Amy Rogers’ new book, The Han Agent, is a fast-moving, suspense-filled thriller. This science fiction novel is, above all else, entertaining. I read through the book in one day–I had to find out “what happened”. The story held my attention because it was well written, and because it honed so closely to reality. In the tradition of the best science fiction, the book was grounded in facts and took those facts into the realm of imagination.
Ms. Rogers knows her science, and her history. She’s a scientist by training, so that wasn’t surprising. However, her attention to historical detail was surprising, and gratifying. The accuracy of events referenced in the story made the narrative all the more believable.
The plot is rooted in a biological weapons program carried out by the Japanese in WWII (and pre-WWII) China. The protagonist is a young scientist, a woman who suffers from a flaw that has afflicted dramatic characters throughout history: hubris. Suspense arises not only from concern about a deadly biological agent, but also from wondering if the young scientist, on whom so much depends, will resolve her moral dilemma.
The Han Agent is a credible exploration of scientific possibility. Generally, people think about threats to security coming from a nuclear attack or a dirty bomb. In The Han Agent, the author suggests a different, perhaps more devastating possibility. Ms. Rogers creates a universe in which the unthinkable may be realized.
The Han Agent is a great book. Readers from various backgrounds and all ages will find it thought-provoking and enjoyable.
The title of this book, The Duality Code, will lead some readers to expect a spy mystery. In a way, that expectation is correct. There is a mystery, one that involves an obscure code. And there is intrigue, even murder. The startling aspect of the murders is that these are occasioned by disagreements over language.
W. K. Choy guides us through the sometimes gruesome history of China’s language wars. As he does so, he deciphers the mystery of China’s ancient language. Choy provides detailed analyses of relationships between Chinese written characters and he explains the difference between traditional and simplified Chinese characters.
According to Choy, the Duality Code has its roots in pre-modern China, in a warrior class called the shi. The “code” is secret in the sense that mastery of it, even today, is reserved for the highly educated. It is partly because Chinese characters were historically complex, according to Choy, that the literacy rate in China remained low, until recent times. Attempts toward simplification in the twentieth century included the suggestion that Chinese characters be eliminated altogether in favor of an alphabet-based system. Such a reform, it was believed, would make the language more accessible to ordinary people. However, the reform was never instituted.
Choy writes about how language has been a cultural football in China, and how the rules of this game have been brutal at times. For example, the Emperor Qin Shihuang ordered (in 212 BCE) that four hundred and sixty Confucian scholars be buried alive. He wanted to control scholarship and the use of language in his empire. Mao Tse-tung, centuries later, also wanted to control scholarship and the use of language. In furtherance of that end, Mao boasted, “We are a hundred times worse (than Qin Shihuang)…We have buried forty-six thousand Confucian scholars”.
I learned a great deal about the Chinese language from reading The Duality Code. I know now, for example, that Chinese characters are logographic. Each character represents a concept. This is distinct from alphabet-based languages, in which letters are combined to represent speech sounds. Sounds, in Chinese, are not associated with the characters. Therefore, Chinese characters may also be used by people who speak other languages.
Chinese characters can be combined (described and diagrammed in detail by Choy). Some characters are pictographic–their shape approximately resembles the idea they are intended to convey.
This book has much to offer besides an analysis of Chinese language. There’s history, political theory and philosophy. There’s commentary on the role of language in culture. W. K. Choy has a broad command of a variety of subjects. Readers of this book may not understand everything that is offered, because there is so much here. Choy’s analysis of language morphology is very clear and logical. For those with the ambition and time, it can serve as a veritable course on the Chinese language.
I found a wealth of information in The Duality Code, and not all of it specific to China. The book is unlike any I’ve read. It is challenging and entertaining. It is a cultural history and technical analysis. For Western readers, this will likely be an eye-opener. It was for me.
It’s a good guess that anyone who writes books, loves books. This is certainly true of Rhythm Prism. We endorse not only our own books, but other great books as well. In deference to that principle, Rhythm Prism’s writer, A. G. Moore, has begun posting book reviews in the well-regarded publication, Midwest Book Review. The founder of this publication, James A. Cox, strives to encourage small press authors and to promote literacy.
Some of the reviews will be posted on this page, after the review has been published by MWBR. Also there will be reviews that do not appear in MWBR.
20 Cedar St
By Jason Salvino
Writing a memoir has almost become a rite of passage. People who have little interest in anything else often find events in their own lives riveting. Filling a book with the minutia of daily existence may be highly satisfying to the writer but, unfortunately, the satisfaction is not usually shared by an objective reader. Honest reflection, character arc, true drama are may be absent in such works. This is not the case in Jason Salvino’s 20 Cedar St: A True Story. The elements that make for a good read are present here. Mr. Salvino is thoughtful as he considers his place in his family’s legacy, a legacy he refers to as a curse. Certainly, his family’s history does contain incidents most readers would consider out of the ordinary.
Complicated lives often require a bit of professional intervention to sort out the kinks. Contemporary culture leans on psychiatry, much as traditional cultures once drew on the wisdom of shamans. Mr. Salvino exploits neither of these resources as he develops from a raw youth to a motivated, insightful adult. His path to personal growth hews more closely to the ancient proverb: “Heal Thyself”.
This is not a polished book. Mr. Salvino is an effective writer whose style is a little rough around the edges. The story he tells is not enjoyable but it does hold the reader’s interest. There is frank discussion about truly regrettable incidents, such as cruelty to animals in his youth. Later in his life, Mr. Salvino goes through a period when he washes himself with bleach after every contact with a woman. He goes through another period when he has crying episodes. These seem to be necessary stages on the way to self-awareness.
By the end of the book Mr. Salvino rethinks the curse of 20 Cedar St. He realizes that to call the legacy of his family a curse is to deflect from personal responsibility. He rejects characterization of the past as a curse and decides that he is ultimately responsible for himself and his life. Of all the developments in the book, this is the most valuable and it sets 20 Cedar St apart from many other memoirs. Mr. Salvino’s character arc is the essential element in this narrative.
Mr. Salvino’s story is not complete. It is merely one place on the trajectory of a life, a life that holds promise for Mr. Salvino’s future and the future of his children.
