Monday, July 28, 2014

Middle Grade Non-Fiction Review

After being away so long, I have a lot of catching up to do, and it will be a while before my posts are completely back on schedule.  But I have finished a number of books in the last two months, so I'll be trying to get review up for those!  Here's the first, from a book I finished just before we left for Peru.

2155053Title: Amazing Girls of Arizona: True Stories of Young Pioneers
Author: Jan Cleere
Publisher: The Globe Pequot Press, 2008, 183 pages.
Source: Purchased from the  Visitors Center at Saguero National Monument

The book is a collection of a dozen brief biographies of girls and women who lived (or live) in Arizona. Arranged chronologically, they range from Olive Ann Oatman, who survived  an Indian attack in 1851 and was a captive for many years, to Ruth Okimoto, who was born in San Diego but was sent to an internment camp in Arizona during WWII at the age of 5.

Books like this are a particular passion of mine, and that means that I can afford to be critical.  Granted that this one appears aimed at younger readers (something I decided while reading it; as far as I could tell in the shop it was in the adult section), it still was disappointingly shallow. One thing I look for in such books is text drawn from letters and diaries, and there was very little of that. There was also a great deal that felt reconstructed (thoughts and feelings), which is okay in one sense but not what I want. Finally, in the case of some of the girls, I felt that the 'amazing' part was a bit of a stretch. 

There were a couple of girls whose memoirs would be worth reading. Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce sounds like she was a real character all her life, and she did pen a book (A Beautiful, Cruel Country) which I may want to read. And I'd love to read more from Edith Jane Bass, who grew up guiding early tourists around the Grand Canyon (though she died suddenly at age 28 and I don't think wrote anything more than an occasional letter).

Overall, this book serves as a decent introduction to the many lives of girls and women in the 19th and early 20th Centuries in Arizona, a state that didn't move too quickly into the modern era. But to get a real feel for the lives of pioneers, there are more and better books, both for adults and younger readers.

For kids who need something specific to Arizona, or for die-hards like me who read everything available on or by pioneer women and children.

Full Disclosure: I purchased Amazing Girls of Arizona with my own money and of my own volition, 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."

Friday, July 25, 2014

Home at last, and back to writing. . . soon

After five weeks in Peru, trekking and touring, we are home, and it sure does feel good!  here hasn't been time yet to sort and edit photos, or assess everything we did, but here's a quick and dirty summary:

This was a family trip--the four of us, plus 4 more of my husband's relatives (two of his brothers, one spouse, and a nephew). That worked surprisingly well.

On June 18, we flew to Lima, via Mexico City. Spent two days there, gathering the group (some flew from Seattle, we flew from San Francisco) and seeing a little bit of the city. Lima is large, crowded, and full of buses belching nasty fumes. At this time of year there is a vague fog blanketing the coast all the time, making for a white sky and a damp feel. I wasn't sorry to leave.

On the 20th, we caught the bus to Huaraz, an 8-hour ride north along the coast and then up into the mountains. We arrived at dinner time (dark) at 10,000'. Thanks to some motion-sickness pills and some generous young geologists from (I think) Holland who let me sit up front, I did not puke. This was something in the nature of a triumph, as I am the person who gets motion-sickness when I try to use the route simulator video on the torture bike at the gym (true story).

For the next three days we did dayhikes out of Huaraz to get acclimatized, then we headed out for trek #1:  the Cordillera Blanca circuit, also known as the Alpomayo Circuit after one of the signature peaks of the route. Our treks were fully catered--a novelty for us that soon proved to be a wise choice. With ages ranging from 15 up through the 50s, and ten long days of hiking over passes that were all higher than Mt. Rainier (heck, many of our camps were higher), we needed to be able to get to camp and lie down, not set up and fix meals! Scenery was spectacular, as advertised (I'll have  photos later. I also will go back and put the photos into my earlier post that didn't quite work).

At the end of that trek, we spent one day in Huaraz, another driving to the next trailhead, and began 9 more days of hiking, through (around) the Huayhuash range. That was the end of the trekking, and we bused to Lima again, from which two members of the party went home and the other six of us flew out to Cusco, to visit Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu requires a lot of logistics! Plane to Cusco, bus (in this case private, so we could visit some cool places on the way) to Ollantaytambo, train to Aquas Calientes, and a 1200' climb to the ruins (you can take a bus, and on the second day I did, but hiking up isn't bad at all when you've just finished 23 days of hiking at higher altitudes, and the bus ride was terrifying). The big thing I wasn't prepared for was the jungle atmosphere--i.e., humidity! As a West-coast person, I have simply never had to cope with heat and humidity. For the record, for some irrational reason the body can react to dehydration by throwing up. Makes no sense to me, since that removes still more water from the system, but there it is. Drink up and avoid this!

Finally, the trip home--left the ruins at 2 p.m., caught the train at 4, were met by our van at Ollantaytambo at 5:45, and arrived in Cusco after 8. Next day flew to Lima, and the next day after that had a 7 a.m. flight home. Spent nearly 8 hours in Mexico City (we took the subway to the city center, returning at rush hour. That was an experience) and arrived home at 11 p.m. local time, July 23.

That's the nutshell version of our trip!  For today, how about a few photos of the dayhikes around Huaraz?  I have a lot of work to do, with over 2700 photos to sort, edit and process.  I'd like to get back to writing, too!

Bus ride from Lima to Huaraz.

Local home with cross on roof.

A grain similar to quinoa (which is from the area and grown a lot here too).

Lake Churup
Hiking to Lake 69.  Huascaran behind--Peru's highest mountain.

Los Tres Muchachos soon discovered that being faster meant lots of waiting.  Sometimes in a cold wind.

The imaginatively named Lake 69 (the 69th recorded in a survey of all the lakes in the Peruvian Andes).

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."