Sunday, June 14, 2015

The CZ Book Club: 2015 Part I

The first six months of 2015 have been a doozy!  I racked up 38,3500 miles on airplanes and over 50 hours sitting in airports, which was the primary reason I managed to tear though so many books.  There were some interesting unplanned themes too .... India, Afghanistan, and Alaska popped up several times, along with the Russian fairy tale Snegurochka.  Several novels, spanning the globe, examined the complex relationships between family members.  There was a lot of the insecurity of being an immigrant transplanted to a completely alien culture.  And there will pretty much always be at least one book with a horse or two prancing around.

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

Quick Summary: While all her friends follow the traditional path of marriage and family, Kristin Newman decides to work hard and spend all her off time traveling and having crazy adventures.  As soon as she boards a plane to leave the country for a trip, she basically becomes a completely different person.  Travel Kristin falls in love, falls in lust, parties a lot, sleeps on strangers' couches, and lives completely irresponsibly and impulsively whenever she is on the road.

My Take: "I wanted love, but I also wanted freedom and adventure, and those two desires fought like angry obese sumo wrestlers in the dojo of my soul."  The end.

The Horses of Central Park by Michael Slade

Quick Summary: A kid living in New York City discovers he can speak to the horses that pull carriages around Central Park.  Many of the horses are quite depressed by their restricted, regulated life, so the kid concocts a plan to give them a few days of freedom.

My Take: This is a children's book.  As in elementary level.  But it's also a pretty unique story, and interesting walking the line between right and wrong and doing the right thing even if it's technically wrong.

Anastasia Morningstar by Hazel Hutchins

Quick Summary: Two friends meet a peculiar lady who can turn people into frogs.  They convince her to become their science fair project, which brings negative attention to her abilities but also upends the black-and-white beliefs of their science teacher.  Kids learn that magic doesn't jive very well with the adult world, and adults remember what it's like to believe in magic.

My Take: Yes, another children's book.  But this is the most unusual kid's book I've ever read!  I would love to see the crystal butterfly ... and turn people that annoy me into frogs.

Quick Summary: An analysis of the rise of a couple significant Islamist extremist terror groups and the threat they present to Israel.

My Take: Inflammatory and biased!  Yikes!  It absolutely must be read with a grain of salt and definitely do not even consider it a "scholarly" work, but it's still someone's perspective that's probably shared by other people, so it's worth being aware of it.  Although I was peeved that most of the book was actually about Hezbollah, not ISIS.  Way to capitalize on the most current headliner, Jay.

The Cat Who .... by Lilian Jackson Braun

Quick Summary: This is a series of mystery novels (my book happened to be three of them in one binding) about a former big-city journalist turned small-town columnist named Qwilleran, and his two Siamese cats, Koko and YumYum.  They moved to a tiny, backwoods town for a life of rest and relaxation, but trouble follows them.  If Qwill only spoke cat, he'd solve all the mysteries a lot faster because Koko is psychic.

My Take: I don't read a lot of mysteries, but these are fun.  Lots of quirky characters and memorable events, totally reminiscent of being outside the cities in New England!

Fortune's Fool by Mercedes Lackey

Quick Summary: Katya is the youngest daughter of the Sea King and works for her father as a spy.  Sasha is the Seventh Son, a Fortunate Fool, and also a Songweaver ... a triple whammy that comes in handy when his love Katya disappears on a mission and needs a Hero to help Good ultimately defeat Evil.

My Take: I love Mercedes Lackey, and her Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms novels are really fun because they draw from fairy and folk tale traditions all over the world and blend them together into new adventures with familiar faces.  Also, she's all about strong female characters, so that's fun!

I'm Here to Win by Christopher McCormack

Quick Summary: Autobiography of an Australian professional triathlete and Ironman and the journey that took him to his wins at Kona.

My Take: Well, it probably does take a certain overdose of ego to become the world champion of an incredibly difficult endurance sport like Ironman.  But that aside, it's a very motivating and inspiring story and a neat insight into what it's like to be a professional athlete and to spend all your time training and racing.

Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley

Quick Summary: Cold Storage is a tiny outpost of a town accessible only by boat.  Given the isolation, it's only natural that the town is populated by a host of eccentric characters.  There's Clive, who returns after a stint in prison and opens a bar in an old shack with a lot of history.  There's Clive's brother Miles, the town's medic who's questing after a king salmon.  There's Little Brother, a brute of a dog who occasionally talks to Clive.  There's Billy, who decides to paddle in a kayak from Cold Storage to Seattle so he can meet the Dalai Lama.  There's Jake, the drug "kingpin" that Clive used to work for who follows Clive to Cold Storage to kill him.  And more!

My Take: The bizarre cast of characters is very entertaining.  The novel also captures the dichotomy of Alaska: a place that invokes desperation and despair because of its isolation, yet also ignites wonder and peace through the sheer power of its raw natural beauty.  

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

Quick Summary: When she is young, Rahima becomes a bacha posh (a girl dressed and treated as a boy), which introduces her to a wider world closed to other Afghan girls.  The story of her coming of age during the current conflict in Afghanistan is interwoven with that of her great-grandmother, a girl who also lived as a boy, but in the early 1900s.

