The Serpent and The Rainbow

CLJ Reviews the Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis

[Editor's Note: this post is by Book Club's Phil "Hashbrown" Skipper and conforms in no way to the structure that all other write-ups follow. And that is what it, like Phil, is superawesome and un-containable. Enjoy!]

Lately, as I’m reading a book, I’ll write down words whose definitions I don’t yet know, or did know and have now forgotten.  These lists of words usually end up filling an entire bookmark, usually the receipt of the book I’ve bought.  These bookmark-receipts become mini time-capsules, thermochromic records of the time and place of purchase, scribbled over with a seemingly unrelated miscellany of words.  Below is a copy of one such list, taken from the 1985 Warner Books Edition of The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis, with page numbers preceding the words (what can I say – I’m thorough).

7 unctuous 10 etoliated 13 perfunctory 47 desuetude 50 neem 50 peristyle 54 desultory 56 curanderos 57 scabrous 63 negativistic 71 quiescent 74 chromatic 78 sisal 78 calabash 80 caserne 81 canebrake 81 lakou 98 bagi 112 cabalistic 114 cako 125 urticating 126 vermifuge 183 convoi 221 undifferentiated 216 mapou 268 bathos 299 inimical

Sometimes I’ll look up a word and learn its meaning.  I rarely remember the definitions, but take pleasure in the feeling of discovery some people have when learning a foreign language.  Take “unctuous” for example:

unc·tu·ous
[uhngk-choo-uh]
–adjective
1.  characterized by excessive piousness or moralistic fervor, esp. in an affected manner; excessively smooth, suave, or smug.
2.  of the nature of or characteristic of an unguent or ointment; oily; greasy.
3.  having an oily or soapy feel, as certain minerals
Origin:
1350–1400;  ME < ML ?nctu?sus,  equiv. to L ?nctu ( s ) act of anointing ( ung ( uere ) to smear, anoint + -tus  suffix of v. action) + -?sus

If reading that doesn’t make you want to go out right now and read The Serpent and the Rainbow, then you are an unctuous dummkopf.  Dummkopf!

If still curious, it’s about swashbuckling ethnobotanical drugged-out creole slave rebellion.  With zombies.

Non-fiction.

The White Tiger

CLJ Reviews The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

What We Read

For my second book, I choice The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. My choice this time was simple – It had recently won the Booker, it had a colourful book jacket and, well, let’s face it books set in India, full of sensual delights always seem to be a hit. The White Tiger didn’t disappoint, sparking some fiery debate regarding the moral fibre of the protagonist, and musings on how the path from poverty to riches can change someone forever. The story is of how Balram, the son of a richshaw puller  in the darkness of rural India, learns to drive and begins working as a chauffeur for  a rich family in Dehli, “The Light”. From the air-conditioned confines of his spacious Honda City which he shuttles daily from Shopping Mall to luxury condo tower – Balram gains increasing exposure to a world of wealth and privilege which remains firmly closed to him. Near the end of the book he decides to make his move and build an entrepreneurial empire – not without making some serious moral compromise. I won’t give all of it away, but suffice it to say that Balram’s odyssey against the rollicking world of an India beset by social, economic and technological change is a great read and was a hit with the CLJ.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

The White Tiger features a periodic running correspondence between two high ranking officials in India and China. After all, this is the age of China and India’s global ascendancy. In honour of this historic rise, I staged a simple trivia game based on the geography, history and natural history of the two countries. I had been strongly critiqued for a much, much too complicated challenge on my last choice, the Zanzibar Chest, so I decided to keep this one simple. One contestant was still pretty challenged, answering “Mountain” for every question. He didn’t win the trophy.

What We Thought

The book was generally well received by the group who appreciated its lively depictions of India on the rise and the protagonist’s (mis) adventures. Our converstation became pretty much stuck on debating the moral integrity of the protagonist and whether the actions he took to rise to wealth were justifiable or morally wrong. There was some pretty deep division on this issue which made for a really energetic conversation.

