Say Nothing

In all of the issues around Brexit, one of the most pressing was the border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK country of Northern Ireland. With the UK and Ireland both in the European Union the border between the two countries was soft, but Brexit threatened to harden the border and thereby increase tensions. I am by no means an expert on these issues and am vastly oversimplifying them, but while the Good Friday Agreement largely ended the violence of the Troubles, it is hardly a forgotten issue. It was with this background that I brought into Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, which the subtitle describes as A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.

Say Nothing, which draws its title from imperative motto of Provisional IRA operatives, builds its narrative around perhaps the most famous case of a “disappeared” person in Belfast. One night in December 1972, the 38 year old Jean McConville, widowed mother of ten, was abducted from her home in the low-income housing unit of Divis Flats allegedly for having passed information to the British soldiers. She was never seen alive again.

Over the years, the McConville case garnered international attention as one of the most prominent unsolved murders from this period, but hers was just one of some 17 disappeared persons whose abductions were blamed on units within the Provisional IRA, a Republican militia group.

Radden Keefe spends the first parts of Say Nothing pulling back from the disappearances in order to explore the operations of the “Provos,” introducing readers to operatives such as Dolours and Marian Price, two radical sisters in a group called the Unknowns, and leadership figures in the organization like Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adam. He asks important questions, such as how did the Provos become radicalized such that the violence accelerated with money and weapons from the US, most notably the Armalite—the same company that makes the AR-15—and how the conflict developed when prominent Provos ended up in prisons staging hunger strikes.

One of the core tensions in this portion of Say Nothing is the fundamental differences of interpretation in how the Provos and the British authorities saw the conflict. For the Provos, this was a war and they used this justification as an excuse for when they killed civilians. The British responded with the tactics and techniques learned in suppressing rebellions in their colonies. This meant draconian incarcerations and largely looking the other way at retributive violence committed by loyalist militias. The result was tragedy.

Where roughly the first half of Say Nothing is a harrowing, propulsive narrative of events, filled with the youthful fire of its protagonists, the second half is slower, messier, and perhaps more significant investigation into the memory of the conflict.

This happens in two ways. First, the protagonists age. Gerry Adams gains a measure of respectability as a mainstream politician, which his former comrades-in-arms saw as a betrayal of everything they fought for. The others emerged prematurely aged, broken by their time behind bars, and often struggling with alcohol and drug dependencies. They aren’t remorseful, though some expressed regrets about specific actions, but they appear much more subdued.

The second development in this part of the book is reportage on The Belfast Project, a secret project hosted by Boston College where ex-paramilitary members allowed themselves to be recorded on tape discussing their activities during the Troubles. In other words, after years of silence, they said something.

These tapes were to be kept in the US and embargoed until after the deaths of the participants in order to prevent prosecution for crimes committed and thereby get the participants to speak openly and thereby create an oral history archive. Despite this intent, the project turned out to be a mess. Once the existence of the tapes became known, the Atlantic Ocean (and the poorly-written confidentiality agreement) proved a flimsy shield against legal action.

Radden Keefe makes it clear from the outset that he is not a historian. In this sense, he has written a compelling book in which nobody comes off well. This is a story with only villains and victims. Gerry Adams appears sociopathic, for instance, and the Price sisters unrepentant. The through-line is the McConville murder and how the body came to light in part because of the Belfast Project, is a perfect entryway for an exploration into not only the Troubles, but also just how shallowly the Troubles were buried.

At the same time, his particular source-base and choice of subject sometimes leads this to being a one-sided story focused on the Provos and their quixotic war against the British. The British authorities necessarily appear as the antagonist, but since many of their records remain sealed, that side of the conflict is largely absent. The other missing character in all of this were the Loyalist paramilitaries who Radden Keefe mentions, but rarely explores.

I also might have liked further discussion of the historical development of the Troubles given that this was clearly not an isolated incident. Nevertheless, Say Nothing is worth reading, both because it is a propulsive story and because it is an object lesson in how memory and rhetoric form an explosive mixture that can lead to tragedy, particularly during times of economic crisis and when the authorities are not interested in the even application of the law.

Oh, wait…

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With the semester in full swing, my reading time has diminished. Right now, I’m slowly making my way through I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi, a generational family history set in the Polish town of Lodz and originally written in Yiddish.

Radical Hope

“Even in the liberal arts, we defend the value of our disciplines largely by talking about how a liberal arts education imparts the types of skills employers value. You’ll be a capitalist cog, but a thoughtful one! So how can we fault students for seeing higher education in largely instrumental, transactional terms if those are the only terms in which they’ve had it presented to them?”

“My teaching career is littered with episodes of maladroit practice that still cause me to cringe years later; sometimes, self-assessment and self-correction suck. But this kind of reflection shouldn’t be simply an exercise in self-flagellation; we should be generous with ourselves in the same ways we are with students when the occasion calls for it.”

Historian and Twitter personality Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope is a self-professed teaching manifesto built on his decades of teaching experience. Over ten chapters, Gannon lays out a philosophy of teaching that is built on principles of generosity, compassion, and inclusion.

