Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Books I Read in 2014

Warrior of God: Jan Zizka and the Hussite Revolution - Victor Verney
I am no great student of military tactics, nor am I familiar with the history of the Czech people. I found this book mentioned in the footnotes of some Wikipedia article that I stumbled onto and decided to give it a read. If you have no idea about the background, the countless religious and political leaders mentioned in background chapters can be a bit dizzying, but in the end it doesn't really matter that much because once the narrative finally turns to Zizka and his military campaigns, you realize you don't need to understand all the context to appreciate the man's genius. Zizka took on the Holy Roman Empire with relatively small armies of farmers and was successful, based on brilliantly innovative tactics and tight discipline.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain
Changed the way I look at the world. I didn't realize that I am fairly extroverted and that my approach to all activities and situations was based on my assumptions that people all thought the same way as me. The big point here is that introversion isn't really something "to overcome". Introverted people bring depth of feeling and thoughtfulness that extroverts can sometimes lack. Also, while I may get a huge buzz from being the center of a social event, a more introverted person may feel drained by the same experience, and would better "recharge" by spending some quiet time alone. Most youth activities I have been involved in were based in extroversion. Perhaps, more balance would be nice.

Divergent - Veronica Roth
I have read my share of dystopian literature (The Time Machine, When The Sleeper Awakes, We, Brave New World, Animal Farm, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Chrysalids, Atlas Shrugged, The Giver, Hunger Games, etc), and Divergent is clearly the least thought-provoking, least allegorical of the lot. It seems like one person's answer to the question: "If I were to write my own Hunger-Games-esque trilogy, here is how I would do it." It borrows characteristics from various teen books I've read in recent years and puts them together into a successful new story. There's the bleak, dystopian setting from the Hunger Games, the in-school rivalries and friendships from Harry Potter, and the seemingly-plain-but-somehow-irresistible girl at the center of an intense love triangle from Twilight/Hunger Games. Seriously, the middle third of the story seems agonizingly similar to Twilight's endless procession of tense romantic scenes.

Divergent certainly borrows from those other teen series, but here's what's missing:
1) Wit -- there's little of that, which Harry Potter had in spades (I'm not saying HP was perfect, though);
2) Consistent Scope -- The city-state they live in is large enough to have mass transit and armies and wars and anonymity, but it is also so small that the population of 16-year-olds is less than 100 (ie: 20 or less per faction). Since they all went to the same school leading up to initiation to adulthood, how is it they don't already know everyone their age from the other factions? Also, since everyone seems to be under 50, this caps the total population at about 5,000 people (excluding the factionless minority), or the size of a small town, yet they populate most of the Chicago metro area. Of this small population, a substantial proportion are involved in administrative, scholarly or seemingly-unnecessary paramilitary pursuits, so it is incomprehensible how this economy functions.
3) Relevant Backstory -- The author spends very little time explaining why or how this society came to be. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a convenient backdrop for the story, rather than a part of the story itself, which is a shame. As a result, This is less of a political/social allegory and more of a touchy-feely teen romance. I am sure the later books dig deeper into the history, but I would have gladly traded away a few dozen repetitive romantic scenes or training descriptions for some more exposition.
4) Reasons to be Angry -- You know how Harry Potter often lashes out at his friends in unreasonable ways to serve the needs of the plot? Well, there's plenty of that here. Pretty inconsistent personalities.
R has now read the 2nd book and she says that the story is enjoyable but she predicts that I would HATE all the petty drama that fills the pages. She's probably right.

The Mouse and the Motorcycle - Beverly Cleary
Runaway Ralph - Beverly Cleary
Ralph S. Mouse - Beverly Cleary
When I was young I read pretty much every book Beverly Cleary ever wrote. I read them all multiple times. Now that Scott is graduating from simple picture books, I wanted to open his eyes to the glory of novels, starting with some of the very best. At first I had hoped that he would be able to read them himself, with a little help, but instead he lies on the floor before bedtime and listens while I read. He makes the "pb-b-b-b-b" sound for the motorcycle whenever that comes up, and he leaps to his feet to see the illustrations, which come up about once per chapter. As we have approached the end of each book he has suddenly told me to stop reading for a moment and darted out the room, coming back carrying the next book in the series. It's like he had a fear of finishing a book without having the next one already in view. I love it.

