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Changing addresses

In the time that I have been writing in this blog I have moved more than ten times and lived in three different states. I originally purchased this domain name with the idea of using it as a space to learn how to program, but, for a variety of reasons, that never really happened. I also set up the site in a sort of backward manner, not to say that I would have been unable to disentangle it, but such that I would have had to do more work to make that happen than I was ever really wanted to put into it. Then there was the name, taken because I sort of foolishly thought at the time that I was going to study Seleucus himself. I did go on to do the PhD in ancient history, but I haven’t ever really studied Seleucus and my interests have wandered in rather other directions. Thus the name is a relic of youthful flights of fancy, and I have been considering a change for a few years. Mostly I have resisted for the same reasons I always have: it takes work to make the change, the settings and look here is familiar and to my taste, and there are always a number of other things for me to do.

The site is not going anywhere, and I am keeping the domain for at least a while, perhaps to resurrect it for another purpose, but I am here to announce that this will be my last post for the foreseeable future at this site. I have migrated the entire blog (youthful hiccoughs and all) to a new website joshuapnudell.wordpress.com, where you will find my blog, links to other social media, and hopefully information about new projects that I am excited about down the line. The website is going to undergo some changes as it grows, but the blog should be fully operational as I write this. I hope to see you there.

The End of All Things – John Scalzi

The End of All Things is the most recent installment of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. Like it’s predecessor, The Human Division, The End of All Things was released in serial form, with each episode advancing the overall plot, while introducing new viewpoint characters. Like Scalzi’s other work, the book features snappy, sarcastic, and often exasperated dialogue, with a smart and sympathetic overall tone. The End of All Things is not my favorite book in the series, which, at some level seems to be running its course since the novelty of the original premise has grown old, but it nonetheless remains a worthy read.

At the conclusion of The Human Division Earth has been separated from the Colonial Union and is now hung between the CU and The Conclave, an alliance of alien species, many of whom hate all humans. The governments of Earth are convinced, and not without reason, that the CU is responsible for attacking them, but, in fact, the real perpetrators are a shadowy organization known as Equilibrium whose goal is to destroy The Conclave and, if possible, the Colonial Union. It is a race against time for scrappy misfits to stop an all-out war, prevent the genocide of the human race, and, in the process, save the Colonial Union from itself.

One of the things I enjoyed about The End of All Things (despite the opinion that the title, which is also a repeated line in the book, is a little too cute) is that its action-and-ingenuity form is set against a thoughtful discussion of politics wherein there are three camps: keep things the way they are, blow everything up, and aggressively pursue a more structurally sound system. The heroes are in the last camp. Moreover, Scalzi does a notably good job of building a diverse cast of characters who take on important roles, regardless of their gender, without coming across like he is preaching about these virtues. I add this last point because I find it somewhat ironic given his online reputation and also because some other science fiction and fantasy books have sometimes come across as moralistic, though, admittedly, generally within the strictures of their plots.

I have given a brief synopsis and a brief explanation of what I liked about The End of All Things, but want to conclude with some further thoughts about serialization and series. The End of All Things is the sixth book in this series, but unlike a lot of long genre series it doesn’t seem to be building to a single “last battle” or comparable event. If I recall correctly, I have put down every book thinking that a) there was a satisfactory conclusion and b) events outside that particular arc continued, whether or not they were even put down in a publication. This is not an easy task to accomplish.

Each new book picks up the grand plot of the series and features some of the same characters, but doesn’t simply perpetuate itself by finding some new skill for the protagonist to have or by needing to pick up from an incomplete story. Instead, each new book has a new angle or has a new perspective—-and the same holds true for each installment of the serialized books, with the final resolution coming at the end of the final installment. What I find interesting about this approach is that it avoids some of the pitfalls of long-running series that sometimes feel like they are coming apart at the seams because the author keeps introducing new viewpoint characters. Scalzi introduces new viewpoints, but usually because the other viewpoints are not likely to return.

