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Minds on Fire – Mark C. Carnes

Earlier this year I crowd-sourced a list of teaching materials. Now that the fall semester is imminent, I am finally getting a chance to sit down with the list again in order to prepare for my courses.

The subtitle of Minds on Fire is its mission statement: “how role-immersion games transform college.” The book itself is a manifesto for Reacting to the Past, serving to defend and justify the games developed by the consortium.

Carnes’ core contention in Minds on Fire, and the underlying principal behind Reacting to the Past, is that students are engaged in “subversive world[s] of play” that range from video games to Zombies v. Humans to fraternity events. On the other end of the spectrum “all classes are kind of boring.” The solution, Carnes argues, is to harness the subversive worlds of play toward academic ends; that is, give students competitions and games that tap into their natural inclination for this subversive behavior and get them to do more work without thinking about it as work. Teachers facilitate the games, but then step back and empower the students to take the reins.

After setting out these principals, Carnes dedicates much of the book to laying out the advantages and countering the criticisms of using games in the classroom. There are chapters on how Reacting games teach morality and leadership and spontaneously produces community, things which are often touted as the purpose of a humanistic education or baked into college mission statements. Another section rejects the positivist contention that the past is a fixed stream and that opening the possibility of changing the past undermines history education. In each instance, the philosophical and pedagogical ideas are buttressed by excerpts from interviews with students who went through Reacting courses.

Minds on Fire is a convincing read, though I should say that I went in predisposed to think that as someone who has always balanced a fascination with history books with hours of subversive play. Carnes acknowledges, but also skims past, some courses are not going to be suitable for Reacting games and that not every Reacting exercise will be a raucous success. Nor is there much acknowledgement that Reacting is a radical proposal that seeks to achieve a fairly standard aim: significant learning experiences. Reacting classes, by not seeming like school work, give students ownership over their education and “trick” them into having experiences that cannot be faked or cheated.

There are other means to this same end, but there are also numerous classes where Reacting is a particularly effective way to grapple with issues, and I think it is no coincidence that some of the success stories came from Freshman Seminar or great ideas sorts of classes. I also think that long-running games could be particularly successful in discussion sections as a complement to lectures.

In sum: there were times that this book was too much of a manifesto, but while not every course needs to be a Reacting game, but every course can take lessons from Minds on Fire.

AP World History (Ancient)

The College Board received push back a couple of weeks ago when it announced changes to the AP World History curriculum, making the course begin in 1450. Critics online gnashed their teeth about a number of things, raising the legitimate concern that this would further marginalize the pre-modern world and that the chosen date, such that it meant anything, would default to a Euro-centric world view. The board responded this week by announcing that the new date is 1200, not 1450. Critics gnashed their teeth, albeit also in befuddlement at the seemingly arbitrary date.

(For what it is worth, the College Board’s stated explanation for the date, that it will allow “a study of the civilizations in Africa, the Americas, and Asia,” does check out. Now Genghis Khan, Mansa Musa, and the rise of the Aztecs all fall within the range. 1200 starts the course in media res, but that was inevitable when you put a start-date on a course.)

Reading the College Board’s announcement about the changes, I am of two minds. First, I am sympathetic when they say, based on the feedback from teachers that the current model is unsustainable because they are trying to do too much.

The current AP World History course and exam attempt to cover 10,000 years of human history—from the Paleolithic Era to the present. In contrast, colleges manage the unique breadth of world history by spreading the content across multiple courses.

The announcement is a little misleading when it says what college courses do and do not do—I did have a World History from the beginning of time to 1960 course in college—but, from the other side of the table, these broad strokes courses are incredibly hard to teach. Even “just” teaching a world history or Western Civilization before 1500 is covering a laughably enormous swathe of time, which is also the reason I have no pity for the US history professors who complain that there needs to be another mitotic division of their survey sequence, taking it from two to three courses. It has, however, been my position for a while that if I were made Grand Poobah of History Curriculum, I would invert the current paradigm and only teach the survey courses after students had been exposed to historical methods in specialized courses. The idea here is that by going from the specific to the general rather than the reverse, the students are better prepared to appreciate historiographical arguments and big themes.

