The Tango War, by Mary Jo McConahay****

TheTangoWarI read my copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This book is for sale now.

This meaty little nugget is one of a kind. I had sworn off World War II, both fictional and historical, because so much information gets repeated; you can only read so much about the most visceral parts of this conflict before your worldview darkens. I am out of the classroom and had promised myself a chance to stop and smell the roses in my retirement years. But then there’s this.

Firstly, there’s nothing about the Holocaust to speak of here. That was a draw card, because I am done with that most searing of horrors for awhile. Instead, she writes about Latin America during the war—and I knew nothing, nothing, nothing about any of this. I was aware that there were some nations down there that are reputed to have flirted with the fascists, and even then, I wasn’t sure it that was the truth or a myth.

The book is broken down, not by relevant Latin American countries, but by subtopics, and this is both more analytical and more interesting than if she’d done it the obvious way. Who knew that there was a model city established inside of the Amazon in an effort to rope more employees—well, slaves—into harvesting rubber for the war? Who knew that vast amounts of South American petroleum ran the trucks and tanks that rolled over Europe? Perhaps most appallingly—who knew that Japanese expatriates and their families, born and raised in Peru and other locations in Latin America,  were kidnapped in a down-low deal between the US and the governments of the affected nations so that the US could intern them, then use them for prisoner swaps?

There are enough weird-but-true facts here to cross your eyes, and the author has her documentation at the ready.  A fifth star is denied because of what isn’t here; why portray United Fruit as upstanding patriots? Many of us know this corporation was a sinister entity with its roots tangled deeply in the CIA. Lots of Guatemalans have plenty to say about United Fruit.  More directly related here is the brief, friendly reference to Disney as a WWII patriot, and yet many of us know how warmly Uncle Walt regarded Hitler: the catch-phrase “Mauschwitz” says it all.  Partial truths make me wonder what else I am missing as I read this.

With that one caveat, this book is recommended to you. The citations are thorough and the text is written free of technical terms that might hamper a wide readership.  Read it critically, but do read it.

Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett *****

dontsleeptherearesnakesI read this shortly after it came out, and I’ve been going nuts trying to remember the title. Thank goodness for Google’s search engine! Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes is an amazing memoir that challenges assumptions under which most first-worlders have lived for a very long time.

Everett went to Brazil with his wife;they were Protestant missionaries, sent by their church to convert the Pirahas, an indigenous people who live deep inside the Amazon jungle, to Christ. They took a few tools and trinkets with them, which have been useful to missionaries–think of them as spiritual bribes–for generations. They traveled under tremendous physical hardship, experiencing terrible illness and threatened by deadly snakes and other jungle life, risking their necks for their cause.

Furthermore, they were tasked with deciphering the Piraha language so that the New Testament could be translated for the salvation of these Christless savages.

Instead, the opposite occurred.

First of all, the Pirahas didn’t want their stinking trinkets. Even items that Westerners regard as essential, such as knives and cooking pots, were only of temporary interest. When presented with these goodies, they would enjoy them, then abandon them. Because stuff doesn’t matter to the Pirahas, and when you’re a nomadic people, you need to travel light.

At first, Everett patiently tried to teach them to hang onto things so they’d have them when they needed them. He watched them go to a tremendous amount of effort to replicate a process that the knife, the cook pot could have shortened by hours, not to mention a reduced physical effort. But over the course of time, they let him know that it wasn’t that they didn’t understand him; they just didn’t agree.

And the greatest barrier to the conversion of the Pirahas to Christianity is this: they were already happy.

Eventually, Everett found himself questioning his own prayers. Why was he asking the Almighty to help him change these people, to obliterate their successful lifestyle–at least by the basic standard of personal fulfillment, as opposed to who has the greater technology–in order to become grasping materialists trying to keep up with the Joneses?

Ultimately, he came to a startling conclusion: the Pirahas were absolutely correct. His God was a myth. All the Pirahas needed was what they already had, and to be left alone, along with the environment in which they flourished. And this conclusion ultimately cost him his marriage, but he could not, would not retreat into the opiate of Christianity. Once he had a clue, he couldn’t lose it.

It’s a fascinating read.

Everett also develops a new understanding of how language is learned. My daughter, who is a passionate linguist herself, tells me that his discovery is flawed and has been discredited. I would not know. It sure sounded interesting to me.

The one thing I can guarantee is that if you have no religious drum to pound yourself, you’ll find the transformation that occurs here compelling.

Not recommended reading for serious Christians.