Showing posts with label BOOKS. Show all posts
Showing posts with label BOOKS. Show all posts

02 May 2020

Book review: Cixi (2013) by Jung Chang, ***

Synopsys

In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Empress Dowager Cixi - the most important woman in Chinese history - brought a medieval empire into the modern age. Under her, the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state and it was she who abolished gruesome punishments like 'death by a thousand cuts' and put an end to foot-binding. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot and also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing's Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs - with one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences.

Packed with drama, fast-paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world's population, and as a unique stateswoman. (inside flap of the book)



Review

Lots of information here, as usual for Chang. She digs deeper than anyone in Chinese sources and is very meticulous in her writing. One learns not only about Cixi but also about much of the troubled history that surrounded her long reign. Often the reader is led by the hand through the lives of the many characters depicted, and one has the impression of living in the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace. A real light on the life of late imperial China.

The major problem of the book is that the author is in love with her protagonist. This produces a hagiography rather than a biography. Cixi is praised for much, too much, and hardly ever criticized. When she is criticized, then immediately follows an excuse for her mistakes (of which there were many) or her shortsightedness.



Cixi did a lot of good, but also a lot of evil, and only the former is described in this book. Perhaps this is because Chang seems to be in love with female figures of Chinese history. Her Wild Swans remains my favorite and I am looking forward to reading her new book on the Soong sisters, hoping that it will be more impartial than this one.

Have a look at my list of books on China reviewed in this blog.


01 March 2020

Film review: Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) by Scott Hicks ****

Synopsys

Scott Hicks' screen adaptation of David Guterson's best-selling novel. On San Pietro Island, shortly after the end of World War Two, local fisherman Kazuo (Rick Yune) is on trial for the murder of another fisherman. The hearings are attended by Ishmael (Ethan Hawke), a local reporter who was also the childhood sweetheart of Kazuo's wife, Hatsue. As the hearings progress, Ishmael gradually begins to realize the extent of anti-Japanese feelings which still remains, and suspects that it could affect the course of the trial.


Review

A gripping historical novel about a lesser-known (unless you are a Japanese-American) aspect of domestic politics in the USA during and after World War II. A dark page in American democracy but a message of hope at the end. Also, it shows how immigrants in the American melting pot do not always, well, melt in the pot but keep cultural, if not political, affiliations to their country of origin.





You can buy the book here



Compra la versione italiana qui

04 November 2019

Ci qo kou, "città vecchia" di Chongqing

Piccola zona di Chongqing, preservata più o meno come era prima della modernizzazione della Cina, una specie di museo a cielo aperto.

Non c'è moltissimo, se non un piacevole passeggio con tanti turisti cinesi e un sacco di leccornie da mangiare, cucinate e servite in banconi e ristorantini lungo la strada.

Quasi tutti i cuochi dimostrano dal vivo come si preparano le specialità che hanno da offrire.

Mi piacciono molto i trroni con arachidi e tè verde.

Si vendono anche strani (per me!) impasti piccanti che servono per condire la cucina del Sichuan, nota per essere tra le più piccanti di tutta la Cina.


Tè di tutti i colori letteralmente!

Spezie in polvere macinate al momento da graziose ragazze.


Qualche negozio vende peperoncino, che qui si consuma in quantità industriali, e lo preparano davanti a tutti in enormi wok in cui lo girano usando delle vanghe al posto dei mestoli!


Mi incuriosisce una piccola libreria di fumetti dell'epoca maoista, molti sono di storie della guerra contro i giapponesi, ne compro qualcuno.

Nel negozio anche molte illustrazioni di Mao, manifesti, riviste un po' dovunque, compro un manifesto con Mao e il Dalai Lama, quando si parlavano, in effetti sono immagini di quando erano molto giovani, ne è passato di tempo...

Moltissima gente in giro anche se oggi è giorno lavorativo, non posso pensare ad un fine settimana.

C'è anche un tempio buddhista, si salgono un bel po’ di scale per arrivarci, ma non c'è quasi nessuno. Molte sale di preghiera, c'è sempre un Monaco o monaca in attesa di offerte o comunque a far da guardia alle sale del tempio.

Stranamente ci sono cartelli di divieto di fotografare un po' ovunque. Facciamo qualche piccolo voto lasciamo offerte.

