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review 2017-12-05 21:37
A ripping good read recommended to lovers of WWII historical fiction in a naval setting and atmospheric thrillers.
Jonah - Carl Rackman

I write this review on behalf of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you want to have your books reviewed, check here. I know I am one of the members, but it is a great team) and I thank Rosie and the author for providing me an ARC copy of the book that I freely chose to review. Although I had read great reviews of one of Rackman’s previous books, Irex, I had not read his work yet but I was eager to check his new novel, especially as it came greatly recommended by other reviewers from Rosie’s team. The novel did not disappoint. It is a thriller set (mostly) in a US Navy destroyer in the Pacific during WWII. Moby Dick is one of my favourite novels (depending on the moment you ask me, my favourite) and I do like a story set at sea, although I’m not an expert on the topic. As we read the novel it becomes clear that the author has researched the historical period and the setting well and he is skilled at making readers get under the skin of the characters and share in their experiences and settings. Although some of the nautical terms might not be familiar to us, we can easily guess from the context, and we share in the heat, exhaustion, tension, anxiety, fear, and camaraderie. The setting of the novel, the destroyer, apart from being a confined space is a microcosms where we can find men from all walks of life, career navy men, enlisted men, older and younger men, some who’d never even seen the sea and others from long nautical tradition, and men from a variety of religions, ethnic backgrounds, and regions of the USA. These men are thrown together to fight a war under extreme circumstances and when we meet them they have all experienced things we would not wish on anyone. The story is written in the third person, mostly from the point of view of Mitch Kirkham, “Lucky” Kirkham, a gunner who seems fated to survive when everybody around him dies. Early in the book, we witness another example of his good luck (by that point he had already earned his nickname following a battle in Okinawa where he was one of the few survivors), but unfortunately, not everybody sees things the same way, and he gets bullied and victimised, accused of being a coward. To add to his difficulties, strange things start happening on the ship. Some of the men start experiencing unusual things, there is paranoia, violence, deaths, and the weirdest explanations are suggested. His peers insist that Mitch is a Jonah (they believe he is bringing them bad luck or worse and want to throw him overboard), and his life becomes increasingly complicated. The narrative of what happens in the ship (mostly from Mitch’s point of view, although at times, often when he is out of action, we also share in the point of view of a few other characters, like the medic of the ship, or the second in command), is interspersed with flashbacks (or memories) of incidents of the past of some of the men in the ship, usually those that end up right in the middle of the action. These snippets give us a better idea of what these men were like at home, in their real lives, when they were not cogs in the Navy machine, and they provide clues as to the psychological make-up of the characters (and also make us wonder what they might all have in common). Although the novel is mostly action-driven, we get brief glimpses into the men’s personalities and motives that add to the complexity and to the enjoyment for those of us who like well-defined characters. As a psychiatrist and somebody who enjoys psychological thrillers, I started wondering about the situation and coming up with my own theory from early on (no, I won’t share any spoilers). Yes, I was right; although the nitty-gritty detail is not fully revealed until the very end of the book and it is… Well, if you like conspiracy theory books, I think you’ll be pleased. It is also very believable and that is the scariest aspect of it. I had to do some research of my own after reading the book, because although I had read about some aspects of the story (it is not based on real events, but it realistically portrays the life of navy men at war and the way the Navy operated), I did not realise the extremes to which these men were subject to. The book is not only vividly written, intriguing, and tense, but it also deals with many important topics, such as survivors’ guilt, PTSD, war and fighting, the treatment of the combatants, experimentation, and the use of attention-enhancing drugs and its dangers. And yes, as a Moby Dick lover, I did particularly enjoy the end. As mentioned, the book is well researched and there is a glossary of terms and also an author’s note to explain the background to the story and clarify which aspects are based on truth and which have come out of the author’s imagination. I’d recommend it to lovers of historical fiction, especially set in WWII, people who love atmospheric thrillers, within a naval setting and to anybody who enjoys a ripping good read.

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review 2017-11-25 15:30
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 3 - St. Martin's Day: A Post-WWII Japan Vignette
An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro

 

My completist quest regarding Kazuo Ishiguro's novels and short stories (begun long before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature) took me back to one of his earlier works -- I only had An Artist of the Floating World and The Unconsoled to finish to have read all of his novels; and with the completion of this book, now only The Unconsoled remains.

