Sighișoara, Romania, 2009
Previous Book Reviews by Steve Dunn Hanson
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Tula—Memoir; Kaye Terry Hanson (Reviewed May 2015)
About: A Mormon girl grows up in Beaver, Utah, circa early 1950’s
My take: An extraordinary book. You’ll feel like you’re living in small town USA with the smells, emotions, sights, and sounds surrounding you in a virtual reality. A classic in the making.
The War in Heaven Continues—Non-fiction; Gary C. Lawrence (Reviewed May 2015)
About: Satan’s effort to destroy man’s agency is clearly manifest in our current day religious and secular worlds.
My take: This is a frightening book—because you immediately feel that Gary’s right on! His superb anything-but-boring writing style is filled with humorous sarcasm and witticisms. And as you finish the book you are ready to join him in Standing Up, Saying Something, Not Sitting Down!
All the Light We Cannot See--Novel; Anthony Doerr (Reviewed May 2015)
About: A blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
My take: Like looking at a Picasso--admire the colors; don't try to figure out the subject. At times beautiful. The story . . . was there a story? More like a long dark journey without a destination. A page-turner at first, but I was ready for it to end. By the way, it just won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
Bleak House—Novel; Charles Dickens (Reviewed May 2015)
About: A Dickens assault on the injustices of the British legal system circa mid-1800’s.
My take: I’ve read most of Dickens’ books, and I’ll continue until I’ve read them all. This is one of his best. A masterful depiction of character and setting with plenty of suspense to pull you along. Remember though, Dickens never lets plot get in the way of his back-stories, ultra-descriptions, and lengthy metaphors and similes.
Unbroken—Biography; Laura Hillenbrand (Reviewed May 2015)
About: Louis Zamperini an outstanding runner with extraordinary promise becomes a prisoner of war in Japan during WWII after spending weeks adrift on a raft in the Pacific.
My take: You couldn’t make up a story like this! Reads like a can’t-put-it-down thriller, and it really happened. Zamperini was an extraordinary man (he passed away in 2014 at age 97), and Hillenbrand is an exceptional writer.
Firefight—Novel (Fantasy); Brandon Sanderson (Reviewed May, 2015)
About: Young single adult David takes on the High Epics who control the world. (Book 2 of The Reckoners series).
My take: Okay, so you now know I’m into fantasy. Not an addict, but Joyce and I listen to it while we’re driving to Utah and Arizona to see family. Pretty good escape. And with Brandon Sanderson we don’t have to worry about offensive language and sex scenes. Brandon who teaches a class at BYU just happens to be one of the most popular fantasy writers going today. He has many published books, and they are all very entertaining. He’s good!
Jerusalem: The Biography—Non-fiction; Simon Sebag Montefiore (Reviewed May 2015)
About: A three thousand year epic history of Jerusalem from King David to the 21st century.
My take: A graphic outline of historical events with plenty of Montefiore’s coloring of personalities, intentions, motivations, and circumstances portrayed as fact. I would have felt better about the book if he had called it an historical novel.
Going Postal—Novel; Terry Pratchett (Reviewed May 2015)
About: Condemned arch-swindler Moist von Lipwig is appointed postmaster of Ankh-Morpork as punishment for his crimes.
My take: This is some laugh-out-loud comedy put out as fantasy. You can even find some deep thinking here if you look for it—certainly plenty of Dickensian sarcastic portrayal of our current world. If you’ve never read any of Terry Pratchett’s discworld books, you ought to read one just to say you did. This one's as good as any.
Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty—Non-fiction; Mustafa Akyol (Reviewed May 2015)
About: Relating of the roots of political Islam including its rationalist, flexible, and dogmatic aspects, and how these factions interplay today.
My take: An interesting read. There's a legitimate question, I believe, that I was hoping would be addressed by Akyol: Why are the vast majority of heinous terrorist acts today done in the name of Islam? His solution to the “problem” of Islamic terrorism is for Islamic societies to accept secular government. But I think that begs the question rather than answers it.
The Promise—Novel; Chaim Potok (Reviewed May 2015)
About: A Jewish boy grows up in Brooklyn, learns what it’s like to take on life as he studies to become a Rabbi
My take: A wonderful way to learn the ins and outs of the Jewish faith—both its religious and secular aspects. All of Potok’s books are worth the read. And especially My Name Is Asher Lev, which I read several years ago.
Wonder—Novel; R. J. Palacio (Reviewed June 2015)
About: A 5th grader with an extreme facial difference goes to a mainstream school for the first time and just wants to be treated as a regular kid. He, along with his peers, adults, and family, struggle to deal with one who is not like the others.
My take: Prepare to cry for all kinds of reasons. A children's book written with adults in mind that literally puts a face on the insecurity and latent goodness that defines most of us. An astounding 6500+ have reviewed this on Amazon with 98% giving it 4 or 5 stars. Read it and give it to your children and grandchildren to read!
Our Mutual Friend—Novel; Charles Dickens (Reviewed June 2015)
About: Money. Murder. Money. Charade. Money. Love. Money. . . .
My take: Dickens' last completed novel. Here he has perfected the art and few have risen to the level. Mystery, murder, deceit, wisdom, beauty, suspense, evil, good and in betweens are all here. The names say it all: Rokesmith, Wilfer, Boffin, Hexam, Lightwood, Headstone, Wegg, Lammle, Podsnap, Veneering, and of course, Mr. Sloppy. Scene-painting and character-defining are quintessential Dickens. The book is worth the read just to find out what little Jenny Wren (aka Fanny Cleaver) means when she says "Come up and be dead! Come up and be dead!"
