Sunday, June 28, 2020

Incidental Japan Month! Shogun

Shogun by James Clavell
Historical Fiction (1975 - 1152 pp.)

Shogun is the third 1100+ page novel I've read during the current pandemic, The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss and 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami being the other two. Unlike 1Q84, which takes place in 1984 amidst a Terminator-style '80s action plot, Shogun takes the reader back to an era I study with some regularity and the general public gobbled up back in 1975: the year 1600.

Shogun follows the story of John Blackthorne, an English sea pilot based on the real-life William Adams, the first English sailor in Japan. Blackthorne's story roughly follows Adams's, as both rise within the Japanese nobility through seamanship and linguistic skills, but Clavell fills out Blackthorne's emotions, dreams and loves in a way that isn't available from the records of Adams. Other characters, such as the daimyos Toranaga (ally of Blackthorne) and Ishido (enemy), the samurai Yabu (mostly ally) and Mariko (aka Maria, a convert to Catholicism, and Blackthorne's love interest), Portuguese pilot Rodrigues (frenemy?), Jesuit priest Martin Alvito (mostly enemy), and Blackthorne's Dutch sailors aboard the Erasmus, are also based on historical figures from the time period. Throughout Shogun, each character confronts conflicted loyalties, cross-cultural mishaps, and the ongoing battle between obligation and desire. Catholics are Blackthorne's mortal enemies, which is frequently lost on Japanese nobles who know Catholicism as the only form of Christianity.


Clavell's historical background is weaved into the story, rather than spat out as a lecture series, keeping the reader engaged with the characters and their surroundings. When Blackthorne draws a map of the world for Toranaga, Blackthorne brushes away everything away from the coastlines, demonstrating the state of mapmaking in 1600. (257) Nakamura's* discussion with Toranaga regarding Toranaga's vassalage to him (459-463) could be from a history textbook, yet the fourth wall stays standing. Likewise, kami are defined in a discussion between Mariko and Blackthorne, (622-623) which is helpful to Western readers unaccustomed to being surrounded by spirits, as an Englishman from the year 1600 would need explained as well. The lack of standardization of military uniforms, even in major military forces,** (531) is a part of history that lasted longer than most non-historians realize.*** These touches make Shogun's history (or at least most of it) real to popular and scholarly audiences.

Although previous authors have discussed Shogun's alleged historical accuracies at length in terms of social norms and political hierarchy,**** there are two more factual inquiries. Clavell makes generous use of socket bayonets as typical armaments of feudal Japanese soldiers, or at least of soldiers equipped with European-made guns: “At once Omi gave an order. His men slipped out the short sheathed bayonet sword that hung almost unnoticed from the back of their belts and snapped it into a socket on the muzzle of their muskets.” (535) However, in 1600, no one was using socket bayonets, European or Asian. Socket bayonets were invented in the late 1600s and were not in widespread use until the War of the Spanish Succession, a century after the events in Shogun took place.

To a lesser degree, Blackthorne's spot decision to pull an arrow out of a wounded soldier without first bandaging the wound unsurprisingly causes more damage. (933) Although modern first aid was not invented until the 19th century, soldiers had used arrows for centuries before 1600. Why Blackthorne, a seasoned veteran capable of commanding a ship, would pull out the arrow in this way is never explained.


A sorely missing concept to much of speculative fiction is one of Shogun's strong points: the wildly contrasting English and Japanese attitudes toward economics and trade. Various Japanese nobles' distastes with the Anglo-Dutch primacy of trade culminate when Yabu tells Toranaga that “Money’s filth – a toy for women to play with or for dung-filled merchants.”^ (281) However, Yabu seeks the ability to strangle rice and silk traffic, (169) characters both English and Japanese squabble over unfair 75% tax rates that, according to the Japanese, should be capped at a still-outrageous 60% (548), and the price of gold figures into Yabu's discussions with Blackthorne and a translator later on. (930)

With commodity availability and pricing being so central to control over feudal Japan, the importance of capital should follow. An early description describes the sad economic situation of the eight-year-old son of General Nakamura, the presumed heir of Japan: “The Court of the Son of Heaven was easy to dominate because, though it possessed all the land, it had no revenue.” (70) This is explained to Blackthorne through a curious inversion of Lockean private property, again emphasizing the central nature of commodities to feudal Japan: “Only peasants can own land. Understand? But samurai own all the produce.” (135) Ownership of land is relegated to farmers, of money below the status of samurai, yet the goods produced on the land and purchased with the money are of extreme importance to samurai. This is one bridge Blackthorne never crosses; he thinks in monetary terms until the end.

Culture (Animals)

Much of Shogun involves cultural differences and misunderstandings between the various nationalities of the characters, especially between the English and the Japanese. Whereas previous authors discuss everything from religion to sex, I'll focus on a topic deeply ingrained in Shogun yet notably absent from many previous reviews: animals.

Blackthorne revolts the Japanese by hanging a pheasant to age until his servants claim it is rotting, causing the gardener to cut it down against Blackthorne's orders. The subsequent execution of the gardener is completely against Blackthorne's wishes, but is aligned with the way the Japanese servants are accustomed to operating. That a dead pheasant is considered food at all, let alone aged, is alien to the Japanese; that the saga ends in death - "over a pheasant!", Blackthorne exclaims in horror - is alien to Blackthorne and to any modern-day reader. Hare soup, a favourite of Blackthorne's, is similarly unpopular among the Japanese faithful. (555) Meanwhile, Mariko assures Blackthorne he will eventually appreciate eating raw fish, skeptical as he is. Near the end of the book, Blackthorne eats raw fish with rice, not only with tolerance, but having craved it.^^

Companion animal husbandry is a topic that allows for more cross-cultural understanding. Toranaga is an avid falconer, often using his falconing^^^ time to meditate on his actions and his place in the Japanese fedual hierarchy. Thanks to a combination of Shogun and the timely searching of a few relevant maps, I learned just how easy the husbandry of peregrine falcons is as a cultural adaptation for Blackthorne, as they breed in both the United Kingdom and Japan. (585) Cross-cultural reverence of the majestic peregrine falcon continues to the present day, such as in Toronto's peregrine falcon live webcam.

