Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan

It was as if Svetlana had two modes: abject submission and total rebellion.

The second installment in my month of reading more books by women was Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter, which had the extra virtue of being both by and about a woman. Svetlana Alliluyeva was Joseph Stalin’s daughter by his second wife and, as the title might suggest, lived her entirely life in orientation to the Soviet dictator.

In Sullivan’s telling, Svetlana was her father’s favorite in her earliest years, even while being kept at arm’s length. These two factors sheltered her from her father’s excesses, all the while ensuring that she grew up a believer in communist doctrine even after her mother committed suicide (though the fact that it was a suicide was kept from Svetlana). Svetlana’s own interests were largely smothered by the whims of her father—e.g. her first love was forbidden her not because of his many foibles but because he was Jewish; she was diverted from the study literature in favor of modern history. She simultaneously lived a privileged position and one of great restriction, as is to be expected of a Soviet princess. Nor did the situation change overmuch with Stalin’s death, when her fate, and that of her children, were largely determined by the status of the cult of personality around her family.

The turning point in Svetlana’s life, and the hook Sullivan uses in her biography, was her defection to the US in 1967 while in India to spread the ashes of her deceased Indian partner. Defection in the midst of the Cold War, however, did not change that she was Stalin’s daughter. His shadow remained long and dark as she settled in with such luminaries as George Kennan. Despite the problems Stalin continued to pose her, the only thing worse might be when people in general forget because a small number of people with the ability to make her life very difficult did not.

Svetlana was a complicated woman and, as often happens in biographies, Sullivan slips into the role of armchair psychologist. Most of her observations are at least logical. Svetlana, she believes, was deeply scarred by her parents’ relationship: Stalin was disdainful of women except as sexual objects, Nadezhda died when Svetlana was six and was a distant mother. Moreover, Svetlana had effectively no conception of money or income because of her unique position in Soviet society and a constant need to move. Most of all, Sullivan suggests, was a deep-seated longing for a stable family life that she never had and thus led to numerous assignations, four marriages and two other relationships that probably would have ended in marriage had situations not dictated otherwise. Svetlana was rarely settled, though, and had a constant need for change in home or situation that could turn on a dime—abandoning children in other countries if it came to that—with a personality that flew fickle from charming to despotic without notice.

Svetlana led an extraordinary life (she passed in 2011), but, with few exceptions, the portion of the biography leading up to her defection was stronger than her experiences in America. The latter portions tended to devolve into endless legal wrangling over publications and financial rights when Svetlana’s whims led to hardship. (Svetlana herself lived frugally, but moving frequently, exorbitant donations, and exploitation by her fourth husband, Wes Peters, at the behest of the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation depleted her savings.) Sullivan’s narrative is brisk, despite its periodic and probably unavoidable repetition, laying bare the difficulties Svetlana had holding onto the many relationships made and broken throughout her life and reproducing sections of her lively letters. I quite enjoyed Stalin’s Daughter and particularly appreciated Svetlana’s story as a different perspective on the evolution of the Soviet Union through the twentieth century.

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Next up, I’m in the middle of reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, the second in her Farseer Trilogy.

Wishful Drinking – Carrie- Fisher

Like real life is this other thing, and we’re always trying to determine what’s going on in this distant, inaccessible, incomprehensible place.

“What are they like in real life?”

“That happened in real life? Really?”

Stuff like that.

When I was working in Boston in 2008-2009 my then-boss went to a Carrie Fisher stand-up show, Wishful Drinking, giving it positively rave reviews. I missed my chance to see the show in Boston, but it has been hovering near the top of my list of books I’ve wanted to read ever since. A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a copy in my local library and so it became the first book in my month(+) of reading books written by women.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t a post where I write up reflections on a book with a personal anecdote, saving those comments for a final, reflective section, but if there is any book to invert this structure for, it is this one.

Wishful Drinking is memoir version of that stage show. These origins were particularly evident sometimes as it had a particular rhythm that felt spoken. It could be repetitious, with repeated phrases and punctuation designed to evoke the experience of watching someone perform. Mostly this worked; many of the pictures shown during the show are in the text, but it was also a constant reminder that this material would be even more spellbinding in the hands of a skilled performer.

