My Brilliant Friend

At that moment I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, [Maestra Oliviero] had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth , those increasingly vulgar toasts. The plebs were my mother, who had drunk wine and now was leaning against my father’s shoulder, while he, serious, laughed, his mouth gaping, at the sexual allusions of the metal dealer.

Back in 2017 I made a conscious decision to start reading more books by women, and have been richly rewarded by this choice. At the same time, intimate portraits of female friendship is an entire subcategory of these books that I hesitated to approach. This trepidation is mostly irrational, but stories that are first and foremost about male friendship tend not to be my favorites, either. This was the excuse I had given for putting off reading My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante*. Having finished the book last week, I can now say that waiting was a mistake.

[*Elena Ferrante is a pen-name for an anonymous Italian author. The critical acclaim and HBO show have led to people seeing to uncover her true identity, but she maintains that the authorship is irrelevant to the novel.]

My Brilliant Friend opens with a prologue where the narrator, Elena Greco, receives a phone call from Rino, the son of her childhood friend Lila, announcing that his mother has disappeared. More than that, every trace of Lila has vanished. This shock prompts Elena to trace back the threads of memory to the old neighborhood of her childhood where she can write her friend back into the world.

In those days, Elena Greco lived in a poor part of town, the daughter of a porter at city hall, and shared a grade with Lila, the daughter of the shoemaker. The neighborhood had a hierarchy; Don Achille Carracci is one of the wealthiest men in town, but might as well be an ogre; The Solaras, who own the pastry shop and bar, flaunt their wealth and are rumored to be involved in criminal activities; Donato Sarratore, a railroad conductor and poet, is a notorious Lothario whose liaisons bring tragedy; other people, including Elena’s family, scrape to make ends meet.

School is the great leveler for the children. Much to the shock of her family, Elena excels academically, but not as much as Lila, who is preternaturally brilliant. Unlike Elena, however, Lila chafes at the repressive structure of school so while Elena continues on into middle and then high school, Lila goes to work with the family.

At every turn Lila outstrips Elena––she is a step smarter, braver, more determined, and, eventually, more beautiful––and yet Elena is the brilliantly educated friend. Their relationship evolves, through school, through adolescence, through relationships with boys, and building to a matrimonial climax.

My Brilliant Friend is an intimate portrait of the relationship between Lila and Elena, but it is a masterpiece because of how the two girls develop in their neighborhood. Ferrante breathes life into this poor corner of Naples, slowly awakening Elena to the wider world and imbuing all of the relationships with the depth of live-in experience. The result is that what begins as the light, childlike interpretation of serious issues grows in emotional depth as the novel progresses until the the final paragraphs land like an emotional avalanche. I declared on Twitter that the final two paragraphs are perhaps the most powerful conclusion I have ever read, because amidst a joyous reverie three different emotional arcs simultaneously reach their climactic resolution.

My Brilliant Friend only covers Elena and Lila’s childhood and adolescence, making the novel feel uneven with a frame story that sets up a larger, as of yet incomplete, mystery. Without that frame, the novel is a spectacular novel about a girl’s formative years (Bildingsroman), but with the frame Ferrante invites additional questions about memory, both in the development of relationships and in how adults remember childhood, but I will need to read the rest of the series in order to find these answers. At least My Brilliant Friend has made it clear that the investment will be worth my time.

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My recent schedule has mostly limited my reading time to the weekends, but I started reading Sara Novic’s Girl at War, which examines the trauma of the war in Croatia in 1991.

Polishing Your Prose

“Writing is hard” is a truism, but these three words conceal a more complicated reality. Simple word generation, though looking for the right words is rarely simple, is comparatively simple. Taking words found on the first pass and polishing them until they shine––until they dance and sing when someone takes their time to read them––is hard. In short: writing is easy; editing is hard.

