Book Review: Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

Kolodiejchuk, Brian, M.C. Editor. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta.” New York: Doubleday. 2007.

I found this book really interesting, but I have to admit that I skipped a chapter or two because I didn’t feel I was being presented with very much new information after the first few chapters. Most of the book is composed of Mother Teresa’s personal letters to her spiritual leaders. She exibits an extraordinary faith throughout her life of service. You read about how she felt her own poverty was her greatest act of service, her monumental devotion to her spouse Jesus, and her willingness to give everything to God.
But the purpose of the book is not only to demonstrate her faith, but to bring to light her private writings that detail her struggle to have faith. It is clear that faith did not come easily for Mother Teresa, and at times, she felt completely unable to feel God’s presence at all. The book demonstrates that Faith & Doubt can coexist within the same individual – that the presence of undying faith does not preclude the presence of crippling doubt and darkness.
One aspect of the book continually bothered me, however. Mother Teresa continually begged her religious confidants to destroy all letters from her, presumably because of the extremely personal nature of her near-confessions in the letters. But the book exists because her religious confidants continually disregarded her wishes – the publishing of her letters being the ultimate defiance of her wishes. The editor/author acknowledges this, but never really gets around to telling the reader why it’s ok that he published them anyway…

Book Review: No Man Knows My History

Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage Books. 1995.

WOW this book took me forever to read. Originally published in 1945, this was the first comprehensive biography of Joseph Smith. Brodie, the niece of President David O. McKay, was ultimately excommunicated from the LDS church, largely because of this book.
Brodie rightly presents Joseph Smith as a powerful, intelligent, and charismatic leader. She doesn’t, however, present him as an inspired prophet. Yet the book clearly shows her admiration and respect for Joseph Smith. She presents Joseph as a complicated individual, with obvious strengths & weaknesses. She is quick to give him credit when it is due, but doesn’t shy away from deserved criticism. The book is sure to offend some stalwart LDS readers, but it’s also sure to inspire many non-LDS readers.
One of the most interesting (and controversial) aspects of the book is the way Brodie goes beyond simply telling facts about Joseph Smith. She uses a technique called psychobiography and attempts to determine Joseph’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations. She tells not only what Joseph did, but speculates about why he did it. As with any psychobiography, she is sure to have made some false conclusions, but the result is a very readable book presenting an inspiring narrative.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

by Melanie

On my plane ride to Utah I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and found it really interesting. The book was first published 20 years ago, but I only became aware of it in the last couple of years, so sorry if all of you read this book a long time ago.

The book follows the adventures of Santiago, a Spanish shepherd who learns that his Personal Legend is to find a treasure near the pyramids. Even though he doesn’t even know where the pyramids are, he gives up everything to try to find the treasure. Along the way he meets other characters who either help him or try to harm him, but he learns something from everyone. At one points in the book Santiago has found moderate wealth and plans to give up on finding the treasure and return to being a shepherd. At the last minute he sees an omen and decides that he can always return home later, but this might be his last chance to follow his Personal Legend. Later in the book Santiago has found love and plans to give up on his treasure to stay with his love, but his love convinces him that he can return to her later, but he must continue to follow his Personal Legend now. I won’t tell you how it ends (hopefully I haven’t already given away too much) because you’ll probably enjoy the book more if you don’t know what happens. You can always wiki it if you really want to know how it ends…

The book describes a Personal Legend as being the “soul’s desire”- the thing which will make you most happy- and claims that everyone has a Personal Legend but for various reasons most people never follow their legends and find their soul’s desire. I found it interesting that Santiago was quite happy being a shepherd (he had been educated to become a priest, but decided that he would rather travel so he used his inheritance to buy a flock of sheep), but when he found out about the treasure he was willing to give up all he had to find it.

I thought the book was well written, easy to read (it took me less than 4 hours of reading!), and had some interesting concepts in it: Personal Legends, Omens, Love, and the Language of the World (that language which allows all things to communicate without needing words). It got me thinking about if I’m following my Personal Legend. I don’t think I am though since I’m not sure I know what my Personal Legend is. The book talks about needing to listen to your heart to learn what your Personal Legend is and I’d like to say I’ve followed my heart to get where I am now, but I know a lot of choices I’ve made have been with my brain and not my heart. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing though- in fact, I think a lot of people probably should use their brains more than hearts. However, part of me does think that I’m like Santiago at the begining of the book- I am happy with my flock, but perhaps there is an even greater treasure out there for me.
Has anyone out there read this book? What are your thoughts on the idea of a “Personal Legend”? If you believe they exist, do you know what yours is and are you following it?

