About Time I Read It: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

I love books that make me fundamentally rethink how I understand the world, specifically how we got here and even where we’re going. The first of these kind of books I read was probably Europe: A History by Norman Davies. (20 years after I read it I still remember him wisely pointing out Europe, for all its glory, geographically speaking is nevertheless a peninsula of Asia. He also boldly claimed events and developments in the 19th century had a greater impact on today’s modern world than those of the 20th.) As I read more over the years I discovered other powerful and expansive books like Guns, Germs and Steel, Carnage and Culture, Why Nations Fail and 1493. More recently, last year I had the pleasure of reading The Jakarta Method, Maoism: A Global History and The Islamic Enlightenment all of which fell into this category.

When my book club announced we were reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, another of these kind of books I quickly borrowed an ebook copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Sweeping and detailed, I nevertheless made quick work of the readable Silk Roads in roughly a week. This fine book should easily make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.

Based on Frankopan’s extensive research, for thousands of years Central Asia and its adjacent lands (roughly the Persian Empire at greatest extent, give or take a bit) has played a decisive role shaping world history. Over the centuries armies, plagues, riches and religions have traveled time honored trade routes commonly referred as the Silk Road across South Central Eurasia. This new interpretation shifts our attention east making Central Asia history’s prime mover as opposed to Europe, and upending our traditional Eurocentric view of world history.

While it’s undeniable Greece and Rome left an indelible imprints on Western thought one must remember all the world’s major religions originated somewhere in Asia, with the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developing in relatively close proximity to each other. (Helping make cross-pollination between them in varying degrees possible.) While Greek ideas and imagery traveled east with Alexander’s armies leaving a lasting influence from Asia Minor to India Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts flowed in the opposite direction doing much the same. (Buddhist missionaries in the Levant might have been responsible for introducing the dualistic concepts which would form the core of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy. Hundreds of years later, it’s possible the first Islamic madrasahs were modeled on Buddhist teaching communities.)

During the Middle Ages, armies of an assertive Christian Europe flush with new-found sense of purpose invaded the western shores of Central Asia in a series of conflicts known as the Crusades. Exposed to the region’s higher standard of living Crusaders and their descendants developed tastes for the finer things in life, leading to an explosion in first regional, and then intercontinental commerce. Even though the Latin Kingdoms they founded on the shores of the Mediterranean were eventually vanquished it spawned lasting trade between Europe and Asia, with the Italian maritime city states profiting handsomely.

Later in the Middle Ages, these same trade routes would also bring plague to Europe, decimating the continent’s population. This die off would make labor scarce, drive up wages and lead to wealth redistribution. Overall, incomes rose  and demand increased for goods from Asia. Feeling cut out of the lucrative international trade business, Iberian powers Portugal and Spain saw sailing east as the solution. By doing so they not only found another route to India around Africa, but more importantly discovered the New World.

Then later, the discovery, and subsequent conquest of the Americas changed everything once again. Instead of European inhabitants dying by the millions this time it was Americans. Their kingdoms destroyed and their royal coffers looted, silver and gold by the ship full flowed from the New World to Iberia. As these riches and the ones that followed percolated across Europe and began enriching England and the Low Countries it created demand for even more high value goods from Asia. As living standards rose it lead to an intellectual awakening known as the Enlightenment. Sadly, the Age of Reason could not have happened without the theft of America’s gold and silver and the slaughter and subjugation of its natives.

The centrality of Central Eurasia extends well into the modern age. For the later half of the 19th century Russia and Great Britain were bitter rivals in the Great Game for control of the gateway to India. Happy to see Tsarist Russia turn its attention elsewhere Britain did everything it could to encourage Russian animosity towards Germany, setting the stage for World War I. 20 years later Hitler justified Germany’s invasion of the USSR as a means to secure Ukraine’s wheat. At the turn of the 20th century it was the British who first saw the potential for oil to replace coal to fuel navies and later, trains and automobiles. Throughout much of the 20th century and into the 21st, pipelines and tanker routes would criss-cross the globe bringing oil from the lands of the former Persian Empire to the industrialized West.

By the end of the book we have come full circle. Once again China is the world’s premier exporter. Instead supplying the world with silk and porcelain today it’s everything from consumer electronics to household goods to steel. Flexing its newfound economic and political might the country launched its Belt and Road Initiative: the creation of land and rail routes from China to Western Eurasia, Africa and beyond closely following the trade routes of old crisscrossing Central Asia. Think of this massive international infrastructure development strategy as 21st century’s answer to the Silk Road – on steroids. All while the region’s former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blessed with almost limitless petroleum reserves, have become major players on the world stage.

