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The Trespasser

“Her life was so boring, just thinking about it make me want to hit myself in the face with a hammer for a bit of excitement.”

Despite her junior status, Antoinette Conway is an ass-kicker on the Dublin Murder Squad. With the amount of abuse she receives from her male colleagues as the sole woman on the squad, she has to be. But at this point she is also constantly on edge, even around her partner Steve, the only person she trusts, and ready to quit the force. But first she has to finish the case that arrived on her desk at the end of a night chef––if for no other reason than to show her misogynistic “colleagues” that she can.

The case seems simple enough: an anonymous tip came in that a woman named Aislynn Murray is dead, killed in her home in what seems to have been a domestic dispute. Aislynn is dressed for a date and the man she was seeing admits to having been at her home at almost exactly the time of her death. Even more, the young man, a local bookshop owner named Rory, appears to have been spending a suspicious amount of time on her street.

Everything points to Rory, so Breslin, a senior detective who volunteered to babysit the two rookies, is pushing for Conway to arrest him and close the case. But Rory doesn’t seem like the type and the facts don’t quite line up. Aislynn underwent a radical transformation in recent years without an adequate explanation, her best friend is withholding information and seems scared, and the apartment is wiped down of all prints.

Out of sheer determination and spite, Conway decides that she is going to see this case through to the end.

Like with Broken Harbor, another of French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels, the central case in The Trespasser is competently drawn. These are not grand conspiracies, but intimate crimes that present the detectives with numerous obstacles to overcome, both of which give French ample time to savor the minute details of the process. What sets French’s novels apart, though, is that each book contains a second plot that plumbs the psychological depth of one detective, while leaving the other members in the squad, some of whom repeat from novel to novel, in the background.

Here the fundamental conflict is over sexism on the Murder Squad and how much longer Conway is willing tolerate micro- and macro-aggressions in an environment where it feels like everyone is set against her. Compared to most other detective fiction both of these novels feel like a revelation, but this is the more successful of the two because the two conflicts are intimately connected. Rather than the case sparking the psychological drama, as in Broken Harbor, here the psychological feeds into the professional and vice-versa.

I came to French’s novels through a discussion from the NY Times Book Review podcast where one of the reviewers casually mentioned that French has a lot of devout followers. At this point, consider me a convert. Her stories are neither monumental nor exceptional at invoking setting, but they are brilliant intimate portraits of a single case and the people who solve them.

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My next book is Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age, a military history about the spread of gun technology. He seeks to answer how Europe came to dominate the world with this innovation that the Chinese developed nearly a half millennium earlier.

Mad Ship

Mad Ship is the second book in Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, and one that feels like a direct continuation of Ship of Magic.

Liveships, awakened vessels made of preternaturally hard wizard-wood, are the pride of Bingtown. As expensive as they are exceptional, these ships are the sole possession of the Old Traders, descendants of the original founders of the city, with generations of the families imprinting their memories on their ships through experience and blood. The hulls resist the corrosive effects of the Rain Wild River, allowing the Old Traders to grow wealthy by trading in magical trinkets sourced among the ruins there.

Now times are changing. New Trader families are importing foreign customs to Bingtown, from minor fashions like gender roles to fundamental practices such as slavery. Further, the Jamaillian Satrap, nominally the sovereign of Bingtown, is raising taxes and empowering the traditional enemies of Bingtown, Chalced, to protect the seas from piracy––something that Bingtown residents fear is a prelude to conquest.

In Ship of Magic catastrophe struck the Vestrit family. While carrying slaves under its new captain Kyle Haven, the liveship Vivacia and erstwhile religious acolyte Wintrow Vestrit fell into the hands of the pirate Captain (and self-proclaimed king) Kennit. The Vestrits prepare an expedition to rescue their ship, driven by the impetuous Althea, who has not forgiven her sister for putting Kyle in charge. Their plan involves hinges on the titular “mad ship” Paragon, whose reputation is for having gotten his crews killed. Unknown to them, however, Kennit is determined to win the loyalty of Vivacia as the liberator of the enslaved.

The salvation of the Vestrit family seems to lie with Malta Haven, a young woman torn between fear for her father and being affronted that circumstances will prevent her from taking her rightful place in Bingtown Society. At the same time, her eligibility is an opportunity. If Malta is willing to give up her childhood and marry into a Rain Wilds family, she could secure powerful allies for the Vestrit cause, even if this courtship is haunted by dreams of an entombed dragon who offers her aid in return for freedom.

At the same time, the Vestrits are embroiled in local Bingtown politics where growing resentment against the new impositions threatens to spill out into war, particularly once it is revealed that the young (and arrogant) Jamaillian satrap is on his way to tour their city. A crisis is brewing.