As told by Godfrey von Bismarck…

The Zanzibar Chest

CLJ Reviews The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley

What We Read

I read the Zanzibar chest during a booze filled week in Mexico. At the time it seemed like a rollicking good read – chronicling the journeys of Aiden Hartley, a BBC journalist through African conflict zones of the late 90’s. A parallel back story is provided sketching the experience of Hartley’s father as a Lawrence of Arabia-type administrator in the Middle East of the 1920’s. The two Africa’s make for an interesting portrait of how the continent was changed and in a lot of ways, worsened by colonialism. Some of the more riveting parts of the book take place in the bombed out street of Mogadishu, Somalia, with Hartely right in the thick of marauding militia.  Hartley’s experience is typical of the privileged African British White Man who grew up with one foot in Africa and the other in Britain – ultimately at home in neither.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

The game I designed was very involved, and, dare I say, ambitious. A lot of wine flowed before we got to what was supposed to be a mish mash of Risk, Trivial Pursuit and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego [Editor's note: none of this was close to apparent during the explanation and there was also an element of Balderdash in there somewhere, except Godfrey made his lovely fiance/wife Maya judge everyone's answers, which was as awkward as it was hilarious] ….Fine, I’ll admit that I really can’t remember what the challenge was. All I know is that it was a gong show. Prizes of chocolate from Downtown Chocolatier Mink were handed out to soothe somewhat befuddled and flustered participants.

What We Thought

As I said, I loved this book as a quick read on a Mexico beach. It did not stand up well under the critical reading of the CLJ. People condemned its self-indulged lengthiness and the equally self-centred perspective of Hartley, too cowardly and removed from the horrors around him to step out from behind his journalist notepad and actually try to alleviate suffering.  Strong debate also sprung up about the soporific drug, Qaat, which is featured prominently in several chapters – chewed sullenly by local tribesmen and the protagonist himself. There was insinuation by some participants that legalized drugs fuelled conflict. Needless to say the book was a bit of a flop, but it did not disappoint in creating a raucous evening of wine, and, by association, Qaat.

As told by Godfrey von Bismarck…

CLJ Reviews The World Without Us

CLJ Reviews The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

What We Read

In The World Without Us, author Alan Weisman considers a planet Earth where, one day, humans simply disappeared. No plague, no meteor strike. Weisman simply imagined a planet where we vanished into thin air. Why? He wanted to think about the planet in terms of how it exists now with buildings and houses and dams and nuclear power plants. Weisman, asks us to think about how long it would take the planet to return to its natural state without humans around to muck it up? To answer this question Weisman takes us on a  369 page journey of edu-tainment. He interviews crews who work below the earth’s surface in New York’s Subway, working everyday to literally keep the ocean out of their tunnels. He considers rubber tires and the many millennia it would take to see them disappear (if they disappear at all). The whole tour of decay and time kicks off with your home and how easily water could destroy it in less than 100 years. Weisman does a remarkable job considering all the angles and weaving a planetary story for his audience.

What We Did (And How We Did It)

For this particular book club, I asked the group to read a short excerpt from a Danny Hillis, which appeared in Wired Magazine in 1995 and ultimately gave rise to the Long Now Foundation. In the article, Hillis considers the concept of time and how humans can’t possible consider their planetary future when it’s clear we have trouble envisioning our world 100 years in the future. I asked each group to consider their own version of a long-now clock and whether it would be artificial or nature-made. The winning clock was the concept of a waterfall, designed to flow in balance with its surroundings and give way to natural signs each time 10,000 years passed by. After this activity, which was designed to get people thinking about the concept of Earth-Time, we launched into our discussion.

What We Thought

I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the group appreciated the book. There were points in Weisman’s work where each of us felt we needed a breather from the content. There was also some disagreement with regard to Weisman’s solution to our current misuse of the planet. Oh, and everyone shuddered when they read of the future of A) our nuclear reactors B) the oil fields near Houston and C) the plastics floating about our oceans. But All in all, I would recommend this book to just about anyone who’s has a passing interest in their home, the concept of time, plastic and babies. Now you’ll just have to read the book to discover what all of those things have in common.

The Stone Carvers

CLJ Reviews The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart

What We Read

The Canadian Novel is a theme the CLJ picks up every now and then with varying degrees of enjoyment by all involved. Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers was one of the better ones.

Spanning centuries, the novel examines the relationship between what you want and what you do once you get it through multiple intertwined narratives centred on a small town in Ontario. The story opens with the complex tale of Catholic priest Father Gstir’s journey from Austria to the small town of Shoneval. Upon arrival, he builds a brewery and church, receives the bell he worked so hard to acquire, and promptly dies. Fast forwarding a number of decades we are introduced to the main characters of the book: Klara, Tilman, Eamon and Refuto.

Klara and Tilman are siblings, born to the wood carver who helped Father Gstir construct his church in the wilderness. As a young woman, Klara tragically falls in love with the poetic Irish-Canadian neighbour Eamon, who then leaves to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force and fight in WWI. As a boy, Tilman is unable to stay in one place, and ends up (literally) breaking the chains of family to travel the road as a hobo, also ending up in the trenches. Kindly Refuto provides comic relief as well as space for Tilman’s strange wanderlust to grow into with his cryptic, reverse sentences and double negatives; “Refuto does not make those sentences.” Eamon is killed in the fighting, and Tilman’s leg is wounded, making his wandering existence difficult.

