Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Boys in the Boat

I’ve been a bit of an Olympics junkie, as it were, for really as long as I can clearly remember the Olympics.  It was probably the summer games in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, that really got me started.  It helped that I was somewhat incapacitated during a significant period of those games by a nasty injury to my knee after deciding that a car ramp would make a real fine bike jump.  It didn ’t, and when the sidewalk and my joints met, my skin disintegrated.  The resultant scab made it difficult to bend my knee, so I sat, luge-style, in the recliner in the living room and watched hours upon hours of Olympics.  I was a fan only a few hours in.  The pageantry was attractive, the glamor was fascinating, but the athletes striving for excellence, along with a little nationalism, is what really intrigued me.  I’ve always enjoyed participating in sports, in large part because of the drive for excellence that they embody and teach.

Book cover.The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans ad Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (ISBN: 978-1-101-62274-2) by Daniel James Brown tells a story in which sports and life worked together to teach just such lessons as young men who made up some of the Greatest Generation strove for excellence in their athletic endeavors and in life, garnering a gold medal along the way.  The story follows the life of Joe Rantz the closest, but the reader also gets fairly well acquainted with his rowing teammates, some of his family, his girlfriend, and his coaches along the way.  They all were the kind of people that made America great — hard workers who were responsible and self-reliant, expecting nothing from others but the best from themselves.  Rantz had an interesting childhood in which his mother died, he spent some time living in a mining camp, his step-mother was the stuff of fairy tales, brutally controlling toward his dad and eventually kicking Rantz out of the house when he was still a young teenager.  Joe fended for himself, living in the house the rest of his family abandoned, working his way through high school and college.  It bordered, in a way, on a tale of survival during his early years.  In college, he tried out for and made the rowing team, showing immense potential as a freshman.  Hard work over the next three years eventually landed him and his teammates in the Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where Hitler was in his heyday.  Rantz and his fellow oarsman from Washington had overcome a lot throughout their lives, many from similar backgrounds to Joe’s, to make it to the Olympics in a sport historically dominated by elites and other from the moneyed class.  In Berlin, they overcame more challenges and the home team to capture gold literally right from underneath Hitler’s nose.

Like most history books, the outcome was never in doubt, yet the book was an engrossing read.  The title describes the quest for gold as epic, but it was, in reality, a small subtext to the story.  The characters themselves were epic.  Joe’s story is unbelievable and beyond worthy of being recorded for a wider audience (in rowing circles it was long the stuff of legend).  Some of what he went through seems superhuman.  It, most definitely, is worthy of emulation.  His willingness to work hard was inspiring throughout the story.  He showed that, if one’s willing to put in the work, there is no situation that cannot be improved upon.  Growing up in mining camps and working at logging jobs in high school without any parents around could’ve served as excuses to not succeed in life, but they didn’t.  Neither did the Great Depression.  Neither did any number of other difficulties that presented themselves in Joe’s life.  There were similar stories all around him.  This made digging deep while competing the nation’s and then the world’s most competitive races that much easier.  The level of hard work, commitment, and self-reliance, along with a large amount of common sense, decency, patriotism, and loyalty are a rare combination these days, but were par for the course coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II.  There was an even greater reserve in these special rowers, one that we would be wise to emulate and that made the book, refreshing in its lack of vulgarities, an excellent read.

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Monday, September 25, 2017

The Oligarchs

This was a critical decision for the insurgent democrats — they decided
to go local and make Moscow, not the national government, an engine for real change.

When I arrived in Russia as a young missionary, my first month was full of the other, more experienced missionaries telling me of the infamous ruble crash of 1998.  I honestly couldn’t fathom what it meant.  By summer of 1999, things seemed somewhat stable to a 19-year-old missionary from Utah who had never traveled outside the United States before.  I remember that the first time I heard about the crash was as I looked out over a sea of high-rise apartment buildings — the Russians refer to them as “anthills” — from the balcony window of a missionary apartment, also in a high-rise building, in the Vesyoly Posyolok area of St. Petersburg.  It was sunny, warm, and a bit of a sleepy afternoon with a streetcar rumbling by down below.  I was regaled with stories of runs on ATMs, stores, and bakeries.  It all seemed so foreign and so far away.

Book cover.The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia (ISBN: 1-58648-001-4) by David E. Hoffman starts long before the ruble crash and financial crisis, telling the story of how Russia came to that point after the fall of Communism.  The story is told in a very personal way, relying heavily on the author’s many personal interviews with the major players in industry and politics, as well as his and other journalists’ first-hand experiences during the “wild ’90s” in Russia.  The book provides short biographies of the major players, household names in Russia and sometimes beyond well into the early 2000s: Aleksandr Smolensky, Yuri Luzhkov, Anatoly Chubais, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Boris Berezovsky, and Vladimir Gusinsky.  The book chronicles these men’s rise to power.  They were entrepreneurs, opportunists, risk takers, visionaries, and criminals all rolled into one.  The book also provides a lot of information on Boris Yeltsin since the story of the oligarchs is inseparably woven into Yeltsin’s story.  From the dying throes of Communism to the dawn of Putinism, the book tracks the actions of the oligarchs and politicians they worked closely with and what the consequences were for Russia, Russians, and the West.  The oligarchs were an interesting group because of the they were at the forefront of a entrepreneurial movement that helped move the country forward, but they were wholly unprepared to play by rules foreign to them.  They cut a lot of back-room deals during Soviet times and continued using that same playbook the farther in the rear-view mirror the Soviet Union got.  To compensate for the changing financial and economic landscape, the oligarchs joined up with Yeltsin, going against he sentiment they had in the quotation above and helping him win a second term in the presidency because it kept the oligarchs in power.  A case is made for the necessity of that maneuver.  Finally, the book presents a few notes about how that move, keeping Yeltsin in power, ended up hurting the oligarchs because Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, has worked hard against them.