 

Like in his very first published novel, A Pale View of Hills, in An Artist of the Floating World Ishiguro turns to the aftermath of WWII in his parents' home country, Japan (Ishiguro himself was born there, but grew up in England).  The novel(la)'s protagonist and narrator is Masuji Ono, an artist who had risen in the imperialist war years, but now sees society around him changing as a result of the outcome of WWII.  "The floating world," facially, is the pleasure district of Ono's (unnamed) city, which underwent a first change with the onset of the imperialist regime, and then another one when Japanese society changed yet again after the end of the war: the meeting place of Ono and his artist friends, which before the war had inspired them to paint delicate pictures set in half-shades and pastel tones, but in the war years had changed to a rambunctious locale inspiring bold colors and brush strokes and loud, patriotic messages instead.  In a larger sense, of course, "the floating world" is Japanese society itself and its political transformations during and after WWII.

 

Switching back and forth between -- and contrasting -- Ono's memory of the war and pre-war years, and his postwar retirement life, An Artist of the Floating World traces the stories not only of Ono-san himself but also of several of his fellow artists -- fellow students at the villa of master teacher Moriyama, and later, students of his own -- as well as Ono's two daughters: one happily and fortuitously married while Ono's star was still shining high in the artistic and social firmament; the other, having seen one engagement come to naught in the post-war years over her father's "burdened" past already, now setting her hopes on the scion of a rising family, while her father makes the rounds of his former acquaintances to ensure that the detective sent by the prospective bridegroom's family to inquire into the bona fides of the bride and her father will hear nothing but good things.

 

As always in Ishiguro's novels, though, memory and the tricks it plays on our mind is the true topic here -- virtually all of Ishiguro's narrators are unreliable in the extreme, and Ono-san is certainly no exception.  As such, we never get a crystal clear picture of what exactly was his role during the war years, but from the details revealed over the course of the novel it becomes clear, at the very least, that he used to be a man of influence, whose recommendations could help make a person's career (though not of sufficient influence to spare someone whom he had denounced for an unpatriotic attitude a worse fate than a severe "talking-to" by the authorities), his paintings played a crucial role in the war machine's propaganda, he suffered a drastic fall from favor at the end of the war, his paintings are now all packed up and stored away -- and if he doesn't actually feel genuine remorse for his role during the war years, he is at the very least aware that he is expected to feel remorse; all of which, after having heard several stories of musicians and corporate executives who have committed suicide by way of a very Japanese "apology" for their real or perceived crimes, causes him to rise to such an apology, apparently entirely unprovoked, at his younger daughter's miai (the traditional dinner at which she is introduced to her would-be bridegroom).

 

Ono-san is not necessarily one of Ishiguro's most endearing protagonists, which, as in the case of Stevens, the butler / narrator in The Remains of the Day, has a lot to do with his reluctance to take off his rose-tinted glasses when looking in the mirror (even though, if the reaction of his bridegroom-to-be's family to his words of "apology" during the miai, and the young man's overall response to Ono -- as indeed the fact that they are willing to consider his daughter as a bride for their son to begin with, and the fact that there never seems to have been any official punishment or repercussions against Ono other than his art's fall from favor -- is anything to go by, he's probably more a pompous fool than anything else, supremely amenable to flattery, but ultimately judged as harmless by those that matter).

 

This is not a story set on a large canvas; rather, it's a vignette taking a look at post-WWII Japan through the prism of a miniature lens.  And while Ishiguro has certainly succeeded marvelously with this sort of setting in The Remains of the Day, by and large I find that I prefer those of his novels which create a somewhat wider landscape, such as Never Let Me Go and When We Were Orphans.  A story told by an unreliable narrator needs space for the reader to obtain their own perspective, and being tied too closely to the narrator him- or herself for lack of the inclusion of sufficient events that would allow such a perspective to grow leaves me, at the very least, a bit unsatisfied; more so, in any event, than in Ishiguro's longer novels, The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans, and Never Let Me Go.  While in those books I not only had a clear I idea who the narrators thought they were but also who I thought they were, here I know who Ono-san thinks he is, but not fully who others think he is -- nor have I come to a finite conclusion as to who I think he really is.

