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March Reading Recap

I finished three books last month, another very busy stretch in a particularly busy semester. I only finished the third because of spring break.

Exile and the Kingdom, Albert Camus
Five short stories by Camus, none of which share characters, form, or narrative structure, but all of which are linked by the anxieties of modern man. With one main exception, each story deals with the interaction between people and society, but from the margins. “The Adulterous Woman” escapes her cold marriage in the dark of night in order to experience the desert, “The Artist at Work” seeks refuge from the press of admirers and friends, and the schoolteacher in “The Guest” finds himself at odds with both the state and the rebels when he tries to express humanity. The stories were engaging, thoughtful, and melancholy, but if you like Camus they are worth reading. The settings are themselves antiquated, but the messages all-too relevant.

The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino
Cosimo Piuvasco, heir to the Barony of Rondo, was twelve when he last set foot on ground. He rebels against the rule of his parents and the culinary monstrosities prepared by his sister and takes to the trees, where he lives out his life, corresponding with intellectuals, protecting the fields, hunting, and carrying on love affairs. The story is told through the narration of Cosimo’s younger brother, who relays the curiosities of his brother’s existence. Calvino weaves in elements of Aristophanes’ Clouds, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and a myriad of other adventure tales in order to relate this fanciful story of arboreal existence. This is a delightfully whimsical story that didn’t contain the weight or gravitas of a lot of other books, but I enjoyed it all the more for it. The Baron in the Trees was probably my favorite read of the month simply because it was just so much fun to read.

The Deaths of Tao, Wesley Chu
The second book in Chu’s series, of which I reviewed the first book, The Lives of Tao, here. Chu keeps most of the trademark elements that made the first one so much fun to read, including the pacing and the fight scenes, but complicates the story through structure, content, and characters. The story is set several years past the events of The Lives of Tao and it is no longer the fairly straightforward hero’s journey archetypal story since, for the most part, the heroes have come of age and are now down to the mature task of saving the world…and, of course, things aren’t going particularly well on that front. The Gengix have now taken to conducting experiments in order to make life on earth conducive to their needs, as well as becoming ever less subtle in their methods. I preferred the first book, I think, not because it was worse–by most measures it was a better more sophisticated story–but because it was not as refreshing as the first one was. I still enjoyed it a great deal and look forward to the conclusion of the trilogy.

Since March ended, I read a collection of stories called The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Next up is Drew Magary’s preapocalytic novel The Postmortal.

Two Ancient History Books from 2014/13

Being alive today means that one usually has little spare time because the small things (like Twitter!) seep into every available crack. Being a graduate student means having less, and being at the dissertation stage means that there is a constant pressure to write–besides, having passed through the comprehensive exams scarred, but in one piece, means that one should be able to focus the reading toward that eventual product. As much as it was exhausting and is designed to traumatize students into building their personal library of previous scholarship, there is something nostalgic about the process where your primary responsibility for months on end is to read history books and think about them. I’ve been carving out time to read fiction since passing through my comprehensive exams and I am trying to clear enough time to read one or two recent history books in my field or related fields every month. While I would like to get to a point where I do one a week, alternating between my own and other fields, I am right now trying to use this minimal time to read books not directly related to my dissertation, but within the field of Greek History (loosely constructed) that are a) recently published and b) connected to my dissertation either thematically or because they fall just outside the chronological parameters of my study.

So far I have only had minimal success in holding myself to these goals, but between this and my dissertation research, I want to endorse two recent ancient history books.

1) NaoĆ­se Mac Sweeney, Foundation Myths and Politics in Ancient Ionia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

The most commonly known account for the foundation of the Ionian cities (on which I am doing my dissertation) is that of the Ionian Migration, where a group of plucky Greeks under the leadership of Athenian princes sail to what is now Turkey and steal that land from the inhabitants. One might say that this is a myth in line with Western Civilization. The problem is that each of the cities had its own foundation myth and the region had another set of foundation myths, namely the war against Melie, that bound them together. In this book, Mac Sweeney evaluates these “native” Ionian myths by way of an exploration of Ionian identity. She also makes the argument that the Ionian Migration is a comparatively late myth, sponsored as part of Athenian hegemony over the region because it justified Athenian control.

