A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it…or you defy it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart.

Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception.

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive. So woods are spooky.

It has been a running theme this year that going back to finally read things that I probably could have, or should have, read years ago. A Walk in the Woods isn’t quite the oversight that some of the other books have been, but other than hearing about the recent movie this book only came to my attention when it was recently given to me as a gift. It was very much my speed.

A Walk in the Woods is a literary travelogue of the summer of 1996 when Bryson decided that he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail. At the outset of the story Bryson has just moved back from the UK and settled in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he gets obsessed with hiking. From there, he is consumed by a bit of temporary insanity, deciding with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym) that he is going to become a true mountain man by completing the entire thru-hike. Of course he doesn’t make it.

The adventures of Bill and Stephen form the narrative backbone. There are the eccentrics met on the path, the decision to subsist primarily on Snickers, and the simple pleasure of a shower after days on the trail, as well as the interruptions, challenges, and pleasures of hiking, alone and with partners. Bryson then weaves the history of the Appalachian Trail and commentary about the geological and natural features encountered along the way. These sections, while less silly and humorous than the main narrative give the impression of someone ambling through the woods lost in thought—something Katz allegedly complained about on multiple occasions. Some of the science has advanced since 1998, but it held up for the most part, with Bryson explaining in graphic detail a) the consequences of global warming and b) the scars of human encroachment on the landscape. Technology might have advanced past where it was in 1996 when this trip took place, but these issues remain.

Bryson’s prose is light and humorous, which keeps the pace moving through the hundreds of miles that he and Katz hump packs north from Georgia. Hiking is hard work, which he acknowledges from the outset, and makes clear in the book how woefully unprepared both of the mountain men actually were.

I read A Walk in the Woods on a recent trip to Vermont. It still made me wish I were out hiking, but at least I got to read it while surrounded by woods.

ΔΔΔ

I haven’t had as much time to read recently as I’d like and so am still reading Fahrenheit 451.

Five Short Reviews

I’ve been struggling to find words to write about books I’ve read recently, for a variety of reasons. It has turned into a very busy summer teaching, preparing to teach, and writing my own (non-fiction) book, and the result has been that I just want to retreat into whatever book I’m reading in the little downtime I get. I am still reading and want to say something about these books, so I’ve decided to clear out some of my backlog with five short reviews of fewer than 100 words each. Some of these are deserving of more, but this is about catching up and I liked each of these books, so brevity should not be taken as an indictment.

The Company She Kept — Archer Mayer

Joe Gunther is a Vermont detective of the old type. Gunther’s depth comes because the novels have charted the lives of him and his team for three decades. In this 2015 installment, Gunther’s team is brought on to solve the murder of Susan Raffner, a state senator found hanging from a cliff, “DYKE” carved into her chest. The deceased is a confidant of Gail Zigman, the governor and Joe’s ex-girlfriend. This is a lesser novel in the series, being much more interested in debates about sexuality than in the team and building to an anti-climactic reveal. Adequate, but unspectacular.

Assassin’s Quest — Robin Hobb

The culmination to the trilogy that began with Assassin’s Apprentice. King Regal has abandoned much of Buck kingdom to the raiders and withdrawn inland to his mother’s home, surrounding himself with sycophants and violent criminals. Fitz, who most believe dead, must set off into the mountains to find Valiant—the rightful king—before it is too late. Hobb sticks the landing for this set of novels, carrying through a fantasy series driven by emotional stakes and putting Fitz through the emotional ringer by forcing him to give up his youthful fantasies in the process of becoming an adult.

Nazi Literature in the Americas — Roberto Bolaño

Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers come in all shapes, and not all wear a sign of their affiliation. This idiosyncratic books is a fictional encyclopedia of Nazi authors in the Western Hemisphere from the early twentieth century through first quarter (or so) of the twenty-first. The format does not lend itself to plot and many of the characters are presented in a flat, clinical manner, but their stories are nevertheless told with a degree of dark, dry humor. The horror, by contrast, comes from their normalcy. Probably not the Bolaño book to start with, but I’m looking forward to reading another.

