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review 2017-02-28 11:51
A touching reminder of the people behind the history books and a well-deserved memorial
Surviving the Death Railway: A POW's Memoir and Letters from Home - Barry Custance Baker,Hilary Custance Green

Thanks to Hilary Custance Green (who edited part of her family history and that of many others) and to Katie Eaton from Pen & Sword Books Limited  (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk) for sending me a paperback copy of this book that I freely choose to review.

As a reader, when it comes to stories about the war, I’ve always been more interested in the individuals (both in the front and back home) than in the way the battles were fought. I had heard, read, and mostly watched TV programmes and movies about Japanese war camps (I won’t forget Tenko in a hurry).  Probably lots of people have. This book provides the personal experience of a family whose lives were affected and transformed by the war. We get to know Barton (Barry) Custance Baker, born in Malaya, before the war; we later learn of his marriage to Phyllis and then we follow him all the way back to Malaya and read on as he becomes father and prisoner of war. We also read (thanks to the correspondence of the period, some that reached its destination and some that didn’t) about Phyllis’s life, the thoughts of those left back home and the way they tried to hang on to hope.

The book combines letters from Barry to Phyllis about his life in the East, most of the time not sure if any of them would make it to his wife, letters from Phyllis to Barry, trying to keep up his spirits with news about their son, Robin, and his family, and the diary Barry wrote, containing more details about his time abroad, although always trying to emphasise the positive and understate the difficulties. The combination of these narratives creates a complex and complementary testimony of the varied experiences of the war for those on both sides of the conflict, such as the difficulty of being away and separated from those you love for years, missing the early years of a son you hardly know and worrying that you might no longer know your partner when you go back (or when they come back), and contrasting the often mistaken ideas and thoughts about what the other party might be enduring.

Barry’s parents thought he would be bored as a PoW, never imagining he would be building a railway line, the Thailand-Burma railway, appropriately called Death Railway, as it cost so many lives (not only British). That he, as an officer, might be engaged in heavy labouring work, starved and ill did not enter their imagination.

Barry also had little concept of life back home and did not have news of his parents’ move to San Francisco to help with radio transmissions in Malayan or later, of the death of his younger brother, John. He imagines there might be some restrictions and even danger, but not how unsettling the lack of news was.

Barry’s efforts trying to ensure he kept track of his men and that he did all he could to keep them safe were echoed by those made by Phyllis, who tried her hardest to create a network of information to share any news between the relatives and friends of the men in her husband’s unit, sending encouraging letters, and even creating a dossier with as much data as possible about all the men, to facilitate the task of the War Office in identifying and reporting their fate.

The book is extraordinary too because it clearly shows the tireless efforts they all made to try and keep in touch at a time when communication with each other wasn’t only a click away, and when sometimes years might pass without any news of the other person (and in the best case scenario the news might be years old by the time they get it). Forget about 140 characters on Twitter. The rules of their communication kept changing and at some point they could only send 25 words to their loved one, and that included the date. And the best they could hope for was a prewritten card with only a few words added by hand.

If physically the experiences are very different (although not full of gross details, we get a clear sense of the trials and suffering the men had to endure), mentally, the toll of the lack of information, of the separation and the impotence is clear on both sides. And those letters of mothers, girlfriends, uncles, asking for information about their loved ones, sharing the good and bad news, but always trying to encourage the other person, no matter what their lot has been, are impossible to forget. Even the replies to Phyllis request for particulars about the men convey so much more than what is written. It is amazing how a few words to describe somebody can be so full of feeling and be so touching, and how much they say about unspoken emotions.


As readers, we can but share in the feelings, and are touched by the hopes, anxieties, and stress of the situation. We are given an extraordinary insight into the lives of people whom we might have known, and who could have been our neighbours, friends, or family. We read about their joy at the impending reunion and their wish to get to know each other (and the worry that they might no longer recognise or like the persons they have become). Barry and Phyllis become our ersatz family and we’re happy to learn they had more children and lived happy and fulfilling lives. I was particularly moved by a moment towards the end of Barry’s life when he’s ill in hospital and for a moment believes he’s back at the camp. When his daughter (Hilary) explains to him what has happened since and he realises he’s ill and dying but has lived a full life he says ‘I’ll settle for that’. I hope we all can say that when our time comes.

Hilary Custance Green, the editor of the book, and Barry and Phyllis’s daughter has found the way of letting the letters and the diary tell the story, with very little explanation or unnecessary interference, other than minimal clarifications or explanations when needed. The material is powerful enough in its own right. She has done a great job and the book is a great memorial not only to her parents but also to all the men and women who went through the experience. At the end of the book, there is a call to anybody who might have information about families of members of the Men of 27 Line Section to get in touch with the editor. Don’t forget to pass the message on if you know anybody connected to the men or with contacts who might have more information.

In summary, this is a fantastic book for those interested in World War II, both from the point of view of war action and of the home front, those interested in stories about PoW, tales of human bravery, valour, endurance and the heroism of extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people. Don’t miss this book and don’t forget to pass it on to anybody who might have known a member of the unit.

