Anders waited for an undoing, an undoing that did not come, and the hours passed, and he realized that he had been robbed, that he was the victim of a crime, the horror of which only grew, a crime that had taken everything from him
Anders lives in a rural town where he works as a trainer and passes time smoking weed and having sex with Oona, a friend from high school who moved home after college to help care for her mother. This town, which read to me like Britain but could easily be in the US (Hamid also uses ambiguity as a universalizing device this way in Exit West), is populated overwhelmingly by white people. That is, until Anders wakes up one morning to discover that he is no longer white, patient zero for a plague that sweeps through society.
The Last White Man belongs to a genre of novels that range from Albert Camus’s The Plague to Jose Saramago’s Blindness where either a real or metaphorical plague sweeps through a community, thus allowing the author to explore the consequences of this change. (Other reviews mention Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but, despite the echoes in Anders’ experience, I found the broader social transition strain that analogy.) Hamid’s version, the plague is a metaphor for immigration that compresses the abstract fears about replacement into a matter of weeks, thus heightening the social tensions.
Other than revealing who, in fact, becomes the titular last white man, there is little plot to explain in this slim novel. The Anders-Oona relationship, for instance, starts as little more than a liaison of convenience and only develops somewhat beyond that. The relationship Anders has with his father and Oona’s with her mother are similarly lightly-handled. Rather, this is a novel about questions the answers to which have far-reaching consequences.
What impressed me about The Last White Man was how Hamid develops two themes related to identity.
First, Hamid uses Anders’ abrupt transition to explore the experience of being a person of color. He is the same person he was on the previous day, but he also no longer recognizes himself. Moreover, his day-to-day experience of the world has become filled with menace from the people around him. Anders changes how he interprets he the actions of the people who look at him and how he thinks about the people who had been living as people of color in town before the transition, not-so-subtly gesturing at the assumptions and social cues that the majority population so frequently takes for granted.
Anders was not sure where his sense of threat was coming from, but it was there, it was strong, and once it was obvious to him that he was a stranger to those he could call by name, he did not try to look in their faces, to let his gaze linger in ways that could be misconstrued.
Second, Hamid explores how racism can work on a social level. The spreading coloration is not the result of foreign influx or migration and yet the perceived threat fueled in part by media claiming that the plague is the result of a conspiracy seeking to undermine the natural order leads to violence that ranges from suicide to the formation of lynch mobs. And yet, Hamid also leaves the reader with a note of optimism. Most people start out unsettled by the changes, but, just as Anders and Oona are able to rediscover one another, so too is the community at large able to rediscover the ties that make them into a functioning society.
I liked The Last White Man a lot, and both the themes and the lyrical prose are in keeping with the other novels of his that I have read. The simplicity of the plot and character relationships allowed the heavier social themes to shine through in a very breezy read. The simplicity placed this book somewhat behind Exit West in my estimation, but the balance put it just ahead of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In sum, The Last White Man is well-worth reading and leaves me interested in reading Hamid’s other two novels.
I just finished reading Angela Saini’s Superior and am now reading both Umberto Eco’s Baudolino and Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews.
“After all, since the world began, we’ve been eating each other. If not symbolically, then we’ve been literally gorging on each other. The Transition has enabled us to be less hypocritical.”
Ordinarily I start novel reviews with a plot synopsis before offering any editorial comments or analysis. This is the way of reviews. Sometimes a non-fiction book warrants an anecdote of some sort that leads into the review, but discussion of novels generally requires insight on the plot to be meaningful.
I will get to the plot of Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh in a moment, but, before I get there, I want to make something very clear: this might be the most disturbing book I have ever read.
Tender is the Flesh follows Marcos, a man who has spent his entire career in the meat industry in an unnamed South American country that I suspect is meant to resemble Bazterrica’s home country of Argentina.
A virus deadly to humans swept through the animal kingdom at some point in the recent past. Animals could carry the disease without ill-effect but any human who ate contaminated meat or was scratched by an infected animal would die. Overnight, governments worldwide exterminated all animals that had a chance of interacting with humans. Humanity went vegan by necessity, much to the dissatisfaction of most people. Meat consumption, after all, is more a political statement than a biological necessity.
(Bazterrica includes a correct detail that humans often turn to meat for Vitamin B12, but it is a poor explanation for what happens in the novel given both that there are synthetic means of producing the nutrient and that people do this because humans can’t produce it.)
It was the first public scandal of its kind and instilled the idea in society that in the end, meat is meat, it doesn’t matter where it’s from.
Old taboos start to decay in this new zoologically-deficient world. People consumed other people in secret at first. Immigrants, migrants, and other marginalized people began to disappear, prompting cynical whispers that the virus was nothing more than a conspiracy to curb overpopulation. But norms change and, soon, human meat is an accepted part of people’s diet, with distinctions made between human cattle without names and citizens, the latter of whom can only be eaten in special circumstances. By the time that we meet Marcos, his career has changed from operating his family’s cattle slaughterhouse to being a manager at a slaughterhouse for the euphemistically-named “special meat” industry.
While he removes his soaked shirt, he tries to clear the persistent idea that this is what they are: humans bred as animals for consumption. He goes to the refrigerator and pours himself cold water. He drinks it slowly. His brain warns him that there are words that cover up the world. There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.