There is a fairly large historical backdrop against which Mac Sweeney writes, but I think that the stories themselves, which are the subject, are understandable without needing to know it and she brings in relevant information when discussing, for instance, the Ionian League. I particularly appreciated the way in which Mac Sweeney was able to reorient the discussion about Ionian toward appreciating the region on its own merits through these aspects of Ionian identity.

2) Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

Mairs offers a reevaluation of the archeological evidence for the Graeco-Bactrian and Graeco-Indian kingdoms of the Hellenistic Period through a post-colonial lens. These kingdoms, which are in what is now Afghanistan and the surrounding regions, have long been known about, but difficult to understand because there are only intermittent archeological digs and coins and inscriptions as evidence. No literary histories exist and it has long been assumed that the kingdoms consisted of Greeks in exile in Central Asia, with discussions of whether the inhabitants were Hellenizing natives, Greeks going native, or Greeks. In part, these ideas emerged because it was thought that Bactria was wild and untamed, even by the standards of the rest of Persia, which those same scholars often considered “barbarian.” Mairs quite reasonably argues that this is an inappropriate way to evaluate this region, and suggests both that Bactria operated as any other Persian satrapy and that hybridization and/or creolization, with the creation of a distinct Helleno-Bactrian identity, is a much more likely scenario than a stark binary between Greeks and non-Greeks.

There is a lot of archeological evidence in this book, but Mairs does a nice job of explaining trends in research and past historical debates in an approachable way. I often found myself nodding when she discussed the problems of locating identity in a region where there were official languages of inscriptions (often Greek or Aramaic), because it is probable that Ionia contained relatively large populations of people who were considered non-Greek, but who likely spoke Greek and who probably would have conducted official business–the sort of business that could be recorded on an inscription–in Greek. The problems of this sort are starker in Hellenistic Bactria, both because the site is further from a place where the majority of the inhabitants spoke some sort of Greek and because there is less in the way of surviving materials, but they are familiar nonetheless.

Hawaii 5-O and “grading shows”

The anatomy of a grading show (defined as a show to have on in the background while grading) is a funny thing. For me they fall into two broad categories. The first are old and familiar shows. The writing, the stories, and the rhythms are familiar. They take no brainpower to watch while marking bluebook exams or multiple choice tests. The second also requires minimal brainpower, but because they are a sitcom or procedural for which the rhythms are familiar, even if the specifics are not. If the show proves to be too captivating then its purpose falters because grading slows down. Usually, this means that the show has to be something I want to see, but far, far on the crummy end of the spectrum.

This current batch of grading has been me watching the reboot of Hawaii 5-O. I’m most of the way through the first season and have a few thoughts on this curious show.

