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What is making me happy: Simon Pegg

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.

I’ve enjoyed Simon Pegg on screen for a few years, but he is not someone who I had ever heard speak as himself. Earlier this month, though, he was on Studio 360 to talk about his movies in general and the latest Mission Impossible film specifically. As part of the conversation he spoke about a sound-byte of his that caused a stir earlier this year where he supposedly accused comic book movies of causing society to become more childish. In talking about all of these issues I found Pegg to be personable and thoughtful.

The interview:

Social Network Activism

Whenever I mention that I’ve been off Facebook since 2012 people remark that it sounds like I am talking about a drug. It is perhaps better for me to refer to this as the date when I deleted my Facebook account, but they mean fundamentally the same thing and part of my problem with my experience with Facebook was my own inability to tear myself away from that morass. Regardless, I have not had a Facebook account since July 2012, more than three years ago. This may sound like an addict repeating a mantra in hopes that someday it comes true, but I don’t miss Facebook and, most days, don’t even give it much thought. I have my Twitter, which keeps me up to date on the world at large, keeps me entertained, and hits all of the buttons in my brain that drew me to Facebook. I miss some people, but I would miss many of them if I had a Facebook account.

The purpose of Facebook when it started was to eliminate the barriers between people and make communication easier; I maintained in 2012 that it only did this superficially and while I stand by that statement, my problems with the site now are that it hits just the right balance of ubiquity, accessibility, and performance so as to encourage its use to organize events. For those people with Facebook accounts, I am sure this works wonderfully. For people without Facebook this frequently results in being left out of the loop, usually with a perfunctory, “oh, right, you’re not on Facebook,” by way of explanation. The prospect of a world of communication taking place on this space that I voluntarily excused myself from does not bother me, but it is socially alienating in the sense that perhaps having an account could result in invitations to physical events. But this is generally just a little frustrating.

The past few years have seen a rise in (and exponentially more complaints about “slacktivism,” or activism that requires no more energy than signing a petition or saying something online. I’m indifferent to these and tend to skip the events, but there is something to what might be termed “snactivism” or activism that takes place principally on social networks.

Recent events at the University of Missouri have seen a lot of the graduate students organizing, with one of the cornerstones of the frustration being an active social media campaign on Twitter using the hashtags “#GradsDo” “#GradRights” and “#GradInsurance.” The movement was sparked when the university pulled graduate student health insurance to comply with a 2013 IRS ruling based on HHS definitions, and told faculty and graduate students about the change with just thirteen hours notice before it expired. This was in the wake of decisions and SNAFUs that directly hinder graduate student research and place increased financial demands on graduate students who make next to nothing already. The response was loud and immediate, with there being a walkout and rally on campus today. The movement itself is important, but is not what I am interested in here. In addition to the Twitter and Youtube campaigns to express frustration, the movement has utilized Facebook to organize, plan, and disseminate information. I am not surprised that this happened since most people have an account and it is cheaper to use this resource than it is to send mass emails using the school lists, but I still maintain that the biggest piece of the scandal on the part of the University of Missouri was the utter lack of communication about any of the decisions, so there is some irony that a certain segment of people are left out of most communication regarding the activism, needing to go out of their way to find it and being prohibited from contributing the conversation.

This is not slacktivism, but snactivism has its own limitations because there are barriers to information available on Facebook to people without accounts. For their part, many of the Mizzou grad students involved in organization have been good about sharing information and events and there are usually Twitter links to developments. Nevertheless, there have been several times where I have had that same “are you going/what/right that message was on Facebook” exchange which is at the least off putting. And I cannot help but think that this setup is exactly how M. Zuckerberg designed it.

Netflix and recapturing time

My personality is such that I am somewhat compulsive and somewhat addictive. I have a thing for completion and tend to get antsy if I feel that I have left something unfinished; Netflix enables these traits with hundreds of hours of shows designed to draw in and keep the viewer tuned in, only, instead of requiring him or her to tune back in next week, the next episode begins to play automatically after just a few seconds–and that is before considering the extensive library of movies and documentaries. Most of the time I use Netflix as background for activities like cleaning, cooking, or grading, but I have also wasted more time than I would like to admit. A lot of this time has been spent watching mediocre or worse shows and a lot of procedurals or semi-procedurals that have familiar rhythms and are easily mainlined. There are a lot of beautiful and truly excellent shows and movies there, too, including some of the Netflix original series, but there is a lot of dreck and a constant barrage of stuff.

