The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

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He decided initially to make a great historical list, a list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea—the building blocks of modern world civilization—that had been first conceived and made in China. If he could managed to establish a flawless catalog of just what the Chinese had created first, of exactly which of the world’s ideas and concepts had actually originated in the Middle Kingdom, he would be on to something. If he could delve behind the unforgettable remark that emperor Qianlong had made to the visiting Lord Macartney in 1792—“We possess all things…I have no use for your country’s manufactures”—if he could determine what exactly prompted Qianlong to make such a claim, then he would perhaps have the basis or a truly original and world-changing work of scholarship.

Whereas other great British explorers like Livingston, Scott, Drake and Cook sailed, rode or walked into places that had not been seen by westerners before, not much anyway, and produced useful and accurate maps of the places they explored, Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham strode into places in China that had at least been visited by Europeans, but maybe not properly noticed, and created the equivalent of a map to its history. He would produce one of the monumental intellectual works of the 20th century, Science and Civilization in China,

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Volume 1

and revolutionize how the West perceived a nation that had come to be regarded as a basket case. Like Moses, Joseph Needham did not survive to see the final product of his efforts, but he knew that it would come to be, as he had dedicated his energy, genius, love for and obsession with China to fueling the engine to its final destination. There are, to date, twenty four “substantial published works” in the project, according to the Needham Research Institute, with more in process.

Of course, as a remarkable Englishman, Needham would not be complete without his share of eccentricities, peculiarities and oddities. He was a nudist for one. Those of delicate sensibility afloat on the River Cam in Cambridge knew that there was a certain section of the waterway that might feature suit-free swimmers, and when to shield their gaze. Needham might be found among the bathers. He was also a practitioner of the open marriage. It is unlikely that his wife, Dorothy, the daughter of his Cambridge mentor, was much of a sexual wanderer, but Needham was a notorious womanizer. Of course there was one woman in particular who caught his fancy, and sparked Needham’s life work. 有缘千里来相会

She was named Lu Gwei-djen, and she was Chinese, born thirty-nine years before in the city of Nanjing, and a scientist like himself. They had met at Cambridge six years earlier…In falling headlong for Gwei-djen, Joseph Needham found that he also became enraptured by her country. She taught him her language, and he now spoke, wrote, and read it with a fair degree of fluency. She had suggested that he travel to China and see for himself what a truly astonishing country it was—so different, she kept insisting, from the barbaric and enigmatic empire most westerners believed it to be.

Lu Gwei-djen was a gifted biology researcher who came to Cambridge specifically to study with Needham and his wife, also a high-level scientist. Six months in, she and Needham were an item. Dorothy put up with it.

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Lu Gewi-djen – from HCSC Foundation – Needham – from USA Today

The times were dramatic when Needham made his first visit to China in 1943. Japan occupied a considerable portion of the country. The trip took years to arrange, having to run a gauntlet of political interference. But once he arrived Needham immediately began identifying elements of contemporary Chinese civilization, technology and science, that dated back hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years, predating similar abilities in the west. He found that much of what was presumed to have originated in Europe had in fact begun in the Middle Kingdom. Needham made it his life’s work to dig into the history of all the Chinese science and technology history he could get his hands on to feed what he already knew would be his magnum opus. He travelled extensively in the non-occupied areas of China, at times barely escaping ahead of Japanese invaders.

Although he compiled a massive amount of information, the crux of his concern rested on what would come to be called The Needham Question or The Grand Question,

why…had modern science originated only in the western world? Much later on…a second question presented itself—namely why, during the previous fourteen centuries, had China been so much more successful than Europe in acquiring knowledge of natural phenomena and using it for human benefit?

Simon Winchester tracks Needham’s life from early childhood until his passing at age 95. He worked until the very end. And a remarkable life it was. His focus, of course, is on the time in which Needham acquired an interest in China and the subsequent lifetime labors. (只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针) A fair bit of ink is given to his relationship with Lu Gwei-djen, as it should be. And there is considerable reportage on Needham’s political views, and the trouble those got him into during the shameful McCarthy period of the Cold War. (一人难称百人心/众口难调)This makes for fascinating reading. Winchester also lets us in on what a pain in the neck it was for Needham, however, intrepid, to make his way around China on his investigations, in the absence of reliable transport. His life and status at Cambridge comes in for a look as well. Like the poor we will always have office politics with us. (强龙难压地头蛇 )

Joseph Needham is indeed one of the most remarkable people of the 20th century. I confess I had never before heard of him, which may say more about my educational shortcomings than Needham’s undeserved obscurity, but I will presume that there are many like me, (fewer, to be sure, on the eastern side of the pond) to whom the story of Joseph Needham will be a revelation. Simon Winchester has made a career out of writing about great accomplishments and the people responsible. (一步一个脚印儿) He has done us all a service to bring this amazing character to our attention. With the growth of China into one of the premier economic and military powers on the planet, it may not ensure a good fortune, but it would probably be a worthwhile thing to know as much as possible about its history and culture.

Publication – 2008

Review posted – 3/6/15

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

An interesting wiki on the Historiography of science

If you feel like getting a start on reading Needham’s life work, you might check in with the Needham Research Institute . There are many photographs available there taken by Needham on his China visits.

A few other books by Simon Winchester –
Krakatoa
Atlantic
The Map That Changed the World
The Professor and the Madman
There are plenty more Winchester books out there. I have listed only the ones I have read.

The following are the full entries for the Chinese items included in the review. I found them in the China Highlights site.

有缘千里来相会 yǒu yuán qiān lǐ lái xiāng huì – Fate brings people together no matter how far apart they may be. This proverb points out that human relationships are decreed by Fate.

只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针 (zhǐ yào gōng fū shēn, tiě chǔ mó chéng zhēn) – If you work hard enough at it, you can grind even an iron rod down to a needle. This proverb encourages us to persevere in whatever we undertake. Just as the English proverb has it:”Constant drilling can wear away a stone”.

