Saturday, September 28, 2019

Sweden by Matthew Turner

(Book Review)

Started: September 6, 2019
Finished: September 22, 2019

From the back cover: "It's 1968.  As war rages in Vietnam, a group of American deserters hold up in Japan plot their escape with help from local peace activists. Their destination: Sweden."

Why I Read This Book / My Connections to the Author
So, I actually have a connection (of sorts) to the author of this book.
The author, Matthew Turner, has been an occasional commenter on this blog over the years.  Although for years I only knew him by his blogging nom de plume: Walking Fool.
The first comment I got from him was 10 years ago in 2009 on my post on Hiji Town.
Walking fool said...
I'm thoroughly enjoying your blog. I stumbled across it by chance after googling Thomas Stanley and being directed to your review of his Osugi Sakae biography. Anyway, ganbatte kudasai!
February 26, 2009 at 3:50 PM
He's returned several times over the years since then to drop me an occasional line on this blog.

He contacted me last month to tell me he had written a book.  (I had no idea.)  And he graciously offered to send me a copy.  The book got to me safely out here in Vietnam, and here I am with my review.

In 13 years of book reviewing, this is a first time I've ever had the occasion to review something by an author I know.  And even though I don't really know Matthew Turner in real life, I'm always flattered when someone takes the time to read a blog post I wrote and leave a comment on it.  So my feelings towards the Walking Fool are entirely positive.
I've done my best to try to be objective in my review of this book, and I've tried to be just as critical as I would with any other author.  (I've been giving my honest opinion about books for 13 years, so it would be a pity to mar that streak now.) least so far as conscious thought goes.  But there's no telling how my subconscious is influencing me.  Maybe I was subconsciously more positive towards this book.  Or, maybe in an effort to over-compensate and convince myself that I was being objective, I veered to far in the other direction and was overly critical.  I guess what I'm saying is take my opinion with a grain of salt.

Background Information
Regular readers of this blog know that one of my historical interests is the 1960s Japanese student protest movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement in Japan.  It was something I got into when I was still a student, and wrote a short college paper on it.  And it was also something I tried to learn more about when I was in Japan, although I was always hampered by a lack of accessible sources in English.  (There is English research on this, but it's mostly buried in academic journals, and I didn't have access to them.)  But I read what English I could find, and also spent a lot of time listening to personal stories from  older Japanese people.  I've talked about the subject on this blog many times before.  See: HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HEREHERE and more.
Matthew Turner, it turns out, is also interested in this exact same area of Japanese history.  But whereas I just dabbled in it, he's actually thoroughly researched it.  He's fluent in Japanese.  (He's spent his whole life studying Japanese language and culture).  He's gone to the academic journals and read the scholarly sources in both English and Japanese.  And he's used that information to write a historical novel about the period.
The novel mixes history and fiction together, but it's based on real historical events.  During the Vietnam War, there was a citizen's anti-war group in Japan called Beheiren (W).  (The name is a shortening of "Betonamu ni Heiwa o Shimin Rengo", which is Citizen's League for Peace in Vietnam in Japanese).  Among other anti-war activities, Beheiren gained international attention for smuggling U.S. deserters out of Japan and into neutral countries like Sweden.  (There were a lot of U.S. military bases in Japan during the Vietnam War, so many U.S. soldiers deserted in Japan.  However because Japan was officially a U.S. ally during the war, the U.S. soldiers were not safe until they were smuggled into a neutral country.)
Beheiren was most famous for smuggling "The Intrepid 4" to Sweden in 1967, (something I wrote about briefly HERE).  But it wasn't just this one high profile act.  In addition to this, they actually smuggled a lot of U.S. deserters out of Japan between 1967 and 1970.
Matthew Turner's novel is a fictional story that imagines one of missions that took place during these years.

The Review
It's difficult to imagine a book that is more perfectly suited to my own unique interests than this one.
I've always loved historical fiction. (As I've written many times before on this blog, I history, and I love stories, and I love mixing the two.)  So imagine how pleased I was when someone came along and wrote a historical novel on the exact area of history I was interested in.

