Monday, April 29, 2019

-F-a-u-s-t- Eric by Terry Pratchett

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from my brother.

This book is the fourth in the Rincewind series. Previous installments:


See the end of this post for other Terry Pratchett books we have experienced.


Faust Eric is a bit different than the other Pratchett books we have listened to. For one thing, it is shorter. And yes, I checked, we did get the unabridged edition, narrated by the delightful Stephen Briggs. The short length isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, because it is dictated by the story itself, which isn’t as episodic as some of the other books, and has a well defined arc. The other difference relates to this. While the Discworld is in general a parody of the Fantasy genre that also mocks such things as modern bureaucracy and human foibles, this book is a more specific parody: it is a sendup of the Faust legends, the Trojan war and The Odyssey, and Dante’s Inferno. If you, like me, enjoyed the originals, you will find the parody hilarious. My teen daughters had to read Homer for their freshman English class, so they got a bunch of the jokes there. Nobody has read Divine Comedy yet, though, so I suspect those went over their heads. But the book was still funny - even my 8 year old laughed.

So, here is the basic plot. As you may (or not) recall, the world’s most incompetent wizard, Rincewind, managed to get himself stuck in the Dungeon Dimensions at the end of Sourcery. His faithful servant and hatchet...well, chest… The Luggage, has followed him there. But how to get back?

[Side note here: in Diskworld cosmology, the Dungeon Dimensions are essentially the Underworld, more or less. Hell is part of the Dungeon Dimensions, but exists solely because some people believe they deserve to go there. So they do.]

As usual, Rincewind doesn’t make things happen; they just tend to happen to him.

Enter Eric Thursley, a 13 year old self-absorbed demonologist (imagine Trump’s ego married to Dr. Frankenstein’s hubris, and add some pimples…) who is trying to follow his grandfather’s footsteps and summon a demon from the underworld. Things go wrong, however, because Eric ends up summoning Rincewind instead.

Rincewind may not be good at magic, but he has a great self-preservation instinct. He sees through Eric’s disguise (as an old man) and tries to explain. The problem is, for some reason, Rincewind turns out to have provisional powers related to the laws of the universe that allowed him to be summoned.

Eric, being both a selfish and egotistical ass and having studied up a bit too much on the usual stuff to do when you summon a powerful supernatural being, demands that Rincewind grant him three wishes. (No points for guessing…) These are, naturally, (1) to be ruler of the world, (2) to meet the most beautiful woman in all history, and (3) to live forever. As everyone from Faust on down has discovered: be careful what you wish for - you might get it.

Rincewind protests, of course, that he cannot grant wishes by snapping his fingers - except that when he does, things happen. Eric gets his three wishes, and these form the three major episodes of the book.

First, he gets to be ruler of the world. Except, well, he experiences this through finding himself captured by a tribal society modeled more or less on the Aztecs. The problem is, their approach to the Ruler of the World(™) is kind of like the general approach to the gods in Discworld, where the gods are not so much worshipped, as blamed. So, when Eric is recognized as the Ruler, his fate is to be sacrificed to their god as punishment for basically fucking the world up badly. The god, Quezovercoatl, is a parody of Quetzalcoatl - look closely at the name for the bad pun… This goes awry, though, because the demon who is Quezovercoatl actually makes an appearance, and turns out to be all of six inches tall. (Which is why he has better success appearing to his followers in visions.) The Luggage accidentally squashes Quezovercoatl, which sets the Tezumen on the path to rejection of religion. I must say, this was a freaking hilarious sendup of religion - particularly the “The Gods Demand the Sacrifice of Someone Other Than Me” variety.

The second wish is, naturally, fulfilled when Eric gets to meet the Discworld equivalent of Helen of Troy. This is, of course, a central part of the Faust legend, and has been dealt with in interesting ways by other authors. Marlowe, for example, paraphrases Lucian with the immortal lines, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" This is, of course, ambiguous. Is Faust marveling at Helen’s beauty? Or disillusioned at how it has faded? Goethe makes the whole thing into a complex allegory of the meeting of classical idea and modernity. Perhaps one of the most intriguing - to me at least - is a fragment by C. S. Lewis, entitled After Ten Years. This was apparently a novel in progress that he died before finishing - and I wonder if it would have been an incredible remix of a classical legend along the lines of Till We Have Faces. (You can find this fragment in the collection The Dark Tower and Other Stories.) From what we have, it appears that Lewis envisioned Menelaus having to choose between the real-life Helen, her beauty faded after ten years - she is now middle aged - and a magical simulacrum created by the magicians. It is an interesting choice, to say the least.

Pratchett takes the same basic approach as Lewis, but, naturally, plays things for satire rather than philosophy. Eric gets to meet Helen - but she has decided to make the best of a bad situation, and has had several kids with Paris, is decidedly middle aged and chubby, and has the hint of a mustache. In addition to this idea, the best parts of this section include the utter failure of the Trojan Horse (except The Luggage saves history, so to speak…) and the scenes with the Discworld version of Odysseus, named “Lavaeolus,” that is, “rinser of winds” and thus a likely ancestor of Rincewind.

The third episode finds Rincewind and Eric at the dawn of time, where they meet The Creator (a parody of Pratchett himself), who is the subcontractor working on fabricating the Discworld. It dawns on Rincewind before it dawns on Eric: to “live forever” means to exist for all of the space-time continuum for Discworld. So Eric will need to wait for billions of years before life even comes into existence. It’s a lonely wait, particularly if you forgot to bring a book…

At this point, Rincewind convinces Eric to reverse the spell and send them both back to hell. Where a modern reformer has decided to put into practice the truth that even eternal torment is better than eternal boredom. The jokes in this section are funnier if you are familiar with Inferno, but are still pretty dang funny if you aren’t. (By the way, I could get a job in Pratchett’s hell easily - I’d be the guy showing the endless vacation photos…)

That’s your basic plot, and an overview of the fun. Except my version isn’t half as good as the original. You really should read it. Some have complained about this book as being boring. I found it to be the opposite - it really was funny. But then again, I rather enjoy Homer and Dante, so your mileage may vary.


The Terry Pratchett list:


Tiffany Aching:



Guards! Guards! (Stupid abridged edition, which is an abomination.)


Sunday, April 28, 2019

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Source of book: Audiobook from the library.

This book is part of our not-particularly-systematic exploration of the Newbery Award and Honor books. It was an honor book in 2016. 

Sometimes, you are surprised by a book in a way you didn’t anticipate, and this was one of them. I believe this book is targeted more toward middle school kids rather than elementary, which makes sense, because it deals with some pretty heavy themes, and has a lot of darkness along with the light. My kids are pretty used to this sort of stuff, but your mileage may very. Sensitive younger kids might not deal well with the (all too realistic) physical and emotional abuse by a parent.