I have mixed feelings about the race to develop new original content by every channel or service because of the value of shows that are owned in house, something the Hollywood Prospectus podcast has talked a lot about, but not just because there are too many T.V. shows. The thesis is that the race to produce a large number of these shows quickly has resulted in a lot of really good shows, but few great ones. As someone who primarily uses Netflix, my problem is more that Netflix has a tendency to push their own shows over the rest of the library. In other words, my complaint isn’t with the shows themselves so much as the feeling that they are being forced upon me.

Most of the shows I was committed to seeing through until the end had their series finales last year, but the bigger quirk of consuming these shows through a streaming service is that there is a lag between the air date and their availability online. Sometimes this means a good show will have multiple seasons available immediately, and, other times, it means that good shows only get discovered after they have been cancelled. This dynamic isn’t new, just more pronounced. Streaming services are all about instant gratification, but the only shows that are immediately available from the outset are the original series. I find that this makes it somewhat more difficult to find new shows that I can really become committed to. There are shows I want to see, but none that I feel so excited about that I will go out to pay for them sight unseen and the marketplace for streaming services means that there is no certainty about which one the shows will come to, or when they will arrive. Beyond that, I am increasingly finding that the shows I am most excited about are on or available through PBS, with the main exception being CNN’s Parts Unknown.

I have also reached a tipping point with podcasts and am falling behind on things I want to listen to, and podcasts are more often more informative, less demanding on my attention, and free. If I am going to let one of the two go, the choice is obvious.

The semester is about to start and I have been giving through to what I want my life to look like this year. There have been some recent changes at Mizzou that play into this, but, mostly, I am going on the job market for the first time and coming very close to ending a phase of my life. One of the big conclusions I have come to is that I become too engaged with Netflix and don’t get enough enjoyment in return. Its primary function is distraction and contributes to my anxiety level.

In sum, I’ve decided to cancel my Netflix subscription. If I want to watch something, I will pay for it (not for the whole package) or use my local video store, though I am giving myself a week to pick through my list on Netflix and watch a last few things. The goal here is to be more efficient with the eventual goal of making me happier. I thought similarly when I deleted my Facebook account, albeit for different reasons, and have had very few regrets, most of which boil down to how people use Facebook for social organization rather than my not having an account. Hopefully I will have similar results with this decision.

July 2015 Reading Recap

I read a lot again in July, quickly falling back into old habits of spending muggy evenings just reading and, for most of the month, felt pretty well-balanced as a result. Part of the reason I was able to read so much was that, for the first time in a while, I read a significant amount of science fiction and fantasy and fewer literary fiction novels. In many ways the situation gave me flashbacks to years gone by.

Literary Fiction
Romance of the Three Kingdoms v.1, Luo Guanzhong
Reading this, the first of two volumes of the medieval Chinese epic that retold the dissolution of the Han Dynasty around 200 CE. The translation I used is quite dated and the romance is particularly stilted at times, with action usually being said to happen rather than narrated. Nevertheless, the story itself is engaging, as the it narrates the intrigues between the decadent house of Wu in the south, the wily and ruthless Cao Cao of Wei, and the noble and righteous Liu Bei of Shu. I had fond memories of the video game Dynasty Warriors as I was reading, but this is not a book I would necessarily recommend for anyone who is not already invested in the endeavor.

The Fortune of War, Patrick O’Brian
The continuing adventures of Aubrey and Maturin take them to Boston at the outset of The War of 1812 and includes the naval duel between the H.M.S. Shannon and U.S.S. Chesapeake. The bulk of this story takes place with the two men scheming to escape captivity after their capture. The writing of this book is on the upper end of O’Brian’s novels thus far, but it still tends to bog down when he is not writing about sailing. I didn’t find this arc nearly as tedious as the ones involving life back home in England, but it was still not my favorite. Still, I appreciate O’Brian’s dedication to particular types of historical accuracy.

