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What is Making me Happy – Podcasts

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

I have a wildly erratic relationship with music—I like it on in the background and like obscure groups, but only recently started listening to complete albums and don’t ever keep up with recent releases. I also don’t listen to audiobooks, partly because they require too much commitment, partly because I like physical books, partly because I aspire to making enough money to keep the physical book publishing industry alive just with my own purchases. In the place of books–since this is the void it would fill–I listen to a wide range of podcasts, even after I recently unsubscribed from several that have too many piled up episodes. These range from sports teams or sports I like, to more general intellectual or artistic interviews and discussion roundtables. Some of my favorites on my long list are favorites specifically because they are tailor made for people of my given interests, deep-dives into relatively narrow topics that I just happen to love. Others are wider and more likely to bounce from topic to topic. There was a confluence of releases on Friday that dropped something ten individual episodes in a single day–including old standbys and several podcasts that are new or restored ventures by producers I like. While overwhelming, this deluge gave me a moment to reflect on these shows and, by extension, give a few recommendations.

The Jonah Keri Podcast : Jonah Keri has been one of my favorite baseball columnists for quite some time, and I was particularly sad to see his baseball podcast go away when his run at Grantland/ESPN ended. His podcast is back, on the Nerdist, of all places. The new venture is not specifically focused on baseball, though that certainly features prominently, but is a long-form interview podcast about sports and life. His first two, with guests Chris Hardwick and Keith Olbermann, respectively, are not strictly focused on sports, but are thoughtful conversations. Any show like this will be somewhat informed by the guests it brings on, but I like listening to both of the first two guests tell stories and it was really the return of this podcast that inspired this post. I am somewhat wary about podcast bloat—that podcasts seem to finally be embracing that they are not bound by radio time slots and therefore run long—but as long as the conversation is one I am interested in, that is fine.

The Lowe Post : A more sports-centric podcast, Zach Lowe is my favorite NBA writer and one of the main reasons why my interest in the NBA is waxing again. Lowe’s podcasts are another interview show, but specifically focused on individuals associated with the NBA, including players, coaches, former coaches, and writers, and will sometimes go into the nitty-gritty of tactics on the court, trade speculation, player personalities, the art of creating an interesting story, and major news stories. It is a catch-all discussion of the NBA, and the only podcast of its sort I will make a blanket-recommendation for.

The Watch and Pop Culture Happy Hour : The Watch is Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald’s podcast on the Bill Simmons Podcast Network, in large part rebooting Grantland’s Hollywood Prospectus. In this show they talk about the happenings in television, but have started talking more about movies and music now that Greenwald is not first and foremost a television critic. They frequently discuss shows and music I haven’t seen, but I listen regularly anyway. Pop culture Happy Hour likewise covers music, tv, movies, and (to a lesser extent) books, generally in the form of specific topic, general topic, and then a segment of recommendations. (In contrast, The Watch tends to be just talking about shows that are relatively current and that they want to talk about; there is planning involved, but it is not nearly as formulaic.) These two are in the same category because they are my two standbys for discussion of pop culture. I like both, even when they talk about culture I don’t consume because they remind me of conversations with friends that I rarely have these days, ones that are thoughtful and playful. More than even the topic, I think it helps that the people on the shows remind me of friends near and far and I just like the conversation.

There are many others I like, including the podcast version of Fresh Air and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, but I am a little pickier about which ones I listen to simply because the topics covered don’t always hold my attention. In contrast, the ones above I listen to regardless of topic.

This barely scratches the surface of my podcast list, but I am also open to suggestions. If there are particularly good shows I ought to be listening to, please share.***

***I have not listened to Serial, I have been told I should listen to Serial, I don’t know that I ever will listen to Serial. However, it is on my radar.

