The Anatomy of Fascism

The cover of Robert. O. Paxton's The Anatomy of Fascism

In the introduction The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton notes that most scholarship on fascism remains narrowly focused on individual fascist movements. But where these studies offer excellent insight into Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany, they don’t offer a better understanding of fascism as a particularly 20th century political phenomenon. This book, he says, is an attempt to bring those insights together in one comprehensive examination of fascism — the movements headed by Mussolini and Hitler, yes, since those were the two most successful examples, but also those in Hungary, Spain, and, yes, the United States.

So what is fascism? Paxton organizes the book roughly following the life-cycle of a fascist movement from how they begin and take root to exercising power and collapsing, but defers a succinct definition until the final chapter.

It is not the particular themes of Nazism or Italian Fascism that define the nature of the fascist phenomenon, but their function. Fascisms seek out in each national culture those themes that are best capable of mobilizing a mass movement of regeneration, unification, and purity, direct against liberal individualism and constitutionalism and against Leftist class struggle.

“Fascism” has its roots in Italian “fascio” (bundle or sheaf) and can be traced to the latin “fasces,” an axe bound by a bundle of rods carried by Roman lictors (guards who accompanied magistrates) that represented both the violence and restrained violence of the Roman republic. In fact, Paxton notes, the republicanism was so important to the symbolism that leftists movements who wanted to restrain the oppression of the aristocracy and the church, in which context “fascio” was used to refer to militant bands. However, in 1919, a new movement in Milan led (at least in part) by a journalist and former soldier named Benito Mussolini adopted the name “Fasci di Combattimento” and declared war on socialists on whom they blamed the problems of the country. Thus was born first named fascist movement in the modern sense.

Paxton frequently reminds his readers that each fascist movement conforms to its native conditions, but there are nevertheless repeated characteristics and preconditions. In each case, fascist organizations were right-wing movements born at times when the country was (or was a thought to be) in decline. These movements, like the two most famous in Germany and Italy, took advantage of the apparent crisis to stoke popular outrage with appeals to nationalism and former glory, thereby further destabilizing the country and presenting themselves as the only path to stability and prosperity.

Where they succeeded, it was because mainstream conservative elites bestowed political legitimacy on them in the name of thwarting their socialist and leftist opponents during times of economic crisis. Thus, Mussolini’s fabled march on Rome might have been a fatal mistake except that the King Victor Emmanuel III refused to empower the Prime Minister to stop him. (Victor Emmanuel would ultimately also depose Mussolini toward the end of World War 2.) The German example is somewhat more commonly known, where Hitler won just enough political support that he had leverage in his negotiations with the Weimar elite, ultimately getting appointed Chancellor with Franz von Papen, a prominent Weimar politician, as vice-Chancellor—only for the combination of President Paul von Hindenburg’s death and the crisis of the Reichstag Fire removing the restrictors from Hitler’s authority.

Although fascist states often get a reputation for being efficient systems — Mussolini made the trains run on time; Thomas the Tank Engine is a fascist utopia, etc — Paxton shows that this is a mirage. In fact, fascist states amounted to an amalgam of power struggles, between the leader whose personal charisma was essential for the party’s rise to power and the rest of the party, between the party and the civil service (which they largely defused by giving civil services autonomy to continue their work), and between the goals of their non-fascist allies.

Other than the varied origins of the fascist movements, the most interesting part of The Anatomy of Fascism to me was its end-point. Paxton identifies two possible outcomes for a fascist movement: radicalization or dissolution into generic authoritarianism. The extreme promises made during the rise to power preclude “comfortable enjoyment of power.” In one scenario, the fascist movement runs out of steam, but members of the party are able to keep hold of the levers of power as run of the mill authoritarians, the difference being that the fascist movement specifically appeals to the emotions of a broad segment of the population in order to fuel its rise to power. On the other extreme, the movement becomes ever more extreme in pursuit of its promises until the situation dramatically changes, as in the Holocaust and World War 2.

