Standalone sci-if and fantasy – Recommendations

Last week I published a list of fantasy and sci-fi series that I recommend. This post follows that one up with set of recommendations of standalone (or near-standalone) books.

First and Last Men, Olaf Stapledon

Both this and the next recommendation are the work of a British professor of Medieval Philosophy writing in the 1920s and 1930s, who decided to eschew academic publications and instead write books designed to bring these philosophies to a wider audience. First and Last Men is the ultimate longue durée history of the human race, covering ten thousand years. Humans advance from their present form and adapt until they are wholly unrecognizable, with societies developing in conjunction with the available resources and environmental needs.

Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon

Stapledon’s other novel is an interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Visions of Piers Plowman, where a man, on a walk after fighting with his significant other, has a out of body experience that takes him to a series of alien civilizations and to ever higher planes of consciousness until reaching divine revelation. Reviewed here.

Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson

One of my favorite near-future dystopian novels. The United States has been broken down into a landscape where every corporation, church, and gated neighborhood functions as its own country, there is an digital universe built with megachurch money that can be tapped into, and there is a conspiracy that wants to use an archeological find to enslave humans. Hyperinflation is rampant and pizza delivery is operated by the mafia, and if your pizza doesn’t arrive in 20 minutes, you are allowed to kill the driver and take his stuff. Law and order are enforced at the point of a sword. Enter our hero, Hiro Protagonist, delivery driver, elite hacker, and expert swordsman…who lives in a storage unit. The world is a mess and he must save it, all the while trying to protect the teenage girl Y.T. and to stop Raven, a nuclear-armed Aleutian harpooner with a grudge against the United States.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon

In his middle years the narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the Hempstock farm, where, in a flash, he remembers something that happened there when he was seven. This particular story tugs at the nostalgia strings about how one remembers childhood and about things that children know that adults don’t, begs the question of not whether, but how people change as they age, and how worth is adjudged. There is whimsy, there is sadness, and there is pettiness.

Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon

The Antichrist has been born and the end is nigh! But the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley [formerly Crawley] have come to quite like their lives on earth in a way that their otherworldly brethren just can’t appreciate. Crowley, for instance, can’t make them understand that jamming the London freeway or killing the phone lines causes greater mayhem in the world than the corruption of a single priest. As a result they agree to keep an eye on the little guy and prevent him from choosing between good and evil. However, a mixup in the birthing ward means that the real Antichrist is on the lam. All of this has been foreseen by Agnes Nutter, but her prophecies are of little use. Bedlam and hilarity ensue.

American Gods, Neil Gaimon

America is multi-cultural. A place where cultures from around the world–and their deities–have come and made a home. A not-so-chance encounter upon his release from prison after the death of his wife launches Shadow into this world as the bodyguard to Mr. Wednesday. Once there he discovers that there is a war brewing between the old gods and the new gods of television and pop culture, but it is unclear whether the old gods will form a common front to preserve their way of life.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

The hero is supposed to be young, fit, and still learning about himself. Ahmed inverts this, so our protagonist is Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, a retired ghoul hunter who likes drinking cardamum tea. Along with some old friends and young assistants Adoulla tries to combat the increasingly frequent ghoul outbreaks and thus is drawn into a political revolution brewing in the palace over control of the Throne of the Crescent Moon–or its earlier association with serpents. Some of the tropes are familiar, but the setting is not just flavor, as the story is much more influenced by Middle Eastern stories known to Western Audiences from, for instance, Arabian Knights, rather than the knightly tales of Western Europe.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

Reviewed here, this is a fantasy constructed along the lines of traditional Chinese epic. It is beautifully formal and weaves a conservative culture and style with a progressive narrative to create something that is new in a genre that is so steeped in tropes. The result was a breath of fresh air. Technically, The Grace of Kings is the first in a series, but it can absolutely be read as a standalone work.

The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings

Unlike the last two on this list, Redemption is in a lot of ways old-school fantasy, an epic showdown between sibling deities, one of whom upholds life and one that seeks to consume it. Each side has its champions and paragons who square off against their opposite number. Neither the story nor the characters are particularly brilliant, but the book is fun and riddled with clever or entertaining set pieces and has the grace to condense the equivalent of an entire epic fantasy series in a single thick book.

The Postmortal, Drew Magary

Another near-future dystopian novel, Magary asks what would happen if there was a cure found that stops the aging process at the point it is received. Diseases still happen and a violent death is possible, but aging stops. What happens to marriages if “til death do you part” starts to look like an eternity? Will the cure be legal? Will it be regulated? Will it be given to children? Will there be a violent backlash? Will the social contracts that keeps society together stay in place? Probably not.

