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Piranesi

I realized that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if we ever discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

I resisted my first introduction to Susanna Clarke. Friends had told me that there was a fantastic historical fantasy called Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but any interest I had in that premise withered and died the moment they told me that it was shades of Austen and Dickens. When I finally read JS&MN a few years ago, I was entirely blown away. Without taking anything away from those people who ate up the comparisons to Austen and Dickens, neither of whom have ever done much for me, this novel was a thousand pages of immersive storytelling that took the deceptively simple plot of a magician and his apprentice and set it at a specific historical time and wrapped both of them in the richly-textured cloak of folktale. The result was one of the best piece of fantasy literature I have ever read.

Clarke’s first book since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Piranesi could not be more different from her debut, but it is every bit as good.

Piranesi’s world consists of the House, a labyrinth of beautifully austere halls populated by statues. His favorite is an enormous faun with a slight smile and a forefinger pressed to his lips, but there are all sorts. A woman carrying a beehive. A gorilla. An elephant carrying a castle. Two kings playing chess.

Piranesi considers himself a scientist studying the world around him. The House, which stretches out for miles, exists across three floors. The lowest levels, the Drowned Halls, consist of a deep and powerful ocean with tides that can flood the upper floods of the House—particularly at the confluence of the three Tides that happens every eight years (or so Piranesi says). But if the ocean can be dangerous, it also provides Piranesi with sustenance, and he has a great reverence for all things provided by the House.

According to Piranesi, “since the world began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people.” There is Piranesi: a man in his early thirties, 1.83 meters tall, and of slender build. The second person is The Other, a man somewhat taller than Piranesi, and nearly twice his age who Piranesi meets twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The remaining thirteen are skeletons. He knows other people might exist, of course, which is what drives his impulse to diligently record his findings for posterity, they exist primarily as an abstraction to him.

The Other is different. He is impatient, considering the House an endlessly dreary and dead place, and rarely moves past one or two rooms because he gets easily lost.

The overlapping mysteries at the heart of Piranesi are evident practically from the opening paragraph: Who is Piranesi? Where is the House? How did he get here? The irony is that Piranesi initially doesn’t have these questions. He is a scientist, after all, and confident in who and where he is.

The House is the extent of Piranesi’s world, but there is also a larger world—our world—that cannot help but intrude on the House. Some of this is linguistic. Piranesi has words for items like “biscuit” that don’t exist in his world, for instance, so the House is clearly an adjunct to our own, but he has no memory of how he arrived there. The Other might offer insight here, but Piranesi has no reason to distrust his friend and fellow scientist. It is only when the outside world begins to impose itself on the House that Piranesi is forced to reconsider his prior assumptions.

I am being cagey about the second half of this haunting book because discussion of the house and the relationship between Piranesi and The Other requires giving away major plot elements. Suffice it to say that the answers come in the form of Susanna Clarke’s typically precise take on magic and obsession.

Clarke took the title Piranesi from Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th century classical archaeologist and artist who penned a series of sixteen prints called “Invented Prisons” (Carceri d’invenzione). These prints took the tradition of capricci, a style of art that depicts monumental buildings, and applied it to enormous labyrinths of the sort that make up the House.

The Lion Bas Reliefs form the second edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Piranesi is a spare, beautiful book about isolation, identity, and the search for knowledge, and the sort of story that has a way of staying with you. In casting about for a parallel, I could only come up with Neil Gaimon’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane or, to an extent, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, other slim, cerebral novels that benefit for how starkly they contrast with the author’s other books.

ΔΔΔ

I remain behind on writing about books I’ve read. In addition to Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy and Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King, I have finished Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent Caste, Boris Akunin’s mediocre The Coronation, and am now reading Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters.

Lucky: A Reflection on the Academic Job Market

I signed a contract this week. In August 2021 I will be taking up the position of Assistant Professor of History (non-tenure line) at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO.

In many ways this has been an improbable turn.

I entered graduate school without a real sense of the academic job market, despite oblique but well-intentioned comments from my professors. All of that had changed by the time I finished my PhD, but I decided that I wanted to give it a go anyway. With the blessing of my partner, I resolved that I would give it my all for three full cycles past graduation before pivoting to other employment. That space of time, I reasoned, would give me time to put out some publications, expand my teaching portfolio, and polish my job documents and, if it didn’t happen by then, then I would be okay throwing myself into another field.

