BOOK REVIEW: The Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal

The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human HistoryThe Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History by Sanjeev Sanyal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a geographic and historical overview of the Indian Ocean from the geological processes that created it to the wave of independence movements that took hold in the wake of the Second World War. The author’s approach is to emphasize the interaction between – rather than within – the various nations of this region. [Though, India in particular, gets a great deal of space devoted to internal happenings. However, given its central location (trading to both the east and the west,) its size, and its cultural influence on the region, it’s not necessarily the case that this is an unfair bias.]

I was happy to find a book that seemed to be just what I was looking for. Having lived in India for more than five years, I’ve often been struck by the intriguing evidence of interconnectedness that I didn’t have the historical background to understand. From a discussion with a Nairobi cab driver who had no idea that chapati (a flat bread common in South Asia, but eaten as far afield as the Caribbean) was anything other than an indigenous Kenyan culinary invention to the fact that Tamil is one of the official languages of Singapore, I’ve often found myself curious about how these connections came to be. This book didn’t disappoint. Sanyal delves right into the fascinating fun facts without getting too bogged down in the who married whom and who fought whom that quickly becomes the tediousness contributing to a lack of enthusiasm for the subject of History among school children. (That said, there is – probably necessarily – some of the stuff that students are forced to memorize, here and there.)

The approach of the book, after an introductory chapter that gives the reader a contextual introduction to the region, is to proceed chronologically. This means the book starts out more geology, geography, and anthropology and gradually becomes more of a history. In the later half of the book, this history is particularly an economic history focused on the products whose trade drove interaction in the region – be it for conflict or for cooperation. Trade is important throughout the region’s history, but we also see a lot the spread of culture earlier, especially the spread of religion. From the spice that was much coveted in Europe to the opium that the British East India Company used to balance its trade with China (resulting in the Opium Wars,) this trade has had a profound impact on the world in which we live.

There are many graphics throughout the book, primarily maps. These are extremely beneficial. The book is annotated with end-notes that provide sources and elaborations.

I found this book to be both interesting and entertaining. The author throws in a one-liner joke now and again, but what I really found humorous were the fictions that were widely believed back in the day. Most of these resulted from merchants telling tall tales to make asking prices more palatable. It’s harder to scoff the price of a diamond if one thinks they were guarded over by gigantic snakes and the only way to get them was to throw meat into a canyon so that Eagles (the only things that could out move the snakes) might snatch up a diamond with its steak. It is also fascinating to learn how the same stories were heard from different sources, suggesting that false information behaving like an infection isn’t new to the internet age.

If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that in the final chapters the author leaves behind the historical objectivity that seems prevalent throughout most of the book. Instead of presenting the information and letting the reader make up their own mind about such events as Subhas Chandra Bose’s (Netaji’s) courting of the Nazis during the Second World War, Sanyal shapes the information he feeds to readers to persuade rather than to inform. I didn’t notice this in earlier parts of the book and suspect it was just easier to be dispassionate about the distant past.

All-in-all, I’d recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about history and trade across the Indian Ocean. I learned a great deal, and found the book readable and intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: City P.D. Smith

City: A Guidebook for the Urban AgeCity: A Guidebook for the Urban Age by P.D. Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Desmond Morris wrote about the rise of super-tribes—groupings of people in which it was no longer possible for every member to know every other. Morris controversially proposed that super-tribes facilitated the growth of many behaviors that are considered weird, perverse, or aberrant. The fact that the seedy underbelly of society resides right under the greatest concentration of noses is one of the reasons we find cities fascinating. But it’s not the only reason. (Smith touches on but doesn’t dwell on the seamy side of the city, including sidebars on gangs and red-light districts.) The tremendous challenges of governance, distribution, transportation, and security that arise when people are packed together are huge.

Smith gives a fascinating overview of the past, present, and possible future of the city. We learn about a time when the most advanced cities in the world weren’t New York, London, or Tokyo, but instead were Sumer, Tenochtitlan, or Angkor. (A nice feature of this book is how much ground it covers geographically. Smith brings in examples from ancient Alexandria to modern-day Mumbai in addition to those from cities–such as New York, Tokyo, and Paris–that might first pop to mind when one thinks of a city.) The reader is shown a city as an organism that has to get food and workers to its heart while expelling a massive accumulation of wastes. Cities require homeostasis as much as does the human body.

