Thursday, March 30, 2017
THE ART OF HEARING HEARTBEATS by Jan-Philipp Sendker
book review, fiction, 2006
Julia Win's father disappeared the day after the family had celebrated her graduation from law school. He had waked her early that next morning to say he was flying to Boston and would be back in two or three days. That was four years ago.
Investigation showed that he had bought a ticket, not to Boston but to Los Angeles and onward to Thailand. Investigation by both the FBI and American embassies in Thailand and in Burma, his country of birth, had no record of his arrival, except his discarded passport.
Now, she finds a package from her mother waiting at her New York apartment. A collection of her father's old letters and papers her mother had found in the attic; her mother didn't need them anymore. Among them, a love letter dated 1955, addressed to “My beloved Mi Mi”, in Kalaw, Shan State, Burma.
Although Julia knew her parents' marriage was lukewarm at best, she had missed her father very much these past four years, and was perplexed at where and why he had gone. This clue was the first that offered a way to find out. She had never been to Burma, but she went now.
Kalaw is a medium-sized town near the end of a branch railroad line, and shares an airstrip with a larger town of Taunggyi; both are vacation spots for people to escape the tropical heat of cities down on the plains. Julia finds herself in a small, squalid tea-house under the scrutiny of townspeople curious about why this foreigner has come. All except one elderly man who has watched her since she entered.
He politely introduces himself, U Ba, addresses her by name, and says he has been waiting for her arrival for four years. Yes, he has known her father, almost since birth. He can help her find him, “but first I must ask you a question: Julia, do you believe in love?”
Julia shakes her head, her lawyer's mind wondering what kind of scam is coming . But U Ba continues, “Your father's words were, 'I am not a religious man, and love, U Ba, is the only force I truly believe in.'” He got up and left, after suggesting they meet again the next day.
She got up to pay her bill. The waiter did not want her money. “U Ba's friends are our guests,” he said, and left her tip on the table.
U Ba returned next day to tell her about Tin Win (her father's Burmese name). His mother's little brother had drowned while she was watching him. She never got over her sense of guilt and worthlessness. She married Khin Maung, a kind man and a good worker, but a man of few words. Two weeks after Tin Win's birth half of the chickens got sick and died. It was custom to consult the local astrologer to find out whether the child's birth was the cause. The astrologer said the child would bring great sorrow. Something in his head. He also foresaw great talent in the child, but the stunned parents were no longer listening. They accepted the prophesy as inevitable and never expressed much love for their son. Especially after the father died in an accident, the mother distanced herself from her son.
When Tin Win was eight, she packed her few belongings and left, telling him she would be back “soon.” He sat on a tree stump and waited, refusing all food a neighbor brought him. On the fourth day, he sipped some water. And waited. On the sixth day his eyesight began to blur. On the seventh, the neighbor thought he had died. She took him into her home and gradually she became Tin Win's first ally. But he was now blind, distinguishing only light and darkness.
He compensated by developing his hearing and his touch. He knew every obstacle in his daily path. He could hear the heartbeats of those around him, and could tell much about their owners' mood and personality. He did well in the village monastery's school, One day he was waiting at school for his neighbor to return from the market, he heard the soft steady beating of a heart he didn't recognize; he took a few steps forward, heard it louder. “Is someone there?” he whispered.
“Yes. Right at your feet.” It was a girl's voice. “You're about to trip over me.”
“Who are you? What's your name?”
Thus began a lasting friendship. She was a cripple from birth, unable to stand or walk. Her brothers or mother would carry her on their backs. Tin Win learned to do the same, and she would guide him where to go. He was her feet; she was his eyes, as she rode on his back. They went everywhere together.
Julia had never known her successful American attorney father had been blind in his youth. “When are you going to let me see him?” she asked U Ba.
“You are not yet ready,” he told her. First she must know how Tin Win had had an obligation to fulfill. At age eighteen,Tin Win was summoned to Rangoon, the capital city, by an uncle he had never met. To a Burmese Buddhist, such a summons by an aged head of family must be obeyed. He went with the two men his uncle had sent, expecting to return in a few days. But it was fifty years before he saw his loved one again. Tin Win's story is a poignant but serious examination of the many aspects of human love.
Note to my new subscribers: I do not sell books, except the few I have authored. I review others to improve my writing skill, but do not want to spoil the ending for my readers. You can find most of the books in your local library, or favorite bookstore, or online. I welcome discussion and questions, but am still learning the basics of operating this gadget, and communicate best through email.
Thursday, March 23, 2017
I am suddenly getting multiple requests to subscribe to my website and /or my blogs. I’m pleased at your interest, but the site is free; no need to subscribe. just go to www.dahlbergbooks.net and get on the blog site from the menu. If you copy any of my stuff, please include my name and website as the source. No ads, please; and I’m not into facebook, twitter, etc.