As noted above, I liked The End of All Things, but it concludes at a very nice pause point for that particular universe and I am excited to see what Scalzi puts out next.

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Next up, I am reading Wicked River by Lee Sandlin and will probably open Orhan Pamuk’s The Silent House later today.

The Tattered Cloak – Nina Berberova

I don’t usually read short stories unless I already appreciate the larger piece of art that I already like. There are a variety of reasons for this breakdown of what I read, and my prejudices against the medium, including that I have a hard time connecting with the characters in such a short space, are clearly colored by the types of short stories I do read. (I have also read David Foster Wallace short story collections that are…something.) yet, I do want to read more broadly, and I had picked up Nina Berberova’s collection on a whim at Jackson Street Books in Omaha Nebraska, so I gave it a go as one of the first reads of 2017. The short version of this review: these stories are amazing.

Berberova was born in St. Petersburg in 1901 and emigrated to Paris in the 1920s; her work reflects her personal experience, telling stories about Russians fleeing circumstances in their native country and trying to make a life somewhere else. This particular collection consists of six stories, translated under the titles “The Resurrection of Mozart,” “The Waiter and the Slut,” “Astashev in Paris,” “The Tattered Cloak,” “The Black Pestilence,” and “In Memory of Schliemann.” Berberova conjures a misfit cast of Russians, all of whom are trying to make their way in life, often by somewhat unsavory means. Ultimately the collections reminiscent of Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris crossed with the best of the Russian short story tradition of Gogol.

I really liked every story in this collection, but the lead story, “The Resurrection of Mozart” was the one that stood out to me both as being a little bit different and particularly memorable. This story is set a little bit after the others, taking place in June 1940 just after the outbreak of war between France and Germany. A group of Russian emigres are gathered in a village outside of Paris and debating which famous figure is most necessary in times like these. Someone says Napoleon, another says Julius Caesar, but the host insists that in troubled times artists are most necessary and none more so than Mozart. The next day a stranger with a strange accent wanders into town while everyone is furiously making preparations for war. Without revealing what happens next, Berberova offers a devastating commentary about life during troubled times. She doesn’t suggest that calling back a famous warrior would have changed the course of World War 2, but she does seem to suggest how powerless a single individual can be.

The Tattered Cloak and other Stories did a lot to moderate my opinion of short stories. Berberova crafts short vignettes on a given theme and creates engaging and memorable characters. She does not cringe away from difficult topics, which some people might find off-putting, but as with the comparable authors I listed above, I find that these moments add a power to the stories. I intend to read more of her work in the future and absolutely recommend this collection to just about anyone.

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Next up, I finished reading John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I started reading Lee Sandlin’s Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi River this morning and plan to read Orhan Pamuk’s The Silent House next.

Some thoughts on rereading

Once upon a time there was a young man who loved reading. he read all the time, including in trees and on buses and in chairs and one time was reprimanded in sixth grade math class for reading a book. Despite being a precocious reader, this young man once checked the same book on Sitting Bull out of his elementary school library thirteen consecutive times.* But each time he checked that book out, he read it at least once. He read all the time, but he had a lot of books that he was particularly fond of.** Then something happened: he all-but stopped rereading books, even particular favorites.

[*That young man would do worse during graduate school, but at least then he was working on a dissertation.]

[**That young man also had a curious habit of reading more than one or two books at a given time, at least until he burned himself out during college while trying to juggle close to twenty books at once.]

To no-one’s surprise, that young man is the author of this blog. I actually do quite a bit of rereading still, albeit usually for research purposes, but I hardly ever reread anything simply for pleasure even though I am still, at heart a rereader.

So what is it that I like rereading books that I have read one, twice, or a half-dozen times before? First, I find a comfort in rereading books where I like the characters that is similar to meeting up again with old friends. Moreover, there is a comfort in this sort of safe-space where you already know what is going to happen. I also believe studies that suggest that “spoilers” generally don’t diminish enjoyment but give a pleasure of heightened anticipation. [On that issue, if the quality of a book or movie is premised on such an important twist, it is deeply flawed.] Finally, whether a book is part of a long-running and intricate series or is just a great piece of literature, there are layers to the story that will add to meaning in light of other information, whether from other books or from life experience.

