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Book Review: The Last Manchu: The Autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China by Henry Pu Yi, translated by Paul Kramer

August 16, 2011 3 comments

Small Asian boy in dragon robes.Summary:
Henry Pu Yi became the last emperor of China when he was almost three years old.  During the chaos of a post-WWI China fighting between republics and war lords, he would periodically rule, be a figurehead, or be in hiding on foreign-held embassy land.  Working with the Japanese in WWII he sought to refind his throne by ruling as the figure-head of the Japanese-held Manchuria region.  He then was held prisoner by the Soviets for five years before being turned over to the communist Chinese for thought reform.

Review:
Although the translator states that Henry Pu Yi’s life is an excellent way to examine how China survived so many upheavals in the early 20th century, after reading the autobiography I simply cannot agree.  Henry Pu Yi’s life was incredibly unique and absolutely not a reflection of what was really going on in China at the time.  If anything, he seemed to operate from an oblivious perspective up until the communists kind of smacked him in the face with reality.  For instance, during the time of chaos, civil wars, and famine in China prior to WWII, he states:

Just as food was cooked in huge quantities and not eaten, so was a vast amount of clothing made which was never worn. (location 544)

When reflecting on his past perspectives, it is evident that his past self did not understand why such wastefulness would infuriate China’s poor or make them push for a republic via Chiang Kai-shek.  Of course, one cannot entirely blame Henry Pu Yi for this short-sightedness.  He was raised from a young age being treated as a god by all those around him, being told it was his destiny to be the holy emperor.  That would mess with anyone’s mind.  However, as he became older he did have teachers and advisors who tried to enlighten him, he just refused to listen.

Eventually, Henry Pu Yi reached this odd mental compromise where he believed everything Western was good, except for their ruling system.

I also became far more convinced than I had ever been in the days when Johnston was with me that everything foreign was good and everything Chinese, except the Imperial System, was bad.  (location 2184)

His selfish mindset saw everything good he himself could garner from the west, but didn’t seek out anything positive to change or do for his people.  This self-centeredness in a ruler is disturbing at best.

This is even more evident during the time of his life when Pu Yi was puppet ruling for Japan in Manchukuo (Manchuria).  Pu Yi increasingly came to fear more and more for his life as it became more evident that Japan would lose the war.  The more afraid he was, the more he beat members of his household and staff.  Yet he simultaneously claimed to be a good Buddhist who would not even harm a fly.  It seems the only thing Pu Yi excelled at was compartmentalizing his actions.  A former servant of Pu Yi summed up his personality quite eloquently during one of the criticism sessions of the communist thought reform:

Pu Yi is both cruel and afraid of death. He is suspicious, tricky and a hypocrite. When he beat or scolded his servants, it was not for mistakes they committed, but due to his own mood at the time. (location 4020)

Pu Yi, for most of his life, was incredibly selfish.  He was obsessed with his own death and life and with maintaining his emperor status.  He cared little to nothing for those around him or for the people of China.  One must wonder how things may have been different if a strong, selfless man had been made emperor during the same time period.

Thus for most of the autobiography, we’re reading about a most unsympathetic man from his own perspective.  That can become a bit tough to endure.  The light of the autobiography comes in the last quarter of the book, though, when he recounts his time in thought reform.

The translator refers to this time period as Pu Yi being brainwashed.  I can’t say that it appeared that way to me at all.  Pu Yi was not tortured, made to starve, or beaten.  He was simply placed in prison and reformed.  Frankly, I think his time in communist prison did him a world of good.  Suddenly he was having to fend for himself.  Where before he never even had to open a door or mend a button, suddenly he did.  Slowly the communists gave him more and more responsibilities so that eventually he was on the same cleaning and work rotation as the other men in the prison.  Pu Yi says himself that he came to realize how truly useless he was at doing anything worthwhile.  Although at first he blames those who raised him, he comes to acknowledge his own bad character eventually, being ashamed for how he behaved.  When he is eventually deemed reformed by the communists, he enters society as an equal and works hard to do his fair part.  Personally I think if American prison systems could have this kind of excellent 180 result, we would soon see a much smaller inmate population.  For isn’t the purpose of prison supposed to be reform?  And one cannot deny that Pu Yi came out a better man than he went in, even if communist China has made many other mistakes, it is evident with Pu Yi things were handled quite well.  A man was reformed and made useful in society instead of senselessly killed off.

