Prisoner of the State – Review

Zhao Ziyang. Prisoner of the State. Trans. Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius. New York: Simon, 2009. Print.

One could quibble that the translation of Prisoner of the State may be a bit dry in places. However, it miraculous that such a book even exists. Zhao Ziyang was the Chinese Premier under Chairman Deng Xiaoping when China began experimenting with free enterprise after three disastrous decades under state collectivism.

After the Tienanmen Square crackdown in 1989, Zhao was blamed by many Chinese Communist Party hardliners for supporting the unrest and spent the last fifteen years of his life from 1991 to 2006 under house arrest. He recorded his memories on overwritten cassette tapes. They were discovered, transcribed, and published, though apparently not on mainland China. This is an English translation.

Zhao notes:

After the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, there were good harvests several years in a row 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1984. The rural areas experienced new prosperity, in large part because we resolved the issue of “those who farm will have land” by implementing a “rural land contract” policy. The old situation, where farmers were employees of a production team, had changed; farmers began to plant for themselves. (97)

This is a lesson that mankind seems to have to learn in nearly every generation. The Plymouth Pilgrims learned the lesson more quickly, in less than two years, because they were a settlement of about fifty people, not an ideological nation of a billion.

Zhao does concede that a government-directed economy might be a necessity in war time. He also notes that probably Mao’s biggest economic mistake was trying to make China self-sufficient. Once, under Deng and Zhao, the Chinese began exporting their products and importing things that they could not make themselves, the country began to prosper.

Zhao does tell in some detail about Tienanmen. He tried to persuade the students to leave, and tried to mediate between the demonstrators and the government. However, this time Deng was persuaded by the hardliners and hundreds were killed, and many more all over the country were rounded up.

This also tells us something about the Chinese military. It is an arm of the government, not a protector of the people. Around the same time, the government of Romania ordered its army to attack a few hundred people who were demonstrating in Timisoara. The Romanian general who was given the order refused, saying that his job was to protect the lives of the people, not kill them. When the Romanian Securitate (secret police) attacked the army, the army overthrew the government and Communism in Romania.

The Chinese generals were not as courageous and, ultimately, more ruthless. They followed the orders to kill unarmed, peaceful citizens of their own country.

Zhao also noted that the Communist system as set up by both Stalin and Mao was very similar to feudalism. He saw that his challenge was to help promote a modern industrial state. He also could see, especially after Tienanmen in 1989, that the feudalists in the Party were gaining power.

Zhao also recommended in the early eighties that the Chinese export things it can make. If they are successful, then they will be able to make more technologically advanced items later. That is exactly what happened. Even today the hardliners cannot dispute that.

Just this past week I was reading a newspaper which spoke about “China’s opaque government.” Since China is ruled by a party, much of its inner dealings and even how decisions and laws are made are largely unknown. At times such things appear arbitrary. Zhao wanted a “rule of law” rather than a “rule of men.” Those are his words, repeated through the book, but they sound like they could be something from an American Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

But in America, most such hearings are public.

Perhaps, then, the greatest thing that Prisoner of the State does is to give us a look into the machinations of the Chinese government. Yes, they were twenty years old at the time the book was published, now almost thirty years. But we rarely have had any look behind the scenes since 1949. for that reason alone, this book is something special.

Two things especially struck this reviewer about the way the Party at the highest level works. (1) Most of the Party leaders are paranoid. They fear the people and each other. (2) The hardliners are clearly on top today. It remains to be seen how long before the Party implodes or China retreats into its fortress mentality. Both things would be disasters for China in the long run.

How long will the current dynasty, the Party, retain its feudal hold? How can it maintain its mandate of Heaven?

The Moviegoer – Review

Walker Percy. The Moviegoer. 1960; New York: Random, 1989. Print.

When I was in high school, I read a book by Saul Bellow. He had won a Pulitzer or two and was critically acclaimed. I thought I would check this famous writer out. It had to be one of the most boring books I ever read. I have never read another thing by Bellow except maybe short stories in anthologies, though I do not recall. I thought to myself, how could anyone be interested in this boring person’s life?

Now, long after graduating from high school, I think I understand a bit. Bellow, Updike, maybe Roth, and others are writing about adults for adults.

A kid whose parents are still married and faithful, for example, may not be able to relate to a man or woman tempted by adultery. They also seem very self-absorbed. Who cares?

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy is like that in some ways. It is about John aka Jack aka Binx Bolling, a Louisianan who drifts along. He is in a line of work that he finds interesting, but he has no real purpose in life. In one or two paragraphs we find out that he was left for dead in the Korean War, and that may have unsettled him—literally and psychologically.

Like Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, he finds meaning in movies. Little things he sees remind him of different films or actors—and the films are always more interesting than his routine life. He is single, about to turn thirty. He flirts with his secretaries. If he seduced any of them, the novel does not tell us specifically that he did. His aunt, the family matriarch, wants him to marry a certain cousin who would have the proper social cachet. John and his cousin Kate have always been friends, but is this the same as being in love?

Most of the story, then, is about John drifting, especially during the week preceding Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. He wanders. He flirts. He goes on a swim date with his secretary and flirts with her roommate. He sees his aunt. He has a close relationship with his fifteen-year-old brother who is dying of an inherited disease. (His widowed mother remarried). He goes to a few movies and talks about other films.

It is a nice little tour of New Orleans neighborhoods and some of the nearby coastal bayous. Nothing much seems to be happening, except that by the end, for reasons not explained in this review (no spoilers!), Binx has matured.

