Remembering Bourdain

Content Warning: this post includes references to suicide.

Anthony Bourdain took his own life a little over three years ago, prompting me to write a teary reflection of this man who I had never met. In this post I reflected on what Bourdain meant to me, a single face in the crowd of fans. I pointed to his apparent success in the middle age of life and beyond and to the spirit of warmth and humanity that seemed to emanate from this acerbic man even when purveyors of hate seemed to be winning.

Anthony Bourdain had the capacity for all of these things, to be sure, but I was eulogizing Tony the TV character.

Retrospectives about Anthony Bourdain’s life have started to emerge this year. Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner dropped first in July, followed by Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography in September, and Tom Vitale’s memoir In the Weeds in early October.

While I have not read Woolever’s volume, the other two pieces, both of which I consumed last weekend, paint a more complicated picture.

Tom Vitale started in the editing room on A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain’s first TV show, before working his way on to the road crew and ultimately directing more than a hundred episodes of Parts Unknown, including some of the most challenging ones in Libya and the Congo. His memoir takes readers on the road and behind the camera of the shows while also grappling with his feelings about Bourdain’s death, something that happened while one of the other two crews was overseeing the shoot.

Tony was a big believer in failing gloriously in an attempt to do something interesting, rather than succeeding at being mediocre.

Tom’s story is not the glorious eternal vacation that made it to television. For one thing, every hour of television required dozens of hours of painstaking filming, most of it with Tony Bourdain nowhere in sight, to say nothing of arguing with accountants, fixers, and editors. And looming over the entire enterprise, driving it to ever greater heights was an agoraphobic, camera-shy, obsessive star. More than once Tom resolves that he simply cannot take the strain of working for him.

I don’t think I realized just how spoiled I was to work on a show where quality not only came first, but it was also pretty much the only concern.

Behind the scenes, Tom describes, Tony was a different person than the witty and eloquent person who made it on screen. He was still charismatic, but he was also mercurial and manipulative. He was showed a different side of his personality to each person, as though he instinctively knew what it would take to get the best work out of everyone. The face he showed Tom was, it seems, crueler than the one he showed others. Their relationship was combative. Tom prodded Tony to speak. Once, in Borneo, Tony attacked him. He wonders at several points whether Bourdain actually liked him.

(He ultimately concludes that, yes, he did.)

Inevitably, the story comes around to Bourdain’s suicide. The last episode they filmed together, in Bali, concluded with a funeral and Tom reflects on how both of their emotional states had frayed precipitously over the past few seasons, leading him to ask whether there was more that he could have done.

“These are some of the things I look back on that are signs that I should have seen… I think that so many things in his life were like a drug. You were like a drug to him. If somebody overdoses on a drug, do you blame the drug or do you blame the junkie?”

In a memorable scene, he also addresses the rumors about Asia Argento…by going to Italy, getting drunk with her, and asking her directly whether she caused Tony’s death. Ultimately, though, he lands on a simpler solution. Tony was an addict for whom down-time amounted to giving in to his thoughts, to his demons.

I’d learned that the truth was he couldn’t rest. Tony always needed a distraction, a project, a problem to solve. And, for better or worse, the show provided that in spades.

In the Weeds gave me a new appreciation of Anthony Bourdain. Tom’s boss — and coworker and friend — was more human than the man who appeared on television and I found the fits of anger, the fits of insecurity, and the evident exhaustion from not being able to stop all-too relatable. Likewise in how Tony, a famously verbose person, was better able to apologize with actions than with words. This is not a flattering picture, but it is a fitting one.

At the same time, what makes this memoir so good is how this different portrait of Tony Bourdain is balanced against stories from the road that allow me to look at these shows I love so much with new eyes. I have been watching the Jamaica episode that features prominently in the memoir to test this while writing this post and it is remarkable how different it is, from small tics in conversation to how often Tony is noticeably alone in front of the camera.

By contrast, Roadrunner offers a synthetic, impressionistic interpretation of Anthony Bourdain that splices together extant video with reminiscences of the people who knew and worked with him, including Tom Vitale.

