Monday, April 29, 2013

"Endurance" by Alfred Lansing (1959)

Two castaway books in a row. Is this a theme? What's next, "The Odyssey?" Actually, when it comes to cursed voyages, Odysseus has got nothing on Shackleton. This story is almost as unbelievable.

It all started with this google maps site here. You found it on some random site and shared it with your cousin, Eric, knowing it was right up his alley. He was very excited by it. Eric reminded you that Ernest Shackleton was one of his heroes. "Really?" you asked, admitting that you knew very little about the man. "Is there a good book I can read to learn more about this guy?" Eric didn't even hesitate. "Yep. 'Endurance' by Alfred Lansing," he said, and you were reading it within a few weeks.

The website above is almost an allegory for Shaclekton's life. He was an Irish explorer who was driven to accomplish great things, but he was repeatedly frustrated in his efforts. The hut featured in the website was Shackleton's home base for an expedition that almost reached the South Pole. In January of 1909, his team made it to within 97 miles of their goal before being forced to turn back (Shackleton was knighted for this impressive attempt). But he fared better than his friend Robert Falcon Scott, who died with his entire team in 1912 after reaching the South Pole, only after finding that a Norwegian team, lead by Roald Amundsen, had beaten them by just 33 days. What a hell of a reason to die! The American, Robert Peary, claimed to have also reached the South Pole even before the Norwegians, but his claims have been discredited. Determined to reclaim some of the honor for England that the Norwegians (and maybe Americans) had snatched, Shackleton planned an expedition to become the first to cross the entire continent of Antarctica.

Shackleton formed his team by letting his instincts guide him on which men could mesh together and work as one unit. Cohesion was more important than raw talent. In June of 1914, one month before Shackleton was to set sail, World War I began to break out. Archdukes were assassinated and sabers were rattled. The political storms of European alliances briefly threatened to cancel the trip, but a letter from the Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill himself, assured Shackleton that the expedition was a go. He and his chosen team boarded the virgin ship named Endurance, and headed south.

The Endurance was a three masted ship with an engine capable of making 10.2 knots in open waters. She was built for polar bear hunting trips along the Northern Polar Ice Cap. She was highly reinforced as if she were an ice breaker; but she wasn't. The design flaw that spelled her doom was that her bottom was not nicely rounded enough (get your mind out of the gutter) and a round bottom would allow a ship being squeezed by pack ice to rise up and out of the way and sit in top of the ice. Ships with square bottoms, like the Endurance, would be crushed by the pressure instead.

Lansing spends no time describing the trip south. The expedition is soon on South Georgia Island, loading up all of the supplies they will need for the trip across a continent and seeking nautical advice from the veteran whale hunters living in the whaling station there. Shackleton aims to make landfall on the southern shore of the Weddell Sea, which would save him hundreds of miles of overland trip. The sailors warn him that the sea is in its worst condition in living memory, and they advise the team to postpone their trip to let the ice loosen up some. Shackleton is eager to go while summer lasts and on December 5th, 1914, the Endurance sets sail for the Weddell Sea.

The Weddell Sea is an odd place. It is covered in ice. In winter the ice sheet is solid, but in the summer, it breaks up and forms floes that smash together during the day and freeze back together again at night. The whole sheet of ice is slowly churned, by wind action and water currents, in a giant clock-wise spin. Shackleton plans to skirt the Eastern edge of the ice, slip as far south as he can and make land fall much closer to the pole. Within days of setting out from South Georgia, the Endurance meets the ice floes that will eventually kill her . She slides around them, neatly dancing into the Weddell Sea. After the turn of the new year, the crew is treated to one hundred miles of open water and are soon close enough to their destination that the men grow restless to begin their over land trek.

But it is not to be. Within another week, the Endurance is lucky to make even 30 miles a day. The ice blocks her at every step. Even though the going is slow, the crew is surrounded by life. Whales ranging in size from familiar killers all the way to the gigantic blues play in the breaks between the ice under the watching eyes of countless soaring sea birds. Bemused penguins provide spectators for the ship's passage, the sun is shining 24 hours a day, and all seems as if it is going well. On January 18th, 1915, after days of open seas and only 200 miles from her landing site, the Endurance attacks a fresh swath of pack ice. She never sails in open waters again.