There are two ways to talk about Tender is the Flesh: the setting and the plot. Both are disturbing.
The greatest part of the horror in Tender is the Flesh builds out of the setting. I found that the inciting virus required a suspension of disbelief since its mechanics seemed rather improbable, but from that one point Bazterrica spins out a richly-imagined dystopia that is altogether too plausible given that its basic realities are transposed directly from the world of industrial meat, just adapted for humans. Thus we are given a tour of the breeding where the First Generation Pure grow up in captivity, their vocal cords removed “because meat doesn’t talk” and where impregnated females are often maimed so that they can’t kill the fetus so that it isn’t born into the hell, and to the processing centers where they are sedated, stunned, and killed.
But if the industrial side of special meat processing serves as the focal point of the novel, Bazterrica also introduces the “normal” sides of special meat consumption through parties held by Marcos’ sister Marisa and the seedier elements of the black market trade in human flesh. In a particularly grotesque examples of the latter, Marcos visits a particularly perverse establishment where, for a surcharge, a client can pay to eat the woman he had sex with and where celebrities can pay off their debts by signing themselves over to be prey in hunts.
The unrelenting bleakness of the setting only serves to underscore the trauma of the plot. Marcos’ wife Cecilia has recently left him, broken by the death of their baby Leo after years of trying to start a family. At the start of the novel, Marcos is simply going through the motions of life and trying to watch after his dying father, but things change when he receives the expensive gift of a First Generation Prime female to raise as domestic head. Marcos himself helped write the strict regulations governing domestic head since the meat industry has to keep a division between full people and meat people for the fiction to continue to exist and the idea of eating one’s own children is too horrific to contemplate. And yet, Marcos decides to first name this FGP Jasmine, then to bring her into the house, and, eventually, has sex with her in a way that suggests that he is trying to create a genuine relationship. When Jasmine becomes pregnant, the question seems to become whether one or both are going to suffer consequences from the regulators who keep trying to pry into what Marcos is hiding.
I will not reveal the final twist, but it was both shocking and perfectly in keeping with this bleak world.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is the trauma that pulses through nearly every character. Marcos, for instance, spends most of the novel going through life in almost a fugue state, which, in turn, colors the rest of the story. But this trauma plays out in the person of the nihilistic butcher, the tender-hearted job applicant at the processing plant, and a sister who seems to be disassociating from the reality of what she eats. The only ones who seem unaffected, Bazterrica suggests, are the sociopaths.
But this is a novel pregnant with ideas, such that other social commentaries dance beneath the surface of the trauma. Most obvious is the critique of industrial farming that inflicts so much of the trauma. Unsurprisingly, Bazterrica has talked about how her transition to vegetarianism informs, even while saying that meat informs her identity as a participant in a carnivorous society. Likewise, this commentary is bound up in a larger discussion of capitalistic consumption. Not unlike in our own world, meat in the novel serves is the ultimate marker of social status, whether one has access to it or whether one becomes it. The have nots are consumed first and all human flesh is transactional. Thus the reader is invited to consider where they might exist along this spectrum.
I finished Tender is the Flesh in April, but the end of semester busyness interfered with sitting down to write this. In the weeks since, I reread Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which my students loved more than I could have anticipated, and read Robert Graves I, Claudius, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Last White Man. I didn’t much care for I, Claudius, but I anticipate writing about the latter two books. I am now reading Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science and Umberto Eco’s Baudolino.
Julie Schumacher has published two novels about academic life, Dear Committee Members (2014) and The Shakespeare Requirement (2018), with a third in the series, The English Experience due out in August. The first two novels are campus farces featuring the eccentric professor of creative writing Jason Fitger who received his job and tenure at the small midwestern Payne College on the strength of literary novels years ago, though his most recent novel The Transfer of Affection both flopped and precipitated his divorce. Now he remains embedded in Payne, laboring away in a deeply dysfunctional department.
And to begin this recommendation on the proper footing: no, I will not fill out the inane computerized form that is intended to precede or supplant this letter; ranking a student according to his or her placement among the “top 10 percent,” “top 2 percent,” or the “top 0.000001 percent” is pointless and absurd. No faculty member will rank any student, no matter how severely lacking in ability or reason, below “top 10 percent.” This would be tantamount to describing the candidate in question as a witless beast. A human being and his or her caliber, intellect, character, and promise are not reducible to a check mark in a box. Faced with a reductionist formula such as yours, I despair for the future, consoling myself with the thought that I and others of my generation, with its archaic modes of discourse, won’t live to see the barren cyberworld the authors of your recommendation form are determined to create.
Dear Committee Members
Dear Committee Members unfolds over a single academic year, as told through the recommendation letters of one Jason Fitger. Professor Fitger writes a lot of recommendation letters, and takes great pride in the genre. Perhaps too much pride. Each of the letters he writes does indeed recommend the candidate for positions that range from jobs to graduate schools to administrative positions on campus. But these letters also contain flourishes that let the recipient know exactly what he, Jason Fitger M.F.A., thinks of them, their position, and the whole academic apparatus. Invariably, this commentary also means that the letters often wander into an ongoing one-sided dialogue between Fitger and his silent interlocutors such as his current department chair (a Sociologist imposed on the department), his ex-girlfriend Carole Samarkind (the associate director of Student Services at Payne), his ex-wife Janet Matthias, who he met at a prestigious writing Seminar and now is an administrator in the law school at Payne, and Eleanor Acton, their former classmate and now director of the Seminar from whom he is attempting to secure a position for his mentee Darren Browles.
Fitgers commentary traces the contours of an academic year, and the absurdity of the whole system—including letters of recommendation—is deeply familiar to anyone who has worked in it. Indeed, these are the letters of recommendation I wish I could write. Further, Schumacher offers cutting commentary about the state of the contemporary university.
Iris Temple has applied to your MFA program in fiction and has asked me to support, via this LOR, her application. I find this difficult to do, not because Ms. Temple is unqualified (she is a gifted and disciplined writer and has published several stories in appropriately obscure venues), but because your program at Torreforde State offers its graduate writers no funding or aid of any kind—an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse of vulnerable students, to whom you extend the false hope that writing a $50,000 check to your institution will be the first step toward artistic success.
Dear Committee Members
But Schumacher cuts the comedy of Jason Fitger the difficult and absurd colleague always kvetching about something or another by making it clear that is nevertheless deeply cares about his students and will go to great lengths to help them succeed. This character trait likewise adds emotional weight to a dark plot line about the declining emotional state of Darren Browles reflected through Fitger’s futile efforts to save him.
The Shakespeare Requirement picks up the following academic year, with Jason Fitger, the creative writing professor with a lowly MFA, now at the helm of Payne University’s English Department, his colleagues grudgingly voting for him at the end of Dear Committee Members.
This novel has functionally three core plot threads.
The first follows Dennis Cassovan, aging professor of Shakespeare who loathes that while he was on sabbatical his colleagues burdened the department with Fitger, a mediocre novelist and non-scholar. What’s more, administration is requiring a “vision statement” for the department and there is a chance that that vision might exclude the Bard himself. Cassovan objects, strenuously, and the cause is taken up by his long-suffering research assistant Lincoln, who makes Shakespeare a cause célèbre on campus—much to his annoyance—after the poster on Cassovan’s door is vandalized.
Here was the future, Cassovan thought. Out with considered argument and nuance; in with publicity students, competitive righteousness, and the thrill of rage.
The second follows Angela Vackrey, a timid but promising student from a small, conservative town whose work attracts the attention of both Fitger and Cassovan. However, both men are too preoccupied with administrative and faculty issues to offer her much mentorship, and Angela finds herself adrift without any close friends at college. In part, this is how she finds herself pregnant after a single sexual experience with a boy from her Bible study. Surely this means that she must marry him?
Finally, there is Fitger himself. I am very fortunate to be in a department with an exceptionally competent chair—so much so that last year the department joked that our reappointment vote was to prevent her from stepping down. Jason Fitger is the opposite of that: a roiling mess of disorganization and impolitic observations with barely any sense of the levers of power within an academic institution. To make matters worse, his ex-wife Janet Matthias is dating the Dean who signs off on the department paperwork and Roland Gladwell, the chair of the well-resourced Economics department, is staging a hostile takeover of their shared building. Oh, and campus newspaper has run a series of articles condemning Fitger’s “Literature of the Apocalypse” course as traumatic.
The students, who have requested anonymity, claim that the reading list for the fall class—on the “Literature of the Apocalypse”—was detrimental to their mental health and “psychologically hostile.” One of the students has reported consulted a family lawyer.
Sophomore Yvetta Curtin, who was not enrolled in the class but had seen a copy of the syllabus, suggested that the selection of novels was “irresponsible” and could be dangerous for students with emotional issues or PTSD.
Fitger’s only hope may lay in the person of the department secretary, Fran, who miraculously keeps the department moving forward despite its lack of a budget. The problem is that in order to have a budget, the department must have a vision statement and, thanks to Roland’s meddling, the department must approve the statement unanimously. But Fitger will get the statement approved over Cassovan’s dead body unless it includes requires that all English majors take a Shakespeare class.
The Shakespeare Requirement retains a similar tone to the Dear Committee Members, but dispatching with the epistolary format allows Schumacher to offer wider perspective on the campus culture of Payne. Schumacher treats Payne as an every-college. The humanities are underfunded, numerous students apathetic or overwhelmed, and administrators out of touch with the practice of teaching. The hubbub about students not even in the class being outraged by Fitger’s literature of the apocalypse class might as well be a campus culture wars headline about Schumacher’s alma mater Oberlin. While some of these caricatures wore a little thin at times, I found that the wider perspective made the campus satire hit somewhat closer to home for better and for worse. Where Fitger’s (failed) romantic partnerships and his (doomed) attempt to save his mentee form the core plots of Dear Committee Members, The Shakespeare Requirement follows a protracted war over the future of the school. Victory might hinge on the silliest of factors in the novel, but the fight itself is all-too real.
Education was expensive and inefficient; teaching students to think and write clearly was the same. But Hoffman, a business school graduate with the singe-cell mind of a banker, had never taught anyone anything. Her ultimate plan would be to organize the campus into two simple units: “Numbers” and “Words.”
