Anders waited for an undoing, an undoing that did not come, and the hours passed, and he realized that he had been robbed, that he was the victim of a crime, the horror of which only grew, a crime that had taken everything from him
Anders lives in a rural town where he works as a trainer and passes time smoking weed and having sex with Oona, a friend from high school who moved home after college to help care for her mother. This town, which read to me like Britain but could easily be in the US (Hamid also uses ambiguity as a universalizing device this way in Exit West), is populated overwhelmingly by white people. That is, until Anders wakes up one morning to discover that he is no longer white, patient zero for a plague that sweeps through society.
The Last White Man belongs to a genre of novels that range from Albert Camus’s The Plague to Jose Saramago’s Blindness where either a real or metaphorical plague sweeps through a community, thus allowing the author to explore the consequences of this change. (Other reviews mention Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but, despite the echoes in Anders’ experience, I found the broader social transition strain that analogy.) Hamid’s version, the plague is a metaphor for immigration that compresses the abstract fears about replacement into a matter of weeks, thus heightening the social tensions.
Other than revealing who, in fact, becomes the titular last white man, there is little plot to explain in this slim novel. The Anders-Oona relationship, for instance, starts as little more than a liaison of convenience and only develops somewhat beyond that. The relationship Anders has with his father and Oona’s with her mother are similarly lightly-handled. Rather, this is a novel about questions the answers to which have far-reaching consequences.
What impressed me about The Last White Man was how Hamid develops two themes related to identity.
First, Hamid uses Anders’ abrupt transition to explore the experience of being a person of color. He is the same person he was on the previous day, but he also no longer recognizes himself. Moreover, his day-to-day experience of the world has become filled with menace from the people around him. Anders changes how he interprets he the actions of the people who look at him and how he thinks about the people who had been living as people of color in town before the transition, not-so-subtly gesturing at the assumptions and social cues that the majority population so frequently takes for granted.
Anders was not sure where his sense of threat was coming from, but it was there, it was strong, and once it was obvious to him that he was a stranger to those he could call by name, he did not try to look in their faces, to let his gaze linger in ways that could be misconstrued.
Second, Hamid explores how racism can work on a social level. The spreading coloration is not the result of foreign influx or migration and yet the perceived threat fueled in part by media claiming that the plague is the result of a conspiracy seeking to undermine the natural order leads to violence that ranges from suicide to the formation of lynch mobs. And yet, Hamid also leaves the reader with a note of optimism. Most people start out unsettled by the changes, but, just as Anders and Oona are able to rediscover one another, so too is the community at large able to rediscover the ties that make them into a functioning society.
I liked The Last White Man a lot, and both the themes and the lyrical prose are in keeping with the other novels of his that I have read. The simplicity of the plot and character relationships allowed the heavier social themes to shine through in a very breezy read. The simplicity placed this book somewhat behind Exit West in my estimation, but the balance put it just ahead of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In sum, The Last White Man is well-worth reading and leaves me interested in reading Hamid’s other two novels.
I just finished reading Angela Saini’s Superior and am now reading both Umberto Eco’s Baudolino and Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews.
Julie Schumacher has published two novels about academic life, Dear Committee Members (2014) and The Shakespeare Requirement (2018), with a third in the series, The English Experience due out in August. The first two novels are campus farces featuring the eccentric professor of creative writing Jason Fitger who received his job and tenure at the small midwestern Payne College on the strength of literary novels years ago, though his most recent novel The Transfer of Affection both flopped and precipitated his divorce. Now he remains embedded in Payne, laboring away in a deeply dysfunctional department.
And to begin this recommendation on the proper footing: no, I will not fill out the inane computerized form that is intended to precede or supplant this letter; ranking a student according to his or her placement among the “top 10 percent,” “top 2 percent,” or the “top 0.000001 percent” is pointless and absurd. No faculty member will rank any student, no matter how severely lacking in ability or reason, below “top 10 percent.” This would be tantamount to describing the candidate in question as a witless beast. A human being and his or her caliber, intellect, character, and promise are not reducible to a check mark in a box. Faced with a reductionist formula such as yours, I despair for the future, consoling myself with the thought that I and others of my generation, with its archaic modes of discourse, won’t live to see the barren cyberworld the authors of your recommendation form are determined to create.
Dear Committee Members
Dear Committee Members unfolds over a single academic year, as told through the recommendation letters of one Jason Fitger. Professor Fitger writes a lot of recommendation letters, and takes great pride in the genre. Perhaps too much pride. Each of the letters he writes does indeed recommend the candidate for positions that range from jobs to graduate schools to administrative positions on campus. But these letters also contain flourishes that let the recipient know exactly what he, Jason Fitger M.F.A., thinks of them, their position, and the whole academic apparatus. Invariably, this commentary also means that the letters often wander into an ongoing one-sided dialogue between Fitger and his silent interlocutors such as his current department chair (a Sociologist imposed on the department), his ex-girlfriend Carole Samarkind (the associate director of Student Services at Payne), his ex-wife Janet Matthias, who he met at a prestigious writing Seminar and now is an administrator in the law school at Payne, and Eleanor Acton, their former classmate and now director of the Seminar from whom he is attempting to secure a position for his mentee Darren Browles.
Fitgers commentary traces the contours of an academic year, and the absurdity of the whole system—including letters of recommendation—is deeply familiar to anyone who has worked in it. Indeed, these are the letters of recommendation I wish I could write. Further, Schumacher offers cutting commentary about the state of the contemporary university.
Iris Temple has applied to your MFA program in fiction and has asked me to support, via this LOR, her application. I find this difficult to do, not because Ms. Temple is unqualified (she is a gifted and disciplined writer and has published several stories in appropriately obscure venues), but because your program at Torreforde State offers its graduate writers no funding or aid of any kind—an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse of vulnerable students, to whom you extend the false hope that writing a $50,000 check to your institution will be the first step toward artistic success.
Dear Committee Members
But Schumacher cuts the comedy of Jason Fitger the difficult and absurd colleague always kvetching about something or another by making it clear that is nevertheless deeply cares about his students and will go to great lengths to help them succeed. This character trait likewise adds emotional weight to a dark plot line about the declining emotional state of Darren Browles reflected through Fitger’s futile efforts to save him.
The Shakespeare Requirement picks up the following academic year, with Jason Fitger, the creative writing professor with a lowly MFA, now at the helm of Payne University’s English Department, his colleagues grudgingly voting for him at the end of Dear Committee Members.
This novel has functionally three core plot threads.
The first follows Dennis Cassovan, aging professor of Shakespeare who loathes that while he was on sabbatical his colleagues burdened the department with Fitger, a mediocre novelist and non-scholar. What’s more, administration is requiring a “vision statement” for the department and there is a chance that that vision might exclude the Bard himself. Cassovan objects, strenuously, and the cause is taken up by his long-suffering research assistant Lincoln, who makes Shakespeare a cause célèbre on campus—much to his annoyance—after the poster on Cassovan’s door is vandalized.
Here was the future, Cassovan thought. Out with considered argument and nuance; in with publicity students, competitive righteousness, and the thrill of rage.
The second follows Angela Vackrey, a timid but promising student from a small, conservative town whose work attracts the attention of both Fitger and Cassovan. However, both men are too preoccupied with administrative and faculty issues to offer her much mentorship, and Angela finds herself adrift without any close friends at college. In part, this is how she finds herself pregnant after a single sexual experience with a boy from her Bible study. Surely this means that she must marry him?
Finally, there is Fitger himself. I am very fortunate to be in a department with an exceptionally competent chair—so much so that last year the department joked that our reappointment vote was to prevent her from stepping down. Jason Fitger is the opposite of that: a roiling mess of disorganization and impolitic observations with barely any sense of the levers of power within an academic institution. To make matters worse, his ex-wife Janet Matthias is dating the Dean who signs off on the department paperwork and Roland Gladwell, the chair of the well-resourced Economics department, is staging a hostile takeover of their shared building. Oh, and campus newspaper has run a series of articles condemning Fitger’s “Literature of the Apocalypse” course as traumatic.
The students, who have requested anonymity, claim that the reading list for the fall class—on the “Literature of the Apocalypse”—was detrimental to their mental health and “psychologically hostile.” One of the students has reported consulted a family lawyer.
Sophomore Yvetta Curtin, who was not enrolled in the class but had seen a copy of the syllabus, suggested that the selection of novels was “irresponsible” and could be dangerous for students with emotional issues or PTSD.
Fitger’s only hope may lay in the person of the department secretary, Fran, who miraculously keeps the department moving forward despite its lack of a budget. The problem is that in order to have a budget, the department must have a vision statement and, thanks to Roland’s meddling, the department must approve the statement unanimously. But Fitger will get the statement approved over Cassovan’s dead body unless it includes requires that all English majors take a Shakespeare class.
The Shakespeare Requirement retains a similar tone to the Dear Committee Members, but dispatching with the epistolary format allows Schumacher to offer wider perspective on the campus culture of Payne. Schumacher treats Payne as an every-college. The humanities are underfunded, numerous students apathetic or overwhelmed, and administrators out of touch with the practice of teaching. The hubbub about students not even in the class being outraged by Fitger’s literature of the apocalypse class might as well be a campus culture wars headline about Schumacher’s alma mater Oberlin. While some of these caricatures wore a little thin at times, I found that the wider perspective made the campus satire hit somewhat closer to home for better and for worse. Where Fitger’s (failed) romantic partnerships and his (doomed) attempt to save his mentee form the core plots of Dear Committee Members, The Shakespeare Requirement follows a protracted war over the future of the school. Victory might hinge on the silliest of factors in the novel, but the fight itself is all-too real.
