Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World,
written by Jack Weatherford
narrated by Jonathan Davis
This book wasn’t quite what I expected – I figured it would be about Genghis Khan’s life, but it was actually just as much about how his legacy formed the modern world. Which, I must say, was a delightful surprise. 


The first half of the book chronicled Genghis Khan’s life, starting with a very interesting childhood. I loved how much detail was included about Genghis Khan’s strong-willed mother. She was kidnapped from her first husband soon after their marriage, and was awarded to her captor, Genghis Khan’s father. But she didn’t just submit. She helped her first husband escape by letting herself be captured. Then, when Genghis Kahn’s father suddenly died, the whole family was left to die by the rest of their group. But Genghis Kahn’s mother had different plans. She kept the family alive against all odds. She was even willing to marry her step-son (only one year older than her own son) to make the family cohesive. But this is when Genghis Kahn’s conquering spirit fired up – he didn’t want his mother marrying his brother, because then his brother’s place as head-of-household would be solidified. Instead, he encouraged his younger brother to shoot the elder. Interestingly, when he formed universal laws for his empire later in his life, such intra-family killings were outlawed. 

After the incident with his brother, the narrative began to follow Genghis Khan rather than his parents. What I found interesting about this part of the book was that he was not portrayed as a conquering tyrant as he generally is in modern media. He was portrayed as cunning and wise. His laws were fair, reasonable, and well-thought-out. There was only very a little talk of battle strategy and history in this book. I had wished to have more of such information, but I can always read a different biography of Genghis Kahn. The purpose of Weatherford’s book was not to chronicle a history of Genghis Khan’s wars but to give a previously unseen glimpse into Genghis’ private life, personality, and how his legacy changed the world.

One thing that I found particularly wise about Genghis Kahn was his realization that nepotism does not necessarily lead to the most devoted followers. Promoting one’s family first was common among his people, so Genghis Kahn was breaking cultural norms when he promoted by loyalty first. And it was amazing what kind of loyalty he inspired. He must have been a very charismatic man. 

The final part of the book was about Genghis Kahn’s legacy. How his universal laws shaped the area even after they were neglected by his descendants. How his descendants spread around the world and made their own little kingdoms. How the trade routes he created became the major East-to-West connection for centuries – a connection that Columbus was trying to rebuild when he attempted to sail around the world to India. 

Truly a fascinating read. 


Wild Swans, by Jung Chang

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
by Jung Chang
narrated by Joy Osmanski

This contains spoilers. 

Wild Swans is the memior of Jung Chang’s childhood in China during the Cultural Revolution, but it’s not only about her. She begins with the story of her grandmother. 


Jung Chang’s grandmother was a concubine to a warlord. She had to use charm and wit to keep herself safe from being held prisoner by the warlord’s family – as she was considered the property of the warlord and of his legitimate wives. Upon her warlord’s death, she made the very difficult decision to marry, which caused many problems for her, her new husband, and potentially her afterlife (in which her husband and warlord would cut her in half to share her). This story delves into great detail about the strife that Jung Chang’s grandmother had to overcome. Now that I’m familiar with how foot binding works I will shudder every time I hear mention of it. I never realized….

The next section of the book is about Jung Chang’s mother, who grew up mainly during the strife between her mother and her stepfather’s family. WWII was also raging, which meant occupation and brutalization by the Japanese. (This was the most difficult section for me to read.) Once the Japanese occupation ended, their country was ruled by tyranny, thus bringing on the communist uprising. Jung Chang’s mother became deeply involved in the Communist Party while very young, but felt betrayed by The Party by the time she was pregnant with her first child. 

The final section talks about Jung Chang’s childhood, watching the Communist Party emotionally and physically torture those around her, including her parents. She vividly portrays the original innocence that she had – believing in the communist party and Mao’s propaganda. Slowly, gently, she began to emerge from this innocence. More gracefully than would be expected, given what was going on around her. That speaks to the power of Mao’s campaign. 

This was a fascinating and beautifully written book. It’s written lovingly, yet it’s brutally honest. The research is so amazing that every once in a while I wondered “how does she know that?” Her years’ worth of research definitely paid off. This book deserves the fantastic worldwide sales that it has received. I am tempted to read Jung Chang’s biography of Mao pretty soon. 


