Monday, November 24, 2014

"Throne of Jade" by Naomi Novik (2006)

You ended your review of the first book in this series, "His Majesty's Dragon," by saying that you intended to read as many of them as you could as fast as you could. It's been a few months and this is book #2. You do try to be a man of your word.

"Throne of Jade" opens with a scene that could have easily been extremely boring. Novik manages to make it exciting. Instead of the soaring aerial combat you were expecting, Novik places her protagonist, Laurence, in a boardroom filled with diplomats and politicians. Laurence made a name for himself by capturing a dragon egg from Napoleon's fleet a year or so before. When the dragon hatched, it attached itself to Laurence and the life long sailor had to learn how to ride dragons instead of frigates. But the dragon, named Temeraire proved to be more than the usual breed the rest of the English Aerial Corps flew. Temeraire is a Celestial, a gift intended to be from the Emperor of China to Napoleon, the Emperor of France. Laurence and Temeraire teamed up to become a formidable foe to the French. They had saved England from French invasion in a battle at the cliffs of Dover. But when the Chinese learned how their kingly gift was being used, in the hands of a mere soldier rather than an emperor, they made formal protests to the government of Great Britain and now Laurence finds himself stuck in stuffy room at the Admiralty, facing an accusatory Chinese prince and a British government that seems more than happy to sacrifice his relationship with his dragon for their political ends. Laurence is fed up and furious at being kept far from the heat of combat and far from his dragon.

To assuage the Chinese, who the British dare not enrage, the British Admiralty agree to send both Laurence and Temeraire to China to negotiate whatever ending might satisfy the offended Chinese while still maintaining vital British holdings in Asia and avoiding a war with that nation. It is a long voyage around Europe and underneath Africa to cross the Indian Ocean. Along the way, Laurence and Temeraire endure a French ambush, Temeraire's first encounter with the common cold, and a typhoon amongst other adventures.

As in the first book, the relationship between the two, Temeraire and Laurence, defines "Throne of Jade." Both prove that they would be willing to suffer to the point of death to spare the other harm. They make an outstanding team. Their mutual respect and their love for one another protect more than their own relationship. Each one allows the other to find within themselves new and greater truths, they make each other better than they would be alone.

The book is peppered with wonderfully crafted battle scenes: naval engagements, aerial combat, a desperate defense of a besieged fort, and even a dragon duel. Novik's knowledge of maritime terms and practices is impressive, and her attention to detail and creativity in imagining how a team of people could man a dragon in flight as they would a ship at sea make the stories she tells immersive.
Along the African coast, Temeraire sees his first slaves being sold and prepared for shipment across the sea. He witnesses a small scale revolt when a handful of the slaves fight back against their captors instead of meekly submitting to their imprisonment. The slave rebellion is quickly and brutally put down in full view of the scandalized dragon. Later, as the massive dragon transport ship called Valiance, enters the Indian Ocean, she is attacked by a massive sea serpent. Temeraire is reluctantly forced to kill the 250 foot long beast. This encounter and Laurence's insistence that the serpent was merely a mindless animal, along with the memories of the slaving outpost, set the dragon to asking questions about his own freedom.

If Temeraire is as smart as Laurence, and he is probably even smarter, why should he be forced into military service? Dragons in England are not allowed to roam freely. Human fear prevents this possibility. It is understood to be the natural order of things. Dragons are either harnessed for service in the aerial corps, or kept captive in breeding pens to help grow the ranks of beasts to be used as weapons. Laurence has a hard time answering his friend's questions, and his love of Temeraire helps him see the dragon's argument from a completely new perspective.

Their arrival in China does nothing to help Laurence's argument that the British way is the only way to deal with dragons. The Chinese, a society thousands of years older than Europeans, have a completely different way of thinking about and treating the mythological creatures. Even in our reality, China harbors a special reverence for dragons, but Novik takes this to the next level that her fictional world requires. Instead of shying away from the subject, Novik revels in a culture that respects the creature she inserted into our history. How would the Chinese have evolved to treat dragons? Novik draws from their customs, their mythology, and their art and decides that they would have evolved their entire civilization around the coexistence between humans and dragons.

