Book Review – From Earth to the Moon (By: Jules Verne)

I didn’t have the experience of many kids in the US of reading Jules Verne when I was growing up. Indeed this is the first novel of his I’ve read, despite knowing the plot of a few rather well. I was afraid that since From Earth to the Moon was written in the 1860’s it would be a clunky read like many other older pieces of literature and was very pleasantly surprised when it was not. Then I remembered that Verne was French, and that any of his works in English are translated. This slightly changed my view on what I was reading. I became aware that I wasn’t necessarily reading Verne’s work, but someone’s (particularly whoever translated the 19XX Scholastic printing’s) retelling of Verne’s work. That shouldn’t impact my reading too much (if the translating is better than the German that guy in Crime and Punishment wrote {I think I’m remembering that right}) but it is a necessary note as I examine the text, though one I can’t follow up on since I don’t read French. In any case, how well does it work?

There’s my standard “rare”, hard-to-find-a-good-image-of-reliably cover.

From Earth to the Moon follows the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club of artillerists in their journey from inception to firing of a humongous cannon that will send a projectile to the planet’s satellite (or from earth to the moon as it were). Despite seeming sci-fi-esque from the cover, and my knowledge of other Verne works (like Journey to the Center of the Earth or 20,000 Leagues under the Sea) it is surprisingly grounded and does indeed really only have to do with the firing of a cannon at the moon, and not travel back and forth or some other potential absurdity for the time. The basic plot is a bunch of Americans who made better and better cannons are bored after the Civil War ends and they don’t get to make cannons anymore, so they decide to make a cannon that can fire to the moon and “establish contact”. Everyone is surprisingly on board and people from all around the world (but mostly the USA) donate a lot of money. The rest of the book details the construction of the cannon and the actions of those who do not want it built along with a larger-than-expected amount of more-accurate-than-expected numbers and math about velocities, gravity, friction, metal weight, costs, casting procedures, etc. Though that makes it sound a lot more boring than it was. Because while very little happens in the technical sense, and there are a surprising number of numbers, it is all conveyed with a motion that keeps the reader advancing and interested the creation of such a fantastic device and the characters behind it.

And the characters are really the soul of the book. Mostly the Gun Club’s President Barbicane, who is the one with the idea for the cannon and apparently has it all figured out to the point that I’m not sure why the other members are involved. As Barbicane’s personality becomes boring, the book adds opposition in the form of Captain Nicholl and a more wild-card character in the form of a Frenchman (of course), Michel Ardan, who is a “(thorough ‘Frenchman’ {and worse) a ‘Parisian’(} to the last moment)”. These core men, with a smattering of other characters are all well drawn up with unique and interesting aspects, aspirations, and flaws, though it does sometimes fall back on “Barbicane is great at everything, Nicholl is a sourpuss, and Ardan is very wordy”. And I found the resolution of the conflict between them a bit flimsy (mainly from Nicholl’s end).

The overall form is very solid and understandable, including the dialog, which, while it wouldn’t be spoken today, is readable and far from something no one would ever say. There are a few moments where the words get tangled up like “…they did to others that which they would not they would do to them” and my favorite thing I still can’t understand: “hook fixed in the coving of the poop…”. I’m sure those were understandable at some point in the process, and even perhaps now but it could have used some tidying up. There are also just a few things that a man living in France in the 1860s might get wrong… like when he calls southerners “Yankees” (though only vaguely, he could be referring to the Gun Club members, who certainly are) and everyone sings Yankee Doodle when the gun is about to be fired, which I get is a patriotic song, but it’s not like it’s the national anthem, I wouldn’t suspect they’d sing it a lot when at a momentous occasion. And a few little details like the “polygon at Washington” What? I don’t understand. In any case, those are only my nitpicks as an American with the advantage of internet-based communication, and the writing is easily good enough to blaze over these minor details and get one enamored with the overall story of getting to (annexing too maybe?) the moon.

