Book Reports


14211On the cover of my copy of Gavin Menzies’ book 1421 is a quotation from the New York Times Magazine review. It reads, “[Menzies] makes history sound like pure fun.” That’s probably because the author’s conception of history leaps straight out of his imagination. The central premise of the book, that Chinese explorers discovered the New World 70 years before Columbus, is pure fiction.

I got suspicious about three paragraphs into the book’s introduction, which Menzies spends explaining why he, a submarine captain with no advanced historical training, picked up on something of such magnificent importance that had slipped passed thousands of other brilliant historians. The trick, he says, is that he knows the seas. That salty wisdom apparently gave Menzies the power to upend almost 600 years of established historical record.

As soon as the book was published, actual academics with actual credibility came out of the woodwork to dismiss Menzies hypothesis. An expert on Chinese naval power in the 15th century criticizes Menzies for ignoring Chinese primary sources from the time, which extensively document exploration but make no mention of the Americas. Patricia Seed of Rice University called one element of the tall tale “meteorologically impossible” and says he’s got “absolutely the wrong progression of maps and mapmaking.” Other scholars have pointed out that there is virtually zero evidence of China discovering the new world in China, a criticism Menzies dismisses because later Chinese emporers ordered the destruction of records. Ever heard of a government managing to burn EVERY book?

It’s not that the Chinese exploration hypothesis is provably false. It’s that the hypothesis has no credible evidence to support it. It’s like if I wrote a book saying aliens seeded earth with DNA because, well, there’s DNA on earth. Sure, the story could be true but that’s not good enough to rewrite history. It’s kind of embarrassing, if not surprising, that publishers actually got behind this historical novel.

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thousand-splendid-suns1I rediscovered reading this week, and the book I owe thanks to is Khaled Housseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. The novel revolves around two Afghan women, Laila and Mariam, who suffer unspeakable heartbreaks over and over again. Housseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner, explores themse of guilt, regret, and forgiveness in the face of horrendous tragedy. This follow-up, set in Afghanistan around the same as The Kite Runner, reopens those wounds and examines them from a female perspective.

Housseini is a tremendous storyteller and his book is a pageturner, but the truly mezmerizing thing about this book is the deep insight Housseini allows us into his man characters. Mariam and Laila’s experiences as women in Afghanistan are understood in the West conceptually, but not emotionally. This book changed that for me.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is not a great peice of literature, however. Aside from Mariam and Laila, most of the novels characters are flat and lacking in nuance. Sometimes it seems they exist in the book only to make one point over and over, as in the case of Laila’s mother. “Mammy” is an educated, liberal Afghan woman who suffers the death of her sons at the hands of the soviets. In the throws of depression, she acts as a foil to Laila’s positive, progressive mindset. But that’s all she does, because Mammy seems to lack any other define characteristic.

Still, this novel is well worth reading if only for the deep, emotional insight it offers into the lives of Muslim women in places like Afghanistan.

So I’m plowing through the latest HP book and several thoughts occur (no spoilers, don’t worry):

  • I cannot keep track of all these characters and allusions to past events in the storyline. Where did this broken mirror come from? Why is Voldemort mad at Malfoy’s dad? I need a Harry Potter encyclopedia to look all this stuff up in, or at least access to my sister’s encyclopedic knowledge.
  • Hogwarts and quidditch and homework becomes less and less important in each book. It’s like Rowling started writing a children’s serial, like the Hardy Boys with magic, but it turned into an epic.
  • I always read too quickly, skimming for the action, and I end up missing lots of juicy details.
  • Ginny sounds hot, but Ron’s all pissy and won’t let Harry make a move.
  • Tonks reminds me of some one, but I can’t figure out who. What a great name, btw.
  •  Viktor Krum sounds like the name of a Russian (Bulgarian?) pastry.

Special thanks to Carlee for hooking me up with a PDF version. I assume she bought it online and gave it to me as a present. 😉