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February Reading Recap

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

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

Inverted World, Christopher Priest

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

The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa

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

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

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher

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

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

God and Man at Yale, William Buckley

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

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

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

A history major

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

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

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

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

Snow Day

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

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

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

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

Inverted World, Christopher Priest

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

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

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

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

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

“It is never about the money”

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

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

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

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

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

January 2015 Reading Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Fantasy Literature: depression and globalism.

The whole point of speculative fiction is that it provides an opportunity to mull over ideas, concerns, concepts, and issues, while, hopefully, telling a compelling story along the way–whether that compulsion is light, grave, suspenseful, or terrifying. As Brandon Sanderson’s character Hoid says in The Way of Kings: “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”

There are dozens of ways in which these stories can be parsed and mulled over, in the same way that any literary criticism can function, but there are two I’ve been thinking about recently: depression and globalism.

Depression
Heroes in epic fantasy are depressed, sometimes. Usually when they are bummed because something did not go their way, but there is no time for wallowing when the fate of the world hangs in the balance. There are things to be done, and a hero is a man or woman of action. If the wallowing goes on too long, a character of greater gravitas, usually someone older but reliant on their wisdom or empathy with the hero to save the world because the hero is fated or “more powerful,” comes along to slap the hero out of whatever funk they are in. Else, something happens to snap the hero out of their funk and get back to doing whatever it is that needs doing. That is just the proper way for things to happen. As Sam and Frodo march headlong toward Mount Doom, they despair of pulling through, but they are not depressed. The trope is that the characters despair and then soldier on against the odds.

There is something told to depressed people as a truism: nobody wants to hear about or spend time with someone who is a sullen downer. People like to be happy and energetic and someone suffering with depression sucks the air out of the room. This idea is used to great effect when a loved one has died and the characters mope about to demonstrate their sadness, and then they die or someone snaps them out of it. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the standard trope.

The second trope is that the powers beyond mortal reckoning that the characters dabble in break the mind of the characters. Most of the time these people are incapable of going on and must either be cared for, die, or become non-entities. Remember, the hero must be an active agent.

Just this evening I finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a story that is part of the same world of his Kingkiller Chronicles, but a non-traditional story featuring Auri, one of the side characters. Auri is introduced in the series as someone who, to be blunt, cracked while studying at the university and is therefore accounted one of the strange curiosities who inhabit the area. Those who are not locked away for their one safety know deep secrets about the world, but aren’t fit to live among humans. Auri is one such. The story is beautiful and haunting, but there was one situation that leapt out to me and, likely, to anybody who (as Pat put it in his author’s note) is a little bit broken. It is a scene where this beautiful, delicate, considerate, kind, and wise creature experiences the world turned upside down. Nothing is right and nothing can be right, regardless of how hard she may wish it was.

Auri is lonely and happy most of the time in the story and a singular panic attack does not sound like a typical experience with depression, but the frame of the story rang true. Being a depressed–as distinct from a despairing or weary–character need not be presented as simply sulking or moping until being set straight. When the world becomes wrong, it isn’t just sadness that arrives, but a panic, and there is an exhaustion in spending energy keeping the world right. Depression and functionality are not mutually exclusive, depression just makes it harder.

[In retrospect, I link depression and anxiety issues here. I grapple with both and find them two sides of the same coin.]

Globalism
One of the features of epic fantasy that has always attracted me is the world-building or universe creation…something which literature of a more limited, local variety simply doesn’t have to grapple with–particularly in historical settings where the interconnected baggage has been already established. A lot of the time, these issues never feature into the stories being told because the events do not have global cache. Series such as George RR Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire and, to a lesser extent, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time have more fleshed out places beyond the immediate setting and have added in global connections accordingly, if incompletely. Jordan’s world, in particular, lets most of the connections between continents or parts of continents fall to outsider-intermediaries and allows that most of these places have fallen into obscure legends. The connections are there, but they are particularly scant. In contrast, Martin’s setting consists of fractured micro-regions, large swathes of which have been reduced to ruin, that it is possible to traverse between if properly supplied or if willing to stop off at nodes in order to change ships.

Other authors have used other approaches. CS Lewis’ Narnia has an edge that leads to God’s kingdom (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), marked as it is by a sea of white lilies. That book bears striking resemblance to the Odyssey, among other things, as well. In contrast, Pratchett’s irreverent Discworld is a disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which stand on the back of a giant turtle. I haven’t really read enough of either or done so recently enough to comment on the internal workings of these worlds, but both take place in a set, confined space. Something along these same lines can also be said about the immediate kingdom that is the setting for Sanderson’s Mistborn, where there may be more out there, but one is led to believe that the kingdom is the extent of the world.

Of course, the setting that set me down this line of thought was Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The reason for this is that there is both the setting of The Lord of the Rings, with its distinctive shape for anyone familiar with fantasy maps, and also for The Silmarillion, which weaves in folklore and historical elements to tell the story of the world from its creation through the Third Age and the start of the Fourth. Along the way, the realm of the gods (and elves) is severed from the realm of mankind when the parallel Atlantis falls. Tolkien also hints at places found on no maps, including the lands in the south with exotic-looking humans. To that same effect, human beings enter into his story when they stumble out of uncivilized land somewhere off the map. The world is bigger than what is revealed and what is fleshed out in his stories. I find it ironic that Tolkien is credited with launching the use of such rich world-building in fantasy when so much of his world is literally terra incognita.

Though developments like the internet have heralded a new sort of globalization since Tolkien wrote, it is foolish to say that he wrote in an age before global considerations–he was born in South Africa, after all, and came of age in England during the waning days of the British Empire. Perhaps, though, more leisure time and more opportunity for long-distance interactive communication has resulted in books being picked over in ways never before imaginable.

Worlds have names. Rothfuss’ world is known as “Temerant,” though there is a line between naming a world and having the characters themselves know the name of the world (particularly when one of the key ideas in the series is the power of names). Authors have also done wonders when it comes to subverting tropes, such as in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon where the setting is middle eastern, with an old, out of shape hero. I love all of these books and, at some level, the world building has to remain incomplete because the world itself is a sandbox in which to tell stories. However, tropes remain. The worlds contain ruins of long-dead, glorious civilizations and, often, there is either too much of a monoculture or a variety of cultures whose practices and societies are so radically different that it is as though they were created in a vacuum and then placed side by side.

I like textured worlds that feel deep and lived-in and I like stories that provide issues to think about–something that good fantasy is adept at precisely because the constraints of the real world are lifted. But I believe it is misleading to say that a global, interconnected world is solely a product of the modern age–when I teach students about the ancient world I try to show that every culture is part of a larger system. What has changed about globalism, to my mind, is that as production and consumption are more intimately and immediately linked–i.e. as the world has shrunk–people have become more concerned about their place in the system. Issues that have really always existed concerning immigration, jobs, allocation of resources and capital, etc., have become more immediately present in public discourse, rather than the shipping of gold to India being a complaint that only a few Romans were aware of or concerned about. Creating a premodern world should not be an excuse to avoid these questions, particularly when the world itself becomes foregrounded in the course of a series. Epic fantasy grapples with issues, but nostalgic elements of epic fantasy are often used to avoid thinking about issues of globalization rather than wrapping them into the world in provocative ways.

The NFL, NCAAF, Tithonus, Ganymede

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thought on Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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

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

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

December 2014 Reading Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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