Education was expensive and inefficient; teaching students to think and write clearly was the same. But Hoffman, a business school graduate with the singe-cell mind of a banker, had never taught anyone anything. Her ultimate plan would be to organize the campus into two simple units: “Numbers” and “Words.”
The Shakespeare Requirement
I am a big fan of both of these novels. They are fun, light reads filled with sweeping caricatures and clever turns of phrase, but with some of the darker—and altogether human—crises of higher education hovering just beneath the surface. The comic sub-genre of campus novel is to the best of my knowledge not extensive, and the genre writ-large tends to focus on character or coming of age stories. This makes it almost inevitable that Schumacher’s books would be compared to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, which I particularly disliked. Schumacher populates her books with quirky and sometimes bad or unlikable characters, she avoids the meanness and myopia that I found in Lucky Jim. Schumacher makes it clear that however difficult and disoriented Fitger becomes, he legitimately trying and some of his most dramatic failures come from the best intentions—something that seems likely to have been drawn from experience in academia.
This semester got away from me and I’m not sure which of my recent reads will receive profiles here. I am currently reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time.
“But how does this happen?” he continued. “How does all the power from foreign languages just somehow accrue to England? This is no accident; this is a deliberate exploitation of foreign cultures and foreign resources. The professors like to pretend that the tower is a refuge for pure knowledge, that it sits above the mundane concerns of business and commerce, but it does not. It’s intricately tied to the business of colonialism. It is the business of colonialism.”
“Pamphlets. They’d thought they could win this with pamphlets.
He almost laughed at the absurdity. Power did not lie in the tip of a pen. Power did not work against its own interests. Power could only be brought to heel by acts of defiance it could not ignore. With brute, unflinching force. With violence.”
I didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War as much as most people I know. I wrote back in 2019 about how her voice and literary styling impressed me at the same time as I found myself frustrated by how much of the plot was taken directly from the headlines of the history of east Asia in the 19th and 20th century, which meant that I didn’t bother reading either of the sequels. However, I also speculated that the book would have been stronger had she abandoned the fictional world for the real one and expressed my interest in what Kuang put out subsequently.
Kuang did exactly what I had hoped for in her latest novel, Babel, or the necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution. The result was not only a brilliant fantasy novel, but also perhaps my favorite campus novel.
Babel is principally the story of Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton whose mother died in a Cholera epidemic in 1829 who comes into the care of Professor Richard Lovell, who whisks him off to England. Lovell rears Robin in his household for years, drilling him in Latin, Greek, and Chinese with the sole ambition of gaining him admission to the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, colloquially known as Babel, where Lovell is a professor.
This institute, which is housed in a tower at Oxford, is the radiant hub of Britain’s colonial empire. Scholars working at Babel discovered the latent power in the slippage in translation that they can inscribe onto bars of silver. With the right semantic links, British silver can do anything from create swift-moving transit to reinforce buildings to power weapons of war. They only require a steady supply of silver and a roster of fluent linguists.
“Professor Playfair put the bar down. ‘So there it is. It’s all quite easy once you’ve grasped the basic principle. We capture what is lost in translation—for there is always something lost in translation—and the bar manifests it into being. Simple enough?’
Upon making his way to Oxford, Robin joins the three other students who have been selected for admission to Babel, Ramiz Rafi Mirza (Ramy) from Calcutta, Victoire Desgraves from Haiti, and Letitia Price (Letty), a white woman whose father was an admiral in the British navy. The quartet settles into a routine, supporting one another during the grinding years of coursework. During this period, all four suffer what we might term micro-aggressions even though their affiliation with Babel insulates them from the worst effects of racism and sexism. However, it is also in this period when Robin meets Griffin, Professor Lovell’s previous ward and likely Robin’s half brother. A former student at Babel himself, Griffin introduces Robin to the Hermes Society, a secretive association of people dedicated to resisting Babel’s power. Before long it becomes clear that there is only one path forward: Robin and his friends must seize Babel and thus the means of magic production.
Babel is a fictional history, and Kuang notes in her author’s note that she moved certain chronological details to meet narrative needs, but it is also set against very real historical events and phenomena. The British Empire is a given, and the climactic events appear against a backdrop of the Opium Wars, but Kuang also introduces historical personages and linguistic texts omitted from most textbooks, which gives the setting the texture of reality.
At the same time, Kuang uses this story to address the very nature of the academy, without resorting either to the secretive cultishness of The Secret History or the (in my opinion) mean-spirited satire of Lucky Jim. Rather, the pages of Babel are filled with the characters immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time in college. Lovell’s stern and reclusive scholar who wants to be engaged with the grand affairs of the day is one archetype, but so too is the female scholar who has to work twice as hard to receive the same recognition and junior researchers who sympathize with radical social movements but also have to keep their heads down to receive promotion. I laughed aloud at a scene where the energetic senior professor who puts on a show in lectures and arranges the security measures at the tower that can kill or maim expresses his outrage that they can no longer reveal exam results with a ritual where students attempt to enter the tower: those who fail trigger the tower defenses. This sort of erudite bonhomie in class juxtaposed with a cruelty around exams and “qualifications” is altogether too common. Thus, with Babel, Kuang offers an incisive portrait of an institution that claims to be a progressive meritocracy while perpetuating a structure that is fundamentally conservative.
Then an interlude chapter told from Letty’s point of view opens with this sentence:
Letitia Price was not a wicked person.
The chapter goes on to dissect all of the problems with white feminism in just a few pages.
Put simply, Babel is a triumph, blending a clever magic system with a specific time and place, and themes that allow Kuang to speak to the present moment.
This is the first of several posts on that I read in late 2022 when I became chaotically busy (I finished Babel in October). I read a bunch of good books in the intervening period, so my goal over the next few weeks is to get caught up.
The Wardens’ Empire violently enforces its rigid caste structure, drawn along racial lines.
At the top of the hierarchy are red-blooded Embers, the descendants of those who fled an apocalypse they termed The Ending Fire. These are the overseers and the administrators, and the only ones taught to write, which would allow one to perform magic called Bloodwerk. Every ten years the Wardens hold the Aktibar, in which aspirants for leadership in each of the four guilds, Truth, Duty, Strength, and Knowledge, compete in a series of trials. The winner in each set of trials becomes the guild Disciple for ten years before ascending to the position of Warden for the following ten years.
Next are the Dusters, whose blue blood stains the fields when their overseers need to meet production quotas. From the numbers of the Dusters come The Sandstorm, a secretive rebellion who hatched an audacious plan to kidnap Embers from their crib, replacing them with Duster children, and raising the Embers to enter the Aktibar, albeit with a different agenda from most aspirants. It is a closely guarded guarded secret that one of the kidnapped infants was the child of Uka Elsari, the Warden of Strength.
At the bottom of the hierarchy are the Ghostings, a race that serves in menial capacities beneath the notice of the Embers and Dusters except in that they seem to be dying in large numbers from a mysterious illness. And yet, Embers also consider clear-blooded Ghostings the greatest threat to the empire. Embers mutilate Ghosting children, severing their hands and tongues, and forcing them to develop both tools and communication techniques to accommodate their disability. While some Embers maintain that this practice is meant to help Ghostings, its murky origins some four hundred years earlier reflect the existential threat that posed by the knowledge that Ghostings pass down through the generations.
In The Final Strife, Saara el-Arifi sets a simple story within this sophisticated world. The book weaves together three plot threads that all build toward the Aktibar trials.
The first plot follows Sylah, one of the Ember children raised by The Sandstorm. However, some years ago, the Embers attacked the camp where The Sandstorm had been training. Sylah escaped the massacre and made her way to Nar-Ruta where, in the shadow of the Warden’s Keep, she fights in illicit matches organized by the enigmatic master criminal Loot and indulges in the ecstasy of the joba seed. However, this life is disrupted when Jond, one of the other children from The Sandstorm, arrives in Nar-Ruta to compete in the imminent Aktibar. In an attempt to reclaim the life that she lost, Sylah finds herself infiltrating the Warden’s Keep.
The second plot is that of Anoor Elsari. To the public, Anoor is the daughter of the Warden of Strength, but she is also Uka Elsari’s greatest shame and thus receives nothing but contempt behind closed doors. After all, she is actually a Duster. However, Anoor has a decision to make after she subdues a dangerous intruder in her chambers. Either she can turn Sylah over to the authorities or she can make her provide the necessary training to not just enter the Aktibar, but to win it. Either Anoor will win the Aktibar and prove her mother wrong or she will reveal her blue blood and demonstrate Uka Elsari’s dark secret. If only she can solve Sylah’s addiction in time to make the plan work.
Behind these two threads lies Hassa, a Ghosting woman who is helping others escape from their servitude. However, she has also been collecting scraps of incendiary information that threatens to expose the artificiality of the seemingly immutable social order that underpins the Wardens’ Empire.
Parts of The Final Strife struck me as “paint by numbers.” The Aktibar offers a simple progression of obstacles that increase in difficulty, while the joba seeds are the consequence of Sylah’s past that she must overcome. Nor was I particularly surprised by any of the reveals (is Sylah Uka Elsari’s biological daughter? will Anoor win the Aktibar?). And yet, the more I read, the more I found myself taken by this world that is inspired by the African and Arabian traditions. For instance, the main narrative is punctuated by the tales told by griots and fragments from Warden archives and other sources open every chapter, thus giving glimpses into the larger world. Likewise, as is common in a lot of recent speculative fiction, el-Arifi uses this world to comment on contemporary issues from trans-inclusion (Hassa is a trans woman) to disability (Ghostings have developed a unique culture that compensates for their physical limitations) to rigid racial hierarchies (self-explanatory). These elements gave depth to the world in the best way.
Perhaps the best way to describe The Final Strife is as a first book in a trilogy. Even the parts that I found predictable gave the book momentum while also allowing el-Arifi to lay the groundwork a larger story and I am looking forward to learning what sort of revolution she has in store for this world.
This semester got entirely away from me, as sometimes happens. I actually finished The Final Strife back in September and am using my goals for #AcWriMo as an excuse to finally write about it.
Since the last post with a reading roundup, I have read five books.
I finished reading Gideon the Ninth, which I will not be writing a full post about because I found it deeply frustrating. It has a potentially interesting galactic setting, but that setting emerges almost entirely through the representatives of each planet who have arrived at a palatial laboratory in the hopes of ascending to the Emperor’s inner circle only to find that someone is killing them. I also found the plot predictable, at least as much as I could within my limited grasp of the mechanics of the world.
Two nonfiction and two novels make up the remaining four books. I already wrote about Stuart Ellis-Gorman’sThe Medieval Crossbowand I have plans to write about Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews, a topical and timely examination of how Jews fit into the course of American political life. For the novels, I am going to write about R.F. Kuang’s Babel, which is an excellent indictment of orientalism and academic life, but am on the fence about Rachelle Atalla’s The Pharmacist, a dystopian novel set in a bunker where a society has recreated itself under the watchful eye of the political leader who brought them there. This novel was effective in exploring the compromises one can make in the face of bleak options, but it also did not resonate with me as much as other books with a similar message
I am now reading Fonda Lee’s Jade City, which I am enjoying very much.
A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of a novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.
Over the past few years I have found myself increasingly interested in reading memoirs. The problem is that memoir is a genre for which I have no great love. One of my favorite things to do to unwind is peruse lists of upcoming or classic novels and flag anything that looks interesting, but when I read lists of iconic memoirs the descriptions leave me utterly uninterested in reading on. What usually makes the difference for me is hearing the author talk about the genesis of the memoir, as happened with Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found. In the case of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books, my entry point was simpler: my partner had just finished the book and told me that that I might find it interesting. A blend of literature, the Iranian revolution, and teaching? Sure, sign me up.
Reading Lolita in Tehran spans the period between the early years of the Islamic Republic after the Revolution in 1979 when Azar Nafisi returned to the Iran and when she left with her family in 1997. Between these two chronological tentpoles, the discussion unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Each of the four sections of the books uses a different English-language author or book as its central focus. The first section, “Lolita” centers on an off-the-books class of young women who met at Nafisi’s home on Thursday mornings after she resigned from the her teaching post in Iran. The second, “Gatsby” takes as its central thread a class that read Fitzgerald’s novel in an Iranian University during the Revolution. The third, “James,” follows the events of “Gatsby” during the Iran-Iraq War, at a time when Nafisi had been expelled from her teaching position. The fourth and final section, “Austen,” follows from “Lolita” and focuses on the decision to leave Iran.
There was a lot I loved about this book. In part, Nafisi has a gift for spinning an elegant and considered phrase:
We complemented each other, because you my knowledge was impulsive and untidy, and hers meticulous and absolute.
Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.
But I also found the book profoundly moving as a teacher for two reasons.
The first is a function of teaching literature and its possibilities. For as much as I love literature, my entire experience in English classes past high school was most of a semester my senior year of college during which I sat in on a Western Canon class. Everything else I know about literature has been picked up through the lens of Classics or found in tidbits here and there along the way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, when I teach literature I end up teaching it as a historian, rather than as a literary scholar. The discussion found in Reading Lolita is obviously a curated account of classroom activities, but I was inspired by the way that she talks about the discussions and am hoping to steal bits and pieces for a class I might be teaching soon that puts literature front and center. Some of the technical details of these classes might not pass muster with accreditation boards these days, but those observations were compelling in their own way.
(I suspect that my own unfamiliarity with some of the books she discusses caused me to miss some of the thematic resonances that she weaves into the memoir, but this was not something that troubled me over-much.)
The second appealed to me as a teacher and a historian. This period of Nafisi’s career centers on her time teaching English and American literature in Iran concurrently with the revolution that led to students marching through the streets chanting “Death to America.” For as much as I found myself fretting this summer about how I’ll approach certain topics in the classroom and people are justifiably concerned about coordinated attacks on teachers, I can only imagine trying to teach under circumstances where a) your students are divided into openly hostile factions; b) some students often vanish from class to participate in anti-American rallies; c) other students vanish because they’ve been arrested; and d) the state is aggressively attempting to institute an authoritarian fantasy. However, this was also a potent reminder about how teaching—and living—conditions can deteriorate over the course of just a few years.
Many passages in Reading Lolita in Tehran were also remarkable for their mundane observations about the messiness of everyday life:
In retrospect, when historical events are fathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time. For me, as for millions of ordinary Iranians, the war came out of nowhere one mild fall morning: unexpected, unwelcome and utterly senseless.