The New Life, Orhan Pamuk

Two things happen to the narrator of The New Life, one after the other, which changed everything: he read a book and he fell in love with a girl. In his accounting of events, the reading of the book was both the first and the more important occurrence, but, really, he only read the book because he saw a pretty girl reading and was smitten. One might even say that our protagonist was entrapped by this distant and unapproachable beauty. This book changed everything and, he is told, those under its sway are wrapped up in a long-standing conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that could cost them their lives. Following Janan, he witnesses the assassination of her beloved and is immediately launched into a journey across Anatolia in pursuit of Janan, in search of answers to the riddles posed by the book, and hunting for a new life.

Most of The New Life takes place on dimly-lit bus-stops and on darkened buses that roar across the Anatolian landscape past–and sometimes into–similarly nondescript vehicles. Each bus seems to take people further back in time. Bloody crashes are a frequent occurrence, and sometimes provide an opportunity to adopt a new persona. The narrator’s obsession with Janan is Quixotic and while his pursuit of the woman sitting beside him spurs him on as a young man, the book proves a somewhat more intimate and more fruitful quest. The principle question is how one is able to reach equilibrium between the promises of the book and a changing world. There is no single right answer.

Pamuk eventually reveals that the name of the book is The New Life, and there is reason to suspect that it is the same as the novel, but for most of the story it is simply referred to as “the book” and its contents are left ambiguous. The closest comparison I could think of is the fanatical devotion inspired by religious texts, but it is emphatically a secular, subversive book. Similarly, there is an ambiguity as to what, exactly, The New Life is. Does it refer to swapping identity papers? Claiming a new name? Revolution? The process of aging? Or is the life in question not the life of the individual at all, but the life of a culture or country? Ought the new life really be an old life? Or is there another transcendence above these all? In the end, The New Life is being told from the point of view of an adult man, married and with a daughter. He has certainly found a new life, but, somehow, it hasn’t totally satisfied the hunger that the book awoke.

The New Life is an early example of Pamuk’s work and while I enjoyed the book, it is lower on the scale of his novels, ahead of only The White Castle. On the one hand, there were features that were engaging, including the two discussed in the previous paragraph, the tension between bus and rail, and the appearance of going back in time and the speedy onset of western modernity; on the other, there were aspects of the conspiracies that left me hollow because they fit in the novel but were not fleshed out. Some of this is a stylistic choice and some is the narrative style, but I wanted it to be spun out further as Pamuk does in later novels.


I recently decided that I want to prune my book collection somewhat by donating books I don’t actively want to keep around to charitable book drops and/or libraries and have already chosen six or seven volumes to give away. I am militantly against getting rid of my entire physical collection despite the hassle of moving boxes of books, so this is more about culling for space. Along the same lines, I want to be able to talk about every book in my collection either because I have read it or because it is a new acquisition and soon to be read. As such, there is somewhat of a backlog that I need to read, some of which I started once upon a time and gave up on, others I bought and never read. Right now I am read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which falls into the former category, and which I am enjoying quite a lot and thus wondering why I stopped reading it before (other that I am finding myself a more patient and careful reader as I age).

A question of sorts about tuition

College is too expensive, and for every glowing report about the financial returns of a college degree, another blows apart those numbers by showing that particular schools and particular careers that, by grace of family connections, artificially inflate the numbers. At the same time, U.S. Taxpayers are disproportionately subsidizing the elite universities with large endowments— schools that spend more money managing their portfolios than on scholarships. The jobs of Presidents hang on their ability to pull in large donations. Most colleges are simultaneously seeing increased selectivity and increased enrollment and are crafting incentives to push those numbers higher still. I don’t want to get bogged down in most of those perks and whether they ought to exist or distracted by other cost-saving measures taken by schools or even question where all that money goes. I’ve been lead to believe that universities function through dark rituals carried out by accounts and involving large piles of imaginary money. Yes, I am being glib, but since I know just enough about it to make wildly inaccurate generalizations, I will refrain from doing so. Instead, I will focus on the extension of in-state tuition and tuition freezes, because there is something I find troubling here.

On the issue of tuition freezes, I have just one comment: the phrase itself is a red-herring. Promises to eliminate or freeze tuition do not keep down the price, but adds incentive to call the bills something else, usually fees. The itemization of the bill is a nice addition, but it also represents rhetorical chicanery when some of the fees can plausibly be argued to belong in the tuition pile. For instance, in graduate education, there are instances where students with tuition waivers nevertheless pay a fee for every credit they take. Fees or tuition, the result is the same: costs rise.