Yes, it is his thirtieth birthday, when we expect even immature men to act like grown-ups. But it is also Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is Fat Tuesday, also known as Carnival, which means “goodbye to the flesh.” Carnival season is a time to indulge before the serious fasting and repentance of Lent. Binx is doing that. But it is a time to say goodbye to the flesh and start growing up…and growing up in God.

He is standing on the sidewalk on Ash Wednesday outside a Catholic church. He is surprised to see so many people going to church on a weekday until he remembers what day it is. The one person he notices leaving the church is a black man. Because of his dark skin and hat, Binx can’t even tell if the man has ashes on his forehead.

That is symbolic, too. I tis not the outward sign, but the inward change that is important. We might not be able to see the change right away, but if it is real, he will become mature. Even Moses admonished the Israelites that it was the circumcision of the heart that mattered. (See Deuteronomy 10:16 or 30:6)

In festal New Orleans, the parades, the parties, and the social clubs are a big deal, yes. But they are meant to lead us to the ashes. We must remember that we are dust. (See Psalm 103:14, cf. Job 42:6) We must start looking for the things that last. Maybe, even likely, the healing will follow and the sense of abandonment will disappear. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5)

Having gained some understanding form this story of a rootless upper middle class American, will I try Bellow or Updike now after all these years? I doubt it. In high school I was too young. Now, I suspect, I am too old.

I Kill the Mockingbird – Review

Paul Acampora. I Kill the Mockingbird. New York: Macmillan, 2014. Print.

I Kill the Mockingbird is a lot of fun. It is full of clever repartee and observations—young adult style—and the characters in the story are having a lot fun themselves.

I Kill the Mockingbird is told by Lucy who is finishing eighth grade as her mother is finishing chemotherapy. Her father happens to be principal of the Catholic grammar school she is graduating from. Her best friends are her neighbor Michael and classmate Elena. The three of them are friends in part because they all like to read. Readers will get a kick out of the story because there are references to many works of literature from the Bible to Cory Doctorow.

Elena’s Uncle Mort, her legal guardian, owns an independent bookstore in a suburb of Hartford, Connecticut. One of their summer reading books is To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that they have all read but don’t mind re-reading. They want to help out Uncle Mort’s business by cooking up a scheme that looks like To Kill a Mockingbird is being banned or attacked so that Uncle Mort will sell more copies.

As summer vacation begins, they start visiting bookstores and libraries within transit bus distance and placing the copies of the novel on other shelves where they do not belong. As any librarian will tell you, a mis-shelved book is as good as lost.

They also put flyers on the racks of the bookstores and libraries with the words “I kill the mockingbird.” Word starts spreading. They set up a web site Ikillthemockingbird.com, and the prank goes viral. By August there are copycats all over the country.

Their stunt grows out of their control. They are glad of one thing: Their ultimate goal—to get people reading more—seems to be working.

Lucy and her friends and family are quotable. While Lucy has not completely made up her mind, her father is a committed Catholic, as one might guess from his job. (Maybe a bit like Scout who has not made up her mind but whose father Atticus is a committed Methodist who reads Lorenzo Dow for pleasure?) Lucy is still wrestling with Friday’s question, if God is good why is there evil? But her parents display adult wisdom and irony.

Her father says, “Life is a gift. Going to church is like a thank-you note.” (28)

For understandable reasons, Lucy worries about her mother’s health. Her mother favors junk food. When her mother says that she would like a hot dog, Lucy tries to dissuade her of that idea.

“Hot dogs? Why don’t we just go buy a bag of chemicals so that you can gobble it up with a spoon?”

“We did that,” says Mom. “It was called chemotherapy. It saved my life.” (111-112)

When the three friends are coming up with things to do to pursue their kill-the-mockingbird plan, Elena makes a suggestion.

“How about we go online and start a rumor that To Kill a Mockingbird is violent and lewd?” she suggests.

“The story’s got rape, murder, lynching, and rabies,” I remind her. “There’s a man named Boo, an old lady drug addict, and a kid dressed as a pork chop. How are we going to top that?” (105,106)

There is much more. Michael has to move up to the next level of the baseball league because some of the managers think that he must be older than he is because he is so good. Lucy has developed a crush on Michael, but how do you approach someone who is almost like a brother? And then there is the axe-wielding Santa, the attempted book burning, and the memory of everyone’s favorite English teacher, Mr. Nowak, known by all including himself as Fat Bob.

One subplot involves a conflict with the manager of the nearby nationally franchised bookstore that might remind people of The Shop Around the Corner or its remake, You’ve Got Mail.

This is a gem. It might turn more middle schoolers into readers.

P.S. I do have one criticism of the book, one which I consider serious. The bird on the book’s cover and the one depicted on the illustrations of the I Kill the Mockingbird flyers look nothing like a real mockingbird. It looks like a cross between a bluebird and a chickadee.

I noted the same problem with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie where what was supposed to be a snipe looked like a crow. Don’t the cover artists try to find out what their subject looks like? I did notice that at least the bird on the cover of Pulitzer winner The Goldfinch is indeed a European Goldfinch.

A Higher Call – Review

Adam Makos and Larry Alexander. A Higher Call. New York: Berkley, 2012. Print.

A Higher Call was given to this reviewer by a friend who said it was one of the best books he ever read. This is a very moving, eye-opening story. It might go well alongside All the Light We Cannot See.

As I got about fifty pages into this nonfiction war story, I could begin to see why my friend said what he said. This book, especially the first part, is one of the best pieces of writing I have read in a long time. Whatever else one may say, Messrs. Makos and Alexander know how to tell a story.