As always, when an author introduces me to a new word, I give thanks where it is due. In Clavell's case, the word is "caparisoned", (287) a word I am surprised I had not encountered in my readings of medieval and early modern European history. According to, a "caparison" is:

a decorated covering for a horse or other animal, esp (formerly) for a warhorse
rich or elaborate clothing and ornaments
(tr) to put a caparison on

All those Renaissance fair horse garments are so much more easily summarized now.

Shogun caps off the run of extremely long novels I've had the fortune to read. The reading portion has been good fortune, although it almost seems crass to think of good fortune in 2020. Mariko offers a bit of Japanese civil war-era wisdom during a discussion with two courtesans that feels like it could be describing the current pandemic: “These are sad times. Difficult for nobles. Difficult for peasants.” (868)

Ease of Reading: 5^^^^
Educational Content: 7****

*Nakamura is based on Toyotomi Hideyoshi (d. 1598), the unifier of Japan in the immediate pre-Tokugawa period. English-language fiction featuring Hideyoshi would have been fascinating, but I understand Clavell's need to (a) have an English visitor present for the reader live through vicariously, and Adams did not appear in Japan until after Hideyoshi's death; and (b) write a story with more compelling rivalries than simply having everyone bow down to Hideyoshi a bunch of times.

**"Major military forces" excludes irregulars, such as Islamic State, while not being limited to post-Treaty of Westphalia-style nation-states.

***For example, World War II armies in Eastern Europe occasionally wore old Austro-Hungarian uniforms from World War I; this was a cruel irony considering how many European countries fought World War I in part to gain independence from Austria-Hungary. This is mentioned briefly in The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski, in the chapter on the war in Ukraine, but is unfortunately unmentioned in my entry on that book.

****Numerous sources debate the accuracy of the events depicted in Shogun. Clavell straddles the divide between history and fantasy, two genres discussed at length in the 1981 New York Times feature on Clavell, by having his characters engage in unlikely acts influenced by Clavell's own time period (e.g.: 1970s-era women's liberation movements) while existing in a highly realistic setting. For a comparable balance, see The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak or Sutton by J.R. Moehringer.

^This is not the only time people believed to be beneath samurai are referred to as "dung-headed". Peasants receive the same moniker.

^^I usually use spoiler alerts in these situations, but you didn't seriously think Blackthorne would die anywhere before the end of the book, did you?

^^^"Falconing" appears with a squiggly red line under it in Blogger despite no such underline appearing under the word "falconer". I am unsure what activity Blogger thinks a falconer engages in then. If Blogger is correct, and "falconing" should appear as a spelling mistake, consider it a word I have invented.

^^^^Shogun reads as quickly as an airport book. However, the sheer number of characters and locations in the book makes the reader forget some of the more minor ones exist. A Shakespeare-style Dramatis Personae and a detailed map of Japan in 1600 are all that keep Shogun from being a very easy read. Otherwise, Shogun's ease of reading is a compliment to the terseness of Clavell's prose. He deftly avoids 100-word sentences in favour of a short, clipped style. Off topic: this eighth footnote is likely a record for this blog. Any more of them, especially if they source more, and I'll have a damned term paper.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

First Championship Anniversary Day

A year ago today, my hometown Toronto Raptors won their first ever NBA Championship, 4-2 over the Golden State Warriors. I've been a Raptors fan since the plans for the team started taking shape in 1994, a year before their inaugural season starting in 1995. The team celebrates 25 years of play this year.

A year and a day ago, the St. Louis Blues won their first ever Stanley Cup, 4-3 over the Boston Bruins. My dad has been a Blues fan since their inception. Although I rooted for the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings back in the '90s, I casually picked up Blues fandom from him. (I was blogging about other issues yesterday.)

With the NBA and NHL set to reboot under drastically different circumstances than we're accustomed to, especially the NHL's World Cup of Soccer-style play-in tournament, it's a good time to reflect on 2019, when life was more normal.

The idea of a Raptors parade in downtown Toronto seems preposterous in the age of COVID-19. (I didn't go anyway.)

I saw the Raptors' victory coming, but the Blues stunned me so much I had to take pictures of my TV:

Pictures of course mine. I got that cabinet for $10, but that's a different story for a different time.

It's nice to have something to celebrate right now, even if it's only in very recent retrospect.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Bonus Book! 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Primary Source (1853/2013* - 242 pp.)

When on Earth does a primary source become a major movie release?

12 Years a Slave, 160 years later.

Solomon Northup was born free, lived in New York State with his wife and children, practised carpentry while playing the violin on the side, and then was lured to Washington, DC with the promise of being in a travelling circus band for a fair wage. From there, he was drugged,** imprisoned, shipped to New Orleans under an assumed name, sold into slavery at an auction block, and then put to work on three slave plantations. Finally, after almost twelve years in captivity (1841-1853), under William Ford (1841-1842), John Tibeats (1842-1843) and Edwin Epps (1843-1853), he was able to send letters to his compatriots back in New York, some of whom received their letter and immediately came to his rescue.

The form of the narrative combines the legacy of 18th-century English literature with a modern touch that resonates today. The descriptions at the start of each chapter correspond roughly to the succeeding paragraphs, with each description acting as an entry in a chapter's table of contents. Although this makes events like fights and attempted escapes less unexpected, it adds anticipation. Learning that there will be an axe attack in one chapter, for example, makes it harder to put the book down. It also shows Northup's ambition in seeking a wide audience for 12 Years a Slave, as memoirs or journals typically do not take their forms from novels.