Book Review: The Bottomless Well

Huber, Peter W. and Mills, Mark P. 2005. The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy. Basic Books.

This was a painful volume to complete, and to be terribly honest, I skipped a few parts to finish more quickly. Huber and Mills are largely playing semantics in this book, trying to make arguments that nobody would disagree with. For example, they claim that we will never run out of “energy” because laws of thermodynamics state that energy is always conserved. So consuming oil doesn’t deplete energy sources, it just converts it from one source to another. They fail, however, to propose any possible ways of re-harnessing this energy so that we can re-use it. So they’re right that we won’t run out of “energy,” we may just convert all of our energy into useless formats.

But they also argue that we won’t ever run out of oil. Their reasoning is that as oil supplies deplete, it will become so expensive that eventually another alternative will become more attractive and we’ll begin using the alternative instead. Again, this is probably true, but it’s hardly good news – either way, energy prices will sharply increase. We won’t go broke buying oil, we’ll go broke buying whatever takes its place.

The authors also try to make an argument that since most energy is wasted trying to purify the energy itself, then wasting energy is somehow virtuous, because it demonstrates our control over energy sources and our ability to harness its power. Their explanation smacks of contrarianism – like they’ll say anything just to oppose those who are encouraging energy efficiency, yet half of the book also praises scientists like Watt, Carnot, and Otto for increasing the efficiency of the engines of their time.

I agree with them on one of their critical points, however. They argue that energy efficiency won’t reduce energy consumption at all, but will only encourage more consumption. Anyone that thinks improving the efficiency of automobiles will ever result in an overall reduction in oil usage is kidding themselves.

The most puzzling part of the book, however, is the last chapter. The authors present a creation of the world scenario, discussing how normal energy cycles could very well have been responsible for the creation of life on earth. This is purely speculation, of course. But even if it were true, it still wouldn’t have anything to do with the rest of the book.

Book Review: The Backslider

Peterson, Levi S. 1990. The Backslider. Salt Lake City: Signature Books.

WARNING: THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS

I read this novel after hearing an interview with author Levi Peterson on Mormon Stories. I don’t generally read fiction, so this was quite a departure from the types of books I usually read. Peterson tells a story of how 22 year old Frank deals with religious guilt and sexual frustration. I was surprised by how much of the book dealt directly with sexual frustration. As the author states, one of the major themes of the book was that “God is no enemy of human appetite.” I didn’t find this theme very interesting, however.

One aspect of the novel was quite interesting, however. Peterson creates an image of Jesus as a “Cowboy Jesus” who rides a horse, wears boots, smokes cigarettes, and swears. And he does so to irreverently poke fun at the traditional images of jesus we find elsewhere. Despite the differences between the “normal Jesus” and Cowboy Jesus, there are more similarities. Cowboy Jesus teaches a message of strength, forgiveness, peace, and patience. And what is most interesting to me, is realizing that Cowboy Jesus is far more influential in Frank’s life than “normal” Jesus has ever been.

So I think of the many was each of us tailor the gospel to fit our lives – the way each of us picks and chooses which doctrines we realy like, and which ones we will choose to emphasize in our own lives. Each of us chooses to view Christ differently, based on our own experiences. I think about my impression of Jesus, and I realize that my image of Jesus is a combination of images and descriptions from hundreds of sources, most of which are hardly authoritative. But they combine to create a God I can believe in. And maybe my personal version of how Jesus looks and acts isn’t accurate at all… but does it matter? If Frank can gain strength and a sense of forgiveness from Cowboy Jesus, does it really matter if Jesus really was a cowboy? I don’t think so.

Book Review: A Thousand Barrels a Second

Tertzakian, Peter. 2006. A Thousand Barrels A Second: The Coming Oil Break Point and the Challenges Facing an Energy Dependent World. New York: McGraw Hill.

Although the title suggests that the book will focus on events to come, most of the text is devoted to explaining things past. Tertzakian gives an abridged history of energy use, beginning with wood, then moving on to whale oil, kerosene, coal, oil, natural gas, hydro, and nuclear power. Using the lessons learned from past generations of energy production, he tells about energy cycles and how wea are approaching what he calls a “break point.”

