Recently Reviewed Books…

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to TodayA Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today by William J. Bernstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great history lesson on the evolution of our world, anchored by an activity that humans are naturally predisposed to engage in: trade. If not for trade, the world wouldn’t be where it is today, is the lesson from this book. Even though I have read about several epochs of history at different times in other books, this book brings them all together in chronological order and compellingly integrates the evolution of these separate epochs.

Beginning with the Sumerians in 4000 B.C (dubbed World Trade Organization 1.0). and ending in Seattle in 1999 (where the WTO conference was riddled with tear gas and rubber bullets), the book highlights the vital commodities that gave rise to trade; it covers the technology and methods of transportation used to deliver such items of trade, the forms of money that consequently evolved, the politics that helped or hindered, and threats like war, pestilence and conquest that mutated prevailing trade patterns.

Copper gave way to bronze, then to silk, then to spices, then to sugar (and its derivative rum), then to coffee, then to slavery, then to tea, then to opium, then to corn – there was always one prime commodity that acted as the new gold and drove the engine of trade. Sumeria and the Indus Valley were the early trading centres. The Silk Road (and Belt) was the next loop that connected China to Rome via land and sea, where silk was traded until about the 6th century. With the coming of Islam, The Fertile Crescent, encircling the Middle East and Indian Ocean was the next large centre that lasted for nearly 800 years, before Vasco de Gama of Portugal circled the Cape of Good Hope and brought the Europeans back into the game that had by then switched to the hot commodity of spices. Privately funded expeditions gave way to joint-stock corporations for the next 400 years, notably the Dutch East India Company (VOC), and the British East India Company (EIC) and their western counterparts that scoured the New World for deals. The New World, discovered by Columbus, also proved to be an easier and more attractive venture for investors as the journey was infinitely shorter than the long trek to the East Indies.

A chapter on the diseases that accompanied trade and drastically altered progress is of interest given these pandemic times we live in. The Black Death hit twice: once between 560 – 800 AD, plunging Europe into the Dark Ages; the second time in the 13th century, putting paid to the Mongol expansion westwards. The battle of Kaffa, a city in the Crimea in modern-day Ukraine (or Russia, based on who you believe has claim to the territory today) tells of how the Mongol invaders who had besieged the city used catapults to lob the dead and infected over the city walls to overcome those inside; which is also attributed to why the plague spread further into Europe.

Around the mid-nineteenth century, we take a detour into economics, with theories of free trade vs. protectionism taking root. Britain and America veered between these two extremes based on the ups and downs of their domestic fortunes; the former with its protectionist corn laws that ran for over 50 years until 1846, when Britain caved and adopted free trade; the latter with its protectionist policies that lasted from Herbert Hoover until the end of WWII, and which now seem to be resuscitated under Trump. The two industries that seem to consistently convince governments to stay protectionist have been textiles and farming.

There is a lot in the book to cover, too much for a short review like this. I haven’t even covered the very entertaining voyages of Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta, Columbus and Magellen, nor the fierce battles between the Portuguese and the Dutch for hegemony in Asia, nor the hotspot that everyone fought over: The Spice Islands, also known as the Moluccas, located in present day Indonesia.

There also needs to be a mention about the technologies like cartography and refrigeration that enabled trade, and the methods of transportation that ranged from sail boats to land caravans, to steam power, to railways and highways. As distribution costs declined, the trading universe enlarged, and competition was enabled, thus levelling prices and making traders hunt for the next hot commodity. And of course, we must not forget human greed that pushed traders into uncharted territory, often to fail but to always return to the mast, because in pioneering times even one out of ten shipments getting through enabled huge profits for its investors.

I recommend this book for anyone trying to understand why we face today’s economic dilemmas. Our problems of today have been faced many times over in history, it appears.

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The Glass Bead GameThe Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novel for reflection

In this, his final, futuristic novel that also put the clincher on the Nobel, Hermann Hesse brings together all the themes he had developed individually in his previous books into a blockbuster, one that left me pondering the multiple illusion(s) in life.