  1. Hawaii 5-O is a show about a special law enforcement task force in Hawaii, led by a former Navy Seal and consisting of outsiders and outcasts. Among other things, their leader, Steve, has returned home to help uncover the cause of his father’s death.
  2. The writing on this show are pretty bad. It is aiming for fast-paced, cryptic, and yet direct. The result is that everyone seems to have inexplicable skills and knowledge, not to mention an extreme unevenness to the plot. Rob Morrow, one of the stars of Numbers, gave an interview a few months ago where he talked about the tendency of that show to be overwritten. It was insufficient for details or information to be conveyed by visual imagery or physical acting alone, but had to be said three times. Morrow mentioned frustration with this and how he used to try to create a script that was more spare and efficient and therefore elegant. Hawaii 5-O has this same problem in spades, with most of the excess dialogue also being bad dialogue.
  3. The superficial premise of the show is pretty people in paradise meets law enforcement, not unlike, for instance, Burn Notice. However, for this core concept, there is a lot of paradise and, aside from the stars, very little in the way of pretty people. The show is far more interested in shoot-outs and set-piece action scenes than in scenery.
  4. Throughout this episode, I’m trying to figure out what the core of the show is. Burn Notice has the tension between patriotism and his being blacklisted (with a dash of family dysfunction). Numbers has the good-hearted rebuilding of sibling relationships and the bringing of family together. NCIS has its goofy office hijinks. This show has aspects of all of these tensions and is desperately trying to recreate these formulas that worked (at least to some degree) in past shows, without actually pulling it off because it does some of all of those. There is a family vendetta, a blacklisted cop, another who is having a custody spat with his ex-wife with whom he would like to get back together. Then there is the extra seasoning of everyone being trigger-happy, which seems to be trying to cover for the failures elsewhere.

    This violence also manifests itself in that the main characters are all-too willing to blatantly disregard most laws, including to torture suspects. The characters sometimes allude to this in the sense that the leader of the team is not himself a cop. There is too much else going on, including that these law enforcement officers are always in a rush to get to their next act of sanctioned vigilantism, but they seem to want the core of the show to be tension of having a Seal in a cop’s job. Of course, asking those questions requires better writing and a larger cast, so Hawaii 5-O is happy to use everything as a throwaway, moving along quickly enough that maybe nobody will notice.

  5. What follows from the last point is that there is a visual representation of a militarized law enforcement that takes the stance that almost everyone else is a victim waiting to happen. Frequently, this results in stern talking-tos. At most there are token references to people outside of the main cast of the show, passing mentions of that they should not be discharging weapons in public spaces, and remorse when the “good guys” cannot save someone.

The Great British Baking Show

Through the magic of the PBS website I just finished watching four episodes of the latest season of the Great British Baking Show (aka the Great British Bake Off), a show that I had never paid much mind to, despite it utterly consuming my twitter feed for the past two seasons. Now I’m hooked and the fact that there are another forty five episodes out there is going to eat at me as though I’m going through withdrawal. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

The show is an amateur baking competition where professional judges winnow down a field of candidates through a series of difficult challenges and demands. Each week has a theme and the format remained the same throughout: first, the bakers create their signature bakes where, within the bounds of the assignment, they are free to create whatever they want to do to show off; second, they have a technical challenge, where they all receive the exact same recipe and competed to do that successfully; finally, they have a showcase where they are given a specific thing to make and had to go over the top in terms of performance and presentation. In each case, the judges weigh the offerings based on the presentation, uniformity of size, texture, taste, and flavors. At the end of each episode, one baker is dismissed and one baker is named as the best baker.

As in any cooking show, the challenges are compounded because the contestants are barely given enough time to complete the tasks, which is doubly tough when many of the recipes require time for leavening and proofing, and others also require the dough to remain cold right up until the time the proofing starts and then must be proofed at room temperature. Also like other cooking shows, the contestants are encouraged to get creative with ingredients and flavors, but, unlike the American shows I’ve seen, here the contestants seemed encouraged to bring ingredients from their own gardens or jams that they made. Clearly, I don’t know all the rules that they are bound by, but there appeared to be far more liberality with ingredients here than in other shows.

Everything listed above, as well as the skill and inventiveness of the contestants, is what makes the show engaging and watchable, but is the whimsy and congeniality that make the show addictive. There is the whimsical veneer–the bakers bake in a white tent erected in a bucolic, verdant field and the music is straight out of a princess musical, but also a more substantive warmth to the show. The bakers are in competition with each other, yes, and there is always an element of worry and side-eyeing when confronted with an unknown recipe, but, frequently, this is borne of trepidation and a tendency to see what the others are doing in order to emulate them. Perhaps it is the nature of baking, but there is also time for them to observe their competition in a way that most cooking shows don’t offer. There is also no cutthroat element where the contestants snatch away ingredients. In fact, this is the only food show where I have witnessed contestants giving each other a hand, including one instance where the people who had finished banded together to help another contestant finish plating her baked goods.

