Speaking Bones

“I was enraged by the weight of the outmoded commands of our ancient heroes, but now I miss the comfort of their words of wisdom and tales of courage. Try as I might, I cannot cast off the pull of our collective memory. Mere survival isn’t enough. A people cannot be a people if they don’t know where they come from, if they can’t fear and trust the gods of their parents, if they’ve been cut off from the stories of their past.”

“Honor, pride, the commands of our ancestors–these are not unalterable laws of nature we must submit to. History is like the string of kite. It tethers us to the ground, but it is also what allows us to fly.”

“There are no whole stories, only fragments that suit the purpose of the moment,” said Jia.

Earlier this summer I finished reading what I believe to be one of the best—and most under-appreciated—fantasy series of recent vintage.

(There are genre issues with this declaration. I have been more impressed recently by science fiction than fantasy, and Liu’s infusion of a steampunk ethos might call into question the fantastical of these books. However, I have interpreted this series as epic fantasy if the genre’s story structure developed out of Medieval Chinese literature like Romance of the Three Kingdoms rather than out of European literature like the Arthur stories, so fantasy it is. For what it’s worth, Liu himself credits stories like Beowulf as inspiration and rejects sweeping generalizations about genre, while acknowledging that The Grace of Kings is based on the historical period about the rise of the Han Dynasty.)

The series opened in The Grace of Kings, introducing the land of Dara where the emperor Mapidere of Xana had conquered the six separate Tiro kingdoms only to be overthrown by the unstoppable warrior Mata Xyndu and the clever thief Kuni Garu. Their victory is short-lived and they are plunged again into war until Kuni Garu emerges victorious. However, this grand drama proves to be the prologue to another, more existential conflict.

The Wall of Storms, the second book in the series, is named after a meteorological curiosity—a literal wall of storms that surrounds Dara. However, in the time of Mapidere, scholars divined that the wall opens at predictable intervals and thus the emperor of Dara dispatched monumental city ships (modeled on the Treasure Ships of Zhang He’s fleets) through the wall in order to conquer the land of Ukyu and Gonde. The people of this land, including both the dominant Lyucu and the now-subservient Agon, are nomadic herders who live by training and riding enormous, fire-breathing, flying herbivores called garinafins. The result is a complete clash of cultures that allowed the Lyucu under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryu to defeat the invaders and claim the City Ships for an invasion of Dara that reaches a climax in the Battle of Zathin Gulf where Kuni Garu defeated the invaders at the cost of his own life. Nevertheless, the Lyucu continue to hold the islands of Dara and Rui under the leadership of Tenryu’s daughter Tanvanaki and her consort, Kuni Garu’s son Prince Timu, while the Princess Thera, Kuni’s second heir, married Takval, an Agon, and set off through the wall of storms in order to cut off Lyucu reinforcements before they could set out.

Such is the situation when The Veiled Throne, the direct predecessor of The Speaking Bones opens. Although these two books were published separately, Liu has said that he intended them to be read together as the final installment of the series, and it is easy to see why. Where each of the previous two novels had in one way or another overturned expectations, Speaking Bones picks up where The Veiled Throne leaves off in terms of plot threads and themes.

The conclusion of this sage unfolds along five interlocking story-lines: three in Dara, two in Ukyu-Gonde. Any attempt to summarize these five threads would be inadequate without the context of the rest of the series, so I won’t even try. The plots are in much the same vein as the earlier books: clever inventions, deep moral debates, and political machinations, all interspersed with moments of whimsy.

Instead, I wanted to highlight what I see as one of the strengths of the series. Liu’s characters usually have a clear sense of purpose. This is not to say that they always know what to do. Often, they do not. Nor is that purpose always honorable. Rather, without turning each character into a caricature, Liu draws each one in sharp lines that make the different collisions work in interesting ways. Sometimes this looks like a staunch advocate for genocide colliding with a ruthless warrior who believes that those actions are anathema to their way of life. Other times it looks like a greedy and selfish pirate getting his comeuppance. Still others, it is the child of the Lyucu finding a home in a monastery dedicated to repairing the harm made in the world.

But this feature can be seen most clearly in a central political conflict.

Empress Jia, Kuni Garu’s wife and mother of two emperors who handed off the throne in service of their people, is a renowned herbalist and cunning political strategist who favors an incrementalist approach. She carefully cultivates plans to destroy the Lyucu utterly, but those plans are indistinguishable from appeasement. Likewise, her political decisions that reject militarism seem designed to keep power in her own hands.

Facing her is the young idealist Emperor Phyro (the son of Risana, another of Kuni Garu’s wives). Phyro chafes at any delay and yearns for quick and decisive action that will liberate unredeemed Dara. Jia believes that Phyro may make a good emperor, but not yet and not if he falls prey to the dangers of violence.

What makes this conflict interesting and, at times, completely tragic, is that both, ultimately, are working toward the same end. In a recent Reddit AMA, Liu noted that: “[Phyro’s] the sort of boss I’d love to work for, a charismatic leader who really believed in the cause and wouldn’t ask his followers to make a sacrifice he himself wasn’t prepared to make.” He’s also more mature than Jia realizes. By contrast, Jia is an extremely competent leader for Dara, but she’s also someone with a significant amount of blood on her hands. She can speak in terms of ideals, but only if you look at the big picture.

The central theme of this debate is the term mutagé, which the glossary defines as “a dedication to the welfare of thee people as a whole, one that transcends self-interest or concern for family and clan.” Jia and multiple other characters invoke this ideal repeatedly, with Jia defiantly claiming that she regrets nothing despite the costs. She brilliantly helps lay the groundwork for a sustainable system (in the same AMA, Liu admits that he set out to write the origin of the Han Dynasty in a fantasy series and ended up writing a story about America), but neither is she the only person practicing mutegé, and her answers are not necessarily right. Just as it is inadequate to simply expect everyone to “do good,” it is also insufficient to expect one person to have all the answers.

Ending epic series is hard—the reasons vary by series, but in thinking about this I’m reminded of other authors who bogged down as they closed on an end—but Liu lands this one. From the very first installment this series was measured in decades, so it is only natural that the ending does the same. Likewise, the same writing style that allowed him to tackle so many other contemporary issues allows a transition to themes of legacy, history, and change that fits within the existing structure without coming across as preachy. As an ancient historian, I was particularly struck by one exchange about anxieties about whether or not the classics can change:

“The classics will be fine,” he said. “They have always adapted to changing readers. The Morality that Kon Fiji wrote and that Poti Maji glossed was not the same text that Master Zato Ruthi tried to teach me and that my father so gleefully reinterpreted. The logograms may remain the same, but the context is constantly shifting. If they continue to be meaningful to us, it’s because we have, without recognizing, translated them.”

