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Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Dark Wine at Sunrise

 

You’d better get comfy because you won’t want to stop once you begin reading Jenna Barwin’s Dark Wine at Sunrise. It’s Book II of A Hill Vampire Novel series, and it begins where the first book left off. (If you haven’t read Dark Wine at Midnight, don’t cheat yourself of story delight – start there.)

Dr. Cerissa Patel has fallen passionately in love with Henry Bautista, and he’s just as besotted with her. All they want is to be able to pursue their sexy romance unbridled.

Cerissa is a research scientist who’s asked permission to build a lab at the Hill. Secretive because her research is being conducted at the behest of a covert business group with murky intentions, and also because The Hill is secure ground for a vampire community. Cerissa is a Lux, a creature of peculiar heritage with paranormal powers she can’t always control.

Henry Bautista is a vampire with a conflicted moral background and as many jealous enemies as admirers. He owns a thriving vineyard and wine making business and a beautiful home which is the envy of the enclave. He’s also beholden to a female vampire who subverts his desires despite living thousands of miles away.

Did I mention they’re also gorgeous? And very sexy? And the things they say to each other will pierce your heart with longing? That too.

However, Henry is brought to trial by the founding council for breaking a Hill rule. The members impose a violent medieval punishment, threatening his physical sanctity and his burgeoning relationship with Cerissa.

If this stress isn’t enough to dampen their ardor, a murderer is loose within the enclave, picking off vampires with no obvious clue about who’s next. Everyone’s safety appears at risk until they can identify the culprit. All that occurs in just the first couple of chapters.

The story continues to unfold in one thrilling episode after another. Can these two not-quite-human creatures find a way to make the permanent connection they seek? Will Henry give Cerissa the bite she desperately wants to accept? Will the council grant them their freedom so they may fulfill their romantic destiny? Will one or both of them be murdered or forbidden to remain on the Hill? Or will one of them give up everything for the well being of the other?

Barwin writes with passion and a masterful hand at physical and visual description. She manages a complex plot, believable characters (of all ilk,) and credible political underpinnings, creating intrigue within the story. Her world-building is exotic, the personalities are larger than life, but the experiences are grounded in the common human endeavors we all recognize. We want to be seen for who we are, we want fair opportunities, we want to be loved.

I can’t wait until Book III is published. You’ll be pacing as well. Write faster, Ms. Barwin, please write faster.

 

Dark Wine at Sunrise by Jenna Barwin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Born in a Treacherous Time

I’ve been looking forward to the publication of  Born in a Treacherous Time by Jacqui Murray. Not just because she’s a good friend but also because I’ve had the privilege of reading part of the book and was captivated by it.

It’s the story of Lucy, a Homo habilis woman who struggles to survive in prehistoric Africa when volcanoes erupted without warning, animals attacked from every region, and waking each morning was not guaranteed. She faces challenges that force her to use her physical prowess as well as her mental skills, sometimes trying to convince the members of her tribe that she has solutions that may protect them.

Murray employs interesting characters living in a challenging time who face obstacles from surviving the daunting environment to grasping moral dilemmas. Her description of this prehistoric era puts the reader into the period when Earth was dangerous and beautiful, the very nebula of human development, and a moment of precipitous change.

I had a chance to talk with Jacqui about her newest book, asking questions she was generous in answering. Following is the interview.

 

Thank you, Jacqui, for agreeing to take the time to discuss your newest book, Born in a Treacherous Time .What one characteristic would you say allowed Lucy to survive in a world populated with saber-toothed cats, violent volcanoes, and predatory species who liked to eat man?

 

Really, with our thin skin, dull teeth, and tiny claws (aka fingernails), Lucy had no right to survive against the thick-skinned mammoth or tearing claws of the great cats of that time. But we did. The biggest reason: Even then, Lucy was a problem solver. She faced crises and came up with solutions. Where most animals spent their time eating and sleeping, Lucy had time left over. This, she used to solve problems.