In cima alla colliinetta del tempio c'è una sala da tè con un bel terrazzo, ci sediamo a idratarci con un tè verde e uno rosso, fermentato?, noccioline e semi di girasole. Difficili da mangiare, bisogna sbucciarli con i denti e far cadere il seme in bocca per poi buttar via la buccia. Lifang ha cercato di insegnarmi tante volte ma non ci riesco, quindi me li mangio interi, con tutta la buccia, non è male soprattutto quando è speziata.

Ci sono molte zanzare e la barista ci porta uno zampirone, che ci permette di restare un po’ a goderci il tè e il panorama senza essere massacrati dagli insetti.

27 December 2018

My latest book: Beyond the Wall, available on all Amazon sites.


My latest book:

Beyond the Wall:

Adventures of a Volkswagen Beetle

Beyond the Iron Curtain



has just been published and is available on all Amazon sites.



Description:

1980: the Cold War between capitalist West and socialist East is in full swing. Tensions are high but, at the academic level, some channels of useful exchange remain open. The author and two classmates would join one such program linking a leading American university and its counterpart in Poland. They drive to Warsaw in a bright yellow VW Beetle and, in addition to attending classes, travel far and wide within the country as well as to several of the neighbors in the socialist bloc where the Soviet Union called all the shots. They drive across the USSR and visit the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the division of Europe. Throughout, Marco takes detailed notes of what they see and hear.

Almost four decades later, the East-West division of Europe is gone. Marco recently found his diary and decided to publish an expanded version of it. His written notes from 1980 have been enriched with descriptions and analyses of historical events that will help the reader see his personal experience in a more significant cultural, social, political and economic context.

The author hopes this real life story will help younger generations, who did not live through the Cold War, better appreciate the blessing of living in a European continent that is immensely more open, rich and free than it was then.

25 December 2017

My book on the Maldives is available in English! "Journeys through the Maldives" by Marco Carnovale

Typical Maldivan boat
Tales from the many trips to the Maldives of the author. Avoiding the tourist resorts, he visited remote villages, where tradition is combined with innovation and technology, meeting local people and trying to understand their culture. Always island hopping by boat, he went from postcard perfect uninhabited islands and through the streets of the bustling capital Malé, in its hidden corners often overlooked by tourism. In dozens of dives, he witnessed the richness of wildlife and the sparkling colors of these seas.

But the islands are facing rapid changes and serious problems, and they are not always the paradise they seem. The Maldives are at a turning point, with political, economic and environmental changes that pose difficult challenges to the government and to the nation.

The book is completed by an analytical index, a chronology of the Maldivian history, a bibliography and some black and white photographs.

Available on all Amazon websites.


In the UK buy it here



In Italy buy it here



In France, Belgium and Switzerland buy it here



In the US buy it here



In Canada buy it here







18 December 2017

Book review: The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy (2015) by J. J. Robinson, ****

Islamic Center in Malé
Synopsis

The Maldives is a small and beautiful archipelago south of India, more renowned for luxury resorts than experiments in democracy. It is a country of contradictions, where tourists sip cocktails on the beach while on nearby islands local women are flogged for extramarital sex and blackmarket vodka costs $140 a bottle. Until 2008 the Maldives also hosted Asia's longest-serving dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. A former political prisoner, Mohamed Nasheed, an environmental activist, journalist, and politician, brought Gayoom's thirty-year autocracy to a sudden end, in the Maldives' first democratic elections.

Young, progressive and charismatic, President Nasheed thrust the Maldives into the spotlight as a symbol of the fight against climate change and the struggle for democracy and human rights in one of the world's strictest Islamic societies. But dictatorships are hard to defeat, enduring in a country's institutions and the minds of people conditioned to autocracy over three decades. Democracy brought turmoil, protests, violence and intense political polarisation.The ousted dictatorship overthrew Nasheed's government in February 2012, supported by Islamic radicals and mutinying security forces. Amid Byzantine intrigue, the fight for democracy was just beginning. (Amazon)


Review

It is unusual for a book entirely dedicated to the Maldives to come out, and here it is from an English journalist who lived and worked there for four years. The book is a compendium of his time there. It touches upon many aspects of Maldivian life, with special attention to the political dimension. Loads of facts and footnotes but also some opinions and evaluations. The book is written loosely in chronological manner, and it ends with the author's departure in 2013.

