Blog

Why I Can’t Write: A Collection (of Excuses)

A few evenings ago my partner wandered into my office and saw that I was sitting at my computer writing a blog post. I have been writing less than I would like lately, but I had found myself starting to pace after dinner and figured that getting words out of my head might help put me at ease. I have written before that I find writing meditative, after all. But writing is also an anti-social behavior that means not spending time with her, so I asked if she minded if I ignored her for the next hour or so.

“Writing seems to be good for you,” she responded.

I spent that night writing, but also wanted to reflect on the reasons why I don’t write.


I have no strong feelings on an issue. This was always my issue when writing to a prompt in high school writing contests. This is different from not knowing how I feel about a topic: when I am interested in a topic I just need to start writing to find my voice (and my thesis). When I am not invested in a topic, writing feels like an exercise in pushing mushy peas around a plate until I’m dismissed. If I am not invested in what I’m writing, then why should I expect anyone to read it? And thus begins a circle.


On the other end of the spectrum, I struggle to write when I have too much to say. Sometimes this means that I am too invested in a particular topic, sometimes it means that I just have too many thoughts all jumbled together. The solution here is often either writing more as thought to card my thoughts like a jumble of wool or trimming the topic into manageable chunks, but sometimes I just have to let the topic go.


I haven’t read enough. In my academic writing, this is perhaps the biggest sticking point. Writing without having done enough reading is a futile exercise in my experience. This is not to say that I need to have read everything before starting to write, but I can’t write cold. I can vomit words on the page as a way of articulating my initial thoughts, but that writing is functionally meaningless. More often, I find myself staring at that accursed blinking cursor at a loss for where to begin.


The most common reason I haven’t done enough reading is that there are times, particularly during the semester, when I am busy. There is always something else that needs to be done, so I jealously defend my writing time. However, that is easier (if not easy) to do for long-term writing projects than for writing whimsical blog posts on the writing process or keeping a regular journaling habit.


When I get tired I get distractible, and when I get distracted I can’t write. I have developed numerous strategies to help me focus over the years—logging off social media, setting concrete blocks of writing time, writing in the morning, music and headphones, etc. —but they don’t always work. For instance, I have had a harder time convincing myself to get up early to write during the pandemic, but I also struggle to string together sentences in the evening after I finish teaching and have recently resolved to more seriously protect my weekends for rest with the idea that I will be able to better write (and teach) if I’m not exhausted.


I am worried someone else said it better. At basically all times, no matter what I am working on. One of the (not)joys of experiencing depression and anxiety is the perpetual fear that whatever I am writing is going to turn out to be a steaming pile of shit. (Pardon the language.) The specific fear changes—that my ideas are stupid, that my writing is bad, that someone else already said whatever I’m trying to say and did so much more brilliantly and insightfully.


Sometimes I don’t feel well. Among non-debilitating ailments, headaches are the worst because that is the body-part I am using—usually—when I write, but all manner of physical ailments interfere with the process. Hunger is another one. I can write on an empty stomach if it is first thing in the morning, but if my stomach starts to rumble I need to address that before I can focus enough to write.


Listing reasons why I can’t write has always struck me as though I’m aping Goldilocks or assuming an “artistic” temperament where I can only work when the conditions are just right. But I also believe that anyone who declares that they are able to write most of the time is showing their privilege. That is, the statement announces that their financial, emotional, and physical conditions are almost always in the right place to be able to write. They still have to address distraction and writing still takes discipline, but it is worth acknowledging that there are a myriad of reasons why someone isn’t able to write at a particular moment.

My hurdles are mild compared to those faced by a lot of people, but they are still hurdles. Acknowledging that is the first step toward overcoming them.

Remembering Bourdain

Content Warning: this post includes references to suicide.

Anthony Bourdain took his own life a little over three years ago, prompting me to write a teary reflection of this man who I had never met. In this post I reflected on what Bourdain meant to me, a single face in the crowd of fans. I pointed to his apparent success in the middle age of life and beyond and to the spirit of warmth and humanity that seemed to emanate from this acerbic man even when purveyors of hate seemed to be winning.

Anthony Bourdain had the capacity for all of these things, to be sure, but I was eulogizing Tony the TV character.

Retrospectives about Anthony Bourdain’s life have started to emerge this year. Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner dropped first in July, followed by Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography in September, and Tom Vitale’s memoir In the Weeds in early October.

While I have not read Woolever’s volume, the other two pieces, both of which I consumed last weekend, paint a more complicated picture.

Tom Vitale started in the editing room on A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain’s first TV show, before working his way on to the road crew and ultimately directing more than a hundred episodes of Parts Unknown, including some of the most challenging ones in Libya and the Congo. His memoir takes readers on the road and behind the camera of the shows while also grappling with his feelings about Bourdain’s death, something that happened while one of the other two crews was overseeing the shoot.

Tony was a big believer in failing gloriously in an attempt to do something interesting, rather than succeeding at being mediocre.

Tom’s story is not the glorious eternal vacation that made it to television. For one thing, every hour of television required dozens of hours of painstaking filming, most of it with Tony Bourdain nowhere in sight, to say nothing of arguing with accountants, fixers, and editors. And looming over the entire enterprise, driving it to ever greater heights was an agoraphobic, camera-shy, obsessive star. More than once Tom resolves that he simply cannot take the strain of working for him.

