Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Year: 2010
Genre: Historical fiction/conspiracy
Rating: 2

Places and times can capture our souls. A wise man once told me that we spend ten percent of our lives making new happiness and ninety percent trying to stay there rather than trying to find new ways to be happy. Have we not all felt that tug of nostalgia for a day long gone, perhaps a golden afternoon from childhood or the memory of a young love?
In David Mitchell's newest novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he explores the bittersweet realities of losing your heart to something you can never have. With the light-fingered writing that he first showcased in 2004's Cloud Atlas, Mitchell draws us in again, this time to a far more grounded story of how enchantments really do exist.
When we first meet the titular character, he has just had his nose broken by a cheating former official of the Dutch East India Company. Jacob de Zoet is a humble clerk, hoping to earn the hand of the woman he loves back in the Netherlands by serving at the Company's Japanese port, Dejima, for the next five years. Little does he know that the land will change him and his life so drastically that he will never be the same. He quickly meets a number of fascinating characters, both Dutch and Japanese, but none so mysterious and deep as the burned girl Orito Aibigawa, the only female ever allowed to study medicine. With his utmost effort, he finally forges a hesitant friendship with her, attracted by her reticence and her quiet nature.
However, things are changing in isolationist Japan. As the story moves on, the characters disperse to their various fates, unable to fight the march of time and ambition, each wronged in a way that maroons them without a ship to carry them back.
Mitchell makes use of the factual Japanese law against foreigners not just to push the story along but to make a point: if we know a land and its people inside and out, we can still be strangers. It takes more than knowledge and familiarity to be welcome in a world. That is the heartbreaking core of the novel-- Jacob can never belong. He has a name given to him by the people, respect, money, status, and can still never be one of them.
The organization of this novel is a little disconcerting for traditional readers. Mitchell reeducated us with Cloud Atlas; by comparison, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a little gentler. We see parts of the story through the eyes of nearly every character at some point or another, which definitely throws the story around like dice in a cup, but lends a full feeling, like a blind man feeling the walls. Every perspective, every attitude, and every voice chips something in to make the tale the most it could be-- a time, a place, a people.
On an interesting historical side note, the end of the Dutch East India Company is an incredibly important and surprisingly overlooked moment in time. At one time, the Company was so powerful that it was basically an independent country, with its own flags and fleet of ships. Its ships traded from Batavia to Japan to Malaysia to the Netherlands and back. And yet, at the end of the 18th century, it imploded suddenly and violently, leaving an enormous economic gap in Southeast Asia, which in turn affected Europe. Mitchell does an excellent job of depicting this confusion and ambiguity in the novel, thorough for his readers but accurate to the sense at the time.
Despite the beauty of this novel, the construction is a little unbalanced. All the symbolic power is packed at the end, finishing on a terribly serious note, but many parts of the first half give a light-hearted air that belie the undertones of the story. This does appropriately endear us to the characters quickly, and we certainly know Jacob and Orito well by the end of the story, but the amount of ground that Mitchell covers in 477 pages just doesn't give us enough time to probe to the bottom of such interesting personalities.
And yet, the simplicity lends to the air of the novel. The last chapter is heart rending, breathtakingly beautiful, and quiet, just like the end of life-- as T.S. Eliot said, "this is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper." Jacob de Zoet, our brave and awkward hero, cannot change his world, because he's just a man that doesn't belong, but in doing that he has changed the world for good. People pass in and out of our lives for brief moments, their presence and their absence alike leaving marks.
Two years old, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is available on the Kindle for $12.00 or in paperback for as low as $10.20 from Amazon. Some libraries may have a copy, but small ones won't, and this book is definitely worth the time you spend reading it and the hours you'll devote to thinking about it afterward. Quiet and beautiful, just like the land it is set in, this novel flows like a quiet stream through your heart and leaves a coolness in its wake that aches for understanding, for belonging.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Last Prince of Ireland

Title: The Last Prince of Ireland
Author: Morgan Llywelyn
Year: 1992
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3