The Emperor’s Tomb, Joseph Roth
This novel continues the story of the Trotta family in Austria that was begun by The Radetsky March, though the protagonists of the two share little beyond their name. This story uses World War One as a fulcrum and tells of the the declining fortune of the Trottas after the war as all their ventures fail. However, the story suffers from many of the moralistic problems of the the former novel without the charm. In particular, Roth goes out of his way to emphasize the averageness of the the Trotta family in the first, showing them to be swept along by forces entirely beyond their control even while they make decisions. In this one there are many of the issues, but without the same setup. The result is that within this particular narrative the characters, none of whom are particularly nice or endearing, simply try ineffectually and fail. Perhaps this particular feature of the Trotta family is meant to carry over from one story to the next, but one would expect there to be some reminder if that was the case. The result is a dreary, dull read and not a particularly good story, though the crushing weight of the environmental factors remain constant in both.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Fool Moon, Jim Butcher
The second book of the Dresden Files novels continues the adventures of the Wizard/Private Eye Harry Dresden. As one may guess by the campy title, this on involves were-wolves. I’m not yet sure how I feel about the series. The novels are pulpy and campy, but addictive. The first two also have the feel of an author playing around, honing a craft, and not yet with a larger story arc in mind. I will read at least one more, but, after that, who knows.

The Rebirths of Tao, Wesley Chu
Speaking of addictive, this The Rebirths of Tao concludes this trilogy that began with the Lives of Tao. True to form, each installment adds layers, both to the narrative and the global conflict that threatens the existence of the human race. Chu’s writing remains snappy, clever, fast-paced, and, above all, fun, but just wasn’t as tight as in the previous two novels. Nevertheless, Rebirths is a fitting conclusion to the series.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov
I am somewhat ashamed how long it took me to read Foundation, a classic text in the genre. This is the story of the decline and fall of a galactic empire, which has stood for millennia. A scholar named Hari Seldon has perfected “Psychological History,” which is the history of the future as dictated by economic and sociological principles. Despite the imperial court being convinced of its invincibility, Seldon has become convinced of that the empire will collapse and be followed by thirty thousand years of barbarism–but the time can be reduced to one thousand, if he is allowed to create a galactic encyclopedia on a distant world. The encyclopedia itself is a feint, but Seldon has predicted that the world will restore civilization, so long as they do not come to rely on individual heroism. There is a general lack of strong narrative arc or dynamic characters, but the ideas in this book are provocative and worth thinking about, even though the specific technology (nuclear) is a product of its own age.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams
Another book that I meant to have read some time ago, started once, and just never got back to. Adams had some wonderful backs and forths and observations, but his style of witty, clever nonsense that sometimes defies any sort of narrative sense just isn’t really my thing, at least not anymore. I may read the second book in the series for completion’s sake, but I didn’t like DGHDA as much as a lot of more recent books or Hitchhiker’s Guide. The preoccupation with antiquated computers also seemed stilted.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
Reviewed here, Liu’s first novel in his epic fantasy trilogy is a soaring epic modeled on Chinese epic rather than western quest stories. I loved this book and it was pretty easily my favorite read of the month.

Nonfiction
Palmyra and its Empire Richard Stoneman
A somewhat dated book that I suspect I read once many years ago, I picked this one up again because of the disappointing news coming out of Palmyra. As a BMCR reviewer put it, this book combines relatively popular history narratives about Zenobia with much denser narrative and argumentation about Palmyra and its role in the Roman frontier. The feeling that I had read the book before took some of the wind out of my sails and I don’t find myself quite as intrigued by Roman history as I once did, but this is still a worthwhile read.

The Bagel Maria Balinska
Reviewed here, Balinska traces the history of the bagel from the fork that divided the bread from its Christian counterpart in medieval Poland, through its immigration to America as a ethnic Jewish food, its role in the labor movement around the turn of the century, and finally through its conquest of America as a ubiquitous breakfast food. There is a larger story than the narrow one Balinska tells in the second half of the book, but the simplistic story works well enough and should I ever find myself teaching US History for my supper, this is a book that I will use in my teaching.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

Liu’s debut novel, the first in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy is a revelation in the field of epic fantasy. Instead of being modeled on the tradition of Lord of the Rings (and The Wheel of Time and like stories), with reluctant or unlikely heroes destined for greatness going on a quest, Liu models his story on Chinese epics, telling the tale of an imperial dynasty, corrupt courtiers, vengeful couriers, devoted servants, and a man determined to help a realm that groans under the weight of the nobility. All the while, the gods, siblings who oversee the islands, meddle in human affairs and choose their champions.

