Death’s End

Cixin Liu burst on the the American science fiction radar with his remarkable Three-Body Problem, which imagined an intergalactic conflict between humanity and a a race of people called the Trisolarans, named such for their planet and its three suns. News of this contact kicked off a crisis era in humanity. The Dark Forest continued the conflict between these two systems, establishing the Wallfacer project which aimed to coordinate humanity’s resources to confront the threat, eventually establishing a Dark Forest Hypothesis of intergalactic civilization—that secrecy is the best defense because there is always a more powerful civilization that may well decide to eliminate any potential rival. This hypothesis led to Dark Forest Deterrence, best compared to mutually-assured destruction of the Cold War, and a Swordbearer with the sole authority to send out the intergalactic signal. Such is the circumstance at the start of Death’s End, the brilliant conclusion to this trilogy.

Much like its two predecessors, Death’s End is a self-contained story that spans both space and time. This time, the primary protagonist is Cheng Xin, an aeronautical engineer involved in the Staircase project, a program meant to get a person to Trisolaris. (Because of weight restrictions, they only launch the brain of a terminally-ill classmate of Cheng Xin’s, Yun Tianming). Cheng Xin then goes into hibernation and awakens at the very end of the Deterrence Era, the period during which Luo Ji ensured mutually-assured destruction on the basis of the Dark Forest Hypothesis—that is, that there is a force even more powerful than Trisolaris—in part so that she can be elevated as the new Swordholder.

However, Cheng Xin is not Luo Ji and she is not capable of deterrence, leading to a period of Earth’s subjugation by Trisolaris, except that the Trisolaran ships sent to destroy Gravity and Blue Space, two ships that also possess the capacity to broadcast the location of both systems, are unable to fulfill their missions. An advanced civilization ignites on the of the Trisolaran suns, which prompts humanity to create artificial habitats in the shadow of Jupiter (the so-called Bunker Era). But even this facsimile of life on earth will not last and the solar system is collapsed into the micro-universes where the speed of light is reduced where the seemingly-last humans live out an eternity waiting for the rebirth of the universe.

If all of this seems like a big haul, well, it is.

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is a throwback to an old style of science fiction along the lines of an Asimov or Stapledon. It is a story that takes place on an enormous scale and explores the rise of fall of civilizations. I cannot speak to the “accuracy” of the mathematics or science but thought that the future history of humanity became progressively more compelling as the series developed.

Liu’s fascination with the science and big ideas also has a tendency to simplify humanity into a single society as defined against the alien races. As plausible as this vision of humanity is over the long haul, it also has a way of erasing the complexities of the contemporary society in which these books were written. Human on human violence, for instance, is largely limited to personal political power or how humans ought to interact with alien races. But Liu is the crown jewel of a Chinese-government program to promote science fiction that coincides with a rapidly-developing science sector. At the same time, the Chinese government has been interning Uyghur ethnic minorities in the Northwest, allegedly for reeducation, but by all accounts for the purposes of indoctrination—not to mention reports of torture, imprisonment, family separation, forced birth-control, and abuse.

In the New Yorker profile linked above, Cixin Liu downplayed the influence of the contemporary context on his fiction, but he also trots out familiar apologetics for the camps: a benevolent government saving them from poverty and giving them economic opportunity. Liu is in a difficult position given the nature of the news in China and his relationship to the Chinese establishment, admittedly, but he is also wrong to suggest that he is able to escape this baggage. The result is a dark cloud that looms over this deeply engaging series even as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show-runners behind Game of Thrones, are reportedly beginning production on a Netflix adaptation.

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I am well into the crush of the fall semester at this point, which is cutting into both my reading and writing time. I have nevertheless finished I.J. Singer’s The Brother’s Ashkenazi, a yiddish family drama set in Poland, and Dreyer’s English, a romp through the English language as told by Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House. I am now reading Drago Jančar’s The Galley Slave.

Say Nothing

In all of the issues around Brexit, one of the most pressing was the border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK country of Northern Ireland. With the UK and Ireland both in the European Union the border between the two countries was soft, but Brexit threatened to harden the border and thereby increase tensions. I am by no means an expert on these issues and am vastly oversimplifying them, but while the Good Friday Agreement largely ended the violence of the Troubles, it is hardly a forgotten issue. It was with this background that I brought into Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, which the subtitle describes as A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.

Say Nothing, which draws its title from imperative motto of Provisional IRA operatives, builds its narrative around perhaps the most famous case of a “disappeared” person in Belfast. One night in December 1972, the 38 year old Jean McConville, widowed mother of ten, was abducted from her home in the low-income housing unit of Divis Flats allegedly for having passed information to the British soldiers. She was never seen alive again.

Over the years, the McConville case garnered international attention as one of the most prominent unsolved murders from this period, but hers was just one of some 17 disappeared persons whose abductions were blamed on units within the Provisional IRA, a Republican militia group.

Radden Keefe spends the first parts of Say Nothing pulling back from the disappearances in order to explore the operations of the “Provos,” introducing readers to operatives such as Dolours and Marian Price, two radical sisters in a group called the Unknowns, and leadership figures in the organization like Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adam. He asks important questions, such as how did the Provos become radicalized such that the violence accelerated with money and weapons from the US, most notably the Armalite—the same company that makes the AR-15—and how the conflict developed when prominent Provos ended up in prisons staging hunger strikes.