A. G. Moore August, 2016
Chinese Education in Singapore: An Untold Story of Conflict and Change
By Zhang Zhixiong
In late 19th century Hawaii, influential descendants of missionaries decided that Hawaii should be annexed by the United States. Their ambitions were frustrated, however, by resistance from indigenous Hawaiians. Annexation advocates decided they had to suppress Hawaiian culture to achieve their goal. They tried to accomplish this through many officials acts. One of the first of these was to ban the use of the Hawaiian language in schools.
Using language as an instrument of political and cultural control was not unique to Hawaii. In 19th century Ukraine, for example, imperial Russia banned the Ukrainian language to further its objective, which was to absorb Ukraine into the empire.
In Zhang Zhixiong’s Chinese Education in Singapore: An Untold Story of Conflict and Change we see, once again, the use of language as a political and social instrument. This book discusses various languages and dialects that have traditionally been spoken in Singapore and the role these played in the island nation’s social, political and economic hierarchy.
Singapore has gone through a number of political iterations. It was once part of the British Empire. For a brief time it was part of Malaysia. It is now an independent country. The presence of a large Chinese population has been an important aspect of its history. At times immigration from China was encouraged and at times it was discouraged. Today, ethnic Chinese comprise about 75% of the population, although the Malay people are considered to be indigenous.
Chinese Education in Singapore: An Untold Story of Conflict and Change offers a vast amount of information. The book takes us through Singapore’s colonial era, its brief union with Malaysia and its state as a polyglot, multicultural and religiously diverse nation. Singapore’s educational system has evolved to be one of the best in the world.
Most people in the West, particularly in the United States, know little about Singapore.
Zhang Zhixiong presents material in his book that Western readers will not easily find in another source. It would be a good idea, before attempting the book, to brush up on significant events in Chinese history: the various dynasties, European imperialism, the Japanese occupation and the 1949 revolution, for a start.
There are remarkable stories in Zhang Zhixiong’s book. He tells, for example, about an effort to promote sterilization of poorly educated women. The response to this frankly eugenic policy was so negative that the program was quickly scrapped.
I enjoyed Chinese Education in Singapore: An Untold Story of Conflict and Change. The author is very specific about dates and facts, and these seem to be quite reliable. If you enjoy expanding your intellectual horizons and you don’t know a lot about Singapore, read this book. As the world gets smaller, places such as Singapore that once seemed far away and irrelevant to every day life are increasingly becoming more like neighbors than strangers.
The book has been awarded four stars instead of five only because of the difficulty some readers might have in sorting out the very detailed account of events. Still, a job well done.
A. G. Moore August, 2016
The Six Principles of Enlightenment and the Meaning of Life
By Russell Anthony Gibbs
In a remote area of the Sahara Desert archaeologists discovered the Cave of the Beasts, where there are paintings that were created more than 7,000 years ago. What were those early artists trying to express? Were they conceptualizing a belief system? Were they responding to an impulse to explain the mysteries of life, and death? Many interpreters believe this to be the case. Fast forward to the present and still we find humans pondering the same mysteries. In his book The Six Principles of Enlightenment and the Meaning of Life, Russell Gibbs explores this age-old puzzle in a brilliant and insightful discussion.
It is not my inclination to read books that promise to be inspirational. I made an exception for Mr. Gibbs’ book and was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered. A refreshing aspect of Russell Gibbs’ writing is that he gives readers room to draw conclusions that are different from his own.
The material he covers is complex and far-reaching. His discussion begins with science, both mainstream hard science and theoretical physics. Mr. Gibbs blends what scientists know and what they believe may be true about the universe, with the speculative ideas of great philosophers across cultures and epochs. It is his thorough understanding of these subjects that stands out. Also remarkable is his ability to draw connections between the science and the philosophy. Though one may disagree with Mr. Gibbs’ analysis, there is much to be learned from what he has to say.
This is a brief book, free of jargon and condescension. It left a lasting impression on me. Since finishing The Six Principles of Enlightenment and the Meaning of Life, I’ve read about how bacteria sense each other. Called quorum sensing, this ability to communicate and react as individuals in a group brought to mind Mr. Gibbs’ ideas about the interrelatedness of the universe. I started to think about consciousness and our poor understanding of it. This is the gift of Mr. Gibbs’ book. Its value, for me, does not reside in the answers he suggests but in the questions he raises.
I found this book so thought-provoking that I decided to buy a copy for someone else who likes to think. If you like to think, if you wonder, as cave artists did, about life’s big questions, you’ll enjoy Mr. Gibbs’ discussion. And if you don’t care about those big ideas or feel these matters have been settled for you, then read the book for the science. String theory, time continuum, dark matter and many other notions are explained in simple terms. Perhaps you will not be inspired by Mr. Gibbs’ discussion, but you will likely gain insight into the physical reality in which you move every day of your life.
A. G. Moore July 2016
After the Fire Comes the Rain (Demo Version)
It is inescapable that writers and composers borrow from each other, consciously or unconsciously. This is true not only because there is a finite number of words and musical notes, but also because we are all vessels of a shared culture. In After the Fire Comes the Rain, Khalil-Ghibran dips so liberally into the common well that sounding familiar sometimes seems to be his objective.
Examples of the borrowed, or familiar, may be found on virtually every page. The title of this poetry collection is taken from Tupac Shakur’s song, Untouchable: “After the fire comes the rain, After the pleasure there’s pain”. Then there’s Mr. Ghibran’s name, with a slightly altered spelling, which is the same as that of the renowned poet, Khalil Gibran. There are more, many more citable instances. For example, Mr. Ghibran’s “I Envy the Dead” mirrors a line from Ecclesiastes: “I envy those who are dead and gone…”
Mr. Ghibran does not suffer from a lack of originality. On the contrary, he deliberately mines cultural touchstones for the intellectual and emotion associations they yield.
An analog may be found in Chinese literati painting. In this tradition, which is rooted in themes and techniques thousands of years old, each painter consciously embodies the work of those who came before. Thus, the 20th century artist Ong Schan Tchow pays homage to his ancestors by utilizing their themes and emulating their techniques in his classic book of paintings, Chrysanthemums.
Mr. Ghibran’s poetry, likewise, is deeply personal and yet utilizes broad cultural references.
