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What is Making Me Happy: Hemingway

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 feature.

This week: Hemingway

It should be of no surprise to anyone who has seen my list of favorite novels that I am fan of Ernest Hemingway’s writing. I started reading his work after coming to graduate school, starting with The Sun Also Rises when I was maybe 23 or 24-years old — old enough to appreciate Hemingway’s writing, but young enough to be deeply moved by what a friend of mine describes as a “young man’s novel.” Over the next eight years or so I read most of his other novels and even developing my own idiosyncratic pecking order of his oeuvre. I suspect that nobody, including Hemingway himself, was quite as taken by To Have and Have Not as I was. Something about that flawed book, which I now know doesn’t have have a functional plot because it was a Frankenovel made of two short stories and some connective tissue, just clicked with me on the level of sentence and scene and was an early case of coming to appreciate how writers can improve from their early work.

Naturally, I was looking forward to the three-part Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary about Hemingway that I recently watched.

Hemingway is an ideal subject for a Ken Burns project: a character whose life, writings, and tall tales merged to form a thoroughly American myth. To that end, the Hemingway documentary series is a straightforward cradle to the grave documentary that interrogates the relationship between his psychology and literary output, but always handled with a Burnsian breeziness that both mentions the negative aspects but doesn’t dwell on them. This approach often works. For instance, in childhood Hemingway’s mother often groomed and dressed her son to look identical to his sister, a quirk that replicated when Hemingway encouraged his first wife Hadley to do the same with him and that made its way into his posthumous novel The Garden of Eden. The documentary also spends time asking literary scholars about ways that racism of his time works its way through his work, balanced by ways in which Hemingway’s external machismo often cause his gender politics to go overlooked. At the same time, though the breeziness causes instances of domestic violence (at least once physical, quite possibly more frequently psychological) to go underdeveloped.

At its heart, Hemingway is about contrasting the man with the myth. The myth is a macho man who lived a life of poverty in Paris in the 1920s and who, at one point, insists that he is going to take down a German U-Boat with his fishing boat and crack crew of Jai Alai players.

The man is a more complex figure in ways that make him both more and less sympathetic. A philanderer who often lived off the wealth of his wives, but also a man who did not deal well with being alone and often relied on their expertise to produce his art. A hunter and bull-fighting enthusiast who also was sensitive to life. Hemingway also lived many of his later years in Cuba and had sympathies with Fidel Castro’s revolution. Some of the saddest moments came in the third episode when an aging Hemingway living in Idaho was suffering from a neurological disorder that the Mayo Clinic treated him with electro-convulsive therapy that left him effectively unable to keep short-term memories, let alone write, which must have been agony for someone who wrote for hours every day.

I had a few small complaints with Hemingway and some of the beats moved across familiar ground, but I appreciated the series both for a lot of the backstory, including interviews with his son, and as an opportunity to revisit Hemingway’s work.

Empire of Pain

A picture of Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain.

Empire of Pain is a story of many grey areas and a bright line in the shape of a little pill. At its heart sits a single family that profited from the pain of millions of Americans.

Anyone familiar with the art world or higher education has heard of the Sacklers. The Sackler Library at Oxford, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arther M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute, the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum. But, in recent years, the Sackler name has come to be associated with something much more negative: their company Purdue Pharma, its product OxyContin, and the opioid epidemic it helped jumpstart.

Patrick Radden Keefe’s latest book, Empire of Pain, an extension of a New Yorker article on the same topic, documents both sides of the Sackler legacy, examining how this family, the children of Jewish immigrants, made an enormous fortune that was designed to burnish their good names, but then helped create one of the worst public health crises in US history.

Empire of Pain is divided into three parts.

The first part focuses on the first generation of the Sackler dynasty. Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer were the sons of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. All three attended Erasmus Hall High School and became doctors in an era when medical schools put in place severe quotas to exclude Jewish applicants. The oldest, Arthur, had already begun a career in marketing while in high school and paid his way through medical school with a job as a copywriter at the advertising firm William Douglas McAdams, a double career that would come to define his career. After graduating, Arthur pursued a residency at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center where, joined by his brothers, they helped pioneer pharmaceutical approaches to treating mental illness.

However, Arthur also kept up his second career as a medical ad-man, first working at and then coming to own William Douglas McAdams. As if that were not enough, Sackler became a silent partner in L.W. Frohlich, McAdams’ competitor agency founded by his childhood friend, as well as joining his brothers and Frohlich in founding IMS, a medical information company, and the Medical Tribune, a direct-to-physician newsletter that, unsurprisingly, featured numerous advertisements for products repped by McAdams and Frohlich.

In Keefe’s telling, Arthur Sackler was a powerful personality, a tireless font of energy, and a man with numerous and varied tastes that led him to take art classes at Cooper Union. But he also thrived in the grey areas. He made his fortune playing a shell game with advertising, always disguising how involved he was in any given company, to the point that he transferred a large portion of his stake in one to his then-ex wife Else, but continued to freely use “her” funds as he pleased. It was in this context that he purchased for his brothers an old pharmaceutical firm, Purdue Frederick, the maker of small number of staple products like earwax removers and laxatives.

Charitable giving was always part of the plan. The brothers and Frohlich initially agreed that their heirs would receive some money, but once all four died their companies would pass into a charitable trust that would burnish their names. In practice, the charitable giving was more of the same shades of grey. Keefe points out that Arthur Sackler liked having his name on things (so much so that he encouraged his third wife to take his name years before they married), but he always drove a hard bargain. For instance, he persuaded the Met to store his collection of Asian art on his behalf and often managed to defer the actual donations so as to extend the tax benefits of his gifts. In one case, he negotiated that he would purchase the collection of a gallery to at the original price from the 1920s and donate it back to the museum as a way of infusing a little more money to the institution—only to turn around and claim the present value of the gift as a tax write off in a maneuver that might as well be out of Winners Take All. Keefe suggests that Arthur Sackler made money on the transaction.

