God’s Chinese Son

Gods Chinese Son

Spence describes an incredible, and unknown, story about faith, suffering, hubris, and human foibles.

God’s Chinese Son

Jonathan Spence

1996

It was one of the largest uprisings in human history. You’ve likely never heard of it. It is the story of the introduction of Christianity to a foreign people and what can go wrong. It created a movement that lasted 20 years. By the end of the conflict some 20 million people were dead.

God’s Chinese Son is the story of Christian missionaries in China in the early 1800s. Not understanding the language, and not given access to the native population, they still do their best by trying to create tracts, or pamphlets, describing some of the things they believe in. These tracts were widely distributed.

At the same time, a man named Hong Xiuquan has failed his exams yet again and is looking for answers. Picking up one of the tracts he was given years ago, he decides Christianity is the answer. Not having a bible or formal religious education, he nonetheless makes his way to a missionary where he receives a bit, but he is refused baptism.

Going back to his village, he has a dream. In the dream he becomes convinced that he is Jesus’s younger brother, that he was sent to the Chinese to bring them to heavenly peace. Thus begins an incredible journey involving international politics, land battles and sieges, naval warfare, diplomacy, and more.

I was amazed that such an important story existed from the 1800s that most westerners didn’t even know about. I found the book a great overview into the social and cultural character of China in the 19th century. I also found it a study in how important the various pieces of Christianity are — and how easily any movement can destroy itself.

If I had any nits with the book, it’s that Spence spends a bit too much time describing the religious beliefs of both the Chinese and the Christians. It was a little heavy on the theology, although this is a history book, not a religious one. Spence just wants to make sure the reader has a firm foundation on the culture Hong came from, how he changes it, and how he adapts and changes Christianity to serve his own vision.

It is a good book. Anybody interested in history, exploration, Chinese culture, or how systems of people work with one another and a bit of patience for detail would really enjoy it. Highly recommended.

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    Harpo Speaks!

    book cover to harpo speaks, the autobiography of Harpo Marx

    Harpo Speaks is the autobiography of Adolph (Harpo) Marx

    Harpo Speaks!
    1962

    I’m writing this review on-purpose for a book I read by accident.

    I received “Harpo Speaks” as a Christmas present in 2012. It looked okay, but nothing I’d want to write home to mother about. So it went into my stack to be read one day.

    A few days ago I was cleaning the bedroom and went to move parts of my book stack. I picked up the book and thought I’d read a few pages. Why was this in my stack?

    I found it to be such an enjoyable book that I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole thing in a day or two.

    Harpo Speaks is a nice conversationally-written story of the life of Harpo Marx. If you’ve ever seen a Marx Brothers movie, you’ll know Harpo. He’s the silent one who’s the clown. The title of the book then is a bit of a pun: Harpo never spoke in any public event. Now you can hear what he had to say.

    I think the book works whether you are a fan of the Marx Brothers or not. I’m not much of a fan. After reading the book I went back and watched a couple of their movies. It was okay comedy, but it didn’t hugely impress me.

    So it’s not a fan book. Instead, it’s a story of a kid growing up in New York around the year 1900. What was the city like? What was it like being a kid?

    I found this fascinating. From there we move into what it was like growing up poor in a family where the mother was convinced that they were all going to be in show business. Even though they weren’t.

    This is a classic “rags to riches” story, and Harpo and his ghost writer do it up very nicely. I think I would have been happy with the book just like that, but the themes kept coming, each of them executed professionally.

    There’s a great section on how the brothers slowly crafted their act, using the audience as a live gauge of what worked and what didn’t. (Great lessons for startups there). Then, once they started hitting it off, Harpo, a second-grade dropout, somehow fell into a band of literary and intellectual leaders in the 1920s. Amazing stories from what the 20s were like for those folks who were rich and smart.

    I found this such an oddball turn that I refused to believe it, going to Google to verify key parts of the book.

    We get a great overview of what being famous is like. After Harpo moves to Los Angeles, he became quite the social butterfly, and the book has lots of vignettes of him meeting more famous people and how his life went. Finally, the last part is about his marriage and kids. It ends with him in the early 1960s. His kids are almost grown, he is in his 60s, and suffering recurring heart problems. (He died just a short time after the book was published)

    So it’s really his entire life.

    This was a great book. I would classify it as a history book. Lots of interesting insights into how things used to be. If you like reading about famous people, historical events, and how one person makes it big against all odds, you’ll like this book. Wonderful quick read.

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      Book cover for the book River of Doubt, with Teddy Roosevelt and a picture of the Amazon

      2006
      Candice Millard

      I got into reading “River of Doubt” by way of reading another of Candice Millard’s books, “Destiny of the Republic“, about the assassination of James Garfield.

      Millard, a former writer for National Geographic, has a talent at writing biographical drama. I really enjoyed Destiny of the Republic.

      After losing the 1912 presidential election, Teddy Roosevelt was in a funk. The Colonel (he desired to be called “The Colonel” and not “Mr. President”) knew that only one thing would cure his depression: getting out of his comfort zone and working physically hard at something that mattered.