I really liked Robin Hobb’s first trilogy in this world, but took longer to warm to this series. It shows all of the hallmarks of her work, particularly with its surface of tired tropes and cliches belying a story driven by emotional relationships that make it feel like a revelation in storytelling. What sets this series apart from that of Assassin’s Apprentice is that there are many more moving parts. More characters, more settings, and more plot lines, with the result that it was not until midway through the second book that I felt the craftsmanship begin to pay off in earnest.

First, the bad. I remain frustrated with a lot of the superficial trappings of this series. The ship types, for instance, are a mishmash of maritime history. The sovereign of Jamaillia is a “satrap,” a subordinate position in the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which reinforces certain, old, orientalist stereotypes in this series set to the south of this world. Slavery is anethema to the heroes, but is nevertheless omnipresent and one character’s rape is used to further her character development. In each case these are hallmarks of problematic literature that Hobb transcends.

If the underlying theme of Hobb’s earlier books is emotional intelligence that manifests in both character relationships and the magic system, this series adds to the world the importance of memory. Hobb weaves memory through the main plots in both books, but it comes to the fore in Mad Ship adding depth to both the character relationships and to the world itself. Memory of the original charter of Bingtown drives the crisis with Jamaillia and while Kennit strives to forge new memories with Vivacia it is hinted that he is hiding elements of his own past in ways both big and small.

But even more fundamentally, Mad Ship is a story that gradually reveals the nature of this world. In the interludes of Ship of Magic we are introduced to the ravenous sea serpents that are gradually losing sentience. Maulkin, their prophet, is searching for their salvation––one he calls She Who Remembers. What she remembers is how to perpetuate the species, but all Maulkin and his companions find are mindless serpents and sleek silver creatures that skim across the surface, smelling like serpents but swim silently past.

More than merely imbuing the serpents with a life-cycle that is equal parts brilliant and heart-wrenching,* the convergence of this plot and the human stories elevates this book into a masterpiece of the fantasy genre.

[*I usually roll my eyes when I hear fantasy authors say that they wrote X story or Y event “because it was cool,” but for the first time that I can even remember, I exclaimed exactly that to a story element relating to this life-cycle.]

I would recommend reading these first two books in this series in close proximity because I spent a significant portion of Mad Ship trying to remember where Ship of Magic left all of the moving parts, but it is well worth the effort. Warts and all, Robin Hobb’s books are some of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in recent years and I am looking forward to seeing how this series concludes.

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I have also finished reading Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novel, The Trespasser, and am now reading Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age, a military history of the spread of gunpowder technology.

Course Reflection: Spring 2019

Grades are in for the semester, so I am taking a moment to reflect on what worked and what didn’t.

I taught two courses on two different academic calendars this semester. First to start and first to finish was a section of World History Since 1500, a general ed course with 27 students and few history majors; the second was an upper-level survey course, The Hellenistic World, with 34 students, about half of these were history majors and a third had previously taken classes with me.

My World History course got off to a rough start, with a number of interruptions in January so that three weeks into a thrice-a-week class, we had only met five times. Once I went home to record a lecture that students could listen to as a make-up because I worried we were falling behind. These first weeks are critical for building routine, so this was an inauspicious start to the semester.

My goal in these big survey courses is to help students see the big picture of world history, emphasizing two big points: 1) global connections and exchange, and 2) artifice and propaganda in historical presentation (including, among other things, scientific racism). For World History Since 1500, I added a third theme, social organization and centralization.

I designed this course roughly in two halves. The first half set up and paid off the first wave of European colonialism, looking at the underlying factors that underpinned “the age of exploration” and how the Europeans interacted with the places they visited, usually from the perspective of the other people. The second half of the course looked at how European colonialism changed, particularly in the late-18th and 19th centuries, with an emphasis on how the industrial revolution and new scientific notions shaped the world, whether in terms of genocide or establishing a line between the developed world and the global south.

I liked this course arc, and it worked hand in hand with my chosen textbook, von Sivers, et al. Patterns of World History 3e (Oxford), but it also led me straight into the survey trap: trying to cover too much #content. World history since 1500 is an enormous topic. I said this the first day of class, but for as much as I left out, I still tried to cover too much.

Partly because in a bid for coverage and partly because I didn’t have a deep repository of sources and activities for this course, I ended up lecturing more than I would have liked. Usually I intersperse lectures with pictures or written accounts and have students talk about what they see, but was continually thwarted. In frustration I went away from this too much as the semester wore on. I did my best to model good habits for the students by, for instance, presenting a thesis at the outset of every class that I would proceed to offer evidence for, but this was a small consolation compared to backing off and giving my students the agency and tools to learn.

