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A takeaway from Matthew McConaghey’s UH Commencement Address

I happen to like Matthew McConaughey quite a lot, even in his goofy, cheesy roles. To be honest, I haven’t even seen his latest Renaissance as a serious actor and a lot of my affection comes from his days as a naked-bongo-playing marijuana aficionado and interviews he did about life philosophy and fitness in those halcyon days. He came across then as a down-to-earth guy, an outdoor nut whose modus operandi was to be open, friendly, and active. From the little I’ve read about him recently, including his recent University of Houston commencement address, many of the same descriptors hold true.

A link containing a set of takeaways from McConaughey’s UH commencement address came across Twitter yesterday. The takeaways corresponded to the McConaughey persona, including one where he said that the things motivating him did not include money. The article notes that McConaughey is a very wealthy man and I fully believe him when he says that money does not motivate him, even while noting that he is privileged enough to not need to worry about where meals or rent is coming from. In fact, it is a noble sentiment to aspire to goals that are not just about money and the things money can buy. That is a privilege and the world may be a better place if more super-wealthy people internalized that worldview. What’s more, it is a noble sentiment to preach at a commencement, whether said as a warning to young men and women who may make a lot of money or as words of comfort to the soon-to-be underemployed.

Yet, in this instance, coming from a speaker I like, who I believe was being honest, and being delivered in an appropriate forum, I did not like the message.

McConaughey, as the article notes, is a very wealthy man. I don’t want to take anything away from him or say that he didn’t work for his money, but to point out the fact. He is wealthy. He was also reportedly paid in excess of 140 thousand dollars for his speech at the UH commencement.

I know next to nothing about the finances at the University of Houston and a quick google search appears to indicate that the average salary for assistant professors at UH run higher than many other institutions, at 92K, though that figure is skewed by some starting salaries at 206k. Full professors average 115k, but with a lower ceiling than assistant professors. Nor do these figures include contingent faculty members, post-docs, researchers, etc, and various trends in terms of cut faculty positions and operating budgets for the university. But, for the sake of argument, we can just look at the basic average salary for professors and assume that UH is an anomaly and has overflowing coffers. The fact remains that they paid more for one day of McConaughey than for a year of labor from an average professor. To have that be the case and then be told that there is more to life than money rings false and is tone deaf given the current state of funding for higher education.

It would not have been my choice to spend that money for Matthew McConaughey as commencement speaker, but if that is his speaking fee and one is adamant that he must speak, then that is that. I also have no problem with McConaughey charging that fee. It is his right as he is both famous and, I can only assume, busy. My problem is that he both took the money and told people money isn’t the point. It would have been more praiseworthy to me had he kept the bit about money, but also donated a significant portion of the fee back to the scholarship fund, or to the library, or the theater program, or to Nepal relief efforts. Anything that put his money where his mouth is.

The Skin, Curzio Malaparte

I love the NYRB Classics series of books, both for the eclectic selection of English-language works and translations and for the (usually) reliable introductory essays that accompany the texts. My preference is usually to skip directly to the main text and to return to the introduction afterward so that I can appreciate the introduction as I digest what I just read. Usually this is a leisurely process of gaining new appreciation for the depth of the novel or for the author; sometimes it is a necessary confirmation that I indeed understood the absurd, shocking, grotesque thing that had just unfolded. The latter was my experience with The Skin.

Jimmy Wren, of Cleveland, Ohio…was, like the great majority of the officers and men of the American army, a good fellow. When an American is good, there is no better man in the world. It was not Jimmy’s fault if the people of Naples suffered. That spectacle of grief and misery offended neither his eyes nor his heart. Jimmy’s conscience was at rest. Like all Americans, by that contradiction which characterizes all materialistic civilizations, he was an idealist. To evil, misery, hunger and physical suffering he ascribed a moral character. He did not appreciate their remote historical and economic causes, but only the seemingly moral reasons for their existence…

Jimmy had certainly not achieved an understanding of the moral and religious considerations which let him to feel partly responsible for the suffering of others… It was not even to be expected that he should know certain essential facts about modern civilization–for instance, that a capitalist society (if one disregards Christian pity, and weariness of and disgust with Christian pity, which are sentiments peculiar to the modern world) is the most feasible expression of Christianity; that without the existence of evil there can be no Christ; that capitalist society is founded on the conviction that in the absence of beings who suffer a man cannot enjoy to the full his possessions and his happiness; and that without the alibi of Christianity capitalism would not prevail.

