Books

SPQR- book review

Named after the famous initials of the Latin phrase “the Senate and People of Rome,” which was used by the Romans as an official slogan on documents, military banners, public works, and coinage, SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome tells the story of the Romans during their first thousand years as they grew from a small city state to become one of the world’s largest and most powerful empires.

Combining riveting facts, stories and details, Mary Beard, who has been hailed as one of the world’s best Roman historians, looks at different aspects of the Romans from famous emperors to politics and laws to the daily lives of commoners to the nations they conquered. I’ll be honest though, the book was a little tough at times though that was partly because I spread it out over several months.

Beard does well to give readers both a broader understanding of the Roman world and people, as well as an intimate look at daily life. Roman life was both extravagant and filthy, as well as dangerous. Not surprisingly, Rome was a place of great turmoil, strife, political intrigues, and complexity. Somehow, or perhaps because of this, they managed to create a powerful empire. And as the Romans conquered fellow Italians, Greeks, other Europeans and the Middle East and Egypt, they spread their influence and culture. While they considered other people as barbarians, the Romans also allowed elites in their conquered territories sought to copy Roman behaviors, similarly to how people around the world might curse the US and the “West”, but still use their software, buy their brands and ape their lifestyle. SPQR .

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Books

Elon Musk- book review

I only just completed Elon Musk’s biography earlier this week so it is fitting that his SpaceX just successfully launched its largest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, on February 7. Elon Musk- How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future provides a fascinating glimpse into how significant the accomplishments of one of the world’s most famous billionaire entrepreneurs have been. Besides SpaceX, whose ultimate aim is to transport humans to Mars to sustain a colony, Musk also heads Tesla, the world’s most well-known and successful electric carmaker.

What the book vividly shows is not merely Musk’s success, but how impressive (and near-impossible) it was for it to have happened. With Tesla, Musk put electric cars in the spotlight and in SpaceX, he built a rocket company virtually from scratch, with the help of co-founders, to launch rockets into space and compete with industry giants like Lockheed. In addition, under his direction, SpaceX found a way to make its rockets reusable by controlling their orbit back into Earth after they had launched into space. Previously, rockets were just used once and were useless afterwards. SpaceX runs into many financial and technical challenges and there are precarious moments, but it is extraordinary how Musk drove and willed his vision into coming true. Besides SpaceX being a startup competing against industry giants and rocking an aging space industry, the fact it manufactured much of its own parts and systems (in the US too) rather than outsource them to contractors like the large companies, increased the incredible nature of its success. As if space rockets and electric cars weren’t enough to manage, Musk is also chairman of SolarCity, a solar panel systems company which Musk’s cousins started up.

Besides Tesla and Space X, the book also details Musk’s earliest ventures such as Zip2, an online listings for businesses, and Paypal, where things got a little messy and Musk was ousted as CEO. While Paypal is known today as an online payment processing site, Musk’s vision had actually been to create an online banking institution which would offer products like mutual funds. Of course, this did not happen but at least you can see how Musk from early on in his career had a thing for wanting to disrupt industries. Musk’s upbringing in South Africa, which includes a difficult relationship with his father (who is barred from meeting Musk’s children), and his marriages and divorces (with the same person) are also detailed. Yet all this is just a sideshow to the most fascinating parts in the book which are about Musk’s work with SpaceX and Tesla.

Musk is portrayed as a visionary, obsessed with huge goals like bringing people to Mars or creating a nationwide gas-free infrastructure for electric cars, but also a brilliant engineer and scientist who knew the physics and engineering behind what his companies were doing. He is also a very demanding boss and micro-manager, who could be kind of vicious at times, which make him sound similar to Steve Jobs, though Musk is slightly nicer, according to people in the book. But the real difference is that while Jobs strove for great design and consumer technology, Musk has a much greater vision for the world that seeks to improve the environment, through using electric cars and utilizing solar energy, and make space travel a reality. While the latter might be a bit too much of a reach, it is hard to dispute the significance of his energy and environmental goals on society in general.