“What?” Zen Kara looked at him as though he were mad.

“I believe the classics have survived because they are self-modernizing, self-translating. The ephemeral and the fashionable are washed away by the relentless pounding of time’s tides. Only hard shoals of deep wisdom could withstand the cycles–not because they’re unchanging, but because they are without vanity, without affectation, without pretension, humble enough to embrace new interpretations without yielding their essential nature. New readers are like the hermit crabs, sea urchins, anemones, snails, and seaweeds that colonize a tidal pool–only by first filling the bare rock of the classics with the colors of their own experience could the endless forms of meaning in the grandness of Life then blossom in the interaction of reader and text. The classics are always-already in translation.”

In short, this is a brilliant series that is by turns beautiful, clever, profound and filled with adventure. Liu created a rich and vibrant world that speaks to the present moment in the best ways even while exploring how such a world came about. These are long books, but they’re worth every page.

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The combination of unexpected work and a writing funk from earlier this summer conspired to keep me from writing about books in the past few months. Since my last post on The Immortal King Rao, I have finished reading twelve books in addition to Speaking Bones. Four were non-fiction: Melissa Aronczyk’s Branding the Nation, Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Michael Twitty’s Koshersoul, and Kelly Baker’s The Gospel According the Klan. Two were installments of the excellent graphic novel Saga. The two pieces of literary fiction I read in this period were James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is a beautiful piece of writing but one in which the story didn’t land with me the way some of his other pieces do, and Jen Egan’s The Candy House, which is yet another novel about a dystopian world created by social media. The Candy House had its moments and a nice literary trick of leading the reader from one point of view to the next through these oblique connections, but I didn’t understand the buzz around this book. Maybe I’m just too much of a rube to appreciate Literature. I also read the second book in Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series, Dead Lions, and once more thought that he writes a cracking spy thriller and I can’t see anyone else but Gary Oldman as the central character. Then there was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is a nice twist on a pretty formulaic gods-meet-humans story. Rounding out this list is the final trilogy in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. I am now reading Saara El-Arifi’s The Final Strife.

The Immortal King Rao

Social media is a topic ripe for storytelling, and anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on a site like Twitter can understand why they often contain at least an undercurrent dystopia even when that is not precisely the genre the author is working in. I have generally enjoyed the novels I have read in this space, including The Start-up Wife and Fake Accounts, both of which came out last year, but I found neither one of them as strong as The Immortal King Rao. Perhaps because Vahini Vara steers harder into our impeding globally-warmed, algorithmic dystopia.

The three timelines in The Immortal King Rao are each narrated by Athena Rao, King’s daughter who has an illicit piece of technology he developed that allows her access to his memories. King Rao died three days ago. Athena is being interrogated.

The first story is that of King Rao as a child in Kothapalli, India, which we are told is the Telugu equivalent of “Newtown.” In 1951, King was born into a Dalit family that became marginally prosperous when they acquired The Grove from a Brahmin family no longer interested in living in this small town. This opportunity allowed Rao’s industrious grandfather to acquire land on which the extended family can operate a coconut growing and processing operation.

This is not to say that the world of The Grove is good. King is the child of a sexual assault, with his mother, Radha, marrying into the Rao family after his father, Pedda, assaulted her, and he is functionally raised by his aunt, Sita, who marries his father after the death of his mother. Likewise, the extended family is frequently dysfunctional, filled with bullies, gamblers, and layabouts, and the choices of the younger generations nearly drive the family to ruin. But it is also here that Rao first develops his understanding of social networks and interpersonal responsibility.

The second story chronologically follows Rao from his arrival in the United States (in Seattle) as an impoverished graduate student through the rise of Coconut, the company he starts with Margaret, the white daughter of his supervisor. Of the three, this is the arc I found least satisfactory, in large part because many of its beats simply fictionalize the growth of major tech companies like Apple and fold the rise of multiple companies into this one. This is arguably a necessary feature of a story that links this Dalit family in India to the dystopian future—after all, the best dystopias are built on the bones of reality—and Vara uses this story to explore the relationship between King and Margaret, but I also found it distinctly limiting, to say nothing of a little bit hand-wavy to get to where the entire world is beholden to the single tech giant Coconut and its “impartial” algorithm.

The third story is that of Athena herself, King’s progeny and greatest experiment. After his fall from grace at Coconut in c.2040, and after the death of Margaret (who was by now his ex-wife), King deactivated his Social, sailed to Blake Island, and set up a little isolated homestead. It was here that Athena, King and Margaret’s daughter by a surrogate mother living on nearby Bainbridge Island, grew up among the orchards of tropic fruits that King imported.

It is in this storyline that Vara imagines a dystopian vision of the future.

And then Hothouse Earth arrived. The wildfires that began in spring and lasted all summer; the droughts that were such old news that they no longer showed up in headlines; each new pandemic beginning just after the previous one was under control.

King’s grand triumph was the creation of a unitary world government enabled by the global reliance on Coconut technology. King creates a new Constitution that is, functionally, techno-socialism. All citizens become Shareholders who collectively own all corporations, all major decisions—from criminal justice to the global curriculum—determined by the Master Algorithm. Instead of money, individual worth would be measured by the “Social Capital” of an individual, as determined by Algo based on one’s intelligence, beauty, and productive value. In short, everyone is an influencer, and since a portion of their Social Capital is “extracted” monthly in lieu of taxation there is an incentive to continue to engage with the platform.

Of course, algorithms are only as good as their inputs.

The truth was that a person’s Social Capital depended almost entirely on the privilege they were broth with, not any effort of their own.

The prior richness of the rich and the poorness of the poor had been grandfathered in the Shareholding system.

Algo didn’t eliminate the existing ills of society, it merely put them behind a veneer of impartiality. If you disagree with this system, your only choice is to opt-out by becoming an “ex” on one of a few designated “Blanklands” that are off the Social. There you could scratch out a living through farming and illicit trade in drugs, sex, and surrogate pregnancy, and the Shareholders didn’t have to deal with your opposition to progress or listen to your doom-filled prognostications about the future.