Reading The Anatomy of Fascism in the United States 2021, the obvious question is what it might say about modern political developments and, in particular, the presidency of Donald Trump. Paxton is absolutely clear that the United States has had fascist movements in the past, and not just America First and the other Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s. However, he confidently states that, as of 2004, the United States had resisted making them mainstream:

Much more dangerous are movements that employ authentically American themes in ways that resemble fascism functionally…Of course the United states would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream. I half expected to see emerge after 1968 a movement of national reunification, regeneration, and purification directed against hirsute antiwar protesters, black radicals, and “degenerate” artists…Fortunately I was wrong (so far).

I am still mulling over a lot of these questions in light of what Paxton wrote, but I have four broad thoughts at this point:

1. I was not wholly convinced by Paxton’s treatment of Fascist and pseudo-Fascist movements in the United States. He gestures to a long tradition of nativist agitation, including the 1850s Know-Nothing Party and iterations of the KKK as evidence for its presence, but concludes that these groups never truly went mainstream. Setting aside that the KKK went through several discrete iterations, Paxton doesn’t account for the fact that these ideas did go mainstream, even without direct fascist agitation. Perhaps the widespread support of these ideas in the form of Jim Crow legislation and immigration controls disarmed them as fascist talking points, but that’s worse.

2. The idea that the United States can succumb to a fascist dictatorship has been the premise of novels since at least 1935 when Sinclair Lewis published It Can’t Happen Here. More recently, Philip Roth wrote The Plot Against America, which David Simon turned into an HBO series, which I wrote about favorably here. Though my current thinking about The Plot Against America isn’t as positive now as it was in that write-up, I do think Lewis and Roth are correct about one thing in particular. My fear is that the American two-party system makes it, if anything, more vulnerable to Fascism than a decentralized European parliamentary system. In the latter, it required various alliances to bring fascists into the mainstream while the former offers one of the two parties not merely as an ally, but a vehicle.

3. When talking about fascism and American politics there is a problem with labels. Calling an opponent a fascist is a way to discredit them and shut down debate, and rarely has anything to do with historical debate. Paxton several times invokes Orwell’s dictum that American fascism is not going to look like Hitler because it is going to wear authentically American clothes. This gets at the root of the issue. Knowingly or not, Trump’s campaigns ran plays from the fascist playbook: the rallies, the obsession with national decline, the appeals to family values, the framing of the world entirely in terms of allies and enemies. Historical reductivism is not a useful exercise and a lot of those traits have deep roots in American society without the presence of self-identified fascists, though we certainly have those, too. The Republican Party also reoriented itself to accommodate Trump who became their charismatic leader, but too narrow a focus on Trump also misses the evolution of the Republican party that has sought to sow mistrust in government since the 1970s. Was Reagan a fascist, then? Most people would say no. Was Trump a fascist? That’s a question without a productive answer.

4. For as much as I believe there is coordination in talking points between Republican party leaders and at least some of the right-wing media in the United States, it is striking the extent to which driving force of nationalist rhetoric in this country comes from media personalities rather than from the party. Trump was a little bit different before his ban from social media, but even in that case there was a feedback loop between the two. While Paxton might point out that the party unity in the fascist movements was mostly a creation of propaganda, they were nevertheless able to control that message. In the United States context, much of the nationalist fervor has been stoked by…television executives funded by billionaires? …talking heads? …agitators whose primary business is selling supplements? This is not to say that Republican politicians don’t make these statements, but, other than Trump, they seem better able to capitalize on the effects of the rhetoric than to actually fan the flames themselves. Offloading the rhetoric onto a third party also makes it easier to manipulate the system behind closed doors through voter restrictions and stacking the judiciary.