In Novik's world, Chinese cities are designed to allow easy passage of dragons through their streets. Entire markets develop to provide food for dragons as well as to supply the treasures they naturally desire. Chinese chefs pride themselves on the perfect preparation of food for dragon consumption. Choice meats are heavily seasoned with spices and peppers, nothing like the English way of simply providing raw, or even still living, fodder. Dragons in China must earn their own wages, other than the rare and highly revered Celestial breeds. Therefore, dragons are woven throughout Chinese society. They are employed as messengers, taxis, and guards as well as soldiers for the government.

It's shocking at first for Laurence to learn that all Chinese dragons aren't serving the emperor's armed forces as English dragons are expected to do for their king. And to Laurence's surprise, with his Victorian-era sensibilities, the dragons who do end up serving in the Chinese military are captained exclusively by women. This is all due to an ancient legend of a girl who disguised herself as her father to save him from military service. In the legend, the girl (obviously, but never explicitly named Mulan) had been a companion to a warrior dragon and had saved the Chinese empire during a crucial battle. Women had been serving in the Chinese aerial corps ever since. It is a closely guarded secret in England that certain dragon breeds will only allow female captains, but for the entire Chinese aerial corps to have women at the helm is something entirely new for Laurence. It's also a nice way for Novik to get in a jab at naive Western ideas that they are the only enlightened societies on Earth, her reminder that gender roles, rather than being set in stone, are as varied as the many cultures that dot the globe.

Temeraire has always had a bit of a rebellious streak in him, Laurence has joked about it several times throughout both books. But this realization, that there are places in the world where his kin are treated as equals, where dragons are educated and respected, proves too much for Temeraire. His eyes are opened to possibilities he had never entertained before, and Laurence sees the passion growing within the closest friend he's ever known and he realizes that it's not wise to fight against it. In the end he knows that he never really wanted to fight it in the first place. Temeraire vows to return to England once the situation with the Chinese emperor is solved (quite cleverly, as a matter of fact) and begin a campaign to spread the word that dragons and humans can indeed live in much closer harmony than the English allow. Laurence knows that Temeraire is right. There is now no reason to continue catering to English fears or to pretend that segregation is the natural state of the world.

Temeraire, like many other non-human fictional characters, helps you to further define what it means to be human. We all have the potential to give in to our fears, to use the status quo as a refuge for our own laziness and self-protection, or as an excuse to turn a blind eye. Temeraire reminded you that you want to be the kind of person who fights against that inherent human weakness and he reminded you that you want to raise children who do the same thing. Sometimes the very people who seem like the enemy, who are treated as monsters by the rest of the world, are the ones who would make the greatest allies. Sometimes, there are far more terrible things in the world than dragons. The world needs more people who see injustice and inequality for what they are, who refuse to sit by and let them continue.

On to the next book!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

Your Father In Law told you that you needed to read this book. When he was in town helping you out with your newly born daughter he went ahead and bought it for you. You recognized the name Louis Zamperini when you read the cover and realized that the main character had only died a few weeks before, you'd heard about it on NPR. If George Nite and NPR agree that this guy was a big deal, you figured you had better check him out.

Laura Hillenbrand is famous for having written the book "Seabiscuit." While researching that book, she found a few news stories about an underdog runner who shocked the world by qualifying for the 5,000 meter race in the 1936 Olympics, even though he'd only competed in that distance three times before. Intrigued, Hillenbrand began looking into the life of this runner, Louis Zamperini, and she found a remarkable story there. She knew that she had found her next book.

Even as a small child, Louie was a hellion. If it was edible, he stole it. If there was a rule, he broke it. If there was an authority figure, he challenged it. He was an incurable prankster. Denis the Mennace had nothing on Louie Zamperini. He was one of those people who is just born rebellious by nature, utterly fearless and hopelessly optimistic in his iconoclasm. In an attempt to keep him out of trouble, Louie's older brother got him involved in track. Louie was a natural.

Attending USC, Louie made a name for himself as a blindingly fast runner who could overcome all sorts of adversity on the field. People from his hometown of Torrance, California, the same people who once cursed his "one-boy insurgency" on them, now cheered Louie on, calling him the Torrence Tornado. After he won a 2 mile race by more than a quarter of a mile, the Torrence police department sent him flowers proclaiming that they were glad that other people were chasing Louie now. Louie tried out for a spot in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was so hot in the stadium during the qualifying race that the metal cleats in his shoes had burned a pattern on the soles of his feet. He lost three pounds during the grueling 5,000 meter run. Despite all this, he blew past several far more famous favorites to secure his spot on the Olympic team.