一人难称百人心/众口难调(yī rén nán chèn bǎi rén xīn / zhòng kǒu nán tiáo) – It is hard to please everyone.

强龙难压地头蛇 (qiáng lóng nán yā dìtóu shé) – Even a dragon (from the outside) finds it hard to control a snake in its old haunt. This means: Powerful outsiders can hardly afford to neglect local bullies.

一步一个脚印儿( yī bù yī gè jiǎo yìnr ): Every step leaves its print; work steadily and make solid progress.

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon

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Life is kind of like that, picking the memories you want to frame. We all have an idea of how it should be, all smiles and swing sets. There are the more unsavory moments that we leave in the box stashed up in the darker parts of our psyche. We know they exist but we don’t go flaunting them in front of the dinner guests.

There are three main elements in Finding Jake, the parent/child relationship, the way the world treats those who are different, and the mystery of what happened leading up to, during and after the central event of the story.

Simon Connolly is a former political operative. He works as a writer, but took on the additional, stay-at-home, role when he and his wife, Rachel, had their first child. He is pretty good at it, if a bit of a worrier. When he gets a text from his kids’ school he is rocked to his core. There has been a shooting.

For the first two thirds, the story is divided fairly equally between following the events, post-shooting, as they emerge, Simon and Rachel’s torment in trying to find out what happened to their son and what he might have done or suffered, and Simon recalling the years from Jake’s birth. The final third is about the post-shooting events, searching for Jake and the truth. We see everything through Simon’s eyes.

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Bryan Reardon

Ever wonder if you screwed up your kid? Allowed too much? Too little? Encouraged too much? Too little? Spent enough time with them? Maybe too much? Encouraged them to experience the world too much, not enough? What if they followed your advice and it all went wrong? What if they ignored you and it went right? Where is that Goldilocks perfect middle? We can probably all look back over the lives of our children and second-guess our parenting decisions, our approaches. Will our kids turn out ok? Could they have turned out better? Are we good parents or did we mess it up? Another element in this vein is wondering how well you know your own child. How well can you? Welcome to Simon’s head. I do not want to give the impression that Simon is a sort of Woody Allen neurotic. He is not. He is a regular guy, a loving father, but when he learns that a troubled friend of his son is implicated in the shooting, there is plenty of self-questioning to be done.

How responsible are we for the behavior of our children, for their fate? How much is nurture and how much nature? As the father of three grown children I could certainly relate to Simon’s concerns. While I was only a stay-at-home dad for a fairly brief time, I could certainly appreciate the awkwardness he feels being a male homemaker. It is one of many elements in this book that is convincingly and accurately portrayed. I can also report, from personal experience, that my three arrived with very definite personalities. Not a blank slate in the bunch. We parents certainly can have an impact, but our progeny arrive with their own capacities and predilections. And they most definitely keep their own secrets. Simon not knowing everything about Jake’s life is 100% believable.

Reardon shows us snapshots of Jake’s life over the 18 years from in vitro to missing teen. Not exactly the most social kid, on the quiet side, but not to an extreme degree. Simon is concerned about Jake having a dodgy friend at age 8. Later, he encourages Jake to spend time with other kids. In this family photo album we see Simon and Rachel’s relationship change over time as well. Tensions, and some bright moments for them, too.

The back third of the book offers what seemed to me a pretty accurate look at how one’s neighbors are likely to respond in a pressured situation, (so many throwers, so few buses) and how the voracious media feeds on and produces fear. How many times have you seen a neighbor interviewed on the tube report that so-and-so, a known or suspected shooter, was a “quiet” person. We have acquired a sense, as a culture, that there is something wrong with people who are “quiet,” introspective, not party animals. Was Jake responsible for the shooting? Well, he was quiet, not particularly social, so what do you expect? Whether he is or isn’t, it is his social distance that is considered the tell. And what of Jake’s dad? He did not exactly fit in either. Maybe the quiet apple does not fall far from the tree.

To a large extent humans are pack animals. Queen bees and bullies do their best to cull pack members who look or act differently. Our media is more than happy to pile on, as professional practitioners of the blame game, and our institutions seem unable to control predatory behavior by the ins. Maybe they are not really all that interested in controlling it. Sometimes there is blowback.

they need to be able to explain it away. That’s what all this is about. If they can’t categorize what happened, put it in a nice, neat box, they can’t sleep at night…I’ve done it before. Now I see how awful it can be, though. It’s like they want to pick at us until we are bare, exposed, just to make themselves feel better. They dissect our pain just so they can convince themselves they are immune to it. It is like someone suffering a horrible disease and finding someone who is worse off than they are and asking them, Why? Why are you worse off than me? How is your situation different from mine? Tell me, so I can go home feeling better as you stay here and die.

Reardon does not offer in-depth analysis of Columbine-type child shooter(s). That is not what this is about. But Finding Jake does cover a range of subjects, parental responsibility, the social environment, signs of trouble, making moral choices, media amorality, police presumptuousness, neighborly selfishness. You will not find dazzling poetic prose here. The language is straightforward and entirely effective. It is about the story and underlying content, and not the form. You will definitely feel for Simon as a sort of everyman caught in a bad situation. He is honorable, intelligent and analytical, but is still fraught with the fears and doubts that anyone in his position might experience. If you are a parent, Finding Jake will touch a very deep place inside you. If you are not a parent, it will give you at least a taste of what it means to be one.

The author writes from experience about Simon’s life, and his fretting.

I’ve spent the last decade working from home while caring for my kids. I worry about them every day. Much of that angst fueled the writing of this book.

Like Simon (the name of the Reardon family pooch, btw) Reardon is also a writer and former political worker. He specializes in medical communications.

I had a couple of gripes about the book. Simon’s wife behaves on two occasions in a way that I found difficult to accept. And the final chapter seemed unnecessary. Too much leading readers by the hand.

Other than that, though, this is both a moving and a riveting novel. Once you begin reading you will not want to stop. Finding Jake is most definitely a book that is worth looking for.

Review posted – 10/30/14
Pub date – 2/24/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author does not, at present, maintain much of an on-line presence. I would not be surprised if this changes a bit as the publication date nears. When/if I encounter new info, I will add it.

His previous work includes Ready, Set, Play!, a collection of essays on parent-child bonding through sports, and Cruel Harvest, a memoir about a battered childhood.

For an excellent look at the UR school shooting or our age, I heartily recommend Dave Cullen’s Columbine

11/14/14 – A New York Times article about Stay-At-Home dads

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Filed under Fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews

The Harder They Come – T.C. Boyle

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Here was guilt. Here was the shit of the world coming home to roost right here in the redwoods.

There is a part of the American mind that has been off its meds for a very long time. There are some fine specimens of the syndrome tramping through the landscape in TC Boyle’s latest novel, The Harder They Come. Sara Hovart Jennings, 40, divorced, lives with her dog and her paranoia.

Was she wearing her seatbelt? No, she wasn’t, and she was never going to wear it either. Seatbelt laws were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the corporate that had had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing. But she wasn’t a citizen of the U.S.I.G.A, she was a sovereign citizen, a U.S. national, born and raised, and she didn’t now and never would again acknowledge anybody’s illegitimate authority over her.

She makes a living helping take care of horses and other animals on the northern California coast. Sara is more a garden-variety crank than a certifiable one.

There was talk on the radio, but it was mainly left-wing Communist crap-NPR, and how was it their signal was stronger than anybody else’s?

Adam Stensen is more the latter sort, mid 20s, hitchhiking, late of a local institution for the very nervous. Sara picks him up. Adam has issues. His grasp on reality is less than firm. He calls himself Colter, for John Colter, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, considered by many the first mountain man. The border between Adam’s reality as Adam and his reality as Colter is way too permeable.

Sten Stensen, 70, a Viet Nam veteran and retired school principal offers an example of the traditional Protestant work ethic.

He’d been up early all his life and though everybody said the best thing about retirement was sleeping in, he just couldn’t feature it. If he found himself in bed later than six, he felt like a degenerate, and he supposed he could thank his mother for that. And his father. The work ethic—once you had it, once it had been implanted in you, how could you shake it? Why would you want to?

He and his wife, Carolee, were on a group tour in Costa Rica. The bus driver who drove them to a remote location may or may not have been in on it, but after getting off the bus the group is accosted by several armed men and robbed of their possessions. At least that was the plan. Sten, away from the group when the action begins, gets the drop on a gun-toting bandit and kills him. The other robbers flee. Sten returns home a hero. Sten was raised with a good dose of the American work ethic.

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T.C. Boyle – from his site

Boyle’s northern California is a place living in fear, of BIG government, of Mexican drug runners and drug growers, of foreigners. That fear plays a big part in the story of Adam’s surrender to madness. Violence plays a huge role as well. The story of Adam/Colter’s descent is a gripping, moving, and frightening one. But, as in most good stories, there is another layer. Boyle opens the book with a quote from D.H. Lawrence

The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

Boyle has been looking at that soul for a while. His vision of it remains interesting. It is not a pretty sight. In straight narrative sections he gives us an up close and personal look at the historical Colter contending with existential 19th century threats. America was a challenging environment, whether for its early residents enduring a European invasion or for explorers taking on the risk of encountering actual hostiles in parts of the continent that were not under European/American rule. Of course, like so much of history, American and other, the details can be lost over time while the idealized image remains. See, for example, Supreme Court justices basing decisions on mythical, lumped-together, founders, while the fact is that those founders were a contentious lot who disagreed about most things. History as fantasy is as rich a seam in the American lode as is violence. Adam has fixated on one such fantasy, glorifying hardship. As a result he cannot reconcile his image of the archetypal independent mountain man with the fact that Colter actually returned to civilization after six years away and settled down. Adam, like much of America, has failed to learn from the lessons of the past.

Sten’s actions in Costa Rica, justified or not, echo his, and his country’s, army experience in Viet Nam, Americans in the jungle, killing natives. Boyle is known for his satire and Sara is nothing if not an exaggeration (hopefully) of an extreme segment of the national psychosis. At least she is not out shooting people. Adam, before diving even farther off the deep end, built a wall around the place where he was living, his grandmother’s home. He does not even build a door to allow entry and exit. It is hard not to smile at this concrete manifestation of isolationism. He sees hostiles everywhere, which is merely aberrant when he is going about his business, but manifestly dangerous when his paranoia combines with automatic weapons. (Think Ditto-heads with Glocks, or stand-your-ground vigilantes in Florida)

The notion of invasion is considered. The original Colter was nothing if not an invader of Native American land. The US invaded Viet Nam, and most Meso-American countries, among other places. The American tourists in Costa Rica might be considered invaders of a sort. But the tables are turned as Mexicans are seen as invaders of American territory. A local couple run a reserve for non-native endangered species, another sort of invasion, perhaps.

The general terrain is one Boyle knows, a not-long drive from his residence in Santa Barbara. There’s plenty of crazy up in them thar hills.

One of the things that dogs Boyle’s writing it that it is tough to relate to many of his characters. The same applies here. If you are hard-core, biochemically delusional you may relate to Adam. The rest of us are mostly limited to observing him. Despite her quirks, Sara is actually an appealing character and we don’t want to see her come to harm. She is more crazy-aunt nuts than Adam’s more virulent form. She seems to have a good heart.

The satire and attempt to understand the American psyche may be major elements in Boyle’s oeuvre, and they are present here in abundance, but if the story is not engaging, it all goes for naught. Happily, Boyle does know how to engage readers and keep his story rumbling through. There is certainly some fun in the satirical elements but there is also considerable action throughout. The tale moves quickly. You will definitely not be bored.

I have no idea of the title of the book was meant to reference Jimmy Cliff beyond a bit of weed in common.

