Gone full productivity nerd, also a review of Hitler’s Commando

Hello friends, I've gone full productivity nerd. It's a bit of a problem! Around the same time I started doing nerdy things like installing Typora, switching to windows, and cataloguing all my books, I also installed a note taking system called obsidian. Like Typora, obsidian is markdown based, which means you're more "future-proof" than when you use a proprietary format like apple notes. You can just read the notes with your bare eye. Markdown also allows you to do all the formatting without your fingers ever leaving the keyboard. Yea it's really cool (for nerds).

Anyway it started innocently enough when I started looking into the world of obsidian plug-ins, which include numerous little apps and tricks to optimize and customize your obsidian experience.

Then I got really into the idea of the daily note. See every day you have a note. You put observations and scraps of writing into the day's note. Then you put in links to other notes where you collate that information. You have another page that scrapes information from all your daily notes and aggregates all the tasks you've set yourself. It is madness.

And now we've gotten to the point where I am writing this blog post inside my daily note. I figure that I can do a lot of my random writing inside the daily note and then whenever something gets big enough, I can put it into its own note. It's a productivity system, hence me being a nerd.

However because I am a wise productivity nerd, I know that the end is really the system itself. If you want to produce something, you usually just sit down and produce it. Creating a lot of scaffolding just creates extra work and creates an impediment to doing the actual thing you need to do.

But the extra work / impediment are fun in themselves and that is why we do them. And so it goes.

I've often wanted to have a daily journal where I keep a record of happenings in my life. But I usually run into two problems:

  1. nothing interesting ever happens to me; and
  2. if something interesting does happen, I bore myself trying to write it

I've reluctantly come to realize that most of my emotional life is completely mental. It doesn't take place in the real world. There are no events, no characters, no places. It's all essentially a day-dreaming (and a very boring sort of daydreaming at that, since I'm an adult and don't really let myself cut loose)

For instance I've been listening to The History of England's William the Marshal podcast, which is all about this influential courtier during the reigns of Henry I and King Richard and King John, and I just thought, you know, life then seems pretty exciting. It's like a social life, with swords. You just sit around castles, arguing about what to do next, and sometimes you have to fight. It's like I heard in a recent article: "the only way to make sex interesting again would be to punish it by death". Being a medieval knight is a lot like that: it's like a modern social life, but the penalty for annoying someone is they kill you (or impoverish or imprison you).

I've always been led to believe that fiction is about concrete details: sights, places, hurts in tummies, tears in eyes, biting winds, smelly farts, and, most importantly, the specific names of whatever flowers you might happen to come across (what is a jacaranda? What is a bougainvilea? I have no idea!)

But none of those things really create a genuine emotional response in me or, I think, in most readers. So what is to be done? I guess the only solution is to pay close attention to what actually provokes emotions, even if that thing seems recondite or illusory.

In other nerd news, I've been experimenting with using the 'content server' function of calibre, the software I use to organize my ebooks and digital comics. This lets me access my ebooks anywhere in the world just through the browser.

I have a lot of eccentric ebooks because at some point I got very into daily deal newsletters--I eventually weaned myself from the habit but not before accumulating about a thousand ebooks thatre pretty far outside what I'd normally buy.

In my calibre content server, there's a "random book" function, and the other day this tossed up a book called Hitler's Commando--the memoir of a Nazi SS officer named Otto Skorzeny. This is a name that'll probably be meaningless to most people, but when I was a kid I really liked those Harry Turtledove [alternate history novels][] where aliens invade in the middle of WWII and the Axis and Allies have to join forces to beat them. And in these books Otto Skorzeny is one of the main characters.

In actual life, he essentially invented the German special forces, and he was personally responsible for two of Germany's most notorious exploits: the 1943 rescue of Mussolino after he was arrested by the King of Italy; and the 1944 capture of Hungarian regent Admiral Horthy when he was on the verge of abandoning the Axis.

I decided to give the book a try and found it engaging. It reminded me of this quote from another book I've been reading, Nietzsche's Gay Science:

I prefer to understand the rare human beings of an age as suddenly appearing, late ghosts of past cultures and their powers: as atavisms of a people and its mores – that way one can really understand something about them! They now seem strange, rare, extraordinary; and whoever feels these powers in himself must nurse, defend, honor, and cultivate them against another world that resists them: and so he becomes either a great human being or a mad and eccentric one, unless he perishes too soon. Formerly, these same qualities were common and therefore considered ordinary: they weren’t distinguishing. They were perhaps demanded, presupposed; it was impossible to become great through them, if only because there was also no danger of becoming mad and lonely through them.

Skorzeny is certainly one of the human beings of an age. He is a meticulous planner, but he also takes outrageous risks. His Mussolini operation is only possible because he counts on the Italian troops to be too surprised to fire back when his gliders land at the remote mountain hotel.

His voice in the memoir is brisk. His life before and after the war are given no shrift. He focuses on what's of interest to his audience. Mussolini, Hitler, Kaltenbrenner, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels and a host of other war criminals stumble into and out of his narrative, but they're always startling when they appear, because the prime aim of the memoir is always the details of his military operations.

He doesn't acknowledge Nazi war crimes in the slightest. Later on he professes to be horrified when Germany is accused of executing American prisoners of war during the Battle of the Bulge: German honor would never allow such a thing!

Particularly galling is the Hungarian operation. Horthy, although a fascist, had resisted the deportation of Hungary's half million Jewish people. Once he was out of power, the Nazi puppet government viewed deporting these people to concentration camps as their first priority. The main crime for which Eichmann was tried and convicted was his role in organizing this immense operation. Without Skorzeny's operation, those people very likely would have survived the war and likely would've constituted the largest surviving population of European Jewish people. It really is that close. If Horthy had managed to retain control of Hungary, half a million people would've survived the Holocaust instead of being gassed in Auschwitz. Not a word of this is mentioned in the book.

Skorzeny genuinely doesn't care. Later on, he's perplexed that the Allies insist that Germany and Austria separate again. He says that the future of Europe lies in dismantling national borders, not creating them. He doesn't understand that nobody trusts his people.