(The film also includes a brief deep-fake that I probably wouldn’t have caught had I not known about the controversy in advance, but doing something so potentially scandalous for so little return seems unwise.)

The film proceeds in rough chronological order from his bursting onto the scene with Kitchen Confidential to international stardom, and then death. This structure allows for one of the best things about the show, which was to watch Tony’s evolution from a patently inept star in the earliest film from A Cook’s Tour to the confident host of the polished show Parts Unknown. However, there is another way one might describe the structure of Roadrunner: before television, the evolving television star, and after Asia.

If one of the most moving parts of the film was the outpouring of grief from the people who loved him, I found the topic of Asia Argento, who did not appear in the film, to be a sticking point.

Roadrunner reaches many of the same conclusions as In the Weeds, highlighting how Tony was an addict who threw himself into whatever his passion was and noting that Asia (as well as her fight against Harvey Weinstein) was the latest addiction. However, the film also gives voice to a number of crew members who worked on the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown and exhibit a hostility toward her that Ton Vitale simply didn’t have. The result is that the film seems to blame her without explicitly doing so.

It is hard to say what I would have thought about Roadrunner had I not first read Tom Vitale’s In the Weeds. The film has its powerful moments, but it was also limited by so relentlessly placing Tony front and center while both acknowledging and brushing aside that this was not where he wanted to be. As a result, I found the memoir both less flattering and more satisfying as a tribute to both Anthony Bourdain and the vision of the world he helped create.

A Master of Djinn

“Some kind of cult maybe? You know how Occidentals like playing dress-up and pretending they’re ancient mystics. Order of the this … Brotherhood of the that…”

Fatma glanced to the book, remembering its sensational content. It looked like utter nonsense. Most of these “Orientalists” thought their bad translations and wrongheaded takes might help them better understand the changes sweeping the world. It seemed reading from actual Eastern scholars was beneath them.

For many of the same reasons I don’t usually go for speculative fiction set in historical settings, and despite my unabashed love of The Dandelion Dynasty books, I don’t read much steampunk. The mashup of times and technologies just doesn’t quite grab my attention, at least until I read the premise for A Master of Djinn: a fast-paced mystery set in 1912 in a Cairo where the widespread return of djinn through the actions of the mystic al-Jahiz a generation earlier set in motion a chain of events that has led to a leap in magic and technology in the world and made Egypt a burgeoning superpower.

This inciting event in the near past allows Clark (the nom de plume of history professor Dexter Gabriel) to simply spin events forward a generation and creates a compelling backdrop for this story.

A Master of Djinn opens with the secret ceremony of the Hermetic Brotherwhood of al-Jahiz (likely modeled on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). Lord Worthington, a wealthy Englishman, founded this order in Egypt to uncover deeper truths about the world, though it mostly serves for westerners to engage in role-play. Only, this time, a masked and robed figure claiming to be al-Jahiz appears at the ceremony and immolates everyone there with an otherworldly fire.

Suddenly, al-Jahiz begins to appear everywhere in Cairo stirring the anger of the downtrodden against the establishment.

Against this imposter — he must be an imposter, right? — the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities assigns one of their best, Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, who also happens to be one of the few women working in the agency. Immaculately dressed in her tailored European suits, Fatma begins to investigate, grudgingly accepting the help of a junior agent, Hadia, and less grudgingly relying on her lover Siti, an enigmatic woman who belongs to a cult that worships the old Egyptian gods rather than being a good muslim.

A Master of Djinn is in many ways a procedural where these three and an assorted cast of other agents and djinn must race to discover the identity of al-Jahiz, particularly once it turns out that the imposter can control djinn and appears bent on opening a portal that will allow him to bring immensely powerful and ancient Ifrit lords back into the world. The result is that the mystery eventually gives way to a race to stop the imposter, whoever he is.

There is a lot going on in A Master of Djinn. It is post-colonialist in the best way, centering the story on people who talk about the occidentals and their strange ways, including the anti-magic legislation in the United States. It is sex-positive, with a queer love story. It is anti-racist and class-conscious, frequently making nods to or tweaking historical attitudes and prejudices, many of which are still floating around today.

