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What is making me happy: my dissertation

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

The thing that is making me happy as the semester draws to a close is the same thing that is stressing me out, namely that my first serious dive into Greek epigraphy (inscriptions) has me more optimistic about the relevance of my dissertation than I have been in a few months. I still loved my topic, but I was in despair about how new some of my conclusions were going to be. The inscriptions I’ve been working on the last few weeks have given me more and more valuable things to say, even as it has taught me that I am going to need to rewrite one of the chapters from the ground up because the chronology I followed is probably invalid. In the grand scheme of things this development is a good thing because it makes for a fresher and better dissertation, but, in the short term, I have to rewrite a draft of that chapter by the end of January so that there aren’t glaring inconsistencies in what I submit for a dissertation fellowship–on top of my schedule of producing new material.

I have some more specific thoughts on this development, some for the dissertation, some about the process, and some about how much ancient history frequently requires as much explanation about how we know what we know as what we know. And I will probably write about this in the near future, but, in the meantime, I have a chapter due on Monday. I also intend to do some sort of 2014/15 retrospective/preview, update my top novels list, possibly a semester recap, and a few other assorted things I want to write about (posted here for my own benefit as much as anything).

Since what I model this post on requires the recommendation of something, but what is making me happy isn’t readily available for consumption for at least a year or two yet and won’t be in book form for some years after that, if ever, I will point out a few quick things.

  1. I’m not usually one to obsess over particular records, let alone stay up to date on the world of music. However, this week my work soundtrack has been a mix of Great Big Sea, Gin Blossoms, Ha Ha Tonka, and Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In particular, I’ve been enjoying taking much deeper dives into Deluxe, Live, or other lesser known material of groups I like than I previously had, and getting to hear their sound in somewhat different ways.
  2. Netflix recently added more of the 30 for 30 documentaries and I’m currently enjoying the currently-topical Brothers in Exile film about Orlando and Livan Hernandez’ defection from Cuba in the 1990s.
  3. It is snowing. I love snow. If it is available in your area, go cross-country skiing or put on snowshoes, wander into the woods, and let your mind wander. I hope to be able to indulge in this soon.

November 2014 Reading Recap

I am in disbelief that December is upon us. For a variety of reasons, some of which aren’t even related to my dissertation, life has gotten v. hectic, but here’s a quick rundown of my November reading.

Bridge on the Drina – Ivo Andric

Andric’s masterpiece (one of the trilogy for which he won the Nobel Prize) is a story about the onrush of modernity in a small Balkan town. The town is rural, the inhabitants in the the various hamlets vaguely aware of the goings on in the world at large–particularly when the time comes to pay dues to the Ottomans. Then a Vizier orders the construction of the eponymous bridge. The town grew up around the bridge, expanding with time and subjected to the pressures modernity up to the first World War, including rebellion, occupation, war, railroads, and nationalism. The one constant is the bridge.

The book is of the high-literary variety and drags at times, but also has a penchant for evocative imagery, including a gruesomely graphic description of a man who gets impaled on a spike and suffers for a long time. I came away with an active interest in something like this not happening to me–as opposed than the standard disinterest in painful punishment.

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

A hero’s journey story that caused my brother to express disbelief when I told him I hadn’t already read it. Santiago is a young Andalusian shepherd who is encouraged to follow his dreams and go to the Pyramids in Egypt in order to unlock his Personal Legend. Along the way he meets obstacles, some of which are pleasant, that threaten his journey. He stays on course and writes his own legend. The story is simplistic in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t invalidate the points made. I liked but didn’t love the book, but could see including it in a list of books read to fairly young children, ones who should be reminded that there is a time to wander and that personal legends are there to be written, chased, and that a decent portion of luck is about putting oneself out there. Then again, we can all use that reminder sometimes.

The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu

Reviewed here, The Lives of Tao is a fun book about an unlikely hero who gets inhabited by a millenia-old alien named Tao who once helped make Genghis Khan into a world-conqueror. Ultimately, it is an alt-history action-adventure, martial arts story. Admittedly, I am a sucker for stories about the hero’s journey and while there were certain elements of the story that I found youthful and might have found problematic in other books, I had enough fun reading The Lives of Tao that that sensation overrode any problems I had. It was my favorite read for the month.

Noted above, my life is crazy right now and I haven’t started a new book yet, but I’ve been carrying around Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, so that will probably be the next one I read.