To me, that thoughtful approach to living, one no other animal exhibits, is why we came to rule the planet.

 

How do you differentiate Lucy (the book’s main character) from the folks who probably led to her species’ extinction?

 

Homo habilis (Lucy) was a brilliant creature, worthy of our respect and admiration, but probably too kind for the next iteration of man, Homo erectus. Lucy would rather flee than fight, didn’t kill even to eat, and didn’t create offensive weapons. As a result, her first line of defense was flight.

But, in this story, you see evolution at work. Lucy does what she must to survive, even if it ultimately means killing.

 

We know Lucy’s species, Homo habilis, died out about the time of this story (1.8 million years ago). Is this story dystopian—meaning Lucy loses in the end?

 

Homo erectus (Lucy’s arch enemy) was a violent species of man. Their skulls were significantly thicker than Homo habilis–a sign that they got beat about the head often and survived. He routinely kills to survive, thinks nothing about that strategy, but I leave it open whether Lucy’s species ‘evolved’ into this more robust species or was replaced by them. We just don’t know.

 

I have to mention how compelling the book cover is.

 

Thank you. The artist fulfilled my hopes.

 

This excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews:

Murray’s lean prose is steeped in the characters’ brutal worldview, which lends a delightful otherness to the narration …The book’s plot is similar in key ways to other works in the genre, particularly Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear. However, Murray weaves a taut, compelling narrative, building her story on timeless human concerns of survival, acceptance, and fear of the unknown. Even if readers have a general sense of where the plot is going, they’ll still find the specific twists and revelations to be highly entertaining throughout.

A well-executed tale of early man.

 

I hope this article has excited you to read Jacqui Murray’s Born in a Treacherous Time.

 

Book information:

Title: Born in a Treacherous Time

Series: Book 1 in Man vs. Nature collection

Genre: Prehistoric fiction

Cover by: Damonza 

Available at: Kindle US, Kindle UK, Kindle Canada

 

 

 

Ah, Reader, I

The most perfect book ends, and we, the readers, are left behind. The conundrum: Begin another immediately? Or bask for a long pause in the wonder of the story just read? Better yet, tell a friend about the book.

Here then, are the best fiction books I read in 2017. Not every book I read, or the non-fiction ones, these  are the fiction books I recommend to you. I’ll review a few titles each month so you can absorb the list in small spurts as you wander through 2018, looking for a good book to read. There may be a few spoilers, so be cautious.

The first two books I’ve selected present stories about cultures that subjugate women to secondary status. Yet both reveal women whose internal strength and firm adherence to personal objectives ensure the future of their communities.

 

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. This novel is based on the life of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, oldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson. The focus of the book is how his political career, always shaky, impacted his family, including his slaves, and though it’s historical fiction, the book is a likely stretch of what might have happened. Dray and Kamoie researched thousands of original documents and letters, putting together a complex puzzle. Martha Jefferson, his oldest daughter, was a woman of her time when women had no legal rights but devised clever manipulations to be significant in society. A debutante in Paris, she witnessed the inception of the French Revolution, modeled on the success of American colonists, and served as Jefferson’s First Lady in the White House.

The book opens with Martha burning her father’s papers after his death, the ones she deemed too salacious or common to be preserved as her father’s words. She strove to protect her father’s legacy and in so doing, fabricated some of what we know about him by deleting certain documents that would have cast him in a negative light.

Sally Hemings, the other prominent woman in his life, his famous slave made lover whose descendant legacy is well documented, provides a conflicting view of what might have been preserved. It’s probable that the question of Hemings’ children being fathered by Jefferson is in dispute because of Martha’s actions. The book is a treatise against slavery even though Jefferson did not free all his slaves, a broadsheet for preserving democracy, and an eerie parallel of our current political climate, though a reverse of ideals in the present administration.

