Book Review: And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson

Since moving to Scotland I haven’t done quite as much reading (we’ve had a busy first ten months here).  However, I was recommended “And the Land Lay Still” by James Robertson, a Scottish author, in order to better understand Scottish culture, the Scottish psyche, and the context surrounding Scotland’s current drive for independance in 2014.

For the Americans (non-UKers) reading this, Scotland is currently debating seccession from the United Kingdom.  It’s a complicated issue spurred along by the Scottish National Party (SNP), a once-fringe political party that started in the thirties.   Having succeeded in winning control of Scottish paliament, their attention has now turned to scheduling a referendum in 2014.  This will be the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, one of the greatest victories in the First War of Scottish Independence.  You’ll remember this battle as the last scene in Braveheart where Robert the Bruce rallies the troops in William Wallace’s memory and charges down the hill.

Braveheart has been labeled one of the most innacurate movies of all time, but this battle was truly epic.  The English had assembled a “grand feudal army, one of the last of its kind of leave England in the Middle Ages,” which consisted of 2-3,000 horse, and 16,000 foot soldiers.  The Scots had two to three times fewer men.  During the battle, “one of the most memorable episodes in Scottish history” occured when a fully armored English knight astride a great war horse saw Robert the Bruce in the field and charged him.  The Scottish king was on a small palfrey, unarmored, and had only a battle axe, but he stood his ground against the charge, and hit the knight so hard with his battle axe that he “split his helmet and head in two”.  This battlefield event ignited the watching Scot army and spurred them to victory.  While the King was rebuked by his commanders for riding out in the thick of battle in such a dangerous fashion, he claimed that his only regret was that he had broken his axe due to the force of the blow.  Today the Scottish national anthem “Flower of Scotland” refers to this victory.

Even against this incredible backdrop, and despite current prevailing Scottish attitudes towards the English, were the vote to be held today, a majority would vote for remaining within the United Kingdom.  The almost continuous history of conflict between the two nations notwithstanding, there is a deep aversion to independance that prevails, and the SNP now finds itself as the majority party trying to navigate between its demands for a referendum and the realities of current polling data.

Back to the book.

This is a beautifully written book, and it’s no surprise given the author’s background as a poet who studied the literature of Sir Walter Scot at the University of Edinburgh.  He paints a surreal cast of characters that are situated against a tapestry of modern Scottish history spanning from the nineteen fifties to present day.  His descriptions and prose are well suited to the heavyweight themes that he deals with, and I found myself intrigued that an author of this quality could be a virtual unknown in the States.

This is a difficult book to read, with many difficult characters, plot points, and no real resolution.  You’re taken on a trip of exploration through the psyche of a nation that’s been torn by war for thousands of years, (not fully) reconciled for hundreds, and now finds that reconciliation starting to fray around the edges.  And yet, if you were to pick this book up with the expectation of it taking you step by step through the arguments, and the background, and the history, you’d be misled – this book is about Scotland and its independence but you have to look through the lens of the characters and the last fifty years, and many questions are left unanswered.

The book takes you from character to character along the last sixty years of Scotland’s history, touching on many different political events and trends that were foreign to me, and I found myself quite often researching the instances.  The coal miner’s strike.  Closing of the shipyards in Glasgow.  The poll tax.  The questionable death of an SNP party member.  The theft of the Stone of Destiny (Stone of Scone).  Council houses.  The problem of drugs.  Immigration of foreigners. Scottish attitudes towards homsexuality.

This was an extremely moving book for someone with (however remote) Scottish heritage.  There was something about the underlying sorrow that runs through the stories, history, and characters that tugged at me while reading, and I finished the book in roughly a week, despite its length.

This is not a book I’d recommend unless you’re ready for a tough time, introspection, uncomfortable topics, dark characters, and a less than clear conclusion.

Ultimately, I feel like this is an important book for those wanting to learn more about what makes up this ancient country and what still influences it today.  It hints at what conspires within its people to produce so many great things yet be so self critical and pessimistic.  Don’t expect an easy ride – but it will be beautiful, sorrowful, touching, and memorable, if not a little wistful.

Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book came up on Amazon as a highly recommended (for me, and by hundreds of other reviewers) title in the science fiction category.  It was billed as a gritty dystopian work set in a post-global warming apocalyptic Thailand, where man has been overrun by both his hubris towards genetically engineered crops and creatures, and his penchant for polluting the world with carbon emissions.  I bought it and was pleased with the first chapter or so, as the world was vivid and had an obvious steam-punk feel to it what with its treadle powered computers, algae baths for providing oil, and “kink springs” which provided kinetic energy to trains, cars, and factories.

