Monday, August 4, 2014

The Siege at Peking by Peter Fleming

Peter Fleming's book, first published in 1959 gives a detailed account of the siege of the foreign legations in Beijing during the last months of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Anti-foreign sentiment in China had been running high for the previous years and the Righteous Harmonious Fist (义和团) , better known in the West as the Boxers had been attacking missionaries and Chinese Christian converts in the northern provinces. The Boxers, a motley collection of different gangs around the Northeast and without a central organization, were thought in local folklore to be invincible and unaffected by swords or bullets. They had caught the attention of the Empress Dowager, the de facto ruler of the empire, who wanted to use them against foreign western influences she, and other hardliners at court detested.

Boxers first and later regular Chinese troops attacked the diplomatic quarters in Beijing, where in addition to the usual residents a considerable population of  refugees from the adjoining cities and provinces had gathered. Against seemingly impossible odds the small foreign garrison held the overwhelming enemy at bay, until a relief force was able to reach them from Tianjin some two months later.

Fleming spends quite some time in explaining the background behind the attack. Almost 60 years between the events and publishing the book provide him with an opportunity to view the developments with criticism directed also at western powers. China's humiliation by the powers in the century leading to the Boxer Rebellion is spelled out and intrigues at the imperial court explained.

However, the forte of the book is in the action. The author succeeds in really reconstructing the development of the situation in the legations in astonishing detail. Chinese attacks and countermeasures of the defenders are described lively and individual acts of courage or cowardice are not forgotten The dramatis personae are introduced in enough detail and through their actions to make one really identify with them. A lot of research went into this piece of work.

A history book about a pivotal time in the development of modern China that reads like thriller 50 years after it's publication. Really liked this one!

Read the 1984 Oxford University Press paperback. 273 pages.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ed Viesturs with David Roberts: The Mountain - My Time on Everest

One of the finds from the Strand Bookstore is this mountaineering book from Ed Viesturs (written together with David Roberts). Viesturs is one of the world's foremost mountaineers and belongs to the small club of climbers to have made it to the top of all 14 of the world's 8000+ meter peaks. He features prominently in many climbing books by other writers as well and I had read about his accomplishments in Jim Curran's book about the K2 (absolutely great, need to review that one soon!) and Greg Child's Thin Air: Encounters in the Himalaya among othersHe has written several other books about his exploits together with Roberts.

The Mountain documents Viesturs' eleven expeditions to Mt. Everest, out of which seven ended with a successful summit bid. Besides his own exploits on the mountain, Viesturs gives a lot of background information and history of the exploration of Mt. Everest. He was present during one of the most dramatic seasons on the mountain in 1996 when 8 people perished after being caught in a storm high up the mountain (probably best known from Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air). 

I have to admit this was not my all time favorite mountaineering book. The book is well written. I like the author's honest and non-pretentious style, especially when he is defending the rights of paying clients to be on the mountain. He also gives his opinions on some controversial developments on the mountain, but something is missing.

Maybe the problem of the book is that its focus is too broad. As a general history of Everest, it does not really work and while it's not meant as such, I wished it would go in to more depth on some of the background information. Early expeditions and new routes are introduced in detail, however. Fitting 11 expeditions, mountaineering history and personal development in 330 pages is pushing the limit. The Mountain probably would have benefited from more length, especially since the writers obviously are skilled in producing prose. All that said, I read it almost in a single sitting.

Read the hardcover edition of 2013 from Touchstone.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Strand Bookstore: go there

Spent 2 weeks in the US in June, visiting family in New Jersey and New York. My previous visit to the Big Apple was 30 years ago, and man had the city improved during that time. I was hoping to visit some bookstores with Asia related books and was looking for good ones in Chinatown without much luck. Someone suggested Strand bookstore (homepage here). Man, am I happy I took the advice. Founded in 1927, they advertise having 18 miles of books and I have to believe that. Apparently they supplied Steven Spielberg's library.

The Asian History section alone has to be more than 100 shelf-meters. There's piles of books everywhere! In addition, they have a whole section on exploration with lots of titles about Asia. Many of the volumes are second hand or review copies and pricing is attractive. There is a rare books collection as well, if you're into that kind of thing.

Best thing is, you never know what you'll find. There are so many books about Asia for example, that you will likely make new discoveries, that you did not realize you absolutely needed. I regrettably had to leave early as it was close to closing time, but still came with with a bagful of books. Very happy with what I found. I'm currently reading Derek Waller's The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia. A beautiful hard cover volume (originally a review copy).