Sunday, December 31, 2017

What Are You Reading? Ep. 2

Emma and Adam share their favorite books they read in 2017.  What did you read this year?  What were your favorites?

Other Topics of Interest:
What Are You Reading? Ep. 1
400 Books
Thousander Must-Reads

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Reflections: Following the Strandline

Following the Strandline
Following the Strandline is a flawed but powerful book. Author Linda L. Zern pushes her over-arching story along in a substantial and interesting way and perhaps the most exciting element of this book are the possibilities its conclusion presents. In completing the second book in the Strandline trilogy, it's obvious the author has more to say and the characters have more to do.

Following the Strandline has one major difficulty, which I believe manifests itself in a couple different ways. The book groans under the weight of the multitude of characters which populate it. From the first several pages, I was slightly confused as to who was who and where they were going. This difficulty mostly clears up after the initial incident and its subsequent consequences, but it was something that befogs several plot points and especially the motivationswhich seem a little dubious at timesof several of the characters. The list of characters is thinned out a bit by the end of the book (no spoilers!), and I hope this excess of characters doesn't weigh down the inevitable conclusion of the trilogy. Furthermore, with so many characters to attend to, several very interesting characterssuch as Tesla's fatherare given brief but absorbing moments to stand out and be noticed. I could have spent a lot more time with some of them, but the plot (and book length) demanded otherwise.

In addition, the many characters in large part have their own paths to tread, which makes perfect sense for a book full of conflict and one which is the second in a trilogy. Yet, with modern transportation and communication not being an easily accessible plot device, there is a lot of comings and goings, as was the case in the first book. Admittedly, there are very few wasted trips with critical character moments occurring as they attempt to travel from one place to another, but I found it a bit wearing. Once again, I'm hoping the story of the trilogy's conclusion will alleviate some of this plot-driven pressure and there won't be so many characters walking so many different ways.

The most memorable moments in Following the Strandline—similar to the first bookare all character-driven. The author has created an intimidating and insane villain in Myra. Her presence is felt more than seen, and it's much more unsettling that way. Piracy and slavery, not foreign to our modern world, would likely become an unavoidable consequence of an uncivilized world, but who would be the pirates is an interesting question. In Myra the author has offered an alternative vision of the worst of mankind (or womankind) which I found intriguing and unique. Returning characters, such as Tess and Parrish, have a strong presence, and Tessthe trilogy's main heroinehas an actual arc and progression of character; a small story element (sarcasm) too often abandoned by other story tellers. As mentioned before, the story in Following the Strandline actually goes somewhere and doesn't leave the reader patiently waiting to be driven to the next destination but failing to hit the gas pedal. In fact, the consequences of this story are irreversible. This is a great thingpowerful evenbut it only works, in my opinion, if the next book in the series doesn't focus on survival but on the reconstitution of civilization. In some ways, the sequel can't be a "prepper fiction" book. It must be about something more.

Of the many plot points and narrative directions the book takes, what I found the most interesting and even the most entertaining were the ideas the book implicitly and explicitly addresses. Take, for example, it's seemingly mixed message of feminism. I won't rehash the debates between femininity and masculinity here (Harvey Mansfield's book Manliness does a nice job of that); rather, I'll simply mention that Following the Strandline poses some troubling possibilities for the sexes. Is cruelty more likely to be perpetuated by men or women? Perhaps when the lights turn off and don't turn back on, the answer to that question is a lot more muddled than we might realize. Furthermore, the book's introduction of civic society is an excellent springboard into a much, much larger and more complex world of ideas for the next installment. I would have preferred a more refined and attentive survey of those ideas in this book, but the author was clearly restricted by more pressing plot developments.

Following the Strandline is a great continuation of the Strandline trilogy.  I'm genuinely excited for where the series goes from here. If the next episode in the story grapples with some of the ideas and complexities I believe it will, I think it will be a fantastic conclusion to a very strong trilogy.

*The Thousander Club received an advanced reader copy.  

Other Topics of Interest:
Interview with Linda L. Zern - Following the Strandline
Reflections: Following the Strandline
Reflections: The Once and Future King

Friday, December 15, 2017

Reflections: The Book of Mormon, Part 2

Traditions of their fathers
Writer David B. Davis once asked: "Why should the gibberish of a crazy boy send thousands of people trekking off to establish a theocracy beyond the Rocky Mountains?"  As one who believes the gibberish to be more than blasphemous drivel, I feel I could give a respectable answer to Mr. Davis' question.  Having completed the Book of Mormon again recently, I wanted to provide some additional reflections on the book and what I felt were its most salient and relevant lessons during my recent reading.

Latter-day Saints are familiar with the phrase "the traditions of their fathers" (Alma 9:16-17 is a good example).  This phrase embodies the heavy cultural and sociological price paid by generations of families and citizens due to the incorrect and misguided teachings of their progenitors.  In my opinion, it is one of the most poignant and distressing lessons found in the Book of Mormon.  During my most recent reading of the book, this lesson was underscored for me in a way that was much more striking than in previous readings.  Dallin H. Oaks commented once that during his own scripture study he read several verses which he "had never noticed" and the direction they provided came to his mind "with such freshness and impact that I thought they might have been newly inserted in my book."  I had an analogous experience.  In my case it was Mosiah 10:12-17 which defines what the false traditions of the Lamanites were.  Below are several critical elements of that definition:
"They were a wild, and ferocious, and blood-thirsty people, believing in the tradition of their fathers, which is this—Believing that they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem because of the iniquities of their fathers . . . that they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren . . . they were also wronged while crossing the sea . . . they were wronged while in the land of their first inheritance . . . [Nephi's brothers] said that he had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands . . . [Nephi] departed into the wilderness as the Lord had commanded him, and took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, for they said that he robbed them . . .

