Monday, March 30, 2009

A Comrade Lost and Found by Jan Wong

A Comrade Lost and Found

A Comrade Lost and Found:
A Beijing Story
by Jan Wong

Hardback: 322 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
First Released: 2009

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Source: review copy from publisher

Back Cover Description:
A journalist’s search through Beijing for the classmate she betrayed during the Cultural Revolution reveals three decades of Chinese transformation.

In the early 1970s, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Jan Wong traveled from Canada to become one of only two Westerners permitted to study at Beijing University. One day a fellow student, Yin Luoyi, asked for help getting to the United States. Wong, then a starry-eyed Maoist, immediately reported her to the authorities, and shortly thereafter Yin disappeared.

Thirty-three years later, hoping to make amends, Wong revisits the Chinese capital, with her husband and teenage sons in tow, to search for the person who has haunted her conscience. At the very least, she wants to discover whether Yin survived. But Wong finds the city bewildering—ancient landmarks have made way for luxury condominiums. In the new Beijing, phone numbers, addresses, and even names change with startling frequency. In a society determined to bury the past, Yin Luoyi will be hard to find.

As she traces her way from one former comrade to the next, Wong unearths not only the fate of the woman she betrayed but a web of fates that mirrors the strange and dramatic journey of contemporary China and rekindles all of her love for—and disillusionment with—her ancestral land.

This book is a memoir covering the author's experiences in China when she was college-aged up until just before the Beijing Olympics. The frame story is about her month-long trip to Beijing to find and apologize to a woman she betrayed when she was much younger. As the author tells about her present-day trip, she segues into relevant information about what China is like now and what it used to be like.

It's China like you probably never imagined it. The descriptions of city life are vivid and made me feel as if I was experiencing the trip with her. From the party held in her honor by her old teachers to roaming the streets and looking into bars and massage parlors, the trip is a fascinating one.

The author has the ability to laugh at herself and all but the most serious parts are told with a touch of loving humor.

Overall, the book was well-written and very interesting. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in what China (or, at least, Beijing) is like now and how it's changed in the last forty years.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Mission Impossible

On the tarmac at Newark International Airport, a heat wave makes the August air dance. Inside our Boeing 777, a black flight attendant sings out the standard Chinese greeting. "Ni hao," she chimes, mangling the tones. Nevertheless the passengers, mostly mainland Chinese, seem pleased. When even this American female is trying to speak their language, it reinforces their view that the Middle Kingdom is, once again, the center of the world.

My husband, Norman, and I lived in Beijing for years during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. On this trip back, we are bringing two reluctant fellow travelers, our teenaged sons, Ben, sixteen, and Sam, thirteen. As usual these days on flights to Beijing, every seat is taken. The Chinese passengers in their knock-off Burberry outfits are more self-assured than the handful who left the mainland during Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, the Chinese who traveled abroad were members of official delegations, kept on short leashes, tight schedules and tiny cash allowances.

Foreigners heading to China faced obstacles, too. Beijing rarely issued visas to Americans, but Norman was deemed to be "friendly." His father, Jack Shulman, had been an aide to William Z. Foster, longtime head of the Communist Party USA. In 1965, Jack had gone to Beijing to polish English-language propaganda at Xinhua, the state-run New China News Agency. To the Chinese, it was natural for a son to join his father. Filial piety, however, wasn’t Norman’s motivating factor. The Vietnam War was. At twenty-two, he was looking for an interesting place to dodge the draft.

In 1966, his journey from New York City to Beijing would take days. The United States had no diplomatic relations with China. To obtain a visa, Norman had to fly to London. From there, the only air route to mainland China was a twice-monthly Pakistan International Airlines flight to Canton, now known as Guangzhou. PIA normally refueled twice en route, in Karachi and Dhaka. At the time, India was at war with Pakistan, so Norman’s flight was rerouted through Colombo, Sri Lanka. When his flight finally landed in Canton, he was a jet-lagged wreck. But the arrival of a foreigner was a rare chance to feast at government expense. Hungry local officials insisted on feeding him a ten-course banquet, after which they bundled him aboard a three-hour flight to Beijing.