–pp. 62-3

It is 1943. Naples has been liberated. Our narrator, Curzio Malaparte, is a liaison officer in the Free Italian armed forces accompanying American officers and watching the newly-free city rot from the inside. The Skin is composed of vignettes about life in liberated Naples, Capri, and the subsequent campaign northward to Rome, interwoven with observations and imaginations of the narrator. The suffering and depravity were real, but in Malaparte’s hands the situation turns into a nightmarishly surreal comedy.

The Skin is not an easy book to sum up, in large part because the lurid details–whether of the plague, the last virgin in Naples, the triumphant entry into Rome, the eruption of Vesuvius, or the preparation of the marine life from the Naples Aquarium for a banquet– are, to a great extent, the point. In fact, the quote included above is itself misleading. It is an example of Malaparte’s style where he picks up on a point or an observation and teases it out as far as it will go. Malaparte’s Naples is a pre-Christian relict, infused with pagan mysteries, where “your tanks run the risk of being swallowed up in the black slime of antiquity.” Malaparte’s Americans despise the Europeans for having caused their own problems, and “believe that a conquered nation is a nation of criminals, that defeat is a moral stigma, an expression of divine justice.” Malaparte’s Neapolitans are scrapping to save their own skin at any cost, prostituting and abasing themselves. The shining light within this grim vision is Jack Hamilton, an optimistic American officer, an Olympian who speaks French and reads Pindar. Hamilton represents the best America has to offer, one untouched by the blight of the old-world, but appreciative of its deep antiquity.

Curzio Malaparte–the nom de plum of Kurt Eric Suckert, and a name chosen as an inversion of “Bonaparte”–was a correspondent on the eastern front during World War 2 before returning to Italy and assisting the American forces in Italy. He was criticized for his similarly surreal account of the war in the east (published in his book Kaputt), and was a supporter of the Italian fascist movement, but served a stint in prison after publishing a manual under the title The Technique of the Coup d’Etat. As the introduction to The Skin noted, there are parallels to nearly everything Malaparte included in this book, but his presence at every turn, even where he could not have been, blurrs the line between reporting and reimagining. Malaparte is elusive throughout. By turns he despises, pities, and mocks those around him. He is an acute observer, but bitter, frustrated, and convinced of his own superiority. Not his own morality since he seems to locate himself more in the deep antiquity–an heir to Pindar, at times [note: I was reading Pindar in Greek when I started reading this book]–than in the contemporary moment, more with paganism than with Christianity, but in his own superior intelligence and ability. I am not rushing out to do so, but I was intrigued enough by this that I will at some point read Kaputt, but Malaparte also convinced me that I need to also read books that are a little less morbid from time to time.

Since finishing The Skin, I also finished Master and Commander, the first in Patrick O’Brian’s historical fiction series. It was a mostly enjoyable read and I’m going to read at least the first few books, but I wasn’t so smitten that I’ll commit to all twenty just yet. Even well-done Horatio Nelson fan-fic only does so much for me. Now I am in the middle of Augusto Roa Bastos’ I, the Supreme, which stitches together multiple narratives give a portrait of the dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who ruled Paraguay from when he was elected in 1814 until 1840. At a third of the way through, this is one of the densest books I have yet read. The Supreme coyly asks “Don’t you think that I could be made into a fabulous story?” If you check out the Wikipedia page, the answer is yes, but Bastos takes those features that beg for a titillating historical story and asks much deeper and more meaningful questions. A fuller review will probably follow when I finish reading it.

Book Reviews

I like writing book reviews, for both fiction and non-fiction books, though the rewards for each move in divergent directions. I read a lot but, despite a few ideas for original stories and the occasional essay sent off [not to mention The Dissertation], I don’t produce much of my own writing for public consumption. As such, I wanted to take a moment to consider why I like writing about books and, to a lesser extent, TV shows and movies.

The short version: original writing is hard.

The longer version has three distinct parts: direction, digestion, and safety.

