The story of William Adams, the first Englishman to live in Japan and gain high esteem in the shogun's court, is interesting. Giles Milton is a good sThe story of William Adams, the first Englishman to live in Japan and gain high esteem in the shogun's court, is interesting. Giles Milton is a good storyteller, and the story is one of treacherous sea voyages, unruly seamen, and the rivalry and hate between the Catholic (Spanish and Portuguese) and Protestant (British and Dutch) colonizers. As with Nathaniel's Nutmeg, which is the only other book I have read by Milton so far, he tells the story of all, not just the title character, with its twists and turns. The wealth of information gathered here from historic records and letters is impressive, though at the same time Milton's easy going yet elegant language makes everything read like one epic story. Why only three stars then? Well, compared to Nathaniel's Nutmeg, I found the fumbling adventures of Englishmen in Japan to be less captivating. It seems that there was very little business done, many incompetent "factors" who were just criminal-minded or good old drunks, and the only competent man, William Adams, was stuck in Japan, unwillingly trying to help the Englishmen to survive the shogun's and the local lord's trade policies. Beyond that there seems to be just a lot of sitting and waiting and drinking and whoring. In the end, I am not sure what the historical impact of this brief British presence in Japan was. Perhaps none. Certainly, for two centuries no other foreigner had access to the shogun's court like William Adams had....more
Mary Roach does it again. What a pleasure to read! I am a bit baffled by the comments by some people here, that Bonk was not as much fun as Stiff (whiMary Roach does it again. What a pleasure to read! I am a bit baffled by the comments by some people here, that Bonk was not as much fun as Stiff (which I've read and enjoyed) and Spook (which I have not read.) I found Bonk to be as much fun, if not more, and actually I thought the author's style actually matured, as the jokes and winks became more subtle than in Stiff, perhaps necessary to deal with a more delicate subject matter (As sad as it is, I think for most people the subject of sex is a more delicate one than cadavers!) Roach is a great reporter, and a fun observer who can astutely describe the subjects, the researchers, and the research being done (or being reported in earlier studies.) Her footnotes are extremely fun to read (and as a scientist, I am envious of fun-to-read footnotes!) and her language is, as always, fluent, free, and inspiring. All in all, I like Bonk better than Stiff, as I found not only the subject matter, but also the way it was developed and presented more fun and effective.
As a side note (my footnote envy, perhaps...): So that machine George Clooney's character built in "Burn After Reading" (Coen Brothers)... Has Mary Roach seen it (the film or the machine?) That whole part about men tinkering in their garages reminded me of the scene from the film (also, what I am reading in the Evolution of Useful Things, about how the man tinkering in his garage is the original inventor of the modern times)...more
This was my read on my daily NYC subway commute for a week. Having grown up in a third world country with an underfunded public transportation systemThis was my read on my daily NYC subway commute for a week. Having grown up in a third world country with an underfunded public transportation system (though not as bad as the places Hoffman chooses for his trip, mainly because it is nowhere near as poor as some of those places, nor as remote from the western world,) I know exactly how a large overnight bus hurtles into the darkness on winding, dark roads with sharp turns and barely enough space for one vehicle on the supposedly two-way road. I know the stench of many men and women who have not bathed for a week in a crowded bus, the holler of bus "boys," and bus drivers that fall asleep and swerve in and out in busy two-way highways (In fact, this happened in Mexico recently, from D. F. to Oaxaca... After the incident, two men took turns talking to the driver to keep him awake for the rest of the trip.) I know how interesting it is to board a bus with a bunch of guys with machetes... for crops, of course. And to think all of my travels were on pretty expensive, not-so-bad public transportation vehicles...
Hoffman captures the worst of the worst in his book with a candid eye. Perhaps what shocks him most is the lack of personal space and the amount of dirt everywhere, even more than the horrendous mortality rates. He is hugged by many men from across the world in their daily, dirty, unwashed outfits; his hand is held by many men, he drinks Vodka with Russian thugs on a train, he eats anything and everything served to him on every filthy transportation vehicle (and you know he is a seasoned traveler, as he only gets sick from the food once,) and he has vivid bathroom scenes to describe with piles of frozen or steaming shit everywhere. What amazes him most is how warm, delightful, helpful, friendly people are in most of the places he visits, how strangers watch out for him and his belongings, how they are willing to share their daily commuter experiences with him, how they will not let him pay for the food even though he is filthy rich compared to them. What amazes me is that Hoffman is amazed at any of this. He admits in several places in the book that Americans think the world revolves around them, and how could he not? He cannot communicate much with anyone unless they understand English, he has no idea how important Hz. Ali is in Islam, he tries to shake hands with a woman wearing a burqa... But he always means well, and he is always humbled by the kindness of strangers.