And thus they have taught their children that they should hate [the descendants of Nephi], and that they should murder them, and that they should rob and plunder them, and do all they could to destroy them; therefore they have an eternal hatred towards the children of Nephi."
How relevant and topical!  These feelings of entitlements or blaming of harmful externalities—whether expressed at a cultural, national, or individual level—are pervasive.  L. Tom Perry referenced many different types of culture that are more than likely informed by such feelings—the "peer culture, the entertainment and celebrity cultures, the credit and entitlement cultures, and the Internet and media cultures."  These traditions became a perpetual impetus driving toward conflict, division, and even bloodshed.  Are we any different?  The Book of Mormon peoples—whether they be the Jaredites, Nephites, or Lamanites—all battled these fiends of tradition.  In a way, the traditions they embraced became a codec for deciphering truth from error.  With the wrong codec, it doesn't matter how much information or how little is known; truth is obfuscated, perception is skewed, and unity is obliterated.

Furthermore, it is very important to note that the Book of Mormon doesn't denounce all traditions—only those which are incorrect.  For example, the "rising generation" during King Mosiah's reign "did not believe the tradition of their fathers" (Mosiah 26:1).  Those traditions, which included a belief in Jesus Christ, the resurrection, and covenant making, looked very different than the Lamanites'.  Traditions, therefore, are only destructive if they're false; if they're correct, then they have the power to perpetuate peace and prosperity.  Uchendu from the book Things Fall Apart commented: ". . . what is good among one people is an abomination with others."  The challenge is to identify which traditions are the former and which are the latter.

"...civilization itself is fragile."
Continuing on, the second lesson which seemed ubiquitous during my latest reading was that of division and dissension.  Elsewhere in Latter-day Saint canon, the Lord states "be one; and if ye are not one, ye are not mine" (D&C 38:27).  The Book of Mormon appears to stress that lesson again and again.  The inaugural episodes of the Book of Mormon portray intimate familial relationships that rend and tear over the course of an arduous and spiritually demanding journey to a promised land.  From there the Book of Mormon pivots to a more high-level commentary on society while still periodically giving insight into family relationships—almost always between fathers and sons.  One theme present in every epoch of the Book of Mormon was that of unity and dissension.

Gordon B. Hinckley once commented how "fragile" our social and civil experience is: ". . . life is fragile, peace is fragile, civilization itself is fragile."  The Book of Mormon bears this out.  As a nation, the Nephites' vulnerability appears to be directly correlated with how unified they were.  Intrigue, in-fighting, assassinations, political revolutions, personal and collective avarice and pride—the Nephite civilization eventually buckles under these political and social vices.  I ask again: are we any different?  During our most recent presidential campaign, the violence occurring at various campaign events was widely publicized.  The Book of Mormon records at one point that "there were many among them who began to be proud, and began to contend warmly with their adversaries, even unto blows; yea, they would smite one another with their fists" (Alma 1:22).  The Book of Mormon peoples, as well as our modern civilizations, have not learned Merlyn's simple but important lesson: "If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees."  The Book of Mormon, from my point of view, is the most prescient and relevant book we have to inform us regarding our own political and civic situation.

There are so many more lessons of profound importance to be found, discovered, and studied in the Book of Mormon.  As mentioned in my previous reflection, its sanguinary conclusion is deeply sobering but can provide a salvific solution to our modern complexities.  We don't have to relive the same gloomy conclusion the Book of Mormon peoples or other ancient civilizations experienced.  Sarpedon commented: "Death in ten thousand shapes hangs ever over our heads, and no man can elude him."  The Book of Mormon said it this way: "the sword of justice hangeth over this people" (Helaman 13:5) and "the judgments of God did stare them in the face" (Helaman 4:23).  I pray for a different outcome, and I know the Book of Mormon can be a guide to achieve it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflection: The Book of Mormon, Part 1
Reflections: The Iliad
Reflections: The Once and Future King

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Interview with Linda L. Zern - Following the Strandline

Author Linda L. Zern shares her thoughts about her upcoming book - Following the Strandline, including: its theme, plot, and what exactly a "strandline" is.  Following the Strandline will be released next week.

You can read The Thousander Club's official review of the first book here: Beyond the Strandline.

Other Topics of Interest:
Mooncalf: Inspirations and Recollections
Reflections: Mooncalf
In Defense of Sad Endings

Monday, November 6, 2017

Reflections: Star Wars: Battlefront II: Inferno Squad

Inferno Squad by Christie Golden
It's been quite a few years since I last read a Star Wars novel.  At one time I had acquired a collection of Star Wars books, such as: Shadows of the Empire, Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, Tales from Jabba's Palace, Truce at Bakura, and even a Star Wars Encyclopedia.  Although I could never claim the same level of passion for Star Wars as some othersI never really got invested in the expanded universe mythologyI certainly consider myself a fan.  With the resurgence of Star Wars in film, books (bye, bye Expanded Universe), and video games, I had played around with the idea of jumping back into the fiction beyond the films.  My daughter gave me Battlefront II: Inferno Squad after attending a book event, and I was ready to take the plunge once again.

I'm very excited to play Battlefront II once the game releases and thought it would be fun to get a little more background on the main characters of that game's story.  The book is readable and totally adequate but not very memorable either.  Many books (and other products) like this appear to be written for the express purpose of promoting the main attraction, in this case the video game.  A journeyman writersomeone like Christie Golden, who has a large and growing number of books credited to heris brought in to bang out a competent but mediocre story to generate buzz and excitement among an already excited swarm of fans. From a marketing perspective it seems to work finewhy else would they do it?but from a storytelling perspective it doesn't exactly seem to promote new works of literary art.

The focus of the upcoming Star Wars game, as well as the book, is Inferno Squad.  The Empire's equivalent of special forces.  It's an interest enough idea; although, Golden takes this elite team in a different direction than I was expecting.  In Inferno Squad the book, the team completes a series of under-cover operations, which seemed strange to me since I had first envisioned these characters as being more akin to Navy Seals than to CIA operatives.  I'm not sure the derivation worked as well as a straight Black Hawk Down-esque type of story would have.  I think the book's story would have been more interesting had it looked a little more like Rogue One, which contained only small elements of undercover tactics.  Due to the course the book takes, the story drags out a little bit too long, albeit Golden makes honest efforts in attempting to complicate the Inferno Squad members' relationships with the several members of the separatist group they have infiltrated.  (The separatist group is known as "The Dreamers," which I thought was an absolutely ridiculous name).  The narrative pay-off comes and goes but doesn't leave too much of an impression.

