Sourdough Culture

I picked up Eric Pallant’s new book Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers (Agate Publishing: 2021) a few months ago but only read it during a short break around the new year. In truth, I come into a book like this wearing several hats. I am an enthusiast, someone who enjoys both baking bread and reading food history. I am also a historian who has been slow-cooking a project on ancient bread. If this review comes off as overly-critical, it is because I couldn’t take the latter hat off and found numerous nits to pick with an otherwise-engaging read.

Sourdough Culture is an entertaining but, frankly, rather curious book. Pallant, a professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny College. The book is organized around two broad through-lines that sat somewhat uncomfortably together.

The first narrative hook is a personal mystery wherein Pallant investigates the genealogy of his Cripple Creek starter that has been continuously cultivated since the Cripple Creek Gold Rush of the late 19th century.

The second is a history of “sourdough” bread, ostensibly because the conceptual lineage of Cripple Creek starter can be traced back to the earliest domestication of wheat in Mesopotamia. While individual parts of that history were compelling, I often found the connection to the personal narrative strained.

Pallant is at his best when he explores the technology behind bread-baking. In that vein, I thought the strongest individual chapter was “A Reign of Yeast” in which he traced the emergence of modern yeast in the 1800s and explored the emergence of the industrial machines for producing bread, including a machine for injecting carbon dioxide directly into loaves as a mechanical hack to expedite production. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this transition was also the subject his Fulbright Fellowship. The transition to modern bread is also a process that has well-documented discussions of taste preferences for different types of bread, which is another of Pallant’s recurring interests as a sourdough baker.

Putting on my professional hat, my difficulties with Sourdough Culture emerged from the wild inconsistencies and historical faux-pas that make their way into Pallant’s account of the past. Some of these inaccuracies were just problematic throwaways like nebulous and nonsensical terminology like: “At the end of the Dark Ages, when Columbus was sailing…” (“Dark Ages” is not terminology we ought to be endorsing, but, even if it were, Columbus sailed a few hundred years after they “ended.”) Others treated periods with very broad generalities, like this from the first of just four paragraphs dedicated to bread in Ancient Greece:

In 332 BCE, Greece [ed. Alexander the Great, Greece is not a useful descriptor here] conquered ancient Egypt. One would think ancient Greeks, aware of Egyptian baking techniques and smart as they were, would have relied on a similar diet [ed. why? wouldn’t climate and ecology make a much bigger difference?]. However, most Greeks were poor—peasants, farmers, field hands, and their children, everyone except a small handful of elites [ed. this was also true in Egypt…]—and did not consume much wheat bread.

Pallant’s overall point in this section works well enough: the Greek diet was not the same as the Egyptian diet, in no small part because the soil in Greece is not well-suited for producing wheat. However, the way he gets there is muddled and misleading.

I could grump about what Pallant gets right and wrong in those four paragraphs all day, but that misses the point. It is symptomatic of the first of the two big issues that my professional side repeated bumped into while reading Sourdough Culture.

Pallant is not a historian by training which meant that he largely relied on what professional historians and archaeologists had done. His bibliography for this book was not comprehensive (and entirely omits anything on the robust grain trade in ancient Greece), but it also largely reflected the volume of output of research into bread in a given subfield. Egypt and Rome, both of which have relatively lengthy bibliographies on bread baking, received robust sections while, by comparison, the paucity of work on Greece led to cursory treatment.

(This feature of Sourdough Culture inspired my first post of the year.)

The second thing that I kept coming back to was what, exactly, Pallant meant by “sourdough.” The hunt for the Cripple Creek starter’s origins seems to imply that he is investigating the history of nurturing a unique starter that provides the yeast for baking as though that might be able to provide for him the origin of his heirloom starter.

It is unlikely, though not impossible, that the starter in my Meadville kitchen was once used in San Fransisco and Mexico.

This could all be tongue-in-cheek to provide a narrative hook (Pallant acknowledges the implausibility, after all), but he includes a story about talking with French bakers who put little stock in the age of their starters. The issue is that yeast for baking is readily available. Different strains will have different taste profiles depending on how they were isolated and what they are fed, but the you don’t necessarily need to carry a starter with you in the modern sense if you can just produce a new one when you arrive. Pallant is aware of this, of course, but he mentions is almost as a concession, disappointed to find the Romance of his Cripple Creek starter dashed by the practicalities of human existence.

In short, the adherence to the Cripple Creek starter as a rhetorical device introduces issues to this narrative. There is a simplicity of the path from the Mediterranean to Western Europe to the Americas to his kitchen that implies a coherent tradition that didn’t really exist. To my mind, naturally-leavened bread is a technique that exists in equal measure in glorious complexity and glorious simplicity that exists anywhere that bread does and is not limited to the traditional loaf. For instance, there are traditions for natural leavening that don’t involve a modern-style starter at all, including in Italy where the archaeologist Farrell Monaco has created a technique for a starter that uses Chickling Vetch and barley rather than wheat. Simplifying these traditions into this narrative does a disservice to these other breads.

Pallant is a talented baker, and the recipes included in Sourdough Culture give me some ideas for my own kitchen. Similarly, there is a fascinating discussion to be had about taste and consumer preferences when it comes to bread. In Sourdough Culture, Pallant has produced a book that puts a toe into these waters and reflects on some crucially unresolved issues about sourdough that are being addressed by research programs like the Puratos Bread Lab and the NC State Sourdough Project. However, reading it as a historian only served to remind me how much space remains for historical research into bread traditions.

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At this point I’ve basically given up writing about most of the books I read. Book posts will still make up a non-negligible percentage of the posts here, but I just don’t have time and generally prefer to spend that time reading. Recent reads that may or may not make their way into a full post include David Graeber and David Wengrow’s polemical and hot-button book The Dawn of Everything, Oliver Burkeman’s self-help manifesto Four Thousand Weeks that seeks to recalibrate how we think about the work that we do, Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s breezy grand tour of Medieval Europe, The Bright Ages, and Mel Brook’s show-biz memoir All About Me. I am currently reading the third book in The Expanse series, Abaddon’s Gate.

