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#AcWriMo 2018: Liking and Writing

This is another #AcWriMo reflection post, adjacent, but not directly in response to the reflections designed by Scholarshape.

My father asked me a tough question a few months back. He asked me if I like to write. I hedged, if I recall correctly, first saying that I liked having written, before answering affirmative. 

And yet, when I told my partner that I was writing this, she laughed at me, saying that I obviously do.

The reason why this is a difficult question for me is that I don’t like my writing, much as I don’t like my handwriting. While there are individual pieces that I like well enough in retrospect, there has never been a time that I have actually liked my prose. Since the process of writing is, in effect, being forced to sit and look prose for extended periods of time, it can be painful when your opinion of that text is that it is clumsy and labored.

On the flip side, I have written quite a lot over the past ten years. I wrote an MA thesis (c.130 pages in MS Word), a PhD dissertation (c.500 pages), three articles (c.5, 25, and 40 pages), a book proposal (c.25 pages), three published book reviews, a dozen conference presentations of varying lengths, a few hundred thousand words of blog posts, as well as seminar papers, assorted scribblings and thoughts in other venues and physical journals. If you subscribe to the idea of words as a zero-sum game such that writing one place limits your ability to write elsewhere, there is a critique here about where my words are going and I should try to find more outlets that are not self-published, as much for the purpose of having an editor as for any other reason. Other people write more and other people write better, but this is a considerable output that indicates that, at the very least, I don’t hate writing.

But not hating writing and liking writing are two different things, in much the same way that there is a small, but significant difference between responding to the questions “how are you doing” with “not bad” and “well.” It is also inadequate to say that I like having written because it distills writing to its completed form, boiling away both process and the work that goes into writing. I had the thrill of seeing my words in print this weekend when an editor sent me a digital copy of my article due out this month, but this payoff is just the tip of the iceberg of the rounds of research, writing, feedback, and revision that went into the publication. Reducing the pleasure of writing to the pleasure of having written fits well in an age of instant gratification, but the implication that writing is painful is suggestive of an artiste suffering for his art.

I may never like my prose. I can see obvious improvement in hindsight, but still find it wanting, particularly contrasted with stylists whose prose conveys depth, erudition, and wit. The pain of working with my writing is thus the pain of frustration and envy. I may never be the sort who writes the perfect sentence, but there is beauty even in a plain style and every sentence I write gets me closer to finding it.

There are days that no words come, but writing is thinking. Writing is a means of organizing thoughts and making sense of what I read. So, yes, I like writing.

#AcWriMo: Identity

I am intermittently participating in Scholarshapes’ “reflective” #AcWriMo for 2018, not necessarily in-step with the prompts. I previously wrote a post on the topic “about”; today’s post is on identity categories, the prompt for day 14.

In some ways my scholarship seems to have almost nothing to do with my identity. Being entirely superficial about it, I am not, for instance, primarily interested in questions of gender, sexuality, religion, or rural, small-town identity. In each case, I recognize the importance of and like reading about these issues to incorporate into my teaching, but they are not the questions that comes first to my mind when I sit down to research. Nor do I research books, games, sports, or food, my other hobbies and interests, though I hope to research food as part of a future project. In fact, the questions that come first to me as a student and now an early-career scholar tend to look like those of someone who grew up reading old-school political histories and fantasy novels—probably because I was.

This does not, however, mean that my identity is absent from the types of questions that influence my research. It just took a while to figure out what linked the questions I kept coming back to in classes and, eventually my dissertation.

There are outliers, but unifying threads to most of my research is the tension between the center and periphery and a dissatisfaction with histories that normalize the political, cultural and economic centers. This manifests in a number of forms, including an interest in how the Macedonian court of Philip and Alexander incorporated newcomers into their court, interest in the Roman provinces, and an interest in parts of Greece outside Athens and Sparta. In particular, it manifests in my main research project that reinterprets the position of Ionia in the Aegean. The question is how any of this a reflection of my identity.

