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.

Midnight’s Children (India)

India Photos for BLogmaharajah suiteCURRY RATING: Seven Chili Peppers! (Awesome)

by Salman Rushdie, circa 1981

Preface: You cycle slowly away from the grungy, dingy room you and your two friends spent the night in. Maybe it was just outside of Jaipur, in Rajahstan? Or was it closer to Jaisalmer? You can’t remember now.

You woke to the sound of a steam train and to the foggy December cold, that you do remember. You’re freezing in your cycling spandex and your Numbums team jacket with the pink and black stripes, but you cycle automatically on because you know there is chai ahead.

Somewhere along the road, maybe after the second camel, you know there is a tiny village chai shop made of mud and sticks, where a tiny little old man sits stirring a huge pot of milky sweet orange chai. There always is. You always stop. You always give him a delighted Namaste, and he do-wais in return. Then about 100 men and boys appear from nowhere, pinching and prodding the bikes and asking fascinated questions and challenging you to bike races and showing you their own, rusting low-tech steeds, and the village always has an English teacher who shows up just in time and rescues you from utter exhaustion and shoos the others away and chastizes the children and then there is the chai.

Sweet, milky, spicy, hot and oh…so orange. The white porcelain cup is cracked, but you don’t give a tinker’s damn.

If you weren’t cycling 80 miles a day, the intense sweetness would perhaps send you into a diabetic coma. But, like a hummingbird, your body is insanely gobbling fuel, and so this most Indian of beverages, masala chai, becomes the nectar of foreign gods.

The Book: It’s very entertaining. Now back to the chai. The grandmother in the novel, Reverend Mother, is always drinking “pink Kashmiri tea.” Naturally, I wondered what this could be.

At the end of a novel that felt like I’d lived about 100 lives at once and also sequentially;

Pakistani, Kashimiri, Bangladeshi, Indian
Tamil, Urdu, Hindi
Bombay, Delhi, Karachi, Rawalpindi and the Bengali jungle,

I had to Google the tea.

Kashmiri chai is made from GREEN TEA. That’s as different as the book’s blue-eyed narrator in a nation of Indian brown.

But wait, there’s more. The Internet taught me that in Kashmir, the water causes the color of the tea and that Kashmiris who move to Pakistan, particularly Rawalpindi, as Reverend Mother did in the book, often put a pinch of baking soda in the chai to make it the right color.

Also, ground pistachios or almonds are added to the tea. Historically, it has earned a place in Ayurvedic medicine as a warming beverage. I’m always cold in the winter so I hopped online and ordered $20 worth of Kashmiri Chai leaves from Amazon. I will let you know how the tea-making experiment goes!

What’s not to discuss: The book was a very palatable Indian history lesson wrapped in a magical narrative that was a bit (at times) too boyish–snotnoses and childhood grossness etc. But I really really liked it, which means I have not much to say.

I have noticed this phenomenon in my book group: Books we don’t like often engender more and more interesting conversation than those we do.

Why I picked Mr. Rushdie: I wanted to know what he was writing about that made people so mad, but I didn’t want to read a “religious” novel like I thought the Satanic Verses might be. Midnight’s Children seemed more approachable, I like history, I went to Gandhi’s tomb, and besides my friend Melana loaned it to me ages ago and I haven’t yet given it back because I spilled red wine on it. Rushdie is a VERY good writer.

The title: Midnight’s Children is the name Rushdie’s narrator, a Bombay Muslim, gives to all the kids born between midnight and 1 a.m. on the day in December, 1947 when India became an independant country and the British let go of the Raj.

Why it gave me a wierd feeling: My dad would have been 7 years old, my mom would have been 3. Mohandas Gandhi, “the Mahatma,” or Enlightened One, was killed a year later by a Hindu fanatic who thought Mr. Gandhi was too sympathetic to Indian Muslims.

Hindus don’t eat sacred cows, and Muslims don’t eat dirty pigs, hence the popularity of the fast-food chain Wimpy’s, which features “lambburgers.” Come to find out, however, that Sikhs are vegetarian. As Julia, Gary, and I were on our entire route from Delhi to Jaipur to the Taj Mahal at Agra. Six weeksish in country: never once got sick. Those handsome, turbaned, long-haired men are onto something.

PS–I have the flu or something and am practically cross-eyed so I apologize for any proofreading errors that slip by me. Don’t be irritated.

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!


The Housekeeper & The Professor (Japan)


Sushi and Ume Rating: 5 Plums!

Summary: When a high-school dropout brings her fatherless son to her new job keeping house for a brain-injured professor of maths, a quirky new family is created.

Unexplained Questions: 1) Why does the housekeeper try throughout the book to sneak carrots into the Professor’s food when she knows he doesn’t like them? 2) What did the Professor communicate to his sister-in-law with the mysterious equation that instantly wins the argument? 3) What exactly was the relationship between the Professor and the widow?

The Bullet Train: I sped back and forth between this book and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children just as in real life I took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to India’s Golden Triangle and back with Gary and Julia from Cornwall. What struck me was that the Japanese book was simple, sparse, clean, precise, elegant and tiny, narrowly-focused, much like my visible Japan–while the Indian book was large, loud, messy, chaotic, exuberant, colorful, and spicy–just like my visible India. Each was a sort of relief from the other.

Best Thing About This Book: Just looking at the pink cherry blossoms on the blue cover makes you feel the purchase was worth it.

Also, during the book Ogawa-san achieves what my high school algebra teacher could not: I enjoyed math! Now that’s some kind of miracle. Although the Housekeeper does make up stories about the emotions of the numbers as I used to do–the 5 with his arms stretched out proudly, enjoying the center of attention.

Even the baseball bits were interesting–and I am not the least bit interested in baseball.

Best Character Name: The Housekeeper’s son, who is called Root because the Professor says his square, flat head reminds him of the square root symbol.

More Odd Things: The characters eat 90% Western-style food in this book, which was definitely not my Tokyo experience, although a rice cooker does occasionally make an appearance. The characters also “scream and yell” at baseball games–also not my Tokyo; I have seen an entire room full of salreymen watching a televised baseball game in total silence, arms crossed. I once attended a U2 concert in which, except for the singing, you could have heard a pin drop.

I hope this wasn’t the translator changing things to make it not-so-foreign to Westerners. I hate it when they do that.

Overall Experience: I have added Ogawa Yoko to my list of favorite Japanese authors. Yoshimoto Banana being the first.