Arthur and his brothers rode these grey areas into the upper-crust of American society, but as early as the 1960s there were questions about their methods. In 1962, Arthur Sackler testified before a congressional committee chaired by Eses Kefauver that was then looking into the pharmaceutical industry, with particular questions about the ethics of advertising drugs and the process by which companies got their drugs approved. Arthur escaped unscathed, but these two questions remained unresolved.

The second part of Empire of Pain turns to the development of OxyContin in the 1990s (years after Arthur had passed away). The proprietary technology of OxyContin is the time-release coating that allows a powerful dose of opioids to be slowly released into the body. Purdue Pharma, now headed by Raymond’s son Richard, claimed that the slow release of the medication diminished the risks of addiction and thus that this was the perfect drug to address all sorts of chronic pain issues. With this marketing in hand, Purdue dispatched armies of sales reps across the country with a simple mandate: sell as much OxyContin as possible. After all, the clock was ticking until generic competitors would undermine profits. These were the same sales methods that Arthur had pioneered decades earlier, now turned toward a drug made by the family’s company.

Where the first two parts of the story are filled with domineering people who rode problematic practices to wealth, part three turns dark. Keefe uses court documents to show that the Purdue (and the Sacklers’ other company, IMS) were aware of doctors over-prescribing pain medication and all of the ways that the drug could be abused. And yet, Keefe shows, the family to this day denies responsibility—for its false advertising, for its sales-tactics, and for its role in inventing problems to be solved with an addictive substance. Instead, Richard and other company representatives blamed overdoses on the victims, claiming that criminals were the problem, not the company. They thus used an army of lawyers to quash lawsuits, all while refusing to heed calls from within to diversify their portfolio and voting themselves billions of dollars in payouts, leaving the company itself effectively broke.

Empire of Pain is an infuriating book. The standard defense of Arthur Sackler is that he had passed away before the invention of OxyContin and thus it is the responsibility of Raymond, Mortimer, and particularly Richard, who was then in charge of the company. This is the same claim made by the younger generation who insist that they be judged by their movies or actions without consideration of the family firm. Keefe’s argument though is that this was a family firm. Arthur’s methods of interacting with the FDA and marketing bled into Purdue pharma, and the money then came out of Purdue pharma and into the wallets of the younger Sacklers. There are some differences between the generations, sure, but Keefe suggests that this is built on wishful thinking—Arthur was in the analgesic business before his brothers were.

But the question of blame is only one facet of why I found this story infuriating. This is in fact the third book in the last two decades to make this connection, on top of the mountain of court filings. Rather, it is the sum total that makes it so frustrating: he grift, the marketing, the failures of oversight, the pain it wrought, and the lengths they went through (to say nothing of the millions of dollars they spent) to deny responsibility. The Sackler family is correct that they are not the only ones profiting from the sale of opioids and that the opioid epidemic goes far beyond Purdue pharma, but it is also hard to deny Keefe’s conclusion that the drugs and methods they pioneered have had profoundly toxic consequences.

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My reading continues practically without interruption. I have also finished Andrea Stewart’s excellent debut novel, The Bone Shard Daughter, which I plan to write about, and Yishai Sarid’s The Memory Monster, which I might not. The latter is a parable about an Israeli tour guide to Holocaust sites in Poland who becomes consumed by the memories of the Holocaust. This novel had a number of barbs, including children on tours saying that they needed to model themselves after the Nazis and do this to the arabs and the narrator’s frustration with how the Holocaust has become symbolic even to the point where people were associating it with Poland rather than Germany and thus forgetting the humans at the camps in all of their complexity, but I found the story itself a little shallow.

I am now reading Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning.

I did this thing, it’s rubbish, but here it is. Let’s never talk about it again, okay?

I like blogging for a lot of reasons. In part, I use this space as an outlet for all sorts of topics that I would not otherwise get to write about — book reviews, pop culture discussions, thinking out-loud about teaching or academia or random historical tidbits. It also encourages me to write a lot, which I firmly believe is how one learns to write well. I also like how, at least on a personal blog, it can be done quickly. My process involves writing a piece, a quick editing pass, and then hammering the publish button. Sometimes, if I think the issue might receive a lot of blowback I will ask a trusted reader for feedback first.

This is how I have published more than 536,000 words on this site, some of them excellent, some of them bad, most of them just okay.

I also like the ephemerality of blogging. Certain posts routinely get traffic — my review of the novel Basti is perennially popular among what I assume are Indian students who had to read it for school, for instance, and apparently people liked my review of The Fifth Season — but most posts get all of their traffic within the first week of going up unless I do something to promote them later and, even then, that tends to be much lower than the initial burst. (Even a week is generous; I’m lucky to get three days.) These are the same trends that lead to concern about the future of blogs, but I like using the space to think through issues with the reassurance that I am not writing a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεὶ, a possession for all time, as Thucydides characterizes his history, but rather something of the moment with a slightly longer residue.

I cringe when I read my earliest posts, which I actually imported from an earlier iteration of this blog. I have considered purging them altogether on more than one occasion. They are very different from what I write about now and I don’t agree with everything I wrote back then, though these tend to be issues of historical interpretation rather than moral stances. What stops me from purging the record is two things: those posts almost never receive visitors and if someone were to look at what I wrote then and what I write now there is clear evidence of maturity as a writer and thinker.

Which brings me to the title of this post. It comes from a conversation I had with a friend a couple weeks back about the importance of self-promotion. I like writing things and putting them out into the world, but I also do very little by way of promotion and struggle to do it even in applications where it is absolutely essential. The line was hyperbolic, a play on managing expectations downward.

The single biggest factor behind my reticence to self-promote is that when I put something out into the world I immediately become anxious about how it will be received — no matter how proud I am of the work.

