The Queue

Yehya would never admit that he was just a single, powerless man in a society where rules and restrictions were stronger than everything else, stronger than the ruler himself, stronger than the Booth and even the Gate.

A new political authority has begun to assert authority in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. The Gate, named for its public-facing building, appeared in the city a few years ago and has gradually begun to assert authority in the name of two things: order and virtue. At first the Gate’s announcements and orders made little impact, but in the aftermath of the recent Disgraceful Events, they are beginning to encroach upon the daily lives of the citizens living in its shadow.

Just one problem: The Gate denies that the events of that day ever took place.

The Gate asserts authority through bureaucracy. Official petitions and even employment requires a certificate of True Citizenship, which one can acquire at the Booth, an adjunct of the Gate at the side of the building. Failure to acquire a certificate is the same as failing to provide adequate evidence of loyalty. Petitions can be brought to The Gate itself with certificate in hand, lining up in the eponymous queue until The Gate opens to hear petitions. Those waiting in the queue assure newcomers that The Gate should open at any time, they just need to be patient––and to wait their turn.

Basma Abdel Aziz drops a madcap story at the center of this Orwellian and Kafkaesque hybrid setting.

The plot of the novel follows the six necessary documents for the patient Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed’s file in his petition to receive treatment. On the day of the Disgraceful Events, Yehya acquired a bullet that is now working its way into his internal organs, but the X-ray evidence of the bullet has disappeared and the doctor in charge of his recovery has been directed to forward Yehya to The Gate’s hospital, which will only see him if The Gate approves his petition.

All Yehya needs to do is acquire a certificate of True Citizenship, formally declare that he did not receive the bullet from The Gate’s soldiers––perhaps the agitators shot him?––and wait for The Gate to open to approve the petition. Easy.

Yehya’s stubborn refusal to deny the truth he knows prompts his friends to go into overdrive in an attempt to save him, including trying to persuade Tarek, the original doctor, to perform the operation anyway.

As someone with an aversion to standing in line, I had an a visceral reaction to the description of this interminable line. Abdel Aziz builds an entire eco-system around the queue, presenting its metastatic growth as something that people simple accept as a new normal and presenting it as a niche market for tea vendors who cater to the line and preachers with a captive flock. Beyond its borders the line is not questioned, it simply is.

Novels about authoritarianism each find their own way to inject humanity into the center of the story. In 1984, for instance, Winston undergoes a crisis of conscience about the government and reaches out for natural and human connection before being stripped down to the bone and reprogrammed. In setting The Queue resembles 1984, but in plot it is closer to a Kafka novel where the protagonists struggle against the faceless bureaucracy. I didn’t find every character in The Queue compelling, but Abdel Aziz elevates the stakes in a powerful way by documenting Yehya’s deterioration at the same time as she shows people railing at, negotiating with, and trying to fight The Gate by turns, all with equal effect.

There are individual moments of dark humor, but The Queue is not an easy read. Rather, it is a grim tale that concludes with a powerful gut punch and a message: accepting the queue and its related imposition as the new normal means that The Gate wins.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I finished Hippie Food, a story of how the food of the counter culture shaped the modern American diet and have since begun Z, Vassilis Vassilkos’ formerly banned novel based on a Greek political conspiracy in the 1960s.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The life prospects for a girl from a poor family in rural China in the nineteenth century are practically non-existent. Her status will forever be tied to her husband, but the lack of a dowry places a hard cap on the status of husband she can attract.