This atmosphere also carries over to the judging. The judges are, if anything, more demanding than the judges in other shows I’ve seen and they are rating the entries on more qualifications. Yet they are nicer. The judges do not simply declare something a failure, but try to identify what went wrong in the process of creation and will give credit for whatever does work.

The Great British Bak(ing Show/e Off) is a charming show and has inspired me to bake more…as though I needed more inspiration on this or more distractions from my dissertation. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain describes bakers, albeit bread bakers than the assorted bakings of this show, as wackos and weirdos who manage, through strange alchemy, to conjure amazing things to eat. I can’t really dispute this characterization, but, watching this show, one has to conclude that bakers are just nicer than cooks, too.

February Reading Recap

I have a chapter due soon and should really be working on it, but have decided to write up this post as a writing exercise anyway. I read five books, four fiction, one non-fiction last month.

A Curse on Dostoevsky, Atiq Rahimi
Rassoul is an Afghani who studied Russian literature in St. Petersburg during the Russian invasion. Now that Afghanistan is torn between rival warlords he is in Kabul and, in the opening of the novel, kills Nana Alia, who has been prostituting his betrothed, Sophia. As he kills Nana Alia, Rassoul thinks about Crime and Punishment and, through the next weeks of his life, lives out the plot of Dostoevsky’s novel. Some of the individual characters in the work, including family members, friends, and a variety of Taliban members, some of whom support Rassoul, some of whom want to kill him for knowing Russian, were engaging, but the overall plot of the story was not particularly engaging. Perhaps if I had read Crime and Punishment I would have had different feelings.

Inverted World, Christopher Priest

Reviewed here, Inverted World is a dystopian science fiction novel from the 1970s that revolves around the questions of technology, civilization, and relativity in the perception of others. At no point did it feel like a spectacular novel, but it also moved quickly and built toward a really satisfying conclusion. The longer I think about this one, the more likely it is to appear on my list of favorite novels (albeit likely toward the end).

The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa

The Jaguar, the Slave, and the Poet are classmates in their final year at Leoncio Prado Military academy in Lima. They are not friends, though in their first year they banded together to help each other. The Poet manages to keep others away from him with his glib tongue and willingness to write letters. The Jaguar is a vicious leader. The Slave is viciously mocked and harassed by his classmates, unwilling and unable to defend himself. The jokes, pranks and mockery always had a sadistic edge, but tensions escalate after a copy of a test is stolen in the middle of the night and the cadets are confined to the base. Someone squeals, someone dies–and the tension is not only about resolving who did it, but why.

the Time of the Hero was a scandalous book when it was published in 1963 and Llosa does a good job of keeping the reader guessing throughout, even as the characters, unknown to each other, are bound by mutual acquaintances on the outside. The first half of the novel dragged, but it really picked up in the second half. The book it most resembled was Lord of the Flies, which was probably part of the reason that it took me so long to get into it (I hated LotF in high school). However, The Time of the Hero is more complex and sophisticated, building on how the characters got into the school in the first place and offering the academy as a microcosm of Peruvian society–in which the most honest, most morally upright characters suffer for their goodness.

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher

My favorite of the month, Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel about the contemporary state of the humanities. Jay Fitger is a creative writing professor at the fictional midwest school, Payne University. The English department is being further staffed by adjuncts, its building is under renovation with them still inside, and Fitger’s students are in all manner of straights, for which he writes them an incessant stream of recommendation letters. More than three thousand of them. Fitger’s letters are glib, impertinent, sarcastic, and marginally focused, but impeccably polite. From the tone of his letters, particularly to repeat recipients, there is a sense that Fitger is by nature a contrarian and not easy to deal with, but the letters are funny for an outsider to read and true to form about much of the circumstances of modern academia.

