Book review: Elephant Company offers compelling details

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Cover of book about elephants in Burma in WWII and pre-war period

Marvelous.  For nonfiction, Vicki Croke has spun quite the yarn about Jim Williams (aka Bill Williams), elephant logging expert, and his life and times in the jungles of Burma.  Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II (published in 2014) reads almost like a novel.

In 1921, Williams signs on with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation as a forest assistant in the teak logging industry in Burma.  He supervises uzis who are the Burmese elephant handlers with multiple teams of elephants throughout his assigned territory.  He must contend with Harding, an older, grizzled Brit who likes giving newbies a hard time.  Williams is very sensitive to the needs of elephants and the Burmese people, often behaving more like biologist or sociologist than a corporate field manager.  He sets out to learn everything he can about elephants and their culture.  Eventually, Williams earns Harding’s respect.

Readers learn a great deal about working elephants in the process.  In Burma, the Asian elephant is domesticated up to a point—as somebody in the book suggests—domesticated for eight hours a day.  After working their shift, they go off to forage on their own and spend time with their elephant families.  In the morning they grudgingly report back to work, but seem to enjoy the cat-and-mouse relationship with their handlers.  We learn about elephant anatomy (for example, they can’t lie on their sides for long because of how their chest and lungs are configured), their habits (such as taking their time before river crossings until one female always steps forward to lead them across), but more importantly, their generosity of spirit, exhibited most vividly by Bandoola, the elephant hero of the book, who establishes a very close working relationship with Williams over the years, performing every logging and wartime assignment with enormous strength, responsiveness, and discernment.

Williams also meets a British woman, which isn’t an easy thing to do in the jungle, and they marry.  They are very compatible and both happy.  They experience hardships in the field, but like Williams, she is hale and hearty, and starts having children.

Then the war comes.  For those of you who are more interested in military history than in elephant husbandry, this book may not meet your expectations.  It takes a long time before this book gets to World War II.  When it comes, it is focused at first on the evacuation of women and children, which the elephants help with as pack animals.  The military wants to continue using elephants in that way, for hauling heavy loads during the war.  But Williams convinces them that elephants are smart enough that their skills be put to better use as master bridge builders.  That is the elephants’ primary contribution to the Allies in Burma during the war.  Do not read this book expecting a 20th century version of Hannibal’s elephant cavalry charge.  These are transport and engineering elephants, not cavalry elephants.

Croke’s respect for Williams, Bandoola, and elephants in general is evident throughout the book.  At a couple of points, the praise is laid on a bit thick, but it is difficult not come away with a similar respect for those depicted in the book.  For me, the highlight was the opportunity to learn about elephants and their interactions with humans in such fascinating detail.

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Book Review: Night of the Crabs

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Paperback book cover of Guy N. Smith's Night of the Crabs

The cover of my paperback copy says “In the tradition of The Rats.”  But Guy N. Smith’s Night of the Crabs (1976) is a much better and tighter narrative adventure than the sleazy, booze-induced vignettes of Herbert’s Rats.

Cliff, a scientist, goes to the coast of Wales to investigate the disappearance of his nephew and his girlfriend, both strong swimmers.  While observing the coast, he is arrested by military personnel who think he is spying on them.  Eventually cleared, he is released.

He meets Pat, a young widow, who teams up with him to find out what is happening on the beach.  They discover that giant crabs are crawling out of the water at night, including the biggest and smartest among them, whom Cliff calls King Crab.  Battles follow, with the crabs seemingly impervious to conventional military power.  One wonders if there’s a light metaphor here for the British Army in the 1970s contending with Irish Republican Army terrorists, but this certainly doesn’t come across as a strongly political book or a novel with a social critique.

At any rate, Cliff proposes a plan to bomb the underwater cave system where they spend their days, which should trap them in a watery grave.  You should read it for yourself to find out what happens next.

The book is clever because it takes an animal, the crab, that isn’t scary, and turns it into a story that is.  Not horrifying in the sense of a Steven King horror novel, but scary in the sense of a good old-fashioned monster movie or a perfect campfire story to tell late at night after a clam bake.

While it probably was capitalizing on the success of Jaws (murky, underwater threat snatches innocent victims and their body parts) as much as it was on The Rats, it is not as credible as either.  It’s easier to imagine one deranged shark or an infestation of dangerous rats than it is to believe in the sudden surfacing of a group of giant, mutant, intelligent crabs.

