A Wizard of Earthsea

Coming to Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels as a mature reader, I started with her mature works The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. These novels are philosophical and profound, part of her allegorical Hainish Cycle. By contrast, I put off reading A Wizard of Earthsea because it is simple, a book for a younger audience.

Sparrowhawk (real name: Ged) is a promising young mage from Gont, an island in the archipelago on Earthsea with a reputation for giving birth to powerful mages. As a child he manages to repel a Kargish raid on his village and is subsequently taken in by the Mage Ogion. The novel is, in effect, a chronicle of Sparrowhawk’s early exploits where he demonstrates his power by binding the powerful dragon Yevaud to Pendor and achieves his first great triumph: defeating a shadow that he himself summoned into the world.

In short, this is a classic Bildungsroman for a young wizard. I have found myself increasingly bored by stories about preternaturally talented young men and this concern lingered the entire time I was reading this book that is clearly written for younger readers.

But to dismiss A Wizard of Earthsea as shallow or rote is to give Le Guin too little credit. As she notes in the Afterword, this is a story about a person of color who is betrayed by light-skinned characters. He is explicitly a good and well-intentioned person with a positive male friendship, and is his own enemy. This is story without overt militarism or wars that define the fantasy genre from the Arthurian models through Tolkien and beyond.

Le Guin writes:

War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to “a war against” whatever-it-is, you divide the war Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off. This is puerile, misleading, and degrading. In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the “right” side and therefore will win. Right makes might.

Or does might make right?

If war is the only game going, yes. Might makes right. Which is why I don’t play war games.

A Wizard of Earthsea came out in 1968, far before the start of the recent golden age of fantasy literature. The best that the modern genre has to offer (e.g. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season) offer more complex plots and more fully developed characters, but this just makes it easier to underestimate her achievement. Even today, too many fantasy novels default to a faux-Medieval Europe setting and feature heroes whose “best” skill is their ability to end lives. Wrestling with the morality of this skill may be a common feature in recent novels, but there remains a residual attraction to sword-wielding prodigies.

I remain in awe of Le Guin, whose keen insight imbues this attractive mid-grade novel with subtle depth. Still, I was not the primary audience for this book and had difficulty connecting with the characters because of the tendency to narrate at a remove rather than embedding the reader in their points of view––something that heightens the superficial resemblance to Arthurian Romance.

All of this to say: I am glad to have finally read A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m not sure that I will read on in the series.


I am about a third of the way through a history of the Greek War of Independence that broke out in 1820. The book has turned into a bit of a slog. The most interesting thing, though, is exploring the difficulties of creating a nation at a time when seemingly the only people who conceived of “Greece” were educated people from Western Europe who visited the region with their eyes filled with visions of the distant past and a society of ex-pat merchants and soldiers of fortune.

Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther Novels

I recently stumbled across a trove of Vermont mystery novels in my local library in Columbia, MO and so indulged in two of the recent installments.

Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels are a long-running mystery series, with the first book published more than thirty years ago. The series follows the career of the Vermont detective Joe Gunther and his motley crew of colleagues, Sammie Martens, her partner Willy Kunkle, an acerbic former sniper, and Lester Spinney, tracking them through ups, downs, children, and breakups such that reading them is a comfort akin to spending time with old friends.

Gunther begins the series as a detective in the Brattleboro police department, but by the recent stories he his an investigator with the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, giving him jurisdiction throughout the state. The relationship between Joe and now-governor Gail Zigman is ancient history and the one between him and the chief Medical Examiner Beverly Hillstrom fresh and Willy and Sam have a kid old enough to walk, but such is life.

Each book follows one or two cases that mirror major events making headlines in Vermont. As such, Mayor does a particularly good job of evoking a sense of place––another reason that I come back to these books for comfort when this Vermont-born reader is feeling a bit nostalgic.

Every long-running series goes through its ups and downs and some of the recent stories constitute a bit of a slump, though I have not read them in either an exhaustive or chronological manner. They were perfectly adequate, but tended to emphasize some social issue––e.g. the sexuality of the governor in The Company She Kept (2015)––rather than following a compelling case.

After recently reading Three Can Keep A Secret (2013) and Presumption of Guilt (2016), I have to amend my assessment of the recent books. These two novels share a primary interest in juxtaposing “old Vermont” and “new Vermont.”