First, the let’s take a look at the new world that Hesse ponderously builds up over the first 60 pages: Philosophy and Literature are out; Music, Mathematics and Meditation are in. The Age of the Feuilleton that we lived in has imploded, and scholarship has become a monastic calling. The unknown country in which this story takes place has decided to fund and house its academics in a province called Castalia. Castalians are free to pursue any branch of study for as long as they desire as perennial students. Castalia, in turn, offers the broader country its teachers. The crowning event in Castalia is the Glass Bead Game, one based on music and symbol, one that can be evolved indefinitely by writing new components into it, all of which are archived and integrated into the overall Game, a replacement to the arts that had fallen out of favour. The Game is conducted for a period of ten days annually, with trained gamers participating, a sort of Olympic Games of the Mind and Soul. The custodian of the Game is the Magister Ludi.

Joseph Knecht, an orphan of high mental, musical and spiritual abilities, is groomed to be a future Magister Ludi. He readily puts himself to the task by attending the Elite Schools designated for Castalians, skilling himself in the Game, and undertaking assignments abroad to teach the Game to amateurs. When he is elected into the Order of the Game, he laments the loss of freedom to study at will, for he is now burdened with the duties and responsibilities of office, some political, some questionable. He nevertheless plays the loyal soldier and ascends the pinnacle to become the youngest Magister Ludi while still in his forties. He executes his role with finesse, but after 10 years in the job, doubts start to plague him. His childhood friend and opposite number, Plinio Designario, also educated in Castalia but now married and running a business in the outside world, reminds him that all is not well in his cloister—Castalia is living on the largess of the country, and the Game, a pure Castalian creation, will be the first to go if funding and support is cut. Like Siddhartha, in Hesse’s novel by that name, Knecht is faced with the dilemma of staying put or renouncing his exalted position as Magister to enter the outside world which is treacherous beyond what he had ever learned within his safe cloister walls.

Accompanying the story of Knecht is a section on the poetry he wrote as a student. They start with promise but end with a premonition of an end coming to the Game – perhaps a reflection on Knecht’s state of mind.

The most interesting section to me was the three short stories at the end of the book, a collection written by Knecht as an academic exercise when he was a student and which is titled “Three Lives.” The first story has him living as a Rainmaker in a pre-historic matriarchal tribe. In the second story he (or his protagonist) is a Confessor around the time of the early Christians. In the final story, he is an Indian prince, living at the time of Siddhartha. In these three dramatically told stories, Hesse brings out the themes that pre-occupied him throughout his work: the Christ-like sacrifice of one’s life for the rest of mankind, the protagonist—antagonist conflict, the life of the hermit-prophet, integration and unity, the master—student relationship, and the lesson that life is an illusion.

The only negative I found in this novel was that Hesse chose to tell Knecht’s life as a biography. So, the biographer/historian (Hesse) goes into a very analytical, data-rich, recounting of most of what is happening, telling, telling, telling for most of the time, which in the 1940’s may have been acceptable, but which in our times of shrunken attention spans is a tough slog.

And yet, if you take the trouble to ponder the issues Hesse puts on the table, this book will keep you thinking long after the last page is turned.

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True Grit: A NovelTrue Grit: A Novel by Charles Portis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Presbyterian ‘s View of the American West

Just another western is transformed into a morality tale by it’s unusual narrator. It is also an indictment on the unruly and untamed frontier when viewed through the prism of her uncompromising Presbyterian upbringing.

Mattie Ross, a 14 year-old farm girl, strong-willed, intelligent, and brave is determined to avenge the murder of her father by bringing his killer to justice, by hook or by crook. She enlists the aid of a one-eyed US marshal, Rooster Cogburn, the meanest of the US marshals patrolling the area. A Texas Ranger, LeBeouf (pronounced Le Beef), also on the hunt for the killer for a higher reward, tags along, much to Mattie’s displeasure. What follows is a series of adventures until the killer and his buddies are brought to justice over in what was then called Indian Territory.

I watched both movies made of this novel while reading the book and was surprised at how faithful they both were to Portis’ masterpiece, even down to the dialogue. Of course, despite Mattie’s strong narrative voice, the character who looms largest is Rooster Cogburn, right from his dramatic introduction in the courthouse scene where one wonders whether he is the witness or the accused. He is the epitome of the Wild West, someone even Mattie, after some initial skirmishing, comes to respect, even love, for his bravery, steadfastness, and aloneness. Despite her scorn for the desperados of that period, demonstrated by her condemnation of wild-west heroes like Frank James (of the Jesse James gang), she withholds her moral condemnation of Cogburn and even honors his memory. And Cogburn intrigues us with his rambling tales of the west and with his wayward life, as the trio of man-hunters venture deeper into the badlands in search of their quarry; he gets merrily drunk along the way, and tries to shoot bottles using only his good eye. His philosophy: “A man will not work for a woman, not unless he has clabber for brains.” Yet, he works for Mattie.