Last Train to Istanbul

I am endlessly fascinated by the history of 20th century Turkey. The Young Turk Revolution in 1908 shook the foundations of the Ottoman Empire, which crumbled over the next fourteen years until the Sultan Mehmed VI went into exile in 1922 and the Turkish Republic came into existence the following year. The transition created a nation of contrasts. Formally a republic, Turkey was often dominated by the military establishment that saw itself as the caretaker of Atatürk’s legacy. The first president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ushered in sweeping social and cultural reforms, including secularism.

This is the context behind Ayşe Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul.

Fazıl Reşat Paşa, a Turkish gentleman of the old style, had two beautiful daughters. The older daughter, Sabiha, married Macit, a government worker in the foreign office. The younger, Selva, was the apple of his eye, but even that could not overcome his anger when she decided to marry Rafa, the scion of a prominent family of Turkish Jews. Faced with the disapproval of their families, Selva and Rafa moved to France, just several years before the outbreak of World War 2.

Last Train to Istanbul traces the development of these two families against the backdrop of the growing threat of the Holocaust. Sabiha’s relationship with Macit frays with long hours that he works, leading to trouble at home with their daughter and a brief dalliance with therapy; Selva’s relationship is strained as the reality fo the Vichy regime sets in and she increasingly uses her position as a Turk to protect Jews. But the two are also connected. While Macit uses his position to thread a needle between helping Turkish Jews in France and keeping Turkey out of the war, his protégé, Tarık, who is infatuated with the idea of Sabiha, becomes increasingly involved with direct action after being posted to Paris. These actions culminates in a fraught train ride filled with Turkish Jews from France, through Germany, and on to safety in Turkey—a nice inversion of the usual picture of trains carrying Jews to the camps at Dachau or Auschwitz.

However, I didn’t love Last Train to Istanbul as a novel. I found the plot rather unbalanced, with the parallel story taking place in Turkey often clashing with the eponymous train plot. I understand that Kulin was not principally writing a thriller, but I found the two arcs dissonant rather than building depth. Further, I struggled to see characters and story beats as fully-developed in their own right because they always struck me as palimpsests of real people and events.

Perhaps because they were.

Kulin explains in the acknowledgments that much of the plot emerged from actual experiences of Turkish diplomats during the war who saw the unfolding Holocaust with horror. Perhaps because of their commitment to secularism, those diplomats used their positions to shelter Turkish Jews in France by extending documentation and intervening with the Vichy and German authorities and, later, at considerable risk to themselves, to offer what aid they could to even non-Turkish Jews. Last Train to Istanbul might not have been my favorite novel, but it provided a tantalizing glimpse into a side of the Holocaust that was new to me. One that I would like to learn more about.

The Book of Form and Emptiness

I kind of assumed that books know everything, but maybe you’re a stupid book, or a lazy book, the kind that starts in the middle because you don’t know how a story begins and can’t be bothered to figure it out. Is that it? Is that the kind of book you are?

Books do not exist in a singular state, after all. The notion of “a book” is just a convenient fiction, which we books go along with because it serves the needs of the bean counters in publishing, not to mention the ego of writers. But the reality is far more complex. Of course there are individual books—you may even be holding one in your hand right now—but that’s not all we are. At the risk of sounding full of ourselves we are the One and the Many, and ever-changing plurality, a bodiless flow. Shifting and changing shape, we encounter your human eye as black marks on a page, or your ear as bursts of sound. From there, we travel through your minds, and thus we merge and multiply.

I loved Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being when I read it back in 2018 so when I learned that she had a new novel this year I bought it without so much as bothering to find out what it was about. I was not disappointed.

The short description of The Book of Form and Emptiness is that it is a conversation between a boy and his book. That boy, Benny Oh, is the child of Annabelle, a big, blond American woman who gave up her ambition to become a librarian after she became pregnant, and Kenji, a Japanese clarinet player in a jazz band. One night when Benny was 12 his father stumbled home, fell asleep in the street outside their small house, and there was killed by a chicken-truck that didn’t see his body laying there. Annabelle and Kenji were in love, but they had been fighting and he was stoned.

Suddenly, Annabelle finds herself a single mother of a teenaged son, trying to support them both with her job cataloging the news. She is well-meaning, but finds it hard to keep up with everyday tasks. The house starts to accumulate junk, the kitchen becomes a mess, and she ceases to keep up with her appearance.

One year later, Benny begins to hear the voices of inanimate objects.

So begins a story spanning most of Benny’s teen years that weaves together a challenging mother-son relationship, mental institutions, Buddhist philosophy, a Marie Kondo stand-in book called Tidy Magic (written by a Buddhist monk), a homeless poet-philosopher named Slavoj who he calls Bottleman after the bottles tied to his wheelchair, and Benny’s first love, a young woman, artist, and drug-addict, who goes by Aleph and has a non-binary, gender-fluid ferret named TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone). It is a lot.

You think he’s this crazy old hobo, but he’s not. He’s a poet. And a philosopher. And a teacher. And it’s not him that’s crazy, Benny Oh. It’s the fucking world we live in. It’s capitalism that’s crazy. It’s neoliberalism, and materialism, and our fucked-up consumer culture that’s crazy. It’s the fucking meritocracy that tells you that feeling sad is wrong and it’s your fault if you’re broken, but hey, capitalism can fix you! Just take these miracle pills and go shopping and buy yourself some new shit! It’s the doctors and shrinks and corporate medicine and Big Pharma, making billions of dollars telling us we’re crazy and then peddling us their so-called cures. That’s fucking crazy…

However, The Book of Form and Emptiness actually has a simple structure. The book narrates events in discussion with an older Benny who corrects, critiques, and queries what it writes, and interspersed with excerpts from Tidy Magic. In turn, this simplicity allows Ozeki to weave a story that blurs the boundaries between the real and the fantastical, very much like she did in A Tale for the Time Being.

