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Embassytown – China Miéville

Counterrevolution through language pedagogy and bureaucracy.

Reading a new book can be like learning a new language: disorienting, confusing, and a little bit exhilarating. There is a bar to entry, but once indoctrinated there is immense reward.

This metaphor is more literal for some books than others.

Embassytown is a small outpost on the planet Arieka, isolated from the other Bremen worlds and on the edge of the known universe. It is a bubble of environment safe for human habitation surrounded by and utterly dependent on the native civilization, which provides them with food and advanced biological technology (biorigging), including that machines that provide the city with breathable atmosphere.

The human population of Embassytown is constrained by these features of their environment and their culture shaped by it, but even more so by the unique way they communicate with the Ariekei. The indigenous race of Arieka is peculiar by human standards, but enormous emphasis lies on three features: the giftwing (a limb that functions as an arm), wings (ears), and their double mouths. The Ariekei only perceive language with two parts: simultaneous speech from two mouths (one ‘cut’, one ‘turn’), and the thought behind that speech. Thus Language is a direct correlative of thought; lies are impossible in Language, figures of speech need to be embodied by something true, and Language created by non-sentient things such as computers are ignored. In response to these Linguistic impediments, the humans of Embassytown have developed an Ambassador class of dual-entities, usually artificially produced twins, whose sympathetic links are carefully cultivated to approximate a single individual, the one speaking the Cut, the other the Turn. Social engineering of this sort is necessary for the survival of Embassytown, but it has the downside of creating an artificial hierarchy in the community that not everyone accepts.

Enter the narrator and sometime protagonist of Embassytown: Avice Benner Cho, an Immerser (crew on interplanetary vessels) raised in Embassytown and now returned with the husband of her fourth marriage (an a-sexual partnership), a linguistic researcher. Avice has few ambitions upon returning, but becomes bound up in events in part because of her sexual liaisons with respected Ambassadors. There is a crisis brewing in Embassytown between the Ambassadors and the Bremen representative, but things become more tense when they are forced to accept the first Ambassador not born in Embassytown…and even more so when it turns out that the new Ambassador, EzRa, is not made of two closely-related individuals. When EzRa speaks in Language the Ariekei experience a narcotic-esque high that causes physical addiction. Like with narcotics, the addict develops a tolerance and requires ever more stimulation until it becomes fatal. Addiction threatens Ariekei society, but Embassytown has a symbiotic relationship with the Ariekei, so the changes to the hosts and EzRa’s fickle personality poses an even greater danger to its existence.

Embassytown is a brilliantly crafted exploration of linguistics, linguistic change, and cataclysmic fissures that erupt in a society when something this fundamental changes. At the same time, the book is a slow-unfolding political drama between humans that unfolds through the point of view of someone who is simultaneously a total outsider and at the center of the developments. It is, in so many words, fiendish in its complexity and brilliant in its achievement. Yet, as much as I appreciated Embassytown and as much as it made me think about language and societies, I didn’t love the plot or feel a particularly deep connection to many of the characters. While still reading Embassytown I suspected that I would conclude that its fundamental flaw was that the story took a backseat to the linguistic and anthropological thought-experiment and thus that priority diminished my enjoyment. Miéville does not fall into the trap, so both character and plot are carefully intertwined with the linguistic evaluations, but Embassytown nevertheless did not grab me the way many of my favorite books do, for reasons both native to the book and particular to me. At the same time, it sold me on reading more of Miéville’s work.

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I finished reading a short story collection by Jenny Erpenbeck and George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and have started Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise.

Civilization and its antecedants

Before I ever considered the possibility that I could become a historian, I played games. This is a normal progression for a young person, and being someone who already loved history, I naturally gravitated to historically themed games, including fighting games like Dynasty Warriors (Three Kingdoms era China) and the Age of Empires series. I still enjoy both of those sets of games, but in more recent ages, I have particularly come to like civilization building games like Europa Universalis and, of course the Civilization series. Earlier this week I was looking through online forums and other resources to satisfy my curiosity about how the series portrays Greece—the topic of a future post, in all likelihood—and stumbled across an online emulator of the original Civ game. Naturally, I gave it go.

