Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Education of Little Tree

The Education of Little Tree
By Forrest Carter

The Education of Little Tree is a classic novel of startling compassion. For those who have never heard of the book, it is a stark depiction Little Tree, an orphaned Cherokee boy who is taken in my his grandparents who live high in the mountains of Arkansas and remain distrustful of the encroaching outside world. Little Tree's grandparents, along with a cast of interesting "mountain people" with names such as Willow John, Mr. Wine and Pine Billy take responsibility for raising Little Tree in a traditional mountain way. At once gorgeous in his simplicity and unnerving in its naivety, Little Tree embarks on an education where the world is his classroom and everyone is his teachers.

This is a classic novel in virtually every sense of the word. Both touching and heartbreaking, Forrest Carter has a great deal of empathy for his characters and their way of life. Furthermore, it depicts such a radically marginalized segment of the population that it, in essence, becomes a trail marker of sorts in cataloging a diminishing history. Carter has a way of getting to the heart of an often voiceless population which makes Carter's own story seem all the more baffling.

Forrest Carter was born Asa Earl Carter and spent a large portion of his political career as a speechwriter for former Alabama governor George Wallace, the staunchest proponent of continued segregation. Carter fought vehemently against Civil Rights via his own publication known as The Southerner and even founded the North Alabama Citizens Council, a group closely affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and a paramilitary group known as the Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy.

Later in life when he wrote The Education of Little Tree and The Outlaw Josey Wales, Carter used the name Forrest (after Nathan Bedford Forrest, of course) and implied that he was not Asa Earl. What's more, he perpetrated that Little Tree was based on his own Cherokee upbringing and that the book was autobiographical.

What gives?

How does one reconcile a man from his work? Is there repentance through art? I've been ruminating about these questions since I finished the novel and did a bit of research on Carter (at the insistence of the guy who leant me the book). Is Carter, knowing his background, allowed to have this sort of compassion without misgivings from the reader? Oprah Winfrey says no. The Education of Little Tree used to be on her reading list but was yanked because she couldn't reconcile his past with his later words. Fair enough, I suppose. Each is entitled to their opinion. But the problem for me is that the book is simply excellent, no matter where it came from. Does that count for anything? Let's put it another way: if it was announced that Adolf Hitler was, in fact, the author of all the original Dr. Suess books, would that change them?

I'm torn.

On the one hand, The Education of Little Tree is perhaps the best novel I have ever read on growing up in a Native American household. It's a balanced depiction of life at its more simple and pleasurable and certainly doesn't give any credence to the sort of person Asa Earl Carter was (in fact there are several characters in the book that could be Asa Earl Carter and all of them are treated with the abject disdain they deserve). A classic is a classic is a classic. Many writers, including poet Ezra Pound, were pro-fascist in the 1930 and the legacy of their work has not suffered as such.

On the other hand, even in his repentance he took the name of America's most notorious white supremacist and one should be held accountable to their past, especially when their past has hurt so many. The Education of Little Tree does, all of a sudden, feel like profiting off the very people the author fought against his entire political career by pandering to their soft spot. If it turned out that Mark Twain was a rampant pedophile I think it would really alter the way people read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and would have an adverse effect on his legacy.

I'm still thinking on this. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

That's Me In The Middle

That's Me In The Middle
Donald Jack

I'd never heard of Bartholomew Bandy or the Bandy Papers Series until a friend of mine emailed me about it a few months back. He had read my blog post about Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser and asked whether I had ever read the aforementioned series. When I mentioned that I hadn't even heard of this seminal Canadian series, he was aghast enough to have two of the three in the series shipped from Victoria to Taiwan post-haste.

I started on book two (My friend couldn't find the first book in the series) and although Donald Jack presupposes that you are familiar with the characters prior to opening this book, it is not all that hard to catch up.

Bartholomew Bandy is part Yossarian, part Mr. Bean, part Forrest Gump and part... well, yes, Flashman (without the libidinous side, of course). The novel is a classic comedy of errors in which Bandy finds himself in all sorts of Jack Tripper-esque situations. There are dozens of mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and well-timed quips, asides, and comebacks. Bandy himself is a naive colonial whose entire service in the British military during World War I is a continuous series of train wrecks that somehow find our hero as a pilot for the burgeoning RAF, promoted to colonel, demoted back to the front, decorated as a war hero and then married.

While the entire book is well-paced and fun to read I was especially enamored with the insanely innocent and maddeningly stupid bedroom romps. the first involves Bandy, his fiancee, an over-zealous widow, a disgraced Russian diplomat and the wife of a government official and plays out like Frazier on steroids. The second (and far more entertaining) is Bandy's wedding night, where his innocence and gentlemanly manners culminate in one if the most hysterical incidents in all of literature.