Here is the basic setup: Ada is a 10 year old girl who was born with a club foot. Because of her mother’s poverty, it was never treated. Instead, her mother, who never wanted children, and was furious at the fates when she was left widowed with two of them, viciously hates Ada, and imprisons her in their flat, not allowing her to speak to other people or go to school. Ada’s younger brother Jamie is “normal,” and is allowed to go to school. He is generally treated better than Ada - in fact, every fault in Jamie is punished against Ada - if he messes up, she spends the night under the sink. I’ll be blunt here: this is some pretty rough abuse in this book. I would say it was gratuitous, except that I have too much professional experience with abusive parents. I have seen worse. Definitely worse. And, as in real life, the physical abuse is less damaging than the psychological abuse.

So, World War Two breaks out, and London parents are encouraged to send their children to the countryside, so that they won’t get bombed by the Germans in the Battle of Britain. Mam is willing to let Jaime go, but insists that Ada stay. She has other ideas, however, and sneaks out with Jaime. The two of them are taken by train to a village in Cornwall, where nobody wants them - they are too dirty and ratty and unpromising.

The local head of the Women’s Volunteer Service decides to essentially force the two of them on Susan Smith, a local woman who has a...questionable reputation. To our modern minds, it isn’t too hard to figure out Susan’s issues, but back then, she described herself as “not a nice person,” and “not equipped to care for children.” As the story progresses, we learn her history, and why she is how she is. And (not much of a spoiler), she actually is a nice person - she’s more of a non-conventional person with some serious demons of her own to address.

As you might imagine, this situation is a disappointment to Jamie - the favorite child - and heaven on earth to Ada, who has never experienced tolerance, let alone love, before in her life. For her, the war is literally a lifesaver, allowing her to escape abuse and find a place for herself in the world - and indeed experience hope for the first time.

There is more, of course, and I risk spoilers if I were to get into the details too far. But I do want to address the subtext a bit, because I think it is fascinating.

Susan Smith, in addition to sharing a coincidental last name with Ada and Jamie, has a past. And not just any old past.

She is a lesbian, even though the book doesn’t explicitly spell that out. Anyone with a bit of perception can figure it out. (And that is exactly why a good number of Fundie Mommy Bloggers have their panties in an absolute knot about this book. Seriously, I Googled it, and a whole bunch came up before the more reasonable reviews of the book.)

The book brings this out gradually, and never explicitly. Susan mentions that she hasn’t been the same since her best friend (and housemate) Becky died three years ago. They essentially had (it is strongly implied) a “Boston Marriage.” Gradually, we learn that Susan was the daughter of a clergyman, who disowned her after she went to college and “changed,” and met Becky. Susan also mentions that she doesn’t actually dislike children, but since she wasn’t interested in marrying a man...she assumed she wouldn’t have them. It’s easy to read between the lines.

As it turns out, Susan is an excellent foil for Mam. If you think about it, Mam was quite interested in marrying a man, but didn’t want children. Her husband (as it turns out) called her “unnatural” and somehow either convinced or raped her into having kids. (We never find out for sure.) When he was killed in an accident, she was left with children she never wanted, crushing poverty, and no perceived future. That she took her rage at the universe out on Ada is sad and horrifying, but not that surprising. So there you have an interesting contrast: Susan wants kids but not a man, Mam wants a man but not kids. Again, this is pretty dang realistic - something the Fundies of my background aren’t really interested in acknowledging or understanding.

In fact, the Fundie Mommy Bloggers with their panties in a wad were almost equally horrified at both of these problems. A lesbian was a good parent? Horrors! A heterosexual woman didn’t fit the stereotype of wanting to be a mother more than anything in the world? That can’t possibly be true! Real women are perfectly willing - nay, eager! - to make babies the centerpiece of their lives and eschew a career and a life and a personality to do so. That’s God’s Perfect Plan for People With Vaginas™! So yes, totally subversive - and also totally realistic in my experience. People don’t fit into the neat little boxes at all.

It gets even worse! The author weaves a theme through the book which points toward tolerance - nay embrace - of innate differences and diversity which definitely subverts the Fundie insistence on conformity and rigid societal and gender roles.

Ada has her clubfoot - which is a congenital defect, correctable by proper treatment. But her mother blames Ada - it is the result of her moral failings somehow. (I can’t help but think of the Gospel of John, chapter 9...the religious establishment is SO determined to find a cause for non-conformity in the sinfulness of the person or parents…) But of course, we know (thanks to modern understandings of medicine and genetics) that neither Ada nor her parents are to blame for this - it is how she was born, and, while she is too old to ever be “fixed” completely, she can improve. But more than that: she is entitled to her own freedom, her own self determination, and her chance to be the best she can be. Thus, when her mother takes away her crutches, and attempts to reduce her to imprisonment in a room again, we know this is wrong, whatever the old superstitions may tell us. We instinctively know that Ada is entitled to live her own best life - even if her foot is never perfect. We cheer for her as she learns to compensate for her deficits and learns to ride a horse. We applaud as she finds her mobility and her independence. We cheer as she learns to read despite the way her mother has told everyone (including her) that she is mentally deficient.

There is more, though. Jamie may be the “favorite” child - although it turns out Mam doesn’t really love him either - she just uses him as a way to express her hatred for Ada - but he has his own dark secret. He is left handed. This causes his teacher to literally tie his left hand to the desk until it rubs raw. Susan flips out, and makes sure that doesn’t happen again. The teacher repeats the “traditional” line: left handedness was considered a sign of the Devil. Literally. Actually, let’s explore that one. Have you ever heard the term “sinister”? What does that term mean, and where did it come from? Believe it or not, “sinister” literally comes from the idea of left handedness. It is the opposite of “dexter” - the root of dexterity and dextrous. To be left handed was to be evil - because difference from the majority is evil, right? Right?

My mother is left handed, and she too grew up in a time when they used abusive methods to try to force left handed children into being right handed - or at least functioning as right handed persons in public. I heard the stories from her as a kid. On the plus side, she can kind of write slowly with her right hand. But she realized that she was left handed, and uses that hand exclusively for writing now. There was nothing evil about how she was born - and indeed created by God - she was just different.

This is ultimately the problem that Fundies and Evangelicals (my former religious tribe) keep running up against in the whole discussion of sexuality.

Reality doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your dogma. Particularly if it is the result of millennia of belief in the idea of female inferiority to males (perhaps a future post…) Ultimately, one has to either make adjustments to reflect new knowledge and new understandings - or one must (as one can see with the Taliban or the Saudi government) engage in increasing brutality to exterminate anyone who fails or refuses to conform to dogma.

