The White Lioness – Henning Mankell

My father used to say about detective fiction that one sign that a series had gone off the rails was when the plot went international. The theory as I understood it is that mystery novels are both about solving the crimes and about evoking a sense of time and place. This holds true whether you are looking at classic fiction like Dashiel Hammet or recent books by authors like Archer Mayor. Even if the place changes, the story is strongest when it stays relatively local. Henning Mankel’s Wallander series violates this principle at every turn.

April 1992, Wallander catches a case when a local real estate agent Louise Åkerblom goes missing. Confusion grows when the police discover the finger of a black man. And then the house explodes. It turns out that Åkerblom was murdered because she stumbled upon a house where a former KGB (Konovalenko)is training an African assassin. Wallander must now learn the identity of both the assassin and the handler. Things become complicated, however, because of a falling out between the two, and each thinking to use Wallander as a conduit to the other. This game turns more deadly when the Konovalenko decides to use Wallander’s daughter as a lever. Now there are two clocks against which he is racing.

The White Lioness is not much of a mystery. In the strictest sense it is one for Wallander, but in terms of genre it reads like a spy-thriller, bouncing between the plotters and the people trying to catch them. The tension is not whodunit or why, but in the cat-and-mouse game itself. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the book reads like The Day of the Jackal awkwardly grafted onto the Wallander setting.

The White Lioness is the second Wallander book I have read after The Dogs of Riga. Both books are firmly rooted in the events that followed the end of the Cold War, this time focusing on the end of Apartheid in South Africa. It is revealed early on that Sweden is a convenient training ground because of lax border security and proximity to Russia, and the plot one concocted by a radical Boere element in South Africa to subvert the government that is ending apartheid. Despite most of the story being set in Sweden, the Swedish element primarily serves as the way into the story, while the criminals in particular are of non-Swedish origin. My complaints about The Dogs of Riga, including the sense that Wallander is being yanked through events and over-reliance of happenstance are magnified in The White Lioness and I am no closer to developing a sense of Ystad than I was before. I had taken another book in the series from the library, but after this somewhat lackluster experience I probably not going to read it any time soon.

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Recently I finished Yasher Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk, but don’t have enough to say for a full post. Memed, My Hawk is a modern-day folktale set in rural Turkey in the 1920s. Memed is a young man from a poor family who wants more for himself—including to marry Hatche, who is betrothed to the nephew of the town headman. This intensifies Memed’s longstanding conflict with the headman, Abdi Agha, and Memed is forced to turn bandit. The question is whether the life of an outlaw will destroy Memed’s inherent goodness or whether he can become a hero of the people. Memed, My Hawk invokes a time and a place in Turkey, but I found it wanting in terms of characters. Memed is the closest to having depth, but mostly serves as a modern Robin Hood, with Hatche his Maid Marian and Abdi Agha his Sheriff of Nottingham. Everyone else in the story is an unchanging archetype. There were individual moments that lived up to the book’s billing, but I was by and large more frustrated than enthralled.

I am now reading Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, the latest installment in his The Stormlight Archive of doorstoppers.

How I Write

My most recent on-again, off-again book (i.e. things I read out of a desire for professional development, but wouldn’t label as “fun” and don’t always have time for in the course of “work”) is Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: how successful academics write (2017). The overriding theme of the book is that there is that there is no one right way to write. Instead, she creates a formula called B.A.S.E. from behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional habits that serves as equal parts analytical took for talking about writing and self-assessment rubric. The details of your writing experience, Sword says, are less important than the shape and size of your BASE–with each category rated on a scale from 1 to 10–which forms the foundation for your “House of Writing.”

Inspired by the types of questions Sword asked her interview subjects and the BASE formula, I figured it could be useful to run diagnostics on how I write. This is a long post, so anyone not interested in writing process would be forgiven for skipping the rest.

Continue reading How I Write

Preparing for class and my undergraduate experience

The process of preparing for class makes me try to remember about my undergraduate courses. In terms of specifics, the answer is not much. Obviously I absorbed a good deal of content that I am now able to speak with varying levels of confidence about, but much less stands out about the actual classes.