So it is for Lily until her foot-binding results in perfectly-formed feet. Suddenly she is a desirable commodity. At the age of seven, she is matched as laotong (old-same) with Snow Flower, complete with a signed contract and a warning that this relationship is supposed to be more intimate and long-lived than a marriage. Snow Flower introduces herself to Lily by sending a fan on which she has written a poem in nu shu, a language designed expressly for women to communicate with each other away from the prying eyes of men. Things are looking up for Lily, but Snow Flower is harboring secrets that threaten the very core of the relationship.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story of a mismatched pair trading places. Lily’s perfect feet and simple-but-dutiful upbringing causes her star to rise, while Snow Flower’s falls. However, this is no mere lesson in peasant morality. Instead, the narrator is an older Lily reflecting on her life and spinning the story of how she gained her position in a world that undervalues women. Her account plays up––plausibly––her own naïveté such that the reader can sympathize with her feelings of betrayal upon learning the secrets that others withheld from her, while the trick of presenting the story as simultaneously that of a young and old woman highlights how Lily, in turn, betrays those who she loves.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan does not concern itself with much of a world outside of the narrow one that Lily and Snow Flower exist in, but is nevertheless situated historically in a powerful way. Not only does See aim to inhabit the lives of women in nineteenth century China, but the book is filled with moments that locate in time, from the deleterious effects of opium to the hope that the imperial exam will elevate a family to an appearance of the Taiping Rebellion. Each of these profoundly shape the novel but the goings on of imperial policy or global diplomacy remain in the foggy distance. In fact, I found the time when a political issue strikes closest to home, involving the Taiping Rebellion and a forced flight into the mountains, among the weakest sections of what is otherwise a tightly constructed book.

Above all, See writes beautiful prose. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is all the more powerful for its precise lyricism that captures the joy of escaping with one’s friend to get a special treat, the fear of the unknown, the hope for the future, and the pain of loss. This same quality can also turn the story utterly devastating, such as when Lily recounts, in excruciating detail, the process of footbinding, its success for her and all of the ways it could go wrong.

Despite minor quibbles with one or two plot points, I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, both as an exploration of women’s lives in 19th century China and as a discussion of memory in all of its messiness. There is an equal case to be made that Lily is the hero and villain of her own story, and See’s prose infuses her unrepentant delivery with nostalgia and regret.

ΔΔΔ

I just finished Basma Abdel Aziz’ The Queue, a book that reads like if the history of the modern Middle East were co-written by Orwell and Kafka. I started Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food this morning have been working my way through David Gooblar’s The Missing Course.

A List of my Favorite Novels (2020 edition)

A few years ago I published a list of my favorite novels. At the time I had intended to update this list annually, but never did, in part because there wasn’t much movement on the list and because the initial series included capsules that took a lot of work to write.

I have read a lot of really good books since publishing that list, with the result that not only is the list more than twice as long, but also that there has been substantial movement within it. For instance, the original list was entirely male and overwhelmingly white; it still leans heavily that direction, but also contains more than a dozen books by non-white authors and about a quarter of the new books were written by women, all of which entered the list in the last two years. These demographics are entirely based on the demographics in the books I read, so I fully expect that the list will continue to diversify as I read more widely.

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 11
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2017 (American War and Exit West)

Tier 5

66. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
65. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
64. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
63. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
62. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
61. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
60. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
59. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
58. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
57. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
56. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
55. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
54. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
53. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Tier 4

52. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2016)
51. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
50. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
49. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
48. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
47. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
46. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
45. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

44. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
43. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
42. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
41. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
40. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
39. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
38. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
32. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

A Darker Shade of Magic

There is something unique about London––all four of them. Kell casually calls the four worlds by their relationship to magic, grey for its absence, red for its richness, white for its drained look, and black for its purity, and each of them has a London in the exact same spot. Once, these cities lay open to each other, serving as a conduit from one world to the other, but those days have long since past. Now there are barriers. Black London locked away from the other three and its objects eliminated with gates erected between the other three so that only Antari can pass between them and strict prohibitions against transporting objects from where they belong.

Kell is one of two only two Antari (that he knows of) and thus serves the royal family of Red London, who also adopted him and raised him with their natural son, as a courier. The other Antari, Holland serves the same role for the throne of White London, a crueler and altogether more inhospitable place. But Kell is also a collector of miscellany from the other worlds, smuggling them into his own private collection and, from time to time, selling the trinkets to other collectors. Rhy insists this hobby will only lead to trouble, but Kell simply can’t help himself until his brother is proven correct.

In a White London tavern, Kell is contracted to carry a black stone to Red London, but, instead of a simple delivery, he is ambushed, wounded, and forced to make a sudden escape to Grey London where he stumbles into a street thief named Lila Bard whose help he will need if he is to live. To make matters worse, though, is that the stone seems to have a mind of its own and a desire to possess sentient beings to achieve its ends, whatever they might be.

