My idea of the ideal vacation? Oceanfront on the Pacific or Caribbean, sun and plenty of cold drinks and reading material. A hammock is always an exqu...moreMy idea of the ideal vacation? Oceanfront on the Pacific or Caribbean, sun and plenty of cold drinks and reading material. A hammock is always an exquisite addition. What did Kevin Grange do in 2007? He embarked on what is billed as the toughest trek in the world, a 24-day horseshoe-shaped journey of 216 miles on foot through the Himalayan Mountains in Bhutan.
Granted, Grange and his fellow trekkers were accompanied by a seven-person support team, a kitchen tent and toilet tents and were served hot tea upon arising each morning and hot evening meals with silverware at a large table. Still, the trek is a daunting challenge. Not only are trekkers hiking nearly 10 miles a day, they traverse 11 high-mountain passes, seven over 16,000 feet. In addition to the risks inherent on at times precarious trails and from unpredictable weather, the height of the mountain passes makes altitude sickness a very real -- and potentially fatal -- danger. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have completed the Snowman Trek. Fewer than 120 people a year attempt the trek; less than 50 percent finish. Or, as one of Grange's fellow trekkers put it, "Everybody cries at some point on the Snowman Trek."
Were Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World, Grange's account of his journey, limited to its hazards, trials and tribulations, one could easily categorize it as an adventure travel tale for those who enjoy such reads. Fortunately. Grange's scope and journey were far broader. He does a fine job of showing readers the nature, history and landscape of Bhutan, as well as taking us to remote villages and monasteries (including an encounter with a "shit-faced" shaman who is plainly intoxicated when he comes to bless the group in a remote village). He is equally open about what is essentially a personal search for meaning.
As such, Beneath Blossom Rain combines the best of two other recently released works. Noted travel author Colin Thubron's To a Mountain in Tibet is somewhat more heavily philosophical account of his pilgrimage trek from Nepal to a Himalayan mountain in remote western Tibet. A search for meaning and an account of life in Bhutan, a country that actually measures Gross National Happiness and limits the number of tourists, is the focus of Lisa Napoli's Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth. Napoli's story, though, is set in Bhutan's capital and largest city, not Himalayan treks.
Two concepts help drive Grange on the trek. One is the western idea of Shangri-La. A friend who completed the Snowman Trek described a high-altitude village in a valley in remotest northern Bhutan as "the most beautiful, most mysterious and most otherworldly place I've ever been." It becomes Grange's personal idea of Shangri-La and motivates him along the trek. The other is a Tibetan and Bhutanese concept that inspired the book's title. In local folklore, an auspicious superstition surrounds blossom rain, the moment of rainbow light when it is raining and sunny at the same time. Bhutanese he asks about blossom rain provide no better than enigmatic answers about its significance and his desire to grasp the concept also animates his efforts. Beneath Blossom Rain becomes as much a journal of an internal trek as a Himalayan one, a tale in which we are even privy to Grange's ongoing debate with his "inner critic." We also learn with Grange that enlightenment may not always come in places or events we would suspect.
Grange occasionally falls into a few clichés ("like home, sleep felt far away") and platitudes ("A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"). Additionally, some of the conversations with his fellow trekkers and guides seem somewhat artificial, designed more to convey basic information to the reader that someone on the trek would already know. Still, Grange brings a light touch of humor and direct, conversational tone that outweighs these occasional foibles. More important, Beneath Blossom Rain succeeds in merging travelogue with personal contemplation, allowing the armchair traveler to share both the physical and personal journey and taking them beyond a geographic place to a more philosophical one.
Peace is a popular term this time of year. You know, "Peace on Earth" and the like. But what does peace mean? Even dictionary definitions show it has...morePeace is a popular term this time of year. You know, "Peace on Earth" and the like. But what does peace mean? Even dictionary definitions show it has varying meaning. Perspective is important. Do we view things externally as in there being no armed conflict, as an internal state of mind, or must both exist for there truly to be peace?