At the same time, I was slightly worried.  This was the first I had heard of The Walking Fool having any literary ambitions.  Could he actually write well?  What are the odds that the book is going to be any good?  And since this was his first novel, I was sure there was going to be some room for improvement.
I was actually, truth be told, slightly nervous that I would hate the book, and then have to write a negative review of it, and end the friendship.

But the good news is, the prose works.  Matthew Turner can indeed actually write.
Early on, I caught myself getting immersed in the scenes, and then I knew the rest of the book was going to be alright.
(Funny thing: you don't actually realize your immersed in a book while you're immersed in it--that would ruin the immersion.  But I was at a coffee shop, and something distracted me while I was reading and caused me to briefly put the book aside.  And then, as I was getting ready to go back to the book, I realized that while reading I had been completely immersed.  I had been visualizing the scene in my head, and I had been imagining the characters as real people and not as plot devices.)

The other thing that pleasantly surprised me was that this wasn't just a by-the-numbers spy story.
I had been expecting a historically accurate but rather plodding account of how the American deserters were secretly smuggled out of Japan.  But the story is actually much more interesting.
For one thing, there are multiple story lines being juggled.  The book follows the story of Harper, a black marine who is hiding out in Yokohama, Flynn, another deserter who is in Yokosuka, and Masuda, a Beheiren operative who is tasked with taking care of 3 unruly American deserters.  As I started reading, I was curious to see how these 3 separate storylines would eventually come together.
But in addition to this, there were some personality conflicts built into the story that add to the drama.  It turns out that the American deserters are not well-behaved compliant guests.  Three of the deserters are rude to their hosts, disrespect Japanese culture, and quarrel often with each other.  They may not even be sincere in their anti-war convictions, and it soon emerges that one of them might even be a murderer.
In addition to the suspense of whether or not the deserters will make it out of Japan, there's suspense about how long their Japanese hosts will be willing to put up with them.
And what will happen when they finally do lose patience?
This interpersonal drama, just as much as the historical details, hooked me in early and kept me turning the pages.

And while I'm praising this book, there were some scenes at the end in which Matthew Turner did a good job of creating tension.  (This was another situation where I didn't realize how engrossed I was until I got distracted from the book, and only then was able to reflect on how completely I had gotten caught up in the tension of the scene.)

But for the history nerds, the little historical details scattered throughout the book are the main selling point.  I was vaguely familiar with some of the details of this period before, but I learned tons of additional details from this book.

Integrating historical details into a novel is often challenging.  Many historical novels resort to having characters speak in exposition dumps that don't sound like the way real people talk.  It's a common problem to the genre, and Sweden also suffers from it at points.  But I'm usually willing to forgive a certain amount of this in historical novels, because getting the historical details is what I love about the genre in the first place.  So if a certain amount of it is clumsily done, it's okay.  (I suspect most of the target audience for this book will also feel the same.)

The 3 different plotlines of the book explore 3 different areas of Japan during the 1968.  One storyline goes to the student barricades at Nihon University, one storyline goes to a Japanese hippy commune in Suwanosejima Island.  And one storyline goes to a farming commune in rural Japan called Ichihashi Kai.
The student barricades is the subject I was most familiar with, and I enjoyed this story.  It lined up pretty well with the stories I had heard from older Japanese people.  (The process by which the American deserter ends up at the student barricades seemed a little bit contrived, but I forgave it.)
The hippy commune in Suwanosejima Island I had known nothing about.  I initially assumed that its inclusion into the plot was just a way for the author to include a digression into an interesting historical counter-culture movement.  But the "Acknowledgements" section at the end says that American deserters were indeed hid on this island by Beheiren.  And there is even some indication in the "Acknowledgements"  that the clash between the American deserters and the Japanese hippies come from actual memoirs of those involved--although exactly which details are based on real history isn't spelled out.
Ichihashi-Kai is the only one of the 3 plotlines that was not referenced in the "Historical Notes" at the end of the novel.  Nor does there appear to be any information on it on Google.  (At least not in English).  But I'm assuming this is also based on a real historical group, because of the exposition dumps about Ichihashi-Kai that are crammed into the novel.