Going into reading this book, I feared that Schumacher would make Fitger come across as too cynical, academia too fully broken, and the presentation of his relationship with students and colleagues too much of the worst stereotypes about academics. Where she succeeds most is in making Fitger an absolutely flawed, not particularly pleasant person who wants the university to survive, wants the best for his students, and generally has his heart in the right place even when there is someone he doesn’t like.

God and Man at Yale, William Buckley

Admittedly, a strange choice for a fun reading book, this is Buckley’s diatribe against the standard moderate-left consensus of the university. In it he argues that, by teaching the values of economic collectivism and religious atheism, Yale had violated its founding mission and the wishes of the alumni base. He starts with the fundamental position that free-market economics and Christianity are in all ways good things for civilization and continues into the argument that “academic freedom” should be governed by the free market. Namely, Buckley believes that there should be the liberty to research however the professor wants, but that, so long as their research is being funded by teaching students, the professors must only teach the values and ideas sanctioned by the board of trustees. So long as the professor has the option to resign, then he says mandating particular curricula does not violate academic freedom.

Buckley has some interesting and sometimes valid points scattered throughout this book, including that the idea of academic freedom blurs between liberty to teach and to research without interruption, but three points jumped out at me. First, he names graduate instructors by name and dresses them down for what they taught. The thought of this terrifies me in this new age of social media. Second, I largely disagree with Buckley on the issue of Christianity versus Atheism, but it is also interesting to note how these cultural issues vary in the sense of us against them and suspect that one could remove atheism, add islam and republish it with minimal changes so that it would appeal to people today. Third, I couldn’t help but note that Buckley doesn’t have a problem with a standard convention that will indoctrinate young people. His major problem is with what that convention is.

Noted above, I have a chapter due, so whatever I read next will have to wait. Right now I’m not sure what that will be.

A history major

Among the disinterested, the diligentsia, wanderers and partiers, and the assorted other types of students who fill out the course rosters for American history surveys, the almost-contemptuous hard-sciences student always stands out. This course is a requirement for graduation, so this student is usually past his or her (usually his) first year of school and holds the simple, soft lecture-and-discussion course in contempt. This course is of no value to this student, but, far from a passably interesting digress, it actively taking away from the higher, more profitable calling of science. This is a description of a type of student, not anyone in particular and thus may err toward caricature, and I am not that interested in here laying out another banal defense of the humanities when this stock type has a value system that dismisses the pursuit as frivolous. There is a place and a person for this defense, this is not it and I am not that person. Instead, I want to talk about the history major itself.

One of my favorite and least favorite things about history courses, particularly in pursuit of a history major in college, is that it is one of the few tracks that, ideally, dispenses with most or all prerequisites. Every other discipline requires a base level of knowledge that must be built upon at each stage of the progression and it is only after receiving these advanced skills that one is able to branch out into a variety of courses at about the same level. This evolution is necessary to do history and to progress as a historian, but the necessary skills for doing a major in history are reading and writing, which is to say they are almost universally already met by college students. How well a student performs after that point depends on his or her ability to take notes and willingness to actually study. The same is true for other disciplines, too, but there there are more tangible skills that the student has to master. Probably for similar reasons, majors in history typically require fewer courses to complete.

Nor is this characterization lost on students. A history major is one that is frequently tacked on to double major, a supplementary accolade to the real degree. In addition to this group, history majors, anecdotally, consist of the riff-raff who have an active interest in “majoring in b.s.” so that they don’t have to work too hard. I could describe them as the misfit Hufflepuffs of the academic world, but their egos are usually larger and they are choosing the direction rather than being accepted for who they are.

