Category Archives: memoir

People’s memoirs.

Review 101: World War Z


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

(Just as a reminder – go take the listener survey! You’ll have good luck for seven years, I swear!)

So where were you when the zombies came? I remember where I was. I remember vividly.

It was the third lesson of the day – still one more to go before lunch – and one of my regular students was due for her weekly lesson. She came in each week like clockwork, and while her English never got a whole lot better, she seemed to enjoy herself. Actually improving her English was secondary to having a nice chat, I think, and we could always count on her to liven things up.

Not this day, though. For one thing, except for me, none of the teachers showed up. Normally that would be a problem, but a lot of students weren’t in either. It was just a few of us and one staff member. We had heard of some new sickness going around, but we work for a company that doesn’t accept sickness as an excuse for missing work. After all, I’d seen students come in with a cold that would have kept me at home, and Mrs. Kuroda was just that kind of person. Come hell or high water, I knew she’d be there. And she was.

No sooner did she get in the door than she collapsed. Her skin was pale and waxy and she had a bandage on her hand. It had little yellow flowers on it, I’ll always remember that. Like she’d made it out of a dress or curtains or something. I don’t know why that sticks in my memory, but it does.

The staff, Naoko, called 119 for an ambulance, and one of the other students, Shyunsuke, who was studying medicine at Kyodai, tried to see what was wrong with her. He laid her on her back, felt for a pulse, and got all panicky. “Shinda,” he said over and over. She was dead.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had anyone die in your workplace, but it’s weird. We didn’t know what the protocol for this kind of thing was. There were only six of us in the building, and none of us were really experts in dealing with sudden and unexpected death. Aki, a high school girl, started crying. Naoko kept redialing 119, but no one was answering. I was about to suggest moving her into another room when suddenly the most horrible sound came from the body on the floor.

It was somewhere between a moan and a gurgle, like someone drowning in syrup. We all looked at Mrs. Kuroda.

She was moving.

Slowly, jerkily, she was moving, getting her feet back under her and moaning the whole time. Naoko started to go to her, to see if she was okay, and I remember yelling, “Don’t!” At the time I didn’t really know why I yelled that. I know now. My years on the internet had pretty much prepared me for it, but I wasn’t nearly ready for the way the Mrs. Kuroda grabbed Naoko and took a huge bite out of her throat. Blood flew everywhere, and I think everyone was screaming. Mrs. Kuroda dropped Naoko and started making her way towards us, her arms reaching for us and that low, wet growl coming from her throat. I knew what she was then.

I grabbed a chair from a lesson room and started shoving her back, like some kind of lion tamer. I yelled for the other students to get out, but they weren’t moving. Aki was crying harder, Shyunsuke was busy vomiting, and the other two had hidden somewhere in the building. “Everybody out!” I yelled again, and gave Mrs. Kuroda a shove away from the front door. Then I swung it at her, aiming for the head, of course. It connected, and she went down. I ran back, grabbed Shyunsuke and Aki by the arms and yelled “Everybody out!” again.

I had barely enough time to shepherd them to the door than Naoko started to twitch. And Mrs. Kuroda was already trying to stand up.

We ran. Didn’t even care where we ran to – just away. The streets were quiet, but once I knew what I was looking for, it seemed like the zombies were everywhere. I’ve never run like that in my life, you know. Always used to joke that I would run when I was chased. So there you go.

We broke into a sports equipment shed at Otani University and each took one of those aluminum baseball bats. Then we headed for the Botanical Gardens. I still don’t know why we chose there, especially after what happened to Aki. A large, sprawling garden with lots of twisting paths and forests? Can’t imagine what we thought we’d accomplish. I just knew that we couldn’t barricade ourselves in a building – that never works, right?

I got the zombie that took Aki, and Shyunsuke was the one who made sure that Aki wouldn’t wake up again. Then we headed for the Great Lawn, on the theory that we’d be able to see any zombie coming from a few hundred meters.

Bad move.

It would have been a fine idea if there were more of us and if we were all armed with shotguns and chainsaws. All we had, though, were the two of us and some dinged-up aluminum bats. Against half a hundred zombies that all wanted to take a good look at the tasty humans who had so kindly put themselves on display. Shyunsuke and I were back to back, and I could hear him saying something over and over again in Japanese. I didn’t know what he was saying, but I reckoned it was a prayer of some kind. I was doing some praying myself as those things got nearer. I could see the dull shine of their eyes and hear their feet shuffle across the dead grass and wished for the first time in my life that I had a gun.

Not for them.

We were saved, improbably enough, by an SDF helicopter. It was doing flybys around the city and saw the zombies moving towards us. Some of the soldiers started taking head shots while others lifted us up into the copter to safety. Shyunsuke pretty much broke down as soon as we were safe, and I’m not ashamed to say that I did too.

That was the last I saw of the zombies. The rest of the story you already know – Japan was evacuated until the zombie threat was cleared. I wasn’t allowed to go back to Osaka, so I could only pray that The Boyfriend made it out alive while I waited in the refugee camp in Pusan. When I did make it back, after the war, I found that everything on this side of the river had burned to the ground. At that point, I prayed that he’d died in the fire. Anything other than becoming one of them.

