My Own Devices

My usual way of being could probably be summed up as chronically un-hip. I usually read books, list to music and see movies well after that phase has passed. When culture swings back around to where I am, such as with the Song of Ice and Fire (which I started reading in about 2000 when I was in early high school), the hipness doesn’t quite stick. I generally have pretty good taste, in my obviously biased opinion, so this un-hipness doesn’t bother me. It just is.

This is all preamble to talking about a book that, in reading it less than a month after its publication, might possibly be the hippest thing I have ever done in my life. That book, published less than a month before I read it, is My Own Devices, a memoir by the Minneapolis hip-hop artist Dessa.

The essays in this collection consist of stories from and about Dessa’s early career as a touring artist that put friends, family, and challenges front and center. Each essay could stand on its own (and several were previously published), but the through line is her side of an extended, intermittent romantic relationship. Heartbreak became an addiction that defeated “time, distance, and whiskey”—what Dessa calls “over-the-counter remedies” that included moving to New York so that she wouldn’t be in the same town. The collection reaches its climax in the essay “Call off your Ghost,” which recounts her self-crafted experiments with fMRI-scanning and neurofeedback conditioning break this addiction.

Dessa writers beautifully, which is one of the reasons I like her music so much, and in fact there is a passage early on about her ex’ sage advice to rap more like she writes. Pulling back the curtain on these parts of her life put the songs into greater context, particularly for the early releases that aren’t quite as fully developed as in the more recent albums. But that would make this collection only of interest to fans of her music, when this is so much more. What I found particularly effective here is the self-portrait of a bright young woman who is simultaneously curious about the world, wrapped up in her neuroses, and ambitious to the point of grating against her lack of accomplishment.

I can’t do My Own Devices justice here. It is thoughtful meditation family, friends, and art, with a little less science than I was anticipating form the subtitle. (Science shows up in a couple of essays, generally as an adjunct to family or heartbreak.) Dessa is refreshingly blunt, acknowledging her imperfections even while telling her story in a sympathetic light. In short, I loved My Own Devices, going so far as to complain online that I started it at a time when I knew I would have to put it down, and am adding it to my list of Dessa’s work that I recommend to just about everyone I meet.

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I am now reading Kevin Kruse’ One Nation Under God, which argues that the public performance of religious piety in American life was invented in the 1930s by an alliance of corporate executives and religious leaders who opposed the New Deal and came to fruition during a 1950s post-war religious revival.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish

It really is ridiculous how persistently everything in my life has gone awry. It reminds me of a bird that builds itself a nest high in a tree, but at the same time as it sits down to hatch, the tree falls down. The bird flies to another tree, tries again, lays new eggs, broods on them, but the same day that the chicks hatch, a storm comes up and that tree, too, is cloven in two.

The end is at hand, and there’s no point in holding back on the good stuff. So what are you going to offer your guests?

Where to begin? Leemet, the narrator and protagonist is the last man who knows snakish, an ancient language that marks an ancient bond between humans and snakes and gives people control over most animals. Deer offer themselves to be eaten and wolves are tamed for milk and as steeds in time of war. Bears are more of a problem, though usually more because they are the lotharios of the forest more so than for their furiosity. The speakers of snakish live in the forest, in harmony with nature.

In previous generations they lost a war against the iron men who came from over the sea. Now the old ways are dying. People give up the forest to live in the village, show their butts to the sun while harvesting grain, and eat bread, which causes their tongues to become too clumsy to speak snakish. Leemet himself was born in town before his parents moved back to the forest before returning to claim his family inheritance. They are the exception and only a few traditionalists, including the last remaining Primates, remain. Among those are Tambet and his family. Tambet never forgave Leemet for having gone to the village and clings with ever greater desperation to what he sees as the old ways, but his daughter Hiie becomes one of Leemet’s playmates whenever she can escape her father’s wrath. Life in the forest is good for Leemet, but the days when speakers of snakish had venomous fangs, let alone the ability to summon the Frog of the North to repulse the iron men, are gone.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish spins the story of this vanishing world from after an inflection point has been passed. Leemet grows up in a world that is effectively dead. The result is a narrative that is at once a delightful coming of age story and a poignant examination of the nostalgia for lost tradition. The latter particularly emerges through through a number of characters who organize their lives around increasingly bizarre traditions. They claim that these traditions are ancient, whether brought from a far off land or simply how people used to live in Estonia, but what they are doing now is utterly unrecognizable from and usually unrelated to whatever seed they might have sprung from—something Leemet learns when he finally meets his grandfather…who lost his legs after a battle with the iron men and is now collecting bones from men he kills in order to construct a pair of wings.

