What I’ve been reading

by on July 20, 2013 at 2:37 pm in Books | Permalink

I’ve hit on three winners in a row:

1. Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism.  Way, way better than that dog in the nighttime stuff.  Update: The correct link is here.

2. Amy Sackville, Orkney.  Not every honeymoon works out the way you planned.

3. Rana Mitter, China’s War With Japan 1937-1945, the US edition has the sillier title Forgotten Ally.  Let’s hope there won’t be a rerun of this show, in any case the return to knowing some background on this conflict is rising.  I count this as by far my favorite history book of the year, splendid content and writing both.

Richard Sagar July 20, 2013 at 2:43 pm

You have the wrong link for the Noaki Higashida book.

Ryan T July 20, 2013 at 3:06 pm

“The US edition has the sillier title…”

The American title is often sillier. The worst culprit I’ve encountered may be Primo Levi’s “If This is a Man,” marketed to American readers as “Survival in Auschwitz.”

Victoria Rivero July 20, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I read the dog in the nighttime stuff, and it was VERY GOOD!

I’ ll read this winner you recommend. I has to be really great to surpass the other one. I’ll tell you.

mkt July 20, 2013 at 4:49 pm

“3. Rana Mitter, China’s War With Japan 1937-1945″

Hmm, Amazon doesn’t have any reviews yet but it does display the opening chapters. The introduction makes it look like an interesting book, but one which fails to lead to new conclusions, despite its aims. The major points of the book seem to be that China was involved in a titanic war for survival against an imperialist invader, a war which lasted 8 long years (even the Soviet Union only had to fight against Germany for 4 years). The author is undoubtedly correct that too many people fail to appreciate China’s situation and role, but that basic fact is familiar to people who know even the basics of the origins of WW II.

Chiang Kai-Shek had to deal with both Japan and the Communists. Mao Tse-Tung had to deal with both Japan and the Nationalists. Chiang also had to deal with his allies, and the aid and strategies that they controlled. That’s not new either; Stilwell eventually was essentially fired by Chiang.

The book promises to utilize, and I imagine delivers, new information gathered from hitherto hidden documents in Chinese archives. It does bring back to prominence a Chinese leader who most of us have never heard of, Wang Jinwei, who threw in his lot with Japan — in other words, who collaborated with the invaders. That’s somewhat interesting stuff, but does it change our view of the war and the relations between the great powers?

The book’s other big goal is to argue that there were four major allies, not three. One has to admit that it’s probably not coincidence that China was granted one of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council. OTOH, France was also one of the five, and it clearly had a less major role in the war than did the USA, UK, and USSR. I have only read the intro to Mitter’s book, but that intro failed to convince me that China had a role that calls for elevating it to the level of the Big Three. It was too weak militarily and economically. It did tie down millions of Japanese troops during the war, but those troops were of limited relevance anyway. Japan was not about to attack the USSR (it had learned that it couldn’t take on the USSR at Nomonhan in 1939); it did attempt to move through Burma towards India, but that strategic moved was as doomed to stalemate as Japan’s invasion of China was. Japan was too weak to triumph on either mainland Asia or in the Pacific.

So I imagine the book provides new nuance about the choices and decisions made by Chiang, Mao, and the relatively unknown Wang. It presents a nice re-framing of how we should look at China’s mid-century history, namely not as one of Communism vs Nationalism but rather China’s search for post-imperial modernization and identity. But do these insights change our view of what led to, and what happened as a result of, WW II? I’m not seeing it. The intro is filled with already-familiar ideas, such as why the Chinese frequently engage in anti-Japanese riots even today. The one big new argument is that China deserved to be part of a Big Four instead of being left out of the Big Three; if the book can make a convincing argument of that then that is indeed a big accomplishment. But the intro failed to convince, or even give a hint about how it might convince.

I’m eager to see additional comments about the book from Tyler or other reviewers, but given what I’ve seen so far I’m not convinced.

Ed July 21, 2013 at 3:54 pm

I’m in the middle of Beevor’s big history of World War II, and the Chinese parts contain much that is new, at least to me. He also highlights the role of Wang Jinwei. His account is much more favorable to Chiang than what I am used to reading.

middle aged vet July 21, 2013 at 10:35 pm

There is what seems to be a good, positive and lengthy review by a former Times of London East Asian journalist (Jonathan Mirsky) in the 6/22/2013 Spectator (available online today, I don’t know for how much longer). The US title, as compared to the UK title, will probably help sell books because the US market for “books about suffering in countries about whose history we know even less than our own” is vaguely equivalent to the market for “general history books on foreign countries and their unbearably sad pasts.” The average sales to non-specialists for such books are close to zero. However, the market for books about unbearable suffering by our allies in WWII benefits from such books being shelved in the WWII area of the bookselling marketplace, and sales of these books are less close to zero.

mkt July 24, 2013 at 2:52 am

Thanks for the heads up. The reviewer does like the book (although the reviewer seems to have an ongoing obsession with Mao and Communism vs Nationalism) and it sounds like it is good history. But for the reviewer the main message from the book seems to be that the Nationalists despite their faults fought doggedly against the Japanese. Again, good history but hardly news. It was the resistance of the Chinese (plus the sheer size of their country) which caused the Japanese to get bogged down in the first place. I.e. we already know that the Chinese put up a fight; if they hadn’t the Japanese would’ve overrun the country.

The review doesn’t address the book’s claims that China’s role in the war elevates it to be part of a Big Four; that is the one major new claim that the book seems to make but one which I still do not see the evidence for. Yeah, I could actually read the book and find out but if the author can’t make at least a glimmer of a convincing argument in the introduction, that’s enough for me to say no thanks. While still acknowledging that the book appears to be a good history in other aspects.

Wiki July 20, 2013 at 8:29 pm

Haven’t read this book but surely the deterrent effects of Nomonhan were partially dependent on Chinese conditions? If China had been MUCH easier to control and administer that might have changed Japanese attitudes towards fighting the Soviets. Granted that was mostly because China was big but that same factor was relevant for the Sovs stopping the Nazis in 41-42.

And Tyler’s isn’t necessarily that the book is new but that it is newly relevant.

Michael Gordon July 20, 2013 at 8:50 pm

I don’t think it’s really fair play off “The Reason I Jump” and “The Curious Incident” against each other. The first deals with severe autism, with Naoki making the case that there’s a compassionate, thoughtful human being beneath the largely uncommunicative shell. The second deals with Asperger’s, where people are quite capable of communicating their thoughts; the problem is that the way they think makes them come across as kind of jerk-y, though there’s no malice intended. As the father of an Aspie, I found the latter book to be eerily close to the mark. Ironically it’s the non-fiction one that feels like there’s a bit of creative licence involved (though that might be a product of the translation).

me July 21, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Fix your links

konshtok July 21, 2013 at 8:04 pm

the Naoki Higashida book is probably the result of “Facilitated communication”
and therefore even more fictional than the dog

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: