Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best and Worst Reads of 2009

2009 is ending, and I've finished another year of reading.

Since January, I've read thirty-four books, each of which are listed on this blog. Not included in this tally are the several short stories, poems, children's books, magazine articles, critical essays, and Peanuts comic strips that I've read. Also not included are books I started reading, but never finished for some reason or another.

Generally, I've counted any novel, novella, or graphic novel that took me longer than a day to read.

The following are my best and worst lists. Unlike last year, I am making separate lists for the best fiction and non-fiction books I read this year. I am still lumping all the crappy books together.

Five Best Fiction Books
1. The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy
2. Jack Maggs, Peter Carey
3. The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright
4. Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy
5. The Deerslayer, James Fenimore Cooper

Five Best Non-Fiction Books
1. In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick
2. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
3. Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, H. W. Brands
4. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Joseph J. Ellis
5. A Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs

Five Worst Books
1. The Bridge of the Golden Horn, Emine Sevgi Ozdamar
2. The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich
3. Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier
4. The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff
5. New Moon, Stephenie Meyer

Here are some additional lists...for the heck of it:

Five Mediocre Books
1. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
2. The Unvanquished, William Faulkner
3. Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer
4. Massacre at Mountain Meadows, Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard
5. Some Dream for Fools, Faize Guene

Two Books that Nearly Made the "Best" List
1. A Mercy, Toni Morrison
2. Tropic of Orange, Karen Tei Yamashita

Two Books that Transcend Lists
1. The Book of Mormon
I've read this book more times than any other book. I read it again over the summer and with it had one of my best reading experiences of the year. It is the book that has influenced my life the most, and I recommend it to all.

2. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Somehow, I made it through high school without ever reading this book. This year I finally read it for the first time and decided that it is likely one of the best novels ever written. I think it is hardly fair to judge the average book against it. I recommend this book as well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Twitter is Lame (With a Capital Tweet)

It's funny how a day unfolds. Yesterday morning I woke up with a plan. The plan unfolded reasonably well. Everything happened the way it was supposed to.

Then I had some down time.

Down time is not a bad thing, except when it leads to wasted time. So, at first I wasn't wasting time, since I was merely exploring the various avenues available on, which happens to be one of the reasons the Internet is still around. Then I discovered the Boss had his own Twitter account. "Hmmm," I thought. "Maybe Twitter isn't as lame as I thought."

Since pretty much anything the Boss writes is profound and potentially life altering, I decided to check out the Boss's tweets (which, I know, sounds dirty). To my disappointment, offers little of true value, being nothing more than news updates and advertisements.

So much for working class wisdom in 140 characters or less.

Still, I became intrigued with Twitter. Although I am habitually long-winded, I liked the challenge in condensing my aimless musings down to something that could fit on the inside of a gum wrapper. After all, it worked great for the guy who came up with Bazooka Joe.

So, I set up a Twitter account.

Part of me was really excited about tweeting. I figured since no one reads my long blog posts anyway, shorter posts might attract more readers. A Low-Tech tweet might be my ticket to a loyal fan following.

I was wrong. As soon as I posted my first tweet, I expected to have at least twenty-five followers in fifteen minutes. No such luck. It has been at least an hour and a half since that first tweet, and I am yet to have one follower. Either my friends hate me, or they don't know I'm tweeting.

Gaining followers is not the only challenge Twitterers face, I've discovered. Despite what the makers of Laffy Taffy and fortune cookies might think, coming up with something funny or profound in 140 words is not as easy as it sounds. My first tweet was about reading Ovid on Sunday morning. My second tweet will be about how lame my first tweet was. My third tweet will probably be about taking a nap.

Chances are, my Twitter account won't survive a fortnight--or any kind of night, for that matter. Unless, of course, I get my twenty-five followers by Wednesday. Then it might last a month.

Tweet out.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Recycling the Classics, or Magwitch and Hamlet Get a Make-Over

"Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us."--Ecclesiastes 1:10

The Preacher was right: there is nothing new under the sun.

For instance, I recently finished reading two contemporary novels that take their cues from the classics: Peter Carey's Jack Maggs (a loose retelling of Charles Dicken's Great Expectations) and David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (a modern re-envisioning of Shakespeare's Hamlet). Both novels stand on their own, independent of the works that inspired them, so readers don't need to bone up on Dickens and Shakespeare to appreciate them. Still, I had read Great Expectations and Hamlet before reading these novels, and I was surprised to learn how much my exposure to these "parent texts" affected my reading--and judgement.

Jack Maggs is a smartly veiled retelling of the life of Abel Magwitch, the secret benefactor in Great Expectations. Like Magwitch, Jack Maggs is a English convict from Australia who returns to England illegally in order to visit a young gentleman whom he financially supports. Able to locate the gentleman's home, but not the gentleman himself, Maggs finds work as the neighbor's footman. By means natural and (seemingly) supernatural, his dark past quickly comes to the attention of his new employer and his staff, who subsequently treat him with mixture of fear, contempt, wonder, and sympathy. He also becomes an object of interest for Tobias Oates, an up-and-coming novelist, who wants to turn Magg's life (or the life he imagines for Maggs) into a best-selling novel.

Jack Maggs works extremely well as a novel in conversation with another novel. Wisely, Peter Carey does not try rewrite Great Expectations; rather, he uses elements Dickens's novel as a springboard for the exploration of possibilities: What if Great Expectations had been Magwitch's story instead of Pip's? or What if Pip had been a completely selfish, despicable person? This exploration of possibilities, however, is not crucial to the success of the novel. As I mentioned earlier, a reader can appreciate Jack Maggs without having read Great Expectations.

Still, the novel works best as a novel about novels. Aside from Maggs, the most important character in Jack Maggs is the novelist Tobias Oates, whose fictional life mirrors the life of young Charles Dickens. Through Oates's attempts to fictionalize Maggs's life, Carey is able to underscore the artificiality of narrative and the act of literary creation, which helps to explain the novel's anti-climax. Likewise, Maggs's violent resistance to Oates's desire to confine the unpredictability of life into the predictability of narrative convention lends further support to the idea that this novel is a critique of its own form.