The opening scenes, in which Northup descends from freedom into slavery, contain some of the most harrowing descriptions. Whereas slavery, once started, turned into a sort of daily monotony for Northup, the transition toward slavery involved: deception by two supposed circus ringleaders, the aforementioned possible drugging, unlawful seizure of a government-issued document establishing Northup's freedom, imprisonment in fetters in a slave pen, the giving of the assumed name Platt to Northup, and a bout of smallpox on the boat to New Orleans. Northup's bewilderment is transferred to the reader. Northup comments on the poor showing at the one circus show he played at on his violin: "The audience was extraordinarily sparse, and not of the selectest character at that, and Hamilton's report of the proceeds presented but a 'beggarly account of empty boxes.' " (14) His early attempt at rescue in New Orleans was thwarted by the uncertainty of the auction block, which could lead Northup to any number of possible destinations: " was then impossible to conjecture my ultimate destination, and requesting he would take measures to rescue me." (43)

Northup was a highly literate man who composed letters, read when he had a book in front of him, described the inner machinations of a sugar mill to a level of detail I could not possibly have done, (139-140) and made 12 Years a Slave a literary work. Ultimately, though, Northup faces the recognition that no matter how poorly Tibeats or Epps treats him, they are all human: "Blessed be sleep! It visiteth all alike, descending as the dews of heaven on the bond and free." (94) When the plantations' inhabitants come to blows, they are surprisingly balanced, such as when Northup defends himself from Tibeats so effectively that Northup puts his foot on Tibeats's neck until Tibeats relents. (71) Northup waxes literary when, in describing the events of years later, he decries the entire civilization of the pre-Civil War South: "Every man carries his bowie knife, and when two fall out, they set to work hacking and thrusting at each other, more like savages than civilized and enlightened beings." (134-135) Rather than a book summary or (gasp!) a book report, this entry weighs the merits of a primary source as a literary source. Here, Northup straddles the fine line between a true diary, factual but private, and a written performance. Gates Jr. acknowledges as such when, in the book's Afterword, he openly acknowledges that Northup engages in occasional factual wrongness, including regarding Northup's own birthyear.^ Northup's contemporaries verified the heart of his account, but it is interesting to see just how much the factual timeline can be bent until it breaks.

Northup's descriptions of the vicissitudes of slave life jar the reader into just how arbitrary an existence they were forced to live. I was taken aback at the average daily quota of two hundred pounds of cotton picked per day per slave, (109-110) considering I think of cotton as being an extremely lightweight material. By comparison, a heavy pair of jeans weighs approximately two pounds. Patsey's five hundred pounds of cotton per day seems unreachable to me. The abundance of bacon sounds delicious until Northup reminds the reader a few times that it is frequently worm-infested, rendering it inedible; he then remarks that the "flesh of the coon^^ is palatable" and that roast possum is "delicious". (131-132) As someone who's eaten nothing more adventurous in the USA than Kentucky burgoo, I can't imagine the foods Northup describes. All of that changes once per year, though, on a very special day I can identify with: "It was Christmas morning-the happiest day in the whole year for the slave." (189) His description of Mary McCoy's Christmas feast in 1852 portends good things to come. Northup would be rescued less than two weeks later.

Samuel Bass, a Canadian abolitionist who found work on Epps's plantation, sends the letters to Sandy Hill, New York, that would lead to Northup's rescue. Northup's overhearing of a conversation between Bass and Epps leads Northup to realize that Bass could be of assistance, especially when Bass gives his opinion on the institution of slavery: "There's a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever." (179) That punishment would come eight to twelve years after the release of Northup's memoir, when slavery was destroyed by the Union Army. Sadly, although there is evidence of Northup being alive in 1863, his last public appearance was in 1857, (236) and there is no extant document showing what Northup thought of the Civil War.

As a Canadian, I feel proud of the fact that Samuel Bass was Canadian. He is also the only named Canadian in the book. One hundred percent of the Canadians who are mentioned by name in 12 Years a Slave help Northup emerge from slavery. The one point Bass omits is the complete lack of mention of the name "Platt" anywhere on the letters he sends. (184) Due to this omission, and Northup never going by his actual name in Louisiana, Henry Northup almost never found Solomon. Even with his best efforts, Solomon Northup needed a little luck to return to freedom.

12 Years a Slave has three appendices that further restrict the percentage of paper that actually contains Northup's writing. Appendix A is a copy of the New York statute under which the Governor was compelled to appoint and compensate a representative to rescue a freeman kidnapped into slavery: Chap. 375, An act more effectually to protect the free citizens of this state from being kidnapped, or reduced to Slavery, (219-220) reproduced on Wikisource here. Being the interpreter of statutes I am, I read this short statute a couple times. The main thing that jumped out at me was the preponderance of the word "shall". When a slave was kidnapped from New York State into slavery, the Governor shall appoint a representative, the representative shall rescue the person in question, and the Governor shall compensate the representative, at least for expenses incurred. This is mandatory language, signalling that the legislature did not want to take its chances with a governor who was either sympathetic toward slavery or simply too apathetic to open the public coffer for a rescue mission. Many statutes that delegate authority use words like may, permissive language that grant a discretionary power. Not so for Chap. 375, which ties the Governor's hands. To Governor Washington Hunt's credit, he "took a lively interest in the matter" and appointed the self-nominated Henry Northup as representative immediately. (195)

Where does 12 Years a Slave leave us in terms of appreciating a primary source as a work of literature, then? My old mantra of art appreciation - "Does it do what it is attempting to do?" applies once again. 12 Years a Slave was meant both as a memoir and as an attempt to reach a large audience. As a memoir, Northup's attention to detail (see, for example, the sugar mill description) grants historians the source material they require. As an attempt to reach a large audience, the fact that a major movie was based on it 160 years after its release should suffice.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 9

NOTE: I occasionally jump between present tense and past tense during this entry. The rule is simple: present tense applies to events confined to the book, whereas past tense applies to historical events primarily outside the book. For example, Bass sends the letters, as the evidence for this event lies within the book's narrative, as whereas Hunt appointed Henry Northup, an event that occurred when Solomon Northup was understandably not present.

