The Wardens’ Empire violently enforces its rigid caste structure, drawn along racial lines.
At the top of the hierarchy are red-blooded Embers, the descendants of those who fled an apocalypse they termed The Ending Fire. These are the overseers and the administrators, and the only ones taught to write, which would allow one to perform magic called Bloodwerk. Every ten years the Wardens hold the Aktibar, in which aspirants for leadership in each of the four guilds, Truth, Duty, Strength, and Knowledge, compete in a series of trials. The winner in each set of trials becomes the guild Disciple for ten years before ascending to the position of Warden for the following ten years.
Next are the Dusters, whose blue blood stains the fields when their overseers need to meet production quotas. From the numbers of the Dusters come The Sandstorm, a secretive rebellion who hatched an audacious plan to kidnap Embers from their crib, replacing them with Duster children, and raising the Embers to enter the Aktibar, albeit with a different agenda from most aspirants. It is a closely guarded guarded secret that one of the kidnapped infants was the child of Uka Elsari, the Warden of Strength.
At the bottom of the hierarchy are the Ghostings, a race that serves in menial capacities beneath the notice of the Embers and Dusters except in that they seem to be dying in large numbers from a mysterious illness. And yet, Embers also consider clear-blooded Ghostings the greatest threat to the empire. Embers mutilate Ghosting children, severing their hands and tongues, and forcing them to develop both tools and communication techniques to accommodate their disability. While some Embers maintain that this practice is meant to help Ghostings, its murky origins some four hundred years earlier reflect the existential threat that posed by the knowledge that Ghostings pass down through the generations.
In The Final Strife, Saara el-Arifi sets a simple story within this sophisticated world. The book weaves together three plot threads that all build toward the Aktibar trials.
The first plot follows Sylah, one of the Ember children raised by The Sandstorm. However, some years ago, the Embers attacked the camp where The Sandstorm had been training. Sylah escaped the massacre and made her way to Nar-Ruta where, in the shadow of the Warden’s Keep, she fights in illicit matches organized by the enigmatic master criminal Loot and indulges in the ecstasy of the joba seed. However, this life is disrupted when Jond, one of the other children from The Sandstorm, arrives in Nar-Ruta to compete in the imminent Aktibar. In an attempt to reclaim the life that she lost, Sylah finds herself infiltrating the Warden’s Keep.
The second plot is that of Anoor Elsari. To the public, Anoor is the daughter of the Warden of Strength, but she is also Uka Elsari’s greatest shame and thus receives nothing but contempt behind closed doors. After all, she is actually a Duster. However, Anoor has a decision to make after she subdues a dangerous intruder in her chambers. Either she can turn Sylah over to the authorities or she can make her provide the necessary training to not just enter the Aktibar, but to win it. Either Anoor will win the Aktibar and prove her mother wrong or she will reveal her blue blood and demonstrate Uka Elsari’s dark secret. If only she can solve Sylah’s addiction in time to make the plan work.
Behind these two threads lies Hassa, a Ghosting woman who is helping others escape from their servitude. However, she has also been collecting scraps of incendiary information that threatens to expose the artificiality of the seemingly immutable social order that underpins the Wardens’ Empire.
Parts of The Final Strife struck me as “paint by numbers.” The Aktibar offers a simple progression of obstacles that increase in difficulty, while the joba seeds are the consequence of Sylah’s past that she must overcome. Nor was I particularly surprised by any of the reveals (is Sylah Uka Elsari’s biological daughter? will Anoor win the Aktibar?). And yet, the more I read, the more I found myself taken by this world that is inspired by the African and Arabian traditions. For instance, the main narrative is punctuated by the tales told by griots and fragments from Warden archives and other sources open every chapter, thus giving glimpses into the larger world. Likewise, as is common in a lot of recent speculative fiction, el-Arifi uses this world to comment on contemporary issues from trans-inclusion (Hassa is a trans woman) to disability (Ghostings have developed a unique culture that compensates for their physical limitations) to rigid racial hierarchies (self-explanatory). These elements gave depth to the world in the best way.
Perhaps the best way to describe The Final Strife is as a first book in a trilogy. Even the parts that I found predictable gave the book momentum while also allowing el-Arifi to lay the groundwork a larger story and I am looking forward to learning what sort of revolution she has in store for this world.
This semester got entirely away from me, as sometimes happens. I actually finished The Final Strife back in September and am using my goals for #AcWriMo as an excuse to finally write about it.
Since the last post with a reading roundup, I have read five books.
I finished reading Gideon the Ninth, which I will not be writing a full post about because I found it deeply frustrating. It has a potentially interesting galactic setting, but that setting emerges almost entirely through the representatives of each planet who have arrived at a palatial laboratory in the hopes of ascending to the Emperor’s inner circle only to find that someone is killing them. I also found the plot predictable, at least as much as I could within my limited grasp of the mechanics of the world.
Two nonfiction and two novels make up the remaining four books. I already wrote about Stuart Ellis-Gorman’sThe Medieval Crossbowand I have plans to write about Emily Tamkin’s Bad Jews, a topical and timely examination of how Jews fit into the course of American political life. For the novels, I am going to write about R.F. Kuang’s Babel, which is an excellent indictment of orientalism and academic life, but am on the fence about Rachelle Atalla’s The Pharmacist, a dystopian novel set in a bunker where a society has recreated itself under the watchful eye of the political leader who brought them there. This novel was effective in exploring the compromises one can make in the face of bleak options, but it also did not resonate with me as much as other books with a similar message
I am now reading Fonda Lee’s Jade City, which I am enjoying very much.
A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of a novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.
Over the past few years I have found myself increasingly interested in reading memoirs. The problem is that memoir is a genre for which I have no great love. One of my favorite things to do to unwind is peruse lists of upcoming or classic novels and flag anything that looks interesting, but when I read lists of iconic memoirs the descriptions leave me utterly uninterested in reading on. What usually makes the difference for me is hearing the author talk about the genesis of the memoir, as happened with Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found. In the case of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books, my entry point was simpler: my partner had just finished the book and told me that that I might find it interesting. A blend of literature, the Iranian revolution, and teaching? Sure, sign me up.