I liked the book, and I’ll probably read more Verne in the future because of it. It’s a quite upbeat and fast-moving novel of a technical marvel (with a few surprisingly melancholy moments toward the end) that presents good characters, interesting settings, and well-done research in a fun and compelling way. It isn’t quite up there in classic-ness and immersive level of interesting-ness as some more famous novels by Verne, but it does hold its own. I probably wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to his writing, but it isn’t a bad first one either. I’d say that it’s a good starting point if you’ve read some of the more famous of his works in the US and are looking for more, or are interested in some of the earliest science-fiction out there (or if you’re looking for translated works of a proto-surrealist that have had any potentially strange bits pulled out).

(And one final side note: there is a part in the story after they decide to put people in the projectile {great idea?} and they test it out on earth by putting a man in it for more than a week with nothing to even read. That was the most unrealistic part of the story for me, even with food and air you’d go crazy spending a week alone inside that thing.)

Book Review – Genghis Khan: and the Making of the Modern World (By: Jack Weatherford)

Genghis Khan: and the Making of the Modern World is a 2004 book by Jack Weatherford in his series of books about reevaluating the place of certain peoples in history. I got it as a present for my father, who had it on his books-to-read list, and I picked it up after he recommended it (it turns out I already had a copy but that’s neither here nor there). It supposedly illustrates how, unlike our normal ideas about Genghis Khan and his rule, the Mongol Empire was ahead of its time, and was a major factor in the enlightening of our modern era. Is it convincing?


The cover of the (edition I have of the) book says “”Reads like the Iliad… – Washington Post”” I believe that is a terrible thing to say, but then again I don’t like the Iliad. I would be more disposed to saying something along the lines of “it reads like the Iliad would have felt to the audiences of its time”. Meaning, the (first part of the) book is very good; it’s wonderfully written, fascinating, exciting, and enlightening. This first part, which is almost exactly one half of the book, is about Genghis Khan himself, using the (relatively) recently deciphered “Secret History of the Mongols” text and the travelings of the author and his academic companions as a basis for a narrative of the life of Temujin, the man who would become the Great Khan. The detailing is wonderful. The explanation of how Mongol society and the civilizations around them worked are as long as they need to be and not overbearing. Battles are not given an unnecessary (and likely unavailable) amount of detail, and the politics of the relatively complicated situation are related in an understandable way. It was one of the few books where I actively wanted to read more and would take more time out of my schedule to do so. The text in this section is so lovingly crafted, the areas covered so vast and interesting, and the man presented with his faults (but mostly his accomplishments) in such a way that it seemed to be forcing me to read more. And, throughout, one gets the same feeling toward Genghis Khan that they would experience about Caesar when reading a Colleen McCullough book: a grand reverence and fascination.

The same cannot be said about the second half of the book, which the reader collides with almost like a brick wall. This section, detailing the lives and accomplishments (/failures) of Genghis Khan’s dynasty, is at times excruciatingly boring, and seems tacked on and forced. I would get the impression that the author only cares about the history of Genghis himself, but the history of his empire after his death is important only to illustrate how “ahead of their time” (my words, not his) Genghis and the Mongols really were for the relatively short time they were in power. It is, from what I can tell, an accurate summary, if a bit biased toward the Mongols (even as they fail), but there are a lot of accurate technical documents I would rather not read. Compressing the amount of time (more than a few lifetimes of the man himself) into a section the same size as the one about Genghis Khan prevents the type of characterization and wonderful language that made the first half of the book so good, and coupled with the fact that, again, none of these people are people it seems Weatherford actually cares about (I guess they weren’t in the secret history) creates a section that has a very different tone to the previous one. This section that has more in common with a history textbook that bores students than the wonderful tale that came before.

