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Book Review: Journey in Bhutan

Journey in Bhutan:: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder DragonI know I missed blogging Friday. Had a right little snit over it too — too many things scheduled and just not enough time to both read and write. A girl has to have her priorities, so I just read a little more.

What I read whipped me away on a delightful journey to a country few are aware of, let alone have the gumption to arrange travel to: Bhutan. It’s the world’s only Buddhist constitutional monarchy. The product description touches on the various elements of the book:

“Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon” is not a guide, it is the trip. Through informed and sensitive narrative and personal journal, Trish Nicholson shares her experience trekking and absorbing local culture and history in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, the unique Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan hidden deep in the Himalayas. An anthropologist and storyteller as well as a photographer, the author takes us on knee-wrecking gradients over passes three miles high, following the footsteps of Buddhist pilgrims, to meet yak herders families. We listen to monks chanting in ancient monasteries, and enter fortified dzongs containing religious treasures. We visit shops with smoked yak cheese, car parts, felt boots and silver coated biscuits on the counter. The author’s photographs – 20 original colour plates – let us see for ourselves the sacred mountains, smiling people, and amazing architecture.In this Year of the Dragon, if you are unlikely to get to Bhutan any other way, this book will take you there. If you’ve been, or plan to go, it will enrich your experience. For those who like to dig deep, there are suggestions for further reading, a glossary, historical time-line, and a survival guide to Bhutanese Buddhism.

It is an adjustment for an American English reader to get used to some of the alternate spellings and phraseology, but in a way, it also highlighted the complete dislocation into a foreign land. Just getting into Bhutan, which is landlocked in the uncomfortable junction between India and China, perched on the teeth of the Himalayas, could be deterrent enough to the faint of heart. The travel restrictions complicate the journey, and limit your options further. But the potential for trekking through high mountain passes, some of which are also included in pictures, really fired up my imagination. In fact, I’m thinking Bhutan may be visited by my own dragons in an upcoming installment of my Red Slaves series.

Nicholson’s style is not dissimilar from Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Therous or the Fosters’ Forbidden Journey: The Life of Alexandra David Neel. Her use of language was right up my alley–descriptive and lyrical by turns:

Ahead of me, Ngawang and the Immaculate Blonde are coaxing Caroline down, I am going slowly–hardly daring to breathe; Stefan is behind me, probably feeling the same. Arabella suffers from vertigo, she and Doc decided already to explore the area further back and wait for our return.

At the bottom of the steps, the deep cleft where the mountain joins the cliff is filled by a narrow waterfall of glistening foam, like a white satin ribbon fluttering in the breeze. Uninterrupted, it falls out of mist a thousand feet above me before streaming down into the abyss below. A wooden footbridge crosses in front of it to take us across the cleft; beside the bridge is a prayer-wheel, the insistent mantras of its bell barely audible. I stand for a few minutes, deafened by roaring water, cooling off and regaining my composure in the cold, drenching spray.

I don’t know that getting to Bhutan will actually ever happen for me, but based on the detailed descriptions Nicholson provided in this easy-to-read travelogue, I know some of what I’m missing. I would highly recommend this short introduction to a completely foreign locale to anyone interested in adventure travels, the Himalayas, or Asian cultures. There are enough distinctions in this country, including pictures of local garb (which Nicholson also blogged about later), that it’s worth acquainting yourself with what she has painstakingly outlined.

Book Review: The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens

Autobiography of Lincoln SteffensThis book and its follow-on were part of the required reading curriculum for one of my first journalism classes. Through his description of his rookie reporter days, Lincoln Steffens had a profound impact on my appreciation of the power of the written word. Over the years, I pushed this book on most of my family to try to give them the same perspective. Now I’m sharing this with you, too.

To give you a bit of context, here’s what the back of the book says:

Lincoln Steffens, who was born in California in 1866, grew up to be one of America’s greatest journalists. He began his career as a police reporter in New York and later achieved fame as a principal figure in the journalistic reform movement known as “muckraking,” which uncovered political and economic corruption throughout the country.”