The Boys in the Boat--Narrative Non-fiction; Daniel James Brown (Reviewed July 2015)
About: Nine grassroots boys form an eight-oar crew team at the University of Washington in pre-World War II Seattle and beat the odds by edging out Germany and Italy to win a gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
My take: Lots of folks like this book and many compare it to Unbroken. That's more than a stretch. There's enough action, excitement, drama, description, and suspense here to make a really good The New Yorker magazine length article. But dragging the story out over 400+ pages . . . well, that's what it did for me--dragged. I was water-logged by the time I sloshed through umpteen boat races stroke by stroke. There are basically two things you do to turn something that would be a nice magazine piece into a full length book. Make redundancy your watchword and fill it with irrelevant Photoshopped back stories. That's what Daniel James Brown did.
Infidel--Autobiography; Ayaan Hersi Ali (Reviewed August 2015)
About: The coming of age of a young Somalian woman chronicling her transition from her strict Islam roots to a rejection of the Koran and Allah as she embraces secularism. She survives civil war, female mutilation, brutal beatings, affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and life in four troubled, unstable countries ruled largely by despots. She escapes from a forced marriage and finds asylum in the Netherlands where she fights for the rights of Muslim women and the reform of Islam as a member of Parliament. She remains even today under constant threat from reactionary Islamists.
My take: An indomitable woman who seeks happiness and peace perhaps in all the wrong places. Her seemingly implicit assumption that this world is basically made up of two camps--tolerant secularism and totalitarian belief-systems like Islam--is to miss that path. While quite depressing, the read was interesting for me nonetheless and in some significant ways enlightening. I believe the question that has dogged me for quite a while now was at least partially answered by this woman and her experiences: What about Islam fosters the kind of hatred and violent retribution that seems to be the basis for the vast majority of terrorist acts committed today. Statements in the Koran and Hadith reports are quoted liberally in this book that dictate forceful compliance to the Koran as interpreted by (you choose!); death to perceived apostates and infidels; and, the stripping of the agency of women--virtually relegating them to chattel status, owned by their husbands and family. With this kind of absolute authorization--and in the minds of perhaps millions of despotic male adherents, divine direction--despicable violence is not only possible, it is a given.
The Gift of Asher Lev--Novel; Chaim Potok (Reviewed September 2015)
About: Asher Lev is now a world-renowned artist living in France. He is struggling with his artistic direction when his beloved uncle dies suddenly. Asher and his family rush back to Brooklyn into the Ladover Hasidic world that he thought he had left behind. The passions and conflicts he confronts changes him and his beloved family forever.
My Take: Potok writes as Asher Lev paints. An extraordinary look inside the mind of an inspired man. I believe one can see, and importantly feel, something of our divine nature here. Thank you Asher Lev. Thank you Chaim Potok for your word-painting masterpiece
Out of My Mind—Novel; Sharon M. Draper (Reviewed October 2015)
About: A young cerebral palsy victim whose brilliant mind is locked in a body that doesn't work. Her photographic memory and smarts eclipse grade school peers and teachers who view her as mentally retarded because she is unable to communicate. She is determined to find ways to get those she knows to understand who she really is.
My take: I have had touching and very personal experiences with several cerebral palsy children and adults. The author's portrayal of Melody's challenges and her working through them with the assistance of technology and loving mentors is realistic and emotional. That alone makes it a worthwhile read. However, the writing is not on a par with Wonder, and the book's conclusion is contrived and disappointing.
Nicholas Nickleby—Novel; Charles Dickens (Reviewed November 2015)
About: The son of a deceased gentleman finds himself in a what-am-I-going-to-do-next maze, with a hateful uncle determined to thwart any progress he makes.
My take: I liked it! Of course, I like all of Dickens' novels, but this one has a bit more action, more despicable characters, and characters that are more despicable (like a child abusing schoolmaster--ugh!!). Thankfully, everybody gets just what they deserve. The characters here are even more caricatures than in most of his books. They are fun to love and despise--maybe like viewing an outstanding melodrama. You won't cry a lot here, but your teeth will grind, you'll laugh, and your fist will pump the air as you exude a hearty, "Yes!" Enjoy!
Lights Out--Non-fiction; Ted Koppel (Reviewed November 2015)
About: American journalist icon,Ted Koppel, examines the possibility of a cyber attack against one of the nation's three power grids and how prepared we are to deal with the results.
My Take: An extensively researched and objective look at the possibility (he would say inevitability) of a cyber attack on at least one of our electric grids and the devastation it would cause. In his words, the internet, for all the good it does, is also a WMD! His conclusion that we are neither prepared to prevent such an attack nor to deal with its aftermath, I believe is prescient. The Mormon church and its emergency preparedness emphasis and planning is used as an example of what can and should be done. The book verifies the wisdom of personal preparedness and sends a hard-to-ignore shot across the bow that our local, state, and federal governments and our citizenry, better wake up. The oft-quoted revelation that if we are prepared we shall not fear comes to mind. The reverse is also true. And according to Koppel, we ought to be shaking in our boots right about now. I suggest you read this book.