Because each of us likely has our own definition and perspective, in early 2009 John Noltner began interviewing people about what peace meant to them. His goal was to create a collection of thoughts on peace from a wide variety of people and use it to foster a larger public conversation about the topic. A freelance photographer based in Minneapolis, Noltner also took black and white portrait photographs of his subjects. In addition to creating a traveling exhibit, another result of his efforts is his book, A Peace of My Mind, Exploring the Meaning of Peace One Story At a Time, which contains excerpts of about 50 interviews and the subjects' portraits. (Many of the full interviews are available on the book's web site as podcasts.)
A significant number of those interviewed, particularly those with a religious orientation, tend to look toward an internal peace as a first and essential step. They believe that the personal effort of finding an inner peace contributes to and builds peace in the world as a whole. Others tend to view it as an absence of war. Yet there hasn't been much of that, notes Luyen Phan, an international student advisor. He believes peace can arise by building on cultural awareness and exchanges so that what happens elsewhere in the world has more meaning to us.
Economic and personal security also play a role in some visions of peace. Some express the concept that "nobody gets seconds until everyone gets firsts" or that the measure of success isn't monetary but the intangible values that prompt people to strive to help others. There is also a sense in some interviews that personal safety or the knowledge that a person has food and shelter are key components.
Some views are striking because of the individual's background. Jamal Hashi was in elementary school when war broke out in his native Somalia. Now a restaurant owner, his observations have a somewhat unique religious backdrop and perspective.
The core of the message [in the Bible and Qur'an] is: achieve peace, give peace, and live by peace. But what do we fight about? The difference of who was the messenger. It's like killing the mailman because he wasn't the same mailman last week. Did you get the mail? That's all that matters.
Others are more lyrical. Take for example, Melvin Carter Jr., a retired St.Paul police officer, who considers peace it "living symphonically" with each other. "[Y]ou know, in the symphony you've got all kinds of stuff happening -- rhythmically and melodically and harmoniously -- at the same time. [Yet the instruments work] together in such a way that doesn't clash."
One thing that is clear is that regardless of how people view or strive for peace, it is not a state we should consider only during particular times of the year. Thus, A Peace of My Mind would be one of those Christmas gifts that has the propensity to long outlast the event.
Imagine the proverbial search for the needle in the haystack. Fortunately, anyone searching knows what a needle is. Multiply the strands of hay billio...moreImagine the proverbial search for the needle in the haystack. Fortunately, anyone searching knows what a needle is. Multiply the strands of hay billions of times and you're approaching one of the haystacks in which those in search of extraterrestrial life are working. Yet their effort struggles with a fundamental question: How do you define "life"? As science journalist Marc Kaufman points out in a new book, the answer is not as easy as it might seem. More important, the definition ultimately arrived at could mean we already have proof that life exists beyond Earth.
To say that Kaufman's book, First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, surveys a huge range of possible haystacks is an understatement. He takes us from beneath the surface of our planet, where scientists hunt for and study "extremophile" microbes that alter our views of what is necessary for life to exist, to observatories and labs searching deep space for extraterrestrial signals or exoplanets, planets outside the solar system. Not only does the book suggest the breadth of the effort, it reveals how each aspect reveals ideas and science never before suspected.
For example, there is the question of what Kaufman calls "a possible shadow biosphere." Is there life on Earth that was not previously considered life? First Contact takes us to research at an alkaline lake in California that led NASA to announce in December 2010 the discovery of an organism that uses arsenic in its cellular structure, an element that is not one of the six essential elements necessary for life on Earth. If terrestrial "life" can be arsenic-based and extremophiles can exist in circumstances previously thought incapable of supporting life, it becomes that much more likely that life exists off the planet,
In exploring these investigations and their ramifications, Kaufman does what excellent science reporters do -- he translates at times difficult concepts into language those of us who barely passed "Bonehead Chemistry" can understand. This is no small feat, given that Kaufman himself was new to the field of astrobiology and, as he puts it, some of those involved in the effort use "a language that can often seem mysterious and impregnable." Perhaps due to the need to keep the information as accessible as possible, Kaufman tends to a bit of repetition. That is a relatively minor flaw in light of his approach. Whether descending into the South African mines, visiting observatories in Australia or going to California's Mono Lake, First Contact also introduces the reader to the scientists. Readers aren't left with the science and what the scientists are studying. Kaufman, science writer and national editor at The Washington Post, also personalizes the researchers and their work.
