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.

The Stolen Bicycle- book review

The Stolen Bicycle is a rare Taiwanese novel that has earned international acclaim, having been nominated for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. Written by one of Taiwan’s best modern novelists, Wu Ming-Yi, The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating story seemingly centered on bicycles but which winds through Taiwan under Japanese colonization, World War II battles, disappearing fathers, and even butterfly collecting.

To be honest, when I started The Stolen Bicycle, I found the beginning kind of perplexing. The story didn’t draw me in and the details seemed a bit overwhelming, especially the meticulous descriptions of bicycles by the story’s narrator. I stuck with it and gradually, the story began to feel more captivating. The plot became more complex but also more interesting as it covered disparate topics like antiques, butterfly handicrafts, and zookeeping. By the time it reached World War II, the story reached its stride with military invasions and battles.

The novel really brings Taiwan under Japanese colonization to life, including moments of turbulence such as when Taipei was even bombed by American aircraft during World War II. Certain characters are drafted by the Japanese into their army to fight in distant Malaya (Malaysia) and Burma (Myanmar). The military scenes are especially vivid and haunting, especially in portraying the hardship and terror of battle and retreat in remote jungles.

By this point, I didn’t mind all the details and I was actually impressed. The author did a fine job in being accurate with military history while making the characters and events believable, while conveying a strong sense of drama and danger. Just to give you an example, the story makes use of war elephants, which were actually used by both Japanese and Chinese armies in Southeast Asia to transport military goods. After the war, the KMT brought over a few of these elephants to Taiwan, one of whom became a beloved part of the Taipei Zoo and is also a part of the story.

War aside, there are nice descriptions of oldtime Taipei and Taiwanese society, as well as Japanese colonization, which while brutal to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, is regarded as having been somewhat beneficial. The inclusion of Japanese characters presents a rare Japanese colonial perspective of Taiwan.

Despite the honor of being longlisted, The Stolen Bicycle couldn’t escape political controversy arising from China. The Booker organizers tried to change the author’s nationality from Taiwan to “Taiwan, China” due to Chinese interference but luckily international criticism forced them to backtrack.

The Stolen Bicycle might have been challenging at a few parts, but reading the whole novel was a rewarding experience.

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.

Saladin- book review

I’ve always been fascinated by Saladin, the great military leader of the Muslim Arabs or Saracens who fought and won victories against Western Crusaders in the 12th century. His victories culminated in him capturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders, but he was also lauded for his generosity and integrity. I was eager to read more about Saladin’s life and John Man’s Saladin – the Life, the Legend and the Islamic Empire didn’t disappoint.

I first heard about Saladin when reading about the Second Crusade and the exploits of the English King Richard I or “Lionheart”, himself another famous military leader, who led the Crusaders. While Richard I was able to achieve some success, he was unable to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin, who had captured it earlier. Richard I negotiated a settlement with Saladin in 1192 and left the Middle East to return to Europe, while Saladin himself would pass away the following year. However, I didn’t know anything about Saladin’s life before that point, when he was in charge of the Arabs and hailed as the savior of Islam.

Saladin was actually a Kurd born in Tikrit, a city in what is now Iraq, and his father was a noted military leader. At that time, the Middle East was divided into Muslim and Christian territories, including several major city states like Jerusalem and Acre. Held by lords and knights who came over from Europe, and reinforced by Crusaders drawn by the goal of taking the “Holy Land” (and pillage) from the Muslims, the Christian city states constantly fought the Muslims, themselves divided into different factions like the Abbasids and Fatimids.

While Saladin had a strong mentor, he reached a point where he surpassed him. He wasn’t above committing brutal acts like ordering the execution of enemies after taking Cairo from a rival Muslim faction, but once firmly in power, he abstained from further killings. He won battles against the Franks, including the Battle of Hattin, where he captured several Christian leaders including the then King of Jerusalem. Also, after taking Jerusalem (my favorite movie Kingdom of Heaven focuses on this event), he prevented mass slaughter and allowed Christians and Jewish residents to go free after paying ransom.

John Man is a famous historian and prolific author who has written numerous books about Genghis Khan, the Mongols, Attila and ancient China. However, this was the first time I’d ever read his work. He writes in a very contemporary style, almost conversational, so much so that the book reads less like history and almost like a novel. Sometimes I didn’t quite enjoy it because it seemed a little simple, but overall Saladin was an enjoyable and fascinating read.

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.