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The NFL, NCAAF, Tithonus, Ganymede

I’ve been baking today, almost a week after the NCAA football championship game and the day before NFL playoffs. The baking is neither here nor there, but it has allowed my mind to wander and one of the topics I’ve been idling on has been why I like NCAA football more than NFL football, and generally why I prefer college athletics to the professional equivalent. Along the way I was struck by a mythical parallel, which I will get to in a moment.

The first issue here is why caring about one rather than the other matters in the slightest. Other than college football being the inspiration for innumerable think-pieces about the corruption of the academy, this doesn’t matter. Football has, for a variety of reasons that I will point to in just a moment, been the most contentious of these sports for academics and for the public at large and, as ESPN’s Keith Olbermann puts it some people just have a college football gene, while others do not. There is overlap in the fan bases, but NFL and NCAAF are consistently among the most popular television events in the country–not to mention that fantasy sports are a billion dollar industry that the leagues are trying so hard to get into themselves that the NBA commissioner has spoken openly about legalizing gambling on sports. The sports are popular. I grew up watching and playing sports and often find that watching sports is the only activity I can focus on at the end of a long day of writing, even if I want to read a good book. But sports are also big businesses, government-sanctioned monopolies, and, like many other big businesses, they rise above moral ambivalence into the realm of moral bankruptcy.

The popularity of both the NFL and the NCAA are really only rivaled by their corruption. The NFL has, arguably, been in the worse straights of the two over the course of the past year. There was scandal surrounding Ray Rice’s punching of his fiancé, caught on elevator video, that the NFL so thoroughly butchered in its handling that Rice could reasonably claim to be a victim; another incident with Adrian Peterson’s “disciplining” his children, the NFL 49ers relationship with local police such that one helped cover up a domestic abuse issue, which is just part of the NFL’s domestic abuse epidemic. The league has also been under fire for years for its failure to address its concussion problem and it has a collective bargaining agreement created such that the players who are literally placing their health on the line every week have only minimally guaranteed contracts. In comparison (not exactly a contrast), the NCAA allows schools to offer non-guaranteed scholarships to players and has created a business model where the schools and the institution profit from the players’ likenesses. Under the curtain of “amateurism” these players are minimally paid (though not in real money), work full-time schedules, while also being expected to be full-time students and cannot have agents or sell autographs or memorabilia without being made ineligible, which, for most, is a major hurdle to actually reaching the professional ranks and profit from the skills they spent the majority of their young lives honing.

[note: I am not here to vilify everyone affiliated with the institutions, since many, if not most, are probably funny, intelligent, thoughtful, caring individuals; the same cannot be said of the institutions and what they support. To wit, the NCAA just restored previously vacated wins for a former PSU coach who was at best negligent when it came to an extended issue of child abuse.]

I am not here to debate which of the two is more moral or a better experience. People spend a great deal of time griping about the problems with sports and how much money athletes make, even though, by nearly every account, athletes in every sport make too little of the money. But why might people prefer college football to the NFL, even though the injury issues of football are the same at every level? There are many reasons, including the lack of a local professional team, but I think there is something a little more subtle, that is the difference between Tithonus and Ganymede.

Sports are considered a young person’s activity. They consist of games of physicality, conditioning and skill. Even for those physical marvels whose bodies are big, fast, and strong enough to play on the highest level, their bodies peak in their mid-twenties. Most are done with the game by their early thirties and those who played into their forties are few and far between. No NFL player has ever played past fifty. Aging curves for other activities are far different and there are only a few where the highest proportion of any age group practicing it is in elementary school–for instance, learning the alphabet. Playing sports is a young man’s game any way you cut it, and there is an almost unconscious association of those few who go pro with doing a youthful activity. The emotions of watching sports as a child also burn brighter, and it is easy to recall youthful impressions of players and have athletes as childhood heroes.