Archibald could quite believe it. Dalton was obsessed with mummies—part of proving his theory that Egypt’s ancient rulers were truly flaxen-haired relatives to Anglo-Saxons, who held sway over the darker hordes of their realm. Archibald was as much a racialist as the next man, but even he found such claims rubbish and tommyrot.

It is also immensely fun, with all of these themes layered into the richly-painted backdrop of this imagined Cairo. And, to cap it all off, A Master of Djinn was also funny, with exchanges like:

“But alone, we could live with our thoughts. Dwell on the purpose of our existence.” He looked up, daring to meet the baleful gaze of the hovering giant. “It is called philosophy.” The Ifrit King frowned. “Phil-o-so-phy?”

“…The more I thought, the more I began to understand myself. To know that I was created for more than just drowning my enemies in flames. I began reading many great works by mortals and other djinn. That is how I discovered, I am a pacifist.”

In fact, there was only one minor plot point that I found jarring, which was the appearance of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The premise—that he was in Cairo for a peace conference—was itself fine, just having him here surrounded by otherwise fictional characters struck me as an out-of-place caricature.

Setting that minor quibble aside, A Master of Djinn is an excellent book with a compelling and propulsive plot set in a richly imagined world. Whether I go back to Clark’s earlier novellas set in this world or just eagerly await the next novel, this is the sort of story I want more of.

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I expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, but I am enjoying the opportunities of a book to develop both the internal stories of characters and to play with time and space in ways that are hard to show on television.

The Golem and the Jinni

I am way behind on book posts given the start of the new semester. I actually read this one almost a month ago and only just not had the energy to write about it. I expect these posts to be sporadic for the foreseeable future, but I hope to be able to write a few each weekend and delay publishing for a few days so that there are more regular updates.

“But love founded only on loneliness and desire will die out before long. A shared history, tradition, and values will link two people more thoroughly than any physical act.”

It was all too easy for her to be caught up in the rhythm of the bakery, the thumps of fists on dough and the ringing of the bell over the door. Too easy to match it, and let it run away with her.

I am usually skeptical of speculative fiction where the author too blatantly uses a historical setting because it pulls me out of the story. This may be one of the downsides to being a historian. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across The Golem and the Jinni, a story set in a very particular historical milieu and discovered that it worked exceedingly well.

What Wecker does is to tell an immigrant story using folklore from two cultures that come into dialogue in interesting ways.

The Golem and the Jinni opens not with the Golem, but with her creator. On the eve of leaving Poland for the new world, Otto Rotfeld seeks the corrupt kabbalist Yehudah Schaalman to make for him a wife—a wife who is submissive, attentive, and curious. Yehudah makes for him a golem with instructions not to wake her until he has landed, but Otto falls ill on the passage and animates her in one of his final acts. The golem is thus awakened and conscious of the needs and wants of first an entire boat and then a city, New York, where she is taken in by a kindly rabbi who takes her in, names her Chava, and sets her up with a job in a bakery in the Jewish neighborhood.

At roughly the same time, a tin-smith in Little Syria awakens a jinni who has been imprisoned in a flask for over a thousand years. Trapped in human form, the jinni has little choice but to act as the smith’s apprentice even though he chafes at being forced to live within this society rather than being his own master in the desert, which leads him to seek experiences generally not open to the residents of Little Syria such as seducing the wealthy heiress Sophia Winston.

Ahmad senses a kindred spirit when he stumbles across Chava, albeit one made of earth rather than fire.

Much of the The Golem and the Jinni, comes in the form of these two double-outsiders learning to make their way in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York. They have the twin tasks of learning to live among humans even as the humans they are living amongst are learning to live in a new country. Neither requires sleep, so they are left to fill the hours that everyone else sleeps: Ahmad roams restlessly, Chava staves off boredom with minor tasks. And yet, the days are even harder for Chava given that she can sense the desires of everyone around her and her creator imbued her with instructions to obey these commands, but, eventually, curiosity will get the best of her.

However, the plot kicks into high gear with the arrival of Schaalman who gives into his own curiosity about his creation. As it happens, Ahmad is exactly what Schaalman has been searching for his entire life. It is up to Chava and Ahmad to defeat this person who has enormous power over both of them before he can bend them to his will.

