Thursday, November 25, 2010
The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King
I have a soft spot in my heart for world-crossing stories. Perhaps it's the remnant of the same childhood fantasy that everyone has - you know the one, "My family is not my family, my hometown is not my hometown - I'm really a lost prince of a strange magical kingdom and one day my true identity will be revealed and I'll be able to go do something more fun than this...."
Escapist fiction of this sort usually does really well, mostly because so many of us are unsatisfied with the way our lives are going right now. Harry Potter blew everyone away for the same reason that, say, Star Wars did - they spoke to that desire that we all have for a destiny, a reason for being in this benighted universe other than to consume, procreate, and die. It's a very powerful dream, that dream that we can lead a life better than the one we're living now, and it's one that very few of us get to realize. So we turn to fiction to realize that dream for us.
Of course, nothing comes without a price. In hopping from world to world, you may have to resist the temptations of a Snow Queen or fight off the forces of Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. You may discover that your father is the greatest force for evil in the universe, or that you've been born into a genetic cohort that scares the hell out of everyone. Crossing from one world to another - whether literally or figuratively - always comes with a price.
For Eddie Dean, Detta Walker, and Odetta Holmes, that price could very well be their lives.
When last we left the Gunslinger, Roland was sitting by a vast and gray sea at the end of the world. He had already sacrificed young Jake Chambers for his quest, and had been shown a vision of the universe that would have blasted the mind of a lesser man. Without any other direction, Roland continues on his journey - but not without some difficulty.
Wounded and ill, Roland has to go through three strange doors and draw out new companions to replace the ones he lost so long ago. If he is successful, he will draw out a new ka-tet - a group bound by the forces of destiny - that will stand with him on the way to the Dark Tower. If he fails, he will face total obliteration, to say nothing of being devoured alive by huge mutant lobsters.
Through door number one, Roland meets The Prisoner - young Eddie Dean, a junkie who has to bring a couple of pounds of cocaine through customs at JFK airport in New York. If he can do that, then the men holding his beloved big brother will let them both go, well-paid and well-loaded with the drugs that they so desperately want. Eddie can't do it without Roland's help, however - help that turns out to make the whole endeavor much more complicated and lethal than it might have been before.
Through door number two, Roland must bring the Lady of Shadows, a woman who is two minds in one body. One of these minds is Odetta Holmes, an upper-class African-American woman (though in her era of the early sixties she would probably prefer to be called a Negro) who has thrown her efforts and her fortune behind the growing civil rights movement. She is cultured and civilized, a little bit snobbish and prudish, but far, far better than her alter ego, Detta Walker.
Detta is the dark half, the evil twin who relishes in her misdeeds and embodies the worst qualities that can be found in a person. She likes to hurt people, to break things - partly out of the sheer enjoyment of hurting and breaking, but also out of a cruel sense of revenge for the ills the world has done to her. For the brick that was dropped on her head when she was a child, for the train that robbed her of her legs when she was an adult. Of all the people Roland has met so far, Detta Walker is the one who poses the most danger to him and his quest. Only by bringing the two women together can he have any chance of making it to the Tower.
Through door number three, Roland must meet death - but not for him - in the form of The Pusher. The aptly-named Jack Mort has a hobby - anonymous murder. Planning and executing the suffering of others is what brings joy to his heart and a stain to his jeans, and he has intersected with Roland's quest even before Roland reached the beach. He was the one who pushed Odetta Holmes under a subway train. He was the one who pushed Jack Chambers in front of a speeding Cadillac. Now, Roland has control of this man's body and will use it to get what he needs from our world so that he can carry on in his. A little poetic justice along the way is just icing on the cake.
If Roland succeeds, he and his new group will push on to find the Dark Tower and do... whatever it is that Roland needs to do there. If he fails, they will all die, and the hopes of Roland's world will die with them.
Like I said, I enjoy tales of crossing worlds, and so this book felt good to me. I liked seeing not only how Roland dealt with the unfamiliar reality of New York in three different decades, but how the stories of Eddie, Odetta/Detta and Jack intersected with each other. At one point in his section, Jack thinks, "Who was to say he had not sculpted the cosmos today, or might not at some future time? God, no wonder he creamed his jeans!" Crude though it may be, Jack is more right than he knows - a few simple pushes altered the destinies of not only the people he pushed, but those of entire worlds. So if you think small actions can't have big consequences, well, look to Jack Mort.
