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Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave Paperback – July 13, 2010

4.2 out of 5 stars 123 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Journalist Heller's gripping memoir of finding the value of life while shooting the curl off Baja starts off as a disappointing middle-aged man's lament about the lack of love and meaning in his life. Just back from an exhausting assignment in Tibet, he gets a phone call from an old friend in California who wants Heller to come out so they can take surfing lessons together. Reluctant at first to leave Denver and his girlfriend, Kim, he follows the call to this new adventure. At Huntington Beach, Heller violates every rule of surfing etiquette, and other surfers vilify him as a kook, a beginning surfer. Initially, Heller is embarrassed, but he soon becomes so consumed by surfing that he brings Kim to California with him so that she can take lessons; soon, the two are traveling to various surfing locales in California and Mexico as Heller follows the waves. People admire surfers so much, he argues, because they have bowed to a force greater than themselves—the wave—and have transformed themselves into beings who can respond to such power with grace, humility, and beauty. By the end of this powerful memoir, Heller has learned that surfing is not simply about staying up on your board; it's about love: of a woman, of living, of the sea. (July)
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"In this rich and gracefully written book, Heller's creative and artistic abilities are on full display. We follow along with him on an insightful, year-long quest as he grapples with the dual, ever capricious, challenges of love and the sea."
—National Outdoor Book Award

“Breathtaking. . . . As Heller slips deeper and deeper into the surfing world, he teeters at the edge of obsession. . . . Over the course of this journey, Heller comes to understand the power of the waves, the value of the ocean and its suffering at the hands of man. Perhaps most important, he discovers his ability to commit, to love.”
The Dallas Morning News

“Told with an honesty and self-deprecating sense of humor, Heller’s tale is as much about surfing as it is about his personal growth as an individual once he starts getting his glide on. With a finely trained ability to both have insight and share it, Heller connects the dots between the simple act of surfing, emotional health, personal redemption, and our duty to work as stewards of Mother Earth. Next time an employer, a parent, or a significant other questions why you surf or what the bigger meaning of so much time getting waterlogged actually adds up to, this book is the ideal answer to give them.”
Santa Barbara Independent

“The book may be about surfing, but the real subject here is obsession. How far is one man willing to push his body, mind, and relationship to achieve a singular goal? Though Peter Heller may end up catching a wave that is perfect, the life lessons along the way are even more powerful.”
Mark Obmascik, author of Halfway to Heaven and The Big Year

“Heller is a guy you would want to go on an adventure with: likeable, fallible, good-humored, given to near-fatal bouts of love—for the ocean, for his girl, for the perfect wave. What begins as a mid-life crisis evolves, in this engaged and engaging story, into a deeply impassioned stand on behalf of marine-life, and of all life. Kook makes the dangerously unhip suggestion that it is still possible to find meaning--even transcendence--in the ever diminishing natural world.”
—Pam Houston, author of Sight Hound

“Heller takes us on a wild, unforgettable adventure with the poet's gift for capturing the quintessential in risking everything and the transformation that comes with it. This book is a funny, compelling exploration of love, surfing and the everyday, even when life proves as uncompromising as the wave.”
—Rebecca Rowe, author of Forbidden Cargo

"The author has a great feel for people… As a result, the reader gets to know a collection of fascinating characters: surf stars, expats, and environmentalists, to say nothing of the creatures of the sea…Mr. Heller’s colorful and informative paean to humility belongs on the bookshelves of kooks and surf gods alike." --The East Hampton Star

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (July 13, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743294203
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743294201
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (123 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #81,447 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter Heller is a longtime contributor to NPR, a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and Men's Journal, and a frequent contributor to Businessweek. He is an award winning adventure writer and the author of four books of literary nonfiction. He lives in Denver. Heller was born and raised in New York. He attended high school in Vermont and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire where he became an outdoorsman and whitewater kayaker. He traveled the world as an expedition kayaker, writing about challenging descents in the Pamirs, the Tien Shan mountains, the Caucuses, Central America and Peru.At the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he received an MFA in fiction and poetry, he won a Michener fellowship for his epic poem "The Psalms of Malvine." He has worked as a dishwasher, construction worker, logger, offshore fisherman, kayak instructor, river guide, and world class pizza deliverer. Some of these stories can be found in Set Free in China, Sojourns on the Edge. In the winter of 2002 he joined, on the ground team, the most ambitious whitewater expedition in history as it made its way through the treacherous Tsangpo Gorge in Eastern Tibet. He chronicled what has been called The Last Great Adventure Prize for Outside, and in his book Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet's Tsangpo River.