I grew up in small town Vermont, far enough north that I’ve had people tell me that it might as well have been Canada. Fads and trends came almost stereotypically late before the arrival of fast internet, like in Pawnee from Parks and Rec. In fact, Woodbury, which is where I went to elementary school, was peripheral to the larger town of Hardwick, where I went to high school, meaning that this peripherality operated on two levels. Adding to all of this was that my parents had moved to Vermont from the midwest. I recall that the integration to high school was harder coming from Woodbury than anything about my parents’ backgrounds, but these factors are all woven together into my background.

I don’t consciously think in these terms when I choose what I research, but in retrospect these factors absolutely shape my approach to history as much as they shape my exasperation with New York or Los Angeles as normal for America.***

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***This is not exclusively an urban-rural distinction, or a coastal-flyover one, but a complaint about using a funhouse mirror version of two of the largest metro areas in the United States as shorthand for “American” in cultural representation.

Neuromancer

Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory.

In a world of bright, runaway urban sprawl, grungy alleys and runaway tech-implants, Case is a cowboy. That is, someone who jacks into computer mainframes and hacks into programs to steal things. Case was a cowboy. Two years ago he stole from his employers, was caught. Instead of killing him, they injected him with a toxin that fried his nervous system and burned out his ability to operate in cyberspace.

Broken and living with a bounty on his head in Chiba, Japan, Case is recruited by a mysterious man calling himself Armitage and his dangerous employee Molly, a tech-enhanced killer. Armitage pays for an experimental surgery to repair his broken nervous system, telling Case that he is on the hook for a job. If he refuses, the toxins will be released back into his blood.

What follows is a dizzyingly-psychedelic heist novel. Case comes to realize that Armitage is a front for a more powerful entity, a powerful artificial intelligence called Wintermute created by the enigmatic Tessier-Ashpool family against the Turing board regulations. But Wintermute is incomplete, and has assembled this crack team of broken individuals to unite it with its other half, Neuromancer.

Neuromancer does a few things really well. Its world is immersive and the consequences of this tech-dystopia are revealed. Anything is possible, for the right price. For instance, Molly sold her body for sex in order to pay for the enhancements. Not explicitly called prostitution, Molly became a puppet where she experienced it as a dream while her body fulfilled the desires of men.

The mandatory scenes of collecting the team were likewise effective. The individuals are all highly competent, but equally flawed. The result is that the tensions are ratcheted up because the team is simultaneously competing against the opposition and racing against the inevitability that their old flaws—drugs, trauma, physical limits—cause them to crack.

I appreciated Neuromancer, but I didn’t love it. For instance, where Molly’s sexual history was effectively horrifying, both highlighting the exploitation inherent in her objectification and coming back with narrative ramifications, she has another relationship with Case. It is clearly consensual, but it was comparatively unexplained and therefore felt gratuitous, as though one of her character’s primary purposes is as a sexual object.

More broadly, Gibson’s attention to the detail of this world was simultaneously effective and distracting, making this the rare book where I pulled up reviews to make sure that I read what I thought I had read.

Published in 1984, Neuromancer was ahead of its time and is one of the foundational texts in the genre of tech-dystopia. It is built out in the underbelly of a world dominated by corporations and wealthy families, where exploitation is rampant and there is a cult-like adherence to faith in technology as a panacea for all ills, and where our heroes are supposed to be the singularly special individuals who are out to save themselves at all costs from a world that has already torn them to shreds.

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I have had less time to read recently than I would like, but that happens sometimes. I just picked up Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a coming of age college novel. It is too soon to pass judgement, but so far, so good.

One Week Without Coffee

I have not had coffee in an entire week.

This is literally unbelievable to anyone who knew me in graduate school and later years of college. As in, “I don’t drink coffee anymore,” is the innocuous phrase that would let people know that I was under duress. I am the type of person who keeps a list of his favorite coffee roasters and shops in every city and who once made the joke on Twitter that he “is more caffeine now than man, twisted and evil.” And yet, here we are.

My body started reacting very poorly to even relatively small amounts of coffee, probably on account of the acid. I am quite clearly a caffeine addict, so began to scale down my intake rather than risking going cold turkey. This meant several weeks of just a small cup of coffee at about 5 AM before cutting it out entirely, replacing some of the caffeine with black tea.

