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The Powell's Playlist | June 18, 2014

Daniel H. Wilson: IMG The Powell’s Playlist: Daniel H. Wilson



Like many writers, I'm constantly haunting coffee shops with a laptop out and my headphones on. I listen to a lot of music while I write, and songs... Continue »
  1. $18.87 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    Robogenesis

    Daniel H. Wilson 9780385537094

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Michael O'Brien has commented on (5) products.

The Old Man in the Bag by Ted Wells
The Old Man in the Bag

Michael O'Brien, April 15, 2013

After my wife Vana and I returned from teaching in an elementary school in Grawa, a rural town high in the mountains of Gara Muleta in Ethiopia we had a hard time re-adapting into our American lives. Our society seemed overwhelming, too fast-paced, too much stuff, wasteful, and obsessed with war and money. We soon realized that we had been changed by Ethiopia much more than we were aware while we were there. Every single day of life in our little town had been intensely direct, purposeful, and full of strange new and unexpected encounters. One might say, packed with life. And, as it turned out, it was a life beyond our power to describe back here at home. We weren’t able to condense our experiences and emotions to provide a tidy version that would be comprehensible to our stay-at-home family and friends. We tended to speak in headlines, like “I learned more than they did” or “Every day was a roller coaster.” We could only hint at the incredible highs and heart-staggering lows of our two-year immersion. I think only our grown children, one of whom has visited Ethiopia, have heard and seen enough to begin to understand our experience.

So when I read Ted Wells’ new memoir of his and his wife Helen’s 1967-69 life and work in Shileh in the far southern Rift Valley of Ethiopia, I was struck by how artlessly and precisely he has captured its everyday wonder and weirdness. He combines conversations in halting Amharic and English with descriptions of places, people and events, and with photos, and facsimiles of letters home, to build up an engaging read--alternately funny, charming, horrifying and painfully truthful. As a reader I felt like I was right there with him and Helen, looking over their shoulder, encountering each amazing day just as they did. And time and again, I found myself nodding my head in recognition. Ted’s book accomplishes what I thought impossible, to take a reader along on a story of life in Ethiopia so unlikely that it reads like melodramatic fiction, except, of course, it’s all true.

Arriving in Addis Ababa after training in the Virgin Islands, already an odd but engaging adventure in itself, Ted and Helen were steered into their new assignment by this pitch from Peace Corps staffer David Levine:

“Anyway, there’s a place called Shileh next to a couple of rivers near Lake Chamo where they could really use your help. The Ethiopian government wants to build a new town and start farming in the valley using irrigation from the rivers, only it’s down in the Rift Valley where the malaria is really bad…Have you been taking your malaria pills?” asked Dave suddenly.”

This quote, so appealing yet foreshadowing, brought back my own memory of a similar conversation in 1967 with Marc Scott, also a Peace Corps staffer in Addis Ababa, about a small town in the mountains of Gara Muleta that really needed a married couple to help turn around an elementary school. Of course Vana and I, despite our reservations as to our qualifications and some hints of problems to come, accepted eagerly, as did Ted and Helen. From this point on in the book I was hooked, cheering them on, compelled by their fascinating story, with nearly every page a reminder of our own experiences.

As you can guess, their formal assignment didn’t begin to cover the realities of life in a “new town” that only existed in the mind’s eye of government planners. To start with, Shileh was only accessible during the dry season via a track that crossed two rivers, was partly submerged by a lake, and otherwise was impassibly muddy during the rainy season. They were warned about hazards, like Gugi tribesmen who still liked to present their bride-to-be with the penis and testicles of slain enemies, and crocodiles known to snatch unwary humans--which had actually happened to a Peace Corps volunteer in Gambela. Arriving, they realized no one living in Shileh knew they were coming, or why. Ted introduced himself and Helen to curious townspeople in this brave speech:

“We are volunteers from overseas. Your Government wants us to live here and help you make your new town. We can help you survey your new house sites and your new fields. We can help you treat your malaria and your sick animals. We want to help you help yourselves.”

Which drew this reaction:

“Although my speech was all in crude Amharic, it was clear neither the old man nor anyone else around us had understood a single word, or if they had, they gave us absolutely no hint of it. The old man just stood there silently staring at us, with an increasingly perplexed look on his face. All the villagers stood there silently staring too.”