If the rise of Coconut was the weakest part of The Immortal King Rao for me, the moment when teenaged Athena decides to abandon her father in favor of life among the Exes, scratching out a living on Bainbridge Island, I found the strongest. In addition to meeting a new cast of characters like Elemen, one of the original Exes, this society reveals to Athena nature of the world that her father created. This world might have been designed to bring people closer together in an efficient manner, but ended up breeding disillusion and complacency while the world burned. Opting out might have been the right move, but it condemned the rest of society in the process.

There were parts of The Immortal King Rao that required suspension of disbelief and much of both the optimism about technology and its consequences felt distinctly American, even though a third of the novel is set in India. And yet, I find that the most chilling dystopias are the ones that cut closest to the truth. The idea of a technocratic single world state might be implausible, but a world ostensibly guided by “impartial” algorithms that aren’t impartial, where every job is rebranded with corporate babble (“history teachers” are now “Progress Leaders”), where everyone’s worth is measured in social media clout, and where the next great advance merely replicates the existing social order very much is not.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finished Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and am now reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain.

The Dinner

One of my favorite things to do when I meet people from foreign countries is to ask them what they think the best novel is from their country. This works almost as well to start a conversation as asking them about their country’s food and is an easy way for me to add interesting volumes to my reading list. A few years ago at a virtual gathering during an online conference I happened to be chatting with someone from the Netherlands who mentioned Herman Koch’s The Dinner as not necessarily the best novel, but as one that was particularly well-received.

A few centuries from now, when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the start of the twenty-first century, all they’ll have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called “top” restaurants.

The Dinner is a tidy novel that ostensibly takes place over the course of a single evening, the titular dinner at a fancy restaurant. Serge Lohman, the frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, arranged this dinner so that he and his wife Babette can discuss some family business with his younger brother Paul and his wife Claire.

Paul narrates the story and is fond of recounting the truism from Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Lohman’s achievement in The Dinner is found in interrogating the blurred line between those two categories.

Paul can barely stand his brother, who he characterizes as a fraudulent boor. Serge, he thinks, represents much of what is wrong with society. He lacks imagination about food, while also being a wine snob who puts on airs about being an every-man. Similarly, he makes a big deal about how he adopted a son from Burkina Faso, but is entirely oblivious to how his behavior oppresses the citizens in the small French town where he owns a vacation home.

Like all younger brothers, he likes to make his older brother squirm. (Not spoken as an older brother, or anything.)

When the story opens, Paul seems to have a happy family. He and his wife Claire are a loving couple—even if they like to egg on Serge from time to time—and if their son Michel is having a hard go of it lately, well, he’s a teenager. It isn’t as though he’s into drugs. Paul has some sharp, jaded observations about the restaurant and his brother, but he does not, for the most part, vocalize them. Further, he seems genuinely concerned when Babette arrives at the restaurant and seems to have been crying in the car and frustrated with his brother’s superior attitude with the restaurant staff. In short, he seems like a nice enough.

Slowly, these initial impressions are disabused.

It turns out that this family has a nasty secret. Some months ago, video emerged of a brutal attack on a homeless person sleeping at ATM. Two teenagers walking into the ATM first threw objects at the woman, followed by a can of gasoline that erupted into flame and killed her. Nobody was apprehended for the crime, but Paul recognized the two boys: his son Michel and his nephew Rick.

As it happens, this is the family business that Serge wants to discuss—after all, he has a political career to consider. Paul’s instinct is to protect his son, and the only question left is how far he will have to go.

(There is more to the plot, but I’m ending the synopsis here so as to not give away some of the twists in this nasty family drama.)

The strength of the novel is found in the gradual reveal of Paul’s personality and how that shapes the reader’s understanding of the Lohman family. Koch starts Paul as the mild brother of a politician of some renown and slowly peels back that exterior to reveal a monster with vicious ideas and a history of assault. Actions speak for themselves even if he maintains his own moral superiority.

When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is to tell a barefaced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.

The Dinner can be read in some ways as a metaphor about getting to know someone. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story and many are convinced of their own rectitude. When we meet new people, we only know the face they present to the world and only later learn what type of person we are interacting with. Most of us don’t have nearly such odious skeletons in our closet, but neither are we literary creations.

I ultimately found The Dinner a little bit on the nose in how it revels in this family drama, but it is a tightly-crafted and compelling story that reads very quickly—even if I emerged from it wanting to wash my hands of the entire Lohman clan.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finished Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, which seemed to draw parallel’s between a miscarriage and being an adjunct professor. While the novel had some uncomfortable observations about being an adjunct, I found the story weighted more toward the miscarriage side. Still, the implications of the comparison are uncomfortable. I also finished Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, which I ultimately found disappointing. It was cute and had some nice anecdotes, but I kept hoping for a stronger argument and kept bumping against implications about, for instance, Western Civilization. By contrast, the first volume of the Saga graphic novel was truly great.

The End of Burnout

Many authors tell people who already feel worn out and ineffectual that they can change their situation if they just try hard enough. What’s more, by making it individuals’ responsibility to deal with their own burnout, the advice leaves untouched the inhumane ethical and economic system that causes burnout in the first place. Our thinking is stuck because we don’t recognize how deeply burnout is embedded in our cultural values. Or else we’re afraid to admit it. Insofar as the system that works people to the point of burnout is profitable, the people who profit from it have little incentive to alter it. In an individualistic culture where work is a moral duty, it’s up to you to ensure you’re in good working order. And many workers who boast of their hustle embrace that duty, no matter the damage it does. In a perverse way, many of us love burnout culture. Deep down, we want to burn out.

I resemble this statement, and I don’t like it.

By the definitions established in Jonathan Malesic’s recent book The End of Burnout, I have never burned out—at least not completely. I have never reached a point of absolute despair that rendered me incapable of going on, which, along utter exhaustion and reduced performance, marks burnout. The other two, however…

I wouldn’t say that I worked hard in high school, at least on the whole. There were projects that I worked at and if something interested me I would work hard, but not so much overall. Midway through my undergraduate career something snapped. Seemingly overnight I became a dedicated, if not efficient student. I divided everything in my world into “productive” activities and unproductive ones and aspired to spend my waking time being as productive as possible. School work obviously counted as productive, but so too did exercise and investing time in my relationships. Spending time not doing things was deemed unproductive.

