Book report: If you could talk with the animals

9781250007810_p0_v3_s550x406The Elephant Whisperer

When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a small herd of traumatized elephants onto his private game reserve at Thula Thula in Zululand, his experience and common sense told him to refuse.  After all, a rogue elephant is a fearsome and dangerous creature. But Anthony possessed a gift that few of us have, a sort of sixth sense about what these distressed and distrustful animals needed and quickly went to work preparing to take them in.

Anthony’s goal was not to tame these rogue elephants. He wanted them to once again be wild and free, to live as they were intended. Not to trust humans—certainly not. They’d been betrayed by hunters and poachers—but to trust him. Only him.

He started slowly, very slowly, by merely observing them from a distance.

 “Previously traumatized wild elephants appeared to regain a degree of faith in new humans once the matriarch has established trust with just one new human. But it must be the matriarch.”

He cites evidence of the elephants’ profound intelligence. Early on they outsmarted the electrified fence by testing it and then downing trees to disable it. They also showed an uncanny ability to communicate over long distances–even with Anthony himself–by sensing when he would arrive home from a trip to greet him.

“Elephants transmit infra-sound vibrations through unique stomach rumblings that can be received over vast distances. These ultra-low frequencies, which cannot be detected by human ear, oscillate at similar wavelengths to those transmitted by whales; vibrations that some believe quaver across the globe.

Evolution is ruthless; anything not essential to survival withers on the gene-pool vine. Thus, it is only reasonable to postulate that elephants are using these advanced long-distance frequencies for a specific purpose—to communicate coherently, one to another and herd to herd.”

Anthony’s patience and passion saved these elephants from certain death and taught him lessons that would benefit us all.

 “They taught me that all life forms are important to each other in our common quest for happiness and survival. That there is more to life than just yourself, your own family, or your own kind.”

 “From Nana, the glorious matriarch, I learned how much family means. I learned just how much wise leadership, selfless discipline and tough unconditional love is at the core of the family unit. I learned how important one’s own flesh and blood actually is when the dice are loaded against you. [and]…that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.

This book will give you not only a profound appreciation for elephants, but also for how all living things are connected in ways we’ve never thought of. Recommend.

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Book Report: Tan on Tan

51fTaQ5dljL._SY346_It seems Amy Tan has been trying to write her story for years. The ghosts of her past inhabit all her novels and each one discloses a bit more of herself. Quite literally. In Where the Past Begins though, she gives readers the actual stories as she sifts through boxes of documents and photos—archives of her life and her parents’ emigration. Diplomas. Letters. Journals. A forbidden love story. The children and the cruel husband her mother left behind in China. The tragic deaths of her brother and father from brain tumors within six months of each other when Amy was a teenager.

Amy tries to understand the motives of her parents and where certain of her own personality traits originated—chief among them persistence and curiosity.

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Amy with her family in 1959.

The most enlightening chapter for me as a writer and longtime reader of her fiction is the one in which she shares emails exchanged with her editor as she was writing (and rewriting) The Valley of Amazement. She’d written a story that wasn’t holding together as it should.  That novel did contain a lot of detours and rabbit trails as I mentioned in this review a few years ago. Nevertheless, the fact that even Amy Tan needed help to turn this story into a novel made me feel better. Hopeful even.  Not to mention confirmation that writing is hard.

Here is a sampling of Amy’s eloquent and insightful prose.

On memory and the amygdala:

“Memory, in fact, gives you no choices over which moments you can erase, and it is annoyingly persistent in retaining the most painful ones. It is extraordinary faithful in recording the most hideous details, and it will recall them for you in the future with moments that are even only vaguely similar.”

“…without conscious choice on my part, my brain has let a lot of moments slide over the cliff.”

“I want to find those moments that my subconscious has hidden. I am more than curious—and it’s not because I’m a fiction writer who seeks a good story to write about. What’s in there is what made me a fiction writer, someone who has an insatiable need to know the reasons why things happened. In the amygdala are vast stores of disappointments and devastations, pain and wreckage. But I also want to know what the amygdala kept, because therein lies thousands of stories of how I became me.”

On the work of writing:

“But in writing fiction, the truth I seek is not a factual or scientific truth. It has to do with human nature. It is about those things that are not apparent on the surface. When I set out to write a story, I am feeling my way through a question, often a moral one, and attempting to find a way to capture all its facets and conundrums. I don’t want an absolute answer. When writing fiction, I am trying to put down what feels true.”

“The best metaphors appear unexpectedly out of the deep blue by means of intuition and my infatuation with nuance.”

“The actual writing will still be daunting. It gets harder with each novel. I will have to relearn my craft, overcome the same doubts, untangle the narrative from long detours, or take whichever detour is the story I should tell.”

On the fickleness of acclaim:

“Praise, I had learned, was temporary, what someone else controlled and doled out to you, and if you accepted it and depended on it for happiness, you would become an emotional beggar and suffer later when it was withdrawn.”

“The moon is more admired when it was full that when it was a sliver, and yet it is the same moon even when the perspective of others had changed.”

On her own fiction-writing mind:

“It is curious and open to anything. It is nonjudgmental and thus nothing it imagines is wrong. It is not bound to logic or facts. It is quick to follow any clues, but it can also be easily diverted to another direction, especially if it detects a secret or a contradiction.”

“If there is indeed a universal consciousness, it makes sense that mine would conjoin with it when the doors of imagination are flung wide open and all possibilities are allowed.”

Insight into the life and writing process of one of my favorite authors was enough to entice me to read this memoir. I’m more that glad I did and happily recommend it. Actually, I’d recommend anything written by Amy Tan. Probably even her shopping list.61qxtsbLAHL._UX250_

 

 

Book review: Just who do you think you are?