The book is rather old, written in 2001.  It is still relevant today, though.  It ends with a discussion of Putin and his rise to power and the early signs that his time in power was going to be different.  The book provides some warnings to the West (mega-rich bazillionaire George Soros is quoted in the book saying that some of his early investments in Russia were his worst investments ever) should Russia ever recover from Putinism and thaw like it did after the Cold War.  Hoffman spared no punches, and Western darling Khodorkovsky was shown to be a bit of a slimy rat.  (In fairness, all the other Russian oligarchs were portrayed that way, too, but Khodorkovsky seemed to be the leader of the pack.)  Khodorkovsky took it on the chin from Putin, but he was no angel and likely doesn’t deserve quite the level of adulation he gets from the Western press.  I enjoyed reading the stories from the ’90s and thinking back on the crazy Russia that I knew as a missionary and wishing it could’ve worked out a little better for Russia after the Cold War.  The oligarchs were likely a help and a hindrance.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Travels of Marco Polo

I was never a big fan of water as a kid.  I took swimming lessons a couple times and knew how to keep myself above water (more or less: treading water was always difficult for me), but I really didn’t enjoy being in the pool too much.  As a teenager and in college, I had fun playing water basketball, which was always understood to be a no-holds-barred version of water polo with a basketball hoop hanging over the water.  No matter if it was a young men’s activity or a get-together with friends (even in a co-ed setting), it was a brutal, but fun, game.  Since I was so adverse to the water as a kid, I never played the childhood pool favorite, Marco Polo, ostensibly named for the XIII-century explorer (Wikipedia claims the game is not connected, but that honestly seems a bit daft).  I never read his famous and influential book as a kid, either, but as I’ve come to be more interested in the world’s classics, I thought I’d give it a try.

Book cover.The Travels of Marco Polo translated by Ronald Latham (ISBN: 978-0-14-044057-7) is the famous and influential (Columbus was inspired by reading Polo’s account of his travels) tale of travel and adventure that is really quite ethnographic in nature.  There is no authoritative version of the book since there are over 150 extant manuscripts, and there are many significant differences.  Latham, a Polo scholar, did this translation in 1958 and worked to meld the major manuscripts together, giving the reader a very complete view of Polo’s travels.  The focus of Polo’s account is his time in the court of the Mongolian khans, but he discusses his time in what is now Turkey, Iran, Burma, China, Sumatra, India, and Arabia.  The descriptions of the people and places are often quite detailed, especially when it comes to court life.  Commoners’ lives aren’t given the same level of detail, but the major industries and agricultural pursuits of each region are listed, along with general religious customs, and usually a note or two about interesting flora, fauna, and cultural customs (for instance, sharing wives seems to have been a thing in more than one Asian culture 700 years ago).  Polo talked about the spread of Christianity.  He talked about various technologies, shipping methods, and Oriental warfare.  He always took time to describe the local take on alcohol.  He also relayed tales of the supernatural and used interesting words, like “unicorn” (argued by some scholars to mean “rhinoceros”) that renders some of the description of the travels rather hard to believe.

Although tough at times because of archaic language and downright lies in some places (i.e., men with tails or people who look like dogs or the ability of some of the natives to conjure up storms to defeat their enemies), the book is an enjoyable read and the general idea of the work is considered by most scholars to be true.  A lot of what is written in the book is true, and more of it is based on truth, leaving only the really crazy stuff to be outright lies.  It was interesting to read the accounts of ancient peoples, places, customs, and religions.  It reminded me of my time in Russia as a missionary and my first visit to the Czech Republic, both instances of my own travel where I kept a journal, often detailing the things I saw around me that were new to me.  Polo likely did the same, and it’s quite important that he and others did, since such records provided knowledge and inspiration for others.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Original Argument

Politics and history seem to have always interested me.  I’m not sure when or how that interest began.  My guess is that it has something to do with reading the newspaper as a kid.  To be honest, the comics were the main draw, back when they had two full pages and each strip was printed at a size that didn’t require a magnifying glass to read the print.  Classics like Calvin and Hobbes and the Far Side are what I cut my teeth on.  To get there, though, since they were in the C section of the Deseret News, one had to work one’s way through the national, state, and local news, including the editorial pages.  I read a lot of the stories.  I am sure that I also heard my parents discussing elections and politics.  We had this Dodge minivan as a kid, and I usually sat on the middle seat behind the driver.  Back in the day when rear seats only had a lap belt, though, I would often extend it pretty much as far as it would go so I could sit on the edge of the seat, thereby having my head right up with the front seats, where I could hear my parents’ discussions.  I learned a lot and probably said plenty of dumb things (and now think that those conversations and my parents’ willingness to let me be a fly on the wall are something I could learn from as my own kids get to those same ages).  As for history, it has really just been inherently interesting, but things like war, exploration, and rebellion capture the mind of a young boy.  It was always easy to put myself in the place of the famous patriots fighting the British or as a Union supporter and an abolitionist.  Reading the news and wanting to understand politics showed me early on how history is necessary to understanding the situations we face today.