Most of that blurring centers on the person of Benny, who suffers very real consequences from both sides. On the one side, objects have desires. When scissors want to cut, the question is what they cut. On the other side, the “respectable” adults in his life are concerned by what is happening to him and want him medicated. The exception is Slavoj, who tries to help Benny hear the world without being controlled by it.

What I love about Ozeki’s novels, is how she also captures simple, powerful, human emotions. Here, the beating heart of the book is the complicated relationship between Annabelle and Benny. She frequently embarrasses Benny, whether by the condition of their home, by her weight, or by her inability to make sure that they have milk in the fridge. At the same time, Annabelle’s sole objective for most of the novel is to give Benny everything, with the result that she never has a chance to process the death of the love of her life. Even if she understood everything going on with Benny, which is a much more extreme version of going through puberty that she most certainly does not, Annabelle simply doesn’t have the capacity to help him. The result is a downward spiral for both that at times had me cringing because it recalled arguments I had with my mother at roughly the same age.

But it was too late. The door slammed. He clattered down the rotten wooden steps, out the flimsy gate, and went careening down the darkening alley. The thin thread of her apology trailed behind him, straining, straining, until finally he outran it, and it snapped.

Together these pieces form a compelling, funny, weird, and challenging story that also works as a meditation on objects and purpose. The Book of Form and Emptiness is easily one of my favorite books of the year.

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I recently finished Caliban’s War, the second of the Expanse books, and am now reading Ken Liu’s The Veiled Throne and David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, two hefty tomes that should keep me occupied for a few days.

On Revision

Most drafts contain wonderful things, and most drafts don’t show off those wonders effectively. Some drafts are dull. Some are poorly organized. Some aren’t sure who they’re written for. Some seem unclear about the distinction between dutiful summary and original insight. Some hope that writing pyrotechnics might dazzle or sheer bulk equate to authority.

An open secret: it’s OK to be scared by the responsibilities of writing and revising, at least sometimes. Many ideas fizzle, either because the writer can’t concentrate on them long enough to blow a spark into a flame, or because the idea itself doesn’t have the strength to become more than a hunch. So let’s work with the anxiety.

I started getting serious about writing in the course of writing my dissertation. This is not to say I paid no attention to the craft of writing before that point. I have been an avid reader most of my life, which has given me a decent ear for good prose, and I always aimed to produce good work, but I also generally distinguished between the history on the one side and the writing on the other. I spent hours in coffee shops polishing my MA thesis—I even got a compliment on the writing from one of my committee members for my trouble—but I was nevertheless committed to the idea that I was not a good writer. 

Sometime during the process of producing my dissertation, an unwieldy monstrosity that received no plaudits for style, I came to appreciate a closer connection between the historical research and the process of articulating the arguments. I started to read books on academic writing and started to integrate writing into how I teach history.

And yet, I never picked up a book by William Germano, one of the doyens in the field of academic writing whose From Dissertation to Book is a standard text for grad students looking to publish their first book. After reading his latest book, On Revision, I might have to return to that text even if I am nearly finished with the eponymous process.

On Revision is, in one sense, an entirely redundant book on writing. Any book in the genre worth its price will repeatedly point out to the reader that writing a bad first draft means that you now have a piece of text to improve. And yet, this can be a difficult lesson to learn. For this reason, Germano’s book represents an attempt at shifting the entire mindset: revision not as a necessary part of a larger process, but revision as the only part of writing that really matters. 

Germano establishes what he means by revision early on:

Correction is not revising. There’s no bigger misunderstanding about how writing gets to be better. Correcting is small, local, instant….It’s easy to confuse fixing errors with revising ideas and reconfiguring the shape of the text.

In the sense that I also aim to teach writing to my students, this was a welcome disambiguation. I often idly correct grammar and punctuation while grading papers because I do think these are important things for students to become aware of (and because I have this recurring fear that someone will review a book I write by just listing the myriad of typos), but I also point out that not all of my comments are created equal. Mechanical corrections are fine, but I am much more interested in how they revise their ideas and arguments. The question I keep coming back to is how to convey this necessary process to my students within the strictures of an academic calendar. On Revision can’t help me with the structural parts of my courses, but has given me food for thought in terms of how I articulate revision to my students.

On Revision opens with a short introduction and a chapter (“Good to Better”) that makes a case for revision generally and offers nine principles to get started. From there, Germano investigates four essential rules for revision that put those principles into action.

Germano’s first rule is simply to “know what you’ve got.” This might sound tediously banal, but in order to revise a piece of writing, you need to know what you are writing toward. This means carefully reading what you have written and taking stock of what it is you are trying to do with the piece.

In one of my classes this semester, I ran an activity where the students reviewed something I have been working on for a while now. I like the argument, but it has a fatal flaw as it is currently constructed: I don’t know what it is. This was a piece that started as a draft blog post before becoming a possible conference paper, and then an article that might work for a video game journal or a classical reception journal, before finally becoming a public-facing article. This circuitous route is in part because I don’t know what I have other than perhaps a point that missed its period of relevance. As I explained to my students, this means that I have a lot of revision ahead of me.

The second rule is looking for and highlighting your argument—or, as I tell my students, making it clear what you are trying to prove. I couldn’t help but laugh when Germano declared “A lot of academics…stop at simply indicating aboutness. “My book is about economic inequality.” That’s not an argument.”

I laughed because this is very similar to a mini-lesson on thesis statements that I gave to each of my classes this year after my first round of papers came back with a very five-paragraph type of non-thesis that restates the prompt with three sub-topics loosely related to the topic.

Stating the topic of an essay is easy. Articulating your argument compellingly and concisely is hard, if for no other reason than that it requires you to take ownership of what you are saying. Trust me, it took me forever to find a way to explain the argument of my dissertation (now book) project without rambling incoherently. Even now I only do so with any amount of success about 75% of the time and have only done it perfectly two or three times. I hope one of those is in the manuscript itself.