I study history–and did a history major–because I find it interesting. When I teach I try to encourage students to figure out what interests them in the time period and to develop opinions about what we are studying. In my heart of hearts I wish that students would abandon concern for grades, do their best, and allow curiosity to reign, though I am not so delusional to believe that it will actually happen. When it succeeds, when that [contemptuous] scientist engages with the readings, then I consider that a success. History has real lessons and real technical skills that it can impart to aspiring students, but I genuinely believe that one of its most important ones, as David Foster Wallace put it in his Kenyon commencement address, to inspire people to think and consider beyond themselves. The freedom the degree offers is not, ideally, a major in “b.s.,” but a major in curiosity.

Snow Day

There is a snow day here in Columbia, Missouri–though what we have received is really just a dusting compared to what has been going on in Boston. Despite the nostalgic glee of snow days past, classes being cancelled means almost nothing for me. I rearranged my day because I won’t have an afternoon broken up by trekking to campus and back for office hours and lecture attendance, but the remaining components of my day are intact.

In general, the snow gets a mixed response. People are happy that there aren’t classes, of course, but they also grumble about shoveling and the cold and many people–notably the people reading the weather–have been positively joyous when reading off temperatures this winter that rose as high as 60. Winter, whether cold or snowy, is a hated thing

I know that I am in the minority when I say that I actually like shoveling snow (the only reason I haven’t yet today is that I don’t own a shovel). It is good exercise and I find it relaxing. With due respect to friends in Boston, though, there is such a thing as too much. But I also find falling snow and the quiet that comes with it to be peaceful. The crispness of the air and the solitude of the trees when skiing or snow-shoeing is rejuvenating, and stripping off the layers to sit in front of the fire with hot chocolate makes an ideal contrast.

Here in Missouri it is not that we get too much winter, but too little. It is likely that there will be one or two storms, but it usually melts away too quickly to give the perpetual ground cover necessary for outdoor recreation. The appearance of the snow is a labor, not an opportunity. And, of course, my apartment does not come with a fireplace or pellet stove.

Inverted World, Christopher Priest

Helward Mann is six hundred and fifty miles old, which means it is time for him to be inducted into his guild–and to venture beyond the walls of the city for the first time. But first, he must swear an oath never to reveal what it is like outside, where the city is being constantly winched along tracks through a hostile landscape in pursuit of the Optimum. Exactly what all of this is, nobody is quite certain, but they tell Helward that they have absolute faith in the way things are and he will come to agree in time–and he is to be married. Helward’s life is about to change dramatically.

The story unfolds through Helward’s discovery of the world, sometimes in first, sometimes in third person. At first the world confuses him and he shares his bafflement with his wife, but his experiences change him. As he learns about the world, Helward becomes increasingly entrenched with respect to the necessity of the traditional guild system. It is the only way to preserve civilization…except that the reader is well aware that there are functioning human beings outside of the closed circuit of the city.

Inverted World is a hard science fiction novel set in the distant future after a collapse reduced most of the world to anarchy. The bulk of the story, then, is the discovery of the concept as to how people in the city experience the world. Layered within this concept is an allegory about the relationships, economic and otherwise, between “civilized” and “uncivilized” people, insularity, and having an over-developed sense of importance in the world–and about facing the inevitable.

Certain aspects of the book felt dated, which is only natural since it was published in 1974, but many of the same concerns are relevant. The summaries I had originally read of the book made it sound like a post-apocalyptic class-based allegory along the lines of Snowpiercer , which made sense because the two were first published within a few years of each other. But the “isolated community circling the world to survive” is where the similarities begin and end, at least from what I know about Snowpiercer, which is, admittedly, not much.There are elements of class struggle here, but the principle concept deals with relativity and perception, with the other concepts, including the math-y science fiction ones that give the story its mystery (and lead to the perception issues), forming the scenery. Thus, Priest taps into the relationship between first and third worlds rather than into strata of the same society. The writing was at time choppy, but Inverted World was an excellent read that moved along quickly and spun out the mystery such that the core isn’t revealed until the final pages and Helward’s inner turmoil is left aptly unresolved.

