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The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

And just last week, amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitlovsky Avenue, a chicken turned on the shochet as he raised his ritual knife and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah. According to the Tog, the miraculous chicken offered a number of startling predictions, though it neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured. Even in the more casual study of the record, Landsman thinks, would show that strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I finished nearly a week ago, is an idiosyncratic, alternate history mystery novel. The District of Sitka, an autonomous region adjacent Alaska, is the temporary safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the world. Temporary haven dragged on, for some sixty years, but now Reversion is looming. Although there was an abortive attempt to establish the country of Israel, most of the world’s Jews chose the cold safety of Sitka, which is became a densely populated city composed of widely disparate people from all over the world, loosely unified by the common language of Yiddish. Reversion, and the likelihood that most citizens of Sitka will not be allowed to remain, has tensions running high.

Meyer Landsmann, for the time being a homicide detective with Sitka police, is a mess. He is an alcoholic, divorced, living in a slum of a hotel and without either family or prospects after Reversion, and now his ex-wife Bina has been placed as his immediate superior, tasked with closing all open cases. But he is barely prepared for the mess he finds himself in when one of the residents of his neighbors, a heroin addict and former chess prodigy, is murdered and his new chief summarily closes the case. But Landsman becomes obsessed and, with the help of his partner Berko Shemets, chases every possible clue anyway and soon discovers that the dead man was one of the Verbover clan, an ultra-orthodox crime syndicate that is, oddly, the only group unconcerned with pending Reversion, and was widely thought to be the Tzadik ha-Dor, a potential messiah. This case leads Landsman into a tangled web of conspiracies that expose the seedy underbelly of the Jewish communities in Sitka.

I put down The Yiddish Policeman’s Union simultaneously enamored of the book and unsure that I want to read any of Chabon’s other novels.This book is remarkably idiosyncratic in a way that reminded me of a cross between the best of Joseph Heller and of Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, but with the atmosphere of noir. It actually took me a while to get into YPU, what with its treatment of a radically different post-World War Two world (for instance, the war ends after Berlin is destroyed with a nuclear bomb) as utterly normal, its frequent deployment of yiddish phrases found in a glossary, and that it extremely particular in its references. None of these are bad and I found that once I got into the book it was both refreshing and provocative, making it fully deserving of its accolades, but that initial buy-in took time.

At the outset, YPU seemed like a clever detective story with the window-dressing of a humanizing story about chess fanatics and the backdrop of momentous changes, but it is so much more. Chabon builds by drips and hints a rich world that, in the best noir style, is filled with characters, each of which with their own motivations. At the heart of this seething, tangled mess are the little relationships, with Meyer Landsman the broken cop who lives for his job and is kept on his feet by people who, for better and for worse, care about him while he seeks some measure of salvation in caring for the young man killed in his building.

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Next up, I finished reading André Malraux’s The Conquerors about the 1925 revolution in Hong Kong and just started Last Words from Montmarte, a posthumous, postmodern, epistolary novel by Qiu Miaojin, a Taiwanese lesbian author. How is that for a mouthful? I am also in the middle of reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which I am struggling to get into.

The Wall of Storms – Ken Liu

You know the world isn’t perfect, but you’ve never ceased to believe that it could be perfected.

Book two of The Dandelion Dynasty (see my writeup of book one) opens in the so-called Reign of the Four Placid Seas, with Kuni Garu, now Empereror Ragin, trying to stabilize his kingdom by advancing the careers of men and women with talent regardless of their backgrounds. For instance, there is a grand examination with tests designed to push talent to the top, but there are also subtle biases in the test, as one of the entrants, Zomi Kidosu, is determined to prove. Further complicating the Reign of the Four Placid Seas, the Emperor Ragin is walking a delicate tightrope, balancing old loyalties to the nobles who won him his throne and whose position is under attack from his wife Empress Jia, and balancing the position of his children, particularly the two with Empress Jia and the one with Consort Risana. There are periods of peace, but not everyone is satisfied.

As befits an epic of this style, the domestic intrigue is only the starting point. The Wall of Storms, named for a barrier of storms that circles around and protects Dara, takes a turn when a strange semi-nomadic people called the Lyucu suddenly appear from the north on massive city ships. Unlike the people of Dara who farm and live in cities, the land of the Lyucu come from a land of steppes, largely living in village groups and cultivating “garinafins,” enormous herbivorous horned creatures that fly and breathe fire. Their leader, Pékyu Tenryo, is a brutal warlord who conquered his homeland and firmly believes that Dara is to be his. What follows is a clash of civilizations that threatens to tear apart Dara, which is only just now beginning to recover from years of bloodshed.

This brief description does not do Liu’s accomplishment justice. The Dandelion Dynasty is a sprawling, lyrical “silkpunk” epic. Wrapped up in the larger story are individual narratives about struggling against a system, journeys of discovery, and questions of identity, acceptance, and how divinities interact with the people who revere them. In so many ways it is a celebration of intelligence, problem solving, and education.

I did have one particular observation, which is not a critique per se. The Wall of Storms has the bones of a Chinese epic and the trappings of steampunk action-adventure and the lining of courtly intrigue, but much of the tension and plot relies on addressing issues. First, The Wall of Storms repeatedly addresses the issue of gender equality, whether a woman can inherit, whether women should be in the highest positions of the bureaucracy, etc. Second, it addresses issues of homosexuality, albeit in the form of accepting and normalizing it rather than making it a struggle. Third, issues of social inequality come to the forefront. In this way The Wall of Storms feels like a book written to give to one’s daughter. I mean this to be a compliment and I agree with every position taken, but worry that in this current political climate it might be unfairly called a book that is just SJW-drivel. The Wall of Storms is so much more than that, a clever, engaging, and thoughtful, not to mention fun and different fantastical epic. Start with The Grace of Kings, but The Wall of Storms is a more than satisfactory sequel.

Cheese and Culture – Paul Kindstedt

A cheese scientist at the University of Vermont by trade, Kindstedt’s Cheese and Culture traces the history of cheese and its role in Western Civilization. I grimaced at “Western Civilization” in the subtitle, but was reconciled to it because, as Kindstedt argues, cheese as it is currently known is a largely western phenomenon because lactase tolerance in adults was more common in the Middle East and Europe than elsewhere in the world.

Kindstedt starts in the Fertile Crescent with the domestication of dairy animals, but convincingly shows that the inability to process dairy meant that these animals were not milked, but used for meat and hides. The change came, he argues, when at a time of ecological crisis and food shortage that saw the milking of animals to feed children and, eventually adults. Cheese and butter, which retain much of the nutritional value of milk but eliminate some or most of the lactose, followed soon after. By biblical times, fresh cheese was an appropriate gift for deities.

The strongest element of Cheese and Culture is the careful observation of changes in cheese-making techniques, which is perhaps to be expected from a scientist of the processes. For instance, Kindstedt meticulously charts types of cheese fermentation, particularly acid, heating, and rennet, the last of which he reasonably posits came about by shepherds witnessing cheese curd in the stomachs of slaughtered animals. Thus Kindstedt leads the reader through changes, including Roman agricultural manuals on farm practices, monastic cheese production, and the transition to industrial cheese production.

It is on that last issue during the 19th Century that I found most interesting. Cheddar was the king of American cheese production during the entirety of the 20th century despite Cheshire having been the most common in 1851 when the first “cheese factory” opened in upstate New York. But Cheddar was easier to develop industrial processes for, including guidebooks on measurements, cooking temperatures, and so on, as well as being a cheese that lent itself to production in large blocks. Then, with the Civil War forcing women (the usual cheesemakers) to do other work on the farm and England lowering tariffs on cheese in desperation to feed of a burgeoning population–and that London particularly loved Cheddar, industrial cheesemaking exploded. However, industrial cheesemaking also diluted quality and taste because overproduction drove prices down.

Cheese and Culture is a book that is strikingly “Vermont,” including that there are several sentences complaining about EU trade regulations about naming rights on cheese and mocking the idea that Vermont Cheddar would have been named something like “Vermont Delight.”

There is a lot to recommend Cheese and Culture, but it is not without flaws. First, although Kindstedt does a passable job covering cheese in Greece and Rome, his framework is still somewhat set along the lines of the bible since the epitaph for each of the early chapters is taken from the Bible. Second, it is possible to quibble that cheese is as central to a narrative of world history. For instance, Kindstedt has a tendency to elevate cheese in places where cheese is but one of the commodities being traded, which might suggest a manipulation to make cheese more important than it actually was. (Not that I am unsympathetic, I might add, as a loyal son of Vermont and fervent caseophile.)

