Category Archives: East Asia

1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen

1946: The Making of the Modern WorldI’m a huge sucker for books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. Last year I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. Over the last year or so, I kept seeing a book at my public library called 1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen. However, despite my love for these single year books I never felt compelled to grab a copy. Sadly, I’m embarrassed to say I never did so because I disliked the book’s cover. Then one afternoon I came to my senses, put my petty prejudices behind me and helped myself to an available copy. I’m sure glad I did.

1946, while it might not make my year-end Best of List, could very well end up being one of my pleasant surprises of 2017. Made up of short chapters and employing a direct writing style, Sebestyen’s informative book makes for quick, but fascinating reading. Structured chronologically, it skips around the globe, largely ignoring Africa and the Americas and spending the bulk of time discussing seminal events and developments in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Sebestyen’s 1946 chronicles a world in transition. With Nazi German and much of Europe in ruins, the United States and the Soviet Union have emerged as superpowers and their ensuing rivalry would eventually morph into the Cold War. On the other side of the world, Imperial Japan lies defeated, occupied and no longer able to impose its will on East Asia. In Japan’s place is a regional power vacuum with America to a degree the USSR to a slightly lesser degree rushing to fill the void. On a related note, with Japan vanquished Chinese Communists and Nationalists could now be freely fight each other for mastery of the country. Also in Asia, the sun began setting on the British Empire as India/Pakistan moved towards independence and in the Middle East armed Zionists intensified their fight for a modern State of Israel born from the ashes of the Holocaust. Lastly, Britain’s eclipse as a colonial power was part of a larger global trend in anti-colonialism that would in the coming years drive France from Indochina and Holland from Indonesia.

If you end up reading 1946 and would like follow-up books to read let me offer the following suggestions. I would start with Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. From there I would proceed directly to Keith Lowe’s masterpiece Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and then to Anne Applebaum’s outstanding book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956

Oh, and one last thing. Don’t me like me. Try not to judge a book by its cover.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

About Time I Read It: The J Curve by Ian Bremmer

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and FallBack in 2010 while TV channel surfing I happened to land on PBS in the middle of Charlie Rose interviewing a geopolitical thinker/writer named of Ian Bremmer. Bremmer had just written a book called The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and the two of them discussed recent global economic developments and China’s rise as an international power. As I sat watching the interview I found myself intrigued by Bremmer’s insights and vowed to read his recently published book. Later that year I did. But sadly, as much as I valued Bremmer’s take on the state of the world I never got around to reading more of his stuff.

Fast forward to this past summer, I happened to stumble across Bremmer’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Watching his posted videos and reading his tweets rekindled my appreciation of him. (He’s also probably the only international mover and shaker with a muppet created in his own likeness.) So much so when I discovered my public library had an available copy of his book The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer than it should had for me to make it through his book because I kept getting distracted by other books I was reading at the time. Eventually, I  made my way through it. Overall, I enjoyed it even though I did have one minor problem with it.

That problem, which believe me isn’t a fault of Bremmer’s. The J Curve was published in 2006, making it a decade old. Therefore, the whole time I was reading the J Curve I kept asking myself how relevant his book could be. After all, much has changed since 2006. We’ve seen both the Arab Spring and the coming of ISIS. Dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il have all passed away. (Chavez and Castro’s deaths could lead to greater openness in their respective countries. On the other hand, it looks like Kim Jong-il’s death has led to even more oppression and insanity.) Lastly, in recent years we’ve experienced a global rise in old school nationalism with the passing of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But in spite of all this, happily, I can say yes, The J Curve is still relevant to today’s world.

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The J Curve – Stability versus Openness

Bremmer, in his book The J Curve addresses that age-old question we, especially those involved in the fields of international politics and diplomacy have been asking for years: how does an authoritarian regime liberalize without becoming so unstable it descends into chaos resulting in political fragmentation or worse, yet another authoritarian regime. According to Bremmer, it’s no easy challenge. (Throughout the book he refers to this relationship between political stability and openness as something that can be plotted on a graph, hence the term “J Curve.”)  Over the years, Western nations like the United States has preferred to isolate authoritarian regimes like Iran, Cuba and North Korea with sanctions and censure in hopes of promoting regime change. In Bremmer’s opinion such measures end up being counter productive because the more isolated and impoverished the citizens are in these countries become, the easier it is for those running these regimes to manipulate the masses and thus stay in power. In The J Curve Bremmer looks at different authoritarian countries which succesful liberalized like South Africa, imploded like Yugoslavia and Iraq, and liberalized, imploded and then returned to authoritarianism like the Soviet Union/Russia.

My only knock on this book, really in reality is an unfair one in that it’s 10 years old. But like I said earlier, for a book a book that was published a decade ago it still feels relevant. The portions discussing challenges facing Saudi Arabia, Israel, and especially China look spot on even 10 years after he wrote them. Perhaps because of it’s relevancy after reading the J Curve I’m now inspired to read more of Bremmer’s stuff. So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if you see more of his stuff like Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World and Every Nation for Itself: What Happens When No One Leads the World reviewed on my blog.