The problem with this approach is that it is not scale-able as part of a standard test scheme meant to grant college credit. The situation the College Board finds itself in is quite the bind. It needs a single survey course to stand as a substitute for a college course because fragmenting the courses would neuter its ability to be a standard test and therefore undermine credibility. At the same time, the enormity of the course makes it difficult to teach the material in such a way that prepares the students to succeed at the work asked of them on the test. I don’t love this incentive structure with regard to student testing, but given the incentive structure in college courses I at least understand it. Moreover, in looking at old sample questions, the test itself isn’t bad in terms of the skills it is designed to measure. But it is also a lot. Obviously something needs to change.

This does not, however, mean that I agree with the changes the College Board made. My main issue is the decision to prioritize modernity, particularly because the AP European History, which starts in 1450, has already done the same thing. At this point I could start declaiming, ridiculing the absurdity of teaching a world history course that takes for granted the miracle that is agriculture, that conveniently forgets that Rome laid the groundwork for modern Europe, or that doesn’t bother trying to understand the founding and development of *any* of the world’s major religions. Yes, there are a couple of things that happened after 1200 (or 1400) that are important, but these are all built on precedents and developments that came before.

The college board has put out that it is open to creating a second AP World History (Ancient) course, which, despite the awkwardness of the name (congratulations, Richard I of England, you’re an ancient king!), is a fine ambition. But here is the thing: I am skeptical of how quickly yet another AP course can be developed and instituted, let alone how widely it would be picked up. Things have changed since I was in high school, but when I was coming up I didn’t even have access to one AP World History course, let alone two. I got my start with classes on all things ancient through my Latin teacher. Now I am fortunate enough to teach ancient history to college students and am consistently impressed with how many students from all sorts of disciplines come out to take my classes.

Maybe I am wrong and this interest will prompt dedicated high school teachers to make the second course come to fruition, but in the meantime I cannot help but think of this as a missed opportunity on the part of the College Board. There had to be a change to the AP World History course, but instead of even temporarily erasing antiquity, it should have kept the earlier portions, perhaps as an AP World History (Foundations), and developed (Modern) as the secondary offering.

The Mersault Investigation – Kamel Daoud

The central event in Albert Camus’ The Stranger is Mersault’s cold-blooded murder of an unnamed Arab in the 2 o’clock hour on the beach. The murder leads to his trial and execution—albeit more for his failure to weep for the death of his mother than for the actual act. The Arab, we are told, is the brother to a Frenchman’s mistress, but otherwise remains utterly unknown. Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation breathes life into this space.

The story unfolds as told some seventy later by Harun, the nameless Arab’s younger brother in a series of conversations with a student who has come to Algeria to learn the truth behind The Stranger.

Harun reflects on the irony of how his brother is erased in Camus’ text, making him simultaneously famous and unknown. In telling the story about his life after the death of his brother, Harun realizes that he is the Algerian mirror-image of Mersault. He kills a Frenchman for more reasons than Mersault has in killing his brother, but where Mersault is sentenced to death, Harun is dismissed without trial, perhaps because his mother yet lives. He has a failed relationship with an urban woman and where Mersault dies shunned by crowds, Harun lives with an audience of one, if he is to be believed.

The result is a brilliant post-colonial response to the The Stranger. Daoud takes what is effectively a philosophical story about the absurd that focuses on colonizer and turns it on its head. He condemns the original book for its solipsistic gaze on the colonial establishment that eliminates the colonized—up to and including the way in which is labels Algerians “Arabs”, but develops many of the same themes of absurdity and isolation equally to the colonial experience. For instance, Harun tells how his interpretation of religion has left him unusual among his countrymen after the revolution. The Mersault Investigation largely avoids the political and historical consequences of colonialism, but instead uses its intertextuality as a lens through which to explore issues of identity and colonial narratives, including the absurdity irony that this story is prompted by an unnamed, probably French, student setting out to learn the truth of this famous book.

I really loved The Mersault Investigation and think that it lives up to the accolades it received, but feel compelled to add that this is best read in conjunction with The Stranger since its strength derives from the resonances and dissonances with the earlier book.

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I just finished reading Han Kang’s rather horrifying novel The Vegetarian, which is fundamentally about the abuse of a woman’s body by all of the people in her life.

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.

This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

Winner of the 2015 Hugo award and a number of awards in China, Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem is an astounding work of science fiction and a meditation on humanity. The story starts in a way that is equal parts gruesome and banal, with purges of the Chinese academy during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. one of the professors killed for his scientific beliefs is Ye Zhetai, and his daughter Ye Wenxie is sent with other educated youths to a rural timber camp in order to be rehabilitated. There Ye Wenxie gets the chance to read a contraband copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and is relocated to the top-secret Red Coast Base where she languishes for decades. But it turns out that Red Coast Base is not merely a military installation: it is the first site on earth to receive communication from an extra-terrestrial civilization and the spot where someone figures out how to respond.

In the present day it is not so problematic to be a scientist, unless you count the rash of unexplained deaths of researchers working on the cutting edge of their fields. It is on account of these deaths that the police visit Wang Miao, not putting him under suspicion, but because they need to recruit a scientist to figure out what is going on. From there Wang Miao gets sucked into a world of intrigue that includes unexplained countdowns appearing on pictures he takes and a shadowy conspiracy. Central to the conspiracy, it seems, is the immersive Three-Body game.

The Three-Body game is an interactive virtual simulation of a world beset by problems that limit the progress of civilization. During stable eras civilization flourishes, but these are short and of unpredictable duration; during chaotic eras the length of days and nights are highly variable, with nights bringing bitter cold and days extreme heat. Non-essential personnel dehydrate during chaotic eras, while everyone else hides, preparing to reemerge or rehydrate at the start of the next stable era. Chaotic eras may be weathered, but does not usually destroy civilization—ends are augured by shooting stars in the sky. Too few and the world goes up in flames; too many (three, as it happens) and the world is buried under glaciers of frozen gasses.

Players compete to unlock the secrets of the world of Three-Body and to develop a calendar of the eras. But Three-Body also serves as a recruitment tool for a transnational group, ETO or Earth-Trisolaris Organization founded by Ye Wenxie and Mike Evans, the heir to an oil fortune who espoused what he called “Pan-Species Communism.” The group’s purpose was to revive what Ye Wenxie began at Red Coast Base: namely to make contact with extra-terrestrial civilization and to invite them to earth. There is a unity of purpose, but internal disputes over doctrine with regard to whether humans can be reformed or if the earth needs to be purified of its most invasive species. In either case, the extra terrestrials are coming.

The Three-Body Problem weds two types of stories that intersect through the game. One is that of Wang Miao, aided by the eccentric police office Shi Quiang, trying to solve the mystery of what is happening to the scientists, and, by extension, the nature of the Three-Body game, which appears to hold the key. The second is the psychological drama and spiritual awakening of Ye Wenxie that culminates in the revelation of the nature of Trisolaran civilization. The two stories are paced differently, but they are inextricably linked.

The most successful part of the book, in my opinion, is Cixin Liu’s meditation on human nature. There are plenty of examples of humans fighting aliens in fiction, but there is something to the idea that people romanticize the prospects of humans not being alone in the universe. Thus he writes in the author’s postscript:

There’s a strange contradiction revealed by the naïveté and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease. But when they gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligence exist, they must be civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct.

The Three-Body Problem ends up a curious balance: an optimistic story driven by characters utterly pessimistic about human nature. I was not overwhelmed by the depth of any of the characters and I only understood the very basics of the mathematical problems that underpin the science, but the philosophical rumination more than made up for any deficiencies, and I am very much looking forward to reading the sequels.

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I finished reading Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation, which breathes humanity into the Arab from Camus’ The Stranger, and am now reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.

Ghost Wars – Steve Coll

Two events on successive days in September 2001 changed the trajectory of modern Afghanistan. On the 11th, terrorists hijacked four planes in the United States, crashing two into the Twin Towers in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington DC. On the 10th, suicide bombers posing as reporters assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, the leading Afghan leader opposing the Taliban. Coll’s book tries to explain what led to these two events.

The story in “Ghost Wars” begins in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan government was in effect a client state of the Soviet Union, but plagued by civil war and insurrection, leading to a stream of military aid, which grew to a flood and finally a full-fledged invasion. As part of its Cold War strategy, the US worked in tandem with Pakistan’s ISI and the Saudi intelligence services to funnel resources to Afghan rebels.

