The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.

There are adjustments one must make if one comes here from America; a different way of observing is required. I recall the Americanness of my own gaze when I returned to Lahore that winter when war was in the offing. I was struck at first by how shabby our house appeared, with cracks running through its ceilings and dry bubbles of paint flaking off where dampness had entered its walls…I was saddened to find it in such a state—no, more than saddened, I was shamed. This was where I came from, this was my provenance, and it smacked of my lowliness.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens with the simple question: “excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?” An unnamed, vigilant American is seated against the back wall of a cafe in Lahore when he is approached by the speaker, a bearded Pakistani who offers his assistance. The young man introduces himself as a lover of America and, in a one-sided conversation that lasts long into the night, explains his affinity for America and how he came to be in Lahore.

Changez was once a model immigrant to the United States. Elected from the cream of the international crop of applicants, he graduated at the top of the Princeton class of 2001 and won a job offer from the prestigious Underwood Samson corporate valuation firm. The sign-on bonus from the job allowed Changez to take a trip to Greece with scions of American wealth and fortune, where he meets Erica, a beautiful writer reeling from the death of her childhood love. Naturally, Changez falls for her.

The seeds of their courtship contribute to Changez’ charmed life, but the relationship that sprouts creates the first crack in the facade that will lead him back to Lahore. Memories of her old boyfriend form a labyrinth that Erica cannot escape; as much as she likes Changez and as much as he tries to help her, their relationship is doomed. Her condition deteriorates parallel to his relationship with America.

Then the Twin Towers fall. In an instant, Changez transforms from just another New Yorker to a Pakistani, a potential threat. He remains valued at work, but under a new level of scrutiny from his coworkers. Thoughts of the American war in Afghanistan and fears of a war with India intrude on his working hours, threatening his once-promising career. Now he grows a beard and soon he makes plans to return to Lahore where he becomes a teacher.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist uses a simple story-telling device to juxtapose two young men. The outgoing, talkative Pakistani Changez bears only passing resemblance to the guarded, watchful Changez in America. Mohsin Hamid gives no indication that Changez is an unreliable narrator, so the differences lay in his level of comfort. In Pakistan, Changez cheerfully talks about the women, the market, the waiter, the food, and his past; in the United States, even a successful immigrant is an outsider feeling his way around. At the same time, he is shocked to learn that the years in the United States alienated him from Pakistan when the home he returns to looks grungy and dilapidated to his western eyes.

This fundamental tension is at the heart of the book, with everything else serving to highlight it further. The romantic storyline, for instance, is effective, but feels like an extended metaphor about living in the past and the impossibility of Changez’ American ambitions. (The digital assistant for Bank of America is also named “Erica”.) I felt deep sympathy for Changez, particularly on the issue of feeling out of place, and could relate to the experience of relocating from the superficially new that is identified with America to the lived in that is somewhat worse for wear. In that sense, and not for the first time, I took slight issue with defining “America” synonymous with New York and New Jersey. But neither that complaint nor the somewhat predictable arc of the Lahore storyline detracts from a masterful novel.

In sum, I loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamid tackles the experience of disassociation and loss at a lively clip, with a protagonist who bears no visible scars. Exit West, his most recent novel is a bit more sophisticated and less predictable, but The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, deserves every accolade it received.

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I’ve fallen behind again and am giving up on writing about every book. I still plan to write about Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, but am delaying because I intend to watch the film again first. I also finished Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer, which is a perfectly pleasant installment in his Stormlight Archive world, but not something to read on its own. I’m now in the middle of Tana French’s The Broken Harbour, a riveting murder mystery set in Ireland.

The Devil in the White City

Chicago was an eventful city in the 1890s. It had a booming population, reaching the status of second city in time for the census at the start of the decade and, as a center of industry, its leading citizens were determined to make Chicago the site of the World’s Fair commemorating Columbus’ voyages to America. To the eastern elite Chicago was unsuited for this distinction as a smelly, uncouth, backward city. But win the bid it did, commissioning the architect Daniel Hudson Burnham to design a fair that had to be ready to open in 1893 and surpass the grandeur of the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, by any means necessary.