Some fear is normal. Academic reviews are frequently sharp, cutting pieces apart with analytical skills honed through years of training. I have done pretty well passing my scholarship through the peer-review process, but deeply negative reviews still hurt and so I get a flutter every time I send something out. What’s more, I also recognize that the peer-review process is imperfect such that even a piece that passes muster there can meet with a negative reception once it goes out into the public.

Other aspects of my anxiety is more idiosyncratic. Imposter syndrome, the feeling of being a fraud about to be exposed at any moment, is rampant in higher education and I am no exception.

I have struggled with feeling inadequate since my time as an undergraduate at Brandeis, where I was at the “best” school I applied to but surrounded by people saying that they should have been at Harvard. When I went to graduate school, I ended up at a lower-ranked institution because I was turned away from the better programs. Multiple times. The Shadow-CV movement ostensibly meant to de-stigmatize “failure” a few years back had the same effect because it made me feel like I was failing wrong. Just recently, the discourse around Princeton changing its requirements for the Classics major once again reignited these insecurities. I went on to receive a Ph.D. in ancient history, but my B.A. was “only” Classical Art and Archaeology and Ancient History and thus distinctly remember being informed by an otherwise very nice individual that I wasn’t a “real” Classics major.

Then there is an aspect of self-assessment. While I have become a significantly better writer than I once was, I still don’t consider myself a good writer. I like to think that I am a good historian, but others are better — stronger linguists, more creative researchers, more clever thinkers. Comparison is not a useful exercise, but I am perpetually in awe when I read the brilliant work of my colleagues and a little voice whispers that this thing is better than anything I can hope to do. I would like to keep the appreciation for other people’s work, but ditch the little voice.

One thing I have done well is produce. The same habits that led to a half a million words published here have helped me put out a steady stream of articles and reviews despite heavy teaching loads, limited institutional support, and contracts without an incentive to publish.

Self-promotion will probably never be my forte. I’m good for a tweet and blog post promoting my work and recently recorded what will be my first podcast talking about some of my research, but much beyond that my sense of reserve starts to kick in. What I need to remember is that there is a difference between promoting what one has done and promoting one’s own brilliance. The latter is self-indulgent vanity, but the former is normal, expected, and not incompatible with wanting to craft an academic persona based being a dedicated teacher, a generous and supportive mentor, a kind colleague, and, yes, a scholar.

I am proud of the work I have done and think that the pieces currently in the pipeline are better than what has already come out. There are a few pieces in the works, but the biggest one is this. A little over a week ago, I sent a complete manuscript to my editor for a book based on my dissertation. There is a long way to go yet, including another round of reader reports, copy-editing, indexing, and all of the little things that turn a manuscript into a book, but this also marked a major milestone in the project. The butterflies of anxiety immediately began to flutter, but I am immensely excited to be one step closer to seeing this project into the world.

A World Without Email

Have you not received emails flow chart, from PhD Comics.
Original Comic

Email is a brilliant tool. It takes virtually no effort or time to send an email that conveys a bit of information to one or more recipients almost anywhere in the world. They can then respond at their own pace, creating a thread that records how the conversation unfolded.

But email is also awful, a never-ending stream of small bits of information that can cause important tasks to get lost in the deluge.

I receive a relatively small amount of email compared to a lot of people, but I realized a few months ago that one of the great hidden costs of adjunct teaching at several different schools is that it dramatically increases the amount of necessary email management. For the past year or so, I managed three or four professional accounts on top of my personal one that I use for work unrelated to my academic employment. This work only requires reviewing an email, determining if it demands a response, and then deleting it, but now repeat the process for multiple accounts several times a day.

Then there are the email conventions. Email should allow for intermittent correspondence, but it has become practically an extension of instant messenger and group-think of lengthy email threads encourages people to engage in lengthier and lengthier responses that often defer the responsibility for actually making decisions. When the chair of a committee I am serving on needed to finalize a proposal, she skipped the email threads and asked several people who had responded to a pre-circulated draft to just sit down on a Zoom meeting and iron out our submission. In an hour, the three of us finished what could have dragged on indefinitely across email.

These are exactly the problems that Cal Newport tackles in his A World Without Email. His basic argument, which is an extended version of his “Is Email Making Professors Stupid?” from 2019 in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is that email and other “hive-mind” technologies like Slack are sapping the productivity of knowledge workers in nearly every sector.

The argument goes as follows: these hive-mind technologies were designed with the premise that more, easier communication is always better. You can better stay in touch with clients and customers; managers can better keep tabs on what is happening; workers can quickly get answers to questions. The technologies succeeded. They revolutionized the workplace and offices became increasingly streamlined. And then something happened. Email started to interfere with the smooth functioning of an office. Workers started spending less time doing what Newport terms “deep” work and more time handling managerial tasks like responding to emails and writing lengthy memos. Email allowed more immediate responses to clients, so clients began demanding more access, transparency, and immediate responses. Workers now able to check with a manager before making any decision did so, further bogging down processes and anxiety increased.

According to Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, the problem is that these hive-mind technologies are actually too efficient. It is too easy to fire off an email, passing off responsibility for a decision or keeping everyone in the know. But that ease comes with an asynchronous cost. It usually costs little for the sender to send an email, but a lot for the recipient to wade through dozens of low-effort emails.

(In cases where there is a wide power differential and the sender is unsure of how their missive will be received are, of course, an exception.)

The Average time Spent Composing One E-Mail. Professor: 1.3 seconds; Grad students 1.3 days.
Original Comic

The flood of emails or other messages is likewise as distracting as the never-ending stream of updates from social media, taking our eminently distractible minds away from whatever it is we are working on.

Newport’s solution for these woes is not quite a world without email — that is a utopian impossibility — but to get as close to that as possible by putting in place systems that allow for asynchronous collaboration and communication without requiring an immediate response. Email will continue to exist and serves some important services, but it should be dramatically cut back in both volume and length.