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Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Godless, Hallucinations, and Nothing to Envy

Last week I mentioned it’s been challenge keeping my blog up to date with all the books I’ve been reading. The good news is I’ve been reading some good stuff. The bad news is it’s been hard to blog about it. Therefore, I’ve resorted to doing mini-posts and wrap-up lists as ways of keeping you updated on what I’ve been reading. So, with that in mind, here’s a brief run-down on three books I recently finished.

After hearing good things about Dan Barker’s 2009 book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists I decided to grab a copy from my public library. For those of you who don’t know, Barker is a former Pentacostal-ish minister and Christian musician/songwriter who, after a period of extensive reading, personal introspection and questioning his faith became an atheist. He’s now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a frequent speaker on atheism and related topics. Since I have fondness for memoirs by individuals who left insular religious communities, it was hard for me not to like Godless. Being a former evangelical Christian myself, so much of what Barker said in his book struck a familiar, and in the end, reassuring chord with me.

Godless is both a memoir, and much like Peter Boghossian’s A Manuel for Creating Atheists, it’s also readable and informative guide to atheist thought. Personally, I liked the memoir sections of Godless a bit more than the other parts, but who cares ’cause it’s a very good book. I recommend Godless to any readers who are questioning their faith, curious about atheism or have already embraced a belief system similar to Barker’s.

In August of 2015 we lost the great Oliver Sacks. Through his books like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat he showed readers the fascinating world of neurology. His use of accessible language made complex subjects not only comprehensible, but also enjoyable reading. Sacks’ inclusion of the human element in his case stories merged soul with science. With that in mind, when my book club opted to read Sacks’ 2012 book Hallucinations I was not disappointed.

Traditionally, people have always associated hallucinations with madness. According to Sacks, their origins can be legion, ranging from migraines, sensory deprivation, vision loss, epilepsy and severe stress. Far from always being a symptom of severe mental illness, hallucinations are far more common than people acknowledge. And yes, in case you were wondering, some recreational drugs do cause hallucinations. In his book Sacks details his experiences dabbling in these illicit substances. A bit to my surprise those passages ended up being my favorite parts of the book! This is classic Sacks and a worthy contribution to his sadly now closed cannon of work.

Five years ago I heard amazing things about Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Jo praised it on her blog as did Kim on hers, but it took some recent encouragement from one of my book club members to make me finally read it. My goodness I wished I’d read it sooner. Nothing to Envy is outstanding.  Luckily for me, the copy I was able to get from the public library included a new afterward from the author that covered recent developments in North Korea like Kim Jong-un’s accession to power and his subsequent purge of rivals. Demick’s detailed look inside the horrible train wreck that is North Korea is must reading for anyone wanting to understand the rogue nation. Even though it’s early in the year I can easily see Nothing to Envy making my year-end Best of List. Consider this book highly recommended.

In conclusion, it’s easy to assume these three very good books have nothing in common (other than being library books) but alas that’s not the case. According to Dan Barker, Oliver Sacks was both an enthusiastic atheist as well as a personal friend. In Godless, Barker recalls Sacks had been a speaker at at least one atheist convention. In turn, Sacks loved Baker’s book Godless, calling it “fabulous” and proclaiming “Godless may well become a classic in its genre.” Lastly, one of the ordinary North Koreans who Demick wrote about in Nothing to Envy likened his disillusionment with the oppressive regime to becoming an atheist. Once he stopped believing in the mythology of the overarching, all-powerful North Korean system his entire universe changed. Kinda cool when you see how many things in life are in some way connected?

 

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Memoir, Science

About Time I Read It: The Twilight Warriors by Robert Gandt

9780767932417_p0_v1_s192x300I have a feeling when looking back on 2015 I’ll probably consider it as the year I made a strong push to read books from my personal library that I’d been meaning to read for a long, long time. Like dominos falling, one by one I whipped through Spilllover, Sacred Trash, The Myth of the Muslim Tide, Bloodlands and Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Each one of these books I thoroughly enjoyed. So much so I felt like kicking myself for not reading them sooner.

Well, add one more title to that parade of excellent books. Robert Gandt’s The Twilight Warriors has been on my shelf for five years, ever since it came in the mail as one of my default selections from the History Book Club. However, even after seeing praised online I made no effort to read it. Then one day, perhaps feeling inspired to read yet another ignored book in my personal library I picked it up. Holy cow, it’s good. Once again, I found myself asking why oh why did I wait so long to read this terrific book.