Three Can Keep a Secret takes place in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irene when a patient at the state Psychiatric hospital commonly known as “The Governor” disappears and a seventeen year old coffin filled with rocks comes to light. The patient, as it turns out, had indeed been governor-for-a-day in the 1970s while a young woman working in Montpelier, only to soon be institutionalized. Joe and his team follow an investigation that, more than a criminal case, resembles archival research into Vermont’s recent past. What they find is a glimpse into a social ring centered on the “Catamount Club,” a group conservative men who used to run the state.

Similarly, Presumption of Guilt follows an inquiry into a body buried in concrete that comes to light during the disassembly of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant. The body was obviously buried during the during the plant’s construction c.1970, but leads back to an old missing persons case and exposes the unsavory origins of a prominent local company.

Neither of these books is among the best of Mayor’s work, which is, in my opinion, The Dark Root (1994), but their meditation on Vermont’s progressive reputation and its conservative past gave them more substance than some. The order of these books suggests that this reflection does not mark a new turn in the series, but rather that this facet of the setting that has always been in the background sometimes bubbles to the surface.

This series fills a very particular niche for me. Mayor has done an admirable job developing these characters over more than twenty five novels. I am genuinely pleased to watch Willy and Sam’s child grow up and for the relationship between Joe and Beverly, but they are compelling as old-fashioned heroes. That is, good people (even Willy for all of his demons) doing good in the world. But this would only take the series so far. Where Mayor is particularly good is in capturing the setting. These novels feel to me like the Green Mountain State. For me this means indulging in nostalgia, but for anyone who wants a taste, they could do a lot worse.


I recently finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and have begun David Brewer’s The Greek War of Independence.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

The evolution, or, as some would call it, the metastatic mutation, of the Republican party is one of the most unescapable facts of US politics in recent memory. The normalization of over-the-top spending in political elections has gone hand-in-hand with the changes, particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. In fact, thanks to the reporting of Jane Mayer, among others, acknowledging PACs and other forms of Dark Money in the political discourse has become accepted practically to the point of banality.

But, as Mayer makes clear, the explosion of Dark Money after Citizens United was the culmination of a process, not a new innovation. Published in 2016, Dark Money examines the deep roots that sprouted the present political environment.

Mayer identifies the earliest ferment of “the second gilded age” during a time when there was relative economic equality. The first signs, as she identifies them, took place during the 1930s when some wealthy families took umbrage at being accused of causing the financial panic and conservative groups chanted against the Roosevelts in an eerie foreshadow of the 2016 election rallies.

Men such as Fred Koch made fortunes in this period on government contracts (Koch also made money building building oil refineries for Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) and, at the same time, were adamant that the government never get any of it back in taxes.

The solution lay in a provision of US tax code that encouraged philanthropy. Ordinarily the government taxed generational wealth through the estate tax, but trusts that dedicated their returns to charitable endeavors for a period of years passed virtually tax-free, while other donations were tax-deductible. Fred Koch, like many others, took to philanthropy as an inheritance scheme.

It was Koch’s sons––Charles, most notoriously––who realized the potential in weaponizing the donations to advance their libertarian political agenda. David Koch made an abortive bid for the Vice Presidency on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, funding it with his estate, but already by that time they had a history of backing conservative groups such as the John Birch Society.

In the years to come, they founded a network of ultra-wealthy conservative donors that funneled enormous amounts money into educational institutes and activist non-profit organizations. As Mayer describes it, the this network took the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as an ominous portent and redoubled their political spending in each successive election.

Dark Money has entered into the public conversation around American politics, but Mayer makes what is now a simple thesis into an illuminating and infuriating piece of reportage. Time and again she paints a portrait of greed and corruption, from the cutthroat fraternal Koch wars to workplace fatalities of the Cignas corporation, to the extreme control over the workers in the Menard corporation, to the heir to the Gore (of Goretex) fortune who attempted to adopt her ex-husband for a larger cut of the inheritance.

Despite the fact that this story has become ubiquitous, there are two outstanding features of Dark Money. One, as laid out in brief above, is the long genesis of this movement. The other speaks to the current political moment.

Mayer explains at length the processes by which Dark Money reshaped the electoral maps after the 2010 census, swinging state and local elections that oversaw redistricting where every dollar went further. But for me the most enlightening passages were where she examined the methods that the non-profit organizations used to shape political discourse, including “astroturf” campaigns (i.e. artificial grassroots movements) that give the appearance of popular support and using the speed of media to set the terms of debate by issuing reports and studies based on false information, only to offer retractions after the fact. In Mayer’s view, these attacks on everything from climate change proposals to the ACA caught the Obama administration off guard and effectively thwarted his presidency.

Although Dark Money predates the 2016 election, it remains relevant for the Trump presidency. In part this is because a number of prominent individuals in the current administration, most notably Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, appear in the book. But it is also because the techniques of the Trump administration parallel the ongoing efforts of the various non-profits, albeit from an institutional platform. In other words, 2016 was a triumph for Dark Money, but, far from declaring victory and going home, it opened up new avenues of attack.

A few weeks ago I read Winners Take All, a look at philanthropic help-you-help-me do-gooderism and said that it marked a more generous look at similar processes. In retrospect, I would have liked to read Dark Money first. Mayer does a better job of examining the origins of the philanthropy, but these are two sides of the same coin. In one, what is good for the donor is good for the country; in the other, what is good for the country could also be good for the donor. Both Dark Money and a Winners Take All identify a core flaw at the center of the Second Gilded Age, while simultaneously examining all the ways in which these monied interests short-circuit the political will to institute effective change.


I have since finished Archer Mayor’s Presumption of Guilt, which I will be writing up with his Three Can Keep a Secret, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. This morning I began a history of the Greek War of Independence.

If Beale Street Could Talk

“It’s true that I haven’t seen much of other cities, only Philadelphia and Albany, but I swear that New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. It must have the ugliest buildings and the nastiest people. It’s got to have the worst cops. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime.”

“My presence, which is of no practical value whatever, which can even be considered, from a practical point of view, as a betrayal, is vastly more important than any practical thing I might be doing.”

A classic New York love story: a girl (Tish) and a boy (Fonny) who have known each other almost their entire lives. He, artsy and from a troubled home; she, quiet and from a supportive family. They find each other as late teens, beginning a delicate courtship and plan to marry.

A classic American story: A black boy (Fonny) is in prison, arrested by a white officer and standing accused of rape while his pregnant girlfriend (Tish) and her family scrape together money to clear his name, even with the legal system set against them.

If Beale Street Could Talk is both.

At the heart of this book is Tish, a lovestruck young black woman who is otherwise unremarkable. But Baldwin imbues her with a vibrant humanity that allows the reader to live and love with her––her hopes, her fears, her anxieties, her joys, her hates––while Fonny sits in prison and his child grows inside her.

The main narrative unfolds over six months of Tish’s pregnancy. With Fonny in prison, her family (mother, father, and older sister) supports her, but they are also hard-pressed to pay for his legal fees since his own family has largely rejected him. Tish is his rock, and they are hers. We are convinced, because Tish is convinced, that Fonny is a victim of a broken system––arrested by a racist officer and pushed through a system designed to ensure his conviction. Too often, the only update Tish can offer on her visits is “soon.”

Tish cuts this story of frustrated determination with reminiscences of her life with Fonny. Here we see how she knocked out Fonny’s tooth as a child, her discomfort attending church with his family, the joy at meals supplied by employees at a Spanish restaurant, and the pain and excitement of the first time they make love.

Despite a recent adaptation of this book and the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I only knew of Baldwin’s work second hand. His oeuvre was therefore a natural destination with my goal to read more books by African American authors this year. If Beale Street Could Talk did not disappoint. From first lines it is an astounding novel.

Baldwin’s prose is extraordinary. In this simple story, he brings Tish to life and gives her an unmistakable voice that most authors find aspirational. The tenderness and consistency of this voice in turn creates opportunities, whether punctuated by subtle differences in voice for other characters, scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, or points of hard observation about America.

On its own the love story between Tish and Fonny is syrupy sweet, but placed in If Beale Street Could Talk it balances the bleakness of Fonny’s crisis. By turns tender and angry, but always honest, Baldwin weaves a delicate tapestry around Tish, creating one of the best novels about American life that I have ever read. If Beale Street Could Talk might set a high bar, but I doubt it will be the last of Baldwin’s work I will read.


I have also finished reading Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep A Secret, a story set in Vermont about buried secrets come to light in the chaos after Hurricane Irene and have since begun Jane Mayer’s Dark Money.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

“Walker had broken what in his circles were important taboos: Inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, but never, ever accuse them of being part of the problem.”

Just under one year ago international news was covering a crisis in Thailand involving a boys soccer team and their coach trapped in a cave by rising waters. For eighteen days the boys remained in the cave before rescue divers managed to get them out. One diver died in the operation. At the height of the coverage, Elon Musk stepped in, proposing that a Space-X mini-sub could aid the efforts, with much praise and no small amount of mockery from the workers on the ground. Musk responded by calling one of the rescue divers a “pedo.”