In addition, I think Inferno Squad the book shows the difficulty of writing a storywhether it's a novel or a video gameabout the bad guys.  Star Wars: A New Hope pretty well establishes that the Empire is evil—through and through.  The other films in the franchise's history do plenty to reinforce this narrative truth.  So how does a writerand the audience for that matternow approach a story about those fighting the Empire's war?  How do you get the audience to like or sympathize with them?  The approach taken in the book makes sense; to wit, the Empire provides order and therefore peace to the galaxy.  Anyone who disrupts that, such as the Rebel Alliance, deserves and needs to be destroyed.  Furthermore, the book doesn't show Inferno Squad systematically murdering Rebel Alliance members, who could presumably be Han Solo and Luke Skywalker's buddies, but targeting corrupt Imperial officials and an extreme separatist sect.  This, I assume, is an attempt to make it a bit more palatable to root for the bad guys.  It partially works but doesn't go far enough.  I would have liked a more nuanced and meticulous exploration of the "order and peace above all" argument.  Hopefully the video game handles this difficult storytelling balancing act more thoroughly and persuasively.

Star Wars: Battlefront II: Inferno Squad is adequate and forgettable.  It did its job in that I'm just as if not more excited for the upcoming video game.  It was fun to jump back into the expanded universe of Star Wars, and I hope for more stories a little better told.  Star Wars is rich with potential stories of importance and consequence but also ripe for simple, marketing-driven fare.  I would love the former but readers will probably end up with a lot of the latter.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Mass Effect: Revelation
Reflections: Ready Player One
Page-Turners: Black Hawk Down

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Reflections: The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture

The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon
Tim Burton's 1989 Batman was mesmerizing for me as a child.  In addition, I remember being supremely entertained, albeit somewhat confused, by Adam West's parody of Batman; was Batman the Dark Knight, doling out justice with his bare hands and becoming the terror of criminals everywhere, or was he a farcical (and don't forget campy!) satire of heroism?  Glen Weldon's endlessly fascinating book not only illuminates the nuances of the character of Batman but also his fans and his devotees.

I didn't grow up reading comic books.  My brother had a few, but I never became involved in what I have realized is an almost infinitely complex and circuitous world of storytelling.  Comic book stories arefor better or worsebottomless and never-ending.  Batman is no different.  He arrived in 1939 as a hardly veiled rip-off of The Shadow but has become, especially in his most recent cinematic incarnations, to be a culturally inescapable figure.  Weldon does a masterful job exploring each pivotal re-imagining of the character and the subsequent blow-back and controversy which is unavoidably bounded to every iteration.  Every actor attached the rolefrom Michael Keaton to Ben Affleckhas faced the unmitigated ire of nerds, even though nerds' prophecies of disaster have had only a meager rate of fulfillment.

Speaking of nerds, The Caped Crusade helped me understand the "nerd" culture in a way I have struggled to grasp to this point.  The Nerd Culture, as Weldon calls it, is remarkably protective of their particular vision of their favorite characters and those characters' inexhaustible stories.  I on several occasions have been accused of a certain elitism because I spoke very negatively about the film Captain America: Civil War.  I wrote and still maintain the film was a waste of time since the plot was essentially devoid of any real consequences for the main characters.  No real danger.  No real peril.  No real story.  The nerds defended their own, quickly disregarding my opinion as persnickety.  I didn't appreciate the film for awesome it really was.  How could I not love the airport scene (which I thought was boring)?  How could I not love Black Panther's introduction?  How could I not . . . And so on.  What I didn't appreciate about these types of questions until reading The Caped Crusade is how invested comic book fans are in these seminal stories.  In a very real sense, when you criticize the latest beloved Marvel movie, nerds see it as an ad hominem attack against them.  This is why, for example, when filmmakers, studio executives, or anyone else supposedly gets the characters or their stories wrong (or when critics don't like a film that supposedly "got it right"), nerds can be especially acerbic and venomous in their responsepersonal attacks, wishing of bodily harm, death threats.  Weldon rightly disparages such behavior as he chronicles it.

The Caped Crusade isn't great just because of its subject matter.  Glen Weldon is a very smart and shrewd writer.  The vocabulary utilized in this book rivals many historical works of non-fiction.  I think Weldon understands his subject on a very conceptual level.  There are no superficial conversations to be found here.  Weldon writes about Batman with a highly proficient and critical eye highlighting and exploring the good, the bad, the ugly, and the hilarious.  When exploring an almost ubiquitous character like Batman, there is no shortage of material to discuss; yet, Weldon appears to find that which is most consequential and influential.  The Caped Crusade is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining as it touches upon culture, marketing, storytelling, heroism, satire, and the fan(atic)s who support it all.

Glen Weldon's The Caped Crusade is about a lot more than an emotionally unstable man who dresses up like a bat, just as Batman is about a lot more than that as well.  There are reasons we respond so viscerally to a character like Batman, the vigilante hero.  And there are reasons some become almost perversely obsessed with him.  Glen Weldon has written an excellent book which takes its reader on a fun and fascinating journey to figure out The Dark Knight and his caped crusade.

Other Topics of Interest:
Stories for Emma
Reflections: The Iliad
Reflections: World War Z

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What Are You Reading? Ep. 1

The first of many episodes of What Are You Reading? Emma and Adam discuss one book they dislike and recommend one book they love. Enjoy!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reflections: Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
It's been many years since I last read a John Steinbeck book.  Reading Of Mice and Men reminded me why I stayed away for so long.  The last and only other Steinbeck book I have read is The Pearl.  I still remember the heavy sadness I experienced at that book's end.  Of Mice and Men wasn't much different.

