The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

One of my favorite places to visit and vacation in is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of one of the most defining moments in American History. This is for a myriad of reasons. First off it’s a beautiful city and surrounding area, with amazing buildings, a rolling countryside, and the monuments are amazing to behold. Another reason is, of course, the rich history of the town. There are few places in the US where, in only three days, so much history, raw fury, and passion have come together.

As any American high school student can tell you, the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3 1863) was the major turning point of the American Civil War. Up until that battle the Union was facing major defeats against the upstart Confederacy. The battle marked the farthest northern point that the Confederacy ever go into the US. A Union loss there would have left the population hub of Harrisburg and the great population center of Philadelphia open to Confederate occupation and some historians believe that a Confederate victory at Gettysburg would have meant an inevitable Confederate victory for the entire war. Thankfully this was not the case.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is an amazing account of the battle told from the viewpoints of some of the key fighters in the battle. I enjoyed this much better than having the battle told from the viewpoints of a fictional soldier or two as it helps to humanize the historical giants such as Robert E. Lee or Joshua Chamberlain who stand like immovable marble statues in the text books of schools across the American Republic. I find that it is often hard to identify with historical figures as we often put both the heroes and villains of history on high pedestals, where they feel more like inhuman demigods rather than the human beings with both morals and defects like the rest of us that they truly were.

Much of the events in the story are also accompanied by maps of the battlefield along with the positions of the two feuding armies. This was also an enjoyable aspect of the book for me for two reasons. The first is that when studying battles in any context, I find it hard to picture where everything is. With the accompanying maps it was easier to picture where all the characters were and their movements throughout the story. The second reason I enjoyed the maps so much is due to the fact that because I’ve been to the actual site of the battle several times the places and the actions that took place there were more perfectly formed in my mind. At several points in my reading I shivered with excitement due to the fact that I’ve been in the exact spot Robert E. Lee once stood or have walked along the roads where great armies once made their march to destiny.

I feel that one of the shining moments in this story is the feelings and emotions that many of the characters felt as the fought or planned to fight. While we will never know the true thoughts and feelings of the proud warriors who fought at that battle, what Shaara did in this story in regards to thoughts and feelings is nothing short of amazing. It is almost as if he brought the mentality of the 19th century into our time through books form. The gentile mentality of honor and sacrifice for ones beliefs are no strangers to us today, but how the people of the 19th century took such feelings and beliefs seriously is in sharp contrast to how we see them today. Back then honor was everything to a man, while today only a small minority still even attempts to follow a code. The fact that Shaara was able to pull this off while still writing in the modern style and language we use today was also quite impressive.

If you are a fan or military fiction or American History and its accompanying drama is the is definitely the book for you.

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Vampire Nation by Thomas Sipos

Spoilers!

It is said by many Conservatives that Communism is an ideal in which the government lives off the lifeblood of the people. To simplify, the state is a parasite, sucking the blood of its host till there is nothing left. One author took this idea and took it to the next level, both in scope as well as in satire. In Thomas Sipos’s Vampire Nation the Communists are in fact vampires, drinking the blood of the populace to survive. This book is a rich mixture of Ayn Rand, Van Helsing, and documentary on life in a communist country.

The book takes place during the Regan Era just before the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. It tells the story of an American sent to Communist Romania to scout future locations for a movie about witches he has written. He isn’t in the Romanian capital of Bucharest for long before he discovers that he is not only being constantly watched and bugged, but also that his hosts are more interested in what’s running through his veins rather than helping him make his movie. He falls in with a supposed CIA agent/vampire hunter, who brings him along in her independent mission to kill the king of Romania’s vampires: Nicolae Ceausescu. During their mad dash across the broken and lifeless city of Bucharest they encounter many of the real horrors that were Romanian Communism. They see scores of orphans starving in the streets, numerous attempts by the government to hide the level of poverty the country is experiencing (in one case plants are painted green to look fresh, even though it’s winter), and horrific abuses of power by the upper echelons of the Romanian government.

It should be mentioned that while the vampire aspect of the book is completely false the other aspects and descriptions of starving masses and abuses of power are not. Much of what is described by the Sipos actually happened or, in the case of the orphans, is continuing to happen to this day. Much of the historical facts about Ceausescu and his regime, are taken from the book Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescus’ Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption by I.M.Pacepa. Pacepa was a foreign intelligence chief for the Romanian government during the fall who defected. His work helped to document many of the abuses of power that took place in the Ceausescu Regime as well as many of the problems that regular people experienced every day. When one looks at Communist Romania it is easy to see a parallel with what is happening in North Korea today.

This books is exceedingly well written and it’s a very easy read. One should take note, however, that many Conservatives views are expressed by the characters. If you like your books politically neutral this book may be a bit of a hard sell for you. As an action and horror story, though, it is quite amazing. It may also appeal to history buffs who enjoy a comical twist on the usual historical events.

