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Update April 2019

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Book Review

‘Island of Sea Women’ pits friendship versus tragedy

 John Rogers

Ten years ago, Lisa See was sitting in a doctor’s office leafing through magazines when she came across a brief article about a place she’d never known existed — the Island of Jeju — where the breadwinners were once a hearty band of women who eked out modest livings free-diving into the Pacific Ocean for seafood while husbands stayed home and raised children.

It was a discovery that has led to one of the most compelling — and heartstring-tugging — tales to spring from the mind of the best-selling author of “The Tea Girl From Hummingbird Lane” and nearly a dozen other novels.

Like many of the Chinese American author’s earlier books, it is set in Asia with ties to the United States, although the location this time is Korea, not China.

And like See’s “Shanghai Girls” and “Dreams of Joy,” the story takes readers on a journey spanning generations — in this case 1938 to 2008 — as moments of cherished friendship, unspeakable tragedy and, in the end, a plot twist worthy of Raymond Chandler unfold.

Early on, readers are introduced to Mi-ja and Young-sook, precocious, 7-year-old best friends despite island elders’ misgivings that Mi-ja’s father was a collaborator with the hated Japanese, who controlled the island from 1910 until the end of World War II.

The pair grow up to become “haenyeo” — Jeju’s real-life elite women divers who hone their skills over years to match an innate ability to hold their breaths longer than just about anybody as they deep dive repeatedly into frigid water to grab fish.

Out of the water, the pair grow up to happily compete for everything from husbands to bearing children.

That is until Jeju’s historic 4.3 Uprising, a real-life event (taking its name from the 1948 starting date of April 3) that is arguably one of modern history’s least-known massacres. It resulted in the deaths of some 30,000 people in 1948-49 as South Korea violently put down a rebellion over what government would control the island’s future.

Mi Ja and Young-sook become innocents caught up in the slaughter. Their friendship, strained by war, death and competing family ties, breaks apart as they struggle on against the island’s real-life historical backdrop.

By 2008, Young-sook is an old woman but still a diver. Indeed, she’s become part of a dwindling group of haenyeo in their 70s and 80s now revered as national treasures on an island that has become both a tourist attraction and a World Heritage Site.

As such she is a bit of a celebrity, much to her annoyance and her general dislike of tourists.

That’s until a day a tourist family from the United States — one that somehow seems strangely familiar — arrives to reveal things she never knew about herself, her family or her best friend. (AP)

‘Spearhead’ is a well-researched WWII tale

Kim Curtis

With his two previous books, journalist Adam Makos established himself as a meticulous researcher who’s equally adept at spinning a good, old-fashioned yarn.

In “Spearhead,” he doesn’t venture far from what he does best. Again, he returns to World War II, but he follows men on the ground rather than in the skies. And, again, he finds a hidden hero worthy of highlighting. This time, it’s Clarence Smoyer, a gunner from a working-class family in industrial Pennsylvania.

We follow Smoyer and the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Division’s Easy Company across the battlefields of Germany in 1944. In his third book, though, rather than speeding through the narrative’s twists and turns with nary a bump in the road, Makos regales readers with every detail of every firefight. For a World War II aficionado, it will read like a dream, but to the average reader, it gets to be a bit tedious.

That said, Makos’ writing remains strong and dramatic with passages like “The bark of German tank guns knifed the woods” and “As if the Germans had been listening, they suddenly cut their power. The hot engine hissed, then went silent.”

And some of the strongest storytelling comes near the end when Smoyer, now well into his 80s, meets his German counterpart. The seminal battle of Smoyer’s service took place on the streets of Cologne where he faced off with an enemy tank, and two civilians trying to flee were killed. Smoyer had been haunted by their deaths all his life. Turns out, Gustav, the only surviving German tanker from that day, had been haunted, too. Their meeting in 2013 at a Cologne hotel bar is cinematic. (AP)

Barry Lopez looks for hope beyond the ‘Horizon’

Rob Merrill

Part travel journal, part history, part science lecture, part autobiography, and completely unique, “Horizon” feels like the crowning achievement of Barry Lopez’s illustrious career.

Fans of his award-winning “Arctic Dreams” (1986) and subsequent books about little understood landscapes, cultures and wildlife will find much to love here. Readers who have never read Lopez might be better served reading one of his single-topic tomes first.

At 512 pages, this book is dense. It’s divided into six main parts based on the geography of Lopez’s lifelong travels — western Oregon, the High Arctic, the Galapagos, Kenya, Australia and Antarctica. There are maps that help readers visualize where our peripatetic narrator is at any given time, but not much else in the way of context. Lopez admits in the prologue that he consciously chose to simply tell stories, not explain any “juxtapositions in time,” but it would have provided readers with helpful perspective to know more about his life circumstances during any given trip.

The resulting feel of the book is fragmented — perhaps intentionally mirroring the way memory works? — with passages about the power of music to “pry something ineluctable out of a particular landscape” (listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on Skraeling Island, 660 nautical miles from the North Pole) just 20 pages removed from a technical explanation of how the Antarctic Moon and Neutrino Detector Array at the South Pole works.

Each of the chapters is jammed with stories and personal reflections. Lopez, perhaps more than any other nature writer alive, is introspective to his core. Every experience, every sight, every person he meets, has made an impression on him and unlike most of us he kept notes. This book is his attempt to look back on it all and say something about the world we share.

Whether you personally lean toward the cynical or hopeful, one thing is certain — we need adventurous, curious souls like Lopez to keep traveling and bringing back stories from beyond our particular horizon — in order to find our way forward as a species, together. (AP)


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

‘Island of Sea Women’ pits friendship versus tragedy

‘Spearhead’ is a well-researched WWII tale

Barry Lopez looks for hope beyond the ‘Horizon’