Free-range camels on the Silk Road.

I went to China in 2005 to research Silk and Song, specifically to western China or the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. It’s a very large place, Xinjiang, and we would frequently be tarryhooting off in the middle of nowhere, with no facilities.

One day, I think it was outside Kuche, or maybe Kashgar, we called for a pitstop. Our driver pulled over at the side of this dry riverbed and we all got out and looked for a convenient boulder.

There is not a lot of wildlife in China, mainly I think because they’ve eaten it all. (That’s what seemed most glaring by it’s absence, wildlife. And small planes.)

So I’d given up expecting to encounter any wildlife. But that day, I was crouched behind a boulder on the edge of this dry river bed, trying not to pee on my pants, when movement caught the corner of my eye. I looked up, and this herd of camels strolled by.

free-range camels

As it happens, camels are pretty much responsible for central Asian trade routes developed in 8th century B.C. The wheel had been long in evidence by then, of course, but there were no roads to support wheeled vehicles. Behold the camel, specifically the Bactrian or two-humped camel. Its thick coat insulated it from extreme temperatures, it could go forever on a pint of water, and it was sure-footed on unmaintained trails in mountain and desert.

It could also haul a hell of a load. A single Bactrian camel, according to S. Frederick Starr in Lost Enlightenment, can carry up to 500 pounds. A caravan of a thousand camels, not an extraordinary size (read Mark Kurlansky’s Salt for the story about the salt caravans of 40,000 camels each that used to regularly cross northern Africa), could carry about 500,000 pounds of trade goods.

By comparison, a freight container, the rectangular metal boxes piled on ships I see daily passing by on Cook Inlet on their way to take the milk to Anchorage, can each carry 50,000 pounds.

Camels spit pretty good, too. I would back any day a Bactrian camel’s spitting distance against a bald eagle’s projectile pooping capabilities.

HoZ Silk and Song final.jpg

Which I will be signing at 2pm on December 2nd

at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Click here to pre-order.

The American Dream, exported.


Jende Jonga of Limbe, Cameroon, follows his dream of a better life to New York City. Two years later he brings over his wife, Neni, to follow her dream of becoming a pharmacist, with their six-year old son.

Jende strikes gold by getting a job as chauffeur to Clark, an investment banker and a child of privilege, for a $35,000 annual salary.

This is just before the crash of 2008 and Clark, a good man, can see it coming and Junde overhears him trying and failing to convince his co-workers to the do the right thing. In the meantime, Clark’s elder son is turning his back on the West and immigrating to India to follow his bliss, to the consternation of both Clark and his wife, Cindy.

Some items:

Jonde lies like a rug to get into the country.

“How long do you plan on staying in New York City?” the consulate had asked him.

“Only three months, sir,” he had replied. “Just three months, and I promise I will return.”

…He was leaving Cameroon in a month! Leaving to certainly not return after three months. Who traveld to America only to return to a future of nothingness in Cameroon after a mere three months?

After Cindy forces Clark to fire Jonde, Neni outright blackmails Cindy with evidence Cindy’s abusing drugs and alcohol, for a $10,000 payoff.

Jonde hires a shady lawyer to convince a judge that he needs to be granted asylum from the murderous attentions of his father-in-law, which is a lie.

And when Jonde makes his decision and Neni disagrees, he beats her, in front of their son.

They aren’t monsters, they are both intelligent, motivated, and hard-working, but these are not the most admirable people you ever met between the pages of a book, either.


Jonde decides to return to Cameroon. Between blackmail and their savings they have quite the little nest egg and he has plans to start businesses of his own. I don’t know what his marriage is going to be like back in Limbe but he is intelligent and a very hard worker so I’m sure he’ll become a successful entrepreneur and a big man locally. It’s not the American Dream denied; it’s the American dream exported.

Neni’s dream is totally denied. She can’t go to school back home and her plans upon their return consist mostly of making sure she is properly dressed and made up so as to lord it over the women back home who might dare to pity her.

Mbue shows us these two families side by side, Jonde and Neni and Cindy and Clark and their respective children, and I think part of her intent is to underscore how at least Jonde and Neni have a functional, supportive family, whereas Cindy and Clark have anything but. And perhaps that American society began its decline when we became so mobile and disconnected from our families? I don’t much like the ending because I felt that when Jende beat Neni, and when she made herself complicit with it, that they were returning to a traditional patriarchal society where the men rule and the women serve. Neni’s father absolutely refused to send her to school in Cameroon, which was one of the reasons she was so happy to move to America.

