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[765] A Short History of the World – H. G. Wells

“From the sixteenth century onward the history of mankind is a story of political and social institutions becoming more and more plainly misfits, less comfortable and more vexatious, and of the reluctant realization of the need for a conscious and deliberate reconstruction of the whole scheme of human societies in the face of needs and possibles new to all the former experiences of life.” (Ch.52, p.250)

First published in 1922, crammed into just under 350 pages, in highly lurid and readble prose, is the history of the origins of the world millions of years ago until the outcome of the First World War. The book is impressive in its scope and groundbreaking in its approach. It’s the first book of its kind to try and narrate the entirety of the planet’s history on an evolutionary, sociological, and anthropological basis.

Although it’s a period piece, somewhat outdated, Wells gives us a survey of how the world, or more aptly, its political organization comes to be such today. It is free from the certainties of opinion held in Edwardian England. It is not Euro-centric, only focusing on the significant role Europe and its empires over the centuries plays in the development of human beings.

Wells’ history doesn’t focus on the actions of great men. His history is narrative, a sequencing of events that occasionally stops to discuss issues or matters that stand out to him as significant. He is good at giving reader a panoramic view of events happening concurrently over different parts of the world in the same period. Wells presents history without any attempt to place it into a politicized framework. Nor does he discriminate any race. In elegant prose he describes the Aryans, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans—all flourished remarkably up to the 4th century AD but they declined for some centuries, until Western Europe started off again. In the interim, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of papal imperial power, the Great Schism of the Church, the Semites and the Mongols had dominated most of the Eurasian landmass.

The vast period following the split of the Roman Empire (into West and East Empire) has significant impact on languages and religious of the world today. Wells describes in details how western Europe came to be Latinized—how the Romanian, Italian, French and Spanish languages are all variations and modifications of Latin. Eastern Europe and Asia Minor remained adamant in their languages and gods, rendering the region a constant battlefield of Christendom crusades. The lack of central government in Europe after Roman’s fall, such antagonism among the local states, the narrow intense struggle for phantom predominance is to consume European energy for 1,000 years, until 18th century. However, Wells doesn’t believe history is a cyclical process, more a result of intelligence (or the lack of) on the part of humans. The book demonstrates Wells’ admirable skill in the compression of material, and extraction of what matters, with a sense of moral purpose.The history is seen through the perspective of human psyche—the frailties and limitations.

371 pp. Penguin Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Rereading “Candide”

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Candide is considered Voltaire’s magnum opus and is often listed as part of the Western canon; it is arguably taught more than any other work of French literature. Experience had it that the trimmer the book, the more penetrative its meaning. The novella was published in 1759, a period in Europe when all the sovereign princes and republics carried on schemes of aggrandizement against each other.

It begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism (or simply “optimism”) by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes the abrupt cessation of this lifestyle, followed by Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.

The 18th century saw the appearance of a literature profoundly skeptical and critical of the courts and politics of the time. Politics was so petty during that age of multifarious sovereign states that the history became more and more manifestly gossip, more and more unmeaning and wearisome to a modern intelligence. In such a book as Voltaire’s Candide one has the expression of an infinite weariness with the planless confusion of the European world.

Amelia Edwards & Egypt

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Another great find from the used bookstore is A Thousand Miles up the Nile by Amelia Edwards. The book was first published in 1877. It chronicles her visit to Egypt in the winter of 1873-1874. My copy was an used 2010 edition by Cambridge University Press. The first edition is available at antiques dealer for upwards of $400. This book, along with The Culture of Ancient Egypt and Lonely Planet Egypt will be my primer for the trip to Egypt.

Edwards traveled up the Nile from Cairo to Abu Simbel (where the sites of Ramases II monuments) and back. Edwards became fascinated with ancient Egypt as a result of this visit, founding the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882 and devoting the rest of her life to Egyptology and the protection of Egypt’s ancient monuments. She learned the hieroglyphic characters, and made a considerable collection of Egyptian antiquities.

The view along the Nile might not have changed drastically since her visit, except more cruising boats might crowd up the river as travel becomes more accessible now. Edwards did not just have a jolly boat trip down the Nile in more agreeable weather. No, she was already aware of the threat that tourism and urban development posed to Egyptian archaeological sites. Edwards campaigned to increase public awareness and encourage further scientific research. To this end, in 1882, she co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society) with Reginald Stuart Poole, The British Museum’s curator of the Department of Coins and Medals.

