Book Reviews: May 2007

Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life
Arlene Blum
Harvest Books, 2007, 400 pages.

I’m one of those readers who has three books going at one time, often losing interest before completing them all. However, Arlene Blum’s book, Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life captured and maintained my interest from beginning to end. There are few books written by, or about, women climbers, so it is wonderful to have a female author who is able to provide vivid recollections of decades of high altitude climbing around the world. What makes this book even more fascinating is Blum’s technique of weaving together significant threads of her life through each chapter-her difficult childhood, her professional career as a biophysical chemist, her personal life and her climbing career.

Throughout her stories, Blum exemplifies the type of person who is able to overcome the most daunting obstacles. During a period in history of profound gender discrimination, she obtained her doctorate in biophysical chemistry and was instrumental in conducting and publishing the seminal research leading to the ban of fire retardants in children’s clothing. She also met with blatant gender discrimination throughout her early years climbing some of the world’s most dangerous peaks. Blum surmounted these difficulties and provided leadership on over thirty mountain expeditions including Annapurna I, Everest and Denali. She eventually found her life’s greatest adventure and deepest meaning in motherhood, a beautiful complement to her life’s great accomplishments in the high mountains. This is a book to be read and enjoyed.

Sylvia Oliver
Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World
Christopher Mark O’Brien
New Society Publishers, 2006, 288 pages.

You might expect that a book claiming that drinking beer has the power to save the world might fail to convince, and so long as we’re talking about the book titled Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World by Christopher Mark O’Brien, you would be right.

But hold on. At the very least, this is a book about drinking beer. And maybe, if the author’s gifts of rhetoric are extremely strong, by the end of the book I’ll be able to stop leafleting my neighbors and writing my congress-persons because all I really gotta do is drink more beer and peace will be had, starvation will cease, congress will hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

Sorry if I sound flip. But Fermenting Revolution is flip. It takes care to tell us that choosing, drinking and making beer is serious business, while at the same time sounding a little bit like your college roomate who still calls you “dooood.” And spells it that way too.

Perhaps a larger problem is that the book has no identity and never really gets to the point of convincing me of anything except “beer is good, and small-batch beer (especially if made and/or drunk by women) is better.” Beginning with a religious history of beer, the book manages to offend even the most stalwart of religious sensibilities (namely, mine). That isn’t a good place to start, poorly equating beer with God, and the books rhetorical prowess only grows slightly beyond that. The continuing chapters just barely hang together, and rather than attempt to make a point more profound than “drink beer!”-Mr. O’Brien settles into a kind of blog-entry style better for periodic guzzling than prolonged sipping. Furthermore, the buzz is short-lived-if there is one at all-and leaves me wondering where I left my coat.

Blog-entry tidbits of beer trivia hardly make for a book worth buying. I suppose Fermenting Revolution would make a decent gift for the un-enlightened, but then again, so would a case of mixed microbrews. Me? I recommend the latter.

Terry Bain
The Better World Shopping Guide: Every Dollar Makes a Difference
Ellis Jones
New Society Publishers, 2006, 169 pages.

Sometimes I forget how attached I can become to my favorite products. When I was a kid, there was always a strange stigma attached to my friends’ families that used Miracle Whip instead of Best Foods, or AquaFresh instead of Crest. While reading Ellis Jones’ book, The Better World Shopping Guide, fears that my favorite chewing gum, Trident, might be responsible for some unspoken horrors across the globe, or that my favorite sneakers are produced in sweatshops kept surfacing.

Designed as a sustainable version of Consumer Reports, Ellis Jones’ book categorizes most everything that we consumers, enjoy purchasing on a regular basis-everything from airline tickets and computers to cookies and breath mints. Jones ranks companies against their policies on the environment, human rights, community involvement, animal protection, corporate crime, discrimination, employee treatment and philanthropy. Companies listed in a category are given a score or grade, ranging from A to F. Companies listed in the A range are the shining stars, often created to provide socially and repsonsible alternatives for consumers. Those ranked ‘F’ are, “actively participating in the rapid destruction of the planet,” writes Jones.

According to Jones, we consumers, have much greater power than we seem to give ourselves credit for. As a family, we spend, on average $18,000 a year on goods and services. Jones sees this as our opportunity to cast 18,000 votes toward the “the kind of world you want to live in.”

A sociology professor from UC Davis, Jones has spent the last five years filtering through data from a vast array of sources related to corporate behavior. He has looked to private, government and non-profit sources that go back as far as 20 years.

While the charts in the book are simplistic, more detailed charts are being released regularly at Jones admits that his system is “far from perfect” but hopes that the more detailed charts will clarify any questions readers might have.

In looking at the four detailed charts that are posted online to date, it seems a bit subjective as to whether a company receives a D- ranking versus an F, but the more general scores-going from a A- to D are quickly apparent. A video version for your iPod of the general rankings can also be downloaded from the website.

The book is physically small and is meant to be easily portable. It is also easy to maneuver through while standing in the aisle at the grocery store, or shopping mall. So, next holiday season, when it comes time to buy that case of microbrews that Terry Bain mentions above, just make sure it has a lot of Sierra Nevada.

Juliet Sinisterra



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