The ice closes in and the team decides to wait out a new storm. Day after day pass, and the storm locks them in place. Soon, everyone realizes that they are stuck fast. They become a small speck encased in a million miles of ice slowly spinning like an enormous pinwheel driven by the winds of the Weddell Sea. For nine months they drift like this, feasting on rations and the occasional seal. but the pressure of the ice on the hull of the Endurance becomes too great and on October 30th, they realize they must abandon ship.

The men take to the ice, all 28 of them. They are hiking over the 6 foot thick ice floes, trying to reach a safe house set up on the shore 350 miles to their North West.  Shackleton, experienced as he is, values speed over preparedness, and orders all non-essential items abandoned, dramatically discarding his own Bible as an example to his men of how serious the situation is. But after days of grueling, back-breaking work dragging their small (but heavy) hand-made boats, Shackleton declares the work not worth the effort. The team was making less than a mile a day. They find a thick, stable floe and make camp there, cannibalizing the nearby Endurance for shelter and rations. There they await the inevitable break up of the ice as it moves into the Atlantic, and hope for an easier route to the open water.

The Antarctic expedition is over. Now they just need to try to survive. Starvation becomes a major concern. Supplies dwindle. The temperature never rises above freezing, and is often well below zero. The sun disappears for months. The situation becomes so desperate that the men are even forced to wipe their asses with the only ubiquitous material available... ice! When you are wiping your ass with ice, you know the situation has become critical. Even spotting land after so long is no longer a cause for joy, for the men are unable to reach it. They are left drifting at the mercy of the wind and the ice, and watching the land recede into the distance. The Endurance is crushed completely and sinks under the ice that killed her. Another new year comes and goes.

Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the ice floe that the men have made their home shrinks down from a comfortably huge, mile-wide carpet, to a distressingly small 200 yard wide "raft." In late April of 1916, it becomes obvious they are going to be forced to abandon their home. The men watch as the ice around them opens up, exposing wide lanes of open water, only to contract back closed with a force that would crush their boats. But they must leave the floe. Shackleton gives the order and within one hour, the men have broken down their camp and they have their boats in the water.

They begin paddling in three tiny open boats on the freezing seas. they dodge ice bergs and floes. As they row, their destination changes with the current and the wind, but they settle on aiming for Elephant Island. No human had ever set foot on the island, but it has become their only hope. They fight the sea. They fight like men possessed. Every wave soaks every man to the skin, and freezes him to the bone. You didn't know this, but when you get a blister on your hand from paddling non-stop, and the temperature is freezing, the fluid in the blister freezes and it is as if you have stones inside your palms. They paddled on anyway. Many, if not all of them, suffer from frostbite. The ancient Norse religion describes Hell as a cold and frozen place, not the fiery hot caverns of Christianity. Wise folks, those Vikings.

After seven harrowing, unbelievable days, they make land. For the first time in 497 days the men are finally on land. The nice thing about land is that is doesn't often break up under your feet or pitch you into freezing waves. They move their camp to a new location the next day. But they are not saved. No one else on Earth knows they are even alive. Someone must go for help.

Shackleton chooses five other men and they leave the rest behind to make shelters out of the two remaining boats. The men left on the island scrape and fight to stay alive. It is not easy. One man even has his frostbitten feet amputated. They use blubber for fuel, and suck on penguin bones for sustenance. They watch the horizon every day to see if their leader has survived his trip to bring back their rescuers.

Shackleton and the other five men have taken to the seas again in a 22 foot boat. They are sailing in the Drake Passage, known by all sailors as the worst stretch of open water on Earth. The ocean here is the only place on the planet where water rings the entire latitude of the globe. The winds have nothing to slow them down, and the waves have no resistance to shrink their height or their ferocity, they literately roll on forever. Shackleton and his men are now aiming for the island where they began this ill-fated journey, South Georgia. It is almost 900 miles away and they have no sophisticated navigational tools better than their own skills at dead reckoning. All of their gear is intended for dry, cold, cross-country conditions. They are beyond exhausted.