If Jack Maggs is a lesson on how to borrow from the classics, then David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a lesson on how not to borrow from them.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is about a mute boy and the crisis he undergoes when his uncle murders his dad, shacks up with his mom, and tries to take over the family's dog-breeding business. If the plot sounds familiar, then you've probably read William Shakespeare's Hamlet or seen the movie Strange Brew. Consequently, reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle often feels like you're listening to a mediocre cover of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone".

To be fair, Edgar Sawtelle is not a bad novel. For the most part, it is an interesting and entertaining read; its characters are well-rendered, especially those of Edgar and his mother, and the prose never bores or annoys the way the prose of, say, Louise Ehrdrich bores and annoys. Still, the novel gets too close to its source at times, making the plot predictable. I often found myself betting on what would happen next in the novel and hitting the jackpot every time.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is at its best when it isn't trying to be Hamlet. Unfortunately, it is rarely at its best.

Ultimately, the major difference between Jack Maggs and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is devotion. Jack Maggs consciously borrows from Great Expectations, but it doesn't need Great Expectations. In a sense, Carey's use of Dickens is strategic, not devotional; by re-imagining an influential classic novel, he reevaluates the classic or traditional form exhibited in that novel (and novels like it). Wroblewski, on the other hand, is too devoted to his source story to accomplish anything similar with his re-imagining of Hamlet. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, therefore, adds nothing new to our understanding of Hamlet, Shakespeare, or tragedy.

In my opinion, you ought to stick with Hamlet. While there are no new things under the sun, there are some things that manage to shed new light. Jack Maggs is such a thing. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, on the other hand, is not. When it comes to shedding light, if fact, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is about as bright as a glowbug.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Loveland Castle--A Triumph of the Independent Spirit

People who are really into medieval stuff are weird. For example, when I was in college, there was a campus medieval club that would set up a canvas tent outside of the building where I worked an early-morning custodial job. Around this tent, they placed two or three guards to keep watch over their collection of wooden swords and home-made chain-mail (you know, just in case anyone wanted to steal them). One morning, maybe to raise my twelfth century street cred, I told one of them that I had an interest in medieval literature. The thane looked at me with a ye olde twinkle in his ye olde eye, and said, "Then you are a friend."

The sincerity of his words were moving, but I still thought it was a weird thing to say.

I've kept an eye out for medievalists since then. They are generally easy to spot, mostly because they are the only ones in the neighborhood who dress like Robin Hood. They like to do medieval things, like lay siege to a dog house or storm a mailbox. Also, they are the only people you know with names like "Ulf" or "Hrothgar" or "Erowen."

It is easy to poke fun at these people. Outsiders interpret their behavior as a strange attempt to escape the modern world. I don't know if that is the case, but I wouldn't put it past either Ulf or Hrothgar. Anyone who would lay siege to a dog house is escaping something.

Still, I think there much that we--the outsiders, the modernists--could learn from these medievalists.

Take Sir Harry Andrews, for instance. Harry Andrews was a committed medievalist. He spent the last fifty years of his life building a medieval-ish castle (christened "Chateau Laroche," but best known locally as the "Loveland Castle") along the Little Miami River in Loveland, Ohio.

Why did Sir Harry do it?

Good question. During my recent visit to the Loveland Castle, the man who took my admission fee ($3.00 a person) explained that Harry built the castle because his loyal knights (who were actually members of his Boy Scout troop) needed one.

Fair enough, I thought. At least he didn't do it to impress girls.

* * *

Although I grew up only a town away from Sir Harry's Chateau Laroche, I never got around to visiting it until this week. My expectations were high; I had heard and read a lot of good things about the castle. On their official website, for example, Sir Harry's knights, the Knights of the Golden Trail (KOGT), describe it (and themselves) in these terms:

"Chateau Laroche was built as an expression and reminder of the simple strength and rugged grandeur of the mighty men who lived when Knighthood was in flower.

"It was their knightly zeal for honor, valor and manly purity that lifted mankind out of the moral midnight of the dark ages and started it towards the gray dawn of human hope.

"Present human decadence proves a need for similar action. Already the ancient organization of Knights have been re-activated to save society.

"Any man of high ideas who wishes to help save civilization is invited to become a member of the Knights of the Golden Trail, whose only vows are the Ten Commandments.

"Chateau Laroche is the World headquarters of this organization, started in 1927."

Wow! Who wouldn't, on the "simple strength and rugged grandeur" of that description, expect anything but the best from the world headquarters of a society that "wishes to save civilization" from "present human decadence"? Personally, I was so inspired by those words that I nearly forsook the modern world and changed my name to Unferth.

Good thing I'm not a drinking man.

What can be said about Sir Harry's magnum opus? The exterior of the castle is impressive, especially when you consider that Sir Harry did it all with his two knightly hands. And, to their credit, the KOGT have done a nice job keeping Sir Harry's castle grounds courtly and colorful. I mean, if I were throwing a medieval-themed wedding (or even a medieval-themed Tupperware party), I would throw it there. As castles along the Little Miami go, it's one of the more picturesque.

Still, inside the castle is a different story. While the KOGT are big on saving civilization, they are not big on dusting. Walking through the castle, I felt like I was taking a tour of the home of Pig Pen, Charlie Brown's perpetually dusty friend. Everything--Sir Harry's framed photographs, swords, and suits of armor--was covered with the stuff. I think I even saw where some medieval smart aleck had taken a finger to the dust and written the words "WASH ME" in both Celtic and Old English.

Don't get me wrong: the Loveland Castle is worth the three dollar admissions fee--even with the dust that hasn't moved a millimeter since 1985.