A belief that left handed people had the sign of the Devil - and the endless attempts to force them into righthandedness - didn’t eliminate left handed people. It just caused them thoroughly unnecessary pain and trauma. And allowed the majority to experience the masturbatory pleasure of self-righteousness about how they were born “normal.”

If you want to understand how Fundies/Evangelicals are catastrophically losing the battle for hearts and minds over sexuality in general, this is a good place to start. They are bloodying themselves against reality, over and over again. I guess they can’t feel the pain because they are so intent on the pleasure their self-righteous spiritual masturbation gives them. (Although I suspect some of them are trying to drown out their own sexuality…) It isn’t hard to see the dogmatic teacher, willing to torture a child to make him conform to righthandedness in those who casually and flippantly decide to decree celibacy for all who are outside the majority. There is no limit to the pain and torture they will inflict on others, as they are smug in their “normalcy.”

There are other interesting facets to this book: the horrors and terror of war. The obvious connection of the Nazis - who tried to exterminate LGBTQ people along with ethnic and racial minorities as they devastated anyone who stood in their way - including British civilians. The exploration of grief, depression, and PTSD. Susan’s grief and recurring clinical depression (although that term isn’t used) corresponds well to Ada’s PTSD resulting from her abuse. Bradley handles these issues with an age-appropriate touch - while never actually naming them. After all, a person in 1939 wouldn’t have our own knowledge and terminology, but would certainly have experienced these universally human responses to trauma and abuse.

This book was a bit darker and heavier than I expected, but I think it was a good one for my kids. (And they can definitely handle this stuff - we have listened to and discussed plenty of darker and heavier books.) I can see why this book panicked Fundies: it directly challenges the idea that religious dogma justifies hatred and persecution of non-conforming human beings. For the exact same reason, I believe it was a good one for my children to experience - and I recommend it for other parents who want to explain these issues to their children. It is an empathetic and well written introduction to the concepts of non-conformity, superstition, and human thriving. It also is optimistic about the possibility of positive change, even as it acknowledges that some people - like Mam - are unable or unwilling to show basic human decency. And the best way to deal with those people is to stop them from harming others, and let them destroy themselves with their own hatred if they insist on doing so. And, of course, to rescue the victims of abusers (and abusive religions) and help them to thrive.

I can’t help but suspect that at least some of these self-righteous Fundie Mommy Bloggers who have their panties in a wad over this book will turn out to have LGBTQ children of their own. It will be (darkly) interesting to see how they respond. When it is your kid, shit gets real, and you can’t just enjoy your maturbatory fantasy that somehow you did everything “right” and your kids turned out cis-het, thus giving proof of your righteousness. No longer can they really ask “did my kid sin or did I sin?” without any personal consequence. At some point, they are going to have to choose their future. Will they re-evaluate their dogma? Or will they choose, like Mam, to alienate their own flesh and blood, and live estranged and without the love they could have embraced. I have seen it go both ways, personally and professionally.

Read this book. Discuss it with your kids. Choose love and not abuse. And embrace the spectrum of humanity that God (or Nature if you prefer) has created - seek to help others thrive rather than force them into your dogmatic view of conformity.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I was 13 when Saddam Hussein’s army invaded Kuwait, and a newlywed on 9-11. An uncle nicknamed my brother after Seyyed Abolhassan Banisadr - I can’t find the person that my nickname came from but it was some other guy from that era.I think it is safe to say that the modern troubles of the Middle East have been laced through the formative years of my life and beyond.

Furthermore, I was raised in American Evangelicalism - with a foray into some crazy Fundie stuff. Among the weird stuff in the water I drank was a lot of theorizing about the Middle East, which, frankly, the older I get and the more I read - the crazier and more frightening it seems. Particularly now that the US President appears to be taking his foreign policy from the wingnuts pushing this nonsense. (More about that later…)

Anyway, this book has been on my list for a while. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East is widely regarded as THE work on the history behind the modern Middle East, and one that is crucial to understanding the dynamics at play now, and how they relate back to historical decisions made during and after World War One.

This book thoroughly delivers on that promise, and more. It isn’t an easy read, though. It checks in at nearly 700 pages of small print, contains a high level of detail backed up by exhaustive research, and is intended for a reader who already knows a good deal about the background. It really helps to have a working knowledge of World War One (I did okay on this part, thanks to stuff I have read by Churchill and others), British politics of the era (thanks to William Manchester’s biography of Churchill for this one), French politics of the era (um, I had a lot to learn here), and American politics of the era (I could have been better.) Oh, and also a basic awareness of the different sects of Islam, the history of colonialism, the geography of the Middle East, and the ability to keep track of dozens of people and their relationships. It’s not easy. Fromkin assumes a very educated reader, not a neophyte. Fortunately, you can learn from the book without this background knowledge, but it will be harder to get through. I recommend it anyway.

The bottom line is this: decisions made by the Allied powers during and after World War One had dramatic effects on the region. A couple of bad decisions by Britain led to the Ottoman Empire joining the Axis, rather than the Allies. Once the war was started, Britain and Russia (and to a lesser degree, France and the United States), made decisions to divide up the Middle East as the spoils of war. In doing so, they combined gross ignorance of the people, politics, and religion of the area with astounding hubris and arrogance and too little foresight to see the end of Empire and Colonialism in the near future. This had, predictably, bad consequences in the short and especially the long term. One hundred years later, the world is still paying the price for what was done.

It was fascinating to see that so many of the rivalries from the early 20th Century are still in play. Scratch that, it is fascinating to see how many rivalries from the 11th through 19th Centuries are still very much in play. Just a couple of cases in point: (1) the battle between Russia (then the USSR, and now Russia again…) and the Allies (mostly Britain back then, but now the United States) over the region, and (2) The Sunni/Shiite wars. In the case of Britain, many fateful mistakes were made because Britain was determined to keep Russia from controlling the land route to India. This seems beside the point now, with most shipping going by ship, Iran and Afghanistan somewhere between basket cases and openly hostile and...India isn’t part of the Empire anymore anyway.

I could go on with more detail, but Fromkin does it better. I should be clear that this book, while it does have a point of view and an agenda, it is far from one-sided. To the extent he can, Fromkin tells the story in a neutral manner, drawing on primary sources for as much as he can. This means that most of his sources are, in fact, British - they kept better records of correspondence - and he is thus able to make his case mostly by giving the Allies enough rope to hang themselves. Fromkin isn’t a storyteller, really. He doesn’t build excitement, and don’t expect a good yarn. This is a book of serious, researched, fair and balanced non-fiction, not pop-history. I would compare it to G. M. Trevelyan, not Simon Winchester.

I took quite a few notes, because there is so much in this book. These are not meant to cover everything, just some specifics that I really thought encapsulated whole sections of the book. Let’s start with this one:

The West and the Middle East have misunderstood each other throughout most of the twentieth century; and much of that misunderstanding can be traced back to Lord Kitchener’s initiatives in the early years of the First World War. The peculiarities of his character, the deficiencies of his understanding of the Moslem world, the misinformation regularly supplied to him by his lieutenants in Cairo and Khartoum, and his choice of Arab politicians with whom to deal have colored the course of political events ever since.

For example, our Gulf Wars have been, in rather large part, a meddling in the rivalry between the House of Saud and the House of Hussein - both of which were major players in this book in large part because of British decisions. And also, as the book extensively documents, the Western failure to understand the locus of politics and religion - and the rivalries - in the Islamic world has led to grave mistakes both then and now.

I should point out that the mistakes weren’t just on the Allies’ side. (Although the comedy of errors surrounding the Dardanelles - which Churchill took the fall for, despite being absolutely correct - it should have been a combined sea and land attack, and the decision to overrule Churchill cost roughly 200,000 additional casualties - is quite the lesson in what not to do…) The Ottomans violated Vizzini’s cardinal rule: “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia…’” They chose to invade the southern provinces of the Russian the winter. Ouch. And there was an overture AND an epic book written about that mistake and everything.

The primary mistakes the Allies made weren’t military, however, even if the military ones were pretty bad. Soon after it became apparent that the Allies could likely at least defeat the Ottomans eventually (although the outcome with Germany was in doubt much longer), a British committee was convened to decide how to divide up the Middle East. Leaving aside the retrospective hilarity (dark as it is) that the Brits just assumed that it was their right to grab a new set of colonies as the spoils of war even as they threw millions of young men into the meat grinder of the trenches and borrowed their economy into near-oblivion, consider this: the committee was a bunch of rich boys educated in the “Classical” model of the English private schools. (Insert joke about Brexit here…) As such, their knowledge of the Middle East was based on ancient Greek and Roman works - they even used outdated, vague Greek terms for regions, with no actual knowledge of boundaries as they existed in 20th Century. Which is in large part why we have countries like Iraq today - it was the ignorant fantasy of where “Mesopotamia” was. And thus were many boundaries drawn and countries invented out of the whole cloth.

One of these mistakes, of course, was the ongoing debacle of Jewish and Arab Palestine. Even the name is wrong - it was a transliteration of “land of the Philistines,” which wasn’t what anyone who lived there called it. (Ditto for the term “Middle East,” which was invented by an American naval officer and popularized by Sir Mark Sykes, a central figure in this story.) And, to put a finer point on it, there was hardly an upwelling of support for the idea of creating one or two new states in the area. There were plenty of Jewish settlors, of course, dating back mostly to the pogroms in Russia against the Jews in the late 1800s. But the region was ruled reasonably well by the Ottomans before the war, Jews and Arabs living together more or less well. The Zionist idea was a fairly small fringe movement even within Palestine. In the US, far less than one percent were associated even loosely with Zionist movements. This isn’t a mystery. For the last 2000 years, the struggle of Jewish people has been rejection by the countries of their residence. The eviction from England, of course, but the general view the Jews were not “real” [Germans, Englishmen, Americans, etc...fill in the blank.] So, for many Jews, a push for a new nation of their own seemed to reinforce the “you will never be one of us” problem they already had, and thus was an obstacle to acceptance and assimilation in their home countries. (It isn’t a coincidence that some factions of the Nazi party heartily supported Zionism - it was a less bloody way of getting rid of the Jews.) A few influential Zionists, however, got the ear of Balfour, who essentially promised a Jewish state and made it part of British policy. This worried the local Arabs, because the desert seemed (to them) incapable of physically supporting a few million more people - particularly if they all arrived quickly. We are still paying the price for this decision. As the author puts it, citing the views of the local Arabs and British officers actually serving in Palestine:

As they saw it, London’s policy of Zionism might have been expressly designed to stir up trouble, and must have been devised by far-off officials who did not have to live with and deal with local conditions.

Rather more than the Jewish Diaspora, however, it was certain Christian religious sects (more about them later) who tied the establishment of a Jewish homeland, not to any concrete benefit to Jews, but to an apocalyptic eschatology: the establishment of the Jewish homeland would trigger Armageddon, the bloodbath to end the world.

Whatever you think about the creation of Israel, it is difficult to argue that it was done in a way that gave it any chance of succeeding peacefully. It was forced on the inhabitants by Britain, who didn’t bother to consult or work with the actual people living there, forced a settlement that few wanted, then essentially withdrew their armies due to homeland political pressure, and left matters to be resolved by endless war. It makes one wonder what might have been if Europe (and America) had spent more time addressing their own antisemitism (which would reach its horrible zenith a couple decades later with the Holocaust), and left the Middle East to itself without interference.

It wasn’t just this issue, though, that was sparked by the war. The pressure on the Ottoman Empire produced, as threats tend to, a vicious reaction against ethnic and religious minorities. Just as the Nazis would later claim that it was the Jews’ fault that they lost the war, the “Young Turks” who came to power in Turkey blamed the Armenian Christian population for allegedly conspiring with Russia to defeat Turkey. The Armenian Genocide is a tragedy that has been undersold, probably because the raw numbers weren’t as high as the Holocaust, and there weren’t horrifying pictures circulated throughout the West. But it still killed at least half of the Armenian population, and displaced the rest. This was yet another example of how the horrors of war - and the battle between Britain and Russia to claim the Middle East as colonial spoils - stirred up ancient feuds and led to instability which has persisted ever since.

While Britain was really the driving force behind most of the key decisions, the US played an interesting role on a few fronts. First of all, Woodrow Wilson had a strikingly different vision for the Middle East than the Brits. Wilson’s brainchild was the League of Nations - the forerunner of the United Nations - a good idea that has often been incompetently implemented - and undermined by those wishing to disregard the idea that other people groups have rights too. Some of Wilson’s other goals (as set forth in his Fourteen Points) were interesting. As globalists in our own time, he sought to reduce tariffs, seek free trade, use diplomacy and transparency whenever possible, build economic relationships rather than seek war, and so on. But perhaps most to the point, Wilson believed that the peoples of the Middle East should not be divided up as spoils of war, but decisions should be made for the benefit of those peoples.

2. That peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were chattels or pawns in a game, even the great game, now for ever discredited of the balance of power; but that
3. Every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned, and not as a part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims amongst rival states...