Of Mice and Men isn't a particularly pleasant book to read. The book (novella, really) is short, tense, and bleak.  The cruelty of the characters, including in many ways George's treatment of Lennie, contrasts harshly andin my opinioncynically with Lennie's simple but hopeful dreams.  The outcome of the story seems to be broadcast from the onset, and the reader has to reluctantly drudge their way toward it.  In the final analysis, the reader has to examine what Steinbeck's point might be, regardless of the book's levity or length.

And what is my analysis of the story?  Not having read the myriad commentaries no doubt extant in academic and amateur literary circles, I find myself pushing back against a story like Of Mice and Men.  If the story is perhaps about dreaming, hoping, and accomplishing both, what could we possibly glean from Steinbeck's sardonic story?  There must be more to it than naked hopelessness.  Or perhaps not?  Consider a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, which hardly panders to its reader nor obscures the realities of injustice.  And yet, the story, and of course its author, does offer some redemptive but tempered hope.  I dislike Of Mice and Men not because it's sad, but because it's so one-sided.

Speaking of sad endings, author Linda Zern provided a nice defense to sad endings.  Her book, Mooncalf, is tragic in a truly southern literature kind of way; yet, I didn't feel hopeless at the end of her book.  If Steinbeck seeks to make his readers feel that way, then I would say he accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do.  A book like Mooncalf stands apart and separate from a book like Of Mice and Men because it has so much more to say worth saying, which makes the heart-rending meaningful and affecting. 

However brief Of Mice and Men may be, it doesn't lack in its ability to leave the reader feeling forlorn and forsaken.  One could argue the story's merit by extolling its unflinching focus on "truth," "the real world," or other high-minded concepts, and I'm sure there is a reasonable argument to be made; I, on the other hand, hope (uh oh) for something elsenot illusion or delusion.  Just a different story, more than likely told by a different author.

Other Topics of Interest:
Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction
In Defense of Sad Endings
Reflections: Mooncalf

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Reflections: That Ye May Believe

That Ye May Believe by Neal A. Maxwell
That Ye May Believe has a wonderful premise; to wit, Neal A. Maxwell wanted to write letters to his grandchildren "as if they were older."  He said "while my answers do not now intersect with their present capacity to so ask questions, it seemed desirable to attempt a blend of anticipation, affection, and counsel."  I adore this idea.  In some ways this little book is a blog before blogs came into existence; albeit, a blog written a whole lot better than most.  Neal A. Maxwell's intellect shows through these brief letters, yes, but so does his sentimentality.

That Ye May Believe as a book is somewhat problematic by definition.  These letterssome several pages in length, others only a few paragraphsoften left me wanting more.  Maxwell was a brilliant writer, thinker, and spiritually influential leader.  I loved reading his commentaries on usually ignored topics.  Someone like Maxwell wouldn'tand rightly sofocus on some of the more mundane topics in his public speeches.  However, his insights on dealing with an unkind friend are as interesting to me as are his comments on the Atonement of Jesus Christ, albeit one topic has more eternal significance than the other.  Similar to The Lord's Way, That Ye May Believe pulls the curtain back a bit on the thinking of men who are not only very, very smart and thoughtful but also had (or have) very important ecclesiastical positions, especially for Latter-day Saints.  It's not canonized scripture, but it is certainly worth understanding and appreciating.

I find the idea of That Ye May Believe wonderful.  Writing letters to your grandchildren in anticipation of questions they have not asked yet is a genealogical gem.  Being somewhat of a writer myself, I was immediately attracted to the idea of doing something similar.  In a way, the various blog posts (including my several Thousander Club book reviews) I have written and will write can be letters to posterityno matter how embarrassing some of them might be in a few years!  Reading That Ye May Believe was a nice reminder to think not only of the current generation but of the many generations yet to come.  Rather than being a vanity project to achieve some fa├žade of immortality, a book like That Ye May Believe shows how meaningful a connection to future generations can be.  Those generations won't need to wonder what Maxwell felt or thought on certain topics and issuessome of the most important, such as his belief in God.  That's not vanity.  That's wisdom.

Although it will leave some readers wanting, such as myself, That Ye May Believe is a great little book.  The book and the writing is brief and conciseto a fault.  I wanted more because Maxwell had so many incredible insights to share.  However, what he did write shows very clearly what he did believe.  And for me, as well as his grandchildren I'm sure, Maxwell has helped me believe as well.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Lord's Way
Reflections: Learning in the Light of Faith
Reflections: The Great Divorce

Friday, August 18, 2017

Reflections: The Iliad

The Iliad by Homer
Reading a story like The Iliad does a few thing.  First, it reminds me how little mankind has changed in relation to our desires, our vices, and our virtues.  Second, it reminds me how little stories have changed.  Heroes, villains, gods (or circumstances beyond mortal control), death, honor (or lack thereof), love, hate.  It's all here.  In terms of being a milestone of Western literature, The Iliad deserves its place; nonetheless, readers will have to abandon some of their modern sensibilities when it comes to narrative and structure in order to enjoy it.

Some of the oddities (for a modern audience) of The Iliad's narrative become very apparent very quickly.  For example, the author appears as much interested in providing otherwise irrelevant genealogies in the middle of a frantic battle scene as he does in describing the battle.  This could become tedious, as it did for me at times, for a modern reader. Yet, I felt it provided an interesting insight into what societies of that age valued.  Honor and glory was inextricably linked with family and duty.  Knowing which Trojan slew which Achaean (Greek) was critically important.  Furthermore, readers of today may assume they know certain elements of the story and be somewhat surprised by the "true" story.  For example, the love affair between Helen and Paris is hardly mutual.  Helen despises Paris, as do most of the Trojans, for the misery of war he has brought upon both peoples.  (At the start of the story, which actually chronicles the end of the war and ignores its beginning, the Achaeans are debating over and struggling with what I couldn't help but see as the sunk-cost fallacy).  There is no "true love" story to be found here between the two individuals at the center of the war.

