice job of reinforcing the reasons for the belief.

As someone who believes strongly in the power of ideas, I found the book's exploration of the ideas which inform our prescriptions for poverty to be the most interesting. Olasky wrote: "Our ideas about poverty always reflect our ideas about the nature of man."  There is a lot to unpack from that simple statement. As society moved away from the Biblical view of mankind, what were the impacts of that shift? How does that change our approach to poverty and how to solve it? Those are compelling questions, which I feel secular society dismisses with too little thought and consideration. Regardless of your theology or lack thereof, one must admit, in my opinion, the ideas of religion matter deeply and influence at a fundamental level how we approach societal issues and how we approach each other. Are we treating the poor like animals in a zoo—simply feeding them and not requiring any type of behavioral change—because we truly see each other as animals, merely the result of a long, uninterrupted evolutionary process, and incapable of change? The Tragedy of American Compassion adds a valuable level of insight into this consequential question.  (Albeit, I found some of Olasky's comments regarding the homeless to be painting with a brush which was a bit too large but thought-provoking nonetheless). 

Perhaps the biggest downfall of the book is that it was written over twenty years ago.  As one can imagine, there has been a great deal more literature and research completed since the publication of this book regarding poverty, its causes, and its effects.  However, I'm not convinced the ideas discussed in The Tragedy of American Compassion are any less valuable.  The other downside to the book is the writing.  Overall, the writing is fine, at times pithy, but not particularly memorable.  Too often the book buries the reader in data which is redundant.  I thought to myself once or twice while reading it: "Move on." 

The Tragedy of American Compassion is a good book.  It's interesting and provides a valuable perspective on poverty, as well as a compelling history of compassion throughout America's history.  It wasn't as memorable or provocative as Dalrympe's excellent Life at the Bottom, but it showcases ideas regarding poverty we should not overlook.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass
Reflections: The Road to Serfdom
Reflections: Capitalism and Freedom

Friday, October 7, 2016

Reflections: The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King is a bizarre book—perhaps one of the strangest I have ever read. Its narrative structure is erratic, sometimes it even feels vaudeville.    One can see Monty Python in certain scenes; in others you can see the greatest themes of the greatest literature ever written; and still others you'll find the melodramatic love triangles prevalent in modern young adult fiction and episodic television. Most will easily recognize the first quarter of the book being the inspiration of Disney's The Sword in the Stone, but once the Wart becomes Arthur and the great quest to dethrone the ideology of "Might makes Right" begins the book will be mostly unfamiliar to many readers.

T.H. White's sensibilities are on display through his prose and commentaries found in the book. Especially in the character of Merlyn, who is absolutely wonderful, unique, and truly unforgettable, the story drips with anachronism. It's a clever technique considering Arthur's goal as king is to bring his kingdom and people into modernity, even if he doesn't know exactly what that looks like. Furthermore, The Once and Future King is filled with humor, some of it very, very funny. Albeit, as the reader reaches the close of the saga the world becomes darker, more complicated, and more dire. In addition, the book has some incredibly shocking moments—from incest to gruesome violence (that poor, poor unicorn) to adulterous affairs—the story never lets you feel at ease. The playfulness of the first quarter of the book only comes in brief episodes toward the latter half of the book as Arthur's knights, especially Lancelot, roam the world looking for adventures.

As a commentary on society, whether modern or ancient, the book feels cynical. And considering the history of mankind and the dramatic arch of this book one realizes why. Is our modern society much improved in the way of morals, honor, and justice? Are the court rooms of today mere proxies for ancient duels intended not so much to achieve true justice but to decide the strongest and most skillful brute? These types of questions are provocative and sobering. Arthur's quest to abolish "Might makes Right" eventually becomes circular. Morality becomes fuzzy to characters who should know better. Human mistakes have generational effects, and the great lesson of life—choice and consequence—is illustrated in a powerful display of pathos. For hundreds of pages you see the tragedy coming, you feel it coming, but it still breaks your heart when it arrives.