Mr. Ghibran has a deft hand. His writing is pleasing to the ear and thought-provoking. My favorite, and one of the more literal poems, is “You Can’t Get To Heaven”. Here Mr. Ghibran offers the familiar image of a gatekeeper who scours a book looking for the name of someone wanting to get into heaven. Entrance is denied because, ” You can’t get to heaven Until you let it go”. Given the collection’s title (from the posthumously published After the Fire Comes the Rain), the poem’s refrain–Until you give it up, Until that time, Got to live it up–carries particular significance.
Mr. Ghibran’s poems work. They invite re-reading and reflection. I hope Mr. Ghibran continues to write. He has a lot to say and knack for knowing how to say it.
A. G. Moore July, 2016
Johann Trollmann and Romani Resistance to the Nazis
By Jud Nirenberg
So much as been written about Nazi death camps and the rise of fascism in Germany, it may seem that nothing new can be said on the subject. In Jud Nirenberg’s Johann Trollmann and Romani Resistance to the Nazis, we learn that not enough has been said, certainly not enough about the fate of Roma and related groups in Nazi Europe.
While roundups of Roma and Sinti (a related group) began in the late 30s, their genocide did not become official policy until 1942, when Heinrich Himmler issued the “Auschwitz Decree”. In this proclamation, Himmler ordered the deportation of all Roma who lived in the “Greater German Reich”. These territories included any nation under German control. Murder of Roma was carried out with varying degrees of enthusiasm by different governments. Croatia, for example, showed determination to wipe out every trace of Roma within its borders. France, while exporting thousands for extermination, showed less commitment to the policy.
Mr. Nirenberg uses an effective technique by choosing to focus on the life of one man, an internationally recognized athlete. Johann Trollmann epitomizes the struggle of Roma, and others, who were caught up in the Nazi death machine. In Trollmann we see a confused sense of loyalty, a lack of credulity that such a thing can happen, and a resistance to implementation of the genocidal policy. As we learn about Johann Trollmann’s fate, we also read about whole families who suffered and perished in the Nazi extermination campaign.
Today there is a street in Hannover, Germany named Johann-Trollmann Weg. This belated recognition (2004), reflects the long path Trollman and other Roma traveled to acknowledgment as victims, and heroes, of the Holocaust.
A. G. Moore, July, 2016
Bees in Loretta’s Bonnet
“Bees in Loretta’s Bonnet” is a worthwhile book. It engagingly tells a story that delivers important information. That’s a neat trick to pull off. The language is clear The pictures are expressive and appealing. I liked this book. The one mildly jarring note was the commercial message at the end. If that doesn’t bother you, I think this book would make a nice addition to your child’s library.
A. G. Moore, June, 2016
Guitar Practice: Learn To Play Like a Professional Musician
(Performance, Music Habits, Goal Setting, Guitar Playing, Practice Techniques)
By Leo Doran
I was urged to read this book, though I am not a musician and have never contemplated playing the guitar. As such, I found some of the musical explanations confusing. I didn’t have a guitar in front of me and didn’t even know what a fretboard was. Those limitations aside, the book is interesting and written in clear language. Its motivational recommendations may be applied to any area of endeavor.
Many who read Guitar Practice: Learn to Play Like a Professional Musician may hope to improve their guitar skills, but not aspire to be a professional. The author, Leo Doran, suggests that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice is required to achieve a professional skill level. That degree of commitment is probably greater than a hobbyist contemplates.
To his credit, Mr. Doran has accomplished one thing: he’s inspired in me the idea that maybe I’d like to play the guitar. Certainly the joy that he derives from music is contagious. In the sense that Mr Doran makes a persuasive case, the book is successful.
For those who want to play the guitar, I recommend Guitar Practice: Learn to Play Like a Professional Musician. For others, this book would probably have limited value.
December in Le Havre
By Gaetano Benza and John Vinuela
I finished reading December in Le Havre on Memorial Day. It seemed the right thing to do, to dwell upon those who fought in WWII. Many of these combatants, of course, never came home. Gaetano Benza, the soldier around whom the story revolves, was at Normandy on D-Day. The authors of this book, Mr. Benza and John Vinuela, capture the chaotic scene on the beach and in the water that day. If the book succeeds on no other level, it validates its existence with this one episode.
The Fog of War: we’ve grown used to that expression. It is usually invoked by those who explain mishaps during combat. However, for a soldier enveloped in the fog, all that exists is the need to move forward and an awareness of fallen comrades. I’ve heard first-hand descriptions of battle from someone who’s been there. It was a different war and a different time, but the similarity between what I’ve heard and what I read in this book was startling.
This is not a perfect book. I had a little difficulty with narrative perspective, but I do applaud the valid endeavor to record for history the experience of one soldier in the most trying of circumstances. I applaud Mr. Gaetano for his service and for his willingness to share with the rest of us the life-altering experience of war.
Read this book and appreciate the human story within. Look past its minor flaws and regard it as a necessary personal record of one person’s passage through a war zone. It would be hard, after reading the description of Normandy, to hear the words “Fog of War” in the same way ever again.
The Last Cadillac
by Nancy Nau Sullivan
Divorce and loss of a parent rank high on the American Psychiatric Association’s list of stresses. In The Last Cadillac, Nancy Nau Sullivan grapples with both of these issues, and more. Her father is ailing. Money is short. And she is raising two children. Perhaps some readers would cope differently with these circumstances, but the one path Ms. Sullivan chooses that they would be wise to emulate is this: she never gives up.
While many people may recognize their lives in different aspects of Ms. Sullivan’s book, for me the most relatable scenes are those that describe her father’s decline. No detail is spared. The frank treatment is important and even essential. As her father begins his final journey, Ms. Sullivan becomes a shepherd who strives to find the gentlest way to ease his passage.
There are parts ofthis book I did not especially enjoy, but overall Ms. Sullivan acquits herself well in writing a very personal story. The material is well organized, the characters are clearly defined, and their motivation is believable.
Dangers lurk for an author who attempts to write in this genre. One of those dangers is to sink into self-pity. This is a place in which Ms. Sullivan never finds refuge. She’s a fighter. When she’s bruised, she hurts and she tells us about that. But it doesn’t take long for her to brush herself off and get back into action.