The Shakespeare Requirement
I am a big fan of both of these novels. They are fun, light reads filled with sweeping caricatures and clever turns of phrase, but with some of the darker—and altogether human—crises of higher education hovering just beneath the surface. The comic sub-genre of campus novel is to the best of my knowledge not extensive, and the genre writ-large tends to focus on character or coming of age stories. This makes it almost inevitable that Schumacher’s books would be compared to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, which I particularly disliked. Schumacher populates her books with quirky and sometimes bad or unlikable characters, she avoids the meanness and myopia that I found in Lucky Jim. Schumacher makes it clear that however difficult and disoriented Fitger becomes, he legitimately trying and some of his most dramatic failures come from the best intentions—something that seems likely to have been drawn from experience in academia.
This semester got away from me and I’m not sure which of my recent reads will receive profiles here. I am currently reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time.
What we’re being offered appears at first to be diverse, until you realise it is the same kind of ‘diversity’ that is spreading around the globe in identical fashion; what the world buys and eats is becoming more and more the same. Consider these facts: the source of much of the world’s food – seeds – is mostly in the control of just four corporations; half of all the world’s cheeses are produced with bacteria or enzymes manufactured by a single company; one in four beers drunk around the world is the product of one brewer; from the USA to China, most global pork production is based around the genetics of a single breed of pig; and, perhaps most famously, although there are more than 1,500 different varieties of banana, global trade is dominated by just one, the Cavendish, a cloned fruit grown in monocultures so vast their scale can only be comprehended from the view of an aeroplane or by satellite.
Norman Borlaug’s work and the Green Revolution show us anything, it is that through human efforts and ingenuity, food systems can be transformed. As we have seen, that transformation was only ever designed to be short-lived; it was a clever fix for feeding the world at a particular point in time. Borlaug himself believed it could only be sustained for twenty-five to thirty years, but the world became locked into that way of feeding itself.
The consequences of monoculture agriculture should be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the news. The imminent extinction of the Cavendish banana and coffee are the most obvious examples, but one might also think of the recent spike in the cost of eggs attributed to a massive outbreak of avian flu or the staggering data about how little of mammalian biomass is wild. Humans have always sought to control the environment, but their capacity to do so increased exponentially in the 20th century such that the Wizards of the Green Revolution created enormously productive food systems that simultaneously made these systems less diverse and thus less resilient.
This, in essence, is the argument of Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction. As much a manifesto as an investigation, Saladino argues for the preservation of a diverse food system, in all meanings of the term.
Eating to Extinction is, in essence, interlocking case studies on a single theme. The book unfolds across thirty four case studies divided into ten thematic sections by type of food.
One set of chapters focus on how a particular heirloom variety of plant or animal can help provide sustainability to the modern food system. For instance, one chapter examines industrial chickens compared to the Black Ogye Chicken from South Korea, while others examine wheats and coffees that resilient against the effects of climate change, and another examines how wild banana strains can resist the types of blight that killed the Gros Michel and is now threatening the Cavendish. Elsewhere the threat comes from the clear-cutting of forests.
Another set of chapters focus on the cultural side of food systems that have been threatened by everything from authoritarian dictatorships in Albania to regulatory rules about how products with protected designation of origin must be produced (e.g. in terms of the cultures used for cheese) to the economic pressures that prompt young people to leave the old ways behind. Here the loss is both that of sustainable systems that evolved to survive under harsh conditions and a more profound loss of meaning that conditions people to accept what the industrial food system has on offer.
If this makes Eating to Extinction sound like a smörgåsbord of topics, you would not be wrong. These are an array of vignettes on a theme, which Saladino allows to lead him in a variety of different directions. One chapter, for instance, offers criollo cacao as a way to stimulate the Venezuelan economy without oil, a second explores how marine life can quickly bounce back in ocean preserves that ban deep-sea trawling, and still others profile individuals aiming to bring perry and traditional cheeses back to prominence in England. Every chapter follows from the same theme and works to serve the same general argument, even while often looking quite different.
What makes Eating to Extinction a compelling read is its balance between the horrors of the modern food system and an optimistic note. Each chapter interrogates the crisis of either monoculture or capitalism like modern meat chicken that matures in under a month and the Pu-erh tea that the harvesters are incapable of affording, which Saladino balances against the deep well of genetic diversity that is both under threat and offers possible sources of salvation.
Preserving these systems, he argues, is a choice, but one that is not too late to make. At least not yet.
I finished Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members just before the last book post went up. Since then, I have nearly S.A. Chakraborty’s The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi and I am working through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I rarely read two novels at once these days, but my wife and I decided to start a book club for just the two of us where we read a set amount each week and then talk about that section over a bottle of wine.
The day has arrived. By which I mean it arrived yesterday, but I was neck deep in grading and trying to avoid Twitter so I missed the publisher’s Tweet.
The important thing is that my book has officially been released from the University of Michigan Press. This means that it is available for purchase and also to read as an open access scholarly resource. Academic books usually have short print runs, sell relatively few copies, and represent a deep investment of tens of thousands of dollars over the course of years to produce, even without lucrative contracts for the authors. This is why most publishers require authors to offset the publisher’s cost with grants and research funds in order to have their work appear open-access, and I am immensely grateful to UM Press for offering me the chance to participate in a new initiative to make a larger number of books accessible this way.