At first this was innocuous enough. I was young and productive time included fun things, right? My numerous and varied interests led to me to do all sorts of things and I was determined to do them all. By the time the second semester of senior year rolled around this was almost a mania: I was working, running a club, taking a full course load, working on two research projects, and auditing extra classes that just looked interesting to me, as well as exercising and generally spending time on the aforementioned relationships.

At a time when the stereotypical college student develops a case of senioritis, going through the motions while looking forward what was next, I somehow managed to define sleep as “not productive.”

Seriously.

I cringe thinking about it now, but I went through most of a semester averaging about three hours of sleep a night. I don’t think I ever pulled an all-nighter, but most nights I only got one or two hours, going to bed around midnight, getting up at 1:30 so I could grab coffee and food before the late night place closed, work until the gym opened, exercise, shower, go to class, and then either go do homework or go to my shift at work. I would get eight hours or so on Fridays after work and whatever recreational activities I had planned. Several people that I know of had conversations about when I was going to collapse, though not within earshot. It was bad. Trust me when I say that you shouldn’t do this.

According to the journal I kept at the time, under an April entry titled: “I guess I did need to sleep,” I slept for 13 hours straight.

I have never done something this self-destructive since, but there have been numerous times that I have edged in that direction.

  • The year after college I ended up working up to 90 hours a week, often for weeks at a time without a day off until I just couldn’t physically keep it up, at one point sleeping for more than 12 hours and forcing myself to take days off, even if the nature of the job made that difficult.
  • I worked almost 30 hours a week on top of my school responsibilities (a “full” course load and grading for a class) while completing my MA.
  • I nearly lost snapped while completing the work for one of the toughest seminars I took in grad school the week that I was also taking my comprehensive exams.
  • Another semester, while cobbling together jobs as an adjunct, I took on so much work (six classes, one of which was nearly twice as much work as I thought when I accepted it) that I had to stop writing entirely just to stay on top of the teaching.
  • The semester after that I developed (probably anxiety-induced) GERD and broke out in hives.
  • I frequently have to remind myself that taking one day off a week is okay, leave alone two. At least I usually sleep 7–8 hours a night these days.

Lest it sound like I’m bragging, these are not badges of honor. They are symptoms of the perverse relationship with work that Malesic describes, wedded with ambition and an anxiety oscillates between imposter syndrome and a deep-seated fear that I’ll once again become someone who does nothing if I let up even a little. The worst part: my behavior place within systems that celebrate discipline, but it was almost entirely self-inflicted.

However, I have never burned out like Jonathan Malesic.

Malesic had achieved his dream of becoming a tenured professor of religion and living the life filled with inspirational conversations with young people that he imagined his own college professors had lived. But that life wasn’t as great as he imagined. His students were apathetic, the papers uninspired and, at times, plagiarized. There were meetings and committees, and his wife lived in a different state. In short, the job didn’t live up to his expectations, which, in turn, caused his life to fall apart. His job performance lagged. He snapped at students. He drank too much and found himself incapable of getting out of bed. And so, eventually, he quit.

The End of Burnout is an exploration of the forces that caused his disillusion with his job and possible solutions to escape it. Put simply, Malesic’s thesis is that two features of the modern workplace cause “burnout.”

  1. People derive personal meaning and worth from their jobs.
  2. There is a gulf between the expectations and reality of those jobs.

That is, there is a broad expectation in the United States that your job determines your worth to society. This is obviously not true, but it is signaled in any number of ways, from making health insurances a benefit of employment, to looking down on “low status” jobs like food service, to the constant expectation that you ought to be seeking promotion or treating yourself like an entrepreneur. But if your worth is wrapped up in your job, then you might enter with a certain set of expectations that are out of sync with the conditions—doctors who want to heal people and end up typing at a computer all day, or a professor who got into teaching because of Dead Poet’s Society and ends up teaching bored, hungover students in general education classes. On top of it all, the responsibility for “solving” the issue is then passed on to the worker: you’re just not hustling hard enough. Have you tried self-care?

The End of Burnout is a thought-provoking book. Malesic examines the deep historical roots of phenomena that might today be called burnout, discusses the pathology of an ambiguous phenomenon that is likely overused, often pointing to acute exhaustion rather than true burnout, and explores how social pressures (e.g. the moral discourse that equates work with worth) exacerbate the phenomenon before turning to alternate models of work and human dignity.

I picked up the end of Burnout for a few reasons.

Most obvious, perhaps, is my toxic relationship with work, as outlined above, to the point where I thought that I had burned out on multiple occasions. Based on the descriptions Malesic provides, I was usually acutely exhausted rather than truly burned out, with the result that, at least so far, I have always been able to bounce back with a few weeks or months of rest.

(The one exception might be the restaurant work straight out of college, but even that did not stop me from working in another franchise in the same chain for two more years while attending school.)

Cumulative exhaustion can lead to burnout, but I came away unconvinced that I have even really been walking down that path. I have been frustrated, of course, and can tell that I am creeping toward exhaustion when I start excessively doom-scrolling on Twitter, but I did not relate to the sheer disillusionment Malesic described. When I have considered other employment options over the past few years, it has always been because of a dearth of jobs.

The main difference, at least to this point, is that I have never viewed this job through rose-colored glasses. Writing about history is something I see as a vocation, but I have approached the teaching and associated work as a job, albeit one that aligns with those other aspects of my life and thus is more enjoyable than some of the others I have had.

At the same time, I have noticed a shift in my relationship to hustle culture now that I am in my mid-30s. I still work hard and have certain ambitions, but increasingly, they are around finding ways to spend my time reading, writing about things I find interesting and important—and having employment with enough security, money, and free-time to do that.

Likewise, the idea of treating oneself as an entrepreneur, which Malesic identifies as an element connecting worth to employment, has always left a sour taste in my mouth. When people tell me that I could (or should) open a bakery, I usually shrug and make some polite noises. I have managed a restaurant in my life and have very little interest in doing so again. I bake because I like the process and enjoy cooking for people I like, not because I want to turn it into a business with all of the marketing, bookkeeping, and regulations that would entail.

(I have also considered trying to turn my writing into a subscription business, but I find that incompatible with the writing I do here. If I made a change, it would involve some sort of additional writing with a regular and established schedule—say, a monthly academic book review for a general readership with a small subscription fee designed to cover the cost of the book and hosting. A thought for another day.)