 

I read this book for the St. Martin's Day square of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season, after having had the dreidel pick this as my next book for me for the Hanukkah square.

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text 2017-11-21 21:40
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 8 - Hanukkah - and Square 3 - St. Martin's Day
The Shaman Laughs - James D. Doss
The Devil's Acolyte - Michael Jecks
An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro
A Darker Shade: 17 Swedish Stories of Murder, Mystery and Suspense Including a Short Story by Stieg Larsson - John-Henri Holmberg

Tasks for Hanukkah: Light nine candles around the room (SAFELY) and post a picture. –OR– Play the Dreidel game to pick the next book you read.

Assign a book from your TBR to each of the four sides of the dreidel:

נ (Nun)
ג (Gimel)
ה (He)
ש (Shin)


Spin a virtual dreidel: http://www.torahtots.com/holidays/chanuka/dreidel.htm
– then tell us which book the dreidel picked.

 

OK, here we go:


נ (Nun)     =  James D. Doss: The Shaman Laughs
ג
(Gimel)  =  Michael Jecks: The Devil's Acolyte
ה (He)
      =  Kazuo Ishiguro: An Artist of the Floating World
ש (Shin)
   =  John-Henri Holmberg (ed.): A Darker Shade

 

 

Alright -- Ishiguro it is.  And this will also give me my book themes for St. Martin’s Day (square 3): Read a book set on a vineyard, or in a rural setting, –OR– a story where the MC searches for/gets a new job. –OR– A book with a lantern on the cover, or books set before the age of electricity. –OR– A story dealing with an act of selfless generosity (like St. Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar).

 

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text 2017-11-16 01:35
ASHINAGA GROUP ASIA: STUDENT ACTIVISM

 

Ashinaga began 50 years ago with orphaned students advocating on their own behalf. This rich tradition of activism continues today. Student-led activism is a powerful means for conveying the situation of orphaned students to the general public and is central in fostering the qualities of leadership and teamwork in Ashinaga students.

 

Fundraising

 

Bokin, or Japanese-style street fundraising, has been a core component of Ashinaga since its inception. For two weekends every fall and summer, more than 10,000 Ashinaga students congregate at 200 central points across Japan. The students raise awareness through sharing their personal histories with passersby, as well as relating statistics regarding orphans. People then graciously place any amount of money—be it ¥1, ¥1,000, or more—in the boxes students are holding.

 

The funds raised at bokin go directly to a cause of the students’ choice. One year, for example, in response to the earthquake in the Kumamoto region of Japan, students directed all of the money they collected to the region’s recovery.

 

Since 2016, the students have made the monumental commitment to donate half of all funds raised to help support the education of orphaned students across Sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Causes supported in previous fundraising drives:

 

-HIV/AIDS orphans in Uganda

 

-1999 Armenia, Colombia earthquakes

 

-1999 Izmit Earthquake in Turkey

 

-1999 Jiji Earthquake in Taiwan

 

-2001 El Salvador earthquakes

 

-2003 Bam earthquake, Iran

 

-2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and Earthquake: India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar

 

-2015 Nepal Earthquake

 

Get Involved

 

We are always looking for eager volunteers who want to get involved with Ashinaga’s fundraising activities. As long as you have the motivation and a positive attitude, you are more than welcome to join us!

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text 2017-11-15 01:43
Ashinaga Group Asia: Research and Advocacy

 

Matching action with data

 

A key part of Ashinaga’s work is understanding the academic and financial challenges orphaned students face. Our research then becomes the basis for the support we provide as well as what we campaign for.

 

Ashinaga’s research and activism was key in the formation of Japan’s 2014 Childhood Poverty Act, which looks to increase government support for children and guardians in one-parent households.

 

Although our research has primarily focused on Japan, we hope to expand to Sub-Saharan Africa as our activities develop in the region. We also aim to widen the remit of our research to include data about the difficulties faced by elementary and middle school children.

 

The primary findings of our research thus far are summarized below.