The end result was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, an event that set a single-day record for peace-time attendance at nearly three quarters of a million on Monday October 9. The White City and accompanying Midway with its massive Ferris wheel, the first of its kind, spinning above it, was a marvel of engineering and science. The designers had to overcome monumental challenges of the landscape during construction, and the final product featured the latest technological marvels, including widespread lighting systems powered by a grid using alternating currents.

But just a few blocks away from the fair there was another building designed with the utmost care. But where the fair was designed with an eye toward grandeur and beauty, this other building, designed by an amateur, was sinister in its functionality. This building was owned and operated by a charming young man who went by H.H. Holmes, the first known serial killer in the United States.

Erik Larson weaves a narrative from these two stories as they build toward their conclusions, with interspersed vignettes from a young man named Patrick Prendergast who believed he was owed a political appointment. The result is a highly engaging book that brings to life in 1890s Chicago and makes the case that this remarkable event shaped the direction of modern America in a myriad of ways.

From a purely aesthetic point of view I loved this book and I can see why it is a popular choice to assign students. But at the same time, the more I read, the more I thought it was a remarkable coincidence that Holmes was active at the same time as the fair. The details of Holmes’ method and the reality of his building offer the perfect counterpoint to the opulence taking place down the street, even if the two narratives are practically unconnected. Nor do I doubt that the broad strokes of the chillingly fascinating account of Holmes’ life are accurate, but Larson breathes life and pseudo-sexual motivation into the killer in a way that is based on supposition.

(Larson acknowledges the difficulties of the sources about Holmes in his notes, and it is not actually clear whether Holmes killed anyone in town just for the fair.)

The result is that while the part of my brain that was reading The Devil in the White City for pleasure ate this story up, the academic side of my brain was left asking what this part of the story contributed to Larson’s case that this fair shaped modern America.

There were other, smaller quibbles that gnawed at me at times, including Larson’s seeming obsession with gout that emerges from being overly enthralled by the characters in the book at the expense of systems that were taking place at the fair (tell me more about the food not at banquets, please). But these complaints notwithstanding, The Devil in the White City is a deeply engaging read that brings the city of Chicago of that era to life and death.

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I have been spending more time reading than writing over the past week. I’ve also finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I’m on the fence as to whether I will write about the first two, but I absolutely loved the third and have thoughts.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

There is social unrest in England in 1806. Napoleon appears invincible and with Admiral Nelson dead the question on everyone’s mind is when, not if, he will invade. But there are other developments afoot. 

These events by all accounts began at an otherwise unremarkable meeting of the Society of Theoretical Magicians in York, where the scholarly society  congregates to discuss issues of the history of magic. The participants are not actual magicians, but learned in the history of British magic—or they were until the first practical magician any of them had ever met appeared and forced them to recant their pursuit. That practical magician, Mr. Norrell, with the aid of his trusty man Childermass who has been collecting every available book of magic, stakes a claim to being the only magician in Britain. Norrell makes himself of service to the government and restoring the life of Lady Pole, albeit with the help of a fairy, the man with Thistledown hair, to whom Norrell bargains away half of Lady Pole’s life.

Of course, Norrell is presumptuous in assuming his singularity, and it soon appears that there is a second magician, Jonathan Strange who the raving street magician Vinculus prophecies will help restore magic to England.

Norrell and Strange form a partnership that is complementary and combative. Norrell is bookish and controlling, where Strange is ambitious and creative. As their skills grow, Strange becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the secrets Norrell keeps and the restrictions he establishes, and they particularly clash over the fundamental nature of magic: Norrell wants a magic for the modern man, but Strange believes all magic is of the Fairy and therefore incompatible with the modern world. Where Norrell hones his skills in the refined security of a library at the beck and call of government ministers, Strange’s magic is put to the test in on the battlefields of Spain and Belgium.  These crucibles lead Strange to wildly inventive magic, but, to Norrell, they also engender a dangerous wildness in his erstwhile pupil.