It’s been a long while since “victory” was declared over the zombies, inasmuch as they care. People in Japan don’t like to talk about it, though. You get the feeling that we all did things and saw things that we’d rather forget, and if any nation is good at selective amnesia, it’s the Japanese. So I was really glad when this book came out. It made me feel… less alone.

Brooks went around the world, interviewing people who had experienced the Zombie War – including a couple of guys up in Kyoto, even. He listened to their stories, kind of like Studs Terkel, and wrote down what they had seen and done. He talked to everyone – soldiers, sailors, housewives, government officials – everyone who would talk to him. What he made of it is maybe not a comprehensive account of the war, but a broad look at all the things that people went through during those horrible years.

A soldier who went through the Decimation in the Russian army; another who witnessed the Iran-Pakistan “war”; that asshole who made “Phalanx,” which so many people thought would save their lives, Brooks talked to them all. He showed how the Great Panic killed so many people, and how the Redeker Plan and all its emulators saved so many more, as heartless and cruel as it was. He looked at the army and how they had to figure out how to fight an enemy that doesn’t need to eat or sleep, and which recruits new members as it kills them.

We still don’t know where the zombies came from or why they rose up. And I don’t think it really matters. As this book shows, there was so much death and pain, with so much heroism and glory, that the question of where the zombies came from is really immaterial.

It opened my eyes, I’ll say that much. From the refugee camp, we got very little news at all about the world. Just that the war was continuing. We heard about the civil war in China, and whatever it was that happened to North Korea – everyone heard about that. But the rest, I didn’t know. Not until now.

Brooks’ book is exactly what it claims to be. It’s an oral history, the collected stories of dozens of people who survived the war, and it’s something that our descendants will need to read carefully. For those of us who survived the war, the pain may still be close. So if you’re not sure if you’re ready for this kind of book, give it time. But do read it.

We must never forget what happened to the world when the Zombies came. In many ways, the living dead showed us just how important it was to be alive.

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“Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right.”
– Dr. Kuei, World War Z
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World War Z on Wikipedia
Max Brooks on Wikipedia
World War Z on Amazon.com
World War Z website
Max Brooks’ website

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Filed under horror, Max Brooks, memoir, zombies

Review 91: Memories of the Future, vol. 1


Memories of the Future volume 1 by Wil Wheaton

There’s something inherently sad about child actors. They’re called upon to do what older actors have been doing their whole lives, often acting alongside people who know their craft so much better than they do. To match the level of their adult counterparts, they have to work just that much harder, and they still get pigeonholed into fairly flat characters. For a lot of directors, even a poor child actor is good enough to fill out the character that has been created for him or her, so expectations are usually pretty low. In the end, a lot of child actors either burn out or give up.

Wil Wheaton wasn’t a bad actor as a kid – anyone who watched Stand By Me can agree on that. He certainly wasn’t what he could have become, but as child actors went, he did okay. Perhaps if he had been given the right roles with the right people, he would still be acting today and impressing us with the depth of his talent. As it was, he was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which sent him down, let us say, a different path.

Wheaton’s experience on TNG was one that a lot of the fans (and I count myself among them) seriously under-appreciate. From the age of fourteen, he was given the unenviable role of playing one of the most despised characters in modern science fiction, at least before Jar Jar showed up. In the early heyday of the internet, before liveblogging and Twitter and Facebook, there was Usenet – an early internet discussion group. And one of those early groups was the infamous alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die. The fans would speak of “The Wesley Crusher Problem” and write horrible fanfiction that would put Ensign Crusher through some of the most depraved torments they could think of. A small, but very vocal segment of the TNG fan base actively hated Wesley and, by extension, Wheaton.

I think he could have easily been forgiven for dropping out of the public eye forever after being treated like that. Fortunately for us, he has chosen otherwise.

With the growth of the Internet, Wheaton has really found his place. He’s a tech evangelist and one of the most active bloggers out there, discussing tech, games, family, politics, and whatever else he feels like talking about. He’s carved out a space for himself that doesn’t rest on his Star Trek credentials, and even if he had never been on the show, he’d still be a fine and upstanding member of the online community.

Surprisingly enough, he does not reject his days as Wesley Crusher, but embraces them. As terrible as it could be sometimes as The Kid – overlooked by writers and directors, hated by fans – he still got to do what most fourteen year-old boys (including this one) can only dream of doing: playing a space explorer on TV. He got to work with a group of fine men and women, and helped to create a show that would be truly beloved around the world. On balance, the good vastly outweighed the bad, and Wheaton was able to fold that experience into his life, making him a better person for it.

Memories of the Future is Wheaton’s tribute to his days on Star Trek. As he describes it, the book isn’t a salacious tell-all, revealing all of Trek’s dirty secrets. It’s more like “you’re flipping through your high school yearbook with your friends.” It’s an honest look at the first half of the first season, described only as someone who truly loves it can do: with snark, sarcasm and admiration for the work, but no illusions about when it was… shall we say, less than up to snuff.