One of the core tensions in this portion of Say Nothing is the fundamental differences of interpretation in how the Provos and the British authorities saw the conflict. For the Provos, this was a war and they used this justification as an excuse for when they killed civilians. The British responded with the tactics and techniques learned in suppressing rebellions in their colonies. This meant draconian incarcerations and largely looking the other way at retributive violence committed by loyalist militias. The result was tragedy.

Where roughly the first half of Say Nothing is a harrowing, propulsive narrative of events, filled with the youthful fire of its protagonists, the second half is slower, messier, and perhaps more significant investigation into the memory of the conflict.

This happens in two ways. First, the protagonists age. Gerry Adams gains a measure of respectability as a mainstream politician, which his former comrades-in-arms saw as a betrayal of everything they fought for. The others emerged prematurely aged, broken by their time behind bars, and often struggling with alcohol and drug dependencies. They aren’t remorseful, though some expressed regrets about specific actions, but they appear much more subdued.

The second development in this part of the book is reportage on The Belfast Project, a secret project hosted by Boston College where ex-paramilitary members allowed themselves to be recorded on tape discussing their activities during the Troubles. In other words, after years of silence, they said something.

These tapes were to be kept in the US and embargoed until after the deaths of the participants in order to prevent prosecution for crimes committed and thereby get the participants to speak openly and thereby create an oral history archive. Despite this intent, the project turned out to be a mess. Once the existence of the tapes became known, the Atlantic Ocean (and the poorly-written confidentiality agreement) proved a flimsy shield against legal action.

Radden Keefe makes it clear from the outset that he is not a historian. In this sense, he has written a compelling book in which nobody comes off well. This is a story with only villains and victims. Gerry Adams appears sociopathic, for instance, and the Price sisters unrepentant. The through-line is the McConville murder and how the body came to light in part because of the Belfast Project, is a perfect entryway for an exploration into not only the Troubles, but also just how shallowly the Troubles were buried.

At the same time, his particular source-base and choice of subject sometimes leads this to being a one-sided story focused on the Provos and their quixotic war against the British. The British authorities necessarily appear as the antagonist, but since many of their records remain sealed, that side of the conflict is largely absent. The other missing character in all of this were the Loyalist paramilitaries who Radden Keefe mentions, but rarely explores.

I also might have liked further discussion of the historical development of the Troubles given that this was clearly not an isolated incident. Nevertheless, Say Nothing is worth reading, both because it is a propulsive story and because it is an object lesson in how memory and rhetoric form an explosive mixture that can lead to tragedy, particularly during times of economic crisis and when the authorities are not interested in the even application of the law.

Oh, wait…

ΔΔΔ

With the semester in full swing, my reading time has diminished. Right now, I’m slowly making my way through I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi, a generational family history set in the Polish town of Lodz and originally written in Yiddish.

Radical Hope

“Even in the liberal arts, we defend the value of our disciplines largely by talking about how a liberal arts education imparts the types of skills employers value. You’ll be a capitalist cog, but a thoughtful one! So how can we fault students for seeing higher education in largely instrumental, transactional terms if those are the only terms in which they’ve had it presented to them?”

“My teaching career is littered with episodes of maladroit practice that still cause me to cringe years later; sometimes, self-assessment and self-correction suck. But this kind of reflection shouldn’t be simply an exercise in self-flagellation; we should be generous with ourselves in the same ways we are with students when the occasion calls for it.”

Historian and Twitter personality Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope is a self-professed teaching manifesto built on his decades of teaching experience. Over ten chapters, Gannon lays out a philosophy of teaching that is built on principles of generosity, compassion, and inclusion.

The proposals in Radical Hope are, in short, pedagogical best practices that are also found in other books of the genre. To my mind, they are radical only in how thoroughly they are woven into the praxis envisioned in this book. For instance, Radical Hope points out how the genre of writing that is the college syllabus generates the lament that students don’t read the syllabus by creating a document that more resembles a legal contract than an invitation to the course. This is not a novel observation among books of this sort, even as new COVID language bloats the syllabus further. Similarly, pedagogy books offer tips for how to get students to engage or to combat distraction. Gannon is no different, though, rather than being proscriptive, he endeavors to diagnose the problem from a place of understanding. For instance:

Our task is to create a learning space that can help compensate for the gaps in student confidence, and encourage at least an attempt at the learning activity.

and:

We’ve always had distracted students, whether that distraction involved staring out the window at the quad on a beautiful spring afternoon or sitting in the lecture hall’s back row and updating their fantasy football lineup. (It’s worth noting that the same holds true for most faculty meetings I’ve attended in my career.) The question we should be asking ourselves is what accounts for these distractions? Is it the mere presence of a laptop?

Radical Hope is not a how-to manual, almost to the point of frustration. Each chapter has numerous examples from Gannon’s own career and concludes with a short “into practice” section, but tends not to foreground a deep bibliography of pedagogical research. And yet, Gannon’s language struck home. My most resolutely distracted student, in a class maybe eight or nine years ago, was a young woman with a ball cap pulled down who sat next to the window and stared out into the quad in every class she came to. She may have been hungover (that class met at 8 AM on Friday), but without a phone or laptop in sight she almost never spoke for an entire semester. I was a particularly inexperienced teacher at the time and while that class met in a room with any number of impediments to teaching well, I would do a lot of things differently now.

