Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones and the search for Machu Picchu

by Christopher Heaney

New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

Week 35 Non-fiction

My husband Thell’s mother always wanted to go to visit Machu Picchu in Peru, because she had read about it in National Geographic many years ago. Because she never got there, Thell has wanted to go in her stead. We finished reading Cradle of Gold by Christopher Heaney this week in anticipation of the trip we hope to make in the next year, while we are still young enough to travel to Cuzco, to ride the Hiram Bingham train, climb the steep cliffs and explore the ancient city of Machu Picchu.

One of the most colorful, but also unknown, figures of the late 19th and early 20th century, Hiram Bingham, was an American academic, archaeologist and adventurer. He spent much of his young adult life exploring in Peru, searching for the lost cities of the Incas, and the rest of his adulthood defending his discoveries.

Born of missionary parents, Bingham was educated at Harvard and married an heiress to the Tiffany fortune. Although he received a PhD from Harvard, he longed to teach at Yale, and to live a life of adventure and achievement. He was “caught between his family’s missionary ideals, his own Gilded Age desires, and hours spent devouring the books of Theodore Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad.”

Fate would take him to Peru where he began to search for Vilcabamba, the lost city of the Incas. He financed his early trips himself with his wife’s money; later trips were financed by National Geographic and Yale University where he became a professor. Along the way, he was led to the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu, named for the mountain behind the city. He also explored other cities of the Incas, and brought back to Yale bones, pottery, and other artifacts of the waning days of the Inca Empire. These cities were not lost to the indigenous people; they were just lost to history.

The items he brought back to Yale were the stuff of controversy, because they included among other things, human bones—5415 pieces in all. Heaney outlines the several arrangements Bingham and Yale made with the various governments of Peru—there were failures and deceptions on both sides. Enshrined at the Peabody Museum at Yale, the artifacts remain controversial 100 years later. Recently, Peru sued Yale to have all the human remains returned to Peru; the court case is still pending.

Bingham went on to be a pilot during World War I and later a US Senator. He was truly a man of his age, and most likely the model for the movie hero, Indiana Jones. His was an amazing life, and Christopher Heaney does the man justice. We are at once fascinated and repelled by the man who would use his wife’s money and leave her at home alone with seven children.

The book is also about the history of the Incas and about Machu Picchu, the jewel of the empire. The last chapters discuss the controversy over archeological artifacts; to whom do they belong? Heaney also discusses his own adventures in Peru as he searched out the information to write this book.

It is engrossing reading of a subject about which not much has been written. The review in the Wall Street Journal was what encouraged me to read this book, which I read aloud with my husband. We both enjoyed it, and when we go to Peru, we will be glad that we had read it.

Christopher Heaney is a professor at the University of Texas. Here is his website:

Here is an interesting interview Heaney did with the Yale Daily News. It deals with the ongoing controversy that Hiram Bingham looted Machu Picchu and that Yale is withholding valuable gold pieces from the Peruvian government.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything

By Geneen Roth

New York, Scribner, 2010

Week 34      Spiritual

I do want to say at the outset that I am not reading any more self-help books this year. This one is disguised as a spiritual book, and I read it as such, but it is still self-help. That being said, I have empathy for what Geneen Roth is discussing in Women, Food, and God. And I do realize that for many women, the book has a great deal of resonance. If I were 37 instead of 67, I think that this book would have been a revelation.

I am also not going to discuss this book as a book about dieting--or not dieting. If I did, I would be writing an entire book myself. I am not going to get into that at all, because at this point in my life, I think that I have gained peace with my body and my weight—at least more than when I was a younger woman. Although as Nora Ephron might say, I Feel Bad about My Neck, or in my case, my upper arms! What I want to discuss is what I gleaned from her understandings about women and the search for identity.

Geneen Roth believes that the way you eat is inseparable from your core beliefs about being alive. Through this book, she helps women come to the bright center of their souls. She says, “How we use food is really a mirror to our inner happiness—our feelings of love, fear, self-worth, anger and our connection to God.” Our relationship with food brings us to a doorway to freedom--what we seek most. When we open that door, we can see the issues we are using food to avoid.