The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

Roen Tam eats too much, drinks too much, and works too much because he is incapable of telling his boss ‘no.’ Because he has a cat and rent, you see. He hasn’t been on a date in years and compensates for the lack of a social life by going to nightclubs that he hates.

Tao is a Quasing, a brilliant, amoeba-like alien race that crash-landed on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago. Quasing can’t tolerate Earth’s atmosphere and survive by forming symbiotic relationships with other animals, including humans, through which they work with the hope of, someday, returning to their home planet. They and their hosts have been responsible for both some of the greatest achievements and worst catastrophes in human history. Of course, the Quasing are also engulfed in a centuries-long civil war between the Prophus (betrayers) who want to return home without destroying the human race and the Genjix who have no such scruples.

When a mission goes wrong and Tao’s host pays the ultimate price, he needs a new host and fast. Roen, drunk, happens to be available. Prophus can’t afford for one of its best operatives to be on the sidelines at this critical moment and it is up to Tao to turn Roen into a hero capable of saving the world, fast.

The Lives of Tao is a fast-paced action story that follows a fairly traditional narrative arc, an unlikely hero, training montages, and exciting fight-scene climaxes. Before reading the book I had heard that Chu used his experience as a martial-artist and stuntman to write particularly excellent fight scenes, and the book lived up to the hype. In particular, I appreciated how each of the different Quasing characters had a distinct personality, almost more so than the human characters did, which is apropos given their lifespans. Tao, for instance, is cynical and sarcastic, but is also an optimistic dreamer who has learned from his numerous mistakes.

I usually dislike this sort of alternative explanations for historical events, but Chu pulled it off for several reasons. First, the explanations were not restricted to isolated events, but included broad developments, including those that predated human existence. Second, while the relationships underpin how ignorant and dim-witted humans are, it is still fundamentally a symbiotic relationship where the humans have agency and have their own natural abilities enhanced, the hero drawn out from within, rather than the person being taken over or undermined by the “superior” being. The Quasing simply provide superior pattern skills and aeons of experience.

The Lives of Tao is a tremendously fun read, complete with action, humor, romance, and a coming of age story starring a thirty-something year old man and an impossibly old mentor. Given the themes in the book, particularly with a clear dichotomy between the good guys and bad guys and the moral gray area with which only the heroes wrestle, and the energetic pacing, it is not a surprise that The Lives of Tao won a young adult fiction award.

I look forward to reading Chu’s sequel, The Deaths of Tao, and, in the meantime, recommend this book to anyone who likes science fiction, fantasy, or just a fun action story.

What is Making Me Happy: Ha Ha Tonka

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming. This week: the Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka.

I am weird about music. It helps me attune myself to what I am doing and have to have something on while I write. I also like a fairly wide selection of genres and can really get into artists, but am by no means a music snob. It is not an artistic medium that I care a great deal about and my tastes frequently diverge from those of, for instance, the writers at NPR music. Partly for that reason, I usually don’t spend much time browsing for new music in the way that I do for books and recipes. On the other hand, when I usually add things to my playlists when I hear something I like in other contexts. In this case, I saw Ha Ha Tonka on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations when he visited their home region of Southern Missouri (the Ozarks episode). Within twenty four hours of seeing the episode I listened to four Ha Ha Tonka albums and looked up their tour dates for when they will be in Columbia, Missouri next so that I can see them live.

The song that has hooked me the most is “Staring at the End of Our Lives,” from Lessons (2013), but I couldn’t find a readily available link to it. Second, though, is “The Usual Suspects,” Death of a Decade (2011), the video for which is linked below and was featured on No Reservations. I like the combination of catchiness and lyricism and highly recommend all four albums.

October Reading Recap

After ditching Don Quixote in early October, I worked through three novels, all by decorated authors.

Old Man and the Sea- Ernest Hemingway

A story about a fishing trip and daydreams about baseball. An allegory about life. Well worth reading and a book that justifies my belief that Hemingway improved as a writer through his career. Much of the story is spent with the old man on his boat, accompanied only by the eponymous sea and the fish, so there isn’t a lot of Hemingway’s trademark staccato dialogue. At the same time there is no natural breaking point in the text, but I was able to find places to put the book down since there was still a natural, tidal rhythm to the text. The content of this story did not speak to me as much as some of the others did, but I could appreciate it for what it was and this simple fishing story is marvelously layered with meaning in such a way that it can provoke reaction on a variety of levels and none of them will be wrong.