But this is all prelude, without actually talking about what the book is. Wishful Drinking is a memoir that is candid about mental illness, fame, drug use, and the intersection of the three. Fisher doesn’t focus on a particular episode in her life, but ranges widely over her life and is by turns funny and heartbreaking. She is up-front about her problems, in terms of her personality and her mistakes, and, in the process, making light of the the discontinuities of her life. For instance, she talks at length about how her parents were famous and yet her family was decidedly backward in culture and her experience with becoming a sex-symbol at a young age.

Fisher has a relentless focus on her own experiences and issues without offering wider commentary in a way that might be construed as narcissistic. And yet I don’t think it is. Wishful Drinking is a slim and engaging read and Fisher holds her audience’s attention for as long as she wants it, whatever the medium. But neither is this memoir just entertaining fluff. The focus on mental issues is a poignant look into otherwise invisible problems that are only slowly becoming appreciated.

Along the way, Fisher delivers observation after observation about the intersection of class and fame, illness and profession. The one that leads this post stuck out because it is one that seems particularly important to the modern world where people’s professional lives are looking increasingly unlike they have in the past. College? Athletics? Graduate School? Academia? Writing? Each of these things are bandied about as processes from which one must eventually give up and join the real world. As though that isn’t what those people are doing.

Wishful Drinking lived up to my lofty expectations and I’ve added her more recent memoir about her experiences filming Star Wars to my list.

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Continuing with my plan to read more books by women, I finished reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter and have now begun reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin.

The Way to Paradise – Mario Vargas Llosa

What if the revolution became a business opportunity for a few rogues?

The Way to Paradise is a double portrait of outcasts, both of whom believe that their purpose is to help humanity transcend its limitations. First, Flora Tristán, the illegitimate child of a French mother and Peruvian father who grew up in poverty, excluded from her father’s inheritance. As an adult, Flora entered into a brutal and unwelcome marriage, bore children, fled to become a writer, publishing a memoir Peregrinations of a Pariah and a manifesto The Workers Union. Now, in the early 1840s, she is traveling around southern France in a vain effort to organize the working class. The second arc takes place some 50 years later on south pacific islands for which her grandson, the artist Paul Gauguin, has abandoned his wife and children in pursuit of people untouched by western civilization. This pursuit, combined with eccentric tendencies, increasingly debilitating syphilis, and only erratic income from his paintings leaves him on the margins of the colonial outpost. Paul is convinced that Western society is strangling humanity, which can only be liberated through artistic expression that recaptures paradise.

Despite certain similarities such as skepticism of religion and their obvious blood-relation, the protagonists could not be more different. Flora has revulsion toward sex, a consequence of her disastrous marriage marked by physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and dedicates herself to a cause: uniting workers for the betterment of the oppressed of society—men and women both. This crusade gets her labeled a potential subversive, though, and Flora is stymied by the police and the church, all the while playing a cat and mouse game with her estranged husband.

Paul, by contrast, is the estranged husband, leaving his wife and children in Copenhagen and abandoning his once-promising career as a stock-trader for artistic inspiration first in Brittany and then Tahiti. Sex, Paul believes, is central to his artistic process, and so he takes up a succession of (mostly young) lovers from the native women who he also believes will bring him closer to culture unconstrained by centuries of “civilization.” His values, moreover, remain the same as syphilis ravages his body, making him increasingly repulsive to behold (let alone touch). As Paul’s health declines, he continues to produce surreal and spectacular paintings and sculptures that capture the sights and sounds of the south pacific, slowly becoming received as critical masterpieces back in France.

The Way to Paradise is a challenging book with deceptively simple structure. The novel unfolds alternating chapters between these two stories, but is also richly textured because the alternating stories a) parallel the events in the other timeline as the two protagonists wend their way toward the grave, and b) consist simultaneously of the contemporary events and character memories sparked by those events. Both characters, moreover, are given arcs that are difficult to read. Flora consciously makes quixotic choices, and her pain, both chronic and inflicted, comes through in spades. Paul is also in pain from his advancing and advanced case of syphilis, but it is harder to be sympathetic when this is (largely) self-inflicted and he repeatedly abuses his treatments. The difficulty of his story, then is in watching his distressing sexual politics, in one graphic rape scene in particular, but also more generally in his obsession with personal gratification that is at such stark odds with the legacy of his grandmother.

