The Chosen and the Beautiful

Seeing him then, you knew he would remake the world for the object of his desire, but what a world it would be, and it wasn’t as if you could stop him. I knew Gatsby right then for what he was: a predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours around and put them out of true.

I knew that there was something empty in him before, but now I could see that it wasn’t empty all the time. Now there was a monstrous want there, remorseless and relentless, and it made my stomach turn that it thought itself love.

The Great Gatsby has the distinction of being the only novel I was assigned to read in high school that I actually enjoyed. I liked a few other books where I got to choose from a list, but, while I liked a number of the plays (at least as much as I ever enjoy reading plays, which are meant to be performed), I came out of English classes with a visceral hatred of almost every novel from our reading lists. That Lord of the Flies is a book without any redeeming quality is an opinion formed in that crucible that I carry with me to this day and I have such distaste for it that I will never give it another chance.

I would be hard-pressed to tell you what, specifically, resonated with me differently about The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. I like Fitzgerald’s prose, but that is a later assessment. I also fondly remember the playlist project that the teacher assigned for the project, but I suspect that fondness stems from my appreciation of the book rather than the other way around.

What I like about Gatsby now is how Fitzgerald captures the ambiance of a period. This emerges in the character of Gatsby, obviously, who cloaks his personal reinvention in the glamour of the jazz age in order to hide the unsavory underbelly of insecurity, selfishness, and criminality. But it comes out in other ways as well. For instance, none of the main characters in this narrow, interpersonal story is much more sympathetic than Gatsby—even the narrator Nick Carraway is a creep who is chased away from a woman he is pursuing by her brothers. Fitzgerald also nods at the deep inequities of the period with metaphors like the valley of ashes that could easily have manifested as magical realism in literature of another generation.

Gatsby‘s limited perspective as narrated by Carraway also makes it ripe for a retelling, in much the same way that Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Investigation inverted the Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

Such is the premise of Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. Gatsby, as told by Jordan Baker, with a healthy dose of magic, and a title that is a play on another Fitzgerald Novel (The Beautiful and the Damned).

I had fixed feelings about this book.

First, the good.

Jordan Baker is an inspired choice of narrator for this book. Fitzgerald leaves the women of Gatsby unrealized, and this is true of Jordan even more than Daisy. Jordan appears primarily as an object of Nick’s lust, and disappears for long stretches of the novel. However, this provides an opening that allows Vo to expand the story beyond the heat of one New York summer, giving life to Jordan and Daisy’s experience in Louisville where, among other issues, Jordan helps Daisy acquire a medicine that will induce an abortion.

Vo transformed Jordan in compelling ways. This Jordan is not a biological member of the Louisville Baker clan, but an adopted child taken from Tonkin under dubious circumstances. This background offer an explanation for Jordan sitting on the periphery of the story in Gatsby, while also giving a vehicle for Vo to bring up contemporary issues like immigration restrictions that go unmentioned in the original.

I also appreciated how much of the original story that Vo weaves into The Chosen and the Beautiful, which made the language and story appear as a genuine homage to a classic novel. I felt similarly about the frequent and varied sexual encounters. One of the questions in the supplementary materials at the back of the book prompted discussion about whether the book ought to be read differently because many of the main characters are queer. I found these elements to be a natural extension of the sensuality on display in the original. Fitzgerald’s characters only talk about heterosexual encounters and desires, but it seems like a small jump to add homosexual liaisons in a world drenched in sweat, sex, and alcohol. Non-hetero-normative sex is hardly a modern invention.

Other aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful gave me more trouble.

One of the biggest was how Vo incorporated magic into the story. Most of the magic in this novel is lightly done—ghosts that haunt family homes, charms against pregnancy, and simple tricks that ensure that unwanted guests can’t find their way into a speakeasy. Other magic, such as Gatsby having sold his soul and trafficking with the denizens of Hell or a demon’s blood tonic that is prohibited alongside alcohol, were closer to the heart of the action, but largely peripheral to the plot. Only one type of magic, an ability to bring cut-paper objects to life that Jordan has because of her foreign heritage, plays a significant role in the plot.