Despite these pleasures of rereading, I don’t do it for the same reason that I don’t pester famous authors to finish their long-running series in a timely manner: there are too many amazing books out there are not enough time to read them all. I would like the pendulum to swing back the other direction a little bit because there are some all-time great books that I want to reread. In the meantime, though, I am comfortable allocating my limited time to new books and reading reread projects online that evoke many of the same comfortable feelings while coloring them with just a tinge of envy.

On pizza toppings

I bake a lot and although the item I am most proud of, the one that would be my technical challenge for GBBO contestants, is the bagel, the foodstuff that started the compulsive baking is pizza. For a little context, I have tried five different dough recipes and although I have settled on one that I like a lot, it is not yet perfect. But crusts, even though they are absolutely essential to the perfect pizza, are not the subject of this post, the toppings are. Or rather, some toppings are.

A little more background: I was in Minneapolis recently for family reasons and on my way out of town I stopped at Punch Pizza, a chain that fires their pizzas at exceptionally high temperatures, which gives a delicious char onto their chewy crust. Punch does not have my favorite pizzas around, but theirs are more than serviceable, especially for when I am pressed for time. Being on my own, I went with one of my favorite pizza toppings: onions. Usually when I go there I am sharing my pizza with someone who doesn’t like onions, so I this was the first time I had them at Punch. As it turns out, I was not a fan of the onions on this particular pizza and since I had an eight hour drive that followed immediately upon eating, I had ample time to think about what went wrong here.

According to Punch’s website, they fire their pizzas “in a wood-burning oven to a blistering 900 degrees,” which, as noted above, is one of the reasons I like their crust so much. The extreme temperature also cuts down on the cooking time since the toppings warm and the cheese melts quickly. And yet I found a strange thing happened: the onions I ordered were warmed up, but they did not completely cook through and caramelize the way that they frequently do on pizzas I cook at home. I still ate the pizza, of course, but I think that I will have to take into account the cooking time and temperature when choosing toppings in the future.

My 2016 – Using Words

2016 was in some ways a good year for me. In terms of my academic work it felt as though I leveled up, inching closer to emerging from the cocoon of graduate school. This was, in part, just a matter of time passing, but it also seemed more substantive. I started thinking about my work differently, seeing it differently, and had some successes. I can grow and improve my craft more, without a doubt, but I (finally) felt a substantive difference. On the other hand, I was frequently stymied in every attempt to take the next step, which makes me think that this sense of growth was little more than feeling comfortable within the limits that I had already reached, but I will write more about this in another post.

I also got back to teaching in the fall of 2016, working for Western Civilization (up to 1715). This meant both leading discussion sections and giving a series of guest lectures. There were ways that I could have improved the lectures, of course, but on the whole the teaching went as well as it ever has, and the evaluations bore that out. The improvement came from a variety of sources, including simple practice, but also that I felt more comfortable in my subject expertise than I had in other semesters and that I am getting a good sense for how to craft a through-line for students when teaching new material. This last was important because I taught classes on everything from the Roman Republic to the Hellenistic World, to the Renaissance.

For the most part I also managed to continue playing basketball, lifting weights, and running on a regular basis. I did not manage to push my running distances to any great lengths, but I was pleased that I was able to do it at all. Similarly, I kept up most of my self-improvement goals, including that I started using Duolingo to brush up on my German and to learn Spanish and Dutch; I currently have a 115 day streak.

However, I had one significant problem with 2016: anxiety. I have long had issues with anxiety and depression, and my anxiety issues, manifesting in elevated heart rate, shaky hands, and an inability to focus. Most of these have to do with my work or, more precisely, my ability to continue working past this school year, but certainly events outside of my immediate circumstances are feeding into these issues. Beyond working on applications and doubling down on my work, one of my goals for 2017 is to spend more time doing things like meditating in the hopes of remaining even-keeled.