As a member of the '36 US Olympic track team, Louie Zamperini became friends with Jesse Owens himself. In his final run in Berlin, Louie turned in the fastest final lap time in the mile run in Olympic history, though he did not medal. Adolf Hilter, the host of the games that year, was so impressed that he shook his hand and praised him to his face as "The boy with the fast finish." (The kid who had made his reputation stealing everything he could find in his hometown even swiped a Nazi Swastika flag while two guards had their backs turned.) Louie knew that he would keep getting better and set his sight on the 1940 Olympics, to be held in Tokyo, Japan. Instead he, and most of the rest of the planet, went to war.

Louie enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier. After the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Louie was assigned to a B-24 in the Pacific theater. You knew that those big bombers, B-17's and B-24's, were put to use in the Pacific war, but it was interesting to be reminded of how extensively they were employed in that theater before the conflict could evolve into the carrier-based campaign you are used to imagining. B-24's were nicknamed "Flying Coffins." They were ugly, hard to fly, prone to developing glitches, and, with their odd bomb bay doors and high set wings, tended to break apart during attempted water landings. Also, and ominously for a war fought almost entirely over the largest ocean on Earth, B-24's sank almost immediately on meeting with water.

Louie took part in several bombing missions, including the destruction of the Japanese garrison that had taken Wake island from the US Marines. Louie's plane, Super Man, was almost completely destroyed on another mission bombing the island of Nauru. The mission was a success but one of Louie's crew was killed and several more were permanently taken out of the war by the wounds they received that day. Super Man limped back home with 594 holes blown in it by the Japanese defenders. The plane never flew again.

Louie and his pilot and friend, whom he simply called Phil, were moved to another B-24, the Green Hornet. The Hornet was plagued by technical problems and had been repeatedly cannibalized by resourceful American ground crews scrounging for parts. On May 27, 1943, Phil and his bombardier Louie, were ordered to take part in a search and rescue operation. Another B-24 had been lost somewhere over the Pacific and the Army Air Corps was determined to find the crew.

Before he flew in the Green Hornet for the first time, Louie wanted to check his speed at running the mile. He had a friend clock him. In 1954, eleven years later, on a track at Oxford, Roger Bannister would become famous for breaking the four minute mile. On that day, May 26, 1943, in the middle of World War II, Louie Zamperini ran a mile in four minutes and 12 second. And he did it in deep sand. He was on the shores of some nameless Pacific island, not in an Olympic stadium.

The next day, his plane crashed into the ocean and he was lost at sea. The Green Hornet had suffered from engine trouble and was too plagued with malfunctions for Phil, piloting the bomber for the first time, to save it. Only three men survived the crash, Louie, Phil, and the tailgunner named Mac. They had gone down too fast for anyone to have had time to send out a distress call. No one knew where they were when they crashed and they were hundreds of miles from any land.

The three men drifted on two inflatable life rafts longer than any other people have ever been recorded surviving. Over the course of 47 days they drifted 2,000 miles. They starved, burned in the sun, and suffered terribly from dehydration and exhaustion. They were strafed by Japanese planes and they battled ever-present sharks. No really; they battled the sharks. The demons from the deep leaped at them, tried to get into the raft, rubbed their backs along the bottom of the rafts while the men lay in them, and one monstrous great white pummeled the rafts from underneath to try and eject them into his waiting jaws. The exhausted men had to beat the beasts off with oars like they were sword fighting. Like "In Harm's Way" before, "Unbroken" didn't exactly cure you of your phobia of sharks.

The three men stayed sane by talking about cooking, describing food in exquisite detail. They quizzed one another and gave educational lectures. Their minds were sharpened by the lack of food and any visible distractions. The privations of the flesh and the beauty of the endless expanse of the ocean actually inspired awe and even gratitude in Louie at times. Louie saw visions too, choirs in the sky singing to him. He prayed to a god he never believed in before to help him out. He promised a life of service if that god saved his life.

Mac, the tailgunner died before they sighted land. Phil and Louie, however, survived just long enough to be captured by a Japanese warship before they could reach the island they'd seen. They were moved from prison to prison over the course of the next few months. They were not treated very well. Guards beat them, they were served pitiful meals. Visiting Japanese submariners and sailors would often swing by the prisoners' cells to heap physical and verbal abuse on them. Louie was questioned about his knowledge of the top-secret Norden bomb sight and soon it was discovered that he was a famous man, an Olympian.

