Elaine Sciolino is a female New York Times journalist who had the good fortune of being present in Paris with the exiled future leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomenei. When he seized power from the Shah in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Sciolino was one of the first Western journalists on the ground and she enjoyed privileged access to the new Iranian clerical elite. Iran is a country so alien to us in the West and the lack of knowledge of this ancient culture that is expressed to us in our news and history books made me drawn to reading this book. It is very well written, with lots of detail and the best part for me was the personalised touch. We hear of a woman with a deep commitment to exposing this ‘other’ culture. She writes with the eyes of an American female yet is obviously deeply in love with this country’s people, if not always the ideals of their government. The ways of life are so strikingly difficult. I was overwhelmed by the seeming oppression that the general population live under. There is a remarkable contrast between public and private life and Sciolino was fortunate enough to be invited into the private spheres that would often elude a typical tourist’s quest. The acceptance of senior Imams and clerics and government officials to provide her with sensitive material makes this such a critical read and I found it particularly interesting when her Iranian female friends allowed her into their private spaces, where the public veil of the chador could be lifted. The exploration of various areas of Iran journeyed us from ruins in Persepolis to the rigours of religious life in Qom. There was always an overlook at how the Islamic Revolution was still occurring and the ways that this strict religious governance affects people truly exposes the current national psyche that separates us so much from Iranians in the modern age. ‘Death to America’, a much-repeated slogan in the Revolution must have meant that it was particularly dangerous for Sciolino to research this book, but she demonstrates that things are changing and in fact most Iranians would love to actually visit America and it is this that makes her as an individual, as fascinating to them as they are to her. I think that for anyone who wishes to understand Iran, in its modern situation, especially with the rhetoric of the current global political climate, that this book is a most essential read.
Only a short volume, this well-written work documents the weakening of the West in the geopolitical arena. The book first focuses on the reductions in military power of Western nations, both in terms of their military budgets and also their matériel. Despite modern weapons being produced, the volume of forces and the amount of weapons mean that many Western nations and indeed when they are combined in the NATO alliance would struggle to fight in a real nation to nation conflict, in particular with a major power. The author identifies that with the rise of ISIS and Russian annexation of Crimea, the old world order of international relations has been broken down. In the new world order we see rising nationalism, an end to American unipolarity as a superpower and the rise of spheres of influence among growing world powers such as Russia, China, India or Saudi Arabia. A lot of key military figures are consulted for their opinions and most express their frustration with politicians freezing budgets and express their growing concern of standing by to idly spectate international events. There is certainly an unwillingness of Western nations to engage militarily, an identified weakness. The new world may see a decline in liberal democratic values and from reading this book it is clear to identify that the future is most uncertain.
This book is a thoroughly absorbing study of modern China and its vast population. The author embarks on a pilgrimage along Route 312, China’s Route 66, heading West from Shanghai, deep into the deserted Asiatic frontier in the northwest. En route, he documents his mainly chance encounters with the general populace and impromptu, un-monitored interviews, bring out the true feelings of the Chinese and their views on modern life and the future. The book is quite scathing of the Chinese government in many ways, yet it appraises the newfound freedoms many Chinese have and explores the amazing pace of development that has propelled China into a dominant world power. Almost no stone is left uncovered and every aspect of culture, life, politics, industry, family and education, are probed. I found that the deeper West that Gifford reached the more extreme and amazing the travelogue revealed itself. As he headed out into the Gobi desert, the remoteness of this region was apparent and I found his meeting with the Uighur people, particularly enthralling. It is clear that the author is a deep sinophile and is obviously well-versed to make such a study, having worked in the region for many years as a leading journalist. I think that this book is very accessible and is a good light introduction to anyone who is studying China. There is a good bibliography and plenty of references. It is a well written tale and is fast-flowing. It combines well with other books I have read about the rise of China and its potential in the future of our planet.
I eagerly anticipated this book as I had heard it mentioned as a classic on Ayahuasca and as a good reference point in a number of other books and Ayahuasca and shamanism. The author begins in typical Ayahuasca tourist fashion, and undertakes you on his Amazonian journey with a shaman, partaking in the sacred Yage ceremony. If anything I was a little disappointed with the author’s own experiences and felt that he had perhaps misunderstood his visions a little. I read on, however, and the novel turned into a page-turning thriller. The research done on the twins / dual serpent cosmology myths was fantastic and a revelation to me. It was clear that Narby had done a great deal of research on his hypothesis. I think to anybody studying shamanism, the middle chapters of Narby’s book are essential. As the book moved towards the DNA link with Ayahuasca I was at first sceptical but the author wrote in a convincing manner and I felt that the extremely distant link was well-pointed out and certainly a possibility though I can see the scientists more easily dismissing ‘The Cosmic Serpent’ than perhaps the ancient medicine men who I would imagine would be more open-minded. As an apprentice ayahuasquero myself, who has studied exclusively on my own in the West, I think that there is a lot more to the DNA link than meets the eye. Ayahuasca is a substance which does alter the mind in a tremendous way and I See true possibilities that it is what we call DNA triggering some of the visions. I think the book highlights, not how much we know of science, but how little we know of ancient shamanism. A true understanding of Ayahuasca and the power it harnesses, if well understood could drastically improve our world, if nothing less than to bind Western man back to his natural roots.