This also enables readers to better grasp some of the ongoing debates about whether we have already discovered extraterrestrial life. First Contact reviews the questions surrounding whether Mars landers found evidence of life on that planet. Kaufman updates the ongoing debate that began some 15 years ago when scientists suggested their study of a meteorite from Mars contained microfossils of primitive bacteria. He also explores the scientific studies going on beyond Earth, Mars and the solar system. He explains how scientists search for exoplanets and how older instruments utilize new technology and computing power to crunch massive amounts of data to plot one or two points. Even long-recognized efforts introduce debates. Thus, when SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence using radio telescopes, makes an appearance, Kaufman introduces readers to the question of whether it is wise for us to broadcast or announce our presence to possible extraterrestrial intelligence.
Even if we don't reach a universal definition of life first, Kaufman suggests we may be on the cusp of one of the greatest "Eureka!" moments in human history. Given how how broad-based the search for extraterrestrial life has become, the fundamental question may become what its discovery means for human society.
There are reasons certain sayings persist. Take, for example, the overused and abused saw, "A picture is worth a thousand words." It survives because...moreThere are reasons certain sayings persist. Take, for example, the overused and abused saw, "A picture is worth a thousand words." It survives because it is true. Some things words just cannot adequately describe: Van Gogh's "Starry Night" or a tropical island. Even describing the effect such sights have on us is woefully insufficient.
Applying the adage to Zachary Michael Jack's Let There Be Pebble: A Middle-Handicapper's Year in America's Garden of Golf, you can estimate the book is missing 10,000 to 20,000 words. To explore the mystique and allure of Pebble Beach Golf Links, Jack, a self-described "Pebble Beach virgin," immersed himself in the culture of the course and neighboring Carmel, California, for a year. Despite reveling in the course and the coastline upon which it is located, the book has an inexplicable flaw: aside from the cover it contains no pictures, maps or even drawings of the golf course or Carmel.
Although the book is part personal journey into a golf mecca and part homage to a father who built a greens-less pasture golf course on their Iowa farmstead, it also is aimed at trying to describe the course and how it is viewed by golf professionals, area residents and others. Yet if you are going to detail the course and changes on it over the years, shouldn't you at least have even a scorecard-like drawing of the layout? Likewise, quoting someone that "the eighth [hole], tee shot at the tenth, the fourteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth are holes that cannot be equaled anywhere," loses a lot without seeing the holes. The same is true for the repeated references to the necessary second shot over a ravine on the eighth hole. And discussions of the Carmel gate to the golf course and various streets and locations in the town mean less without a small map showing their spatial relationship.
Maybe these were thought unnecessary as the market for Let There Be Pebble are those at least somewhat familiar with the course from personal visits or television. I have had the pleasure of playing Pebble Beach twice in my life (before the advent of $500 green fees) and spent three weeks living a mile or so south of Carmel. Yet even with that familiarity, pictures or maps would have enhanced the book for me. Thus, they would seem almost crucial for someone who hasn't actually trod that ground.
Granted, this criticism doesn't go to Jack's efforts or the substantive content. Once we get past a few too many of the kinds of metaphors that tend to haunt sportswriting, Let There Be Pebble immerses the reader in the history, myths and legends of Pebble Beach. Jack lets us hear firsthand from golfers, local historians, employees and former local reporters -- even those with contrarian views -- while blending in the written history. (The history includes the following oath taken by golfers on the course's opening day on Washington's birthday weekend in February 1919: ""We Pledge Ourselves by Our Faith in the Cherry Tree to Turn In Honest Score Cards.") In embarking on his total immersion approach, Jack takes two unique, almost surprising, approaches.