It is a bit of a wait to get to the interesting thought reform portion of the book, however.  Pretty much everything before that makes you want to attack Pu Yi through the pages.  His style is a bit rambling, although the translator claims that’s partly just Chinese culture versus Western culture.  It is an interesting read, but I do think it will only really hold the attention of those with a strong interest in China.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Heinrich Himmler: The Sinister Life of the Head of the S.S. and Gestapo by Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel

July 20, 2011 7 comments

Nazi flag and photo of Himmler.Summary:
Manvell and Fraenkel conducted years of meticulous research both with primary documents and those who actually knew Himmler to bring about a biography of the man infamous for being in charge of the S.S., Gestapo, and concentration camps that made the terror of Hitler’s reign possible.  They seek to provide a well-rounded look at Himmler’s entire life for those with some familiarity with the events of World War II.

Review:
This was a fascinating and difficult book to read, not because of the writing style or the atrocities recounted, but because the authors succeeded in putting a human face on Heinrich Himmler.  In the intro to the book, the authors state:

The Nazi leaders cannot be voided from human society simply because it is pleasanter or more convenient to regard them now as outside the pale of humanity. (location 31)

In other words, the easy thing to do is pretend the Nazi leaders or anyone who commits atrocities is something other than human.  That they are monsters.  When in fact, they really are still people like you and me, and that should frighten us far more than any monster story.  What leads people to do horrible things to other people?  What makes them bury their conscience and humanity and commit acts of evil?  This biography thus does not say “here is a monster,” but instead says, “Here is this young boy who became a man who committed himself to a cause and proceeded to order acts of evil upon others.  What forces came together to mold him into someone who would do these things?”

One of the more fascinating things brought to light in this book is that Himmler was never actually fit into the ideal of a top-notch Aryan male he himself advocated.  In fact throughout his life he was sickly, pale, and scholarly.  He tried in school to fit in with the athletic boys but never succeeded in anything for any length of time except fencing.  Instead of accepting who he was, he continually pushed his sickly body past its limits throughout his life, trying to force it to fit into his ideals of what it should be.  He actually enlisted his own personal healer, a masseuse trained by a talented Chinese doctor, throughout the war.  This masseuse, Kersten, was working as a spy for the Allies and was instrumental in convincing Himmler to release various people from concentration camps throughout the war.  His sickly body then not only opened him up to the Allies for a convenient spy, but also was key in how he related to the world.  He projected his own insecurities about the ideal body onto everyone else.

Himmler’s anxiety to destroy the Jews and Slavs and place himself at the head of a Nordic Europe brash with health was a compensation for the weakly body, the sloping shoulders, the poor sight and the knock-knees to which he was tied. (location 2189)

This physical weakness and obsession does not mean he was a weak man, however.  He was profoundly intelligent and detail-oriented.  He easily became obsessed with ideas he came up with and would search for proof of them excluding any and all evidence to the contrary.  Those of us who went to liberal, private colleges where we were taught to adjust our worldview for new, challenging ideas may be surprised to learn that Himmler read obsessively.  The fact though is that Himmler sought out in his reading sources that would simply support his previously established, prejudicial worldview.

Like Hitler, he [Himmler] used books only to confirm and develop his particular prejudices. Reading was for him a narrowing, not a widening experience. (location 2547)

Thus we cannot depend on reading alone to prevent close-mindedness.