The general approach is typically English, ie detached. John J gets to know a lot about the Maldives but one does not get the impression he ever fell in love with the country, or was emotionally involved with it at all. But that is not a criticism, in fact perhaps it is a good thing in a journalist!

What the book lacks is a more critical organization of the issues, but perhaps as a journalistic chronicle it was never intended to delve in political analysis. Still, you will find more raw material for political analysis her than in any other book I know of that has been written on this country in the last decades.

I recommend reading this book to understand more about a country known mostly for its resorts.





25 May 2017

Book review: Living in Italy: The Real Deal - How to Survive the Good Life - an expat guide (2017) by Stef Smulders, ***

Synopsis

Stef is a Dutch expat who moved to Italy in 2008, accompanied by his husband and dog, to start their bed and breakfast Villa I Due Padroni in the Oltrepò Pavese wine region, just 50 km (30 miles) south of Milan. In 2014 Stef published his first book (in Dutch) about their life in Italy. This is the English translation that is available since November 2016.


Review

The author sent me the book asking to review it, and I am grateful for that. It is at times interesting reading, though so many foreigners have come to Italy to renovate a quaint property that one hardly finds anything new: bureaucratic complications, delays, Italians who have funny habits and don't know what they are doing but are so charming.

Though I do not doubt they sincerely love Italy I feel the authors do not really think highly of Italians. Once Barzini, the great journalist, said "Italians respect Germans but don't like them. Germans like Italians but don't respect them". I feel the Dutch couple in the oltrepò pavese feels the same.

Also I don't understand why the text is interspersed with Italian words. Yes, sometimes there is no obvious translation, but why write "architetta" instead of the English "architect"? It does not add much at all.

More broadly, the book's title is a bit misleading. It is not a book about life in Italy, but about the couple's renovation project, which takes virtually all of the book.

"How to survive the good life" kind of gives it away: it seems to suggest Italy has a lot to offer except they make so difficult for you... if only it could be run by Dutchmen...






10 November 2016

Book review: Hunan Harvest (1946) by Theophane Maguire, ****

Synopsis

Diary of a young American Passionist missionary who is sent deep into China to preach and help. Theophane is just twenty-five years old when he travels to Hunan, learns the language and starts four years of intensive work against all odds.

According to the Passionist Historical Archives, Father Theophane Maguire, C.P., St. Paul of the Cross Province (1898-1975) was born in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He attended St. Joseph's Jesuit Prep in Philadelphia. There he became interested in the Passionists and decided to enter the novitiate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On August 13, 1917 he professed his vows and received the name Theophane. He was ordained on October 28, 1923 and quickly was assigned to the Passionist mission in Hunan, China. After he returned from the mission in 1929 he wrote Hunan Harvest which was published in 1946.

Back in the United States he went to Pittsburgh and eventually to Union City where he was editor of Sign magazine. Later in Pittsburgh he did fund-raising and worked at the retreat house. His later years were at the Passionist monastery, North Palm Beach, Florida. His last days were spent at the Passionist infirmary of Brighton, Massachusetts.


Review

Unique book by an ardent Christian missionary in one of the least known provinces of China. Magire writes well and draws the reader into the harsh reality he experiences every day.


He is very dedicated to the people of Hunan, but even more to their souls, which he wants to "harvest" for Jesus Christ. It is an attitude one often finds in Christian missionaries around the world.   While he humbly serves his superiors and is truly compassionate with the Chinese, he does betray a kind of complex of superiority. He writes (p.24) that training of missionaries in the local languages is a good idea because "it is a matter of results, which in this case is to be reckoned in souls. We were to deliver a doctrine entirely new to these people. We were to deliver a message that is supernatural. It is opposed to beliefs that are rooted in centuries of obstinate tradition. it slashes at old habits and widely observed superstitions." Well many Chinese are superstitious indeed, but I am not sure they are more so than Westerners on average, and in any case the incredible wealth of Chinese culture can hardly be dismissed as just a matter of superstition,. many would argue that religion itself, any religion, is superstition.

