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.

 

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.

Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains- book review

Nestled in the deep northeastern corner of India lies Arunanchal Pradesh, the “land of the dawn-lit mountains,” and one of the least explored parts of the country. Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent went on an epic motorcycle journey into the state where she explored thick jungles and mountains, met and stayed with remote tribes and gained insight and experience into their fading traditions and customs. Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains- A Journey across Arunanchal Pradesh – India’s Forgotten Frontier is the result of Bolingbroke-Kent’s intrepid journey.

Arunachal Pradesh is one of India’s “Seven Sisters,” the group of seven northeastern states that border China and Myanmar and are connected to the rest of India by a narrow strip of land, the 20-40 km wide Siliguri Corridor. The entire region is still quite isolated and visited by few people, however Arunachal Pradesh is very remote, with visitors needing to apply for a government permit to enter. Given that the state borders Tibet, it is also a very strategic border region for India, due to its vulnerability to invasion from China, which actually claims the province as its own territory.

Bolingbrooke-Kent set out in a counter-clockwise journey from neighboring Assam, looping into Arunachal Pradesh and riding from east to west. Along the way, she stops at several points, sometimes even venturing for days deep into the interior and far borders of Arunachal Pradesh while leaving behind her motorcycle. She meets tribal elders, shamans and even kings, observing ceremonies and festivals and even mithun (cattle) sacrifices. The tribes include fearsome warriors with a historic reputation as headhunters, nomads, and former Tibetan vassals residing around the old mountain fortress of Tawang. Indeed, Arunachal Pradesh’s history includes past interaction with Tibet when it was an independent entity.

The book also shows serious challenges faced by the tribes. It is clear that modern life is gradually eroding a lot of the tribal traditions, especially as young people are lured by education and jobs in big cities. There is also a fair bit of ethnic tension between tribal people and Indians from outside the state, who have moved into Arunachal Pradesh to settle or work. The tribal people are ethnically and culturally different from most Indians, with some of them having more in common with Myanmar, where their ancestors came from.

Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains is a fascinating, moving, and entertaining account of one of Asia’s most unknown remote regions.