One the one hand, this story of a remarkable rescue ended successfully and Musk’s sideshow did not figure in to the result, but, on the other, it offers a microcosm of the phenomenon examined in Anand Giridharadas’ book Winners Take All. By most accounts, Musk wanted to do a good thing by saving the boys, but he wanted to do it from within his own niche and in a way that brought potential benefit for him in the form of publicity, influence, and potential profit down the line. When challenged to address a fundamental structural issue like the water crisis in Flint, Musk, predictably, fell silent.

Giridharadas argues that Musk and his fellow citizens of MarketWorld, that is, the global business and financial elite, want to effect positive change, but have reshaped the mechanisms for doing so to their own benefit. The result in this time of growing inequality is a pay-to-play circuit of philanthropy where undemocratic decisions are made by the wealthiest strata of society promoting a win-win, venture-capital ethos of making a profit while giving people what they “need,” usually in the form of entrepreneurship. In return for their generosity, these philanthropists sincerely believe that they deserve an outsized voice in public policy debates.

But this win-win mentality perpetuates and in fact exacerbates the problems that the new philanthropic agendas address, whether it is the lack of government funding (avoiding taxes), poverty (not paying workers), or climate change (e.g. unregulated industry). Hence the taboos of MarketWorld, standards of behavior for Thought Leaders that short-circuit any possibility of systemic change.

Winners Take All, as Giridharadas notes in his sources, is a work of reportage that profiles members of this global elite, including prominent speakers on the circuit that includes Ted Talks, leaders of philanthropic organizations, disillusioned financial insiders, and one former US president whose post-White House career has pivoted to canoodling with business elites.

Giridharadas does not question the overarching dedication to social justice in its broadest, most generic sense on the part of anyone he profiles.

(Conspicuously, there are people not named in the book, like the DeVos’ when it comes to education, who throw their money around in much the same way who he would not ascribe such virtuous intentions. For this, and for a better understanding of how charitable giving facilitates generational wealth transfer under the US tax code, I wish I had read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money before this one. Giridharadas does note, however, that this MarketWorld generally plays into Republican goals of limiting government.)

The problem as identified here is the system that exists in a positive-reinforcement echo-chamber. This system facilitates growing income inequality while acting like it doesn’t exist. This system pushes motivational talks by “Thought Leaders” and industries that insist every person should be their own business while ignoring both barriers and consequences of failure. This system updates Andrew Carnegie’s Wealth for a new century while pretending that the problems of the Gilded Age are gone…at the same time that an all-consuming focus on profit replicates many of the same crises.

The result, Giridharadas argues, is global resentment of the financial elite by millions of people left distrustful of a government that doesn’t appear to do anything, but clearly left out of vision of a techno-utopia created by the citizens of MarketWorld. I found this final conclusion that this system is the driving factor behind the rising tide of authoritarian nationalism somewhat overstated. It offers a neat explanation for the somewhat overblown narrative of the white working class propelling Donald Trump to the presidency, but whitewashes racism, dark money (See: Jane Mayer’s book), and the various avenues of attack on democracy.

But neither is he wrong. The developments covered in Winners Take All clearly contribute to the breakdown of social systems designed to protect civil society, though I was ultimately unconvinced that the do-gooders covered here constitute the majority of the global MarketWorld elite. The stronger insight here is that despite the wealth of those who do want to fix the world, MarketWorld thinking prevents them from addressing the underlying problems. This realization is more worrisome than identifying malicious actors, because if the systems designed to help the poorest citizens and organize a response to climate change are under attack even from the people who ostensibly want to help, what chance do they have?


Next up, I spent most of the weekend reading. I finished James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, being just blown away by the prose, and Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep A Secret, part of a Vermont-based mystery series that is one of my comfort reads. I then started Jane Mayor’s Dark Money.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

A plane crash near Bahawalpur in 1988 killed Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, the president of Pakistan who had come to power a decade earlier by way of military coup, several top aids, and the American Ambassador to Pakistan. The official inquiry concluded that the plane was sabotaged, with fingers pointed toward India and other foreign agents, including the United States, and members of Pakistani intelligence suspected of conspiracy.

Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes turns the circumstances of Zia’s death into a farce in the mode of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

The bulk of the narrative unfolds in alternating narratives that are doomed to collide. The first follows Junior Under Officer Ali Shigri, son of a recently-deceased war hero, commander of the academy’s silent drill squad, and a man in a pickle because his roommate Obaid has disappeared without leave. Ali Shigri finds himself first interrogated and then under arrest, allegedly because he was a co-conspirator in whatever Obaid was plotting, however he may protest.