If I’m being honest, this day is more than a little intimidating. This book is a substantially revised (and improved) version of my dissertation research that began about a decade ago and that I carried on through both years of underemployment and the pandemic. I still managed to write the book I wanted to write and I am proud of the final product, but the circumstances under which I was writing created hurdles to getting there—on top of the usual anxieties like imposter syndrome. The little voice in my head who worries about how my scholarship will be received is pacing anxiously, slightly muting my excitement at having it out in the world.
But this is a concern for another day. Today, I am celebrating a personal writing milestone, and I hope that my book gives people a lot to think about.
Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company others….Regardless of the specific occasion, though, or of the amount of planning that has gone into creating it, the objective is the same: it’s about blocking out time and dedicating it to the work of interacting with other people, whoever they might be.
The fight for hanging out is the fight for inclusive access to scenes and places like the ones I have been description. and it starts with recognizing that hanging out at, or around, or in the context of work is, in essence, work.
I started my current job in a world shaped by COVID-19. We had a campus mask mandate, still, and students were coming off more than a year where their educational experience was shaped by trying to keep people separate from one another in the name of limiting disease transmission. One of the most pronounced effects of this caesura was the abandonment of study spaces in academic buildings. Even the library seemed abandoned that year. My building has numerous comfortable chairs and tables in little nooks that never seemed occupied.
By a happy accident, the exception to this general observation took place immediately outside my office where you could usually find several history majors in their final year occupying the four chairs. Sometimes they would be reading or working on papers, but other times they were just there to hang out. I never had any of these students in my class, but I got to know them pretty well and often offered informal mentoring. I liked that their presence made campus feel a little more vibrant—and I could always close my office door if they became too distracting.
Last semester their numbers dwindled to one. As much as I like that one student (another whom I have never had in class), the change me realize how much I missed their presence.
So I started hosting small gatherings.
I bring baked goods and offer them tea. These started as ad hoc affairs on Friday afternoons, that I have now made a standing part of my office hours once a week. There have been weeks recently where I have been too distracted to do much more than offer the food and drink and attendance fluctuates week by week, but there are 6 or 8 regular attendees and I have had several faculty members comment how much they enjoy seeing these gatherings. There is no agenda for these gatherings, nor expectations. Students can grab me for “regular” office hours activities, chat with me informally, read a book, or just hang out with anyone else who shows up. My only objective is to invite students into the building.
If I needed validation for these gatherings, Shiela Liming’s new book Hanging Out is just that.
At its heart, Hanging Out, subtitled The Radical Power of Killing Time, is a manifesto about resisting the encroachment of productivity culture. Rat-race culture is hardly new. Long before the advent of the internet, critics in the late 19th and early 20th century already complained that the pace of life was too fast, as Randall Monroe of XKCD once observed. However, Liming contends that the last twenty or so years have marked a dangerous acceleration of these trends, combined with the rise of media that allows us to simulate connection while simultaneously eliding the realities of physical space. Liming declares, “We were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along and made hanging out hard” (xii). Thus, Hanging Out serves as a call to action, to reclaim the power to resist the the forces that grind us to dust.
The seven chapters of Hanging Out each centers a different type of hanging out—at parties, with strangers, jamming, on TV, on the job, at dinner parties, and on the internet—that allow Liming to tell one or more stories connected to her experience in that context. Every chapter is engaging enough, even if you have never, say, become friends and thus hung out with someone whose Food Network show replicates the experience of conviviality for viewers all over the country, or played bagpipe and accordion with not one but two bands in the Pittsburgh-area bands. But in each case, Liming’s broad perspective on hanging out reinforces the central message that hanging out can take place almost anywhere and the willingness to do so has a rejuvenating power.
Compared to the two examples above, Liming’s chapter on hanging out at work struck a particular note with me. This chapter blends two examples, working a bar job somewhere without much else to do and the academic conference. The latter part particularly struck a note with me, as someone who has a love-hate relationship with these events. Conferences are where academics go to present papers, network, and see friends. The share of the pie chart for each varies by the person. These can also be intimidating, isolating venues for young scholars, impossibly priced for contingent faculty, and places where “known creeps” like to turn the space hostile. Liming describes how the worst experience of her conference life spurred her to be more fully present at this conference and to commit to hanging out, those creeps be damned.
Liming describes this hanging out and the experience of rounding up an audience to hear a graduate student talk with a certain panache, but what she describes is not an easy thing to do. These can be big conferences with a bewildering number of famous and important people in your corner of academia, which can easily lead one to travel in your pack, prowling rooms and events to see if you know anyone there—and turning away if you don’t. I have presented to a room with only my panelists for audience members and delivered a paper immediately after a significant portion of the audience walked out of the room, their colleague having presented the paper before mine. I attended my first AIA-SCS conference (the big professional organization in my field) back in 2011, before the latter organization took its current name. While I started to acquire “conference friends” pretty quickly, it was only this year where I felt like I’d reached a critical mass of contacts that it seemed like I knew someone in any room I stepped into, and, even then, I met a ton of new folks or made physical connection with digital friends. However, the fact that I knew this many people made me feel all the more responsible for inviting other people into the space—especially since one of the first-time attendees was one of our undergrads. Because the reality is that hanging out in a space like this is how cross-pollination of ideas works. Nothing might happen over a coffee or drink or at that reception, but it builds out a rolodex that can result in anything from more hanging out, to an introduction to a friend of a friend, to opportunities to collaborate on future ventures.