Book cover.In The Original Argument: The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century by Glenn Beck with Joshua Charles (ISBN: 978-1-4516-5061-7), an attempt is made at making history more accessible to the modern reader.  The book is essentially a translation of the majority of the famous Federalist Papers from the archaic language of the XVIII century to more en vogue English.  It’s still very high-level stuff, but it is simplified.  A good comparison might be a King James Bible and a New English Bible.  Glenn Beck has inserted some explanatory material at the beginning of each section (the papers are not presented chronologically, but in groups based on their major theme(s)) and in an infobox-like page for each paper.  The Federalist Papers were written, mostly by Alexander Hamilton, but also by James Madison and John Jay, in an effort to support the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which provided for a stronger central (federal) government than what the Articles of Confederation had.  They are considered to be invaluable because of the insight they provide into just what the Founding Fathers thought when they wrote the Constitution. 

The book was a great read, although not something that was necessarily easy to get through.  The reader’s brain really must be fully engaged to get through the argumentation of the concepts that were so basic to America’s beginnings.  It’s really a book that one studies more than simply reads.  The commentary was interesting, but, for me, quite secondary to actual text of the papers.  I checked on a few occasions how closely what I was reading aligned with the originals, and it seemed to be good, but there is no way I can guarantee that for the entire, rather thick, book.  I thought the principles behind the Constitution were brilliantly argued.  As I read, there were a couple instances where I didn’t think I agreed, but there were plenty of those for the people in the U.S. at the time, so I am really no different.  Many of those who were in favor of the Constitution had reservations, but they recognized that it was as close as it was going to get to being perfect and did provide a solid, inspired foundation for our country.  In the vast majority of cases, I agreed with the arguments.  It was interesting to note, though, how different the Founding Fathers’ vision of government was from what we have now.  The federal government’s roles and powers were severely limited.  National-level bureaucracies like the Department of Education, the Social Security Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency were not part of the plan.  The Founders abhorred taxes.  They recognized them as a necessary evil to pay for the recognized powers of the government, but otherwise they hated taxes.  They were religious men, who recognized the hand of God in our affairs (and those few who weren’t had no problem with those who were expressing those views and living according to their consciouses, even in the public arena).  They valued the rights of local governments.  Most people at that time saw themselves as citizens of their states first and citizens of America second.  That local government was perceived, rightfully so, as more responsive to the voters, so the Founders saw that as where more governmental powers should be.  It was all written in plain English, and even though these kinds of updated-language books really just make me want to go back to the originals, I thought the book provided a very clear idea of the way the writers of the Constitution thought.  Were people in better tune with these ideas from history, I think, some of today’s political questions might not be so big and today’s politically driven contention might not be so intense.

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Visions of Freedom

Growing up as a Mormon in Utah, especially back before the advent of what are often called in Mormon culture “small temples,” the Salt Lake Temple reigns supreme.  It is photographed endlessly.  It is the crown jewel of Temple Square even though most visitors cannot enter it.  It is the subject of both the state’s and the Church’s history and the stories that involve the Salt Lake Temple intertwine the two.  As a result of that situation, some of the state’s other temples are a bit lesser known to the general populace, myself included.  The fact that I always have to stop and think and remind myself that the St. George Temple was the Church’s third temple, not the Salt Lake Temple, proves that point.  I first heard, from my parents during a visit to Southern Utah as a kid, that the Founding Fathers appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple.  The story was amazing and one I always remembered.

Book cover.Visions of Freedom: Wilford Woodruff and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence by Michael de Groote and Ronald L. Fox (ISBN: 978-1-60861-227-7) is a book about Wilford Woodruff’s visions (he had two of them on this subject) and the men that appeared to him.  The first part of the book discusses the history behind modern vicarious ordinances in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (anciently, the Bible contains one passage discussing baptism for the dead, and scholarly literature discusses a few others).  The next major theme of the book is how Wilford Woodruff’s preaching about his visions and the work he did in the St. George Temple for the men who appeared to him, as well as for some other famous people throughout history, changed, to a significant degree, the Mormon outlook on work for the dead in the temple.  Before President Woodruff’s visions, the vast majority of temple work was done only for ancestors or very close friends.  What that meant was that once a person had traced his genealogy as far as he could, he didn’t have much of a reason to attend the temple.  President Woodruff’s work for the Founding Fathers and others taught that temple work was necessary for all who had ever lived, which also gave faithful saints a reason to come to the temple again and again.  The majority of the book, though, consists of short biographies of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  Each signer gets at least one page, although most have more than that.  There are some appendices that discuss the actual temple work and various accounts of President Woodruff’s visions.