In some ways, Musk came off as a real-life version of Tony Stark, the Marvel tech billionaire who fights evil as Iron Man, and Robert Downey Jr, the actor who played Tony Stark, actually visited Musk at his business. I actually had little interest in Elon Musk and his work, not being a particular fan of space technology or electric cars, but reading this biography has made me admire him a lot. I actually carried this book with me on a short trip and because it turned out to be more interesting than I’d thought, I had to ration the pages near the end so that I wouldn’t finish it too quickly.

Books · Sports

NFL Confidential- book review

Some people think American football is one of the most boring or nonsensical sports, but I was actually a big fan of it. There’s something about American football that other sports just don’t have, which is probably why it has become the most popular sport in the US. The heightened tension of each individual play, amplified by the pauses between each play, and the quick athleticism and brutality on display makes each game a fierce and dramatic battle. I used to be a big NFL and American football fan during my university years in Canada and would catch the games every weekend.

Since coming to Asia, the early times of the games meant I wasn’t able to continue my NFL viewing and I’m no longer a major fan. However I still retain some interest, despite the serious concussion issue and other controversies. I still enjoy reading about the NFL when I can, which is how I read NFL Confidential- True Confessions from the Gutter of Football, a tell-all book written by a former player of an entire season in the league. He also claims to hate the league, which is why he wrote it anonymously.

The book exposes a lot of the drama that goes on behind the scenes as a NFL player, from racial cliques to bullying coaches to the precariousness of player employment. But somehow, the fact that it was written under a pseudonym and a lot of the names and details are deliberately falsified or omitted takes away from the supposed authenticity. After all, we don’t even know the team the player is part of nor any of his teammates, who he assigns nicknames to like GI Joe and Dante the diva receiver. The writer is also an offensive lineman, one of those huge blockers who protect the quarterback and plough holes for the running back.

The player starts off as a backup, which was his ambition since it meant he could get paid to do nothing during an entire year. Midway, injuries to starters means he is needed to start and soon he becomes a key part of the team. One would think this fortuitous change would shift his feelings but instead he realizes while he still loves the game, he still hates the business of the league. Along the way, he writes about his his longtime girlfriend, who he has gone out with since high school. And his feelings towards her veer towards a casual ambivalence which eventually sees an end to the relationship.

Those who are NFL fans will certainly find it interesting, but readers who want to learn about how an NFL team operates will also get something from it. That said, the premise of the book — the writer’s assertion about the problems with the league stemming from its thirst for profit — provides a somber, realistic take on the NFL that takes away from its guts and glory image.

Africa · Books

Homegoing- book review

One of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read, Homegoing follows the descendants of two West African half-sisters, separated by slavery and continents, over 200 years from the late 18th century to the modern era. A tragedy and painful family secret portend the fate of Effia and Essi, in their tribal homelands in what is now Ghana, during a time of growing interaction between Europeans and Africans, when slavery and Christianity came to the fore.

Slavery is what causes the stories of the two half-sisters, who never meet, to diverge, as Effia marries the European governor of the Cape Coast Castle, from where numerous African slaves were shipped to the US, while Essi is captured and transported as one such slave to America. One member of each ensuing generation of their respective descendants is featured in a chapter as their lives unfold in line with the historic development of the US and Ghana. While the Ghanaians cope with war against the British, colonialism and running their own country after independence, the Americans toil as slaves in the US South, then continue to cope with racism and discrimination.

Ghana is a fitting stage for a story focused on slavery, since it is where a lot of African slaves were bought, gathered and then shipped off to the New World, especially America. Cape Coast Castle is one of the more famous of numerous coastal forts built by Europeans to hold slaves, and was even visited by Barack Obama when he was US president in 2009. The author also makes clear the role of the local tribes, such as the powerful Asante and their Fante kin and rivals, in procuring and selling slaves to the Europeans, which illustrates the complexity of slavery in Africa. As such, this is not a one-sided polemic of whites neither a romanticized tale.