Forty years later, Continental Airlines flight 89 takes thirteen hours. With the Cold War over, it zips across the Arctic Circle and the former Soviet Union. Our tickets are a bargain, too, 80 percent less expensive in real terms than when I first went to China in 1972. The Middle Kingdom is still on the other side of the world, but it’s no longer far away.


Ben and Sam spent their earliest years in Beijing. They were born during my six-year posting as China correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail. Sam was one when we moved back to Canada in 1994. He remembers nothing. Ben, who was four, has fragmented memories. He recalls making little cakes from Play-Doh with Nanny Ma. He remembers wandering into the kitchen to sit on Cook Mu’s lap.

In 2003, the year severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, broke out in Beijing (and Toronto), Norman and I figured the Great Wall might not be too crowded. After the all-clear, we took the boys back for the grand tour. Along with the Wall, we visited the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an, the Shanghai Bund and the Yangtze River. We picked grapes in Kashgar and sledded down sand dunes in the Gobi Desert.

Now, when I propose a holiday in Beijing, my sons both groan. Ben would rather hang out in Toronto with his girlfriend, Tash, and go mountain biking with friends. Sam prefers to play road hockey and chat on MSN. The boys grow markedly unenthusiastic when I mention I also plan to hire a Chinese tutor in Beijing so they can start each day with private Mandarin lessons.

"Um, do I have to go?" Sam asks politely, hoping good manners will get him off the hook.

"Yes," I say.

"Why do I have to go?" Ben asks belligerently, hoping attitude will get him off the hook.

"Because," I reply enigmatically, "I need you."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh with Richard H. Schneider

No Cover Available

I Dared to Call Him Father
by Bilquis Sheikh with Richard H. Schneider

Trade Paperback: 173 pages
Publisher: Baker Book House
First Released: 1978

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Source: Bought from

Book Description:
This book is the story of a high-born middle-aged Pakistani Muslim woman who converted from Islam to Christianity in 1966. The story describes how she came to convert to Christianity and the consequences to herself and her extended Muslim family over the next six years.

This book is the story of a high-born middle-aged Pakistani Muslim woman who converted from Islam to Christianity in 1966. The story describes how she came to convert to Christianity and the consequences to herself and her extended Muslim family over the next six years.

The book provided a fascinating look into what life was like for Christians in Pakistan in 1966 to 1972. Pakistan is an Islam nation, but apparently the culture was fairly moderate until a change occurred in the government in 1976. Still, at the time Bilquis Sheikh converted, Christianity was for the poor who wanted food and clothing from the missionaries, not for the rich.

The book started with a series of startling supernatural things that happened to her that led her to start deeply studying the Koran and, later, the Bible. Then she took her grandson to a hospital, and a nun suggested she pray to God as her father. The idea was a shocking one, but she tried it...and got a response. After sneaking over to ask questions of two Christian missionaries and carefully considering how converting would affect her life, she becomes a Christian. When the news becomes public, her life was threatened and her own family shunned her. During this time, she also struggled with how to constantly stay in the presence of God and the book shows some of the conclusions she came to.

Overall, the book was a well-written, engrossing, and powerful story. The author was very open about her faults and struggles, both before and after her conversion. I'd very highly recommend it to all Christians.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt: Chapter One
The strange prickly feeling grew inside me as I walked slowly along the graveled paths of my garden. It was deep twilight. The scent of late narcissus hung heavy in the air. What was it, I wondered, that made me so uneasy?

I stopped my walk and looked around. Inside my home some distance across the broad lawn the servants were beginning to flick on lights in the dining area. Outside all seemed peaceful and quiet. I reached out to snip off some of the pungent white blossoms for my bedroom. As I leaned over to grasp the tall green stems, something brushed past my head.

