Book Review: The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom (The Saxon Stories, #1)The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to this book on audio while I was driving to and from Atlantic City a month ago. At the time, I enjoyed it well enough, but it’s been a book that’s stuck with me since finishing it, and not all books do. So I was surprised to discover that I hadn’t given it a review, and I thought I’d take a minute or two today to correct that.

The premise is straightforward enough: it’s an historically-based fictional account of the invasion of England by the Danes in the late 800s. The main character, Uhtred Ragnarson, is fictional, but he interacts with people from history and gets directly involved in historical events. Some books try to pull this off and it feels odd, but I didn’t have that issue with this one. Perhaps some of that is because the exact history is murky. There are some reports and accounts of what went on, but there’s a whole lot of room there for interpretation.

Cornwell does a really good job making the characters come to life, and presenting history in an engrossing manner. I got caught up in the story, but I still felt like I was learning something. That said, at the end of the book, I didn’t have a huge desire to read the rest of the series. Not because it was bad, but because I felt like I’d gotten what I wanted to from it.

On the other hand, I then went on and watched the TV show with Denisa, and that’s made me appreciate the books a whole lot more. It’s a fine show, and diverting enough (in a “BBC tries to do Game of Thrones” sort of way that makes you wish BBC would be able to do it without the gratuitous spurts of blood and absence of clothing from time to time), but I kept being frustrated with how the characters were portrayed. Cornwell creates very consistent, believable characters. Conflicted characters that make mistakes, but you can understand them. The show flattens these characters and makes it seem like they keep being inordinately stupid. Basically, they try to rush through the story, and it makes it all feel hurried and haphazard in the end.

If you enjoy a good story and want to learn some history while you’re at it, I heartily recommend this book. I think I might go and read the sequel, now that I have a bit of space from it. 4.5/5

View all my reviews

Ignoring the Will of the People

Sometimes I just don’t get it. I’ve always been a big proponent of democracy. Even when Donald Trump won the presidency last year, I resigned myself to going along with the result, because that’s how it works. You make the rules, and you live with the outcome, even if you don’t agree with it. (Although in light of all the Russian meddling in the election, there’s a big part of me that wishes we could press the “Undo” button and run that vote again.)

But in Maine at least, it seems following the will of the people is becoming less and less important. A couple of cases in  point. Last year, Maine voted to legalize marijuana in the state. It was a nail biter of a vote, with the vote to legalize winning, 50.2% to 49.8%. Maine also voted to start ranked choice voting in the state, by a margin of 52% to 48%, and to solidify state funding of public schools via an income tax surcharge (by a bare 6,000 votes).

And yet here we are, almost a year later, and the legislature and governor have a really spotty record of actually making those votes a reality. They were close votes, and it seems like politicians have decided that in cases where the vote was really close, they don’t necessarily have to go with the will of the people. They can claim the people didn’t really know what they were voting on, or that they didn’t understand the implications.

Politicians wear the big boy pants, in other words, and they can just pat the people on the head and tell them to go back to their cartoons while the grownups make the real decisions.

I get that people disagree with the outcome of elections. Close elections in particular. And I get that there are some speed bumps in the way of making these votes a reality. But to me, when politicians refuse to try to enact the will of the voters in good faith, the system breaks down. Even if I disagree with the vote outcome. I voted against the casino yesterday. If it had won, however, I would have wanted it to be built. That’s how it works.

Governor LePage has vetoed Medicaid expansion five times in Maine. In the vote yesterday, Mainers supported the expansion, 59% to 41%. And yet now LePage is saying he’s not going to let it happen. Not unless it’s done the way he wants it done.

This isn’t how it works. I’m sure plenty of Republicans will show up to jettison a flurry of words that justifies it, but that’s all it will be. Words. To me, this would be like America just making Clinton the president, even though Trump won the electoral college. Just as I would have been against that (no matter how much I might wish anyone other than Trump were president), I’m against this.

The people voted. Do what they told you to do. If it’s hard, then figure out what you need to do to make it happen, and do that. End of story.

Remember to VOTE!

It’s going to be the *fifth* time I’ve headed to the polls this year, believe it or not. But even though there are no candidates to vote for this year on election day, there are still four referendum questions that will have an impact on the future of our state. It’s important to make your voice heard, and it’s so easy to vote. There’s really no excuse to stay home.

What are we voting on this year?