The last chapter is a little bit of a letdown. While most of the book is well written, the last chapter uses an odd convention that was as awkward as it was confusing. Tertzakian writes as though it is already the year 2017 and gives his speculation about future events as though it were history.

Yet he offers no real basis for his speculation. I felt like he left me hanging, wondering what is likely to happen in the future. Maybe that’s the point – that nobody knows what will happen, but I still felt a little unfulfilled. I thought this was interesting, however. Although the book was published as recently as 2006, Tertzakian is bemoaning the high price of oil – trading at $65 per barrel – nearly half of it’s current price.

Book Review: An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins

Palmer, Grant H. 2002. An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. Salt Lake City: Signature Books.

This was an interesting book, and it’s hard for me to respond to it. The introduction was the most interesting part. Palmer begins by stating that he is aware that the book will be difficult for many members of the church to accept. He insists that he has only the best intentions, and that he does not wish to have anybody decide to leave the church over what he has written. It is even more interesting, given that he was disfellowshipped for writing it two years after it’s publication.

Palmer recounts popular versions of LDS history, and then argues that these versions are not accurate. His research is well documented, and Palmer presents alternate interpretations of historical events. It is hard for me to judge with my limited knowledge of LDS history how balanced or truthful Palmers arguments are.

But I believe him when he says that he has only the best intentions. He specifically instructs converts or even second generation members to stop reading the book because he is worried his book will be hard to swallow. Ultimately, Palmer doesn’t present any new material that hasn’t been presented elsewhere (I don’t think), just new interpretations of historical documents. Ultimately, Palmer chooses not to believe the popular versions of LDS history we usually hear.

While reading the book, I thought it was a great example of how ultimately, history will neither prove, nor disprove the church. Those who want to believe will find reasons to believe. Those who want to disbelieve will also find their reasons.

Book Review: Our Way or the Highway

Losure, Mary. 2002. Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis.

This is the best book I’ve read in a while, probably because it’s regarding a topic I feel very passionately about, and because it’s a case study from right here in the Twin Cities. The book deals with the controversial re-routing of highway 55 around a small neighborhood in 1998-2000. Most of highway 55 between downtown Minneapolis and the airport had been reconstructed through South Minneapolis to its current 4-lane configuration several years previously and all that remained of the old two-lane alignment was about 5-8 blocks near Minnehaha Falls. Losure tells the story of how a small group of protesters, some radical, some not, fought the project to the end.

Losure begins her story in 1998, when MnDOT began purchasing a few houses out by the airport in anticipation of rerouting highway 55. The houses west of Riverview Road would stay, but everything east would be demolished. The new road would be constructed through a large field and several groves of old cottonwood and oak trees hanging on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. The protest brought a wide range of supporters, most notably the Mendota Dakota Indians who claimed that four suspiciously symmetric oak trees marked the four corners of an old indian burial ground, and the more radical Earth First! members who opposed the project simply because it would remove trees and parkland to make room for a highway.

Losure details the events that transpired as a group of protesters established a year-round camp by the river called the Minnehaha Free State dedicated to stopping the project using any tactic available, including camping in trees, chaining their necks to moving bulldozers, spiking trees, and pulling all the survey stakes every night after the workers go home. But the camp realized that these tactics alone would not stop the project.

Their only real hope was for the Mendota Dakotas to recieve national recognition as a tribe and prove that the area was sacred. Losure details the struggles between the Dakotas, who were generally calm and were more likely to try and stop the project through legal procedures, and their allies, the radical Earth First!ers who perhaps sabotaged the Dakotas efforts more than they helped them. For example, on one occasion, the Dakotas were busy trying to convince a certain state legislator to sponsor a bill that would end the project, but a frustrated Earth First!er literally threw a pie in her face, which made the whole lot look wacky.

Of course, the Minnehaha Free State lost the battle, the road was constructed, and now, most people probably don’t even remembered it happened. It was an emotional story for me, however, because I have such strong feelings regarding urban parklands, road expansion projects, and the use of eminent domain. As much as I wanted the Minnehaha Free State to stop the project, I knew they had no hope. The most interesting parts of Losure’s book is how she finds that even the biggest players in helping the project move forward were largely sympathetic towards their cause.