In many ways, this is the message of Radical Hope: developing a reflective pedagogical praxis. At several points Gannon states that if it seems overwhelming to incorporate every “best” practice in a given semester, pick one to implement. Then pick another next semester. And overhaul your readings the following semester (easier to do when you’re in a stable position, admittedly).

The Platonic ideal of a perfect course, let alone the perfect teacher, does not exist. None of the participants live in a vacuum, so there will be issues. People (certainly students, but also many professors) are in a state of financial insecurity, will show up to class unprepared, were conditioned to respond in particular ways given their educational backgrounds, have personality issues, or are having their meat-sacks acting up on a given day for any number of reasons. Oh, and there is a global pandemic.

This is where I saw the most radical hope. You can’t be a good teacher without, at some level, asserting your “faith in a better future,” as Gannon puts it. Radical Hope largely avoids wading into debates over lectures or whether a classroom ought to be flipped, all of which have merit but often depend as much on the type of class and the style of a given teacher than in any single method.

There is one primary exception to this rule. Gannon at several points suggests that teachers ought to embrace the idea of modeling behavior for students. This means, for instance, encouraging students to use computers to look up answers to questions rather than leaning on what a recent essay called “cop shit” to police technology. Speaking from experience, it can be terrifying to admit before a class of expectant eyes that you don’t know something and it is tempting to try pulling together an answer out of thin air—or somewhere less savory. It can also be extremely disorienting to be called out for saying something wrong, like when I the time last spring when I was talking to students about flood stories and had a student raise her hand to ask me if I meant Noah, because I kept saying Moses. However, if the goal in teaching is to develop minds and to give students skills, then these “inadequacies” are opportunities to model best practices of your discipline. Using them as chances to assert your authority or prove your intellect make the class about the teacher to the detriment of the students.

There is a lot to like about Radical Hope, but isn’t necessarily the place I would start with on a pedagogy reading list. David Gooblar’s The Missing Course I thought offered more practical advice, for instance. But if you’re looking for reinforcement that a pedagogy based on empathy and compassion for everyone involved is possible, this is a perfect read. Given the current state of the world, I would say that this is a timely message. Just don’t get put off by chapter one, “Classrooms of Death;” the title isn’t meant literally.

Dreadnought

One of the most revolutionary ships in the history of seafaring launched on February 10, 1906.

Just over a century earlier, Horatio Nelson had seized control of the seas for the British Empire by defeating the combined fleets of Spain and France. He did this from the deck of the HMS Victory, a first-rate ship of the line carrying 104-cannons launched a full four decades before earlier. In effect, ships of the line were floating artillery batteries that lined up next to each other and pounded each other into submission. Displacing 3,500 tons and launching a full-broadside of over half a ton of metal, the Victory was not the largest battleship at Trafalgar (the Spanish flagship Santísima Trinidad was larger by nearly a third), but was representative of its age. Effective distances were quite close and Nelson and his fellow British commanders attempted to magnify their firepower through superior seamanship by sailing their ships into close contact before opening fire, even at great cost to themselves—the Victory was practically disabled at Trafalgar, and Nelson fatally wounded.

Naval technology developed through the nineteenth century, with the French navy introducing a steam-powered battleship, Le Napoléon (5100 tons), in 1850 and ironclad battleships starting with Gloire (5600 tons) in 1859. Sail slowly fell out of use, and smoothbore cannons gave way to more powerful rifled guns and explosive shells. By the 1890s most major navies used fully-steam powered battleships of roughly 15,000 tons, with mixed-caliber weaponry, including several batteries of four 10- or 12-inch guns as a main armament, designed to combat threats of various sizes and speeds.

Then, in 1906, the Royal Navy launched the HMS Dreadnought, which, in a stroke, made earlier battleships obsolete. Fifteen years later, the Dreadnought, now obsolete, was sold for scrap in part of the downsizing of navies after World War One.

The Dreadnought was revolutionary in several respects. First, it was enormously large, displacing up to 21,000 tons, with the extra weight coming in large part from its armor. Second, it was fast, with a new steam turbine system that pushed water through the engine to generate steam rather than older reciprocating engines. But most notable was that the Dreadnought only carried a single caliber of main battery, ten 12-inch guns of which up to eight could be fired at once. Each shell weighed 850 pounds, giving the Dreadnought a broadside of 6,800 pounds made up of high-explosive shells capable of hitting a target at a range of more than 15 kilometers. Streamlining the caliber of the armament and centralizing the firing systems also served to increase accuracy because the main batteries all fired at the same elevation and range. In short, this was a superior warship worth two or even three battleships of the type launched even a year before.

Within ten years, the Dreadnought itself had been superseded by battleships built in its image, setting up a clash between the German and British fleets of Dreadnought battleships at Jutland in which the HMS Dreadnought did not participate. However, although the launch of the Dreadnought was a crucial development in the history of naval warfare, it was merely one turning point in a larger story of the naval arms race that led up to World War One.