Moving beyond the story's antiquated elements, the myth is as compelling as one would expect.  There is both admirable heroism and repulsive cowardice on display in this tale.  I admit I really enjoy these "Sword and Sandal" stories, especially those which emphasize attributes not usually heralded in modern culture. (Gates of Fire was my favorite fiction book in 2015). When I read the following statement from Odysseus"Though cowards quit the field, a hero, whether he wound or be wounded, must stand firm and hold his own"I am moved by the courage and honor of a bygone era.  Subscribing to the Joseph Campbell school of thought, I think The Iliad showcases those elements of The Hero's Journey we're still witnessing in story after story after story.  To my earlier point, although The Iliad's structure and pacing is odd to us; it's not all that different from our modern stories.  Reading The Iliad not only provides insight into an ancient culture and ancient peoples, it provides insight into ourselves.  We are not all that different from our distant ancestors.

The Iliad is wonderful.  It is, in my opinion, as relevant today as it was when it was first recorded.  True, a reader may have to sift through seemingly irrelevant elements of the story, but the fundamentals of this storylove, loss, war, hate, honor, and, yes, even faithare as compelling today as they were thousands of year ago.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Gates of Fire
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture
Brow Bruising Reads: The Hardest Book I Have Ever Read

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Reflections: Manliness

Manliness by Harvey C. Mansfield
Reading a book called Manliness in public is a little awkward.  At first glance it may look like a self-help book to help the unmanly become manly.  Although Harvey C. Mansfield has a few things to say about that, Manliness is far more philosophical and academically esoteric than some would expect.  In fact, who thinks about "manliness" from an intellectual perspective at all?  Mansfield's book is fascinating and important but also a bit laborious.

Manliness attempts to define and re-enshrine manliness in what Mansfield calls a "gender-neutral" society.  Is there a place in such a society for manliness, which the author defines in part as not "mere aggression; it is aggression that develops an assertion, a cause it espouses."  One of the most interesting sections of the book is its exploration of feminism and its precarious relationship with manliness; it both seeks to eradicate it but also embrace it.  Should men be less manly but women more so?  Furthermore, is manliness a social construction or an outward expression of natural impulses?  And even more fundamentally, are women and men truly different?  Mansfield brings his cerebral prowess to bear on these questions and showcases a great deal more thoughtfulness on these questions than is sometimes exhibited.

Although it may seem odd, I am very interested in manliness as a subject of consideration and debate.  From a personal standpoint, I feel attributes of manliness have been disparaged or shunned simply because we don't know how to comfortably fit manly behavior into a gender-neutral society.  Reading a book like Gates of Fire or even canonical texts reminds one that manliness is not only a real thing but even desired.  Of course not all manly behavior, just like not all compromise or all compassion, is inherently good nor should be accepted as beneficial without additional scrutiny.  However, a great deal of manliness as a concept is rejected because it appears exclusionary.  (And on some levels it is).  I think this is a mistake, and I appreciate Mansfield's contribution to a topic I am personally interested in.  I also realize I'm probably a part of a very small audience.

Where Mansfield stumbles is in his insistence on providing far more textual interpretation than is necessary.  Mansfield has plenty to share and opine about without providing pages and pages of commentary on existing texts.  I completely understand the value of establishing concepts and ideas and by doing so with ancient or modern texts.  However, at a certain point the author should realize I'm reading his book for his original ideas and writings, not Aristotle's.  As someone who loves to write and certainly loves to quote other more capable writers, I absolutely see the value in spring boarding from existing knowledge and precedence, but eventually your interpretation of another author's writing becomes much, much less interesting than your own perspectives and outlooks.

Manliness is a challenging book to read. It assumes (or maybe not) familiarity with a variety of authors that many readers may never have read beforemyself included.  I liked the book, and I love the contribution it makes to a topic I care about.  The book's influence might be limited, but I learned a lot about the virtues and dangers of manliness and where it fits in our gender-neutral society.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Gates of Fire
Reflections: Lone Survivor
Reflections: Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Reflections: Prelude to Foundation

Prelude to Foundation
I have wanted to read an Isaac Asimov book for years.  I would pass some of his more popular workssuch as I, Robotin various bookstores time and again.  Finally I decided to begin his Foundation series by picking up Prelude to Foundation.  I generally enjoy science fiction, and for the most part I enjoyed but didn't love Prelude

The most interesting element of Prelude is the conflict surrounding the main character—Hari Seldon—and his theoretical speculation that the future can be predicted.  During an academic conference Hari posits this possibility and quickly gains the notice of the galactic rulers and the inevitable hunt begins.  After all, if a ruler could predict the future, what could possibly threaten his or her perpetuation of power and control?  Perhaps more than the narrative of the book itself, I really enjoyed the idea of what Seldon (and, of course, Asimov) calls "psychohistory."  This comprehensive and predictive worldview requires a much greater understanding of the universe—not merely mathematical but historical, sociological, etc.  That's a cool idea.  I loved the following quote from the book: "How harmful overspecialization is. It cuts knowledge at a million points and leaves it bleeding."  Academics and laypeople alike can glean some wisdom from that poignant statement.

The difficulty with Prelude to Foundation is that it feels somewhat cold.  I never truly connected with Hari Seldon or his companions.  I went along for the ride but wasn't exactly moved by it.  As the title of the book suggests, Prelude is a prequel and certainly feels like it.  After some thought, I wonder if it was good or bad that I started with the prequel rather than with the first book in the series as Asimov wrote it.  I can't say if I would have felt more or less invested in the characters.  As a stand-alone book, Prelude is perfectly adequate but by no means a masterpiece.

And so I find myself asking if I'll continue with the Foundation series.  Probably.  I liked Prelude well enough to want to see where things all end up.  I must admit I probably won't remember too much from the book aside from the concept of psychohistory.  I always like finding a new series to dive into and spend a few years with.  I'm hopeful Asimov's Foundation series can be that new series for me.

