Friday, October 28, 2016

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: book review

Book Review: VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler   novel 

My first reaction was to this book's cover: no human scalp could possibly grow all that much hair. But an author with twenty novels already published must have something on the ball; and a chick-literature version of Shakespeare in USA teen-speak is a new idea to me, so I'm giving it a try.

Kate Battista, age 29, single, is a teacher's assistant in a pre-school. Her defiant facial expression is only partly hidden by all that hair. The little pre-schoolers love her; their parents do not. Flippant and disrespectful are words frequently appearing on her work record. Tact, restraint, diplomacy, and thin ice are ideas often suggested by her boss. Kate understands that tact means saying things politely, diplomacy means not saying things at all. Restraint? She has
no clear picture of that—just one of those words that people throw into overly long sentences.

Her 15-year-old sister Bunny is a boy-crazy flirt, ending most of her sentences with an upward tone implying a question. Her current boyfriend lives next door. Big sister needn't fret about him, he is just there on the sofa with her to tutor her for Spanish class.

Kate's father, Dr. Louis Battista, a research biologist and widower, is forever just on the verge of success in his laboratory. Always preoccupied, depending on his two daughters to tend the house and the meals. His main worry is that his brilliant lab associate, Pyotr Scherbakov's visa will expire in just a couple of months if he cannot find a way to qualify for an extension. With singleness of mind, Father embarks on his goal: “Would you be willing to marry him?” he asks Kate.

What? . . . .Please tell me you're not serious. I don't even know him!”

Now, don't make any hasty decisions. You slightly know him. You'll have to marry someone sooner or later, right? He's a good fellow!”

You would never ask Bunny to do this,” Kate says bitterly.

Well, Bunny's still in high school. Besides, Bunny has all those young men chasing after her.”

And I don't,” Kate said. If she keeps her expression impassive, she might be able to keep the tears from spilling over. She walks out of the room with her chin raised. Slams her bed room door.

Her father won't give up. He and Pyotr are so close to success in their research. He uses every opportunity to get Pyotr and Kate together, documenting events with lots of photos, in case the Immigration Service became suspicious of a sudden marriage. Pyotr is cooperative; he likes Kate, and courts her as best a foreign scientist can do in the face of her opposition. Kate wants nothing to do with him. He tells her at one point that he and her father went down to city hall to get the marriage license. “Fine,” she says, “ I hope you two will be very happy together!”
But gradually Pyotr learns how to get her to talk with him. And he grows able to express himself in terms she can accept.
The word gets around town despite Kate's resistance. Aunt Thelma is thrilled to hear her niece is finally getting married. She begins making all sorts of plans for the wedding, while Kate struggles to maintain control. The teachers at the pre-school throw a surprise bridal shower. They want to see his picture. Kate shows them one on her cell phone, and they exclaim over his good looks. They all seem to see her differently now. She has status. She matters. And she realizes that she reads other people more clearly too. She limits the wedding guests to her father and sister. Aunt Thelma plans an elaborate reception in her own spacious home.

The wedding is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Saturday. Kate drives Bunny and her father to the church; father is too nervous to drive. She is wearing a light blue cotton shift dating from her college days instead of her usual jeans. Bunny wears her angel-winged sun-dress. Father has been persuaded—ordered—to wear his only suit. He has the license; plans to clear Pyotr with the Immigration officials first thing Monday morning. Pyotr is at the lab feeding all the experimental mice and will meet them at the church. 
11:20, no Pyotr. Another wait . . . The minister suggests a phone call. Bunny texts Pyotr and waits. Finally, Pyotr texts back: “A terrible event”

Not wanting to spoil the ending, I'll stop there—except to add that author Anne Tyler's command of the English language is superb. She paints scenes with a sentence or two: the reaction of twin four-year-old boys in Kate's pre-school when she shows her ring, “Now who will we marry when we grow up?”

Or her description of Aunt Thelma's palatial house, “In the living room, sectional couches lumber through the vast space like a herd of rhinos, and both coffee tables are the size of double beds.”

In summing up this engaging novel, expect to see many of your acquaintances, and perhaps even yourself, in Vinegar Girl's pages.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Elephant Company: Book Review

ELEPHANT COMPANY by Vicki Constantine Croke Random House, 2014

Most Americans understand what 'horse-whisperer' means. Billy Williams was an 'elephant whisperer', and helped defeat the Japanese army in World War II Burma.

