Book Review: In a Sunburned Country

In a Sunburned CountryIf you’ve always wanted to go to Australia but haven’t had a chance, reading In a Sunburned Country is the next best thing. Bill Bryson presents a thorough and humorous look at a country that remains mysterious to most of us.

As Bryson goes off the beaten track to thoroughly explore this vast country–the cities, the deserts, the outback, the tropics–he takes the reader along, even when conditions aren’t that comfortable or convenient.

It’s obvious that Bryson loves Austrailia and I’ve now had the pleasure, through him, to appreciate its uniqueness. His historical and trivial facts are enlightening and enrich his story.

Although he’s not the most organized traveler, it’s fun to laugh at Bryson’s ineptitude and his ability to poke fun at himself. During his travels, he has at times a sidekick and those encounters add spice to the adventure.

I especially enjoyed vicariously visiting places so often mentioned such as the Great Barrier Reef, Alice Springs, the Gold Coast. At times I laughed out loud with his historical asides, observations, and wry humor. Bryson doesn’t strictly stick to the usual touristy cultural icons, but delves into the weird and wacky, too.

Reaching many of the remote places involves hours of travel by car. Searching for a radio station for distraction to while away the miles, Bryson finds only one station, a cricket match. His description of that match is hilarious.

If you want to learn more about Australia and have some good laughs along the way, read In a Sunburned Country. It’s a treasure.


Book Review: Exploring Camano Island: A History & Guide

Exploring CamanoVal Schroeder’s Exploring Camano Island: A History & Guide is an enjoyable, informative guide to Camano Island, the second largest island in Island County, Washington. Comma-shaped Camano’s 95 square miles has no town and is connected to the mainland by bridge. The island is about an hour’s drive from Seattle and is nestled on Puget Sound between its larger sister island, Whidbey, and the mainland.

Great strides have been made to ensure that Camano’s wild spaces are being preserved for future generations. Since 1994, more than a dozen nature preserves and parks have been established by islanders working together to protect the land from further development. Even before then, in 1949, 500 local citizens united to create Camano Island State Park, literally in one day. They cleared land to make roads and trails, campsites and picnic areas. They built buildings and picnic tables, and cleared a spring for a clean water source. By the end of the day, that dedicated group had transformed 92 publicly owned acres into a park that is still thriving 65 years later.

The well-organized book has sections identifying Camano’s major nature preserves and protected land. The author describes each place, how it is today, its history, and its legacy and what it contributes to its people and wildlife habitants.

Schroeder quotes the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” It is this principal and commitment that has kept Camano Island a special place for its inhabitants. The author emphasizes the many contributions that individuals and organizations have made through the years to protect and preserve the island’s cherished natural sites.

Val Schroeder, a high school teacher, is a strong advocate for the protection of wildlife and was recognized by the National Wildlife Federation in 2006 as Volunteer of the Year. She resides on Camano Island and has been instrumental in furthering public awareness of wildlife preservation.

Camano Island explorers will find Exploring Camano Island a helpful guide. Those who live on the island will appreciate what it took to make the island the special place it is today. Readers from other areas will learn from how they might manage, preserve or restore their own natural habitats. I highly recommend this enlightening book.


Book Review: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

American Nations 2Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is a scholarly study of the eleven “nations” that make America what it is today.

We often think of the forming of America as immigration developing from east to west, expanding from the English beachheads of Massachusetts and Virginia to the shores of the Pacific. In truth, the European culture first arrived from the south, borne by the soldiers and missionaries of Spain. From American Nations, the reader discovers that many of the things learned in history classes were not quite accurate; in some cases, far from reality.

In the development America, virtually no consideration was made toward the people who already resided throughout the land, the Native Americans. The indigenous cultures before immigration often had a higher standard of living than their European counterparts. They tended to live in a healthier environment, some had public water supplies fed by stone aqueducts. The Native people had organized continent-spanning trade networks. Epidemics brought by foreigners, warfare, and their being forced to live in unsuitable areas diminished Native American populations and influence to only a small fraction of what they once were.