Anyone who's been reading this blog for awhile knows that I've got a penchant for history. My grandfather was a professor of history, my sister is a history teacher, my father was a history buff, and my favorite classes in school were always history. In the American school system, we usually focus on the "usual" docket of historical events, meaning European history and American history, with a sprinkling of ancient history thrown in. But what about those parts of the world that we've completely passed over? Those are my passion, my curiosity, my real love of history-- there are so many stories out there, each more fraught with passion and fear than the last. It is our privilege and our duty to learn and share them, to gain a fuller understanding of this wonderful world we live in.
But enough of my ranting, and on to the book of the day-- The Last Prince of Ireland, by Morgan Llywelyn (pronounced a bit like hly-WE-lin).
Based in Ireland during the end of the Elizabethan era, this book follows the journey of Donal Cam O'Sullivan and his thousand followers on their long, hungry, cold march out of the district of Munster, fleeing the wrath of his former friends and kinsmen. Although it takes place over just fifteen days (each chapter covers one day), the story seems much longer than that-- more like a slow fall into ruin and decay. Each day, the ragged survivors lose more friends, more animals, more dignity and more hope, and we can't help but wonder if it would be more of a mercy to let them just give in somewhere along the way. Donal Cam, the commander of his bedraggled and wretched army, wonders the same while struggling to lead them to life.
And yet, we see hope growing between the cracks of despair. From the earliest pages we see a lovestruck Niall spy Maire Ni Driscoll and attempt to win her heart with kindness rather than bravado, even in the depths of starvation and fear. Joan Ni Sweney and her husband, Dermod O'Sullivan, provide a wry sense of humor and determination, struggling onward and depending on one another more and more as their provisions and strength run out. And Orla Ni Donoghue, a strong woman married to Rory O'Sullivan, struggles with the past and her faith as she fights for life and fierce loyalty to her leader.
Although the novel is protracted and somewhat basic in its choice of words, the burning passion of the writer is obvious. He sees Ireland itself in these pathetic survivors, relics of a noble and strong past being exterminated by the betrayal of the modern world. This is the time when Ireland finally succumbs to the rule of the expanding British, whose influence will change and shape Irish culture for the next four hundred years. Llywelyn, while recognizing this force, clearly believes that there is a deep individuality and strength within the Irish people that cannot be extinguished by oppression.
This, too, can be extended to the human soul in general. The factual march of Donal Cam and his survivors is a tribute to that, but Llywelyn's narrative of the horrific suffering and losses of those people in their struggle for that most basic of human rights-- freedom-- is heart wrenching. As the readers, we find ourselves growing more and more attached to characters we know are considered traitors and are sentenced to death, as if that bright glimmer of light just before it goes out is the most beautiful thing that a person can ever be. And despite the fact that they are bony, dirty, and desperate, these people are beautiful, if only for the sheer strength of will that carries them forward.
The whole novel feels like a slow decline into ruin, which may be intentional, but definitely detracts from the book's readability. There is no clear climax, only a long, drawn-out journey to the end. While the story is character-based, this can only carry on to a certain extent before it become dry and-- dare I say it?-- boring. Every tale needs some sort of arc, some sort of rising action, and while this one doesn't lack for battle scenes, it just seems like disaster after disaster before long.
But in the end, The Last Prince of Ireland is still a tale that needs to be told and understood in its fullest, for the true tragedy it is-- a betrayal of trust, and a shift in patriotism. Most of the princes of the island gave up in order to save their houses, which seems pathetic and selfish, but the motives are understandable. While practically foolish, Donal Cam's protest and subsequent rebellion are noble and contain a spirit of pride; we treasure that kind of national pride and look for it in our leaders, which makes Donal Cam a truly full, admirable, nearly tangible character.
Not exactly a best seller or common, I pulled this book off the shelf by pure happenstance and enjoyed it-- it's not a long read at 364 pages. It's actually fairly difficult to find on Amazon, but if you live in a city with a good library, they should have it. You can get a copy from Amazon for $15.00, but the next lowest price was nearly $40. Go figure on obscure books.
History is vital to understanding the present, even if it is obscure history. Every story weaves together to make the present, which makes it vital to appreciate the past before we move toward the future.

