Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

This book began as one of the most interesting books that I have read. The conflagration of factors leading to the founding of European settlement in Australia makes for an interesting read. I thoroughly enjoyed the first few hundred pages.

But then, Hughes indulges his taste for minutiae. I can't really deal with pages and pages of descriptions of the farms of individual settlers and their affairs. I trudged on for another hundred pages, and then finally gave in. I recommend the first 200 pages, and reject the rest.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Politic of American Religious Identity by Kathleen Flake

There's an old joke about people who complain that 'the food was bad and the portions were too small.' That's about how I feel about this book.

One hundred and seventy-seven pages feels slim to me. I have to believe that with 3,500 pages of text from the Smoot hearings, there might have been a few more interesting things to say. She isn't however, a great storyteller; I didn't feel particularly engaged by the writing.

I also noticed several minors problems with this book:
(1) inconsistent use of 'god' and 'God' to describe deity.
(2) using 'L.D.S.' instead of 'LDS'
(3) two references to the Joseph Smith memorial monument as the Joseph F. Smith monument
(4) inconsistent capitalization of 'the first vision'
(5) numerous references (including one of the back cover) to the 'Howard B. Lee' library instead of Harold B. Lee.

This might strike you as nitpicking, but because I have no expertise in Church history, I feel like I need to trust the author. If she flubs on the little things that I know about, I don't think I can trust her guidance on the things I don't know about.

One area where I did quibble was on her facile interpretation that polygamy was replaced in the Mormon imagination with the First Vision. But when she mentions in passing that the First Vision was canonized in 1880, it hurts her thesis. Clearly, the First Vision did become an important identity marker at this time, but her causality leaves a little to be desired.

That said, this is an interesting and imporant episode in Church history. I've already spent a lot of time thinking about the unusual demise of polygamy and Joseph F. Smith's role in the hearings.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Collapse by Jared Diamond

I read Guns, Germs and Steel when it first came out and I thought it was fabulous. I know it is trendy to whine about the flaws of the academy, but it is nonetheless true that the current climate is such that specialization rules, and no one is asking the big questions anymore. So, when Diamond asked why some societies advanced so much more rapidly than others, I thought it was a fascinating read, especially because he used (really interesting) concrete examples to make his points and avoided a lot of abstract blather.

So I was excited about Collapse. And I loved reading about Easter Island, Iceland, and Rwanda. (He's a good storyteller, and has fun explaining the creative sleuthing techniques that archeological use to discover what happened.) But through the entire book, as he made the point again and again that societies collapsed because they destroyed their environments, I braced myself for the environmentalist rant at the end of the book.

It never came. Diamond is far too rational for that. Instead, he profiles and praises Chevron (an oil company!) for their low-impact Third World oil field. He did get a little stereotypical in the chapter dismissing the objections to environmentalism, but, in general, he kept his focus on looking for realistic solutions. I recommend this book.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Great Harry by Carolly Erickson

bah. I've spent all week slogging through this book: the interesting lights on early 16th century banquets, the salacious details of Henry the 8th's private life, and long, boring passages about, oh, I don't know, my mind kinda wandered.

I made it 352 pages before giving in. I loved Alexandra, tolerated Her Little Majesty, and choked on this one. Erickson has one more chance with me . . .

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle

I didn't like this book nearly as much as the biographies of other Church leaders that I have read lately. I don't think that it has anything to do with Elder Nelson, but rather with some poor choices that were made in this book:

(1) It isn't really chronological, it is topical. The only section where this works well is where Elder Nelson's work as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve in different countries is presented. Going country by country instead of chronologically made it possible to have a better feel for the unfolding events in each country and keep the story straight. But elsewhere, the segregation doesn't work. In the chapter on his nine daughters, the brief bios of each woman come off sounding like little more than obituaries.

(2) HAGIOGRAPHY. I'm not interested in dwelling on the flaws of Church leaders, but I'm not impressed by saccharine representations of their perfection, either. Condie admits up front that he is presenting Elder Nelson's life as a model to follow, but I can't relate to the icky perfection here. At one point, Elder Nelson is quoted as saying that not one of their ten children even disobeyed their mother (!). More on this later.

(3) The voice here is so incredibly 'overcorrelated' that I found myself distracted and rolling my eyes. Trademarks of overcorrelation include: (a) gross overuse of the word 'appropriate', (b) saying things like 'humbly expressed his desire to' instead of just 'asked' and (c) doing bizarrely formal things like referring to the former president as William Jefferson Clinton.

(4) Yes, he really did say that not one of the kids ever disobeyed their mother. I'm not sure how to take this, especially since I distinctly remember Elder Nelson describing their family scripture studies as not so much a howling success but sometimes "more howling than success." I wonder if it might have something to do with how rarely he was home when his family was young. This leads to a larger issue that has bothered me as I have read several bios of Church leaders: one gets the impression that they didn't spend much time with their young families because they were working. (At one point, the books notes that during his years as a surgeon, Nelson was out of town at conferences for about 35% of the time. He was also a stake president and then General President of the Sunday School during this time.) I have some theories here:

(a) It was a different time. There were different expectations for fathers.
(b) These men were exceptions: because their skills would later be needed to build up the kingdom, they needed to pursue their careers full throttle. (He was able to open doors in many countries because of his professional connections and skill.)
(c) They should have been home more. (I went to a fireside once where the speaker talked about deliberately modeling his career after Elder Oaks and then, years later, being stunned when Elder Oaks said that he should have spent more time with his family and less time at work.)

Overall, I was disappointed with this book. His calling, talents, career, and character make Elder Nelson a fascinating person, and he deserved better than this. That said, there are some strengths here: the description of the Church's expansion into the former Soviet Bloc countries and China, with Elder Nelson's help, is truly fascinating. Barely recommended.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Latter Days by Coke Newell

Brother Newell works for the Church's Public Affairs Department, which makes it all the more surprising to find that he has an authentic, non-correlated voice. (I doubt a story about horse pee as his opening anecdote would have made it through correlation.) And this is, perhaps, the best part of the book.

There are some serious weaknesses here, however. For a book subtitled "A Guided Tour Through Six Billion Years of Mormonism," he spends an inordinate amount of time on the Joseph and Brigham eras (maybe 80% of the book), with most of the other prophets getting a scant paragraph or so. And in his pre- and post-Latter Day sections, I think he is subject to some unnecessary speculations and odd positions. For example, he states that the Church uses the KJV because it is the best translation available. I don't think anyone believes this--or should believe it. (I fully support the Church's use of the KJV, because it is the language of the Restoration, but there is no way to defend the idea that the KJV is the best English translation.) That said, he does handle some issues, such as polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, etc., very well, by resisting the urge to speculate and acknowledging what we simply don't know.

He claims to be writing for nonmembers, but I wonder how many nonmembers would/should actually read this book. I suppose it is a reasonable Church history, but he is so spotty on the Church in the 20th/21st century. He does remedy some of this with an appendix of important doctrines (but very little about practices), but the appendix suffers from personal hobby horses (should 80% of the text of gender roles really concern the percentage of women with young children in Utah who work?).

I can't necessarily recommend this, but it was an interesting read.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I read a little over 50 pages and decided that this is way, way, way too weird for me. Reject.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood edited by Susan Burmeister-Brown

I bought this book because it was the mothers' book club selection at our cool local indie bookstore (Bookpeople). I didn't end up going, however: scheduling conflict. So I finally picked it up tonight and . . . I hate short stories. Especially when the tone is earnest serious ploddingness. Reject.

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Personal note: This is a first for me: my son read this book before I did. (I'm getting old . . .)

Dave Barry is one of my favorite writers. When I found out that he had written a children's book--and that other homeschoolers were enjoying reading it out loud--I was all over it.

Then I read the first chapter out loud and somehow sensed that this wasn't read-aloud material. Maybe because I'd have to explain too many jokes . . .

(This is when Simon picked it up and read it on his own . . .)

I did enjoy reading this prequel to Peter Pan. It isn't quite as funny as you might expect from Dave Barry, but the adventure story angle worked, and worked well. Recommended for kids reading chapter books, and adults wanting a little mind candy.

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