As the Nazi regime continued on, Himmler grew more and more committed to his obsessions.  Those who knew him well described the frenzy and meticulousness with which he worked over every detail toward his final goal of the “Aryan race” being in control of Europe.

Himmler’s need to rid himself of the Jews became an obsession. The ghosts of those still living haunted him more than the ghosts of those now dead; there were Jews everywhere around him, in the north, in the west, in the south, in the areas where his power to reach them was at its weakest. (location 2074)

The information on Himmler at this time period certainly sound like a man suffering from intense paranoia.  Think of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and how he firmly believed government agents were all around him persecuting him.  The difference is that this physically weak, close-minded, paranoid man was given immense power over the lives of millions instead of simply being a professor. It is easy after reading this book to see how Himmler could easily have been that crazy neighbor worried that the people across the street were watching him all the time instead of the engineer behind genocide.  All it took was placing near total power and trust in his hands to turn him into the organizer of a genocide.

There will always exist human beings who, once they are given a similar power over others and have similar convictions of superiority, may be tempted to act as he [Himmler] did. (location 592)

The lesson the authors send home repeatedly then is that Himmler was just a man overcompensating for a physically weak body who grasped onto the idea that he was actually superior to others simply because of his ancestors with a tendency toward paranoia who was given a dangerous amount of power.  It is easy to imagine how the entire situation could have worked out differently if some sort of intervention had happened earlier in his life.  If he was taught that everyone was valuable for different reasons that have nothing to do with their physical abilities or ancestry.  If he had initially read books that weren’t racist and xenophobic.  If he was never swept into the Nazi Party mania in the 1930s.  If he had been maintained as an office worker in the Nazi party instead of being given so much power.  It’s a lot of if’s, I know, but it’s important to think about all the ways to prevent something like this from ever happening again.  Although the authors’ primary point is “be careful who you allow to have power,” I would also add “intervene when they are young to prevent the development of a xenophobic, paranoid personality to start with.”  With both precautions in place, perhaps we humans as a group can avoid such atrocities in the future.

Readers should note that this book is written by Europeans and not “translated” into American English.  Additionally, periodically the authors sway from the strict chronological method of a biography to follow one thought or event through to its conclusion then back-track.  This was a bit distracting, but absolutely did not prevent me from learning much about Himmler, WWII, and the Holocaust that I did not previously know.

Overall, I highly recommend this to those with an interest in WWII in particular, but also to anyone interested in the prevention of future genocides.  It offers great insight into how these atrocities came to be.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon (See all Third Reich History Books)

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Book Review: How To Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

December 9, 2010 4 comments

Japanese woman in traditional kimono and lotus flowers.Summary:
Shoko dealt with the consequences of her decision to acquiesce to her father’s wishes and marry an occupying American soldier and return with him to America in the 1940s.  She did her best to hold onto the best parts of being a Japanese woman and meet the expectations of being an American housewife.  But now she is sick from an enlarged heart, possibly the result of radiation from the bombs dropped on Nagasaki, and the consequences of her multiple decisions made in the war and occupation years are coming back to haunt her.  Although her relationship with her biracial daughter, Suiko, is strained, Suiko still does her best to assist her mother, and in the process, learns something about herself.

Review:
I came into this book expecting it to be your typical book about an immigrant adapting herself to the surrounding culture.  That’s really not what this book is about, and that actually is a good thing.  It subtly addresses how complex not only family can be but inter-cultural relations as well.  The world no longer consists of the simple, straight-forward rules that Shoko grew up with.  Since the world is a smaller place, the concepts of what one should or should not do slowly change throughout her life.

Of course, I find everything about Japan completely fascinating, so I enjoyed getting to see it not only through Shoko’s eyes, but through her daughter Suiko’s as well.  Japan truly has changed drastically in the last 70 or so years, and showing the difference in experience simply from Grandmother Shoko to graddaughter Helena is astounding.  Often in America we only think about how our own nation has changed, but this is true for others as well.  Reading about it is a mind-broadening experience.