I went back and forth on these magical elements the entire time I read The Chosen and the Beautiful. On the one hand, they were a natural extension of the metaphors Fitzgerald used in Gatsby and the magic in this book might be read as a form of metaphor. On the other hand, though, I found that going from the light touch off metaphor, past magical realism, and into the realm of actual magic took me out of the era. That is, the sense that a house is haunted by the ghosts of the past works for me in a way that actual ghosts do not. Gatsby appearing as a man possessed, entirely consumed by his selfish desire for a married woman, works in a way that his being a literal envoy of Hell did not.

Hell was as expansionist as France or England—and Jay Gatsby, with his singular focus and ability to harness the power of human desire, was the perfect envoy to gain them a foothold in the world above.

Ultimately, I found that the magic resulted in one too many things going on, which, in turn, distracted from the really compelling ways in which Vo put The Chosen and the Beautiful into conversation with Gatsby on issues of immigration, class, and gender. There is still a lot to like, but I thought that this limitation kept the linguistic flourishes at the level of pastiche and kept Vo from quite achieving the book’s promise: reviving aura of Gatsby that so incisively commented on its time, but in an entirely new hue.

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I spent most of the first weekend after the end of my semester ended reading, with the result that I plowed through Jin Yong’s A Hero Born (a kung-fu movie in novel form), Harvey Levenstein’s Paradox of Plenty (a history of eating in the United States from 1930 to 1991), Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial (fantasy stories that resemble Calvino’s Invisible Cities in many ways), and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (a really satisfying spy story that I was willing to read despite wanting the recent TV adaptation because this is typically the only genre that I don’t mind such adaptations). I hope to write about a few of these. I am now working through two books, Jonathan Malesic’s The End of Burnout and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.

Lost & Found

Memoir is a genre that I mostly avoid. If one were to ask why I only read one or two memoirs a year, I would wave generally at the idea that the intimate details of someone’s life are not really of interest to me, but the reality is that I almost always enjoy the handful that I do read. The truth is that I enjoy process stories, so memoirs like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, David Chang’s Eat a Peach, and Dessa’s My Own Devices are very much my thing, and I can appreciate a good writing about heritage or society, as in Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost and Ta Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Maybe I just don’t like the idea of the genre. Clearly, the aversion isn’t borne out in practice.

When I first came across Kathryn Schulz’ Lost & Found through Keith Law’s podcast I initially hesitated. I knew Schulz could write—she has a Pulitzer for her feature on the risk of a catastrophic earthquake in the Pacific Northwest—but the subject of her memoir, losing her father and falling in love, seemed to follow all of the stereotypes of the genre that leave me cold when I look at lists of memoirs that critics deem “the best.”

Then Shulz started talking about her father. Before the podcast had finished, I had acquired Lost & Found as an ebook from the library.

Lost & Found is divided into three thematic sections that unfold in loose chronological order: Lost, Found, and, as one might expect from the title, &.

We lose things because we are flawed, because we are human, because we have things to lose.

Lost is, predictably, a story of loss. But it is also a story imbued with the deep love of family. This opening section is about her father, a Jewish immigrant who moved from Łodź to Tel Aviv and then to the United States. Schulz describes her father as an erudite, intelligent man with an insatiable curiosity about the world and the people who live in it. He was also someone who habitually lost his wallet and other simple objects. Her love for him radiates from the page as she weaves his story with the heartbreak of losing him and meditations on the existential imperative of loss.

Of all the things that can make finding something difficult—false positives, false negatives, moving targets, incorrect search areas, lack of resources, the vagaries of chance, the general immensity of the world—one of the thorniest is this: sometimes, we don’t really know what we’re looking for.

Found, a natural complement to Lost, is a story about falling in love, written as though it is a meet-cute.

The first meeting took place in the Hudson River Valley where Schulz was living, alone, when friends introduced them. C lived hours to the south and stopped by when she passed through on a separate trip. The first date stretched into hours. The second lasted even longer. Schulz says that she had already decided to marry C, despite their differences.

Found is both saccharine and overflowing with joy. Schulz fills these pages with the exhilaration of falling in love—the long dates, the thrill of discovering an unexpected shared love (country music, in this case), the dawning realization that you don’t want to spend your life with anyone else. And, of course, learning how to communicate in a relationship with another person who is, by the nature of existence, different from yourself.

