Review: Light of the Andes by J.E. Williams

Author: J.E. Williams
Title: Light of the Andes
Format/Source: eBook/ARC
Published: June 2012 (new edition released June 2014, I think)
Publisher: Irie Books
Length: 200 pages
Genre: Spiritual non-fiction
Why I Read: Browsing ‘religion and spirituality’ on NetGalley; mountain caught my eye
Read If You’re: A mountain lover or interested in Indigenous spirituality, esp. of Peru’s Q’ero people
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters 

In university I took a few courses about Indigenous spirituality, particularly that of the Cree and Inuit. I know very little about Indigenous cultures outside of Canada, so I thought this book would be a good choice to learn more about a people who live far away. The Andean setting also attracted me because I love mountains, though I live on the prairies so unfortunately mountains do not play a large role in my life. The highlight of my younger years was heading out West to camp in the Rockies. I’ve never seen any mountains as huge as those to be found in South America. That’s what I liked most about this book – how Williams captures the majesty of these grand mountains and conveys how deeply moving they can be, even for someone who has never seen them before (the photos and glossary are welcome inclusions). I loved reading about his journey up Apu Ausangate, “the spiritual ruler of [the Andes]” (preface). Williams balances a spiritual perspective and a scholarly perspective, blending his roles as immersed participant and outside scholar. These two perspectives are naturally merged in the book. While the book is about his spiritual journey up Ausangate, he also draws parallels to other religious traditions and ponders about the place of the Q’ero in the world-at-large.

The book begins with long sentences with too many words. For example:

A small, solid man with reddish brown sun-darkened, chestnut-colored skin, Sebastian stands on the corner of the busy city street wearing traditional Q’ero short charcoal apalaca pants and black tunic, the unku, hand wove by his wife, Filipa, from the wool sheered from his own alapacas, over which he wears a natural-colored beige poncho and on his head a multicolored knitted cap called a chu/ulhu, intricately beaded with designs representing Inti, the sun.

I didn’t really mind this, though, because I was interested in all the information  given. I found the style manageable because I felt there was a good story caught inside all the words. If this is not your style, no worries – the prose settles into a more natural, rhythmic style about 1/4 of the way in. Here is a short excerpt from a larger passage I particularly enjoyed, as Sebastian, Williams’ friend and spiritual mentor, and Williams have reached their destination near the top of Ausangate: 

In the shadow of the mountain, memory is intangible. Most of my experiences escape; the process of forgetting is already begun. Whatever I am is being erased by the wind, lost in clouds and snow. Where lies the prefect empty mirror? Where falls the condor feather? How silent is the snow and ice? How thin is the blue canopy of sky? Sebastian is already at work. He has chosen a place for the ceremony near the shoreline.
A more cynical reader could easily approach this work with a heavy does of skepticism, dismissing Williams’ involvement in the Q’ero community as self-righteous or exploitative, as he is a white man publishing a book about his experiences. I can be such a reader at times, but I honestly did not feel that sort of vibe from this book. It truly seems like Willliams is doing good work with the Q’ero and is personally invested beyond getting a good story to publish. Sebastian’s role is not diminished in the book, and Williams has included a note from Sebastian at the end. Williams founded the non-profit Ayniglobal “to further his mission and honour the commitment he made with Sebastian”. The mission of Ayniglobal is to “protect and preserve traditional indigenous cultures and ancestral lands including people, animals, plants and water systems”. Williams and Sebastian are currently on a tour to share the teachings of the Q’ero. Williams does offer “sacred journey” tours, but these appear to be in  cooperation with the Q’ero and in line with Sebastian’s desire to spread the Q’ero teachings.
The Light of the Andes is something of a sequel to The Andean Codex, which I have not yet read. I don’t think it’s necessary to read The Andean Codex first, but I think doing so would give one better background knowledge of the issues discussed in The Light of the Andes. I’ve added The Andean Codex to my TBR pile.

The Bottom Line:  Another reader might have a more cynical attitude towards William’s involvement with the Q’ero, but he comes across as sincere in this book. A good story if you want to learn more about the Indigenous Q’ero spirituality that has grown over centuries around the Andes in Peru, or if you have a deep love of mountains.

Further Reading: 

Quick Review: Ambivalent

 These reviews are part of the Summer Library Challenge Week 6 Activity – Reviewing Library Books.