Reading Lolita in Tehran spans the period between the early years of the Islamic Republic after the Revolution in 1979 when Azar Nafisi returned to the Iran and when she left with her family in 1997. Between these two chronological tentpoles, the discussion unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Each of the four sections of the books uses a different English-language author or book as its central focus. The first section, “Lolita” centers on an off-the-books class of young women who met at Nafisi’s home on Thursday mornings after she resigned from the her teaching post in Iran. The second, “Gatsby” takes as its central thread a class that read Fitzgerald’s novel in an Iranian University during the Revolution. The third, “James,” follows the events of “Gatsby” during the Iran-Iraq War, at a time when Nafisi had been expelled from her teaching position. The fourth and final section, “Austen,” follows from “Lolita” and focuses on the decision to leave Iran.
There was a lot I loved about this book. In part, Nafisi has a gift for spinning an elegant and considered phrase:
We complemented each other, because you my knowledge was impulsive and untidy, and hers meticulous and absolute.
Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.
But I also found the book profoundly moving as a teacher for two reasons.
The first is a function of teaching literature and its possibilities. For as much as I love literature, my entire experience in English classes past high school was most of a semester my senior year of college during which I sat in on a Western Canon class. Everything else I know about literature has been picked up through the lens of Classics or found in tidbits here and there along the way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, when I teach literature I end up teaching it as a historian, rather than as a literary scholar. The discussion found in Reading Lolita is obviously a curated account of classroom activities, but I was inspired by the way that she talks about the discussions and am hoping to steal bits and pieces for a class I might be teaching soon that puts literature front and center. Some of the technical details of these classes might not pass muster with accreditation boards these days, but those observations were compelling in their own way.
(I suspect that my own unfamiliarity with some of the books she discusses caused me to miss some of the thematic resonances that she weaves into the memoir, but this was not something that troubled me over-much.)
The second appealed to me as a teacher and a historian. This period of Nafisi’s career centers on her time teaching English and American literature in Iran concurrently with the revolution that led to students marching through the streets chanting “Death to America.” For as much as I found myself fretting this summer about how I’ll approach certain topics in the classroom and people are justifiably concerned about coordinated attacks on teachers, I can only imagine trying to teach under circumstances where a) your students are divided into openly hostile factions; b) some students often vanish from class to participate in anti-American rallies; c) other students vanish because they’ve been arrested; and d) the state is aggressively attempting to institute an authoritarian fantasy. However, this was also a potent reminder about how teaching—and living—conditions can deteriorate over the course of just a few years.
Many passages in Reading Lolita in Tehran were also remarkable for their mundane observations about the messiness of everyday life:
In retrospect, when historical events are fathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time. For me, as for millions of ordinary Iranians, the war came out of nowhere one mild fall morning: unexpected, unwelcome and utterly senseless.
My reading of this memoir was also timely in that it coincided with the current outpouring of protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who had been detained by the morality police. Every time something like this happens, the coverage invariably asks whether this is the time that popular pressure will topple the oppressive regime—as though there is a switch that gets flipped. I found Reading Lolitain Tehran a useful reminder both that individual people are participants in events and about the messiness of any transition. I like to tell my students that while we can often understand history through the institutions and social structures, nothing is necessarily inevitable. We can create a better world by working toward it. The reason why literature is a threat to any totalitarian fantasy is that it has the power to unlock something that allows people to imagine a world beyond its confines.
Since my last book post I have mostly been struggling against the current of the semester with the result that my reading has slowed to a crawl. I finished Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, a fantasy novel in a world inspired by Mesoamerica that I found equal parts compelling and bafflingly-paced, and Saara el-Arifi’s The Final Strife, an African-inspired fantasy that played with issues of caste and race in a way that I really enjoyed. I am currently reading Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, which I don’t like nearly as much as I think a lot of people do and Ken Liu’s story collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories. This is a lot of fantasy, even by my standards, but I’m also preparing to teach a class in the spring on speculative fiction, so this is now a professional obligation as well as a private interest.
“I was enraged by the weight of the outmoded commands of our ancient heroes, but now I miss the comfort of their words of wisdom and tales of courage. Try as I might, I cannot cast off the pull of our collective memory. Mere survival isn’t enough. A people cannot be a people if they don’t know where they come from, if they can’t fear and trust the gods of their parents, if they’ve been cut off from the stories of their past.”
“Honor, pride, the commands of our ancestors–these are not unalterable laws of nature we must submit to. History is like the string of kite. It tethers us to the ground, but it is also what allows us to fly.”
“There are no whole stories, only fragments that suit the purpose of the moment,” said Jia.
Earlier this summer I finished reading what I believe to be one of the best—and most under-appreciated—fantasy series of recent vintage.
(There are genre issues with this declaration. I have been more impressed recently by science fiction than fantasy, and Liu’s infusion of a steampunk ethos might call into question the fantastical of these books. However, I have interpreted this series as epic fantasy if the genre’s story structure developed out of Medieval Chinese literature like Romance of the Three Kingdoms rather than out of European literature like the Arthur stories, so fantasy it is. For what it’s worth, Liu himself credits stories like Beowulf as inspiration and rejects sweeping generalizations about genre, while acknowledging that The Grace of Kings is based on the historical period about the rise of the Han Dynasty.)
The series opened in The Grace of Kings, introducing the land of Dara where the emperor Mapidere of Xana had conquered the six separate Tiro kingdoms only to be overthrown by the unstoppable warrior Mata Xyndu and the clever thief Kuni Garu. Their victory is short-lived and they are plunged again into war until Kuni Garu emerges victorious. However, this grand drama proves to be the prologue to another, more existential conflict.
The Wall of Storms, the second book in the series, is named after a meteorological curiosity—a literal wall of storms that surrounds Dara. However, in the time of Mapidere, scholars divined that the wall opens at predictable intervals and thus the emperor of Dara dispatched monumental city ships (modeled on the Treasure Ships of Zhang He’s fleets) through the wall in order to conquer the land of Ukyu and Gonde. The people of this land, including both the dominant Lyucu and the now-subservient Agon, are nomadic herders who live by training and riding enormous, fire-breathing, flying herbivores called garinafins. The result is a complete clash of cultures that allowed the Lyucu under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryu to defeat the invaders and claim the City Ships for an invasion of Dara that reaches a climax in the Battle of Zathin Gulf where Kuni Garu defeated the invaders at the cost of his own life. Nevertheless, the Lyucu continue to hold the islands of Dara and Rui under the leadership of Tenryu’s daughter Tanvanaki and her consort, Kuni Garu’s son Prince Timu, while the Princess Thera, Kuni’s second heir, married Takval, an Agon, and set off through the wall of storms in order to cut off Lyucu reinforcements before they could set out.
