Sunday, August 1, 2010

Geography of Bliss, A Non-Fiction Book Review

What is the meaning of happiness? Does it differ from country to country? These are some interesting questions that are answered by Mr. Eric Weiner with some subtle, light humor. He takes the reader across several continents and looks at the meaning of happiness in different countries. Surprisingly there is also a Journal of Happiness, and countries are also rated on their happiness. Mr. Weiner also shares his experiences as an NPR reporter who has been posted around the world on different assignments. The author also passes on interesting tidbits of trivia knowledge. For example when returning to their home country of Iceland on an airplane, the Icelandic people clap their hands after the airplane has landed. I found this fascinating. There are many more fascinating facts to be learned, so I will let you read the book and find out for yourselves.

This is a book that can be read more than once. Overall it was a wonderful read, and it makes a nice book to have at your bedside. It makes the reader think about what happiness means, while also having a fun journey with our guide, Mr. Weiner.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, A History Book Review

Who do you think is the most re-known barbarian in World History? There are probably a lot of names you are thinking of, and I am sure that Genghis Khan is at the top of that list or towards to the top. I have always been curious about the person Genghis Khan as a conqueror and an emperor that established trade networks within his empire. Some questions might be: why is Genghis Khan perceived as a barbarian or what made him do these barbaric acts. These are some interesting questions and when I saw this book while browsing the bookstore, I had to buy it; I was looking forward to the possibility that the author may answer some of these questions.

So I started my journey with Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World written by Jack Weatherford. Dr. Jack Weatherford is a professor of Anthropology at Macalester College, and he also received an honorary Doctorate degree of Humanities from Chinggis Khaan College in Mongolia. He spent time in Mongolia experiencing the life of a steppe nomad while researching Genghis Khan, and after I completed reading this book it was evident that the life and times of Genghis Khan was thoroughly researched and analyzed.

The story covered the entire life of Genghis Khan in three parts: the first part describes the time from his birth to his rise as emperor, the second part describes the Mongol World conquests, and the third part focuses on how the Mongolian Dynasty impacted modern society. The transition between these sections was fluid and logical. The book was an easy read and I also learned a lot of interesting historical nuggets, which I always enjoy. The following from the book captures the essence of Genghis Khan concisely:

“Genghis Khan’s ability to manipulate people and technology represented the experienced knowledge of more than four decades of nearly constant warfare. At no single, crucial moment in his life did he suddenly acquire his genius at warfare, his ability to inspire the loyalty of his followers, or his unprecedented skill for organizing on a global scale……..In each struggle, he combined the new ideas into a constantly changing set of military tactics, strategies, and weapons. He never fought the same war twice.”

The author does answer all the questions I had about Genghis Khan before reading this book and more than that. Along the way he also cites primary source references to support his story. I gained a good appreciation of the life and times of Genghis Khan. He was a survivor of the Mongolian steppe traditions and this means to overcome many dangerous obstacles, such as defending his life from other potential Mongol warlord leaders. He was not only a survivor; he was successful and made the Mongols a force of their time. Although he is much known for the barbaric streak, which is the reason for his rise to be a Mongol leader, he did implement many innovative ideas to enrich and grow his empire. For example he established a trading post network throughout the empire, every region of the empire would have to share resources with each other, and the “capital” region would get a form of tax if you want to call it that from all the other regions. This increased the standard of living throughout the empire.

Furthermore, I found that the author’s inclusion of maps throughout the book (before the start of certain chapters), and not just in the beginning of the book made it easier to follow the changing landscape of the Mongolian Empire (without having to flip back to the front of the book) and also the major cities within the empire.

I wanted to conclude with the following passage from the book, which I thought concisely honed in on the impact of great figures and events is on history:

“The great actors of history cannot be neatly tucked between the covers of a book and filed away like so many passed botanical specimens. Their actions cannot be explained according to a specific timetable like the coming and going of so many trains. Although scholars may designate the beginning and ending of an era with exact precision, great historical events, particularly those that erupt suddenly and violently, build up slowly, and, once having begun, never end. Their efforts linger long after the action faded from view.”

Overall the book was an easy read and provided good information. I would recommend this book to any lover of history and particularly someone that is interested in the history of Genghis Khan.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Game of Their Lives, A Soccer Book Review

I grew up watching soccer. I enjoyed playing soccer with friends and then later for my high school team. In this country soccer is considered to be mostly enjoyed by kids. It is growing in popularity; it just has not crossed that threshold or the tipping point to take it into the mainstream. After watching the U.S. Soccer team’s great run in the Confederation Cup this past summer culminating in the loss to Brazil, the most feared team of this time, I was inspired to find a book written about the game of soccer. I came across a book titled The Game of their Lives authored by Geoffrey Douglas and this is the subject of this review.