You see, Sir Harry's Chateau Laroche is a monument to the Independent Spirit. To the rest of us, Sir Harry and every other hard core medievalist seem like they're three motes shy of a drawbridge, but they don't seem to care. They are who they are, chain mail and all. They seize that independent spirit with a gauntlet of steel.

It takes a lot of courage to be a dork in this world. It takes even more courage to be a dork with a big dream. Sir Harry had a big dusty dream, and he made it a reality. That's more than most people can say.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dusting Off an Old Poem

I was digging through some of my old poetry and I found this strange piece of work. I'm not sure if I would call it good. I might call it okay. I would definitely call it weird. Some might call it a little gross.

I remember writing it late one night. Sarah and I were still living in Provo. Connor was probably just a baby. We lived on the bottom floor of an apartment building next to a laundromat, so we always had people walking past our living room window. Apparently, on the night I wrote this poem I let my imagination run wild.

I can tell that I wrote it at a time when I was still taking myself seriously as a poet. It has that sound to it. I also wrote it at a time when I was trying to write longer poems, which explains its wordiness.

Anyway, enjoy.

On Hearing Someone Sing Outside My Window

If I were alone and somewhere else—
in a cabin, maybe, in the secluded forests
of central Alaska—the soft singing
I just heard outside my window would be
disconcerting, if not scary.

I have seen enough movies to know
isolation provides the perfect setting for madmen
and murderers to play mind games on hapless
campers before finally finishing them off
with a sharp ax or kitchen knife.

If that were the case—if I were alone
in the woods with only the four walls of a cabin
to separate me from a suspicious song—
my imagination, which usually trampolines
to the grizzliest conclusions, would get the better
of me. In the initial fear of those first notes,
my body would shiver; salty drops
of sweat would run down the sides of my ribs
like earthworms, drenching the armpits
of my flannel shirt. My breathing, of course, would be
as labored as a freight train wheezing through the night,
my heartbeat like an alarm clock without a snooze
button. Even my toes, which are always so calm,
would panic and scramble for sanctuary.

After this rebellion of my senses is
quelled, I would barricade the door and windows
with my furniture, turning my rough-hewn
tables and chairs on their sides, pushing them
against anything that would allow access
to my rustic domain. Only then, with the cabin secure,
would I listen again for the eerie song of the stranger,
placing my ear, perhaps, to a drinking glass
against the wall. If I’m lucky, I would hear nothing,
the maniac singer having moved on to a cabin more worthy
of his art, one full of teenagers on spring break.
If I’m not so lucky—which is usually
how these things go for me—I would hear
the stranger’s song still outside my window
rise to a hideous crescendo, followed by a murderous,
calculating silence.

But I am not in a cabin in central Alaska.
I live in an apartment beside a Laundromat
where the procrastinators of the day go to wash
their clothes at night. The stranger, no doubt,
is some musically-inclined college student
who returned home from a good day with her books
only to discover, with some chagrin, that she had
no clean clothes for tomorrow—
hardly a maniacal ax murderer poised to hack away
my door, slice through the craftsmanship
of my barricade, and spill my blood on a grand scale
with plenty of splatter for the horrified investigators.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu Blues

A little humor for these perilous times...

Swine Flu Blues

My nose ran like a faucet,
So now I’m on the news.
My friends won’t dare to look my way.
I’ve got the Swine Flu Blues.

It started out as allergies,
Then turned into a cold,
And then I heard about this Flu
And placed my life on hold.

I bought a blue mask, just in case;
Flu meds I had to steal.
I looked around for kosher pork
To fix a pork-less meal.

I shunned my friends from Mexico,
Unlearned the Spanish tongue.
I plan to boycott Taco Bell
Before this song is sung.

So, as my heath care bills amass,
The doctors claim I’m fine.
But I know best: I’ll soon be gone.
These Swine Flue Blues are mine.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Great Closing Sentence

"We live in a world of transgressions and selfishness, and no pictures that represent us otherwise can be true, though, happily, for human nature, gleamings of that pure spirit in whose likeness man has been fashioned are to be seen, relieving its deformities, and mitigating if not excusing its crimes."
--James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mormonism and a Magical America: a Review of Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet

On 7 November 1811, on a hill near the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers, Native American forces under the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa attacked American forces under William Henry Harrison. In the aftermath of the attack, which later became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe, 30 to 50 of Tenskwatawa's warriors lay dead on the field, and William Henry Harrison became an American hero.

Tippecanoe, however, plays out differently in Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet, a fantasy novel set in a "magical America that might have been." In Red Prophet, the battle is an outright massacre, and Card's telling of it owes as much to the Book of Mormon as it does to any American history book. Readers who are familiar with Alma 24, for example, will readily recognize Card's inspiration for the the group of pacifist Shawnee, led by the Prophet, who allow themselves to be massacred rather than take up arms against their attackers. Other Mormonism-inspired elements surface in the novel; most obviously, the life of Alvin Maker, the story's main character, seems at times inspired by the life of Joseph Smith, while the characters Tenska-Tawa and Taleswapper seem loosely based on the Angel Moroni.

In less creative hands, these Mormon elements might come off as either heavy-handed or corny--like an Osmond Brothers' concept album or a lame Halestorm comedy. Card, however, knows where and how much to borrow from Mormonism. So, while Mormon readers will understand certain aspects of Red Prophet differently than non-Mormon readers, non-Mormon readers will not likely feel like they're missing out on something crucial. Nor will they feel like they're being fed Mormon doctrine subliminally.

One downside of Red Prophet (for me, at least) is that it's the second volume of Card's "Tales of Alvin Maker" series, which means it's not a stand-alone novel. So, the first third of the novel is basically a retelling of Seventh Son, the first volume of the series, while the last third of the novel reads like a prelude for the third volume. What is more, the novel is dialogue heavy (in the bad sense), which is true of all of Orson Scott Card's novels. Still, Red Prophet has a great story to tell. Card's characters--both likable and detestable--are interesting, as are his descriptions of the Tippecanoe massacre and Alvin's spiritual experiences. Overall, I'd recommend the novel--and its predessesor, Seventh Son--to any fan of fantasy or historical fiction.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Six Word Reviews

I've been told that my reviews are too long, so I've decided to limit these to six words apiece. 


Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H. W. Brands
Good--but what's the real story?

Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier
So lame. Mediocre TV miniseries material.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Better than Morrison's overrated novel, Beloved.

Graphic Novels:
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn
Batman versus Jack the Ripper: Awesome.

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller
Should be titled: Gordon: Year One.

X-Men: The Last Stand
Worse than X2? Are you serious?

A Boy Named Charlie Brown
Real winners are losers. Good grief.

Speed Racer
Ignore the critics. Reason: Racer X!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Massacre at Mountain Meadows (and Not Much Else): A Review

The Mountain Meadows Massacre is undoubtedly the darkest corner of Mormon history. When I first learned about it, I was sixteen years old and the grim details of the massacre--more than 100 men, women, and children slaughtered by a group of Mormons in southern Utah--were so shocking that I was convinced they were the product of some anti-Mormon propaganda mill. How could the Mormons, who had been so severely persecuted in Missouri and Illinois, be capable of such a crime?

Unfortunately, the massacre was no fabrication. On September 11, 1857, somewhere around 120-140 men, women, and children--California-bound emigrants from Arkansas--were massacred by a group of Mormon militiamen and their Paiute Indian allies. The attack occurred in the days leading up to the so-called "Utah War," when Mormons were receiving vague reports that the United States government had sent an army after them. Paranoia spread across Utah, and outsiders were looked upon with suspicion and scorn. At the same time, Mormons were in the midst of a spiritual "Reformation," which encouraged Mormons to rededicate themselves more firmly to living the precepts of their religion, including the defense of Zion.

While the massacre has never been as well known as other American massacres--such as the much, much smaller "Boston Massacre"--it has recently received some significant media attention. For example, the massacre became a matter of national news when critics of Christopher Cain's 2007 film September Dawn, which reduced the massacre (Titanic-style) to a melodramatic tale of star-crossed lovers, accused the director of making an "anti-Mormon" movie in order to disrupt the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney. Several best-selling books, too, have been published in the last decade--most notably Judith Freeman's Red Water (2002), Sally Denton's American Massacre (2003), Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven(2003), and Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Mountain Meadows Massacre (2004)--which examine the massacre in one form or another.

At best, the scholarly, fictional, and cinematic treatments of the Mountain Meadows Massacre seek to better understand the causes and consequences of the tragedy. Recently, some of this scholarship--Bagley's book in particular--points a steady finger of blame at Brigham Young, the Mormon leader who was no where near Mountain Meadows at the time of the massacre, but whose role as Prophet and President of the Church held no small influence over the Mormons. While no smoking gun has ever linked him directly to the massacre, Young remains a controversial figure in Mountain Meadows scholarship. So too remains Elder George A. Smith, a Mormon apostle who, in the weeks prior to the massacre, delivered a series of fiery sermons across southern Utah, which were largely designed to prepare the people for the rumored army invasion.

Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard's Massacre at Mountain Meadows (2008, Oxford University Press) is the most recent contribution to Mountain Meadows scholarship. Authored by historians employed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the book draws its account of the tragedy from both traditional sources of the massacre and "documents previously not available to scholars," such as assistant church historian Andrew Jenson's 1892 field notes from his interviews with "massacre insiders" (xi). Throughout the study, the intent of the authors seems to be to show how generally good people come to commit abominable crimes. Their focus remains tightly on the Mormon perpetrators of the massacre, exploring the motivation (or apparent lack thereof) behind their crimes. Attention, too, is given to the victims, the Fancher-Baker Company, although not as much as one would expect.

In many ways, Massacre at Mountain Meadows is a milestone in Official (or quasi-Official) Mormon history, which has a reputation (understandably) for being interested more in the inspirational side of the Mormon story than in the tragic and embarrassing. The book does not shy away from the violent crimes the Mormons committed, nor does it entirely shy away from exploring its controversies (such as Young's involvement, Smith's sermons, or John D. Lee's alleged rape and murder of two teenage members of the Fancher-Baker company immediately after the massacre). That said, at 231 pages (not counting appendices and end notes) the book is far too slim to be an adequate study. The authors acknowledge this fact in the introduction, stating that "too much information [on the massacre] existed for a single book," suggesting another book on the tragedy's aftermath will be written sometime in the future (xii). Still, the lack of any substantial information about the consequences of the massacre is the most disappointing aspect about this book. Upon finishing the book, I found myself researching "the rest of the story" on Wikipedia.

Another downside to the book is its lack of narrative energy. At times, Massacre at Mountain Meadows drags when the authors strive too hard to be moderate in their storytelling. Often, for example, the personalities of the Mormon perpetrators go unexplored and underdeveloped in the authors' attempts to be fair to everyone. Consequently, no real antagonist emerges in the narrative, except, perhaps, Isaac C. Haight, the Cedar City stake president who kept the momentum for the massacre up until it finally came about. John D. Lee, likewise, is a close candidate for primary antagonist, since it was he who led the initial attack against the Fancher-Baker company, yet the authors seem to dismiss Lee as a deluded, reckless zealot. Personally, I would have liked to see a more complete portrait of Lee's psyche. To a large extent, such portraits are what generate interest in historical narratives and compel readers forward. A more intimate account of the Fancher-Baker company's experience while under siege to their Mormon and Paiute attacks would have also helped the book along.

Despite its brevity, Massacre at Mountain Meadows is adamant on the point that Brigham Young did not condone the attack on the Fancher-Baker emigrants. While not an overt rebuttal to Bagley's 2004 book, this new study is clearly responding to someone. Unfortunately, nothing in the book is as conclusive on the subject as one would hope. Still, the smoking gun remains undiscovered--and Young's involvement with the affair is still only a matter of conjecture. Personally, I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Overall, though, I would recommend Massacre at Mountain Meadows to anyone who wants to learn more about the tragic event. It is certainly not a complete account of the massacre, but it seems like an adequate place to start.