Were you to ask today about the woman most important to Thomas Jefferson, most folks would answer that it was Sally Hemings. Yet it was his daughter, Martha Washington, who shaped our image of the third president of the country, every part of what we know about him except his life with Hemings. Subjugating herself to the sideline, Martha gave us a man of dignity and noble purpose. In reality, he was all that, and also a deeply flawed human being like the rest of us. Dray and Kamoie have pulled Martha out of the shadows to stand in her own light.

 

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. The story follows the life of a Chinese woman of an isolated mountain tribe destined to be the inheritor of a rare tea. She becomes pregnant by her lover and gives up her newborn daughter, cradling the infant without a name but with a small cake of the priceless tea. See describes the complex art, difficult hands-on labor, and uncertain success of tea growing in China. It’s also about a deep rooted culture that doesn’t recognize the value of girls even as it depends upon them for the family to function, and so allows the American adoption of Chinese girls with little paper trail to follow the children. See’s stories explore how women find ways of surviving China’s oppressive patriarchal society. Also touched upon are the place of ethnic clans in China, the way this century and the last one have impacted the country, the tea export business, the exaggerated value of extremely rare and exotic teas, and China’s quixotic relationship with America.

The robust tea fields of China have often been photographed. Even people like me who are tourists only via the Internet can identify rolling acres of tea plants. This book informed me of the back breaking work of growing a crop given to the whimsy of nature as much as any story is given to a grifter’s imagination. Tea farmers dedicate their lives in the fields and off to the health of the crop with no guarantee of a good harvest. Tea Girl replaced the romantic version promoted by the tourist industry with the grittier, truer one. The writer’s dedication to exhausting research and her passion for her ethnic heritage shines in the book, almost as good as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and much better than some of her other books.

If you’re wandering the book aisles, looking for a good read, these reviews might give you something to consider.

I’d love to know what books you’ve read in the last year or two that you’d most recommend.

 

 

Image of America’s First Daughter, courtesy William Morrow/Harper Collins

Image of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, courtesy Simon & Schuster

 

 

The Scaffold for My A to Z Favorite Books Series

I must admit I lied, an act of exclusion not intention. Of necessity for restraint not extravagance. These are not my favorite twenty-six books I’ve ever read – only the favorite for each letter of the alphabet. Even that was a miserable choice for nearly every letter. I had to leave out so many incredible books screaming, “Pick me. Me! You know you love me best.” Look at the possible choices just for the letter A:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
The Alexandria Quartet (4 novels) by Lawrence Durrell
All Other Nights by Dara Horn
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (This was the book I selected.)
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg
Atonement by Eon McEwan

How could I write about All the Light We Cannot See but leave out All Other Nights, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Atonement or the other eight books? Only by wringing my hands and making promises in the dark, sometimes picking petals off the daisy, did I come to conclusions. In some cases, I had to choose a favorite book for a particular letter though I really adore another book more than the one for the letter for which I was writing. Anointing a single child. Medieval torture. The aching limitations of the series. The books left out cry to me in my dreams, “How could you do this to me?” Love is a fickle entity. I had to choose one, only one book for each letter, but still, I love all of you equally.

How did I even come to have a selection of titles from which to choose?

About ten years ago I began to keep a list of books I’d read, sometimes writing a very brief review. I’ve added titles read long ago as I remember them. The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope, a pseudonym for a group of writers, is the very first book I ever read by myself when I was five, but this book only recently got onto my list. Close to a thousand mostly fiction books read since 1953, the earliest date I can remember reading books for pleasure or elucidation. It remains an organizational mess – not in alphabetical order by title or author, not even organized by the year read. Kids’ books are mixed in as well as non-fiction which I chose not to include for possible review, nor biography or autobiography, philosophy, religious exegeses, history, science, technology, poetry, short story collections, or Shakespeare’s plays, almost none of which are even on the list. I’ve not included all the books read in support of my career as an art teacher: how to teach, how to teach art, and art history, production methods, materials, and techniques, and commentary. Also not on the list are the dozens (hundreds?) of textbooks pored over for college, and any books I still don’t remember. (OK, Captain Obvious, go away now.) This year I got a bit smarter and created a page just for 2017. I’m not a marathon reader by any means, and the list of books I’d like to read is at least another thousand.