The three cycles worked out about how I anticipated. I published some. I taught a lot. Things were harder than I anticipated, but I started getting interviews. I was a finalist. But I could say the same of dozens or or sometimes hundreds of other people who applied for most or all of the same jobs that I did. The structural factors that have gradually squeezed the humanities even above and beyond higher education generally simply create too few jobs, leading to a battle royale for the few that remain. The scars created by this cycle are not quite as bloody as those in the Kingji Fukasaku movie of the same name, but they are every bit as real.

Then everything exploded last spring. The remaining jobs I had applied for cancelled their searches, which was a microcosm of what happened across the employment market.

I watched as the third anniversary of my graduation came and went and since my partner was still employed there was no reason not to apply for academic jobs again even as I started revising a resume that I hadn’t touched in a decade. Eventually I scrapped that document and wrote a resume from scratch. While I never got to the point of actually applying for non-academic jobs, that was at the front of my mind for most of the past year. Simply put, there weren’t many academic jobs on offer this year. I applied to two, with just a handful more that passed on or where the dates hadn’t come due yet. This after applying to more than a dozen in each of the past four years, which is low when compared to many of the job seekers I know.

Job hunting is draining under any circumstances. For an academic job, the application usually requires anywhere from four to seven discrete documents, several of them bespoke, as well as often reaching out to professional references for letters, all for a first-round interview. There does seem to be bit of movement to reduce requirements for initial applications, but these are still the norm. A drain in normal times, these applications were exhausting while teaching five classes at three different institutions during a pandemic, on top of keeping up a research profile and trying to weigh other career options. I was continuing to put apply for as many of these as I could, but I was also ready to walk away. I want this job, but it is important to remember that it is a job.

This is not to say that thinking about that transition was easy. It often led to existential dread. I can keep writing history, I told myself, since I already treat as a second job given my contract(s), but how would I make enough money to eat? I feared that any employer would see my interest in their position as feigned, even if I was fully resolved to branch away from academia.

Of course, I didn’t get that far. I was just starting the process of doing informational interviews to build my network when I landed this opportunity, but I plan on following through with them anyway, should they prove useful sometime down the line.

Rejection is a normal part of academic life, but when you have trained for so long and written so much of your academic person into an application, it is hard not to take the news personally. To then also celebrate someone else landing a position you applied to can be bittersweet.

I used to reframe the question away from why them? to why not me, too?, but even this fed into the sense of isolation and exclusion, particularly when the answer comes back to seemingly inexorable austerity. Sitting in the corner (or at my computer) watching other people announce successes—whether a job, a PhD at your dream program, a fellowship, or be part of a great panel that you weren’t invited to be part of—can feel like being an outcast watching the “cool kids” do things. Trust me, I’ve been there. I am there. I will be there again. But it is important to engage and redirect these thoughts, not because of some influencer mantra about vibes, but because they are dangerous to your mental health.

I have actively resisted thinking about the people I am up against when I apply for these jobs. In part this is a matter of imposter syndrome and I would absolutely freak myself out, but it is also a matter of personal philosophy. I only have control over my performance, for one, but, even more, they’re only my competition in the most technical sense where we are up for the same scarce resources. I want to be part of a community of scholars online and more broadly that starts from a position of generosity and reciprocity (within reason: there’s no room for sexual predators here, for instance). For me, this means celebrating other people’s successes even when I am also envious.

People on Twitter have summed up the academic job market better and more colorfully than I have here: there is almost no profanity that it doesn’t warrant. I am still in disbelief that I have accepted a job after going through this cycle year over year. Sure, the position is not the gold-standard of academic employment that is a tenure-track position, but a full-time and renewable position is pretty good in a world where academic employment is becoming increasingly adjunctified—to say nothing of the group of people I will get to work with or the students I’ll get to teach. Higher education is changing and there is a long way to go to ensure a more stable future, but, for now, I am just excited for the chance to be part of it.

