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Newsletter Number 18 • April 11, 2006

 
Books

Hello! I’m Sam Oppenheim and this month I’m trying my hand at writing in my father’s stead, as he is on vacation. Before you read my five reviews for this month, I think I should introduce myself:

I’m 26 years old, I earn my living as a public school teacher in the South Bronx, New York City, and as a photographer. My education and work experience include a master’s degree in archaeology, a master’s degree in Education, and a Bachelor of Arts Degree at Columbia University. Without further ado, here are this month’s reviews.

1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies is a fascinating historical nonfiction account of the great explorations undertaken by huge Chinese junk armadas between 1421-1423 A.D. This New York Times bestseller is not only highly entertaining and non-technical, but also shockingly turns our euro-centric assumptions on their head. Menzies weaves the narrative story of these explorations with his personal research, and he claims to have discovered evidence that the Chinese not only discovered the Americas, but circum-navigated the world almost 100 years before Magellan!

You may be asking yourself, if this is factual, then why have I not heard of it? Well, Menzies also claims that many great men and many great achievements have been forgotten and ignored if they were politically incorrect. The Chinese junks sailed under the auspices of Zhu Di, who advocated exploration and international trade, including the colonization of Australia. Zhu Di’s successor, however, cancelled all funding for overseas exploration, beginning centuries of Chinese isolationism. He also destroyed both the ships and the records of the great Chinese explorations.

I first heard about this book in 2003 when my archaeology professor recommended all his Ph.D. students read it. I was surprised that this sensational account was something he respected, but now I understand why: Menzies’ research is so compelling that it has inspired some of our western academic community to further research his subject and to rewrite our own history! I recommend this book to even the most casual of readers; It is a fascinating and entertaining adventure-story narrative that takes you with the ancient Chinese explorers as they encountered new lands, traded with native populations, and charted the globe. It is also filled with stunning color maps, photographs, and diagrams.

Almost a year ago today I finished reading We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. It still impacts me today. Although some of the shock and horror has faded with time, the message and experience of confronting the horrible Rwandan genocide lives within me, forever impacting my perspective on humanity. Having culturally ‘missed’ the holocaust and Cambodia, this is the seminal genocidal event of my lifetime. Reading this book I cannot believe international governments did not successfully intervene, but that is only one perspective. This book does not make you feel guilty for any one failing of a governmental body or a human event, but really helps you to approach the unapproachable, facing up to the awful truth of what people are capable of. It is also important to understand what actually happened, Gourevitch, a reporter who spent almost a year in Rwanda, gives the people a voice and clarifies the facts and events far better than the general media. If you can recall the late 90’s, the media focused on the international exodus, not the internal genocide, partly due to Geneva conventions requiring countries to intervene if it was declared a genocide.

So why do I recommend this book? I recommend it because it changed me and the events changed the world, but at the same time nothing has changed, which is almost worse. The only thing I can clearly state is that this is one of the most important books I have ever read: beautifully written, engaging, moving, horrible, awful, and difficult to put down. As the cover states, Gourevitch “drives you, in fact, right up against the limits of what a book can do” (Tom Engelhardt, Philadelphia Inquirer).

The most uplifting and enjoyable book I read this year, however, was James McBride’s The Color of Water. I recommend this book unequivocally to any reader from any background! The book chronicles McBride’s own life as a black man in Harlem and that of his mother, an ex-orthodox Jew raised in the south. The book uses alternating chapters, set decades apart, to tell both generations’ stories, with amazing circumstances and personal discoveries reminding us how truth is often not only more interesting, but also stranger than fiction!

The book spent two years on the NY Times bestseller list and has been read in many high schools for its revelations on ethnicity, race, religion, and identity. It is a tribute to the strength of McBride’s mother who left one life for another, refused to discuss her past but built a future: raising twelve African-American children in Harlem in the 60s and 70s, and putting them all through college! It is a triumph of storytelling, research, and personal discovery. It is a celebration of humanity and the American dream. It is, in short, unforgettable and unbelievable. If you have read it you know what I say is true, if you have not, do yourself a favor and remedy that.

Finally, I want to close this note by highlighting some amazing past recommendations. I want to begin by thanking Tony for recommending Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods many months ago. I read it and enjoyed it so much that I am now reading I’m a Stranger Here Myself and recently finished Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by the same author. Not altogether unlike David Sedaris, Bryson is a true pleasure to read and full of humor.

Another book previously reviewed here I first heard about in a National Geographic article, and then passed it on to my father to read: The Mind Tree by Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay is an uncanny look into the experience of being severely autistic. The boy was forced to learn to communicate by pointing at letters and later writing despite his disinclination toward speech and normal means of human interaction. The result of which is a unique peek into this divergent mental state penned in his own words and thoughts. Raised in India, Tito now resides in a special research center in California and continues to contribute to our modern understanding of autism.

Thanks for listening and I wish you the best in all your reading pleasure,

Sam Oppenheim

Folk singer Donavan (Sunshine Superman) recently gave a standing ovation concert in Fairfield during the David Lynch weekend on Film and Consciousness.

Donavan spoke in loving terms of his time with Maharishi in Rishikesh during the 1960’s. To learn more about Donovan and his spiritual quest I recommend reading his new autobiography: The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man

For different perspectives on the Rishikesh course I also suggest the following

George Harrison’s (I Want to Hold Your Hand) spiritual biography: Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison by Joshua M. Greene

And

With the Beatles by Saturday Evening post reporter Lewis Lapham. He was one of the few reporters allowed in the ashram in India during the Beatles stay.

One book Len mentioned on our last newsletter I would most highly recommend BOOK OF ONE by Dennis Waite, a wonderful easy to understand yet profound book on Advaita philosophy.

We have several pre owned copies of Human Physiology by Tony Nader for $175.00.

This is the latest edition of the book that sells for $450.00… Quantities are limited. Condition almost like new.

21st Century Books has recently gone through a slight genetic modification in it’s DNA...

On Friday April 7th we reopened as 21st Century Books & Gifts.

Hap and Lin Mullenneaux, previous owners of Heaven On Earth Gifts have set up a one of a kind gift department in the front section of our retail store.
We held a grand reopening celebration on Friday April 7th.

On your next visit to Fairfield, please stop in and visit our wondrous new gift department.

Tony
21st Century Books & Gifts

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