Friday, July 29, 2016

The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy

Nine stalwart pongids gathered in the Spanish-moss covered forests of Ventana del Sol, walking quite well and beating their chests occasionally as they proclaimed to suffer no ill effects from a little straight-up Na-24.  The testimonies follow:

Bob S:  I think this is between a B and B-.  Some good descriptive writing; I enjoyed the first part of the book.  It spun out of control, and I didn't enjoy the latter part.  I can't recommend this book.  It was intriguing: the whole idea of tinkering with personality via chemicals is still prevalent in our society.  The conflict and comparison of Humanism vs Science, and the Catholicism sanctity of Life vs destroying life via Eugenics.  B-

Dick Arms:  The plot devices were so contrived, really contrived, that I would not recommend the book.  Nothing fit together.  C

Mike:  Walker Percy managed to put the "You" back in euthanasia.  We read his first novel (The Moviegoer) and now his final novel; and perhaps his best and his worst.  The first part, the medical mystery, was intriguing, fascinating, well written.  But when he had the 'bad guys' react to the discovery of their plot with a "Hey, no big thing!  We will save the world!  Come join us!" then apparently he had to think of something to make them really bad - so thus we are into the child molestation by happy (if not hairy) apes.  Or not.  And how do you convince an entire Board of Directors to all drink the molar concentration of heavy sodium? Just the threat of the crazy uncle with the shotgun?  B-

Dick J:  I found the book very frustrating.  I read sections, and said, "Oh, this is very good!"  Then the drinking of the molar concentration Na-24.  B-

Charlie P:  The book started out well - he writes well.  I thought, oh, Science Fiction? Themes were interesting:  science vs humanism.  The Characters were really interesting - Vergil and The Uncle and Hudeen.  The Ending not so good.  I am not a prude, but the worst for me was the perversion of the children.  Now I told my wife NOT to read it.  C

Jack:  I echo Mike and Charlie - I did enjoy the first part, and I wish he would have spent more time on Ethics:  Bob Comeaux and Tom More argument re making the world a better place.  B-

Gary S (guest):  I am not a big reader, and I did not read the book.  But from your discussion tonight, my reaction is that it irritates me to hear of authors completely misrepresenting nuclear stuff - an isotope of sodium would react in the body just like a regular molecule of sodium, not create personality disorders.

Rob E:  I thought he was trying to bring up some big moral issues - it could be good/bad intentions.  The child molestation was unnecessary, as if he didn't already have enough against these guys.  I enjoyed his writing style and his flashes of humor.  I had major issues with it:  B

Friday, July 1, 2016

Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides

Eleven survivors of the Sandia Heights White Oaks Death Drive gathered at dusk on the Last Thursday of June, 1945, to compare footnoted history vs popular writing, interviews vs personal appearances, camp guards vs Imperial Army, Rangers vs prisoners, and forgotten vs rejuvenated.  The following MEMORANDUM  To: All Concerned was issued:

Tom G:  I was caught up in the book.  I haven't anything bad to say.  A fabulous job of story telling - back and forth between the prisoners and the Rangers.  I read this and I realize I don't stack up, not many of us do, to the men of this story.  Capt. Prince was just a regular Joe, thrust into this story - the character, the bravery they demonstrated were inspiring.  We would be hard pressed today to find men to match these described by Sides.  A

Charlie:  Not much to add.  Not a great book, but a very good book.  The author did what he set out to do.  A-

Dick Arms:  The side stories added to it.  This is the way history should be told.  The writing is good.  A

Bob S:  I'm a little ambivalent on my feelings on this book.  It did not have the breadth and depth of an A book, but the author succeeded in telling his story well.  A-

Rob E:   Before I was far into the book, I was put off by what seemed to me to be the author's focus on trivial things and his straining to come up with colorful phrases.  Some examples:

 p. 64.  When the Rangers left their base camp, the author made a big deal of the fact that Mucci had shaved his mustache.  Why was that important?  Did it boost morale? 
 p. 117.  When villagers were excited by the arrival of the Rangers, he likened it to John the Baptist announcing the coming of Jesus.  Makes me scratch my head, rather than visualize the friendly village. 
 p. 164.  When entering another village, the Rangers were greeted by the villagers singing "God Bless America."  This is indeed a emotional scene, but his depiction removed all the charm from it for me when he wrote that their "melody (was) charmingly curdled with the occasional stale note."  That phrase curdled my initial enchantment with the scene. 
 p. 165.  When searching for a way to depict MacArthur's well-known egotism, he characterized him thusly: "his incorrigible fixation on the vertical pronoun."  I've never seen a horizontal pronoun - or maybe they all are, except for "I."   I haven't learned the new multi-gender pronouns yet. 