Last Wednesday was the first day without a cup of coffee in I don’t know how long, and it went about as expected. I had four cups of tea and several doses of ibuprofen for the headaches. I did the same on Thursday, and the headaches had stopped by Friday. I have been through this process a couple of times in the past decade when I thought my coffee intake was creeping too high and cut myself off so that smaller doses of caffeine would work again. But these periods were always during the summer when I didn’t have to worry about my head feeling like it was full of wool and could just take an entire day to nap. This time, in addition to various writing projects, I had to teach. Talking in front of students through a fog of caffeine-withdrawal is a challenge, to put it mildly.

The switch to tea seems to be working, though. Still, it has absolutely still been a struggle. Without the constant buzz I feel a little bit dull and want to go to bed a little bit earlier, but my gut is happier and the early returns indicate that my sleep is a bit better. Other than struggling to read more than a few pages of a book before bed, these changes have been good, healthy.

But I say this knowing that I wouldn’t have stopped drinking coffee had I not been all-but forced and that I will probably start drinking it again if I am able. The thing is, as much as I like the bolt of energy, I also like sipping on a cup of good coffee when writing, or grading, or reading. I find it relaxing. Tea may someday supplant coffee, but right now it doesn’t have the same effect.

I Saw Her That Night

It all stank of slivovitz and death. It was nonsense, that oath, nonsense, as Veronika would have said, she who laughed at our first meeting when I told her why we ride into battle, nonsense to fight against everyone who’s ganged up against us, as well as those who betrayed us. But then fight we did, we killed, and it stank of fear and death.

Everywhere life is resurgent, but I’ve been colonized by death, I’ve seen too many dying people to be able to enjoy this summer as everything starts over against, human death has occupied my thoughts like a gnawing rat

As a woman I know that memories of past love are sometimes more powerful than the chains we bind ourselves with, even if just symbolically and for fun.

In the waning months of World War 2, chaos reigns in Slovenia. Nationalist and communist insurgents hold the forests, the reeling Germans still hold the towns, and normal life is practically impossible. In the confusion, Veronika Zelnik and her wealthy husband disappear, taken from their home one night, never to return. I Saw Her That Night unfolds like a mystery trying to uncover what happened from five distinct viewpoints, linked only by their relationship to her. Each chapter is told by the narrator blending the discomfort of the present with the nostalgia and trauma of the past. The result is a brilliantly realized novel.

The first chapter opens with Stevan Radovanović, a Slovenian soldier turned guerilla whose horseback lessons for Veronika turned into an illicit liaison that saw her run away with him. But their romance was doomed from the start, and the second viewpoint is that of Veronika’s mother, who convinced her to return to her husband. The mother gives way to the German doctor who she writes because he was friendly with Veronika and therefore might know if she survived the war. The doctor gives way to Jaži, the housekeeper, and finally to Jeranek, the Slovenian man who sometimes worked on the estate.

Each person is haunted by memories of Veronika and filled with questions. What happened to her? What could I have done? Did I do the right thing? Was I complicit in her death?

Despite not being a point of view character, I Saw Her That Night is built around the character of Veronika Zelnik. Her narrative arc begins innocently enough, with her husband commissioning a cavalry officer to give her riding lessons while the country was at peace. Around the time she returns to her husband Slovenia is occupied by German forces, and her husband frequently hosts their officers which gives her a chance to show off the fluency in the language and fascination with German culture she acquired while studying in Berlin. Leon Zelnik also gives supplies to the insurgents, but his coziness with the Germans nevertheless breeds resentment among those who have less than he does.

I was occasionally disappointed in the presentation of Veronika, though. In particular, she comes across as a manic pixie dream girl who everyone cannot help but love. She is a strident pacifist who the soldier hates at first encounter, a charming and persuasive hostess, and a caring woman who rescues Jeranek and drives his girlfriend to a doctor, but whose flirty interactions with other men nevertheless stoke the flames of his jealousy. This presentation is made more acute because we are never given Veronika’s side of the story and I was reconciled to it because each narrator gives a slightly different picture of the same woman. It is clear that each character is operating with partial information and they are all frequently mistaken about Veronika’s actions and intentions, with tragic consequences.