I am not normally attracted to reading about Church history.  The history of the United States fascinates me.  I’m sure this overlap helped this book be of interest, but I think it had more to do with the fact that the story was one that was of interest to me as a kid.  I found the discussion of baptisms for the dead in the early Church quite intriguing.  What I missed in the discussion of Wilford Woodruff’s dream was the actual sermons in which he talked about it.  I found them, later, in the appendices.  I thought that was an unnatural place for them.  They should’ve been front and center.  Finally, the biographies were interesting.  They were just snippets and, usually, not very long, providing highlights of government service and the thoughts of other Founding Fathers on the person in question.  I enjoyed learning about how they came to be involved in the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Many of them were what would be called “flip-floppers” in today’s toxic political environment (although maybe not necessarily since that term, at its purest, refers to those who change positions for political expediency, not because of any deeply held personal belief).  Many were British supporters until things just got too out of hand (it was almost always taxes that bothered them, but property rights and religion played a role, too).  The wide cross section of society was interesting, too.  Most of the signers were from the upper or upper middle class.  Not all, though.  There were guys who had worked their way up from being the apprentices of tradesmen to being judges.  There were merchants, clergymen, lawyers, and others.  What they had in common was a desire for themselves and their fellow countrymen to be free.  The book typically pointed out when one of the signers owned slaves or not.  This is a fascination that modern history has, but I thought it was dealt with admirably by the authors, who noted, at the end, that, unfortunately, many of our Founding Fathers were slave owners, but that was a burning issue then, and most of those who owned slaves struggled with it, later freeing some or all of their slaves or helping to write laws that hampered the slave trade in the U.S., but the important thing was that the founding documents (many signed not just the Declaration, but the Constitution as well) made it possible to later eliminate slavery in America.  Ultimately, that’s why they came to President Woodruff: they wanted to be free, free from spiritual prison in the afterlife.  It was an interesting historical and theological read that made me think about my amazing national heritage as well as my testimony in a loving God that has provided a way for all men to return to him and experience salvation.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Dream Team

I was always a basketball fan as a kid — admittedly, more as something I enjoyed playing than watching — and I was always a fan of the Olympics.  When it started to be rumored that American professional players would be allowed to compete in the Barcelona Olympics, my imagination was definitely captured.  There was an incredible amount of speculation as to just who would play.  As I recall, Michael Jordan was the only automatic selection, but as a Utah Jazz fan, I was sure — and later proven right — that Karl Malone and John Stockton would be on what was labeled as the Dream Team.  Dream Team it was, and they were incredibly fun to watch as they dominated any and all competition in the Olympics in Barcelona.

Book cover.Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever (ISBN: 978-0-345-52050-0) by Jack McCallum takes a pretty in-depth look at that most famous of basketball teams.  The book goes into a lot of detail about how it even came about that the pros were allowed in the Olympics.  It was a long, drawn-out process that involved FIBA, the USOC, and the NBA.  Once all the egos involved in such organizations were sorted to an acceptable degree, the path was open, and the U.S. got to work putting the Dream Team together.  McCallum, who was an NBA writer for a long time, chronicles how each member of the team was selected.  He profiles them, some briefly, some in great detail.  The qualifying tournament and the Olympics themselves are also described, with the Olympics, obviously, getting more attention even though the games had similar outcomes: blowouts.  Since there is so much spectacle that attends the Olympics, and the Dream Team only compounded this effect, there was a bit more to cover.  The book finishes with a short section on how the Dream Team had a large impact on the the global game of basketball and talks about the mess that were the next to U.S. Olympic teams.

As a basketball and Olympic fan, the book was a fun read.  I think I wish I had paid more attention to the subtitle since the book definitely concentrated on Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley.  The first three are some of the greatest players ever, with Jordan being the greatest player ever.  Barkley is a larger-than-life personality and, I got the impression, easy to write about.  So, it was interesting to read about them, but there just wasn’t much about my real basketball idols, Stockton and Malone, nor really about the other six players on the team.  I enjoyed reading about what Jordan called the best basketball game he’s ever played in, which was a five-on-five scrimmage right before the Olympics started where the skills and driven, competitive personalities of the superstars were pitted against each other.  The discussions of the background behind the team was quite interesting.  I was, of course, impressed with Stockton’s approach to playing: it was an honor to be selected and who wouldn’t play for one’s country?  The final negative was that there was more R-rated language than I would’ve like to have read.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Contract

I’ve been a BYU basketball fan as long as I can remember.  When I was a kid, the season was a little shorter and there were hardly any games on TV.  Most of my early memories of BYU basketball were generated by listening to the radio.  Paul James, whom my dad seemed to really dislike, was the play-by-play guy.  In my early teenage years, guys like Gary Trost and Russell Larson were among my basketball idols.  While a student at BYU, I attended a number of games in the Marriott Center and loved watching future NBA player Travis Hansen who brought some athleticism and passion to BYU’s team, something that, admittedly, it sometimes lacks.  Jimmer Fredette, though, was a whole different level, even though I remember the first time I saw him on the court thinking, “Oh boy, another wimpy white guy that will bring nothing but embarrassment to BYU basketball.”

Book cover.The Contract: The Journey of Jimmer Fredette from the Playground to the Pros by Pat Forde (ISBN: 978-1-60907-140-0) is essentially the story of how Fredette overcame naysayers like myself throughout his life and achieved one of the lofty goals he has set for himself in his life by making it from a backwater in New York to the NBA.  The book draws its name from the highly publicized contract that Fredette signed with his older brother, TJ, pledging that he would do whatever it took to get to the NBA.  Fredette had a supportive family, and the book chronicles bouncing balls in the house and a makeshift full court in the back yard that was the place the neighborhood kids wanted to be.  Most of all, though, he had TJ there to support him and serve as an unofficial coach and trainer throughout his formative years.  The book actually spends a significant number of pages discussing TJ because of his large role in Fredette’s progress both as a basketball player and person.  The book chronicles Fredette’s rise through high school and college, where he proved me and about a few million other people wrong by sweeping national player-of-the-year awards his senior year and being the tenth pick in the NBA draft.