Puck Magazine 1909, “No Limit” arms race, Wikimedia Commons

Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought sets out to tell this story, but winds up telling a different, albeit connected, one. While the development of the Dreadnought appears in a pivotal chapter at the center of the book, Massie is much more interested in the personalities involved the naval arms race between Germany and the UK. The result is a book of high politics and biography.

I was mostly familiar with Massie by way of his massive biography of Peter the Great that I read in high school, and individual scenes showed many of the same flairs. Most chapters followed one or more characters, using a mini-biography to chart a particular developments, and Massie works to bring those characters to life with little details like their smoking habits and gustatory tendencies (it is little wonder so many of them suffered from gout). The picture of Otto von Bismarck and King Edward VII smoking like chimneys and Bismarck staring a table full of people down over a plate of pâté are images not likely to leave me any time soon, but the need to paint a new portrait for nearly every chapter also serves to cover a lot of the same ground through each repeated character.

The issue to my mind was that that the high political approach too often put the focus on the arms race between Germany and England as it played out in the halls of Parliament and the German Reichstag and in the personal letters between two royal families. This is not to say it is wholly uninteresting. I was only loosely familiar with the origins of the Boer war, for instance, or just how much of a international incident it became because the German establishment saw it as a war of British aggression, which was a reasonable, if not wholly accurate, interpretation. Similarly, given the seriously extravagant costs of building and maintaining these fleets, explaining how seriously the British government took its mandate of maintaining an overwhelming advantage that served to explain the international arms race and I was fascinated to learn that the day of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, British battleships were in Kiel on their way to tour Baltic ports.

However, personality-driven approach worked particularly well when exploring the principal characters in the Royal Navy. The middle portion of Dreadnought leading up to the ship itself introduces the reader to the likes of Admiral John (Jacky) Fisher, whose oversight led to the construction of the Dreadnought and sweeping naval reforms, and his arch-rival Admiral Charles Beresford.

In sum, I found Dreadnought to be a highly frustrating book. In part, I went into it hoping that there were would be more, well, boats. Beyond their relative absence, however, there lies a more substantive critique: Dreadnought is frustratingly uneven. Massies’ richly detailed, biographically-centered narrative largely focuses on the building of a bipolar world between Germany and the UK, with other countries generally appearing in the story only insofar as they connect to one of his protagonists. That France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and other naval powers were building up their own fleets gets mentioned, but is of secondary concern to the “coming armageddon,” while the fact that British companies were constructing Dreadnoughts for the Ottoman Empire gets omitted.

Now, one of the hallmarks of a poor review is to critique an author for not writing the book he or she wanted them to write. I would have preferred a more traditional naval history, either of the Dreadnought as a style of ship that got only about fifteen years of ruling the seas or a social history of the British navy. Massie is telling a different story, however, one that is a more sophisticated spin on the idea of a family rivalry that spurred on a global war. But even as a more sophisticated spin, I found the narrow focus on these two powers is limiting and incomplete. For instance, the discontinuities between the personalities of the British navy on the one side and the German army leading to a discussion of the German navy primarily through the lens of politics on the other led to an imbalance even just between these two powers. To be sure, there was a lot of information packed into this lengthy tomb but I couldn’t help but feel that Massey’s style was better suited to the biography of one or more people than it was to the story of this particular arms race.

ΔΔΔ

I remain better at writing then reading of late, but am still holding out hope that I will write about some of the recent mysteries I have read as well as Kevin Gannon’s pedagogy manifesto Radical Hope. I also recently finished Maja Novak’s bizarre satire about Slovenia’s transition to a capitalist economy, Feline Plague, and have nearly completed Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to the trilogy that began with The Three-Body Problem. Liu’s trilogy has gotten better as it went along, building out a future history of humanity in the mode of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Man.

Reading Log

Note: this is a navel-gazing post offering some reflections on my reading habits an how I keep track of what I read.

I have always been someone who gravitates to books rather than other forms of media. Many of my fondest memories involve sitting, lost in a book, and basking in the untroubled freedom that accompanied an existence where my concern at that moment was whether my seat on a rock or against a tree was comfortable enough.

Of course these days only ever exist in memory.

A funny thing often happens in graduate school for the humanities: reading for fun withers, if it doesn’t disappear altogether. You read so much for work that when you finally get a break, it is much less mentally taxing to play a video game or watch TV than it is to pick up a book. If you do read, it is entirely understandable to read familiar, comforting books. This phenomenon reached its climax for me in early 2013 during my last semester of coursework and the run-up to my comprehensive exams. These exams are designed to prove that you have a grasp of all of the scholarship in your chosen fields, usually by providing a long list of important texts (as determined by your examiners) and culminates in multiple days of written exams followed by an oral defense. I read three books that January, all before the start of the semester, and then not another book until May.

By contrast, I have had only three months total since then that I haven’t finished at least one book, each time caused by reading or attempting to read a particularly hefty book (Don Quixote, War and Peace, Infinite Jest) while also keeping up with writing my dissertation and teaching.

I started reading fiction again almost as soon as I finished my exams because it made me feel more normal, but it took me years to start reading non-fiction again on a regular basis other than what was required for work.

Now, I am a firm advocate of reading in general, but this goes double for anyone who wants to be a writer in any genre. As experts like John Warner are fond of saying, the two foundations of becoming a better writer are 1) read more and 2) write more. I might add reflective practice as a third pillar in that it helps you become a better self-editor, but the first two are both spot on. No idea, however brilliant, is worth much if it can’t be communicated, which is one of the frustrating things about reading some academic prose.