A Darker Shade of Magic bears some of the marks of being the first book in a trilogy, but also stands on its own as an energetically-paced romp of a book that blends perilous action and something of a reverse-heist that circles a central mystery. Neither Kell nor Lila are particularly deep characters, at least at this stage, but they are both fun protagonists loosely of the “gentleman thief” archetype and the worlds are nothing if not vividly-painted.

However, for as much as I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, one relatively minor point of world building rubbed me the wrong way. One of the central conceits of the novel is there are four worlds of very different character, each of which has a London in the same spot and in roughly the same shape. Grey London is the one we are familiar with, while Red London has a celebratory fairie aura and White London has an austere severity with loose Scandinavian influences (as though the Danes had held onto England). As far as the story goes, I had no problems with the worldbuilding or flavor, even though it led to a particularly Anglo-centric flavor for each of the worlds.

What pushed this beyond simply a quirk of the story for me was the repeated assertion that each world had sources of magic that resonated across barriers and the two named in the book are the Thames River and Stonehenge: both in Britain. The infatuation with the Thames, in particular, which served no narrative purpose in the story, struck me as contributing to an impression not of a world with magic, but of a particularly magical Britain. On the whole this is arguably style rather than substance, but in a world that continues to deal with the destructive reverberations of centuries of colonialism and the ongoing reality of racist and imperial agendas, this small point oriented the world in a way that marred an otherwise excellent book.

ΔΔΔ

I’ve fallen a bit behind on blogging with the semester, but recently finished Alyson Hagy’s Scribe and Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I don’t know what fiction book I’ll start next, but I recently picked up a bunch of books I’m excited to read and this morning I started reading David Gooblar’s The Missing Course.

Who Fears Death

It turns out that exhaustion can beat my best intentions to get back to writing about the books I read. That said, I genuinely like wrestling with my thoughts about books and the process of reviewing them, so, despite the prospect of another busy year, one of my resolutions for the year is to get back to writing these posts.

Racial prejudice defines one corner of a post-apocalyptic Africa. According to the Great Book, the dark-skinned Okeke are naturally inferior and therefore ought to be subservient to the light-skinned Nuru. Both groups believe that any mixed offspring must be born of violence and rape and therefore the offspring, called Ewu, are naturally corrupted. On the first count, at least, they are usually not wrong.

The title character of Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu, is the product of such a violation. A powerful Nuru sorcerer following a prophecy about rewriting the book forever led Nuru soldiers into Okeke villages and using his powers to enhance their ability to rape and kill. Every Okeke man died and every Okeke woman was raped repeatedly before dying, save only the sorcerer’s victim, Najeeba, who he is convinced will bear him the son destined. Except Najeeba bears a daughter, fleeing far into the east to Jwahir where she seeks refuge, raising her daughter with a new husband there.

Of course, life isn’t easy for Onyesonwu in Jwahir. She is Ewu, but also her mother doesn’t hold with the town’s superstitions such as the Eleventh Rite (female circumcision), and Aro, the local sorcerer, refuses to consider teaching her magic despite her obvious skill and the mortal threat posed to her by her father. Still, this headstrong girl makes her own decisions, which wins her friends among the other girls her own age and with Mwita, Aro’s Ewu apprentice. The question is whether these friendships will be enough when Onyesonwu leaves Jwahir to challenge her biological father.

At its best, Who Fears Death is a careful exploration of these relationships and issues through a very tightly focalized viewpoint coming through Onyesonwu’s eyes. This meant particularly moving (if often harrowing) explorations of female circumcision, one character who is sexually abused by her father, and the interplay between magic, prejudice, and menstruation and pregnancy that doesn’t always come up in male-authored fantasy. Similarly, I was quite touched by the way in which the shared history in Jwahir and different experiences with the outside world informed the dynamics of this group that sets off ostensibly to save the world they all live in.

However, for all that Okorafor does well and all that I liked, I came away from Who Fears Death strangely dissatisfied––the way one does when expecting to be blown away and receiving satisfactory. Who Fears Death is a competent book that confronts serious issues head-on, but the same features that allow it to do this convincingly does not leave much room for exploration of the post-apocalyptic setting, which provides a few touches but did not strike me as a particularly necessary part of this story. I could say much the same about the “Africa” side of the equation, which could have as easily been an invented world.