Wecker recently published a second novel in this series, but I am lukewarm about reading it. I loved The Golem and the Jinni both as a conceit and in the execution of its plot. Chava and Ahmad were solid enough characters, but they worked because of how their alienness was able to reflect and harmonize with the immigrant communities of 1900s New York City.

The synopsis of the new book The Hidden Palace promises more of the same, but over a longer span and with a more sprawling cast that includes more of their own kind. At first blush, this is a reasonable premise, but I am concerned that widening the scope will lose some of the magic of the first book.

ΔΔΔ

My reading has continued apace. I have another post scheduled on A Master of Djinn and expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff-Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. While I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, I am not finding going the other way nearly as objectionable.

Two heirs to Jonathan Strange

I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell when I finally read it a few years ago. I had resisted reading it because people had compared it to Dickens, whose work I don’t care for. When I finally got over my hesitancy, I found a layered book based on a historical period, just with the magic of Faerie. That magic exists—its return is a plot point—and sits at the heart of the story, but it does so on the edges of awareness, as though it was here all along and people just didn’t notice. It is a compelling piece of world-building achieved by situating historical figures on the edges of the story so that the plot can focus on our two eponymous magicians.

Recently, I have read two books that could warrant comparison to Clarke’s masterpiece: Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown and H.G. Parry’s The Declaration of Rights of Magicians. Like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, both novels are set at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars in Europe and inject a heavy dose of magic into the historical setting.

Where one of these two books is successful, the other was one of my least favorite reads in quite a long time.

The good first.

And one could teach a woman to do magic, I suppose, but what earthly good would a flying pig or a magical female be to anyone?

If Clarke’s book was Dickens, then Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown may well be Austen, albeit with a race and gender rejoinder to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The era remains Georgian England during the Napoleonic War, and magic flows into the country from the Fairyland. This time, magic is governed by the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers headed by the Sorcerer Royal. Except this normally august post has been corrupted in the eyes of the gentry by its current occupant, Zacharias Wythe, the emancipated ward of its previous occupant. As if his blackness weren’t sufficient, Wythe has, well, “unnatural” ideas about the governance of magic. Namely, he believes that women ought to be taught magic when conventional wisdom teaches that women’s “weaker” constitution makes them unsuitable for that sort of strain.

In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.

Sorcerer to the Crown kicks into high gear when Zacharias Wythe meets a precocious woman at a school for girls that conditions them to restrain their magic. Prunella Gentlewoman is the orphan daughter of an English magician and an unknown, but probably not English, woman. Despite her upbringing in the school, Prunella is anything but willing to accept the limits placed on her in this country.

In proper romance fashion, it is clear from early on that Zacharias and Prunella are going to wind up together, but first the story tears through a plot chock full of juicy social encounters between the members of the theurgical gentry and this seemingly mismatched pair.

I tore through Sorcerer to the Crown and found it a satisfying counterpoint to the sorts of social issues that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell didn’t directly address. Magic suffuses the world, but it serves as a metaphor for ideas about the proper social order, whether in terms of work for women or for racism. We rarely, if ever, meet a historical figure, which allows Cho to talk about people like Napoleon and Tipu Sultan without being forced to imbue them with life or narrate their doings. She even had the rare achievement of bringing in blood and bloodlines in a way that actually made sense:

“Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

I don’t know if I will read the rest of the series just because this style of romance isn’t my favorite type of story, but I can also unambiguously recommend this book. I had little quibbles, but I enjoyed the story well enough and the world-building was almost entirely satisfying to me in much the same way that I appreciate Clarke’s work.

Next the bad.

It has been a while since I read a book that I disliked as much as A Declaration of Rights of Magicians.

The year is 1779 in a world with magic and France is ripe for a revolution. This is world where magic is common, but it is strictly controlled for the lower classes and certain types are banned outright, controlled by the Templar order. However, this is the Enlightenment, a time of change. Toussaint Louverture, a weather mage, is leading a rebellion on Saint-Domingue, while the mesmer Maximillian Robespierre challenges the authorities in France and the young Prime Minister of England, William Pitt, proposes that the lower classes be allowed to perform magic.