In sum, The Anatomy of Fascism is a good book to think with. Paxton might not be able to offer answers to every question, but this book provides exactly what he promises: a wealth of historical context that transcends a narrow focus on Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

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I recently reread Kitchen Confidential in advance of seeing the new documentary about Anthony Bourdain. I love this book, even if it isn’t quite as magical as on my first read. I also finished Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I picked up because I have read how her books are beloved of critics. This book, told from the point of view of a bisexual college girl Frances who is close friends with her ex Bonni and strikes up an affair with Nick, the husband of the writer Melissa who profiles Frances and Bonni for their poetry performances, traces the intimate web of relationships between these four individuals. It is an intimate and revealing portrait written in a way that makes me understand why Rooney appeals to critics, but I thought that it was a little too assured that its close examination of banal details could lead to profound observations about human relationships.

A Desolation Called Peace

What follows is the review of a sequel. I avoid spoilers for this novel, but can’t talk about it without mentioning plot points from A Memory Called Empire.

The cover of Arkady Martine's A Desolation Called Peace.

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire won last year’s Hugo Award for best novel, kicking off a vast new space opera centered on the conflict between the Lsel Station and the Teixcalaanli Empire. I only read one of the other finalists for the award but found A Memory Called Empire the vastly superior of the two and a worthy Hugo winner. The sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, is significantly better than the debut.

A Desolation Called Peace picks up several months after the events of A Memory Called Empire. Nineteen Adze’s accession to the throne has stabilized Teixcalaan even as the war against the unknown aliens has begun with the dispatch of six legions under the leadership of newly promoted Yaotlek Nine Hibiscus — a woman dangerous enough that observers wondered if the new emperor hopes she will die. Eight Antidote, the young clone of the deceased emperor and imperial heir, has begun training with the military establishment. Meanwhile, Three Seagrass, a functionary with the imperial intelligence has dispatched herself to the front lines, albeit with an unscheduled pit stop on Lsel to pick up the ambassador Mahit Dzmare — who is herself in political hot water and suspected of selling out Lsel secrets to Teixcalaan.

Martine deftly weaves numerous threads of political scheming throughout A Desolation Called Peace: Mahit against several different Lsel councillors; Eight Antidote who Nineteen Adze has begun calling little spy, Nine Hibiscus and her second, Twenty Cicada who she called Swarm, against potentially seditious subordinates. These plots give the novel pacing something like that of a political thriller. The reader sees each of these schemes unfold in roughly real-time as each chapter skips from one point of view to another.

However, the political machinations are not the core of A Desolation Called Peace.

This is a novel about first contact and what defines civilization. The latter themes were present in A Memory Called Empire where the two civilizations had vastly different attitudes toward memory, with Lsel relying on imago technology to implant the expertise from one generation to another and Teixcalaan nominally prizing “natural” memory preserved through poetic allusions. The tension between Lsel and Teixcalaan remains extant in A Desolation Called Peace, but now Martine introduces aspects of Teixcalaanli hypocrisy and both cultures are facing an alien enemy that is distinctly not human and clearly does not have the same values. They have potent technology, but it is unclear to the humans whether the nauseating screeching that they intercepted even constitutes language.

It is this mystery that Three Seagrass and Mahit must unravel even as the political conflicts rage behind and around them. At the same time, the war continues. Small vessels appear out of the darkness of space to inflict casualties on the Teixcalaanli legions and Teixcalaanli scouts probe into the unknown seeking a target that they can strike. It is a race to determine which approach will win out even though no one is certain that either one will work.

The overriding tension between the two approaches builds on and supersedes the other political dramas and makes for a compelling story. Even better, though, are Martine’s answers. As the novel raced toward its end, I couldn’t help but see it as an answer to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. In that classic novel, Ender is a brilliant child raised and reared for the purpose of guiding humanity’s war against an alien race, the Formics, that had once attacked earth. After the crucible of the Battle School, the expectation is that Ender will have the capacity to do the unthinkable in order to win and thus save humanity. Faced with a similar existential threat against an unknown enemy in A Desolation Called Peace, the outcome is much different. Most of the humans remain narrowly focused on their own desires such that engaging warfare that could result in xenocide seems like a nearly inevitable outcome.

