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Book Review: Keeping Up With the War God by Steven Crook

Part travelogue, part history book, and part cultural exposé, Keeping Up With the War God is an easy and entertaining read for anyone interested in piercing the veneer of modern-day Taiwan to delve a little deeper into its terrain, its traditions, and its inhabitants.

In this diminutive yet highly informative text, British author and long-time Taiwan resident Steven Crook takes his readers with him on a series of journeys in which he navigates his way along the bustling streets and crowded alleyways of Tainan and Taipei, braves a trek high atop the treacherous crown of Mt. Jade during typhoon season, penetrates the forbidding village of an aboriginal tribe who were once notorious headhunters, tiptoes into the hushed inner sanctum of an incense-infused Matsu temple, and psychoanalyzes the religious doctrines, archaic superstitions, and cultural mores of the Taiwanese people themselves.

With unvarnished but even-handed candor, Crook points out Taiwan's paradoxes and peculiarities from the perspective of an outsider experiencing the culture from within. He examines the contradictions between religious rituals and everyday behavior, the inherent racial prejudices, and the ubiquitous examples of revisionist history.

Keeping Up With the War God is filled with page after page of fact and lore, but most captivating is the chapter entitled "Hungry Ghosts and Hell Marriages," which details the deeply ingrained Taiwanese beliefs regarding marriage and the afterlife. So crucial is the continuity of the family bloodline and the fate of each individual in the hereafter, that Taiwanese families will go to unimaginable extremes and machinations to ensure that both are optimal, up to and including paper marriages of deceased children, swapping their own infant daughters for foster daughters, and everything in between.

Although Keeping Up With the War God meanders from place to place and from one topic to the next, seemingly without rhyme or reason, Crook manages to keep his reader engaged with well-researched historical data, fascinating cultural oddities, and amusing anecdotes. Alas, this otherwise excellent text is riddled with typos and editing oversights, it cries out for accompanying maps and photographs (of which there are neither), and Steven Crook's penchant for using esoteric words can be distracting at times.

Nonetheless, for all its modest flaws, Keeping Up With the War God is truly a worthwhile endeavor, especially for those readers who have already experienced the pleasures and travails of Taiwan for themselves, or who intend to do so someday. Just be sure to keep a dictionary close at hand.

Keeping Up With the War God by Steven Crook (Yushan Publications, Brighton UK, 2001, 135 pages)

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Published on 3/26/02

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