Obviously, this will be a point of emphasis next time I teach this class. The question is whether I would be better off scaling back the amount of content overall in favor of student directed exploration or converting a number of the “lectures” to audio or video presentations. The latter would effectively flip the classroom and dedicate the time to discussion and other activities. There is a lot of virtue in this, but I worry about asking for too much time outside of the classroom for content delivery and thereby either leaving students behind or making class seem superfluous. In class, at least, I can both ask and field questions.

Despite having more students, I was on firmer footing with The Hellenistic World. It was my first time teaching this course, too, using Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium (California) and Michael Austin’s The Hellenistic World (Cambridge) sourcebook.

I subtitled this course “Hellenism from the Mediterranean to the Margins” and let our guiding questions be “what exactly is the Hellenistic period?” and “what makes something Hellenistic?” The first half of the course was fairly traditional, focusing on the funeral games for Alexander the Great and the political development of the big three Hellenistic dynasties, the Ptolemies, Seleucids, and Antigonids, as well as Pergamum and the hellenistic polis. The second half of the course opened up questions about hellenism and hellenistic cultures, with a broad exploration of issues ranging from philosophical schools, Hellenism in central Asia, the supposed rejection of hellenism by the Maccabees, and finally how the appearance of Rome changed the Hellenistic period.

The two courses shared a basic structure, with weekly quizzes, source analyses, and two take-home exams, with an opportunity to revise the first one.

The quizzes serve as a way to touch base once a week, giving students a chance to practice recall (they are allowed to retake the quizzes up until the due date) and to practice thesis-writing skills with one or more written answers, each of which is three to four sentences long. I introduced this system for my survey classes last fall and I’m pleased with the results, except that I will move the due date from Sunday to Friday, based on popular demand. (I wrote about this system here.)

I am on the record loathing bluebook-style exams because I think that they are comically poor tools for assessing what students have learned in a course, and so offer take-home exams instead, adjusting the structure based on course level. In my intro surveys, this meant one essay from a choice of three, one short source analysis, and a prompted reflection.

In The Hellenistic World, an upper level survey, students had to write two essays for each exam, one mandatory about what defines the Hellenistic world, and one from a choice of three. For this course, I repeated a variation of the mandatory question on the final, allowing them to approach it again having gone through the entire course.

My essay questions on these exams are big topics of the sort that a graduate student might see on a comprehensive exam. Obviously I don’t expect comprehensiveness on the exams, but I am looking to see how they craft an argument based on the tools and resources at their disposal. Despite some dud prompts, these questions do a pretty good job of showing what the students have learned, particularly when coupled with an opportunity to rewrite.

Not for the first time, though, I am less satisfied with the results on the source analysis, and, based on the comments on my evaluations this semester, the students are equally frustrated. I would simply drop the assignment, except that, ultimately, this is the thing that matters for historians of any level––and for the time that the students are in the course, this is what they are.

A good source analysis takes an object or text, puts it in its historical context, and analyzes the reciprocal relationship between what it reveals about that context and what the context reveals about it. Almost every object, text, or picture can be historicized this way. Some students take to this project like a fish to water, writing really thoughtful and incisive critiques, but, more often, their responses are all over the map, from so broad as to lack significance to being unable to place the source in a historical context, and everything in between. The broader the topic of the course, the more difficulty students have with this because the more familiar they are with the historical backdrop. Part of the solution will be to dedicate more class time to source analysis tutorials, but I don’t know yet exactly what this will look like.

Finally, I create* [read: adapted from the internet] an assignment for my World History students where they had to read a historical fiction novel set during the period of our course and write about how the author presents and adapts issues of global history in the book. This assignment had mixed success, with some really, really good responses to books like Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, while other students got caught up writing literary, as opposed to historical, analyses. I’m not sure I will keep this assignment the next time around until I also restructure the course around primary sources that more closely map onto the topics of the novels, but I stand by the assignment as a way to help students think about historical and historicizing memory.

This was a grueling semester for me, mostly above and beyond the fact that I was teaching two courses for the first time, and the fact that I had two very good groups of students helped immensely because I almost always looked forward to going to class. And yet, now that I have taught both courses all the way through I finally feel about ready to teach them. Here’s hoping for a next time.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Among the many injustices committed against Native Americans in the 1800s was forced removal. By government mandate, tribes from across the eastern United States moved from their homelands to Oklahoma, which was then considered unproductive land. Among these tribes were the Osage, whose land after the relocation and a series of additional thefts was unproductive even by the standards of Indian territory. At least until their land became the center of Oklahoma’s first major oil rush.