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My reading has been all over the map of late and I am not going to write about everything. Since my last book post I finished two non-fiction books Kim Ghattas’ Black Wave, which was an incisive look at sectional conflict in the Middle East and Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet about William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. I also have finished three other novels, Eric Ambler’s early spy thriller Epitaph for a Spy, Toni Morrison’s brilliant The Bluest Eye about a young black woman who dreams of being white, and H.G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. This last one was alternate history featuring magic that received some buzz for being like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, but I found it more than a little disappointing in that it sacrificed Clarke’s gift for inserting magic into the shadowy corners of our world in favor of giving real characters and events a veneer of magic.

My anti-library and a digital bookshelf

There is a video I love. For more than a minute the camera follows Umberto Eco walk through his personal library, the path lined with bookshelves that often stretch from the floor to the ceiling, all packed with books.

This library, which was recently acquired by the University of Bologna, contained roughly 44,000 volumes. Of course Eco hadn’t read every volume in this library — there is a finite amount of time in any given life — but the collection served as a research collection and a personal philosophy articulated in an oft-repeated passage of Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, where Eco explained that unread books are more valuable to a collection than are read books. The latter are little more than an “ego boosting appendage” as though being well-read alone confers value to the person, while the former are a well of potential knowledge. Taleb calls this the “anti-library.” The more one knows, the larger that well-should be, according to Eco.

I also like to think that this library brought joy to Umberto Eco, if we are to apply the Marie Kondo test.

The reason I love this video is that I aspire to have this sort of library.

Years ago I had a conversation with Alex Green at his store, the now-closed Backpages Books in Waltham, Massachusetts where we talked about our respective book-buying habits. The upshot of that conversation is that I have a problem — and also that Alex gave me a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ when I checked out, I assume because I mentioned that it was my favorite book.

When I need a break, I will often relax by poring over lists of books hunting for hidden gems. Sometimes this has a direct impact on what I read, such as a recent stretch where I read books curated from the New York Times list of best books from 2020. Other times those books sit on my to-read shelves for months or years only to be pulled out when the time feels right, as with Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, Ayse Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul, and Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum.

The current States of my to-read shelf.
The current state of my to-read shelf.

For similar reasons, I struggle to walk past a bookstore without sticking my head in, and have taken to deliberately browsing the store for longer than I intended while holding onto some volume I found to see if the impulse to purchase it fades.

Even with that restraint, I have acquired a lot of books. I recently moved with just a fraction of the volumes in Eco’s library and have been charged by my partner with sorting out library, much of which resides in the room I am using for my office. This process has me thinking a lot about Umberto Eco and his stroll through the library and I have questions.

  • Does he have an assistant (or graduate student) who tends to the collection?
  • What kind of building was this library in?
  • When did he acquire the space?
  • Did he ever have to move the collection and, if so, at what age? Did he have helpers?

The last question is of course the one I am most concerned with since the peripatetic life of of a graduate student and contingent faculty member is almost more of a limitation to creating a library than the monetary cost of the books. It is much easier to be Guy Pearce’s character at the end of Mare of Easttown packing all of your earthly possessions into a Jaguar XK8 to drive to your next gig if those possessions don’t include hundreds of books.

And yet, even as I struggle to find space for all of the books that we currently own, I can’t help but think about all of the other books I want to acquire.

Like I said, I have a problem.

The local library helps, of course, but only to a point. In addition to being limited by what they have in their collection, libraries don’t always match up with the rhythm of my reading where I like to have access to a book so that I can pick it up on a whim.

Library e-book programs like Overdrive are somewhat better in this respect. My current read is an e-book of Charles Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet, a thick book detailing the divergent philosophies of William Vogt and Norman Borlaug that I picked up after seeing it name-dropped favorably on a blog. The problem is that I’m reading it on my phone. I’ve read several other books this way recently, with mixed results. I like the ability to clip a passage by taking a screen shot, but generally dislike almost every other aspect of the reading experience.

What I am currently debating is whether my antipathy toward e-books is intrinsic to the form or whether my phone is just a bad e-reader. The latter is without question true. The screen is calibrated for looking at social media and the fact that it is smaller than a book means that it is an awkward fit in my hand. Conversely, my tablet is too large for an e-reader. In addition, the other apps on the phone have proven a siren’s song always pulling me away from whatever I’m reading. If I am going to keep doing e-books, then, I need to get an e-reader that I use for nothing but e-books — and, looking at the kindle options, I’m definitely going to need to pay the surcharge for an ad-free version.

I will always love the feel, and the smell, of a physical book, but carrying a slim device saves both space and weight. E-books also could — potentially — save me money after the initial investment on the device since the average price of an e-book is lower than the print equivalent (by design, Amazon and Barnes and Noble offer higher royalty rates on books priced between 3 and 10 dollars), even before considering sales.

But what is good for me as a reader gives me pause as a book person. While unpacking my library, I have been slowly pruning the collection, putting some volumes in boxes that I want to donate to my local public library. I don’t like this process, but, unlike Signore professore dottore Eco, I am not graced with an enormous space that I can fill, and I try to think about this as a gardener might: prune the tree not as a destructive process, but in order to clear the way for new growth. That is, if I from time to time clear what I have on the shelf in a way that allows someone else to enjoy some of the books, then I can buy new books, building my library as a physical, tangible thing that blends my favorites with those I have yet to read.

E-books don’t provide the same experience. Purchasing an e-book actually means licensing access to the product and browsing an e-book shelf might provide the same information, but I find that trapping all of that knowledge in a small device soulless. The anti-library lands differently when it is on a digital bookshelf.

And then there is the Amazon of it all.

So, where does that leave me? I don’t know. The increasingly-large selection of digital books through my public library has me leaning toward purchasing an e-reader because I can’t keep reading them on my phone. But an e-reader is also yet another device to keep around the house and a substantial investment for something that I might come to hate. At the end of the day, though, I also just want to keep buying books.

The Bone Shard Daughter

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

Floating in the Endless Sea is an archipelago ruled by the Phoenix Empire. For hundreds of years the Sukai Dynasty has ruled these islands, protecting the people against the fearsome power of the Alanga, a mythical race of beings whose contests of power could swamp entire islands. The founder of the dynasty defeated the Alanga and imperial propaganda insists that they could return, though no one can so much as remember what they look like.

But if these myths give the dynasty legitimacy, they rule through through more usual systems of coercion and centralized power — in this case, taxation, soldiers, and a host of constructs created by the emperor and powered by shards of bone taken from the skull of every citizen in a tithing festival. These shards power the constructs, set their programming, and slowly drain the life-force from the person from whom they were taken.

The story comes together in three plots that converge on the same location.

The first is the story of Lin, the eponymous daughter of the title. She is the presumed heir of the empire locked in a struggle for succession with her foster brother Bayan, both of whom the emperor is teaching magic. However, he refuses to teach Lin Bone Shard magic, claiming that she is not a whole person because she cannot remember anything past five years ago when Bayan came into the palace, supposedly bringing with him a disease that wiped her memory. Not deterred, Lin is determined to steal what she has not been given, subverting the four major constructs that rule her father’s empire in the process if necessary.

Second is Jovis, the most wanted smuggler in the empire and a man on the run from both officials and a powerful crime syndicate. All he wants, really, is to find his wife, Emahla, who was abducted by someone in a ship with blue sails. He has been tracking this ship for years, but the chase takes a detour on Deerhead Island, first when he is charged with rescuing a child from the tithing ceremony and then when the entire island starts to sink. While fleeing certain doom, he rescues a swimming creature, Mephi, who seems to grant him immense powers. Suddenly, Jovis finds himself unable to follow such a selfish mission.

The third plot is the story of Phalue, a governor’s daughter, and her beloved-yet-impoverished partner, Ranami. Phalue has a reputation as a playgirl, but Ranami is convinced that she can convince her of the fundamental exploitation of the system and therefore join the “shardless” rebels in overthrowing her father, the governor.