I straightened in alarm. What was it? A mist-like cloud--a cold, damp unholy presence--had floated by. The garden suddenly seemed darker. A chilling breeze sprang up through the weeping willows and I shivered.

Get hold of yourself, Bilquis! I scolded. My imagination was playing tricks on me. Nevertheless, I gathered my flowers and headed quickly toward the house where windows glowed in warm reassurance. Its sturdy white stone walls and oaken doors offered protection. As I hurried along the crunchy gravel path I found myself glancing over my shoulder. I had always laughed at talk of the supernatural. Of course there wasn't anything out there. Was there?

As if in answer, I felt a firm, very real and uncanny tap on my right hand.

I screamed. I rushed into the house and slammed the door behind me. My servants ran to me, afraid to make any comment at all, for I must have looked like a ghost myself.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Odysseus in America by Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.

Odysseus in America

Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming
by Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D.

Hardback: 329 pages
Publisher: Scribner
First Released: 2002

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Source: Bought from

Back Cover Description:
In his acclaimed book Achilles in Vietnam, Dr. Jonathan Shay used the Iliad as a prism through which to examine how ancient and modern wars have battered the psychology of the men who fight. Now he turns his attention to the Odyssey, Homer's classic story of a soldier's homecoming, to illuminate the real problems faced by combat veterans reentering civilian society. Drawing on his years of experience working with Vietnam veterans, Shay illustrates how the Odyssey can be read as a metaphor for the pitfalls that trap many veterans on the road back to civilian life. He also explains how veterans recover, and advocates changes to American military practice that will protect future servicemen and servicewomen while increasing their fighting power.

The Odyssey, Shay argues, offers explicit portrayals of behavior common among returning soldiers in our own culture -- danger-seeking, womanizing, explosive violence, drug abuse, visitation by the dead, obsession, vagrancy, and homelessness. Supporting his reading with examples from his fifteen-year practice treating Vietnam combat veterans, Shay shows how Odysseus's mistrustfulness, his lies, and his constant need to conceal his thoughts and emotions foreshadow the experiences of many of today's veterans. Throughout, Homer strengthens our understanding of what a combat veteran must overcome to return to and flourish in civilian life, just as the heartbreaking stories of the veterans Shay treats give us a new understanding of one of the world's greatest classics.

With a foreword by Vietnam veteran U.S. Senators John McCain and Max Cleland, representing bipartisan support for what Dr. Shay is trying to accomplish, Odysseus in America is an impassioned and cogent plea to renovate American military institutions -- and a brilliant rereading of Homer's epic.

This book discusses how soldiers, both in ancient Greece and in Vietnam, coped with what they'd seen and done during the war once they came home. Ingrained behaviors that once kept them alive now had no place, and civilians (even family) often denied them the emotional safety needed to express their pain and trauma so that they could come to a place of healing.

The first part of the book breaks down the various adventures in Odysseus and shows how each demonstrates an experience or coping behavior of military personal who have returned from war. (A summary version of the epic poem is provided in the appendix for those who haven't read it lately.) The author then gives examples of similar problems and coping behaviors that he's seen in his work with Vietnam veterans with severe PTSD.

The second part of the book briefly discusses several methods the author has successfully used to help restore veterans with severe PTSD to healthy, useful lives.

The last part of the book shows how the current military practices (in organization and incentives) could be changed to help prevent PTSD while also making our forces more effective as fighting units. Frankly, I was appalled to discover that some effective, life-saving military organizational practices were discarded for very petty reasons. I hope things have changed in this regard since 2002.

The author has a very different worldview than I do. He believes that war and subsequent coping behavior come from how we evolved. He also seems to believe that all religions are equally able to help veterans cope with their feelings of guilt. Because of our different worldviews, I was not entirely convinced by several of his conclusions throughout the book.