A List of my Favorite Novels (2021 edition)

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place. I rarely fiddle with the rankings from year to year other than to add new books and iron out disagreements between this list and my fantasy rankings, but sometimes it happens.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites. Once the list hits 100 or so—maybe 100+my age at the time I publish the list— books at the back end will begin to fall off.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists; hopefully in the same order.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 16
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2020 (Piranesi)

Tier 5

75. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
74. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
73. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
72. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
71. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
70. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
69. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
68. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
67. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
66. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
65. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
64. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005)
63. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
62. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
61. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)
60. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
59. The Brothers Ashkenazi, I.J. Singer (1937)

Tier 4

58. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
57. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
56. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
55. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
54. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
53. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
52. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
51. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
50. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
49. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

48. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
47. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
46. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
45. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
44. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
43. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
42. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
41. Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin (2006)
40. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
39. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
38. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
32. The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste (2019)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

Generous Thinking

A few years ago I had a student who asked me to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school. She was a shoe-in. Two of the people writing letters for her were the professors she intended to work with, so I was just there to fulfill the requirement. She had taken several classes with me and done well, so I was flattered to be asked and happy to help. When orientation rolled around the next summer, my former student sent me an email to again thank me for the letter I wrote and expressed how nervous she was about the coming semester. I thanked her and gave her my best pieces of advice about graduate school.

It will seem, I said, like your peers know everything. They strut around like peacocks, name dropping scholars and theories and schools of scholarship. But this doesn’t mean that they are smarter or more prepared for graduate school than you are. Maybe they have a deep background in that topic. Maybe they restrict their comments to their particular field of research. Maybe they know just enough to name drop Foucault trusting that you won’t know enough to challenge them.

When I came to graduate school, I was the second-youngest person in my cohort. Where many of my peers had already earned MA degrees or spent years teaching, I had spent my year after graduation managing a Quiznos restaurant and desperately trying to keep my Greek fresh. I was also the only person in my cohort who studied ancient history in a program that was overwhelmingly made up of American historians. This meant that in most conversations I was on their turf.

The best thing you can do, I told my former student, is to resist the temptation to treat graduate school as a competition. Instead, approach the books you read, the classes you take, and the conversations you have with an open mind. Grad school seminars train students to strip books down to their foundations in order to critique the scholarship on everything from the framing to the evidence. These are important skills for a scholar to have, of course, but a more important skill is to understand what the author is doing. Anyone who goes to graduate school can recall an example where a person holding forth on the myriad flaws of a particular book was doing so based on a relatively minor point at best or without having read the whole book at worst.

I have seen both. At least twice I tried to discredit a book based on minor errors—the small issues might be indicative of larger problems, but it was a mistake to not first start with the bigger picture. Another time I watched as someone went on at length about how a book was invalid because it didn’t cover a particular topic…that the author covered in the section of the book that she had not read. Either way, not a good look.

Advice like what I gave to my former student lies at the heart of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. Her core thesis is that the culture of critique and obsession with prestige hierarchies has created an environment where knowledge production is treated like a competition and where tearing down others is as valuable as producing anything. The very structures of the American university system (as distinct from, for instance, community colleges) encourages this behavior:

The entire academic enterprise serves to cultivate individualism, in fact. Beginning with college applications, extending through graduate school admissions, fellowship applications, the job market, publication submissions, and, seemingly, finally tenure and promotion review, those of us on campus are subject to selection. These processes present themselves as meritocratic…in actual practice, however, those metrics are never neutral, and what we are measured against is far more often than not one another—sometimes literally.

The pressures that Fitzpatrick identifies are all exacerbated in the Age of Austerity currently because austerity means even more competition for fewer resources. However, as Fitzpatrick rightly points out, falling back on prestige hierarchies and competition is a self-defeating proposal that undermines the very project we are ostensibly setting out to pursue.

Her solution is to double down on “generosity as an enduring habit of mind, a conversational practice” (56). This means a host of things for Fitzpatrick, from developing a vocabulary of shared values to working in public to realigning the university toward community and public service, to simply learning how to listen.

In principle, I agree with everything Fitzpatrick wrote in Generous Thinking and seek to embody most of the practices.

In practice, I found Generous Thinking frustrating. The subtitle of this book promises “A Radical Approach to Saving the University.” Certainly there is a radicalism in the form of the books optimism and some of the proposals to change university policies away from those that put scholars in competition with one another, but there were times where I also found it to be missing the forest for the trees—by her own admission. Fitzpatrick admits in the preface that this is a book informed by her position at a large land-grant institution. This means a secondary focus on institutions like community colleges, but I found the blindspots to be greater than she admits.

In particular, I found framing a book as a way to save the university but then giving almost no thought to how this would affect contingent faculty shocking. That is, I endorse everything she wrote as a matter of praxis, but I wanted more acknowledgement that many people are not in a position to carry out these proposals. There is absolutely something here that contingent faculty can learn from, but I couldn’t help but feel that in her effort to work toward an academic community built on generosity Fitzpatrick had managed to largely disregard the second-class academic citizen. It isn’t that she us unaware of these problems—indeed, she mentions the jobs crisis on at least one occasion (18) — but other than (rightly, in my opinion) showing how public engagement can help catalyze stakeholders into investing in institutions, I found little meaningful consideration of either how generous thinking would change the underlying structural realities or how this would play out with overworked and underpaid contingent faculty who often already teach more classes than their full-time colleagues while also hunting for their next gig. I hope Fitzpatrick’s suggestions would make a difference and the core ideas absolutely ought to be embraced, but I nevertheless came away with the impression that this was not so much generous, as wishful thinking.

ΔΔΔ

I have a rather lot going on right now. Not only have I hit the point in the semester where I have a never-ending stream of assignments to grade, but I am also working on finishing the manuscript for my first book and keeping up with a few other research and editing projects. This means I am back to often choosing whether to spend my spare time reading or writing about the books I read. For the most part, reading wins out, though I do intend still to write about what I’ve read if at a delay (I finished Generous Thinking almost a month ago). I still intend to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s The Machineries of Empire series and have since finished Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, both of which made it onto my soon-to-be-published 2021 list of favorite novels, as well as making my way through Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, which I will likely write about once I have finished the series. I am now reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which is an incisive look at the issue of race in America by threading together the US, India, and Nazi Germany.

What We Choose to Remember

President Joe Biden gave an address Monday night to memorialize the grim milestone of 500,000 Americans dying from COVID-19, according to the official tally. I am not saying anything novel when I say the event played to Biden’s strength as a politician. His ten-minute address was filled with empathy as he spoke about how lost loved ones remain with the living, about how we have to remember lost loved ones rather than becoming numb to the pain, and about how we should carry their memories forward into in our actions.

Biden’s first month in office has been spent activating the government bureaucracy that had been allowed to atrophy in the past four years, so while there are many people understandably angry about the vaccine rollout, distribution is heading in the right direction. This was a somber moment marking a systemic failure, but the address also worked to model best practices and encourage people to turn their grief into action.

It was a good speech, for what it was.

Several times in the address, Biden reiterated a line from the ceremony the night before his inauguration to remember 400,000 deaths, that “to heal we must remember.”

In Biden’s role as Mourner-in-Chief, this was a powerful line that tries to use collective trauma as a catalyst to unify the country. It asks people to think about their loved ones and turn that memory into thoughtful, considerate behavior where individuals take responsibility for the safety of everyone. Certainly, this is a believable sentiment coming from someone who has lived with loss almost his entire political career.

Nowhere in the speech did Biden ask his audience to remember anything but their lost loved ones.

On the one hand, this specific event was not the place for a discussion about accountability. Merrick Garland as much as said that an investigation into the events of January 6 where a lynch mob stormed the Capitol would be his first priority as Attorney General and other inquiries into the events of the past year will unfold over the coming months.

On the other hand, remembering the loss without also remembering why they died is cold comfort. I understand the impulse to not stoke what talking heads on any number of cable news channels might decry as partisan anger, but transparency and accountability are very different from partisanship. The one seeks to rebuild the infrastructure and trust in institutions by applying rules equally, irrespective of party; the other sees the world only in terms of friends and enemies.

I have a lot of sympathy for President Biden right now. He is attempting to walk a fine line and live up to his casting as a man who could unify a deeply-divided country. The result is events like this one where he can strike an empathetic note and talk about healing while trying to restore the government bureaucracy into something that actually works for the citizens of the country. However, may of the forces dividing the country are outside of his control and have been building for years to the point where anything he does, however centrist, is going to be labelled socialist. A Newsmax host even attacked Biden’s dog compared to past presidential pets.

Cultural memory always entails a push and pull between remembering and forgetting. These memories are malleable and open to manipulation. While working on an article about Ancient Greece in the pre-pandemic times, for instance, I read a lot about the historical memory genocide in Rwanda, where the ruling party led by President Paul Kagame has consciously shaped the memory of its role in ending the genocide in order to secure political legitimacy. By contrast, after a particularly brutal civil war in Athens in 402/1 BCE, the Athenians swore an oath of reconciliation that required both sides to “not remember” what had happened, formally renouncing reprisals.

But I also fear that the emphasis on remembering framed in terms of the personal grief and loss risks forgetting that these deaths weren’t just something that happened. These people did not die because of some avoidable happenstance. We only reached this mind-numbing number because of specific actions and inactions.

President Biden is right: we cannot forget those who died, and already people are beginning to discuss what form COVID memorials ought to take. But we ought to also take stock of what we are choosing to remember. For my part, I would love to see a Vietnam War-style memorial to commemorate the dead and also agree with the former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith that local memorials dedicated to both COVID and the surrounding events of the past year would be appropriate. But I also believe that any memorial on its own would be inadequate. Remember the dead, yes, but also remember how we got here.

Hey, I wrote a thing!

A few months back I received a message on Twitter from a friend. An editor had come to him with an idea for a piece bridging the ancient and the modern, using ancient Greece to confront modern dilemmas, but he was drawing a blank on the specific idea. Do I have anything that might appeal to the editor and, if so, should he pass along my information?

To be honest, I was in a bit of an end-of-semester daze, but I can usually find an argument once I start writing, so I said sure. One phone call and a month and a half of allowing my thoughts to percolate later, I pitched a piece that tied together Hesiod’s Works and Days, methods of divination in ancient Greece, and a doomed invasion of Sicily in 415.

That piece came out this morning on The Conversation.

In short: we live in an iron generation Zeus decrees that people are going to suffer. Risk mitigation requires both human preparation and appeasing the gods, but the steepest consequences of failing to adequately prepare for risk happen when a person’s action or inaction puts the community at risk.

The City We Became

I first came to N.K. Jemisin’s books in 2017, right in the middle of her spectacular run of three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel that she won for her Broken Earth trilogy. Those books warranted every plaudit they won and right away I knew that I would read almost anything she put out.

The City We Became, released in March of 2020, is Jemisin’s most recent novel, an urban fantasy about five New Yorkers who have to join forces to to confront an existential threat as the city awakens to itself. Naturally, each of the avatars represents an aspect of the city:

  • Manny, an ambiguously multi-racial and queer recent arrival in the city awakens to discover that he has no idea who he is, but he needs to find a homeless man who appears in his visions.
  • Bronca Siwanoy, an older, queer, Lenape woman and PhD who works at the Bronx art center is determined to hold her ground against the encroaching forces of gentrification.
  • Brooklyn “MC Free” Thomason, a city council member from the borough that shares her name and while she might be all business now, she was once a fire-throwing rapper.
  • Padmini Prakash, a Tamil immigrant and math prodigy who lives with her extended family in an apartment complex.
  • Aislyn Houlihan, a fully-grown white woman who lives with her parents, including her abusive, racist father (a cop), and who is deathly afraid of the other four boroughs.

On one level, The City We Became can be read as a breakneck urban fantasy. The heroes are in a race against time to find the keystone avatar of the entire city who they need to find and support against the strange forces that are attacking their city. Each of them has powers rooted in their identities as both people and as avatars of their particular borough (Aislyn’s power even rejects her New York-ness), and in this quest they are aided by other awakened city avatars, including São Paulo who draws his power from the polluted air he consumes (i.e. his cigarettes) and Hong Kong.

However, as story that crosses thriller and urban fantasy, I found The City We Became only okay. Jemisin is a talented writer, but I found the threat a little too existential and the characters a little too fumbling to really propel this book.

Where The City We Became shines is as a social commentary. This is her attempt to write New York as she knows it into existence.

Anyone who is looking to be aggrieved about racial politics is going to find a lot to dislike about The City We Became, but this is a testament to what Jemisin has created. New York and its avatars are a radically diverse collection of people who form the heartbeat of the city. It isn’t exactly the city as I know it as an outsider—I will forever associate it with bagels and pizza and find it more hispanic than depicted in the novel—but I can appreciate it as a variation on a city that I know a little bit. Jemisin’s New York is eccentric, eclectic, and frequently queer, and that is a truer depiction than one that whitewashes the city by looking only at one aspect.