  1. Question 1: An Act To Allow Slot Machines or a Casino in York County: Do you want to allow a certain company to operate table games and/or slot machines in York County, subject to state and local approval, with part of the profits going to the specific programs described in the initiative?
  2. Question 2: An Act To Enhance Access to Affordable Health Care: Do you want Maine to expand Medicaid to provide healthcare coverage for qualified adults under age 65 with incomes at or below 138% of the federal poverty level, which in 2017 means $16,643 for a single person and $22,412 for a family of two?
  3. Question 3: An Act To Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue to Improve Highways, Bridges and Multimodal Facilities and Upgrade Municipal Culverts: Do you favor a $105,000,000 bond issue for construction, reconstruction and rehabilitation of highways and bridges and for facilities or equipment related to ports, harbors, marine transportation, freight and passenger railroads, aviation, transit and bicycle and pedestrian trails, to be used to match an estimated $137,000,000 in federal and other funds, and for the upgrade of municipal culverts at stream crossings?
  4. Question 4: Resolution, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Reduce Volatility in State Pension Funding Requirements Caused by the Financial Markets: Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to reduce volatility in state pension funding requirements caused by the financial markets by increasing the length of time over which experience losses are amortized from 10 years to 20 years, in line with pension industry standards?

Perhaps the more important question is “How should I vote this year?” And I’m here to let you know how I think you should vote, or at least how I will vote today.

When it comes to the issue of gambling and casinos, I’m morally opposed to them. I’ve heard all the arguments in their favor. They’ll fund education! Provide jobs! But to me, gambling is a thing that destroys many lives. It’s fundamentally dangerous and addictive, and if we need to resort to that to fund our schools, then we’re failing as a society. Maine already had two casinos. I don’t believe it needs any more. (I’d love it if the two we have weren’t here.) So I’m voting a big fat NO on this one.

For the healthcare question, I think it’s reprehensible that our governor has consistently resisted expanding Medicaid in our state. Healthcare is extremely expensive, and we’re talking about helping families that make less than $23,000 per year, which I’d like to think we could agree is a family that’s in real need of help. I’m voting YES on this one.

For the road issue, interest rates are low, and investing in our infrastructure in Maine is a sound decision. Plus, we’re getting matching funding for our dollars, which makes this even more attractive. I like roads. I like roads that aren’t terrible. I’m voting YES on this one too.

And finally, the last question is a no brainer in my book. the amendment has already passed. This is to help our retirement system be more resilient in times of crisis. We should vote to approve this as well. YES.

So for those of you playing along at home, I think you should go to the polls and vote NO YES YES YES.

That said, I realize we all have different opinions, and I respect people who disagree with me. Regardless of how you feel about these issues, go vote today. Make your voice heard. If you don’t vote, I don’t think you get to complain about how the country or the state is being lead. It’s that simple.

Please vote!

Where Do Mormons Struggle?

During priesthood leadership meeting up in Bangor this past Saturday, the question was raised: Where are we struggling right now? It’s an excellent issue to address. and it spawned a lot of good discussion. It also got me thinking personally about the question. I was mulling it over in my mind during the meeting itself, and I didn’t come up with my biggest issue until the meeting was pretty much over. So I didn’t have time to throw this out there then, but it’s stayed with me, spawning a good, long discussion with Denisa last night about it, and I thought it might make for a good conversation online as well. (Assuming people can discuss the issues without getting defensive or hyper-critical. Don’t let me down, folks . . .)

As I think about where we struggle as a people and a religion, I think the biggest issue that comes to mind is preparing our members (and specifically our youth) to have a faith strong enough and flexible enough to be able to withstand the barrage of issues that keep cropping up, both inside the church and outside of it. Issues like gay marriage, women’s rights, racism, and more.

I look around at my friends online and the youth I’ve come in contact with over the years, and I see many people struggling with these issues. Not just with how they’re being handled in society, but specifically with how the church is handling them. I’ve blogged about this multiple times in the past, and I still believe it’s an area that is extremely difficult to navigate, socially and theologically. People have left the church, or at least stepped away from it, over this. And the response some church members have to it is to point to prophecies about how the chaff will be sifted from the wheat, or how the world will grow ever more wicked, and members must “stay strong” in order to not be led away.