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However, it seems like Bacigalupi was consistently overtaken by his own beautiful writing.  His breathtaking and vivid descriptions of Bangkok, now ringed by massive levees to beat back the rising tides of Globally Warmed oceans and plunged into a three way tug-of-war between a mysterious Queen, a greedy trade group, and a fanatical “White Shirt” regimen devoted to the ongoing sustainability of the kingdom were muddled by the absence of a clear plot.  In fact, the setting continues to sound amazing when I write this, and yet, while the characters involved become decently developed throughout the story, at the end of it all, you’re left with this overwhelming feeling of “who cares?”.  While writing this review, I read that Paolo Bacigalupi made his name writing short stories, and all of a sudden, the entire book and it’s lack of plot made perfect sense.The “windup girl” noted in the title is in fact a prostitute genetically engineered to be the perfect plaything for the pre-apocalypse rich.  Her character is probably the weakest point of the entire book.  Her wish for a world of other windups to live in beyond the walls of Bangkok is I guess the main theme of the book which earned it a comment of “It sounds just like the movie A.I.” when I was describing it to a friend.  At first I fought this comparison but in the end, it fits remarkably well.  Another friend mentioned that someone he knew had read the book and had initially disliked it, only to think about it for several months and then proclaim that “it was one of the best books of the year.”  We can all check back here in the fall, but I doubt I’ll change my opinion.Interesting (fascinating, even) world, wonderful writing, no plot.  At least no plot that we care about, and it certainly isn’t resolved in any way.  Maybe this novel is designed to be a cautionary tale, but even then it seems to be nothing more than a rehash of a whole host of dire predictions, movies, and warnings from radical environmental groups.  All in all, the book was extremely hard to get through despite it’s beautifully designed cover illustration and I’d recommend staying away.

Book Review: The Confession by John Grisham

Grisham’s books have this familiar quality to them and even though I think The Firm and A Time to Kill stand head and shoulders above his other more recent books, I generally pick up his latest and find it enjoyable.  One of his most unusual works is the non-fiction Innocent Man that he released in 2006 and which was quite an aberration from his normal writings.  An extremely depressing mostly because it very well researched, it detailed the wrongful murder conviction (and eventual exoneration) of a white high school athlete from Oklahoma.  Despite the exoneration, the entire process left the innocent suspect mentally damaged from his decades in prison.Innocent Man had to have been one of Grisham’s least popular books.  It clearly showed the numerous problems we have and continue to have with the application of the death penalty in the United States.   This case in particular was devoid of any kind of racial bias that seems to lend a distracting slant to death penalty discussions in America.  In short: I’m sure many judged this book by its cover, and passed it over.The Confession seems to be Grisham’s way of getting everyone who ignored The Innocent Man to hear his message.  It’s fiction and it’s hard to tell from the title that it deals with the death penalty.  The parallels between the stories are strong: high school athlete, white girl victim, incompetent prosecutor, incompetent judge, the story takes place in red states that pride themselves on their use of the death penalty, and key evidence is provided by corrupt witnesses.Even though this book is essentially a fictional rehashing of a previous work, I found myself admiring Grisham’s guts.  He believes that the death penalty is a problem.  He’s lent his name to two books to this effect.  He wants to persuade you, and he’s probably just pissed off a majority of his readers, including those who tried to avoid his last book.Whether or not you agree with the death penalty, you should read one of these books as they’re great food for though.  My advice?  Read Innocent Man. You’ll wish it was fiction.

Double Book Review: Typhoon and The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming

I’m reviewing both of these books together because I read them back to back, and because I think the merits and weaknesses I felt applied to both books.  Both of these titles had been on my wishlist for quite some time after being recommended to me by Amazon, and I finally snagged both of them to read on the iPad while we were in Europe over the holidays.  The themes seemed interesting and they were both set overseas: Typhoon in Hong Kong / China and The Spanish Game in Madrid.

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I read both of these books after Tom Clancy’s latest, and in contrast to that disappointment Charles Cumming does a relatively great job with character development, setting the scene, and with the dialog of his characters.  Overall, I enjoyed these books.  Cumming is billed by his publisher as the next John Le Carre who I’ve never read (but now have on the reading list) and while I can’t speak to that comparison yet, I’d say that he is definitely in the category of “enjoyable read.” Both books are set in cultures that were obviously very well researched and visited by the author.  I’ve read very few spy related or thriller style books that deal almost exclusively in a foreign setting to the point where it becomes believable, and to his credit, Charles Cumming immerses the reader in the surroundings.  His use of street names, location names, food descriptions, smells, and general cultural accuracy are admirable and only at times a little overwhelming.  He could definitely have included some maps, particularly for Shanghai and Hong Kong, but the story in general didn’t suffer much for lack of supporting material.  All in all, he managed to distill two complex cultures down into an authentic description, a task that other authors seem to really struggle with or at least willfully gloss over.

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 My main criticism of these books was that both plots generally hung on very subtle motivations and plot points, not all of which were entirely believable.  While this sounds bad when I write it, it probably makes for a much more believable or gritty book, and I’m fairly sure that Cumming is out for a more realistic story with great dialog.  There’s not a lot of action in these books, although when there is in The Spanish Game he does a masterful job of really helping the reader experience what the character is going through.  The author certainly spent considerable time setting up, rewriting, and investing in polishing the dialog in these books – it’s where his strength is and its where most of the action takes place.  These aren’t tactical thrillers for armchair storm troopers. Supposedly, the author was approached about being an agent in MI6 and regardless if that is true, most of the spy craft feels very believable, at least to my untrained eye.  I was annoyed that the only adjective that seems to be used to describe drinking alcohol is “sinking the drink” and in both books there is a LOT of drinking, so it got old pretty fast.  I didn’t feel particularly attached to the character in Typhoon but The Spanish Game did a great job investing me in the character.  

Typhoon had closure at the ending, The Spanish Game did not but I think this point and the previous issue with character attachment were functions of Typhoon being a one-off story and The Spanish Game being a continuation. The bottom line – if you enjoy books about spies and enjoy feeling immersed in a foreign culture, these books are for you.  Less action than Clancy, more believable than Grisham, great dialog, and a breath of fresh air are what you can expect even if the plots leave a little to be desired.

Book Review: Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive

I feel like I grew up with Tom Clancy.  I discovered Clancy in high school and I proceeded to read every Clancy book I could get my hands on until there were none left.  In those days, he was releasing roughly a book a year, and it was great.  I loved it all – John Ryan, the “Ryanverse”, and I really loved the standalone Red Storm Rising which I was told was required reading for officers at West Point.  Simply put, I was (and still am) a fan of Clancy’s.

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Tom Clancy's Dead or Alive
Then I read the Bear and the Dragon, and the wheels started to come off a bit.  The descriptions of the characters (particularly the Chinese leaders) seemed extremely wooden and stereotypical.  There was a ridiculous plot involving a Chinese secretary giving secret information to an ethnically Japanese CIA agent, which, if you know anything about Sino-Japanese relationships and prejudices, would not fly.  The main plot point hinged on another falsehood (Chinese soldier executing a Christian who was trying to not have a state-forced abortion).  The resulting almost fetish-like description of the Chinese government falling out of power to a replica Tiananmen demonstration seemed firmly set in some sort of Milton Friedman “free markets lead to free speech” fantasy-land.  Real China observers know that the truth is a lot more nuanced in reality, and this particular example is far-fetched for many reasons.  I was in a word…disappointed.  For an author who I’d heard spent a million bucks (not sure this is even true, just heard it repeated a bunch) researching each book, the entire thing seemed really badly put together.The next book was the Red Rabbit and lets just say I didn’t like it.  It seemed to be a continuation of the annoying trends that began in the Bear and the Dragon and it started to make me doubt the previous works.  Would someone who’d lived in Russia or someone in the military feel the same way about the other books?Anyway, because of the most recent two books, I bought Dead or Alive with marginal hopes, but almost immediately serious problems jumped off the page.  If we remember, in the “Ryanverse”, there were two entire books that hinged on a major terrorist attack that occured where the entire US Congress and most officials were wiped out by an airplane flying into the Capitol Building during the State of the Union address.  Only Jack Ryan survived to become President.  It was even immediately referenced in the aftermath of September 11 by news reporters the similarities are so striking.  However, in this book, Clancy has decided to merge the Ryanverse back with reality, but do so in an incredibly crude fashion.  Jack is no longer president, and Edward Kealty, who is a barely concealed proxy for Barack Obama, is now the President.  September 11 is constantly referenced, even though in the Ryanverse it would be a much less meaningful attack than destroying the entire US government and Capitol Building.  We’re somehow still at war in Iraq (nod to reality) even though this would make it the third Gulf War in the Ryanverse (the previous one having already toppled both Iraq and Iran).  Also, most annoyingly – even though Jack Ryan would have been president during the bad decision of war in Iraq (it’s referenced that way many times in the book), this bad decision is hand waved away and never even mentioned.Put simply, it seemed like there were two reasons Clancy had to write this book: he needed money, and he wanted to simultaneously bash Obama and support Bush.  The first point came to me before I learned that Clancy had gone through a recent divorce which messed up his purchase of a pro sports team.  Check.  The second evidences an almost surreal parallel to Bush’s own book which was recently released and I happened to be reading concurrently.  The number one justification for everything in both books is “we need to keep Americans safe” along with constant references to the naive idealism of Kealty.  Check Two.Sigh.Even if you can get by the fundamental plot problems and the requisite suspension of all logic and narrative continuity, this book fails to deliver.  The dialog is wooden and forced.  There’s weird detail on the computer and technology items that only highlights inaccuracies and this new obsession with steganography which is sort of billed as a new technology (it’s not).  However, the marriage of one-time pad cryptography and steganography ignores all the operational realities that prevent this from being the widely deployed solution that he describes, yet easy enough to break.  It’s all hand waved away.  I liked the plot points on how the terrorists go about obtaining nuclear material, and there’s some good stuff with getting the Emir (Osama bin Laden proxy) transferred around the world, but then we’re back into dense sections that cover tactical engagements way too much.  These descriptions of storming buildings and killing suspects during a torture session were good in Rainbow Six but seem pointless in this book.  Are we for torture?  Are we against it?  We don’t seem to know.  We do know that we’re fore a completely illegal and off-the-books black ops private company who does all the real intelligence work for the United States in order to keep us safe.It all just felt way too rushed.  Too sloppy.  Too preachy.  Or maybe it’s myself who has changed and I can’t stomach the rabid neoconservatism that is given a voice in this book, but I don’t think that’s it.  The old books were just better, longer, more complicated, more logical, better researched, and fit together more cohesively.    One thing to note that I didn’t realize until halfway through the book – this is a collaboration with another author, which Clancy has been doing for years on other projects.  In that case, I’d expect better effort from the new guy.  Why not double-check your mentor and point out some of the silliness if it’s going to have your name on it and if you’re ostensibly going to be the do-boy for the big name?  Overall, a sub-par read, but probably better than a host of other competing authors out there.