Change the wording slightly, and I made a similar first-day speech in Grawa to townspeople who, while politely welcoming, were incredulous and disbelieving that rich foreigners with university degrees were actually going to live there and teach at the school. In crude Amharic and simple English, I tried to explain about opposing the Vietnam war and choosing Peace Corps service. Heads nodding, my lame speech was understood as “He has been banished by his government,” something all too familiar to Ethiopians.

So began Ted and Helen’s adventure. Suffice to say, they quickly began to adapt, learn what needed to be done and got to work. Ted’s writing captures their life vividly--when the latrine ‘shinta bet’ catches fire while Ted is in it, it’s funny; when a new baby can’t make it after its weak and undernourished mother dies, it’s grievously sad. Ethical dilemmas are an everyday matter, like having to help poison a baboon family to prevent them destroying the farmers’ hard-won corn crop. To deal with it all, Ted and Helen have to rethink their initial assumptions and expectations, about Ethiopia, their work, and even about their own relationship and marriage.

Perhaps all married volunteers went through a crisis such as Ted and Helen experienced. The repeated challenges of daily life finally force you to ask frank questions and reveal previously hidden thoughts to each other. Although naked honesty can be hard to take, some things come out that might never have been revealed in “normal” life back home, so being truly open and vulnerable with each other ultimately strengthens love and respect.

I especially appreciated Ted’s use of conversations, how he remembered or recorded these I don’t know, but they sound authentic, for creating a sense for the reader of actually being there with him. We all struggled with getting across any complex idea in a second language, and the conversations here are touching reminders of how we hoped our good intentions could overcome our limited speech.

There is no philosophizing, rather just candidly honest observations from which the reader may draw their own conclusions. Ted skillfully weaves memory into a story so real and compelling that I read the book in a single night. I think you will too.
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Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge: "Only a Poor Old Man" (Complete Carl Barks Disney Library) by Carl Barks
Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge:

Michael O'Brien, March 24, 2013

Many of us grew up with the wonderful comic book stories of Donald Duck, his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie and their Uncle Scrooge as told by "the good artist", the late, great Carl Barks. This collection honors those memories with beautiful reproductions of some of the best Uncle Scrooge stories, some covers from the original comics, and a biography of Carl Barks, who lived in Oregon as a boy. If you are a fan of these comics, you'll enjoy the care and love that has gone into this book. If you know a kid who is just starting to learn about comics, here is a fine gift. There is a companion book of Donald Duck stories titled "A Christmas in Shacktown".
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The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda by Ali H Soufan
The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against Al-Qaeda

Michael O'Brien, January 25, 2012

Ali Soufan was an agent for the FBI, whose fluency in Arabic and familiarity with Islamic teachings became useful when the agency began piecing together information about al-Quaeda in the 1990s. This book provides an insider's view of the investigations into bin Laden's network and terrorist attacks like the Nairobi and Khartoum embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole. It's a real-life glimpse into a secretive hidden world. Ali's efforts to track the 9/11 bombers are frustrated by bureaucratic snafus, leaving me wondering if that tragic attack could have been prevented.
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Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon
Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization

Michael O'Brien, May 24, 2010

'Water' retells human history, not as the stories of prince and popes, rather how cultures from ancient times to the present learned to manage water for agriculture, transportation and power--or did not. For example, one chapter traces the rise and fall of Egyptian dynasties as the inevitable result of fluctuations in rainfall in Ethiopia and agricultural output along the Nile. No pharaoh could overcome lower yields and the disruptions they caused. The book is full of new ideas and insights about water and societies. One chapter surveys China's development of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers and the tensions between Taoist and Confucian approaches to managing water--one enabling, the other dominating. Mastering the sea leapfrogged small European countries like Portugal into global colonial powers. Though written as history Water reads like a novel of twists and turns of fate and human brilliance or failure. Suddenly the frequently heard observation, "water is the new oil" makes sense.
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(3 of 4 readers found this comment helpful)



The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Rob Hopkins
The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience

Michael O'Brien, September 26, 2008

After struggling with the challenge of how to put global warming and peak oil and gas into a positive framework, I was really excited to read Rob Hopkin's approach and the responses from the communities he has worked with. If you are seeking ideas on how your community can deal with fear and uncertainty, and turn those legitimate concerns into a course of acceptance, vision, and action, this book will be a useful guide.
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(9 of 13 readers found this comment helpful)



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