Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for February, 2013

The Testament of Mary

Posted by nliakos on February 28, 2013

by Colm Tóibín (Scribner, 2013)

When I read this review by Ron Charles in the Washington Post back in November, I was intrigued enough to put this on my To Read list. Then last week, I happened on it in a library display of new books. It’s very short, only 81 pages, and I just discovered it was originally written as a a play (or monologue). I think it would have been better to watch/listen to it than to just read it, but it was an interesting read, nonetheless.

Jesus’ mother, living out her final years in Ephesus, is the narrator. She recounts the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ rescue of his disciples by walking on water. She is disgusted by her own cowardice in fleeing the scene of the crucifixion before Jesus died. She considers Jesus’ disciples pitiful (a “group of misfits”) and the redemption of the world not worth his gruesome death.

I wonder what Christians who read this think about it. Tóibín certainly takes liberties with the saintly image of the Virgin Mary. I found an interesting interview of Tóibín by Sally Quinn of the Post, in which he claims to love the Catholic Church very much; he seems to have had no intent to denigrate Mary, yet I suspect that the book might offend many believers.


Posted in Drama, Fiction | 1 Comment »

Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present

Posted by nliakos on February 28, 2013

by Cynthia Stokes Brown (The New Press, 2007)

Actually, the title should be “From the Big Bang to the Future,” because the final chapter, “What Now? What Next?” looks at the present and takes a stab at predicting what the future might bring; she concludes, “Either people will be able to curb their growth and use of resources, or nature and human nature will do it for them (disease, starvation, warfare, genocide, and social collapse)….” But I am getting ahead of myself.

Brown really does start out from the beginning of the universe according to the Big Bang Theory and works forward from there, outlining the history of the planet and all its life forms, including us; as she reaches the historic past, she not surprisingly slows down and provides greater detail, but she still has to confine whole books, maybe libraries, of knowledge into mere chapters and paragraphs, as she does in Chapter 11, “Connecting the Globe (1450 – 1800 CE)” when in the section ‘The Major Empires’ she covers the Qing Dynasty, the Moghul Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Hapsburgs, and rural European life during the period in ten paragraphs.

For someone like me who never had a good course in world history (and I suspect I am not alone, especially in America), but who has just picked up a little knowledge here and there by reading, watching public television and listening to NPR, this book identifies and briefly explains all those terms I have heard but did not really understand (like Safavid Empire), but more importantly, it looks at them as part of a larger whole, so we better understand some of the forces that drove the events we have heard about.

There were many things that I had previously had no idea of (but in retrospect, should have)–like the concept that with the birth of agriculture began the process of environmental desecration that continues today (deforestation, soil contamination, and overpopulation). I guess I just assumed that prior to industrialization, humankind did not do much damage to the Earth. I should have known better, because I have seen the arid hills of Greece which were stripped of their vegetation by goats so long ago. The goats are still there, but the vegetation, for the most part, is long gone.

And then there’s the occasional surprising factoid, like the belief of many scholars that a half of one percent of the men in the world may be descended from Genghis Khan. It’s unprovable, at least until somebody locates Genghis’ remains somewhere in Mongolia, but is apparently quite likely. (Brown devotes about nine pages  to the rise and demise of the Mongol Empire; what she says about it is in basic agreement with Jack Weatherford, whose book she cites on one occasion.)

So in a mere 248 pages, Brown seeks to explain pretty much everything that has happened since the universe began. Not surprisingly, she seems to run out of steam somewhat towards the end. Each chapter concludes with several unresolved questions about the era covered in the chapter, like “How much cannibalism was there among the Aztecs?” or “Can the Garden of Eden and the Biblical flood be located historically?” And for twelve chapters, she answers those questions as best she can, mentioning evidence for various responses. But in the final chapter, she does not even attempt to answer the questions. Maybe that’s because no one can answer them: (1) Are current world policies leading to a sustainable future or to some kind of collapse? (2) Can new technologies alter the long-range tendency of world systems to grow and collapse? (3) Can the market system allocate resources in a sustainable way? . . . (4) Can industrialized people learn to live in harmony with nature? Can they share with less industrialized people? (Personally, my guess is (1) to a collapse, (2) No, (3) No, and (4) No and No. How pessimistic is that?)

