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The Captain's Daughter and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin

The Captain's Daughter: And Other Stories - Alexander Pushkin

There’s a little sense of dissonance when I read a classic and my response is “huh, okay.” This is especially true when I read the classic in translation; in this case, the translation is very smooth, contemporary, and easy to read, which causes its own form of dissonance. These now feel like contemporary stories rather than something written in the early 19th century, and compared to contemporary stories they don’t particularly stand out to me, but then I neither read them in their original language nor am familiar with the history of Russian literature so as to appreciate the ways in which Pushkin was blazing a new trail.

The stories:

“The Captain’s Daughter”: This novella occupies almost half of the book. It involves a romance between a young officer and the angelic daughter of the captain, set during the time of Pugachev’s rebellion, and Pugachev himself is the most vibrant character in it. The story moves along briskly and is fairly satisfying, though the characters are not particularly complex. This edition also includes an omitted chapter, which is interesting in that Pushkin ditched a bunch of melodrama and overt paternalism.

“The Tales of Ivan Petrovich Belkin”: These five stories, mostly around 15 pages each, are given a framing device in that they were all collected by a fictional young dead man, but they aren’t actually linked, so I’ll discuss them separately.

“The Shot”: The narrator pieces together the story of a multi-episode duel from others. It’s a bleak world in which men are expected to kill and die in duels over the most mundane insults, and those who refuse lose all respect from their fellows. (Pushkin, sadly, died himself in a duel at age 37.)

“The Snowstorm”: A prank disrupts a love affair. This is a cleverly structured story, in which after reading the end you go back and read over the earlier parts with fresh eyes, something I love in a short story. It made me uncomfortable in that I didn’t find Burmin’s behavior deserving of a happy ending.

“The Undertaker”: A man has ungenerous thoughts and is punished with a nightmare. Um, okay.

“The Postmaster”: Another narrator piecing together someone else’s story, this time of a postmaster and his prodigal daughter. This didn’t do much for me.

“Mistress Into Maid”: A sweet little story about a forbidden romance, also involving some pranking, but this time harmless. I enjoyed this one.

“The Queen of Spades”: This is a somewhat longer story about gambling and obsession, in which a calculating young man will go to almost any length for a guaranteed win at cards. I found this one pretty good and with a satisfying ending.

“Kirdjali”: Eight pages about the legend of an Eastern European bandit. Okay.

“The Negro of Peter the Great”: This is an unfinished fragment, around 40 pages long, of what was perhaps intended to be a novel. The title isn’t politically correct these days but the “Negro” in question is a (lightly fictionalized?) version of Pushkin’s own maternal great-grandfather, Abram or Ibrahim Gannibal, who was brought to Russia as a boy, adopted by Peter the Great as his godson, sent to France to study military engineering, and later returned to Russia to be an important figure in the military and the court. The fragment deals largely with Ibrahim’s love troubles, as well as his relationship with Peter the Great, who’s presented in a very positive light. This is interesting from a historical perspective though a fragment is unlikely to satisfy in a storytelling sense.

Overall, I’m glad to have read some work by a classic author I hadn’t been exposed to before, and appreciated the window into 18th and early 19th century Russia. But while the writing is perfectly fine, I can’t say any of it blew me away. I also have the sense that this collection doesn’t represent Pushkin’s best work, much of which was poetry and plays.

White Mughals by William Dalrymple

White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India - William Dalrymple

I have a lot of admiration for this author’s Nine Lives, and The Anarchy is highly informative. But this book is supposedly a love story, which isn't actually all that well-documented and for which the author puts on heavily rose-tinted glasses to ignore the fact that the participants were aged 35 and 13 and that we know almost nothing about her life, thoughts, or feelings. In reality, the book is in part a biography of East India Company official James Achilles Kirkpatrick, and in part a very detailed and heavily footnoted account of the British presence in India from about 1798-1806.

So. Kirkpatrick was a Resident of the East India Company in Hyderabad, essentially an ambassador to the princely court there, a position from which he built himself a monumental residence and negotiated treaties that strengthened the British and weakened the Hyderabadis (at times he felt bad about this but not bad enough to resign). He wrote a bunch of letters which from a modern point-of-view look awfully patronizing (referring to the Nizam, or local ruler, as “old Nizzy,” or giving himself credit for “convincing” the Indian authorities to do any useful thing they did); it’s hard to parse this stuff because the author never addresses it.