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The title sequence starts in space, panning into the galaxy. Starting a new game picks up where the title leaves off, this time centering on the earth, which the player watches evolve. Over the top is narration:

In the beginning, the Earth was without form, and void.

But the Sun shone upon the sleeping Earth and deep inside the brittle crust massive forces waited to be unleashed.

The seas parted and great continents were formed. The continents shifted, mountains arose. Earthquakes spawned massive tidal waves. Volcanoes erupted and spewed forth fiery lava and charged the atmosphere with strange gases.

Into this swirling maelstrom of Fire and Air and Water the first stirrings of Life appeared: tiny organisms, cells, and amoeba, clinging to tiny sheltered habitats.

But the seeds of Life grew, and strengthened, and spread, and diversified, and prospered, and soon every continent and climate teemed with Life.

And with Life came instinct, and specialization, natural selection, Reptiles, Dinosaurs, and Mammals and finally there evolved a species known as Man and there appeared the first faint glimmers of Intelligence.

The fruits of intelligence were many: fire, tools, and weapons, the hunt, farming, and the sharing of food, the family, the village, and the tribe. Now it required but one more ingredient: a great Leader to unite the quarreling tribes to harness the power of the land to build a legacy that would stand the test of time:

a CIVILIZATION!

Most of the conversations I’ve had about Civilization style games have revolved around their vision of history. In short, technology trees promote history as linear, progressive, teleological, despite also serving as a way for the designers to balance game-play. While acknowledging that game balance is a) difficult to attain, and b) critical to a game’s success, this presentation of history is open to criticism. Again, this is a topic for another time. Here I am taken by this opening conceit of Sid Meier’s Civilization series.

The sequence actually begins before the earth is formed. The game asserts that there is potential—seemingly for its exploitation by humans, the “intelligent” race. There is a slight concession to the improbabilities of evolution, but accepts humans as fait accompli. After all, this is a game about CIVILIZATION.

It is in the home stretch of the opening sequence that the assertions become more interesting. Society, it tells us, is not a civilization. The former involves people living together for survival, but the latter is something constructed in historical memory out of bricks of literature, written history, and monuments. (Civilization generally forces players to spend time creating technologies for farming and hunting, but never mind that.) This is yet another way that the games prioritize settled societies over nomadic ones, to go along with, for example, barbarians that spawn in territory that doesn’t belong to civilizations.

But then the kicker: none of this, not unity, not the legacy of civilization, not progress, is possible without the guiding hand of a great person (man, usually). Once again, this may be dismissed as a quirk of design in that the leader functionally has no role in game-play. And yet, Civilization sets an individual as the paragon who makes slight modifications of the rules and sets the character of the civilization. Famously, the original settings had passivity and aggression on a loop, so when Gandhi, who had the lowest starting level, became more peaceful he would become hyper-aggressive and India would start slinging nuclear warheads at all available targets. It is compelling game design, to put famous individuals as national characters, despite its manipulation of history just as much as does the equation of nations and “civilizations.” To pick up the Gandhi example again, he is a figure from the creation modern India, while the vast majority of “Indians” would no doubt be horrified to learn that their national character is pacifistic on account of him.

Civilization is a game. I am sure that some people are introduced to history through it and its ilk, but this does not necessarily mean that it need be scrutinized and held to task for historical accuracy. But it is also true that the series takes a rhetorical position with respect to the nature of civilization and the historical processes that create it, in this case before the game has even begun.

EQ in fantasy literature: Assassin’s Apprentice

I am breaking my formula with the title of this post. Ordinarily write-up or review posts are just title:author so as to alert readers to its nature. In this case, I thought it better to foreground the direction this post is going to go.