I have read only a small sample of Boyle’s body of work. Budding Prospects, When the Killing’s Done, probably a short story collection, so I cannot really place this among his works for a compare and contrast. I do believe it is a better book than WTKD. I was reminded of a 2014 book that also looked at an extreme national element, Fourth of July Creek, but while their subject matter intersects, they are very different stories.

So, bottom line, an interesting tale, well told and with some perspective on larger issues. What’s not to like?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
In a piece on Boyle in The Guardian the author talks about his relationship with the digital world.

I’m not on Twitter or Facebook. My website contains my blog going back 13 years. It requires a good deal of my attention and serves the purpose of Twitter and Facebook for me as far as connecting with and providing information to the public. I like to disconnect and experience life outside the electronic media and other machines that control and limit our lives. I like to go out into nature, whether here at home where I am a short walk from the beach and a longer one to the mountains that frame Santa Barbara, or up in the Sequoia National Forest, where I spend several months a year, beyond the reach of cable, email and the internet. What I’m talking about is unplugging and enjoying some contemplative time, sitting by a waterfall deep in the woods with a book and the sights and scents of nature. I think people are “deep reading” less these days and it concerns me. We are so distracted that we’ve lost the habit of being idle. How can you engage with a novel if you’re plugged in constantly?

Thomas John Boyle changed his middle name to “Coraghessan” when he was 17, a nod to his Irish heritage and away from the less interesting middle name he had been given at birth. He stopped using it years ago and is now TC on his books, and Tom to friends.

Here is a nice piece on Boyle from the Encyclopedia of World Biography Encyclopedia of World Biography

An interview in the Paris Review

A wiki on the Redemption Theory that Sara is so taken with

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

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Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome!

Settle in for a story that is appalling and entertaining, hopeful and disappointing, reflective and sometimes ephemeral.

Life is disappointing? Forget it.

It is a good thing that this advice was not followed. Remembering seems more the thing.

We have no troubles here. Here life is beautiful.

Ummm, not so much. And now, Meine Damen und Herren, Mes Dames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ich bin eur confrencier, je suis votre compere…I am your host.

the star of our show:

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Cumming in the 1998 production – from Wmagazine.com – Photo by Joan Marcus.

“You need a haircut, boy!”

My father had only glanced at me across the kitchen table as he spoke but I had already seen in his eyes the coming storm.

I tried to speak but the fear that now engulfed me made it hard to swallow, and all that came out was a little gasping sound that hurt my throat even more. And I knew speaking would only make things worse, make him despise me more, make him pounce sooner. That was the worst bit, the waiting. I never knew exactly when it would come, and that, I know, was his favorite part.

Alan Cumming, star of stage and screen, notable Cabaret emcee, introducer of Masterpiece Mystery, bluish X-man, Smurf voice, and political operative Eli Gold on The Good Wife, among many other memorable characters, was raised on a large estate in Scotland. His father, Alex, was the head groundskeeper. He was also a mercurial and often cruel and violent parent to both Alan and his older brother Tom, offering ambiguous instructions to the boys and almost always finding the resulting work unsatisfactory, an excuse to justify the punishment that usually followed. Cumming’s experience as a battered child, coming to terms as an adult with some of the reasons for his harsh upbringing, and attempting to finally, decades later, move past it, is the core of the story in Not My Father’s Son. But this is not just a story of the father he knew. It is also about the grandfather he had never met.

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Mary Darling and Alex Cumming – wedding day – from the NY Times

In 2010, Cumming, having attained a certain level of celebrity, was invited by the British show Who Do You Think you Are (now in the USA as well) to be a subject for their weekly genealogy quest program. The research that was intrinsic to this process would cast light on a black hole in his family history. As awful as his father was, Mary Darling, Alan’s mother, was his angel, always supporting and nurturing him. Within limits, of course. She did not seem to do a very good job of preventing her husband from tormenting their sons. She had last seen her own father, Tommie Darling, when she was eight years old. He had supposedly died in a gun accident in Malaysia in 1951. The family knew very little about him, and had few remnants of his existence. The TV show would follow that trail and find out what had happened to Tommie. (There is a link to the entire program in the EXTRA STUFF section below) Just before this process began, Alan’s father, long estranged, got in touch, passing along a disturbing piece of information.

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As Eli Gold and Nightcrawler – from NothingButMemory.net

One part of this memoir is travelling along and peeling back the layers of the mystery that was Tommie Darling. (Peter Pan was not involved) As researchers for the program unearth more and more information about Tommie, Alan learns more and more about not only his family, but sees in his ancestor traits he recognizes in himself.

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Masterpiece Mystery host – from the Boston Herald

Chapters alternate, more or less, between now (2010) and then, the years of Alan’s childhood, the new work prodding recollections of the past. However, it is not all childhood and now. Cumming also tells of his breakdown at age 28 when he was starring in a London production of Hamlet, rehearsing for his breakthrough role as the emcee in the London revival of Cabaret and planning to have a child with his wife. There is some detail here. Later he tells of meeting his current mate when he was 39. He seems to have packs of friends, who remain mostly nameless, in both London and New York, and who function as scenery, for the most part. He offers a few tales from his acting life.

When I joined Twitter I described myself as “Scottish elf trapped inside a middle aged man’s body” and I still think that’s accurate.

Despite Cumming’s elfishness, there is not much comedy in the book. Although Cumming the performer does indeed present a pixie-ish facade, the only real laugh, at least for me, was when he talked about Patti Smith and a particular vile habit of hers. A story about attempting to film against the incessant noise in South Africa during a particularly noisy World Cup is another light moment. A youthful masturbatory scene that one thinks might be queasily amusing turns in another, far more substantive direction.

The two parts of this story now seem so clearly connected, mirroring each other perfectly. I had lost a father but found a grandfather. One of them had never sought the truth and lived a life based on a lie; the other’s truth was hidden from us because society deemed it unsuitable. Both caused strife, and sadness. But now, both combined to reinforce for me what I knew to be the only truth: there is never shame in being open and honest. It was shame that prevented us from knowing what a great man Tommy Darling was. And it was shame that made my father treat me and Tom and my mum the way he did.