Demobilized with a captain's rank in 1920, Williams got a job with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, harvesting teak logs in the forests of Burma ( now called Myanmar.) Teak wood is highly prized in ship-building for its durability and resistance to rot, but it has never been successfully cultivated. Myanmar's forests produce 75% of the world's supply. There are no logging roads, no bulldozer access. Only elephants to move the two-ton logs to the dry stream beds, where the flash-floods of the next annual rainy season will float them downstream to the big rivers and the sawmills in the cities.

As crew boss of a dozen jungle camps Williams would be responsible for the health and efficiency of the men and their elephants out in the jungles. His own boss, Harding, is a crusty old Britisher who has only contempt for young newcomers. The first evening, the elephants on station line up for daily inspection. Harding has barely spoken to Williams since his arrival and now wordlessly begins examining the huge beasts one by one, making notes in each elephant's record book. No words for Williams until all have been examined. Then, “Those four on the right are yours, and God help you if you can't take care of them.” And Harding walked away.

Physically fit and self reliant, Williams surprised his boss after a few days by offering to start on his solo tour earlier than Harding had planned. “I'd like to start off tomorrow.” Before the old man was awake next morning, Williams and his four elephants, their drivers, a cook, two bearers, and two messengers were silently on their way. Fascinated by the way elephants communicated and cooperated with each other, and with their drivers, he was a quick learner. The elephants followed spoken commands, but only in the Burmese language. He learned the work routine of the timber camp elephants—they work till mid-afternoon, then they cool off and bathe in the river. He examines each daily for any injuries; their drivers turn them loose at night to forage in the lush jungle vegetation. Each driver knew his animal and can call it back next morning.

One of the four elephants was old, weak, always more tired than the others. One morning, her driver found her dead, not far from the camp. Williams did an autopsy there where she lay. Not easy on an eight-thousand-pound animal. He knew he would be held accountable when he returned to base camp, and he was correct. But he learned to argue, and to document his findings, and this pleased Harding. Elephants had been trained by being chained and beaten until their spirit was broken. Baby elephants were removed from their mother's care so she could continue her daily work, and many of the young did not survive. Williams proposed letting the young elephants “go to school” at age five, and be trained by rewarding, not punishing, and this proved to be both efficient and more profitable. Boys in their early teens were recruited as drivers, and grew up with the elephant they were assigned.

Williams rose through the ranks as his management methods gained respect. He even wooed and won a British girl who valued life in the forests as much as he did.

Then came World War Two. The British thought they were far from danger, until Singapore and then Malaya fell to the Japanese; Japan then attacked Burma, occupying its seaports and closing off escape for those in northern Burma with mountain ranges on the east, north, and west.
On January 20, 1942, foreigners were advised to leave, but the only remaining escape routes were over the mountains. Williams and his family and coworkers assembled at Mawlaik, Williams old base camp. From there, 40 women, 27 children, 83 men, and 110 elephants headed northwest on foot. The elephants carried supplies, not people. They reached the small village of Tamu at the border a week later, now crowded with thousands of desperate refugees. Altogether, about 600,000, including about 50,000 British, most of the rest Indian, would cross fifty miles of dirt tracks and mountain trails before reaching level plains in India. It's said that 80,000 died in the attempt.

Two months later, the Japanese controlled the “Burma Road”, the major supply route for China's armies. General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell and his American staff (with “The Burma Surgeon”, Gordon Seagrave and 27 of his hospital's nurses) also trekked out on foot by a route farther north. China's armies would then receive their supplies, from India 'over the hump' via airplane.

After making sure that his wife and son and others entrusted into his care were safely beyond reach of the Japanese, Billy Williams offered his services to the British command in India. They were eager to commission him—a man by then fluent in Burmese, with a map of Burma in his head in detail, personally acquainted with half the elephants in Burma and their drivers, experienccd in bridge construction--he immediately had the ear of the higher-ups. He wanted a jeep and freedom to act on his own. He got it as part of Force 136, who worked behind enemy lines. Stealing elephants was easy in the night—no headlights or noisy engines betrayed their movements to the Japanese.

