Skip to content

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.

Long live the Kaiser, and Queen Brioche

America’s pretzel-bun fetish has gone too far. It was fun at first, to have a tangy, spongy, salty roll for burgers and sandwiches. It was new and exotic and pretzels themselves are delicious with mustards and cheese sauces. But the pretzel bun is dense and has a tendency to dry out. If you dip a dry pretzel in a sauce it is still delicious. If you have a dry pretzel bun, your burger is going to be a disappointment. Further, the density takes the emphasis away from the burger or sandwich and entirely onto the bread. This is the way it should be if the bread is transcendent, but, usually, the point of a compilation of ingredients is to make them all work together.

The two old standbys, brioche and kaiser rolls, don’t have this same problem. Kaiser rolls should be flavorful, but light and airy, the perfect complement to great ingredients. Mistreated kaiser rolls (stale, for instance) are going to be disappointing, but a mediocre roll still allows the rest of the ingredients to shine. Brioche rolls are also light and fluffy, but instead of being an airy bread with a bit of a crust holding it in, they are mostly butter. Everyone loves butter.

In the broadest terms I don’t mind that pretzel buns are a thing. For one, it is unlikely that they can be undone at this point, and, for another, I am generally in favor of letting people make their own mista…choices. My problem is that, sometimes, there is no choice, the default is just a disappointing pretzel bun. A pretzel bun that should be a niche item, an optional substitution at most. Life is too short for such tomfoolery; long live the kaiser.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

I am probably the last person who both holds a classics degree and reads novels (and is from Vermont!) to read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Years ago I was having a conversation with Tom Zoellner (the author of Uranium) before he did a reading at Backpages Books in Waltham and he asked me if I had read it. I thought he was referring to Procopius’ history of Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius that is translated under the same title.

Richard Papen, the narrator of The Secret History has fled suburbia USA (Plano, CA) where nothing is older than the 1960s, to an isolated pocket of the liberal arts in small town Vermont that is Hampden College (modeled on Bennington College). There he worms his way into into an incestuous, cultish circle of Classicists under the mesmeric guidance of Professor Julian Morrow. Richard is an outsider to this group as a newcomer, and as someone whose family doesn’t have even the pretense of wealth and status. But, as he comes to be accepted as sorts, his entrée into this circle leaves him isolated from the rest of the college. Nor is Richard at all close with his family, and the circle of Classicists is all he has.

There is no secret in the plot of The Secret History, which Richard shares about ten years after the events. The members of the little circle of classics, for reasons that come to be explained, kill their colleague Bunny Corcoran. The question, then, is not what happened, but why and what effect did it have on the participants.

One of the remarkable things Tartt achieves is to tell an engaging tale and provoke positive emotional responses about the characters, all of whom are repugnant. On one level these characters are idealized versions of classicists; they are superior to other students, they speak to each other in Greek and Latin, they pursue the sublime, the eternal, where even the art students are engaged in the mundane. On the other hand, Richard is habitual liar and actively runs away from his problems, they all drink heavily (though they specify Charles as having a problem), and the rest are various degrees of austere, severe, distant, and manipulative. Even Camilla, the most likable of the crew (and not just because she is idealized as Richard’s crush), suffers from many of these same problems. And then there is Bunny, who is demanding, needy, insulting, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and, as we are often reminded, simply not as good a student as the rest of them.

Tartt’s prose holds the reader through, compelling you to follow along, and there are a few features that ameliorate the sense that everyone is awful. While it is clear that the protagonists are not nice people, their monstrosity doesn’t come through in most cases until near the end, at which point she makes you nostalgic for the mean camaraderie of yestermonth. The characters do help each other out and are inextricably bound together, which creates a bond. All of this applies doubly to their relationship with Bunny Corcoran, who is nothing but awful and Richard insists repeatedly that they were friends and indeed liked him. More than any other part, this reminded me of that particular age (c.18) where, being thrust together with a random assortment of people, one makes friendships that from the outside look like nothing of the sort. Some of the faults, particularly the early ones encountered, are the sort borne of youthful hubris and stupidity that are possible to grow out of.