Before I end this, I have to mention a very weird sentence on page 207: “Only Europe and China built oceanic navies, and China retracted its.”  I teach grammar to students of English as a second language, and all the texts say that the pronoun it has no possessive form (There is a possessive adjective: its navies is certainly correct.).  I am well aware that ESL grammar often tries to simplify and regularize that which is very complicated and irregular, and that we frequently tell our students to follow rules that native speakers pay no attention to; but this sentence does sound awfully strange to me. Am I just an old grammar fuddy-duddy, or was Brown’s editor out to lunch on this one? Leave me a comment if you want to weigh in.

Posted in History, Non-fiction | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Posted by nliakos on February 10, 2013

by Jack Weatherford (Crown, 2004)

Like many people, I guess my first association with the words Genghis Khan would probably be bloodthirsty… at least it would have been until I read Weatherford’s book. It’s full of adulation for the founder of the Mongol Empire. (In fact, it kind of reminded me of The Clan of the Cave Bear, where the character Ayla seems to have invented everything from pet dogs to horseback riding to funereal flowers to surgical sutures…. But that was fiction, and this isn’t.) Still, according to Weatherford, the man born with the name Temujin in the northern reaches of the Asian steppes grew up to bring to the known world a great many concepts and practices that to a reader seem indeed very modern: not only printing with movable type, paper currency, and chemical (or at least very smell) warfare, but also the rule of law, women’s rights, global trade, religious tolerance, a secular state, and much more.

The book covers not only the life and conquests of Genghis but follows his sons and grandsons (particularly Khubilai, who first unified and then ruled China) right up to the end of the Mongol Empire in the mid-14th century, and there is even a chapter that brings the lands of the empire right up to the present day.

According to Weatherford, the Mongols did not like blood and abhorred torture; they never burned living people. (But they did not shy away from killing, and they had some rather imaginative ways to do it.) Their usual practice was to annihilate the aristocracy and military forces of an enemy or target population, and often to raze the city they were attacking, but to absorb the peasantry into their ranks. They looked for skilled artisans, educated people, polyglots and scientists and builders, and sent them from one end of their realm to the other to serve the Mongols in various ways. (I wondered: were they sent with their families? Did they stay there and raise families? Are their descendants still there? Weatherford does mention that after the disintegration of the empire following the plague years in the 14th century, the Jews, Muslims, and Christians who had settled in China under the Mongol [Yuan] dynasty were killed or expelled.)

The “new” information about Genghis Khan, including really specific details about his life from childhood to burial, are mostly taken from a new translation of The Secret History of the Mongols, a document that had been unavailable to researchers for centuries. Weatherford does use many other sources as well (he includes a seven-page Selected Bibliography), but I am guessing that those personal details came from the Secret History, which causes me to think that they must have been written by people with an agenda (praising Genghis). So the book must be read with some skepticism, but it’s truly a fascinating journey through a period of history I think few people know much about, especially since the Mongols in general and Genghis Khan in particular have been vilified for centuries.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who would like to approach an old subject from a very fresh new perspective.

Posted in History, Non-fiction | 1 Comment »

Wait: The Art and Science of Delay

Posted by nliakos on February 3, 2013

by Frank Partnoy (Public Affairs, 2012)

Frank Partnoy’s basic thesis is that people should delay actions or decisions as long as possible for a better result. (perceiving types, you are right! Judging types, take note!) He provides examples from sports, business, journalism, matchmaking, war, manufacturing, and other fields of endeavor to support his claim that most of the time, later is better. Experts are capable of deciding and acting quickly, but they tend to delay if delay is possible, which is why they are the experts and the rest of us aren’t.  The examples are interesting and backed up by a lot of data.  We learn about how Post-its were invented over a period of  12 years, how the best investors know how to sit and wait for the right opportunities, how first impressions are often best ignored, and much, much more. A very interesting read.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »