Book Review – The Places in Between

956433.5 stars. Six weeks after the fall of the Taliban, Rory Stewart embarked on a walk across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul. The Places in Between describes his journey through harsh land and a huge mix of people, from kindly to threatening.

The author relied on the cultural value of hospitality to guests and travelers. This to me is fascinating: that a Westerner with only knowledge of local customs, a smattering of Persian language skills, and familiarity with the history and religion of the country can travel across a war-torn land, being taken care of by those who have little themselves.

I never really emotionally connected with The Places in Between. I suspect one or more of a few reasons for this. Stewart never reveals much about himself, so I don’t feel contact with him on a personal level. He tells his story with a very stoic and understated tone, so while I’m certain that his journey was both hazardous and difficult, the sense of those dangers doesn’t come through. His walk wasn’t about the land he passed through; we get some descriptions of geography and terrain but not many.

The dizzying whirlwind of people that he met gets only a capsule treatment, by nature of his very limited association. His three government-assigned travel companions early on are described in much more detail, and their portrayals are very good–perhaps the latter half of the book suffered from this lack of a personal connection.

It’s also a bit repetitive: Stewart has a long day walking, comes to a village, finds the leaders and requests hospitality, partakes of a meager and silent dinner, might have brief conversations ranging from friendly to threatening, experiences bouts of dysentery, and gets letters of introduction to the next village(s). He intersperses history, primarily of the medieval emperor Babur, and that provides some continuity to his journey.

On the other hand, this is a book that I am glad that I read. My surface understanding of Islam, Afghanistan, terrorism, and the Taliban is so limited. Stewart shows that the culture of Afghanistan is hugely diverse, and its governance must be incredibly complex. I almost feel more confused after reading this book, but I fear that is due to my narrow understanding rather than any deficiency of the author’s text. (Now I realize the full depth of my ignorance!) And yet the hopeful strength of this book is that it shows the common bonds of humanity cross barriers of religion and nationality.

The Places in Between is informative and interesting, though not as compulsively readable as I had hoped.

Book Review – Mountains of the Mind: How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit

981281Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit is a beautiful celebration of the highest peaks. With lyrical prose, the author covers geology, history, and explorers of mountains, as well as some of his personal experiences on the slopes.

Mountains of the Mind outlines how, for most of human history, mountains represented the fearful and the unknown. Macfarlane tells of the forces that shaped the mountains, then relates that tale to how the mountains have shaped us. One of his themes is how depictions of mountains in art have changed through the times, to the current interpretation of mountains as a sublime transformative experience that strips away pretense and shows who we are.

The subjects covered are varied and interesting. Many, such as Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna ascent and George Mallory’s failed attempt on Everest, are familiar, yet their wonderful renditions here are well worth the read thanks to his insight on what drove men up these slopes. His personal accounts are absolutely lovely, especially one about meeting a snow hare during a whiteout.

Mountains of the Mind is peppered with lovely quotes:

“To know a landscape properly, you must go into it in person. You need to see how in winter a tree gathers warmth to itself, and melts the snow it stands in. You need to hear the rifle-crack of a crow’s call snapping over icy ground. You need to feel the remoteness of a huge grey pre-dawn Alpine sky, with the lights of the nearest town blinking thousands of feet beneath you.”

“This is the human paradox of altitude: that it both exalts the individual mind and erases it. Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.”

For all his phrase-perfect writing, Macfarlane does not romanticize his subject matter:

“And we had talked, as mountaineers always do, about how strange it is to risk yourself for a mountain, but how central to the experience is that risk and the fear it brings with it.”

“One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia.”

As much a guide to human psychology as to the slopes, Mountains of the Mind is a wonderful read by a master author. Highly recommended for lovers of the outdoors and literature.

Book Review – On the Trail: A History of American Hiking

297716552.5 stars. Silas Chamberlin examines trail development and culture in the United States in On the Trail: A History of American Hiking. Starting with the developments in technology and culture that first led to the rise of walking as a leisure activity, the author traces how interest in hiking developed, what factors drove its growth, how trails were built, and the decline of the trail club in favor of individual hikers.

The book is rich with noteworthy information about the hiking clubs that actively developed trail networks and promoted hiking as a leisure activity. At its genesis, hiking required the rise of a working class exempt from physical labor (who wants to walk for fun when one must walk all day to put food on the table?). The clubs were largely egalitarian, with membership being extended to all interested regardless of sex or race; an interesting sociological observation. Clubs typically designed, developed, maintained, and shared information about routes within their purview.

