As the title suggests, Chinese Spies: From Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping covers a lot of ground, from the 1930s to the 2010s. When you take 80-plus years of a famously secretive government, add the unfamiliarity of Chinese names, and compound it with shifting foreign alliances, you have an uphill slog. Happily it's occasionally leavened with fascinating factoids, such as an anatomically explicit explanation of how a French diplomat was fooled into an 18-year love affair with a Chinese opera singer who was actually a man, and who produced a child whom M. Boursicot believed to be his son. Out of love for his paramour, he passed classified documents to "her" until he was outed and jailed in the 1980s. Gems like that kept me slogging through M. Faligot's book. (A French investigative journalist, his book was translated by Natasha Lehrer) There's the vast "underground city" beneath Beijing, intended to shelter the population during a nuclear war, but used in 1989 to rush 200,000 troops to Tiananmen Square to crush the democracy movement, with the British ambassador giving a "minimum estimate" of 10,000 dead. And of course there are the spies -- studying and teaching at American universities -- working at American corporations no less than for quasi-private Chinese firms like Huawei -- salted through the population of Hong Kong -- spies everywhere and always. I came away with the conclusion that the People's Republic has been at war with the whole world, and especially with the United States, ever since Mao Tse Tung took control of China in 1949.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann spins a three-layer mystery story that tells how the Osage of Oklahoma became incredibly rich when the greasy black stuff on their tribal lands led to an oil rush that eclipsed the gold fever of 1849 and 1896, to the great resentment of the whites who'd had shoved them aside; how "at least two dozen" Osage men and women soon died by poison, gunshot, and explosion; and how the federal Bureau of Investigation became the country's most famous police force.... And how recent that was! And how familiar the names! Less than a century ago, when J. Edgar Hoover was a skinny young man, and Messrs Philips, Getty, and Sinclair unknown adventurers on the make. In best TV mini-series style, Hoover and his nascent FBI got their man. Case closed! Except that, as Mr Grann shows, the murders began long before the convicted killer commenced his killing spree, and they continued after the convicted murderer was locked away. The book concludes that there weren't just two dozen Osage deaths, but a hundred or more, at the hands of greedy whites (women as well as men) in pursuit of the Osages' underground wealth.
Even today, New Hampshire is home mostly to people of pallor, but in the 1950s it was almost entirely lily white. So it was a bit of a shock to the village of Lee when Harold Ward, retired from the US Navy, bought a house there, next door to the state university, and his children showed up at the district school. Mr Ward opened a diner in nearby Exeter, which likewise had a scarcity of "Negro" residents. Nevertheless, his diner prospered and indeed became famous as a place where homeless men ("hobos," as we called them at the time) could cadge a meal in the kitchen, a shave in the bathroom, and maybe a pair of shoes to get on with. I once met the charitable Mr Ward, and I knew his youngest son when he was in high school, but I had no idea of the father's hardscrabble youth as an orphan in the Great Depression, nor his segregated career as a Navy messman, nor indeed of the rough life they lived in Lee in the 1950s. Mike Ward tells his father's life story in a sequence of vignettes, in no particular order, but with great effect. Read A Colored Man in Exeter, then leave it out for your kids to pick up. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
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