Mordred, the sinister and nefarious son of Arthur, is an antagonist not to be forgotten. Arthur, the visionary but tragic king, is both an object for admiration and for pity.  The lessons on leadership taught to and taught by Arthur are important, poignant, always relevant.  My feelings toward Guenever and Lancelot are complicated, albeit mostly negative.  Their actions lead to great misery for those around them, but their actions highlight some of mankind's greatest weaknesses, such as envy, lust, and selfishness.  Merlyn, as I mentioned earlier, is the great archetype of a mentor and teacher.  There are other fascinating and entertaining characters throughout The Once and Future King, and they provide the glue and substance to a narrative which is unconventional and strange.

The Once and Future King is a profound book.  The last dozen pages or so is a tour de force of philosophical and ideological commentary.  As an old man, Arthur struggles to make sense of the human condition.  The reader attempts to do the same.  However bizarre a book The Once and Future King is, it's a book not to be ignored or forgotten.  The lessons of Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot are not fictional fantasies but those which are "common to man" (1 Corinthians 10:13).  And seeing as how we are all common in our humanity, we would do well to learn a thing or two from them.

Notable Quote:
Of the several profound passages in the book, I found the following to be particularly piercing:
  • "Do you think that they, with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom, were less enlightened than we are, with our Wars, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription?  Even if they were foolish enough to believe that the earth was the center of the universe, do we not ourselves believe that man is the fine flower of creation?  If it takes a million years for a fish to become a reptile, has Man, in our few hundred, altered out of recognition?"
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Reflections: Gates of Fire
Reflections: From Beirut to Jerusalem

Friday, September 9, 2016

Reflections: Number the Stars

Lois Lowry's The Giver is a masterpiece and easily merits a spot on the Thousander Club Must-Read list.  Number the Stars, which title comes from the 147th Psalm, is only the second book of Lowry's I have read.  It's smart and tense, albeit not as affecting and profound as The Giver.  Written for younger readers, it creates enough peril and danger to instruct children regarding the terrifying atmosphere of the second world war without becoming too heavy-handed.

The didactic value of Number the Stars is in its lesson on bravery.  Annemarie, the book's main protagonist, is a modern symbol of Little Red Riding Hood, which is referenced directly in the book.  Young readers, especially young girls, can benefit by relating to Annemarie—an ordinary girl thrust into an extraordinary and difficult situation.  In fact, Number the Stars is a book I want my young daughters to read.  I want them to learn how to be brave, and Number the Stars teaches that lesson quite nicely.

I do feel the book requires some additional context which is not provided.  Although a young reader may understand the overall peril in the book and discern who the bad and good guys are, I felt the exposition in the book may leave some readers, especially the younger ones, wondering what may be happening.  Perhaps there is value in that since the protagonist is a young person herself, and she doesn't fully understand the gravity of the situation in which she is placed.  As the book suggests, sometimes not knowing something is where bravery may be found.  I cede that point but wonder if adult readers are taking for granted what we already know about World War 2, the Holocaust, and Nazism.  Regardless, Number the Stars is perfectly readable the way it is.

Lois Lowry's intended audience can be taught and molded by a book like Number the Stars, and I think Lowry knows exactly who that audience is.  It's not the masterpiece that The Giver is, but it's a good book. It's worth reading, and its lesson is worth learning.

Other Topics of Interest:
Thousander Must-Reads
What Should a 9th Grader Read?
Reflections: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Reflections: The Marshmallow Test

I first heard about the marshmallow test in 2010 while listening Dieter F. Uchtdorf's conference address titled Continue in Patience.  I thought the concept was fascinating at the time, and over the years I have stumbled across various accounts of the tests and their impact on the academic community, as well as public policy debates.  The Marshmallow Test, written by Walter Mischel, is a deeper dive into the origins of the famous study and the subsequent academic work which has been done to confirm and challenge its findings.

