Book Reviews: Unfolding Journeys Series – Secrets of the Nile and Following The Great Wall

Available in bookshops nationwide.

The Unfolding Journeys series is a hands-on, tactile exploration series. Aimed at year 3 and 4-year school kids it encourages them to open up a new world – literally. Both books are made of card, with 6-fold, 7- page, double-sided maps.

cv_secrets_of_the_nile.jpgThe book, Secrets of The Nile starts at Alexandra and trails back through 55 points of interest to the ‘source’ of the Nile. Illustrated like a kid had drawn it – albeit a gifted and well-informed one – the book gives us soundbite-sized insights into key geographic and historical landmarks like Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, the position of the Rosetta Stone and Amarna, the city of the sun god. Famous faces like Nefertiti, Lady of Grace and the famous Nile crocs put in an appearance. There’s even a reference to a 3,500-year-old port of Al Quseir, which has taken on new life as an inland beach resort. Not all the references are to ancient worlds. There’s a nod to tourism (river boat cruises), Tunis’ pottery and comments about Fava bean growing and agriculture.

On the back of each page is a two-paragraph legend explaining more about each numbered location. These are short and snappy but avoid being patronising of dumbed down. My daughter became a bit of an expert on the Nile lickety-split by tracing each fact from its map number to the detailed explanation. Then she quizzed me. I failed!

I mentioned that the illustrations seemed like a kid had produced these. They were actually done by Argentinian Vanina Starkoff. Bright, colourful and immediately accessible, they are easy to digest, along with Stewart Ross’ clean, punchy text. He’s an expert on travel facts, having produced over 300 titles. He might just know a thing or two about the world.

cv_following_the_great_wallWith the same formula, Hong Kong illustrator Victo Ngai provides the pictures for Following The Great Wall. Again, it’s a trip by numbers starting at the Turpin Basin – an enormous hole “the size of Wales”, 155m below sea level and the fourth lowest on Earth that’s not under water. This is one fact I definitely did know the Wall. The other facts like the Recumbent Buddha of Zhangye, the City of Xi’an and, of course the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an. The Wall is the only man-made structure that can be plainly seen from the Moon, they reckon. It stretches across the country to the coast. So naturally, there’s a mention about the Black-faced Spoonbill and the magnificent Young Lady’s Gate, which is beautifully rendered. Again, the art is short and cleverly simple. The text is also simple, but again, factual and easy to digest.

Both books are multi-returns. A reader can dive in and out or event fold it out and use a dice to count spaces to each location. How you go about it is entirely individual. Either way, it’s great to see a learning tool that doesn’t require charging, uploading or it’s screen cleaned for sticky finger prints. The heavy card construction makes this series ideal for classroom use, too. A great learning tool. Old skool!

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Unfolding Journeys – Secrets of the Nile
by Stewart Ross, illustrations by Vanina Starkoff
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN  9781786575371

Unfolding Journeys – Following the Great Wall
by Stewart Ross, illustrations by Victo Ngai
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781786571977

Book Review: Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Colonisation – this is why it came about. The Bible says, “God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'(Genesis 1: 26-28)”

cv_barkskinsBarkskins is a superb novel about forests, those who cut them, those who protect them, and many worlds that have long gone. It takes you hurtling through decades in the lives of the descendents of two men: Rene Sel, and Charles Duquet. Both men come from a labourer’s life in France, brought over by Monsieur Trepagny to clear his land in ‘New France’ – in a region which at that time was part of the Mi’kma’ki lands, though these were contested by the Iroquois. Charles disappears into the woods as soon as he can, while Rene resigns himself to a life as a forester, and is forced to marry a Mi’kmaq woman, Mari. “In every life there are events that reshape one’s sense of existence. Afterward, all is different and the past is dimmed.” This is the beginning of a long line of Sels.