However, I also picked up The End of Burnout because I am worried about the effect that this culture has on my students. Nearly every semester I have one or more students who report losing motivation to do their work. This past semester one student explained it as a matter of existential dread about what he was going to do with his degree, but it could just as easily be anxiety or concern over climate change or the contemporary political culture or school shootings.

I have long suspected what Malesic argues, that burnout is systemic. In a college context, this is why I get frustrated every time a conversation about mental health on campus takes place without addressing those systemic factors. Focusing on the best practices and workload for an individual class is (relatively) easy, but it is much harder to account for how the courses the professor is teaching or the students are taking interact with each other. I am absolutely complicit in this problem. One of my goals for next academic year is to reexamine my courses because the reality is that the most perfect slate of learning assessments is meaningless if the students end up burned out. I can’t fix these issues on my own, but Malesic’s book brought into greater focus why I need to be part of the solution for my own sake and my students’. I don’t ever want to let one of my students make the mistakes I did when I was their age, which probably explains why the most common piece of advice I give is “get some sleep,” and I can’t help them if I am also in crisis.

The back part of The End of Burnout turns to possible solutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his background as a professor of religion, this discussion frequently focused on groups with a Christian bent. He spends a chapter, for instance, talking about how various Benedictine communities apply the Rule of St. Benedict to tame the “demon” of work. Some groups strictly follow the Rule, limiting work to three hours so that they can dedicate the rest of their lives to what really matters, prayer. Other groups, like several in Minnesota, were less rigid, but nevertheless used similar principles to divorce work and worth, and allowing one’s service to the larger community change with time.

The other chapter in this section was more varied, and included useful discussion from disability activists, but it also featured a prominent profile of Citysquare, a religious-based Dallas non-profit that uniquely humane policies around work expectations and support for its staff. These examples sat awkwardly with my agnostic world view, as someone who believes that we should be able to create a better society without religion, and particularly without Christianity. However, Malesic’s underlying point is not that we ought to all follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Rather, he makes a case that each profile in its own way can help imagine a culture where the value of a person is not derived from their paycheck (or grade).

To overcome burnout, we have to get rid of the [destructive ideal of working to the point of martyrdom] and create a new shared vision of how work fits into a life well lived. That vision will replace the work ethic’s old, discredited promise. It will make dignity universal, not contingent on paid labor. It will put compassion for self and others ahead of productivity. And it will affirm that we find our highest purpose in leisure, not work.

Malesic’s vision here is decidedly utopian and hardly new, and his warnings about the consequences of the automating workplace are a modern echo of 19th century choruses. But the ideals he presents are worth aspiring to nonetheless. As long as we work within a depersonalizing, extractive system that treats people as interchangeable expenses against the company’s bottom line, then that system will not only continue to grind people down and spit them out, but also contribute to nasty practices elsewhere in society like treating food service workers with contempt. Severing the connection between personal worth and paid work won’t solve every problems, but it is a good place to start.

The Chosen and the Beautiful

Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.

I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.

The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.

I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.

What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.

Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).

I had mixed feelings about this book.

First, the good.

Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.

Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.

I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.

Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.

One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.

I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.

Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.

Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.

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I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.

Lost & Found

Memoir is a genre that I mostly avoid. If one were to ask why I only read one or two memoirs a year, I would wave generally at the idea that the intimate details of someone’s life are not really of interest to me, but the reality is that I almost always enjoy the handful that I do read. The truth is that I enjoy process stories, so memoirs like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, David Chang’s Eat a Peach, and Dessa’s My Own Devices are very much my thing, and I can appreciate a good writing about heritage or society, as in Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost and Ta Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Maybe I just don’t like the idea of the genre. Clearly, the aversion isn’t borne out in practice.

When I first came across Kathryn Schulz’ Lost & Found through Keith Law’s podcast I initially hesitated. I knew Schulz could write—she has a Pulitzer for her feature on the risk of a catastrophic earthquake in the Pacific Northwest—but the subject of her memoir, losing her father and falling in love, seemed to follow all of the stereotypes of the genre that leave me cold when I look at lists of memoirs that critics deem “the best.”

Then Shulz started talking about her father. Before the podcast had finished, I had acquired Lost & Found as an ebook from the library.

Lost & Found is divided into three thematic sections that unfold in loose chronological order: Lost, Found, and, as one might expect from the title, &.

We lose things because we are flawed, because we are human, because we have things to lose.

Lost is, predictably, a story of loss. But it is also a story imbued with the deep love of family. This opening section is about her father, a Jewish immigrant who moved from Łodź to Tel Aviv and then to the United States. Schulz describes her father as an erudite, intelligent man with an insatiable curiosity about the world and the people who live in it. He was also someone who habitually lost his wallet and other simple objects. Her love for him radiates from the page as she weaves his story with the heartbreak of losing him and meditations on the existential imperative of loss.

Of all the things that can make finding something difficult—false positives, false negatives, moving targets, incorrect search areas, lack of resources, the vagaries of chance, the general immensity of the world—one of the thorniest is this: sometimes, we don’t really know what we’re looking for.

Found, a natural complement to Lost, is a story about falling in love, written as though it is a meet-cute.

The first meeting took place in the Hudson River Valley where Schulz was living, alone, when friends introduced them. C lived hours to the south and stopped by when she passed through on a separate trip. The first date stretched into hours. The second lasted even longer. Schulz says that she had already decided to marry C, despite their differences.

Found is both saccharine and overflowing with joy. Schulz fills these pages with the exhilaration of falling in love—the long dates, the thrill of discovering an unexpected shared love (country music, in this case), the dawning realization that you don’t want to spend your life with anyone else. And, of course, learning how to communicate in a relationship with another person who is, by the nature of existence, different from yourself.

All of this is also made all the more profound given that it happens concurrently with the loss of her father.

The astonishment is all in the being here.

& is the story of being, about joining lives and the choices that get made along the way. It starts with a discussion about the meteor that created the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula where C grew up, in a life that could hardly be more different from Schulz’s own upbringing suburban Ohio. It reaches its climax at a wedding in the same region.

Some published reviews of Lost & Found remark that Schulz’ proclivity for wonderment borders on the tedious, but it worked for me. Schulz is not impervious to the crushing weight of contemporary events—she describes the concern that C’s extended family might raise objections to their marriage at their wedding, for instance—but she fills page after page of Lost & Found with reminders to seek joy in being because loss is a certainty.