Not My Father’s Son is a moving and fascinating tale, and probably would not have been told had Cumming not been world famous. TV programs do not seek out the likes of you or me to give them permission to travel the world looking into our backgrounds. Most of us do not have the resources to delve into our family history so richly. It remains to be seen if the book would have been written had the TV program not been made. Cumming had indeed been thinking about his childhood for some time, but it was the show that prompted him to move ahead with it. What Cumming’s talent did was give him a way to get out of a bad situation. A lesser light might have dimmed if left in that place. One thing the book might do is prompt a bit of reflection. Surely there are leafless branches on all our family trees and Cumming’s tale of looking into his might encourage some of us to consider looking into some of ours. And maybe to look a bit closer at even our known history for a bit of help in explaining how we became the people we are.

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Tom, Mary and Alan at Tommie’s grave

I have admired Alan Cumming as a performer ever since seeing him in the New York revival of Cabaret back in 1998. I now admire him as a writer as well. He has written a moving memoir of a father lost and a grandfather gained. It is rich with reflection, insight, pain, and healing. Any decent father would be bursting with pride to have a son capable of writing such a book.

Review posted – 10/17/14

Publication date – 10/7/14

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

He is not on Facebook. Some miscreants have posed as him, but those pages have been taken down

Definitely check out his site. It is a cornucopia of info.

NY Times article on Alan

Here is the full Who Do You Think You Are episode from September 2010

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Non-fiction, Reviews

Swimming with Warlords by Kevin Sites

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“If the central government doesn’t stay together,” he said, “I’ll have to find a way to protect my people.”
What he said was a bad sign. “My people” in Afghanistan means one’s tribe. Very few outside of Kabul thought of themselves as citizens of the country—as Afghans.

There is a lot to like in journalist Kevin Sites’s latest report from the front, Swimming with Warlords. Sites takes us from point to point on his journey through geography and history, offering a look at the Afghanistan of 2001 as compared to the Afghanistan of late 2013. He spends considerable ink on warlords, but not enough, IMHO, to justify the title of the book. And this is just as well, because the other elements he finds to report on are even more interesting. He notes the extant miseries, for sure, but also finds some flowers blooming in the rubble, offering the fragrance of hope. He looks at the condition of women, notes gains and losses, bright spots and expectations maybe not so bright as we might hope. He looks at what is likely to happen when the US leaves. One major element here is the conflict between former allies within Afghanistan. Of course, he has been back to Afghanistan several times in between, but it is the bookend experience on which he focuses here. What has changed between the time when American forces attacked in the wake of 9/11, and today, as US troops prepare to depart in 2014?

Sites has certainly seen a lot during his many years in the field, across the war-torn planet, working for major news organizations like ABC, NBC and CNN, and newer entries like Yahoo! News and Vice. He has written two books, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars (2007) and Things They Cannot Say (2012). His bona fides are impeccable. He even teaches journalism these days in theUniversity of Hong Kong journalism and media program.

There are plenty of villains in Sites’s depiction of what has become a more-or-less permanent war zone, but there are a surprising number of heroes as well, some ambiguously so, others not. The place we know today as Afghanistan, which has been called “the graveyard of empires,” has endured seemingly constant invasions and internal conflict, from the days of Alexander the Great to the present. It seems like the entire place is a huge stadium in which Premier league teams have battled it out among themselves and with the locals, with some notable modern matches having been during the Great Game days of the British empire, the Soviet invasion of the 1970s and 1980s during the Cold War, and most recently, the Western invasion to oust Osama bin Terrorist and his Taliban hosts after 9/11. And it is a favored pitch in which Pakistan does its best to make trouble for India.

“The Taliban is really from Pakistan; they came here to destroy our country. That is clear to everyone,” said Jilani [a former Taliban member]. “In the beginning, I thought it was jihad against international troops, but I found out we were fighting for Pakistani interests—we were getting orders from Pakistan. Most of the leaders are not religious; they want to come to Afghanistan and tax the locals during the time of the harvest and take the money back to Pakistan. There is no jihad.” Jilani said.

I imagine banners being hung from the bullet-pocked remnants of rafters noting local championships triumphs. No 90 minute clock here, no four quarters. Like baseball, perhaps, the game continues until one team wins or one team tires of playing and leaves. The locals have nowhere to go, and all their skin is in the game. There is a very strong home-field advantage amid the crags, valleys and caves of this rugged land, but there is plenty of disagreement about where home actually begins and ends.

book cover

Kevin Sites

The US entered the playing field in the 1980s by providing arms and assistance to locals and some foreigners in Afghanistan in an attempt to make life miserable for the Soviets. In a classic example of the Pyrrhic Victory, the removal of the Soviets led to a continuation of the pre-existing tribal warfare, this time with more and better weapons, the ultimate rise of the Taliban to power and their hosting of you-know-who. I wonder if Charlie Wilson would have voted for the $4 to $6 trillion cost of this seemingly endless engagement.

In retracing his earlier path, Sites notes bridges gone, landscape devastated, military remnants littering the paths that pass for roads, the many minefields, both literal and political. One of the permanent features in a place where landscape defines effective limits is the presence of warlords. Feudalism lives in Afghanistan, where inter-ethnic conflict is merely a superset of conflicts within each ethnic group. If there was ever a concept of loving thy neighbor as yourself, it is unlikely to have extended much beyond the borders of the fief in which one lives. Mistrust, born of centuries of conflict, has deep roots here. Every action taken on a national level is seen as somehow ethnically drive, whether or not it actually is. Cooperation is minimal, fear is ever-present, and allegiances are alarmingly fluid.