The gorge -- three times deeper than the Grand Canyon -- is sacred to Buddhists, and is the inspiration for James Hilton's Shangri La. It is so deep there are tigers and leopards in the bottom and raging 25,000 foot peaks at the top, and so remote and difficult to traverse that a mythical waterfall, sought by explorers since Victorian times, was documented for the first time in 1998 by a team from National Geographic.

The book won a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, was number three on Entertainment Weekly's "Must List" of all pop culture, and a Denver Post review ranked it "up there with any adventure writing ever written."

In December, 2005, on assignment for National Geographic Adventure, he joined the crew of an eco-pirate ship belonging to the radical environmental group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as it sailed to Antarctica to hunt down and disrupt the Japanese whaling fleet.

The ship is all black, sails under a jolly Roger, and two days south of Tasmania the engineers came on deck and welded a big blade called the Can Opener to the bow--a weapon designed to gut the hulls of ships. In The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals, Heller recounts fierce gales, forty foot seas, rammings, near-sinkings, and a committed crew's clear-eyed willingness to die to save a whale. The book was published by Simon and Schuster's Free Press in September, 2007.

In the fall of 2007 Heller was invited by the team who made the acclaimed film The Cove to accompany them in a clandestine filming mission into the guarded dolphin-killing cove in Taiji, Japan. Heller paddled into the inlet with four other surfers while a pod of pilot whales was being slaughtered. He was outfitted with a helmet cam, and the terrible footage can be seen in the movie. The Cove went on to win an Academy Award. Heller wrote about the experience for Men's Journal.

Heller's most recent memoir, about surfing from California down the coast of Mexico, Kook: What Surfing Taught Me about Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave, was published by The Free Press in 2010. Can a man drop everything in the middle of his life, pick up a surfboard and, apprenticing himself to local masters, learn to ride a big, fast wave in six months? Can he learn to finally love and commit to someone else? Can he care for the oceans, which are in crisis? The answers are in. The book won a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, which called it a "powerful memoir...about love: of a woman, of living, of the sea." It also won the National Outdoor Book Award for Literature.

Heller's debut novel, The Dog Stars, is being published by Knopf in August, 2012. It will also be published by Headline Review in Great Britain and Australia, and Actes Sud in France.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
In some ways, I feel that Peter Heller is still a kook. You would think that someone who started surfing in his late forties would show a little more respect for art. Early in the book, he wrote that the California surf culture doesn't have the Aloha spirit that has stereotyped surfing for decades. He described it as more of a testosterone fueled aggressive sport. The problem is that he didn't take the time to appreciate the diversity in surfers, locations and overall attitudes. I have surfed in Southern California for 16 years and can say that although there are the aggressive competitive beaches and surfers, there are plenty of generous life loving surfers who have adopted the overall aloha lifestyle. The thing that really bothered me was an incident in which he kooked out and ran into a young girl whose father was teaching her to surf. Rather than apologize for damaging her board, he got into a pissing contest with the dad . . . in front of the girl. Although he realized that he was wrong, he never acknowledged it to the father or the girl. He seems to be the guy that he despises . . . another yuppie trying to steal an identity and understanding that in truth, takes years to develop.

That being said . . . it was a good read and interesting story.
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Format: Kindle Edition
This is my first review ever, and I'm only writing it because there were none, so I figured it would be helpful to prospective purchasers to have something here other then professional reviews.