I don’t think I realized just how spoiled I was to work on a show where quality not only came first, but it was also pretty much the only concern.

Behind the scenes, Tom describes, Tony was a different person than the witty and eloquent person who made it on screen. He was still charismatic, but he was also mercurial and manipulative. He was showed a different side of his personality to each person, as though he instinctively knew what it would take to get the best work out of everyone. The face he showed Tom was, it seems, crueler than the one he showed others. Their relationship was combative. Tom prodded Tony to speak. Once, in Borneo, Tony attacked him. He wonders at several points whether Bourdain actually liked him.

(He ultimately concludes that, yes, he did.)

Inevitably, the story comes around to Bourdain’s suicide. The last episode they filmed together, in Bali, concluded with a funeral and Tom reflects on how both of their emotional states had frayed precipitously over the past few seasons, leading him to ask whether there was more that he could have done.

“These are some of the things I look back on that are signs that I should have seen… I think that so many things in his life were like a drug. You were like a drug to him. If somebody overdoses on a drug, do you blame the drug or do you blame the junkie?”

In a memorable scene, he also addresses the rumors about Asia Argento…by going to Italy, getting drunk with her, and asking her directly whether she caused Tony’s death. Ultimately, though, he lands on a simpler solution. Tony was an addict for whom down-time amounted to giving in to his thoughts, to his demons.

I’d learned that the truth was he couldn’t rest. Tony always needed a distraction, a project, a problem to solve. And, for better or worse, the show provided that in spades.

In the Weeds gave me a new appreciation of Anthony Bourdain. Tom’s boss — and coworker and friend — was more human than the man who appeared on television and I found the fits of anger, the fits of insecurity, and the evident exhaustion from not being able to stop all-too relatable. Likewise in how Tony, a famously verbose person, was better able to apologize with actions than with words. This is not a flattering picture, but it is a fitting one.

At the same time, what makes this memoir so good is how this different portrait of Tony Bourdain is balanced against stories from the road that allow me to look at these shows I love so much with new eyes. I have been watching the Jamaica episode that features prominently in the memoir to test this while writing this post and it is remarkable how different it is, from small tics in conversation to how often Tony is noticeably alone in front of the camera.

By contrast, Roadrunner offers a synthetic, impressionistic interpretation of Anthony Bourdain that splices together extant video with reminiscences of the people who knew and worked with him, including Tom Vitale.

(The film also includes a brief deep-fake that I probably wouldn’t have caught had I not known about the controversy in advance, but doing something so potentially scandalous for so little return seems unwise.)

The film proceeds in rough chronological order from his bursting onto the scene with Kitchen Confidential to international stardom, and then death. This structure allows for one of the best things about the show, which was to watch Tony’s evolution from a patently inept star in the earliest film from A Cook’s Tour to the confident host of the polished show Parts Unknown. However, there is another way one might describe the structure of Roadrunner: before television, the evolving television star, and after Asia.

If one of the most moving parts of the film was the outpouring of grief from the people who loved him, I found the topic of Asia Argento, who did not appear in the film, to be a sticking point.

Roadrunner reaches many of the same conclusions as In the Weeds, highlighting how Tony was an addict who threw himself into whatever his passion was and noting that Asia (as well as her fight against Harvey Weinstein) was the latest addiction. However, the film also gives voice to a number of crew members who worked on the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown and exhibit a hostility toward her that Ton Vitale simply didn’t have. The result is that the film seems to blame her without explicitly doing so.

It is hard to say what I would have thought about Roadrunner had I not first read Tom Vitale’s In the Weeds. The film has its powerful moments, but it was also limited by so relentlessly placing Tony front and center while both acknowledging and brushing aside that this was not where he wanted to be. As a result, I found the memoir both less flattering and more satisfying as a tribute to both Anthony Bourdain and the vision of the world he helped create.

Teaching Thursday

With apologies to Bill Caraher, who offers regular reflections on teaching under this title, it was appropriate. Today I read two pieces—including one by Bill—about teaching worth engaging with.

The first came in Keith Law‘s newsletter where he talked about his experiences teaching one course on communication. Klaw is one of my favorite sports-writers and his blog is one of the reasons I write about books in this space. He described the course this way:

It’s turned out to be one of the hardest, most anxiety-inducing things I’ve ever chosen to do.

Teaching is not rocket science, but that doesn’t make it easy. It takes continual adjustment and the ability to adjust on the fly when the best laid plans fail to survive first contact. This reality is something that is hard to appreciate when your only experience with teaching is as a student taking classes that you may or may not have enjoyed.

I am all-too familiar with the fear that Keith Law explained is haunting him:

I’m constantly plagued by the fear that I’m not doing enough for the students – that maybe what I’m teaching them isn’t useful enough, or that I’m just not giving them the information or insight they’ll need.

Any time a class goes well I am reminded of how I posted a sign that I read about on the internet on the inside of the door of my first post-PhD office. It read:

You are only as good a teacher as your next class.

No class is going to be perfect, there are only so many hours in the day, and only so many of those are spent in the classroom. All you can do is reflect, adjust, and move forward. I suspect that KLaw, someone who is a reflective person and who I think came into the experience with a healthy appreciation of teachers, is doing fine. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but laugh knowingly when I read the entry.

For college teachers who want to improve, you could do a lot worse than read Bill Caraher’s regular Teaching Thursday column.

Today’s entry was the latest in a long series of posts that document how he has adapted his World Civilizations course over the years.

World Civ can be a hard course to teach and a frustrating one to take. In the first “half,” it is a course that tackles several thousand years of human civilization spanning the entire globe and taught as a general education course to first-years and non-majors. There is no chance at comprehensiveness and I find that approaching it through a series of themes and broad connections easily become abstract to the point of uselessness except to students who are already passingly familiar with the specific examples that illustrate the theme.

(I often think that World History would be a more valuable course at the senior level, but this is not the system we have and I can see an argument that such a radical inversion would hurt enrollment.)

In this series , Bill has talked about his solution to the problems of a World Civ class, namely flipping the class and challenging the students to produce material together in class, as well as the reasons he made the change. I wonder a little bit about how this assignment would work in a class that meets multiple times per week rather than in long blocks, but I also recognize wisdom in how he has developed the class. It can be a surreal feeling to walk around a classroom where the students are working in groups and I am just eavesdropping. Bill calls it “boring;” I can’t disagree. But if the students are engaged with the historical material while I am bored, doesn’t that mean that I have done my job?

I am not sure that I will — or even should — go quite as far as Bill has in moving the class material to class time, but our courses also have different demographic contexts. And yet, in my first time teaching my World Civ class in its current institution and current iteration, I am finding myself thinking about almost all of the same issues. There is only so much that I can change mid-stream, but I have a lot to consider for next time. In addition to the mechanics of a World Civ course, Bill’s post engages with outcomes and ungrading more generally and both are worth considering. Check it out.

A Premature Return to Normal and In-Person Conferences

Last week I attended my first in-person conference since January 2020 when I attended the AIA-SCS annual meeting in Washington DC.

It was a surreal experience.

On Wednesday afternoon after I finished teaching for the day, I hopped in the car and drove to Eau Claire, Wisconsin to attend a regional history conference where I would be chairing one panel and presenting on another. Both the venue and the conference acknowledged the ongoing pandemic with signs requesting or requiring masks (depending on where one was at a given time) and seats conspicuously distributed about six feet apart around the presentation spaces. Most people abided by the mask guidelines, as far as I could tell, but this only served to make me more frustrated with those who weren’t whether or not they had the pretense of food or drink nearby.

How much I like in-person conferences under normal circumstances depends a lot on my headspace. I get quite nervous about public speaking and go through frequent bouts of imposter syndrome, but I also find these events invigorating. For every time I have stood awkwardly at a reception, I have made two friends by putting aside my hangups and just gotten into a conversation. After all, the attendees are (generally) there to make new contacts. Likewise, I am now at a place in my career where I can pull aside graduate students after a talk to give them positive reinforcement and suggestions much as was given to me a decade ago.

I have loved the accessibility that accompanied the pivot online during the pandemic, but there is a tradeoff. I have attended more conference than usual, as well as workshops hosted out of Winnipeg, Rio de Janeiro, Oxford, Chicago, Oregon, and Athens (to name just a few), but I have not found the virtual experience nearly as conducive to networking, at least as someone who was not already connected to the host networks.

In this respect, I found myself glad to be back at a brick-and-mortar conference where there could be fortuitous encounters in line at the coffee shop or where I could grab dinner with conference attendees (on a patio).

By the same token, the decision to make this an in-person conference led to a significant amount of chaos. Many people—myself included—had applied to the conference with the understanding that it would be held virtually. When this turned out not to be the case, I was fortunately still able to attend, but many attendees required virtual accommodations. To their credit, the conference organizers did provide a Zoom option for these attendees, but we were still working out how this would work the day before the conference started. The format made it easier for people to present more easily than to watch papers online, but when it worked things went smoothly enough. However, this time crunch put the onus on panel chairs (rather than tech volunteers) to manage the Zoom feed, so when it went poorly things went haywire, whether because the organizer and panel chair couldn’t reach a presenter (who likely sent a pre-recorded talk that went unnoticed) or because a nervous presenter closed out a Zoom room and no-one noticed until it was too late to bring the attendees back.

The reality is that we are still in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. I was willing take the risks of exposure because I am fully vaccinated (still <6 months since my second dose) and could afford to take many precautions in how I travelled. Still, if we are going back to meatspace in-person conferences, I think that they will have to include a hybrid or virtual option for the foreseeable future.

If anything, this experience reminded me that saying there will be a virtual option is one thing, but executing it is something else entirely. Suffice it to say that I am even more pleased that the AIA-SCS has been planning a virtual event for months already even though the conference is in January.

I enjoy the ritual of setting aside my daily routine for time spent engaging with colleagues. This time I just also spent this conference thinking about how this was all premature. Wishful thinking won’t make the pandemic go away. I understand the desire to win back some of what has been lost over the past year and a half, particularly if most attendees are already vaccinated, but it is too soon to return to the pre-pandemic status quo, if that should even be the goal.

Two Takes on Social Media

The algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.

I joined Facebook in 2004 in my Freshman year of college, deleted that account in 2012, and then rejoined the Facebook orbit with an Instagram account a few years later. (I dislike Facebook, but Instagram preserves the parts I liked without most of the noise and lies behind my growing interest in photography.) Along the way I picked up and discarded a variety of other social media accounts, most notably Twitter.

In short, my entire adult life has coincided with the era of social media.

2021 has been the year when social media finally made its way into my reading, starting with Fake Accounts earlier this year. Recently I added to this theme two more books published this year, Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife and Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King’s An Ugly Truth.

I read the fiction first.

The Startup Wife is a send-up of start-up culture. Asha Ray is a brilliant coder working on a PhD on neural networks that seems to be going nowhere when she reconnect with Cyrus, the boy she had a crush on in high school. For his part, Cyrus is different. He spends his time wandering from reading and absorbing ideas, but also lives with a friend, Jules, who has a trust fund. Yet, people gravitate to Cyrus to create unique rituals. Asha likewise finds herself in Cyrus orbit, as well as his bed.

Soon, Asha drops her PhD to begin coding a new project: an algorithm that will harness Cyrus’ preternatural gift for ritual. With Cyrus’ mind, Jules’ money, and Asha’s code, the three found WAI (pronounced “why”), which stands for “We Are Infinite” and get inducted into a startup incubator, Utopia, that is preparing for the end of the world. As WAI begins to catch on, Asha faces the personal and professional challenges that come with managing a start-up—everything from how to monetize this platform without selling out to being forced to share her husband with everyone on the platform.

Tahmima Anam writes from the experience of her husband’s start-up company, lending believability to the steps taken to seeking capital, even when the specific details of the meetings are absurd. Likewise, this background infuses the story with the frustrations of a woman who has had the distinct displeasure of hearing how women get talked about in the startup world and of being overlooked in board meetings.

The post-IPO wife is the butt of many of our jokes. We’d been tetchy when that first lawyer brought it up (Your odds aren’t good!), but now that Cyrus knows more of these people, we realize Barry wasn’t singling us out, because divorce after great success is actually a trend. Not a dirty little secret but like a totally sanctioned and okay thing that men do once they hit the big time.

The personal side of The Startup Wife—Asha’s marriage and her frustrations with startup culture—provide both the comedy and the emotional resonance of the book. The WAI algorithm, by contrast, provides the depth. The premise of the site is simple:

We have devised a way of getting people to form connections with others on the basis of what gives their life meaning, instead of what they like or don’t like.

The founders of WAI are all generally well-intentioned, but what does it mean to do no evil? Obviously this precludes physical hard and predatory behavior, but does it extend to keeping the platform free? What about keeping profiles active after the owner dies? How much editorial control should Asha and the team exert over the community?

Ultimately, The Startup Wife is better at raising questions than answering them, but it nevertheless offers a romp through this world that is troubling and funny in equal parts. An Ugly Truth, by contrast, is just troubling.

Frenkel and King lay out thousands of hours of reporting in this new exposé of Facebook that tracks the last decade of its existence. The story opens with Facebook cresting a wave in 2012—ironically about the time I deleted my account. Sheryl Sandberg had joined the board and was successfully monetizing Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook still touted its utopian vision for society, but amid the obsession with growth lay the seeds of something darker—questions particularly about speech given that Facebook’s algorithm capitalized on engagement and amplified anything that received an emotional response.

Facebook technically barred hate speech, but the company’s definition of what constituted it was ever evolving. What it took action on differed within nations, in compliance with local laws. There were universal definitions for banned content on child pornography and on violent content. But hate speech was specific not just to countries but to cultures.

By the 2016 election, Facebook hit a crossroads. Zuckerberg and his inner circle resolved to be scrupulously impartial in order to counteract accusations that they were partisan when, in truth, growth and engagement were the guiding stars. Partisanship was good for business, but it also led to discontent in the ranks among some staff who saw the site as stoking divisions and others who were ostensibly hired for security but then sidelined. Around the same time, rumbling started in Congress about regulations.

Zuckerberg responded to criticism by reaffirming his faith in Facebook’s ability to regulate itself with algorithms and circling the wagons. Instagram and WhatsApp were integrated into Facebook to make them harder to spin off and Facebook proper doubled down on privacy and private groups. According to the people Frenkel and King interviewed, the latter was a particular problem not only because it led to the rampant growth of conspiracy theory groups, but also because Facebook’s transparency was the very feature that allowed the site to help root out child pornographers.

Research had shown that people who joined many groups were more likely to spend more time on Facebook, and Zuckerberg had hailed groups as the type of private, living room chat he thought his users wanted to see more of. But he was growing disturbed by the number of people joining groups dedicated to conspiracy theories or fringe political movements, rather than the hiking clubs and parenting communities he had envisioned.

Facebook has nearly three billion monthly users and enormous amounts of influence. In An Ugly Truth, Frenkel and King make an argument that Facebook’s naive optimism that the truth winning out over misinformation belies how social responsibility is incompatible with the mandates of growth and profit. In other words, An Ugly Truth is the answer to the questions raised in The Startup Wife.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finished reading Nicholas P. Money’s book The Rise of Yeast. I hoped to glean information about beer and bread, but Money was more interested in the structure of yeast and biofuel—perhaps because he is a biochemist, as well as Leviathan Wakes, the first of The Expanse books. As a fan of the TV series, I am stewing over why I didn’t react as negatively going from TV to book as I usually do going book to series. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

The Plot

“I just care about the story. Either it’s a good plot or it isn’t. And if it’s not a good plot, the best writing isn’t going to help. And if it is, the worst writing isn’t going to hurt it.”

You’re only as successful as the last book you published, and you’re only as good as the next book you’re writing. So shut up and write.

Jacob Finch Bonner is a novelist of some promise, at least that is what the New York Times said after his first novel. The second book did less well, which is how he wound up teaching at Ridley College’s low-residency MFA program. His students almost never show any potential except for one summer when Evan Parker shows up. Unbearably smug, Evan assures Jake that his is a plot unlike any other—so unusual that it is inevitable that it will be a success. Much to his chagrin, Jake agrees with this assessment.

Ridley goes to an even lower residency program, though, and Jake bounces around a few positions until several years later when another writer at another cut-rate writer’s retreat where he has a job reminds him of Evan and prompts Jake to see what ever became of that promising plot. As it happens, not only did the book never come out, but Evan is dead. A drug overdose in his hometown of Rutland, Vermont.

So Jake writes the book himself, just transposing the details to upstate New York.

Crib, the novel, is a smashing success. Multiple rounds of book-tours. Meetings with Steven Spielberg to produce the movie. A beautiful woman who schemes to get him to come to her radio station before striking up a relationship with him.

In short, life is grand—you know, other than his agent asking for the next book.

And yet, Jake also finds himself trying to solve another mystery while hiding the details from everyone in his life. At the height of his success, he begins to receive emails from a mystery sender with the screen name “Talented Tom” (as in the Talented Mr. (Tom) Ripley) threatening to reveal him as a fraud. This story, the sender says, does not belong to Bonner and in time he will be exposed as a thief.

Of course, from a legal perspective the blackmailer has no leg to stand on. The “author” of the original plot is dead, but, even if he wasn’t, Bonner wrote every word of the book. A plot twist along doesn’t belong to any one person, but the combination of increasingly hostile messages and Jake’s insecurities about being a failed writer prompt him to begin digging into the troubled family life of his former student, only to discover that the mystery and plot twist might have been more auto-biographical than Evan had initially divulged.

There is a lot to like about The Plot. For one thing, Korelitz casts a jaundiced eye at MFA programs and writers in comic ways. Jake might have had promise once, but he’s also an indifferent teacher and his own worst enemy in terms of writing his next book.

“I’ve learned so much about writers. You’re a strange kind of beast, aren’t you, with your petty feuds and your fifty shades of narcissism? You act like words don’t belong to everyone. You act like stories don’t have real people attached to them. It’s hurtful, Jake.”

Korelitz also puts out a sophisticated narrative structure that follows Jake through time while weaving in Jake’s investigation into the mystery of Evan Parker’s background and snippets from Crib. This is a thriller restrained by writerly craft, pushing you forward but withholding the plot.

However, this was also a book that gave me several major hangups.

First, the story within the story. When we are introduced to the plot that becomes Crib, we receive several pieces of information:

  1. it is filled with compellingly overwrought characters who wouldn’t have been out of place in Infinite Jest.
  2. the plot is compelling because of an unforgettable, impossible to predict plot twist.

The passages of Crib that Korelitz provides are much like the rest of The Plot: solidly crafted, but with relatively unremarkable characters and a more somber atmosphere. I could absolutely see Crib being picked up for a prestige drama (though probably not a movie), but the idea that this book could have become a must-read national sensation defied credulity for me.

Second, while I was impressed by the narrative structure of The Plot, I had effectively guessed the twist by about the midpoint of the novel. This didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, but, in a story meant to mirror a book that is popular because it had a twist unlike anything anyone had ever seen, it certainly made my experience closer to “shrug, okay” than “oh, wow!”

(I’m also not convinced that Jake is correct that this plot is so unique since the very allusion that is keeping him up at night is itself a variation on this very plot.)

The Plot is a good read. I’m willing to forgive setting the opening scenes at a fictional college in a part of Vermont that doesn’t have one (I suspect the model is the low-residency summer program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, but it is set in the Northeast Kingdom), and I liked the nods to and cracks at writers because this, ultimately, is a story about Jake’s numerous flaws that drag him down. I correctly identified the twist in this literary thriller, but there was no other way to adequately resolve this plot.

This praise just also falls short, not only of the supposed excellence of the parallel story Crib, but also of the satisfaction of a perfectly executed thriller.

ΔΔΔ

I have another post in the queue for the tomorrow that has my thoughts on The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth. I am also planning to write about Omer el Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and have some thoughts about television adaptations involving The Expanse and Leviathan Wakes. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

A Master of Djinn

“Some kind of cult maybe? You know how Occidentals like playing dress-up and pretending they’re ancient mystics. Order of the this … Brotherhood of the that…”

Fatma glanced to the book, remembering its sensational content. It looked like utter nonsense. Most of these “Orientalists” thought their bad translations and wrongheaded takes might help them better understand the changes sweeping the world. It seemed reading from actual Eastern scholars was beneath them.

For many of the same reasons I don’t usually go for speculative fiction set in historical settings, and despite my unabashed love of The Dandelion Dynasty books, I don’t read much steampunk. The mashup of times and technologies just doesn’t quite grab my attention, at least until I read the premise for A Master of Djinn: a fast-paced mystery set in 1912 in a Cairo where the widespread return of djinn through the actions of the mystic al-Jahiz a generation earlier set in motion a chain of events that has led to a leap in magic and technology in the world and made Egypt a burgeoning superpower.