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Reflections: Learning in the Light of Faith

Learning in the Light of Faith
Learning in the Light of Faith is more of a tract than it is a book.  Its brevity is one of its most attractive attributes. (I recently finished reading a book which was over 1,000 pages long, so I was ready for something a bit shorter).  Learning in the Light of Faith is a collection of speeches given to students in the Brigham Young University Honors Program by various LDS scholars and leaders. As can be expected, not all of the speeches are created equal, but the cumulative value is very evident.

Several years ago I read People of Paradox by Terryl Givens.  As a Latter-day Saint, it was an illuminating book and one which had a significant impact on how I saw the Mormon culture I am a part of.  One of the most interesting questions explored in that book was that of education and Latter-day Saint doctrine.  Learning in the Light of Faith provides a brief but valuable answer to the salient questionhow should Latter-day Saints, especially scholars, balance their loyalty and deference to reason and revelation?  With scholars like Neal A. Maxwell, Henry B. Eyring, and Dallin H. Oaks answering portions of that question, this little book is plenty authoritative for me.

I have a personal interest in the topics explored in Learning in the Light of Faith; therefore, I may find it much more interesting than a general audience, even a Latter-day Saint audience.  Although all Latter-day Saints should have a keen interest in educationsecular and spiritualnot all need be a scholar in a secular sense; albeit, the requirement to be a scholar in the spiritual sense isn't wisely ignored.  No doubt this little book is useful for both groups, it's much more relevant for the former group.

Learning in the Light of Faith was a refreshing and energizing exploration of topics I care a lot about.  I love the idea of scholarship, and I love the doctrines of the LDS Church.  Therefore, a book like this speaks directly to some of my most cherished beliefs and convictions.  Even with its brevity, Learning in the Light of Faith has plenty to edify its readers.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Book of Mormon
Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Reflections: The Lord's Way

Friday, May 12, 2017

Reflections: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings
So. Much. Talking. Brandon Sanderson is a very creative writer, but I feel he has not learned a simple but critical lesson of storytellingshow and don't tellThe Way of Kings weighs in at 1252 pages, and my feeling is that it probably should have been half that length. Even though I'm a fan of Sanderson's Mistborn series, I am not eager to recommend The Way of Kings to any reader not willing to slog through pages and pages of banal dialogue and inertia that crescendos into an anemic conclusion.

To begin with, and on a more positive note, The Way of Kings does showcase Sanderson's particular strength as a writer, which is his creativity. Although the fantasy elements of this book are not as surprising and interesting as in Mistborn, mostly because they feel somewhat similar to Mistborn's, but they're interesting nonetheless. Sanderson works hard to establish his world through its culture, geography, and mythologies.  His worlds are detailed but not overwhelming.  The Way of Kings exploresin a limited wayconflicts between reason and revelation, faith and doubt, myth and history.  This is all fine and fun, but the exploration is often times clunky and clumsy.

Now for the not-so-positive.  The Way of Kings is riddled with problems.  One of Sanderson's biggest weaknesses as a writer is his insistence on explaining just about everything through stunted and uninteresting dialogue.  For example, several characters literally spend the majority of the book in a library.  The characters, and the readers, are forced to essentially wait around for something to happen.  Furthermore, sub-plots and conflicts take hundreds of pages to resolve.  And, just like Mistborn, the last few hundred pages is a rush to clear up the many loose-ends Sanderson has created, while still leaving enough mystery to tempt the reader to continue the series.  Some twists and turns are genuinely surprising but most are obvious and unfulfilling, even trite.  With the extended length of this book and its foreshadowing and preparation, the ending should come as a fist to the gut; it should knock the reader over.  The Way of Kings does no such thing.  In fact, I rolled my eyes when, after reading over 1200 pages, I read the following: "Most everything was still wrong."  If you write a book which is over 1000 pages long, then the landscape of the story better look a whole lot different at the end than it did at the beginning.  The Way of Kings, in this regard, is a total misfirealbeit a long one.

Based on the effusive recommendations of others, I had high hopes for The Way of Kings.  I wanted to like it.  I am a big fan of the Mistborn series, even with its problems.  For any one of The Way of Kings' virtues comes multiple storytelling sins.  At the end of any good fantasy novel, the reader should feel an insatiable desire to continue the saga, to keep living the adventure.  I feel no compulsion to continue The Stormlight Archive, and, therefore, cannot recommend The Way of Kings to other readers.

Other Topics of Interest:
Adaptation, Please: Mistborn
Reflections: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Ray Bradbury and Me

Monday, May 1, 2017

Reflections: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Several years ago I came across Angela Duckworth's TED Talk: Grit.  It elucidated  some of my inner convictions and opened my eyes to compelling evidence related to the power of grit in our lives.  I'm not blind to grit's critics, and I understand the world is a complicated place in which "time and chance happeneth to [us] all" (Ecclesiastes 9:11).  Sometimes no amount of grit can overcome really, really bad luck.  However, for the majority of us, grit is and can be a deciding factor in our success and happiness.  Wanting to investigate more fully Duckworth's research and viewpoint, I purchased her book and have found a new must-read.

A book like Grit, in my opinion, is one which can change your life.  I do not write this flippantly.  As any who read my opinions know, I'm generally not hyperbolic in my feelings toward books and movies.  However, a book like Grit, with its ideas and principles, is something different.  It offers not only evidence regarding the power of grit on an individual level but a worldview in which our very culture can change and be improved by accepting as axiomatic that we do indeed have profound power over our own lives.  Duckworth is not blind to the disadvantages experienced by many; in fact, she goes out of her way to accept such facts, but pushes forward with convincing evidence that someone in a very disadvantaged position can overcome and achieve.  Furthermore, she highlights that even those who experience plenty of advantages often fail in pursuit of their goals because they lack the necessary grit.