*Northup's original account was written, published and discussed widely in 1853. The edition I read, from 2013, contains three introductions (Foreword by Steve McQueen, Editorial Essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Introduction by Ira Berlin) and an afterword by Gates Jr. I did a double-take before realizing that Steve McQueen, the director, was born six years after The Great Escape (1963), starring the other Steve McQueen.

**Gates Jr. thinks Northup's captors got him very drunk, (233) whereas other sources state that the effects Northup relays are consistent with belladonna or laudanum poisoning. The exact cause of Northup's shaky memory of that night is unimportant compared to what he endured afterward; this uncertainty merely shows how inexact a reading of events 160+ years ago is bound to be.

^Northup claims to have been born in 1807, whereas Gates Jr.'s assessment of the available records shows Northup to have been born in 1808. (240) Chillingly for me, assuming the 1808 date is correct, that means Northup was abducted at the same age I am now.

^^"coon" is short for "raccoon". This was a term that I, being from Toronto, grasped right away.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

June's Book: 1Q84

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Fantasy (2010/2011* - 1157 pp.)

Zelkova serrata, a tree native to Japan, pictured here in 2006. The zelkova tree plays a key part in the setting near the end of the book. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

1Q84 is the first Japanese translation in the history of this blog. In Japan in 1984, Aomame, a young assassin and personal trainer, and Tengo, a young novelist and math teacher, trade chapters during a story that brings them together over a mysterious novel called Air Chrysalis, a science-fiction-esque cult called Sakigake, and a cast of characters that rotates in and out of their lives. The book's highlight is the opening scene, when Aomame departs a taxi on the highway to take an emergency stairwell toward her newest kill. For the 1100+ pages afterward, nothing is the same.

One of the earliest questions that arises is when the beautiful 17-year-old Eriko "Fuka-Eri" Fukada writes Air Chrysalis, and Tengo rewrites it but it is published solely under Fuka-Eri's name, whether it is "literary fraud". While ghostwriters' names are generally included on the front covers of published books (see here for an example on this blog), I've never heard of an uncredited ghostwriter being the source of a fraud. If anything, the uncredited ghostwriter is the one being cheated, but Tengo is in on the plan from the start. For as many times as the characters use the "fraud" term, no one ever faces any legal or public relations consequences for it. The highlight of the Air Chrysalis story arc is when Aomame reads extensively from it, (665-679) drawing the reader into what would otherwise be a King in Yellow-style referenced work that only the characters, never the reader, get to see.

Meanwhile, Tengo copes with the illness and eventual death of his father, with whom he was always close geographically but was never close with emotionally. Tengo's father's position as an NHK fee collector, going door to door in the name of the Japanese state television company, leads to NHK fee collection references appearing at eerie times in the latter part of the book. At the home where Tengo's father is staying, where the nurses Kumi Adachi, Tamura and Okura help him, Tengo identifies with the main character in "Town of Cats", a fictitious short story about a man who wanders too much in a town full of cats and is subsequently unable to take the train home. Tengo's constant wonder of whether he will get home, or where home even is, pervades his perspective throughout the book. It is to him as the alternate reality year 1Q84, which looks like 1984 intentionally, is to Aomame.

Absolutely none of these characters are likable; Murakami's great gift is making the reader care so much about what happens to all these people I don't like. Aomame is a wreck; Tengo is going nowhere in life; Komatsu, the publisher, is manipulative; Fuka-Eri doesn't say much; Professor Ebisuno, her legal guardian, barely publishes. When the reader sees the unfulfilling lives these characters lead, largely by their own hands (although Fuka-Eri gets slack, as she was raised by the Sakigake cult), it is readily apparent that the alternate world, 1Q84 and/or the Cat Town, is what these characters need. When life isn't what you want it to be, trade it for a different life, as my short story "I Drank the Toxic Cocktail" posited back in 2012.

For all the chatter of "don't give your characters names that are too similar, it'll confuse the reader", Murakami has expertly named characters incredibly similarly (to an English-speaking eye) yet there is never any confusion. Tamaki, Tamaru, and Tamura are all characters, and although they never meet, they all recur throughout the book. At no point did any of these two characters appear to be the same person, nor was there ever any confusion. In the same way that your phone contacts might contain, say, a Mike B and a Mike S,** similar names in fiction can work plenty well.

One of the great ironies of 1Q84 is when multiple characters call Air Chrysalis a "harmless tale" or "harmless fantasy novel". (958, 987, 997) Fantasy can be anything from misleading childhood education,*** to a Christian apologetic (even if The Guardian wants to gripe about it), to an attack on academic mathematicians, but none of those are harmless. Murakami obviously knows this, so the fact that the characters have effectively entered the world of Air Chrysalis but then write off the book they've entered has a sly feel to it.

Parts of 1Q84 are highly quotable. Here are a few of my favourites:
“Robbing people of their actual history is robbing them of a part of themselves. It’s a crime.” -Tengo, to Fuka-Eri (322)

“[Niagara Falls] was the most boring town in the world.” -Tamaru, to Aomame (403)

“You’re nothing.”^ -Tengo's father, to Tengo (509)

“Good and evil are not fixed, stable entities but are continually trading places.” -the Leader of Sakigake, to Aomame (558)

“There were only a few government offices and companies that managed information by computer. It cost too much and took too much effort. But a religious organization of national scale would have the resources to computerize.” (827)

“It’s not like it’s crammed with hot-off-the-press information or anything.” -Tamaru, to Aomame, discussing Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (970)

“Once you get your hopes up, your mind starts acting on its own.” (1028)

“There's something about those secrets that only the deceased person can rightly understand. Something that can't be explained, no matter how hard you try. They're what the dead person has to take with him to his grave. Like a valuable piece of luggage.” -Kumi Adachi, to Tengo (1075)
Then, of course, there's "Lucky", the faux-Aesop's Fable about the vegetarian cat who decides a rat carcass has a good trade-in value.

