Solomon Time (Solomon Islands)

book coverby Will Randall

When you buy Solomon Time, (at least the version ISBN 9781416575276 for $35.95) you may get 2 books for the price of one. Unfortunately, it is the same book, bound together twice into one volume. It’s the first time that has happened to me–and so the book ends in what you confidently think  will be the middle! If I had known that when ordering, I would have insisted on paying no more than $17.95.

The Expat

Will Randall is an ex-patriate Englishman along the lines of the great comedic travel writer Gerald Durrell. He’s a bit hapless and clueless, and is the first person to poke fun at himself while genuinely respecting the Native populations he lives among.

ocean view of Solomon IslandsRandall has taken on a quixotic quest–leaving his longtime teaching job in the UK to complete the last wishes of an old expat in the Solomons–an Englishman simply called “The Commander”. The Commander was the owner and boss of a small cocoa and copra packaging venture. When ill health forced his return to England, he wrote the Solomon Islanders into his will. To wit: any English person willing to take on the challenge of moving to the islands and starting a business enterprise there–to improve living conditions for the people–will inherit his money.

Map of the Solomon IslandsRandall is just crazy enough to do it. His attempts to start a poultry farm are hilarious. Along the way he learns that the islanders do everything in their own sweet time, with none of the “fretful impatience” of those born in the West. Solomon Time means whenever a person feels like getting around to it. Similar to the “manyana, manyana” offered up by Cornish people to Londoners.

Although peaceful now, these islands are where JFK and the crew of the PT-109  were shipwrecked during World War II. The Americans and the Japanese fought some bloody battles here, and, fittingly, Japan now supplies a hefty amount of aid to the islands.

Who Is, and Is Not Your Wantok

JFK and crew of the PT 109

Young crew of the PT-109: JFK stands at right

Randall meets a cast of quirkly characters including Small Tome and Small Small Tome and quickly learns about the bonds between “wantoks“–a wantok is another person who speaks your language. Being someone’s wantok carries social obligations up to and including the loaning of money and the providing of shelter. Since over 100 languages and dialects are spoken in the Solomons, being someone’s wantok is a very big deal.

Children of the Solomon IslandsUnfortunately for Randall, Mr. Wu, a rumored provider of day-old chicken eggs, is NOT his wantok:

When Mr. Wu spoke it was at great speed and with an almost impenetrable accent. For the great part I had no idea what he was saying.

“No chicken.”

This, by contrast, was easy enough to understand although I tried not to believe my ears. I had not risked life and limb to get here only to be told “No chicken.” I felt like throttling Mr. Wu or bursting into tears of laughter or all three simultaneously.

boy on bike with chickenPerhaps sensing some threat to his personal security he added, “No chicken this wee. Ness wee. Egg hatch ness wee. This wee using ing yoo batter. So ready ness wee.”

“Batter?” Ing yoo batter? What the heck was he talking about?

“Incubator”, whispered Nick.

“Oh yes, incubator, of course. Absolutely. Ing yoo batter, yes yes, good.” I hardly knew what one was.

Cominishowyoo…”

Rating: Five complete chickens!!!!! This book is delightful from start to finish, and again from start to finish.

The Way Around (Venezuela)

by David Good

advancedThe Way Around book cover Reader’s Copy courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

And I thought Sherman Alexie’s origin stories were harrowing. (If you didn’t know, Sherman is a member of the Spokane tribe, and grew up on a reservation at Wellpinit, near the city of Spokane.) At a recent reading at the Bing Crosby Theater, Sherman shared the pain of losing his mother, who passed away this July.

He talked about how confusing it was as an American Indian boy, growing up with an absent alcoholic father who left him in no doubt that he loved him, and a dependable mother who tried to feed and clothe the children but expressed no affection.

As a Native American woman, she was the target of genocide. Sherman said that he never felt adored, but then who had adored her?

Half Yanomami, Half New Jersey

Yanomami womanGrowing up, David Good felt similar pain. Only in his case, he was raised by his American anthropologist father. His Yanomami mother abandoned the family when he was 6 years old, returning to the rainforests of Venezulea to live. Growing up, David tried his hardest to fit into his New Jersey home, pretending to be just like everybody around him. It worked until Junior High School, when he was outed by his father while having dinner with the baseball coach, a man David admired.

David’s father, a man socially awkward to begin with, casually joked with the coach that David was unlike all the other boys. Because his mother was off living naked in the jungle, eating tarantulas. (It’s hard enough to be 14. But to be 14 and so different from your peers must have been agony.)

ShabonoAs an adult, David returns to the rainforest to reconnect with his mother, whose language he no longer speaks. He is terrified of bugs. But he goes anyway.

The Yanomami tribes are special because they’ve had very little contact with Western Culture, right up until the 1970s. And assimilation is happening, and happening rapidly, but at the same time, we can learn a lot from them about what tribal life might have been like without colonization.

Yanomami territoryThis book raised a lot of issues. I remembered Sherman saying at the Bing that his favorite kind of white people are those who accept Indians, but don’t want to be one. Who don’t romanticize them. David Good mentions a certain kind of “Noble Savage” mentality in regards to the Yanomami also. Yes, their way of living is a lot healthier than that of the West, in many regards. They don’t hide their emotions. They are close to nature. But there are also bad people among the tribes.

Not Better, Not Worse, Just Different

David Good and his mother

David Good and his mother Yarima

For example, David’s mother is brainwashed and kidnapped at one point by a greedy tribesman called Armando. He isn’t Yanomami but is from another tribe in Venezuela. He holds her hostage in a room in the city, beating and raping her. He forces her to go on national television and say that David’s father is taking advantage of her, that she didn’t marry him of her own free will, etc. It causes enough concern in the government that David’s father is never able to return to Venezuela.

Another issue that comes up is that of interfering with the customs in a culture different from your own. Now, in my travels, I’ve had to deal with this. At NOVA ICI in Japan, my teaching school, we were told never to discuss certain “sensitive” issues with the students. They were: 1) World War II, 2) Whaling and 3) The indigenous Ainu people, whose land the Japanese had taken many centuries earlier, forcing the Natives into a small area of the northernmost island of Hokkaido.

One day a spirited young woman named Mariko Abe, who worked for the World Wildlife Federation, got into an argument with an older man, who insisted that whaling was the traditional right of the Japanese and they should be allowed to do it no matter what. Screw it. I took Mariko’s side.

David Good faces similar issues, only much more serious. He sees two little boys get into an argument, whereupon their elders immediately go get wooden blocks and make the kids hit each other in the head with them, repeatedly. This apparently is the tradition. David sees these two poor little fellows bleeding and crying and decides to intervene. The other Yanomami are confused and don’t understand why he stopped the fight. But as a reader I feel he did the right thing. UNLIKE his father decades earlier. (There was a very upsetting scene in which he did nothing and I am telling you right now, that was definitely the WRONG decision.)

A Dangerous Path

David writes honestly, and telling the hurtful parts of his history must have been painful indeed. I have never read a book like this. If you want to know about a little-known Amazon people, the Yanomami are delightful to get to know. Their rainforest home is fascinating to learn about, and of course dangerous.

At one point, David is helping to chop down some trees when a rope comes loose and a branch slashes his eye. He can’t see out of the eye and he can’t even see enough to use his satellite phone. No Western doctor can come to his aid–he’s miles out into the jungle where there are no roads. He is utterly dependent on his Yanomami family to take care of him…and they do. One of his “wives” comes and squirts breast milk into his eye twice a day…and it works! His sight returns, his eye is spared. Wow.

I would give this book 5 Venezuelan jungle-grown plaintains.

The Skull Mantra (Tibet)

  • book coverPotala Palace, Lhasaby Eliot Pattison
  • Book courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

Wow. Thanks to Janet for suggesting this amazing mystery novel, set in occupied Tibet. Brilliant writing and well-rounded characters, but I had to keep putting it down. Because I was getting so outraged at the Chinese treatment of Tibetans. Atrocious. Ongoing. Shameful.

The plot: A prison road crew on a forced construction project finds a headless body. The road crew is composed of Chinese murderers, Tibetan religious prisoners, including an old lama, and the disgraced Chinese Inspector Shan. So Shan is “voluntold” (my term, not in the book) to solve the case for the seemingly inhumane Colonel Tan. Desecration of a Tibetan Buddhist sacred cave is about to follow.

But Wait, It’s Not So Simple

Further characters: American do-gooders, greedy Chinese bureaucrats, whole Tibetan gompas (temples) of Buddhist believer prisoners, scary shamen/sorcerers, barefoot children running around the sky burial zone tended by the untouchable class…this mystery has them all.

free TibetWhat I liked about the characters in the novel–they were conflicted. They were human. Against the stark background of the Chinese rape of Tibet, which is just plain wrong and no two ways about it–the author writes Chinese characters who act in ways that are cruel but then have moments of humanity where you see they’re also victims of the Chinese Communist system.

I liked the scenes in which various prisoners would move to protect the guards, or visa-versa, against all expectation. (One striking aspect of the Tibetan Buddhist religion is that when “the knobs” have the prisoners surrounded, and the Chinese are about to carry out a mass execution, the crowds surrounding the prison start praying–for the souls of the killers.)

Potala Palace, Lhasa

Potala Palace, Lhasa

I liked the scenes where the humanity of seemingly bad characters were revealed. For example, the mean prison Sergeant who keeps Shan under guard while he’s investigating has a dead father that he misses. Sergeant Feng is chubby, and when he discovers that the men call him “Momo” (dumpling) behind his back he’s hurt.

I liked the way the author portrayed the Americans bumbling around the mountains trying to protect Tibetan treasures as part of Our World Heritage, meaning well but completely ignorant. For Inspector Shan, their innocence is the most irritating thing about them.

Buddhist monk beaten by Chinese soldierAside from actually travelling to Tibet and meeting all sorts of people, this novel is the next best thing. And a lot safer.

Rating: 5 momo dumplings (Also Feng’s nickname, by the way)

One of the best mysteries I’ve picked up in a long, long time. It’s part of a series so I plan to read all the Inspector Shan books now. I’m certain I’ll learn a lot more about Tibet that way.