Such is the situation when The Veiled Throne, the direct predecessor of The Speaking Bones opens. Although these two books were published separately, Liu has said that he intended them to be read together as the final installment of the series, and it is easy to see why. Where each of the previous two novels had in one way or another overturned expectations, Speaking Bones picks up where The Veiled Throne leaves off in terms of plot threads and themes.
The conclusion of this sage unfolds along five interlocking story-lines: three in Dara, two in Ukyu-Gonde. Any attempt to summarize these five threads would be inadequate without the context of the rest of the series, so I won’t even try. The plots are in much the same vein as the earlier books: clever inventions, deep moral debates, and political machinations, all interspersed with moments of whimsy.
Instead, I wanted to highlight what I see as one of the strengths of the series. Liu’s characters usually have a clear sense of purpose. This is not to say that they always know what to do. Often, they do not. Nor is that purpose always honorable. Rather, without turning each character into a caricature, Liu draws each one in sharp lines that make the different collisions work in interesting ways. Sometimes this looks like a staunch advocate for genocide colliding with a ruthless warrior who believes that those actions are anathema to their way of life. Other times it looks like a greedy and selfish pirate getting his comeuppance. Still others, it is the child of the Lyucu finding a home in a monastery dedicated to repairing the harm made in the world.
But this feature can be seen most clearly in a central political conflict.
Empress Jia, Kuni Garu’s wife and mother of two emperors who handed off the throne in service of their people, is a renowned herbalist and cunning political strategist who favors an incrementalist approach. She carefully cultivates plans to destroy the Lyucu utterly, but those plans are indistinguishable from appeasement. Likewise, her political decisions that reject militarism seem designed to keep power in her own hands.
Facing her is the young idealist Emperor Phyro (the son of Risana, another of Kuni Garu’s wives). Phyro chafes at any delay and yearns for quick and decisive action that will liberate unredeemed Dara. Jia believes that Phyro may make a good emperor, but not yet and not if he falls prey to the dangers of violence.
What makes this conflict interesting and, at times, completely tragic, is that both, ultimately, are working toward the same end. In a recent Reddit AMA, Liu noted that: “[Phyro’s] the sort of boss I’d love to work for, a charismatic leader who really believed in the cause and wouldn’t ask his followers to make a sacrifice he himself wasn’t prepared to make.” He’s also more mature than Jia realizes. By contrast, Jia is an extremely competent leader for Dara, but she’s also someone with a significant amount of blood on her hands. She can speak in terms of ideals, but only if you look at the big picture.
The central theme of this debate is the term mutagé, which the glossary defines as “a dedication to the welfare of thee people as a whole, one that transcends self-interest or concern for family and clan.” Jia and multiple other characters invoke this ideal repeatedly, with Jia defiantly claiming that she regrets nothing despite the costs. She brilliantly helps lay the groundwork for a sustainable system (in the same AMA, Liu admits that he set out to write the origin of the Han Dynasty in a fantasy series and ended up writing a story about America), but neither is she the only person practicing mutegé, and her answers are not necessarily right. Just as it is inadequate to simply expect everyone to “do good,” it is also insufficient to expect one person to have all the answers.
Ending epic series is hard—the reasons vary by series, but in thinking about this I’m reminded of other authors who bogged down as they closed on an end—but Liu lands this one. From the very first installment this series was measured in decades, so it is only natural that the ending does the same. Likewise, the same writing style that allowed him to tackle so many other contemporary issues allows a transition to themes of legacy, history, and change that fits within the existing structure without coming across as preachy. As an ancient historian, I was particularly struck by one exchange about anxieties about whether or not the classics can change:
“The classics will be fine,” he said. “They have always adapted to changing readers. The Morality that Kon Fiji wrote and that Poti Maji glossed was not the same text that Master Zato Ruthi tried to teach me and that my father so gleefully reinterpreted. The logograms may remain the same, but the context is constantly shifting. If they continue to be meaningful to us, it’s because we have, without recognizing, translated them.”
“What?” Zen Kara looked at him as though he were mad.
“I believe the classics have survived because they are self-modernizing, self-translating. The ephemeral and the fashionable are washed away by the relentless pounding of time’s tides. Only hard shoals of deep wisdom could withstand the cycles–not because they’re unchanging, but because they are without vanity, without affectation, without pretension, humble enough to embrace new interpretations without yielding their essential nature. New readers are like the hermit crabs, sea urchins, anemones, snails, and seaweeds that colonize a tidal pool–only by first filling the bare rock of the classics with the colors of their own experience could the endless forms of meaning in the grandness of Life then blossom in the interaction of reader and text. The classics are always-already in translation.”
In short, this is a brilliant series that is by turns beautiful, clever, profound and filled with adventure. Liu created a rich and vibrant world that speaks to the present moment in the best ways even while exploring how such a world came about. These are long books, but they’re worth every page.
The combination of unexpected work and a writing funk from earlier this summer conspired to keep me from writing about books in the past few months. Since my last post on The Immortal King Rao, I have finished reading twelve books in addition to Speaking Bones. Four were non-fiction: Melissa Aronczyk’s Branding the Nation, Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Michael Twitty’s Koshersoul, and Kelly Baker’s The Gospel According the Klan. Two were installments of the excellent graphic novel Saga. The two pieces of literary fiction I read in this period were James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is a beautiful piece of writing but one in which the story didn’t land with me the way some of his other pieces do, and Jen Egan’s The Candy House, which is yet another novel about a dystopian world created by social media. The Candy House had its moments and a nice literary trick of leading the reader from one point of view to the next through these oblique connections, but I didn’t understand the buzz around this book. Maybe I’m just too much of a rube to appreciate Literature. I also read the second book in Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series, Dead Lions, and once more thought that he writes a cracking spy thriller and I can’t see anyone else but Gary Oldman as the central character. Then there was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is a nice twist on a pretty formulaic gods-meet-humans story. Rounding out this list is the final trilogy in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. I am now reading Saara El-Arifi’s The Final Strife.