I struggled with The Way to Paradise at times, finding Flora’s story on the drab side and being troubled by the treatment of Paul with respect to both the search for pristine civilization and his disturbing relationship to sex. Part of my problem, I think, is that I was reading too much of the author in Paul’s appetite, which led to me to presume that this artistic vision was being presented as accurate. I was hasty in this, and the juxtaposition of the two plots goes a long way toward undercutting Paul’s artistic vision, even while the sporadic reports we hear from his agent back in Paris demonstrate its success. Watching Paul spread his STD across the South Pacific remains difficult to read and feeds his monstrosity, but nonetheless is central to balancing the two portraits. Whatever is one’s obsession, paradise is unobtainable.

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I recently finish my first installment in my August of reading books by women, Carrie Fisher’s short, funny memoir Wishful Drinking and am now reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, George RR Martin

If George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the dominant representation of the medieval world in popular culture, then the Dunk and Egg chronicles, of which this collection of stories is a part, are his version of the Canterbury Tales.

I am exaggerating here a bit and, much as in the comparison of even a richly textured world like this one and our history, the fictional measures up too flat, but the premise is the same. Each installment is a short story in the adventures of Dunk and Egg—that is, famed knight Duncan the Tall and Prince Aegon of House Targaryen—of the sort as might have been written in the White Book of the Kingsguard. The three stories in this installment are The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword, and The Mystery Knight: the first records the fateful tournament that led to their pairing, and the two subsequent stories occur with Aegon as Dunk’s squire, even though he himself is just removed from that stage of his life and has barely more training than his now-charge had access to in his palace life. (His deep secret that threatens to reveal itself is that Dunk was never actually knighted, but escapes because there is no one who can refute his word, which, ironically, he can defend on his honor as a knight. Dunk believes in chivalry in a way few of his peers do, but knightly honor is a collective fiction that they all subscribe to, at least in public.)

These are small stories that are set almost a century before the events in the A Song of Ice and Fire and largely eschew familiar locations. While the official plot explanation for this is that Dunk wants to help make Egg better than his brothers by giving him experiences outside his privileged upbringing, it serves to build the mythology and thereby lend depth to the world. It is possible one could read these books without the other baggage, but, generally speaking, the stories fall into a sub-genre of heroic origin stories, those where the ending is known, but the path is not. The Hedge Knight particularly hews to this model where the tension is built by establishing that it takes place before the hero was fully formed and thus even knowing the ending it is clear that he is wildly over-matched from the outset.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms more than adequately whet my whistle for tales from Westeros—an unfolding saga that I’ve been reading since I was fourteen or fifteen. I am very much more on the “take all the time you need, George,” than this one.

I don’t like it as much as the main series, but mostly because, like other “legends” books for other settings, I find myself lacking the same attachment to the characters that hooked me in the first place. There is still a lot to appreciate—world building, action, morals—and one of the funniest moments for me was in how the best tourney knight was a man of inconsequential name who, at least in that context, was superior to the famous lords. He’d never be in the debate among the “great knights”, though, perhaps because of his birth, perhaps because he wouldn’t hold up on the battlefield (something not discussed), but more likely because he was just as apt to take a fall in whatever round promised him the best return in terms of gambling odds and prize money. His “honor” wasn’t part of the equation so much as making money. This, of course, scandalizes our honest Dunk, but further serves to raise questions and provide commentary about the reputation of martial prowess, both in the world of Ice and Fire and in the fantasy genre more broadly.

In short: the stories in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms are a pleasant and worthwhile installment in the growing Ice and Fire canon and if the next book out from this setting is a volume dedicated to the Targaryen years, I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with these two since they, by and large, are moral paragons in a world where those are so hard to find. (Really, their stories will be in the second volume of that history, but, as I said before, I can wait.)

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I am currently reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise, a torturous story about art and exploitation, civilization and noble savages and I can’t yet tell if it is profoundly disturbing, utterly brilliant, or both.