For seventeen days these six men sail the stormiest seas on Earth in a tiny boat and, by some miracle find themselves off shore from their destination. The tide is coming in so they row back out to sea to make a safer approach in the morning. And, of course another storm hits. The next day, 522 days after leaving the island to begin his adventure, Ernest Shackleton leaps from his lifeboat and sets foot back on South Georgia Island. He and his men are saved.

But not really.

They are on the wrong side of the island. The whaling station is on the Northern shore, Shackleton and his men are on the Southern shore. So, he does what he knows he must; he divides his group again, leaving half his men behind, and he sets off over the mountains on foot. To describe the landscape as inhospitable doesn't do it justice. Lansing describes the scene like this:

" the three quarters of a century that men had been coming to South Georgia, not one man had ever crossed the island -- for the simple reason that it could not be done... the interior of the island has been described by one expert as 'a saw-tooth thrust through the tortured upheaval of mountain and glacier that falls in chaos to the northern sea.' In short, it was impassible."

Yet Shackleton did it anyway. And that is the main point of the book. These men should not have kept going, they should not have survived this ordeal, they should never have lived to tell the tale... yet they did it anyway. Just when you thought the story couldn't possibly get worse, it did. Shackleton goes on to cross the un-crossable mountains, flinging himself off cliffs and diving off waterfalls to bring salvation to the men whose fates are his responsibility. He never gives up hope. He keeps going. Even when all is lost. Even when the frozen sea crushes his ship to dust. Even when all their food is gone. Even when the current turns and take them the wrong direction. Even when it seems as if every force on Earth is determined to snuff out the spark of life in his chest. He keeps hope alive, and he keeps going.


Never has their been a book more aptly named.

On to the next book!

P.S. There are some great pictures from the expedition here. As terrifying as it all was, it was quite beautiful. And here is a handy timeline of the expedition from PBS Nova.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"Life of Pi" by Yann Martel (2001)

 A story about why we tell stories and why we choose to believe what we believe.

There is a pretty good chance that you are not smart enough to do this book review justice, or at least not wise enough. This is more your wife's territory. Liz has both the wisdom and the spiritual intelligence to explore all of the richness this story deserves. You probably do not. Nevertheless, (and since she refused to write this review for you) here goes nothing.

"Life of Pi" is about a boy named Pi, but it is not the story of his life. It is only the story of his experience as a young boy growing up in a charming seaside town in India in a family that owned a zoo. But, more importantly, it is a story about his extraordinary transformation into an adult. At the age of sixteen, Pi survives a shipwreck and lives on a lifeboat in the Pacific for an incredible amount of time. He floats on the open ocean until he lands on a Mexican beach where the story promptly ends.

But that's not what the book is about.

There is a tiger, named Richard Parker, on the lifeboat with Pi. Somehow, this sixteen year old boy is able to keep himself alive and coexist with a 450 lb tiger for months and months on a 25 foot boat. The tiger provides the impetus for Pi to stay alive and to gather enough food and water to keep both of them alive. Without the tiger, Pi wouldn't have survived the ordeal, yet Richard Parker is a constant threat to Pi's very existence. Together, they witness unimaginable beauty and almost unbelievable wonders.

But that's not what the book is about.

As a boy, Pi (his real name is Piscene Patel, but he chose Pi as a nickname to avoid the humiliation of other children calling him "Pissing" Patel) is fascinated by religion. Raised a Hindu, he is soon captivated by the beauty and depth of both Christianity and Islam. In one scene, Pi's parents are confronted in their home by three wise men, a priest, an imam, and a pandit, all of whom demand to know why they are each equally convinced that Pi is their most devout student. Pi honestly sees the beauty and the Truth in all of these religions and embraces each of them equally. He revels in their story telling and their rich histories. He finds significance in his everyday life through relating everything back to some Hindu scripture, or some Muslim prayer, or some New Testament parable. Pi is much more concerned with the act of having faith than he is in the truth behind each Faith.

