About Time I Read It: Pacific by Simon Winchester

Years ago my local newspaper featured a glowing review of a book whose author up to then had been a complete stranger to me. Judging from that review, Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary sounded like a heck of a book. Not long after it was released in paperback (and hearing some great word of mouth) I purchased a copy at Powell’s. From start to finish, Winchester’s 1998 book never ceased to entertain me. Who would have thought a book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary would make such wonderful reading?

Sadly, as much as I loved The Professor and the Madman I’ve read only one other Simon Winchester book. Back in 2011 I read his The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom and while I might not have enjoyed it as much as I did The Professor and the Madman nevertheless I found it an enjoyable read. Recently, I decided to give one of Winchester’s books a shot. Bestowed with the brief title and lengthy subtitle of Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, sounded like a book I could sink my teeth into. And believe me, I did.

Pacific is a kind of hybrid travelogue combining history, geography, geology, climatology and international relations. In his book Winchester show readers the diversity, greatness and rising geopolitical importance of the region encompassing the world’s largest ocean. Much like science historian, broadcaster and fellow Brit James Burke, for each chapter Winchester focuses on two seemingly unrelated historical events. But in the end, after showing both their connectedness and vital significance he ties the loose ends together thus creating an informative and entertaining book.

However, I’m concerned Winchester’s book might possess a few factual errors. Early on he calls the island Guam a republic, which according to Wikipedia is “unincorporated and organized territory of the United States in Micronesia.” Later in the book, when describing the 1975 Fall of South Vietnam he describes Saigon being surrounded by Viet Cong army units as opposed to North Vietnamese troops. Lastly, he includes Germany as one of the European nations possessing colonies in South East Asia. With the exception of a few South Pacific islands and the settlement in Shandong, China Germany had no territories even close to South East Asia. (Unless of course you want to count German New Guinea.)

Lapses in fact-checking or not, Pacific is a pretty good book. It also makes a worthy companion read to Robert Kaplan’s 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American PowerWith Pacific under my belt, I think I’ll finally tackle Winchester’s 2010 offering Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. If that’s the case, get ready to see yet another Simon Winchester book featured on my blog.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, China, Current Affairs, East Asia, History, Japan

Wordless Wednesday

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January 3, 2018 · 6:12 pm

About Time I Read It: The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

Awhile back a former co-worker raved about a novel with the intriguing title of The Lonely Polygamist. Figuring with a title like that I couldn’t go wrong, I vowed to someday read it. Well, last week or so that day finally came. As I happily made my way through Brady Udall’s 2010 novel I quickly realized my former co-worker of mine did not steer me wrong.

Considering the book’s primary character, Golden Richards is male Fundamentalist Mormon and by default a polygamist, one would assume Golden lives a life of unfettered male privilege. A plethora of subservient wives to indulge his every whim and an army of loving and devoted children some might argue Golden has got it made. Or does he?

His construction business is failing, forcing him to take on projects hundreds of miles from his home. (So desperate for construction gigs he’s agreed to remodel a legal brothel in Nevada, telling his wives he’s working on a retirement center.) His family is a train wreck riven by factions and power-struggles as his four sister wives jockey for control of his chaotic and overpopulated household. Father to 28 children, there’s so many kids under Golden’s roof he’s forced to employ a mnemonic device just to remember their names. Complicating his predicament, while away on business he finds himself falling in love with another man’s wife.

The Lonely Polygamist is one of those wonderful novels you just went to keep reading. Not only is the writing crisp, Udall takes the reader through a full spectrum of emotions. Also, without saying too much, there’s no shortage of plot twists that if you’re like me, you never saw coming. I loved The Lonely Polygamist and it easily made my year-end list of best fiction.

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2017 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Last week I announced my favorite fiction from 2017 and now it’s time to do the same with my favorite nonfiction works of the year. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is I enjoyed the heck out of them.

  1. The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth
  2. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
  3. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan
  4. The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan by Gregory Feifer
  5. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark
  6. The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature by Adam Kirsch
  7. Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers
  8. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil
  9. October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville
  10. Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century by Tony Judt
  11. The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell
  12. Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman

Considering my reading tastes, perhaps none of us should be surprised 10 out of 12 these books deal with history. Interestingly, four out of those 10 books are about World War One and/or its aftermath. Declaring an overall winner was not easy. In keeping with my World War One focus, I’ll bestow Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 as my favorite nonfiction book of the year.

 

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2017 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

As the year known as 2017 finally draws to a close, it’s time for me to look back and announce to the world my favorite books of the year. Just like last year, I’ll start by talking about the outstanding fiction from 2017. Later, I’ll follow it up with another post dedicated to my favorite nonfiction books. Of course, this year just like in previous ones, it doesn’t matter when the books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all 12 books are fantastic. In the end, it was tough call to make but I awarded it to The Paying Guests. As high as my expectations were for this book, I was not disappointed.