Kirkpatrick also, at the age of 35, slept with a 13-year-old girl from an aristocratic Muslim family, whom he got pregnant and then married. Now, I know that conventions about age and sex were different in many historical time periods, but rather than talking about that at all, Dalrymple seems to hope readers won't notice. In fact his description of the early years of this “romance” entirely obscures the age issue by stating vaguely that Khair un-Nissa was “probably in her early teens” and then quickly moving on. That uncertainty was apparently cleared up in Dalrymple’s own mind by the later chapters, at which point he states without ambiguity that she was 19 when their oldest child was 5. Dalrymple further tries to paper over the consent issue by emphasizing the fact that Khair un-Nissa’s male relatives, and Kirkpatrick himself—when accused of rape by a third party for what Dalrymple insists were purely specious and political reasons, to drive a wedge between her male relatives and the British—portrayed her as the initiator. Which in my mind just makes it worse (most of us would be pretty disgusted by a 35-year-old man excusing himself with “but the 13-year-old totally initiated!” regardless of whether it was true, in part because this is such a common line in the sex offender playbook), especially since Khair un-Nissa’s own voice is entirely absent from the book. None of her letters survived, and she’s viewed almost entirely through male eyes.

The couple go on to get married and have a couple of kids whom he insists on shipping off to his relatives in England at the tender ages of 5 and 3, at which point they’re forbidden from corresponding with their mother or her relatives. We don’t actually know much about their marriage because Kirkpatrick didn’t write much about it, but the author infers a lot. Both parties then die young. Dalrymple insists on viewing Khair un-Nissa as a tragic heroine throughout, based on what seems to be pretty scanty evidence. In a place and time when medical knowledge was still quite basic and a doctor even feeling a woman’s pulse was reserved for serious circumstances, I wouldn’t infer that she died of a broken heart from the simple fact that the doctor couldn’t pinpoint the cause.

At any rate, Dalrymple never reckons with the fact that his supposedly beautiful true love story involves a middle-aged man and an adolescent girl, and has little to say about the fact that we don’t hear her voice at all. But then, the relationship is only a focal point of a book that is largely comprised of the author squeezing in whatever bits of history seem to have caught his fancy. Someone goes to a festival, and we get a 6-page history of the festival and description of relevant buildings. Someone visits Calcutta, and we get 6 pages describing its society. Someone remodels a building and we get endless discussion of architecture and the hiring of workmen. It can be pretty interesting, but it also makes the book quite dense, especially with all the tiny footnotes, which I think are overkill for a non-academic work. The publishers could have made the book much more readable by actually naming the chapters and sections (and making sure to space out section breaks more evenly) to make it easier for readers to find what interests them. Instead it’s a wall of text full of tangents and extraneous details; no wonder many readers were frustrated. I nearly gave up on it myself.

Despite all its flaws, though, I did find the book interesting, and in the end did read it all. I do appreciate details and specifics and this book has them in abundance. It seems well-researched and the author’s basic thesis, that in the 18th century the British in India did far more to assimilate than their hoity-toity 19th century successors, is also quite interesting. Those looking for a detailed picture of an era would be well-advised to pick this up, though those expecting a love story might do better to avoid it.

Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty

Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire - Ira Mukhoty

This is an interesting book about the women related to the Mughal emperors. I wound up disenchanted with it and think that its reception so far has been perhaps a bit too glowing, but I did learn some interesting things from it.

Essentially, this is a history of a little over 200 years of the Mughal empire in India, from just before their arrival at the beginning of the 16th century, to just after the death of Aurangzeb at the beginning of the 18th. The focus is on the women of the dynasty, who played far more powerful and active roles than western stereotypes would have it. Also, the “harem” (the correct term for the women’s quarters is a zenana) wasn’t exactly teeming with wives and concubines of the emperor; any woman related to him or to his loyal retainers could show up to live there and many did, along with their own entourages and servants.

Particularly in the early years, these women were hardly in purdah: they accompanied the emperor as he traveled around, even to war or on daring escapes across mountains from pursuing armies (this sometimes resulted in wives and children being captured or killed); they traveled from city to city at their own whim; they went on hajj. Even later on, once the zenana became more separate, the women there still wielded considerable power, as they often had independent fortunes, owned trading ships, commissioned monumental buildings, and weighed in with the emperor on issues of public policy. Maham Anaga was essentially regent of part of India for awhile, while Noor Jahan coined her own money and had the authority to issue edicts under her name and with her own seal.

All of which is fascinating, and I’m glad to have learned about these women, but the execution let me down a bit. First, the author covers more than 200 years and a ton of women in just 246 pages of text, which means it’s rushed and often doesn’t get much past generalities. Second, the first third is definitely the best because Mukhoty can rely on the memoirs of Gulbadan, daughter of Babur and relative of the later emperors, which bring a lovely personal touch to the story. In the later portions we don’t have that and so it becomes more distant. It might also be that the earlier women are just more interesting, as many of them led quite dramatic lives while the later ones seem to have mostly stayed behind walls amassing wealth and commissioning buildings in their names.