Now this... this might be what the book is about.

"Life of Pi" is beautifully written and wonderfully descriptive (sometimes quite graphic when the tiger is devouring some unfortunate animal or when Pi is gutting a turtle). The adventure on the high seas is addictive. Once you started on that part of the book, you really couldn't put it down. But it became very obvious by the end of the novel, that the story meant something else. Yann Martel was trying to reveal some deeper truth to you through the gift of allegory. But the great thing about story telling, about allegory, about books in general, is that it doesn't really matter what the author or story teller is trying to say. A book doesn't belong to the author. It belongs to the reader. So, whatever lessons Martel intended to teach you might be lost on you, other readers may glean deeper truths from it, and learn more profound messages, but that doesn't mean that the book didn't teach you anything at all.

This book is about stories. It explores why we tell one another stories as part of our interaction, why we tell ourselves stories as well. They are not needed. Life will continue without our telling one another new (and old) stories over and over again. Stories make life worth living, and sometimes the stories we craft in our own heads, the narrative constructs that we fabricate to justify our actions even to ourselves, are the only things that keep us going.

"Life of Pi" is also, undoubtedly, about faith. It is a book that openly explores the idea of God and approaches him from many angles, including atheism. In fact, Martel heaps the most scorn on agnostics. "Doubt is useful for a while," Pi tells us early on in the book. "If Christ played with doubt, so must we... surely we are permitted to doubt. But," he warns, "We must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation." And later, in a paragraph that constitutes an entire chapter Pi tells us,
"I can imagine an atheist's last words: "White, white! L-L-Love! My God!" -- and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, "Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain." and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story."
This is important because the story that unfolds after this is patently unbelievable. As wondrous as the story of the boy and the tiger on the boat is, as beautifully as it is told... it is unbelievable. But so what? Any good story deserves embellishment. Hell, you can't even talk about going to the grocery store without tossing in a few extra details! It doesn't matter anyway. There is power in truth, but what this book reminded you of is that there is more power in belief.

Truth simply explains. Faith inspires.

At the very end, in the last pages of the story, Pi tells a second, alternative story of his voyage. One that isn't as wonderful or beautiful, but is more believable. He challenges you to choose which story you prefer. There must be people out there who choose the second, more depressing, less fantastic story to put their faith in. But not you.

You will take the boy and the tiger every time.

You never want to miss the better story.

On to the next book!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"The House at Pooh Corner" by A. A. Milne (1928)

Yeah... Pooh Bear. Got a problem with it?

You decided to read a Winnie the Pooh book. You needed to read something completely opposite from the last book because Good Grief! That was depressing.

You had no idea that Winnie the Pooh was so old. A.A. Milne's first Pooh book came out 87 years ago! You thought Pooh had only been around since the 60's, probably because that's when Disney started making the cartoons. Stupid Disney, always corrupting the way you think about things. While the classic characters are quite a bit different from the Disney creations (Eeyore is a lot more sarcastic than you'd expected) they maintained their basic traits. Pooh is always sweet and daft and hungry, Piglet is worried and fearful and constantly seeking approval, Rabbit is always bossy and controlling, Tigger is perpetually bouncy and quixotic, Kanga is a perfect mother, and Roo the perfect little son. These characters were familiar and comforting, and just the thing you needed after the last book's wrenching imagery.

The book itself, the physical book, was charming as well. The small hardback was only slightly larger than your open palm with a little pooh Bear silhouette embossed into the soothingly light blue cover. The edge of each page was lined with silver, so that when the book was open you couldn't see anything remarkable, but when it was closed it appeared to be a block of precious metal nestled in a hard back cover. This silver lining caught the light every time you turned a page so that it seemed like there was a shimmering archway leading you to each new page. Ebooks are great and encourage people to read more, and nothing will ever supplant their extraordinary portability and ease of access, but there really is something about holding a good, solid, dead-tree book in your hand.