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford


Spoilers

Relations between the West and Russia has always been on the cold side. This is despite the fall of the Soviet Empire over 20 years ago. Because of this we in the West (and I’m sure those in Russia as well) have a very stereotypical view of our former opponents. This is due to propaganda released by both sides as well as the indoctrination schools used to convince their students that the opposite side was the personification of physical evil in this world. Because of this it was and continues to be very hard for us in the West to understand what life was like in the Soviet Union and what life is like in Russia today. Red Plenty by Francis Spufford gives a brilliant view of what life was like in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev Era. He does this through a series short stories that show views of life from the point of views of various Soviet citizens, from upper politicians to regular factory workers. The stories range from funny to downright depressing. All the stories attempt to explain what exactly led to the Soviet System to collapse a few decades later in the late 80’s. The reasons presented not only include the oppression that the Soviets were never able to completely rid their system of, but also due to the lack of imagination of the Soviet Leadership. One story tells how Soviet Leader Alexei Kosygin makes a crucial decision that leads to the collapse of the Soviet Computer industry. This is due to the fact that he opts to buy Western computers rather than allow the Soviet industry to develop. This allows their own industry to fall behind.

A common theme in the book is disillusioned optimism. The Soviet Experiment was meant to be the final step towards a perfect utopia. This optimism is similar to the post-war optimism that the US experienced. The US optimism, however was tempered by the numerous problems that occurred during the 60’s and 70’s such as the counter culture and the Civil Rights Movement. These problems never occurred in the Soviet Union and optimism was propagated by the state. Reasons for the disillusionment are demonstrated as to be the lack of social mobility, the lack of consumer goods, as well as the harsh oppression committed by the government. One point in the story that is particularly harsh is the dramatization of the Novocherkassk Massacre of 1962, in which government and KGB forces massacred protesters asking for better working and living conditions.

This book is a must for anyone trying to better understand the Soviet State and the culture it propagated. It is also a good read for those who are trying to understand the Post-Soviet Russia. It is written clearly and is well researched. I also found it a highly entertaining read.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Picture Credit: Wikipedia

 

Spoilers!

My Significant Other suggested this book to me while we were discussing the subject of “practical love” with a friend of ours. I mentioned how odd it is when in many cases people’s’ grandparents often didn’t marry for love, but because a person could give them the best chance of survivability in the real world. This is in contrast to today’s world where people can truly marry out of love rather than survivability. To simplify, let’s explore the following situation: You have two people in your life you can marry. The first candidate is rather beautiful and you’re truly in love with them. The catch is that the person is rather unskilled so while you’ll be married to the person you love they may not be able to adequately provide for you and your future children. The second choice is someone you may not be fully in love with, but they can provide for you and you’re future family. Who would you chose?

The Good Earth tells the story of a young Chinese peasant, Wang Lung and his arranged wife, a former slave from a great house named O-Lan. It goes on to describe their life together as their fortunes go up and down from destitute poverty and famine to extreme luxury. Throughout the story various aspects of Chinese Culture Pre-World War Two is described in beautiful detail.

Wang Lung is the main hero of the story and his character is a testament to an almost Ayn Randian vision of hard work and success. Throughout the story he is constantly striving to better the fortunes of himself and his family through perseverance and hard work. At some points famine and hardship severely hamper his fortunes, but again through perseverance he overcomes these hardships to become a wonderfully rich man. Despite all this at times he loses focus on his family which later comes back to hurt him.

O-Lan is his quiet wife. She is a former slave and it is mentioned how rather average she is when it comes to looks. Despite all this she is an immensely strong character who endures any hardship with barely a word. At one point in the novel she gives birth by herself and later in the day is back in the rice paddies harvesting the crop. She also is reminiscent of an Ayn Rand character in that she is the strong female helping to support the hero with little to no attention to her own needs. She was hands down my favorite character as she seemed to be one of the strongest female characters I have ever encountered in a story. She did this all with barely speaking a full sentence in the entire story!.

The story is absolutely breathtaking in its scope. The writing is beautiful. The story is written so simply, no large or complicated words are used, this fits with the story of poor uneducated peasants. The authors description of the home village of the charachters in the Anhui Province of China as well as the description of the people who inhabit it and who come into contact with the main characters show a startling realism rarely encountered in most stories.  One of my favorite aspects of the story was the authors description of the various Chinese Traditions that are performed throughout the story. Her descriptions of the traditions are simple, but while keeping the simplicity she manages to explain the purpose of the tradition without losing the gentle flow of the tradition’s place in the story. All these aspects as well as many, many others come together to create a beautiful tapestry that actually brought tears to my eyes at times.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Spoilers!

I’m going to be blunt, this novel was a huge disappointment for me. It had so much potential and promise and it just didn’t deliver for me. The characters were for the most part uninteresting and the story dragged in a lot of places. This coupled with the idea that I don’t believe that Mr. Dick did a lot of research into some of the key players of the Nazi Party forces my disappointment in this book.

