Category Archives: Indian Subcontinent

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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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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Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari

Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's PartitionWhen it comes to the world of nonfiction, I think every author wants to write a book that’s well-written, well-researched and filled with fascinating details. I’m sure many of those authors as they strive to incorporate as much detail as possible into their books have to make sure they don’t include too much information. Even though I appreciate great research and strong scholarship, the inclusion of too much detail can mar a promising work of nonfiction. While many praised Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital I was not one of them. Impressed as I was by project she undertook, I thought she included too many details and her book could have used a little editing. On a related note, I’m starting to feel the same way about Mark Molesky’s This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason. (It’s taken me forever to work my way through Molesky’s 2015 book.) The trick is to include just the right amount of detail without overloading the reader.

Nisid Hajari, with his 2015 book Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition pulls this off with flying colors. Not only is Midnight’s Furies well-written and well-researched it has a ton of detail. But not too much detail. That my friends, is the beauty of a book like Midnight’s Furies.

Midnight’s Furies is one of those books I saw featured on Amazon or Goodreads and vowed to someday read. When I found an available copy thanks to my public library I grabbed it. Despite making the mistake of trying to read it while I was reading several other books I eventually powered my way through it. In the end was not disappointed.

After reading several books, both fiction and nonfiction dealing with the Indian Partition, I considered myself pretty knowledgeable when it came to one of modern history’s bloodiest ethnic exchanges. I’m pleased to say Hajari’s book taught me much and helped give me a deeper understanding of not just how the Partition unfolded but what caused it. And all of it made for excellent reading.

According to Hajari, if British India was going to be split into two nations, it was going to be one hell of a mess. Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his followers knew Pakistan could not exist as a viable state without the major population regions of Punjab and Bengal. Even splitting both regions between India and Pakistan would leave huge numbers of Muslims in India and Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. These sizable minorities would need to be protected or relocated peacefully. (In the end, neither happened and the result was horrific.) With huge numbers of Sikhs forced from their homes in East Punjab many felt cheated by Pakistan, but also by India for not allowing them to set up their own independent  Sikhistan. Angry but also well-armed, well-organized and possessing a long martial tradition, the Sikh community’s ability to project deadly force added to the bloodbath. On top of it all, both Pakistan and India coveted the lovely Kashmir. India would outmaneuver Pakistan for the lion’s share of this prize. But by doing so would sow the seeds of an ongoing conflict that plagues India to this day.

Midnight’s Furies is an excellent book and must reading for anyone wanting to understand today’s rivalry between Pakistan and India. Consider this book highly recommended.

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The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

9781594488276_p0_v1_s192x300You gotta like a guy who gets his first book published when he’s 80 years old. Heck, just living to the ripe old age of 80 is impressive enough, but getting your debut work of fiction published at an age when many people are entering an assisted living facility is an amazing feat.

Last week, after dropping off a few books at the public library I took a lazy waltz along the shelves in hopes something might catch my eye. Seeing the non-Western name Jamil Ahmad on the spine of a book I was quickly intrigued. After inspecting it, things started to look familiar. Then I remembered author Jamil Ahmad and his book The Wandering Falcon being featured on NPR a few years back. Well heck, good enough for NPR, good enough for me. So I grabbed it.

Even though The Wandering Falcon isn’t a novel but a collection of short stories, with all the stories sharing a common character. Tor Baz, the orphaned love child of a renegade couple shows up in all nine stories, even if in passing. As the stories shift forward and backward in time, we see Tor Baz young and old, as well as from varying perspectives.

What I really liked about The Wandering Falcon was Ahmad’s ability to capture the people and environment of the rough and tumble borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Seeing this region through Ahmad eyes, it’s a world perhaps best described as harsh and unforgiving, but at the same time rich and colorful. As I read these stories, I found the writing reminiscent of mid-century American writer Paul Bowles and his descriptions of North Africa.

After reading The Wandering Falcon, I’d like to read more works of fiction set in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And why not? The two nations are always in the news and will probably continue to be as Afghanistan slides towards anarchy, Pakistan remains unsettled and the overall region of South Asia rises in significance as the Indian Ocean takes center stage among world policy makers. Therefore, expect to see more books like The Wandering Falcon featured on my blog.