Almost overnight the Osage became, per capita, the wealthiest people in the world. But in the eyes of the federal government, the Osage were incapable of managing their money without the approval of white guardians.

In the 1920s, crisis struck Osage county. Members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances. One was shot, others appeared to have been poisoned. Several white citizens of Osage County tried to help the tribe members, even at the risk of their own lives, but white law enforcement officials, under the guidance of William Hale, a white man dubbed King of the Osage Hills, chalked the deaths up to coincidence and closed the case.

But the official story did not sit well with family members of the deceased and the deaths began to make national news.

At a time when law enforcement was intensely local and often deeply corrupt, this case, with its notoriety and Native American connections, came before J. Edgar Hoover and the nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover passed the case to Tom White, an old-style agent, former Texas Ranger, and the antithesis of Hoover’s dream of an agency filled with college-educated bureaucrats. Nevertheless, White was exactly what Hoover needed in Oklahoma.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann reconstructs White’s investigation, showing how he broke through a conspiracy among the local white community members to kill off the Osage and funnel their financial claims toward Mollie Burkhart and her children with Ernest Burkhart––William Hale’s nephew.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a pop-history that reads like detective novel, and with good reason. It is at its heart true crime, sitting at the intersection of unrestrained capitalism, the wild west, and the difficult relationship between the United States and Native American tribes. As befits his status as a New Yorker staff writer, Grann is most successful at bringing both the conspiracy and the investigation to life. The story imbues names and details to a long history of exploitation and violence, here with private citizens using local institutions to exploit the situation.

However chilling the story was, though, it does not substantially change my opinion about either the treatment of Native Americans or the unchecked capitalism of the early twentieth century. Grann only sketches the backdrop of genocide (and attempted genocide) against Native Americans during this period and otherwise allows the specific case to stand in for much more widespread wrongs.

(Contrast this decision with The Real All-Americans, which is equally easy to read, but its focus on the development of Carlisle Indian School football gives Sally Jenkins a platform to talk more about cultural erasure.)

Something similar happens in the final section of the book where Grann pulls back from sketching the future lives of the principal actors, pivoting to a journalistic narrative of his research and the lingering memory of the case in Osage County. It feels like an epilogue, but falls flat in terms of lasting significance. The meaty issues that prompted and enabled the conspiracy disappear back into the scenery, leaving only the sad, but ultimately insubstantial, memory of an explosive event.

Killers of the Flower Moon was the 2018 Columbia (Mo.) One-Read, and for good reason. Grann gives the reader a lot to chew on and the tone and topic both create a perfect entry-point for students, reading groups, or anyone else who wants to learn a little something about the brutal history of the treatment of Native Americans. Just don’t stop here.

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Next up, I finished Tana French’s The Trespasser, an utterly engaging installment of her Dublin Murder Squad series, and have since begun Robin Hobb’s Mad Ship.

Go, Went, Gone

“Could these long years of peacetime be to blame for the fact that a new generation of politicians apparently believes we’ve now arrived at the end of history, making it possible to use violence to suppress all further movement and change? Or have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? Must living in peace––so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world––inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?”

Without memory, man is nothing more than a bit of flesh on the planet’s surface.

I came to Jenny Erpenbeck in a roundabout way. I had been reading Stefan Zweig through the recent NYRB Classics series when an ancient historian on Twitter lamented that people were reading Zweig and neglecting the current master, Erpenbeck. So I gave Erpenbeck a shot. She hooked me with her first novel, The End of Days, which examines the twentieth century through a series of deaths. In Go, Went, Gone, Erpenbeck is back with a masterpiece about the gulf between the citizen and the refugee in our present time.

Richard, an aging widower, has just retired from his position as a Classics professor in Berlin. Go, Went, Gone opens with him emptying his office and retreating into the mundanity of everyday life where his days are spent making food and watching the news. With his newly discovered time, Richard learns of a hunger strike in the Alexanderplatz staged by refugees from Africa. Fascinated by these men who seem so out of place, he resolves to get to know them and begins showing up at their residence.

Few speak German, but all are multi-lingual, and Richard often converses with them in some combination of Italian and English. Richard begins by treating the men as his new project, but that quickly gives way to genuine warmth as he gets to know these men who literally risked life to reach Europe. One surviving an accident that killed most of the passengers on the over-crowded boat, another sends most of the money given to him to live back to his family. They cling to the friends they have made among their fellow refugees and just want an opportunity to work while being stymied by the impersonal bureaucracies of indifferent-at-best, hostile-at-worst governments.

Richard is methodical in his approach, trying to do his due diligence by not treating these men merely as monolithic outsiders, but even he has to be shaken from his complacency:

For the first time in his life, the thought occurs to him that the borders drawn by Europeans may have no relevance at all for Africans.