Frankopan makes a compelling, if not convincing case the lands of Central Eurasia, and not Europe was key in the rise of Western civilization. Please consider his book The Silk Roads highly recommended.

2020 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2020 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

When I first sat down to write this post, I feared I hadn’t read enough fiction in 2020 to justify such a list. Lo and behold I soon realized I’d read a number of terrific novels over the course of the year.

  1. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  2. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
  3. Judas by Amos Oz
  4. Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley
  5. Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne
  6. The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman
  7. Polar Star by Marin Cruz Smith
  8.  The Last by Hanna Jameson
  9. The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon
  10. The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe

As for declaring an overall winner, that honor goes to The Angel’s Game by the late Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

Typical of my reading tastes, eight of theses novels are set outside the USA. Lastly, as many as six of these novels could be classified at crime drama and/or mystery. In last year’s post I made a similar observation, leading me to wonder if I’ve developed a taste for these genres. Seeing this trend continue in 2020 it looks like I have.

Old Books Reading Project: Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng

Imagine you spent six and half years in solitary confinement. Over the course of your imprisonment you were beaten, tortured, verbally abused, denied decent medical and dental care and what little food you were fed was so bad it frequently made you ill. Falsely accused of being a traitor or spy for various foreign powers you were repeatedly ordered to confess your crimes. However, not once were you formally charged, let alone tried in court. During that time you were allowed no visitors, or for that matter any communication whatsoever with the outside world. But thanks to your indomitable spirit not once did you surrender and utter a false confession. After more than a half decade of torment you were released.

Right after you were freed someone tells you why you were imprisoned. You didn’t spend years in a hellish prison because of some bureaucratic mix-up or an official’s personal vendetta. No, it was all because of a power struggle between two rival factions within the government. You were one of thousands maybe even millions of others who were casualties of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Hoping to outflank his younger and more competent rivals in 1996 Chairman Mao Zedong urged the nation’s young people to attack what Mao and his cronies declared “capitalist”, “bourgeois” or “traditionalist” elements ruling China. For 10 years the nation was paralyzed by purges, political instability and factional violence. (Looking back later, Nien thought, “perhaps the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution should be more aptly renamed Cultural Annihilation.”)  Only after Mao’s death and his inner circle deposed could saner heads prevail and thus bring an end to the madness known as the Cultural Revolution.

I picked up a paperback copy of Nien Cheng’s 1986 memoir Life and Death in Shanghai years ago at used book sale only to let sit ignored in my personal library.  I might have kept ignoring it had not Paul French’s City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai put me in the mood to read more about Shanghai. So last week I dusted off my vintage copy of Life and Death in Shanghai and finally cracked it open. Like many good books in my personal library I should not have waited so long to read it.

College educated in the West and fluent in English, Nien, a widow, worked for Shell Oil until the company was expelled from China in 1966. After being questioned repeatedly by the authorities about her ties to not just Shell but also the United Kingdom, United States and Taiwan-based Republic of China she soon faced baseless accusations of espionage and class betrayal. Despite passionately and intelligently proclaiming her innocence she was thrown in prison. Much like Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, author of the previously reviewed Journey into the Whirlwind, she figured once the authorities realized they’d made a mistake and wrongfully imprisoned her she’d quickly be released. Since the Communists took power there’d been arrests and purges off and on. Confirming Tolstoy’s dictum “there are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him” while imprisonment was terrible, it happened from time to time in Communist China.

Mao had once declared that 3-5 per cent of the population were enemies of socialism. To prove him correct, during the periodically launched political movements, 3-5 per cent of the members of every organization, whether it was a government department, a factory, a school or a university, must be found guilty of political crimes or heretical thoughts against socialism or Mao Tze-tung Thought. Among those found guilty, a number would be sent either to labour camps or prison.

Hopefully, Nien thought, soon it would all be rectified. But only after endearing six and half years of sheer hell, followed by a change in the political winds was Chien released. Allowed to return to her former residence she was placed under close government surveillance and left with the threat of re-arrest and re-imprisonment dangling over her head. Only with a more pragmatic regime in control of China that lead to friendlier relations with nations like the United States was she allowed to immigrate to the West where she could truly at last be free.

