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.

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.

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.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat's TableBack in June I featured Mirko Bonné’s 2013 novel The Ice-Cold Heaven: A Novel because it’s set in Antarctica, and therefore eligible to be counted as part of the “seventh continent” portion of Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge. Fortunately, to make things a bit easier for the challenge participants she’s broadened the concept of the seventh content to include ”the sea, the space, a supernatural/paranormal world, history, the future-you name it.” That works rather nicely for me. But what to next read as part of that seventh continent? Then, last week at the public library I had my answer. For the second time this summer I came across a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s 2011 novel The Cat’s Table. I was a bit hesitant to take a chance on it because I’ve had mixed results with Ondaatje. I loved The English Patient. However, Anil’s Ghost, not so much. But after noticing The Cat’s Table is a novel about a sea voyage a little lightbulb in my head suddenly went off. I could classify its setting as “international waters” and include it as one of my submissions the seventh continent. So, with that in mind I grabbed it.
OK, so it counts for my reading challenge but how was it? Thankfully, it’s no Anil’s Ghost. But it ain’t The English Patient either. But who cares. I enjoyed it

The Cat’s Table is the story of an 11-year-old Ceylonese boy, who along with two of his young countrymen, dine each evening at the “cat’s table” during a three-week sea journey from Colombo to London. Designated as a table reserved for social misfits, eccentrics and potentially troublesome lower-class children, the cat’s table serves as a kind of quarantine for any passengers not worthy of being near the Captain’s table and his esteemed guests. (Remember that scene in the movie Animal House when they exile Mohammad, Jugdish and company to the far corner during that snooty fraternity party?) Of course, just like any high school cafeteria that uncool table is where the truly interesting and memorable people eat. At this table our young traveler gets a world-class education as he rubs elbows with a vagabond musician, a British spinster and a small cast of somewhat mysterious but incredibly fascinating passengers. When not dining with this band of misfits he and his young buddies run roughshod over the ship, secretly spying on passengers, exploring the off-limits bowels of the ship and causing general mayhem.

I enjoyed The Cat’s Table for several reasons. One, it combined two few elements I’ve always enjoyed in a piece of fiction or memoir: coming of age and encountering class/racial barriers. In addition, with the novel told in the first person, you see the world through the eyes of an innocent, but with an innocence that is slowly but surely fading away. Being it’s told from the vantage point of a middle age man looking back after a half century makes that loss of innocence feel even more poignant.

Like I said, I enjoyed The Cat’s Table and as a result it’s rekindled my interest in Michael Ondaatje. I’d be willing to read more of his novels. Just don’t make me read Anil’s Ghost again.

Biographies of Faith: The Convert by Deborah Baker

Back in May of 2011, Kim on her blog Sophisticated Dorkiness posted a review of The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. I remember being intrigued by what Kim had to say about Deborah Baker’s 2011 biography of a young Jewish American woman who in the early 1960s converted to Islam, moved to Pakistan and became a protegé of an influential Islamist. In the comments section of her post, I wrote I was intrigued by what Kim said about The Convert and noted my desire to someday read it. In her response, Kim thought based on my interest in Islam and religion in general I should read The Convert. I agreed with her response, but then like I do with so many other promising books I read or hear about, quickly forgot about it.

Fast forward to December of 2013 and I found myself picking my way through the shelves of my public library and what did I come across but a copy of Deborah Baker’s The Convert. Remember Kim’s review from 2 and half years ago I quickly snatched it up. As I began reading it a few days later, I was optimistic that Baker’s biography would make for enjoyable reading. I finished it this morning at my neighborhood coffee shop and during my walk home I reflected a bit on The Convert.  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Baker  does a good but no means perfect job telling the story of a unique, highly complex and somewhat troubled individual and her search for meaning and happiness.