All the while, on the small island of Maila, in the far north of the archipelago, Sand has spent years collecting mangoes without questioning why when, after a fall, she begins to recover her memories.

None of the characters struck me as particularly complex, but they were all working from archetypes that fit neatly within their assigned roles. I didn’t see a huge amount of character development, but the way in which the story unfolded neatly masked what otherwise might have been a problem. Lin is the best example of this because she is presented to us as something of a tabula rasa: instead of her character developing a huge amount emotionally, her character is revealed as we learn about this world with various twists and turns. The protagonists other than Jovis frequently received their development as a revelation brought about by learning about the world more than through the choices they make. This approach worked here since the reader was simultaneously learning about the world, but I found myself wondering whether it could be sustained for multiple books.

Each of the main characters also had a simple goodness that I found refreshing, even when they were set up to be naïve optimists that could be a bigger detriment in sequels if there aren’t complications thrown their way.

And yet, despite these nitpicks, I loved every moment of The Bone Shard Daughter. The reason, quite simply, is the world. This is an Asian-inspired setting, in some ways similar to Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, but remixing tropes of a lost civilization, a totalitarian government, and catastrophe that felt fresh. Stewart included in a number of nods toward systemic supply issues that created inequalities, but the shard embedded in this story that invested it with mystery, stakes, and novelty were the bone shards themselves, and the tithing ceremony that harvested them.

On one level, Stewart presents the shards as simply banal. The tithing ceremonies take place regularly, anyone who doesn’t have the tell-tale scar is automatically suspect, and the collected shards are stored in a long archive that I imagined like a library card catalogue.

On another, she presents the collection as the cruel process that it is. Since the shard is taken with a chisel applied to the skull behind the ear, some number of people die during the ceremony, but everyone else spends their life wondering whether their life or that of their family members is being slowly drained away since the constructs draw from the life force of the owner of the shard.

And on a third level altogether, the way in which the shards power the constructs is clever: each shard can hold a small number of commands written as if-then statements like a computer code. Simple constructs might have a single shard with two simple commands (follow x; report to y). More complicated constructs require larger number of shards with greater number of commands that allow them to address a wide range of tasks.

It is too soon to judge a trilogy based on its first book and there are points here that I want to see either complicated or paid off in subsequent books — for instance, I have some guesses about Sand’s story, but it needs to be more fully incorporated into the rest of the world. And yet, in The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart has done the hardest part: telling an eminently readable story in a compelling world that I want to come back to when the second book in the series drops later this year.

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I recently finished Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, a novel about a young muslim woman in India whose social media connections and digital critiques of the government land her accused of aiding a terrorist attack on a commuter train that leaves more than a hundred dead. Now I am reading Black Wave, Kim Ghattas’ account of how the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran radicalized the Middle East, leading to sectarian violence and unstable countries.

Empire of Pain

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

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

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

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

Empire of Pain is divided into three parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ΔΔΔ

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

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

A World Without Email

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ΔΔΔ

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

How Beautiful We Were

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ΔΔΔ

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

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

The Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translation found here.

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

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

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

ΔΔΔ

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

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

A Memory Called Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ΔΔΔ

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

The Scapegoat

—That’s the danger with freedom: it’s an abyss. Will you fall in? It’ll depend on you Georgiou.

In May 1948 a Greek fisherman discovered a body floating in the Thermaic Gulf. George Polk was a CBS foreign correspondent then reporting on the Greek Civil War where he was unsparing in his coverage of government corruption and atrocities. Despite receiving death threats, he had nevertheless travelled to Thessaloniki, only to disappear until his body was fished from the bay. The government, naturally, blamed their communist enemies and arranged a show-trial that ended in the conviction of three men: two in abstentia (they also had not been in Greece at the time of the murder) and the journalist Gregoris Staktopoulos, who confessed under torture and served more than a decade in prison.

A fictionalized version of this murder and wrongful conviction serves as a jumping off point for Sophia Nikolaidou’s The Scapegoat (trans. Karen Emmerich).