On the archipelago of Dara there have historically been seven Tiro kingdoms, endlessly squabbling, until the kingdom of Xana conquered the other six. Instead of ruling wisely, the new emperor brutally suppressed opponents, ran roughshod over tradition, and laid out heavy taxes and impositions on the new subjects in order to create ever greater monuments to the emperor. But the emperor dies and rebellion breaks out, giving opportunity to the likes of Kuni Garu, the dandelion, and Mata Zyndu, the chrysanthemum. The two, who are the closest the story has to traditional protagonists could not be more dissimilar. Kuni Garu is a poor man from a poor family, who flirted with being a bandit and a local thug, before finding a calling with civil service, where he demonstrates both efficiency and an ability to inspire others to success. Despite the humble origins, Kuni promises his wife Jia that their life will always be interesting. Mata Zyndu is the scion of a noble house, an eight-foot tall unstoppable warrior with two pupils in each eye and a burning desire to avenge his family and his country for the wrongs suffered during the conquest. His loyalty is to traditional honor, traditional nobility, and glorious battle. The two come to declare themselves brothers.

Yet, fate and the gods scheme to drive them apart and fuel the continuation of wholesale slaughter until only one man remains standing.

This brief synopsis of the narrative doesn’t do justice to the rich tapestry that is The Grace of Kings that spans the length and breadth of the realm, a large number of characters, and dozens of years. Liu’s writing is beautifully formal in the style of epics, but is moving, the setting itself deeply conservative and the narrative optimistically progressive. Every character is flawed, but a precious few are irrevocably so. To wit, the straightforward and rigid Mata is a villain of sorts, but his motives are genuine and there is real hope that he could indeed be a hero, while the upstart Kuni makes mistakes and blunders but has a nobility of spirit that even Mata recognizes. Most of all, Liu doesn’t rely on fantasy’s traditional story structures where the reader learns about the world through the growth of the characters and increasing the complexity with each book, yet he is able to inject poignancy into the interactions between characters, particularly Kuni and his wives. Everyone is engaged in one schemes, even against those closest to them, but there is real affection. The Grace of Kings is a soaring epic that blends political intrigue, romance, honor, and gender roles. The gods intervene, but by indirectly meddling, encouraging people’s behavior rather than acting directly so as to keep their pact.

At the conclusion I don’t know where the story goes from here. The story is set for dynastic intrigue, but, if the first book is any indication, there is going to be something more ambitious than just that.

I loved The Grace of Kings and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes epic fantasy.

Headline writers are at it again

Jezebel has an article right now with a headline that asks “is office air conditioning a sexist conspiracy?” The answer to this question (despite the response I saw on Twitter) is clearly “no.” Nor does the article actually make any claim to there being a conspiracy, sexist or otherwise. It supports an article from the Washington Post that posits the status qui in office AC use is another tentacle of the patriarchy. In fact the article makes a perfectly reasonable argument, backed up by statistics, that the tendency by particularly male managers to keep the air conditioning at frigid (65!) temperatures during the summer a) disproportionately discomforts women and b) has a negative impact on the quality of work. The article uses an anecdote to point at male managers and while it might be appropriate to bleat “not all men” or “not all women,” I won’t fight the lack of nuance this point. I also have a problem with the misuse of air conditioning, and with heating systems during the winter, which tend to overcompensate and stifle the occupants (despite the parallel, this is also not a sexist conspiracy). The author is a bit glib for my tastes concerning how men dress during the summer, but the big problem is sweating up a storm outside on the way to work, anyway, rather than in the office, when 75 or so is not more than the office is heated to in the winter.