In reality there was a lot more to 2016, such as moving in August and using almost every available opportunity to travel, but I am all over the place right now, so now for some 2017 resolutions.

The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable with people I know and tolerant of distraction (while working to limit them)
  • Smile more often.
  • Continue to exercise, maintain or improve health and fitness.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises

The concrete and quantifiable

  • Write more often, here, there, and beyond. Some specific (but not a complete) list of quantifiable goals:
    • Defend my dissertation and graduate!
    • Finish a draft of my (now begun!) novel
    • Complete and send off (4) articles to academic journals
    • Apply to review (2) academic books
    • Find one non-blog, non-academic site to publish a piece of writing, either fiction or non-fiction
  • Keep up my non-academic reading, but continue to expand my horizons, meaning:
    • Read at least (52) nonacademic books. I have succeeded in this two consecutive years, but between a tendency to read long books and having a lot of other tasks, setting a higher goal would be irresponsible.
    • I read (8) books by women in 2016; in 2017 it should be more than (10).
    • I read (7) non-fiction books (not for academic purposes) in 2016; in 2017 I want to hit (10).
  • Conquering the kitchen: develop (2) of my own bread recipes using flavors or ingredients that I do not usually use.

To Each His Own – Leonardo Sciascia

“But,” he said to himself, “Sicily and maybe all Italy is full of likable people who should have their heads chopped off.”

To Each His Own is the second novel I’ve read by the Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia, the first being The Day of the Owl. Despite being radically different stories, the two novels have certain similarities. Both are mysteries set in small town Sicily and both cases center on the exploitation of power by shadowy family organizations that may or may not be the mafia, depending on who is talking. However, unlike The Day of the Owl, To Each His Own is told through the lens of a native Sicilian.

The story opens when the town pharmacist receives a death threat in the mail. He is disturbed, but writes it off as a prank and continues with his plan to go hunting with his friend Dr. Roscio. Neither man returns home, but their bodies and the animals they killed are later found. The police investigation quickly stalls, but the case attracts the attention of Professor Paolo Laurana, a teacher and literary critic who is particularly captured by the death threat, which is made up of newspaper clippings that include the word “Unicuique” (suum): to each his own.

Laurana’s investigation continues around his school duties, starting with the provenance of the death threat. Slowly, though, his suspicions are transferred onto the death of Dr. Roscio, who had recently took an emergency trip to Rome and is married to Luisa the beautiful niece of Dean Rosello. Although Dean Rosello is a local pastor, he is both the spiritual and terrestrial head of household for a family that owns vast tracts of land in and around the city and protected his brothers’ widows, raising their children, including Luisa and another Rosello, as though they were his own, ensuring that his family members married well and received influential posts in local government. Despite the police honing in on the clues that point to the pharmacist being responsible for the death of the two men, Laurana believes that there is something shady about this family and proceeds to become entangled in the the web he is trying to unravel.

I liked To Each His Own better than The Day of the Owl. The latter story is an earlier work and is still a powerful critique of mafia culture, but was too much on the nose. To Each His Own is still an inconclusive story and touches on the same themes, but does so obliquely, which, in my opinion, allows the main narrative to thrive in its own right in a way that The Day of the Owl sometimes did not.

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I have finished The Tattered Cloak, a series of short stories by the Paris-based Russian emigrĂ© Nina Berberova, and am now reading John Scalzi’s serial novel The End of All Things.

Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davies

My final non-fiction read of 2016 was another large book that has been on my list for quite some time. Norman Davies Vanished Kingdoms is a weighty tome that purports to investigate the rise and fall of states. In my opinion, Davies falls short of this stated objective, but the book as a whole is nevertheless worth reading.

