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.