The Old Child and Other Stories – Jenny Erpenbeck

Note: the following are somewhat abbreviated thoughts on this book since I finished reading it almost a week ago, but only just now gotten a chance to jot down notes.

I was introduced to Jenny Erpenbeck through Stefan Zweig when an ancient historian lamented the latter’s renewed popularity—the former, he noted deals with comparable themes in the contemporary climate. The Old Child and other Stories is the second of her books, I’ve read. On the strength of The End of Days, which is on the short list of my favorite reads of this year, it is a little surprising that I was let down by this collection, but, then, the bar was set very high.

The titular story (novella by length) takes up the bulk of the book and was the strongest in the volume. The unnamed old child is entered into a boarding school, looking different from her peers. She is fourteen, but lumpy and boxy, looking old, and is ushered into communal life. After abortive attempts to fit in with her peers and the teachers, the old child adopts silence as a survival strategy, without memory of her past, stoic and unchanging while her peers grow up.

Ultimately, though, trying to reproduce the ambivalence, anonymity, and uncertainty that run through the pages to such great effect in this short summation does it a disservice. The Old Child can be read as a political parable about East Germany, and it introduces many of the themes that came to greater fruition in The End of Days. The writing in the other stories followed this same pattern: powerful, direct, vague, but the only story that I found memorable was Siberia, a short tale about a woman who returned from deportation in Siberia to find it occupied by a mistress.

Nothing in this collection changed my mind about Erpenbeck. Her prose is beautiful and even when the plot of a story was forgettable, the experience of reading it was not. The book, did, however, prompt me to think about how I read the written word in different formats. In particular, my ambivalence toward short stories is hardly a new experience and I do not think it coincidental that I thought the longest story in the collection was the most successful. I like how the extra space gave Erpenbeck the opportunity to develop themes in The Old Child, but I also suspect that this is a personal preference rather than a neutral evaluation.

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I have also finished George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms and am now reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise. As a general reading note, I have been doing very well in my goal to read more books by women in 2017, so I am adding midyear reading goal: every non-academic book I start in August is going to be written by a woman and since I have been building a collection of books I am particularly excited to read, including Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, this reading goal may be extended into September.

Embassytown – China Miéville

Counterrevolution through language pedagogy and bureaucracy.

Reading a new book can be like learning a new language: disorienting, confusing, and a little bit exhilarating. There is a bar to entry, but once indoctrinated there is immense reward.

This metaphor is more literal for some books than others.

Embassytown is a small outpost on the planet Arieka, isolated from the other Bremen worlds and on the edge of the known universe. It is a bubble of environment safe for human habitation surrounded by and utterly dependent on the native civilization, which provides them with food and advanced biological technology (biorigging), including that machines that provide the city with breathable atmosphere.

The human population of Embassytown is constrained by these features of their environment and their culture shaped by it, but even more so by the unique way they communicate with the Ariekei. The indigenous race of Arieka is peculiar by human standards, but enormous emphasis lies on three features: the giftwing (a limb that functions as an arm), wings (ears), and their double mouths. The Ariekei only perceive language with two parts: simultaneous speech from two mouths (one ‘cut’, one ‘turn’), and the thought behind that speech. Thus Language is a direct correlative of thought; lies are impossible in Language, figures of speech need to be embodied by something true, and Language created by non-sentient things such as computers are ignored. In response to these Linguistic impediments, the humans of Embassytown have developed an Ambassador class of dual-entities, usually artificially produced twins, whose sympathetic links are carefully cultivated to approximate a single individual, the one speaking the Cut, the other the Turn. Social engineering of this sort is necessary for the survival of Embassytown, but it has the downside of creating an artificial hierarchy in the community that not everyone accepts.

Enter the narrator and sometime protagonist of Embassytown: Avice Benner Cho, an Immerser (crew on interplanetary vessels) raised in Embassytown and now returned with the husband of her fourth marriage (an a-sexual partnership), a linguistic researcher. Avice has few ambitions upon returning, but becomes bound up in events in part because of her sexual liaisons with respected Ambassadors. There is a crisis brewing in Embassytown between the Ambassadors and the Bremen representative, but things become more tense when they are forced to accept the first Ambassador not born in Embassytown…and even more so when it turns out that the new Ambassador, EzRa, is not made of two closely-related individuals. When EzRa speaks in Language the Ariekei experience a narcotic-esque high that causes physical addiction. Like with narcotics, the addict develops a tolerance and requires ever more stimulation until it becomes fatal. Addiction threatens Ariekei society, but Embassytown has a symbiotic relationship with the Ariekei, so the changes to the hosts and EzRa’s fickle personality poses an even greater danger to its existence.