Conquered City – Victor Serge

Peter is the model and precursor of the Revolution. Remember this: “Constraint makes all things happen.” He founded industries, ministries, an army, a fleet, a capital, customs, by means of edicts and executions. He gave the order to cut off the beards, to dress European-style, to open this window on Europe in the Ingrian swamps. The earth was bare, but he said, “Here will rise a city.” He caned his courtiers, drank like a trooper, and ended his life full of suspicion, doubt, and anguish, smelling treason everywhere (and it was everywhere, like today), trusting no one but his grand inquisitor, thinking even of striking the Empress. And he was right. he left a country depopulated in places, bleeding and moaning under the effort, but St. Petersburg was built! And he is still the Great, the greatest, because he hounded the old Russian, even his own son, because he wrenched this ignorant, passive, bloated old country around toward the future the way you pull up a restive horse with bit and spurs. I hear an echo of his edicts in today’s decrees. All this can even be expressed in Marxist terms: the rise of the new classes.

Zvereva took this blow without batting an eye. She knew you had to swallow many affronts before being able to inflict them in turn.

I know that the gallows has a way of making quite suitable heroes out of rather insipid spawn.

When spring comes to a shattered and starving city full of sullen, terrified, and defeated people, young lovers still walk along the river, holding hands and kissing beneath green trees. Amid Conquered City‘s grueling narrative about the defense of St. Petersburg 1919-1920 that unfolds over the course of a year, this is a placid moment. These handful of pages are reminiscent of Orwell’s “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” which is a reflection on the resilience of nature in London, 1940, but unlike Orwell’s exhortation to enjoy the turning of the seasons, Serge plunges his city back into war. Even in this rare moment of human tenderness, bitterness and jealousy infect the scene. Winter comes again.

Victor Serge lived an interesting life–born in Belgium to Russian revolutionary exiles, he participated in revolutionary movements across Europe, including in St. Petersburg in 1919, and was frequently imprisoned for his activities. He also opposed the rise of Stalin and went again into exiles for that stance, eventually dying in Mexico where he received asylum. Originally published in French, Conquered City is a novelization of his time in St. Petersburg, defending the conquered city of the Czars against the counter-revolutionary White army.

Each chapter of Conquered City is a vignette of the siege, each one moving forward in time, sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes a few months. To the extent that there is an overarching plot to the novel, it is an ongoing effort on the part of the authorities on the one hand to encourage unfed and unrewarded workers to keep working and fighting and, on the other, their repeated sweeps of the city to uncover subversive or treasonous plots. Unlike accounts of the revolutionary movements in, for instance, Spain, where the despair is underpinned by determination, Serge shows the workers despondent and the exhortations of the leaders successful, but hollow. However, while this persistent concern is important in the depiction of the siege, the other arm of the narrative, the tracking down and eliminating opponents is the plot that actually keeps the story pushing forward.

At the outset of the story, there are individuals who do not necessarily support the revolution, including the Professor Lytaev, but there is no evidence of plots everywhere. Nevertheless the leadership is convinced that they exist; the lower-ranked comrades are less certain that there are outside conspirators, but they are going to scrutinize their colleagues for weaknesses. Perhaps they are traitors, but perhaps they have just left themselves vulnerable to be torn down for the gain of others. The narrative is relentless and the characters opportunistic and petty, and Serge demonstrates the stratification of resources—who gets to have clean undergarments, for instance—in a city where the palaces of the Czars have been divided up into ministerial offices.

I am light on both plot and characters because Conquered City, while offering some specifics, is more impressionistic, rather like The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which follows the unfolding of a Stalinist era purge. While Richard Greeman, the translator of this edition, describes Conquered City as part of a “cycle of revolution” and places Tulayev with a later “cycle of resistance,” the characterization is influenced by the topic rather than the message. Serge may be accurately portraying the vicious infighting in St. Petersburg in 1919, but the portrayal of a bittersweet victory seems tinged by the Stalinist era, perhaps because it was written while Serge wrote it while imprisoned in the Soviet Union in 1930/1.

In sum, Conquered City was an intellectually interesting novel that had its moments, but I did not find it as moving as The Case of Comrade Tulayev. It is certainly part of an extensive collection of revolutionary and oppressionistic literature that features prominently in twentieth century European literature. I have a number of these novels still on my reading list, including Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, Gunter Gräss’ Tin Drum, and Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, and, having been pleasantly surprised by Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, I am not willing to entirely write these off. Yet, I am once again starting to glance about for other types of narratives.