The pacing is very effective. Occasionally it alternates between Charlie Brown, an American bomber pilot flying from England to bomb Germany in World War II, and Franz Stigler, a German fighter pilot who seems to have been almost everywhere in the war. We get an excellent sense of what it was like to fly in the war, both in a bomber and in the plane whose main job was to attack the bomber.

Franz Stigler loved to fly. Even as a boy, his brother, a helpful Catholic priest, and he made a working glider. His older brother joined the German Air Force and Franz trained as a commercial pilot. Eventually in 1942, he joined the German Air Force—interestingly, until near the war’s end Nazi party members could not be pilots. The other pilots drilled into them that the Air Force Officers were not just the heirs of the Red Baron, but also of the Teutonic Knights. They understood that if they treated opposing pilots with respect, they would be treated better if they were captured.

This was largely true, as most downed Axis and Allied pilots who were captured would testify, unless they were captured by the Russian Communists or the Gestapo. Sadly, that was not the way the Japanese saw it, so Allied pilots captured by them were usually treated even worse than other prisoners of war. Unbroken is a well-known recently published example.

We follow Stigler—who flew a total of 487 combat missions from 1942 to 1945 in North Africa, Italy, and Germany. We also follow the rise and fall of the German Air Force, meeting challenges in North Africa and Sicily, to being a mere rump force greatly outnumbered once the United States turned on it manufacturing prowess.

We meet many of the top German pilots including all-time #1 and #2 aces Erich Hartmann (352 confirmed downed planes) and Gerd Barkhorn (301). We get an airman’s view of Hermann Goering, the mercurial head of the Air Force and Nazi ideologue.

And we meet bomber pilot Charlie Brown and his crew. Brown was a West Virginia native who flew 28 bombing raids out of English in 1943 and 1944.

While we get the background of both pilots and their associates, many of the events lead up to one unusual event where the lives of the two pilots crossed.

In December of 1943 after a successful bombing run over Bremem, Brown’s B-17 was shot up to the point where it could barely fly. At least one crewman was killed and several were severely injured. Stigler “escorted” Brown’s beaten-up bomber to the North Sea so that the German antiaircraft batteries did not shoot and the plane returned, crippled but safe in England.

Why did Stigler do this? Simply put, it was the chivalrous thing to do. A Higher Call briefly notes other instances of the Knights of the Air doing similar things, but the story does not end there.

Not only do we see the decline and fall of the German Air Force, once the greatest in the world, but learn about the lives of Stigler and Brown afterward. Stigler always wondered what happened to that wounded B-17. Brown wondered if the pilot of the Messerschmitt-109 was still alive and if he could find out why he did what he did.

The last few chapters describe how they two men finally got to meet each other and how their story got to be known.

The primary author, Adam Makos, tells how surprised he was that after the war there was generally great mutual respect between Allied and German airmen. Makos had made a hobby of collecting stories from World War II veterans, and even started a publishing enterprise sharing them. When he asked Charlie Brown about his story, Brown told him simply, “If you really want the whole story, learn about Franz Stigler first.” (5)

Stigler was still alive, Makos contacted him, and that was how the story was told.

There is, of course, a lot more. One thing worth considering is how both men expressed hope in God. Stigler carried a rosary in his breast pocked and prayed enough during the war that the beads lost all their paint. Meanwhile, Brown carried a New Testament in his breast pocket, and even when flying would occasionally tap it as a godly reminder.

Stigler continued to pray even though he had been excommunicated for something which today might sound humorous. (If the Catholic Church in America had the same rule as that in Germany, there would never have been a Scarlett O’Hara and her Irish Catholic clan…) Ironically, that excommunication might have save Stigler’s life because the Gestapo found some anti-Nazi literature written by two German Catholic bishops in possession of his widowed sister-in-law. When he told the Gestapo that he had been excommunicated, they let him go. By the way, he was readily readmitted to the Communion years later when he told what happened.

We are reminded by both men that there are things more important than adherence to political leaders or movements. Such things as duty, honor, and God’s purpose call all of us to a higher service.

Innocence and Ignorance in A Separate Peace

“Innocence and Ignorance in A Separate Peace
By Benjamin J. Chase – Guest Contributor

John Knowles’s A Separate Peace reads like a modernized, land-locked Billy Budd for its depiction of vulnerable innocence. Two friends, Gene and Finny, rise and fall at the New England Devon School against the distant backdrop of World War II. The continual interplay between their tragic story and World War II events creates a message that reads on both a personal and global level: ignorance often vilifies innocence.

At first, Gene and Finny are “best pals,” a “sincere emotion” that Finny admits during their adventure at the beach. Nevertheless, Gene’s ignorance soon creates a deep rift. As he mistakenly identifies Finny’s ideas for adventures as a way to ruin his academics, Gene begins to view Finny as an enemy. When Finny finally dismantles these misconceptions by encouraging Gene to skip an adventure in order to pursue excellence in his academics, Gene’s sense of rivalry morphs into envy of Finny’s purity: “Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he.”

In the next scene, the boys are jumping out of trees into the Devon River. In an episode echoing Cain and Abel, which Brinker later labels “practically fratricide,” Gene deliberately “jounces” a tree branch and sends Finny hurtling to the riverbank. Finny falls from the tree, but does not know for certain what caused his fall. Gene’s motive is not directly stated at this point because Gene himself does not fully understand his act until the end of the novel.

After learning that Finny has a shattered leg and will never play sports again, Gene, racked with guilt, visits Finny in the infirmary. Ironically, Finny is not completely demoralized about the accident, although he notes that Gene looks “worse” and “personally shocked.” At this point, the injury has poisoned Gene internally, but only affected Finny externally.

