Wednesday, December 17, 2008

When My Name Was Keoko, by Linda Sue Park


I really, REALLY liked this book. I know I'm ignorant of Asian history, but until I read this book I didn't realize how much my ignorance mattered.  When My Name Was Keoko showed me that the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the twentieth century was not only an attack on the Korean government and military, but on Korean culture and identity as well.

Sun-Hee is a young girl living with her family in Korea during the Japanese occupation of her country in the years before and during World War II.  For decades, the Korean people were not allowed to be Korean:

"A long time ago, when Abjui was a little boy and Uncle just a baby, the Japanese took over Korea.  That was in 1910.  Korea wasn't it's own country anymore.

"The Japanese made lots of new laws.  One of the laws was that no Korean could be the boss of anything.  Even though Abuji was a great scholar, he was only the vice-principal of my school, not the principal.  The person at the top had to be Japanese.

"All our lessons were in Japanese.  We studied Japanese language, culture, and history.  Schools weren't allowed to teach Korean history or language.  Hardly any books or newspapers were published in Korean.  People weren't even supposed to tell old Korean folk tales.""

Every day is a struggle as the family must balance submission and defiance in order to survive while retaining their identity as Koreans.  New laws are passed requiring all Koreans to adopt Japanese names; Sun-Hee becomes Keoko.  Korean is no longer permitted to be spoken in public.  Symbols of Korean culture and tradition are destroyed.  Koreans must demonstrate complete loyalty to the Japanese Empire and its emperor.  Yet Sun-Hee and her family find ways to hold on to their identity, and to defy the tyranny of their oppressors.

Unfortunately, this is a pattern that has repeated itself countless times throughout human history.  The state defines what a person should think, how a person should be, then methodically eliminates the former ways.  Language, culture, religion, and tradition are deliberately supplanted with a state-defined identity.  Suppression is justified through a pretense of moral superiority, enforced through implication of violence, and legalized through corrupt legislation.  Schools cease to be places of education to become places of indoctrination.  It's happened so often that I must assume it's human nature.

What happened in Korea falls on a spectrum of cultural suppression.  Look on the more extreme end of the spectrum and you'll find ethnic cleansing and genocide.  Look on the less extreme end of the spectrum and you'll find what's happening in the United States today, where public institutions are commandeered to serve as tools of social engineering.  Interpretations of the law are routinely stretched to impose a state-defined sense of morality, to promote a particular way of thinking rather than to protect one's right to believe as one chooses.  Schools have been similarly hijacked.  For example, the primary purpose of history class is no longer to inform students of how our society came to be, but to instill a particular value system in our children's world view.  Even if I agree with the values being taught in the schools - and in general I do - this isn't the school system's right or responsibility.  Far too often, public school attempts to be a secular Sunday School.

I don't think most people recognize the degree to which our government is adopting - and enforcing - social dogma.  And I don't think most people recognize the danger of allowing the state to do so.  This is why the book seemed so relevant to me.  Our country's use of laws and schools to promote a social agenda may be benign when compared to the holocaust, but it is on the same path.  There is such a big gap between modern America and Nazi Germany that you may not see the connection.  See what falls in between and it's easier to see how you could get there from here.  Take a good look at today's society and it may look more like 1930's Korea than you would have guessed.

5 stars 5 out of 5 Stars5 out of 5 Stars5 out of 5 Stars5 out of 5 Stars5 out of 5 stars


Monday, March 03, 2008

The Word and the Void, by Terry Brooks


The Word and the Void is a trilogy consisting of the books Running with the Demon, a Knight of the Word and Angel Fire East.

John Ross has been recruited by the Word to help prevent events that can alter the balance of good and evil.  Every night John Ross dreams of the dark place the world will become if he doesn't do something to prevent it.  In running with Demons, his mission is to keep Nest Freemark, a young girl with magical abilities, from becoming a agent of the Void.  Nest has always known about her magical abilities, but she underestimates the amount of power she has and is totally ignorant of her demon heritage.

In the next book it is actually Nest Freemark that helps John Ross from being deceived into becoming an agent of the Void.  A bad experience has caused him to abandon his work for the word, but Nest manages to lead him back to his work as an agent for good.

Finally in the last book Nest and John work together to help a powerful piece of magic to reach it's potential in becoming a powerful force for good.