I came to The Man Who Spoke Snakish purely because I wanted to read a book from a language I hadn’t before. I had never heard of Andrus Kivirähk, let alone read anything by him when I purchased this and a Slovenian novel after doing a bit of online research into “best novel” lists on the internet. I was not disappointed.

In a word, this book is spectacular. Much like a Miyazaki film, its whimsical prose belies that Kivirähk also captures something fundamental about the invention and destruction of tradition. The fact that the story is told as a folktale among a lower strata of society that is straining beneath the rule of the church and the knights is handled so deftly that it is almost invisible. Frequently these choices muted the impact of individual deaths, as though to show that it wasn’t the loss of the individual, but of the collective that is the real tragedy. The Man Who Spoke Snakish has its flaws, including that most of the characters are fun, but flat, but I found myself spirited away and loving every page.

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I recently finished Lorrie Moore’s collection Bark, which was well-crafted, but left me once again trying to figure out what it is about short stories that usually make them fall flat for me. I’m now reading Dessa’s fabulous new book My Own Devices.

A Brave New World

There was something called liberalism. Parliament, if you know what that was, passed against [sleep teaching]. The records survive. Speeches about liberty of the subject. Liberty to be inefficient and miserable. Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole.

You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.

Civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic.

I had to read A Brave New World over the summer before my senior year of high school, the first book for AP English. I hated it, and it was from that experience that I developed my theory that I had a natural aversion to books I had to read. (My love of The Great Gatsby is the exception that proved the rule.) While some of the books read for high school still hold no appeal for me, this is one I’ve been meaning in to re-read for some time now. As with Fahrenheit 451, 2018 seemed like an appropriate year to work through some of these classic dystopian stories.

The brave new world in this book is a perfectly stable global utopia achieved through artificial reproduction, genetic manipulation to create a clear caste hierarchy that descend from “alpha double plus” through “epsilon”, and conditioning to ensure the each person not only accepts their place in society, but embraces it as ideal. Free love is mandatory as a way to prevent jealousy and possessiveness, and everyone is regularly treated with powerful emotional stimulation and, more importantly, with doses of soma, a drug distributed by the state. Doped up by pleasure, people abandon interest in anything else.

There are drips and drabs of how this utopia that worships Henry Ford came into existence, a compromise after a series of destructive wars in the distant past. Despite genetic engineering, the world is not even. Places deemed too inhospitable are left as “Savage Reservations” and islands like Iceland and the Falklands, far from the Metropole, are the preferred landing place for people with mildly heretical ideas.

A Brave New World follows two arcs, tied together by the mildly unorthodox alpha, Bernard Marx. In the first arc, Bernard sets a date with the “pneumatic” Lenina Crowne. Lenina is herself under scrutiny for becoming too attached to her current partner, and so she sets to date the uncommonly short and aloof, particularly for an alpha. The arc concludes with the pair going on a vacation to the Savage Reservation in New Mexico. The second arc carries forward their return from New Mexico, taking with them a dark secret from another vacation taken decades earlier: a woman who had been left behind and the child she bore–not entirely by choice–against all strictures of society.

The narrative tension of A Brave New World largely centers on the fate of John, “the Savage,” and his choice between submitting to the constraints of a society that would provide his every pleasure and the pain of freedom. (In his forward to the volume I read, Huxley wrote that if he were to write the book over again, he would include a third option.) I appreciate Huxley’s social commentary more now than I did in high school. This new world is one of abject consumerism were it is verboten to repair an item when you could just replace it and maximum pleasure is the highest calling. Possessiveness breeds jealousy, pain breeds strife, and independent thought leads to both. Thus the central authority maintains its power by tamping down those instincts.