We pick up with Charles at the start of the next section. After being healed of his many infections by some Ojibwa Indians, he decides to go into the fur trade. Wealth from fur trading, particularly in China, leads to his purchase of great forests, and as the chapters on his life end, we see Charles Duquet reform into Charles Duke, and head South into New England to begin a new life with adoptive sons alongside (and a wife safely back in the Netherlands).

As son begets son, begets daughter, I fell in love with many characters, only to have them cruelly wiped out by a forest fire, house fire or sometimes, simply, an infection. Proulx has a gift for giving the perfect deaths to the most awful characters. One particularly petty character was wiped out by a flash frost while on a slow boat on his way back to his daughter. Such a good death. The most surprising death goes to a wife of one of Duquet’s adoptive sons. I won’t say much more than that, but it led to one of the few laugh-aloud moments in the book.

And everything comes back to the forests, the inestimable, ever-lasting forests. Proulx expertly tells these stories of great loss with no emotion, presenting the Native Indian side of the story alongside the ravenous, exploitative colonial side. You mourn the loss of the Native Indian medicinal plants and their native knowledge of how to live off the land; and later, the disgusting way in which they were treated. You mourn as these colonials blindly remove all the life around them, unknowingly destroying the land they have stolen; or taken in exchange for a few kettles, for a few axes.

Indians are seen as wastrels, because of their habit of living in harmony with nature, rather than bending nature to do their bidding. They are slow to take to growing food in gardens, and to farming – and as they are outnumbered due to disease, and have to live by the white men’s rules, and buy their food, they are forced to work for the white men. Throughout the book, we follow many of Sel’s forest-cutting descendents; but always, this work is seen as compromise, and there are sporadic returns to the old hunting grounds, later to the Reservation, to see the changes wreaked. “…they must live in two worlds, they went because inside they carried their old places hidden under the centuries, hidden as beatles under fallen leaves, as pebbles in a closed hand, hidden as memories.”

Every character we encounter tells a piece of the overall arc of story. The most interesting character in feminist terms was Lavinia, as she made great strides forward in being in charge of her destiny, and that of her family. As a woman in business in the 1880’s, she was an enjoyable anomaly. Later, Lavinia’s husband Dieter is the first of several conservationists we encounter in the book: it is through his eyes we begin to understand the changes wrought on the land they have taken.

Barkskins is, without doubt, a master work. I am grateful that Proulx’s publishers trusted her genius wholeheartedly enough to give her the time and space to write this saga. There are so many characters there that we could learn more about, and I’d love to see a follow on story, particularly one involving the formidable Sepatisia.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Annie Proulx
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN  9780008191764



Xu Zhiyuan: Culture Crisis at #AWF16

pp_xu_xichuanFifty years ago, China underwent a cultural revolution, and with the anniversary of this momentous moment in Chinese history so close, Jeremy Rose began the session by asking Xu Zhiyuan the question, “How will China celebrate this anniversary?” With certainty, Zhiyuan said that there will be no mention of this event. For the country, it is still taboo to mention this revolution, especially in the media and public spaces. While he was born in the year of the death of Mao Zedong, a post-revolution 1976, Zhiyuan says that there was still at that time a shadow that the citizens live under, and that this remains to this day.

He expanded on this by using a metaphor that he was told by a friend. “It’s like a snake’s shadow” coming from above, hanging on a chandelier, “even if it doesn’t move, it can eat you at any time.” It is this looming fear that creates this cultural crisis.

In admiration of well-known bookshops, such as Shakespeare & Company in Paris, Zhiyuan opened his own bookshop (One Way Street Library) in Beijing in an attempt to create a cultural icon for China. Here talks and discussions are held, but while initially these included everything from politics to current affairs, Zhiyuan says that in the last few years this has shifted more to talking about art and literature. The taboo and fear of the past generations still exists, it is an ever-present shadow. Rose asked, “How do you know what not to talk about?” Zhiyuan responded by saying, almost jokingly, “it’s like dating a lady”. When can you cross the line, when can and can’t you do and say certain things. Zhiyuan says that what might be okay today might not pass in a month, “it’s about feeling the mood”, and practicing walking on the border.