And a diverse collection of novels indeed. Set in faraway locations like Libya, Croatia and Morocco the armchair traveler in me was duly satisfied. So also was my inner historian, with one novel set in turn of the 20th century New York City, one in Stalinist Russia and another in 1920s London. Lastly, several of the below-mentioned books were first time novels. Kudos to their respective authors for a job well done!

  1. The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
  2. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida
  3. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  4. In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
  5. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
  6. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
  7. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
  8. Conclave by Robert Harris
  9. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
  10. The Yid by Paul Goldberg
  11. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
  12. Girl at War by Sara Nović

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The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth

The good news is I had a blast taking part in this year’s inaugural Thanksgiving Readathon. I’m sure all the participants enjoyed the week’s flurry of blog posts and Twitter updates. The bad news is unlike everyone else who took part in the Readathon I finished only one book. But alas, all is not lost because the one book I did manage to finish, Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End I thoroughly enjoyed. As a matter of fact, I can easily see The Vanquished making my year-end Best Nonfiction List.

Europe emerged from the ravages of World War I a shattered continent. Hunger and influenza stalked the land. Millions of men, most of them in the prime of life were either dead, maimed or emotionally damaged. But perhaps worst of all, the mightiest empires of modern Europe, specifically Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire had fallen, each one collapsing like a house of cards. From the ruins of these once proud empires arose a host of new nations, each one eager to assert its dominance. Frequently, those quests for nationhood resulted in yet more rounds of armed conflict.

It’s cruelly ironic the above-mentioned nations all marched to war in 1914 expecting to enlarge their respective empires only to stripped of their territory five years later. (Even Italy, which wound up on the side of the eventual victors suffered huge losses in men and material only to receive relatively minor land gains.) Out of the ashes of empires arose Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Finland broke completely free from Russia as did the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

Cruel irony would rear its head once again, since Poland and Yugoslavia, spin-offs from large multi-ethnic empires would be left with significant minority populations of their own. The resurrected nation of Poland would be roughly two-thirds Polish with sizable numbers of Germans, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. Meanwhile, newly created Yugoslavia would begin life as a Serb-dominated kingdom of Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Kosovo Albanians and Montenegrins as well as home to fairly large communities of ethnic Germans and Hungarians. In effect both countries become mini empires of their own. Even smaller nations like Czechoslovakia would face challenges with its Sudetenland Germans as would Romania after absorbing the former Hungarian province of Transylvania. Ethnic solidarity frequently clashed with national will as all sides saw their actions justified according to newly proclaimed rubric of National Self-Determination, as proclaimed in American President and statesman Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points.

World War I was a knock-out blow not only to Europe’s land-based empires but also its traditional political structures. Russia’s absolute monarchy and the shaky provisional government that followed was replaced by Communist dictatorship, inspiring the establishment of short-lived Red regimes in Hungary and Bavaria, insurrection in Germany and bloody civil war in Finland. (And even a bloodier and more extensive civil war in Russia.) The leaders of Italy’s constitutional monarchy, unable to placate the masses in the wake of the county’s “mutilated victory” opened the door to Fascism. Elsewhere in Europe, military coups toppled both monarchs and elected leaders, especially in newly established countries. Lastly, in Germany far-right hooligans, (many of them anti-Semites) and bitter war veterans angry the war was lost not by the military but the nation’s Weimar leaders rioted and seethed. Over the next dozen years this nationwide rage coalesced into the Nazi Party, with disastrous results not only for Germany but the entire world.

The Vanquished an outstanding book, wonderfully complimenting other excellent history books like The Sleepwalkers, October, Paris 1919 and Savage Continent. Please consider The Vanquished highly recommended.

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Filed under Arab World, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Five Bookish Links

I haven’t done a Five Bookish Links post in a month. While I sit here digesting my Thanksgiving leftovers I think it’s time to post a new one.

  1. If you’re like me, you’re curious when it comes to the reading preferences of great authors. If that’s the case, check out this posting on Brian Pickings “The Greatest Books of All Time, As Voted by 125 Famous Authors.”
  2. Speaking of famous authors, according to the Guardian it looks like the personal library Richard Adams, the author Watership Down is up for sale.
  3. Meanwhile, Elon Musk claims he was “raised by books” and credits his success to these eight books.
  4. Personally, I think the concept of “leaderless revolution” is bunk but Carne Ross’ book recommendations on leaderless revolution intrigues me.
  5. Lastly, how can anyone resist an article entitled ‘Ten Books that Changed the World?”

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