But, then again, so is Wikipedia.

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Portrait of the Author as a Young Man

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"

My wife has recently posted excerpts from my old journal on her blog, mostly as a way to mock me. I have decided to do the same. 

From 6/12/1997 to 8/28/1998 I kept the journal. I was a senior in High School at that time. A lot of what I wrote is really lame. Some of what I wrote is kind of funny, even though I didn't mean for it to be funny at the time. I took myself very seriously then, and the journal ended before I learned to laugh at myself. 

Here are two of my favorite excerpts. I like them because I think they capture best how I remember myself being at that time. 

from 7/1/97

"What would people think of me after reading the volumes of my life? I could say I didn't care, but that would be a lie. Anybody who doesn't care is lying--including myself! I do care a lot about most things. I want things to turn out right for people--somewhere inside of me I believe that. Maybe the part of me that I should show more. I don't show enough of myself. I plan to change that someday. Probably when my penmanship improves.

"Thus is life, I often say. I often say that to make me sound like a philosopher, when all I really am is one who points out something someone has already pointed out. That's the problem with this world. Everything has been said and done and we are just stuck waiting for something new to happen. 

"It is midnight, and if I had any sense, I would go to sleep.

"But I can't.

"Things go through the mind that keep you awake. Things that only clearly come to mind during the late hours of the day. Things too important or too unimportant to think about during the day. Things like the Eagle and college and all the crap like that. Other things--the unimportant things-- are the things that one enjoys thinking about at night. Things like having fun, etc. I think that's just as important, though." 

And, from 11/20/97

"I want to leave this place. The people here are driving me crazy. I could pick out only a hand full of people I like to spend my time with. I want to leave and find who I really am. Put all this crap I'm writing about in this entry into action. It seems life is struggling to keep a hold of me. If I don't break free from this life soon, I'll crack. Everything is going so slow. I want to get on with my life.

"I will never conform to any will but my own and God's. Now to put it into practice. I like God. He has help[ed] me through a lot. He is sometimes the only one I care to have anything to do with. I'd like to go out into the desert like Jesus did. I think I'd learn a bit. A bit more than I'm learning here, sitting around in the idleness of youth.

"There is a life out there for me. It will be my own life. Why do I feel, though, that my life isn't my own sometimes. We learn that we must be successful in life. I say that success is fleeting and one should focus on the stuff you can take with you." 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Let Me Show You What Love Can Do": A Review of Springsteen's Working on a Dream

Despite its title, Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream (released January 27, 2009) does not mark the Boss’s return to working class music. Rather, it stands as another reminder that Springsteen is far removed from that working class minstrel we hear in Darkness at the Edge of Town, The River, and Born in the U.S.A.

Not that that’s a bad thing.

Springsteen is now in his early sixties, which means he’s only a few years away from getting a senior citizen’s discount at the local picture show. In the twenty-five years since Born in the U.S.A., his last overtly working class album, he has been writing music that reflects the changes of perspective that have come with aging and maturity. His commercial successes and failures of the past twenty years—and especially his marriage and family life—have taken his mind and music away from their working class roots. Because of this, some so-called fans have accused him of losing touch with his audience or selling out to the Man. They forget, of course, that there’s nothing worse than watching an aging rocker imitate his younger self on a PBS special. No one wants to see the Boss pretend to be 35.

In many ways, nothing on Working on a Dream is new for long-time fans of Springsteen. It is stylistically similar to Springsteen’s most recent release, 2007’s Magic, but leans thematically towards 2002’s The Rising. In many ways, it is also something of a capstone album for the whole of Springsteen’s work produced during the Bush administration. For instance, the album’s fifth track, “What Love Can Do,” seeks practical reconciliation between the optimism of The Rising and the pessimism of Devils and Dust (released in 2005) and Magic:

Darlin’, I can't stop the rain
Or turn your black sky blue
But let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do

The notion that love and relationships are the only anchors in troubled times is repeated several times throughout the album. In “Lucky Day,” for example, the singer takes comfort in the knowledge that “In the dark of this exile / I felt the grace of your smile.” Likewise, in “This Life,” the singer reflects on “This emptiness I've roamed / Searching for a home,” ultimately concluding that “With you I have been blessed, what more can you expect.”

Working on a Dream also explores the darker side of love. In “Queen of the Supermarket,” for example, a lonely shopper sings about his love for a beautiful cashier and the “cool promise of ecstasy” awaiting him at the grocery store where she works. The shopper’s love is unrequited, though, and his inhibitions keep the “cool promise” from being fulfilled. For him, love becomes something of an empty dream; while he finds happiness in the sight of her beauty, the happiness is only temporary. At the end of each day, he is still alone:

I'm in love with the queen of the supermarket
There's nothing I can say
Each night I take my groceries and I drift away, and I drift away

In “Life Itself,” which is possibly the best song on the album, Springsteen continues to explore the darker side of love. In this song, the singer is caught in a demanding relationship with a self-destructive lover:

I knew you were in trouble anyone could tell
You carried your little black book from which all your secrets fell
You squandered all your riches your beauty and your wealth
Like you had no further use for, for life itself

Springsteen, of course, is ambiguous about gender in “Life Itself,” suggesting that the lot of the singer is more universal than unique to men only or women. So, too, seem to be the questions asked of the listener:

Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind
Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?
Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts

These questions, in many ways, cut at the heart of the optimism in Working on a Dream, for they remind listeners that “the things that connect us”—i.e. love and relationships—often carry a high price, especially in demanding relationships like that in “Life Itself.” The singer’s frequent repetition of the phrase “I can’t make it without you,” however, illustrates the depth of his or her seemingly irrational reliance on a connection that will inevitably prove destructive. The singer’s voice, after all, is sincere; he or she seems willing to face inevitable destruction for the chance to “make it”—so much so, in fact, that the singer ends the song with a toast of commitment to the relationship:

