Sunday, September 20, 2015

It Is about Islam

Ever since September 11th, 2001, Islam has been a big part of what America thinks about.  As with most things in modern American culture, the general American has been content to let a few blabbermouths on his favorite 24-hour news channel serve as his source of information regarding a religion that claims nearly 1.6 billion adherents.  I am not fully free from this sin.  Having lived for some time in Bosnia & Herzegovina and having spent a couple months in Azerbaijan, I like to think I’m not as clueless as the next guy.  What I do know tells me that there are certain people who believe that Islam teaches them to do horrible and disgusting things to people.  I see that line of thought as a threat to America, to the West, and to liberty in general.  Overall, the religion, schools of thought based on the religion, and the culture, like all things foreign, are intriguing, especially since they have a real influence on the world today, and I enjoy the chance to take in something new that touches on many areas of interest at once.

In It Is about Islam (ISBN: 978-1-5011-2612-3) by Glenn Beck, part of Beck’s “Control” series (although I’m not entirely sure because it doesn’t fit the government overstep discussion that is so central to the other two books in the series), the reader is given a crash course in Islam, then typical media and government lies about Islamic extremism (Beck uses the word “Islamism” for this) are discusses and exposed, and then Beck gives a couple basic suggestions on how to move forward.  Based on my own understanding, the background information was solid.  I was intrigued to learn about the contact early Americans had with Islam and the process they went through to properly educate themselves about it.  The “Lies” section was good.  It was likely easy for the research team to gather the material.  There was no need to go into statistics or anything like that.  Simply gathering material from the Koran, the Hadith, and the words of the extremists themselves, did it and showed just how the extremists come up with what they believe.  Finally, there were a couple suggestions on how people should arm themselves with real information and not be willing to be stuck with what the media and politicians try to feed the American public.

I really wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this book.  I know a lot of Muslims, largely because I have spent (at the time of this writing) nearly two years in a country that has a majority Muslim population (~51%, but still a majority).  Bosnia & Herzegovina, though, is famous for being a Muslim lite country, although that has changed a bit since ISIL came on the scene.  I know that the nuts believe they are carrying out the will of God according to the Koran.  I also know some really solid people who are Muslims and don’t live anything like the extremists.  In the end, I ended up agreeing with Beck’s argument that while there are many Muslims that don’t agree with the extremists, it doesn’t really matter because we’re not worried about them; we’re worried about the extremists because they themselves believe they’re engaged in a holy war and that they themselves are carrying out God’s will according to the Koran.  It doesn’t matter what regular Americans think or what elites think or what non-extremist Muslims think.  What matters is what the extremists think, and it would behoove us to call it what it is so we can actually move forward against what is a real threat.  I was probably most disappointed by the section at the end of the book because it lacked any real, concrete suggestions.  The other book in the series have, but this was a bit fuzzier and just asked readers to be educated (one thing I hope to do is read the Koran even though Beck quoted from the Saudi-approved English translation).  I agree that’s important, but in our very literal world today, I think that most people need to be given the step-by-step guide.  My advice would be to not swallow the lines the politicians are always giving us along with doubting just about anything one hears in the media.  Once one figures out the real story, wield the truth and demand justice and common sense by getting vocally and actively involved in local politics.  The book gives the example of some city in Texas having a local sharia court.  If more people who believed in the Constitution stood up, that wouldn’t be happening.

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Thursday, August 20, 2015

American Sniper

I am pretty old.  I don’t always feel it, but I am.  There are a couple ways I can tell this.  First, in high school and college, I played a lot of basketball and volleyball.  The first year home from my mission I played a lot of basketball.  I remember playing for hours on end on the courts at BYU’s now-demolished Deseret Towers.  I could do that every day.  Nowadays, on the rare occasion that I even get to play decent basketball, my skills have atrophied and I feel the effects of a couple hours of running around when I wake up the next day.  Second, I remember sometimes running around the neighborhood with friends carrying plastic machine guns.  We were often policemen or soldiers as we stole around a corner or pushed or way through low-growing brush in an empty lot.  Nowadays, guns kill people, not the person pulling the trigger, and helicopter parents everywhere try to keep their kids from touching anything even remotely gun-like.  My current, mundane desk job is a far cry from the excitement imagined as a kid on the NBA hardwoods or as an elite soldier racing down a zip line suspended from a helicopter in enemy territory, but sometimes it’s interesting to re-visit those day dreams.

Book cover image.American Sniper by Chris Kyle (ISBN: 978-0-06-223886-3) is a book that does just that.  It also visits, in a very personal way, the other realities of being a soldier, such as separation from friends and family, and the stress that comes from that and from always being in such high-adrenaline situations in war zones.  The book is the first-hand account of a Navy SEAL and his experiences throughout his time in the service of his country and his fellow man.  It follows him from high school to his helping form a company to train other security professionals once he got out of the military.  Most of the details in the book come during his time as a sniper in Iraq.  He explains how the American soldiers went about their business in the hostile areas where they operated.  He explains what goes through a soldier’s mind before, during, and after action.  He goes through the extremely painful process of losing a friend in battle.  The book also describes the heroic efforts of those who were seriously injured to work hard to overcome their new disabilities and make something of their lives.  Readers are let in, to a certain degree, to the psyche of the author as he describes, mostly in general terms, his philosophy on life and on some of the things he did while in the Navy.  There’s a little fun along the way, but the journey is mostly hard work, a lot of sweat, and quite a bit of blood, too.

I remember hearing about the book a couple years ago, but not being super interested at the time.  Then someone decided to make a movie.  Books are always better than movies, so I got a copy of the book.  For the most part, it was pretty gripping.  It’s pretty much all action all the time (and includes all the typical foul language of a modern soldier’s memoir).  Even the parts where Kyle tells about being at home and dealing with his wife and children have an edge to them because he was on edge and not always dealing with his struggles in the best way.  In the end, he learns a lot from what he goes through and definitely becomes a better person, especially in his family life, and that was neat to read.  The war sequences are very interesting.  They are fascinating to me because I have never experienced anything like them.  Kyle makes a simple case for his belief that what he and the rest of the U.S. military were doing was right, and that was interesting to read, too.  It really had only two points.  First, by engaging America’s enemies on their home turf, they had little to no opportunity to engage us on ours.  Second, the people America was fighting against were people who wanted to kill Americans and subject others to their will.  The soldiers felt they were protecting Americans and helping the Iraqi people be able to live according to the desires of their consciences.  It was really that simple for him.  It’s that simple for us, too, and I am thankful that men like Chris Kyle were willing to put their lives on the line for the rest of us.  It is a sad subscript to the book that Kyle was killed a few years after writing the book by a former soldier he was trying to help, using his own experiences as something to learn from, re-adjust to civilian life.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Possessed

While in college at BYU, I took a Russian literature in translation course.  We read a number of books, most of which I thought were pretty good, a few of which I didn’t much care for.  One that I thought was a good book was Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  I remembered that book to have dark, brooding, often just outright insane characters, yet it was a good read. A while back, one of my aunts was cleaning out some old junk and came across some books she read in college.  Some of them were Russian classics.  I took up her offer to become the owner of these books that cost under $1.00 back when they were published in the 1970s.

Small picture of the book cover.Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s the Possessed (often called Demons in more modern English translations), translated by Andrew MacAndrew, was one of those books.  The book is the story of a provincial town in late tsarist Russia that undergoes a short period of chaos when some sons of the town’s prominent citizens return from abroad, university studies, or time in Russia’s crown-jewel cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.  The young men come back with anarchist, atheist, and nihilist views and what seems like a role in an overarching plan to bring down the established government.  The young men play off the fears of the older members of the town’s citizenry, which aren’t really fears of government or the future, but more about their place in society and other more mundane fears.  Doing this, they wreak havoc messing with romances and balls, get involved with the town’s convicted felons, and even murder someone.  What was probably the saddest part of the novel was how after the murder, the victim’s wife and newborn son died.  All of it was caused by the anarchists working to spread their ideas and being willing to eliminate their opponents if necessary.  After the murder, the anarchists were mostly dealt with by the authorities and things fell back into their routine in the town after a shake-up in the government.  Other than the misery they caused, the atheist anarchists accomplished nothing, and that was probably Dostoyevsky’s point in writing the novel: atheism, anarchism, and nihilism are sure ways to bring about one’s destruction and the destruction of those around us.  He also noted, as another of the novel’s characters died, that a firm belief in God and Jesus Christ was a sure antidote to those negative philosophies.

As predicted, the novel had dark, brooding, misguided, and certifiably insane characters.  It was honestly kind of hard to get through at times.  It’s not the kind of book that you pick up one afternoon and finish later that evening because you just couldn’t put it down.  On the other hand, it’s very well written, and easy to follow the story, if not always the philosophy of some of the characters, which is probably just because the ideas of nihilism and anarchy are such fringe ideas in our current society.  By the end of the book, even with all of the death and destruction that many people consider to be hallmarks of Russian literature, I was a fan.  It showed very clearly the depths to which the philosophies of nihilism, atheism, and anarchism can lead people.  They lead to destruction on a personal and societal level.  They lead to spiritual and physical destruction.  While Dostoyevsky didn’t focus on the Christian message very much, he made the point clearly that to redeem oneself and to redeem the human condition, one must accept God and live by the standards that acceptance demands.  That is a message worth reading any time.

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Sunday, April 05, 2015

Spy Dust

The world of spies, probably because it’s so shrouded in mystery, has always been intriguing.  I think this holds true for most people, as evidenced by the abundance of books advertising themselves as historically accurate as well as the standard fiction.  Both genres have seen success as movies.  My interest in spies typically does not dwell in the world of fiction, but in the realm of history and current events, although I did read and mostly enjoy the original Bourne trilogy.  World War II and the Cold War have always interested me, and that is also true as far as spying goes.  I actually heard about the book Spy Dust a few years ago, but never read it, thinking the title was maybe just a little bit too outlandish to really be about something that was real.  (It turns out that it really is a real thing and something not just used by intelligence services, but police departments, too.)

Book cover.In Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations That Helped Win the Cold War (ISBN: 978-0-7434-2853-8) by Antonio and Jonna Mendez with Bruce Henderson, spy dust itself plays a rather minor role.  The two authors and their craft, disguises, get the majority of the attention.  The story follows both authors in their CIA careers a few years before they came to know about spy dust through an operation that saw them defeat the theretofore undefeated powder.  Antonio was a master of disguise with years and years of experience; Jonna more of an extremely talented up-and-coming star in the CIA.  The book focuses on their teamwork to exfiltrate someone they claim was a well-connected and high-placed Soviet spying for the U.S.  The operation included a handful of Americans and the Russian and his family.  They used all their disguise know-how, which includes a lot of things that aren’t so much about disguises, but simply about how one ports oneself and how people are not able to notice every little thing if what one is doing mostly follows the normal routine.  The daring operation defeated the Russians’ spy dust and got everyone out of the country safely.

In general, I enjoyed the book.  I thought the main story as well as a couple of the smaller operations discussed in the build-up to the one that gave the book its title were very interesting.  When they finally got to telling about that final operation, it was actually pretty exciting reading, and I think I whipped through it pretty quickly with great anticipation, even though it’s obvious the book wouldn’t have been written had the operation gone south.  My big complaint with the book was that it was slow in some parts.  This is especially true when it comes to discussions of the romantic relationship between the two authors, who eventually married.  They talk about it having an impact on their work, but that still seemed to me to be a minor detail and not something that needed to take up scores of pages.  Maybe shorter books don’t sell?  I personally thought the big operation in Moscow could’ve handled a little more detail, and with the discussion of the authors’ personal lives left out, the book would’ve really been cool.  It was an interesting look at one small but important piece of the Cold War, but probably could’ve more than just interesting.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

War and Peace

An extraordinary strength of vitality — the strength
which in that vast space amid the snows maintained
the life of this original, peculiar and unique people.

— Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), War and Peace

My first exposure to War and Peace came as a young boy when I saw a ridiculously fat book sitting on a counter at one of my grandparents’ houses.  I was intrigued enough to crack it open, but the endless pages of small print about Napoleon and the Russians meant absolutely nothing to me.  Still, I was fascinated by the idea that someone would sit down and read a book over 1,000 pages.  After returning from my mission to St. Petersburg, Russia, I ended up deciding to double major while at BYU, and Russian was the major I added.  One of our classes was a survey of Russian literature (in translation).  We read a number of books during the one-semester class (the reading assignments were killer), but I gained a larger appreciation for some of the Russian classics.  That class probably inspired me, in general, to seek out more classical literature in addition to the history and politics books that I typically enjoy.  At some point, I knew I’d tackle that ridiculously fat book from my childhood.

Book cover.War and Peace (ISBN: 978-0-19-953605-4) by Leo Tolstoy (Louise and Aylmer Maude translation) is arguably what we would call historical fiction today.  The only difference is that it was written soon after the events it depicts and likely had some direct impact of one sort or another on its author.  He definitely paints his version of the events surrounding Napoleon’s campaigns.  There is a lot of Tolstoy’s philosophy woven into the story, but essentially, the story follows a few main characters through their youth and into adulthood as they embark upon their careers and family life.  Tolstoy’s characters are varied and present all kinds of different people with all sorts of different character traits.  The reader also gets to become acquainted with the characters in all kinds of situations, which lets one see the best and the worst of the characters.  There are hundreds of members of the supporting cast, some playing a more important role than others.  With so many people in the book, it’s probably a legitimately arguable point just who the main characters are, but I think it was Pierre and Natasha, the two that one sees from beginning to end in the book.  Natasha, young, beautiful, and fun-loving, is the object of just about every young man’s fancy.  She falls in love, spurns her fiancĂ© for the temporary affection of a married man and known womanizer, later repents of that mistake, but must suffer when, seemingly through chance, her original fiancĂ©, wounded severely in the war, is evacuated from burning Moscow along with her family and dies as they make the trek.  Pierre as a young man is short-sighted, rash, and searching for something more in life than the dissipated life he leads drinking, playing cards, and chasing women.  Throughout the book, one sees him struggle to figure out what life is about.  He tries Masonry, civil service, an ill-advised marriage, and philanthropy.  None of them really do it for him.  When captured by the French while observing the battles near Moscow, he meets a peasant soldier from whom he learns a lot about the meaning of life.  After Napoleon’s retreat, the changed Pierre is re-acquainted with Natasha, and eventually they go on to form a happy family.

