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A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it…or you defy it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart.

Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception.

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive. So woods are spooky.

It has been a running theme this year that going back to finally read things that I probably could have, or should have, read years ago. A Walk in the Woods isn’t quite the oversight that some of the other books have been, but other than hearing about the recent movie this book only came to my attention when it was recently given to me as a gift. It was very much my speed.

A Walk in the Woods is a literary travelogue of the summer of 1996 when Bryson decided that he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail. At the outset of the story Bryson has just moved back from the UK and settled in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he gets obsessed with hiking. From there, he is consumed by a bit of temporary insanity, deciding with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym) that he is going to become a true mountain man by completing the entire thru-hike. Of course he doesn’t make it.

The adventures of Bill and Stephen form the narrative backbone. There are the eccentrics met on the path, the decision to subsist primarily on Snickers, and the simple pleasure of a shower after days on the trail, as well as the interruptions, challenges, and pleasures of hiking, alone and with partners. Bryson then weaves the history of the Appalachian Trail and commentary about the geological and natural features encountered along the way. These sections, while less silly and humorous than the main narrative give the impression of someone ambling through the woods lost in thought—something Katz allegedly complained about on multiple occasions. Some of the science has advanced since 1998, but it held up for the most part, with Bryson explaining in graphic detail a) the consequences of global warming and b) the scars of human encroachment on the landscape. Technology might have advanced past where it was in 1996 when this trip took place, but these issues remain.

Bryson’s prose is light and humorous, which keeps the pace moving through the hundreds of miles that he and Katz hump packs north from Georgia. Hiking is hard work, which he acknowledges from the outset, and makes clear in the book how woefully unprepared both of the mountain men actually were.

I read A Walk in the Woods on a recent trip to Vermont. It still made me wish I were out hiking, but at least I got to read it while surrounded by woods.

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I haven’t had as much time to read recently as I’d like and so am still reading Fahrenheit 451.

Five Short Reviews

I’ve been struggling to find words to write about books I’ve read recently, for a variety of reasons. It has turned into a very busy summer teaching, preparing to teach, and writing my own (non-fiction) book, and the result has been that I just want to retreat into whatever book I’m reading in the little downtime I get. I am still reading and want to say something about these books, so I’ve decided to clear out some of my backlog with five short reviews of fewer than 100 words each. Some of these are deserving of more, but this is about catching up and I liked each of these books, so brevity should not be taken as an indictment.

The Company She Kept — Archer Mayer

Joe Gunther is a Vermont detective of the old type. Gunther’s depth comes because the novels have charted the lives of him and his team for three decades. In this 2015 installment, Gunther’s team is brought on to solve the murder of Susan Raffner, a state senator found hanging from a cliff, “DYKE” carved into her chest. The deceased is a confidant of Gail Zigman, the governor and Joe’s ex-girlfriend. This is a lesser novel in the series, being much more interested in debates about sexuality than in the team and building to an anti-climactic reveal. Adequate, but unspectacular.

Assassin’s Quest — Robin Hobb

The culmination to the trilogy that began with Assassin’s Apprentice. King Regal has abandoned much of Buck kingdom to the raiders and withdrawn inland to his mother’s home, surrounding himself with sycophants and violent criminals. Fitz, who most believe dead, must set off into the mountains to find Valiant—the rightful king—before it is too late. Hobb sticks the landing for this set of novels, carrying through a fantasy series driven by emotional stakes and putting Fitz through the emotional ringer by forcing him to give up his youthful fantasies in the process of becoming an adult.

Nazi Literature in the Americas — Roberto Bolaño

Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers come in all shapes, and not all wear a sign of their affiliation. This idiosyncratic books is a fictional encyclopedia of Nazi authors in the Western Hemisphere from the early twentieth century through first quarter (or so) of the twenty-first. The format does not lend itself to plot and many of the characters are presented in a flat, clinical manner, but their stories are nevertheless told with a degree of dark, dry humor. The horror, by contrast, comes from their normalcy. Probably not the Bolaño book to start with, but I’m looking forward to reading another.