As it would turn out, Wilson would be out of office when the war ended, and his legacy largely undermined by Warren Harding. Most notable in this context is the fact that Harding was thoroughly corrupt (probably the most corrupt US president until Donald Trump), and wholly owned by certain oil interests. (His most famous scandal was Teapot Dome - where valuable oil rights (including near where I live) were sold for pennies to Harding’s cronies, who made billions as a result.) Thus, the end of World War One was the beginning of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East primarily to secure access to oil - which would become the backbone of American transportation within a decade or two.

Another concept that intrigued me was that of Nationalism. Historically, Nationalism was in many ways a reaction to centuries of religious warfare. In its more benign formulation, it was an attempt to defuse religious tensions by the idea of the State, a polity which combined people of similar nature (perhaps religion, language, ethnicity, geography, or some other common trait) and allowed them to thrive in their own special way. In aspiration, Nationalism was intended to both allow individual nations to thrive, and to grant them self-determination and freedom from oppression, but also to encourage them to live in peace with their neighbors. Obviously, this hasn’t worked out the same way in practice as in theory.

The dark side is obvious enough: the intolerance of groups different from the majority. Jews took the brunt of this in Europe, to be sure. In our own time, “Nationalism” in America means White Nationalism - and the persecution and exclusion of those the white majority deem to be “not real Americans.”

Another issue that really seems relevant today is that of the internal dynamics of Islam as found in the Middle East. All the major (and likely the minor) religions are hardly the monolithic and centralized groups they are often portrayed as being. Even the Roman Catholic Church, with its centralized leadership structure, has different flavors around the world, and to expect an American Catholic to be the same as a Filipino Catholic, or an Argentinian Catholic is an error. And most religions are even more fragmented than that. (See for example the literally thousands of Protestant sects…) In context here is the seeming paradox that Middle Eastern Islam is both more powerful as an organizing force than national identity AND deeply divided and at war with itself. The failure to take this into account was a major reason the Brits failed in their attempt to find a universally accepted religious and political leader in the Middle East. And also the source of much of the United States’ embarrassing blunders in the past few decades. The Sunni - Shiite divide is the most obvious, of course, and one which has bedeviled US policy in the region throughout my lifetime, despite the brighter minds trying to address it. Take a look at this quote from the book (written in 1989 about events in the 1910s) regarding what was to become the nation of Iraq. That nation, of course, was cobbled together from diverse groups, and its boundaries were based, not on rational ethnic or political divisions, but by a combination of factors, chief of which were the relationship to the road to India and the location of key oil reserves. Doesn’t this sound relevant today?

It was evident that London either was not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix of the Mesopotamian provinces. The antipathy between the minority of Moslems who were Sunnis and the majority who were Shi’ites, the rivalries of tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions of the provinces, and the commercial predominance of the Jewish community in the city of Baghdad made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective, and widely supported.

And this, from later in the book:

A fundamental problem, as [administrator Arnold] Wilson saw it, was that the almost two million Shi’ite Moslems in Mesopotamia would not accept domination by the minority Sunni Moslem community, yet “no form of Government has yet been envisaged, which does not involve Sunni domination.

No shit. We still don’t have that single unified government, for those very reasons (although Saddam Hussein came close using brutal force.) But it was and is worse than that.

Because of the British (and later American) determination to rule the region through force if necessary, the most radical and fanatical elements of Islam were able to portray the conflict as a holy war, and set themselves as the alternative to Western hegemony and oppression. (That’s how the Islamic Revolution in Iran took place - and that is just one example.) The author notes that Ibn Saud - the ancestor of the rulers of Saudi Arabia today - was a genius at discerning how the energies of the Wahhabis - the severely puritanical and fundamentalist sect of Islam - could be harnessed for his own political ends. This is very much in play today. Sadly, a broad swath of American politics is unwilling to accept the obvious: that our policies have given power to the radicals.

One final question of ethnic and linguistic identity interested me. Recently, I read The Possessed by Elif Batuman, which opened my eyes to something easily obscured by the political realities of the late 20th Century. Much of what I generically thought of as the USSR - or later as the “Stans” - those difficult to pronounce and spell countries like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan - were actually part of a larger and ancient realm of the Turkish and Turkic languages. As this book points out, “Turkish-speaking Central Asia is one of the largest continuous language areas in the world - larger than the Great Russian area and almost as large as the English or Spanish-speaking area in America.” This was obscured by the conquest of these areas by Russia in the 19th and 19th Centuries, but that reality and the Russian urge toward colonialism today drive much of the politics in that region as well.

To sum up a lot of what happened and what resulted, I want to go through a few ideas which dominated the second half of the book, which covered the process of winding down the war and addressing the aftermath.

Perhaps no character more exemplifies British hubris and delusionalism than T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. He had his fingers in a lot of the events in this book, not as an official, necessarily, but as the “expert” those in power relied on for insight into the region and its people. This was not a positive. As the book puts it:

Lawrence possessed many virtues but honesty was not among them: he had passed off his fantasies as the truth.

The problem wasn’t that there wasn’t truth in there, but that truth, fiction, and outright fantasy were amalgamated and thus impossible to separate. And those with the real power did a poor job of doing so. Wilson, Lloyd George, and Clemenceau had little if any personal knowledge of the area, and relied all too much on the advice of people like Lawrence, who were either ignorant, or unreliable themselves. As Arthur Balfour would later say, having observed the meetings of the heads of state: These three all-powerful, all-ignorant men, sitting there and carving up continents, with only a child to lead them.” It is no wonder that the settlement of Europe would lead to another catastrophic war in less than two decades, and that the “settlement” of the Middle East has lead to 100 years of violence and unrest.

There is a fantasy at the heart of this, which affected Britain then, and still affects the United States, particularly a certain political party therein.

The principal British fantasy about the Middle East - that it wanted to be governed by Britain, or with her assistance - ran up against a stone wall of reality.

The US keeps thinking this too, and keeps getting blindsided when it turns out that in fact the Middle East does NOT see us as liberators, but as oppressors, meddling where we are not wanted, and stirring up trouble. (I will point out that Russia is in the same category - and much of the violence has been exacerbated by the sale of modern arms by both the US and Russia to the various sides, enabling them to kill more and more of each other. Both pairs of hands are thoroughly bloody.)

In speaking of the series of revolts against British rule which took place in the aftermath of World War One, the author nails it. Many of those in power believed there was some malevolent foreign conspiracy (presumably from Russia - or the Jews) that gave rise to these uprisings.

In fact there was an outside force linked to every one of the outbreaks of violence in the Middle East,  but it was the one force whose presence remained invisible to British officialdom. It was Britain herself. In a region of the globe whose inhabitants were known especially to dislike foreigners, and in a predominantly Moslem world which could abide being ruled by almost anybody except non-Moslems, a foreign Christian country out to have expected to encounter hostility when it attempted to impose its own rule. The shadows that accompanied the British rulers wherever they went in the Middle East were in fact their own.