The reader will immediately notice how the marshmallow test and its findings are far more nuanced than how its often reported in the media.  It's not that the findings are incorrect or distorted, it's that the story is so much richer and more complex than a headline.  I found this to be the most intriguing and valuable aspect of The Marshmallow Test.  I love taking a deeper dive into assumptions. When it comes to human nature and human behavior generally, there are a lot of assumptions and even intellectual biases.  Mischel takes a special interest in the nature versus nurture debate, and he points toward a bevy of academic research to support his findings.  As I am wont to do, I accept the premises and conclusions of most academic research with limited skepticism because there is always another view, another study, and another reasonable opinion to suggest a contrarian viewpoint.

Although all of the material is interesting, the writing isn't noticeably poignant.  Mischel appears to be much more of a researcher than an author.  In addition, The Marshmallow Test probably could have been a bit shorter.  The main point of the book was made repeatedly and in different contexts.  A few stories and a few research studies probably could have been omitted and the results would have been the same.  Having said that, Mischel does spare the reader the graphs and charts which usually accompany a book like this.  I enjoy looking at those and trying to understand the data at a more granular level, but it wasn't necessary for this book, which is mostly written for the layman.

In conclusion, the marshmallow test is a very, very interesting academic study which deserves some attention, especially in the context of public policy, such as education.  The debate over nature versus nurture is a fundamental one, and the results from Mischel's work and others contributes in a significant way to the debate.  The Marshmallow Test was a nice look behind the curtain of a particular set of academic studies, and if you have interest in something like that then this book is worth perusing.  Otherwise, it may be a bit of slog.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Reflections: Life at the Bottom
Reflections: Up from Slavery

Friday, September 2, 2016

Reflections: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

What would I have done, said, wrote, and believed if I were there?  That question remained in my mind nearly the entire time I read the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The era of Nazism in Germany is one of the most harrowing, disgusting, and fascinating epochs I have ever read about it.  Bonhoeffer's biography by Eric Metaxas is a competent biography, albeit not a great one, about a man who existed in a world gone mad and did what he could to push back against the darkness.

When writing about personalities who lived during consequential moments in history, there must be a compulsion for authors to try and link that personality's life with the events  as much as possible.  I feel this biography tried to oversell Bonhoeffer's participation in historic events or didn't make it clear enough how his life was interconnected with those events.  Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his seditious actions, but the author seemed to stretch his direct involvement in certain assassination plots.  Regardless, Bonhoeffer was a man of courage and confidence who demands the highest level of admiration.  When so many voices were crying for compromise, he made the case for conviction. 

As an influential theologian, he saw the evil of Nazi Germany through the prism of his Christian faith.  Of the many biographies and non-fiction books written about or related to the era of Nazism and World War 2, the spiritual and faith-centered aspects of this book are perhaps the most unique.  Was Christianity an impetus for Nazi ideology or was it corrupted by it?  Why did so many religious people support Hitler?  Why did ecclesiastical leaders do the same?  There is a clear warning and tragic lesson to be learned.  Metaxas gives significant time in this biography to let the theological debate rage, which was enthralling and troubling.  Through it all, I queried myself, as a devoutly religious person, what would I have done?  On which side of the line would I have stood?

Although Bonhoeffer is a wonderful subject for a biography, the most fascinating elements of this book are the details related to the rise of Nazi Germany.  (I added The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to my Amazon wish list while reading Bonhoeffer).  This book proves the historical point made by Barbara W. Tuchman: "No single characteristic ever overtakes an entire society."  Bonhoeffer and others like him, such as his family, show that sanity prevailed in some pockets, however small, of the German population.  Not everyone became bloodthirsty, sadistic, depraved automatons goose-stepping in loyal obeisance to Adolf Hitler.  Many individuals gave their lives trying to stop evil from completely strangling their beloved homeland.  In many respects, they failed; however, their efforts, heralded in a book like Bonhoeffer, show that moral degeneration is not universal, even when it takes hold of the majority.  (After reading Bonhoeffer, I'd really like to re-watch Valkyrie, which I enjoyed but feel I would appreciate it quite a bit more now). 

