Writers are often asked to name their very favorite books. I have been asked this
question so many times, I have come to the conclusion that there are at least 20 novels that I could name comfortably. And the list is varied and includes Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, just to name a few. But the one book that grabbed my imagination and simply wouldn’t let go was James Clavell’s Shogun. It was a tale so engrossing, so irresistible that it was impossible to read it once having started. And it captivated me both on a literary and a personal level.
Let’s start with the literary level. Shogun centers around John Blackthorne, an English seafarer, who was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in the 17th taken prisoner by Japanese warlords. Because of his knowledge of shipbuilding and naval warfare, he is slowly integrated into Japanese society, eventually becoming a samurai. The story of John Blackthorne takes the reader back to feudal Japan and into a saga filled with conflict, lust, passion, love, and struggle for power. Shogun was so good and irresistible that it sold over 15 million copies worldwide. Readers still wonder how Clavell knew so much about the Japanese mindset and about their behaviors and customs and the vast differences that yet exist between Japan and the West. He never lived in Japan. I can vouch for that. How? Because he told me. You see, James Clavell was a patient in our Santa Monica practice years ago. Which brings us to the personal level of Clavell and Shogun.
James Clavell knew all about the Japanese because he was their prisoner of war for four years during World War II. As a young Australian, he joined the military and fought the Japanese in the jungles of Malaysia where he was wounded, captured, and eventually sent to the notorious Japanese prisoner of war camp called Changi just outside Singapore. The cruelty there was unbelievable and 90% of the prisoners never walked out of that prison. During his four years there, he saw and experienced the Japanese mentality, personal and up close. The Japanese officers he encountered were the modern-day samurais, with the same hierarchical order, discipline, cruelty, and customs of the feudal system. I often wondered, but never asked, if the Japanese warlords and samurais in Shogun were based on the Japanese soldiers who guarded him in the hellish nightmare of a POW camp called Changi. I think he would have simply shrugged, but deep down the answer almost certainly would have been yes. I suspect that the characters in Shogun were engraved in Clavell’s mind years and years earlier in a place called Changi.
By the way, the John Blackthorne character in Shogun is based on a real-life person, William Adams, who was a British navigator and the first Englishman ever to set foot in Japan. He eventually became a samurai.
But my fascination with Shogun should not detract from my other favorites which are also great reads. I defy you to read To Kill a Mockingbird and not tear up at the incredibly warm relationship between Atticus Finch and his daughter, Scout, and son, Jim. This book reminds us of the cruel segregation in the South during the 1940s and 1950s but it also reminds us of the difference one good man could make. It also paints a wonderful picture of small-town America and its solid values and tight family bonds. It’s a world long gone.
And who will ever think of dinosaurs the same way after reading Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park? If you think you want to tinker with evolution using modern scientific methods, then I think you really want to read Jurassic Park because it will convince you not to. It’s an incredibly imaginative adventure that’s truly worthy of Jules Verne.
And please, please read Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War. It gives us an engrossing view of America just before the start of World War II, as seen through the civilian and military eyes of different generations, and it clearly depicts the men and women involved and how events shaped and changed their lives and the lives of their loved ones. It recounts the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and events that led up to it in such a compelling fashion that you feel you were actually there. It is truly a spell-binding read.
And finally, there are more than a few books that I truly want to read but just haven’t gotten around to yet. This list includes Truman by David McCullough, Michael Crichton’s Prey, Tess Gerritsen’s Space, Michael Palmer’s A Heartbeat Away, and Dan Brown’sAngels and Demons, just to name a few. One day soon I hope to get to these. And I just might read Shogun again. It’s that good.
Leonard Goldberg is the internationally bestselling author of the Joanna Blalock series of medical thrillers. His novels, acclaimed by critics as well as fellow authors, have been translated into a dozen languages and sold more than a million copies worldwide.
Plague Ship, Goldberg’s latest, hits store shelves this month.
Paperback: 384 pages
MIDNIGHT INK (October 8, 2013)