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I am expecting that I will write more of these posts (along with a number of other posts) now that the semester is coming to an end. Most recently, I finished Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, an Icelandic thriller. I am now reading Babylon’s Ashes—the sixth book in the series—which means that I am likely going to finish the last three books this summer.

Smashing Statues

I have a draft blog post from a few years ago where I tried to grapple with my thoughts about monumental statues. The thrust of the post explored how statues are neither mere art nor monuments imbued with an immutable meaning. Rather, they are objects of memory and part of a dynamic process by which history, culture, and commemoration are woven. Their meaning emerges from decisions about what ought to be commemorated and how, so what gets evoked will not only change over time, but will also vary from person to person. They are always contested.

The post worked toward a discussion of the Emancipation Memorial created by Thomas Ball in Washington DC in 1876 and with a copy (formerly) in Boston.

I hate this monument.

Emancipation is a wonderful thing to commemorate, of course, but this is also a monument that shows Abraham Lincoln with his one hand holding his proclamation, which rests on symbols of federal authority like the fasces, his other held beneficently over the back of a barely-clothed black man. Abe towers above, looking on placidly.

Emancipation Memorial, Lincoln Park Washington DC (Wikimedia Commons)

I never finished that post, obviously. I was writing a collection of loosely-connected thoughts and I ran out of steam.

Erin Thompson’s Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton 2022) makes the argument I was trying to articulate in that post, only, you know, better.

Smashing Statues consists of two parts—four chapters on monuments going up, and four chapters on them coming down—all of which build from a simple premise:

American monuments were built to show us our place within national hierarchies of power. Regardless of our race, they tell us to sacrifice ourselves to the interests of those more powerful than us.

Thompson organizes each chapter around the story of one monument or type of monument as a way of exploring the disconnect between how they went up and the authority and reverence with which they are sometimes received.

For instance, Chapter 3 (“Shafts”) unpacks the history of Civil War monuments showing, among other things, how the most common monument was one that shows a common soldier at parade rest. That is, a monument that celebrates not the soldiers who died or the sacrifices of the living, but the obedience of the soldiers who fought for the cause.

My favorite chapter in the book, and one I’m considering assigning in class in the fall, is “A Shrine for the South,” which details the creation of Stone Mountain in Georgia in the 1920s. This site was intended to be the shrine described in the title, with a ghostly army of Confederate heroes riding along the mountain face. She starts the chapter with the story of how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum took an ax to the model head of Robert E. Lee, declaring that the project was a scam by the KKK to siphon off funds—before revealing that he was Klansman upset that he was being cut out of the profits.

To my mind, this chapter put on display all of the fissures involved in these monuments. Borglum joined the Klan, but he lived in Connecticut and was so enamored of Lincoln that he named his son after the dead president. The project relied on the Lost Cause mythology, but it also grew continuously because this was the surest way to secure additional funding. And, of course, Thompson concludes with a discussion of the project Borglum moved to from Stone Mountain: Mount Rushmore.

Smashing Statues is a quick read. Thompson is an art history professor with a special interest in the destruction of cultural heritage, and this book is based on her numerous articles on the topic of monuments since the summer of 2020. But it is no worse for the sense that it is a series of interconnected essays. The core message comes through like a clarion call, and not a moment too soon.

Traditional monuments put heroes on pedestals to tell us our troubles are over. They are our nation’s selfies—perfectly posed and cropped to show only our best angles. They cover up complications and give a too-rosy view of the past and the future. We need debates, not pieties. we need to question our past in order to remake our future. If monuments try to keep us where we are by holding up examples of impossibly perfect people, well, maybe we don’t need them at all.

Addendum: in the few minutes past when this post went up, a digital friend brought to my attention how these same tactics have been weaponized in Latin America. Smashing Statues is fundamentally oriented toward the the politics of commemoration in the United States where most these statues uphold the traditional political order. But in the sense that statues are not value-neutral, the instinct to tear down can be weaponized against monuments looking to establish a pluralistic vision of the future in much the same way that “heritage” can be used as a rallying cry to preserve those that enshrine the existing political order. Attacks that symbolically lynch the commemorated subject not only assert a political order, but also serve to intimidate the communities that would dare erect the monuments in the first place. This is because, as Thompson argues throughout Smashing Statues, monuments serve as an arena that reflects political debates in society writ large.

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I am hoping to write more in this space now that my semester is drawing to a close. This will likely include some book posts like this one where I give a few thoughts, if not a full review. Since the last one of these went up, I have also finished Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, and Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found, and I am now reading Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea.

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Black and white image of the cover of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home.

On January 6, 2021, a crowd people stormed the US Capitol Building in order to stop the certification of the electoral votes that made Joe Biden president. This was the result of actions meant to undermine faith in election and polarization heightened by the present media ecosystem, but it was also the culmination of decades of growing extremism among white nationalist and anti-government militia movements. That growth is the subject of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

While there has been a pronounced strain of separatism in the United States as long as there has been a United States, Belew identifies the modern iteration in the resolution to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. White power was at the heart of the militia movement from its inception, but she argues that the perceived betrayal in Vietnam prompted a very specific metastasis beyond bog-standard racism. It prompted people like Louis Beam to form militia groups with the stated intent of continuing the war. Naturally, they found common cause with groups like the Knights of the Ku Klux Klax that David Duke founded in 1975.

In these early ears, the militia movement claimed to be fighting against insidious forces and on behalf of the United States. They were soldiers taking the war into their own hands. However, Belew traces how this resentment and frustration transformed over the course of the 1980s until their orientation had turned 180 degrees. By the start of the 1990s militia groups operating around the country–and not merely at places like Ruby Ridge–saw themselves as soldiers in a war on behalf of white people against the United States, which they referred to as the Zionist Occupation Government. She concludes with a chapter on Timothy McVeigh and his terrorist attack in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, though that incident clearly did not put an end to the movements Belew documents is documenting.

At this point, I feel like I need to offer a caveat. I finished Bring the War Home a month ago and while I take copious notes on the books I read for “work” take only haphazard notes on books that I read for “fun.” This book technically falls in the latter category even though parts of it will undoubtedly make its way into my US history classes. I meant to write this post within a day or two of finishing the book, but it turns out that writing here is a lower priority than, say, my classes or work on academic publications. All of this is to say that the following analysis is going to be more a reflection on what I saw as a couple of key themes and less an actual review.

