Am I Missing Some Chapters?


Title: The Last Kind Words

Rating: 2 Stars

It starts out promising enough. There’s a family that have been thieves for multiple generations. For most of those generations, the family members have names of dog breeds. The two brothers are named Terrier (goes by Terry) and Collie. They have a sister named Airedale (goes by Dale). Their father is named Pinscher. They have two uncles named Greyhound (Grey) and Malamute (Mal). Their grandfather is named Shepherd (Shep).

Being thieves for multiple generations, it’s become their family business. They all start young and their house is full of loot caches from past robberies. They have a family code, the number one of which is to never use a gun.

This all comes apart one night when Collie, for no apparent reason, shoots dead five members of a family, knives a gas station attendant, beats an old lady to death, and strangles a young woman. At trial, he barely puts up a defense and is sentenced to death. Terry, who in addition to this experienced his own personal tragedy, runs away and tries to lose himself working on ranches in the West.

The book picks up two weeks before Collie’s scheduled execution. He requests to see Terry. The family tracks him down and he comes back home to visit the brother that he both hates and loves.

Collie has one request of Terry. He admits to killing seven of his victims but claims that he did not strangle the young woman. He asks Terry to find the real killer to prevent the killer from continuing to kill after Collie’s dead.

This search is the basic plot of the book. There are multiple other threads as well. After being gone for many years, how well will Terry integrate with the rest of the family that stayed? Can he keep his younger sister Dale from going down the same criminal path as the rest of her family? Will he reconcile with Kimmy, the fiance that he abandoned? Did Collie really kill the eighth victim, and if not, then who?

I really wanted to like this book. The dog names are a gimmick, but it serves the purpose of establishing the Rand family as being truly outcast outlaws comfortable living on the periphery of society. The interrelationships between the Rand family members were interesting. They all love each but don’t exactly trust each other. Being so used to running cons, none of them seem to have any emotional capacity to be open with each other. This reality is a cloud that hangs over every single one of their interactions.

Having said that, I felt the book fell seriously short. Sure, the basic plot questions were resolved. However, there were so many plot gaps / questions left that I felt as if I was watching one of those movies where the director’s original three hour masterpiece was butchered into a hundred minute mash by studio executives.

Among so many questions:

  • Why did Collie kill the eight people (OK, maybe seven)?
  • Why did he, if by code was never to use a gun, get a gun the day before the murder?
  • Why did he kiss the victims after he killed them?
  • If he was so concerned about future victims, then why wait until two weeks before he was executed to try to get someone find the other murderer?
  • Why did Terry run from Kimmy?
  • Does Shep really have Alzheimer’s? If so, what are the flashes of intelligence that he has?
  • I really, really, really don’t think that Alzheimer’s works the way that the characters act

I see that there’s a sequel out that may or may not answer these questions, but honestly I don’t think that I really care enough about the characters to find out.

It was very disappointing for a novel that started out with so much promise.


An America That I’ve Never Seen


Title: Poachers

Rating: 4 Stars

I have a weakness for a genre that goes by many names, one of which is Hillbilly Gothic, of whom Donald Roy Pollock, IMHO, is the undisputed master, specifically the short story collection Knockemstiff. They are an intense, high octane, finger in the light switch set of stories.

Every now and then, I poke around and see if I can find a new author that writes in a similar vein. The closest that I’ve come to thus far is Frank Bill, specifically Crimes in Southern Indiana and Donnybrook.

This collection showed such promise, but alas, it lacked the sheer energy of the other two authors. Most of the stories were well written and entertaining, but they just seemed to lack a spark.

There were ten stories in this collection. Probably not coincidentally, the two best stories bookended the other stories.

The first story, Grit, is the story of a mineral factory in Alabama down on its luck. The manager (Glen) is heavily in debt to his bookie (Roy), who also happens to be an employee at the factory. Glen calls Roy into his office to lay him off. Roy makes a counteroffer to Glen to allow him to grind up some minerals and sell them on the black market. Glen doesn’t want to, but he’s so deep into Roy that he feels that he can’t turn him down.

The proverbial inch becomes the mile. Inexorably, Roy takes over the plant to the point where Glen is essentially working for him and the employees of the plant are all working off gambling debts.