Actually, his section of the book was my favorite. While Roland vs. Eddie was an action-packed shoot-em-up, and Roland vs. Detta was a hostage drama, Roland vs. Jack was almost a dark comedy. Taking over Jack's body and keeping the man's mind at metaphorical gunpoint, Roland carves a swath of confusion through New York City. The mental disconnect people have between Jack Mort's appearance as a well-off CPA and his behavior as a seasoned gunslinger is enough for some moments of gold.
By the end of the book, we're not much closer to the Dark Tower than we were at the beginning, but we are very nearly ready to get started on the journey. Not quite there yet, but Roland now has people he can count on when things turn bad. And they will turn bad, you can set your watch and warrant on it.
"Well, what was behind Door Number One wasn’t so hot, and what was behind Door Number Two was even worse, so now, instead of quitting like sane people, we’re going to go right ahead and check out Door Number Three. The way things have been going, I think it’s likely to be something like Godzilla or Ghidra the Three-Headed Monster, but I’m an optimist. I’m still hoping for the stainless steel cookware."
- Eddie Dean, The Drawing of the Three
The Drawing of the Three on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
The Drawing of the Three on Amazon.com
Thursday, November 18, 2010
The Civil War by Bruce Catton
When I was a kid, my grandparents thought they would do something that every grandparent should do - share what they love with the next generation. They bought me a subscription to the Time-Life series on The Civil War. Now for those of you too young to remember, Time-Life used to publish these monthly book series on various topics. The idea was that you would receive the books once a month, each book on a different topic in the series. My father had the Science Series, which I absolutely adored, and my grandparents thought that I would fall similarly in love with the Civil War series.
After all, they both were interested in this most unfortunate periods in U.S. history. It spanned five years, cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and permanently altered the face of our nation. What's not to love?
Predictably, I found them kind of boring.
The pictures were all in black and white, static in composition and full of dead guys with beards. There were lots of dates that I couldn't comprehend, talking about places I'd never been and full of names I'd never heard of. I got them, flipped through them and was just not interested.
Looking back, I know that I was a bad grandson and I feel bad that I can't tell my grandparents that.
Now that I'm older, and I know some things about my country and its history, I can really appreciate the enormous change that the Civil War brought upon the United States. As horrible as it was - and it was horrible - without that war our nation would be a pale shadow of what it is today. If it were a nation at all....
We all know the facts: in 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln and years of arguing about slavery and its place in a modern nation, eleven states seceded from the United States and formed their own Confederate States of America. In response, Lincoln raised an army from the remaining states in the Union and launched it at the Rebels. After five years of relentless fighting, the war was won in favor of the Union. The rebel states were accepted back into the Union, and the nation has been putting itself back together ever since then.
That's the big picture, and that's basically what this book does. In less than 300 pages, Catton gives an interesting and dynamic overview of the War, from its origins in such decisions as Dred Scott and the Missouri Compromise up through the assassination of Lincoln and the failures of the Reconstruction. It follows the major battles of the war, listing the strikes and feints of each army and introducing all the major players. Between these, he talks about the political and social effects of the war - how the economies of the two states fared, how the international community viewed the conflict, and what the ultimate fate of the slaves was.
The pace of the book is very good, even if the blow-by-blow descriptions of the battles get a little soft in the middle. Catton acts as a narrator for the war, telling it as one might tell a story. He works up to climactic moments, then leaves us there to consider for a while before moving on to the next event. What's more, he's fair. It's very easy for people to be unfair to the South - they were rebels, after all. Traitors, some might say. But Catton wants us to understand that the South was doing what it thought was in its best interests, as with the North. What's more, he wants us to know that the South fought harder than any army has since, sacrificing countless men and an entire culture to a war that they really could not win. He does not demonize the South, nor does he praise the North. He is simply a storyteller, who knows from the beginning the tragic tale that he has in store for us.
So yes, I think this book is an excellent read, especially if you're just getting into the Civil War. My one real complaint about it is that the book lacks adequate maps which would otherwise help a reader visualize what kind of maneuvers the armies of the North and the South are making. There are maps at the back of the book, but I wouldn't call them "adequate." They're black and white where they really should be color - having both the Union and the Confederate advances marked with black arrows isn't really helpful. Given the intricate interactions between armies, some kind of clear visual aid might have been useful.
