The Real All Americans

Carlisle simply wasn’t a school like other schools. It was first and last a social experiment.

The Carlisle Indian School, founded in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, is a complicated part of US history in the late 19th century. It predated the infamous Dawes Act of 1889, which broke up the collectively held tribal lands, but it was part of the general theory: that the end goal of US policy toward Native Americans was to assimilate them into White Society. Pratt worked tirelessly on behalf of his students within this broad purpose, defending natives against critics who believed them incapable of being civilized.

At the same time, the boarding school in Pennsylvania took children away from their families often for close to a decade, during which time they were subject to harsh discipline and encouraged to forget their traditional ways––much to the chagrin of their parents.

Americanization at Carlisle meant a number of things: a haircut, new clothes, learning to read, write, and speak English and learning a trade. But in the late 19th century it also meant learning the game of football.

In The Real All Americans Sally Jenkins tells the story of this football team, building to its victory on the football field over Army in 1912, symbolically avenging a century’s worth of injustices.

The Carlisle football team is a fascinating subject. In the early years of football there were no set schedules, so while Carlisle was a preparatory academy where students ages six to twenty-five received an education that topped out at high-school level, their opponents were usually the colleges of the North East, including the then-powers Penn, Yale and Harvard. The Indians (as they were called) were younger and lighter, both disadvantages in a sport that, even more than today, rewarded brute size and strength.

(President Teddy Roosevelt famously forced football stakeholders to meet, installing rule changes to a game that routinely killed players. The reforms eliminated the most violent aspects of football, but in a bid to make the game survive rather than out of a concern for player safety.)

Under their most famous coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, who arrived in 1899, the Indians hit a wave of success, pioneering an array of misdirection plays that gave the fleet-footed Indians open running lanes––plays football watchers today might be familiar with, like the forward pass and end-arounds.

Ultimately, though, it was when Warner’s coaching was matched with the athletic talents of a player like Jim Thorpe, gold medalist in both the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, that the Carlisle team reached its apex.

At times I thought that Jenkins got too cute with her narrative. The book begins before the foundation of the school, with Pratt’s military service fighting against Native American tribes, but ends her main narrative with its victory in 1912 over Army. After that season the team took a downward turn, driven in large part by Thorpe’s impending eligibility issues. (Thorpe, like many other players, had played semi-pro baseball during the summers, but unlike the others he had done so under his real name even though, as an Olympic gold medalist, was among the most famous athletes in the country.) The result is an unbalanced narrative designed to highlight the headlines after the game: that the Indians had finally beaten Army. The final chapter continues from that game through the end of the program, but Jenkins seems to imply that it was over after that game as Thorpe, a complicated figure, turns into almost a tragic hero.

Still, The Real All Americans is demanding of consideration. This story, as Jenkins points out, is part and parcel of the larger arc of US history in this period, both in terms of policy toward Native Americans and in terms of the rapid modernization of the country after the Civil War. The unbalanced narrative allows Jenkins to explore the prejudices of the day, making the point that while Pratt could be brutal to his charges and destructive to native customs, his racism was distinctly progressive compared to his contemporaries.

The most remarkable feature of early football that comes out in The Real All Americans is how its concerns hover over the game still. Without making the connection explicit, Jenkins weaves concerns over safety, amateurism, and the relationship between money and collegiate athletics. Carlisle’s unique position of receiving students from reservations and budget directly from the federal government sets it apart from other schools, but with football it serves as a microcosm for one concern of the modern university.

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I just started reading Marlon James’ new book, Black Leopard Red Wolf, an epic fantasy saga inspired by African mythology. I heard James give an interview about this novel and was intrigued, but it is also part of my plan to diversify my reading this year with more books by authors from Africa and of African descent, as well as more post-colonial books generally. So far the story is equal parts riveting and dizzying.

In the Garden of Beasts

As a historian, [Dodd] had come to see the world as a product of historical forces and the decisions of more or less rational people, and he expected the men around him to behave in a civil and coherent manner. But Hitler’s government was neither civil nor coherent, and the nation lurched from one inexplicable moment to another.