One gathers that if the Nazis had won, he wouldn't have felt anything but pride. To me, he represents the average German in WWII--perhaps he didn't actively commit war crimes, but he certainly wasn't against them. (Not mentioned in the memoir, which only covers his war years, is that later in life Skorzeny allegedly worked for Mossad and killed German-born Egyptian rocket scientists on their behalf.)

However was he really that different from William the Marshal? The latter also earned a reputation for feats of outstanding courage and for his outstanding loyalty to the kings that he served. The latter was also essentially a henchman to a succession of powerful men. As in the Nietzsche quote, Skorzeny just seems like a modern version of a very ancient type.

Finally, I really don't want to move to substack, both because I don't love the interface and because the platform caters to transphobes, so I'm tryna do a half blog / half newsletter deal. That means I'm gonna be adding the following annoying subscription widget to all my posts. Enter your address and you'll be emailed all my posts! This seems like an absurd thing for anyone to want (why would a person want more emails?), but I guess with the demise of RSS readers, this is how people read these days!

Using Typora to write a book

Hello friendly people! I'm busily at work on my Princeton press book (working title: What's So Great About The Great Books?) It's going gangbusters. Love the book, having so much fun. Writing this book is so pleasurable it almost feels wrong. I do run into missteps occasionally, but I'm chipping away at it each day. The book is organized dialectically, as an argument with a Great Books skeptic (who is also me), so it doesn't need a lot of extensive prior planning.

I'm writing the book in Typora! Yeah, that markdown software that I wrote about before! I realized that Scrivener was starting to feel a bit oppressive: too many features, too much interface. Typora doesn't use a proprietary format, just simple markdown files that can be read by a variety of editors (even the source code is perfectly intelligible). I dunno, might go back to Scrivener, but so far I'm liking the experiment. The markdown format means it's simple to add headings, emphasis, lists, abbreviation, etc. I'm writing this as one big document, and there's an outline feature within Typora that lets you jump between sections easily. So who knows?

Of course I also just spent an hour writing custom CSS so that typora wouldn't add extra white space between lines in the editor, so I'm not sure it's ultimately a labor-saver. And doing that took up all my extra blog-writing time so c'est la vie.

Spent my India trip reading Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian

Hey friends, I went to India and then had various weather-related childcare interruptions that've meant I haven't done as much work as I wanted to (and absolutely no posting). I also haven't read that much fiction either (compared to my usual). At some point I wanted to just read a long, complicated classic novel. After reading the recent LRB review of the new translation of The Betrothed (which I think that I liked to in a previous post), I started to feel nostalgic for Manzoni's masterpiece, which I read more than four years ago during a trip to New York. I thought, ahh, perfect, I should read something like that. So I was like, surely there are other long, sprawling 19th century Italian novels I can read.

And in fact there is one other famous one, Ippolito Nievo's Confessions of an Italian.1 One thing that Tim Park's review of The Betrothed noted is that Manzoni's novel is an outlier in its overt embrace of Catholicism. Most Italian literature is pretty secular and is often suspicious of the Church. Manzoni's novel, in bucking that trend, probably made itself more attractive to various state and church institutions that wanted to embrace an Italian national identity without being irreligious.

Confessions of an Italian is nothing like The Betrothed. It's a very long historical novel, but it's all told in the first person, as the memoirs of Carlo Altoviti, a minor member of a minor noble family from the Venetian mainland. He's born in the 1750s or 60s, has a long and turbulent political career, and eventually dies around 1855. The author was a relatively young man when he wrote the book (twenty-six, I think), and it's a remarkable feat of ventriloquism. It's actually a style of novel, I find, when someone from a rural area or a marginalized group manages at a young age to draw on the stories they grew up with--on the tales of housekeepers, retainers, grandparents, and on village folklore and scandals--to create something that seems like the work of someone nearing the end of their life.

The book is ostensibly about the creation of an Italian identity (Nievo himself took part in the Risorgimento, but the book was written before the final unification), but the first third of the book is a very long description of the life in Castle Fratta and the surrounding countryside. Carlino is dumped on the doorstep of the castle while still a baby--his mother dies in childbirth and his father is an adventurer in foreign lands. He's raised by his aunt and uncle in a rather disinterested fashion, and he spends most of his time in the company of a superannuated retainer of the family (whose name I unfortunately forget) and various other characters who hang around the castle.

The book is dominated by his long, passionate relationship with La Pisana, the younger daughter of his aunt (and hence of somewhat higher social status than himself). But, even more than wealth or social differences, they're kept apart by La Pisana's fiery and somewhat perverse temperament. She's flirtatious with many boys and men, she sometimes seems to despise the narrator, and sometimes she herself seems frustrated by her own inability to keep to one path in life. Whenever circumstances force her into positions of great responsibility, whether its caring for her sick husband or caring for a blinded Carlino as they eke out a living in exile, she seems totally self-abnegating and unselfish, and yet whenever she's left to her own devices, she becomes perverse, demanding and helpless. She's undoubtedly the most interesting character in the book.

If I'm being honest, I can't imagine any of my readers getting through the first third of this book. Nor can I wholeheartedly recommend the book to anyone who's not read The Betrothed. The latter is a much faster-paced novel, despite its length, and more likely to hold your interest.

And yet, as the novel progressed, and we started seeing scenes of war, revolution, and social decay, I grew more impressed with the first third. It's really in that third that any of the novel's literary merit lies. Firstly, in its honest description of a boy who really doesn't care for politics or public life or glory--he just wants the love of this girl. Later, when we see this man grown into positions of high authority, it's funny to think about the boy, and how different he was in his concerns, if not in his voice and character. It's a remarkable portrait of someone growing up and aging. In fact, the effects of time on the whole cast are staggering and well-wrought. In general, as people age, they either become the opposite of themselves or they become a caricature of themselves. In exactly the same way, the characters choose their paths and commit to them--so the young girl who's devoted to her grandmother becomes, as an adult, passionately devoted to God, and the young man who's a quick wit and desirous of glory becomes, as an old man, corrupt and venal and without any principles. Every change makes perfect sense, and yet when you look back over the novel, it seems it would've been impossible to predict where everyone ended up.

