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June Week 5: Biography and Summary

This week I decided to read Up: a Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventureby Patricia Ellis Herr.  While it is not a complete story of someone’s life, this book caught my eye.  The story chronicles Herr and her daughter, Alex, ascending the 48 mountain peaks in New Hampshire that are over 4,000 ft tall.

Peakbagging in New Hampshire

Herr is a home schooling, stay-at-home mom who spends a fair amount of the book discussing her views on child rearing.  Primarily expounded on is how she feels about allowing her children to grow as individuals, without societal pressure to conform to one mold or another.  Herr also mentions how important nature is to her and her husband, and their desire to get their children out into nature early and as often as possible.  After learning about the peakbagging program in New Hampshire, Herr mentions it to Alex, who responds enthusiastically to the challenge.  At the time of their first climb, Alex in 5 years old.

The book doesn’t talk about every experience at every peak, but rather chooses memorable stories from several.  Herr and Alex come across moose, slugs, spiders, and a particularly cross spruce grouse.  They hike in all seasons and Alex develops a fondness for winter hikes especially.  Towards the middle-to-end of the book, they begin to hike with others on occasion, but still do a fair amount on their own.  There are a few “life lessons” along the way;

  • the dangers of carelessness – the husband, Hugh, told his story of how he lost both legs while hiking
  • ageism – many others assumed that Alex couldn’t, or was being coerced to, hike large mountains
  • sexism – they were asked if it was safe to hike without a man present (it is!)
  • life and death – a lone juvenile moose exhibiting odd behaviors sparks a conversation on where his mother could be

The husband, Hugh, and second daughter, Sage, are not featured very prominently within the chronicle.  Sage was three years old, so hiking several miles at a time was a bit much for her and so she only joined Herr and Alex a few times.  Hugh was described as a very supportive partner who took care of Sage while Herr and Alex hiked every other weekend.  At the end of the book, Herr mentions that she began writing the book before she realized that Sage would be quickly following in Alex’s footsteps, otherwise she would have waited to be able to include Sage’s exploits.

Overall, it was a quick and easy read.  I did read some of the amazon reviews prior to buying the book so some of my comments may be a bit biased.  Herr stated repeatedly that Alex was: mature for her age, not like other kids, stronger than she looked, etc.  Perhaps because they encountered many people and situations where Alex’s competency was questioned, but I felt that she could have cut down on that a bit.  I would have liked to have learned more about Sage and Hugh, though this may have been a bit outside of the scope of the story since they didn’t come with Herr and Alex very often.  Other than those two minor issues, I would recommend this for a light read.

June Reading:

I enjoyed getting out of my “comfort zone” genres, particularly with the history/biography weeks.  I would be very interested in reading more travel biographies, as I had a hard time picking one from all the other interesting sounding books.  I would call June a success!


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June Week 4: Mystery

I am a bit late on this review, here we go!  The fourth week of June was my opportunity to read a mystery and I chose The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, which happens to be her first published work.  The novel introduces Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who shows up in a fair number of her mysteries.  It is a bit difficult to give a summary of the story without giving away clues, so this will be quite short.

The novel is set during World War 1 and is in first-person narrative by Lieutenant Hastings, a former British Army Officer who was wounded and ends up taking leave with an old acquaintance, John Cavendish.  While staying with Cavendish, Hastings runs into an old friend Hercule Poirot, who is staying in a nearby village with other Belgian refugees.  Shortly after arriving at Styles, the lady of the household dies.  Due to the suspicion of murder, Hastings advises that Cavendish ask that Poirot investigate her death.  The plot takes many twists and turns, with each main character in turn acting in a manner that is not entirely innocent.  Hastings alternately admires and scorns Poirot’s methods and theories, though oftentimes wishing Poirot would speak more plainly of his thought patterns and why some clues were important and others were not.  As expected, the true murderer, method, and motivation is revealed at the very end of the book with Poirot explaining to the main characters how he deduced all of the above.