The parallel narrative to the travel is how Hoffman is in the process of destroying his marriage of 15 years. How he craves human contact yet runs away from it, how he is immersed in close contact with the people of the world on crowded and dangerous transportation vehicles yet utterly alone and distant. He whines a lot and there is some self-pity mixed in with awe at how the poor in the world live so together with their immediate and extended families. The poor have nothing but their kin. The several feet of personal space required by westerners is reduced to nil, and people find the proximity comforting. It holds them up, it is a way of life, it is a necessity. What to do?
I do not recommend this book to anyone who has serious phobias about cars, buses, planes, ferries, ships, trains, or any travel in general. I would urge all westerners and especially those New Yorkers who cannot appreciate the most efficient and comprehensive city public transport system in the USA to read this book. ...more
I have never won the lottery. And clearly, this is because I have never really wanted to win the lottery. And when my friend got cancer, it was becausI have never won the lottery. And clearly, this is because I have never really wanted to win the lottery. And when my friend got cancer, it was because she wanted it, and really, it is a gift, no? Barbara Ehrenreich goes on to describe the history of positive thinking, it's dangerous likeness to corporate America and "religious" cults, reveals that these three things are not at all separate from each other. As a cancer biologist, I must say I like the first chapter, as Ehrenreich describes the cultish attachment to positive thinking among cancer patients and "survivors" and the health industry. I also highly enjoyed the chapters on Christian positive thinking (mega churches...wow! really! they bring in that much money!) and of course, positive psychology. In the end, my only complaint would be that Ehrenreich was too kind to some of the people who abuse the masses for their own profit and wealth (though perhaps the masses deserve to be exploited, if we are so dumb and ignorant). Perhaps Ehrenreich managed to be more unbiased than I am, and that's a good thing. I now understand why and how being a realist started to be equal to "being negative" or "having a negative attitude." If I could just change my negative attitude and focus my mind to think real hard of the NY lottery... Wait, I won!!!! (no "I'm your long lost cousin, please give me some money" requests, please!)...more
Error. What a great subject. Daunting as well. Schultz does a good job of covering some major ground in the history, philosophy, psychology, and scienError. What a great subject. Daunting as well. Schultz does a good job of covering some major ground in the history, philosophy, psychology, and science of error. Her language and writing style is fluid and engaging, her choice of quotes and anecdotal evidence often spot on. She argues, throughout the book, that error is an integral part of our intelligence, our progress, and a reminder of just how alone we are in the world.
Reading Being Wrong, I certainly understood better why I hate being wrong, why I love to say "I told you so." and most importantly, I realized what triggers my "I told you so" response most in other people: their lack of acknowledgement of an error. And then I realized that, probably, other people have the same reaction to my stubborn refusal to admit my own mistakes. Will I change and be more, uhm, humble? I don't know. I often think we can never change much, maybe just a tiny bit. Time will tell. ...more
A well-told account of a brutal childhood. The language is plain but fluid, overall an "easy" read in terms of writing style and a very hard read in tA well-told account of a brutal childhood. The language is plain but fluid, overall an "easy" read in terms of writing style and a very hard read in terms of content. ...more
Having lived in many countries and cities, having been accused of representing too much or too little her culture, her background, her language, ElifHaving lived in many countries and cities, having been accused of representing too much or too little her culture, her background, her language, Elif Safak has a lot to say about the Turk who lives abroad, the woman without a head scarf who is stopped going into a mosque to pray in Turkey [and the woman who gets dirty looks for wearing a head scarf in the US], and my favorite, the writer who has to, somehow, show those foreigners how good/modern/liberal/cultured/great Turks are (Turkey is). Needless to say, I identify very well with Elif Safak and her frustrations with Turks in Turkey as well as outside of Turkey really ring true with mine. My favorite parts are the criticism she brings to the Turks who live outside or Turkey, who are just so busy that they cannot really read many books, but when they do, did she really have to use all those Ottoman words that are hard to understand?! This cracks me up every time... Especially... Well, I'll tell you about a conversation I witnessed at an Ivy-League school. I was, despite my efforts of trying to keep anonymous to all the Turks on campus, at a table with some professors and their wives (first and last time.) They were discussing how Elif Safak was to visit the campus, most likely. Apparently they were all on a first name basis with her. (some of these people are very well-known names in their fields, and certainly "esteemed scholars") One of the wives turned to me and said in Turkish, "I mean, I love Elif, she's a great person, but I cannot read her. No no, I cannot. With all those Ottoman words. Anyway, I don't have much time to read." I smiled and thought of having read Mahrem (the Gaze) with the dictionary, having had to look up some