But for all of Richard’s conscientiousness, generosity, and empathy for the plight of the outsiders, I found his character distasteful, as though much of his charity was purely self-serving. The Richard we don’t meet, for instance, has his head in the sand about the world around him while he carries on an long-time affair. It is only in the boredom that comes from his retirement that he can be bothered to see what is happening. Likewise, he conceives of the refugees as an academic project first, and, early on, spends almost as much time wondering whether their attractive, Ethiopian German teacher would be interested in sleeping with him as he does trying to help. Richard’s actions are altruistic even if his motives are not, but he nevertheless struck me as a sort of narcissistic humanitarian who is mostly interested in what is in it for him.

Despite my problems with Richard, Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant novel. In one of the first scenes, Richard learns of a drowned man in the lake near his house, creating a massive disruption in his life. Similarly, the disruption caused by the reunification of Berlin, now almost twenty years past, looms large in his existence. And yet, these are minor changes compared to the trauma experienced by the refugees. Richard even struggles to reconcile the present quiet with the memory of Hitler when faced with questions from a refugee whose lived experience was filled with violence.

Politicians in Go, Went, Gone howl about the refugees and make plans to deport them back to Italy––or anywhere, so long as they are not in Germany––but in the world of the novel, the refugees are just people. (In a nice touch that inverts two centuries of racist presentations, Richard takes to giving them nicknames out of Greco-Roman mythology and northern European literature.)

Such is Erpenbeck’s triumph, sitting alongside recent novels like Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. The plight of the refugees is not exceptional––peace is. As a recent review brilliantly puts it: “this is not a world of citizens beleaguered by a tide of refugees, but a world of refugees trapped in the age of the citizen.”

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I just finished David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a riveting history from the 1920s where white guardians conspired to kill their Osage wards in order to deprive them of their tribal allotments, and have now begun Tana French’s The Trespasser, part of her Dublin Murder Squad series.

Across the Nightingale Floor

I found Across the Nightingale Floor by accident. Browsing through my local bookstore, I picked up another book in the same series and opened it because Ursula K. Le Guin had given the book a blurb. Rather than get that book, I redirected to read this one because it was the first in the series, totally oblivious to who Lian Hearn was or really knowing anything about the series. I was not disappointed.

Across the Nightingale Floor is a straightforward fantasy in the tradition modeled after Medieval Romances of brave warriors and doomed love, set in an alternate medieval Japan.

Takeo, as he comes to be known, was raised among the Hidden, a secretive sect of pacifists, until his village of Mino is attacked by men of Tohan. Takeo escapes with the aid of a stranger who turns out to be Lord Otori Shigeru. This fortunate encounter catapults Takeo into a world of clan politics. Tohan recently came to prominence after defeating the Otori and killing Shigeru’s father and brother. Recognizing in Takeo something of the Tribe, a sect of assassins, Shigeru adopts him, raises him, and makes plans to use him to seek revenge.

The second half of the romance comes from Kaede, the heir Shirakawa family and close relative of another powerful family headed by Lady Murayama. In short, through Kaede lays a potential path to power, and since the rise of Tohan when she was a child, Kaede has been a hostage at Noguchi castle. Now that she has reached marriageable age, her captors have decided that it is time she marry and propose to use her as a pawn to undermine the last opposition to Tohan rule: brimming discontent centered on Otori Shigeru.

Across the Nightingale Floor does not have a complicated plot. It is filled with strong motivations, dramatic gestures, and two simple arcs that are gradually brought closer together with just enough action to propel the story. Around the teenagers at the heart of the story the motivations and plots are more complex in that this is a world of competing political motivations, but the sweeps are no less dramatic and the agendas nuanced only marginally by the weight of personal histories. Hearn hints at a more complex story and throws in a few twists along the way, but ultimately chooses not to elaborate.

This is not to say that Across the Nightingale Floor isn’t well-crafted. It is a lush story with significant research into the Sengoku period in Japan and a plot that I found propulsive. But it is also a story that feels like it belongs in an older fantasy or epic tradition, one that is more like a medieval Romance.

Using these traditions leads to certain consequences on top of reducing certain characters to their broad motivations. Older fantasy has a flat-map problem where anything that exists off the world-map might as well not exist. Narnia is literally flat, but elsewhere the flatness is implied, often with an authorial choice not to engage with the possibility of an interconnected world. Sometimes the plot doesn’t demand this engagement, but the consequences still exist.