The states as we know them today do not define America. The eleven nations, or regional cultures, more clearly define the United States of America: Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, The Deep South, New France, El Norte, Left Coast, Far West, First Nations. Some of these nations now spread into Canada and Mexico. The book contains a map which clearly defines the regions, as does the book’s cover.

Each of the founding nations are steeped in their own cultures and cherished principles, often contradicting one another.

American Nations delves into the different philosophies of our country’s regions and what it is about the dissimilarity that causes the challenges we face today in uniting our country.

I found American Nations fascinating. Woodard presents compelling explanations of the regional differences that make up America’s cultural and political landscape. It becomes clear why twenty-first century northern Democrats and Republicans have far more in common with one another than with their counterparts of the south. Values that one region holds dear aren’t necessarily shared in other parts of the country.

To learn more about Colin Woodard, award winning author and journalist, visit

Celebrating the holy day of Tobaski

Jarietta & Kujah Tobaski-SmallAn excerpt from Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps


The holy Muslim day of Tobaski approached. Tobaski, the feast of sacrifice, is marked by the ritual of slaughtering sheep. We learned that it can be a stressful time for men because they feel duty-bound to buy a sheep, even if they have to borrow money. Bruce and I discussed it and decided to give our close neighbors, Mosalif and Binta, a gift of money.

About a week before the event, when he came for his morning greetings, we gave Molsalif one hundred dalasi and told him it was for their Tobaski. Overwhelmed, he hardly knew what to say. We heard him call his wife’s name “Binta!” when he returned to their hut.

Close to the time of Tobaski, Bruce saw several men leading a string of sheep to the river for the traditional washing of animals before the slaughter.

On Tobaski, Mosalif, Binta and the girls stopped by, all looking resplendent with new clothes. They were sharing Tobaski with Binta’s cousin who lived in Basse and Mosalif had helped purchase the sheep and other food for their feast.

After work the next day, the Health Centre staff had a dinner party with Tobaski leftovers. The cook made a wonderful stew and served it over millet, a grain grown in The Gambia. Orderlies carried two tables outside where they set up the feast. The men brought the food out on a board and set it on the table.

I wasn’t prepared for the sudden rush to the table, nor was I sure what to do with myself. It was as though these people hadn’t eaten for days and had finally found food. An orderly saw my confusion and took me under his protective wing. I was touched by his concern.

“Mariama, I will help you. You have to learn to act quickly or the food will be gone!” Many ate with their fingers from a common bowl, but a few plates had been set on the table, together with spoons.

He handed me a full plate. I thanked him, found a place to sit and enjoyed the marvelous food. One of the orderlies fished the sheep skull out of the stew pot. While we ate, the skull sat on the table, dripping broth and grinning.

After the meal, one of the orderlies grabbed the skull and threw it to another guy and off they went, playing with it like it was a football. Everyone laughed. Although I thought it ghoulish, I couldn’t help but laugh, too.

I felt honored to share this special day with my friends and co-workers.

Book Review: Much Ado About Mavericks

Much Ado About MaverickBenjamin Lawrence returns to his childhood home, a ranch in Owyhee County, Idaho, to settle his father’s estate, sell the ranch, and take his mother and sister home to Boston. He’d left the ranch an embarrassment to his father, a boy who didn’t take to ranch life. Now a successful lawyer, he will take his mother and sister back to Boston and give them the prestigious home they deserve.

To Ben’s dismay, to meet the conditions of his father’s will he must learn the cattle business within a stipulated amount of time.

Jake (Janelle) O’Keefe, ranch foreman, has her heart set on a section of the ranch to call her own, a piece of land she’s worked for and that was promised to her by Ben’s father. But now she can’t have clear title unless Ben complies with his father’s demands, a demand that seems unlikely to happen. That city lawyer isn’t a likely candidate as a rancher.

It’s hard not to notice Jake’s ability as the ranch foreman. She can out-rope, out-ride and out-smart any man in the county. To top it off, she’s beautiful. But don’t tell her that. And don’t mention her big heart either. What she calls her “strays”–three little kids who needed a home–are dear to her heart and she’ll protect them with her life.