The Vegetarian — Han Kang

Yeong-hye is normal enough before a singular act of defiance, the decision to become a vegetarian, changes everything. Told in three acts through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister, The Vegetarian is about one woman’s attempt to reclaim her body by controlling what goes into it. The three external narrators give this book a surreal and horrifying aspect since everyone else sees her as an insensate lunatic to correct or exploit, but utterly irrational, while, in return, she is totally removed from the ways in which her choice—and it is her choice—has consequences for her family.

Visitations — Jenny Erpenbeck

Lingering at a property on Brandenburg Lake near Berlin, this novel is woven from the lives of the inhabitants that lived there in the twentieth century, even if fleetingly. Between each episode, the gardener trims and maintains. Erpenbeck’s ethereal prose, even in translation, gives the sense that the characters are ghosts brought back to share their experiences. Each episode is linked by the connection to this place, and I found them variously affecting on their own right, with the story of a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis particularly powerful.

ΔΔΔ

Since resolving to do this, I have also finished reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and am now taking a second crack at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book that I gave up on once before.

The Mersault Investigation – Kamel Daoud

The central event in Albert Camus’ The Stranger is Mersault’s cold-blooded murder of an unnamed Arab in the 2 o’clock hour on the beach. The murder leads to his trial and execution—albeit more for his failure to weep for the death of his mother than for the actual act. The Arab, we are told, is the brother to a Frenchman’s mistress, but otherwise remains utterly unknown. Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation breathes life into this space.

The story unfolds as told some seventy later by Harun, the nameless Arab’s younger brother in a series of conversations with a student who has come to Algeria to learn the truth behind The Stranger.

Harun reflects on the irony of how his brother is erased in Camus’ text, making him simultaneously famous and unknown. In telling the story about his life after the death of his brother, Harun realizes that he is the Algerian mirror-image of Mersault. He kills a Frenchman for more reasons than Mersault has in killing his brother, but where Mersault is sentenced to death, Harun is dismissed without trial, perhaps because his mother yet lives. He has a failed relationship with an urban woman and where Mersault dies shunned by crowds, Harun lives with an audience of one, if he is to be believed.

The result is a brilliant post-colonial response to the The Stranger. Daoud takes what is effectively a philosophical story about the absurd that focuses on colonizer and turns it on its head. He condemns the original book for its solipsistic gaze on the colonial establishment that eliminates the colonized—up to and including the way in which is labels Algerians “Arabs”, but develops many of the same themes of absurdity and isolation equally to the colonial experience. For instance, Harun tells how his interpretation of religion has left him unusual among his countrymen after the revolution. The Mersault Investigation largely avoids the political and historical consequences of colonialism, but instead uses its intertextuality as a lens through which to explore issues of identity and colonial narratives, including the absurdity irony that this story is prompted by an unnamed, probably French, student setting out to learn the truth of this famous book.

I really loved The Mersault Investigation and think that it lives up to the accolades it received, but feel compelled to add that this is best read in conjunction with The Stranger since its strength derives from the resonances and dissonances with the earlier book.

ΔΔΔ

I just finished reading Han Kang’s rather horrifying novel The Vegetarian, which is fundamentally about the abuse of a woman’s body by all of the people in her life.

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.

This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

Winner of the 2015 Hugo award and a number of awards in China, Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem is an astounding work of science fiction and a meditation on humanity. The story starts in a way that is equal parts gruesome and banal, with purges of the Chinese academy during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. one of the professors killed for his scientific beliefs is Ye Zhetai, and his daughter Ye Wenxie is sent with other educated youths to a rural timber camp in order to be rehabilitated. There Ye Wenxie gets the chance to read a contraband copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and is relocated to the top-secret Red Coast Base where she languishes for decades. But it turns out that Red Coast Base is not merely a military installation: it is the first site on earth to receive communication from an extra-terrestrial civilization and the spot where someone figures out how to respond.

In the present day it is not so problematic to be a scientist, unless you count the rash of unexplained deaths of researchers working on the cutting edge of their fields. It is on account of these deaths that the police visit Wang Miao, not putting him under suspicion, but because they need to recruit a scientist to figure out what is going on. From there Wang Miao gets sucked into a world of intrigue that includes unexplained countdowns appearing on pictures he takes and a shadowy conspiracy. Central to the conspiracy, it seems, is the immersive Three-Body game.

The Three-Body game is an interactive virtual simulation of a world beset by problems that limit the progress of civilization. During stable eras civilization flourishes, but these are short and of unpredictable duration; during chaotic eras the length of days and nights are highly variable, with nights bringing bitter cold and days extreme heat. Non-essential personnel dehydrate during chaotic eras, while everyone else hides, preparing to reemerge or rehydrate at the start of the next stable era. Chaotic eras may be weathered, but does not usually destroy civilization—ends are augured by shooting stars in the sky. Too few and the world goes up in flames; too many (three, as it happens) and the world is buried under glaciers of frozen gasses.

Players compete to unlock the secrets of the world of Three-Body and to develop a calendar of the eras. But Three-Body also serves as a recruitment tool for a transnational group, ETO or Earth-Trisolaris Organization founded by Ye Wenxie and Mike Evans, the heir to an oil fortune who espoused what he called “Pan-Species Communism.” The group’s purpose was to revive what Ye Wenxie began at Red Coast Base: namely to make contact with extra-terrestrial civilization and to invite them to earth. There is a unity of purpose, but internal disputes over doctrine with regard to whether humans can be reformed or if the earth needs to be purified of its most invasive species. In either case, the extra terrestrials are coming.

The Three-Body Problem weds two types of stories that intersect through the game. One is that of Wang Miao, aided by the eccentric police office Shi Quiang, trying to solve the mystery of what is happening to the scientists, and, by extension, the nature of the Three-Body game, which appears to hold the key. The second is the psychological drama and spiritual awakening of Ye Wenxie that culminates in the revelation of the nature of Trisolaran civilization. The two stories are paced differently, but they are inextricably linked.

The most successful part of the book, in my opinion, is Cixin Liu’s meditation on human nature. There are plenty of examples of humans fighting aliens in fiction, but there is something to the idea that people romanticize the prospects of humans not being alone in the universe. Thus he writes in the author’s postscript:

There’s a strange contradiction revealed by the naïveté and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease. But when they gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligence exist, they must be civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct.

The Three-Body Problem ends up a curious balance: an optimistic story driven by characters utterly pessimistic about human nature. I was not overwhelmed by the depth of any of the characters and I only understood the very basics of the mathematical problems that underpin the science, but the philosophical rumination more than made up for any deficiencies, and I am very much looking forward to reading the sequels.

ΔΔΔ

I finished reading Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation, which breathes humanity into the Arab from Camus’ The Stranger, and am now reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.

Ghost Wars – Steve Coll

Two events on successive days in September 2001 changed the trajectory of modern Afghanistan. On the 11th, terrorists hijacked four planes in the United States, crashing two into the Twin Towers in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington DC. On the 10th, suicide bombers posing as reporters assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, the leading Afghan leader opposing the Taliban. Coll’s book tries to explain what led to these two events.

The story in “Ghost Wars” begins in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan government was in effect a client state of the Soviet Union, but plagued by civil war and insurrection, leading to a stream of military aid, which grew to a flood and finally a full-fledged invasion. As part of its Cold War strategy, the US worked in tandem with Pakistan’s ISI and the Saudi intelligence services to funnel resources to Afghan rebels.

The rebels were not a united front and aid was not distributed evenly. Pashtun mujahideen in the southern part of the country received the lion’s share, for a number of reasons. They were close by Pakistan and so easy to supply, as well as being the preferred allies or clients of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. At the same time, devout Christians saw fundamentalist Muslims as natural allies—fellow religionists in the fight against Communism.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the independent Tajik leader in the northern Panjshir Valley received the short portion, being harder to supply, attached to illegal opium smuggling, and not as fanatical in his religion. In years to come this choice would prove costly. The actions of the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in the last years of the Cold War kicked off a transnational, radical Islamist movement of which Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda was just one particularly virulent strain.