Next up, I am currently reading a biography of the Ethiopian king Haile Selassie titled King of Kings and a collection of short stories by Thomas Mann.

An Old History Worth Reading

But the memory of man is short, and his imagination is fertile. Facts in their actual form are easily forgotten and soon covered up by the accruations of imagination. Religion and reality overlap in human life; and therefore historical incidents easily assume the form of fairy-tales and legends, and are mixed up with man’s belief in higher powers which direct his life. For this reason many historical facts, in the course of oral or even written transmission, assume the form of myths, or tales which describe the interference in human life of divine and superhuman powers.

Man has not only a strong impulse to learn the truth, but an equally strong impulse to mutilate it, consciously and unconsciously. Man’s tendency to poetic creation and the fertility of his imagination cause him often to restate facts till they are unrecognizable; he fills up gaps where he is ignorant and alters what he knows; he mixes up the region of religious and the fabulous conceptions with the sphere of actual events. Myth and legend are inseparable from history, and even in our own time grow up round great historical events and, even more, round great historical persons. Together with this process, facts are also deliberately distorted under the influence of various motives—material advantage, or the endeavour to defend the reputation of the narrator or his friend, or or the tendency to support a particular point of view or political theory. The influence of patriotism is active here…we must never forget that historical events were not recorded by machinery but by men, distinct personalities with definite characteristic of their own. Few of them have kept free from prejudice while recording historical events, which, in one way or another, touched themselves nearly.

Both quotes are taken from the first part of M.I. Rostovtzeff’s A History of the Ancient World, volume 1: The Orient and Greece. He continues the second quote with a discussion of historical criticism that includes determining whether what one is reading actually adheres to historical reality. Personally, I believe this influence of “accruations” and distortions of the historian carry over into secondary histories. Ironically, Rostovtzeff himself succumbs to this in his book Caravan Cities, where, amid all of the wonderful descriptions of getting to the archeological sites, he goes on lengthy tirades about the criminality of the bedouin. Events that touched him nearly bleeding into the narrative. It is charming in its quaintness, but horrifying in actuality, and colors how I think about early twentieth century archaeology.

As a history book, A History of the Ancient World is dated. This is hardly a surprise, given that it is 95 years old, and to a contemporary eye it suffers from this. Entire schools of history have risen and fallen in the intervening years. Too, some of the underpinning assumptions about the format of the ancient economy have been debunked. From a bird’s eye view, though, one assumption that may have, so to speak, accidentally been tossed out with the bathwater, is the fundamental linking of Greece with the Orient, rather than with Europe. Following K. Vlassopoulos in Unthinking the Greek Polis, though, this was (usually) not a coincidence, but rather an ideological decision wrought by, among others, people committed to Greece’s indo-european heritage. In contrast, Rostovtzeff fundamentally links Greece with the Near East.

Still, his conception of the orient is rather limited. The orient, in this book, consists of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and, to an extent, the Iranian plateau, and barely includes areas linked by trade and excludes entirely China. As a result, this vision of the ancient world doesn’t look much different from how (in my limited experience) Western Civilization courses are often taught. The one point that Rostovtzeff might quibble with is the teleological assumption that from the Near East to Greece to Rome and beyond came Western Civilization. Yet, it also appears to me that instructors are blurring some of these lines because the camp committed to Greece as foundational for Western Civilization did not want the Near East to even be included. Many textbooks do prioritize Greece and Rome (and Christianity coming within that milieu), but these courses are a mashup of the two divergent schools.

Rostovtzeff is not as prone to the memorable turn of phrase as some of his contemporaries, but I am nonetheless enjoying working my way through his oeuvre as a way of familiarizing myself with the classics and giving myself food for thought.

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Berniéres

“Ah, yes,” said Iskander, “now I remember. The thing about stories is that they are like bindweeds that have to wind round and round and creep all over the place before they get to the top of the pole. Let me see…”

Birds Without Wings is the story of Eskibahçe, a (fictional) small town on the coast of Turkey in the early twentieth century. The story hinges on and builds to the climactic schism between Greece and Turkey that saw a brutal war and deportation of Muslims from Greece and Christians from Turkey. The transition was jarring for both sides, as the author points out, but particularly so for the Christians in Eskibahçe, who have their “Ottoman” identity stripped and, despite speaking Turkish, are declared “Greek” on account of their fluid religious beliefs. Birds Without Wings is marketed as a tragic love story between two characters, pretty Philothei (a Christian) and her devoted goatherd Ibrahim (a Muslim), but this is a deeply misleading characterization since their symbiosis is more symbolic of the town itself than a particularly strong plot.

I did not like Birds Without Wings. Ordinarily I would wait to put this opinion near the end of the post, but I want to put it nearer the front because the multitude of my complaints, ranging from the picayune to the overarching, the stylistic to the structural informs everything I am going to say. I actually found myself disliking the novel quite early on, despite its topic and setting being ones that I tend to gravitate toward, but kept reading less to see what would happen so much as to give it a fair shake. I want to do the same in this review.

The sleepy little town of Eskibahçe is Ottoman through and through, with a good lord, Christians living alongside Muslims, gendarmes who play backgammon, and a common agreement that they are all Ottomans. There are antagonisms between the two groups, but also friendships, including between the Priest and the Imam–it is even expected that a woman will adopt her husband’s religion at the time of marriage. As the book unfolds, the events of the wider world, largely recounted with a focus on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, slowly closing in and constricting life in Eskibahçe.

Birds Without Wings is a book with a myriad of small plots in order to give a panorama of the small town, picking up the threads at various points, but without continuously telling any of them. In order to do this, the chapters are told from a large number of viewpoints at many different points in time; the only repeated viewpoint that changes with the passage of time is that of Philothei. However, this technique is where my issues with structure started. It is not just that there are a variety of narrators and viewpoints, but rather that these are highly inconsistent, such that only some of them are actually told from point of view characters, while others are given as though in an interview with an unheard interlocutors, and others still are narrated by an unspecified, untimed, omnipotent narrator who frequently drops in strange, highly-opinionated comments. For instance:

The French are just setting into motion a petulant foreign policy which has remained steadfastly unchanged ever since, and whose sole object is to obstruct and irritate the Anglo-Saxon world as much as possible, even when that is against French interests.

This is just one example that I actually wrote down. Another memorable instance compared food Mustafa Kemal ate to that of a British boarding school, except without having anything else in the story offer a frame of reference for such a comment. Perhaps the year is 2004 and this omnipotent narrator is the author, but, mostly, these interjections were jarringly out of place.

Some of the characters in Birds Without Wings were compelling enough, and this carried over into some of the plots, including the relationship between the landlord Rustem Bey and his mistress Layla Hanim, the friendships between Karatavuk and Mehmetçik, Ayse and Polyxeni, and Ayse and her husband, the Imam, Abdulhamid. These little relationships, sometimes tainted by nostalgia, envy, or fondness, are the strength of Birds Without Wings. Note that I do not include anything about Philothei, the only narrator who changes, in this list. She is presented as a beautiful baby, girl, and woman, but basically a non-entity and therefore an entirely uninteresting metaphor for the town as a whole, which is a stand-in for the humanitarian disaster throughout the Aegean.

To make matters worse, I found the novel sort of stilted and overwritten. Some of this is affect, being winding, repetitive, and open-ended in the way oral stories and reminiscences can be and for that I can only express personal preference. However, the writing was also verbose and ran particularly toward big words–not a crime in and of itself, but liberally sprinkled, seemingly without purpose. Perhaps there is a case to be made that the words are meant to be archaic and obscure so as to highlight the rural setting, but it seemed to me more likely that the words fit instead with odd authorial choices such as the opinions and similes discussed above that are just out of place.

Another reader might be more sympathetic to Birds Without Wings, but I found little to like and a lot to loathe in this supremely disappointing novel.