You wanted to write this review and talk about each of the characters in these short stories. You wanted to examine the idea that each animal represents a different personality type, and how sometimes people can reflect more than one of these stereotypes. You wanted to focus on how loving Christopher Robin is to all of his friends, and how we are all equally worthy of love, regardless of how we interact with the world. You wanted to highlight some of the simple yet insightful language, to extensively quote some of the more quietly profound moments that struck you as wise and valuable for children to remember as they grow up.

But that's not what you wanted to remember about this book when you were done reading it. What you wanted to remember was the last chapter, maybe really only the last two or three pages.

A.A. Milne wrote many Winnie the Pooh stories and poems. They mostly only involve the animals in the Hundred Acre Woods and their interactions. Occasionally, Christopher Robin shows up to provide advice, encouragement, and moral support. Christopher Robin is clearly an homage to Milne's own son, Christopher Robin Milne. These stories were written as Milne's way of capturing his son's childish imagination for posterity, so that his love for his stuffed animals would never be forgotten. In the last chapter of "The House at Pooh Corner," it becomes clear to all the animals that Christopher Robin is leaving them. They don't know where he is going, but you knew that this meant that he was growing up... as little boys do.

Eeyore writes Christopher Robin a poem saying goodbye and all of the animals sign it as best they can.  They all deliver the poem to him but as he reads it, the animals all fade away back into the wood. When the boy finishes reading and lifts his head only Pooh Bear is left.

His beloved silly old Bear.

As the last few silver lined pages unfolded before you, Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear get up and go on one last walk through the woods together. They talk as they always have, as friends who understand one another more deeply than even they themselves realize. Christopher Robin admits to Pooh that what he loves more than anything else in the world is doing Nothing. "How do you do Nothing?" Pooh wonders aloud.

"Well," says Christopher Robin," it's when people call out at you just as you're going off to do it, What are you going off to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh, nothing, and then you go and do it." "Oh, I see," Pooh says.

Soon the two arrive at an enchanted spot on a hilltop, surrounded by trees. And for the first time in their lives together, Christopher Robin begins telling Pooh Bear about the real world; about Kings and Knights, about factories and a place called Europe. Pooh Bear, enchanted and confused (as always) asks if a Bear could be a Knight. So right there in that enchanted spot on a hill in the Hundred Acre Woods, Christopher Robin makes a Knight of his best friend.

Suddenly, chin in hands and eyes on the world spread out at the foot of the hill, Christopher Robin admits to Pooh that,

"I'm not going to do nothing anymore."

"Never again?"

"Well, not so much. They don't let you." 

At this, Pooh promises to always be there for his closest and dearest friend, and that he will never forget Christopher Robin. 

"Pooh, said Christopher Robin earnestly, "If I - if I'm not quite -- " he stopped and tried again -- "Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won't you?"

"Understand what?"

"Oh, nothing." He laughed and jumped to his feet. "Come on!"

"Where?" said pooh.

""Anywhere," said Christopher Robin.

And then this last paragraph got you.

"So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."

That place isn't on a hill in a Forest, it's in A. A. Milne's heart. It's in the heart of every good parent. It's that part of us all, that part of you that wants your children to grow up, but realizes how deeply you will miss them when they do, how deeply you already miss their younger selves. As a father of young boys, people are always reminding you that these wonderful moments of childhood imagination and joy are so fleeting, they want to tell you to hold on to them and remember them.

Nicholas with his imaginary T-Rex friend, Kranken, or his invisible mouse protector, Canby. Lincoln with his stuffed Woody doll from Toy Story; every child is Christopher Robin at some point in their lives. And every parent is A.A. Milne. "The house at Pooh Corner" was one father's way of cherishing his son's childhood, and it was a reminder to you to not let your boys' childhoods slip away without taking the time to notice the little things, to treasure them, and to do what you can to remember them. They won't last long.

