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.

Juneteenth

Growing up in Texas, we didn’t talk about Juneteenth in school.

We talked about the Civil War, of course. Of the “brave” and “fearsome” soldiers that Texas sent to fight for the Confederacy. But not about slavery, other than it being a “bad thing” that “was over now.”

We talked about Texas’ War of Independence from Mexico. That war was also motivated by slavery, by the desire for white Texans to have and import slaves. But we didn’t talk about that either. Only the Alamo, and Santa Anna, and again, the “brave” soldiers who fell.

But we never mentioned the brave slaves who ran away from home, in a desperate flight to freedom. Knowing they would be beaten if caught, and possibly killed.

We never talked about the black soldiers that served in the Union army, knowing the whites in that army still thought of them as “lesser men,” and that if captured by the Confederates they’d be made into slaves, even if they’d been raised free.

We didn’t talk about that kind of bravery.

So we didn’t talk about Juneteenth, and how its origins were Texan. How white Texans were so desperate to hold onto their human property that it took a Union Army arriving on the Gulf shore to force them to give them up.

Because our history was written and taught by white Southerners, who, being racist themselves, can’t see anything but shame in such a holiday. They identify too strongly with the losing side.

But having learned about the holiday as an adult — too late, true, but better than never — I can see pride in it, mixed in with the shame.

Not white pride, mind you, but American pride. Pride that the Civil War was fought and won by the side of justice. Pride that the slaves were freed, that we set off on a path to give all Americans the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The path is long and stony, and we’ve still a long way to go. But we can celebrate the progress we’ve made, even while pushing forward into the future.

I’m spending this Juneteenth catching up on more of the history that I missed in school. And thinking on how I can do my part to move us further down the path to becoming a truly free country.

Justice for Breonna’s killers.

Defund the Police.

Black Lives Matter.

The Indian World of George Washington, by Colin G Calloway

This is the kind of American history I wish they’d taught me in school.

It’s a story of intrigue, of diplomatic maneuvering between dozens of nations. Of military campaigns won and lost. Of peace betrayed and hope rekindled.

I would have eaten this stuff up. Did eat it up, when presented with the history of Europe in the Middle Ages or Japan’s Edo Period or China’s Warring States.

(Okay, so the latter two I only got exposed to via video games, not school, but still)

But teaching me this version of American history would have forced adults around me to acknowledge our part in this struggle. And most of the time, we were the villains.

We made treaties with Native American tribes, swearing to abide by some border line, and then promptly set about settling past that line. We struck deals with the leaders of individual villages and then insisted whole tribes adhere to them. And when those tribes refused to sign new treaties with us, establishing new boundary lines, we invaded, burned their villages to the ground, and slaughtered their people.

And Washington was at the heart of all of this.

As First President, he established the policy of buying Native American land when we could, and killing them all if they wouldn’t sell. He also pushed them to become “civilized,” which in his mind meant dropping their own culture — including their sustainable agriculture, their religion, and their gender roles — and adopting settler culture wholesale.

Why would he do this? Because he speculated in Native American land, buying up the “rights” to tracts that hadn’t been formerly ceded by any tribe. He needed those boundary lines pushed back, that land cleared of Native Americans, and then settled by Europeans, if he was to recoup any profits.

This is the part of American history that has white squatters fighting both Native Americans and elites back east for their “right” to seize land.

The part that has our very first treaty under the Constitution negotiated with a Native American tribe.

The part that has Washington taking time out of the Revolutionary War to have three armies loot and pillage their way through Iroquios territory, destroying crops and peaceful towns as they went.

And its the part that shows the Native Americans as what they were: A free people, with their own politics and divisions, struggling to deal with the invasion of their lands. Some sought peace, some wanted to fight, and some moved rather than deal with the Europeans. But all of them thought of themselves as their own nations, with control over their own territory, and their own sovereign rights.

Something Washington never conceded to them, and he embedded that denial in our relationships with the tribes from the start.

This sort of history is complicated, and Calloway does an fantastic job sorting through it. Amazingly, he condemns Washington’s mistakes without finger-wagging.

It’s enough to relate them truthfully. The First President condemns himself.

Fantasyland, by Kurt Andersen

Ever read a book that makes you feel both better and worse about the times you live in?

That’s what Fantasyland did for me.

Better, because Andersen shows how the current fad for conspiracy theories and disregard for facts (on the conservative side of politics, this time) is just the latest iteration of a series of such fads, going all the way back to the first Northern European settlers of the Americas.

For example: the first colonists in Virginia were lured by rumors of gold that had been completely made up by speculators. They starved and died while hunting for gold and silver, until by chance they started cultivating America’s first addictive drug export, tobacco.

But I also feel worse, in that it makes me think there’s no real escape from the fanaticism and illusions that lie in the heart of the American experiment. They’ve allowed the burning of witches, the enslavement of entire nations, and the genocide of those who were here first. And now they’re pushing even my own family to condone the caging of immigrant children, the silencing of women, and the persecution of Muslims.

It’s disheartening, to say the least.

I take hope in the other side of the cycle that Andersen exposes. When reason pushes back against mysticism, and we re-fight the battles of the Enlightenment. We banned snake-oil and established the FDA. We drove quacks underground and wrote licensing laws. We won the Civil War. We passed Civil Rights legislation.

Granted, Andersen himself doesn’t seem to think there’s light at the end of our present tunnel. At the end of the book, he falls into what I think is a trap: believing the United States to be completely unique, and the current era to be uniquely terrible.

I think the first is countered with any glance at the news from the rest of the world. From Brexit to the rise of the populist right in Poland and Hungary, to Venezuala’s deluded leadership and China’s reality-scrubbed media, there’s plenty of other countries with their own fantasylands. While we in the U.S. often tell ourselves we’re not like anyone else, it turns out we are.

And I think his own book is a firm counter to the second trap. Every era thinks itself both the pinnacle of human achievement and the lowest depth to which humanity can fall. But pushing back against unreason — by refusing to give them a platform, by taking their threat seriously but not their claims, by not falling for the trap of treating every belief as equally valid — has worked in the past. It can work now.

1493 by Charles C. Mann

Revelatory. Mann’s 1491 opened my eyes to the many civilizations that existed in the Americas before Columbus landed. 1493 has shown me just how much of our current world was created in the aftermath of his voyages.

Three of the many, many things I learned:

  • The lynchpin of the global trade of American silver for Chinese porcelain and silks was the Philippines. That’s where Spanish traders first ran into Chinese junks, in the early sixteenth century.
  • One theory for the causes of the Little Ice Age: the sudden reforestation of the Americas from the millions of native inhabitants that died out from European diseases.
  • China is the world’s largest producer of sweet potatoes, and the second-largest producer of maize. Both crops are native to the Americas.