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.

Swiss Watching- book review

I enjoy reading about different countries, but Switzerland has never really struck me as fascinating. Sure, it’s famous for making expensive watches and has stunning mountains, but I’d always considered it to be a bland wealthy country, exemplified by its neutral status. However, my perception has changed thanks to Swiss Watching- Inside Europe’s Landlocked Island by Diccon Bewes, an English expat who moved to the country for love and now lives there.

For one, I learned that the country is way more diverse than I’d imagined. For instance, Switzerland doesn’t have one single common native tongue, but four official languages- French, Italian, German, and Romansh, a truly indigenous language but mainly spoken in just one district. This means that the Swiss have different native tongues, depending on where they grew up, but will also speak one or more other languages, including English. The Swiss are also multi-religious with different parts being traditionally Catholic or Protestant, and they also have a large population of immigrants (21 percent according to Bewes).

This multilingualism is a result of a history in which separate districts or cantons joined together gradually from 1291 whilst retaining a sort of independence. Over the centuries, this loose confederacy endured and solidified into a nation, whilst developing an identity that is both proud but does not rely much on national icons. For instance, there are no great Swiss kings or leaders, and even in modern times, the president is not that important – they only serve one-year terms! The country is also not part of the UN or the EU, and stayed out of World War II, though their banks did hold stolen gold for the Nazis.

The Swiss do take their country seriously. For example, every male must do a period of compulsory military service, then is given a gun to keep at home for use in the event of war (I wish Taiwan would take defense as seriously). In their democracy, public participation plays a big role in the form of referendums. Two cantons even maintain the tradition of having public election meetings on one day every year where local matters are resolved by vote.

Bewes describes familiar aspects of the country like its love for hiking (no surprise given its many mountains), its tasty chocolates, its craftsmanship as exemplified by its expensive watches, its banking service, and the national train service. However, he also points out contradictions such as how the Swiss are both resistant to change but innovative, and treasure their privacy but tolerate a strong level of government intrusion. In fact, Bewes says that this is what makes Switzerland so interesting and I would agree.

There is a lot of interesting facts about Switzerland. For instance, it wasn’t always neutral as it fought wars with the Austrians, the Burgundians and others up until 1515. That’s when the Swiss suffered a bloody defeat to the French at  a village called Marignano. The Swiss decided never to fight again as a nation, though that led to Swiss soldiers banding together and going around Europe to fight for other nations and kingdoms as mercenaries. The Pope’s Swiss Guards, who guard the Pope in the Vatican while holding medieval spears and decked out in resplendent uniforms, are the sole surviving unit of Swiss mercenary tradition.

Also, Swiss people invented velcro, the division sign, aluminium foil, and the LSD (yes, the hallucinogenic drug). But not the cuckoo clock, which actually came from neighboring Germany.

While the book is not a travelogue, Bewes does visit different parts of the country to showcase aspects like the 35-km Swiss Path in which every canton is represented; sites associated with Heidi, the country’s most famous novel, and its writer; and a factory where one can still see cheese being made.

Besides the discourses on Swiss history, politics, society, and economy, Bewes fills the book with lots of humour but it’s clear he has a lot of affection for his adopted country. I admit Switzerland was not at the top of the list of European countries I want to visit, but having read Swiss Watching, it has now moved up a bit.

Deep Work- book review

We live in a world full of distractions, whether it be TV, the internet, or social media. It can be impossible to avoid distractions given the ubiquity of smartphones and social media. This obviously affects us in several ways, from our daily lives to our work. Deep Work- Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Work explains how people can use “deep work” to cope with distractions and become more efficient and productive.

“Deep work” is about being totally focused on your work for a long period of time, whether it be an hour or a day. This means blocking off distractions and having a good environment to work. As author Cal Newport emphasizes, it is not about spending more time doing more work, but about working more efficiently so that you can use your time more wisely, get off work on time and avoid overtime. Newport also takes on the broader issue of tacking popular assumptions regarding work and technology.