One might wonder where the insulation has gone and perhaps question the blind decisions of bureaucracy that also seem to miss the points about perceived temperature being relative, that one of the great virtues of AC is to, you know, condition the humidity away, and that heating and cooling are both things the company has to pay for. The author makes valid points and men, both as the larger proportion of managers and as the people who are less affected by the cooler temperatures, ought to bear the brunt of the blame for this situation. So is this status quo of the patriarchy? Is it stupid? “Yes,” to both questions. Is it a conspiracy? Well, that is something else.

If the headline claimed that office air conditioning is sexist, that is one thing, but it claimed a conspiracy, which is, by definition, is a secret plot concocted by a group of people working in tandem. As someone who has been compared to a polar bear and has embraced the resemblance on account of love for the cold (and for being bundled up in sweaters and the like), I would like to think I’d have been invited, even though I am never in a position to rule the thermostat. So a conspiracy is a hyperbolic. How about in the spirit of reconciliation, we all stop overcompensating for the weather at all times of year and reject the tyranny of the thermostat in all its forms. While we are at it, we can keep from getting carried away with the headlines.

Lessons from Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Early this month, I finished reading the first volume of Lo Kuan-chung’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is touted as China’s oldest novel. The book combines oral stories and written histories about the period (c.200 CE) when the decaying Han Dynasty fell apart under the influence of rival warlords and eventually split into three rival kingdoms. Dated translation aside, the text is fairly dry and repetitive as people run, walk, ride, and march from place to place (without a map, for those of us unfamiliar with large swathes of Chinese geography), with duels generally consisting of two heroes waging bouts against each other on horseback until one dies or flees. In this regard, the video game series Dynasty Warriors largely captures the essence of the romance. At the heart of the conflict in the story is the struggle between the clever and ruthless minister Cao Cao and the virtuous and royal Liu Bei [these are not the transliterations used by my text, but are those in Dynasty Warriors, and the ones I am most familiar with]. In the time honored tradition of reading classic Chinese texts and extracting lessons for westerner audiences, I have found a few.

  1. Every stratagem has been used before and has a name. Usually this name will be a literal rendition of the trick and, sometimes, the end objective.
  2. If a man you respect comes into your house, you should feed him meat. If you have no animal meat, you should still try to feed him meat, but if the choice comes down to serving him your wife or mother, you should kill and serve your wife, because you will likely be compensated with cash to purchase yourself a new wife. However, a reputation for this behavior will have a deleterious effect on getting local women to marry you.
  3. Unless you are going for sympathy points with your guest, do not just leave your butchered wife on the kitchen table overnight because your guest will likely stumble upon the body. If the guest finds out, though, this is the surest way to be compensated for your loss.
  4. If you happen to be a guest at a dinner like this, do not be overly alarmed at the possibility of cannibalism and make sure to pay the host for his loss. If possible, get your rival to actually make the payment.
  5. Wives are expendable, but less so than peasant soldiers. A single hero can trump hundreds of peasants, and one of the most effective forms of misinformation is to thrash peasants within an inch of their life and then release them to the enemy.
  6. Children are replaceable, talented subordinates are not. If subordinates risk their lives for your children before the children grow up and amount to anything, they should be rebuked.

The Bagel, Maria Balinska

Sometimes when Amazon reviewers give low marks to a book the comments indicate that a book is not good. Sometimes the comments reveal that the Person Angry on the Internet didn’t actually read the same book that the author wrote. Sometimes the reader understood the book but is just angry that it isn’t the book he or she wanted. The last scenario is true of Maria Balinska’s The Bagel, which the reviewer lamented was principally a history of Jewish labor history, rather than a history of the eating of bagels. This is a valid observation, though Balinska does her best to lay out what evidence there is for how bagels were consumed, too.

Balinska starts with an overview of what she considers to be related breads from China to Italy, all wheat breads (distinct from rye, barley, oat, etc) made into dense loaves that go stale quickly, are usually eaten by dipping in tea or other hot liquids, and are baked into rings. One of the closest relatives to the bagel is the pretzel, with the three holes taking on religious significance. Balinska traces the bagel from medieval Poland, where it diverged emerged from a Polish wheat ring bread owarzanek, a luxury in a region that mostly produced rye flour, but one that was a Sunday food because it was associated with purity. The bagel separated from the Christian version by being boiled when the Polish monarchy issued restrictions against Jewish bakers making owarzanek.

The story crosses the Atlantic in the 1880s with the waves of Jewish immigrants and is wrapped around the labor politics, food safety standards, and anti-immigrant sentiments in the subsequent decades. Despite the complaint lodged in the Amazon review, this was the most interesting and strongest part of the book and one that I want to use should I ever find myself teaching the second half of US history. The stories about the conditions in these bakeries make me thankful for food safety standards, and the labor upheavals mirror the more well-known industries. The 1905 Supreme Court Case Lochner v New York, which ruled that the government could not limit the hours people worked, was brought by a bakery. At the NY bagel baker’s union’s height, Balinska argues that it was the shape and density of the dough, which defied mechanization, that gave the union power.

Balinska concludes the story by recounting how mechanization and big business in the form of Lender’s Bagels led to the Jewish bread conquering the United States. Frozen bagels made them last longer (fresh bagels earlier had a tendency to go stale in a matter of hours) and they became a readily available convenience food for homes and hotels alike.

The Bagel is an engaging read, though Balinska’s specific narrative is how special Jewish food in Poland became ubiquitous in America gives short shrift to the story of bagels in Montreal and tends to be somewhat reductive in order to trace this narrative. For instance, the existence of Bagel traditions in Florida, Buffalo, and those in New York run by organized crime are only accounted for in terms of the challenge they presented to the proliferation of New York style bagels. Being more comprehensive is impossible in a book so short, but what does appear hints at a larger, richer, and more complex story out there. The Bagel was published in 2008 and I was left wondering if, like other consumable products, there is an addendum to the big business, moderate quality climax–one where there has emerged a decentralized, artisanal bagel movement.

Foundation and Alexander

My single favorite observation about Alexander the Great and his empire is attributed to Joseph Stalin, in a series of articles published in Pravda in 1950 called “Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics.” In this, he answers a series of questions about language, its relationship to marxism (e.g. “is language a superstructure?”), whether language is inherently “class language” whether this changes if a society possesses multiple languages. Along the way, Stalin notes that empires of the “slave and midiaeval” eras, including Alexander’s was a “transient and unstable military and administrative association” that was unable to create a solid economic foundation of their own. Stalin expands this observation to apply to all ancient empires, but it particularly suits Alexander’s kingdom, which is sometimes credited with aspiring to form a more unified kingdom through intermarriage, at least among the ruling class, and that quickly disintegrated.

I was reminded of this today as I finished reading Asimov’s Foundation. In this novel, a scientist named Hari Seldon perfects “Psychological History,” which is a way to mathematically predict the history of the future based economics, sociology, and group behavior. The process works best for large groups and when most independent variables can be eliminated. At the outset, Seldon predicts the fall of the millennia-old galactic empire and claims that his method has shown there will be thirty-five thousand years of barbarism, but that this dark age can be reduced to a thousand years if he is allowed to establish an outpost of science and knowledge on the periphery of the galaxy–The Foundation.

The basic narrative is based on the fall of the Roman Empire, sometimes in clever ways, sometimes in somewhat clumsy ones, but Asimov spins out an engaging story over a long extent of time and space, but one passage in particular jumped out:

“Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology.”

One of the issues I have with the basic accounts of Alexander’s conquest is that they rely extensively “brilliant heroics.” The sources make this largely unavoidable, and Alexander’s cult of personality is particularly potent. Asimov’s “Psycho-History” doesn’t offer a solution, but I am struck by the juxtaposition and that the exceptional (Alexander) seem to defy the broad trends. Of course there were economic and social currents that made Alexander’s conquest possible, including Philip’s reformation of the Macedonian Kingdom, but the actual conquest will forever be considered at least largely the product of Alexander’s implacable drive.

June 2015 Reading Recap

I read more fiction this month than in any calendar month in a few years, and so much so that I’m sorting and grouping the books by loose category, first literary fiction, then genre fiction.