The history of these clubs contains many fascinating tidbits that give insight into the mindset of the hiker community. The story of the Dartmouth Outing Club is a great read. I liked the tale behind the founding of the Mazamas in Portland, Oregon: to ensure that membership was for accomplished climbers, the first meeting was held on the summit of Mount Hood. Another great anecdote was how a club in New York was laying out a trail with string, only to find that they were just ahead of hikers following their route.

After World War II, On the Trail turns nostalgic, examining a decline in membership and influence of the trail clubs. Many clubs, such as the Sierra Club, turned to a conservation and environmental focus. Governmental funding focus changed towards multi-use pathways seen as a transportation alternative rather than featuring closeness to nature as the main purpose. Technological changes in equipment, the availability of military surplus, and advances in food storage enabled people to hike individually. As hiking has become more popularized, the paradox of being “loved to death” has forced hikers to adopt lower-impact methods and environmental causes.

And here I veer from review to rebuttal…

At the genesis of hiking culture, hiking or backpacking was virtually impossible without club membership or guidance. Routes did not exist until clubs established them, and there were not resources available outside club newsletters and word of mouth. Equipment was not readily available, and was of such a weight that it was only suited to group use. Since then, the availability of trails, information, and equipment has lessened the importance of a club (or for that matter even a group) to a beginner.

Another factor in group hiking’s decline that this book does not cover is that barriers often exist that prevent large groups from hiking. Permits or campsite reservations often specify maximum limits on group sizes, and popular areas frequently need to be reserved considerably prior to the trip.

I would also posit that many hikers had their first experience outdoors within a social structure: friends, family, and organizations. My first hikes were on family vacations, and my first backpacks were with my Boy Scout troop. In college, I was a trip leader with the school outdoor recreation program, taking many first-timers out into the woods. One of the common sights on trails around me is the fruits of an Eagle Scout service project: benches, trailhead kiosks, interpretive signage, and often even the trails themselves. Most hikers are ecstatic to share trips, hike preparation tasks, and skills instruction with newcomers. Leave No Trace is widely practiced and preached. Many hikers actively participate in governmental park and trail planning. We may hike individually more often, but we’ve also taken a much larger sense of personal responsibility for trail development, maintenance, and evangelism.

One of the huge weaknesses is that the author’s perspective seem to drive his narrative. He spent the summer of 2003 on the trail crew of the Adirondack Mountain Club (thank you for your contributions to the trails of that beautiful area, Mr. Chamberlin!), and he clearly lets his experiences there determine his idea of what hiking should be. Through its erroneous need to equate trail clubs with the hiking community, this book becomes far less authoritative and interesting as its reporting approaches modern day.

I was also rubbed the wrong way by occasional prejudices and unsubstantiated claims. As an example, he points to the National Trails System Act of 1968 as the turning point of when we began to expect government-provided trails to be the norm and “the volunteer ethic that had defined the hiking community for more than one hundred years was lost.” Yet he provides no evidence to substantiate this assertion other than club membership numbers. His statement would have far more credence had he quantified a change in volunteer hours, number of trails, general decline in condition of trails, etc. He then goes on to build a strawman, again without offering any evidence: “New hikers believed that they were entitled to clean, well-maintained trails. Why, they wondered, should they be asked to do more?”

In the epilogue, his prejudices are again apparent:

“Even the most unlikely of places, Brentwood, Tennessee–located in what has been called the most conservative county in America–had at least 20 miles of trails.”

I happen to live in the county he refers to, and have hiked many times in Brentwood (make sure you check out the Red Trail at the recently-established Marcella Vivrette Smith Park if you visit!). I’m curious as to why it is “the most unlikely of places,” as Tennessee has a rich outdoor tradition. And what does its political leaning have to do with its trails? The author has already established that the rise of the hiking club culture he so prizes was fueled by middle class and wealthy preservationist benefactors, and if there’s a place that’s middle class or wealthy in Tennessee, it’s Brentwood for sure.

Chamberlin fails to mention current ambitious trail projects, which are often driven by clubs who coordinate government and volunteer effort. Examples are Boston’s Bay Circuit Trail and California’s Bay Area Ridge Trail. In my area, many park trails are maintained by “friends of” groups that organize work days and promulgate information. As an example, private land access revocations led to a significant rerouting of the excellent Fiery Gizzard Trail, and the Friends of South Cumberland State Park led the charge to have it rerouted, and volunteers working with Tennessee State Parks were able to complete the rerouting ahead of schedule.

On the Trail‘s most glaring oversight is its total ignorance of online hiker communities. There is no mention whatsoever of the huge number of online gathering places for hikers–hugely popular Facebook groups for the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, the large number of Meetup groups regarding hiking, collaborative trail sites featuring user submissions, recommendations, and reviews of trails, Instagram sharing by and for hikers, and so on. I find it very hard to take Chamberlin’s account of the decline of hiking community seriously when he neglects these resources.