Secondly, I realized as the novel progressed that the first third is portraying a way of life that, in the author's lifetime, had already vanished. For him to describe life in the 1760s is exactly the same as for me to describe life in a 1950s Levittown. This whole web of connections, with self-governing nobility, and a Venice that held a distant but jealous grip on local affairs, and a proliferation of castles and blood feuds and a rural tenantry who owed their livelihood to local magnates--all of that will be swept away by the halfway point of the novel. The erasure of that rural life is the process of Risorgimento. There is no separating the two. The creation of an Italian national identity required the loss of regional identities and of the freedom and isolation that made those identities possible.

In reading the book I kept thinking back to another I read recently, Julien Benda's Treason of the Intellectuals, which is about the rise of ethnic nationalism as an explicit idea and ideal. Throughout, this book openly advocates for Italian nationalism. There's an explicit disgust at how Italy has fallen from its twin peaks, during the Roman Republic and during the height of the Italian Renaissance, and a desire to come together and build something new and equally great. I can see how exciting that idea would've been at the time. In fact, it's hard to see what else (besides communism) could provide the same meaning that nationalism did. But nowadays the novel carries a quiet foreboding that I'm sure it didn't when it was originally published.

On a side note, the book was only published after Nievo's death (he died at age thirty in a shipwreck), and it wasn't a big success upon publication. Its reputation took some time to grow.

All in all, as I come upon the final chapters of the book, I have to say that I found it thoroughly satisfying. Gave me exactly what I wanted. And though I can't wholeheartedly recommend it to others (after all, I'm not sure anyone else wants to spend a three weeks of their time reading the second-best 19th century Italian historical novel), it's still one that's worth thinking about picking up someday!

  1. The edition I read was the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Frederika Randall. As far as I know, this is the only unabridged English translation. 

The Good Fight, Emily The Criminal, Natalia Ginzberg, and Alessandro Manzoni

Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg - Nowadays when I'm looking for something to read, I just look at the New Directions back catalogue. They're a superb small press that brings over tons of European writers. I love New Directions' tastes. They're aesthetes. They prefer writers who are known as stylists or formal innovators. Their books tend to be short and very compressed. This 'novel' clocks in at, I believe, under a 100 pages in the print version (though I read it as an ebook). Ginzburg is a very famous Italian writer, and she has a devoted following in the US amongst the type of people who read New Directions books. This is the first of hers that I've completed (I was assigned one in my MFA, but I didn't do the reading that month.) This one begins with a wife killing her husband, and then the wife briefly retells the story of their four year marriage. At first I was like, this wife is very flat, there's not much to her. But that's the essence of the book. The wife has a dry heart: she's a woman waiting for a man to give her life meaning. Even though she doesn't love her husband, the idea that he loves her is sustaining. She's happy to finally be wanted. And when she discovers, early in the book, that his love isn't as strong as she imagined, it's a terrible, gnawing truth that eats away at her. The murder at the end is as unnecessary as it is inevitable. It's entirely because this woman really doesn't have anything of her own, she has no self to fall back upon.

The Good Fight - I wouldn't exactly say that The Good Wife or The Good Fight are underrated. Both have been critically acclaimed and did well for themselves. But they're not rated as highly as they should be. These are some of the best shows of the last decade. The Good Fight did itself a lot of favors by focusing on Diane Lockhart and on her partners in a Black law firm (yes, it's absurd that Christine Baranski has joined a Black law firm) as Trump comes into power. The show leans into the increasing lawlessness of our times (amongst other things, the Chicago PD's secret prison makes several appearances). I finally got around to watching the last season, which was great, although it lacked some of the wild energy of the previous two seasons. Was just sad to see it end! Oh, one area where the show shined was in the genuine rapport between Diane and her partners. As opposed to the constant conniving and back-biting in The Good Wife, the partners in The Good Fight are largely teammates. Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald (who joined the cast in the second season) are really great whenever they share a scene (and even better in the season four ARC where they join a secret all-woman revolutionary cadre).

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell Tales (Disney Plus)- I have absolutely no idea why I chose to watch this film. I saw a clip on the internet of the scene where the female lead, Kaya Scodelario, banters with Johnny Depp while they're both facing execution. It looked fun, so I watched it. The movie reminded me of the persistently surprising fact that these Pirates movies are actually good. They've got some solid world-building, with very charming performances, even from minor characters. This movie was much stronger in the first half, when the various characters are knocking around trying to figure out what the story is going to be. Once they get together and start doing action, you realize that there's no real character arc for any of them, and it gets a little stale.

Emily The Criminal (Netflix)- I love crime films. I went through one heist film stage where I just watched a ton of heist movies. This falls squarely into the lo-fi, small-scale criminal genre (a la Hustle and Flow or Uncut Gems). Just a regular, slightly-shady person getting sucked in deeper and deeper. The problem with movies and TV shows of this type is that the characters usually have some character flaw (a temper, impulsiveness, drug abuse), but they rarely have any off-setting competence. Like if you watch Weeds or Breaking Bad it's impossible to escape the notion sometimes these people just aren't very good at being criminals and maybe they are a bit overly entitled.

This movie, starring Aubrey Plaza as a twentysomething art school grad with $70,000 of credit card debt, skirts that line. Plaza at times seems to be the loose cannon, the person who gets too greedy and can't control herself and ruins a good thing. All of her problems in the credit card fraud business seem to be self-created: a result of her breaking the rules. But in the end the movie turns that into a strength, and it complicates its own world-building and its own view of criminality. Highly recommend. Plus, she has a lot of chemistry with the male lead, played by Theo Rossi, who inducts her into the life of crime. He's just such a sweet guy, from the first moment he's onscreen you just want to kiss him and bring him home to mama. Also Aubrey Plaza is very attractive and for some reason doesn't wear a bra for most of the movie.

