Monday, June 27, 2011

Gentle People: A Case Study of Rockport Colony Hutterites

By Joanita Kant

What is a Hutterite? Well, they are kind of like the Amish, but with trucks, computers and tractors. They embrace a similar religious lifestyle but they also are not afraid of modern devices or conveniences. They live in a commune and they dress different and they keep themselves separate from the rest of society because they wish to keep their focus on leading a Christian life, as they define it.
They came to the upper Midwestern United States to escape military conscription. They are pacifist and refuse to serve in the military.
Although they came to America from a region under Russian domination in the nineteenth century, they are not Russians and they are not really Germans, although they speak a dialect of German. They spent so many decades, centuries, even, wandering Europe, trying to find a safe haven, that they became pretty mixed with other Europeans. Kind of like a lot of people in the upper Midwest.
Anyway, they came to America hoping for religious freedom and tolerance and once again were disappointed. Other folks viewed them with a leery eye and their refusal to serve in the military became a very sore point during World War I, so sore, indeed, that most of the Hutterites left America and migrated to Canada. But not all, and later some of them returned to the places they left behind. And since the U.S. military has developed a program of alternate service for conscientious objectors, maybe they feel more secure back in America.
Still, they are different, the women in their long flowery dresses and head scarves, and the men with the black pants and suspenders and the plaid shirts. Religious fanatics, that's for sure, but unlike those Middle Eastern religious fanatics who also demand their adherents conform to an archaic dress code, Hutterites are non-violent pacifists. It's is a good thing to know, considering that the average Hutterite family has about seven kids. Which means we can expect to see a lot more of these oddly-dressed throwbacks to the nineteenth century from now on.

This was a very informative little book about the Hutterites in South Dakota. I see these people almost every time I go to Walmart. I knew they were some old-timey religious group, similar to the Amish but not Amish, since they don't arrive at Walmart in a horse and buggy but in large, multi-passenger vans and pickup trucks. But other than that, I didn't really know anything about them, except that they all live together in what is known as a colony. I also didn't know how widespread the Hutterites are but they have colonies all over the upper Midwest in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. And, of course, Canada, the land they fled to to escape persecution in the United States. Yes, the United States persecuted them, they even have two martyrs who died in federal custody where they were being held for refusing to serve in the military in World War I and these two martyrs are buried in Rockport Colony in South Dakota.
So if you too have noticed these odd-looking people and have wondered about them, this book is an easy primer with a short history of the Hutterites and of their society today. And at only 119 pages, it's a breeze to read.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

By Harry Harrison

In an alternate history, where the American Revolution failed and George Washington was executed as traitor, his distant descendant Augustine Washington is one of the chief engineers in charge of building a transatlantic tunnel between Europe and North America. If he succeeds, he will redeem his family name from the disgrace brought on it by his traitor ancestor. And win the hand of the woman he has loved for many hopeless years.

The genre of this story is a branch of science fiction known as steampunk, a kind of Victorian take on modern times. Wikipedia describes the book thus: "Harry Harrison's novel A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1973) portrays a British Empire of an alternate 1973, full of atomic locomotives, coal-powered flying boats, ornate submarines, and Victorian dialogue." And that is pretty much what it is. If you like descriptions of mechanical devices and engineering exploits or you like reading tales of alternate history, this would be the book for you. But if you don't, then pass on by. It is heavy on engineering but pretty short on anything else to engage the reader. The conspiracy plot is very lean and the romance is practically nonexistent. I managed to finish reading it and it was a chore to get through, even skipping most of the engineering babble.
I generally avoid stories of alternate history as I usually find them very boring but the reviews I read about this one portrayed it as being funny and humorous, which is my weak spot. I love to read a funny story. But once again the reviews were misleading. I didn't find this story to be the least bit funny. I kept waiting for the funny part but it never showed up. Maybe the funny bit is supposed to be the Victorian machines, but since I am not mechanically-minded, all that mechanical engineering stuff meant nothing to me.
It's probably a good story but I was the wrong audience. For that reason, even though I personally didn't like it, I will rate it a fair read.