Told in a format that blends the prose in an nineteenth century style with a presentation as a learned historical text of the sort that the theoretical magicians produce in the story, the windings of the plot in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are too long and intricate to do any justice here. What I can say is that while there is no love lost between myself and Mr. Dickens, whose stories this in some ways mimics, I was completely taken by this alternate history.

Clarke does a remarkable job of bringing the world of magic into early-nineteenth century England, seamlessly fitting an entire alternate history of this one aspect into the wider concerns of the day. Moreover, she breathes fresh life into an old trope from nineteenth century literature of the buttoned-up, scientific, modern man being challenged by unbridled forces that threaten him with destruction.

I had just one main complaint, which requires discussion of a particular plot point. (Consider yourself warned.) Vinculus’ prophecy about the tells of a third person, a man without a name who will become king. One person who feasibly fulfills this description is Stephen Black, the black servant of Sir Walter Pole. The man with Thistledown hair takes a shine to Stephen while visiting the Pole household, commenting on the nobility of his bearing and greatness of his spirit, showering him with royal gifts, and taking him into his entourage for the fairy balls. I liked the inclusion of a black man who would fulfill the prophecy and Stephen’s abhorrence at the methods of the man with Thistledown hair speak well enough for him, but for all of the buildup to Stephen’s greatness he is a passive character carried along by the whims of another who serves only to fulfill the prophecy. In the world of prophecy this works because it is an unexpected resolution, but in the world of a hefty novel it lags behind the rest of the characterization and plot.

My complaint about Stephen Black notwithstanding, though, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a brilliantly realized novel worth every one of its many pages.

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I recently finished Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon and Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive novella* Edgedancer, and am now reading Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

*novella is a relative definition here, barely squeaking in at 40,000 words, by any measure except in comparison to the main novels in the series.

The Idiot

“But civilization is based on lies.”

The Idiot, 361

The Idiot is a college novel that follows a single year in the life of a young first-year student. Selin is Turkish-American, the daughter of divorced parents, and arrives at Harvard in the fall of 1995.

At Harvard, Selin has a typical array of experiences for new students, meeting her roommates, making new friends, and getting adjusted to school. Selin’s classes are a mixed bag, but she particularly likes her Russian conversation class where she meets a fellow first-year Svetlana who becomes her closest friend and a senior mathematician from Hungary named Ivan. Selin finds herself falling for Ivan, engaging in an awkward and chaste romantic correspondence via email. This infatuation, one that is drawn out with the promise of consummation just over the horizon, drives Selin’s actions and therefore the plot, taking her finally to rural Hungary to teach English the following summer.

But overarching idea that lies behind The Idiot is the course Selin takes in her first semester: “Constructed Worlds,” a disorganized hodgepodge of movies, books, and ideas. Selin begins to see worlds constructed everywhere, from her own writing projects, to the traumatic story in the Russian conversation textbook, to the Hungarian villages—and, above all, in her digital relationship with Ivan.

The cover flap praises Batuman’s dry wit, and there is a certain ironic, observation humor that emerge from the absurdity that emerges from the admixture of the self-seriousness of college with that time in life. But it was not for me a laugh-out-loud comic novel. The strength of The Idiot lay in the raw emotions of Selin’s naïve love for a boy who both does and doesn’t have any idea what he is doing to her. The senior and the first-year are at very different places in their life, overlapped by a class and bridged by the tenuous and incomplete medium of email. And yet, for a year, Selin’s decisions are dictated by the whims of this older, unavailable man.

I read several reviews of The Idiot before picking it up that speculated about how much it is based on Batuman’s own experiences at a Turkish-American woman at Harvard in the mid-nineties who has also written extensively about Russian literature. Certainly Batuman infuses The Idiot with sense of place that feels like Boston in general and the Harvard area in particular, but this issue of Harvard stayed with me while I read the book. There were, on the one hand, numerous points that were universal to the college experience, but, on the other, I was struck by the sense of Harvardian [sic] exceptionalism. Everyone is smart, everyone is talented, and they come from diverse backgrounds. This makes for a colorful cast of characters, but also underscores that this is not a typical college story. Rather, it is one about the constructed world of Harvard.

