I got on a kick last year which influenced my reading for about six months. It all started when I found a deaccessioned library copy of After You Marco Polo by Jan Bowie Shor. My mom and I had read it together in the early 70s and I've always remembered it. It was even better the second time. The book was published in 1955 and I read it in 1969, then again currently. It surprisingly retains it's relevance as the backdrop is the Silk Road which has been heavily bombed after years of war. I love cultural geography books and this one is at the top of the game.
After I finished that book I wanted to read more about the region so got onto Amazon to see if they had anything relevant or interesting. I found The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan which 238 readers had given 4.5 stars. The author does a remarkable job of condensing 5,000 years of world history into 500 pages. It was a slow read and I found myself picking it and putting it down, trying to digest the interrelationship of western civilization with the rest of the known world. If you read nothing else, read the last chapter, or the last two chapters!
This reminded me of another book that I had enjoyed years ago - Caravans by James Michener and I bought this too, this time from Dudley's, a local and very cool Indy bookstore. Michener wrote this over 50 years ago and his Afghanistan then is just relevant than it was when he wrote it.
The narrator is a Yale man, posted by the State Department to Kabul who ends up inadvertently striking up an unlikely friendship with an American-educated Afghani engineer who has a passionate vision for his country's future. I'm glad this was my book because I ended up writing all through it, but the thing that made me the most sad was when the engineer quipped, "Do you know what I expect...seriously? When a thousand men like me have rebuilt Kabul and made it as best as The City once was, either the Russians or the Americans will come with their airplanes and bomb it to rubble."
I had received a prepublication copy The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach about the same time and since it's set in Belarus, it seemed on-topic to me. It ended up being what I call a stick-to-your-ribs book, it's going to hang around in my thoughts for a while. I have never read anything like it. I kept trying to pigeon-hole it, thinking this is what Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward would look like as a YA book, but that wasn't quite right so I thought, this is a Russian version of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars but it was so much more than that. It's a coming of age story for children who won't have the opportunity to come of age.
What do you say about a hospital in Belarus that exists to serve children born with birth defects following the Chernobyl meltdown? The beginning is a little awkward as our narrator Ivan, born with multiple birth defects, introduces his fellow "asylum inmates." The hospital staff are less than admirable with the exception of one extraordinary and wonderfully compassionate nurse. Ivan and leukemia-patient Polina strike up an unlikely friendship followed by romance in the face of their devastating odds, and it is their pluck and determination to live and thrive that are at the heart of this book. For the subject matter, it's surprisingly easy to read.
For Christmas Ian had given me My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author who won the Nobel-Prize prize in literature. Pamuk does a great job of putting faces on lives of 16th century Istanbul. This was a good companion book to The Silk Roads. However, by the end of 400 pages I had grown impatient with their Islamic rule of order. One man noted "my dearly departed mother advised me that there were two types of people in the world: those who were cowed and crushed by their childhood beatings, forever downtrodden, she said, because the beatings had the desired effect of killing the inner Devils: and those fortunate ones for whom the beatings frightened and tamed the devil within without killing him off." If you liked Humberto Eco's book The Name of the Rose, I think you will like this.
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