Babel

The cover image of R.F. Kuang's Babel, a tower rising above Oxford with white birds in flight.

“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.

ΔΔΔ

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 Final Strife

The cover of Saara el-Arifi’s The Final Strife.

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.

ΔΔΔ

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’s The Medieval Crossbow and 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.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

the cover of Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books

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 Lolita in 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.

ΔΔΔ

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.

The Dinner

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.

ΔΔΔ

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.

A List of My Favorite Novels (2022 edition)

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • 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 3
49. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
48. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
47. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
46. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
45. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
44. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
43. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
42. Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin (2006)
41. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
40. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
39. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
38. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
37. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
36. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)
35. The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki (2021)

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)

The Chosen and the Beautiful

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.

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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.

Last Train to Istanbul

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.

The Book of Form and Emptiness

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.

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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.

Gun Island

Yes, you’re right. But the whole world is made up of semantics and yours are those of the seventeenth century. Even though you think you are so modern.

We’re in a new world now. No one knows where they belong any more, neither humans nor animals.

The narrator of Gun Island, Dr. Dinanath — Dinu, Deen — Datta, is an archetypically-unlikely protagonist for world-spanning adventure. He a rare-book seller nearing retirement in Brooklyn who holds a PhD in Bengali folklore from an American university. And yet, a visit to Kolkata, the city of his birth, unlocks exactly such a story.

Gun Island opens with Deen in Kolkata on an annual winter trip home to escape the cold isolation in Brooklyn. While there, a member of his extended family quizzes him on the obscure figure from Begali folklore Bonduki Sadagar who, he claims, is tied to a shrine in the Sundarbans, the mangrove forest spanning the border between India and Bengal. The conversation concludes with Deen instructed to reach out to Piya Roy, a Bengali professor marine biology working in Oregon whose work puts her in India.

Deen is in no rush to actually go to the Sundarbans, even after Piya offers, but with a little push from his friend, the world-famous Italian professor, Giancinta Schiavon, he agrees to a visit.

This trip proves fateful. Deen hitches a ride to the isolated shrine with Tipu, the son of a woman who works for his aunt Nilima, where they run into a young fisherman, Rafi. The shrine proves real, but so too do other aspects of the Bonduki Sadagar lore. In the story that Deen knew, the Bonduki Sadagar, the gun merchant, angered Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes whose giant cobra guards the shrine. That cobra bites one of the intruders.

From there, Deen begins to see the tendrils of the Bonduki Sadagar story everywhere and Gun Island becomes a shaggy dog story that spans from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to Venice.

The unifying theme is a world on fire, sometimes literally. As an educated person, Deen was of course aware of climate change, but he confronts the polyvalent nature of the crisis as he becomes enmeshed by this lore. Dolphins beaching themselves in the Sundabarans, wildfires in California, Venice sinking, and waves of refugees simply trying to survive.

Gun Island is a book with lots of room for criticism. For instance, it is a book light on plot, with the characters coming into contact with one another seemingly by serendipity. And each time Deen meets a new person or runs into one of these acquaintances they invariably fill him in on what he missed. In another book I would have been frustrated by these digressions, but in Gun Island they transfer the weight of the story from plot to the currents of climate emergency woven into the magical realism. Deen is the vehicle for understanding the crisis, but it is brought to the fore through the multifaceted problem converging on his person from several vectors at once.

Speaking as a historian, I was also less taken by how Ghosh has Deen uncover a deep historicity to this piece of obscure folklore as though he was a post-colonial Robert Langdon. There is nothing inherently wrong with the premise and a sixteenth-century Bengali certainly could have found himself in India: my problem was that this element simultaneously served as the primary thing driving the plot of Gun Island and was largely irrelevant to the pressing points being made. In other words, I thought any ideas that Ghosh wanted to introduce by weaving history and folklore into this story got lost.

Despite this weak plot, Ghosh uses the shaggy nature of the novel to build a series of partial, believable, and incomplete relationships from the ragged cast just trying to make their way through this devastated world.

You ask any Italian and they will tell you that they have a fantasy, maybe they want to go to South America and see the Andes, or maybe they want to go to India and see the palaces and jungles. And if you’re white, it’s easy: you can go wherever you want and do anything you want—but we can’t. When I look back now and ask myself why I was so determined to go to Finland: I wanted to go there because they world told me I couldn’t; because it was denied to me.

The irony of writing about Gun Island is that it does not stand up to close scrutiny. While I was reading the novel it wove a spell that allowed me to simply get lost, but when I started to pull at the threads the effect started to unravel. Nevertheless, Ghosh fills the pages with a desperate determination against the most pressing concerns of our time in a way that I found compelling.

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I am planning a write-up of Tana French’s The Secret Place, and recently finished Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness. I am now reading Ayse Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul.

Two Takes on Social Media

The algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.

I joined Facebook in 2004 in my Freshman year of college, deleted that account in 2012, and then rejoined the Facebook orbit with an Instagram account a few years later. (I dislike Facebook, but Instagram preserves the parts I liked without most of the noise and lies behind my growing interest in photography.) Along the way I picked up and discarded a variety of other social media accounts, most notably Twitter.