Fortunately, editing is a learned skill, and there is no shortage of guidebooks on the subject, each offering a series of rules, tips, and tricks. Polishing Your Prose, written by the brothers Stephen and Victor Cahn, belongs to this genre.

The first section of Polishing Your Prose, “strategies,” presents ten key concepts for clear and concise writing. They eschew the idea that these are “rules,” but go on to largely repeat commonly-held rules for writing such as eliminating empty constructions, redundancy, and jargon, minimizing adverbs and adjectives, and making sure that pronouns have clear antecedents. Other strategies are equally straightforward but more subtle, such varying sentence structure, using parallel structures for coordinating elements, using transitions to link ideas, and placing the most dramatic material at the end of the sentence thereby allowing sentences and paragraphs to build toward a crescendo.

The Cahns present each strategy simply, as though it is common sense, with the occasional gem of observational wisdom, such as “if you can’t find an appropriate transition, your ideas may not be as coherent as your presume.”

The second section puts these words into action with three paragraphs from an early draft of an essay on teaching math that eventually saw the light of publication. Word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph, the Cahns work through these passages and talk about their thought process to polish the text. They suggest that the reader edit the paragraphs before reading on, but without an easy way to do this I skipped the step. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be gleaned from reading their thought-process, such as noting that paragraphs need to maintain unified themes and that careful use of a thesaurus is a writer’s friend. Most of all, as the conclusion reminds us, this section demonstrates that editing is not a straightforward process, but one that requires constant tinkering, reworking, and reconsideration choices, because editing, like writing, is a matter of choice.

Polishing Your Prose shares much of its advice with other books in this genre, in large part because there is no grand secret to writing well. What I appreciated about this one is its emphasis on process. The Cahns assume everyone has their own voice, and Polishing Your Prose is designed to draw attention to the choices an author in the hopes that that voice can sing.

Before wrapping this up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the epilogue. I appreciated the rest of the book and can see using a variation of part two in a classroom, but the epilogue, which consisted of an autobiographical piece from each author, stole the show. The one detailed a class in graduate school where the professor demanded that the students resolve a philosophical problem by thinking for themselves rather than referring to a body of literature that as a first year student he knew nothing about––and in so doing this professor forced the students to learn. The other was a comic tale of youthful male hubris that I ate up. Both essays amounted to the authors flexing, mature authors offering ample evidence why one ought to pay attention to their advice.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Polishing Your Prose is my third contribution, the final one scheduled to date. I am happy to talk about the book further in the comments or on Twitter.

The Poppy War

About a year ago I started to hear buzz about a new fantasy book in a world modeled on east Asia. I adore Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books and other diverse settings for my fantasy novels, so The Poppy War quickly rose on the list of books I wanted to read. The fact that the author, R.F. Kuang, was a young Chinese-American woman studying modern Chinese history both added to the intrigue, even if it also threw up a caution flag.

The Poppy War opens with the official examination that will determine the future for the test-takers––that is, which academy they can attend. For Rin, a poor war orphan abused by her drug-smuggling adopted parents in the poor, rural, isolated South of the Nikara Empire, it provides one chance: earn the top score and earn admission to Sinegard, the academy for the children of warlords, or resign herself to an unwanted marriage.

Of course, getting into the academy creates new problems. Rin finds her new classmates, and particularly Nezha, insufferably arrogant, while they find her unprepared and uncouth. Most of her teachers don’t have the same concerns, as she shows potential and an flair for rash and risky solutions to impossible situations. Their problems arise in that Rin doesn’t always consider the consequences of her strategies. Nevertheless Strategy master Irjah and the eccentric Lore master Jiang take a particular interest in this impetuous student who, in addition to scoring well relative to her peers, is drawn to reexamining the official story of the destruction of Speer, a tributary of the Nikara, at the end of the last war with Mugen.