I Saw Her That Night, which is primarily set a couple of years before its author Drago Jančar was born, is a deeply moving novel about the memory of national trauma, with Veronika’s disappearance standing in for the larger conflict. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this one from a list of “best” Eastern European novels, but was richly rewarded with one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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I am now reading William Gibson’s Nebula- and Hugo-winning, classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. So far I’m finding it to be a disorienting read.

What my academic writing is about

I have never formally participated in #AcWriMo, an academic equivalent for #NaNoWriMo, but some of its tenets about accountability and tracking have shaped how I write. This year, Margy Thomas, the founder of Scholarshape proposed something a little different: an #AcWriMo with prompts for people to reflect on their writing process. The proposed format was short 2–3 minute videos, but she encouraged people to participate through whatever medium they want. I like the idea for a month of reflective writing, but, as my Twitter bio grumpily proclaims, I am eagerly awaiting the pivot past video, so I thought I’d pop in with a few thoughts here when I have a spare moment and the prompt fits.

The theme for day five is “about,” in the sense that periodically asking yourself what your project is about is a way to clarify its purpose, scope, and importance.

I describe my current research project as:

A substantial revision to the scholarly interpretation of Ionia, a network of twelve Greek cities on and near the coast of Asia Minor, at the intersection of ancient imperial systems in the Classical and early Hellenistic Aegean. My work confronts the scholarly consensus that the region was unimportant during this period along three threads: political and diplomatic history, cultural memory, and historiography. My 2018 article in Ancient History Bulletin weaves these elements together in a reevaluation of the traditions surrounding sanctuary of Didyma at Miletus that credit Alexander the Great with restoring the oracle after 334 BCE. I show instead how the citizens of Miletus and Hellenistic kings used Alexander’s memory as a means to legitimize the new oracle and thereby sell its rebirth. The first phase of this research project will conclude with a monograph, Accustomed to Obedience?: Ionia and Ionians 494–294 BCE, but I plan to continue it through a second book project, a history of Ephesus examining the city’s changing, but ever-present dual identities.

This paragraph is a slightly emended version of the recent project description in my job application letters. Brevity is critical in those documents and I am trying to show a publishing trajectory within an overall research agenda. I add to this elsewhere in the document where some of the significances of this project come in, including that I am interested in issues of imperialism, marginalization, and issues of how we remember the past, both through historiography and cultural memory.

But the framing of projects like this doesn’t come easily for me, and, to borrow from the #NaNoWriMo side, I tend to be more of an exploratory writer than a planner. This definition of what my project is “about” is at least the fourth iteration of trying to encapsulate what this project actually is, and to even envision this as part of a larger research project instead of “just” a dissertation or “just” a book.

Something similar happened in trying to describe the first book project. From the proposal:

This book, the first dedicated study of Classical Ionia, challenges the current scholarly opinion by reevaluating Ionia’s role in the Aegean world rather than seeing it as simply a marginal area located between Greece and Persia. Although most of the cities in Ionia were politically subordinate to Lydia since probably the seventh century, the advent of Persia in 545 BCE is nevertheless treated as a dividing line marking the end of their freedom. The conclusion to the Persian Wars is thus couched in terms of liberating Ionia and yet, in histories of the Classical period, the cities of Ionia are usually presented as prizes for the winner of imperial competitions between larger powers in the Aegean world. This situation became more extreme in the early Hellenistic period with an evolution in political posturing over Ionia and other Greek cities. Kings such as Antigonus and Ptolemy made dramatic gestures of granting Greek autonomy, but by a radically rewritten definition. By the early second century, the Ionians were not even afforded that nicety.

The central thesis of my book is that the Ionians were anything but obedient. Ionia did indeed become a game board for imperial competition in the Classical period and the Ionian cities pieces for the players to capture. In the fifth century, this competition was primarily between Athens and Persia, but then Sparta joined first against Athens, then Persia. In the fourth century, Thebes, the Hecatomnid dynasts, Persian satraps in revolt, and finally Macedonia joined the game. Alexander’s invasion of Persia swept clean the board, but the game began anew upon his death.

But what happens to the game when the pieces are not only conscious, but also capable of influencing player decisions? There were times, such as in the negotiations surrounding the King’s Peace of 386, when the Ionians were excluded from the decision making process and therefore forced into a passive acceptance of imperial politics, but these were the exceptions. Far more frequently, the Ionians were actively involved in negotiating their position not only between competing imperial powers in the eastern Aegean, but also with respect to their regional peer polities.