Ms. Sullivan ends the book on a conciliatory note. The struggles of the past are resolved. Conflict with siblings is past. Economic challenges have been met. The children have turned out fine. This seems like a fitting end to the story of woman who has the courage to face significant challenges. It’s nice to know it all ended well for her.
Persistence, Then Peace
By Tom Mach
As I finished reading Tom Mach’s, Persistence, Then Peace, the refrain from a classic Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire duet ran through my mind: Pick yourself up, Dust yourself off, Start all over again“. Mr. Mach’s book is about one man’s life, considered from a 76-year vantage. Over the years there were accomplishments and failures.
Mr. Mach has talents–he’s bright and ambitious. These certainly serve him. However his greatest talent is his persistence. His determination reminds me of a quote attributed to Louis Pasteur: “Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity. ”
Mr. Mach lives in the US, but his effort to provide for his family, to get up every day and begin anew the struggle to succeed, is universal. People all over the world, in different circumstances, at different times, have met the same challenge with vaying resources.
This book begins with the goal of explaining how Mr. Mach became a writer. It achieves that goal, but it does something greater. It tells the story of survival, not in a war zone, or in the midst of disaster, but in the most quotidian and elemental environment. Mr. Mach writes his story clearly and convincingly.
I recommend this book.
Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out
On the first page of Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, we find that the main character, Ximen Nao, is in hell. As he endures the torment imposed by Lord Yama, master of the underworld, Ximen Nao insists that a mistake has been made. He doesn’t belong in hell and should be returned immediately to life and to family. Lord Yama realizes that torture will not induce a confession from his charge, so he does as he has been asked. Ximen Nao is returned to life and family. Unfortunately, he goes back as a donkey.
The scene in hell is characteristic of the way Mo Yan handles very serious issues–with humor and skill. Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out charms, entertains and provokes. As the central character is reincarnated into various forms, he goes on a journey through his former life . He watches his children, concubines, wives and acquaintances in their daily lives. He is forced to stand by as they deal with convulsive Chinese politics and the consequences of his actions when he was in human form.
In Ximen Nao’s various debased states he recognizes people but they do not recognize him. He has thoughts and ideas, but he cannot express them. Ximen Nao is the ultimate outsider–a perfect vantage for him, and for us, to discover whether or not his protest to Lord Yama has merit. Is Ximen Nao innocent, or did he lead a life of indifference and self-interest?
There is irony and humor in the book, and there is insight. Mo Yan has a whimsical touch as he covers some very serious material. Whimsy is evident, for example, when he places himself inside the book he is writing. The reader is startled to find a character named Mo Yan, a man who is a writer. Mo Yan, the character, failed at everything he tried and eventually became a writer–a bad writer–by default.
Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out is skillfully crafted. There is no pretense, or evidence of ego in the book, and yet the author’s voice shines through. This is a gentle, compassionate voice, the kind of presence that it is a pleasure to spend time with. I learned a lot from this book and was amused by it, but most of all I enjoyed myself.
I highly recommendMo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.
What Life Was Like in the Land of the Dragon
By Time-Life Books
Commander Zhao Kuangyin was awakened suddenly by army generals brandishing swords. These men did not come to kill Zhao, but rather to demand that he dress in a yellow imperial gown. The garment would signify that Zhao was about to become Emperor of China. The year was 959 and the empire was in turmoil. North and South were not unified. Uprisings occurred throughout the realm. Foreign armies invaded at will. The leaders of the military had decided someone had to take control and that person was to be Zhao.The generals chose wisely.
Zhao Kuangyin possessed neither ambition nor cruelty as elements of his personality. Rather, he was principled and thoughtful. After being persuaded that he needed to become emperor, he proceeded to rule with measured and strategic policies.
The ascent of Zhao Kuangyin marked the beginning of the Song Dynasty in China, a period of great artistic achievement and daunting political challenges. What Life Was Like in the Land of the Dragon is a brief, brilliantly illustrated book. It provides an overview of the 400 years that preceded the Mongol conquest of China.
According to this book, the Song Dynasty was the period during which China assumed the nature that most people associate with it. For example, before this dynasty a Chinese diet staple included wheat, instead of rice. The emphasis on scholarship during the Song resulted in many inventions. Among these were the world’s first moving printing press, a rocket arrow that could be launched with gunpowder and a mechanical clock. The emphasis on scholarship may have contributed to the eventual decline of the Song. Because the Emperor feared an overly strong military, intellectual and artistic achievement were favored over martial skills. Thus weakened, the military was not easily able to repel foreign invaders. And foreign invaders there were.
To the north of China’s borders lived a number of ambitious tribes. Eventually, one of these succeeded in driving the Song government out of the north and into southern China. The diminished dynasty set up shop below the Yangtze River. The Dynasty continued there until the Mongols, under Kublai Khan, drove the last Song emperor from his palace.
What Life Was Like in the Land of the Dragon is a lovely book. It will take most readers just a couple of hours to read through, but to rush would be a mistake. The illustrations are in color and the format is that of a large picture book. Read the book, then take your time going back over the photos. I did and found this a rewarding way to absorb the material.
I recommend What Life Was Like in the Land of the Dragon. It’s not the kind of book that will stay with you for a long time, but some of the pictures might. They tell the story of the Song Dynasty in a way that words cannot.
The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy
By Michael Prawdin
In The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy, Michael Prawdin writes about a time when warriors swept across Eurasia and struck terror in the hearts of the mightiest kings and emperors. The names of some of the Mongol rulers–Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and other characters featured in the book are still part of popular culture today. Fans of the Conan film series might be surprised to hear that the first line spoken by Conan, in Conan the Barbarian, is paraphrased from a Genghis Khan quote.
Prawdin’s book is broad in scope, but never tedious. Organization of the material into three sections helps the reader to keep track of the story. The first part is dedicated to Genghis Khan and his direct descendants. The second part is largely dedicated to Tamerlane, who was not a direct descendant of Genghis but who tried to use the Great Khan’s legacy to legitimize conquest. The third section allows for reflection on the personal qualities and influence of the Mongol conquerors.