Of the stand-alone, book-length stories of Hemingway’s, I’ve now read six, as well as Green Hills of Africa and A Moveable Feast. Unless I find a cheap copy of Across the River and into the Woods, the next on my list of Hemingways is Islands in the Stream

Waiting for the Barbarian -J.M. Coetzee

The Magistrate has spent most of his life governing a small border town, overseeing interactions between the barbarians, the marsh people, and the Empire, and conducting an ad hoc archeological dig in the ruins of a a lost civilization. The peaceful rhythm of this life is broken when the Empire learning of an impending invasion by newly-united tribes of nomadic barbarians and is determined to exterminate this threat. The Magistrate becomes entangled in this string of events when he becomes rapturously enthralled by a captured barbarian woman who he pities, lusts after, and is repulsed by. Though she is his focus, he sympathizes with all the captured barbarians, whose threat he is sure the Empire is inventing and manipulating.

Coetzee’s themes of otherness, bureaucracy, propaganda, exploitation, and brutality, usually attract me and they entirely dominate the novel–and the South African man won the 2003 Nobel Prize in literature for his treatment of these issues. The focus on the border town does distinguish Waiting for the Barbarian from other stories of this sort in that both external threats to living life provide their own measure of barbarity, but there was something about the bleakness that I found off-putting. I still don’t know what it was exactly about the book that left me feeling this way, but while the topics are critically important for the modern world, I just found it unfulfilling.

The White Tiger- Aravind Adiga

Adiga’s first novel, which won the 2008 Booker Prize and was easily my favorite of the three, delves into the inequalities of modern India, particularly between the rich and the poor, between the urban and the rural, and how both manifest themselves in the corruption of Indian politics. The novel unfolds as Balram Halwai, a self-described entrepreneur, writes a series of email communiques to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China, who is about to visit India. Balram tells Mr. Jiabao that he needs to ignore the Indian politicians and visit him, a real businessman entrepreneur, the type of person who is going to be the future of India. Of course, Balram is also a murderer, an up-jumped peasant, and a White Tiger, a once-in-a-generation predator.

Adiga’s novel is darkly funny and powerful. It is driven by Balram’s self-effacing, almost-obsequious megalomania that he cultivates from his brief stint in school through his career as a servant to his former landlords to his acquisition of his start-up capitol. The letters expose heart-breaking conditions, depraved lifestyles, and the violence that the combination of the two engenders, all the while remaining unendingly optimistic about the prosperity that a white tiger can achieve in this state. It is clear that Balram is a madman, but that doesn’t mean he is wrong.

I wanted to write a full review of The White Tiger, but I dallied on picking the appropriate form to write it in and then got busy. It will appear on my updated (an expanded!) list of top novels that will appear in early January–six books have been added to the list so far this year, bringing the list up to 36 thus far.


November is looking like it will be more of the same in terms of pace since the end of the semester is nigh. I am, however, about two-thirds through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ The General in his Labyrinth, which is a re-imagination of Simon Bolivar’s final journey after giving up power and is interspersed with his memories. It isn’t my favorite of Marquez’ books, but I am consistently amazed by his use of language.

The Lost book of Alexander the Great, Andrew Young

Andrew Young, The Lost book of Alexander the Great, Westholme, 2014.

“This is a book about a book,” Young opens, but that book is lost. Young declares that it nevertheless possible to reconstruct Ptolemy’s history of Alexander’s campaigns in Asia and therefore Ptolemy’s vision of Alexander. A dedicated manuscript–not a not a full reconstruction, obviously, since that is tantamount to tilting at windmills–about Ptolemy’s history would be a wonderful benefit to scholars and general readers alike and recovering the “real” Alexander, or how Alexander died or even the original histories about Alexander are the ambitions of bookwork treasure-hunters everywhere. Ptolemy is even an engaging figure himself, a royal court hanger-on, soldier, governor, king, historian, so situating what is known about his historical work within the context of the early Hellenistic world where he was not the only ruler to engage in intellectual pursuits (see Demetrius of Phalerum and Antipater) would be a worthwhile enterprise. This is not that book. In fact, it is not even a book about a book. The Lost Book of Alexander the Great is another dry regurgitation of Alexander’s campaign, with passing attention paid to passages known to derive from Ptolemy’s history.

