I struggled with this book. Which is not a bad thing.
It felt incredibly remote and yet uncomfortably intimate, all at the same time. I felt like there was a bit of a desperate truth that was always just out my reach, hidden behind a layer of ice. The whole thing felt…distant. I sat for days with that, trying to make sense of it but kept drawing a blank.
I talked it out with someone who I very much respect and it all started to make sense. The story was about a man in exile, and what he goes through when he can finally make it home. People don’t call themselves exiles for happy reasons; if that word pops up, you have to know there is trauma somewhere close by.
The exile IS the thing, right? Can a narrator who has dealt with that, and has decided to brave returning to the scene of his pain, speak freely? Why would he even want to? Do you deserve to know what he’s gone through? Could you even begin to understand?
The author, Amjad Nassar, is an accomplished novelist, travel writer, and poet. Finding that out after I read the book helped fit another piece of the puzzle; this is a translation from Arabic (by Jonathan Wright), and I’m now painfully aware that I don’t know the traditions of Arabic poetry. I could feel it flow through the prose, but it was an unfamiliar rhythm. More distance…
One of the points of this blog is to find exactly that space. We are molded by our language, the tales we hear as children, the things we read as we grow older. Those things literally form the way we think; I know I’ll never really be able to transcend my ingrained patterns, but my goal is to learn as much as I can about other ways of seeing this world. I’m thankful that books like this have been translated into English, so I have a path to walk.
Once I started reading about Mongolia, I just couldn’t stop. BUT I HAVE TO, since I’ve got 140+ countries left to go on this journey. So, I’m wrapping it up with one more book by Jack Weatherford.
Since I enjoyed the book about Genghis Khan so much I was really excited about this one, especially since I’m all about my sisters throwing it down. But I was a bit disappointed: fascinating history about powerful women, but as it moved away from Genghis and his wives and daughters, I lost interest.
It was hard to keep the thread after the Mongol empire started to really disintegrate; the political and social reality of fraying societies is generally all about constant churn and lots of violence, and to be honest that’s depressing to me. Also, there are just brief glimpses of individuals; that’s understandable, since most cultures have never been that interested in keeping detailed records of women’s lives and contributions, but it was still unsatisfying. It made the book feel strung together, and a bit thin.
Overall verdict: okay but not great, which is a shame.
Excuse me for shouting, but I LEARNED SO MUCH. I loved it. You know I won’t tell you much of anything in terms of details, but this book has my most enthusiastic support. You should totally check it out!
I was reading it on a business trip, and a woman sitting next to me on the plane kept looking at the cover, and finally had to ask me all about it. Genghis Khan has a lot of charisma, even after 800 years.
And here’s me, making a stretched personal connection to all of this…my dad owned his own business. When it came time to think about retiring, he had a very serious talk to me about his kids NOT inheriting the company. He had watched quite a few unsuccessful generational transitions in his own industry, and he was a big reader of history. I remember him saying “it doesn’t often work, even for Genghis Khan” and you know what…he was right. He sold the company to the employees, and it was the right thing. I’m not sure if he had read this book, but I have the feeling he did…
I get most of the books for the blog from the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, because libraries rule. Especially when searching through the system conjures up an oddity, like my next selection for Mongolia…
Travels in Manchuria and Mongolia: A Feminist Poet from Japan Encounters Prewar China, by Akiko Yosano and translated by Joshua A. Fogel. Like, there’s no way on this earth I would ignore that.
This book is very much a travelogue of an intelligent and very Japan-centric woman. Of her time. I’m not going to unpack the intensity and multiple layers that exist even within the title. Japan and China have a…complicated relationship, especially during the time period discussed…there are many people, much smarter than me that could inform you. From many different angles.
What I can say is that I experienced this book in conjunction with several other titles about Mongolia, and Ms. Yosano’s observations of life on the steppe fit in perfectly with what’s described in those books. It was really enjoyable to get “backup” from a somewhat detached observer. Also, it was a great reminder to be open to what you might find when you’re searching for something else…you never know what you’ll stumble across.