Lolelaplap Legends and Stories (Marshall Islands)

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  • the Marshall Islands…which the US and Japan wanted/want? to turn into a nuclear waste dump.
  • the Marshall Islands…where the US has done nuclear “testing” since 1952, poisoning not just the islands but the surrounding ocean and wildlife.
  • the Marshall Islands…where “Discussions took place on creating landfill sites to take US household refuse.” (World Reference Atlas, 1994) And proposed ideas to bring money into the country include “Burning rubber tires for electricity” or “Building a causeway from toxic refuse.”

Why? Why does the US keep shitting on one of the most beautiful places in the world? Do you think my country could maybe, I don’t know, consume LESS you big fat jerks? Dispose of your own waste, for God’s sake. Would this be tolerated in Idaho or North Dakota? No!

This weekend’s book is called Marshall Islands Legends & Stories, collected by Daniel Kelin II of Hawai’i.

What’s an atoll? An atoll is a ring of islands, some big, some tiny, created by volcanic eruptions, which then get coral on top and vegetation. Inside the atoll you have a lagoon of protected water in which animals like crabs flourish. Lolelaplap (aka the Marshall Islands) is made up of:

29 atolls
5 islands
1,200 islets
spread over 750,000 square miles of ocean between Hawai’i and Australia

Favorite new phrase: Etto im etto…long and long time past, the traditional beginning of a story.

Best thing about the book: The amount of Marshallese sprinkled throughout the text, with pronunciations and definitions off to the side, which really give you the feeling of being on the Sunrise or Sunset atolls, sitting in a small home by lantern-light, listening to the ocean in the background, and to the storytellers. Sharing meals of snails, fish, breadfruit, bananas, chickens, pigs, and coconuts with the locals.

Also, I liked reading the storytellers’ bios; many survived the Japanese occupation from World War I to WWII (“we were treated like slaves”).

Oral tradition can get short shrift from writers. I thought it was neat that Lolelaplap recognizes the power of stories, to the extent of the iroij (chiefs) owning the tales. A storyteller must get permission to share legends. (Related Tangent–If you go to Australia, please please do not climb on Ayer’s Rock–Uluru to the Pitjantjaya people. The rock is a sacred religious relic to them, and walking on it is like spitting in a church. Not that this detours many of the park’s Western and Asian tour groups.) Uluru traditionally had separate areas for the telling of men’s tales and the telling of women’s tales as rites of passage for boys and girls. These tales, like the stories of Lolelaplap, were secret.)

Teaching tales: The islanders use stories as a way of remembering and passing down the teaching tales:

*Why you should share food
*The consequences of laziness
*How to treat your women and children
*What to do if you are faced with a demon
*The importance of respect

The stories are tied to landmarks: Demons turn into coral reefs; grandmother turtles become rocks; fire or the banana tree is started on an island by a character in the tale. (In college, I was told by a Native American professor that when Native Americans were forcibly separated from their ancestral land, they could no longer point to the old familiar landmarks and use them as teaching tools. The story I remember in particular involved a rock which looked like a face with a broken nose. It was tied to the story of the Native policeman who tried to become white.)

I tried to look beneath Lolelaplap’s folklore for the probably history behind it, which experts think began with Micronesian migration 2,000 years before Christ. For example, why would a teaching tale impress upon wives the need to wait to clean fish until the husband was done fishing for the day? Maybe if you threw fish guts and blood in the water while your husband was swimming about fishing, you’d attract sharks. So I could have done with a little more context and analysis from the author.

Over and over again, the tales had to do with finding food, sharing food. getting food from demons, and avoiding becoming food for demons, etc. Life used to be pretty hard here in terms of getting enough to eat, and probably still is. Many islands handed down the lesson that if you don’t share what you have, even if it is only a little, you will always be hungry. A welcome change from the greedy US mentality of “every man for himself” and “he who dies with the most toys wins.”

While not as entertaining as it would be to hear the dri-bwebwenato (storytellers) in person, this book is as close as I’m likely to get. Five clams.


The News From (Paraguay)

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Rating: 3 Jacaranda Blossoms

Disclaimer: Author Lily Tuck is not from Paraguay. Unfortunately, I don’t speak much Spanish.

Tea again: Here, it’s the bitter (and I think nasty) Yerba Mate. With or without a gourd, I won’t be drinking any.

The News: In Paris in 1850, kept Irishwoman Ella Lynch loses her Russian lover when he decides to go fight in the Crimea. Along comes Franco Solano Lopez, son of the dictator of Paraguay. Ella sails for Paraguay to bear Franco numerous sons who are as selfish and cruel as he is. She turns a blind eye to everything evil Franco does: Affairs, torturing innocent people–even his two sisters and their husbands–killing on a whim, whipping horses, starting a war for vanity and arrogance that kills most of the population. When he’s finally deposed, she returns to France.

Differences between Paraguay and Uraguay: Para is landlocked (but with rivers), Ura is on the ocean. Paraguayans are a mix of Spanish and indigenous Guaranis; Uraguayans are mostly of Spanish descent. As you can imagine, Uraguay has a higher literacy rate, a lower birthrate, and a better standard of living. My world encyclopedia states there is hardly any ethic conflict in Paraguay because of the homogenous population–as a separate thought it states that most indigenous people have been robbed of their ancestral land and pushed into the barely inhabitable Gran Chaco. Hm. Cause and effect? Hello.