Country Driving – A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory

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I first heard about Peter Hessler’s book “Oracle Bones” from my mom.  She was reading through it and enjoying it immensely, and she recommended it profusely.  I promptly ignored her for a year, until I managed to read a corroborating review from somewhere.  I picked up both of his books at the time, “River Town” and “Oracle Bones”, and the more I read of them, the more I was both annoyed and delighted.  Delighted because the books are some of the best  from a foreign author regarding modern China, and annoyed because I had always dreamed of someday writing a book about my experiences, and I realized that Hessler had, well, written the book I wanted to write.  So much for that (and sorry mom!).I should note that before reading Hessler, I had almost zero interest in the travel literature genre, but he helped interest me in several other books by the likes of Paul Theroux (Riding the Iron Rooster) and even several Chinese authors such as Ma Jian or Gao Xingjian.Hessler also writes for the New Yorker, and while I was in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, he wrote a great piece for that magazine that reminded me why I enjoy his perspective so much.  I was therefore very excited when I got an email (again from my mom) telling me about his newest book, “Country Driving”, which again focuses on modern China and it’s rapid industrialization.While “River Town” was set in the mid to late nineties, and “Oracle Bones” in the early 2000s, “Country Driving” is set in a span from roughly 2002 through 2008.  It’s divided into three sections, one details his trip by car along the Great Wall, one focuses on rural living in a town outside of Beijing, and the last takes place in a booming Special Economic Zone in Southern China.Hessler is unique among most journalists covering China in that he speaks fluent Chinese (this was essentially a matter of survival while spending two years as one of two foreigners in a Chinese city), and that he both appreciates the context of China (history, literature, politics) and the people.  Culturally, there is much that can be mocked about China, and many foreigners focus on these nits that differentiate China from the West to their own detriment, and one of the things I like most about Hessler’s writing is he manages to poke fun at some of the more amusing aspects while still maintaining a deep respect for the country and its people.  He also manages to not romanticize China’s poverty or lament it’s rapid modernization like many foreign observers tend to do, instead, he strikes an engaging balance of description, context, humor and human interest.For a glimpse into China’s complexities from a richly personal point of view, I recommend any of Hessler’s books.  To appreciate how rapid China’s rise has been since the mid nineties, read all three in order.  There is no other author today who writes as well or as thoughtfully about China.