In telling the story of Margaret Marcus and her transition from Jewish suburban family life to Muslim convert Maryam Jameelah of Lahore, Pakistan Baker touches on several subjects. Besides the tension between Islam and the West, Baker also discusses through the lens of her subject’s life story mental illness, gender inequality and religious identity. Like some literary detective, Baker uses Margaret/Maryam’s letters, published materials and those of her mentor Mawlana Mawdudi to reconstruct the details of her life.

As fascinating as this story is, Kim astutely pointed out in her review her concerns with Baker’s methodology, specifically her practice of “inserting herself in the book.” Kim went on to say that

believ[ing] she was trying to write Maryam’s story to reflect her experience researching — letting the reader go with one assumption and then dramatically shifting it later in the story as new facts came to light. This made the book even more unsettling; any assumption the reader started with almost inevitably shifted.

A valid conclusion, definitely worth considering. While The Convert wasn’t perfect, it told a fascinating story. For that alone, I’m glad I read it.

Steve Inskeep does Karachi

I was first introduced to the city of Karachi thanks to a piece in The Economist magazine. As I read the article I was shocked by the magazine’s depiction of the Pakistani megacity of 14 million as a hotbed of ethnic violence, political instability, corruption and religious tension. To make matters worse, what little infrastructure the city possesses in no way come close to serving the needs of Karachi’s teeming millions, many of them considerably impoverished. On top of all of this, Karachi limps along as Pakistan’s commercial capital and most populous city, while the nation’s leadership must deal with a nuclear-armed India on one border and Taliban-led insurgency on the other. Interesting times indeed.

I have little doubt those arresting images came to mind once I stumbled upon Steve Inskeep’s Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi during one of my weekend library visits. Published in 2011, Instant City is NPR Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep’s boots on the ground look at the troubled city of Karachi and how it became the chaotic place it is today. To do this, Inskeep begins his book with a description of a religious procession by members of the city’s Shia community. From there he works backwards, examining Pakistan’s origins as a homeland for Indian Muslims and how the sudden influx of millions of those refugees would end up profoundly shaping the city’s destiny. From there Inskeep visits with activists, business leaders, professionals, politicians and commoners to help serve up a detailed and nuanced portrait of Karachi.

While I didn’t find Instant City wildly entertaining, I did find it highly informative, much like I did Edward Luce’s 2007 book In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. Because of the book’s focus on life in a South Asian megacity, Instant City would make a pretty good follow-up read to Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity as well as novels like Cracking India and Partitions.

With all the time I’ve been devoting to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge in addition to hosting the Middle East Reading Challenge (which pathetically needs to be a lot more time) I feel I’ve neglected books about South and East Asia. I’m hoping before the end of the year to turn that around a bit. Therefore, in the coming months get ready to read about more books that deal with the Indian Subcontinent, East Asian or places in between. With this part of the globe possessing much of the world’s population and being responsible for so much economic growth, how can I afford not to?

The West is the best according to Ibn Warraq

The West is the best. – The Doors

I strongly suspect it was one of the New Atheists who introduced me to the writings of Ibn Warraq. A former Muslim turned staunch critic of his former religion, I found his weighty 1995 book Why I Am Not a Not a Muslim an uncompromisingly bold and partisan critique of the Islamic religion. Respecting his work and eager to read more of his writings, I put his 2003 book Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out on my to read list and figured someday down the road I’d read more from Warraq. Then, during one of my strolls along the shelves at my public library what did I find but copy of this 2011 book Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy. Like a greedy kid in a candy store I snatched up Warraq’s book and made my way to the check-out machines. Good thing I did. While no less polemical and passionate than his Why I Am Not a Muslim, thanks to Warraq’s more succinct writing style when compared to the previously mentioned book, I found Why the West is the Best a highly opinionated but intelligent (and considering the expansive subject matter discussed), surprisingly readable book.