Parry clearly did a lot of research for this book and she tries to turn broad social and political movements like the ones that brought William Pitt to office, prompted the Haitian Revolution, and brought about the Declaration of Rights of Man using magic as an allegory. Except that these were all real people and the world-building felt to me like a thin veneer with a few twists (the Templars, they still exist! those earlier wars were caused by vampires!) over real history. In fact, Parry nearly admits as much in the afterward where she says:

“This book is a mythologization of the real history of Britain, France, and Haiti in the eighteenth century, which is more interesting and dramatic and downright weird than anything I could make up.”

The characters are real. The plots are (almost) real. Since all of the big events, including the eponymous document, took place in the non-mythologized history, then the magic only serves to add some sparkle and, if anything, distract from the underlying issues. Compare this to Cho’s novel where magic is works as an allegory because of its intersection with two specific characters who unlock its potential to create problems in British society.

Clarke and Cho succeeded because they set their stories at a specific time and place, but built magic into the contours and shadows of the world. Then they largely avoided dramatizing real people. Instead, they manifested characters on whom to center their story. Clarke had the competition between Strange and Norrell; Cho had Prunella and Wythe against the English establishment at the same time as they circle each other.

Parry sprinkled magic over real events and then built a novel by dramatizing three largely distinct historical threads. Perhaps they are connected, and she hints as much, but her broad fidelity to historical events prevented this from striking me as anything but a dull recounting of events that lost something in their dramatization.

I finished the book because I’m still not good at giving up on a book I’ve started, but I mostly found myself thinking that a good history of the events would be more compelling.

ΔΔΔ

My recent purchase of a Kindle Paperwhite has meant that I’ve been tearing through a succession of library e-books recently. The due date on those books combined with the start of the semester this week has meant that I am behind on writing here. At this point I am probably not going to write about Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, which I liked quite a lot, or Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, which I enjoyed less. I also finished Kelly Baker’s Grace Period which I may or may not write about since it is a memoir about leaving academia, a topic I have written about quite a lot here in the past and it hit a little close to home. Highly recommended, though.

I am still hoping to write about Helen Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which was a compelling immigrant story for many of the same reasons that I ascribed to Zen Cho’s book above. I also finished P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, a fun steampunk mystery set in an alternate Cairo, and Tahmima Anam’s sendup of startup culture The Startup Wife. The latter book is resonating a little too much at the moment, though, because I am currently reading Sheera Frankel and Cecelia Kang’s new exposé of facebook, An Ugly Truth.

Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You have just spent the last ten minutes doomscrolling through Twitter. Some of the posts made you laugh. Some made you anxious over the state of the world. Some made you insecure about what you are or are not doing. A couple made you think. Maybe you responded, but probably not. You might have clicked through a link, but, again, probably not. It is time to work. You close the Twitter app. Then, without so much as putting your phone down, you reflexively open the Twitter app and check out what is happening — if you’re anything like me, you didn’t even open another app in between.

Or maybe you went from the Twitter app on your phone to Twitter on a browser, or vice-versa.

Or, maybe, TikTok or Facebook are more your speed. Or maybe snapchat or a game. The specifics don’t matter because the end result is the same: people flit from one thing to another drawn like moths to a flame to advertisements, social media, and a host of other distractors carefully designed to harvest our attention.

This ubiquitous feature of modern life, naturally, leads to waves of hand-writing over the pace of life and how modern technology has entirely ruined the ability of people, but particularly young people, to focus for any length of time.

In an educational context, these fears has led to the question of how to best eliminate distractions from the classroom, whether through draconian technology bans or trying to convince students to treat class like a sanctuary where they should leave their concerns at the door for the duration. According to James Lang, however, these well-meaning impulses are asking the wrong questions. We can never eliminate distractions. Beyond the simple fact that our monkey minds are calibrated to look for distractions, it is too much to expect that students will be able to put out of mind a sick loved one, or a relationship problem, or a bodily pain, or any of an infinite variety of other concerns for a class that may or may not be all that important for them. If this wasn’t obvious before, it should be now given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the bad news. The good news, as James Lang points out in the first chapter, is that latest round of laments for the prelapsarian days before distraction are strikingly myopic. That is, there was never a golden age when people were free from distraction and laments about its loss merely get updated to account for technology. In his posthumous novel “The City and the Mountains” (A Cidade e as Serras) from 1901, the Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós includes a dream sequence where the narrator is appalled by the frivolity of modern life:

“Leaning in His super-divine forehead which conceived the world, on the super-powerful han which created it—the Creator was reading and smiling. I dared, shivering with sacred horror, to peep over His radiant shoulder. The book was a popular edition, paper-covered. The Eternal was reading Voltaire in the new, three-franc, cheap edition, and smiling.”