So, picking a favorite for each letter posed a challenge. I didn’t want more than one book per author, nor to lean too heavily on any one genre, or select more female than male writers. Nor should only the classics or only recent books be considered. I selected the entire series before I began to write about Doerr’s book in order to keep my pen out of those quagmires. Didn’t mean I didn’t change my mind – I did that too, for about every letter as its publication date approached.

My original idea was only to choose adult books but if you’ve followed the series, you know I didn’t stick with that plan. Some children’s books are too exceptional and memorable to be ignored. Thus Max made his bow in Where the Wild Things Are, right after I’d sent my beloved copy to my youngest grandchildren in Northern California.

These are books that pulled me between their covers and held on to my heart and mind, sometimes making me laugh out loud in awkward places or leaving me in tears. Most of them I’ve read more than once, some as many as six times (imagine how long my list would be had I not done that) but many I haven’t read within the last year or so. Which meant I had to skim the book, most of them fortunately still on my shelves. But I’m not a speed reader and that’s why there are gaps of more than a week between some of the posts. I read “out loud in my head,” usually in voices, and that takes time.

As I worked through the alphabet my focus changed. From writing reviews of great books I wanted people to read, I wrote personal stories about why each book meant so much to me. They influenced other book choices, or how I write, or what I think about the world, or compelled me to dream bigger, try harder, research deeper, write more. There are hundreds of thousands of reviews on the Internet but my series reveals at least twenty-six gherkins of information about me.

I gave up quoting my favorite line because that became another nearly impossible choice. Most of my books are flagged with dozens of sticky notes, indicating a passage I wanted to remember. When I started copying ten or twelve sentences, I got close to crossing the acceptable legal line of limited exposure of another writer’s work. I stopped including them at all.

Toward the end of the alphabet I got creative, as you’ve probably noted. Consider X is for The Book Whose Title I Can’t Remember – that one was a mighty undertaking, demanding a return to my earliest childhood memories, but it might be the post in this series for which I’m most proud.

You, my readers, have graciously offered your own favorite titles for various letters, and I’m so thankful for your interest and recommendations. I hope you’ll consider a book or two from my list for something to read over the next year. When you open to the first page, tell them their old friend Shari sent you.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for A to Z:
Perhaps another 300 books I couldn’t write about, my other favorite favorites.

 

Painting “Interesting Story” by Laura Muntz Lyall, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Z is for Zorba the Greek

Like several books on this A to Z list, I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis while in college, though it wasn’t for a class. A bunch of friends were reading the book (I think some for a college course,) and I read it so I could participate in the exciting conversations. This was during the early 1970’s. When you’re young, in college, in love (or you wish/think you are,) maybe a bit inebriated (sometimes, only sometimes,) out of your parents’ house (finally,) full of vigor, fueled with passion, inspired by the radical and classic ideas that have made the world spin, and free to experiment (‘cause, you know, you’re out of your parents’ house,) Zorba is the most exciting background music you can imagine. It remains one of the most iconic books of all time, but today’s college kids might be rallied by some other title. (Would love you to tell me.)

Zorba the man is as much a swashbuckling figure as Captain Jack Sparrow (though I find Zorba fully dimensional and Sparrow a brittle prop for outlandish makeup.) And that’s what we talked about, sitting on the floor of someone’s apartment (none of us had furniture, but we had energy) and arguing about what the book meant to us and how or if we should emulate Zorba’s attitude about life. Such zest the man had, and knowing Kazantzakis had based his character on a true-life friend made the book that much more appealing. Because frankly, despite our youthful dreams and noble ambitions, none of us had yet made anything of our lives, and we felt like the world was passing us by without hearing our squeaks and pitches. But we all had tests the next day and papers due at the end of the week. Young women or young men, we wanted to be like Zorba, grabbing life by the fistful, singing, dancing, drinking (and having sex) till we dropped, obligations be damned.