It starts with Encounter at Farpoint and goes up to Datalore, covering the first twelve episodes of Season 1 (the summaries of the remaining episodes are forthcoming in volume 2). Each episode is summarized, in a hilarious and sarcastic fashion. True to his geek roots, he manages to work in references to all of the sacred touchstones: Monty Python, collectible card gaming, Dungeons and Dragons, and of course, the other Star franchise which we shall not name. He isn’t afraid to call out the writers when they make stupid choices, such as Dr. Crusher asking to bring Wesley onto the bridge during a major diplomatic/security crisis (Code of Honor) or having him casually solve a major plot point that all the experts in the room have been breaking their brains over, and then leave with a snide, “Heh. Adults.” (The Battle).

There’s quotable dialogue included for each episode, (“Oh, your species is always suffering and dying” – Q, Hide and Q) and Obligatory Technobabble (“Come off the main lead, split off at the force activator, then reversing the power leads through the force activator, repulsor beam powers against Tsiolkovsky!” – Wesley, The Naked Now). There’s also a Behind the Scenes Memory, giving us a good look at what it was like for Wheaton to work on the show, often showcasing how little he really knew about what was going on, and a section called The Bottom Line, which looks at each episode in the context of the whole series.

The episode recaps are at once both sentimental and brutally honest. Where there are flaws in the creative process, Wheaton points them out with a kind of rabid glee. Where there are gems of creativity, he shows us where they are as well. It’s the kind of look at TNG that could only have been done by someone who was a part of the show and loved it. He writes with clarity and honesty and, just to be sure I point it out again, humor. Lots and lots of humor.

It’s a very quick read, and a very enjoyable one. For bonus points, go find the “Memories of the Futurecast” podcast, wherein Wheaton reads selections from the book. It’s even funnier than reading it, and is a good way to kill fifteen or twenty minutes. And we podcasters have to stick together, right Wil? You and me, right? Right?

I may be overestimating our camaraderie.

If you’re a Trek fan, this book will be a nice visit to a better time. What’s more, this will probably make you want to go watch the first season again, if only to see if some of those early episodes are nearly as bad as he’s making them out to be. I can’t wait for volume 2.

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Riker looks at Troi and very seriously asks what’s wrong with his captain. Oh! Cool! We’re finally going to get to see Troi use her Betazoid abilities to tell us something more interesting than “Pain! Pain!” This will be the moment when Troi transitions from useless one dimensional plot device into a real character! What’s she going to say?!

The camera dramatically pushes in on her, as she looks at Riker and quietly says… “I wish I could say.”
From Battle, Memories of the Future, volume 1

Wil Wheaton on Wikipedia
Memories of the Future on lulu.com
Memories of the Future Podcast
Wil Wheaton’s blog

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Filed under humor, memoir, science fiction, Star Trek, television, Wil Wheaton

Review 85: On Writing


On Writing by Stephen King

When I was in college, I sent a letter to Stephen King. It was the first letter I’d ever sent to an author – to any famous person, as far as I can recall – and I did my best to not sound completely fannish in it. I told him that I really liked his work, especially The Stand, and how I looked forward to seeing how other books came out, The Dark Tower series in particular. As far as I can remember, I kept my head. I was cool.

But I also did what I reckon many people do when they write to their favorite authors – I told him that I enjoyed writing as well, and I hoped I could be an author someday. In retrospect, I imagine King gets a lot of these letters, and after I’d sent it, I figured that was my stupid fanboy move. I knew what I wanted to happen next – I’d get a call from Stephen King who says, “You know, judging from the well-written letter you sent me, I would like to see an example of your fiction,” and so I’d send him the short story I was working on and he’d write back and say, “You’re BRILLIANT! I’m going to devote my remaining days to seeing that you become a writer of greatness! Stick with me, kid, and the world is your oyster!”

The advantage I have over other people with overactive imaginations is that I know when mine is bullshitting me. Honestly, I figured I’d never hear from him at all.

On that point, at least, I was wrong.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from none other than Stephen King himself! Included was a card, on which he thanked me for my kind words about his work, as well as a couple of photocopies of articles he had done about writing. I figure he had a whole stack of these, ready to send to every prospective writer out there, but it meant a lot to me that he had taken the time. The articles talked about how he wrote, and the advice he always gave to budding writers.

I figure he must have gotten a lot of letters like mine, because he eventually wrote this book. In it is nearly everything he knows about how to write well. I figure that he hoped people would stop asking when he published it, though I doubt people did. Those who want to be writers – and you can ask any published writer about this – believe that there’s a Secret to getting published. That there’s some special club of writers and agents and publishers who all know each other and in order to get in you have to go to live with John Scalzi and become his personal cat waxer for a year.

But it ain’t so. What those who are already in publishing will tell you is that the best way to get a story published is to write a great story. Do that, and your chances of success are much improved.

How, then, do you write a great story? All King can tell us – all any writer can tell us – is how he does it.

The first of the book is his Curriculum Vitae, in which he tells us about how he became a writer. It’s not a particularly surprising story, really. He gives us his memories of writing as a child, from knock-offs of horror comics to original works of horror and fantasy. The stories he tells, the memories that he relays to us show that he was interested in writing all his life, and the desire to write – no, the need to write – was something that has always been with him.