More History Books

My recent trip to France had awaken the history bug in me since I was reading up on French history before I went. In fact, travel bug and the craving for history have been two peas in a pod. I won’t go so far as to say history is all cyclical, but one thing is for sure: the great power of a monarchy, a kingdom, a government, or even a church, lay in the wills and consciences of men. A sovereignty is bound to collapse if it fails to retain the moral prestige on which its power was based. To read about history is to understand people. I’ve scoured more books for fall.

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.
The book covers the war between Sparta and Athens, and though its accuracy remains moot–Thucydides was an Athenian general and so likely to be selective in his emphasis, it’s a rich drama.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
This book chronicles events of the Roman Empire from the 1st Century BC to 15th AD. It’s witty and opinionated, highly readable despite the vastness.

1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman
England was attacked by the Norwegian Northmen and the Duke of Normandy in 1066. This is the insider history.

Legion of the Damned by Sven Hassel
My first impression is that this reminds me of All Quiet on the Western Front. This book describes the misadventures of a group of German soldiers on the Eastern Front.

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill
This is a four-part history of Britain from Anglo-Saxon times to 1914. The book is full of character and incident—read more like a social history.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
This is what the government doesn’t want you to know, let alone to be taught in school: It follows the heartbreaking travails of the American Indians from their first contact with the white settlers until the massacre at Wounded Knee, which, is in fact an ethnic cleansing by the American Government.

A Weekend of Reading

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1. Many readers on Goodreads said Nancy Drew series is their favorite in mystery genre. I didn’t grow up in the United States and had no idea Nancy Drew was a fictional character! I went to my local indie and asked for books by Nancy Drew. Ha!

2. I was looking for one book but ended up bringing home three that I didn’t expect to love. I learn a lot from H. G. Wells who really has fizzle and pop in his writing. He keeps me engrossed in what I thought was boring and dry in high school—world history and ancient civilization. Now I know the Aryans, the Assyrians, the Semitic, the Hellenics, the Gauls, and the Romans like the back of my hand. I like how he gives you the plain facts with no embellishments or elaborations. And he bridges over different empires of the same era.

3. Lately I have been on a history binge. Reading history also provokes that travel bug in me. One of the most rewarding thing about travel is to get to know the history and the people. I’m excited to read about Egypt in The Culture of Ancient Egypt and travel soon.

4. It’s great to read Naguib Mahfouz!

Reading H. G. Wells

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One book leads to another when interest is piqued. Han Suyin’s turbulent adolescence in the turn of 20th century China leads me to H.G. Wells’ A Short History of the World. It’s a period piece, written in 1922, but nonetheless very insightful.

The circumstances in which Wells wrote the book mirror to those of Han’s rearing. At the end of the First World War, men and women saw that the era of European predominance was coming to an end. There was socialism at home in England, a threat to the old order; there was Bolshevism abroad. Monarchy in China was overthrown and replaced by war states. America, aggressively democratic, dominated the world’s economy, though not as firmly as in the later 1940s. There were colonial revolts, of which no one could foresee the outcome and a “Third-World” country, Japan, had shown Europe how she might be defeated.

For a book that encompasses world history this one is compact. Wells focuses on political organization, paying little or no attention on art and literature. But Wells has a fizzle and pop in his writing and writes respectfully of all races.

[764] The Crippled Tree – Suyin Han

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“It was impossible to isolate either my father or my mother from history itself, the history of their period in China. As impossible as it was for Proust, writing about himself, to cut himself and his characters from the period in which they lived and the events to which they reacted. We are all products of our time, vulnerable to history. I was born because there has been, in China, a Boxer Rebellion (as the Europeans called it) in 1900, and because of this event, which the Chinese cal the Uprising of the Righteous Fists, my Chinese father, instead of becoming a classical scholar, perhaps a Hanling Academician, married my Belgian mother. The tree is known by its roots. I had to go back to the roots.” (Ch.1, p.10)

The Crippled Tree is the first of an autobiograhical series dated from 1885. Han Suyin (real name Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou) was a Eurasian writer born of a Chinese father of Szechuan stock a and Belgium mother, raised in China but educated abroad later, where she married and divorced a British army officer.