In truth, though, Shigri’s suspicions about the death of his father have led him into the tangled nest of snakes that surrounds the president. Wherever he is, whether in the training academy, imprisoned beneath the Mughal fort in Lahore, or being interrogated by the intelligence services, Shigri looks to enlist allies to carry out his vendetta.

The second arc follows President Zia in his last days, largely holed up in in the Army House, pandered to by fearful soldiers and entirely isolated from the citizens who he is convinced love him. Zia, as Hanif characterizes him, was an imposing figure: a powerful general guided by his religious faith who, in the years after the coup that brought him to power, left a lasting Islamic imprint on the country and firmly believed that he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in defeating the Soviet army in Afghanistan.

But in 1988 Zia is pathetic. His chief advisors condescend to his demands for prayer in his presence and then plot for their own power over whiskey and even his wife is about ready to kick him out of his bed. Making matters worse, Zia is beset by worms that are tearing him apart from the inside. At least his people love him, he thinks.

There are easy––perhaps too easy––parallels between A Case of Exploding Mangoes and Joseph Heller’s classic World War Two novel, Catch-22. Both are military farces with a motley cast that trade on the absurd, but Hanif falls short of the high standard Heller set.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes does its best to speak truth to power, and in small ways offers a critique of Zia’s Pakistan. Shigri’s prison conspirators are a communist organizer trying to improve the plight of the working class, only to have been arrested, tortured and thrown into absolute blackness where he was forgotten for seven years and a blind women condemned to death for fornication after having been raped. In both cases Hanif is critical of these brutal and arbitrary punishments, but the hopelessness of both situations is only heightened because the only people with any agency are the soldiers.

In this sense, the most successful part of the novel was the portrait of Zia because it demonstrated the fundamental futility of the structures that he created. This arc also contained the funniest situations, including a memorable parachute jump and Osama bin Laden (OBL) showing up at a cocktail party. (During these sections of the novel I frequently recalled Ghost Wars, an account of the US involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s.)

By contrast, the main plot of A Case of Exploding Mangoes is an intermittently successful revenge fantasy that shrugs off any possibility of change.

Taking up the Catch-22 parallel, that novel is an absurdist critique of war and military bureaucracy from the perspective of self-preservation near the end of what is sometimes called “the last good war.” Self-preservation is easy to connect with and (military) bureaucracy is an ever-ripe subject for mockery, but the ancillary factors soften the totality of the war setting.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes is set apart from an actual war, but, published in 2008, is set to remind the reader of a post-9/11 world of constant warfare with no end in sight. Revenge is a fine motivation with a long literary history and it is admirable to poke at insular military governments like that of Zia or closer in time to the book’s publication, that of Pervez Musharraf. And yet, the fact that Hanif successfully takes aim at the larger social failings of Zia’s regime made the driving engine of the plot, the revenge plot, fall flat.


I am between books for a moment, having just finished Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

How Europe came to dominate the world since 1500 is one a central question in world history. Typical answers point to the rapid pace of European technological innovation that far outpaced the far east and allowed small numbers of Europeans to conquer much larger kingdoms. The problem, as Andrade aptly demonstrates, is that these traditional narratives suggest a simple teleology that is not backed up by the historical chronology. Rather than innovative Europeans meeting and quickly toppling East Asian foes whose conservative and tradition-bound cultures rendered them unable to adapt, not only were Ming and Qing Chinese forces able to adapt, but they also defeated early European attempts to dominate them. By the middle of the 19th century, though, European forces, and even newly reformed Japanese armies, crushed the Chinese. Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age is a global history that spans a thousand years over two continents looking for a new explanation for this radical divergence.

In Andrade’s analysis, the divergence occurred because Qing China was a victim of its own success. His core model is that conflict drives military innovation; by the mid-eighteenth century, the Qing dynasty had secured such dominance over east Asia that it effectively stopped innovating, while, simultaneously, Europe was going through a period of constant warfare where the countries fought for their very existence. By the time of the Opium Wars (1830s and 1850s), the Qing had fallen so far behind that their attempts to catch up were too little, too late.

Gunpowder weapons first appeared in China in the tenth century, mostly in the form of fire weapons used against wooden structures. Guns took several centuries to develop before they skipped to Europe, probably spread by the Mongol conquests. Europeans made the guns bigger and more powerful, creating cannons used to attack fortifications, an innovation that Andrade chalks up to a difference in construction techniques that made Medieval European fortifications vulnerable to early cannons in a way that Chinese fortifications were not.