The setting of the book is about a famous soccer match between the United States and England, the most feared time of that time, in the 1950 World Cup. Although at times in the beginning of the story the detailed play by play account of the soccer match can seem to be tedious reading, the author does convey the beauty of the game of soccer in a concise manner and also providing some history throughout the book. The author provides some of the best descriptions of the game of soccer in small doses throughout the book. At one point in the beginning of the book, the author goes on a smooth ride describing the gorgeous game of soccer. The following is an example from the book comparing the sport of soccer to other sports:

“The rhythms of most sports rely on stop-and-start devisements: four downs, nine innings, eighteen holes-and play is halted, breaths are caught, adrenaline depletes. In soccer, where play is continuous-there are no huddles, inning changes, set pieces, or lulls between tackles or points-the rhythms determine themselves.”

Throughout the book the author appropriately conveys the reason why soccer is an exciting game. Having stated that, this book is not only about soccer, it’s about the lives of the players that were on that famous 1950 US soccer national team. The book gives a glimpse about how it was like growing up in America during the depression of the 1930’s. Furthermore it’s also about the life of immigrant families during that time and also the family life. As the author indicates he was sharing the living history of these soccer players. Living history……..yeah I think that’s what a good historian does. I thought that at times the back and forth transitions between the soccer match and the history of the players on the team seemed to not flow smoothly and also diminished the building suspense of the soccer match, I think with some patient reading Douglas does communicate this living history. It is a challenging task to merge two different aspects, such as a description of the game of soccer with a history of the players; in this case I thought it was a valiant effort and with some patient reading Douglas does communicate this living history.

I would recommend this book for those young soccer players, and also for those that are interested in the account of this 1950 United States vs England World Cup Match. This is an apt book to consider reading ahead of the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa. Also, this would be an interesting reading for those that are interested in history, particular the history of immigrant families in the United States. The book gives a nice perspective on the life of immigrant families.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Gandhi and Churchill, The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, A History Book Review

For those of you intimidated by reading History, I would encourage you to give it a chance. Yeah, history books are long, hundreds of pages; it at first appears that it can be dry. This is not the case when well written, and when reading History patience does have its rewards. Oh, now there might be a lot of names, places, dates and it might be tough to follow. Again if well written and presented, then it should be easy to follow, stay with it. From History you not only learn about the past, the past also teaches us about the present situation and what could potentially happen in the future. For me those little nuggets of historical trivia also excite me. Growing up I had learned a lot about India’s fight for independence and Gandhi. When I read the cover of this book about Gandhi and Churchill, I was immediately drawn in, and I had to read the book.

This brings me to the topic of this review, Gandhi and Churchill, The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, written by Arthur Herman, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for 2008. Herman is a former professor of history from Georgetown University, Catholic University, George Mason University, and Smithsonian’s Campus. His interest in Indian History spawned as a youth from his father, who himself has written about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Gandhi. As the author writes “I was in High School when I helped my father to correct proofs of his translation of the Bhagavad Gita”.

Arthur Herman provides a revealing accounting of the politics of the British Empire in India. While as the title indicates the major players in this author’s account of the colonial history are Gandhi and Churchill, the book also nicely pieces together the relationships between all the key political figures in India, England, and also world events like a puzzle. One of the most interesting parts of the book was the author’s fascinating recounting of World War II and also specifically Japan’s invasion of Asia and the impact of these events on the cause for India’s Independence. The author’s account of Japan’s invasion of Asia during World War II reads like a fast pace action novel, while also providing interesting historical facts. The following is a sample of the action from the book:

“After a year’s preparation, the Japanese attacked India. One thrust ran southward toward Imphal, less than fifty kilometers west of the Burmese border. The other stretched to Korma, as thousands of Japanese infantry poured through the thick jungle hoping to encircle the massive British base being built at Dimapur.”

The author paints Gandhi and Churchill as complex characters. Both men were characterized by discipline, determination for a cause, and strong principles. One way these characteristics were highlighted was through the author’s use of referencing primary sources of information throughout the book. The author described the seemingly parallel lives, yet integrally linked, of Churchill and Gandhi using fluid prose and nice transitions. It is fascinating how two great men, rivals, shaped the course of destiny for not only India, also the future of the World.