The first thing that stood out to me in Bring the War Home was how Belew traces multiple loosely-connected organizations joined by a common sense of purpose and sometimes, marriage. The various groups saw themselves as part of the same conflict and Belew shows how they used the early internet to support one another, but the absence of a hierarchy meant that quashing one did nothing to slow the spread of the movement. In fact, efforts by the federal government to address the militia movement in places like Ruby Ridge only galvanized other cells and sympathizers. This part of the book sometimes meant trying to keep track of a web of names, but it effectively highlighted the challenge of addressing the militia movement.

Second, perhaps the most striking chapter in Bring the War Home was “Race War and White Women.” In this chapter, Belew shows how white women were of central importance to the militia movement. That is, they claimed to be defending the virtue of vulnerable white women who, in turn, were expected to bear white children. These vulnerable white women were both an abstract ideal, rather like love interests in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and people who played a concrete role in spreading the militia ideas. In the case of a the Fort Smith sedition trial in 1988 that ended with the jury rendering a not guilty verdict, two of the white women on the jury subsequently entered into public relationships with defendants.

(One of the key witnesses in that trial went on to murder three people at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kansas in 2014.)

Bring the War Home is a terrifying book in many ways. It brings into focus a strain of extremism in the United States that has been steadily growing in prominence in the past few decades. This movement coalesced around racism, anti-semitism, and christian identitarianism, took advantage of new forms of media new media, and, as Belew put it on the first anniversary of January 6, ruthlessly seizes any opportunity. And yet, while these militia movements have themselves shed blood in their war against ZOG and fully intend to do so again, I can’t help but feel that their presence reveals a bigger and more insidious danger. The militia movement emerged from a specific knot of beliefs, but its growth and evolution stems in no small part from how many people not directly affiliated with any tentacle of the movement express sympathy for their positions. That is, the militia movement won’t win its war through force of arms, but through a steady campaign of radicalization that plays on preexisting prejudices. The fact that their ideas can be found elevated into nearly every level of government demonstrates that it is working.

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Crunch time on getting my book together meant giving almost all of my spare time to that, but I have still been reading a little bit every day because it helps me feel normal. Since my last one of these posts I finished Trevor Strunk’s Story Mode, a literary analysis of video games that had some interesting things to say about the evolution of games and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, which had a gift for rich descriptions of place and with a clever story structure but that I ultimately found disappointing in terms of the characters and how the plot was written, James S.A. Corey’s Nemesis Games (Expanse, book 5), and S.A. Chakraborty’s Empire of Gold. I intend to write about the latter two series at some point. Currently, I am reading Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne.

The Veiled Throne

Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books are the best fantasy stories I almost never see anyone talking about, full stop. Yes, they have received positive reviews from outlets like NPR, but I very rarely encounter anyone who has read them, perhaps because in form they are so unlike most major fantasy novels currently available.

Set on Dara, a self-contained continent protected by the wall of storms and a pantheon of gods, the series begins with The Grace of Kings, which tells the story of the rise of Kuni Garu and his eventual triumph over his onetime friend, the Hegemon, Mata Zyndu. The second book, The Wall of Storms, appears set to turn this tale of banditry and adventure into one of courtly intrigue centered on Jia and Risana, Kuni Garu’s two principal wives. However, Liu completely upturns these expectations with the introduction of warlike Lyucu.

Under a previous dynasty the scholars of Dara discovered that the Wall of Storms intermittently opens, so the emperor Mapidere organized an expedition on enormous city ships in order to conquer this new land, called Ukyu-Gonde. Despite the apparent backwardness of the Lyucu, they nevertheless defeated the expedition and, under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryo, launched an invasion of Dara during the next opening of the Wall of Storms. This expedition seized the outlying islands of Dasu and Rui, but the forces of Dara turned them back when they attempted to invade the main island. This victory, won by the barest of margins, cost the people of Dara. Kuni Garu died, his first heir (Prince Timu, turned Emperor Thake) sacrificed himself as the bride of Tenryo’s successor Tanvanki, and the next in line, Princess Thera, engaged herself Takval of the Agon, the anscestral enemies of the Lyucu enslaved by Tenryo, and led an armada to Ukyu-Gonde.

Such is the situation in Dara when The Veiled Throne opens. Empress Jia holds the regency in Pan where she tries to maintain the delicate ten-year truce with the Lyucu while the emperor, her step-son Phyro, agitates for direct action. Timu tries to find accomodation for the people of Dara against their brutal Lyucu overlords, and Thera tries to stage a rebellion among the Agon.

The Veiled Throne actually starts with an extended flashback to Ukyu-Gonde before the Lyucu invasion of Dara. During the period of the Dara invasion, Goztan Ryoto had been one of the Lyucu women enslaved by the foreigners, and her “master” named her “Obedience.” However, Goztan was a plant, one of the women Tenryo persuaded to feign subservience in order to kill the men of Dara and so was rewarded by becoming one of the loyal thanes who would in time lead the invasion of Dara.

However, something unusual happened during her captivity. Goztan came to appreciate that not all men of Dara were abjectly evil. Eventually this led her to become particularly attached to one of the Dara slaves, Oga, even taking him to bed, despite her other five husbands.

Back in the contemporary timeline, Goztan is the leader of the moderate party in the Lyucu territory, preaching accomodations and even having her son Savo educated by an independent scholar of Dara. This is a capital offense, particularly when discovered by Goztan’s rival thane, Cutanrovo, who believes that the only good Dara is a dead Dara. This political conflict will kick off a chain of events that send Savo (also known by the Dara name Kinri Rito) spinning into exile on the mainland of Dara where he will be adopted first by the Widow Wasu, proprietess of The Splendid Urn, the greatest restaurant in Ginpen, and then by the Splendid Blossom Gang, a motley crew of vagabonds who wander Dara doing good deeds. It is at the Splendid Urn where he meets the beautiful and enigmatic Dandelion, a young woman who everyone seems to know the backstory of except him.

Events in Ginpen, and particularly a delightful culinary competition between The Splendid Urn and The Treasure Chest run by the awful Tiphan Huto that reads like an extended restaurant wars out of the TV show Top Chef, come to the foreground in the latter section of The Veiled Throne. This section culimates with the Splendid Blossom Gang’s true objective: the infiltration of the imperial laboratory and archive hidden near Ginpen. However, much like the first two books, the narrative actually whips between several discrete storylines that variously intersect in both themes and events, while each chapter is situated in time, with a countdown pointing toward the next opening of the Wall of Storms. Thus:

On Ukyu-Gonde, Thera establishes contact with the Agon and works to establish a joint society, even while needing to collaborate with her husband’s duplicitous uncle who might betray them to the Lyucu at any time.