In terms of structure, Grit falls into a fairly standard format.  Evidence is presented and then anecdotes are put forward to support the scientific assertion.  Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Grit is Duckworth's willingness to admit where she lacks evidence.  She is quick to recommend additional research in order to further confirm her assumptions and theories, but she never claims more than what science allows her to.  This can be an issue for a great many academic and professional books.  Authors are often so eager to become a best-seller that they lay humility aside in favor of feigned confidence.  It is not my feeling that Duckworth falls into this trap.

Duckworth's writing is serviceable, albeit not terribly memorable.  She doesn't belabor too many points, but the book, as with most books similar to it, could probably have been a bit shorter and had the same effect.  For the most part, I enjoyed reading the book from beginning to end.  It's a very approachable book and doesn't demand as much from the reader as a book like Thinking, Fast and Slow does.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is an important book.  I feel it is really more of a statement regarding the efficacy of grit rather than a manifesto.  As Duckworth admits, there is more research needed to confirm the effects of grit; however, this is a powerful beginning and one which should not be ignored.  I truly believe that accepting and teaching grit in a more substantial and real way can change and improve the lives of millions.  I believe our culture has overlooked the consequences of grit and has accepted too easily and lazily a worldview of chance and circumstance.  I think Grit shows a powerful alternative, and I highly recommend it for all.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Outliers
Reflections: Up from Slavery
Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Reflections: Nudge

Nudge by R. H. Thaler & C. R. Sunstein
Nudge has been on my list to read for literally years. In fact, I think I added it to my list shortly after it was published. I have finally gotten around to reading it, and I'm glad I can be a part of a very important conversation.

To begin with, the main thrust of the book requires the reader to accept certain assumptions about human thinking and nature. The authors insist we are not, regardless of how many Economists say otherwise, purely economic creatures which make decisions within a nicely defined and enlightened definition of self-interest but are instead vexed with all sorts of irrationality and injudicious decision-making. Due to this, humans (vs. econs) would benefit from "nudges" from third-partiespublic or privatein a variety of arenas, such as savings, investments, health, etc. I was already familiar with much of the psychology and behavioral economics which support the authors' conclusions and recommendations (Thinking, Fast and Slow delineates quite a bit of it in much more detail), and there is, no doubt, plenty to debate in the science that constitutes the foundation of Nudge.

Nudge presents "libertarian paternalism," which at first glance seems to be a concept that is an oxymoron. Linked with this concept are some additional conundrums, such as someone having the role of a "choice architect." To be honest, much of it makes me feel uncomfortable, albeit I am not repulsed by it. The authors' arguments are at times persuasive, especially when dealing with default choices. A choice has to be made; individuals are already being influenced (realized or not) in one or way or another, why not attempt to nudge them toward the most beneficial choices? This sounds completely reasonable, of course, when dealing with what seem like obvious choices, such as smoking or saving more for retirement. However, the nudge concept quickly becomes more paternalistic and less libertarian the more it's applied and the broader its reach. (The authors deal briefly with objections at the end of the book and the "slippery slope" argument is addressed; yet, it is, as is often the case, underestimated by the authors. The slippery slope argument often sticks because it is often true!) Especially when starting with the premise that human beings are in many ways bad decision makers and need help from more enlightened intellectuals, the technique of nudging can so very, very quickly turn into pulls, pushes, and shoves.

Furthermore, I feel the authors understate the difference between a public and a private institution. Although corporations can be powerful, they can never be as powerful as a government entity, which holds the monopoly over the use of force. This isn't to say that government can't do some good and can even improve the way it presents choices to its citizens, it is a mistake, in my opinion, to equate a corporate board with a congressional chamber. One can use the force of law and another cannot. Harm can be done by both, yes, but the power of one can always dominate the influence of the other. The most useful and safest kind of nudges are those implemented and perpetuated by private institutions and citizens that attempt to nudge others in a social way.

Nudges are everywhere, and this I think is one of the most important lessons I learned from the book. As human beings, we can be overwhelmed by inertia or by loss aversion or by a multitude of other factors when making decisions. Knowing this will hopefully make us better decision makers, regardless of the nudges we're receiving. As this cannot be expected to happen for many, I can be persuaded to incorporate nudges in a variety of areas, but my libertarian guard will always be up against any paternalistic plotting.

Nudge does present some valuable ideas. Yet, I wonder how far "libertarian paternalism" can extend and into what areas without the paternalistic side of the equation tipping the scales in its favor. Having said that, there are some very simple applications of the nudge concept, such as making certain decisions easier to make and breaking down barriers, which could easily be implemented without any significant moral, ethical, and ideological concerns being raised. Those "choice architects" (shiver) just have to get it right, and maybe that's where I lose most of my faith.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow
Reflections: Life at the Bottom
Reflections: Utilitarianism

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Reflections: Good to Great

Good to Great by Jim Collins
I can imagine that writing a book like Good to Great is an open invitation to cynics and critics to prove how the author got it all wrong. Being published in 2001, the book represents a snapshot in time, which becomes obsolete, similar to the latest technological product, almost as soon as it hits the public's hands. Jim Collins and his team identified eleven companies which met their criteria, which they wisely detail after the close of the book, that made the leap from a "good" company to a "great" company. What are the primary ingredients? And can it be duplicated?

As would be expected, the book lists (business books love lists) several key components for making the leap from good to great. Although not revolutionary (like most business books), the concepts are thought-provoking and no doubt valuable. Considering the book is about companies rather than individuals becoming great, the concepts are related to organizational effectiveness and transformation. However, as with most concepts, what could be applied at a macro level can probably find some kind of application at a micro level.  Some of those concepts are intuitive, such as having a culture of disciple, but others are less so, such as the "First Who, then What" principle.  However, after some pondering the principle becomes more sensible and less radical.  But is it a true principle? 

Reading the book in 2017 necessarily colors the content of the book in a way which couldn't be considered in 2001. For example, Circuit City is listed as one of those companies which made the leap from good to great. Circuit City doesn't exist anymore. Rather than disproving any of the findings of the book, however, I am intrigued by the idea of constant change and adaptation in the marketplace. Although a company can thrive or even be the best, that does not guarantee its long-term success or even survival. Competition, as well as the natural (and unnatural) forces at work in a marketplace, can make today's titan tomorrow's pygmy.