The story is narrated by a younger man, a reserved scholar out to mine for lignite on Crete in 1915 or so. Zorba hires on to be the manager, cook, and occasional musician. We never learn the name of the narrator. While many have suggested it is Kazantzakis himself, I think he represents the staid, unheralded Everyman, the backbone of society who works hard to pay the bills and feed the kids. Boring perhaps but dependable. Except that this narrator is so aloof about life that there’s no family at all, just a man who reads, thinks, contemplates religion and philosophy (the Buddhist void,) and decides to manage a lignite mine in order to promote the right of the workers. The polar opposite of Zorba who dances, drinks, labors, sings, ruts like a bull, and advises against getting close to the miners. And submerges his past with flamboyant braggadocio or the plaintive strings of his santuri.

Adventure after adventure, Zorba and the narrator engage in this partnership with each other and with the citizens of Crete. What the narrator cannot learn from his books, he learns from Zorba, often an antagonistic view. At the end is the inevitable: the deaths of the most charismatic people. Only the music endures.

Zorba was the perfect model for students in the seventies. We were the free love generation, the ones who protested the Vietnam War. We argued the value of everything, and we sampled drugs (some kids) the way you might try appetizers. Seen through the lens of my friends, Zorba’s lifestyle was the zenith of exuberance. Yet all of us were students, most working our way through college, many actively and frequently protesting the war. Deciding my life was my responsibility, that my choices had to be my own, I’d already left home. I realized it was egregiously unjust to draft boys not old enough to vote, most of them too poor to be excused for service by attending college. (Young men like the one I would shortly begin a relationship with, eventually to marry.) So I gave up a semester of college to campaign to pass the twenty-sixth amendment which lowered the voting age to eighteen, giving the youngest draftees a chance to vote.

At a time when eating twice a day was all I could afford, it was not insignificant to give up that semester, extending my work at minimum wage jobs and delaying my graduation. I lived full throttle the way Zorba did, the way many of my friends did, but we were also like the young and idealistic narrator. We studied hard, we worked for social justice and democracy, we weighed options, we believed in peace, and we protested for the common man, for civil rights, and for ideals of conscience.

Charismatic, mesmerizing, towering, magnetic, alluring, tragic, life lived fully and in the moment. Or life lived with poetry on one’s tongue, cerebral and distant, the scholar in the ivory tower. The ancient conundrum, the great paradox: individual versus community, instinct versus intellect.

Ah, youth. Ah, Zorba the Greek.

I look forward to learning about your favorite Z fiction books.

 

One other book that was a serious contender for Z:

The Zigzag Kid by David Grossman

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Simon and Schuster

 

Y is for The Yearling

 

*Draw back the curtain, dusty and threadbare, to my childhood, and you’ll see a kid propped with a book as often as anything else. We had the first color TV in our neighborhood, a modern wonder that everyone came to watch, me gloating over the regal status of our family. A tiny in-ground swimming pool in our backyard cooled us each afternoon while everyone else traipsed to community pools to escape New Jersey’s blistering summers. I threatened all my limbs racing a bike over the uneven landscape of sidewalk slates erupted by the roots of saplings planted fifty years earlier, now grown to jungle size. My childhood also included an excess of torment, from events I won’t describe or attribute.

At night when my jelly jar beamed with lightning bugs signaling for release, when the attic creaked its rotted beams and Jack Parr entertained adult viewers with his suave, nasal humor on late night TV, I lay in bed with a book and entered worlds more fierce and tragic, heroic and dangerous, romantic and exotic than my own. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Johnny Tremain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Black Beauty, The Borrowers, Heidi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Twenty-One Balloons, A Little Princess, The Swiss Family Robinson, Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, The Railway Children – all these and more captivated me and kept me up hours past bedtime. They gave me insight to the difficult lives of others. They gave me courage, come morning, to tackle another day. One book was so special I bought a copy for my grandson years before he could read it.

The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, is about Jody, a youngster who lives in the Florida back country with his parents and his orphaned pet fawn, Flag. Life is harsh and hard scrabble shortly after the end of the Civil War. Every grain of corn is a hedge between mere hunger and flat out starvation, every encounter with nature a potential threat to existence, every neighbor an adversary with their own desperate circumstances to overcome. Jody adores his indulgent pa, his remote ma, his sensitive, crippled friend, and Flag. Flag grows up to become a healthy, ravenous buck and a threat to the family’s tenuous grasp on sufficient sustenance for the following year, forcing Jody to make an unthinkable decision. He must sacrifice the thing he loves most to save his family, his first act of manhood.

The Yearling clutched at my heart like no other book. It was first of all much longer than anything I’d read by at least a hundred pages. Rawlings believed I could read a book this long, that I had the stamina to maintain attention for a sustained period. She trusted that I had the intelligence to keep tabs on a large cast of characters, some so ingratiating I still love them, some despicable, all of them original and unforgettable. She engaged me with a complex plot and a sense of language so identifiable that I learned to speak nineteenth century Floridian with the best of the swamp dwellers.

More than that, Rawlings threw me a life raft. All the stories I’d read and loved told tales of people, usually children, surviving unlikely odds, but The Yearling treated me like an adult. (In fact, she wrote a book. It has come to be considered a young adult book.) Her dollar words and profound ideas made me think about the issues that motivate people to endure the impossible. The story gave me insight into how to navigate the unpredictable and sometimes violent swamp of my childhood. It showed me a way to identify the currents beneath my own strange family issues and swim to the surface. I couldn’t understand Jody’s ma, and I couldn’t understand my own mother. And the book made me want to write like Rawlings.

What did a New Jersey kid know about the wilds of the Louisiana or Florida swamps, the vastness of the American prairie, or even the poverty of the downtown Trenton Black neighborhoods? Not much. Didn’t stop me from writing about them. My stories became populated with folks who had Southern drawls or Western twangs and lived in foul places built more of imagination than any reference to real locales. What did an eleven-year-old know about restrictive social impositions on the other side of town that made it impossible for a man to care for his family or for a woman to walk downtown proudly? Hardly a thing. Didn’t stop me from creating them. My characters faced unjust tribulations and resolved them with courage and invention even if the events were outrageous and the outcomes impossible. I didn’t even flinch from occasionally letting a protagonist die. Melodrama was my forte.

My teachers encouraged me, if only because I used lots of adverbs and adjectives and fashioned strange names for my characters. I won a few school awards and fleeting acknowledgement. My parents applauded my effort though I’m pretty sure they never read anything I wrote.

No matter. In the far dark corner of my room sat the spirit of a little woman with a stern face who waited patiently while I put down my stories in longhand. My hero, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, prodded me to write. Decades ago and long interrupted in my adulthood but now restarted, I wrote stories. I wrote first for children, stories about overcoming injustice and facing down heartache. Now I write for adults, stories about the complex relationships between people against the background of momentous historical events. They’re about people who confront savage or mysterious circumstances and overcome personal failure to find a way to triumph. It’s what happened to Jody. I try to engage readers as much as Rawlings engaged me. I hope that people find solace in my stories for what can’t be described or attributed in their lives.

The Yearling won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

What childhood book stays with you?

I look forward to learning about your favorite Y fiction books.