Rin thrives, despite the obstacles, but her life is again thrown into disarray when the neighboring nation, the Mugen federation, invades Nikara, determined to finish what they started in the previous war––a war only ended after brutal destruction of Speer and the intervention from distant powers. The trainees are thrown into war before they are ready; Rin is assigned to the shadowy Cike, a secretive force of assassins and shamans, and faces a choice: tap into her latent shamanic powers and destroy the Mugen by striking a deal with the Phoenix god or remain human and allow their crimes to go unpunished, losing all of Nikara, and quite possibly her life, in the process.

The Poppy War is a propulsive grimdark fantasy based on events in Chinese history where bad things happen and there are few good options. For all of the brutality and self-harm that Rin commits, though, its basic plot points, particularly through the first half of the book, follow a traditional wish-fulfillment path. Orphan works hard and turns out to be brilliant, goes to a school where she makes an enemy of one student and one teacher, but is adopted by the school’s eccentric master, who teaches her that she has powers she didn’t know about. Its Chinese setting and female lead are just trappings on this basic structure.

And this is fine. The novel is eminently readable and there are plenty of these stories built around white men, so there is virtue in putting this sort of story in Asian and female clothes. But neither did it make The Poppy War stand out.

What had initially piqued my interest in this story was the promise of Chinese history written. And is it. Chinese history oozes from the pages, starting with the map that posits Nikara (very)roughly the shape of China and Mugen Japan, the attention to bias within the Nikara empire, the primary geopolitical conflict modeled on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) right down to the playing out of the Rape of Nanking, and a sage-strategist whose maxims are literally those of Sun Tzu. After the fact, I saw Kuang say she modeled Rin’s trajectory on that of Mao.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t love it.

The fact that stories were ripped straight from the headlines of history consequences. Kuang fictionalized the names and places, but kept the maxims, plots, and even broad geography, which, in some ways, diminished the world-building because it came across like her contribution was to add a spot of magic and then strip away the complexity and depth of the real world. There were a couple of points where this wasn’t true in ways that hinted her promise, but these were the exception. Either dropping this story as a fictionalized history (think: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or keeping the plots while doing more to fictionalize and develop the setting would have, in my opinion, mitigated all of these problems.

This is what I meant when I said that Kuang’s youth raised a red flag. Both of these features strike me as common to young authors. The fact that she wrote a propulsive, engaging, and fun novel while tackling an ambitious set of humanistic and moral questions, including radical inequality, is an enormous achievement. I enjoyed The Poppy War, even if I was simultaneously disappointed. While I am not going to hail it as the next great fantasy novel, my main takeaway is that I hope Kuang has a long career and am excited to see what she puts out next.

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I have been on a fantasy kick of late, in large part because I’m too tired to do the heavy lifting of some of the Literature I have on my shelf. I recently finished S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and just began George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood.

Never Any End to Paris

I shall never know why people write and how it is people don’t write.

When an old man fancies he looks like his idol Ernest Hemingway he must attend the Hemingway lookalike contest in Key West, Florida. When a young man idolizes Hemingway, he must go to Paris and learn to write. The narrator of Never Any End to Paris, a stand-in for Enrique Vila-Matas, does both.

Never Any End to Paris, which takes the form of a transcript of lectures delivered at a conference on irony, opens with the narrator’s ill-fated entry into the lookalike contest. The organizers disqualify him on the grounds that he doesn’t look anything like Hemingway. From there the novel unfolds in imitation of Hemingway’s retrospective of years spent in Paris, A Moveable Feast.

As a young man, the narrator moved away from his unhappy home life in Barcelona to be like his hero in Paris. He takes up a garret operated by Marguerite Duras in the hope of receiving words of literary wisdom that will launch his career. This works, but his experience was wildly divergent from Hemingway’s. Both lived in poverty and had a older female mentor amid the constellation of literary lights, but the narrator came to Paris after being a student, rather than having had some lived experience, and instead of working lived on a stipend from his father. Where Hemingway claimed to be poor and happy, the narrator is poor and unhappy. But he learns to write, completing an experimental novel called The Lettered Assassin that kills its reader when they finish the book.