Substitute “United States” for “British” and you have the modern situation.

Although I generally loathe Warren Harding (see above), I have to admit, he is spot on in one quote this book cites. After the war, the Greeks and the Turks got into it, and there were calls for the US to get involved - and these were typically religiously motivated. As Harding put it:

“Frankly, it is difficult for me to be consistently patient with our good friends of the Church who are properly and earnestly zealous in promoting peace until it comes to making warfare on someone of the contending religion.”

A final thought to conclude this post:

The Middle East became what it is today both because the European powers undertook to re-shape it and because Britain and France failed to ensure that the dynasties, the states, and the political system that they established would permanently endure. During and after the First World War, Britain and her Allies destroyed the old order in the region irrevocably; they smashed Turkish rule of the Arabic-speaking Middle East beyond repair. To take its place, they created countries, nominated rulers, delineated frontiers, and introduced a state system of the sort that exists everywhere else; but they did not quell all significant local opposition to those decisions.
As a result the events of 1914-22, while bringing to an end Europe’s Middle Eastern Question, gave birth to a Middle Eastern Question in the Middle East itself.

Fromkin concludes with a sobering analogy. As he sees it, the fall of the Ottoman Empire has a lot in common with the fall of the Roman Empire. The collapse of the old order led to an extended period where the former subjects of the Empire had to work out for themselves a new order and a new political system. That process can reasonably be said to have taken 1500 years. (The end of World War Two led to the longest extended era of peace in Europe since the fall of Rome.) One can hope that the process might be quicker in the Middle East - but Fromkin is not so sure.

After finishing this book, I have to wonder how the foreign policy events of my lifetime might have been different had those in power taken to heart the lessons of history. As it occurred 100 years ago, so today those making the decisions relied, not on those with actual knowledge of the complexities, but on the Lawrence of Arabia and Mark Sykes sorts, who in the latter case was unaware of his blind spots, and the former of which was mostly a craven self-promoter. People like Fromkin gave warnings that the US was about to enter a series of unwinnable wars, and that has proven to be the case. Since 2001, we have had 18 years of continuous warfare, and we have gone from Saddam to ISIS in Iraq, and have had to essentially admit defeat in Afghanistan (like the Russians 30 years ago…) In the process, we have given viciously racist demagogues opportunity to stir up Islamophobia and hate here at home, making life worse for the 3.3 million Muslims living peacefully in the US. As a young man (My salad days, when I was green in judgment: cold in blood, to say as I said then!) I supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan - but I am willing to admit I was wrong, and that little positive - and much negative - has been the result. The same might be said of the partition of the Ottoman Empire. One hundred years of conflict has resulted from momentary bad judgment and worse motives. Would that we had learned from the mistakes of the past.


We are still fighting the same colonialist battles:

Venezuela is a current events example of the way that global politics continue to be a series of proxy wars between Russia and the dominant Western power. As soon as a botched election gave way to unrest, it was uncanny how quickly the US and Russia jumped in to back the competing factions. If I had some say in this, I would push for a global moratorium on arms sales. Since the end of World War Two, the US wars have all been meddling in what are essentially regional civil wars - and it seems increasingly obvious that our motives aren’t all that different in reality from those of the openly colonialist British Empire.


The Fundamentalist/Evangelical Debacle:

Perhaps the best summary of the problems inherent in the Evangelical way of looking at the Middle East is from Mark Noll’s fantastic book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In describing how Dispensationalist eschatology led Evangelicals into either antisemitism or Zionism (or often both - as was the experience of my childhood), Noll notes the cause:

In both cases, however the stance toward the Jews arose from prophetic interpretation much more than from contemporary analysis or more general theological reflection on nations, international justice, or the recent history of the Middle East.

In my experience, most Evangelicals have absolutely no use for history, justice, empathy, or wisdom in their view on Israel and the Middle East. The only thing that matters is that (in their bizarre theological interpretation of apocalyptic passages in the bible) is that Israel must exist in order to trigger the End Times™, and thus, support for everything Israel does - every atrocity - must be supported. In the hope that Armageddon™ comes, and God is able to slaughter humanity so that the blood is as high as a horse’s head for 180 miles. Oh, and lest you think that this is in any way pro-Jew, remember that all the armies of the world converge to fight over Palestine, and the infidel Jews are slaughtered along with them. The only survivors will presumably be the True Christians™ who finally get to see the unbeliving (atheist, non-Christian, and LGBTQ) filth purged from the planet.

No, this is in no way a “Love Your Neighbor” moment. It is a revenge fantasy, and comes from the same dark place in the soul that white Evangelicalism’s ongoing xenophobic tantrum is coming from. The hate of those outside of the tribe runs very deep indeed.

I mention this because, as far as I can see, Fundamentalist and White Nationalist asshat Robert Jeffress appears to be driving the Trump Administration’s policies regarding the nation of Israel. And that, to me and others outside the Fundie bubble, is a terrifying thought. Lawrence of Arabia was bad enough. Jeffress would be happy to trigger the end of the world.  

Oh, and don’t forget the literalist interpretation of where Israel’s borders should be: basically most of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and some of Iraq would be encompassed. So a few Gaza or West Bank settlements are well inside the borders...

By the way, while I looked up the links, I didn’t have to research any of the teaching: I was raised in this nonsense, along with the theories of a global Jewish/Masonic conspiracy. Which leads me to:


Opposition to specific actions of Israel is not antisemitic.

This is the big stick dragged out by those with Zionist leanings to bludgeon those who shine a light on Israel’s ongoing human rights abuses. (I find it interesting that those who do so are overwhelmingly...not Jewish.) As Fromkin points out, Zionism and European antisemitism had a lot in common. Zionism was viewed as a possible solution to the “Jewish Problem,” much the same way that many Northerners believed that the solution to the problem of slavery wasn’t equality, but deportation of African Americans “back” to Africa. In our modern times too, those who most loudly defend the abuses of the present Israeli government are usually those who also loundly crow about an alleged Jewish Communist conspiracy led by, say, George Soros.

Antisemitism and Zionism are quite compatible in the minds of a lot of people - including Fundies.

But to point out the obvious: opposition to Jim Crow in the 1940s didn’t make one un-American. Opposition to Hitler didn’t make one a racist against Germans. And opposition to morally loathsome actions by the Israeli government doesn’t make on antisemitic. Rather, it reflects a commitment to universal human rights, justice, and an understanding of the past and our less-than-honorable role in it.


More Fundie nonsense:

I can’t forget to mention this. In addition to the problems posed by irresponsible eschatology, Evangelical interpretation of the causes of the current conflict are also informed, not by history or knowledge, but by theological dogma.

Specifically, Evangelicals generally believe (and I was taught) that the cause of unrest in the Middle East was that divine decree stated that there would be ceaseless fighting. Why?

Well, it goes back to the belief that the stories about the Patriarchs are not only literally true in every respect, but that specific modern people groups are literally descended from the handful of people involved, and that these sibling rivalries dictate endless war. I should point out, however, that there are serious problems of internal inconsistency in addition to those of historicity.

Fundies (and this is most Evangelicals in my experience) believe that the Genesis stories are literally true in every respect, and that the claims that the various nations in and around the Middle East (particularly Palestine) descended from certain individuals is completely true. And that furthermore, the various blessings and curses put on the individuals has trickled down more than 3000 years to dictate present events.

Here are the origins, for those who didn’t grow up Fundie:

Canaanites: These came from Noah’s grandson Canaan. This is interesting too, because of a certain bawdy incident which scholars generally acknowledge to be intended as a justification of the conquest of Canaan by Israel. In our own times, however, it was taken as a justification of the enslavement of African Americans, and later by the Mormon church for exclusion of African Americans. In the Fundie view, the Canaanites should have been wiped out by the Israelites as god commanded. Thus, any conflict with their descendents is due to the fact that a genocide was incomplete. Ponder the ethical bankruptcy of that position for a bit…

Arabs: These are believed to be the descendents of Ishmael, Abraham’s son produced by his rape of Sarah’s servant Hagar. (With Sarah’s encouragement…) Jewish and Muslim tradition have generally accepted this. The idea that they would fight forever and to the death is more of a Fundie Christian interpretation, however.

Edomites: Descendents of Jacob’s (Israel’s) brother Esau. This was arguably the most epic sibling rivalry in Genesis. And of course their descendents still fight, right? Even though Jacob and Esau reconciled…

Moabites/Ammonites: The product of another sordid sexual episode. Lot got drunk after his wife was turned to a pillar of salt (geez, who wouldn’t?) and they had sex with him so they could have children. (I wrote about this story and others here, if you want to read about it…) Well, the Moabites and Ammonites weren’t thrilled about the Israelites treating them like the Germans treated Belgium, and objected to a big army marching across their land on the way to slaughter the Canaanites. As a result, they were cursed. (Again, scholars believe this was a justification created for the subjection of the Moabites and Ammonites by Israel later in history.)

So, those are your major groups. Which rather discounts a bunch of other groups in the area, including, well, most everyone else. The point is that Fundies believe that Israel essentially has the right to make war against its neighbors - and even exterminate them - because of their interpretation of Genesis and Exodus.

Even those who do not, though, still believe (and I was taught) that we will never see peace in the Middle East because it is Isaac and Ishmael still fighting. And that the cause of the fighting isn’t in any way connected to what Britain and the Allies did in the 1910s and 20s. Rather, it is inevitable, and there is nothing we can do about it. Well, other than sell arms to Israel so it can slaughter the damn Arabs, I guess.

This is yet another example of what Mark Noll is talking about. It is foreign policy based, not on concepts of justice, morality, human rights, knowledge of history, or any of that modern rot. It is instead based on questionable dogma arrived at through (as Noll puts it) irresponsible hermeneutics. And it is that insanity which is driving US foreign policy in the Middle East right now.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Taxpayers Subsidize Our Healthcare

I recently finished filing my taxes for 2018. Unlike most Americans, who seem to think of taxes in terms of “what did I get for a refund this year,” and don’t really think through how all the complex laws fit together, I am acutely aware of how the rules affect me. Part of this comes from the fact that I do my own tax preparation. But more of it comes because I am a self employed attorney, and thus write checks to the IRS and the State of California every three months. 

One of the problems I have seen with our current political climate is that, while most people are aware of welfare programs (usually mis-described as “socialism”) that benefit the working poor, very few notice the even more generous subsidies that benefit middle to upper class people. So here is a subsidy which benefits me and my family:

Taxpayers paid for $12,236.51 of my family’s health insurance last year.

It’s worse than that, though. For higher income families, that subsidy would be $14,696.11, while for lower income families, it might be as low as $4,57.71.

That’s right, the more you earn, the more taxpayers subsidize your health insurance.

The reason people don’t pick up on this is that the subsidy is cleverly hidden in the tax code as a “tax exemption,” rather than done as a direct benefit, as subsidies for lower income people are.

Tax exemptions basically work like this: money you or your employer pay for certain things is exempted from your taxable income. (It doesn’t matter who “pays” for it on paper - it is still income to you in the sense that you get it in return for your work.) In the case of health insurance, it is “above the line,” meaning it is subtracted even before Social Security and Medicare payments are calculated.

There are plenty of other exemptions that benefit you more as you become richer. For example, the cost of paying for one’s house. This year, taxpayers don’t subsidize my house, because my interest payments are too small to allow me to itemize. (We have lived there for 14 years and have paid down a lot of the loan.) But, for someone with a million dollar loan, taxpayers are probably paying for 32% of the interest on that loan. And, the bigger the loan, the higher the subsidy.

These are just the two biggest taxpayer subsidies (can we call it socialism?) that work to benefit richer people more than poorer.

The point here is this: the Right Wing here in the United States came within a couple votes of eliminating most of Medicaid, the program which pays for the heath care of virtually all of the disabled, people in nursing homes, and fully half of the children in our nation.

And called the parents of those children “lazy” for not paying for their own insurance.

I would strongly doubt that fully half of the parents in this country are lazy and refuse to work. Rather, there is strong evidence that the overwhelming majority of them ARE working. They just don’t have employer-sponsored health insurance. And they don’t have access to those generous subsidies which people like me have.

I am sure most people relying on Medicaid would love to have an extra ~$30,000 in tax-free income (the total cost of our insurance, between what “we” pay and what my wife’s employer pays - all of which is above-the-line deductible). But since they don’t - their employers choose not to pay the full cost for their employees, assuming that taxpayers will make up the difference - they have to rely on public benefits. And the contempt that more fortunate people heap on them for having jobs that don’t come with benefits.

This is where we need to change the conversation itself. Right now, thanks to decades of idolatry of the market, we instinctively value people and the work they do by what “the market” pays as reward. And then, when the market fails to provide workers with basic necessities like healthcare, we assume that the person is defective - “lazy” - rather than realizing that the market is failing to pay people what they are worth.

In the wealthiest nation in human history, there is no excuse for letting people go without necessities like healthcare. Or for subsidizing the wealthy more while blaming the less wealthy for the subsidies they get.


Actually, here in the United States, it isn’t any mystery why our discussion of social programs is so screwed up. I wrote about it a while back.