The proposals in Radical Hope are, in short, pedagogical best practices that are also found in other books of the genre. To my mind, they are radical only in how thoroughly they are woven into the praxis envisioned in this book. For instance, Radical Hope points out how the genre of writing that is the college syllabus generates the lament that students don’t read the syllabus by creating a document that more resembles a legal contract than an invitation to the course. This is not a novel observation among books of this sort, even as new COVID language bloats the syllabus further. Similarly, pedagogy books offer tips for how to get students to engage or to combat distraction. Gannon is no different, though, rather than being proscriptive, he endeavors to diagnose the problem from a place of understanding. For instance:

Our task is to create a learning space that can help compensate for the gaps in student confidence, and encourage at least an attempt at the learning activity.

and:

We’ve always had distracted students, whether that distraction involved staring out the window at the quad on a beautiful spring afternoon or sitting in the lecture hall’s back row and updating their fantasy football lineup. (It’s worth noting that the same holds true for most faculty meetings I’ve attended in my career.) The question we should be asking ourselves is what accounts for these distractions? Is it the mere presence of a laptop?

Radical Hope is not a how-to manual, almost to the point of frustration. Each chapter has numerous examples from Gannon’s own career and concludes with a short “into practice” section, but tends not to foreground a deep bibliography of pedagogical research. And yet, Gannon’s language struck home. My most resolutely distracted student, in a class maybe eight or nine years ago, was a young woman with a ball cap pulled down who sat next to the window and stared out into the quad in every class she came to. She may have been hungover (that class met at 8 AM on Friday), but without a phone or laptop in sight she almost never spoke for an entire semester. I was a particularly inexperienced teacher at the time and while that class met in a room with any number of impediments to teaching well, I would do a lot of things differently now.

In many ways, this is the message of Radical Hope: developing a reflective pedagogical praxis. At several points Gannon states that if it seems overwhelming to incorporate every “best” practice in a given semester, pick one to implement. Then pick another next semester. And overhaul your readings the following semester (easier to do when you’re in a stable position, admittedly).

The Platonic ideal of a perfect course, let alone the perfect teacher, does not exist. None of the participants live in a vacuum, so there will be issues. People (certainly students, but also many professors) are in a state of financial insecurity, will show up to class unprepared, were conditioned to respond in particular ways given their educational backgrounds, have personality issues, or are having their meat-sacks acting up on a given day for any number of reasons. Oh, and there is a global pandemic.

This is where I saw the most radical hope. You can’t be a good teacher without, at some level, asserting your “faith in a better future,” as Gannon puts it. Radical Hope largely avoids wading into debates over lectures or whether a classroom ought to be flipped, all of which have merit but often depend as much on the type of class and the style of a given teacher than in any single method.

There is one primary exception to this rule. Gannon at several points suggests that teachers ought to embrace the idea of modeling behavior for students. This means, for instance, encouraging students to use computers to look up answers to questions rather than leaning on what a recent essay called “cop shit” to police technology. Speaking from experience, it can be terrifying to admit before a class of expectant eyes that you don’t know something and it is tempting to try pulling together an answer out of thin air—or somewhere less savory. It can also be extremely disorienting to be called out for saying something wrong, like when I the time last spring when I was talking to students about flood stories and had a student raise her hand to ask me if I meant Noah, because I kept saying Moses. However, if the goal in teaching is to develop minds and to give students skills, then these “inadequacies” are opportunities to model best practices of your discipline. Using them as chances to assert your authority or prove your intellect make the class about the teacher to the detriment of the students.

There is a lot to like about Radical Hope, but isn’t necessarily the place I would start with on a pedagogy reading list. David Gooblar’s The Missing Course I thought offered more practical advice, for instance. But if you’re looking for reinforcement that a pedagogy based on empathy and compassion for everyone involved is possible, this is a perfect read. Given the current state of the world, I would say that this is a timely message. Just don’t get put off by chapter one, “Classrooms of Death;” the title isn’t meant literally.

Shades of Magic

Back in January I wrote generally favorably about the first book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy, A Darker Shade of Magic. Since then, I had the chance to blow through the two remaining books, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light, finding them to be equally compelling reads.

A Gathering of Shadows picks up several months after the events in A Darker Shade of Magic. On the one side, Kell Maresh chafes against the restrictions imposed after the events of the previous book that drive home that he is a tool of the throne rather than a member of the family. On the other, Delilah Bard enjoys her dream career, that of pirate on the high seas of the Red World. However, she is not the captain of her own ship, but a thief in the employ of an exiled Arnesian nobleman named Alucard Emery. Despite grumbling that he should have had her killed Alucard takes a liking to Lila and helps fan the flames of her nascent magical talent.

Kell and Lila are not destined to remain apart for long. The centerpiece of this novel is the Essen Tasch, a competition that brings together the best elemental magicians from the three empires—Arnes, Faro, and Vesk—to compete for the title of champion. The home country to the previous year’s competition also earns the right to host the next event, so Rhy Maresh is busy making arrangements. A gifted magician in his own right, Alucard has it in mind to enter the competition, much as Rhy arranges things so that Kell can enter the competition anonymously. Of course, Lila doesn’t want to be left out, either.

