Sunday, December 8, 2013

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" by David Mitchell (2010)

David Mitchell also wrote "Cloud Atlas," which is one of those books you've been meaning to get around to buying for forever. If it's anything like "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet," it will be well worth whatever you pay for it.

A couple of years ago, you heard a lot of reviews for this book on NPR. They were so glowing that you bought it for Liz one Christmas and she turned out to be just as impressed by it as Maureen Corrigan was. You finally picked it off the shelf recently and were kind of blown away too.

This book was extraordinary. Set mostly in Japan at the dawn of the 19th century, it follows the life of the title character. Jacob De Zoet is a young clerk for the Dutch East India Trading Company. The Company has had exclusive trading rights to the Japanese home islands for over 150 years. No other Europeans are allowed any contact with the Japanese. Built by hand in the 1600's for the Portuguese, the island of Dejima sits mere yards off the coast of Nagasaki and it is the lone trading post for the Dutch in Japan. The Japanese have shunned all contact with the world outside their borders.

For a citizen of Japan to attempt to leave their homeland is a guaranteed death sentence, and for those who do sneak away, returning home means the same thing. Christianity is considered an invasive, destructive religion and all references to its existence are banned. Dutch access to the people of Japan is highly controlled. Simply put, it is the most xenophobic environment possible.

And yet... somehow Jacob De Zoet falls in love with a Japanese woman. This is the main event in the story. The plot unfolds beautifully,  revealing small personal triumphs and conspicuous bravery, conspiracy, adventure, and politics. The villains are epic and the commoners are noble. The story is entrancing and the characters become intimately familiar. But the story is not what was so intoxicating to you about this book.

It was the writing.

It is absolutely beautiful. Being married to an incredibly talented writer has spoiled you so that something has to be pretty phenomenal to really impress you, but this was like few things you've ever read before. The prose was so soaring it bordered on poetry. In the fewest words imaginable, Mitchell was able to illicit powerful emotions in you and conjure in your mind exquisitely detailed scenes. His ability to plunge you into his creation seemed almost effortless.

At one point he describes Jacob listening to his friend play the harpsichord. Mitchell describes the moment's effect on Jacob like this:

"The music provokes a sharp longing the music soothes."

Oh, my God. Right? Who writes like that? In nine words he evokes so much emotion and empathy that you are instantly inside Jacob's mind. In nine words he describes something that you yourself have felt but never known how to express.

You love how books can take you inside the minds of people who never existed in the first place. This book was able to do this with a ease bordering on magic. Mitchell uses language like a master painter uses color. He makes you see things in a different way, he allows you to empathize with people you had never before known existed.

Works of historical fiction (you've read two in the last month) have the unique ability to place you inside a moment or an era in a way that history books don't. As wonderful as history books are, they can't quite take you inside the minds of the people involved. There's always that lingering knowledge that whatever evidence they left behind, no one can record all of their inner thoughts. You are always left outside of the people in history books. You are always an observer. Through fiction, you can become a participant. You can stand on the walls of a far flung isolated outpost and feel the shock wave of artillery shells, surrender to the fear, marvel at the inner working of a mind that is moments from death. You can see events long passed in a more personal and intimate way.

You are connected to everything that every human before you has ever done. This moment, with your fingers on these keys, is the culmination of eons of actions that other people took, decisions they made. Their repercussions have echoed through the lives of everyone else around them. You are a part of a massive tapestry of history. "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" allowed you to see the individual threads of that tapestry with a beautiful clarity.

Sacrifice is extraordinary, but not exactly rare. Sorrow is universal and intensifies joy for us all. Longing is just a pessimist's word for hope. For all it's ugliness, the world is a beautiful place. Love exists, and in lives that are often overshadowed by seemingly more important things, it is love that we each take with us when we leave this world. Love is what we all remember, not events.

At one point, Orito, the object of Jacob's affection, thinks "The belly craves food. The tongue craves water. The heart craves love. The mind craves stories." Mitchell's extraordinary book satisfied the craving in your mind for stories like few books have. But, like any satisfied craving, as time wears on the craving just comes back even stronger.

On to the next book!

P.S. The city of Nagasaki has restored the island of Dejima (although it's no longer an island) as an historical site. It's the 21st century now, so you can, of course, experience a street level view of the restoration site on google maps. You can virtually walk the streets that Jacob De Zoet walked (even though he never existed).

P.P.S.  As an amateur historian, you found a poignant irony in the fact that this beautiful story was set in, of all places, Nagasaki. Here was where the Japanese people first allowed intimate contact with the rest of the world. Fifty years after the events in this story took place, Commodore Perry would sail into Tokyo Bay with his White Fleet and the United States would force the Japanese people to open their nation to contact and trade with the rest of the world, and it would all be begun at the barrel of a gun. Japan would embrace the concept of modernization and imperialism with a disturbing totality that would soon shock the world.

Another 145 years after Jacob fell in love on that man-made island embraced by the waters of Nagasaki Bay, those same waters would boil under the heat of a man-made sun. 80,000 people would be vaporized in an instant by a bomb called 'Fat Boy.' It would be called an atomic bomb, created by the very folks who claimed that the people of Japan were barbarians. Another 120,000 people in this city that David Mitchell describes with such beauty would die hideously from radiation poisoning within five years of that bombing. Ironically, only 500 meters from Ground Zero would be the largest Christian church in the entire Far East (this is hinted at in the book by the presence of secretive and closeted Christians in the nearby countryside). Many, if not most, of the posterity of the characters in "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" would die in a massive fireball created by the same civilization that once sought nothing but commerce and wealth through contact with the Japanese people. The same city that witnessed a nation being brought into the 19th century is also the same city that would witness that nation being blasted back from the 20th century.

This awful, unimaginable destruction of the city of Nagasaki would prove to be the event that ended the bloodiest and most costly war in human history. Maybe the world would have ended up a better place if Japan had been allowed the luxury of being left to her own devices back in the 1800's. Or maybe not. The 20th century would most certainly have looked very different if Japan had been allowed to maintain her isolation. The conclusions of the past are replete with both obvious absolutes and countless ambiguities, but reading history books (and now historical fiction) reminds you that one thing is certain... the future is always a great unknown.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Generation Kill" by Evan Wright (2004)

In March of 2003, Allied forces, lead overwhelmingly by the United States of America, invaded Iraq. There were two main thrusts into the heart of the country. They were coordinated in a classic pincer maneuver with the intent to seize Baghdad and cut off Saddam Husein's hold on power. The US Army led the western thrust, and the eastern thrust was given to the United States Marine Corps. It was the the longest overland assault in Marine Corps history. The vanguard of that Marine assault was the elite special forces First Reconnaissance Battalion. In the backseat of the Humvee that proved to often be the northern most Marine unit in the entire country was a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. He recorded his experience and wrote a book about it (and yes, HBO made a miniseries out of it and that might be what made you want to buy the book in the first place).

The Marine First Recon Battalion is more than just an elite unit. They are Special Forces on par with the Navy SEALS and Delta Force. There are fewer than 400 Marines in First Recon (and this book made it seem like more than half of them are from Texas), but in the spring of '03 and in the pages of "Generation Kill" the few and the proud lead the invasion of Iraq. Their forte is speed and infiltration. For this they sacrifice the protection of tanks and heavy weaponry. Since it is the invasion's first days and IEDs aren't yet a concern, the Humvees these men drive are not even armored. In fact many of them have no sides or tops at all. First Recon was used as human bait to trip the ambushes that everyone knew were coming along the Marine Corps' main invasion route.

It kept occurring to you as you were reading that First Recon is not designed for this job. They are supposed to be the eyes and ears of the Corps. The specialize in covert actions taking places far behind enemy lines or far below his sea lanes. They are a reconnaissance battalion steeped in a warrior spirit and trained to operate independently while cut off from command and surrounded by overwhelming enemy numbers. They are intended to be used like Robert E Lee's cavalry or Eisenhower's Rangers, but in the invasion of Iraq they are used more like Rommel's panzers. The biggest difference being that panzers had armor and devastating main guns. The men of First Recon were not asked to perform the jobs they had trained for. It could be argued that their talents and skills were squandered. No one asked them to parachute far behind enemy lines and melt into the countryside, or to perform deep sea dives beneath enemy naval emplacements. No one intended to utilize these Special Forces warriors in the way they had been trained to be used. Rather than wielded like a highly honed instrument, the men of First Recon were used as the battering ram of the United States military and they had a reporter riding shotgun with them.

"Generation Kill" alternates between hilarious moments from the Marines and poignant observations from the reporter himself. The driver of Wright's Humvee is a young Marine named Corporal Person. Throughout the story, he is sleep deprived and amped up on ephedrine and caffeine. Person's rambling brainstorms, random rantings, and sardonic commentary provide most of the story's punch lines. But there are moments when the dark realities of war are undeniable.

