Short Book Reviews: July 2021

My wife’s been out of town most of this past month (helping her mother recover from cataract surgery), so I’ve been leaning on books (and friends!) more to keep me sane company.

As ever, I’ve listed the books in reverse order, with the one I read most recently listed first.

The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

Not what I expected at all. I’d hoped for a thorough, wide-ranging, history of Central Asia. What I got instead was a history of Europe, told from the perspective of how events in Central and East Asia impacted Europeans.

So…not the kind of thing you can really use as research material for a novel set in the Central Asian steppes, as I’d wanted 😬

But once I got over my expectations, I settled in for what turned out to be a very enjoyable, very readable history. It’s lopsided, in that he spends only about 1/3 of the book on the vast majority of human history (everything before 1800, that is), and spends a lot of time in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Even so, it’s a good corrective to our usual look at the past six hundred years. Especially when it comes to the “rise” of Europe, Frankopan deftly illustrates how the real story was the theft of vast sums from the Americas and Africa to Europe, which was then funneled to Asia to obtain spices, silk, paper, etc etc. The “normal” situation for the world is for money to flow East, and the development of China and the various former Soviet Republics in Central Asia is less a revolution than a return to history’s status quo.

Oh, one last thing: This book does a much better job of laying out the perfidy and fickleness of the United States in its dealings with the rest of the world than the next book in my list. Leave the history to the historians, I suppose?

American Rule, by Jared Yates Sexton

I wanted to like this one. I really did. I wholeheartedly support Sexton’s goal here, which is to pierce the myths that we’re frequently taught as American “history.”

The trouble is — and the reason I couldn’t actually finish the book — in order for that kind of argument to be effective, you really have to get your own history right. And Sexton, um, doesn’t.

Here’s a sample paragraph (from page 10):

…England’s monarchy had long been held as unquestionable. This perception of the divine right of kings was forged in the centuries following the fall of Rome as civilization in Western Europe languished in apocalyptic ruin and struggled through the so-called Dark Ages. In this time, the one uniting tether of humanity was religion…

There’s…so much…wrong with that paragraph.

The absolute monarchy he’s talking about was something invented in the early modern period, not the Middle Ages (“Dark Ages”, as any historian worth their salt will tell you, is an offensively wrong term for the period). And the doctrine of absolute monarchy had nothing to do with the fall of Rome (itself a disputed event), and everything to do with the centralizing projects European monarchs embarked on after centuries of conquest and consolidation.

Far from civilization “languishing” in Western Europe for hundreds of years, the Middle Ages saw rapid urbanization, expansion of trade, and the foundation of Europe’s first universities.

And religion being the one unifier? As opposed to any, oh, government? That’s…fuck, that’s just laughable

These are not small mistakes. They’re massive mis-representations of the period and the trends within it. And Sexton makes mistakes like this on every page (nearly every paragraph)!

I couldn’t take it. So I noped out.

The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King

My second of two (see below) King books this month that don’t read like King books. This is told like a fairy tale, with the same sort of remove and third-person omniscience you’d have in a fairy tale. It’s the same voice King sometimes used in the latter part of the Dark Tower series.

And as far as I know, this is King’s one and only full-blown medieval fantasy book: kings and wizards, magic and dragons. I picked it up because of the connections to his other books — the king’s name is Roland, you see, and the (evil) wizard’s name is Flagg — not expecting too much.

I should have known better. Even in this mode, King is a master storyteller, weaving a tale of family and betrayal and escape that captivated me all the way to the end.

The Running Man, by Stephen King

Ok, technically this is a Richard Bachman book, since that’s the name King released it under originally. But they made a friggin’ Swarzenegger movie out of it, so I’ve got to include it in my reading list, right?

Interestingly enough, I can see why King published this one under a pen name. Because it doesn’t read like a King book at all. There’s no slow build up of tension, no deep dive into the lives of multiple characters before everything goes to hell. It just dives right into the plot, explaining just the bare minimum about the world needed to keep up with what’s going on.

And this thing moves. Each chapter is incredibly short, maybe 3 pages maximum. It’s the “potato chip” technique (keep chapters so small that folks think “I can do one more”), and it works here; I read the entire thing in a single day.

On the downside, it’s incredibly violent, and racist, and sexist, all at once. Granted, the world he’s portraying is very much that, all the way through, but it’s bigoted in a very…old-fashioned way, from the slurs they use, especially. Like 1960s racism ramped up to 11 and then set in the future.

Here’s the kicker, though: King absolutely nailed how misinformation, spread through the media, can keep the people at the bottom of the economy apart, keep them hating each other, when they should be attacking the wealthy. And he portrays our current “meritocratic” caste system perfectly, illustrating how inequality can get so locked in that the only way out for some people is to offer to die on national television. That’s the horrific part of the book, for me, the part the lingered after closing the book.

The White Album, Joan Didion

Didion’s essays covering the Seventies (and part of the later Sixties). I could definitely feel a cynicism creeping in, something present in the first book of hers i read and becoming stronger with each essay here.

But she continues to draw moments in time in vivid colors, and is brutally frank about her experiences with mental health issues during this period. Just…compellingly readable, all the way through.

I’d like to say I wish I could write like her, but then I’m not sure how I would even begin to learn or adopt her techniques. Intimidatingly good.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

Wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. The title is…a bit pretentious, at least to my ears.

But the essays are as unpretentious as they come. Didion, for the most part, refuses to generalize or judge, choosing instead to capture the moment, or series of moments, that she experienced with and around certain people, at certain times.

The result is a bit like a time capsule of the Sixties, or at least, the parts of the Sixties that she experienced in California.

Her writing is a bit hypnotic, in that way. In how she brings you into a moment, even if that moment itself is a composite of other moments, showing you what it felt like, if not what actually occurred. Makes her essays a bit addictive, tbh, each one a hit of experience from another place and time.

The one downside? Because she’s writing so close to her own experience, her version of the Sixties is very…white. And middle class. To the point where, when she talks about the farming communities she grew up in, she doesn’t talk about the actual workers on those farms, who were organizing throughout the Sixties to advocate for better working conditions for the majority-immigrant workforce. Nor does she mention the Civil Rights movements, or the Black Panthers, or…I could go on and on. Suffice to say that her viewpoint is very well detailed, but is very much myopic.