On to the next book!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

"The Rape of Nanking" by Iris Chang (1998)

This was one of the most difficult books for you to read that you've ever come across. Just the title alone has been enough for you to avoid reading it for years now. You write this blog so that you don't forget things that you want to remember. But some of the horrors exposed in this book make you wish that you could choose to forget some of the things that you now wish you'd never read in the first place.

Two or three months ago, your cousin, Eric, asked if you'd watched the movie "John Rabe." You told him that you hadn't and he highly recommended it. Within a few days you had watched it streaming online. It was about a German manager for Seimens in 1937 China, the Oskar Schindler of the East, who tried to save civilians from the invading Japanese armies when they sacked the Chinese capital city of Nanking. The movie was compelling enough, and the story was new enough to you that you talked to some friends about it afterward. One of them (Jordan Lutz) asked if you had read a book by Iris Chang called "The Rape of Nanking" about the same story. When you told him that you'd never been able to bring yourself to buy a book with the giant word RAPE on the cover and then carry it around with you, especially with your two boys reading everything over your shoulder all the time, Jordan offered to let you borrow his copy of the book. You took him up on it.

And so began your reading of "The Rape of Nanking." The whole book is only a little over 200 pages long, but it affected you very powerfully. It almost sent you into a state of depression, but the few bright spots in it managed to keep you going, just when you thought you were going to have to stop reading it.

Chang uses the first chapter of the book to set the historical stage for the titular massacre. Contrary to popular American belief, World War II did not begin over the skies of Hawaii. For much of the world the war had been raging for years before then, and for the citizens of Asia the war started in 1931, not in December of 1941. Four years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the forces of the Empire of Japan had captured Nanking, the capital of China. And for decades before that, Japan had sought to show itself the Imperial equal to the Western and American powers, defeating both Russia and China in several small wars and establishing itself as the presumptive dominant power in Asia. The Japanese government began to see China as a land that was theirs for the taking. Much as America had spent the previous two hundred years claiming all of North America as their birthright, so too did the Japanese begin to see their own prominence in mainland Asia and the ocean expanses of the South Pacific as their version of Manifest Destiny.

After an American Battle Fleet appearing in Tokyo Bay in 1853 provided a rude awakening from three hundred years of self-enforced isolation from the rest of the world, the Japanese government realized that it had a lot of catching up to do in this new and attractive Imperial game of expanding their national interests across the globe. They got to it as fast as they could, eager to make up for lost time. They aimed to emulate the European and North American models of gaining colonies and opening commerce at the barrel of a gun, quickly modernizing their military forces from horses and swords and archers to guns and airplanes and battleships. But more importantly, they began to militarize their population. By the mid 1930's, generations of Japanese citizens had been indoctrinated in the belief that their lives meant nothing unless they served the Emperor, and that the Japanese race was superior to all others in the world. The government of Japan corrupted the ancient Samurai Bushido code and twisted it into a tool to create a population of young men who were eager to sacrifice their own lives on the whim of their superiors in the name of service to their Emperor, a monarch who they viewed as a god.

By the summer of 1937 Japan  had the full scale war they had been trying to provoke from the Chinese for years. Now was the moment for them to show their superiority on the battlefield and claim the vast riches of China as their own. But the first battle became a drawn out humiliation for the crack Japanese Marines in Shanghai. Like many other generals in many other wars in many other nations, Japan's military experts were proven wrong when they had predicted all of China would fall in a few short months. Instead the Chinese people, who were supposed to be inferior to the Japanese soldiers in every way, forced a battle for one city alone into a half a year humiliation for the Japanese government. However bravely the defenders fought, Shanghai did eventually fall in December of '37. And as the conquering Japanese army marched towards the Chinese capital of Nanking, they had vengeance on their minds. Dishonor was worse than death to the soldiers of the Nippon islands, and they were going to make the people who brought them such humiliating dishonor pay dearly for their temerity.

But the defenders who had fought so well in Shanghai virtually disappeared before the walls of Nanking, even though they far outnumbered the invaders. Nanking, the capital of China, defended by 90,000 troops, fell in just four days. The Chinese army abandoned the more than one million citizens of their own capital to the mercies of an enraged and unmerciful conqueror.