Take, for instance, the equivalent of the course that I am now teaching—a survey of Greek history. I remember my professor’s opening spiel about the etymology of history and how it comes from a root that has to do with judgement, I remember bantering with a friend of mine who also went on to get a PhD in ancient history, and I remember one of the other students making a diorama from wax sculptures after taking the wax from individually wrapped cheese “cuties.” And some of those memories could easily be from other classes with this professor.

Most of all, though, I remember loving the class (and other classes like it) because the professor gave us room to explore long sections of ancient sources, even to the extent of seeming disconnected and disorganized. In fact, I remember having an argument with a fellow student in a class in another department altogether because this student hated the disorganization, feeling that it meant that she wasn’t learning anything. I vehemently disagreed at the time, which was something of a running theme in a course that had us working in a group for most of the semester. Believe it or not, we actually worked pretty well as a team.

Before laying blame on the professor, though, reflection shows this limitation of my memory is true even in courses with amazing lecturers. For instance, I have clearer memories about my favorite college lecturer declaring that blue exam booklets were the ideal form for writing lectures in, the fact that the Anatolian peninsula is, north to south, the international measurement unit “one Kansas,” and his apologies for the boring but necessary excursuses on medieval agriculture. Or that in the last week of class he never failed to take a photograph with a disposable camera and that I invariably left class every day with an aching hand. That pain and some later sweat ensures that I can go back to my notes if necessary, but, once again, I don’t remember much at any given moment.

I could go on, but there is one particular exception: language classes. The memories are almost certainly just as flawed, but I remember the act of being there, the feel and the look of the book chapters, and all of the things Homer taught to his brother. More to the point, my memories of language courses are clearer regardless of whether I liked or disliked the teaching styles of the professors. I don’t know why, exactly—maybe I found languages more difficult and so the classes left a deeper impression or the way that I learned the languages was tied to the classroom in a way that history never war—but the division in my memories is real.

Obviously I learned facts from these courses that, ten years later, have been baked into the collection of knowledge tucked into the dusty corners of my mind or else that I have forgotten. I also learned note-taking skills, research habits, a critical eye for source criticism, and something of writing. (Less by way of common sense, however, even if one of the professors mentioned above did try to warn me off of graduate school.)

I think about all of this when I am preparing for my own class. My class is just too large to toss the textbook in favor of embracing the glorious confusion of reading sources together, and I feel some responsibility cover a certain number of topics in a survey of Greek history. I tend, therefore, to err on the side of structured lectures with a powerpoint presentation modeled on the US history survey courses that form the large portion of the teaching styles I have seen in recent years. There is only so much that can be covered, so, in this sense, I look to give students a taste along with some tools to learn more.

At the same time, though, I think back to being encouraged to engage in forms of source analysis and informal, seminar-style debate with great fondness. Unstructured though those may have been, they also reflected active learning at its finest. As much as this form of class worked for me, ironically, it often takes a leap of faith for me to try it from the other side of the table (so to speak). I will probably never abandon lectures altogether in a class like this where there are details that I hope will encourage students to go out and learn more, but at the same time I am always looking for new activities where the students can grapple with the primary material together or on their own because, more than the lectures, that is often what I remember being most useful from my undergraduate experience. This experience didn’t do me any favors in terms of downloading and debating historiography for graduate school, but in the more universal tasks of evaluating how a source is presenting the world and challenging its prevailing biases, it is absolutely essential.

The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky is the third book in the trilogy, so my discussion will include references to the previous two books, as well as commentary on the series as a whole. There may be spoilers.

The end is nearing, perhaps a permanent end. The moon is approaching, and it is up to Nassun and Essun to decide how the Plutonic Engine is going to be used, returning to Father Earth his long lost child—or ending the aeons-long war with a bang. Essun controls the key to the engine, the Onyx obelisk, but the system has an override at an island city called Corepoint in the middle of an ocean on the far side of the world. There the showdown between mother and daughter will take place.

The main narrative unfolds through Essun and Nassun’s twin story lines. First Essun. After her exertions in The Obelisk Gate, Essun fell into a coma and awakens to discover her world changed. Not only is Castrima on the move in a race to inhabit the now-depopulated city Rennanis, but now using orogeny causes her limbs to turn to stone—a process already underway. Essun simultaneously has to further her knowledge about how to use the engine and come to grips with her newly-imposed limitations. Almost despite herself, though, Essun has her friends, including her Stone Eater Hoa, the inventor Tonkee, and lorist, cum-conscript general, cum strongback laborer Danel. They will help Essun however they can.

As befits her childhood, Nassun’s story is more straight-forward. She is resolute in her determination to destroy the moon, carrying out the wish of Steel, “her” Stone Eater. Despite the dangers of a trip through the earth on a long-forgotten transportation system, Schaffa refuses to leave her side. This trip, which will take him near to Warrant (the Seasonal home of Guardians), and destroy him utterly.

Like its predecessor, The Stone Sky introduces a new plot thread that serves as the keystone in the overarching story being told by Hoa. Thousands of years in the past there were no stone eaters, no orogenes, and no seasons. In Syl Anagist life was sacred and the millions of people built the Plutonic Engine to harness the power of “Geoarcanity” by harnessing the power of life into an endlessly efficient system. This will herald in a perfect society that will reduce the number of people who need to be exploited to an absolute minimum. Of course any system requires some sacrifice. Each element of the Plutonic Engine (the obelisks) have to be infused with the life energies of the apostate Niess, a defeated people who were capable of manipulating these energies, and initiated by genetically modified, supposedly sterile people called Tuners capable of using both this magic and orogeny.

But just as Icarus flew too close to the sun, the people of Syl Anagist dug too deep and pushed too far. The consequences were dire, starting a war with Father Earth that threatens to destroy humanity.

Despite the central importance of the mother-daughter relationship over the course of The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin is at her best when tackling questions of exploitation. Some of these, such as Schaffa’s relationship with his charges, function as surrogate parent-child interactions, but more often they operate on system levels, such as the suspension of powerfully-orogenic children in stations to reduce seismic activity. Here, in addition to explaining the origins of the conflict, the entirety of the new plot arc asks the question whether it is possible to build a society without exploitation. The answer, obviously, is no.

The Stone Sky is a little bit slow in pulling the divergent threads together and at times substitutes answering questions about the world in place of plot development on the main plot. This is a function its structure, i.e. that it is Hoa explaining information to Essun’s final form, and the setup from the earlier books in the series that started with the characters apart. Thus in addition to the origins of the conflict, we learn about dead-civ ruins, the secrets of Guardians, and origins of Stone Eaters in this book. The Stone Sky is not merely an info-dump, all the same. First, the answers are all to questions raised earlier in the series and, second, the answers come from stories. All the same, the pacing of The Stone Sky is notable because it is fundamentally a race against time with the total apocalypse one of the potential outcomes.

For those people who delay reading a series until they know whether the author sticks the landing: Jemisin does. I would not be surprised if it does not complete the three-peat of Hugo awards, but it is nevertheless a deeply satisfying conclusion to a brilliant series.

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Next up, I broke my streak of books written by women when I started reading Yasher Kemal’s modern folktale Memed, My Hawk.

Five Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Blade Runner 2049

I saw Blade Runner 2049 last night and though I would write some thoughts in the form of things I did and didn’t like about the film. This post will contain spoilers, particularly after the first point.

  1. Blade Runner 2049 is absolutely worth seeing on the big screen. Unlike some blockbusters that entice viewers to lay out cash with explosions, though, this film does with scale and attention to detail. This film clearly works from the same template as its predecessor and the overwhelming immensity of its world is a perfect match for for the theater. Most of the fight scenes are subdued, but it makes wonderful use of camera work, including an imaginative sense of scale, use of light and darkness, sound and silence, and an all-around immersive experience that conveyed depth. The same goes for small allusions where, for instance, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) makes an origami ram and Deckard (Harrison Ford) dreams of cheese. The run time is long, but all of that time is used.
  2. Continue reading Five Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Blade Runner 2049

The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin

Note: As the second book of a trilogy, this post will include some mention of the first book, The Fifth Season, including spoilers in a general sense.