Some of the more ironically amusing parts of the book had to do with religion. For example, after Mongol armies had ravaged parts of Europe, Pope Innocent IV felt he had to act. He sent an envoy to the Mongol leader, who by that time was a descendant of the deceased Genghis Khan. The envoy’s journey was long and arduous. At the end of it, the Pope’s demands were delivered. These were simple. The Mongol leader was to stop his attacks. He was to convert to Christianity, and he was to recognize the authority of the Pope and the Church. Fortunately for this Papal envoy there was some confusion about the meaning of the message. The Khan responded by accepting the Pope’s offer of subordination. In the eyes of the Khan the Pope was now a Mongol vassal.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the background it gives readers on parts of the world that are much in the news today–Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, for example. Mongol culture spread far across the East and left a lasting influence. The greatest influence was probably on religion. While Genghis Khan considered himself to be acting on a mandate from heaven, he allowed people of all belief systems to exist under his rule. However, Tamerlane called himself the “Sword of Islam” and converted everyone he conquered (those who survived) to his faith. Of the two, Tamerlane was more indiscriminately bloodthirsty. Some estimates put the number that fell to the swords of his armies at 17 million.
The Mongol Empire: Its Rise and Legacy is considered a classic. Its first edition (1935) was published in German. This translation is highly readable, although some of the geographic terms and spellings may be unfamiliar to the modern reader. This in no way takes from the pleasure of reading this remarkable book. I highly recommend it.
The Hunger Angel
By Herta Muller
When Soviet troops overwhelmed German defenses at the end of WWII, they occupied several Eastern European countries. One of these was Romania, where an ethnic German minority had lived for generations. This group was targeted by the Soviets to pay reparations for the cost of the war. Payment was to be made in the form of forced labor.
The protagonist of “The Hunger Angel”, Leo Auberg, is a 17-year-old Romanian who is deported to a Soviet labor camp in 1945. He spends the next five years surrounded by death and tormented by hunger.
“The Hunger Angel” tells a story that most people in the West don’t know. Though I’d read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (Solzhenitzen) and “Night” (Wiesel), this book struck me as different in an almost existential way. The absurdity of Auberg’s situation is that he’s not accused of a crime, as Ivan Denisovich is, and he’s not marked for death, as the inmates of Wiesel’s camp are. He is merely a resource–a pair of hands and a back. A calculus is repeated throughout the book: one shovel = one gram of bread. That’s how much the camp directors figure is the minimum required to keep their labor resource functional.
Of course, death is a regular companion at the camp. That is of no concern to its operators, for labor is a renewable resource. Countless souls in occupied lands may be assigned to the camps as replacements for those who die.
This is not light fare. I made the mistake of reading it before bed and don’t suggest sensitive readers do the same.
Herta Muller is a Nobel Laureate, though she did not win the prize for this book. Some have described “The Hunger Angel” as a prose poem. A lyrical quality does come through but I suspect it may be more poetic in the original German version.
Muller is a talented writer. I recommend “The Hunger Angel” to mature readers who don’t mind grim material. It is a novel based on true life experiences. That makes it all the more unforgettable.
A. G. Moore
Commissioner Lin and the Opium War
The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China
China has the world’s largest army. It has more people than any other country on earth. The size of its economy is second only to that of the US. China’s global importance cannot be overstated, and yet to many in the West, China is a cipher. I know it was for me until a month ago. That’s when I finished reading Julia Lovell’s Opium War.
Dr. Lovell’s well-sourced history, while not a primer on China, does offer valuable insight into the country’s national psyche, which was greatly influenced by the Opium War. This conflict showed China to be helpless before its Western adversaries and it showed those adversaries to be predatory in the pursuit of capital.
While The Opium War by Julia Lovell, did a good job of covering this subject, I wanted another view and so I read Commissioner Lin and the Opium War by Hsin-Pao Chang. I’m glad I’ve read Hsin-pao Chang’s take on the events leading up to the war. Much of the information in this book overlaps with Lovell’s but in some ways I felt as though I was reading about a different China.
Lovell’s view of Lin and 19th century Chinese bureaucracy was much less favorable than Chang’s. From Lovell I got the impression that Lin was impractical, out of touch and principled. Chang describes a much more reasonable man, one who operated within a rigid system and brought to bear on the system the tools he had. In reading Chang’s book, I see why generations of Chinese children have held up Commissioner Lin as a hero. Lovell’s book was not as successful in explaining the Commissioner’s historic significance in modern China.
A second, important difference between the two books is Chang’s emphasis on the economic crisis that confronted China, a crisis precipitated by the importation of vast quantities of opium. While both books describe a moral and social toll that opium took, Chang is much more successful in describing the economic imperative of stopping the trade. Silver was pouring out of China, as increasing quantities of opium were pouring in. A negative balance of payments was reaching crisis proportions.
The emperor of China charged Lin with stopping the opium trade. Unfortunately, this mission was in direct opposition to the interests of British traders and the British government. Britain had its own balance of payments problem. Selling opium to China was one way to fill British coffers.
Neither Lin nor the emperor had a realistic idea of British military power. China was a vast empire that was largely isolated from world affairs. It had contempt for foreign powers and foreign interests. One of the difficulties in negotiating a possible settlement to the opium dispute was the refusal of Lin to negotiate directly with British emissaries because they were not of sufficient stature.
Lin’s demands of the British were unyielding–this was partly due to the arrogance with which the Chinese regarded the rest of the world and partly due to a cultural/linguistic disconnect. At one point Lin imprisoned British traders (that is, he would not let them leave their compound and he took their servants away). His demand was simple: all the opium in the traders’ possession–on their ships or on land–was to be turned over to Lin.
When this condition was finally met, Lin destroyed the entire stock. There were other issues on which he was also unyielding and the British equally so. He insisted that the murderer of a Chinese man be turned over to Chinese justice. The British refused. They insisted on the right of Britain to try its citizens, even with crimes was committed on Chinese soil.
Back in Britain, a cause celebre was made out of the fact that British citizens had been imprisoned (the traders mentioned above). The outrage over this incident added impetus to the war movement.
Eventually, China found itself engaged in a war it could not win. It was up against a vastly superior military adversary. The Opium War dragged on to a second conflict until eventually the British (and other Western nations) won every concession they sought
Both of these books are excellent resources for gaining an understanding of China and its relationship to the West. If you have the time, read both. However, if you must choose between them, perhaps Chang’s book would be most useful.