A lot of Newport’s ideas come from and are tailored to the startup world, but they have a lot of crossover applicability to higher education (which is still my field).

For instance, Newport gives examples of employers who shortened the workweek contingent on the employees being able to dedicate their entire time on the clock actually working or structuring schedules where some or all employees are not responsible for email until after lunch. They key, he argues, is about setting and holding to expectations. If a project manager is the contact person for an entire project, there simply is no way to contact them by email. Better yet would be a centralized project board where anyone who needed an update on what was happening could simply look. If the system uses short daily (or weekly) in-person meetings to give updates, then the query can wait until that meeting. Any such system, Newport argues, would require empowering workers to make decisions within their purview, but will create better outcomes long-term.

I don’t do most of my work in a collaborative workspace like the ones Newport describes here, but many of these same principles apply. Take my daily writing time. I can have minimal distractions (animals, the bustle of a café, music), but nothing narrative, no discussions, and certainly not the digital updates. For those blocks of time, usually an hour but sometimes longer, I turn off my social media, close my email, and tune out the world. Anything that arrives while I’m writing can wait.

Other suggestions in A World Without Email are more directly applicable.

One example: the “scrum” status meeting . These meetings happen several times per week and are held standing up to encourage brevity. At each meeting, the team members answer three questions: (1) what did you do since the last scrum?; (2) do you have any obstacles; (3) what will you do before the next scrum. If a team member needed a longer meeting, it could be set at this time. Newport describes the scrum as an ideal way to manage an ongoing project in a company, but I could see using a modified version (maybe twice a week instead of daily) with students working on theses and independent projects. These projects are usually developed with long regular one-on-one meetings, but the result is siloing the educational process and adding significant time commitments to a weekly schedule. By contrast, a scrum might show the students that they are not working on these things in isolation, the regular contact builds low-stakes accountability, and making these standing meetings cuts down on scheduling emails.

Newport also argues for automating and outsources as many processes as possible in order to save time that could be better spent doing deep work — or no work. Sometimes this requires money, such as how he describes hiring a scheduler or administrative assistant to handle tasks that might not be in your wheelhouse. I appreciated this suggestion, even if it struck me as analogous to how many basic necessities in life are cheaper if you’re able to afford to spend a larger total amount up front by buying in bulk.

More relevant to my position was the suggestion to automate as many tasks as possible.

At the end of the most recent semester I floated an idea to use flex due-dates for major assignments in my classes, but had been thinking about how to actually administer the policy without a flood of emails. The answer, I think, is creating automated systems. My current thought is to create a Google Form for every major assignment, with link embedded on the assignment guide and on the course website. To receive an extension on that assignment, all you have to do is fill out the form before the due date, answering just a couple of questions: name, assignment, multiple choice for how long an extension you want, and maybe a brief explanation for if you selected “other.” Rather than collect however many emails to respond to, I will have all of the information for each assignment in one place. Likewise, even if I return to grading physical papers, I will request two submissions, an online back-up that counts for completion, but then physical copy that can be turned in the following day for grading. Each of these policies requires a small additional step at set-up, but could streamline the actual process, and I hope to find other processes to similarly automate in my day-to-day job and also should I find myself leading a committee.

My only major of the book is mostly a function of the intended audience. My issue was with how Newport framed productivity as an abstract but ultimate ideal. This led to consequences in the text that run crosswise to what he is actually arguing. At one point Newport talks glowingly about an obsolete office setup where secretaries handled mundane tasks like scheduling meetings, transcribing memos, and handling routine communications. His point is that removing these tasks frees the knowledge worker to do deep work (that they are being paid for), but the value to that worker is given significantly more space than are the mechanics of hiring at a fair wage to do the job. He believes the latter (or says so in the text), but mentions it only in passing. Likewise, the value of deep work, Newport argues, is that you can reject the pressure to work exceedingly long hours, but the focus is on how to produce more. I understand why he wrote the book this way, but given the long-term trends that show how productivity has vastly outpaced wages, I’m not convinced that productivity out to the be the primary objective and thus found the evidence for improved workplace satisfaction to be a much more compelling case for cutting back on email use.

A World Without Email is a manifesto, but a timely one that has given me a lot to think about going into my new position since a new beginning is a great time to implement the new processes and protocols that he suggests.

ΔΔΔ

This post flitted between one where I think about academia and where I write about books, so I might as well continue here. I just finished Andrea Stewart’s excellent debut novel, The Bone Shard Daughter, and am looking forward to starting Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain next, an investigation into the Sackler family and the opioid crisis.

How Beautiful We Were

The cover of Imbolo Mbue’s _How Beautiful We Were_.

I’d sighed after Nubia recounted this, and she’d asked me why I’d sighed. I told her that on all sides the dead were too many—on the side of the vanquished, on the side of the victors, on the side of those who’d never chosen sides. What good were sides? Who could ever hail themselves as triumphant while they still lived? Perhaps someday, I added, after all the dead have been counted , there will be one number for the living to ponder, though the number will never tell the full story of what has been lost.

Modern industrial capitalism carries a steep cost. The price of abundance is paid in blood by the people working in dangerous factories and living on the land where natural resources are extracted.

The latter is the premise of Imbolo Mbue’s novel How Beautiful We Were.

Kosawa is a remote village in an unnamed African country, one of eight in the valley. Everything changed when the American company Pexton discovered oil in the valley. Rather than bringing prosperity to Kosawa as promised, oil from Pexton’s pipeline seeped into groundwater. Children died. Pexton taught the people of Kosawa to boil water before using it, and children died.

How Beautiful We Were is something of a fractal of a novel.