These books I read all the way through, but I’m not sure how I feel about them. Because of that, these books are difficult to review. I still wanted to document my thoughts so here are a few odd notes on each.

  • All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
    • Rating: ★★-★★★½?  [ratings guide
    • I picked this book up because of the gorgeous cover, book description and four star reviews from a few bloggers I follow.
    • I thought the book had great atmosphere, moody and dark and solitary (reminded me of when I was running around with sheep in Ireland).
    • I kept waiting for something to happen in the present story-line but I found it extremely disappointing. I think I may have ~missed something~ there. A lot of somethings did happen in the past story-line but somehow it never really grasped me. 
    • I did not really like Jake, but I guess I liked reading about her?
    • The book felt empty to me, yet I read the whole thing quickly and without feeling like i should stop. So I must have liked something about it? I’m not too sure what else to say. I have confusing feelings about this book! I think I felt a bit let down by the book’s description – it’s not nearly as mysterious or fantastical as its made out to be.
  •  I Forgot to Remember by Su Meck and Daniel de Vise
    • Rating: ★★-★★★? [ratings guide
    • I find this book extremely hard to evaluate because I would essentially be evaluating someone’s life. You have to keep in mind that Meck lost all her memories, she has no knowledge of the first part of her life, she had to be completely re-educated, including how to read and write. I found a lot of parts of this memoir uncomfortable to read. It was not the sort of story I was expecting. I can’t believe how many years it took for people to start to realize what she really lost when the accident happened. I want to keep my concerns about this memoir to myself, since it’s a fresh story and because who I am to judge how someone’s life play out? Meck’s choice to tell her story in such a no-holds-barred manner is admiring, at the very least. I don’t think you can find many memoirs like this, where the author’s husband (to whome she is still married) is so thoroughly exposed. (Suffice to say, the husband’s behaviour is mostly terrible. But then, given the situation – like I said, it’s not my place to judge!)
    • The writing style is nothing impressive, but again – she had to learn to write again as an adult. That she can write this memoir at all is truly incredible.
    • My uncertainity over this book comes from the fact that the subject matter is undoubtedly interesting, but the how Meck’s life actually unfolds was not at all what I was expecting. Perhaps it’s a bit terrible of me to say this, but it wasn’t the story I wanted to read! That’s certainly not Meck’s fault, though, and her story is still fascinating. If the book’s description sounds interesting to you, I recommend you give it a shot. Maybe then my ramblings here will make a bit of sense… 

If you’ve read either of these books, I would love to hear what you think! Maybe reading other peoples’ opinions will help me sort out mine 😉


      Review: The War on Science by Chris Turner

      Author: Chris Turner 
      Title: The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Willful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada
      Format/Source: Paperback/Library
      Published: March 2014
      Publisher: Greystone Books
      Length: 176 pages
      Genre: Popular non-fiction
      Why I Read: To learn more about scientific research in Canada + Harper’s treatment of Canadian scientists
      Read If You’re: Canadian, invested in science, or interested in science+politics
      Quote: See below
      Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
      Links: GoodReads | Chapters | Amazon 

      In The War on Science, Chris Turner explores the relationship between scientific research and the Canadian government, focusing on the dismal role of science in the Harper government. The sensationalist title summarizes the book well. If you think Canada is a good example of an environmental steward – think again. The federal government has been viciously cutting funding of scientific research, research meant to inform government policy. The reason for this cutting, Turner argues, is that the research would tell the government to stop doing what they’re doing, which they do not want to hear. Written in a highly accessible and passionate style and coming in at just 134 pages (remainder is chronology and bibliography), this book is likely meant to appeal to the uninitiated. In that regard, The War on Science is a good introduction to those unfamiliar with how the Canadian government presently manages and responds to scientific research.  For myself, this was a topic I wanted to learn more about. Turner covered some events about which I already knew (ex. scientists’ protest on Parliament Hill, funding to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory cut for a year), but he also provided more history and context for those events so I learnt what prompted them and what they imply.