While the games proceed in Red London, though, a threat is brewing in White London. Holland, who Kell believes dead and locked away in Black London, has struck a deal with a powerful piece of sentient magic known as Osaron who promises that he can breathe life into White London in return for freedom.

Where the first novel in the series could stand alone, these two are of a piece. A Conjuring of Light picks up almost immediately from the end of the Essen Tasch, setting the our heroes on a race to defeat Osaron before he entirely consumes the world.

The primary difference between the two novels is the number of characters it follows. Holland, for instance, takes a more central role than in either of the previous two books, and the thriller-paced plot is interspersed with flashbacks into his life and upbringing that aim to strip away his icy, unfeeling exterior and offer him as a tragic idealist in love with his home in a way that leaves sad overtones to the novel as a whole. But A Conjuring of Light also introduces the point of view of characters such as Maxim and Emira Maresh, the King and Queen of Arnes, which both serves to offer depth and history to a story that had otherwise felt very present to me and serves to foreground the personal conflicts that had previously only been hinted at. Where hostility between Kell and Alucard over a relationship between Alucard and Rhy was introduced in the previous book, here we learn what happened, and Emira Maresh’s story explores Kell’s conflicted position in the royal family.

Overall, the development of this series worked. I found it compulsively readable and the individual characters fun, while the subsequent books answered some of my modest issues with the world-building. Schwab also generally does a nice job building the development of character in each subsequent book from hints laid out earlier in the series, unlike, say, the Sword of Truth series where subsequent books often felt like Goodkind kept inventing new powers for his characters. For instance, the revelation that Lila is also an Antari, that is someone with one black eye who can use all four elements and blood magic, should not have come as a surprise to anyone who noted that she was introduced to use as a character with a false eye. Developments to how being an Antari works came only from things that were external to them as Antari.

And yet, for all of its propulsive plots, something about the Shades of Magic series left me mildly unsatisfied. The explanation, I think, is that I found most of the people outside of our main characters superficial. This lack of depth gives the sensation that you’re ripping through the world alongside your heroes and avoids the criticism of, say, George RR Martin where he built minor characters into fixtures in ways that bloat the series. However, it also results in a variety of flat characters whose notes are either to be sympathetic such that we mourn with the heroes when they die or villainous such that we shake our fists when they turn on us. These characters fit the needs of the plots well enough, but being able to frequently predict which minor characters are all-but doomed to die undercuts the effect. What’s more, this flatness also prevented them from becoming the memorable minor characters that populate my favorite fantasy series and deepen those worlds in ways that make me want to keep coming back to them.

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I have fallen far behind on writing about books for a whole host of reasons, but keep meaning to get back to doing this. I have a stack of recent reads next to me, including Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine and Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, two noirs that I recently read and hope to write about together, as well as Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, a detailed commodity history without a clear through-line that I could identify, and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a novel about art and counter-culture that I simultaneously understood the critical praise for and left me wondering whether I’m simply not a sophisticated enough reader to fully-appreciate. I am now about halfway through Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, which I had, perhaps naively, hoped would contain more, well, ships.

The Sympathizer

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

So begins The Sympathizer, the confession of a prisoner. Although Nguyen withholds the context of the interrogation until the end of the novel, we quickly learn that the narrator received CIA training as the aide to a general in charge of the South Vietnamese secret police, all the while working as a mole for North Vietnam.

The novel’s plot quickly kicks into high gear as the narrator arranges, sometimes at gunpoint, for the general, his family, and staff to flee Saigon as the North Vietnamese army approached. This access also allows him to secure a seat on the plane for one of his two sworn brothers, Bon, whose fervor in fighting for South Vietnam promises him a future of hard labor. The other, Man, is his handler.

The first stop from Saigon is a camp on Guam and then on to Los Angeles where the refugees try to pick up the pieces in America. Some adjust. The narrator secures work at the school where he studied as an exchange student, builds relationships with women, and even picks up work as a consultant on a blockbuster Hollywood film about the war, based on Apocalypse Now. Others do not. With neither family nor country, Bon descends to alcoholism and the general opens a liquor store that he uses as a front to raise money, plot a return to Vietnam, and eliminate anyone who threatens his cause. Of course, the narrator continues to report on these movements with letters relayed through Man’s aunt in Paris, at least until the General organizes his return to Vietnam.

The Sympathizer is in many ways an inversion of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which similarly explores issues of identity and colonialism. Where Greene’s novel follows the story of Alden Pyle, an American CIA agent working against communism in Vietnam, Nguyen’s narrator works from the opposite direction, while holding an ambiguous position between the two. The illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, the narrator literally straddles the line between east and west, and he declares as a point of pride that he can pass for American over the phone even as Americans talk down to him. From this heart, the theme radiates from him like an aura, extending to his two blood brothers who are equally balanced to either side and the General’s concern that his oldest daughter is becoming too Americanized with her singing career to find a proper Vietnamese husband.