First, Jack doesn't repeatedly play Pebble Beach and regale us with stories of his trials, tribulations and successes. To the contrary, we accompany him only once playing Pebble Beach and as he plays with members of The Shivas Irons Society on nearby Pacific Grove Golf Links. Most of the book is built around Jack, on a sabbatical from the college at which he teaches English, working as a reporter for several tournaments at Pebble Beach, including the 2010 U.S. Open, and living in neighboring Carmel.
The latter gives readers a closer look at Carmel than one might expect in a book about Pebble Beach. Although Clint Eastwood and his wife, Dina, may too often serve as a prism, Jack takes us house hunting and inside city politics and the history of the town and area. As such, this is more complete view of Pebble Beach as archetype and destination than Pebble Beach the golf course. With such an approach, Jack may be treading a fine line between those readers who care only about the course and those who want the broader view of the life and culture of the course and its setting. Still, he should be commended for taking a more expansive perspective -- even if he left out the pictures.
Elements of our lives undoubtedly impact not only what we read but how we read it. Growing up during the Gemini and Apollo programs left me with a con...moreElements of our lives undoubtedly impact not only what we read but how we read it. Growing up during the Gemini and Apollo programs left me with a continued interest in space-related topics. Later training in a "just the facts ma'am" approach to journalism tends to leave me feeling terms like "creative nonfiction" have more than a hint of oxymoron. What happens when the two collide, as they do in Ben Mezrich's Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History?
The book is a highly readable account of a seemingly impossible and wholly unparalleled crime, the theft of moon rocks from NASA. Mezrich shows us how Thad Roberts overcame the odds to have a promising science career and the chance of accomplishing his dream of being an astronaut and how he threw it all away in an unimaginable and foolhardy fashion. As with his prior books, though, Mezrich makes the story captivating by utilizing a novel-like approach to telling the story.
Despite being disowned by his strict Mormon family as a teen, Roberts pursued degrees in geology, geophysics and physics at the University of Utah, hoping to become an astronaut. Happily married, Roberts was devoted to his studies and even formed a student astronomical society and volunteered at the Utah Museum of Natural History. It was there, though, that a character flaw that would doom him revealed itself. When Roberts realized some fossils in the museum's collection would forever sit unnoticed in closed containers, he decided to bring some home and make them his own.
Roberts was fortunate enough to be accepted into NASA's Cooperative Education Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Leaving his wife in Utah, Roberts remade himself and became a leader among the other "co-ops," viewed as an adventurer and risk-taker. While fascinated by what the co-op program allowed him to do, Roberts was particularly intrigued when one of his mentors told them that the lunar material in his safe was considered "trash" by NASA because they had been used for experiments and outside the agency. He began pondering how it might be possible to steal some of the moon rocks, among NASA's most highly protected materials. The idea became an obsession. At first, it was to come up with money to fund his education and perhaps even his own laboratory. (At his eventual trial, the 101.5 grams of lunar material he stole was appraised at $5 million, a figure some considered low.) By his third year in the co-op program, though, Roberts met and fell in love with a younger intern, "Rebecca," and decided to give her the moon, literally.
Before the theft, Roberts posted on-line notices on the sites of various mineral collector groups as "Orb Robinson." He eventually reached an agreement with a Belgian mineral collector so in July 2002, working with Rebecca and a younger intern, "Sandra," the three made off with a 600-pound safe containing not only rocks from each Apollo moon landing but a bit of the meteorite NASA scientists believed provided evidence of life on Mars. What Roberts didn't know and his amateurish approach toward selling the moon material made easier, the collector was working with the FBI on a sting operation. Mezrich unfolds the tale, from conception through arrest, in a flowing and engaging fashion, taking readers inside not only Johnson Space Center but the growth of the idea to steal the "trash" rocks and the sting operation.