Now for Tithonus and Ganymede. Both are figures from Greek mythology and they are the two paradigms for immortality. Tithonus was the human lover of Eos (Dawn), who is immortal and therefore fearful of watching her beloved grow old and die. Therefore she appealed to Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality, but forgets to ask for eternal youth, so Tithonus ages in perpetuity and shrivels into immobile, inconstant old age, and eventually becomes a cicada. In contrast, Ganymede is abducted by Zeus and becomes the cupbearer of the gods because Zeus granted him both immortality and eternal youth. In this metaphor, the NCAA system is Ganymede, while the NFL is Tithonus, while the audience is the older figure who wants the beloved to last forever. The individual players themselves age, grow old, and retire, as do all people, but the players on college teams are perpetually youthful and it is possible to forget that the same injuries that ravage their bodies in the pro game are already taking place, but the effects don’t appear until they have moved on to a different league. New players come into the professional league, but when players leave it is because they are done with the game.

This is not a rational decision to prefer one paradigm to another, and neither is it a moral judgement, an indictment of players, or analysis of the styles of how the game is played. It is merely an attempt to articulate one of pieces of underlying infrastructure that appeals about college athletics.

A Thought on Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

When I want to just watch a movie, to be engaged by the twists and turns of a narrative without being concerned with literary quality or artistic merit I usually turn to a good action film. Within that genre, some of my favorites have been the adaptations of Tom Clancy’s books such as The Hunt for Red October, Sum of All Fears or Patriot Games. I disagree with Clancy’s politics most of the time, but his books have an engaging, cinematic quality that translate well to the screen.

Largely for this reason, I decided to watch Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, despite having heard how it is a bad film. And it is not a good film. Chris Pine takes up the mantle held by Ben Affleck, Harrison Ford, and Alec Baldwin, by playing Jack Ryan, a marine, PhD, and CIA analyst. All the hallmarks of the character remain intact: his doctor (soon-to-be) wife, his helicopter accident and subsequent fear of flying in them, his insistence that he is an analyst. villainous Russians. However, the entire setting has been moved into the contemporary moment, so the helicopter accident took place in Afghanistan, and Russia has joined the ranks of the capitalist nations. Not unlike the Bond franchise, Jack Ryan: Shadow Report takes the core elements for the character and then reboots the story in a contemporary setting without too much concern for continuity.

This brings my thought. JR:SR suffers from a large number of problems, including pacing and that, twenty three years after The Hunt for Red October, and several decades in the future, we now get to see the introduction of Jack Ryan’s relationship with his bride-to-be. The larger issue, to my mind, is that JR:SR fundamentally changes the type of movie these were. Instead of a film where much of the action is carried out by other characters and culminates in one action scene where Jack Ryan wields a gun, usually as a last resort when he himself is attacked, he spends a lot more time actually doing action-hero-y type of things in this film–despite the mandatory statement that he is “just an analyst.” Perhaps I should have expected this change based on the title, but it was an unwelcome change because that is emphatically not the type of character Jack Ryan was. At least Clancy was able to create a standardized background for Ryan and, as long as the movies were based on the books, that background loosely matched up.

December 2014 Reading Recap

A bit later than I intended, but things happen. Vacation isn’t really a vacation.

the Feast of the Goat – Mario Vargas Llosa
Reviewed here, an excellent historical novel detailing the collapse of Trujillo’s reign in the Dominican Republic.

Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh
Rarely do I read a book and come away flummoxed by what I read. I did with this book. Happenstance causes Paul Pennyfeather to be expelled from university and without other recourse he becomes a school teacher. Error after error leads him all the way back around. The synopsis on the back cover described Decline and Fall as a good nonsense novel, but I think the unfamiliar (to me) setting caused the nonsense to be exacerbated beyond comfort. It had its moments, but I liked Scoop much better.

