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 154: The Social Conquest of Earth
Written by Edward O. Wilson, Narrated by Jonathan Hogan
Reason for Reading: Group read in our LibraryThing “Science, Religion, History” group.
In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson expounds upon the theories that were set forth in his classic work Sociobiology. His main thesis is that group selection, not kin selection, drove evolution and helped us to develop societies. He compares the way human society developed to the way ant “society” developed (ants are his specialty). He suggests reasons why religion and xenophobia would have originally developed as protective characteristics of groups. This book covers a large swath of material…from ants to human prehistory, to history, to today. I think he did a pretty good job organizing the book considering what a wide topic he was covering. His theories were clear and for the most part convincing. I think Wilson is an atheist, but he did a pretty good job of stating his opinions in an agnostic sort of way to avoid insulting the faithful. The only statement that rather jarred me was when he suggested that there surely exist better ways to find spiritual fulfillment than total submission to God. This statement jarred me because it seemed he was saying that this religious process developed for a reason, but that reason is now obsolete. However, in an earlier chapter, he pointed out that homosexuality developed for a reason, so homophobia is not helpful to society. I wholeheartedly agree with him that homophobia is hateful and ignorant. But it is not particularly scientific to say homosexuality developed for a reason, therefore it’s good…religion developed for a reason, but it’s obsolete now. What are his reasons for deciding one is good and the other is obsolete? His reasons are emotional rather than scientific. But I’m just being nitpicky here. I think the book was well-written, interesting, and approachable by a non-scientific audience. I had no issues with Hogan’s narration–he read the book well, but it wasn’t anything worth raving about.
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.
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.
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 112: I Shall Not Hate, by Izzeldin Abuelaish (7/23/2012)
Reason for Reading: Reading Globally Middle Eastern theme read
In this heartbreaking (yet strangely uplifting) memoir, Abuelaish relates his life—growing up in poverty in a Palestinian refugee camp, slaving so that he could raise enough money to go to medical school, and his rising career coincident with his growing family. Despite losing 3 daughters and a niece to an Israeli military action, Abuelaish preaches that love, not hate, is required to bring peace. Abuelaish’s story is engrossing and tragic, yet I couldn’t help but think about all of the suffering Palestinians who don’t have a voice. If life is so hard for someone who has powerful connections, what must it be like for those who have no one to help them? This is a must-read for people who think Palestinians are all about terrorism and throwing rocks—people who likely wouldn’t touch the book with a 10-foot pole. It’s also a fantastic read for someone who is sympathetic to both sides of the conflict, but who wants to hear a personal story. I DO wish I could read the story of someone who isn’t highly connected, but this is a fantastic start. And Abuelaish’s enduring message of love make a monumental memoir.
2012 Book 107: Fantasy Media in the Classroom, ed. Emily Dial-Driver (7/12/2012)
Reason for Reading: Early Reviewer’s Book.
My Review 4/5 stars
Fantasy Media in the Classroom is a collection of essays which describe why fantasy media and popular culture are useful in the classroom. For instance students can learn the same techniques using popular fiction as they can with an old-school class, but they feel more confident in their analyses because they already feel like they are experts on popular culture. These lessons and confidence can then be extrapolated on to classical literature. Fantasy Media in the Classroom also gives examples of how popular culture can be used to design lessons. This book was written mostly from the perspective of teaching college students, but a few essays talk about high school students. It’s possible these lessons could also be changed a bit and used for younger students, as well. I think this book would be useful to teachers, even if they don’t plan on fully incorporating popular culture in their classrooms, because it may help them to see the benefit of popular culture references their students make during class…and how such references could be embraced as an interesting interpretation rather than brushed off. I am not a teacher, but I found this book interesting because it helped me to better understand what fantasy media says about psychology/sociology/politics.
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!