The Secret History confronts issues of beauty, aesthetics, memory, guilt, class, and sex, and does so well. But one of the mysteries that I found distracting and intriguing was when the story took place. It was published in 1992, the story is supposed to take place ten years in the past, and there were enough hints that I eventually settled on the main action taking place in 1981 or 1982, but the characters largely exist within a bubble where time has frozen so the few references to the television set are all the more striking. The Vermont, liberal arts, and Classics setting all give some protection from the crush of modernity, but there “pop” references that dated the story and passing a lot of the events off as 2015 contemporary would have been ludicrous. The same story could be told without a problem, but it would require more firm dating, which, in turn, starts to unravel the timeless aesthetic that the protagonists aspire to.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Secret History and found Tartt’s tone and writing more than sufficient. I, too, developed affection for Camilla, admiration for Henry, and sympathy for Bunny, even while determining early on that I wanted nothing to do with any of them. Vermont and Classics may have been a perfect trap for me, but it snared me.

ΔΔΔ

I probably spent too much time reading fun books in June and have read quite a few since finishing The Secret History (a full reading review will probably go up tomorrow). Now I have started working my way through the first of two volumes of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the 14th century Chinese epic attributed to Luo Guanzhong about the collapse of the Han Dynasty. The whole English translation is about 1300 pages, but, depending on how I feel, I may take a break between volumes 1 and 2. So far it reminds me of L’Morte Arthur more than anything.

Baker’s Romanticism

Some years ago, I read an internet advice column that suggested men learn how to cook and keep a stocked cupboard so as to impress ladies. The advisor, a woman, recounted how attractive it was one time when she was with a man on his couch and, upon expressing hunger, he leapt into the kitchen and prepared a spinach-artichoke dip for her. What if that man was a baker, and not a cook?

Scene:
A living room where a couple lounges against each other on a couch. They’ve been drinking wine. Her stomach rumbles and he offers to make a fresh batch of pain au chocolat. What can be more romantic than a traditional, buttery, french dessert? Of course she says “yes.”

In a flash, the beau is off the couch and the through the doorway into an unseen kitchen and there is a flurry of activity, cupboard doors and drawers opening and closing, the refrigerator rumbling to life as the cool air escapes when it is opened. A puff of flour floats through the portal and the racquet of an object hammering the counter. Ten minutes later, he returns covered in flour.

Their intimate activities resume, but he is called away fifteen minutes later, but only for a few minutes this time. And again fifteen minutes after he next returns, and thirty minutes after that. Then he is called away for a longer stretch (for shaping the dough). Then they have an hour and a half together while the the treats proof, with only a momentary break for him to preheat the oven. But he’s worked himself into a lather with the constant movement and has been dusted in a bit more flour at each step so goes to take a shower.

She has taken to checking Twitter. Facebook. Texting friends. His wine glass has gone untouched since he start, she’s finished the first bottle. He jokes that perhaps he should have chosen a recipe with an overnight proof so she’d have to spend the night. She opens a second bottle.

Twenty minutes of baking, an a cool down phase and the pain au chocolat are ready to eat. Only four hours after he offered to make her a snack and impress her with his culinary mastery, and she’s fallen asleep.

End Scene

There ways to make this interactive, of course, but if the goal is to show off one’s skill in the kitchen, then the lesson here is to prepare the breads in advance and start them proofing as soon as they get home. Or maybe that a baker is better suited to stable domestic life more than the vicissitudes of casual dating.

On a related point, I bet the guy in the example above used canned and bottled ingredients. If he was really that handy, he would have roasted his own artichokes.

Orwell novels

George Orwell is one of my favorite authors. My ranking of his novels:

  1. 1984
  2. Keep the Aspidistra Flying
  3. Coming Up For Air
  4. Burmese Days
  5. Animal Farm
  6. The Clergyman’s Daughter

That is all, for now.

Heroes and Villains and Daredevil

In superhero shows, the hero is generally more boring than the villains. The villains are all manner of interesting or eccentric, while the hero has to play the boring, morally good foil for their absurdity. Along this same line, the interesting heroes are the ones who flit along the morally grey area. Batman instead of Superman; Wolverine instead of Cyclops. Yet one of the commonalities in the waves of superhero films and shows, the tendency is to dedicate the overwhelming majority of the screen time to the good guys–in a story of heroes and villains, it wouldn’t do to heroize the villains (there are other media for that). The villain, still often the more interesting character, appears enough to establish that s/he is evil and to advance the plot, but the focus is on the hero. The hero has his or her origin story, the various training sequences, the humanizing moments, and, ultimately, solving the mystery or problem that the villain lays out. I am generalizing here, of course, and it helps when the hero is attractive, charismatic, and all-around engaging, both as the alter-ego and in persona–and this is best accomplished with good writing and casting.