Song of the Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths

Written by Nancy Marie Brown

Reason for Reading: This book was provided by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review. 

Review
This engaging biography describes the life of Snorri Sturluson, a powerful 12th-century Icelandic chieftain and the author of the poetic Edda – one of the oldest surviving documents of Norse mythology. As a novice of Viking history, I found this book fascinating and informative – though I suspect that there is much speculation and Brown isn’t always clear when she is speculating and when she has hard evidence for her claims. As such, I think this biography would be enjoyed by people who are interested in learning a bit about the Vikings, but not experts on the subject. 

Brown started each chapter out with a legend out of Snorri’s Edda. Often, she told how this legend differs from other known versions and/or how it has affected modern culture. The rest of the book describes Snorri’s life – his youth in the household of “the uncrowned King of Iceland,” his marriage, his rise to political power, and his downfall. She seemed to get most of her hard evidence from a few primary documents and an outwardly biased biography written by Snorri’s nephew, so often she had to fill in the gaps by saying “it’s possible it happened more like this, since his nephew’s story doesn’t really jive with Snorri’s personality.” Of course, that makes me wonder if she had just as much positive bias towards Snorri as his nephew had negative bias. 🙂 Overall, though, I’d say this biography was a success. When there is so little information available, and when the book is intended for a popular crowd rather than an academic one, such speculation is necessary – it makes the book more fun. 

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Written by Manning Marable, Narrated by G. Valmont Thomas

Reason for Reading: This was one of the books I’d listed as potential reading for my Social Justice Theme Read in February. I chose it because it won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012 and was a finalist in the National Book Award.




Review
In Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable set out to honestly portray a man and to humanize an icon. Marable intended on filling in holes left by truth-bending and necessary lack-of-future-knowledge in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Since I am not an expert on the subject, I have to say that Marable’s book seemed very thorough and well-researched. It was also an engrossing narrative. I feel it well-deserves its Pulitzer Prize. My only complaint was towards the beginning of the novel, Marable inserted some innuendo about Malcolm X’s sexuality – which was unnecessary, and rather rude since he didn’t have any hard evidence to support his claims. That innuendo was referenced obliquely a few times in the first quarter of the book. Luckily, those references stopped for the last three quarters of the book, or I would have been left with a very bad taste in my mouth.

The only reason I bring up that complaint is because I was looking for hints to why there’s a controversy about this book. I was wondering if there was anything I, personally, could pick up. I’m not very familiar with what the controversy is about – and I haven’t seen any controversial reference to the innuendo that bothered me. Mostly, the controversy seems to be about Marable’s lack of respect for the impact Malcolm X had on the Black Liberation Movement. If you’re interested, here’s an interesting article on the topic. There’s also a book entitled A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, if you really want to delve into the issue. However, I am satisfied that Marable did a lot of really good research, and wrote an interesting and informative book. The issue of exactly what long-term impact Malcolm X had on the Civil Rights Movement and the country as a whole is an opinion, in my opinion. 

G. Valmont Thomas did an excellent job of narrating this book. Quite enjoyable. 🙂

Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Written by Tracy Kidder, Narrated by Paul Michael

Reason for Reading: This was meant to be read for my Social Justice Theme in February, but things didn’t work out quite as I’d planned. I finished the book in January, and haven’t had the time to review it until now. 🙂 Better late than never!

Review

In this moving biography of Paul Farmer, Tracy Kidder takes us on a world tour of medical missionary work. Farmer started his mission to save the world from tuberculosis one patient at a time in the slums of Haiti. Practically from scratch, he developed a clinic that would treat the poor. But Farmer not only treated his patients, he listened to them, he cared about each one with individual interest, and he provided food and supplies so that his patients wouldn’t be saved from tuberculosis only to die of starvation.

As his mission in Haiti gained more and more momentum, Farmer’s expertise on tuberculosis (especially antibiotic-resistant strains) became world-renowned. He was asked to help set up clinics in Peru. He worked with the health systems of prisons in Russia, where antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis was rampant. And he loved each and every patient, regardless of who they were. 

