2012 Book 165: The Rape of Nanking
Written by Iris Chang, Narrated by Anna Fields
Reason for Reading: Reading Globally group on LibraryThing’s China and surrounding countries theme read.
In the early 1930’s the Chinese city of Nanking was occupied by Japanese soldiers. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed by Japanese soldiers to save money for supplies. Women were brutally raped and mutilated. But the stories of these victims and the foreigners who risked their lives to help them are not often told. Iris Chang wanted the world to know about these atrocities. Her brutal history was very difficult for me to read because the atrocities were described in such detail that I felt sick. I had to take frequent breaks. But it was a very engaging narrative, so I always wanted to pick it back up again. Chang certainly knew how to write an interesting story! Several times while reading the book, though, I felt as though Chang was too emotionally involved to write a completely reliable narrative. I’m not denying the massacres at Nanking, mind, but I think Chang had a very anti-Japanese view which would have made her prefer the larger estimates for death numbers, made especially-brutal rapes sound more common than they may have been, and made the Japanese sound purely evil as a whole group without exception. Nevertheless, this book taught me a lot about the relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese. As long as the readers keep in mind Chang’s emotions, they can learn a lot from this engaging history.
I now have a hankering for a nice book about friendly, likable Japanese people. If you have any suggestions, let me know! 🙂
2012 Book 160: Culture and Imperialism
Written by Edward W. Said, Narrated by Peter Ganim
Reason for Reading: Got it on sale from Audible
Culture and Imperialism describes how the language used in literature can powerfully impact our stereotypes of other cultures. Using examples in classical literature (ranging from Jane Austen, to Joseph Conrad, to Albert Camus), Said shows us how imperialism was reinforced by the written word. Then, (using examples including V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie) he illuminates how today’s societies – who are so focused on multi-culturalism – read the right books for the wrong reasons. I found this book intriguing. I listened to it on audiobook – Ganim’s reading was smooth and engaging – but I’m now tempted to pick up a hard-copy of the book and use it as a reference in my perusal of literature. This book would be interesting to anyone interested in the culture of imperialism or in literary criticism of literature in the imperialist era.
2012 Book 156: The House of Wisdom, by Jim Al-Khalili
Reason for Reading: Science, Religion, and History group read on LibraryThing.
Many of us were taught that the origins of science were in Ancient Greece but that the Western World fell into the “Dark Ages” where science was lost and no progress was made. This traditional story concludes that the Western world rediscovered the Greek philosophies thus spurring on the Renaissance. A few months ago, I reviewed The Genesis of Science, by James Hannam, which was meant (partly) to dispel our notions of the Middle Ages as a time of darkness, a mire of progress. Hannam then describes how in the early years of the Renaissance, old scientific documents were rediscovered and translated. He only only briefly mentions the fact that those rediscoveries (and the ability to translate them) came from revitalized contact with the Arab world. The House of Wisdom fills that gap, by describing the ways in which the Arab world built upon the science of the Greeks, thus building the foundation for the scientific progress made during the Renaissance. I don’t mean to say that Al-Khalili’s book is only a gap-filler in the other book, but that the two books complement each other. The weaknesses in each are fortified by the strengths in the other.
The House of Wisdom is an engrossing description of Ancient Arab history of science. Al-Khalili discusses the development of math, optics, medicine, chemistry, and philosophy by sketching descriptions of major scientific figures and their accomplishments. While Hannam’s book tended to have a lot of gossipy digressions about the scholars, Al-Khalili tended to focus on facts that were more to the point. This makes Al-Khalili’s book more informative, but less entertaining, than Hannam’s book. For relief, All-Khalili inserts little passages about his own experiences in Iraq, which were helpful for lightening the mood. One thing I didn’t like about Al-Khalili’s book is that he is still stuck on the old-fashioned belief that the Western Middle Ages were dark and progress-free. And neither book covered the development of science in China or India.
Overall, if you’re interested in reading about Arabic science, I think this book is an excellent place to start. 🙂
2012 Book 149: The Poisoner’s Handbook
written by Deborah Blum, narrated by Coleen Marlo
Reason for Reading: October Halloween theme
This fascinating book outlines the development of forensic science in the 1920’s. It begins by describing the poor state of forensics the late nineteen-teens, and pointing out WHY it was so necessary to develop a proper procedure for determining cause of death. I’ve always taken such things for granted and never even thought about the effort it would take to develop the science–not only scientifically, but also as a social movement. Although the Prohibition theme resonates throughout the book, each chapter focuses on a different poison–including the background/development of the poison, the effects it has on the victim, and the measures taken by forensic scientists to discover cause of death. This book was fascinating on so many different levels. It’s interesting as a Prohibition-era history, but it would also be interesting to lovers of popular science. Highly recommended for a little light reading.
