The Happy Parrot (United States of America)

HappyParrotWrongCoverby Robert W. Chambers

Published: 1931

Please note this is NOT the correct cover. I still  have to download the photo I took of my red edition with gold lettering.

I was immediately captivated by the charming pen-and-ink drawings of Norman Price in this very good, first edition. I was charmed by the book’s lush red cover embossed with a gold sailing ship. The pages look to be hand-cut. Though I never heard of Robert Chambers before, he apparently churned out books like MacDonald’s churns out hamburgers: Maids of Paradise, The Red Republic, Barbarians, The Crimson Tide…

THE BOOK: So The Happy Parrot is a ship, which our young hero quickly finds out is a slaver. But that doesn’t bother him unduly, since he knows that most slaves are happy as long as they are well-treated. (WTF?! Was my first thought.) But wait, it gets better. I learned a lot by reading this novel. First, I learned about the Jeffersonian period in American history. Second, I learned about racial attitudes in the 1930s in general and in the writer in particular.

A SHOCKING SURPRISE: The hero and heroine (who disguises herself as the ship’s male cook) sail to Africa from Georgia. Why? Because Florida is not part of the U.S. It’s Spanish territory, and the laws are different. Whoa. I forgot about that.

THE FIRST LINE: Here’s the first line of the novel, the one which sucked me in: “If the President of the United States had not been a poltroon, he behaved like one.

“Because the English stopped our ships and refused us permission to trade on the high seas, and because the French did likewise, Mr. Jefferson and a cowardly Congress forbade our ships to stir outside our own ports lest the English or French seize them and presently drive us into war. This was called an embargo. Commerce instantly sickened and died; a seafaring nation lay strangled by its own anchor chains.

(Excuse me, a seafaring nation? We’re huge! We can grow/make everything we need right here. Can’t we?)

“‘If you trade with France or her allies without our permission, we seize you!’ growled old England.”

“‘If you trade with England or her allies we seize you,” warned France.

“‘Very well,” replied Mr. Jefferson, “Just for that we won’t trade with either of you and that is going to mortify and annoy you.”

“England, intent on murdering our commerce, grinned her lion’s grin. France, bent on England’s ruin, snarled at us, watching our ships rot at their docks….'”

BOOK RATING: Three casks of rum from Barbados. One has a dead pirate pickled in it.

In some ways I enjoyed the book very much; in others I was quite disturbed by it. The hero has no problems with the N-word…He justifies his trading in Black Ivory because he can’t make a living in the usual seafaring way and says that “the value of niggers is falling in a glutted market and the Southerners desire to maintain prices. …Niggers, like rabbits, could become pests.” And he repeatedly refers to the captured Africans speaking among themselves as “qua-qua gabble” because it sounds like nonsense to him.

Ugh. Extremely distasteful.

Nonetheless, the story was entertaining, the heroine feisty and defiant although I didn’t believe the love story because the characters were rather cardboard. The adventure bits were exciting and I learned something about different types of ships and warfare at sea, not to mention the opposition to Thomas Jefferson’s policies. I guess I assumed everybody back in the days of Washington and Jefferson loved them as we revere them today. Not so. I just wish the author could have spent some time as a slave so he could have given his narrator a better understanding of the saddest and most egregious human rights violation that can exist in our world. Double ugh.

I have to agree with Frederic Taber Cooper, who comments on Wikipedia that:  “So much of Mr Chambers’s work exasperates, because we feel that he might so easily have made it better.” Nonetheless, I saw absolutely no criticism regarding racism in his biography…I guess it was expected of writers of that time period. He started writing in 1894, not so long after the American Civil War–which may be part of the problem–he was born in 1865–and he actually died 2 years after writing The Happy Parrot. Chambers managed to publish about 10 books after he died, thanks to his wife Elsie. One wonders if she was actually doing part of the writing all along.

The book In Secret was a best-seller in 1919. I found a modern review of it which says that “to Chambers, at this time, the Germans are truly subhuman entities, bestial creatures who deserve to be snuffed out en masse, preferably by gassing them, soldiers and civilians both, in their underground installations. This is all a
bit distasteful…” Check!

Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Malawi)

Malawi

by William Kamkwamba

What if you had to go to bed when the sun went down because you didn’t have electricity? What if you had to spend two hours a day walking to a deep well to get drinking water for your family? What if you had to pay to go to school, even elementary school?

Famine and hardship didn’t stop young William from thinking that he could improve his family’s situation…and with the help of a two-shelf library in his village, he did. First, William built a windmill that generated electricity so his family could visit, play games, and study in the evenings. Next, he built a deep bore well so they could have clean drinking water, a well he generously shared with the whole village.

Map of MalawiWhat Happened After That?

An American NGO heard about William and he was invited to speak at TED. Before long, he could afford to buy mosquito netting for his family and friends. (You can imagine how having malaria and intestinal parasites cuts down on a person’s ambition and ability to create in their own life.)

Of course this book is exciting and inspirational. It’s also sad. I was infuriated to read how the village chief was brutally beaten for trying to force the President of Malawi to do something about the awful famine which he continually denied was even happening.

The friendship between William and a few of the village boys was touching. He was so grateful to Gilbert, the son of the chief, for buying him parts for his windmill when he couldn’t have afforded it. I think Africans in general have something we Americans have lost–a sense of community and the knowledge that if one of us starves, all of us are starving.

Rating: Five bushels of corn meal = Excellent

February 2013 Progress Report

Our progress so far:

Paraguay
France
The Marshall Islands (Lileolap)
Malawi
Afghanistan

If we continue at this rate, we will complete our 365-day armchair journey around the world in approximately 4.5 years. I think I need a Tardis.