The story begins and ends with liberation from Persia. In both cases, the promises of autonomy proved hollow and the Ionians would suffer the consequences of the changing political landscape, but neither was their history determined by imperial fiat. Instead, I show the fundamental importance of both domestic political agency and regional competition, while adding to the body of scholarship that demonstrates the interconnectedness of the ancient world.

This book fills a clear gap in the scholarly literature, but its focus on the region at the intersection of imperial politics has wider significance for understanding Classical Greece. Classical Ionia is usually positioned on the margins because Athens staked claim to being the cultural center of the Greek world. The result is that the picture of Ionia is always focalized from the point of view of the West. But what happens if we center the history of the Classical Greek world from the vantage of Ionia? The rise and fall of imperial systems still took place, with Athens, Persia, and eventually Macedonia continuing to loom large in terms of cultural and economic impact, but we gain a renewed appreciation for the decentralization of Classical Greece and thus Greek history as the product of the relationships between Greek poleis and Greeks and non-Greeks.

The easy part was identifying an under-served field of research from Greek history; the hard part was determining why anyone should care beyond that nobody had done it. Despite the enormity of this topic, it was even larger—significantly, unmanageably larger—when I started it six years ago. I scrapped the first “chapter” chapter I ever wrote, and while there is a part of me that loves thinking in big terms and harbors ambitions of writing a throwback magnum opus in the manner of Rostovtzeff, my work right now is better when I keep it focused. Narrowing took time, and between the evolving emphasis of a research agenda and always being on the lookout for new ways to pitch a topic in order to communicate its relevance, this process is never complete. Even now rereading some of those paragraphs I would consider tweaking some of how I describe the project. What I like about the way the project is currently framed is that it gives room for flexibility within the umbrella to craft research talks and articles that focus in on one small story that has broader ramifications.

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Writing that on Monday morning, it took more time than I had hoped, but less than I feared. I fully support reflective writing practice, though, and time permitting will be checking in a few more times this month, perhaps even with fewer block quotes.

One Nation Under God

In their struggle against the New Deal, the business lobbies of the Depression era had allied themselves with conservative religious and cultural leaders and, in so doing, set in motion a new dynamic in American politics.

One of the things I like about teaching American history, and particularly twentieth century US history, is that it is fairly easy for students to see its relevance on contemporary society, which is a reliable way to turn up student engagement. One activity I like to do with students is to establish a broad premise, talk with the students to establish what preconceived ideas are floating around in the zeitgeist, and then work with them to understand how these ideas came from.

For instance, I do this with students when it comes to American religion in the twentieth century. I begin by asking them whether the United States is, broadly speaking, a religious country in general and a Christian country in particular. Some students will bring up the establishment clause in the Constitution, but eventually students say yes. I then ask how we know this, and, among a variety of answers, some student will inevitably point to “In God We Trust” printed on currency. I then work the students through some of the midcentury religious revivals and particularly the emergence of organized religion into the political sphere in the 1950s out of which public declarations of faith in the pledge of allegiance and US currency developed. My point with this activity isn’t to challenge anyone’s faith or even to explicitly reject the idea that most Americans in any given year considered themselves Christian, but rather to encourage students to see how, when and why these symbols came into being and therefore to think critically about what they mean.

I mention this example because I recently had a chance to read prominent #twitterstorian Kevin Kruse’s book One Nation Under God. The elevator pitch for this book is that Kruse goes looking for how the phrase “one nation under god” made its way into the pledge of allegiance of the 1950s. I was aware of the religious revivals in the 1950s and had always interpreted it as the realization of Cold War branding of the United States as distinct from “godless” communism, though, in retrospect, that was a lazy assumption.

Kruse traces the origin of these revivals and the first steps to bring religion from the realm of the personal to public life further back into the 1930s, when, he says, corporate leaders looked to religion to rehabilitate their brands from the stigma of the depression. In turn, and from a combination of personal piety and cynical self-interest, they helped sponsor events that sparked the 1950s revivals. The wave of religion encouraged and manipulated by President Eisenhower changed the nature of public religion in America and created an alliance between capitalism and christianity that dovetailed with American Cold War propaganda. In addition to the changes implemented to the pledge of allegiance and the face of currency, it was in this same period presidents began hosting the National Prayer Breakfast that has since become an annual event.

