Island People-The Caribbean and the World- book review

The Caribbean often conjures up an image of idyllic white-sand beaches and blue seas with steelpan music or reggae playing in the background. The reality is far more turbulent and fascinating. The Caribbean is a region of multiculturalism and complexity, mixed with arts, poverty and crime.

First off, the Caribbean comprises over a dozen countries ranging from Spanish-speaking nations like Cuba and the Dominican Republic to English-speaking Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. This also extends to current British and American territories like Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Island People- The Caribbean and the World is an excellent guide to this diverse region that covers history, politics, sociology and culture of 14 of these island nations and territories.

As someone from the Caribbean myself, hailing from the southernmost island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, I must confess I’m ignorant of the wider region. While I grew up in Trinidad, I’ve never actually traveled to any of the other islands in the Caribbean. But even still, I am not unaware of these other places, especially Jamaica, whose reggae and dancehall music is widely popular in Trinidad, which we had to learn about in school. As a former British colony that that grew a lot of sugar with slave labour, Trinidad shares a common history with many of its fellow Caribbean brother nations like Barbados.

However, Island People, part travelogue and part sociological and historical study, gave me a much greater insight and appreciation of the Caribbean beyond the little I knew from history classes at school and the news. The book is the result of Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s lifetime of studying, researching and visiting the Caribbean. Starting from the north and winding its way southwards, Jelly-Schapiro’s book traces the arc of the Caribbean from the Greater Antilles of Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola to the Lesser Antilles islands that ends with Trinidad.

Some of the more memorable chapters are those on Cuba, which the author spent a year in and devotes three chapters to; Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere but also the only one where slaves won their independence by force; and the lush island of Dominica that remains the last refuge of the indigenous Carib people, after whom the region is named after. The author certainly enjoyed Jamaica a lot and found its reggae and politics intriguing which he also wrote three chapters about. My own country Trinidad is featured in the book’s finale, and not surprisingly, the author covers carnival, Trinidad’s carefree nature, and crime.

For Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, music is a key theme as Jelly-Schapiro expounds on reggae, rumba, meringue and salsa respectively. For Antigua and Dominica, he focuses on writers like novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid and Jean Rhys (author of Wide Sargasso Sea), while in the chapter on Guadeloupe and Martinique, he goes into detail on intellectuals like Aime Cesaire, poet turned statesman, and Frantz Fanon, a fierce critic of colonialism. And for Trinidad, both music and literature are featured (I write with a little pride) in the form of calypso and soca music, and historian and writer CLR James and VS Naipaul, the Nobel Literature laureate.

One thing that plays a major role in the Caribbean is race relations, which is a product both of colonialism and the mix of races and cultures. Going beyond merely black and white (and Indian and Chinese), race relations involve complex hierarchies that encompass not just colour, but also the tone of one’s skin due to the mixing of races. As a result, light-skinned people, whose ancestors were a product of colonizers mixing with their slaves, often form an elite minority. Consequently, this also plays out on a national scale with the lighter-skinned Dominicanos looking down on their mostly black Haitian neighbours.

Island People- The Caribbean and the World is a superb book that will appeal to a lot of people interested in travel and history, even if they don’t have a personal connection or interest in the Caribbean. The book will take readers on a journey through the Caribbean, alright, just not a light-hearted one like the holidays you’d go there for.

Antifragile- book review

Having introduced the idea of the black swan to the world in his 2007 bestseller of the same name, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is on a mission to spread the concept of antifragility in Antifragile – Things That Gain from Disorder. Antifragility, the opposite of fragility, is the attribute of being able to benefit from chaos and shock, which in the turbulent world we live in would seem to be very relevant. However, antifragility differs from robustness in that it doesn’t mean simply enduring chaos, but actually gaining from it.

As to be expected, Taleb has a lot of fascinating ideas and provocative arguments. Using history as a constant example, Taleb doesn’t hesitate to take aim at the likes of Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher; medical science; and even academia or book knowledge. Some of these arguments go against regularly accepted norms. Going to the doctor and taking medicine for minor ailments can make your problems worse, Taleb says, as it is an example of “naive intervention.”

