Two good books you’ve not heard of

Discovering great new books is always fun – but when they’re written by friends or family it’s joyously so. Friend and former neighbor Donna Levin has a new novel, There’s More Than One Way Home which I’ve ordered but not yet read; it involves a mother and her autism spectrum son, a theme explored by WordPress blogger friend Antoinette Banks of Tailor Made Life.

Literary talent in the family, though, what special fun. Here’s a story of two very different, very interesting books you’ve probably not heard of – but may want to check out.

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Iceland: bucolic, and enticing

Adam Nichols, who is married to my niece and thus I claim him as nephew, is co-author of a fascinating new book, The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: The Story of the Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland in 1627. It’s a tale familiar to Icelanders for centuries, and now making its way into other countries. It’s also a tale that can make you think perhaps the perils of the 21st century aren’t so bad after all.

The Corsairs, when in need of either ransom money or cheap labor or both, simply took off from Africa in pirate ships, swooped down on a likely community and carried off the citizens to sell in the Barbary Coast slave trade. In between times they intercepted ships on the high seas and made off with whatever they found. Human rights were a long way off.

Barbary Corsairs

Barbary Corsairs in action

In 1627, such a raid took place in the Icelandic village where Rev. Olafur was a Lutheran minister. A few villagers escaped, some were killed, and the rest – including Rev. Olafur and his wife and children – were taken off to be sold as slaves. At some point the good reverend was released and sent on his way to raise ransom money from the King of Denmark. No spoiler alert: the tale won’t be followed any farther here. To history’s benefit, Rev. Olafur kept a diary, carefully noting details of his journeys and somewhat dispassionately relating what happened to his friends and family. It is that diary that translates into The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson.

Travels of Rev Olafur cover

Cover photo

 Adam Nichols, a longtime English teacher and author of nine books of fantasy fiction, lived in Iceland for several years. He worked with co-author Karl Smari Hreinsson to create this edition, published by Catholic University of America Press, which is exhaustively annotated to help 21st  century readers follow this 17th century tale. Adam, who is also #1 errand-runner/ taxi driver/ general assistant to my 89-year-old sister, is working on a new book about the Barbary Corsairs, a biography of one of the leaders of the 1627 raid.

Jumping several centuries forward from the Barbary Corsairs, a tale of the 20th century “Greatest Generation” is told by my niece Leslie Sinyard, in her new book Don’t Look. . . Just Jump: The Life of Olive Hammons Weathersby. Far more than an oral history, Don’t Look. . . Just Jump brings to life not just the subject – who died shortly after her 93rd birthday in April, 2013 – but a generation and a kinder, gentler time. Olive’s sweetheart, who would become a widely recognized entomologist/professor and her husband for nearly five adventurous decades, sent letters from the battlefields of World War II wishing they could go out for a Coke date. If either of the couple felt really strongly about something, a ‘Darn!’ might enter the conversation.

Don't Look Just Jump

But the Olive Weathersby story is no timid tale. The title refers to the time when she was the first civilian to parachute from a crashing airplane, and the adventures the couple shared were anything but bland. His work took them to Egypt, where they lived on an island in the Nile; to Tehran, where she first experienced living in a Muslim community; and to Japan, where her kitchen window featured a view of Mt. Fuji in the distance. Eventually they settled in Athens, Georgia to raise their two adopted sons in the turbulent times of the late 20th century.

Leslie Sinyard, who shared a deep Christian faith with the woman her children called their “Athens grandmother,” spent six years interviewing “Miss Olive” and tracking the story. For someone whose career was in business and finance, she turns out to be a remarkable literary storyteller – with a remarkable story to tell.

Russia — and Nuclear Arms Racing

moscow-cathedral

Russia occupies a soft spot in my heart.

It grew out of the boundless enthusiasm for everything Slavic exuded by my Russian-major college roommate – or may have been seeded earlier by the cloth-covered storybooks full of babushkas, snow-covered cottages and deep forests that I so loved as a child. It expanded through and beyond the one time I was lucky enough to visit the country. I love the vastness of its countryside, the majesty of its ancient cathedrals, the intriguing complexity of its history, the wonder of its literature, the no-nonsense hospitality of its people.

I especially love every single one of those non-English-speaking Russians who helped me find the Dostoesvsky Museum in St. Petersberg one day, as I wandered a very long boulevard, counting canals, clutching my map and repeatedly smiling at perfect strangers, pointing to the spot and saying “Dostoevsky Musee?” More than a dozen of them patiently took turns guiding me along. The last took me by the arm and walked me several blocks and down the steps to the obscure doorway through which I entered the last apartment inhabited by one of my literary heroes. (I would never have found it!)

