Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Rape Of Nanking by Iris Chang / The Alkahest by Honore de Balzac / Half The Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Although not completely unaware of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, I knew very little of the details or the scale of this war. Therefore, when I saw Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking on Audible, I thought the book would help to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. It most certainly does.

The Rape of Nanking is not a book to be taken lightly and is eight hours listening to despicably savage and brutal inhumanity on a truly incredible scale. Anna Fields does an excellent job of the narration and Chang's research was obviously lengthy and thorough to have uncovered such a wealth of detail. I'm sure so much exposure to this level of horror would have turned her mind, even without the harassment she apparently suffered after her book was published.

For me, her most frightening findings are that the events at Nanking, while being perhaps on the largest scale the world has ever seen, are by no means an exclusive result of Japanese culture - a frequent argument I've heard about other WW2 Japanese atrocities. Similar crimes are an all too human failing, as is our ability to remain at a distance and watch rather than instinctively leaping in to protect the victims. I was disappointed but unsurprised by the fact of post-war political shenanigans allowing Japan's government to essentially get away with their actions. Such is the power of money and political paranoia.

I did find it a little odd than the few 'unsung heroes' of Nanking presented by Chang were all white Europeans and Americans. Surely some Chinese must have shown similar bravery? Or perhaps such heroes died before their stories were discovered. I understand that Chang wrote for an American audience, but that gives the book an odd Colonial slant that I found hard to reconcile with her earlier points. Also, I thought the repeated attempts to calculate total numbers were unnecessary and removed me as a listener from the immediacy of the rest of the work. My mind was blown by the initial discussions of between quarter and half a million dead in less than two months. Returning to this numbed me rather than increasing my outrage as presumably was the point.

The Rape of Nanking is a tricky book to evaluate as its subject matter is so horrific and emotive. That it is also still controversial is a bizarre twist. I appreciate Chang's efforts to spread knowledge and open discussions about Nanking. In this, she certainly achieved her aims. However, this is not the strongest written history and, at times, her inexperience shows through. I am sure by now, nearly 20 years later, other historians have taken up her challenge and further titles are out there. I'm not sure that I will be able to cope with returning to the horror in the near future though.

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Books by Iris Chang / War books / Books from America

The Alkahest by Honoré de Balzac
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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How I got this book:
Downloaded from ForgottenBooks

I downloaded Balzac's Comedie Humaine novella, The Alkahest, together in a volume with Seraphita, another of his stories. Set in Flemish Belgium, The Alkahest concerns a well-heeled family who are driven to the brink of poverty when the father develops an all-consuming passion for chemistry, specifically alchemy. Perpetually convinced that he is at the threshold of a discovery to bring glory and untold riches to his family, he squanders generations of accumulated wealth and possessions to fund his quest.

Balzac's portrayal of the father, Balthazar, is wonderfully written and convincing throughout. His obsession with science did seem an odd choice to me, but as his behaviour deteriorates, obvious parallels can be seen to drug addictions such as to heroin and I would be interested to know if Balzac had any experience of friends or relatives drawn into addiction because he seems to understand the predicament so well. The actions of Balthazar's wife, Josephine, and eldest daughter, Marguerite, are painful to read but also totally realistic. Initially swept up in his enthusiasm for his project, Josephine schools herself in chemistry in order to understand, but is then repeatedly shattered at being cast aside in favour of the obsession. Marguerite finally gains the strength and financial power to stand between Balthazar and his laboratory, but fails to fully comprehend the insidious hold under which Balthazar exists.

The Alkahest is slow to start and it took me a couple of goes reading the first thirty or so pages before I got into the story proper. Balzac feels he needs to explain the family history and their roots within their community in detail. I got the gist pretty quickly! However, I think it was worth ploughing through all the early description as, once done, the plot continues at at swifter pace and was a good read. Perhaps the repetition of rise and fall of circumstance could have been more tightly edited, but Balzac is not a writer who felt the need to economise on word counts! I was surprised by how relevant The Alkahest is to twenty-first century living and would actually recommend it to a wider readership than Seraphita as it does not mire itself in doctrine and dogma.

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Books by Honore De Balzac / Novellas / Books from France

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women WorldwideHalf the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I guess I have come to the Half The Sky book backwards as I have been an active member of Kiva for a couple of years, more recently joining their Half The Sky team as their goals matched my lending history. I was aware of the gist of the book and have now, finally, gotten around to reading it. The lovely people at ESPH, with whom I worked over the summer, gave me an Amazon voucher on leaving and that funded this book's purchase.

I'm not completely sure how I feel about Half The Sky now having read it. Its aims are obviously admirable and by appealing to such a wide audience and being bought in great numbers, its message will reach many people who might previously been unaware of the plight of many of our world's women. However, I felt a bit awkward at the patronising tone in some places. Written primarily for an affluent American audience, there is very much a 'them and us' feel to the writing. Abuses happen 'elsewhere' and the apparent importance and influence of American political decisions to life and death in other sovereign nations is unnerving. It reminded me of the power of the former British empire and of how many of our decisions were catastrophic to those on the receiving end. Also, the emotional manipulation throughout the text is phenomenal! At least the authors are upfront about this. They discuss how experiments have proved that individuals are more likely to donate, and to donate larger sums, to single named individual than to a country or a general appeal. (On reflection, this is also how Kiva works - by putting forward a series of individuals and their stories.) Before and after having made this point, that is exactly what the Half The Sky authors do. Don't expect much in the way of hard facts and figures, but instead there are dozens of anecdotes: stories of first-named women across Asia and Africa who were all horrifically treated, denied medical care, denied education, simply due to their gender. Reading so many tales is a bit like watching the serious bits of Children in Need or Comic Relief. You know you're being manipulated by clever research and editing, but there is a real need too and, by the end, you're pretty punch drunk and overwhelmed.

I am glad I have read Half The Sky. Similarly to The Rape of Nanking, its success is to get the world talking. It has reinforced my commitment to Kiva and I will now also be searching out other deeper books on the topics raised. Suggestions of other titles will be gratefully received.

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Books by Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn / Reportage / Books from America

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