Aside from being a comedy of errors, That's Me In The Middle is also historical fiction and what sort of historical fiction is complete without the hero encountering a historical figure of two. Bandy encounters both future Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson and Winston Churchill during his escapades. He advises the former to avoid a career in politics and inspires the latter. All with side-splitting results, of course.

For those interested in obscure Canadian book series' from the 1960s or anyone, anywhere that like these sorts of comedies, That's Me In The Middle is a fine choice. Like I said, I haven't read the first in the series, but I have the third and intend to read it very soon. Donald Jack seems to be a forgotten Canadian treasure and worth rediscovering if you, like me, have never heard of him.

Finally, seeing as this is a Canadian novel, I must put it to the Canadian Literature test. My scientific scale measure Canadian-ness to a very clinical degree. The unit I use is the hip (named after a certain obscure Kingston band) and Canadiana is measured on a scale from 0 through 12 (0 being a Hindu Veda and 12 meaning the book was printed on a hockey puck). Let's see:

1. Novel set between 1900~1945.

Yes. The novel takes place entirely in the span of 1917. Score 1.5 hips.

2. Novel is set in/on a small town/island/northern settlement.

Although none of the novel takes place in Canada proper, there are small towns, islands and northern settlements featured in the book. Score 1 hip.

3. Novel involves a strong/complicated/deranged female protagonist on a journey of self-identification.

Actually, no. the only significant female character is Katherine who seems to have her shit together. Score 0 hip.

4. Novel involves one or more conservative/despicable/sexually deviant men.

Of course. Score 1 hip.

5. Story involves one or more hard-boiled sidekicks.

Yes. Score 1 hip.

6. Story involves an unwanted pregnancy/abortion/infant mortality.

This is a comedy so of course not. Score 0 hip.

7. Story mentions the Dionne quintuplets/Edward's abdication/Vimy Ridge.

Vimy Ridge! Check! 1 hip.

8. Story involves a major snowstorm.

No. Score 0 hip.

9. Story contains mild to overt anti-Americanism.

Yes. My favorite example (and I'm paraphrasing) is that America is still a British colony because any colony willing to go to war over tea is still in the fold. Score 2 hips.

10. Story explores multiculturalism.

Russians, French and Irish Republicans? Why not? Score 1 hip.

11. Story contains mild to overt anti-Religion themes.

Yes. Score 1 hip.

Final score: 9.5 on a scale of 12. That's Me In The Middle is definitely a Canadian novel. While not hockey puck material, this book would have no problem locating Medicine Hat on a map. Steven Leacock would be proud.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895 - 1945

Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895 - 1945
By George Kerr

Apologies. There doesn't seem to exist a cover for this particular tome. You'll have to do with a map instead.

For anyone out there who is an not expert on (or even familiar with) the history of Taiwan and the far east, George Kerr is a rock star in the genre. Kerr is the author of the now legendary Formosa Betrayed and a giant in the field of Taiwanese history during Japanese occupation, the handover to KMT forces in 1945 and the subsequent invasion of KMT loyalists in 1949. In short, if you're into Taiwan, George Kerr is your man.

Formosa: Licensed Revolution and the Home Rule Movement, 1895-1945 is a definitive overview of Taiwan during its time as a Japanese colony. Kerr spends a lot of time setting up the geopolitical reasonings for the annexation and colonization of Taiwan by the Japanese and their attempts (albeit uneven) to assimilate the Taiwanese populace into the "greater Japanese empire."

Kerr divides the book neatly into decades beginning with a pleasant overview of Taiwan history before the Japanese occupation. He is careful to point out that never once in the years preceding Japanese control did China have control over the entire island nor where they especially concerned with governing it. In fact, when control of Taiwan was shifted from Imperial China to Japan following the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, it seemed as though China was glad to be rid of the burdensome island. To put it more bluntly, China's current claims on the island of Taiwan are an historical fabrication. China's control and interest in Taiwan before 1895 was cursory at best and more likely leaned toward indifferent.

As for Japan, they were keen to add a colony. Taiwan was an image boost for the emerging power and a global showcase, a way in which Japan could demonstrate their unique ability to govern and rule foreign a colony. They leapt into the mission in earnest, modernizing Taiwan and laying the essential infrastructure that would help the ruling Chiang family catapult Taiwan's economy into the stratosphere in the late 1970s.