Permeating On the Trail is the author’s implication of “wrongfun” that if you’re hiking by yourself, you’re doing it wrong: you’re an individualistic “consumer” hiker (boo! hiss!) instead of a “producer” club member who is social and contributes to the community (applause!). For me, part of the appeal of hiking is that it can be a private activity, or it can be a social activity with family, friends, and even strangers. There isn’t a “right” reason to set boot to trail, and I certainly can’t see any basis for stating that hiking as a social activity is better or worse than hiking alone. The hiking community has a phrase that perfectly captures how different hikers have different goals: “hike your own hike.”

The text is authored at a very high reading level, with dense, information-packed paragraphs. One simple improvement to its readability would have been to break up its five chapters into smaller, more focused ones (for example, one chapter on the Long Trail, one on the Dartmouth Outing Club, one on the National Trails System Act of 1968, etc.). The text would flow better without even having to be altered, as the reader would have both a logical stopping place between topics instead of monolithic prose and a cue that the text was shifting to a new topic. (I suspect that the author’s chapter layout was dictated by his “decline of the hiking club” theme, and a shift to shorter chapters would not have helped his case, though.)

The interspersed pictures are excellent, adding life to the text. They are drawn from a variety of sources and are nicely illustrative of the history of trails and trail clubs.

I’m very torn on my rating for On the Trail. Were it simply a history, it would be a 4 star examination of trails and trailbuilders. Where Chamberlin veers into sociology, his obvious and pedantic axe to grind detracts substantially from the value of his work as he laments the supposed “golden age” of the hiking club. The information is good; improvements in the presentation and thematic content would have made a much better volume.

Book Review – Dead Man’s Debt (Poor Man’s Fight #3)

294806685 stars. Dead Man’s Debt is the best of Elliott Kay’s Poor Man’s Fight to date, delivering thrilling set-piece battles, tense secret missions, likeable and realistic characters, thoughtful themes, and a setting that invokes comparison to current relations between government, corporation, and individual.

Archangel’s outlook in its war for independence against its corporate debt-holders is grim, and once again, the embattled star system turns to Tanner Malone–this time as diplomat. However, he has is own agenda, thanks to a hunch that everything isn’t as it seems.

Beyond the simple fact that this series is vastly entertaining, its strength remains that its characters are so easily identified with and are very believable. Even minor characters have realistic motivations and actions. While Tanner is definitely the epicenter of the series, I appreciate that others’ contributions do as much or more to advance the plot as he does.

Central to the plot are the moral and ethical themes; this universe is not black-and-white by any means. I suspect that I’ll enjoy this series as much on rereads as I have the first time around, thanks to its depth and thoughtfulness.

This volume seems to conclude the Archangel-at-war story line, mostly satisfactorily but with a couple dangling threads and a couple of too-convenient wrap-ups. Fortunately, Kay has a rich world to draw from for further volumes.

I’m eager for the next installment of what’s quickly becoming one of my favorite sci-fi series. Highly entertaining and thought provoking, Dead Man’s Debt excels at delivering both huge climactic scenes and introspective moments.

Book Review – Camp Sunset: A Modern Camper’s Guide to the Great Outdoors

262456353 stars. Camp Sunset: A Modern Camper’s Guide to the Great Outdoors is compiled from issues of Sunset magazine, a western US-focused lifestyle publication. It’s a breezy, pretty collection of camping tips that can’t quite decide whether to focus on camping beginners or more experienced outdoor aficionados and winds up being too generalized to be terribly helpful.

Perhaps it’s the result of being a compilation, but the sections are fairly uneven. Several of the sections are for the rank beginner, explaining basic camping equipment and skills. Others are quite advanced, especially the recipes–many of these have huge ingredient lists and are very labor-intensive. While I quite enjoy some outdoor gourmet meals, lots of them simply weren’t practical for camping unless one person who loves to cook stays back at camp all day handling the food preparation.

Some features are far too superficial to be useful, such as a two-page spread on kayaking and canoeing. These contained an odd mix of overview and instruction, combining basic boating terminology with capsule descriptions of skills that no one should try to learn from a couple sentences in a magazine such as re-entering a swamped canoe or kayak (seek hands-on instruction rather than thinking you know how to do this because you “learned” it from here!).

Camp Sunset also runs a little Pinterest-y, with over-the-top things like marshmallow animal treats that were really cute but I can’t see myself ever doing.

