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January 10, 2013 Edition
Diamond, who examined the roles that geography and natural resources played in the success of human societies (Guns, Germs, and Steel), now turns his attention to the ways traditional cultures work. He’s spent a significant amount of time doing fieldwork in New Guinea and is familiar with numerous other traditional societies (which he defines as small groups living in low densities practicing hunting and gathering or farming or herding) around the world. Diamond is interested in whether our privileged, Western lives could be made better if only we regained some of the habits traditional societies have retained: their whole foods diet, for instance, on-demand nursing for babies, and regular physical activity might improve our health. At the same time, he doesn’t hesitate to point out the positive ways in which our societies have diverged: Western societies don’t condone infanticide or elder abandonment or killing. As you can imagine, no conclusion is reached – but it’s really not necessary. Engrossing accounts of differences are the reason to pick this one up.
In 1949, the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel advertised for a weekly columnist, Birkby’s husband encouraged her to apply, and, the rest is history. Here is a “greatest hits” collection of her charming columns, giving readers a taste of family life on a farm from the 50s to the present day. She writes about her daughter’s time in kindergarten, her son’s favorite pet (a skunk), how to dry clothes outdoors all year round, and what 40 Japanese boy scouts were doing in her backyard. Reading this introduced me to the idea of hand-operated windshield wipers as well as a delicious-sounding recipe for “Hay Hand Rolls” (made during haying time, when farmwomen made lunch for the hayers). Readers will find that Birkby sees the fun in life and also knows when to slow down and watch the ants. Oh, and – almost always includes a recipe.
Garfield, who has loved maps since he was a kid, has taken on the unexpectedly fascinating topic of maps and their history. He tracks down the man who solved the mystery of the golden hare from the 1979 book Masquerade, points out that Ptolemy’s hubris led to the discovery of the Americas, and tells the story of the mountain range that ran through Western Africa for a century before disappearing in a puff of exploration. The first eight chapters offer up the history of mapmaking and the development of mapmaking tools. The remaining chapters are stories about famous maps, mapmakers, mysteries, modern maps (including those for computer games) and hoaxes. My only regret is that the publisher has chosen to reproduce the maps in black and white – that said, it’s still a very engaging book.
Thousands of Americans inadvertently took up arms during the Cold War. These were landowners, mostly farmers and ranchers, in the Great Plains who were approached by the US Government to sell land to house Minuteman defense missiles. Though there was some protest, mostly about compensation, the Cold War was in full swing, and as one rancher said, perhaps these missiles would mean his son wouldn’t have to go to war. The families lived with nuclear warheads buried in bunkers in their backyards for the next three decades. When nearly half of the missiles were finally removed in the 1990s, what seemed like a good thing brought more questions and a further sense of wrongdoing - the families weren’t given the right of first refusal to buy back the land, nor were they guaranteed that the missiles would be disposed of in a way that wouldn’t impact their precious wells. Pick up this calm look at a very interesting period in our military history.