My friend Pati recommended this book to me, with the comment that our nation is in decline. By which she meant people used to emigrate here to build a better life, and Mbue is saying they should stay home and build their own better life there. If Pati and Mbue are right, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the American empire, which was founded and fueled by immigrants. If we’re no longer the destination of choice for immigrants, we’re done.

But no law ever said the American empire lasts forever.

This would be a terrific book for a book club discussion.

More of my Goodreads reviews here.


Where Shasha shops.

The Yarkand spice market

So this would be the spice market in Yarkand, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, in October 2005. One of our group had a horrible cold, so we went inside and visited an elderly gentleman who had his shingle out as an apothecary (there was at least one in every market). He had a mortar and pestle made from a stick with a bulbous end and a long hollow wooden cylinder carved out of wood, which I think must have been a hollowed-out section of poplar, as it is the go-to wood in that region.

He listened attentively to the list of symptoms, held up a hand when he’d heard enough, and started sprinkling a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that into the wooden cylinder. He ground it up with the pestle and poured it into a little paper envelope, and handed it over to our sufferer with instructions to steep a healthy pinch in hot water morning and evening, and drink.

Worked like a charm.

HoZ Silk and Song final.jpg

Which I will be signing at 2pm on December 2nd

at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Click here to pre-order.



The Real Master and Commander

Chances are you’ve already heard of Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubrey, even Frank Mildmay. But how about Thomas Cochrane, the real life British naval officer upon whose life and career all of these fictional characters are at least in part based?

That’s what I thought. Don’t worry, David Cordingly’s Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander has got you covered.

The best biographies illuminate not only their title character but the time and place in which that character lives, and this book does that in spades, with some eye-opening revelations. For one thing, I had no idea that the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars were on the whole, well, pirates.

Oh yes, they were, and I’ll tell you why. The British Navy was essentially a money-making proposition in those days. Whenever a British ship caught an enemy ship, it would be sent back to England where it would be assessed by the Admiralty and assigned a value, one-eighth of which was then shared among the officers and crew of the capturing ship. The more enemy ships they captured, the more prize money they made, and Cochrane, whose improvident father had cost the family the hereditary estate, was forever in a row with whoever was in charge about getting full value for the ships he captured.

An eye ever to the main chance Cochrane may have had, but he was also by everyone’s account, even his enemies’, of which he made many, a master mariner. Cordingly writes that some of Cochrane’s actions, described in full in you-are-there prose, are still cited by naval historians as the best of their kind. He was his own worst enemy on land but at sea he was unsurpassed. He wreaked havoc with Napoleon’s navy up and down the coasts of France and Spain, and not for nothing did the French call him “le loup de mer,” or the Seawolf.

Ashore, though, he involved himself in radical politics and made enemies of people in power, especially in the Navy. He was intemperate and mouthy, which, allied with a burning and fatal desire to achieve better pay and conditions for his officers and men, started the downward spiral. The British Admiralty just wasn’t there yet. When, inevitably, he made England too hot to hold him, he went to South America, where as, sequentially, chief of naval operations for both countries he was instrumental in Chile and Brazil’s wars of independence with Spain, and later and less gloriously in Greece’s war of independence with Turkey.

He had a keen scientific curiosity and the patience for experimentation which caused him to spend a great portion of his aforesaid prize money on experimenting with, among other things, lamps, steam engines and bitumin (aka asphalt). He was a passionate and faithful husband to his not always worthy wife, and what money he didn’t spend on scientific experimentation and petitions for reinstatement in the British Navy was employed to bail their worthless children out of hock.

This book is beautifully produced, with many detailed maps, marvelous cutaway illustrations of two of Cochrane’s ships so you can practically walk the decks at his side, three sections of contemporary paintings of friends and colleagues, including many portraits of Cochrane himself at every age, ships of his time, seascapes of sea battles and ports of call and scenes of engagement. There is even a glossary at the back to teach you the difference between bombarde and bumboat, and more illustrations throughout, such as a reproduction of the recruiting poster Cochrane had made up to entice a ship’s crew to the Pallas. “My lads,” says the poster, “The rest of the GALLEONS with the Treasure from LA PLATA are waiting half loaded at CARTAGENA…Such a Chance perhaps will never occur again.

That was appealing to their better natures, all right.

Cordingly’s Cochrane is a rousing tale, all the more astonishing because it’s all absolutely true. A wonderful read.