Ultimately Klara and Tilman end up in Vimy Ridge, carving the Canadian war memorial and in doing so find what they always wanted: healing, love and closure from the various traumas they had suffered. Klara, pretending to be a man, secretly falls for Giorgio, an Italian-Canadian carver. Tilman meanwhile discovers his sexuality in a local French chef, Recouvrir (hilariously translatable as ‘to recover’). Happy endings are in store…

The use of the Vimy Ridge Memorial is an interesting one. The mass psyche of Canadians was supposed to find solace for its collective sacrifice at this memorial. Perhaps Klara, Tilman and Giorgio represent a particular demographic within that mass; the ex-soldier, abandoned lover and talented artist.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

Passionate discussion was followed by flying soap chips. The trophy was awarded to the most interesting or entertaining bar-of-soap monument to the novel’s innermost soul. Unsurprisingly, the trophy was awarded our resident storyteller and overachieving book clubber, John Horn, for his multi-dimensional cloud structure. The soap has subsequently been used in our daily showers. Fun, efficient, and sustainable? That’s the CLJ spirit!

What We Thought

Overall the novel was enjoyed by most, with particular mention going to the character development of Klara and Tilman as well as the curiously successful narrative device weaving multiple time lines and generations. Frustration was expressed at the seemingly boundless prose frequently employed by Jane Urquhart to describe quite ordinary moments. Further annoyance was centred on the sheer stupidity of some characters, most notably Eamon, but what is a good read without some outright distain for a fake person?

As told by Stewart Burgess …

Primary Colors

CLJ Reviews Primary Colors by Joe Klein

What We Read

Primary Colors is the story of Bill Clin…– no wait, I mean Jack Stanton. Jack is the rogue governor of a place few people have heard of. He’s running for President of the United States and is in the primary run of his life. During his run, he successfully dodges a number of “bimbo eruptions”, conspires with his strategists and wife, and charms the pants (sometimes literally) off just about anyone he meets. Slowly we discover a politician, though deeply flawed, who has vision and is the real deal.

The story is told from the perspective of his close young black aide Henry Burton. Henry is a political strategist who from the start is wary of Clin – I mean Stanton’s foibles. Yet, like just about everyone else around him, he recognizes a great candidate when he sees one and like Bernstein to a scandal, is inextricably drawn to in to what is a campaign of a life time.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

The CLJ staged a mock election. Candidates were asked to submit their campaign platforms (as well as whether they would be running or a delegate prepared to be wooed for their vote) and the whole race was covered throughout the month by a number of intrepid journalists (gamely played by me) who fed off rumours and innuendo fed by various campaigns about their opponents sending out “dispatches” every week to the group. The end run of the book club finished with campaign debates and a final vote.

What We Thought

Sadly for this book club organizer, only about half the book club read the book. Of those who read it, opinion was split down the middle. There were those who raved about it, considering its nuanced and fast paced narrative thrilling. There were those who felt it dragged on about a hundred and fifty pages to long.  General consensus was this was a book that gives you a good idea of the ongoing crisis-fueled nature of presidential politics. Personally, I couldn’t put the book down (neither the first time nor the second time). But then I’m a bit of a political junky who loves the insider’s perspective of what seems to be the mother of all runs. Ultimately, this story is probably one of the best political thrillers, up there with Penn Warner’s classic All the Kings Men. If you want something highly readable that gives you a good idea of the inner workings of one of America’s most successful presidents, this book is for you.

As told by Kurt Heinrich…

The Time Traveler’s Wife

CLJ Reviews The Time Traveler’s Wife

What We Read

The Time Traveler’s Wife was written by Audrey Niffenegger. This book is for anyone who was ever fascinated in time travel, romance and potentially creepy situations involving a young girl and her older spouse who’s flipping in and out of space time. It follows the lives of two people, Henry and Clare. Henry is a time traveler (by birth) and both of them are in love with each other almost from the start. Through a number of key points in the narrative Henry influences the life and love of his future bride. In the meantime, older Clare pines for Henry and worries about his safety as he frequently disappears. Oh and they have sex – a lot of sex. This is a pretty spicy book, a love affair from both points of view with a sci-fi twist reminiscent of the Terminator (though sadly sans beefy Arnold).