      This is one of those books where it will be easier for me to write about its weaknesses, because this book has just one great strength, albeit one that makes up for all shortcomings. That strength lies in the subject matter. I’m glad this book exists – a published, non-academic book that has the potential to be read by a lot of people. I think many Canadians would be incensed by Harper’s treatment of scientists and scientific research if they understood what was happening. This could be the book to spread that awareness. There are a lot of great quips that summarize the bulk of this work, when Turner really hits the nail on the head. Here’s a sampling:

      “To accelerate the exploitation of Canada’s resource wealth – that’s the explicit part. To eliminate its ability to see the cost of this policy – that’s the implicit part” (46).

      “Instead of freeing scientists to establish the best methods to conserve natural resources, the government has crippled their ability to gather and disseminate the data demonstrating the consequences of policy decisions” (67). 

      “This is the essence of the new culture of government under Stephen Harper. The purpose of research – of science generally – is to create economic opportunities for industry, and the purpose of government is to assist in that process in whatever way it can” (112).

      However, those quips also embody the weaker side of this book. My biggest disappointment is that the book is largely undeveloped. The quotes above get to the heart of the book, but there isn’t a lot backing them. As I described above, it’s probably meant to be an introduction to the subject to get people worked up about the issue, but I would have loved to see more analysis, evidence, backing, explaining of why science is important and how it relates to government policy. This is what the entire book is about, but it’s too too short to really do the argument justice. Turner largely relays what’s happened so far and saying “This is terrible!” without fleshing out why too much. He relies heavily on the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) as an example of a science project doing something good then being cut. A lot of the examples are explained generally or vaguely, and there is a lot of repetition. For example, he argues multiple times that “the same budget gave Revenue Canada $8 million to audit environmental groups believed to be backed by deep-pocketed foreign radicals – a sum that could have…” (101) done this or that. In other areas Turner adopts an almost melodramatic tone (see, for example, his framing Northern Gateway Pipeline on page 93), which could make it easy for detractors to dismantle his argument. I agree with Turner’s message – that the Harper government is doing an immense disservice to Canadians and the Canadian environment by dismissing scientific research – but by the end of the book I was less-than-impressed with its overall tone.

      The Bottom Line: It’s easier to pick on the weaknesses of this book, but really, The War on Science is a good introduction for people who are unfamiliar with what’s been going in Canadian government with regards to science. It is by no means an exhaustive book, and I don’t think it’ll change the minds of anyone who supports the Harper government’s treatment of science, but I recommend it because it’s an easy read tackling an important subject. 

      Review: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida

      Author: Naoki Higashida
      Title: The Reason I Jump
      Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
      Published: August 2013
      Publisher: Random House
      Length: 176 pages
      Genre: Non-fiction question and answer
      Why I Read: Saw it at the bookstore, thought it would be interesting 
      Read If You’re: Interested in learning about autism from a person with autism’s perspective
      Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
      Links: GoodReadsChapters | Amazon 

      There seems to be a lot of suspicion surrounding this book as to whether it could actually have been written by a 13 year old with autism, or how much David Mitchell embellished the translation. I approached the book with some skepticism, but now that I’ve read I don’t think there’s any reason to be suspect of Higashida’s writing. Yes, I think there /could/ be some embellishment but I also think that it’s not unreasonable to believe a thirteen year old wrote this text. Now, controversy aside…

      I found this book very heartbreaking at times. Many times Higashida writes about how he knows he can make situations difficult for people and how he hates himself for it, but he still very much wishes for people not to give up on him. This must be a terrible feeling for someone who cannot communicate with others in the generally expected and accepted ways. Yes, it can be difficult for a non-autistic person to engage with an autistic person – but it is important to recognize the person with autism is very much a person, just like someone without autism!

      The above paragraph brings me to another point – how Higashida addresses his audience. He uses the plural you, presumably to address an audience of non-autistic people who have many questions about what it’s like to have autism. I’m not sure if there’s a better way to address these questions, given the nature of the book. but sometimes it does feel a bit presumptuous of him to make statements like “One of the biggest misunderstandings you have about us is your belief that our feelings aren’t as subtle and complex as yours.” (109) He also uses ‘we’ to speak for all autistic people which I think is more problematic than how he addresses his audience. Overall, his pronoun use is a relatively minor issue with the book, and it may possibly just be attributed to his age or his editor or something but it is a noticeable aspect of the narration that might bother some people more than most.p

      The Bottom Line: Definitely check this book out if you any interest in what it might be like to have autism – but remember that it’s just one teen’s account.