The conclusion of Bonhoeffer is predictably heart-breaking but no less affecting.  It is staggering to comprehend how much evil was perpetuated and how much human suffering was caused by Nazi Germany.  Yet, it is also moving to learn of the men and women who refused to break under the burden of popular opinion or government coercion.  I  am nonplussed by how iniquitous mankind can be, but a book like Bonhoeffer gives me hope that I, as well as others, can still choose to be saintly.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The March of Folly
Reflections: The Culture of Disbelief
Reflections: The Lessons of History

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Reflections: Ready Player One

Ready Player One is the most referential book I have ever read.  Its pages drip with 80s pop culture references, some of them obvious, many of them not.  It's entertaining at first, especially when you understand the reference, but then it becomes a bit obnoxious and excessive.  This, in fact, is a good analogue to the book itself.  Its beginning is much stronger than its conclusion, and the aspects of the book which were its most entertaining element at the start become tired and worn-out by the end.

The book is on the whole enjoyable.  I described it to a co-worker as "aggressively okay."  The narrative pulls you along at a steady pace, interesting things happen, the mystery of the "Easter Egg" is sufficiently compelling, but it's the finer details that start to nag.  As mentioned, the references, the worship of 80s culture, although explained through the narrative, becomes irritating.  The details of the story are impressive, and the author's passion for the subject matter screams on every page.  The writing and dialogue serves the story fine and provides only a few moments of profundity. 

Sadly, the author, Ernest Cline, commits one of the most grievous mistakes of any science fiction or fantasy story, which I call "The Magic Wand."  Essentially "The Magic Wand" is a narrative tool to magically fix the story's most perplexing problems.  (Did you know reversing the Earth's orbit reverses time itself!?  Thank you, Superman).  Often times authors use this Wand when they've painted themselves into a corner.  "Oh, look, now the main character can fly!" or "travel through time!" or some such thing.  Ready Player One's Magic Wand is the main character's outlandish sudden ability to perfectly plan and execute a plan of such devious and conniving genius it leaves both the characters in the book and the reader of the book completely stunned.  Furthermore, throughout the book, there are far too many instances of the character needing to know some obscure or obtuse fact about 80s pop culture and the main character conveniently notifies the reader: "Good thing I've watched this film exactly 175 times."  Good thing, indeed.

Having said all of this, I enjoyed Ready Player One for what it was.  I was especially interested in the possible and entirely plausible future of virtual reality that the book showcases.  It's both exciting and dismaying.  Although the messaging of the book is muddled, which is too bad, the fiction aspect of it was very interesting.  (It's worth mentioning that according to an article in Businessweek, each new Oculus Rift employee—a company which has created a virtual reality headset—is issued a copy of Ready Player One).  A few years ago I was extremely skeptical of virtual reality's ability to be adopted by the mainstream.  Although that hasn't happened in a significant way yet, I do believe it will; in addition, I believe it very well could herald a massive shift in how we consume and participate in entertainment, education, business, commerce, and even how we interact with and make sense of reality itself.  Ready Player One shows a world that is either terrifying or exhilarating depending on your worldview.  I'm not convinced the author knows exactly which one it is. 

Ready Player One is being adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg, and I think it might have a better chance being a great story as a film than a book.  I think the story needs to be trimmed, sliced and diced a bit, and leave behind many of the arcane details meant to be enjoyed by only a few.  There is definitely a fun adventure to be found here, but it might take some other storytellers to tell it a bit better.


Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Reflections: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Reflections: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Reflections: The Innovator's Dilemma

I've written before I'm not a big fan of many business books because many authors "intentionally or unintentionally, [attempt] to make [their] book some kind of new scriptural canon, demanding of our attention year after year."  The Innovator's Dilemma is a different book altogether; it's MBA territory and not meant for readers who enjoy a quick but mostly superficial exploration at self-help techniques.  Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma is a challenging and enlightening book, which purports to break new ground in the understanding of business and technology but also explores existing principles beneficial to all and not only the entrepreneur or senior manager. 

My awareness of The Innovator's Dilemma came while reading the excellent biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  Isaacson wrote: ". . . Christensen was one of the world's most insightful business analysts, and Jobs was deeply influenced by his book The Innovator's Dilemma."  I figured I should pay attention to this book so highly regarded by one of the most influential business leaders in recent memory.  Christensen's book attempts to document and explain how disruptive technology differs from sustaining technologies within industries—all detailed and defined, of course—and how entire industries have been significantly changed and how seemingly successful companies have folded or been greatly reduced in capability and reach due to disruptive changes.  That all sounds a bit esoteric, and in some ways it is without modest knowledge of businesses and organizations, but I found the information very interesting and useful.

Amazingly, I didn't find The Innovator's Dilemma to be redundant, as many business  books are.  It seemed that any time the book started to become too repetitious it would pivot to a new theory or model to continue explaining the phenomenon of disruptive technologies.  Although I was able to follow with a modicum of confidence the main ideas and principles, I certainly had to slow down a few times, re-read a few sentences, and ponder over a few graphs for a bit longer than usual to truly understand what was being presented and discussed.  In some cases, I'm still pondering.  As mentioned previously, this is not an easy read.  It will push you to dig deeper into seemingly straightforward business cases and consistently use your critical thinking skills.

Clayton Christensen offers something truly valuable and insightful with his book The Innovator's Dilemma.  I don't expect to create any disruptive technologies or necessarily be in a senior management situation having to make organizational decisions to deal with one, but I feel much more educated regarding business, organizations, and the constant change that is pervasive through most industries.

On a side note, Clayton Christensen's TED talk, How Will You Measure Your Life?, is well worth listening to and provides an impetus to reflect and examine your life and ambitions. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Steve Jobs
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reflections: The Night Circus

The Night Circus is a book that wanted so badly to be great but never quite got there. In fact, I wanted it to be great. I wanted Ray Bradbury—phantasmagorical, reality imbued with fantasy, seemingly effortless profundity. Alas, The Night Circus is not that book, no matter how hard it tried.

The book's imagery is at times striking, even evocative, but the story lacks consistency. Centering around a competition or duel established at the beginning of the book, the story meanders from scene to scene only occasionally addressing the central plot element. Yet, as if remembering why words were being put to paper, the author quickly and somewhat clumsily re-focuses the narrative during the last quarter of the book. As the story comes to a conclusion and as the characters find their closure, the overarching meanings feel a bit obtuse, and I was left wondering what the real purpose was and why I should care. (I had similar feelings after completing The Westing Game).

I have a propensity to enjoy books like The Night Circus. Something Wicked This Way Comes, for example, is one of my favorite books. I love stories that embrace hyper-reality—facts colliding gently and sometimes harshly with fiction. The Prestige is another example of a book and eventual film—yet another one dealing with magic and entertainment—that embraces fact and fiction and interweaves them together. The Night Circus in some ways does a wonderful job of cradling reality and fantasy, but it stumbles in other ways.

Having said all of that, The Night Circus does have a menagerie of interesting characters. The magical pull of the circus can be felt through the book's pages. It's a place I'd like to visit, to be, to experience. Mystery permeates basically every page of the book, albeit the resolution is inadequate. The book excels in its exhibition of imagination. Like any good fantasy, the new sights, sounds, and smells should intrigue and capture the reader. The Night Circus at times was captivating.