I found Mattie a bit hard to digest. At her tender age, she negotiates stronger than grown businessmen in a man’s world. She is uncompromising against ridiculous odds; she recounts shootings, stabbings, and public hangings frankly and flatly, and she is not a warm person. Her descriptions are sparse: one character is introduced as “a tall, long-backed man with a doorknob head and a mouthful of prominent teeth.” Her singlemindedness towards seeking revenge for her father’s death betrays her Christian upbringing. Perhaps, she is a precursor of the extreme Christian Right. And yet, her flawed and self-righteous character provides for an interesting narrative twist to an otherwise routine cops and robbers wild-west show. She has been called a version of the Huckleberry Finn character, although I thought Huck had a lot more soul and a sense of humour.

As for LeBeouf and the bad guys, they come across as cardboard cut-outs, props against which Mattie and Rooster play out their destiny.

I read this book as it has been proclaimed a masterpiece of the west. I think its value lies not so much in the cops and robbers plot, which has its own twists and turns, but in the juxtaposition of the moral code of its Presbyterian narrator upon the lawless swamp that was the American West, and the resulting conflict that surfaces from this mismatched union.

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The Torrents of SpringThe Torrents of Spring by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a tightly plotted novel that moves faster than the earlier Turgenev novel I read, Fathers and Sons. Love and Lust are pitted against each other with disastrous consequences for those who make the wrong choice.

The older Sanin is reflecting on his life from thirty years ago, when in 1840, as a 22 year old, he arrived in Frankfurt on his way home to Russia after completing his studies. The younger Sanin visits the confectionary shop of an Italian émigré family, the Rosellis, and his life immediately spins out of control. He is instantly enchanted by the beautiful Gemma Roselli who is betrothed to a rich clothing store manager, Karl Kluber. When Gemma’s younger brother, Emil Roselli, has a fainting fit, Sanin resuscitates the boy. As his reward, Sanin is invited into the inner sanctum of the family and meets the crafty Widow Roselli, the matriarch who is intent on the store surviving by making a rich match for her only daughter. A duel to defend Gemma’s honour follows in which Karl comes off badly while Sanin is elevated to saviour. Gemma breaks off her engagement to Karl and veers towards Sanin while Mamma Roselli expresses her dissatisfaction unless she can extract similar economic concessions from our hapless hero that had been assured under Karl Kluber.

Love trumps economics and Sanin is prepared to journey to Russia, sell up his modest land holdings, and return to Frankfurt to marry Gemma and invest in the Roselli confectionary shop. Then contrivance enters, and this is the one sore point of the book, for the arrival of the Russian Polozov and his temptress wife Maria Nikolievna in Germany are just too opportune. Polozov is the quintessential cuckold husband who serves as his wife’s errand boy and is trapped by her wealth. Looking to save himself a trip back to Russia, Sanin offers Polozov the opportunity to buy his land back home. Polozov defers to his wife who controls the purse strings, but she has much deeper designs than just a plot of land.

Sanin descends into a quicksand of desire as Maria seduces him and leads him a like a moth to the flame: a theatre performance, a horse ride up a mountain and into the forest during a pelting rainstorm. When Sanin emerges from this maelstrom, he is her sexual slave. Gemma is betrayed, and he can never return to her with honour. But all those who make choices of the flesh also pay the price of flesh. Sanin meets the fate of many a man who has been sucked in and spat out by this femme fatale. Although he goes onto attain economic security in later years, his personal life is left barren.

When we return to the older Sanin, he has tracked down his former true love, Gemma, who is now married to a wealthy merchant in New York and is the mother of five children. His letter to her is met with compassion and understanding, and buoyed by this response, he starts to sell his property again to head off to the New World this time and do what he failed to do 30 years ago. But one wonders whether matters not “taken at the flood” can ever lead to success? Is this effort doomed to fail even more drastically given that Gemma is now a happily married woman with a lovely family? Is this her turn now to roll the dice and sacrifice everything for an old passion? Is this a last foolish gasp of an old man? Turgenev mercifully leaves us to figure out this outcome.

