You don’t eat brunch. You do brunch.
I took a break from reading War and Peace to breeze through Ternikar’s slim history of Brunch from its origins in Great Britain in the late 1800s to its global phenomenon.
Although it began in Great Britain, Ternikar shows that Brunch took root in the United States. One vector, epitomized by french toast, entered through New Orleans, while another, with Eggs Benedict, came through New York. In both cases, brunch began as am meal enjoyed only by the elite because it required leisure time that few could afford. From these beginnings, though, brunch became a middle class and even working class meal, one that still went hand-in-hand with relaxation, but also that offered freedom for women because it combined two meals into one, thereby limiting the number of dishes that were used and freeing time for families. The combination of leisure and pomp associated brunch with church and weddings, as a time for people to mingle and eat, and culture manuals described how it was the perfect opportunity for single women to socialize with married friends. And, of course, day drinking features prominently.
Brunch consists of five short chapters: history, cultural importance, brunch at home, away from home, and in popular culture. Ternikar draws extensively on and quotes think pieces, culture manuals and magazines that both support and oppose the phenomenon, which frequently makes it a lively read. Themes such as luxury, relaxation, female activity, all appear clearly in these chapters. I enjoyed reading Brunch, but had some questions about the choices in putting the book together. For instance, I found the black and white images that are drawn from internet sources rather than, say, from field research to take away from overall product. I also found that the author did well to show the breadth of brunch in popular culture and around the world, but it also makes the book repetitious.
I’ve been interested in collective reputations for martial prowess for a long time. I even once wrote a misguided blog post on the topic that misrepresented Sparta and Spartans in a way that is uniquely suited to an overly-exuberant, young, American man. My opinions on that particular topic have come a long way since then, but the general interest in the concept remains. This sort of thinking has been long ingrained through years of table top gaming and reading hierarchically-minded science fiction and fantasy that frequently has an underpinning of principles that mirror scientific racism, but that is perhaps a topic for another post. What I find interesting from a historical perspective is not why the groups were militarily successful (or even if they were), but how, when and why these reputations for being a “martial race” develop.
My current fun read is an English translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is set during the Napoleonic Wars. I have completed book one, which concludes with the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. At the battle, Napoleon’s army convincingly destroyed the joint armies of Austria and Russia.
Thus far I have appreciated the timelessness of Tolstoy’s battle descriptions. I will write up longer thoughts when I finish the novel, but a passing comment in the first book stood out. At a party where a number of Russian officers discuss the Napoleon’s progress, one of them flippantly dismisses the French victories on the grounds that they were only fighting against Germans. On the one hand, this is part of the characterization of a young man full of bluster, but, on the other, it speaks to a broader stereotype of Germans as militarily inept that, even in the years that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, Otto von Bismark (among others) swept away.
Although this instance in War and Peace is meant to downplay French successes, but the story goes on to demonstrate that not only are the Germans unable to stop Napoleon, but he also defeats the Russian army. The juxtaposition is stark on all these points. The French reputation against the German, and the way in which both of the reputations flipped—-so much so that a Google search for “French Military Victories” used to autocorrect to “did you mean French Military Defeats” and a website that tried to show that every French military victory was attributable to people who were not actually French. But therein lies the rub: these are reputations and reputations change based on a host of factors that are only loosely connected to reality.
Rabbits and Boa Constrictors – Fazil Iskander
….a stubby boa suddenly interrupted the Great Python. This particular boa was known for his unceasing inquisitiveness, which had already led him to swallow bananas instead of rabbits, and he had even had the audacity to convince others that they were rather tasty. Fortunately, none of the other boas followed this example of free thinking. Nevertheless, the Great Python found unpleasant, almost a morally depraved freak.
In the plains and forests of Africa there are all manner of creatures, including monkeys, rabbits, boa constrictors, and the natives. They all inhabit roughly the same territory, but each lives in its own society. The kingdom of the Boa Constrictors is ruled by The Great Python, Tsar of the Boas, and famed for his prowess in hunts, with his lair decorated with the trophies that include the Native in the Prime of his Life. The other boas respect and fear their ruler and prepare food for him, usually by hypnotizing their favorite prey, rabbits. On the other end of the spectrum, the rabbits live in a society where the king preserves his position through fear of the boas and hope of the delicious cauliflower being developed with the natives in secret fields. Even the royal banner is a head of cauliflower. The king hosts orgies in his palace most nights and his rewards his immediate circle lavishly from the royal coffers, but most of the population is kept in check through fear of the boas, a fear that is managed by mathematical proofs that if the rabbits multiply then the odds diminish that any one rabbit will be eaten by the boas.
The relationship between the boas and the rabbits, while not peaceful, is stable and to the satisfaction of both rulers, but both fear the same disruption: that the rabbits will no longer accept their position in this relationship. It is for this reason that the Great Python has decreed that the greatest crime a boa can commit is to allow a rabbit go once swallowed. Squinter, a one-eyed boa, knows this punishment all too well, and when detailing it to a younger colleague, he is overheard by Ponderer, a rabbit who is better at thinking about the world than he is at farming. Ponderer determines that boa hypnosis is nothing more than rabbits being afraid and tells this to the community. Although he is betrayed by the king, his mantle is taken up by Yearner and the rabbit kingdom is thrown into disarray. The normal rabbits learn that they do not need the king to protect them from the boas and it is become increasingly apparent that the cauliflower is not forthcoming. Both societies adapt, but eventually both sides conclude that things were better in the old days.
Rabbits and Boa Constrictors, first published in 1989 is an allegory about political societies, albeit without overt reference to specific countries or economic systems. Both systems present in the book use fear and promises of luxury to keep the populations from thinking about how much better their lives could be. Manipulation is the overriding theme, but the stratifications and evils of manipulation are more pronounced in the rabbit kingdom. The inner circle indulge in food and pleasures of the flesh, while he exploits the ambitions of rabbits to keep others in check and to ensure that troublemakers are taken care of. At the same time, the king has constructed an elaborate web of guards and guards of the guards that he feels he must micromanage to keep his position. Potential voices of opposition receive literal carrots to keep quiet and everyone else gets promises of cauliflower, and a pseudo-scientific calculations about the boas to keep And yet, the precautions are all for naught.
The core moral of Rabbits and Boa Constrictors would seem to be to not allow societies strictures and superstitions to keep one from being free thinking. Yet both societies go into something of a decline as a result of free thought, and food becomes scarce. While this might indicate that free thinking also entails some measure of danger, in both cases it is not the free thought itself, but the lengths taken by the state to resist that thought that brings about the decline. Iskander is also not one for giving a single clear message in this book, but prefers to offer more questions and issues than answers. Rabbits and Boa Constrictors was a quick and enjoyable read that gives plenty to think on.
Next up I decided to challenge myself (again) and jumped into War and Peace. I am about 10% in and not yet regretting the decision entirely, but we will see when I get to read something else, particularly given that the new semester is about to start.
My 2016 – Listicle
My slate of year-end posts has been delayed because of holiday family and travel, but will be rolling out over the next several days. In the spirit of routines and trying to buck some of the frustration that comes with this season, I am again putting out a series of reflection and planning posts, including this listicle, a reflective essay on 2016, by the numbers, best of 2016, and a new one that will be strictly dedicated to writing and academia.
Getting back into the swing of things Last Year’s list.
Lists for 2016/2017:
Three international news stories I’m following going into this year
- Trump’s impending Presidency and the global ripple effect
- Ongoing crises in Turkey, including terrorist attacks, the war in Syria, and centralization of power
- Refugee crisis, particularly with the rest of Europe sending refugees back to Greece.
5 Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading [To my shame, there are three repeats from 2016, as I only managed to hit two of the books last time]
- Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
- Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
- 1493, Charles A. Mann
- Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig
- Silent House, Orhan Pamuk
Two books I once started, but didn’t finish…that I’d like to give another shot in 2016 [I knocked two books off this list, plus War and Peace in 2016]
- Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
- Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Seven Favorite Books I read in 2016
- Seven Madmen, Roberto Arlt
- The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
- The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama
- Basti, Intizar Husain
- The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin
- The Post Office Girl, Stefan Zweig
- The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
- Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Three new-to-me music groups I found in 2016
- The Honeycutters
- The Dustbowl Revival
The Plague – Albert Camus
They went on doing business, arranged journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.
Looking at them, you had an impression that for the first time in their lives they were becoming, as some would say, weather-conscious. A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and their mood. A few weeks before, they had been free of this absurd subservience to the weather, because they had not to face life alone; the person they were living with held, to some extent, the foreground of their little world. But from now on it was different; they seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices—-in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally.
No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.
Albert Camus is an author whose work I have been making my way through starting about three years ago when I read his treatise The Rebel. The Plague is now added to a list that also includes The Stranger and the short story collection The Stranger and the Kingdom.
Oran is a vibrant community until an outbreak of bubonic plague throws the town into disarray, first as people do not understand why their loved ones are dying and then when the city is quarantined to prevent the epidemic from spreading. The Plague addresses how a community confronts such an outbreak, both in the immediate form of an agonizing death and the accompanying psychic trauma. Although it is a story about the community at large, it mostly follows the efforts of the narrator, Doctor Rieux and his band of friends, including the journalist Raymond Rembert and the clerk Joseph Grand, in their efforts to combat the plague and ease human suffering when all else fails. Rembert, a French journalist trapped in the quarantined city, is particularly interesting in this regard, since he is desperate to get back to his wife.