For example, Officer Kittridge from the Minneapolis Police Department was in charge of the police force assigned to the project and led the day-to-day interactions between the protesters, the police, and the construction team. In an interview, he told Losure about how he used to bring his young daughter to this very location to play in the trees near a small lake known as the Longfellow Lagoon (now several feet below Highway 55). He was also sad to see the parkland lost, but the project was too big to stop, he thought, and he wasn’t going to lose his job over it.

Losure also wrote of the excessive force used against the protesters, including using over 800 heavily armed officers to raid the camp of less than 100 unarmed protesters (which today remains the largest use of police force in Minnesota History). She tells of how the police force burned the protesters posessions, smashed the Dakotas ceremonial drums, and slashed their tipis.

While throughout the book, it becomes clear that the tactics used by the protesters are ineffective and ultimately didn’t do anything other than dramatically increase the cost of the project, it is still a call to arms. While one must question the specific tactics used by the Minnehaha Free State, it still provides an inspiring message for those who feel our society has constructed far too many highways and that sometimes the cost of “progress” isn’t worth it.

Book Review: Freakonomics

Levitt, Steven D. and Dubner, Stephen J. 2006. Freakonomics (Revised and Expanded Edition). Harper Collins. New York.

All you really need to know is that the spine of this book is fluorescent orange in color. In general, I avoid any book that resorts to fluorescent colors to encourage me to notice or purchase the book. Usually, fluorescent books are more about hype than content, and this one is no different. In my defense, I bought it in an airport while my selection of books was severly limited.

My biggest criticisms of the book, however, the authors freely acknowledge. First, there is no unifying theme to the book. It’s an odd collection of chapters that have very little in common with each other. Second, it’s not easily recognizable as economics. It’s more simple statistics than economics. I felt a little bit cheated when I sat down to read a book about economics and got simple statistics instead.

It’s an interesting book, however, despite lacking a unifying theme. Since I read the expanded version, several of the Freakonomics blog posts and columns were included at the end. I enjoyed the blogs and columns more than I enjoyed the book itself because the entries were intended as independent topics. The book would have worked better as a blog, where posts don’t necessarily need to be unified by a single theme and didn’t need to be stretched out to book-chapter-length. Kudos to the authors for approaching unique topics in an interesting fashion, but the contents would have made a much better blog than book. They speculate about a sequel book, but I hope they choose to just present the new material in blog form, or at least not try to force it into chapter-length servings.

I was most disappointed with the lack of numbers and figures. Although it is a book about economics (statistics), there is a surprising lack of numbers, charts and figures helping to explain the authors assertions.

So all you really need to know about it is that the spine is fluorescent orange.

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

Krakauer, John. 2003. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Random House, Inc. New York.

When I first began reading, I thought the whole book would be about the Lafferty Brothers and the tragic crimes they committed against their own family and humanity. The introduction sets the stage well, giving a brief glimpse into the murders of an innocent wife and her daughter by mormon fundamentalists who believed they were following the commandments of God. This storyline turned out to be only a portion of the book, however. Krakauer did an excellent job of telling the story of the Lafferty murders and also attempts to provide the reader with some LDS history as context for the story.

The majority of the book was Krakauer giving a condensed and unapologetic history of the LDS church. However, Krakauer is a much better writer than he is a historian. The book is woefully short on footnotes and references for the many quotes and stories he uses. While I am not enough of an LDS historian myself to know the accuracy of the facts, it certainly would have been more convincing with footnotes.

I understand, however, that it was not Krakauer’s intent to write a history book. Krakauer’s largest contribution with this book is the primary sources he cites. He interviews Dan Lafferty, one of the brothers convicted of murder, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a religious fanatic. He also interviews several other mormon fundamentalists who provide interesting material. The history is included to provide context for the modern case studies.
Ultimately, I found myself wishing for more info about the Lafferty’s and less of Krakauer’s history of the church.

But I am also not Krakauer’s target audience. As a lifelong member of the church, I was already well familiar with much of the church history he provided. At times, I found the book following tangents and felt that Krakauer failed to connect all the dots for less sophisticated readers (like myself). On multiple occasions, I found myself wondering “why is this chapter in the book?” Ultimately, while I don’t trust Krakauer as a historian and I believe he paints an extremely pessimistic picture of the LDS faith, I did enjoy reading the book. It was interesting to read how he interprets LDS history, which aspects of LDS history he chose to include, and his thoughts regarding how LDS history contributed to the mindset of the Lafferty Brothers.