Books I’ve Read This Week: History and Culture of Asia and the Middle East

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 49: History and Culture of Asia and the Middle East: During an extended layover at Changi Airport in Singapore earlier in December, I bought a few books with Asian and Middle Eastern themes in a W. H. Smith bookshop sale and have been gradually reading them over the past few weeks. I also listened to a few audiobooks in my collection set in the same regions of the world. The books include a memoir about escaping North Korea, a history of Jerusalem, an analysis of 1990s China and a history of the Mongol Empire as well as three historical novels. Here are this week’s reviews:

#338 of 365¬†A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by¬†Masaji Ishikawa

Date Listened: December 10-11, 2018

Genre: Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 5 hours and 54 minutes

Review:¬†“No one thought or talked about anything except food.” A heartbreaking memoir that provides a rare glimpse of daily life in North Korea from the 1960s to the 1990s. Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan, the son of a Korean father and Japanese mother. Since Koreans were treated as second class citizens in postwar Japan, his father accepted an invitation to immigrate with his family to North Korea in search of a better life. Instead, the author and his family experienced constant shortages of food, housing and basic medical care and were socially ostracized for their Japanese background.

The author discusses his family’s suffering and the differences between propaganda and reality in North Korea at length. The description of the birth of his third child without medical care is especially horrifying. The escape described in harrowing detail at the end of the book is not necessarily a happy ending as the author remains separated from his family. A short and powerful book.

#339 of 365 Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: 14 hours and 20 minutes

Dates Listed: December 11-12, 2018

Review:¬†A engaging overview of Mongol society and government during the reigns of Genghis Khan and his descendants. The author highlights the lasting impact of the Mongol Empire on world history and compares Mongol and medieval European politics and warfare. Genghis Khan himself is the focus of just the first part of the book with the majority of the narrative focused on his children and especially his grandchildren, including the famous Kublai Khan. The book is well written but reliant on a fairly narrow source base, especially The Secret History of the Mongols, and favours positive depictions of the Mongol Empire over critical ones. The book would have benefited from more of the insights from the author’s travels to the region included over the course of the book instead of being confined largely to the introduction/afterword. An interesting audiobook but I preferred The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by the same author.

#340 of 365 The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Dates Listened: December 13-15, 2018

Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: 12 hours and 17 minutes

Review:¬†“You have walked with me through the library past the spines of old friends”A lyrical novel about the Syrian refugee experience today where the travels of one family to safety are interwoven with a tale of the 12th century cartographer Mohammed Al-Idrisi and his map, the Tabula Rogeriana. The novel begins slowly and the audiobook is initially a little difficult to follow as the narrator moves seamlessly between the two time periods. Once the rhythm of the story becomes clear, however, both stories are deeply compelling and compliment one another more and more as the novel progresses. Joukhadar creates rich landscapes with metaphors and telling details and she shows the anxiety of being on a journey where the destination is unclear. An engaging novel that provides a fresh perspective on past and present events.

#341 of 365 Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Genre: History

Date Read: December 14-16, 2018

Format: Paperback, 704 pages

Acquired: Purchased from W. H. Smith, Changi Airport, Singapore

Review:¬†An epic history of religion, politics, war and scandal in Jerusalem with a strong emphasis on how the city fascinates the rest of the world. The book is filled with detailed information about the development of the city including lengthy footnotes that explain recent archeological discoveries and provide biographical information on the historical figures discussed in the text. Simon Sebag Montefiore provides an especially strong overview of the Classical, Crusader and Modern periods of Jerusalem’s history. I would have been interested to read more about the Mamluk and Ottoman influence over the city prior to the 19th century. An absorbing read that places Jerusalem at the centre of world history.

#342 of 365 The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: December 16-20, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 7 minutes

Review:¬†I listened to the audiobook while sipping Pu’er, the tea at the centre of the novel. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is an epic multigenerational novel that encompasses the history of China from the Cultural Revolution to the present, the impact of contact with the outside world on the traditions of the Akha people of Yunnan province, the complexities of transnational adoption and, of course, the health benefits and economics of tea. There is so much fascinating historical and cultural background that the setting and context occasionally overwhelm the human drama at the centre of the novel but the book is always interesting and engaging. The audiobook is well read by a team of narrators who bring the various perspectives to life. The ending is perhaps too brief but deeply moving.

#343 of 365 China Wakes by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Date Read: December 18-20, 2018

Genre: Asian Studies

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 507 pages

Review: I read Half the Sky by the same authors in 2010 and China Wakes has long been on my reading list. The book provides a snapshot of China and its relationship with the wider world in the 1990s, placing the status of women, economy, culture, foreign affairs and politics within a broad historical context. There are some sections of the book that are a little dated because some of the laws discussed in the book, such as the one child policy, have since changed and new issues have emerged. The subjects addressed by the authors, however, remain topical. China Wakes was more of a memoir than I expected as Kristof and WuDunn frequently discuss their conflicts with local authorities and the difficulties of gathering information in their roles as foreign correspondents in China. China Wakes is informative and engaging and I would be interested in reading an updated edition.

#344 of 365 Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Genre: Fiction

Dates Read: December 20-26, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from W.H. Smith, Changi Airport, Singapore

Format: Paperback, 648 pages

Review:¬†I listened to the audiobook of Pachinko earlier this year and greatly enjoyed it. I was delighted to find another novel by the same author. Free Food for Millionaires begins with an inspiring essay about how Lee became an author in the face of repeated setbacks and obstacles. The book itself, however, was not to my taste. Free Food for Millionaires is well written and contains astute social commentary. Both Ella and Leah are complex characters shaped by the expectations faced by women in their Korean-American community. Nevertheless, I disliked the central character, Casey Han, until she stood up for her mother toward the end of the novel. I was not especially interested in the issues that Casey encountered in business school, which dominate so much of the story. The secondary plots also contained some distasteful characters. The New York City setting never really came alive for me as there are few references to local landmarks or other distinctive aspects of the city. Of the author’s two novels, I greatly prefer¬†Pachinko.

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