Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The CZ Book Club: 2014 Part I

The first time someone ever made fun of me because I love to read, I was in preschool.  I was maybe four years old?  Five?  I remember the taunt because I actually thought that it was directed at how I was wearing my hair that day (side ponytail of course, all the rage in the 80s), and I could not for the life of me figure out the relationship between my stylin' hairdo and my propensity for reading.  Sorry, preschool bully, you didn't make me cry, but you sure did confuse me!

Fast forward 25 years.  I'm wandering around Europe with my best friend and her cousin for a few months, getting my first taste of toting a backpack and sleeping in hostels.  In addition to my trusty red backpack, I carried a second, smaller messenger bag.  It was the library.  No joke, that poor cloth bag contained nothing but books that we picked up along the way.  When we finished one, we'd swap it out for something new from a hostel bookshelf.

Although I've been reading since before I can remember, that summer of backpacking was the first time I really branched out from my usual categories of books-assigned-for-English-class and books about horses.  Hostel bookshelves contain very eclectic reading selections, and it was really fun to grab something I'd never heard of before and dive in just for the fun of it.  We've all heard the saying about judging a book by its cover, but you should actually try it some time.  Grab one that strikes you simply because of its title, or the pretty cover art, or because its the perfect size to hold in your hands, and you may be remarkably pleasantly surprised!

Enter 2014.  Still reading like crazy.  Still getting teased about it, but usually in a good-natured way these days.  Still carrying books when I travel and leaving them along the way as I finish.  In addition to heaps of Nietzsche reading for class, here are a handful of the other books I've enjoyed in the first half of this year.

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

Quick SummaryCarpentaria is about the town of Desperance on the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia.  The town and its memorable inhabitants are fictional; the place and overall themes of the novel are very much real.  It's a dreamy, hallucinatory, emotional web of family, conflict, progress, and traditions centered around several Aboriginal inhabitants of Desperance.

My Take:  This book.  Because of school work and Antarctica adventures, it took me about three months to finally get from cover to cover.  And it was so dense and trippy that it's difficult to boil down to a few sentences!  Carpentaria was a challenge for two reasons (not including the fact that it's quite long): I know very little about Australia's history and internal politics, so I felt like much of the underlying commentary of the novel was going straight over my head, and I had a surprisingly difficult time visualizing the novel's scenery.  (Perhaps a visit to Queensland is in order!)  At the same time, I enjoyed the novel because I really had to engage to make it through the characters' dreams and hallucinations and still be able to follow the story.  Alexis Wright is an artist; you find yourself reading for the simple pleasure of how she weaves her words together.  And then you realize you have no idea what actually happened in the last two pages because you were completely distracted by reading the last two pages!

Warped by K.W. Jeter

Quick Summary: Star Trek.  Alternate realities and parallel dimensions.  And a psychopath.

My Take: I've never read a Star Trek book before!  I don't even know how I obtained this one, but it sat in the pile next to my bed for months, so I finally took pity.  I'm sure it would have been more meaningful if I watched the show and knew more about the backgrounds of some of the characters, but it was still a fun sci fi flick.  Alternate reality and the unexplored power of the human mind always make for brain-bending, entertaining reading material.

How the West Was Won by Louis L'Amour

Quick Summary:  The Prescott family is an example of the tough, stubborn, spirited folk that left their comfortable lives in the East for the unknown challenges of the wild American West.  This easy read has all the elements of a good ole Western: tragedy, hardship, love, hustlers, adventure, and ultimately thriving, not just surviving.

My Take:  Like I said, easy read, which is nice after a brain-beater like Carpentaria.  This novel is an absolutely stereotypical Western tale, so it's fun!  I love imagining how different, and difficult, life was for those first pioneers who struck out into the unknown wilderness.  Psh and I was nervous before my first major solo trip...