While he does endure lots of suffering, one can see he and his colleagues are often privileged compared to their fellow Chinese helpers: for example he is depicted as traveling on horseback while his Chinese companions are on foot.

At the end of the book, he seems to worry more about the future of Christian proselytism in Hunan than about the horrors of the civil war or the gathering storm of the Japanese invasion.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that he pays a lot of attention to the minorities of China, especially the Miao people whom he met on several occasions.

He is also a careful painter of scenes of everyday life in rural China where warlords called the shots and the rule of law enforced by the state was nowhere to be seen: the Emperor is far away, as an old Chinese saying goes.

The book is also valuable because it contains lots of drawings that convey a sense of the atmosphere where father Maguire worked for four years. I reproduce them here.

























29 February 2016

Book review: Married to Bhutan (2011) by Linda Leaming, ****

Synopsis

Tucked away in the eastern end of the Himalayas lies Bhutan—a tiny, landlocked country bordering China and India. Impossibly remote and nearly inaccessible, Bhutan is rich in natural beauty, exotic plants and animals, and crazy wisdom. It is a place where people are genuinely content with very few material possessions and the government embraces “Gross National Happiness” instead of Gross National Product.

In this funny, magical memoir, we accompany Linda Leaming on her travels through South Asia, sharing her experiences as she learns the language, customs, and religion; her surprising romance with a Buddhist artist; and her realizations about the unexpected path to happiness and accidental enlightenment.

As one of the few Americans to have lived in Bhutan, Leaming offers a rare glimpse into the quirky mountain kingdom so many have only dreamed of. For over ten years, Leaming has lived and worked in the town of Thimphu, where there are no traffic lights and fewer than 100,000 people. “If enlightenment is possible anywhere,” she writes, “I think it is particularly possible here.” (back cover of the book)

About the author


Linda Leaming is a writer whose work has appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Mandala, The Guardian , A Woman's Asia (Travelers' Tales), and many other publications. Eric Weiner included her in his bestseller, The Geography of Bliss. She regularly speaks about Bhutan at colleges, churches, seminars and book groups. She is married to the renowned Bhutanese thanka painter, Phurba Namgay.

Linda first traveled to Bhutan in 1994, and moved there three years later. This tiny Buddhist country hidden away in the Himalayas is a very happy place for many. Its king believes in Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product. Leaming writes about her life in Bhutan and how she learned to live more simply, how she laughs at herself instead of getting mad at others, and how she slows down to look for magic-- because it's everywhere. In Bhutan, she's known for using a salad spinner instead of a washing machine, and her village man makeovers.

Her writing has appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Huffington Post, Mandala, Guardian UK, A Woman's Asia (Travelers' Tales, 2005), and many other publications. Eric Weiner included her in his 2008 bestseller, The Geography of Bliss. Originally from Nashville, she has an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Arizona, and she regularly speaks about Bhutan at colleges, churches, seminars, and book groups. She is married to the renowned Bhutanese thanka painter, Phurba Namgay. (from Amazon)

Review

This is a solid personal story that will help you understand much about the country of Bhutan. Her personal love story with the Bhutanese man who became her husband is captivating. Her myriad anecdotes are most informing and entertaining, she really makes it a pleasure to read through them.

She is on less firm footing when (and this happens a lot) she compares the way of life in Bhutan with that of Western countries, and especially the US. One can hardly think of two countries that are less comparable.

Throughout the book one gets that feeling, that is common when reading so many books about developing countries, that life before modernization was tough but happy. That before Western influence began to make its way through the valleys the local ways and culture were not "contaminated" and pure. I am not sure life was happy in Bhutan before the arrival of electricity, cars, antibiotics, education for everyone and not just for the clergy, etc. I don't think it was. As far as I could tell when visiting the country, no one wants to go back to the "good old ways". They are happier now as they embrace development, albeit at their own pace. Bhutan is a quintessentially Buddhist country, and Buddha was, in his time, "imported" from neighbouring India and Nepal.

You can read more about Linda Leaming and her work on her own website.

Linda Leaming

You can buy the book on these websites










17 February 2016

Book Review: Bhutan - Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (2009) by Françoise Pommaret, *****

Synopsis

Shoe-horned into the Grand Himalayas, Bhutan - Land of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon - is a fiercely independent kingdom that celebrated its centenary in 2008. Isolated, charming, peaceful, and religious, the Bhutanese are a pragmatic, sensitive people who take from the West what will benefit their country and leave the rest.