Book Review: When China Rules the World

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Reading is one of my favorite things to do, and it’s become harder and harder to make time for books over the last few years.  However, over Christmas I was given Martin Jacques’ book  “When China Rules the World” and I read most of it on the six flights we took over the holidays.This is an extremely important book, in that I feel Martin accurately distills and describes a few integral pieces of China and the Chinese mindset that are almost universally missed by Western commentators.  These pieces, when placed in the proper context can often combine to explain the more (to Western eyes) puzzling questions about China, events that happen within China, and China’s reactions to external pressures.One of the reasons why I enjoyed this book is that the author is a master at providing historical context and to illustrate and reinforce his ideas.  With a history as long as China’s this isn’t a small task, but he accurately makes the point that few nations are as cognizant of their history and traditions as China.  Ignoring thousands of years of constant cultural development leads to gross misunderstanding, and is something that is all too easy to do from a Western perspective that’s driven by the acceptance of a Western order that is really only three centuries old.Jacques begins his book with the relevant facts of how China will most likely overtake the US as the largest economy in the world by 2027, and focuses on the central question of the book: What will a modern world dominated by China look like?  The prevailing thought of most attention paid to China is that capitalism, free markets, and Western style economies inevitably echo Western values of freedom, human rights, democracy, and culture.  In other words, free trade begets free societies.  Not necessarily so in China.This misguided belief that a swing towards Western style freedom and government is inevitable is a key miscalculation that negatively affects US foreign policy and undermines true understanding of China and the rest of East Asia.Reasons for China not following the Western model of modernism coalesce around different set of values.  In China, unity and stability is a key value that is reinforced by the strong, hierarchical family unit, the universal acceptance of Confucian thought, and the reality that China is a civilization-state, not a nation state.  The Chinese desire of unity explains the tolerance of the “one state, two systems” approach to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and even within the numerous special economic zones found within the country.  This type of duality is almost inconceivable to the West.  Stability is valued highly due to China’s  experiences with turmoil during its history (estimations of 25 million dead during Manchu invasion, 50 million dead during Taiping rebellion, and as many as another 50 million dead during World War II and the ensuing Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution), and it’s long experience with a strong central government and its emphasis on a Confucian trained and tested government bureaucracy.  Stability, therefore, is enough of a priority that the Chinese are content with a system that values the group over the individual.History teaches us that the Chinese civilization has never wavered in it’s attitude of superiority towards outsiders.  Indeed, even when conquered by external invaders, which happened often throughout history, the invading groups (Mongols, Manchus) forsook their own identities and adopted Chinese customs, dress, and language while moving their capitals and governments to China.  Today there is an overwhelming sense among the Chinese that China is finally regaining it’s rightful place in the world as the Middle Kingdom.  Most forget that in the 1800s, the Chinese standard of living was slightly higher per capita than that of Europe.  England had a strong navy and easy access to coal close to its urban centers, China did not.  A crippled and weak end of the Qing dynasty, the Japanese invasion, World War II and the disastrous effects of Communism contributed to a net decrease in China’s GDP between 1820 and 1950.The idea that modernism must revolve around the Western model is rejected by the examination of how little modernity has affected Chinese politics.  China has always had a strong central government that was paternalistic in nature and was bound to the collective well being of society.  This is unlike Western governments, which have evolved to the point where they exist as a utilitarian entity in exchange for popular support.Jacques also spends significant time exploring the reasons behind the current Chinese policies towards trade, it’s own citizen’s freedom, and it’s long term goals.  In the light of the many historical and political contributing factors, it’s much easier to understand China’s currency peg (which hurts China more than it hurts the US), it’s continuing support for US debt, and it’s aggressive stance towards opening its own markets.  According to Deng Xiaoping, two things must remain for China to lift its population from poverty: domestic stability and international peace.  Seventy-five percent of China’s economy is accounted for by international trade of some sort, and while this may decrease as China continues to diversify, this is an unprecedented level for a country that is so large.  This precarious balance between its economy and the implicit social bargain (like all Confucian states have) to its citizenry for future standard of living improvement are the key drivers to China’s behavior.This book isn’t without its faults.  Jacques, like the good Marxist he is, glosses over the disastrous effects of Communism for China’s people and its economy.  Like many intelligentsia (Thomas Friedman and almost any other environmentalist) , he finds himself almost in awe of the incredible power that the Chinese Communist Party has to command policies that he wishes or wants to see implemented.  His exploration of China’s tributary system and it’s possible resurgence in the future is incomplete as it doesn’t resonate well with the Western reader.  Some of the book’s information is outdated or at least could have been updated, and some of the statistics feel as though they’ve been cherry picked.  There also doesn’t seem to be enough credit given to the remarkable lever of capitalism: lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in just thirty years is nothing short of a miracle.While the overall message of the book is that China will not become the US or a prototypical Western nation-state, this doesn’t mean that the China of today will exactly mirror the China of tomorrow.  It does mean that we shouldn’t prescribe the Western template to China, and should remain mindful of the powerful historical currents that remain in full force for China.