Thursday, January 1, 2015

The CZ Book Club: 2014 Part II

2014!  Where did you go?  How are you already nothing more than a memory??

Ah well, that means it's time for the second part of the 2014 CZ Book Club.  Prepare yourself for extreme randomness.

Harry Wakatipu Comes the Mong by Jack Lasenby

Quick Summary: A young boy runs away from home to become a deer culler in the Vast Untrodden Ureweras of New Zealand, where he is teamed up with a ridiculous, lazy, unhelpful pack-horse named Harry Wakatipu.

My Take: Kiwi-style tall tales!  I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I swapped for this book off a shelf at Salang Beach, and I'm lucky I was traveling with a Kiwi at the time, because she had to help me translate a fair amount of slang.  We still haven't quite figured out what it means to 'come the mong' though.  Anyway, this book is a great blend of things that could very well be real with things that most definitely are not, and it's a lot of fun.  And quite ridiculous!

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday



Quick Summary: Alfred Jones, a strait-laced and uninteresting fisheries scientist in a dispassionate (but logical) marriage to the career-driven Mary, finds himself hired by a Yemeni sheikh to undertake the seemingly impossible project of introducing salmon to a river in Yemen.

My Take:  This book tackles every topic under the sun!  Marriage, love, relationships, war in the Middle East, faith, bureaucracy, politics, and environmental stewardship are all neatly presented unconventionally in the format of emails, letters, news articles, interview transcripts, and personal journal entries.  I was pleasantly surprised that there was so much more than just introducing salmon runs to a land-locked desert country and for the most part, it all worked together very well.

Skunk Works by Ben Rich and Leo Janos



Quick Summary: Ben Rich was the boss of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works for years, but he starts this memoir much earlier when he first started working in Skunk Works as an engineer.  Over the decades, Rich was involved with the development of several famous aircraft, including the U-2 Dragonlady, SR-71 Blackbird, and F-117 Nighthawk.  This book takes you behind the scenes of some of the US's greatest technological developments, going literally from the drawing board through testing to operational use and retirement.

My Take: Rich's memoir offers a behind-the-scenes look at the defense-industrial complex and the politics and negotiations between the military, federal government, and other national agencies that precedes the development of every project.  Most of all, I was fascinated to learn about the ingenuity of the engineers tasked with seemingly impossible requirements, and the creativity they had to use to succeed.  This book could have been a slow, heavy read because of the technical subject material, but instead it was very interesting and engaging!

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman



Quick Summary: Bod's family is murdered when he is very young, but toddler Bod luckily escapes.  He is taken in by the denizens of a graveyard, who raise him, but a living boy cannot stay in the world of the dead forever.  Eventually, Bod and his guardians must prepare Bod to leave the safety of the graveyard and to face the evil that remains determined, after all these years, to finish the botched extermination of Bod's family.

My Take: As I learned earlier this year with Stardust, Neil Gaiman's writing looks innocent enough at first glance, but it is definitely for adults.  Heck, this book started with the murder (by stabbing, no less) of three people!  Darkness aside, Bod's graveyard adventures are very creative and I really enjoyed this book.  Clearly I need to read more Gaiman.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski



Quick Summary: There is a house in Virginia that looks normal enough from the outside.  However, the inside is an eternally shifting space, exploration of which becomes the deadly obsession of the filmmaker that lives there with his wife and two children.  He captures his story on film.  Analysis of the film is provided by an old blind man named Zampano, who dies under mysterious circumstances.  A hard-drinking, addict tattoo artist called Johnny Truant discovers Zampano's materials and begins to piece the story together.  The house consumes Johnny's life too, which spirals violently out of control.

My Take: CONFUSION.  MASSIVE CONFUSION.  This is an extremely difficult book to read, and don't even attempt to do it on an e-reader because you need to be able to flip back and forth between pages (there are a LOT of footnotes) and rotate the book in every direction and see when the font is colored blue or red, which is significant.  You have got to read this in old school paper format.  The foundation story is of the filmmaker and his family, and how the house strips them down to nothing before they can find their lives again.  The second level is Zampano and his commentary as he pieced the filmmaker's story together.  Then there's Johnny and his commentary, which comes out in crazy "footnoted" segments that can get really creepy.  And finally, there are "the editors" who published the book based on Johnny's compilation, and they throw footnotes in occasionally as well.  Some reviews described this book as a horror story.  Others said it's a love story.  I see where both opinions come from.  All I will say is, don't give up.  You'll want to, between the bizarre formatting and the technical discussion on things like filmmaking equipment and the ridiculous footnotes, but just finish it.

The Fear Project by Jaimal Yogis



Quick Summary: When the love of Yogis' life ends their relationship, he spirals out of control.  And he ultimately realizes that fear is the foundation of all his problems: fear of being alone, fear of never finding love, fear of being rejected.  With that in mind, he decides to learn all about where the basic human of instinct of fear-- where it comes from, why we have it, how it's developed (or not) over time as our threat landscape has changed, how to use it to our advantage, how to conquer it.  He applies what he's learned to his love life, as you might expect, but he also applies it to surfing.  So there's that?

My Take:  I was hoping for a really informative read about fear that would be more interestingly presented than a textbook.  There was a little of that, but there was a lot more self-reflection and discussion about Yogis' personal life from childhood to present.  My favorite parts were about Yogis' friend Jamie, who is an ultra-long-distance swimmer.  Reading about Jamie's adventures was inspiring and motivating; not so keen on the rest of the book.

And finally, my New Year's Eve Eve entertainment (yes, I read the entire bleeding book in one day because it was that fun and entertaining).....

Divergent by Veronica Roth



Quick Summary: It's post-apocalyptic Chicago and for the sake of humanity, society is divided into factions based on personality type.  Erudite are the brainiacs, Amity are the earth-loving hippies, Candor are the brutally honest, Abnegation are the selfless do-gooders, and Dauntless are the thrill-seekers.  Teenagers take a test which tells them their proclivities, and then they go to live in that faction and support its contribution to society.  But of course it can never be that simple, and Tris finds out that she's "divergent," meaning non-conformist, and she doesn't fit into just one faction.  She chooses Dauntless, and survives their initiation just in time to uncover a plot by Erudite to overthrow/exterminate Abnegation using Dauntless as their weapon.

My Take:  Fun read!  Tris kicks ass!  I might have learned more about how fear affects us in this novel than I did in the non-fiction investigation.  And now I'm wondering what my fear landscape would look like....

Alright, there's the end of 2014!  If you tackle any of these books, I hope you enjoy them.  Let me know what you think!

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