But it still works.  Cliff and Pat aren’t particularly deep or complex, but they are likeable and worth cheering for.  They recognize the severity of the threat early on, and of course the community and the top brass of the military don’t take it seriously enough.  If you like that kind of story, you’ll love this.

Again, it’s a fun, tight little piece of fiction.  A short book, it’s readable in two or three sittings.

Review: Richard III leads sheep to the slaughter

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Recognizing the threat posed by Gloucester early on, Queen Elizabeth says, “I fear our happiness is at the height.”  Ten murders later with Gloucester crowned as Richard III, the former queen, Margaret, laments to his mother, “From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept a hellhound that doth hunt us all to death.”  Separately, Margaret sums up some of the recent changes in succession during the regicidal War of Roses saying “I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him; I had a Henry, till a Richard kill’d him.”  The observations of the women in Richard III are among the keenest and most enjoyable elements of Shakespeare’s play.

The noblemen vacillate between opposing and supporting Richard.  Clarence, his brother and one of his first on-stage victims says, “The great King of kings hath in the table of his law commanded that though shalt do no murder: will you then spurn at his edict, and fulfil a man’s?”

Spurn it he does, deceiving and stabbing his way to the throne.  Richard demonstrates the traits that brought him to power through pointed, unrivaled language.  Ruthlessness:  “Conscience is but a word that cowards use.” Decisiveness:  “Off with his head.”  Self-aggrandizement while belittling others:  “To royalize his [Henry VI’s] blood I spilt my own” and “Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace.”  And speed:  “Delay leads impotent and snail-pac’d beggary.”

Richard’s lethal rise makes the audience scratch its collective head about why more of the characters don’t act sooner to stop him.  But we can ask ourselves the same questions about quiescence in the face of totalitarian regimes in the 20th Century and today.

But eventually Richard’s thirst for blood and paranoia (“my kingdom stands on brittle glass”) alienate even his most ardent toadies.  His denial of an earldom to Buckingham is enough to send him into the growing camp of rebellion.  Eventually the forces of Richard and Richmond, a nobleman descended from both the Lancaster and York families, meet on the battlefield.  Richard is haunted by the ghosts of his victims in dreams the night before the battle, which doesn’t bode well for him.  After being famously unhorsed and killed, Richmond promises, at long last, “We will unite the white rose and the red.”

The parade of Henrys, Edwards, and Richards in English history and Shakespeare’s histories can be challenging to follow.  The troops of uncles with place names and Christian names that don’t always match the character cues doesn’t help much either.  But a willingness to slog through those challenges is necessary to experience the grandeur of the language and to confront our own moral cowardice in the face of evil.

Book review: my verdict on The Verdict

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In Nick Stone’s The Verdict, a law clerk in Britain must defend an old enemy on charges of murdering a blonde in his hotel suite.  The clerk, Terry, decides to defend the suspect, VJ, as best as he can despite being burned by him 20 years earlier.  The defense team’s investigation takes Terry on a wild ride through the streets of London, dodging bullets and working with a colorful and sleazy investigator.

This is a well told story that keeps you guessing.  Is VJ’s story true or did he kill the blonde?  The investigation points in one direction, but will trial go the same way?  What were the reasons for Terry and VJ’s falling out and will they reconcile?  When will Terry’s law firm fire him?  The answers are expertly woven together throughout the course of the book.

In addition to the suspense, there are two other compelling aspects of the book.  First, the trial itself is engrossing.  Although we are familiar with the details of the investigation by the time the trial begins, Stone writes the lawyers’ opening statements, questions to the witnesses, and closing arguments in a way that keeps surprising us.

Secondly, Terry’s character is very well developed.  The book is told from his point of view.  Terry is very frank and personal with the readers about his own failings and past.  We learn more about him through the novel than his wife knows about him.  Because of that, you will feel closer to him than you may feel toward most protagonists in contemporary thrillers.

On the downside, the book is long.  It took me three times longer to read this compared to other thrillers I’ve read lately.  There were a few implausible scenes in Part III of the novel that didn’t work for me.  The trial does not begin until three-quarters of the way through the novel, so calling this a “courtroom drama” is misleading.  There is also a confusing B-story that related to the main story but didn’t add much to it.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it Grisham fans, speed readers, and Anglophiles.