In short, my entire adult life has coincided with the era of social media.

2021 has been the year when social media finally made its way into my reading, starting with Fake Accounts earlier this year. Recently I added to this theme two more books published this year, Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife and Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King’s An Ugly Truth.

I read the fiction first.

The Startup Wife is a send-up of start-up culture. Asha Ray is a brilliant coder working on a PhD on neural networks that seems to be going nowhere when she reconnect with Cyrus, the boy she had a crush on in high school. For his part, Cyrus is different. He spends his time wandering from reading and absorbing ideas, but also lives with a friend, Jules, who has a trust fund. Yet, people gravitate to Cyrus to create unique rituals. Asha likewise finds herself in Cyrus orbit, as well as his bed.

Soon, Asha drops her PhD to begin coding a new project: an algorithm that will harness Cyrus’ preternatural gift for ritual. With Cyrus’ mind, Jules’ money, and Asha’s code, the three found WAI (pronounced “why”), which stands for “We Are Infinite” and get inducted into a startup incubator, Utopia, that is preparing for the end of the world. As WAI begins to catch on, Asha faces the personal and professional challenges that come with managing a start-up—everything from how to monetize this platform without selling out to being forced to share her husband with everyone on the platform.

Tahmima Anam writes from the experience of her husband’s start-up company, lending believability to the steps taken to seeking capital, even when the specific details of the meetings are absurd. Likewise, this background infuses the story with the frustrations of a woman who has had the distinct displeasure of hearing how women get talked about in the startup world and of being overlooked in board meetings.

The post-IPO wife is the butt of many of our jokes. We’d been tetchy when that first lawyer brought it up (Your odds aren’t good!), but now that Cyrus knows more of these people, we realize Barry wasn’t singling us out, because divorce after great success is actually a trend. Not a dirty little secret but like a totally sanctioned and okay thing that men do once they hit the big time.

The personal side of The Startup Wife—Asha’s marriage and her frustrations with startup culture—provide both the comedy and the emotional resonance of the book. The WAI algorithm, by contrast, provides the depth. The premise of the site is simple:

We have devised a way of getting people to form connections with others on the basis of what gives their life meaning, instead of what they like or don’t like.

The founders of WAI are all generally well-intentioned, but what does it mean to do no evil? Obviously this precludes physical hard and predatory behavior, but does it extend to keeping the platform free? What about keeping profiles active after the owner dies? How much editorial control should Asha and the team exert over the community?

Ultimately, The Startup Wife is better at raising questions than answering them, but it nevertheless offers a romp through this world that is troubling and funny in equal parts. An Ugly Truth, by contrast, is just troubling.

Frenkel and King lay out thousands of hours of reporting in this new exposé of Facebook that tracks the last decade of its existence. The story opens with Facebook cresting a wave in 2012—ironically about the time I deleted my account. Sheryl Sandberg had joined the board and was successfully monetizing Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook still touted its utopian vision for society, but amid the obsession with growth lay the seeds of something darker—questions particularly about speech given that Facebook’s algorithm capitalized on engagement and amplified anything that received an emotional response.

Facebook technically barred hate speech, but the company’s definition of what constituted it was ever evolving. What it took action on differed within nations, in compliance with local laws. There were universal definitions for banned content on child pornography and on violent content. But hate speech was specific not just to countries but to cultures.

By the 2016 election, Facebook hit a crossroads. Zuckerberg and his inner circle resolved to be scrupulously impartial in order to counteract accusations that they were partisan when, in truth, growth and engagement were the guiding stars. Partisanship was good for business, but it also led to discontent in the ranks among some staff who saw the site as stoking divisions and others who were ostensibly hired for security but then sidelined. Around the same time, rumbling started in Congress about regulations.

Zuckerberg responded to criticism by reaffirming his faith in Facebook’s ability to regulate itself with algorithms and circling the wagons. Instagram and WhatsApp were integrated into Facebook to make them harder to spin off and Facebook proper doubled down on privacy and private groups. According to the people Frenkel and King interviewed, the latter was a particular problem not only because it led to the rampant growth of conspiracy theory groups, but also because Facebook’s transparency was the very feature that allowed the site to help root out child pornographers.

Research had shown that people who joined many groups were more likely to spend more time on Facebook, and Zuckerberg had hailed groups as the type of private, living room chat he thought his users wanted to see more of. But he was growing disturbed by the number of people joining groups dedicated to conspiracy theories or fringe political movements, rather than the hiking clubs and parenting communities he had envisioned.

Facebook has nearly three billion monthly users and enormous amounts of influence. In An Ugly Truth, Frenkel and King make an argument that Facebook’s naive optimism that the truth winning out over misinformation belies how social responsibility is incompatible with the mandates of growth and profit. In other words, An Ugly Truth is the answer to the questions raised in The Startup Wife.

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I recently finished reading Nicholas P. Money’s book The Rise of Yeast. I hoped to glean information about beer and bread, but Money was more interested in the structure of yeast and biofuel—perhaps because he is a biochemist, as well as Leviathan Wakes, the first of The Expanse books. As a fan of the TV series, I am stewing over why I didn’t react as negatively going from TV to book as I usually do going book to series. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.