“Hanging Out on the Internet” was the only chapter where Liming lost me, but only a little bit. She uses this chapter as an extended discussion of the Sublime, which she argues is impossible online because the digital works exists as a purely human creation. Further, she takes issue with “hanging out” online in two ways. First, the digital world creates the illusion of proximity in a way that ironically heightens the absence, while, second, the process of “searching” and curating one’s experience online is antithetical to the (sublime) power of physical chance.
I disagree with none of this.
However, hanging out in the sense that Liming calls for also requires reciprocity. I love physical mail, but a one-sided letter delivery is not much of a correspondence and I have found that the rise of digital technologies have allowed for the rekindling or perpetuation of friendships that started or bloomed in the physical world, but would have otherwise faded. These are not a replacement for friendships or activities in the analog world, but a valuable supplement to them.
The underlying message in Hanging Out is not that different from Oliver Burkemann’s Four Thousand Weeks or Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout, but with a key twist. Where both Burkemann and Malesic focus on work culture, Liming wants us to consider seriously the work involved in not-work.
I have once again fallen way behind on writing about books here, both because I am in the midst of another busy semester and because I haven’t had substantial-enough thoughts to share about a number of the books. For instance, over the last month I have read Archer Mayor’sBury the Lead and Mick Herron’s Spook Street, both installments in series, as well as Brandon Sanderson’s Tress of the Emerald Sea, which is the first of his “secret” novels he ran a Kickstarter for last year. I might have something to say about Tress, but less as a novel and more about Sanderson’s larger Cosmere project. I also read Fonda Lee’s Jade War, which I didn’t like nearly as much as the first in the series (and not just for second book reasons, though I expect I’ll read the third) and Percival Everett’s Dr. No, which was amusing enough but didn’t elicit a particularly strong reaction from me. Ironically, this is how I feel about a lot of “literary” authors. On the other end of the spectrum, I read Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath right as the semester started and while I liked a lot of the ideas I found myself having a hard time engaging with the story, which might have also been a function of my brain space so far this semester. In fact, the only book in my backlog that I know I want to write about is Marissa R. Moss’ Her Country, which is a discussion of country music industry and the recent wave of female artists who took it by storm.
I am currently reading Dan Saladino’s Eating to Extinction an about to start a buddy read of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children with my wife.
I looked at my course evaluations again this week. Week six of the semester is a strange time to check evaluations, but I had to compile summary evaluations as part of my annual review. Now, the utility of evaluations are deeply mixed in that they often reflect a combination of what the students believed that they should have earned and how much work they believe that they should have put in to earn whatever grade they did receive. I also find that any course policy that deviates from whatever normative practice the students are familiar with is liable to be met with polarizing opinions, which results in some combination of angry and enthusiastic comments.
My favorite ever comment was from a student who said that they should give me a raise.
Polarizing is how I’d characterize the response to Specifications Grading. A lot of students reported that it was challenging, but in a way that was both fair allowed them to do their best work in learning the material, which is exactly the intent. Others found it grossly unfair, either because they had to put in more work to earn the high grade they wanted or because it “prevented” them from receiving their high grade (presumably because they didn’t want to complete optional revisions).
This has led me to mull over whether Specifications Grading is the best match for any class with papers. I am committed to the system at least for this semester and it undoubtedly results in the students honing their skills. But it also requires me to give copious feedback if I want the students to be able to meet the higher standards in their revisions, and this is hard to do at scale. However, I also don’t want to give back either the expectations for what students should be able to achieve by the end of the course or the flexibility that students unused to my teaching style sometimes find disorienting (yes, the extension is free, there is no trick involved). At the same time, even while acknowledging that no one professor can resolve the deep structural issues that lie behind the student mental health crisis, I hate to feel like I’m contributing to making the problem worse.
Then again, I had a handful of comments that explicitly commented about how I made things better in this respect so I must have done something right.
This week in Pasts Imperfect, Matthew Canepa writes about the god Mithra, who will be the subject of an upcoming conference on the deity, along with the usual roundup of projects (including a very exciting mapping project on Cahokia). This conference looks excellent, particularly in its focus on undoing the damage done to our understanding of the god through obsession with identifying a “pure” tradition or conviction about unchanging religions. This was also the focus of Canepa’s excellent monograph, The Iranian Expanse (2018).
Arie Amaya-Akkermans writes a letter about the devastation at Antakya. He reports a particularly powerful opinion that the Turkish government will likely rebuild some of the antiquities to demonstrate its diversity and sophistication even while allowing the people to suffer.
Florida is considering a “Classical” Christian alternative to the SAT, in the latest of DeSantis’ aggressive attacks on education. My worry about this sort of thing isn’t so much that it will work—as long as parents are looking to send their kids to top schools elsewhere in the country, they’ll continue to take whatever tests those schools require, and whether the tests are worthwhile is a separate question—but that the actions of DeSantis and the people around him are rapidly pushing the Overton Window about education in a way that empowers people not just in Florida, but around the country, to indoctrinate and bully students.
Roald Dahl’s publisher is aiming to release revised editions of classic books that sand away the rough, insensitive edges to the man’s writing. The move is an entirely absurd reaction to the so-called culture wars, in my view, and disingenuous. Give context to the text as was if you want to account for changes in culture, but moderating everything to obscure an author’s politics and make a cash grab at making a sanitized version for use in school does a service to exactly nobody.