All of this is also made all the more profound given that it happens concurrently with the loss of her father.

The astonishment is all in the being here.

& is the story of being, about joining lives and the choices that get made along the way. It starts with a discussion about the meteor that created the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula where C grew up, in a life that could hardly be more different from Schulz’s own upbringing suburban Ohio. It reaches its climax at a wedding in the same region.

Some published reviews of Lost & Found remark that Schulz’ proclivity for wonderment borders on the tedious, but it worked for me. Schulz is not impervious to the crushing weight of contemporary events—she describes the concern that C’s extended family might raise objections to their marriage at their wedding, for instance—but she fills page after page of Lost & Found with reminders to seek joy in being because loss is a certainty.

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I am expecting that I will write more of these posts (along with a number of other posts) now that the semester is coming to an end. Most recently, I finished Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, an Icelandic thriller. I am now reading Babylon’s Ashes—the sixth book in the series—which means that I am likely going to finish the last three books this summer.

Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time

I don’t like grades.

As a student, I oscillated between taking anything but superlative grades as a sign of my own failure and being utterly indifferent to grades as a secondary consideration to learning the material. Either way, grades were an imperfect motivator.

As a teacher, I am even more ambivalent about grades, which I see as something I am required to do in order to rank my students. I am always prouder of a student who struggles and reaches a breakthrough than the genius who coasts through the course, even though the latter receives the higher grade. My own experience as a student informs how I structure my courses, leading to policies that encourage regular engagement, choice in how to complete assignments, emphasis on the process over product, and often opportunities for revision. Each of these course policies marked an improvement, but they all retained the thing that I was in many ways least satisfied with: grades.

A few weeks ago a faculty development seminar introduced me to the broad strokes of Specifications Grading and since it seemed like the direction I have been moving my courses, I spent nearly an hour after the event jotting down preliminary notes for what that might look like in my course. At the end of that day I was intrigued, but needed more information. Over my spring break, therefore, I read Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Stylus 2014).

Broadly speaking, Specifications (Specs) Grading is a variation on a pass-fail, contract grading, and competency-based outcomes that ties course assignments to specific course objectives. This model, Nilson argues, has three major benefits. First, setting a high bar for “acceptable” work but giving opportunities for revision imposes rigor without making the professor into a jerk. Second, demystifying the grading process and offering flexibility reduces stress on the students. Third, eliminating partial credit saves time. Some model systems presented a fourth potential benefit of allowing teachers to give more of their limited attention to those students aiming for the higher grades.

In addition to an argument for its benefits, Specifications Grading serves as a guide to adapt traditional grading models to a specs system across two broad categories: outcomes and assignments/rubrics.

If you’re anything like me, you course outcomes won’t work for specs grading. Nobody ever really taught me how to write objectives so what I have in my syllabuses focus on what the students will receive. The conceit of an objective might be well-intentioned, but if the students can’t demonstrate what they are learning through the assessments, then it won’t work. Often this just means a subtle, but significant shift:

  • Students will gain a broad understanding of US history since 1877.
  • Students will be able to identify the major events of American history since 1877

Each of these objectives would then be demonstrated specifically by one or more course assessments. In Nilson’s model, some of these course objectives would correspond to basic, minimal standards like the one listed above. Students who achieve proficiency at those lower-level objectives would be able to pass the course with a C, while students at aiming for a B or A would have to also demonstrate proficiency at objectives that involve more complex skills.

The second part step involves developing detailed one level rubrics that explain everything that the assignment must have to be accounted “proficient.” Now there will be some variability in what that standard should be, but Nilson recommends building the rubric from everything you would expect to see in a roughly B+ assignment. When it comes time to grade the assignments, then, the assessment becomes a binary yes/no, along with some comments that might be used if, as Nilson recommends, the students get the chance for revision.

I have traditionally had an antagonistic relationship with most rubrics because most of the rubrics I have been required to use were a particularly poor match for how I wanted to grade such that someone who received 9/12 on the rubric was solidly in the B+ range according to how I grade. However, I found myself coming around to this model of rubric because it removes the splitting hairs and partial credits in favor of either showing that the students achieved proficiency or did not. The grade translation, in turn, does not come from an individual rubric but from how many assignments in which the student achieved proficiency.

and have been jotting down notes on how I can transform my existing courses with minimal disruption to anything but how I grade.