Germano’s third rule is about revising with an eye toward the architecture of a piece. That is, thinking about the order of the information and the internal coherence of the argument. Thinking in these terms, I have discovered that I have a particular affection ring structure within my work, often opening with some anecdote that illustrates the argument I am trying to make and that I can call back to in the conclusion.

Finally, Germano calls on his readers to attend to their audience. If you are asking readers to give you their time (and often money!), then they are going to expect your attention in return.

In each rule, Germano offers illustrative examples and, usually, helpful exercises to perform on your writing. My favorite, from the architecture of the piece, echoes a piece of advice I have been giving my students for years. He calls it “The Writing W” based on the constellation Casseiopeia or “The Wain.” The constellation has five stars that look loosely like a W. Following this path, the writer has something to do at each stop. First, write your opening move, then write the conclusion. Then you fill in the gaps between the two with everything you might need to support the argument and lead to the conclusion. Then you write the conclusion again, adjusting based on the evidence. Finally, re-write the opening paragraph.

I don’t teach comp, so my exercise is less formulaic, but it follows a similar principle: the introduction should be the last thing you write. It can also be the first, and I am certainly the sort of writer who likes working through an idea from the beginning to end except on exceptionally long pieces, but I preach to my students that the process of writing a paper will often change your ideas about your topic, so you should be prepared to adjust what you wrote accordingly.

On Revision is a hard book to write about succinctly. It is filled with principles, techniques, and encouragement and while I am hard-pressed to come up with anything that I didn’t already know or do, its virtue is in how it articulates this essential process. After one read-through, my copy is filled with post-it notes drawing my attention back to individual passages or ideas. and that alone speaks to its value. But, beyond that, Germano’s authorial voice is that of a compassionate mentor who wants to see your work become the best it can be. I might hate reading my own writing, but he is here to say:

It’s OK not to reread one’s work when it’s done done, but revision is the crucially important process by which you get your work to that point.

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I am way behind on my intended posts right now, but I have continued reading apace. Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness is as beautiful and traumatic as her A Tale for the Time Being, which is one of my all-time favorite novels, but maybe just a little bit behind in my personal estimation. I also recently finished Ayse Kulin’s The Last Train to Istanbul, which is based on real accounts of Turkish diplomats trying to save Jewish Turks (and non-Turks) from the Holocaust. I didn’t think it worked perfectly as a novel, but I want to know more about the history. I also read Brief Lives, the seventh installment in Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, and am now reading the second volume in The Expanse series, Caliban’s War.

Gun Island

Yes, you’re right. But the whole world is made up of semantics and yours are those of the seventeenth century. Even though you think you are so modern.

We’re in a new world now. No one knows where they belong any more, neither humans nor animals.

The narrator of Gun Island, Dr. Dinanath — Dinu, Deen — Datta, is an archetypically-unlikely protagonist for world-spanning adventure. He a rare-book seller nearing retirement in Brooklyn who holds a PhD in Bengali folklore from an American university. And yet, a visit to Kolkata, the city of his birth, unlocks exactly such a story.

Gun Island opens with Deen in Kolkata on an annual winter trip home to escape the cold isolation in Brooklyn. While there, a member of his extended family quizzes him on the obscure figure from Begali folklore Bonduki Sadagar who, he claims, is tied to a shrine in the Sundarbans, the mangrove forest spanning the border between India and Bengal. The conversation concludes with Deen instructed to reach out to Piya Roy, a Bengali professor marine biology working in Oregon whose work puts her in India.

Deen is in no rush to actually go to the Sundarbans, even after Piya offers, but with a little push from his friend, the world-famous Italian professor, Giancinta Schiavon, he agrees to a visit.

This trip proves fateful. Deen hitches a ride to the isolated shrine with Tipu, the son of a woman who works for his aunt Nilima, where they run into a young fisherman, Rafi. The shrine proves real, but so too do other aspects of the Bonduki Sadagar lore. In the story that Deen knew, the Bonduki Sadagar, the gun merchant, angered Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes whose giant cobra guards the shrine. That cobra bites one of the intruders.

From there, Deen begins to see the tendrils of the Bonduki Sadagar story everywhere and Gun Island becomes a shaggy dog story that spans from Brooklyn to Los Angeles to Venice.

The unifying theme is a world on fire, sometimes literally. As an educated person, Deen was of course aware of climate change, but he confronts the polyvalent nature of the crisis as he becomes enmeshed by this lore. Dolphins beaching themselves in the Sundabarans, wildfires in California, Venice sinking, and waves of refugees simply trying to survive.

Gun Island is a book with lots of room for criticism. For instance, it is a book light on plot, with the characters coming into contact with one another seemingly by serendipity. And each time Deen meets a new person or runs into one of these acquaintances they invariably fill him in on what he missed. In another book I would have been frustrated by these digressions, but in Gun Island they transfer the weight of the story from plot to the currents of climate emergency woven into the magical realism. Deen is the vehicle for understanding the crisis, but it is brought to the fore through the multifaceted problem converging on his person from several vectors at once.

Speaking as a historian, I was also less taken by how Ghosh has Deen uncover a deep historicity to this piece of obscure folklore as though he was a post-colonial Robert Langdon. There is nothing inherently wrong with the premise and a sixteenth-century Bengali certainly could have found himself in India: my problem was that this element simultaneously served as the primary thing driving the plot of Gun Island and was largely irrelevant to the pressing points being made. In other words, I thought any ideas that Ghosh wanted to introduce by weaving history and folklore into this story got lost.

Despite this weak plot, Ghosh uses the shaggy nature of the novel to build a series of partial, believable, and incomplete relationships from the ragged cast just trying to make their way through this devastated world.