In some ways it is a generational novel centered on the family of the young woman Thula. Her family doesn’t lead Kosawa, but they are prominent enough that when the village madman, Konga, forces the town to kidnap four Pexton men by stealing their car keys — the inciting incident of the novel — people look to her father and uncle Bongo for leadership rather than the village leader Woja Beki. After all, Woja Beki has benefited from Pexton’s largesse. Thula takes up their mantle in the subsequent generation, getting an education in the United States and becoming an activist in defense of her people and democracy.

In other ways it is a novel about a place. The beautiful lost place of Kosawa is brought to life by the inhabitants. When Thula leaves her homeland we see her through letters home to her childhood friends.

Still in other ways it is a novel of customs and structures, involving both the encroachment of foreign customs on a traditional village in the tradition of Things Fall Apart and the corrupt national government and first world companies that trample on those traditional customs. Thula and her friends fight back, of course, but their numbers are small.

All together, How Beautiful We Were is a story that is both powerful and sad. The people of Kosawa only want to live in their village as they always have. This is a village so remote, we are told, that the snatchers bypassed it entirely, leaving Thula’s grandmother Yaya to wonder:

Now, in my old age, I wonder, what song would they be singing if we’d been stolen and displaced and no one was left to tell our stories? The ones who were taken, where are their descendants now? What do these descendants know of their ancestral villages? What anguish follows them because they know nothing about men and women who came before them, the ones who gave them their spirit?

Nothing can save the people of Kosawa. When they accept Pexton, they die. When they fight, the soldiers come. Their attempts at raising awareness and marshaling outrage follow a depressingly predictable pattern of momentary outrage and performative contrition before the proceedings get bogged down in court and the general public moves on to the cause of the moment with the systems left unchanged.

Perhaps the most impressive part of How Beautiful We Were for me is how Imbolo Mbue has crafted a novel that is simultaneously specific and universal. It is set in a country presumably modeled on her native Cameroon, but the country is never named and the capital city is not found on any map. I tend not to like fictional countries in an otherwise “real” world. These countries, like Qumar in the West Wing, strike me as ahistorical palimpsests meant to dodge the implications of the story. Mbue avoids this trap by making Kosawa the center of this little universe. The nation state is coincidental here and matters only in so far as it establishes the asymmetrical power relationships that bear down on Kosawa. The country could be Cameroon, but it could just as easily be any other of a dozen East African countries. Likewise, the story here might be about an oil company, but it could just as easily be a logging company or a mining firm.

I found How Beautiful We Were to be a deeply moving story that captures the destructive underside of modern capitalism at the same time as it celebrates the people who live on that toxic ground. They live, even as they are dying.

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I didn’t have much of a chance to write about what I’ve been reading last week because of other writing deadlines but the reading has continued. I finished (and plan to write about) Cal Newport’s A World Without Email, but also I have also read Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand and the fifth volume of Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman. Most recently I finished Ilan Pappe’s The Biggest Prison On Earth, a history of the occupied territories in Israel. Pappe is a controversial figure and wrote this book as a condemnation of Israeli policy. While some of his strong stances might be said to be predetermined, that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong. This book uses Israeli government documents to argue that the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the apartheid-like security apparatus were not necessary retaliation against terrorist threats or accidents of right-wing governments, but the intended outcomes of Israeli government policy since the creation of the state.

I am now reading Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter, a compelling debut fantasy novel set on a floating archipelago in an endless sea. I am particularly taken by the setting, which features a long-standing empire that claims its legitimacy because the royal defeated an earlier generation of powerful and destructive beings and they now protect the people, except that the royal institutions also enforce a policy where they harvest bone shards taken from the skulls of the people that are then used to power constructs, slowly draining the life force from the person that shard belongs to. Some people die in the process of collecting shards; everyone dies sooner than they otherwise would if their shard is used. The people aren’t happy.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef (again)

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 feature.

This week: Top Chef…again.

I know, I already talked about Top Chef as something making me happy, but I didn’t anticipate how much I was going to become obsessed with this show. I usually watch the show while exercising and my current workout routine means that it takes me two sittings to digest a single episode, but this week’s episode just grabbed me such that I watched it from start to finish.

This week’s challenge was “Restaurant Wars.” However many contestants are left are divided into teams and challenged to create a cohesive dining experience for their guests in a short period of time. Because of the pandemic restrictions, the challenge this season was to create a chef’s table dining experience where the diners get interact with the chefs making their food and watch the process. In addition to putting pressure on the contestants to work together and work under the eyes of the judges, this format also required the contestants to work the front of the house.

Although everyone on the show is an incredible chef, the randomly chosen teams were unevenly stacked just in terms of technical ability. The one team had Gabe, Dawn, and Sara — three of the people who had consistently been landing at or near the top — and a fourth person, Chris, whose performance had been more uneven, but who had also won challenges. The other team featured probably the odds on favorite to win the contest, Shota, but also one person who was nearly eliminated last week in Maria, one who was consistently near the middle in Byron, and Jamie, who had already been eliminated and won her return at Last Chance Kitchen.

Naturally, the second team crushed the event.

I was prepared for a dramatic, miraculous turn, but I also worried about the first team from the start. Their menu theme was “fish” and while individual dishes were hits, the overall restaurant was a mess. Some of this is because running a smooth restaurant like this is hard and not something you do in two days, but some of it came down to their choices. They collectively agreed that they would do everything collectively. Each person would make their own dish even when it was not quite clear what the preceding or following dish would be because the individual processes didn’t leave time to taste the dishes. They also agreed to collectively serve their guests and clear dishes, which, not unexpectedly, resulted in them often leaving their guests alone.

It was immediately apparent that the second team had people with experience doing counter service. Shota took lead in designing the menu, suggesting that they loosely follow Kaiseki, the traditional Japanese multi-course dinner, but that each dish be a fusion of Asian and Latin cuisine. With that guiding principle in mind, they crafted a menu for a restaurant called Kokoson, itself a neologism from the two traditions, where almost every dish used elements from several chefs and culminated in a hot pot that everyone helped fashion.