It follows him through his days as a neophyte novelist, breaking into the big time with the sale of Carrie, and how the personal and financial success he gained from that propelled him to write more and better. And, of course, there were the Dark Days. The drugs and the alcohol, the books he can’t remember writing and the days he can’t remember drinking through. He’s sober now, of course, but this is a warning – one of many peppered throughout the book: beware the Writers’ Traps. The illusion that you must be a drunk, a la Hemingway, to be a good writer, is one. He fell for it and, fortunately for us, he climbed his way out again.

Much like any trade, skill in writing is built by experience, and having the faith that you have something worth saying to the world. But even just having something to say and an unshakable faith won’t make you a good writer, so the second part of the book is a bit more practical: how do you make a story? Well, much like any trade, you need your tools. You need your grammar and structure and vocabulary so that you can present your ideas in a comprehensible form. You need your metaphor and simile, so that you’re not being too obvious in what you want to say. You need your symbolism, description and characterization, foreshadowing and nuance and dialog. But what you need the most is practice, patience and faith.

He walks through the steps of composition, character creation, and coming up with the essential through-line of your story. He gives us his own pet peeves as a writer (he hates adverbs passionately and says that the passive voice is to be avoided at all cost) and exhorts us to read as many different writers as we can. He gives us the benefit of his years of experience and the things he has learned, and says to us, “Now you try.”

King sets a very challenging bar, though – 2,000 words a day, every day, no exceptions. Well, for people just getting started he’s willing to be a little lenient: 1,500 words a day and you can have Sundays off. And you have to take it seriously, as you would any true craft. King recommends that you establish a Writing Space, ideally somewhere where you can close the door. Lose the distractions and take care of the reasons not to write.

And, as the fine folks at Nike would say, just do it.

Of course, if you’re new at this, most of what you write will be crap. In fact, even if you’re not new, the odds are that your first draft will be a mess. But if you have something to say, and you know what that is, then the story will shine through. You can polish it, revise, tweak and massage it until it’s something that you’re willing to let the rest of the world see.

It’s hard work, that’s for sure. At no point does King say that being a writer will be easy. He says that it’s sometimes thrilling, scary, exquisite, weird, toilsome, difficult, Sisyphean even. But never, ever easy. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up where he is. In fact, the odds are that you won’t be able to make a living as a writer. It’s certainly not impossible, of course – many men and women make that bar every year. But to write consistently at that level requires even more practice, patience and faith.

In the end, King is one writer who has most certainly made it big. He avoided destroying himself, and survived an accident that should have destroyed him, and he’s still writing. And if you get nothing else from this book, perhaps it is this lesson: a writer writes. No matter what, no matter why, a writer writes because that is what a writer must do to survive. If you’re willing to do that, if you have stories that you need to tell, then you might be a writer. It’s a scary thing to do, but who knows scary better than Stephen King? Take a read through this book, open up a fresh Word file, and get to work.

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“What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.”
– Stephen King, On Writing
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
On Writing on Wikipedia
On Writing on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s website

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Review 66: Life of Pi


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Every time I go back to the US to visit friends and family, I always make a visit to a bookstore or two. I can buy books here in Japan, but the prices are high and the selection isn’t nearly as good, so a trip to our local mega-bookstore is like a visit to Mecca for me.

The last time I was home, my father let me wander for a while, and then he came up and handed me this book. He was picking up copies for a few other people as well, but he gave me this and said, “I think you’d really like it.”

He was right.

It’s one of those books that you feel compelled to share with others once you’ve finished. It’s one of those books where people see you reading it and say, “I read that – it’s really good, isn’t it?” It’s one of those books which, the author promises, will make you believe in God. A pretty tall order, but there you go. And in a roundabout way, it makes good on its promise. But we’ll get to that….

It’s a story of layers, as the best stories often are. On one layer, it’s the tale of young Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an insatiable curiosity about everything. The son of a zookeeper, Piscine – who re-christens himself Pi in order to clear up misunderstandings of his given name – develops a great interest in the world around him, especially religion. His part of India is home to people of all faiths, and he finds himself moving between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, despite the protests of holy men of all three faiths.

He grows up in this world, between animals and gods, until his family decides to escape India’s political turmoil by moving to Canada. They sell what animals they can, keep the ones they must, board everything onto a freighter and head off for a trip around the world, destined for a new life.

Until the ship sinks.

Pi finds himself the only human survivor of the ship’s sinking, alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alone except for the zebra. And the hyena. And the orangutan. And, of course, the tiger. Can’t forget the tiger.

Pi’s mini-zoo diminishes quickly, of course. There’s only so long such a diverse group of creatures can abide each other’s company in such terrible circumstances, so in time it comes down to two: Pi and the tiger, who had the unusual name of Richard Parker. You would think that there would be no winner in this contest – a diminished teenage boy against a full-grown tiger, with limited resources and a very stressful environment. But Pi is the son of a zookeeper, one whose job is to know how to control animals that don’t want to be controlled. Pi’s ability to survive in these circumstances would, by itself, be a fascinating story.