The real history is fleshed out briefly in the "Historical Notes" and "Acknowledgments" section at the back, which are short, but which hint that most of the plot points in this book had a basis in actual history.  Personally I would have preferred a more expansive Historical Notes section which spelled out exactly how much of the book paralleled real history (as I mentioned above).  But I also understand that it's the author's prerogative to maintain some of the mystery.

Complaints (And Spoiler Warning)
Having so far mostly praised the novel, I now come to my criticisms about the plot.
In order to talk about the plot, I'm going to have to give spoilers.  So stop reading here if you want.

My first big complaint is that I thought there were too many flashback scenes.  We start with two of the main characters (Harper, and Flynn) already in Japan and trying to desert from the army.  But then throughout most of the middle of the novel, we keep having flashbacks to their time in Vietnam.
A certain amount of this is probably necessary.  (In order for the book to have a strong anti-war message, we need to know why the soldiers chose to leave the war.)
But too many flashbacks kill the forward momentum of the plot.
This is particularly a problem with Harper's storyline, because he gets stuck hiding out on a farming commune (the aforementioned Ichihashi-Kai) for most of the middle of the book, and for several chapters nothing interesting happens to him.  So then the constant flashbacks are really killing the story's momentum.  (I began to dread whenever the story would return to Harper).
The other problem is, at least in my opinion, some of those Vietnam War flashback scenes border on cliche.  The Vietnam War is, after all, a subject that has already been explored a lot in American media, and it's hard not to feel that some of the Vietnam flashback scenes are a bit by-the-numbers.

My other big complaint is that most of the conflict that gets set up in the book never has a satisfying pay-off.
I was hooked by the growing conflict between Masuda and the 3 Americans he was tasked with taking care of.  How would this resolve itself?  Would they eventually grow to understand and respect each other?  Or would it all end horribly in a big confrontation?  And then what would happen to the Americans once they had alienated their Japanese protector?
As it turns out, nothing happened.  About halfway through the book, Masuda does lose his temper and attacks one of them, but this fight happens right about the time that Masuda's mission was over anyway, and has absolutely no consequences.
Much is made of the constant bickering between Santiago and Roberts, but nothing ever comes of it.
Much is made of the fact that Roberts may have killed an MP in Yokohama, but then it gets dropped and never comes up again.
Much is made of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the confrontation between the 3 Americans and the chicken farmer, but the mystery is never cleared up.
Much is made of Santiago's unwise romance with Anala (and his possible lingering STD), but this also gets dropped.
Much is made of Sullivan's mysterious disappearance, but it never comes up again.
Much is made of the mysterious suitcase that Mayfield is lugging around.  But we never find out why Beheiren let him keep it, or what was inside it.

In short, most of the interesting personality conflicts and mysteries that kept me reading the book never had a satisfying pay-off.  They kept me turning the pages at the time, but I'm disappointed they didn't go anywhere.

It's slightly unclear, but it seems like some of these personality conflicts may have been lifted straight from the historical memoirs.  (Particularly the parts about the hippy island).  Which could explain why they don't have a satisfying pay-off--because presumably they never had a dramatic pay-off in the source material--that's the way real life is.
But a novelist should massage these interesting details into a more satisfying character arc.  (Exactly what that satisfying character arc would be, I can't say.  But then, I'm not the novelist.)

Other Notes
* On balance, I'd recommend it.  I'd recommend it on its merits, but I'd also recommend you to support a new author, and support a book with a strong anti-war message, that reminds us of the history of an important anti-war group.  Buy it on Amazon (A).

Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan by Thomas Havens, which I've previously reviewed on this blog, is listed as one of the sources of this novel in the "Acknowledgments" section.  Matthew Turner calls it: "...a comprehensive survey of the impact of the Vietnam War on Japan, with a particular focus on the anti-war movement."