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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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Immigrant Stories Challenge: In the Sea There are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

From time to time we hear of memoirs and other nonfiction books that were supposedly true, but after closer scrutiny turned out to be mere fabrications. While those literary incidents occasionally make headlines, we seldom hear about works of fiction that are closely based on real events. Recently, I discovered one of these relatively rare books during one of my library visits when I stumbled across a copy of Fabio Geda’s In the Sea There are Crocodiles. Geda’s slim but satisfying book is a novelized account of young Enaiatollah Akbar’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy.

The story begins in pre-9/11 Afghanistan when Akbar and his mother are forced to flee their impoverished village by the ruling Taliban. Members of the persecuted Hazara ethnic group, Akbar’s mother eventually realizes that life under the murderous Taliban is no longer an option and the two of them flee to Pakistan. After his mother leaves him, he risks his life traveling across Southwest Asia and the Balkans until finding sanctuary in Italy. Along the way he encounters human traffickers, desperate migrants, corrupt officials and more hardship and death than any boy should ever experience.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that Geda’s book embodies a number of paradoxes. Billed as a novel, it’s based on the true life account of Akbar’s harrowing journey across five countries and two continents. (Interspersed throughout In the Sea There are Crocodiles are fragments of interviews between Akbar and Geda.) Told in the third person, nevertheless the world is seen through the eyes of the novel’s tween protagonist. While some have labeled the novel a piece of young adult literature, I found it more than suitable for a grown up audience. Lastly, in spite of the misery, injustice and horror Akbar suffered on his long journey, he never seems to lose his youthful optimism and trust in humanity. It is for primarily for these reasons that I have no problem recommending this surprisingly good book.

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Rock the Casbah by Robin Wright

Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic WorldYou think your job is tough, try writing a book that’s relevant and up to date on the Islamic World. For decades the region was criticized as politically and socially stagnant. Yet over the last couple of years we’ve seen a cascade of tumultuous events sweep across that part of the world. From stolen elections in Iran to the uprisings of the Arab Spring, to civil warfare in Syria and Iraq, it’s been a crazy last few years. Heck, only a few months ago none of us had even heard of Boko Haram or ISIS. Nowadays they’re the lead stories on the evening news. My how things have changed.

With that in mind, foreign policy specialist and international journalist Robin Wright chose a thankless job when she decided to write Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.  To produce a book that’s insightful and intelligent enough to fully describe- let alone analyze-the many grassroots developments happening throughout such a diverse and expansive part of the world is a task almost Sisyphean in nature. But with much energy, optimism and a dash or two of honesty, she does a credible job.

I first came across her stuff back in 2010, when during one of my weekend library visits, I discovered a copy of her 2008 book Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. After enjoying Dreams and Shadows I finally got off my duff three years later and read her 1986 book Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam. (Years ago an old mentor of mine gave me a copy and it had been sitting in my private library ignored and unread.) Therefore, when I found that Wright had written a book about this region I was understandably excited. After letting it sit on my desk for a few days I cracked it open and began reading. I must have liked it because it didn’t take me long to finish it. Just as she did with Dreams and Shadows, Wright did a fine job spending lots of time in the field interviewing the very people who are trying to bring about these sweeping changes. Almost always she let them speak for themselves, which I think is a good thing. She also provides analysis, and considering she’s no stranger to the politics of the area I found her insight valuable. (Unfortunately, the copy I read was an earlier one and therefore missing the updated chapter. Fortunately, what Wright had to say in last chapter of my copy I found very intelligent and honest.) I thought her chapter on art in the Islamic world, especially comedy was bar none my favorite of the book.

When it comes to the future of the Islamic world, Wright is an optimist. She has confidence in those who strive mightily seeking to change things for the better But she’s still a cautious optimist and definitely not a Pollyanna. I don’t think anyone has a magic crystal ball when it comes to predicting what the future holds for that part of the world. But if anyone can help show us where things are going, Robin Wright can.

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