Something similar happens with the existential threat that—not coincidentally—wants to whitewash all of these issues. The enemy appears in numerous guises: The Woman in White, Dr. White, and white fronds that stoke outrage, including by inspiring a group of racist provocateurs the Alt-Artistes. Dr. White works for a shadowy organization that has real estate holdings all over the world. In a word, their goal is gentrification: replacing local character with generic, boring, uniformity that weakens the local power of the awakening cities. It has killed before, and aims to do so again.

In time, The City We Became opens from this New York story to a larger universe of struggle where the awakening of one city means the destruction of another. The Enemy is revealed to be the lost city of R’lyeh. Appropriating a piece of mythos from Lovecraft, a notoriously racist author, as the primary antagonist thus layers references and commentary about the traditions of fantastical literature to the allegory about how local communities become strong through diversity.

Trying to capture the character of a place, particularly in a single book as packed with commentary as this one is, is hard. This sense of place is one of my favorite things about mystery novels, but those usually develop this sense of place across multiple novels as they feel their way through the corners and cracks. Here, in one novel, Jemisin tries to capture five distinct places that are also part of a complete whole. I would say she is on the whole successful. The City We Became is many things, including a rather unusual fantasy novel, but it is not boring. This novel is also supposed to be the first in a trilogy. I don’t know whether that means capturing the character of another city or developing stories based on the characters set down here, but I’m ready to let Jemisin surprise me whatever direction she chooses.

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<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>The City We Became</em> is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee's <em>Machineries of Empire</em> trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick's <em>Generous Thinking</em>. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste's <em>The Shadow King</em>.The City We Became is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

Eat a Peach

David Chang’s Eat a Peach cover

David Chang is probably best known for his culinary empire Momofuku, which Wikipedia tells me includes at this point dozens of restaurants. I have only eaten at one, the dessert-themed Milk Bar in Washington DC. In Eat a Peach Chang readily admits that everything else that he does—this memoir, his cookbook, Ugly Delicious, and a dozen other endeavors—are designed to put butts in those seats. At least under normal circumstances since, like so many food establishments, Momofuku’s business has been entirely upended by COVID-19.

Eat a Peach, written with Gabe Ulla, is thus an advertisement for Momofuku that puts Chang and his theories of deliciousness front and center. Obviously, food is everywhere—Chang is a chef and his public persona on shows like Ugly Delicious filters the world through food-colored glasses as an heir to the late Tony Bourdain.

But what particularly stood out to me about this memoir is how it is a study in binaries.

Eat a Peach is divided into two parts. Its first half is a roughly linear narrative of his upbringing in a Korean-American household, his successes with golf that helped get him into Georgetown Prep and subsequent flameout of the sport, and his brief period working in finance, before finally getting to his entry into the restaurant industry. Chang readily admits that he was not good at being a chef, which makes his decision to found Momofuku in 2004 and his chance partnership with Quino Baca—the first and only employee at the Noodle Bar when it opened—even more of a radical gamble.

Chang writes about Momofuku like it is a revolutionary movement. There was a vision behind the original Noodle Bar, yes, but there was also a willingness to overhaul the entire menu when things weren’t working. The employees worked in cadres that participated in a company-wide email list with one objective: how to make their product more delicious. As the company grew and expanded, they formed new cells that oversaw Momofuku Ssām Bar and the Milk Bar.

Woven through this narrative is reflection on mental illness and depression (Chang is bipolar) that manifested in self-destructive tendencies such as drug use and overwork.

These themes come more thoroughly to the fore in the second half of Eat a Peach where Chang tells stories from a time after Momofuku and his public persona had become fixtures of the food world. Food and the restaurants still feature, but in more complicated ways.

For instance, in part one, Chang wraps the reader up in the energy and chaos of starting a restaurants—fights with critics and inspectors, problems of staffing, and the thrill of designing the most delicious menu—that captures difficulties, but also sees the enterprise with rose-colored glasses.