As there are Russian, German and Italian characters, all three languages pepper the narrative in this English translation. Although the pace is fast and the machinations of plot weave in an out rapidly, there are also moments of great description. A German meal is described thus: “Watery soup with knobby dumplings and pieces of cinnamon, boiled beef dry as cork, with white fat attached, slimy potatoes, soft beetroot and mashed horseradish, a bluish eel with French capers and vinegar, a roast joint with jam, and the inevitable ‘Mehlspeise,’ something of the nature of a pudding with sourish red sauce; but to make up, the beer and wine first-rate!” Social conditions in Europe among the middle classes are well portrayed, as are the terms of the famous duel, even though it was considered to have been outlawed in Europe by the 17th century.

Sanin is left contemplating the vulgar falsity of all things human, but I was more struck with the fact that even in the most romantic of love relationships, economics and politics play a significant role.

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Struggle and Success: True Stories That Reveal the Depths of the Human ExperienceStruggle and Success: True Stories That Reveal the Depths of the Human Experience by Renee Hollis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the pandemic took hold on us, I surrounded myself with books that would lift my spirits, seeking inspiration in stories of ordinary people prevailing against mammoth odds, and even though this book has one of my own submissions in it, I found it very comforting and worthy of sharing with my readers on Goodreads.

Part of the Timeless Wisdom series, Struggle and Success is a 2020 release, and I hope it goes onto become a regular series capturing real stories of personal struggle. The twenty-five stories are short pieces of approximately 1500 words apiece, and are easily identifiable because many of the situations are part of our daily life: the travails encountered with home appliances that don’t behave as specified, dyslexia, school bullying, bulimia, alcoholism, cancer, suicide, discrimination and reverse discrimination. But there are stories that also go to deeper levels, and I will call out a few here:
1) People who take on a second career later in life by putting themselves back to school and facing the age old downer, “You are too old for this.”
2) The child, raised in a fundamentalist Christian family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, who decorates her secret Christmas Tree in the woods.
3) The woman from a remote village in Tanzania who marries a westerner and makes the giant leap to her husband’s culture for the benefit of her progeny.
4) The woman who started as an extra in a theatre, a costumed rabbit with no lines, goes on to become a well-known playwright, scriptwriter and teacher.
5) And the one that is most topical for these times: the drought-plagued farmer who has to face his city-slicker banker for more credit. I’m sure many small businesses are in that position today due to the pandemic.

Many of these struggles are based on an unavoidable personal experience that starts these authors off in their direction of struggle and ultimate success: the woman who is forced to become a caregiver to her gambling-addicted husband; the woman disfigured in a car accident who becomes a counsellor for deformed people; the woman scorned as a child for her peculiar eating habits as a Pommie in Australia who goes onto become a foodie. The parallel for us today is that we have all been hit by something we least expected, and our known world has been changed – will we give up in resignation, or will we adapt and morph as humans are known to do? And what will success be defined as in this new world?

I am not going to talk about my own submission, “My Writing Life,” except to say that I was glad it was published in its entirety this time. Previous versions published in other anthologies were badly mangled by overzealous editors.

So, if you are looking for something uplifting after poring through the myriad of doom and gloom scenarios circulating in social media these days, this book might just be what the doctor ordered, even though we still have no definite antidote to Covid-19.

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The Brothers KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a true brain-buster of a novel, Dostoyevsky’s last, in which he brings together all his pet themes of God, the Devil, the rise of socialism, the end of serfdom, madness, love, unbridled passion, debt, greed, crime and punishment—all explored in his previous work—into one massive saga. It’s as if he decided to explore every nook and cranny of Russian society, poking into some areas in depth and side-stepping others, unearthing some fleshed-out characters and leaving others as cardboard cut-outs. The result is a family story of the four brothers Karamazov and their profligate father, and a large cast of external characters, with a central murder trial and a half dozen sub plots that either connect with the main story line or not, and with some characters who are embroiled right through while others fizzle out midway.