"Alessandro Manzoni" in London Review of Books -- I don't have too much to say about it, but this article, if anything, undersells how wonderful The Betrothed is.1 It's just a genuinely good time, akin to War and Peace or Anna Karenina or David Copperfield. I came upon the book completely by accident, and it was fantastic to have this big, wonderful 19th century novel to get lost in. I really like the second half, where the plague hits. This article is written by Tim Parks, who's a great fiction writer and translator in his own right. He translated Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, which I also read recently and adored.

  1. I first wrote about The Betrothed way back in 2016

Reviews of books by Dag Solstad, Julien Benda, and Mary Wollstonecraft

I have read ALOT of books recently, and I wanted to get back into doing that thing where I write capsule book reviews, so let's start:

Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad - The only bad thing about this Norwegian novel is its uninspired title, which I assume comes from its place in the author's ouevre. Otherwise it's a beautifully told story about a man who's four years divorced from his second wife, living in a small city, working as the treasurer of that city, and wondering how he ended up in this place, with this job, these friends, and this life. He feels so put-out by the randomness, feels so much as if this life has lived him, and he has not made any choices. Beautiful character portraits, particularly of his second wife and of the son from his first marriage. Dag Solstad has a cold, calculating voice that at times seems distant from his characters, but is actually very close to them and very deeply felt. Absolutely bonkers ending: won't spoil it, but it's so strange. Here's a quote:

But no sooner had the Society’s members left the house than he blew his top, allowing all his jealousy to emerge. Turid Lammers thought so anyway. In reality it was nothing but a pretence on his part. He did it for her sake.

he did not dare entertain the thought that Turid might display all of her feminine charm vis-à-vis the evening’s chosen member of the Society without her partner becoming beside himself with jealousy. He could not bear the thought of causing her so much pain

He knew what he was doing. He had made up his mind to live with Turid Lammers at Kongsberg. As the Kongsberg town treasurer. In his leisure time he was involved in amateur theater. His love for her was so great that he could have gone mad out of jealousy. Had he not renounced everything in order to cultivate the temptation in all its intensity, for what was left, after all, except this intensity? But he was in the know. He knew what he was doing. He fully realized that, after living with Turid for seven years, his chief contribution to preserving their relationship consisted in these outbursts of fake jealousy. He had seen through her. He had no illusions about her.

Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad- Got really into old Dag and read one of his other books, about a high school teacher who, after twenty-five years, has a breakdown while trying to explicate Ibsen's play The Wild Duck to his uncaring class. Another beautiful book--it's roughly divided into third. The first is at the high school. The second is him reminiscing about his college friend, a genius philosopher who became a New York ad-man, and the last third about his increasing fury at the lack of intellect in his life, and at how the world seemingly has no use for his mind. Definitely white male rage, but so subtle and well-drawn. Here's a little quote that I loved:

There they sat with their soft, puppyish, youthful faces, their—as they thought—horrible pimples, and with a confused and inadequate inner life filled as likely as not with the most soapy daydreams, actually feeling offended because they were bored, and he was the one they were offended by because it was he, the teacher, who was boring them.

Treason of the Intellectuals by Julien Benda- The most important thing to realize about this book is that in the late 19th and early 20th century, a whole wave of intellectuals, largely in sociology and history and other social sciences, started developing the idea that nations and civilizations were real things, with real durable characteristics. Julien Benda did not like this! He thought it was a betrayal of everything an intellectual (what he calls a 'clerk') ought to stand for. He thought that a clerk ought to champion universality and the idea that there was a commonality to all men. To him, the idea of clerks using their knowledge to advance narrow, political aims--the aims of nations--was abhorrent. As he put it, there've always been kings and statesmen who advanced the cause of states and who preached war and conflict. And there've always been priests and scholars who have opposed them. Thus, "For two thousand years, mankind did evil, but it honored the good." In his view, the modern crop of clerk had demolished this history, by using the tools of an clerk to do evil. An incredibly powerful polemic.

From all this it follows that the “clerk” is only strong if he is clearly conscious of his essential qualities and his true function, and shows mankind that he is clearly conscious of them. In other words he declares to them that his kingdom is not of this world, that the grandeur of his teaching lies precisely in this absence of practical value, and that the right morality for the prosperity of the kingdoms which are of this world, is not his, but Caesar’s. When he takes up this position, the “clerk” is crucified, but he is respected, and his words haunt the memory of mankind

Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft - I'm gonna be frank, I didn't really love it. Reading the book, I realized it only made sense in the context of a world where every woman capable of reading this book would probably have hired help to do her domestic labor. Upper-class women were freed from the necessity of taking care of (or even nursing) their own children, but they weren't allowed to do anything else. As such a cult of beauty and sentimentality had grown up: women's only role was to be pleasing to men. And it's this idea that women are meant to be decorous and pleasing--purely ornamental--that Wollstonecraft inveighs against. But in the modern world, there's an easy response to her critiques. One could easily say, "Women aren't purposeless; women are supposed to care for the domestic sphere." That's not something for which Wollstonecraft has an easy response. Indeed, in her rants against seeking love, against flirtation, against fancy dress and ornament, and against reading novels, she often ends up sounding like a modern conservative. Which she wasn't, obviously (she herself had a child out of wedlock and was deeply sentimental in her personal life). The book just seemed very rooted in its own time and place. At times it almost seemed like a personal argument she was having with Rousseau (a writer who deeply influenced Wollstonecraft, but who obviously deeply offended her with his extreme, even for the time, misogyny). The Benda book, described above, actually felt similarly rooted in a given time and place, but it was much shorter, and it provided a much clearer description of the problem.

Articles I liked: Paris Review interviews of Philip Larkin, Dag Solstad, Sam Lipsyte; the NYRB reconsiders V.S. Naipaul, and others

I also have a strong desire to become one of those people who links to articles, so that's what I'm gonna do.

"The Trouble With Money" in London Review of Books - The economics I learned in college wasn't very self-reflective, on a philosophical level. It never worried about the nature of money or what it represented. Money was merely a medium of exchange: a thousand dollars equals a thousand dollars worth of butter equals a thousand dollars worth of guns. They are the same thing. But a whole class of late 19th and early 20th century economists devoted their time to grappling with the concept of money. What did it mean? How did it function? And not just practically, but psychologically as well. Loved this article on John Maynard Keynes, who wrote about the death-grip money has on our psyches, and the way that after a certain point, saving can become a mania that interferes with the production of goods and services.