* A minor quibble: Given how little English was spoken in Japan when I lived there (2001-2009), I suspect that in 1968, English must have been extremely rare in Japan.  (The author acknowledges this in the endnotes on page 320 "...foreigners were few in number and English was not widely spoken, making it difficult for deserters to hole up...")
And yet, a surprising amount of English speakers pop up in this novel.  I suspect this is for reasons of plot convenience.  (Of course, every book or movie about foreigners in Japan makes use of conveniently located English-speaking Japanese characters, so I suppose it's no use to start complaining about it now.)

* During my time in Japan, I remember one conversation with one of my adult students, who told me about her time at University in 1968.  She told me that the university was shut down for the whole year because of student barricades, so the students organized the classes themselves and taught each other.  "It was such a wonderful year," she told me.
I was reminded of this during the section on the student barricades in Nihon University in the novel.  There is some discussion of how the students organized the classes and taught each other.

Video Review
Video review HERE and embedded below:

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Fascism, Nuclear Weapons, Climate Change, Julian Assange & More

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Finished: Sweden by Matthew Turner (Hopefully will get a review of this together within the week.  Depending on my schedule.)

Friday, September 20, 2019

At some point (maybe at the end of 2020) I think I'm going to try to write a long post on the past 4 years, and the whole Trump phenomenon.
Spoiler alert: It will be mostly just me scratching my head and saying, "I don't understand what's going on anymore."
I was floored that Donald Trump even got elected in the first place.  But I attributed it to a fluke: Hillary wasn't a good candidate, low voter turnout, Democrats stayed home, etc.
But then there was scandal after scandal after scandal, and the Republicans still supported Trump.  (Or they were afraid to turn on him.)  It turns out, it wasn't a fluke.  This is the new normal now.  A sizable part of the population is now okay with this level of blatant corruption.
It's a depressing state of affairs.  And if we ever have any hope of getting back to a functional government, we need to impeach Trump.  It's not good enough to vote him out.  A clear message needs to be sent.  He needs to be impeached.
I know there are political reasons why Democrats are afraid to do it.  But they're cowards.  Even if the impeachment fails, it needs to be attempted.
Can you imagine what the history books will say if there are all these scandals, and there is no attempt to impeach Trump?
Not to mention, the kind of precedent it would set.  Future political analysts and lawyers will be able to say, "Well, actually, Trump did something much worse, and got away with it.  So why should this other president be impeached on corruption charges for something much less?"

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

I get mentioned on Dane Reads September booktuber shout-outs.
(This guy is much too kind to me.  Especially considering he's an established successful youtuber, I really admire how he spends time giving shoutouts to small fish like me.)

September BookTube Shoutouts! [10 CHANNELS]

Sunday, September 08, 2019

So this got under my skin, and I wanted to respond.
Even though I know these things are ultimately a waste of time. sometimes I just need to put in my two cents so I can get it off my chest.
In the old days I would have done this as a blog post, but I decided doing it as a youtube video would take less time than actually writing all my thoughts out.  So I opted for the lazier option of just turning the camera on.
I knew what I wanted to say in vague terms, but the fact that this is not scripted unfortunately shows.  I repeat myself, stumble over my words, and lose my train of thought.
Nevertheless, for whatever it may or may not be worth....

Why Ted Cruz's is Wrong about a God-Given Right to Guns

The article I was referencing:

(Several more with a similar tone can be found with a Google Search).

I completely forgot to add that I wasn't going to talk about his arguments about liberty and the second amendment because they weren't relevant to the argument about God.

Also, probably wasn't clear on a couple points, but...
* The verse Ted Cruz cited is open to interpretation.  It could mean merely that because of mitigating circumstances, the person wouldn't be punished to full extent of the law. It's not clear that this verse means that the person has a "right" to self-defense.
* It's also not entirely clear why killing someone at night is self-defense, but killing them in the daytime is not.  A thief in your house could also be a danger to you in the daytime.  Ted Cruz might be correct--there's possibly an argument to be made here.  (I guess nighttime is scarier.)  But it's debatable. It's another assumption that's being added to a long list of assumptions in his convoluted argument.