After the first few days of the invasion, the men are ordered to roll through a town in an obvious attempt to trip an ambush. Wright, unarmed and riding in an unarmored Humvee describes in great detail the extraordinary destruction a convoy of Marines can wreak on a town. You were reminded that it is not a good idea to set Marines loose in any setting unless you are absolutely certain that you want everything to be destroyed. It is what they do, and they do it very well. Presidents would do well to remember that before ordering them into combat.

Most of the Iraqi military had defected and surrendered by the thousands as soon as they could, but civilians from throughout the Middle East had flocked to Iraq and formed a guerrilla force, or Fedayeen, filled with the desire to fight the American invaders. Saddam had ordered them to hit the flanks of the invading American lines, wreak havoc on the American plans, and then fade into the civilian population. This made distinguishing fighters from civilians almost impossible. Of course many, if not most, of the enemy fighters were killed in their hopelessly one-sided battles against the finest fighting force the world has ever known. But it is a long-standing truth of war that when modern weapons are unleashed inside cities innocents are going to die. Tragically, in fighting off Fedayeen ambushes and in enforcing night time roadblocks, Marines of First Recon Battalion killed civilians. In the moment, in the fury of war, the realization that they had killed innocents was not as terrible a burden for the Marines to bear as was the constant fear that they would screw up and let their fellow Marines die. War is an awful thing and priorities are clarified in a way that you will hopefully never have to learn.

Throughout the story there emerges a major disconnect between the higher officers and the enlisted men and their direct commanders. At one point, the higher officers actually order an airstrike on an Iraqi hamlet thinking it will boost the morale of the fighting Marines. Those fighting Marines however, are furious that their bosses had just needlessly killed so many civilians. The efforts to boost morale had the opposite effect but likely succeeded in creating more enemies bent on revenge.

In fact, it impressed you that on more than one occasion, these Marines expressed empathy with the Iraqis. Over and over Wright quotes the men turning to one another and saying things like, "What would we do if an invading army did this kind of thing back home?" or, "What must these people think of us?" It would have been helpful in the atmosphere of international good will generated in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil, if the leaders of the United States had had anything like the same mind set as these warriors. If the leaders of the Free World had considered some of these simple soldiers' questions, a disastrous war might have been avoided.

The story of the invasion of Iraq is obviously the setting for "Generation Kill" but, as the title suggests, it is more of a story of the men in First Recon and how they handled the stresses and shocks of war. Wright makes it painfully obvious that even the toughest Marine can lose his shit when introduced to combat. When the bullets start flying, and lives are hanging in the balance, what makes all the chaos even remotely manageable is a clear-headed commander who can think logically in order to solve the problem at hand. Calm, professional Marines can handle almost any situation and work to mitigate their losses while still achieving clear objectives. Instead, men like 'Encino Man' and 'Captain America' (Wright withholds their names to protect them from embarrassment) would scream panicked orders into their radios when under fire. They would shoot blindly at perceived threats, mistreat prisoners, call down artillery barrages on targets that should have required one well positioned rifleman. Panic and overreactions are as much a Marine's adversary as any enemy soldier. This is a truism that is not reserved solely for the Marine Corps.

Maybe it's because he is a reporter for Rolling Stone, but Wright pays particular attention to the songs that the men sing throughout the invasion. Sergeant Colbert, arguably the story's main character, confides in Wright that he did not anticipate singing being one of the stress responses to intense combat. In the middle of firefights and ambushes, Wright can hear Colbert calmly singing Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown." It is a curiosity of war that one of the Marine Corps' most elite warriors kicked in Saddam Hussein's front door while singing "Sometimes, I think it's a sin, when I feel like I'm winning, but I'm losing again." Other Marines were heard singing Avril Lavigne or Tupac. When we humans find ourselves in the most intense situations of our lives, for some reason, we seem to be hard-wired to find sanity or solace in songs from our past, however incongruous they may be in the moment.

Few of the men in "Generation Kill" express any real interest in the politics of the war or in politics at all. Those who are overtly political or patriotic are inevitably the worst members of the unit when combat erupts. For most of them the war isn't about who is in the White House or maintaining some long standing Western power structure. Wright says,

"What unites them is an almost reckless drive to prove themselves in the most extreme circumstances. In many respects the life they have chosen is a complete rejection of the hyped, consumerist American dream as it is dished out on reality TV shows and pop song lyrics. They've chose asceticism over consumption. Instead of celebrating their individualism, they've subjugated theirs to the collective will of an institution. Their highest aspiration is self-sacrifice over self-preservation."

Many of these guys were inspired to enlist by one specific commercial that you remember very vividly. A young man scales a series of bone crushing obstacles and grabs a sword only to be faced by a giant lava monster. When he defeats the beast, he is transformed into a Marine wearing the Corps dress blues. The Marines of First Recon saw that commercial and enlisted, you saw it and thought, "Hey! You forgot the part where you have to kill people! No way I'm signing up for that." Whatever that difference is between your reaction and theirs, whatever it is that makes your mind process things so differently form theirs, you are glad there are those who are willing to lay down their lives in defense of your country. Your country might not be here if there weren't.

When asked why he climbed Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Mallory famously replied, "Because it is there." When asked why he walked a tightrope strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, Phillipe Petit pointed to his chest and simply replied, "Because it is in here." For the men of Marine First Recon, whatever the outcome of the war, whatever the legacy of the invasion, the reason they joined the Marines in the first place, the reason why they felt inspired to "Subjugate their will... for self-sacrifice over self-preservation," is the same as Phillipe Peitit's. Many of them could point to their own medal covered chests and repeat his answer, "Because it's in there."

At one point the men of First Recon backtrack into a town they have previously liberated. Greeted by grateful crowds of villagers, the cool and wry humored Sergeant Colbert waves and smiles saying, "You're free now. Good luck. Time for us to go home." If only that had been true. In the days following the fall of Baghdad it becomes clear that the country which was so effective at winning the war had no plans for wining the peace. As Iraqi society is breaking down and the opening acts of a future sectarian tragedy are being played out, a desperate elder in a neighborhood-turned-battlefield knowingly laments to a Marine commander, "The Americans have let Ali Baba into Baghdad." A decade afterwards, it is clear that the Americans have left Baghdad, but Ali Baba and his band of thieves may still be wreaking havoc in the heart of Iraq.

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is an interview with Evan Wright and many of the men in the book about their reactions to the HBO miniseries. They pay particular attention to the humor warriors use to relieve the stress of combat.

P.P.S. This is a scene from the show boiling down the reasons many of the men joined the Marines. Not Safe For Work!

Friday, November 8, 2013

"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara (1974)

There are so many non-fiction books out there about the Civil War, it has been hard for you to justify reading a historical fiction novel about the war. But you have always heard of this one and you finally found it for just the right price (almost free). You are very glad you gave it a shot.

This book was the basis for the movie "Gettysburg." The movie was good but, not surprisingly, the book was much better. In the summer of 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac river and invaded the United States through Maryland and Pennsylvania. General Lee was emboldened by a string of victories over his Northern enemies and was looking to end the war once and for all by taking Washington DC. War on his enemy's home ground would also allow his army to live off Union lands, allowing the farmers of Virginia a respite from supplying the Confederate army. It was the second time in less than ten months that Lee had invaded the Union. The previous invasion had ended in the single bloodiest day in American history at the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg, as the Confederacy called it). That rare Union victory had lead to the re-election of Abraham Lincoln and his subsequent issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

General Lee felt that this second invasion was a strategic necessity. Time was running short for the Confederate States of America. The Union naval blockade was beginning to have an affect on their economy and inflation was rising. Tennessee was teetering and ready to fall to Union forces lead by General Rosecrans. Farther west, a Union general named Grant was about to take Vicksburg and close off the entire Mississippi River to Southern shipping. The Confederacy needed another miracle. They needed another big win, maybe one that could end the war. Thus was born the greatest battle of the American Civil War, Gettysburg.

But you have read all of that before. It's in history books and you've read stacks of those. This book was different. "The Killer Angels" made it all feel more personal. Instead of the bird's eye view that you are used to experiencing in history books, where vast armies sweep through states with giant colored arrows indicating their movements on maps, this book brought the war down to ground level (although the maps in the book are superb). Shaara was able to put you there, standing on Seminary Ridge, looking out across the mile of No Man's Land between you and the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge. You could see it all clearly, feel the July sun on your shoulders and smell the grass. Writing a novel about the battle, instead of a non-fiction book, allowed Shaara to be very sensual, inviting you into the minds of the men involved.  It made the whole affair feel more visceral and gave it all a personal touch that was surprising to you, and very impressive.