"Art of Fiction No. 230: Dag Solstad" in The Paris Review - At various times in my life I've had the ambition to read all the Paris Review interviews. But I inevitably realize that if I haven't read and enjoyed the author, then I don't really care about what they have to say. I really liked Solstad's interview, just as I really like his novels! He seems to have his head on his shoulders--very practical writer, who seems to enjoy his work. I was however amused by his 3-1-3 schedule, where after every third day of writing, he gets blind drunk for one full day. LOL.

"Art of Poetry No. 30: Philip Larkin" by The Paris Review - Larkin is one of the few poets that I truly love. I deeply enjoyed this mildly grumpy interview of his, where he describes his solitary life, how he hasn't read poetry in years, how his only encounters with Auden and Eliot were awkward and terrifying, and how he basically doesn't know anything of life outside Hull, where he's lived for the last twenty-five years. What a genius he was.

"Art of Fiction No. 242: Sam Lipsyte" in The Paris Review - Another deeply likeable interview. Just enjoyed playing around in his mind, same as I enjoy his fiction! No great revelations. I just like the guy!

"2022 was not the year of consilience" by Erik Hoel - I subscribe to Erik's substack. He's both a researcher into consciousness and a novelist. Which is to say, he's researching consciousness from the inside and out. In this post he talks about attempting to bridge the science / art divide, and how most of the resistance to that idea seems to come from artists. I thought he was smart in talking about the one thing scientists can do to maybe help heal that divide, which is not be reductive about art. Even if you can explain some things about art using science, there's still a phenomonological level to it that'll never be directly accessible to science.

"Naipaul's Unreal Africa" in The New York Review of Books - I really like Naipaul's work. I've read a lot of it. His best and most humane books are his early ones, set in Trinidad, particularly A House for Mr. Biswas. His later books, especially those set in Africa, are interesting and evocative, but extremely cruel. He was a cruel man, and he was undeniably racist. This author reexamines the legacy of his Booker-nominated A Bend in the River, and the ways its racism would be received if published today, instead of in 1979.

"A New King for the Congo" in The New York Review of Books - This essay, written by Naipaul and published in the NYRB in the 70s, is an example of the way he wrote about Africa (it's also discussed in the article above)

Spotlight on: anthologies of 1950s romance comics

In the early days of my blog, I mostly wrote about things that interested very few people, like Tolstoy, Richard Yates, my own writing statistics, etc. But nowadays I've reached the point where if I'm going to write at all, I only feel compelled to write about things that are of interest to absolutely nobody.

Case in point, I've recently become very interested in romance comics. These are Western comics, usually published between about 1948 and 1972 with contemporary romantic plots. They were written by the usual comics regulars--the same guys and same companies that did crime / horror / superhero comics--but they were intended for an audience of women and girls. At one point they were extremely popular, and they're now mostly for the extremely different sexual and romantic politics they showcase.

Visually, they're most well-known through pop art satirization, as in this well-known Roy Lichtenstein image:

I first got into romance comics through an NYRB sale: curator Dan Nadel had put together a collection of Ogden Whitney's romance comics, called Return To Romance. I immediately found the collection captivating. The stories were really odd. The pacing was always a bit off, a little like a Richard Yates short story. They came to unexpected climaxes and then lingered. Heroes turned out to be villains and vice versa. The politics were old-fashioned of course, but more striking was the dreamy, time-free quality of the narration.

Unfortunately I misplaced my copy of Return to Romance, so can't show you some shots, but I was utterly gripped, and I immediately was like...must find more romance comics.

But what I found was most compilations of romance comics hadn't exercised the taste that Dan Nadel had. See, there's two ways of compiling a reprint anthology. The first is to select representative samples of the genre; and the second is to select striking or unusually good examples of the genre. The first is the academic or archivist's path; the second is that of the real fan. Nadel had found a romance comic artist he thought was unusually good and reprinted him, but some of the other notable compilations, in particular Romance Without Tears and Agonizing Love, didn't seem to have exercised the same selectivity.

I found the books disappointing and trite. A lot of times the stories felt extremely by-the-numbers and too often they relied on misdirection (like a story about a girl who's seeing another guy while she waits for her fiance to come home from the war, and her friends all gossip about her, but it turns out she's just learning to drive! The guy is just her driving instructor!) Or any story where it's like, a girl really likes a guy, but he seems to like someone else, but really he likes her, and there's nothing more to it. Also, both volumes were reprinted with glossy pages (romance comics were originally matte paper) and the images just didn't seem right.

Recently, however, while I was shelving and organizing my library, I revisited the other collections I'd found and some of them were actually unusually good! So since I didn't want anyone else to waste their time and money, I decided to write this blog on the off chance someone in ten years searches for "best romance comics anthology or compilation."

The Winners

The best compilation I found, besides the Ogden Whitney one, was one called Marvel Romance, which featured Stan Lee and Jim Steranko and John Romita Sr. and a bunch of the other usual Marvel guys, writing romance comics! What distinguishes these from any other collection is that all the comics are from the sixties and early 70s, so the sexual politics are liberated, the skirts are shorter, and everyone speaks in groovy, far-out slang. They're a ton of fun!

This is about a high school kid who's in love with her teacher.

This comic is from a story about a go-go party girl who gives up the love of her life!

The other compilation was one of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's work over the course of about ten years on a comic called Young Romance that was one of America's best-selling comics. At one point, it was selling a million copies an issue, and it reputedly started the romance comics trend. There are some good ones here too, often featuring women who make mistakes, like the girl who sets out to steal another girl's fiance. My favorite was the girl who's choosing between two brothers, but her dad has a third candidate in mind (the foreman of his lumber mill), and she's like nuhuh dad we agree on almost everything, but imma go my own way on this, and then eventually she's like DAD YOU WERE RIGHT, FOREMAN HANK IS MY FAVORITE AFTER ALL.