Sites looks in on some warlords, living and dead, and some others who function as warlords in fact if not in name. The camp of martyred Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud is now a shrine, and Massoud’s lieutenants have moved on to diverse and often dark occupations. He meets with police chiefs, who point out that they are powerless to enforce the laws as long as coping with the Taliban continues. And it is the police forces that suffer the brunt of the casualties in the fight. However not all warlords are alike. He spends some time with one who seemed to be doing pretty well in taking care of his people, improving their lives with ingenuity and managerial efficiency.

There are some darkly humorous moments, as when Sites recalls a 2001 lodging that, unbeknownst, included an unexploded 500 lb US bomb on the premises, fins up. Check please.

There are moving moments, including a weep-worthy tale of an Afghani father who had lost his daughter to a slightly off-target US incoming, yet betrayed no bitterness.

There are uplifting moments, when Sites talks with a woman who had started a radio station in order to get news and information to Afghani women, many of whom remain under lifelong virtual house-arrest for the crime of being female. Or in learning about Rahmaw Omarzad, an artist who returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban fell and established The Centre for Contemporary Art in Kabul.

There are delightful moments, as when we learn that an Aussie’s contribution of skateboards had grown into an island of hope in the form of an actual institution called Skateistan that includes instruction on far more than keeping one’s balance on wheels.

There are disappointing moments, when we see that many of those who had been educated, and were working on internationally funded development projects will be unemployed and maybe unemployable after the US leaves. Or in learning that Marza, the famed lion of the Kabul zoo, might have been somewhat less magnificent than reputed.

There are bizarre moments, such as learning that a fortress wall built 1500 years ago, the Bala Hisar, which legend holds has incorporated the bones of workers who died in its construction, might very well include some of the special extra filling.

And there are demoralizing moments, as when Sites describes an orphanage that would have been very much at home in the London of Charles Dickens. His report on drug addiction will strike a dark chord as well.

The condition of women’s rights in Afghanistan comes in for considerable attention, as he talks with women about their lives under the Taliban and after their ouster. There is a segment on an American woman, Kimberley Motley , who had started a legal practice in Afghanistan, and another on a woman the Taliban had kicked out of dental school, who had resumed her training and established a national Dental association. It will come as no shock that there remains in Afghanistan a practice of buying and selling wives. And a related tale tells of young boys, bacha bazi, who are treated as sexual pets by the wealthy, a substitute for the females who are kept under wraps.

The book seems a compendium of articles about Afghanistan crammed into a forced structure. But that is not really a problem here, as the information you gain far outweighs any feeling of the structure of the whole being not quite as advertised. Yes, there is a look at then and now, but the strength of the book lies in the collection of individual reports.

GRIPES
There are at least two elements in a book of this sort, the information to be gleaned about the presenting subject, and some insight into the teller of the tale. In this case, the subject is what has changed between 2001 when the Western attack on Afghanistan began following the events of 9/11 in the USA, and the present of the book, the year or so before US troops were scheduled to depart, whether completely or mostly. The other element is the author, him/herself. When you go on a journey, when you will be spending some time with your guide, you would like to know something about him. Sites does offer a few nuggets, and one that is particularly unflattering, but overall the sense I got was that it was mostly name, rank and serial number. While his recollected war stories are indeed interesting, there seems a paucity of info/insight about him. That is an area in which Swimming with Warlords only treads water. At end, we do not really know much more about Kevin Sites than we did before turning to page 1. I expect this is a lot about reportorial discipline, keeping one’s focus on the news and not the reporter, which is certainly a reasonable approach. But in this context, a book, a memoir of sorts, there is a need to be a bit more subcutaneous if an author wants to engender any feeling of camaraderie with his readers. It may be that in his previous books, The Things They Cannot Say and In the Hot Zone there is more of that. Don’t know, have not read those. But there is not nearly enough about KS in this one. I found myself wondering how he got into journalism, how from journalism he got into in-field war reporting. Is his work about adrenalin or something else? What are his values, his ideals? What does he hope to accomplish? What does he do when he is not ducking ordnance in war zones, where and why? Does he have family who worry about him when he is away? You know, stuff. This is not so much a classical road to self-discovery. Sites had already learned a lot about himself and his profession in the years between visits to Afghanistan. This is more like a look at the same eye chart with the optometrist clicking between the younger and more mature lenses. Is it clearer this way, or this way?

The title of the book seems ill chosen. There is indeed one scene in which KS goes for a literal swim with an actual warlord, but the title would make one suspect that the entirety of the volume consists of KS visiting with warlords, and that is not the case. Yes, KS does meet up with a few of these guys, but there is a lot more going on here, and it is unfortunate to have our attention focused on the narrower topic. A better title would have let readers know that he is writing a comparison of then and now. There is an ironic title for one of the chapters in the book, regarding parachute journalism, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which would have made, IMHO, a better, certainly a more descriptive title than the one that was chosen. Sites may well have been swimming with bearded sharks, but the macho-ness of it adds little in the title selection.

I would not call this a gripe, but the book could use an acronym list, which should include SNAFU and FUBAR among its entries. In fact, the place might as well be name FUBARistan for all the horror that has gone on there over the centuries. An index, a glossary, and a map would have been helpful. If Sites is retracing a path, it would be nice to be able to follow along.

There are plenty of books about Afghanistan out there, (there is a list in the Extra Stuff section below), but Sites’ work has the benefit of freshness. He was there not long ago, at least in book, if not live TV time, and there is an immediacy to his reporting that draws one in, and makes one wonder what might be happening right now. He reports on interesting elements of the current Afghan reality, and finds some informed opinions about what lies ahead. I would not call this a great book, but it is certainly interesting, engaging, and informative. Definitely worth pulling on a suit and going in for a dip, whether with a warlord, shark, or someone a bit less threatening.