Embassytown is a brilliantly crafted exploration of linguistics, linguistic change, and cataclysmic fissures that erupt in a society when something this fundamental changes. At the same time, the book is a slow-unfolding political drama between humans that unfolds through the point of view of someone who is simultaneously a total outsider and at the center of the developments. It is, in so many words, fiendish in its complexity and brilliant in its achievement. Yet, as much as I appreciated Embassytown and as much as it made me think about language and societies, I didn’t love the plot or feel a particularly deep connection to many of the characters. While still reading Embassytown I suspected that I would conclude that its fundamental flaw was that the story took a backseat to the linguistic and anthropological thought-experiment and thus that priority diminished my enjoyment. Miéville does not fall into the trap, so both character and plot are carefully intertwined with the linguistic evaluations, but Embassytown nevertheless did not grab me the way many of my favorite books do, for reasons both native to the book and particular to me. At the same time, it sold me on reading more of Miéville’s work.

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I finished reading a short story collection by Jenny Erpenbeck and George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and have started Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise.

EQ in fantasy literature: Assassin’s Apprentice

I am breaking my formula with the title of this post. Ordinarily write-up or review posts are just title:author so as to alert readers to the nature of the post. In this case, I thought it better to foreground the direction this post is going to go.

Fitz is a is the bastard son of Chivalry, the former heir of the house Farseer, which rules over the Six Duchies. This status affords him some advantages, including training and lodging in the castle in Buckkeep where he is raised by Chivalry’s devoted retained Burrich, but also makes him the target of enemies based on nothing but his parentage. Fitz is thrust into the machinations at court, all the while secretly receiving tutelage from Chade, the secretive royal assassin.

All the while, the kingdom is under assault from the Red Ships from the Outislands, brutal raiders whose demands are for wealth in return for killing their captives. Refuse, as they will be returned as husks devoid of everything that makes them human.

Assassin’s Apprentice steers into a lot of fantasy tropes, some of them cringe-worthy. The food is bread and meat, with deep skepticism of fancy dishes, class is hierarchical and predictably ingrained in society, and names have a particular bluntness. Fitz is a preternaturally talented young man, with incredible, untapped, and untrained magical ability. His destiny is not totally within his control, but he is protected by teachers who look out for him—and one who may have other motives. I was underwhelmed by Fitz as a character, in part because of these tropes and in part because as I grow older I am increasingly bored by stories that hinge on the experience (and heroics) of teenage boys.

And for all that, I found myself marveling at Assassin’s Apprentice and thinking that it seemed distinct from other books in the genre, even twenty years after its release and without the explicitly trope-defying mode of some more recent books. The question is, why?

Most fantasy heroes or antiheroes are lauded for the cleverness, their skill at arms, or their intelligence. I am painting here with a very broad brush, but the colors are approximately accurate. When brawn and brains fail, the recourse is to luck or stealth and the world-systems often enable these pathways. There are famous friendships (e.g. Legolas and Gimli) and such relationships can be critically important, but they are not often the principle on which the story is constructed.

In Assassin’s Apprentice, Hobb does exactly this. Fitz is launched into a world of machinations where the things he excels at are the ones that are the ones that are repeatedly kept from him. As a result, he is repeatedly forced to rely on his relationships and the ability to get a sense for the situations he finds himself in. In other words, Fitz’ greatest strength is his emotional intelligence. This extends likewise to the magic system, ‘Wit’ when dealing with animals, ‘Skill’ for humans. In both cases, its greatest power comes from the practitioner’s ability to manipulate the senses and emotions of a target and multiple plot points rely on the consequences of this magic.

I don’t know whether Hobb’s building Assassin’s Apprentice around emotional intelligence was by design or a happy accident, but, in either case, I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

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I am now reading China Mieville’s Embassytown.