Third, the scope of Cheese and Culture is so large that Kindstedt necessarily speaks in some generalities. This is particularly true in the latter stages of the book where, after describing how there came to be a diversity of cheese (largely the result of variations in geography), Kindstedt falls back on generalities about American versus European cheese and the admittedly interesting account of trade wars.The problem is not that it doesn’t work in the context of this book about “Western Civilization,” but rather that he hints at a wider story about cheese in America. For instance, there is emphasis on New England cheese, but nothing about California or Wisconsin, and only passing mention about how Cheddar (probably including American) was the dominant cheese in America until passed by Mozzarella in 2001. The cause of mozzarella’s (and presumably other cheese’s) relegation? It was considered immigrant food. Just as with the bagel, there is a wider story about the American assimilation of food. This is not Kindstedt’s core theme and I should not criticize him for what he is not doing, but I found that adding one more section about the assimilation of non-Cheddar cheeses in America and regional variation would have strengthened the latter parts of the book. Instead, there is brief summation of the US-EU trade wars about cheese and brief mention of the return of artisanal cheese that offer taste in return for more money. These are important topics, but came across as somewhat anodyne compared to the more nuanced discussion about the creation of cheese diversity.

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I didn’t turn on my computer this past weekend in an effort to recharge a little bit, and so I have fallen behind on writing up my reading. I finished Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms (Dandelion Dynasty Book 2) last week and Michael Chabon’s idiosyncratic The Yiddish Policeman’s Union this morning. I am not sure what I am reading next, but on the nonfiction front it will either be Charles Mann’s 1493 or Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature; in terms of fiction, I have too many options to list and am currently pulled in several different directions.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

If it wasn’t clear from my relative silence, the last six weeks or so has been exceptionally busy, which has slowed both my reading and writing. I only managed to finish one non-academic book in October, barely slipping Margaret Atwood’s Booker Award Winning The Blind Assassin in under the wire. An astute reader, however, will note that October is now more than two weeks gone. I didn’t write an immediate review because the book required some digestion and then a number of real world events, including guests, a nasty head cold, teaching, job applications, and a presidential election colluded to keep me from the review. None of this should be taken to indicate a lack of appreciation for this book, the second of Atwood’s that I have read.

Atwood weaves together three distinct stories in The Blind Assassin. The frame story are the recollections of Iris Chase Griffen, the daughter one Ontario industrialist and the widow of another, writing her life story ostensibly for her estranged daughter. As such, this narrative slips between the first half of the twentieth century and explains hushed history of the Chase family through the wars and depressions, deaths and affairs, and the contemporary time and Iris’ old age. Interspersed with these stories are a variety of newspaper clippings that illuminate something about the Chase family, Iris’ marriage to Richard Griffen, or her sister Laura.

This first set of stories focuses on the relationships in Iris’ life, first with her angelic and sincere sister Laura and the much more problematic relationships with her husband and Winifred, her husband’s sister. Iris agrees to the marriage because she is convinced that this is the only way to save her father’s business and thence his life. Despite the veneer of love at the outset, Winifred and Richard expect Iris to obey them, as though they are her parents and overlords more so than as sister-in-law and husband. Iris accepts her place as would a martyr, but, when their father Norval Chase dies, Laura is exposed to Richard’s predilections. The reader knows from the outset that something has happened, since the book opens with “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

Then there is a story-within-a-story, the acclaimed science fiction novel attributed to Laura and published under the title The Blind Assassin. This story has a similar structure to the overall story, alternating between one narrative about an illicit affair between an married woman and an renegade, and the science fiction story that the lovers tell each other during their assignations. Suffice it to say that the novel is not entirely a work of fiction.

The final product is a meticulously crafted story about power, sexual violence, and family secrets that frequently remain just in the shadows and are all the more potent for being just out of reach. This short synopsis does not do The Blind Assassin justice since its combination of power and beauty develops along the nexus of these various relationships, including Iris’ eternal battle with Winifred and the still-troubled relationship with Laura more than four decades after her death.

And yet, I think I still preferred The Handmaid’s Tale. The comparison I keep coming back to is with the works of Orwell, where I believe that Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a better novel, but I prefer Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Blind Assassin is objectively a stronger, more complex, and more subtle novel than is The Handmaid’s Tale. Both are excellent, but I slightly prefer the latter.