The Season initiated by “The Rifting” when the earth split apart and consumed Yumenes and the imperial Fulcrum is well and truly underway. Everything changes in a Season and the mandate now is simple: survive.

Like it’s predecessor, The Obelisk Gate unfolds between multiple story lines. In one, it picks up with the story of Essun in the comm of Castrima, an underground relic of a “deadciv” with mechanical systems that come alive in the presence of Orogenes. Here there is a question of survival. First there is the social experiment of a comm that includes both the outcast orogenes and “Stills” (people without orogeny) that is mostly held together by the headman Ykka, herself an orogene, but balanced precariously with the presence of Stone Eaters who have their own agendas. Alabaster, turning into stone after inciting a cataclysm, is also in Castrima, both reminding Essun of her previous life and demanding that she learn—in order that she finish what he started. But there is another threat to Castrima: an army from the city of Rennanis is approaching, equipped with guardians and guided by a Stone Eater of its own. Despite Castrima’s subterranean nature, this army nevertheless seems to be honing in.

The second storyline follows Jija and Nassun, Essun’s estranged husband and daughter. Jija wants his little girl back, to have her “cured” of orogeny, so he take her south to a place called “Found Moon,” run by three renegade Guardians, including Schaffa, the one who had collected Essun when she was still known as Damaya. Much to Jija’s chagrin, the training she receives only heightens her powers beyond rather than curing it. In time, Nassun (who believes her mother didn’t love her) comes to realize that her father is not capable of loving her unconditionally. His condition is her orogeny—in other words, who she is. Nassun turns instead to Schaffa who loves her and, unbeknownst to Nassun, her mother.

Unlike in The Fifth Season, these two storylines remain distinct in The Obelisk Gate, setting the stage for a potential intersection again in the trilogy’s final volume.

The Obelisk Gate reveals the first big development in the trilogy when it comes to the obelisks, large stone satellites that float in the sky above the world as relics of a long-lost civilization. These…things…pulse with energy that can be tapped into by particularly skilled Orogenes. This idea was introduced in The Fifth Season, but Alabaster reveals to Essun what he learned about their origins in the course their lessons. The obelisks were part of a network of living magic that somehow set the moon from its orbit. Alabaster wants Essun to transcend her Fulcrum training and grasp living magic so that she can access the Obelisk Gate and catch the moon.

Despite suffering a bit from middle trilogy syndrome where it neither introduces something new and exciting nor concludes something major, The Obelisk Gate is a fantastic novel and a worthy Hugo Award winner. Jemisin walks a fine line. She both manages to build upon the impressive scale of the world and is clearly working from the same plot and template in terms of the narrator (her Stone Eater, Hoa), while also jettisoning two thirds of the point of view characters such that the book feels different. I suspect that the conclusion to the series is going to play an outsized role in my final impression of this book because the series-long arc investigating the relationship between mother and daughter begins to come to the fore by the latter parts of The Obelisk Gate.

Since I bought the second and third book in this trilogy at the same time, I put The Obelisk Gate down and picked up The Stone Sky….and have almost finished reading it. Largely for this reason I am holding back on discussion of some of the information that is carefully doled out and will probably write a spoiler-ific post once I have finished the series. For now, I will say the same thing I said about the first book: I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

What is History? – Edward Hallett Carr

This post consists of snippets of wisdom from What is History? by E.H. Carr, that I put out on Twitter over the past few months as I read the book in fits and starts through that period. It is not intended as a review, but does highlight some notable passages and themes, some that I agree with, some that would make for good conversation primer in a class. For people interested in the “meta” aspect of history, it is well worth reading.

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Pericles Making Athens Great

The cause of his authority was not mere words, but, as Thucydides said, the opinion of his life and the honesty of the man, being conspicuously incorruptible and above bribes. And from greatness, [Pericles] made [Athens] the greatest and wealthiest city. [He] far surpassed kings and tyrants in power, some of whom made him the guardian of their sons, but he did not enrich his estate by a single drachma from what his father left him.