Coll tackles the monumental task of mapping the shifting currents of Afghan politics, including the rival alliances during the 1980s, the rise of the Taliban after 1994, and how these developments were related to the other political developments in the Middle East, but it is made even greater still by also charting how American interest in the region waxed and waned throughout the region. The result is both the story of the situation in Afghanistan and an enormously frustrating one of bureaucratic and political calculus in America. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1990s when the US administrations declared the Cold War won and Afghanistan a lost cause that was not worth engaging with. The result was that the US had effectively no presence in the region for years, until after the threat from terrorists trained in Afghan bases originally supported by the United States was beyond dispute.

There is too much in Ghost Wars to do a summary justice, but several themes stand out. One is the wide the blind spots of many US policy makers. These included the decision to cultivate militant religious fanaticism and to abandon the region after the end of the Cold War, both of which smacked of short-term thinking with little long-term planning. But equally frustrating were those issues that the US policy makers were concerned with. In the 1990s this meant a focus state-sponsored terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, to the exclusion of transnational actors and conventional attacks. The deliberations in Coll’s recounting, moreover, seemed to register too little awareness that the agendas of even American allies would not necessarily align with the best interests of the United States. The confluence, then, went to explaining how the United States lost touch with, let alone control over, this powerful movement it had helped set into motion.

A second, related, theme is the deep divisions between Afghan and Arab. Coll makes clear that the Arabs were outsiders in Afghanistan, sometimes tolerated, but never really accepted, which added a second level of complexity to the situation. Moreover, it was in this somewhat fragile situation where Osama bin Laden began his slow rise—tolerated because of his wealth, but a relatively minor player until the United States made him the face of transnational Islamic terrorism.

Ghost Wars is a deeply frustrating book to read, by turns making the reader feel for for the Afghans, the CIA, and becoming infuriated by the seemingly-obvious mistakes out of blindness, short-term thinking, and a host of other considerations. But it is also a compelling look at developments that continue to affect the world today even as it seems that US administrations (not simply the one in office today) continue to make some of the same mistakes of policy and rhetoric that characterized the US interactions with Afghanistan from 1979 until 2001. Radical Islamic terrorism is not a phenomenon that developed in a vacuum and the United States is complicit in its rise.

ΔΔΔ

I am now reading Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem and so far I’m finding it as good as it is touted to be.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre is a blindspot in my reading history, perhaps from a contrarian streak reacting to his fundamental importance to the speculative fiction genres. It was this streak that explains why the only other Dick I have read was problematic Dr. Futurity. Reading The Man in the High Castle in 2018 was a frustrating experience for some reasons, but finally opening one of Dick’s classic works demonstrated why he is so highly regarded.

Everything you know about the outcome of World War 2 is wrong. President Roosevelt was assassinated before the war even began and the US was slow to build its military against the rising threats of Japan and Germany. Now in 1962, the former United States is divided between the Pacific States (Japanese occupied), the Rocky Mountain States (free), and the German-occupied United States. The allies Japan and Germany split occupation of America, one was predominantly inward-looking, while the other achieved world-domination. German demands prevail, meaning a return to slavery of African Americans (a mild outcome compared to what happened when the Germans conquered Africa) and all Jews are declared renegade German citizens who must be deported. German technology grew by leaps and bounds, making them the dominant partner.

The Man in the High Castle unfolds through several small, loosely connected stories. In one, an antiques dealer in San Francisco named Robert Childan gets caught up in a forgery scandal when it turns out that some of his firearms were less than authentic, a fact brought to his attention by Frank Fink, a Jewish man living in secrecy in the Pacific States who approached him in disguise after losing his job as a forger. Around the same time a man calling himself Mr. Baynes and claiming to be from Sweden but speaking not a word of the language arrives in the city to pass information about Germany to one of Childan’s clients, the Japanese bureaucrat Mr. Tagomi. Meanwhile, in the Rocky Mountain States, Frank’s ex wife Juliana meets a man who introduces her to a banned book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which Germany loses the war and convinces her that they should pay a visit to the author—the man in the high castle himself.

As plots went, each of these was thin, and the characters were only a little bit better. They all served their purpose to show a slice of life in this dystopic America, but I did not find any of the characters particularly memorable or get swept away by any of the plots. What compensated for these weaknesses, was the alternate history that unfolds in the pages. Now, I should say that much of this world exists off stage and those parts are actually filled with a good deal of classic sci-fi fabulism, such as Nazi space colonization. In contrast, what happens in these pages is the stuff of horror as a highly plausible rendition of what could happen in the event of fascist takeover.

The Man in the High Castle was worth reading for the setting alone, but I found myself asking what the takeaway ought to be from the novel. This grim vision of what could happen in the United States seems to have particular resonance in the current political climate, and Dick does a good job of underscoring that some American collaborators welcomed the new status quo rather than simply acquiescing to the new reality. But the novel is structured to build toward the ultimate reveal of Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. We are led to expect that he is a political reactionary living in a fortress, but when Juliana arrives it turns out that he is living in his own delusion, namely a normal suburban life. Further, she discovers, Hawthorne has largely put aside the I Ching and ceased looking at the world through the lens of this form of divination. These passages reek of fatalism, but a positive reading of this is to say that the refusal to give into fear and reclaiming agency is the highest form of resistance—not to mention that a book can change the world.

In the end, I was uncertain where I came down. The people bent on destruction are thwarted, at least for the moment, but the Reich still rules.

ΔΔΔ

Things have been hectic around here between the summer class I am teaching and trying to find time for my research projects, so I am slowly working my way through Ghost Wars, a history of the US involvement in Afghanistan before 9/11.

Two Short Reviews: The Buddha in the Attic and Journey into the Past

The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book, but one of my favorite slices of literature recently has been books written by Japanese-American women, so I picked it up on a whim. The result was somewhat surprising, but not disappointing.

The Buddha in the Attic is a group biography of Japanese picture brides—women who left their families in Japan and crossed the Pacific Ocean to marry men in California who they had never met in the early 20th century. In succession the book follows these women from their voyage to the meeting, to their relationships, children, lives, and departure to the internment camps in 1942.

Some of the women receive names, but rarely individual personalities. Instead, this is a true group biography that captures diversity within their collective experience. As a group they were transplanted to a new world, married men who were not like the pictures they saw, and were rejected by their new country. Individually, they had affairs, dreams, and heartbreaks, leaving mementos behind.

The result is a poignant slice of lives, with a highly specific spotlight on a fundamentally American story of acceptance and rejection.

ΔΔΔ

Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig

Ludwig is an ambitious young German scientist taken into his employer’s home as a secretary and confidant. There he falls in love with his employer’s wife, a feeling she reciprocates. They delay their feelings, first out of a sense of propriety and then because he departs for a two year stint in Mexico, only to be trapped there by the outbreak of World War One. When their communication falters, Ludwig marries and has children in Mexico, but when he is able to return to Germany after the war he attempts to recapture that moment he lost from his youth.

On the one hand, I was put off by the triteness of the sexual cliches at the heart of Journey in the Past, both in the arc where a young man falls in love with the wife of an employer or other authority figure and in the arc where the slightly older man ignores any loyalty to his family in order to complete the conquest of a woman he thought was his due from an early age in his life. The first is an issue I have had with Zweig before, notably in Confusion, while the latter is a toxic fallacy regarding the relationship between men and women.

The problem is on the other hand. Zweig does not wholly exonerate Ludwig’s behavior even while couching it in terms that seem designed to make them understandable. Both characters have changed and the period of young love has left them both behind, and this, ultimately, is the message.

I appreciate Zweig’s observations on a number of fronts, some of which hit close to home. For instance:

Outwardly his title of Doctor, cheap but impenetrable armour, made up for his low social status, and at the office his fine achievements disguised the still sore and festering wounds of his youth, when he had felt ashamed of his poverty and of taking charity. So no, he was not going to sell the handful of freedom he now had, his jealously guarded privacy, not for any sum of money.

I just wish that Zweig’s plots offered a less problematic vehicle to explore these issues.

ΔΔΔ

I am now reading Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break – Steven Sherrill

Note: this book did double duty, since I applied a tried and true technique of assigning for class a book I have been meaning to read for years. It was on my list first, though, so I’m going to count it toward my non-academic reading anyway. The opinions expressed in this post are my own, but developed through class discussion with my students.

The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps–the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life–is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.