Death of the Heart
By Elizabeth Bowen
As Death of a Heart begins, we meet Portia Quayne, a sixteen-year old who is the essence of unaffected innocence. Orphaned and sent to live with an unfamiliar half brother, Portia finds herself in a home that is almost a museum of human pretense. As guileless and expressive as she is, so are her brother and his wife unfeeling and calculating. But Portia is no Jane Eyre; there is no Mr. Rochester waiting in the wings to redeem her heart. Instead, Bowen’s young miss undergoes a gradual erosion of trust until she comes to terms with life as it is and not as she might wish it to be.
Elizabeth Bowen was born in 1899 – the same year Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. Not only was Bowen Freud’s contemporary, she was also an associate of some the most influential literary figures of her time, including Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf.
Other books I’ve read by Bowen are The House in Paris and A World of Love. While I enjoyed both, A World of Love, in my opinion, was a less impressive work. However, to read Bowen is to spend time with an incisive and subtle intellect. That is a reward in itself.
Bowen was born in Dublin, Ireland. She was what was known as Anglo-Irish–heir to a legacy of British rule in Ireland. Throughout her life she described her awkward national legacy, neither entirely belonging to Ireland or England. Not only was she bereft of a national identity, but she was also bereft of parents. From the age of 13 Bowen was raised by relatives. This history no doubt influenced development of Portia Quayne’s orphan status.
In 1930 Bowen inherited the family’s Irish estate, Bowen’s Court, but could not keep up with the expenses. She sold the estate in 1960 and shortly afterwards saw the house torn down. She spent the last years of her life in England, where she died February 22, 1973. Her body was interred at St. Colman’s Church, County Cork, Ireland.
Captain James Cook
By Richard Hough
James Cook ranks high on any list of Britain’s most important explorers. In “Captain James Cook” Richard Hough explains why. Histories have long credited Cook with discovering Hawaii and New Zealand, among other lands. Over the course of three voyages, Cook charted oceans and coastlines. Each of his three Pacific expeditions lasted for several years and saw the deaths of many crew members. Cook himself perished on the last voyage.
Hough’s book, though responsible and well-written, may become an anachronism in the years ahead. Times change and with them values. It used to be acceptable for an educated person to declare that the discoverer of Hawaii was Captain James Cook. It was also acceptable, at one time, to heap praise upon explorers who opened territory for European expansion. That time is swiftly passing.
Who discovered Hawaii? Who discovered New Zealand? Certainly not Cook, for these places were inhabited by people with long-established cultures and governments at the time of Cook’s landing. Hawaii, for example, was settled, historians estimate, by Polynesian navigators some 1400 years before Cook sighted the archipelago. New Zealand, likewise, was settled by Polynesians sometime in the 13th century, historians agree.
Values evolve. It is for this reason that Hough’s book, and others like it, will likely fall out of fashion. Future sensibilities will be more receptive to books that regard European explorers as what they in fact were–invaders. These adventurers, representing various governments, were no less invaders than were Norse raiders who harassed the English in the 8th century or Goths who descended on Rome in the fifth. The impact of European expansion in the Pacific, however, was often more devastating to indigenous cultures than the Norse or Goths were to the English or the Romans. Indigenous populations became extinct, in some instances. This was true of Tasmania, where the last full-blooded Tasmanian, Truganini, is believed to have died in 1876.
“Captain James Cook” is a very good book. Readers who are looking for a thorough biography or a comprehensive history will appreciate Hough’s fastidious research. Hough writes engagingly and skillfully. He quotes liberally from original sources, most especially from the journals of men who sailed with Cook, and from Cook’s own journal. These first-person accounts bear witness not only to the deeds of the voyagers but also to their state of mind. The journal excerpts support Hough’s account and enrich it.
Cook, for example, reveals a conflict of conscience. Though he carried the cultural biases of his time, he also evinced an awareness of moral issues. He expressed concern about the “innocents” of Hawaii who would be exposed to venereal disease through contact with his crew. However, though he was a disciplined commander and ran a tight ship, he took no serious measures to protect Hawaiians from intimate contact with his men. A variety of diseases, including venereal diseases, were transmitted to Hawaiians. Eventually these diseases decimated the indigenous population.
In attempting to frame the character of his subject, Hough describes a captain who changed over the years. Cook is portrayed, on his first two voyages, as having a benevolent, even compassionate, attitude towards indigenous peoples. However, Hough paints a different portrait of Cook on his third and final voyage to the Pacific. Hough believes the captain suffered from an undiagnosed malady, one that affected his mental state. In this state, Cook ordered that a number of barbarous punishments be inflicted on offending crew members and on ‘natives’. Punishments included flogging and ear amputation.
I learned a great deal from this book. I learned about geography, navigation and about the way 19th century mariners lived. The most important lesson I took from the book however, reinforced something I already understood. It’s easy to fall prey to the beliefs of our culture, to become blind to the moral contradictions inherent in our own actions.
Today I judge many of James Cook’s actions to be immoral. However, Cook behaved in a way that he and his contemporaries believed to be honorable. I suppose, by one measure he was. But if you ask a Hawaiian, or a Māori, about Cook’s exploits, you will likely hear different view of the man’s character.
By Gary Y. Okihiro
Readers of “Island World” who are new to the work of Gary Okihiro should prepare to adjust notions of land and water masses. Dr. Okihiro presents a novel view of islands, seas and history. The earth, Dr. Okihiro explains, is comprised of plates that are constantly moving and rearranging land forms. Some land forms rise above the sea in mountain peaks. We call these islands. Beneath the sea land continues for thousands of miles. Water is not separate from land but is part of the universe of experience for residents of vast ocean territories.
“Continental men”, Dr. Okihiro asserts (quoting Tongan writer Epeli Hau’ofa), artificially divided the continuous universe. These men “drew imaginary lines across the sea, making colonial boundaries that confined ocean peoples to tiny spaces for the first time”. ‘Continental men’ described geography in terms of islands and continents because these terms suited colonial ambitions.
Dr. Okihiro, founder of Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, was born in Hawaii. His book begins with a recitation of the Hawaiian song of genesis, which describes the unity of people with land, sea, flora and fauna. Dr. Okihiro’s tone is gentle, yet assertive. He recognizes that he is challenging preconceptions but he is confident of his facts.