At times, 1Q84 feels more like it is coming from Murakami than it is from the characters. Having a main character, Tengo, be a struggling author reads like Write What You Know. Having Air Chrysalis be a literary journal submission that subsequently becomes a bestseller reads like Wish Fulfillment, and is arguably more unrealistic than an actual air chrysalis. The characters all know obscure bits of literary, historical and scientific trivia, even Fuka-Eri, who has spent most of her life in an isolated cult compound; after a while, the reader feels like this is the trivia Murakami knows, not what the characters should be realistically expected to know.

There are a few points in 1Q84 that leave me confused. One is that Murakami goes to pains to describe Aomame's unnaturally large left ear during her first couple chapters, which she sees as a deformation, although it is covered by her long hair. Then, even after she performs various intimate acts with various characters, no one appears to ever notice this large ear, nor does Aomame worry that someone will. Finally, "her small, pink ears" (1134) are mentioned near the end of the book. What happened to this abnormally large ear? On a different but equally confusing note, the term "Indian summer" (1119) is used. In a classic American novel, I could see this term being used. 1Q84 is a translation from Japanese, though. Why would Japanese people use the term "Indian summer"? These points may seem minor, but they belie a litany of perplexing behaviour taken by the characters and wording used by the narrator at various times.

1Q84 is a page-turner, with 200+ pages in a single day melting by. It still comes out feeling about 300-400 pages too long; an 800-page book is long enough, but 1157 is even longer than Pat Rothfuss.^^ Murakami frequently spends two-plus pages on a shaggy dog story, such as when Tamaru discusses his old quasi-friend at the Catholic orphanage, or uses four sentences when two would suffice. Nonetheless, the book still blisters by.

Something I learned: in Japan, cans of hot coffee have been available from vending machines since the 1970s. Being used to cans of cold coffee, and paper cups of hot coffee, I was blissfully unaware it was even possible to dispense a hot metal can from a vending machine without it being too hot to touch. The characters purchase these a few times. I would too.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1

*Original publication dates of the Japanese original and English translation respectively. The Japanese original was published in 2009 (Books 1-2) and 2010 (Book 3) but was not published as a full volume until 2010.

**These were two of my friends during Grade 2. In the 25 years since then, I have never once confused them. Why readers would confuse fictional characters so easily evades me.

***Why is King Arthur ruling France? This may be the greatest mystery in Disney history.

^I have no idea whether any member of Iceage has read 1Q84, but that this is the title of their 2013 album feels fitting.

^^The Wise Man's Fear (unreviewed), which I read in March, is 1107 pages long.

Monday, May 25, 2020

RIP Chamsine/Kababana, 2017-2020

In addition to the mounting death toll from the current COVID-19 pandemic, we've started seeing a restaurant death toll. Among the more prominent examples in Toronto are Vesuvio's, a family-owned Italian restaurant near High Park that was in continuous operation from 1957 until April 19, 2020; and Prohibition Gastro Hub, a notorious hangout for Raptors fans with a hankering for happy hour deals at Yonge and Eglinton or in Leslieville.

Now there's a casualty at the corner of St. Clair Avenue West and Vaughan Road.

April 13:

This morning:

Chamsine, and then Kababana (you can see the red Kababana sign over the old bright orange Chamsine menu) served some of Toronto's most delicious Middle Eastern takeout food at affordable prices. For $5, including tax, you could have a falafel wrap. $6.19 got you a chicken shawarma wrap. $7.08 got you a shish taouk. I can recall those prices from memory due to the sheer number of times I went. Their fries with garlic sauce were a great Canadian side.

I ate from Chamsine/Kababana at home, on the 512 streetcar, or walking to Wychwood Barns. Given the propensity for takeout there, as the tables were frequently vacant despite the lineup at the counter.

Gone but not forgotten.

I worried about this exact scenario on Quora over a month ago.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Things in Life

On this blog, I have a history of cataloguing things. From the books I review, the soup I eat, listing virtues and sins, or even my laundry (that last one was admittedly early in the blog's history), I make lists and diaries that challenge me in some way.

I've also taken to an oddball COVID-19 pandemic diary. Rather than the usual detonator blast of Instagram stories (although there's nothing wrong with those), I've tackled some very specific issues that are not usually covered on the same blog but that work fine right here: cooking a shelter-in-place-friendly menu, archival book readings, even more shelter-in-place-friendly cooking, and my inhalation of The Last Dance, starring none other than Michael Jordan.

Today, I combine the two: a life catalogue that can make you thankful even in these trying times.

None of the categories should overlap.
  • ·Things I Love Doing are non-competitive. For example, drinking coffee or walking in the park.
  • ·Things I Am Good At are either competitive or have some capability to outachieve. For example, a sport or a game.
  • ·Goals I Have are experiences in life. They are neither competitive nor non-competitive. For example, visiting a certain historical site.
Love, be good at, and set goals away! My responses are mine alone.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Last Dance, Episodes I-X

I finished watching The Last Dance today. As a huge NBA fan, I have a lot of thoughts. As someone born in 1987, whose hometown got its NBA franchise in 1995, I have a lot of thoughts. (Full post on Quora, linked below.)

I wore my Mitchell and Ness Bulls shirt while watching Episodes IV-VI.