However, this core theme works by offering several different types of conflict and preventing it from striking just one note. The narrator has both types of expected conflict as a refugee double agent, trying to fit in in the new country while not getting caught, but his sexual relationship with the Japanese-American secretary at Occidental College and a competitive one with a Vietnamese reporter he knew when they studied there introduce issues of representation of Asian Americans and rivalry. Similarly, his parentage offers a recurring conflict because while he is a useful asset he is neither sufficiently dedicated to the cause to be integrated into the Communist society nor a proper-enough Vietnamese man to warrant a good marriage.

I found The Sympathizer a good, but somewhat unspectacular novel for most of its length. There are excellent individual scenes, including the sheer terror of trying to escape Saigon, but, on its own, this close focus on the narrator’s reflection of his own identity struck me as somewhat prone to navel-gazing. Where Nguyen earned all of his plaudits was in the final section of this novel. The final seventy-odd pages of The Sympathizer pull back to reveal the circumstances under which the narrator is writing, which, in turns adds layers of depth and meaning to the 306-page confession of a man without a country.

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I have fallen behind on writing about books I’ve finished, in equal parts because of other writing commitments, complacency of summer, and not being inspired enough to write speedy reviews. I have been reading, though, blowing through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay We Should All be Feminists, dragging myself through Rachel Kushner’s The Firestarters, and working through Mark Kurlansky’s Salt at a pace somewhere between those two. I still hope to write about some of my backlog, but given that my guiding principle on this site is to write what and when I am inspired to say something, we’ll see what I actually do.

I am now most of the way through Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, the first of his Marseille Trilogy.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

David Epstein, Range

My academic research focuses on ancient Greece, but I genuinely enjoy teaching beyond my specialty because my interests are broad an eclectic. I sometimes joke to my partner (who I met in graduate school) that the three areas I considered pursuing for graduate work in history were Ancient Greece, 18th-century naval warfare, and 20th century US diplomatic history. Recently I’ve wandered down rabbit holes into food history and have particularly been enjoying East and South Asian history. The idea of studying just one thing for the rest of my life sounds unbearably tedious and teaching a wide range of classes (or at least varying how I teach World History) is a convenient excuse to read more widely.

I don’t know that my eclectic reading habits or historical interests has particularly improved my scholarship, but it has certainly improved my teaching and writing, and caused the basic tenets of David Epstein’s Range to resonate with me.

Epstein opens with the comparison of Tiger and Roger, two accomplished athletes, one of whom was laser focused from infancy on his sport, the other who played everything except his sport for most of his childhood. Both excelled, but Epstein asks which success was more probable. Despite the intuitive expectation that the person who specialized his entire life (let’s call him Tiger) followed the “better” path, Epstein argues, Roger is a better model to follow. Where Tigers are very good at solving problems within a narrow field with predictable parameters, Rogers can catch up quickly and are are frequently more creative when adjusting to new environments or when facing fields without clearly defined rules.

In short, Epstein makes the case that in a world where an increasing number of well-defined tasks are automated and economic and social pressures push people toward specialization, we should actually be encouraging generalization.

I picked up range after listening to an interview with Epstein where he mostly talked about the value of cross-training, but while there are lessons there, I was a surprised how little discussion of sports there was in the book. Rather, Range is a broad manifesto that talks about everything from scientists and musicians to charity CEOs and game designers. As with many books of its ilk, Range uses concrete examples to offer concrete advice on leadership—promoting diversity, emphasizing communication over hierarchy, empowering employees—as well as useful life advice that taking the time to find your fit rather than locking in early produces better results all around.

In my opinion, though, both the strongest and weakest aspects of the book came down to what it said about education. Granted, as someone in the education field, everything starts to look that way. In addition to several explicit sections on teaching itself, Epstein swipes obliquely supposed outcomes of the education system throughout the book, taking aim at the suggestion that graduates need to specialize early and highlighting the perils of teaching to the test. I agreed in principle with everything Epstein highlights: test performance does not equal learning, efficiency is not a universal good, there is value in struggling to learn something. There are absolutely valuable lessons in terms of how we teach, but I nevertheless came away extremely frustrated with the presentation of education.

For instance, Epstein uses a personal anecdote from his MA thesis at Columbia where he says “I had committed statistical malpractice” because “I had a big database and hit a computer button to run a common statistical malpractice, never having been taught to think deeply (or at all) about how that statistical analysis even worked.” He follows up by quoting a statistician who says that the rush to produce research prohibits metacognition. In short, the specialization and speed interferes with the quality of the work, despite metacognition gaining increased traction in education circles. Similarly, he offers another anecdote about a primary school teacher asking students leading questions when they struggled to come up with the answers. Both of these anecdotes, and another about a professor critical of colleagues who only care about the interesting facts learned from years of increasingly narrow study (albeit while talking about Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Marx, and Nietzsche, which shows a certain…range), offer insight into the education system, but, to my mind, not quite what Epstein is going for.

The focus of Epstein’s critique is on the practitioners, rather than on the bad practices encouraged by the culture of credentialism and testing. When the a system requires teachers to prepare students for a standardized test or to publish in academic journals and funnel students into career tracks from early on in college, then the system creates the exact problem that Epstein rightly identifies. Moreover, Epstein makes the case that generalization is good for everyone, but it has the greatest utility for young people because it helps foster creativity, critical thinking, and allows them to find fields that fit their skills.