2012 Book 130: Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (9/5/2012)
Reason for Reading: One of the essays in Fantasy Media in the Classroom, talked about a fusion class which combined Man’s Search for Meaning and The Lucifer Effect with science fiction books like The Invisible Man and The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in which men choose “evil.” I thought since I’ve been reading a lot of books about men who choose “evil” that I’d try out Man’s Search for Meaning. I’ll try to fit in The Lucifer Effect soon. It gives an interesting perspective on why some people choose “good” and other choose “evil.” Frankl’s message was that people can choose to be “swine” or “saints,” but they make this choice over and over throughout their lives and their search for meaning is the motivation behind each decision.
In the first half of this fascinating little book, Frankl describes his years in the concentration camps (including Auschwitz) with the purpose of analyzing the behavior of people in extreme situations. He admits that someone who wasn’t there can’t give a very detailed or personal account, but a person who WAS there can’t give a detached account because they were emotionally involved. I think he did an excellent job of viewing the situation with detachment, considering the situation. This was a really interesting little memoir. The second half of the book introduces his theory of psychoanalysis: logotherapy. Logotherapy is focused on man’s search for meaning; in contrast to Freudian theory focusing on man’s search for pleasure and Adlerian theory focusing on man’s search for power. I think Logotherapy is the most sensible form of psychotherapy I’ve ever heard of. How can I argue that our happiness depends on our perceiving our own purpose? I admit I felt a little skepticism when he kept bringing up examples of how he’d “cured” someone after only one session–he must have been a particularly clever person to manage that so often. 😉 But that aside, I think the technique of finding meaning in a patient’s life is rather useful. 🙂
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.
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.
2012 Book 105: Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, by Bruce Feiler (7/11/2012)
Reason for Reading: It fit into Reading Globally’s Middle Eastern literature theme.
My Review 3.5 stars
In this short work, Feiler reviews the Biblical story of Abraham and then describes how the myth of Abraham has changed over time and between the Abrahamic religions. It is well-written and interesting, and its length is well-suited for the amount of information Feiler wishes to convey. (There were no lengthy speculations in order to add bulk!) I enjoyed it and learned a little bit, too!
2012 Book 99: Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff (7/4/2012)
Reason for Reading: I needed to buff up my “Memoir and Biography” category in 12 in 12 group, and this book fit into the Reading Globally theme read for Middle Eastern literature since it took place in Egypt.
My Review: 3.5/5 stars
Cleopatra: A Life is a light biography which is appropriate for the popular reader…not so much for historians or people who have already read a lot on the subject. There is a lot of speculation (Schiff admits as much) because there is not a contemporary information on the topic. Schiff’s thesis is that Cleopatra is not the conniving seductress that historians have suggested. The first third of the book covers her early life and relationship with Julius Ceasar, but this part not well organized. Schiff’s narrative jumps from subject to subject and does not do a very good job of explaining the political background. In fact, this section focuses mainly on how rich Cleopatra was and dwells in great detail on opulence. The last two thirds of the book come together in a tighter, more interesting narrative, however. This is where Schiff discusses Cleopatra’s relationship with Antony and its political ramifications. This is a good book to read for the “popular” reader who does’t have a specific interest in the subject. However, I ‘m guessing there may be biographies that better describe her relationship with Ceasar and the political ongoings at that time.
2012 Book 93: Cro-Magnon, by Brian Fagan (6/24/2012)
Reason for Reading: Interest in the evolution of humans
My Review 4/5 stars
Cro-Magnon, by Brian Fagan introduces what is currently known (and speculated) about Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. Fagan spices up his narrative with imaginative vignettes of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons as they may have lived. I imagine such vignettes would appeal to most everyone in the general public, including teens, though they may be a little irritating to a hard-core scientist who isn’t interested in imaginative speculation (just a guess…I loved them!). Another excellent feature of this book is that it has incorporated historic scientific discoveries about prehistoric peoples with modern science like mitochondrial DNA tracing. Again, this feature would be of interest to most of the general public, but isn’t meant for experts–there are a lot of simplifications for the sake of clarity. I think this book is an excellent introduction to prehistoric peoples that could be enjoyed by both adults and teens (even precocious pre-teens).