If you have access to the internet, of course, you can get a slightly clearer view of what happened, where and when. Mind you, even the better maps that you can find on line still take some interpretation. Still, it would have been nice to have the book more accessible to those of us who don't carry the maps in our heads.
The reason why this is important is that even though this book is kind of an index tour of the Civil War, it still gets into a lot of detail - which general moved which army across which river is vital to understanding how the war progressed. The reason the book can go into such detail is that this is one of the most extensively studied conflicts in our history. Every battle, the movement of every army has been studied and documented over the last century and a half, and there's no sign of it slowing down. The Civil War is fundamental to how our nation became what it is, and as such it is an obsession for the United States.
That's what this book really tries to understand - why, of all the wars that we have fought, are we so obsessed with this one? You don't see people doing a lot of World War 2 re-enactments or dressing up to fight mock battles of our cute little war with Spain. I'm pretty sure there won't be any kind of Afghan War Re-enactment Society a hundred and fifty years from now.
It was a horrible war. It took more lives in a single battle than we've seen in our current Middle East conflict so far. It was fought by untrained, inexperienced men who had no idea what they were in for when they signed up. It was a war fought not only for territory but for ideals - for the South's ability to maintain its agrarian slave culture and for the North's ability to keep the Union whole. It was a war that could have gone a thousand different ways, each more horrible than the last, and the fact that it ended as well as it did is completely due to the strength of character possessed by all the men involved in sealing that bloody peace. It was a war that was, perhaps, inevitable.
That was something I took away from this book. The Civil War had to happen. In order for our country to progress, it had to do away with the things that was holding it back, slavery being one of those things. It was a test to see if the union could balance its ideals of liberty and order, and to see if it was worthy of forging ahead. It was a war that settled who we are as a nation, at least for a little while, and put paid to the question of whether we were a bunch of congenial states or a true nation, ready to take its place in the world.
The Civil War is one of those topics that people spend their lives studying, and rightly so. Its effects can be felt even today, and the echoes from the shots fired at Fort Sumpter and Gettysburg and Shiloh won't fade as long as this nation survives. For Americans, to know the Civil War is to know how grateful we should be that we have the country we do. It is often said that soldiers die to keep us free, but I would say than no army of the United States since then has done so more literally than the army of this conflict.
For those of you who aren't American, this might give you a little insight into our character. Most nations wouldn't survive such a conflict, with such immense losses of life and the utter destruction of an economy. But we did, somehow. The wounds from that war aren't entirely healed - there are still scars. But we have stayed together since then, and I reckon that nothing is going to tear us apart again.
So Grandmom, Grandpop, I'm sorry. I really should have appreciated what you tried to teach me. But now I do, and I can pass it on to others....
"A singular fact about modern war is that it takes charge. Once begun it has to be carried to its conclusion, and carrying it there sets in motion events that may be beyond men's control. Doing what has to be done to win, men perform acts that alter the very soil in which society's roots are nourished. They bring about infinite change, not because anyone especially wants it, but because all-out warfare destroys so much that things can never again be as they used to be."
Bruce Catton, The Civil War
Bruce Catton on Wikipedia
The Civil War on Amazon.com
The American Civil War on Wikipedia
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Ryoma - Life of a Renaissance Samurai by Romulus Hillsborough
If he had been born in the US, Sakamoto Ryoma would have been an ideal model of the American Dream. He was born to a poor family that had bought its way into samurai status only a couple of generations before. When he was a kid, people thought he was kind of slow and useless, and never thought he'd amount to anything. He was terrible in school, and so his father enrolled him in a school for sword fighting, where he found his passion.
He was a damn good swordsman, and quickly became qualified to open his own dojo. By this point, it looked like Sakamoto Ryoma would have been simply another famous name in the annals of Japanese swordsmanship.
And then the Americans came, and all hell broke loose.
The shogunate, knowing it was outgunned by the Americans, agreed to let them in, a decision that sent shockwaves around Japan. A political world that had been fairly simple to live in - a hierarchical system in which the Shogun was at the top of one's loyalty chain and the Emperor was someone about whom one did not even think - became so complex that "Byzantine" doesn't even begin to describe it. Webs were spun, and within instants, there were factions who wanted a thousand different things for the future. The simplest of these, and the one that Ryoma and other lower samurai from his home region latched on to at first, was simple: Throw out the foreigners and throw down the Shogun.