This is a story of small time evil. Anywhere else Roy would probably be eaten alive but here in this remote, rural setting, Roy becomes a criminal kingpin. As in most such stories, the kingpin is due for a fall, and it occurs here as well, at which point the criminal enterprise picks up again as if nothing is lost. The message here is probably some combination of evil can worm into any situation, no matter how remote, and once the gears of evil have started turning, they become nearly impossible to shut down.

The last story, the eponymous Poachers, concerns three brothers. Their mother has died and their father subsequently committed suicide. They have learned to live completely on their own in the woods as poachers. They are close to non-verbal and about as feral as humans can get.

The setting again is in very rural Alabama. The surrounding community has come to accept the brothers and their illegal activities.

One night as they are going about doing their illegal poaching, they come across a brand new game warden. The game warden, since he is so new, is not willing to look the other way and tries to arrest them. In the ensuing fight, the game warden is murdered.

The brothers immediately go into hiding. The victim was the protege of a legendary game warden named Frank David. Frank David is the boogeyman to poachers across the state. They tell each increasingly taller tales regarding his abilities. He can track anything. He is relentless. He is invisible.

David, hearing of his protege’s death, announces that he will be the new game warden in the area and it will be his mission to bring the brothers to justice. Thus begins a cat and mouse game to see if David can catch the brothers. Does his reality live up to his legend?

This is a taut, suspenseful tale. Whose side are you on? The nearly invisible game warden representing law or order or the feral brothers that have no concept of social morality?

The remaining stories are grim little vignettes into living in the deep rural South. Several stories feature suicide as a theme. There are a couple of stories where rural violence has left characters so scarred that they’ve become actual or budding serial murderers.

At the root of nearly all of the stories is corruption. It can be the blatant corruption of the lawbreaking of Grit and Poachers, or the spiritual corruption of giving up, or the moral corruption of deciding that you have no place in society and consciously choose to live outside of it.

You read nothing of the legendary gentility of the South. These are people living in deep isolated poverty. For most of the characters, you get the sense that their life is circumscribed by something like a twenty mile radius. Their life seemingly has not changed in any fundamental way (or if has, in a negative way) for possibly one hundred years. The past decades of what we on the coast think of social and economic progress has left characters like these behind.

Perhaps that’s why stories like this pull at me. I live in a cosmopolitan, coastal city surrounded by thousands of people and I can pretty much get anything that I want within an easy walk. I work for a large company that sends me on business trips across the country. Last year, I vacationed in Oregon, the East Coast, and England.

These stories are of America, but of an America that I have absolutely no concept of. It’s hard to believe that I share the same nationality as the characters in these stories.

Clearly, the politics of the last year has brought all of this to the forefront. I have no idea of how to bridge this divide, and who knows, maybe the gap is unbridgeable.

Lenny Bruce – Asian Female Style


Title: Ali Wong

First of all, let me start with an old man rant. A comedy show at a large venue like this usually has an opening act that lasts about twenty minutes and then a headliner that lasts about an hour. Therefore the entire show is about ninety minutes.

This was at The Moore Theatre. It’s not a huge theater, but it is a good size. About 7:05, about five minutes late, the opener is introduced. For a good fifteen minutes after, many people were still streaming in. The theater is dark, so the ushers, with little flashlights, were ushering people to their chairs. Nonstop. For fifteen minutes.

I basically got nothing out of the opening act because people were streaming constantly in front of me for all but about the last five minutes of the act.

First of all, how hard is it to show up on time for an event? Granted, it’s easy for me. It’s a ten minute walk. However, I didn’t always live here. For shows, I used to come in from the ‘burbs. If I drove in, then like a normal human being, I factored in the time to drive in (including the possibility that traffic might suck), factored in time to find a parking spot, factored in time to walk, and throw in a buffer on top of that. It’s not hard. Yes, you might show up early, in which case, walk in and get yourself a drink and relax. Or go to a local bar.

Speaking of which, many of the people coming in had drinks in their hands. In other words, they considered it more important to get a drink than to come in ten minutes late to a ninety minute show. Hey, maybe you can drink before the show or after ? Are you such an alcoholic that you can’t sit through an entire performance without alcohol?