Third, the author seems to glorify the Mughals overmuch, in a way that comes across as colonialist. We may not think of the Mughals as colonizers because they weren’t European and, unlike the British, at least they kept India’s wealth in the country and acculturated themselves to the place. But still, they rode in from Afghanistan and killed a ton of people to conquer territory for their own power and glory, and continued to do so throughout the existence of the empire. Mukhoty mostly elides the fact that their wars consisted of naked land grabs, and there’s a weird “oh, those Hindus and their barbaric customs” vibe that comes close to suggesting the Hindus needed the Mughals to save them from themselves.

Finally, the book just doesn’t come across as very historically rigorous. Mukhoty’s decision to write the entire history in the present tense is weird and distracting. There’s also a tendency to use the same evocative generalities over and over again; the author is always talking about someone’s glittering, blistering, blinding, incandescent, etc., etc., ambition, which is a fancy way of saying the Mughals loved conquering people and imposing architecture. There are endnotes (though frustratingly, no index) and the author seems to have used at least some primary sources. She also doesn’t run rampant speculating on thoughts and feelings (lack of source material is perhaps why the book covers so many people in so few pages). But I would have appreciated more facts and less editorializing.

In the end, interesting book that opened my eyes to a part of history I didn’t know much about. Could be worthwhile reading if you’re interested in the subject, but ultimately it was frustrating for me because it could have been better.

The New One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

The New One Minute Manager - Ken Blanchard, Spencer,  M.D. Johnson I’m not entirely sure how to rate this book. The text is incredibly short: about the length of a magazine article. The takeaways are even shorter; much of that short text is a parable about a young man learning the ways of the one-minute manager. That said, I got this book from the library so I’m inclined to be generous regarding the amount of actual content, and there is something to be said for expanding on a simple idea at a little more length in order to fix it in readers’ minds. The takeaways are basically this: Goals: Employees need to know what their goals in their positions are, so that they can figure out for themselves whether or not they’re succeeding without having to wait for infrequent performance reviews. The manager and employee should figure out together the employee’s goals, which should be written down with timelines in a short form that’s easy for the employee to review regularly. (I’m having trouble figuring out how to implement this one in my workplace due to the nature of our work.) Praising: Managers should try to “catch people doing something right” and offer specific praise when they see it to make employees feel good about themselves. People with confidence and who like their jobs do better work, so focusing on people and focusing on results shouldn’t be a choice between two different goals. Also, you shouldn’t wait until people are doing something perfectly before praising them any more than you’d wait until a kid has learned to talk before praising their attempts. (I need to work on this but at least the how-to is obvious.) Redirects: When people do something wrong, the authors suggest that you discuss it with the person as soon as possible; confirm the facts and review the mistake together; tell the employee how you feel about the mistake and pause for a moment for them to be concerned; and then express that you know their work is better than this, have confidence in them and think well of them as a person. Then, let it go. (All this seems challenging to do, but probably a good idea. I haven’t tried it yet.) Overall this seems to me to pack some good advice that goes beyond what you’d expect from the brief page count, though yeah, it is really short. Hopefully I’ll be able to figure out how to use it.

El Norte by Carrie Gibson

El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America - Carrie Gibson

This is a very informative book about the Hispanic role in North American history, from the first arrival of the Spanish in the western hemisphere, through their colonization of what is today Florida, Texas, California and much of the rest of the American West, to the U.S.’s wars with Mexico and Spain and its troubled relationship with Puerto Rico, to the role of Hispanic culture in the U.S. and the treatment of Hispanic citizens and immigrants. At 437 pages of text (followed by endnotes etc.), it covers a lot, though it also has to keep moving fairly quickly to get through it all. It’s written to be accessible to the general reader, though I found it more interesting when I was able to devote larger amounts of time to keep all the facts straight.

There are a lot of facts here, and not a lot of analysis, which is a little bit too bad because I have the feeling the author has a lot more to say but was trying to keep her opinions out of it. It’s definitely a big-picture approach, a view of all of post-contact American history side-by-side with the history of the nearest Spanish-speaking colonies and countries, but with a fair amount of detail about key events and players. The author also accomplishes a rare feat in a book focused on a particular disadvantaged group in American society, which is that she doesn’t forget about the others: some of this history overlaps quite significantly with the U.S.’s treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans, which Gibson doesn’t shy away from (and treatment of Asians is touched on as well). While little of the history was entirely new to me, I was still struck by, for instance, the extent to which southern slaveowners hoped to take over Cuba, several Mexican states, and possibly other southern neighbors in order to extend slavery. My biggest complaint is that the book could have been clearer about the implications of how the Mexican-American War got started. But I particularly appreciated the way the author relates the history of Mexico side-by-side with the U.S.; although we're neighbors, I'm not sure I've actually seen these histories in the same work before.

Overall, this is an interesting and accessible history that provides as comprehensive a view of the long history of Spanish-speaking people and their descendants in the U.S. as I’ve ever seen. It’s a useful perspective and a worthwhile read.