Αἰτία δ᾽ οὐχ ἡ τοῦ λόγου ψιλῶς δύναμις, ἀλλ᾽, ὡς Θουκυδίδης φησίν, ἡ περὶ τὸν βίον δόξα καὶ πίστις τοῦ ἀνδρός, ἀδωροτάτου περιφανῶς γενομένου καὶ χρημάτων κρείττονος, ὃς καὶ τὴν πόλιν ἐκ μεγάλης μεγίστην καὶ πλουσιωτάτην ποιήσας, καὶ γενόμενος δυνάμει πολλῶν βασιλέων καὶ τυράννων ὑπέρτερος, ὧν ἔνιοι καὶ ἐπίτροπον τοῖς υἱέσι διέθεντο ἐκεῖνον, μιᾷ δραχμῇ μείζονα τὴν οὐσίαν οὐκ ἐποίησεν ἧς ὁ πατὴρ αὐτῷ κατέλιπε.

Plutarch, Life of Pericles 15.5

There are always going to be accusations of impropriety and Pericles is no exception. We are told that Pericles was charged with dressing Athens in bangles and ornaments like a wanton woman (Plut. Per. 12.2), misappropriating money from allies to pay for building projects (Plut. Per. 12.1) and various forms of sexual impropriety (Plut. Per. 24; Athenaeus 12.45, 13.25), but these are for the most part slander from political opponents bitter about his power or mean jokes composed for the comic stage.

Plutarch here offers an explanation for why Athens flourished under the guidance of Pericles. Intelligence and presence help, but the fact that Pericles resisted using his position for personal, monetary gain was critical to Athens to becoming great. He might be onto something.

Looking at the Halys River

I’ve been wanting to use this space to talk some about the ancient world, but have been struggling to settle on a niche. I have posted some relevant translations, but that isn’t really my thing and Sententiae Antiquae has created something of a monopoly there, I’m not sure I have the attention span and dedication to write different public history essays like Sarah Bond, and I don’t have a deep and abiding cause like Neville Morley with Thucydides. I admire each of these people, but this space is never going to be predominantly dedicated to the ancient world because I envision is more in the model of John Scalzi’s Whatever, an outlet to write about things I want to write about outside of professional obligations. Most of my time, if not always most of my words, go to other projects.

What seems to work best for me is to pop in from time to time and write about topics that I’ve been thinking about or come across in my reading. Sometimes that will involve reaction to events or articles, like the one where I wrote about Alexander the Great and concussive brain injury, and, even if I don’t say so outright, all of the passages from ancient sources that I have posted here I came across while researching and happened to note some contemporary resonance. In the past year and a half I have spent a good deal of time writing or teaching about Athenian Comedy and Greek Oratory, particularly Isocrates, in case that wasn’t obvious.

The third thing I want to do a better job of writing about are inchoate research projects, i.e. things I am not actively writing about for articles, book manuscripts, or conference papers, are adjacent to work that I am doing and that I keep coming back to as a potential line of research. Basically: musings, incomplete thoughts, works in progress. That is where this post comes in.

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Two things that have long fascinated me are geography and how geographical features are used to delineate ideological frontiers. Sometimes this is to my detriment, such as when I took a stand in a graduate seminar on whether Istanbul is an “Asian” city since, geographically, its center is actually in Europe. (My larger point was about how the book was framing the division between Europe and Asia; this is a complex topic that I thought the author was treating in a ham-handed manner and I voiced my displeasure with equal bluntness.) This fascination has also manifested itself in my work, since ancient Ionia resided exactly on the border between the ideological constructs “Greek Europe” and “Barbarian Asia,” with the region sometimes split down the middle between the two.

It is in this framework that I’ve been thinking about the Halys River (modern Kızılırmak) in Turkey. Herodotus describes the river as the site of conflict between the Medes and the Lydians, with one battle stopping on account of a solar eclipse that happened during the fighting (1.103) and a second series of indecisive skirmishes along that frontier before Cyrus eventually conquered Lydia (1.72; Thuc. 1.16). The Halys as the border between Lydia (or Phrygia) and Persia is the basic meaning of the river, and the Roman geographer Strabo updates that definition to make the Halys the limit of the province of “Asia” (2.5.25; 15.3.23).