(Chinese fortifications were much thicker than contemporary European designs, with packed-earth cores and angled walls that distributed and absorbed the shock of cannonballs. The fortifications of renaissance Europe reached many of the same conclusions, but only after cannons rendered comparatively thin Medieval fortifications, made with straight stone walls and with loose fill, obsolete.)

Andrade’s biggest contribution is what he terms an age of parity from roughly 1525 until roughly 1700, during which time Chinese forces successfully resisted European colonialism by adopting and indeed innovating on European technology. He demonstrates how, for instance, Chinese engineers adopted technology for mounting cannons on their warships and improved casting techniques for cannons, making them lighter, cheaper, and more durable (in large part by allowing them to cool faster), by encasing the central iron bore in bronze. Further, where other military historians have seen a decided European advantage in drilling that allowed for their soldiers to keep up a constant hail of fire through volley techniques, Andrade argues that these had been standard Chinese practice for centuries first for crossbows and later for guns. In fact, Chinese armies used significant numbers of gunners in their armies centuries before Europeans did.

So what changed? Noted above, Andrade’s thesis is that the existential warfare in Europe drove military innovation at a time when complacency born of hegemony allowed Qing power to atrophy. This meant that when European forces arrived with steam powered ships and high-powered weapons, the Qing were unable adapt fast enough. Compounding their problems was that the European innovations were not merely technical, but scientific, meaning that advances in the understanding of trajectories and aerodynamics allowed ordinance to fly further and with greater accuracy than even equivalent Chinese weapons.

The Gunpowder Age is an ambitious and well-argued book. As someone who is not an expert on Chinese history, but has taught European global expansion, his explanations about military power are largely satisfactory, and I will likely use it in future classes, even if I sometimes thought that his solipsistic focus on gunpowder didn’t entirely substantiate the broader claims regarding the global dominance of Europe. Similarly, I was sometimes frustrated with the way that he collapsed the world into China on the one hand and “Europe” on the other, with only slight nods to Korea, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire, but this frame fit his explanation for how European came to dominate China. There are only so many pages in a book, after all.

My biggest frustration with The Gunpowder Age had nothing to do with its content. Rather, despite that the argument is laid out in a clear and cogent manner, the actual writing, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph drove me up the wall. I’ll readily admit that I have numerous flaws as a prose stylist, but this book that received praise for its writing was almost unbearably repetitive at times, with almost every page containing a sentence I wanted to rewrite for elegance, and several word-choice ticks (prevalent, for instance) that struck a dissonant note. Writing is hard and it often takes a village to polish prose to the utmost shine, but this was something that frustrated me all the more because the content was so outstanding. Then again, this may be a sign that I’m ready to return in earnest to my research projects


I am now reading Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a dark comedy in the mode of Catch-22 about the death of Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq in 1988.

The Trespasser

“Her life was so boring, just thinking about it make me want to hit myself in the face with a hammer for a bit of excitement.”

Despite her junior status, Antoinette Conway is an ass-kicker on the Dublin Murder Squad. With the amount of abuse she receives from her male colleagues as the sole woman on the squad, she has to be. But at this point she is also constantly on edge, even around her partner Steve, the only person she trusts, and ready to quit the force. But first she has to finish the case that arrived on her desk at the end of a night chef––if for no other reason than to show her misogynistic “colleagues” that she can.

The case seems simple enough: an anonymous tip came in that a woman named Aislynn Murray is dead, killed in her home in what seems to have been a domestic dispute. Aislynn is dressed for a date and the man she was seeing admits to having been at her home at almost exactly the time of her death. Even more, the young man, a local bookshop owner named Rory, appears to have been spending a suspicious amount of time on her street.

Everything points to Rory, so Breslin, a senior detective who volunteered to babysit the two rookies, is pushing for Conway to arrest him and close the case. But Rory doesn’t seem like the type and the facts don’t quite line up. Aislynn underwent a radical transformation in recent years without an adequate explanation, her best friend is withholding information and seems scared, and the apartment is wiped down of all prints.

Out of sheer determination and spite, Conway decides that she is going to see this case through to the end.