First and foremost, reviewing books offers a built-in writing prompt, and a clear subject about which to write. Successful reviews include many of the same elements, including a summary of what the book offers, evaluation, and judgement. Within these parameters there is room for creativity and any good review is going to be injected with the author’s voice and opinions, but having this basic structure is something that makes writing easier.

Second, reviewing books is a great way to digest what was just read since it requires one to form and articulate an opinion about the book. This necessarily entails grappling with text, subtext, and importance of the book. This is also the first point at which the rewards diverge between reviewing fiction and non-fiction because the content of the critiques are different. I don’t care enough about every novel I read to dedicate time to write a review and, frankly, I have limited training when it comes to judging certain technical parts of books. I hardly even know how to identify those parts (characterization, structure, etc), and only know what I like when I read it. For these reasons, a lot of the books I read that I don’t like get lumped into my monthly reading recaps with a brief explanation instead of a full review. It isn’t that the books aren’t worthy of a full review. I just don’t have the time, energy, or interest in writing reviews of books that didn’t in some way capture my interest. This also means that for a certain percentage of the novels I read, I am not motivated to do a deeper dive in terms of thinking about the book.

The third, safety, is the point that is both most personal and most misleading. The perils of the internet for aspiring academics run above and beyond the dangers inherent to the medium, particularly in the debates over academic freedom and free speech–and to what extent those things apply to contingent faculty, graduate students, and anyone who consider applying for academic jobs. My twin concerns in this regard are that some of the posts hosted here are immature from an academic perspective and that I have an aversion to some political topics. On the former, I considered deleting the posts I don’t fully stand behind, but decided against it because they represent me and my work at a given time–namely before I started graduate school and in the early years of the same. On the latter, it has been the cause of some of my silences on Twitter and also why I have avoided some topics here, particularly when those comments could be seen as being critical of an institution such as, say, the University of Missouri. Studied neutrality appears to be the prudent course.

Reviews are not without their own dangers and some journals specifically refuse to allow graduate students to review books because of the possibility of retaliation. Reviews of literature, at least those that are not being published on commission, are significantly safer, but both types of reviews feel safer to me and that feeling of safety makes it easier to write.

April Reading Recap

April is always a busy month in the academic calendar and the first few weeks of May ramp up, if anything. And yet this is the best time of year for sitting in the outside and reading. I only finished three books this month, but summer is coming.

The Professor and the Siren, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
My first foray into Lampedusa’s work, this slim volume contains three short pieces–the eponymous story, a parable called “Joy and the Law,” and “The Blind Kittens,” which was originally conceived of as the opening chapter to a novel that he never completed. My favorite of these three of was “The Blind Kittens,” which just sets the stage for a story about familial land competition in Sicily. “The Professor and the Siren” was interesting, but at its core was a tale about how the impetus for great scholarship (or art) is the combination of a blaze of eroticism in youth (as though to prove vitality) and monastic deprivation thereafter. There is more to this story than that bare narrative, but I don’t like the basic trope.

The Postmortal, Drew Magary
An epistolary what-if novel. What scientists discovered a cure for aging? Not a cure for diseases (including cancer) or against a violent death or to reverse aging that has already happened, but one that freezes the process of aging exactly where it is when the injection takes place. What would the public debate around legalizing such a thing look like? Would there be death cultists who launch campaigns of terror against the postmortals? People who deliberately maim these people who will live for a very, very long time? What happens to marriages that now run the risk of permanently binding people together? Will some deranged mothers give the cure for aging to their infants to keep their babies forever? Will some world governments ban the cure? Will the government eventually introduce euthanasia programs? Will there be a collapse?

These are many of the questions that Magary asks in this clever novel. Magary has a recognizable voice as an author, honed through years of writing things like a long series of “Hater’s Guide to xxx,” but while aspects of it come across as goofy commentary or twists, the medium is supposed to be unpublished blog posts, curated by unnamed individuals sometime after the narrator ceased writing. The form works and many of the ludicrous, tongue-in-cheek, satirical developments are frighteningly plausible.