The result is an engaging, ironic, and at times outright funny examination of the process of learning to write. As a piece of intertext, Never Any End to Paris is a brilliant inversion of and commentary on A Moveable Feast that simultaneously lavishes praise on and deconstructs Hemingway’s customary surety.

My sole qualm with Never Any End to Paris is that it is too erudite for me. I loved the intertext with Hemingway and the discussion of writing, but most of the literary references to the people the narrator meets in Paris were new to me. I came away with deep appreciation for for the first two threads of the novel, but the third, a literary portrait of Paris in the 1970s, went over my head.

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I also finished American Prometheus, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, earlier this month, and last night started R.F. Kuang’s fantasy novel The Poppy War, which I’ve been looking forward to reading for about a year. Kuang is a very young author and is working on a graduate degree on modern Chinese history. Both facts clearly inform the book in the early going. I’ve only read the first chapter, which feels a little bit like heroic wish-fulfillment that is common in the fantasy genre, but the setting has me wanting to read on.

Sourdough or, Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market

“In every wheel of cheese, there’s revolution, alliance, betrayal…Can you feel it?”

I told him the truth: I could not.

“Nope. You’re honest, I appreciate that. Of course you can’t. I couldn’t, not at first. We’re blind to it. But this is their world, not ours, and their stories are greater.”

Her job working in robotics at a company called General Dexterity in the Bay Area crushes Lois. It pays well by most standards, though less so by San Fransisco standards, but the preternaturally motivated and motivating CEO pushes his employees to finish projects related to the development of robotic arms and the cheerily obsessive corporate culture encourages them to forgo everything but work. Many people sleep in the office. One group, including Lois, takes to the latest fad diet, a grey nutritional paste called Slurry. She nearly burns out.

Then she discovers a small restaurant that delivers her two rejuvenating foods: a spicy soup and sourdough bread to sop it up with. Only two men work at the restaurant where this food is produced, the brothers Beoreg and Chaiman. The brothers are Mazg, a hidden European ethnic group with a proud culinary history (part Jewish, part Roma in structure), and when they are forced to leave San Francisco they deliver a gift to their “Number one eater”: a portion of their sourdough starter, instructions for care, and a promise to write.

Lois earned her title for a reason, ordering the same food multiple times a week. She doesn’t cook, let alone bake, but feels an obligation to the Beoreg who she has spoken to on the phone so many times, so she makes a loaf of bread. It emerges from the oven warm and delicious and with a misshapen face on its crust. So she makes more, selling some and trying out for a spot at one of the area Farmer’s Market. Before long bread-baking takes over her life and Lois finds herself ready to quit General Dexterity and try to make a living making bread, with a trusty robotic arm to help stir the dough. But like Alice entering into wonderland, Lois’ adventures have just begun.

Sourdough is a comic novel that treats three serious issues bluntly but each with a light narrative touch. Two of these appear in recurring scenes.

In the one, Lois attends the “Lois Club”, founded by her grandmother, where every Lois has a distinguishing adjective. Lois is wounded to find out that she is “boring” Lois. Bread baking changes this, giving her a distinguishing characteristic, posing the question which is more fitting: “bread” Lois or “interesting” Lois.

In the other, Lois falls in love with her Beo, the chef who won her heart through her stomach.

The third topic is tension between tradition and innovation. This is the most well-developed theme, a function of its development through the main narrative arc, both in the San Fransisco food scene and the General Dexterity corporate goals.

Sloan talks about bread and food bacteria with loving care and more than one scene features characters waxing poetic about microbiology. Moreover, he makes it clear that while Lois has potential she still knows very little about baking, and the reader is introduced to the topic through her eager and inexperienced eyes.