While describing the incredible non-stop work of Farmer, Kidder managed to make the doctor more human. I could imagine Farmer, cheerful despite sleep-deprivation shadows under his eyes, flying from one country to another in a worn-down suit that he would never have time to replace. From the book, it seemed that Farmer might pause for hours to have a heart-felt conversation with a patient, even while a room-full of self-important Harvard doctors awaited his arrival. I could empathize with Olivia, Farmer’s old flame, who once felt a twinge of satisfaction to realize that Farmer was only human – she could annoy him. Being around someone like that must be exhausting. Kidder painted a brilliant man with limitless energy, unimpeachable morals, and the charisma to make his dreams a reality. I felt overwhelmed just listening to the book. 🙂 I can’t imagine what it must be like to work for him (or date/marry him). And yet, it’s impossible for me to not admire him. 

I found this book fascinating not only because it was a description of an amazing man with a daring love for humanity, but also because I enjoyed learning more about the social/economic conditions of Haiti. The narrative flowed smoothly between Kidder’s personal impressions of Farmer and Haiti to well-researched narratives of Farmer’s life outside his work. 

I enjoyed Paul Micheal’s narration of the book – though I have little to comment on his style of reading. It was one of those audiobooks that I was so absorbed in the story that I forget to be distracted by the narrator – which means Micheal must have done a good job. 🙂

Surprised by Joy, by C. S. Lewis

2012 Book 144: Surprised by Joy

Written by C. S. Lewis, Narrated by Geoffrey Howard

Reason for Reading: I’m slowly working through the books of C. S. Lewis out of curiosity for his theology. 



Reveiw

In this short memoir, C. S. Lewis describes his spiritual journey from youthful atheist to firm and faithful believer. This isn’t really a memoir of Lewis’ life, although it does contain some interesting anecdotes about his school years. Mostly, he only focuses on incidents in his life that impacted his spiritual development. I have read many spiritual development memoirs, and this one is like the others…only it stands out because it is a classic. It was written when these types of journeys were not as commonly shared in memoirs. (In fact, I suspect that this book was one of the ones that inspired so many of the spiritual-journey memoirs that we see today.) One thing I found interesting about this book is it explained to me why so many people retro-diagnose Lewis with Asperger’s syndrome. He talked about his difficulties dealing with other students…not knowing how to respond in social situations and being told to “take that look off [his] face” when he was trying very hard to keep an appropriate facial expression. I think it is important to recognize that we can’t accurately retro-diagnose people with today’s syndromes, but it IS interesting to see how such personality traits were present in Lewis’ day, and how he excused them with stories about how childhood events affected his social interactions. It was definitely an interesting read…and anyone who likes to hear about others’ spiritual journeys really should start with C. S. Lewis.


The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tolan

2012 Book 118: The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan (8/4/2012)

Reason for Reading: I realized I know much less than I should about this politically vital conflict and am enjoying learning more about it. I read this for the Reading Globally Middle Eastern Literature theme read.


My Review

Ostensibly, this is the (true) biography of the friendship between the Israeli woman Dalia Eshkenazi and the Palestinian man Bashir Khairi. However, the book also focuses strongly on background information–providing a wonderful history of the Israel-Palestine conflict since the 1940’s. I was hugely pleased by this book for two reasons. First, the friendship between Dalia and Bashir was touching because they both had such strong nationalistic feelings. Somehow, despite their very different views, they were able to remain on good terms for many years. That’s touching to me because many books with this let’s-make-peace message tend to be about people who are all about love and peace and aren’t as strongly influenced by their negative emotions as Dalia and (especially) Bashir. This is a friendship that was difficult to maintain, and yet it prevailed. The second reason I loved this book is because of the wonderful history of the region it provided. It’s supposedly a “balanced” view–and it is, in the sense that it recommends justice (and sacrifice) be made by both sides. However, I’d say the book tended to be sympathetic towards to Palestinians. This SLIGHT bias is necessary in this case because many people in the Western world are over-exposed to the Israeli side and don’t realize the Palestinians have a side at all. This book is highly recommended to anyone interested in the conflict.