The plot is simple (simple?). Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov has four sons: the first, Dmitri (Mitya) from his first marriage, who is given to passion and profligacy like his father; the second, Ivan, is an intellectual, writer and researcher, who challenges organized religion, and yet succumbs to brain fever and begins conversations with the devil; Alexei (Alyosa) is pious and studying to be a monk in a monastery under the tutelage of the saintly elder Fr. Zossima; and Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son, prone to epilepsy, is working for his father as a servant. Fyodor and Mitya are vying for the hand of an “enchantress,” Grushenka, while Mitya’s spurned lover Katarina Ivanovna is burning with revenge in her heart, a heart that is being quietly stolen by Ivan. Alyosa drifts between all these parties carrying the story for us. The Karamazovs are born sensualists and are a reflection of Russian society that espouses mysticism and chauvinism unlike the rest of Europe that looks towards idealism and liberalism. “They have their Hamlets, we have our Karamazovs.”

Events bubble to a head when Fyodor disowns Mitya who has stolen Katarina’s money to have a debauched weekend with Grushenka. Desperate to repay Katarina, Mitya runs in circles to find money, threatening to kill his father and commit suicide. When the patriarch is found murdered and 3000 rubles stolen, the main suspects are Mitya, who is found drunk and carousing with Grushenka while spilling money out of his pockets, and Smerdyakov who has just had the most violent epileptic fit that evening. Enter a raft of new characters: prosecutors, defense counsel, police inspectors and witnesses, and the trial gets underway full of big speeches from everyone—giving credence to Dostoevsky’s polyphonic style: many voices from many directions.

Lest I give off spoilers as to whodunnit, let me describe the sub-plots instead: Fr. Zossima’s final hours and his life story that had nothing to do with the Karamazovs; Ivan’s conversations with the devil and his treatise on the Church; the impoverished peasant family of the Snegirigovs and the sickly son Illusa who defends his father’s reputation by throwing stones at and stabbing his tormentors (strangely, when Illusa dies his body does not smell, but saintly Fr. Zossima’s cadaver does); the Hohlakovs, a graceful mother (she is 33 years old at one point and 40 at another – Dostoevsky had poor continuity management, it appears) with an invalid and mercurial daughter; the Krassotkin family and it’s wunderkind, 14 year old Kolya, who talks like an adult and who once slept on the railway lines and wasn’t killed by a train passing over him, who is an avowed socialist and has “no knowledge, but unbounded conceit” per Alyosa.

Then there are characters who walk on and walk out or get lost along the way: Miusov who is suing the monastery, Kalgonov who is heading to university, the two Poles, one of whom is a former lover of Grushenka, the monks in the monastery, Maya and Grigory who are serfs at the Karamazov residence and who decided against accepting their emancipation, Smurov the cheeky student, and the unknown narrator himself who appears to be a resident of this town of Skutoprigonyevsk (which gets only one mention in the book) where this tale largely takes place.

One could argue that there are reasons for these lesser characters and subplots: that Snegirigov is a better father than Karamazov despite the former’s humbler circumstances; that Miusov exists to point out “in dealing with Russian officials, Catholic Socialists are the most suspect”; that Illusa is the saint over Fr. Zossima; that Kolya is the embodiment of the Communism to come, and Grigory is an indicator that change can be legislated but needs to be adopted to take root; that the mentally ill Ivan cautions us against jousting with the devil which reduces atheists to madness, and so on with all the rest of the cast, primary or peripheral. Therefore, these digressions only enrich the canvas that Dostoyevsky draws his final masterpiece upon.

The narrative and the characters brim with freneticism and energy, another Dostoyevsky hallmark, that keeps you reading. The female characters are capricious and forever lapsing into hysterics. “Never trust a woman’s tears,” says the most balanced Madame Hohlakov. The ladies suffer from “self-laceration”; they hurt and betray as much as they love their men. And everyone, men and women alike, is in a state of “aberration.”

Being a devout believer in God, Dostoyevsky leaves us with hope that there will be better days in the end, even for the surviving Brothers Karamazov, each trapped in their respective hells, as we attend a funeral and wish everyone in this very long book, including Dostoyevsky, goodbye.

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Shane actively reads and reviews books by other authors. Below are his most recent reviews.