However, the point of this post is not why people should read, but about the reason I can point to specific months when I read nothing or can see how my reading habits developed.

Once upon a time I tracked all of the books I read in a simple list, but then graduate school happened and I stopped. I started this list again in January 2013, this time on Google docs, and that list has undergone several revisions until now where the list has two components, both kept in Google sheets.

Part one is a cover-sheet that shows all of the year-over-year data for (a) books read by month and a sum total; (b) monthly page-count totals; (c) averages for both categories; and (d) the information for specific categories I’m tracking (more on this in a minute). This year I also added a radar chart.

Part two consists of an annual sheet that keeps the list of books read and all of the information I’m tracking that then automatically fills in the data back to the coversheet.

I also created a separate list not yet incorporated into the cover sheet that tracks the academic books that I read in a given year.

If all of this seems overly-structured, well, it is. I find this oasis of order soothing amidst the chaos of existence, but the actual switch to sheets was largely so that I only had to enter data once and the rest of the systems could be automated (I do update the formula the calculates the monthly totals).

The change also allowed me to update and adapt the data I collect about my reading habits, which functions much like a calorie counter for anyone watching their diet. My initial categories were somewhat arbitrary: books by Nobel prize winners and number of original languages, but has expanded to better reflect my reading goals. I still keep tabs on the number of books by Nobel Laureates and the number of original languages, but I have added to these books by African and African American authors, books by women, the countries of origin for the author (English-language literature from India is going to have a different flavor than from the US), and non-fiction books.

Once I started tracking the information, for instance, I learned exactly how few books by women I was reading and so started setting annual goals, such that this year I’m at almost 50%. I still lag behind where I’d like to be in other categories, but the net result is that my reading habits are becoming gradually diversified as I make a conscious effort to seek books by people I had not traditionally read. I don’t like every book I read—that is not part of the deal—but I both enjoy hunting online for new books with interesting sounding plots and have been blown away some of the ones I found.

I might be obsessive about this sort of documentation, which I use to track my writing time and exercise information, but I cannot recommend this general practice highly enough. I appreciated seeing the anti-racist reading lists people put out over the past several months, but, to my mind, that is only a first step. Read the books that are on the trendy list if that is your thing, but building a reflective practice around reading can help fundamentally diversify a reading intake and create long-lasting change.

Salt

As of April 29, 2020, the WHO declared that “most people consume too much salt—on average….twice the recommended maximum levels of intake,” and laid out guidelines for reducing salt intake. Increasing consumption of processed foods has gone hand in hand with the growth of cities, leading people to consume more salt, saturated fats, and sugars and less fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh food has always been one of the limiting factors for urban areas, but the modern solution of introducing heavily processed and preserved foods has introduced new health complications.

This was not always the case. Ancient cities, for instance, often relied on imported grain that could be transported long distances without spoiling. In these cases, getting enough salt was a significant concern. Before the advent of reliable refrigeration, though, food preservation required salt, which, in turn led to labor-intensive operations to evaporate salt from the seas in order to fuel the production of fermented and aged foods, and for adding directly to fish like cod in order to preserve them for future consumption.

In Salt, Mark Kurlansky evaluates the production of salt in a global context, aiming in the process to offer a history of the world as defined by this one commodity. He is partially successful and offers a portrait of food production around the world with a wealth of details.

Individual episodes of this story were fascinating. For instance, I was struck by the lengths taken to ensure salt production, including elaborate brining pools to encourage evaporation of sea water and exceedingly deep mines in China to extract rock salt. Likewise, the discussion of individual foods like cod and hams, products that were largely made possible by the widespread availability of salt, were right up my gastronomic alley.

And yet, I was often frustrated by Salt. The problem is in Kurlansky’s attempt to weave the history of salt through the history of the world. Sections where he dug into the history of the industry worked exceedingly well, but other sections examined historical events like the French Revolution in such a way that it blew the importance of salt out of proportion. In the chapter on the American Civil War, for instance, he alternated between a fascinating discussion of Avery Island, the birthplace of Tabasco Sauce, and accounts of the US Navy destroying southern saltworks. The former was great, the latter I thought less enlightening in that it offered only a partial portrait of the war while also adding only marginally to the story of the mineral.

However, the biggest problem I had with Salt is that it is a book rich in detail and light in narrative through-line.In a highly technical book this lack of narrative would be less of an issue, but here I found the lack to make sections of the book rather slow going one chapter didn’t neatly lead to the next in any way except that they both explored aspects of the salt industry. Kurlansky’s overarching thesis is that salt was really important in world history, which is hard to deny, but also doesn’t offer a clear way forward to carry out that argument (as I might tell my students). I might go back to Salt to season some of my history classes, but as a commodity history its broad scope and argument were not to my taste.

ΔΔΔ

In addition to the backlog of books I haven’t written about (yet), I recently finished Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, after which I am now in the market for a book that actually talks about the development of the British Navy from the end of the Napoleonic Wars through at least World War One since my go-to historian on the topic, N.A.M. Rodgers, evidently never published the third volume of his history of the British Navy. I am now reading Maja Novak’s The Feline Plague, a magical-realism novel about Slovenia’s transition from communism to capitalism in the early 1990s.