Desert, J.M.G. Le Clézio
Reviewed here, a sprawling story about the interaction between North African children and the Western Civilization that seeks to oppress them. It is possible to debate the “children” tag, since the common reading seems to link North African freedom and servitude of colonialism, but I find it notable that both narrators are children. This changes the reading in a couple of ways, but the fact that there are multiple adult characters leads me to believe that it is not simply an equation of the colonial subjects with children, as was a part of colonial propaganda.

The Postmortal was my favorite from last month. I’m now working through Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin, which is a grotesque comedy about Naples after it was liberated by the allies during World War 2.

Desert, J.M.G. Le Clézio

The Europeans in North Africa, the “Christians,” as the people from the desert call them–but isn’t their true religion money?

What more can the old man from Smara do against this wave of money and bullets?

Desert, a novel published in 1980 by 2008 nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio, was not what I expected. The barest bones of the blurb on the back hold true: two narratives tell the tale of the “last free men,” and the characters in both seek, desperately, to retain freedom, and the background of the story is Europe’s colonial legacy in North Africa. Likewise, for each narrative. Nour is a young tribesman who accompanies his tribe on its long trek in 1909–part of a holy war, it is later revealed–to defeat the Christians who have come to enslave them. Years later, Lalla, a descendant of the same tribe, flees from her shanty town in Morocco to Marseille in order to escape a forced marriage.

Despite not being nearly as enthralled as I expected to be based on this premise, something compelled me to keep reading. In part, my curiosity was piqued by the narrative disjunctures, the child-like dream-logic that governed the flow and description of events–there was too frequently a tendency to skip from point A to point B with minimal explanation, and things just happened; similarly, I found myself meditating on the laboriousness of overwritten description. (Not something that can be written off as a translation issue, I think. There should also be an emphasis on childlike since both narratives are told from the P.o.V. of a child and so there is a veil between the concerns of adults and observations of children.)

The other part of the compulsion is that within this epic tale with almost no action–charitably, an “ethereal slow-burn”–there is a subtle discussion of freedom. Adults endure trials for freedom, but no definition is offered. Money can offer temporary respite, but, ultimately, it will enslave people tighter than any chain. And yet, responsibility, love, and need enslave, too. It is notable that the centerpiece of both narratives is a child and that each has people and things he or she cares for diligently, but out of choice rather than strictly need. This is where I saw the greatest dissonance between what the blurb said and what I read. Lalla is resilient and has to work to survive, but so does everyone else. The more remarkable thing about Lalla is that she never succumbs to the obsession with money or even the need for literacy that are the trappings of the servitude of the modern world. Partly, this is Lalla the child of the desert. Partly, this is something more innate to Lalla the orphan outsider. The other characters in the story are enthralled by Lalla and all that she represents (variously: beauty, youth, fertility, freedom, family, honesty). Lalla, herself, dream-walks her way through life convinced that freedom is not being tied down by any one thing, largely oblivious to how reliant she is on the charity, help, or needs of others to maintain her freedom, and drawing ever closer to the end of that freedom.

A novel’s “secret center” is how Orhan Pamuk describes the central message of a novel, positing that while the outline of that message may be evident early on, it should not become clear until the end of the book. By this definition of a great novel, Desert works. Le Clézio brings the thematic resonances between the two narratives together with two chapters, one from each period, that are told from a point of view other than the two characters. The message is  clear: more than anything else, money enslaves. The background to the story is European Colonialism, but the colonialism brings money and the implication is that it was brought about by pre-existing debts. Further, only in a few short chapters is the colonial legacy really explicitly foregrounded. Elsewhere it is a necessary backdrop to the narrative, but the issues of freedom emerge more from the issue of “civilization” than from colonialism. Yes, the two are inextricably linked, but it is possible to compare the vision of freedom in Desert favorably with that of Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which does not emphasize the colonial legacy. These two books are not remotely the same except in their visions of freedom, which is why I hesitate to agree that there is something more central than setting to the colonialism.

The New York Times referred to Desert as “sprawling, poetic” which is another way of saying “boring, wordy.” There is something here captivating and intriguing, but it is a book in which very little happens, so people who like a tightly constructed plot should probably avoid it. I’m not likely to put this on a list of my favorite novels, but there is enough in this story that I’ll be giving Le Clézio at least one more shot in the future.