The Alteration- Kingsley Amis
What if Arthur Tudor and Catherine of Aragon had a child? What if, also, the reformation never took place, but Martin Luther successfully purified the church and himself became Pope? According to Amis, the church rules, science is a dirty word, and technological development has stalled. This is the setting for The Alteration. Hugh Anvil is ten and has the most divine singing voice in Europe–and the pope would like to keep it that way. There is only one way to keep Hugh’s voice from breaking, but as he becomes aware of what he will give up in service to the church, he decides that he would like to live life. The Alteration is a marvelous work of alternate-history, working in references to other alternate-history works such as Man in the High Castle and historical personages such as Heinrich Himmler and Lavrentiy Beria. Unfortunately I preferred the world to the history.

The Professor’s House- Willa Cather
Pitched as an exploration of introspection, a man in crisis at the onset of old age while at the height of his intellectual powers. There is an element of truth to this and the professor is in a crisis about his move from his old house to a new one and finds respite in working in his old office. But the heart of the story and the root of his family’s crisis is his former student Tom Outland, whose charisma and brilliance create the money and the jealousy that are tearing his family apart.

By far, my favorite of the four was The Feast of the Goat, which is going to appear on my updated favorite novels list. I am currently reading The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk.

The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa

From 1930 to 1961, the Dominican Republic was ruled by a military strongman named Raphael Trujillo, also known as The Goat. Contradictions defined Trujillo’s rule. He established environmental protections and allowed a middle class to prosper, but eliminated personal liberties and brutally punished any dissent. He granted refuge to European Jews fleeing the Nazis, but promoted a racially-charged anti-Haitian ideology that culminated in the slaughter of thousands of Haitians. He restored Dominican pride in themselves and independence from US occupation, but oppressed them. Political opponents were killed outright or disappeared, their bodies never found, yet Trujillo was a staunch ally of the United States first against Hitler and then Communism and the D.R. was a charter member of the United Nations. Trujillo’s family in particular flourished, despite their mistakes and flaws. This period is known as the Feast of the Goat.

Llosa’s novel is an exploration of these paradoxes and memory, centered on the last year of Trujillo’s reign. The narrative consists of three distinct timelines, two from 1961 and one from 1995, with the later arc forming a frame for the overall story.

Thirty five years after Trujillo’s death, Urania Cabral, the daughter of one of The goat’s most loyal ministers, returns to the D.R. for the first time since she left as a teenager and is immediately swept back into the trauma that precipitated her exile and her excommunicating her family. Those events and thus her memories fit into the context of the other two narratives: Trujillo’s desperate bid to cling to power against internal dissent, international pressure, the incompetence of his family, and the inevitability of aging; and the assassins on the night of their coup. Llosa slowly weaves these three timelines together, bringing them closer and closer until they meet in the assassination of Trujillo, the purges that followed, and the subsequent creation of the modern Dominican state.

Like another of Llosa’s book, The War of the end of the World, the core events of The Feast of the Goat really happened and could be considered more appropriately the province of non fiction. however, Llosa is not primarily interested in causation or change or social structure. His story is much more visceral. Llosa’s tale evokes the experience of life during Trujillo’s dictatorship and the transition, examining the processes and changes on a personal, extremely limited level and thereby bypassing the events as a historian would look at them. Llosa builds on the internal contradictions of Trujillo’s D.R. through the medium of memory in order to explore the characters. Trujillo dies, but it is hard to say the story has a happy ending. Everyone suffers.

I knew nothing about Trujillo and little about the D.R. (other than baseball) when I picked up this book, but am looking forward to reading Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of Butterflies, which focuses on one of Trujillo’s particular atrocities, the assassination of the Mirabal sisters.