A reader, though, likely will encounter two problems with the book. First, apparently because Roberts was his primary source, Mezrich admits the story is told largely from his perspective. We are never quite sure of the extent to which Roberts' version of events fit with objective reality. For example, were Rebecca and Sandra the willing adventurers Mezrich portrays or was Roberts able to exert some sort of Svengali-like influence on them? The second issue is more important and one that arose with each of Mezrich's prior nonfiction works. The book's readability comes from an amplified form of "creative nonfiction" or "literary journalism". As Mezrich says in an author's note that opens the book, Sex on the Moon contains dialogue that has been "re-created and compressed" and certain names, characterizations and physical descriptions "have been altered to protect privacy."
Here, even Rebecca and Sandra aren't the real names of the women involved and, as far as I can determine, Mezrich changes their physical descriptions and the age of at least one of them. This is despite the fact Rebecca (actually Tiffany Fowler) and Sandra (actually Shae Saur) pleaded guilty in federal court and their names are a matter of public record. Combined with "re-created dialogue" and descriptions that feel novelistic, at what point do such changes push a work from nonfiction to a novelization or "based on a true story" status? (The latter may become even more fitting in the future as Sony Pictures optioned the film rights to the book this past January.)
Undoubtedly, Sex on the Moon is an entertaining and enjoyable read. From the perspective of a space-age reader, I found it quite intriguing. Ultimately, though, the question confronting each reader is the extent to which the entertainment value undercuts trust in the author and, hence, the story.
Those of us who live on the Great Plains can tend to think we are removed from the nation's ongoing debate over illegal immigration. That couldn't be...moreThose of us who live on the Great Plains can tend to think we are removed from the nation's ongoing debate over illegal immigration. That couldn't be further from the truth. Just last year, Fremont, a town of some 25,000 in northeastern Nebraska, drew national attention when voters approved a law fining landlords and employers who house or hire illegal immigrants. (The law was suspended a month later pending a challenge to it in federal court.). In May 2008, authorities executed the largest immigration raid in the nation's history and made 400 arrests at a meatpacking plan in Postville, a town of maybe 2,500 in northeastern Iowa. And less than six years before, northwestern Iowa was where an immigrant smuggling tragedy was discovered.
On October 16, 2002, an employee of a now-defunct grain elevator in Denison, Iowa, (population 7,500 at the time) was checking the bays on grain hopper rail cars in preparation for loading. In one, he spotted what appeared to be two skulls. They were the first indication that the remains of 11 Central American and Mexican immigrants were in the hopper car, their bodies so badly decomposed they were in states of skeletonization and mummification. The story of what happened to those immigrants and how is the focus of a documentary and a book, Train To Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation.
The underlying story is almost as simple as it is sad. The 11 individuals, mostly from Central America, crossed into the United States in the hopes of finding jobs, some assisted by "coyotes" (smugglers). On June 15, 2002, they were among 26 illegal immigrants loaded into the bays of two grain hopper cars in Harlingen, Tex. The opening to the slope-floored bay in which these 11 ended up was locked from the outside. Although 15 immigrants in the other hopper were caught that night during a Border Patrol inspection, officials somehow missed this particular hopper. The train continued north. Trapped inside what one person described as essentially a humidor, the 11 died of dehydration and hyperthermia. The rail car sat in a facility near Oklahoma City for four months before being sent to Denison on October 15. The bodies were identified only through DNA tests.
Colleen Bradford Krantz, who wrote and co-produced the documentary, uses her journalistic background to take readers inside the tragedy. In her capable hands, Train to Nowhere explores not only the how and why of what happened but introduces the reader to some of the people who died and their families, details what must have happened in the rail car, follows the difficulty in the months-long effort to identify the victims, and examines the complexities of illegal immigration. This means the reader encounters and learns from the legal resident older brother of a young Guatemalan who died in the hopper car, a railroad conductor who sold information to one of the coyote networks, and the investigators on the case.