Shades of Magic

Back in January I wrote generally favorably about the first book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy, A Darker Shade of Magic. Since then, I had the chance to blow through the two remaining books, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light, finding them to be equally compelling reads.

A Gathering of Shadows picks up several months after the events in A Darker Shade of Magic. On the one side, Kell Maresh chafes against the restrictions imposed after the events of the previous book that drive home that he is a tool of the throne rather than a member of the family. On the other, Delilah Bard enjoys her dream career, that of pirate on the high seas of the Red World. However, she is not the captain of her own ship, but a thief in the employ of an exiled Arnesian nobleman named Alucard Emery. Despite grumbling that he should have had her killed Alucard takes a liking to Lila and helps fan the flames of her nascent magical talent.

Kell and Lila are not destined to remain apart for long. The centerpiece of this novel is the Essen Tasch, a competition that brings together the best elemental magicians from the three empires—Arnes, Faro, and Vesk—to compete for the title of champion. The home country to the previous year’s competition also earns the right to host the next event, so Rhy Maresh is busy making arrangements. A gifted magician in his own right, Alucard has it in mind to enter the competition, much as Rhy arranges things so that Kell can enter the competition anonymously. Of course, Lila doesn’t want to be left out, either.

While the games proceed in Red London, though, a threat is brewing in White London. Holland, who Kell believes dead and locked away in Black London, has struck a deal with a powerful piece of sentient magic known as Osaron who promises that he can breathe life into White London in return for freedom.

Where the first novel in the series could stand alone, these two are of a piece. A Conjuring of Light picks up almost immediately from the end of the Essen Tasch, setting the our heroes on a race to defeat Osaron before he entirely consumes the world.

The primary difference between the two novels is the number of characters it follows. Holland, for instance, takes a more central role than in either of the previous two books, and the thriller-paced plot is interspersed with flashbacks into his life and upbringing that aim to strip away his icy, unfeeling exterior and offer him as a tragic idealist in love with his home in a way that leaves sad overtones to the novel as a whole. But A Conjuring of Light also introduces the point of view of characters such as Maxim and Emira Maresh, the King and Queen of Arnes, which both serves to offer depth and history to a story that had otherwise felt very present to me and serves to foreground the personal conflicts that had previously only been hinted at. Where hostility between Kell and Alucard over a relationship between Alucard and Rhy was introduced in the previous book, here we learn what happened, and Emira Maresh’s story explores Kell’s conflicted position in the royal family.

Overall, the development of this series worked. I found it compulsively readable and the individual characters fun, while the subsequent books answered some of my modest issues with the world-building. Schwab also generally does a nice job building the development of character in each subsequent book from hints laid out earlier in the series, unlike, say, the Sword of Truth series where subsequent books often felt like Goodkind kept inventing new powers for his characters. For instance, the revelation that Lila is also an Antari, that is someone with one black eye who can use all four elements and blood magic, should not have come as a surprise to anyone who noted that she was introduced to use as a character with a false eye. Developments to how being an Antari works came only from things that were external to them as Antari.

And yet, for all of its propulsive plots, something about the Shades of Magic series left me mildly unsatisfied. The explanation, I think, is that I found most of the people outside of our main characters superficial. This lack of depth gives the sensation that you’re ripping through the world alongside your heroes and avoids the criticism of, say, George RR Martin where he built minor characters into fixtures in ways that bloat the series. However, it also results in a variety of flat characters whose notes are either to be sympathetic such that we mourn with the heroes when they die or villainous such that we shake our fists when they turn on us. These characters fit the needs of the plots well enough, but being able to frequently predict which minor characters are all-but doomed to die undercuts the effect. What’s more, this flatness also prevented them from becoming the memorable minor characters that populate my favorite fantasy series and deepen those worlds in ways that make me want to keep coming back to them.

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I have fallen far behind on writing about books for a whole host of reasons, but keep meaning to get back to doing this. I have a stack of recent reads next to me, including Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine and Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, two noirs that I recently read and hope to write about together, as well as Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, a detailed commodity history without a clear through-line that I could identify, and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a novel about art and counter-culture that I simultaneously understood the critical praise for and left me wondering whether I’m simply not a sophisticated enough reader to fully-appreciate. I am now about halfway through Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, which I had, perhaps naively, hoped would contain more, well, ships.

The Sympathizer

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

So begins The Sympathizer, the confession of a prisoner. Although Nguyen withholds the context of the interrogation until the end of the novel, we quickly learn that the narrator received CIA training as the aide to a general in charge of the South Vietnamese secret police, all the while working as a mole for North Vietnam.

The novel’s plot quickly kicks into high gear as the narrator arranges, sometimes at gunpoint, for the general, his family, and staff to flee Saigon as the North Vietnamese army approached. This access also allows him to secure a seat on the plane for one of his two sworn brothers, Bon, whose fervor in fighting for South Vietnam promises him a future of hard labor. The other, Man, is his handler.