Like with Broken Harbor, another of French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels, the central case in The Trespasser is competently drawn. These are not grand conspiracies, but intimate crimes that present the detectives with numerous obstacles to overcome, both of which give French ample time to savor the minute details of the process. What sets French’s novels apart, though, is that each book contains a second plot that plumbs the psychological depth of one detective, while leaving the other members in the squad, some of whom repeat from novel to novel, in the background.

Here the fundamental conflict is over sexism on the Murder Squad and how much longer Conway is willing tolerate micro- and macro-aggressions in an environment where it feels like everyone is set against her. Compared to most other detective fiction both of these novels feel like a revelation, but this is the more successful of the two because the two conflicts are intimately connected. Rather than the case sparking the psychological drama, as in Broken Harbor, here the psychological feeds into the professional and vice-versa.

I came to French’s novels through a discussion from the NY Times Book Review podcast where one of the reviewers casually mentioned that French has a lot of devout followers. At this point, consider me a convert. Her stories are neither monumental nor exceptional at invoking setting, but they are brilliant intimate portraits of a single case and the people who solve them.


My next book is Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age, a military history about the spread of gun technology. He seeks to answer how Europe came to dominate the world with this innovation that the Chinese developed nearly a half millennium earlier.

Mad Ship

Mad Ship is the second book in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, and one that feels like a direct continuation of Ship of Magic.

Liveships, awakened vessels made of preternaturally hard wizard-wood, are the pride of Bingtown. As expensive as they are exceptional, these ships are the sole possession of the Old Traders, descendants of the original founders of the city, with generations of the families imprinting their memories on their ships through experience and blood. The hulls resist the corrosive effects of the Rain Wild River, allowing the Old Traders to grow wealthy by trading in magical trinkets sourced among the ruins there.

Now times are changing. New Trader families are importing foreign customs to Bingtown, from minor fashions like gender roles to fundamental practices such as slavery. Further, the Jamaillian Satrap, nominally the sovereign of Bingtown, is raising taxes and empowering the traditional enemies of Bingtown, Chalced, to protect the seas from piracy––something that Bingtown residents fear is a prelude to conquest.

In Ship of Magic catastrophe struck the Vestrit family. While carrying slaves under its new captain Kyle Haven, the liveship Vivacia and erstwhile religious acolyte Wintrow Vestrit fell into the hands of the pirate Captain (and self-proclaimed king) Kennit. The Vestrits prepare an expedition to rescue their ship, driven by the impetuous Althea, who has not forgiven her sister for putting Kyle in charge. Their plan involves hinges on the titular “mad ship” Paragon, whose reputation is for having gotten his crews killed. Unknown to them, however, Kennit is determined to win the loyalty of Vivacia as the liberator of the enslaved.

The salvation of the Vestrit family seems to lie with Malta Haven, a young woman torn between fear for her father and being affronted that circumstances will prevent her from taking her rightful place in Bingtown Society. At the same time, her eligibility is an opportunity. If Malta is willing to give up her childhood and marry into a Rain Wilds family, she could secure powerful allies for the Vestrit cause, even if this courtship is haunted by dreams of an entombed dragon who offers her aid in return for freedom.

At the same time, the Vestrits are embroiled in local Bingtown politics where growing resentment against the new impositions threatens to spill out into war, particularly once it is revealed that the young (and arrogant) Jamaillian satrap is on his way to tour their city. A crisis is brewing.

I really liked Robin Hobb’s first trilogy in this world, but took longer to warm to this series. It shows all of the hallmarks of her work, particularly with its surface of tired tropes and cliches belying a story driven by emotional relationships that make it feel like a revelation in storytelling. What sets this series apart from that of Assassin’s Apprentice is that there are many more moving parts. More characters, more settings, and more plot lines, with the result that it was not until midway through the second book that I felt the craftsmanship begin to pay off in earnest.

First, the bad. I remain frustrated with a lot of the superficial trappings of this series. The ship types, for instance, are a mishmash of maritime history. The sovereign of Jamaillia is a “satrap,” a subordinate position in the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which reinforces certain, old, orientalist stereotypes in this series set to the south of this world. Slavery is anethema to the heroes, but is nevertheless omnipresent and one character’s rape is used to further her character development. In each case these are hallmarks of problematic literature that Hobb transcends.

If the underlying theme of Hobb’s earlier books is emotional intelligence that manifests in both character relationships and the magic system, this series adds to the world the importance of memory. Hobb weaves memory through the main plots in both books, but it comes to the fore in Mad Ship adding depth to both the character relationships and to the world itself. Memory of the original charter of Bingtown drives the crisis with Jamaillia and while Kennit strives to forge new memories with Vivacia it is hinted that he is hiding elements of his own past in ways both big and small.

