Everything under the Heavens-book review

In recent times, China has risen to become arguably the world’s second power and potential global bad guy. China is now an economic, industrial, military and geopolitical power, but not content with this, it is challenging the US for regional supremacy in Asia. China’s huge ambition is driven not just by the urge for power or economic wealth, but also its perceived historical status as the center of its world. As such, China saw itself as the supreme civilization around which smaller and lesser nations and peoples submitted or paid tribute to. Everything under the Heavens- How the past helps shape China’s push for global power explains how this superiority complex came about by looking into China’s past.

The author Howard French, who has extensive experience reporting and writing about Africa and China, delves into China’s relations with different neighbors like Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. Delving into history, French shows how China developed tributary relationships with these smaller states on its periphery, as well as its ties to them.

For example, China had control over Vietnam for 1000 years up until the 11th century, after the Vietnamese managed to drive the Chinese out and maintain an independent status (minus a few decades when the Chinese Ming Dynasty invaded and gained control before being driven back out, as well as colonization under the French in the 19th and 20th centuries).

French also goes into China’s trade relationships with the maritime kingdoms in what is now Malaysia and Indonesia, such as Malacca, from which the Straits of Malacca is named. China’s claim and militarization of much of the South China Sea, which lies much closer to Southeast Asia than China, is derived from historical times when supposedly Chinese traders and fishermen sailed most of the sea. While this does not exactly confer ownership to China, somehow its Communist rulers have twisted logic to claim that it does.

It’s easy to see how China came to see itself as the center of the region which it firmly dominated both in scale and power. From the 19th century, the rise of Japan caused a rude shock when it managed to challenge and actually defeat China in a war (which is how Taiwan became a Japanese colony from 1895-1945). However, before that, China’s defeats to the UK and France in the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century caused great shame, from which the current Communist regime has milked a “Century of Humiliation” narrative to the present day which fuels both a vindictive desire and victim mentality against the West. For the Communist regime, a return to the days of lore before the 19th century when China was the unquestioned and dominant power in the region is their goal, but the US and other nations must prevent this blast to the past.

French concludes the book with an excellent assessment of the strengths of China and the US, that also goes hand in hand with a good summary of China’s precarious future with declining economic growth and a rapidly aging population. French advocates that the US must try to cooperate with China but be firm when it needs to be. This is exactly the scenario that is playing out now, though cooperation is probably the last thing on both countries’ mind.

Engel’s England, and Better than Fiction-book reviews

If you want to learn more about England beyond the touristy and famous places, Engel’s England is a book you should try. This massive book (over 500 pages) covers the entirety of England as author Matthew Engel visited all 39 historic counties as well as London itself. However, let me first make it clear that this is a book aimed more at English readers than international ones. The book isn’t about introducing the counties to foreign readers but searching out and highlighting the essence of these places. That means it can get really local in some parts, with a lot of local descriptions and references such as obscure traditions or festivals specific to the county, town or village. Engels drove a lot especially to little-known small towns and rural villages, which does make much of the book “off the beaten track.”

This also means that you get a really in-depth feel of these counties and their assorted towns and villages. Big cities are often skipped or briefly mentioned, such as Manchester in the Lancashire chapter. I learnt that Leicestershire still practices foxhunting, while cricket was invented in a southern coastal part of England (I’d always thought it originated more in the middle). I also learnt about Rutland, England’s tiniest county which was actually abolished before being reinstated after a campaign.

I admit parts of it were tough to get through, especially in the beginning, but the more I read, the more I enjoyed it.  Some chapters were a pleasure to read. But in the end, I felt like I completed a major journey of my own.

Lonely Planet sometimes publishes some good collections of travel tales, and Better than Fiction- True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers is one of these. Featuring true travel accounts from 32 fiction writers, the book is packed with fun stories, poignant reflections, narrow escapes and even a reporting trip. That is exactly what travel is like. Travel can be adventurous or scary, uplifting or teach us painful life lessons. Regardless of whatever impact you get out of it, travel should always be something you can treasure.

The stories take place all over the world from Antarctica to Africa to Fiji. The authors include travel writers (of course), as well as literary big names like Joyce Carol Oates and Isabel Allende and detective novelist Alexander McCall Smith. There are some fun stories, but it’s not all fun and games. One of the grimmest stories takes place in Xinjiang, China, where the author hires a driver to visit local places and eventually gets tracked down and stopped by the police, who force her to return to the hotel. The driver was not so fortunate. Even though this was many years ago, Xinjiang was under heavy police control.

It’s a very good anthology of real-life travel stories that shows that travel can be a lot of different things.

