Posts Tagged ‘Joe Occhipinti’

As World War II was coming to a close, twenty-four U.S. soldiers crashed into the New Guinea mountains while on a sightseeing excursion.  Curiously enough, the plane was on its way to fly over a recently discovered hidden valley untouched by the modern world.  The twenty-one men and women who were killed included nine Women’s Army Corps (WAC) members.  One of those, Laura Earline Besley, was a local Pennsylvania woman from Shippenville.

On May 13, 1945, Ms Besley was one of only four not to perish in the actual crash, but sadly she died the next day from what were probably internal injuries.  Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff, details that experience and the ongoing story of the three survivors, who faced severe burns, the harsh conditions of a mountain jungle, and indigenous people thought to be violent and dangerous.  The book goes on to recount one of the most interesting and unusual rescue missions of World War II.

I was inspired to read Lost in Shangri-La because of the local connection to Laura Besley.  If one is looking to learn about her and her demise this book is a good place to start.  The Clarion County Historical Society has an informative display for anyone interested in the particulars of this story as they pertain to Ms Besley.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was the way the author depicted the cultural clash and misunderstandings among the soldiers, the rescuers, and the natives.  The book informs and entertains with rich anthropological details about the Dani, a supposedly war mongering people who were completely isolated from the rest of the world.

At first, the author emphasized the potential brutality of Stone Age cannibals who smear their bodies in pig grease and wear genital gourds.  As I am sensitive to the stereotypes towards native people, I found this depiction to be jarring, but over the course of the story I came to believe the author portrays the Dani in a fair and interesting way.

The author’s language can be stark, but it is meant to represent the attitudes and ideals of the times, capturing a period of transition in how we in the modern West imagine the exotic cultures in the hidden corners of the world.  On the other hand, the author’s sympathetic portrayal of the Phillipino-American soldiers who volunteered for the rescue mission is somewhat less telling about the attitudes of the times.

One should not underestimate the research behind these kinds of historical accounts, and I applaud the author for his devotion to historical accuracy.  On occasion, however, I wished for a more literary interpretation of the events.  There were times when the writing felt too much like a no-nonsense account from a field reporter.

No matter if one is a lover of history, or simply enjoys a good adventure story, Lost in Shangri-La does not disappoint.  This kind of creative non-fiction writing is an enjoyable way to access the richness of history.  Joe Occhipinti


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Joe Occhipinti, Strangers in the Gale: Children of the Three Suns, Book 1

I must admit at the get-go that I offer no pretense of being a bona fide literary critic.  If there are any pretensions of competence remaining, the most valid one may be that I’ve spent over half a century reading in this particular genre.  And akin to the fact that owning a large number of very cheap cars in my teenage/early twenties period has given me a residual ability to diagnose car problems by ear, reading shelf upon shelf of both good and bad sci-fi and fantasy has provided a generous database to differentiate one from the other.  Again from my formative years, I recall an overused catchphrase that could apply here: “I may not know art, but I know what I like.”  And writing good science fiction is, of course, an art as well as a craft.

Strangers in the Gale is an ambitious and intriguing novel, combining two popular themes.  Rebellion of the virtuous few against an oppressive government has drawn great stories from the imaginations of a myriad of authors and screenwriters from Heinlein to Collins, while also happening to be the subject of a goodly percentage of current headlines and network news bites.  And the interaction between human inter-planetary colonists and indigenous life forms is the subject of at least as many “rollicking good tales,” albeit without as many real-time analogs.  This book evokes some of the best examples of the Niven/Pournelle colony world collaborations, combined with the sort of imaginative flash and stand-out character development epitomized by masters like Varley and Zelazney.  The interpersonal relationships of the protagonists quickly become quite complex and conflicted, which is where the best stories spring from.

Carefully avoiding a “spoiler,” it can still be said that the threads of the plot as narrated from multiple viewpoints weave together to finally provide a finish that leaves the reader eagerly awaiting the promised second installment of the trilogy when the possibilities contained in the culminating Message begin to be realized.

Kudos indeed to Mr. Occhipinti.  Chaz Walton

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