(I have been critical of invented worlds that too bluntly followed modern analogs, but Who Fears Death doesn’t have a map and with the historical backdrop largely lost in the apocalypse, those critiques are dramatically reduced.)

But the tight focus on Onyesonwu and her story also caused the ending to fall somewhat flat for me. The actual execution, which involves her awareness of her eventual fate, is adequately executed, but I somehow wanted more because it came off as either too neat or too ambiguous. For me this once again came back to the choice to push this world to the background. Committing to Who Fears Death as the story of Onyesonwu allowed the emotional notes to land, but, at least for me, caused overall arc of the story to fall short.

ΔΔΔ

My reading has gotten a bit ahead of my writing, as is wont to happen, so I have also finished V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and Alyson Hagy’s Scribe. I haven’t decided what I’m reading next, but since I have read nothing but books by women so far this month, I might as well finish it out the same way.

Star Wars and I

Note: although I have note see The Rise of Skywalker, this post includes a spoiler for that film.

Even before the tepid reviews of The Rise of Skywalker started coming in I had basically decided to sit this one out. Maybe I will see it when it lands on a streaming platform––probably while grading papers––but certainly not in theaters because most of the negative reviews have confirmed my fear that the movie has basically steered into everything that frustrated me about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. However, after listening to The Watch podcast analyzing the movie and “spoiling” the big reveal, I wanted to revisit the topic.

One of the most appealing things about the original Star Wars trilogy is its simplicity, a perfect tri-colon of the hero’s journey to help the good guys triumph over the bad. Even the primary villains get progressively more powerful and villainous as the series goes along. Grand Moff Tarkin SW has a battle station that he blows up planets with, but he demonstrates his power by having control over Vader, who ascends to the top spot in ESB while teasing Emperor Palpatine for ROTJ. With all deference to Chewbacca, Ben Kenobi, and Lando, the movies only have five core characters (Luke, Leia, Han, R2, 3PO), with the others generally connected to this core group by one or more links. Similarly, each film has only three locations that aren’t starships (The Force Awakens has five, Rogue One had *seven*) and the only times I can think of where one of the original movies follows more than two simultaneous actions are the Death Star escape in SW and the climactic battle in ROTJ where Luke surrenders, Han and Leia are on the forest moon, and Lando has the Millenium Falcon, meaning that there are three arenas, but all circling one limited space.

For all of the issues in the original trilogy, including a rather shocking lack of diversity, this simplicity is one of the keys to its success. Deleted scenes from the movies reveal that Lucas had in mind a chattier story about the imperial academy and imperial politics more in line with the prequel trilogy. The final product drops most of those ambitions into the opening scrawl and a few lines of dialogue, allowing the audience to get swept away by the combination of knightly romance and space western. In turn, falling back on these tropes allows the series to develop somewhat more complex themes involving e.g. moral relativity and redemption by the end of the trilogy and leaves the door open to an expanded universe of cartoons and novels that can resolve many of the oversights in the original material.

This is an arc that can only work once. The prequel trilogy tried to literally reverse engineer the story, explaining the fall of the Anakin and the creation of the empire. As someone acutely pointed out to me in college, this turned the Star Wars saga from the Romance of a plucky young hero joining the rebellion against totalitarianism to the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

For all that they do well, the new Star Wars films are the mother of all third-act problems.

In the Watch podcast linked to above, one of the points Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald talk about is the garbled mess that is the story in The Rise of Skywalker. The original series had a final confrontation with the Emperor and the next set had the creation of Darth Vader and the Empire, where these three movies raced about the galaxy convincing people that Star Wars was back, but introduce stories that go nowhere (some of which are evidently excised altogether because of racist backlash to The Last Jedi) or that deserve a series-worth of exploration. While these issues contribute to the movie bloat, my bigger problem is that they give the sense that this is a trilogy determined to raise the stakes by trying to convince you that each movie is more epic than the last rather than by actually raising the stakes or by having each movie substantially build on the one before it.

All of this culminates in the big twist in The Rise of Skywalker that reintroduces Palpatine and reestablishes the inherited Force-aristocracy. To be clear: Palpatine and even the idea of heritable force powers are not the problem per se. These abound in the in the non-canon EU material and this is a setting where all sorts of technology can exist. In fact, as Kylo Ren’s obsession with the crushed face mask of Darth Vader hints at, Palpatine’s memory and resurgent Palpatinistas is fertile ground for storytelling (whatever Ian McDiamird thinks), except that we had just spent two films not talking about Palpatine in relation to the fascist junta that obviously regarded itself as his political heir.