There are a host of issues with Young’s book. First, although he makes broad pronouncements about his angle of inquiry being the reconstruction of Ptolemy’s history, and thus being a textual study, he admitted in a Reddit AMA that he doesn’t know Greek and therefore relied on translations. It was not a surprise, then, to see that Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians and Brill’s New Jacoby project are absent from the bibliography, both of which provide commentary on the known fragments of Ptolemy’s history. But also absent were Bosworth’s commentaries on Arrian’s Anabasis and From Arrian to Alexander and Hammond’s Sources for Alexander the Great, which include essays about the source tradition. A general audience does not require these sources, but any study looking at the source tradition (which this purports to be) does. A deeper dive into the bibliography reveals further deficiencies. Neither Errington’s “Bias in the Ptolemy’s History of Alexander” (CQ2, 1969) nor Roisman’s “Ptolemy and his Rivals in his History of Alexander” (CQ2, 1984) appears. Nor do the biographies of Bosworth, Hammond (x2), Worthington, Heckel, Cartledge, and Green show up, though Theodore Ayrault Dodge’s volume, published in 1890, does. Young does list the translations he used and honestly includes the list of websites used in composing the manuscript. Of course, without any sort of citations, including for the direct quotations of modern and ancient sources, the bibliography is minimally useful.

this book is intended for a broad audience and while I have thus far identified where he failed w/r/t the declared purpose, I wish that I could recommend it as a general audience introduction to Alexander. I cannot. There are a number of inconsistencies in style (mons/mount; Roxanna/Roxana), but four issues, increasing in severity, stood out.

  1. Young chose to use “Belus”, the latinized version of the Greek name for Bel, rather than keeping the semitic version (97). This is not a problem per se, but it comes off as archaic and awkward.
  2. For some reason Young chose to use “Pexodarus” instead of “Pixodarus” (14), a variant I don’t recognize since the Greek original uses an iota.
  3. Instead of “Hetaira,” the Greek word for courtesan, Young multiple times used “hetera” (101-2), a spelling choice that a simple Google search changes to the latinate “hetaera.”
  4. According to Young (116), Zeus chained Perseus to Mt. Caucasus and allowed his liver to regrow every night, sending an eagle to eat it out every day. Except that that fate belonged to Prometheus.

Note that almost none of these issues actually concern the campaigns of Alexander. The issue is that there is nothing remarkable or innovative about the account. Or about Ptolemy’s history. Young’s book is not a book about a book, but a narrative about Alexander’s campaigns interspersed with vignettes about aspects of Greek culture–often gleaned from the internet–that the author finds interesting. I cannot recommend this book for anyone. May this ill-fated offering inspire someone to write a more current contribution to the study of this history of Alexander the Great in its social milieu than Pearson’s The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great.

The Academic Scandal at UNC


Tegularius beheld the landscape and, lo,
the corruption of college athletics sat,
a plague upon the land.

Once pristine halls of learning,
overflowing with the bounty
of peerless intellect and civic virtue,
now wept from open sores,
the tears of brawn.

The former monks of the mind,
they of keen vision, untroubled
by brutish pangs of flesh,
now brought low by the base distractions
of the masses.

The NCAA stalks their halls.

As many people have probably heard, there has been a scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill where, over the course of two decades thousands of students, about half of whom were athletes, took “paper classes” or “independent studies” and received disproportionately high grades. What happened was wrong and a failure on the level of pedagogy, administration, and ethics and there is going to be hell to pay on account of it. But there is altogether too much self-righteous finger-wagging going on right now at what is being construed as “the problems of big-money college athletics.” There are problems with college athletics, and there are problems with what happened at UNC, but the two do not completely overlap.

Some basics, taken from the executive summary of the report.

  1. An administrative assistant in the African American studies program, now retired, with the best wishes of the department chair developed the idea of “paper courses.”
  2. The students enrolled in these courses did not have to attend lectures or meet with a professor, but just turned in a term paper.
  3. The assistant “graded” the papers herself, usually reading only the introduction and conclusion, allowing for a significant amount of fluff or plagiarism. She then assigned disproportionately high grades.
  4. The grades artificially buoyed the GPA of many students, which allowed many athletes to stay academically eligible.
  5. thousands of students benefitted from the program, 48% of whom were athletes and half of those athletes were football or basketball players.

