Archive for June, 2012

River of Smoke

Monday, June 25th, 2012

By Amitav Ghosh

The Short Take:

The second in Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy is about as different from the first novel, Sea of Poppies, as two books can be. This one follows some of the characters of the first book to China, where opium is being smuggled into that country in record amounts. This novel is exceptionally fact driven, featuring many genuine players  — and their actual words — in this saga of the events that led up to the Opium Wars. While not nearly as eventful as the first, it is certainly an eye-opening and entertaining read.


At first I was disappointed with the pacing of this book; it has far more talk than action. However, I slowly began to realize how important all this talk was and what insights it was giving me.

Though it is a novel with invented characters, Ghosh actual did quite a bit of research to accurately present the positions of the traders (i.e. smugglers of opium) and the Chinese government. As someone who had only the vaguest understanding of the Opium Wars, I was astonished to learn these very real men felt that laws preventing the smuggling of opium into China were a barrier to free trade and un-Christian to boot. Seriously.

Fortunately, Ghosh has also leavened this weighty subject with gossipy letters from a young man who hopes to find a special Friend in the Foreign Enclave of Canton, where no women are allowed. Plus, the divided heart of the book’s central character, Bahram Modi, brings a highly personal, and sometimes painful, aspect to the story.

It’s a brilliant book, though some might get bogged down by the intense arguments on the rights of free trade. The characters are so rich and the story is one that needs to be told. Personally, I can’t wait till the next, final installment.

A Little Plot:

Indian Bahram Modi has invested everything he has in a shipload of opium destined for China. While he has gone there on behalf of his family for many years, this is the first time most of the risk and the profit would come to him.

Of course, the opium trade is illegal in China but that doesn’t stop traders from smuggling in massive amounts and becoming extraordinarily rich. But, at last, the Chinese Emperor is cracking down and Bahram stands to lose everything.

A few other characters from Sea of Poppies continue in minor roles and subplots in this epic novel that picks up with the same storm that ended the prior book.

Ghosh has an extensive website that is well worth visiting. You can do so by clicking here. If you want to read my review of his Sea of Poppies (March 8, 2009), click here and scroll down a bit.


Unfamiliar Fishes

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

By Sarah Vowell

The Short Take:

Sarah Vowell’s  histories are as entertaining as they are insightful — which is too a high degree. This one is about Hawaii and the New England missionaries that changed it irrevocably. Vowell puts herself into her work and has a definite point of view. However, she also brings in a lot of context and background so you understand the whys behind actions that to many modern eyes just seem wrong.


The  history books of our school years consistently position America as on the side of all things good. Of course, that depends on your perspective — I’m pretty sure this continent’s native population didn’t hold that opinion in the 1800s. Vowell brings a much broader perspective to her historical books. She looks at issues from all sides, examines the roots of people’s thinking, and brings cultural differences to light. You gain a bigger, much messier picture of the past that is not only far more interesting but also helps you to better understand our present situation.

Plus, she is hugely entertaining, with a hip writing style and wry commentary. While she puts no one on a pedestal, neither does she paint any of history’s makers as complete villains. That makes for a fresher approach to history, knowledge worth having, and an enjoyable read. Win. Win. Win.

A Little Plot:

Unfamiliar Fishes focuses on Hawaii from the time the first missionaries arrived from New England in 1820 until the government coup led by their descendants that toppled the independent Hawaiian government in 1893. That might sound like it will be a one-sided story, basically trashing American imperialism. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Vowell gives you an understanding of how everything from New England Puritanism to Teddy Roosevelt’s belief in a strong navy, to a spend-thrift king played a part in Hawaii’s fascinating history. She also provides a look into the island’s rich and extensive history and culture before it was discovered by the European world.

I learned a lot and enjoyed every minute of it. My extensive 30 second search on line didn’t turn up a website for the author, but if you want to hear an interview with her about this book, click here.


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June 2012