 

Walking the Nile-book review

As the world’s longest and most famous river, the Nile possesses an significant aura of legend, mystery and fascination. Being the cradle of the Egyptian civilization, the Nile has had a role in recorded human history since almost the beginning. But few have ever walked along the entire Nile, which is where British explorer Levison Wood comes in. Starting from the source of the Nile in Rwanda, Wood trekked along the river over 6,437 kilometers (4000 miles) with various African guides through Uganda, South Sudan, and Sudan to its end in Egypt where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea. This journey is the subject of Wood’s Walking the Nile.

The journey starts off in Rwanda, where, contrary to popular belief, the Nile begins from a humble forest spring that becomes a river flowing to Lake Victoria, where the source was previously thought of as being. During these early stages, Wood and his brash and jaunty guide-turned-friend Ndoole Boston mostly trek through forest and swamp, as well as stay on the shores of Lake Victoria. There are brief pauses at cities like Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and Uganda’s capital Kampala. Wood provides a somber overview of his impressions of Rwanda and its attempt to move on from the horror of the 1994 genocide. While the country has succeeded in becoming an orderly and stable nation, it has also turned into a security state with shades of authoritarianism.

There is also a fair bit of commentary on the history and politics in other countries like Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan, which to me is refreshing. I think that while exploration and travel are great for knowing more about the world, this should include current events or history or politics of places. In a continent like Africa, with its mix of ethnicities and cultures and the impact of colonialism, it’s even more fitting to know more about local history and developments.

Things begin to get really hard as Wood moves northwards. At one point, he is joined by a couple of journalists who plan to walk with him for a week and report on it. Tragically, during an extremely hot day, one of these writers, Matthew Power, gets heatstroke, collapses and then dies. Wood calls for an evacuation and he is understandably shaken. Wood soon resumes the journey while still having some doubts in his mind.

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, presents an extraordinary challenge as it was (and still is) in the grip of a savage civil war. Lots of cash and official help were what got Wood into the country and even then, it was a precarious situation. Wood travels through the Sudd, a large swampland, where he stays with a river cattle-herding tribe, the Mundari, and is bested by them in wrestling. But after reaching the town of Bor, he encountered fighting between rival factions, which forced him to abandon part of the trek. He flies to Sudan and continues it from there. It was sad to read about the savage fighting and dire conditions in this fledgling country, which itself was borne out of war after having fought for its independence for decades against Sudan. It’s hard to feel any optimism for South Sudan.

Sudan does not get much good press or have a good reputation in the world (though this might be changing with the recent peaceful overthrow of its longtime leader). But civil war and conflicts like Darfur aside, Sudan was home to grand ancient civilizations like the Nubian Kushite kingdom. Wood highlights Sudan’s own pyramids in Meroe (capital of the ancient Nubian kingdom of Kush), which might be smaller but no less fascinating and certainly much less crowded than Egypt’s. Part of the journey sees Wood and his companions, including two friends of his, travel through the eastern edge of the Sahara, the Bayuda, which the Romans had ventured thousands of years ago.

When Wood reaches Egypt, things settle down and the journey becomes a steady progression. Walking the Nile is a fine travelogue that combines adventure with current affairs, archaeology and anthropology. It’s not surprising that Wood went on to do further treks through the Himalayas, Central Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and Central America. The man is as intrepid as they come.

 

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle- book review

It’s rare to come across novels written about Trinidad so you can imagine how I felt when I randomly picked up The White Woman on the Green Bicycle in the library and realized where it was set. Despite the book’s title, the novel is about a white European couple (the man English, the woman French and the “white woman” in the title) living in Trinidad for decades but still coming to grips with life there.

As you might know, Trinidad (full name: Trinidad and Tobago) is a small island nation in the Caribbean where I happen to be from. Though I lived there until I left to go to university in Canada, it was only in my adult years I learned to really appreciate the country. Reading this book made me go over how I feel about Trinidad and what I miss about it, from the natural beauty to the relaxed pace of life to the mix of people. In case you’re wondering how diverse a country of 1.3 million could be, I’ll say Trinidad has several ethnicities but the largest is 40 percent.

Anyways, the novel focuses on a white European couple which might seem unusual. Whites are a very tiny minority in Trinidad, and this couple aren’t originally from the country, but having lived in Trinidad for 50 years and raised their children wholly in the country, they have more than earned the right to be considered Trinidadians. For George, who came to Trinidad with his wife for a 3-year job posting and then decided to stay, he has no regrets. For Sabine, the “white woman” in the book’s title, things are more complex because she detests the country. At this point, you might think that writing a novel based on the views and experiences of white Europeans makes the book controversial or unrealistic but the author carries it off well. As a Trinidadian who herself was born to parents from Europe who settled in Trinidad, Monique Roffey wrote from personal experience – she has said in an interview that she based the couple in the book on her own parents.