Each team member knew their role. Shota managed the back-of-house, calmly and quietly directing traffic and managing the pace. Maria choreographed the front of house, with help from Byron who took charge of clearing the table. Jamie helped out across the board.

The food, from design to execution, had to be excellent, but what so captivated me about them was how they worked as a team. At one point it seemed that Maria was going to get overwhelmed handling the dining room while Shota, Jamie and Byron were ignoring her requests when, suddenly, they appeared and threw in their labor. Shota took overall lead, but he wasn’t a dictator so much as a facilitator. He made final decisions in ways that smoothed the service, but those decisions sometimes amounted to affirming what someone else had in mind like where they were going to plate dishes or setting the deliberate-but-precise pace at which the dishes came out. Meanwhile, each person was empowered to take ownership of their jobs within the team and fact that so many of the dishes were collaborative meant that everyone was tasting each other’s dishes and staying in-sync with the overall vision of the menu.

Things obviously would have been different in another environment where the technical proficiency of your team is lower and the real-world stakes are higher, but, having had a little bit of experience managing a restaurant, I found this performance genuinely inspiring. Shota’s leadership here was exactly on point, but leadership is also made that much easier when a team works together as beautifully as this one did.

I might have only seen eight episodes of Top Chef, but, if I had to pick just one to recommend to someone, it would be this one: Season 18, Episode 8: Restaurant Wars.

American Politics – a follow-up from 2017

I recently received a question on a post published back in 2017 that used Thucydides’ description of the Oligarchy of 411 to reflect on the protests then going on. In short, this post drew together a couple of threads, including how we remember protest in Ancient Greece given the limits of our evidence and the my concerns about the consolidation of power in the executive branch. The reader asked: how do I feel about the consolidation of power in the executive post 2020?

By way of preamble, two caveats:

First, the original post was, as much as anything, a reflection on the limits of our evidence for the ancient world. I have a hard time believing that the weight of the protests of the past few years would fail to leave a trace simply given how much material has been produced. Perhaps some sort of digital apocalypse could render that evidence unsalvageable, but I find that unlikely.

Second, what follows stems from my opinion. I consider myself a reasonably astute political watcher, both as a function of how I interpret civic duty and as a relic of the time when I thought I was going to work in politics—and one of my favorite courses in college was on the American presidency, but my areas of expertise have developed in rather different directions. As such, I am speaking here as a citizen rather than as an expert.

As to the actual question about the growth of the executive, not much has changed.

To his credit, President Biden has also made a conspicuous effort to work through Congress rather than through executive orders. The enormous caveat here is that this has been made possible by slim majorities in both chambers. I don’t want to speculate on what Biden would do if this were not the case, but there hasn’t been a move to substantively curb the power of the executive. To give a couple of examples, President Trump faced a historic second impeachment, but in neither investigation was he convicted by the Senate and most of his worst precedents like eternally-interim appointments were allowed to expire without either being regulated or held to account. Biden may be not actively flexing the executive in ways that expand it further, but that is not the same thing as rolling it back.

For my part, I would like to see regular, transparent processes to hold politicians accountable for their actions.

However, too narrow a focus on the state of the executive in American political life also misses the forest for the trees. That is, a more serious anti-democratic movement developed parallel to, but not directly in-step with the growing power of the executive. Dark money political interest groups have gerrymandered states in ways that force Democrats to win a super majority of the votes to have a slim majority in state legislatures that, in turn, allow Republican state legislators to simply ignore ballot measures approved by the voters. The other priority for these dark money groups has often been to install a favorable judiciary, which was Mitch McConnell’s legislative priority during the Trump administration. These groups would obviously like to have the presidency — there would be less reason for so many states to install voting restrictions after the 2021 election and lay the groundwork to reject an unfavorable electoral outcome in 2024 otherwise — but it is not their singular focus.

When the two came together, as in the obstructionism spearheaded by McConnell that prompted President Obama to work through the executive and thereby gather ever more power or how congressional Republicans enabled President Trump to circumvent Congress to an even greater extent, the result was the expansion of executive power under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

(Reading over the original post, I noticed that I characterized the process as the legislature “acquiescing” to the consolidation of power. This isn’t quite right, as I’ve noted here, but I do still think that the legislature has been complicit in the process.)

Recent events are revealing just how much the American constitutional system relies on a consensus belief in the founding myths of this country and institutional norms. At the same time as the shallowness of the former have been revealed, the latter have been under attack in an increasingly polarized country. The Constitution was never a perfect document, but it has been calcified by originalism, rendering whatever flexibility it contained impossible.

Here in 2021, the consolidation of executive power can’t be untangled from these other threads that are more aggressively eroding the political system. That is what concerns me as a citizen of this country right now, more than the growth of the executive. The first is an existential threat, the second has concrete consequences but I see it as an academic exercise if the first isn’t addressed first.

The Lost

A Palestinian boy sits at the rubble of his family home destroyed after an Israeli strike in Gaza City, 13 May 2021.
EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED SABER (Photo on Al Jazeera).

But there are certain aspects of this letter, concrete things, things the letter actually says and which, therefore, I do not have to surmise, that force me to think about family quarrels, about proximity and distance and “closeness” that are not temporal or spatial but emotional.

Daniel Mendelsohn grew up in a Jewish family surrounded by stories. His Judaism was, by his own admission, both inalienable and indifferent such that his love of stories led him to the plays and poems of the ancient Greeks rather than to the Torah of his heritage. Nevertheless, he remained captivated by a particular absence in the stories of his family. That is, the stories of his six family members, his grandfather’s brother, sister-in-law, and their four daughters, who had remained in the small Galician town of Bolechow until the arrival of the Germans. Their names — Shmiel (Sam) Jäger, Ester née Schneelicht, Lorca, Frydka, Ruchele, Bronia — were only ever whispered.