Still I’m not sure the section should have been omitted (perhaps written by someone else) as a book simply about Genghis (with the level of detail in this work) would have been much too short and not have made the intended point. And the book does make a point, however refutable some think it is, while doing a very good job of staying out of the trap of many history-based books with a point, that is, constantly ramming the point down the reader’s throat. It gets worse about this in the latter half but for the most part these retreadings of old ground feel more like helpful little reminders and not an unnecessary constant restatement of the book’s central idea. This main idea is “somewhat” controversial, but perhaps a bit overstated in the title and some of the inside text. What is presented as “the Mongols were the first truly modern empire!” or “the Mongols were so far ahead of ‘X’ civilization!” comes off more like “the Mongol empire and its accomplishments have been largely and unduly overlooked since the Mongols were labeled as ‘barbarians’”. The first two statements are controversial but I feel the third is not so much. And this book does a good job of explaining and showcasing both the triumphs and failures of the Mongol empire, with many of the same lessons that can be learned from studying large empires, but a few that are uniquely Mongolian. It is guilty of minimizing some of the underlying truths; this book and many others are guilty of using the phrase “taken as wives” in place of “kidnapped and raped” to make their “great empires” (and it happened with every empire) less appalling to modern sensibilities. But many books do this, and after all, the point is to showcase the empire’s strengths and “modern-ness” rather than its weaknesses.

A secondary point to the book is how much the Mongol Empire affected the progress of human technology and interconnectedness for the better, an idea that more and more historians have been exploring in recent years. I think it makes the case well that human “progress” was “improved” by the Mongols, and that the state of technology, science, and trade was better during and after their reign that it was before. But then again I came in to the book already believing that idea. Large amounts of land, excess money, and trade (like that accumulated by the Mongols, Romans, British, Arabs, Chinese, and French) always lead to technological improvements and a general raising of the quality of life, though many do have to die for such excess to be available in peace time. The effect the Mongols had in this way is well- (and over-) explained and believable, though I don’t agree with every point. It does seem obvious that the effect of the Mongols on world development has been overlooked. Though I’m still not entirely buying Genghis Khan’s “uniqueness”, the author talks about him like he was doing entirely new things with strategies and technological appropriation, while I was sitting there reading and thinking ‘that sounds a lot like what Caesar did”. And the whole “relying on people based on ability instead of familial connections until it comes to choosing a successor for your empire” thing strikes me as very poor planning.

But moving on to some things about the physical book, which I have little to say about, but more than I do for most books. The printing is superb. It feels like a Penguin book, which are my favorite books to hold. The cover design is fine, but the spine is a problem: it is way, way, to easy to damage. I finished the book without much wear but that was because I had seen several copies before and held the book carefully to avoid it. While it doesn’t really affect the functionality, I do think it is bad design to have a book made in such a way that simply reading through it in a normal way would leave it visibly “damaged” (worn). The copy I picked up second-hand was terrible in this respect. Inside the book has mainly words, but there are some wonderful ink drawings at the beginnings of some chapters, and a few maps. These maps are… not great. They do convey their message, and to me, someone who reads maps a lot, they are quite legible. But to someone unfamiliar with the geography of the area or without a keen sense of gray-differentiation, they will very easily become confusing. I think it would have been very easy to do them better but they also aren’t the main part of the book and don’t distract too much.

I liked the book, and I would recommend that most fans of history books take a look at it. I’m not entirely on board with every idea presented, but it is a fascinating and exciting look at an often-overlooked culture and empire in the grand, usually European, scheme of the world. The very fact that this book is based off of a historical document that was found recounting the events of foundation of an Eastern empire that westerners were allowed to see and interpret is a historical anomaly worthy of looking into on its own. But that the first half of the book was crafted so lovingly and well, and the usual pitfalls of historical books of this nature so well avoided, brings it above the standard historical work and even overshadows the sub-par (but not awful) second half. As a teaching tool or a “book that will change your life/view/the world” I can’t really say it works, but for a more balanced and interesting look at history I would definitely give it a look.

Table Topics Chit Chat 19 #37-38


1. What’s your earliest memory?

2. If you could be any athlete for one game who would you be?

ANSWERS By: Austin Smith

1. Throwing up on a bed, I don’t know whose, or it it was even me, but I do remember something like that.

2. I wouldn’t be anybody else because I don’t care.