City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai by Paul French

It only took me six years but in the summer of 2018 I finally got around to reading Paul French’s 2012 book Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. Not only did Midnight in Peking did make my Top Five Books of Summer but also my year-end list of Best Nonfiction. While I didn’t notice it at the time, that same summer another book by Paul French was released. City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai is another in-depth look at the seedy underside of a major Chinese city on the eve of World War II. Oddly enough, as much as I enjoyed Midnight in Peking I didn’t run out and get a copy of City of Devils. But I figured someday in the near future I’d read it.

Recently, I was bored, found myself searching Overdrive for something new to read and saw City of Devils was available to borrow. After downloading it to my Kindle I jumped into French’s 2018 book and never looked back. Just like Midnight in Peking there’s a good chance it make my year-end Best Nonfiction List.

Today we think of Shanghai as the ultra modern Paris of the Orient. China’s richest and largest city is blessed with a booming economy, futuristic skyline and a well deserved reputation as a global hub for international trade, finance and transportation. But in the decades prior to the Second World War Shanghai was a much different place. Thanks to a collection of unequal treaties imposed upon China by the Western powers and Japan, Shanghai, while technically a Chinese city, was home to several foreign settlements, each separately administered by British, French, American and Japanese authorities. Within these foreign enclaves Chinese sovereignty didn’t apply and a general sense of lawlessness prevailed. The city was home to thousands of Russian refugees who’d fled Communist rule as well as countless Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. Adding to this polyglot mix were a number of residents from Italy and the Philippines.

In its heyday, Shanghai, just like Mos Eisley on the planet Tatooine was a wretched hive of scum and villainy rife with gambling, prostitution, corruption, gun-running, drugs and alcohol. At the same time, coexisting with this vice was a lively world of wealth, opulence and sophistication as well-heeled crowds danced the night away in palatial ballrooms to the music of world-class orchestras. African American bands from Harlem served up cutting edge jazz to appreciative audiences on a nightly basis. Shanghai was a mixture of New York City, Paris, London and Roaring 20s mob-ruled Chicago with Russian and Yiddish overtones transported to the Orient.

Two self-made men, both of them foreigners, ruled free-wheeling Shanghai like modern royalty. One was “Lucky” Jack Riley,  U.S. Navy boxing champion and escaped convict, his introduction of slot machines to Shanghai revolutionized the city’s gambling scene. The other was “Dapper” Joe Farren, a Viennese Jew who went from professional ballroom dancer to nightclub mogul and with it Shanghai’s premier man about town. But, as history as shown us time and time again, impressive fortunes can fall as fast, or even faster than they rise and when it came to those of Lucky and Dapper there would be no exceptions.

I thoroughly enjoyed City of Devils. If you’re a fan of Erik Larson or anyone else who has the gift for writing nonfiction that reads like fiction this book is for you. I have no problem recommending this great book.

2019 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2019 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

 

The bad news is I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year. As a result, there’s only six books on my list. The good news is I read some great stuff. So, in no specific order of preference here’s my favorite fiction from 2019.

  1. GI Confidential by Martin Limón
  2. The Swede by Robert Karjel
  3. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
  4. The Prince’s Boy by Paul Bailey
  5. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
  6. Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White

As for declaring an overall winner, it wasn’t easy since all six are fantastic. In the end,  Smilla’s Sense of Snow edged out Remarkable Creatures my favorite. As high as my expectations were for Smilla’s Sense of Snow I was not disappointed.

Typical of me and my reading tastes, all six novels on this list are set outside the USA. Also typical for me, four are historical in nature, ranging from the 19th century to the early 1970s. Lastly, four of these novels could be classified at crime drama and/or mystery. Could I be developing a taste for crime and mystery novels? Perhaps only time will tell.

GI Confidential by Martin Limón

After a heavy diet of nonfiction it was time for something lighter. With no clear idea where to start I decided to explore the New Books shelf at my public library. It was here I came across a copy of Martin Limón’s 2019 historical mystery/police procedural GI Confidential. Flipping through Limón’s novel it looked to be both light and entertaining . Once I saw it’s set in South Korea in the early 70s I simply had to read it. But why you might ask?