Overall, this book was interesting and easy to read. The veteran's story's were often heart-rending. This book was a valuable source of information about the struggles of Vietnam veterans, some ways these struggles can be won, and some ways PTSD can be prevented in future generations of military personal. I'd recommend this book to anyone who has served in the military during a war (though there may be better books out there for those who are actually struggling with severe PTSD) or to anyone who wants a better understanding of what Vietnam veterans went through upon their return from war.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Homer's Odyssey is the epic homecoming of a Greek fighter from the Trojan War. Odysseus' trick of the hollow horse got the Greeks inside the walls of Troy, a feat that ten-to-one superiority in troop strength had never achieved. He was the very last fighter to make it home from Troy and endured the most grueling travel, costing him a full decade on the way. Odysseus' return ended in a bloody, triumphant shoot-'em-up. It is now more than thirty years since the majority of American veterans of the Vietnam War have returned home--physically. Psychologically and socially, however, "many of us aren't home yet," in the words of one combat medic.

My portrait of the psychologically injured combat veteran is colored by respect and love. However, I shall conceal none of the ugly and hateful ways that war veterans have sometimes acted toward others and themselves during their attempts to come home and be at home. To the ancient Greeks, Odysseus' name meant "man of hate" or "he who sows trouble." Indeed, some veterans have sown trouble in their families. No one should ever hear from his mother, "You're not my son!" or "Better you died over there than come home like this." Yet veterans with severe psychological injuries have sometimes heard these terrible words.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

In the Footsteps of Paul by Ken Duncan

In the Footsteps of Paul

In the Footsteps of Paul
by Ken Duncan

Hardback: 175 pages
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
First Released: 2009

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Source: Review copy from publisher

Back Cover Description:
Take a Walk with the Apostle Paul.

His was an extraordinary life. The persecutor became a preacher, and the world has never been the same.

Renowned photographer Ken Duncan--the man behind the lens of The Passion of the Christ, Walking with God in America, and Where Jesus Walked--leads us on a photographic tour of Paul's journeys. Within the pages of In the Footsteps of Paul, you'll witness all the drama of the early church and the miracle that was Paul's life. Through stunning imagery of the very places where Paul worked, preached, and endured fierce opposition, you'll catch a glimpse of a life set on fire by God.

This is basically a coffee table book (i.e. a lot of photos but not much text). The photography is truly beautiful, though it seems like about a third of the photos are of icons or paintings which depict some action of Paul's rather than the promised "where Paul travelled." Some of the photos were of "Paul probably saw this" or "this was around [in a city Paul went to] at the time Paul lived." Obviously, it's difficult for us to know exactly what Paul did or didn't see, and even the "this is the spot where..." photos can't be identified as such without a doubt.

There are photographs of roads, gates, ruins of cities, Tells, harbors, sunsets over harbors, arches, churches and other buildings, and more. I've been to some of the places shown in the photos, and I can say he does a good job of capturing the sense of a place. However, I also can't imagine how he managed to get so many pictures of these places at the height of their beauty!

There were also maps showing the travels Paul took to spread Christianity. The photos are arranged to follow Paul's life and travels as given in the Bible, and the accompanying Bible verses about Paul's life are included. The author sometimes includes some narration about Bible times. Other times, he includes quotes from famous people (like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Beth Moore, Rick Warren) which are related to the photos.

The text gave me a nice overview of Paul's journeys (from his conversion to his end in Rome), which I enjoyed. For what it does, this book does it quite well.

Excerpt: Chapter One
"I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia..." --Acts 22:3

[Picture of an old Roman road near Tarsus.]

Tarsus. Not a tiny village, but not quite a sprawling metropolis. In Paul's day, as now, Tarsus was sturdy and hard-working with an affection for learning--much like its most famous son.