My Take: This was a tough read.  It's interesting and informative about Afghan culture, but it also makes my blood boil to read about pre-teen girls being sold in marriage to 40-year-old men with three other wives, how the women are discarded if they do not deliver sons, and how they simply bow their heads and trudge on through their misery and expect that there is nothing else out there.  (Well, not always ... but no spoilers!)

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Quick Summary: Jack and Mabel leave the East after a heartbreaking tragedy to rebuild their life and rediscover their love in the remote wilderness of Alaska.  It's lonely and back-breaking, until Faina appears from the snowy woods and changes everything.

My Take: This is a beautiful reimagining of the Russian fairy tale of Snegurochka.  I love the setting in 1920s untamed Alaska, which is a character unto itself in the novel.  Eowyn Ivey is also fantastic at portraying the emotional lives of the main characters, and how the smallest action can cause such pain or such warmth in a close relationship.

"Life is always throwing us this way and that.  That's where the adventure is.  Not knowing where you'll end or how you'll fare.  It's all a mystery, and when we say any different, we're just lying to ourselves.  Tell me, when have you felt most alive?"

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Quick Summary: Udayan and Subhash are brothers growing up in Calcutta, caught up in the Naxalite movement in the 1960s.  They are extremely close until after university, when their paths begin to diverge and Subhash finds himself in New England.  A terrible tragedy with far-reaching consequences marks both their lives indelibly.

My Take: Whew, relationships!  Siblings, spouses, lovers, parents and children .... it's all tied into this novel at some point or another, and its heartbreaking to be reminded that sometimes one powerful event can influence every single facet of the twists and turns of a person's life thereafter.  I loved this book because there is nothing particularly special about the main characters ... they are not famous, they don't alter the course of history, they don't make some ground-breaking discovery ... but they live, they love, they hurt, they heal, and the story of their lives is tragic and beautiful and fundamentally no different than that of most of us on the face of this planet.  

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Quick Summary: Don Tillman is a genetics professor with Asperger syndrome.  He has always had a difficult time in social situations, so he decides to initiate 'The Wife Project' to find a suitable life partner.  He meets Rosie, a bartender, and quickly eliminates her as a viable option, but he agrees to help her with her own project to discover the identity of her biological father.

My Take: I've only seen The Big Bang Theory a couple times, but I could not shake the image of Sheldon out of my head for this entire novel, because Don is so similar.  Don is the first-person narrator of the novel, and it was really fun to be inside his head and see how he views the world because it makes sense, yet it's so very different from the average person's outlook.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Quick Summary: The story of the consequences of the choices made by one family living in the town of Shadbagh, Afghanistan.

My Take: There is no way to do a quick summary of this extremely complex novel.  The story is told from the perspectives of no less than five of the primary characters and catches up with them at different times over the course of their full lifetimes.  Once again, it's terrible how girls are treated in Afghanistan, and it's one particular heartbreaking incident that kicks off the series of events covered in this novel.  Like The Lowland, this is another story about life and the choices we make and what happens next and how things come together after years and years, or unexpectedly shatter instead.

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Quick Summary: Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love as teenagers, but find themselves separated when Ifemelu goes to the U.S. to study and Obinze, who can't get a visa, ends up undocumented in England.  Ifemelu's journey takes her through the struggles of being an immigrant in a foreign country, and gives her many experience with race in America.  Ultimately, both Obinze and Ifemelu find themselves back in Nigeria.

My Take: This was an extremely interesting read.  I'm not an immigrant, and that experience is COMPLETELY different than just living somewhere for a few years or passing through as a traveler. I also enjoyed Adichie's observations on race in America, although I don't agree with all of them.  But that's the sign of a good book-- it gets your blood heated up or the tears flowing; it gets you thinking!

The Extra Mile by Pam Reed

Quick Summary: Autobiography of the first lady to win the Badwater Ultramarathon ... and she did it twice!

My Take: As a runner, I always enjoy getting inside the heads of other runners.  Especially the ones who have blazed new trails, which is exactly what Pam Reed did as a woman in ultra running.  This book isn't particularly well written and it can get a little preachy and defensive, but now I want to do an ultra even more!!

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel

Quick Summary: Europe is a treasure trove of history in architecture and art, which is not exactly a priority for conservation during war.  Except to a small group of men who worked tirelessly during World War II to save Europe's greatest pieces from destruction by the Nazis.

My Take: I never knew before the extent of the deliberate looting campaign by the Nazis, nor did I know about Hitler's predilection for art.  I had also never before thought about the conservation of Europe's treasures as the war decimated so much of the continent, so I enjoyed reading about the Monuments Men mission and their successes.  I'm sure it's not usually a priority for military commanders, and is probably a frustration when they're trying to achieve a mission objective, but it's nice to know that there's someone out there thinking beyond the immediate life-or-death battle to the other things that can become victims of a conflict.

Have you read any of these books?  What'd you think?

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