Monday, July 21, 2014

Non-fiction Review: The World Until Yesterday


Title: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
Author: Jared Diamond
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2012.  512 pages
Source: I bought it for my brother and then kept it, as he'd already gotten it.  Some people are impossible to buy for!

I like non-fiction, if it's well-written and engaging, and I particularly like history.  You've probably noticed I like books about adventures and adventurers.  And so far, I've mostly liked Jared Diamond's thought-provoking works that delve into history in search of better understanding of how societies work (and don't work).  But I have to admit that The World Until Yesterday, while containing much that was of interest, just didn't grip me (note that it sat on my "currently reading" shelf for months).

The book is a study of traditional societies and what we can learn from them in several key areas: War (and peaceful relations), treatment of young and old (think child-rearing issues), understanding and responding to danger, and a final section on Religion, Language and Health.  The idea is good, but for me, the execution was somehow lacking.  The book lacked the compelling narrative force that I found in, for example, Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse.

 As I considered why I felt that way, I realized that I had very different reactions to different parts of the book, so that was one clue: the book doesn't feel as unified as his other books.  It seems like it lacks a clear destination, as it were.  But maybe I also found some areas more relevant than others.

The opening section on War took a long time to get through, in large part because I felt like there was less to learn there.  That might not be fair--Diamond talks about the societies that have strong forces for mediation and negotiation, just because they understand that the consequences of carrying even minor disputes to their extremes can be year or generations of blood feuds.  We can definitely learn from that, though it has to be approached very differently in a modern society.

I was more interested in the section on child-rearing, because I'm pretty sure that our standard 21st-Century US approach isn't very good (this includes my own, by the way, though I have tried to replicate some of the feral childhood I enjoyed).  The discussion of treatment of the elderly, on the other hand, was more of an explanation of why some societies reject and even kill their old people while others treasure and revere them.  Of course we can't help noticing that we're created a society that doesn't have much room for the old, especially the old and poor or those too old to do much of anything.

Tied closely to both war/violence and treatment of the young and old is the section on responses to danger.  Again, there are good points here, and the anecdotes Diamond uses to support them make for interesting reading.  Many of us are very aware that our US society has a lot of trouble recognizing real danger, so that we take no end of precautions to prevent our children from being snatched from the street by strangers (highly unlikely), then feed them snacks loaded with sugar, fat, and salt (risk factors for diseases that are really horrible and very real dangers). 

The discussion of religion was interesting, because I never thought of religion in quite those terms before (the evolutionary advantage of religion?  How did irrational mystical beliefs ever come into being?).  I could recommend this section for anyone who sometimes thinks about things like that.

Finally, the section on heath and nutrition felt obvious and superficial.  We know that stuff about diet, and while I was interested in the added understanding for why traditional people are so subject obesity and related diseases when exposed to a Western lifestyle, the discussion of nutrition and healthy eating would probably better be left to an expert in that field.

Ultimately, I thought that Diamond made some good points, shared some interesting history and anthropological insights, but that the point of the book could well have been conveyed in a more concise fashion.  It almost felt at times as though the author had some really cool bits of history and stories that he wanted to share, and had to hunt for a framework to hang them on.  I still think it's a useful book, and Diamond writes well.  But it does not measure up to the others of his books that I've read.

For those who really like Diamond's work, or who have a special interest in traditional societies.  For others, I'd recommend rooting around in it for the parts that interest you, and not sweating reading the whole thing. 

Full Disclosure: I purchased my copy of The World Until Yesterday, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Middle Grade Classic: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This is a MUCH more modern-looking cover than my copy has!

Title: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Author: C. S. Lewis
Publisher:  The Macmillan Co., 1950, 154 pages
Source: My Dad bought this one in 1968 and I somehow sorta made off with it. . .

I'm not doing a summary on this one--it's too well-known!  I will say that I re-read it because it was the June pick for the Great Middle Grade Reads group at, and if you are a reader of middle grade lit, you should check out that group!

This children's classic was hard for me to review.  It was an absolute favorite of mine for many years, and I read it at least once a year until after I got out of college (and never MIND how long ago THAT was!). During my college years I think I paid too much attention to the allegorical side of it, and kind of ruined it for myself, so I have trouble reading it as just a great story.

But I still love many elements of the story, which is a true fantasy as well as a Christian allegory (well, it is, and there's no getting away from that completely). Mr. and Mrs. Beaver make my day. I also enjoyed the writing style, but it will strike many as outdated.  Lewis often breaks the 'fourth wall' and addresses the reader directly, which I rather enjoyed but may annoy some--I get the feeling that is a no-no nowadays.

I think the whole Narnia series is worth a read (or a re-read), especially for anyone who reads and writes fantasy (know your roots!). I admit I never much liked The Last Battle, even as a kid, but that's me. Maybe. The end of the world is tough. Whether you're a kid reading it for the first time, or you haven't read it in 30 years, take a look at Narnia for some fun stories and a better understanding of fantasy literature.

Full Disclosure: I stole my Dad's copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe back in about 1981, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Just in case I get the chance to add this to the hop!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday Flash Fiction: Haunted House

This one was sparked by a Wendig Challenge from a few weeks back.  Because I'm traveling, I couldn't do it on schedule.  But I'll shared it anyway.  It's supposed to be a sub-genre mash-up of a haunted house and a cozy mystery--not really much of a stretch, and an obvious chance for JJ MacGregor and the Pismawallops PTA.  If you enjoy the story, please consider checking out JJ's book!