One of my favorite topics to explore with students in US history classes is how the United States engaged––or didn’t––with the rise of Nazi Germany. Simple ignorance is an insufficient explanation, as is the turbulence of the decade between the Depression and the Dustbowl. Rampant racism, as shown by a 1939 “Pro America Rally” at Madison Square Garden that hung swastikas from the rafters, contributed, but all of these factors spun together to create the US response.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, sits at the heart of this question, tracing experience of William Dodd, the first American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, from his appointment in 1933 through the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 when Hitler consolidated power by purging Ernst Röhm and the leadership of the SA, the Nazi paramilitary organization. Over the course of this year, Dodd and his family become disillusioned both by the American diplomatic establishment whose primary concern lies with recouping debts for American creditors and with the the Nazi party that professes to uphold the rule of law but actually embodies the fickle and capricious mania that propelled it to power.

In the Garden of Beasts follows the arcs of two members of Dodd household, the professor-turned-unlikely-ambassador William and his adult daughter, the flirtatious (and perhaps promiscuous) Martha.

William Dodd was a historian of the American South who received his doctorate in Germany and fancied himself a democrat of the Jeffersonian mold, complete with a Virginia farm. Despite his credentials and connections to the Wilson White House, Dodd remained an outsider to elite society, and so it was only the unlikely confluence of his request to become a diplomat (albeit at a sleepy post where he could work on his magnum opus) and Roosevelt’s failure to find an ambassador to the new German government that landed him the position. Dodd reluctantly agrees and set out for Berlin with his wife and children in tow, but immediately offended the diplomatic establishment with his insistence that they live modestly and without the fanfare expected of an American embassy.

Martha Dodd, as Larson describes her, delights in the attractions of men, but is married, and separated. In Berlin, she becomes swept up in the glamour of the diplomatic world, having romantic liaisons with, among others, Rudolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo, Ernst Hanfstaengl, one of Hitler’s aids, and a Soviet diplomatic attache (and undercover NKVD agent) Boris Vinogradov who dreams of converting her to the communist cause. Once, she is even considered as a potential match for Adolf Hitler.

Larson’s strength in drawing characters serves him well here. He might be overly interested in describing Martha’s promiscuity, but her affairs introduce a wider cast than focusing on the official ambassadorial story and Larson is also led to these descriptions by his sources, which include Martha’s memoirs of her liaisons in Berlin.

However, for all of brightly colored, if often menacing, characters in In the Garden of Beasts, the book didn’t have the same propulsion as Devil in the White City, his other book that I read. There are several explanations for this. One is that where the latter book is the story about the dark underbelly of triumphalism in the late-19th century American city, the former covers the awakening of a naïve family to the horrors going on around them. The result is a downward trajectory to In the Garden of Beasts that bottoms out with Hitler consolidating power––a compelling story, but not necessarily an exciting one.

The second factor limiting In the Garden of Beasts returns to the central question of the US diplomatic engagement with Nazi Germany. Larson tries to create stakes out of the various frictions in the diplomatic establishment: between US citizens being attacked in Germany and the demand to recoup debts owed from World War One; between the establishment’s wealthy aristocratic values and Dodd’s democratic simplicity; and between Dodd and the civil service in place in Berlin who chaffed at this inexperienced outsider’s mandates. This last was particularly notable since Messersmith, the man on station in Berlin, saw the dangers of the Nazi regime before Dodd even arrived. These disputes simultaneously felt like the weaker and the more existentially important thread, a contradiction left unresolved when the book slips into a denouement after July 1934 and Dodd becomes an outcast Cassandra warning about the dangers of Hitler’s regime.

I found In the Garden of Beasts darkly compelling, but, beyond the Dodds’ story, it didn’t reveal anything new about either Nazi Germany or 1930s America.

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I have been on a run of non-fiction reading, recently, finishing All the Pieces Matter, Jonathan Abrams’ oral history of The Wire, and am now reading Sally Jenkins’ The Real All Americans, a history of the Carlisle football team that beat West Point in 1912.

White Rage

African Americans who went to the North simply stepped into a new articulation of the seething, corrosive hatred underlying so much of the nation’s social compact.