Or one could look to the collection of quotes on the subject collected by Randall Munroe in XKCD:

In other words, to be distracted is to be human. Even as I write this, I am distracted by a kitten who doesn’t understand it is a problem for her to repeatedly leap onto my desk, chew on books, papers, and pens, and nuzzle my hands while I type. She is also fascinated by my fingers when I am touch-typing.

Lang’s thesis in Distracted is thus that we should not pursue the quixotic aim of eliminating distraction, but that we should be leaning in to strategies that cultivate attention. Sometimes this requires temporarily eliminating distractions — when I am doing my academic writing, for instance, I set a length of time during which I turn off my email and won’t check social media —but, more frequently, the strategies involve finding ways to redirect and renew attention when it flags over the course of a class and a semester. Learning is hard work and if you’re anything like me your attention span dips precipitously when you’re tired. The same thing applies to students.

This thesis might be simplicity itself, but actually pulling it off in a classroom setting requires practice and attention.

Like his earlier book Small Teaching, Distracted is not prescriptive. Lang mentions several times that he is generally agnostic about a lot of teaching methods because good teaching can take many forms. What works for one teacher — or student — won’t necessarily work for another. Rather, he lays out current research into the science of attention and uses numerous examples of activities and practices to establish principles that any teacher can adapt to their class.

I concluded of Small Teaching that its simplicity was the greatest sign of its success. Distracted tackles thornier issues and Lang dedicates the entire third chapter (~35 pages) to the tech ban debate that couches his suggestions in the awareness that his own policies have changed quite dramatically over the years. This and other portions of the book take a more process-oriented approach that encourage the teacher to be conscientious of how the policies affect the classroom atmosphere.

Other portions of Distracted are more like Small Teaching. The book’s second part offers six “practices” of attention and how they can help draw students toward the material you have to offer. These range from the simple — cultivating a community through the use of names and modeling the behavior you want to see by leaving your phone in your office — to engaging student curiosity to techniques for focusing attention by switching between activities or with quick attention renewal devices in which he gave the example of a preacher asking an audience for an “amen” when they start to drift. Lang also makes the case that assessments are a critical component of attention because they work to direct students toward the material that you believe is important in the course. Sometimes this means crafting assessments with attention in mind since many students will never be more focused on your material than when writing a big test, but other times it involves no- or minimal-grading on repeated assignments that ask the students to connect what they’re learning in the class to life today. Students might find the practices unfamiliar at first, but with practice and attention on the part of the teacher they can pay dividends in the classroom.

Much of what Lang writes in Distracted echoes the direction I have been moving my courses over the past few years in terms of building community and keeping the classroom fresh, particularly on low energy days. It doesn’t always work, of course, but each of the chapters in Part 2 offers a wealth of ideas to help draw students back in. For this reason I fully expect that I will return to Distracted for inspiration and found that it was an ideal book to read while putting together my courses for the semester. In fact, I often would read something that inspired me to put down the book mid-chapter to modify language in a syllabus or tweak an assignment. It is possible to quibble with a small individual observation or policy or suggestion, and I did at times, but for every one where that happens two more will land home.

Distracted is not necessarily where I would start for a new teacher looking for tips on teaching (my current recommendation is David Gooblar’s The Missing Course), but it is both one of the two books I would suggest after that (along with Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom) and a book with a lot worth considering for even the most experienced teachers.

A Desolation Called Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bone Shard Daughter

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empire of Pain

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

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

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

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

Empire of Pain is divided into three parts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ΔΔΔ

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

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

A World Without Email

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Beautiful We Were

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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