I haven’t decided what is next yet because I am swamped by grading at the moment, but I am leaning toward Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky. My only hesitation is that I read a really negative review that called it a poor knockoff of Crime and Punishment without even being an interesting novel about Afghanistan.

“It is never about the money”

There is a new History Channel documentary series that has been added to Netflix, called “The Men Who Built America.” The premise is that during the period of rapid industrialization that followed the Civil War, the one termed by Mark Twain the “Gilded Age,” there were a few men who led America to its position of of global prominence that it now enjoys. The first episode, which is the only one I’ve seen, follows the narrative of Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D Rockafeller’s rise to prominence and the business wars between railway and oil magnates, “locked in a battle of wills,” as they tried to destroy their competition–that is, each other. The show insisted at several points that in this battle, money was merely a way of keeping score, never the objective.

“The Men Who Built America” did frequently point out business practices that would be considered illegal under current laws, but it also made reference to all of the jobs provided by these magnates and, at one point, implied that the expansion of industry provided 100% employment for the country that was only broken when competition between businesses forced Rockefeller to shut down production in such a way that the loss of jobs spiraled into the depression of 1873. In this one instance everyday people were harmed by the business competition (according to their narrative), but the overall trajectory was one of progress and advancement, as directed by a few ruthless and brilliant entrepreneurs. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, they posit, the country needed a leader, but lacked politicians up to the task and so turned to the Captains of Industry.

Theirs is a powerful narrative, one that taps into the American Dream that everyone can make it rich if only he or she works hard enough and one that situated the United States as the beacon of civilization and locus of technological advancement. However, it is remarkable how much is left out of the narrative. The focus on the business competition means that the narrative stays in the east, so westward expansion and the dispossession of native land never show up. Even the charitable foundations created by the industrialists didn’t make it into this narrative. But neither does the show mention immigration or the conditions of the working poor. In fact, the only time that the show used images like those of Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives was in conjunction with the lamentable (but seemingly unavoidable) Depression of 1873, when those workers didn’t have jobs. When business for the industrialists was booming, those people were employed and, they imply, housed and clothed. Never mind that these men who made America were worth the equivalent of 75 billion dollars or more, as the show admits but doesn’t dwell on. For what it is worth, their figures also probably underestimate the actual wealth of these men–Wikipedia places Rockefeller’s net worth at something like 650 billion, in modern figures. It will be interesting to see how the show handles unionization…if this episode is any guide, they will gloss over the working conditions…and progressive political reform.

How the show manages to present these men as both worse people, hoarding all their money and not giving them credit for philanthropy, and their actions less repugnant, sterilized of any negative effect on their workers or the general public is astounding. As I noted on Twitter, for being the men who built America, the Captains of Industry do a lot of standing around looking imperious while other people work.

What struck me about the show most, though, is the format. There is a heavy does of reenactment, with more speaking roles for the industrialists than I expected. Usually in this sort of documentary the reenactment and narration is interspersed with comments from experts, and the History Channel did employ one of Vanderbilt’s biographers and one man identified as a historian. The rest of the speakers were CEOs, hedge fund managers and other modern captains of finance or industry, including Donald Trump and Mark Cuban. Partly as a result of this, the woman with the most air time was probably Rockefeller’s secretary, but he did say “thank you” when she brought him a note. Exploitation in all of its forms is presented in this narrative as a subtext, the unintentional and exceptional side effect of capitalism, rather than the backbone of the system. Because it is never about money.

January 2015 Reading Recap

January was a v. busy month for me, so I only read three books and didn’t post here as often as I would have liked. That is just how it goes, though.