As the title hints, Warraq in his book strives to make the case that Western civilization has been a positive force in the world. Countering the claims to the contrary made by some moral relativists, post-modernists and Islamists, Warraq passionately urges citizens of the West to take pride in our accomplishments and institutions that have brought us democracy, rule of law, secularism, intellectual freedom and prosperity. Warraq points to New York City as a shining example of the best of the West: wealthy, ethnically diverse yet convivial, well-governed, home to a world-class public library, meritocratic and a long-time mecca for arts and entertainment. According Warraq, our universal concepts of human rights and decency all originated in the West and as a result the rest of the world is a better place because of it.

Of course this book is not without its faults. One wonders if Warraq, in making his claims, is a bit selective when it comes to presenting his evidence. For example, while he rails against such Eastern atrocities as the Arab slave trade and Japan’s conduct during  WWII, he fails to mention the genocide perpetrated by a Western Nazi Germany or the crimes of Stalinist Russia. Pointing to India as an Eastern nation that has benefited from Western colonialism due to its adoption of British-style democracy, civil service and legal system, anyone who has read Catherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers can tell you he neglects to mention that India’s courts are notoriously backlogged, its political system incredibly corrupt and its civil service hopelessly threadbare and inefficient.

But I did enjoy Warraq’s book and after reading Why the West is the Best I think I’ll be exploring more of his stuff. I’d like to try his essay collection Virgins? What Virgins? in addition to his Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. (With Paul Berman calling Warraq’s Defending the West “a glorious work of scholarship”, how can I go wrong?)

Regardless of what one might think of Warraq’s arguments or any flaws this book might possess, I think its greatest attribute is its ability to stimulate vigorous and intelligent debate. Therefore, if for that reason alone, I recommend this book.

Consulting the crystal ball: Pakistan on the Brink by Ahmed Rashid

Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and AfghanistanYears ago at a used book sale I picked up a paperback copy of Ahmed Rashid’s Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. After letting it collect dust in my bookshelf for who knows long, one day I finally pulled it out and began reading it. Published in 2002, I found the book to be straight-up, no-frills but considerably detailed and insightful look at the five former Soviet Republics of Central Asia. Fast forward to the present and what did I come across in the new books section of my public library but Rashid’s 2012 book Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In this most recent book by Rashid, as its subtitle declares, by carefully examining the words and actions of political leaders as well as events on the ground, weighs in on the future of both countries as United States and allied troops slowly but surely begin to leave Afghanistan, while at the same time US policy makers reassess our nation’s relationship with Pakistan-a relationship  complicated by a number of factors including the killing of Osama bin Laden, a growing Islamic militancy within Pakistan and an overall inability of Pakistani leaders and institutions to create an orderly, democratic and cohesive nation-state.

Just like his 2002 effort Jihad, I found Pakistan on the Brink to be informative but not dry and even though it didn’t keep me on the edge of my seat, nevertheless I found it readable. For years a respected journalist and contributor to a number of top-flight publications like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Financial Times I suspect those journalistic bona fides provide him with access to many of the world’s movers and shakers, since Rashid spends no small amount of time analyzing high-level discussions and interviewing significant leaders. (By the end of the book I began to see him as a kind of Pakistani Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh.) While he, just like British journalist James Fergusson, favors negotiating with the Afghan Taliban, he unlike Fergusson doesn’t white-wash their violent history. And while Rashid seems considerably less passionate than his fellow Pakistani writer Tariq Ali, he’s also less opinionated and ideological. Plus, I found Ali’s 2008 book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power a bit disjointed and poorly edited. Thankfully Rashid’s book is not.

My old professor of Latin American politics used to say there’s no assurance in politics. Honestly, who knows what the future holds for Pakistan and Afghanistan. But I have confidence that if anyone can help show us the way, it’s probably Ahmed Rashid.