However,ended up making many of the same mistakes their western counterparts made in other parts of the world, especially in their dealings with the Taiwanese aboriginal people. While governing the Chinese population was relatively smooth, especially in and around the new metropolis of Taipei, the resources that Japan so sorely coveted lay in the mountainous interior, the ancestral home of Taiwan's Atayal and Bunun populations, both of which would be a consistent thorn in the side of the Japanese occupiers from day one. Japan showed little deftness in dealing with these populations and relations with the tribes remained volatile and often violent (head-hunting remained a cultural mainstay among the aboriginals well into the 1930s, much to the dismay of Japanese policemen stationed in the mountains along the east coast). By the onset of the Sino-Japanese War in the mid 30s, Taiwan was still only nominally Japan-ized and the population's tolerance of the Japanese colonists had more to do with them not being Chinese. Japan was bad, but not as bad as China. In the end, Taiwanese just wanted to be left alone.

Kerr does a wonderful job of introducing the major players on the island during the occupation from hard line Governor General Kodama Gentaro, uber-builder Nitobe Inazo to the forward thinking Sakuma Samata whose lenient policies came closest to building a real and working relationship between crown and colony. Kerr paints the occupying Japanese as more nuanced and complicated than simply a trigger-happy whip-wielding force brow-beating a population on a whim. In fact, the political and social climate, especially during the early years of the Japanese occupation (read: Sakuma's time as Governor General) was such that a very health home rule movement was allowed to ferment and gain momentum.

Under the nominal leadership of Lin Hsien-Tang, a prevailing zeitgeist manifested among the small but influential sphere of Taiwanese intellectuals in Taipei and other major cities and while Taiwan only gained full representation in the Japanese Diet during the waning days of the Second World War, the Home Rule Movement did garner some very notable successes along the way, namely free and open elections (rigged by the Japanese, of course), a more lenient policy toward the aboriginals (after the Musha Rebellion) and the Kominika, a period of real social and political detente between Japan and Taiwan.

While the political and social history in this book is great, where this book really excels is its ability to paint a vivid picture of life on the island during the half-century of Japanese rule. Kerr takes the reader into the homes and schools of average Taiwanese. He depicts the lives of east coast aboriginals and middle class Taiwanese merchants. He discusses the differences between the Hakka and Hoklo populations and the one can practically small the salt in the air as he describes the vibrant trade between Taiwan's west coast than Fuchian province on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, something that a current native of Taiwan would never understand. Kerr really nails the mixed feelings among the Taiwanese in relation to their colonizers. On the one hand, the Japanese brought modernity to the island in a way that the Chinese could never have done, but on the other hand... they weren't Taiwanese.

For anyone remotely interested in the greater history of Asia in the 20th century, this book is essential reading. It lays all sorts of framework and back story to many of the current issues currently plaguing this part of the world and hints at the travesty that would occur after Japan relinquished the island following their surrender to American forces in 1945. It is a balanced overview of an often overlooked (both in Taiwan and the rest of the world) era in Asian history.

Good book.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


By Joan Frances Turner

(Warning: Nerdiness ahead...)

The modern-day zombie mythology has evolved from George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Since then, countless writers, directors and producers have expanded on Romero's original idea, exploding the mythology in all sorts of direction from the purely canonical work of Max Brooks (World War Z), Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) and Romero himself to the deconstructionist, first... um... zombie accounts by Marc Price (Colin) and Andrew Parkman (I, Zombie) to the non-traditional accounts that break significantly from Romero's original mythos that include the work of Francis Laurence (I Am Legend) and David Moody (Hater). For a genre that has often been derided for its limitations, creators and proponents of the zombie-verse have reinvented themselves in all sorts of new and interesting ways.

Then along comes Joan Frances Turner, a graduate of Harvard Law School and obviously a zombie aficionado. In her first novel, Dust, Turner has taken a large bite out of the zombie genre, chewed it up and spit it out. Dust is a highly disturbing and powerful novel set in the heartland of the zombie-verse (the American Midwest) and follows the wanderings of Jessie, a former 14 year-old vegetarian who, upon perishing in a family car accident, has dug herself up from the grave and roams the Indiana countryside with her gang of the walking undead.

Dust is not for the faint of heart. At once compassionate and brutally honest, it is also gory beyond compare. Turner pulls no punches in her description of the brutal, painful life (unlife?) of a zombie. The undead deal with memories of their past life, wrestle with the all-consuming hunger that dogs them incessantly all while trying to survive in a world where continued existence is at once never-ending and seemingly without purpose.

She supposes the existence of an entire zombie culture complete with a method of telepathic communication, social hierarchies and various groups of competing zombies including those who consume human flesh and those that don't. Although even George Romero has hinted at a more profound version of the zombie in Day of the Dead, it is Turner that has added a complexity to the otherwise one-dimensional shuffling ghouls we have come to expect since the days of Johnny and Barbara (and Turner does a wonderful job of sneaking cheeky references to zombie films into the narrative. Don't think I didn't enjoy that!).

If that was Turner's only aim in writing Dust, it would have been more than enough to have added significant meat to the genre's aching bones. But Turner takes things a whole lot further. What starts out as a from-the-zombie's-perspective style deconstruction of the personal and social wonderfully devolves into uncharted waters as a third player is introduced. No longer is the world divided among the living and the dead. In a terrifying twist, the genre is split wide open. Here's why...