The first stop from Saigon is a camp on Guam and then on to Los Angeles where the refugees try to pick up the pieces in America. Some adjust. The narrator secures work at the school where he studied as an exchange student, builds relationships with women, and even picks up work as a consultant on a blockbuster Hollywood film about the war, based on Apocalypse Now. Others do not. With neither family nor country, Bon descends to alcoholism and the general opens a liquor store that he uses as a front to raise money, plot a return to Vietnam, and eliminate anyone who threatens his cause. Of course, the narrator continues to report on these movements with letters relayed through Man’s aunt in Paris, at least until the General organizes his return to Vietnam.

The Sympathizer is in many ways an inversion of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which similarly explores issues of identity and colonialism. Where Greene’s novel follows the story of Alden Pyle, an American CIA agent working against communism in Vietnam, Nguyen’s narrator works from the opposite direction, while holding an ambiguous position between the two. The illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, the narrator literally straddles the line between east and west, and he declares as a point of pride that he can pass for American over the phone even as Americans talk down to him. From this heart, the theme radiates from him like an aura, extending to his two blood brothers who are equally balanced to either side and the General’s concern that his oldest daughter is becoming too Americanized with her singing career to find a proper Vietnamese husband.

However, this core theme works by offering several different types of conflict and preventing it from striking just one note. The narrator has both types of expected conflict as a refugee double agent, trying to fit in in the new country while not getting caught, but his sexual relationship with the Japanese-American secretary at Occidental College and a competitive one with a Vietnamese reporter he knew when they studied there introduce issues of representation of Asian Americans and rivalry. Similarly, his parentage offers a recurring conflict because while he is a useful asset he is neither sufficiently dedicated to the cause to be integrated into the Communist society nor a proper-enough Vietnamese man to warrant a good marriage.

I found The Sympathizer a good, but somewhat unspectacular novel for most of its length. There are excellent individual scenes, including the sheer terror of trying to escape Saigon, but, on its own, this close focus on the narrator’s reflection of his own identity struck me as somewhat prone to navel-gazing. Where Nguyen earned all of his plaudits was in the final section of this novel. The final seventy-odd pages of The Sympathizer pull back to reveal the circumstances under which the narrator is writing, which, in turns adds layers of depth and meaning to the 306-page confession of a man without a country.

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I have fallen behind on writing about books I’ve finished, in equal parts because of other writing commitments, complacency of summer, and not being inspired enough to write speedy reviews. I have been reading, though, blowing through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay We Should All be Feminists, dragging myself through Rachel Kushner’s The Firestarters, and working through Mark Kurlansky’s Salt at a pace somewhere between those two. I still hope to write about some of my backlog, but given that my guiding principle on this site is to write what and when I am inspired to say something, we’ll see what I actually do.

I am now most of the way through Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, the first of his Marseille Trilogy.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

David Epstein, Range

My academic research focuses on ancient Greece, but I genuinely enjoy teaching beyond my specialty because my interests are broad an eclectic. I sometimes joke to my partner (who I met in graduate school) that the three areas I considered pursuing for graduate work in history were Ancient Greece, 18th-century naval warfare, and 20th century US diplomatic history. Recently I’ve wandered down rabbit holes into food history and have particularly been enjoying East and South Asian history. The idea of studying just one thing for the rest of my life sounds unbearably tedious and teaching a wide range of classes (or at least varying how I teach World History) is a convenient excuse to read more widely.

I don’t know that my eclectic reading habits or historical interests has particularly improved my scholarship, but it has certainly improved my teaching and writing, and caused the basic tenets of David Epstein’s Range to resonate with me.

Epstein opens with the comparison of Tiger and Roger, two accomplished athletes, one of whom was laser focused from infancy on his sport, the other who played everything except his sport for most of his childhood. Both excelled, but Epstein asks which success was more probable. Despite the intuitive expectation that the person who specialized his entire life (let’s call him Tiger) followed the “better” path, Epstein argues, Roger is a better model to follow. Where Tigers are very good at solving problems within a narrow field with predictable parameters, Rogers can catch up quickly and are are frequently more creative when adjusting to new environments or when facing fields without clearly defined rules.

In short, Epstein makes the case that in a world where an increasing number of well-defined tasks are automated and economic and social pressures push people toward specialization, we should actually be encouraging generalization.

I picked up range after listening to an interview with Epstein where he mostly talked about the value of cross-training, but while there are lessons there, I was a surprised how little discussion of sports there was in the book. Rather, Range is a broad manifesto that talks about everything from scientists and musicians to charity CEOs and game designers. As with many books of its ilk, Range uses concrete examples to offer concrete advice on leadership—promoting diversity, emphasizing communication over hierarchy, empowering employees—as well as useful life advice that taking the time to find your fit rather than locking in early produces better results all around.

In my opinion, though, both the strongest and weakest aspects of the book came down to what it said about education. Granted, as someone in the education field, everything starts to look that way. In addition to several explicit sections on teaching itself, Epstein swipes obliquely supposed outcomes of the education system throughout the book, taking aim at the suggestion that graduates need to specialize early and highlighting the perils of teaching to the test. I agreed in principle with everything Epstein highlights: test performance does not equal learning, efficiency is not a universal good, there is value in struggling to learn something. There are absolutely valuable lessons in terms of how we teach, but I nevertheless came away extremely frustrated with the presentation of education.