This first volume introduces the circumstances in late 19th century under which her father, a native of Szechuan scholar family who was commissioned by the then-weakening Manchu (Qing) monarchy to study railway enginnering abroad, met her Belgian mother. Their romantic pairing takes the couple confidently back to China, only to confront harsh conflicts and prejudices on all sides—ultimately undermining their love, and shaping resentments that cripple their life together, and the future of their children.

As Han has noted in the very beginning, private life is inevitably woven into history. Everything that happened on a large scale influenced also private life. The book is itself woven with the belligerebnt events in China as monarchy is weakened during a time of uprisings to form a republic. Han’s father is from a gentry background. He is pruned to become a scholar and official. The Manchus have relied on the Chinese gentry to organize levies of Chinese provincial militia to fight the Taiping Uprising.

I found The Crippled Tree a very slow read, mainly because Han Suyin recounts not just her own life, but that of her various family members, using detailed excerpts from diaries and letters that probe many experiences exhaustively. She draws from the letters of her parents, as well as diary entries of her Third Uncle, who went on to military academy and fought in the war with Chiang Kai Shek. It is easy to get bogged down in specifics, and become diverted from the overall relationships being traced.

It was Papa being Chinese, and to be a Chinese in China was wrong, only being European was right. (Ch. 23, p.384)

The broad scope and the expanse of the history make this an important read on China during the period Han is documenting. That the Western powers have stripped China off its capitalist power made it convenient for Japan to conquer China in 1895 and helped bring forth the Revolution in 1911. It illuminates how the Manchus managed to twist the demand for change and the hatred against the manchu monarchy into a hatred against the foreigners. Knowing the rising restlessness among the reformers, the manchus diverted the violence, which threatened to be anti-dynastic to an anti-foreign frenzy, then condemned it. But all the foreign powers that offer China financial help in building the railway also had political motives.

All these events played a role in the domestic turbulence at home. Han’s mother becomes a piteous victim of her situations for her remaining years in China. She is a dislocated, hectic, miserable, and suspicious woman, who is a target of Chinese’s verbal attack. She is given to fits of rage and tears, developing a lifelong addiction to anger. She blames Han (Rosalie) for the death of her son. As a grown woman, Han wants to research and write about the years in which her relationship with her mother had gone cold. The Crippled Tree is a powerful and compelling book, because it presents such a vivid and comprehensive picture of parts of China, and how they were devastated by the years of foreign intervention that marked this period. As for Han and her parents, a mixed marriage is proved to be even tougher. The book depicts the beauty and brutality of the life around her, the pressure of living between irreconcilable contradictions in a China where to be Chinese was to be a beggar, to be European was to be a “foreign devil.”

503 pp. Bantam Book. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Han Suyin, Crippled Tree, 19-20th Century China

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I came know about Han Suyin from the movie Love is A Many-Splendored Thing with William Horton and Jennifer Jones. It’s the story of an American reporter who falls in love with an Eurasian doctor originally from China, only to encounter prejudice from her family and from the Hong Kong society. Han Suyin is the author of the book and she is, herself, a Belgian-Chinese. The film is based on her autobiographical novel A Many-Splendored Thing.

In The Crippled Tree, Han researches and writes about her Eurasian roots, beginning with the tumultuous events toward the end of 19th century that weakened the monarchy of Qing Dynasty. It was during the time of uncertainty and disquiet that his father, a native of the distant Szechuan province, was born. A man born into the scholar-gentry class, Han’s father was selected by the government to study railroad engineering in Brussels, where he met Han’s mother, Maguerite Denis.

In a time of change and revolution, the clash between the old (monarchy) and new (reform), everything happened on a large scale influenced also private life. This is what Han sees to capture, to reconstruct the lives of her parents as they cope with the changes in China. For me, the book is an eye-opening testimony to the final years of the Manchu (Qing) dynasty, as the Empress Dowager, under the pretext that her son the Emperor was ill, interfered with and took over administration. It’s appalling how Manchus managed to twist the peasants’ demand for change and the hatred against monarchy into hatred against the foreigners. Equally stunning is how Western powers manipulate the Chinese, by offering loan to complete the railway to keep china under control.