And yet, I found the characters rather flat and the plot thin such that it becomes reduced to a deterministic parable about freedom and happiness.

The larger question I had going into this book, though, was how it stacked up against Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. On the one side, A Brave New World shares with Bradbury’s dystopia an emphasis on pleasure and freedom from heretical thought, but the latter suggests communal enforcement. On the other, it shares totalitarianism with 1984, albeit one of a consumerist make.

1984 receives too little appreciation because it was assumed that it could never happen here where society is governed by liberal political institutions. (Note: this judgement may be undergoing revision in light of recent events.) Where the state in 1984 exploits difference, the one in A Brave New World has a single world state that erases them in any meaningful way other than caste, but then conditions each caste to appreciate its position in society—and then only see the world from the perspective of people in the top two classes. This is a world that doesn’t have to address the consequences of unapologetic waste and that has no enemies outside certain tendencies in human nature. In short, A Brave New World is a dystopia for a happier time.

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The semester is in full swing, but I’m still carving small slivers of time to read. I finished Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, a slim, irreverent novel about a poor family in small town Mexico with middle class delusions, and started reading Sarah Kendzior’s collection The View from Flyover Country.

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

For most of my life Philip Roth’s novels have existed in an environment just beyond my radar. I knew about them in a general sense and was aware that he was held in high esteem as a literary author, but that is as far as it went. Then he died. After several podcasts I listen to did retrospectives of his career I decided I should change that.

The Plot Against America, Roth’s 2004 novel, is a grim alternate history that explores the issue of antisemitism in America.

The story takes place in the narrator’s (young Philip Roth) youth in Newark when Charles Lindbergh makes a surprise appearance at a deadlocked 1940 Republican National Convention and sweeps his way to the nomination. Lindbergh’s campaign frames the choice as between Roosevelt’s warmongering and American First, as he hops from city to city in his personal plane giving speeches on the airfield. Roosevelt, by contrast, is old-fashioned and traditional. Failing to appreciate the threat posed by Lindbergh, Roosevelt loses the election and retires from public life to his estate in New York.

For Roth’s Jewish family, the election is a disaster. Around every corner are people with anti-semitic opinions now empowered by the president and America-Firsters who regard Roosevelt’s globalist supporters as traitors. With the US committed to non-intervention, Philip’s cousin Alvin runs away from home to join the Canadian army to fight Hitler. Roth’s father begins listening exclusively to the left-wing demagogic radio personality Walt Winchell who loudly denounces Lindbergh as a fascist. Every action taken by the government is tinged with bigotry, he believes, the first step toward a pogrom.

The “Just Folks” program sends Jewish youths from urban areas to farms in the heartland. Philip’s older brother Sandy ends up in Kentucky for a summer working on a tobacco farm and returns a convert to the mission of the OAA—the Organization of American Absorption. Then Alvin returns, having lost a leg in combat. Further exacerbating tensions in the family is that Philip’s aunt Evelyn goes to work for Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, the head of the OAA office in New Jersey.

The Plot Against America is presented as a retrospective of a dark episode in American history that both reveals a psychic scar in the country’s collective conscience and ends as abruptly as it began. Roth’s youth during the events described and the nature of conspiracy leaves it unclear what happened to bring Lindbergh to office, let alone what happened while he was there that leads to a bloody climax.

The national and historical developments create the backdrop for what is, ultimately, a family drama. The Lindbergh administration works to break up Jewish enclaves in cities like Newark, and the Roth family is split between those who hold to their convictions, such as his father, those who want to ignore politics, and the collaborators, whether out of naked opportunism or youthful naivete. The characters are vividly drawn, frequently in the graphic detail and sharp colors of youthful memory. There are good gentiles in The Plot Against America, much as there are bad Jews. In both cases Roth captures something fundamental to and fundamentally fragile in the soul of America.