As its characters marched through history, there are heartbreaking chapters on captured slaves crammed into a filthy Cape Coast Castle dungeon, failed slave escapes from US plantations, and abductions. As someone who grew up in the Caribbean, I was familiar with slavery from school, given its key historic role in the region, but I still found the book to be stunning in its portrayal of the brutality of slavery in the US.

If Homegoing has one fault, it is that there are so many themes encompassing Africa-West relations, slavery, race relations, drug addiction, immigrants and diaspora which did not all get fully fleshed out. The conclusion also seemed a little too neat and contrived. Despite that, the author Yaa Gyasi does well to make most of the myriad characters people who you can care about and the novel remains compelling up until the end.

It is an epic tale that blends history and tragedy in both personal and societal forms. Homegoing is one of the best novels I’ve read recently and it is one book that I wished could have been longer.

Books · China · Travel

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.

Books

A Brief History of Seven Killings- book review

If you want a raw, fascinating and sensational novel that shocks and confounds, then I highly recommend A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. This is mostly set in Jamaica, but not of sandy beaches and smiling, charismatic superstars like Usain Bolt, but the violent slums of 1970s downtown Kingston. Amid this carnage and despair, the legendary Bob Marley spreads his songs of hope and cultural commentary to the country and the world. But even he is not immune to the violence in Jamaica when one night, seven gunmen burst into his home to try to assassinate him. The novel follows a cast of over a dozen people, including these gunmen, from before and after the murder attempt, through three decades as they deal with the repercussions of this act. The final section goes from Jamaica to the US as certain gangsters move from ghetto wars to the international cocaine and crack trade.

At first, it was challenging to really get into the book due to the language (Jamaican patois) and the constant change of characters. Each chapter is a narrative from the viewpoint of a single character, ranging from gangsters to the local CIA station chief to a writer desperately trying to get a story, as well as a woman who had a one-night stand with Bob Marley. As such, the language varies from proper English to Jamaican patois (“Police only have to see that me don’t have no shoes before he say what the bloodcloth you nasty naiggers doing round decent people,” “But then me no get far when bullet start chase after me”). It is mostly understandeable but it took a little effort to get used to entire chapters written in that way. Even though I’m from another English-speaking Caribbean country which also has a dialect, Jamaican patois is still very different.

But the more I read it, the more engrossed I became. The plot interweaves the Cold War, geopolitics and local elections, criminal underworld and the supernatural. Jamaican politics in the 1970s was a deadly affair, with the two main parties backing gangs in Kingston who each controlled their own slums and literally waged war on each other for their parties. Behind the scenes, the US administration was concerned about the Jamaican prime minister moving to socialism and linking with Fidel Castro, so it provided tacit support for the opposition and ways to undermine the government. By the time the story reaches the American parts, the political angle fades and it becomes almost solely about crime with a bit of diaspora issues included.

The book is full of cursing and coarse language, but even that is an understatement. The dialogue is raw and nothing regarding race, sex, or basic human dignity is out of bounds. At times, it got kind of visceral reading the book, so much that I could almost feel the terror and brutality, which I’ve gotten from very few books. Killing, maiming and raping all take place. Interestingly, homophobia, which Jamaica is notorious for, is also a major attribute of certain characters, who true to gangster personas, openly espouse contempt for homosexuals.

This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015, making James the first Jamaican author to win it, and a few other awards and made many best book of the year lists. In my view, there is absolutely no question why.

Books

Chaos Monkey-book review

Silicon Valley is where every Mark Zuckerberg wannabe goes to make it big, hoping to land that million dollar-investment or even better, multi-million dollar buyout for their app. But things don’t always go according to script and behind the flashy deals and investments, there is a ton of bluster, bust-ups and bullshit, according to Antonio Garcia Martinez in Chaos Monkey, his tell-all account of his career as an entrepreneur and a Facebook product manager.