Each chapter of Vanished Kingdoms is dedicated to a different European “kingdom” that a) came into being after the fall of the Roman Empire b) has somehow shaped the modern European landscape and c) no longer exists. The studies are arranged in rough chronological order, starting with the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa and concluding with the Soviet Union (albeit focussed on Estonia). Each chapter is divided into three parts. First, there is a synopsis of the modern region, second is a synopsis of the titular state of the chapter, and finally there is an analysis of how that state collapsed. Some chapters are more comprehensive than others; for instance, the chapter on Byzantium is littered with comments about how this short chapter is inadequate to give anything other than a passing impression. The unevenness was usually not a major problem, except in the case of Byzantium, which seemed like a chapter that a reviewer asked to be added to the book rather than one that really fit with the rest of the text.

Davies returns to themes of language, culture, and religion over and over again, and with good reason. His approach highlights that the largely stable borders of European nation-states were deeply fragmented as little as a century and a half ago and liable to change because of elite marriages. Vanished Kingdoms does an excellent job of explaining many of the independence movements in, for instance Catalonia, without trying to be a Grand Narrative of Europe. I also particularly liked Davies’ approach to European nationalism, which is not to push national identity per se into the past, but to ascribe weight to historical developments in terms of the the development of modern nationalism—and starting this narrative in the shadow of Rome was defensible for seeking these roots.

I liked Vanished Kingdoms quite a bit, particularly enjoying the chapters on Alt Clud (northern England), Litvia, Borussia, and Aragon, but, as noted above, think that framing the book as a study of how states die is misleading. The final chapter is a historiographical epilogue that engages with the literature on how states fail, infused with observations and conclusions from the fifteen studies in the book. This chapter was fine, but I found the frame limiting, particularly in that this is a Eurocentric book. Instead, I thought the stronger parts of the book engaged with the wrinkles of European Nationalism, something that is tangentially related to how states collapse, but actually examining how states survive—not in terms of political strategy, but in terms of the formations that currently exist.

Best* posts of 2016

I am running a half-step behind all of the other “2016 year in review” posts this year because we had family visiting in the days leading up to the New Year and then I was on the road for a few days. This year I am adding several posts to my Year-End Slate, including one to highlight the posts of 2016 that I think are my best of the year. I am not using any metric for this other than the posts that I think are the best written or most worth revisiting.

Will I feed on Wisdom Like a Dog?

Unjust Logos and the Crowd

The Hearth and the Television

Who Needs Nuance?

Donald Trump and Some Assumptions about Isis

There are a few others posts, but this year I mostly blogged about books I read. I hope to write more posts along these lines in 2017.

My 2016 – By the Numbers

There are any number of numbers that have been used to quantify the experience of 2016, including how much average temperatures rose, stock market tickers, votes cast, emails leaked, amount of money spent by SuperPACs, number of people displaced from Syria, total human population on Earth, instances and casualties of mass- and police-shootings—plus happier statistics that aren’t necessarily kept such as weddings, child-births, mitzvahs, and the like. Here are some numbers about my year.

4 – article submissions
—3 article rejections
—1 requested revise and resubmit
—3 articles queued for edits and submission in early 2017
2 – academic papers presented based on my dissertation research
2 – abstracts accepted for conference papers
—1 abstract under review
136 – pages in my dissertation’s narrative section, which is effectively in its final form
1 – novels started
15 – jobs applied for in 2016
—0 – job interviews received
— 12 – job applications due in January
9 – states visited [drive-throughs not counted]
3 – ultimate frisbee leagues participated in
59 – books read above and beyond an immediate academic purpose [+6]
—12 – original languages
—7 – non-fiction books
—8 – books by female authors [+4 from 2015]
99 – blog posts published
— 60 – book reviews
— 6 – posts about politics
— 2 – posts about Aristophanes
42 – Instagram posts
—11 – baking/cooking pictures
—8 – cat pictures

As usual, these numbers mean nothing, anything, and everything. There are other metrics, but they are proprietary of NUDEAN-inc, a private analytics company. A NUDEAN spokesperson is cagey when asked to share the areas of life quantified while keeping the actual numbers secret, leading one to speculate that the data is only being haphazardly recorded. Whether this situation is a product of gross incompetence or because many aspects of human life cannot or should not be quantified is a judgement left to the reader.