Up next is Curzio Malaparte’s novel, The Skin.

March Reading Recap

I finished three books last month, another very busy stretch in a particularly busy semester. I only finished the third because of spring break.

Exile and the Kingdom, Albert Camus
Five short stories by Camus, none of which share characters, form, or narrative structure, but all of which are linked by the anxieties of modern man. With one main exception, each story deals with the interaction between people and society, but from the margins. “The Adulterous Woman” escapes her cold marriage in the dark of night in order to experience the desert, “The Artist at Work” seeks refuge from the press of admirers and friends, and the schoolteacher in “The Guest” finds himself at odds with both the state and the rebels when he tries to express humanity. The stories were engaging, thoughtful, and melancholy, but if you like Camus they are worth reading. The settings are themselves antiquated, but the messages all-too relevant.

The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino
Cosimo Piuvasco, heir to the Barony of Rondo, was twelve when he last set foot on ground. He rebels against the rule of his parents and the culinary monstrosities prepared by his sister and takes to the trees, where he lives out his life, corresponding with intellectuals, protecting the fields, hunting, and carrying on love affairs. The story is told through the narration of Cosimo’s younger brother, who relays the curiosities of his brother’s existence. Calvino weaves in elements of Aristophanes’ Clouds, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and a myriad of other adventure tales in order to relate this fanciful story of arboreal existence. This is a delightfully whimsical story that didn’t contain the weight or gravitas of a lot of other books, but I enjoyed it all the more for it. The Baron in the Trees was probably my favorite read of the month simply because it was just so much fun to read.

The Deaths of Tao, Wesley Chu
The second book in Chu’s series, of which I reviewed the first book, The Lives of Tao, here. Chu keeps most of the trademark elements that made the first one so much fun to read, including the pacing and the fight scenes, but complicates the story through structure, content, and characters. The story is set several years past the events of The Lives of Tao and it is no longer the fairly straightforward hero’s journey archetypal story since, for the most part, the heroes have come of age and are now down to the mature task of saving the world…and, of course, things aren’t going particularly well on that front. The Gengix have now taken to conducting experiments in order to make life on earth conducive to their needs, as well as becoming ever less subtle in their methods. I preferred the first book, I think, not because it was worse–by most measures it was a better more sophisticated story–but because it was not as refreshing as the first one was. I still enjoyed it a great deal and look forward to the conclusion of the trilogy.

Since March ended, I read a collection of stories called The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Next up is Drew Magary’s preapocalytic novel The Postmortal.

Two Ancient History Books from 2014/13

Being alive today means that one usually has little spare time because the small things (like Twitter!) seep into every available crack. Being a graduate student means having less, and being at the dissertation stage means that there is a constant pressure to write–besides, having passed through the comprehensive exams scarred, but in one piece, means that one should be able to focus the reading toward that eventual product. As much as it was exhausting and is designed to traumatize students into building their personal library of previous scholarship, there is something nostalgic about the process where your primary responsibility for months on end is to read history books and think about them. I’ve been carving out time to read fiction since passing through my comprehensive exams and I am trying to clear enough time to read one or two recent history books in my field or related fields every month. While I would like to get to a point where I do one a week, alternating between my own and other fields, I am right now trying to use this minimal time to read books not directly related to my dissertation, but within the field of Greek History (loosely constructed) that are a) recently published and b) connected to my dissertation either thematically or because they fall just outside the chronological parameters of my study.

So far I have only had minimal success in holding myself to these goals, but between this and my dissertation research, I want to endorse two recent ancient history books.

1) Naoíse Mac Sweeney, Foundation Myths and Politics in Ancient Ionia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

The most commonly known account for the foundation of the Ionian cities (on which I am doing my dissertation) is that of the Ionian Migration, where a group of plucky Greeks under the leadership of Athenian princes sail to what is now Turkey and steal that land from the inhabitants. One might say that this is a myth in line with Western Civilization. The problem is that each of the cities had its own foundation myth and the region had another set of foundation myths, namely the war against Melie, that bound them together. In this book, Mac Sweeney evaluates these “native” Ionian myths by way of an exploration of Ionian identity. She also makes the argument that the Ionian Migration is a comparatively late myth, sponsored as part of Athenian hegemony over the region because it justified Athenian control.

