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The World Then and Now

Recent books that travel the globe, searching for connections

Mar. 29, 2017
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The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India (PublicAffairs), by Jon Wilson

With The Chaos of Empire, Kings College history professor Jon Wilson sets out to demolish any fond memory of India under the British. While succeeding at uncovering all that was cruel about the Raj, he suggests something more pertinent to the present day: India’s vast diversity. Even though he doesn’t fully catalog the array of ethnicities and religions that share the subcontinent, he describes a decentralized, localized history of a nation whose present ruling party endeavors to paint a simplistic picture of India as eternally, exclusively Hindu.


Island People: The Caribbean and the World (Alfred A. Knopf), by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Calling Joshua Jelly-Schapiro a travel writer doesn’t do justice to Island People. His Caribbean travelogue has a thesis about the region’s importance in world culture, an argument easily supported by the spread of Cuban and especially Jamaican music. But he travels beyond the obvious impact of Bob Marley and friends in his survey of (and often sojourn on) many of the islands. Jelly-Schapiro is culturally aware, politically astute and historically informed with an ironist’s disdain for sightseers. Even if you have scant interest in the Caribbean or disagree with some conclusions, Island People is worth reading for the richness of its prose.


Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (Viking), by Thomas F. Madden

Known for much of its nearly 3,000-year history as Constantinople, Istanbul’s location made it central to world history as the lynchpin of Asia and Europe, the gateway between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Until the pogroms of the 20th century, it was a multi-ethnic city, and despite a cultural resurgence that received much attention a decade ago, the future is in doubt given the heavy-handed rule of Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Erdogan. By necessity, 3,000 years chronicled in less than 400 pages will be sketchy at points, but St. Louis University history professor Thomas Madden writes vividly, showing how the past underlies the city as it stands today, cartographically as well as politically.


The Killing Wind: A Chinese County’s Descent into Madness During the Cultural Revolution (Oxford University Press), by Tan Hecheng

In 1986, during a period of reflection in the post-Mao era, journalist Tan Hecheng joined a Chinese government task force investigating mass murder in a certain district during the Cultural Revolution. The results of the investigation were suppressed in Mainland China, published only in Hong Kong and now in translation. Tan’s account is voluminous and detailed, a compendium of first-person recollections and documents from 1967, a year when Red Guard factions battled each other while rounding up “class enemies” and alleged counterrevolutionaries. Tan is discouraged by the conclusions he draws about his countrymen. “The tragedy of China,” he writes, “is that experience has accustomed our people to disaster and bloodshed, and even to apathy and forgetfulness.”


Singapore: Unlikely Power (Oxford University Press), by John Curtis Perry

Sitting alongside one of the world’s great sea lanes, Singapore’s port was bound to prosper but the island city in Southeast Asia had few other prospects when it was expelled from the Malaysian federation and forced to become an independent nation. Most bets were on failure. However, Singapore became a financial powerhouse with surprising reach for its small size. In Singapore: Unlikely Power, Tufts University history professor John Curtis Perry sketches that history. Much credit goes to its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, a pragmatic strategist who installed a gentle police state and a profitable brand of entrepreneurial socialism, all the while encouraging foreign investment, high technology and a sense of nationhood among a diverse people who had never felt the bonds of common loyalty.


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