In short, I enjoyed The Idiot. It is a smart novel, thoughtful and well-written, but I also thought it fell a bit short of its lofty praise. 

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Between a brief trip and the end of the semester, I’ve fallen off writing about books I’ve been reading about in the past few weeks, but have recently finished both Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. I plan to write about both in the near future. Last night I started reading Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer.

Neuromancer

Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory.

In a world of bright, runaway urban sprawl, grungy alleys and runaway tech-implants, Case is a cowboy. That is, someone who jacks into computer mainframes and hacks into programs to steal things. Case was a cowboy. Two years ago he stole from his employers, was caught. Instead of killing him, they injected him with a toxin that fried his nervous system and burned out his ability to operate in cyberspace.

Broken and living with a bounty on his head in Chiba, Japan, Case is recruited by a mysterious man calling himself Armitage and his dangerous employee Molly, a tech-enhanced killer. Armitage pays for an experimental surgery to repair his broken nervous system, telling Case that he is on the hook for a job. If he refuses, the toxins will be released back into his blood.

What follows is a dizzyingly-psychedelic heist novel. Case comes to realize that Armitage is a front for a more powerful entity, a powerful artificial intelligence called Wintermute created by the enigmatic Tessier-Ashpool family against the Turing board regulations. But Wintermute is incomplete, and has assembled this crack team of broken individuals to unite it with its other half, Neuromancer.

Neuromancer does a few things really well. Its world is immersive and the consequences of this tech-dystopia are revealed. Anything is possible, for the right price. For instance, Molly sold her body for sex in order to pay for the enhancements. Not explicitly called prostitution, Molly became a puppet where she experienced it as a dream while her body fulfilled the desires of men.

The mandatory scenes of collecting the team were likewise effective. The individuals are all highly competent, but equally flawed. The result is that the tensions are ratcheted up because the team is simultaneously competing against the opposition and racing against the inevitability that their old flaws—drugs, trauma, physical limits—cause them to crack.

I appreciated Neuromancer, but I didn’t love it. For instance, where Molly’s sexual history was effectively horrifying, both highlighting the exploitation inherent in her objectification and coming back with narrative ramifications, she has another relationship with Case. It is clearly consensual, but it was comparatively unexplained and therefore felt gratuitous, as though one of her character’s primary purposes is as a sexual object.

More broadly, Gibson’s attention to the detail of this world was simultaneously effective and distracting, making this the rare book where I pulled up reviews to make sure that I read what I thought I had read.

Published in 1984, Neuromancer was ahead of its time and is one of the foundational texts in the genre of tech-dystopia. It is built out in the underbelly of a world dominated by corporations and wealthy families, where exploitation is rampant and there is a cult-like adherence to faith in technology as a panacea for all ills, and where our heroes are supposed to be the singularly special individuals who are out to save themselves at all costs from a world that has already torn them to shreds.

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I have had less time to read recently than I would like, but that happens sometimes. I just picked up Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a coming of age college novel. It is too soon to pass judgement, but so far, so good.

I Saw Her That Night

It all stank of slivovitz and death. It was nonsense, that oath, nonsense, as Veronika would have said, she who laughed at our first meeting when I told her why we ride into battle, nonsense to fight against everyone who’s ganged up against us, as well as those who betrayed us. But then fight we did, we killed, and it stank of fear and death.

Everywhere life is resurgent, but I’ve been colonized by death, I’ve seen too many dying people to be able to enjoy this summer as everything starts over against, human death has occupied my thoughts like a gnawing rat

As a woman I know that memories of past love are sometimes more powerful than the chains we bind ourselves with, even if just symbolically and for fun.