As I said in reviewing The War of the End of the World, Llosa is an incredible storyteller and, with Orhan Pamuk, is one of my favorite currently-living high literature authors. The added caveats are for simplicity’s sake. I am currently reading Pamuk’s The Black Book and wanted to take a moment to compare the two nobel laureates, whose subject matter and writing styles differ wildly, but whose interests in identity and memory overlap. Llosa is the easier author to love. He paints with every color of the rainbow in sharp, graphic quality every experience and image from the most grotesque suffering to the most titillating encounter to the most poignant loss. At his best, both here and in The Bad Girl, Llosa meshes all three into a single scene. The story can be understated, but the writing itself is not. Llosa’s style tends toward the straight forward and brash, drawing the reader forward with the sheer charisma of the characters. In contrast, Pamuk’s style is understated and subtle. Other than in My Name is Red, where bright colors are central to the story itself, he prefers the muted and the drab. Not shabby, but shades of gray that make colors all the more potent when they appear. His stories give the reader nothing certain, with a path to follow and the answers eternally a step into the darkness.

The Hobbittt [sic]: a review (spoilers)

I saw The Hobbittt for the sake of completion and am writing up my in the same vein, having done so for installment one and two. As was the case last year, I don’t have time to go back and read the relevant passages in the book, but there was a lot of things I found stupid and problematic without it. The list entries include spoilers, but the concluding paragraph does not.

  1. The trope that “bred for war” became. Tolkien did stuff like this, too, but it seemed that every creature that Jackson trotted out on the side of the bad guys was bred for war and some of those were hilariously ineffective. Like the stupid flying bat things. I was half expecting the dwarves and the elves and everything else to be bred for war, too, because while Tolkien’s world-building does create the other races for purposes other than fighting, Jackson’s doesn’t. Even in the first Hobbit film, the Dwarves are all warriors and little else. Along the same lines, the only sequence in any of Jackson’s films that show the breeding of any of these creatures is in Saruman’s betrayal. The rest is just a hinky catchphrase meant to sound ominous and I am going to start using about the squirrels on campus.
  2. I understand cinematic license and one cannot just let the full stretch of a siege play out because most of the audience would be bored, but even old walls should not fall down when hit once. Or when fallen upon. And walls should probably be taller than the things coming to fight against them. I’ve had this complaint with all of Jackson’s LotR films, but it was particularly significant in the Hobbittt, and rendered some of the subsequent dialogue clumsy and moronic.
  3. Legolas and Dain’s stupid fight scenes. This was a problem since this was most of the film. I’m just going to lay down my cards here: I think many of the fight scenes, from the individual heroic duels to the massive battle episodes, in all of Jackson’s films were just dumb. This film was the worst of the lot. Legolas, who didn’t even need to be in this film, encapsulates this where he leaps and jumps and hangs, all in order to appear impressive and break up the monotony of a large melee. Call me jaded, but this was all flash and no substance.
  4. Tauriel is looking for Kili, but runs into a big orc and is in danger! Kili comes to Tauriel’s rescue! Orc handles Kili! Tauriel comes to Kili’s rescue! Orc takes them both! Legolas comes to their rescue and gets lucky in defeating orc. This was one of the dumber sequences.
  5. I didn’t like the purging of Dol Guldur. This is not so much the few heroes sneaking into the lair of the enemy, which is a very Tolkien episode, even if it largely runs against Jackson’s vision. It was just another episode that added to the clutter. When I heard that this part was going to show up in the films, I had defended it, but I also expected for the cleansing of Dol Guldur to take place on the way home from the mountain, with the White Council appearing as a distinct arc where, maybe, the background for the Lord of the Rings would be explained, instead of Legolas being blandly told to go find Strider, who, in the original chronology, is probably a wee lad. Even in Peter Jackson’s original films, I’m not sure Legolas and Aragorn had met when the council met some sixty or so years later…which makes Legolas hilariously inept?
  6. The Hobbittt was too long and a large amount of this time could be recouped if Jackson had eased back on the overly-long sequences of psychological drama. The review I read on Tor.com astutely observed that, for the most part, Jackson cast excellent actors and then refused to let them actually act by throwing graphics around them to show trauma.
  7. Jackson also did strange things with the chronology, including having people travel long distances in unconscionably short periods of time. Some camera cuts passed days, some moments and it was uneven as to what was what. I was also amazed that there was as much warning as there was for the Dragon arriving at Laketown.
  8. Which leads to another point. The Dragon attack looked catastrophic and it was shocking how many people survived. Then, every time you turned around there were more people of Dale fighting back against the bad people. This was particularly shocking given that the dwarves and elves appeared to die in droves.
  9. Why save the Dragon’s death for this movie? Yes, it added a bit of a prequel so that it wasn’t just battlebattlebattle, but it also added the sense that The Hobbittt was just a mishmash of things.
  10. There were far too many unfulfilled promises in The Hobbittt. Two, in particular, stood out. First, Bilbo showed the acorn that would become the Party Tree, but it was used to try to humanize Thorin. Even though Bilbo comes home in the film, that tree was, sadly, never planted. Second, much was made out of the Arkenstone and how much Thorin wanted it. In the book, Thorin is buried with the stone on his chest. In the film, his death is a tragedy, but I’m pretty sure that Bard still has it in his pocket even as he chastises other people for seeking wealth.