The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk
Galip is a lawyer in Istanbul and is married to his cousin Ruya, who is the younger famous newspaper columnist Celal. One day when Galip returns home from the office, Ruya has disappeared, and so has Celal. There are dozens of people hunting for Celal and Galip joins the pursuit, but not for the columnist, but because he believes that Ruya may be there with him. What follows is a labyrinthine tale that, in chapters, alternates between Galip’s hunt and Celal’s columns that are somehow linked to the steps that Galip took to find Celal. Eventually, Galip decides that he must become Celal and think like him if he is going to ever find his wife.

The Black Book is the sixth book (fourth novel) of Pamuk’s I’ve read. It is a convoluted and dense read and Pamuk plays with format and style. The story feels like it is constructed of a number of frayed and loose ends right up until the end when Pamuk ties it neatly together, giving the reader resolution, if not the ending that might be hoped for. This is not the Pamuk novel I would recommend starting with, but I came away with a strange sense of fondness toward it, particularly in this regard: Pamuk creates three distinct characters that orbit the central plot of the story, but you only ever meet one, Galip. The other two exist, but exist off-stage. Further, I felt sadness because Galip loves Ruya very deeply, but the presentation makes it impossible to tell is Ruya reciprocates, and there is the haunting feeling that she does not. Whether that is true, we will never know. This is the sort of narration and craft I love Pamuk for, and I look forward to reading The Museum of Innocence next among his novels.

Paradise City, Archer Mayor
A thoroughly indulgent read on my part, Paradise City is a relatively recent (2012) installment in Mayor’s “Joe Gunthor” series of detective procedurals set in Vermont and New England. The books are fast-paced and engaging, and I feel a connection with them because Mayor evokes that part of the world, i.e. areas within several hours’ drive from the epicenter of Brattleboro, Vermont. The core characters, the dour, fair, human lead agent (former detective, now special agent with an agency called the VBI) Joe Gunthor and his two long-time colleagues Sammie Martens and Willy Kunkle, a couple with a child. Sammi is hard-nosed and capable, Willy is a one-armed, PTSD-survivor, former-alcoholic and wildly unorthodox cop. Along with other regular cast members, they are on the case.

The plot of Paradise City is that there is a human trafficking operation and stolen jewelry fencing operation going on somewhere in Western Massachusetts, which brings events in Boston and events in Brattleboro into a collision course. That is not really the reason to read the story, though. The series has a long-standing cast that has aged and progressed as time has moved on. The specific procedural element is just the trapping for a more human and humane story about these characters who the reader (if you’ve been reading them long enough) come to care for and enjoy spending time with. Paradise City was satisfactory along those lines, but not nearly my favorite. For new readers, I would recommend starting either at the start of the series or with Fruits of the Poisonous Tree or, my favorite, The Dark Root. Mayor introduces all the characters anew so that it is possible to follow along, but since I enjoy the characters more than the stories themselves, usually, it is better to see them in their younger years.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Pat Rothfuss
Set in the same world as Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, Slow Regard tells a brief (to the extent epic fantasy authors can be brief) story about one of the side characters in the main series, Auri. The author’s note at the beginning says that this might not be the story you want. It doesn’t advance the main plot, doesn’t have dialogue, and doesn’t have much besides the daily life of a woman of indeterminate age whose experiences with magic have given her great insight into the nature of the world, but also broken her a little bit inside. There is a haunting beauty in this story and I was reminded of Gaimon’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane in that it is not a traditional story, but a powerful one nonetheless. In particular, I appreciated the presentation of Auri has immensely capable and insightful, but also in a constant battle with anxiety as a way of keeping the world at its rights. I like Rothfuss’ writing and while I eagerly await the third book in The Kingkiller Chronicles, I will also read whatever it is he wants to give me while he gets the book right, as it were. It is best to do things the right way and in the proper time, as Auri would put it.


If I get my way, which is unlikely, February will be a more successful month of reading. I am currently in the middle of Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, a 1974 science fiction novel about a city on tracks that moves around the world in order to stay close to “the optimum,” and am enjoying it a lot. After that will probably be Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky.