The Snakehead is a curious book for anyone interested in the general subject of immigration. Taking place mostly throughout the 80s, 90s, and 00s, itThe Snakehead is a curious book for anyone interested in the general subject of immigration. Taking place mostly throughout the 80s, 90s, and 00s, it tells the true and engrossing story of many of Chinatown's underworld figures that were involved in the "human smuggling" of Chinese immigrants. I found the whole subject of "human smuggling" fascinating because, familiar only with "human trafficking," a wholly different beast, "human smuggling" is a cornerstone of illegal immigration in America, whether from Latin America or from Asia and consists of people who enter into indentured servitude to come to America, often paying fortunes to do so. This is distinguishable from the slavery-like conditions of human trafficking which often relies on deceit and violence in order to force people into sweatshop labor and prostitution. Not that there isn't plenty of violence and deceit in human smuggling, but the Snakehead explains in depth the difference between the two and what it all means for immigration.
The Snakehead tells a series of interwoven stories from a bunch of different perspectives. It lays out, in often gruesome detail, the travesties that Chinese immigrants would endure to come to America, and the often sizable debts to shady and unforgiving people they would incur in doing so. It also tells the story of people who built huge criminal empires and, often, very nearly legitimate business empires based on the fortunes they obtained from being "Snakeheads," the term used for human smugglers. Most fascinating of all, a detailed portrait of how it all interacted with Chinatown organized crime, the rise and decline (in some cases) of Chinatowns in all the major cities in America, and even the proliferation of Chinese restaurants and the infamous Chinatown buses. To people who already know about the origins of all of this, the Snakehead does still have plenty of personal drama and interesting stories about the colorful and often psychologically warped people who entered this business and the tragedies that befell their customers. ...more
My expectations were high coming into this one as Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's last novel, is probably one of my top five favorite novels ever. ThousMy expectations were high coming into this one as Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell's last novel, is probably one of my top five favorite novels ever. Thousand Autumns, while ploddingly paced at first, eventually gained steam and did not disappoint. Set during Japan's Edo period on the artificial island of Dejima outside Nagasaki, one would classify this novel mostly as "faction." The unique relationship between the Japanese and the Dutch is explored at length, including the tension within Japanese society of wanting to learn from and be fascinated by the outside world alongside an official policy of strict isolation. The characters are, for the most part, the Dutch employees of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) who spend their time almost exclusively in Dejima, the artificial island in Nagasaki Harbor. Dejima itself represents both an opportunity to get rich and a prison, with only prostitutes, interpreters, and guards allowed in from Japan and only those officially summoned by the local magistrate allowed out.
This unusual blend of proto-globalization and isolation side by side that marked the Edo period of Japanese history makes for interesting relationships between both the Dutch and Japanese characters, as well as a rather unflattering portrait of the corruption that came with it. The main character, Jacob De Zoet, is based on Hendrik Doeff, a real Dutch trader who spent decades at Dejima and eventually became a hero of sorts. Jacob is at first little more than a timid accountant or clerk, brought in to uncover the corruption of the past harbor master. As circumstances change, so does De Zoet. Bonding with his fellow Dutch and his Japanese interpreters, De Zoet's myopic and self-absorbed viewpoint fades. However, the arc is well-written as De Zoet does not simply become a disillusioned realist but struggles his best to keep his honor, integrity, and ideals in the face of a series of ethical dilemmas.
Many other elements of story are also richly crafted. While most of the focus is on the Dutch characters, several Japanese characters have unique and powerful arcs, including Orito, a Japanese midwife learning from a Dutch doctor who is swept up in the villanous net of Lord Abbot Enomoto, a Japanese noble who operates a clandestine and sinister cult. Enomoto is a well-sketched villain with supernatural overtones, and one that proves a potent antagonist for many of the characters. Specifically, Enomoto's machinations fall most harshly on the novel's central love triangle between De Zoet, Ogawa, his interpreter, and Orito. This series of frustrated romances creates an interesting vehicle for exploring the many cultural inhibitions placed on all the characters that bind them and keep all their desires just out of reach.
Thousand Autumns is one of those historical novels that brings the period it works with into vibrant detail, even if its pacing is sometimes slow and its themes not readily apparent. By the end, however, it makes for quite a journey. Even if almost all of that journey is spent on a tiny artificial island in Nagasaki Harbor. ...more
Despite the unfortunate racial attitudes in Conan the Barbarian lore (as he was writing these in the 1910s through 1930s, he has some of the same probDespite the unfortunate racial attitudes in Conan the Barbarian lore (as he was writing these in the 1910s through 1930s, he has some of the same problems his contemporary HP Lovecraft had), Robert Howard was perhaps one of the greatest pulp writers ever. After treading through nearly 1000 pages of Conan stories, Howard's imagination never falters. Conan himself is a complex character, a prototype and ancestor of all the anti-heros we see popping up in movies and books. Usually portrayals of Conan by subsequent authors once they were picked up from Robert Howard focus on the violent and barbaric aspects of him, but Conan was a more complicated guy. His intelligence and unique moral perspective allow him to turn the tables on his adversaries just as often by outwitting them as outfighting them. In cases where Conan is the hero, he more or less comes upon the role reluctantly either to serve his own self-interest or out of the necessity of surviving in the harsh world Robert E. Howard created. Conan, despite being a "barbarian," is a worldly and wise figure who is constantly underestimated but who lived life as a raider, pirate, chieftain, mercenary, and finally king. The stories themselves also run the gamut from standard action/adventure to often quite dark fantasy that push up against Lovecraftian sorts of themes as Conan does battle with Old Gods and escapes ancient curses. I wondered when I started if I would be tired of Conan by the end of so many of these, but I've come to understand why he's still a compelling character more than a hundred years after he first appeared....more