How to Hide an Empire

I remember playing a pool game when I was young where one person chose a category and then called out options until the specific example one of the other players had secretly chosen came up. If I recall the game correctly, you then had to race that person across the pool. On this day, I chose the category “empires,” which left the other players wracking their brains trying to come up with enough empires for each to have one. There was the Roman Empire, sure, and the British Empire. Were the Aztec an empire? Maybe? Being a know-it-all at that age, I rattled off a bunch more (Inca, Mongol, Persian-Achaemenid, Parthian, etc, etc) before choosing another category.

I would not have included the United States in my list of empires. My understanding of the United States and its possessions at that time was what Daniel Immerwahr calls “the logo map.” That is, the lower 48 states with little corner cutouts for Alaska and Hawaii. I knew of other possessions at that time, including both bases and territories, but they did not register as parts of the United States. For Immerwahr, that gloss is part of the problem. From there, it is just a short hop to a sitting US congressperson referring to Guam, a US territory for longer than she has been alive, as a foreign country.

Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire is an intensely sophisticated, yet immensely readable history of the United States beyond the logo map. To do this, he offers two interlocking investigations.

First, how did the United States get colonial possessions and how were those possessions treated? Here, Immerwahr starts with the very early days of the American Republic, using Daniel Boone and the Indian removal acts to explore the imperialism that created the logo map and how those borders quickly became treated as eternal. Starting in the third chapter, though, Immerwahr sets sail beyond those territorial borders, first landing on the guano islands (literally islands buried under tons of bird droppings) that fueled 19th century industrial agriculture and later landing on Spanish territorial possessions around the world.

Suddenly, the United States had territorial possessions, just like the countries of Europe. Welcome to the club, wrote Kipling, with a heap of racism:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
    The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers!

However, for the United States, these possessions marked a turning point. Most of the states had begun their existence as territories that later applied for statehood. Would these new territories have the same privilege? The Philippines had millions of residents and a city in Manila nearly as large as any in the country. Just putting the territories to scale against the logo map was revealing (naturally, cartographers made a point of not doing this).

Of course the answer would be “no.” Even if the civilizing mission took, as they saw it, the people of the Philippines weren’t Americans. Some, and far more than most Americans thought, spoke English, but they weren’t white, which was itself disqualifying. But neither would the United States give up the territorial claim, which led to the brutal repression of the archipelago, including extensive use of “water torture,” a forerunner of modern water-boarding.

With this empire gained, Immerwahr sets out to tackle the second part of the book: why don’t people consider this an empire? After the second world war, the United States began to divest itself of imperial holdings. Alaska and Hawaii did indeed become states, while The Philippines became independent. The US kept most of the small islands, which it still uses to house military bases, but during this period it also expanded the global network of military bases that had developed for the purpose of fighting the war. Thus, Immerwahr argues, the United States went from being a territorial empire to being a “pointillist” one, capable of extending military power almost anywhere in the world. But the change in form only serves to hide the imperial structures of the United States.

How to Hide an Empire is not a celebration empire, and Immerwahr does not shy away from the atrocities committed in the name of civilization, but neither is it simply anti-imperial. Rather, Immerwahr aims to understand the consequences of this empire, identifying any number of social and cultural developments from birth control pills (developed in tests on Puerto Ricans) to the Beatles (coming of age in the shadow of a US military base) that are the consequences of American imperialism.

I have been meaning to read How to Hide an Empire since hearing Immerwahr talk about this research a few years ago. It does not disappoint. This is a meticulously researched book that offers a timely reconsideration of what the borders of the United States look like — so much so that I am seriously considering this as one of the book I assign when I get a chance to teach US history next year.

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I am still plugging away at writing about books I’ve read, and will at least be writing about Arkady Martin’s A Memory Called Empire. Since the last books post went up, I have finished Anne Zouroudi’s The Lady of Sorrows, a seven deadly sins novel that brilliantly evokes the Greek Islands. I just started C. Pham Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold.

The Shadow King

Ettore, bear witness to what its happening. Make living your act of defiance. Record it all. Do it relentlessly, with that stubbornness and precision that is so very much like your father. This is why I gave you your first camera. Do not let these people forget what they have become. Do not let them turn away from their own reflections—

Every photograph has become a broken oath with himself, a breach in the defenses that he set up to ignore what he really is: an archivist of obscenities, a collector of terror, a witness to all that breaks skin and punctures resolve and leaves human beings dead.

Haile Selassie at the League of Nations, image credit.

Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, delivered a speech in Geneva, Switzerland on June 30, 1936. An Italian army had invaded his country the year before, attempting to for the second time to conquer the last uncolonized region of Africa. The people of Ethiopia had resisted, but the Italians unleashed the horrors of modern warfare, including chemical weapons, on soldiers and civilians alike. The world had imposed minor sanctions on the Italians and proposing resolutions to the conflict that Benito Mussolini simply ignored, claiming that this war of conquest was, in fact, an act of self-defense because of a frontier clash on the frontier with Italian Somaliland. He simply denied the accusations of chemical warfare. Now Haile Selassie addressed the League of Nations general assembly, speaking in Amharic, begging the member nations to stop this fascist aggression. Haile Selassie might have been a head of state, but whether the league was toothless or the members ambivalent about expending resources to help an African state, his appeal fell on deaf ears.

In The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste’s difficult and beautiful novel, the horrors of this campaign are given life.

The core of The Shadow King weaves together two stories.

The first follows Hirut, an orphaned Ethiopian girl in the household of the local nobleman, Kidane. The lady of the house, Aster, makes Hirut’s life miserable. She takes her frustrations out on Hirut, viewing as a sexual rival and accusing her of theft—first falsely, then accurately. After the Italians invade, Kidane even confiscates Hirut’s prized memento from her father, an antique rifle called Wujigra to use in the war.

The second story is that of Ettore Navarra, a Italian photographer of Jewish descent charged with documenting the invasion. His is a complicated relationship with the invasion: he harbors the Ethiopians no particular ill-will and is deeply disconcerted by the atrocities, but he is also Italian and this is his job. However, even in Ethiopia, Navarra cannot escape the radicalization taking place back home where Benito Mussolini’s fascist state is beginning to draw sharp lines between Jews and “real” Italians.

Inexorably these two plots come together. The women of Ethiopia refuse to stay home while Kidane’s forces wage a guerrilla war against the Italian forces, a war that continues even after Haile Selassie fled the country. First Aster and Hirut follow Kidane’s men to care for and supply the men, but gradually become more involved. Eventually, they hatch a plan to choose a “Shadow King”—a lookalike stand-in to inspire the people to resist the invasion—for whom they serve as the guard.

On the other side, the Italians and their African ascari begin to dig in, and Navarra documents it all. His commander, the sadistic Colonel Carlo Fucelli, puts his men to work building a prison where they can hold captured Ethiopians, to say nothing of debasing them. Naturally, this prison will serve as the focal point for a final showdown.

These two stories would make for a compelling book on their own, particularly given Mengiste’s gift for characterization. For instance, even the brutal and vicious Colonel Fucelli, who earned the nickname “The Butcher of Benghazi” for his cruelty in Libya, is not a straightforward fascist caricature. He is undeniably cruel, yes, and racist, both traits on display in his sexual relationship with the African courtesan Fifi, which itself violates the ban on such couplings. Fucelli is also willing to ignore orders forcing him to out Navarra as a Jew, at least for a while. Mengiste leaves his motivations for both decisions masked: perhaps Fucelli simply believes that the rules don’t apply to him, but perhaps his prejudices are not quite as deeply held as one might think—not that that changes how much one might root for him to be punished.

However, what elevates The Shadow King to my list of favorite novels is how Mengiste layers other voices onto these two stories. She imagines interludes where Haile Selassie reflects on the plight of Ethiopia, often invoking Verdi’s opera Aida, whose eponymous character is an Ethiopian princess. Elsewhere, choruses of Ethiopian women raise their voices up in an echo of Greek tragedy:

Sing, daughters, of one woman and one thousand, of those multitudes who rushed like wind to free a country from poisonous beasts.

Photographs captured in text punctuate the narrative:

A woman slumped against a walking stick, paralyzed leg dangling beneath her long dress. A row of braids that fan out to thick, dark curls. Tattoos gracing the line of her throat to her jaw. bruises near her eyes, at her mouth, a thread of blood dried against her ear. She is mid-sentence, her tongue against her teeth, curving around a world lost forever.

A boy in a stained shirt rests his cheek against a tall boulder as if it were a father’s chest. He stares at the camera, doe-eyed and curious, his lips folded around a mouthful of food, a stream of words, a cry for help, a burst of laughter. One palm balances against the hard surface of stone, his finger raised and pointed ahead, the gesture an accusation and a plea for patience.

These layers harmonize with the two core stories, reinforcing them, expanding them, and humanizing them, before building to a climax years later during the last days of Haile Selassie’s reign when Hirut meets Ettore Navarra once more to return his pictures.

I found the combined effect of this novel stunning. Mengiste is a beautiful writer, to be sure, but it is also a brilliantly structured novel. It would have to be. Mengiste tackles themes of race, identity, gender, and memory, all of which are easy to do poorly, either because they come across as caricature or moralizing. This goes double with fascism. There are no easy answers in The Shadow King, but each element adds to the texture that earns every moment.

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I’m still working through the recent list of things I’ve read with these posts, and particularly want to write one about Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Kim Un-su’s The Plotters.

Piranesi

I realized that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if we ever discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

I resisted my first introduction to Susanna Clarke. Friends had told me that there was a fantastic historical fantasy called Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but any interest I had in that premise withered and died the moment they told me that it was shades of Austen and Dickens. When I finally read JS&MN a few years ago, I was entirely blown away. Without taking anything away from those people who ate up the comparisons to Austen and Dickens, neither of whom have ever done much for me, this novel was a thousand pages of immersive storytelling that took the deceptively simple plot of a magician and his apprentice and set it at a specific historical time and wrapped both of them in the richly-textured cloak of folktale. The result was one of the best piece of fantasy literature I have ever read.

Clarke’s first book since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Piranesi could not be more different from her debut, but it is every bit as good.

Piranesi’s world consists of the House, a labyrinth of beautifully austere halls populated by statues. His favorite is an enormous faun with a slight smile and a forefinger pressed to his lips, but there are all sorts. A woman carrying a beehive. A gorilla. An elephant carrying a castle. Two kings playing chess.

Piranesi considers himself a scientist studying the world around him. The House, which stretches out for miles, exists across three floors. The lowest levels, the Drowned Halls, consist of a deep and powerful ocean with tides that can flood the upper floods of the House—particularly at the confluence of the three Tides that happens every eight years (or so Piranesi says). But if the ocean can be dangerous, it also provides Piranesi with sustenance, and he has a great reverence for all things provided by the House.

According to Piranesi, “since the world began it is certain that there have existed fifteen people.” There is Piranesi: a man in his early thirties, 1.83 meters tall, and of slender build. The second person is The Other, a man somewhat taller than Piranesi, and nearly twice his age who Piranesi meets twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The remaining thirteen are skeletons. He knows other people might exist, of course, which is what drives his impulse to diligently record his findings for posterity, they exist primarily as an abstraction to him.

The Other is different. He is impatient, considering the House an endlessly dreary and dead place, and rarely moves past one or two rooms because he gets easily lost.

The overlapping mysteries at the heart of Piranesi are evident practically from the opening paragraph: Who is Piranesi? Where is the House? How did he get here? The irony is that Piranesi initially doesn’t have these questions. He is a scientist, after all, and confident in who and where he is.

The House is the extent of Piranesi’s world, but there is also a larger world—our world—that cannot help but intrude on the House. Some of this is linguistic. Piranesi has words for items like “biscuit” that don’t exist in his world, for instance, so the House is clearly an adjunct to our own, but he has no memory of how he arrived there. The Other might offer insight here, but Piranesi has no reason to distrust his friend and fellow scientist. It is only when the outside world begins to impose itself on the House that Piranesi is forced to reconsider his prior assumptions.

I am being cagey about the second half of this haunting book because discussion of the house and the relationship between Piranesi and The Other requires giving away major plot elements. Suffice it to say that the answers come in the form of Susanna Clarke’s typically precise take on magic and obsession.

Clarke took the title Piranesi from Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th century classical archaeologist and artist who penned a series of sixteen prints called “Invented Prisons” (Carceri d’invenzione). These prints took the tradition of capricci, a style of art that depicts monumental buildings, and applied it to enormous labyrinths of the sort that make up the House.

The Lion Bas Reliefs form the second edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Piranesi is a spare, beautiful book about isolation, identity, and the search for knowledge, and the sort of story that has a way of staying with you. In casting about for a parallel, I could only come up with Neil Gaimon’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane or, to an extent, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, other slim, cerebral novels that benefit for how starkly they contrast with the author’s other books.

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I remain behind on writing about books I’ve read. In addition to Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy and Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King, I have finished Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent Caste, Boris Akunin’s mediocre The Coronation, and am now reading Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters.

A List of my Favorite Novels (2021 edition)

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place. I rarely fiddle with the rankings from year to year other than to add new books and iron out disagreements between this list and my fantasy rankings, but sometimes it happens.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites. Once the list hits 100 or so—maybe 100+my age at the time I publish the list— books at the back end will begin to fall off.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists; hopefully in the same order.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 16
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2020 (Piranesi)

Tier 5

75. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
74. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
73. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
72. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
71. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
70. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
69. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
68. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
67. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
66. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
65. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
64. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (2005)
63. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
62. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
61. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)
60. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
59. The Brothers Ashkenazi, I.J. Singer (1937)

Tier 4

58. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
57. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
56. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
55. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
54. Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (2020)
53. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2013)
52. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
51. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
50. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
49. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

48. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
47. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
46. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (2015)
45. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
44. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
43. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
42. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
41. Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin (2006)
40. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
39. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
38. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
32. The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste (2019)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

Generous Thinking

A few years ago I had a student who asked me to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school. She was a shoe-in. Two of the people writing letters for her were the professors she intended to work with, so I was just there to fulfill the requirement. She had taken several classes with me and done well, so I was flattered to be asked and happy to help. When orientation rolled around the next summer, my former student sent me an email to again thank me for the letter I wrote and expressed how nervous she was about the coming semester. I thanked her and gave her my best pieces of advice about graduate school.

It will seem, I said, like your peers know everything. They strut around like peacocks, name dropping scholars and theories and schools of scholarship. But this doesn’t mean that they are smarter or more prepared for graduate school than you are. Maybe they have a deep background in that topic. Maybe they restrict their comments to their particular field of research. Maybe they know just enough to name drop Foucault trusting that you won’t know enough to challenge them.

When I came to graduate school, I was the second-youngest person in my cohort. Where many of my peers had already earned MA degrees or spent years teaching, I had spent my year after graduation managing a Quiznos restaurant and desperately trying to keep my Greek fresh. I was also the only person in my cohort who studied ancient history in a program that was overwhelmingly made up of American historians. This meant that in most conversations I was on their turf.

The best thing you can do, I told my former student, is to resist the temptation to treat graduate school as a competition. Instead, approach the books you read, the classes you take, and the conversations you have with an open mind. Grad school seminars train students to strip books down to their foundations in order to critique the scholarship on everything from the framing to the evidence. These are important skills for a scholar to have, of course, but a more important skill is to understand what the author is doing. Anyone who goes to graduate school can recall an example where a person holding forth on the myriad flaws of a particular book was doing so based on a relatively minor point at best or without having read the whole book at worst.

I have seen both. At least twice I tried to discredit a book based on minor errors—the small issues might be indicative of larger problems, but it was a mistake to not first start with the bigger picture. Another time I watched as someone went on at length about how a book was invalid because it didn’t cover a particular topic…that the author covered in the section of the book that she had not read. Either way, not a good look.

Advice like what I gave to my former student lies at the heart of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. Her core thesis is that the culture of critique and obsession with prestige hierarchies has created an environment where knowledge production is treated like a competition and where tearing down others is as valuable as producing anything. The very structures of the American university system (as distinct from, for instance, community colleges) encourages this behavior:

The entire academic enterprise serves to cultivate individualism, in fact. Beginning with college applications, extending through graduate school admissions, fellowship applications, the job market, publication submissions, and, seemingly, finally tenure and promotion review, those of us on campus are subject to selection. These processes present themselves as meritocratic…in actual practice, however, those metrics are never neutral, and what we are measured against is far more often than not one another—sometimes literally.

The pressures that Fitzpatrick identifies are all exacerbated in the Age of Austerity currently because austerity means even more competition for fewer resources. However, as Fitzpatrick rightly points out, falling back on prestige hierarchies and competition is a self-defeating proposal that undermines the very project we are ostensibly setting out to pursue.

Her solution is to double down on “generosity as an enduring habit of mind, a conversational practice” (56). This means a host of things for Fitzpatrick, from developing a vocabulary of shared values to working in public to realigning the university toward community and public service, to simply learning how to listen.

In principle, I agree with everything Fitzpatrick wrote in Generous Thinking and seek to embody most of the practices.

In practice, I found Generous Thinking frustrating. The subtitle of this book promises “A Radical Approach to Saving the University.” Certainly there is a radicalism in the form of the books optimism and some of the proposals to change university policies away from those that put scholars in competition with one another, but there were times where I also found it to be missing the forest for the trees—by her own admission. Fitzpatrick admits in the preface that this is a book informed by her position at a large land-grant institution. This means a secondary focus on institutions like community colleges, but I found the blindspots to be greater than she admits.

In particular, I found framing a book as a way to save the university but then giving almost no thought to how this would affect contingent faculty shocking. That is, I endorse everything she wrote as a matter of praxis, but I wanted more acknowledgement that many people are not in a position to carry out these proposals. There is absolutely something here that contingent faculty can learn from, but I couldn’t help but feel that in her effort to work toward an academic community built on generosity Fitzpatrick had managed to largely disregard the second-class academic citizen. It isn’t that she us unaware of these problems—indeed, she mentions the jobs crisis on at least one occasion (18) — but other than (rightly, in my opinion) showing how public engagement can help catalyze stakeholders into investing in institutions, I found little meaningful consideration of either how generous thinking would change the underlying structural realities or how this would play out with overworked and underpaid contingent faculty who often already teach more classes than their full-time colleagues while also hunting for their next gig. I hope Fitzpatrick’s suggestions would make a difference and the core ideas absolutely ought to be embraced, but I nevertheless came away with the impression that this was not so much generous, as wishful thinking.

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I have a rather lot going on right now. Not only have I hit the point in the semester where I have a never-ending stream of assignments to grade, but I am also working on finishing the manuscript for my first book and keeping up with a few other research and editing projects. This means I am back to often choosing whether to spend my spare time reading or writing about the books I read. For the most part, reading wins out, though I do intend still to write about what I’ve read if at a delay (I finished Generous Thinking almost a month ago). I still intend to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s The Machineries of Empire series and have since finished Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, both of which made it onto my soon-to-be-published 2021 list of favorite novels, as well as making my way through Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, which I will likely write about once I have finished the series. I am now reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which is an incisive look at the issue of race in America by threading together the US, India, and Nazi Germany.

The City We Became

I first came to N.K. Jemisin’s books in 2017, right in the middle of her spectacular run of three consecutive Hugo Awards for best novel that she won for her Broken Earth trilogy. Those books warranted every plaudit they won and right away I knew that I would read almost anything she put out.

The City We Became, released in March of 2020, is Jemisin’s most recent novel, an urban fantasy about five New Yorkers who have to join forces to to confront an existential threat as the city awakens to itself. Naturally, each of the avatars represents an aspect of the city:

  • Manny, an ambiguously multi-racial and queer recent arrival in the city awakens to discover that he has no idea who he is, but he needs to find a homeless man who appears in his visions.
  • Bronca Siwanoy, an older, queer, Lenape woman and PhD who works at the Bronx art center is determined to hold her ground against the encroaching forces of gentrification.
  • Brooklyn “MC Free” Thomason, a city council member from the borough that shares her name and while she might be all business now, she was once a fire-throwing rapper.
  • Padmini Prakash, a Tamil immigrant and math prodigy who lives with her extended family in an apartment complex.
  • Aislyn Houlihan, a fully-grown white woman who lives with her parents, including her abusive, racist father (a cop), and who is deathly afraid of the other four boroughs.

On one level, The City We Became can be read as a breakneck urban fantasy. The heroes are in a race against time to find the keystone avatar of the entire city who they need to find and support against the strange forces that are attacking their city. Each of them has powers rooted in their identities as both people and as avatars of their particular borough (Aislyn’s power even rejects her New York-ness), and in this quest they are aided by other awakened city avatars, including São Paulo who draws his power from the polluted air he consumes (i.e. his cigarettes) and Hong Kong.

However, as story that crosses thriller and urban fantasy, I found The City We Became only okay. Jemisin is a talented writer, but I found the threat a little too existential and the characters a little too fumbling to really propel this book.

Where The City We Became shines is as a social commentary. This is her attempt to write New York as she knows it into existence.

Anyone who is looking to be aggrieved about racial politics is going to find a lot to dislike about The City We Became, but this is a testament to what Jemisin has created. New York and its avatars are a radically diverse collection of people who form the heartbeat of the city. It isn’t exactly the city as I know it as an outsider—I will forever associate it with bagels and pizza and find it more hispanic than depicted in the novel—but I can appreciate it as a variation on a city that I know a little bit. Jemisin’s New York is eccentric, eclectic, and frequently queer, and that is a truer depiction than one that whitewashes the city by looking only at one aspect.

Something similar happens with the existential threat that—not coincidentally—wants to whitewash all of these issues. The enemy appears in numerous guises: The Woman in White, Dr. White, and white fronds that stoke outrage, including by inspiring a group of racist provocateurs the Alt-Artistes. Dr. White works for a shadowy organization that has real estate holdings all over the world. In a word, their goal is gentrification: replacing local character with generic, boring, uniformity that weakens the local power of the awakening cities. It has killed before, and aims to do so again.

In time, The City We Became opens from this New York story to a larger universe of struggle where the awakening of one city means the destruction of another. The Enemy is revealed to be the lost city of R’lyeh. Appropriating a piece of mythos from Lovecraft, a notoriously racist author, as the primary antagonist thus layers references and commentary about the traditions of fantastical literature to the allegory about how local communities become strong through diversity.

Trying to capture the character of a place, particularly in a single book as packed with commentary as this one is, is hard. This sense of place is one of my favorite things about mystery novels, but those usually develop this sense of place across multiple novels as they feel their way through the corners and cracks. Here, in one novel, Jemisin tries to capture five distinct places that are also part of a complete whole. I would say she is on the whole successful. The City We Became is many things, including a rather unusual fantasy novel, but it is not boring. This novel is also supposed to be the first in a trilogy. I don’t know whether that means capturing the character of another city or developing stories based on the characters set down here, but I’m ready to let Jemisin surprise me whatever direction she chooses.

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<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80"><em>The City We Became</em> is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee's <em>Machineries of Empire</em> trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick's <em>Generous Thinking</em>. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste's <em>The Shadow King</em>.The City We Became is the penultimate entry in the backlog of books I wanted to write about. I am still planning to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and then more recently finished Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

Eat a Peach

David Chang’s Eat a Peach cover

David Chang is probably best known for his culinary empire Momofuku, which Wikipedia tells me includes at this point dozens of restaurants. I have only eaten at one, the dessert-themed Milk Bar in Washington DC. In Eat a Peach Chang readily admits that everything else that he does—this memoir, his cookbook, Ugly Delicious, and a dozen other endeavors—are designed to put butts in those seats. At least under normal circumstances since, like so many food establishments, Momofuku’s business has been entirely upended by COVID-19.

Eat a Peach, written with Gabe Ulla, is thus an advertisement for Momofuku that puts Chang and his theories of deliciousness front and center. Obviously, food is everywhere—Chang is a chef and his public persona on shows like Ugly Delicious filters the world through food-colored glasses as an heir to the late Tony Bourdain.

But what particularly stood out to me about this memoir is how it is a study in binaries.

Eat a Peach is divided into two parts. Its first half is a roughly linear narrative of his upbringing in a Korean-American household, his successes with golf that helped get him into Georgetown Prep and subsequent flameout of the sport, and his brief period working in finance, before finally getting to his entry into the restaurant industry. Chang readily admits that he was not good at being a chef, which makes his decision to found Momofuku in 2004 and his chance partnership with Quino Baca—the first and only employee at the Noodle Bar when it opened—even more of a radical gamble.

Chang writes about Momofuku like it is a revolutionary movement. There was a vision behind the original Noodle Bar, yes, but there was also a willingness to overhaul the entire menu when things weren’t working. The employees worked in cadres that participated in a company-wide email list with one objective: how to make their product more delicious. As the company grew and expanded, they formed new cells that oversaw Momofuku Ssām Bar and the Milk Bar.

Woven through this narrative is reflection on mental illness and depression (Chang is bipolar) that manifested in self-destructive tendencies such as drug use and overwork.

These themes come more thoroughly to the fore in the second half of Eat a Peach where Chang tells stories from a time after Momofuku and his public persona had become fixtures of the food world. Food and the restaurants still feature, but in more complicated ways.

For instance, in part one, Chang wraps the reader up in the energy and chaos of starting a restaurants—fights with critics and inspectors, problems of staffing, and the thrill of designing the most delicious menu—that captures difficulties, but also sees the enterprise with rose-colored glasses.

By contrast, Chang takes an introspective turn in part two. His ideals remain the same, but now he interrogates where his instinctive “fuck-you” attitude came from, who it is directed toward, and its relationship to his mental health. He talks about his experience with an executive coach who helped him see both how special the thing he created was and how his behavior caused those around him, including customers and staff, to live in fear of his anger. Far from leading a food revolution to bring high-end food to the masses, Chang realized that he was leading a cult. Followers were expected to give up their personal lives and commit their entire beings to the restaurant.

Ultimately, Eat a Peach is a reflection on growth—of the Momofuku empire, yes, but also personal growth in a way that I found particularly satisfying. There were times that Chang’s story resonated a bit too much (my anxiety manifests in a tendency toward overwork as well), but what elevates this memoir for me was how Chang works to de-center himself. He talks lovingly about his wife Grace, his son, and how they learned of her pregnancy the day after his close friend Tony Bourdain died. He lavishly distributes praise for Momofuku’s success. He talks endlessly about his long-standing relationship with his therapist. But more than all of that, I appreciated how Chang talks openly about his mistakes and blindspots, whether in cavalierly dismissing the chefs of California or contributing to a kitchen culture that was hostile to women, and that he acknowledges that talk only goes so far. Proof comes in the form of actions, and it is no coincidence that the cover art is meant to evoke Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus.

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I’m still making my way through a backlog of books I want to write about, including N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy. I am now reading Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King.

1984 Is Here

#1984ishere is trending on Twitter this morning, started by a group of people operating under the delusion that Twitter and its decision to permanently ban Donald Trump’s account constitute the arrival of the totalitarian state imagined in George Orwell’s classic novel. A cursory glance at the tag shows users who superimpose the Twitter logo with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union or one image of the names of social media companies on the arms of the swastika on the Nazi flag. More frequently, people bemoan that this is yet another sign of “censorship” from those who can’t tolerate divergent opinions. However, even setting aside the various incitement and imminent danger tests for first amendment protections that the events of this week make a reasonable case for, these claims ignore that these are private companies who now deem the banned accounts in violation of their terms of service.

(See also: Simon and Schuster deciding that Josh Hawley’s role in the attempted coup merited cancelling his book contract. This is not cancel culture; actions have consequences.)

1984 does have some commentary about speech, both in the Sapir-Whorf-esque effects of Newspeak and the fear of retaliation and reeducation. After all, Big Brother is watching you. But there’s the rub. Private social media companies like Twitter and Facebook and prominent publishers like Simon and Schuster may seem like they control the marketplace of ideas, but this is not the same thing as absolute state control of the sort that Orwell described. If anything, the former group show the need for more government regulation given their data collection and lack of accountability, and conflating this with totalitarianism demonstrates a facile reading of the book.

(I know, I’m giving people too much credit: most likely know about these things as buzzwords magnified through the very media echo chambers that they’re using the terms to attack.)

Private companies making business decisions about their platforms is not Orwellian, particularly when the social media companies seem to be acting at least in part to lay the groundwork for arguing in front of congress against regulation. Nor is any government regulation you object to automatically Orwellian—at any time, let alone during a pandemic.

1984 is a harrowing book. Doublethink, Big Brother, and the Thought Police sound sinister and are easy topics to latch onto, but they are also easy to misappropriate. More relevant to the present moment are other aspects of the book. Its setting is Oceania, a nation locked in a forever war with one or the other of the global powers (Eurasia and Eastasia) and with the power to absolutely revise history as to who is the enemy. In fact, Winston Smith getting an indication that Big Brother has been deceiving people serves as the inciting incident of the novel. Big Brother himself is a present-yet-distant charismatic leader who serves as a focal point for adoration. It is at his direction that reality is disseminated to his people: only Big Brother can protect you.