The book ends with that accomplishment, and those who have followed the Jimmer’s career since then know that it simmered and then went out as far as the NBA is concerned, but why is a bit of a debatable subject.  The more important thing from the book are the lessons of hard work and dedication.  I also believe there’s one more lesson to be learned, and it’s one reason, I think, anyway, why Fredette was popular and remains so even though his NBA career never really took off: humility.  Fredette, like most elite athletes, is a driven, competitive person.  You have to be to get to that level.  One reason I never excelled at athletics when I was young was that, while competitive, I was never driven and never put in the hard work.  It’s nice to read a book sometimes that reinforces the concept of hard work.  The stories of the drills concocted by TJ for Jimmer or hard hours put in out in the makeshift gym in the garage can be turned into life lessons.  I enjoyed the lessons and had fun reading about Jimmer’s younger years.  I thought the book was long on TJ, although I understand his role and (again) know that Jimmer is humble and willing to give credit for his success to others, where it’s due.  I also might have liked a little more substance on the high school and college years.  For fans, it’s a must-read book; for the more casual observer, it might seem a little on the dry side.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Princess Bride

Once, when I was about 9 or 10 years old, I slept over at the house of a friend from school.  I still remember his name: Robert Durr.  We weren’t really close friends, so I’m not sure how the sleepover got set up, but it did.  There were two main things we did that night.  One was go to the house of some people in the neighborhood whose kids essentially ran a business out of their house selling candy.  We each bought a couple dollars’ worth of candy.  We’d devoured most of it by the time we got back to Robert’s house.  The second was to watch the Princess Bride.  That was the first time I’d ever seen that movie.  I wasn’t sure what to think about it at first, but it turned out to be pretty cool, I thought.  There were sword fights, giants, swamps, and castles.  It was great stuff for a young boy.

Book cover.The Princess Bride by William Goldman (ISBN: 978-0-15-101544-3), now in a 30th anniversary edition, is the book form of the famous movie.  I wasn’t even aware that there was a book until a few years ago.  As I tend to be a books-are-better-than-movies person, it immediately went on my list when I heard about it.  If one has seen the movie, one has read the book.  There are very few differences.  I think the only difference is that in the movie the grandpa interrupts the story sometimes, but in the book, it’s the author doing that.  In fact, Goldman has concocted an entire alternate persona for himself that is part of the introduction, the main story, and even some end matter.  The story, of course, follows the hero after his return to the kingdom where the farm girl he once served is about to be wed to the evil prince, who has devised a plan to have her killed.  The story follows the death-defying adventures of Westley as he pursues Buttercup (the names are somewhat ridiculous, but there’s a definite element of humor to the book) and dispatches a few villains on the way.  Ultimately, he reaches his prize and defeats the evil, yet ultimately cowardly, prince in an anti-climactic scene where he successfully bluffs that he could get up and fight the prince in a duel, but, in reality, is mostly dead (to quote another famous movie), having recently been brought back to life.

While a fun and easy read, it really wasn’t as good as I had hoped.  As I indicated above, the movie followed the book quite faithfully, so there wasn’t much new material or deeper character development or any of the things you typically get from books.  Where there was, such as with Inigo Montoya, I’m not convinced it actually added that much.  The 30th anniversary edition that I read had some extra front and end matter that I didn’t find too interesting at all, and it honestly took me a good twenty pages of reading to figure out how it worked with Goldman’s interesting literary device of having the narrator be his fictional self.  Once I got that down, though, it was a fun read with a few humorous moments worked in there with the adventures, fighting, and an acceptable level of romance.  Although I’m not perfect in this regard, I found the swearing (really only present in the narrator’s portions) a little much.  Finally, it’s worth noting that my enjoyment of the book may have been just a little higher than it might otherwise have been because it reminded me of not just the sleepover with Robert Durr, but of other childhood viewings of the classic movie.  Fans of the movie will probably enjoy the book, but I’m honestly not sure if this was one’s introduction to the story.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Putin’s Olympics

We go from Eurovision to world hockey championship, from the Olympics to the World Cup . . . We are going from holiday to holiday, entertainment everywhere.  Entertainment and pathos.  Because if people being to move beyond this fervor, and cool off a bit, clean themselves, then, you see, they will begin to see some things that the regime does not want them to see.  Therefore, we will continue to go from victory to victory, from holiday to holiday, it will be impossible to escape from all these holidays.  Holidays and war.  Anything that will serve as a distraction.