The Kirby and Simon compilations (there's another one called Young Romance 2 that's equally good) are also the best put together, they're printed on thick cream-colored matte paper, and they've been re-colorized and sharpened. They don't look like scans, the way most of the other compilations do.

This story is about a by-the-book numbers guy, an accountant, who's managed to find the perfect match--but he's thrown off balance by the flightly sculptress who lives next door.

It's hard to say what I like so much about the romance comics. The plots tend to blur together after awhile--ultimately the comics fell into two categories: diverting and unreadable. The unreadable ones I can't tell you about, because I skipped them. The diverting ones were the ones where there was a hint of insuperable conflict at the beginning. Often this was a difference in social status. In one case, it was because the woman was an ex-con. In other, she was married to a former gangster. In one really good Kirby / Simon story (I believe), a high school girl was in love w her 10+ year older teacher.

But I also really enjoyed the art. If you look at it too long, the faces start to seem haunting and expressionless, which may or may not be a part of the appeal, but I liked that this was a nation's dream about itself: all these brunettes with cinched-waists and wavy-haired blondes and ken dolls in swimming shorts. All these ambitious young men looking to move up while retaining their integrity. All these working women, longing for a husband. All the fast cars and soda shops, I don't know, it was an interesting visual jumble.

And the narration also has a haunting, confessional quality. Every story (almost) is framed as a 'true tale' that's merely being 'told to' the writer (who isn't credited as a writer, the story is instead written 'as told to' Stan Lee or Joe Simon or whoever). On the first page the women often face the reader and describe their conundrum. Throughout the story you hear their internal monologue, the tone of their longing, as they go through their day.

I kept thinking someone should make a TV series that takes place in the world of fifties romance comics, but of course nobody would be interested in that (not even me, perhaps!) And also it would just look like the first year of Mad Men.

My father in law is visiting. I was like, when were you born. He said, "1950". And the comics I was reading were originally published in 1950. These comics were out-dated and passe even fifty-five years ago, when he was a teen. Now they are truly relics. But they're still entertaining! Still worth one's time not just on a sociological level, but also as works of art.

On a sidenote, it's interesting that the two strongest compilations were those that were, essentially, trading on the reputations of writers better known for their superhero work. There were lots of other writers, like Ogden Whitney, who were best known for their romance comic work, and I do with someone would go through the thousands of romance comics published and find the best stories, irrespective of writer. But I have a feeling that the audience for that book would basically nobody. But maybe this forthcoming anthology of the best of British romance comics will prove to be what I'm looking for!

Honorable mention
Before I found the Kirby and the Marvel compilations, my favorite was this one from EC comics: Modern Love. The stories are good, but the paper is glossy, and I found the art style to be a bit exaggerated and not totally to my taste (example below):

This is about a woman whose aunt wants her to marry a rich guy.


Golden Age Superman is my favorite Superman (even more than All-Star Superman)

Hello friends, I've been reading the very first superman comics, in a compilation from DC comics called: Superman in the Golden Age. It is excellent--one of the best comics I've ever read, and I personally liked it even better than my all-time favorite Superman story, All-Star Superman, which I wrote about a few years ago.The thing about the original Superman (he was first invented in 1938 and was an immediate hit) was that when he started, there were no supervillains. Superman was just a guy who was really, really strong and invulnerable. You didn't know his origin story at all. He worked by day as cowardly Clark Kent, who shirks from all conflict, and through his job as a reporter he hears about various wrongs, and then he quickly transforms into Superman and rights them!

But it's never as simple as just beating up someone or killing them (original Superman does occasionally kill people, though usually only by accident). Instead he creates extremely elaborate schemes to teach people the errors of their ways. So far, in the fourteen issues I've read he has:

  • Solved a hit-and-run problem in Metropolis by running around punishing speeders and by destroying a factory selling substandard cars
  • Helped a circus being shaken down by the mob, by giving the circus a new star attraction to pay its debts: The Superman himself!
  • Interfered in a college football game to prevent match-fixing, by posing as one of the players and leading the team to victory
  • Gone undercover in a prison, to uncover a warden who's abusing the prisoners
  • Taught a lesson to a mining magnate whose mines are unsafe--he leads the magnate down into the mines and traps him there and forces him to try and dig his way out
  • Broken into the governor's mansion with evidence exculpating a woman from murder, so she can be saved from execution with just minutes to spare
  • Helped a hoodlum being sentenced to prison for robbery, by exposing their gang-leader and teaching them that being strong means staying 'clean' (like Superman himself)
  • Stopped a war in central America, by finding the munitions maker who was selling arms to both sides, forcing the munitions maker to enlist as a marine in one of the armies, and making him undergo the horrors of war himself

It's so great. I cannot overstate how much I love him. Every plot is so Rube-Goldbergian. He finds a simple wrong and then spends the equivalent of many days and weeks concocting a plan to teach the wrong-doer their lesson (which usually ends with them agreeing to turn over a new leaf). It's a lot like that show Leverage (where a team of crooks interfere in some ordinary person's life to help them out, usually by blackmailing, stealing from, or framing their opponent). What a great concept! I wonder when Superman evolved away from this?

To be honest, I find the plotlines genuinely affecting, precisely because of how personal they are. Not only does Superman intervene when you have a problem, but he finds a very customized, personal solution to the problem. I think that, more than anything, is what gives the people of Metropolis hope: the idea that someone out there truly cares about them on an individual level.

I also really like the art style. It's very simple. Superman was originally going to be a newspaper strip (and after getting popular, it ran as a newspaper strip for many years), and you can tell, by the simple, stripped-down style. It's strongly reminiscent, actually, of today's indie comics. You can tell that all the penciling and inking is being done by the same person. Sometimes when comics are too realistic (as in the romance comics I posted about) you can get an uncanny-valley situation where the stillness of their face seems a bit unsettling and vacuous. You don't have that problem in Superman. It's cartoonish, but that fits with the story.