Ben’s tidy life in Boston has to take a back seat until he can meet his deceased father’s demands. It seems the old man insists on making his life miserable even from the grave. Ben’s life takes another step in the wrong direction when he learns his mother and sister have no intention of leaving ranch life.

Even “simple life” in the country can get complicated. When hearts get lassoed, there’s no predicting what will happen. Mix that confusion with an intriguing turn of events and you have a hot branding iron on your hands.

Much Ado about Mavericks by Jacquie Rogers is the third book in the Hearts of Owyhee series. The first two, Much Ado About Marshals and Much Ado About Madams are also stories about 1800′s Idaho. Rogers’ solid understanding of the rollicking old west is apparent. She combines her extensive knowledge of ranch life in Much Ado About Mavericks with generous handfuls of humor and sexiness. A good, fun read.

For more information about the author, visit

A Few Days Off

Well-digging crew

Well-digging crew

An excerpt from Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

We desperately needed to get away, to have some R&R. My husband Bruce had projects to finish up before we left, and I didn’t want to miss Friday clinic, so we set a date for Saturday to go to Banjul, capital of our host country, The Gambia We’d get some business matters taken care of and then take a few days off to soak up sea breezes in Bakau.

Friday’s clinic was interminable with close to 300 patients. At the end of the day I had just enough energy left to pack for our trip. We couldn’t wait to go. When our friend Tombong stopped by that morning, we made arrangements for him to stay during the nights as our night guard. Daytimes, with all the coming and going, were not a concern.

Bruce had arranged for a driver and had made a list of project supplies to get and things to do while downriver. I planned to see Sister M’Boge, the head nurse for the Health Department, and also try to find visual aids to use when I was on trek. Our trips downriver never seemed to be only for pleasure, but at least they were a pleasant break in routine and climate.

The driver, a couple hours late, picked us up in a project Peugeot pickup truck and we were on our way. After only a few miles, the driver, Bubacar, said, “Mistah Bruce, we need fuel.”

“Why didn’t you get fuel before we left?”

“I forgot.”

We’d gone too far to go back. “Okay Bubacar,” Bruce said, resigned, “let’s stop at Bansang.” There were no regular gas stations. Government vehicles fueled at designated supply centers. Fuel for the UN well digging project was in either Basse or downriver at Yundum. So Bansang, although they had fuel, was not a regular supply outlet for the UN vehicles.

Running on fumes, we pulled into Bansang’s government supply yard. We all climbed out. Sitting in a parked car in that heat is impossible. The project vehicles were not air conditioned, but provided a breeze while moving. Bubacar and the mechanic at the shop launched into a heated argument.

I don’t think either of them realized that we understood much of what they said, since they were speaking in Mandinka. The Bansang fellow said words to the effect that there was a fuel shortage and he could only give fuel to their own vehicles.

Bubacar responded that he had to take Mistah and Missus Bruce downriver, so he had to have fuel.

The man repeated what he’d said earlier.

We almost laughed when Bubacar said, “Don’t you understand Mandinka?” in the same tone we would say, “Don’t you understand English?”

The man repeated he couldn’t give fuel for this truck unless he had his boss’s permission and he wouldn’t be there until the next day.

Bubacar thumped his finger on the mechanic’s chest. “Do you want to take these tubobs home with you to spend the night? We can’t leave without fuel.”

With that, the man filled our tank.

We were on our way again with a full tank, having only lost an hour. I sat in the middle of the front seat and dozed, welcoming an escape from the pickup’s hot, bumpy ride.

Suddenly I heard a shattering noise and felt pelting from hundreds of little pieces of windshield.

A truck had passed us on the gravel road and its wheel threw a rock, hitting our windshield and shattering it. Bubacar had a cut on his forehead; a small piece of glass still protruded from the wound. Bruce and I were not injured, but glass was everywhere. Bubacar pulled off to the side of the road. Bruce plucked the shard from the driver’s forehead and from the kit we always carried, cleaned the wound and bandaged it.