But even more fundamentally, Mad Ship is a story that gradually reveals the nature of this world. In the interludes of Ship of Magic we are introduced to the ravenous sea serpents that are gradually losing sentience. Maulkin, their prophet, is searching for their salvation––one he calls She Who Remembers. What she remembers is how to perpetuate the species, but all Maulkin and his companions find are mindless serpents and sleek silver creatures that skim across the surface, smelling like serpents but swim silently past.

More than merely imbuing the serpents with a life-cycle that is equal parts brilliant and heart-wrenching,* the convergence of this plot and the human stories elevates this book into a masterpiece of the fantasy genre.

[*I usually roll my eyes when I hear fantasy authors say that they wrote X story or Y event “because it was cool,” but for the first time that I can even remember, I exclaimed exactly that to a story element relating to this life-cycle.]

I would recommend reading these first two books in this series in close proximity because I spent a significant portion of Mad Ship trying to remember where Ship of Magic left all of the moving parts, but it is well worth the effort. Warts and all, Robin Hobb’s books are some of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in recent years and I am looking forward to seeing how this series concludes.


I have also finished reading Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novel, The Trespasser, and am now reading Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age, a military history of the spread of gunpowder technology.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Among the many injustices committed against Native Americans in the 1800s was forced removal. By government mandate, tribes from across the eastern United States moved from their homelands to Oklahoma, which was then considered unproductive land. Among these tribes were the Osage, whose land after the relocation and a series of additional thefts was unproductive even by the standards of Indian territory. At least until their land became the center of Oklahoma’s first major oil rush.

Almost overnight the Osage became, per capita, the wealthiest people in the world. But in the eyes of the federal government, the Osage were incapable of managing their money without the approval of white guardians.

In the 1920s, crisis struck Osage county. Members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances. One was shot, others appeared to have been poisoned. Several white citizens of Osage County tried to help the tribe members, even at the risk of their own lives, but white law enforcement officials, under the guidance of William Hale, a white man dubbed King of the Osage Hills, chalked the deaths up to coincidence and closed the case.

But the official story did not sit well with family members of the deceased and the deaths began to make national news.

At a time when law enforcement was intensely local and often deeply corrupt, this case, with its notoriety and Native American connections, came before J. Edgar Hoover and the nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover passed the case to Tom White, an old-style agent, former Texas Ranger, and the antithesis of Hoover’s dream of an agency filled with college-educated bureaucrats. Nevertheless, White was exactly what Hoover needed in Oklahoma.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann reconstructs White’s investigation, showing how he broke through a conspiracy among the local white community members to kill off the Osage and funnel their financial claims toward Mollie Burkhart and her children with Ernest Burkhart––William Hale’s nephew.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a pop-history that reads like detective novel, and with good reason. It is at its heart true crime, sitting at the intersection of unrestrained capitalism, the wild west, and the difficult relationship between the United States and Native American tribes. As befits his status as a New Yorker staff writer, Grann is most successful at bringing both the conspiracy and the investigation to life. The story imbues names and details to a long history of exploitation and violence, here with private citizens using local institutions to exploit the situation.

However chilling the story was, though, it does not substantially change my opinion about either the treatment of Native Americans or the unchecked capitalism of the early twentieth century. Grann only sketches the backdrop of genocide (and attempted genocide) against Native Americans during this period and otherwise allows the specific case to stand in for much more widespread wrongs.

(Contrast this decision with The Real All-Americans, which is equally easy to read, but its focus on the development of Carlisle Indian School football gives Sally Jenkins a platform to talk more about cultural erasure.)

Something similar happens in the final section of the book where Grann pulls back from sketching the future lives of the principal actors, pivoting to a journalistic narrative of his research and the lingering memory of the case in Osage County. It feels like an epilogue, but falls flat in terms of lasting significance. The meaty issues that prompted and enabled the conspiracy disappear back into the scenery, leaving only the sad, but ultimately insubstantial, memory of an explosive event.

Killers of the Flower Moon was the 2018 Columbia (Mo.) One-Read, and for good reason. Grann gives the reader a lot to chew on and the tone and topic both create a perfect entry-point for students, reading groups, or anyone else who wants to learn a little something about the brutal history of the treatment of Native Americans. Just don’t stop here.


Next up, I finished Tana French’s The Trespasser, an utterly engaging installment of her Dublin Murder Squad series, and have since begun Robin Hobb’s Mad Ship.