But this fear for Zhiyuan and newer generations moves into a slightly different space. With the globalisation of China as a major economic power, an element of consumerism has been introduced into mainstream culture. This has left people feeling fragmented, and fearful of losing everything. Zhiyuan says that everyone feels weak and has no expression. The materialism that is pushed in the home is creating a spiritually and culturally weak society.

cv_paper_tigerAnd this is where for Zhiyuan this culture crisis comes from. He says that it is important for the new generation to learn about history and culture, especially in this globalising age. He compares China’s global economic expansion to the British Empire’s expansion. The main difference for him lies in the fact that the British expansion included culture, writers, anthropologists, and so on, where with China this is not present, even in the digital age.

Rose mentioned the tone of Zhiyuan’s book, Paper Tiger, as being very pessimistic. But Zhiyuan says that it is precisely because he is optimistic “that I can say a lot about the dark side of China.” He remains hopeful of the future, even with all of the problems facing China.

Attended and reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Paper Tiger: Inside The Real China, published by Head of Zeus, ISBN 9781781859797

Book Review: The Devouring Dragon – How China’s rise threatens the natural world, by Craig Simons

I’ve never read a book about zombies, and now I don’t need to. cv_the_devouring_dragonThis book is frightening enough.

Craig Simons is a reporter on the environment, principally from Asia. In this brief account, he describes the effect that China’s phenomenal economic development over the last few decades has had on the environment of the whole planet. He bases this book on reporting trips over the period 2009-2012, and has conversations with many interesting people in some unexpected places. He blends personal stories, reportage, theory, and scientific and historical background, in a lively, often gripping way which carries the reader along a bleak road.

The environment is a broad topic, but there are two main themes: carbon emissions, which of course accelerate the rate of climate change world-wide, and the destruction of the natural world to satisfy China’s ever-growing need for resources.

As far as emissions are concerned, China is, per capita, the largest user of coal in the world. The author details the extent of this use, and discusses rather mournfully the lack of tangible results from the Kyoto and Copenhagen agreements. He puts the blame for this failure not only to China, but the developed world as well, describing the agreements as poorly implemented.

In terms of the natural world, China looks like a giant vacuum cleaner. It is the largest market for threatened species of wild-life, principally for use in traditional medicine. It has changed from being self-sufficient in forestry to stripping huge areas of tropical forests. Soy-beans are needed – so farmers in Brazil clear vast swathes of the Amazonian rain-forests. And there are many more examples, covering a wide geographic range. The author starts in Colorado, visits New Guinea, Brazil, India and many other places. New Zealand gets two mentions: for what is described as the alarming rate in which land is being converted to dairying, and for mining coal. You may disagree with one or both of these and that stimulation of discussion is one of the book’s strengths.factories_china

The issues are described partly by observation – the book becomes a travelogue in places – and partly using a huge number of figures, which are carefully interwoven into the narrative so not to appear as reference material. He covers a vast amount of ground, and while I knew that China’s growth had costs, the full impact and the wide geographical sweep of the depredation astonished me. Many of his figures will be obsolete very quickly of course, but that does not matter: they give a scale which it is sometimes difficult to appreciate: one fifth of humanity, one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, one half of all coal burnt in the world.

But there’s a loaded word in that paragraph. Depredation – really? Why should the Chinese not aspire to the same standard of living as other economies who started their exploitation of the environment earlier? Simons does not shy away from this, and makes it clear that China alone cannot solve the problems. Cooperation on an unheard-of scale between the large economies is the only hope for any solution. This cooperation founders of course on self-interest; NZ is unlikely to want to stop selling dairy products.