Although it was published in 2004, The Plot Against America was an eerie read for 2018, right down to a Scandinavian summit where an American president with a fervent base is openly condemned for fawning behavior toward another foreign leader, leading commentators to ask what that leader has on the President. Similarly, American prejudices are papered over by a tradition of constitutionalism, but only barely, and there is a preference for collective amnesia rather than for resolution.

The Plot Against America> was hard to read, but rather than being a book that lost its edge since its publication, it is one that has only become sharper. That is probably too lofty a standard to set for when I get to Roth’s other books, but I can now say with certainty that I am going to be reading more.

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Next up, I just started reading A Brave New World. I read it in high school but remember nothing except a general sense of distaste. Like with Fahrenheit 451, I want to give it a fair shake.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Cram them full of noncombustable data, chock them full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.

Once, years ago, I picked up this book, possibly to complete the triptych with 1984 and A Brave New World. I found it painfully dull at the time and never finished, until now. (I only have vague memories of being bored by A Brave New World, too, and should give it a fair shake outside of English class.)

Fahrenheit 451 is fundamentally the story of Guy Montag. Guy’s profession is “fireman”, his job is to burn contraband books, to prevent the spread of illicit knowledge. Houses these days are fireproof, but books still burn, so the firemen simply turn on their kerosene-spewing hoses. “It was a pleasure to burn,” Guy thinks in the opening line.

But Guy has a crisis of faith that is prompted by two events. First, Guy meets his neighbor Clarisse on the way home from work. Clarisse, he thinks, is a little bit strange, and so is her family. She walks places, for instance, and looks at the stars and the moon, and her family sits on their porch and talks to one another, rather than surrounding themselves with the usual immersive video screens. Clarisse asks questions that make him think. Questions like “are you happy?”

The second strikes to the heart of things, when Guy discovers one night that his wife Mildred has gone through her usual routine of putting on her seashells (headphones), but also consumed an entire bottle of sleeping pills, forcing him to call for medical aid to revive her. Instead of doctors, he gets technicians, who revive Mildred, but also callously dismiss it as a plumbing problem. When she wakes, Mildred has no memory of what happened and returns to her stories.

These two things cause Guy to reevaluate life and start to ask questions about the books he is sworn to burn. His crisis is kicked into overdrive when a woman decides that she is going to burn with her books. Despite the best efforts of Captain Beatty to rein in his man and Mildred’s horror at the changes in her husband, Guy becomes a pariah, an unlikely devotee of the written word and slips into a conspiracy to revive book culture.

While Fahrenheit 451 didn’t stand out as one of my favorite books, there was a lot I liked about the world Bradbury dreamed up for it. This is a world where people are surrounded by screens, but instead of the screens watching you or being watched, they become an immersive experience to make the viewer feel like part of the action. At the same time, Mildred seems to represent a facet of the existential emptiness that this “engagement” creates, particularly when juxtaposed with Clarisse’s habit of looking at the stars and talking with people in person. (I also appreciated that while Mildred and Clarisse represent a binary, almost allegorical choice between civilization and nature, Clarisse was never an object of sexual interest.) There was also a fascinating moment near the end of the book when Bradbury (perhaps unintentionally) opened the door to the return to an oral culture. Memorization of individual texts was offered as a way to legally preserve knowledge, with the idea that each person has a text that they could then pass down to another generation until such time that books were legal again. But any student of oral tradition could tell you that there is a tension between the amazing longevity of oral knowledge and the fact that it is not a static text the way that a book is. So my question is what do these texts look like in multiple generations?

Perhaps I’m just being contrary, but I did have a beef, not with the book, but with the marketing. The key conceit in Fahrenheit 451 is that people need to be sedated, calmed by unimpeachable facts and seduced by immersive stories. There is a war about to happen, so perhaps there is a government mandate on these policies, but it comes across as self-policing since it is a book about the people who burn books and the people who snitch on those who read books. Any totalitarian apparatus is largely invisible. Moreover, we are told that the problem with books is that they make people melancholic, confused and troubled by the contradictory ideas. Is this censorship? Maybe, but I think there is a difference between cutting a single book or parts of a book for expressing ideas deemed inappropriate, and burning all books for having ideas, while filling minds with advertisements, immersive soap operas, and anodyne facts that are the facsimile of thinking.

