Shelf Life

Burma’s future

Illustration from “Up Tunket Road’’ by Philip Ackerman-Leist. Illustration from “Up Tunket Road’’ by Philip Ackerman-Leist. (Erin Ackerman-Leist)
By Jan Gardner
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2010

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“Bamboo People’’ (Charlesbridge) is a coming-of-age novel set in Burma, a highly repressive nation with an extraordinary number of child-soldiers. Author Mitali Perkins, born in India, raised in California, and now living in Newton, is well aware of the challenge involved in drawing Americans into the lives of people so far away. She herself was drawn to the story of Burma when she visited refugee camps along the border of Thailand. Though her author’s note makes it clear that she wants people of all ages to understand what’s going on there, her novel is first and foremost a compelling story.

It opens with a young boy named Chiko indulging in what the Burmese government considers a suspicious activity: reading a book in English. Chiko’s father has been taken away by soldiers. He and his mother, struggling to survive, don’t know whether the government has imprisoned or killed him. Chiko, desperate to help his mother, decides to take a government test to become a teacher. Yet the call for teaching applicants is a ruse, and he is forced into the army, being put to a test like no other.

Meanwhile, Tu Reh is living in a refugee camp on the Thai border. He is consumed by anger at the Burmese soldiers who burned his home and the bamboo fields of the Karenni people, one of the oppressed ethnic minorities in Burma. In the friendship that develops between the two boys lies a kernel of hope for the future of Burma.

Porter Square Books in Cambridge will host Perkins at a launch party for “Bamboo People’’ at 7 p.m. Thursday. Burmese refreshments will be served.

Going off the grid
Homesteader Philip Ackerman-Leist has a sense of humor — apparent when he gets locked in the henhouse by an ox — and an open mind, two qualities not always associated with back-to-the-land types. For seven years he and his wife, Erin, lived without electricity or running water in an old cabin in Pawlet, Vt., before they built a bigger home with more amenities for their growing family.

Ackerman-Leist’s new book, “Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader’’ (Chelsea Green), is a chronicle of the couple’s adventures in sustainability and a meditation on the future of homesteading.

Director of the Farm & Food Project at Green Mountain College, Ackerman-Leist doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. He acknowledges that there may not be enough land to go around for every potential homesteader. From one of his students he learns about a young man living on a boat in Manhattan, burning driftwood and scrap lumber in his woodstove and generating electricity with a wind turbine. Is this the future? Ackerman-Leist wonders.

Meanwhile, he and his wife are consumed with a big question concerning the present: Is Internet access at home a pleasure or a plague?

Coming out
■ “The 10th Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam’’ by Eliza Griswold (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

“Crossfire’’ by Dick Francis and Felix Francis (Putnam)

“Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope’’ by Chalmers Johnson (Metropolitan)

Pick of the week
Karen T. Harris of Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven recommends “The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise’’ by Julia Stuart (Doubleday): “When the queen decides that her menagerie of exotic animals should live at the Tower of London, Balthazar Jones, a retired military man with a 120-year-old tortoise named Mrs. Cook, becomes their keeper. This is a touching family story as well as a delightfully whimsical and zany tale of man and beast.’’

Jan Gardner can be reached at