I apologize for any weirdness.  I am publishing from my iPad and from a B&B in Peru. . . Neither is guaranteed to work.

Haunted House

"Kitty, have you heard the rumors about the LeMoine house?" I asked my best friend the question over our weekly binge at the Have-a-Bite bakery.

"Rumors like what?"  Kitty's response was not so much an inquiry as a caution.  I wasn't sure just how to answer, now I'd brought the matter up. The kids hadn't known I was listening.  Maybe that was all the more reason to share what I'd heard.

"I gathered from something Brian and Kat were saying that kids are daring one another to spend the night there.  That something might get them if they do."  Presumably the ghost of Letitia LeMoine, I didn't need to add. "In any case, they expect something scary to happen."

"As a parent," Kitty said with a dryness I would have been proud to own, "it sounds like something scary all right."

We considered teens for a moment while consuming espresso brownies a nibble at a time.  I only allow myself one a month, so I wasn't going to miss any taste of this one.

The LeMoine house had stood empty since Kat's daughter and my son and their best friends had found the owner strangled where the Pismawallops PTA usually stored ice cream bars. To the best of my knowledge, the house was empty because the ownership was under dispute, not because no one would live there. Letitia's daughter had gone to the mainland to live with her mother's aunt,and she couldn't even rent it out because no one knew if it a was hers.

"You don't suppose someone is squatting there?" Kitty finally suggested. "That might lead to lights in the windows or whatever started the stories.  And once they get started, you know how stories like that grow."

"And getting a story like that going might allow someone to stay a long time, if they make it convincing enough," I agreed.

"You should tell Ron." To my annoyance, Kitty winked when she said it.  As if I needed reminding that I had--something--going with the Pismawallops Island chief of police. I refused to rise to the bait or satisfy her curiosity about how things were with us.

"I'm sure he already knows."

In the end, we shrugged it off. Kids like a scary story, and an empty house belonging to a murdered woman offered good material.  Our job was to make sure Brian and Kat were not among those who tested the ghost story. I wasn't too worried.

A week later I was less sanguine.  Not about the kids, who were behaving well, but about the LeMoine house.

"I drove by there again, and someone is definitely changing the curtains around and stuff."

"Maybe a real estate agent, trying to keep it from looking empty?"

"Nice try, Kitty. But everyone on the Island knows about it, so what's the point?" I took another bite of my low-fat blueberry scone and tried to convince myself it was as good as the brownie had been the week before.

Kitty shrugged. "Then we're back to squatters."

"Do you think we should have a look? If someone's broken in, we should do something.  Chantal LeMoine may be a piece of work, but the house may be her only inheritance."

"The police, JJ.  Talk to Ron."
I'm not an idiot  despite some evidence to the contrary, and I was on good terms with Ron that week, so I did what Kitty suggested. I did it at the Station, though. Neither of us could be trusted in private just then, and I didn't know what I wanted from the relationship. Ron knew all too well what he wanted. At the Station he couldn't very well make a play for it.

"I've heard the rumors, JJ, but when one of us drives by, there's no sign of anything."

His department consisted of himself and a worse-than-useless deputy.  Leave it to a pair of guys to miss the changes in the curtains.

"So can't I take you to dinner?"

That was the trouble with Ron. He didn't care if the world knew how he felt about me. He'd have kissed me in front of the whole Island, so long as he wasn't in uniform.

"No." Until I resolved some of my existing issues, I wasn't taking on any more.
Really, Ron left me only one option. I'd have to investigate the LeMoine ghost myself.  Or rather, with Kitty, because I wasn't going there alone.

"Oh, come on, Kitty," I wheedled.  "It'll be a lark."

She reminded me of a couple of other things I'd talked her into that hadn't worked so well, and I winced.  "We won't go at night.  We can just stop in for a minute, look in the windows, and see if it looks like anyone is living there."

Kitty was still reluctant.  "Your ideas always sound good," she began.

"Because they are," I insisted.  We exchanged looks, her dubious, mine stubborn.  At last she gave in.

"Oh, fine. I'll go."

"After dinner tonight."

"That's not broad daylight."

"It's light until late, this time of year. It won't be later than 7:30."

"Fine." Odd. She sounded a lot like Brian at his most teenaged.
In fact it was a little later than 7:30, and a little duskier than I'd expected, when we approached the "haunted house." We hadn't told anyone--my son or her family--where we were going for fear of being laughed at. Suddenly, I wished we had. I ignored the unworthy thought.

I parked boldly in front of the house, and we stepped up on the porch with pointless caution.  I peered in the front window and let slip a word I don't let Brian use.

"What?" Kitty squeaked.  She seemed oddly jumpy.

"I can't see anything. Too dark." I moved to the door before she could say "I told you so," and laid a hand on the knob. The door swung open with a small squeak, just like in the horror movies.

We exchanged looks. Then I went in, before Kitty could get reasonable and drag me away.

The front room was neat, and what I could see of it looked much as I'd last seen it.

Too much so. I realized that once again someone was sitting on the couch in he dusk  just as they had that day. . . I screamed. I'm not proud of it, but the memory was too strong, and I'd nearly died that day.

The figure on the couch jumped up and turned into a teenaged girl. "Oh, god,I'm sorry!"

I thought I knew who it was, and reached for the light, but of course the power was off.

"Hang on," said Chantal LeMoine, and a moment later a flashlight came on.

I glared at the dead woman's daughter. "You have some explaining to do."