Saturday, January 25, 2014

War Without Mercy book review

At high school  my classmates and I were given QBVII by Leon Uris as reading assignment some reason. It was about war crimes and was good and all. The question it raised for some however was: how come American/Allied WWII war crimes were not pursued? Were they that few? Just recently I got part of the answer to these questions in War Without Mercy.

This book is about the Pacific Theatre. One can think of it several related books bound in one: a) War crimes from both sides laid bare; b) the way the Americans viewed and portrayed the Japanese before Pearl Harbor; b2) before Midway and; b3) up to surrender; and c)  the perspective from the Japanese viewpoint.

The Japanese were called everything in the spectrum from vermin to supermen according  to the various stages, apes being the most popular. Everything but human beings. And not only by the sensationalist and uneducated but from what we generally believe respectable sources as Time and Winston Churchill.

In regard to war crimes, the American troops misbehaved as bad as the Japanese with the complicit assent of their superiors. Justifications were easy to come by.  The racial slur is appalling in hindsight but it served its purpose at the time. Not only did it inflame the passions, but made the business of killing easier, all while upholding support at home.

On the Japanese side, the optics where more complex resulting in their exaltation of their purity as rallying point at home and their Asian background for greater Asia. For the Anglo-Saxons they reserved the worst they could conceive, demons, which further fueled  their self-righteousness and the justice of their cause. Of particular interest is the next to last chapter where, largely based on recovered wartime documents, the Japanese postwar aims, within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, are explained.

All these build into the crucial point of passing from hate and war to cooperation and peace. The final chapter reveals the mechanisms from which this was attained pointing out the seeds  that were already present in the view of each other. In the end, despite the momentum of the war years, the right decision was taken by the Americans, that of maintaining the Imperial Throne as a symbol, when it was needed the most.

It is a bit surprising is how in these last 60 years all this multi-century misunderstanding/hate/fear has evaporated to our present low state. Mr. Dower stops near the cusp of Japan's economic might at the end of 80's and he shows how, once again, distrust and fear flared up within some sectors drawing even on the war experience. He doesn't get to show us how these once again have receded, but receded they have. Looking to what has preceded, is it really true that the (white) West has overcome it's biases and that an era of sustainable peace & harmony with the East is here to stay? Do we understand each other now?

4 stars

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Beethoven's Shadow book review

Music is one of the greatest pleasures of humanity and sometimes a bit of information or background knowledge can enhance the experience. Not only composers and listeners are relevant in the music communication, but performers frequently have a say.

In his book, Beethoven's Shadow, American pianist Jonathan Biss shares his performer's view on music in general and on Beethoven in particular. Not long ago he agreed to record the whole of Beethoven's piano sonatas and this book is a companion of sorts to the project.

It is a short book. It also has no obvious structure. Rather, Biss writes something closer to an extended essay. In it he explores, the project at hand,  recorded vs live music, virtuosity Fleisher, Schnabel and Serkin, with emphasis on the latter's philosophy, his (Biss') relationship with the sonatas and the quest of the 'ultimate' performance. The result is that more than listening/reading a lecture one feels he has him on one's living room having tea.

He has too much respect for the sonatas. From the start one can feel even something close to fear from his part seep here and there until he finally admits to it, defuses it and lays it to rest; all without losing admiring wonder.

The only thing that's missing are clips of the pieces he talks about.  I guess that those really interested can find them, but it would have been nice to have had them on the spot.

Now a short ramble on my impressions.  What I liked most was how he, being one of the most overexposed persons to the pieces, still find new aspects and secrets in them. My trepidation with music I like is listening too much to it and getting too familiar with it. Should that happen I fear getting some sort of diminishing returns by liking the piece less, not more. Biss sets my mind at ease. In other matters his impression on what ultimately is music echoes what Gleick describes in The Information when early theorists were trying to define the same question. Is it the scoresheet? A certain recording? The sum of all performances?

Both the audio and kindle editions are under $2, so, if you play an instrument or really listen to music, why not?