*Note: This article was first published (with slight differences) on Ink Flare in 2013. Though I intended to assign a different book review to Y, The Yearling has had such major impact on my life as a person and a writer, that I realized this is the only book that would reflect my passion for storytelling.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for Y:

The Ya-Ya Sisterhood (series) by Rebecca Wells

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon

 

Book cover image courtesy Google images and Charles Scribner’s Sons

 

 

X is for The Book Whose Title I Can’t Remember

When I was about ten, early 1958, my parents took us to New York City to see the United Nations. Living in Trenton, New Jersey, we were only a few hours’ drive from the Big Apple, but in reality we were a continent removed. Trenton, though it was the capitol of NJ, was small town compared to cosmopolitan NYC. After a tour of the building, (no meeting in session that day) we three kids each got to pick a souvenir from the gift shop. I chose a kid’s book of short stories, and it’s this book I want to honor as my choice for the letter X.

I can no longer recall the title or author, or even if it was written by one person or several. The stories were intended to relate the good work of UN programs and workers all over the world: the unnamed, unsung heroes who brought modernity to cultures lost in the inefficiency of past centuries, health to tribes hampered by eradicable illnesses and looked after by primitive medicine men, and a sense of the connections that the symbol of world unity promised everyone. I will never forget a few of the stories, especially the one I want to tell you about here.

Less than six months after the visit, my parents moved us to Hawaii where we lived for two years before returning to the mainland on my thirteenth birthday. This was our second inhabitance of O’ahu, the first being when I was nearing the age of four. My dad had graduated in 1952 from Thomas Jefferson University Medical College (now Sidney Kimmel Medical College) in Philadelphia, where I’d been born. He joined the army and did his first year of medical residency at Tripler Army Medical Center on the mountainous slopes of the Moanalua Ridge. We lived on base housing. It’s comical to call the units “housing.” In the very early 1900’s, they’d been the hospital wards at Fort Shafter, later converted to physician and officer housing when the iconic coral pink edifice was built around 1944. By the time we moved in, my mom was uncomfortably pregnant and unbearably lonely for her family, and the tiny row of converted quarters were nearly unlivable.

Tripler was and remains the largest Army medical facility in the region, serving Hawaii, Guam, Japan, and various other locations in the Pacific Rim and Asia. It’s important to understand that Hawaii was a Petri dish of cultures that converged and mingled from China, Japan, Philippines, and the US mainland, among others. Everyone brought their native diseases along with their luggage and aging grandparents. In addition, Hawaii is tropical, hot and wet, a fertile nursery for bugs, viruses, and germs, pervasive, exotic, and sometimes fatal. My parents made certain that the three of us were inoculated against smallpox, a genuine threat then, before we left Philadelphia. It kept me safe from smallpox.

They couldn’t vaccinate me against my idiotic four-year-old self.

The story I most remember from the UN book tells about an African village where the natives lived in grass huts and suffered from all kinds of illnesses, many borne by bugs. Malaria, widespread because of Anopheles mosquitoes prevalent in many parts of Africa, was of greatest concern, though I don’t know if the disease was mentioned in the story. It was and is a terrible disease, one that causes raging high fevers, vomiting, brutal headaches, long term physical debilitation, coma, even death, especially to young children.

The UN team entered one tiny hamlet and demanded, nicely of course, that every villager present himself to be doused with a miracle spray that would kill any bug making them ill. Everyone showed up and was sprayed with the wonder insecticide: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT, as you’ve probably guessed. Yep, the toxic pollutant that eventually wiped out or endangered many species, is absorbed into the soil, and may be responsible for carcinogenic illnesses in humans. Then the team went hut to hut and sprayed the interiors and all belongings of each. At one hut, a nervous woman tried to prevent the team from entering. When they did, they spotted a bundle of rags, unwrapped it, and discovered her newborn child. She didn’t want her baby sprayed. Smiling, they insisted, and pulled the infant from its swaddling, sprayed its entire body, and returned the baby to mother’s arms. At ten, I considered it a fabulous conclusion. Ignorant, uneducated mother’s baby was now safe from bad bugs. God knows, I hate bugs.