      About this time, his good friend father Zahm approached him with an idea: there was a opportunity to do some scientific exploration in parts of the Amazon that no western man had ever visited. Roosevelt considered himself a naturalist — after all, we have him to thank for the national park system — and such an opportunity only comes along once in a lifetime.

      Once arriving in Brazil, Roosevelt made the choice to take the trip to the next level; the exploration of the “River of Doubt”, which was supposed to run for long ways through completely uncharted territory. It changed his trip from a few weeks in the jungle roughing it to a multi-month expedition through places that contained nothing any man had witnessed. It was a journey that many before had attempted — and not survived.

      Millard does a great job of describing Roosevelt and the adventure. I don’t want to give away anything. This was a great book. I left with a better understanding of who T.R. was and why he mattered to the country.

      When people die, it’s common to say “They broke the mold when they made him. There’ll never be another like him.” Of course, it’s not necessarily true. In some ways people are the same all over.

      But Roosevelt was certainly a very interesting chap. Any man that was shot while giving a speech — and continued to give the speech until he was done — is a unique man. TR would have none of it, though. In his mind the hard-working and tough folks he grew up with out west would have done exactly the same thing.

      If you like history, you’ll like this book. Very good read.

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        American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

        American Sphinx, the character of Thomas Jefferson

        Who was Jefferson?

        1998
        Joseph J. Ellis

        I’ve been a fan of Thomas Jefferson for many years, ever since I read about the political philosophy he and the other founders carried into the American Revolution of 1776. Like Lincoln, so much has been said and written about Jefferson that it seemed that the subject was overdone, so I’ve avoided reading any of his biographies. But over time I felt like I should sit down and take some time to contemplate this remarkable man. After all, he lived just 90 miles away, and his summer home was just a few miles down the road. Why not get to know a neighbor?

        Joseph Ellis wrote this biography in 1998 after writing another biography of Adams. Ellis is an Adams fan, and quite frankly it was obvious to me that there was quite a bit of bias in his work. He says that the idea that there exists a long-running debate between Hamilton and Jeffersonian politics to this day is no longer true (It is still true). He says the matter of Jefferson fathering slave children was settled (As best as I can tell, it’s settled that there was intermingling between the Jefferson line and the Hemmings line. Whether this was an 60-year-old Thomas Jefferson or one of his relatives is still unsettled. Not worth fighting over, but not settled.) Over and over again, he skims over things that might prove very interesting to the reader, like the Virginia Declaration for Religious Freedom or the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and concentrates on things that put Jefferson in a poor light. He has no depth at all on Jefferson’s philosophy or education, and seems at times to be making the point that Jefferson didn’t have the depth of intellect that it’s obvious from history that he did.

        But you know what? That’s fine. Jefferson still comes out as a great and interesting character, one-of-a-kind in American history. Because this is a critique, it actually works better as a book praising Jefferson than a dozen other books would. You get to see the darker side of the man, the person who was completely willing to hire and encourage people to viciously attack his enemies while he stood off at a distance. The person who easily felt slighted. The person who had an extremely difficult time bringing people into his heart. All of Jefferson’s foibles are proudly and loudly on display, and the man still comes off looking like easily one of the top ten people in American history.

        American Sphinx is a solidly-constructed, well-written book. After reading it I felt like I knew Jefferson. So many of the things that Jefferson did was targeted at us, the generations to come. It was great for us to get acquainted.

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          Wartime

          cover picture of the book wartime by Paul Fussell

          Understanding and behavior in the second world war

          Wartime is a history book unlike any other history book I’ve read. It’s about World War II, but it’s not about battles, or strategies, or famous generals, or heroic or tragic narratives. Instead it’s about how things were: how people acted, what their opinions were, what they read and what they sang. It’s a “social history” — an overview of the lives that soldiers and civilians lived. In this way I found it a much more personally meaningful book than many of these other types of books.

          Fussell covers every topic imaginable. Things like condom usage and sex, drinking, popular magazines, rationing, listening to the radio, the horrors of combat. Yes, at times he does get a bit tedious: he seemed to go on and on at length about the WWII-era magazine “Horizons”, and he (to me at least) also seems to be a bit of a snob.

          My opinion of the overall tone at times was this: old cranky academic surveying the social landscape of the war.

          But for those flaws, it still was a very good book. It was filled with great anecdotes and pieces of trivia. Many times I got to read how people lived through it in their own words. For the first time I started to feel that I knew what it was like to have lived through the war, instead of just being able to recount various stories about the conflict.

          More importantly, it allowed me a better view of some of the things people complain about today, like the allied fire-bombing of Dresden or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. It’s been more than 70 years, and all of the people who participated in these events are now gone. If we are to understand the reasons for the things they did, we need to read more books like Wartime.

          So if you have a bit of patience, this is a book that will make you think about important things. The Second World War was an incredible event that left lasting scars on humanity. Wartime is highly recommended.

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