Dostoevsky Museum.jpg

Many friends and strangers across the U.S. share this affection. Much travelled scientist/author Jo Anne Valentine Simson writes in her small, lovely new book Russia Revisited: Come Take a Tour with Me that it “is one of my favorite countries in the world – huge and beautiful, with a complex and tortured history and a culture to match.”

But we do not love Mr. Putin. From this vantage point, he is among a handful of dangerous tyrants determined to centralize power and increasingly restrict the freedom of ordinary citizens. Simson puts it this way: “Unfortunately, in 2016 the political power seems to be devolving once again into a form of aristocracy, with Vladimir Putin behaving like an autocrat.”

We also don’t like the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Or another dangerous arms race destined to increase the supply of nuclear weapons in the U.S., Russia and who knows where else. Which is why we find the “bring it on” tweets of our president-elect more than a little scary.

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by Snoron.com

According to the good people of Ploughshares Fund, there are currently 15,375 nuclear weapons held by nine countries. The U.S. and Russia have 93 percent of them. That means each of us already has enough nukes to destroy the planet several times over. A small dispute between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, whom our president-elect admires but seems eager to challenge, could unleash a few and end life as we know it on this fragile planet.

A little less trash-tweeting and a little less talk about building nuclear stockpiles would be a nice Happy New Year gift for Russians and Americans alike.

Surviving Times of Chaos

Plane & streak

Face it, recent days were not a good time to be flying Delta Airlines. Bless its corporate heart, Delta was not really at fault when lightning struck the mothership computer – or whatever the heck happened that grounded flights all over the globe August 8th. But those of us hoping to get from Point A to Point B in the ensuing days had an adventuresome time of it.

It was an adventure of spontaneity and low expectations. That is, if you can live in the moment, and not expect too much of it, the next moment might see you advancing toward the goal. Sort of like trying to go from Mediterranean Avenue to Boardwalk with a couple of wild rolls of the dice, but without a Get Out of Jail Free card.

In my case, the goal was San Francisco, and I was rolling the dice in Atlanta. Initially, all seemed well. Repeated assurances that my 10:44 AM flight would be leaving on time plus receipt of my Confirmation Number and boarding pass led me to pack my bag and go to sleep with a happy heart. At 2:59 AM though – I learned a little later; I was not watching my phone for text messages at 2:59 AM – the digital gremlins who ruled the world for a while there decided to cancel my nonstop flight and re-book me on a 7:30 PM flight to Detroit with an eventual connection that would get me home to San Francisco around, oh, 3 AM with any luck. Not really great news.Airport crowd 8.10.16

Unlike the probable majority of discombobulated Delta passengers, I had an ace in the hole: an American Airlines pilot son. In the midst of the Delta chaos, this was better than two hotels on Boardwalk. Although he was somewhere between Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico on another plane himself, he was able to get me onto a flight to Dallas and subsequently thence to San Francisco in time for dinner.

The stories swirling around all those terminals, in all those airports throughout all that time could fill a bunch of books.

There was the woman in a tan polka-dot dress who spoke an unrecognizable language – something not quite Spanish – and no English. In the time she and I shared a waiting area at Gate A-17 at least three different passengers responded to her bewilderment in mysterious tongues, in attempts to help or understand. Yours truly tried pointing to our respective boarding passes (for cancelled flights) but was of zero help. An agent, one hopes and believes, eventually materialized and got her onto a plane flying in the right direction.

There was a mother with two small children and a baby in an over-the-shoulder baby-carrier who said, into her phone, “I couldn’t have left it at the hotel! It has to be in the car!” Oh please, I thought, let it be in the car where presumably her husband can find it and all will be well.

And there were more than a few snippets of conversation, as I was passing by: “yesterday… I know, but I couldn’t get there…” or “we need to postpone it to tomorrow, or Friday…”  Postponement was the order of the day.

What was missing, in the stories of frustration and anxiety I overheard, was this: anger. Anger was probably very much present in the first chaotic day or two. But as the global chaos settled down I was reminded of another time of airport chaos.

Home sweet home from the plane's window

Home sweet home from the plane’s window

It was a flight from San Francisco to Portland on September 14, 2001, on either the first or second day that commercial flights were back in the air after 9/11. Lines waiting to go through security stretched the length of the terminal, and moved at a snail’s pace. But the mood was all kindness and tolerance. We shared stories about friends lost or stranded, or about our own fortunes. We held places in line for people who needed a bathroom break, we brought each other lattes.

Delta’s momentary blip is in no way comparable to the tragedy of 9/11, and this writer saw only a tiny blip of the aftermath. But it is somehow reassuring to believe that the human spirit can survive small inconvenience as well as major chaos – with a little patience, grace and kindness. Considering the major chaos of these days, especially between now and election day, we’re going to need a lot of all three.