Thebes at War – Naguib Mahfouz

In Thebes at War, nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz transports the reader back to the waning years of the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt. The story opens at the court of Thebes c.1560 BCE where Seqenenra has made the momentous decision to revolt against Hyksos domination. The rebellion is short-lived. The Hyksos king Apophis raises his full army and kills the challenger, forcing the Theban royal family to flee to Nubia where, for ten years, Seqenenra’s son Kamose and grandson Ahmose make preparations to return. Most of Thebes at War is dedicated to Ahmose’s infiltration of the the kingdom and the subsequent, triumphal liberation of Egypt from the Hyksos.

It would be easy to be critical of Mahfouz’ liberties with Egyptian history in telling this tale, including that he manipulates the royal family tree of Thebes and inserts a Nubian exile where in there was common interest between Nubia and Egypt. But such dramatic license is almost always taken in historical fiction.

More interesting are the ways in which the past and the present are collapsed in Thebes at War. For instance, in terms of Egyptian geography where many of the locations (e.g. Ptolemais) that Mahfouz refers to in upper and central Egypt were Hellenistic Greek foundations. The more telling example, though, is the oft-repeated detail that the noble Egyptians are of dark skin and the evil Hyksos are white-skinned invaders who brutalize and oppress the Egyptians. Restoring Egypt for Egyptians is, for Mahfouz, the greatest moment in Egyptian history, and he conspicuously avoids mention of the founding of an empire under the New Kingdom. It is impossible to read Thebes at War (published 1944) as anything other than a parable about Egypt under the British Mandate.

I like Mahfouz’ style and am sympathetic to the position he takes in Thebes at War, but this is a book that I did not love. The style is formal and authoritative that seems designed to convey the gravity of the subject and therefore feeling more appropriate of a historical drama than a novel. There are some concessions, including a love story involving the Hyksos princess that challenges Prince Ahmose’s commitment to his Egyptian wife and people, but these had only so much emotional resonance in the book’s formal register.

I understand why Thebes at War won accolades when it came out. Its themes were directly relevant to its contemporary circumstances and Mahfouz’ design of a 40-book series of novels on Egyptian history helps construct the vision of an Egyptian national identity that has remained constant through millennia. This is obvious nonsense, but national illusions (often, delusions) are pervasive and powerful. Historiographically bankrupt a these stories may be, this should not diminish their political utility in galvanizing a population against exploitative colonial infrastructures and corrupt regimes. Nothing in this paragraph should indicate that I particularly liked Thebes at War, but looking at the novel at the intersection of literature, history, and contemporary politics at least makes the resulting conversation more complex and nuanced—even in a book that unfolds as straightforwardly as this one does..

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I’ve fallen a bit behind here because I haven’t been at my computer for the last few days and so have also finished reading Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. This morning I started reading China Miéville’s Embassytown.

But What if We’re Wrong – Chuck Klosterman

In other words, we’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.

What’s interesting is our communal willingness to assume most old stories may as well be true, based on the logic that (a) the story is already ancient, and (b) there isn’t any way to confirm an alternative version, despite the fact that we can’t categorically confirm the original version, either.

Extrapolate that phenomenon to forty years, or to four hundred years, or to four thousand years: How much of history is classified as true simply because it can’t be sufficiently proven false?

In this not-essay collection (as he asserts several times in the forward material), Chuck Klosterman tackles the topic of how we think about the past and how we think about the future, arguing that a) there are some seriously problematic thing about how we think about the former and b) we nevertheless need to think about the latter more like we think about the former. Klosterman’s operating principles are that there is too much information (and too many variables) for a person to grapple with all of them, that certainty as a way of stifling progress and inquiry, and that we are more likely to be wrong than we are to be right.

What ensues is a lengthy, frequently speculative thought experiment that runs the gamut from asking what musical artist will be passed down as the exemplar of Rock and Roll when there is only one Rock artist who is widely remembered, to asking famous scientists whether we have hit a point of diminishing returns in the field because universal constants like gravity have already been solved, to talking about historical conspiracies such as the Phantom Time Hypothesis. (This last one is the theory that certain epochs in human history are no more than agreed upon fictions, which make for fun discussion and better Onion articles. Klosterman includes lengthy quotations from conversations he had with cultural and scientific luminaries (some of whom would be counted as more expert than others), all building on the theme in question.