This inciting event in the near past allows Clark (the nom de plume of history professor Dexter Gabriel) to simply spin events forward a generation and creates a compelling backdrop for this story.

A Master of Djinn opens with the secret ceremony of the Hermetic Brotherwhood of al-Jahiz (likely modeled on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). Lord Worthington, a wealthy Englishman, founded this order in Egypt to uncover deeper truths about the world, though it mostly serves for westerners to engage in role-play. Only, this time, a masked and robed figure claiming to be al-Jahiz appears at the ceremony and immolates everyone there with an otherworldly fire.

Suddenly, al-Jahiz begins to appear everywhere in Cairo stirring the anger of the downtrodden against the establishment.

Against this imposter — he must be an imposter, right? — the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities assigns one of their best, Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, who also happens to be one of the few women working in the agency. Immaculately dressed in her tailored European suits, Fatma begins to investigate, grudgingly accepting the help of a junior agent, Hadia, and less grudgingly relying on her lover Siti, an enigmatic woman who belongs to a cult that worships the old Egyptian gods rather than being a good muslim.

A Master of Djinn is in many ways a procedural where these three and an assorted cast of other agents and djinn must race to discover the identity of al-Jahiz, particularly once it turns out that the imposter can control djinn and appears bent on opening a portal that will allow him to bring immensely powerful and ancient Ifrit lords back into the world. The result is that the mystery eventually gives way to a race to stop the imposter, whoever he is.

There is a lot going on in A Master of Djinn. It is post-colonialist in the best way, centering the story on people who talk about the occidentals and their strange ways, including the anti-magic legislation in the United States. It is sex-positive, with a queer love story. It is anti-racist and class-conscious, frequently making nods to or tweaking historical attitudes and prejudices, many of which are still floating around today.

Archibald could quite believe it. Dalton was obsessed with mummies—part of proving his theory that Egypt’s ancient rulers were truly flaxen-haired relatives to Anglo-Saxons, who held sway over the darker hordes of their realm. Archibald was as much a racialist as the next man, but even he found such claims rubbish and tommyrot.

It is also immensely fun, with all of these themes layered into the richly-painted backdrop of this imagined Cairo. And, to cap it all off, A Master of Djinn was also funny, with exchanges like:

“But alone, we could live with our thoughts. Dwell on the purpose of our existence.” He looked up, daring to meet the baleful gaze of the hovering giant. “It is called philosophy.” The Ifrit King frowned. “Phil-o-so-phy?”

“…The more I thought, the more I began to understand myself. To know that I was created for more than just drowning my enemies in flames. I began reading many great works by mortals and other djinn. That is how I discovered, I am a pacifist.”

In fact, there was only one minor plot point that I found jarring, which was the appearance of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The premise—that he was in Cairo for a peace conference—was itself fine, just having him here surrounded by otherwise fictional characters struck me as an out-of-place caricature.

Setting that minor quibble aside, A Master of Djinn is an excellent book with a compelling and propulsive plot set in a richly imagined world. Whether I go back to Clark’s earlier novellas set in this world or just eagerly await the next novel, this is the sort of story I want more of.

ΔΔΔ

I expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, but I am enjoying the opportunities of a book to develop both the internal stories of characters and to play with time and space in ways that are hard to show on television.

The Golem and the Jinni

I am way behind on book posts given the start of the new semester. I actually read this one almost a month ago and only just not had the energy to write about it. I expect these posts to be sporadic for the foreseeable future, but I hope to be able to write a few each weekend and delay publishing for a few days so that there are more regular updates.

“But love founded only on loneliness and desire will die out before long. A shared history, tradition, and values will link two people more thoroughly than any physical act.”

It was all too easy for her to be caught up in the rhythm of the bakery, the thumps of fists on dough and the ringing of the bell over the door. Too easy to match it, and let it run away with her.

I am usually skeptical of speculative fiction where the author too blatantly uses a historical setting because it pulls me out of the story. This may be one of the downsides to being a historian. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across The Golem and the Jinni, a story set in a very particular historical milieu and discovered that it worked exceedingly well.

What Wecker does is to tell an immigrant story using folklore from two cultures that come into dialogue in interesting ways.

The Golem and the Jinni opens not with the Golem, but with her creator. On the eve of leaving Poland for the new world, Otto Rotfeld seeks the corrupt kabbalist Yehudah Schaalman to make for him a wife—a wife who is submissive, attentive, and curious. Yehudah makes for him a golem with instructions not to wake her until he has landed, but Otto falls ill on the passage and animates her in one of his final acts. The golem is thus awakened and conscious of the needs and wants of first an entire boat and then a city, New York, where she is taken in by a kindly rabbi who takes her in, names her Chava, and sets her up with a job in a bakery in the Jewish neighborhood.

At roughly the same time, a tin-smith in Little Syria awakens a jinni who has been imprisoned in a flask for over a thousand years. Trapped in human form, the jinni has little choice but to act as the smith’s apprentice even though he chafes at being forced to live within this society rather than being his own master in the desert, which leads him to seek experiences generally not open to the residents of Little Syria such as seducing the wealthy heiress Sophia Winston.

Ahmad senses a kindred spirit when he stumbles across Chava, albeit one made of earth rather than fire.