My reading of this memoir was also timely in that it coincided with the current outpouring of protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who had been detained by the morality police. Every time something like this happens, the coverage invariably asks whether this is the time that popular pressure will topple the oppressive regime—as though there is a switch that gets flipped. I found Reading Lolitain Tehran a useful reminder both that individual people are participants in events and about the messiness of any transition. I like to tell my students that while we can often understand history through the institutions and social structures, nothing is necessarily inevitable. We can create a better world by working toward it. The reason why literature is a threat to any totalitarian fantasy is that it has the power to unlock something that allows people to imagine a world beyond its confines.
Since my last book post I have mostly been struggling against the current of the semester with the result that my reading has slowed to a crawl. I finished Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, a fantasy novel in a world inspired by Mesoamerica that I found equal parts compelling and bafflingly-paced, and Saara el-Arifi’s The Final Strife, an African-inspired fantasy that played with issues of caste and race in a way that I really enjoyed. I am currently reading Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, which I don’t like nearly as much as I think a lot of people do and Ken Liu’s story collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories. This is a lot of fantasy, even by my standards, but I’m also preparing to teach a class in the spring on speculative fiction, so this is now a professional obligation as well as a private interest.
One of my favorite things to do when I meet people from foreign countries is to ask them what they think the best novel is from their country. This works almost as well to start a conversation as asking them about their country’s food and is an easy way for me to add interesting volumes to my reading list. A few years ago at a virtual gathering during an online conference I happened to be chatting with someone from the Netherlands who mentioned Herman Koch’s The Dinner as not necessarily the best novel, but as one that was particularly well-received.
A few centuries from now, when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the start of the twenty-first century, all they’ll have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called “top” restaurants.
The Dinner is a tidy novel that ostensibly takes place over the course of a single evening, the titular dinner at a fancy restaurant. Serge Lohman, the frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, arranged this dinner so that he and his wife Babette can discuss some family business with his younger brother Paul and his wife Claire.
Paul narrates the story and is fond of recounting the truism from Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Lohman’s achievement in The Dinner is found in interrogating the blurred line between those two categories.
Paul can barely stand his brother, who he characterizes as a fraudulent boor. Serge, he thinks, represents much of what is wrong with society. He lacks imagination about food, while also being a wine snob who puts on airs about being an every-man. Similarly, he makes a big deal about how he adopted a son from Burkina Faso, but is entirely oblivious to how his behavior oppresses the citizens in the small French town where he owns a vacation home.
Like all younger brothers, he likes to make his older brother squirm. (Not spoken as an older brother, or anything.)
When the story opens, Paul seems to have a happy family. He and his wife Claire are a loving couple—even if they like to egg on Serge from time to time—and if their son Michel is having a hard go of it lately, well, he’s a teenager. It isn’t as though he’s into drugs. Paul has some sharp, jaded observations about the restaurant and his brother, but he does not, for the most part, vocalize them. Further, he seems genuinely concerned when Babette arrives at the restaurant and seems to have been crying in the car and frustrated with his brother’s superior attitude with the restaurant staff. In short, he seems like a nice enough.
Slowly, these initial impressions are disabused.
It turns out that this family has a nasty secret. Some months ago, video emerged of a brutal attack on a homeless person sleeping at ATM. Two teenagers walking into the ATM first threw objects at the woman, followed by a can of gasoline that erupted into flame and killed her. Nobody was apprehended for the crime, but Paul recognized the two boys: his son Michel and his nephew Rick.
As it happens, this is the family business that Serge wants to discuss—after all, he has a political career to consider. Paul’s instinct is to protect his son, and the only question left is how far he will have to go.
(There is more to the plot, but I’m ending the synopsis here so as to not give away some of the twists in this nasty family drama.)
The strength of the novel is found in the gradual reveal of Paul’s personality and how that shapes the reader’s understanding of the Lohman family. Koch starts Paul as the mild brother of a politician of some renown and slowly peels back that exterior to reveal a monster with vicious ideas and a history of assault. Actions speak for themselves even if he maintains his own moral superiority.
When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is to tell a barefaced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.
The Dinner can be read in some ways as a metaphor about getting to know someone. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story and many are convinced of their own rectitude. When we meet new people, we only know the face they present to the world and only later learn what type of person we are interacting with. Most of us don’t have nearly such odious skeletons in our closet, but neither are we literary creations.
I ultimately found The Dinner a little bit on the nose in how it revels in this family drama, but it is a tightly-crafted and compelling story that reads very quickly—even if I emerged from it wanting to wash my hands of the entire Lohman clan.
I recently finished Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, which seemed to draw parallel’s between a miscarriage and being an adjunct professor. While the novel had some uncomfortable observations about being an adjunct, I found the story weighted more toward the miscarriage side. Still, the implications of the comparison are uncomfortable. I also finished Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, which I ultimately found disappointing. It was cute and had some nice anecdotes, but I kept hoping for a stronger argument and kept bumping against implications about, for instance, Western Civilization. By contrast, the first volume of the Saga graphic novel was truly great.