I wish there was more to recommend The Night Circus; yet, I feel the book is more feigned style than it is genuine substance. As a concept, the story has a lot for me to love, and visually I think a talented filmmaker could do something pretty special. The Night Circus frequently skirts the edge of greatness but never actually crosses the line. It's a shame because I really, really wanted it to.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Westing Game
Ray Bradbury & Me
Books to Movies: The Prestige

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Reflections: Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery is one of the most important books I've ever read on education.  Although it's not its sole focus, Booker T. Washington provides clear and poignant direction on how to educate, including what is important and what is not.  The debate, like most things, continues today and in a form not terribly different than what it looked like during Washington's day.  In addition to the excellent commentary on education, Up from Slavery presents a leadership philosophy for African Americans I find oddly absent from today's debates regarding race and discrimination.  Although Washington feels a bit self-congratulatory at times in the book, I found Up from Slavery to be an enjoyable and insightful autobiography.

In the same tradition as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, who was Washington's contemporary, Booker T. Washington tells a story which feels ancient and unbelievable from a modern reader's perspective.  Washington grew up a slave and was emancipated when he was a boy.  His descriptions of experiencing freedom for the first time, along with other freed slaves, are quite educational.  Washington describes an America substantially different from today's, albeit still familiar in important ways. 

Second only to his commentaries on education, I found Washington's insight into leadership, especially in relation to African Americans, to be extremely interesting and shrewd.  Take, for example, the following statement:

"I think that the the whole future of my race hinges on the question as to whether or not it can make itself of such indispensable value that the people in the town and the state where we reside will feel that our presence is necessary to the happiness and well-being of the community.  No man who continues to add something to the material, intellectual, and moral well-being of the place in which he lives is long left without proper reward.  This is a great human law which cannot be permanently nullified."

I do not hear this philosophy of social existence today.  I've written elsewhere about my struggles with race relations in American, and I worry that a viewpoint like Washington's is so completely foreign and not a part of the general discussion.  Today's leaders, of all colors, seem insistent that the only causes of conflict for any race are external, whereas Washington seemed much more eager to look inwardly while not denying the injustices that existed.  I feel his viewpoint is needed in today's debates, regardless of whether or not you feel he's correct.

As mentioned earlier, I feel Washington's commentaries on education are some of the most important I've read.  Washington, in my opinion, would fit pretty comfortably in the grit school of thought today.  I admit my own bias toward that educational outlook while maintaining that my viewpoint, like most others', is nuanced and can't be perfectly categorized.  Washington did so much more, however, in the furthering of education than most commentariats, myself included.  He began and ran a successful educational institution and appears to have gained the favor of many, both in the South and the North (he's where he becomes a bit too self-congratulatory).  Like his viewpoints on leadership and social acceptance, his educational opinions ought not to be ignored today.  Like freedom, most African Americans were experiencing education for the first time.  In effect, a natural experiment was underway that simply cannot be duplicated today.  (Nor would we want to).  For that reason alone, Washington's conclusions and directions should hold a greater weight than most researchers and social scientist.

The Civil War period, before, during and after, is a fascinating, troubling, and heroic time in American history.  The personalities involved in those pivotal moments and events are overshadowed by only the founding generation.  Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery is an excellent addition to my knowledge of that time period and on critical issues, such as education and leadership. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mrs. Lincoln: A Life
Reflections: Gods and Generals
Reflections: American Lion

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Reflections: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

I've been hesitant to read business-oriented books in the past.  I've laid out my reasons why in a separate blog post.  When I was invited to participate in a book club at work and read and discuss the business book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team I was thrilled to participate, but my excitement was more in being able to interact with other leaders and not as much regarding the book itself.  Happily, I found some value in the book and would be willing to recommend it to the others.