We shook glass out of our clothes and brushed it off the seat and out of the truck and continued on our way. Driving without a windshield is very nerve wracking. Wind rushed in, along with flying insects and gravel. Every time we encountered a vehicle, I held up a magazine to protect Bruce’s and my heads. Bubacar drove without any protection. After we got onto the paved road, it wasn’t as bad and we drove the remaining one hundred twenty miles without incident, though the howling wind in our faces became tiring.

As we arrived in Banjul, we passed another volunteer and I waved through where the windshield should be. The fellow looked surprised and we all laughed.

Bubacar dropped us off at the apartment we shared with other Peace Corps volunteers. I could never really enjoy myself until I straightened it up, washed the dishes, which always seemed to be left in the dishpan, put a clean sheet on the bed and made the apartment “home.” It was tiny and there were only the two of us staying there at the time.

Following our usual routine, we took showers and then walked to a small nearby hotel for dinner. We shook our heads over the journey down. Couldn’t a trip ever be just normal?

Book Review: I Am We

I Am WeChristine kept her secret until she was forty-one. She didn’t even tell her husband, nor the counselor she’d gone to for ten years. Then, sick with anxiety, she uttered to her therapist the seven most difficult words of her life, “There is more than one of me.”

Although it was a huge relief to share her secret, now she faced learning to deal with managing a life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, sometimes called Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). Christine Pattillo has done a remarkable job of sharing her life and those of her husband and “alters” in I Am We: My Life with Multiple Personalities.

It is believed that Dissociative Identity Disorder is caused by early childhood repetitive, extreme, physical, sexual or emotional abuse. As a young child Christine suffered repeated sexual abuse from a friend’s stepfather. In addition, Christine also endured physical and emotional abuse from her own father.

One might think the natural tendency might be to attempt to rid oneself’s of multiple personalities, but a child fears ridicule, so the condition is often kept secret. Not only that, but in Christine’s case, she was actually fond of and derived great comfort in some of her alternate personalities. But not all. Some got her into trouble.

When Christine married Christopher, he had no idea what was in store and how he would have to juggle his time between Christine and “the gang”: Hope, Rim, She, Q, Chrissy, Cyndi, and even a boy, Tristan. The alters include personalities of different ages, temperaments and desires.

I found I Am We fascinating. It would be easy to dismiss this type of mental illness as an over-active imagination, but when faced the strong evidence this autobiography presents, even the most skeptical would find it difficult to believe the condition contrived. Christine’s life has known joy, especially in her marriage, but also rage, confusion and deep sadness. I Am We is an attempt to help “normal” people realize that, although rare, some lives are filled with complicated, multiple, and abnormal mental health issues.

To learn more about the book and author Christine Pattillo, visit


Hunting for Bush Pig

Hunting LopiAn excerpt from Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

Mr. Lopi, superintendent of the UN well digging project and Bruce’s counterpart, returned upriver to his home and workplace about a month after my husband Bruce started as Mechanical Advisor. Apparently Mr. Lopi had been working downriver for the last several weeks. Mr. Lopi had become a man of stature and had a job of importance and leadership, bringing water to areas desperate for this precious commodity. Mr. Lopi had two wives and seventeen children. Amazingly, his salary after working for his government for about twenty years was equal to the modest monthly living allowance we each received, a sum many single volunteers found inadequate.

I marveled that Gambians managed at all. Of course, most people where we lived didn’t pay rent, didn’t pay utilities because there weren’t any, didn’t have cars, and medical attention was paid by the government. Still, they needed clothing and what food they didn’t grow.

I found Mr. Lopi appealing. Tall, he had that amazing African male physique. My association with him was very different from Bruce’s. Although they managed a cordial relationship, Bruce was often frustrated and felt that Mr. Lopi based decisions on political advantage rather than public need. Bruce, totally uninterested in the politics of the project, just wanted to get the job done.