I found some nice tips here; the section on packing the cooler was very well done, I thought. There are links to some cool downloadables such as checklists, outdoor bingo, and patterns to make masks for kids. The photography is also lush and beautiful, making the book a pleasure to flip through.

Camp Sunset is an OK camping guide; hopefully its lovely presentation will encourage those who are interested to try a weekend campout (it really isn’t that hard). I wouldn’t rely on it as my primary guide for camping, but it’s a good inspiration to hit the Great Outdoors.

Book Review – Smoky Jack

278375104 stars. For nine months in 1925-1926, Paul Adams was the caretaker of the camp at Mount LeConte in what would soon become Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He selected a German shepherd dog to be his companion, and his new friend proved invaluable. Smoky Jack is compiled from Adams’ journals, complete with a wealth of pictures of the author and his dog, footnotes, and standardization of place names to what park visitors today will know.

Smoky Jack was trained as a police dog and had both a keen intelligence and a special bond with Adams. He was devoted to his master, repeatedly slipping a chain and collar to join Adams when he was left behind. Smoky Jack was useful in many ways: he defended the camp on top of LeConte from a lone timber wolf, he was instrumental in the rescue of many lost hikers, and he helped save Adams after a slip in the rough terrain of the Huggins Hell. Perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishment was that he learned to go from the mountaintop to a store in Gatlinburg, returning with up to 30 pounds in supplies in leather panniers that Adams made for him.

Along with the story of Adams and Smoky Jack, we also get a wonderful historical insight into the genesis of the National Park. Adams was instrumental in developing the trail network in the LeConte area. His journals contain many interactions with the drivers of the conservationist movement that established the park, and those familiar with the Smokies will find many people whose last names became noteworthy features in the park: Ogle, Kephart, Ramsey, and more.

I was also humbled that Smoky Jack would make the trip from the summit of LeConte to Gatlinburg and back in 4 1/2 hours… a blistering pace for sure!

Smoky Jack is a treasure trove for anyone who loves dogs or Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its history.

Book Review – Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

62704854 stars. Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains is a collection of short Jon Krakauer pieces about climbing, largely drawn from his magazine articles. He has a talent for conveying the feeling of being in high places that can make my stomach do a little dance even when I’m comfortably in a recliner at home instead of clinging to rotten ice on a spire in Alaska.

The subjects covered in the essays are varied and interesting. In addition to the history of the quest for the summit of the Eiger and a chapter on Everest, Krakauer covers canyoneering, bouldering, a colorful cast of characters on the slopes of Denali including a honeymooning couple and Adrian “The Romanian” Popovich, the social stratifications of the climbing community of Chamonix, and climbing the frozen waterfalls of Alaska. There were several highlights for me. “The Flyboys of Talkeetna” tells the history of the Alaskan bush pilots who serve base camps on Denali. “The Burgess Boys” is a riotous look at two brothers from Yorkshire with no patience for the norms of the real or climbing worlds. Krakauer even makes interesting reading from being confined to a tiny nylon room in “On Being Tentbound.” His description of his solo climb of a difficult Alaskan massif is gripping in “The Devil’s Thumb.” “A Bad Summer on K2” looks at the season that left 13 climbers dead on K2, the second highest peak in the world and one of the world’s most dangerous climbs.

The colorful characters of the climbing world come alive in these pages, with all their foibles and obsessions. The author portrays both an appreciation for history and an understanding of the ego-driven world of climbing. Occasionally the subject matter is dated, as the pieces are drawn from the author’s long career, but the peaks and those who climb them don’t change with new techniques and technologies.

Eiger Dreams is a great book for armchair adventurers, transporting us to icy heights and introducing us to a lively world in its readable prose.

Book Review – Track of the Cat (Anna Pigeon #1)

9463403.5 stars. Track of the Cat is the first volume of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series, in which a National Park Service law enforcement ranger roots out nefarious doings in our nation’s treasured outdoors. This whodunnit finds Anna working at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas. On a study hike for mountain lion research, she finds the body of a fellow ranger with marks of lion attack. However, something doesn’t sit well with Anna, especially after her own near-death experience on the trail…

The plot is well-paced and makes for a good page-turning read. As a good mystery should, the “reveal” was a surprise, yet fully suggested by what came before–I didn’t see it coming, but the clues were there. Sections of the book are tense and fraught with danger, especially as Anna fights her way up a cliff after a suspicious trail collapse, a tense tailing of a suspect (with a really satisfying outcome), and the final encounter with the killer.