My working hypothesis on the split between in-state and out-of-state tuition is that the out-of-state rate represents more or less the full tuition rate, while the in-state is a lower rate because it is subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. This is not to say that there is a 1:1 correlation, and there is the added variables of federal funding and donations, but, in general, this seems to be a reasonable model. Likewise, though I haven’t seen it stated outright, it seems likely that state taxes that go to supporting state higher education institutions are done with this sort of implicit assumption in mind. States are, by and large, reducing their financial support for higher education, for a variety of reasons, which forces out low-income students and results in more cost increases for families.

Working with the model, though, and the fact that states still do help subsidize education, there is another anomaly that has me turned around: the extension of in-state tuition to out-of-state students. The University of Missouri participates in the Midwest Student Exchange Program, which reduces the cost of attendance for students in surrounding states and I have seen other proposals to reduce out of state tuition. The purpose, of course, is to attract ever-more students to the university in order to get more tuition dollars and, as for-profit institutions can attest to, means milking federal funding for all it is worth. International students bring in even more money.

I am sure that I am being overly simplistic with all of this, and it is linked to and symptomatic of all sorts of other issues in the finances of higher education, but I can’t help but wonder if the mad race to bring in students has the side-effect of making these institutions large businesses that happen to reside in a particular state, blurring the lines between where the students come from in order to lure them in. I do wonder if maybe it would be useful to frame the state funding for higher ed specifically as a benefit for in-state students. On the other hand, maybe I am making mountains out of molehills.

The Dresden Files

I have now, as of two weeks ago, read the first three books in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and thought it would be an apt time for some reflection of the series, which I have described as pulpy, but fun.

Harry Dresden is the only publicly-listed wizard in America, with his advertisement appearing in the phonebook. He doesn’t do love potions or the like, but works as a supernatural private eye, with most of his income from a standing retainer with the Chicago police department. Lanky and dressed in a duster, with a silver amulet, staff, and hammer-action pistol, Harry strides into battle against vampires, were-wolves, ghosts, demons, and evil wizards; in this line of work he has seen–and done–some stuff that would make most people flinch. Around him are his cat Mister, the spirit Bob, the knight Michael, Detective Murphy, and the reporter Susan. Most people, including Susan and Murphy, don’t really know what is going on and Harry goes out of his way to shelter them from the worst of it.

Butcher has created a magic system that is simultaneously well thought out and ill-defined. For instance, magic has a tendency to cause technology to fail, so Harry uses the simplest guns, cars, and other technology available, but neither is there a guarantee of failure, so it can just happen to happen at the most inconvenient points. The rest of the system is built along similar lines where there are rules to how various sight abilities (eye contact, etc.) work, and how spells are constructed (circles need to be completed, potions use three ingredients that are linked to the outcome), but the specifics are often unclear even to Harry, who always wishes that Bob, the ancient spirit, was around to tell him how to make something. This mix gives a consistent feel to the books, but also allows for a great deal of variance based on the story. I also assume that Harry is leveling-up, as it were, but the general lack of specifics in that regard make it a little hard tell.

The first three books each dealt with one particular case Harry investigates, but their greatest virtue is that they serve to populate the world of the story with a growing cast of characters. This is something that typically happens as series develop, but one of the things that stood out in the first book was how few actual characters existed. Sure, there were plenty of things that needed to be attacked or dealt with and a number of individuals standing around in the background of the story, but there were really only about four real characters [plus Bob and Mister] and only Harry was actually central. Part of this falls back to the noir frame for the story, since Harry is the detective out on a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets, so to speak. I got the impression early on that urban-fantasy, noir procedural was actually what Butcher was setting out to write, what with its observant first person narrative and shadowy investigations, but in the next few books noir has become more garnish than substance. In the same span, Butcher has begun to flesh out a slightly, and I do mean slightly, larger cast of characters, both those who are meant to be heroes and those who are villains in order to build a multi-book story-arc.

I like this series, but, after three books, I am still not sure how much. There was enough foreshadowing in the most recent book to suggest that they may be ready to transition into something a little more substantial than procedural, but I really don’t know. They are fun and easy to read, in contrast to some of the denser things I either have to or choose to pick up. At the same time, I am three books into a very long series and the number of actual characters is very small, particularly given how close the point of view is to Harry himself. I will probably read the next book in the series, but I can’t say when. Right now, these are feeling like change of pace books–fun, but not insistent enough to demand to be read.

