Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: The Photograph

The Photograph by Penelope Lively is a sensitive and complex novel written with an elegant flair. The novel is a skillful study of accomplished people who are suddenly aware that something is missing in their lives.

Much of the story involves Kath, a beautiful woman who has touched many lives, but who died a few years previously. Her husband Glyn finds an upsetting photograph showing his wife with a group of people, her hands obscurely entwined with her brother-in-law’s. Glyn, an archaeologist, obsessively begins systemically researching the possibilities of the story behind the photograph.

As the book progresses and introduces us to Kath’s circle of friends and relatives, we begin to appreciate her quest for acceptance and love. Admiration and desire aren’t enough, she needs to be accepted on a deeper, committed level.

The author portrays the believable characters as complex and knowledgeable in their various professional fields, specifically Glyn’s scientific background and Kath’s sister, Elaine, a highly accomplished and sought-after gardening specialist. Beyond relatives are others who have been touched by this charming woman who appears so casual and carefree, yet who needs what others seem incapable of giving.

The Photograph is a profound novel of depth. I enjoyed the English setting and language and Penelope Lively’s elegant writing style.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: A Gift of Puppies

Carolyn Wing Greenlee’s latest release, A Gift of Puppies, Getting Them Ready for a Life of Service and Love, is worth the price of the book for its puppy pictures alone. Compiled from actual words from Guide-Dogs for the Blind puppy handlers and edited by Carolyn Wing Greenlee, A Gift of Puppies is a treasure of stories about families giving their time, energy and love to puppies, only to turn them over to someone else for their permanent homes. How can people give these puppies up after devoting so much time and love? This book answers that question and more.

A puppy raiser serves a vital role in the eventual success of the partnership between a visually impaired person and a guide dog, allowing them to navigate with confidence and independence.

A Gift of Puppies has many touching stories of puppy raisers. Some of the volunteers are teens or younger, who, with their families, have given their time and love to prepare a puppy for a life with someone else. One of the stories is in the voice of the puppy and the adventures (and misadventures) of being raised in this environment.

A guide dog is bred and whelped at the Guide Dogs for the Blind training center in San Rafael, CA. Most guide dogs are either Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever (or a mix of these two), or German Shepard. Between six and eight weeks, the puppy is placed in a home that has been thoroughly scrutinized for safety and compatibility. No prior experience is necessary to become a puppy raiser.

A puppy raiser is responsible for teaching the pup good house manners and basic obedience, and most importantly, socializing them to the world. In addition to exercise and the exposure to a variety of scenarios,  puppy raisers must agree to participate in puppy raising clubs where they learn training techniques and where the pups can socialize with other dogs.

I was impressed with how much time puppy raisers spend with their furry charges. These dedicated people take socialization seriously as they include their pups on trips using various means of transportation (cars, trains, buses, planes), attend school, church, meetings, movies, restaurants, even dentists. All this helps the pups adapt to the different environments to which they may be later exposed. While working, the pups wear green jackets labeled “Guide Dog for the Blind, Puppy in Training” which should be a signal to onlookers to not touch or distract the animal.

Between 13 and 18 months old, a puppy is returned to the Guide Dogs for the Blind training center for six months of advanced, specific training.

Not all puppies become guide dogs for various reasons such as health issues, fears that cannot be conquered, or head-strong tenancies. Sometimes these dogs are “career changed,” which might involve becoming breeder dogs, companions for people with special needs, search and rescue, hearing dogs, or dogs that can detect certain diseases.

In one story, a woman raised a puppy who couldn’t make the grade to become a guide dog, but was welcomed back into the home as a breeder. This dog had three litters, totaling 22 puppies. Of these, 12 later graduated as guide dogs, and 1 became a breeder.

A Gift of Puppies is an enlightening book with first-hand stories told by people who have given of themselves so that others might benefit.  This is the third of Greenlee’s guide dog books. The first, Steady Hedy, deals with the author’s terror of going blind and her eventual sojourn to Guide Dogs for the Blind and the acquisition of her guide dog, Hedy. The second book, The Gift of Dogs is a compilation of stories about blind peoples’ journeys and the blessings of receiving their guide dogs.

Carolyn Wing Greenlee is the author of fourteen books and has edited more than twenty other books from “poetry to pioneers.” As a  Third Generation Chinese American from a California Gold Rush/Railroad family, she has brought to print many stories of her clan who would not speak for themselves. Now she is helping others, the blind and visually impaired, tell their stories,. For more information about the author, please visit

Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Review: Mountains Beyond Mountains

Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World, is a powerful testimony demonstrating how one person can make a difference in treating global health problems.

Paul Farmer’s greatest love is practicing medicine in Haiti where his emphasis has been the treatment of tuberculosis.  He walks miles, often on mountainous trails, to remote villages to see patients who live in small huts with dirt floors and roofs made of banana fronds. Dr. Farmer learned Creole so that he can converse without an interpreter.  His clinic, Zannu Lasante, is miles away from where official business is conducted in Port-au-Prince, involving hours on National Highway 3 which sounds traversable, but is actually dangerous and as rough as a riverbed.

Dr. Farmer, an American medical anthropologist and physician, didn’t have a typical childhood. His large family lived in non-traditional environments, but Paul thrived and used those experiences as stepping stones to his later life. In medical school he found his calling to cure infectious diseases and to bring lifesaving tools of modern medicine to places that needed them most, primarily among the poor and disadvantaged. In 1983, while in medical school he cofounded  Partners in Health, an international non-profit organization that provides direct health care services and undertakes research and advocacy activities on behalf of those who are sick and living n poverty. He holds a professorship at Harvard and is Chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at  Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

In order to advance international health, he frequently travels to Peru where high incidence of TB prevails. He learned Spanish to heighten his effectiveness there. He regularly goes to Russia and visits prisons where TB is rampant. Dr. Farmer’s main focus is eradicating pandemic diseases primarily TB and MDR (multi-drug resistant)TB, HIV, AIDS, and the prevention and treatment of malaria. In addition, he accepts invitations to speak world-wide, always with the idea of furthering education and soliciting donations to fund these efforts. He has written books and dozens of medical journal articles.

Author Tracy Kidder, a Pultzer Prize winner for his nonfiction narrative, The Soul of a New Machine, accompanied Dr. Farmer over a period of years, even trekking with him to remote villages. In one case they walked for a total of eleven hours in order to visit one TB-affected family. Kidder calls the act the “Farmer method.” First you cure a patient and then you change the condition that made them especially vulnerable to TB in the first place. In this case, the plan would be to get the large family into a home with a cement floor and a metal roof, improve the family’s nutrition, and provide school tuition for the kids.

It’s hard to imagine one man doing all that Paul Farmer has accomplished. Kidder has done an outstanding job of letting us peek into the soul of this inspiring complex man with a passion so great he has truly affected world health and enriched mankind. I highly recommend Mountains Beyond Mountains.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Wilderness Fun, NOT Wilderness Tragedy

Every winter we read about it in the paper or see it on TV news. A hiker has been separated from his group, or a group has been cut off by an avalanche or delayed by a storm. Any number of things can happen to dampen the spirit of winter hikers or cross-country skiers. Worse, unpreparedness can kill. Your life may depend on what you have with you.

What is known as the “Ten Essentials” is applicable for year-around use, but the risks of winter skiing and hiking are greater with colder and wetter weather, plus shorter hours of daylight.

Here are the bare essentials every wilderness hiker should carry. The couple of extra pounds they represent are critical to outdoor safety.

Maps and Navigation Equipment It’s not hard to get lost in the wilderness, even when following a well-used trail. Sometimes there’s an unmarked fork, or you step aside to take a picture and get turned around. A GPS is a valuable tool as long as the battery is charged. It’s always a good idea to carry a map. Topographical maps are the most useful. If you get lost and see a peak, you can more easily determine where you are on a topographical map. Study the map before you go so you have a mental picture of the terrain. Carry a compass. It’s easy to get turned around and on a cloudy day you can’t always see the sun to determine your direction. A simple compass–that you know how to use–can save your life.

Don’t expect the map on your cell phone to work when hiking, even if your phone has GPS. No cell phone service means your map is a blank screen since the maps aren’t preloaded as in a dedicated GPS unit. Some smart phones allow you to “pre cache” small map areas so they are available without cell service.

First Aid Kit  Prepare a kit with a few bandaids, a small tube of antibiotic ointment, some gauze and adhesive tape, an elastic bandage for knee or ankle sprains, and a small bottle of aspirin or other pain killer. Your first aid kit doesn’t need to be elaborate, but a simple kit can go a long way toward alleviating discomfort.

Extra Clothes  Waterproof rain gear is a good idea all year long, not only to keep you dry, but to block out cold, harsh winds. Include a weather-proof hat. You can lose 35 percent of your total body-heat through your head. In the winter that amount of heat loss can be a matter of life or death. Pack an extra pair of wool socks. You’ll be glad you have them if your feet get wet. Consider carrying disposable hand and toe warmers in your pocket. You could save digits from frost bite.

Sun Protection  Take along dark sunglasses. Even on cloudy days, sunshine reflected off snow can be blinding. Sunscreen and SPF lip balm will protect your skin from sunburn, summer or winter.

Shelter  Even if you don’t plan to spend the night, take along a tent, tarp, emergency blanket, or even a large plastic trash bag. Just to have a dry place to sit and rest is important in conserving or restoring energy. If you do have to spend the night, a shelter can save you many miserable, long hours.

Illumination Even if you’re planning only a day trip, take along a flashlight or headlamp, plus extra batteries and a spare bulb. It gets dark early in the woods and walking along even a well-used trail can be dangerous in the dark.

Extra Food  “Extra” implies that you have some food with you. Even if you hadn’t planned to eat on your outing, always carry some form of nutrition. A body can last for days without food, but it provides energy and warmth.

Hydration  Each hiker should have two quarts of water per day. It’s a good idea to have a means to purify water, either with a compact filter or with chemical tablets.

Tools For winter hiking, take along a light, compact snowshovel. Using a shovel to dig yourself out of a tight spot is better than digging out with your hands. A simple two-blade knife will come in handy to shave wood or cut fabric. A one-burner backpacking stove is a good thing to have along. Hot liquid will bring comfort and warmth. In rainy weather, it’s easier to start a small butane stove than a fire. Invest in waterproof matches and carry them in a waterproof container.

Good Judgement There’s no substitute for common sense. Before you leave home, check the weather forecast and avalanche centers. Take along items for your own comfort–cell phone, toilet paper, insect repellent.  Before you leave on a day trip, stop to think whether or not you’re equipped in the event your trip turns out to be an over-nighter. Be prepared to turn back if the weather gets nasty.