Dilloway also handles the delicate situation of dealing not only with your parents’ immortality but also their fallibility and essential humanness in a gentle manner.  It is there, but it is not preachy.  It simply reflects the experience of realizing as an adult that your parents are people too, and they’ve had their own life experiences that they regret or have dealt with in their own way.

Still, although I found the story enjoyable to read, it fell short of being deeply moving or memorable.  It felt as if it ended too soon, or we didn’t find out enough about everyone’s stories.  In particular although I understood and felt for Shoko at the beginning of the story, by the end I felt distanced from her, wheras I was still rooting for Suiko.  I think some of the choices Dilloway made for Shoko did not fit with the tone of the rest of the story.

Overall, I recommend this enjoyable read to fans of contemporary or historical realistic fiction with themes of inter-generational and inter-cultural conflicts.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

September 6, 2010 6 comments

Book cover with a large blue V and a pig wearing pearls.Summary:
A satire on free enterprise, money, and capitalism in America told by examining the fictional Rosewaters–an uber-wealthy American family whose ancestor acquired his wealth essentially by profiteering during the Civil War.  The current Rosewater fights in WWII and returns with this crazy idea that everyone deserves to be equally happy and people who inherited wealth did nothing to deserve it.  He responds to this conundrum of conscience by returning to his ancestor’s hometown and using the Rosewater Foundation to help the “useless poor.”  In the meantime, a lawyer by the name of Mushari decides to attempt to prove that Mr. Rosewater is insane, and the foundation money should be handed off to his cousin, currently a suicidal, middle-class insurance man.

Review:
How to review Vonnegut?  Upheld (at my university anyway) as the epitome of great American writing.  He is certainly prolific, and some of his books absolutely deserve the high praise (Slaughterhouse-Five springs to mind).  I don’t feel that this novel lives up to his reputation, however.  I was left feeling that I somehow had missed his point.  That he was attempting to make some high and mighty, heavy-handed vision known to me, and it just didn’t come through.

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that the first third of the book is focused on Eliot Rosewater, the next on his cousin, and the last on Eliot again.  Just as I was getting into Eliot’s story, it switched to his cousin.  Then when I was getting into his cousin’s story, it switched back to Eliot.  To top it all off, the ending left me with little to no resolution on either one.  Maybe Vonnegut’s point is that capitalism either makes you crazy or depressed with no way out?  I’m not sure.

That’s not to say that this wasn’t a fun read, though.  Vonnegut crafts the mid-western town Eliot lives in and the Rhodes Island seacoast town his cousin lives in with delicious detail.  What is interesting about both are of course the people in the towns surrounding the main characters, and not the main characters themselves.  In particular the Rhodes Island town is full of surprisingly well-rounded secondary characters from the cousin’s wife who’s experimenting in a lesbian relationship, to the local fisherman and his sons, to the local restaurant owner who is intensely fabulous (yes, the gay kind of fabulous. There’s quite a bit of GLBT in this book, for those interested in that).  I was so interested in this town.  This was a town that actually demonstrated the problems innate in some people having too much money while others don’t have enough.  This was so much more interesting than Rosewater’s sojourn in Indiana.  But then!  Just when I was really getting into it and thinking this book might approach Slaughterhouse-Five level….bam! Back to Indiana.

Much more interesting than the heavy-handed money message was the much more subtle one on the impact of war.  Mr. Rosewater’s sanity issues go back to WWII.  I won’t tell you what happened, because the reveal is quite powerful.  Suffice to say, Vonnegut clearly understood the impact WWII had on an entire generation and clearly thought about the impact of war on humanity in general.  In this way, this book is quite like Slaughterhouse-Five.  Another interesting way that it’s similar is that Mr. Rosewater listens to a bird tweeting in the same manner (poo-tee-weet!)  I haven’t read enough Vonnegut to know, but I wonder if these two items show up in many of his works?  The birds, especially, are interesting.