But the story is not just about Pi and the tiger. Not really. It’s also about our relationship with the world, with the universe, with God. It’s about who we are when everything we ever loved is stripped away from us. And it’s about how we can survive in even the most extraordinary circumstances. Pi does survive, and his survival makes sense, within the world of the story. Would he be able to do it out here in Real Life (TM)? I have no idea. But as you read, there is no point where you think, “The author is cheating,” and allowing his main character to survive when he really shouldn’t have.

The overriding theme of the book, however, is stories. The book itself is set up as a memoir, told by Patel to the author. It’s the story of a story, and it is a story which the author says will make you believe in God. And in a way, it does. But not in the way you think.

It’s kind of a modified version of Pascal’s Wager – the idea that it is better to believe in God than not to believe. Pascal’s idea is simple. If you disbelieve in God, and you’re right, then you’ll just wink out of existence when you die. No harm, no foul. But if you disbelieve and you’re wrong, then you end up suffering eternal damnation. Whereas if you believe in God and you’re wrong, again, no harm, no foul.

There are criticisms, and fair ones, of this philosophy, but I think this book offers a more reasonable alternative. You should believe in God because believing in God is the better story. Martel suggests (through Pi) that there is no mystery in facts and reason, no magic and no wonder. That the unrepentant atheist whose last thoughts are, “I believe I am losing brain function” lacks the imagination of the unrepentant atheist who has a deathbed conversion. In other words, by sticking only to what can be known and proven, one misses the better story.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. I think it’s an interesting point of view, and as long as one can remain aware that belief is not truth, I think I can let it go, but I don’t believe that the world of fact and reason is without brilliant stories. Look at the story of life on earth – a three and a half billion year epic of survival, death and rebirth. Look at the story of a lowly paperclip – born in the heart of an exploding star, and representing five thousand years of human progress towards extelligence. There are great stories, astounding stories out there in the world that don’t need to be believed because they are true. There is evidence for them, and their veracity can be proven.

But Martel’s isn’t about what is provably true.

Pi offers a choice: given two possible explanations for something, with no evidence to support either one, which explanation would you choose? The answer is, whichever explanation makes for the better story. Pi’s adventure is an example of that. As readers, we choose to believe Pi’s story, because it’s fascinating. We don’t sit there and think, “This is bull. A teenage boy taming a tiger? Puh-leeze.” We believe the story, while at the same time knowing that it is not, technically, “true.”

So it is with God. We believe in God, regardless of whether God is “true,” because it’s a more interesting story. And Pi’s adherence to three mutually exclusive religions suggests that the God of Pi isn’t to be found in a book or a church, in the words of a priest or a holy man. The God of Pi is everywhere, and doesn’t care if we believe or not. But we should believe, Pi suggests. Because that’s the better story.

The best books leave us thinking, and burrow into our brains to give us something to chew on for a while. So it is with this book. My rational part and my romantic part argue over the meaning of this story, and whether or not Pi’s conclusion is valid. Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don’t. That’s just how it is. But one thing I can say with certainty is that this is a very good book. And you should read it.

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“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
-Pi Patel, Life of Pi
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Yann Martel on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Amazon.com

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Filed under death, fiction, gods, memoir, story, survival, Yann Martel

Review 28: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man


Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

This book probably would have enraged me if I hadn’t already more or less known what it was talking about. As it was, I was resigned and depressed.

The book is a short autobiography of an Economic Hit Man (EHM) who saw the error of his ways. The idea of the EHM, as he describes it, is to manipulate the governments of developing nations to accept huge loans from the IMF and the World Bank based on inflated projections of future income, under the theory that they would experience huge economic gains from the projects – things like electrical grid upgrades, roads, dams and the like. These nations would then become indebted to the United States and forced to give business to US corporations, thereby effectively putting that nation under US control. He calls it the Corporatocracy, and he was a part of it. He traveled around the world to manipulate cash-strapped world leaders into signing their nations over to the control of US corporate interests.

He describes himself as one of the earliest generations of EHM, the ones who knew exactly what they were doing. Perkins describes his entry and rise in the EHM world as a series of decisions inspired by coincidences, at least at first. His childhood was marked by clear class differences, growing up in a small New England town and going to school with the children of the super-rich. His family taught at the school, thus gaining him both entry into classes and a raging feeling of inferiority and anger.

After doing a stint in the Peace Corps, he was approached to work for the NSA. Following the NSA screening, he was tapped to work for MAIN, an engineering company who, in the 60s and 70s, was at the forefront of modernizing developing nations. At their expense, of course.

When Perkins was initiated into this world of money and power, he was explicitly aware of what he was doing: he would vastly overstate the economic potential of, say, a hydroelectric dam project, leading to the leaders of governments such as the Philippines, Columbia and Venezuela taking out massive loans based on expected future returns. When those returns didn’t come in – and they never did – they were forced to make concessions, which always, always benefited the interests of MAIN and other US corporations. By doing so, they became part of the American Economic Empire, without one politician ever laying a finger on it.