By September of '43 Louie found himself in a place called Ofuna. This place was no POW camp. Ofuna was a secret interrogation center and therefore was not registered with the Red Cross. The men held there were given the nebulous status of "unarmed combatant" and the Japanese government maintained that the Geneva Conventions did not apply. Dostoevsky said that you can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners. If that's true, then the Empire of Japan was to be found lacking in everything that a society should stand for. Places like Ofuna are what make the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay so offensive to students of history. History teaches us that people held in secret prisons and given special status exempting them from the rule of international law are not usually treated very well. Harsh judgements have been rendered against nations that do this and it has usually been the United States rendering those judgements. For an American outpost to even be included in the same sentence as camps like Ofuna is beneath the honor of the men and women who have served in this nation's military for over 200 years.

The conditions at Ofuna were more than deplorable, but not all of it was the fault of the Japanese government. Food was sent to the camp by officials but the guards and, most egregiously, the head cook sold the prisoners' food on the black market for obscene profits. For the men held at Ofuna and other POW camps, starvation and exposure to the extreme cold were bad enough but worse than that, worse than being lost at sea, worse than battling sharks, was the loss of dignity. The men would do anything in their power to gain back even the smallest slice of the dignity that the Japanese worked daily to rob from them. In every camp Louie ended up in, he and the men around him stole information, hid valuables, sabotaged the equipment they were forced to help build or transport, and even poisoned guards; anything to feel like they had some shred of dignity left.

Eventually, Louie was moved to yet another POW camp, called Omori, nestled on a small artificial island in Tokyo Bay. This place was something altogether different from the other camps he had been in. This one was run by a psychopathic sadist.

A corporal named Mitsuhiro Watanabe, but referred to most often as "the bird" by the prisoners, was a guard at Omori. He was the son of a wealthy Japanese family and had received a top-tier education in French literature and philosophy. He longed to rise through the ranks of the military but his application to be accepted as an officer had been rejected. Japan was at war and he felt that honor demanded that he serve with distinction, but this denial disgraced Watanabe. It snapped something in his psyche. His dissolution, his powerlessness, and his hate (and possibly his insanity) got him transferred to a dead end post for NCO's, a POW camp. At Ofuna, Watanabe was allowed to let his mental illness run rampant upon the prisoners. The bird ran the place, giving orders to officers and even countermanding orders that had been issued by men who far outranked him.

The bird regularly beat the prisoners. He screamed and raged. He demanded utmost respect and would lose his mind over the slightest provocation. Often he would give the POW's contradicting commands in order to give himself a reason to dole out harsh punishments. He would confusingly flash from calm and caring in one second to murderous and cruel in the next. He was unstable and unpredictable and he focused all of this madness on Louie Zamperini from the minute he laid eyes on the captured American Olympian. His celebrity status and his latent sense of defiance and rebellion made Louie an irresistible target for the bird's rage. Watanabe tortured him constantly.

The men of Omori had a front row seat to the defeat of the Japanese Empire. They were sitting in the middle of Tokyo Bay and watched as the American war machine began sending the newest, most sophisticated and futuristic technological weapons into the skies above Japan to ensure her destruction. Gleaming silver metal B-29s, long range, pressurized, high altitude, heavy bombers began appearing over the heads of the POWs in 1944. The terrified Omori guards could not keep the news from the prisoners that huge portions of many Japanese cities had been destroyed by B-29 firebombing raids. For you, was an odd feeling to read about the war from both the perspective of the people of Japan and the American POWs who were witnessing both the brutality of their tormentors as well as the inhumanity of the American bombing campaigns. Eventually the men on Omori were ringside witnesses to the calamity that befell Tokyo itself in the Spring of '45. Most of the city was incinerated overnight. Since Omori was in Tokyo Bay, some of the desperate and terrified citizens of the nation's capital tried to seek shelter from the maelstrom on the POW's island. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in a firestorm that raged hundreds of feet into the night sky, burned and suffocated under the rain of ruin the 20th century had brought on their heads.

By then, Louie had been saved from the wrath of the bird. Watanabe had been reassigned to somewhere unknown. For the first time since meeting the bird, Louie felt that he might be able to survive his imprisonment. Before long Louie was transferred as well, only to be met at the new camp by none other than Watanabe himself. This was the thing that almost broke Louie, the man whose biography is named "Unbreakable." The bird had requested Louie's transfer specifically. He missed his favorite victim. Louie was subjected to the kind of mental and physical suffering that scars humans for the rest of their lives.