Madame President by Helene Cooper

Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - Helene Cooper

I picked this book up primarily because I loved the author’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, about growing up in Liberia until political instability and terror forced her family to leave. This book, though, is a biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018 and the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa. It’s a good biography, readable and engaging as all the best journalistic work is, and certainly informative though it lacks the humor and personal touch of Cooper’s memoir.

About the first quarter of this relatively short biography (290 pages) covers the first approximately 50 years of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s life, spending a few pages on her childhood before moving on to her marriage, higher education, subsequent divorce from her abusive husband (even though it meant no longer being able to raise most of their children), and her career as a financial bureaucrat. The second quarter focuses more on Liberia’s civil war and the years of coups and atrocities. Johnson Sirleaf was absent from Liberia for much of this time working for financial institutions abroad, but the reader needs to understand something of what was happening in the country to put her presidency in context. Finally, the last half covers her elections and presidency, though the book ends in 2015 and was published in 2017, before she actually left office.

The book is highly readable and offers a lot of explanation to readers who may not know anything about Liberia; Cooper is clearly adept at bridging two cultures. It is an admiring biography, and as far as I can tell an authorized one—Johnson Sirleaf allowed Cooper to follow her around and was interviewed for the book, though Cooper didn’t share her drafts—but Cooper also highlights areas where Johnson Sirleaf made poor or questionable choices. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about all her female supporters who stole their adult sons’ voter IDs to prevent them from voting for her clearly unqualified male opponent, for instance—interestingly to me, Liberian women seemed far more likely to vote for a candidate because of her gender than their American counterparts. But I was glad to see Cooper really dig into Johnson Sirleaf’s achievements in office: the chapter about how she managed to persuade other governments, multinational institutions and private companies to forgive Liberia’s $4.7 billion debt is fantastic and highlights a huge accomplishment that few others could possibly have achieved.

Meanwhile, other reviewers have mentioned that the book deals with some dark subject matter around Liberia’s civil war, and this is true though it isn’t the primary focus of the book. The last 35 pages mostly focus on the Ebola pandemic, which was interesting to read during another pandemic: there was a lot of initial denial around Ebola too, though once people accepted that it was real they seemed to do a good job of taking necessary precautions to wipe it out.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of good information in this book, but there’s more distance from its subject than I would have expected in a semi-authorized biography of someone who’s still alive: I didn’t get much sense of Johnson Sirleaf’s personality, what makes her tick, how the people close to her view her, etc. Maybe she didn’t want her personal life in a book, her family didn’t want to share, and Cooper decided to respect their wishes—hard to say. But while I still blew through the book in just a few days, I think I would have liked it even better with more personality. Cooper credits several people in the acknowledgments with making her ditch her “flip tone” and I wound up wishing she’d kept it. There are a few humorous bits, which were welcome.

But I’d certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject, and Johnson Sirleaf is without doubt a tough and impressive woman, though (like everybody else) imperfect. Those who would like a more personal, in-depth and at times humorous story (with some overlapping subject matter) should check out the author’s memoir.

Only time will tell how to interpret events after the end of this book: Johnson Sirleaf stepped down in 2018, allowing for Liberia’s first peaceful transition of power in decades, but then the winner of that election was George Weah (the soccer player), whose vice president is Jewel Taylor (ex-wife of Charles Taylor, the war criminal). Hmm. I hope Cooper will keep on writing books about Liberia; I for one will be happy to keep reading them.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Heavy: An American Memoir - Kiese Laymon

This is a well-written short memoir about the author’s family, body, and experiences as a black boy and man in America. Kiese Laymon is an English professor from Mississippi, and this memoir starts when he was 11 and continues through his 40s, though of course covering so many years in 241 pages means we skip over a lot. The memoir is addressed to his mother, who is one of those mothers people are especially driven to write memoirs about: brilliant, loving, and abusive. He also writes a lot about his body issues, going from obesity to what looks like anorexia and an exercise obsession, and then back.

So there’s a lot packed into this book, and it’s highly readable although often “heavy” material. The sections about how Laymon saw black college students being harshly disciplined for minor infractions while white students got off with a slap on the wrist for much more serious crimes (or in one case, even pawned off their own culpability on unknown but totally scary people of color) was particularly hard-hitting to me. There’s a lot in the book that’s very raw, though told in an artful way by an author skilled at rhetoric. Much of it won’t be surprising to anyone who’s read much about race in America, but the author’s perspective makes a lot of sense.

It isn’t my favorite book of the year, perhaps because it isn’t written “for” me—Laymon writes about wanting to write for black people, which makes sense. Sometimes I found it a little confusing. At times in small ways: like many memoirists, Laymon leans heavily on brand names, which can be confusing if you don’t share the author’s pop-cultural background. And also in larger ways: the author seems to imply that his mother sexually abused him, but never explicitly says so even while he writes a lot about the need for radical honesty within his family, which tends to bury everything. In the end I wasn’t sure whether he was being cagey or I was reading in something that wasn’t there.