The countryside is pristine, the lifestyle and culture have been preserved for centuries, and the love of life is abundant among the people. Few outsiders know Bhutan as intimately as Francoise Pommaret. This title presents a passionate introduction to Bhutanese culture and history by resident author - the world's leading expert on Bhutan.

It features literary extracts with an historical perspective. It offers information about: trekking and mountaineering in this spectacular kingdom; national symbols of Bhutan, ceremonial scarves, the Dzongkha language, chortens and mandalas; and, archery and other national sports.


Review

Excellent primer on the country. Not a guidebook but a rich resource to deepen your understanding of Bhutan before and after a trip. Or if you never get a chance to go. There is a section on "Facts for the traveller" with practical info, but most of the book is devoted to the cultural and natural wealth of the country.

Special sections on Symbols, Chortens, Medicine, Ceremonies, Etiquette and much more will capture your interest depending on your personal preferences.

Beautiful pictures by a number of famous and less famous photographers make this a book one not to miss.


View a video on Bhutan by the author here



Here is another of her videos on cultural diversity in Bhutan



And here another on on tradition in the country



Finally on the biodiversity




In the UK buy it here



In the US buy it here



01 August 2015

Book review: Music, A Very Short Introduction (1998) by Nicholas Cook, ***

Beethoven nears the end, by Batt
Synopsis

What is music? How is it constructed? How is it consumed? Why do you enjoy it at all? Nicholas Cook invites us to really think about music and the role it plays in our lives and our ears. Drawing on a number of accessible examples, the author prompts us to call on our own musical experiences in order to think more critically about the roles of the performers and the listener, about music as a commodity and an experience, what it means to understand music, and the values we ascribe to it.

This very short introduction, written with both humor and flair, begins with a sampling of music as human activity and then goes on to consider the slippery phenomenon of how music has become an object of thought. Covering not only Western and classical music, Cook touches on all types from rock to Indonesian music and beyond.


Review

Music is an agent of ideology: we must not just hear it, but "read" it as an intrinsic part of the society and culture that produces it. Until the second part of XX century mostly studied in conservatories, not universities as musicology. Does music need words? Can it be read without words? Yes, though a few words can help set the context.

Beethoven is a recurring reference for the author. He did not just revolutionize music, he had something to say about the decay of aristocratic Europe. He never wanted a fixed, salaried position: he wanted to write the music he wanted to write, when he wanted, if he wanted. Cook argues this was the opposite of Rossini, who thrived in that Europe of pomp and ostentatious luxury. Others would disagree: Rossini mocked the rich and the noble in his operas, just look at the Barbiere di Siviglia, where everyone is a crook.

Mass production of records, now internet streaming: talk about music as you talk about cuisine: everything is available everywhere. Also, the average technical quality of musicians is on the rise, musicians face harder competition to emerge.

This is indeed a very very short introduction to music, but a useful one to stimulate interest especially for those who maybe listened to music but never thought about it, and never "read" it!

Buy the book on Amazon here:






About the Series: Combining authority with wit, accessibility, and style, Very Short Introductions offer an introduction to some of life's most interesting topics. Written by experts for the newcomer, they demonstrate the finest contemporary thinking about the central problems and issues in hundreds of key topics, from philosophy to Freud, quantum theory to Islam.

17 July 2015

Book review: Catching Fire - How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), by Richard Wrangham, *****

Blogger learning to be human
Synopsis

Ever since Darwin and The Descent of Man, the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. But in Catching Fire, renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Wrangham shows that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution.

Wrangham argues that it was cooking that caused the extraordinary transformation of our ancestors from apelike beings to Homo erectus. At the heart of Catching Fire lies an explosive new idea: the habit of eating cooked rather than raw food permitted the digestive tract to shrink and the human brain to grow.

When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be used instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a gender-based division of labor.

Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, this book sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. As our ancestors adapted to using fire, humans emerged as "the cooking apes".