One Day in August - David O'Keefe
For 70 years the story of the Allied landing at Dieppe has been as sad as the D-Day invasion at Normandy has been inspiring. On both beaches hundreds of Canadians lost their lives, but for decades no one could really explain what the Canadians had died for at Dieppe. I have stood at the Canadian cemetery in Beny-sur-Mer while a choir sang "In Flanders Fields" to a group of Canadian WWII veterans, and I have powerful emotions associated with the Allied landings in France. This book was a master-work in historical sleuthing, putting the trickle of declassified documents together to explain the immense value of the code-breaking targets that were the secret goal of Dieppe. I loved everything about this book.

Henry Huggins - Beverly Cleary
The Ralph S. Mouse books were great, but these Henry Huggins books are probably even better! Henry is just a few years older than Scott is, and everything he does completely resonates with Scott. During the chapter about picking worms to earn money for a football, Scott pulled out my worn leather football and held it the whole time, clearly imagining himself on every page.

A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller Jr
Motivated by my review of Divergent, I decided I needed to go back and read a dystopian classic that had always intrigued me. My older brother C read this one in school and I always thought the description on the back about the "blessed blueprint" sounded super-bizarre. It does not disappoint.

The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day - Cornelius Ryan
On June 6 (D-Day) I watched the film version on Netflix and then I ordered the e-book. It was awesome to get so much more of the background for each of the characters and scenes in this movie which has been a staple in our family. This was probably the first time I had watched the film since our trip to Normandy in 2006. The places and names really came alive to me now that I have walked the streets and the beaches.

Flash Boys - Michael Lewis
I picked it because it was one of the titles in the Kindle Unlimited program. The language was excessive, but I cannot imagine a better book to illustrate the dynamics of the High Frequency Trading and other side effects of our rapidly changing equity markets.

Revolution By Murder - James McGrath Morris
This was a little freebie in the Kindle Unlimited catalogue. I had never heard of the robber baron Henry Clay Frick, let alone the anarchist who came to Pittsburgh to assassinate him in 1892. A great snapshot into a remarkable historical event. Recommend.

Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World - Gillen D'Arcy Wood
I have encountered a few mentions of the "year without a summer" or "eighteen-hundred and froze to death" in connection with other historical events, and I knew that the horrible weather and famines were eventually connected to the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1814. The idea that some mountain on the other side of the world could explode and it could ruin the world's weather for years kind of freaks me out, so I wanted to know more. If you need a historically-based reason to stockpile grain in your basement, this is the book for you. Countless places in Asia and Europe struggled with food shortages and high grain prices because government storage was insufficient or non-existent. If each home had its own storage, fewer families would have needed to give up their children to slavery or death. This is less of a concern for me in today's day and age, but I can see how storage in every home could go a long way to make shortages less acute.

The Marathon Man - William Goldman
Another Kindle Unlimited freebie. I had never heard of this book (or the 1976 movie), but I guess it was kind of a big deal back in the day. I ate it up like candy. It was a bit like reading a James Bond book -- far-fetched plot, but quite entertaining.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century - Thomas Piketty
Described as "the magnum opus of the French economist Thomas Piketty".


lynne said...

Oh, I love how you write!

Coco Shirley said...

I love this post. I vote for more book posts!!!
This is the perfect review of Divergent. I read them, and I did enjoy the story/went through it fast. But it was kind of like eating little debbies products--as soon as you're done you think "why did I eat that?? I don't even know what that was made of but it's not real food." I read the last one with a friend, and it was torturous. It was not enjoyable in any way. You keep telling yourself it will get better as it slides downhill. The first one is the best, and I would stick with that experience if I was you.
Also - loved the Quiet review. I've seen a lot of people read it but felt nervous it would make me feel bad for being a talker haha.