For the next six weeks or more, the unfortunate souls trapped behind Japanese lines were subjected to the most nightmarish treatment this side of Hell. Not since Atilla the Hun had humans been treated like this.

The atrocities started even before the ancient city fell. Contrary to the wishes of the commanding officer, who was being sent back to the home islands, the order went out amongst all Japanese soldiers to execute all 300,000 prisoners of war. Only our capacity to dehumanize our fellow humans could have allowed for this outrageoous war crime to happen. 300,000 executions! In a manner of days! The Japanese had no extermination camps, no means of mass murder, no weapons of mass destruction. All they had were bullets, swords, and the limits of human creativity to dole out death. Within days, the order to execute more than a quarter million men, men who had surrendered in good faith that they would be treated humanely, had been carried out. To this day, the bodies are still being uncovered in the countryside surrounding Nanking.

Once the armies of Japan entered the city proper, it only got worse. Much much worse. The are far worse things than death. The Chinese civilians who had not fled the city before the occupation were subjected to savagery beyond comprehension. Mass rape, mass torture, and sadistic cruelty were meted out in full view of the public. Unspeakable atrocities were carried out in broad daylight in the streets of one of the world's capital cities. Chang's descriptions eventually became almost mind-numbingly heartbreaking to you. The savagery was literally too horrific to fathom. Eventually, it was as if your mind went along just behind your eyes and erased the nightmarish mental images the words on the page were creating. As a defense mechanism, your mind was expunging the information as soon as you learned it.

More people were killed in the six weeks of terror in and around Nanking in late '37 early '38 than were killed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and the Japanese were using only bullets, swords, and bayonets. About half the deaths occurred in mass executions, the rest were individual face to face murders. Some Japanese soldiers engaged in killing contest to see who could behead the most people in a day. Their exploits were printed in and cheered in Japanese news papers back home. And that wasn't even the worst of the atrocities.

Even after reading this book, you still have no idea how anyone could do the things the Japanese soldiers did to these people. Institutionalized racism, religious fanaticism, hierarchically structured society, and propaganda all played their parts in the Rape of Nanking, but these don't go all the way to explaining such wanton savagery. The only explanation you could come up with is that the Japanese soldiers had been convinced (or had convinced themselves) that the Chinese were not actually people. Or maybe it was their indoctrination that life itself was meaningless, holding no inherent value. This was the only explanation that could clarify for you how humanity could develop any society capable of this level of disregard for human dignity and with no shred of compassion.

And, as is always the case with rape, none of it was about sex. It was all about power. Japanese Army privates were considered to be far superior than even the highest ranking Chinese natives. And Japanese privates were considered almost worthless to their superiors. They were expendable. Their lives meant nothing. They had been dehumanized and brutalized themselves as a matter of their education, as an introduction to maturity. Suddenly, the oppressed lower caste members of Japanese society had become the oppressors. Suddenly they wielded power like nothing they had ever known before. These young men could do anything they could imagine in their darkest of hearts, with no threats of repercussions.

As violent as World War II could get, as awful as the bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were, at least they had some goal in mind. Arguably those goals were misguided yes, but at least there was a point to the violence meted out to those millions of civilians by Allied bombers. They were trying to shorten the war. The goals of all of that destruction was to end the greater destruction caused by the war. The Rape of Nanking, on the other hand, had no point. No information was sought from the victims, no one was being questioned, no one was compelled to switch religions or political beliefs. There seemed to be no point to the unending torture. The violence escalated simply for its own sake. If you ever needed proof that violence only leads to more violence, this book did the trick.

One of the things we all find so disturbing about the Holocaust committed by the Nazis in Europe is that the instruments of our Western progress were complicit in massacring civilians. The very industrialized tools that were supposed to prove to ourselves how civilized we were had been used to show us how barbaric we could really be. In Nanking, conversely, the brutality was not industrialized. There were no gas chambers, no crematoriums or train schedules. The Rape of Nanking was personal. And somehow that makes it even more reprehensible.