Hearn offers slight nods to a wider world, with occasional references to a land over the sea that could be an approximation of China, but stops short of engaging with the wider consequences of the historical setting. For instance the Sengoku period was a period when Portuguese merchants conducted a brisk trade with Japan and the persecution of the Hidden strongly resembled the persecution of Christians during the period of the Tokugawa shogunate. Similarly, in one scene characters eat a meal featuring maize, a new world crop that came to Japan in the 16th century and therefore would have been rather new. None of these points were critical to the plot, but struck me as limits of projecting a story into a world modeled on a historical time and place without fully engaging with that context.

There was one final question that stuck with me as I read Across the Nightingale Floor. I picked it up without looking into Lian Hearn, and only belatedly learned that she had no connection to Japan other than having fallen in love with the country after visiting. Nevertheless, Hearn clearly did her research and avoids orientalist tropes, which put me at ease regarding cultural appropriation.

In sum, I enjoyed Across the Nightingale Floor as a perfectly pleasant, easy read, but many of the same features that made it enjoyable and the reasons I’m in no hurry to read any of the other books in the series. Perhaps on a beach (or a grassy equivalent) this summer I’ll be ready to pick up the second, but in the meantime I don’t really need another epic featuring a functional but flattened setting and a young male protagonist on the cusp of learning the ways in which he is special.

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It is the end of the semester here in central Missouri and while that means I’ve had a bit more time to read, I’ve also been falling behind on writing (both her and elsewhere). I recently finished Jenny Erpenbeck’s excellent Go, Went, Gone, a novel about immigration to western countries, and am now about halfway finished with David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a history of the Osage murders in the 1920s and the creation of the FBI.

Black Leopard Red Wolf

“What is evil anyway, a sad soul infected with devils who take his will, or a man thinking that of all his mother’s children he loves himself best?

Sometimes when I am reading a book the words of a review start writing themselves. Other times the author has strung out the significance of the book in such a way that the meaning of that book doesn’t become clear until the final word. (A sign of a great novel, according to Orhan Pamuk.) And then there are books where I look back and think “what was that?”

Marlon James’ new novel Black Leopard Red Wolf belongs in the last category.

Set in a fantastical world of African history and mythology, Black Leopard Red Wolf is the story of Tracker, as told in his words under question by an inquisitor. As he says, Tracker’s preternaturally gifted nose caused certain agents to employ him to track down a missing boy, presumed dead, for purposes that were originally unknown to him. Along with a motley cast that includes the Sadogo, a giant brawler with a morose demeanor, the centuries-old witch Sogolon, and Mossi, a prefect soldier from the far North East, Tracker follows the boy’s scent from city to city, belatedly realizing the complexity of the task. Not only has the boy been taken by the demon Impundulu, being turned effectively into a zombie and employing a series of magic pathways that criss-cross the land, but also his employers are playing a dangerous game: trying depose the mad king by restoring succession of kings through the female line.

This story comes out in fits and starts, unfolding in a non-linear fashion that defies identifying anything––with the possible exception of sexual attraction––as true.

Distilling Black Leopard Red Wolf to the narrative arc that explains the circumstances of Tracker’s interrogation, however, installs limits that James defies. Instead, this is a novel about setting, character, and mythology. Tracker tells the inquisitor of his childhood and background, how he rescued Mingi children and became lovers with the shapeshifter Leopard, with whom he killed the demon Asanbosam.

Only belatedly does he get to the hunt for the boy and the cities he visited along the way. The political intrigue and imminent war that forms the backdrop enter the tale slowly, coming only as Tracker begins to realize what he is caught up in.

There is a lot to like in Black Leopard Red Wolf. James brilliantly undermines the political ambitions on both sides of the conflict. The boy simultaneously serves as an existential threat to one political order, the final hope of another, and MacGuffin for our narrator. And still, James manages to in some ways undermine all three, revealing the threat to be greater, the hope to be hollow, and the catch to be more personally important than originally acknowledged.

This is a grotesquely beautiful novel, with James’ prose creating a hallucinogenic effect that heightens the unfamiliarity of the African setting. James doesn’t shy away from the sexual and the shocking, including unexpected, if not out of place, discussion of female genital mutilation.

All together, though, I found Black Leopard Red Wolf difficult to follow and Tracker an alien narrator. The end result is a novel that I found more frustrating than satisfying. I am left wondering whether returning to this world a second time when the next book in the proposed trilogy appears will be worth the investment. The prospect leaves me cold, but I also feel like I was only beginning to scratch the surface of the world by the time I reached the end.

Putting these thoughts together was a challenge, so I’ve been reading other reviews. This one from Amar El-Mohtar on NPR states many of my thoughts, only better:

“like if Toni Morrison had written Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Painful and strange, full of bodies shifting from personhood into meat, and somehow, always, still, upsettingly beautiful…Reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf was like being slowly eaten by a bear, one inviting me to feel every pressure of tooth and claw tearing into me, asking me to contemplate the intimacy of violation and occasionally cracking a joke.” 