Good to Great is a fine bookwell written with valuable insight and worthwhile anecdotes and conclusions. It can also, more than likely, all be proven wrong or at the very least severely challenged, as I'm sure many academics and other interested parties have done. Regardless, I enjoyed the book and was able to cull from it applicable and relevant leadership and professional tactics.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Outliers
Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Reflections: The Marshmallow Test

Monday, March 6, 2017

Reflections: The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter is a difficult book to love. Melancholy drips from every page.  From its sober beginning to its funereal ending, The Scarlet Letter is a bit of a slogalbeit a well-written one.

As was expected, the book is a harsh indictment of Puritan social structures and culture.  Themes of hypocrisy and judgment are pervasive, but I was far more interested in the exploration of confession.  Hester Prynne, by virtue of her wearing the scarlet letter, is a walking confessiona socially (and personally) imposed punishment.  Yet, her accomplice in the sin (who I won't reveal here) avoids confession and lives as a hypocrite, which, it can be argued, is the much more egregious sin. The book bears clear witness to the danger and agony of living such a life.  There is plenty of fault and guilt to go around in the book, including and perhaps especially that guilt and shame which its Puritan society should feel.

To provide my own commentary, I would hesitate to embrace the lesson of unrestrained tolerance as the moral imperative to be learned from Hawthorn's tale.  Adultery is an evil, regardless of society's unbalanced condemnation of it.  In our society of acceptance, it is easy to condemn (as they would us) the Puritan moral and ethical protocols.  However, it doesn't follow that everything they would condemn should become behaviors we should embrace.  Rather, I think the question becomes what the "scarlet letter" should be; in other words, societiesorganically or notcreate scarlet letters for all sorts of behaviors.  Furthermore, societies within a larger society, such as a religious community, create and perpetuate their own scarlet letters.  A scarlet letterwhatever form that takesas a means to correct or guide behavior is not an inherently bad thing.  The discussion should revolve around how it should be used and for what behaviors, not whether or not it should be abolished entirely.  That simply won't happen.

The ending line, which almost requires additional research to understand and appreciate, highlights perhaps the main theme of the book, which is the great Christian obligation to "[j]udge not, that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7:1).  More often than not, our ability to judge and discern correctly is severely limited, and we know very little of others' personal torments and motives. The scarlet letter becomes the behavior or choice which is the most conspicuous, but the background and context against which it is set and contrasted against is far less understandable. In our lacking understanding, we often judge incorrectly and often far too harshly. Perhaps that is the most important personal lesson I learned from Hester Prynne.

As you can see, The Scarlet Letter is not terribly enjoyable to read, but it does offer plenty to talk about. I fear, and perhaps this is an unjustified judgment, that the discussions surrounding this book focus far more on toleration rather than on moderation. I am more interested in the latter than I am the former, but I would gladly participate in the discussion.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Heart of Darkness
Memorable Moments: A Tale of Two Cities - 'Tis a far, far better thing'
Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction

Monday, February 20, 2017

Reflections: Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith

Latter-day Saint Sunday school classes are filled with commentaries, quotes, and doctrine related to the early years of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Those formative years of a growing but bewildered new religion are sources of inspiration (and sometimes controversy) for Latter-day Saints. In the Nauvoo period in particular, Latter-day Saints explore the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith mostly as it relates to the Saints' eventual exodus to the West, leaving behind the more nuanced circumstances of who and why. Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith lets the reader linger and learn some of those nuances.

To begin with, I greatly underappreciated how much politics played into the assassination of Joseph Smith. Although he had declared himself to be a candidate for President of the United States of America, the real political forces working toward his demise were local. With the Saints' growing population in Nauvoo and by extension Hancock County, Illinois, the "old citizens" became increasingly worried over the shifting political balance. It is the nature of a democratic government to reflect the majority of those it governs. Therefore, with more Mormons comes more Mormon public officials or those sympathetic to Mormon interests. Although religious bigotry and persecution was clearly an element of the Saints' eventual expulsion, the more interesting storyin my opinionis how those anti-Mormon feelings fed into political agitation and upheaval.

Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill's recreation of the conspirator's trial doesn't exactly explode off the page but was enthralling nonetheless. As mentioned earlier, well-known and much discussed Mormon history pivots after the martyrdom to the Western epoch and essentially leaves the fallout of the assassination to a small coterie of interested scholars. As a Latter-day Saint, I genuinely had no idea what the outcome of the trial would be, albeit I had my suspicions. As with any history, the true but refined version we're usually presented immediately becomes more subtle and opaque as you read the words of multiple witnessesmany of which had competing accounts to tell and disparate interests to protect. The trial is the central focus of the book and the periodic commentaries from the authors is instructive. In order to understand this trial, the reader must appreciate the workings of criminal law and the cultural influences of a different time and place.

Carthage Conspiracy is not for the layman when it comes to Mormon history. Although the authors attempt to provide as much background as possible to the events discussed, I imagine it would be difficult for a non-Mormon with little knowledge of the Mormon Church and its history to be able to understand or care much about what this book explores. I don't fault the authors for this since attempting to truly explain the origins of Mormon history and culture would be far too onerous for a book with a deliberately limited scope. I would think and hope that others who do have a background in Latter-day Saint history and culture would be able to enjoy this book.  Although some may be turned off or confused by the commentaries on legal theory and practice, I found it utterly fascinating and appreciate this treatise as a lovely addition to my growing collection of books related to Latter-day Saint history.

Carthage Conspiracy is an exploration of a mostly unknown moment in human history (even for Latter-day Saints), which is of most interest to a very small group of people. It is nonetheless worth reading, especially for Latter-day Saints. We honor the man who was assassinated, but what became of his accused assassins?  Carthage Conspiracy provides the answer and pushes the reader on to many more compelling questions.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Reflections: The Lord's Way
Reflections: Enoch the Prophet