The book has eight chapters that discuss topics such as the rise of the city and how it was tied to human endeavors more generally (e.g. on the agricultural front), the development of neighborhoods, the challenge of transportation in an ever-growing community, how cities manage to be exemplary of both wealth and poverty at the same time, how the masses are entertained given the free time that arose from specialization and regulation of the labor market, and what the future of cities might bring. It’s topically, rather than chronologically arranged (though the discussion of the rise of the city is early in the book), and the organization works though it’s not necessarily what would spring to mind if one were outlining such a book.

I found this book fascinating. It’s full of interesting information and uses graphics and sidebars to good effect. If it can be called a micro-history (the subject of the urban world being so encompassing), it’s among the most interesting micro-histories that I’ve read. Whether it’s churches, Chinatowns, or coffee houses, this book lends insight into the nooks and crannies of the modern metropolis. The sections on subway systems and skyscrapers are among the most fascinating sub-chapters. (It just occurred to me that the last sentence could be taken in some sort of freaky, sexual way. That wasn’t my intention. I just find the engineering challenges of such infrastructure to be intriguing.) From gladiatorial combat to the birth of libraries, there’s something in this book to pique a reader’s interest.

I’d highly recommend this book for readers of non-fiction, and in particularly those who enjoy micro-histories.

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BOOK REVIEW: Maphead by Ken Jennings

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography WonksMaphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In a sad commentary TV’s popularity, you may only know Ken Jennings from his record winning streak on Jeopardy, and the books he’s written since then may have escaped your attention. But Jennings isn’t just a fast-handed font of trivia, he writes nonfiction that is approachable, intriguing, and displays a good sense of humor.

Maphead is about maps and the people who love them, and–in some cases–who build their lives around various forms of graphic depiction of our world. In 12 chapters, Jennings not only reflects upon the many forms of map and geography fetish, he also presents insight on the opposite–the often dismaying and sometimes hilarious geographic illiteracy of college students and beauty queens. Besides learning about the million dollar outlays of rare map collectors and the intense rivalry of geocache hunters, Geography Bee contestants, and Traveler’s Century Club members (only those who’ve been to 100+ countries need apply), you’ll hear about a college professor who was fired for letting fly the fact that a majority of his incoming students hadn’t the vaguest idea of the whereabouts of metropoles like London or Chicago.

This book may seem like it’s only for those geeky to an obsessive level, but it’s one intriguing work of geo-geekery. It’s certainly for the intellectually inclined, but Jennings doesn’t bludgeon the reader with his intellect. True, you’ll be introduced to terms like hypsometric maps and cartacacoethes, but never in a manner that suggests a normal person would know such arcane terms. As might be expected from a trivia master, Jennings heavily seasons his book with fascinating tidbits and factoids—particularly in the chapter of the National Geographic “geography bee.” You’ll learn how the borders work between countries that drive on opposite sides of the road (I’ve experienced this myself from Cambodia to Thailand, and that may be the only place in the world where it occurs.) You’ll learn what’s in a name, and why one like “Whorehouse Meadows” was doomed from the start. You’ll learn about why maps that are wrong are often the most prized.

But it’s not all trivia. Jennings takes on serious questions as well. For example, he reflects on the degree to which kids being prohibited from venturing out into the world because of an overblown concern about pedophilic maniacs has contributed to a geographically uninterested and incapable student body. The reader is exposed to a history in which mapmakers were adventurers—the stuff of legends. In doing so, Jennings attempts to reignite a passion for geography that is lacking in a post-frontier world. We’ve become jaded by our planetary proliferation. But the book’s excitement isn’t all in the past. One learns about vintage map thieves and the sometimes wild and wooly world of modern travel (e.g. where one should get passport stamps on a separate sheet of paper to avoid border rectal exams.)

Maybe it’s the maphead in me, but I’d recommend this book for anyone who reads nonfiction. And if you’re not sure whether you’re a maphead or not, there’s a handy quiz in the back of the book.

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