I also liked this review at the NY Times Book Review.

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I also recently finished reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor, and have since begun Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. The last few weeks of the semester have been exceptionally busy, so I am looking forward to a short break coming up soon.

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Graduate school changes reading habits. I went through a lull in the middle of my program while preparing for my comprehensive exams and then emerged effectively incapable of reading non-fiction. I could still get lost in a story; reading for the sake of learning just put me to sleep. Emerging from this place has come slowly, but I cleared ten non-fiction books in 2018, and I am on pace this year to easily overtop my mark from last year. One of the reasons for this change is a shift in the genres of non-fiction I read in step with changing career goals. In particular, I find myself increasingly drawn to books, including memoirs, about writing.

Mary Norris, a longtime employee in The New Yorker‘s copy department, and her Between You and Me, fit squarely in these interests.

Between You and Me is a a cross between memoir and discussion of grammar and punctuation. Norris write on topics that range from her short career delivering milk to arriving at The New Yorker to the finer points of dashes to her preference for pencils with number one graphite, deploying a touch so light that it borders on frivolous. On the whole, I found Between You and Me uneven.

As the title implies, the governing principle in Between You and Me is the confession. Here, confessions include both the personal of a traditional memoir and the professional––that is notes on usage. I liked the personal because I am fascinated how people come to work at an institution like The New Yorker, even when those reflections feel like reminiscing about halcyon days. Norris presents her path as serendipitous, but, beneath her bubbly prose, she is also clear about her luck.

My response to the professional was more muted. There are parts I liked: memorable explanations (commas, like nuns, travel in pairs) and a discussion of The New Yorker’s house style in conjunction with the changing currents of American usage (for instance, pronouns and gender). Other parts dragged. The passages discussing where the hyphen in Moby-Dick entered or why Dickens and Melville use so many commas got a bit tedious for my tastes, but were largely okay. But when Norris veers toward discussion of grammar and punctuation for their own sake I found most of the explanations unsatisfactory, with humor seeming to mask this weakness, but the humor landing weakly because it lacked substance.

In part, my problem here was Norris’ philosophical position on the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate––whether there grammar ought to change with usage or adhere to the set rules. Norris’ position is somewhat at odds with itself: although never explicitly stated, she came across as a descriptivist (language changes, for good or for ill)…except when a style guide at, say, The New Yorker, trumps voice. I’ve published articles under style guides that I wouldn’t otherwise follow, so I am sympathetic, but Norris also sets about undercutting that same style guide by locating its genesis in the preferences (i.e. the usage) of legendary editors. These passages were on their own fine, but that presentation, in turn, undermined the importance of the subsequent advice about writing.

In sum, Between You and Me is an easy read written by someone who clearly loves words and a book that has its moments. There are even individual chapters that I could see assigning to students, but for a book I opened really wanting to like, I closed it feeling disappointed.

ΔΔΔ

I finished reading Black Leopard Red Wolf last weekend and am still trying to decide what I have to say about it. In short: the prose is beautifully and grotesquely hallucinatory, but I’m not totally sure I know what was always happening. Next up, I just started reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightengale Floor, a fantastical epic set in a world inspired by Medieval Japan. I am a little wary of cultural appropriation (Hearn is a British woman living in Australia), but I am quite enjoying the story nevertheless.

Thesis or unThesis

The days are getting longer and pollen is in the air, which means the end of the spring semester approaches. As usual, I find myself reflecting on my courses and thinking about ways that I can improve my practice.

Some of these reflections are mundane––post readings earlier, move content around, allot more time for a particular reading; others are more foundational and abstract.

I have written before about how I design my to require students to write and to think. In some courses I think this backfires, such as when students may believe I am violating an unspoken contract about the expectations of a gen-ed course, but I generally get good results and see marked improvement in my students over the course of the semester.

Going into these writing assignments, I tell my students that every piece of writing has an argument, whether implicit or explicit, and that their writing needs one, too.

In practice, this means that everything they write needs to have a thesis. The problem is that the moment I invoke the T-word, they fall back on the rote lessons about thesis-writing: that it needs to be a single sentence and end in a tri-colon set of points that will make up the three body paragraphs of their five paragraph essay.

Students can do these exercises blindfolded and in their sleep. While working in the US History surveys as a graduate student, I used to run my class through exercises on this after receiving rounds of papers that lacked an argument. The theses developed in these exercises were more functional than earth-shattering, but the problems started to crop up the moment students were asked to start using evidence to build a paper, as though the two practices were totally disconnected and the thesis only existed to receive its mandatory check-mark.