What makes the book so intriguing was how it blended Trinidad’s historical, political and racial issues with the personal lives of the couple, as well as their grown-up children and their maid and her child. As such, it’s not all natural beauty and beaches and country clubs, but also crime, corruption and racial tensions that figure prominently. In the parts of the book. As whites from Europe, the couple face envy and distrust from local Trinidadian whites as well as scorn from Trinidadian blacks. And like almost every other Trinidadian, they encounter crime and poverty, though not themselves personally but of people close to them.

The novel is first told in the present, which is actually 2006 (the book came out in 2009), then goes back to 1956, when the couple came to Trinidad, then moves forward to 1963 and 1970, which were both important years in Trinidad’s history (Trinidad became independent in 1962 ) and for the couple. This is strange to me, but again, the author makes it work. Dr Eric Williams, Trinidad’s first prime minister and a noted historian and author in his own right, plays a big part in the book both as a black leader of a post-colonial Trinidad and as an object of obsession for Sabine.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is a provocative and fascinating novel about Trinidad, both past and present, relatively speaking. For a brief moment, reading this allowed me to imagine myself back there.

Ghana Must Go, and Manuscript Found in Accra- book reviews

Despite its title, Ghana Must Go is actually not mainly about Ghana nor is it a book about violence or comedy. Instead, Ghana Must Go tells the story of a Nigerian-Ghanaian-American family that must cope with the sudden death of their patriarch. When a surprising heart attack ends the life of Kweku Sai, a former brilliant surgeon from Ghana, it forces his Nigerian ex-wife and four US-born children to come together to send him off. In doing so, we learn about the sad tragedy that led Sai to leave his career and family in America to go back to Ghana, which results in his ex-wife Fola taking care of four children by herself.

The book got more interesting as the story progressed, but I still found it a little underwhelming. For one, the prose is hard to follow as it is often written in an inconsistent and disjointed manner. Second, I didn’t really care much for any of the characters. The fact that Sai ran away from his family due to a personal humiliation does not make him very sympathetic. Fola is an intelligent and resilient woman but her character isn’t explored enough. All four of Sai and Fola’s children were significantly affected by Sai’s desertion, but in different ways. Two of them suffered a particularly terrible experience that is only made clear towards the end. The tensions and differences in their relationships with each other is actually one of the book’s more interesting aspects. I feel another reason I didn’t enjoy Ghana Must Go as much as I would have expected is that I thought it would be more about Africa, but in reality, the novel is an American story with Africa only playing small parts.

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As Jerusalem finds itself under siege and facing an assault very soon from Crusaders in 1099, its citizens gather around a mysterious Copt to listen to his wise words. This is the premise of Manuscript Found in Accra, a short novel by Paolo Coelho that is basically a self-help book. And though it has the name Accra in its title, this book is also not about Ghana.

The book is written in an unusual way in which the main (and sole) character is a Copt who answers questions in the form of long and unbroken reflective monologues. The Copt’s answers represent philosophical takes on issues such as defeat, love, fear, anxiety, and myriad other common human emotions. It’s not your usual novel but it fits with Coelho’s style of unconventional writing that usually features hopeful and motivational messages about life. It can be considered a self-help book and in this sense, it is quite decent.

 

Prisoners of Geography- book review

We usually think of geography as being about mountains, rivers and seas, but geography is also a major factor in how large or wealthy or powerful countries have become. Prisoners of Geography- Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics uses geography in the form of maps to explain ten large countries and continents including the US, China, Russia, Europe, Africa, and even the Arctic. The author, longtime foreign correspondent Tim Marshall, utilizes his ample experience to write a compelling book that combines geography with history and international affairs.

Starting with Russia, Marshall points out how the world’s largest country both benefits and is constrained by geography including plains to the west, limited access to oceans, and a vast resource-rich eastern region Siberia. The western plains is Russia’s most vulnerable area, being where invading armies from Europe such as the Nazis and Napoleon’s Grand Army have flowed through. As such, that is why it worries a lot about NATO expanding eastwards and specifically about the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the US status as the world’s superpower was aided by perhaps the most favorable geographic conditions such as large coasts facing the Pacific and Atlantic, a large interior, and the world’s longest network of navigable rivers such as the Mississippi. The latter might not be too well-known, but navigable rivers facilitate significant trade as goods can be easily and cheaply moved by ships. Conversely, Marshall points out, the lack of this can hinder countries and continents such as Africa and South America. The latter’s interior also has a lot of mountains such as the Andes range, that prevents easy rail and riverine connectivity. If you’re wondering about the Nile and Amazon, those are both mighty rivers but not conducive to large cargo-carrying ships.

Europe was able to prosper greatly during the Middle Ages because of its large rivers like the Rhine and Danube which facilitated trade and commerce. However, not all European countries benefited from this. For example, Spain’s hilly interior and lack of large rivers meant it couldn’t develop as quickly as its northern neighbor France, which partly explains why Spain didn’t become wealthier than France.

Prisoners of Geography is one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It is a fun read that also makes global affairs a little more understandable and the world a little less complicated.