Overall, if you’re a Vonnegut enthusiast, enjoy reading for setting and character studies, and don’t mind a message that’s a bit heavy-handed, you will enjoy this book.  Folks just looking for a feel of what makes Vonnegut held in such high esteem should stick to Slaughterhouse-Five though.

3.5 out of 5

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

July 13, 2010 4 comments

Woman smelling a flower.Summary:
Ellen’s staunchly feminist, progressive family found themselves flabbergasted by their daughter’s preference for honing her homemaking skills.  However, with time they came around, and they are pleased to see her leave for a house matron position at a boarding school in Austria.  Her childhood has prepared her for dealing with the eclectic, progressive teachers, but the little school has more problems to face than unusual teaching styles and the lonesomeness of the children of wealthy world travelers.  Trouble is brewing in Europe in the shape of the Nazi movement in Germany.  Of course, Ellen may have found an ally in the form of Marek, the school’s groundskeeper.

Review:
I have been fascinated with WWII ever since I was a very little girl.  Also, I have no issue with feminists cooking meals for people or keeping house.  Feminism is about men and women being able to do what makes them happy, not just what they’re “supposed” to do.  I therefore expected these two elements to come together to make for an intriguing read.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The main problem is Ellen.  I simply don’t like her.  I can’t root for her.  I can’t enjoy any scene she’s in.  In fact, I wanted multiple times to shove her into the lake the school is on.  Now, I don’t have to like a main character to enjoy a book, but I do need at least one other character in the book to dislike her, so I’m not going around thinking something is wrong with me.  However, everyone in the entire book simply loves Ellen.  They frequently call her “angelic,” and everyone essentially worships the ground she walks on.  Every man of anywhere near a suitable age for her falls madly in love with her.  I can give that a pass in paranormal romance, as there’s a lot of supernatural stuff going on, but this is supposed to be  a normal girl.  Not every man is going to fall in love with her.  It’s just preposterous!  That doesn’t happen!  Ellen is, simply put, a dull, boring woman with no true backbone.  If this was a Victorian novel, she’d be fainting every few pages.

Then there’s Marek, her love interest, who I also completely loathed.  Everything he does, even if it’s helping others, is for purely selfish reasons.  He also has a wicked temper and frequently dangles people out of windows.  Why Ellen becomes so obsessed with him is beyond me.

Ibbotson also obviously scorns many ideals that I myself hold dear.  Any character who is a vegetarian or against capitalism or in favor of nudity is displayed as silly, childish, or selfish.  There is a section in which the children are being taught by a vegetarian director and some of them switch to being vegetarian as well, and of course Ellen finds this simply atrocious and worries about the children.  Naturally, the director is later villainized.  Clearly anyone who eats “nut cutlets” for dinner simply cannot be normal.  I expect an author’s ideals to show up in a book, but the book’s blurb certainly gave no indication that a book taking place largely at a progressive boarding school would spend a large amount of its time mocking those same values.

In spite of all that I can’t say that this is a badly written book.  Ibbotson is capable of writing well, I just don’t enjoy her content at all.  After finishing it, I realized it reminded me of something.  It reads like a Jane Austen novel, and I absolutely loathe those.  So, if you enjoy Jane Austen and WWII era Europe settings, you’ll enjoy this book.  Everyone else should steer clear.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Best Discoveries of 2009–Movies, TV Shows, and Websites

December 30, 2009 1 comment

You guys got to see my favorite reads of 2009, but what about all else entertainment?  I do, surprisingly, do things besides read with my (little) free-time.  So here’s Part One of my best of all-else entertainment list from 2009.  I’m not limiting myself to things that came out in 2009, just things that I encountered for the first time in 2009.  Consider everything listed as accompanied with the highest recommendations.