Recently I have tried to address this disconnect by having my students write a lot of theses, just without telling them that is what they are doing. In surveys of any sort, I assign weekly quizzes online that ask questions from lecture and readings and allow retakes. Most of the questions are multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false, etc, and are designed for accountability and recall.

Every quiz also has at least one essay-style question, asking students to respond to a prompt in two or three sentences using evidence from the readings to support that answer.

In other words, write a thesis with a little bit of the evidence you would use to support that argument, but don’t finish writing the essay.

In lower-level classes, I keep this format through the semester, while in upper-level surveys, I start with one question (20% of the grade) and gradually expand until they make up the majority of the quiz (60–70%).

From my side of the desk, this format gives me ample opportunity to get a feel for what the class is picking up from lecture and the readings and, without committing to hours of grading, head off issues like casual sexism that they pick up from their sources.

(A class of 35 with two essay-style questions takes well under an hour to grade since it is a total of about six sentences per student.)

Equally important, though, it offers rewards for student writing. From these assignments alone, students in an intro survey will write at least 12 theses with evidence, on top of their other written assignments. In upper-level classes those numbers climb toward 30 or 40, with greater expectations for the use of sources.

Usually these written responses are good––thoughtful, careful, and creative–– all without ever mentioning the T-word.

This semester, though, I struggled with how to convey my expectations in longer assignments. The reason: in an effort to bypass problematic “rules” my students had learned regarded theses, I wrote my assignments without invoking the T-word.

The result was confusion and frustration all around. The students seemed to look at an assignment unmoored from their previous writing experiences and I had to belatedly explain that when I said their papers had to have an argument it indeed meant that they had to have a thesis, followed, inevitably, with a discussion of what a thesis is beyond the scope of the rigid formula.

Realistically these exchanges only took a few minutes before we were all on the same page again, but neither were they my finest moment in the classroom. And so I sit here at the end of April thinking about whether there is a way to forge new connections about the T-word, connections that break ingrained habits and help students conceptualize the thesis not as a check-box waiting to be ticked, but as a tool that encapsulates the point that the author wants to convey.

A CAMWS teaser: “Tell Me About the Bakeshops”

I have hemmed here before about how I consider this space adjacent to, but not properly part of my academic persona, so while a number of posts butt up against my teaching and research about the ancient world, I don’t often dedicate entire posts to my scholarship.

I want to change that a little bit, so, taking a page from a blogger of ancient history I respect, Bill Caraher, I’ve decided to share the introduction to an upcoming conference presentation. Later this week I will attend the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) in Lincoln, NE, and presenting on what I hope will become a future research project that combines scholarly interests with my bread-baking hobby. This paper, “Tell Me About the Bake Shops: Toward a Social History of Public Bread Baking in Ancient Greece,” examines the evidence for bakers in the public foodscape of the Greek city.

I. The Pate Fermteé

Bread was the dietary staple in ancient Greece. In turn, this meant that grain was the lifeblood of the ancient city. Its ubiquity manifests in a number of ways. There is mundane evidence for bread’s importance––Clazomenae’s government requisitioned its oil production to import grain in times of sitodeia ([Arist.] Oec. 1348B 17–23), honors for ship captains delivering grain, and Athenian regulations regarding its import and sale, including making it a capital crime to interfere with the trade––and there are outlandish sayings, such as when Herodotus includes a story about how “Periander threw his loaves in a cold oven” (ἐπὶ ψυχρὸν τὸν ἰπνὸν Περίανδρος τοὺς ἄρτους ἐπέβαλε, 5.92) as a euphemism for necrophilia.

It is of little surprise that scholars have written extensively on the mechanisms of the grain trade. And yet, despite the general acknowledgement that bread was important, contemporary scholarship includes an interpretive lacuna between the resilience of the Greek domestic ideal and the public face of bread baking. While there has been brilliant work on public feasting in the Greek city, including a paper at this conference in Williamsburg on the Bomolochos–– a fool who crashes parties for a bit of BBQ––and Flint Dibble’s recent Twitter thread describing Homeric feasts as ancient Food Porn, and unlike studies of bread in the Roman world where institutions like the Cura Annonnae and bake shops at Pompeii and Ostia are accepted features of the public sphere, little of the same can be said for bread in ancient Greece.

In this paper I ask a simple question: in the physical and imaginary foodscapes of the Greek city alongside fresh-pressed oil, crackling fat of cooking meat, and potentially homicidal fishmongers (if Lynceus of Samos an be believed), where do bread and bread baking fit? Far from being just a boring domestic staple, I believe it was a fundamental part of the public foodscape, as well as a point of interaction between citizens and non-citizens.