For my general education classes the assignments might look like (based on a syllabus for this semester):

To receive a “C” in this course (linked to the lowest tier of objectives)

  • Participation [in various forms] of 75%
  • Objective quiz score of 75% [I allow retakes and drop a quiz score, so I have exactly 2 students who are not clearing this bar right now]
  • Journals 10/15
  • Papers 5/5 completed, but not to “proficiency” with historical essay writing

To receive an “A”:

  • Participation of 95%
  • Objective quiz score of 90%
  • Journals 13/15
  • Papers 5/5 to proficiency
  • Completing a final project

The “B” range would obviously fall somewhere in between these two levels, with a “D” a little below “C.” The numbers might be off a little bit, but I would calibrate them based on what my final grade sheet looks like.

For my upper-level classes that are writing intensive and where the students complete three longer essays, a “C” may require revising one of the three essays to proficiency, “B” requires two, and “A” all three. For all of these classes, I am also toying with the idea of creating a list of “recommended” books for the course and allowing any student the opportunity to choose and review one of these books in place of one “proficient” paper—with guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable review, of course.

Specifications Grading also introduced me to a different paradigm to the student-teacher relationship. Students are not customers, Nilson argues, but clients. Specifications grading takes into account that different clients are going to aim at different outcomes. It makes the expectations clear for each tier and lets the client choose which package to pursue. In Nilson’s telling, this allows the teacher to dedicate the most energy to the students most invested in the course by dint of aiming at the top tiers.

This model is tempting given how frustrating it can be to expend disproportionate amounts of energy on reticent students, but it was also the point that left me most uncomfortable with specs grading. One common proposal in the sample syllabuses Nilson provides is setting not only different levels of proficiency, but also different assignments for the different tiers. I incorporated that into one of my sketches above for the final projects, but even there I have been wondering whether the non-project option ought to require an objective test passed at a certain proficiency since under specs grading—something I’m not wild about given that 1) I am skeptical about the value of such objective tests, period; 2) writing such a test would hand back some of the savings in time; 3) keeping track of who is doing what sounds like a lot of bookkeeping.

However, my discomfort with the different assignments for different levels stems is also philosophical. That is, it feels to me like saving time and becoming a better teacher for the invested students involves allowing students aiming at a “C” to fall behind. The counter, I think, is that this is in fact the point. The way I imagine this grading scheme working in my classes, those students would still be expected to attend and complete assignments for the whole semester and gives anyone who wants it the opportunity to achieve every objective. But if students are not interested, then it empowers them to put their energies elsewhere (courses, hobbies, work, whatever). In other words, the client model simple acknowledges the reality that teachers cannot force people to learn anything they don’t want to learn, particularly at the busiest time of the semester.

I have been thinking about the process as setting two different benchmarks: the “C” level for minimum objectives and the level of proficiency for complex objectives where “A” reaches it in every category and “B” reaches it in some. Specs grading dispenses with the murky ambiguity of partial credit where the “C” student allegedly achieved 75% of a given course objective. Thus, it isn’t the “C” student doing less work so much as they hit one set of objectives, while I am vouching that the “A” student has completed more and more complex work that allows me to certify that they have reached proficiency in the others—I can hope the “C” student developed in these other categories, but the grade makes no claim that they did so.

At this point I am ready to dive into specs grading head first, but I’m also sure that whatever system I come up with in the abstract will require adjustment once I get into a semester. So here’s the question for those of you who have used specs grading: what should I be on the lookout for? Is there anything I’m missing?

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I keep a list of pedagogy resources along with links to write-ups I have done on this blog.

Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Black and white image of the cover of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home.

On January 6, 2021, a crowd people stormed the US Capitol Building in order to stop the certification of the electoral votes that made Joe Biden president. This was the result of actions meant to undermine faith in election and polarization heightened by the present media ecosystem, but it was also the culmination of decades of growing extremism among white nationalist and anti-government militia movements. That growth is the subject of Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

While there has been a pronounced strain of separatism in the United States as long as there has been a United States, Belew identifies the modern iteration in the resolution to the Vietnam War in the 1970s. White power was at the heart of the militia movement from its inception, but she argues that the perceived betrayal in Vietnam prompted a very specific metastasis beyond bog-standard racism. It prompted people like Louis Beam to form militia groups with the stated intent of continuing the war. Naturally, they found common cause with groups like the Knights of the Ku Klux Klax that David Duke founded in 1975.