One evening Mr. Lopi invited us on a bush pig (wild boar) hunt. Muslims wouldn’t eat “the filthy swine,” so we weren’t sure what we would do if we got one, but we went along for the adventure. Of the four of us, Mr. Lopi was the only one carrying a gun, a big, old single-shot shotgun. We loved the adventure, tramping around in an area we hadn’t seen before. We followed a rough path through scrub forest, sort of like a safari. We didn’t find our bush pig but it was a fun adventure. Outings like this helped make our stay memorable and, I felt, closer to the people.

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Book Review: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

blink_usBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell provides an interesting study into the art of coming to a conclusion based on the observer’s snap judgement and first impressions. When burdened with facts, decision is often clouded. However, according to Gladwell, snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.

An example Gladwell gives for this phenomena is a marble statue, a kouros, which was said to be dated back to the sixth century BC. Experts studied the various features and concluded its authenticity. But then a snap judgement, what Gladwell describes as thin-slicing, occurred from another expert. The statue didn’t “look right.” As it turned out, all the knowledge accumulated by experts couldn’t deny the fact that, once pointed out, the statue wasn’t what it was presented to be.

Another example of the power of a blink-of-an-eye decision is the current practice of having candidates auditioning for a symphony orchestra play behind a screen for anonymity. In the past, a woman auditioning for a position wouldn’t have had a chance. The listener’s viewpoint would be clouded by thinking a woman wouldn’t have the lung power or stamina to properly play, say, a wind instrument. In 1980, candidates auditioning on trombone for Germany’s Munich Philharmonic were placed behind a screen to avoid bias. As it happened, a woman was among those auditioning and the conductor strongly voted in her favor. When it was revealed it was a woman, the judges were amazed, and dismayed. A woman in a symphony orchestra? That started a trend. Rather than lengthy discussions on awareness programs, assertive training, social discrimination, etc., the problem about who is the best player is determined by blind auditions. A decision is made without the bias of gender clouding the issue. Today, thirty years later, approximately 50 percent of symphony players are women.

Without giving it thought, many of our decisions are based on bias, even when we know it isn’t fair. If we remove bias we often come to a different decision. Many people have the skill to quickly size up a situation. They don’t dwell on a person’s race, his clothes, what car he drives, or where he lives. Skilled rapid decision makers have developed an inner sense to accurately assess a situation based on a “gut feeling” or rapid cognition. Some people are born with this skill; others have developed it over time.

Although in places Blink gets somewhat off-track, I think Gladwell’s premise is worthy. We often talk something to oblivion, becoming blinded by too much information. Although snap judgements aren’t always accurate, there can be merit in listening to our gut feelings about a situation before it gets cluttered with facts.

I recommend Blink. I found it entertaining, but more, I found it helpful in determining how to make decisions without the clutter of weighing every aspect of the problem.

Book Review: Sarah’s Key

Sarahs Key

In 1942, Sarah, ten years old, was frightened when she and her parents were rounded up in the middle of the night by French police. Her younger brother, only four years old, refused to go and Sarah helped him hide in their secret hiding place, believing they’d only be gone for a short while and then return home.

A multi-layered, well-crafted novel, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay alternates between 1942 France and present day. The story evolves around the true events of the dark period in France’s history where thousands of Jewish families were rounded up and forcibly kept in the Velodrome d’Hiv, eventually taken to transit camps and finally packed off to Auschwitz.

Even before the roundup, Sarah realizes grim changes in her homeland. Jews are required to wear yellow stars on their clothing, even to school. They are no longer allowed in some stores and restaurants, places of business are closed, leaving many Jews without income. The year 1942 signaled dark times for Jews, but they had no idea of the horrors that awaited them.

Julia Jarmound, a present-day American journalist living in France with her French husband and daughter, investigates the little known Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of Jews, conducted and enforced by French authorities in the heart of occupied Paris under Nazi Germany command.

When Julia uncovers truths that took place in 1942, she is consumed by Sarah’s story. Even when she discovers secrets about her husband’s family and stirs up resentment of repressed guilt, she is compelled to seek the truth about Sarah.

Sarah’s Key is a moving novel that delves into a little known piece of history now often referred to as France’s Dark Years. The author’s handling of the two time periods is flawless, her characterizations vivid.

For more information about the author and her work, visit