Some men are born to lead, to envision, to shape and mold the politics and opinions, the attitudes, the mores, the outcomes of their times, from individual to individual or on a world scale. Others take it upon themselves to intervene rather than to forge, to serve, to help, to intuitively recognize problems or the potential for problems and give whatever is necessary to prevent or at least rectify them. Still others merely exist. Trembling at the thought of the horrible responsibilities that making a decision entails, and willing to let their lives –and, by association, the lives of others—unfold or collapse according to dumb luck, they seek out obscurity. They choose or arrive at insignificance and soon enough become willing to suffer the consequences. There was a time when the Minotaur and his ilk were important, creating and destroying worlds and the lives of mortals at every turn. No more. Now, most of the time, it is all the Minotaur can do to meet the day-to-day responsibilities of his own small world. Some days he can passively witness the things that go on around him. Other days he can’t stomach any of it.

What if Theseus lied? What if, instead of killing the dread Minotaur in the Labyrinth and returning a hero, Theseus was struck dumb with fear and perhaps defeated and in the darkness struck a deal with the Minotaur in return for his life? What if the immortal Minotaur has been existing on the margins of human societies for the last five thousand years?

This is the basic premise of Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. After millenia of wandering, M. finds himself in rural North Carolina, where he lives in a trailer park and works in the kitchen of Grub’s Rib where Grub, the proprietor, pays him in cash so that he doesn’t have to deal with a bank. Despite issues with his horns in the cramped kitchen, M. likes the work; cooking, like sewing, and working on the mechanical engines such as are found in cars, makes sense to him, consisting of simple, repeatable patterns that tend not persist through the years. Certainly, these are easier to assay than the intricacies of conversation that is dependent on ever-changing contours of society, even before considering the limitation of a bull’s tongue in forming human words.

The kitchen staff accept M. as a member of the team. Cecie even flirts with him. The wait staff is generally not hostile to M., but neither are they willing to include him in their social interactions outside of the restaurant. Mike and Shane are exceptional in their mockery, something that M. chalks up to the malice of young men that lashes out at whatever is different and incomprehensible to them.

But then there is Kelly, a new waitress who suffers from epileptic fits. Her difference draws M.’s attention and forces him to face questions about what he wants in life. Their budding romance gives M. hope that, at least for a while, he will not be alone, but also exposes prejudices hidden beneath a facade of civility.

This novel about a classical monster is at its core a story about interpersonal relationships, romantic and otherwise. M. is moderate and careful, aware of his bovine instincts, but communicates through lows and single words. His rich and sensitive thoughts are known only to the reader. Most people do a double-take upon seeing M., but generally mask their reactions with civility, while kids are both less judgmental and less circumspect. M.’s difference (along with the difference of the other mythological creatures who are living on the margins of American society) is simultaneously all-encompassing and totally irrelevant.

Sherrill makes M. occupy the intersection two two masculine stereotypes in modern America. On the one hand, he is the African American man, gawked at and assumed to possess overwhelming, subhuman sexual appetites that threaten to be unleashed, particularly against white women. On the other hand, he is the hispanic illegal immigrant, handy and silent, working on the margins of society. In neither is he totally accepted by the white establishment except by the handful of benevolent patrons and a smattering of outcasts who sympathize with his otherness.

But lest one get the impression that The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is a serious interrogation of issues of race, I should say that it alternates between an emotionally powerful look at loneliness, isolation, acceptance, and the search for connection in modern America and an absurdist comedy. Much of the humor comes from putting M. in absurd situations unique to him such as a brief stint as a rib-cutter operating a mobile cart, but others, such as a first date playing miniature golf at a course next to a drive-in XXX theater, are simply absurd situations.

I really liked The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, both as a novel and because it gave my students ample material to talk about in the context of monsters and monstrosity in modern America. The writing struck me as overly dramatic at points, self-conscious in a performative way, but neither should that small critique detract from an excellent novel, which works both in the sense of inventive reception of classical myth and in that it offers a thoughtful look at issues that have only grown more important in the years since its original publication.

There is a sequel, The Minotaur Takes His Time, published in 2016 that I have not read yet. As a final note, this is the first book I’ve read from cover to cover on Kindle. I didn’t love the experience, but did like the highlighting and annotating features that allowed me to skip directly to the spot, particularly for the purposes of teaching.

ΔΔΔ

Life has been busy of late, what with the fast-approaching end of the semester and some academic conferences, as well as some unexpected and time consuming developments. Nevertheless, I am now reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which interprets US history through the lens of class, with a particular focus on the down and outs among people who are theoretically still represented by those in power. I am also working on several posts that will probably go up in the near future.

The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi

The Interdependency has existed for a millennium, ruled from Hub by the House of Wu, whose monopoly on military equipment and strategic location enables it to control access and charge demand tariffs on commerce. Hub is so named because it is the nexus of “the flow,” a poorly understood phenomenon that allows (in relative terms) rapid transportation between the far-flung systems that humans occupied after leaving earth. The stability of the flow has allowed the the development of the Intedependency, an artificial social system of family-based monopolistic guilds, the church, and parliament, all headed by the Emperox. By design, no part of this system can exist on its own, as the new Emperox Cardenia learns soon after her accession, but that does not stop the ambitions of the Interdependency power players.

At the heart of events is the Nohamapetan family, which has aspirations to a marriage with the royal family and designs on End, the most isolated planet occupied by humans and one consistently beset by rebellions. The question is why.

Caught up in the conspiracy are two additional families, Claremont and Lagos. The latter is logical enough in that Lagos is a major trading family and rival of the Nohamapetans, and so a natural target. Claremont, on the other hand, is a minor imperial representative on End, sent away from the center of politics decade ago for reasons that were never made public. Jamies Claremont is not, however, a mere bean counter, but a flow physicist working on a secret project: his models predict that the flow, the very foundation of the Interdependency, is collapsing, or at least access to it is. With his model finally complete, he decides to dispatch his son Marce on what may be the last ship out, represented by Kiva Lagos, to deliver the report in person.

The Collapsing Empire consists of two interlocking threads. The first is the story of the political intrigues of the Nohamapetan clan; the second and more significant one is the race against the impending disaster that will end human life as it is currently known and could end human life altogether. The second thread gives the book a sense of urgency, but remains ultimately unresolved.

The Collapsing Empire is in some ways vintage Scalzi. It is irreverent, with plenty of sex and cursing, thoughtful social and scientific constructions and quickly moving plots. In other ways, it represents the next step in his evolution as a writer. First, its four groups of characters mean that variously intersect mean that the book is the most complex narratives of his that I have yet read. Second, while Scalzi’s characters have always been fun with their snappy dialogue, the characters in The Collapsing Empire struck me as more mature. Not in the vocabulary, but more well-rounded on the one hand, and more varied in their motivations and personalities. (By his own admission, these were some of his favorite characters, too.) While Scalzi also hints at deep insights about humanity in how the Interdependency will be forced to adapt, those issues are put on hold while people resist the inevitable changes to come.

Scalzi’s appeal, and one that he fulfills in The Collapsing Empire, is a witty, fast-paced science fiction adventure. The optimistic potential of human society, tempered as it is by ambition and greed, and political resonances are just a bonus.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finished reading a collection of Camus’ essays. I’m not going to do a full write-up, but I like his lyricism and his aspirations to investigate the meaning of life. He is well-worth reading. Now I’m reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, which demonstrates how poverty has been articulated as a foundational sin in US history.

American War – Omar El Akkad

“So? Wouldn’t you, if you had no stake in it?”
“Nobody has no stake it in,” said Sarat.

They didn’t understand, they just didn’t understand. You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.

The Second American Civil War broke out in the year 2074, months after the Daniel Ki, president of United States and driving force behind the fossil fuel ban of 2069, was assassinated by the secessionist suicide bomber Julia Templestowe in Jackson, Mississippi. Rebellion in South Carolina came to an abrupt end after the introduction of a contaminant that forced the entire state to be quarantined by both sides, but Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi formally declared themselves the Free Southern States with its capital in Atlanta on October 1 2074, surrounded by a ring of purple states and blockaded by the Blue.

The southern cause is barely held together by regional identity, foreign aid, and a defiant loyalty to the now-banned fossil fuels. Northern “Birds” (drones) rain fire from the sky, displacing southerners to refugee camps such as Patience, while the south is reduced to striking back with suicide attacks, after the conclusion of the bloody battles in the oil fields of Texas (now a Mexican protectorate). That is, until the reunification ceremony after the war in which a suicide attack unleashes a deadly plague that kills millions of people across the country.

American War tells the story of the second American Civil War through the experiences of the Chestnut family, interspersed with reports, articles, and government documents.

Sarat Chestnut is about five when the war breaks out, living near the broad Mississippi river in southern Louisiana with her parents, brother Simon, and twin sister Dana. She loves her home, but her life changes one day when her father goes to a government office seeking a work permit to move the family further north. He never returns, killed in a suicide attack, and when it looks like the war is going to become active by the family home, Sarat’s mother accepts the offer of the Free Southern States to relocate her family to the Patience Refugee Camp in Mississippi.

Sarat is radicalized at Camp Patience by a recruiter named Albert Gaines, and her righteous rage comes fully into bloom when northern troops appear in the camp and massacre many of its residents for harboring southern fighters. As survivors of the massacre, Sarat, her twin sister, and brother (who miraculously survived being shot) are given a house in Georgia where she lives until rounded up by a Blue raid and imprisoned in Sugarloaf detention facility in the Florida Sea for the duration of the war.

American War is an allegory for our time. The future conjured by American War is evident from the opening pages when a map indicates that rising sea levels have erased Florida and sheared off much of the east coast, leading to the new US Capital in Columbus, Ohio. Much of the southwest, including Florida has been ceded as a protectorate to Mexico and, of course, there is the secessionist territory. And yet, this is all setting.

Omar El Akkad’s strongest point is setting a familiar Middle Eastern story of circling drones, refugee camps, suicide attacks, and radicalization in America. There is no reason why Sarat ought to become a fanatic for the southern cause, and yet she does. Thus, we see, this is not something unique to Muslims, but consequences of the circumstances that are exacerbated my US military action and an inability to, as they say, win hearts and minds. To drive home this point, we are introduced to “Joe” (Yousef), a friend of Albert Gaines and minister in the ascendant Bouazizi Empire that has been providing most of the humanitarian aid publicly and weapons privately to the Free South. He explains their motivations to Sarat:

“It doesn’t really matter to you, does it,” she asked, “who wins this war?”

“No. It does not.”

“Then why? Why be a part of it?”

“I came from a new place, Sarat.” Yousef said. “My people have created an empire. It is young now, but we intend it to be the most powerful empire in the world. For that to happen, other empires must fail. I think by now you understand that, if it were the other way around—if the south was on the verge of winning—perhaps I would be having this conversation in Pittsburgh or Columbus. I don’t want to lie to you, Sarat: this is a matter of self-interest, nothing more.”

Sarat smiled at the thought. “You couldn’t just let us kill ourselves in peace, could you?”

“Come now,” said Yousef. “Everyone fights an American war.”

For as much as I loved American War, I had one major issue with its insight into America: race. Sarat and her siblings are half-Mexican and half-African American operating in a south that in my mind was still dominated by a white aristocracy, and yet there is more clucking over the possibility of the latent Catholicism from their father than there is about race. In fact, there was just one scene, where a Mormon man balks at entering a predominantly African American neighborhood on the grounds that he would not be welcome where the issue of race came to the forefront. By and large sexuality and ethnicity are the two categories that, in as far as they work in the story, there is broad acceptance. The former I believe because it is performed in private, the latter is not. The lack of discussion in this regard might be explained by the story through Sarat’s perspective wherein she becomes a celebrated agent for those in the know, but this was not always the case. The cotton fields of the south might be gone, but it took a suspension of disbelief to accept that the scars of the US history with race were so easily healed through collective intransigence over fossil fuels.

Despite the singular ray of hope for a post-racial America in this grim dystopian future, American War is a brilliant debut novel that ought to be read and internalized by everyone making US foreign policy decisions.

ΔΔΔ

I couldn’t decide which novel to read next, so I ended up starting a collection of essays by Albert Camus, including The Myth of Sisyphus instead.