Martinez started off working for an online ad company, then left the company to do his own start-up to create an ad app, which earned the attention of Twitter and Facebook. Playing the two against each other, unknowingly to his two start-up partners, Martinez got into Facebook where he helped orchestrate their ad monetization strategy. Things then got a little rocky and complicated, and his Facebook stint didn’t end as promisingly as he had hoped.

As fascinating as this book sounds like, the reality, unfortunately, is that it was disappointing and one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. Maybe my intellect isn’t up to par, especially when it comes to tech and online marketing, which the author really gets into the nitty-gritty of, but a lot of the content just flew over my head. It gets quite complex with tech jargon and industry professionals would probably like it, but not the average layman reader. I honestly think the book could have been trimmed by over one-third and would have been a better book. The author describes a lot of minor events and details, and doesn’t hesitate to drop names including Sheryl Sandberg, who he had meetings with but never actually knew, and industry executives and venture capitalists. It gave the impression that he was trying a little too hard to impress readers. I was also hoping for more dirt on working in Facebook but the author sticks to meetings, technical stuff, and general workplace struggles. The craziest thing that happened in his book at Facebook is a weekend graffiti painting spree by employees after moving into their new headquarters. I might be a little harsh but the book’s subtitle was “Mayhem and Mania inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine” and in the end, it turned out to be a big yawn.

Books · Hong Kong

Ten Cities That Made an Empire- book review

At its peak, the British Empire covered territories around the whole world on almost every continent from Africa to Asia to Australia. I’m sure most of us know and have been to countries that made up this empire. However, at its core were illustrious cities like Bombay, Hong Kong, Cape Town and New Delhi, which provided the industry, commerce, and wealth that enriched the mother country of Britain greatly and allowed the empire to be sustained. Ten Cities That Made an Empire is a fascinating look into 10 of these cities that tell the story of the empire’s development.

In addition to those mentioned above, Boston, Calcutta, Melbourne, Dublin, Bridgetown, and Liverpool (the lone British city on the list) also feature. Boston, of course, stopped being part of the empire once the United States won its independence. An argument could be made for Singapore, Sydney or Kingston to be included, but otherwise the list is very sound. Bridgetown, as the capital of tiny Barbados in the Caribbean, might raise eyebrows, but having been colonized since the 17th century, it played a great role in the sugar industry in the British Caribbean, acting as a lively and prosperous shipping hub.

With three cities, India features prominently which is appropriate given its nickname as the “Jewel of the Empire.” While Bombay, now Mumbai, and Calcutta (Kolkatta) were built by the British, Delhi was a historic city that had been the capital of the Mughal Empire. The British built a new section adjacent to Delhi, aptly naming it New Delhi as its grand seat of power, a role which it still fulfills today. Cape Town in South Africa was taken from the Dutch and not surprisingly, soon became an important refuelling station for British ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope heading to the East. Hong Kong was seized as a prize of war from China’s ruling Qing Dynasty after victory in the Opium War, and hence saw its fortunes transformed from a mere fishing village to a free market business hub that it still is now.

The author, who has written several books and was a former Labour MP who is now the head of the Victoria and Albert museum, does very well bringing each city to life, showcasing fascinating historical facts and developments concerning architecture, politics, and economics. I admit I am very biased because I do enjoy cities very much, whether visiting or reading about them. Of course, there is always controversy and debate about the empire, regarding how much harm it inflicted on colonial subjects and the actual benefits that were derived from the British rule. Hunt does not vilify the empire or glorify it, though he shows how imperial officials often thought they were doing great work.

The chapters proceed in loose chronological order, and in so doing, illustrate the changing fortunes and status of the British Empire. We see how the empire develops and expands from an Atlantic slave-based power to an eastward-looking empire centered on its prized possession of India. The irony is that by starting off with Boston, the author begins with the British loss of America in the late 18th century, but instead of wilting, they went on to greater things by conquering the world. And in ending with Liverpool and its decay and slight resurgence in the 20th century, we see the empire and its power finally ending as Britain comes to term with a new era and world.