In the waning months of World War 2, chaos reigns in Slovenia. Nationalist and communist insurgents hold the forests, the reeling Germans still hold the towns, and normal life is practically impossible. In the confusion, Veronika Zelnik and her wealthy husband disappear, taken from their home one night, never to return. I Saw Her That Night unfolds like a mystery trying to uncover what happened from five distinct viewpoints, linked only by their relationship to her. Each chapter is told by the narrator blending the discomfort of the present with the nostalgia and trauma of the past. The result is a brilliantly realized novel.

The first chapter opens with Stevan Radovanović, a Slovenian soldier turned guerilla whose horseback lessons for Veronika turned into an illicit liaison that saw her run away with him. But their romance was doomed from the start, and the second viewpoint is that of Veronika’s mother, who convinced her to return to her husband. The mother gives way to the German doctor who she writes because he was friendly with Veronika and therefore might know if she survived the war. The doctor gives way to Jaži, the housekeeper, and finally to Jeranek, the Slovenian man who sometimes worked on the estate.

Each person is haunted by memories of Veronika and filled with questions. What happened to her? What could I have done? Did I do the right thing? Was I complicit in her death?

Despite not being a point of view character, I Saw Her That Night is built around the character of Veronika Zelnik. Her narrative arc begins innocently enough, with her husband commissioning a cavalry officer to give her riding lessons while the country was at peace. Around the time she returns to her husband Slovenia is occupied by German forces, and her husband frequently hosts their officers which gives her a chance to show off the fluency in the language and fascination with German culture she acquired while studying in Berlin. Leon Zelnik also gives supplies to the insurgents, but his coziness with the Germans nevertheless breeds resentment among those who have less than he does.

I was occasionally disappointed in the presentation of Veronika, though. In particular, she comes across as a manic pixie dream girl who everyone cannot help but love. She is a strident pacifist who the soldier hates at first encounter, a charming and persuasive hostess, and a caring woman who rescues Jeranek and drives his girlfriend to a doctor, but whose flirty interactions with other men nevertheless stoke the flames of his jealousy. This presentation is made more acute because we are never given Veronika’s side of the story and I was reconciled to it because each narrator gives a slightly different picture of the same woman. It is clear that each character is operating with partial information and they are all frequently mistaken about Veronika’s actions and intentions, with tragic consequences.

I Saw Her That Night, which is primarily set a couple of years before its author Drago Jančar was born, is a deeply moving novel about the memory of national trauma, with Veronika’s disappearance standing in for the larger conflict. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this one from a list of “best” Eastern European novels, but was richly rewarded with one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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I am now reading William Gibson’s Nebula- and Hugo-winning, classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. So far I’m finding it to be a disorienting read.

One Nation Under God

In their struggle against the New Deal, the business lobbies of the Depression era had allied themselves with conservative religious and cultural leaders and, in so doing, set in motion a new dynamic in American politics.

One of the things I like about teaching American history, and particularly twentieth century US history, is that it is fairly easy for students to see its relevance on contemporary society, which is a reliable way to turn up student engagement. One activity I like to do with students is to establish a broad premise, talk with the students to establish what preconceived ideas are floating around in the zeitgeist, and then work with them to understand how these ideas came from.

For instance, I do this with students when it comes to American religion in the twentieth century. I begin by asking them whether the United States is, broadly speaking, a religious country in general and a Christian country in particular. Some students will bring up the establishment clause in the Constitution, but eventually students say yes. I then ask how we know this, and, among a variety of answers, some student will inevitably point to “In God We Trust” printed on currency. I then work the students through some of the midcentury religious revivals and particularly the emergence of organized religion into the political sphere in the 1950s out of which public declarations of faith in the pledge of allegiance and US currency developed. My point with this activity isn’t to challenge anyone’s faith or even to explicitly reject the idea that most Americans in any given year considered themselves Christian, but rather to encourage students to see how, when and why these symbols came into being and therefore to think critically about what they mean.

I mention this example because I recently had a chance to read prominent #twitterstorian Kevin Kruse’s book One Nation Under God. The elevator pitch for this book is that Kruse goes looking for how the phrase “one nation under god” made its way into the pledge of allegiance of the 1950s. I was aware of the religious revivals in the 1950s and had always interpreted it as the realization of Cold War branding of the United States as distinct from “godless” communism, though, in retrospect, that was a lazy assumption.

Kruse traces the origin of these revivals and the first steps to bring religion from the realm of the personal to public life further back into the 1930s, when, he says, corporate leaders looked to religion to rehabilitate their brands from the stigma of the depression. In turn, and from a combination of personal piety and cynical self-interest, they helped sponsor events that sparked the 1950s revivals. The wave of religion encouraged and manipulated by President Eisenhower changed the nature of public religion in America and created an alliance between capitalism and christianity that dovetailed with American Cold War propaganda. In addition to the changes implemented to the pledge of allegiance and the face of currency, it was in this same period presidents began hosting the National Prayer Breakfast that has since become an annual event.

Where Americans once blanched at bringing the church and the state too close together because of the risk of corrupting the church, Kruse documents how in some of the early controversies over children reciting non-denominational prayers and the pledge of allegiance in schools, the ACLU was hesitant to take up the case on behalf of the parents.

Even though it took me longer to read than I would have liked (a combination of a busy schedule and a lot of detail meant that this was a slow read for me), I really liked On Nation Under God. I knew most of the broad outlines of this story, but the virtue of this book is that Kruse presents a mountain of evidence rather than relying as I was on general impressions. And within that evidence there are unexpected developments.

Two of my takeaways both came from his discussion of issues of religious faith in schools, which was taken to the Supreme Court.

One was the way in which the religion that made its way into public life was light on doctrine as a way to circumvent theological disputes and generate broad support. Nowhere was this more true than in the attempts to establish a non-denominational prayer to be recited daily in schools in New York. Critics thought its “vague theism” was so diluted as to be meaningless, but it strikes me that this pervasively felt, doctrinally ambivalent Christianity remains a legacy in American public life.

The other was an insight into the composition of the court in the 1950s and early 1960s when it passed down rulings on whether students should recite a prayer (no, it is not inherently patriotic) and the pledge of allegiance with the added language of “one nation under god” (yes, it is a declaration of patriotism, not a prayer). Kruse documents how some of the staunchest defenders of these decisions were themselves deeply religious and active in their churches, but that they believed that this was an unconstitutional act of establishing a religion.

As an outsider to both the field of American history and mainstream American Christianity, I am sure that there are facets of this book and its ramifications that I missed, but the broad strokes of this evolution in American political discourse was supremely enlightening for where they came from and thinking about how this relationship between business, religion, and government has developed in the decades since.

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I finished reading Drago Jančar’s I Saw Her Last Night, a fascinating Slovenian novel about the disappearance of a woman in the last years of World War 2, told through the memories of five people who knew her. I’m between books at the moment, but leaning toward next reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

My Own Devices

My usual way of being could probably be summed up as chronically un-hip. I usually read books, list to music and see movies well after that phase has passed. When culture swings back around to where I am, such as with the Song of Ice and Fire (which I started reading in about 2000 when I was in early high school), the hipness doesn’t quite stick. I generally have pretty good taste, in my obviously biased opinion, so this un-hipness doesn’t bother me. It just is.

This is all preamble to talking about a book that, in reading it less than a month after its publication, might possibly be the hippest thing I have ever done in my life. That book, published less than a month before I read it, is My Own Devices, a memoir by the Minneapolis hip-hop artist Dessa.

The essays in this collection consist of stories from and about Dessa’s early career as a touring artist that put friends, family, and challenges front and center. Each essay could stand on its own (and several were previously published), but the through line is her side of an extended, intermittent romantic relationship. Heartbreak became an addiction that defeated “time, distance, and whiskey”—what Dessa calls “over-the-counter remedies” that included moving to New York so that she wouldn’t be in the same town. The collection reaches its climax in the essay “Call off your Ghost,” which recounts her self-crafted experiments with fMRI-scanning and neurofeedback conditioning break this addiction.

