Friday, January 25, 2019

Book Review: The Walk of the Wandering Man

The Walk of the Wandering Man by Ric Szabo is an epic story of humanity that starts 5000 years ago in the harsh environment of Central Europe. The story begins with the intertwining of the fates of a young boy called Konli, and a young man, Vratu, a Mesolithic hunter, brought together by tragedy. When Vratu is sent on his rite of passage, to walk with the Earth Spirit, he has no idea what the gods have in store for him, and how his quest will bring him manhood, pain, suffering, joy, and ultimately love. He knows treachery and killing, finds his conscience and learns compassion, and discovers a moral certainty to do what is right. Who is the mysterious boy with the strange tattoo, and the intriguing necklace? Why has Vratu been chosen to protect him?

Fans of Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series will absolutely love this book. The plot is complex in that it encompasses the lives and deeds of a number of characters and their clans. The reader embarks on a journey with Vratu that informs as it entertains. The age of the hunter-gatherer was ending as the farmers began to assert their right to land. Clashes and killings, and some degree of xenophobia were inevitable as the fight over resources raged. Alliances are formed, then broken, then remade in an intricate story line. The reader who enjoys prehistory and its detail will be impressed, as I was, at the meticulous research done to bring the epoch to life. The author writes in a lyrical style that is appropriate for the genre, slightly archaic but most pleasing to read. A modern author voice would not have worked, and Szabo gets it just right.

I enjoyed the descriptions which are vivid and immersive; indeed, readers find themselves thrust right into the action, be it fighting to survive the elements or in the midst of battle. The story takes the reader back in time most amazingly. One wonders how early man managed to survive, how they learned to create tools, to make clothing, shelter, medicines, all the things that the modern reader wouldn’t give a second thought. Social constructs and mores, traditions, customs, and laws are explained by seamlessly integrating them into the plot. The themes of spirituality and worship, and the place of nature in emerging society’s ethos are clear. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, although the prologue starts with action and mystery, and death. This is an epic adventure and one that belongs not only to Vratu, but to the communities he encounters and the people he calls his friends and companions. A thought-provoking, instructive, and extremely enjoyable read.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Book Review: The Final Wars Begin

Could one man tip the balance of world power to set off the final wars? It’s possible. Bastien Lyons, once an orphan in New Paris on Earth, finds himself back in his old stomping ground as he escapes the colony on Mars, Port Sydney, where he was accused of a heinous crime. Everyone seems to be after him because there’s a bounty on his head. After World War 3, Earth is uninhabitable on the surface, and not much remains anyway. Earth has the colony of New Paris; the Moon has Nippon One; and Mars has Port Sydney. New Paris is the sewer-like habitat of the remnants of humanity, ruled over by self-styled Queen Marie, part cyborg, and the rest of her a drug-riddled, narcissistic egomaniac. But although he’s being hunted, New Paris is Bastien’s best place of refuge since he knows it so well. But if only he wasn’t so conspicuous with those yellow irises as well as being hunted by a seven-foot robot…

This is a short read and serves as a prelude for undoubtedly a much longer exposition by the author in the subsequent books of this trilogy. I really enjoyed it! The Final Wars Begin by S.A. is well written, with touches of unexpected humour. The author’s ability to describe the fetid, stinking atmosphere of New Paris, then contrast that with the sterility of Port Sydney makes for an excellent visual, almost cinematic unfolding of events. The main characters are developed into real people, although Bastien is by far the most realistic and charismatic. Interestingly, I found the bounty hunter robot Cube to be very appealing, with his penchant for the piano piece Fur Elise.

I enjoyed the various themes and questions raised in this story: does the butterfly effect exist, and could artificial intelligence become so self-aware that it takes over humanity? The chapters move from one character’s perspective to another, which gives the reader a very detailed look at the back history of the war, the colonies, and past events, as well as clarifying just what everyone wants to get in the end – all this without the proverbial info dump. The story starts with a bang, and the pace continues at the same speed. The end is a cliff-hanger but surprisingly, it works, and one closes the book not feeling dissatisfied but eager to get the next instalment. This is the kind of story that sci fi and dystopian fans will love. A hero with standards and a conscience, a believable dystopian world, a complex plot driven by the main players’ needs and greed, and the promise of more action and adventure.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Book Review: You Started WHAT After 60?

Before I began reading You Started WHAT After 60? Highpointing Across America by Jane T. Bertrand, I had never heard of highpointing. Not to be confused with mountaineering, highpointing (so says Wikipedia) is the sport of ascending to the point with the highest elevation within a given area (the “highpoint”). Examples include: climbing the highest point of each U.S. state; reaching the highest point of each county within a specific state; and ascending the highest mountain on each continent (the “Seven Summits”). To many armchair travelers or couch potatoes who consider themselves fit, why would anyone want to climb the highest point of each U.S. state? The author herself states she hadn’t slept in a tent or on the ground for 40 years! It seems the author’s family has a grueling tradition of doing something extraordinary on a special birthday.