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Next up, I am nearly finished reading The Wall of Storms, the second book in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty “Silkpunk” Epic. It is certainly different than the first book in the series, but is still very, very good. I haven’t given too much thought to what I am going to read after this, but am leaning on the fiction side toward Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, while my Thanksgiving Break reading for non-fiction is going to be Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.

Unjust logos and the crowd

Earlier this year I wrote about attacks on education and Aristophanes’ Clouds. As much as I believe other Aristophanic comedies are funnier and that they are better plays, something about 2016 keeps drawing me back to Clouds, a dark portrait of education, as containing nuggets of wisdom about society.

To recap, the conceit of The Clouds is that Strepsiades is in a bind because he is in debt and has lost court cases. His solution is to send his son, Pheidippides, to school that he may learn all the tricks of sophistry, which will make the weaker argument stronger and get him off the hook for debt. At this point in the play, Strepsiades has gone to Socrates’ school the Thinkery to see for himself what he is going to get with this investment.

Strepsiades:
“Teach him, he has a capacity for sophistry by nature…However, let him learn those two Arguments, the stronger and the weaker, and that the unjust arguments overturn the stronger. If not both, at any rate, [see that he learns] the unjust one completely.” [ἀμέλει δίδασκε, θυμόσοφός ἐστιν φύσει…ὅπως δ᾽ἐκείνω τὼ λόγω μαθήσεται, τὸν κρείττον᾽ὅστις ἐστὶ καὶ τὸν ἥττονα, ὃς τἄδικα λέγων ἀνατρέπει τὸν κρείττονα. ἐὰν δὲ μή, τὸν γοῦν ἄδικον πάσῃ τέχνῃ]

Socrates:
“He will learn them from the Logoi (Arguments) in person.” [αὐτὸς μαθήσεται παρ᾽αὐτοῖν τοῖν λόγοιν.]

Strepsiades:
“Remember now, that he must be able to speak against every course case.” [τοῦτό νυν μέμνησ᾽, ὅπως πρὸς πάντα τὰ δίκαι᾽ ἀντιλέγειν δυνήσεται]

[878-889]

After a brief exchange, both characters leave the stage and are replaced by personifications of the two Logoi (Arguments).

Just Logos:
“Make room here, show yourself to the onlookers, although you are bold!” [Χώρει δευρί, δεῖξον σαυτὸν τοῖσι θεαταῖς, καίπερ θρασὺς ὤν.]

Unjust Logos:
“Go wherever you want. I will destroy you far more speaking in front of a crowd!” [ἴθ᾽ ὅποι χρᾐζεις. πολὺ γὰρ μᾶλλὀν ᾽ς ἐν τοῖς πολλοῖσι λέγων ἀπολῶ.]

[889-892]

The debate between Just Logos and Unjust Logos continues. Unjust Logos quickly turns to insults (Just Logos is antiquated [ἀρχαῖος]) and profanity, and then slips into an argument filled with non sequitors and false comparisons that rejects Just Logos at every turn. What struck me was how the argument is framed, with Unjust Logos explicitly declaring that his brand of rhetoric works better the bigger the crowd is because the ability of the individual to judge arguments clearly is obfuscated by the emotion of the collective.

Note that Aristophanes does not restrict the strength of Unjust Logos to this setting as often appears in this critique of democracy from ancient Greece to Men in Black, but rather that large crowds magnify its power.

Current Mood

And for the plurality of readers, I have no doubt, that [the distant past] will offer little pleasure. They will hurry toward these modern times, in which the longstanding superior power of a people is sweeping itself away. In contrast, I myself will seek an advantage in my work, that I turn my gaze from the troubles which our time has seen for so many years, while I put my whole mind to those old days, having no part in the conflicts which, even if they cannot bend the mind of the writer from the truth, may nevertheless cause disturbance.

et legentium plerisque haud dubito quin primae origines proximaque originibus minus praebitura voluptatis sint festinantibus ad haec nova, quibus iam pridem praevalentis populi vires se ipsae conficiunt; ego contra hoc quoque laboris praemium petam, ut me a conspectu malorum, quae nostra tot per annos vidit aetas, tantisper certe dum prisca illa tota mente repeto, avertam, omis expers curae, quae scribentis animum etsi non flectere a vero, sollicitum tamen efficere posset.