It frustrates me when some try to paint these issues as very simple, easy to deal with subjects. As if the solutions are clean cut, and anyone who doesn’t see that is in danger of apostasy. I do feel like church leaders at the highest echelons are attempting to wrangle with this, and I can point to talks in General Conference and publications from the church that indicate they realize how thorny they can be. How they are dealt with at a stake or ward level is a different story, and it will vary widely, depending on local leaders.

I’m not saying I believe our local leadership is at fault here. I know our leaders, and I believe they work hard to try and address the many, many needs of the stake and ward. And there are so many different needs in so many different areas, that it usually boils down to a “which fire do I put out first?” sort of situation. But these issues do come up. They are raised in comments in Sunday School or Sacrament Meeting talks. Off hand remarks that reinforce long-held cultural beliefs that might stand in stark contrast to stances the church currently takes on issues. I personally try to speak up when I hear those remarks made, and I know of many others who do the same, but it’s hard work, and often met with resistance.

But one comment that was made in the meeting stuck with me, and it was touched on again on Sunday. The people who are often struggling the most are the ones who aren’t vocal about it. Our stake president compared it to drowning. How the popular depiction of drowning (flailing around, calling for help) is so different from the reality (silently slipping under the water and going unconscious).

We had a long, lively discussion on what should “count” for Home Teaching numbers, despite the fact that the statistics for our Home Teaching are woefully small. And it frustrates me when we spend so much energy and focus debating things like that, when bigger issues remain unaddressed. And it’s certainly more than Home Teaching debates. When so many people are struggling, why are we bogged down debating what kind of a ward social we should have, or how to force help on a family that has already declined help five times before? I don’t mean to be callous, but I’ve attended many meetings where the same things are discussed as the meeting before, and no progress is made whatsoever. Some of that is the nature of the beast, and perhaps if we shifted focus to my suggestion, it would result in the same deadlock. But I still wish it were brought up and faced head on. Purposefully.

So how should we deal with this? Step one (for me) is to bring issues out into the open. To address the fact that the issues exist. That probably needs to come not from the membership, but from a constant push from local leadership. Show others how they can deal with these issues on their own.

I remember having a discussion with a friend, where the topic was basically “What would it take for you to lose your testimony?” What if your best friend left the church? What if your parents left the church? Any number of hypotheticals. Ideally, someone’s testimony should not rest on someone else’s testimony. Me staying or leaving the church isn’t contingent on a parent or friend still being in it. I believe because of the experiences I have had that led me to that belief. And that’s what gets me through these difficult issues. That’s what keeps my testimony strong, even when I get frustrated by what some church members do and say. (And hopefully it’s what keeps others’ testimonies strong when they’re frustrated with what I do and say.)

I’m reminded of Moses 5, where Adam and Eve first start offering sacrifices.

5 And he gave unto them commandments, that they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. And Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord.
6 And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me.
7 And then the angel spake, saying: This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth.
8 Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore.

There’s a pattern here that’s useful to me in these areas. Adam was asked to do something. Commanded, even. And to him, it probably made pretty much zero sense. Go take that perfectly well-behaved animal and kill it. Don’t eat it, though. I would think he had a ton of questions zooming around his head. I know I would. Why? What’s the reason? What good does this do? But he didn’t get any answers to those questions at the time. Despite that, he went and did what he had been commanded to do. And it was only after that action that he began to understand and began to get answers.

I’m not saying Adam was blindly obedient. I believe he had a testimony of the source of those commandments, and that testimony made it so that he was ready to follow through on them. That’s where I see myself these days. There are some things that are done and said in the church that I don’t fully understand. Issues I have grappled with. And yet I continue to have a testimony of the ultimate source of all this. I believe some of the troubles come from humans being flawed, and that those flaws will eventually be worked out, even though it’s painful to many at the moment. Some of the other troubles will be divine, for reasons I do not understand. For reasons I might never understand. But that’s what having faith is about sometimes.

So there’s my long-winded response to the question that was first posed. If I could pick one issue that we could work on and help members with, it’s with this struggle. With, as I said before, developing a faith that’s both strong and flexible, because I believe that’s what’s needed to handle this. Strong, because life is hard. Flexible, because when you’re too rigid, you’re in too much danger of breaking. But that’s my take on things.

I invite comments, both about how I answered the question, and how you would answer the question. Please keep things respectful.

Stranger Things 2: A Spoilerific Review

Denisa and I finished Stranger Things 2 last night, and I’m here to review the whole season at once. But because this is Stranger Things, it’s hard to review it and not give things away, so I’m embracing the spoilers this time. Don’t read this if you don’t want to know the ending. If you’re just looking for a rating, I gave it a 9/10. There were a few bumps that kept it from a perfect score, but the show still is right up my alley, and I loved it in spite of those bumps. You should definitely check it out.

Before I start the actual review, a disclaimer. Shawn Levy (an executive producer for the show and the director of two episodes last season and two this season) heads up 21 Laps Entertainment, the studio that’s in the works to produce the MEMORY THIEF movie. So am I motivated to have a creepy series with 12 and 13 year-old leads do well? You betcha. I would love nothing more than for creepy middle grade horror fantasy to become a huge thing right now, especially with the MEMORY THIEF sequel on its way.

With that out of the way, allow me to dig in. I think it’ll be easiest to list off the things I loved, followed by the few disappointments.

Loved

  • The main characters. The show might be about spooky, creepy stuff happening in Hawkins, but what makes it a show we care about is the fact that the kids at the core of it are so well done. Dustin in particular stood out this season. Watching him get his crush on Max, then turn to Steve for advice, and ultimately end up with his dance at the end of the season was just spectacular and illustrates my point. Right before the dance scene is the supposed climax of the season. Eleven closes the gate and shuts out the Mind Flayer, while the rest of the crew narrowly escape death. It was a cool scene (albeit a tad contrived if you start thinking about it too closely), but it had none of the same impact that dance scene did. That managed to capture the nerves of first dates and dances, touching on insecurities and nostalgia and twisting that all up with the characters we’ve invested so much time in. It was wonderful.
  • Supporting characters. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Steve and Bob Newby. I really enjoyed both of their arcs, even though they occurred more in the background. Bob’s death was something that you saw coming a mile away, but I was still genuinely sad when he died. Poor guy. And I was really proud to see Steve become less of an idiot, culminating in him joining the team to go burn the vines out of existence.
  • The 80s throwbacks. The show continues to do a lot of fun things with its soundtrack and other 80s references. (I loved seeing the old 3 Musketeers wrappers, for example.) Great details that help flesh things out. True, sometimes the soundtrack is a little *too* spot on, but in the end I just rolled with it. It’s supposed to be a fun ride, I think. And that’s what it delivered.
  • The plot. Sure, some of it worked just because characters do stupid things for stupid reasons. Poor Bob Newby ran from the demo-dogs, only to decide to just kind of chill in the lobby at the last second. Kind of a questionable approach to escaping, but hey. To each his own. The plot was solid enough to keep me wanting to binge, which is what it was designed to do. I think it really works because they had actors who managed to make it all come to life.
  • The creep factor. From Dart to rotting pumpkins to the demo-dogs, the season did a good job of constantly making me want to squirm. Poor Mew Mew.

Disappointments

  • What in the world was up with episode 7? The whole season is this finely tuned machine, ratcheting up the tension higher and higher, and then we have this commercial break of an episode, where suddenly we’re on a road trip with Eleven? I gave it the benefit of the doubt at first, assuming the things she learned from her mom were going to tie into the events happening back in Hawkins. And then she joined up with the punk rock assassins, and I just wondered what in the world was going on. It was like the pilot to a new show I had no interest in watching. The things that attract me most to Stranger Things have nothing to do with punks and hit squads killing people with shady pasts.  Did not work. Did not help anything. You could skip that episode entirely and have few questions when episode 8 started up.
  • Max’s brother is a caricature. Yes, they threw in the “he’s been abused by his father” scene to try and give him some depth, but it was just too ham fisted. The guy is such a jerk in every scene, and we’re supposed to believe that Max threatening one time to smash his crotch in with a nail-studded bat is going to keep him at bay for the rest of her life? I don’t think so, Tim. But perhaps they’re trying to set things up for later seasons. At least it worked better than episode 7.

As I write about the season more and think it through, I begin to wonder at my initial reaction. My 9/10 rating. There were some definite weak points, and I’m not sure the show would stand up to serious scrutiny. But I’m going to stick with my rating, mainly because I think that’s the sort of thing the show is going for. Campy, creepy, 80s fun. I know it made my Halloween season more enjoyable, and I was really happy to watch it. I also think I’d merrily rewatch the season. I still think about some of the scenes and the characters, and that says something right there.

But enough about what I thought. I’d love to hear what other people thought of the season. Please share!

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