The first time we lived on O’ahu in the ramshackle base housing, (1952 – ‘53) my mom figured I was relatively safe and let me have the run of the area around the houses, as did all the other children. Imagine, two rows of cardboard-thin buildings facing each other across a swath of lush lawn, lantana, Poinciana, hibiscus, plumeria, coconut, and palm trees, and dozens of kids running all over. All the moms looked out for all the kids – sort of. No one really stood watch as it wasn’t necessary. We ran up and down the gardens all day, getting home before dark every evening. Nothing bad ever happened to any of us.

Except that I started coughing. A lot. A deep persistent cough I couldn’t control no matter how often my parents yelled at me. I was a bad advertisement for a doctor. Finally, suspecting tuberculosis, dad and another physician sneaked me into Tripler’s laboratory at midnight, (completely illegal entry) drew my blood, and looked at it under a microscope. No tubercular bugs, thank God, so they went back to telling me to stop coughing. No one knew why I coughed so much, but I knew I couldn’t stop the tickle, the itch, the discomfort that caused me to choke until I coughed. The year after we left Hawaii, we moved to army housing in Enterprise, Alabama. I was five now and kindergarten delayed because I suffered from a strange illness that made me cough and feel exhausted all the time. I was an adult, married and living in California with two sons before my dad told me I’d had mononucleosis that year.

Decades later I came across the UN book and reread it in an afternoon, paying special attention to the story about the African woman and her baby who got sprayed with DDT. And I remembered something long forgotten till then.

In Hawaii in 1952 and ‘53, a small truck came around the base housing neighborhood once a week, driving up the adjacent street, and emitting a sweetish smelling spray from its backside. We kids were fascinated by that truck. We ran through its rear mist, sniffing the spray, lost in its peculiar thick fog, unable to see our own hands much less the other kids. If an adult had been watching, they might not have seen us either. Maybe as many as twenty-five times during that year, I chased the truck, laughing and breathing in DDT.

Rachel Carson, the brilliant, tenacious, observant naturalist, wrote of the dangers of DDT in Silent Spring, published in 1962. The same toxic chemical identified by Rachel Carson as so very dangerous to the environment, to animals, and to people that she advocated persuasively for it to be banned. We’d moved to Hawaii for the second time in 1959, (dad was no longer in the military, he just wanted to live in paradise,) then moved to California in 1961. Whatever damage was done to our young family in 1952 and ‘53, was not repeated during our second sojourn.

I’ve since suffered bronchitis innumerable times and serious bouts of pneumonia approximately ten or eleven times. I’ve had both pneumonia shots and still caught a nasty case of it a day after getting one of them.

Chemical pesticides are dangerous to earth and living things – we know this now. The few who knew early about the dangers of DDT were muffled or ignored. All those illnesses it tried to eradicate were/are also extremely dangerous. I’ve since lost the book, probably forever, but it is my choice for the letter X, representing the unknown factor.

 

NOTE: I read Silent Spring in the 1970’s. Since the book was published and DDT ultimately banned, malaria increased in enormous numbers around the globe but especially in third world countries where other medical help was not easily available. Millions of people suffered and died from malaria. It’s been disputed that DDT caused the numerous deaths from all kinds of cancers that Rachel Carson claimed, and the chemical has since been reinstated. I am neither scientist nor researcher. Readers should consult those who are expert in the field for accurate information. My purpose in writing this review of a non-book was to show my actual experience with DDT and to suggest a warning. Not everything is what appears on its surface, and most new solutions to any kind of problem also generate unexpected consequences. X does indeed represent the unknown factor.

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite X fiction books.

I offer no other books as contenders for X.

 

United Nations image courtesy: Google images and Wikimedia Commons; photo of Sharon Bonin, age 4, courtesy Bonin Family archives