By contrast, Chang takes an introspective turn in part two. His ideals remain the same, but now he interrogates where his instinctive “fuck-you” attitude came from, who it is directed toward, and its relationship to his mental health. He talks about his experience with an executive coach who helped him see both how special the thing he created was and how his behavior caused those around him, including customers and staff, to live in fear of his anger. Far from leading a food revolution to bring high-end food to the masses, Chang realized that he was leading a cult. Followers were expected to give up their personal lives and commit their entire beings to the restaurant.

Ultimately, Eat a Peach is a reflection on growth—of the Momofuku empire, yes, but also personal growth in a way that I found particularly satisfying. There were times that Chang’s story resonated a bit too much (my anxiety manifests in a tendency toward overwork as well), but what elevates this memoir for me was how Chang works to de-center himself. He talks lovingly about his wife Grace, his son, and how they learned of her pregnancy the day after his close friend Tony Bourdain died. He lavishly distributes praise for Momofuku’s success. He talks endlessly about his long-standing relationship with his therapist. But more than all of that, I appreciated how Chang talks openly about his mistakes and blindspots, whether in cavalierly dismissing the chefs of California or contributing to a kitchen culture that was hostile to women, and that he acknowledges that talk only goes so far. Proof comes in the form of actions, and it is no coincidence that the cover art is meant to evoke Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.

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I’m still making my way through a backlog of books I want to write about, including N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

What is Making Me Happy: “Golden Child”

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular Friday/Saturday feature.

This week: Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters, “Golden Child”

Sometimes I just get a song or album stuck in my head. Recently, that song has been “Golden Child.”

To back up a little bit, I discovered The Honeycutters, an Asheville-based Americana band, on Spotify a few years ago when their songs started to appear on my algorithmically-derived playlists. Their 2015 album Me Oh My remains one of my favorites of recent years, particularly with the titular track, and the two songs “Jukebox” and “Lucky.” I just adore the voice of Amanda Anne Platt, who also writes their songs—since 2017, the band has officially (and deservedly) been Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters—and her lyrics swing between a restrained happiness and utter devastation in a way that I find very affecting.

This week I found myself listening to another of their albums, 2016’s On the Ropes, and was once again particularly moved by the song “Golden Child.” This is a sad, wistful tune about heartache that I find utterly devastating even as it is not particularly sad. It is a song of isolation, but one that makes peace with life.

Not hard to talk to, is she?
Yeah, she makes it easy
she looks like what you wanna hear
I used to need that from you
to make me feel like something special
standing back stage with a guitar and a beer

I also love how On the Ropes follows “Golden Child” with the upbeat ditty “The Handbook” about courtship.

In short, while I am a fan of basically everything that Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters have put out, “Golden Child” has particularly been making me happy this week.

I've been a golden child
I've been a lonely country mile
and an am gospel choir crackling through the wires
don't you touch that dial

Planet Taco

In the fall of 2016, a co-founder of Latinos for Trump went on MSNBC and warned:

My culture is a very dominant culture. It is imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

The comment came in the midst of a contentious election and was meant to conjure images of a flood of immigrants from Latin America that would scare the sorts of people for whom Ron Swanson’s skepticism about ethnic food was no joke:

Ron Swanson: "I don't much go for ethnic food."
Ron Swanson, Parks and Rec 3.2, “Flu Season”

For most of the people I know, this sounded like a promise and we’re still waiting.

Jeffrey Pilcher’s book Planet Taco unfortunately predates this political context. Instead, it tackles a different, but no less contentious, issue: what even is Mexican food?

Pilcher’s argument, at its most basic, is that authentic Mexican food doesn’t exist. Or rather, that any claim to authenticity is fundamentally a political statement.

The book opens with an introduction, “A Tale of Two Tacos.” The one of those is a Mexican street taco made fresh on the spot off the beaten path in a small Sonoran city, served with beer and with some lawn chairs as a dining room. The second is a Taco Bell taco, served off a production line into pastel-colored dining facilities at about the same price point.

To ask which of these two is more authentic, Pilcher argues, is to miss the point. As much as authenticity is meant to appeal to a particular sort of identity, it also creates that identity and, ultimately, serves as a marketing buzzword. Pilcher’s core contention, therefore, is that “Mexican food” is actually a range of regional cuisines in and around the modern nation-state of Mexico. These regional dishes might have overlapping flavor profiles and some common ingredients, but they are the product of distinct historical, environmental and technological processes (including immigration) that gave rise to distinct traditions that are each as authentic as the next.