I have authored seven books to date (fiction, memoir, and medical), available from Amazon.com and have been doing weekly book reviews for the Shoshone News-Press for the past nine months. I welcome comments and questions on my work, via email. Also am curious about this sudden spate of requests – what got it started? And who are you as a person, besides an email address?
Keith R. Dahlberg
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Book Review: THE SHAPE SHIFTER, by Tony Hillerman (2006) Crime Fiction
Hillerman's novels feature the Navajo Tribal Police (A real police force, HQ in Shiprock, New Mexico) and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and his sidekick Sgt. Jim Chee. As this story opens, Leaphorn is newly retired, has just come up to headquarters to pick up his mail.
There is a letter from Mel Bork, a guy he knew when they were both rookie cops years ago, investigating suspected arson in a tourist shop where some very rare Indian artifacts had been burned up. Mel encloses a magazine photo “Hey, Joe, ain't this that rug you kept telling me about, one of a kind, and destroyed in the fire, and we agreed that maybe the fire really was a crime, not just a careless drunk and some talk about witchcraft? If you're interested, give me a call.”
Bored with retirement, Joe thought why not? He phoned the number in the letter. Mrs. Bork answered, and when she learned Leaphorn was an old police friend, she said he was just who she needed to talk to. Mel had gone two days ago to see a man who owned an old valuable Indian rug, and he hadn't returned. The local sheriff's office yesterday had said not to worry yet, but then she had received a threatening phone message. She played it back to Leaphorn. A man's deep voice: “Mr. Bork, you need to get back to minding your own business. Keep poking at old bones and they'll jump out and bite you.” A chuckle. “You'll be just a set of new bones.”
“Mrs. Bork, keep that tape in a safe place. Call Sgt. Garcia at the sheriff's office down there and have him listen to the tape. Did Mel mention any one he was going to see?”
“I think maybe a Mr. Tarkington; he has an art gallery here in Flagstaff.”
When Tarkington finds out the Navajo police are investigating 'The mystical rug' said to be destroyed by fire years ago, he tells Leaphorn, “I think we need to talk about this, but not over the phone. Where are you?”
“In Window Rock.”
“How about coming to the gallery tomorrow?” Flagstaff is 200 miles from Window Rock, but that's not far in the southwest. Leaphorn went.
The picture of a very expensive home with a very rare artifact hanging on the wall is a house not far from Flagstaff, Tarkington says. Owned by a man named Jason Delos. The man came up from California for his wife's health. Nobody has ever seen her. He has an Asian man as a sort of butler and cook. Gossip has him to be ex-CIA from the Vietnam war, whether retired or fired depends on who you listen to. The rug hanging on the wall? Impossible to duplicate it – too many variables – dyes, weaving styles, age. Some say it depicts the Navajos in exile 150 years ago, a tale of sorrows, hatreds, curses, evil spirits of the worst kind, 'shape shifters' who could change from human form to animal in an instant – not at all what Navajos usually commemorate. Some say it was destroyed in that fire that Leaphorn investigated years ago.
Leaphorn meets Sgt. Garcia in a coffee shop near the sheriff's office in Flagstaff. “I've worked with Bork a few times. Private investigator; seems like a nice guy. This tape his wife had me listen to has me worried. What's he into? You talk to this man Delos yet?
"Tell him you're investigating a crime? What crime? We don''t have one yet, do we?”
“I'll see him tomorrow. Just wondering about that one-of-a-kind rug that was said to be burned up all those years ago.” They decide to go up to the old crime scene, and they find one of the original robber gang digging there, Tomas Delonie, just out of his 25-year prison sentence. He admits he is looking for any part of Shewnack's loot that might be buried there.
Leaphorn remembers now how he had stopped at old Grandma Peshlakai's, who had just been robbed of two bucketsful of pinyon sap. He had explained to her that he had to leave on a call to Totter's Trading Post where a fire had just killed an important murder suspect.
“He's dead?” she had asked. Leaphorn agreed.“He can't run then. This man I want you to catch is running away with my buckets of pinyon sap.” She still scowls at him every time they meet, even though he had recovered her empty buckets from the site of the fire.
“You find anything yet?” Garcia now asks Delonie.
“You think you will?”
“I wanted to just see that the bastard is really dead. Get closure. The Navajos, like Mr. Leaphorn here, have that curing ceremony to help them forgive and forget. My tribe has never had such a ceremony. But maybe just seeing where the bastard burned up will work for me. ”
Back in Flagstaff next morning, Leaphorn places a call to Mr. Delos. A polite voice asks him to wait a moment. “Mr. Leaphorn, Mr. Delos say he can see you. He ask you to be here at eleven.”