Despite the idiosyncratic fact that the original three movies were the middle trilogy of nine movies, the third trilogy was never really never developed in any substantial way, which gave room for novelists, cartoonists, and other creators to build out the story. Some of these are not great, but they also gave rise to iconic villains (e.g. Admiral Thrawn), characters (e.g. Wedge Antilles) and room to explore inter-species relationships and xenophobia.

After each of the previous two films, I expressed my hope that people enjoyed New Star Wars, but that I did not fit into whatever the niche that they were filling––fully recognizing the irony of saying this about films directed at “everyone.” I stand by the first part of the sentiment, I hope people enjoy New Star Wars, up to and including The Rise of Skywalker. However, upon further consideration, and for all that the new films do right on the micro-scale in terms of filming, dialogue, casting, making Finn a Stormtrooper who bucks his conditioning, &c, that made the films have a markedly “Star Wars, but fresh” feel, they miss a macro-vision of what made the the original trilogy iconic.

A Recent Reading Recap

The thing about my current semester is that it barely left time to think, let alone do anything, but I did manage to crawl my way through a few books. Now that my semester is winding down and I finally have a moment to breathe, I have a chance to jot down notes.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed – My least favorite of the books I read this fall, The Possessed is a memoir about graduate school and Russian literature in which long sections read as though she was workshopping ideas for the book that eventually became her novel The Idiot. Batuman is a gifted writer and I enjoyed the discussions of Russian literature, but those often went beyond the authors I was familiar with and I was generally underwhelmed by her presentation of graduate school.

Eric Rauchway, Winter War – One of my aspirational goals for teaching is to read one new book about each class I teach in a given semester, beyond whatever other prep I have done. This was my choice for my Modern Americna history class. In Winter War, Rauchway examines the months between the election of 1932 and Roosevelt’s inauguration to show the radical start of Roosevelt’s New Deal and how Hoover sought to undermine his successor. This was a really excellent book that deftly leads the reader through the political maneuverings at the height of the Great Depression.

Josh Gondelman, Nice Try – The final non-fiction book I read this fall was Gondelman’s Nice Try. I attended Brandeis at the same time as Gondelman and we have a number of mutual friends, but I know him primarily as a writer for TV and on Twitter as the world’s nicest comedian. This collection is a delightful, light-hearted stroll through the serious topic of trying to be both a nice and good person in the world.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu – The fourth book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series is one of the best. Like Tombs of Atuan, this novel picks up the story of Tenar, now living on Gont as a middle-aged woman named Goha, her children grown. The inciting event comes when two people come into her life. First, an emotionally and physically damaged child she names Therru and then Sparrowhawk, no longer a mage, but a broken old man. The result is a heart-wrenching fantasy story of sorrow and loss that, like the rest of the series, undermines the typical heroic tropes including, this time, the notion that a single heroic victory would in fact set the world at rights.

Myke Cole, The Armored Saint – I started following Cole on Twitter because of his interest in ancient Greek history, but I also appreciate a good fantasy novel and he recommended people start with this one. The Armored Saint is a coming of age story about Heloise Factor, the daughter of the town’s scribe. What impressed me about this book is how Cole creates the sense of history, with adults having fought in past wars and an Order that prevents demons from entering the world by making sure that no wizard survives, while nevertheless focalizing this story that takes place in one small valley through the point of view of this young woman who, rightfully, is angry at members of the Order who abuse their power.

Jose Saramago, Blindness – The only capital-L literature book I read this semester was by Portuguese Nobel-winner José Saramago. Blindness is a harrowing story of a city that descends to anarchy when its citizens begin going blind. The government responds to the initial cases by quarantining the afflicted in an asylum, in the hopes that it will stop its spread. But the asylum fills up, and one of the wings organizes a ring to control the spread of supplies, extorting money and sex from the other wings. Then the supplies stop coming in and the inmates escape into a world abandoned when every one went blind. Overall Blindness struck me as a much more sophisticated and satisfying take on the themes of Lord of the Flies. My one lingering question was about the character of the doctor’s wife, who accompanies her husband into the asylum and is the only character in the entire book who never goes blind. I couldn’t decide what to make of her character, eventually deciding that she is saved by her selfless sacrifices at every turn, but also finding that this level of metaphor didn’t quite fit with the rest of characters in the novel. I quite liked Blindness in sum, but the fact that I came away wishing that I read it at a time when I could give it more attention means I might need to re-read this one.