Meanwhile, sometimes theoretical concepts are useless as they only came about after the events or phenomenon they referred to. Taleb mentions the idea of birds flying despite not knowing about centrifrugal force, as well as how ancient bridges were built even though the builders had no concept of mathematics, but relied on tools and empirical methods.

Taleb is a huge critic of iatrogenics, solutions that actually cause more harm than benefits and which are often found in economics and government policies. And the people who propose these dubious policies are often those without “skin in the game,” meaning they don’t actually get affected by their policies.

As examples, Taleb brings up follies like the US decision to invade Iraq in 2002, a conflict which is still going on now, and the 2008 financial crisis, both of which he argues were caused by people in power making reckless and harmful policies without having to personally bear any of the consequences (US leaders who ordered a war whilst never having served in one themselves, for eg).

A very compelling concept is that via negativa (the negative way), which means knowing what something is not, is of the utmost importance in approaching problems. In other words, sometimes knowing what not to do is more useful than knowing what to do. It’s a very reasonable idea and I’ve also read a similar argument in another book.

Antigragile covers a lot of different topics, and sometimes this makes it difficult to keep track of all the points and arguments. Taleb is a very self-assured and supremely confident writer, which makes his arguments seem very convincing. However, it is necessary to apply some skepticism to his arguments as one should to whatever he/she comes across. Angifragile is a hugely fascinating book with lots of compelling arguments that definitely convinced me of the merit of antifragility and how vital it is for life.

Double Cup Love- book review

Taiwanese-American foodie Eddie Huang is back at it again with Double Cup Love- On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China. His first book Fresh Off the Boat was about growing up and starting up his New York eatery Baohaus. Double Cup Love sees him, a little jaded after Baohaus’ success, and his youngest brother Evan go to Chengdu, China to test himself in the ultimate way – by cooking for the locals.

As with his previous book, Huang doesn’t hold back in talking about his fights with his brothers, or bursting in on his girlfriend when she’s using the toilet. In fact, his girlfriend is at the heart of the book since Huang has decided he is in love and ready to commit. As such, he decides to bring her to Chengdu after a few months and propose to her.

First, Eddie and Evan go to Chengdu where they find out their hotel is one of those hourly ones where people rent rooms for amorous activities. After some conflict with each other, which their other brother Emery gets involved in, they manage to bond with some locals and impress them with their food. Eddie’s girlfriend comes to Chengdu, where Eddie pulls off his proposal successfully. The main story ends there, but there is a sad epilogue where Eddie confesses that they broke up 18 months afterwards. Eddie still sounds like he hasn’t gotten completely over her.

The book is quite entertaining, but it contains too much details at times. Eddie’s recollection of details and conversations is impressive but readers probably don’t need pages of every argument or thought that comes to Eddie’s mind. What is impressive is when Eddie starts talking about cooking. At one point, he cooks beef noodles, augmenting it with a little local flavour, and Evan’s judgement of the dish is striking. Who knew so much flavour and feeling could be derived from a mere taste of noodles?

At the beginning of Double Cup Love, Eddie provides a raw and very politically-incorrect take on Asians that is one of the best insights I’ve read in popular media. Basically he riffs on how Asians aren’t actually quiet or lack opinions, but that Asians are a very passive-aggressive, tribal people. A little later on, Eddie says Asians are very keen at making judgments and calculations using “advanced research skills” despite never really touching, feeling or seeing the things they judge. It’s something that as someone living in Taiwan, and before this, Hong Kong, I think is very right on the money. Disappointingly, there is nothing like this in the rest of the book which I suppose is due to Eddie being new to China and not wanting to be too harsh.

However, Double Cup Love falls a little flat at times because the rationale seems to be two ABTs/Cs (American-born Taiwanese/Chinese) go to Chengdu, hang out and have fun. Also, the pan-Chinese angle is apparent (Eddie’s parents are from Taiwan, but his grandparents are from China) but it would have been more accurate if he’d gone to Taiwan to find his roots. Unlike Fresh Off the Boat, Double Cup Love lacks the emotional depth and cultural insights to make it more than just a book about a crazy guy going on a half-baked trip to China.