Review posted 10/10/14

Pub date – 10/14/14

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google+ and FB pages

Articles by Sites on Vice

Some other reading on Afghanistan:

I have an Afghanistan shelf with 23 titles, mixed fiction and non. Within that, I heartily recommend the following to enhance your awareness of issues in the region

In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan

Seeds of Terror

Descent into Chaos

The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

Ghost Wars

Charlie Wilson’s War

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Filed under Afghanistan, Journalism, Non-fiction, Reviews

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson

book cover

…nothing was as it seemed

On learning that the southern member of their group hails from a place that stages an annual Civil War re-enactment, one with a heavy Confederate tilt, four UC Berkeley sophomores decide to engage in a bit of political theater and protest the event by staging a mock lynching. What could possibly go wrong?

A boy from the deep South who opts to pass on taking up shooting is likely to feel just a bit like an outsider in his small hometown.

…when young he had admired their sarcasm and sharp wit, his older female cousins—the misanthrope, the pyromaniac, and the exhibitionist—all obviously hated their lives, lives that would never recover the hope of their youth, lives now defined by their status as old maids, though barely thirty. They were stuck here, and the finality of that sentence pained him. It was impossible to have a conversation with one of them and not feel like he was addressing a ghost.

What’s in a name? D’Aron Davenport has them by the bushel. Not just the ones he was tagged with at birth, but the stream of names that attached to him through his brief life. Some of them celebrate achievement, some mark him as an outcast, some poke fun, and some offer respect. Some tell his history, and some hold a promise for the future. Many of these names will find their way back to D’Aron over the course of the story as he struggles to define himself in places where others seem intent on doing that for him. He would like to make a name for himself someplace other than Braggsville, Georgia. On graduating from high school, he gets as far away as he can.

There are some pretty funny scenes in Welcome to Braggsville. A symbol of the cluelessness of the place he desperately wants to leave behind, a classmate, after D’Aron delivers his valedictory, misunderstanding a Latin phrase from D’Aron’s speech, congratulates him on his engagement. In his second semester at UC Berkeley, or Berzerkeley, (Johnson teaches there, so he knows of what he writes) as it is actually known, he attends a dot party (wear a dot where you want to be touched). Apparently the location he selects for his dot is deemed politically incorrect and he is shown the door by self-righteous alphas. He is not alone in his choice of dot location. The insight-free hosts have made three other attendees feel as welcome as Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman at Omega Theta Pi, and a bond is forged. They call themselves “The 4 Little Indians.”

book cover

T. Geronimo Johnson

Charlie, a black from Chicago, has the physique of an athlete. Candice is a naïve, over-confident Iowa blonde, who professes Native American heritage. I couldn’t help picturing young Gwyneth Paltrow. Louis Chang, a Californian who exudes comedy and thinks of himself as a “kung fu comedian” will make you laugh. What kind of southern white boy can D’Aron be that he feels so drawn to the scary Gully, (the wrong side of the tracks at home) and did not see all the darkness around him in the safe side of town? How is it that D’Aron finds that he feels quite comfortable with black people, while feeling more and more alienated from his lighter complexioned peers in B-ville? At Berkeley, he has a stunningly beautiful bonding experience with a black counselor. Where does he fit in? Charlie has issues of a different sort that keep him from feeling too close to his peers as well.

A class called “American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives” sparks the crew to action. After a failed attempt at making a political statement of outrage about the University’s treatment of Ishi, presumably the last wild Indian in America, at a Six Flags Amusement Park, a hilarious failure, the group settles on their larger, and more provocative project.

There is a lot more going on here than comedy. An outsider theme applies not only to these four as students at Berzerkely, but for them in other venues as well. Louis is not exactly heading in a career direction his family would sanction. Charlie is not exactly what he appears. And Candice may not exactly be in a comfort zone with her family either.

she’d once admitted that her family wasn’t close; that her father expressed a greater affinity for moths and fruit liqueurs and her mother a keen interest in civil rights. She dubbed them emotionally abusive.

Johnson extends the outsider notion to larger structures as well. D’Aron may be a fish out of water in Braggsville, but what of the residents of the Gully? An entire community that is not allowed much opportunity to get near the water, let alone jump in. You can guess the complexion involved.

Johnson has a bit of fun with how the media and political opportunists take advantage of the uproar in Braggsville. You will recognize the types of players involved, and appreciate the deft hand used in painting them in their true colors.

He also takes liberties with form. The introduction of D’Aron and all his names is inspired. He also includes a sort-of term paper as it might have been written by the four in which barbecue stands in for racism, an extended footnote that comprises Louis’s take on things, and other literary liberties as well. There is a freedom in this approach that is surprising in a good way and invigorating, reminding one of the creativity shown in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Johnson is focusing his literary microscope on preconceptions, left and right, and then looking past the visual to what lies beneath. The political correctness of liberal mecca UC Berkeley comes in for some sharp edges. As does the yahoo-ism of back-water Georgia. What Johnson brings to this impressive novel is his ability to look past that outer layer of knee-jerk satire. What one sees here is not uni-colored. There is also sensitivity to what compromises good people must make to survive in an alien environment, and there is nuance, even to the awfulness.

In a large way this is a coming of age story for the group of friends, D’Aron most of all, and as such it works quite well, as D’Aron sees so much more than he had known was right in front of him. He gets to see how the real world operates and it changes him.

Johnson uses some interludes to offer a bit of history on slavery in Georgia. I was surprised at some of this. I expect you will be as well. An observation of race is one of the many strong seams in this marbled look at America today. Parenting, whether by parents or other adults figures large as well. Even concepts like what constitutes tragedy are given a look.

There are astute observations on a host of things. Here are a couple of samples:

Every organization, every single one, Daron worries himself, orchestrates a silent competition with the church; they want not employees but practitioners, apostles, acolytes—not workers, but worshippers. Between this observation and his reflections on school, he concludes that everyone advertises for the mind but expects you to bring the soul.

or

Did his parents also look at each other with resentment born of intimacy; did they want more than anything else to reach out to each other, to close cold space; did they say things to hurt each other first intentionally and then again, accidentally, even without meaning to, in the midst of apologizing? Did they inventory their intimacies? How did you look at someone and care so much for them and hate them at the same time, be so angry that you didn’t even trust yourself to have a valid emotion, so angry it couldn’t be real?