In sum, I liked Fahrenheit 451 and understand what makes it a classic, but it spoke to me less as a broad critique of society and more as a critique of its time of which there are still resonances.

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Things are starting to pick up since the semester starts next week and job ads starting to come out, but I am determined to keep reading. Right now, I am in the middle of Charles Mann’s 1491, the companion to 1493.

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition—either you ruthlessly subjugate it…or you defy it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart.

Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception.

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive. So woods are spooky.

It has been a running theme this year that going back to finally read things that I probably could have, or should have, read years ago. A Walk in the Woods isn’t quite the oversight that some of the other books have been, but other than hearing about the recent movie this book only came to my attention when it was recently given to me as a gift. It was very much my speed.

A Walk in the Woods is a literary travelogue of the summer of 1996 when Bryson decided that he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail. At the outset of the story Bryson has just moved back from the UK and settled in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he gets obsessed with hiking. From there, he is consumed by a bit of temporary insanity, deciding with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym) that he is going to become a true mountain man by completing the entire thru-hike. Of course he doesn’t make it.

The adventures of Bill and Stephen form the narrative backbone. There are the eccentrics met on the path, the decision to subsist primarily on Snickers, and the simple pleasure of a shower after days on the trail, as well as the interruptions, challenges, and pleasures of hiking, alone and with partners. Bryson then weaves the history of the Appalachian Trail and commentary about the geological and natural features encountered along the way. These sections, while less silly and humorous than the main narrative give the impression of someone ambling through the woods lost in thought—something Katz allegedly complained about on multiple occasions. Some of the science has advanced since 1998, but it held up for the most part, with Bryson explaining in graphic detail a) the consequences of global warming and b) the scars of human encroachment on the landscape. Technology might have advanced past where it was in 1996 when this trip took place, but these issues remain.

Bryson’s prose is light and humorous, which keeps the pace moving through the hundreds of miles that he and Katz hump packs north from Georgia. Hiking is hard work, which he acknowledges from the outset, and makes clear in the book how woefully unprepared both of the mountain men actually were.

I read A Walk in the Woods on a recent trip to Vermont. It still made me wish I were out hiking, but at least I got to read it while surrounded by woods.

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I haven’t had as much time to read recently as I’d like and so am still reading Fahrenheit 451.

Five Short Reviews

I’ve been struggling to find words to write about books I’ve read recently, for a variety of reasons. It has turned into a very busy summer teaching, preparing to teach, and writing my own (non-fiction) book, and the result has been that I just want to retreat into whatever book I’m reading in the little downtime I get. I am still reading and want to say something about these books, so I’ve decided to clear out some of my backlog with five short reviews of fewer than 100 words each. Some of these are deserving of more, but this is about catching up and I liked each of these books, so brevity should not be taken as an indictment.

The Company She Kept — Archer Mayer

Joe Gunther is a Vermont detective of the old type. Gunther’s depth comes because the novels have charted the lives of him and his team for three decades. In this 2015 installment, Gunther’s team is brought on to solve the murder of Susan Raffner, a state senator found hanging from a cliff, “DYKE” carved into her chest. The deceased is a confidant of Gail Zigman, the governor and Joe’s ex-girlfriend. This is a lesser novel in the series, being much more interested in debates about sexuality than in the team and building to an anti-climactic reveal. Adequate, but unspectacular.

Assassin’s Quest — Robin Hobb

The culmination to the trilogy that began with Assassin’s Apprentice. King Regal has abandoned much of Buck kingdom to the raiders and withdrawn inland to his mother’s home, surrounding himself with sycophants and violent criminals. Fitz, who most believe dead, must set off into the mountains to find Valiant—the rightful king—before it is too late. Hobb sticks the landing for this set of novels, carrying through a fantasy series driven by emotional stakes and putting Fitz through the emotional ringer by forcing him to give up his youthful fantasies in the process of becoming an adult.