The report, or at least the summary is well worth reading. The news coverage has focused on how members of the athletics staff directed struggling student-athletes to the program to keep them eligible and how the students received excellent grades for shoddy or plagiarized work and one that (sort of) finds it troubling that the UNC officials are “eager” to pass the problem off as an academic one rather than an academic one.

My issue with this characterization is that the courses were open to all students. Athletes made up a huge percentage of the enrollment compared to their percentage of the student body, but the courses were not primarily intended to keep student-athletes eligible. In fact, the courses were designed to help types of at-risk and struggling students: sexual assault victims, people with mental illness, underprepared student-athletes, and students from challenging backgrounds. Although the assistant was described as a passionate supporter of UNC athletics, the inspiration came from her experience as a student where the professors (in her mind) unfairly catered to the “best and the brightest” of the students, leaving everyone else to struggle though. The department chair who took a lax approach to the independent study courses evidently also sympathized with the plight of student athletes because of two of his former students were expelled for academic reasons. One was murdered shortly after expulsion. The other went to jail.

Once the word got out about the program, institutions within the school such as fraternities and athletics departments took advantage of the classes in large numbers, with the result that many fraternity members “accidentally” minored in African American studies–something that the administrative assistant did not like, but wasn’t something that could stop without putting an end to the entire program.

I should reiterate: this is a failure of academics, administration, oversight, ethics, etc, etc. BUT: the students who the programs were designed to help are the students most in need of help and are often left behind by academic programs for cultural, environmental, and institutional reasons. This does not justify what happened, but neither is this only an example of corruption spreading from college athletics into the academy. There are blame and failures to go around, and the exploitation of a deeply flawed, but well-meaning system is not limited to the athletic department. The intent was to keep students enrolled so that they could benefit from the promise of a better life provided by college.

In fact, what troubles me the most is that those same people who the designers of the program intended to help remain at risk, while people who didn’t necessarily need the help benefited from it. There needs to be systemic overhaul on account of what went down, but imagining the academy as a virtuous entity, its integrity encroached upon by money-sports are willfully ignorant and are using the athletics as a scapegoat. Too, this vitriol is often a product simply of not liking sports. Thus they try to sever the connection between athletics and sports. There are a number of problems, but one of the big ones is not the relationship of money-sports with the academy, but the relationship more broadly of money with the academy.

Let me conclude with this. I have an extreme dislike of the rhetoric about democracy, but one of its core principles is an equal opportunity for education. At-risk and underprepared students, whether they are athletes, from inner cities, from poor backgrounds, non-native english speakers, or have mental health problems, are the hardest to ensure that right for and are the ones in need of most support. UNC’s program is not the answer, particularly because it circumvented learning rather than enabling it. Everyone, students, teachers, administrators, support staff–as well as legislators who fund college systems–need to create an environment in which any person who wants an education can get one. Of course it isn’t that simple. Students need to be proactive about their own learning and professors need to be more open to helping underprepared students, but it starts with the environment.

–I am also interested to hear other reactions to this story. The athletics angle is pretty well covered by the national media, but I am willing to hear out the case that athletics are the real problem here.

What’s Making Me Happy: The United States of Amnesia

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final topic, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming. This week: The United States of Amnesia, a documentary about Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal’s America.

I’ve been a Gore Vidal fan going on ten years at this point. Once, while working in the library in college, I successfully persuaded one of the library directors that she should read his novel Creation and she liked it well enough that she pitched the idea of a library-staff-led book club where we would take turns suggesting books and leading discussion. The idea fell through (for which I was relieved), but it felt good that she liked my suggestion.

G.V. is a polarizing, divisive, and compelling character. This documentary, which came out in 2013, the year after G.V. died, marries the large number of T.V. pieces V. did in his lengthy public career, with interviews that he did with the producers in the last years of his life. The result isn’t as restricted a scope as Errol Morris’ work on Donald Rumsfeld, but, at the same time, the outside interviews about G.V. (including with Christopher Hitchens) take a backseat to V.’s outsized, yet reclusive personality.

As any good biographical documentary would, it begins with G.V. as a young man and the relationship with his parents and their relationship to the American Elite–his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was one of Roosevelt’s aviation advisors (and may have had an affair with Amelia Earhart) and his mother, Nina Gore, was married from 1935-41 to Hugh D. Auchincloss, whose third wife was Janet Lee Bouvier, the mother of Jacqueline Kennedy. This was very much high society. G.V. liked to say that he was desperately trying to escape it.