words, for in Turkey I belong to one of many generations deprived of the knowledge of Ottoman Turkish. Though not an easy read for me In Turkish, Mahrem is my favorite of Safak's works. But why read, if it is hard work, right? Right... The conversation then turned to Elif's "questionable" political battles in Turkey, that one of the esteemed profs had tried to convince her to "Just let it go." And the whole time I wondered if his tone was so patronizing when he actually spoke with the writer, too. When I read Med-Cezir, I realized Safak had heard these people say these things, and not just them, but many others. Those who didn't have time to read a book, but thought it their place to criticize Safak's choice of words, those who, with fatherly love and a sense of academic superiority, tried to convince her to keep out of trouble, and the list goes on and on. And in Med-Cezir, having heard all, Safak fights back. From women's rights to religious liberty to the role of the writer, Safak talks about the woes of, well, being Elif Safak....more
Kinzer is a great writer and a good storyteller. He alternates cultural mini-chapters with more analytical writing in Crescent and Star: Turkey BetweeKinzer is a great writer and a good storyteller. He alternates cultural mini-chapters with more analytical writing in Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds. As a Turk who was heavily brainwashed with the "official history of the country during and post-Ataturk", there is much I can and should read, and this book is a good starting point. I can write a whole other book as a response to Kinzer's very insightful study, but for the most part I agree with the bulk of his criticisms and analyses. Kinzer may love Turkey, but he does not hold back in his criticism of blind Kemalism, the iron fist of the military over civilian rule, and the current national pains, such as the ethnic problems the government has with Kurds, with Armenians, with Greece, etc. For years I have resisted reading about recent Turkish history, because I find it hard to believe anyone that I read. There is certainly a good amount of anti-Turkish propaganda in the Western world (a la Midnight Express) and inside Turkey the restrictions on free speech make it hard to get an unbiased view. So Kinzer, as a foreigner who loves Turkey, is a good place to start.
One thing that I want to point out is that even though Kinzer portrays Turgut Ozal as a revolutionary leader who was one of the few modern leaders of Turkey to see its full potential in the 21st century, Ozal's highly capitalist [and nepotist] shift inoculated a deep and powerful corruption in the government that Turkey, to this day, suffers from. Related to Turgut Ozal, and many other leaders of modern Turkey, the baffling question I have always had and to this day cannot really understand, is how so many Kurds can serve in the government and parliament as elected officials, so many Kurds can become very rich business man, entertainers, actors, singers, writers, and Turkey still struggles to find a healthy ground for communication about the Kurdish-Turkish issues? To explain away this discrepancy by just blaming the oppression of free speech seems inadequate.
Overall, Crescent and Star was a pleasure to read. At times, Kinzer becomes a bit repetitive, but his anecdotal references to conversations with Turks from different walks of life and with foreign officials about Turkey are priceless. His obsession, like most Americans and Westerners, of democracy is a bit optimistic, idealistic, and something that I do not completely agree with.
I will try to read Kinzer's more recent books about Turkey and the Middle East. I would like to hear what he has to say about the current political rule in Turkey, as it seems to be what he was wishing for in Crescent and Star, but I am not sure that now that it is happening, he would still wish for it. He got his pro-EU, pro-ethnic dialogue, non-Kemalist, pro-religion government that is trying very hard to turn Turkey into the next EU member. Some things are radically different. For example, now that the ban on the Kursdish language is lifted, radios and TVs broadcasting in Kurdish have sprouted all over, and artists are clamoring to record Kurdish songs and establish collaborations (Aynur Dogan's Kece Kurdan is a good album to start. And of course, Ibrahim Tatlises is not only the most famous Kurdish singer but one of the most famous Turkish singers of all time) On the other hand, Europe is busy passing laws banning head scarves and mosques with minarets, things that Turkey was criticized for doing. Once again, the double standards are apparent, as Turkey is always blamed to be violating human rights (I am not saying that it isn't!) while European countries restrict religious and cultural freedoms as they see fit (and let's not forget the non-secularist stuff, like "In God We Trust" on American bills.) The truth of the matter is the Islamic Fundamentalism that the aptly-criticized Turkish military was always paranoid about has shown its ugly head and this time threatening the Western world, and so *now* it is OK to try to crush Islamic extremism by restricting civil rights... What happened to open dialogue, the communication that Turkish government was always urged to engage in with what it considered extremists? I can imagine some Turkish generals nodding with a shrug to the West: We told you so! Perhaps Kinzer is right in that Turkey is at a unique position to bring together the troubled sides and end the chaos that is currently taking place in the world. But I find that hard to believe, as any issue about Islam is bound to polarize Turks. In the end, I think the ethnic problems can be overcome, but the issues over religion are going to get worse before they get better. ...more