Many Russians with whom I have discussed literature have told me that if one enjoys Dostoevsky, one will likely not enjoy Tolstoy.  I had previously found this to be true, as I thought Crime and Punishment was a great book, but found Anna Karenina to be excruciatingly painful to read (it can be summed up like this: some rich woman has an affair and then kills herself).  I, therefore, approached War and Peace with some trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised.  Others may, of course, get something different out of the book, but I found Pierre’s change from a going-nowhere youth to a respectable family man with an overwhelmingly positive attitude on life that rubbed off on others to be a great message, especially since it coincided with him coming to terms with his belief in God.  I was intrigued by the thoroughly pro-Russian view presented by Tolstoy throughout the book, especially as it concerned the war years.  He was quite dismissive of foreign leaders, both civilian and military, although — somewhat surprisingly — the Russian tsar didn’t really escape his scorn, either.  Tolstoy presented the great Russian general Kutuzov as a fallible man and even soft in his old age, but also one who was above the fray, which I found to be a quality worthy of emulation.  Some of Tolstoy’s discussion of fate versus agency was difficult to follow philosophically, and even given a little time to digest it, I’m not one hundred percent sure I completely understand what he was trying to say.  What I got out of it, though, was the part of the book I liked least.  Tolstoy argued that fate or pre-destination determines the way our lives play out.  He claims that we need the illusion of free will or agency to function, but that we really play little to no role in how it all works out in the end.  He argues that in a given moment, it seems like we are making choices, but when you step back from the moment and see the whole timeline laid out before you, it becomes apparent that it was, in reality, impossible to make any different choice.  That is, of course, the exact opposite of what I believe, and what is taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which agency is central to all that happens to us.  The choices we make have a direct effect on what happens to us as everything has consequences, good or bad.  So, the story was enjoyable, the Russophile viewpoint was interesting, although Tolstoy may dispute that he was presenting that outlook, and the philosophy was difficult and disagreeable.  Overall, War and Peace was a worthy read.

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

Conform: Exposing the Truth about Common Core and Public Education

I had a very mixed experience as far as school is concerned.  I experienced both home school and public school.  While much more common now than when I did it, I continued a somewhat unorthodox path through college, attending a private, religious school and doing things like testing out of classes and taking independent study classes.  Eventually I got a master’s degree online.  The odyssey started in third grade, when my mom took me out of public school because she thought there was only one teacher at the school that could properly help me.  I was an advanced student for my age and prone to misbehavior when bored.  After a couple years at home, I asked my parents to send me back since that’s where my friends were.  At the end of that year, I was more than happy to be back at home for sixth grade.  Junior high, which scars many a person for life, tried hard with me, too, especially since we moved between my seventh- and eighth-grade years.  In high school I had a steady diet of AP classes mixed with various gym classes.  I considered early college for my senior year, but had a couple good friends at school, so decided to stick it out.  The benefits were skipping class to play basketball and running on the track team, where lots of girls practiced in nothing but short shorts and sports bras.  Academics were beside the point, and I breezed through even my AP classes.  The point, of course, is that throughout my schooling, the standard one-size-fits-all approach did not serve me well.

Book cover.In Conform: Exposing the Truth about Common Core and Public Education by Glenn Beck, Kyle Olson, and Kevin Balfe (ISBN: 978-1-4767-7388-9), the authors attack the federal government- and union-led approach to education in America.  The first half of the book is dedicated to debunking the typical arguments one hears about why public schools are the only way to go.  They also focus on the idea that the government should control schools, curricula, and even what students eat.  They present argument after argument showing that centrally-controlled education fails the vast majority of students outside the average and even a good many who are average.  They show that the current system encourages mediocrity, whether that be in students, teachers, or the school systems themselves.  Education policy is controlled by bureaucrats far removed from the process, unions who, despite what they say, care more about collecting money for their bosses than what teachers or students need, and administrators, legislators, teachers, and union officials who have an agenda to push.  The second part of the book talks about what us normal people can do to change.  We don’t have to conform to the system, the authors argue, but if we want to control our own or our kids’ education, we have to be involved in bringing about the change we want to see.  We have to participate in school boards, in meetings, on curriculum committees, and in elections, as voters, candidates, and campaign workers or volunteers.  They cite examples of places real change has taken place and note that more can happen should we choose to make it happen.