Review

Cogito ergo sum, said Descartes. Coquo ergo sum is the gist of this book. According to largely accepted scientific research, Homo erectus sprung up from the earlier Australopithecines by eating meat.The transition from homo erectus to homo sapiens, us, is owed to a major innovation: cooking.

Levi-Strauss, in his The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a science of mythology (Pimlico), wrote that fire marks the transition from nature to culture. Few would dispute that the cuisine of any nation is a major trademark of its cultural complexity and sophistication. And cooking, in its many diverse methods (grilling, steaming, boiling, baking etc) is an essential part of any major cuisine in the world.

Our bodies evolved because we learned to cook: besides a smaller stomach and larger brain, we lost our climbing ability (no need to climb if fire can protect camp on the ground) in favor of better running skills. And we have much smaller teeth compared to our ancestors who did not cook.

Cooking also played an essential role in making mankind a carnivore, as it makes it efficient to digest and store large amount of animal proteins in a way that would have been unthinkable with just raw meat. But for vegetarians there is some consolation as well: cooking made it possible to digest many more types of roots.

Finally, this book delves on the social implications of cooking: how it shaped the man/woman relationship in the house, and how it made it easier to use meals as a social event. Some cultures have peculiar (to us) habits: among the Bonerif of Papua, a woman will sleep with every man in the village except her brothers before finally getting married; but the moment she feeds a man she is committed and irrevocably considered his wife!



In the UK you can buy it here:



In France and Belgium



In the US and worldwide buy it here



If you feel inspired to become more human, consider buying one of these books about cooking!

16 July 2015

Book Review: Geography of Attraction (2015), by Ali May *****



Review

This is, in its own peculiar way, a travel book, which is why this review has a place in this blog. When I asked the author what his new book was about, his answer was simple: fxxxing around the world. The reader is led from ultra-conservative Iran to super-emancipated Denmark, with stopovers in Italian islands and European capitals. Along the way, we are led through many a decadent tasting of delicacies from around the world and lots and lots of drinking, all of which leads like a funnel to the inevitability of physical attraction.

Whether the protagonist of each story is him, or someone he knows, he wouldn't say. Maybe that's the most intriguing feature of the book. It's part fiction, but not all of it. It could all be real. Some stories are clearly autobiographical. I hope, for the author's good sake, much of it is.

For the rest of us what is left is good reading entertainment and the ability to draw inspiration. My favorite is the one about new year's eve celebration, when at exactly midnight she sat ... oh well I'd better not spoil it here.

You can buy the kindle version here on Amazon.uk



In the US and internationally find it here



Or contact the author here to buy the hard copy.

03 December 2014

Book review: River Town (2001), by Peter Hessler, *****

Synopsis

When Peter Hessler went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s, he expected to spend a couple of peaceful years teaching English in the town of Fuling on the Yangtze River. But what he experienced -- the natural beauty, cultural tension, and complex process of understanding that takes place when one is thrust into a radically different society -- surpassed anything he could have imagined. Hessler observes firsthand how major events such as the death of Deng Xiaoping, the return of Hong Kong to the mainland, and the controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam have affected even the people of a remote town like Fuling.

Review

This is a superbly written account by one acute observer of one part of China while the country was undergoing tremendous change in the mid-1990s. One view by one person in one small part of this immense country does not allow a reader to draw more general conclusions. However, the many microstories we read here help a lot in understanding the new (then) China rising from the ashes of maoism. Hessler is curious, even a bit nosy, but always respectful. He learns Chinese and always tries to understand. He questions himself but does not fall into the trap of many travelers who always marvel at what they see and whom they meet, no matter what. He does criticize, with strong arguments, people and practices he meets along the way.

The Yangtse near the Three Gorges
Hessler walks on thinner ice when he addresses more academically charged historical, economic or political issues, but this is not meant to be an academic book. His perceptions of the reality around him, and of how he changes over the years while in China, is what makes this an invaluable read for anyone interested in how China changed during the post-Mao "Reform and Opening" period.


Read my other reviews of books on China here in this blog.