Unbeknownst to most of Japan's POWs (but suspected by some) the Empire had a standing "Kill All" order. If the advancing American forces approached too close to any POW camps, the Japanese guards were under orders to use any and all means necessary to kill every single prisoner before they could be freed. Any means at all. The Japanese hierarchy was well aware that they had been breaking all kinds of international laws in their deplorable treatment of Allied prisoners and they were determined to protect themselves from any punishment if/when the war was lost. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese but may have saved thousands of Allied prisoners of war. The emperor agreed to surrender before the "Kill All" order could be carried out across the Japanese home islands.

Fat Man and Little Boy abruptly ended the war and they also ended Louie's torture. Within days, he was feasting on supplies air dropped to his camp by B-29's. His guards, including the bird, had disappeared, and word had spread that Louie was alive and heading home soon. But, as with many veterans, the war followed him home.

Before long, it became clear that Louie Zamperini was a poster case for PTSD. He woke every night with terrible nightmares, he descended into alcoholism, and became obsessed with visions of returning to Japan to murder Watanabe, the man who continued to torture Louie even long after they parted ways. He suffered from intense flashbacks and extreme mental trauma. Louie met a girl and got married, but his emotional scars worked under the surface to eat away at his marriage. He was pulled in to several "get rich quick" schemes that appealed to his desire to get back to Japan to find and murder the bird.

Watanabe had taken Louie's sense of self. He had created a puppet in Louie, a man who could not see the reality of his life. Ironically, the former celebrity and Olympian, the man who made himself a success in the world, a man who had survived the unendurable, was now comparing himself to someone far less of an enviable man than he. Watanabe was a pitiable man, a failure. He only ever achieved any meaning in his life through enforcing suffering on others. After the war, he was a man on the run, a fugitive from justice. He was not anyone to be revered or to be respected. Watanabe was a sad pathetic figure, while Louie was an inspiration to all. Yet Watanabe held power over Louie's life and influenced him in way that were evident every day. But such is the nature of torture and psychological abuse.

Eventually, Louie's wife, Cynthia convinced him to attend a speech being given by a charismatic and passionate young man named Billy Graham. In a parking lot in Los Angeles, under a massive circus tent, Louie heard a message that resonated with him. He remembered the prayers he had thrown out in desperation on his raft adrift on the Pacific. He remembered the rain that repeatedly answered those prayers. He remembered that God had indeed kept him alive. It was his final flashback. All at once, Louie realized that he had a promise to fulfill. He had told God while on that raft, surrounded by sharks and dying of starvation and thirst, that "If you will save me, I will serve you forever." That night was the first in half a decade that the bird did not show up in Louie's dreams.

Louie dedicated his life to God and to helping young people find their way in the world. He became a Christian motivational speaker and started a camp for troubled boys. He traveled back to Japan shortly after his conversion but not to seek revenge. He met with those of his captors who agreed to see him and he embraced them one by one, forgiving them for their abuse of him and preaching the gospel to each in turn. Watanabe was not there.

Decades later, when the Olympics came to Nagano, Japan and Louie was carrying the Olympic torch for a fifth time, he reached out to try to meet with Watanabe. Against all odds the bird had evaded capture and survived until a blanket pardon was given to all war criminal suspects. He still refused to meet Louie, his favorite former prisoner and victim, face to face. So Louie wrote a letter to the man who once haunted his dreams. He told Watanabe he forgave him and that he hoped his former captor found the love and grace of God through Jesus.

Whether or not there is a god, whether or not your own Christian faith is founded on any reality, this story is an example of how it is all worth it. If Louie's faith could inspire this kind of healing, your own can do things just as powerful. Louie realized that in order to move past the most traumatic thing he (or almost anyone) had ever endured, he needed to do what did not come naturally to him, he needed to turn the other cheek. He needed to heed to words of a 2,000 year dead carpenter and learn to forgive and then pray for his enemies. He wasn't content to let God sort out his enemies. He knew that his faith called him to do what he could to try to save the very men who had almost driven him mad. He needed to make a choice to not only forgive his former tormentors, but to come to a place where he cared about them enough to tell them that he was concerned about the destinations of their eternal souls. He had to abandon hate and vengeance. He chose to love them.

And, in the end, that's what made him unbreakable.

On to the next book!