The rebels were not a united front and aid was not distributed evenly. Pashtun mujahideen in the southern part of the country received the lion’s share, for a number of reasons. They were close by Pakistan and so easy to supply, as well as being the preferred allies or clients of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. At the same time, devout Christians saw fundamentalist Muslims as natural allies—fellow religionists in the fight against Communism.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the independent Tajik leader in the northern Panjshir Valley received the short portion, being harder to supply, attached to illegal opium smuggling, and not as fanatical in his religion. In years to come this choice would prove costly. The actions of the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in the last years of the Cold War kicked off a transnational, radical Islamist movement of which Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda was just one particularly virulent strain.

Coll tackles the monumental task of mapping the shifting currents of Afghan politics, including the rival alliances during the 1980s, the rise of the Taliban after 1994, and how these developments were related to the other political developments in the Middle East, but it is made even greater still by also charting how American interest in the region waxed and waned throughout the region. The result is both the story of the situation in Afghanistan and an enormously frustrating one of bureaucratic and political calculus in America. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1990s when the US administrations declared the Cold War won and Afghanistan a lost cause that was not worth engaging with. The result was that the US had effectively no presence in the region for years, until after the threat from terrorists trained in Afghan bases originally supported by the United States was beyond dispute.

There is too much in Ghost Wars to do a summary justice, but several themes stand out. One is the wide the blind spots of many US policy makers. These included the decision to cultivate militant religious fanaticism and to abandon the region after the end of the Cold War, both of which smacked of short-term thinking with little long-term planning. But equally frustrating were those issues that the US policy makers were concerned with. In the 1990s this meant a focus state-sponsored terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, to the exclusion of transnational actors and conventional attacks. The deliberations in Coll’s recounting, moreover, seemed to register too little awareness that the agendas of even American allies would not necessarily align with the best interests of the United States. The confluence, then, went to explaining how the United States lost touch with, let alone control over, this powerful movement it had helped set into motion.

A second, related, theme is the deep divisions between Afghan and Arab. Coll makes clear that the Arabs were outsiders in Afghanistan, sometimes tolerated, but never really accepted, which added a second level of complexity to the situation. Moreover, it was in this somewhat fragile situation where Osama bin Laden began his slow rise—tolerated because of his wealth, but a relatively minor player until the United States made him the face of transnational Islamic terrorism.

Ghost Wars is a deeply frustrating book to read, by turns making the reader feel for for the Afghans, the CIA, and becoming infuriated by the seemingly-obvious mistakes out of blindness, short-term thinking, and a host of other considerations. But it is also a compelling look at developments that continue to affect the world today even as it seems that US administrations (not simply the one in office today) continue to make some of the same mistakes of policy and rhetoric that characterized the US interactions with Afghanistan from 1979 until 2001. Radical Islamic terrorism is not a phenomenon that developed in a vacuum and the United States is complicit in its rise.

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I am now reading Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem and so far I’m finding it as good as it is touted to be.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre is a blindspot in my reading history, perhaps from a contrarian streak reacting to his fundamental importance to the speculative fiction genres. It was this streak that explains why the only other Dick I have read was problematic Dr. Futurity. Reading The Man in the High Castle in 2018 was a frustrating experience for some reasons, but finally opening one of Dick’s classic works demonstrated why he is so highly regarded.

Everything you know about the outcome of World War 2 is wrong. President Roosevelt was assassinated before the war even began and the US was slow to build its military against the rising threats of Japan and Germany. Now in 1962, the former United States is divided between the Pacific States (Japanese occupied), the Rocky Mountain States (free), and the German-occupied United States. The allies Japan and Germany split occupation of America, one was predominantly inward-looking, while the other achieved world-domination. German demands prevail, meaning a return to slavery of African Americans (a mild outcome compared to what happened when the Germans conquered Africa) and all Jews are declared renegade German citizens who must be deported. German technology grew by leaps and bounds, making them the dominant partner.