Also, Chris Ladd wrote the best summary I have read – he explains that white Americans LOVE socialism for white people. Just not socialism for anyone else.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Source of book: I own this.

My wife found a signed copy of this book, and it was recommended to me by a few friends as well. I had intended it to be a second selection for Black History Month, but I wasn’t able to fit it in. However, I did put it on my nightstand, and eventually reached that stratum. 

I have kind of mixed feelings about the book, and mixed feelings about having mixed feelings. Let me start with the things I was disappointed in, and then look at the things I loved.

The first probably stems from the fact that I am (1) not a genre fiction person and (2) generally prefer characterization to action. Children of Blood and Bone is YA fantasy by genre, and shares many of the same characteristics of other books I have read within said genre. In particular, fantasy books often tend to be action driven - and full of tension, danger, and violence. Which, if that is your thing, that’s fine. It just isn’t mine. (On a related note, I am not into action or superhero movies.)

This also ties into an observation I have made about a few YA or children’s genre fiction books: the feel is a lot like a combination of a video game and a movie. If you look past the specifics of the world the author builds or the details of the action, you can see the way the movie would be shot, frame for frame - or find it super easy to imagine the video game. Two of the worst offenders in this sense are Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson in their Peter and the Starcatchers series - which, despite some fun moments, seem very much like book adaptations of a movie. I would likewise mention Brandon Mull’s Five Kingdoms series, which works as an audiobook for travel - the action keeps one awake - but reminds me so much of the NES games I watched my friends play as a child.

Children of Blood and Bone is not as fluffy as those others, but I did feel like it was built around a near-constant sequence of dangerous or violent set-pieces. In practice, a plot driven book like this doesn’t give the characters time or room to develop. Outside of the group of main characters, the other sentient beings have to be sorted (really fast, usually) into “enemies that will kill me if I don’t escape or kill them,” or “people who might assist me in my quest.” Or, perhaps, as in the rudimentary RPG games I preferred to those requiring hand-eye coordination: “good, evil, or neutral.” The plot twists therefore consist in new and dangerous circumstances plus a potential change of a character from evil to good and back.

This constant peril and action means that the book mostly lacks ordinary human interactions. (There is an exception in a couple of chapters two-thirds of the way through - which is a nice, if temporary relief.) I will concede that this is a natural result of the needs of the plot. Fleeing for one’s life doesn’t leave much room for social niceties. But it also is really draining for someone like me, who finds the constant tension, danger, and violence to be exhausting. It’s just a personality thing. And likewise, please do not expect me to be good at improvising a plan while fleeing for my life. That is most certainly NOT my particular skill set. Because of the dark plot, there really wasn’t any humor in the book, which I missed. Again, that’s my personality.

One more thing that kind of bothered me is the way the book ended. As in, the big climax took place, and we had...wait for it...two pages of epilogue to wrap it up. That’s it. Actually, that isn’t it. There was literally two sentences after the final big reveal. And both of those sentences give the main character’s reaction, but don’t actually explain much of anything.

Okay, okay, I’m sure there will be a sequel. (Actually a trilogy is planned. Will it be five books by the time it is done?) But still, I thought, “wait, what??!” at the end, when I flipped the page, and there was...nothing more in the book. It was very abrupt, and I had lots of questions afterward.

Alright, enough of the bad stuff. There was a lot to like in this book too. Adeyemi is Nigerian American (and all of 25 years old, so some of the flaws may just be the result of youth and stuff). She says she was inspired to write the book by the ongoing police brutality against African Americans - particularly the unarmed, the innocent, or young children. To this end, Adeyemi combined West African mythology, Yoruba language and culture, and metaphorical representations of current and past injustices.

The fictional world is divided into two classes of people. The Maji are those who can (or at least used to be able to) use magic. The Kosidan are the non-magical people, who have become the ruling class, and brutally oppress the Maji, who have lost their magical abilities. While all of the characters have dark skin, the Kosidan are described as being slightly lighter. In contrast, the Maji have grey hair, which is an easy tell as to their identity. In the aftermath of a cataclysmic war, the Maji have been enslaved, killed, and brutalized by the Kosidan, who are determined that magic itself must be exterminated.

It isn’t difficult to see parallels to the slave trade, Jim Crow, police brutality, and other realities of the American past and present. Adeyemi does a good job of keeping the analogies from becoming preachy allegories, which I appreciated.

I also thought that the world building was good. Personally, I could have enjoyed a little more time on background and a bit less on battles, but I recognize that I am not the target audience for YA fantasy. Adeyemi did give enough information to make sense of her world, which felt consistent, and not like a rip-off of other worlds. I would be happy to explore the world further. (Side note here: Adeyemi cited Harry Potter as an influence. I also found that series - the first two books at least - to be a bit heavy on action and light on description and characterization.) So I do give credit for a compelling world. The connection of magic to the gods, to objects, and to people was particularly interesting.

My favorite facet of the book, however, was the nuanced moral ambiguity. While the Kosidan are currently in power, and thus have the wherewithal to be the villains and oppressors, the history doesn’t leave the Maji innocent. There seems to have been plenty of brutality, violence, and hate on all sides, and both groups have a colorable claim to a right to defend themselves against the other group. Adeyemi has all three main characters (who take turns narrating the story) wrestle with the question of whether bringing magic back will be a good or bad thing. On the one hand, the Maji are correct that without some power to hit back against their oppressors, they will never be respected or treated with dignity. On the other, would they actually be less evil than the Kosidan if they gained power? Or would they be just as brutal and murderous? Human history suggests a rather pessimistic view of the possibilities.

Likewise, the idea of cooperation and equality is raised, but in practice has proven to be difficult to establish, let alone maintain. The idealists rarely win. On the one hand, I give great credit to the author for her treatment of these moral and practical problems. On the other, so I really have to wait for the rest of the trilogy for some sort of resolution? Will I have to read two (or more) additional books and wade through much more violence and brutality? Will she pull a George Martin and kill off everyone decent who isn’t already dead? And, I suppose most importantly to me, will the main characters be able to find enough moral clarity to actually follow through on a plan?

My concluding thoughts would be as follows: Children of Blood and Bone raises interesting moral questions, creates an interesting world, and has a fast paced plot. I think it is better written than average, but still remains in the category of genre fiction, rather than literary fiction. Your mileage, of course, will vary, as tastes and personalities differ. If you like fantasy, have a tolerance for brutality and violence, but want a book that isn’t just escapist fun, there is a lot to like in it. It is, however, pretty brutal. If you lean more toward character-driven, slower paced literature, you might, like me, find it emotionally tiring to read for extended periods, despite the parts I enjoyed.