— Viktor Shenderovich (1958–)

I’ve been interested in the Olympics for as long as I can remember.  I have a couple stronger Olympic memories than others.  Obviously, the winter games in Salt Lake City stick out.  Unfortunately, they kind of stick out for the wrong reason.  I got to pick up trash as a volunteer.  I had friends who were interpreters and other more involved positions.  I know one friend of mine went skiing on the downhill course with the Uzbek skiers.  I was at the same venue, but at a different time, and doing a much different job.  Ultimately, I mostly enjoyed my experience volunteering for the Olympics, but it was certainly not what I had hoped for and not what I had been told to expect.  Much earlier in life, when I was four years old, I remember watching the Olympics on my parents’ old black-and-white TV.  It was a 12” model (at best) with rabbit ears.  We had it in a corner in the living room on a little stand by the bookshelves.  I remember seeing some ice skating from the competitions in Sarajevo.  Among other early Olympic memories, I remember sitting in our gray chair with my leg immobile because of a huge scab on my knee after a massive bike wreck that happened when I thought a car ramp would make a good bike jump.  I am also quite interested in Russia, having served there as a missionary and lived there more recently for work.

Book cover.Putin’s Olympics: The Sochi Games and the Evolution of Twenty-First Century Russia (ISBN: 978-1-315-81728-6) is a book by Robert W. Orttung and Sufian N. Zhemukhov that brings both of those interests together.  It takes a deeper look than the usual press on the subject at the Sochi Olympics and their greater context in Russia’s domestic and international politics.  The book looks at the problems surrounding the hosting of the Olympics in Sochi, which included corruption, a marginalization of civil society, problematic international relations, and the relation of security during the Olympics and its connection to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The viewpoint of the book was from that of the Olympics being something the authors defined as a “mega-project” and how Russia’s rulers, especially President Putin, tried to use that to their own advantages, both personally and to bring Russia’s standing up on the international stage.  The authors come to what I consider mixed conclusions, noting that the Sochi games were secure, did result in much-needed infrastructure upgrades in Sochi, and, from Putin’s standpoint, his position was secured because Russians saw the Olympics as a positive for their country, although, as the Shenderovich quote above notes, this is not necessarily a good thing.  On the other hand, the successes came at a great price, both monetarily and in prestige internationally, where Russia was hurt by the scandals surrounding the games.

The book was, of course, interesting.  It was interesting to see some analysis of the Olympics in their political context, and they’ve most often had a political context, no matter the average fan’s desire to separate sport from politics.  The most explosive conclusion in the book was the connection between Sochi and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The other stuff wasn’t really new for me, but that line of reasoning was new and fascinating and, really, rather hard to refute.  I was a little disappointed in the book because of its style.  It seemed to be long on background explanations, but then short on analysis by the authors.  That could’ve been because most of these conclusions have already been drawn in the media and there wasn’t really that much new ground to cover other than from a more standardized, academic approach, but it seemed to me to lack some punch in the sections other than the Ukraine conclusion.  Also, although a very small part of the book, I was disappointed that the book took the usual Western line of automatic support of the protest group P--sy Riot and automatic dismissal of Russia’s anti-homosexual propaganda law.  A more nuanced view than that of social media is something I would expect from an academic treatment of Russian domestic policy and its international context.  A relatively short book, it was interesting and presented some interesting, new ideas, and was worth the look.

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Friday, April 07, 2017

Hero of Hacksaw Ridge

I didn’t know much about “conscientious objectors” before hearing about this book (and the related movie).  I think the term was abused during the Vietnam era when many people did all they could to not serve in the military, but I honestly know very little.  That's what made reading this book so interesting — a way to learn more about this, especially what it originally meant and how someone made it work for them and ultimately was of great service to his fellow countrymen.  As someone who is active in one's church, the religious aspect of the story was also compelling, as such things seem to make the stories seem more relevant.

Book cover.Hero of Hacksaw Ridge: The Gripping True Story That Inspired the Movie (ISBN: 978-1-629131-54-2) by Booton Herndon is an abridged version of the story of Desmond Doss, a medic who served in the U.S. Army during World War II and saw action in the Pacific theater as the army advanced on various Japanese positions.  What makes the story unusual is that he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and not once during his training or active duty did he use arms since he was a Seventh-day Adventist and believed it was wrong to bear arms.  The story chronicles his time in the military from his joining to his discharge after being wounded in action in Japan.  Doss is unwaveringly strong in his religious convictions, including an extremely temperate and patient attitude with those around him.  He displays great faith in standing up for his beliefs when those around him threaten him and ridicule him at every opportunity.  He doesn't hold a grudge when it comes time to perform his duty, and more than once wile fighting in the Pacific, he helps and saves the lives of others, usually at great risk to himself.  The story ends with what truly are “gripping” details of battles on Okinawa where he saved likely around 100 lives while himself being injured.  He is then awarded the much-deserved medal and is able to return to civilian life.  The book also includes a post-script with information about Adventist beliefs (many are similar to those held by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

I found the short book to be extremely interesting and often an exciting read.  The persecution he experienced, especially during training was disheartening, and I consider myself lucky to have never experienced anything like that.  I always envision myself being strong like he was, and pray for that to be true.  The combat scenes were intense, but well-written and not too graphic.  There was also a lesson to be learned in the combat scenes because by then, his fellow soldiers knew Doss and respected him, in part because he was uncompromising his his duty, both to God and his country.  He was no longer ridiculed, but respected.  As is usually the case, sticking to one’s beliefs results in respect in the long run.  It was also refreshing to see a person who was able to understand how he could serve the country without compromising his beliefs.  One has a clear duty to one's nation, and it's too bad that so many peoople don't understand that today.