Livy, AUC pr. 4-5

I have been particularly busy these past two months, between job applications, writing, teaching, and the election. This week has brought to my head a number of existential crises, while reinforcing my conviction about the central importance of humanistic education. Don’t expect a flurry of posts, but I expect activity to pick up here in the coming weeks, including a backlog of book reviews, collected thoughts about ancient history, teaching, and one post about my experience as an election judge this past Tuesday.

Before I go (this post was composed in a one-hour break between classes), I do want to make one point of clarification about how I interpret the post above. It is, of course, the famous passage from Livy’s introduction to his history of Rome Ab Urbe Condita, “From the Founding of the City,” which suggests that history is a refuge from the contemporary troubles society faces. Note, too, that he suggests that the end is nigh for Rome, when, in fact, the empire survived intact for another several centuries. But is history really a refuge in which one can retreat indefinitely and excuse him- or herself from culpability for the problems of modernity? Of course not, and, rhetoric aside, I don’t believe that Livy is saying that. All history is political and history is a space in which we can understand issues confronting society while also avoiding some of the worst polemics of contemporary discourse.

At some level I feel that I am at a crossroads of sorts and suspect that I am not alone in this. History is my primary medium and one of the things I aim to do going forward is to do a better job of using it “to think with,” but in a considered, careful way rather than leaping to hyperbolic judgements. But first, I am looking to my work for some solace.

The Muse of Lecture

Programming Note: I have been particularly busy of late so my reading has bogged down and substantive post-worthy thoughts are coming in fits and starts, so while there are some things in the works, things are going to remain irregular for the foreseeable future.

I have been thinking a lot about lectures recently because I have been tasked with a bunch of guest lectures, some scheduled, some emergency. Everyone has their own lecture styles, sometimes more than one depending on the type of class. Some are impressionistic, with good information, but refer students to sources where specific information is to be had. Some read from overloaded slides or march the audience through topic after topic, while others have detailed historiographical essays that they spin out as master storytellers.

Everyone needs to find their lecturing style and, ideally, have their muse. My lecturing style is still immature and improving, but I thought I should make mention of the person I consider my muse of the lecture.

Picture this. You arrive to class somewhat early and get out your notebook to make sure that you can write down the lists of names and terms being written up on the blackboard. Sometimes the professor is there writing down the terms, other times it is a TA, but, without fail, there is the list. Some terms, he says, are purely to help with spelling. Other than an occasional map, this will be the only aid and the extensive bank of terms doubles as the study guide for the exams. It is important that you arrive early and start writing because the lecture begins as soon as the class starts and you can’t risk missing anything that is said. When the period is over, your hand is cramped and it is entirely possible that you will need extra sheets of paper for your notebook before the semester is over, but you will have everything you need.

The scene should be familiar to most Brandeis history majors, at least if they took a course from Professor William Kapelle. Everyone has their Kapelle stories, and he certainly had plenty for you. I remember, for instance, a mini-diatribe about the international seafood market and one about the fine print of credit card offers. But then class began, sometimes with an apology if we had to have a lecture about agricultural changes in the Middle Ages, sometimes with no prologue. At one point while I was at Brandeis he began to write his lectures in exam bluebooks, declaring that it was the perfect length for a 50 minute class. In either case, he had a topic of the day and spun it out for a captivated audience of furiously-writing students. There were snarky asides, stories, and jokes, but the lectures were informative and detailed. I still have my lecture notes from his classes.

I owe a debt to Professor Kapelle, including for his willingness to write reference letters that got me into graduate school, but, the more I prepare to teach classes, the more I realize that it is his model that I start from in terms of how I want to lecture.

The Human Division – John Scalzi

I finished this book a few weeks ago and this is the last of the backlogged reviews, if only because life has gotten in the way of my reading.

Every book in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe is quite a lot of fun, being smart, clever, and modern military sci-fi. The core premise of the universe is that humanity spread out into the universe under the guiding hand of the Colonial Union and subsequently ran into other races that are stronger, smarter, or more technologically advanced, not to mention pissed that humans are spreading into their territory. To counter these problems, the Colonial Union kept the earth in a sort of stasis in terms of technology, collecting colonists from third-world countries and recruiting soldiers from the elderly in first-world countries. The soldiers do not, of course, keep their old bodies, but instead have their consciousnesses transferred into genetically enhanced bodies with computers in their heads giving them both a wealth of experience and bodies that give them a fighting chance against aliens (though mortality rates are still exceptionally high).