ΔΔΔ

I am now reading Robin Hobb’s Ship of Destiny, the conclusion of her Liveship Traders Series. By the time I’m done, I hope to have enough time to write full review posts again.

Beloved

Except for an occasional request for color [Baby Suggs] said practically nothing––until the afternoon of the the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but white people. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.

Toni Morrison is an author who has been on my radar for a long time, but despite using the Nobel Prize for Literature to build a reading list and wanting to diversify my intake I have always found reasons to read something else instead. I have struggled with a lot of books set in the American south, for one, and her books just didn’t seem to be my speed––whatever that means, these are excuses. Morrison’s recent passing inspired me to rectify this oversight.

Beloved is a novel of two places, each with two phases, linked by Sethe––wife, mother, slave, freedwoman, murderer.

124 is the first place, once a refuge for former slaves outside Cincinnati and now where Sethe and her daughter Denver live with the ghosts.

The second place is Sweet Home, a bucolic plantation where Sethe had been a slave before fleeing with her family.

Two arrivals shake 124 from its dismal, spiteful routine. First comes Paul D, a man who had been a slave with Sethe at Sweet Home years past. Second comes the ethereal Beloved, a young woman who seems to have appeared out of the Ohio River. With each arrival Sethe gets further lost in the world of memory. Paul D reminds her of Halle, the father of her children and chosen husband, and of Sweet Home. Beloved, who Sethe associates with her dead baby with “beloved” carved on its headstone,” reminds her of the trauma of 124.

The main thread of Beloved begins in 1873, eight years after the end of the Civil War and longer since Sethe gained her freedom, but this is very much a novel about the lasting impact of slavery. The older women of 124 (Sethe and Baby Suggs, her husband’s mother) physically wear the carry the marks on their bodies, yes, but how Morrison writes the psychological scars is what sets this novel apart.

The most obvious example of these scars––and one that only deepens as the novel progresses––is Sethe’s decision to kill her infant her former owners track her down. This is obviously *the* central scene to the book, but smaller moments were equally revelatory. Some are expected having read about slavery in the United States. Racism from abolitionists, broken and lost families, casual sexual violence (albeit not from an expected angle). Others were less expected, such as Baby Suggs’ preoccupation with color once she is free and realizes she is allowed to have opinions about such things or the disconnect between the names the white slave owners use and the names that the enslaved people want to have.

What stood out most to me, though was how Sethe and Paul D remember Sweet Home.

Sweet Home is repeatedly referred to in glowing terms. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. The Garners, the original owners of the plantation, are generally remembered positively. They treat their slaves well, never beating or raping them, valuing their skills and opinions, and even arming the men to let them hunt. They don’t force Sethe into a sexual relationship, but allow her to have one with the man of her choosing and allow Halle (that man) to hire out his services so that he can purchase his mother’s freedom.

The Garners’ benevolence stands out because, after Mr. Garner’s death, a relation known as Schoolteacher takes over management. His opinion is that the Garners have been too lenient, and begins beating the slaves, restricting their movements, and employing any number of implements, including semi-sexual violations. Saying Sweet Home turned sour understates the toxicity of the change and underscores the depths of horror that slavery enabled.

But Morrison also uses this island of blessed tranquility to demonstrate the grotesqueness of slavery. Even with impossibly benevolent owners, slavery dehumanized the enslaved. Within the confines of Sweet Home the owned had a dim shadow of freedom, but they are isolated and still living their lives for the benefit of their owners. Whatever goodness the Garners have is forfeit by their participation in this system.

Beloved is not necessarily a book written with me, a white man, in mind. I frequently like a voyeur even while I was swept away by the power of Morrison’s prose or was caught by a turn of phrase that made me reread a sentence, paragraph or page. Yet, this discomfort is exactly the reason that people like me ought to read this book. Morrison simultaneously breaths life into the expected jagged wounds of American history and upends any usual assumptions.