The Whiskey Rebels

Title: The Whiskey Rebels
 Author: David Liss
Year: 2008
Genre: Historical fiction/Thriller
Rating: 1

We all believe that we know what America is, don't we? After living here our whole lives and being so saturated with the ideas, values, concepts, and freedoms of this grand experiment of a country, we think we know what constitutes our society and freedoms. But that's just the trouble-- when we think we know what is right, what happens when a dilemma comes from within? If we must adapt our values, how do we adjust afterwards?
These are the questions that David Liss addresses in his finest novel yet, The Whiskey Rebels. Deeply American in conception and execution, we see in its pages a wrenching question of patriotism versus justice: if the country that nurtured you is unjust, is it our duty to rebel and right the wrongs? Or does that simply fall under the category of revenge? In a gritty story woven with masterfully tangled threads, Liss explores the conflict and is brave enough not to offer an absolute answer.
Split into two intertwining narratives, the book follows the tale of the disgraced Captain Ethan Saunders, an alcohol-sodden ex-spy destitute in Philadelphia, and that of Joan Maycott, a grievously wronged pioneer on the western border of Pennsylvania. We pick up the story in early 1792, an era of tangled politics and tenuous economics, ruled by veterans and strongly opposed idealists like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Saunders, by all appearances a disreputable, philandering ruin of a man, soon becomes caught up in a complicated web of events involving the disappearance of a former love's husband, mysterious strangers, and the fragile Bank of the United States. Someone threatens the Bank, and despite warnings from Hamilton and several agents, he gets deeper and deeper into the threats against it-- and him.
The parallel story is one of tragedy, deception, and failed dreams-- and vaguely reminiscent of the tales of unemployment, foreclosure, and woe from today. Told in the format of a memoir, we meet Joan Maycott when she is just a child and follow her from her family's farm in rural New York through her marriage to Andrew Maycott, their removal to New York City (which Liss evokes in all its glorious 18th century squalor and improvement upheaval), and to the barren, hopeless land west of Pittsburgh. There, she and her husband are beset by difficulty, oppression, and before long it is all that they can take before being inspired to rebellion.
Liss has clearly improved as a writer since his bestsellers A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader. Here his characters are deeper, more complex, and passionate, both in writing and in action, without losing that lighthearted charm that the author is so well known for. Ethan Saunders is a marvelous conundrum of a character, a murky mixture of honorable patriotism with nefarious lechery with a sprinkle of alcohol addiction thrown in. He is universally despised for being a scoundrel by his peers, but is simultaneously respected for his skill as a spy and honor for participation in the Revolutionary War.
One of the things that makes The Whiskey Rebels so fascinating is its particular focus on the post-Revolutionary America. Where the end of the 18th century was a period of enlightenment, bettering education, and expanding scientific horizons in Europe, it was a dismal, confusing tangle in the brand-new United States, and no one knew if this enormous experiment was going to succeed or collapse into shards of anarchy. Oftentimes, the two decades following the Revolution are skipped in the study of history, which is surprising-- during those twenty years, our Constitution was written, the economics of our country shook but stood firm, and the Whiskey Rebellion rose and was put down. Many important events that shaped us happened quickly after the Revolution, and Liss has finally opened up those years in this brilliant novel.
Another interesting relationship is that of Saunders with his slave, Leonidas. Most often, the master-slave relationship is exploitative, cruel, and abusive, but there were exceptions-- those more akin to a friendship. Sure enough, they were rare, but there are exceptions to every rule, and Liss has portrayed a fascinating co-dependency between Leonidas, a well-educated Americanized African, and Saunders, a gruff, lonely military fellow who won Leonidas in a game of cards. We spend the whole book guessing at whether he hates Saunders, disrespects him, or grudgingly likes him, and there are plenty of laughs along the way.
But perhaps the most important feature of The Whiskey Rebels is the questions that it raises about patriotism. Most of us regard ourselves as patriots if we support our troops, sing the national anthem, and raise a toast on Independence Day-- but what does it really mean to be a patriot? Is it just loyalty to one's country, or is it also an innate sense of responsibility, of holding one's government in check? And if the people are wronged, is it the patriot's duty to change the government to right those wrongs?
This masterful, thoroughly American work is available on Amazon for $10.20 in paperback, or on the Kindle for $12.00. In this day and age of questions and the changing American social landscape, it's important to understand our past and our duty as a people to our country. Novels may be fiction, but there are important truths buried even in the most fanciful of stories, and there are momentously important ones here.
On that note, happy election season!