Fantasy Series- Recommendations

I believe there is a lot of great fantasy books in the world today. As a result I have collected a bunch of my favorites, with this representing the first of two posts. Here are my favorite series, though, in one case, I only like the first book. There are lots of other good books out there (one of my hobby-horses), and these absolutely represent my tastes more than any sort of objective criterion. There are also other series that I think are great and/or read with zeal, and still others that I am sure would appear on many lists of this sort–for instance, Discworld, which I think is merely OK. I have a long to-read list already compiled, but if there are suggestions I will gladly take them.

The Lord of the Rings [plus The Hobbit and The Silmarillion], JRR Tolkien

In many ways this is the Ur-series for the Western fantasy canon, though Tolkien himself was drawing on the Ring Cycle, Beowulf, and a host of other mythological and Romantic influences. Tolkien also set for invention high for all nerds (said affectionately) who built worlds for games, books, or fun. Call them excruciatingly boring, what with the large number of walks taken, and suffering from the drawbacks of the genre such as unnecessary descriptions of stew, there is quite a bit going on in these series. I am of the opinion that recent years have seen a literary-ization of genre fiction that has linked some of the ideas present in the past books with a craft not before seen, but I still love Tolkien for what it was. The world and the series has plenty of issues, including at times blatantly racist overtones and the general (but not complete) absence of strong female characters, but it does have a lot to give back. I also believe that it offers a better entry into this sort of writing for kids than do some of the more complex modern books.

Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan (completed by Brandon Sanderson)

Another series that I have a soft-spot for having starting reading it in elementary school. It too suffers from a lot of flaws, but also did a lot to drive the genre forward, including that Jordan helped launch the careers of other fantasy authors such as the fellow coming up next on this list. The Wheel of Time can be tropetastic, but that is the nature of the beast, particularly in a genre which usually has the paradigm of a few intrepid individuals holding the darkness at bay, and suffers for being such a sprawling epic. The same sprawl meant that things changed quite dramatically from early on, for natural reasons, for inexplicable reasons when he was still feeling things out, and perhaps for reasons whispered about on internet fan forums. In that way, The Wheel of Time was one of the earliest book series to generate dedicated online communities–and, sadly, one of the reasons for the perpetual fears over authors dying without finishing the books. I haven’t really said anything about the series itself, but I do like a lot of the characters, and it was one of the early series to play with gender dynamics in that the most powerful force in the land are women.

The Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin

Or, as it is known, Game of Thrones. Ultimately, a re-envisioning of the War of the Roses in a medieval fantasy world where, as they say, Winter is Coming. The environment of the series flips between long summers and brutally long winters where there is a chance of the White Walkers, and perhaps cold gods awakening. There is a core struggle for the heroes to save the world from utter oblivion, whether using magic swords, blood, or dragons, but Martin’s protagonists are usually too busy playing politics and pretending to be heroes to actually get around to do anything about the encroaching doom. Actually trying to be a hero is the fastest way to die. He has said that there is going to be a bittersweet ending, so we assume that we will see spring, but the question is how will people put aside their squabbles long enough to fight back.

Kingkiller Chronicles, Pat Rothfuss

This is my favorite series right now, though I have heard several viscerally negative reviews of it. The biggest determinant, I think, is how much a reader likes the main character, Kvothe, because this series very much is about him. Functionally, the series is a story within a story, with Kvothe’s life, which has become the stuff of legend, is being narrated over the course of three days. Each day is a book, and the driving question behind the story is how did the legendary individual, whose exploits are known the world over, become an impotent innkeeper in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Rothfuss’ writing is (in my opinion) beautiful, and I also endorse The Small Regard For Silent Things, a novella written about one of the side characters in the main series.

Dune, Frank Herbert

I nearly put Dune on my list of standalone recommendations because I found the first book to be such a revelation and the subsequent books to be such disappointments. Herbert sets up a galactic civil war between the Baron Harkonnen, supported by the Emperor, and House Atreides, which gets trapped on the desert world of Dune. The story is simultaneously intimate and cosmic in scale, with a messianic main character who may accidentally set in motion a military-religious tsunami that will overwhelm the galaxy.

Tao x3, Wesley Chu

[Lives, Deaths, Afterlives]. Chu’s three book Tao series is an action-romp where the alien Tao and his host Roen Tam try to save the world (and his family) from being turned into a warm primordial soup. I reviewed the first book in the series, and really enjoyed all three. There were times that I thought the later books were sloppier than the first and a little too on the nose about some contemporary issues, but those were slight irritations to what is an incredibly fun set of books that was really easy to blow through.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson

When I recommend a Sanderson series, this is the one, in part because it is just a trilogy. There are a lot of things that Sanderson does to tie his entire oeuvre together as part of the larger “Cosmere,” but what is important for this trilogy is that for most people the world consists of endless drudgery, toiling away in factories and farms in a landscape where both urban and rural features are covered in soot, not unlike an extreme version of the industrial revolution. There is also a strict hierarchy between the nobility, who are tall and more athletic and blessed with magic, and the masses, who are stouter, slower, and duller. The entire system is rigidly enforced by the Emperor, who is also the most powerful magic user, and his servants. Yet, Kelsier, a thief, is convinced that he can bring down the Emperor and takes his friends, including the urchin Vin, along for the ride. Except, as you learn, the Emperor is also a lynchpin that holds the system together and the changes were not just arbitrary. Sanderson is particularly known for his magic systems, which, in this case, involves the ingestion and consumption (and other uses) of different metals, each of which corresponds to a particular ability.

The Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tentatively placed here, if you are a reader who likes Sanderson’s other books and Robert Jordan, read this. Sanderson is planning the series more than Jordan did, but his writing is similar and this is in many ways his equivalent set of tomes.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Technically OMW is the first book in a series, so it is included here. Scalzi’s military science fiction series is set in a future where most people on earth live entirely recognizable lives. However, to solve the third-world population crunch, they are allowed to colonize distant planets–no first-worlders need apply. That is, until you get old. Science allows the mapping of minds onto new, genetically enhanced bodies, so the military has taken to recruiting people with an entire lifetime’s experience, giving them enhanced bodies, and sending them off to fight against alien races. Survivors get set up with a new, un-enhanced body and a position in a colony. Each of the books set in the world, including the two collections of serialized stories that I haven’t yet read, are set in this universe, but told from a different point of view. They are well thought out, snappily-written, and action-packed, as one would expect from Scalzi’s work, and well-worth reading.

Sometime later this week I hope to post the list of stand-alone novels in these genres that I really enjoy. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know what you think I am missing.

Bizarre Dreams

I have a lot of strange dreams, most of which are the sort I’m asleep for rather than being a commentary about my ambitions in life. Among other things, I’ve been chased in airplane crashes, shot in a convenience store parking lot, and chased by dinosaurs. Sometimes there is an alignment with some particular thing going on in my life and I certainly remember the dreams more when I am stressed, something probably related to my tendency to wake frequently through those nights. Dreams are one of those things like fantasy sports, politics, and religion that one should tread carefully about because they are either boring or likely to cause a fight. Still, I had a dream last night that I want to document because it goes beyond any sort of dream logic, cinematic action sequence, or witty repartee.

In this dream I was back in one of my elementary school classrooms. The building has a first floor atrium with four rooms with tall doors and small chairs. The tall doors may be a residual memory from passing through them as a child, but the chairs were normal-sized back then. In this dream, I was back in class in the room through the near door on the left as you walk into the atrium from the front of the building. This was the room I was in for first and second grade, I think. In the dream, I was sitting in the little chairs at the little tables, but at my current age, knowing everything I know now, as the teacher lectured us on Greek history. I was in the class and going to be graded on…something. That part of the dream is fuzzy. I also have no idea why we were getting a simple, but legitimate lecture on Greek history in first grade, except that what the teacher was saying was wrong and I was getting mad. But I was in first grade and correcting what was being said was going to count against my grade. Why there were stringent grades is another good question.

Then I woke up.

This was just a strange dream that built on my insecurities and cast me back into a situation where I no longer belong. It was a strange dream that mashed together a bunch of things I think about on a regular basis, including education and Greek history. If I were to analyze this strange dream it would be that I still daily fight with imposter syndrome, except that, in this case, I knew better than the one who was permitted to speak and had all the authority and I found myself chaffing at this situation. Maybe it is all a metaphor for adult life, or maybe it was just a strange dream compiled by misfiring synapses trying to tell me I need to take a break.

The Surreality of Humanitarian Crises Online

It is depressing to watch on Twitter as humanitarian disasters unfold, again and again and again. It happened in the Tahrir Square protests (and counterrevolution) in Egypt, with Ansar Dine in Mali, the original civil war in Syria, and ongoing refugee crisis. And many more; those were only the ones that have been most on my radar the past couple years. The abject suffering makes the American political discourse, such as holding reviews of Planned Parenthood’s budget without anyone from Planned Parenthood seem like a joke, even as it threatens to pull even more medical care from poor women. These are both rancid fruits, but on different scales. In Syria, a nation that had about 22 million people, there have been about ten million people displaced internally and externally, or about the same number of people executed in the Holocaust. I am not casting judgment, just putting the numbers in context. In a recent fit of helplessness, I donated some money to an organization that is supposed to help bring supplies and care to refugees from Syria.

I have a set of Google Alerts set up for places associated with my dissertation topic, just so that I can stay abreast of what comes up. Ephesus alerts usually consist of Ephesus lighting and bible references or tourism, but updates about Chios for more than a year have brought back a steady stream of stories about refugees making it to Greece. Recently, though, there has been an uptick in awareness of the refugee crisis, in large part because of children drowning at sea, refugees suffocating in the back of trucks, and the Macedonian government tear gassing migrants, not to mention Balkan states closing their train stations to migrants, quota plans being pushed forward in Europe. This is just a snapshot, with other stories coming out about Australia and Canada and many other countries, including Lebanon.

Other people have done a much more thorough job than I can hope to do chronicling the conflict, including Thomas van Linge, a nineteen year old Dutch activist who compiles some of the best maps of the Syrian conflict currently available. However, I want to give just a bit of a overview in light of the news that Turkish tanks have moved into Cizre, a town in Turkey near the Syrian border. This will consist of nothing more than a list of groups involved and who they are ostensibly shooting at, and without the nuance of, for instance, differentiating between Syrian rebel groups.

Group : shooting at
France : ISIS
Australia : ISIS
Canada : ISIS [Civilians, accidentally and probably not in isolation]
Russia : ISIS, Syrian Rebels
Israel : ??? in retaliation for shelling the Golan. Possibly Syrian government forces of Hezbollah. The Syrian government says they were civilians, Israel says they were Iranians.¯_(ツ)_/¯
Syrian Government : Syrian Rebels, ISIS
Hezbollah : Syrian Rebels, ISIS [on behalf of Asad]
Syrian Rebels : Syrian Government, ISIS
ISIS : Iraqi Government, Syrian Rebels, Syrian Government, Kurds, everyone shooting at them
Kurds : Syrian Government, Turkey [at least the PKK is], ISIS
Turkey : ISIS, PKK

The refugees are not leaving willy-nilly, but are fleeing a brutal conflict that is literally tearing apart the fabric of their home. Not of the nation state, the ship for which has sailed, but of their homes. The reason I’m posting this now is that Turkey has just stepped up its attacks, amid warnings that it, too, is facing a civil war, and the ceasefire between the military and the PKK has dissolved. Meanwhile, the US has sent warnings to Turkey that their airstrikes have been too close to where US soldiers have been training Kurdish Peshmerga. To make matters worse, this is a conflict that includes not just small-arms fire and roadside bombs, but tanks, drone and aircraft strikes, and chemical weapons and is taking place in the space around what used to be considered the Iraq-Syria border, but now obeys only the lines on the map that are enforced through force of arms. Everyone is seemingly shooting at everyone and millions of civilians have been caught in the cross-fire. At this point I have been watching it all unfold on Twitter for years.

The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (August Reading Recap)

For reasons that included a trip to Utah and a whole lot of academic stuff that needed to happen before the start of the semester (even being on fellowship this year), I only read one book in August, Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel, The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk’s books also take a while to read because they defy being read quickly, at least for me. I need to be in a place and time that I can be sucked in.

Kemal Bey is the scion of upper crust of the Istanbul bourgeoisie and in a good place in 1975. He is thirty, manages his father’s business, and is about to be engaged to Sibel, his “steady” girlfriend. The way that Kemal tells it, the “steady” is important because it is the only way to be sexually active before marriage without frequenting prostitutes, despite that Sibel and her friends aspire to be liberated western women. The engagement party is going to be the event of the year where anybody who is anybody will be there and most of the black market western booze in the city will be served. But the reader knows that this happy, ho-hum existence cannot last, since, in the very first paragraph of The Museum of Innocence, Kemal declares that a sexual encounter with Füsun was the happiest moment of his life.

At first Kemal is what passes for normal. He has his important and beautiful girlfriend, his company, and his life. Then, while in a shop, he runs into Füsun, a distant relative who he hasn’t seen in years. She is eighteen and studying for her exams, so Kemal, inflamed by what he calls love, but that I would describe as lust, offers to tutor her. Naturally, their tutoring sessions mostly involve sex, and Kemal’s life continues with only minor interruption. When this routine is broken and Füsun disappears, Kemal’s life falls apart, becoming estranged from his fiancee, his friends, his business partners, and eventually his family. His only obsession is finding her. When he does finally find her, Füsun is married and still living with her family, and Kemal worms his way into their life. The process takes eight years and only at the end is there any prospect of payoff. Along this journey Kemal begins to collect items associated with Füsun and uses them as a surrogate for being near to her. These objects form the seeds of the collection of the eponymous museum, which opened in 2012.