Fitz is a is the bastard son of Chivalry, the former heir of the house Farseer, which rules over the Six Duchies. This status affords him some advantages, including training and lodging in the castle in Buckkeep where he is raised by Chivalry’s devoted retained Burrich, but also makes him the target of enemies based on nothing but his parentage. Fitz is thrust into the machinations at court, all the while secretly receiving tutelage from Chade, the secretive royal assassin.

All the while, the kingdom is under assault from the Red Ships from the Outislands, brutal raiders whose demands are for wealth in return for killing their captives. Refuse, as they will be returned as husks devoid of everything that makes them human.

Assassin’s Apprentice steers into a lot of fantasy tropes, some of them cringe-worthy. The food is bread and meat, with deep skepticism of fancy dishes, class is hierarchical and predictably ingrained in society, and names have a particular bluntness. Fitz is a preternaturally talented young man, with incredible, untapped, and untrained magical ability. His destiny is not totally within his control, but he is protected by teachers who look out for him—and one who may have other motives. I was underwhelmed by Fitz as a character, in part because of these tropes and in part because as I grow older I am increasingly bored by stories that hinge on the experience (and heroics) of teenage boys.

And for all that, I found myself marveling at Assassin’s Apprentice and thinking that it seemed distinct from other books in the genre, even twenty years after its release and without the explicitly trope-defying mode of some more recent books. The question is, why?

Most fantasy heroes or antiheroes are lauded for the cleverness, their skill at arms, or their intelligence. I am painting here with a very broad brush, but the colors are approximately accurate. When brawn and brains fail, the recourse is to luck or stealth and the world-systems often enable these pathways. There are famous friendships (e.g. Legolas and Gimli) and such relationships can be critically important, but they are not often the principle on which the story is constructed.

In Assassin’s Apprentice, Hobb does exactly this. Fitz is launched into a world of machinations where the things he excels at are the ones that are repeatedly kept from him. As a result, he is repeatedly forced to rely on his relationships and the ability to get a sense for the situations he finds himself in. In other words, Fitz’ greatest strength is his emotional intelligence. This extends likewise to the magic system, ‘Wit’ when dealing with animals, ‘Skill’ for humans. In both cases, its greatest power comes from the practitioner’s ability to manipulate the senses and emotions of a target and multiple plot points rely on the consequences of this magic.

I don’t know whether Hobb’s building Assassin’s Apprentice around emotional intelligence was by design or a happy accident, but, in either case, I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

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I am now reading China Mieville’s Embassytown.

Thebes at War – Naguib Mahfouz

In Thebes at War, nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz transports the reader back to the waning years of the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt. The story opens at the court of Thebes c.1560 BCE where Seqenenra has made the momentous decision to revolt against Hyksos domination. The rebellion is short-lived. The Hyksos king Apophis raises his full army and kills the challenger, forcing the Theban royal family to flee to Nubia where, for ten years, Seqenenra’s son Kamose and grandson Ahmose make preparations to return. Most of Thebes at War is dedicated to Ahmose’s infiltration of the the kingdom and the subsequent, triumphal liberation of Egypt from the Hyksos.

It would be easy to be critical of Mahfouz’ liberties with Egyptian history in telling this tale, including that he manipulates the royal family tree of Thebes and inserts a Nubian exile where in there was common interest between Nubia and Egypt. But such dramatic license is almost always taken in historical fiction.

More interesting are the ways in which the past and the present are collapsed in Thebes at War. For instance, in terms of Egyptian geography where many of the locations (e.g. Ptolemais) that Mahfouz refers to in upper and central Egypt were Hellenistic Greek foundations. The more telling example, though, is the oft-repeated detail that the noble Egyptians are of dark skin and the evil Hyksos are white-skinned invaders who brutalize and oppress the Egyptians. Restoring Egypt for Egyptians is, for Mahfouz, the greatest moment in Egyptian history, and he conspicuously avoids mention of the founding of an empire under the New Kingdom. It is impossible to read Thebes at War (published 1944) as anything other than a parable about Egypt under the British Mandate.