The Moore Theatre clearly has some responsibility here. They need to shut down the bar once the opening act is close. I know that that is lost revenue for them, but it’s annoying as hell for the people that actually have sat down.

And, now for the final old man rant, it’s not as if these were like $5 tickets. I paid somewhere around $50 for it. If I’m paying that much, I don’t want to miss the first fifteen percent of it so that people can get their watered down whiskey and Coke.

I’m ranting because this is the second time in about a month that this has happened. Pretty much the identical situation went down with Sarah Silverman at the Paramount.

OK, whew. No more old man ranting. Onto the show.

First of all, I can’t comment on the opening act since I missed so much of it. #angryShakeOfFist.

I’d first heard of Ali Wong on a Marc Maron WTF interview. She did a great one, which piqued my curiosity. I poked around and found her Netflix special (Baby Cobra). It was wild and unpredictable. If you haven’t seen it, it really is awesome. It’s convention busting. Picture a five foot tall, seven month pregnant, Asian woman telling absolutely filthy jokes.

When I saw that she was coming to town, I had to see her live.

And it was amazing.

She is the rawest comic that I’ve ever seen. Absolutely nothing is off limits. If there’s a body function that you are in anyway shape or form squeamish about, she will talk about it and take it up to eleven.

Here are things that she talked about:

  • Being in labor for thirty-two hours and then having a C-section
  • What a woman’s vagina looks like after giving birth
  • Comparing being a stay at home mom to a prison isolation cell
  • Lactating with breasts that shoots out milk in every direction like a Bellagio fountain
  • Bringing in a lactating specialist and the crazy breast exercises that they make you do
  • Somehow moving on from lactating to shitting into her husband’s mouth
  • Having sex while menstruating
  • Her one and only experience with a micro-penis

And it’s not just shock value. She is legitimately hilarious. Although her topics are crude, her comments are trenchant.

She is not overtly political. I don’t think she mentioned Trump once. All of her jokes were personal experiences that became universal by her telling of them.

However, there is no doubt a strong political element to her act. She is clearly an ardent feminist. She is the embodiment of a Social Justice Warrior.

She strongly advocates for maternity leave. She angrily rejects the double standard that rewards fathers for the little things while ignores the huge things that a mother does daily. She makes a mockery of the demure Asian female stereotype.

I remember there was a time when comics openly scoffed at the idea of female comics. They’re not tough enough. They can’t handle the road. They’re not funny. Similarly, they mocked Asian comics. No one can relate to them. They’re not funny.

Ali Wong kicks the shit out of those stereotypes, and she does it on her terms. She tells jokes that not a single male or non-Asian could tell, and the audience, which as usual at Seattle comedy shows, has a strong white male contingent, was roaring, if at times somewhat uncomfortably. She also drew a significant Asian and female crowd, who cheered her on. She sold out all four shows at The Moore. She owned the audience from the moment she stepped onto the stage.

This was a professional at the top of her game.


Making Men Healthy Enough To Die


Title: Regeneration

Rating: 4 Stars

This is part one of a trilogy named, imaginatively enough, the Regeneration Trilogy. Many years ago, I read the second in the series, The Eye In The Door, which in retrospect was a mistake.

The trilogy is set in England in the midst of WWI. The format is historical fiction of a sort. The characters in the book are real and the events somewhat reflect reality, but there is no pretense that this is some historically accurate reenactment of dialog or anything like that.

It starts with the pacifist declaration of Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon is an upper class war hero who has made a public declaration that the war is immoral and should be stopped. As I discovered reading To End All Wars, England treated conscientious objectors rather ruthlessly. However, in Sassoon’s case, being a war hero and with his lineage, the government could not very well throw him into jail quietly. He would have become a cause celebre to the pacifist movement.

Instead, they declare him unfit and send him off to a mental hospital. There he will be treated by the psychiatrist Dr Rivers, where it is hoped that he’ll see the error of his ways and renounce pacifism.

Dr Rivers is a true believer in England and the cause of WWI. On the other hand, he is deeply empathetic to the mentally broken young men that are in his care. He wishes each to become well again and he wishes nothing but the best for them. However, in curing them of their mental illness, the result is that they will be sent back to France, where in all likelihood, they will die.

This conflict is at the heart of the book. There are other young men in similar situations as Sassoon, but the heart of the book is the relationship between Rivers and Sassoon.

There are several general themes throughout. One is the horror of the war. In flashbacks, the young men describe the horrors of trench warfare, of being constantly under fire, of being forced on suicide attacks by ignorant and incompetent generals, and of watching their comrades fall.

Witnessing such carnage inevitably must have an impact on the psyche. You have Burns, who in an explosion was catapulted face first into the decaying abdomen of a German, now unable to eat.  You have Prior, who having just walked away and then comes back to the aftermath of an explosion and sees body parts of his friends strewn around, now unable to speak.

Nearly all of them stutter. This hospital is for officers. Officers must give orders with authority. These men, all having been given orders that they then must turn around and pass down to their men, develop stutters because they are at a loss for words but are in a position in which they must speak.

Dr Rivers patiently works with each of them and tries to achieve breakthroughs that will bring them back to robust mental health.

And, remember that by bringing them back to mental health means that they then go back to France to fight in the front lines of trench warfare.

The interesting thing is, despite all of what they have witnessed and have suffered, nearly all of the men want to go back. None of them want to wear the white feather of cowardice that civilians bestow upon young men in England that they believe are shirking their responsibilities. And the young men do feel their responsibilities. It’s not clear how many of them still believe in the cause itself, but they nearly all believe in their duty and, even more importantly, want to be there with their fellow soldiers.

Even Sassoon (and hopefully this is not a spoiler, it is a biographical fact), the pacifist who never loses his contempt for the way that the war is being waged, ultimately agrees to leave the hospital and rejoin the war effort under the sole condition that he gets sent back to the front lines of France.

By the end, Dr Rivers is also changed. He now no longer believes in the sanctify of the war effort and begins to question his role in it.

There are many other things that I can write about that Barker includes in this rich book. Barker touches upon the role of women in the war effort and how it changed them. Almost in a throwaway, she introduces Dr Yealland, a foil to Dr Rivers, who basically believes that all mentally ill soldiers are shirking and makes use of extensive, painful electro-shock therapy to bring soldiers back to ‘health’.

I have to confess that WWI baffles and horrifies me. I’ve read multiple histories and even now I’m not really sure why it actually started. Obviously I know about Franz Ferdinand and all of that, but how do you get from a Serbian nationalist assassinating an Archduke to around 40 million casualties?

When I was in London, I went to the Imperial War Museum (which I wrote about here) located, ironically enough, in the old Bedlam hospital. As you can imagine, the English know and have fought in a war or two. However, the largest exhibit by far is WWI. It had a massive impact on England at all levels. For example, the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, had a son die in the war while he was serving as Prime Minister.

It’s hard to imagine that happening in the US, where by and large we expect our poor to fight our wars for us. For example, the Prime Minister’s son, Raymond Asquith, was 37 years old when he died. At the time of this writing, Donald J Trump Jr is 39 years old. Can you imagine President Trump being willing to sacrifice his son as a soldier in a war? During the Invasion of Iraq, there was a shockingly low number of politician’s sons and daughters fighting in it. As a nation, probably not since the Civil War have we seen anything like it.

A Wunderkammer Of Essays


Title: Pacific

Rating: 2 Stars

Simon Winchester attempts to somehow capture the essence or the spirit of the Pacific Ocean and the nations and the people that live in it.

This is clearly, any way that you look at it, an unimaginable undertaking. The Pacific Ocean is huge, covering around 1/3 the surface area of the planet. It has a huge effect upon the rest of the planet. Many nations, from The United States to Kiribati, inhabit it. There is untold history that can be told about untold people.

This is an impossible task. Winchester freely admits it. He pretty much gives up right away and claims that he will try to capture the spirit of this unimaginably huge task in a series of loosely interconnected essays that each discuss some very specific aspect of the Pacific Ocean.

In my opinion, in that he fails. Some of the essays are interesting and informative. Others left me cold and uninterested. However, in one book, to try to tackle the subjects of atomic testing, surfboarding, climate change, the rise of China, ancient Polynesian navigational techniques, and deep underwater exploration almost invariably means that some of the essays are going to land with a thud to the reader, and at the end of it, the reader is going to be thinking, WTF? What have I read? Have I learned anything about this mysterious ocean?