Despite these virtues and legitimately funny episodes, though, his treatment of Lois’ sourdough starter left me cold. This is not an ordinary starter, but a magical one that requires almost no effort to produce the most wonderful bread provided only that the baker feeds and serenades it. The peculiar traits of this starter are fundamental to the plot, meaning that it transcends a simple sense of wonder at this thing that Lois wrought (and that she did not actually work for). Instead, it provokes envy in other bakers whose own starters do not measure up, ironically undermining the otherwise loving portrait of baking bread.

Overall, I appreciated the sentiment that baking bread makes a person inherently interesting as someone who bakes bread and I understand both the catharsis and the mania that comes with baking bread. Sourdough was not among my favorite reads of the year, but it is a light, clever novel that filled a different niche than my usual fare.

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I am currently making my way through American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I am riveted so far, though I somewhat mistrust its tendency to psychoanalyze Oppenheimer as a young man.

The Dark Forest

“For the majority of people, what they love exists only in the imagination. The object of their love is not the man or woman of reality, but what he or she is like in their imagination. The person in reality is just a template for their dream lover. Eventually, they find out the differences between their dream lover and the template. If they can get used to those differences, then they can be together. If not, they split up.”

Make time for civilization, for civilization won’t make time.

The sequel to the Hugo-winning novel The Three-Body Problem picks up where the first book left off, with the world in a crisis era. A fleet from Tri-Solaris, a technologically advanced civilization cultivating the earth for colonization, is on its way…and will arrive in a little over four hundred years. How will the human race respond to this crisis when the enemy is capable of reading and hearing everything, has put a cap on the advance of science, and no nation yet has so much as a single space ship?

The central plot of The Dark Forest is humanity’s preparation for the all-but inevitable doomsday battle.

Humanity gambles its fate on reckless plan. If the Tri-Solarians know everything said or written, then the only hope for survival is to appoint saviors empowered to come up with plans in the security of their minds. The UN appoints four men Wallfacers, named after the practice of meditation, and empowers them to appropriate resources to defend the human race––with bureaucratic oversight, of course.

Three Wallfacers are obvious choices: Frederick Tyler, a former US Defense Secretary, Manuel Rey Diaz, the president of Venezuela who defeated a US invasion, and Bill Hines, a renowned diplomat and pathbreaking neurosurgeon. For each of these the Earth-Trisolaris Organization appoints someone a “Wallbreaker,” designed to foil their efforts. But the fourth Wallspeakers is a curiosity, a failed Chinese professor named Luo Ji whose main contribution to the world outside a string of disastrously fleeting sexual liaisons is to have been an early adopter (and earlier abandoner) of “Cosmic Sociology” in a conversation with the astro-physicist Ye Wenjie.

Nobody quite understands why the UN appointed Luo Ji (least of all Luo Ji, who tries to reject the appointment), but the Tri-Solarans see him as a threat and determine to kill him before the plan he doesn’t know he is concocting foils their invasion.

Everyone else prepares, pioneering innovations to space travel and hibernation so that people can see their plans to fruition. In the years that pass, humanity survives “The Great Rift” that threatened to destroy humanity prematurely, and makes great strides in military technology, but overconfidence breeds complacency and the greatest threats are the ones they don’t know about.

The Dark Forest is not a character-driven novel in the traditional sense. As such, Cixin Liu’s characters in this series feel somewhat impersonal, though this may also stem from cultural differences. Here, at least the story engine is the tension between individual agency, the solipsistic desire for personal pleasure, and the bureaucratic structures that mitigate both––for good and for ill. The individual is the only hope for society, but the overriding impulse for most people is to take their own pleasure. Luo Ji is one protagonist, the unlikely hero and a vehicle for exploring the best and worst of human nature, his principal antagonist is humanity, which, in turn is also a protagonist faced by a combination of Tri-Solaris and itself.