Nazi Literature in the Americas — Roberto Bolaño

Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers come in all shapes, and not all wear a sign of their affiliation. This idiosyncratic books is a fictional encyclopedia of Nazi authors in the Western Hemisphere from the early twentieth century through first quarter (or so) of the twenty-first. The format does not lend itself to plot and many of the characters are presented in a flat, clinical manner, but their stories are nevertheless told with a degree of dark, dry humor. The horror, by contrast, comes from their normalcy. Probably not the Bolaño book to start with, but I’m looking forward to reading another.

The Vegetarian — Han Kang

Yeong-hye is normal enough before a singular act of defiance, the decision to become a vegetarian, changes everything. Told in three acts through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister, The Vegetarian is about one woman’s attempt to reclaim her body by controlling what goes into it. The three external narrators give this book a surreal and horrifying aspect since everyone else sees her as an insensate lunatic to correct or exploit, but utterly irrational, while, in return, she is totally removed from the ways in which her choice—and it is her choice—has consequences for her family.

Visitations — Jenny Erpenbeck

Lingering at a property on Brandenburg Lake near Berlin, this novel is woven from the lives of the inhabitants that lived there in the twentieth century, even if fleetingly. Between each episode, the gardener trims and maintains. Erpenbeck’s ethereal prose, even in translation, gives the sense that the characters are ghosts brought back to share their experiences. Each episode is linked by the connection to this place, and I found them variously affecting on their own right, with the story of a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis particularly powerful.

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Since resolving to do this, I have also finished reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and am now taking a second crack at Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book that I gave up on once before.

Small Teaching – James Lang

Small Teaching is another book that people recommended to me earlier this year when I was looking for resources on how to improve my teaching. Previously I read Jay Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom and Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire.

Let me start by airing a beef with James Lang. Small Teaching derives its name from the baseball philosophy “small ball,” which basically says that you don’t need to hit a lot of home runs to win games if you take small actions (singles, not striking out, good base-running) that manufacture runs. These are the baseball fundamentals every coach tells their youth team when they don’t have the same raw strength, and Small Teaching opens with the story of how the Kansas City Royals recently had a two-year run of success by employing small ball.

The Royals make for a good story, and the team and national media certainly gave credit to small ball, but Lang’s version of the narrative underplays how much of the Royal’s success either predicted the direction baseball would go (a light’s out bullpen) or zigged while other teams zagged (they struck out far fewer than any team in the league both years). In other words: small ball helped, but it didn’t tell the whole story.

In fact, this is an apt metaphor for Small Teaching.

Small Teaching is a book born from Lang’s years of giving pedagogy workshops, with the stated purpose of providing brief classroom activities, one-time interventions, and small modifications to course design that a) require minimal preparation or grading and b) improve the classroom experience. Lang’s intent is to make the book simultaneously worthy of reading in full and of keeping around as a reference work.

Spread across three sections, eight of the nine chapters are organized in the same basic structure. First Lang provides the theoretical and scientific bases for the chapter; then he offers models from his own classroom experiences and those of others; finally he concludes with the general principles that synthesize the theories and models.

There are a lot of good ideas in Small Teaching, including studies that confirm what I’ve observed in the classroom (e.g. the inefficiencies in a lot of assessment methods that are disconnected from both course goals and previous assignments) and others that I employ from years of tutoring that I hadn’t considered bringing to the classroom (the value of predicting and self-explaining for getting students to the “A-Ha moment”.) I was particularly taken by the first chapter on retrieving, which argues that while long-term memory is effectively unlimited, the ability to retrieve that information that improves with practice, and the chapters on motivating and growing (7 and 8), which focus on treating students as human beings who need to be stimulated and encouraged. The research Lang cites in these sections points to some of these issues being outside the hands of the professor, but there are still compelling reasons to not compound the problems.