I like Mahfouz’ style and am sympathetic to the position he takes in Thebes at War, but this is a book that I did not love. The style is formal and authoritative that seems designed to convey the gravity of the subject and therefore feeling more appropriate of a historical drama than a novel. There are some concessions, including a love story involving the Hyksos princess that challenges Prince Ahmose’s commitment to his Egyptian wife and people, but these had only so much emotional resonance in the book’s formal register.

I understand why Thebes at War won accolades when it came out. Its themes were directly relevant to its contemporary circumstances and Mahfouz’ design of a 40-book series of novels on Egyptian history helps construct the vision of an Egyptian national identity that has remained constant through millennia. This is obvious nonsense, but national illusions (often, delusions) are pervasive and powerful. Historiographically bankrupt a these stories may be, this should not diminish their political utility in galvanizing a population against exploitative colonial infrastructures and corrupt regimes. Nothing in this paragraph should indicate that I particularly liked Thebes at War, but looking at the novel at the intersection of literature, history, and contemporary politics at least makes the resulting conversation more complex and nuanced—even in a book that unfolds as straightforwardly as this one does..

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I’ve fallen a bit behind here because I haven’t been at my computer for the last few days and so have also finished reading Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. This morning I started reading China Miéville’s Embassytown.

But What if We’re Wrong – Chuck Klosterman

In other words, we’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.

What’s interesting is our communal willingness to assume most old stories may as well be true, based on the logic that (a) the story is already ancient, and (b) there isn’t any way to confirm an alternative version, despite the fact that we can’t categorically confirm the original version, either.

Extrapolate that phenomenon to forty years, or to four hundred years, or to four thousand years: How much of history is classified as true simply because it can’t be sufficiently proven false?

In this not-essay collection (as he asserts several times in the forward material), Chuck Klosterman tackles the topic of how we think about the past and how we think about the future, arguing that a) there are some seriously problematic thing about how we think about the former and b) we nevertheless need to think about the latter more like we think about the former. Klosterman’s operating principles are that there is too much information (and too many variables) for a person to grapple with all of them, that certainty as a way of stifling progress and inquiry, and that we are more likely to be wrong than we are to be right.

What ensues is a lengthy, frequently speculative thought experiment that runs the gamut from asking what musical artist will be passed down as the exemplar of Rock and Roll when there is only one Rock artist who is widely remembered, to asking famous scientists whether we have hit a point of diminishing returns in the field because universal constants like gravity have already been solved, to talking about historical conspiracies such as the Phantom Time Hypothesis. (This last one is the theory that certain epochs in human history are no more than agreed upon fictions, which make for fun discussion and better Onion articles. Klosterman includes lengthy quotations from conversations he had with cultural and scientific luminaries (some of whom would be counted as more expert than others), all building on the theme in question.

But What if we’re Wrong is not about answers, but rather questions, a book meant to be good to think with. In this regard, Klosterman is successful, even though the very nature of the book, combined with the conversational and journalistic tone, make some of the specifics of the argument rest lightly in my memory. I enjoyed reading the book and it has certainly influenced me in terms of how I think, but some chapters were stronger than others. I particularly liked the chapter “The World That Is Not There” that explores false certitude about historical events, while others at times wandered down rabbit holes that were relevant, but less successful.

Similarly, the cultural commentary in But What if We’re Wrong runs the risk of becoming rapidly dated, even if that ironically proves the core conceit worth considering. Perhaps the clearest example of this I noticed was the discussion of Rock and Roll that considers at length (and the dismisses) the possibility that the “true exemplar” is Bob Dylan. Nothing Klosterman writes is yet invalid, but his hypothetical future did not consider the possibility that Dylan would go down as a Nobel Laureate. Ultimately, though, this is a quirk of the topic that ought not discredit a book that deliberately avoids most polemical topics in order to make its own case that how we think about these issues ought to be considered in its own right—and Klosterman can therefore be forgiven for not necessarily following leads in a comprehensive way because to do so would simply be missing the point.

