Friday, July 31, 2015

Beans and Birthdays

I have rarely been able to discuss the books with the people who chose them, so this week I was delighted to share breakfast with the guy who tried to abuse my poor math skills and get eight books onto the list. We negotiated down to three, with one to be read at a later date. His taste hews to non-fiction, but beyond that, it was very eclectic. Let's see what is of interest to one of my husband's oldest friends. 

#53 – Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
Recommended by: KS

In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,00 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter.

The text on the front cover of the book sums it up succinctly. What you think about the book will be based on what you think of the McCandless. Is he a saint or a savant? The book explains what led him to the fateful trip to Alaska, what could have caused his death, and throws in a few other stories of people who died under similar circumstances to give you a broader view. The author also interjects himself in to the story, a year before he did so much more spectacularly in Into Thin Air.

It is an interesting book. I remember, years ago, talking to a friend about surfer culture and how surfers spend time making money, then time just riding the waves, and I remember snarking that, “their parents must be so proud of them.” Age and experience have taught me that maybe taking time to do what you love is something to be proud of, and as long as you are supporting yourself, and not hurting others, to each his own. Therein lies the rub. His death hurt a lot of people. Should he still have taken his journey? It’s so hard to say. I think this book will stay with me for a very long time because it didn’t provide an easy answer to one of life’s most fundamental questions – Does making oneself happy override the happiness of others? I urge those of you who have not read it to do so and try to come up with your own answer.

#54 – Founding Brothers – Joseph Ellis
Recommended by: KS

No event in American history, which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.

The book then shows us why, using several moments in time that changed America. This sounds like an awesome read in theory, not so much in practice. This book was dry as toast. It wasn’t boring; it was just devoid of any emotion other than rabid interest. Imagine being stuck in a room with a gaggle of history nerds while they discussed the minutia of a dinner party that happened two hundred years ago and was filled with people who all seemed completely interchangeable. That is what reading this book was like. People did not have conversations; they had ongoing dialogue or intense discourse. The preface alone nearly killed me. The author never used one word when he could use fourteen. His use of grammar was excellent as I’ve never seen commas used to such great effect in extending a sentence so that it had the weight and heft of a full paragraph. I thought the history of Lincoln would be the most unwieldy of the books on the list, but this one was by far much harder to digest. It was just so wordy. (Coming from a blogger, I understand the irony of that statement.) I admit that there was some (gasp!) skimming involved. I just couldn’t really dive into this book without drowning in a sea of vocabulary on topics that the author rendered so colorless. A chapter on the infamous duel between Hamilton and Burr was as thrilling as the goblin wars as told by Professor Binns. I think the author got in his own way quite a bit by over-explaining, over-analyzing, and just overwriting to the point of lunacy. If this part of history is your thing, then by all means, dive in. For the rest of us, here there be dragons.

#55 – What is the What – Dave Eggers
Recommended by: KS

                I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.

Thus begins what I can only refer to as the Story of Job as lived by a Sudanese Lost Boy. The prologue makes it very clear that Dave Eggers is not the author. This is a true life account; an only barely fictionalized, horrifying, unbelievable, yet utterly realistic account of what Valentino Dominic Achak Deng lived through. It is occasionally funny in ways that are both sad and ridiculous, but it is never anything less than memorable.

There is a section in the book where Achak visits Nairobi for the first time and this visit happens to coincide with the death of Princess Diana. As people mourn in the street and his hosts are visibly traumatized, Achak, not understanding the customs of death outside of Sudan, wonders if this is how everyone is mourned when they pass. Only much later does he realize that it was her fame that made anyone care, but that when an anonymous man is killed, or thousands of men, women, and children are slaughtered in what can only be termed genocide, that people are oddly unaffected. Considering how the entire Internet seems to have lost its damn mind over Cecil the Lion this week, I think his observation still stands.

This is another book that I think should be required reading. Yes, it is violent. Yes, it is heartbreaking. But it is necessary for people to understand what they stories they see on the news don’t end when they change the channel. Those stories continue, but no one seems to care about them anymore. Achak talks about refugee camps being built in the most desolate, unwanted, unlivable places and then being stuck in them not for month, but for years. Years! Think about your worst night of camping, take away all of your camping supplies, and multiple the length of time past the point of all logic and reason – that is what his life was like – and that was after he survived so many other traumatic events that I am not even sure how he was still able to think or speak, let alone tell such a clear story in such a cohesive manner. The worst part is that I just checked out his website and everything he talked about in the books is still happening! It isn’t ancient history, or even the recent past. This is now. Read this book. Please. I dare you not to look at the world differently afterward. 

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