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Book Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old ChinaMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend who lives in Beijing recommended this book to me on the occasion of my visit there. I like to read about places that I plan to visit, so I picked it up eagerly. The atmosphere of pre-war Peking is vividly drawn, the author’s attention to detail is exhaustive, and I found myself caring about Pamela’s fate and wanting to know what happened next. Unlike some other reviewers, however, I found the writing style and pacing to be rough going. The events unfolded in repetitive fashion and since we knew from the get-go that the case remained unsolved, there wasn’t much suspense. The lack of a clear protagonist or viewpoint character added distance, compounding the distance already afforded by time and space.

Parallels beg to be made between the story of Pamela Werner, a complex young girl–both beautiful and dark–who was brutally murdered, and the city of Peking itself with its residents brutalized under wartime occupation. I felt that most opportunities to draw such parallels were missed, although perhaps they were just too subtle for me and my scant knowledge of the history of the period.

In general I thought that the author assumed more historical knowledge than most of his readers are likely to possess. Certain descriptors were repeated so often that they became monotonous, but given little context or explanation. For example, I had to google the term “White Russian.” The entire first page of hits for this term was about a cocktail. Its wikipedia entry is a bit more helpful, but even that claims that the term can refer to one of four different possible groups of people, including members of the “White” movement during the Russian Civil War, ethnically “white” emigres fleeing the Russian Civil War, people from Belarus, or a religious group also called Old Believers. I suspect the author meant the first of those four, but it should have been clearer and made more of a difference. I was also brought up short by the many repeated references to “DCI Dennis” and “ETC Werner.” I would have preferred that these men were referred to by their given names.

While I understand the objections to the evidence collected by Pamela’s father in a study that purports to be objective, I don’t think those concerns matter for the purposes of telling an entertaining story and giving Pamela her small measure of justice. The author admits to being himself convinced by Werner’s evidence; he might as well go all in and not hedge. So, in my opinion, the author should have told the story from Edward Werner’s point of view, and started the narrative from the point where the police gave up on the investigation and Werner picked it up on his own. The false starts and trails gone cold followed by the police could be told in interspersed flashbacks as Werner works the case, confronts the alleged killer in prison, and eventually returns to his home, defeated but in another way unbowed.

The Fox Tower, where Pamela’s body is found, is believed in Peking folklore to be the home of the King of the Fox Spirits. The legend held that on a nocturnal visit to a cemetery, a fox would exhume a deceased body and then balance a skull upon its head. It then bowed reverentially to the God of the North Star. If the skull did not topple from the fox’s head, the fox would be transformed into a spirit who would live for eight to ten centuries.

I enjoyed the stories about the Fox Spirits so much that I plan to visit the tower when I visit Beijing. The book’s website has an interesting and very readable article about the tower, which warns visitors that if you let a Beijing taxi driver know that you want to go to the Fox Tower and “you will be met with a blank look and perhaps a gruff shenme difang’r delivered as a tu hua challenge.” http://us.midnightinpeking.com/pdf/th…

This is just the kind of thing the book itself needed more of.

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Guard Tower

I was traveling this week on Monday, so I will do the Mundane Monday Challenge on Friday this week. A theme that interests me for this challenge is to photograph man-made objects in the middle of nature. The natural frame gives them a beauty that they do not otherwise possess.

From Seoul yesterday we toured the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This is a stretch of land 2 km on either side of the border between North and South Korea that is devoid of buildings and military equipment (but there are land mines and tunnels buried beneath).


First we toured one of these tunnels, known as the third tunnel, unearthed in 1978. It was built by North Korea as a way to invade the South and discovered by chance by the South Korean military. No pictures were allowed in the tunnel.

Panoramic view from South to North
Panoramic view from South to North
A later part of the tour took us to an overlook, where we could see into North Korean territory. Propaganda music played on a loudspeaker as we tourists put coins into pay binoculars and took panorama shots on iphones and androids. This guard tower looks north, as the ivy encroaches.PanoramawithTower

My teenage kids were there; this tour reminded me a bit of a tour I took of East Berlin and Checkpoint Charlie when I was close to their age, a city divided, before the Berlin Wall fell. Uniformed guards, barbed wire, stories of harrowing escapes and families torn apart.

The last stop on the tour was the Dorasan train station, built to connect the north and south by rail. On February 20, 2002, US President George W Bush visited the station together with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and gave a speech in support of Korean unification.

Railroad tie at Dorasan Train Station
“I see a Peninsula that is one day united in commerce and cooperation, instead of divided by barbed wire and fear. Korean grandparents should be free to spend their final years with those they love. Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed. No nation should be a prison for its own people. No Korean should be treated as a cog in the machinery of the state.”  –President George W Bush, February 20, 2002
But the shiny new-looking station still sits largely idle, waiting for trains and passengers that never come. The tragedy is that while Germany has reunited and inched onward, in fits and starts, into the 21st century, Korea remains mired in the cold-war past. The guard towers, barbed wire, and bunker jokes told by the tour guides have become mundane. Meanwhile grandparents grow old and pass on, never knowing their grandchildren.

The Hope
The Hope

Thursday Doors: Seoul Walk

I am a few days into a trip to Asia. We started out in Seoul, Korea and will be traveling on to Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, X’ian, and Tokyo. I have wifi in at least some of the hotels, but my posting frequency will be spotty for the next 3 weeks.

I have found that focusing on doors, for Thursday Doors, gives me a different perspective on picture taking. Left to my own devices, I tend to like to photograph trees and other natural phenomena, but focusing on doors makes me think more about people, civilizations, and how societies are structured.

The first installment comes from our first morning in Seoul, walking through streets and alleyways to a small local park called Tapgol Park. The park has some traditional architecture, with walls and gates, separating it from the noise and bustle of the neighborhood:

There was also a thoroughly modern electrical box:


It looks like there might be a geocache under that box (red lid on the right), but we haven’t had great luck with geocaches so far in Seoul. We’ve found one a day to keep the streak alive, but DNF more than we find.

Later, on our way to Changdeokgung Palace, we walked down some small alleyways that were lined with what looked like the back doors to restaurants, a hostel, and some other mysterious wooden doors, with writing.

Back on the main road, we saw a more modern rendering of script on a door:


Let me know if you read Korean! Duolingo Korean isn’t out yet. I love the Korean word for milk, uyu, which looks like two little people holding hands. 우유

Thursday Doors: Self-Driving Car

More geeky doors for Thursday Doors!

The Computer History Museum near the Googleplex is a good place to take guests who are visiting for graduation (or anything else). I’m not a computer scientist myself, but I’m the wife of one and my dad, a chemist, has always been an early adopter of computer technology. I think we had one of the earliest IBM PC’s in our home back in 1981.

The museum is comprehensive, from Ada Lovelace to Steve Jobs. And I just felt like including this picture of one of the first computer video games, Spacewar,  because it’s cool. Spacewar was developed in 1962 and runs on a machine called a PDP-1.

Spacewar being played on a restored PDP-1 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View
Spacewar being played on a restored PDP-1 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View

But, let’s leave the desktop computers for a minute, and move on to computers that move! When we moved to Mountain View, it didn’t take long for us to see self-driving cars motoring around the neighborhood. They always have someone in them, though, who kind of looks like he or she is driving, so it’s not as odd of a sight as it might be.

The museum has one of these cars for visitors to sit in, both doors permanently wide open.

Side Door to Waymo Car

In my in-progress SF novel, set in the year 2074, I write about a patchwork self-driving car usage. Some cities and regions have only self-driving cars. Some are reliant on public transit like subways and trams, and have walkable and bikeable downtown areas. And in that world, for cultures who do use cars, I envision an autopilot option that comes with every vehicle, but that its use is voluntary. Some characters in particular don’t like to use that option, and their attitudes towards transportation serve to reveal more about their character.

Myself, I’m a fan of self-driving cars, at least as long as they’re electric and can be built to run on sustainable technologies. I believe they have the potential to increase safety and decrease traffic congestion. And I’ve never been so enamored of driving that not being at the wheel myself seems disappointing. Actually I quite like the idea of still being able to get around independently when I’m, say, 95, and my vision and reflexes aren’t what they used to be.

The author in the back seat of a Waymo car
Take me home, Jeeves!


It’s that time of year again, for graduations and award ceremonies. These are generally happy occasions, but I personally find the experience a bit mixed. You see, I am not an award winner, not the one up on stage giving a speech. I am introverted, and, truth be told, not that accomplished.

More than that, though, I can’t go to an awards ceremony without hearing about the awardee’s positive attitude, the smile on the face, the spring in the step, the can-do spirit. The awardee is invariably “more” than their grades, or their work achievements, or their sports skills, and that something extra is what “really” earned them the award. It is not, we are told, the specific accomplishment that award has engraved on it or sculpted into it—not even they are handed a tiny golden man with an even tinier ball stuck to his foot.

This is all well and good–I mean, I wouldn’t want to go back to the bad old days when the only award given out went to the worst insufferable know-it-all in the class. I like that there are more awardees these days, recognizing a diversity of contributors and achievements.

But I still can’t help wondering about the other kids, the other non-award-winners. The ones who, despite a modicum of achievement, can’t summon a positive attitude; the ones whose support systems are fraying, whose grip on mental or physical health may be precarious, or who just aren’t that into it, but who still put in the effort, come to school every day, and do the work. It’s damn hard to excel at something you dislike. But these kids do it.

I think most well-meaning adults would argue that attitude is a “choice” and if you’re not feeling it, you should just fake it until you make it. After all, it’s true that you don’t have to feel like doing something in order to get it done. And from an adult’s point of view, it’s certainly a lot easier to like and bestow favors upon a smiling kid than one who is angry, frustrated or withdrawn.

But faking it emotionally comes at a cost. Student stress, anxiety, and depression have reached alarming levels, even among those who appear to be comfortable, safe, and financially solvent. Students talk about the burden of “effortless perfection” that they feel is expected of them, especially at so-called top schools.

There are no easy answers to this dilemma. Students make these expectations of each other, and of themselves too. But I think that adults contribute to the problem when we make recognition all about the smile. I’d like to see, maybe just once during a 90-minute ceremony, a kid getting an award for completing something difficult and unpleasant, for dragging themselves out of bed and facing the inner demons for the 90th time that year, and not having fun doing it.


Thursday Doors: Stanford Medical Center

The last time I lived in the SF Bay area, I was a PhD student at Stanford University. I graduated from the Neurosciences Program, an interdisciplinary program for studying the brain that includes faculty from both the School of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Medicine. Even back then, in the early 1990s, brain science seemed to me to be the field of the future, an exciting time full of promise to understand both the world and ourselves. I thought, rightly, that you could spend an entire career, an entire lifetime, studying the brain, and never get bored or tired of it. The tagline for this blog, The Brain–Is Wider Than The Sky, is taken from Emily Dickinson’s poem with that first line.  Continue reading Thursday Doors: Stanford Medical Center

Mundane Monday: Platform

This week was the start of a busy end-of-school-year time. From my son’s birthday in late May onward, it usually doesn’t let up until we go on vacation. My son turned 14 this year, and I took him and some friends to see Guardians of the Galaxy II. I’d already seen it, so I went to find a geocache nearby behind the Googleplex.  Continue reading Mundane Monday: Platform

The Bicycling Violinist

We are the World LogoIt’s already the last Friday of the month, time for the We are the World Blogfest! The #WATWB seeks to infuse social media with good news. This month’s hosts are Emerald BarnesEric Lahti, Inderpreet UppalLynn HallbrooksPeter Nena, and Roshan Radhakrishnan. Please stop by and say hello!    Continue reading The Bicycling Violinist

Mundane Monday: Broken Path

Driving around the North Bay near Suisun City, we came upon a geocache called (ironically, as it turned out) “Beautiful Downtown Denverton.” According to the geocache page description, “in 1878 the town [of Denverton] had a store and a blacksmith shop, a wheelwright, a meat market, a hotel, a school-house, and a Good Templars Hall.”  Continue reading Mundane Monday: Broken Path

Book Review: The Road to Beaver Mill by Annis Pratt

The Road to Beaver Mill: Volume Three in the Infinite Games SeriesThe Road to Beaver Mill: Volume Three in the Infinite Games Series by Annis Pratt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book begins with an interesting set-up. I was especially taken with the author’s stated goal in writing the Infinite Games series: to show what happens to a society when its environment is degraded. Her blog, linked here, says that Infinite Games is the story of the Marshlanders’ struggle to create  communities in harmony with nature.  Continue reading Book Review: The Road to Beaver Mill by Annis Pratt