Sound familiar? Try this, excerpted from a scene in 1984 about the ritual Two Minutes of Hate:

In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he was standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out, “Swine! Swine! Swine!” and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes of Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one subject to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

Then the face of Big Brother faded away again, and instead the three slogans of the Party stood out in bold capitals:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

But the face of Big Brother seemed to persist for several seconds on the screen, as though the impact that it had made on everyone’s eyeballs were too vivid to wear off immediately. The little sandy-haired woman had flung herself forward over the back of the chair in front of her. With a tremulous murmur that sounded like “My Savior!” she extended her arms toward the screen. Then she buried her face in her hands. It was apparent that she was uttering a prayer.

Now try Five Years of Hate.

Answers in the Form of Questions

We have had routine in this house. Jeopardy! airs at 4 PM, so I record the episodes. Whenever we get around to having dinner, we turn on that recording and lose ourselves in half an hour of answers and questions. Sometimes we watch other shows, too, but if there is an available Jeopardy episode, we watch that first and loosely compete with each other. My partner is better at it than I am, in part because she reads the questions while I tend to just let Alex read them to me, but there are certain categories where her reaction is often to just turn and look at me. We judge the contestants—wager too little on a daily double and you’re a coward, but the greater sin is being slow to pick a question, which will lead them not to clear the board—and root for who we want to see tomorrow. Occasionally, I’ll throw a fit about the phrasing of a question.

All of this is to say that while I don’t aspire to being on Jeopardy!, I am among the show’s legion of fans and was greatly saddened at the news of Trebek’s death earlier this year. Claire McNear’s recent book Answers in the Form of Questions was therefore a welcome read.

The best synopsis of Answers in the Form of Questions appears in Ken Jennings’ forward:

Jeopardy! is a magic trick.

In this book, you’re about to see how the trick is done.”

McNear, a staff-writer at The Ringer where Jeopardy! was one of her beats, takes the reader on a journey through past and present of the show. This means, simultaneously, she explores Jeopardy!‘s iterations and development and the mechanics for host and contestants in its current edition.

Jeopardy!‘s first version with host Art Fleming debuted in the aftermath of the game show scandals of the 1950s where the studios rigged the outcome of the matches in order to drum up viewer interest. The most famous, as dramatized in the 1994 film Quiz Show, involved Charles Van Doren effectively receiving the answers in advance of the matches and ended with the FBI investigating the industry. Eventually, congress passed a law that made it illegal to fix a contest of intellectual knowledge. Jeopardy!‘s unique—or even eccentric—style was thus a deliberate rebuttal to these actions: if they simply gave the answers to all contestants and asked them to come up with the question, then they couldn’t be accused of giving the question to any one person.

However, Answers in the Form of Questions largely focuses on the second iteration of the show hosted by Alex Trebek, which, as Jennings put it, is a magic trick. And McNear does aptly show how the trick is done, from the mechanics of the podiums to put everyone on roughly the same elevation (as much for smooth camera operation as for visual symmetry) to noting how the quiz show is done live but much of the fanfare of the show as seen on TV are recorded separately (announcer Johnny Gilbert is 96, after all). Trebek comes off pretty well, even as a rather distant figure for most contestants, as McNear writes about how he used to take the contestant quiz at least once a year and works hard to master the clues—even when the writers delivered him a category called “When the Aztecs Spoke Welsh”…on April Fool’s Day.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book, though, is how much of it does not take place on a soundstage. For as much time as McNear spend talking about what the studio does behind the scenes, she also explores what it is like behind the scenes for contestants, following some from their hotel to the studio and then from the studio to a Los Angeles-area pub trivia frequented by Jeopardy! alumni. This means both looking at how contestants prepare for their 23-minutes of fame and (usually) limited-payout and interviewing former contestants of both the regular Jeopardy! and celebrity specials.

This approach also allows McNear to pull back and survey the wider cultural impact of Jeopardy!. She obviously discusses the various cameos like SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy! and Black Jeopardy! skits, but also bring in the original screenplay for The Bucketlist. In that movie, directed by Rob Reiner, Morgan Freeman’s character was supposed to die in an appearance on Jeopardy!, and this connection allows McNear to transition to an adorable anecdote about how the late Carl Reiner would get together every weeknight to eat dinner and watch Jeopardy! together—even transitioning to watching together by phone after the Coronavirus disrupted their routine.