I enjoyed each of these books individually and as a series.  I thought they had an interesting take on magic in our modern world.  It also has some insightful ideas on how ignorant people are lead to do such dark things.  The series was pretty dark and I don't know that I'd recommend it as a good read if you are feeling down, but when a sunny day comes along it has a great story and take on the battle of good and evil.

I can honestly say that I read these books solely for the purpose of seeing how Terry links this series with the Shannarah series.  Look for a review soon on that new series including Armageddon's Children and The Elves of Cintra.

The Hunter's Blade Trilogy, by R.A. Salvatore

The Hunter's blade Trilogy is actually books 17 18 and 19 in Salvatore's series about Drizzit the Dark Elf that turned away from his dark civilization to live a moral existence.

I'd have to say that this is the most disappointing series for me so far. Practically the whole trilogy was about the war with the Orcs in the Spine of the World. For me, the best part of the Drizzt books are the individual journeys and adventures. This series is all about war, so there really is no adventuring. I found it very annoying that Drizzit assumes his friends are dead without really even trying to find out for sure. While he has good reason to suspect they may have NOT survived, he also completely ignores the evidence that they may HAVE survived.

Despite the fact that I was disappointed with this series, I felt it was worth reading. I am really hoping that it is the set up for great things in the next series. There have been definite hints about great things to come for the dwarfs that will make the great city of Mithril hall pale in comparison. I look forward to that time, but in the mean time I read this to keep up with the story and be ready for the next series. Keeping up has definitely been worth it so far.

Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo, by Obert Skye

Leven Thumps thinks he is just an underprivileged orphan with no future and no hope. What he doesn't realize is that the magical world of Foo has been waiting for him since before his birth. Leven Thumps was born as the only person with the power to save both the real world and Foo. Leven slowly discovers his magical abilities and the friends that have been waiting to help him until the time he was ready.

I heard someone call this book the Harry Potter for a new generation, but I am not sure I believed it till I read it. While it is not similar in story to Harry Potter, it does have amazing creativity, excitement and adventure. I love that it is unique from many of the stories out there but not at all boring. I don't know that I have read many other books that start so strongly right from the beginning. I like that you don't know what is going on any better then Leven does at the beginning. The reader gets to learn right along with Leven and his friend Winter, what his destiny and powers really are.

I think this is an excellent choice for all ages. The story is simple enough for kids to enjoy, yet in no way boring for someone that needs more complexity in the story. In fact, I'd have to say that Obert Skye left me hungering for more. Thank goodness I waited till there were 3 books out before I discovered it...

The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief and other books from the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series, brings Greek mythology into the modern world.

Young Percy Jackson has always led a troubled life. With his dyslexia and ADHD he has always managed to get himself into trouble. Finally one day a Fury attempts to assassinate him, and that is when he learns he is a demi god, the son of the Greek god Poseidon. His life from this point forward will never be the same. He goes to a special summer camp run by Dionysus for demi gods where he learns to fight with swords, battle monsters, and read Greek. His adventures then really begin. He fights monsters, travels to Hades, earns favor with some gods, and the anger of others.

I found this book surprisingly thought provoking at times. When Percy and his friend Annabeth (daughter of Athena) were in Hades, they noticed how few people had made it into the "Heaven" portion of Hades and commented on how few people really did good things in their lives. I enjoyed these moments in the book.

As for the story, a lot of it was just rewrites of mythology into modern times. It was actually a fun way to review mythology. I did find the explanation of how mortals have missed the existence of mount Olympus hovering over the empire state building a little weak, but despite that I enjoyed the book.

I think more important then me enjoying the book was the fact that my 9 year old loved it and quickly ready the 3 books that are out in print. She can't wait for the next one to come out.

Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn

As an illegitimate daughter of a noble, Coriel (Corie) grows up spending just her summers at the Castle Auburn and the rest of the year living as a peasant. This book covers only her summers over the course of her coming of age. She starts out very young and naive. She is infatuated with an arrogant and narcissistic young prince and totally oblivious to the slavery of the Aloria that is happening right under her nose. Corie shares friendships with her half sister Elisandra and the prince's cousin Kent during her summers. Eventually Corie loses her naivety and gains great moral purpose. By the last summer, she makes a decision that will forever exclude her from her posh summer existence. Corie goes back to her peasant life and finds she no longer fits in there either. At this point the happy, but not unexpected ending happens and she lives happily ever after.