Deep work can lead to not just better efficiency, but also greater quality of work. Newport’s points are very appealing though the challenge, as with many types of self-help advice, is to actually be able to implement his suggestions. For instance, Newport does not use social media at all, though he does have a popular blog, and for a long time, he did not own a smartphone. I believe this would be hard for many of us, including myself. Despite this, the book is straightforward, clear, and easy to follow.

Not surprisingly, Newport critiques the ubiquitous role of the Internet and technology in our lives, bringing up an argument by academic and theorist Neil Postman that people automatically assume that anything high-tech is good without debating the benefits and drawbacks. Given Postman, who died in 2003, made this point in the early 1990s, it seems he was well ahead of his time. All this makes “deep work” more difficult to do.

To engage in “deep work,” Newport makes some really great suggestions such as:
-“embrace boredom,” as this enables you to better resist the temptation of always checking social media and seeking constant gratification. This then helps you become more contemplative and more likely to come up with deeper thoughts and ideas.
– people have finite attention, which can be depleted by walking through crowds or dealing with constant distractions. As such, you have less mental energy to think and concentrate. Obviously living in crowded cities (I do find that true sometimes, especially when I was working in Hong Kong) can have this effect, so one remedy is to spend more time in nature to improve your ability to concentrate.
– put more work into your leisure time, which sounds a little counter-intuitive, except it’s not. For instance, sometimes when we are idle but have nothing to do, it’s easy to feel bored which then makes us turn to social media or time-wasting internet (I could attest to this). By planning ahead in choosing things to do, you can avoid being idle.

There is a long section on blocking off or screening emails, which for most people, is one of the biggest part of work. The endgoal is to ensure you don’t need to respond to every email you get (not feasible for some of us) as well as to get people to be more upfront about what they want (definitely desirable).

Deep Work is a fascinating book that makes convincing arguments on the importance of “deep work” and which can change our perspectives on work and productivity.

Tools of Titans- book review

Written by the same guy who wrote The Four-Hour Workweek, Tools of Titans is a fascinating collection of inspirational tips and helpful advice from over 200 entrepreneurs, writers, artists, and other successful people.  The book is massive, with over 650 pages packed with interviews and profiles of, as the book’s sub-title states, “billionaires, icons, and world-class performers.”

Tools of Titans is divided into three parts – the first focuses on health, exercise and nutrition; the second is on work and productivity; and the final part is on life tips. In addition, Tim Ferriss also sprinkles chapters of his own insights and tips for things like dealing with critics, creating a podcast, investment, and work-outs. For me, the second and third parts were the most interesting and helpful. Ferriss interviews writers, artists, entrepreneurs, fitness experts, an ex-Navy Seal and even a yoga instructor. The sheer number and scope of people profiled and the advice given means readers will definitely something useful and applicable for their own lives.

Among the tips I found interesting were come up with 10 ideas a day (writer and blogger James Altucher), suffer a little regularly and you cease to suffer (Tim Ferriss advises based on the philosopher Seneca’s teachings), and listen to a song or album you like repeatedly while working to improve your focus and awareness (which Tim Ferriss points out that some successful people do). From Nicholas Nassim Taleb, getting everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity and it is better to be care about the many who would love your work than the few who hate it. Venture capitalist and a math research fellow at Oxford Eric Weinstein says something similar in that people (like writers, entrepreneurs, and artists) should strive to be known and respected by 2,000-3,000 people rather than be widely famous because this then gives one the freedom to do what he wants.

One especially meaningful piece of advice is from tech CEO and investor Naval Ravikant who says that in any situation in life, you have 3 options: change it, leave it, or accept it. It sounds deceptively simple but I’d never thought of that and there are a few instances in my life I should have applied this.

Tools of Titans is both fascinating and helpful, and will also give you lots of ideas to boost your work, health and lifestyle.