Over the summer, Gene goes to visit Finny in Boston because he feels compelled to confess his terrible secret. As he tries to confess, he is interrupted by Finny’s purity of heart: “Of course you didn’t do it. You fool.” Gene stops his confession, believing that it might actually do more damage to Gene than the accident itself: “It struck me then that I was injuring him again. It occurred to me that this might be an even deeper injury than what I had done before.”

As the months go on, Finny continues to evade the reality of World War II and comes to represent “a separate peace” of youth and innocence.

Noticing that Gene continues to pity Finny in some guilt-ridden fashion, Brinker decides to investigate Finny’s accident. He calls a mock trial in the First Building of Devon, which bears a symbolical crest above the door: “Here Boys Come to Be Made Men.” In an Edenic sense, this scene will contaminate Finny with the knowledge of good and evil—or at least the knowledge of Gene’s evil side.

As a part of the mock trial, Brinker examines two witnesses—Finny and Leper. Finny reveals that he harbors suspicions about the branch being shaken, but adds nothing conclusive to the case. Leper, however, adds the missing piece of information—there was in fact another figure on the branch with Finny. Although he refuses to name the other figure, Finny finally realizes that Gene has betrayed him. Leper’s special insight was also alluded to earlier when he pointedly says to Gene, “You always were a savage underneath…like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree.” For the first time in the novel, Finny begins to cry, and he tries to end the trial.

As he suddenly leaves the trial, Finny falls down the marble staircase in a passage that carefully parallels his first fall. The descriptions make this connection clear: he turns around as if he has been “attacked from behind,” “plunges” out the door, and then falls “clumsily” down the marble steps. Couched in the same language as the original fall, this is the fulfillment of Gene’s greatest fear—this is the fall of recognition.

This time when Gene visits Finny in the infirmary, Finny is hostile and reveals that he has understood the betrayal. When he presses Gene for the motive, all Gene can tell him is that it was an “ignorant…crazy thing.” If Gene is to be believed, than this ignorance depicts the way that he first misunderstood Finny as a rival, and then envied his purity of heart.

In another passage that parallels Finny’s first accident, Gene finds Dr. Stanpole and asks him about Finny. Dr. Stanpole says here that Finny has died, and he describes the cause of death as the result of some “marrow” that had escaped during the resetting of his broken bone “into his blood stream and gone directly to his heart and stopped it.” The symbolism could not be more apparent—this accident has killed Finny because the recognition of Gene’s betrayal has finally traveled from Finny’s broken leg to his heart. True to Gene’s own concern, the recognition has done more damage than the accident itself. This truth is only compounded by the ironic differences of severity between the accidents: Finny survives the shattered leg and even manages to have a good attitude, but he later dies of a simpler broken leg when it interferes with his heart.

The intermittent comparisons between Finny’s accident and the war further advance this point. In both the original accident and Finny’s death, the staff at Devon mention how tragically ironic it is that a boy would be so maimed in the freedom of his youth, before his military service. Similarly, after Finny has died, Dr. Stanpole notes that the risks are the same on “an operating table and a war.” The tree is also symbolically associated with war when Gene notes that “in 1942…jumping out of trees stood for abandoning a torpedoed ship.” These cross-references keep associating Gene’s act with war, thus fusing the two scenarios into a common form of human failure.

Because Gene’s life has been so symbiotically connected to Finny’s, he does not even cry at Finny’s funeral because it feels more like his own funeral, and “you do not cry in that case.” In his so-called “killing” of Finny, Gene notes that he has “killed his enemy” long before he ever joined the army. Because of this, Gene adds that he did not kill anyone during his time in the army or need some clear sense of another enemy. Nevertheless, Gene’s acknowledged loss is that in killing Finny, he has also killed a vital part of himself.

At the very end of the novel, Gene makes an observation that serves as a linchpin for the whole novel: Gene says that he believes wars are not the result of “generations and their special stupidities,” but the product of “something ignorant in the human heart.” Because this motive parrots his expressed reason for hurting Finny, this passage creates the conclusive link between Gene’s crime of “fratricide” and war at large. Both are motivated by some sort of ignorance, or misunderstanding of others.

Gene also notes that everyone except Finny needed to attack something external to themselves as “the enemy.” For example, Mr. Ludsbury developed a sense of superiority; Quackenbush developed something to attack; Brinker developed a sense of general resentment; and Leper developed a paralyzing fear of the war. In this way, everyone lost their innocence.

Gene found his enemy in Finny because he was envious and threatened by Finny’s purity. Gene uses the World War II image of “Maginot Lines” here as a symbol of the “us-them” mentality that people feel they must construct in order to feel a sense of confidence in their own identity and place. He ends the novel claiming that people instinctively attack constructed enemies, even if they are not really the enemy: “All of them, all except Phineas, constructed…these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.” Finny himself was the only character who did not harbor this kind of malice, but his innocence led to his death.

Clearly, Finny was not Gene’s enemy, but only the threatening reminder of a purity Gene himself did not possess. By extension, the ending of A Separate Peace suggests that humans draw hard-and-fast lines between friends and foes, almost out of some depraved necessity, but often mistake the two. This conflict is primarily an interpersonal problem between Gene and Finny in the novel, but because it is so carefully linked to war throughout the whole novel, it is also applicable to international conflicts. In this sense, the novel’s closing statement suggests that people are their own worst enemies when they vilify their friends.