As I’ve gotten older I’ve become fascinated with the politics of the 1970s, both domestic and international. It was a decade when American and Soviet leaders sought to achieve a degree of peaceful coexistence between the USA  and USSR, even though both nations and their respective allies were locked in a bitter rivalry. As a result, just about every armed conflict and international rivalry around the world from Southeast Asia to Latin America to Africa was seen as another manifestation of the struggle between East and West. Perhaps nowhere in the world better exemplified this global standoff than the Korean peninsula, a land divided by two sworn enemies forever on the brink of war.

Back when I was a kid, whenever South Korea was in the news it was never good. From the assignation of President Park Chung-hee, to a young American soldier’s defection to North Korea to two American Army officers killed by North Korean troops while pruning a tree in the DMZ I kinda got the impression growing up the country was an awful place. Looking back, this was probably made worse thanks to the unflattering depiction of Korea on the TV show M*A*S*H.

But even sour memories can make one nostalgic, or at least curious enough to engage the ghosts of the past with the courage, intelligence and wisdom of a learned adult. No better place to start then with GI Confidential.

Previously unbeknownst to me GI Confidential is the 14th book in the Sergeants Sueño and Bascom series set in South Korea. In this latest installment, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers George Sueño and Ernie Bascom find themselves investigating a string of bank robberies perpetrated by a gang of American servicemen. As they race to identify and apprehend the robbers they discover they’re being shadowed by Katie Byrd Worthington, an aggressive yet talented reporter for the Overseas Observer, an investigative tabloid reviled by America’s military brass. If having to capture a gang of American bank robbers was tough enough, before long Sueño and Ernie are tasked with investigating rumors of an American General involved in sex trafficking dangerously close to the DMZ – who by the way might also be losing his mind.

Fast-paced with sharp dialog, cleaver and entertaining as hell, I totally lucked out with GI Confidential. With 13 more books in this series, I can almost guarantee you’ll see more of them featured on my blog.

20 Books of Summer: Empty Planet by John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker

For a relatively small country, population-wise Canada has produced some impressive writers, especially in the field of politics. Weighing in on opposite sides of the immigration debate are Bruce Bawer with While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within and Doug Saunders with The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? Back in 2011, before 4chan became a platform for QAnon’s absurd conspiracy theories Jonathan Kay explored and debunked the dark world of conspiracy theories in his book Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. Lastly, even the ultra-conservative pundit Mark Steyn, author of a host of books including America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It is Canadian, even if he currently resides in the United States.

In that regard America’s neighbor to the North continues to punch above its weight. A few weeks ago at the public library I picked up a copy of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline. With their 2019 book the two Canadians make a bold and compelling claim: In the near future the world’s population will not explode but precipitously decline.

After being told for years we’ve been sitting on a ticking population bomb at first it’s hard to take the two authors’ claim seriously. You ask why is global population going to decline within the next 40 to 50 years? The answer is everyday, the world is becoming more and more modern.

A key component of modernization is urbanization. The bulk of the world’s population resides or is  predicted to reside not on farms or in villages but in cities. Urban families aren’t engaged in labor intensive farm work, so families are smaller. Living in cities makes it’s harder for conservative elements like their parents and in-laws, churches and mosques to pressure them into having lots of children. It’s also easier for city-dwelling women to obtain reliable birth control and receive helpful family planning advice. Lastly, more and more cities around the world are joining the global economy, leading to an explosion of service sector “knowledge jobs” throughout the world, especially in South and East Asia. These jobs require an educated workforce, prompting more women to delay marriage in order to attend college. Once in the workforce, many women continue to delay marriage and with it motherhood since it’s seen as a career impediment. So, as the world urbanizes it starts having fewer children. Once a country dips below the birthrate of 2.1 children per couple its population begins to contract, then collapse.

According to Bricker and Ibbitson, there’s both good and bad things on the horizon. Lower population should put less pressure on the environment, resources and the global food supply. Potentially, it could also lead to lower unemployment, since there’d be less competion for jobs. With fewer global births, the population ages and the authors speculate this could lead to a “geriatric peace” since there’ll be fewer young hot-heads in positions of power.

On the other hand, without a huge pool of young workers it will be harder for countries, especially in Europe and East Asia to generate the taxes needed to pay for the retirement and medical expenses of a ballooning population of seniors. On a related note, the United States, Canada and the countries of Europe will no longer depend of young immigrants to replenish their employment rolls and help prop-up their birthrates. (This could get worse if today’s anti-immigration sentiment leaves a lasting legacy around the developed world.)