Much of the The Golem and the Jinni, comes in the form of these two double-outsiders learning to make their way in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York. They have the twin tasks of learning to live among humans even as the humans they are living amongst are learning to live in a new country. Neither requires sleep, so they are left to fill the hours that everyone else sleeps: Ahmad roams restlessly, Chava staves off boredom with minor tasks. And yet, the days are even harder for Chava given that she can sense the desires of everyone around her and her creator imbued her with instructions to obey these commands, but, eventually, curiosity will get the best of her.

However, the plot kicks into high gear with the arrival of Schaalman who gives into his own curiosity about his creation. As it happens, Ahmad is exactly what Schaalman has been searching for his entire life. It is up to Chava and Ahmad to defeat this person who has enormous power over both of them before he can bend them to his will.

Wecker recently published a second novel in this series, but I am lukewarm about reading it. I loved The Golem and the Jinni both as a conceit and in the execution of its plot. Chava and Ahmad were solid enough characters, but they worked because of how their alienness was able to reflect and harmonize with the immigrant communities of 1900s New York City.

The synopsis of the new book The Hidden Palace promises more of the same, but over a longer span and with a more sprawling cast that includes more of their own kind. At first blush, this is a reasonable premise, but I am concerned that widening the scope will lose some of the magic of the first book.

ΔΔΔ

My reading has continued apace. I have another post scheduled on A Master of Djinn and expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff-Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. While I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, I am not finding going the other way nearly as objectionable.

Two heirs to Jonathan Strange

I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell when I finally read it a few years ago. I had resisted reading it because people had compared it to Dickens, whose work I don’t care for. When I finally got over my hesitancy, I found a layered book based on a historical period, just with the magic of Faerie. That magic exists—its return is a plot point—and sits at the heart of the story, but it does so on the edges of awareness, as though it was here all along and people just didn’t notice. It is a compelling piece of world-building achieved by situating historical figures on the edges of the story so that the plot can focus on our two eponymous magicians.

Recently, I have read two books that could warrant comparison to Clarke’s masterpiece: Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown and H.G. Parry’s The Declaration of Rights of Magicians. Like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, both novels are set at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars in Europe and inject a heavy dose of magic into the historical setting.

Where one of these two books is successful, the other was one of my least favorite reads in quite a long time.

The good first.

And one could teach a woman to do magic, I suppose, but what earthly good would a flying pig or a magical female be to anyone?

If Clarke’s book was Dickens, then Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown may well be Austen, albeit with a race and gender rejoinder to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The era remains Georgian England during the Napoleonic War, and magic flows into the country from the Fairyland. This time, magic is governed by the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers headed by the Sorcerer Royal. Except this normally august post has been corrupted in the eyes of the gentry by its current occupant, Zacharias Wythe, the emancipated ward of its previous occupant. As if his blackness weren’t sufficient, Wythe has, well, “unnatural” ideas about the governance of magic. Namely, he believes that women ought to be taught magic when conventional wisdom teaches that women’s “weaker” constitution makes them unsuitable for that sort of strain.

In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.

Sorcerer to the Crown kicks into high gear when Zacharias Wythe meets a precocious woman at a school for girls that conditions them to restrain their magic. Prunella Gentlewoman is the orphan daughter of an English magician and an unknown, but probably not English, woman. Despite her upbringing in the school, Prunella is anything but willing to accept the limits placed on her in this country.

In proper romance fashion, it is clear from early on that Zacharias and Prunella are going to wind up together, but first the story tears through a plot chock full of juicy social encounters between the members of the theurgical gentry and this seemingly mismatched pair.

I tore through Sorcerer to the Crown and found it a satisfying counterpoint to the sorts of social issues that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell didn’t directly address. Magic suffuses the world, but it serves as a metaphor for ideas about the proper social order, whether in terms of work for women or for racism. We rarely, if ever, meet a historical figure, which allows Cho to talk about people like Napoleon and Tipu Sultan without being forced to imbue them with life or narrate their doings. She even had the rare achievement of bringing in blood and bloodlines in a way that actually made sense:

“Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

I don’t know if I will read the rest of the series just because this style of romance isn’t my favorite type of story, but I can also unambiguously recommend this book. I had little quibbles, but I enjoyed the story well enough and the world-building was almost entirely satisfying to me in much the same way that I appreciate Clarke’s work.

Next the bad.

It has been a while since I read a book that I disliked as much as A Declaration of Rights of Magicians.

The year is 1779 in a world with magic and France is ripe for a revolution. This is world where magic is common, but it is strictly controlled for the lower classes and certain types are banned outright, controlled by the Templar order. However, this is the Enlightenment, a time of change. Toussaint Louverture, a weather mage, is leading a rebellion on Saint-Domingue, while the mesmer Maximillian Robespierre challenges the authorities in France and the young Prime Minister of England, William Pitt, proposes that the lower classes be allowed to perform magic.

Parry clearly did a lot of research for this book and she tries to turn broad social and political movements like the ones that brought William Pitt to office, prompted the Haitian Revolution, and brought about the Declaration of Rights of Man using magic as an allegory. Except that these were all real people and the world-building felt to me like a thin veneer with a few twists (the Templars, they still exist! those earlier wars were caused by vampires!) over real history. In fact, Parry nearly admits as much in the afterward where she says:

“This book is a mythologization of the real history of Britain, France, and Haiti in the eighteenth century, which is more interesting and dramatic and downright weird than anything I could make up.”