[761] Seven Ages of Paris – Alistair Horne

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“A great city is…a work of art. It is a collective and complex art, it is true, but this makes it an even higher form of art.” -Guillaume Chastenet

Before I headed to Paris this summer for an in-depth visit, I wanted to peruse its history, Horne’s book just serves the purpose. He has written extensively about France’s history, especially its wars, but Seven Ages of Paris is a story of Paris. Keeping primarily within the confine of political and social history, he covers nine centuries, from the battle of Bouvines in 1284 to the barricades of 1968. Like many cities, Paris has its up and down. It has evolved over time and escaped unscathed from wars. Paris is the symbol of chic and style, and Horne makes plain that while Paris may be many things, it is never boring.

Unlike How Paris Became Paris, which I read also in preparation for the trip, Horne’s is more than an analysis of urban design, of architectural shifts, of the court’s removal from the Louvre to Versailles, and of Haussmann’s massive re-design of the city at the expenses of demolition. To this monumental task of describing what he calls the seven ages that encompass a thousand years, Horne underscores the tenacity of the medieval French kings as they transformed a small, vulnerable town into the capital of a growing centralizing state.

The focus of each age is the king, the villains and the heroes. Philippe Auguste (1180-1222) is recognized as the first true adorer and lover of Paris. The Capetian king who at the battle of Bouvines saw off the Plantaganet English established the security of France by ensuring a French lineage of kings. The equally adroit Henri IV, who solved the religious quarrels (War of Religions) of the 16th century by a cynical conversion to Catholicism, is credited with both intelligence and a grand vision of how to embellish and to develop Paris, an ambition whose most eloquent testament were Pont Neuf and the Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges). Sully and Richelieu, both ministers of different ages, come across favorably for their achievement in building Paris and enhancing the purity of French language, respectively.

Horne’s assessment of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who spent most of his time at Versailles, is mixed. He rid of redundant government administrations and achieved solidarity of power. His court removal was a long-term disaster for the monarchy as it established a distance both geographical and political between itself and the city of Paris. Horne’s distaste for the French Revolution is such that he skips it, even though the Paris of those turbulent, tragic years deserves to be discussed. He does acknowledge Paris always rebounces with greater depth in humanity—in the form of arts, literature, and theater. Horne emphasizes the city’s growth under the two Napoleons, contrasting its glitter with the misery of the underclass. The Commune year and Great War also receive special attention. The critical victory at the battle of Marne in 1914, and the humiliation of occupied Paris in World War Two also inspire excellent pages. This book is very dense and thorough in research. It is a work of inspiration and love for Paris.

458 pp. Vintage Books/Random House. Trade Paperback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Letters of Mme de Sévigné

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In my perusal of Paris’ history, one name makes frequent appearances during the reign of Louis XIV—Mme de Sévigné. She was France’s preeminent writer of epistles in the seventeenth century. Not trained in philosophy, yet in her extensive correspondence, de Sévigné develops a distinctive position on the philosophical disputes of her era. Her letters reflect the intellectual sophistication of the period’s salon culture.

During her lifetime, individual letters were already copied and read by members of her social circle. Circulation of letters and memoirs was not unusual in the era’s salons. The preeminent literary quality of the letters quickly established them as favored salon reading. Most of the correspondence is letters between Mme de Sévigné and her daughter.

Soon after her daughter’s marriage to Monsieur de Grignan, a scion of one of Provence’s noblest families, beyond Mme de Sévigné’s expectation, Louis XIV appointed her son-in-law Lieutenant Governor of his native Provence. The Grignans were forced to leave Paris for their ancestral estate, which prompts Mme de Sévigné to begin her writing career as a way of surviving the pain of this severance.

The mother’s correspondence has a tone of erotic possessiveness unusual in any epoch. She even expresses toward her son-in-law that she, the mother, should remain the center of her daughter’s affections. The visit to Paris becomes so strained as Mme de Sévigné’s nagging and snooping are so possessive.

The letters do not limit to domestic happenings. They also deal with the intrigues that accompanied Louis XIV’s shifting affections from Mlle. de La Valli ere to Mme. de Montespan to the future Mme. de Maintenon (Louis XIV’s second wife); the costumes, coiffures, jewelry, games and conversations displayed at the court of Versailles, which Mme de Sévigné visited once or twice a year.

Her letters brought to light the trial on charges of treason of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s Superintendant of Finances, an event on which she lavished 40 letters that offer as detailed an account as one might have of the daily account of court proceedings in 17th century.