Now the Colonial Union has a problem. Their longstanding scheme to use earth as a source of manpower has been exposed and the people of Earth are furious at being used. The next installment in the series, The Human Division, explores the consequences of this rift.

The Human Division focuses on the exploits of CDF (Colonial Defense Forces) Lieutenant Harry Wilson, his human assistant Hart Schmidt, and Ambassador Abumwe. The first story, aptly named “The B-Team,” sets the tone for the book. When a diplomatic mission goes sideways and a star negotiator and her entire team are killed, the Colonial Union turns to the only available alternative. Abumwe’s team rarely gets things done in the most elegant fashion, but they get results. In these dangerous times, results are all that matter and so the team is assigned to missions where success is desired, but not at all expected.

The Human Division was originally serialized, released in digital form over the course of months in 2013. The project was well-received at the time (I followed the discussion a bit on Twitter), but I only read it in the overall book form. In this project, Scalzi talked about the challenges of writing standalone episodes that also formed a complete novel. While there are some hallmarks of serialization, such as noticeable time-lapses and some skipping around in viewpoints, but each individual episode is a fun story and there is a compelling arc for the entire novel, wherein the recurring characters develop their relationships.

I recommend that people start with the earlier books in the series. It is military sci-fi and, subsequently, tends to be an action romp, but one that carries with it clever dialogue, smart world building, and a progressive message. The action and quip-filled dialogue can threaten to make the characters come across as shallow, but Scalzi injects real emotional depth and real stakes even while the stories remain light and fast-moving.


Life has gotten in the way of my reading recently, between teaching, grading, writing, and job applications, but I am still working through and quite enjoying Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. After that the future is hazy, but I am particularly excited by Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms, which arrived in the mail yesterday.

Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov

The second of what my edition still somewhat quaintly refers to as “the foundation trilogy,” Foundation and Empire picks up the centuries-long epic from where the first book left off. Since I didn’t do an actual review of Foundation, I should recap. In the waning days of the Galactic Empire, the great psycho-historian Hari Seldon foresaw that he needed to found two foundations on the outer reaches of the galaxy, each preserving science and culture. These two settlements would be governed not by the fickleness of self-interested actors, but by the principles of psycho-history, namely that there are underlying forces in societies that may be manipulated to ensure prosperity. Through careful guidance, Seldon’s vision steers the first Foundation through a series of crises. In due time the Foundation exploits its advanced technology and privileged position to wield an economic hegemony on the outer reaches of the galaxy while the empire from whence it sprang crumbles.

Foundation and Empire tells two periods in Foundation’s history, both times when the leaders turn away from Seldon, despite an expected crisis. The first is a showdown with the Galactic Empire, in which the Empire is hopelessly outmatched by the superior technology. The second is a more dire threat because it combines two dangers, the inevitable (sic) crisis between a government that is becoming hereditary and independent-minded traders who value personal freedom, along with an unforeseen crisis in the form of a mutant warlord called The Mule. The powers of The Mule are a threat to the future foreseen by Seldon, but neither is he omnipotent, and while the first Foundation falls, the race to find Second Foundation is on.

I continue to be intrigued by the Foundation series. As a historian, it is an interesting idea for a science-fiction epic and Asimov does a good job at changing how the characters manifest as the society changes. At the same time, I found Foundation and Empire to be wildly uneven, speeding through some developments and dragging past others. I also found some of the reveals about The Mule rather predictable, and, while there were some interesting observations about unforeseen variables and the role of the individual, the novel came to a close without actually resolving much of anything. I enjoyed the read and will read Second Foundation, but I found the lack of resolution frustrating.


Next up, I still have to review John Scalzi’s entertaining The Human Division and I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

But Petersburg’s daily round – tranquil, luxurious, concerned only with phantoms and reflections of life – continued as before, so that it was not easy, and needed a determined effort, to form any true idea of the peril and the difficulty in which the Russian nation was placed.

Now that he was telling it all to Natasha he experienced the rare happiness men know when women listen to them – not clever women who when they listen are either trying to assimilate what they hear for the sake of enriching their minds and, when opportunity offers, repeating it, or to apply what is told them to their own ideas and promptly bring out clever comments elaborated in their own little mental workshop; but the happiness true women give who are endowed with the capacity to select and absorb all that is best in what a man shows of himself.