Fiction

Men at Arms, Evelyn Waugh

Guy Crouchback is the scion of a vaguely aristocratic, Catholic, British family most of the 1930s at his family’s villa in Italy after his marriage (a stint of which was spent in Kenya) failed. In 1939 he returns to England in order to help combat totalitarianism in Europe. Old for starting much of anything new, Crouchback wheedles his way into an old-fashioned unit, the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, and trains as an officer. Much like in Catch 22, hijinks ensue. In this case, though, the actual war remains a distant threat for most of the book. Men at Arms is the first book of Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy about World War 2 and I look forward to reading the next two.

The Siege, Ismail Kadare

The Ottoman war machine marches implacably through a balkan summer and sets up a for a siege of a nameless Albanian fortress. The soldiers are enthusiastic. Their commander is a decorated veteran, their force is large, their architect and engineer sure to quickly breach the wall, allowing them to pour through, slaughter the rebels, and claim for themselves the beautiful and exotic blonde women. The chronicler debates how he is going to appropriately capture the magnificence of the victory. But fissures appear in the expedition, between the commanders of the elite troops and the regular, expendable troops, between the religious men and the men of science. When the defenders resist the first assaults, the fissures grow larger and threaten to defeat the campaign.

Kadare, an Albanian author, captures the campaign and its mundane concerns and its mundane failures, looking at the balance between a literal host of characters who all pursue human pleasures and impulses and suffer human pains, and a literal host of characters who are supposed to be united toward a common goal that will result in thousands of deaths. I didn’t love The Siege, but I appreciated the in/humanity that Kadare showed. In part, I struggled with there being simultaneously too much going on and too little, and the plot largely consists of everything grinding to a halt and slowly falling apart. The impersonality of the entire novel also made particular scenes with the wives of the commander where there either was sex or sex was discussed all the more jarring since the distance remained through the intimacy. Most of this was by design, but, in my opinion, it isn’t a narrative device that is particularly effective or appealing. I would read something else by Kadare, but this was a lukewarm introduction for me.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

Reviewed here, this is the Tartt’s campus novel about a death that shatters a circle of classics undergraduate students even as it has a relatively fleeting impact on the campus as a whole.

Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway

One of Hemingway’s posthumous novels, Islands in the Stream consists of three distinct episodes in the life of painter Thomas Hudson, each with a different tone and style. The first takes place on Bimini, where Hudson has a successful artistic life, which typically includes painting all morning, fishing, and drinking. His kids come to visit and life is grand. In the second, World War 2 has begun and Hudson hunts U-boats, but is awash in emotions because of the losses in his life and being swept off his feet by meeting his ex-wife. In the third, he is on a suicide mission to kill Germans. It is a simple arc that Hemingway stakes out, but there are as many or more emotional notes than in any of his novels.

This is later Hemingway. His prose remains stark, but it is visually remarkable, particularly in one scene that involves the protagonist and his friends getting drunk on a dock and firing flare guns at a dock covered with gasoline and at the commissioner’s house. A man on a boat moored at the dock repeatedly comes out to ask them to be quiet because his girlfriend is trying to sleep…and they mock him by saying that if he knew how to pleasure a woman she would be able to sleep through their drunken fun. The man gets mad and comes out to fight them, at which point one of the characters beats him in a boxing match. The whole scene is crude, but all the more effective for Hemingway’s direct, blustery style. Elsewhere, he effectively conveys the emotions of being a father, being in love, and needing revenge. Islands in the Stream was not as thoroughly pared down as his other posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, but I cannot help but think that something was missing from this novel, not something that made them hold together better since these are all part of the same story, but something that bridged the gaps a little more effectively.

Post Captain, Patrick O’Brian
H.M.S. Surprise, Patrick O’Brian
The Mauritius Command, Patrick O’Brian
Desolation Island, Patrick O’Brian

Books 2-5 in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. At this point in the series, each book covers about a year in the wars between Napoleon and Great Britain, and Aubrey makes steady progression up the officer ranks such that by the fourth book he is not constantly the junior officer. He also makes money (at least at sea), marries, and has children–maturing and mellowing somewhat with age. Aubrey tends not to have consistent commands, which was likely the norm, particularly for captains a) who came into the service in a fairly haphazard way b) who made enemies like Aubrey does and c) who climbed the ranks like this. The stories do usually move along a little faster than the first one, but I suspect it is more from the books being shorter and getting used to the style since there remain lengthy passages that fill in the world but aren’t central to the story. I remain of the opinion that O’Brian is strongest when describing ships, battles, and sailing and develops two good characters that have a relationship that keeps things moving, but that he is not particularly good at plotting or storytelling. My favorite of these four was H.M.S Surprise.