One of the most remarkable things about the Civil War is that so many willingly died for such a terrible purpose. The Rebels fought to maintain the institution of slavery, or at least the 'honor' of their home states. The men from the North, whether they knew it or not, were fighting for a freedom few in human history had ever been privileged to fight for. Shaara explores the minds of men on both sides of the war, even the Southern notion that the war was fought over some lofty ideals. He quotes the southerners lamenting state's rights, and he gives air to their milquetoast argument that government comes from the consent of the governed, and since they refused to consent they should therefore be free from said government. It's all bullshit that has somehow been passed down through the generations as gospel. The Confederate States of America may have seceded from the USA over an issue of state's rights, but it was over those states' right to allow their citizens to own slaves! Any other argument is beside the point, and Shaara makes that clear.

He takes you inside the mind of General Lee and illuminates his inner struggle with the issue.

"When Virginia left the Union she bore his home away as surely as if she were a ship setting out to sea... So it was no cause and no country he fought for, no ideal and no justice. He fought for his people, for the children and the kin, and not even the land, because not even the land was worth the war, but the people were, wrong as they were, insane even as many of them were, they were his own, he belonged with his own. And so he took up arms willfully, knowingly, in perhaps the wrong cause against his sacred oath and stood now upon alien ground he had once swore to defend... without any choice at all; there had never been an alternative except to run away, and he could not do that."

The book is written quite beautifully, almost poetically. It's no wonder it won the '74 Pulitzer Prize. Each chapter is from a different historical character's point of view and hops from one side of the battle to the other. Shaara moves seamlessly from emotionless and detailed exposition to First Person train of thought. That sounds like it would be awkward to read, but it isn't at all. Shaara makes it feel very natural. He helped you to see the war on a personal level. He describes how everything feels. Not just the feel of the ground under their feet or the wind in their hair, but that nebulous feeling you get when you are in the middle of a large encampment of men in the dark and quiet night even when you cannot see them, the sense a soldier gets when an attack is eminent, or the instinct a commander feels when the moment is right to strike his enemy's weakness. Each character has his moment in the book's spotlight.

Colonel Buford, the Union cavalry commander, was as indispensable in the first hours of battle as General Stuart, the Confederate cavalry commander, was absent. Accidentally bumping into Rebel soldiers on the outskirts of town, Buford knew he could not win the battle outright, but he could ensure that the Union didn't lose it before it had begun. Using his cavalrymen's mobility to his advantage, he stood up to the gathering Army of Northern Virginia and secured the high ground for the rest of his own army. His calm and measured awareness of the situation, and his faith in his fellow commanders to come to his aide and occupy the ground for which he had fought, likely saved the capital of the United States from falling into the hands of the Confederacy.

The Battle for Little Round Top is told in extraordinary detail. Colonel Chamberlain, a college professor just one year before the battle, was given command of the extreme left flank of the entire Union army. Arriving on the hill minutes before the Rebels attacked it he was forced to beat back wave after wave of some of the Confederacy's best and most battle-hardened troops. He knew he couldn't retreat. If he did, the enemy would place artillery on the heights and bombard the entire Union line. The Army of the Potomac would have had to retreat, and the road to Washington would have been wide open. His ammunition and his men were dwindling, so he did the only thing he could think of. He ordered what men he had remaining to fix bayonets and charge the oncoming rebel forces. Chamberlain did not graduate from West Point, he had no military experience, he was a bookish intellectual. But on that day, his audacity and aggression in the face of ruin made Virginians and Texans who had never known defeat, turn tail and run for the first time in the whole war.  Colonel Chamberlain earned the Medal of Honor that day, and few men have ever been more deserving.

The day after the battle for Little Round Top, Lee had decided to stop trying the Union flanks and go instead for a massed charge right into the middle of their line. He gave the honor to Major General Pickett. "The Killer Angels" gives Pickett's Charge the reverence it deserves. You could almost hear the orchestral music swelling in your mind as the Confederate soldiers marched through absolute Hell and, for one brief moment, breached the Union lines. It would have been fitting for the war to have ended right there, on the 4th of July, with the greatest artillery bombardment in history followed by the most famous charge in history. But it did not end there. The three divisions Lee had sent to break the Union lines were destroyed. Lee lost more battle flags in that one moment than he had lost in the entire war up to that point combined. Instead of ending on that beautiful summer's day, with a charge so noble it made the enemy swoon with admiration, the Civil War slogged on for another two years and ended in a swamp under the roof of a run down old court house in Virginia.

General Pickett had been itching to get into the fight. His men had been last in the line of march and had come up to the battle after the first two days of fighting were already over. He looked across the field and saw only honor and glory. He couldn't see, as General Longstreet could, the certainty of death waiting there. Pickett couldn't see that times had changed and war was different from the Napoleon era now. None of them could see it, even the infallible General Lee, none but Longstreet. He knew that modern war had changed, even before machine guns entered the picture. Massed artillery could now wipe out thousands of men in the time it took them to march over a mile of open ground. Longstreet looked across the same ground as Pickett and saw, not glory, but fields of enfilading fire coming from high ground. He saw exposed flanks and a death trap. He saw futility. But the others couldn't see it. They saw only Glory.

And so they all died. They died on that day and in the days and months to come. They died by the thousands there at Gettysburg, and they died at Cold Harbor and the Wilderness and countless other battlefields over the next two years. Yet no one learned the lesson. Five decades later, Generals would still see only glory and would still be ordering men into suicide charges against protected enemy lines, through aimed fire and artillery barrages. Even more men would die then. They would die at the Somme and Verdun, at Passchendaele and Belleau Woods, and they would call that war the Great War.

"The Killer Angels" made one thing clear to you that you were honestly not fully aware of. The revered and almost infallible General Lee made a huge mistake in fighting this battle. He allowed himself to be lured into a fight he should have avoided. He was used to an enemy who was incompetent and who ran away when faced with aggressive tactics. Lee had grown complacent and was relying on a general who was dead and gone. Stonewall Jackson would have taken Cemetery Hill on that first day, but Ewell, his replacement, did not. Lee failed to listen to Longstreet and maneuver his army south to cut off the Union forces from DC. He was expecting the same old Army of the Potomac, but he was wrong, and he lost the war because of it.

Through timidity and inaction, the Union's General Meade had won the exact victory that Longstreet was advocating for the South. An expert in the new theory of defensive warfare and realist in the new ways of modern warfare, Longstreet wanted Lee's army to maneuver to ground suitable for defense and force the enemy to expose themselves to destruction by making them come out in the open where massed artillery and aimed rifle fire could tear them apart. Instead, it was the Union's General Meade who had done that very thing, and the Confederacy would never recover.

You may never understand why men sacrifice themselves for unworthy causes, or why we continue to believe that mass violence solves any of our deepest problems,. But books like this one help you to see the world through different eyes. Stories of all kinds, whether they be told in books or movies or oral histories passed from generation to generation, help us all to see the world from different perspectives. You firmly believe that learning to see the world through the eyes of others has a hell of a lot more promise for solving problems than war ever will.

On to the next book!

Friday, November 1, 2013

"The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown (2009)

You make it a general rule to try and avoid novels if the author's name is printed in a larger font than the title of the book itself. But hey, rules are made to be broken right? Everyone has to have a guilty pleasure.

Dan Brown is, of course, the guy who brought the world "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons," and he has an even newer one out called "Inferno." All of these books, including "The Lost Symbol," follow their main character, Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of religious iconology and symbology, on a series of the most improbable adventures set in the world's most famous cities. Brown's thrillers follow a familiar formula and writing style. He uses short chapters (some barely a paragraph long) to keep you turning the pages. You are always thinking, "Well, I have time to read one more chapter, right?" Each of his books is filled with supposedly "Earth Shattering Revelations" that draw you into the story lines. You are perpetually thinking you are just a page or two from learning some huge secret that has been hidden from the world for centuries. The body count in these books can get pretty high. Brown's characters are constantly placed in mortal peril several times throughout his stories and the action is reliably crammed into a few hours, which, again, makes you keep turning those pages. There is an urgency and an energy to his books that make even the most bibliophobic amongst us stay up late at night, desperate to see what is going to happen next.

In short, they are lots and lots of fun.

"The Lost Symbol" is set in Washington DC. Even though you've been to DC twice before, you needed a refresher on some of the more obscure details presented in the book. One of the things you love to do with Dan Brown novels is read them while surfing google maps, especially the street views. Brown's novels are filled with painstaking detail of cities and locations that you will likely never see. And even if you do someday get to wander the streets of Paris or Rome, you won't have the luxury of pouring over every nook and cranny of every piece of art like these books do. That's where good old google comes in awfully handy. Modern technology has allowed you to walk side by side with fictional characters through very much nonfictional ancient plazas and examine actual works of art with the knowledge of experts. Washington DC came alive to you again while reading this book because you could see it both in your mind and on your computer screen. Ain't technology great?