 

Our findings

 

Ashinaga high school students find it difficult to pursue their desired careers after graduating. This is mainly due to financial constraints that have left them no choice but to give up going on to higher education.

 

For example, the percentage of those going on to university or junior college is lower than the national average.

 

Although public high schools are free, and there is a reduced school fee system at private high schools, educational expenses are still high—especially because of low incomes.

 

No matter how hard I work, my hourly wage remains ¥730. If I continue to work like this, I wonder whether I will end up homeless.

 

(44-year-old from Hokkaido)

 

I’m not entitled to receive the survivor pension with my current wage. I feel sad about the fact that my income is lower than families on welfare, no matter how hard I work. I changed to a night-shift job because the income is better, but I still have almost no money left when my next payday comes. I am not a full-time employee, so I don’t receive bonuses. I feel very anxious about my situation, but there is nothing I can do about it.

 

(49-year-old from Kagoshima)

 

An opinion survey of guardians of high school students, conducted in November 2013, found that children who have lost parents are troubled economically and mentally.

 

Detours

 

Of those responding to the survey, 33% indicated that their circumstances had led to “changes in career path,” and 19% “gave up higher education” to subsidize their household.

 

Two-thirds fall into the category of having a “shortage of education,” and this increases to more than 70% for families with two or more children. To cover the cost of education, 48% are “reducing all expenses other than educational expenses” and 41% are “cutting into deposits and savings.” 25% are “depending on their children’s part-time jobs.” This increases to 35% in the greater Tokyo area.

 

39% of high school students wish to pursue higher education, 27% are job seekers, and 55% percent nationwide go on to higher education. However, the number of those going on to higher education is 16% lower for Ashinaga high school students.

 

40% of job-seeking students “wish to pursue higher education, but cannot due to financial reasons,” and 13% “have to subsidize their households.” The total number of job-seeking students who wish to pursue higher education is 53%, which sharply increased by 13 points compared with the last survey, two years ago.

 

Due to a shortage in education, 42% “cannot attend tutoring school,” 33% “changed career path,” and 19% “gave up higher education” to support their household or siblings.

 

Working poor

 

The number of “non-regular employees” reaches 60%, and 15% work in two or more places.

 

Of In addition, 70% of guardians seek to “extend the payment period of the survivor pension and child support allowance from high school graduation to a longer term.”

 

Depression

 

Mental health problems are serious for both parents and children. Children are affected mentally after a parent’s death and/or disability. The results show that 29% of children “refused to or were unwilling to go to school,” 28% showed “an increase in depressed facial expression,” 24% “met with a counselor or psychiatrist,” 23% “became mad asily,” 20% “became lethargic,” and 12% “were bullied.”

 

Similarly, 42% of guardians are “depressed, and not feeling better,” followed by 41% “always having a feeling of crushing uncertainty,” 25% showing “nervousness,” 19% found they were “taking great pains to do anything,” 17% had “feelings of unworthiness,” 16% of “hopelessness,” 15% exhibited “fidgeting and restlessness,” and 10% were “considering suicide or double suicide.”’

 

It is evident that the number of guardians who are depressed is increasing.

 

Orphans

 

Children experience terrible loss when a parent dies. They lose not only their economic foundation, but their mental and cultural support as well. Sudden deaths from disaster or suicide are an even bigger shock. These children are faced with the fact that the presence of their loved ones is “fragile,” and normal life completely changes.

 

Children whose parents are fighting long-term illnesses, such as cancer, may experience the fear of death. On the other hand, some adults try to protect their children by not telling them they are ill. This results in death being sudden and more of a shock.

 

The number of suicides in Japan exceeds 30,000, and this has been the case since 1998. For children whose parents have committed suicide, the mental trauma is serious. In cases of suicide, along with the shock of sudden death, children suffer doubt. If the cause of death is unknown, children feel remorse. Thoughts such as, “they died because of me” or “I couldn’t help them” are common. Feeling disappointed and angry, and thinking “I was deserted” or “I wasn’t loved,” are also common.

 

In addition, they feel others watch to see how they respond to their parent’s death. Those who are told by their family and relatives to remain silent regarding their parent’s suicide are often pushed into isolation.

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