In fact, one of the chapters of this book is titled, “How I Make a Crime Wave” served as such a cautionary tale of the impact inside information can have in the perception people carry of a set of events I reread it periodically just to remind myself of the importance of perspective. Steffens has such an engaging way of relating his various anecdotes, in fact, that my natural inclination would be to copy that whole chapter here. Since that’s not really right either… here’s a few paragraphs from the culmination of the the story, where Jacob Riis explains how it is that he was continually able to one-up reporting major crimes over his colleague, Steffens:

Riis told him about it, how I got him called down by printing a beat, and he had to get even. And did. “I beat the pot out of you,” he boasted to me, his pride reviving. “And I can go right on doing it. I can get not one or two crimes a day; if I must I can get half a dozen, a dozen. I can get all there are every day.

“But”–he turned to T.R.–“I don’t want to. So I’ll tell you where my leak is, and you can close it up. I have had it for years, seldom used it, but–you can stop it for ever.”

And Riis, the honest, told us how the reports of all crimes of high degree against property were sent in by the precincts to the heads of inspection districts and they were all compiled in a completed list which was filed in a certain pigeon-hole in the outer office of the chief inspector. Not he, but his boy, Max, had observed the making and filing of this list one day long ago; he had reported it to Riis, who resisted temptation to some extent.

“I told Max never to pry into that pigeon-hole–except in emergencies. And we never did, except in emergencies. But when you”–he blazed at me–“when you got so smart, I go so mad that I told Max to go to it, and well–” He turned back to “Mr. President, that file is in the extreme left of the third row of pigeon-holes from the bottom. It should be kept in the inside office.”

Members of the news-reading public only saw that the number of stories reported via competing papers had jumped dramatically, and began agitating all the local politicians to fix this ill. The fact that the actual number hadn’t changed didn’t play into the equation. It’s a powerful story about how additional information shifts the picture kaleidoscopically.

I may not now be a practicing journalist, but the training I received all those years ago has still stood me in good stead. In particular this book and it’s engaging anecdotes about never being satisfied with the first or easiest answer is a useful guideline for my everyday life. And even my life as a story teller. So I can whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone else looking for a little perspective on how additional information can shift a picture.

Book Review: The Hidden Life of Dogs

Hidden Life of DogsI read this book the first time shortly after it was first released in 1993. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is a trained anthropologist who applies her observational skills to her dog pack. Her book, The Hidden Life of Dogs, chronicles her experiences with her own and friends’ dogs over the course of decades in a very personal and touching series of anecdotes.

What endeared me to the book from the very beginning was her statement in the introduction:

Do dogs have thoughts and feelings? Of course they do. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any dogs. That being said, however, a book on dogs must by definition be somewhat anthropomorphic, and reasonably so, since our aversion to the label is misplaced. Using the experience of another species has been a useful tool to many of the great wildlife biologists. The more experienced the investigator, the more useful the tool. Consider George Schaller’s observation of a mother leopard and her son: “At times [the two leopards] had ardent reunions, rubbing their cheeks and bodies sinuously and licking each other’s face, obviously excited and delighted with the meeting. Witnessing such tenderness, I realized that these leopards merely masked their warm temperament and emotional depth beneath a cold exterior.”

Having experienced the remarkable ability of pets (both my own and others’) to acclimate to human mores and accurately reflect our emotions back to us, it was refreshing to read an author who took my view of their innate sensitivity. In fact, a biology teacher I had otherwise regarded quite highly lost a not insignificant measure of my respect by dismissing pet interactions with a “they’re just animals” kind of epithet. In the 80s and 90s, in fact, I regularly read biologists’ reductionist accounts of animals’ existence that completely minimized their emotional significance.

I’ve seen a trend in the opposite direction in more recent years, but Marshall Thomas was the first I had read to seriously address the complexity our animal companions experience in their internal lives. Her ability to capture a poignant moment of cultural conflict between humans and dogs leads to such compelling passages as:

Misha understood the importance of a cool demeanor and so did the young wolf, but Misha’s adversary, the big Saint Bernard, did not. His passion and intensity on behalf of his owners eventually proved too much for them, and they took him to the local humane society. Supposedly, he was offered for adoption. But most people don’t want a huge dog with very strong feelings. No one took him. That humane society was also a dog hospital, where a dog’s emergency later took me, and there, to my surprise, I recognized the Saint Bernard, who was standing helplessly in a little wire cage. Our eyes met. His face brightened, because, I think, he recognized me. I saw that he very much hoped I would help him, but alas, I could not. Scheduled for execution, he was waiting to be drained of blood to provide transfusions for dogs more fortunate than he, dogs who were wanted by their owners.