This is the sort of history that I eat up (pun intended). Pilcher punctuates each chapter with contemporary recipe cards for the recipes that he’s talking about, and covering topics as diverse as nixtamalization, the process designed to counteract the nutritional deficits of maize, to the invention of the hardshell taco and the spread of Mexican restaurants in the United States and around the world.

I will admit that I am geared to be sympathetic to Pilcher’s core arguments. While I cannot speak necessarily to the specific details of how these regional cuisines came into existence, the appreciation of the regionality of individual cuisines and lending to each of those an authenticity of their own was a welcome pushback against the impulse that identifies and canonizes a single original, using that to discredit all other comers. As Pilcher rightly points out, this impulse becomes particularly toxic when it becomes bound up with a particular national project that normalizes the group in power and is used to further marginalize everyone who dose not conform.

Naturally, things become even more complex in a country like the United States that both has “-mex” traditions and where there is a long history of people from one tradition cooking and owning restaurants that purport to serve cuisines that are not their own.

All of this to say, I really liked Planet Taco. It is an academic history book so its tone might be a little esoteric for some readers, but it also gave me a lot of food for thought, as well as a new appreciation for one of my favorite restaurants I’ve eaten at in the past couple of years.

Two summers ago my partner and I had just finished an exceedingly hot day at the Kansas City Zoo and just wanted some food before crashing into our air-conditioned hotel room and be ready for a flight the next morning. We settled on going to Ixtapa, a restaurant in a strip mall on the north side of the city (it now has a second location in Overland Park). We drove around the parking lot a couple of times to get a spot and then had to wait as they finished up an early dinner rush, but soon enough were seated and handed menus. We had barely started to look when a man—the owner, it turned out—came over to ask us if we knew what we wanted.

Guacamole, we said, as an appetizer while we looked at the menu.

I don’t know what he saw in us or what was going on in the kitchen, but he immediately responded, “No, no, no. You don’t want guacamole.”

We stole a glance at each other, but he continued “our guacamole is great, but you can get guacamole anywhere in this country. I’ll serve you.” He grabbed the menus, making some more jokes about generic Mexican food and asking what we wanted to drink.

At this point I stopped him with some dietary restrictions and preferences, which he received with perfect calm and began bringing us food. First he brought quesadillas de flor de calabaza (squash blossom quesadillas), followed by mains of enchiladas nopales (cactus) and a pork special with a raspberry chipotle sauce.

After a while we got to chatting with him and it turned out that this was his restaurant and he was immensely proud of the recipe that he put on the menu. We had managed to avoid some of his favorite dishes, I think, because I’m not wild about seafood, which was something of his speciality, or at least composes the largest single section of the menu. Sure, there the menu has basic Mexican fare, including cheese nachos, but such is the restaurant business. What made Ixtapa special were all of the dishes you can’t find at every taco joint and the clear pride he had in the cuisine of his specific region.

I love generic tacos, too, and have fond memories of finding a fabulous hole in the wall in south Houston for exactly that purpose, and one of my favorite spots in Columbia, Missouri is a Korean taco fusion joint, but each of these examples speaks exactly to the point that Pilcher makes in Planet Taco. Food is an expression of culture that is intimately and inextricably intertwined with the people who are making and consuming it. Rather than indulging in the authenticity wars that use it as a cudgel, let’s celebrate the wide range of possibilities and indulge in the deliciousness of them all.

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Book reviews had been a staple of my content here for a few years because it made for an easy writing prompt and gave me a chance to collect my thoughts on each book. One of the consequences of trying to teach during a pandemic is that I entirely got away from writing those reviews such that I wrote about fewer than a third of the books I read between September and the end of the year and none of the books I have plowed through so far in 2021. I doubt that I will get back to where I write about every book I read—I have too much other writing I need to do, not to mention teaching, and only have so much brain power these days—but in fits and starts and modified ways, I intend to get back to writing about books.

On my list to write about in the near future include: N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became; Yoon Ha Lee’s series The Machineries of Empire, and John Le Carré’s Absolute Friends, and David Chang’s memoir, Eat a Peach. I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzgerald’s Generous Thinking.