The first red flag that went up when I was introduced to the book was the subtitle: "A Leadership Fable."  I immediately thought of Who Moved My Cheese? and the fable it is intended to be.  That book, in my opinion, is so juvenile it's barely worth reading.  (In fact, I don't really think it is worth reading).  I was worried The Five Dysfunctions would also take the simplistic to the point of offense route.  Although The Five Dysfunctions is simply written (don't expect Dickens here), I would not consider it a simple book.  I fully admit that the book club interaction I had at work helped tremendously in assisting me to glean meaning and lessons from the book.  Yet, I do believe there are lessons to be learned here even in the absence of having a team or club to interact with while reading the book.  The fiction in this case, as opposed to something like Who Moved My Cheese?, was surprisingly effective.  It was applicable without being infantile.

Inevitably, The Five Dysfunctions posits its own "secret sauce" of teamwork along with the supreme obstacles to achieving it (hence the five dysfunctions).  Reading this book wasn't exactly a revelatory experience, but it does provide some additional insights I had not considered to the fullest extent.  If any one author truly has found the "secret sauce" of business, teamwork, or whatever else, there would probably be far less business books to peruse and digest.  I believe in the power of ideas, however, and The Five Dysfunctions give some tasty food for thought.

In the end, I was pleasantly (albeit mildly) surprised by The Five Dysfunctions.  I didn't find it pretentious, as I do many business books.  (Thankfully the author didn't recommend I had to read his book multiple times in a year in order to truly appreciate it!).  Teamwork, effective and efficient teamwork, is desperately sought after in almost all businesses, whether its a call center or an emergency room staff.  There is some good information to be found here, and it's worth a read.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Who Moved My Cheese?
Reflections: Steve Jobs
Reflections: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Reflections: Good Omens

Humor is incredibly difficult to write.  Writers lack visual cues, tone and tenor of voice, environmental and other elements often needed to strike the funny bone.  I’ve read incredibly unfunny writing, even when it tried so very hard to be funny, and I’ve read some pretty funny stuff too.  Good Omens, luckily and happily, is in the latter category.  It’s very, very funny, and a nice change of pace from my usual reading.

Good Omens was a chance book.  I hadn’t read anything from Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett when I picked it up, but thought I would give it a chance due to a “Buy 2 Get One Free Sale” at Books-a-Million.  I absolutely love when I take a chance and it pays off.  It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does it’s a wonderful feeling for a book reader.  I'll admit I don't take too many "chances."  More often than not I read a book because of some kind of recommendation, whether that be word-of-mouth, top book list, or something similar. 

The most entertaining aspect of Good Omens is its memorable and distinct characters.  Although the narrative and its nuances feel a bit opaque at times, the book’s various characters provide all the entertainment necessary to overlook some of the problems that inevitably come along with a fidgety narrative.  Good Omens is populated with reluctantly loyal angels and demons, bureaucratically creative witch hunters, an adolescent and unknowing antichrist, Satanist Nuns, and the list goes on.  It’s quirky but not in a trite way.  In other words, it's not quirky for quirky's sake, which trap some storytellers fall into.  As long as outlandish and unexpected things happen, then that must be creative and entertaining, they mistakenly think.  Gaiman and Pratchett successfully avoid that trap and display some refreshing creativity.

Coming back to my original point, Good Omens is genuinely funny.  In fact, I laughed out loud several times, which I almost never do while reading a book, even if I would consider it funny.  It pokes fun at a lot of belief systems and a lot of different kinds of people, but the humor does extend beyond simply being harsh or spiteful.  There is wit to be found here.  The theology in the book is total fantasy, which is appropriate for a book of this sort.  From an angel giving away the Flaming Sword to Adam to a devil named Crowley infatuated with Queen, this book takes significant theological license and the authors are clearly having a good time.

Good Omens is a fun book.  Its humor and its characters memorable.  Reading it reminded me of a book I read years ago called Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming, a fun variation on a theme.  I realized I missed that kind of book; I have a tendency to read to some pretty heavy and heady stuff, and Good Omens step away from my ordinary.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Adaptation, Please: Dracula