The Vegetarian — Han Kang

Yeong-hye is normal enough before a singular act of defiance, the decision to become a vegetarian, changes everything. Told in three acts through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister, The Vegetarian is about one woman’s attempt to reclaim her body by controlling what goes into it. The three external narrators give this book a surreal and horrifying aspect since everyone else sees her as an insensate lunatic to correct or exploit, but utterly irrational, while, in return, she is totally removed from the ways in which her choice—and it is her choice—has consequences for her family.

Visitations — Jenny Erpenbeck

Lingering at a property on Brandenburg Lake near Berlin, this novel is woven from the lives of the inhabitants that lived there in the twentieth century, even if fleetingly. Between each episode, the gardener trims and maintains. Erpenbeck’s ethereal prose, even in translation, gives the sense that the characters are ghosts brought back to share their experiences. Each episode is linked by the connection to this place, and I found them variously affecting on their own right, with the story of a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis particularly powerful.

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Since resolving to do this, I have also finished reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and am now taking a second crack at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book that I gave up on once before.

Small Teaching – James Lang

Small Teaching is another book that people recommended to me earlier this year when I was looking for resources on how to improve my teaching. Previously I read Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom and Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire.

Let me start by airing a beef with James Lang. Small Teaching derives its name from the baseball philosophy “small ball,” which basically says that you don’t need to hit a lot of home runs to win games if you take small actions (singles, not striking out, good base-running) that manufacture runs. These are the baseball fundamentals every coach tells their youth team when they don’t have the same raw strength, and Small Teaching opens with the story of how the Kansas City Royals recently had a two-year run of success by employing small ball.

The Royals make for a good story, and the team and national media certainly gave credit to small ball, but Lang’s version of the narrative underplays how much of the Royal’s success either predicted the direction baseball would go (a light’s out bullpen) or zigged while other teams zagged (they struck out far fewer than any team in the league both years). In other words: small ball helped, but it didn’t tell the whole story.

In fact, this is an apt metaphor for Small Teaching.

Small Teaching is a book born from Lang’s years of giving pedagogy workshops, with the stated purpose of providing brief classroom activities, one-time interventions, and small modifications to course design that a) require minimal preparation or grading and b) improve the classroom experience. Lang’s intent is to make the book simultaneously worthy of reading in full and of keeping around as a reference work.

Spread across three sections, eight of the nine chapters are organized in the same basic structure. First Lang provides the theoretical and scientific bases for the chapter; then he offers models from his own classroom experiences and those of others; finally he concludes with the general principles that synthesize the theories and models.

There are a lot of good ideas in Small Teaching, including studies that confirm what I’ve observed in the classroom (e.g. the inefficiencies in a lot of assessment methods that are disconnected from both course goals and previous assignments) and others that I employ from years of tutoring that I hadn’t considered bringing to the classroom (the value of predicting and self-explaining for getting students to the “A-Ha moment”.) I was particularly taken by the first chapter on retrieving, which argues that while long-term memory is effectively unlimited, the ability to retrieve that information that improves with practice, and the chapters on motivating and growing (7 and 8), which focus on treating students as human beings who need to be stimulated and encouraged. The research Lang cites in these sections points to some of these issues being outside the hands of the professor, but there are still compelling reasons to not compound the problems.

I learned something in every chapter, whether about the science of learning (which is in the subtitle) or an idea, and frequently found myself jotting down the quick tips for later reference. Lang says that he is all for big changes like those Carnes proposed in Minds on Fire, but is more interested in easy but practical solutions. Like with small ball, the idea here is to maximize the resources at the disposal rather than calling for radical change. It is in this vein that chapter 9 (Expanding) breaks the mold by offering ways to transcend small changes and lists additional resources, suggesting that people commit to reading one new pedagogy book per year and one article per week from one of the suggested sites. Overall, the combination of practical recommendations with evidence from studies that demonstrate why these suggestions are beneficial made it a compelling read.

In sum: The greatest sign of this book’s success is the disconnect between what I thought while reading it and my notes. While I was reading Small Teaching the suggestions seemed profound; looking over my notes I found myself wondering why I didn’t think of these things earlier. Small Teaching is not a straightforward “how-to” book, but was an immensely useful to think with now that I am starting to put together my course schedules for the fall semester.

Minds on Fire – Mark C. Carnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP World History (Ancient)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mersault Investigation – Kamel Daoud

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost Wars – Steve Coll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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