For as much as aspects of the presentation bothered me, Range is a compelling read. Epstein isn’t against specialization, but makes an important critique of dominant cultural trends that prioritize efficiency and specialization over taking the time to think and reflect across different fields.

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I had hoped to finish Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this weekend, but that was before protests against police violence and institutional racism erupted across the United States and then predictably escalated, often as the result of police action. I spent most of the weekend following local news from across the country.

Day of the Oprichnik

CW: although glossed, this post includes allusions to sexual assault that took place in the novel.

My mobilov awakens me:

One crack of the whip—a scream.
Two—a moan.
Three—a death rattle.

Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of an Oprichnik is like? Well, you might be, if you Western readers knew what an Oprichnik was. When his majesty ended the Red and Grey Troubles and restored Russia, he wisely followed the precedent of Ivan Grozny in reconstituting the Oprichnina, a fanatical bodyguard dedicated to rooting out his majesty’s enemies. Work and Word!

Now, for the first time, Vladimir Sorokin has shared with the world the important work that the Oprichnina is doing on behalf of Russia by following Andrei Danilovich Komiaga for a full day, from the moment he awakens hungover from one long day until the moment he returns to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

Between those moments of rest, Komiaga flies around Moscow, and even all of Russia, in service of the Czar. One moment he must make an example of a disloyal nobleman, executing him, of course, while giving his wife a lesson she will never forget and sending his children to a home where they will be raised to be loyal. Then he is off to hear a petition from an actress on behalf of a prisoner and then to the far east where he must put straight petty bureaucrats and Chinese diplomats about a commercial dispute. On the way back to Moscow he must visit a clairvoyant and upon his return he sits witness to a play with potential slander against the Empress, who immediately summons him to his side while she breakfasts as the rest of Russia sups, enjoying the appropriate rewards of her position. Finally, Komiaga concludes his day with the essential Oprichnina communal meal at Batyas, which provide opportunities to greet important guests—even his highness may come!—and build a sense of hierarchy and purpose. This is why we must applaud Batya’s decision to end these gatherings with the caterpiller in the bathhouse.

As I said, a day full of important business on behalf of the Tsar. Laser guns are merely tools without men to use them. Who else will help oversee the Western Wall and European pipeline dispute? Or so carefully enforce his majesty’s wise bans on profanity? Or keep those jackals among the nobility in line? Work and Word!

We must make some concessions for all of this work, of course. His majesty properly banned drugs like the aquarium for people, but shooting up these little fish reinvigorate us and hone our sense of purpose, while the Oprichnik leadership soars as a seven-headed dragon! Greasing is the only way anything gets done, so we must get our cut, and it is only natural that we secure our position by ensuring a steady stream of dissent. It would be a tragedy if his majesty were to not see our worth and rashly disband us, his most loyal servants! Hail!

The Czar has put Russia back to rights. We might use Chinese technology and our children might learn Chinese slang, but men are men and the church again ascendant. No longer is society oppressed by the loose morals of the west or tainted by atheism or “feminism.” What nonsense, and just look where it got them. No, traditional Russian values are best, just as Russian literature is best. His majesty was right to build the wall. With the help of God and the Oprichnina, Russia is more powerful than ever. This power came with casualties, but these are a small price to pay. We have the technology to put dissenters under surveillance and the will to take care of them, if need be. Anything for his majesty. Hail!

Perhaps with Sorokin’s feature, the children of those grasping people who were in business only for themselves will finally understand the purpose of our labor. Work and Word!

Work and Word!

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How else to write a review of a satirical critique of technology, monarchy, and modern Russia other than to offer the portrait unreserved praise? The Day of the Oprichnik is a frequently disturbing portrait of near-future Russia, in a world with a restored monarchy, border walls, and modern technology turned toward protecting a brutal regime that exploits its people in the name of protecting them. A select few live large in this system, while everyone else suffers.

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I’m chipping away at my backlog of books that includes Sudden Death, A Gathering of Shadows, and Sugar Street. I am now reading David Epstein’s Range, a book about education, learning, and why we should develop general skills before, and sometimes in lieu of, narrow ones.

Binti

Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka is of the Himba, the African people who apply otjize to their skin and hair. In a world where the people of Earth are connected to other planets, the Himba people stand apart. The Khoush, as they are called, expanded outward and send their brightest children to the center of higher learning in the galaxy, Oomza Uni, while the Himba stay put, free of the conflicts created by Khoush expansion, while exploring the universe by traveling inward. That is, until Binti tests into Oomza Uni and runs away from home in order to study mathematics.

The bulk of Nnedi Okorafor’s slim novella takes place on Binti’s flight from Earth to Oomza Uni aboard “Third Fish…a Miri 12, a type of ship closely related to a shrimp.” Other than Binti’s sense of wonder at everything new, the voyage is uneventful until, abruptly, Meduse raiders attack the ship because this extra-terrestrial race is at war with the Khoush. They sweep through the ship with “the Great Wave,” slaughtering everyone except Binti who is protected by her edan, a strange metallic device that damages the Meduse and allows her to talk to them.