Links are drawn between the treatment of Native Americans and interned Japanese during World War II, between lynching of the traditional sort and a later day electronic equivalent, between anchors that ground one and those that keep you from moving, between being in one’s social bubble, and being in the world.

Start your 2015 top ten list here. Welcome to Braggsville is a stunning achievement. I was reminded not only of last year’s wonderful Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk for its brilliant and sensitive social observation, but also of Skippy Dies, one of my all-time favorite books, for its humor and warmth. It applies a sharp, satiric scalpel to diverse targets, but also peels back surfaces to reveal complication and humanity. D’Aron is a wonderfully realized lead, thoughtful, decent, engaging, struggling to find his place in various hostile universes. Eager to do right. This is a book that has at its core a racial tension, but there is so much more going on here. Head on over to Braggsville, pull up a chair, load a plate up with some barbecue, pop a cold one, and set a spell. Maybe talk to someone who is nothing at all like you. You will find your visit very filling indeed.

Review Posted – 10/3/14

Publication Date – 2/17/14

==================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

While the above links were live at the time I posted this, they are not all that current. I would expect that as publication date approaches Johnson will do some updating.

Johnson wrote a wonderful Behind the Book essay for Braggsville. It is definitely worth checking out.

An interesting interview with the author on the site of the publisher of his first book, Coffee House Press

Another fascinating interview, from a couple of years ago, on ZingMagazine.com

And yet another interview, this one at Late Night Library

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Sometimes the Wolf by Urban Waite

book cover Ok, I have to offer a sort-of anti-spoiler right up front. Sometimes the Wolf is a sequel to Waite’s first novel, The Terror of Living, but I have not read the earlier book, so cannot really bring to the table a familiarity with the characters who appear in both books. Nor can I comment on continuity of setting, theme or imagery. So I feel at a disadvantage. On the other hand, I am forced to look at StW as a stand-alone work, which may be a good thing, as most of us human sorts do read books one at a time. Just lettin’ ya know.

Bobby Drake is a deputy Sheriff in Silver Lake, Washington. There is an apple orchard in the backyard of the home he shares with his wife, Sheri. The home that used to belong to his father, Patrick, a former local police chief, who was sent away for 12 years for smuggling drugs. The orchard is no longer harvested. This is no Eden. Patrick is being released.

You might think this would be a happy occasion, but Bobby had to sacrifice a lot when his father was sent up, and hangs on to his resentment like a cocked gun. A DEA sort by name of Frank Driscoll does not think Patrick should ever have been let out, and makes it his business to keep his canines well lodged in Patrick’s case. Seems two federal agents lost their lives a dozen years back, and Driscoll knows in his bones that Patrick is responsible, evidence or no evidence. He also seems as flush with available time as Special Agent Dale Cooper. And add in two baddies, who leave a trail of bodies in their rear-view. (I was reminded of Mr. Wint and Mister Kidd of Diamonds are Forever, or, even more, of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in Fargo) in their quest for the usual, hidden cash. I imagine a sign – Welcome to Silver Lake – Population: declining. Like Ray Lamar, the returning prodigal in Waite’s last novel, The Carrion Birds, Patrick espouses a desire to just move on with his life. Fat chance.

The father-son theme gets a boost from the addition of a third generation, with Patrick’s father, Drake’s grandfather, Morgan, joining the scene. He is a tough and interesting old coot and you can see some of him in his progeny.

book cover

Urban Waite – from his site

Waite tosses in a couple of females, one of whom figures in the story meaningfully, but this is very much a guy cast. The author is a fan of Cormac McCarthy and the red grimness of the environment here reflects what one might expect of McCarthy in a more southerly tale. In fact a whole “red in tooth and claw” notion is introduced early with a gutted deer and another new arrival to town, a literal lone wolf. Despite Waite having been raised in Seattle, and having attended college in Washington as well, it did not strike me particularly as a tale about the northwest. It seemed that it might have been as easily set in the southwest or northeast. But the locals do feel at home in their environment, and their sharp edges echo the woodsy chill of the region.

There are some items about the book that I felt could have been put to better use. The lone wolf is introduced immediately, but then does not reappear as an actual thing until near the end of the book. It would have been better, IMHO, to have reinforced the lone-wolf imagery at work here with a few more touches of the natural sort. A female Fish and Wildlife Service agent is also introduced early, with hints of a potential special connection to Drake, and is then disappeared, along with the wolf, until near the end. More could certainly have been made of that character. I cannot speak to Terror of Living, but his previous novel, The Carrion Birds seemed somehow heftier, like there was more going on thematically, which may or may not matter to you. Of course I projected more into that book than the author actually put there, and may be doing the same here. I was looking for wolfy elements, given the title. False threats yielding to a real one, crying wolf. But that did not seem present. There was, however, some fun with Little Red Riding Hood material as a dark sort stalks some prey.

He balanced the two coffees in the claw of his upturned palm

My, what large hands you have. And

His hair was slicked back and the suit was too big on his thin bones.

suggesting, to me, anyway, someone of the lupine persuasion donning granny garb. Instead of having to go through the woods to get to grandma, it is grandpa here. But I could be making this all up. Take it for what it’s worth.

Family loyalty comes in for consideration here, as it did in Carrion Birds. How much loyalty does Drake owe the returning Patrick? What can he do when what his wife needs from him is at odds with what his father needs? And where is the line drawn between loyalty to family and community? Can one remain moral and help out a criminal?

The author keeps the action moving, switching between Patrick, Morgan, the dark duo, and Drake. Sometimes the Wolf qualifies as a page-turner. Waite can certainly spin a yarn. You will want to know what happens, and will feel enough for Drake, in particular, to care. I will definitely be reading whatever he comes out with next. Urban Waite is definitely a writer worth watching.

Review posted – 9/20/14

Publication date – 10/21/14

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Google+ and FB pages

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Filed under Fiction, Reviews