All posts by alicemg2013

“The Last Whalers – Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life” by Doug Bock Clark

The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life

347 pages, including maps, photos, notes and glossary. Nonfiction>ethnography.

How did this book end up on the give-away shelf at my dentist’s office? Brand new, only recently published (January 2019) and astonishingly good!

I never heard of Lembata Island in Indonesia, or the Lamaleran people. Lamalerans living on Lembata number only about 1500. Others are scattered throughout Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia. The Lamalera are the last subsistence whalers on earth.

Anthropologists consider Lamaleran culture to show the highest level of sharing and cooperation ever documented. Those two traits are essential to survival when low technology is used to hunt whales. The Lamalerans traditionally barter with their neighbors in order to supplement their diet of meat with fruit and vegetables. They have only recently (25 years ago?) entered the cash economy.

Clark spent about twelve months with the Lamalerans over a three year period, becoming fluent in their language, observing their daily lives and sometimes participating in their religious ceremonies, both Catholic and animistic. Clark sometimes referred to “shamanism” rather than animism, but I don’t know if he meant the same thing as Coelho did in Aleph (see recent post). There is no reference to the type of shamanistic “trance” that Coelho describes.

It surprised me to learn that so isolated a group existed. Having read a certain amount of popularized anthropology and known a few academics in the field, I didn’t think going off to spend time with remote, exotic people was still a possibility. Clark seems to have arrived at this project through journalism and travel writing, though his status as a two time Fulbright grant recipient suggests academic credentials in anthropology.

Clark almost entirely leaves himself out of the story, telling about the people he describes with vivid detail from THEIR point of view. I couldn’t stop reading!

In an explanatory afterword, he discusses how he limited his behavior in order not to “distort” the community he was observing. He seems to have judged this by “journalistic” (rather than anthropological or academic) standards, admitting that he spent money to transport Lamalerans for medical treatment that would have otherwise been unobtainable.

The link below leads to my review of another wonderful book related to anthropology.

Noble Savages – My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by N A Chagnon

Looking back at my post about Chagnon led me to reflect:

Both the Lamalerans and the Yanomamo (an Amazon tribe) can be considered “successful” cultures, each achieving slow population growth in a challenging environment. According to Chagnon, the Yanomamo dealt with population pressure by fission, dividing into smaller groups when their numbers exceeded about 100. The Lamalerans dealt with population pressure by out migration. Adults found work elsewhere in Indonesia and beyond. Usually they maintained their contact with home, and provided a conduit for ideas about change. Sometimes they facilitate other departures, like temporary enrollment at a university.

Web surfing to learn more about Clark, I found his article in Gentleman’s Quarterly about a recent attempt to contact a smaller and more isolated tribe, the Sentinelese. I’ll write about that soon.

“Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande AND “Five Wishes” by Aging With Dignity

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Am I getting morbid? I read and think a good deal about aging and death. I’m 70 years old. People around me are coping with health problems. Help!

My first reaction to Being Mortal was that it’s a complete downer. Gawande shares stories from his own family. If a family that includes highly educated medical professionals suffers so much confusion and difficulty managing end-of-life care, what chance do the rest of us stand?

I suggest starting on Chapter 4 or 5, and taking the remainder according to your interests. To me, the second half of the book was generally more useful than the first half. That said, this book (published in 2014) is a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing conversation about aging and death in America. I recommend it highly.

Gawande emphasizes that it’s not only the patient who benefits from advance planning. The course of a person’s last days or weeks has major impact on the mental health of survivors, say six months later.

The take away message in Being Mortal is buried on Chapter 6 (Letting Go), on page 172. HOPE IS NOT A PLAN.

We all hope to die at home, surrounded by our loved ones. We hope for dignity and freedom from pain. Our chance of getting this positive end-of-life experience is small. Most Americans die in hospitals or nursing homes. If that’s my fate, I want to know everything I can do in order to have some control over what happens, to “do it my way”.

Five Wishes is a form (more of a workbook) that you can fill out so that your loved ones know what you want. Any one of us may have intervals (possibly temporary) when we can’t make our own medical decisions. Families are often faced with weighty decisions. Family members may disagree about treatment. Five Wishes won’t solve all of this, but it can help.

So, I’m not “being morbid”. I’m trying, in my own way, to do some planning, to lay some groundwork, to make my future easier and more positive, and to ease my loved ones’ burdens when I die. That’s all. I feel good about it.

“Aleph” by Paulo Coelho

Aleph

How likely was it that I would choose two library books with the same plot in successive trips to the Library?

Aleph resembles Less (see blog entry January 22, 2020) in that each features a writer who undertakes a journey. Sensitive, clumsy Arthur Less is trying to get away from his chaotic life. Paulo, older, stronger and wealthier, is following a “spiritual path” to deal with unresolved personal issues like guilt.

The plot of Aleph requires acceptance of reincarnation. For me, suspension of disbelief was necessary. Two other premises were problematic – the reality of shamanistic trance and the value of complete submission in a master/student relationship.

That’s quite a lot of (my) baggage for a work of fiction to carry. I admit that my literalism is excessive and I often suspend this or that critical attitude in order to enjoy a novel. (I enjoy an occasional dose of the supernatural.)

I don’t know whether this book was written in English or in Coelho’s native tongue, Portugese. Wikipedia describes Coelho as being “associated with magic and occultism”.

I had trouble reading this book, and skipped most of one chapter. I disliked the protagonist, who came across to me as a man who expected he could have “everything”. I  won’t be seeking out other works by Coelho.