The format is perfect: a chronicle of the 1997–1998 Chicago Bulls season, in which they finished 62–20 en route to their sixth NBA championship in eight years, interspersed with a chronological account from Michael Jordan’s youth until the season right before. The prominent Jordan interviews combine with interviews of Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, Jerry Reinsdorf, Horace Grant, and many of the other protagonists. The back-and-forth was easy to follow thanks to a number line-style segue whenever the documentary changed time periods.
The first topic that comes to mind for as fan who’s watched over two decades of basketball since the Bulls’ last championship is how close most of the games were. The Bulls frequently won and lost multiple games in the same playoff series by 1, 2, 5, 8 points. (Watch Episode IX, about the epic 1998 Bulls/Pacers Eastern Conference Final, for the best example.)
The second topic that comes to mind is that the Bulls never won a Finals in four games or in seven. There’s a uniquely “never in doubt, but never a complete blowout” about the team.
My favourite moments (basketball) were the early contending and championship years, from about 1988–1992.
  • The Bulls/Pistons rivalry
  • The first championship: Jordan over Magic
My favourite moments (other) were the sports business aspects behind Jordan’s rise to stardom and the Bulls’ near fall from grace.
  • The development of the first Air Jordan shoe
  • The inside material on the Scottie Pippen contract dispute
What I thought the series needed more of was detail on the 1996 and 1997 seasons. Only four teams have won 69 or more games in an NBA season; the Bulls won 72 and 69 games in those consecutive seasons. At the time, a couple decades before the 73–9 Warriors, you had to go back to the 1971–1972 Lakers in order to see that kind of production.
Although there was a great discussion about the 1996 NBA Finals (against the 64–18 SuperSonics, who in many other seasons would have had the best record in the league), most of the 72–10 flies by. The 1996–1997 season, in which the Bulls went a blistering 69–13, appears as a glossed-over prelude to the first Jazz Finals. The Bulls/Heat Eastern Conference Finals is not even mentioned, or else was so briefly I missed it entirely while getting up for a drink of water.
What I didn't enjoy as much was when the biopic sections on Michael Jordan steered too far away from the team’s story. The section on the rumour of David Stern suspending Jordan for 18 months(!) could have been shorter. I didn’t need to hear from Barack Obama, although he’s always good for ratings. Some of the praise toward Jordan felt obvious more than anything.
A final, mischievous thought: Neither the Rockets nor the Spurs ever played against the Bulls in the Finals. To win it all, Jordan never had to knock off Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson when it mattered most. We’ll never know what would have happened.

See my full post on Quora here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

May's Book: Battle Cry of Freedom

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
History (1988 - 867 pp.)

Battle Cry of Freedom, 32 years after its initial publication, is still widely considered the leading book on the American Civil War. For an academic text, it is gripping. For such a fast read, it is supremely well sourced, drawing from hundreds of primary sources and a wealth of secondary sources.

Fortunately for McPherson and his North American audience, the Civil War may be the best-documented event to ever have such a high percentage of its historiography written in English. It has been reviewed by so many leading professors of American history that I will not attempt to displace their scholarship. Instead, I will highlight a few of the major issues that may entice new readers, surprise old ones, and look at the book from the perspective of 2020. Due to the extensive nature of the material, which I am sadly unable to cover in full in such a short review (my apologies to Battle of Antietam enthusiasts), I am also taking the uncommon (for me) step of adding subheadings.

McPherson's Retelling, 1847-1861

Surprisingly for a book about the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom starts not at Fort Sumter or at the 1860 Presidential election, but in Mexico City in 1847. (3) Manifest Destiny, and with it the Mexican-American War, led to the United States's massive territorial expansion. This expansion brought a minor difficulty and a major difficulty; the minor difficulty was how to outfit and supply ports on the United States's new western coastal state of California,* (49) whereas the major difficulty was whether these new states would be free states or slave states. This major difficulty sets up McPherson's extensive discussion of the America of the 1850s, which is itself crucial to the book for two reasons. One reason is that it was arguably the most disastrous decade in American history, so full of sectarian divisions that civil war seemed inevitable by its end. The other reason is that Battle Cry of Freedom is part of a ten-book series covering all of American history; with so few volumes to cover so much ground, if McPherson had not written such a definitive history of 1850s America, one might not exist.

In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's stunning 1860 election victory, and the Southern slave states' subsequent secessions,** it becomes easy to forget that those states more or less on the Mason-Dixon Line were in a uniquely poor position: they had enough slaves to be antagonized by abolitionism, but not enough to be willing to fight for the institution. (284) This was the heartland of John Bell's Constitutional Union party, which won Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee; Kentucky would remain in the Union, Tennessee would secede, and Virginia would be rent in two with the independence of West Virginia in 1863. No slave state voted for Lincoln, even the ones who would send troops to die for the Union.

A Long War

Like World War I half a century later, each side thought it would win quickly: "With such confidence in quick success, thoughts of strategy seemed superfluous." (333) In retrospect, that was the only outcome that might have favoured the South.^ David Farragut and Benjamin Butler's capture of New Orleans came early in 1862, Butler leading "unscathed troops" into the city, (420) leading diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, who McPherson quotes extensively, to state: "New Orleans gone--and with it the Confederacy. Are we not cut in two?" (422) Popular culture's relative emphasis on Robert E. Lee's march north to Pennsylvania understates just how devastating the Western Theater was to Southern interests, including (as Chesnut implied) cutting Texas off from the rest of the South. Later Southern incursions into Kentucky, for example, would find the local populace so indifferently resistant toward Braxton Bragg's invasion force to the point that he considered his brief military successes in that state pointless. (518) More decisively, occupied Louisiana and Tennessee were permitted to collect votes in the 1864 Presidential election; both states voted for Lincoln, which would have been unthinkable in 1860. Even Lee's laurels he carried into Gettysburg in 1863 were elusive, as his and James Longstreet's^^ defeat there quickly ended the ongoing mediation discussions to have a consortium of European Great Powers resolve the war. (664)

Everything from poor-quality uniforms to disease outbreaks ravaged both sides, but no one was ravaged worse than the Confederacy. The Confederate medical corps, for example, was full of capable people who lacked the resources to heal wounded troops. (485) Similarly, even in Lee's Virginia Theater the Southern soldiers frequently looked so bedraggled, such as during the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864, the local civilians were appalled at their appearances. Then there was General William Sherman, oft-cited as the inventor of modern total war, whose victory at Atlanta in 1864 and subsequent March to the Sea caused McPherson to note: "'War is war, and not popularity-seeking,' wrote Sherman in pursuance of his career as Georgia's most unwelcome visitor." (755) Philip Sheridan would bring a similar mindset to the Virginia Theater during his Burning of the Shenandoah Valley, as would Ulysses S. Grant in ordering the use of a ground mine in the assault on Petersburg, Virginia, "a tragic fiasco" that resulted in part of the Confederate line plummeting to death in a makeshift sinkhole. (758) Worst of all, perhaps, was the sack of Columbia, South Carolina, by Sherman: "Units from two of Sherman's corps occupied the capital on February 17; by next morning almost half of the city was rubble and ashes." (829)

The Book Itself

There are so many cities, rivers and other locations, with the only maps being extreme closeups focusing on individual hills or plains. Battle Cry of Freedom could have used more maps, especially zoomed-out maps of entire states or even the entire United States of America. Maps of the old South would have been especially useful considering how much of it was destroyed. Regarding one of the war's more prominent examples, Grant's capture of Vicksburg, (map on 632) I have never seen Vicksburg mentioned once outside of a Civil War context; a non-North American might not even realize that Vicksburg is in Mississippi.

Battle Cry of Freedom, already at almost 900 pages (a contender for longest book I've reviewed on here), could have used an expanded epilogue briefly introducing the Reconstruction. Although Battle Cry of Freedom is part of a series, so the Reconstruction is presumably covered in the following book, the end of the book does not even get as far as the infamous barn burning of John Wilkes Booth a mere seventeen days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The Ironclad Oath, first promulgated in 1863, does not appear in the book's index. For a book that starts with an overview of the Mexican-American War, it ends so suddenly the reader is flummoxed by the lack of explanation of what happened in the defining first few months of Reconstruction.

A frequent mention by McPherson, which I have seen echoed by other authors, is the frequent use of the word "conservative" to describe Southern Democrats. This raises the question: what, precisely, were Southern Democrats attempting to conserve? Although Jefferson Davis is quoted once as self-identifying as a conservative, both sides far more frequently referred to themselves as the heirs of the Revolutionary War generation. The comparison between the rapidly industrializing, navally dominant, abolitionist North and the United Kingdom was not lost on Southerners, who called Abraham Lincoln "his Majesty Abraham the First". Northern Democrats accused Lincoln of passing "aristocratic legislation" from which "The rich are exempt!" (italics in original, quoting Robert Sterling's 1974 PhD thesis on Midwestern Civil War draft resistance) for the commutation laws that allowed Northerners to pay a fixed sum of $300 to evade conscription. (602-603)

As always, I give credit to authors for teaching me new words where it is necessary. In the case of McPherson, it is enfilade, "a position of works, troops, etc., making them subject to a sweeping fire from along the length of a line of troops, a trench, a battery, etc." It is effectively the infantry version of a broadside.
The Civil War: A Conflict That Takes Time to Digest

By complete coincidence, I reviewed Ward Moore's 1953 alternate history novel Bring the Jubilee a month ago. It's been a Civil War-inspired spring. Perhaps this is due to my planned trip to Harpers Ferry, cancelled amid coronavirus concerns. Perhaps it is due to the fact that sheltering in place, with all the activities that entails, finally gave me the time necessary to read an 867-page academic tome. May this opportunity for more mountainous reading fare you well.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 10

*In an otherwise thorough book, the establishment of the early US Pacific Fleet (Pacific Squadron until 1907) is completely unexplained despite the fleet's critical role in American expansion during this period. Prior to a railway to California or the Panama Canal, how did the US get the necessary manpower, supplies and infrastructure to the Pacific? Ideas from my general knowledge of 19th-century world history ricocheted through my synapses, from a perilous journey around Cape Horn to a purchase agreement with the Russian Empire. Thankfully, this is researchable. As early as 1821, when the Pacific Fleet was founded, some ships did go around Cape Horn, and at least some ships went all the way around the Cape of Good Hope.

**Among McPherson's gifts is a tendency toward being just literary enough to keep the reader interested without drawing too much attention to the form of his prose. I write this alliteration in that spirit.

^Any scenario in which the South wins the Civil War is pure speculation at this point. The most likely discussed scenario is Generals Joseph Johnston, Pierre Beauregard and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson leading a force north from the First Battle of Bull Run up to the poorly defended walls of Washington, D.C., where they could have induced Abraham Lincoln to sign a surrender document acknowledging the independence of the Confederacy. (344-349)

^^I fear I do not give Longstreet enough credit here, as he was one of the Confederacy's finest generals during the war. In Gettysburg in particular, he opposed the disastrous Pickett's Charge, only ordering it due to direct orders from Lee. (656, 662) After the war, Longstreet joined the Republican party, showing a willingness for at least some prominent Southerners to make the best of the restored Union. Nonetheless, if my great sin in discussing this book is not giving enough credit to Confederate generals, I can sleep soundly.

Thursday, May 7, 2020 - it's mathematically worth something!

As you know from reading this blog, I launched my website,, last December. I've been quiet about public appearances ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but apparently my website is appreciating in value anyway.

I appear to be in the good company of self-employed musicians and, of all brands, a line of watches with the same name as a popular clothing manufacturer.

The word "books" raises my domain name's value.

"Someone" owns that domain: me!

Saturday, May 2, 2020

In Honor of the Books I Read Before 2012

As all you devoted readers of this blog know, I've posted about books religiously since March 2012, based on the dare a fellow RateYourMusic user sent me (and her, but she never completed it) to read a book a week in 2012. It's not as though I went from being a non-reader to being a power reader overnight, though. Here's one of many examples I'll feature on this blog of a fantastic book I read before that fateful January 2012 date:

A Great and Fateful King: Edward I and the Forging of the British Empire by Marc Morris

My post on Quora:
Edward I of England (1239–1307; r. 1272–1307) was destined for greatness. He scored an early victory while crown prince in the grisly Battle of Evesham (1265), which established him as the main force standing between rebellious nobleman and his father, Henry III. Edward became king while on the Ninth Crusade, which he aborted early in order to attend his own coronation ceremony. From there, he went on to conquer substantial portions of what is now Southwestern France, conquer Wales, land a decisive blow against the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk (1298), and set off reforms of the English legal system. Refreshingly for the time, his marriage to Eleanor of Castile appears to have been a genuine love match.

More controversially, he increased the use of drawing and quartering, especially in the wake of the conquest of Wales. He also expelled the Jews from England in 1290, which modern historians have understandably listed as the worst act during his reign; to show how much times change, it was one of his most popular acts at the time.

If you want a lengthy but fast-reading book that follows one of England’s most iconic rulers through swashbuckling battles and diplomatic tensions, this one’s your bet.

I read this book 12 years ago, but it’s still so vivid to me I just wrote the above summary off the top of my head. It’ll be available on pretty much any online retailer.
If you want a biographical slice of medieval England, Morris's book is a great place to start.

Friday, May 1, 2020

A Word on New Literary Journals

As someone who's considered launching a literary journal from time to time, who follows a number of them, and is generally active in Toronto's literary community, I have a thought on new journals.

When authors look to submit to a literary journal, whether it's fiction, nonfiction, poetry, a one-act play, or a photograph they took of their favourite peony, there are only three ways to tell whether a journal is worth the effort (and/or cost) to submit:

Past issues.

Ultimately, literary journals live and die on the content they produce. While this may seem obvious, it's not as simple as saying "this journal is a SF journal, and I write SF, so I should submit" or "this journal publishes stories about the Pacific Northwest, and I write stories set there, so I should submit". Everything from the typical word count (which is often different from the maximum word count on Submittable) to the author bio format play into whether a submission is the right fit for that particular journal. There's also the niggling background question, constantly out there, as to whether any given literary journal is publishing material that is good.

The submitter's question here, that the journal has to answer, is: Do I want my story to be one of these stories?


Website design, layout and visuals are even more important in the artistic (including literary) world than anywhere else. A website like Pro Football Reference or Basketball Reference doesn't need to look good because it's an aggregation of data meant to be used by sports analysts, bettors and fans. That said, the Flash attack approach of a website like is enough to crash a laptop. I've used sports websites here to avoid drawing attention to any particular literary journal. A good literary journal website, in its layout and its art, will draw in the reader. An additional stylistic point: typos look especially bad when you're telling your prospective authors to submit their best, most edited, work.

Self-plug time: my website, Matthew Gordon Books, is a good example of the balance between stripped-down and spiffed-up.

The submitter's question here, that the journal has to answer, is: Do I want my story to look like one of these stories?


The editor(s) of a literary journal are presumably living people, not bots. Their names should be on the website, either under a Masthead heading or on the submission page. Being able to Google the editor(s) allows a prospective author, or even a prospective reader (literary journals get purchased sometimes!), to see what else the editor has written and what else the author likes. For example, if I were listed on a masthead somewhere, you could quickly see, from my Quora posts and from my short story "The Aviary", that I like experimental, punchy fiction that gets straight to the point and is at or under 1,000 words. My educational and professional backgrounds are also easy to find if you dig a little. If you graduated from my alma mater, tell me that!

The submitter's question here, that the journal has to answer, is: Do I want my story to be published by these people?

The above three criteria are especially important when a literary journal is either set to release its first issue, requires payment along with submissions, or especially both.

If you have no past issue to show, and no one can tell who you are, yet you are expecting money along with submissions... I can't imagine who would even fork over $5 because some unknown person might publish a literary journal at some point. You can buy a sandwich for that.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Bacon Pepper Bind

In the spirit of my ongoing and updating COVID-19 menu, I invented a new dish yesterday. Self-isolation and sheltering in place mean more slow-roasting; who has the time to leave a roast in the oven for hours on a workday? This time, I've concocted a cross between a jalapeno popper and a turducken.

The Bacon Pepper Bind

  • 1 bell pepper
  • 1 jalapeno
  • 2 bacon strips
  • Cream cheese in enough quantity to line the inside of a bell pepper
  • Pepper and/or other spices to taste (I used cardamom)
  1. Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  2. Cut the top off the bell pepper. Cut the inside out of the bell pepper so you have a bowl. Punch the stem out of the top of the bell pepper but leave the rest intact so it looks like a ring.
  3. Line the inside of the bell pepper with a thick layer of cream cheese.
  4. Insert the jalapeno (keep it whole) into the cream cheese-lined bell pepper so that the jalapeno’s stem looks like it could be the stem of the bell pepper. If you need to cut part of the jalapeno off to meet this height requirement, do so as necessary.
  5. Put the bell pepper ring on top of the jalapeno. At this point, you should have what looks like a whole bell pepper with a conspicuous-looking stem.
  6. Wrap the bacon strips around the bell pepper so that it is mostly covered. Ensure that there is bacon sealing the cut you made during step 2 above.
  7. Place the bacon-wrapped, stuffed bell pepper onto the foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes or until bacon is crispy.
  8. Let sit for 2–3 minutes before serving. It should be steaming at this point. Enjoy!

You can also find this recipe in a Quora answer I wrote yesterday.

Coincidentally, the sunset from my balcony was roughly the colour of my cooking:

In the spirit of this blog, and my predisposition to assign rankings and ratings,

Ease of Cooking: 8
Nutritional Content: 5*

*The bacon and cream cheese add fat, including saturated fat, but the bacon pepper bind is gluten-free and effectively no-carb. I also used Longo's in-store-made light cream cheese, for whatever fat content that saves. The bell pepper and jalapeno, of course, are as healthy as can be.