At the end of the day, it seemed like Winchester just had these series of essays lying around and was looking for some additional way to monetize them. He squinted, held them up to the light, maybe did some kind of word search, and was delighted to find that at some point in the text of each essay, the word Pacific appeared. Voila!

It seemed to be a little show-offy as well. It’s almost as if Winchester felt some need to prove to the world what a true polymath he is, so decided to throw all of these heterogeneous essays into one book just so that people can look at him and be amazed at the extreme breadth and depth of knowledge that he’s attained. The fact that in some footnotes he paints himself as a protagonist in some adventure story (kayaking in the boiling water of a volcano, climbing a mountain in a storm so fierce that he had to help his stoned, terrified guides off of the mountain that they were supposed to be guiding him on) makes him sound like some twenty-first century Allan Quatermain (look it up kids).

OK, I’m done venting. As I said, there were some good essays in the mix that were informative and amusing, albeit largely in a sad, colonial way (the Western world once again takes a well deserved beating here).

Here are some fun facts:

  • The United States once considered the Galapagos Islands as a suitable area for atomic tests (gah!)
  • For the second atomic test in the Pacific (Castle Bravo), some mistakes were made. First of all, the size of it was dramatically under-estimated. Secondly, even though the winds were known to be blowing towards populated islands, it was set off anyway.
  • Accordingly, an entire populated island was radiated. Physicians sat around and watched the indigenous people get sick before calling in medical help because they wanted to study the symptoms. Unprotected sailors were sent out to clean boats that were known to be contaminated.
  • In the Korean DMZ, United States soldiers tried to chop down a tree that was obstructing their view. North Korean soldiers believed that that tree was actually planted by their leader. The North Korean soldiers attacked with axes and ended up killing two American soldiers.
  • With the full approval of US President Gerald Ford, this inspired Operation Paul Bunyan. A crew of 60 US soldiers, 64 South Korean soldiers, and a howitzer; as well as for backup, an entire US infantry company, thirty helicopters, B-52 bombers, various fighter jets, and, off-shore, a fucking carrier group, went out to the DMZ and chopped down the tree. The US really showed North Korea that time!
  • In the late 1940’s, after the end of WWII, the Vietnamese, under Ho Chi Minh, petitioned for independence. The French ‘owned’ this territory and were not going to allow this to happen. The only problem was that France didn’t exactly win WWII, so its army wasn’t exactly up to the task of fighting off a committed, indigenous revolution. They demanded that the British do their fighting for them. The British obliged and tried to occupy Vietnam. However, the British did not have enough forces to do the job themselves. So, they turned to the POW Japanese soldiers. The British freed the Japanese and had them take up arms to fight the rebellion. So, to sum up, British used Japanese POW’s, who had previously subjugated the Vietnamese, to suppress the local rebellion led by a man who patterned himself after George Washington so that they could in turn hand over the territory to the French. Isn’t imperialism grand? If Asia does continue to rise up as expected this century, the West is going to find out how much of a bitch payback really is.
  • And let’s not even go into Australia and how they used literacy tests to keep out the undesirables. The choice of the literacy test was up to the customs official. Sometimes, and I shit you not, if the customs official wanted especially hard to keep an undesirable (ie not white) out of Australia, he’d administer the literacy test in Gaelic.

So, interesting, scary, unsettling, disturbing things were learned, which is always a good thing. I probably would have given it a higher grade if he didn’t try some grand hubris-tic gesture of linking these clearly different essays into some logical construct.

A Mystery Lacking a Mystery


Title: The Widow

Rating: 2 Stars

This is a serviceable mystery story. It’s told through multiple points of view, through multiple points of time, and at times, with an unreliable narrator. Do you think that somewhere, someplace, some editor looked at the best seller list and saw Girl on the Train and Gone Girl dominating the list and thought to himself (or herself), “I need to get a piece of that?”

Because that’s how I felt reading it.

The basic story is this. There’s a missing girl. There’s a police officer that becomes obsessed with the case and becomes even more obsessed with bringing the suspected pedophile to justice.  There’s a reporter that’s been following the case and is hungering to feed the public’s voyeuristic yearnings regarding the missing girl. And there’s the wife of the suspected pedophile.

