Mar 24, 2019

No-No Boy and What It Means to Be American


Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered? 

Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?  

No-No Boy follows the post-war lives of two young Seattleites: Ichiro Yamada and Kenji Kanno.  Published in 1957, John Okada's only novel takes a raw cross section of Japanese-American society and examines it through the eyes of these characters who made very different choices.

When called to the draft, Ichiro followed his mother's guidance and answered "no" to both "loyalty questions," resulting in imprisonment.  After two years, he is released from prison to a community which abhors him for his decision, almost as much as he hates himself.  Kenji, on the other hand, volunteered for combat, with the hesitant support of his father.  He returns to Seattle as a hero, yet carrying an infected wound that is eating away at his life.

This was a tough book to get through because it is dark, ugly, and depressing.  There are endless descriptions of hatred and bitterness among family members, friends, and strangers.  Nearly every character is conscious of a hideous silence in their lives and attempts to fill it with noise like alcohol, foul language, and random hookups.  Bleak is an understatement; I was almost compelled not to finish it.

Still, you're haunted by the impression it rings true.  Okada lived through the events he described; he was a student at the UW when his family was sent to an internment camp in Idaho and, like Kenji, he went on to serve in the U.S. military, translating commands to surrender (p. 256).  Each character is so vividly painted, they must have some origin in real life - even, maybe, Ichiro's mother, whose belief in Japanese victory drives her insane.

The best parts of the book are Ichiro's internal monologues, where he wonders whether society will ever forgive him for being a "no-no boy" and allow him to live a normal life; whether the Japanese-American community will recover from its divisions; whether one day all he will see is "people" and not different races mistreating each other.  He alternates between despair and hope.
. . . in time there will again be a place for me. I will buy a home and love my family and I will walk down the street holding my son's hand . . . it will not matter about the past, for time will have erased it from our memories and there will be only joy and sorrow and sickness, which is the way things should be. (p. 52)
It is hard to give No-No Boy a rating.  It's truly a unique novel, being (as far as I know) the first of its kind and maybe the only novel on this particular aspect of the Japenese-American experience in WWII.  There's some moments of true brilliance, leading me to think Okada could have become a famous 20th-century author.  However, apart from the overwhelmingly grim atmosphere, I found the ending to be disappointing.  There were one or two potential plot twists that never came to fruition, so Ichiro's character arc made little progress in the end.  I'll settle on a middle-of-the-road rating: 3 stars.

Mar 23, 2019

The Congo and the Cameroons - Penguin Great Journeys

The Congo and the Cameroons contains excerpts from Mary Kingsley's memoir Travels in West Africa, published in 1897.  The first two sections cover some observations and anecdotes about West African flora and fauna, while the last two-thirds of the book follow Mary's climbing of Mount Cameroon.

Mar 21, 2019

Things I'm Looking Forward To

So far, 2019 has been a great year for me in terms of stories to read (and watch).  There's a few things coming up which I'm particularly looking forward to!

Mar 16, 2019

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains - Penguin Great Journeys

I knew Isabella Bird was a Victorian solo traveler, who had visited far-off places such as China on her own. What I didn't know was what a great writer she actually was.

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains contains excerpts from her book, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879). Surprisingly for a travelogue, here you'll find a variety of experiences and emotions - from courage and trepidation to hilarity and friendship. I was really impressed by Isabella's fearlessness, paired with her knitting needles and an honest confession of her physical weaknesses. Still, this middle-aged lady exhibits far more stamina than I could ever dream of, whether it's braving out the freezing cold in a cabin or helping cowboys round up their cattle! Through it all, she focuses on the exhilarating beauty of the Rocky Mountain landscape, which is the subject of all her voluntary hardships and a lesson to all of us (privileged to travel comfortably) not to take it for granted.

Among other quirky characters, Mr. "Mountain Jim" Nugent features frequently: a handsome, rugged desperado who is determined Isabella shall achieve her goal of climbing Pikes Peak, Colorado. Behind the genteel prose, it's clear Ms. Bird and Mountain Jim have a thing for each other, but Jim's criminal past and alcoholism makes it a futile (and bittersweet) romance.

Modern readers should know that Isabella was a person of her time in many ways, so there are some derogatory references to Native and African Americans early in the book. Interestingly, in a later letter, she does strongly condemn the way the U.S. government treated the Native Americans (p. 93–94).

In both history and human element, Adventures in the Rocky Mountains packs a lot of punch for a mere collection of excerpts. When I got to the end, I regretted not having read the full original, and I probably will someday. Recommended if you want to read an eye-witness account of the Old West from a unique perspective.