Recently I heard an advertisement for a new War and Peace cable miniseries that touted the story as being the greatest novel ever written. I have also seen that printed elsewhere, and while I would not go that far, I did come away with a deep appreciation for Tolstoy’s epic. Once upon a time I had tried to read War and Peace but got lost and gave up; this time around I persevered and, much to my surprise, found it to be a relatively easy read. There is just a lot of book. As in, more than once I looked up at the page number only to despair that after four hundred pages of story, there were still more thousand left to go. But, each time, the number of pages remaining steadily decreased and, lo, War and Peace came to an end.

War and Peace is too enormous to encapsulate in this review, but I am going to try.

Fundamentally, the story of War and Peace traces the conflict between Napoleon Bonaparte and Russian Tsar Alexander I in war and in peace from 1805 until 1812. Tolstoy presents the conflict as a struggle that the Russian people came to with religious fervor, with the eventual defeat of Napoleon treated with providential reverence.

The narrative unfolds from the perspective of members of the Russian aristocracy who are drawn into the conflict. Some of the lesser characters, such as the tragic Vasily Denisov and valiant little Captain Tushin are among the most memorable, but the story is best understood as following the intersection between two triads, one male, one female. The three men are Pierre Besuhov, Andrei Bolkonsky, and Nikolai Rostov, the women Maria Bolkonsky, Natasha Rostov, and Helene Bezuhov (neé Kuragin). Pierre, the adopted heir to his wealthy, natural father, is one of the heroes of the story, experiencing multiple awakenings as he strives to be the best he can be, often without luck. His wife, Helene, is a Europeanized woman, dressing and acting in scandalous ways, while, in contrast, the other two women exemplify Russian virtues. Natasha is at times flighty, but is the embodiment of beauty and innocence, while Maria embodies religious and family virtue. Their brothers similarly take on the mantle of virtues: Nikolai the (annoying) fervent passion for Russia and the Emperor even as he matures through the story, and Andrei modern European values that evidently are only a virtue in men. War and Peace traces the story of these six characters and their friends and acquaintances.

In lieu of a recap (there is war, peace, war, peace, war again, culminating in the capture of Moscow and French retreat), I want to give a few observations I had about War and Peace

First there was a preoccupation with money. Nearly every character was Russian nobility, and the sheer repetition of “prince” in my translation became tiresome, but few characters were actually financially solvent so money is one way Tolstoy drives them together and apart. On the one hand, it is effective, ratcheting up the tension in the various liaisons, but, on the other, it also repeatedly struck me as ironic given that the book is about a particularly privileged class of Russian society that Tolstoy praises for benevolent paternalism.

Second, one of the running themes as War and Peace goes along is the importance of Moscow as the “Asiatic Capital” of the Russian nation, which Tolstoy offers as the reason that it was Napoleon’s target. Now, Moscow likely did have that much symbolic significance, but it kept striking me that Moscow was not the administrative capital of Russia, Petersburg was. The result, which I don’t know enough whether to credit to Tolstoy, is a dissonance between reality and how the characters talk with reference to the importance of the city. For the Bolkonskys, anyway, Moscow is significant because Napoleon’s line of advance passes directly through their ancestral estates.

Third, some of the most moving scenes from my perspective came during the battles. The characters talk about past battles and great heroes who actions save the state, but their actual experiences are narrated from a tight third-person perspective which turns the battles into noisy, bloody, confusing affairs that, more often than not, leave the participants scared and confused.

Fourth, for all of the sexism, classism, and bias that pervades War and Peace,there are a remarkable number of eternal truths, from the terror of battle, to the advice quoted at the start of this piece, to take the best of what your partner has to offer. There’s a lengthy tirade against historians in the second epilogue, something that is foreshadowed by intermittent asides that might be the result of serial publication, but there isn’t one overarching message in this memorialization of the Russian triumph over France and the west. Instead, the story is pregnant with these moments of profundity as each of the characters tries to do what he or she believes to be best.

In sum, not what I would call the best novel of all time, but well worth reading.



I have still been reading, but the start of the semester and all that accompanies that have caused me to fall somewhat behind on reviews. I recently finished Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire and John Scalzi’s The Human Division, and am now onto Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I may be playing catchup for a while, but thoughts on those books are coming.