I’ve recently been thinking about Jackson’s tendency to add female characters to Tolkien’s particularly masculine world. For the most part I have not been a fan since it frequently undercuts the original story-lines that I really like. However, I also like what Saladin Ahmed has done for some of the stories he reads to his children, where he simply makes some of the original characters female. I am a purist in most of these representations, but for a largely sexless world that Tolkien creates, I don’t see why this solution wouldn’t work–for instance, if several of the dwarves were women, or Bard. Or in the original Lord of the Rings, why couldn’t Legolas be female? Or both Legolas and Gimli? Or the wizards? Or Borimir? Or Merry and Pippin? Leave Sam and his relationship with Frodo and the love story between him and Rosie alone, as well as the Farimir/Eowyn and Aragorn/Arwen pairings and the ents, but none of the other genders matter. I will most likely do something similar if I get a chance to read these books to children.

The Wolf of Wall Street, a very late review

So I finally saw Martin Scorsese’s film “The Wolf of Wall Street,” after having heard, both directly, and through the grape-vine a number of critiques. In short, I found myself fascinated by the spectacle and thought Scorsese did a number of interesting things in the filmmaking.

The longer version: Jordan Belfort (Leonardo Dicaprio) is addicted to money, drugs, and sex, roughly in that order. Belfort is a self-made man on Wall Street, who has to start from nothing when the first that hired him goes under in a market crash. Before it did, he learned the lesson that the only thing that matters is how much he earns. So he starts his own business, selling the dream of profit and picking his clients clean. Along the way he had as much sex and did as many drugs as he could. Until it all falls apart.

Scorsese’s film is told from a tight first person angle, with Belfort’s voice telling the audience the story and narrating over what amounts to debauched b-roll of sex and drugs between the episodes. The visuals accompanying the narration are very much his version of the events, with the morals, heroes, and pleasures filtered through what he recalls being true. To him, this was perfect and entirely natural. And he is unapologetic. This allows Scorsese the license to make a debauched, sexy, and utterly grotesque visual orgy. What’s more, he let the actors go completely overboard in some of the vignettes that encapsulate the obscenity of the lifestyle. The story that Belfort spins and Dicaprio sells is about how making money provides a better life for you and yours and has no awareness of the lives ruined on the other end of the phone line.

This is where Scorsese’s filmmaking comes in. He keeps the narration very tightly and almost exclusively focused on Belfort and films the story that is being sold. But then, in brief clips, he pulls back and gives some indication that this rosy, utterly and openly debauched spectacle is probably not what actually took place. The result is an intro lesson in unreliable narration.

I think that the lack of overt apology or legitimate comeuppance bothered some people. Too, people complained about the length because so much of the film amounted to over-the-top “filler.” However, the spectacle is the point and I question how much more Scorsese could undercut the narrative without needing to dramatically overhaul the visual spectacle he constructed.

What is making me happy: my dissertation

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

The thing that is making me happy as the semester draws to a close is the same thing that is stressing me out, namely that my first serious dive into Greek epigraphy (inscriptions) has me more optimistic about the relevance of my dissertation than I have been in a few months. I still loved my topic, but I was in despair about how new some of my conclusions were going to be. The inscriptions I’ve been working on the last few weeks have given me more and more valuable things to say, even as it has taught me that I am going to need to rewrite one of the chapters from the ground up because the chronology I followed is probably invalid. In the grand scheme of things this development is a good thing because it makes for a fresher and better dissertation, but, in the short term, I have to rewrite a draft of that chapter by the end of January so that there aren’t glaring inconsistencies in what I submit for a dissertation fellowship–on top of my schedule of producing new material.

I have some more specific thoughts on this development, some for the dissertation, some about the process, and some about how much ancient history frequently requires as much explanation about how we know what we know as what we know. And I will probably write about this in the near future, but, in the meantime, I have a chapter due on Monday. I also intend to do some sort of 2014/15 retrospective/preview, update my top novels list, possibly a semester recap, and a few other assorted things I want to write about (posted here for my own benefit as much as anything).

Since what I model this post on requires the recommendation of something, but what is making me happy isn’t readily available for consumption for at least a year or two yet and won’t be in book form for some years after that, if ever, I will point out a few quick things.

  1. I’m not usually one to obsess over particular records, let alone stay up to date on the world of music. However, this week my work soundtrack has been a mix of Great Big Sea, Gin Blossoms, Ha Ha Tonka, and Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In particular, I’ve been enjoying taking much deeper dives into Deluxe, Live, or other lesser known material of groups I like than I previously had, and getting to hear their sound in somewhat different ways.
  2. Netflix recently added more of the 30 for 30 documentaries and I’m currently enjoying the currently-topical Brothers in Exile film about Orlando and Livan Hernandez’ defection from Cuba in the 1990s.
  3. It is snowing. I love snow. If it is available in your area, go cross-country skiing or put on snowshoes, wander into the woods, and let your mind wander. I hope to be able to indulge in this soon.

November 2014 Reading Recap

I am in disbelief that December is upon us. For a variety of reasons, some of which aren’t even related to my dissertation, life has gotten v. hectic, but here’s a quick rundown of my November reading.

Bridge on the Drina – Ivo Andric

Andric’s masterpiece (one of the trilogy for which he won the Nobel Prize) is a story about the onrush of modernity in a small Balkan town. The town is rural, the inhabitants in the the various hamlets vaguely aware of the goings on in the world at large–particularly when the time comes to pay dues to the Ottomans. Then a Vizier orders the construction of the eponymous bridge. The town grew up around the bridge, expanding with time and subjected to the pressures modernity up to the first World War, including rebellion, occupation, war, railroads, and nationalism. The one constant is the bridge.

The book is of the high-literary variety and drags at times, but also has a penchant for evocative imagery, including a gruesomely graphic description of a man who gets impaled on a spike and suffers for a long time. I came away with an active interest in something like this not happening to me–as opposed than the standard disinterest in painful punishment.

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

A hero’s journey story that caused my brother to express disbelief when I told him I hadn’t already read it. Santiago is a young Andalusian shepherd who is encouraged to follow his dreams and go to the Pyramids in Egypt in order to unlock his Personal Legend. Along the way he meets obstacles, some of which are pleasant, that threaten his journey. He stays on course and writes his own legend. The story is simplistic in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t invalidate the points made. I liked but didn’t love the book, but could see including it in a list of books read to fairly young children, ones who should be reminded that there is a time to wander and that personal legends are there to be written, chased, and that a decent portion of luck is about putting oneself out there. Then again, we can all use that reminder sometimes.

The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu

Reviewed here, The Lives of Tao is a fun book about an unlikely hero who gets inhabited by a millenia-old alien named Tao who once helped make Genghis Khan into a world-conqueror. Ultimately, it is an alt-history action-adventure, martial arts story. Admittedly, I am a sucker for stories about the hero’s journey and while there were certain elements of the story that I found youthful and might have found problematic in other books, I had enough fun reading The Lives of Tao that that sensation overrode any problems I had. It was my favorite read for the month.

