The River at the Centre of the World

by Simon Winchester

First of all, the way I came across this book was something of, if not a miracle, an amazing serendipity.

I learnt of this book at a swap on Book Obsessed, and decided to wishlist it. However, on Bookmooch, I guess I clicked on I HAVE IT instead of I WANT IT, so the next thing I know, another moocher requested the book.  How embarassing to have to reject the request and explain the situation.

Then, a few hours later, I was volunteering at the library, packing donated books for the booksale, when a sorter came by and put down a book with the comment, hmm, this one looks interesting. And it’s The River at the Centre of the World!! Unbelievable!  What’s more, I am in charge of paperback fiction, and this book technically belongs to travel. If she had routed it to the correct box I may never have seen it.

The moment I decided I like this book came when I read the writer’s observations in Shanghai.  He saw a Chinese navy ship, and commented on how leisurely the navy walked around on board, with lines of clothes hung to dry… and in general how it seemed inconceivable that China would militarily threaten the world.  He then went on to say that, Chinese afterall invented gun power, but did not put it to much use except for fireworks.  I went aha, that is exactly what I always thought.  Chinese people invented gun power but are now known in the world for making firework displays.  They put out a big envoy of navy, went all the way to Africa, and brought back…giraffe!!!  Not to say that Chinese are exactly a peace loving, gentle breed, but then for the record, over the long historical timeline, they did not invade Japan, their close neighbor, but Japan set her troops onto the country during WWII.

The writer has keen observations, and I like his stance that he neither looked down nor worshipped the country he visited.  The exchange between him, a gentleman from the Royal British Empire, and his companion Lily, a woman grew up on Chinese communist ideology, while heated at times, proves interesting and contrasting. 

Very well researched, entertaining and informative.  I love this book a lot.

Published in: on October 8, 2007 at 3:14 pm  Comments (1)  

Crossing Antarctica

by Will Steger

Face it, seven months on Antarctica can be a bit monotonous, crossing what the author himself dubbed “the most boring terrain on earth,” a white-out world devoid of flora or fauna. The author, however, did a commendable job in chronicling their journey in this book. By interlacing happenings with past events, sentiments, information and knowledge, the book was entertaining enough I did not have a dull moment throughout. Steger’s voice is somewhat lacking in humor or excitement, but I believe that just reflects the seriousness of the expedition and his personality as a analytical organizer. And it certainly makes me see Antarctica more than just a frozen slab of land down under.

My only complain is that the book doesn’t contain more photos, although I can totally understand if those explorers don’t feel in the mood for taking pictures… I probably won’t… Although, surrounding by the palm trees, it really stretch my imagination to visualize the hardship in the cold wilderness. Now, this is one trip I certainly won’t do any other style than armchair. Just imagine having to thaw your toothpaste and towel for the morning ritual, to wear the same underwears for six month, and that your dog could get a frozen body part for indecent exposure…

Published in: on October 8, 2007 at 2:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Thousand Splendid Sun

by Khaled Hosseini

I kept crying for a while after finishing the book.  A moving story indeed, especially towards the ending – well, it was well written from page 1, and continue to build up to a lovely ending.  A strong, solid work throughout and, unlike The Kite Runner, did not falter in the middle part. 

The title comes from a poem about Kabul writen by Saib-e-Tabrizi back in the seventeenth century:

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”

It’s this beauty that draws the city’s sons and daughters home, despite of the danger and the rubbles.  The story is about Mariam and Laila, two women who are wives to a brutal man.  Both of them harbor loss of their loved ones, and in a world where they seem to be lone survivors of their families who departed them in brutal manners,  they slowly they overcome their hostility and become like friends, like sisters, like mother and daughter.   Unlike the protagonist in Kite Runner, these women are strong, and they have hopes and dreams that they are not afraid to pursuit.

It is also chilling to see how much the political and social environment could change in such a short time.  When Leila was young, she was able to run around the neighborhood and visited her male friend.  Then she had to done a burqa, and could not step outside without a male family escort.  It reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale — somehow, that story doesn’t seem so foreign, so fantastical after all.  If it could happen in Afghanistan, what guarantee it couldn’t happen elsewhere?

Published in: on October 4, 2007 at 11:47 pm  Comments (4)