Social media is a topic ripe for storytelling, and anyone who has spent more than a few minutes on a site like Twitter can understand why they often contain at least an undercurrent dystopia even when that is not precisely the genre the author is working in. I have generally enjoyed the novels I have read in this space, including The Start-up Wife and Fake Accounts, both of which came out last year, but I found neither one of them as strong as The Immortal King Rao. Perhaps because Vahini Vara steers harder into our impeding globally-warmed, algorithmic dystopia.
The three timelines in The Immortal King Rao are each narrated by Athena Rao, King’s daughter who has an illicit piece of technology he developed that allows her access to his memories. King Rao died three days ago. Athena is being interrogated.
The first story is that of King Rao as a child in Kothapalli, India, which we are told is the Telugu equivalent of “Newtown.” In 1951, King was born into a Dalit family that became marginally prosperous when they acquired The Grove from a Brahmin family no longer interested in living in this small town. This opportunity allowed Rao’s industrious grandfather to acquire land on which the extended family can operate a coconut growing and processing operation.
This is not to say that the world of The Grove is good. King is the child of a sexual assault, with his mother, Radha, marrying into the Rao family after his father, Pedda, assaulted her, and he is functionally raised by his aunt, Sita, who marries his father after the death of his mother. Likewise, the extended family is frequently dysfunctional, filled with bullies, gamblers, and layabouts, and the choices of the younger generations nearly drive the family to ruin. But it is also here that Rao first develops his understanding of social networks and interpersonal responsibility.
The second story chronologically follows Rao from his arrival in the United States (in Seattle) as an impoverished graduate student through the rise of Coconut, the company he starts with Margaret, the white daughter of his supervisor. Of the three, this is the arc I found least satisfactory, in large part because many of its beats simply fictionalize the growth of major tech companies like Apple and fold the rise of multiple companies into this one. This is arguably a necessary feature of a story that links this Dalit family in India to the dystopian future—after all, the best dystopias are built on the bones of reality—and Vara uses this story to explore the relationship between King and Margaret, but I also found it distinctly limiting, to say nothing of a little bit hand-wavy to get to where the entire world is beholden to the single tech giant Coconut and its “impartial” algorithm.
The third story is that of Athena herself, King’s progeny and greatest experiment. After his fall from grace at Coconut in c.2040, and after the death of Margaret (who was by now his ex-wife), King deactivated his Social, sailed to Blake Island, and set up a little isolated homestead. It was here that Athena, King and Margaret’s daughter by a surrogate mother living on nearby Bainbridge Island, grew up among the orchards of tropic fruits that King imported.
It is in this storyline that Vara imagines a dystopian vision of the future.
And then Hothouse Earth arrived. The wildfires that began in spring and lasted all summer; the droughts that were such old news that they no longer showed up in headlines; each new pandemic beginning just after the previous one was under control.
King’s grand triumph was the creation of a unitary world government enabled by the global reliance on Coconut technology. King creates a new Constitution that is, functionally, techno-socialism. All citizens become Shareholders who collectively own all corporations, all major decisions—from criminal justice to the global curriculum—determined by the Master Algorithm. Instead of money, individual worth would be measured by the “Social Capital” of an individual, as determined by Algo based on one’s intelligence, beauty, and productive value. In short, everyone is an influencer, and since a portion of their Social Capital is “extracted” monthly in lieu of taxation there is an incentive to continue to engage with the platform.
Of course, algorithms are only as good as their inputs.
The truth was that a person’s Social Capital depended almost entirely on the privilege they were broth with, not any effort of their own.
The prior richness of the rich and the poorness of the poor had been grandfathered in the Shareholding system.
Algo didn’t eliminate the existing ills of society, it merely put them behind a veneer of impartiality. If you disagree with this system, your only choice is to opt-out by becoming an “ex” on one of a few designated “Blanklands” that are off the Social. There you could scratch out a living through farming and illicit trade in drugs, sex, and surrogate pregnancy, and the Shareholders didn’t have to deal with your opposition to progress or listen to your doom-filled prognostications about the future.
If the rise of Coconut was the weakest part of The Immortal King Rao for me, the moment when teenaged Athena decides to abandon her father in favor of life among the Exes, scratching out a living on Bainbridge Island, I found the strongest. In addition to meeting a new cast of characters like Elemen, one of the original Exes, this society reveals to Athena nature of the world that her father created. This world might have been designed to bring people closer together in an efficient manner, but ended up breeding disillusion and complacency while the world burned. Opting out might have been the right move, but it condemned the rest of society in the process.
There were parts of The Immortal King Rao that required suspension of disbelief and much of both the optimism about technology and its consequences felt distinctly American, even though a third of the novel is set in India. And yet, I find that the most chilling dystopias are the ones that cut closest to the truth. The idea of a technocratic single world state might be implausible, but a world ostensibly guided by “impartial” algorithms that aren’t impartial, where every job is rebranded with corporate babble (“history teachers” are now “Progress Leaders”), where everyone’s worth is measured in social media clout, and where the next great advance merely replicates the existing social order very much is not.
I recently finished Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and am now reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain.
One of my favorite things to do when I meet people from foreign countries is to ask them what they think the best novel is from their country. This works almost as well to start a conversation as asking them about their country’s food and is an easy way for me to add interesting volumes to my reading list. A few years ago at a virtual gathering during an online conference I happened to be chatting with someone from the Netherlands who mentioned Herman Koch’s The Dinner as not necessarily the best novel, but as one that was particularly well-received.
A few centuries from now, when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the start of the twenty-first century, all they’ll have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called “top” restaurants.
The Dinner is a tidy novel that ostensibly takes place over the course of a single evening, the titular dinner at a fancy restaurant. Serge Lohman, the frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, arranged this dinner so that he and his wife Babette can discuss some family business with his younger brother Paul and his wife Claire.
Paul narrates the story and is fond of recounting the truism from Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Lohman’s achievement in The Dinner is found in interrogating the blurred line between those two categories.
Paul can barely stand his brother, who he characterizes as a fraudulent boor. Serge, he thinks, represents much of what is wrong with society. He lacks imagination about food, while also being a wine snob who puts on airs about being an every-man. Similarly, he makes a big deal about how he adopted a son from Burkina Faso, but is entirely oblivious to how his behavior oppresses the citizens in the small French town where he owns a vacation home.
Like all younger brothers, he likes to make his older brother squirm. (Not spoken as an older brother, or anything.)
When the story opens, Paul seems to have a happy family. He and his wife Claire are a loving couple—even if they like to egg on Serge from time to time—and if their son Michel is having a hard go of it lately, well, he’s a teenager. It isn’t as though he’s into drugs. Paul has some sharp, jaded observations about the restaurant and his brother, but he does not, for the most part, vocalize them. Further, he seems genuinely concerned when Babette arrives at the restaurant and seems to have been crying in the car and frustrated with his brother’s superior attitude with the restaurant staff. In short, he seems like a nice enough.
Slowly, these initial impressions are disabused.
It turns out that this family has a nasty secret. Some months ago, video emerged of a brutal attack on a homeless person sleeping at ATM. Two teenagers walking into the ATM first threw objects at the woman, followed by a can of gasoline that erupted into flame and killed her. Nobody was apprehended for the crime, but Paul recognized the two boys: his son Michel and his nephew Rick.
As it happens, this is the family business that Serge wants to discuss—after all, he has a political career to consider. Paul’s instinct is to protect his son, and the only question left is how far he will have to go.
(There is more to the plot, but I’m ending the synopsis here so as to not give away some of the twists in this nasty family drama.)
The strength of the novel is found in the gradual reveal of Paul’s personality and how that shapes the reader’s understanding of the Lohman family. Koch starts Paul as the mild brother of a politician of some renown and slowly peels back that exterior to reveal a monster with vicious ideas and a history of assault. Actions speak for themselves even if he maintains his own moral superiority.
When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is to tell a barefaced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.
The Dinner can be read in some ways as a metaphor about getting to know someone. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story and many are convinced of their own rectitude. When we meet new people, we only know the face they present to the world and only later learn what type of person we are interacting with. Most of us don’t have nearly such odious skeletons in our closet, but neither are we literary creations.
I ultimately found The Dinner a little bit on the nose in how it revels in this family drama, but it is a tightly-crafted and compelling story that reads very quickly—even if I emerged from it wanting to wash my hands of the entire Lohman clan.
I recently finished Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, which seemed to draw parallel’s between a miscarriage and being an adjunct professor. While the novel had some uncomfortable observations about being an adjunct, I found the story weighted more toward the miscarriage side. Still, the implications of the comparison are uncomfortable. I also finished Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, which I ultimately found disappointing. It was cute and had some nice anecdotes, but I kept hoping for a stronger argument and kept bumping against implications about, for instance, Western Civilization. By contrast, the first volume of the Saga graphic novel was truly great.
Back in January I set out a goal to read one article every working day that was not explicitly linked to my research. The idea was that my academic reading had become too narrowly focused on books and thus that I was missing out on some of the richness of the field.
One article shouldn’t be too onerous, I thought. And yet, I found even one article increasingly unmanageable as the semester wore on, particularly when many of the articles that looked interesting (how I tended to choose what to read) were forty or more pages long—or, in some cases, required ILL requests to access them.
I had hoped that my energy for this project would return with the end of the semester, but the reality is that the start of my summer has been characterized by an all-consuming combination of busyness and torpor brought on by the exhaustion of the semester. The five articles I read in May (listed below) turned out to be the last gasps of my semester routine. While I have made good a good start on other reading goals, I have yet to read a single article in June.
In the spirit of doing less, along with a number of more pressing tasks on my to-do list, I am putting this project on hold for the remainder of this summer and will revisit it in the new semester. In the meantime, I’ll keep tracking what I read and consider anything from this summer bonus.
The May List
Scott Lawin Arcenas. “The Silence of Thucydides.” TAPA 150 (2020): 299–332.
Mira Green. “Butcher Blocks, Vegetable Stands, and Home-Cooked Food: Resisting Gender and Class Constructions in the Roman World.” Arethusa 52, no. 2 (2020): 115–32.
Alexandra Bartzoka. “The Vocabulary and Moments of Change: Thucydides and Isocrates on the Rise and Fall of Athens and Sparta.” Pnyx 1, no. 1 (2022): 1–26.
David Morassi. “War Mandates in the Peloponnesian War: The Agency of Athenian Strategoi.” GRBS 62, no. 1 (2022): 1–17.
Morgan E. Palmer. “Time and Eternity: The Vestal Virgins and the Crisis of the Third Century.” TAPA 150 (2020): 473–97.
This morning I woke up before my alarm. I grabbed my phone to turn that alarm off and checked a few things before getting out of bed. Then I puttered around the house, reading a novel and stretching by turns for a little more than an hour, just long enough to steep and drink a big mug of tea.
Then I laced up my running shoes and set out.
My current bout of running came on about a month and a half ago. I have never been as serious or successful a runner as my father and brothers who for a number of years now have run marathons together, but this is not my first time running. In high school, I would go for runs with my father and ran a few local 5k races. Early in graduate school I tried running again. It was during this period that I reached my longest distances, running about five miles at least once a week and topping out at about eight miles before running into a leg injury. I tried a “run the year” challenge a few years ago and contributed 173 miles to my team’s total, including a few miles when I couldn’t sleep early in the morning while on a job interview. Then injuries. I tried again after the pandemic closed the gym where I exercised. My last attempt, shortly after moving last summer (and, in retrospect, after holding my foot on the accelerator of a moving truck for many hours), ended abruptly with sharp pain in my lower calf less than a quarter mile into a run.
I am a slow runner, particularly these days. I am also not running very far—just a little under two miles today. But this is okay. My focus right now is on form. On my gait, and trying to keep it in line with how I imagine I run barefoot since I have suffered far more injuries while running in shoes than I ever did playing ultimate barefoot, which I did into my 30s. Correlation need not be causation, but so far, so good. I am running slow and careful, and celebrating ending each run for ending uninjured rather than for reaching a particular distance or speed. Those will come, but only if I can stay healthy.