Everyone knows that the Freemasons held great influence over America's founding fathers, and if they don't know that they should spend, like five minutes on the internet. Washington, Franklin, and  possibly Jefferson were all masons and this nation's capitol is filled with masonic references. "The Lost Symbol" capitalizes on this fact and weaves a fairly believable conspiracy intertwining the foundations of the United States with the fundamental tenants of an ancient secret society. Brown also introduces the science of Noetics, the study of human consciousness and the power of thought in the physical world. These two ideas, ancient philosophy and new-age metaphysics, aren't as far apart as they seem. Quantum Physics tells us that the very observation of certain experiments alters their outcomes, meditation has quantifiable healing affects on its practitioners, more and more science is learning that human thoughts have power and actual influence in the real world. Adding Noetics to the storyline made it all seem even more important and powerful.

The pages of "The Lost Symbol" are filled with the kind of brain teasers and puzzles that have made Dan Brown a household name. He drops hints all along the way, and he foreshadows some of his surprises in such a way that the perceptive reader knows they are coming all along, which makes you feel even smarter! Symbols play a huge part in these books, Professor Langdon is an expert in symbology after all. But even some of the characters are symbols. It's no accident that the man who imparts the most wisdom in this book is named Peter Solomon. There is an active component to reading these books. You don't just sit and take them in. You are up and researching, thinking and pondering, even when the book isn't in your hand. It is an addictively fun way to read.

"The Lost Symbol" is a classic thriller but with one extra ingredient sorely lacking in most thrillers. It ends with a healthy dose of hope. The United States was founded by people who believed her citizens could shape their own destiny. They believed that religion was wonderful and essential to a thriving and passionate population, but that it had no place within the structure of a free government. Humans are capable of so much greatness, and we are so full of potential. For a silly mystery book to remind you of the infinite nobility of the human soul... well that was pretty powerful in itself.

On to the next book!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"The Imperial Cruise" by James Bradley (2009)

Bradley is the guy who wrote "Flags of our Fathers" which was such a phenomenal book that you will now read anything he ever writes again forever.

Theodore Roosevelt is a major character in the American story. He has his face on Mt. Rushmore, for God's sake. But you don't really know that much about him. You've always wanted to dive into the TR waters to learn more bout the nation's 26th president, but the mountain of books about him has made it a bit daunting to choose a starting point. When you picked up "Imperial Cruise" you had no idea it would be just that. You thought it was just a primer on the pre-history of the World War II in the Pacific, and it was... but it was also a major indictment of Teddy Roosevelt's tenure as the chief executive of the United States at the dawn of the 20th century.

In July of 1905, the oldest daughter of the president of the United States was 21 years old, and she was the hottest celebrity in the country, maybe in the world. She was irreverent and brash. She was independent and outspoken. The first beautiful and shockingly behaved young woman who was famous simply for being famous, Alice Roosevelt set the mold for what would become a very familiar staple of our modern world. When the president wanted to send his Secretary of War (and future president), William Taft, to engage in secret, not to mention unconstitutional, negotiations with foreign governments, it made perfect sense to use Alice as a smokescreen for what was really going on. And so the Imperial Cruise was born. The Secretary and the First Daughter were accompanied by seven senators and twenty three congressmen (one of whom would later marry Alice) on a luxury passenger liner called Manchuria. Forming the largest diplomatic delegation ever sent by the United States to Asia, they set out to tour the Pacific Empire that the United States had spent the last few decades of the nineteenth century building.

The title of this book is a little misleading. "The Imperial Cruise" is not strictly about the cruise that President Roosevelt sent his Secretary of War and his daughter on in 1905. It is mostly about the path the United States took to justify in starting an American Empire in the first place. As the book follows the progress of the actual cruise, from Hawaii to the Philippines, from Japan to China and Korea, Bradley leads you through the history of America's efforts to build an empire in each location. On second thought, maybe the title isn't so misleading after all.

"The Imperial Cruise" covers the Mexican-American War of aggression the US fought for a small piece of what we now call Texas, The Spanish-American War of convenience to claim territories stretching from Puerto Rico to Cuba and from Guam to The Philippines, and the American lead hostile corporate (and eventually US Marine) conquest of Hawaii. The book also sheds painful light on the atrocities committed by the United States in the Philippines.

Before we go any further with the history of America's Empire, one thing needs to be made clear: American foreign and domestic policy was based on extreme racism even long after slavery was ended. This was not just the familiar racism of dehumanizing epithets and Jim Crow laws, this was the kind of racism that would, a few decades later, sound more familiar ringing from the stadiums of Nuremberg and Berlin. It was a racism that demanded Aryan dominance, indeed men who would come to be idolized by generations of Americans spewed white supremacy with an ease that is shocking to read in print. Teddy Roosevelt, whose face is carved on a mountain in South Dakota, regularly made the case for Aryan supremacy both before and while he was president. Even worse, he used these racist ideas to justify decisions which would later require the blood of millions to rectify.

In the early part of the 20th century it seems that everyone was pretty terrifyingly racist. Harvard University's most respected professors were white supremacists. The Western World was completely convinced that Anglo-Saxon's were destined to rule the world's "less worthy" races. If they had to kill most of them to do so, that was not a particular problem. The important thing was to keep white people in power and keep the white race pure by not allowing it to mix with other undesirable races. Today we call that ideology 'eugenics.' In fact, after the Mexican American War, the US could have claimed all of Mexico as our newest territory, but too many Americans wanted no part in governing non-Aryans. We wouldn't even claim territory we had conquered because the were just too many brown people there. Now that is pretty racist.

Somehow, Japan received the dubious honor of becoming "Honorary Aryans" in the eyes of the Roosevelt Administration. The Japanese ambitions in seeking domination on the Asian mainland were given the quiet blessings of the United States government. It was thought that Japan would force China to keep her doors open to western commerce. Japan could also serve as a convenient military check against Russian expansion into the lucrative opium trade so many Americans were getting rich off of inside China. In fact, the US ignored her treaty of friendship with Korea when Japan started a war with Russia over control of the peninsula.

Japan shocked the world with a surprise attack that devastated the Russian Navy before Japan had even declared war. Sound familiar? The President of the United States spoke of the Japanese victory in glowing terms. "I was thoroughly pleased with the Japanese victory," President Roosevelt said. "For Japan is playing our game." Forty years later, another President Roosevelt would paint those same tactics as dastardly and cowardly.

Teddy Roosevelt even went so far as to unofficially threaten war with France and Germany if they came to Russia's defense in her new war with Japan, and Japan had already secured a military support treaty with England. Even worse, after the war with Russia ended, the Roosevelt administration betrayed an ally to Japanese domination. Korea had signed treaties with the US and considered America their protector. One of the secret meetings Secretary Taft had while on the Imperial Cruise was to betray this relationship. Teddy gave Korea to Japan just (if not even more) appeasingly than Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Germany. It was this open invitation to strive for control of mainland Asia that started Japan on the road leading to Pearl Harbor. It was this example, Japan's American-approved invasion of a racially inferior nation and the subsequent brutality that inspired Japan's policy of domination for the next forty years. It is also the direct cause of the deaths of upwards of thirty million human beings. You call it World War II.

In one fell swoop, Roosevelt and Taft had handed Korea to Japan only to then immediately turn public opinion in Japan against the United States by convincing the Japanese government to not seek a huge cash indemnity from their defeated Russian adversary. By insisting China keep her doors open to foreign commercial meddling, Roosevelt and Taft had also ignited the flames of Chinese nationalism and then fanned them using Japanese aggression on the mainland as a foil.

It becomes easy to empathize with the Japanese' mounting sense of frustration in the coming decades when the very nation that planted the seed of "An Asian Monroe Doctrine," as Teddy Roosevelt called it, suddenly balked when Japan, you know... began implementing an Asian Monroe Doctrine. As Japan stretched her ambitions over the horizons, she was met at every turn by the nation that had inspired her ambitions in the first place. It smacks as more than merely hypocritical for a nation to, with one hand, order the death of everyone in the Philippines over the age of ten years old while, with the other hand, wagging a finger at their Japanese former ally who culls 200,000 sex slaves from a conquered Korea. Maybe the attack on Pearl Harbor wasn't such a cowardly or infamous stab in the back. Maybe it was America's failed foriegn policy biting her on the ass.

We had certainly changed our minds about the Japanese being "Honorary Aryans" when we swore to wipe them from the face of the Earth a few years later, when we fire bombed their capital, and when we vaporized two of their ancient cities with nuclear weapons.