Biggest defects in the book: 1) Although Tuck helpfully included a map in the front of the book, I somehow missed it and was then very puzzled when the Brazilians, Argentines, Paraguayans and the “Banda Oriental” went to war. (What, I wondered, would Orientals be doing in Paraguay? What is this country? Have people from Asia settled here en masse?) Wiki said the word is Spanish for Eastern. So Uraguay, in the east of South America, is the “Banda Oriental”.

2) Tuck doesn’t translate the Spanish or the French in the story–in one case, a big chunk of French. While I can puzzle out the Spanish thanks to 2 years of it in high school, I had no idea what Ella was saying here.

3) The descriptions of the torture and the sex were too graphic for me. I felt dirty when I finished the book. I know the torture really happened; I know how awful the dictators in these “Banana Republics” are–from The War of Don Immanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis B., (Captain Corelli’s Violin)--but I could have done with more hints and less description. Loved the Suki Stackhouse books; hated the TV series–same reason.

4) I’m not sure that what she’s done with the pacing works. It’s super fast, yes; and she suggests rather than tells; but sometimes I wanted more story and less tiny sound bites. Too many questions.

Points to ponder: Q: Why did Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay hate Brazil so much? A: Portugal and Spain were bitter rivals, the countries they colonized were also. Q: Why were there black slaves fighting for Brazil? A: No idea. It’s interesting that there is an American Confederate soldier later in the book who flees to Paraguay after the American Civil War. Also, I would like to know more about the indigenous tribe of cannibals mentioned in the book.

Angostura comes up as a place name: Is this where Angostura bitters (used in cocktails) come from?

Summary: I liked the book; it taught me a lot about Paraguay. I didn’t love it, but I think I would still recommend reading it. And I would like to see the country’s plethora of fabulous parrots…some say it’s how the place got its name. River of bright feathers.


Love Songs From a Shallow Grave (Laos)

by Colin Cotterill

Daeng’s Noodle Rating: 1002 wide rice noodles with nam pa fish sauce!

And what better day to blog about love songs than Valentine’s Day? Add to the fact that this is a murder mystery and you neatly wrap up all the latent hostility many people feel towards the big Hallmark occasion. Ha ha.

Once Upon a Time: I worked for Auntie’s Bookstore. Publishers of first-time authors would send us Advanced Reader Copies of books before they hit store shelves, hoping we’d love them and start a literary flash mob. And that’s how I met Colin Cotterill. The ARC was called The Coroner’s Lunch: I thought, “The cover’s purple…I’ll read this one.”

Now I’m on the 9th book in the series featuring the sardonic Dr. Siri Paiboun and friends: His employee Mr. Geung, who copes admirably with his Down’s Syndrome, and Dr. Siri’s resident Hmong shaman are two of my favorites.

The strangest thing happened to me between (Laos) and (Afghanistan): Reading these particular books back-to-back was an accident, but a meaningful one. Each book informed the other.

In Love Songs, Dr. Siri finds out first-hand about the chilling human rights atrocities of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. Then 1000 Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseni showed communism, during the same time period, giving the women of Afghanistan rights they’ve never had before or since.

 Once upon a time, I emailed Colin Cotterill in Thailand to say I loved his book. By sheer coincidence, he was on his way to the US for a book tour! “How close to Portland is Spokane?” he asked incautiously and I crossed my fingers and said, “Oh, very!”

Not just another Anglo-Saxon: Colin showed us his Laos slides–Piles of unexploded ordinance as high as your head (from the Vietnam War), beautiful children who had never read, nor owned, a single book. And a large number of beautiful children with a small number of limbs.

At that time over 75% of hilltribe kids in northern Laos didn’t have access to schools. Colin’s Books For Laos project and its spin-off have brought books into the country and enabled 28 hill tribe students to become teachers in remote areas. ESPECIALLY after reading the (Afghanistan) book, I believe education is a basic human right. More on that in 1,000 Splendid Suns next.

PS–Censor This:
To this day, Laos is a communist country with heavy-handed (but painfully low-tech) censorship. Imagine 2 old Comrades sitting in a room piled high with all the foreign language books waiting for approval to enter the country. Like names on the waiting list for Trabant cars in the former East Germany, the books keep coming, but there’s a bottleneck. What is it?

It’s the fact that these men speak only Lao, and maybe a long-ago bit of French: They are using a phrasebook to translate every single word of every book before approving the book to enter the country. Unless it’s rejected on ideological grounds, of course. Not much gets in. And, I’m guessing, not much gets out.


January 2013 Progress Report

Our progress so far:


If we continue at this rate, we will complete our 365-day armchair journey around the world in approximately 4.5 years. Much as fantasy authors begin a trilogy that becomes 5 or even 7 books.

Considerations: I didn’t actually start on January 1; and the Norway book was 800 pages!

Things To Give Up:

In order to finish on time this year I could possibly give up:

The Big Bang Theory
The Bachelor

We will take a moment at the end of February to regroup and recap again. Housework–fair warning: You’re on the endangered species list!