Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review--The Man Who Quit Money

In the modern age, where success is often measured by one’s bank account and financial portfolio, the story of a man who walked away from that version of the American Dream might not resonate fully.... unless that story revolves around Daniel Suelo, whose transition from an average, comfortable existence to a life freed from the restraints of financial burdens reads like a hero’s quest, a quest for redemption, for self-discovery, and ultimately for his own soul. 
Daniel Suelo’s life is eloquently documented in the recent book, The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen, whose own fascination with Suelo has spanned 20 years. Daniel resurfaced in Sundeen’s mind shortly after the financial collapse of 2008, when money, and the increasing struggle to manage without it, were on everyone’s minds. In no way a social outcast, Suelo was a presence on the internet, with his own blog, maintained from regular visits to libraries and friends’ homes, and Sundeen found himself captivated once more by this man who had bucked the system in a big way, and  who had come out the other side with a life, in Suelo’s terms, of “abundance”.
Determined to explore this alternative version of abundance, which by any modern measure is the antithesis of the definition of “having plenty”, the author convinced Suelo that the story of his life had resonance in this world of over-consumption and stress. Suelo allowed Sundeen into his world for several months, agreeing to the book project in a manner reflective of his all-or-nothing approach to life...  not a thing would be held back, all the chapters of his life would be wide open, including the painful ones. 
Struggling with faith in a deeply religious family, and reluctantly coming to terms with being gay, Suelo fought the conventional world, always feeling unfulfilled and incomplete, until one day he reached the breaking point, and drove his car off a cliff on the road to Mt. Evans. Having searched throughout the world for his spiritual “center” and failing in his attempt to end his life, Suelo made the very conscious choice to end his dependence on money, meticulously paying off all debts, until, in the ultimate terminal act, he left his final thirty dollars in a phone booth and headed out into the deserts of Moab, Utah.
Like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, which details Chris McCandless’s own journey of enlightenment, The Man Who Quit Money deftly integrates the before-and-after aspects of Daniel Suelo’s life, clarifying a trajectory that seems inevitable. Living each moment consciously, guided by self-imposed rules of conduct--refusing charity, owning nothing but the clothes on his back and items found while dumpster-diving--Suelo thrives on what the rest of humanity discards. The basic process of living becomes deliberate and meaningful, something many modern people have lost. 
Whether admiring of or critical of Suelo’s chosen lifestyle, one cannot help but be fascinated by the conscious nature of his decision to live without money. The Man Who Quit Money is not just about a life without cash to purchase creature comforts, rather it is a respectful homage to a culture that used to be the norm. Like Chris McCandless before him, Daniel Suelo has managed to live life close to the bone, but unlike the unlucky youth documented in Krakauer’s book, Daniel Suelo continues the experiment, with no signs of giving up. Taking even a page from his well-worn book might just save us all from ourselves in this rat race we call life.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Seraphina

           Seraphina, a YA fantasy novel by Rachel Hartman was a book I had been looking forward to for months, one that I might have done anything to get. Of course I bought it the moment it came out. Because of my hype, if Seraphina turned out to be even a hair below expectations... well, the result would not be pretty. Thankfully, Rachel Hartman did not fail me. The book was very, very good, and thank goodness, or I might have broken something.
        Seraphina follows a talented musician named Seraphina Dombegh, a girl with a secret. In a world where dragons take human shape, and live with humans in uneasy truce, Seraphina has a foot in both worlds, and no one can know.
        The world-building in this book is fantastic. The dragons were unique and amazing, the city felt alive and the history was believable. However, what really stuck out about this book was Phina herself. I loved her. I really did. She was smart, brave and talented. But also terribly lonely and distrustful (for good reason!). She was believable and lovable, and I would have followed her to the ends of the earth.
        Wonderful side characters abound, some of my favorites being Orma, Lars and Glisselda, and no one is in the slightest way one dimensional, friend or foe.
        There is an adorable and clean romance between Seraphina and Lucian Kiggs, captain of the guard, which was very believable and sweet. It was also refreshing that the romance was not the only point of the book, merely a wonderful sort of side plot, because so many YA books fall into the sappy romance trap, foregoing all aspects of plot.
       Ultimately, Seraphina is a book that celebrates love. Love for family, a craft, friends, a country, the kind of love that is pure and overpowering. Love is not a disease.
Seraphina was a five star of book for me. Combine awesome world building, wit and humor, powerful characters and concepts and some good old fashioned intrigue, and you have one awesome book on your hands. Thank you, Rachel Hartman.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review--Violence 101

