Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Reflections: Go Forward with Faith

Sheri Dew has a special talent in taking fascinating, extraordinary personalities and making them boring.  Go Forward with Faith is the second biography I have read which was written by the popular LDS author and former Deseret Book CEO.  Although I recognize the difficulty of her task, I am once again disappointed by the result of her work. 

Gordon B. Hinckley was the prophet of my youth, a phrase and feeling other Latter-day Saints will understand.  I have long felt a strong affinity for Hinckley and my admiration and respect for him has only grown over the years.  When I have an itch to listen to older General Conference talks, I often listen to his talks because of their wit, candor, and sincerity.  Reading a biography about Gordon B. Hinckley was a natural and expected way to become more acquainted with a man I hold in high esteem.

The biography begins with some promise but quickly backslides into an interminable travelogue, especially during the middle of the book.  The end shows the same promise as the beginning but never fully lets the reader appreciate Gordon B. Hinckley for the visionary leader he was.  The book often insists on simply telling you his qualities rather than portraying them in a meaningful and compelling way.  One of the most aggravating weaknesses of the book is that Dew hardly ever provides any context for circumstances and events Hinckley was a part of.  When she does provide context, such as during the missionary/draft controversy related to the Korean War, the book is its most interesting.  Hinckley was a part of a real world with real people; however, more often than not, Dew writes in such a way that Hinckley appears to exist in a vacuum whose efforts are admirable but somewhat disconnected from the rest of human history and experience. 

In addition, as with Ezra Taft Benson's biography, Dew deals with some of the most difficult moments of Hinckley's tenure as a General Authority with a certain unwillingness and a "there's nothing to see here" mentality.  I am by no means a critic of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; in fact, I probably couldn't be farther from it.  Yet, I recognize the value of truly understanding an event within its proper context.  It often can illuminate the brilliance and honor of an individual by understanding why their critics disliked them so much.  What about Hinckley angered his critics so deeply?  And how did Hinckley manfully handle their reproaches?  Again and again the book skirts a sensitive issue but doesn't necessarily replace it with anything of interest.  Whenever Dew suffered from writer's block while writing this biography her working and writing philosophy must have been: [Insert travel itinerary here].

As badly structured and written Go Forward with Faith is, it's rather remarkable that Gordon B. Hinckley comes alive as much as he does.  Indeed, the book is at its best when Dew steps back and lets Hinckley speak for himself.  He was an incredible man with a very, very special set of skills.  I learned quite a bit from the descriptions of how he handled certain administrative problems, his work philosophy and ethic, and, of course, his testimony and vision of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He was a special soul designated for a special time, and I will forever remember him with tender feelings.

Other Topics of Interest:
Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

Friday, January 1, 2016

Best Books of 2015

Yet another year of some incredible non-fiction reading and some uneven fiction reading.  I still believe strongly in the power fiction, but I must admit my frustration in trying to find truly great fiction.  It's out there; I've read quite a bit of it.  Looking at my past Best Books of the Year postings, I'm reminded of how wonderful fiction can be: Mooncalf, Tinkers, Dracula, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Dandelion Wine, Mistborn.  I search on for the greatest, most entertaining, and most meaningful works of fiction.  On the other hand, there appears to be no shortage of phenomenoal works of non-fiction; here is my favorite from 2015.

Non-Fiction: Temple and Cosmos by Hugh Nibley
2015 was an especially difficult year in selecting the best non-fiction book.  I read a lot of amazing non-fiction books: Lone Survivor, Steve Jobs, Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Lord's Way, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Temple and Cosmos, and Life at the Bottom.  These are most, although not all, of the non-fiction books I read last year.  But which one will be the most memorable?  Taking that as my main criteria, I'll have to choose Temple and Cosmos by Hugh Nibley.

As a religious treatise for Latter-day Saints, the book is invaluable, providing a mountain of insights and additional knowledge into not only the temple ceremony but into the worldview, indeed the universal view, of Mormonism.  The book was challenging and a bit arcane at times, but it was never so esoteric it couldn't be appreciated by the academic novice.  Nibley's writing and prose is funny, witty, engaging, and quick.  Sometimes the prose moves a bit too quick as Nibley bounces from one idea to another to another and another before you have a chance to digest the first idea.  A book like Temple and Cosmos is a playground for my intellectual curiosity.  It deals with themes I'm fascinated in.  The recurring nature of the human experience, human wisdom and knowledge, and eternal realities.  It's a heady book, a cerebral book, and a book I will never forget. 

Fiction: Gates of Fire by Steve Pressfield
As mentioned earlier, my fiction reading wasn't as fruitful and rewarding in 2015; however, that does make it easier to select the best fiction book I read last year.  Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire is a bloody, brutal, and bold work of historical fiction.  In my review I said Gates of Fire may have been the bloodiest and goriest book I have ever read but yet was not gratuitous.  The book truly has some of the most engrossing violence I've read, which often crescendos into an emotional capstone that leaves the reader exhausted and moved.  There are true moments of heartbreak in Gates of Fire; it's not merely a work of fiction focusing on war for war's sake.  Rather, it's a book more like Black Hawk Down, which drops its readers into the thick of the violence so the reader can in a small, small way have a human experience.

In the end, after the war scenes had passed, after the blood had been spilled, I sat pondering about Gates of Fire.  I thought about its characters, their heroism, the ideas they lived and died for.  There is a lot to be found in this book.  Gates of Fire is a great example of how valuable fiction can be.  There are no doubt works of non-fiction dealing the same subject matter, but I doubt anyone of them can make a reader feel what this book does.

Honorable Mention: Beyond the Strandline by Linda L. Zern
I have to mention the young adult adventure Beyond the Strandline when discussing some of the best books I read this year.  I'm not a big fan of young adult fiction, as most people know.  However, Beyond the Strandline engaged me in a way most young adult fiction does not.  Its characters were real people, existing in a real place.  I also have to recognize the versatility of the author whose previous work, Mooncalf, was one of my favorite books from a previous year.  It comfortably exists in a totally separate genre, southern literature, and yet Beyond the Strandline exists perfectly well in its genre.  The author knows how to write for any audience and for any genre.

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