First published in 2016, Carol Anderson’s White Rage is a rejoinder to the national dialogue that frames police shootings of African American men as the consequence of “black rage” that makes officers fear for their lives. Anderson makes this point in the prologue “Kindling,” which elaborates on her Washington Post Op-Ed in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri. The book expands the scope, offering a history of the relations between African Americans and White America. This history, she argues, is defined by white rage at even the slightest steps toward equality made by African Americans.

White Rage unfolds in five chapters, each of which examines a nominal step for African Americans toward realizing the American dream: Reconstruction, the Great Migration, Brown vs the Board of Education specifically, The Civil Rights Movement generally, and the election of the first African American president. But this is not a triumphant story. Anderson presents these moments in terms of how the establishment of White America set about rendering the gains hollow, perpetuating the racial schism in this country.

When I teach US history, I have my students watch a video where Anderson talks about the Tulsa Race War of 1921, when heavily armed white mobs destroyed the prosperous black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She brings the same vivid detail here, exposing particular stories like that of Dr. Ossian Sweet, whose bid to own a home in the white part of Detroit ended with his house besieged by a mob and he and his family put on trial for murder when they attempted to defend themself. In this case, Anderson recounts, the prosecutor built his case on the testimony of a police officer perjuring himself about the events, Sweet’s defense attorney––none other than Clarence Darrow––shredded the case, and, while Sweet eventually won in court, the series of events nevertheless ruined his life.

For all the trauma of the individual cases, though, Anderson demonstrates that White Rage is not the result of individual racists or a small number of southern states, but a systemic program across the country. She discusses, for instance, not only the well-known issues of voter suppression and drug policy, but also how during the height of the Space Race, there was a conscious decision that it was preferable to squander talents of wide swathes of the US population than to mobilize every available resource in the competition with the Soviet Union.

White Rage is beautifully written, with a white-hot intensity, but does not give in to the darkness it discusses. This is not a happy story, but Anderson does not deny the hope that undergirded each of the moments that proved hollow. We must “rethink America,” she says, but she means the structures: elections, education, policing and criminal justice. Rethinking America means extending the promise of America to all its citizens and rejecting the seduction of “buzzwords, dog whistles, and sophistry.”

Anderson supervised the PhDs of several of my friends, but this is the first of her books I’ve read. I was not disappointed. White Rage is a perfect complement to Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, another hard look at the systemic inequity, hard problems, and unanswered questions bubbling just beneath the shallow surface of the American dream.

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Next up, I’m about halfway through Erik Larson’s In The Garden of Beasts, which follows the family of William Dodd, the historian named the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany. Thus far I’m not as impressed by this as I was by Devil in the White City, but Larson captures the menace of Berlin in 1933 as he explores how it came to be that everyone overlooked attacks not only on Jews and Communists, but on US citizens in 1933.

The Red-Haired Woman

1984. Cem is a teenager living with his family in Istanbul where his father owns a pharmacy. He remembers this time fondly, but his parents’ marriage is not completely happy and his father has a tendency to disappear, leaving for stretches at a time for reasons both political and personal. During the longest absence, the family falls on hard times so Cem and his mother move out of the city for the summer. Against his mother’s wishes, Cem signs up for manual labor for several weeks with Mahmut, a traditional well-digger, in the sleepy garrison town of Öngören, promising to study for his school exams when he returns.

Öngören is destined to shape Cem. In Mahmut, he feels that he has met a father more genuine than his own, and during this same period he meets the titular Red-Haired Woman, a married actress nearly twice his age. Cem becomes obsessed, stalking her through town before finally meeting her, drinking with her and her husband, and finally one night being invited to share her bed––a fateful encounter that sets off a chain reaction that causes him to flee back to his middle class family.

Upon returning to Istanbul, Cem studies geology and engineering in school, joins a thriving industry, and marries the capable Ayşe, with whom he has a fulfilling relationship in every way except that they are childless. Instead, they throw their attentions into a surrogate child, their construction company that they name Sohrab after a character in the Shahnemah. But two mysteries about Öngören haunt Cem into middle age: what happened to Mahmut the well-digger after the accident and what happened to the Red-Haired Woman?

The events at Öngören that summer provide the basic structure for The Red Haired Woman, but the mystery at the heart of the book is more existential: is this an Oedipal story or a Sohrabic one.