    What makes some people violent and others not? Is it nature or nurture that determines the tendency to inflict pain on others? Interesting topic, certainly, and one that could form the backbone for a fascinating novel--or NOT--in the case of Violence 101, New Zealand author, Denis Wright's take on the subject of violence in youth.
     Presented as a series of journal entries by rebellious, smart, and yes, violent teen, Hamish Graham, Violence 101 is a shallow attempt to study a youngster who has chosen a path of violence... and in some cases extremely graphic and disturbing violence. With rare moments of complexity, the story revolves around a boy who is completely aware of his violent tendencies, and who revels in them, making the journal entries a narcissistic romp through the kid's self-centered imaginings.
   The boy, Hamish Graham glorifies war, finds everyone else around him to be stupid, and has delusions of grandeur that are lamely destroyed as the story comes to a climax. The resolution of the narrative is flat and uninspiring, and I felt no compulsion to pity or even to understand the boy, which I think was the intended point. I disliked him at the beginning and I disliked him at the end. Final word--I disliked the book!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Review--The Challenge of Rainier

      Living in and around mountains, as we do in Summit County, we learn to have an appreciation and a respect for the high limits of our peaks. This fondness for the alpine experience is a sentiment shared by renowned mountaineer, Dee Molenaar, whose career has spanned many decades, and whose book, The Challenge of Rainier, recently marked its 40th Anniversary in 2011, with the release of the updated 4th Edition, including a new Foreword by legendary climber, Ed Viesturs. 
Dee Molenaar’s name was already familiar to me from K2-The Savage Mountain, Charles Houston’s account of the infamous and epic 1953 attempt on the world’s second highest peak. Molenaar’s experience on that Karakoram giant was shared by Summit County’s own legendary sportsman, Robert Craig, founder of the Keystone Science School and The Keystone Center.
What I did not know, until reading the dense, but engaging pages of Molenaar’s The Challenge of Rainier, was that he and Bob Craig had met before, sharing a climbing rope for their own adventure on Mount Rainier. “Dee and I did the first direct ascent of the Nisqually Icefall in 1947,” Craig said about his collaboration with Molenaar.  “In 1953, we were teammates on the memorable American K2 Expedition.  Dee was the ideal companion in high places - - steady, courageous, unselfish, and above all, humorous.” 
Aware that the 14,410 foot volcano is unique in the annals of mountaineering lore, I was prepared for a thorough documentary, but Molenaar’s deep knowledge of the mountain’s history impressed me. Unlike many authors who have documented historic climbs, Molenaar goes far beyond describing his own many years of experiences on the peak’s ridges and faces, choosing, instead, to detail Rainier’s mystical status throughout history, beginning well before the Europeans first spotted the massive peak rising above the waters of the Puget Sound.
Carefully documenting the volcano’s geologic birth, and the resulting distinct features that make the mountain such a coveted prize for mountaineers, Molenaar proceeds to “climb” the many routes on the mountain, as they were conquered, one by one since the first adventurers climbed up in their wool jackets and hob-nailed boots, often carrying nothing more than an alpenstock and a pocketful of prunes. 
The precision of Molenaar’s descriptions often tended toward tedium, but being an “arm chair” fan of mountaineering literature for many years, and thus having become familiar with much of the terminology, I persevered, gaining a true feel of the mountain’s challenging contours, which clearly should never be underestimated. Many casual climbers have journeyed up its slopes, confident of their abilities to master the mountain, but the unpredictable nature of Rainier’s location in the Cascade Range, which can receive immense amounts of heavy snowfall, and the dynamic array of glaciers, steam caves, and avalanche-prone slopes, all conspire to keep Rainier’s upper summits (3 named--Columbia Crest, Point Success, and Liberty Cap) unattainable for all but the most capable of people. 
Clearly, Molenaar was himself perfectly capable of navigating the many summit approaches, having studied the details from below and meticulously recording his beloved mountain through painstaking drawings from every angle. The Challenge of Rainier is filled with these sketches, exhibiting the author’s passion for the mountain upon which he honed the craft of mountaineering and guiding.
Countless lifelong climbing careers began on the slopes of Rainier, and Molenaar covers many of them, detailing the transitions ambitious youths made from eager beginners, diligently toe-kicking their way up the snowy inclines to the ranks of mature and highly-trained guides, rangers, or high-altitude expedition leaders. Numerous climbers, with their sights set on the most coveted of trophies, Mount Everest, sharpened their skills on Rainier, where weather patterns and the varied terrain mimic much of what is found on the highest peak in the world. 
Of course, chronicles of mountaineering feats would not be complete without an examination of the tragedies that are inherent to the sport. Rainier has seen its share of fatal missteps and accidents, but rather than making them the main feature of the narrative, as in many other similar chronicles, Molenaar allowed first-hand accounts from witnesses to speak for the deceased and for their places in the mountain’s fabled history.
As my reading of The Challenge of Rainier came to a close, I marveled at how much I had learned about this spectacular mountain, whose grandeur is often overlooked because it has the good fortune of being on our own continent, in close proximity to a major U.S. city, rather than in some far-off exotic land. Dee Molenaar is a convincing advocate for this nation’s own “mountaineer’s mountain”. Mount Rainier is worthy of attention and reverence, and his finely-crafted book is a testament to that.