Of course there are far more events than can be listed here that occurred between Japan's annexation of Korea in 1905 and her attack on the US Navy on December 7th, 1941. There are the usual complexities and nuances of diplomacy between modern nations, there are economic factors and political variables to consider as well. The Japanese government certainly holds the lion's share of the blame. But the ball connecting those two dots was set rolling by an American president who was motivated by racist ideals, who proved terrible at predicting the ramifications of his actions, who did not want any light shed on his actions, who dealt with foreign governments in unconstitutional secrecy, who came to prefer the company of 'yes' men, and who was clearly out of his league.

Theodore Roosevelt's face is carved on a mountain alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, three undeniably great men. You should read more books on Teddy Roosevelt, because "The Imperial Cruise" makes him look like he simply has no place on that mountain. But then again, the truth resists simplicity.

On to the next book!

Okay, here is some John Green on this topic. Who can get enough of this guy? This is Crash Course on American Imperialism with special emphasis on the Spanish American War.

P.S. You were fascinated by the knowledge (which didn't really fit into the scheme of this review) that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's family money did not come from his Roosevelt side. It came from his Delano side. His grandfather had been one of those who had taken advantage of the Western Powers forcing open China's door. He had made a fortune in the most lucrative of all businesses, dealing drugs. The money that made FDR so wealthy was made selling opium to the people of China. Now that's something they don't teach you in school!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Star Wars: Darth Bane Trilogy by Drew Karpyshyn (2006 - 2009)

Sometimes re-watching the movies for the umpteenth time just isn't enough for you and you feel the need to dive into the Star Wars world a little deeper with some of the books. Thank God there are hundreds of them available.

You can tell from the red lightsabers on the cover that this series focuses on the Dark Side. The series includes the titles "Path of Destruction," "The Rule of Two," and "Dynasty of Evil." The trilogy takes place 1,000 years before Han Solo and Luke Skywalker save the day by blowing up the Death Star. You have played some of the Star Wars video games that are set 4,000 years before, and these books reference some of the events and some of the planets from those games (which is kind of cool, in a very nerdy way). The plot follows the lifespan of Des, a young man with a job mining ore on a remote asteroid with a father who beat Des relentlessly before dying of a heart attack.  Des soon realizes he possesses instincts and powers that others lack. He uses those qualities to quickly rise from obscurity to distinguish himself as a soldier in the Sith Army in its war against the Jedi.

Soon, others take notice of Des' abilities, and he becomes more than a mere blaster slinging soldier. He becomes Darth Bane and is sent to the Sith Academy to learn the ways of the Force. Along with his fellow students, he is educated in the ways of the Dark Side and the philosophy of the Sith. Disgusted by the brotherly ways of this Brotherhood of Darkness, Bane researches the ancient history of his order. He soon realizes that his teachers have corrupted the true path of the Sith, the Sith were never supposed to cooperate with one another, or be mutually supportive. Too often, Bane sees coalitions of less powerful acolytes band together to bring down the strongest individuals in the Order. He sees the strength of his newfound religion being eroded, its purity being tainted. Sith were supposed to seize power individually. If your fellow Sith wasn't strong enough to defeat your own attacks on him, he wasn't strong enough to deserve the title anyway. Bane vows to restore the Sith to their former glory.

He is the one who writes the command that would rule the Sith for the next millenium, "Two there should be; no more, no less. One to embody the power, the other to crave it." No more schools of cooperative Sith, no more academies or brotherhoods. Master and apprentice only. Darth Bane purges the Sith, killing them all but choosing an apprentice to shape and mold in the ancient ways, one who would one day challenge Bane for the title of Lord of the Sith. Bane prepares his new Order of the Sith for the long slow vengeance against the Jedi and the destruction of the Republic they vowed to protect. He embraces secrecy and subterfuge, deception and manipulation. Bane is fully aware this revenge against the Jedi might take centuries before it is realized. It is, in fact, a thousand years from the rise of Darth Bane to the day Darth Sidious takes his place as Emperor Palpatine. In the closing shots of the movie "Episode III, Revenge of the Sith," the citizens of the crushed Republic are forced to bow to their new Sith master and the Jedi are merely a shattered remnant of a forgotten religion. All events set in motion by Darth Bane.

The books are well written and serve to wrap you up in a familiar universe, one you've enjoyed since childhood. The plots are engaging and enjoyable to read, and the storyline ends with a satisfyingly ambiguous mystery. Each book reveals new and interesting facets of the Star Wars universe, adding depth to the mythology. The seven person duel in book two is particularly awesome fun to read. It never ceases to amaze you how good authors can make battle scenes not sound boring. Every time you have ever tried writing one, it's always ended up something like, "He swung his sword, but the other guy blocked it. And then the other guy swung his sword but the first guy blocked it too. Then they both swung their swords again..." Pretty awful stuff there. Thankfully these battle scenes are nothing like that. They are exciting enough that you can almost hear the 'Duel of the Fates' playing in your head when you're reading them. 

You noticed that Bane only ever chooses women to be his apprentices. This is never expressed as a specific preference on his part, he simply recognizes that power does not come solely from physical strength but from many source; ruthlessness, guile, deceit, manipulation, ambition, natural talent. These qualities are not monopolized by either gender, and Bane sees talent and potential wherever it is hidden. This idiosyncrasy endeared this evil character to you somehow. Like, if he respects women enough to realize that they can rule the galaxy too, he can't be all that evil, right?

 Except, no. He is all that evil. This isn't "Wicked." There is no examination of whether or not we can ever really call someone evil. Bane and his acolytes are evil. They crave power over all else. They feel no remorse or pity. Only the strongest are worthy of living, and only the strongest are worthy of ruling.  They draw strength from the suffering of others. Joy has no place in their lives.

Ultimately all of their evil stems from one sin; not greed or lust for vengeance, not violence or lies. They are all of them simply selfish. Darth Bane, and all of the Sith in the Star Wars pantheon, are like all other bullies. They are pitiable. They are so insecure and patheic that they are willing to bring destruction and horror on countless innocents just to feast themselves on the fantasy that selfishness can bring anyone security. You know different. Your faith teaches you that strength comes from allowing yourself to be weak, that true power comes from service, and honor is found in humility. Evil takes effort. Evil is a choice, a choice to trust the lie that promises security through narcissism. 

These books reminded you that you don't have to be a Sith or a Jedi to embrace the Dark Side. Both the Sith and the Jedi reject personal attachments. You believe that both are wrong. As vengeance and anger never lead to anything positive, neither does detachment. Our attachments are what bind us all together, not some invisible all-powerful Force. The friends we make, the love we all choose to share with one another, the enemies we forgive, these are the roots of real power. Love is the real Force.

May the Force be with you, always.

On to the next book!

Friday, October 4, 2013

"Monuments Men" by Robert M. Edsel (2009)

It's a book about a hunt for stolen Nazi treasure. Sadly, Indiana Jones is nowhere to be found.

When they conquered most of Europe, the Nazis made it a point to steal or destroy some of the greatest cultural and artistic pieces from the countries that they occupied. When Adolf Hitler was a young man, his application to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria had been rejected. In 1939 and 1940, he suddenly found himself in the perfect position to plunder the finest works of art the Western World had ever created. It was one rejected art student's perfect moment of supreme vengeance.

The world watched in the late '30s as German tanks rolled through the streets of Vienna, then Prague, then Warsaw, and then Paris. They cringed as the skies over London filled with German planes. No one knew for sure when the tide of Nazi domination would be stopped, but some in the arts community in the unconquered world were forming plans to protect their masterpieces from the bombs and artillery shells that had torn through museums the length and breadth of Europe.

Once it became clear that protecting their own works of art would no longer be necessary since they would be bringing the fight to the Nazis and not the other way around, the Allied Armed Forces created a small group of experts in the field of art conservation, architecture, and art history. They were officially called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA), but they came to be known as Monuments Men. At first there were only a handful of them, and none of them were the stereotypical young men from most WWII books, but by the end of the war their numbers had swelled to 350. These Monuments Men were tasked with the novel mission of protecting the priceless and irreplaceable pieces of cultural history during the Allied invasion of Western Europe (Edsel has another book about their efforts in Italy). Many of these irreplaceable monuments formed the actual battlefields of the greatest war in history. The charming church the Germans might place a sniper in often proved to be hundreds of years old, the newest Allied supply dump might contain a priceless sculpture. The Monuments Men's first priority was to protect these from needless damage. They would re-route truck convoys to go around, rather than through, some sensitive areas. They would remind commanders of the importance of certain buildings when planning artillery strikes. They had orders from General Eisenhower himself to allow them to declare certain areas "Off Limits" to any military personnel.

In most WWII books, you've become accustomed to that moment where the characters, real or fictional, realize that they are part of a much bigger story. They have a sort of epiphany where they realize that they are walking in the footsteps of history, but few of them are very well acquainted with that history. The Monuments Men were. They were experts in their fields and influential in the world of art and culture back in the States.

These men moved around the European Theater with a freedom that must have been the envy of every other soldier on the continent. One man, the quintessential Monuments Man, George Stout, had put 50,000 miles on his captured VW by the end of the war by zig-zagging back and forth along the front as it moved across Europe. Stout's enthusiasm was not unique. It was vital to their jobs that these men possess the energy and enthusiasm needed to keep up with the pace of the Allied advance in order to protect the things that could never be replaced. They saw more of the war than most who fought in it, but instead of being in it to kill and destroy, they were the few who were tasked with preserving and protecting.

You found it interesting to get to see the invasion of the Normandy beaches not through the eyes of terrified soldiers trying to take out machine gun nests or pillboxes, but instead through the eyes of worried men who were concerned about the safety of the 500 year old church at the top of the bluffs. Instead of seeing the war through the eyes of warriors looking to take advantage of the local terrain, this book gave you the opportunity to see the war through the eyes of conservationists taking advantage of local pride and personal perspicacity to protect unique works of historical importance.

"Monuments Men" changes in tone dramatically once Paris is liberated. The mission shifts from just frantically protecting historical sites to something more extraordinary. The books becomes a story of the greatest treasure hunt in the history of the world. When the Nazis had the chance, they took whatever they wanted. Hitler himself stole priceless pieces of art from some of his favorite artists to adorn his walls, and Goring was even worse. The order had gone out and made it official: the Third Reich was building a new museum and cultural Mecca in Hitler's hometown of Linz, Austria. The Fuhrer dreamed of creating a new center for art and culture, one that could rival Florence and Vienna. His soldiers were ordered to make sure his new museum would be stocked with the finest art the world had to offer.

In Paris, the Monuments Men found two people who had risked their lives to keep the theft to a minimum, and what they couldn't prevent, they were determined to record. Jean Jaujard was the head of the Louvre and ensured that every bureaucratic roadblock and every inch of red tape was used to keep the art under his protection where it belonged. But he knew he couldn't save it all, so he enlisted some help from the most unlikely of sources. Her name was Rose Valland, and she became Jaujard's spy in the Nazi machinery, the fly on the wall. Her stentorian personality and her forgettably bland looks made her the perfect spy. Who would suspect the middle aged librarian in the corner was writing down the destination of every pilfered piece that made it into the back of a swastika-emblazoned truck?

When Rose Valland met Monuments Man James Rorimer, his dedication to his duty, his passion for the art, and his love of everything French convinced her that she could trust him with her information. Madame Valland gave him what would prove to be the most extraordinary treasure map in the world. While others in the MFAA relied on battlefield interrogations and the evil-devouring-evil backstabbing that the Nazis eventually devolved into to find their own incredible stashes of stolen goods, Rorimer knew just where he was going. He was going here:

That's not a painting, it's a photo of Neuschwanstein castle in Germany. Some of the greatest artistic pieces France had ever known were stacked into piles in the rooms and halls of this enormous castle on a rocky outcropping high in the Bavarian Alps.

As the war was winding down, the men saw their ranks increase as more experts were brought into the field to assist them. They found caves filled with unimaginable treasures, castles stuffed with gold and jewels, and salt mines packed with unbelievable works of art. The men had to disarm explosives that were intended to destroy anything the Nazis couldn't defend. They had to preserve some of the world's most sensitive cultural works from the corrosive elements the Germans had left it in to rot. Some of the miners who were forced to dig the holes these treasures were buried in managed to protected them too, ensuring that the explosives would merely seal the entrances to the troves, rather than destroy their contents. The men of the MFAA worked to retrieve and catalogue every piece of art and every cultural treasure. They sometimes measured it by the ton.

The remarkable thing was that the Monuments Men were searching for all this treasure and saving all of this art for one reason. Not wealth, or greed, or personal gain. For once, there was a conquering army that wasn't interested in keeping the loot they found. They were doing it all to give it back to the people it had been taken from in the first place.

It is easy to roll your eyes and be jaded at phrases like the "Greatest Generation" or the notion that there is any kind of "Good War," to cringe at the concept of American Exceptionalism. Stories like this remind you that sometimes those phrases are true, sometimes those title are earned. The efforts of the Monuments Men not only reflected and revealed American morality, it displayed it for the world to see.

You were struck by one passage in the book. As one of the Monuments Men entered Germany and saw the devastation Allied bombers had wrought there, his enthusiasm for his task was redoubled, "To save the culture of your allies is a small thing," he remarks. "To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle is won... it was unheard of." The Monuments Men eventually saved the bodies of Frederick the Great and his wife and father from destruction at the hands of Nazi fanatics.

Sadly, this lesson has been lost, and the old adage is false. In this case, those who don't know their history were doomed to not repeat it. Shortly after the American military occupied Baghdad in April of 2003, in the vacuum of any authority, the Baghdad Museum was looted by thugs and criminals and some of humanity's oldest archeological and cultural artifacts were stolen, many never to be found again. This was not only a cultural tragedy for the world, civilization began in Iraq after all, but it was a public relations nightmare for the US. Our lack of response to quickly secure the area and prevent the loss of some of the great art and artifacts there made the American military appear to be indifferent to the culture of the nation they had invaded, even though we were claiming to be there to liberate them. Reading "Monuments Men," you could imagine how different recent history might have been if the first looters had been met by armed Humvees sporting American flags, if the US forces had enlisted some of the local population to help them protect the museum. Might the ensuing insurgency in the years to come have been a little less violent, might the warring factions have had fewer disillusioned young men to use for their awful purposes? 

Ultimately, however, "Monuments Men" is a rare thing. It is a war story told through the perspective of optimists. No matter the devastation, no matter the destruction, these men found hope in saving what they could. In the rubble of war, they were able to remember human nobility and to save the evidence of that nobility. As millions suffered and died, these men were able to preserve the works of art that bring joy and wonder to millions even today. Where cultures clashed and struggled for domination, these men were able to preserve the proof that the human spirit yearns to express itself through beauty and art and creation. Hope is not a naive idea. There is always reason to hope. Sometimes you just have to know where to look.

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is an NPR story on the Ghent Altarpiece, which was tracked down, rescued, and returned to Belgium (for which Mouments Man, Robert Posey was awarded the Order of Leopold, one of Belgium's highest honors). Click the link for a very clear closeup photo of the piece. It really is exquisite. It has been called "the single most influential painting ever made."

P.P.S. Here is a trailer for the upcoming George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray movie, because they really are going to make every damn book you have ever read into a movie, aren't they? (And you will go see every one, won't you, you sucker!)

P.P.P.S About a month after you posted this review, news reports started coming out about a treasure trove of art stolen by the Nazis being discovered in an apartment in Munich. It is estimated at being worth over $1 billion. The culprit is the son of a German art dealer who was authorized by Goebbels himself to sell some of the works of art the Nazis had stolen to try to finance the war. Yet another reminder that history didn't happen so very long ago.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"Let's Pretend This Never Happened" by Jenny Lawson (2012)

When Nico saw the title of this one he asked you the difference between a memoir and a biography. "I honestly don't know," you told him. "But thumbing through this one, I would guess that a memoir is an autobiography where you get to tell actually funny stories and say bad words a lot."

You still don't know the actual difference and you could totally look it up on google, but where is the mystery in that?

The author of this book is Jenny Lawson, but she's much more commonly known as "The Bloggess." She is a blogger who you and Liz have been following on Twitter for years and she is absolutely hilarious. Jenny has a style of writing that seamlessly mixes fragments with run-on sentences in the most disarming way. Her comic timing is impeccable and startling. Her liberal and creative use of paragraph structure and footnotes is surprising enough that you were actually laughing out loud from the first page of the book. Plus she cusses like a thirteen year old boy and has no compunction talking about her vagina, her social awkwardness, or her unique upbringing in rural West Texas.

"Let's Pretend This Never Happened" follows a roughly chronological course, but Jenny does not apologize if she zips forward twenty years in the middle of a paragraph to relate a modern anecdote that reminds her of the story she is telling (even if she is the only one who sees any relation between the two stories). The book is brutally frank about her hilariously traumatizing childhood as the daughter of a taxidermist with one seriously warped sense of humor, her crippling social anxiety disorder, and her... just oddness. If you had to use only one word to describe "Let's Pretend This Never Happened," other than 'hilarious' or 'vagina-rific,' it would be honest.

Like most of us, Jenny uses humor to deal with the difficulties of life. What's more, she has found that comfortable place that many of us are also lucky to have found where she draws strength from her own weirdness. Instead of being ashamed of her refusal to fit into arbitrary social categories, she has embraced her unconventional view of the world and used it to show her few hundred thousand Twitter followers and who knows how many readers of this book that the world is not scripted. To hell with what other people think you should do for a living, or useless gender role expectations, or what is considered acceptable dinner conversation. In refusing to be defeated by her strange childhood, by her social anxiety disorder, by her arthritis, or by multiple miscarriages, Jenny reminded you that you refused to be defeated by an absent father, by other people's ridiculous expectations, by your arthritis, by Lincoln's Down syndrome, or by multiple miscarriages. "Because you are defined not by life's imperfect moments, but by your reaction to them. Because there is joy in embracing -rather than running screaming from- the utter absurdity of life."