Using material gathered in creating the documentary, Krantz's book, published by Ice Cube Press in Iowa, adheres to standards she acquired as a reporter for daily newspapers in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Des Moines. Unlike much so-called creative nonfiction today, Krantz is careful in documenting conversations. If she was not present and is relying on someone's recollection of a conversation, any quotations appear in italics instead of quotation marks. This approach does not detract from the narrative or the flow. If anything, it may subtly enhance the book's verisimilitude.
In examining the various aspects of this tragedy, Krantz shows both the personal toll and both sides of the immigration debate. Unfortunately, actually preventing or resolving these problems is beyond the scope of this or any book.
We all think about running away at times. We imagine leaving the stresses and obligations of daily life and embarking on a life enhancing adventure. I...moreWe all think about running away at times. We imagine leaving the stresses and obligations of daily life and embarking on a life enhancing adventure. It's doubtful, though, that Croatia tops the list of escapes for most people. Yet Jennifer Wilson, along with her husband and their two young children, left the comforts of home in Des Moines, Iowa, to take up temporary residence in Mrkopalj (MER-ko-pie), the mountain village in northwestern Croatia from which her maternal great-grandparents emigrated.
Running Away to Home takes readers inside Mrkopalj and its environs. Wilson gives firsthand accounts of her and her family's experiences. Although Wilson was the one in search of where she came from, her husband and children (six and almost four at the time) adapted more rapidly to village life and the cultural differences. One thing all of them learned is that life operates differently in a small mountain village. For example, the family agreed to rent the to-be-renovated second floor of the house of Robert Starcevic, who ran one of the town's "bistros." When they arrived, the remodeling had barely begun. Despite promises from Robert that it would be done in a day, a couple days, a week or two, the Wilsons never ended up living in the space they intended. Rather, they took over the smaller third floor of the house, which housed Robert's daughters' rooms. This was due in part to Robert often preferring to spend his days indulging in local libations and watching the world, a not uncommon activity in the village.
It may have been that approach that made a 21st Century American mother take the longest to acclimate. Rather than the constant motion of work and family activities back home, the 800 or so residents of Mrkopalj lived a slower pace. This doesn't mean no one worked hard. To the contrary, Wilson found that life in the village could be "bone-hard." There was no industry to speak of and many supported themselves by what they and their neighbors could grow, often on their own small plots. They would rise early to manually tend to their plots and livestock or to perform household chores. They would cut trees in the forest to gather firewood for the coming winter. Much of their work was done without the labor-saving conveniences most Americans would expect to use.
One major failing of the book, though, is that it contains no pictures, despite the fact Wilson's web site contains 128 photos in a gallery called "Life in the Village." Wilson says that was a conscious decision. She wants readers to come up with their own images of the village and its people in their minds. Yet virtually all readers have never taken such a step in location and daily life. Not sharing photographs in the book deprives them of actually seeing the people and sites that feature so prominently in it.
Although Wilson did not feel immediately accepted, she did catch up with her family in adjusting to and feeling the fabric of life in the village. Her search for her ancestors seemed less imperative and Wilson noted that she learned more about what their lives may have been like than about them personally. And, for her, that was perhaps the real lesson of their four months living in the village. Among other things, history and a sense of place seemed woven into the fabric of life. Croatia was far from immune from the political, nationalist and ethnic disputes that affected southeastern Europe and the Balkans. Yet while these fractures still lurked beneath the surface, they seemed far less important than the deep sense of community. This meant "they all lived together in messy harmony in Mrkopalj. In addition, for all our American advantages -- jobs, industry, good malls -- they felt sorry for me. No one in Mrkopalj could fathom what it must have been like to not even know my great-grandparents."
Graced by an ability to increasingly turn a humorous eye at their acclimation process, Running Away to Home shows how the Wilsons seem to find themselves amidst a world much different than they knew. "Mrkopalj showed us that it didn't matter what we had," Wilson says. Instead, experiencing the small things that contributed to the life and culture of Mrkopalj stood in sharp contrast to and often felt more congruous than life in America, "a place where people had everything and appreciated so little."
As Wilson and her family discover, even when you leave home it doesn't mean you can't find a niche and fellowship in other places, and in ways you might least expect.