Anna is a complex character, not always likeable but always interesting. The strength of the book from a character perspective is her relationships with coworker Christina Walters and her sister, who is a psychiatrist in New York City and Anna’s link to the life she left behind after the death of her husband. Bits and pieces of Anna’s past are revealed, but I suspect there is much more to come in subsequent volumes.

I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the park: its landscape, flora and fauna, politics, and debates about its use. The author’s love of the land and the duties of a park ranger are obvious. While I haven’t made it to Guadalupe Mountains, hiking opportunities from multiple business trips to El Paso have made me familiar with the starkly beautiful desert southwest that she writes about. I liked being able to “place” the action through the hiking map of the park. Track of the Cat had me ready to hit Guadalupe Mountains’ trails, for sure.

A couple of odd things I noticed about Barr’s writing: she spends a lot of time name-checking different perfumes, and the bosoms of all the female characters are mentioned rather prominently in their descriptions. I was not expecting to get a bit of education on fragrances and breasts from this book!

Track of the Cat is a readable, enjoyable thriller, with particular appeal to me because of Nevada Barr’s understanding of and insight into the National Parks. I will gladly read on in the Anna Pigeon series.

Book Review – West with the Night

175583685 brilliant stars. Beryl Markham’s West with the Night is a gem of a memoir, engrossing and beautifully written. Born in England and raised in Kenya, she was a bush pilot in Africa in the 1930s. Her memoir follows her life through her 1936 attempt to fly solo across the Atlantic, as she grows up on her father’s farm, becomes a horse trainer, learns to fly, and embarks on her career as a pilot.

Each chapter is its own capsule tale. Topics range from her father’s farm to the lion that attacked her to discussions of the African landscape to her flying adventures. While they make for great reading individually, they gain power from the commonality. Markham is a very pleasant narrator, focusing more on the world around her than herself. She is able to take pride in her accomplishments without relating any sense of ego; the accomplishment was sufficient without needing praise.

Her personality comes through as lively, inquisitive, and adventurous. “Lived life to the fullest” is such a cliche, yet she did exactly that. Her confidence is born of hard work and practice–she earned the rich life she led!

The prose itself is a delight to read, lyrical and evocative:

“You can always rediscover an old path and wander over it, but the best you can do then is to say, ‘Ah, yes, I know this turning!’ — or remind yourself that, while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you.”

“Still, I look at my yesterdays for months past, and find them as good a lot of yesterdays as anybody might want. I sit there in the firelight and see them all.”

“Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late.”

“Why am I gazing at this campfire like a lost soul seeking a hope when all that I love is at my wingtips? Because I am curious. Because I am incorrigibly, now, a wanderer.”

A few things will jar modern sensibilities, notably the colonialism and its associated condescension and bigotry, and the casual hunting of elephants. As products of the time, they did not detract from the book for me; I found the fact that these thing stuck out to be a good thing–hopefully we’ve made a bit of progress.

West with the Night is moving, inspiring, witty, worldly, and lovely–one of those books that I was sad to turn the last page and will look forward to reading again. Beryl Markham was an incredible woman, and this perfectly-written memoir does her justice, as well as the continent, people, and things she loved.

Book Review – Master of Formalities

246023074 stars. The dry humor of Scott Meyer’s Master of Formalities is the perfect foil for its ludicrous events, and his situations are both a riotous sendup of the comedy of manners genre and a skewering of social norms. Two millennia after humans leave Earth, House Jakabitus and House Hahn, rulers of their respective planets, are embroiled in a generations-long war. The staff that serves the Jakabitus family has their decorum severely upset when Hennik, the boorish son of the Hahn ruler, is captured and “adopted” by their employers. Wollard serves as the Master of Formalities–think head butler, chief strategist, and historian rolled into one–and he sees a chance to end the conflict between the two rivals.

I came to read former stand-up comedian Scott Meyer through his Basic Instructions comics, which excel at presenting a caption that provides a straightforward framework and using absurd text and situations in the drawings and dialog to hilarious effect. In this book, the mannerly staff gives the framework and the situations provide the character and situational comedy.

The characters are the real strength of Master of Formalities. Each of the staff members has a unique personality and believable motivations. Rayzo Jakabitus is an especially well-done character, and his struggles with his adopted “brother” Hennik, and how they affect his relationship with his father, were my favorite parts of the book.

The societal farces that Meyer presents bring a combination of knowing chuckles and sad shakes of the head. The sections dealing with sports and with travel are especially amusing, as they hit pretty close to modern life.

I feel that some of the plot threads were left too open, especially that of former chef turned soldier Gint and his wife Umily, but that is my only complaint about this novel.

Meyer describes Master of Formalities as Downton Abbey meets Dune, and that’s as apt a description as anything for this slyly funny volume.