On a sidenote, people are sometimes surprised that I like Superman. People find him boring and unrealistic. And a lot of people have tried to humanize Superman-type characters by showing in real life they'd be depressed or racist or haunted by their own powers. And that's totally fine, that's a natural progression. But I think having someone who is genuinely good and caring is great, when done well! There's something about Superman that is just so hopeful--he really thinks that people can change and be better. And to me that's far from boring!

Other stuff that happened this year

Normally at the end of the year I write about what's happened in my personal life this year. I suppose it's been a good year. I've signed contracts for two books, and I've delivered my third YA novel. If we count my cynical guide to publishing, I've got six books out or under contract.

Transition has continued apace. I've been looking into my surgical options lately, and my hormone regime has (I hope) stabilized. I still experience significant dysphoria, but that's life.

I got COVID, like most people, but it thankfully wasn't very severe. I've kept up significant COVID precautions: I don't go unmasked indoors, even to eat, and we only have a few visitors in our house, and we usually make those visitors test. To some people that seems excessive, but my wife is an infectious disease doctor, and that's what makes her feel the most comfortable, which is mostly okay for me.

Oddly enough, one of the stories that resonated the most with me this year was Bambi (by Felix Salten), which is about Bambi's growth and maturity, until in the end he comes to replace his father, the Old Stag. Part of this growth is that he retreats further and further from the world of the other deer, until eventually he starts to live on the other side of the stream, and only return to their part of the forest when they're in trouble. It's a powerful portrait of traditional masculinity.

I've certainly felt that urge to withdraw more from society, particularly online society. Twitter has gotten more and more boring. There've been some appalling online controversies this year that've just made me feel exhausted. And I've realized that very few people in my part of Twitter are even marginally interested in the things I care about (like, for instance, a new translation of Bambi).

It's been interesting that so many people are able to create their own community on Substack, and I suppose that's something I could consider doing, but for now I prefer to write here, where I've always written.

Lately I've been thinking more and more about what's eternal. I think reading Schopenhauer and Husserl has really helped. The phenomenological turn in philosophy is really exciting to me (as, I'm sure, it was to many people in the 19th century). Instead of looking for objective truth in the world of ideas, we can look for it in the more concrete, sensory world. The key insight of Husserl, so far as I can tell, was that all ideas have their roots in the 'life-world'--the concrete, physical world of human beings, seeing and experiencing in a simple way. And that in returning to that physical world, it's possible to see how this idea arose and what its connection to reality might be. In that way it's similar to William James's Pragmatism (which assesses ideas in terms of how they're useful to human beings). In another way, it's similar to Marxist critique, which analyzes ideas in relation to their concrete relationship to the means of production and to the replication of capital.

The point is that instead of trying to order the world through reason, one might instead order reason through our experience of the world.

The problem of course breaks down when we attempt to communicate this truth, which one must inevitably do using abstract ideas, to people who then only understand these ideas in the context of other ideas, and never allow the real world to animate those ideas. As a writer, that's frustrating, and it's an ever-present technical problem (how to communicate a concept in its fullness). But as a human being, that problem is immaterial, since the point of finding truth is to find it for oneself.

The online world is useful, but only as a gloss for the real world. Too often in the online world, concepts aren't allowed to live in their full complexity. Instead someone takes a complex idea. Like, for instance, they take the idea that "Nationalism was invented in the 19th century" and try to suggest that nationalism is artificial or unnatural or is entirely a social construct. And then someone else is like, "If that's true, why did Greek-speaking people regard non-Greek-speaking people as barbarians". And then there's a lot of tussling and arguing about nothing.1 It's just tiresome.

For a while this year I wondered "What is the point of this? Why do I do what I do?" And I tested out the idea that I'm doing it for the greater good: to help people. But that just didn't seem correct. I don't think my work helps people, particularly, and that's also just not a goal that motivates me particularly.

But I'm also clearly not doing this for the glory. Although I have as good a chance of success as any mid-career author, that chance of success is still quite low. I haven't 'broken out', in industry parlance, and, moreover, I no longer have the strong belief that I 'deserve' to break out. I mean, of course I deserve it, because breaking out is totally random, and my work is better than most work that breaks out. But is it really the best even out of all the work that doesn't break out?

There is a lot of great unpublished or forgotten work out there. I've seen plenty of manuscripts which ought to have done well, but didn't get agents, or even sell. For a long time, I thought what made me uniquely deserving was that I worked harder and had more grit than anyone else. And that's true to a degree--it was certainly true during my twenties--but nowadays my financial circumstances mean I have many fewer demands on my time than most of my other unsuccessful writer friends have. I have childcare, and I don't have a full-time job. Those things alone make it quite easy to be productive, by the standards of the thirtysomething year old writer. Now, do I work harder than lots of other full-time writers? Definitely! But I still am less sure that I am uniquely deserving.

Lately I've come, reluctantly, to realize that it's the work itself that's motivating. I like reading. I like understanding more. This year, by getting into German philosophy, I've started to expand my limits and fight back against the imposter syndrome that used to attack me whenever I wrote about more cultured topics.

I don't precisely know where my fiction will go. I've got a good idea for another YA novel. I really like the YA, and out of all my work it's certainly the most 'important.' I've started my soon-to-be-announced non-fiction book, and that's going really well. And I'm kicking around some ideas for a new literary book. I don't know whether fiction will continue to be motivating for me. Some days it seems easier to just write in my own voice and to write all the things I know directly.

But who knows! I don't necessarily think my work is uniquely worthy or important, but it's certainly the best possible use of my own time. In terms of what I could be doing on a daily basis for the rest of my life, there's nothing more worthwhile than reading or writing.

My home life is good! My baby bear is healthy and speaking a lot, being a typical toddler. Really sweet one moment, really willful the next. Still, the terrible two's haven't proven nearly as terrible as expected.

My wife is also incredibly successful at her work! Very proud of her! And she got a permanent job in San Francisco, so I'm luxuriating in our continued residence in this city.