Traditionally, historians have written about the colonization of Hawaii and the effect this event had on Hawaiian culture. Dr. Okihiro turns the scene around. He writes about the influence Hawaiian culture had on its colonizers.
“Island World” is not revisionist. It does not try to change the history most of us have been taught. What it does is change the perspective from which that history is told. Dr. Okihiro’s arguments cannot be dismissed easily because he is meticulous in providing evidence to build his case.
Dr. Okihiro traces, for example, the influence of Hawaii on Mississippi Delta blues and country music. Okihiro highlights the art of Grand Ole Opry performer Jerry Byrd. Byrd worked with some of the greats in U.S. music, including Dolly Parton, Jerry Garcia and Jimmie Vaughan. An early student of the steel guitar, Byrd credited Hawaii’s influence on his development, saying, ” ‘Hawaiian music was my first love..I played Hawaiian style on hundreds of records with some of the greatest country singers.’ “
The strongest evidence for Okihiro’s assertion of Hawaiian influence may be found in his discussionof mission schools. Okihiro trains his sights specifically on the career of Samuel Chapman Armstrong. Armstrong was a son of the Reverend Richard Armstrong, 19th centurymissionary to Hawaii who built and ran mission schools in Hilo. The younger Armstrong was born in Hawaii and as a child attended a mission school in Honolulu.
In 1860, at the age of 21, Samuel Armstrong moved to the U.S., where he attended university and led a regiment of “Colored” soldiers during the Civil War. After the war, Armstrong founded the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. He brought to Hampton the religious zeal and racial prejudices of his father. The stated purpose of Hampton was to train the children of recently freed slaves to become productive members of society. That goal, Armstrong believed, could only be achieved if the children understood their appropriately subservient role in the U.S. economy.
Hampton Normal emphasized manual labor. The reason for this was two-fold: manual work was the only future Armstrong envisioned for his students and it was through his students’ labor that he hoped to finance the school. Income earned from child labor was supposed to offset school expenses.
Hampton’s charges grew crops and worked at various chores throughout the day. At the end of the day they were given a couple of hours to study. Okihiro quotes from a Hampton publication of the time, “‘…the students work eight or ten hours daily and study two hours in the evening, an arrangement which, as might be imagined, weeds out effectively the incapable or the unwilling.”
As time passed, income from student labor was not sufficient to maintain the school. Money from another source was needed. That source turned out to be more children, children of Native Americans.
While Hampton Normal had begun with the idea of training the children of freed slaves, the idea eventually grew, partly in response to the need for more income. Okihiro quotes from a letter Armstrong wrote to his wife about taking in Native American students: “They are a big card for the school….There’s money in them, I tell you.”
Parents of these new students often resisted turning their children over to Hampton for ‘education’. Coercion was frequently necessary to gain compliance. The reluctance of parents was apparently justified, for a number of their children did not fare well at Hampton. Many graves were dug at the school for those who sickened and died while in its care.
Both Native American and freed black students at Hampton were indoctrinated into the prevailing racial attitudes of 19th century Virginia. As evidence of this indoctrination, Okihiro quotes a passage from a Hampton lesson book: “The white people are the strongest…(next are) …the Mongolians or yellow…(next are )…The Ethiopians or blacks…(next are)…The Americans or reds…the Caucasion (sic) is away ahead of all the other races…”
The exploitation of child labor for income was a practice with which Armstrong had become well acquainted in his youth, for this was the model established by Christian missionary schools in Hawaii. Okihiro quotes Armstrong’s daughter; “‘…the Hilo Manual Labor School for Native Hawaiians…often occurred to his mind as an example of successful industrial education for an undeveloped race.”
The legacy of Hawaii’s mission schools did not end with Hampton Normal, but was passed on through its graduates to other institutions. The most famous of these was probably the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington. At Tuskegee Armstrong’s guiding methodology of training in manual labor and the principle of accommodating white supremacist ideology was continued.
“Island World” will certainly meet with objection from many readers. Dr. Okihiro’s book asks that we reexamine established habits of thought. For some, this may not be a comfortable process. However, the material in Okihiro’s book is well-researched and deserving of serious consideration. Extensive use of original sources adds weight to his argument. It is hard to dispute, for example, that a direct line exists from Hawaiian mission schools to mission education in the U.S., and then on to the Tuskegee Institute. And it is hard to dispute the fact that Booker T. Washington had a profound effect on the integration (or lack thereof) experienced by black Americans into mainstream society. As for Dr. Okihiro’s concept of island nations–modern earth science describes earth tectonics in very much the same terms that he uses.
“Island World” is a brilliant book. It is well written, even lyrical in places. Readers who are open to new ideas and fresh perspective will welcome the opportunity Dr. Okihiro offers to take a second look at the way in which topography and geography have been used to shape a concept of history.
By Philip Roth
In his novel, American Pastoral, Philip Roth examines an American community and its ethos in the late 20th century. The plot of the novel is revealed early. The first few chapters tell us that there is a bombing, a murder and a fractured family. The rest of the book is dedicated to creating a rationale for these basic facts. In exploring the rationale, Roth paints a tableau of post-WWII USA, as he sees it.
Some authors put great distance between themselves and their work. Readers are left to to look for traces of the writer’s life in different characters and scenes. Roth is not of this school. Though he uses an alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, to speak for him it is obvious that Roth’s experiences infuse the perspective of this narrator. Both men are writers who grew up in Newark. Both came from a middle class Jewish family and both attended Weequahic High School.
Throughout American Pastoral, it is Zuckerman’s voice we hear and his conjecture about events we are obliged to consider. What really happened in February of 1968, when Merry Levov planted a bomb in the local post office and killed the community doctor? We never learn the answer to this question. All we learn is what Zuckerman imagines might have happened. And we learn about Philip Roth’s ‘America’.
This is not everybody’s America. Many people will not recognize themselves, their family or friends in Roth’s characters. Readers may, though, recognize a zeitgeist, a moment in time when rationality seemed to be in abeyance, when the young were so divorced from ‘traditional’ values that some took to making bombs and blowing up buildings. When some took to murder.