But other than noting with some regularity, because how could one not, the strata of society that G.V. occupied, the documentary didn’t dwell on these relationships. Nor does it dwell on issues of sexuality and censorship that plagued him. Instead it worked to reconcile G.V.’s intellectualism and aloofness with his charismatic and aristocratic mien and his acerbic wit in the frequent appearances as one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals. The United States of Amenesia touches on all of the prominent controversies (including one where the BBC called G.V. and William Buckley “Controvertialists” rather than commentators) so that it can cover the broad scope of G.V.’s work and appearances, but (at 83 minutes) it doesn’t drag.

I don’t agree with G.V. entirely, but find him to be fascinating. Ultimately, The United States of Amnesia provides one final rostrum for an exceptionally insightful and utterly unabashed public intellectual to speak from. Love him or hate him, Gore Vidal remains worth thinking about.

On quitting

At one point in college I was simultaneously reading something on the order of twenty-three books. Then I stopped. Some of the books I finished, others, most of the others, I simply removed the bookmark from, closed, and put away. The problem was not that I couldn’t remember what was happening in the majority of those books, but that it dawned on me one day that I was often going weeks or months without picking up some or most of those books and so my gleeful romps though so many books was doing more to prevent me from finishing a book and getting the pleasure thereof than it was enabling me to read widely.

Since then, I have read at most two books at once and usually just one (class and research excepted, of course). Even when I do read two book at once, it is because I am reading one non-fiction book and one novel, and, as often as not, the non-fiction book is a new monograph on a topic related to my studies or peripherally to my dissertation and thus is me staying current–I have a stack, though I also dream of being able to read some other non-fiction books once I finish these. I justify the novels because they help keep me sane and because most of them help me become a better writer. Too, since I put this policy into place, I have given up on three novels: a thick review novel that bored me to tears, The Brothers Karamazov (during a particularly busy semester), and, most recently, Don Quixote, an unabridged version.

I am almost certainly going to give The Brothers Karamazov another shot when I have a brief respite, although perhaps with a better translation. Don Quixote I am not so sure about. The novel is funny, even beyond the relentless beating taken by the knight and his insistence on tilting windmills. For instance, there is a book-burning scene to rid the house of the novels that rotted his brain, and the hijinks of everyone around the wayward knight. But it is also allusive and repetitive, in a way that I found difficult to read quickly. There is a case to be made that I was simply busy, but I found the repetitive nature of the story and the antiquated language mind-numbing. So I skipped to the end and read the last few chapters, which seemed to lucidly tie the whole novel together. My main problem was that I didn’t know most of the Romances that Cervantes alluded to and without that, I felt that I got the bulk of his satire early on and thus that I was reading filler until the story came to a close some nine hundred pages later.

Nevertheless, putting down Don Quixote was an admission of defeat. What has made the decision easier to bear was to move on and read other, shorter books. Most importantly, reading these other books has reminded me why I read these novels, not to slog through something that just wears me down, but because there are fantastic books that help me escape from those things that stress me. Thus it was the right decision to quit.

American Icons: Fiddler on the Roof

This past weekend, Studio 360, a radio program from WNYC, ran the latest in its “American Icons” series. In the series, they run a story that digs into the creation of the piece of culture and then try to explain how it qualifies as an “American Icon” and how it is changed over time. For instance, in the installment about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the host looked into how the portrayal of Uncle Tom changed from one of sympathy to one of spineless compliance and betrayer–and why the term remains virulent while the actual readership of the novel has fallen off.

The latest installment is about “Fiddler on the Roof.” The piece explains how a series of stories about Tevye the Milkman, written in yiddish by Sholem Aleichem about a particular place and time and set of circumstances in the Russian Empire became one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time (once holding the record for longest running play). The piece makes the argument that the play was conceived around the idea of tradition, change, and generational struggle that became and remain particularly resonant with immigrants to the United States (note: the play concludes with the emigration to the United States). Thus, while the individual details and songs are those of Jewish life, the story is a universal one for the American experience.

Find the story (written and audio) here. If you like this story, I also recommend the documentary about Sholem Aleichem, Laughing in the Darkness, which goes further into the author and his stories than does the Studio 360 piece.