But What if we’re Wrong is not about answers, but rather questions, a book meant to be good to think with. In this regard, Klosterman is successful, even though the very nature of the book, combined with the conversational and journalistic tone, make some of the specifics of the argument rest lightly in my memory. I enjoyed reading the book and it has certainly influenced me in terms of how I think, but some chapters were stronger than others. I particularly liked the chapter “The World That Is Not There” that explores false certitude about historical events, while others at times wandered down rabbit holes that were relevant, but less successful.

Similarly, the cultural commentary in But What if We’re Wrong runs the risk of becoming rapidly dated, even if that ironically proves the core conceit worth considering. Perhaps the clearest example of this I noticed was the discussion of Rock and Roll that considers at length (and the dismisses) the possibility that the “true exemplar” is Bob Dylan. Nothing Klosterman writes is yet invalid, but his hypothetical future did not consider the possibility that Dylan would go down as a Nobel Laureate. Ultimately, though, this is a quirk of the topic that ought not discredit a book that deliberately avoids most polemical topics in order to make its own case that how we think about these issues ought to be considered in its own right—and Klosterman can therefore be forgiven for not necessarily following leads in a comprehensive way because to do so would simply be missing the point.

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I am currently reading Thebes at War by the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, a book that was intended to be part of a forty-part retelling of the whole of Egyptian history. Thus far I am not finding it a particularly successful novel, but what it reveals about conceptions of Egyptian nationalism is fascinating.

The Dogs of Riga – Henning Mankell

The amassing of facts and the establishing of a chain of proof was so very much more complicated against the shadowy backdrop of a totalitarian state

It is 1991 and the ripples of the momentous change that would sweep across Eastern Europe are beginning to be felt in the Baltic. The first wave crashes onto the Swedish shore when a lifeboat containing the bodies of two Eastern European men is found on a beach on a cold winter morning. The case is given to Detective Kurt Wallander, whose team traces the men to Latvia. Wallander closes the case with the aid of Major Karlis Liepa of the Latvian police, but when Liepa is killed upon returning to Riga, Wallander finds himself drawn into deadly competitions, between a condor and a lapwing in the police force, and between the police and nationalist dissidents in the country at large.

Since The Dogs of Riga is a mystery, I hesitate to go into too much detail about its plot, but, as the second in the Wallander series, I can focus on Wallander and why I found him to be successful as the central character. Wallander is poured out of a mold labelled “detective.” He lives alone, with an estranged wife, grown daughter, and father in a retirement home, and he wants to be done with police work. Wallander does not share some of the worst detective traits like drugs, alcohol, and a toxic personality, but isolating him lead to a similar effect. Equally important, Wallander is a competent detective, as everyone recognizes, and has been on the force a long time, but he nevertheless feels completely out of his depth, continually asking himself what his now-deceased partner Rydberg would do. These combinations of divergent characteristics, combined with specific details such as the love of classical music, give depth to Wallander and propel the story by making him simultaneously uncertain and capable—a perfect pairing in a mystery. The Dogs of Riga is the second book in the series, so it is possible that some of these character traits were established in the first one, but they were more than satisfactory as introduced here.

So, did The Dogs of Riga work as a mystery? The international nature of the story sometimes made it seem as though Wallander was being yanked through events rather than unravelling a mystery, and the ultimate reveal takes the form of villainous gloating over a “doomed” victim. Likewise, it is worth wondering how much the story relies on the limitations of technology to keep up the suspense. But for all that, the story had a way of sucking the reader in, getting caught up at the intersection of multiple different plots along with Wallander. It is fair to regard The Dogs of Riga as being of its time with regard to technology and more, but the specificity that Mankell writes into Baltic at the twilight of the Soviet Union makes the read that much more compelling. I can easily see myself reading another book in the Wallander series.

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Next up, I am almost through Chuck Klosterman’s But What if We’re Wrong, a piece of cultural criticism that tries to think about how we think about the past and applying those ideas to thinking about the future.