Binti barricades herself in her room, only to learn that the Meduse haven’t come for blood, but to infiltrate Oomza Uni and recover their leader’s stinger that has been lodged there for years.

I entirely understand why this book won awards for best novella. It is a delightful read with a purity of purpose as it tackles issues of isolationism, war, fear, revenge, and colonialism. Binti’s special power is to be a “harmonizer,” and her survival gives an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange. The Meduse hate the edan, but are intrigued her “okuoko,” the Meduse word for their tentacles, as they interpret the thick strands formed by her hair covered in otjize, which, it turns out, can also heal the burns formed by the edan. In turn, Binti learns of the root of their conflict with the Khoush and promises to help if it will stop further bloodshed.

In short, this is a book with a gleaming heart that pulses with optimism, projecting the evils of colonialism into space in order to demonstrate the possibilities of diversity and empathy.

But to my eye, this optimism was also its glaring weakness. In a desperate gambit to create peace, Binti declares “Let me be…let me speak for the Meduse. The people in Oomza Uni are academics, so they’ll understand honor and history and symbolism and matters of the body.” Subsequently she admits that this is a hope, rather than something she knows, but she is confident in her ability to harmonize anywhere––and the academics only took the stinger out of ignorance.

This is a great sentiment, of course, and perhaps it works in this sort of fiction where people are endowed with unique gifts, but inasmuch as Binti serves as a parable about colonialism, it very much did not. Institutions of higher education embedded with the legacies of colonial and racial exploitation and, too often, when both they and the institutions are challenged on these grounds, the response is to become defensive. Rarely do they turn over the artifacts, as the resistance to returning the Parthenon Marbles should suggest, leave alone when the artifacts come from Africa.

My favorite example, and one that I use in my World History class, is the so-called Benin Bronzes, which are these beautiful brass plaques that a British punitive expedition looted in the 19th century. Despite the unambiguous record of ownership—they were looted in a war, not bought (from a legitimate seller or not) like the Parthenon Marbles—western museums have repeatedly ignored requests from Nigeria for their return and have only begun to change their stance in the last decade.

These examples on scratch the surface of these sorts of problems. Too frequently, institutions of higher education have a way of creating and replicating privilege around race, class, and gender, and the systems designed to protect academic freedom imbue them with the attitude of “I’ve got mine” made worse by perpetual austerity and provide a platform that lend legitimacy to prejudices that reflect society as a whole.

Perhaps the point of Binti is to show a world as it should exist, not free of prejudices but where enlightenment is possible. And yet, as someone laboring within the system as it is now, this point seemed as implausible as a shrimp-like vessel capable of interstellar travel.

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This is the second post catching up on a backlog that, includes Day of the Oprichnik, Sugar Street, Sudden Death, and A Gathering of Shadows, and I am now reading David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.

The Savage Detectives

And after screwing, mi general liked to go out in the courtyard to smoke a cigarette and think about postcoital sadness, that vexing sadness of the flesh and about all the books he hadn’t read.

I said, boys, I’ve been looking at it for more than forty years and I’ve never understood a goddamn thing.

Sometimes I worry I am not a particularly discerning reader. My concern manifests in two instances: when I learn that my takeaway from a book is radically different from other people, which is usually a product of how I relate or don’t to individual characters, or when I don’t understand a book that I read. The second problem rarely happens, at least on a structural level, and I adore a number of fiendishly complicated novels, including Infinite Jest, but occurs instead when a book embeds itself a world of characters and concepts that are beyond familiarity and it becomes homework to understand the depth of the story, as was the case with Never Any End To Paris.

The Savage Detectives is another such novel.

At its heart, The Savage Detectives is a send-up of avant-garde poetry in mid-1970s Mexico City. Part One, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico,” consists of the diary of Juan García Madero who, in his first year of law school, gets entangled in a movement called “visceral realism,” although he admits that he isn’t “really sure what visceral realism is.” Nevertheless, the leading figures in the movement, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, who had put out two issues a poetry magazine called Lee Harvey Oswald, take a liking to the young man. García Madero effectively quits school in favor of poetry and all of the sex that comes with joining the movement, including with the María Font, the bohemian daughter of one of their biggest supporters and, in their opinion, the best young poet in Mexico. The plot takes a turn for the dark when the visceral realists decide to save a friend of María’s named Lupe from her brutal and violent pimp, Alberto, which culminates in a García Madero, Lima, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima tearing out of Mexico City in a Chevy Impala.

The longest part of the book, “The Savage Detectives,” tracks Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano around the world through interviews with dozens of characters (some familiar, some new) from Mexico City to Venezuela to San Diego to France to Spain to Rome to Israel. Linking these stories are Ulises Lima, Arturo Belano, or the object of their obsession, the foremother of visceral realism, Cesárea Tinajero, though we only ever see one of her poems, which is primarily identifiable as a poem because Cesárea said it was and one character declares “if that woman told me that a piece of her shit wrapped in a shopping bag was a poem I would have believed it.”

