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Author:Bill Birnbaum

Publisher:Douglas Mountain Publishing

Part autobiography, part travelogue, part self-help advisory, and part passionate plea/paean for nature and conservation, this fascinating book manages, almost inadvertently, to become substantially more than the sum of its familiar parts.

After a truly poignant dedication to a lost sibling and an overly expository introduction, the story focuses initially on the author's early years as the son of a Brooklyn grocery store owner specializing in Spanish merchandise—a national affiliation nicely bookended by the final Peruvian-orientated passages of the book. At these beginning phases of the author's life, the "small adventures" are more small than adventurous and seriously lacking in both intensity and conflict—essential ingredients in engaging story telling—rarely rising above Dennis the Menace dimensions. Some of the stories fall into the deadly "you had to be there" category.

However, as the author ages the book correspondingly and significantly matures. Central to this progression is Birnbaum's obvious and beautifully expressed obsession with nature and his ability to find joy within its realm. The following excerpts are among several that describe it:

I really don’t recall how long we spent visiting by the stream that afternoon. And I don’t remember how much not very cold beer we drank. All I can tell you is that it was one of the most peaceful afternoons I’ve ever spent—ever. Just sitting there visiting, and laying back on the grass under the trees. Not concerned about accomplishing anything. Or getting anywhere. Just being.

And later:

I don’t remember how long we sat around the campfire that evening, staring into the flames. Feeling the cool air swirling around our heads and shoulders. Occasionally looking up at the clear, dark sky filled with a million stars. All I can tell you is that I wanted that evening never to end.

Do not look for comprehensive autobiographical detail in this work, although the final passages do give us a glimpse into the author's second try at marital involvement.

Among the book's literary "misadventures" are an affection for "interesting," arguably the lexicon's least interesting word, an occasional punctuation lapse, and a rather humorous confusion between "heels" and "heals." It should also be noted that perhaps Peru, but certainly not Mexico, is on a different continent than the United States. The overall organization of the book's chapters could use some attention, rhetorical commands to the reader to keep secrets a bit coy, and referring to women as "gals" a bit retro.

On the other hand, the use of "neat" is precisely evocative of the period being described and the writing style, though simple, is capable of admirable alliteration as in: "Walking on the mountain, surrounded by both its silence and its sounds." Neat.

The author's generosity of spirit allows him to deal non-revolutionarily with governmental stupidity that prevents his entry into the Peace Corps—a loss more for the country than for him who, under the guidance of his guardian angel, relocates in retirement to Peru rather than Mexico.

About the strongest word the author can come up with for those less talented and intelligent than he is "snooty," and if any further evidence of the author's inherent goodness is required, consider that he trains his rifle on cans rather than critters. His juxtaposition of the twin tragedies of the death of a young human warrior and an aged and beloved pet cat was also supremely touching in its equation of heroism and innocence.

In a market saturated by books featuring spiritual exhortations to self-enlightenment and secular advice for achieving materialistic improvement, it is more than refreshing to relish an account of one man's more meaningful conquest of nature through embracing and adoring it. This book serves the causes of the others through art rather than pedagogy.

Late in the story, the author notes, "Wendy and I soon concluded that each person’s reaction to our joining the Peace Corps revealed more about them than about us." Writing a highly selective memoir may well produce correspondingly revelatory reactions from those given short, if any, shrift within its pages. It's a price worth paying in the cause of creating a truly wonderful book, as author Birnbaum's surely is.

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