It’s considered the softest method of empire-building. Take a country that needs money to help its people, and arrange so that the government has to spend upwards of 50% of its GNP repaying loans. The people get nothing, a few rich leaders become richer, and US corporations spread further out into the world. All forwarding the cause of US economic interests. For Americans, it means cheaper gas, food and raw materials. For the corporations involved, it means higher and higher profits. For the people of the developing countries targeted, it means poverty and disenfranchisement.

The EHMs don’t always succeed, though – remember Panama? We had the canal, and made lots of money off it. Until the leader of Panama, in the 70’s, decided to take it back. Omar Torrijos was that rare breed of third world ruler who honestly wanted to help his people, and he knew that the best way to do that was to re-assert control over the Panama Canal. He knew what the EHMs were up to, and wouldn’t have any part of it. In his recollections of their meetings, Perkins sees him as the kind of leader every country should have, and it was his example that led him towards leaving this world. His example and, of course, his death.

When the EHMs fail, the jackals come in and people start dying in “mysterious” plane crashes. Torrijos was replaced by Manuel Noriega, who was in our pocket, but not quite far enough. He didn’t toe the line that Washington wanted, so we made him up to be the Hitler of South America, invaded Panama without cause (see, Iraq is not a new thing) and took him back to the US. The result? The canal is effectively back under US control, and any advances that Torrijos might have made are gone.

One of the reasons Perkins left the industry and wrote this book is because he’s worried about the future of the EHM. Not that it’s fading, but that it’s getting stronger. With the ever-increasing pace of globalization, governments are jockeying with corporations for power around the world, and the EHMs are coming with them. But the new breed is different. The people following in Perkins’ footsteps honestly believe that they are trying to help these beleagured countries They see themselves as part of a great march towards progress, never really noticing that the progress only really benefits them.

One thing I noticed about this book. While I don’t doubt Perkins’ honesty and intentions in writing this book, I do wonder how much of the “torn between two worlds” persona he adopts is honest. Throughout the book, he talks about his moments of indecision, of inner conflict as he tries to justify the things he’s doing. He talks about meeting dissidents in Iran, going to anti-American puppet shows in Bali, encountering supercilious Canal Zone residents in Panama, all of which serves to make him look like he’s much more thoughtful than the average corporate warrior.

Perhaps he’s representing himself sincerely as a person caught between his moral code and his pride. He did, after all, leave the business – and the vast amount of money and power that it offered him. But I kept thinking, how much of that conflicted feeling was real, and how much was remembered? It’s a small point, but one that kept nagging at me. It doesn’t add to or detract from his argument, however.

This is not a happy book, and it’s pretty likely to piss you off. It’s not about the US government, mind you – it’s about US corporations assisting the government in its imperial ambitions. It’s about the marriage of economics and governance and its dark, dark offspring….

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“Confessing a sin is the beginning of redemption.”
-John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
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Confessions of an Economic Hit Man on Wikipedia
John Perkins on Wikipedia
John Perkins’ website
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man on Amazon.com

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Filed under economics, ethics, history, John Perkins, memoir, nonfiction, politics

Review 25: Three Men in a Boat

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

This book puts me in mind of the time my friends and I decided it would be a great idea to go to my mother’s house in the Poconos during spring break.

It was back in the late nineteen-hundreds, and we were a college cadre of Dungeons & Dragons players who had a great campaign going. “Spontaneous Combustion” we called ourselves, because of our habit of blowing things up at any opportunity. Not a weekend would go by that we didn’t burn, destroy, incinerate or otherwise defile something in our imaginary world. But we were exhausted from the rigors of trying to balance our school life with our raping and pillaging. I say “raping” because it really belongs there with “pillaging,” though to my knowledge there was no raping of anyone. Dismemberment, yes, and I believe my character managed to give a lot of people syphilis, but in a rather unconventional way.

The plan was simple: we’d all go down to the house in the mountains for a few days, have marathon D&D sessions, and generally enjoy each others’ company in quiet isolation from the world. The house was an idyllic place – all trees and silence and snow, with the occasional deer or wild turkey. It would be a truly beautiful and serene place for us to rest our wearied bodies and stretch our wild imaginations.

So, much like Jerome K. Jerome and his companions, Harris, George and, of course, Montmorency, who decide in this book that the best tonic for their youthful ennui would be a boating trip up the Thames, we all headed to the mountains of Pennsylvania to soothe our troubled souls and to bond as friends and boon companions.

Also like Jerome, Harris and George (to say nothing of Montmorency), we had no idea what we were really getting ourselves into.

The three men (and the dog) of Jerome K. Jerome’s story are like most travelers throughout time since the idea of traveling for leisure was invented: they have a Plan. The Plan, of course, is to have a good time with one’s friends while avoiding anything resembling work. Unfortunately, the world will often have other plans. In the case of this book, those plans involved angry swans, annoying lovers, unusually busy inns, bad weather and general vehicular mishaps.