The story opens with the pedophile’s accidental death and then proceeds to move forward and backwards through time via multiple points of view to bring the kaleidoscopic plot into crystal clearness at its conclusion.

The story is told well. The different plot threads are managed well. The different points of view provides a more complete picture than does the usual single narrator. The different periods of time come together in a carefully planned finale.

And if the story had been written a couple of years ago, I’d probably be fawning over it and praising it’s innovative use of postmodern literary motifs into what was previously a pretty trail worn genre.

However…Girl on the Train and Gone Girl both have done this before, and better. Specifically, Gone Girl is probably one of the most innovative mysteries that I’ve read in some time. For someone that has read a lot of mysteries, Gone Girl was one of the few in recent memory that consistently left me surprised.

However well crafted this work is, I was very rarely surprised. There was nothing particularly mysterious about the mystery. If you tell the answer at the start of a novel, you better have a pretty compelling path that drives the reader to that answer at the end, and this just wasn’t compelling.

Even the twist that was thrown in towards the end was telegraphed many pages before.

So, even though I appreciate the fact that it was well written, that I was entertained, and I don’t regret reading it, a mystery that is bereft of mystery isn’t really doing its job all that well.


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – 2017 Version


Title: Get Out

Rating: 5 Stars

This is a film by Jordan Peele, of Key and Peele fame. He wrote and directed it.

The plot is that a young white woman (Alison) brings her black boyfriend (Chris) home for a visit. The parents are what you’d classically picture as a typical wealthy, liberal, privileged, white couple. They welcome Chris openly into their home and in various awkward ways, try to make him feel comfortable.

And things begin to get weird. First of all, Chris is trying to quit smoking. Alison’s mom (Missy) is a psychiatrist that also performs hypnotherapy. The family somewhat forcefully tries to encourage him to go under hypnosis to curb that habit. He firmly refuses and the family backs off. Later, he encounters Missy alone in her study and they have a conversation. It’s not clear to him, but during that conversation Missy might have successfully hypnotized him.

Another major thing that is seemingly out of place are the very few black people that are around the house. The groundskeeper (Walter) and housekeeper (Georgina) just act strange. They seem to be nearly robotic, reminiscent of the Stepford wives.

The weekend that Alison brings Chris up happens to be some kind of reunion with a bunch of other rich white people.

From there, things begin to get stranger and stranger.

Since the movie just came out, I don’t want to throw down any spoilers on the very off-hand chance that someone actually reads this.

It’s blatantly obvious that this film has many racial overtones. There is the casual racism that Chris experiences from ‘good-hearted’ white people that I’m assuming that black people probably experience every day. There are people calling him ‘my man’. There are people telling him that they know Tiger Woods. There are people assuming that he must be athletically gifted. There are people reassuring him that they would have voted for Obama a third time if they could.

Clearly these are all white people that are not looking at Chris as a human being but as a black man and nearly all of the ways that they interact with him are on that basis.

The film makes fun of code switching. Chris attempts to engage with the few other black characters with awkward, unpredictably hilarious results. His confusion at his inability to connect with his cohort is manifest.

Without going into too many details, cultural appropriation is an overarching major theme. What does it mean to be a black man living in a white world that is avariciously trying to usurp your role in it? When it is trying to remove the blackness from your being?

Even fairly minor throwaway scenes have racial significance. Nearly at the end of the movie, Chris has an encounter with law enforcement. Even though he is the protagonist of the film and is fighting for his life, the arrival of law enforcement does not fill him with hope of being saved but dread at what will become of him.  What must it feel like to know that the people that are supposed to protect and defend you might have no intent to do either?

I know that all of this sounds heavy-handed, but the genius of this film is its lightness. The fun that it has with the TSA is hilarious. It is a perfect combination of horror, comedy, and political consciousness.

This balance makes it one of the finest movies that I’ve seen in a while.


Around the World in 1086 Days


Title: Over the Edge of the World

Rating: 4 Stars

This had been on my to-read list for many years. When it came out, it was highly rated. However, I didn’t think that the narrative would suck me in. When you think about it, it’s a story about a sixteenth century voyage where almost everyone died. Something like 260 or so Europeans went out and 18 came back (and one of the people who did not come back was Magellan himself). A three year voyage and only 18 survivors? How much first hand descriptions of the voyage could there have been?