While most of those responsible for creating and perpetuating the zombie genre have concentrated on the early days of the apocalypse (Dawn of the Dead) or perhaps take up the story in the midst of the hordes (The Walking Dead, Diary of the Dead) very few, if any, writers tackle the endgame... the end of the zombies. Perhaps it is because zombies themselves have always signified an end of sorts or perhaps it is because humans would most likely not be around to witness the end of zombies. Either way, the end of the zombie invasion has never truly been discussed before Turner. By creating a third mutation, Turner has opened up the concept of total consumption and Dust becomes not only a superior novel but also a philosophical tract on the topics of death, starvation and annihilation. A veritable necrological compendium of misery.

I have been waiting a long time for someone to treat the zombie genre with the literary care that Turner exhibits here. While I take nothing away from the work of Max Brooks and David Moody, both of whom I enjoy, it is Joan Frances Turner that has raised the bar on why a zombie book can be and elevated the genre from mere sideshow anomaly to a seriousness it has always deserved.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole

By Benjamin R. Barber

You know, I couldn't help but enjoy the irony of the fact that this was a book I bought new in a bookstore. To thicken the irony, consider that I am probably the least-consumerist person I know buying (consuming) a book about consumerism. As if that wasn't enough, this was the first book I have bought with money in over a year. A book reader that doesn't purchase books purchasing a book about consumerism in a bookstore, an establishment the book reader rarely, if ever, enters. I'm sure Benjamin R. Barber would laugh.

Or would he?

Consumed is not for the faint of heart. It is every bit as heavy-hitting as the title implies. Barber takes no prisoners in his thrashing of first-world consumption habits and their corrosive social implications. Barber covers the gamut of consumerism from media, through consumption, desires (both real and imagined) and the manner in which all of this is packaged up and fed to us. This book is Barber's line in the sand, his last stand against the monolith of consumerism that is poised to devour all of us. And once you get through the first chapter, which reads like a social scientist gone mad (dyadism?), it is a very poignant piece of writing and very, very convincing.

The crux of Barber's argument is that the endgame of global capitalism is not the manufacturing of products to sell, but rather the manufacture of needs and that once you convince citizens that they need specific products (brands, media etc...), then the system continues on until all one's needs are satisfied (which, of course, with rampant technological innovation and re-branding, is never). In an effort to create needs, marketing "specialists" and advertisers have accelerated the process of "dumbing down" the population and infantilizing citizens via movies, sports, advertisements, brand consumption etc... The thesis, which is that we are en route toward a totalitarian version of capitalism when we are entirely consumed by media at all times (on the computer, in the car, at work, in the bathroom...), everywhere and that our very psychological profiles are being altered in very real ways by such a vast quantity of information, is all terribly logical and frighteningly clear to see when one stops and looks around.

Barber also discusses ways in which various people have tried to reverse the trends of consumerism, with varying degrees of success. His dismissal of culture-jamming is especially disheartening in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement which was dreamt up by the writers and editors of culture-jamming itself, Kalle Lasn and Adbusters.

Consumed is the logical progression in a series of post-modern, socially relevant books that started along the Adbusters theme. From Naomi Klien's classic No Logo through a plethora of other books such as Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, Nobrow by John Seabrook, and Barber's earlier work Jihad vs. McWorld. Consumed continues the flavor of these works and adds a whole new dimension to the arguments that have come before, although Barber seems totally devoid of a sense of humor.

This is the sort of book that will be read by a very select cross-section of the reading public, which is a shame. While the entire book is worthy of a long, hard look by anyone remotely interested in markets and sociology (or both), the chapter entitled The Eclipse of the Citizen is a sociological diatribe for the ages. Barber chronicles how corporations and advertisers manipulated the wants and needs of consumers and how they go about infantilizing the population into nations of "Kidults." as one reviewer put it, this chapter is "chapter and verse." I can't say it any better than that. Barber's observations and conclusions are startlingly clear.

While most readers might find Barber's style dry in the way that only sociologists can be, Consumed is worth the effort in reading if only to understand the ways in which each and every one of us are manipulated by the media. This is not to say that I agree with everything Barber writes. I do think that consumerism plays a role, especially in emerging markets, the overall notions are difficult to disagree with.

Consumed is a well-researched, well presented piece of work. It will and has received a ton of criticism by its detractors but stand up well to the best attempts at debunking. Along with his previous work in the same vein, Jihad vs. McWorld, Barber has placed himself as one of the world’s pre-eminent authors on the perils of consumerism and their social, economic and political implications.

He just doesn’t seem like he’s much fun at parties.