Where Americans once blanched at bringing the church and the state too close together because of the risk of corrupting the church, Kruse documents how in some of the early controversies over children reciting non-denominational prayers and the pledge of allegiance in schools, the ACLU was hesitant to take up the case on behalf of the parents.

Even though it took me longer to read than I would have liked (a combination of a busy schedule and a lot of detail meant that this was a slow read for me), I really liked On Nation Under God. I knew most of the broad outlines of this story, but the virtue of this book is that Kruse presents a mountain of evidence rather than relying as I was on general impressions. And within that evidence there are unexpected developments.

Two of my takeaways both came from his discussion of issues of religious faith in schools, which was taken to the Supreme Court.

One was the way in which the religion that made its way into public life was light on doctrine as a way to circumvent theological disputes and generate broad support. Nowhere was this more true than in the attempts to establish a non-denominational prayer to be recited daily in schools in New York. Critics thought its “vague theism” was so diluted as to be meaningless, but it strikes me that this pervasively felt, doctrinally ambivalent Christianity remains a legacy in American public life.

The other was an insight into the composition of the court in the 1950s and early 1960s when it passed down rulings on whether students should recite a prayer (no, it is not inherently patriotic) and the pledge of allegiance with the added language of “one nation under god” (yes, it is a declaration of patriotism, not a prayer). Kruse documents how some of the staunchest defenders of these decisions were themselves deeply religious and active in their churches, but that they believed that this was an unconstitutional act of establishing a religion.

As an outsider to both the field of American history and mainstream American Christianity, I am sure that there are facets of this book and its ramifications that I missed, but the broad strokes of this evolution in American political discourse was supremely enlightening for where they came from and thinking about how this relationship between business, religion, and government has developed in the decades since.

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I finished reading Drago Jančar’s I Saw Her Last Night, a fascinating Slovenian novel about the disappearance of a woman in the last years of World War 2, told through the memories of five people who knew her. I’m between books at the moment, but leaning toward next reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

My Own Devices

My usual way of being could probably be summed up as chronically un-hip. I usually read books, list to music and see movies well after that phase has passed. When culture swings back around to where I am, such as with the Song of Ice and Fire (which I started reading in about 2000 when I was in early high school), the hipness doesn’t quite stick. I generally have pretty good taste, in my obviously biased opinion, so this un-hipness doesn’t bother me. It just is.

This is all preamble to talking about a book that, in reading it less than a month after its publication, might possibly be the hippest thing I have ever done in my life. That book, published less than a month before I read it, is My Own Devices, a memoir by the Minneapolis hip-hop artist Dessa.

The essays in this collection consist of stories from and about Dessa’s early career as a touring artist that put friends, family, and challenges front and center. Each essay could stand on its own (and several were previously published), but the through line is her side of an extended, intermittent romantic relationship. Heartbreak became an addiction that defeated “time, distance, and whiskey”—what Dessa calls “over-the-counter remedies” that included moving to New York so that she wouldn’t be in the same town. The collection reaches its climax in the essay “Call off your Ghost,” which recounts her self-crafted experiments with fMRI-scanning and neurofeedback conditioning break this addiction.

Dessa writers beautifully, which is one of the reasons I like her music so much, and in fact there is a passage early on about her ex’ sage advice to rap more like she writes. Pulling back the curtain on these parts of her life put the songs into greater context, particularly for the early releases that aren’t quite as fully developed as in the more recent albums. But that would make this collection only of interest to fans of her music, when this is so much more. What I found particularly effective here is the self-portrait of a bright young woman who is simultaneously curious about the world, wrapped up in her neuroses, and ambitious to the point of grating against her lack of accomplishment.

I can’t do My Own Devices justice here. It is thoughtful meditation family, friends, and art, with a little less science than I was anticipating form the subtitle. (Science shows up in a couple of essays, generally as an adjunct to family or heartbreak.) Dessa is refreshingly blunt, acknowledging her imperfections even while telling her story in a sympathetic light. In short, I loved My Own Devices, going so far as to complain online that I started it at a time when I knew I would have to put it down, and am adding it to my list of Dessa’s work that I recommend to just about everyone I meet.