Such data is what narrative historians rely upon. My guess would have been that this book would have been a dry recitation of facts about something that took place five hundred years ago.

Much to my shock, it was actually quite engaging. The preparation for the voyage was well documented. Magellan comes across as a complex character. He is fiercely ambitious but falls upon the wrong side of Manuel I, the King of Portugal. He repeatedly begs Manuel to grant him a charter so that he can prove that there’s a better path to the Spice Islands sailing from the West. Manuel repeatedly refuses him. In desperation, he asks Manuel’s permission to seek his objective through Charles I, the King of Spain. Manuel grants it.

Magellan goes to Charles I, who somewhat amazingly (for his own avaricious, ambitious needs) almost immediately grants him a charter. Magellan directly sets to work organizing his armada of five ships. Manuel discovers that Magellan is serving Charles I (after explicitly giving him permission to do so), first tries to get him to come back to Portugal, and failing that, actively tries to prevent from sailing. Once underway, Manuel I sends a fleet after Magellan to capture him. Such is the way of kings.

Being a Portuguese leader of a Spanish fleet, Magellan comes into trouble almost immediately. The Spanish captains barely obey him and one of them is actively conspiring against him. At one point, three of his boats join together in a mutiny. Only quick thinking from Magellan keeps the mutiny from being successful. He can’t really execute the main ringleader because of his political connections in Spain, so Magellan ‘humanely’ decides to leave him (and a priest!) on a remote deserted island. The two men fall sobbing to their knees and beg for forgiveness as Magellan sails his fleet away. They never appear again in history, so we can only assume that their time on this island was nasty, brutish, and short.

A common theme throughout the book is the almost unimaginable nature of the extreme hardship that the crew had to endure. At one point, one of the ships is out on a scouting expedition and is destroyed in a storm. The men on that ship have to figure out how to get back to the main ship. This involves five hardy volunteers crossing a river and climbing over a mountain range in horrible weather with very limited food. They do manage to get back to the main fleet, but then, with more men and supplies, have to turn around and do the whole round trip again.

Crossing through the Strait of Magellan was a nerve wracking exercise of navigation. Once they got through the strait, then they thought that they were home free. No one at that time had any idea of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Crossing the vastness of the Pacific, many sailors died of scurvy and virtually everyone suffered from it.

During all of these travails, Magellan led with an indefatigable will and an iron fist. As he kept surmounting seemingly impossible obstacles, he began to feel that he was truly on a mission from God. This manifested itself when the expedition reached the Philippines. Instead of single-mindedly pursuing the Spice Islands as per his charter, he began to see his mission as more evangelical in nature. He’d go to islands and would actively try to convert the natives to Christianity. Although successful, it’s not clear, given the language and the custom differences, how much of it took hold.

Regardless, as he took on a more personal interest in the salvation of the natives, he necessarily became embroiled in their inter-tribal conflicts. It was this that ultimately led to him being hacked to death in battle. If he’d stayed focused on the original purpose of his mission, he could very well have survived the expedition, to the greater benefit of all of its members.

Almost immediately upon his death, discipline began to wane. The necessary work to keep ships in good shape lagged. One ship was almost immediately scuttled.

Ultimately, the surviving squadron of ships do make it to the Spice Islands and they do load up their cargo holds with many tons of the valuable spices.

However, the ships continue to suffer. Now down to two ships, they agree to separate (which Magellan would have never allowed). One ship is captured and destroyed by the Portuguese. The other ship, in desperate straits, just barely manages to limp back home to Spain to complete the circumnavigation.

To reiterate, 260 men went out, 18 came back.

This story jumps off of the page. Bergreen does come across multiple sources that he uses to weave together a stirring narrative. A special shout-out must go to Antonio Pigafetta, who joined the expedition almost on a whim. He wrote an engaging journal for the entire three year expedition and was one of the 18 that came back. Much of the information from this book clearly came from his journal.

This was a heroic story stirringly told. I had low expectations for it and it greatly exceeded them.