Saturday, November 30, 2013

October and November 2013 Books

Since Josh's death, I've felt no motivation to tackle much needed organization/clean-up of our home which included his room.  But last month, I wrote about emerging from a "grief cocoon" on Josh's blog and an unexpected result has been the energy to work on such projects.   But since there are only so many hours in a day and/or gas in the tank, only one book was read in October.   Hence this post will be a record of two months.

Code to Zero by Ken Follett
Published: 2000
Rating: 4

Very fast read; I finished in a  couple of days.  Signature Follett - pulls the reader in right from the start.   Just what I needed after several months of heavy reading of WWII and the tome, War and Peace.

This book is about the Cold War or more specifically, the space race between Russia and the US.  And spies.  I would recommend.

The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway
Published: 1989
Rating: 4

The cover also says In the tradition of My Brilliant Career - a woman's exquisitely clear-sighted memoir of growing up in Australia.  

In my book journal, I added:

  • with a crazy, over-bearing, manipulative, paranoid mother
  • in the outback or bush
  • in a male-dominated, colonial British culture where women get married and have babies
  • where as a true intellectual, she felt out of place, shut down and totally inhibited
  • where family cultures says "one does not cry" no matter who has died
  • where she decides to go the Harvard/Radcliffe to pursue a graduate degree
Her description of the bush in the first few pages is so vivid.  One of my favorite sentences:
There is the ever-present round mount of prickly weed, which begins its life a strong acid-green with hints of yellow, and then is burnt by the sun or the frost to a pale whitish yellow.  As it ages, its root system weakens so that on windy days the wind will pick it out of the earth and roll it slowly and majestically about like whirling suns on a Van Gogh painting. 

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
Published: 2006
Rating: 5

This book came highly recommended by my sister-in-law, a fellow bibliophile.  I got the audiobook from the library and was hooked!

Click here to listen to the author discussing his first book.  The debut novel is great on so many levels:

  • In the head of many characters
  • Description of the ugly military bureaucracy and ambition/greed which led to good Marine's deaths
  • Fascination and quest for medals
  • Racism in the military, not only white vs. black but sometimes, black vs. black
  • Enlisted vs officers
  • Junior officers vs "brass"
  • Becoming a killing machine
  • Bravo company as fodder
  • Surviving in enemy jungle without food, water, supplies
  • In the end, Marines really fight for one another
I've read quite a bit of the Marine's horrific experiences in WWII.  Vietnam was no different, except in a major way - these brave young men did not have the backing and support of the home front.  Tragedy heaped upon tragedy.  

Other book by Marlantes:
What It is Like to Go To War" - click here for Q&A with Marlantes.

The Twelve (The Passage # 2) by Justin Cronin
Published: 2012
Rating: 4

I spotted this book in the library while looking for an audiobook for the car.  I read the first book of the trilogy, The Passage and liked it.  The notes in my book diary, however, were not thorough enough to help me remember the main characters and plot outline - thank goodness for Wikipedia.

Cronin's dystopia world pulled me in from the start and did not let go - the plot builds suspense to where I had to find out what happened next even though I felt ambivalent to the main characters.

The story reminds me of Stephen King's The Stand, one of my all-time favorite books except that in his masterpiece, King focused on a few memorable characters (Stu Redmond, Larry Underwood, Randall Flagg, Mother Abigail, Fran Goldsmith, Nadine Cross).

So my new equations:

Fast and good read - suspenseful plot a must; characters can be secondary
Awesome book - suspenseful plot and interesting, round characters

Flyboys: A True Story of Courage by James Bradley
Published: 2003
Rating: 5

Absolutely horrifying account of 8 American airmen shot down and captured off the island of Chichi Jima, a critical Japanese radio base.  For 50 years, howe these men died was kept classified by the US Government.  With the exception of one mother who was still alive when the book was published, all the other parents died without knowing the truth, despite numerous attempts to find out……WOW.

Many, many OMG written in the margins of the book.