There is a fairly large historical backdrop against which Mac Sweeney writes, but I think that the stories themselves, which are the subject, are understandable without needing to know it and she brings in relevant information when discussing, for instance, the Ionian League. I particularly appreciated the way in which Mac Sweeney was able to reorient the discussion about Ionian toward appreciating the region on its own merits through these aspects of Ionian identity.

2) Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

Mairs offers a reevaluation of the archeological evidence for the Graeco-Bactrian and Graeco-Indian kingdoms of the Hellenistic Period through a post-colonial lens. These kingdoms, which are in what is now Afghanistan and the surrounding regions, have long been known about, but difficult to understand because there are only intermittent archeological digs and coins and inscriptions as evidence. No literary histories exist and it has long been assumed that the kingdoms consisted of Greeks in exile in Central Asia, with discussions of whether the inhabitants were Hellenizing natives, Greeks going native, or Greeks. In part, these ideas emerged because it was thought that Bactria was wild and untamed, even by the standards of the rest of Persia, which those same scholars often considered “barbarian.” Mairs quite reasonably argues that this is an inappropriate way to evaluate this region, and suggests both that Bactria operated as any other Persian satrapy and that hybridization and/or creolization, with the creation of a distinct Helleno-Bactrian identity, is a much more likely scenario than a stark binary between Greeks and non-Greeks.

There is a lot of archeological evidence in this book, but Mairs does a nice job of explaining trends in research and past historical debates in an approachable way. I often found myself nodding when she discussed the problems of locating identity in a region where there were official languages of inscriptions (often Greek or Aramaic), because it is probable that Ionia contained relatively large populations of people who were considered non-Greek, but who likely spoke Greek and who probably would have conducted official business–the sort of business that could be recorded on an inscription–in Greek. The problems of this sort are starker in Hellenistic Bactria, both because the site is further from a place where the majority of the inhabitants spoke some sort of Greek and because there is less in the way of surviving materials, but they are familiar nonetheless.

Hawaii 5-O and “grading shows”

The anatomy of a grading show (defined as a show to have on in the background while grading) is a funny thing. For me they fall into two broad categories. The first are old and familiar shows. The writing, the stories, and the rhythms are familiar. They take no brainpower to watch while marking bluebook exams or multiple choice tests. The second also requires minimal brainpower, but because they are a sitcom or procedural for which the rhythms are familiar, even if the specifics are not. If the show proves to be too captivating then its purpose falters because grading slows down. Usually, this means that the show has to be something I want to see, but far, far on the crummy end of the spectrum.

This current batch of grading has been me watching the reboot of Hawaii 5-O. I’m most of the way through the first season and have a few thoughts on this curious show.

  1. Hawaii 5-O is a show about a special law enforcement task force in Hawaii, led by a former Navy Seal and consisting of outsiders and outcasts. Among other things, their leader, Steve, has returned home to help uncover the cause of his father’s death.
  2. The writing on this show are pretty bad. It is aiming for fast-paced, cryptic, and yet direct. The result is that everyone seems to have inexplicable skills and knowledge, not to mention an extreme unevenness to the plot. Rob Morrow, one of the stars of Numbers, gave an interview a few months ago where he talked about the tendency of that show to be overwritten. It was insufficient for details or information to be conveyed by visual imagery or physical acting alone, but had to be said three times. Morrow mentioned frustration with this and how he used to try to create a script that was more spare and efficient and therefore elegant. Hawaii 5-O has this same problem in spades, with most of the excess dialogue also being bad dialogue.
  3. The superficial premise of the show is pretty people in paradise meets law enforcement, not unlike, for instance, Burn Notice. However, for this core concept, there is a lot of paradise and, aside from the stars, very little in the way of pretty people. The show is far more interested in shoot-outs and set-piece action scenes than in scenery.
  4. Throughout this episode, I’m trying to figure out what the core of the show is. Burn Notice has the tension between patriotism and his being blacklisted (with a dash of family dysfunction). Numbers has the good-hearted rebuilding of sibling relationships and the bringing of family together. NCIS has its goofy office hijinks. This show has aspects of all of these tensions and is desperately trying to recreate these formulas that worked (at least to some degree) in past shows, without actually pulling it off because it does some of all of those. There is a family vendetta, a blacklisted cop, another who is having a custody spat with his ex-wife with whom he would like to get back together. Then there is the extra seasoning of everyone being trigger-happy, which seems to be trying to cover for the failures elsewhere.