The Scapegoat consists of two intersecting storylines, though neither strictly adheres to a single chronology. The first plot centers on the 1948 murder of the American journalist, here named Jack Talas, who we meet in the opening pages. At the same time, we are introduced to Manolis Gris, a journalist who accompanies an officer to the police station thinking he is dealing with the theft of his laundry by gypsies that he had reported earlier that day:

“It was twelve years before Manolis Gris made it home. His eyes were still chestnut brown, but his hair had turned gray.”

This narrative unfolds through the voices of people around Manolis, including his sister Violeta, his mother Kyria Maria, and Jack Talas’ widow Zoe (Zouzou), as well as a host of others. We learn how Manolis and his family were refugees relocated from Pontus during the forced population exchanges of the 1920s and how he generally kept his head down while diligently working to support his family. And we learn how Zouzou faced a torrent of accusations after the death of her fiancé as the institutional forces in Greece worked to close the case quickly and ensure that the “right” people took the blame. Manolis’ signed confession seals the deal.

The second plot line flashes forward sixty years. In the 2010–2011 school-year, at the height of the financial crisis in Greece, Minas Georgiou has decided that he does not want to go to college. Previously a star student, Minas’ decision has shattered the peace of his household, particularly devastating his mother, Teta, who gave up a career after college to raise him. Minas’ decision also caused his grades to start slipping in advance of the mandatory exams, which serve as a critical point of divergence for the rest of his life. His history teacher Souk (Soukiouroglou) makes him an offer: instead of completing homework for the class, Minas can complete a research paper and presentation for his grade.

His topic: The trial of Manolis Gris.

Minas throws himself into research, aided by materials put together over the years by his own journalist father — albeit distracted the ordinary pursuits of high school seniors, like trying to strike up a relationship with Evelina, the other star student in the class.

Each plot works on its own, the second somewhat more than the first, but The Scapegoat comes alive in the resonances between the two stories. Nikolaidou takes the universal position that the 1949 trial was a sham that turned the convicted into scapegoats who absolved a community of responsibility for its sins. (These were called pharmakoi in Ancient Greek practice, though the original Greek title of this novel is Χορεύουν οι ελέφαντες, or The Elephants are Dancing.) In and of itself, that part of the story is not particularly exceptional except that she uses the kaleidoscope of voices who articulate the layers of disruption in 1940s Greece.

The second plot, set at another time of disruption in Greece that was creating waves of new sacrificial victims, responds to the first. Three generations of Greeks are invested in Minas’ investigation, and are caught up in a tighter web of relationships than they first realize. Minas’ investigation eventually leads him to Evelina’s grandfather Nikiforos, the lawyer who defended Manolis Gris in 1948, but the old man refuses to speak to him until he arranges a meeting with his grandmother Evthalia — who Nikiforos admired from afar as a young man about to marry. Meanwhile, Souk is the sort of eccentric literary teacher who is easy to admire until you realize the consequences of his methods (his father Tasos knew Souk’s advisor and can’t stand him, but his grandmother, a former teacher, approves). Nikiforos doesn’t see the value in re-litigating the past, but Souk demands that Minas do just that in taking a stand. Minas concludes:

In studying them carefully, in marking passages with his highlighter, Minas had come to realize that justice is an abstract concept. Perfect on paper. But in practice, riddled with qualifications, asterisks, interpretations, clashes of opinion. History books offered no catharsis, as tragedies. did; there were no happy endings, as there were in fairytales or soap operas.

In sum, The Scapegoat is an impressive novel that grapples with the living consequences and echoes of historical events, even as Nikolaidou injects light into that darkness through a number of sweet relationships, none more so that the clumsy tenderness and unbridled optimism of young love.

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Since my last books post, I finished reading Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year and David Elliot’s Bull. The latter is a verse re-imagination of the Minotaur story where each character receives a different meter. It wasn’t my favorite riff on the Minotaur story (that would be The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break), but it had some powerful moments. I am now reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, a memoir about trying to find information about the six family members none of his relatives will talk about — the six who were killed in the Holocaust.