The office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College used ChatGPT to produce an email sent to students about the Michigan State shooting last week. The message was predictably cold and lacking in any specific guidance on resources to help the students who, unsurprisingly, are not amused. I’m not at all surprised that university departments are using AI this way, given the widespread misconception that AI text generation can replace actual writing even as many of these same schools are considering draconian consequences for students who submit AI-generated work. We’re way past irony on this topic already.
NPR is the latest journalism platform to announce layoffs, noting a 20 million dollar drop-off in sponsorship revenue and pessimistic outlooks for a bounce-back in funding levels. I have my issues with some of how NPR chooses to cover politics in particular, but it is an absolutely essential part of the journalism apparatus given its mandate to cover events in every state. The erosion of journalism in this country is a disturbing (and accelerating) trend that is already showing consequences in the likes of George Santos.
After the bizarre saga that is Twitter Blue, Zuckerberg has decided to one-up Elon Musk with a paid subscription plan for Meta platforms for the low, low price of $11.99 a month. Unless you are using Facebook on an iPhone, in which case it’ll be $14.99. This is under the guise of ID-verification systems to help people build their brands. This latest move makes me glad that I deleted my Facebook account more than a decade ago. I still use Instagram, probably more than I should and would miss some interactions if I were forced away but let’s be real: the Instagram timeline is practically useless already. I assume this decision counts on Facebook being indispensable for millions of people, and a go-to platform for many types of interactions—as I have been annoyed by on more than one occasion. At least Meta is actually going to verify identifications.
Last summer I set for myself a reading list of recent work on Roman history, which blended books I came across in book lists, reviews, etc, with crowd-source suggestions. My summer ended up being much busier than I had anticipated, but the list still proved a valuable resource over the past few months and I have a continued to refer to it.
With this in mind, I am starting to put together my reading slate for Summer 2023. This year I want to do a broad survey of food history, with 8–10 books that encompass a range of different approaches to the topic. I have been reading in this area out of interest for the past few years, so there are a number of “obvious” books that I have excluded for no other reason than that I have already read them. The difference this time is that I am looking to be somewhat more systematic in my approach.
This is the list I have come up with so far:
Leonard Barkan, The Hungry Eye: Eating, Drinking, and European Culture from Rome to the Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
Robert William Fogel, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100: Europe, America and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Sally Grainger, The Story of Garum: Fermented Fish Sauce and Salted Fish in the Ancient World (New York: Routledge, 2020).
Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
Rachel Louise Martin, Hot, Hot Chicken: A Nashville Story (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2021).
Patrick E. McGovern, Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
Massimo Montanari, Food is Culture, trans. Albert Sonnenfeld (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
Jean-Pierre Poulain, The Sociology of Food: Eating and the Place of Food in Society (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).
Adam D. Shprintzen, The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817–1921 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
Ken Albaba, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
Laura M. Banducci, Foodways in Roman Republican Italy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021).
Brian Fagan, Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
Felipe Fernández-Amersto, New a Thousand Tables: A History of Food (New York: The Free Press, 2002).
Paul Freedman, Food: The History of Taste (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
James C. McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens, Oh: Ohio University Press, 2009).
Patrick E. McGovern, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1986).
Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).
Roy Strong, Feast: A History of Grand Eating (New York: Harcourt, 2003).
Caroline Walker-Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
Food history is obviously an enormous topic and I am stretching myself beyond ancient history for this particular reading list, so I am particularly keen to hear recommendations with a particular focus on recent volumes or if there is a methodological approach I am sorely neglecting.
Since this is an academic book, I assume that this will cost me an arm, a leg, a kidney, and the deed to my firstborn child. Did I get that right?
Do children come with deeds?
You know what I mean.
I do. This is perhaps the most exciting piece of news. The book will be coming out with University of Michigan Press as a hard cover volume at their normal price point (about $75), but I was offered an option for my book to be included in a new open-access program. The book will still be found in the catalog and available for purchase, but, in effect, I agreed to forgo a paperback version of the book and instead make the e-book open-access.
So you volunteered to sell fewer books. Why?
A few reasons. First, there is very little chance that this book will sell enough to earn me meaningful royalties, with or without a paperback run. I tried to write my book to be approachable and hope that it sells well for an academic book, but I read the contract and am under no illusions that academic publishing will make me rich. Second, open access makes it possible for more people to read my work and that could, at least in theory, open more doors for me. The third reason is more philosophical. I have benefited enormously from scholars and organizations that make their work available for free. I am always looking for opportunities to pay that forward by publishing open access work where I can, even if I generally haven’t been successful with my articles. Given this opportunity, I took it.
Very noble of you.
It is also practical. I have reservations about the sustainability of open-access publishing over the long term and it is not going to resolve the issues of a crumbling higher-ed infrastructure for the humanities and social sciences, but I’m also intimately familiar with the many difficulties that come with publishing as a contingent faculty member. If making my work open access makes the life of any contingent scholar or graduate student a little easier, then it’ll have been worth it.
When I tentatively raised my concerns about sustainability, my editor told me to have that conversation about my next book. Her answer didn’t really assuage my concerns, but I guess I’ll need to write another book.
So, how’s the next book coming?