Next up is Victor Serge’s Conquered City, which is a narrative account of the Red Army’s conquest of St. Petersburg in 1919.

January 2016 Reading Recap

I don’t feel compelled to list each book individually for the first time since I started doing these. This is because, for the first time since I started reviewing books I have read here, I actually reviewed all six books I finished in January: The Green House, Darkness at Noon, Water for Elephants, Girl With Curious Hair, The Samurai’s Garden, and Between the Woods and the Water.

January can be a good reading month for me. The combination of holidays, travel, and a birthday mean that I cut myself some slack to read a lot. This year, January also included my version of a New Year’s Resolution to settle in to do a lot of reading and, I am happy to report, I have not yet broken this goal. I am also quite pleased that the six books I finished, while still geared a bit toward dead white men, actually constituted a diverse slate, with one travel-narrative, one short story collection, two books written by women, one of whom is of non-white heritage, and including books originally written in English, Spanish, and Hungarian. I am particularly happy to have read two books by women in the first month, though I don’t have another one lined up for the near future–something that needs to be remedied.

I am also happy to say that I largely enjoyed all six books, with only The Green House and Girl With Curious Hair not being overwhelmingly enjoyed. Among the other four I can’t choose a favorite because none of them really stood out as superlative, but all were excellent and enjoyable for different reasons. For instance, The Woods and the Water swept me onto the Hungarian plain on a trip I want to enjoy, Darkness at Noon was a revelation on incarceration and revolution, Water for Elephants a fast-paced adventure, and The Samurai’s Garden a beautiful meditation. Darkness at Noon is probably, objectively, the best piece of Literature among these books, while Water for Elephants was the most fun to read, and The Samurai’s Garden meant the most to me personally in terms of where I am mentally, emotionally, personally.

In the interest of always striving for the next thing, I do want to make sure I take some time to read non-fiction–in this, Patrick Leigh Fermor hardly counts. Fortunately, I have just the solution: a new biography of Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia. I looked for a biography last summer, only to find that the available ones were in some sense encomiastic. Last week I came across one newly published in English, a supposedly even-handed account of Haile Selasse written by the king’s nephew.

The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama

Stephen, a Chinese man from Hong Kong, has tuberculosis and so his family has sent him to join his father in Japan to get away from the heat and dampness. From Kobe, he travels to the small, seaside resort town of Tarumi where his grandfather has a cabin. The slow pace of life in the small town is an adjustment from the bustling city, but the mountain air and the sea are healthful. However, while Stephen adjusts to life with the cabin caretaker, Matsu, the world seems to be falling apart outside of his bubble. The year is 1937 and the imperial Japanese army is advancing into southern China.

The Samurai’s Garden fundamentally balances these two contradictory forces. On the one side there is the failing relationship between Stephen’s parents, the horrors of the Japanese campaign in China, and the associated tensions, such as the refugee crisis in Hong Kong, the lack of young men in Tarumi, and the hostility felt by some Japanese against the wealthy Chinese interloper. On the other, there is the tranquility of the garden, the shrine, and how Matsu and his friend Sachi adopt Stephen as though he is their own child.

The entirety of the story unfolds in the course of the more than a year Stephen stays in Tarumi, and the reader only meets his friends, mother and sister through their letters and his memories. Other than brief visits with Stephen’s father, on whom his opinion changes radically, the story mostly focuses on the four Japanese people he meets in Tarumi: the young girl Keiko and four older folks who have a long history together, Matsu the caretaker, Kenzo the owner of the tea house, and Sachi the leper, who they both love. Stephen is the focal point, but his relationship with Matsu and later Sachi is more important than the one with Keiko, which is more closely tied to the broader developments beyond town. There something fleeting about young life, but there is something eternal about Tarumi and the tensions simmering for decades between the older people.