But the Halys River took on an ideological significance in the fourth century when Isocrates repeats on three occasions that during the days of the Athenian Empire the Persians could not bring armies closer than the sea than this border (4.144; 7.80; 12.59; in each he uses the phrase ἐντὸς ῾Άλυος). These statements are sometimes used as part of a flimsy argument for a fifth-century peace treaty between Athens and Persia (usually the “Peace of Callias”) that ended hostilities and set terms that pushed the Persians back past the Halys.

The problems with the Peace of Callias are manifold, and some of them are evident when thinking about the Halys. In each case, Isocrates juxtaposes the good-old-days of the fifth-century with the present, arguing that the Persians run roughshod over the Greeks because Sparta and others gave away the protections afforded by Athenian imperialism. And yet, if there was a treaty that prevented war, it certainly did not stop armies from crossing the Halys since there were two, sometimes three, persian satrapies (provinces) west of the river. Nor were the communities inland in Lydia considered culturally Greek until at least the Hellenistic period (323-31 BCE) and I suspect even later, so the Halys river does not mark a limit to the Greek world.

What, then, does the Halys River signify? For Isocrates, at least, the river serves several purposes. First and foremost, it invokes the pre-Persian status quo. Lydia is absent from this argument, but the Greeks came in contact with the Persians after they crossed the Halys, to their great tragedy. This is an appeal to nostalgia: if the Persians are the bad guys, and for Isocrates they are, then exiling them past the former border would free Greece. Second, there is an appeal to the former power of Athens. Isocrates implies that Athenian hegemony over Greece to the nostalgic days before Persia arrive, thereby exaggerating Athenian successes and almost supplanting Lydia as the political and military force that held back the barbarians. But this is a rhetorical stance only made possibly by his contemporary circumstances and as far as I have seen doesn’t appear either before or after the fourth century.

The Halys River is curious in this respect: for a short time in the fourth century it served as a shorthand for the line that must be reached in order to ensure the freedom of Greece. But the river bears little actual relevance on ancient Greece and so could only function as a fateful red line for an elite Athenian when Persia was a central concern and Athenian power was at a nadir. Both before and after such moments the Halys river remained a physical border between Lydia/Phrygia and Media/Persia, but it did not carry the same ideological weight.

Person and People: Herodotus

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals.”

So Kay declares in Men in Black, using this to justify keeping the public in the dark about the existence of aliens. This is a memorable scene, but, despite ongoing debates about government secrets and a contentious presidential election, not to mention elections in Europe, that raised questions about mass participation in politics and how decisions are made, it is something of an outlier in modern discussion about democracy.

The same is not true in ancient Greece. In Athens during the 5th century BCE one of they key questions was about the fickleness of the crowds and how dangerous this could be. When a leader was both respected and responsible, such as Thucydides credits to Pericles, the system worked, but there were repeated concerns about the masses being bought by crafty politicians. (Cleon is the usual target of accusation, but Plato says something similar about Pericles in his Gorgias.) I wrote about how Aristophanes describes this problem in Clouds where he stages a debate between Just and Unjust Logos, the unjust argument declaring that his brand of speaking works better in front of a crowd. This performance, though, appears to be a reflecting an Athenian aphorism about democracy.

From Herodotus (5.97):

It seems easier to mislead the many than the one, since Cleomenes of Lacedaemon alone was not deceived, but [Aristagoras] did this to to thirty thousand Athenians.

πολλοὺς γὰρ οἶκε εἶναι εὐπετέστερον διαβάλλειν ἢν ἕνα, εἰ Κλεομένεα μὲν τὸν Λακεδαιμόνιον μοῦνον οὐκ οἷός τε ἐγενετο διαβάλλειν, τρεῖς δὲ μυριάδας Ἀθηναίων ἐποίησε τοῦτο.

The year was 500/499 and Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus, travelled to both Sparta and Athens looking for support for the rebellion against Persia he was trying to orchestrate (the Ionian Revolt). Cleomenes, the king of Sparta, effectively told Aristagoras to pound sand. There were a multitude of reasons why Cleomenes might have done this that had nothing to do with the failure of Aristagoras to dupe him, but Herodotus pairs the failure in Sparta with the vulnerability of democracy.