What We Did (And How We Did It)

The Circle of Literary Judgement likes to change things up from time to time. When my book club choice fell right around the premier of the film, The Time Traveler’s Wife, I decided to host a movie date as part of the discussion. It started out strong. Almost everyone in the group enjoyed the story. Unfortunately, after seeing the movie, our memory of how much we loved the story began to fade and was slowly replaced with script and character mis-use. It really is true: most of the time, the book will always be better than the movie – except for Contact, with apologies to the late Carl Sagan. That movie rocked, unlike The Time Traveler’s Wife.

What We Thought

We loved the book and hated the movie. The end. Well, not quite. There was enough plot development to keep even the hardest sells in our group interested and Niffenegger is undeniable in her ability to take the reader on an emotional roller coaster. To bad the movie was so horrible and we are a co-ed book club and not one comprised only of women. Although some of the guys found the story somewhat tedious and overly focused on the romance of it all (not to mention occasionally morally questionable nature of Henry), the book remains an all-time favorite of mine, one I hope to return to again and again.

Ender’s Game

CLJ Reviews Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

What We Read

Ender’s Game is one of Orson Scott Card’s many sci-fi books. It is arguably his best and the winner of both Hugo and Nebula awards. Usually if a book wins one of the those you should consider reading it. If it gets two, well… enough said.

Set in an earth of the near future, humanity has twice been attacked by the buggers – a race of insectoids who appear to be seeking our destruction. To protect itself, humanity has come together and developed a program where the best and brightest children are sent to space and trained to become military leaders. Humanity’s existence is at stake and these future “game-changing” generals are our last best hope for survival. The book follows one child, Ender, who has particularly remarkable potential. We travel into space to “Battle School” with Ender. There he competes with other children and gradually climbs the ladder to lead humanity’s armies against the buggers.

What We Did (and How We Did It)

We discussed the book. Nothing too exciting this time around. [Editor's note: Kurt undersells himself - I'm pretty sure that there was a quiz somewhere in there].

What We Thought

The general consensus of Ender’s Game was overwhelmingly positive. The narrative was fast paced. The writing was simple, but powerful. The characters vivid. But most important of all, the book (like much science fiction) allowed us to evaluate our present through the prism of the fictional future. Can we strip ourselves of our humanity in the process of protecting it? What does power mean? Were the actions of the adults in Ender’s game reprehensible or ultimately supremely responsible? Why was the story told from the perspective of children.

We discussed all of these questions and many more. It was a lively conversation and for some book club members, their first time reading a sci-fi book. I don’t think we could have found a better introduction to the genre.

As told by Kurt Heinrich…

Late Nights on Air

CLJ Reviews Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

What We Read

Late Nights on Air is the story of a small town radio station in Whitehorse, Yukon in 1975 and the people who work there – both on and off air. You’re slowly introduced to each character and eventually you learn why each of them arrived in Northern Canada and whether they were running toward a fresh future or from a destructive past. The story builds until it reaches its climax, a group canoe trip among four main characters up through the Northern Tundra and back home during the summer season. Late Nights on Air, fairly accurately, chronicles the story of the controversial Mackenzie valley gas pipeline and how citizen-led engagement and the leadership of one out-spoken politician succeeded in shutting it down. Elizabeth Hay, a Canadian writer was also a former broadcaster and worked for the CBC in, surprise, surprise, Whitehorse in the early 1970′s. Late Night’s on Air won the Giller Prize in 2005 for Best Non-Fiction in Canada.

What We Did (And How We Did It)

As host of this particular book club, I prepared a radio show (lucky me, I worked at a radio station and had access to all of the necessary equipment) that featured each member of the CLJ as well as the book itself. I modeled the intro after Masterpiece Theatre and used it as the hook into the first question of the evening: who is the main character of this story? You see, it’s not entirely obvious for most of the book who the story was built around. It’s not until the end of the book that we discover the strong story arc this particular character has taken. You need all of the pieces to fall into place to make that discovery and that’s one of Late Night’s on Air’s strengths. For a quiet book with quiet Canadian happenings, manners and patience, it still manages to surprise you in the end.

What We Thought

I think the group struggled with this book more than others. Some might find the first half very slow. And it is. Not a lot happens, plot wise. We’re quietly introduced to each character and learn about their struggles, weaknesses and passions. The second half of the book covers mostly the canoe trip. However, Hay is able to  seamlessly weave Canada’s Northern culture, politics and tundra landscape into the storyline. She’s also very good at coming up with original “turns-of-phrase” or sound bites. This is one of my favourites, Hay on voices on the radio: “Despite the red glow of the on-air light, he then pushed through the studio door, only to be met by one of the great mysteries of life. We look so very different from the way we sound. It’s a shock, similar to hearing your own voice for the first time, when you’re force to wonder how the rest of you comes across if you sound nothing like the way you think you sound.” It was a valuable read.