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I am currently reading Thebes at War by the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, a book that was intended to be part of a forty-part retelling of the whole of Egyptian history. Thus far I am not finding it a particularly successful novel, but what it reveals about conceptions of Egyptian nationalism is fascinating.

The Dogs of Riga – Henning Mankell

The amassing of facts and the establishing of a chain of proof was so very much more complicated against the shadowy backdrop of a totalitarian state

It is 1991 and the ripples of the momentous change that would sweep across Eastern Europe are beginning to be felt in the Baltic. The first wave crashes onto the Swedish shore when a lifeboat containing the bodies of two Eastern European men is found on a beach on a cold winter morning. The case is given to Detective Kurt Wallander, whose team traces the men to Latvia. Wallander closes the case with the aid of Major Karlis Liepa of the Latvian police, but when Liepa is killed upon returning to Riga, Wallander finds himself drawn into deadly competitions, between a condor and a lapwing in the police force, and between the police and nationalist dissidents in the country at large.

Since The Dogs of Riga is a mystery, I hesitate to go into too much detail about its plot, but, as the second in the Wallander series, I can focus on Wallander and why I found him to be successful as the central character. Wallander is poured out of a mold labelled “detective.” He lives alone, with an estranged wife, grown daughter, and father in a retirement home, and he wants to be done with police work. Wallander does not share some of the worst detective traits like drugs, alcohol, and a toxic personality, but isolating him lead to a similar effect. Equally important, Wallander is a competent detective, as everyone recognizes, and has been on the force a long time, but he nevertheless feels completely out of his depth, continually asking himself what his now-deceased partner Rydberg would do. These combinations of divergent characteristics, combined with specific details such as the love of classical music, give depth to Wallander and propel the story by making him simultaneously uncertain and capable—a perfect pairing in a mystery. The Dogs of Riga is the second book in the series, so it is possible that some of these character traits were established in the first one, but they were more than satisfactory as introduced here.

So, did The Dogs of Riga work as a mystery? The international nature of the story sometimes made it seem as though Wallander was being yanked through events rather than unravelling a mystery, and the ultimate reveal takes the form of villainous gloating over a “doomed” victim. Likewise, it is worth wondering how much the story relies on the limitations of technology to keep up the suspense. But for all that, the story had a way of sucking the reader in, getting caught up at the intersection of multiple different plots along with Wallander. It is fair to regard The Dogs of Riga as being of its time with regard to technology and more, but the specificity that Mankell writes into Baltic at the twilight of the Soviet Union makes the read that much more compelling. I can easily see myself reading another book in the Wallander series.

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Next up, I am almost through Chuck Klosterman’s But What if We’re Wrong, a piece of cultural criticism that tries to think about how we think about the past and applying those ideas to thinking about the future.

Reading and order

Sometimes there is an obvious order books ought to be read in. I learned this the hard way many years ago when I read the Wheel of Time series in this order: one, three through seven….two. Things made quite a bit more sense once I read the second book. More than just pushing the plot forward, each book in a series adds characters and deepens or broadens the setting. But the question I’ve been thinking about recently is whether there is a more general principle in this regard.

In other words, is there a Platonic ideal for the order in which one reads books that maximizes a) enjoyment and b) the appreciation of the content of each? If so, what sort of pattern might it follow, taking into account fiction and non-fiction, the gender, orientation, cultural background of the authors, and genres?

Obviously not. This is an impossible hypothetical for any number of reasons. For one, there are simply too many permutations and too little time to label anything “essential.” For another, taste is subjective, so the list would have to be customized for each person. Nor does the awareness of a given book disappear upon closing the cover, so while the actual order in which the books are read will have some influence on the experience of the next book, the interpretation of books gone by (let alone books re-read) is open to revision upon further thought.

It might make some logical sense to equip this tabula rasa reader with the tools of literary and cultural criticism, honing sensitivity before unleashing him or her onto the the written word like a wolf onto sheep. If one were to prioritize deep appreciation of the book over the simple pleasure of reading. Yet not only does the reading work this way (the idea of equipping a kindergartner with Derrida’s deconstructionism before, say, The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar is laughable), but also it is impossible to gain a deep appreciation of literary and cultural criticism without first being steeped with culture (books, in this case).

This thought experiment works somewhat better for specialized subfields, particularly in terms of non-fiction, because a) this means that there are demonstrable bounds to the literature and b) there are things that might be termed foundational texts (and essays analyzing or debating those foundational texts, and on and on) from which the edifice of knowledge is constructed. These foundational texts are unavoidable; when thinking about the ancient economy, it is impossible to avoid dealing with Moses Finley. In this respect, it is possible to at least approach an ideal order in which to read the literature. Yes, the list would be politically charged based on the biases of the list creator(s) and, yes, the list would be limited by oversights, scope, and additions, not to mention issues of what methodological texts are “necessary” for a given topic, but at least it is possible to conceive of the task.

If this concept is an impossible absurdity, why have I spent nearly five hundred words on it? There are two answers to this question, both incomplete. The first is that it was a thought that came to me as I read Chuck Klosterman’s But what if we’re wrong? close on the heels of Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood and thus thinking about what it means for a novel to grapple with a given culture. The question I had was whether I would have had a fundamentally different reaction to Back to Blood if I had read them in a different order.

The second is a broader, more general experience I have had where the second of two books read in the same genre has seemed derivative of the first when they were, in fact, published in the reverse order. (The principle is equally applicable to any consumed media, really). This quirk inevitably shapes how the reader (listener/watcher/consumer) interprets both books and threatens to diminish the appreciation of the foundational book that now may be seen as unambitious, derivative, or inchoate, even though it forged the trail that made the second book possible—simply because it now exists coevally with the media that followed it and so may now be experienced afterward. And this is without considering intertexts that cross genres and the interplay between fiction and non-fiction.

Perhaps a single list is the wrong model. The all-encompassing Platonic structure, might look more like a three dimensional flowchart with near-infinite connections that can be entered from almost any point, depending on what one has already read, what one’s objective is in reading, and what book(s) one is working toward as an objective. Then again, this ceases to be a way to structure reading and becomes a visualization what already exists, provided that a reader cares enough to plan ahead.

Back to Blood – Tom Wolfe

“Dio, if you really want to understand Miami, you got to realize one thing first of all. In Miami, everybody hates everybody.”

On television you have to create a hyperreality before it will come across to the viewer as plain reality.

Oh, ineffable dirty girls.

Miami is seething, with racial tensions between African Americans, Cubans, and Americanos, with class tensions between the super wealthy (including Russian oligarchs) and everyone else, and with sex. In Tom Wolfe’s novel Back to Blood, it is mostly the sex.

Back to Blood is a book for which the plot—a slow-unfolding investigation into a wealthy Russian donating millions of dollars worth of forged art to a Miami museum—does not capture what it is about. Back to Blood is more appropriately described as a version of life in Miami told through multiple concurrent stories about five groups (the Miami Herald, the Cuban ex-pat community of Hialeah, Miami high society, Miami PD, and the upwardly aspirational family of a Haitian professor), variously connected by the intrepid and persistent duo, Officer Nestor Camacho and reporter John Smith.

Nestor Camacho is set up as our hero. Born to Cuban parents, he finds himself all-but disowned when his muscle-bound heroics pulling a Cuban refugee off the mast of a boat in Biscayne Bay are caught on TV and slapped on the cover of every newspaper. The police see this as heroics, the Cubans as betrayal, and not for the last time in Back to Blood, Camacho’s feats of physical prowess mostly succeed in making him a pariah in the eyes of the public. Since his Magdalena, a psychiatric nurse, has recently dumped him in favor of her (in her eyes, more manly and vigorous) employer, Nestor has some time on his hands to help John Smith out with his investigation into art forgeries.

The second most important storyline is Magdalena’s. Her employer, a renowned psychiatrist specializing in pornography addiction, has taken this beautiful young cubana out from Hialeah and introduced her to the sex-drenched world of Miami’s upper crust. Of course, he isn’t doing this own dime, but trafficking on the prestige of his high-profile patients who give him access to the best restaurants, art shows, marinas, and, ultimately, maritime orgies. Magdalena is initially attracted to the power this man seems to have, and certainly he is more sure of himself than is Nestor, but she also starts to see through this mirage, seeing him for what he is: a petty man who uses bluster, belittlement, and his degrees to manipulate people, all the while being as sex-crazed as his clients. But it is possible that one of the men she meets through these connections will genuinely appreciate her…

Back to Blood came out in 2012 and, like Wolfe’s other work, is heralded as capturing something essential about American society at that moment, in this case with Miami being the American city of the future. The fundamental question, then, is how accurate is this description? On the one hand, Wolfe’s vision of America has it deeply divided by racial divisions that can be transcended by wealth and status, with the appearance of both being more important than the actuality of either. Within this vision, everyone is in it for himself—women are objects for and appendages of the men who are sleeping with them or would like to sleep with them. There are parts of this vision that ring true in the contemporary world of social media and police violence, but I as far as capturing a larger Truth about American culture I was underwhelmed.

The biggest reason for my reaction is the seeming conviction that Wolfe has that everyone is a frothing mess of loins and lust. Miami plays into this vision because it provides ample opportunity to describe largely naked women and to have characters of both sexes ogle, judge, and imagine the variously covered body parts. It was as the Wolfe’s literary credentials were dependent on the number of ways he could describe sexuality. To wit:

Her beautiful legs were vulnerable, unguarded innocence in its carnal manifestation.

In this respect, Back to Blood is an orgy of literary proportions. So much so, in fact, that I found myself wondering where Wolfe fell on it all. On the one hand, he comes across as an ogler himself, taking every opportunity to look and to judge. On the other hand, the two Yale characters who are at some level the characters closest to the author both seem to exempt themselves from the vain, fleshy world of the other characters, run through with conservative WASPish tendencies regardless of their political leanings. Thus Back to Blood seems to simultaneously revel in the sex-crazed environment and to take a moral stand against it. Setting aside some problematic issues concerning gender and the absence of genuine discussion of economic precarity, in this dichotomy of morals, Wolfe may inadvertently be onto something.

I didn’t love Back to Blood as much as I’d hoped, but, despite some early frustrations, I came away with a grudging respect for it. I may read some of his other books yet.

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Next up, I am almost finished reading The Dogs of Riga, one of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. It is another book where I find myself asking how it would hold up in a more recent setting, but I am quite enjoying its depiction of the Baltic at the very end of the Soviet era.

(Re)visions and Assignments

Every student paper should be revised. More than once. In an ideal world, that is; in the real world there are problems of scale and deadlines.

Periodically I receive an request from a student to revise a paper in return for extra credit. In the past when teaching in surveys of American history with up to a hundred students at a time, I feel obliged to reject these requests. I would love it for students to revise their papers, but extra credit is not something I can extend to just one student in good conscience and there isn’t enough time in the semester to let every student do this unless it is built into the course. On the one hand, I feel bad about rejecting some of these requests since I am acutely aware of the challenges facing the current generation of college students; on the other hand, though, the requests are framed in terms of getting a higher grade, not in terms of education.

This disparity comes in part from the nature of these assignments. I suspect that nobody has looked at a survey-level essay on the changing conceptions of race in America from 1865 to 1925 as an opportunity to write a brilliant and incisive critique of race in America. Even if the author has a fiery passion for the topic, the prompt and supporting materials don’t lend themselves to it. The disparity also speaks volumes about how courses like this one are treated. They are a grade, not an opportunity to learn about American history or learn practical skills such as writing or rhetoric.

Returning to the nature of the assignments, one-off submission that return marked and assigned a grade lend themselves to thinking about the assignment in terms of the grade instead of in terms of process. I understand the counter argument that history classes are for teaching history and not for teaching writing, particularly in these large survey courses. And yet, history is fundamentally discursive.