In order to fully understand the Japanese mindset and their subsequent treatment of the 8 flyboys, Bradley provides a concise but comprehensive backstory of Japanese history leading up to WWII.  What I learned:

  • For almost 250 years (1614 - 1853), Japan was completely isolated.
  • After seeing Western imperialism in Asia, (Dutch ruled Indonesia; French had Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; the mighty British Empire governed Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, Burma and India), Japan began turning itself into a military nation.
  • In 1862, Japan began its conquest but taking Chichi Jima from American businessmen who had settled this island as a critical coal stop for freighters from US to China.
  • In 1894, Japan attacked China and emerged victorious.  
  • in 1904, Japan started the Russo-Japanese War, resulting in a 1905 treaty mediated by Theodore Roosevelt, in which Japan received territory conceded by Russia and complete control over Korea.
  • The US was far from innocent it her own quest for land against the Native Americans, Mexicans and Filipinos. 
  • Japan continues its course as a military state, where Emperor Hirohito was god and service unto death for the Emperor was expected of every Japanese man, woman and child.  To surrender to the enemy was shameful and forbidden, hence the suicidal policy permeating Japanese military and utter contempt for surrendering Allied soldiers in WWII.   
  • The training of soldiers was brutal and dehumanizing.  The rules of war did not apply. 
  • In 1931, Japan invades and conquers Chinese Manchuria renaming it Manchukuo.  
  • In 1937, Japan shows their brutal hand with the infamous Rape of Nanking.  Atrocities committed against 300,000 civilian Chinese reverberated throughout the world.
  • Summer of 1941, the US and UK ended trade with Japan and cut off precious oil, without which Japan's military would be paralyzed. 
  • Japan faced two options: concede to the West or strike boldly and gain enough territory to exact a treaty with the US. 
  • December 6, 1941 - bombing at Pearl Harbor
Next book to read by Bradley:
  • The Imperial Cause: A Secret History of Empire and War

True North: A Memoir by Jill Ker Conway
Published: 1994
Rating: 3

Picks up where The Road From Coorain leaves off:

  • graduate work at Harvard/Radcliffe
  • marries Harvard professor and moves with him back to his native country, Canada where she moves from Professor to Vice President of Internal Affairs at the University of Toronto
  • becomes President of Smith College
Reading her memoir makes me appreciate how much women had to fight for equal rights and how far we have come however, my interest waned in the many pages describing the inner politics of university life.

The Marines of Autumn: A Novel of the Korean War by James Brady
Published: 2000
Rating: 5

Wow - I loved it.  Like Marlantes' Matterhorn, this is another superb example of how the use of fiction by an ex-Marine can place the reader in war.

Brady was a Marine officer in The Korean War, sandwiched between WWII and the Vietnam War and often called the "Forgotten War" - a sad fact for the brave 52,000+ Americans who fought and died in the three years of conflict from 1950 - 1953.

In this novel, Brady chose to write about a campaign that occurred a year before he arrived in Korea, when the Chinese entered the war on behalf of the retreating North Koreans and nearly destroyed MacArthur's army in the frigidly cold autumn of 1950.  The battleground was the Chosin Reservoir.

It is clear that my prior reading has built a pyramid of knowledge that enhances each subsequent book.   I understood the references to Marine's battles on small Pacific islands, their intense dislike and distrust of General MacArthur, of Marine commander Chesty Puller's reputation, and why the US could not allow Korea to fall to the communists.

What I learned in this book:

  • General MacArthur - decent job getting Japan on her feet after WWII, caught sleeping when North Koreans invaded the South, brilliant move at Inchon, clueless about Chinese invasion, uncontrollable by Washington, thought he would be the next President. 
  • MacArthur vs the Marine generals under him.
  • Army vs Marines 
  • Marine officers vs. senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) vs enlisted.
  • Military hierarchy - if you wanted to move up in the ladder, you did not disagree.
  • Poor decisions by commanders cost lives.
  • Fighting in freezing cold - "God never meant honest soldiers to fight winter wars."
  • Orderly retreat of army vs panic.
  • How the Chinese could have destroyed MacArthur's army but did not, similar to Meade's chance to annihilate Lee's army at Gettysburg. 
  • Criticalness of strategic airstrips and ports during war. 

Other books by Brady to read:

  • The Coldest War: A Memoir of Korea (1990)
  • Warning of War: A Novel of the North China Marines (2002)
  • The Marine: A Novel of War from Guadalcanal to Korea (2003)
  • The Scariest Place In the World: A Marine Returns to North Korea (2005)
  • Why Marines Fight (2007)