This is the section I had the hardest time making sense of, with its kaleidoscope of voices and lack of identified narrator, though my personal theory is that it is actually the novel we see Arturo Belano writing at several points in this section. Running through this section are meditations on art, memory and the transitory nature of human connection.

Finally, The Savage Detectives snaps back to the plot that opens the novel with “The Sonora Desert,” in which the Impala roars away, drawn in search of Cesárea and fleeing Alberto’s wrath.

Parts of The Savage Detectives are grippingly readable and at times laugh out loud funny, particularly with its wild swings between discussion of literature on the one hand and the graphic scenes of their sexual pursuits on the other. The “movement” at the heart of the story is imbued with a youthful pretension, such that its most die-hard followers only grudgingly admit that they also read popular fiction, while many of its practitioners (e.g. Maria Font) are poets themselves, they are as much caught up in the whirlwind for the exhilaration of youth and its orgiastic celebration as for being devotees of poetry.

I rarely read published reviews of the books I write about here, but found myself at a loss when trying to make sense of The Savage Detectives. The universal conclusion is that it is at its heart a sendup of the poetic culture that Bolaño himself participated in in 1970s Mexico City, a fact I was somewhat aware of coming into the book. However, this hyper-specific context and the absence of a clear plot for the longest part of the book left me with the sensation that there was a barrier between me as a reader and the novel. The most ardent fans of this book could abuse me for just not getting it, mimicking the attitudes of its characters, as I saw happen on one discussion board post, but that does the Savage Detectives a disservice. This is a book I am glad to have read, but one with enough meat to warrant discussion that, at least for me, is the only way to penetrate that barrier.

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The semester finally came to a close and I have a lot of writing projects that have kept me from posting here with any regularity, but I have been consciously carving out more time to read, plowing through Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows, Vladimir Sorokin’s The Day of the Oprichnik, Naguib Mahfouz’ Sugar Street, and Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, all in the last week and a half.

I have thoughts on all of these that I’m hoping to write up posts on most or all of them, as well as returning to using this space for a wider range of topics as they strike me. The last post I started working on here turned into something substantial enough that I wanted to find a more productive venue to publish in, so that one is embargoed, at least for now. Stay tuned!

The Food Explorer

In the second half of the 1800s, at a time when most Americans were farmers, the Department of Agriculture was a tiny outfit mostly charged with discovering ways to make crops more resilient. David Fairchild, the child of an academic in Kansas, joined this small outfit at the same time that the United States was launching itself as an industrial power, with exhibitions such as the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. On the advice of a friend, Fairchild applied for a job at the Smithsonian for a position in Naples, resulting in two fateful encounters. First, on the voyage across the Atlantic, Fairchild met Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy and over-the-top globetrotter. Second, on a trip to Corsica, Fairchild stole cuttings from the citron tree.

These two encounters, according to Daniel Stone’s book, revolutionized the American diet. Fairchild believed that the future of American agriculture was the import of new commodities and Lathrop underwrote the creation of this new program when the US government would not because he decided that Fairchild was his preferred traveling companion. Despite its opponents, the food importation program grew both in the number of explorers scouring the globe and in the bureaucracy to manage the imports, and is responsible for a number of the most recognizable products on the produce shelves, including the navel orange and Meyer lemon.

There are a number of interesting stories at work in The Food Explorer, including about the growth of the American bureaucratic state, about the history of food and food safety, and a unique lens on the US and the world, leave alone Fairchild’s biography, but I found it an immensely frustrating book. Part of my frustration came from quirks of Stone’s writing. Some readers might be interested to learn that the walnut is technically a fruit, but I found the persistence in explaining things were fruits rather than whatever their name or common wisdom suggests about as tiresome as people reminding you that tomatoes are fruit. However, there are also a couple of more substantive complaints.

First, The Food Explorer is a book that can’t decide what it wants to be. The main arc of the book is Fairchild’s biography, which means that by the second half of the book he is no longer an explorer, but a bureaucrat overseeing the work of other explorers, including Frank Meyer, who I found more compelling than Fairchild himself. But this section also becomes mired in accounts of his courtship of and marriage to Marian Bell, the daughter of the inventor Alexander Graham, as well as Bell’s aeronautical competition with the Wright Brothers.

Such stories give a fuller picture of Fairchild’s life, but they sit awkwardly beside the frame of this as a story about the massive changes going on in American society or about the fascinating institutions that Fairchild helped create. In fact, the most iconic plants Fairchild had a hand in bringing to the US were either inedible (Washington DC’s flowering cherry trees) or not his finds (the Meyer lemon). Similarly, I was struck by the vast number of imported plants that were almost immediately supplanted or simply discarded. Fairchild and his program did change the way Americans eat in significant ways, but behind the glitz and glam of Fairchild’s life is a more compelling story about the growth of the commercial agriculture industry and the role of the federal government in both facilitating and inhibiting the import of new crops.

Second, this is a particularly American book. Stone frames the story against the backdrop of American industrial power and the story is built around the privilege of American interlopers cavalierly begging, stealing, or buying whatever they want to populate their new garden of Eden. I don’t want to pass any aspersions on Stone since he periodically offers light critiques of American ignorance, such as during a potential row between US and Japanese officials after the first batch of cherry trees had to be burned. Nevertheless, his sources are swept up in the potential of the US and the backwardness of most of the rest of the world and he is generally happy to echo their sentiments, and makes a few truly egregious gaffes along the way, such as in identifying Egypt as both “Mesopotamia” and “the birthplace of civilization.”