“The Truffle Underground” by Ryan Jacobs

The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World's Most Expensive Fungus

Subtitled “A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus”, this book occupies the intersection between food writing and travel writing. Not a bad place to be! Fun for all!

Personally, I’m only just sophisticated enough to know that the truffle of the title is NOT the soft chocolate confection that turns up in a Whitman’s Sampler. I’ve heard of the fungus called truffle, which grows underground on tree roots. Not sure I have tasted it, except possibly in “truffle oil”, a product that author Ryan Jacobs does not respect.

Truffles are a very high priced culinary delicacy. The best are harvested in France and Italy. Others originate in China, Tunisia and elsewhere. Attempts at cultivation have had limited success. Since the supply chain starts with individual “hunters” bringing truffles to dealers in hundreds of small European market towns, the truffle trade is hard to regulate, and fraud abounds.

This is Ryan Jacobs first book, but he has an extensive publication history with The Atlantic, one of my favorite periodicals. He currently writes and serves as Deputy Editor for Pacific Standard. His website says he specializes in international crime and intrigue. This is a young writer to watch!

I tried to find an  picture of a truffle. Like the fungus, the image proved elusive.

“Classic Krakauer – Essays on Wilderness and Risk” by Jon Krakauer

Classic Krakauer: Essays on Wilderness and Risk

This recent compilation contains eleven essays (dated 1985 to 2014), two or three of which I read before. I consider Krakauer a first class documentary writer. I got hooked when I read Into Thin Air, published in 1997. I read three more of his books. Into Thin Air sparked my interest in mountaineering, and I’ve continued to read on the subject.

The best new-to-me essay in this book is “Death and Anger on Everest” originally published in The New Yorker in 2014. The conflict between those who aspire to climb Mount Everest and the essential local guides who support them continues to simmer. More recently, in May 2019, The New York Times reported 11 deaths, describing conditions “reminiscent of Lord of the Flies – at 29,000 feet”.

The best reason for me to read Krakauer is that I really don’t understand people who love risk. Plainly Krakauer is hooked on risk and fascinated by people who share his obsession. I can’t imagine undertaking the physical risks involved in mountain climbing and caving.

For anyone who hasn’t read Krakauer, I suggest starting with Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. If there’s anything that seriously needs to be documented, it’s the reality of America’s wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere the Middle East.

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman

“Diet for the Mind – The Latest Science on What to Eat to Prevent Alzheimer’s and Cognitive Decline” by Dr. Martha Clare Morris

Diet for the MIND: The Latest Science on What to Eat to Prevent Alzheimer's and Cognitive Decline -- From the Creator of the MIND Diet

I began reading this book with certain prejudices. My household is omnivorous. I usually eat one restaurant meal per week and avoid fast food chains. I cook, but not the way my mother did. I use many shortcuts and also a few pre-packaged “convenience” foods.

So why read this book? I want to avoid Alzheimer’s Disease, and I’m continually adjusting my diet to manage my weight. I’m looking for good ideas! I also enjoy hearing about the science of nutrition. With so much anecdotal information swirling around the internet, this book is a helpful reference.

My personal dietician (sister) noted that the diet recommendations in this book are “hard to operationalize”, so she gave me a chart to help organize food choices for a week. Very helpful!

Dr. Morris advocates daily consumption of leafy greens, like spinach or kale. Good thing I like green smoothies! This book is NOT oriented towards weight loss.

The most useful item in the book (for me) was a formula (p 61) to determine if a product is made mostly from whole grains. You use two lines on the required product nutrition label (grams of carbohydrates and grams of fiber). If the grams of fiber is greater than ten percent of the grams of carbs, the food counts as a “whole grain” product.

I checked out some products from my kitchen. Light English muffins qualify as “whole grain”, but frozen steam-in-the-bag brown rice doesn’t! Who knew?? Since labels can be confusing, I’m glad to have this way to check on the desirability of a product.

I don’t know if I’ll use the recipes from the book. Many seem overly complicated. But I know, from past experience, if I find even one great recipe, I’ll keep the book forever! If there’s a second edition, I hope it will include a week’s worth of sample menus.

BRIEF RANT! Despite the claims made by Dr. Morris, NO ONE actually knows how to PREVENT Alzheimer’s Disease. You can only shift the odds slightly in your favor. You could be perfect (diet, exercise, mental challenges, etc.) and still fall victim to dementia. Sorry, friends. Wish I had better news.

“Ship Fever” – stories by Andrea Barrett

Ship Fever: Stories

This is a collection. I’ve read about half the stories. Excellent! I’m postponing the title story, the longest in this anthology, until I’m ready to deal with disease and woe. Not today…

The back cover says the stories are “set against the backdrop of the nineteenth century”, but at least two are contemporary. The cover also says “…they illuminate the secret passions of those driven by a devotion to, and an intimate acquaintance with, the natural world.” Yes.

Barrett’s writing is concise to the point of compression.

“The Littoral Zone” is contemporary, it’s setting very much like a place where I have vacationed, offshore from Portsmouth, NJ. It tells the story of two scientists falling in love and dismantling their families in order to marry. It reminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. I appreciated its brevity.

I also especially liked “The English Pupil”, about Carl Linnaeus (creator of the binomial nomenclature we use to identify living organisms) in his old age, around the year 1775.

I read Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal: A Novel several years ago. Loved it!

I plan to read further among Barrett’s books and other short story collections.