Cem encounters Oedipus first, and, perhaps naturally given the troubles with his father, is drawn to this story where the son unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. In Öngören, Mahmut and the Red-Haired Woman’s theater troupe introduce him to the story of Sohrab, who is similarly an estranged son, but one who is subsequently killed by his father––a story they tell him plays in Turkey where Oedipus doesn’t––and the childless Cem spends much of his adult life chasing down representations of this story.

This juxtaposition of the two father-son murder stories is not mere window-dressing; the plot hinges on the question at three junctures. First in Öngören when Cem has an accident involving the man he has started to think of as his real father. Second, later in life when a business opportunity takes him back to Öngören, now a suburb of Istanbul, he is introduced to the possibility that his one night stand with the Red Haired Woman resulted in a child, which, if true, could result in that child inheriting the company. Third, the final section of the novel is told from the point of view of the Red-Haired Woman who reveals her previous relationship with Cem’s father. At each turn it seems to come up Oedipus, which continues the questions Pamuk has raised in his other novels about Turkey’s Janus-faced existence straddling the line between East and West, stuck between tradition and modernity.

In sum, I liked The Red-Haired Woman. It is deceptively simple in structure, with most of the mystery and conflict unfolding inside Cem’s head as he remembers and re-remembers the events of his teenage years. The internal conflicts were at times overwrought, but Pamuk pays these off by making him face the consequences in due time. In contrast, Cem’s external married life is downright pleasant, making this one of the most normal and pleasant married couples in any of his novels.

In the end, though, I was mildly disappointed only because it started out with such promise. The English translation is smooth and engaging, and I didn’t have strong negative reactions to any characters, but at the same time Cem is basically the only character who is fully fleshed out and mysteries that started with such promise ended softly as it became apparent that it was an either/or proposition. Pamuk’s interrogation of which father-son story fits Turkey was a thoughtful and clever device, but was limited as the primary conflict in place of developing new characters for the rich cast of his imaginary Istanbul.

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Over the weekend I also finished reading Carol Anderson’s explosive White Rage, which I will be writing about soon, and started Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, a book about Roosevelt’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany.

Pamuk, ranked (update)

My ranking of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, now updated to include The Red Haired Woman, and with links to discussions of individual books.

  1. My Name is Red
  2. Snow
  3. The Black Book
  4. Museum of Innocence
  5. A Strangeness in My Mind
  6. The Red Haired Woman
  7. Silent House
  8. The New Life
  9. The White Castle

There is a tier after the first three, and another after the next three. Tell me why I am wrong.

Previously: Orwell, Hemingway.

Girl At War

War came to Croatia in 1991. For the adults, it marked an abrupt shift, but for ten-year-old Ana Jurić it causes subtle changes to her daily routines, a reflection of her parents’ fear rather than something that had to do with her. But these changes slowly press inward and soon threaten the life of her sickly little sister Rahela, who needs medical treatment available only in America. They succeed in getting her out, but at a cost that causes the war, previously abstract and distant, to crash home on Ana.

Such is the opening to Girl at War, a novel that explores the consequences of this violent disruption. Ana escapes to America and the family that took her sister Rahela (now Rachel) in adopt her as well. In suburban America Ana buries her experiences and pretends to be normal, filling her life with boys and school. These memories resurface in college. While reading novels about the trauma of the Holocaust, Ana runs into someone she knew back then and agrees to speak before the United Nations about her experience in the Balkan War––not as a soldier, but as a child with a gun. Suddenly the past is present. Ana’s relationship with her boyfriend Brian deteriorates and she resolves to return to Croatia.

Ana’s first stop is to reconnect with her childhood friend Luka, who takes Ana on a pilgrimage to the parts of her past that even he doesn’t know about: the scene of a crime, the town where she fought, and the vacation home where she hopes to find her godmother alive and well.

In what is, at its core, a straightforward story, Nović captures the jarring transition from carefree childhood to sudden responsibility and terror, with a dash of the absurd (the Croatian militia Ana falls in with name everyone after Hollywood action heroes). But what stood out to me about Girl At War is its treatment of memory. Rachel never knew herself as Rahela and has no memory of Croatia or the war; Ana couldn’t escape her memories, so instead buried them deep. She hopes to find resolution in going home, but instead learns that she is not alone. By the early 2000s Croatia is at peace, but the healing is superficial. Even before returning to the the scenes of her particular traumas Ana sees lingering signs of the war everywhere, and the resonances grow stronger the closer she comes. Ultimately there is no resolution, Girl At War says, only experience.