This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement. In at least one case, the book doesn’t hang together as a complete novel, the author thought it was a complete failure, and yet it contains some of my favorite scenes that author ever produced.
This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place. I rarely fiddle with the rankings from year to year other than to add new books and iron out disagreements between this list and my fantasy rankings, but sometimes it happens.
I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites. Once the list hits 100 or so—maybe 100+my age at the time I publish the list— books at the back end will begin to fall off.
I am annoyed by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists, hopefully in the same order.
The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.
Since the 2021 update, I have added just two books to the list and adjusted the ranking of one book. This is mostly because the two best books I read in 2021 came before I updated the list and while I have enjoyed a lot of the books I have read since, the great ones have mostly been non-fiction or in genres that I am generally not tracking here. There is more movement on my science fiction and fantasy list, both because I have read more books in those genres and because it has been two years since my last update.
And a few stats:
Original Languages: 12
Books by women: 19
Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
Newest: 2021 (The Book of Form and Emptiness)
Tier 5 77. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945) 76. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969) 75. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992) 74. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006) 73. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935) 72. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988) 71. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979) 70. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994) 69. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963) 68. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942) 67. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899) 66. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005) 65. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930) 64. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946) 63. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938) 62. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965) 61. The Brothers Ashkenazi, I.J. Singer (1937)
Tier 4 60. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957) 59. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951) 58. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985) 57. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934) 56. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (1970) 55. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004) 54. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020) 53. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013) 52. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932) 51. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017) 50. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
Tier 2 34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006) 33. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990) 32. The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste (2019) 31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013) 30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010) 29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990) 28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000) 27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001) 26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961) 25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981) 24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939) 23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940) 22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985) 21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002) 20. Stoner, John Williams (1965) 19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987) 18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013) 17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955) 16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)
Tier 1B 15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011) 14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924) 13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998) 12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008) 11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964) 10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937) 9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) 8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936) 7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926) 6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)
Tier 1A 5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967) 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967) 3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943) 2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949) 1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)
Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.
I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.
The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.
I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.
What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.
Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.
Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).
I had mixed feelings about this book.
First, the good.
Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.
Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.
I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.
Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.
One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.
I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.
Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.
Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.
I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.
I am endlessly fascinated by the history of 20th century Turkey. The Young Turk Revolution in 1908 shook the foundations of the Ottoman Empire, which crumbled over the next fourteen years until the Sultan Mehmed VI went into exile in 1922 and the Turkish Republic came into existence the following year. The transition created a nation of contrasts. Formally a republic, Turkey was often dominated by the military establishment that saw itself as the caretaker of Atatürk’s legacy. The first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ushered in sweeping social and cultural reforms, including secularism.
This is the context behind Ayşe Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul.
Fazıl Reşat Paşa, a Turkish gentleman of the old style, had two beautiful daughters. The older daughter, Sabiha, married Macit, a government worker in the foreign office. The younger, Selva, was the apple of his eye, but even that could not overcome his anger when she decided to marry Rafa, the scion of a prominent family of Turkish Jews. Faced with the disapproval of their families, Selva and Rafa moved to France, just several years before the outbreak of World War 2.
Last Train to Istanbul traces the development of these two families against the backdrop of the growing threat of the Holocaust. Sabiha’s relationship with Macit frays with long hours that he works, leading to trouble at home with their daughter and a brief dalliance with therapy; Selva’s relationship is strained as the reality fo the Vichy regime sets in and she increasingly uses her position as a Turk to protect Jews. But the two are also connected. While Macit uses his position to thread a needle between helping Turkish Jews in France and keeping Turkey out of the war, his protégé, Tarık, who is infatuated with the idea of Sabiha, becomes increasingly involved with direct action after being posted to Paris. These actions culminates in a fraught train ride filled with Turkish Jews from France, through Germany, and on to safety in Turkey—a nice inversion of the usual picture of trains carrying Jews to the camps at Dachau or Auschwitz.
However, I didn’t love Last Train to Istanbul as a novel. I found the plot rather unbalanced, with the parallel story taking place in Turkey often clashing with the eponymous train plot. I understand that Kulin was not principally writing a thriller, but I found the two arcs dissonant rather than building depth. Further, I struggled to see characters and story beats as fully-developed in their own right because they always struck me as palimpsests of real people and events.
Perhaps because they were.
Kulin explains in the acknowledgments that much of the plot emerged from actual experiences of Turkish diplomats during the war who saw the unfolding Holocaust with horror. Perhaps because of their commitment to secularism, those diplomats used their positions to shelter Turkish Jews in France by extending documentation and intervening with the Vichy and German authorities and, later, at considerable risk to themselves, to offer what aid they could to even non-Turkish Jews. Last Train to Istanbul might not have been my favorite novel, but it provided a tantalizing glimpse into a side of the Holocaust that was new to me. One that I would like to learn more about.