Dessa writers beautifully, which is one of the reasons I like her music so much, and in fact there is a passage early on about her ex’ sage advice to rap more like she writes. Pulling back the curtain on these parts of her life put the songs into greater context, particularly for the early releases that aren’t quite as fully developed as in the more recent albums. But that would make this collection only of interest to fans of her music, when this is so much more. What I found particularly effective here is the self-portrait of a bright young woman who is simultaneously curious about the world, wrapped up in her neuroses, and ambitious to the point of grating against her lack of accomplishment.

I can’t do My Own Devices justice here. It is thoughtful meditation family, friends, and art, with a little less science than I was anticipating form the subtitle. (Science shows up in a couple of essays, generally as an adjunct to family or heartbreak.) Dessa is refreshingly blunt, acknowledging her imperfections even while telling her story in a sympathetic light. In short, I loved My Own Devices, going so far as to complain online that I started it at a time when I knew I would have to put it down, and am adding it to my list of Dessa’s work that I recommend to just about everyone I meet.

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I am now reading Kevin Kruse’ One Nation Under God, which argues that the public performance of religious piety in American life was invented in the 1930s by an alliance of corporate executives and religious leaders who opposed the New Deal and came to fruition during a 1950s post-war religious revival.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish

It really is ridiculous how persistently everything in my life has gone awry. It reminds me of a bird that builds itself a nest high in a tree, but at the same time as it sits down to hatch, the tree falls down. The bird flies to another tree, tries again, lays new eggs, broods on them, but the same day that the chicks hatch, a storm comes up and that tree, too, is cloven in two.

The end is at hand, and there’s no point in holding back on the good stuff. So what are you going to offer your guests?

Where to begin? Leemet, the narrator and protagonist is the last man who knows snakish, an ancient language that marks an ancient bond between humans and snakes and gives people control over most animals. Deer offer themselves to be eaten and wolves are tamed for milk and as steeds in time of war. Bears are more of a problem, though usually more because they are the lotharios of the forest more so than for their furiosity. The speakers of snakish live in the forest, in harmony with nature.

In previous generations they lost a war against the iron men who came from over the sea. Now the old ways are dying. People give up the forest to live in the village, show their butts to the sun while harvesting grain, and eat bread, which causes their tongues to become too clumsy to speak snakish. Leemet himself was born in town before his parents moved back to the forest before returning to claim his family inheritance. They are the exception and only a few traditionalists, including the last remaining Primates, remain. Among those are Tambet and his family. Tambet never forgave Leemet for having gone to the village and clings with ever greater desperation to what he sees as the old ways, but his daughter Hiie becomes one of Leemet’s playmates whenever she can escape her father’s wrath. Life in the forest is good for Leemet, but the days when speakers of snakish had venomous fangs, let alone the ability to summon the Frog of the North to repulse the iron men, are gone.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish spins the story of this vanishing world from after an inflection point has been passed. Leemet grows up in a world that is effectively dead. The result is a narrative that is at once a delightful coming of age story and a poignant examination of the nostalgia for lost tradition. The latter particularly emerges through through a number of characters who organize their lives around increasingly bizarre traditions. They claim that these traditions are ancient, whether brought from a far off land or simply how people used to live in Estonia, but what they are doing now is utterly unrecognizable from and usually unrelated to whatever seed they might have sprung from—something Leemet learns when he finally meets his grandfather…who lost his legs after a battle with the iron men and is now collecting bones from men he kills in order to construct a pair of wings.

I came to The Man Who Spoke Snakish purely because I wanted to read a book from a language I hadn’t before. I had never heard of Andrus Kivirähk, let alone read anything by him when I purchased this and a Slovenian novel after doing a bit of online research into “best novel” lists on the internet. I was not disappointed.