Girl At War is Sara Nović’s debut novel, which makes its sensitive treatment of memory remarkable in its own right, but my copy included an interview with the that added several wrinkles.

First, there is a sense of remove to Girl At War and Nović says that it is not her own story, but a composite story of Croats she knows. Rather than detracting from the story, however, this serves to make this specific story universal.

Second, Nović talks about the experience of writing a novel while deaf. In particular, she says that she has a particular difficulty writing natural-sounding dialogue, being someone whose experience is so different than speech. Without reading the interview, I wouldn’t have known. The dialogue is not exceptional, but it is perfectly acceptable literary dialogue. In retrospect, though, Girl At War catches on vivid visual and tactile details in a particularly effective way.

In sum, Girl At War is an effective novel that is simultaneously easy to read and a raw exploration about the lasting legacy of a collective trauma.

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Next up, I am about halfway through Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, The Red Haired Woman, which, so far, is a return to form. At the midpoint, it is a simple novel about the clash between modernity and tradition, urban and rural, and a story about coming of age, but it is also a book invested with mystery that particularly defined Pamuk’s early books.

My Brilliant Friend

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, [Maestra Oliviero] had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth , those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.

Back in 2017 I made a conscious decision to start reading more books by women, and have been richly rewarded by this choice. At the same time, intimate portraits of female friendship is an entire subcategory of these books that I hesitated to approach. This trepidation is mostly irrational, but stories that are first and foremost about male friendship tend not to be my favorites, either. This was the excuse I had given for putting off reading My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante*. Having finished the book last week, I can now say that waiting was a mistake.

[*Elena Ferrante is a pen-name for an anonymous Italian author. The critical acclaim and HBO show have led to people seeing to uncover her true identity, but she maintains that the authorship is irrelevant to the novel.]

My Brilliant Friend opens with a prologue where the narrator, Elena Greco, receives a phone call from Rino, the son of her childhood friend Lila, announcing that his mother has disappeared. More than that, every trace of Lila has vanished. This shock prompts Elena to trace back the threads of memory to the old neighborhood of her childhood where she can write her friend back into the world.

In those days, Elena Greco lived in a poor part of town, the daughter of a porter at city hall, and shared a grade with Lila, the daughter of the shoemaker. The neighborhood had a hierarchy; Don Achille Carracci is one of the wealthiest men in town, but might as well be an ogre; The Solaras, who own the pastry shop and bar, flaunt their wealth and are rumored to be involved in criminal activities; Donato Sarratore, a railroad conductor and poet, is a notorious Lothario whose liaisons bring tragedy; other people, including Elena’s family, scrape to make ends meet.

School is the great leveler for the children. Much to the shock of her family, Elena excels academically, but not as much as Lila, who is preternaturally brilliant. Unlike Elena, however, Lila chafes at the repressive structure of school so while Elena continues on into middle and then high school, Lila goes to work with the family.

At every turn Lila outstrips Elena––she is a step smarter, braver, more determined, and, eventually, more beautiful––and yet Elena is the brilliantly educated friend. Their relationship evolves, through school, through adolescence, through relationships with boys, and building to a matrimonial climax.

My Brilliant Friend is an intimate portrait of the relationship between Lila and Elena, but it is a masterpiece because of how the two girls develop in their neighborhood. Ferrante breathes life into this poor corner of Naples, slowly awakening Elena to the wider world and imbuing all of the relationships with the depth of live-in experience. The result is that what begins as the light, childlike interpretation of serious issues grows in emotional depth as the novel progresses until the the final paragraphs land like an emotional avalanche. I declared on Twitter that the final two paragraphs are perhaps the most powerful conclusion I have ever read, because amidst a joyous reverie three different emotional arcs simultaneously reach their climactic resolution.

My Brilliant Friend only covers Elena and Lila’s childhood and adolescence, making the novel feel uneven with a frame story that sets up a larger, as of yet incomplete, mystery. Without that frame, the novel is a spectacular novel about a girl’s formative years (Bildingsroman), but with the frame Ferrante invites additional questions about memory, both in the development of relationships and in how adults remember childhood, but I will need to read the rest of the series in order to find these answers. At least My Brilliant Friend has made it clear that the investment will be worth my time.

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My recent schedule has mostly limited my reading time to the weekends, but I started reading Sara Novic’s Girl at War, which examines the trauma of the war in Croatia in 1991.

Polishing Your Prose

“Writing is hard” is a truism, but these three words conceal a more complicated reality. Simple word generation, though looking for the right words is rarely simple, is comparatively simple. Taking words found on the first pass and polishing them until they shine––until they dance and sing when someone takes their time to read them––is hard. In short: writing is easy; editing is hard.

Fortunately, editing is a learned skill, and there is no shortage of guidebooks on the subject, each offering a series of rules, tips, and tricks. Polishing Your Prose, written by the brothers Stephen and Victor Cahn, belongs to this genre.

The first section of Polishing Your Prose, “strategies,” presents ten key concepts for clear and concise writing. They eschew the idea that these are “rules,” but go on to largely repeat commonly-held rules for writing such as eliminating empty constructions, redundancy, and jargon, minimizing adverbs and adjectives, and making sure that pronouns have clear antecedents. Other strategies are equally straightforward but more subtle, such varying sentence structure, using parallel structures for coordinating elements, using transitions to link ideas, and placing the most dramatic material at the end of the sentence thereby allowing sentences and paragraphs to build toward a crescendo.

The Cahns present each strategy simply, as though it is common sense, with the occasional gem of observational wisdom, such as “if you can’t find an appropriate transition, your ideas may not be as coherent as your presume.”

The second section puts these words into action with three paragraphs from an early draft of an essay on teaching math that eventually saw the light of publication. Word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, the Cahns work through these passages and talk about their thought process to polish the text. They suggest that the reader edit the paragraphs before reading on, but without an easy way to do this I skipped the step. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be gleaned from reading their thought-process, such as noting that paragraphs need to maintain unified themes and that careful use of a thesaurus is a writer’s friend. Most of all, as the conclusion reminds us, this section demonstrates that editing is not a straightforward process, but one that requires constant tinkering, reworking, and reconsideration choices, because editing, like writing, is a matter of choice.

Polishing Your Prose shares much of its advice with other books in this genre, in large part because there is no grand secret to writing well. What I appreciated about this one is its emphasis on process. The Cahns assume everyone has their own voice, and Polishing Your Prose is designed to draw attention to the choices an author in the hopes that that voice can sing.

Before wrapping this up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the epilogue. I appreciated the rest of the book and can see using a variation of part two in a classroom, but the epilogue, which consisted of an autobiographical piece from each author, stole the show. The one detailed a class in graduate school where the professor demanded that the students resolve a philosophical problem by thinking for themselves rather than referring to a body of literature that as a first year student he knew nothing about––and in so doing this professor forced the students to learn. The other was a comic tale of youthful male hubris that I ate up. Both essays amounted to the authors flexing, mature authors offering ample evidence why one ought to pay attention to their advice.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Polishing Your Prose is my third contribution, the final one scheduled to date. I am happy to talk about the book further in the comments or on Twitter.

The Poppy War

About a year ago I started to hear buzz about a new fantasy book in a world modeled on east Asia. I adore Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books and other diverse settings for my fantasy novels, so The Poppy War quickly rose on the list of books I wanted to read. The fact that the author, R.F. Kuang, was a young Chinese-American woman studying modern Chinese history both added to the intrigue, even if it also threw up a caution flag.

The Poppy War opens with the official examination that will determine the future for the test-takers––that is, which academy they can attend. For Rin, a poor war orphan abused by her drug-smuggling adopted parents in the poor, rural, isolated South of the Nikara Empire, it provides one chance: earn the top score and earn admission to Sinegard, the academy for the children of warlords, or resign herself to an unwanted marriage.