It tells the story of of a world where, due to the the successful assassination of FDR by Giuseppe Zangara in 1933, the Nazis and Imperial Japanese are able to beat the Allies and more or less conquer the world. The majority of the story takes place in California which is under the rule of the Japanese. Other locales include Germany and the American Midwest, which has become a buffer zone between the German held east coast and the Japanese west coast. A major plot point is the sale of American “antiques” by the wealthy Japanese who are immigrating to the west coast. These antiques, when not forged, are items that display popular American Culture from before the war. This nostalgia for the Americanism from before the war almost displays guilt from the conquerors for what they did to achieve supremacy over the world.

Another major plot point is the almost novel-within-a-novel. Many characters in the book have been influenced by a book they have read known as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by the fictional Hawthorne Abendsen. This inner book is also an alternate history about the Allies winning the Second World War. In this alternate reality after winning the war, the US and the UK go into a cold war that sees the UK eventually overcoming the US. I won’t lie, this aspect of the book was actually interesting and it was my favorite aspect of the story, but it failed to make up for other aspects of the story. 

My first problem with the story was the characters. It’s inherently hard to like them or even to hate them,they’re just there! They’re nothing more than automatons that talk and feel occasionally. I understand that you don’t have to love the characters in a story, but you should at least feel something towards them. My second problem with the story was how at the end of the novel nothing is really resolved. The ending is completely open. Now keep in mind this isn’t necessary to a good story, after all it could be the set up to a sequel. Now I have heard that Philip K. Dick did indeed intend to write a sequel, but never got around to it. If this is indeed the case then I can let this go. My biggest problem was the historical aspects of the novel. This is keeping in mind that Mr. Dick claimed to have done extensive research into the Axis Powers. At one point in the story the current Fuhrer of Germany, Martin Bormann dies and two factions arise in the attempt to replace him. One faction led by Josef Goebbels intends to nuke the Japanese Home Islands in an attempt to conquer the rest of the world. The second faction lead by Reinhard Heydrich wishes to keep the German-Japanese Alliance in place. First off, the fact the Heydrich not only was one of  the main architects of the Final Solution as well as having helped to organize the mass persecution of Jews during the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) as well as having the nickname The Man with the Iron Heart makes me doubt that if he had survived the war with the Nazis winning that he would be for a peaceful coexistence with the Japanese considering that the Nazis considered them a lesser race. I also found it hard to believe the Martin Bormann would have succeeded Hitler as Fuhrer considering that Herman Goering was always considered the second in line to the Nazi “throne”. Also for all Mr. Dick’s “research” he very rarely mentions the Nazis at all. While this annoyed me, I must mention that his main focus on the Japanese aspect of the War was rather refreshing as most alternate histories alway focus on the Nazis rather than their Japanese counterparts.

Despite having a lot going against it. The book did have some positives. I found some of the technology mentioned in the novel interesting, such as a rocket plane that makes the travel time from Europe to California only a matter of a few hours rather than a day. I also enjoyed the description of the Nazis and Italians draining  the Mediterranean Sea and turning it into farmland. These, however, did not make up for the rest of the story.  There was a lot of potential in this book, but he just didn’t pull it off, I’m sorry to say,

Shogun: A Novel of Medieval Japan by James Clavell

Shogunimage

May contain Spoilers!!!

Shogun is a very different novel from what I’m used to. First, while I love historical fiction, I feel that this went beyond the what we all expect from most other historical novels. What I mean is that the characters and their actions seem both larger than life, but also immensely human all in once. Secondly, the style of the writing is both exceptionally delicate in the descriptions of the places and emotions the story takes place, but also harsh and dynamic when an important action takes place. Lastly, the amount of research and attention to detail in this story is not only breathtaking, but also shows the immense dedication this author gave to this story. I’m sorry if the first two points are rather confusing, but this book is very hard to put into words.

The story takes place at the end of the Sengoku Jidai, or the Warring States Period of Japan. It’s the story of an English sailor who is shipwrecked in Japan and how he gets sucked into the intricate intrigue and politics of the feudal samurai who rule Japan in the name of the Emperor.  The Englishman, who takes on the Japanese name Anjin (Pilot in Japanese) finds himself going native as he discovers the many differences between his native homeland and that off the alien Japanese. One funny instance of this occurs when Anjin is forced to take a bath. Eventually Anjin finds not only love and loss, but eventually new world look during this great adventure.

This novel presents many interesting questions for the reader through the actions of the main character. For instance, what would any of us do should we find ourselves washed up on the shores of a foreign land with little to no one who can speak your native language with you? Do you adapt or try to keep a semblance of the life you left behind? The language barrier the main character has to break through is also an important and interesting point of the novel. As Anjin slowly learns Japanese he is also slowly becoming more Japanese than English. This offers a beautiful way with which to see the  major character changes Anjin goes through as his life begins to change.

Overall this was a brilliant novel and I eagerly suggest it to anyone who not only has an interest in politics or history, but also a good old adventure story! Also, if you have the time to find it, a brilliantly done miniseries based on the book was made during the 70s. This makes a wonderful companion to the book as well.