Luckily for Japan, Ryoma was not stupid enough to follow that path for too long. He was a bright guy, who quickly saw what needed to be done. With the help of other progressive thinkers, both within and outside the Shogunate, Ryoma decided that the survival of Japan was more important than that of the Shogunate or any individual clan or region. And in order to save Japan, they'd have to let the barbarians in.
His plan was simple, really: learn from the West, build a navy, buy weapons, and form a western-style democracy. Only then, with Japan standing as a strong modern nation, would it be able to deal with the outsiders, to say nothing of avoiding subjugation by them. Ryoma had learned from the lessons of China and India, and knew that infighting within the various factions was a sure road to being invaded and colonized by France or Britain.
A simple plan. The only problem was that no one wanted any part of it. And so it became Ryoma's job to run across the country, cajoling, convincing and reasoning with the country's great powers, all while staying one step ahead of the law - he was a fugitive from his region, an executable offense, and he rose to the top of the Shogun's most wanted with undue haste....
It's a neat story, if really long. Hillsborough has used an interesting style, though, that I'm still not sure I really like. It's a kind of novelized biography. While I'm sure that his facts are solid - countless books have been written about Sakamoto Ryoma and he's considered one of the founding fathers of modern Japan - he tries to make the story more... story-like by dramatizing events. Writing dialogue with action and inflection that he could only have known by being there. Ryoma roars and pounds the floor with his fist a lot. In fact, pre-Meiji Japan seems like a very noisy place, what with all the yelling and roaring and pounding and high officials shouting, "Impertinence!" every time someone set a foot wrong....
Like I said, I'm sure he didn't make up anything important, but it still gives me a lingering feeling of doubt. By turning Ryoma into a character for his novel, Hillsborough displays his bias, and nothing is more deadly to history than bias. He portrays Ryoma as a kind of genius puppetmaster, twitching strings here and there until he got what he wanted, which kind of demeans the contributions of many other people without whom Sakamoto Ryoma would have died years before he was finally assassinated.
He was a very intelligent, very resourceful man, and without him Japan's history would have been drastically different. So if you want to know more about this man, a statesman who should be held up with the great statesmen of the world, check out this book.
"A hero should go his own way!"
- Sakamoto Ryoma
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps by Romulus Hillsborough
A few years ago, Japan's national TV network, NHK, aired a Sunday night drama about the Shinsengumi, a band of samurai who operated in Kyoto at the end of the Edo period. While I didn't watch it, mainly because I was working and even if I had, I wouldn't have understood, my students kept me updated and it sounds like NHK did a nice job of romanticizing the group. Indeed, if the sudden upswing in traffic around Mibu temple is any indication, NHK made them look positively heroic.
Romulus Hillsborough (which, for the record, is an awesome name) takes a different approach to the Shinsengumi story, proving once again that, in history as with so many other things, how you see things depends on where you stand.
The 1860s were a bad decade. Every American schoolchild can tell you that. But it was bad in Japan as well, on a similar level. You see, for the previous 250 years, Japan had pretty much shut itself off from the Western world. There was limited contact with China and Korea, but as for Europe and the Americas? Damn near nothing. Japan wanted nothing to do with the white devils, and did a fantastic job keeping us out.
But the march of progress is inescapable, and by the mid-1800s, word got round to the Shogun that Great Britain had been working its way across Asia, taking out India and China through treaty, deception and conquest. This, naturally, worried the Shogun, who although being the military head of the country, had not fought a significant military battle since Sekigahara in 1600 (well, not the same shogun, but you get what I mean). The Tokugawa family ruled over a peaceful land, the Emperors stayed out of the way in Kyoto, and everything was copacetic.
In other words, ripe for some rampaging foreign power to take over.
Lucky for Japan, the first rampaging foreign power to show up on their doorstep was the United States. Admiral Perry and his Black Ships arrived in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853 with trade agreements and heavy cannon and announced that they would be happy to start trading with the Land of the Rising Sun. And if the Land of the Rising Sun wasn't too keen on that, well, maybe a few well-placed shells would change their minds.
The shogun at the time, Tokugawa Iesada, was no idiot. In 1854, a "Treaty of Peace and Amity" was signed in Kanagawa, opening Japanese ports to western ships for the first time, and basically ending the era of seclusion.