I'll start by saying this book is an easy read, entertaining and well worth the price of admission, even to non-surfers. Heller, as a self desribed kook (or beginner), takes us slowly into surfing culture and lingo at a pace where we can easily understand certain aspects of surfing without actually being a surfer. There is a good feel for the complexity and commitment that it takes to become proficient at surfing and I thought the author was able to get the emotions and spirituality of the surfing experience across to a wider audience. As a surfing lifestyle book, I think it is a sucess.

The other themes of the book are secondary: Ocean Conservation and Relationships. It is obvious Heller's passion is the ocean and there is a conservationist message sprinkled throughout that is mostly well integrated, but at times seemed a bit forced. If you are a right wing ultra conservative (or Japanese) you may find the message off putting, but if you fall into that camp you probably wouldn't be out surfing or reading this book.

The only reason I didn't give the book a full five stars is because I wasn't convinced Heller learned the relationship advice he was giving himself as he grew throughout the book. Towards the end of the book, he doesn't seem to be any more understanding of his girlfriend/wife's difficulties, and even if he understands, he doesn't seem to actually *do* anything about it, he just goes surfing and leaves her behind or whines about having to wait for her, even though he knows its selfish. As a relationship book, I think this fails.
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Format: Paperback
First of all, kooks should NOT, I repeat SHOULD NOT buy their board, wax and wetsuit and then immediately head to HB Pier. That was mistake #1.

Mistake #2 was when he bought the wrong board for a beginner. A beginner will learn best with a longboard and will also be able to catch small, mushy waves that short boards can't. No use in taking away the good waves from the experienced short boarders.

All I can say is, I went into this book hoping to enjoy it, and I was let down big time. I don't think people who actually surf will be able to enjoy this book. Mutual respect out in the ocean is a very important part of surfing for most surfers in general, unless you are in a patch of ruthless mean dudes. I also feel like the writer was out to master a really physically demanding sport in a really short amount of time, which is unreal to me. It's almost like he was trying to buy someone else's life with time and money. People surf because they can't live without it, not because they want to be a master and use it pump up their self-esteem at middle age. It all just seemed a bit forced.

You need to know how to read waves, understand weather patterns, and know paddling skills, swimming skills, and surfing skills. This guy didn't bother to learn any of that and put himself and others at risk. Yes, he was the true embodiment of all that is kook. I'm really not sure how he got into a crowded lineup right at the peak of a sweet wave in a super popular and territorial surf break in HB. It all sounds kind of made up. It would be really hard to drop in on someone at HB Pier on any given day unless the waves were crap. His description that day was mushy, waist high, so maybe it wasn't as crowded, but this break is pretty territorial even on a day when it's not pumping.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
First things first - based on reading this book only and none of his other work, Peter Heller seems to be a decent writer and has the potential to be good. I get the sense that he knows how to tell a story pretty well and he has a better than average grasp of how to describe things using colorful language. The middle of this book is entertaining and kept me reading on to the end, but the beginning and the end really fell flat. At the beginning I thought I was in for a very bumpy and unpleasant ride because the author has some stylistic tendencies that I find annoying, like his love of the sentence fragment. I'm pretty sure he uses them intentionally, but it's still bad grammar. His editorial team should have fixed them, but and this is the biggest problem with the book - the editors didn't do their jobs. It's a shame because with a decent editorial team, this book could be really good. I found countless major errors in grammar and vocabulary throughout this book. "Funnest" and "disattached" are two notable examples of non-words that didn't get axed. In his many attempts at literary description, the author misused several adjectives (for example, "capricious" to describe the sun and "turgid" to describe heat). Heller's writing and this book are turgid. Repetition and descriptive hyperbole populate these pages ad nauseum. The editor's greatest disservice to Mr. Heller was in allowing this book to ramble on for 323 pages. It could have been a much more pleasant experience had they cut a good 20% or more of the text. Mr. Heller, for your next book, I suggest you find a better copywriter and editor.

As far as the story itself goes, I got the sense that the author didn't learn a thing except how to surf.
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