The Samurai’s Garden was deceptively simple at the start, but turned into a deeply contemplative meditation on solitude, companionship, love, and loss. I admit to being a sucker for such stories, and the isolated, seaside, mountain village was a breath of fresh air I longed to visit. At the same time, issues of class, nationality, illness, jealousy, and growing up surround the story, sometimes creeping into the forefront of the narrative, but always silently underpinning its developments. For instance, Matsu is a “strong silent type,” but takes on the role of father, always leading by example and dominating the house he has lived in all these years. Yet, despite being a Japanese man in a Japanese village at the time when the Japanese were conquering China, he is still officially a servant. Stephen doesn’t treat him that way, except in the assumptions he makes.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Samurai’s Garden, but it is an idyllic fantasy. Stephen never wants for anything, with someone else paying for the house and the food, having no deadlines, and never needing to interact with anyone who he doesn’t want to see. He pines to see certain people and suffers physical hardship, but is not forced to grapple with most serious concerns. I legitimately enjoyed the book and it offered deep perspective on issues of loneliness, but I do wonder if part of my fondness grew out of the vision of a beautiful garden where the outside world can only intrude with a rain of white blossoms. There are real problems in the world of The Samurai’s Garden, but the garden is a refuge.

Next up, Louis de Berniéres’ Birds Without Wings, a love story between a Christian woman and a Muslim man in early 20th century Turkey.

Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor

…history seemed to drop from the air and spring out of the ground.

I start with a confession: on some level, I still idolize Patrick Leigh Fermor, a British adventurer and travel writer. “Adventurer” is somewhat of an odd descriptor for a citizen of the twentieth century most famous for his travels in Europe, and yet it is the most accurate. Between the Woods and the Water is the second (of three) part of Fermor’s most famous adventure–his cross-continental jaunt in the 1930s that began when he was asked to leave school for having been seen holding hands with a woman in town. And so, at nineteen, he crossed the English Channel and set out walking toward Istanbul, picking up languages and making friends along the way. This is one of my dream trips.

It might have been wise to read the first volume about this trip, A the Time of Gifts before Between the Woods and the Water, if only to see the journey from the start, but the reader does not lose much by starting with this one, as I did. The book picks up on a bridge over the Danube between Slovakia and Hungary and takes the reader across the Hungarian plain and through Transylvania to the Serbian border. Fermor has a lively style, and shows indefatigable enthusiasm for this trip. In one moment he is daydreaming about the Mongols or eating wild strawberries, the next bathing in a river with a friend and being teased by young women watching them, the next sitting still in the mountains watching a giant eagle. He comes to wild leaps about the etymologies of the people and places he encounters, speculates about the religious connections, and fumbles through learning the languages. All the while he alternates between truly living rough and tumble, seeking shelter from the rain in pines or caves and leading what he terms a “parasitic” existence, being taken in by strangers, friends, and friends of friends. The description of the parasitic existence, including parties in Budapest that see him waken to a hangover in the late morning and dim memories of the night before, and, particularly, an excursion with his host and an unhappily married woman are tinged with happy nostalgia.

Overwhelmingly, Between the Woods and the Water is a travelogue infused with history coming from two directions. The book was composed from memories, letters, and journals and appeared in 1986, but the journey itself was in 1934 and it presents the political developments of its time as an ominous shadow, dimly recognized in the background. Thus, springing from the ground, as it were, is a first-person history observed of Eastern Europe before the rise of Nazi Germany, before World War 2, and before the Cold War. The author is aware of developments later, but the trip itself is infused with the remnants of the Austo-Hungarian empire and defies modernity. Falling from the sky is a history even older–the daydreams of Magyars, Romans, Huns, Mongols, Turks, and schismatic Christians criss-crossing the plain, sowing destruction and leaving behind their names.

Fermor has a flair for description and erudition. I would love to make a comparable trip (even on foot!), but for a brief time I was in fact swept away.