I like the idea of running more than I actually like running. Rather, I would like to like to be someone who likes running, who achieves that runner’s high, who runs an annual marathon. But I spend my runs thinking about how everything hurts and, recently, fretting about whether this footfall will be the the one when something gives out and I have to start over. I can also only compete against myself while running, and pushing myself this way is exactly what I’m trying not to do.
By contrast, I used to play basketball for hours every week. My slowness didn’t matter as much in a confined playing surface where I could change speeds and understand the space. And since I didn’t like to lose, even in a silly pick-up game, I could just lose myself in the game and not think about what hurt.
And yet, running is what I have right now, so running is what I’m doing alongside a daily yoga routine.
My return to running also prompted me to finally pull Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run off my to-read shelf. McDougall describes himself as a frequently-injured runner, so I thought it might unlock the secret to running pain-free. In a way, it might have.
The centerpiece of Born to Run is a 2006 race in Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Mountains between a motley crew of American ultramarathon runners, including Scott Jurek, one of the best in the world at the time, and some of the best Rarámuri (Tarahumara) arranged by a mysterious figure called Caballo Blanco (Micah True).
(The race went on to become an annual event, though its founder died in 2012.)
It is an incredible story. Rarámuri runners had made their appearance in ultra-marathon circles at the Leadville 100, a high-altitude ultramarathon in Colorado, in 1993 and 1994. A guide and race director named Rick Fisher rolled up to the race with a team of Rarámuri for whom he was the self-appointed team manager. The Rarámuri runners won both years, setting a new course record in the second race, before deciding that putting up with Fisher’s actions wasn’t worth their participation.
(An article from 1996 in Ultrarunning about a race in Copper Canyon in which True also participated acknowledges Fisher’s “antics,” but points suggests that they didn’t end his relationship with the tribe.)
However, this story is the hook. Born to Run is an extended argument for a minimalist running style that exploded in popularity following its publication. McDougall’s thesis is that modern running shoes, and the industry that is predicated on selling those shoes, causes us to run in ways that cause injuries. This argument is somewhat anecdotal, relying on personal experience and stories of incredible endurance from athletes before the advent of running shoes.
The Rarámuri, whose name means “The Running People,” are exhibit A. The Rarámuri are a tribe that lives in isolated villages deep in the Sierra Madre Occidentals, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The terrain makes long-distance travel a challenge, so they Rarámuri run. But they also run for ceremony and sport in a ceremonial ball-game called rarajipara where teams work to kick a ball an agreed upon distance, chasing it down after each kick. All the while, runners wear just a traditional sandal called huaraches.
My own experience with running makes me sympathetic to McDougall’s argument, and I am seriously considering getting a pair of zero-drop shoes and transitioning in this direction for my footwear. However, the more I read about running injuries, the more it seems that the answers might be more idiosyncratic. That is, there is a lot of conflicting evidence. While some studies suggest physiological advantages to barefoot running, others point out that not all barefoot runners run with the same gait. A number of studies suggest that barefoot running has shifted the types of injuries (aided perhaps by people transitioning too quickly) rather than reducing them. I think that barefoot running could be good for me, but all of this makes me think that I shouldn’t ditch the running shoes for every run just yet.
While I was reading Born to Run, a friend suggested that I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which connects my current focus on running with my ongoing obsession with writing.
In addition to being a novelist, Murakami is a marathoner and triathlete who describes how his goal is to run one marathon a year. This memoir is a collection of essays on the theme of running and training, and, unlike Born to Run, is not meant to be an argument for a particular type of training.
I think that one more condition for being a gentleman would be keeping quiet about what you do to stay healthy.
Nevertheless, I found What I Talk about When I Talk About Running to be particularly inspiring. Murakami is a more successful runner than I ever expect to be, even though I’m only three years older now than he was when he started running. And yet, I found something admirable about his approach. Running, like writing, is just something Murakami does, and he doesn’t think about a whole lot when he is on the road. His goal in running is to run to the end of the course. That’s it. He gets frustrated when he can’t run as fast as he used to, but he is not running to beat the other people, and uses the experience to turn inward.
And you start to recognize (or be resigned to the fact) that since your faults and deficiencies are well nigh infinite, you’d best figure out your good points and learn to get by with what you have.
But it should perhaps not come as a surprise that I highlighted more passages about writing than I did about running, though Murakami makes a case that the is broad overlap in a both a running temperament and a writing one. Both activities require long periods of isolation and where success is not synonymous with “winning.” Doing them is more important than being the best at them.
I don’t think we should judge the value of our lives by how efficient they are.
A useful reminder.
I have had a hard time writing about books recently. Before these two books, I got bogged down in Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, which I am still trying to process, and then read Ondjaki’s The Transparent City, which is a very sad story about an impoverished community in Luanda, Angola. I would like to write about these, but I’m not sure that I have anything coherent to say and June has turned much busier than I had hoped—last week I was at AP Rating in Kansas City, then I wrote a conference paper that I delivered yesterday, and now I’m staring down a book deadline and other writing obligations. By the time I have time, I might be too far removed to come back to those books. I am now reading Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind, which is a novel about adjunct labor and miscarriage in a way that highlights the lack of control in both situations.
Many authors tell people who already feel worn out and ineffectual that they can change their situation if they just try hard enough. What’s more, by making it individuals’ responsibility to deal with their own burnout, the advice leaves untouched the inhumane ethical and economic system that causes burnout in the first place. Our thinking is stuck because we don’t recognize how deeply burnout is embedded in our cultural values. Or else we’re afraid to admit it. Insofar as the system that works people to the point of burnout is profitable, the people who profit from it have little incentive to alter it. In an individualistic culture where work is a moral duty, it’s up to you to ensure you’re in good working order. And many workers who boast of their hustle embrace that duty, no matter the damage it does. In a perverse way, many of us love burnout culture. Deep down, we want to burn out.
I resemble this statement, and I don’t like it.
By the definitions established in Jonathan Malesic’s recent book The End of Burnout, I have never burned out—at least not completely. I have never reached a point of absolute despair that rendered me incapable of going on, which, along utter exhaustion and reduced performance, marks burnout. The other two, however…
I wouldn’t say that I worked hard in high school, at least on the whole. There were projects that I worked at and if something interested me I would work hard, but not so much overall. Midway through my undergraduate career something snapped. Seemingly overnight I became a dedicated, if not efficient student. I divided everything in my world into “productive” activities and unproductive ones and aspired to spend my waking time being as productive as possible. School work obviously counted as productive, but so too did exercise and investing time in my relationships. Spending time not doing things was deemed unproductive.
At first this was innocuous enough. I was young and productive time included fun things, right? My numerous and varied interests led to me to do all sorts of things and I was determined to do them all. By the time the second semester of senior year rolled around this was almost a mania: I was working, running a club, taking a full course load, working on two research projects, and auditing extra classes that just looked interesting to me, as well as exercising and generally spending time on the aforementioned relationships.
At a time when the stereotypical college student develops a case of senioritis, going through the motions while looking forward what was next, I somehow managed to define sleep as “not productive.”
I cringe thinking about it now, but I went through most of a semester averaging about three hours of sleep a night. I don’t think I ever pulled an all-nighter, but most nights I only got one or two hours, going to bed around midnight, getting up at 1:30 so I could grab coffee and food before the late night place closed, work until the gym opened, exercise, shower, go to class, and then either go do homework or go to my shift at work. I would get eight hours or so on Fridays after work and whatever recreational activities I had planned. Several people that I know of had conversations about when I was going to collapse, though not within earshot. It was bad. Trust me when I say that you shouldn’t do this.
According to the journal I kept at the time, under an April entry titled: “I guess I did need to sleep,” I slept for 13 hours straight.
I have never done something this self-destructive since, but there have been numerous times that I have edged in that direction.
The year after college I ended up working up to 90 hours a week, often for weeks at a time without a day off until I just couldn’t physically keep it up, at one point sleeping for more than 12 hours and forcing myself to take days off, even if the nature of the job made that difficult.
I worked almost 30 hours a week on top of my school responsibilities (a “full” course load and grading for a class) while completing my MA.
I nearly lost snapped while completing the work for one of the toughest seminars I took in grad school the week that I was also taking my comprehensive exams.
Another semester, while cobbling together jobs as an adjunct, I took on so much work (six classes, one of which was nearly twice as much work as I thought when I accepted it) that I had to stop writing entirely just to stay on top of the teaching.
The semester after that I developed (probably anxiety-induced) GERD and broke out in hives.
I frequently have to remind myself that taking one day off a week is okay, leave alone two. At least I usually sleep 7–8 hours a night these days.
Lest it sound like I’m bragging, these are not badges of honor. They are symptoms of the perverse relationship with work that Malesic describes, wedded with ambition and an anxiety oscillates between imposter syndrome and a deep-seated fear that I’ll once again become someone who does nothing if I let up even a little. The worst part: my behavior place within systems that celebrate discipline, but it was almost entirely self-inflicted.
However, I have never burned out like Jonathan Malesic.
Malesic had achieved his dream of becoming a tenured professor of religion and living the life filled with inspirational conversations with young people that he imagined his own college professors had lived. But that life wasn’t as great as he imagined. His students were apathetic, the papers uninspired and, at times, plagiarized. There were meetings and committees, and his wife lived in a different state. In short, the job didn’t live up to his expectations, which, in turn, caused his life to fall apart. His job performance lagged. He snapped at students. He drank too much and found himself incapable of getting out of bed. And so, eventually, he quit.
The End of Burnout is an exploration of the forces that caused his disillusion with his job and possible solutions to escape it. Put simply, Malesic’s thesis is that two features of the modern workplace cause “burnout.”
People derive personal meaning and worth from their jobs.
There is a gulf between the expectations and reality of those jobs.
That is, there is a broad expectation in the United States that your job determines your worth to society. This is obviously not true, but it is signaled in any number of ways, from making health insurances a benefit of employment, to looking down on “low status” jobs like food service, to the constant expectation that you ought to be seeking promotion or treating yourself like an entrepreneur. But if your worth is wrapped up in your job, then you might enter with a certain set of expectations that are out of sync with the conditions—doctors who want to heal people and end up typing at a computer all day, or a professor who got into teaching because of Dead Poet’s Society and ends up teaching bored, hungover students in general education classes. On top of it all, the responsibility for “solving” the issue is then passed on to the worker: you’re just not hustling hard enough. Have you tried self-care?
The End of Burnout is a thought-provoking book. Malesic examines the deep historical roots of phenomena that might today be called burnout, discusses the pathology of an ambiguous phenomenon that is likely overused, often pointing to acute exhaustion rather than true burnout, and explores how social pressures (e.g. the moral discourse that equates work with worth) exacerbate the phenomenon before turning to alternate models of work and human dignity.
I picked up the end of Burnout for a few reasons.
Most obvious, perhaps, is my toxic relationship with work, as outlined above, to the point where I thought that I had burned out on multiple occasions. Based on the descriptions Malesic provides, I was usually acutely exhausted rather than truly burned out, with the result that, at least so far, I have always been able to bounce back with a few weeks or months of rest.
(The one exception might be the restaurant work straight out of college, but even that did not stop me from working in another franchise in the same chain for two more years while attending school.)
Cumulative exhaustion can lead to burnout, but I came away unconvinced that I have even really been walking down that path. I have been frustrated, of course, and can tell that I am creeping toward exhaustion when I start excessively doom-scrolling on Twitter, but I did not relate to the sheer disillusionment Malesic described. When I have considered other employment options over the past few years, it has always been because of a dearth of jobs.
The main difference, at least to this point, is that I have never viewed this job through rose-colored glasses. Writing about history is something I see as a vocation, but I have approached the teaching and associated work as a job, albeit one that aligns with those other aspects of my life and thus is more enjoyable than some of the others I have had.
At the same time, I have noticed a shift in my relationship to hustle culture now that I am in my mid-30s. I still work hard and have certain ambitions, but increasingly, they are around finding ways to spend my time reading, writing about things I find interesting and important—and having employment with enough security, money, and free-time to do that.