This is where it all began. Here the apostle Paul was born, and from here he set out on his life's mission: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though Paul's dogged and tireless efforts, this small, ancient city became the epicenter of something that changed the world forever.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices by Andrew Dalby

Dangerous Tastes

Dangerous Tastes:
The Story of Spices
by Andrew Dalby

Trade Paperback: 184 pages
Publisher: University of California Press
First Released: 2000

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Source: Bought from

Back Cover Description:
Spices and aromatics--the powerful, pleasurable, sensual ingredients used in foods, drink, scented oils, perfumes, cosmetics, and drugs--have been among the most sought-after substances in human history. Dangerous Tastes explores their captivating history, the fascination they have aroused in us, and the roads and seaways by which trade in spices has gradually grown. Andrew Dalby, who has gathered information from sources in many languages, explores each spice, interweaving its general history with the story of its discovery and various uses.

Dalby concentrates on traditional spices that are still part of world trade: cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, saffron, and chili. He also discusses aromatics that are now little used in food but still belong to the spice trade and to traditional medicine: frankincense, myrrh, aloes-wood, balsam of Mecca. In addition, Dalby considers spices that were once important but that now are almost forgotten: long pepper, cubebs, grains of Paradise.

Dangerous Tastes relates how the Aztecs, who enjoyed drinking hot chocolate flavored with chili and vanilla, sometimes added annatto (a red dye) to the drink. This not only contributed to the flavor but colored the drinker's mouth red, a reminder that drinking cacao was, in Aztec thought, parallel with drinking blood. In the section on ambergris, Dalby tells how different cultures explained the origin of this substance: Arabs and Persians variously thought of it as solidified sea spray, a resin that sprung from the depths of the sea, or a fungus that grows on the sea bed as truffles grow on the roots of trees. Some Chinese believed it was the spittle of sleeping dragons. Dalby has assembled a wealth of absorbing information into a fertile human history that spreads outward with the expansion of human knowledge of spices worldwide.

This book is on food history. Despite the description given on the back cover, the focus is more on studying the spice than on the history of people's efforts to get the spice. I strongly suspect that people who enjoy spices and who already have a working knowledge of them in the present will find this book more interesting than those who only know a little about them. I was able to best follow and understand the information on the spices I was most familiar with (like ginger and cinnamon) than the ones I'd never used before or which are no longer available.

Each spice has a page or two written about it. Included are quotes from ancient sources which mention the spice, descriptions of the plant the spice is from and how the spice is made, information on where the spice originally came from and its spread (where it came to be grown), how the spice was used, which cultures used it, the trade routes and who traded it (if known), the value of the spice (if known), and ancient recipes using the spice. There were also brief sections describing the conflicts between nations as they tried to cheaply acquire certain spices.

I would have appreciated maps showing where the spice was grown and the ancient trade routes used to get it, but none were included. However, the author did give enough of a description that I could probably work it out on my own if I spent some time at it.

While the information was interesting and detailed, it was conveyed in a very dry way, like a textbook. In fact, I think this book would have been more accurately titled The Encyclopedia of Spices. However, it's clear that the author extensively researched the topic. This book probably contains the most accurate information known about spices, so this is the book to read if you're doing research on them.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Human beings will always be searching for the exotic--for what we cannot get at home. Trade by land and sea, difficult, slow, costly, dangerous as it has always been, has brought the flavours and aromas of the other side of the world to our food and festivity.

'The other side of the world' is literally true. Spices are among the earliest products that have crossed the globe in trade networks. This book traces the early travels of ginger, sugar, frankincense and myrrh, musk, and ambergris, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. In doing so it visits China, central Asia, Russia, Iran and Iraq, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Arabia, Egypt, west Africa and many European countries. The explosion of new spice routes after Columbus brings more regions into the story: Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Ecuador, Brazil, and Peru.

Spices are aromatics, used in food, festivity and medicine: natural products, traditionally prepared for long storage and distant travel. The parallel story of herbs is not told here. In that story the leading role is taken by gardeners, not traders, for the virtue of herbs is at its peak when they are fresh and green. 'Spice,' in this book, is defined by distant origin and long-distance trade, as well as unique aroma.