The Man in the High Castle unfolds through several small, loosely connected stories. In one, an antiques dealer in San Francisco named Robert Childan gets caught up in a forgery scandal when it turns out that some of his firearms were less than authentic, a fact brought to his attention by Frank Fink, a Jewish man living in secrecy in the Pacific States who approached him in disguise after losing his job as a forger. Around the same time a man calling himself Mr. Baynes and claiming to be from Sweden but speaking not a word of the language arrives in the city to pass information about Germany to one of Childan’s clients, the Japanese bureaucrat Mr. Tagomi. Meanwhile, in the Rocky Mountain States, Frank’s ex wife Juliana meets a man who introduces her to a banned book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which Germany loses the war and convinces her that they should pay a visit to the author—the man in the high castle himself.

As plots went, each of these was thin, and the characters were only a little bit better. They all served their purpose to show a slice of life in this dystopic America, but I did not find any of the characters particularly memorable or get swept away by any of the plots. What compensated for these weaknesses, was the alternate history that unfolds in the pages. Now, I should say that much of this world exists off stage and those parts are actually filled with a good deal of classic sci-fi fabulism, such as Nazi space colonization. In contrast, what happens in these pages is the stuff of horror as a highly plausible rendition of what could happen in the event of fascist takeover.

The Man in the High Castle was worth reading for the setting alone, but I found myself asking what the takeaway ought to be from the novel. This grim vision of what could happen in the United States seems to have particular resonance in the current political climate, and Dick does a good job of underscoring that some American collaborators welcomed the new status quo rather than simply acquiescing to the new reality. But the novel is structured to build toward the ultimate reveal of Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. We are led to expect that he is a political reactionary living in a fortress, but when Juliana arrives it turns out that he is living in his own delusion, namely a normal suburban life. Further, she discovers, Hawthorne has largely put aside the I Ching and ceased looking at the world through the lens of this form of divination. These passages reek of fatalism, but a positive reading of this is to say that the refusal to give into fear and reclaiming agency is the highest form of resistance—not to mention that a book can change the world.

In the end, I was uncertain where I came down. The people bent on destruction are thwarted, at least for the moment, but the Reich still rules.

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Things have been hectic around here between the summer class I am teaching and trying to find time for my research projects, so I am slowly working my way through Ghost Wars, a history of the US involvement in Afghanistan before 9/11.

Inventing Ethan Allen – John J. Duffy & H. Nicholas Muller III

Fiction resists fact to persist as heritage – David Lowenthal (as an inscription at the start of a chapter)

“[The founders of the Vermont Historical Society] thought that the robust growth in the state’s formative years and the bold assertions of its independence held lessons that would help the state deal with what they deemed as its declining prospects….[Henry Stevens] set out to sculpt Ethan Allen as a figure of such stature to inspire and guide Vermont through the vicissitudes of change he and his colleagues largely regarded as negative.”

As a child obsessed with history growing up in Vermont, it was inevitable that I collected the stories of Ethan Allen, considering with pride his “noble” defense of Vermont against the predatory New Yorkers and his “heroic” capture of Ticonderoga from the British. (The fact that he got captured in a foolish and impetuous invasion of Canada just meant that he was human.) Ethan Allen was obviously a great man, the founder of a state that I was, and am, proud of.

If pushed as a somewhat more developed historian, I would have obviously pushed back on these stories as foundation myths. I might have even admitted that Allen was a terrorist against the New Yorkers, who probably deserved it (more on this in a minute). That much is abundantly clear, but I didn’t have evidence for the formation of the myth or even for much about Allen’s life.

On a recent road trip, however, I visited Fort Ticonderoga and picked up Inventing Ethan Allen, which attempts to explain exactly that.

Duffy and Muller’s central thesis is deceptively simple: the Ethan Allen of legend was not the historical Ethan Allen, but a figure that was developed first by Allen’s brother Ira and later by the State Historical Society in order to give the small state a prominent past, particularly during the 19th century when Vermont was suffering from a deep economic slump.

The historical Ethan Allen is a shadowy figure, such that none of the statues allegedly bearing his features was based on his likeness. Born in Connecticut in 1738, Allen’s early years were filled with failed business ventures such as mining, before getting a break as a land speculator in the contested space between New Hampshire and New York. This territory was, in effect, sold twice, once to Allen, his family, and some other speculators, and once by New York. When challenged on the land, Allen’s cohort consolidated their claim to the Champlain Valley in the form of the Onion River Company, terrorizing the New Yorkers who moved in, and ending up with a bounty on his head. The Revolutionary War provided Allen new opportunities, and he touted his victory over the score of British soldiers at Ticonderoga even though he outnumbered them by more than four to one, before a series of blunders cost him leadership of the Green Mountain Boys. Nevertheless, he emerged from the war with more land than ever, both through a dowry brought by a second marriage and through legal machinations that stripped “traitors” of their land.