Scrivener Chronicles: Day 1

One of my recent obsessions has been word-processing software. I have long had issues with Microsoft Word, particularly when trying to work with long documents consisting of multiple sections. For this reason, I have almost twenty different word documents that comprise the bulk of my dissertation. I would prefer to have an easily organized file that I could manipulate as a whole, but, for the time being it was easier to treat each chapter or section as a distinct entity. This came to a head recently when I was trying to work with my least favorite feature of Word, namely tables. One of my chapters needs to have five or six tables (give or take, since the total depends on how many sections the three main tables need to be broken into to fit on the page), but Word was making a wretched mess just formatting them on the page, let alone fitting them into the flow of text. So I set that chapter aside and worked on other things for a while, but also started looking around for something that might suit my purposes better than a program that I have larger, philosophical grievances with.

After looking about, I decided that Scrivener might be the best option, and it even has an extended free trial, so I spent most of today editing a chapter to familiarize myself with the program. While there are some aspects that I don’t find intuitive, but, by and large I like the interface for working. My initial reaction was that I didn’t like the references feature because, instead of defaulting to footnotes, it has a separate column for them that is not dropped into a numbered list until the document is compiled. On the one hand, I find this clumsy to visualize which reference belongs with which point on the page, but this is mitigated by having the references serve as a bookmark that is linked to the place on the text it belongs. After one day I don’t like the references feature better than good ol’ footnotes, but neither do I like it worse–each as their place.

My favorite part of Scrivener is its use as a project manager that allows sections and subsections to be visualized individually or together. But that is just the beginning. It also has a “cork-board” mode that offers for each section a notecard. While one tutorial I watched used these for a summary, I think they are ideal for a thesis. Admittedly, having a clear thesis is one of my weaknesses as a writer, but this feature offered a built-in way to clarify each section.

And yet, after one day, I am on the fence about the software, because of how it hands footnotes and fonts in the process of compilation. [Note: Scrivener is a drafting application that says in its manual that it does not handle the typesetting of references. I understand this, and am listing reasons why it may not be ideal for my purposes.] Scrivener is designed such that when it is time to submit or finish or print a project, you compile the sections you want to include and send it off, to print, pdf, Word, or a variety of other formats. However, the references (which are called footnotes in Scrivener) frequently default to endnotes, particularly if directly exporting to a .pdf file. I understand the reasons behind this, but am philosophically averse to endnotes. The second problem with compilation and Scrivener as a drafting application rather than a typesetting one is that it seems to have a default font system that it applies when compiling…which is problematic when my chapters have quotations that require a Greek font. This then brings me back to the tables that caused me to close out Word in disgust. In Scrivener, the tables look nice and are more easily integrated into the flow of the text, but the tables become again mucked up when compiled because it is a drafting tool and though that eliminates some of my difficulties, the larger ones were typeset problems that again rear their ugly heads upon compilation.

At the end of the first day, I like Scrivener, but I like the idea of Scrivener more than I like the program. I may end up purchasing the program yet, whether because I acclimate and find solutions to my difficulties, or because (as I suspect) it legitimately helps with certain aspects of writing, my first inclination is to say that Word is better for my particular purposes at this juncture. Either way I am going to have to wrestle with certain aspects of the system.

If anyone has their own experiences with Scrivener and/or suggestions for my particular issues, please share.

Girl With Curious Hair – David Foster Wallace

Among my favorite writers there is no-one whose writing sometimes does nothing for me more frequently than David Foster Wallace. There are reasons for this, including that some of the stories and essays are dated such that I can’t connect with them. More frequently is that what I admire about Wallace’s writing are his powers of observation, his penchant for remarkable phrases, and a panache that flaunts convention and format. These same traits that I admire can also have the effect of making the stories alien and difficult for me to appreciate even as I admire their technical features. The second issue I have is that I often struggle to invest in short stories in the same way I do with longer works, which is a “me” problem more than his writing. This is all by way of preamble for some thoughts on Girl With Curious Hair, Wallace’s first short story collection, the second I have read.