At any rate, this is a good book and well worth reading for anyone looking to read about race in America, or just looking for a good memoir.

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America - Richard Rothstein

This is a very informative book about a piece of American history that many of us don’t fully understand, even if we think we do: specifically, how we arrived at a place of extensive residential segregation, and how the government was way more involved in creating it than most Americans believe. The text is compact (217 pages, followed by 20 pages of FAQs and then extensive notes and bibliography) and a little bit dense, but it is accessible even if not quite as entertaining as much of the nonfiction I read.

Americans tend to assume that the U.S. became segregated based largely on the private choices of some white racists and of black people preferring to live amongst their own. However, as professor Richard Rothstein shows in detail, the truth is that government was heavily involved in promoting and condoning the segregation of African-Americans into poor communities throughout much of the 20th century. Interestingly, in the decades after slavery ended, progress was made, many integrated neighborhoods existed, and some black people attained professional success, only to see much of this progress reversed between the turn of the century and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Governmental involvement in segregation was extensive. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) would only guarantee mortgages for white people, at a time when the U.S. was aggressively promoting a homeownership policy for fear of its own Russian Revolution. Uniquely at this time in history, working-class people could buy homes with no down payment and favorable mortgage terms, allowing their families to build equity for generations to come…. but only if the buyers in question were white. The FHA would also only make loans to developers who promised to build whites-only neighborhoods, often enforced through requirements in deeds that the property could only be sold to white people, which courts upheld for decades. Public housing, likewise, tended to be for whites only, with a few segregated projects for black people. Without the opportunity to get a mortgage, African-Americans were forced to double up, spend far more of their income on housing, and live in subpar areas. Municipalities took further advantage of this through zoning requirements forcing homes to be larger than black people could afford, or outright zoning particular areas as single-race-only.

Meanwhile, real estate codes classified selling homes in white neighborhoods to black people as an ethics violation—except when “blockbusting” was involved, essentially scaring white people into selling their homes fast because black people were moving in, buying the homes cheap and then selling them at high prices to African-Americans. Local governments blocked developments that would have served black people through whatever means they could, whether rezoning or increasing sewage costs to make development untenable. Local residents harassed, threatened, and in some cases bombed the homes of black people who dared move into white neighborhoods, generally while the police stood by. But black neighborhoods weren’t safe either; the interstate highway program demolished many of them even when alternate routes were available.

Finally, of course, housing does not exist in a vacuum. What you can afford depends on how much money you make, and black people faced hurdles in earning what they should have. Employers often relocated to areas in which there was no housing available to black people, and public transit from black neighborhoods to jobs has been a far lower priority than highways serving white suburbanites. Unions were allowed to discriminate against black workers and keep them in the most menial jobs. African-Americans who had reached supervisory roles in the civil service were demoted to ensure that they didn’t supervise any white people. And disproportionately higher property tax assessments also left black people with less money to spend.

This book is a thoroughly researched and scholarly account of a shameful chapter in American history that has lasting repercussions today. The value of white Americans’ property appreciated enormously in the decades that black people were barred from buying the same, putting anyone buying afterwards far behind the curve, and with wages stagnant for the last several decades, this disparity in assets will be difficult to reverse anytime soon. The author is up-front about the fact that the solutions he offers are not politically feasible in today’s environment, but he’d be lying if he claimed there was an easy or universally palatable fix.

Overall, this is very much worth reading even if you think you know a lot about American racial history. For those who are interested, it would make sense read alongside The New Jim Crow. Unfortunately, policies removing black Americans from their land continue even today, as this compelling article about the consequences of heirs’ property shows.

The Favourite by Ophelia Field

Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough: The Queen's Favourite - Ophelia Field This is an interesting biography of a woman I can’t help viewing as the Hillary Clinton of turn-of-the-18th century England: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, was a prominent, divisive, highly political woman closely connected to her country’s leader, but not naturally suited to her supporting role. Opinionated, partisan, determined, self-righteous and stubborn, even today Sarah Churchill remains a colorful figure often portrayed in a highly negative light. Churchill is best known for having a very close relationship with Queen Anne, up until their dramatic falling-out largely due to political issues: the queen leaned conservative while Churchill was a committed Whig, and after decades of friendship Churchill seems to have assumed too much in terms of her influence once Anne ascended the throne. During the course of their friendship, Anne sent Sarah a lot of letters that today come across as highly romantic in tone and vocabulary, leading many to assume that the two were lovers. Author Ophelia Field looks at both sides of that question, but without spending too much time on speculation, preferring to focus on known facts. It’s pretty hard to figure out centuries later whether people were sexually involved, but we do know that many of the female courtiers at that time wrote each other letters like this, perhaps in part due to overheated epistolary conventions and in part because friendships were prioritized more at the time than they are now. It’s also worth noting that certain words simply had different connotations at the time (people declared their “passion” for their parents and children as well as their friends). On the other hand, while Anne dutifully got pregnant with her husband an astonishing 17 times (none of which resulted in a child surviving to adulthood), she did not have quasi-romantic relationships with male courtiers in the way other queens of England did, and Sarah evidently saw something untoward in Anne’s letters, as after falling out of favor she used them to blackmail the queen. This book though is a rather exhaustive chronicle of Sarah Churchill’s life, of which the Queen Anne episodes were only a part. There’s a lot about her relationship with her husband and his military victories, a lot about political maneuvering, and a lot about various satires and attacks against the Churchills in the press at the time. I also appreciated the final chapter dealing with the various portrayals of Churchill since her death. I don’t disagree with the reviewers who say the book goes on a little long, in perhaps too much detail, with the letters, politics and press attacks. It’s interesting stuff, but it may not need to be quite so granular and as a result the book takes a little while to get through. In my view Field does an admirable job of remaining balanced: Churchill was clearly a difficult person in a lot of ways, prone to strong opinions and long-running arguments (though perhaps not quite as contentious as some of her detractors portrayed her). She doesn’t seem to have been an attentive mother and was controlling toward her grandchildren, using the fortune she amassed through clever investments to keep them in line. At the same time, her willingness to step out of the standard role of a woman of her time is admirable, and she was clearly tough, committed, charismatic and intelligent. She wrote a lot, and was very concerned with how posterity would view her, so we get many excerpts in her own words. Overall, this is an interesting and at times dramatic biography of a strong personality, though at times it does drown a little in detail, while there were a few areas (such as Churchill’s children) that I would have liked to see fleshed out more. This book is a good choice for those interested in the topic.

Combat Surgeons by John Laffin

Combat Surgeons - John Laffin

An informative history of combat medicine. I picked it up for the first few chapters on earlier historical time periods, but wound up reading the whole thing (admittedly, skimming some of the later chapters) because it’s pretty interesting. There’s something a little slapdash about it, such that I felt recognition rather than surprise on seeing that the author wrote 130 books and so presumably dashed this one off in a couple of months, but there’s still a lot of interesting detail and data. Laffin fought in WWII himself and displays a critical view of war and the way leaders and the public tend to ignore its human cost. But he’s also pretty old-school British Empire in that he doesn’t seem to see much problem with colonialism, and seems to view the British (and to a lesser extent, the French and Americans) as the only ones who mattered even when other countries’ combat medicine was ahead. Still, fairly useful reading if a bit gruesome in places.

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.  - Brené Brown

This was mostly a wrong turn in my “learn how to be a supervisor in the middle of a pandemic” quest. It seems to have received more attention from fans of the author’s other work than people looking for business books, and so perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s much more a self-help book than a management book. Mostly it’s peddling the author’s particular version of emotional authenticity and connectedness. I don’t know that there’s anything bad about her vision per se, but I found the book off-putting: the peculiar phrasing she uses in her workplace (“let’s rumble about this,” “that’s outside of my integrity,” and so on), the self-help-y unspoken assumption that seems to saturate its pages that those who don’t see the light of her vision will bumble around blindly leading terrible lives. Admittedly, I don’t think much of self-help books. They’re quick and easy reads, as this is, but they rub me the wrong way.


And unfortunately, for all the author touts her Ph.D. and calls herself a researcher, this is very much self-help rather than pop psych. Typically, a pop psych book will discuss studies and their methodologies and results in an accessible way for a general audience. This author claims to have done a bunch of research, but her methodology is never discussed beyond vague references to interviewing people. And she never cites a single statistic, instead presenting the One True Way to Be Empathetic, for instance. Somehow I’m pretty sure no psychological research shows 100% unanimity on anything, unless it’s total softball questions like “is murder generally wrong?” At what point does “I talked to a bunch of people about this, and here’s the general consensus” cross the line from anecdote to science? I don’t know, but I’m not convinced this work has done so.


That said, certainly there’s plenty of common sense advice here, like “be clear about what specifically you’re asking people to do” and “try to be nonjudgmental if you want people to feel safe talking to you.” I think the book is a little overly padded with the author quoting long excerpts of people (particularly famous people) praising her work, and it’s probably most useful if you are the head of an organization looking to transform a workplace culture. It kind of annoyed me, but then it’s not my type of thing to begin with.