The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl Who Played With Fire
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Quick Summary:  Lisbeth is a hacker.  Lisbeth is extremely asocial and introverted.  Lisbeth had an absolutely atrocious childhood.  It takes three novels to piece together exactly how atrocious.  Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative reporter with an (un)fortunate tendency of stumbling onto very dark stories involving very dark people who are very motivated to keep the truth from seeing the light of day.  Lisbeth and Mikael come together innocently enough when they're hired to research the disappearance of the niece of a business mogul.  One thing leads to another and they find themselves embroiled against a top secret abominable government conspiracy where the ultimate goal is the permanent silencing of Lisbeth.  And that's as much as I'm giving away.

My Take:  Holy.  Wow.  I was supposed to be at a film fest the weekend I started the first book, and I instead spent four hours sitting at brunch because I could not tear myself away until I had finished.  Then I went to the film fest only because I hadn't gotten the second book from the library yet.  I will warn you that the first book is slow to start because it tries to bore you to death with legal and business jargon, but you just have to make it through those chapters.  The rest of the book and series will fly by.  The conspiracies of these novels are insanely complex and I sincerely hope nothing like them have EVER come to fruition in ANY country ANYWHERE EVER.  I also appreciate Stieg Larsson forcefully addressing the pervasive misogyny that is finally becoming acknowledged in Western social conversation.  I am late to the bandwagon with this series, but they really got under my skin.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Quick Summary:  Ordinary (so he thinks) farm boy Tristran Thorn promises to bring back a shooting star in an attempt to win the hand of his "true love" Victoria.  However, to find the star, he must cross the Wall, which takes him into the magical realm of Faerie.  Cue strange creatures and flying ships and evil witch queens and the journey of growing up and finding true love.

My Take:  This was one of those less-common cases where the movie came first (for me), and I loved it, so who knows why it took me long enough to get around to the book!  It's an adult fairy tale with some really fun twists.  Two thumbs up.

Noah's Ark by Marie-Madeleine Fourcade

Quick Summary:  This memoir describes the exploits of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who was the leader of an underground French resistance network during World War II.  Fourcade was in her early 30s at the time, and took the helm after the previous leader was arrested.  The book's title references the animal-themed naming system Fourcade introduced for her network of spies and saboteurs.  She herself was captured and escaped on two separate occasions.

My Take: It was fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes perspective on the underground resistance movement in France, and even cooler that the leader of this particular network was a girl my own age!  Not exactly common back then.  Learning about history is more fun from first-hand accounts like this.

Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs

Quick Summary:  A biography of the author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, from her childhood through her death, with focus on her perseverance to become a writer and support her family.

My Take:  Louisa May Alcott spent a significant portion of her life living in and around Boston, and her house in Concord has been turned into a museum, so it was fun to read about the city I know as it was a long time ago.  This book is intended for younger readers, but as I've said, sometime your brain needs a rest.  Especially when you're taking a class on Nietzsche.  It only took a couple hours to finish this book, but I still enjoyed reading about Louisa's stubbornness in following her dreams and the path that eventually brought her to literary fame.

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Quick Summary:  Johnny is a very talented silversmith apprentice whose future is shattered after an accident in the smithy.  As he struggles to find a new life, he is befriended by Rab and drawn into the secretive world of the Sons of Liberty during the restive times in Boston that led up to the American Revolution.

My Take: Yeah yeah, another kid's book .... I have stacks of them and I am slowly giving them all away, but I read them one more time first.  I always liked this book too.  Ordinary fictional characters mixed with extraordinary major (and real) events are another fun way to learn history.

A Question of Blood by Ian Rankin

Quick Summary: A mystery novel from the Detective John Rebus series that starts with a school shooting, involves a military conspiracy, stars ex-military servicemen ruined by PTSD, and takes you on a journey through the rough underside of Scotland's best city, Edinburgh.

My Take:  Detective Rebus is a smart ass.  Fortunately, he's also just smart, or he would have been fired at least three times in this novel alone.  I like the Rebus series because they present a grittier Edinburgh than any tourist is going to see, although there is a literary pub crawl that includes stops from Rankin's novels.  I'm no mystery connoisseur, but I think Rankin's are complex and they successfully keep you guessing until the very end.

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