China Rich Girlfriend – Review

Kevin Kwan. China Rich Girlfriend. New York: Penguin, 2015. Print.

This reviewer had gotten a big kick out of Crazy Rich Asians by this author, so Santa very kindly gave him a copy of China Rich Girlfriend this Christmas. Thank you very much.

China Rich Girlfriend is actually a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. Many of the same characters appear. It does not give too much away, for example, to say that Nick and Rachel do get married in this installment. Still there are many complications as some of the ultra rich characters seem to overdo things.

Here is an example. Imagine a rather staid but high-priced Christie’s art auction. The pièce de résistance of the day is receiving bids that are getting into the range of eighty million dollars:

Suddenly there came a commotion form the back of the auction room. Murmurs could be heard as the standing-room-only crowd began to give way. Even in a room packed with celebrities dressed to the nines, a hush came over the space as a strikingly attractive Chinese woman with jet-black hair, powdered white skin, and crimson lips, dramatically dressed in a black velvet off-the shoulder gown emerged from the crowd. Flanked by two snow-white Russian wolfhounds on long diamond leashes, the lady began to walk slowly up the central aisle as every head turned toward the sensational sight. (31)
Welcome to the world of Kevin Kwan.

I learned for example that there are VIP rooms and services, and then there are VVIP rooms and services. We see more excess as a group of young Chinese “princesses” go on a trip to Paris (via private jet, of course) to shop, shop, shop. Later on, the author describes another private jet in such a way that it sounds like a luxury ocean liner.

While the Singaporean families of Crazy Rich Asians still play a part, this time we get much more into the newly rich people from Hong Kong and mainland China. Any rich Mainlander has to be nouveau riche because in the 1970s no one was rich except for Chairman Mao. That, of course, has changed.

China Rich Girlfriend continues with some of the satire. Starlet Kitty Pong has married one of the newly rich Asians, but she senses correctly that she is not really accepted by the jet setters she is trying to associate with. She hires a kind of social makeover artist to help her make her way through the rich Asian upper class.

At first it does not go so well. She is invited to the most exclusive dining club by a friend, and not only is she asked to leave, but her friend’s membership is canceled. She attends an invitation-only church service (I guess only among rich Asians is there such a church…) but even there commits a social faux pas. Because she is rich and beautiful, we tend to laugh at her experiences as she tries to figure out her way through society.

We meet Colette, one of the new Chinese princesses. Her lifestyle seems even more extreme than the Singaporeans we met in Crazy Rich Asians. They, at least, were subtle and kept in the background. Though she is very modern, her father in some ways, though newly rich, is more traditional. When she refuses to marry the man he has selected for her, it is going to get tense. It seems she only has access to hundreds of thousands of yuan instead of millions.

Rachel Chu, the ABC (American born Chinese) fiancée of Nick, discovers that her father is now one of the Chinese business elite. She meets and seems to get along well with her half-brother, but her father’s wife understandably wants nothing to do with her. This obviously is sticky and serious, but it does raise Rachel’s social standing among Nick’s relations.

While it is fair to say that China Rich Girlfriend is satire, and parts are still very funny, there is a more serious side to this tale. A young woman dies in a car accident. There is a very well-orchestrated cover-up. While everyone knows that Carlton Bao was driving his luxury sports car much too fast and crashed it into a Jimmy Choo boutique, few people know that one of two female passengers with him died.

We have learned in the United States that even congressmen and senators usually resign or no longer run for office if something like that happens. But if they come from a very wealthy, well-connected family, they might be able to get away with it, too.

There is also an attempted murder in China Rich Girlfriend. The perpetrator is discovered fairly quickly, but we readers suspect that she is probably taking the fall for her employer. Still, the overall effect of the novel is breezy fun.

Lots of lively conflict and a number of other subplots I have not even mentioned keep the story moving. Since the novel has many of the same characters as Crazy Rich Asians, it makes sense to read that book first, but it is not necessary. Each book stands on it own.

Split Second – Review

Douglas E. Richards. Split Second. [San Diego CA]:Paragon Press, 2015. E-book.

Split Second began in a manner similar to some novels of Tom Clancy. Indeed, I had just finished reading a Clancy novel when I picked this one up. A scientist who has made some technical discovery has been kidnapped and murdered by a well-organized black-ops style crew. His fiancée witnesses his murder and enlists the help of a private detective who is a former Army Ranger.

In other words, technological high stakes, highly trained operatives, and government secrets—Split Second begins as a technothriller. However, we eventually learn that our assassinated scientist had figured out a way to engage in time travel. Granted, it was limited to a fraction of a second (hence the title), but the short term effect was to duplicate whatever or whoever was being subject to the technology.

If you think about it, the earth is traveling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour and spinning on its axis at about a thousand miles an hour, so that even going back a nanosecond would place a time-traveling object about a hundred feet from where it would be in the absolute present. It could not be two places at once…so there must be two of them.

In an essay which follows the book, Richards notes that the most feasible explanation for the “transporter” in Star Trek is that the transporter uses this kind of short interval time travel, but dissolves the original person or object. Yes, there are many philosophical speculations here: does the reassembled or duplicated body have the same personality and memory? how does free will fit in—or does it? What are the ethics of duplication (cloning?)?

Richards’ speculation on time travel is clever. If we accept the concept of the space-time continuum in quantum physics, then we know we can alter the space condition or a person or object. Isn’t it mathematically feasible to alter the time condition instead?

Split Second also assumes the existence of dark matter and dark energy. I also note that I was reading this book as I read a moving obituary of Vera Rubin, who first hypothesized the existence of dark matter to account for anomalies in the motion of galaxies. The novel suggests that this alteration of the space-time continuum depends on dark energy.