She wants women to really listen to their inner beings, not “the Voice” that tells you how bad you are, how things are never going to change, and you might as well not bother. She teaches women to meditate on the things that are good and the love that surrounds them. She says, “I believe in love. And beauty. I believe that every single person has something they find beautiful and that they truly love. The smell of their child's hair, the silence of a forest, their lover's crooked grin. Their country, their religion, their family. And I believe that if you follow this love all the way to its end, if you start with the thing you find most beautiful and trace it's perfume back to its essence, you will perceive an intangible presence, a swath of stillness that allows the thing you love to be visible like the openness of the sky reveals the presence of the moon."

In Companions in Christ, the course that I teach at my church, we learn many of the same principles, however from a Christian perspective. We really listen to each other (something that doesn’t always happen in the real world), we meditate with each other, and we become formed by the presence of God in our lives. I wish Roth had discussed in more depth the spiritual impact of her method, because the book is a guide to stepping outside of guilt and anxiety about our bodies and what we put in them and stepping into a new world where we are worth it.

Geneen Roth has been running workshops for many years as well as writing books. Her first book was When Food is Love: Exploring the Relationship between Eating and Intimacy. In this book she refutes the premise that if you could only be thin, then you would be happy. Her many books and workshops have been very popular. On another note, Geneen Roth appears to be a good friend of Anne Lamott , whose Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith I read earlier this year. So, I guess I have to say, any friend of Anne’s is a friend of mine.

I could not find a major review of Women Food and God, but I did find a intriguing interview with Oprah in O magazine:

Here is an interview with Erica Hill from CBS News:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery

New York, Europa Editions, 2006

Week 33      Fiction

I hardly know where to begin. I guess I will begin by saying that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is my favorite book of the year thus far, and probably one of my favorite books since I began reading purposefully for my book club, which has been in existence for 6 years.

Part philosophical meandering, part literary fiction, and part social satire, the book tells the stories of a 12-year-old girl, the daughter of wealthy intellectuals, and the concierge in her building, a 54-year-old recluse and closet intellectual. What we learn about them comes from their thoughts; for 12-yr.-old Paloma, they are written down in a journal and in a diary of “Profound Thoughts.” In these writings, she ponders her fate; is she to grow up and be just like her parents and sister, who she finds to be living unfortunate lives, or is she to kill herself before her thirteenth birthday? Madame Michel—Renee, on the other hand, ponders philosophy, music, literature, and good food, but feels she has to hide all this in order to survive as a concierge. So, she leaves the television running all day, wears clumsy slippers, and cooks cabbage to smell up her apartment. Paloma hides her true self behind a façade of petulance and sarcasm. Renee hides her true self behind a façade of self-loathing and quasi-ignorance.

The plot, if there is one, begins about mid-book when a retired Japanese businessman, Monsieur Ozu, moves into the building. He quickly sees beyond their facades and offers each of them a hand of friendship. He becomes intrigued with Paloma’s intelligence and asks her some probing questions that reveal her true nature. He recognizes in Renee a true soul mate; someone who appreciates all that he appreciates; someone who can share art, music, and literature with him. Age and class mean nothing to him, and he offers Renee and Paloma a place where they can belong. By the time the climax of the plot comes, all three characters have stretched and grown and become better people.

There is amazing writing in this book. The title comes from some of Paloma’s thoughts, when she begins pay attention to Madame Michel. She says: “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.”

As I said earlier, I loved this book, but if you are looking for a book with a lot of plot, action, and twists and turns, this is not a book for your summer reading. I was all alone at my sister’s cottage when I read it, and it was the perfect setting. I could become completely lost in the beauty of the words and ideas. I spent a long time thinking about the face we must show to the world, and the inner face we share with no one—or perhaps one or two others. My husband always says to me when I am sitting quietly, “What are you thinking about?” Sometimes I want to share my thoughts with him; sometimes I just want to sit with them—remain lost in those thoughts.

Reviews on this book are a bit mixed. Several discussed the European flavor of the book and commented that an American writer most likely would not have written it. Muriel Barbery is a professor of philosophy and has written another book, Une Gourmandise, which is being translated into English following the success of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which has also been made into a movie. I didn’t much like the review in the New York Times, but I thought that the Washington Post review was more insightful:

I also was impressed with this blog posting on Huffington Post.

One of the interesting sidelights to this book is that it has pretty much grown in popularity by word of mouth. Isn’t it amazing, that some books or movies open to great fanfare, i.e. The DaVinci Code, or others of that type, while other books come to our consciousness sideways—by word of mouth or mention in an article or review of another book. I am grateful to my book club friend for bringing this book to us; my soul is better because of it.