This fashioning of history, along with how we remember history, is going to be a point of emphasis this fall when I teach a survey of archaic and classical Greek history. I am going to do this not only because of the recent and not-so-recent appropriations of antiquity for political agendas, but also because I hope that pushing people to think about these issues in a Greek context will make it possible to think about in our contemporary context.

I am also planning some opportunities for my students to revise their work, made possible in large part because of a smaller class size. As of right now the idea is to give an option for students to revise at least one of their assignments for a higher grade, as well as making that type of assignment recur once more later in the semester in order to maximize the benefit for the student. The plan is to have revisions take place in two phases, with the first being that they come meet with me to discuss the assignment, before then making revisions based on both the written comments and conversation. My hope is that in addition to setting assignments that push the students to write a decent amount, adding this (optional) revision stage will meet the students halfway toward thinking about assignments qua grades. That is, maximize the students’ opportunity to earn a higher grade while underscoring that writing (and thinking) is a process that doesn’t happen simply by vomiting words onto a page.

The Kingdom of the Gods – N.K. Jemisin

Note: This book is the third book in a trilogy so while I will avoid spoilers for this particularly book, there will inevitably be allusions to the events of the previous two.

A century has passed since the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, nearly as much since those of The Broken Kingdoms, and the world is changing again. The power of the Arameri, the family that once ruled the entire world, is diminished—its wealth and power being challenged and its members being killed under suspicious circumstances. But there is an even more fundamental happening: Sieh, firstborn of the godlings, god whose portfolio is most perfectly encapsulated by childhood, is losing his powers. More specifically, he is growing up.

No longer able to reside in the realm of the gods, Sieh is forced to live among mortals, relying on their friendship (and, frequently, grudging charity), including from the Arameri heir Shahad, her twin brother Dekarta, and the youngest of the godlings, Ahad. These people have limited patience for Sieh’s growing pains, though, particularly because he has, at one point or another, managed to offend each of them. Nevertheless, as Sieh discovers nearly too late, they and the world are in grave danger because there is a hidden foe of Sieh’s creation (and antithetical to his nature) that is looking to recreate existence.

The Kingdom of the Gods follows the pattern set by the two earlier books to good effect, dropping into an unfamiliar and disorienting situation right along with the protagonist—Sieh, in this instance. The first person narration once again provides novel insight into the world and moves the plot along well, but also contributes to its jumpiness since one of the plot points is Sieh’s erratic aging. The conclusion to the series also picks up where the previous two books leave off in terms of addressing issues of abuses of power inherent in, for instance, rape, but also manipulations within friendship. The result is a book that provides a thoughtful discussion of friendship and moves along well, but comes cross as somewhat less tightly constructed than the two previous installments, both of which operated on tighter deadlines in the narrative.

On the whole I liked The Kingdom of the Gods as it continued particularly to explore the cosmological setting established back in the first book. Jemisin’s take on these was a logical extension of what had already been established such that elements such as how godlings interacted with things antithetical to their nature and how they discovered what their nature actually is were refreshing. At the same time, though, there was a tendency to err towards making things too neat. This works for the story in the sense that it makes things easier to explain, but it nevertheless left me frustrated because it seemed to diminish the world of depth.

I had other complaints, but I don’t want to nitpick too much. Endings are hard and I did not feel cheated the way I sometimes have with how a series ends. Jemisin does well not making the trilogy continuous so much as consecutive, picking three stories from a long period of time and letting the world breathe between each book. Each sequel is recognizably in the same world and dealing in somewhat different ways with the same themes, but not simply picking up where the last left off. The result is that the gods are the characters who are largely carried over from one book to the next, but this does not mean that they remain constant either. In sum, I am looking forward to reading Jemisin’s other work and have a copy of The Fifth Season on my to-read shelves that I will probably open later this year.

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Next up, I am currently reading Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood. This is my first exposure to Wolfe’s work and only now in the home-stretch am I actually appreciating the plot—the rest of the book strikes me as literary self-indulgence of ego and lust.