So here's one for the road, here's one to your health and to
Life itself, rushing over me
Life itself, the wind in the black elms,
Life itself in your heart and in your eyes, I can't make it without you

“Life Itself” stands alone in its bleakness. Most of Working on a Dream remains upbeat, often in spite of its awareness of hard times. The title track, “Working on a Dream,” is catchy and fun to sing along to. “Good Eye” is another good track, although it is largely incoherent. “What Love Can Do” is one of the best songs on the album, as is the bonus track “The Wrestler.” The peppiest song on the album is a mediocre track entitled “Surprise, Surprise,” which easily wins the “Most Obnoxious Chorus” award:

Well, surprise, surprise, surprise
Yea, surprise, surprise, surprise
Well, surprise, surprise
C'mon open your eyes and let your love shine down

One low point on the album, however, is the song "This Life," which has good lyrics but a forgettable melody. The same can almost be said about the song "Kingdom of Days," which is a love song about growing old. "Kingdom of Days" is growing on me, though.

Ultimately, Working on a Dream is Springsteen meditation on the kind of resignation that seems to come with age and maturity. Likely, the album signals the beginning of the end of the Boss. In the years to come, his albums will become much less political and increasingly more aware of his limitations. As a fan, I understand that this is inevitable.

Sing away, sing away, sing away, sing away

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Meyer's New Moan and Groan (and Groan): A Review

"What kind of place was this? Could a world really exist where ancient legends went wandering around the borders of tiny, insignificant towns, facing down mythical monsters? Did this mean every possible fairy tale was grounded somewhere in absolute truth? Was there anything sane or normal at all, or was everything just magic and ghost stories?"

In astronomy, a new moon occurs when the moon is situated directly between the earth and the sun, thus making the it darken and seem to disappear. Stephanie Meyer seizes upon this symbolism in New Moon, her follow-up to Twilight, by placing her melodramatic heroine, Bella Swan, between two young men who really, really, (c'mon) really love her: Edward, her stone-faced (and extremely boring) vampire boyfriend, and Jacob, her emotionally unstable best friend, who also happens to be the most powerful werewolf on the local Indian reservation.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it. If you are like me, you are probably wondering what is up next for poor Bella? A pen pal who happens to be Frankenstein's monster? A swimming date with the Creature from the Black Lagoon? Maybe a crush on Igor?

Fortunately, Meyer knows her books are ridiculous...or, at least, I think she knows. Several passages in New Moon, after all, seem more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Take, for instance, Bella's inner turmoil as she struggles to come to terms with Jacob's lupine state:

"I pulled up to the Black's house with my lips pressed together into a hard line. It was bad enough that my best friend was a werewolf. Did he have to be a monster, too?"

Bad enough, indeed, Bella.

New Moon is full of such passages, and rightly so. For a plot to be taken seriously--at least, the kind of plot like we see in New Moon--it needs to convey a certain amount of pathos, or serious, intense emotion. What Meyer gives us is bathos, or emotion that is so ridiculously over-the-top that it becomes funny. While most bathos in literature today is unintentional, I believe Meyer's is not--at least, I hope it isn't. I have hard time believing that Meyer is not giving me a knowing wink as I wade through the endless barrage of gasps and snarls and moans and groans that is New Moon.

Yeah, she seems to say to me, I know its ridiculous. Keep reading.

New Moon--which could also be titled I Was a Teenage Werewolf (or, more accurately, I Was in Love with a Teenage Werewolf after My Boring Vampire Boyfriend Dumped Me)--begins about a year after the events of Twilight. Life is perfect for Bella until she receives a near-fatal paper cut (I'm not making this up, folks!), which acts as a wake-up call for her vampire boyfriend, who realizes that the only way he can ensure Bella's safety is to dump her and "move" to L. A.

Such is life. At least in vampire fiction.

For the next THREE HUNDRED PAGES, Bella moans and groans (and moans and groans) about losing Edward, decides to live "dangerously", and becomes BFFs (and maybe a little more) with a kid named Jacob, who is two years younger and appeared briefly in Twilight. The plot thickens (not unlike blood) when Bella learns that Jacob is a werewolf, which means he is the sworn enemy of all vampires--including Bella's immortal beloved. As Bella is coping with this new development--and (as always) the absence of her vampire lover--she discovers that a vengeful evil vampire (i.e. one that drinks human blood) is out to get her. How will it end?

Well, the weakness of New Moon is that it never does. Before the showdown between the teenage werewolf and the vengeful vampire can occur, Edward's sister whisks Bella away to Italy in order to prevent Edward from committing vampire suicide. The rest of the novel focuses solely on the vampires, leaving the werewolves with little more to do than wag their tails. Jacob, of course, returns in the novel's epilogue, but the plot Meyer develops for the first 400 pages of the novel does not, which left me feeling a little shortchanged. Meyer spent page after page preparing me for a werewolf fight, but what I got in the end was a melodramatic vampire rescue mission.

This is unfortunate, of course, because Meyer's werewolves are much more interesting than her repressed vampires. In this novel, for example, Edward Cullen is about as dull and lifeless as the stone statues he is so often compared to. The same is also true about the other "vegetarian" vampires in his coven. Why? One reason, perhaps, is the control and restraint that they must exercise in every aspect of life.
In fiction, however, conflict is what generates interest, and "control" and "restraint," which are largely internal conflicts, do not translate well into external, visual conflict. Meyer's werewolves, on the other hand, have almost no control over their emotions and physical abilities, which makes them potentially more interesting. Jacob, in other words, generates more reader-interest than Edward--at least in this novel--because he seems always on the verge of losing his temper and killing Bella--or, at least, ripping her face off.