Now that I think on it, though, the trouble they had with their boat – and there was trouble – wasn’t quite as bad as the trouble I had with my car on our way to the role-playing retreat. Thanks to a strategically placed pothole, I managed to blow out both passenger side tires on my car. Not all at once, though. The rear one went flat right away, causing the small caravan to stop on the side of a New Scotland road while I panicked and my friend Jon fixed the tire. I would have done it myself, of course, but this was the first Misfortune to befall my beloved car – whose name, for reasons too complicated to go into here, was Phoenix – so it fell to Jon to do it. The rest of our crew were milling about patiently, except for Jim, who was lighting road flares so that anyone who happened to be driving down the sunlit, arrow-straight, bone-dry stretch of road might not kill us all.

The second flat tire occurred in a small town, the name of which I have forgotten. Or blocked out. There had been a slow leak, and I was on my way out of the liquor store (we had to buy liquor, there was no question of that, though whose idea it was to buy the Jeroboam of red wine escapes me) and Jon says, “Don’t get angry.”

“Why would I get angry, Jon?” I replied, doing a passable imitation of HAL from 2001.

It turned out that the other passenger side tire had gone flat while we were shopping. This left us in a small town on the outskirts of Nowhere, at 8 PM on a Friday night in need of a tire. By some miracle, the AAA man we called knew someone who could sell us a tire so we could get on our way. The man, who turned out to bear a remarkable resemblance to Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein, was happy to sell it to us, though he wouldn’t actually put it on the car. Possibly because he wanted to save us money by not charging us for the labor, or possibly because my car – adorned with a variety of bumper-stickers and interesting rear-view amulets – looked like it belonged to an angry gay druid. Whatever his reasons, we got a new tire on the car and were grateful for his help.

In discussing any trip, of course, one must eventually come to the weather. For Jerome and his friends it was the rain that defied their best efforts to stay dry and forced them to find lodgings in towns where places to sleep were already scarce. For us, it was snow.

Snow is common in the mountains through early spring, but we were prepared for that. Mom had called the plow service and assured us that the driveway would be clear when we got there. When we arrived (having first worked out the Problem of the Mismarked Map), we found that the driveway had not, in fact, been plowed and the snow came up to mid-thigh. We parked on the street, slogged through the snow and went to open the door. When the key wouldn’t turn on the second lock, I pretty much gave up and just wandered around the snow saying, “She only gave me one key,” over and over again until someone managed to get the door open. After about twelve hours of cataclysmic travel, we were There. We had arrived! Our objective was obtained and our journey was done! We could finally unwind and relax.

One of the difficulties that we shared with Jerome and company was with food. They packed well enough, of course, with all kinds of comestibles, but like all people who are not used to preparing and procuring their own food, the comedy that resulted was plentiful. Beef without mustard, infinitely peelable potatoes, strange and unfathomable stews – any traveler who goes on a journey without having some kind of food misadventure has missed half the fun.

For us, it was steak. Get a group of men together and their appetites will turn to meat. Oh sure, there might be a few green, hippie, godless Commie men out there who lean towards tofu, but they’re really thinking of meat, no matter what they say.

We had bought some steaks – the best our college-student budgets could handle. But how to cook them? For in every group of meat-loving men, everyone is a meat expert. It’s a mark of True Masculinity, the ability to cook a steak, and the insinuation that one cannot cook a steak is tantamount to calling the man a queer sissy fairy-boy.

What resulted from this battle of culinary wills was a dinner that consisted, mainly, of shoe leather, with everyone holding grudges against everyone else for Not Doing It Right. This was about the same time I learned firsthand why one should never chug blackberry brandy.

The myriad of problems that people have when traveling are, unfortunately, universal. Poor planning, bad luck, nasty locals, bad weather, pigheadedness and the unfortunate tendency of the world not to live up to our expectations of it – all of these conspire to make travel an endurance trial. What surprised me the most about this book was how similar Jerome K. Jerome’s troubles had been to my own.

As bad as things can be at the time, though, there comes a time, afterward, when you can look back and laugh. Safe at home, Jerome took his eventful, awful trip up the Thames and made it into an incredibly funny classic of English literature. The fact that the book is over a hundred years old doesn’t take away at all from its comedy value because the humor comes from the universal nature of travelers and traveling. We all go on our journeys hoping for a relaxed, congenial time, but we tell stories about the mishaps, misadventures and difficulties. They are, paradoxically, the most fun part of the trip.

So I laughed along with Jerome and his friends, remembering all the while the infighting, bad food, bad moods, burnt countertops, spiked spaghetti sauce and everything else that made that one Spring Break trip so terribly, terribly memorable.

Although, all things being equal, I would have been just as happy if we’d had… y’know, a good time.

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“They cursed us – not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully thought-out, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of our career and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations and covered everything connected with us – good, substantial curses.”
– Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
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Three Men in a Boat at Wikipedia
Jerome K. Jerome at Wikipedia
Three Men in a Boat at Amazon.com
Three Men in a Boat at Wikisource

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Filed under classics, England, friendship, humor, Jerome K. Jerome, memoir, travel

Review 15: Confessions of a Mask


Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

From what I can tell, Yukio Mishima was not a very happy man.

Granted, the only works that I have read of this very prolific author are this and Kinkakuji, but I’m seeing a pattern already, and it doesn’t point towards Mishima being a cheerful, laid-back guy. Of course, his suicide by seppuku is also a good indicator that he took things way too seriously.