In her pursuit of her experiment in letting her dogs just be dogs, she does let her dogs roam loose and procreate to see how they behave themselves when freed from human rules and constraints, which, I grant, is a worrying way to approach the responsibility of pet ownership. However, she focused so completely on finally discovering what it was that her dogs wanted from life that this potential objection really only occurred to me in very belated hindsight.

For those who are interested in well-drawn observations about how dogs interact, both with other dogs and humans, this is a quick but moving read. For those who are looking for guidance on training or best practices in raising a well-adjusted pet, look elsewhere. For myself, I like re-reading this book periodically particularly for the links she draws from her time observing wild wolves on Baffin Island and her insights into natural canine inclinations. And I love that she recognizes that every individual of a species has only a small answer to the puzzle of what drives behavior and learning, so no one dog will correctly stand in for all dogs, while experience with many dogs still doesn’t answer every question we might have about them.

Review: A Walk in the Snark

A Walk in the SnarkI found @rachelintheoc on Twitter, recently, as seems to be a developing pattern for my new author finds these days. She’s funny, engaging, and real—there, as on her blog. She was running a pre-Christmas promo to help boost her books’ visibility, and announced on Twitter that she was giving away her book in an effort to drum up some additional reviews. So I bit.

I was facing another trip back East to deal with family issues, and knew I would need something humorous to put me in a relaxed frame of mind. Thompson managed to wring out a few snorts and giggles while my airline struggled to get me airborne, so I will always have fond memories of her ability to push me past my own snarky situation.

Her book’s description is quite apt that way:

Rachel believes “Men are from Seinfeld, Women are from Friends,” and so do her legions of fans. She dares to ask “Why do men want to change the world but can’t change a roll of toilet paper?”

Drawing on her decades (#deargod has it been that long?) of marriage, friendships, and past relationships, Rachel’s specialty is observing male behavior and dissecting it with humor (Shopping is NOT a Verb). Think of her as the Scientist of Snark…without the ugly white lab coat. #asif

Husband: Mumble, mumble, mumble.
Daughter: What?
Me: It’s okay. I speak husband.

I did have a few complaints early on: several of the early essays struck me as pretty repetitive–as if there hadn’t been enough editing to pull out the similarities in pieces Thompson had blogged about repeatedly. (Yes, I get it, you’ve been married for 18 years.) But if you read it as a bound copy of her blog, highlighting just her best essays, that could also put it all in perspective. Or read it one chapter at a time rather than all in one shot while you’re seat-bound in a ground-bound airplane.

I was also surprised at the regular “poignancy alerts” sprinkled throughout the book. While the book is billed as a humorous take on relations between men and women, Thompson has had her run-ins with abuse and doesn’t shy away from that darker side of relationships. With this theme threading through the essays, you really see her skill for writing:

But was the perfection a blessing? Really? When she showed up with bruises, black eyes, and a broken arm more than once, Jack finally stepped in; thrilled I’m sure to be chivalrous but also trying to help this young girl who had the bod for sin without the brains for sense.

Julia didn’t last very long at our store. She just didn’t show up one day and that was it. The guys were crushed. It was as if the centerfold had been torn off the wall. …

Julia was the kind of girl who would always be able to depend on the help of strangers. She engendered that kind of protectiveness in men that you rarely see in independent women with brains.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

I’m saying that’s just the way it is.

This is not my normal fare, or even my favorite genre, but Thompson’s book provided a few hours of witticisms that helped me pass the tedious travel time over the holidays. I can easily recommend it to any man or woman who likes the unvarnished truth and the perspective that having lived through some truly horrifying experiences can grant a perspicacious individual. Above all, this collection of essays illuminates the truth that humor puts everything into perspective, and it’s useful as a tool to help deflate some of the more dangerous misperceptions between the sexes. So: GO. Read, enjoy, and thank me for it (and, of course, Rachel Thompson, too, for having spent the time gathering these pearls of wisdom).

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