This is the barest outline of the story and it feels inadequate. I excluded entire plot points, such as the profound changes wrought by deaths in the family, that Füsun was molested as a child, the founding of a movie studio, details of Füsun’s (probably happy) marriage, and Kemal’s teaching Füsun how to drive. The story may be divided into five phases, the initial lust, madness of loss, patience, love, and remembrance, each from the point of view of Kemal, though, as is often the case with Pamuk’s work, the narrator is not necessarily the narrator.

Early in the reading of The Museum of Innocence I hated Kemal, liked Füsun ( who is mature beyond her years), and loved the fiancee Sibel, and was bemused that Pamuk would offer this shallow man who seemed determined to throw away his happy life because he lusted after a beautiful eighteen year old woman as his protagonist. His love, he maintains, inflamed him and was inescapable, but it is petty, jealous, and more interested in possessing her physically than anything else. Over the course of years, though, that seems to change, still lusting, but also developing into something deeper and more sincere, at least in how he narrates the story. Ironically, Füsun doesn’t ever seem to appreciate the change, while her mother seems to have seen the love from the outset. This whirlwind of perspectives even while having a single narrator is something I associate with Pamuk’s writing and was particularly true in The Museum of Innocence as the reader gets selective entree into the other viewpoints and for large swathes of the story characters who were likely present simply disappear from the retelling as the narrator obsesses over his out-of-reach object. For instance, Kemal says that he thinks that Füsun’s marriage was happy sexually in its early years, but, while narrating those years, her husband is a non-entity, being written out by Kemal who would rather not think about that.

The facet of the story that I found most moving was the underlying premise that everybody wants something and, frequently, that desired object is out of reach. The most blatant is Kemal’s pursuit of Füsun, but Sibel wants a “normal” marriage, Füsun wants to be an actress, Kemal’s mother wants her son not to embarrass the family, his father wants him to be happy (and many more). Everybody wants something and each of these desires is at least deferred. Kemal manages to reach a point of acceptance, others are less fortunate.

I really liked Museum of Innocence and want to talk at greater length about Pamuk’s oeuvre, probably after I finish reading my current book, his novel The New Life (and possibly one other). Something that hit me about the novels is that, even though they are not a series, Pamuk has populated Istanbul with characters that continually crop up in different ways in different stories, which has a way of enriching the stories in small ways because the the streets, the shops, the stories, and the newspaper columns are familiar. These are not merely easter eggs for the astute reader, but compose the fabric of the story.

I took a MOOC

Sometimes things happen incrementally. I signed up for Coursera back in 2013, because I felt uncomfortable critiquing online classes without having experienced them myself, but it was not until this summer that I finally signed up for a course. I liked it, for the most part.

The course I chose was the ten-week “Programming for Everybody (Python),” a crash-course in Python run by the University of Michigan’s Charles Severance. The premise of the course is that programming is a life-skill for people in the digital age, so people should know the basics of how to program computers and can figure out applications for the skill later. [Of course, when I told my brother, a programmer, about the course, his immediate question was ‘what are you going to do with that’? and I didn’t have a great answer because I was doing this for a skill more than for a goal. More on this below.] Severance is a big-time advocate of MOOCs and digital and online learning and that enthusiasm carried over to the course, probably contributing to its popularity among Coursera’s offerings.

“Programming for Everybody” had four weekly components, two informative and two graded, and a final exam, as well as some added bonuses that I either wasn’t interested in or didn’t have time for (I am trying to finish my dissertation in a timely fashion, after all). Each week consisted of a video-lecture (posted to the course and to Youtube) based on one of the chapters of the textbook, which was available for download. The graded components were short quizzes (ten question, multiple choice) based on the lecture and book and a programming assignment that was graded on the ability of the code to spit out the correct answer. The final was a cumulative, longer version of the quizzes. None of these assignments were timed and the tests and quizzes could be retaken multiple times, with the graded score being the most recent (rather than highest, I think) of the allowed attempts. Some of the programming assignments were a little tricky as they became more complicated, but all were quite doable and the class forums were helpful when I checked them out.

