Review: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

A missionary’s 30 year linguistic and cultural study of an Amazonian tribe.

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Everett’s thirty-year examination of the language and culture of the Pirahã (pee-da-HAN) peoples of the Amazon was introduced to me by my father with the explanation, “It’s about a missionary who loses his faith.”  While this may have been the selling point for my father, I was instantly drawn in by the linguistic and cultural discussion that forms the narrative.  The story is one of cultural immersion – it is the story of a missionary family from California and their experience in the jungle.

I initially compared Don’t Sleep to Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, but the similarities are few.  Everett’s story has the added advantage of being true.  He evokes the heat of the jungle, the beauty of the river and the simplicity of Pirahã life in his lovely prose.  He also emphasizes the necessity of humor when living in a culture completely different from one’s own.

Two things take the book from “amazing” to “ok.”  The first is that Everett is clearly a linguist – normally not a problem, but he uses this book to expound on his arguments against Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories.  The narrative gets bogged down with technical terms and linguistic theory.  Although these are interesting, and Everett peppers his theory with examples, at times he loses his drift.  Second, despite his obvious respect for the Pirahã, parts of the narrative come off as paternalistic and elevate the Pirahã culture as a “way back to nature.”

It is very cool, however, that the Pirahã have strongly resisted “modernization,” largely because of the sense of superiority in their way of life and their language.  Everett’s argument is that their culture and language are intertwined – one does not create the other as many linguistic theories suppose.  However, because of their sense of cultural superiority, Everett’s mission – to translate the Bible into Pirahã and tell the people about Jesus.  Other aspects of their culture, such as a need for direct observation, also made his task a challenge.

Overall,  the book is an excellent exploration of a unique culture and a discussion of the challenges of immersing oneself in a completely different environment.  Certainly, Everett’s linguistic contributions will have a lasting impact on the field.  I recommend the book to language buffs and to anyone interested in immersing themselves in another culture.

Review: The Lost Girls

Three young women quit their jobs to travel the world.

The book records the journey of three friends – Jen, Holly, and Amanda – as they take a one-year journey around the world.  Yes,  these three young women quit their jobsgood jobs! – to backpack, hike, volunteer, and yoga their way through three continents.  And they had an amazing time and learned so much about themselves and the world.  Life-changing doesn’t even begin to cover it.  So, yes – inspirational.

It was easy to connect with this book.  First of all, the ladies are all journalists that worked for magazines or other media so the writing is fun and accessible.  Second, they lived out a fantasy that most of us only dream about – leaving the pressure of day-to-day to go on an adventure.  And third, I read it during a cold snap in February and everywhere they went (except Vietnam) was warm.

The “Lost Girls” also did a great job of explaining exactly how they got the funds, made plans and delt with setbacks, an essential to any travel writing.  It also allows the reader greater connection because she is thinking “Wow, I can totally do this.  It wouldn’t be easy, but it is possible.”  My main quibble is that we only see their experience in the Masaai village in the prologue, so the Kenya section seems truncated (I actually had to double check that my nook wasn’t missing a section).  I love how they admit to the hard times, the disagreements and frustrations right along with the amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiences like meeting a nun in Laos to get her secret herbal cure recipes.

Overall, a great book.  I highly recommend it, particularly to the travel-hungry.  Be forewarned, though – you might just start planning your own round the world trip!

Musings: Historical Fiction Vs. Non-Fiction History

Is historical fiction more interesting than non-fiction history?

I’ve always been a history buff.  My favorite time period has long been World War II, mostly because I have always wanted to know what drives people to treat others in such an awful way.  (This motivation is probably the reasoning behind my career choice of international development as well.)  The problem is that the vast majority of non-fiction history books are so dry they put me to sleep within pages.

Hence historical fiction: all of the history, none of the boredom! – more or less, anyway.  Historical fiction runs the gamut from “well-researched story about real people that invents stuff” to “random plot set in a historical period.” It has the advantage of taking real people and real events – usually very exciting stuff – and having an excuse to make it absorbing and real.

The best non-fiction history books do this, too.  Peter Hopkirk, for example, has a true knack for bringing historical figures back to life using just facts.  However, much of his work deals with the British Empire in the 1800s – a time with better records and the height of dashing heroes.  As an author struggles with poor or destroyed records, it becomes harder to flesh out characters without resorting to a bit of fiction.  At this point, history just becomes a list of facts, battles, and notable personages.  My current non-fiction exploration, Weir’s Wars of the Roses occasionally struggles with this, despite the rather good records that exist for the period.  Luckily, the drama and intrigues of the wars are just too good to not become engrossed.

One book that had the full potential to be fascinating and exciting, but is instead rather dry, is William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  Shirer was a journalist in Germany throughout much of the buildup, knew many of the main players and yet he sticks to the (exhaustive) records and minute details rather than allowing the story to build.  It is, nonetheless, a fascinating account.

As for fiction, Philippa Gregory’s histories of the Tudors are rather good – The Other Boleyn Girl, her best-known, is fantastic, although it’s sequel suffers.  For good period books, try Lauren Willig’s Secret History of the Pink Carnation series – part romance novel, part historical fiction, part diary, they are totally addictive.  Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is mostly historical fiction, with time-travel and romance novel thrown in for good measure.  The first two installments are well done, but the later books in the series lose their flow and become episodic and confused.

As with any genre, history can be very, very good or very, very boring.  It’s all about the presentation.  But the certitude of events reported – battles, adventures, love stories – really happened can elevate even the most mundane book of facts to an escape from today’s reality.