Mendelsohn resolves to recover their stories, setting in motion an epic journey that takes him to Bolechow (now Bolekhiv), Australia, Israel, Sweden and Denmark armed only with a few names and photographs to interview anyone who might have known his relatives or know what happened to them.

What he discovers is more complex than he could have imagined. Some of his interview subjects don’t remember much — they were too young, or were then too old — while others don’t want to talk for one reason or another. But none of them were actually there, so everything they told him was little more than hearsay. They agreed on the broad strokes: Shmiel was a good man, a little deaf, and a butcher with two trucks, a pretty wife, and vibrant daughters. But some remembered two daughters. Others three. (There were four.) Some heard that Frydka was pregnant when she was caught. Some heard that Ciszko Szymanski, the Polish boy who loved Frydka and insisted that they kill him, too, when the Germans found her hidden in the house of an art teacher, was the father.

What is memory? What is memory? Memory is what you remember. No, you change the story, you “remember.” A story is not a fact. Where are the facts? There is the memory, there is the truth—you don’t know, never.

The Lost is a memoir about the search for life amidst death.

Of the roughly three thousand Jews living in Bolechow in 1939, only a few dozen survived the German occupation. The rest were killed: at the hands of a Ukrainian mob, in the German Aktionen that combined humiliation and death, in the gas chambers of a death camp, and in the casual and systematic violence that characterized the Holocaust. Between the occupation and the final Aktion, the Jews of Bolechow did what they could to survive. A few ran or hid, some collaborated as the Jewish police, most worked in labor camps.

Death is inevitable in this investigation, but it is also striking for its account of life. The Lost is filled with memorable small details, such as how Cisko Szymanski’s father, a butcher, had a special room where the Jews of Bolechow could taste forbidden meats in secret, or how Itzak Jäger (another of Shmiel’s brothers), also a butcher, had to leave town under a cloud of scandal. We learn that Frydka and her friends used to attend movies at the Catholic center in town and that Shmiel would bring strawberries back from Lviv.

In prose that echoes the rhythms of Homeric poetry, Mendelsohn weaves the story of his years-long investigation with biblical exegesis about the book of Genesis, the stories of his interview subjects, and incisive observations about monuments and memory.

…graves, gravesites, memorials, and monuments are of no use to the dead but mean a great deal to the living.

And yet, I was repeatedly drawn back to the present moment while reading The Lost. In the time that it took me to read this memoir that reconstructs in excruciating detail the extermination of a Jewish community in eastern Europe, Israel cracked down on protesters and then dramatically escalated an ongoing crisis. The grim irony of reading about descriptions of pitchfork-wielding Ukrainians attacking Jews while watching mobs of Israelis attacking anyone they suspected of being Palestinian was not lost on me. Likewise for the Israeli airstrikes destroying media outlets while following Mendelsohn’s challenges in uncovering anything like direct evidence of the crimes against humanity at Bolechow.

The Lost is not a book about Zionism. It comes up from time to time, as does Israel, but it is not the central focus. Instead, the people in this book dream about Bolechow where Jews and Poles and Ukrainians lived in peace side by side until they didn’t.

It is that sort of detail that stood out to me this week.

Anti-semitism remains a serious problem in many corners, but that is not the same thing as opposing Israeli actions — like the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem at one of the holiest times of year and during pandemic, no less — that seem taken from the Nazi Lebensraum playbook. A number of years ago at a talk, a scholar of the Holocaust and its legacy asked rhetorically of the West Bank settlements: “where do you think they learned it?”

But even before the German racial programs spilled beyond the borders of Germany, critics of Zionism foresaw the problems. In 1938, Henryck Erlich, a leader of the Polish Bund, the General Jewish Workers Union, declared (in Yiddish):

When Zionists speak to the non-Jewish world, they are outstanding democrats, and they present the conditions in today’s and future Palestine as exemplary of liberty and progress. But if a Jewish state is to be founded in Palestine, its spiritual climate will be: an eternal fear of the external enemy (Arabs), unending fighting for every little piece of land, for every scrap of work, against the internal enemy (Arabs), and a tireless struggle for the eradication of the language and culture of the non-Hebraized Jews of Palestine. Is this the kind of climate, in which freedom, democracy, and progress can flourish? Is this not the climate, in which reactionism and chauvinism typically germinate?

Translation found here.

All people have a right to safety and security. What is happening right now in Gaza and East Jerusalem isn’t about Israeli safety or security. It is about politics. I don’t have any love for Hamas, but blaming both sides is a false equivalence. The ghettoization of Gaza is an ongoing policy and Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions have only further stoked ethnic hatred. Israelis have and will die in rocket attacks, but they have the Iron Dome system and bunkers. The Palestinians don’t. To focus on Hamas is to forget that they aren’t primarily the ones losing water, losing medical infrastructure, and dying because of these airstrikes. Palestinian children are.

If The Lost is about recovering life in a Bolechow from a time before the mobs, before the Aktionen, from a time when Shmiel Jäger wanted to live in a town where he was a big deal rather than coming to America and could go by Samuel, and from a time when Polish citizens of Bolechow sacrificed their lives to protect their neighbors, then, this week, that Bolechow seemed further away than ever.

An Israeli airstrike hits a building with apartments, offices, and international media agencies. Mahmud Hams.

ΔΔΔ

I plowed through Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand earlier today and am on the fence as to whether to write about it. On the one hand, Cohen had a number of interesting case studies in his discussion of the science of streaks. On the other, I found it much less coherent as a book than, for instance, David Epstein’s Range. It wasn’t even so much that Cohen was wrong about anything he wrote so much as that he had several different things he was working with — the math behind streaks, the psychology of how we perceive randomness, various uses of big data, and the titular “hot hand” — but a lot of the connections struck me as a stretch, such as characterizing groupings of people’s production, which tended to come in spurts, as a the product of being “hot” in the same way as a basketball player. In short, hot streaks do exist, but they’re usually misunderstood and much easier to identify after the fact than in the moment.