One feature of the book that I enjoyed was the footnotes that the author made along the way. The author at times would have relevant sidebar discussions on the footer, and I found that this provided a lot of interesting nuggets of historical facts. Overall the book provided a wealth of information on Indian History during the British Raj through Independence and also provided a view into the workings of the British Empire of the early 20th century.

I would highly recommend this book to all history aficionados. More specifically to those interested in India’s rise to Independence or the workings of the British Empire in India. This writing presents an objective and balanced view of Churchill and Gandhi. Also, as I commented at the start, if you are not sure about reading History, give it a chance; it can be fun and informative.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Imperium, A Historical Fiction Book Review

Do you enjoy reading good legal thrillers, how about politics, or history? If the answer to this question is all of the above then I have the book for you. That book is Imperium by Thomas Harris. The first part is legal thriller a la Steve Martini meets ancient Rome, and the second part is about the politics in the first republic of the world. For those of you that have read Steven Saylor’s historical fiction on Rome, Thomas Harris’ Imperium is similar although more focused on the legal, and politics for Rome rather than the wonderful mystery of Steven Saylor’s books.

The central character that drives this story is the historical Roman oratorical figure of Marcus Cicero. The story is narrated from the perspective of Cicero’s secretary, Tiro. At the start of the book the writing style can seem legal in nature and too Romanesque. As the story moves forward, I found that this same language and style immersed me into that period of time. It became as if I was taken back in time and were listening to Tiro directly.

In the first three quarters of the book the author builds a nice foundation, which picks up momentum to a dramatic climax and then leads to an exciting conclusion. The initial foundation is developed with the rise of Cicero as an orator and lawyer by taking on a challenging case. This case and all the political drama involved was conveyed through some descriptive storytelling.

I would highly recommend this book for advanced readers of court room dramas or political thrillers. Imperium achieves all this with the backdrop of ancient Rome. A way of getting excited about History is to start by reading Historical Fiction. This book may peak the curiosity and interest of those non-history lovers to give History a chance. In this case the excitement of Ancient Roman Republic history.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Last Lecture, A Book Review

The Last Lecture is a small packet of interesting lessons from life that packs a good punch. The author, a terminal cancer patient and a professor, conveys a nice compilation of his learnings through a natural, and fun manner. This book is a summary of a lecture that he delivered to students at the Carnegie Mellon University. Each short chapter, which conveys a different message, can be read easily before bedtime. While reading this book, I really felt as if I was attending his Last Lecture Seminar. It’s a great book for those couples wondering about parenthood, and also those people that like to dream. It is a highly recommended book to keep by your bedside for that nighttime reading.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, A Book Review

I consider myself to be an analytically inclined person that enjoys science. An interesting book that I read made me realize how science can be applied in different ways. I’ll start with the following: what do you think of when I say the word “epidemic” (pause to think for a few seconds before reading on)? Well for me it would be, the black plague, viruses, and disease. There is somebody that had a different way of applying this word, which keenly surprised me. That somebody is Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point. He applied a scientific concept to social phenomena that is observed in society. In the Tipping Point he expertly describes this way of thinking, and discusses results of different social studies in an easy way for readers to understand. One of the concepts that Dr. Gladwell describes is that of stickiness, and this is the idea that a certain threshold level of popularity needs to be reached before a concept would quickly gain mainstream popularity. In science this can also be viewed as a form of momentum. In the book the author describes in detail the process and the components that are involved for a concept to gain stickiness or go mainstream. Is this not a simply amazing application of science? The author cites many examples in society where he applies his theories. The concepts Dr. Gladwell explained in the Tipping Point really made me think and gave me a peak of phenomenon in society from an interesting angle.
This book is certainly a must read for those MBA students in graduate school. I found the book in the Management section of the bookstore and I would argue that a book like this could be found in many different sections in the bookstore, such as self help, or sociology. I would also highly recommend this book for those of you like me who enjoy analyzing data, looking at trends and then applying them, in this case to social issues. If you want to become wiser about things around you and learn how to be better positioned in life then read this book. Oh by the way, if you want to learn some interesting trivia facts, that’s also another reason to read this book. I always enjoy these nuggets of historical facts. Was there anybody else making the famous ride along with Paul Revere? Why is Blues Clues such a successful educational show compared to Sesame Street? I think I’ll leave you in suspense, just read the book for these answers and more. Now when you ask me what would I think when I heard the word epidemic, I would include the Tipping Point, and the spread of social trends.