Saturday, December 12, 2015

Gulliver's Travels

I am not a big movie fan, but a few years ago, the comedy actor Jack Black did a movie based on the classic novel Gulliver’s Travels.  I don’t much care for movies, so I know even less about actors.  What I did know was that Jack Black made a movie about being a Mexican professional wrestler.  It looked massively dumb, and I never saw it.  Black’s modernized take on the classic novel didn’t look much better, and I avoided it, too.  I hadn’t ever read the book, but, as everyone knows, the book is better than the movie.

Book cover. Gulliver’s Travels (ISBN: 0-14-143949-1) by Jonathan Swift is an interesting novel that was originally published as political satire.  Now far removed from the contentious political scene of XVIII-century Great Britain, it has withstood the test of time and continues to be popular.  This is mostly thanks to the first part of the book, where the book’s hero, Lemuel Gulliver, visits Lilliput, home to a humanoid race only inches tall.  Gulliver has a number of adventures in this part of the world, including participating in a battle and putting out fires, which saves the island’s royalty.  He also ends up being trapped in some distant land where the inhabitants are giants, which also provides for some adventure, but mostly being carried around in a box by a girl.  Gulliver’s third voyage features a few different islands and a people who have figured out how to live on a machine that perpetually floats in the sky, landing only if the inhabitants are trying to crush the people on the ground below.  Finally, Gulliver finds himself in a land where the ruling inhabitants are horses.  The most inferior race in this quarter of the world are essentially humans, but in a wild and feral form.  In each place, Gulliver is exposed to differing methods of government and people.  He seems to learn from each, although always very patriotic when it comes to his homeland.  Finally, after his visit to the land of the horse beings, he is disgusted with mankind, claiming it to not think and to be disgusting and wild in nature.

I, like most modern readers, did not get much of the political satire in the book.  I would probably agree with many others that the Lilliput episode was the highlight as far as adventures went.  The other sections were significantly drier, although they still had their interesting points.  I noticed that by the end, although likely starting in the third episode, I was more attuned to the commentary on the behavior of people.  One of the points that Swift made multiple times in the book is that people spend a lot of time in conflict with one another because we choose to magnify little differences.  He also thought people succumb to thinking the grass is always greener on the other side, especially when it comes to the pursuit of scientific and technological advancement.  Finally, Swift, as I read him, was a big proponent of honesty.  If people would be honest in their dealings and in what they say, the likelihood of our never-ending conflicts decreases to a large degree.  The combination of the story of travel and adventure with commentary was interesting, although I think it tended to detract from the book a little, making it too slow in places.  I thought it was a decent book, but probably not one that I would pick up and read again just for the fun of it.

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Monday, December 07, 2015

Rise and Fall

Yugoslavia did not play a large role in my life until I came to Sarajevo for work.  I was too young, really, for the 1984 Olympics to mean anything.  I vaguely remember the old, small, black-and-white television showing ice skating competitions from the games.  Later, I learned that Yugoslavia was part of the Communist bloc.  Beyond that, I knew nothing of it and heard nothing of it until the 1990s, when it all, quite literally, blew up.  War, ethnic cleansing, and genocide are probably not what the peoples of this Balkan region wanted to have help them get on the map, so to speak, but it did.  There has been no shooting here for twenty years, but when people learn that I am working in Sarajevo, 90% of the time, they ask about the war and if that makes it a problem to live, work, and play in Sarajevo.  The effects, of course, do, but the war, of course, does not.

Book cover.Rise and Fall by Milovan Djilas (ISBN: 0-15-177572-9) provides one man’s (Djilas (Đilas) himself) view of the Communist rise to power in Yugoslavia.  Since he was one of Tito’s closest aides and advisors, he provides an inside perspective that is largely unrivaled.  He also chronicles what he considers the falling away of the Yugoslav Communists from their revolutionary ideals.  As he comes to realize that Communism, as implemented in Yugoslavia, isn’t what was promised, he becomes disillusioned with it, enough so that he published material critical of Tito and the Communists, leading to nine years as a political prisoner.  Djilas covers a lot of ground in a little over 400 pages.  He gives a short account of the wartime Communists, but mostly focuses on life under Tito after the war.  He talks about foreign relations, internal politics, bizarre Communist Party perks like special stores for the elite party members, the cult of personality surrounding Tito, and the oppressive nature of a totalitarian or dictatorial political system.  Interestingly, Djilas’s falling out was not with Communism; it was with what Communism had developed into in Yugoslavia.  The reader even gets a small glimpse into Djilas’s personal life as he discusses his marriages.  Finally, the totalitarian oppression claims the once high-ranking government official and he spends almost a decade as a prisoner because of his ideas, not necessarily even that radical.

If one wants to study Yugoslav history at all, this is likely not the appropriate place to start.  Djilas made his name in the West because he was considered a dissident in a system that the West saw as inherently evil (rightly so) even though he was not proposing anything radical and certainly not a departure from Communism.  While that contributes to my thinking that Djilas was not the best person to take up as any kind of symbol or hero of the opposition in Yugoslavia, that is what happened, and this book is one of the results.  It assumes a certain level of familiarity with the history of Yugoslavia, which, if one lacks, results in a rather dry read in places.  On the other hand, the intimate insider view of things is appreciated and unique.  I found his discussion of Yugoslavia’s short-lived falling out with Russia fascinating.  Many modern Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians paint Yugoslavia as different from many of the other Eastern bloc countries for a few different reasons.  One of those reasons, they proudly proclaim, is that they weren’t just a puppet state of the U.S.S.R., like the Warsaw Pact nations.  Reading Djilas’s take, Yugoslavia towed the line set by Moscow as much as it could, so things really weren’t that different.  Those types of insights made for an interesting read.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2015

To the Rescue

I have always looked up to Church leaders as good examples, and the prophets in particular.  Since President Kimball died when I was only 5 years old, I only vaguely remember him.  I remember President Benson better, in large part because of his lifelong commitment to Scouting, and he was the prophet while I was heavily involved in Scouts.  I remember President Hunter mostly because the Bountiful Temple was dedicated while he was the prophet, and I participated in that temple’s open house and dedication.  President Hinckley is probably the first prophet I remember because of the things he taught.  He is also the first one that I looked to as a role model.  He was a very positive person and chose to see the bright side of life, no matter the situation.  Before President Monson was even the president of the Church, I saw him as a role model.  His many stories, most of them based on his personal experiences, showed that he had developed many of the character traits that truly good people possess.  Over and over again, I found myself listening and thinking that I should, somehow, implement what he was talking about in my own life.