All in all, it was a good experience with the course. I learned quite a bit and while parts of it felt like a breeze, there were points at which I had to put in real effort in order to move forward. Sometimes this was simple things like having difficulty distinguishing between a comma and a period in the video, other times it was more than that. However, I will also admit a bad habit that I found myself slipping back into. Whenever I felt like I was able to “just get by” with the lecture and/or simple logic, I would eschew looking at the textbook or pushing myself to learn these things more fundamentally. Repetition mostly like would push to me memorize some of the formulae, but as long as I could use my notes, I used my notes.

Still, the course is designed for beginners and one cannot walk away from it claiming to actually be a programmer, but it is designed so that the student can take the next step and the book offers an avenue for a motivated student to continue practicing his or her programming beyond the course. Just this week, I received an email that there are plans to expand the offerings, making a four-course specialization in Python that will complete the textbook, as well as opening up a larger specialization for web-design offered by the same department.

What I liked:

  1. Multiple choice quizzes, which were all based on factual information that allowed the student to progress through the course. I do not like the idea of basing the majority of a course grade on these, but I am becoming increasingly convinced of the necessity to mix this sort of online component in intro-courses to help reinforce facts and details. This can’t be the purpose of the course, but a necessary foundation to do more advanced work.
  2. Picking up from number one, all the quizzes allowed multiple attempts (I don’t think I used more than two). I liked that this applied the principle that the best way to learn is to undergo try-fail cycles until you get the desired result, something that too few of the brick-and-mortar courses I have seen do.
  3. The weekly assignment, which were admittedly eased by there being a “correct answer” that could be graded by the auto-grader, gave the students something to work on the principles applied. Each one took between half an hour and an hour and a half, and I came away feeling that there needs to be some sort of course regardless of the course structure. These assignments were also graded on either having been done or not, which I appreciated, but when in a course without “right” answers, how much the students get out of this sort of assignment is more ambiguous.
  4. There was a lively forum, with active participants, respondents, and instructors. This is the ideal for online courses and would be a perfect surrogate for class discussion and a weekly assignment…except that worry the dynamic would change if the forum ceased to be a semi-spontaneous discussion for people looking for help and became another piece of necessary drudgery attached to the course.
  5. The youtube lectures were well-constructed, with both an image of the professor at a computer and the “slides” where the work was happening. There was clearly editing to clean up the presentation and the slides, but enough errors were left in and/or corrected in the flow of the presentation. The length was also good, not being uniformly 24 minutes, but ranging from 20 to 40.
  6. There were also joint online, face-to-face meet-ups that functioned as office hours and made the professor seem fully available to the students. I never looked into these, but the feeling of access was nice.

Things I didn’t like:

  1. Despite how well the course was made accessible, I didn’t like the feeling of being voyeuristically tapping in from afar. Now, I approached the course as an exercise in self-education so it wasn’t a problem in the sense that I got what I wanted out of the course, but I don’t like this feeling for a course. It was totally distinct from actually feeling as though I was attending a class or schooling.

Programming for Everybody is one of the top Coursera offerings for a reason and it is exceptionally well constructed. It also benefitted from being a course that required people to do their work on the computer, so I blocked out time, used a google doc for notes, and then did my work in a text-editor. I could see myself becoming easily distracted if the whole course didn’t require the same direct interaction with the computer. The other big feature of this sort of course, particularly if it is added onto an already hectic life, rather than the other way around (at least in theory) is that real life time did not always correspond with the course time. Sometimes this was a benefit because I could do the assignment a bit later, but one time I had to do two weeks of work in two days in order to get ready for a vacation. It is designed to do that, but there was a real possibility of falling behind and never catching up. Ultimately, though, the course gave a lot of opportunities, but I did feel more acutely than in on-site courses that I could have gotten more out of the course if I just did a little more work. This is something I expect to do in the future, but I didn’t while taking the course. Similarly, there wasn’t really the opportunity to benefit from peer interaction that showing up at a class every week at least theoretically offers.

One final thought I had as a student in this course is that it worked really well for skills -based courses, for all the reasons laid out above. Skills are something that can be improved by group learning, but, in something like this, either you can do it or you can’t and it is all about you. Humanities courses offer skills, but they are more nebulous and are better cultivated in groups and in discussion. A smaller online course might circumvent this concern since there is a little more intimacy and personal attention, and an online course would probably work pretty well for learning a “dead” language like Latin, but cutting away the human from the humanities seems to defeat the purpose on some fundamental level. This isn’t to say that lecture are perfect, since they are a microcosm of the MOOC model, but you can still go shake hands at the end of class and, somehow, that seems important on a psychic level.

I am certainly open to taking another course, including the later Python courses and the other programming courses, but also perhaps some of the literature or humanities courses to see how they deal with the issues raised above.