We didn't have fires this year, so San Francisco was glorious, with warm weather continuing well into November (something that makes COVID self-restrictions a lot more bearable). After bouncing from the bed to the guest-room and back to the bed, I finally found a permanent office space: Rachel found a really nice narrow desk that fits into our bedroom, and I got a little chair and mounted a monitor on the wall. So now I'm also permanently housed in our bedroom, which is a lot better than having to be office-less whenever we have guests (which is quite often).

Now that I have a permanent home, I've been shuffling around my books. I have a bunch of reference books (mostly on world literature and the history of the novel) that I was keeping downstairs, and I moved them upstairs. Then I put a whole bunch of other books into boxes, but I made little inventories of what's in each box, and the books might live in the boxes for a while, or in storage. And I of course have some books in the living room to make me look smart.

I cracked the DRM on my whole ebook library and started using this fancy chinese e-reader, the Hi Reader and a 3rd-party e-reading app KOreader, which has reinvigorated my text reading practice.

Oh, and I also got really into meditating and mindfulness. I don't have a 'practice' or anything, but I've been getting better at doing just one thing at a time. And if I'm ever feeling hurried or anxious, I just slow down and walk slower or read slower or act slower. Paradoxically, that gives a feeling of abundance and helps me feel the endlessness of time. I realized that boredom is actually kind of a gift. Boredom is what happens when nothing is distracting me from the essence of life. It's fun sometimes to just sit quietly, alone, and watch time pass.

Of course, things can still be difficult when I'm forced to concentrate on a task that I find really dull or unpleasant. For a while my baby bear was obsessed with this board game that had a Where's Waldo element where you try and find things in a picture and put little magnifying glasses around them. I found it SO boring. There was no way to make it not-unpleasant. But I just did it.

Lately I've realized that I'm just always going to have certain thoughts and feelings. I'll always feel anxiety, always feel envy. But I also don't need to always inhabit the mental space where those things matter intensely to me. But it's an ongoing process, and I can't say that I've experienced enlightenment or inner tranquility yet (or that I ever will). Mostly I'm learning to just focus on what's directly in front of me.

I've also learned to not get too stressed out about tasks and objectives. Everything takes time, and it all gets done eventually. Feeling overwhelmed and behind is just part of life, but when I step back and think Is there any chance that this won't get done?, the answer is almost always no.

And that's it, that's my life. See you next year.

  1. In reality, nationalism was a political ideology--it was the notion that the proper way to organize states was as collections of linguistic / ethnic / cultural groups. So, for instance, all the German people would be in one state and all the Italian people would be in another state. Once the peoples were organized into states, there would be no reason for war, because conquering territory would become conceptually meaningless: why would you want to add the people of another 'nation' to your own 'nation'. But of course, nationalism instead for the first time allowed ordinary people to identify themselves strongly with the fortunes of the state, so instead it allowed mobilization of the nation's populace on an unprecedented scale, leading to heretofore unimaginable levels of war. Nationalism was an ideology that came from observing the world, however, and seeing that these proto-nationalist groupings existed already and had some power. The way 'nation' is defined, it's almost impossible for a pre-modern state to be called a 'nation', but that's mostly a matter of definition. That doesn't mean that pre-modern states couldn't also be 'imagined communities' where the populace identified itself with the state. Which is to say, everyone who argues about nationalism is basically correct, if they just took the time to think about it. 

Happy boxing day! Currently reading; thoughts on typora

Hello friends, happy Boxing Day! I'm still using Typora, which is super fun. It's makes writing blog posts so much easier. And it's about as customizable as I'd need or want. A friend said they use Typora for their fiction writing too, which is pretty zany! I'm kind of considering it. I've always found Scrivener to be a bit over-designed for my taste, with too many options and too much customizability.

The sad thing about being a science fiction writer is that you love whizmos and gadgets, but writing is still pretty old-fashioned. The act of composition hasn't been substantially improved since the invention of the word processor (and, I'd argue, it's still essentially the same as it was back when people were composing using pen and paper, but that argument relies heavily on one's definition of the word 'essentially.') So it's always fun to discover a new word processing modality.

You might've noticed that I've been using more links now than I used to. That's because I always found hunting down the links to be a fiddly, annoying process. But with Typora and markdown, whenever I think of something that needs linking, I just surround it with brackets, [like this][]. Then at the end of the document I create a link reference, like this:

[like this]: link goes here.

I think it's pretty nifty. Of course I'll get tired of it eventually, just as one gets tired of most things. But for now it's fun.

In terms of writing I have very little going on, just working on doing the line edits for my young adult book. Then will have to start work on my super secret nonfiction project that I hope to announce in January!

Books I'm Currently Reading

The Husserl I've been reading very slowly for at least a month (am halfway through!) I think it's honestly the best entry-point for Husserl. I believe that I previously read another of his: Ideas. But that felt very internal to some purely philosophical problems of consciousness and epistemology, whereas in this one ties it all in together with the big question: What is it possible to know? And how can we start to breach the boundaries of what we think is possible.

Vindication of the Rights of Man is the work that made Wollstonecraft famous. It's a response to Edmund Burke's Notes on the Revolution in France. Burke's is a foundational conservative document. It may very well be the first elucidation of movement conservatism as an ideology, within a liberal democracy. I read it upwards of ten years ago, so I don't entirely remember what it said, but as I recall, it's a polemic against the concept of radical change. Wollstonecraft's reply is like, you tell us that we're bound by tradition? But where does that stop? When are we allowed to change anything? What makes it striking is the intemperate, personal tone. It's not a matter of academic debate for Wollstonecraft, she goes hard at Burke. I found her extremely convincing. In the years since, we've seen the dangers of revolution, but at the time it's hard to imagine not being in favor of the French Revolution.

The graphic novels are what I've actually been reading the most of. Went through a Brubaker phase. Really like the work, but it's subtle. At first I was like...these are just typical crime stories. But it's something in how he draws this world together and shows how shaky it is, and, moreover, how its generational: how kids grow up with unstable home lives and then they replicate the same patterns as adults (even as they do their best to avoid them). This makes it sound like a work of sociology, and it is, a little bit, sociological. But the characters are also very human. Definitely work that grows on you the more of it you read.