The Twilight Warriors is Gandt’s fast-paced chronicle of the Battle of Okinawa. Fought during the waning months of the Second World War, the Americans saw the conquest of Okinawa as the first step towards the eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands. The Japanese, fully aware of the island’s significance, heavily fortified it in addition to deploying heavy artillery. On top of that, the Japanese planned to unleash its newest weapon, the kamikaze upon the American Navy. Lastly, the pride of the Japanese fleet, the Yamato, the world’s largest battleship, stood by and awaited its final mission.

In the end, both sides shed unfathomable amounts of blood for nothing. The Japanese, despite waves of deadly kamikaze attacks and their dogged resistance on Okinawa were unable to inflict enough casualties to force America to the negotiating table in hopes of securing a truce, as opposed to the unconditional surrender they horribly feared. As for the Americans, once Japan quickly surrender after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was no need to use Okinawa as a jumping off point for an invasion of Japan.

This is a very good book. Not only is it fast-paced, but it’s also well-written. From what I can tell, Gandt did a heck of a good job researching The Twilight Warriors. Perhaps above all, I really liked how the story is told mainly from the perspective of those men who did the fighting. Therefore, it’s for these reasons I have no problem whatsoever recommended this superb book.

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About Time I Read It: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

9780609809648_p0_v1_s260x420If you’re like me, there’s nothing like finally reading a book that for years you’ve been wanting to read. And if you’re like me, the only thing better than that is when you finally do read it, it’s even better than you had hoped. That, my friends is how I felt when I finally got around to reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

I’ve been wanting to read Weatherford’s book for over decade, ever since it was published back in 2004. Sadly, I never got around to doing so, even after I received a copy as a Christmas present several years ago. Even with this prized book in my possession I’m embarrassed to say it just sat on my desk gathering dust. But with 2015 shaping up to be the year I tackle the many ignored and unread books of my personal library perhaps it’s no surprise I finally picked up Weatherford’s book and read it.

As the book’s title hints, this isn’t just the story of Genghis Khan. Yes, his incredible rise from impoverished Mongol horseman to emperor of Eurasia is all here. But Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is much more than that. If any leader could be called an enlightened despot than Weatherford’s Genghis Khan would be him. Under his rule religious toleration abounded, ethnic communities and local customs were respected and international trade flourished. His empire was also the first to promote such modern concepts like universal literacy, paper money and diplomatic immunity for ambassadors and envoys. With an empire stretching two continents and served by a meritocracy-based civil service, state-run postal service and rule of law (not to mention an aversion to torture as a tool for justice and means of state control) Genghis Khan’s kingdom was not only impressive but by today’s standards much a head of its time.

Some have criticized Weatherford for painting too rosy of picture of Genghis and his empire. Others have questioned his book’s historical accuracy. Frankly, I don’t care. It’s well-written and fun to read. Much like Thomas Cahill did with his books How the Irish Saved Civilization and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea:Why the Greeks Matter Weatherford has the ability to make  history enjoyable and fascinating. Therefore, I highly recommend Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Islam, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

Last year, as part of the European Reading Challenge I read The Girl with the Pearl Earring since the setting for Tracy Chevalier’s fictional account of a young woman’s encounter with Dutch painter Vermeer is Holland. This time around, for the European Reading Challenge I’ve selected another book in which Holland, and especially Vermeer takes center stage. Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World is yet another one of those books I kept seeing on the self at the library yet never grabbed. However, last week or so I finally grabbed it. After finishing after a series of fits and starts I asked myself if I liked it. Honestly, I’m really not sure. 

According to Brook, what we now call globalization, began clear back in the seventeenth century. International trade, consumption of foreign goods, sweeping cultural shifts and global conflict began to accelerate at an unprecedented rate during Vermeer’s lifetime.  In Vermeer’s Hat, Brook breaks down several of Vermeer’s paintings, in addition to two other pieces of art not by Vermeer but from that era to illustrate his points. For instance, the officer depicted in the painting Officer and Laughing Girl wears a stylish beaver pelt hat, signifying not only the growing wealth of Holland’s merchant class but also the lucrative beaver trade in North America. To Brook, the young woman in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is quite possibly reading a letter from male relative, spouse or similar loved one who’s off seeking his fortune overseas with an entity like the Dutch East India Company. The globe shown front and center in The Astronomer epitomizes an expansive and rapidly unfolding world, much in the way the anchored ship in View of Delft is evidence of Holland’s growing participation in international trade.

By using examples from the art world to trace the evolution of early globalism, Brook has taken on an ambitious project. While it looks like some readers have compared Vermeer’s Hat to Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses to me it reminded me a lot of John E. Wills’s 1688: A Global History and David Fromkin’s The Way of the World. But in the end, I’m not sure this ambitious project completely satisfied me. Sometimes I found Vermeer’s Hat a bit dry for my taste. Who knows, maybe I was just expecting too much. At least I received a nice history lesson. Can’t go wrong with that.

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Filed under China, East Asia, Economics, Europe, History, Japan