Last week, Nico was very excited to tell you that his 2nd grade class has been told that they will be writing their own memoirs this year. You sincerely look forward to reading that, and you can only hope that he can find something like Jenny's honesty and wisdom in how he views the world and his place in it... and that he doesn't say "fuck" as much as she does.

On to the next book!

Friday, September 20, 2013

"Paper Towns" by John Green (2008)

This is the last of John Green's novels that you hadn't read yet. Well... almost. He's got a couple more that he co-wrote with other authors. You'll probably read those pretty soon too, but this is the last one that was all totally him. Remember when you said you would probably read all of his books soon? You've done it now.

The plot of "Paper Towns" is pretty simple. The main character, Quentin, has been in love with his neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman, for as long as he can remember. A few weeks before they graduate high school, Margo enlists Quentin in a daring, all night prank to get back at a cheating boyfriend, the girl he was cheating with, and all of Margo's friends who didn't tell her he was cheating. Margo also convinces Quentin to break into a few buildings and a theme park, just for the hell of it. This comes as a shock to Quentin because he and Margo have not been close friends since they were small children. Even more shocking to Quentin is the realization the next morning that Margo has disappeared.

The remainder of the book sees Quentin and his friends, and eventually Margo's friends searching for her. Margo seems to have left behind some clues and everyone becomes terrified that she has committed suicide. There is much quoting of Walt Whitman, some hilarious comedy scenes, and a road trip (John Green does love his road trips). But, like most books, the plot is merely an engine for a fascinating idea.

We don't imagine other people with enough complexity.

Quentin certainly doesn't imagine Margo with much complexity. To him, she's not even really human. She's an idea, a vessel for his hopes and hormonal desires. But he doesn't imagine his close friends very complexly either. "Paper Towns" makes it pretty clear that you don't either.

As well as you know your family members and your friends, you don't give them nearly enough credit. You stop imagining them after a few easy labels. "Controling." "Sweet." "Tech Nerd." "Book Worm." And then you interact with them using these simple labels as a guide. It robs you of deeper, more meaningful connections. It robs all of us of deeper, more meaningful connections.

The older you get, the more you are convinced that most of the problems in this world stem from humanity's tendency to label other people as exactly that, other people! So many problems could be solved, so many relationships could be mended, and so many tragedies could be avoided if we all began thinking of one another as complex, meaningful, multifaceted, flawed, and forgivable members of one family.

Your mom tried to teach you this when you were little when she would remind you that your mean teacher might be going through some terrible personal tragedy so you should act with patience and understanding. Your wife tries to teach you this when she reminds you that the way you treat your children teaches them how to act toward others. Tolkien tried to teach you this when he had Gandalf remind Frodo that it was pity that kept Bilbo from killing Gollum, ultimately saving the world.  Jesus tried to teach you this when he said "Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

Of course there are jerks out there. Of course there are people who do terrible things. But they are all still people and simplifying them down to labels or categories will never help you understand anything. And what's more is that "Paper Towns" reminded you that working to imagine others more complexly helps you learn more about yourself as well.

What surprised you the most about "Paper Towns" was that it ended up being your favorite of the four John Green novels you've read so far. You thought "The Fault In Our Stars" would keep that honor, but it has been replaced. Not because "Paper Towns" has a better story, it doesn't. But because you liked the lesson you learned from "Paper Towns" more.

As the plot unfolds, Quentin learns to see the people who surround him with a deeper understanding. He and his friends even make a game where they try to create intricate back stories to the anonymous people in the cars that surround them on the Florida highways. Quentin's growth gives you hope that you can embrace this idea too.

"The Fault In Our Stars" is all about how true strength is gained in moments of weakness. And that's a great lesson. But "Paper Towns" is all about finding value in your fellow human beings, validating them as complex and rich characters. That is a lesson you needed to learn.

On to the next book!

P.S. The picture of the cover you used up above is actually two pictures of the two different covers "Paper Towns" was printed with. Your copy had the Margo on the right on it. You thought it was pretty clever to add visual complexity to the cover of a book about imagining people more complexly. Good old John Green.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Ender's Shadow" by Orson Scott Card (1999)

This is the sequel to "Ender's Game," but it was written fifteen years and, like twenty books later. But you heard the forthcoming movie is based on both books, so you thought you'd dip your toe back in Ender Wiggin's world once again.


One of Ender's most capable and trusted lieutenants during the war was a small kid named Bean. This book tells Bean's story, which kind of makes it less of a sequel and more of a parallel story, or a co-novel, or something. This one is not quite as good as the first, but pretty close.

Both novels are set in a science fiction future where humans have twice fended off an alien invasion. Instead of being a sci-fi tour de force, however, these stories are much more personal and introspective than you had expected. They follow their characters as each gazes inward and struggles with his own sense of justice and with his own capacity for destruction. Bean gives you an enlightening analysis of the same events you witnessed in the last book, but from a different perspective. These novels are excellent examinations of what qualities define our concepts of leadership and morality.

Unlike Ender, Bean doesn't come from a relatively stable home life. He is an orphan and is forced to fend for himself from a very young age. In fact, it is soon revealed that Bean has had to fend for himself almost from birth. It is hinted at pretty early on in "Ender's Shadow" that Bean might be genetically modified. His escape from the facility where he was born and his struggle to survive on the streets define Bean's existence, but his enhancements may be the very thing that gives him the edge to survive. Soon, Bean is noticed and shipped off to Battle School. He is younger than Ender was when he arrived, younger and smaller. At the book's climax, Bean is no older than Nicholas is today, seven years old.

Despite Ender's growing legend at Battle School, Bean is actually smarter than the boy who would eventually save the world. Bean has perfect recall, photographic memory, the ability to speed-read and to pick up languages with ease. When it comes to thinking strategically, he is an unmatched genius. That "different perspective" Bean brings to the story is a laser like focus on what is vital to goals of the school, putting a commander in place who will be capable of defeating "the Buggers." Nothing gets by Bean. He is almost perfect. But he is still never quite as good as Ender.

Even though all the right switches have been flipped in Bean's brain, he never quite makes the other kids adore him the way they do Ender. "Ender's Shadow" makes a compelling case that leadership has little to do with ability. Sure, everyone wants to be on the winning team, but leadership is a quality that is more ethereal than just raw talent. Ender makes the soldiers who fight in his army want to be better, not just better soldiers... better people. That is what makes Ender such an effective leader. He has an empathy and an honesty that people are drawn to, an ease of making others feel accepted while also reminding them that he has high expectations for them.

You've met people like this. There was one kid back in Boy Scouts named Brian Savage (what a great name, right). He wasn't the best at starting fires, or tying knots, or navigating with compass and map, but you would have walked through fire for him. He was competent enough at all of those things that he made you stay sharp, but that wasn't what made him a natural leader, it was his character. He was such a good guy, a guy who would always stop and take care of the weaker or slower scouts, who would always take the time to show you how to tie that knot one more time to make sure you felt confident about it, that you didn't ever want to let him down. Ender reminds you of Brian (except Brian was never accused of committing genocide).

But leadership is not an inherently valuable quality. Hitler was a great leader, but so was Churchill. George W Bush inspired legions of devoted followers, but so did Barack Obama. What counts in the end is not whether you are a great leader, or an inspiring person. What counts is where you lead those who choose to follow you, what you inspire them to accomplish.

Bean makes damn sure that Ender leads his soldiers in the right direction.

Ender is a great tactician. But tactics only win battles, it's strategy that wins wars. And there is no one who is better at strategy than Bean. Even while he is devising the best way to defeat the Buggers, he is also fully aware of the coming civil war that must break out on Earth as soon as Ender's Game is over (and he even cites Rome's collapse after their defeat of Carthage as historical precedent). Bean proves instrumental in helping the leadership of the International Fleet anticipate and prepare for the war that Ender never sees coming.

It seems a bit off-putting that children in a story would be capable of thinking of such grandiose ideas or would be capable of such violent acts, such long term thinking, such wisdom and such insight. In fact, when "Ender's Game" was first published, Orson Scott Card was denounced for just that reason. "Children don't think like this," his critics insisted. "Kids aren't capable of these profound thoughts," they complained. "The youngest among us," they declared, "Do not possess this kind of wisdom or clarity of thought."

Card's answer was simple, but insightful. "At what point in your development," he asked "Were you... not you?"