If, after reading Empty Planet you’d like to get another perspective on where the world might be going, I’d encourage you to read Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. I suspect Empty Planet is one of those books that will be embraced, debated, attacked, and in the end highly influential. That alone is enough for me to recommend it.

20 Books of Summer: In The Ruins Of Empire by Ronald H. Spector

Back in June when I announced to the world my 20 Books of Summer did any of you really think I’d stick to my list? Well, neither did I. Sure, it would have felt great to whip through all those books stacked on my porch. Truth is, not only am I a slow reader but I have no self control. That means if I come across a promising book, I wanna read it. But hey, at least I’m reading good books.

I’ve been wanting to read Ronald H. Specter’s In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia for years, ever since a highly erudite former co-worker of mine raved about it. Recently, I came across a copy of Specter’s 2007 book during one of my weekend library visits and whatever intentions I had in sticking to my original 20 Books of Summer promptly went out the window. Luckily for me, In the Ruins of Empire might have been one of the best books of the summer and thus might make my Favorite Books of Summer list.

When Imperial Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945 it was a vanquished nation. With its navy smashed, airforce decimated and cities smouldering ruins (two by atomic bombs) many assumed militarily it was a spent force and before long throughout East Asia things would return to how it was before the War. Specifically, the Dutch, French and British would reestablish control over their respective colonies of the Dutch East Indies, Indochina and Malaya. Korea, after a half century of Japanese rule would regain its independence. After years of fighting and occupation Japanese troops would promptly leave China, allowing rival Nationalists and Communists to hammer out a US-sponsored peace deal and jointly rebuild the shattered, impoverished country.

Or not. Even after the Soviets drove the Japanese out of Manchuria and the northern half of Korea by war’s end millions of Japanese troops remained throughout East Asia. (On one Indonesian island alone there were 80,000 Japanese.) Complicating things even more, none of these troops had ever tasted defeat. And now they were expected to surrender and follow orders from the victorious Allies.

In the ruins of Japan’s former overseas empire, a new post-war world began to emerge. Indonesian Nationalists, benefits of a cozy relationship with their former Japanese overlords actively resisted the return of Dutch rule, and did so armed with weapons seized from Japanese armories. The Ho Chi Minh -led Viet Minh proclaimed an independent Vietnam, much to the displeasure of the French. In Korea, Russian forces occupied the northern half of the country while Americans held the rest, leading to yet another war, one that would end in stalemate and produce a lasting division that exists to this day. Lastly, after a brief truce Nationalists and Communists would resume their civil war, both sides fortified in varying degrees by Japanese advisors, weapons and former puppet soldiers.

In the Ruins of Empire is a great companion to Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent. For those interested in modern history, especially that of Asia, it’s hard to go wrong with this book.

20 Books of Summer: War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

When chosing a book to read I usually take backcover praise with a grain of salt. But when Ian Bremmer says it’s a “must-read” I take notice. That’s all it took for me to grab a copy of Ronan Farrow 2018 insider’s look at the State Department War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence when I spotted a copy at the public library.

Over the course of his career, Farrow has worn at least two hats, one as a State Department Iawyer and the other as an investigative journalist. Thanks to the author’s diverse background War on Peace could be seen as two books in one. As a former State Department official Farrow recalls the time he spent at the agency, much of it working for veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (Through Farrow’s eyes anyway, the late Holbrooke comes off as an overly driven figure so eccentric I suspect he resided somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Utilizing his talents as an investigative journalist allowed Farrow to serve up a no-holds barred look at the messy world of international diplomacy. To pull off this feat he interviewed every living former State Department head. Farrow must have some serious street cred becuase he’s able to sit down with Kissinger, Albright, Clinton, Kerry and Tillerson.

Overall, War on Peace is pretty good. I especially enjoyed what Farrow had to say about Afghanistan, Pakistan and those countries’ role in the “War on Terror.” (Regarding Pakistan’s level of dedication in fighting al-Queda and the Taliban, let’s just say it’s no coincidence Osama bin Laden lived comfortably for years in a fortified compound a stone’s throw away from the nation’s top military academy.) The behind the scenes look at the Iranian nuclear deal was another favorite of mine. Lastly, while it angered and depressed me, Farrow’s depiction of the State Department being gutted by the Trump administration made for excellent reading.

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.