The year Jane turned 60 was the year she decided to meet the highpointing challenge she had set herself, after considerations of health, and available options should she be unable to meet her first location goal. Planning, organizing, and reading on the topic were just a few of the preparations. Plus, Jane admits to two major weaknesses: lack of technological know-how and poor navigational skills (I know the feeling!). Once the challenge had begun, Jane then decided she had to make up for lost time…

Jane lays out the challenges in a chronological order with the number of the highpoint, location, date, and level of difficulty. Her highpointing adventure was not without health issues (a gammy knee and bunions) and Jane had to work around those. This could all make for dry reading, but Jane has a lovely conversational style, chatty and down to earth, and she mixes in details of family, friends, life events, and activities that took place around the highpointing expeditions. By the time one reaches the end of the book, Jane has become as familiar as a longtime friend and the reader feels part of the family. Photos interspersed in the text also put names to faces and make the book reader-friendly.

While some of the highpoints read like the proverbial pleasant walk in the park, others make the mind boggle, especially if you’re an armchair traveler or a couch potato (as mentioned above). This activity is not for the faint-hearted (bear spray?). When the author says she had to “get serious” about highpointing (which requires reaching the absolute, definitive highpoint, not just “getting close”), one can sense the adrenalin and, perhaps, the obsession kicking in. Jane’s sister Liz happens to be an avid journaler and these details came in very hand when Jane decided to start putting her experiences down on paper.

Jane includes references to other books on highpointing which could be useful to anyone considering taking up this challenge. Each highpoint experience is described in detail and this gives the reader an extraordinary view of the many beautiful places in the U.S., places that many of us would have neither the time nor energy to experience. I am not an avid hiker, mountaineer, or any kind of adrenalin junkie. I don’t think I’d have Jane’s stamina, courage, or confidence to embark upon what could sometimes be incredibly dangerous ventures, should the weather turn bad, for example. However, Jane’s exceptionally detailed, informative, and highly entertaining account is inspiring for many. It can be done. A ‘life experience’ must-read for anyone planning to do something very special as an adventure, and you don’t have to wait for a special occasion or be 60 to do it. Jane’s final reflections on the home stretch are interesting, honest, and illuminating. Read this book, even if you have no intention of climbing anything except the nearest gentle slope.
About the Author:
Jane T.Bertrand is a professor at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, where she splits her time between teaching in New Orleans and managing research on Tulane's family planning projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  A Maine native, she moved to New Orleans over 40 years ago where she and her husband Bill raised their children, Katy and Jacob. Her recurrent travel to Africa in connection with international family planning work generated many of the frequent flyer miles that made this highpointing pursuit possible.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Book Review: Silent Spring, Deadly Autumn of the Vietnam War

For the rest of the world, the Vietnam war is over. For the soldiers who fought in it, no matter what their role, it will never be over. Silent Spring: Deadly Autumn of the Vietnam War is described by author and Vietnam veteran Patrick Hogan as “part memoir, part exposé, and part call to action against the bureaucratic and legislative negligence and indifference that has violated, and continues to violate, the trust of veterans and US citizens as a whole.” Succinct and well put, this is the perfect description of a horrific cover-up, one of the greatest crimes against humanity of the 20th century, and one that, had it happened today, would have been labelled genocide. The author served two years, nine months and 22 days in Vietnam and that was enough to poison his body to the extent that he ended up with a laundry list of ailments. This only manifested 43 years after his service ended, but confirmed Patrick’s conviction that his time in Vietnam and his unbelievable laundry list of illnesses were linked. After all, on many occasions, among the reasons cited by medical experts for his problems were the two chilling words “environmental agents.” And thus began his exhaustive and minutely detailed investigation into the witches’ brew of potentially lethal tactical pesticides which he is sure contributed to the decline in his health and that of many other veterans.
Sidelined and pushed from pillar to post, Patrick came up against the stone-walling tactics of the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) and the US government, both of which deny the effects of the toxic chemicals Vietnam veterans were exposed to during the war. The reasonable person wonders why the government and chemical companies did not set about covering medical bills and compensating these men. The answer is simple. Money and greed. The refusal of the DVA and the US administration to accept responsibility is to protect them from international liability and accusations of use of chemical warfare/weapons (which is the case) and to avoid the massive payouts they would be forced to make. This is a shameful indictment of the political administration of the time and the current one, when reparations could, but won’t be made.

I had a vague idea of the Vietnam War when I picked up this book, and of course I had heard of the infamous Agent Orange, a horrifying herbicide and defoliant chemical used to destroy jungle cover for the enemy and any food supplies they might locate there. The US government destroyed millions of acres of South Vietnam jungles. It was an environmental catastrophe beyond any natural disaster ever known. I had never heard of Agent White and the numerous other toxic and deadly concoctions, a chemical poisonous soup, used as pesticides. Vietnam is home to myriad insects, bugs, and critters all carrying their own types of bites, stings and diseases. They had to be exterminated. The problem was that daily exposure to these poisons inevitably altered the molecular structure of the cells of people exposed, but took years, even decades to manifest. This gave the government and the DVA enough wiggle room to claim inconclusive evidence and the fudge the facts and manipulate the statistics.

Despite the horrifying details and chilling statistics contained in this memoir, the author has no moments of self-pity. He includes very detailed research, scientific, chemical and medical information, but all in a very readable, user-friendly style. I felt as if I were sitting with the author and chatting over coffee. He manages to intersperse fact and figures with events in a way that makes it easy to absorb the statistics and the information which is so relevant to his story. Photographs are an added bonus to help the reader visualize the location and the living conditions of the men who served in Vietnam. The facts are thoroughly researched with bibliographic and reference end notes to give credibility to Patrick Hogan’s story, one of tragedy shared by many, many other soldiers who gave their lives in a war that should never have been fought. Very impressive and highly recommended.