Considerations: My friend went into the ER and learned she has MS, my husband changed from the graveyard shift to the swing, and our dog has to have knee surgery.

Things To Give Up:

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

The Clothing Exchange
Gin
Going to Trader Joe’s
Swimming at the Y
Working for a living

We will take a moment at the end of March to regroup and recap again.

Elegance of the Hedgehog (France)

EleganceHedgehogby Muriel Barbery

Rating: One cup of warmed sake, served in the traditional wooden box. And maybe some foie gras.

Yes, there are two Japanophiles in this book set in Paris. There are no hedgehogs.

I liked this book more than most I’ve read so far on my armchair journey. It was kind of a French Alexander McCall Smith, if you married the palatable-philosophy-in-a-novel-experience of his Sunday Philosophy Club series with the goodhearted people-improving-their-lives-by-helping-others of his Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series. Oh, la la! Break out the champagne.

One day long ago I spent 72 hours in Paris…on my way to Le Havre to catch a ferry for Cork, Ireland. Somehow I managed to cram in the Champs d’Elysee along with Sacre Coeur, the Tower Eiffel, the Louvre, a Monet Museum, and a croissant and a quiche at the Gare du Nord. So it was a pleasure to finally be able to take a deep breath, slow down, and give Muriel Barbery’s Paris the attention it deserves.

What It’s All About
There are two narrators: A suicidal 12-year-old rich girl who correctly perceives the emptiness of the parasitical lives of her family and their friends and social circle; and the concierge of her building–a woman who grew up dirt poor and is afraid to reveal how sophisticated and intelligent she has become by educating herself.

When a wealthy and kind Japanese widower moves into the apartment complex, everyone’s lives change.

The sucker punch at the end did not distress me unduly because I had flipped ahead and saw it coming. Still, the book offers redemption for one of its main characters. I could see redemption for the other also–it just wasn’t spelled out.

How You Think When You’re 12
I think the best thing about this book was the tension between the righteous contempt of the 12-year-old diarist and her naivete.

(For example, she despises her older sister’s birthday dinner at a fancy French restaurant where the food is sparse, expensive and pretentious. Yes, totally. But then she says Japanese food seems more honest. Well, I remember paying an exorbitant amount in Tokyo for a large plate on which, I kid you not, there was a mound of shaved ice decorated with hydrangea blossoms and three tiny pieces of sashimi. I was used to the stupid-large portions served in America, and found myself surprised and a little irritated every time I had to hit Mossburger after I had just had “dinner” with friends at a nice place.)

The other best thing about this book was the mystery of why Renee, the concierge, takes such pains to appear completly sterotypical and hide who she really is. And her transformation as she begins to come out of her shell and connect with others.

Somehow, despite the characters’ fascination with Japan, it’s essentially and quintessentially French. Or maybe that fantasy is French too–remember all the Oriental vases at Versailles?

1,000 Splendid Suns (Afghanistan)

ThousandSplendidSunsby Khaled Hosseini, of Kite Runner fame

Rating: 50 embroidered silk handkerchiefs

This book was so fantastic and so horrifying at the same time. It is a novel about the two wives of an abusive, arrogant, Pashto man in Kabul and how the older wife…SPOILER ALERT…please scroll down to the ***

It is a story of love and sacrifice and warring ideologies. And of course, human rights violations.

My local Book Group asked the following questions:

Tom, an indie bookstore worker: “Is the potential for violence against and dominance over women inherent in men in every culture? How do we as men overcome this? What parts of Rashid’s character do we identify with?”

Chuck, a retired community college professor: “The situation in Afghanistan with the Taliban could easily recur. The US is pulling out of Afghanistan and the Taliban is likely to come back. What do we do to help the women?”

He referenced instances in the novel where the women were beaten by police for trying to escape their abuser and one scene where, because the Taliban gave all the foreign aid to MEN’s hospitals only, the younger wife in the book has to give birth by C-section…with no anesthetic. (I about passed out reading it.)

Melana, who grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia, as it was then: “Some of you are saying the answer is education and exposure to other cultures–I don’t think American TV programs represent the best of our ideas. How would we provide this “education”? And how would we get our government to do anything if US interests aren’t at stake–let’s be honest, we only get involved in the affairs of other nations if there is something in it for us.”

Jaime, who runs a women’s shelter: “I see situations like the one in the book all the time. How do we bring awareness to domestic violence here at home?”

Judy, a donor to and sponsor of the same shelter: “Did you notice the theme of love in the book? Mariam’s love for her father, and her love for Laila and for Aziza was so moving. Also, I was interested in the linguistics of the book–I didn’t read it–I listened to it on tape. The Arab speaker who read the book–a woman–pronounced everything much differently than it was phoneticized on paper.”

Me: “I’m very interested in linguistics. Remember back in the 80’s, when I grew up, and the media couldn’t decide whether it was Colonel Kaddafi, Gadhafi, or Quaddafi? That made me crazy.”

What Can WE do?

Well, I just happened to be at Tom’s bookstore: I saw the book Veiled Courage, a book about the Revolutionary Women’s Association of Afghanistan–women who resisted the Taliban. RAWA has a multi-language website. We can help them…behind the burka, they’ve been fighting for human rights for women since 1977.

Here is the link to RAWA’s suggestions on how we can help our Afghan sisters.

***HERE COMES THE SPOILER…

***how the older wife finally sacrifices herself so the other wife and her children can get away. Marian is then beheaded by the Taliban. I am getting tearful just remembering this part. I sobbed during parts of this novel. The writing is so powerful. It’s been a long time since a book made my cry my eyes out.