Last Hope Island

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War, by Lynne Olson (Random House, 2017)

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Where we come from to a great extent determines how we view the past, and this is true even for major events like World War II. Although we might think that because it’s in recent memory and because there are so many records of what happened we know the whole story, sometimes our viewpoint obscures large swathes of the reality. If you’re American, you might view the story of World War II as revolving to a great extent around the Pacific and ending with the atomic bomb being dropped over Japan. If you’re British, you probably think of the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and Normandy.

In Last Hope Island, Lynne Olson tells the story of the war from a perspective many of us probably haven’t taken. She looks at the war through the eyes of six governments in exile from their homelands – Norway, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. After each country was quickly and violently taken over by the Nazis, their leaders soon found themselves attempting to coordinate resistance movements from London.

Olson’s book is beyond fascinating. Her wide-ranging narrative takes us to the exploits of the frighteningly incompetent intelligence agencies of England and the underground movements that helped downed airmen escape from occupied territory. She looks at the complex political jostling between nations even within nations, as well as exploring the incomparable value of the BBC as a tool for communicating with the subjugated peoples of Europe.

The book is heartbreaking, particularly in the case of Poland, which fought so bravely during the war. In the beginning, their pilots were mocked by prejudiced Brits, but soon they were the pride of the RAF. Yet by the end of the war, after giving so much, their nation was traded away to the Soviets, who took retribution against those heroes who fought for Allied Europe.

We all know that it was a brutal war and countless lives were lost. We all know that the suffering is hard to appreciate precisely because it was so great. Yet Olson’s book opens up stories we haven’t heard before and reminds us of just how terrible humans can be – but also how brave and wonderful they are. In her stories of lives lost so needlessly because of poor decision by government officials, we see beyond the façade of good guys and bad guys to the fact that, in this world, often people suffer because of inaction or poor choices.

Last Hope Island is a wonderful book and a must-read for anyone interested in World War II.

The Mongols and the Islamic World

The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion by Peter Jackson (Yale University Press, 2017)

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In this dense study of the Mongol conquest of Dar-al-Islam, or the Islamic World, Peter Jackson aims to dig further than previous books have done. For most people, the Mongols were a blood-thirsty group who spread quickly across most of the known world and subjugated all the peoples they came across to their violent rule. Naturally, the truth is more complex than that. Professor Jackson looks at all the available sources, including some previously untapped, to examine the reality not only of the Mongol conquest, but of life under Mongol rule. It explores how Mongols managed to rule such a great expanse of land, how the Muslims felt about Mongol rule, and how the Mongols were eventually converted to Islam.

So what was really at the core of Mongol success? For one thing, according to Professor Jackson, the inability of the Islamic world to unite against the infidel invaders. For another, the Mongols were far from the vicious savages they have often been portrayed as. Rather, they were incredibly adept at learning from the people over whom they ruled. In one city or country they would learn techniques that would help them annihilate the next. And it was not just ideas that they took. By the time the armies of Chinggis Khan had spread all across Asia, they were not comprised of Mongols from the steppe… they were made up of the people over whom he ruled. As he dominated the Islamic world, his fighters were often Muslims.

Professor Jackson’s book is an incredibly long and detailed history, with a full hundred pages of notes. It is not an easy read, but it is certainly informative and goes well beyond previous works.

Banned Forever

Banned Forever: How I Came To Love South Korea After Being Deported Twice, by Louis Morgan (Createspace, 2017)

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This relatively new Kindle Single by Louis Morgan tells the story (allegedly a true story) of a young man who used to live and work in South Korea. The book functions as a short memoir of his two – that’s right, two! – deportations from the country. 

What exactly does one do to get deported from the same country twice? Seemingly, very little. If we are to believe the author, and it seems that he has no reason to lie here, he was arrested by armed police on a tip-off from a psychologically damaged young woman that he was some sort of a drug kingpin. Through a bizarre series of events, mostly involving the ineptitude of the South Korean police and judicial system, Louis Morgan (not his real name) is booted from the country without ever being allowed to speak with a lawyer.

Well, that about describes the first deportation. The second occurs many years later when he tries to return to South Korea. He is given the all-clear by the Korean embassy in his country, but when he arrives he is almost immediately deported once again.

Amazingly, Morgan maintains a very sunny disposition during all of this – at least towards Korean people and the country as a whole. Despite the unfortunate things that happen to him, he finds himself falling in love with the country – something that never happened when he actually lived there. Is this a case of loving what you cannot have? Almost certainly, in my opinion.

Banned Forever is an entertaining read. You could probably get through the whole book in an hour or less, which leaves you wondering why the author didn’t pad it a little more. It is a well-told story, but it certainly leaves some questions unanswered.

Non-Obvious 2017 Edition

Non-Obvious 2017 Edition: How To Think Different, Curate Ideas & Predict The Future, by Rohit Bhargava (Ideapress Publishing; 2017)

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Rohit Bhargava is a professor at Georgetown University who studies trends. As the title suggests, he tends to ignore the obvious ones in favor of those that are a little more unusual. Each year, he releases his list of “non-obvious” trends as a way of predicting the future. He also lays out his methodology for predicting the future and grades himself on his past efforts.

The book begins with an overview of his aims, which are mostly to predict the future without being too obvious, and not to look too far ahead – that is, after all, the realm of science fiction and even the greatest minds can’t tell what’s likely to happen. He also breaks down his methods for naming trends, something to which he seems to give undue importance. He appears reluctant to simply name things, but rather brands his ideas in unusual or witty ways.

After that, he lists fifteen new trends, explaining what he means through examples, and then outlining why it is important and how it can be utilized. For example, one of the trends this year is “moonshot entrepreneurship,” which means that modern businesses are more interested in saving the world than making a profit – or perhaps they view one as a means to doing the other. In another chapter, he talks about “fierce feminism” (which I wouldn’t have called “non-obvious”) and details how having more women in your business is beneficial. Again, that seems a bit obvious to me.

I really thought his explanation of some trends was fascinating and actually inspired me somewhat in my own life. For one example, his description of “loveable imperfections” made me think about how this could be applied to my own business. I liked that he was very open about his methodology and willing to critique his own past predictions. That sort of openness is refreshing.

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