Truthfully, I did not find the story especially engaging.  Hastings is too judgemental and emotional which cloud his observations, not a quality that is desirable in a man who wishes to be a detective.  Poirot is a caricature of a foreign detective, very exaggerated in his mannerisms and eccentric, though it may make him a better detective in some respects.  I did find the other main characters to act fairly “human” in their individual ways; obscuring evidence to protect a loved one, telling lies to protect personal reputations and family name, and arrogance that they can conceal feelings and facts in a small town/group.  Overall, I may try to read some of her other works later, but I’m not going to rush out for another any time soon.

Week 5: Biography

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June Week 3: History

The original plan was to read a book I bought several years ago, however I failed at reading it once again.  The book is on the SS-Einsatzgruppen but I just get so bogged down with the troop movements that my mind starts wandering while my eyes keep moving.  So I picked out another book that was in the Kindle Store.  The book I choose was Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

James A. Garfield is one of those Presidents that gets a bit glossed over in history classes, or at least the ones that I attended.  I can understand why, we are up to number 44 and Garfield was only in the White House for six months.  In fact, two months of that he was in bed from a bullet wound and subsequent infection!  Of the other four months, he spent two of them embattled with another member of his own party, Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York.  When your country has hundreds of years of history (those from more “ancient” cultures may titter), some stories must be left out.

For a shorter book, it gave a decent background of three figures: James A. Garfield, Alexander Graham Bell, and Charles Guiteau.  All three men are in various ways extremely passionate.  Garfield is portrayed as a self-made man for whom family and justice are his primary concerns.  Bell is a man who lives to discover and invent, to the detriment of his health and his family life.  Guiteau’s sole concern is to make himself famous and to fulfill his work as “one of God’s chosen few.”

The book goes back and forth between the three men, describing the paths that took them to become central figures of history in 1881.  Garfield worked his way through school, directed soldiers in the civil war, served in politics, and eventually elected to presidency.  Bell invented the telephone which he displayed at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia and from then on was almost buried under the weight of that one device.  He spent the next several years focused on that one invention before he left it to get back to the drawing board.  Guiteau spent most of his adult life dabbling in various occupations, skipping out on all kinds of debts, and “borrowing” money from friends and strangers alike.

Around the time that Garfield was elected the president, Guiteau became obsessed with politics.  He wrote and visited as many influential members of the government as he could, petitioning them constantly to assign him a consulship, first to Austria and later Paris.  After being firmly rebuffed by the Secretary of State, James G. Blaine, and told not to contact them again regarding a consulship, he was struck by the thought “If the President was out of the way every thing would go better.”  A month after that thought came to him, he shot the president in a train depot.

Much of the book is spent discussing the medical care prevalent at the time and the techniques used on the president.  It was interesting to read prevailing science and thoughts and how different they are from now.  Anti-sepsis techniques were only just being introduced to the U. S. and were generally met with scorn and suspicion.  The president had his fresh bullet wound probed by fingers that had likely not been washed in days.  His wound was soaked with warm water and pus was seen as indicative of healing.  Germs and bacteria were just being hypothesized!

Bell was convinced that if he could develop an instrument to find the bullet still lodged in the president, that the president might survive.  The book describes his efforts to create a metal detector, which eventually did work but he could not find the bullet due to the president lying on a metal spring mattress (discovered after he left the examination) and being confined to searching only a portion of the president’s body.  In the end, the president suffered greatly before succumbing septic poisoning and a hemorrhage in the splenic artery.

Guiteau believed that the American public would be grateful for his “removal” of Garfield.  Long after his trial was over, he believed that he would leave prison a free man, become famous, and marry a beautiful, wealthy socialite.  He only came to terms with his execution shortly before it occurred.

In short, I liked the book.  One particular bit of trivia, Robert Todd Lincoln is the only person to be present/nearby the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley.  The book also kept the history interesting with snippets of stories and dialogue.  A couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

“The scientific spirit has cast out the Demons and presented us with Nature, clothed in her right mind and living under the reign of law.” – James A. Garfield

“The whole theory of antisepsis is not only absurd, it is a positive injury.” – surgeon regarding Lister’s antisepsis hypothesis

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June Week 2: Classics

For week 2, I wanted to pick out a book that most everyone else seems to have read.  In keeping with the theme of reading books which I already have, I picked out Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

This book is a day or two old…

Like most kids, I saw the Disney version when I was very young.  I also vaguely remember a television show in the mid-90s based on the story.  However, I had never read the book.  It turns out that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland isn’t very long, only about 100 pages.

The story is definitely reminiscent of a dream, much more so than the Disney movie.  It seems that events flow from one situation to another more smoothly but they are different and stranger.  The movie left out a few characters and events from the original storyline and incorporated some elements from Through the Looking Glass.  The most obvious example of alteration is the removal of the Duchess.  In the book, Alice visits the Duchess and after conversing with her for a time, the Duchess hands Alice her baby and leaves.  Alice tries to nurse the fidgeting baby, tying it into a knot to keep it still, it then turns into a pig and she releases it into the nearby forest.  Talk about a world gone mad!

I did enjoy the book and may even read the sequel at a later time, but it is definitely something I should have read as a child.  The book is more about the strangeness of the characters rather than following a plot, which is something that I don’t generally seek out in a book.

Week 3: History

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June Week 1: Poetry

Generally speaking, I tend to stick to a couple of genre when picking out books to read.  This month is about picking out things that are outside of what I normally read.  Here is the schedule:

Week 1: Poetry
Week 2: Classic
Week 3: History
Week 4: Mystery
Week 5: Biography

Since the first “week” of June was only 2 days, I decided that some poetry might be the best way to start off the month.  While I was in college, I had to take British Literature and so had to buy a large anthology.  Since the class, the book has moved around with me but I didn’t even crack it open again.  So rather than searching for poems in other books or online, I decided to look in the book that I spent a ton of money on and moved four times.  Here are some of the poems I read:

Thomas Gray “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat
Thomas Gray “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
William Cowper “The Castaway
Kathrine Philips “A Married State
Kathrine Philips “Upon the Double Murder of King Charles
Kathrine Philips “Friendship’s Mystery to my Dearest Lucasia
Kathrine Philips “To Mrs. M. A. at Parting
Kathrine Philips “On the Death of My First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips
John Donne “The Flea
John Donne “The Good-Morrow
John Donne “Song
John Donne “The Undertaking
John Donne “A Valediction: Of Weeping

My favorites were both of Thomas Gray’s and Kathrine Philips’ three poems on friendship (A Married State, Friendship’s Mystery to my Dearest Lucasia, and To Mrs. M. A. at Parting).  The poem that resonated with me the most was To Mrs. M. A. on Parting, as it reminded me of one of my friendships.  Here are a few lines that really spoke to me.

I have examined and do find,
Of all that favor me
There’s none I grieve to leave behind
But only only thee.
To part with thee I needs must die,
Could parting separate thee and I.

This is the most lovely way to describe a “best friend” (a phrase that I find oh, so school-age).  According to the anthology, Katherine Philips was a big believer in the Platonic view of friendship as the union of souls.

Our changed and mingled souls are grown
To such acquaintance now,
That if each would resume their own,
Alas! we known not how.
We have each other so engrossed
That each is in the union lost.

Like roots of trees growing close together, we graft onto one another and become one instead of remaining two.  When one is weaker, the other provides nourishment and we can stand strong against all elements.  No one talks about friendship like this anymore.

Thus our twin souls in one shall grow,
And teach the world new love,
Redeem the age and sex, and show
A flame fate dares not move:

And courting death to be our friend,
Our lives, together too, shall end.

A dew shall dwell upon our tomb
Of such a quality
That fighting armies, thither come,
Shall be reconciled be.
We’ll ask no epitaph, but say:

A very romantic notion, a friendship so strong that one cannot survive past the other.  Such thoughts are usually only reserved for lovers, but sometimes a relationship with a friend can be more intimate than that of with a husband or wife.

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