Book cover image.To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson by Heidi S. Swinton (ISBN: 978-1-60641-898-7) chronicles the amazing life of service that President Monson has led from an early age through the present day.  The timeline for the biography is straight forward, starting with his early childhood and ending with his time as the leader of the Church.  He learned from parents and family around him in what was, at the time, a typical childhood.  It follows him through high school, a mission, early marriage, employment, and a variety of Church callings.  Along the way, there are many familiar stories, but there are sometimes some additional details that weren’t always part of the many sermons President Monson has given.  There were also some additional stories.  It was interesting to read about President Monson’s family a little bit and about his professional experienes.  There was a lot of time spent on President Monson’s service as an apostle in what was then East Germany.  The Church history aspect was interesting, as it was with some of the other episodes from his life, but they often seemed more like pioneer stories because of the great faith shown and the hardships endured.  What was consistent no matter what part of his life was being discussed was the dedication he showed to serving others, whether that be in his family or those around him.  President Monson was never too busy to help someone out, talk to them, visit them, give them a blessing, or share time and possessions with them.  It becomes abundantly clear as the life of this man is chronicled that he understands very well that Heavenly Father is serious when He says that the worth of souls is great in His sight.  President Monson has cultivated that genuine love and concern that is a trait of our divine Father and made it a part of his own personality. 

I never really doubted I would find the book interesting, but I think that I underestimated the power behind the stories.  There is sense of warmth and comfort in the stories from home, whether they be from his childhood or when he was a father.  The stories of service, love, and compassion are often familiar, but never dull.  In fact, they’re just the opposite.  They are inspiring and teach true principles.  I don’t necesssarily remember the details of who, when, or how, but a desire to be more in tune with the Spirit and more ready to help others is clearly left in your mind and heart after reading even a few pages.  Really, you can’t ask much more out of a book.  Thomas S. Monson has led and continues to lead an extraordinary life of service.  It is one worthy of emulation and one about which reading is well worth one’s time.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Surviving Hitler

World War II has always been fascinating to me.  As a kid, it was simply the aircraft and other military hardware that intrigued me.  Outside of the big bombers, I especially found half-tracks to be interesting.  Another thing that is interesting about World War II is that the Axis and Allies alliances were clear and were fighting for a clear right and wrong.  It makes it easy to read about the bold heroes that risked their lives, often losing them, fighting for what was right.  The resistance fighters, brave soldiers, everyday people joining the underground, and those who had the physical and mental stamina to survive the truly horrid death camps were heroes to be admired.  Their steadfastness in selflessly choosing the right is to be copied.  I have no question of that today, but sensed it even as a young child.

Book cover.Surviving Hitler: The Unlikely True Story of an SS Soldier and a Jewish Woman by O. Håkan Palm (ISBN: 978-1-60907-847-8) tells the story of two of the everyday people that made it through the horrors of war.  A memoir- or journal-style narrative takes the reader through the lives of the young woman, Agnes Erdös, a Hungarian ethnic Jew, and Gustav Palm, a Norwegian, as World War II placed its heavy imprint on their lives.  The Germans invaded Norway and Gustav joined the German army.  He was a good soldier who had luck on his side a couple times.  Agnes was raised in a well-to-do family, but as Hungary fell to the occupying forces, her life abruptly changed, and she ended up as one of the many in the Nazi concentration camps.  Sheer determination, coupled with a strength fortified by faith in God, got her through that most awful experience.  Through a series of events, both of them found themselves in Scandinavia after the war, trying to put their lives back together.  They met each other, fell in love, and were married.  Part of the healing process was a search for ultimate truth, and they found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  There are some reminiscences from the author, the couple’s son that makes it seem that the healing process was a slow and often painful one, but these good people, who had endured much, forged on, helping others throughout the rest of their lives, ultimately conquering the scars of war.

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read, which is probably a little more of an endorsement than I thought I would be giving when I first opened it.  The reason I didn’t think I’d like it when I started is because of the journal-like format where you read a chapter from one person’s point of view, then a chapter from the others, and then back again.  It makes it seem a bit fluffier and not the kind of solid history book I would normally want to read.  I found it an interesting story, though, and maybe a first-hand account isn’t so bad since more thorough and scholarly histories have already been written.  This gives a unique voice to one of the many different aspects of the terrible war.  Notwithstanding my enjoyment of the book, I still think the title is a little sensationalist.  Gustav, the SS soldier in the story, was not a German Nazi bent on the extermination of the Jews or some other hateful ideology.  He was a young man who made what turned out to be an ill-fated decision.  At the time, he made the best decision he could based on what he knew.  It just so happened that he fought for the Germans.  In some notes to the book, someone explained that President Thomas S. Monson had met the couple and encouraged them to turn their story into a book.  I am not sure what he saw in the story, but my guess is that it was something similar to me — a story that makes the power of the atonement and the miracle of forgiveness that much more real.  For a different look at the war and bit of a human interest angle, the book is an interesting and quick read.

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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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