Storm Front, Jim Butcher

Urban fantasy meets urban noir. Harry Dresden is a wizard in Chicago, a private eye, and a consultant for the police department. He’s also broke, so he leaps at the opportunity to work private case the same day that the police call about an grisly murder. The cases start out simply enough, and they even help Harry snag a date. Events quickly spiral out of control, though, as the killer starts going after him, the wizard council suspects him of being the murderer, and even the police begin to suspect him. Storm Front is the first book in The Dresden Files. Butcher does a nice job blending character construction, building an introduction to the world, and working through classic noir pacing and tropes. I really enjoyed this book and blew through it in about a day.

This book does include a good amount of slapsticky comedy as things go wrong for Dresden with regularity, yet he describes himself as an excellent, trained wizard. The whole story is told from a first-person “noir” viewpoint, so there is something to Dresden simply being an unreliable narrator overconfident in his own abilities because he is lucky. I see some of that going on here, but more of that is built into magic in Butcher’s world. Magic is powerful and can kill, but is much more limited and rare than often is the case in fantasy and things like potions not only are hard to make, but they degrade quickly. Magic also causes technology to fail. The pair to this is that magic can only do so much to protect what is an inherently weak material body, which leaves the wizard open to being mauled by supernatural beings with stronger bodies. Dresden is lucky (and being lucky is sometimes better than being good) and comedy does ensue when things go wrong, but neither does this necessarily mean that he is lying when he says he is an excellent wizard–as he points out on a few occasions, the other wizards tend not to be prowling the streets fighting crime.

My favorite of these books was The Secret History, but of the authors, I’m most looking forward to reading the next book by Butcher. I believe everyone has their “light” reading, things that other people would consider trashy. My drug of choice is fantasy.

Nonfiction

The Terrorist Prince, Raja Anwar

Benazir Bhutto is a martyr for legitimate government in Pakistan, taking over the mantle from her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979 by the army Chief of Staff Zia-ul-Haq. This book is less about Benazir and more about her younger brother Mir Murtaza. Where Benazir used legitimate political channels to uphold her family’s legacy, Murtaza formed a terrorist organization among the tribes in rural Pakistan to avenge his father and even managed to hijack an airplane. Raja Anwar was an associate of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and knew the children and generally has a bone to pick with the Bhutto clan. He portrays Murtaza as a marginally sane, largely inept young man with delusions of grandeur who is eventually assassinated in a plot concocted by Benazir’s husband. Anwar is not much kinder to Benazir and condemns them for treating Pakistan like a personal fief, regardless of which side of the law they claimed to be on.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace, ed. Stephen Burn

Conversations is a collection of interviews that David Foster Wallace gave, arranged in chronological order. Some of the answers were clearly questions he heard again and again and there was an almost resigned tone to them. Other answers provoked thoughtful retrospective responses and observations about US culture and art. There was also a clear arc in the interviews, with young DFW giving more thought to other authors, and older DFW giving more thought to his own bibliography and legacy. He noted how, early on, he was more interested in cleverness for its own sake, but how that became stale and he became more interested in emotion and humanism. There is a new essay out about DFW in anticipation of an upcoming biopic, and the author is somewhat critical of the cult of DFW, particularly because he is disdainful of certain aspects of Wallace’s self-conscious posturing that turned him into a sort of depressed Buddha, “slacker saint and liberal sage” for his followers. It is a fair analysis that takes nothing away from Wallace’s writing and is more insightful about them than many would-be acolytes are. The performative aspect of Wallace’s personality was particularly resonant with both the form and content of the interviews.

Phew. The list will almost certainly be shorter next month, as I am currently working my way through the first volume (of two) of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the medieval Chinese epic about the fall of the Han Dynasty. Right now the plan is to take a break after the first one and read the second next month, but we’ll see.