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The Qur’an

I had never thought of Islam in any serious way before the infamous attacks of September 11th.  After that, I had a short unit on Islam in a comparative religion class at BYU (to this day, it remains my favorite religion class at BYU).  It wasn't until living in Sarajevo, though, that I had any substantial contact with Muslims.  Bosnia's brand of Islam is, in the mainstream, moderate, and there's a standard joke among many of the Americans that Ramadan for Bosnians is the detox month.  My interpretation of Bosnian Islam is that Muslims in Bosnia are like a lot of Christians in Europe.  Christians in Europe and Easter-and-Christmas Christians; Muslims in Bosnia are Ramadan Muslims.  In the meantime, the more extremist flavor dominates the American headlines.  I figured it would be interesting to make my own, somewhat more informed, opinion about the religion that claims well over 1 billion adherents.

Book cover.To do that, I read the Qur’an (ISBN: 978-0-19-953595-8), translated by Abdel Haleem.  The Koran (there are lots of possible spellings for this) is Islam's holy book, purported to be a recording of revelation given to the prophet Mohammed (lots of spellings for his name, too).  It focuses on the nature of God as the only God, as opposed to idols, pantheons of pagan gods, or even God as Christians know him, the Father of Jesus Christ.  The Koran talks about Mary and Jesus, but Jesus is not God’s Son.  It talks about Muslims’ duties to the poor and orphans.  It discusses the afterlife and the resurrection.  It warns evildoers against their course of action.  There are some details about domestic life, finances, and there is the well-known injunction to prayer, which results in the call to prayer that happens five times a day wherever there is a functioning mosque.  There are some instructions regarding Muslims’ dealings with non-believers, or infidels.

I was very interested in reading the Koran and am glad I did.  However, it was often slow going.  I found the book to be extremely repetitive.  The discussion of God as the only god and the lack of any other gods and the renunciatin of the false practice of worshipping idols was repeated ad naseum.  I read the book looking for two things.  The first was some of the more controversial passages about women, jihad, and relations with the infidel.  The second thing I looked for were doctrinal differences or similarities with the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The doctrinal aspect of the read was interesting.  As I already knew from discussions with Muslims, there were some similarities.  God’s existence being the most basic and fundamental.  It was interesting to read about the resurrection and various injunctions to help the poor, be fair to orphans, and in general help others.  The prohibition against alcohol and pork remind one of the Word of Wisdom.  There were discussions of the afterlife that included seven degrees of heaven that seemed awful similar to the Mormon three degrees of glory with a celestial kindgom divided into three of its own degrees.  There were other similarities, too.  The biggest difference has to be the denial of Jesus as the Christ.  I found it odd because the Koran repeatedly says the prophets of the Old Testament, such as Moses and Abraham, were true prophets, so since those men all testified of Christ’s coming, it seems there was some misunderstanding of the Old Testament.  As for the controversial passages, I found them to not be too inflammatory, although it was easy to see where the more extreme interpretation comes from, but I was reminded of Glenn Beck’s analysis in his book about Islam in which he explains that ultimately it doesn’t matter what we think the Koran says and it doesn’t matter what Islamic scholars say the Koran says; what matters is what the extremists think it says because their interpretation is the one that drives them.  Finally, a note on the book I read.  I was disappointed in the translation.  It was meant to be accessible to a modern reader.  There were many instances of my reading it and translating what I was reading in a more King James style, which I thought read a lot better.  I think I would’ve appreciated a more traditional translation.  There were many passages that included Arabic metaphors that the translator often tried to explain, but with which I struggled.  I tried to be fair to the Koran and admitted my unfamiliarity with it, but in the end, I realized that one of the big reasons there were struggles to understand it were not translation problems, but the simple fact that the book is not inspired scripture in the way the Bible and the Book of Mormon are.  Those books contain similar Old World metaphors, but I usually get them.  Part of that is familiarity and a lifetime of study; part of it is the fact that when you read inspired scripture, your understanding is influenced by the Holy Ghost.  The Koran was well worth a read, especially if one is trying to understand those around oneself, and also provides Christians a chance to look inside themselves, explore their own beliefs, and come away stronger.

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The Power of Positive Parenting

When I was a kid, my mom, like most of my friends' moms, would threaten me by wishing upon me a kid just like me.  I never considered that much of a threat.  If the kid was just like me, I’d know how to deal with him.  Now, a kid like my mom or one of my sisters, that scared me.  Now, as a parent, I sometimes see myself in my kids, but mostly not, and parenting is a huge responsibility with a lot of good moments, fun times with kids, but also a few moments of fear as one realizes that one doesn't have the answers to all that life seems to throwing at us.

Book cover.The Power of Positive Parenting by Glenn I. Latham (ISBN: 1-56713-175-1) doesn't have all the answers either, but after reading it together with my wife, we decided that it has many of the answers, and even where it doesn't it tends to point the reader in the right direction.  The book is full of guidance on how to deal with all kinds of different behaviors that children (and adults) engage in.  There are sections for younger kids, for teenagers, for small problems, for sibling rivalry, and for larger, more destructive behaviors.  There are a couple over-arching themes in the book that course through the suggestions for each kind of problem.  One is to ignore things that doen't really cause any harm since most people just want attention and will take it however they can get it.  Igoring kids’ whining, for example, is the most effective way to get them to stop.  The other thing that was presented over and over was the need to positively reinforce good behavior.  Default parent settings seem to be set to find negative behavior and call it out.  What about the good?  Fidning and reinforcing good behavior gives kids the attention they need and teaches them that good behavior will be rewarded.