Africa · Books

Say You’re One of Them and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – short stories reviews

Set across Africa, Say You’re One of Them is a striking collection of short stories and novellas about children. Each one of these stories takes place with children or teenagers at the center, amidst turbulent events and life situations. But instead of being a cheerful read, it is a touching and provocative book that eschews the stereotypical perceptions of Africa such as carefree village life, colorful culture, and exotic wildlife.

There is a story about a family forced to confront its mixed ethnic identity in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, a poor street family with a preteen prostitute daughter in urban Kenya, and a novella about children being sold off by their uncle to traffickers who plan to smuggle them to a neighbouring country. But the most heartbreaking and riveting story is about a Nigerian teenager of mixed religious and ethnic background trying to flee the conflict-riven North to his father’s village in the South. Jubril was born in the Christian South but grew up in the Muslim North after his parents split up, but after his friends turn on him during a campaign against Christian Southerners, he decides to flee south. Hiding his amputated arm, cut off under sharia law due to stealing, he boards a bus carrying Southerners away, but endures a terribly long delay as the driver searches for gas. The characters on board the bus are a mix of ages and personalities who argue and debate over the country’s madness, but it is when they set off that danger really sets in.
I can’t say I enjoyed most of these stories, and I don’t think that is what the author would want readers to experience, but they really left a strong impression. The author Uwem Akpan is an ordained priest from Nigeria who won various prizes for this book, published in 2008.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of 24 short stories from Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author. It is a mix of the supernatural, the mysterious, tragedy as well as banality. While I can’t say I’m a fan of Murakami yet, some of the stories were interesting in terms of how they blended ordinary occurrences like past romantic affairs or recounting childhoods with an air of poignancy and mystery. The most memorable were about a mother who loses her son to a shark attack in Hawaii and returns every year to the scene of the tragedy, a gay piano tuner whose serendipitous friendship with a woman leads him to contact his estranged sister, and another about a woman who suddenly loses her ability to remember her own name, the origin of which stems from a tragic incident during high school involving a classmate. The stories are not necessarily happy ones, but their somber and restrained sadness often leads to a kind of calm acceptance. I suppose that is a kind of essential for real life as well.

Books

Submission- book review

I don’t read too many French or European novels, though I should. Michel Houellebecq’s Submission is one such French book and it is a stunning novel that explores the possibility of an Islamist party winning the presidential election in France. It is the first book I’ve ever read from Houellebecq, arguably France’s most famous novelists and probably the most controversial too.

In 2022 France, the protagonist Francoise, a literature lecturer at Paris III-Sorbonne, is living a steady but somewhat empty life. He is respected in his profession as an expert on a 19th-century French writer and has affairs with students. However, he has a pessimistic and misanthropic approach towards life and its conventions such as religion and marriage. As the presidential election looms, an Islamic candidate gains significant support, and after he wins, France finds its educational and social systems altered, and Francoise is forced to consider a major life change.
Suffice it to say, the question of the French core identity is challenged by the outcome of the election. However, the significance of this political possibility was slightly offset by Francoise’s personal struggles to find himself so the effect was not as powerful for me.

While I’m not a Frenchman and I don’t live in a society with a lot of Muslims, I can understand why Submission would court some controversy. Submission does address Islamophobia concerns by presenting a future with an Islamic control at the highest level. For a country like France which is historically Christian but has a large Muslim minority, questions over how much to accommodate Islam is a major issue, such as the banning of niqabs (full face covering worn by some female Muslims) in public.

However, Islam is not the main target but France’s mainstream politicians and academic institutions. The Islamist candidate is actually a reasonable-sounding but driven individual who is not an extremist or radical firebrand. The issue posed by the author is about the decline of mainstream parties, the result of which is that only far-right candidates like Marie Le Pen, who in real life lost the presidential elections this year, and the Islamist candidate can galvanize the public.

The novel is not very long at less than 250 pages but that is enough to produce a blunt and slightly chilling effect. Not just because of the shock and repercussions of an Islamist in power, but the personal change undertaken by Francoise that completely goes against the fundamentals of his character.