 

The Epic City-book review

Up until the 1970s, Calcutta used to be India’s wealthiest and largest city. Since then, Calcutta (now Kolkatta) has experienced a steady decline as it has relinquished its economic crown to the likes of Bombay, Bangalore and New Delhi. But despite this, Calcutta is still a proud city that has a legacy of producing literary and political greats. Whether it has more than just its legacy in the 21st century is a question Indian-American Kushanava Choudhury tries to answer with his book The Epic City – The World on the Streets of Calcutta.

Choudhury was born in the US to Bengali parents who later returned to Calcutta to work, then came back to the US after they realized things were not as idyllic as they had thought. By the time Choudhury graduated from university, he decided to do the same and went to his ancestral city to work for the Statesman, the city’s oldest English-language newspaper. After two years passed, Choudhury had had enough and went back to the US to pursue graduate studies, before deciding to return to Calcutta to write a book. The Epic City is the result.

Calcutta is a fascinating city, having been the home of the great Indian poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore as well as countless famous Indian writers, poets, and politicians. Calcutta is the heartland of the Bengali people and culture, and was also India’s capital when the British ruled India. However, growing unrest made the British shift the capital to Delhi. After independence and partition, when Pakistan was created, Calcutta lost its Bengali hinterland which became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh.

While The Epic City starts off slowly as it introduces the city and the author’s family background, the book becomes more compelling as Choudhury tackles historical and political issues. Truth be told, it can be depressing at times as readers learn about past famines and massacres, and the city’s widespread poverty. Ironically, Calcutta has been relatively free of political turmoil in the last few decades as it underwent economic decline. This is cited by someone Choudhury talks to as the reason Calcutta lacks modern greats, with all its heroes dead, as nothing happens in the city anymore. Choudhury points out the further irony that these greats all lived during British colonialism.

There is also colour and excitement, in the form of the Durga Pujo festival when the city’s neighborhoods are filled with large pandals, bamboo lattices built to honour the Hindu goddess Durga. We are also introduced to para and adda, which mean the neighborhood and long discussions with friends respectively, that are a big part of Calcutta life. The city’s literary culture still exists, from its myriad secondhand bookstores to the “little magazines” of poetry, stories and politics.

Choudhary does not romanticize Calcutta though, he freely admits it is a tough place to live with little to do or see, which sounds a bit harsh. His wife Durba, a Delhi native who he met in graduate school in the US, detests Calcutta, which is the source of fights between them. Choudhary is hard on his beloved city as well, pointing out how thousands of years ago, the first ancient Indian cities had covered sewers but yet, in modern Calcutta, the smell of human piss is everywhere, which Choudhary hilariously points out.

The book was written in 2009-2010, so perhaps by now, even more of the old neighborhoods and way of life described by Choudhary have already gone. The Epic City is a heartfelt tribute and record of a proud city that, though a shadow of its old self, can always count on its writers to maintain its proud legacy.

Fresh off the Boat- book review

Fresh Off the Boat is the memoir of Eddie Huang, an American-born Chinese/Taiwanese restaurant owner and food show host who opened Baohaus, a well-known New York Chinese bao (meat bun) eatery. I first heard of Huang from the show Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy about his adolescence growing up as a minority in middle-class Orlando. The book, which came before the show, is significantly different.

Huang is actually not “fresh off the boat” as he is American-born and raised, but his parents, who hail from Taiwan, were. “Fresh off the boat” or FOB refers to East Asian immigrants who have just arrived in America or Canada, and it’s a little derisive, meant to highlight and make fun of immigrant kids for being foreign and not in tune with local culture and behaviors. Despite being American, Huang is singled out and picked on for his race (everyone else is white) by classmates, teachers and other adults. As a kid, he puts up with this for a while until his rage builds up and he decides to get back at society. This is where the comedy TV show and the memoir differ significantly, because the show is all laughs with awkward, goofy parents and amusing cultural clashes, whereas the reality was much more brutal and violent. Huang gets into fights, cuts classes, gets in trouble with the police, and is even expelled. At home, things aren’t much better as he gets beaten by his father occasionally (and I don’t think it was mere spankings), who his mother rages at almost daily. She in turn gets beaten by Huang’s father, which is disturbing. Despite the domestic turmoil, Huang’s father manages to become a successful owner of restaurants, and Huang admits they were genuinely rich when he was in high school.