In a secret base in the mountains, the emperor Phyro oversees the raising of Garinafins, enormous, flying, fire-breathing creatures that are one of the secrets to the Lyucu military supremacy. Phyro continually petitions the regent to build up an invasion of “Unredeemed Dara,” all the while dreaming of military glory.

In Pan, the capital of Dara, Empress Jia plays politics, holding the state together for an emperor with little experience or interest in governing, preserving a delicate peace, and making preparations that suggest she is not so oblivious to the need to reclaim the lost territories as Phyro might think. However, her secrecy leads to conflict with members of the court like the Farisight Secretary Zomi Kidosu, the daughter of a Dasu fishing family (Oga and Aki Kidosu), whose mother was killed during the Lyucu invasion.

The Dandelion Dynasty rejects many of traditional fantasy narrative beats. Each book spans years and many scenes feel like vignettes to a larger epic story that I once likened to the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Sometimes this means a particular storyline will just get one short scene before skipping ahead several years, while others, like the restaurant wars described above, will get multiple lengthy chapters. Further, each individual scene conforms to the demands of its subject, with Liu seemingly pulling from inspirations as diverse as heists to a reality television show, to the Chinese ancient dialogues like Han Dynasty’s Discourses on Salt and Iron. Far from feeling uneven, though, these imbalances allow Liu to build in depth to the world and often to imbue it with playfulness and life.

Reading all of that, one might be forgiven for being overwhelmed. This book, much like the two that came before it, are a lot, and I often had to refer back to the dramatis personae to keep the relationships between the various characters straight. However, since the reviews of the first two books in the series are among my least favorite posts I have ever written here, I wanted to give this book its full due.

Ultimately, each of the three books to date follows a single compelling theme. The Grace of Kings is the simplest: it is the rise of power of Kuni Garu, the bandit who would become king. The Wall of Storms is a story about the clash of civilizations and the lengths people will go to in times of desparation. The Veiled Throne, in turn, is about negotiating cultural fusion, particularly when faced with the twin challenges of history and misinformation.

When I wrote about The Wall of Storms, I framed one of my comments as a way to get ahead of potential criticism, saying that Liu has a way of addressing contemporary issues in fiction. This was the wrong way to frame the issue. These books feel fresh exactly because Liu deftly weaves contemporary issues into the larger threads of the story. That is, he didn’t write a story about homosexual relationships, women in the military, bigotry, ethnic cleansing, standardized tests, refugee camps, or disability, but he did write a story with each of these elements. Similarly, the “silk-punk” technology that is a hallmark of these stories is a fanciful reimagination of, for instance, the technologies found in the treasure fleets created for the Yongle Emperor in the fifteenth century. Moreover, in bucking many story patterns typical of a lot of Sci Fi and Fantasy books, Liu is able to create a world that is more interesting, more vivacious, and more true to life than those in a lot of other books in the genre.

In short, The Veiled Throne is an excellent novel that only builds on the achievement of the earlier books. While there is so much going on that I sometimes found myself struggling to remember what had happened in earlier books, that mostly made me want to revisit them. My only complaint here is that we have to wait for the conclusion of the story, which, while written as a single book with The Veiled Throne, is being released under the title Speaking Bones in June 2022.

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My reading over this holiday has been David Graeber and David Wengrow’s fascinating The Dawn of Everything, which looks to overturn a lot of the conventional wisdom about the early history of human civilization and ask critical questions about how we became frozen in a broadly similar set of social structures. This is a book that gives a lot to think about.

Last Train to Istanbul

I am endlessly fascinated by the history of 20th century Turkey. The Young Turk Revolution in 1908 shook the foundations of the Ottoman Empire, which crumbled over the next fourteen years until the Sultan Mehmed VI went into exile in 1922 and the Turkish Republic came into existence the following year. The transition created a nation of contrasts. Formally a republic, Turkey was often dominated by the military establishment that saw itself as the caretaker of Atatürk’s legacy. The first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ushered in sweeping social and cultural reforms, including secularism.

This is the context behind Ayşe Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul.

Fazıl Reşat Paşa, a Turkish gentleman of the old style, had two beautiful daughters. The older daughter, Sabiha, married Macit, a government worker in the foreign office. The younger, Selva, was the apple of his eye, but even that could not overcome his anger when she decided to marry Rafa, the scion of a prominent family of Turkish Jews. Faced with the disapproval of their families, Selva and Rafa moved to France, just several years before the outbreak of World War 2.

Last Train to Istanbul traces the development of these two families against the backdrop of the growing threat of the Holocaust. Sabiha’s relationship with Macit frays with long hours that he works, leading to trouble at home with their daughter and a brief dalliance with therapy; Selva’s relationship is strained as the reality fo the Vichy regime sets in and she increasingly uses her position as a Turk to protect Jews. But the two are also connected. While Macit uses his position to thread a needle between helping Turkish Jews in France and keeping Turkey out of the war, his protégé, Tarık, who is infatuated with the idea of Sabiha, becomes increasingly involved with direct action after being posted to Paris. These actions culminates in a fraught train ride filled with Turkish Jews from France, through Germany, and on to safety in Turkey—a nice inversion of the usual picture of trains carrying Jews to the camps at Dachau or Auschwitz.

However, I didn’t love Last Train to Istanbul as a novel. I found the plot rather unbalanced, with the parallel story taking place in Turkey often clashing with the eponymous train plot. I understand that Kulin was not principally writing a thriller, but I found the two arcs dissonant rather than building depth. Further, I struggled to see characters and story beats as fully-developed in their own right because they always struck me as palimpsests of real people and events.

Perhaps because they were.

Kulin explains in the acknowledgments that much of the plot emerged from actual experiences of Turkish diplomats during the war who saw the unfolding Holocaust with horror. Perhaps because of their commitment to secularism, those diplomats used their positions to shelter Turkish Jews in France by extending documentation and intervening with the Vichy and German authorities and, later, at considerable risk to themselves, to offer what aid they could to even non-Turkish Jews. Last Train to Istanbul might not have been my favorite novel, but it provided a tantalizing glimpse into a side of the Holocaust that was new to me. One that I would like to learn more about.