Movies

  • Coraline (2009)
    The story of a little girl rightfully frustrated with her parents who discovers another world is delightfully creative, but the animation is what makes this a must-see.  It is truly a feast for your eyes.
  • The Hangover (2009)
    Bust a gut, laugh out loud funny. A groom and his buddies go to Vegas a few days before his wedding for his bachelor party, and when they wake up the next morning, the buddies can’t find the groom or remember what they did the night before.  Uproariously awkward situations make you feel way better about that one night you can’t remember.
  • Inglorious Basterds (2009)
    A troop of American Jews led by Brad Pitt go on a Nazi-killing spree in WWII Europe.  Confession.  I fucking love WWII history.  I have ever since I was a kid.  I also absolutely love blood and guts movies.  The more gruesome the better.  I also love Jewish fellas (I blame my undergrad university for that one).  Additionally, I love Brad Pitt. *swoon* German is also my foreign language, so I didn’t even need the damn sub-titles.   Can you say must-see movie?  My only gripe is that not enough time was spent on the awesome group of American soldiers.
  • Kill Bill Volume One (2003)
    The Bride has a score to settle with her old boss Bill and everyone who helped him commit the slaughter of all present for her wedding day (not to mention almost killing her).  So many epic fight scenes.  So many bad-ass women.  Not to mention the whole blood and guts thing previously mentioned.
  • South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999)
    The boys’ parents get all upset when they sneak in to see the R-rated Terrence and Phillip movie, which clearly leads to a war with Canada.  This basically is South Park The Musical and gave us the gifts that are the songs “Uncle Fucka” and “Blame Canada.”  Top it off with a giant talking vagina, and you have a seriously hilarious movie.
  • The Shining (1980), review
    Jack takes his family with him on a live-in caretaker job in a remote, empty hotel in Colorado.  Did I mention the hotel is sinister?  It takes a lot for a film to scare me, and this did.

TV Shows

  • Lost (2004 to present)
    The tale of the survivors of a flight that crashed on an uncharted island.  I remember when this first came out that I avoided watching it because I knew I didn’t have time to get addicted to another tv show.  Netflix Instant spurred me into watching it, and holy shit.  This show’s mystery and scifi are so good that I am literally yelling at the tv (yes, I bought the complete set).  Me yelling at the tv is a sign of a good tv show, btw.  I’m on the fourth season and am bound and determined to catch up before the new season starts in February.
  • The Simpsons (1989 to present)
    That sound you hear is the collective shock of everyone reading this, but I seriously had never watched The Simpsons ever before this year. No, not even one episode.  I really can’t explain why.  I just never got around to it.  Well, now I get what the obsession is with it, and I’ve watched a ton of episodes, let me tell you.
  • South Park (1997 to present)
    No big surprise here with the movie listed above, but I also was newly introduced to this show this year.  The pop culture commentary is epic.  All you need to do is see the Kanye West fish sticks episode to understand.
  • True Blood (2008 to present)
    A small Louisiana town deals with daily life and the recent coming out of vampires with the Japanese invention of synthetic human blood.  This show has everything: bayou setting, vampires, sex, drugs, comedy, and mystery.  Watching an episode is like taking a vacation.  It also provided me with the hilarity that is me imitating Bill saying “Sookie is mine!” I can’t wait for the second season to come out on DVD so I can watch it!

Websites

  • Etsy
    Buy and/or sell handmade or vintage items and supplies.  It’s kind of like having a craft fair in your browser, and I love buying one-of-a-kind earrings there.
  • Regretsy
    My friends and I were doing what this blog does for a while–finding the hideous things people offer up as “vintage” or “handmade” on Etsy (not the majority of things found there at all) and mocking them.  This blog is sure to send many giggles your way. (or horror)
  • Sock Dreams
    I love wearing snazzy socks, tights, and legwarmers, and this website has the best selection for the best prices.
  • Tor
    I’m a scifi freak, and their theme months are great.  This month was Cthulu Christmas, for instance.  Also they host a bunch of amazing give-aways.

Coming up in Part Two, Boston places, web clips, and recipes!