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review 2015-06-04 17:51
An Assembly Such as This ...
Burmese Days - George Orwell


Though uttered in much more genteel circumstances than the setting of this book, Mr. Darcy's timeless put-down of Meryton society in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice can't fail to come to mind when referring to the characters populating George Orwell's first novel. Burmese Days is, down to the last man and woman, inhabited by a group of thoroughly disgusting characters: people who are, in the words of Darcy's famous epithet, indeed so "insupportable" that the reader can't help but conclude that they, each and everyone, richly deserve one another and everything that they are doing to one another. Reading Burmese Days feels much like watching a train wreck in the making and actually looking forward to the moment of the train wreck, without being able to muster the slightest bit of guilt about such a display of readerly Schadenfreude.


There is a truism to the effect that an author's first book often serves the purpose of getting their personal feelings and experience out of the way: a personal involvement so strong that it cannot but be overcome by publication – that authors, in other words, first need to get over themselves before they can move on to bigger and better things. This of course doesn't mean that a first novel can't be a masterpiece regardless (indeed, these days in particular it often feels like anything short of a monumental masterpiece will fail to make an author even register in the collective conscience of the literary community), but there are plenty of examples, too, of first novels that primarily serve this personal purpose of clearing the way for the author's true gift to emerge, and for that gift to be rid of any and all overriding encumbrances. Burmese Days clearly falls into the latter category: Stationed in Burma for five years as a British colonial officer himself, Orwell came to loathe the Raj, everything of which it consisted and everything that it stood for – and judging by the evil, almost cardboard caricatures that he created in lieu of well-rounded, three-dimensional characters (not least this novel's bumbling, weak main character, Flory, who is not exactly hard to unravel as an exercise in ruthless authorial self-flagellation), he obviously also carried a boatload of guilt about having himself been part of the very system that upheld the Raj. Orwell, thus, had a lot to get over before he could move on to bigger and better things.


Read more on my own website, ThemisAthena.info, and on Leafmarks.


Katha(r) (the novel's actual location, though to avoid a lawsuit for libel, Orwell had to come up with a fictional place name – the town is called Kyauktada in the book): the British Club, Irrawaddy River, and street near the river.


Source: www.themisathena.info/literature/orwell.html#BurmeseDays
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review 2014-11-04 21:47
Thanks for all the fish
Saving Fish from Drowning - Amy Tan

The relationship between mothers and daughters is a theme frequently associated with Amy Tan’s writing. In Saving Fish from Drowning she barely touches on this theme, leaving room to explore several new themes.


After sampling some of the book’s reviews on Amazon, I concluded that more than a few of her fans rejected the book for exploring new territory. That’s foolish. The book is excellent on its own merits; it shouldn’t be faulted for not following the path of its predecessors.


If it places less emphasis on the relationships of mothers and daughters, it places more on that between fathers and sons, citizens and governments, religious beliefs and superstitions, honest folk and swindlers. This novel addresses a number of themes, and addresses them well.


According to Andrew Solomon in his 2005 New York Times review, Tan’s apparent emphasis on humor is unsuccessful. It didn’t make him laugh. However it did make me laugh, and if her satire is not as biting as that of Evelyn Waugh, it is gentle and considerate of natural foibles. Solomon says Tan's characters sorties into political incorrectness …” are “obnoxious and even colonialist …” But that’s unfair. Traces of colonialism, do linger on. Even in Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise bends the prime directive so often as to make it clear that those traces will linger well into the future.


Tan understands and elucidates the cultures from which her characters derive. If at times her characters seem foolish, it’s because they are. She’s not being judgmental, merely observant like a good anthropologist. The narrator, Bibi Chen isn’t perfect. Neither are her characters. And if this gives rise to humor, so be it—laugh and learn.


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review 2014-02-08 04:03
The Burma Probe (Death Merchant #59) by Joseph Rosenberger
The Burma Probe (Death Merchant) - Joseph Rosenberger

(Pinnacle, 1984)


Deep in the heart of Burma's thickest jungle lies the deadliest military secret of modern history. After generations of strategic planning, the Red Chinese have grasped the vital key to world power. In a desperate zero-hour maneuver, the Death Merchant is given the go-ahead. Inflitrate. Destroy!

The Burma Probe is #59 in the "incredible" adventures of the Death Merchant. What is incredible is that author Joseph Rosenberger wrote all seventy-one Death Merchant books himself in the '70s and '80s. That takes a very special kind of insanity. These Death Merchant books are among those that throw my rating system all askew. While they are generally a blast to read, they can't be called "high lit" and are also incredibly offensive! I call Joseph Rosenberger the "Archie Bunker" of action novelists, but, like in his other books, I find it hard to be truly offended. It's all just so ridiculous that it crosses the line into absurdity. I'm not being magnanimous here since few things piss me off more than bigotry, but reading some of the stuff in Rosenberger's books I'm just dumbfounded. This stuff couldn't be published today and I'm actually kinda surprised it could be publish in the '70s and '80s. (As a word of warning, in case some of you are not quite as amused by Rosenberger's nutjob extremism as I am, there may be some offensive quotes used in this review to illustrate. Just so ya know.)