Girl With Curious Hair was published in 1989, and the stories all in some way intersect with the worlds of advertising, media, communication, relationships. My favorite story, the eponymous “Girl with Curious Hair,” is a detached account of a young east coast man, his sexual predilections, and his punk friends on acid going to a concert in Los Angeles. “Here and There” tells of a long-distance relationship that results in both parties being tortured, albeit for very different reasons, and “Say Never” of an infidelity over the question of fit. One story that felt particularly dated to me was “My Appearance,” about an actress appearing on a young David Lettermen’s show–I liked the story itself, but I don’t understand the connection people have or had with David Lettermen, particularly now that he has retired. (I have heard from some people about how much of a revelation Letterman was, but I’ve never really seen it myself.) None of these anodyne descriptions do credit to Wallace’s curious characters who inhabit the same world we live in. The best example of this is in the final story, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” much of which literally takes place in a clown car careening through the tall corn of central Illinois on its way to a reunion of everyone who ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial.

Ultimately, I didn’t love most of the stories in this collection, but almost every one had striking or haunting moments. I preferred Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, another Wallace short story collection, to this one because I was more enamored of the stories themselves, which were both a little closer to my lifetime and were, in my opinion, more artfully constructed. These felt, probably with good reason, like a collection completed as part of a portfolio in a writing program, which brought their own strengths—more unified themes behind the stories, stories that were polished and tidy (albeit with the final story offering a critique of such analysis), and being kept from wandering too far into the wilderness of prose style. Of course, I prefer Wallace’s essays to either story collection.

Pious imperialism

A recent book about the Persian Wars hit upon one of my many pet peeves with regard to discussing the ancient world. This book, which I thought was, for the most part, a fairly innocuous account of the wars between the Achaemenid kingdom and the Greek city states, had strengths and weaknesses, and I had bigger complaints about book as a whole, but one point that the author kept coming back to rubbed me the wrong way.

The author kept saying that the Achaemenid expansion (and, particularly, the invasion of Greece) was essentially a jihad or crusade—i.e. a religious imperative. He reaches this conclusion by looking at Persian propaganda that presents the king as the earthly representative of Ahura Mazda and the bringer of order to the lands inhabited by chaos. The Persian royal ideology mandated continual conquest and justified the kings’ place atop the social hierarchy, but does this royal ideology mean that there was a religious imperative for conquest that could be used to inspire followers? I think not.

To my mind, the biggest difference is that while the Persian kings crafted religion into an ideology that justified their imperialism and rule, it was, for the most part, not used to motivate soldiers. I qualify that statement mostly because an appeal to Ahura Mazda might have motivated the Persian contingents and commanding officers, but much of the Persian army in Xerxes’ invasion of Europe was not Persian and therefore it is improbable that the vision of the universe presented by Zoroastrianism would serve as a motivation for, say, Egyptians or Ethiopians. One need not totally believe that the soldiers were driven to battle by whip-wielding overseers to suggest that they religiously inspired.

In contrast, the Platonic ideal of a crusade (as it were) is a religious imperative, not just on the part of the leadership, but on the part of all followers, to wage a war of conquest for religious reasons. [This is true under one definition of jihad, too, but the issue is somewhat more complex.] Leadership can manipulate the impetus for conquest and benefit from it. Eventually religion will justify conquest if they are successful, but it is religious fervor that opens the door for conquest. In the Persian example, the step of using religious fervor for conquest is skipped.

Ultimately, the most damning fact with regard to the religious imperative of conquest is that the Persian kings gave up invasions of Greece after Xerxes’ invasion in 480. They continued to be involved in Greek politics to the extent that they can plausibly be said to have conquered Greece without an invasion, but the wars of expansion largely stopped and yet the dynasty continued to exist for another hundred and fifty years, seemingly satisfied to be a beacon of light for the territory they already possessed. There are mundane reasons for why the expansion was curtailed—dynastic infighting, rebellions, difficulties of managing such a large territory, etc—but one would expect at least one additional attempt at expansion if conquest of the entire world was a religious imperative the way this author presented it. What is left is a royal ideology that justified Persian rule as the representative of Ahura Mazda and thereby sanctioned conquest, which was not at all unusual, in the ancient world or otherwise. In fact, this sort of propaganda is hardly different than more recent justifications for invasions, bringing light to dark places in the world.