Published in 1948, Confessions of a Mask addresses a subject that would have been taboo anywhere, not just Japan. The main character, whose name is only given as Kochan, is a young man dealing with the fact that he is homosexual. He begins with one of his earliest memories, seeing a night-soil man and finding him beautiful, which he believes is what set his preferences for life. As he gets older, he doesn’t yet realize that he’s different from other boys, except in that he’s small and thin and gets sick a lot more often. He finds himself entranced by men, especially laborers, and not knowing if this is what he’s supposed to be feeling.

His sexual maturity is a sad and stunted thing. The pleasure and rapture that he sees in paintings of St. Sebastian hide dark urges of violence and despair. His boyhood love of a classmate is a secret that gnaws at him until he finally convinces himself that he was never actually in love at all. And his attempts to become “normal” end with nothing by emptiness and sorrow. Kochan has no friends to talk to, no family to lean on, and no way to know if what he’s feeling is good or bad. All he knows is that the other boys are fascinated by women, and he’s fascinated by other boys. In darkness and isolation, Kochan grows. What he grows into, however, is a pale, lonely and barren man.

Like many gay kids, especially in the pre-internet era, Kochan believes that he is unique. An aberration, a deviation from the norm. As far as he knows, no other boy has felt the way he did, and the only other one he hears of – Oscar Wilde – is long dead. His desire to fit in with the rest of the world leads him to play an elaborate game, to wear a mask so convincing that it nearly convinces himself. Being able to hide who he really is and what he really wants becomes a matter of hiding from himself. And as anyone who’s tried that will know, hiding from yourself only works for so long….

Such is the life of a young gay man in wartime Japan. While I’m sure what Mishima has presented here is not the average, it is a depressing picture of what it’s like to live in a society where such a deviation from the norm is punishable by societal exile. While I can’t claim to know what would have happened to a young man in that era who came out of the closet, the narrator doesn’t even seem to consider that as an option, good or bad. Thus I can only assume that the consequences would be dire.

There’s no doubt that this book is at least semi-autobiographical. A look at Mishima’s life shows a number of parallels, especially in the early days. Both he and Kochan were raised by grandparents and separated from their families. Mishima stared writing as a boy, an activity that his father deplored and which earned him beatings by other students in school. He knew what it was like to be different, and that probably fed into this novel.

Whether or not Mishima was actually gay is, it seems, debatable. He did marry, and had two children, which would seem to indicate against it, but if, like the character in this book, he fought against his own nature, such an arrangement could be understandable.

One of the things that I found difficult about this book – and Kinkakuji – was how very introspective it was. The narrator tells the story of his life from his older point of view, and dissects every thought and every memory in exacting detail. It creates a picture of a person who lives entirely in his own head, and attributes modes of thinking that one wouldn’t normally associate with, say, a twelve-year old. He appears to be very analytical, even from his earliest days. Though he tells us that he is not letting his adult mind get in the way of his memories of childhood, this great attention to detail proves him wrong.

The depiction of Kochan’s attempts to hide himself is yet another mask – the mask of purposefulness. The narrator would like us to believe that he made every decision with purpose, as part of a plan. That he really did choose this life of self-deception. Perhaps because the idea that all of this was beyond his control is just too terrible to contemplate. Perhaps because it is better to own a bad decision than to admit that it was an accident. The narrator shows us quite clearly how adept he is at hiding from himself, and so he cannot be trusted to tell us truthfully about how he thought when he was a young man.

This makes reading the book a challenge – the reader must evaluate every statement and judge every event for its possible veracity. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how much is true and how much is falsehood. In the end, we just have to take Kochan at his word, all the while accepting that he’s probably lying – and doing it without being aware of what he’s doing.

Reading Confessions of a Mask today, sixty years after it was first published, is illuminating. In the US, we’re involved in a great societal discussion over whether or not gays should get married, and while being homosexual certainly isn’t something that is universally accepted, the prospects for young gays and lesbians in the modern age are much better than they would have been for someone coming of age in the 1940s. Even in Japan, where coming out to one’s family is still as hard as it ever was, there are gays and lesbians on television and the matter is open to discussion. A homosexual in Japan may not be as willing to kick down the closet door as his or her American counterparts, but the abject horror of being utterly rejected by society is probably much less than it was.

When you consider what happens in this book, the horrible mental contortions that the main character must make in order to hide his true nature from the world – and himself – you can appreciate how far we’ve come.

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“I had long since insisted upon interpreting the things that Fate forced me to do as victories of my own will and intelligence, and now this bad habit had grown into a sort of frenzied arrogance. In the nature of what I was calling my intelligence there was a touch of something illegitimate, a touch of the sham pretender who has been placed on the throne by some freak chance. This dolt of a usurper could not foresee the revenge that would inevitably be wreaked upon his stupid despotism.”
-Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask
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Yukio Mishima at Wikipedia
Confessions of a Mask at Wikipedia
Confessions of a Mask at Amazon.com
Homosexuality in Japan at Wikipedia

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Filed under coming of age, homosexuality, Japan, memoir, morality, sexuality, Yukio Mishima