      Review: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit by Corey Olsen

      The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
      Author: Corey Olsen  
      Title: Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit
      Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
      Published: September 2012
      Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
      Length: 318 pages
      Genre: Literary analysis
      Why I Read: The Hobbit is one of my all-time favourite books + I enjoy reading Tolkien scholarship
      Read If You’re: A new fans of The Hobbit; interested in literary analysis
      Quote: “Even when [Bilbo] himself is facing the possibility of being devoured, the ‘idea of eating’ that is on his mind is a very positive one” (94).
      Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
      Links: GoodReadsIndieBound | Chapters | Amazon 
      Two Tolkien posts in a row! I promise this isn’t just a Tolkien blog. I wanted to post my responses to those two articles while they were fresh in my mind, and then this is the only book I’ve read recently for which I have a full review planned. Now, onto the inaugural review of the reborn Falling Letters.

      I added this book to my TBR list shortly after it was published, but I wasn’t eager to read it because it seemed to be an introductory text exploring themes in The Hobbit with which I am already familiar. This is not to say I didn’t think the text had anything to offer (otherwise I wouldn’t have put it on my TBR list), but after reading The History of the Hobbit in the same year this book was published, I felt I had enough Hobbit knowledge in my head for one year. In his introduction, Olsen describes how his love of Tolkien developed and became integrated into his academic work. He describes people who “get nervous at the prospect of a literary critic discussing a work they love”, because they’ve “had unpleasant experiences in high school English classes” (4). He assures the reader he will not take the same approach found in such classes (drawing inferences from the text as to what Tolkien really meant, judging passages as good or bad, etc.). He writes of his book:

      “…we will take a journey through the story, looking carefully about us as we go. It is easy to rip through a book that you like at top speed; the main thing I hope to do is to slow things down enough to be able to see more clearly what is unfolding in the story as we go. We will take notice of the recurring themes and images […] We will listen closely to all the songs and poems […] If we walk slowly and pay attention, we may find that our perspective is enriched by the journey as much as Bilbo’s was, and that our eyes have been opened to marvels we never expect to see.” (5).

      This paragraph made me more interested in the book than anything else I had read about it – I definitely know how it’s easy to rip through a favourite book! I read The Hobbit more often than any other book. I could benefit from a slowed down, close reading. That is largely what the book is – a close reading of The Hobbit. Olsen makes minimal references to Tolkien’s thoughts or works beyond The Hobbit. I thought it interesting that he chose to explicitly not discuss The Hobbit with any close relation to The Lord of the Rings, particularly given the release of The Hobbit films which are being brought more closely in line with The Lord of the Rings films. The publication of Olsen’s book likely connects to the release of The Hobbit films, as interest in books on which movies are based always surges when said movie is released. But, this is not a negative observation – The Hobbit is a fantastic work considered by itself. I don’t think it always needs to be placed within a greater context and it’s refreshing to read something focused solely on the tale I love.

       If you have read The Hobbit many times, you might not find a lot of new ideas here. HOWEVER! A major exception is the analysis of songs and poetry. I confess, I tend to gloss over songs and poetry whenever they appear in a novel, however crucial to the story they may be. I do this less with The Hobbit, where the songs are of a different nature than those found in The Lord of the Rings, but I still plead guilty to not fully paying attention to what the songs contribute to the story. Where Olsen’s text excels for me is in his exploration of the songs. John D. Rateliff’s quote on the back of the book accurately praises, “[Olsen is] particularly good at pointing out how Tolkien uses poems as characterization”. I suspect I am not the only adorer of The Hobbit who prefers to bypass songs and poems. Olsen has chosen an excellent area on which to focus.

      Additional notes:  I enjoy reading interpretations of the riddle scene. While I thought some of the inferences were a bit stretched, I did like the perspective he took on the whole scene (exploring how the riddles reveal the riddler’s character while also reacting to riddles that had already been presented). The text is not written in a scholarly manner, it’s very accessible, but there were some instances where the use of slang stood out (“street cred” [113] is an extreme example). I’m not sure such language is necessary, even in a relatively informal work.

      The Bottom Line: If you are a long time fan of The Hobbit, who appreciates the songs and poems contained within, you might find this book does not have a lot to offer you. But if you are a newer fan of The Hobbit, or you wonder what the point is of all the songs and poetry, or you just plain enjoy close readings, I recommend this book.