The book is a follow-on to Beck’s book about gun control and written in exactly the same manner and style.  This book does not live up to its predecessor.  I found the arguments to be weaker and not as convincing, although they were still all true.  The school question is a big one, and they touch on many different aspects.  I think the writing was a little scattered in places and could’ve used some focus.  I enjoyed the suggestions at the end of the book.  It is Beck’s style to encourage participation and responsibility instead of just complaining about a problem.  While he prophesies a lot of doom and gloom on his shows, I think his overall message is one of optimism, but only if we choose to get involved in the processes around us that affect our lives.  If we’re not involved, they’ll pass us by and we’ll really only get the messed up society we deserve.  The voice of the people usually gets it right, but all the people have to make their voices heard.  I like that message.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Assisted: An Autobiography

As a kid, I was pop culture-challenged.  Who am I kidding here?  I still am.  That even extended into the sports world, and when my neighborhood friends and I would get together to play some basketball in our back yard or in a nearby driveway, it usually involved picking a team to be.  If the Jazz weren’t available by the time it was my turn to play, I was at a loss.  The Jazz were, to a certain extent, the limit of my knowledge of the NBA when I was a really young kid.  As I got older, though, they continued to be the true focus of my knowledge of the NBA.  I just wasn’t (and am not) interested in other teams, nor do I have the time to get into other teams or players.  I care about the Utah Jazz.  It was easy to become a Jazz fan with guys like Karl Malone, John Stockton, and Mark Eaton on the team.  They were all blue-collar guys, and it showed in the way they played.  I never wavered in my love for the Jazz, but I don’t hesitate at all to say that it has dropped off since Stockton and Malone are no longer playing.  They were special.  Stockton was also alluring as a role model, both on and off the court.  He was intensely private, but I always felt that he was not really hiding anything, and the even-keeled guy that “never dogged a play in [his] life” was the same guy we would see were we to see him off the court.

Book cover.Assisted: An Autobiography (ISBN: 978-1-60907-570-5) by John Stockton, if nothing else, proved me right in my assumption.  Memoir might be a better description of the book, but those arguments about semantics take nothing away from a rather thorough look at Stockton’s life as a little kid roaming the neighborhood with his friends on long summer days to his time as an NBA star and through his post-retirement activities.  He told about his upbringing, his childhood, his high school days, his experiences in college, including various summer jobs, basketball, and dating.  He talked about making it in the NBA, being a rookie, changes in the game, some of former Jazz owner Larry Miller’s quirks, and a host of other things that fans and disinterested parties alike might find interesting.  He talked about his family, and his parents and wife in particular.  He discussed a couple of his coaches, including Jerry Sloan, an NBA great and another hard-nosed, down-to-earth, blue-collar guy.  Stockton’s discussion of the Olympics was fascinating because he was very open about his love for his country and the great responsibility he felt putting U.S.A. on his chest.  He discussed his life after basketball, except that it hasn’t really been life after basketball as some of his kids of played at a very high level, he’s restored a warehouse and turned it into a community sports center, and he’s still involved in the occasional pickup game.  Finally, as part of the proving my assumptions true, his tale is woven throughout with references to family, God, prayer, hard work, and other old-fashioned values.

I wanted to read this book the moment I saw it existed.  Everyone knew John Stockton the leading assist man in the history of the world, but many felt they did’t know John Stockton the person.  Like I said, I figured he was kind of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person, but I was intrigued to read nevertheless.  The book was a draft of fresh air with each turn of a page.  Stockton comes across as down-to-earth, brutally honest about some of the mistakes he’s made and shortcomings he’s got, and, in a way, an everyday guy that other everyday guys can identify with.  Former Jazz coach Frank Layden, in a statement to the press when the Jazz drafted the unknown John Stockton, explained that he was Catholic and his dad owned a bar, so there really shouldn’t be any questions about him.  Stockton didn’t think that would go over in Utah, largely Mormon and largely dry.  I think he might’ve missed the point about those two characteristics equating to a person that was a good guy and that knew about old-fashioned work ethic.  Stockton proved to be that guy and probably more.  In a world fraught with vice like the NBA, Stockton was different and stepped up to the plate when it came to responsibility of being a role model that is inherent to the position.  His thoughts on other issues, like abortion and family, were also very refreshing coming from a public figure.  The book was well worth the time spend reading it and only solidified my respect for the greatest point guard ever to play the game.

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