Mar 12, 2019

What I'm Reading (and More): March edition

Hi readers - hope everyone is doing well!  I've been incredibly busy the last several weeks at work, which seems to be the new normal.  To be honest, I haven't been reading much, but I have watched some interesting films lately which I wanted to share.

Feb 12, 2019

Top Ten Literary Couples

In honor of the day before Singles Awareness Day Valentine's Day, here's my favorite romantic relationships from literature (in no particular order):

Feb 10, 2019

The Cobra's Heart - Penguin Great Journeys

The Cobra's Heart is a succinct yet expansive book about a Polish journalist's experiences and observations in 20th-century Africa.  Just under 100 pages, it's merely an excerpt of Ryszard Kapuściński's full-length book, The Shadow of the Sun.  Upon finishing it, I was happy to find the full version already on my to-read list (added, though forgotten apparently, in 2013) as well as pleasantly surprised that this miniature made me want to read the full book.

Feb 8, 2019

What I'm Reading (and More): February edition

It's snowing heartily again, on top of the 2-4 inches from earlier this week that didn't fully melt.  So I came home early and am looking forward to a weekend "snowed in" - which means reading!

Feb 7, 2019

Fear No Evil: The Classic Memoir of One Man's Triumph Over a Police State

Flickr - Government Press Office (GPO) - P.M. Peres Welcomes Sharansky
Prime Minister Shimon Peres (left) welcomes released Prisoner of Zion Antatoly Sharansky as he steps off the Westwind plane arriving from Frankfurt at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Government Press Office (Israel) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

For many of us the scientific-technological revolution arrived at precisely the right time, with the world of science as a kind of castle where you could protect yourself from the shifting winds of official ideology. (p. xii)
This single sentence from Natan Sharansky's memoir Fear No Evil really grabbed me.  Here is someone I could immediately relate to in a unique way.  I'm not brilliant at chess, math, or computer science like Sharanksy, but I understand him.  In a world where politics and ideology are constantly in our face, some of us cling to science and technology - constants of logic and scientific process - as a way to feel safe and find commonality.

But what happens when not even science can protect you?

Feb 4, 2019

My First Classics Club List

So...contrary to my past practices, I am starting to embrace epic challenges.  Before this enthusiasm leaves me, I've decided to finally join The Classics Club and commit to reading 50 classics within five years.


It's a pretty reasonable goal (ten classics a year), since I mostly read classics anyway.  But I'm making it more difficult by including some chunksters and books I've been putting off for years and some that fall under both (*cough* War and Peace).  I also threw in some rereads that I keep meaning to return to.  The list also came out to 52 instead of 50 (sigh), but I'm only committing to 50.

Feb 1, 2019

Mary Poppins Returns - A Gratuitous Sequel?

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

One day, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) shows up at the door of Michael Banks, who is now grown up and a widower with three small children.  He still lives at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, London, and is scrambling to make his next house payment before the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank boots them out.  Mary Poppins steps in to take care of the kids, leading them on an unexpected adventure through magical lands, London streets, and even the Bank itself, as they endeavor to help their dad find a way to keep the house.

Jan 25, 2019

Wit and Wisdom in Chesterton's Heretics

This year's reading is off to a good start, not so much in terms of speed (work and other activities have put the brakes on that) but in terms of content.  I've just finished G. K. Chesterton's Heretics, a light book for heavy hearts of little-'o' orthodox Christians who happen to be classic literature nerds.  Since I fall under that category, I found Heretics to be a bracing read and surprisingly relevant for the current times.  Chesterton is a hit-and-miss author for me; this book was definitely a "hit."

Shaw, Belloc e Chesterton
George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton.
Heretics (1905) comes under one of my favorite niche genres - authors writing about other authors.  In this series of essays, Chesterton critiques such literary luminaries as Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw, as well as others who have since fallen out of readership.  Imperialism, Nietzsche's Superman, human progress, and other topics of the day are covered here, many of which are still relevant a little over a century later, albeit in other guises.  Chesterton's overarching theme is that religion, specifically Christianity, is essential to contemporary dialogue, not a thing to be flippantly attacked or dismissed as irrelevant.

Jan 14, 2019

What I'm Reading (and More): January edition

Ah, January.  I always find this month to be dreary.  (Anything coming after a glorious Christmas break is bound to be dreary).

My reading, as you might expect, has been somewhat sporadic and diverse, as I'm trying to escape the doldrums.  I don't have full reviews yet, just a scattering of thoughts...

Jan 7, 2019

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

 

A snazzy red jacket, an evocative title, and glowing 5-star reviews.  (Let's not forget the cover blurbs by the CEOs of Microsoft and O'Reilly Media, amongst other prominent tech figures.)  I have to say, when I eagerly began reading AI Superpowers, I was a little nervous - would this book live up to its hype?