Noted above, my life is crazy right now and I haven’t started a new book yet, but I’ve been carrying around Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, so that will probably be the next one I read.

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

Roen Tam eats too much, drinks too much, and works too much because he is incapable of telling his boss ‘no.’ Because he has a cat and rent, you see. He hasn’t been on a date in years and compensates for the lack of a social life by going to nightclubs that he hates.

Tao is a Quasing, a brilliant, amoeba-like alien race that crash-landed on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago. Quasing can’t tolerate Earth’s atmosphere and survive by forming symbiotic relationships with other animals, including humans, through which they work with the hope of, someday, returning to their home planet. They and their hosts have been responsible for both some of the greatest achievements and worst catastrophes in human history. Of course, the Quasing are also engulfed in a centuries-long civil war between the Prophus (betrayers) who want to return home without destroying the human race and the Genjix who have no such scruples.

When a mission goes wrong and Tao’s host pays the ultimate price, he needs a new host and fast. Roen, drunk, happens to be available. Prophus can’t afford for one of its best operatives to be on the sidelines at this critical moment and it is up to Tao to turn Roen into a hero capable of saving the world, fast.

The Lives of Tao is a fast-paced action story that follows a fairly traditional narrative arc, an unlikely hero, training montages, and exciting fight-scene climaxes. Before reading the book I had heard that Chu used his experience as a martial-artist and stuntman to write particularly excellent fight scenes, and the book lived up to the hype. In particular, I appreciated how each of the different Quasing characters had a distinct personality, almost more so than the human characters did, which is apropos given their lifespans. Tao, for instance, is cynical and sarcastic, but is also an optimistic dreamer who has learned from his numerous mistakes.

I usually dislike this sort of alternative explanations for historical events, but Chu pulled it off for several reasons. First, the explanations were not restricted to isolated events, but included broad developments, including those that predated human existence. Second, while the relationships underpin how ignorant and dim-witted humans are, it is still fundamentally a symbiotic relationship where the humans have agency and have their own natural abilities enhanced, the hero drawn out from within, rather than the person being taken over or undermined by the “superior” being. The Quasing simply provide superior pattern skills and aeons of experience.

The Lives of Tao is a tremendously fun read, complete with action, humor, romance, and a coming of age story starring a thirty-something year old man and an impossibly old mentor. Given the themes in the book, particularly with a clear dichotomy between the good guys and bad guys and the moral gray area with which only the heroes wrestle, and the energetic pacing, it is not a surprise that The Lives of Tao won a young adult fiction award.

I look forward to reading Chu’s sequel, The Deaths of Tao, and, in the meantime, recommend this book to anyone who likes science fiction, fantasy, or just a fun action story.

What is Making Me Happy: Ha Ha Tonka

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming. This week: the Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka.

I am weird about music. It helps me attune myself to what I am doing and have to have something on while I write. I also like a fairly wide selection of genres and can really get into artists, but am by no means a music snob. It is not an artistic medium that I care a great deal about and my tastes frequently diverge from those of, for instance, the writers at NPR music. Partly for that reason, I usually don’t spend much time browsing for new music in the way that I do for books and recipes. On the other hand, when I usually add things to my playlists when I hear something I like in other contexts. In this case, I saw Ha Ha Tonka on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations when he visited their home region of Southern Missouri (the Ozarks episode). Within twenty four hours of seeing the episode I listened to four Ha Ha Tonka albums and looked up their tour dates for when they will be in Columbia, Missouri next so that I can see them live.

The song that has hooked me the most is “Staring at the End of Our Lives,” from Lessons (2013), but I couldn’t find a readily available link to it. Second, though, is “The Usual Suspects,” Death of a Decade (2011), the video for which is linked below and was featured on No Reservations. I like the combination of catchiness and lyricism and highly recommend all four albums.