Likewise, the idea of treating oneself as an entrepreneur, which Malesic identifies as an element connecting worth to employment, has always left a sour taste in my mouth. When people tell me that I could (or should) open a bakery, I usually shrug and make some polite noises. I have managed a restaurant in my life and have very little interest in doing so again. I bake because I like the process and enjoy cooking for people I like, not because I want to turn it into a business with all of the marketing, bookkeeping, and regulations that would entail.
(I have also considered trying to turn my writing into a subscription business, but I find that incompatible with the writing I do here. If I made a change, it would involve some sort of additional writing with a regular and established schedule—say, a monthly academic book review for a general readership with a small subscription fee designed to cover the cost of the book and hosting. A thought for another day.)
However, I also picked up The End of Burnout because I am worried about the effect that this culture has on my students. Nearly every semester I have one or more students who report losing motivation to do their work. This past semester one student explained it as a matter of existential dread about what he was going to do with his degree, but it could just as easily be anxiety or concern over climate change or the contemporary political culture or school shootings.
I have long suspected what Malesic argues, that burnout is systemic. In a college context, this is why I get frustrated every time a conversation about mental health on campus takes place without addressing those systemic factors. Focusing on the best practices and workload for an individual class is (relatively) easy, but it is much harder to account for how the courses the professor is teaching or the students are taking interact with each other. I am absolutely complicit in this problem. One of my goals for next academic year is to reexamine my courses because the reality is that the most perfect slate of learning assessments is meaningless if the students end up burned out. I can’t fix these issues on my own, but Malesic’s book brought into greater focus why I need to be part of the solution for my own sake and my students’. I don’t ever want to let one of my students make the mistakes I did when I was their age, which probably explains why the most common piece of advice I give is “get some sleep,” and I can’t help them if I am also in crisis.
The back part of The End of Burnout turns to possible solutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his background as a professor of religion, this discussion frequently focused on groups with a Christian bent. He spends a chapter, for instance, talking about how various Benedictine communities apply the Rule of St. Benedict to tame the “demon” of work. Some groups strictly follow the Rule, limiting work to three hours so that they can dedicate the rest of their lives to what really matters, prayer. Other groups, like several in Minnesota, were less rigid, but nevertheless used similar principles to divorce work and worth, and allowing one’s service to the larger community change with time.
The other chapter in this section was more varied, and included useful discussion from disability activists, but it also featured a prominent profile of Citysquare, a religious-based Dallas non-profit that uniquely humane policies around work expectations and support for its staff. These examples sat awkwardly with my agnostic world view, as someone who believes that we should be able to create a better society without religion, and particularly without Christianity. However, Malesic’s underlying point is not that we ought to all follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Rather, he makes a case that each profile in its own way can help imagine a culture where the value of a person is not derived from their paycheck (or grade).
To overcome burnout, we have to get rid of the [destructive ideal of working to the point of martyrdom] and create a new shared vision of how work fits into a life well lived. That vision will replace the work ethic’s old, discredited promise. It will make dignity universal, not contingent on paid labor. It will put compassion for self and others ahead of productivity. And it will affirm that we find our highest purpose in leisure, not work.
Malesic’s vision here is decidedly utopian and hardly new, and his warnings about the consequences of the automating workplace are a modern echo of 19th century choruses. But the ideals he presents are worth aspiring to nonetheless. As long as we work within a depersonalizing, extractive system that treats people as interchangeable expenses against the company’s bottom line, then that system will not only continue to grind people down and spit them out, but also contribute to nasty practices elsewhere in society like treating food service workers with contempt. Severing the connection between personal worth and paid work won’t solve every problems, but it is a good place to start.
This category is dedicated to books as standalone books that may or may not be part of a longer series. The dividing line for this list was whether I thought you could read just the one book from a series as a self-contained story. If the answer was no, then the series likely appears below. As with my list of favorite novels, this is both recommendation and not. The list is a product of personal taste and dim memory of when I read these books, which often speaks as much to who I was when I read them as to the overall quality.
A few stats:
Oldest: 1937 (Starmaker)
Newest: 2021 (A Master of Djinn)
Tier 3 34. The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings (2000) 33. Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013) 32. The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wexler (2013) 31. Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (2005) 30. Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1974) 29. Foundation, Isaac Asimov (1951) 28. Kalpa Imperial, Angélica Gorodischer (1983) 27. The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart (2020) 26. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (2012) 25. The Postmortal, Drew Magary (2011) 24. Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984) 23. The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin (1972) 22. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)
The following section is dedicated to fantasy books that I think of as series rather than as individual books. These series range from three to fourteen books. Not all of the series are complete and in fact my top two and four of my top ten are as-yet incomplete. Several caveats apply to this list. First, I have to have read all of the books in the series that are out, which eliminates series of books that I quite enjoyed, including some of the books on the above list. Second: where an ongoing series ranks depends in part on my estimation of the most recent books. Most notably for this iteration, Ken Liu’s series skipped past several series based largely on how much I loved last year’s release, and Arkady Martine’s books made a stunning debut in this category in large part because of A Desolation Called Peace. There is at least one first-book-in-a-series on the list above that I loved as a standalone, but was less impressed with how the series developed. The Expanse books would likely fall in Tier 3 between Tao and Shades, but I have only read half the books at the time this post went up.
Tier 3 19. Star Wars: X-Wing, various authors 18. The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu 17. Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin 16. Kushiel’s Legacy, Jacqueline Carey 15. Machineries of Empire, Yoon Ha Lee 14. Tao Trilogy, Wesley Chu 13. Shades of Magic, V.E. Schwab
Tier 2 12. Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson 11. Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb 10.The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson 9. The Daevabad Trilogy, Shannon Chakraborty 8. Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb 7. Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson 6. Teixcalaan Series, Arkady Martine
Tier 1 5. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien 4. Dandelion Dynasty, Ken Liu 3. Broken Earth, N.K. Jemisin 2. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin 1. Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss
Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.
I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.
The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.
I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.
What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.
Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.
Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).
I had mixed feelings about this book.
First, the good.
Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.
Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.
I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.
Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.
One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.
I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.
Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.
Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.
I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.