The portrait of Allen painted by Duffy and Muller is, by and large, unflattering. He is bombastic, arrogant, and self-serving, even while largely blundering about. Instead of a defender of freedom for small farmers, he was as ruthlessly exploitative as the New Yorkers, just better at waging the war of pamphlets. Instead of a valiant patriot who won a stunning blow at Ticonderoga, the fort was in disrepair and the Allen brothers (along with Governor Chittenden) entered into negotiations with Frederick Haldimand about bringing Vermont back into the British Empire as a province. Instead of a philosophical thinker who published tracts on ideas of liberty, he was a plagiarist who took credit for his teacher’s work. And adding to these complications, Duffy and Muller argue, was that Vermont’s early ban on slavery actually provided cover for men like, and probably including, Allen to own slaves.

When Allen died his image and legacy ceased to be his own. This could have gone poorly for Allen given his shady reputation and numerous enemies, but it turned out to be a blessing. Allen’s record as an arch-patriot was taken up, burnished, and expanded in the succeeding years by a series of historians who took it upon themselves to give Vermont a past equivalent to Massachusetts or Virginia. The first of these writers was Ethan’s brother Ira, who was probably central to downplaying the Haldimand negotiations in the first histories since they likewise implicated him, but it was the foundation of the State Historical and Antiquarian Society in 1838 that breathed new life into the legend. This society was founded by four upper-middle class, non-farming, anti-slavery elites who thought that Vermont in the 1830s suffered from economic and moral decay that could be restored only through a careful retelling of the state’s history. Allen, the enlightened patriot and hero of Ticonderoga was the cornerstone of that project.

Through these efforts and the nature of stories, Allen went from a hard-drinking, narcissistic bombast to a larger-than-life exemplar of backwoods and populist virtue, a trickster straight out of a folktale.

Inventing Ethan Allen is an achievement that balances the historical Ethan Allen, with the more complicated story of memory and the formation of cultural mythology. I say this both as a born Vermonter, where the discussion about the economic struggles of 19th century Vermont struck close to home, and as a historian interested in memory, where the discussion of Allen resonated with my recent reading of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash. The combination of these things and that Ethan Allen was a larger-than-life character made this a fascinating read. I may still have an instinctual mistrust of New York, but I can concede that the origins of Vermont are much more complicated than appears in the white-washed tradition. But then, that is usually the case.

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I’ve recently finished two novels, The Company She Kept, a Joe Gunther mystery by Archer Mayer, and Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Quest. I have thoughts on both, but neither is the first book in a series, so I am undecided on whether I will write about them.

Going to Parts Unknown

More than once this afternoon I’ve had to wipe tears from my eyes over the death of a rich man I’ve never met. I’ve mourned the passing of celebrities before, but never to this degree, which rivals the emotional reaction I have had to family members passing.

I am, of course, reflecting on the the death of Tony Bourdain and trying to articulate why this one hit me so hard.

I have been travelling the world vicariously with him for a long time, revisiting places I’ve been fortunate enough to see myself and getting to travel to places I haven’t been able to go, whether for lack of time or money.

I was hooked by Kitchen Confidential and sucked into the craft of No Reservations. I’ve had some of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown on in the background today, including the Punjab, Sichuan, where he force-feeds eminent chef Eric Ripert spicy peppers and alcohol, Massachusetts, with its powerful look at the narcotics epidemic, and now Charleston just so that I can chuckle at the Chef’s Table music played over B-roll of a Waffle House meal being prepared. Each episode is different, but they are all approached with sincerity, curiosity, and humor, as well as an attention to the craft of film-making and even literary stylings that I find particularly appealing. The shows are approachable, but not stupid, smart but not arrogant—that is, unless you are a vegetarian watching anything but his shows on India.