Just when you were ready to abandon the book because you couldn't live in a world with such unbridled horror, you read about the people who set up the International Safety Zone. In the midst of some of the most terrible atrocities in the history of humankind, there arose beacons of hope and light. People willing to work as hard as they could to save as many people as possible from such hellish fates. In Nanking, as in every corner of the world, there were people who refused to stand by and watch evil unfold before them without doing something to combat the darkness. Just before the occupation, a small group of about twenty people, mostly Europeans and Americans, established the International Safety Zone in the heart of the capital. They chose as their leader a German named John Rabe as their president. Rabe used his political clout as the representative of Japan's ally to influence the behavior of the rampaging military and protect the people inside the Zone.

The work of the people who established the Zone was so successful that the results are staggering. If you were a Chinese citizens who was in the Zone during the Rape of Nanking, chances are that you survived the ordeal. If you were not in the Zone, chances are that you died. Roughly 300,000 Chinese citizens were killed during the occupation (maybe more). Roughly 300,000 Chinese citizens huddled, terrified and starving inside the borders of the International Safety Zone for the duration of the months long occupation and lived to tell the tale. Those who wandered (or were lured) outside the borders of the Zone, usually never made it back.

Eventually, John Rabe realized that he wasn't doing as much as he could to save the people of Nanking. He decided that huddling up and protecting the people in the Zone was not enough. He soon began to wander the streets of the capital looking for crimes to prevent, mounting rescue patrols in the city even after the sun was down. Wearing only his swastika arm band as his protection, he faced down armed marauding soldiers bent on inflicting cruelty and death on any civilians they could find. Oskar Schindler is famous today for saving about 1,200 Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. John Rabe, who is a relative unknown in our culture, saved over 300,000 Chinese civilians from almost certain death.

There are heroes in the world. John Rabe was one of them. You hope that you never live to see days like December 1937 in Nanking, March 1945 in Auschwitz, or April 1994 in Rwanda. But if you do live to see such dark days, you pray to God that you have it in you to be half as heroic as John Rabe.

The most fascinating part of Rabe's story is that this real life hero... was a damn Nazi! He wasn't just someone who got swept up in the mandatory Hitler Youth program or something forgivable like that. No. He was the highest ranking Nazi in the capital of China! He ranked so high in the Nazi hierarchy that the reports he sent back to the German government were addressed directly to Adolf Hitler himself. John Rabe was a Nazi, and he was also a hero.

Somehow, in reading this crushingly depressing story, you found hope. No matter how overpowering the darkness can seem, no matter how powerful the evil we seem to be able to unleash on one another, there is always hope. There will always be people who fight for what is right, who defend their fellow humans with every fiber of their beings.

John Rabe went on to live a failed life. He struggled to support his family after the war ended, and he relied on the kindness of those whom he had saved to provide shelter and food to his loved ones. He probably died prematurely because of his exertions maintaining the International Safety Zone, in fact many of the leaders of the Zone died prematurely as a result of their efforts in Nanking. But his life was not wasted. More than most, John Rabe proved that a life well lived is a worthy life, even if living it well ends it early... even if you are a filthy stinking Nazi.

As always, the truth resits simplicity.

On to the next book!

P.S. A little over one week after posting this review, the G8 (the eight wealthiest industrialized nations in the world) announced a historic 'deal' to begin dealing with rape as a weapon of war worldwide. They pledged money and other resources to educating people around the globe about prevention of war time rape and have agreed to begin to set a global standard for investigating incidents of rape throughout the world. Britain's foreign minister William Hague called the "horrific" use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war "one of the greatest and most persistent injustices in the world". Seventy five years after the atrocity known as "The Rape of Nanking" began we are just now committing ourselves as a human race to begin dealing with this issue. Maybe now that the world recognizes rape as a weapon of war, it will begin to become less and less frequent throughout the conflicts that we so often seem to have with our fellow humans. We can hope and pray that this will become a reality, and we can work to achieve this goal together as a people.

Articles here

And here.