51ctthh6v4l-_sy346_The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion

Fannie Flagg

I’ve been a Flagg fan for years and have always enjoyed the Southern charm, heart, and humor with which she writes. This book is no exception.

Sookie Simmons Poole is approaching sixty and has just married off her third daughter. She’s looking forward to a little time to herself—to tend her beloved birds and maybe read a book or take a trip with her darling husband. Lenore, her “delightfully eccentric” and domineering mother lives two doors down in the tiny Gulf town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Sookie worries that she carries the gene that has made many of her ancenstors “as batty as hell.” When Sookie receives a phone call followed by a registered letter it shakes her to the core. “Identity crisis” hardly covers the impact of the news she receives.

“Growing up with Lenore, she had always felt like a little brown wren, hopping along behind a huge colorful peacock.”

Meanwhile, readers are also getting acquainted with the Jurdabralinski family who ran the Phillips 66 station in Pulaski, Wisconsin in the years between two World Wars.  Their oldest girl, a free spirit named Fritzi, falls in love with flying. She learns to wing walk and fly as she barnstorms in shows around the Midwest in the early 1940s. When World War II arrives and all the men join the fight, Fritzi and her three sisters successfully run the filling station. Fritzi learns that the Airforce is looking for experienced women fliers to ferry airplanes around the country in order to free up male pilots for combat. Fritzi is one of the first to sign up to be a WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots) and becomes one of the more that 1000 female pilots to complete seven months of training. These brave women flew sixty million miles of operation flights including ferrying aircraft from factories to bases, flight instruction (both basic and instrument), towing targets for antiaircraft and aerial gunnery, among other duties. You can find out more here: http://wingsacrossamerica.us/wasp/

“It makes me so mad when all the newspaper reporters that come here only want to show the gals putting on lipstick or posing like models…all this phony baloney stuff.  If anybody thinks this is a glamorous job and that we are just in it for the fun, they haven’t watched them pull a friend out of a burning plane and die right in front of them.”

Sookie and Fritzi’s stories are woven together and resolve in a warm and surprising way. I  recommend not only this book, but also learning more about the WASPs, a forgotten chapter of women’s history that is only now being discovered.

Love remembers us

The Day We Met: A Novel

by Rowan Coleman

day we met coverThis book moved me in a way that is hard to explain. Three—soon to be four—generations of women cope with the role reversals and the inherent tensions involved when Claire, a forty-something wife and mother is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her world and her connection to it are rapidly disappearing into a fog. She tries to anchor herself to stay present in each moment.

While riding on a train, Claire explains to the reader, “And yet, looking at my reflection, in the window opposite, hollow and translucent, I see a woman disappearing. It would help if I looked like that in real life—if the more the disease advanced, the more ‘see-through’ I became until, eventually, I would be just a wisp of a ghost. How much more convenient it would be, how much easier for everyone, including me, if my body just melted away along with my mind… Then we’d all know where we were, literally and metaphysically. I have no idea if that makes sense, but I like that I remember the word metaphysical.”
Claire can no longer drive, teach, read to her three-year-old child, or be trusted outside alone. And while she remembers loving her husband, she no longer feels love for him. She worries that if emotions are so easily altered, if they are real at all. Her mother tries to reassure her.
“I think they are real,” Mum says. “I love you more that I have ever loved anyone—even your father, and I loved him very much. And Greg loves you, and that is real, much more real than I thought, I’ll admit. Esther and Caitlin love you. A lot of people love you. And all of the feelings they have for you are real. I think it’s love that lasts. It’s love that remembers us. It’s love that is left when we are gone. I think those feelings are more real than our bodies and all the things that can go wrong with them. This”—she pinches her forearm—“is just the packaging.”

The power and endurance of love and the ways in which we show it are reinforced through what could have been a very depressing tale, but instead is hopeful, uplifting, surprising and–at times–even funny.

“What will be left of us all, is the love we have given and received.”

A road trip with Tina Fey…

bossypantsBossypants is the perfect audio book for your summer road trip, especially if you’re traveling with your daughters, sisters, or girlfriends. I mean, Tina reads it herself so it’s like she’s there in the car with you. But seriously, if you are (or know) a male who just doesn’t get why we’re still talking about feminism, it could work too. It’s that good.

Tina is funny and smart and full of self-doubt. She offers her life story as an instruction manual for parents on how to raise drug-free, adult virgins.  

She also credits much of her success to the lessons she learned in improv. Whatever the situation, respond with “Yes, and…” rather than arguing. She explains it better, of course. Tina is also a fan of surrounding yourself with smart people. Good advice whatever you do for a living.  

One tough mother

“You’ll know who you are when you start losing things.”marycoin

“It took a bit of ill-humor to make yourself up out of nothing.”

Wow. Just finished this book this morning. Mary Coin is one tough mother. She did what she had to do to feed and care for six children as a migrant farm worker during the Great Depression. What happens to her, the photographer who took her picture and the present-day historian who is inexplicably drawn to their stories is told in alternating points of view. Silver weaves a story of loss, survival, sacrifice, strength and determination.  Highly recommend.

Mary Coin at amazon

What I’m reading this week

migrant mother“They had never had anything but now they had nothing. Mary realized how different those two conditions were.”

In Mary Coin, author Marisa Silver imagines the life of the woman depicted in Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo of a migrant mother. Beautifully written, so far. We learn the back stories of the young, widowed mother of six (now seven!) children during the depression and the photographer. This is fiction, but the characters feel painfully, poignantly real.

What are you reading this week?