If the purpose of literature is to liberate us from our own experience and build empathy, Morrison succeeds in spades. Beloved is spectacular and deserving of every accolade it won.

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I have been snowed under for the past two weeks with the start of the fall semester and have for the most part chosen to read rather than write here. In this stretch, and speaking of discomfort, I have finished reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which is a powerful look at her weight and am now making my way through Eric Rauchway’s Winter War, which is a really well-written look at the political gamesmanship between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt between the 1932 election and Roosevelt’s inauguration.

The Invisible Gorilla

The first viral video I remember in college is the eponymous video from this study, the invisible Gorilla. It came from a psych study of the same name where the researchers showed their subjects a video of people passing basketballs back and forth, some wearing white shirts and some black. They asked the viewers to count the number of times the people wearing white shirts passed their basketball. Then they asked them if they noticed a person in a gorilla suit. About half of the participants missed the gorilla, who walks through the middle of the game, turns to the camera, and beats its chest.

The experiment tested selective attention, showing how when the mind is focused on a particular task, particularly when that task involves tracking unfamiliar patterns, people are much more likely to miss what they are not explicitly tracking. When I watch the video I see the gorilla, but sometimes miss at least one of the passes.

In Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain this and other experiments, supplemented with real world examples, to give an engaging explanation for how the mind works, covering issues from attention to confidence to the potential for growth.

If I had to put a thesis to Invisible Gorillas it is that the human mind is extraordinarily well adapted for pattern recognition and focusing on individual tasks, but is easily overwhelmed.

Invisible Gorillas offers an exceptionally compelling discussion of (relatively) recent developments in the science of memory and intuition. Some sections of the book dated themselves. While talking about the illusion of patterns and predictive behavior, for instance, they praise John Roberts’ explanation in the Shelby County supreme court decision that struck down the Voting Rights Act, which has aged poorly in ways that were entirely predictable for reasons cultural, historical, and political. If these case studies can be misguided, I can only imagine that the science has developed since the original publication in 2010.

In general, though, I have little negative to say, and found that it offers a few practical lessons. Given the title of the book, the top-line takeaway is the dangers of divided attention. Chabris and Simons spend a significant amount of space talking about driving and other activities that people can do while distracted under ideal circumstances, but explain that distraction primarily interferes with the ability to adapt to the unexpected.

Secondarily, they explain, people overestimate their ability to multitask. I have noticed this when it comes to my writing. I often multitask when writing blog posts, with something on a second screen that I can passively absorb but don’t care if I miss anything. By contrast, when I’m working on projects I hope to publish, I have to eliminate distractions by closing down social media, turning off podcasts or anything visual, and often turn up music on my headphones.

(Chabris and Simons debunk the urban myth that listening to classical music makes one smarter in the illusion of potential; the music I listen to while writing varies, and I find the beat matters more than the genre because I usually tune the songs out.)

But as much I already knew and/or had discovered the issues with illusions of attention, the two studies I found particularly valuable were the illusion of confidence and false beliefs about memory.

On the former, people trust those who express confidence more than those willing to express doubt. In 2019, this is more important than ever. It would be easy to tie this illusion to any number of political and media issues, but I saw a relevance here for academia, too. I have long believed that one of the greatest disservices the US educational system does to students, particularly through standardized tests, is to make them believe that they need to have all of the answers. In turn, this means I try to model for my students how to not-know the answers; that is, to teach them to place confidence in being able to find explanations rather than in feigning them through confident bluster even though, as Chabris and Simons explain, society generally values the latter.

The latter caught my attention because I have been working with memory as a historical construct. I introduced this post with a memory of watching the invisible gorilla video in college, which I thought was a viral video, perhaps on Youtube. The facts line up: I was in college around the time the video made news and Youtube and Facebook both existed. In truth, though, I don’t actually know that this was when or how I saw the video, only that I have been aware of the video for a long time. This inconsistency is exactly the point of Chabris and Simons’ section on memory: memory is malleable and flawed, connected to our emotions and experiences, and highly impressionable. My reading of historical memory is that the same holds true, except with more intentionality behind the shaping of memory.