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I am now reading Kevin Kruse’ One Nation Under God, which argues that the public performance of religious piety in American life was invented in the 1930s by an alliance of corporate executives and religious leaders who opposed the New Deal and came to fruition during a 1950s post-war religious revival.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish

It really is ridiculous how persistently everything in my life has gone awry. It reminds me of a bird that builds itself a nest high in a tree, but at the same time as it sits down to hatch, the tree falls down. The bird flies to another tree, tries again, lays new eggs, broods on them, but the same day that the chicks hatch, a storm comes up and that tree, too, is cloven in two.

The end is at hand, and there’s no point in holding back on the good stuff. So what are you going to offer your guests?

Where to begin? Leemet, the narrator and protagonist is the last man who knows snakish, an ancient language that marks an ancient bond between humans and snakes and gives people control over most animals. Deer offer themselves to be eaten and wolves are tamed for milk and as steeds in time of war. Bears are more of a problem, though usually more because they are the lotharios of the forest more so than for their furiosity. The speakers of snakish live in the forest, in harmony with nature.

In previous generations they lost a war against the iron men who came from over the sea. Now the old ways are dying. People give up the forest to live in the village, show their butts to the sun while harvesting grain, and eat bread, which causes their tongues to become too clumsy to speak snakish. Leemet himself was born in town before his parents moved back to the forest before returning to claim his family inheritance. They are the exception and only a few traditionalists, including the last remaining Primates, remain. Among those are Tambet and his family. Tambet never forgave Leemet for having gone to the village and clings with ever greater desperation to what he sees as the old ways, but his daughter Hiie becomes one of Leemet’s playmates whenever she can escape her father’s wrath. Life in the forest is good for Leemet, but the days when speakers of snakish had venomous fangs, let alone the ability to summon the Frog of the North to repulse the iron men, are gone.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish spins the story of this vanishing world from after an inflection point has been passed. Leemet grows up in a world that is effectively dead. The result is a narrative that is at once a delightful coming of age story and a poignant examination of the nostalgia for lost tradition. The latter particularly emerges through through a number of characters who organize their lives around increasingly bizarre traditions. They claim that these traditions are ancient, whether brought from a far off land or simply how people used to live in Estonia, but what they are doing now is utterly unrecognizable from and usually unrelated to whatever seed they might have sprung from—something Leemet learns when he finally meets his grandfather…who lost his legs after a battle with the iron men and is now collecting bones from men he kills in order to construct a pair of wings.

I came to The Man Who Spoke Snakish purely because I wanted to read a book from a language I hadn’t before. I had never heard of Andrus Kivirähk, let alone read anything by him when I purchased this and a Slovenian novel after doing a bit of online research into “best novel” lists on the internet. I was not disappointed.

In a word, this book is spectacular. Much like a Miyazaki film, its whimsical prose belies that Kivirähk also captures something fundamental about the invention and destruction of tradition. The fact that the story is told as a folktale among a lower strata of society that is straining beneath the rule of the church and the knights is handled so deftly that it is almost invisible. Frequently these choices muted the impact of individual deaths, as though to show that it wasn’t the loss of the individual, but of the collective that is the real tragedy. The Man Who Spoke Snakish has its flaws, including that most of the characters are fun, but flat, but I found myself spirited away and loving every page.

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I recently finished Lorrie Moore’s collection Bark, which was well-crafted, but left me once again trying to figure out what it is about short stories that usually make them fall flat for me. I’m now reading Dessa’s fabulous new book My Own Devices.

Narratives Matter

An excerpt of a new book appearedin Salon this week, provocatively titled “Why Most Narrative History is Wrong. The book is similarly provocative, alleging in the subtitle to reveal “the neuroscience of our addiction to stories.” Naturally this caused a series of knee-jerk reactions that spawned long Twitter threads. I had a similarly impulsive response to the chapter, but also wanted to response to it in good faith before returning to a point the author and I actually agree on, that narratives—the stories we tell ourselves—are fundamental to human societies, because my distaste with this piece emerges from the consequences of this point.

below the jump