As noted above, there is a compelling story here and I can understand why so many people and at least one podcast I listened to raved about the book. The decision to follow Fairchild’s charmed life keeps it from getting too heavy with either discussions of institutions and business or war and death, but I closed it more more frustrated than enlightened.

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A short discussion of Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, since I am likely not going to do a full summary: The first half of the book consists of non-stop action of a fateful night when a socialist politician is assassinated after a gathering in Thessaloniki by ruffians hired by the police, who simply stand by and watch. Much stronger, in my opinion, was the second half, which explored the inquests that followed and is highly critical of political officials who seek to sweep their complicity under the rug. My failure to write this up earlier has dimmed the individual characters in my memory, but I was repeatedly struck by the resonance with contemporary political agendas.

I have also finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats and am now reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a strange and sensual novel about a group of young poets who call themselves “the visceral realists.”

Beware of Pity

The whole thing began with a blunder on my part, an entirely innocent piece of clumsiness, a gaffe, as the French call it. Then followed an attempt to put things right; but if you try to repair a watch in too much of a hurry, you’re likely as not to put the whole works out of order.

It is 1913 and 1914 and Lieutenant Anton Hofmiller of the Imperial Uhlans is stationed at a sleepy provincial garrison. Hofmiller is well-mannered and supported by an aunt who insisted he join the cavalry, but, unlike his fellow officers, he is not from a family of money. It comes as a shock, therefore, when a local lord, von Kekesfalva, requests his presence at a dinner party. Hofmiller goes as though in a dream, meeting important people and dancing the night away. Realizing at some point that he has not yet danced with Edith, his host’s daughter, he seeks her out and in his most cultured manner extends an invitation. Only then does he realize his gaffe: Edith cannot walk.

Embarrassed, Hofmiller compounds his shame by fleeting the party. In the clear light of day he decides that he must make amends, sending flowers and a note that entangles him further in the Kekesfalva drama and unwittingly initiates a courtship with the daughter.

Rarely does a novel’s title double as its thesis statement. Hofmiller’s tragic flaw is his sense of honor and propriety that leads him to want to dance with the host’s daughter, which leads to his simple attempt to make amends, which leads to his taking pity on Edith, which initiates his cascading series of social crises. Thus, according to Zweig, his pity proves his undoing as he has neither the callousness to extricate himself from the situation nor the calculated instinct to take full advantage of it.

“Our decisions are to a much great extend dependent on our desire to conform to the standards of our class and environment than we are inclined to admit.”

This simple conceit of Beware of Pity makes much of the plot eminently predictable. It was abundantly clear from the jump that the climax would involve an ill-fated marriage proposal, with the only question being whether they would follow through on it. But, like with Zweig’s other novels, its strength lies in the psychological depth that he builds into the characters, such that the conflict emerges from the life breathed into their emotional relationships and competing agendas.

Beware of Pity read like an allegory about the decay in Austria in the year immediately before World War One. There was peace, stability, and people like the doctor treating Edith trying to do what they can, but also runaway inequality and a wealthy class represented a crippled young woman and her sad, sick father who is revealed to be a fraud. All of this makes for an compellingly ornate novel––Zweig cannot be accused of being spare in his description––but also one rife with problems that cannot simply be excused as a product of its time (the late 1930s).

Take Kekesfalva’s background. Lajos von Kekesfalva, we learn, was in fact born Leopold Kanitz in a poor Jewish village along the the Hungarian-Slovak frontier, only to work his way up in society, “magyarizing” his name and pinching every penny until a chance inheritance gave him an opening to marry the naive and unsuspecting heiress, gaining title and fortune in one stroke. The genuine affection Kekesfalva has for his daughter seems to speak well for his relationship for his wife, but that doesn’t excuse that our generous and gregarious aristocrat is revealed to be an unscrupulous Jew painted using the antisemitic colors of the day.

I had a similar reaction to the disability plot, even beyond a possible interpretation of it as punishment for Kekesfalva, even though that actual condition sounded to my minimally-informed ear like polio. It was hard not to empathize with Edith’s resolve to be independent, but that only goes so far toward ameliorating that the novel is built around the idea that her disability was something to be pitied. This spilled over into believable aspects of the relationship––e.g. Hofmiller infantilizing Edith while considering her mobile cousin as a potential sexual partner––that introduced further complications.

The problem with Beware of Pity, as well as other Zweig novels, is that the same features that make it so compellingly readable––especially the way it luxuriates in the emotional lives of its main characters––magnify, and sometimes even introduce, its problems. I liked Beware of Pity, all told, and it is in a lot of ways a more complete novel than The Post Office Girl, which I actually liked better, but there were too many issues baked into its structure for me to consider it a masterpiece.

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I have developed quite a backlog of books recently, having finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. I plan to write about some of these, but am starting to doubt that I will get to them all. Next up, I just started Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.