Recently, I have taken to watching the superhero shows as the come up on Netflix, including Arrow, Daredevil, and Agents of Shield. Each show has its own strengths and weaknesses and scope, with Agents of Shield being the most ambitious in terms of placing its narrative within a broader universe, both because it is set to work in conjunction with the second Avengers movie and because it has the largest cast of heroes whose stories we are following, but it rarely derives conflict from the tension between the person and the secret identity. There are betrayals, yes, but the tension is from the interpersonal conflicts. In contrast, the ego/alter-ego tension is exactly where Arrow gets most of its conflict and, in turn, the focus on the villains is how they are conspiratorial and menacing.

But the inspiration for these musings is Daredevil, which spends nearly as much time telling the stories of the villains as it does the hero. In the first few episodes, that screen time is dedicated to telling Matt Murdock’s origin story–his relationship with his dad, how he became blind–but that particularly story arc falls away quickly. Instead of focusing on his training or even his relationships (it is fairly exceptional for him to spend time with his law partner), much of the time is dedicated to developing the villains and their enterprises. The irony here is that these same criminals are generally mean and lacking in criminal charms. The show tries to find a balance between heroes who save people by amoral means and villains who hurt people, some for money, others who claim to do so in order to improve the world. So far, Daredevil seems to be trying to capture a noir ambiance, with all characters being human and flawed, but the villains frankly aren’t very interesting.

There is more to Daredevil than how the screen time is divvied up, of course, and the split pushes the show away from being a character study. (I heard one complaint that the show moves along slowly and, while the ambiance tends to be sluggish and deliberate, the plot moves pretty quickly in my opinion because the plot–and requisite action scenes–is all there is.) I have watched the first six episodes of Daredevil at this point and would characterize it as watchable, but not exceptional beyond this particular quirk of its construction.

What’s in a name?

I have a bit of a confession to make. For years I thought that Robin Lane Fox was a woman. I was loosely aware of men being named Robin and probably should have put two and two together from Batman, if nothing else, but I only knew one person named Robin, the mother of a childhood friend. Since it never did (and still doesn’t) strike me as of any consequence whether work is being done by a man or a woman, it never even occurred to me to look up the gender. More recently, I had a similar experience with Robin Hägg. Things get even more muddled when the first name exists only as an initial, which leaves only a genderless letter. The problem, of course, is when I have to use a pronoun and therefore need to know the gender.

This topic came up yesterday when I was working with a book by an author whose name is “Alison.” The book is from the sixties and does not contain any biographical hints that give away gender. A quick google search has been less than forthcoming as to who this scholar actually is, so I am going with my gut and using “she.” But when I was only using the last name (and hadn’t looked at the first) I assumed that the author was male and used “he” throughout the section.

I am using scholarship by more men than women in my dissertation simply because there are more men than women in the corpus of research I am drawing on. I have taken to using only initials for the names of scholars for my dissertation, mostly for aesthetic reasons, but I am reminded how much I use the names to cue in on gender, sometimes inaccurately. What bothers me about this is that I assumed the author was male until I looked up the first name–and that I suspect this would happen more often if I didn’t usually see the name before reading a piece. The worst that I could do here is embarrass myself, but the problems with sexism in academia are real, which is why I’m calling myself out for a genuine and fairly innocuous, easily correctable mistake.

May Reading Recap

The Skin, Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed here, The Skin is a grotesquely surreal retelling of the American liberation of Italy in 1943. It is horrifying and nightmarishly entrancing.

I The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos
Reviewed here, this is a sprawling portrait of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco, a nineteenth century dictator of Paraguay who was, simultaneously, a brutal and progressive ruler.

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian
Horatio Nelson fan fiction, I scoffed, but self-consciously so. This is the first novel in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, twenty acclaimed volumes of the adventures of Lucky Jack Aubrey, officer in the British Navy, and his physician/spy Stephen Maturin. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, O’Brian’s books are v. well-researched historical fiction about the British navy and he fills the pages with naval esoterica and a colorful cast of characters of diverse origin. I like and appreciate his dedication to accuracy of a certain shade and it seems that early in the series O’Brian is doing a lot of groundwork toward establishing that he knows what is talking about in this time and place, but he also tends to be long-winded and willing to allow his characters to wallow in a place because that, too, was part of life in the British navy during the period, which doesn’t make for the most enthralling story. I’m currently reading the second book in the series, Post Captain, and was recently told that the books pick up the pace from there.

My favorite of these three was I The Supreme.

Non-fiction! One of my summer goals is to, on weekends, read non-fiction that is not directly related to my research or teaching. The next two books are the result of this.