Mark Pendergrast takes us inside the outbreaks

I first heard of Mark Pendergrast’s 2010 book Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service thanks to the good people at Book TV. (Oddly enough, while Pendergrast’s lecture bored me to tears nevertheless I still wanted to read his book.) Then, not long after that I came across Tolmsted’s excellent review on her blog Book Sexy. Duly intrigued, I made a mental note to someday read Inside the Outbreaks should I ever stumble across it during one of my library visits.

Of course, one Saturday afternoon while prowling the shelves what did I find but Pendergrast’s book. Not only was I drawn to the book because of its subject matter (for years I’ve enjoyed reading about diseases and epidemics, ever since a former client of mine recommended Berton Roueche’s 11 Blue Men) but I also found it hard to resist its slightly exaggerated comic book-style cover art. So, even with a sizable stack of library books under my arm I added it to my pile and headed to the automated check-out machine.

I found Inside the Outbreaks to be pretty good, but nothing fancy. It chronicles the 60 year history of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, which could be described as the field branch of the CDC. The book is a series of vignettes starting with the creation of the Service and its first official mission (the investigation of a strange new disease that was sickening soldiers during the Korean War) and ending with the anthrax scares following 9/11. The storytelling isn’t stellar, but thankfully it is direct and to the point. Neither is it boring. While certainly not flashy, Inside the Outbreaks feels well researched.

While I enjoyed reading about the EIS’s adventures in combating diseases like polio, smallpox, Ebola, cholera and Legionnaires’ disease, I could not help but feel a bit nostalgic upon reading Pendergrast’s account of a few outbreaks that occurred in my own back yard. Growing up in Oregon, I remember when sewage contaminated drinking water at Crater Lake National Park, the Rajneeshees poisoned salad bars and E-coli sickened fast food diners in Southern Oregon.

Down the road I’d like to read other books like this one. Berton Roueche’s 1981 classic The Medical Detectives should be at the top of my list along with McCormick and Fisher-Hoch’s  Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC and Nagami’s Maneater: And Other True Stories of a Life in Infectious Disease.

Fiction from the Indian Subcontinent: Partitions by Amit Majmudar

Inspired by Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge, I’ve been trying to read more international fiction. With my eyes on the “expert level’ of three books from each of the six inhabited continents (plus three from the seventh continent, which could not only be Antarctica, but also something set in the ancient past, distant future, outer space, alternate universe, etc) even though it feels like I’m making significant progress, when I crunch the numbers I can tell I still have my work cut out for me. But after finishing Amit Majmudar’s 2011 debut novel Partitions I just got a bit closer to my goal. And on top of it, it’s not a bad novel either.

Partitions tells the story of four people caught up in the bloody chaos resulting from Britain’s decision to finally grant independence to its prized South Asian possession by splitting it into the two nations of India and Pakistan. The story centers on a the journeys of four refugees, forming a kind of microcosm representing pre-1947 India’s three major religions: a pair of young Hindu twin boys, a Sikh teen girl and a mature Muslim doctor. All four are driven from their homes by communal violence and must make their way to safety on the other side of the newly drawn border. In what ended up being a bit of a surprise to me their perilous journey is narrated by the ghost of the twins’ father, giving a somewhat supernatural feel to his at times detached, at times heartfelt first person account of the action.

Based on the many comments I’ve read on both Goodreads and Amazon, this novel was well-received, with many readers expressing how much they enjoyed it. While I didn’t enjoy it to the degree most readers did, I must have liked it enough to rip through it in what felt like no time. It’s also inspired me to read more novels from South Asian writers. As I type this I have Jaspreet Singh’s 2010 novel Chef fresh from the public library and sitting by my side ready to be read. I also have on my living room bookshelf Aravind Adiga’s 2008 debut novel The White Tiger stacked next to a vintage paperback edition of  Kamala Markandaya’s 1954 novel Nectar in a Sieve. Inspired by not only Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge but also S. Krishna’s South Asian Reading Challenge (I signed up only a few nights ago) after finishing Partitions I now feel ready to read more novels by authors from the Indian Subcontinent.