The ‘America’ of Philip Roth is irrational and untrustworthy. It is fitting, therefore, that the central act of American Pastoral be committed by a deranged teenager – or is she deranged? That’s Zuckerman’s theory–though he openly admits that others, closer to the event, might offer a different view. Zuckerman’s description of the bombing, its causes and consequences are fantasy and yet it is his intricately woven tale that becomes the substance of Roth’s book.
I didn’t enjoy reading American Pastoral. I especially didn’t enjoy the clinical treatment of sex scenes. Also off-putting was Roth’s inclination toward verbal excess. Gynecological detail and verbosity aside, I’m glad I read the book. This is not a masterpiece, but it does have the potential to become a cultural touchstone, the kind of epoch-defining work that Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy has become.
Both An American Tragedy and American Pastoral may be flawed, but each manages to sum up an era in a way few other works do. Dreiser’s novel, set in early 20th century USA, describes a stiflingly hierarchical social order. Class division drives the protagonist to murder. Roth, capturing the last years of the 20th century, describes a universe in which order is literally blown up. Murder is an instrument of protest not against an individual or a particular institution, but against the very idea of structure.
Roth’s characters are unmoored. Truth has no enduring quality, trust is an archaic notion. Numb, and without insight into themselves or others, Roth’s characters wander the last days of the 20th century through the tedium of survival.
I recommend American Pastoral. The novel may not entertain, but it will likely endure the test of time and be considered, in the future, a significant American novel.
By Sarah Vowell
In Unfamiliar Fishes Sarah Vowell describes Hawaii’s colonial history from 1778, when Captain James Cooke first stepped on Hawaiian soil, to the last day of Hawaiian sovereignty in 1898. On that last day, a United States Congressional Resolution to annex Hawaii went into effect. The one hundred and twenty years between Cooke’s landing and Hawaii’s annexation saw the native population of Hawaii whittled to less than a third of its precolonial number and its culture suppressed by successive waves of missionaries, investors and adventurers.
Sarah Vowell has written a profoundly moving account of Hawaii’s colonization. For readers who cringe at the thought of reading a history book, go bravely forward. Vowell is an amusing writer. She engages and informs, though she never stoops to embellishing the actual record with invented conversations or scenes.
Unfamiliar Fishes is true to the facts, but what a rich trove of facts this book offers. Vowell seems to have at her finger tips a plethora of anecdotes to enrich her narrative. She describes, for example, the life trajectory of one Walter Gibson, who by most accounts was a rascal, but who became the Prime Minister of Hawaii. Before reaching this pinnacle, Gibson converted to Mormonism, was excommunicated by that church and founded a newspaper. These are just a few of his exploits. In the end, this erstwhile empire builder had to flee the islands in order to save his life. He died not long after as a penniless refugee, in San Francisco.
Vowell brings to her book a particular insight, one gained from an awareness of her own family’s history. The author is a descendant of the Cherokee people, a people who, in 1838 and 1839, were obliged by Andrew Jackson to cross the US in a deadly migration. This march resulted in such loss of life that it came to be known as the Trail of Tears.
The Cherokee were a sovereign nation before the The Trail of Tears. Afterwards, they became transplants in unfamiliar territory (Oklahoma), where they attempted to lay down roots and preserve their traditions.
There is a clear connection drawn in Unfamiliar Fishes between US expansionist ideology and the destruction of culture, not only of the Cherokee and Hawaiian peoples, but of many other peoples as well. Vowell cites speeches and writings by US leaders, including those of Theodore Roosevelt, in which US conquests were justified by the belief that it was the nation’s Manifest Destiny to expand, not only on the North American continent but beyond its shores.
I read Unfamiliar Fishes after completing another book that dealt with the history of Hawaii: Lost Kingdom, Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, by Julia Flynn Siler. The Siler book focuses especially on the fate of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani. Siler’s book is a more traditional history than Vowell’s. Lost Kingdom is the longer book and is annotated–while Vowell’s is not. Siler provides a very detailed explanation of events surrounding the annexation of Hawaii. Her book certainly helped me to understand the historic context of this period. However, if only one of these two books is to be chosen, I believe the casual reader would probably prefer Vowell’s.
I enthusiastically recommend Unfamiliar Fishes. Read the book if you are curious about American history, indigenous culture or Hawaii. Read it if you simply want to be entertained. Vowell will answer questions you likely never thought of asking. She will take you on a journey. At the end of this journey, I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to look at a Dole pineapple, in the same way, ever again.
Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead
By Paula Byrne
Mad World is a well-researched, responsible book. However, I hesitate to call it a biography, though it is biographical. Author Paula Byrne explains in her preface that she belongs to a new class of biographer, a class that is reinventing biography.
“Traditional biographies,” Ms. Byrne writes, “…tend to lose sight of the wood for the trees.” The “heavily footnoted biographical doorstopper” is a thing of the past, Ms. Byrne asserts. Let’s hope not, for the new form left me severely wanting, so wanting that at the end I turned to the Internet for more information. I can’t imagine doing that after reading Richard Ellman’s Oscar Wilde or Robert Service’s Stalin: A Biography.
To be fair, Ms Byrne warns us about the focus of her book before we ever crack the cover. In the subtitle she describes her purpose: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead. Ms. Byrne devotes her efforts to “unlocking” these Brideshead secrets. In service of that goal, she follows tangential ‘real’ personalities into remote locations because these personalities and those locations may have inspired a character or event in Brideshead. For example, while the reader is provided with an exquisitely detailed description of Eton (Waugh never attended), scant attention is paid to his second marriage, which lasted thirty-seven years and produced seven children.
There may be people who are bored with “doorstoppers”. There may be people who are so fascinated with Brideshead that any remote speculation about its origins is craved. I am in neither of these camps.
I picked up a biography of Evelyn Waugh in order to learn about him and his life. His books are remarkably autobiographical, his writing a window into the times in which he lived. I wanted to know more. Waugh was a talented writer, perhaps even a genius. I wanted to understand the spark of genius, to understand where the leap between reality and imagination occurred that allowed him to create searing works.
I wanted clues, the breadcrumbs, the minutiae that would offer a nearly complete picture of Waugh, his time and his art. I craved a fuller picture than his writing provided. Mad World did not satisfy that craving.
Paula Byrne is an entertaining writer. She uses primary sources and cites those sources carefully. This book is good–as far as it goes. For me, however, it does not go far enough. I’ll take a doorstopper, every time.