For instance, Epstein uses a personal anecdote from his MA thesis at Columbia where he says “I had committed statistical malpractice” because “I had a big database and hit a computer button to run a common statistical malpractice, never having been taught to think deeply (or at all) about how that statistical analysis even worked.” He follows up by quoting a statistician who says that the rush to produce research prohibits metacognition. In short, the specialization and speed interferes with the quality of the work, despite metacognition gaining increased traction in education circles. Similarly, he offers another anecdote about a primary school teacher asking students leading questions when they struggled to come up with the answers. Both of these anecdotes, and another about a professor critical of colleagues who only care about the interesting facts learned from years of increasingly narrow study (albeit while talking about Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Marx, and Nietzsche, which shows a certain…range), offer insight into the education system, but, to my mind, not quite what Epstein is going for.

The focus of Epstein’s critique is on the practitioners, rather than on the bad practices encouraged by the culture of credentialism and testing. When the a system requires teachers to prepare students for a standardized test or to publish in academic journals and funnel students into career tracks from early on in college, then the system creates the exact problem that Epstein rightly identifies. Moreover, Epstein makes the case that generalization is good for everyone, but it has the greatest utility for young people because it helps foster creativity, critical thinking, and allows them to find fields that fit their skills.

For as much as aspects of the presentation bothered me, Range is a compelling read. Epstein isn’t against specialization, but makes an important critique of dominant cultural trends that prioritize efficiency and specialization over taking the time to think and reflect across different fields.

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I had hoped to finish Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this weekend, but that was before protests against police violence and institutional racism erupted across the United States and then predictably escalated, often as the result of police action. I spent most of the weekend following local news from across the country.

Day of the Oprichnik

CW: although glossed, this post includes allusions to sexual assault that took place in the novel.

My mobilov awakens me:

One crack of the whip—a scream.
Two—a moan.
Three—a death rattle.

Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of an Oprichnik is like? Well, you might be, if you Western readers knew what an Oprichnik was. When his majesty ended the Red and Grey Troubles and restored Russia, he wisely followed the precedent of Ivan Grozny in reconstituting the Oprichnina, a fanatical bodyguard dedicated to rooting out his majesty’s enemies. Work and Word!

Now, for the first time, Vladimir Sorokin has shared with the world the important work that the Oprichnina is doing on behalf of Russia by following Andrei Danilovich Komiaga for a full day, from the moment he awakens hungover from one long day until the moment he returns to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

Between those moments of rest, Komiaga flies around Moscow, and even all of Russia, in service of the Czar. One moment he must make an example of a disloyal nobleman, executing him, of course, while giving his wife a lesson she will never forget and sending his children to a home where they will be raised to be loyal. Then he is off to hear a petition from an actress on behalf of a prisoner and then to the far east where he must put straight petty bureaucrats and Chinese diplomats about a commercial dispute. On the way back to Moscow he must visit a clairvoyant and upon his return he sits witness to a play with potential slander against the Empress, who immediately summons him to his side while she breakfasts as the rest of Russia sups, enjoying the appropriate rewards of her position. Finally, Komiaga concludes his day with the essential Oprichnina communal meal at Batyas, which provide opportunities to greet important guests—even his highness may come!—and build a sense of hierarchy and purpose. This is why we must applaud Batya’s decision to end these gatherings with the caterpiller in the bathhouse.

As I said, a day full of important business on behalf of the Tsar. Laser guns are merely tools without men to use them. Who else will help oversee the Western Wall and European pipeline dispute? Or so carefully enforce his majesty’s wise bans on profanity? Or keep those jackals among the nobility in line? Work and Word!

We must make some concessions for all of this work, of course. His majesty properly banned drugs like the aquarium for people, but shooting up these little fish reinvigorate us and hone our sense of purpose, while the Oprichnik leadership soars as a seven-headed dragon! Greasing is the only way anything gets done, so we must get our cut, and it is only natural that we secure our position by ensuring a steady stream of dissent. It would be a tragedy if his majesty were to not see our worth and rashly disband us, his most loyal servants! Hail!

The Czar has put Russia back to rights. We might use Chinese technology and our children might learn Chinese slang, but men are men and the church again ascendant. No longer is society oppressed by the loose morals of the west or tainted by atheism or “feminism.” What nonsense, and just look where it got them. No, traditional Russian values are best, just as Russian literature is best. His majesty was right to build the wall. With the help of God and the Oprichnina, Russia is more powerful than ever. This power came with casualties, but these are a small price to pay. We have the technology to put dissenters under surveillance and the will to take care of them, if need be. Anything for his majesty. Hail!

Perhaps with Sorokin’s feature, the children of those grasping people who were in business only for themselves will finally understand the purpose of our labor. Work and Word!

Work and Word!

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How else to write a review of a satirical critique of technology, monarchy, and modern Russia other than to offer the portrait unreserved praise? The Day of the Oprichnik is a frequently disturbing portrait of near-future Russia, in a world with a restored monarchy, border walls, and modern technology turned toward protecting a brutal regime that exploits its people in the name of protecting them. A select few live large in this system, while everyone else suffers.

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I’m chipping away at my backlog of books that includes Sudden Death, A Gathering of Shadows, and Sugar Street. I am now reading David Epstein’s Range, a book about education, learning, and why we should develop general skills before, and sometimes in lieu of, narrow ones.