I greatly enjoyed Answers in the Form of Questions even though it is synoptic rather than comprehensive in its look at Jeopardy! and its impact. There is not, for instance, any attempt to grapple with David Foster Wallace’s Little Expressionless Animals (originally in the Paris Review in 1988, republished in The Girl With Curious Hair). This deeply weird short story is about a young woman named Julie Smith for whom the producers bend the then-extant 5-game limit for contestants because she’s popular, only to see her go on a multi-year run so dominant that it begins to tank the show’s popularity. Answers in the Form of Questions is such a paean to the magic of Jeopardy! that I was really curious how McNear would tackle the story, which warps that magic in ways that swing wildly from funny (“Alex Trebek goes around the Jeopardy! studio wearing a button that says PAT SAJAK LOOKS LIKE A BADGER.”) to bizarre (“‘My favorite word,’ says Alex Trebek, ‘is moist. It is my favorite word, especially when used in combination with my second-favorite word, which is loincloth.'”). I don’t meant this as a criticism of McNear—LEA is a strange story even by Wallace’s standards and it does not fit with the tone of Answers in the Form of Questions—but rather to point out that Jeopardy!‘s reach goes even further than what she writes about here.

Alex Trebek suffered from and eventually succumbed to pancreatic cancer, passing away earlier this year. He hosted Jeopardy! effectively to the end, which has given us a season filled with moving tributes, such as on the November 5 episode when champion Burt Thakur told Alex that he learned to speak English sitting on his grandfather’s lap watching Jeopardy!. The next permanent host of the show is as-yet unknown (my dream candidate is LeVar Burton, but could also see going with someone with sports play-by-play experience), but I can think of no better tribute to Alex Trebek than this look at a deeply niche game show that he helped grow into an iconic cultural phenomenon. I have been watching this season differently since reading Answers in the Form of Questions, particularly in thinking about the changes they made in order to create the show safely during a pandemic, and just hope that whoever follows in Alex’s enormous shadow can retain Jeopardy‘s charm.

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I have fallen off from writing about books recently and hope to change this a bit now that the semester is over. I am currently reading Octavia Butler’s The Pararable of the Sower, which is an enthralling near-future dystopian novel set in United States that is all-but collapsed because of climate change.

What is Making Me Happy: Brandon Sanderson’ Cosmere

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Brandon’s Sanderson’s Cosmere.

Brandon Sanderson’s latest novel drops next week. Rhythm of War is the fourth book in the Stormlight Archive, the cornerstone epic second-world fantasy to his larger authorial project. What makes this project, the Cosmere so impressive is that it consists of multiple different series, each set on a different second-world and with a different feel, but also contributing to a larger story that is just starting to be made clear.

Ordinarily, I vary my reading, rotating between authors and genres, but my ability to focus on books rapidly diminishes through the fall semester, often going into hibernation sometimes in mid-October. Despite my present exhaustion, I have mostly managed to avoid that fate this year by just letting myself get absorbed in the escapism of epic fantasy, starting with many of the Cosmere books that I had not yet read.

There are three things in particular that make me happy about Sanderson’s work.

First, I appreciate the ambitious scope of these novels. I have now read or am reading thirteen novels and novellas in this universe and, while I can pick up on many of the easter eggs between the stories, the larger story is just now starting to take shape. Seriously. Sanderson currently plans 35 novels for this universe. Some of these books don’t work as well for me as others do, whether because the characters don’t land or the world doesn’t quite work, but I love the sheer variety of these books.

Second, in a recent Writing Excuses podcast episode on Fantasy World-building, Patrick Rothfuss expounded on how some fantasy systems tend toward the numinous, perhaps with defined rules, but playing on a sense of wonder wherein ‘magic’ breaks the defined rules of the universe (effectively, a soft magic system). On the other end of the spectrum, he posited, are scientific (hard) systems where characters treat ‘magic’ as the world as it is and thus studying them are little different from any other scientific pursuit. Sanderson’s magic systems are decidedly scientific. Each series explores a different aspect of a common system that becomes increasingly complex as it iterates. Thus, discussion of the Cosmere often comes back to trying to figure out what the characters can do based on an analysis of the known laws of the universe rather than wondering what new abilities a character might manifest.

Third, and perhaps my favorite thing about reading so many of Sanderson’s books, is watching an author mature and develop. Sanderson’s early books are exceedingly competent, which I often chalk up to his formal education in and teaching of English. As much as I love some of the characters in his early novels, I also sometimes found the prose itself to be mechanical, workmanlike. His focus was on the worlds and the plots, which made for deeply satisfying stories that didn’t always have the most polished prose. I have noticed that starting to change in his more recent novels, where he’s started to wed prettier prose to his technical excellence. Sanderson is still stronger at world-building and the technical side of writing, which allows him to publish at a prodigious rate, but raising the level of his prose has made some of the scenes in his recent novels particularly powerful.

Watching this sort of development in the line-to-line excellence of their prose, which I have noted in authors as esteemed as Ernest Hemingway always makes me happy, if for no other reason than it gives me hope for my own writing.

I suspect I’ll keep reading mostly genre fiction for the rest of this year since I’ll likely remain tired and I have on my shelf Alex Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Yoon Ha Lee’s Raven Stratagem, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, but this week what is making me happy is Sanderson’s Cosmere.