One of the things I really liked about this book was that it was told not only using Corie's viewpoint, but in a way that showed her naivety and maturity as the book progressed. For example, in the beginning of the novel, Corie talks about the Aloria as if they are exotic animals, but by the end she recognizes them as an evolved form of humans with thoughts and feelings.

I will admit that while sometimes Corie's ignorance drove me a little crazy, it was nice that she did finally grow up into a moral and respectable young lady. I will admit though that I was unhappy with how the story resolved for Elisandra. (Can't say more about that without spoilers...)

All in all, I'd recommend this novel along with every other Sharon Shinn novel I've read as being worth the read.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A History of Pi, by Petr Beckmann

A History of PI cover

Despite its title, A History of Pi recounts more than the evolution of a geometric constant.  In this case, moving beyond the core topic of the book turns out to be a bad thing.  Yes, there is quite a bit of mathematical history, but the author simply uses that history as a platform to share his extremely biased view of government, religion, and society.  At first it is distracting, then quickly becomes irritating.  If you can make it past the first few chapters, you start to laugh at the off-topic rants.  Once you reach that point, you can brush off the irrelevant bull and pay attention to the math history that motivated you to pick up the book in the first place.

archimedes_screwFor example, a chapter on Archimedes includes a figure with the following caption:

"Archimedes screw or helical pump.  It is still used 23 centuries later by the Egyptian felahim, whose rulers think it more important to destroy Israel than to provide their people with modern irrigation."

Never mind that the chapter never once mentions the helical pump.  Never mind that Egypt's position toward Israel has nothing to do with the history of pi.  The author takes advantage of the most tenuous of links, leveraging a supposed compliment of the longevity of the ancient engineer's inventions and twisting it into a political statement, one which undermines the so-called compliment.

If I wanted a book on politics, I'd pick up a book on politics.

But the book isn't all bad.  It does present the history of pi in the context of the societies which influenced its evolution.  There are some mathematical insights I particularly appreciated.  His explanation of the importance of proofs clicked for me, and his arguments were strengthened by a later discussion of the value of not-yet-proven theorems.  The implications of the five Euclidian axioms was another highlight.  Someone with more formal mathematical training than I have might find the mathematical treatise too light, but I thought it was just about the right length and the right level of detail.  It isn't meant to be a scholarly work, so don't expect one.

But unfortunately the math is overshadowed by the hogwash.  For a man that places so much importance on logic and proof in mathematics, it surprises me that he does not apply the same rigor to the political biases he espouses with such fervor.  The poppycock can be partially excused once you realize the author lived in Czechoslovakia until he fled to the United States in the sixties; his life was shaken by Nazis and communists.  His portrayal of WWII-era Germany shows how skewed the author's bias really is.  While I do not support Nazi Germany in any way, his portrayal of the Germans as technologically inept, unable to come up with anything better than giant bells which use sound to kill, is unquestionably false.  He condemns war, then arbitrarily selects acts of war and aggression and glorifies them.  His absolute confidence in his positions makes no sense to me.  Perhaps the inability to boil down history to a set of provable theorems has left the author with nothing to fall back on other than unjustified certainty in a misguided interpretation of history.

Most of the author's assertions make you roll your eyes, but there was one that I found particularly offensive.  To demonstrate that a computer doesn't possess true intelligence, he compares the computer to an idiot savant.  He says that both are "moron[s] whose total imbecility can often be quite exasperating."  This is an ugly, insolent statement.  It is clear that he believes the contemporary definition of idiot completely applies to an idiot savant. The author is the idiot here, placing absolute confidence in an opinion based on pure ignorance, just like many other of the author's assertions.  I have had the honor of becoming acquainted with a so-called idiot savant, a man I am proud to call my friend.  My friend clearly has some serious cognitive defects, and it is true that he doesn't understand how he comes up with answers to certain types of questions, but he is NOT an empty shell with no intelligence whatsoever.  To focus solely on the unusual pieces of an idiot savant, both positive and negative, is to ignore the majority of who he is.  The absence of certain skills lets the intelligence he does possess shine through, and helps you appreciate just how amazing human intelligence really is.

This book gets 4 stars for the parts that deal with the evolution of pi, but only 2 stars for making you wade through so much manure.  Overall I give it three stars.  Now I just need to decide whether to place this review in the fiction or non-fiction category.

3 Stars
3 out of 5 Stars3 out of 5 Stars3 out of 5 Stars3 out of 5 Stars3 out of 5 stars