I kind of assumed that books know everything, but maybe you’re a stupid book, or a lazy book, the kind that starts in the middle because you don’t know how a story begins and can’t be bothered to figure it out. Is that it? Is that the kind of book you are?
Books do not exist in a singular state, after all. The notion of “a book” is just a convenient fiction, which we books go along with because it serves the needs of the bean counters in publishing, not to mention the ego of writers. But the reality is far more complex. Of course there are individual books—you may even be holding one in your hand right now—but that’s not all we are. At the risk of sounding full of ourselves we are the One and the Many, and ever-changing plurality, a bodiless flow. Shifting and changing shape, we encounter your human eye as black marks on a page, or your ear as bursts of sound. From there, we travel through your minds, and thus we merge and multiply.
I loved Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being when I read it back in 2018 so when I learned that she had a new novel this year I bought it without so much as bothering to find out what it was about. I was not disappointed.
The short description of The Book of Form and Emptiness is that it is a conversation between a boy and his book. That boy, Benny Oh, is the child of Annabelle, a big, blond American woman who gave up her ambition to become a librarian after she became pregnant, and Kenji, a Japanese clarinet player in a jazz band. One night when Benny was 12 his father stumbled home, fell asleep in the street outside their small house, and there was killed by a chicken-truck that didn’t see his body laying there. Annabelle and Kenji were in love, but they had been fighting and he was stoned.
Suddenly, Annabelle finds herself a single mother of a teenaged son, trying to support them both with her job cataloging the news. She is well-meaning, but finds it hard to keep up with everyday tasks. The house starts to accumulate junk, the kitchen becomes a mess, and she ceases to keep up with her appearance.
One year later, Benny begins to hear the voices of inanimate objects.
So begins a story spanning most of Benny’s teen years that weaves together a challenging mother-son relationship, mental institutions, Buddhist philosophy, a Marie Kondo stand-in book called Tidy Magic (written by a Buddhist monk), a homeless poet-philosopher named Slavoj who he calls Bottleman after the bottles tied to his wheelchair, and Benny’s first love, a young woman, artist, and drug-addict, who goes by Aleph and has a non-binary, gender-fluid ferret named TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone). It is a lot.
You think he’s this crazy old hobo, but he’s not. He’s a poet. And a philosopher. And a teacher. And it’s not him that’s crazy, Benny Oh. It’s the fucking world we live in. It’s capitalism that’s crazy. It’s neoliberalism, and materialism, and our fucked-up consumer culture that’s crazy. It’s the fucking meritocracy that tells you that feeling sad is wrong and it’s your fault if you’re broken, but hey, capitalism can fix you! Just take these miracle pills and go shopping and buy yourself some new shit! It’s the doctors and shrinks and corporate medicine and Big Pharma, making billions of dollars telling us we’re crazy and then peddling us their so-called cures. That’s fucking crazy…
However, The Book of Form and Emptiness actually has a simple structure. The book narrates events in discussion with an older Benny who corrects, critiques, and queries what it writes, and interspersed with excerpts from Tidy Magic. In turn, this simplicity allows Ozeki to weave a story that blurs the boundaries between the real and the fantastical, very much like she did in A Tale for the Time Being.
Most of that blurring centers on the person of Benny, who suffers very real consequences from both sides. On the one side, objects have desires. When scissors want to cut, the question is what they cut. On the other side, the “respectable” adults in his life are concerned by what is happening to him and want him medicated. The exception is Slavoj, who tries to help Benny hear the world without being controlled by it.
What I love about Ozeki’s novels, is how she also captures simple, powerful, human emotions. Here, the beating heart of the book is the complicated relationship between Annabelle and Benny. She frequently embarrasses Benny, whether by the condition of their home, by her weight, or by her inability to make sure that they have milk in the fridge. At the same time, Annabelle’s sole objective for most of the novel is to give Benny everything, with the result that she never has a chance to process the death of the love of her life. Even if she understood everything going on with Benny, which is a much more extreme version of going through puberty that she most certainly does not, Annabelle simply doesn’t have the capacity to help him. The result is a downward spiral for both that at times had me cringing because it recalled arguments I had with my mother at roughly the same age.
But it was too late. The door slammed. He clattered down the rotten wooden steps, out the flimsy gate, and went careening down the darkening alley. The thin thread of her apology trailed behind him, straining, straining, until finally he outran it, and it snapped.
Together these pieces form a compelling, funny, weird, and challenging story that also works as a meditation on objects and purpose. The Book of Form and Emptiness is easily one of my favorite books of the year.
I recently finished Caliban’s War, the second of the Expanse books, and am now reading Ken Liu’s The Veiled Throne and David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, two hefty tomes that should keep me occupied for a few days.