That's when all hell broke loose.
Most of the people living in Japan at the time had never seen a foreign person, and could rely only on rumor and misinformation to know what Westerners were like - pale-skinned, long-nosed blondes, as it turned out. No one knew what to expect from their new neighbors, and frankly, no one wanted to find out. Despite the "Amity" of the treaty, everyone knew that the only reason the American and British and Dutch had been let in was because they had better guns. Everyone, from the Shogun to the Emperor all the way down to the lowest burakumin wanted the foreigners kicked as far out of the country as they could get. With the possible exception of Sakamoto Ryoma, but we'll get to him later.
Two factions opened up. There were the Imperial loyalists, who wanted to overthrow the Tokugawa bakufu and restore the Emperor to power, while kicking out the foreigners. And there were the Tokugawa loyalists, who stood behind their lord and master, and who would fight to the death to keep him in power. While kicking out the foreigners. The famed Samurai, who had really nothing to do for two and a half centuries but collect their stipends and harass commoners, finally had their chance to see some action. Many of them left their homes and became ronin, ready to fight for whomever would give them a chance.
The city of Kyoto was the Imperial city, and if Tokugawa Wosshisname (there were four Tokugawa shoguns between 1853 and 1868) were to keep the imperial loyalists in line, he would have to do it there. So, a man named Matsudaira Katamori - a close personal friend of the shogun's, head of the Matsudaira clan and Lord of Aizu, and came up with an idea for keeping order in Kyoto. With the help of longtime friend and violence enthusiast Kiyokawa Hachiro, they got together the best of the wandering ronin and brought them to the village of Mibu, in Kyoto (where I used to live). They made quite an impact on the community, and were soon given the cute nickname of "Mibu Wolves."
The Mibu Wolves were soon shaped and molded into the Shinsengumi, "The Newly Selected Group." by three iron-willed men: Kondo Isami, Hijikata Toshizo, and Serizawa Kamo. Each of these men left lasting impressions on the Shinsengumi and on Japanese history.
So... what was the impression? Well, the Shinsengumi were a kind of police force for Kyoto, keeping the locals in line and watching for any threats against the shogunate. Unlike a regular police force, however, they had almost limitless power within the city. Their word was enough to arrest, convict and execute someone. There was no slight too small to provoke violence and murder, and no length they would not go to to destroy the enemies of Tokugawa. They fought to the end to keep the Shogun in power, even after Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the fifteenth and final Tokugawa shogun, abdicated control of the country to Emperor Meiji.
You could take the NHK view, that the Shinsengumi were on the wrong side of history, trying to uphold the virtues of their fathers and grandfathers, and that they were trying to keep the nation they loved from falling apart or changing irreparably.
Hillsborough takes the point of view that the Shinsengumi were deluded with the "germ of self-importance." That they couldn't see the broader picture of history unfolding around them and reacted to change the only way they knew how - with their swords. That they were thugs and bullies, relics of an age that should have ended long before it did. Perhaps the Shinsengumi were inevitable, perhaps they were even necessary for the Meiji Restoration to take place. But if even half the stories about them were true, they are not a group of men that I would really want to hang out with.
It's a very informative book, if a little too short. Hillsborough says in the beginning that you're reading a "historical narrative," which should be taken carefully. Given the lack of primary sources, knowing exactly what happened when is difficult. Many texts on the Shinsengumi contradict each other, and for a long time, they were not a polite subject of research. Think about it - from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 through the surrender to the United States in 1945, the Emperor was a living god and a subject of reverence among the people of Japan. Who, then, would have the balls to do research into the group that actively opposed imperial rule?
Still, it's a good read. It's even better when you actually live in Kyoto. I used to be able to see Mibu temple from my balcony. I've walked past the site of the old Ikeda-ya (where the Shinsengumi foiled a plot to burn down Kyoto and kidnap a high-ranking Tokugawa ally) hundreds of times. I could walk to the site where Ito Kashitarou was assassinated for splitting from the group. History becomes much more fun when you're right where it happened....
"For all its worth, however, when the will to power is combined with the germ of self-importance - the conviction that one is of greater worth than his fellow human beings - it tends to transform into the stuff of tragedy, often lethal to the host."
- Romulus Hillsborough, Shinsengumi
The Shinsengumi on Wikipedia
The Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps on Amazon.com