I haven’t decided what to read next, but am leaning toward Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were and the fifth volume of Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman in some order.

A Memory Called Empire

“So much of who we are is what we remember and retell,” said Three Seagrass. “Who we model ourselves on, which epic, which poem. Neurological enhancements are cheating.”

On some level space operas resemble one another: a galaxy-spanning empire, an exterior threat, an internal revolution, palace intrigue. A Memory Called Empire checks each box.

The sudden, unexplained death of Ambassador Yskandr Aghavn has created a crisis for Lsel Station, a small satellite of the massive Teixcalaanli Empire. For twenty years, Yskandr used his influence at the court to stave off annexation, and factions at court may see this death as an opportunity for expansion. In a desperate bid to retain independence, the Stationer Council has dispatched a new ambassador, Mahit Dzmare, to court armed only with years of training and an out of date imago of her predecessor—a piece of technology that gives her access to his experience and memories.

The out of date imago might be enough, but for its sabotage that causes the connection to her predecessor to burn out at the first moment of extreme emotion. Thus, Mahit is left to navigate the potential fatal rapids of Teixcalaanli using only her training, her wits, and her instincts as to whom among Teixcalaanli functionaries she can trust, all while trying to learn who killed Yskandr and redirect the military ambitions of an empire.

What Mahit finds is that a brewing civil war at court is the greatest threat to the independence of Lsel Station. The reigning emperor, Six Direction, is nearing the end of his life and scavengers are beginning to gather. Six Direction does have a young ninety-percent clone of himself, Eight Antidote, who he is grooming to succeed him (perhaps with a technological boost) alongside two co-regents Thirty Larkspur and Eight Loop. But this likely outcome has not stopped other members of the ezuazuacatlim, the emperor’s closest confidants, from intervening. As far as Mahit can tell, any of these people might decide it expedient to simply kill her — one, Nineteen Adze, she is pretty sure, has both saved her life, tried to have her killed, and held her in a gilded prison. To make matters worse, one of the empire’s most prominent generals, One Lightning, seems posed to stage a coup.

Against these forces Mahit trusts two functionaries: Three Seagrass, who is appointed as her liaison, and a friend of Three Seagrass’, Twelve Azalea. Every advantage Mahit hopes to rely on turns into a double edged sword. That is, except for a crucial piece of information about an unknown alien civilization hovering just outside explored space that could prove the difference not only for the survival of Lsel Station but also for the stability of the entire Teixcalaanli Empire, if only she can figure out who to tell.

I liked A Memory Called Empire quite a lot. Arkady Martine’s academic and civil-servant background were readily apparent, but this didn’t bother me as much as some reviewers whose opinions I respect and the setting of “space” offset a lot of my issues with R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War. Where I found the plot of A Memory Called Empire to be somewhat cookie-cutter space-opera, I thought she did a wonderful job building the setting, both with a planet-city run by an AI and in building out the galactic empire and its satellites. The Teixcalaanli empire is, functionally, a cross-section of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire (her specialty), and the Aztec Empire, all of which were surrounded by small satellite states that were perennially at risk of annexation. Establishing the naming conventions of Lsel closer to those an American audience are familiar with did that much more to allow Mahit to be a reader surrogate lost in the machinations and poetry (literally) of the Teixcalaanli court. I likewise didn’t buy the critique that we are meant to care about the stakes of the Teixcalaanli succession; we’re meant to care about Mahit surviving the crisis however it resolves.

However, what I appreciated most about A Memory Called Empire was one of those words in the title: memory. The imago machines, technology that allowed the wisdom and experience of generations to literally pass down through the generations was a clever wrinkle to the genre that had multiple different iterations throughout the novel. It is introduced to us as a potential crutch at the outset, something that will give Mahit a fighting chance at court, but when hers goes out early on in the story it becomes something else — something she is desperately trying to recover but also something that is sought by others with an almost McGuffin-level of devotion, and an object of debate between Mahit and Three Seagrass. For Mahit, this is the best way to preserve knowledge among a small community, while Three Seagrass sees it as a way of short-circuiting the allusive poetic culture of Teixcalaanli because it allows for replication rather than remembrance.

ΔΔΔ

I have been meaning to write this post for some time now, so it is pretty far out of order relative to what I’ve been reading recently. Since my last books post I have finished both Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, a gripping memoir about looking for his family members killed in the Holocaust, and Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand, a journalistic look at the science of streaks that had some interesting stories, but that I found frustrating overall.

When students write down what I say…

The semester just ended, which means it is time to review course evaluations. These feedback forms are notoriously problematic, but I encourage students to give me feedback and take what they say seriously. More than just that what students write can end up in a document I use for job applications, these are formative evaluations that can help me refine my practice. That is probably why a single negative review can cause such a sharp sting.

http://deathbulge.com/comics/155

Reader: I got one of those this semester.

But I don’t want to write about that. Instead, I want to share something that happened this semester: a student wrote down what I said. Not note-taking during a lecture, but writing down specific things that I said and then handing me a copy of this list on the final day.

Here’s a taste:

“If a monster’s just out there fishing or something, is it a monster?”

“Moose are big and scary as opposed to brown bears who are big and stupid.”

“Remember people: only barbarians wear pants.”

“Cassandra’s curse is that she’ll never be believed. I’m sure many ladies can relate.”

[speaking of Theseus] “He prays to Big Ocean Daddy.”

Sometimes discussions turn into improv and I say things specifically to prompt a response, here in a seminar on monsters, monstrosity, and classical mythology. Given that this is the sort of thing I did in classes with my favorite professors in college, this was immensely flattering — if also momentarily terrifying.