Of course, getting into the academy creates new problems. Rin finds her new classmates, and particularly Nezha, insufferably arrogant, while they find her unprepared and uncouth. Most of her teachers don’t have the same concerns, as she shows potential and an flair for rash and risky solutions to impossible situations. Their problems arise in that Rin doesn’t always consider the consequences of her strategies. Nevertheless Strategy master Irjah and the eccentric Lore master Jiang take a particular interest in this impetuous student who, in addition to scoring well relative to her peers, is drawn to reexamining the official story of the destruction of Speer, a tributary of the Nikara, at the end of the last war with Mugen.

Rin thrives, despite the obstacles, but her life is again thrown into disarray when the neighboring nation, the Mugen federation, invades Nikara, determined to finish what they started in the previous war––a war only ended after brutal destruction of Speer and the intervention from distant powers. The trainees are thrown into war before they are ready; Rin is assigned to the shadowy Cike, a secretive force of assassins and shamans, and faces a choice: tap into her latent shamanic powers and destroy the Mugen by striking a deal with the Phoenix god or remain human and allow their crimes to go unpunished, losing all of Nikara, and quite possibly her life, in the process.

The Poppy War is a propulsive grimdark fantasy based on events in Chinese history where bad things happen and there are few good options. For all of the brutality and self-harm that Rin commits, though, its basic plot points, particularly through the first half of the book, follow a traditional wish-fulfillment path. Orphan works hard and turns out to be brilliant, goes to a school where she makes an enemy of one student and one teacher, but is adopted by the school’s eccentric master, who teaches her that she has powers she didn’t know about. Its Chinese setting and female lead are just trappings on this basic structure.

And this is fine. The novel is eminently readable and there are plenty of these stories built around white men, so there is virtue in putting this sort of story in Asian and female clothes. But neither did it make The Poppy War stand out.

What had initially piqued my interest in this story was the promise of Chinese history written. And is it. Chinese history oozes from the pages, starting with the map that posits Nikara (very)roughly the shape of China and Mugen Japan, the attention to bias within the Nikara empire, the primary geopolitical conflict modeled on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) right down to the playing out of the Rape of Nanking, and a sage-strategist whose maxims are literally those of Sun Tzu. After the fact, I saw Kuang say she modeled Rin’s trajectory on that of Mao.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t love it.

The fact that stories were ripped straight from the headlines of history consequences. Kuang fictionalized the names and places, but kept the maxims, plots, and even broad geography, which, in some ways, diminished the world-building because it came across like her contribution was to add a spot of magic and then strip away the complexity and depth of the real world. There were a couple of points where this wasn’t true in ways that hinted her promise, but these were the exception. Either dropping this story as a fictionalized history (think: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or keeping the plots while doing more to fictionalize and develop the setting would have, in my opinion, mitigated all of these problems.

This is what I meant when I said that Kuang’s youth raised a red flag. Both of these features strike me as common to young authors. The fact that she wrote a propulsive, engaging, and fun novel while tackling an ambitious set of humanistic and moral questions, including radical inequality, is an enormous achievement. I enjoyed The Poppy War, even if I was simultaneously disappointed. While I am not going to hail it as the next great fantasy novel, my main takeaway is that I hope Kuang has a long career and am excited to see what she puts out next.

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I have been on a fantasy kick of late, in large part because I’m too tired to do the heavy lifting of some of the Literature I have on my shelf. I recently finished S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and just began George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood.

American Prometheus

“There is a dramatic moment and the history of the man, what made him act, what he did, and what sort of person he was. That is what you are really doing here. You are writing a man’s life.” –Isidor Rabi

Like many people my age and younger, I had only a vague sense of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I knew he directed the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, created the Atomic Bomb, and almost immediately regretted his creation. In the aftermath of the war, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita in declaring that he had become death, destroyer of worlds.

I knew he was a physicist associated with UC Berkeley but there my awareness stopped. I stumbled into Oppenheimer again in December at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe where there was an exhibit on the nuclear program. Between reading a couple of pages and the arresting cover image (seen at the top of this post) with Oppie (as his students called him, an Americanization of the Dutch nickname Opje) staring straight ahead, cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, I picked up a copy of Bird and Sherwin’s biography American Prometheus at the gift shop.

I should say up front that Bird and Sherwin imbue American Prometheus with a deep subjectivity and latent moralism that frequently sits in the bones of the genre biography.