I learned something in every chapter, whether about the science of learning (which is in the subtitle) or an idea, and frequently found myself jotting down the quick tips for later reference. Lang says that he is all for big changes like those Carnes proposed in Minds on Fire, but is more interested in easy but practical solutions. Like with small ball, the idea here is to maximize the resources at the disposal rather than calling for radical change. It is in this vein that chapter 9 (Expanding) breaks the mold by offering ways to transcend small changes and lists additional resources, suggesting that people commit to reading one new pedagogy book per year and one article per week from one of the suggested sites. Overall, the combination of practical recommendations with evidence from studies that demonstrate why these suggestions are beneficial made it a compelling read.

In sum: The greatest sign of this book’s success is the disconnect between what I thought while reading it and my notes. While I was reading Small Teaching the suggestions seemed profound; looking over my notes I found myself wondering why I didn’t think of these things earlier. Small Teaching is not a straightforward “how-to” book, but was an immensely useful to think with now that I am starting to put together my course schedules for the fall semester.

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.

This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

Winner of the 2015 Hugo award and a number of awards in China, Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem is an astounding work of science fiction and a meditation on humanity. The story starts in a way that is equal parts gruesome and banal, with purges of the Chinese academy during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. one of the professors killed for his scientific beliefs is Ye Zhetai, and his daughter Ye Wenxie is sent with other educated youths to a rural timber camp in order to be rehabilitated. There Ye Wenxie gets the chance to read a contraband copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and is relocated to the top-secret Red Coast Base where she languishes for decades. But it turns out that Red Coast Base is not merely a military installation: it is the first site on earth to receive communication from an extra-terrestrial civilization and the spot where someone figures out how to respond.

In the present day it is not so problematic to be a scientist, unless you count the rash of unexplained deaths of researchers working on the cutting edge of their fields. It is on account of these deaths that the police visit Wang Miao, not putting him under suspicion, but because they need to recruit a scientist to figure out what is going on. From there Wang Miao gets sucked into a world of intrigue that includes unexplained countdowns appearing on pictures he takes and a shadowy conspiracy. Central to the conspiracy, it seems, is the immersive Three-Body game.

The Three-Body game is an interactive virtual simulation of a world beset by problems that limit the progress of civilization. During stable eras civilization flourishes, but these are short and of unpredictable duration; during chaotic eras the length of days and nights are highly variable, with nights bringing bitter cold and days extreme heat. Non-essential personnel dehydrate during chaotic eras, while everyone else hides, preparing to reemerge or rehydrate at the start of the next stable era. Chaotic eras may be weathered, but does not usually destroy civilization—ends are augured by shooting stars in the sky. Too few and the world goes up in flames; too many (three, as it happens) and the world is buried under glaciers of frozen gasses.

Players compete to unlock the secrets of the world of Three-Body and to develop a calendar of the eras. But Three-Body also serves as a recruitment tool for a transnational group, ETO or Earth-Trisolaris Organization founded by Ye Wenxie and Mike Evans, the heir to an oil fortune who espoused what he called “Pan-Species Communism.” The group’s purpose was to revive what Ye Wenxie began at Red Coast Base: namely to make contact with extra-terrestrial civilization and to invite them to earth. There is a unity of purpose, but internal disputes over doctrine with regard to whether humans can be reformed or if the earth needs to be purified of its most invasive species. In either case, the extra terrestrials are coming.

The Three-Body Problem weds two types of stories that intersect through the game. One is that of Wang Miao, aided by the eccentric police office Shi Quiang, trying to solve the mystery of what is happening to the scientists, and, by extension, the nature of the Three-Body game, which appears to hold the key. The second is the psychological drama and spiritual awakening of Ye Wenxie that culminates in the revelation of the nature of Trisolaran civilization. The two stories are paced differently, but they are inextricably linked.

The most successful part of the book, in my opinion, is Cixin Liu’s meditation on human nature. There are plenty of examples of humans fighting aliens in fiction, but there is something to the idea that people romanticize the prospects of humans not being alone in the universe. Thus he writes in the author’s postscript:

There’s a strange contradiction revealed by the naïveté and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease. But when they gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligence exist, they must be civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct.

