What I’ve Been Reading: “Catmas”-Edition

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1) The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman

The New York Times said the trilogy could crudely be labeled a Harry Potter for adults. And indeed, it does seem like Harry Potter ft. Sex, Drugs & Alcohol. Sadly, it fails to deliver.

Don’t get me wrong, the book manages to create an intriguing world (at the start). The back-cover emphasizes how hard it is to master magic, but Grossman fails to flesh out the idea. The promised hassle and repetition and blood and sweat fails to materialise in his writing (or in my mind – PERSPECTIVE). The characters in the book might be disappointed with the way magic works in their world, but the reader certainly won’t.

Instead the book focuses on the less-interesting concepts: somewhat generic Narnia-like fantasy world(s) ft. “His Dark Materials”-portals, where lost magicians try to find their purpose in life. He also seems too busy referencing too many past classics. The characters might be more realistic (and older), but I was having trouble emphasizing with their pain and suffering. They can be very emo and dark at times all the times; their reasoning feels too distant (most likely my own fault).

However, it’s not as bad as I make it sound like. It’s well-written, very concise (somewhat minimalistic maybe?) and there’s not much Kauderwelsch that plagues contemporary fantasy novels oh-so-often. It’s a nice mix of old and new ideas, but not captivating and not original enough. At least for me. Still worth a read, if you are into fantasy novels.

Fav. Quotes:

Up through around twenty-five he’d never even thought about his back: it was a balanced, frictionless, self-regulating system. Now it felt like a busted gearbox into which somebody had chucked a handful of sand.

– from The Magician’s Land

Quentin wished she weren’t so attractive. Unpretty women were so much easier to deal with in some ways – you didn’t have to face the pain of their probable unattainability.

– from The Magicians

2) Why the West Rules — For Now by Ian Morris


A very thought-provoking and entertaining book. Ian Morris provides ample evidence that geography (“maps, not chaps”) was the main factor for the West’s current place at the top. Furthermore, he shows that the differences haven’t been as pronounced as many believe and lays the groundwork for his own unified, egalitarian theory of history. Other aspects, such as culture, values and religion are ruled out as people tend to be too similar in their behaviour and problem-solving capacities (see second quote).

To do so he creates a social development index (careful, *.pdf), which combines historical data (energy capture per capita, organization, information technology, and war-making capacity) into a single index (see picture on the right). The index provides some new hard data and allows him to compare the East and West in a more objective way. In the book the data is used as a backbone to carefully and successfully intertwine case studies with a macro-level approach. The index itself never breaks through the 50-point mark until the Industrial Revolution took mankind THROUGH THE ROOF and easily allowed Europe to conquer the world. Agricultural empires simply weren’t able to extract enough resources to feed and supply their people, so they usually collapsed or were conquered.

Fav. Quotes:

Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they’re doing.

Smart, educated people reflect on the problems facing them, and if they face similar issues they will come up with similar ranges of responses, regardless of where and when they live.

3) The Emperor Far Away by David Eimer

Color map of China with regions on a white backgroundThe Emperor Far Away did not meet my expectations; however, it is a very good book. I expected (no idea why) a more quantitative approach, but instead I read a very thoughtful “journal” with insightful and engaging analysis.

Even though it’s mainly about China, you will learn quite a bit about the bordering states (Myanmar, North Korea, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Laos and some more), their culture, their often overlooked history, and their relationship with the ascending “kingdom”. China’s varying treatment of minorities is still its main topic though. His account compliments Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules For Now very well, as it grants a detailed look into the actual lives compared to the bird’s-eye view employed by Morris. It was interesting to read a more qualitative and less data (& date)-focused perspective of China.

The book consists of four chapters: (1) Xinjiang, (2) Tibet, (3) Yunnan and (4) Dongbei. My favorite part was probably the section about Koreans living in Yanbian (part of Jilin which is part of Dongbei). It shows how strong informal information exchange between Koreans living there and in North and South Koreans already is, which surprised me. The fear of a Great Korean Empire (Yanbian would be part of it) is one of the reason why China continues to help North Korea and has cracked down on illegal North Korean immigrants in the last few years. Its suspicion of religion also plays a role, because many (South) Koreans are very religious (Pyongyang was called “Jerusalem of the East”) and are actively converting people in China.

Fav. Quotes:

The nascent CCP acknowledged that unhappiness with Beijing’s rule as far back as 1922, promising the minorities they would have the right of self-determination, and even the option to secede from China, when it took power. That pledge hat been forgotten by the time of the communist takeover in 1949, […].

In Tibet, where the ground is often rock hard, a sky burial is an effective means of disposing of it. Bodies are taken to designated locations on mountainsides and quickly chopped and crushed into small pieces, before vultures descend to make off with the remains

One of the unspoken reasons why the CCP prefers to keep the Kim regime in power is the risk of the Han becoming a minority in Yanbian, which would only support the claims of the South Korean nationalists who believe it is part of a greater Korea.

Currently Reading:

aka why finish a book when you can start a new one instead?

The Origin of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama
The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teichholz
The Iron Kingdom – the Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600 – 1947 by Christopher Clark
The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell
Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy by Brendan Simms

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