Resources

Free Tibet

The website for the 14th (Dalai Llama): A Force for Good

The Devil’s Flu (Svalbard)

book cover

by Pete Davies

This book appears on my blog courtesy of the Spokane Public Library

The influenza outbreak of 1918, nicknamed the “Spanish flu”, was as scary then as the recent Ebola outbreak was a few years ago. People died in gruesome fits of bleeding and coughing. People’s lips and ears turned blue. Some people died within 48 hours while some lingered for weeks. In certain Alaska Native villages, so many people died that there was nobody left to bury the bodies. But how did the flu originate–in chickens, pigs, or humans or a combination? Why were its effects on people so different? Did it cause other illnesses? How did it mutate? In 1918, people had no answers.

The Svalbard Bits

In 1998, with modern technology, a team of scientists descends on an Arctic Circle island called Svalberd, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Their aim is to see if they can extract live flu virus from bodies  buried under the Permafrost since 1918.

Company homes in the capital of Longyearbyen

Company homes in the capital of Longyearbyen

Among their questions: Was the worldwide epidemic of encephalitis lethargica that raged through the 1920s somehow related? Had the 1918 virus gotten into the brain or the central nervous system, or both, and spawned this second, chilling pandemic of unconsciousness as a lingering aftershock of its first assault? (15 million people fell ill with encephalitis–1/3 died, 1/3 recovered, and 1/3 developed Parkinson’s disease.) Could a vaccine be developed in case of the 1918 strain returning? What tripped the switch for this virus, which in mild form had been assaulting humans since the 1850s, to turn lethal?

A Brief History of Svalbard

Polar BearsThe island’s origins are debated: Russians claim that the Russian Pechora people were present on Svalbard 5,000 years ago, but no dwelling sites have been found (although 100 man-made flints were.) Icelandic writings state that they “found Svalbard” in 1104. (The book claims that this evidence is flimsy but doesn’t elaborate.) Around 1500s the Russian Pomor people (White Sea hunters and fur-trappers) began wintering on Svalbard because of the reindeer, seal, walrus, fox, and polar bears. In the 1600s and 1700s around 200 Dutch and German whalers were operating offshore, until they’d mostly wiped out the whales.

map of SvalbardNamed Spitzbergen by the Dutch, Svalbard then became a coal mining island for Norwegians and Russians. At the Treaty of Versailles, four nations granted Norway sovereignty: France, Italy, Great Britain and the U.S. as a reward for Norway’s merchant fleet helping the Allies, despite an official policy of neutrality.

Fun fact: If your nation was a signatory to this treaty, you don’t need a passport to go to Svalbard.

The Flu Bits

A Soviet mine in Svalbard, 1932. Yes, that's ice.

A Soviet mine in Svalbard, 1932. Yes, that’s ice.

In August of 1918, the first and more mild wave of Spanish flu passed through Svalbard. Of the 100 miners working there, more than half fell ill. One man wrote a telegram home saying “A little sick. Hoping for the best.” Two days later he was dead.

Then, on the 24th of September, 69 young fishermen and farmers from Tromso in Norway arrived in Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard. They had come on a ship called the Forsete to work a winter season in the mines. Seven of them died of Spanish flu and had to be buried in Svalbard. The youngest was 19 years old.

Northern Lights, Svalbard

Northern Lights, Svalbard

Eighty years later, a team of scientists from Canada, Norway, Great Britain and the U.S. begins exhuming the bodies to see if they could learn what had killed them.

Now: It takes 4 1/2 hours to fly from Oslo to Longyearbyen, with a 40 minute layover at Tromso en route. Then: It took the men of the Forsete three days to sail to Svalvard from Tromso.

Back to Svalbard, Hurrah!

The cemetery where the 7 young flu victims are buried

The cemetery where the 7 young flu victims are buried

Although this book is mostly about the flu–we don’t reach the island until chapter five or so–we learn quite a bit about Svalbard itself.  The writer describes the rocky, icy landscape: A real land of ice and fjords and snow, where “the average temperature only nudges above zero four months out of 12..and October was not one of them…it never got dark…”

After a tiring day of reporting on the 1918 exhumations, the writer steps out to a bar called Huset (The House) which claims to have the largest wine cellar in Norway and was even voted that country’s finest eating place in 1993. (Seems a long way to go for a meal.) Svalbarders tell him that legally, you’re not allowed to step outside Longyearbyen without a gun, because of the polar bears. The hotel receptionist asks him “Is England in Europe?” He eats reindeer, whale, and seal meat and isn’t terribly impressed.

Polar Bear on iceI loved this book and found it fascinating: I didn’t think I would find any books in English written by Svalbarders or just as Svalbard travelogues, so this one is it for now!

Rating: Five bowls of Lappskojs! (Traditional Norwegian/Swedish potato stew that is “simmered to much tender with diced beef, carrots and sausages.”

PS–Oh, and cough into your sleeve, would you please? There’s a lot of nasty germs out there.

PPS–Not mentioned in the book is the fact that Svalbard is the home of the Global Seed Vault…very interesting…