Patience. I have a few book projects in mind that I am starting to work on, but each of them is likely multiple years out at this point.
Call it what you will. Book writing takes time under the best circumstances and I am one of many professors who don’t receive research leave. I will likely write more books because I want to write more books—in fact, I already have outlines for three more history books and a novel. But what I write and how quickly will depend enormously on how the other parts of my career develop over the next few years.
I’m excited to be moving on to new work after spending the better part of a decade with this one, I’m also going to enjoy seeing this book out in the world.
I am a Bad Jew by many people’s standards. Other people would deny me even that, since I never had a bar mitzvah and have never belonged to a synagogue. I am only very slowly learning Hebrew. I’m mostly committed to holidays for the food and a loose sense of seasonality. This year for Chanukah I said a blessing lighting candles but decided that I didn’t want to say the others. In recent years I’ve found myself feeling a stronger pull toward my ancestry within the Eastern European Yiddish community than the Hebraic Zionism that I find problematic for its assimilationist obliteration of specific Jewish heritage before considering the actions of the state of Israel.
It was with this background that I read Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews: A history of American Jewish Politics and Identities. For a history of Jewish people in the United States, the plural in “identities” is important, according to Emily Tamkin. Essential, in fact, because there has been a multiplicity of ways to be Jewish, so too is there a multiplicity of ways to be “Bad Jews,” in any number of respects deficient. Narratives and counter-narratives. Tamkin even includes in her introduction like the one I wrote above to explain how she might just be too bad a Jew to author this book, but perhaps that is just the point.
Bad Jews, which blends history, more than 150 interviews, and a streak of memoir, unfolds in chronologically, with each chapter constructed around two interlocking themes: what might prompt some Jews to characterize others as “Bad Jews” and how Jews fit into the broader patterns of American culture.
American Jewish history is a history, or a set of histories, of immigration and the subsequent oscillation between accepting and resisting acculturation.
While it is common to speak of Jews as a cohesive group, Tamkin invites readers to think otherwise down to the most fundamental levels. Ashkenazim from the Germany and Eastern Europe form the dominant image of what a Jewish person looks like in the United States (and have formed the majority of the population since 1730), but Tamkin notes that the earliest Jews to arrive here were Sephardim who arrived by way of the Iberian peninsula and, thus, early Synagogues followed Sephardic practices. This early arrival also inevitably entangled the Jewish community with slavery, both in terms of employing enslaved labor to construct their places of worship and owning enslaved people. She points out that the first Jewish person to hold a cabinet position was Judah P. Benjamin, a wealthy slave owner who became secretary of state of the Confederate States of America.
Tamkin weaves this same thread back in during the Civil Rights Movement when, in 1965, famously, the Jewish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Many Jews are rightfully proud of this heritage and Tamkin cites polling form the 1950s that suggests that most Jews considered commitment to civil rights more essential for being a “Good Jew” than support for Israel. And yet, as a number of recent comments from Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, and other prominent African Americans indicate, there is also a longstanding frustration with, if not hostility in, this relationship. Tamkin builds from an analysis of James Baldwin’s essay “Negroes Are Antisemitic Because They Are Anti-White,” to identify the disconnect in that while Jewish allies of the movement emphasize the similarities in their place in American society, African Americans chaffed at the differences in lived experience when most Jews received the privileges of being white. In other words, it isn’t that Jews are not marginalized in essential ways in American society, but they also get to be the landlords.
In turn, this point again reinforces the tensions within the American Jewish community when it comes to Jews of color.
[Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Jews who participated in the civil rights movement are] American Jewish history, but…only a part of it. In the contemporary context, that means grappling with all of American Jewish history and with the various stances American Jews have chosen to take with respect to white supremacy. It also means that those who say that Jews aren’t white only to turn around and malign Jews who do not look white as not really being Jewish are only fooling themselves.
Race is a construct, but it is a construct with lived implications. And there are, in the United States, Jews who go through life as white. This is the majority of American Jews. If they—we—do not wish to be considered as complicit in white supremacy, a good place to start would be by not insisting that we’re more Jewish than Jews of color.
The issue of race stood out because of the current state of discourse in the United States and other books I have read in the past few years like Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene and Koshersoul, both of which address the intersection of his race and his Judaism, but it is only one example of the questions at the heart of Bad Jews. There is no one way to be a “Good Jew,” in Tamkin’s thesis, and thus there is a multiplicity of ways to be a “Bad Jew.” Moreover, these are contested definitions perpetually undergoing regeneration.
In many respects, the story that Tamkin tells about Jews parallels the evolution of the United States more broadly, and it is important to recognize those connections. However, “Jews” make for a compelling subject for thinking about the United States as a pluralistic polity because of the way that both mainstream Christian Americans and parts of the Jewish community have tried to articulate Jews as an eternal other, separate from and incompatible with the rest of the citizen body.
Bad Jews is not a book one can turn to for answers. That very idea is antithetical even to Tamkin’s project. Rather, this is a book that is designed to think with. I came into it with a strong sense of certain schisms within the broad Jewish community, but I quickly discovered that I had underestimated how deep and multifaceted these divisions were.
This is the second in a backlog of books I read months ago that I still want to write about. Since I am currently re-reading several novels that I’m teaching with this semester, I might even “catch up” before the semester overtakes me too much.