    This violence also manifests itself in that the main characters are all-too willing to blatantly disregard most laws, including to torture suspects. The characters sometimes allude to this in the sense that the leader of the team is not himself a cop. There is too much else going on, including that these law enforcement officers are always in a rush to get to their next act of sanctioned vigilantism, but they seem to want the core of the show to be tension of having a Seal in a cop’s job. Of course, asking those questions requires better writing and a larger cast, so Hawaii 5-O is happy to use everything as a throwaway, moving along quickly enough that maybe nobody will notice.

  5. What follows from the last point is that there is a visual representation of a militarized law enforcement that takes the stance that almost everyone else is a victim waiting to happen. Frequently, this results in stern talking-tos. At most there are token references to people outside of the main cast of the show, passing mentions of that they should not be discharging weapons in public spaces, and remorse when the “good guys” cannot save someone.

The Great British Baking Show

Through the magic of the PBS website I just finished watching four episodes of the latest season of the Great British Baking Show (aka the Great British Bake Off), a show that I had never paid much mind to, despite it utterly consuming my twitter feed for the past two seasons. Now I’m hooked and the fact that there are another forty five episodes out there is going to eat at me as though I’m going through withdrawal. But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

The show is an amateur baking competition where professional judges winnow down a field of candidates through a series of difficult challenges and demands. Each week has a theme and the format remained the same throughout: first, the bakers create their signature bakes where, within the bounds of the assignment, they are free to create whatever they want to do to show off; second, they have a technical challenge, where they all receive the exact same recipe and competed to do that successfully; finally, they have a showcase where they are given a specific thing to make and had to go over the top in terms of performance and presentation. In each case, the judges weigh the offerings based on the presentation, uniformity of size, texture, taste, and flavors. At the end of each episode, one baker is dismissed and one baker is named as the best baker.

As in any cooking show, the challenges are compounded because the contestants are barely given enough time to complete the tasks, which is doubly tough when many of the recipes require time for leavening and proofing, and others also require the dough to remain cold right up until the time the proofing starts and then must be proofed at room temperature. Also like other cooking shows, the contestants are encouraged to get creative with ingredients and flavors, but, unlike the American shows I’ve seen, here the contestants seemed encouraged to bring ingredients from their own gardens or jams that they made. Clearly, I don’t know all the rules that they are bound by, but there appeared to be far more liberality with ingredients here than in other shows.

Everything listed above, as well as the skill and inventiveness of the contestants, is what makes the show engaging and watchable, but is the whimsy and congeniality that make the show addictive. There is the whimsical veneer–the bakers bake in a white tent erected in a bucolic, verdant field and the music is straight out of a princess musical, but also a more substantive warmth to the show. The bakers are in competition with each other, yes, and there is always an element of worry and side-eyeing when confronted with an unknown recipe, but, frequently, this is borne of trepidation and a tendency to see what the others are doing in order to emulate them. Perhaps it is the nature of baking, but there is also time for them to observe their competition in a way that most cooking shows don’t offer. There is also no cutthroat element where the contestants snatch away ingredients. In fact, this is the only food show where I have witnessed contestants giving each other a hand, including one instance where the people who had finished banded together to help another contestant finish plating her baked goods.

This atmosphere also carries over to the judging. The judges are, if anything, more demanding than the judges in other shows I’ve seen and they are rating the entries on more qualifications. Yet they are nicer. The judges do not simply declare something a failure, but try to identify what went wrong in the process of creation and will give credit for whatever does work.

The Great British Bak(ing Show/e Off) is a charming show and has inspired me to bake more…as though I needed more inspiration on this or more distractions from my dissertation. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain describes bakers, albeit bread bakers than the assorted bakings of this show, as wackos and weirdos who manage, through strange alchemy, to conjure amazing things to eat. I can’t really dispute this characterization, but, watching this show, one has to conclude that bakers are just nicer than cooks, too.

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.