THE WORLD (VIA BOOKS) THEN AND NOW
By Martin B. Deutsch
January 8, 2009 -- Encouraged by favorable comments regarding my two previous columns of book reviews, I'm going to the well once more. Here's my take on two novels and a long overdue biography, about 800 years if you're counting, of a giant figure on the world scene.
As always, these titles are easily available via the popular online booksellers and on audiotape, which is my preferred mode of consumption.
GENGHIS KHAN AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN WORLD
Published in 2004, this is an absorbing journey into the life and legacy of this planet's single greatest conqueror. It goes far beyond the generally perceived notions about the man and those of his bloodline who followed him in power.
Written by American anthropologist Jack Weatherford, who spent years in Mongolia researching Genghis Khan's little-known early years, this epic saga transforms its central figure from a ruthless, brutal, militaristic barbarian into a relatively progressive icon. As Weatherford persuasively argues, Khan, his sons and grandsons brought about the innovations that would ultimately help bring about both the Renaissance and Enlightenment in Europe and other parts of the world. This is a genuinely amazing story as well as an historic conversion of one man's reputation.
Already in his middle years when his Cavalry of never more than 100,000 men moved beyond the borders of Mongolia, Genghis Khan in a quarter of a century would bring under his control what today encompasses 30 nations and three billion people. (The entire Mongolian population never numbered more than a million.) The hooves of his horses would splash from the waters of the Pacific to the waters of the Mediterranean, ultimately encompassing most of China; India; the entire Muslim world including Persia; all of central Asia; as well as Russia, Hungary and parts of Poland and Germany. In terms of territory, Genghis Khan's conquests far exceeded the acquisitions of other legendary figures such as Alexander the Great and Napoleon. (He twice failed to successfully invade Japan with huge armadas, the first time because of a massive storm, which the Japanese have always called Kamikaze, or divine wind.)
Born on Mongolia's inhospitable steppes in 1162 to a small family of herders and hunters, his formative years were without a single day of formal education. It was a harsh, almost primitive existence. By the year 1206, however, he had gained control and the loyalty of most of the rival Mongolian tribes. He continually moved beyond his own borders until 1227, when he died of natural causes. For decades and centuries, his sons, grandsons and heirs would continue to rule much of the territory Genghis Khan had conquered. As late as 1920, one of his direct descendents still played a ruling role in Uzbekistan.
Genghis Khan's Cavalry units, highly organized and unencumbered by wagons (they lived off the land) relied on speed, deception, psychological warfare based on fear and the most advanced weaponry of that period. In his wake, Genghis Khan developed trade and commerce, particularly along the Silk Route later traveled by Marco Polo. He and his heirs introduced innovations such as paper currency, a postal service and printing. He also propagated religious tolerance and abolished torture, all this when a supposedly more civilized Europe was burning heretics at the stake and cruelly dismembering and executing its criminals. In the middle of the century following Genghis Khan's death, circa 1348, the onset and spread of the Bubonic plague would inspire the panic and isolation that would lead to the destruction of his empire.
There's a lot more to this book than the brief highlights that I've tried to convey. This is certainly one book that I recommend without reservation. It's a highly readable eye-opener.
A novel rooted in the Civil War, Geraldine Brooks' March gives us an imagined version of the life of Amos Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa Mae Alcott, his oldest daughter who would go on to write Little Women and two famous sequels.
Nearing middle age, the character that Brooks calls March leaves his wife and four daughters during particularly difficult times and serves the Union as a pastor and sometime medic. Having traveled through the South in his late teens as an itinerant salesman, March revisits the scene of a particularly traumatic incident when he developed a romantic interest in a young slave woman fathered by a highly educated and well-read plantation owner. The harsh realities of slavery--before the war, once the fighting begins and with emancipation on the horizon--is portrayed in all of its inconceivable brutality. March goes off to fight as an idealist, but he is soon stripped of his illusions. Incidentally, both in real life and in this fictional narrative, Bronson Alcott and the March character socialize with neighbors such as Thoreau and Emerson.
This novel is written with carefully nuanced emotion and great skill. It's not always easy to read, but it provides a worthwhile excursion into an epochal time in America's history. Geraldine Brooks spins a gripping story.
THE GHOST WAR
Written in 2008 by The New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, The Ghost War continues the saga of John Wells, a CIA anti-terrorist agent, who was introduced in Berenson's first thriller, 2006's The Faithful Spy. In that first novel, John Wells goes underground with Al Qaeda and the Taliban and, of course, ends up saving New York City from a nuclear holocaust. I wasn't enchanted by The Faithful Spy, but it showed that Berenson certainly knew how to tell a story.
In The Ghost War, we find Wells and his CIA colleagues, including his lady friend, recruited to stop a plot by a senior Chinese general. He wants to go to the brink with Uncle Sam in order to gain ultimate control of his own country. This book is tautly written and well-plotted, although I found that several episodes in Berenson's narrative lacked credibility. But The Ghost War is a fast read and entertaining and I believe that the stage is set for the next John Wells epic.
ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2009 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.