You ask any Italian and they will tell you that they have a fantasy, maybe they want to go to South America and see the Andes, or maybe they want to go to India and see the palaces and jungles. And if you’re white, it’s easy: you can go wherever you want and do anything you want—but we can’t. When I look back now and ask myself why I was so determined to go to Finland: I wanted to go there because they world told me I couldn’t; because it was denied to me.

The irony of writing about Gun Island is that it does not stand up to close scrutiny. While I was reading the novel it wove a spell that allowed me to simply get lost, but when I started to pull at the threads the effect started to unravel. Nevertheless, Ghosh fills the pages with a desperate determination against the most pressing concerns of our time in a way that I found compelling.

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I am planning a write-up of Tana French’s The Secret Place, and recently finished Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness. I am now reading Ayse Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul.

Never Let Me Go

The cover of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

For years I resisted reading anything by Kazuo Ishiguro. I absolutely believed people when they told me about his greatness and his 2017 Nobel Prize caught my attention since that is one of the categories I track in my reading, but but the descriptions for his novels created an impenetrable field around them. An English butler during the fading days of the aristocracy, complete with repressed feelings? Pass. A novel set in a rural English boarding school? No thanks.

At the same time, Ishiguro seemed to me the sort of author whose books I shouldn’t reject out of hand just because I have had bad experiences with books with superficial similarities. A conversation on a podcast about his latest novel, Klara and the Sun, finally pushed me over the edge, leading me to read his 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go.

My initial thought about Ishiguro proved both absolutely correct and entirely wrong.

From the outside, Hailsham looks like any other exclusive English boarding school. The students play sports and complete art projects, complain about the teachers, and form little cliques. The difference is that the students at Hailsham are part of a program that produces walking organ donors.

Kathy H. is a Hailsham graduate. After eleven years of service as a carer, tending to the donors, she is reunited with her friends from school, Ruth and Tommy who have both entered their donor phase. Seeing her friends again unearths memories in Kathy: her friendship with Ruth, Ruth’s relationship with Tommy, and the rivalry the two girls felt over the boy.

Ishiguro is adept at spinning out small tendernesses and deep barbs that breathe life into these relationships and at times make them hard to read. Had the relationships primarily been what Never Let Me Go was about, my preconception about the novel would have proven accurate: a sensitive and careful novel that just wasn’t for me. However, Kathy’s recounting to of the events transform the story into a low-key, dystopian horror, which is very much my type of novel.

As Kathy H. explains her relationships with Ruth and Tommy, she explains the context in which she knew them. Hailsham literally is a world unto itself. They forge all of their human relationships at school because they don’t have families beyond the walls and are incapable of creating families of their own. The origin of the students remains a mystery, but they are, ostensibly, bred for the sole purpose of being donors (and the story gets a good deal darker if one imagines a different background than what we are told). Hailsham itself is simply a social experiment designed to evaluate whether there is value in educating the donors, whether by making them better carers or by humanizing an institution that the powers-that-be find mildly off-putting. After all, donors, people marked for inevitable death, walk among the people who might one day receive their organs.

The brilliance of Never Let Me Go comes in how Ishiguro juxtaposes the familiar complications of childhood friendships with the ever-present doom of the program. That is, these characters do not have the freedom to choose their futures. From the first page, Kathy H. explains that she has been at her job as a carer for an unusually long time before becoming a donor. They are literally and physically a second class of citizen, disposable for the convenience of others. And yet, in the face of the inevitable, they scrape out a human existence.

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The demands of the semester (the first semester at a new job) and some writing obligations have led to a notable silence in this space about the books I have reading. When given the choice between writing and reading, I almost always choose reading. The result is a list of books I haven’t gotten around to writing about: S.A. Chakraborty’s The Kingdom of Copper (I might write about it after I finish the series), Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies (not as good as The Lies of Locke Lamora), William Germano’s On Revision (quite good), Téa Obreht’s The Tigers Wife (solid magical realism) and Drew Magary’s The Night the Lights Went Out (a memoir about learning to live with an illness). I might write about some of those, but the two recent reads I do hope to write about are Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island and Tana French’s The Secret Place.

Remembering Bourdain

Content Warning: this post includes references to suicide.

Anthony Bourdain took his own life a little over three years ago, prompting me to write a teary reflection of this man who I had never met. In this post I reflected on what Bourdain meant to me, a single face in the crowd of fans. I pointed to his apparent success in the middle age of life and beyond and to the spirit of warmth and humanity that seemed to emanate from this acerbic man even when purveyors of hate seemed to be winning.

Anthony Bourdain had the capacity for all of these things, to be sure, but I was eulogizing Tony the TV character.

Retrospectives about Anthony Bourdain’s life have started to emerge this year. Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner dropped first in July, followed by Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography in September, and Tom Vitale’s memoir In the Weeds in early October.

While I have not read Woolever’s volume, the other two pieces, both of which I consumed last weekend, paint a more complicated picture.

Tom Vitale started in the editing room on A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain’s first TV show, before working his way on to the road crew and ultimately directing more than a hundred episodes of Parts Unknown, including some of the most challenging ones in Libya and the Congo. His memoir takes readers on the road and behind the camera of the shows while also grappling with his feelings about Bourdain’s death, something that happened while one of the other two crews was overseeing the shoot.

Tony was a big believer in failing gloriously in an attempt to do something interesting, rather than succeeding at being mediocre.

Tom’s story is not the glorious eternal vacation that made it to television. For one thing, every hour of television required dozens of hours of painstaking filming, most of it with Tony Bourdain nowhere in sight, to say nothing of arguing with accountants, fixers, and editors. And looming over the entire enterprise, driving it to ever greater heights was an agoraphobic, camera-shy, obsessive star. More than once Tom resolves that he simply cannot take the strain of working for him.

I don’t think I realized just how spoiled I was to work on a show where quality not only came first, but it was also pretty much the only concern.

Behind the scenes, Tom describes, Tony was a different person than the witty and eloquent person who made it on screen. He was still charismatic, but he was also mercurial and manipulative. He was showed a different side of his personality to each person, as though he instinctively knew what it would take to get the best work out of everyone. The face he showed Tom was, it seems, crueler than the one he showed others. Their relationship was combative. Tom prodded Tony to speak. Once, in Borneo, Tony attacked him. He wonders at several points whether Bourdain actually liked him.

(He ultimately concludes that, yes, he did.)

Inevitably, the story comes around to Bourdain’s suicide. The last episode they filmed together, in Bali, concluded with a funeral and Tom reflects on how both of their emotional states had frayed precipitously over the past few seasons, leading him to ask whether there was more that he could have done.

“These are some of the things I look back on that are signs that I should have seen… I think that so many things in his life were like a drug. You were like a drug to him. If somebody overdoses on a drug, do you blame the drug or do you blame the junkie?”

In a memorable scene, he also addresses the rumors about Asia Argento…by going to Italy, getting drunk with her, and asking her directly whether she caused Tony’s death. Ultimately, though, he lands on a simpler solution. Tony was an addict for whom down-time amounted to giving in to his thoughts, to his demons.

I’d learned that the truth was he couldn’t rest. Tony always needed a distraction, a project, a problem to solve. And, for better or worse, the show provided that in spades.

In the Weeds gave me a new appreciation of Anthony Bourdain. Tom’s boss — and coworker and friend — was more human than the man who appeared on television and I found the fits of anger, the fits of insecurity, and the evident exhaustion from not being able to stop all-too relatable. Likewise in how Tony, a famously verbose person, was better able to apologize with actions than with words. This is not a flattering picture, but it is a fitting one.

At the same time, what makes this memoir so good is how this different portrait of Tony Bourdain is balanced against stories from the road that allow me to look at these shows I love so much with new eyes. I have been watching the Jamaica episode that features prominently in the memoir to test this while writing this post and it is remarkable how different it is, from small tics in conversation to how often Tony is noticeably alone in front of the camera.

By contrast, Roadrunner offers a synthetic, impressionistic interpretation of Anthony Bourdain that splices together extant video with reminiscences of the people who knew and worked with him, including Tom Vitale.

(The film also includes a brief deep-fake that I probably wouldn’t have caught had I not known about the controversy in advance, but doing something so potentially scandalous for so little return seems unwise.)

The film proceeds in rough chronological order from his bursting onto the scene with Kitchen Confidential to international stardom, and then death. This structure allows for one of the best things about the show, which was to watch Tony’s evolution from a patently inept star in the earliest film from A Cook’s Tour to the confident host of the polished show Parts Unknown. However, there is another way one might describe the structure of Roadrunner: before television, the evolving television star, and after Asia.

If one of the most moving parts of the film was the outpouring of grief from the people who loved him, I found the topic of Asia Argento, who did not appear in the film, to be a sticking point.

Roadrunner reaches many of the same conclusions as In the Weeds, highlighting how Tony was an addict who threw himself into whatever his passion was and noting that Asia (as well as her fight against Harvey Weinstein) was the latest addiction. However, the film also gives voice to a number of crew members who worked on the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown and exhibit a hostility toward her that Ton Vitale simply didn’t have. The result is that the film seems to blame her without explicitly doing so.

It is hard to say what I would have thought about Roadrunner had I not first read Tom Vitale’s In the Weeds. The film has its powerful moments, but it was also limited by so relentlessly placing Tony front and center while both acknowledging and brushing aside that this was not where he wanted to be. As a result, I found the memoir both less flattering and more satisfying as a tribute to both Anthony Bourdain and the vision of the world he helped create.

Two Takes on Social Media

The algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.

I joined Facebook in 2004 in my Freshman year of college, deleted that account in 2012, and then rejoined the Facebook orbit with an Instagram account a few years later. (I dislike Facebook, but Instagram preserves the parts I liked without most of the noise and lies behind my growing interest in photography.) Along the way I picked up and discarded a variety of other social media accounts, most notably Twitter.

In short, my entire adult life has coincided with the era of social media.

2021 has been the year when social media finally made its way into my reading, starting with Fake Accounts earlier this year. Recently I added to this theme two more books published this year, Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife and Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King’s An Ugly Truth.

I read the fiction first.

The Startup Wife is a send-up of start-up culture. Asha Ray is a brilliant coder working on a PhD on neural networks that seems to be going nowhere when she reconnect with Cyrus, the boy she had a crush on in high school. For his part, Cyrus is different. He spends his time wandering from reading and absorbing ideas, but also lives with a friend, Jules, who has a trust fund. Yet, people gravitate to Cyrus to create unique rituals. Asha likewise finds herself in Cyrus orbit, as well as his bed.

Soon, Asha drops her PhD to begin coding a new project: an algorithm that will harness Cyrus’ preternatural gift for ritual. With Cyrus’ mind, Jules’ money, and Asha’s code, the three found WAI (pronounced “why”), which stands for “We Are Infinite” and get inducted into a startup incubator, Utopia, that is preparing for the end of the world. As WAI begins to catch on, Asha faces the personal and professional challenges that come with managing a start-up—everything from how to monetize this platform without selling out to being forced to share her husband with everyone on the platform.

Tahmima Anam writes from the experience of her husband’s start-up company, lending believability to the steps taken to seeking capital, even when the specific details of the meetings are absurd. Likewise, this background infuses the story with the frustrations of a woman who has had the distinct displeasure of hearing how women get talked about in the startup world and of being overlooked in board meetings.

The post-IPO wife is the butt of many of our jokes. We’d been tetchy when that first lawyer brought it up (Your odds aren’t good!), but now that Cyrus knows more of these people, we realize Barry wasn’t singling us out, because divorce after great success is actually a trend. Not a dirty little secret but like a totally sanctioned and okay thing that men do once they hit the big time.

The personal side of The Startup Wife—Asha’s marriage and her frustrations with startup culture—provide both the comedy and the emotional resonance of the book. The WAI algorithm, by contrast, provides the depth. The premise of the site is simple:

We have devised a way of getting people to form connections with others on the basis of what gives their life meaning, instead of what they like or don’t like.

The founders of WAI are all generally well-intentioned, but what does it mean to do no evil? Obviously this precludes physical hard and predatory behavior, but does it extend to keeping the platform free? What about keeping profiles active after the owner dies? How much editorial control should Asha and the team exert over the community?

Ultimately, The Startup Wife is better at raising questions than answering them, but it nevertheless offers a romp through this world that is troubling and funny in equal parts. An Ugly Truth, by contrast, is just troubling.

Frenkel and King lay out thousands of hours of reporting in this new exposé of Facebook that tracks the last decade of its existence. The story opens with Facebook cresting a wave in 2012—ironically about the time I deleted my account. Sheryl Sandberg had joined the board and was successfully monetizing Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook still touted its utopian vision for society, but amid the obsession with growth lay the seeds of something darker—questions particularly about speech given that Facebook’s algorithm capitalized on engagement and amplified anything that received an emotional response.

Facebook technically barred hate speech, but the company’s definition of what constituted it was ever evolving. What it took action on differed within nations, in compliance with local laws. There were universal definitions for banned content on child pornography and on violent content. But hate speech was specific not just to countries but to cultures.

By the 2016 election, Facebook hit a crossroads. Zuckerberg and his inner circle resolved to be scrupulously impartial in order to counteract accusations that they were partisan when, in truth, growth and engagement were the guiding stars. Partisanship was good for business, but it also led to discontent in the ranks among some staff who saw the site as stoking divisions and others who were ostensibly hired for security but then sidelined. Around the same time, rumbling started in Congress about regulations.

Zuckerberg responded to criticism by reaffirming his faith in Facebook’s ability to regulate itself with algorithms and circling the wagons. Instagram and WhatsApp were integrated into Facebook to make them harder to spin off and Facebook proper doubled down on privacy and private groups. According to the people Frenkel and King interviewed, the latter was a particular problem not only because it led to the rampant growth of conspiracy theory groups, but also because Facebook’s transparency was the very feature that allowed the site to help root out child pornographers.

Research had shown that people who joined many groups were more likely to spend more time on Facebook, and Zuckerberg had hailed groups as the type of private, living room chat he thought his users wanted to see more of. But he was growing disturbed by the number of people joining groups dedicated to conspiracy theories or fringe political movements, rather than the hiking clubs and parenting communities he had envisioned.

Facebook has nearly three billion monthly users and enormous amounts of influence. In An Ugly Truth, Frenkel and King make an argument that Facebook’s naive optimism that the truth winning out over misinformation belies how social responsibility is incompatible with the mandates of growth and profit. In other words, An Ugly Truth is the answer to the questions raised in The Startup Wife.

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I recently finished reading Nicholas P. Money’s book The Rise of Yeast. I hoped to glean information about beer and bread, but Money was more interested in the structure of yeast and biofuel—perhaps because he is a biochemist, as well as Leviathan Wakes, the first of The Expanse books. As a fan of the TV series, I am stewing over why I didn’t react as negatively going from TV to book as I usually do going book to series. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

The Plot

“I just care about the story. Either it’s a good plot or it isn’t. And if it’s not a good plot, the best writing isn’t going to help. And if it is, the worst writing isn’t going to hurt it.”

You’re only as successful as the last book you published, and you’re only as good as the next book you’re writing. So shut up and write.

Jacob Finch Bonner is a novelist of some promise, at least that is what the New York Times said after his first novel. The second book did less well, which is how he wound up teaching at Ridley College’s low-residency MFA program. His students almost never show any potential except for one summer when Evan Parker shows up. Unbearably smug, Evan assures Jake that his is a plot unlike any other—so unusual that it is inevitable that it will be a success. Much to his chagrin, Jake agrees with this assessment.

Ridley goes to an even lower residency program, though, and Jake bounces around a few positions until several years later when another writer at another cut-rate writer’s retreat where he has a job reminds him of Evan and prompts Jake to see what ever became of that promising plot. As it happens, not only did the book never come out, but Evan is dead. A drug overdose in his hometown of Rutland, Vermont.

So Jake writes the book himself, just transposing the details to upstate New York.

Crib, the novel, is a smashing success. Multiple rounds of book-tours. Meetings with Steven Spielberg to produce the movie. A beautiful woman who schemes to get him to come to her radio station before striking up a relationship with him.

In short, life is grand—you know, other than his agent asking for the next book.

And yet, Jake also finds himself trying to solve another mystery while hiding the details from everyone in his life. At the height of his success, he begins to receive emails from a mystery sender with the screen name “Talented Tom” (as in the Talented Mr. (Tom) Ripley) threatening to reveal him as a fraud. This story, the sender says, does not belong to Bonner and in time he will be exposed as a thief.

Of course, from a legal perspective the blackmailer has no leg to stand on. The “author” of the original plot is dead, but, even if he wasn’t, Bonner wrote every word of the book. A plot twist along doesn’t belong to any one person, but the combination of increasingly hostile messages and Jake’s insecurities about being a failed writer prompt him to begin digging into the troubled family life of his former student, only to discover that the mystery and plot twist might have been more auto-biographical than Evan had initially divulged.

There is a lot to like about The Plot. For one thing, Korelitz casts a jaundiced eye at MFA programs and writers in comic ways. Jake might have had promise once, but he’s also an indifferent teacher and his own worst enemy in terms of writing his next book.

“I’ve learned so much about writers. You’re a strange kind of beast, aren’t you, with your petty feuds and your fifty shades of narcissism? You act like words don’t belong to everyone. You act like stories don’t have real people attached to them. It’s hurtful, Jake.”

Korelitz also puts out a sophisticated narrative structure that follows Jake through time while weaving in Jake’s investigation into the mystery of Evan Parker’s background and snippets from Crib. This is a thriller restrained by writerly craft, pushing you forward but withholding the plot.

However, this was also a book that gave me several major hangups.

First, the story within the story. When we are introduced to the plot that becomes Crib, we receive several pieces of information:

  1. it is filled with compellingly overwrought characters who wouldn’t have been out of place in Infinite Jest.
  2. the plot is compelling because of an unforgettable, impossible to predict plot twist.

The passages of Crib that Korelitz provides are much like the rest of The Plot: solidly crafted, but with relatively unremarkable characters and a more somber atmosphere. I could absolutely see Crib being picked up for a prestige drama (though probably not a movie), but the idea that this book could have become a must-read national sensation defied credulity for me.

Second, while I was impressed by the narrative structure of The Plot, I had effectively guessed the twist by about the midpoint of the novel. This didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, but, in a story meant to mirror a book that is popular because it had a twist unlike anything anyone had ever seen, it certainly made my experience closer to “shrug, okay” than “oh, wow!”

(I’m also not convinced that Jake is correct that this plot is so unique since the very allusion that is keeping him up at night is itself a variation on this very plot.)

The Plot is a good read. I’m willing to forgive setting the opening scenes at a fictional college in a part of Vermont that doesn’t have one (I suspect the model is the low-residency summer program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, but it is set in the Northeast Kingdom), and I liked the nods to and cracks at writers because this, ultimately, is a story about Jake’s numerous flaws that drag him down. I correctly identified the twist in this literary thriller, but there was no other way to adequately resolve this plot.

This praise just also falls short, not only of the supposed excellence of the parallel story Crib, but also of the satisfaction of a perfectly executed thriller.

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I have another post in the queue for the tomorrow that has my thoughts on The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth. I am also planning to write about Omer el Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and have some thoughts about television adaptations involving The Expanse and Leviathan Wakes. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

A Master of Djinn

“Some kind of cult maybe? You know how Occidentals like playing dress-up and pretending they’re ancient mystics. Order of the this … Brotherhood of the that…”

Fatma glanced to the book, remembering its sensational content. It looked like utter nonsense. Most of these “Orientalists” thought their bad translations and wrongheaded takes might help them better understand the changes sweeping the world. It seemed reading from actual Eastern scholars was beneath them.

For many of the same reasons I don’t usually go for speculative fiction set in historical settings, and despite my unabashed love of The Dandelion Dynasty books, I don’t read much steampunk. The mashup of times and technologies just doesn’t quite grab my attention, at least until I read the premise for A Master of Djinn: a fast-paced mystery set in 1912 in a Cairo where the widespread return of djinn through the actions of the mystic al-Jahiz a generation earlier set in motion a chain of events that has led to a leap in magic and technology in the world and made Egypt a burgeoning superpower.

This inciting event in the near past allows Clark (the nom de plume of history professor Dexter Gabriel) to simply spin events forward a generation and creates a compelling backdrop for this story.

A Master of Djinn opens with the secret ceremony of the Hermetic Brotherwhood of al-Jahiz (likely modeled on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). Lord Worthington, a wealthy Englishman, founded this order in Egypt to uncover deeper truths about the world, though it mostly serves for westerners to engage in role-play. Only, this time, a masked and robed figure claiming to be al-Jahiz appears at the ceremony and immolates everyone there with an otherworldly fire.

Suddenly, al-Jahiz begins to appear everywhere in Cairo stirring the anger of the downtrodden against the establishment.

Against this imposter — he must be an imposter, right? — the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities assigns one of their best, Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, who also happens to be one of the few women working in the agency. Immaculately dressed in her tailored European suits, Fatma begins to investigate, grudgingly accepting the help of a junior agent, Hadia, and less grudgingly relying on her lover Siti, an enigmatic woman who belongs to a cult that worships the old Egyptian gods rather than being a good muslim.

A Master of Djinn is in many ways a procedural where these three and an assorted cast of other agents and djinn must race to discover the identity of al-Jahiz, particularly once it turns out that the imposter can control djinn and appears bent on opening a portal that will allow him to bring immensely powerful and ancient Ifrit lords back into the world. The result is that the mystery eventually gives way to a race to stop the imposter, whoever he is.

There is a lot going on in A Master of Djinn. It is post-colonialist in the best way, centering the story on people who talk about the occidentals and their strange ways, including the anti-magic legislation in the United States. It is sex-positive, with a queer love story. It is anti-racist and class-conscious, frequently making nods to or tweaking historical attitudes and prejudices, many of which are still floating around today.

Archibald could quite believe it. Dalton was obsessed with mummies—part of proving his theory that Egypt’s ancient rulers were truly flaxen-haired relatives to Anglo-Saxons, who held sway over the darker hordes of their realm. Archibald was as much a racialist as the next man, but even he found such claims rubbish and tommyrot.

It is also immensely fun, with all of these themes layered into the richly-painted backdrop of this imagined Cairo. And, to cap it all off, A Master of Djinn was also funny, with exchanges like:

“But alone, we could live with our thoughts. Dwell on the purpose of our existence.” He looked up, daring to meet the baleful gaze of the hovering giant. “It is called philosophy.” The Ifrit King frowned. “Phil-o-so-phy?”

“…The more I thought, the more I began to understand myself. To know that I was created for more than just drowning my enemies in flames. I began reading many great works by mortals and other djinn. That is how I discovered, I am a pacifist.”

In fact, there was only one minor plot point that I found jarring, which was the appearance of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The premise—that he was in Cairo for a peace conference—was itself fine, just having him here surrounded by otherwise fictional characters struck me as an out-of-place caricature.

Setting that minor quibble aside, A Master of Djinn is an excellent book with a compelling and propulsive plot set in a richly imagined world. Whether I go back to Clark’s earlier novellas set in this world or just eagerly await the next novel, this is the sort of story I want more of.

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I expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, but I am enjoying the opportunities of a book to develop both the internal stories of characters and to play with time and space in ways that are hard to show on television.