The Three-Body Problem ends up a curious balance: an optimistic story driven by characters utterly pessimistic about human nature. I was not overwhelmed by the depth of any of the characters and I only understood the very basics of the mathematical problems that underpin the science, but the philosophical rumination more than made up for any deficiencies, and I am very much looking forward to reading the sequels.

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I finished reading Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation, which breathes humanity into the Arab from Camus’ The Stranger, and am now reading Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.

Ghost Wars – Steve Coll

Two events on successive days in September 2001 changed the trajectory of modern Afghanistan. On the 11th, terrorists hijacked four planes in the United States, crashing two into the Twin Towers in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington DC. On the 10th, suicide bombers posing as reporters assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, the leading Afghan leader opposing the Taliban. Coll’s book tries to explain what led to these two events.

The story in “Ghost Wars” begins in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan government was in effect a client state of the Soviet Union, but plagued by civil war and insurrection, leading to a stream of military aid, which grew to a flood and finally a full-fledged invasion. As part of its Cold War strategy, the US worked in tandem with Pakistan’s ISI and the Saudi intelligence services to funnel resources to Afghan rebels.

The rebels were not a united front and aid was not distributed evenly. Pashtun mujahideen in the southern part of the country received the lion’s share, for a number of reasons. They were close by Pakistan and so easy to supply, as well as being the preferred allies or clients of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. At the same time, devout Christians saw fundamentalist Muslims as natural allies—fellow religionists in the fight against Communism.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the independent Tajik leader in the northern Panjshir Valley received the short portion, being harder to supply, attached to illegal opium smuggling, and not as fanatical in his religion. In years to come this choice would prove costly. The actions of the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in the last years of the Cold War kicked off a transnational, radical Islamist movement of which Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda was just one particularly virulent strain.

Coll tackles the monumental task of mapping the shifting currents of Afghan politics, including the rival alliances during the 1980s, the rise of the Taliban after 1994, and how these developments were related to the other political developments in the Middle East, but it is made even greater still by also charting how American interest in the region waxed and waned throughout the region. The result is both the story of the situation in Afghanistan and an enormously frustrating one of bureaucratic and political calculus in America. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1990s when the US administrations declared the Cold War won and Afghanistan a lost cause that was not worth engaging with. The result was that the US had effectively no presence in the region for years, until after the threat from terrorists trained in Afghan bases originally supported by the United States was beyond dispute.

There is too much in Ghost Wars to do a summary justice, but several themes stand out. One is the wide the blind spots of many US policy makers. These included the decision to cultivate militant religious fanaticism and to abandon the region after the end of the Cold War, both of which smacked of short-term thinking with little long-term planning. But equally frustrating were those issues that the US policy makers were concerned with. In the 1990s this meant a focus state-sponsored terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, to the exclusion of transnational actors and conventional attacks. The deliberations in Coll’s recounting, moreover, seemed to register too little awareness that the agendas of even American allies would not necessarily align with the best interests of the United States. The confluence, then, went to explaining how the United States lost touch with, let alone control over, this powerful movement it had helped set into motion.

A second, related, theme is the deep divisions between Afghan and Arab. Coll makes clear that the Arabs were outsiders in Afghanistan, sometimes tolerated, but never really accepted, which added a second level of complexity to the situation. Moreover, it was in this somewhat fragile situation where Osama bin Laden began his slow rise—tolerated because of his wealth, but a relatively minor player until the United States made him the face of transnational Islamic terrorism.

Ghost Wars is a deeply frustrating book to read, by turns making the reader feel for for the Afghans, the CIA, and becoming infuriated by the seemingly-obvious mistakes out of blindness, short-term thinking, and a host of other considerations. But it is also a compelling look at developments that continue to affect the world today even as it seems that US administrations (not simply the one in office today) continue to make some of the same mistakes of policy and rhetoric that characterized the US interactions with Afghanistan from 1979 until 2001. Radical Islamic terrorism is not a phenomenon that developed in a vacuum and the United States is complicit in its rise.

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I am now reading Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem and so far I’m finding it as good as it is touted to be.