03 November 2014

Book review: South Africa: A Traveller's History (2003), by David Mason *****

Travel to multi-colored South Africa
Synopsis

A Traveller's History of South Africa is intended as a comprehensive single volume survey of one of today's most popular and exciting destinations. Lifting the lid on this most multi-cultural of societies - and its chequered past - the book will begin by tracing the evolution of South Africa from prehistoric times, taking into account the most recent archaeological and anthropological findings. It will then chart the penetration of the region by European explorers and traders; the political, social and economic developments that follow on from this, and finally, the complicated descent into state repression of the majority black population after the Second World War. Bringing the story up to date, the book will also include practical information for the visitor, as well as a full compendium of historical facts and data.


Review

Well written brief history of South Africa, will be a friendly companion to travelers there and will help appreciate the country better than a guide book.

Racial issues of course are prominent in this book, and the white vs black juxtaposition is described in a wealth of details. But the history of South Africa is one of parallel struggles amongst the white colonizers, one the one hand, and among indigenous Africans, on the other. English and Dutch settles (less the French) fought each other as much as Zulu fought Xhosa.

Interesting to learn that the NNC (forerunner of the ANC) supported segregation because it saw it as a way to acquire power over African tribal rulers. Yet, as Mandela put it, segregation developed over time to become " the codification inone oppressive system that was monolithic, diabolical in detail, inescapable in reach and overwhelming it power".

See other books and films about South Africa I reviewed in this blog.





05 May 2014

Book review: Journey to Yesterday (1950), by Silvia Baker, **

Muriel, by Silvia Baker
Synopsis


"One of the charms of travel" says Silvia Baker "is that you move in time as well as space. Weary of today, we can escape to half-mediaeval countries like Spain and Cyprus, or to enchanted islands in the Pacific or the Caribbean which are not spoilt as the tourists proclaime them to be."

Few are the fortunate people to whom the opportunity to sampre those charms is ever given. But to read about them is hardly, if at all, less satisfying, when the narrator is as observant, unconventional and witty as SIlvia Baker.

The two paragraphs above is what I read in the fron flap of the book's dust jacket while browsing the shelves of Daunt books, my favorite second hand travel book shop in London. I should have known better than trusting someone who can make such trite remarks but I decided to buy the book.


Polynesian girl drawn by the author
Review

Disappointing. She does provide lots of anecdotes about her trip to the Pacific, but her observations are mostly superficial and inconsequential. They are so disorganized that one is left with nothing in the end that helps understand those countries and peoples.

Anecdotes and personal experience of a writer are not interesting in and of themselves except perhaps to his mother, but they might be interesting to a broader public if they are placed in the right context and help understand the object of the narration. Well you won't understand much about the countries Ms. Baker visited by reading this book.

On p. 34 she writes that "Tahiti is a kind of convent. You escape appointments, situations, anxieties, panics. You relax." Then on p. 71 we are subjected to the tiring litany of "until ten years ago, Tahiti was an Earthly Paradise", as in ... it is no longer one now (she writes in 1940). Reminds me of Gauguin who about forty years earlier fled Tahiti for the Marquesas because he thought they were spoiled and overcrowded then. It was always better ten years ago, and even better twenty. Please give me a break!

We do learn a few tid bits of interesting in formation, such that in Tahiti when a woman has no children she can ask a friend or sister who has several to give her one, especially a daughter, as she can help with the house chores.

A few pretty drawings by the author complement this book.

Btw her name is spelled SIlvia in the book, not Sylvia.

My always growing list of books on Polynesia is in this blog.


Buy the book in the US here




In the UK buy it here

01 May 2014

Books and Films about Music around the world

I am proposing here a list of books and films about the music of the world. I hope these books can help a traveler understand the countries concerned.

BOOKS

Zhu Xiaomei: The Secret Piano (2012). A harrowing story of music and love in China during the first decades following the 1949 Communist Revolution.

Cook, Nicholas: Music, A Very Short Introduction (1998) by Nicholas Cook.


FILMS

Adlon, Percy: Mahler on the Couch (2002). Mahler, Freud, Gropius and Klimt set the tone for a return to the Belle Epoque.

Cellar Jones, Simon: Eroica (2003). A dynamic narrative of the day music changed forever.

Girard, François: The Red Violin (1998). Centuries of Italian history through the eyes of a ... violin!

Ichikawa, Kon: The Burmese Harp (1956). A Japanese soldier at the end of WW II finds a new life in music.