The characters are real. The plots are (almost) real. Since all of the big events, including the eponymous document, took place in the non-mythologized history, then the magic only serves to add some sparkle and, if anything, distract from the underlying issues. Compare this to Cho’s novel where magic is works as an allegory because of its intersection with two specific characters who unlock its potential to create problems in British society.

Clarke and Cho succeeded because they set their stories at a specific time and place, but built magic into the contours and shadows of the world. Then they largely avoided dramatizing real people. Instead, they manifested characters on whom to center their story. Clarke had the competition between Strange and Norrell; Cho had Prunella and Wythe against the English establishment at the same time as they circle each other.

Parry sprinkled magic over real events and then built a novel by dramatizing three largely distinct historical threads. Perhaps they are connected, and she hints as much, but her broad fidelity to historical events prevented this from striking me as anything but a dull recounting of events that lost something in their dramatization.

I finished the book because I’m still not good at giving up on a book I’ve started, but I mostly found myself thinking that a good history of the events would be more compelling.

ΔΔΔ

My recent purchase of a Kindle Paperwhite has meant that I’ve been tearing through a succession of library e-books recently. The due date on those books combined with the start of the semester this week has meant that I am behind on writing here. At this point I am probably not going to write about Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, which I liked quite a lot, or Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I enjoyed less. I also finished Kelly Baker’s Grace Period which I may or may not write about since it is a memoir about leaving academia, a topic I have written about quite a lot here in the past and it hit a little close to home. Highly recommended, though.

I am still hoping to write about Helen Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which was a compelling immigrant story for many of the same reasons that I ascribed to Zen Cho’s book above. I also finished P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, a fun steampunk mystery set in an alternate Cairo, and Tahmima Anam’s sendup of startup culture The Startup Wife. The latter book is resonating a little too much at the moment, though, because I am currently reading Sheera Frankel and Cecelia Kang’s new exposé of facebook, An Ugly Truth.

First Day Fragments 2021: A Fresh Start

Each of the past three years I have written a post celebrating the start of the fall semester with quick hits on various topics that I’m mulling over going into the new academic year. You can find the earlier posts in the archive: 2020, 2019, 2018.

One recent addition to my podcast lineup is Self-Compassionate Professor hosted by Dr. Danielle De La Mare. The podcast as a whole is aimed a little bit over my head (I’m neither a mid-career nor a recovering academic yet) and I am somewhat ambivalent about the emphasis on entrepreneurialism, which often leans toward career coaching. But I like listening to people talk about how they navigated their academic careers, if only because that is something I’m just starting to do.

The recent episode with Brandy Simula was particularly good.

Dr. Simula talked at length about pandemic burnout and suggested that professors identify what tasks need to be done at 100%, which ones can be done at 70%, and which ones can be let go. I was already feeling exhaustion tug at the corners of my awareness when I listened to this episode, but I also know that my students are living through the same world events at an even more tumultuous time in their lives.

A useful reminder going into this semester.

ΔΔΔ

I have spent a lot of time going back and forth about what I want to do for pandemic contingencies this semester and how much I need to front-load that information in my syllabuses. I am working at a university that made it through last year without interruption, is requiring masks when indoors, and has a good rate of vaccination, but the Delta variant is all-but guaranteed to take some students out of class this semester. Right now I am encouraging students who are experiencing symptoms or who have tested positive to remain out of class and will offer alternate assessments for them to make up what they have missed.

Zoom is a wonderful tool for some purposes and I am looking to offer virtual options for office hours, but trying to teach students in the classroom and on Zoom simultaneously was so exhausting last year that I would like to avoid a repeat of that experience if at all possible.

ΔΔΔ

On a recent road trip I found myself working through the archive of the Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast. In one episode, Zach Braff dropped a line attributed to the eminent screenwriter Lawrence Kazdan:

Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.

This is a catchy aphorism, though I couldn’t find a source in a few minutes of poking around online. I think its spirit is correct — writing often gets done on top of other employment because writing alone won’t pay the bills, for one thing, but writing also involves hours spent thinking about writing and deadlines that superficially resemble school. But I also think that comparing writing to homework trivializes writing in some ways. Writing is work, full stop. The fact that it takes place at home and sometimes off-hours doesn’t change that.

I am a little bit behind on my work right now, but I’m hoping that the structure of a semester will help motivate me to sit down at the computer and plug away at my projects. This is work that I want to do, I just don’t like the implication of calling it homework. Then again, what I really need to be more disciplined about is reading.

ΔΔΔ

I am officially one week into my new position at Truman State University — a full-time non-tenure-track position teaching world and ancient history. The result is that today has a little bit more than the usual first-day jitters.

So far, the students are enthusiastic and I like my colleagues, but, selfishly, I am most looking forward to having all of my classes at one institution that is invested in me as a teacher. This is a welcome change after several years of hustling for classes at a bunch of different institutions all of which made their decisions on different timelines.

These are all good changes and I am thrilled to be here. I am just also still in a little bit of disbelief and for this year at least feeling a measure of survivor’s guilt.

ΔΔΔ

I’m not as prepared for this semester as I would like to be, but I am looking forward to it quite a lot. For now, that will have to be enough.