Tony Bourdain reminded me that success is not something that is the sole purview of the young. Tony was not perfect, but neither did he pretend that he was.

But with rare exceptions, it isn’t so much what Bourdain produced that I have found so moving, but the outpouring of anecdotes and stories online from friends, professional acquaintances, and random people who happened to meet him once. The people who have said that Tony’s enthusiasm convinced them as picky eaters to go try something else; the people who related anecdotes about a passing conversation with him in line to get food at some food stall; his hatred of Henry Kissinger; stories about his unwillingness to tolerate people who don’t treat waitstaff with respect or for food waste or for Harvey Weinstein. Above all: the sheer number of people who posted about how his show about a place or people who were theirs, including Arabs, West Virginians, Louisianians (to name a very small few), did right by them. How this aging white Yankee from New York working for multi-million dollar companies came to their place and embraced their food, their traditions, and them in a way that allowed their stories to be told.

As many people pointed out on Twitter, Tony Bourdain pushed a product that encouraged Americans not to be afraid of the world and all that it contains. Without trivializing the Tony’s loss to his loved ones, the supreme tragedy as I see it is that this message of curiosity, openness and enthusiasm stood opposite the dominant political narrative in the United States, which has been hijacked by people who peddle fear and who exploit position of power for selfish ends. It isn’t that he was the only person carrying this standard, but a picture is worth a thousand words and Parts Unknown every week delivered warmth and humanity from some small pocket of the world .

We are fortunate there is such a catalog of Tony’s voice already available, but that doesn’t diminish the sadness at his passing at a time when the relentless cacophony from the other side threatens to drown out the basic decency that he stood for. That voice will be missed.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Online there was sex and security and plenty and glamour.

In a once-vibrant city hemmed in by an approaching civil war, two people meet while taking a night class. Saeed is fascinated and intimidated by Nadia. The former is quiet, reserved, and a simple traditionalist. Not a radical, but Romantic and nostalgic. The latter presents a formal, cloaked form to the world, but beneath it is a fiercely independent woman who veils her body precisely so that she may act as she wishes.

Their affair begins innocuously enough, but becomes increasingly fraught as war disrupts the routines of life. Together they exit west, passing through doors to other worlds. First they land in Mykonos, then London, and finally outside San Fransisco. Nadia and Saeed are forever linked, but where she becomes liberated, he succumbs to his nostalgia. The relationship is doomed to failure, but not out of malice. Nadia and Saeed cling to each other, first out of affection and then out of familiarity. Indeed, the shared trauma of dislocation extends an affair that could have ended as unremarkably as it started simply because people change.

Exit West is a beautiful and tender emigration story. Hamid does not name Nadia and Saeed’s home city, but it is a composite of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, all deeply torn by the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011. When the war closes the world open to people online and by phone collapses into the immediate concerns of survival, and the opportunities for sensuality, through sex and drugs and other forms of pleasure, disappear. Gone is the world that allowed Saeed’s parents to lead satisfying and well-rounded lives in the city and in their own home. The young lovers cling to each other to preserve what they can, remembering what might have been through their bodies.

Escape comes at a price and each time they they enter lands of plenty, it is with nothing to their names. Hamid’s focus in Exit West is the consequences of each move on Nadia and Saeed, and how they experience the world. News of hatred and war and political actions are dim observations rather than the central issue because that is how the protagonists experience these things. The result is a sad and sympathetic story of two people trying to find their way in the world.

Violence is omnipresent, surrounding and affecting Nadia and Saeed, but only directly touching them once. Each chapter of the main narrative is further divided by interludes that give a glimpse of someone and somewhere else. Doors and windows feature also prominently in these passages and serve to reinforce the transience and fragility of life.

Exit West is a story of loss and dislocation, remembering and forgetting, but it is also fundamentally optimistic. This emerges in the story’s conclusion (which I will not go into here), but also in the way in which the protagonists look at the world. Both Nadia and Saeed are looking for a better life, first in their intimate relationships and employment, but later in terms of safety and security. These ambitions drive them. They resist the temptation to turn bitter at the violence and hatred that they encounter, instead choosing to embrace the kindness and generosity of people they meet.

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I just finished reading Inventing Ethan Allen, a study about the cultural memory of Vermont’s founding “patriot.”