Kurosawa, Kiroshi: Tokyo Sonata (2008). The power of music when the going gets tough.

12 January 2014

Bibliography: books and films on South Africa

Books on South Africa

Mason, David, South AFrica, A Traveler's History (2003)


Films on South Africa

Invictus (2009), by Clint Eastwood. How a president used a rugby match to make a nation.

The Gods must be Crazy I and II (1988), by Jaimie Uys. A funny but serious rendering of the plight of the Bushmen.

18 November 2013

Book Review: The Secret Piano (2012), by Zhu Xiao-Mei, ****

Synopsis

Zhu Xiao-Mei was born to middle-class parents in post WW II China, and her musical proficiency became clear at an early age. Taught to play the piano by her mother, she developed quickly into a prodigy, immersing herself in the work of classical masters like Bach. She was just ten years old when she began a rigorous course of study at the Beijing Conservatory, laying the groundwork for what was sure to be an extraordinary career. But in 1966, when Xiao-Mei was seventeen, the Cultural Revolution began, and life as she knew it changed forever.

One by one, her family members were scattered, sentenced to prison or labor camps. By 1969, the art schools had closed, and Xiao-Mei was on her way to a work camp in inner Mongolia, where she would spend the next five years. Life in the camp was unbearable, thanks to horrific living conditions and intensive brainwashing campaigns. Yet through it all Xiao-Mei clung to her passion for music and her sense of humor. And when the Revolution ended, it was the piano that helped her to heal.

Review

Compelling story about music, China and love. Music helped the author through terrible times in Mao's re-education camps and somehow kept her sanity in the face of protracted brain washing by the authorities. The figure of her mother is present as a fixed star that helped her steer her way amidst chaos and upheaval.

We learn curious tidbits about how the Chinese Communist musicians at the Conservatory saw Western classical music: Bach was too religious, Chopin a sentimentalist, Debussy an idealist and of course Beethoven was egoist, but somehow Mozart was OK (loc. 739 ebook)

More generally, the author takes us by the hand and shows how the Party saw the role of culture, the relationship of sons and daughters with their own parents, the deep mistrust that was instilled in their brain for anything that was not in Mao's red book.

All of the above takes part in the first part of the book, until the author leaves China. The second part is her life in the US and France as a pianist trying to make a living. This is interesting too, but it is really another book.

This is her recording of the Goldberg variations, which inspired her book more than any other piece of music.



This is where to find the book:




Live recording of Goldberg's variations performed in Leipzig at St Thomas's church, the final resting place of J.S. Bach. The DVD also contains a 1-hour documentary on Zhu's lifelong relationship with music and her special relationship with Bach. She sees Bach as a very Buddhist thinker. The 30 variations begin and end with the same melody, and it is not by chance. (In any case, hardly anything is by chance in Bach's music.) She thinks Bach wanted to indicate that the end is a new beginning. It is Bach's Christian faith about the afterlife, but it is even more so the essence of Buddhist philosophy. It is a similar view to that taken in the book "Goedel Escher Bach", which referred to the musician's work in similar terms twenty years earlier than this recording.




12 October 2013

Book review: Bangkok, the story of a city (1970), by Alec Waugh, ***

Royal Thai Dynasty
Synopsis

In Bangkok, Alec Waugh has created a most fluent, truthful and affectionate portrait of the dynasty and culture which created it. Cutting through confusion and veiled mystery, he unravels the plots, coups, wars, assassinations, invasions and counter-coups of three hundred years of history as if it were this evening's street gossip. This loving description of the genius, fascination and enduring vitality of Thailand is told with Waugh's customary delight in life and sensual appreciation. The story is brought up-to-date with an afterword by Bruce Palling, former "Times" correspondent in Thailand.


Review

King Rama V Chulalongkorn (1853-1910)
This is a book mostly about the ruling dynasty of Thailand. I was a bit disappointed because I expected a history of the city of Bangkok, which this book is not, even though of course the dinasty resides in the capital. Waugh relies more on anecdotal stories and personal experience than on methodical historical research. He does infuse his narrative with a full flavor and unbound passion however, and just for this it is worth reading this volume. The reader will understand much about intrigue at the court. I would have liked to know about the people of Bangkok, their economic and social issues and the problem they have faced in their everyday life throughout history.