Farm Fatale

By Wendy Holden

Rosie has always dreamed of living in the country. She has been bugging her live-in boyfriend, Mark, to leave London and move to a small rural community but he is not interested. That is until it occurs to Mark that rural doings might make an interesting newspaper column and Mark's boss agrees to the idea. So Rosie and Mark start scouring the countryside for a small house in their very limited price range. After much fruitless searching they find one in the village of Eight Mile Bottom.
Meanwhile, Samantha, the wife of wealthy businessman Guy, has decided that she too wants to leave the big city for the charms of small town living. Samantha, who is socially ambitious, sees herself becoming the grand dame of the rural set but is unable to budge Guy, until Guy has a nearly fatal heart attack and is forced into semi-retirement. As Samantha argues, the quiet of a rural village is just what Guy needs during his recovery.
So two urban couples both end up, at opposite ends of the economic strata, in the small town of Eight Mile Bottom. And their lives will never be the same.

This was an OK story. Like most romances, it was pretty predictable. It quickly become apparent that our two couples are both mismatched. Samantha is selfish, ambitious and uncaring and Mark is self-indulgent and whiny. Both Guy and Rosie will figure out that they are better off without their current partners. Both Samantha and Mark are in for rude awakenings. And quiet, self-effacing Rosie ends up on top.

Like a Hole in the Head

By Jen Banbury

Jill is on the run from life. She nursed her dying mother and it took a terrible toll on Jill. So now she is OK with just getting by, living in her little apartment, working at her undemanding job as a clerk in a used book store. It's easy, it's quiet and it lets her just float through her days. Until that little man came into the store with a rare book to sell.
Normally she would summon her boss to handle such a transaction. But the man only wanted a few dollars for the book which Jill figured was worth at least $400. So she bought the book herself, intending to turn around and sell it for a huge profit. But then it turns out that the book was stolen, not once but twice. And the people it was stolen from are not nice. They really want that book back and will do whatever they have to to get it, up to and including torture and murder. Jill's quiet little world is about to turn really ugly and she will be in for the struggle of her life. And in the process maybe she will find out that life really is worth living.

This was an OK story. In the beginning, it was rather amusing. But it got really nasty and mean and just plain gruesome. And the ending was kind of disappointing and not very satisfying. But I did enjoy the humorous bits.

Animal Dreams

By Barbara Kingsolver

Codi's mother died shortly after giving birth to Codi's little sister, Hallie. Their father, Homer, had to raise his two little girls on his own. One thing that Codi never really understood about her father was how very much he loved his children. He wasn't a man for showing or telling his feelings. As a consequence, Codi grew up feeling alone and unloved; her closest relationship was with her little sister.
Homer was a physician in a small Arizona town. Previously the economy of the town was based on the local gold mine but after that petered out the towns people planted orchards and the economy was then centered on agriculture.
Codi and Hallie both moved away when they grew up. Hallie became an agronomist and Codi studied medicine but quit during the last few months of her residency. After that she just drifted from job to job. Hallie went to Nicaragua to help the peasants improve their farming practices. She was killed during the unrest there.
Codi finally ended up back home to keep an eye on her father, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She took a job teaching biology at the high school and it was during a class field trip that she and her students discovered that the river that was used to irrigate the orchards was seriously polluted with chemical run off from the old mine tailings, thus threatening the little towns very survival.
But the town's environmental problems are only part of the story. Mainly it is about Codi's struggle to understand herself and why she let life overwhelm her. Her time back home is her opportunity to clear up several misunderstanding she had about her childhood and realize that maybe things weren't as dire as she remembered.

This was a pretty good story. Codi is one of those people who likes to make mountains out of molehills and all the drama of her childhood was not nearly as terrible as she remembered. Her dad's weird ways were all based in love and in logic and he did the best he knew how as a man trying to raise two daughters on his own. He was standoffish and withdrawn, but not from meanness. As Codi reconnects with her neighbors and relatives she begins to get a better picture of what her childhood was really like and discovers that you really can go home again.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Chapman Report

By Irving Wallace

Dr Chapman and his team of researchers is traveling the country interviewing married women about their sex lives in preparation for publishing a book on the subject. Their last stop is The Briars, an upscale Los Angeles community.
In the story, we get to meet a sampling of the ladies to be interviewed. There's the ambitious career woman, and the adulteress, the bored intellectual, the frigid one, the slut and daddy's little girl. Each begins to examine their own lives after being exposed to the searching and revealing questions of the sex survey.

This was an OK story if a little predictable. It wasn't to hard to figure out that one woman would end up raped, one would end up dead, and that the frigid one just needed a good screw to straighten her out. The premise of the sex survey promises to be titillating but actually, the sex survey part of the story was rather dull. It was the lives of the women themselves that held my interest, not the obsessed professor and his team of researchers. But even though it was predictable and some parts kind of boring, all in all I enjoyed it.