Huang’s teenage years include spending some time in Taiwan where his parents sent him after he hits somebody with a car after a fight and faces charges. Huang embraces the local night markets, learns more about his parents’ culture, and leaves with some understanding and appreciation of his parents, especially his father. He’s also conflicted, as he wonders why his father left Taiwan, where he could have been anything he wanted, to go to America, where Taiwanese, like all immigrants, encounter racism and discrimination. The most obvious answer is opportunity, which is almost like a cliche, but Huang’s father admits being able to get with girls easily was also a factor (In Taiwan, you’ve got to pretend to love them, says Huang’s dad). I don’t envy a lot about Huang’s life growing up, but I admire how, at least, he related to his parents who passed on not just the typical platitudes about hard work, a fighting spirit and making the most out of life’s opportunities.

Besides the fights and the struggles with racism, Huang also talks a lot about coming to terms with Taiwanese/Chinese culture, which most ABCs (American-born Chinese) face, literature and food. As a “rotten banana,” which Huang calls himself (banana is a term for ABCs who retain little of their Asian culture – yellow on the outside, white inside), the writer knows he does not fit the ideal concept of the obedient, quiet Asian who gets straight-As and grows up to become a doctor/accountant/programmer. Huang finds solace in hiphop and rap, while retaining some part of Taiwanese/Chinese culture with his love for food. Before he becomes an entrepreneur, Huang goes to law school, then joins a law firm, demonstrating a little pragmatism. Not surprisingly, within a year, he gets fired by the law firm for drug use. Soon Huang opens Baohaus and his life takes off. Of course, by this time, he had mostly sorted out his life.

At times, Fresh Off the Boat is almost too real and there is a lot more details about his childhood antics than readers might need to know. The ultimate result is a crazy and entertaining story that holds nothing back.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck- book review

Mark Manson writes one of the bluntest self-help blogs on the internet, and his message is always basically that life is full of crap and it’s not about avoiding it, but how you deal with it that helps you succeed. His book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck does not disappoint as it drills that message relentlessly to help readers see life from a different perspective than most other self-help advice.

Manson is a very straightforward and profane guy, so if you don’t like too much cursing, be warned. It’s worth putting up with it because he makes a lot of great points backed up by very sound reasoning. The book’s title might sound straightforward but rather than not give a f*ck about anything, it’s about choosing something meaningful to care about and not giving a f*ck about everything else.

Manson’s advice and opinions jump out of each page, like a slap to the face or a blast of cold water. Happiness can be misleading because it should not come from avoiding problems, but in solving them. Don’t think you’re special because you’re not.  Don’t be afraid to be wrong and don’t think you are always right. In other words, don’t be afraid to fail.

A particular striking point is that people always have choices in life. Manson says that while we often can’t control what happens to us, we can control how to react or move on. Manson uses an example of a former reader who took this the wrong way and angrily challenged Manson. The reader had lost his son in a car accident and he was furious that Manson seemed to be saying being caught up in sadness was his fault. Manson explains to readers that a lot of things may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility for how we deal with the aftermath.

Manson slams a lot of positive advice such as being happy and needing to feel special. He believes people are too pampered and that there is too much superficiality in modern society, such as when people proclaim themselves experts, entrepreneurs, or innovators without much real-life experience. He urges people to know when to say no, to take responsibility for things in their life, and to confront problems in relations or work. Honesty is key for Manson, even when it comes to telling his wife her outfit doesn’t look good (she in return calls him out on his bullshit which he appreciates). The final chapter tackles the subject of death, and Manson’s main point is, not surprisingly, that one should not fear death but be comfortable with one’s mortality. Because once one does, then one can choose your values more freely, live life more and not be afraid.

The book is only a little over 200 pages long, but there is hardly a single wasted page. You don’t necessarily have to agree with everything Manson says, but for the most part, this book is the type of tough advice that you need in today’s world. In the end, the subtle art of not giving a f*ck is actually about choosing what to give a f*ck about.