Another aspect of the book that bugged me was the maps.  Several times the author would mention a village or river along the route of the Rangers, and I would turn to the maps and they weren't shown.  In contrast the route of the Bataan Death March was shown with lots of detail.  But, the book's focus was on the Ranger's rescue mission and the maps didn't help me visualize how it happened. 

 So, for the last half of the book I did some skimming - trying to pick out the meat of the paragraph and ignore the distractions of style.  I also decided to focus on the Ranger chapters and mostly skip the prisoner chapters.  From the discussion we had, I realize now I missed some good stuff.  My thinking was that we knew quite a bit already about Japanese prison camps from "Unbroken" and various WWII movies and from annual remembrances of the Bataan March and the New Mexico soldiers who died in or survived it.  But, I missed the individual vignettes that would have made it all more memorable.  My bad.

 I have no quarrels with the rescue mission itself and its heroic qualities.  And I'm very impressed by Sides's in-depth research.  It's just that his telling of the story too often distracted me, rather than helped me understand and appreciate the awesomeness of the mission. Bottom Line.  B-

Mike B:  I felt this book rates up there with Alfred Lansing's treatment of Endurance - a compelling story, well told.  I appreciated so many things the author did - e.g., starting with the massacre at Powhatan prisoner camp to set the stage for the closing horrifics of the POW camps; then alternating chapters between the Rangers preparations and advance, and the prisoners dealing with life in the camps, plus flashbacks to Bataan and "The Hike."  I would recommend to anyone in a heartbeat.  A

Dick J:  I read this book in one day; an OK book, not sure it was a great book.  I felt I needed more.  It was better than [Kilmeade's] Thomas Jefferson.  I can't give in an A; probably a B+

Ron Bousek:  An interesting book about a fascinating part of the war that I knew little about.  For his book held my attention.  Much better than fiction, where the author has too much leeway.  Highly readable for me.  A-

Bob Woods:  If we are to evaluate a book as a book, we must distinguish the book from the story which is impressive.  The author touched all the bases.  If written in three years, especially impressive.  Few books rate an A; this is an A-

Keith:  I would highlight the culpability of the High Command in abandoning 70,000 troops in Bataan.  The carriers were available; they could have been used to help in many ways.  The book had no bibliography of note; no interviews with Japanese who ran the camps.  Some time back I was in Bataan Park and came across a survivor whose name is on that memorial and asked him:  How would you summarize your time?  His answer [also captured in the book]:  "No papa, no mama, no Uncle Sam; no one ever gave a damn."  B-

Kenny G:  This book reminded me of Endurance.  I read it straight through the first time.  A.

And from well outside of Subic Bay:
Dear Ken,

I washed ashore at Ellis Landing in Brewster on Cape Cod on Tuesday and won't be conveyed in a Nippon vehicle off the peninsula until I am freed on Independence Day.  The dangers here are many--great whites, excessive numbers of crazy tourists, and an overabundance of sun, sand and beer.  And if that were not bad enough, when I forded a tidal river yesterday (and although I don't believe it was the Cabu), I came upon hundreds of young people in uniform carrying bows and arrows camped there.  I noticed some signage with the letters CCSC on the fence surrounding the camp, and so I decided to stay low and keep my distance.  Dick Arms may know the meaning of all this, since he has spent some time west of here.  Not sure when I will be reunited with my friends on the mainland, so I am sending you my comments about your book selection from my beachhead in Brewster now.

I found Sides' Ghost Soldiers to be a moving and gripping story.  And even though it was hard to put down, it was at times difficult to read.  The descriptions of the atrocities the Japanese carried out and what the prisoners had to endure reminded me of the horrible tales we read about in Bradley's Flyboys and Hillebrand's Unbroken.  Sides gave horror and honor equal billing and as was the case in the other two books we read, the strength of the human spirit to survive and the bravery of so many who fought for our country were underscored.  It is an important and compelling story everyone should read.  A 

Regards,  Jack

 (at left) the Memorial to those lost in the Hell Ships in Dec 1944.  Erected at Subic Bay, Philippines, 2012.