Simons is sympathetic towards China, and makes it clear that there is nothing to be gained by being anti-China. He takes a number of historical detours, showing that at least some of the blame lies with the West.tiger_boner

What about solutions? The author describes some attempts that have been made to resolve some of the issues. For example, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a major factor in the dreadful loss of Rhino, Tigers and other animals. Yet many doctors in China realise that TCM is worthless, and are trying to teach the population that this is so. Without much success so far – and it is here that we see the vast range of China, geographically, ethnically and socially. It would be fair to say that while Simons describes solutions in many areas, he is pessimistic about the likelihood of success any time soon.

As always with books on complex topics, I want to be assured that the author is worth trusting. And he is a journalist after all! He is an American, was a Peace Corps volunteer in China, studied widely and now lives in Beijing. He has reported on the environment from “a dozen” Asian nations, for newspapers and magazines. He has taken information from a lot of sources, and talked to a lot of smart people. Often the source material is not allowed to disrupt the flow of the book but is relegated to forty pages of notes, which are reassuringly complete. The writing is excellent – it is well paced, mixes direct observation of situations world-wide with reflection, and he has a great knack for highlighting one small detail which epitomises the big picture. It would have been easy just to write a lament but he hasn’t.

So, no zombies but the book frightened me anyway, and left me both better informed and more concerned. Well worth reading.

The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens the Natural World
by Craig Simmons
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551888

Forty Years On: New Zealand-China relations then, now and in the years to come, edited by Chris Elder

This book is currently available in selected bookstores.

This slim volume is a skilfully edited digest of the proceedings of two symposia held incv_forty_years_on 2012 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and China. These two symposia were organised by the Victoria University Contemporary China Research Centre, the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. But don’t let those big names put you off! This is a very approachable book.

These symposia (one in Wellington, the other in Beijing) attracted some very high-powered, and knowledgeable, people including the Prime Minister and other political leaders, government officials, academics, business people and journalists. The two days’ deliberations have been, in the words of the preface, “marshalled so far as possible into broad subject areas” which cover a wide range. The establishment of the relationship between the two countries, the current state of relationships, its future challenges, past successes and difficulties, and effects both big and small, are all traversed.

The range of topics covered is enormous – and since the book is just 129 pages some have obviously had summary treatment. But the overall coverage is impressive. As well as the development of closer relationships, and the obvious trade and economic ties the deliberations included the cultural differences, NZ’s Chinese community, and the role of New Zealand and China in the regional (South Pacific) context.

The editor is well placed to tackle the task of summarising these deliberations. Remember Joe Walding? He lead the first mission to make direct contact with China at a ministerial level. He was accompanied by the editor, who at that time was a career diplomat. He returned to China as NZ Ambassador in 1993, and his wealth of experience shows in the way that these deliberations have been organised, and background material added where necessary.

Sections on the history and development of China-New Zealand relationship are valuable in putting the current situation and participants’ thoughts about what might happen in the future into context.

The book is well presented, with a few graphs and (mostly historical) photographs. Frequent asides help fill in the detail. Did you know that NZ is called the “Country of the Four Firsts” in China? That’s an indication of how advanced our relationships with China have been. Most of it is, perhaps surprisingly, easy to read   as the majority of the material is reporting direct speech I guess.

I approached this book with a certain amount of trepidation. I knew little about China-New Zealand relations other than that many things I bought were made in China, and that milk which might be contaminated with botulism is a hard sell. While not every section was equally gripping, I came away feeling much better informed, and I feel much more able to appreciate and understand many things I see in newspapers. One of the speakers refers to the level of ignorance about China in New Zealand being “still quite remarkable”. This book should shed some light into that darkness, and I’m glad I read it.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Forty Years On: New Zealand-China relations then, now and in the years to come
edited by Chris Elder
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739155    

Book review: The Phoenix Song by John Sinclair

This book is in bookstores now. It is also the Listener Book Club book for December.