I believe I have discussed this elsewhere, but other than a mathematical model, there is no evidence yet that either dark matter or dark energy actually exist. Ptolemaic epicycles worked out the mathematics of the motion of the planets, but it turned out the model itself was wrong even if the math worked.

Similarly, dark matter was first hypothesized to account for the anomaly in the motion of the planet Mercury. When Einstein’s mathematics included a fourth dimension, and then observation proved that the sun’s gravity affected light waves, there was an explanation that did not involve an unseen material object, whether a dark planet like Vulcan or diffused dark matter around the sun.

I suspect we will probably discover the same about dark matter at the galactic level. As mentioned in that earlier blog, Mordehai Milgrom has already a relatively uncomplicated mathematical model that accounts for the motion of galaxies without invisible and imperceptible “dark” matter or energy. As Einstein’s math included a fourth dimension, so Milgrom’s includes a fifth. If nothing else, Occam’s Razor suggests looking for an explanation like Milgrom’s. The simplest answer is usually the closest to the truth. The dark matter hypothesis sounds suspiciously similar to Lorentz’s ether.

At any rate, Split Second begins as a technothriller but ends up more as speculative fiction. Even if the model proposed could never work or is not based in reality since Richards’ time machine harnesses dark energy, the story still presents some interesting ideas and makes us think.

On the thriller side of the technothriller, this reviewer would not be surprised if Richards comes up with some sequels. Aaron Blake, the ex-Ranger PI, is a cool dude. The apparent “good guys” of the story are a secret black ops government agency bigger and more secretive than Clancy’s Campus. The leader of the organization would like it to be so secret that even future presidents will not know about it. It sounds like there is potential for more conflict and abuse of power. Remember the rumors that Kennedy was secretly assassinated by the CIA? A similar idea could make for entertaining speculative fiction.

Full Faith and Allegiance – Review

Mark Greaney. Tom Clancy: True Faith and Allegiance. New York: Putnam, 2016. Print.

Still another chapter in the life and saga of Jack Ryan, True Faith and Allegiance should keep the Clancy technodudes happy. It more or less follows the Clancy formula, keeping up with both the technology and politics going on in the world.

A few of the recent Clancy novels I have suggested might be prescient. So far, thankfully, that is not the case with True Faith and Allegiance. However, one of its main premises is based on a few things that had happened before the novel was written.

News reports have told us that people have gotten a hold of enormous data files from the Social Security Administration and the U. S. government’s Office of Personnel Management. Those files contain information that could be used to hurt people—Social Security numbers especially could be used not only to falsify identification for illegal immigrants (which we know has been done), but also for identity theft.

What if some foreign government or group of hackers got a hold of the files containing the applications of everyone who had applied for a government security clearance since the 1980s? This would have included several million people from all walks of life: many military personnel including all officers, many government bureaucrats and officials, and contractors who frequently work for the government.

The applications run to over a hundred pages and include all kinds of personal details. From these we can learn about any arrests, all your family members and close friends, your education, your employment history, people in certain occupations you have known or associated with.

If people wanted to target a specific government official or person in the military, not only would they get much personal information, but nowadays by following the person and others mentioned in the application like friends and family members on social media, they could get very specific information.

In True Faith and Allegiance, ISIS gets access to the information above. They begin targeting military officers, politicians, and federal law enforcement officials who have fought them. Now through making connections with social media, they know when and where such people go for coffee in the morning or attend their kids’ soccer games.

Lenin once said, “The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.” When people begin to realize that they are being specifically targeted and killed in such a way that some of the most intimate details of their lives are known, that becomes terrifying.

I recall that during the Vietnam War captured American pilots were often confronted by their interrogators about every duty station they had been assigned. This gave the impression that America was full of spies reporting back to North Vietnam. Soon they realized that the enemy was getting information published every week in the Military Times and Navy Times. With these classified applications and social media, it is possible to find out much much more.

It even makes me wonder if I should be keeping a blog…

The folks at the Campus get involved with this combination of cybersecurity and terrorism. It is another wild ride. It follows the successful Clancy formula. Also in this one President Jack Ryan has a significant role to play. He is not at all involved in the detection or capture of the bad guys, nor is he a target. However, he does have a lot of wise things to say as he makes public observations and holds a couple of press conferences as ISIS operatives target very specific military and government officials.

For those not familiar with the Clancy novels, they usually follow the Columbo technique rather than the Sherlock Holmes method. In other words, the readers usually know what the bad guys are doing. Much of the suspense comes from seeing how the good guys figure things out. And, alas, a lot of time it is realistic. In other words, they are not able to prevent the crimes or acts of war. So it is with Full Faith and Allegiance.

Indeed, at one point it appears that the plot is just about wrapped up when the plot takes an unexpected turn, and we realize how clever the enemy operatives can be.

Many times the epilogue to the stories are fun. Sometimes they have general observations about the nature of things as quoted in Threat Vector. Sometimes there is poetic justice or a humorous twist. Rainbow Six has a very funny epilogue, for example.

Full Faith and Allegiance may go too far. There is an element of the humorous twist as one of the bad guys gets dropped off in a country that is looking for him but does not have the same rule of law that most Western countries do. Because of his heartlessness, the punishment seems to fit the crime.

However, the other part of the epilogue may have gone too far. I am not sure. I would be interested to see what others say about it.

Still, Greaney has learned pretty well from his mentor, and I am not yet tired of Jack Ryan stories.