Patriot of Persia, Christopher de Bellaigue
What if Ghandi was a life-long bureaucrat and politician who was overthrown by a CIA organized coup? In many ways, that is how de Bellaigue presents the “tragic” fall of Mohammed Mossadegh, prime minister of Iran. Mossadegh was the scion of the Iranian Qajar dynasty, a lawyer and an accountant who had a long but intermittent career in Iranian politics, even after the Qajar dynasty was overthrown by Reza Pahlavi in 1925. The core arc that de Bellaigue follows is the role of the British, in the form of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, in Iranian politics, building toward Mossadegh’s nationalization of the oil industry and the subsequent coup. He suggests that Mossadegh’s upright and honest morality led to remarkable successes in his early career, but also that it led to his tendency to judge people from the sidelines. This combination allowed Mossadegh to become a potent demagogue, but his tolerance for people who espoused ideas that differed from his own sowed the seeds for his demise when international oil embargoes threatened to bankrupt the state, a concerted Anglo-American misinformation campaign undermined (but did not destroy) popular support, and a coup restored the Shah to power.

de Bellaigue was prone to purple prose at times and had some unfortunate word choices, some that said things he did not mean (such as referring to the AIOC as “great,” rather than large), others that were problematic double entendres. He also hinted at things, both regional conflicts and domestic situations, that do not appear in the core narrative, but it came across as a well-researched and largely balanced account of Mossadegh’s life. My main complaint was that the book could have used maps, both of Tehran and Iran, particularly because he frequently refers to places throughout both.

The Prehistory of the Silk Road, E.E. Kuzmina
Kuzmina, a Russian archeologist, argues that the links of people, technologies, and commodities between east and west the defined the Silk Road from the Roman period through the Middle Ages did not begin then, but existed as far back as the Neolithic Period.

I The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos

letters couldn’t care less whether what is written with them is true or false.

[The Supreme]

Why is it you don’t write these true things down among all the lies that your hand borrows from other lies, believing that they’re your truths?

[The ghost of the Supreme’s dog, Sultan.]

Pupil Liberta Patricia Nuñez, age 12: “The Supreme Dictator is a thousand years old like God and has shoes with gold buckles edged and trimmed with leather. The Supreme decides when we should be born and that all those who die should go to heaven, so that there are far too many people there and the Lord God doesn’t have enough maize or manioc to feed all the beggars of his Divine Beatitude.”

Pupil Juan de Mena y Mompox, age 11: “The Supreme Dictator is the one who gave us the Revolution. He’s in command now, because he wants to be, forever and ever.

Don’t you think that I could be made into a fabulous story?

José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco, the Supreme, ruled Paraguay almost continuously from 1813 until his death in 1840. He managed steered Paraguay through a period of independence, one of moderate economic prosperity, and one of racial toleration. And he did so through creating a brutal police state and largely isolating Paraguay from the world. He never married, but fathered multiple illegitimate children, one of whom reputedly became a prostitute. He forced the Spanish aristocracy to marry natives. He nationalized the catholic church, established mandatory schooling, and waged a war on corruption and excess, himself living a simple ascetic lifestyle. In these ways, The Supreme stands in contrast to the next dynasty of Paraguayan dictators. It is these contradictions that Augusto Roa Bastos explores in I The Supreme.

Despite the titillation wrapped up in The Supreme’s inventive insults (“pharisaical farceur,” “cacogenic latrinographer,” “scribonic plague”), I The Supreme is not a titillating account of an eccentric and over-the-top dictator. The story opens with a decree nailed to the church door, signed by the Supreme, declaring that he wants his ministers to be executed upon his death, their bodies tossed into the field, and his own head put on display and people summoned to witness it. The Supreme orders his secretary to find out who is responsible for this latest slander. What follows is a sprawling retrospective of The Supreme’s rule that creates a continuous narrative by joining the transcription of the discussion between The Supreme and his secretary, the private notebooks, the perpetual circular to be sent to government officials, the notes of the compiler, and passages from contemporary commentators. This retrospective doubles as a diatribe against those writers who would dare to write about The Supreme, let alone critique him.

The narrative is presented as a stream of thought and he is a thoroughly unreliable narrator–but so too are the other authors, grinding their axes for one reason or another. They are convinced that he is a monster, and he is to those people whose lives he upended by stopping their rule and corruption. He is unrepentant about the political prisoners he has sentenced, including one sentenced to row forever against the current, and points out that his so-called reign of terror killed fewer than one hundred people. He is Supreme and refuses to promote governors because he alone is immune to corruption. He accepts the flattery of the students and acknowledges that they need to get better teachers. His dream is an impossibility, his faith is in progress that might exist only in his imagination, and his existence creates his enemies.