Ultimately, though, New Moon is not such a bad novel. In many ways, Meyer seems to have put more thought into developing its symbols and themes than she did in Twilight. What is more, she establishes a parallel between her plot and that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which works fairly well for what it is. My main problems with it are essentially aesthetic. Meyer's use of language, for example, is awkward, while her handling of plot is (to use a Meyerian modifier) glaringly clumsy. Furthermore, her story is too big in scope for a single first-person narrator, which limits the action to what Bella--and only Bella--sees and feels. I can only imagine how much better this novel would be if Meyer gave us access to the minds of her repressed, internally-conflicted vampires.

But I'm taking this novel more seriously than Meyer wants me to. It is, after all, nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek melodrama about a teenage girl, her pet werewolf, and a jerk vampire who used to be her boyfriend.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Disposable Communication and the Lost Digital Generation

I recently finished reading Joseph J. Ellis's Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, the final chapter of which is about the John Adams/Thomas Jefferson correspondence, which lasted from 1812 until 1826, when both men died on the same day. In many ways, it is remarkable, considering how easy it is to destroy paper, that these letters are still around and available to the reading public. It is even more remarkable, however, that the Adams/Jefferson correspondence is not unique. Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, it was common for people to write letters and preserve them for posterity.

People still preserve communication. In fact, our society has become so communication-saturated that it seems almost impossible not to preserve communication, since the digital forums through which we transmit our communications often do the preservation and archiving for us. Still, while I have a digital record of all of my e-mail sent since 2005, I have no hard copy to speak of. Should I buy the proverbial farm, so to speak, kick the fatal bucket, or shuffle off the mortal coil, my family and friends will have no access to my digital correspondences unless they know the password for my e-mail account. My question, therefore, is this: what happens to such digital correspondences when the forums or technology that produce them become outmoded and obsolete? What will happen to your g-mail archive--or your blog, for that matter--when Google goes bust?

In many ways, we now approach written communication as something relatively disposable. To be sure, written communication has never been more popular. Text messaging, for example, has enabled people to carry on conversations in real time without ever opening their mouths. E-mail and online message boards have made correspondence faster and easier. Blogs have given everyone (including me) the opportunity to become a published writer--even if they have nothing to say. What is more, Facebook and other social networking sites have made it possible, via the "status update" feature, for people to create an hourly (yea, even a minute-to-minute) written record of their daily activities. No other era in history has written more than our own. Yet, what are the collected works of our era but words written on the swift current of an ever-widening river?

Two hundred years from now historians will likely face two problems. First, in their efforts to analyze and interpret our day and age, they will be overwhelmed with the surplus of digital junk--digital photos, documents, etc.--that they have to sift through in order to get at our heart and soul (provided, of course, that the technology needed to access our digital junk is still around). Second, once they are through sifting the digital junk, they will struggle to find our heart and soul because the forms of written communication that we have used to express ourselves most personally--text messages, e-mails, blogs, Facebook statuses, etc.--have been written on forms of disposable digital media. After all, what text-message conversation will outlast a cell phone replacement or an old cell phone plan? What e-mail will survive a discarded or forgotten e-mail address? What minute-by-minute Facebook status record will survive Facebook's inevitable demise? The fact of the matter is this: unless we actively archive our words on some enduring medium, they will be lost to time.

In Founding Brothers, Ellis makes the point that Adams and Jefferson were writing not only for themselves, but also for the generations of Americans who would follow them. That is, they wrote deliberately and with the knowledge that their correspondence would survive. Today, it seems, we often write without much thought for tomorrow. Will our posterity want to read our text messages? Will they want to know what our Facebook status was at 7:32 am on Tuesday, January 27, 2009? Maybe. Maybe not. I am willing to bet, however, that they will want to read something of substance from us--something that reveals, on a personal level, who we were as a generation.

Ernest Hemingway and his contemporaries were called the "Lost Generation" because they were perceived as being morally lost in the post World War I world. In many ways, today's generation is rapidly becoming a new lost generation--a "Lost Digital Generation," if you will--because what it has to say is written instantly, received and processed rapidly, and then immediately deleted.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing: A Review

The Crossing is the second novel in Cormac McCarthy's so-called Border Trilogy. It tells the story of Billy Parham, a young man from New Mexico, who travels three separate times through Mexico in order to accomplish some personal mission. Along the way he encounters various drifters, cripples, gypsies, and aging revolutionaries who dispense wisdom and insight about the world.

While The Crossing is the second book in the Border Trilogy, it really stands on its own as a novel. It begins about a decade before the events of All the Pretty Horses, the first Border novel, and is similar to it in basic theme only. While All the Pretty Horses is much more reader-friendly (with lots of page-turning action and romance), The Crossing seems unconcerned about giving the reader an exciting plot. In fact, plot often takes second place to the big ideas that McCarthy is trying to work out through this narrative--and I use the word "trying" intentionally because I do not think he always succeeds.
That's not to say, of course, that this novel is a failure. The Crossing has a lot on its mind, and I would be lying to say that I came close to grasping half of it. It is the kind of novel that takes several readings to understand well (which, at 426 dense pages, is no easy task). Often, it seems, McCarthy's characters are attempting to negotiate the divides between realms of perceptions, such as the "real" and "unreal" or the "knowable" and "unknowable." The oft-recurring motif of the border crossing--the physical movement from one land to another--underscores this idea. All the Pretty Horses, from what I remember of it, is not half as cerebral as this novel.
Needless to say, if you are not interested in negotiating realms of perception, this novel might not be for you.

For all of its abstract ideas, though, The Crossing also tells an interesting story. Billy Parham's three "crossings" into Mexico cover much of the same terrain (physically and psychologically), yet each time he learns something new about himself and the world in which he lives. Over the course of the book, Billy's initial idealism is tried and tested and eventually worn down by failures, disappointments, and tragedies.
Again, if failure, disappointment, and tragedy are not your thing--skip this one.
Ultimately, I think that I liked The Crossing more than All the Pretty Horses. I also think that I liked it better than Blood Meridian, if only because it was not drenched in as much senseless blood and gore. The Crossing is a thoughtful novel about the tragedies and disappointments of youth, but it does not approach that subject with sentimentality. If grim novels about the loss of youthful idealism are your thing, give it a try--I mean, it only took me about six months to read.

Friday, January 16, 2009

HBO's John Adams: Balancing History and Drama

Had David McCullough never written his best-selling (and Pulitzer Prize winning) biography of John Adams, it is unlikely that HBO Films--or any motion picture studio, for that matter--would have thought of making a biopic about a founder father who enjoys neither the popularity of Thomas Jefferson nor the name recognition of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Indeed, thanks to McCullough, Adam's life and political career (and reputation) have been salvaged from the dust of history, packaged and delivered--in the best-selling form of popular narrative history--for the rabble masses that Adams often mistrusted. McCullough, therefore, also deserves further credit for HBO's recent mini-series on Adams, which is based on McCullough's book and also brings the founder's important and often over-looked legacy into the homes of those who were too lazy to read the book.

Admittedly, I am one of those who fall into the latter category. While I have owned the book since 2003, I was only able to read about 125 pages of it before I became distracted with another book (which tends to happen  a lot to me, since I try to read three or four books at a time). Still, my interest in finishing John Adams has never really diminished, and now, having watched all seven episodes of the HBO series, I have more of an interest in finishing it than ever.

HBO's John Adams, is a dramatic retelling of the United States of America's first 50 years. Adams, of course, is at the center of the action, along with Abigail Adams and the rest of the Adams family; Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and Hamilton are very much secondary characters. Each episode of the series stands on its own; unlike other mini-series, no one episode leads smoothly into the next. Often, a lot of history is sacrificed on the altar of dramatic necessity--which is to be expected when 50 years of history is condensed into nine hours of film. Fortunately, the filmmakers did a fairly good job in making a project of this scope work. John Adams could have easily been fourteen episodes long, but that would have been a lot to ask from an audience. Overall, John Adams is a nice compromise.

The strength of this mini-series is its characterizations of the founders. Adams is a complex figure who has as many obvious flaws as he has extraordinary talents. The series makes much of his vanity and compulsive tactlessness, as well as his devotion to those whom he considered to be his best friends, namely Abigail and Jefferson. Also, it spends significant time on his struggle with parenthood (some of the best-acted scenes in the series, in fact, involve his role as a parent). Its characterizations of Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington are also excellent and do much to make them not appear like the marble statues they have become in our historical memory. Only Alexander Hamilton, who comes closest to being the "bad guy" of the series, comes across as being a little one-dimensional.

John Adams does have some shortcomings. Occasionally, the series depicts a historical event that, while action-packed, does little to advance the general story line. Adam's participation in an amputation during his first crossing of the Atlantic, for example, makes for an interesting scene--but little else. Personally, I wish the series gave more attention to politics than pageantry; the episode involving the Continental Congress, for example, seems incomplete, as does the episode involving Washington's presidency. That said, no episode entirely disappoints.

The tag-line for the series is "He United the States of America." At first, I thought this was a pretty clever piece of movie studio hyperbole. Now, however, having learned more about Adams and his contributions to America's founding, I think the line is appropriate. Adams, however vain and obnoxious he may have been, believed in doing what he felt was right, even if it wasn't always popular. When his contemporaries were separating into political parties, for example, or crying out for war against their European enemies, he resisted the trend and chose to follow a much more moderate path. The mini-series argues that doing so lost him the election of 1800 (and a more prominent place in popular history), yet ensured the stability of the new nation. If such was actually the case, Adams deserves all seven episodes that HBO has allotted to his life.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Study in Reading Habits: Low-Tech Advice

Five Rules I Read By:

1. Never read a history book by an author who is a journalist. Journalists aren't historians and usually do not write very good history. Journalists who are interested in history ought to take lessons from Tony Horwitz. He does not write history--he writes about it.

2. Be wary of novels by New England writers. I have nothing against New England and New Englanders, but I rarely like their novels. Since the days of Emerson and Thoreau, our friends from the Northeast have acted as if they own American literature. Usually, their novels are about self-absorbed thirty-somethings who have no grasp on life and wonder (over the course of 400 pages) why their lives persist in sucking. I recommend reading writers from anywhere south and west of New York.*

3. Avoid memoirs. Memoirs tend to consist of an overabundance of whine and cheese--if you catch my drift. I'm not usually interested in someone's alcohol problem or spiritual odyssey through Southeast Asia. I'd rather watch a Sponge Bob marathon than taint my soul with crap like Eat, Pray, Love or Reading Lolita in Tehran. If I want to read about someone's life, I'll read his or her biography (as long as he or she is dead).**

4. Remember that few novels sold at Wal-mart are worth reading. My heart grew sick the other day when I saw that Wal-mart is selling a mass-market paperback edition of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Sure, good literature seems to be reaching the masses--but what price glory?

5. Avoid novels with a happy endings. Happy endings are for Hollywood. Nothing ruins a novel like a happy ending. As one of my BYU professors put it, a novel that ends happily is a novel that ends too soon. If I hear that a novel is uplifting or inspiring, I usually do not bother with it. I get my daily doses of happiness from real life. When I want to escape the happiness of the world around me, I stick my nose in a depressing book. Catharsis does wonders for the soul.***

* Yes, I know neither Emerson nor Thoreau were novelists. And I know that Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island.
**I once read an excerpt of Eat, Pray, Love and nearly lost both of my eyes when they rolled too far back in my head. I actually don't know much about Reading Lolita--and what I do know about it doesn't interest me. I have read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, which is an example of memoir at its worst. I wouldn't line a hamster cage with that book. Educator Mike Rose has a lot of good things to say about education in America, but his memoir Lives of the Boundary spends far too much time on his often-irrelevant life experiences.
***Not all happy endings are bad. An ambiguous ending has saved many an overly happy ending.