In these early ears, the militia movement claimed to be fighting against insidious forces and on behalf of the United States. They were soldiers taking the war into their own hands. However, Belew traces how this resentment and frustration transformed over the course of the 1980s until their orientation had turned 180 degrees. By the start of the 1990s militia groups operating around the country–and not merely at places like Ruby Ridge–saw themselves as soldiers in a war on behalf of white people against the United States, which they referred to as the Zionist Occupation Government. She concludes with a chapter on Timothy McVeigh and his terrorist attack in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, though that incident clearly did not put an end to the movements Belew documents is documenting.

At this point, I feel like I need to offer a caveat. I finished Bring the War Home a month ago and while I take copious notes on the books I read for “work” take only haphazard notes on books that I read for “fun.” This book technically falls in the latter category even though parts of it will undoubtedly make its way into my US history classes. I meant to write this post within a day or two of finishing the book, but it turns out that writing here is a lower priority than, say, my classes or work on academic publications. All of this is to say that the following analysis is going to be more a reflection on what I saw as a couple of key themes and less an actual review.

The first thing that stood out to me in Bring the War Home was how Belew traces multiple loosely-connected organizations joined by a common sense of purpose and sometimes, marriage. The various groups saw themselves as part of the same conflict and Belew shows how they used the early internet to support one another, but the absence of a hierarchy meant that quashing one did nothing to slow the spread of the movement. In fact, efforts by the federal government to address the militia movement in places like Ruby Ridge only galvanized other cells and sympathizers. This part of the book sometimes meant trying to keep track of a web of names, but it effectively highlighted the challenge of addressing the militia movement.

Second, perhaps the most striking chapter in Bring the War Home was “Race War and White Women.” In this chapter, Belew shows how white women were of central importance to the militia movement. That is, they claimed to be defending the virtue of vulnerable white women who, in turn, were expected to bear white children. These vulnerable white women were both an abstract ideal, rather like love interests in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and people who played a concrete role in spreading the militia ideas. In the case of a the Fort Smith sedition trial in 1988 that ended with the jury rendering a not guilty verdict, two of the white women on the jury subsequently entered into public relationships with defendants.

(One of the key witnesses in that trial went on to murder three people at Jewish centers in Overland Park, Kansas in 2014.)

Bring the War Home is a terrifying book in many ways. It brings into focus a strain of extremism in the United States that has been steadily growing in prominence in the past few decades. This movement coalesced around racism, anti-semitism, and christian identitarianism, took advantage of new forms of media new media, and, as Belew put it on the first anniversary of January 6, ruthlessly seizes any opportunity. And yet, while these militia movements have themselves shed blood in their war against ZOG and fully intend to do so again, I can’t help but feel that their presence reveals a bigger and more insidious danger. The militia movement emerged from a specific knot of beliefs, but its growth and evolution stems in no small part from how many people not directly affiliated with any tentacle of the movement express sympathy for their positions. That is, the militia movement won’t win its war through force of arms, but through a steady campaign of radicalization that plays on preexisting prejudices. The fact that their ideas can be found elevated into nearly every level of government demonstrates that it is working.

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Crunch time on getting my book together meant giving almost all of my spare time to that, but I have still been reading a little bit every day because it helps me feel normal. Since my last one of these posts I finished Trevor Strunk’s Story Mode, a literary analysis of video games that had some interesting things to say about the evolution of games and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, which had a gift for rich descriptions of place and with a clever story structure but that I ultimately found disappointing in terms of the characters and how the plot was written, James S.A. Corey’s Nemesis Games (Expanse, book 5), and S.A. Chakraborty’s Empire of Gold. I intend to write about the latter two series at some point. Currently, I am reading Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne.

Sourdough Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Train to Istanbul

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps because they were.

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

The Book of Form and Emptiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Revision

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germano establishes what he means by revision early on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gun Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Let Me Go

The cover of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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