Ingenious Pursuits by Lisa Jardine

Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution - Lisa Jardine

This is an interesting and intelligent book about the early Enlightenment, focused on England in the late 17th century. It is arranged topically and covers a number of subjects that were important to science at the time: astronomy; the invention of the microscope; architecture, relevant because of the math involved; scientific instruments and the improving of clocks so as to make meaningful measurements possible; anatomy; botany and the European craze for collecting specimens from around the world; medicine and the often dangerous remedies scientists tested on themselves (along with some experiments that were way ahead of their time, such as blood transfusion, which wasn’t particularly successful since it was attempted from animals to humans); the problem of how to measure longitude; the relationship between astronomy and cartography and consequent improvement in the accuracy of maps. It’s very readable, not as long as it appears due to a lot of illustrations, and definitely expanded my knowledge a bit.

The book is not a biography of anyone in particular (I came to it after The Age of Wonder and was a little disappointed in that at first, though admittedly, this one is appreciably shorter and probably contains more actual science history as a result). But it does spend some time with some of the biggest influences on the English science scene at the time, such as Newton, Hooke, and Halley, as well as paying attention to the context in which they worked. Discussion of some weird aspects of scientific culture at the time—such as the way some people would publish results in codes or anagrams so that they could later claim to have published first, while actually keeping their precious knowledge to themselves—was particularly interesting. The idea of scientific collaboration was new, and the German-born secretary of the Royal Society was even arrested for spying based on his scientific correspondence with foreigners.

I don’t love that this book, like most popular histories of science available in English, is very Anglo- and Eurocentric, and doesn’t acknowledge much contribution from anyone else. Also, despite being written by a woman, it has little to say about women in science—the one who is discussed, Maria Sibylla Merian, is presented as if she were an artist only. I also would have liked to see the book go more into depth on many of the topics and people discussed. That said, I learned from it and found it accessible. It is better and more comprehensive than the other books I’ve found on this time period.

The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick

If you want an accessible history of early modern mathematics, this is the book for you. The marketing is off, as if the author changed course about a third of the way through but neglected to inform his publishers or, for that matter, alter the first third of the book. It’s presented as a history of English science in the late 17th century, and the first third focuses on fairly simplistic scene-setting. Other reviewers have rightly pointed out that the speeches of Jonathan Edwards—an 18th century New England preacher descended from people who left England due to intolerance of their extreme religious views—should not be pointed to as an articulation of “standard doctrine” in England decades earlier, and this sort of thing calls the author’s sweeping statements about religion into question.

That said, eventually Dolnick tosses aside his shackles and digs into what really interests him, which is a history of math, particularly how mathematical discoveries were viewed in a religious context and why the invention/discovery of calculus was so important. This is actually quite readable and engaging, and short chapters and diagrams make the math pretty digestible for the intelligent reader who may not remember much from school. (I actually felt like it was a little bit too simplistic. My memories of high school calculus were barely jogged.) Interestingly, the math focus means that except for Newton, the people Dolnick focuses on are largely not English: Leibniz, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes all have their turn in the spotlight. Since English-language histories of science are so Anglocentric generally, this was both great, in that I learned a little about people I hadn’t read much about, and frustrating, in that why drag us through 100 pages of English history first if this is where we’re going? Why not get the context of these other countries, presumably less familiar to most English-speaking readers, instead?

But okay. It’s a readable history of math, with some pretty interesting details. I didn’t know, for instance, that Descartes invented the idea of plotting change on a graph in the 17th century or what a breakthrough this was. Or about the way credulity, at the time, was seen by thinkers as a sign of intelligence, apparently as contrasted with hidebound peasants who refused to believe anything they didn’t see with their own eyes. (Naturally, this resulted in the thinkers believing some wacky things.) It’s not the book I would recommend if you actually want to read about late 17th century science, since it barely touches anything non-mathematical, so for other subjects, try Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution instead. But it’s a quick read and I don’t regret reading it.

Leadership Strategy and Tactics by Jocko Willink

Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual  - Jocko Willink

This author has a devoted podcast following, but I came to this not familiar with him or his work. This is a leadership/management book giving levelheaded advice largely based around “soft skills” like motivating people and building relationships. There’s definitely a place for that—when the “hey, back off, take input from your team and don’t let your ego get in the way” is coming from a former Navy SEAL commander, everybody else can relax a little bit about whether not constantly barking orders makes them too soft. That said, this book is based on Willink’s experience in elite, all-male military environments, in which every project is a group project and mission success and failure can be both objectively measured and immediately recognized, limiting the applicability of his advice. In particular, his failure to say a word about gender while giving advice that flies in the face of typical business advice for women makes me leery about much of what he says.