John Sinclair, with his first novel The Phoenix Song, has created something of a challenge for readers. The story is densely packed with the history of relations between Russia and China and at times this can be overwhelming. He also introduces just enough authentically named Chinese and Russian characters to make it difficult, but not impossible, to remember who they are. We are helped by his decision to include a contents page and chapter headings to signpost some of the shifts in time and place. I had the feeling that he could have made it even more complex, and that the novel he has given us is a judgement call. It already takes a dedicated reader to commit the concentration required; if he had gone any further he might have lost us all.

The commitment and concentration required to get to grips with The Phoenix Song, however, most certainly has its rewards.

Told through a first person narration by Xiao Magou, starting in 1950, a year after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China when she was eight years old, the story reveals remarkable aspects of life in the young nation. With a father who is a party official, the young Xiao’s musical talent is quickly recognised and cultivated, but ever present throughout her story is the all embracing power of the party and the extreme control it exercised over the population. Entangled in Xiao’s story is the complexity of Chinese-Russian relations, with secretive negotiations about treaties and personal relationships; the Russians feature heavily in Xiao’s early life, and her parents’, as well as at the Shanghai Conservatory where she studies violin.

The book is dense with history but it has its lighter moments, usually when the Russians are involved. Sinclair has great technical control of the words on the page, and effortlessly moves into dialogue and flashback when relating events that Xiao witnesses, as well as stories she hears from her mother, or imagines when looking at photographs. Some of the exchanges between the Russians at the Conservatory are, while not exactly laugh out loud, highly amusing.

There’s a darker side to the humour as well. Some of the decisions by the Party in relation to musical development in China would be, if they weren’t true, laughable. The demands on citizens to be productive, to labour, in culture as well as the fields and factories, seem absurd to our understanding of what creativity is. The very idea of quotas for symphonies and songs, as if they were tonnes of pig iron, is remarkable. The arbitrary decisions on which western composers are suddenly in favour, and those that are to be discarded, are equally astounding. When students at the Conservatory have to suspend their studies for days just to attack Debussy and his work, to burn his scores, we’d like to think it is purely fiction, but we know it isn’t; Sinclair has done his homework.

The story has an arc which is relatively predictable. Sinclair is a New Zealand writer, and the book is published by Victoria University Press. The promotional paragraph on the cover says it moves between China, Europe and New Zealand. It doesn’t take much thinking to work out what is going to happen, especially when Sinclair drops in the occasional paragraph to make sure we know Xiao is telling the story from a point a long way into the future. Nevertheless, the way he weaves together the events is skilful and accomplished, and creating a consistent and convincing voice on the page for a young Chinese girl in the 1950s is quite an achievement.

While I think what Sinclair has produced is certainly an interesting and technically accomplished novel, it didn’t engage me quite as much as I’d hoped. Using the first person to relate a mostly chronological story means sometimes the narrative drags. Xiao consistently relates details of what she sees in a colourful way, which certainly paints a detailed picture of her surroundings for the reader, but tends to slow things down. There are moments of excitement and tragedy, but Xiao is emotionally cold. There’s a reason for this, but I had hoped to see more of her feelings.

The Phoenix Song is a book about a world so different to ours it demands to be read.

Music and freedom (or its absence) are its themes, and it reveals frightening truths about the role these played in determining the future of twentieth century society. Xiao’s young life touches decisions and people – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiao Ping, Khrushchev – at the highest level of geopolitics. It might not be as emotionally engaging as I had hoped, but it is certainly a book worth reading. Whether John Sinclair is contemplating writing a second volume of Xiao’s story I don’t know – it will be obvious what this should cover once you’ve read The Phoenix Song – but I would certainly be near the front of the queue if he does.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Phoenix Song 
by John Sinclair
Published by Victoria University Press, October 2012
ISBN 9780864738257

Read more about The Listener Book Club.

Winner of a copy of The Phoenix Song thanks to Victoria University Press. We asked people to comment below if they’d like to win a copy of this book – the lucky winner (chosen by random number generator) is Kerry Aluf.