You have seen this idea played out before with your own children. Last year, when he was still in the First Grade, Nico started a conversation with you about J. Robert Oppenheimer's existential crisis when he witnessed the first explosion of a nuclear weapon. Nico had watched a video on the history of nuclear weapons in school the day before (and it wasn't even Battle School!) and he couldn't get Oppenheimer's quote upon seeing the destruction his handiwork had wrought out of his head. "Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds," Oppenheimer had said, and even at seven years old Nico could recognize the tragic internal struggle of a man who had worked to accomplish some good only to realize far too late that he had unleashed unimaginable evil in the world. Together, you talked about the confluence of science and ethics, about the wisdom of accomplishing something without ever considering the implications. The two of you together pondered the limits of technology and morality, and you both marveled at the accomplishment of J. Robert Oppenheimer and also lamented his place in history. Your little boy was able  to add to this conversation, engaging you and participating. He was not a mere listener or spectator.

If Nico, who is not a genetically modified super genius, can have that kind of a conversation with you at the age of seven, then it's not completely preposterous for Bean to glean the course of future events from his readings of history. People tend to underestimate children. We sometimes forget that those brains in their heads are still open to novel ideas, to a simple clarity and honesty unfettered by presuppositions, they are not yet set in old ways of thinking. Books like "Ender's Shadow" make you want to learn a lesson from them and work to keep your mind open and fight to try and forge new connections in your own brain.


On to the next book!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Carthage Mvst be Destroyed" by Richard Miles (2010)

Ancient Rome. Cool. Wait? No. Not Rome? Carthage? Where the hell is Carthage?

You thought this book would just be the story of Rome's obsession with defeating their long time enemy, Carthage. You were wrong. Read the subtitle. It's the entire story of the whole Carthaginian civilization. That worked out pretty well, since you didn't know the first thing about Carthage. One good reason for that is the very title of this book... Rome wiped Carthage off the map.

"Carthage Must be Destroyed" is an impressive scholarly work. It was obvious that Miles spent years researching old histories and archeological records to bring this story to you. Despite the fact that the title is a Roman quote, Rome doesn't even appear until a hundred pages in. The first third of the book was dedicated to the history of how Carthage was founded and where it came from. 3,000 years ago, the shores of what we now call the Holy Land (Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt) were dotted with small city states, each with its own unique culture. One of the most powerful of these cultures, referred to collectively as Phoenician, was a city called Tyre. Tyre established itself as an extraordinary trading hub. The people of Tyre were consummate sailors and had built trading posts all along the Mediterranean shores. They had even managed to leave the confines of the Mediterranean Sea, establishing colonies on the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Morocco 800 years before Jesus was born. This civilization was so old, that some of their trading agreements were with kings with names like David (as in "And Goliath") and his son, Solomon. They struggled against such Old Testament characters as the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

In 814 BC, a city was founded by the citizens of Tyre that became much more than a simple colony or a trading post. Located on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, in what we now call Libya, the new city was named Carthage and it was strategically placed in the middle of the Phoenician trade routes, halfway between the lucrative Spanish silver mines and the parent city of Tyre. The culture of Carthage was very Phoenician in flavor and the religion borrowed heavily from the Greek city states on the other side of the sea. Heracles (also called Melqart) was one of Carthage's chief gods and the people of the city identified themselves, not as Africans, but as Phoenicians with Trojan or Greek heritage. This identity will become important later in the book.

As the generations passed, Carthage spread her influence throughout the Mediterranean. The nearby islands of Sicily and Sardinia were soon dotted with Carthaginian outposts, and before long wars were being fought over who had influence over these areas. Carthage supported small kingdoms and petty rulers against the Greeks and other adversaries vying for influence. By 500 BC, slowly but inexorably, Carthage had established herself as the preeminent force in the western Mediterranean Sea. Following in the footsteps of Tyre, she had established outposts along the Atlantic coasts and a captain from Carthage, Himilco, was even rumored to have reached the shores of Ireland and England centuries before any other European cultures. The Carthage colonies and her people were called Punic, and the wars she would eventually fight against Rome would bear the same name, the Punic Wars.

By 500 BC, Rome was merely a growing Latin power on the Italian peninsula, but nothing for Carthage to fear. The Romans signed a treaty with Carthage in 509 BC and agreed to limit their trade routes (Rome was not much of a sea power then) and to stay out of Carthaginian business interests, while Carthage agreed to leave Roman settlements along the Italian coasts alone and allow Rome to slowly expand its area of influence. That very year had seen Rome depose her king and establish a powerful Senate as the governing body of a new Roman Republic.

 The real concern for everyone in the known world at that time was Alexander the Great. Sure, he had lead his armies far off to the East, but his sacking of the city of Tyre and his desecration of the Tyrian/Carthaginian god, Melqart sent a clear message to Carthage. Soon, it was feared, Alexander would turn his gaze westward and no one could be confident that they would not be conquered by the great general from Macedonia. Alexander made the world feel like a small place.

In response to the fear inspired by Alexander, Carthage redoubled her efforts to secure her influence in the Mediterranean. One thing became clear as you read "Carthage Mvst be Destroyed." Humans kill each other a lot and we have been doing it for a long long time. Some of the battles being fought over who had control of certain settlements in Sicily resulted in up to 100,000 casualties. Those are World War One numbers, but these battles were being fought two and a half thousand years ago!

Eventually these constant wars and skirmishes lead to clashes between Rome and Carthage. The Punic Wars had begun. The Romans eventually invaded North Africa and besieged Carthage before being driven off. But this, the First Punic War, resulted in one huge strategic change in the region. Carthage had been replaced by Rome as the rulers of the Mediterranean Sea.

In 227 BC, a Carthaginian general had founded a Spanish city of New Carthage. It came to be known as Cartagena (a name that would much later be brought to the New World and be established as the capital of Columbia). This new city was more than a trading post, it represented a Carthaginian colony and it's people were named after the founding family, the Barcids. When their ruler/general was assassinated, his son replaced him. Hannibal was his name, and, though Carthage would eventually disappear, his name would be remembered forever. He would bring war to Rome, crossing the Alps with his African elephants and marching to the gates of Rome itself. Hannibal wreaked havoc on the Italian peninsula for fifteen years before returning to his home.

Hannibal's army was an eclectic mix of people and fighters. This was one of his strengths on the battlefield. He was able to confuse his enemies by tailoring his choice of soldiers to suit each tactical situation. The Second Punic War may have been the first time that a commander's tactical awareness and abilities were more important than his number of troops or types of weapons. But maybe more important than that distinction was that Hannibal had taken a page from Alexander the Great. He had brought with him his own propagandists. They were careful to highlight the shared religion between Hannibal and the old Greek and Phoenicians cultures. They pointed out to the Italian peoples that Hannibal's growing armies were following in the storied and holy footsteps of Heracles when the great hero had returned the legendary cattle herds of Geryon. These Carthaginian story tellers and poets, these propagandists made the case that Hannibal was a more legitimate ruler than any Roman Senate. In this way, Hannibal was not simply fighting Roman generals on the field, he was fighting Roman leaders in the hearts and minds of their people. And it worked. Rome labored frantically to bolster its own image as the paragon of piety and as the legitimate cultural heir of the Greek traditions.

Hannibal took war to a new level. He was brilliant on the battlefield, at Cannae he had counter-intuitively weakened his center so that his cavalry could wrap around his enemies' flanks and destroy them even as they believed they were winning the fight. But his true genius lay in the realm of propaganda. As brilliant as this was at the time, it almost ensured that Rome would feel the need to eventually view Carthage not as regional threat, but as an existential one.

After Hannibal was defeated outside the walls of Carthage by the Roman general Scipio (thereafter known as Scipio Africanus) Carthage declined as a military power in the region. But defeat in war lead to prosperity in economics (as would later be true of Germany and Japan in the latter half of the 20th Century). Carthage soon became prosperous enough that she was seen as indispensable to the growing Roman war effort as Rome pushed to expand her own empire. In the decades after the Second Punic War, the north African metropolis, free from the need to maintain an empire or a standing army, became an economic powerhouse.

This could not stand. Again, Rome turned her eyes toward her old enemy, and one hundred and fifty years before the birth of Christ, Carthage was utterly destroyed. Having removed her chief and oldest rival, Rome soon fell into Civil War. Without the foil of Carthage, the Roman people had no enemy by which to compare themselves. Eventually the mythology of Carthage entered Roman culture in a new and nostalgic way. By 20 AD, the Roman poet Vergil had written the Aeneid and Carthage was recast as a beacon of piety and honor, her loss deeply felt across the civilized world. Nothing remained of a once great civilization but stories and ruins.

The story of Carthage reminded you once again why you read history books. There is always more than one side to every story and there are always so many more stories out there. You are fascinated by these stories. Some tales are waiting to be told, but some will never have the chance to be heard again.

It all reminds you of a sonnet by Shelley.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

On to the next book!