Like its predecessor, The Dark Forest blends styles to explore broad philosophical questions. This installment, however, is best described as a blend of two science fiction types: the doomsday confrontation of an Orson Scott Card and the broad, galaxy-spanning scope of an Isaac Asimov or Olaf Stapledon. The combination resulted in long periods of philosophical meditation punctuated by moments of frenetic action.

I struggled a bit with remembering the characters who carried over from the first book, but that is a function of my being a native English speaker, but this was my only complication in a novel that I burned through.

Non-linear in chronology and epic in scope and fusing Chinese worldview with a philosophy that is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about human nature, I loved The Dark Forest and am looking forward to see how the series concludes.

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I recently also finished reading Sourdough, a comic novel about a young woman who discovers bread and love, and so abandons her lucrative, soul-sucking job in tech, and will be writing about it in the next couple of days. I just started American Prometheus, a Pulitizer prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer that I picked up on a recent trip to New Mexico.

Broken Harbor

In every way there is, murder is chaos. Our job is simple, when you get down to it: we stand against that, for order.

I remember this country back when I was growing up…Sometime since then, we start turning feral. Wild got into the air and its spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train…Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.

The final step into feral is murder.


It could be the setup for a riddle. There are four bodies in a well-maintained (but for the holes in the wall) house with in a cheaply-built and never-completed residential subdivision. The dead children in their beds have the look of angelic peace, while the husband and wife lie next to each other in a pool of blood, both covered in cuts from an absent knife. The doors show no sign of forced entry. How did they die?

Enter the Dublin Murder Squad. Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy’s reputation for competence comes at a cost: he catches the toughest cases and the most trainees. Right now he has both. With the rookie Richie Curran in tow, Kennedy begins an investigation that takes him to the scene of the crime in Broken Harbor, a town outside Dublin now called Brianstown that holds deeply-buried secrets for the Kennedy family.

The case at first seems open-and-shut; dad did it. Despite his brash reputation, Scorcher plays the odds and this is what the odds say, particularly in the wake of an economic collapse. But the clues don’t quite add up. They can’t find the knife; not all of the wounds could have been self-inflicted; neighbors say the Spains recently started acting strangely, but friends say they were the perfect family; the computer’s history and hard drive have been wiped; searchers find a roost where it seems a voyeur watched the family. Detectives Kennedy and Curran start unraveling the mystery of what causes a perfect, loving family to snap.

Their inquiry receives a big break when Jenny Spain, but her answers only lead to more questions.

Broken Harbor is narrated in first person from Mike Kennedy’s point of view. This device gives insight into his personality—that he likes to keep control, that he follows the rules, that he is competent in a way that rubs coworkers the wrong way—and provides grounds for plot twists when there are developments in the case he cannot control. Moreover, it lends weight to the blending of the two plot arcs playing out simultaneously, the case and the events of his youth in Broken Harbor that intrude upon the the narrative when his younger sister Dina, a young woman with a mental illness, makes demands on his time.

Not a lot happens in Broken Harbor, and yet it is a meaty book, its brevity of plot more than compensated for by the psychological depth of characterization. Kennedy in particular chews scenery as he works the case, interrogates witnesses, and reflects on his limits in the case. At the same time, the more that the layers are pulled back from the picture perfect family of the Spains, the more superficial that image becomes. They become a family stuck in the past and flailing against the impossibility of a future during the economic collapse of 2007.

I love a good detective story, and Broken Harbor transcends the limits of that particular genre. French revels in the little details, such as making it abundantly clear that there are legitimately beefs people have with Scorcher even while the reader is embedded in his point of view and therefore predisposed to side with him. I didn’t get the same sense of place that I often go to mystery novels for, but French more than compensates with a gripping psychological drama that, if anything, is too unrelenting for all of the parties involved.

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Next up, I picked up Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven on the strength of a Max Temkin’s recommendation on a recent podcast. It is a delicately interwoven tale about the fallout from a cataclysmic pandemic that hasn’t grabbed me the way I hoped.

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.