A small man waits for him. In his early forties, he had a smooth, flawless complexion. A Hopi or Zuni, he thought at first, then changed it to probably Vietnamese or Lao. “I am Tommy Vang,” he said, smiling. “He say bring you to the office.”
Mr. Delos was cordial but non-committal. Leaphorn came away with little more than he knew before, except for a neatly packaged lunch Tommy Vang had packed for his trip home.
Back home, the ten o'clock news caught his attention, about a fatal car accident. State police would not identify the driver until next-of-kin had been notified; bystanders said it was a prominent Flagstaff businessman . . . .
I don't want to spoil the end of this story for you readers. Author Hillerman is justly famous as an interpreter of Navajo culture and those of other minority groups. His many awards include former president of the Mystery Writers of America, and the Navajo Tribe's Special Friend Award. This is one of the last books he wrote before his death in 2008 at age 83.
Thursday, March 9, 2017
THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN by Mitch Albom; 2003, Hyperion.
Eddie is the maintenance man at Ruby's Pier, a seaside amusement park. It's his job to keep the rides safe and in good working condition. The story opens on his 83rd birthday. His wife died many years ago; they had no children. Dominguez, one of the pier workers, wishes him a happy birthday; otherwise it looks like just another boring day, checking brakes, tightening a bolt, listening for mechanical trouble everywhere he walks, limping along with his bad knee, an old war wound.
A woman screams and points up at the tower of Freddy's Free Fall, where a cart holding four people is hanging at a crooked angle. Eddie moves as fast as he can to the platform base and the gathering crowd. He sends two young workers up to get the terrified four safely out of the car and onto the upper platform. When he sees the cable beginning to unravel, he turns and shouts to the crowd GET BACK!! He turns back to the platform to see a little girl lying on it, crying. The empty cart above breaks loose and starts to fall. The last thing Eddie remembers is his lunge toward the kid and feeling two small hands in his grasp. A stunning impact. Then nothing.
. . . Where . . . where is this . . . where has my pain gone . . . Gradually, a scene materializes around him, Ruby's Pier of years ago. He is in the “freak tent” where the fat lady, the wolf boy and other oddities of nature are exhibited. A middle aged man with blue skin sits alone on the stage. “Hello, Edward. I've been waiting for you . . . Where is this, you ask? Heaven.”
Heaven? Can't be. I've spent most of my adult life trying to get away from Ruby's Pier, and this is where I end up ? No.
“There are five people you will meet here; each was in your life for a reason. That's what heaven is for. For understanding your life on earth. I am the first of the five.”
“What killed you?”
The blue-skinned man smiles. “You did.”
Young Eddie had run out in the street after his ball one day; a driver slams on his brakes, skids, drives on slowly, dizzy, pain in his chest. A policeman finds the man dead beside his car.
“I don't understand,” whispers Eddie now. What good came from your death?”
“You lived,” the blue man said. “I am leaving now. This step in heaven is over for me. But there are others for you to meet.”
“Tell me; the little girl at the pier – did I save her?”
Blue Man doesn't answer.
Eddie slumps. “Then my death was a waste, just like my life.”
“No life is a waste,” blue man says. “The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone.” And he is gone.
The second person Eddie meets is in a tall palm tree, smoking a cigarette. He tells Eddie to climb up. Eddie does and sees the captain who commanded his unit in the Philippine liberation in 1945. The Captain, Eddie, and three other soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese and spent four months in a prison camp, forced to dig coal. When one soldier grew sick and collapsed, a guard shot him.
On the day American bombers could be heard approaching, the prisoners distract and kill all four remaining guards, capture weapons and flame throwers and burn the camp. Captain orders them into a truck; “ Hurry! The bombers won't know we're not the enemy.” But Eddie sees something or someone moving inside the largest flaming building, a crawling child-sized figure. “Wait!” He starts toward the building
“We can't wait! C'MON, EDDIE!” A moment later a gun-shot. Eddie falls, his knee wounded.
The Captain in the tree grins now.”The other guys got you on a stretcher and drove out of here fast. I kept the promise I made – I didn't leave anyone behind. You would have died in that burning building if I hadn't shot you in the leg. You made a sacrifice, I made one, too, stepping onto that land mine ahead of the truck. Forgive me about the leg?” He offers his hand. Slowly, Eddie offers his. The Captain grips it. “That's what I've been waiting for.” And he's gone.
The third person Eddie meets, he's never seen before. A woman, standing in the snow outside a diner; its blinking sign says EAT. She introduces herself as Ruby, and is there to explain to Eddie how and why his father died.
And there will be a fourth person, and a fifth . . . .
You who read these book reviews know by now that they don't tell second half of a story; you need to read the whole book at the library, bookstore, or borrow it from a friend.
And although I realize this story is fiction, I found myself wondering seriously, who are the five people I would meet, and why? The end of this book will surprise and please you.