The Burma Probe takes Richard Camellion, a.k.a. "the Death Merchant," to Burma, where he and his cohorts, the merc leader of "Thunderbolt Unit Omega" "Mad Mike" Quinlan and a Gurkha soldier named Krishnan Darhangak, are on a mission to reconnoiter a secret base from which the communist Chinese plan to launch a deadly neurotoxin as phase one of their plan to take over Southeast Asia. The Burma Probe has all of Rosenberger's trademark wackiness, but, unlike a good deal of his writing, The Burma Probe seems to follow more of a "traditional" plot structure than Rosenberger's usual work (repeated scenes of excruciatingly detailed violence that proceed until all the bad guys are dead).

In The Burma Probe, the plot builds more slowly as DM and his buds move around Burma in a clandestine fashion, posing as British movie producers scouting sites. What they're actually doing, though, is gathering intel and making contacts with a Burmese guerilla group. When their covers are blown, however, things get hot and the remainder of the story has DM and his gang running from commie forces while planning the destruction of the Chinese base, culminating in a humungous final battle in which hundreds of fighters, both Burmese guerilla and communist Chinese, die by the hundreds.

It's pretty much straight-up military fiction, albeit with a healthy dose of Rosenberger's nutjob flair and sometimes weird diction. For example, in one place he writes: "'This place does not look like a dump because it is not a dump,' Chit Soe Kha said in his precise but stilted English (although there is not any rule that demands the use of contractions)." That's a little strange.

And the "Cosmic Lord of Death" gets a mention after Camellion has a conversation about religion and philosophy with his CIA contacts (for some reason). Camellion (like Rosenberger) is virulently anti-religion, but he seems to know a lot about it:


Dyson regarded Camellion with an off expression. "Tell me, Mr. Camellion. Are you a mercenary or a philosopher?"

"Neither. I'm merely passing by. In that respect, I'm an observer of the Human Condition and a partner of that which cuts us all down in the end."

Dyson's eyes narrowed.

"A 'partner'! Of what?"

"The Cosmic Lord of Death…."

And the chapter ends there, but I imagine some unspoken odd looks thrown the Death Merchant's way after that rather ominous statement.

But I have to admit that I get sort of a perverse kick out of the blatant racism of Rosenberger's books. If it wasn't so ridiculous, it'd be pretty repellent, what with all the racial slurs thrown around (I found "slant-eyed robots" particularly inventive). But about mid-way in the book, DM and his cohorts meet up with an ally named Lester Vernon Cole, who is described thusly:


Tall, muscular, gray-eyed and thin-lipped, with deep brown hair worn moderately long, Cole was a private contractor who often worked for the Company. A genius at intrigue and deception, Cole was a stone killer who firmly believed in the philosophy that the only good enemy was a dead enemy. In a sense, this could have meant three-fourths of the human race, since Cole was a racist who openly admired Adolf Hitler and Der Fuhrer's "samurai," the Schutzstaffel or dreaded SS. Often referred to as "The Widow Maker," Cole had a simple solution for the ills of the world: any nonwhite would be put to sleep.

Yikes. And this dude is one of DM's friends! (By the way, I just noticed that Red Dragon Operation, the third in another of Rosenberger's series called C.O.B.R.A., is dedicated to an "L.V. Cole." Hmm.) Anyway, Cole ruffles some feathers among the Quinlan's merc group, as "Thunderbolt Unit Omega" consists of mercs from a variety of nations. While Rosenberger seems to go out of his way to make it clear that DM and the others are not "racist" (while still using slurs like "chink," etc.), he gets to use Cole as a mouthpiece to rant on and on against blacks, gays, Jews, immigrants and liberals. While it seems too outrageous not to be a spoof, I'm pretty sure Cole speaks for Rosenberger. It's funny that I sort of expect these trashy "men's adventure" novels of yesteryear to be somewhat un-P.C., but the Death Merchant series is pretty out there.

So I've gone on about the racism in The Burma Probe (I probably shouldn't find it so funny) but there's plenty of other goofy stuff, like learning that Cole is mortally embarrassed to undress in front of other men and the weird little footnotes that pepper the entire book informing us of such useful things like, "This writer has always warned that the West has more to fear from the Chinese than the Russians," or some kind of technical obscurity.

If you've been keeping up, you'll note that I starting using my one-to-five-star rating system again and, like I mentioned earlier, these Death Merchant books kind of defy conventional rating. They're not good, but they're fun in a B-movie sort of way, despite (or perhaps because of) their decidedly un-P.C. natures.

  The verdict: ★★★✩✩, 3 out of 5 stars on the Action Trash Scale. It ain't Hemingway, but it's got a lot of action and a better constructed plot that Rosenberger's usual fare. Plus, a lot of wackiness and offensiveness to entertain those that are entertained by wackiness and offensiveness. 

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review 2013-09-07 00:00
Burma Chronicles - Guy Delisle Not as good as Chronicles, but still very interesting. I could feel my own world view expanding along with Delisle's.
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