Oppenheimer is the subject, so other people come into the story as they intersect with him. For some personalities (e.g. Isidor Rabi, quoted above), this is fine. For others, including his wife Kitty, it ends up flattening and trivializing their experiences that were not easy, to say the least.

Then there is the moralizing. Oppenheimer, in this telling, is a tragic hero, a deeply flawed individual whose contributions went unappreciated. This feature of biography is further heightened in that the book reaches its climax when, in 1953 at the height of the Red Scare, Oppie faces a review of his security clearance against a board conspiring to prove that he passed nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. This hearing nearly destroyed him, making it a natural climax, but as someone unfamiliar with the hearings much of the narrative felt designed to prove that Oppie was innocent to a reader who already knew how this story ended.

With those preliminaries out of the way, what to say about Oppenheimer? Born to a wealthy Jewish family in New York, this slim brilliant boy received an excellent humanistic education at the Ethical Culture School before matriculating to Harvard. A polymath with interests in history, literature, and languages, Oppenheimer wanted to study Theoretical Physics, a field that hardly existed in the US. He tried graduate school at Cambridge (a disaster; he tried to poison a tutor), and then Göttingen, before taking up a joint appointment at UC Berkeley and Cal Tech to establish theoretical physics programs in the US.

But Oppenheimer’s heart was in New Mexico. Visiting there as a frail, sickly teenage he transformed as if by magic into someone who could ride horses hundreds of miles at a stretch without giving it a second thought. Ironically it was the love of this landscape that in part let Oppenheimer to the Los Alamos lab.

Yet, the more profound transformation came in Oppenheimer’s humanism in the Great Depression-era California. Always driven by humanitarian impulses and capable of magnetic charisma, young Oppenheimer could just as easily alienate people he thought beneath him and had little time for anything but his work. Gradually this attitude changed through his work with unions and as he came to recognize the profound threat posed by Nazi Germany. Problems emerged in that the Communist Party of America organized most of the causes Oppie supported and more than one of his friends and students were party members. By the late 1940s, Oppie was a public intellectual and a celebrity weighing in on nuclear politics, but this history made him vulnerable to a cabal of personal, professional, and political enemies who did everything in their considerable power to destroy him. They failed in their ultimate goal, but succeeded in ruining the careers of many people around him, including that of his brother, and in undermining Oppenheimer’s influence.

As an academic, American Prometheus is a fascinating read. On the one hand, it provides a glimpse into higher education of yesteryear, where Oppenheimer nearly didn’t receive his PhD after completing the two year (!!) program because he had failed to register for classes. On the other, though, Oppie presents a mirror on the good and bad of intellectuals. He could be cold, distant, and even cruel if he deemed you beneath his merit, but he was also a warm and supportive mentor who frequently deferred credit for work to his students and junior collaborators. Bird and Sherwin conclude that much of Oppenheimer’s brilliance lay in his ability to see the consequences of other people’s work and push it to the next level rather than doing original work of his own, a trait that made him particularly suited to managing a lab like Los Alamos and later running the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Moreover, his intellectual generosity and ability to synthesize the ideas of others had a magnetic effect drawing into his orbit some of the most remarkable scientists of the twentieth century.

American Prometheus is a long, dense book created from twenty five years of research. I’ll admit to some boredom at times when the material felt repetitive or there was yet another chapter dedicated weighing the evidence on whether Oppie joined the Communist party, chapters that make significantly more sense if you look at the book as funneling toward that climactic hearing. Similarly, my hackles went up at extensive analysis of the psychological states of Oppie and those around him, as well as on the quality of the psychological care he received. And yet, for all of that, Bird and Sherwin open a fascinating window onto a man whose experiences and concerns were equally commonplace and unique in the middle of the 20th century while airing out the story of a man, already suspected of anti-American sentiments, charged with delivering into the world the atomic bomb.

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I finished reading R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, a propulsive and largely delightful fantasy novel driven by the classic trope of wish-fulfillment, albeit this time from a female perspective. I had some issues with the book as a whole, but am very much interested in seeing what else Kuang produces. This morning I started S.A. Chakraborty’s <em>The City of Brass</em>, the first book in the Daevabad Trilogy, and am quite enjoying letting myself be taken away.