In the way of these sorts of books, this one mixes stories from the author’s military career and later consulting business with practical advice. It’s a very quick read; generous font and spacing make it shorter than the page count implies. Much of the advice I think is pretty good, though a lot of it looks common sense when you boil it down. For instance: Let your team come up with their own plan. By not being too involved in the details, you’ll be better able to spot any flaws, and also, they’ll be more committed to executing their own plan than one imposed on them from above. Don’t burn down relationships fighting over differences of opinion that amount to small differences in efficiency; if you’re inclined to do this it’s likely your ego getting in your way. (There’s a lot in here about reining in your ego.) Build relationships with people up and down the chain of command. Respecting people and taking their input is the best way to gain respect and influence yourself. Keep people informed about what’s going on and why. Etc.

That said, my biggest concern with the book is that much of its advice boils down to “be modest and humble, take the blame but pass on the credit, work hard without tooting your own horn and your effectiveness will ultimately be seen and rewarded.” No doubt this is a good strategy in the SEALs (and it’s worth pointing out that this book is about how to lead effectively rather than how to get promoted, but the author assumes that if you do the former, the latter will fall into your lap). But this is also the strategy that, as we’ve been told for decades, women tend to instinctively adopt and that holds them back from promotion to higher ranks. Women’s achievements are doubted and forgotten more quickly than men’s, and a woman who takes the blame for everything that goes wrong—as Willink suggests as part of his philosophy of “extreme ownership”—is probably more likely to be believed than promoted.

Now obviously, women are not a monolith from the Land of Stereotype, all self-effacing, nurturing types who let others take credit for our ideas while we labor unrecognized for long hours, except when leaving early to shoulder the bulk of the childcare. We have egos too, and female leaders too ought to avoid becoming raging narcissists who blame all setbacks on other people (it can happen). But with no mention of gender differences in how behaviors are perceived, I was left a bit at a loss as to much of Willink’s advice: is this the route to good leadership or career stagnation? Outside of an elite military unit—where everyone has received the same training, objectives are clear and outcomes measurable, and Willink suggests that the difference between a good plan and a bad one is an objective matter that will be readily acknowledged by all—I don’t think many people, particularly women, can afford to sit back and assume their worth will be self-evident.

Willink’s particular background also limits the applicability of some of his other advice: for instance, he assumes that a true problem employee (one who continues to underperform even after being told what the standards are and after conversations about what the boss needs to provide for them to be able to do their job) will just be transferred out or fired. But many workplaces have no accountability and won’t back up mid-level managers attempting to apply it. Similarly, the question of changing jobs, or how to recognize whether a workplace’s leadership will work for you, does not come up; it seems like Willink’s strategy was just to play along and wait out bad bosses, which worked because people were always being transferred around.

All that said, I do think it was worth reading this book, in that it’s useful to hear how a successful person thinks through leadership problems. I wish I’d been able to get it from the library rather than having to buy a copy, since it’s pretty slight for the price and left me doubting some of the advice. It’s probably most useful to those in the military, or as a passive-aggressive gift to an over-zealous boss (hah). And it's almost certainly more useful for men than women. But, not too bad for what it is and as long as you apply some critical thinking to the advice, I think much of it can be useful to anyone.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan

Read through page 53.

I'm probably too snooty a reader for this book, and just having enjoyed some escapism through the works of Jane Austen is perhaps a better indication that I shouldn't move on to actually trashy stuff than that I should. I was ready for silly fun! The prologue was totally fun! But after that.... meh.

First of all, I feel that an important element of a good trashy, plot-driven read is that you at least like and root for the protagonists, even if they aren't particularly deep, complex or interesting. I didn't see any reason to care about anybody here. Nick is fabulously wealthy, but seems intent on hiding this fact from his girlfriend of two years even though he's about to take her to meet his family, at which point she's clearly going to find out in the most awkward and cringeworthy possible ways. Rachel is primarily seen gazing into teacups thinking about her relationship, and having conversations with her mother in which they tell each other how close they are despite the fact that this is unusual for Chinese-American mothers and daughters, and also speculate about how possibly Nick hasn't told her anything about his family because they're poor. At which point it becomes clear that Nick has told Rachel virtually nothing about his life, and that Rachel is the most incurious person alive. And also, that the author's exposition is really clumsy.

Most of the rest of the book so far is about making the fact over and over again that these people are RICH, largely through dropping brand names right and left. And then pointing out that they're also sometimes STINGY. But nevertheless RICH.

Meh. Moving on.

The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America - Russell Shorto

Read through page 49.

It's odd to call a book both florid and dull, but in this case both adjectives seem apt. In part it's perhaps because the author waxes florid and wordy on topics that are either unimportant or speculative. Why do we need an extended description of the route Henry Hudson might have walked through London from his house to a meeting with the directors of the Muscovy Company, who then turned him down for his intended voyage, after which he wound up being sponsored by a Dutch company instead? This walk through London seems like a fairly meaningless moment in his life, much less to the history of New Amsterdam before it became New York. This book promised to reveal the little-known Dutch influences on America, after which I found it strange to have so much emphasis on Brits rather than Dutch people in the text.

On to the next one.