I The Supreme is a dense book that slips between speakers, scenes, and dates with little warning. A critique of dictatorship, it is not an out and out condemnation of Dr. Francia, who is presented as the best of a bad lot of options. Roa Bastos accepts that he was an able administrator, stamped out corruption, kept Paraguay free, and yet presents him as an egotistical, fickle and ruthless dictator. However, there is an added layer of critique of Paraguayan dictators: that Francia is the best of the lot in that he kept the country out of debt, kept what would be considered human rights violations to a minimum (though he did commit them), and, rather than precipitating the wholesale slaughter of citizens, kept Paraguay out of wars with its neighbors.

I The Supreme is one of the densest books I have ever read and I found the internet a welcome reading aid, both for primers on Paraguayan history, of which I knew nothing, and as a dictionary reference to puzzle through The Supreme’s wordplay. It is challenging, but it is also an immensely rewarding read.

For a learned take, see this review, though I found Roa Bastos’ portrait of The Supreme somewhat more charitable than the reviewer did.

Next up, I am reading Post Captain, the second in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

Parts Unknown, No Reservations…and The Layover

Being a person whose TV consumption is largely beholden to Netflix, I am always excited when new episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows are added and doubly so when it adds new seasons of “Parts Unknown”, his CNN show. Junkie that I am, I watched all the episodes of “The Layover,” his second Travel Channel show. The premise of “The Layover” is that Bourdain lays out the types of things he would do if he had 36 to 48 hours in a city, how he would get around, where he would stay, and what he would eat. Instead of copious B-roll, there are also brief clips of interviews with locals to get their impression of the town and where to go and what to eat. Bourdain serves as a sort of specialized travel guide.

“The Layover” is not particularly good T.V., but I did watch every episode available to me. Some of the problems stem from the appearance that Bourdain mailed in a lot of the episodes and his demeanor, usually cranky and sarcastic, but still usually gracious and good-natured, became bitter and caustic. Nor did the compressed time frame, giving it the helter-skelter appearance that travelers are all too familiar with, help the aesthetic of the show. Further, the determination to lay out options for, say, getting from the airport to a hotel based on both time and money and a variety of hotels based on cost laid the groundwork for a show to revolve around how much this layover excursion is going to cost. Add these things together and it is the perfect storm for Bourdain to invariably take the more expensive option, all the while noting it is on someone else’s dime, and breaking up his rundown of great gastronomic experiences in order to find any bar in the city that has Pappy van Winkle.

Given the format and focus of the show, I can’t blame Bourdain, either. It just doesn’t make for great TV. Despite these complaints, the bigger (semi-related) problem is that “The Layover” is unbearably repetitive, with the same formula and concerns in each episode.

If “No Reservations” or “Parts Unknown” were strictly shows about food or cooking I would not be nearly as interested in watching. I enjoy how the shows focus on food, the people who make the food, and the relationship between food and life, but, frankly, Bourdain is not great at describing what he is eating aside from his dedication to muffled declarations of appreciation. What he does do well is describe the ingredients of a dish and discussing how it is made and the crew of the show does a great job of complementing this sort of description with beautiful shots of both the food being prepared and the final product. This sort of camera and production work then bleeds over into the rest of the show. They use an enormous amount of B-roll, for the food, the people, and the places and then edit it together into a beautiful episode.

This style is not an accident, but a feature of the show. When he was on the Nerdist podcast (if I remember the interview correctly), Bourdain discussed some of the artistic decisions in making episodes and particularly how they have a tendency to model episodes on classic films and to spend their prep time reading books, including a lot of literature, about their destination. The idea was both to get a sense for the aesthetic sensibility of the place and to capture something elemental about the people and culture there. Bourdain gets to do and eat some things that most people would never have the opportunity to because of resources and connections that are not readily available to most people and some of these likely cost a great deal, but still other things shown are street food options that probably cost less than eating at McDonalds. The price of these things is not the point and to focus on the cost would diminish the whole enterprise. There are restrictions on what can be done, of course, and there is an overarching celebration of people and places that remains constant throughout, but each episode is its own thing–and rarely is there a shot of the hotel or hotel room, let alone the taxi ride between the hotel and the airport. “The Layover” felt like work–pleasant enough work, but work nonetheless. “Parts Unknown” is art.