In a word, this book is spectacular. Much like a Miyazaki film, its whimsical prose belies that Kivirähk also captures something fundamental about the invention and destruction of tradition. The fact that the story is told as a folktale among a lower strata of society that is straining beneath the rule of the church and the knights is handled so deftly that it is almost invisible. Frequently these choices muted the impact of individual deaths, as though to show that it wasn’t the loss of the individual, but of the collective that is the real tragedy. The Man Who Spoke Snakish has its flaws, including that most of the characters are fun, but flat, but I found myself spirited away and loving every page.

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I recently finished Lorrie Moore’s collection Bark, which was well-crafted, but left me once again trying to figure out what it is about short stories that usually make them fall flat for me. I’m now reading Dessa’s fabulous new book My Own Devices.

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

For most of my life Philip Roth’s novels have existed in an environment just beyond my radar. I knew about them in a general sense and was aware that he was held in high esteem as a literary author, but that is as far as it went. Then he died. After several podcasts I listen to did retrospectives of his career I decided I should change that.

The Plot Against America, Roth’s 2004 novel, is a grim alternate history that explores the issue of antisemitism in America.

The story takes place in the narrator’s (young Philip Roth) youth in Newark when Charles Lindbergh makes a surprise appearance at a deadlocked 1940 Republican National Convention and sweeps his way to the nomination. Lindbergh’s campaign frames the choice as between Roosevelt’s warmongering and American First, as he hops from city to city in his personal plane giving speeches on the airfield. Roosevelt, by contrast, is old-fashioned and traditional. Failing to appreciate the threat posed by Lindbergh, Roosevelt loses the election and retires from public life to his estate in New York.

For Roth’s Jewish family, the election is a disaster. Around every corner are people with anti-semitic opinions now empowered by the president and America-Firsters who regard Roosevelt’s globalist supporters as traitors. With the US committed to non-intervention, Philip’s cousin Alvin runs away from home to join the Canadian army to fight Hitler. Roth’s father begins listening exclusively to the left-wing demagogic radio personality Walt Winchell who loudly denounces Lindbergh as a fascist. Every action taken by the government is tinged with bigotry, he believes, the first step toward a pogrom.

The “Just Folks” program sends Jewish youths from urban areas to farms in the heartland. Philip’s older brother Sandy ends up in Kentucky for a summer working on a tobacco farm and returns a convert to the mission of the OAA—the Organization of American Absorption. Then Alvin returns, having lost a leg in combat. Further exacerbating tensions in the family is that Philip’s aunt Evelyn goes to work for Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, the head of the OAA office in New Jersey.

The Plot Against America is presented as a retrospective of a dark episode in American history that both reveals a psychic scar in the country’s collective conscience and ends as abruptly as it began. Roth’s youth during the events described and the nature of conspiracy leaves it unclear what happened to bring Lindbergh to office, let alone what happened while he was there that leads to a bloody climax.

The national and historical developments create the backdrop for what is, ultimately, a family drama. The Lindbergh administration works to break up Jewish enclaves in cities like Newark, and the Roth family is split between those who hold to their convictions, such as his father, those who want to ignore politics, and the collaborators, whether out of naked opportunism or youthful naivete. The characters are vividly drawn, frequently in the graphic detail and sharp colors of youthful memory. There are good gentiles in The Plot Against America, much as there are bad Jews. In both cases Roth captures something fundamental to and fundamentally fragile in the soul of America.

Although it was published in 2004, The Plot Against America was an eerie read for 2018, right down to a Scandinavian summit where an American president with a fervent base is openly condemned for fawning behavior toward another foreign leader, leading commentators to ask what that leader has on the President. Similarly, American prejudices are papered over by a tradition of constitutionalism, but only barely, and there is a preference for collective amnesia rather than for resolution.

The Plot Against America> was hard to read, but rather than being a book that lost its edge since its publication, it is one that has only become sharper. That is probably too lofty a standard to set for when I get to Roth’s other books, but I can now say with certainty that I am going to be reading more.

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Next up, I just started reading A Brave New World. I read it in high school but remember nothing except a general sense of distaste. Like with Fahrenheit 451, I want to give it a fair shake.