I like this review about the continuing importance of The Plague, for what it says about physical and psychic epidemics in the modern world, but am not prepared to offer a detailed analysis of the book myself. I found it hard to appreciate The Plague as a novel, feeling largely detached from the events as though it was a philosophical allegory instead of a story. This is not without good reason. The Plague is about physical suffering, but it is also an allegory about fascism. Another way of saying this is that I liked The Plague as philosophy, but not as a novel, for which it alternated between scenes of brilliant poignancy and ones that just got in the way. (As a novel, I much preferred The Stranger.) That said, I’m not certain that The Plague would work as philosophy, but the mixture just didn’t quite work for me.
Next up, I am nearly finished with Fazil Iskander’s Rabbits and Boa Constrictors, a tale about two competing social systems, with some intrepid inhabitants of both being frustrated with what their peers regard as an ideal society.
Sometimes I hate peer-review
Publishing academic articles sometimes feels to me like a painful roast, where you polish and polish and polish before sending it into the ether and being told some weeks or months later all the ways in which your work sucks. I am being hyperbolic.
Publishing peer-reviewed articles is difficult. According to some more senior academics, it is one of the hardest jobs they have to do. At my current place in this labyrinth, I certainly agree with the assessment. Not only are the standards exacting and the reviewers charged with being tough, and the work is unpaid, yet necessary to even have the hope of achieving the academic-unicorn, a tenure-track professorship. Getting a positive review caused me to be overwhelmed not with joy, but relief; a rejection letter is a visceral gut-punch.
I have gotten two such rejections this summer, the uncovering the most recent this afternoon while clearing out my inbox after coming back from a trip. Both sets of reviewer comments have been harsh, but the process has been straightforward, prompt, and professional. I do not feel that the feedback is misguided other than perhaps one point where I disagree with the comments, but can probably articulate the point. In other words, I have no peer-review horror stories. I have only my own emotions.
Hate is a strong word, but most simply and directly encapsulates the pain, frustration, exhaustion and embarrassment that comes along with this sort of rejection letter. And then the niggling specter of doubt creeps in about my ability to really do this sort of work. Adding to this frustration is that both submissions this summer were parts of my dissertation. I am taking a small victory in that neither piece was rejected out of hand, but there is still the sting of having spent so much time on these submissions.
The addendum to this post is that I also have a deep appreciation for peer review and my interactions with the system this summer have been overwhelmingly helpful for where I can take these projects. The feedback has been harsh and the submissions found lacking for the journals I submitted to, but most readers have offered genuinely helpful, positive feedback, pointing out things in my submissions that would leave me embarrassed (or worse) if they were to appear in print.
I am despondent when I get this news. Certainly it doesn’t help my anxiety or my frustration, but, mostly, it just leaves me exhausted. The letter, as always, has me questioning what motivates me to put myself through the wringer yet again because I know that I will. It isn’t the euphoric high of an acceptance, because that leaves me nearly as tired. It isn’t just an academic career because I could do everything else right and never get the whiff of one of those. At the end of the day I am going to put myself out there again because I have something I want to say.
Marcovaldo or the seasons in the city – Italo Calvino
In an unnamed north Italian city there is an unskilled worker named Marcovaldo with his wife Domitilla and many children. In the early 1950s the economy is particularly bad and Marcovaldo’s job at Sbav and co barely puts food on the table. But Marcovaldo is irrepressible, indulging in flights of fancy all the while looking for the natural world. By the 1960s the economy seems to be doing well, but Marcovaldo’s family still struggles and the newfound prosperity mostly succeeds in blotting out the simple things that he enjoys.
Marcovaldo is a series of twenty stories arranged in the cycles of seasons (Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter) that play out over a decade in the city. Other than being set in the same city and following the fantasies of Marcovaldo, a simple man who tries to help people, there is no overarching plot to this book. As such, Calvino relies on the strength of the individual stories, but I found them to be somewhat inconsistent. They are brilliant and poignant at their best, such as in “Mushrooms in the City” where Marcovaldo harvests mushrooms to eat and “Moon and GNAC” where modern advertising that features blinking lights obscures the moon. But others, such as “A journey with the cows,” where his son became a cowherd temporarily, the morals were resonant with the rest of the collection, but the story itself was somewhat lackluster.
There is an underlying economic narrative and an exploration of humans and their environment. The themes Calvino draws on are serious, but he spins them out with typical lightness and sense of whimsy. The sense of wonder is heightened because Marcovaldo is not corrupted by the gravity of the world, approaching everything with childlike wonder.
I enjoyed Marcovaldo and some of the individual vignettes were remarkable, but its very levity and lack of a strong plot meant that I didn’t revel in the story as much as I have with some of Calvino’s other books.
Next up, I started reading Albert Camus’ The Plague this afternoon.