There is also more to Invisible Gorillas that is worth consideration, including discussion of why we believe so strongly in the potential to improve ourselves quickly and the way in which people tend to misunderstand probabilities. In short, this is a worthwhile read on a number of levels, from simple curiosity to practical applications in a range of settings.

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I just started Toni Morrison’s Beloved because her passing reminded me that I had never read any of her books even though I’ve been trying to read more African and African-American authors. I am only a few chapters in, but am so far finding it viscerally affecting and awkwardly voyeuristic in a way that is making me particularly conscious of my whiteness. The last part is heightened by having seen clips of Morrison commenting on tone deaf critiques of her literature as not addressing white audiences.

The Farthest Shore

“The traitor, the self; the self that cries I want to live; let the world burn so long as I can live! The little traitor soul in us, in the dark, like the worm in the apple. He talks to all of us. But only some understand him. The wizards and the sorcerers. The singers; the makers. And the heroes, the ones who seek to be themselves. To be one’s self is a rare thing, and a great one. To be one’s self forever: is that not better still.

“What is a good man, Arren? Is a good man one who would not do evil, who would not open a door to the darkness, who has no darkness in him? Look again, lad.”

Decades after the events of The Tombs of Atuan, Prince Arren of Enlad has arrived on Roke, the island of the Wizards, with dire news: magic is disappearing from the world. Signs of this impending doom haven’t reach Roke yet, but the Archmage Sparrowhawk (Ged) who watches the balance of the world decides to trust Arren and venture out into the world to see what is happening.

They go first to the Southern Reaches where magic has indeed vanished, and with it most restraints of social connection. The disappearance of magic from the world of Earthsea so disrupts the fabric of society that it begins to unravel as people turn to drugs to cope. People alternate between despair and succumbing to a destructive, addictive promise of oblivion where they are being told that they can find eternal life. The mage and his guardian then head west, encountering the people of the open ocean who live on rafts where the magic of the song is also vanishing, before heading past the islands of dragons and to Selidor where they have to cross over into the land of the dead to find the source of this darkness.

The best thing about Le Guin’s Earthsea novels is her oblique and nuanced approach to themes. Where most fantasy literature relies on supernatural or eternal evil, these novels have grand stakes through intimate stories. A Wizard of Earthsea tackled taking rash actions and overcoming an internal darkness. The Tombs of Atuan took on issues of gender, power, and uncritical belief. The Farthest Shore is no different. Here she tackles the banality of human evil and, ultimately, the ordinariness of heroism when individuals have the courage to take action even at a cost to themselves––regardless of whether the person is young Arren or Ged, the most powerful mage alive.

The themes in The Farthest Shore turn it into a thoughtful meditation on good and evil, but it was my least favorite of the first three Earthsea novels. As usual, Le Guin’s new afterword is an engaging read, here focusing on dragons, the human face of evil, and why the novels seem to skip forward in time at irregular intervals. Contrasted with the first two books, though, I found the plot and most of the character development got lost for the meditation on good and evil. I had this same problem to an extent with A Wizard of Earthsea, but the fact that it was also a story about Ged’s coming of age, character came to the fore.

Here, we get a glimpse of Ged at the height of his powers, something we know because he have heard the tales about his deeds even when we haven’t seen them, but much of the story hinges on Arren, who Ged mostly takes under his wing. So far this isn’t a problem, and Arren even has his moments, but then he is revealed to be the descendant of Morred, one of the good kings of old and therefore a candidate to take up the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and justly rule the land. Where The Tombs of Atuan revealed “reincarnation” to be the work of a dangerous cult and A Wizard of Earthsea showed the nobody Ged to be a hero because of how he used his prodigious gifts, The Farthest Shore offered us an entitled heir if only he has the courage to claim it. For me this undercut much of Le Guin’s otherwise incisive story.

The fourth book in the series, Tehanu, won the Locus and Nebula awards for best fantasy novel in 1991, so I am looking forward to reading it despite my issues with The Farthest Shore.

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Next up, I just finished Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons’ The Invisible Gorilla and other ways our intuitions deceive us, pop-science book about the psychology of intuition. I haven’t decided what to start next. I have a copy of Tehanu, but may need to read Beloved first, in light of Toni Morrison’s passing.