The Japanese supply lines were vastly overextended by then. Allied forces defeated them and turned them back at Imphal, but Japanese patrols were still a threat as late as 1944. Williams led another group of elephants and men in a harrowing journey through uncharted Indian territory, led by the greatest elephant of all, Bandoola, with whom he had almost telepathic rapport.

Ms. Croke has done excellent research to tell this true story of “Elephant Bill”; it gives a new view of innovative warfare to veterans, historians, and adventurers alike.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Magic of Cape Disappointment: book reviewok review

The Magic of Cape Disappointment, by Julie Manthey (a novel of magic, history, and romance)
Kay Baker has just completed medical school at the top of her class, but intends to open an art gallery in New York City before doing her internship and residency requirements. A two-page back-story identifies Kay as a fifth generation descendant of Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark's 1805 expedition that pioneered exploration of the Pacific Northwest. She has just now been notified that her DNA matches with Lewis's extended family. The only logical explanation would be that Captain Lewis took a wife from the Clatsop Indian tribe while the expedition wintered at the mouth of the Columbia River. Unfortunately, 400 pages of his expedition's journal have gone missing during the ensuing 210 years.

An hour before her art gallery is scheduled to open, her phone rings. Astoria Medical Center in Oregon notifies her that both her parents have just arrived by ambulance after a car crash. “We suggest you get here as quickly as you can.”

Kay catches the first plane to Portland, rents a car for the hundred-mile drive to Astoria on the coast. Delayed by a freak snowstorm, she arrives at the hospital at 2 a.m., finding her 97 year-old Gran asleep in the ER waiting room next to a dozing young man. A doctor tells her both parents died from their injuries soon after arrival. This leaves Kay and her brother Louis as Gran's only living relatives, and Louis is at sea for the next month or more. The young man is a neighbor who found Gran wandering the village of Ilwaco, and had guided her back to her house just before the hospital called. Gran has dementia, requiring almost constant attention. Kay, having made a promise to her now-deceased mother that she would never put Gran in a nursing home, is now morally bound to stay with her for the foreseeable future.

December and January pass. Surrounded by the townspeople of Ilwaco Kay gradually adapts to small town life where everyone knows everyone else, and where many recall that Kay's mother and her failing grandmother are keelalles, legendary medicine women of the Clatsop Indian tribe. Her helpful neighbor Sam comes in for coffee one day and has a letter for her—from her mother. Asked why he waited two months to deliver it, he puzzled her further by saying that her mother told him to “wait until the day after the dog bite. My dog bit you yesterday, so here it is.”

The letter was written the day before her Mom died, and tells her to find John Lane, the Clatsop tribal chief, who can explain the things Kay will need to know about the old ways. “The world needs a powerful healer,” Mom writes, “Embrace your destiny, for you are powerful beyond measure.”

She goes with Sam on his motorcycle to Seaside, Oregon, to meet John Lane and the tribal council, comprised by, in real life, a computer tech, a retired college professor, a retired lawyer and an operator of a bed-and-breakfast.

Tribal lore has it that every tenth generation of medicine women since the powerful
keelalle, Saghalie, will be empowered by the coyote spirit to influence the weather, the power to heal, and the power to know the future. Saghalie protected the people from the great wave of 1700, caused by the Cascadia earthquake of that year. Her fifth generation descendent Tamahna was the last keelalle to have all three powers. “You, Kay, are the fifth generation after Tamahna. The next great Cascadia quake is already overdue; it might come any time now. Your powers are only effective within the Clatsop tribal area. The tribal Council is glad to welcome you home.”

Her mother had often called her the coyote girl. Kay had always thought it was just a nickname describing her independent personality, but now John Lane, the computer tech, says no—the coyote is the animal that has empowered the greatest keelalles down through the centuries. His own spirit is the raven, that of a tribal chief.

Things normalize somewhat over the next two months. Romance proceeds apace; Kay's brother turns up just in time to say goodbye to Gran before she dies peacefully. Free of responsibility for her grandmother, Kay debates returning to a less dramatic life in New York City. But she discovers that she now has an increasing love for all her people in the tribal land. She decides to stay
A few days later, the ground begins to tremble. . . .

Although first-time author Julie Manthey needs to research natural phenomena to make them more believable, there is nothing wrong with the magic of her imagination. She melds love, frustration, Indian tribal lore, history, and a spirit world that almost touches reality just off the coast at the light house on Cape Disappointment. Good writing!