I recognize that God has all the answers when it comes to parenting, but I also believe that God helps those who help themselves, so I have to do all I can first.  This book is one of those things.  My wife and I have tried to implement many of the strategies taught in this book and plan on reading through it again.  As always, some days are more successful than others, but when we catch ourselves implementing the strategies we liked from the book, things really do go smoother around the house.  We have found so many behaviors that are eligible for ignoring instead of attention.  We also find ourselves trying harder to be patient, react to things calmly, and provide positive feedback on all the things that the kids do right.  The book was written in the late 1980s, and you can feel that in the language used, but the science behind it is strong, and would recommend it to anyone involved in the sacred role of parent.

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A Captain's Duty

Pirates are a fascinating subject and the subject of many a young boy's imagination.  I was fortunate enough to grow up when reading was still somewhat popular and encouraged by parents, so I read classics like Treasure Island more than once as a kid.  There was, of course, a certain romanticism about such stories that may not have been real, but it made for great reading and even better pretend play later with plastic swords, skull-and-cross-bones flags and costumes.

Book cover.In the early 2000s, as people in poor countries got desparate and the security situation deteriorated in many parts of the world, piracy made a comeback.  There was nothing romantic about it, and it didn't involve the big ships with masts and sails, but usually small boats and a couple Russian-made machine guns instead of swords.  A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea (ISBN: 978-1-4013-1044-8) by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty tells one such story with a happy ending for the good guys.  Phillips and his crew made international news when Somali pirates boarded the ship he was captain of and took him hostage.  He preserved the lives of his crew and saved his ship, but felt it was likely that he would end up sacrificing his life for that.  After a few harrowing days at sea with the pirates in one of the ship's lifeboats, U.S. Navy SEALs rescued Phillips and killed the pirates in a stroke of incredible marksmanship.  The book also includes a little bit of the story of what Phillips's wife and family were going through during the ordeal.

The book was an easy read, in part because it was interesting.  I read through it quickly, but with great interest even though I knew what was going to happen, both because I read the headlines just like everyone else when this happened, but because I'd seen the movie about the events, too.  Still, it was good to get the story from the captain himself, as it's always a little different than second-hand through the media or a filmmaker.  I wasn't as interested in the homefront aspect of the story, but it is a real dimension of the story that cannot be dismissed.  There were a couple holes in the story, such as whatever happened to the lead pirate and how he came to have Navy gear, which is something that is alluded to over and over, but never fully explained.  I could've handled less R-rated language, too, but it seems that these days, people don't know how to express emotion any other way, which is sad.  These shortcomings notwithstanding, I enjoyed the story.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2017


Russia was an enigmatic Communist nation when I was a kid.  What little I knew of the USSR centered around the lack of freedom the people had.  I vividly remember my one-time conception of how the centrally planned economy and complete lack of freedom would result in some people being condemned to a lifetime of emptying garbage cans in some forlorn office building somewhere in the Soviet Union.  Reality, as I understand it, was slightly more forgiving.  One thing that fascinated me was the state-sponsored oppressors or the secret police that seemed necessary to keep the Russians (I knew nothing of the almost two hundred ethnic groups in the Soviet Union) under control.  It was so different from the life I knew in the U.S. and it involved secrecy, spies, and a powerful military that seemed more fiction than fact.

Book cover.KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents by John Barron tells some of the stories of the main Soviet agency of oppression and secrecy, the KGB.  It provides an overview of all the Soviet intelligence agencies, but focuses on the KGB, which the author assessed to be the brains behind all of them.  After the more academic portion of the book, it recounts a few fantastic stories.  Most of the stories, a few which I had read elsewhere previously, had to do with the stuff of movies.  The book contains the stories of Americans who betrayed their country and of Russians who betrayed theirs.  They are fascinating accounts full of sneaking around big cities, breaking into vaults, offers of money, international intrigue, “seductresses” (as promised by the paperback version’s typically sensationalist cover art), and, of course, spies.  It was interesting to read of a disgruntled U.S. Army soldier, his former prostitute wife, and his giving the Russians access to something they likely figured was impossible to access.  I was also really intrigued by the stories of Russians and other eastern Europeans who risked it all to do what they figured was their part in the battle against authoritarianism and for liberty.  One interesting story was that of a Czech who was sent to Canada by the Russians, but who ultimately decided that all he had been taught in years of intense training was not true now that he’d been in the West and seen how things really worked.

The book was really interesting to me since I have an interest in all things Russia.  It is, of course, dated, since it’s about the Soviet Union and the KGB instead of Russia and the FSB, but there are two reasons I thought it still seemed relevant, besides being fun to read because of the incredible stories (it’s Bourne, but it was real).  First, Russia today is closer to the Soviet Union than it’s been since the fall of Communism.  The types of operations described in the book are likely going on right now.  Second, and probably more important, the KGB and its tactics are part of any authoritarian government.  Unfortunately, the U.S. is slowly sliding down that slope.  As government grows and grows, it seeks to retain power, usually done by taking away the rights of the people.  People inherently desire freedom, though, so to sustain a government that does not have the freedom of the people as its raison d’être, that same government turns to oppression and the elimination of liberty to preserve itself.  We must always be vigilant about what we are allowing the government to do lest we become the victims described in this book.

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