The Great Siege: Malta 1565 – Review

Ernle Bradford. The Great Siege: Malta 1565. 1961; New York: Open Road, 2014. E-book.

Tours 732 in the West, Vienna 1683 in the East, and Malta 1565 in the South—these are the “big three” military engagements that may have indeed saved the West or Christendom as a cultural and religious entity. The author claims:

The Great Siege of Malta was one of the decisive actions in the history of the Mediterranean—indeed, of the Western World. “Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta,” remarked Voltaire. (25)

The Great Siege tells the story. Some histories emphasize the spiritual and even miraculous aspect like Shakespeare’s take on Agincourt in Henry V. Although any reader can easily read between the lines and come to similar conclusions, that is not Bradford’s approach. He is analytical and detached.

That does not mean that the telling of the story is dull. There is remarkable bravery, certainly. There is also intelligent leadership on both sides. What a tale!

The author served in the British Army during World War II and first saw Malta when it was besieged by the Germans in 1942. He understood that when the Allies gained control of nearby North Africa and Malta, they could attack to the north into Sicily and Italy, which they proceeded to do.

It is likely that if the Ottomans had successfully taken Malta, they would have done the same. Less than 7,000 Knights of St. John and affiliated soldiers along with Maltese volunteers faced 40,000 to 50,000 Turks, allies, and privateers. The islands were surrounded, and the nearby Duke of Sicily was dragging his feet.

Much of The Great Siege focuses on the siege and fall of Fort St. Elmo. This was a small fort that guarded the main Maltese harbor, Marsaxlokk. (Bradford eschews the Maltese spelling for the less familiar Italian name here, Marsamuscetto, but the maps are clear.)1 Both sides figures it would fall in a few days and then it would be simple for the Turks to move in and take the rest of the territory.

The Turks had nearly 200 ships (Malta had three). Both sides knew that the Turks had about half a year to succeed unless they overwintered. The fall and winter winds are virtually impossible to sail in. The Bible records the shipwreck of St. Paul on Malta during such a winter storm. Still, it looked like a cakewalk.

The Turkish Sultan was Suleiman the Magnificent, perhaps the greatest of all Turkish leaders. He had successfully expanded Turkish territory north and east. He had driven the Knights of St. John off the island of Rhodes in 1530 after a six-month siege. And Malta was not nearly as well defended or such a geographical obstacle.

Suleiman dispatched two of his most trusted leaders, General Mustapha Pasha and Admiral Piali. Joining them shortly after the siege began was the most trusted pirate and political leader next to the Sultan himself, eighty-year-old Dragut (Torgut in Turkish). The Sultan’s orders were that if there were any disagreement, Dragut’s orders took precedence.

Meanwhile, the Knights of St. John were led by Jean Valette. This was the last of the Crusader orders. They had begun in Jerusalem as a holy order made up of knights. They were especially known for their hostels and hospitals for other crusaders. Indeed, they were also known as the Knights Hospitalier. To be a member, one not only took a monastic vow, but also had to prove noble ancestry for at least four generations.

When they learned about the enormous invasion force (some say the largest armada ever in history till that time), they began developing defense plans. Soon Valette also learned that promised help from Sicily would probably not come. It was up to them.

Bradford notes that most of his sources of information were either Turkish or from the Knights. Except for a few folk songs, little is said about the Maltese, though he estimates that probably three thousand men from Malta fought with the Knights, and virtually every non-combatant man, woman, and child of the island contributed in some way.

Bradford records that the Spanish Emperor Charles V gave the islands of Malta to the Knights in 1530 after their defeat at Rhodes. The locals were not especially thrilled with their aristocratic rule. But the Maltese may well be the oldest continually Christian culture in the world, tracing their Christianity back to Paul’s shipwreck there around A.D. 60.

Besides, the Turks had harassed them multiple times, especially Dragut on his piracy expeditions. They were not going to let their homeland fall, even if these outsiders were in charge.

Read Bradford’s story to get all the details. St. Elmo held out for over a month. Hundreds of defenders were killed, virtually none survived. Still, that gave the other fortresses and walled cities more time to prepare. The Turks and their allies suffered great losses. Perhaps none greater than Dragut, who died from wounds on the day St. Elmo fell.

Valette’s strategy seems to have been inspired. Most of his officers disagreed with his plans, but Bradford presents the case that if even one of his orders had been changed, Malta probably would have been lost.

There also intangibles. The Knights wore armor, which probably hindered them in the summer heat. Still most of the Turks wore robes. They were far more comfortable, but they also burst into flame easily when the defenders poured Greek fire and hot oil down from the walls on the attackers.

The Turks suffered greatly from dysentery and other diseases. One reason no doubt was that the Knights and Maltese fouled wells that could not be defended. Also the Knights, after all, were a medical as well as military order, they did oversee sanitation and cleanliness, so even the walled-in defenders remained relatively healthy during the long siege.

There are remarkable acts of bravery. St. Elmo in some way could be compared to the Alamo in Texas. It was a small and less significant fort, like the Alama, but it occupied its attackers long enough so that they did not succeed in their overall plan.

Bradford does quote from a few speeches and letter of Valette, which certainly seem inspiring. He also points out that both sides were convinced that they were fighting on the side of God. One of Soleyman’s many titles was “Allah’s deputy on earth,” and this was a jehad (both the Sultan’s name and the holy war are Bradford’s spellings). On the other side, the Pope had granted a plenary indulgence (a complete pardon of all sins) for anyone dying protecting Christian lands from pagans.

