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.

Short Book Reviews: February 2021

With the new year, Biden settling into the White House, and the vaccines rolling out, my reading pace has picked up from its previous pandemic low.

So rather than work up longer individual reviews of the books I’ve gone through, I thought I’d do a quick breakdown of them, all at once, in reverse order (so, the most recent book I finished this month is listed first).

Here we go!

Not All Dead White Men, by Donna Zuckerberg

A frustrating read. Zuckerberg (yes, the Facebook founder is her brother) provides a detailed, anthropological study of how the denizens of the manosphere wield Classical authors to promote their racist, misogynist views. What she doesn’t cover is any way to counter these arguments. If anything, she comes down on their side, agreeing that yes, the Classical tradition contains lots of misogyny (Though no racism, since race as a concept wasn’t invented till the modern period. Which makes it weird that she would fall into the right-wing trap of assigning Whiteness to the Mediterranean authors of the Classical tradition? But I digress).

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis

A set of separately-published essays stitched together in book form. It works, because each essays illuminates a different side of the central question: What happened when an administration scornful of expertise took control of the nation’s experts?

This was published in 2018, and already Lewis could see — via his interviews and investigation — that disaster was coming. We’ve got a lot to rebuild.

The Mongol Art of War, by Timothy May

Discovered this via military historian Bret Devereux’s excellent series of blog posts about the historical accuracy of the Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire (narrator: there is none).

It’s a fairly quick read, giving a detailed look — well, as detailed as we can get, given the reliability of our historical sources — at how the Mongol army was able to conquer so much of Asia and Europe in such a short period of time. Goes through command structure, tactics, even some detailed logistics. For example, did you know Mongols preferred riding mares on campaign, because they could drink the milk provided (and thus not need to bring as much food along)? Or that the Mongols built a navy from scratch (with Korean assistance) just so they could conquer southern China? Fascinating stuff.

Lost Art of Finding Our Way, by John Edward Huth

This is one I’m going to be reading and re-reading. It’s basically a manual of all the different navigation techniques used by humans before the invention of GPS. How did the Pacific Islanders sail thousands of miles across open ocean to settle so many islands? Why did the Atlantic triangle trade develop the way it did (hint: it was the prevailing winds)? What sequence of clouds denotes an oncoming storm?

Simply wondrous. Made me look at the world around me in an entirely new way.

Reaganland, by Rick Perlstein

The final volume in Perlstein’s excellent series on the rise of the Right in the United States. This one covers 1976-1980, and it’s absolutely riveting. All of the techniques we’ve seen from the GOP under Trump — misinformation, distortion, and deliberate hyperbole — got their start in this time period, and coalesced around Reagan as their standard-bearer. His election cemented the shift to the Right that we’ve been suffering from for the last forty years.

I consider this book essential reading, if you want to understand how we got to this point in American politics.

Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum

Stunning. I had no idea of the magnitude of what was lost in Eastern and Central Europe after the War, due to Soviet coercion and control.

By focusing on just the first decade or so after V-E day, and restricting her story to mainly Poland, East Germany, and Hungary, Applebaum is able to go in deep on how the Soviets — and their local communist allies — were able to subvert their newly conquered satellite states, and impose a foreign totalitarian system on them.

Three things I learned:

  • Poland, Hungary, Germany, Finland: their borders were radically remade after the Soviet conquest. The Baltic countries vanished altogether, absorbed into the Soviet Union. Germany lost much eastern territory to Poland, who in turn lost its eastern reaches to the Soviet Union. The Ukraine was gone.
  • Poland lost 20% of its population in the war. In comparison, France lost 1.5%
  • The first step for most of the communist parties was to form a “national front” with other leftist parties, sometimes by force, usually with some amount of arm-twisting. Once that was established, communists would take over the mechanisms of state power (Interior, Secret Police, etc) while leaving the most visible positions in the hands of others, so it looked like a pluralistic government from outside.

1946 by Victor Sebestyen

Revelatory, especially when paired with Year Zero. Sebestyen shows how the Cold War began, so soon after the Allies won. Cracks between the Big Three (US, Britain, Soviet Union) that had been papered over for the sake of the war quickly grew into major rifts.

Three of the countless things I learned:

  • The Soviet Union didn’t steal the entire atomic bomb. Their stolen intelligence helped them move faster, by perhaps two years, but their scientists did the majority of the work themselves.
  • Mao financed his armies and kept his population fed during the Chinese Civil War by growing and selling opium (!)
  • Japan had been bombed far worse than Germany. Many millions lost their homes. 80% of its merchant shipping fleet was gone. Half of its agricultural land was waste. In the months after the war, Allied survey teams discovered Japan could not have carried on much longer than it did.

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.