Impressive people, impressive story, it is well worth reading and sharing. At times we may wonder if the West will survive. The Great Siege certainly lets us know that it has survived so far. With God and clean living (literally as well as figuratively) it can hold out till the Lord returns.

It is the great battle of the Cross and the Koran which is now to be fought. A formidable army of infidels are on the point of investing [surrounding] our island. We, for our part, are the chosen soldiers of the Cross, and if heaven requires the sacrifice of our lives, there can be no better occasion than this. Let us hasten then, my brothers, to the sacred altar. There we will renew our vows and obtain, by our Faith in the Sacred Sacraments, that contempt for death which alone can render us invincible. (661-664)
—Jean Valette (cf. Hebrews 2:14,15)

1 As Bradford explains, the Maltese language is a distinctive Semitic language with its origins in Phoenician. It uses the Roman alphabet and includes many Roman or Italian loanwords, but the spelling is distinctly different because of the Semitic pronunciation of some of the letters. Marsaxlokk is pronounced like Marsaskalla (no long a’s).

Blood-Drenched Beard – Review

Daniel Galera. Blood-Drenched Beard. Trans. Alison Entrekin. New York: Penguin, 2016. E-book.

“Everyone who comes here goes out of their mind a little in their first winter here, swimmer. It’s a rite of passage.” (4831)

Perhaps the best way to describe Blood-Drenched Beard is say it something like Hemingway meets Jack London with a little gothic famly drama thrown in. The main character is a drifter, a slightly over-the-hill Ironman triathlete who still trains and gets by from teaching swimming lessons when he can.

The novel wanders a bit, as he gets in and out of relationships with women, but it gives us a sense of his rootlessness. At the same time, the heart of the story is the gothic search for the truth behind an apparent family crime.

His grandfather was never mentioned by his father as he was growing up, but shortly before his father kills himself, he tells our protagonist that his own father was brutally stabbed to death at a dance at the idyllic seaside village of Garopaba in the south of Brazil.

Our protagonist (I thought I found his name once in the novel, but I could not relocate it; it might have been the name of a town) moves to Garopaba to practice swimming, but also to informally investigate the story of his grandfather. Like most swimmers, he has always been clean-shaven, but he grows a beard to make himself look virtually identical to his grandfather.

Some older people in the town look shocked when they see him. A few even mention that he looks like someone they once knew. Gradually, the story of his grandfather’s murder is revealed, but nearly everyone is reluctant to talk about him or his death. In effect, this is Far Southern Gothic. (Southern Hemisphere Gothic?)

Our protagonist then goes on a quest into the nearby coastal mountain jungle region to track down even more people who may know something of his grandfather.

This ends up being a wild survival story—complete with loyal dog—that Jack London might have written if he had gone to Brazil instead of the Klondike. That in itself may be a rite of passage.

While slow-paced at first, the reader is taken into the family mystery, and our protagonist’s quest is always in the back of the mind.

I have read some comments on this story that say it is magical realism. I am inclined to think that that is only because people expect magical realism from contemporary Latin American novels and stories. It is more like Kerouac: flings with women, drinking, experimenting with Buddhism, a search for a relative, an Odyssey of sorts.

Having said that, if (and that is a big if)one takes the preface as part of the story rather than how the author was inspired to write the story, then maybe it is magical realism after all. In that case, though, the timing is off because the story was published in 2010 and mentions Obama’s election in the United States, and the events in the preface were said to have happened many years before. Of course, if the preface is meant to be from a half-century in the future…

One of Hemingway’s heroes (also unnamed, though some think it may be Nick Adams) says “we were all a little detached.” So our hero is a little detached from others. Because of that, he is modern rather than postmodern. His parents are divorced. Obviously, his father commits suicide, and his grandfather is someone no one talks about except in legendary terms. He is also estranged from his brother, his one sibling. And he comes across as a “commitment-phobe” in his relationships with women.

There is also another reason why he might be detached. He was born that way. He has a condition called prosopagnosia. That means that he is not able to remember faces. He has learned other ways to remember people—their voice, their hands, their smell—but this also makes others think he is stand-offish. Unless he has come to know someone well, he has long ago given up trying to explain it because people simply find it hard to believe. One can guess that the prosopagnosia is a symbol.

The question is whether or not his quest will get him re-attached with life. Is the outcome a shock? A disappointment? Or simply the way things are because there is nothing new under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Let us just say there are significant parallels in family relationships in this story. There is a reason why his grandfather was out of the picture even as a memory while he was growing up. There is a similar reason why he cannot reconnect with his brother and sister-in-law.

(That is where the postmodern/magical realism narrative issue may come in. The preface talks about an uncle the writer never met, and at the end of the story we learn that our protagonist is going to be an uncle. Same uncle?)

Galera speculates on the significance of these things:

Either there is free will, or there isn’t. If we have choices, we are responsible for them. If there’s no free will, if the universe is predetermined by the laws of nature and everything is just the result of what has gone before, then no one is to blame for what they do. (5128)

It’s the same old question of moral responsibility and action.

We are not going to find any “solution” to the question of free will. As Milton famously wrote about those in hell:

Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and eveil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory and shame.
Vain wisdom all and false philosophy;
Yet with pleasing sorcery could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm the obdurèd breast
With stubborn patience as with triple steel. (Paradise Lost 2.557-569)

Yes, alas, vain wisdom, though not our hero’s original intent, but Blood-Drenched Beard still includes some pleasing sorcery even if its wisdom is all “under the sun.”

N.B.: References to passages in the novel are Amazon Kindle locations, not page numbers.

Questions, Comments, and Observations on the English Language