Currently reading – Europe: Between The Oceans, 9000 BC to 1000 AD, by Barry Cunliffe. Sir Barrington Windsor Cunliffe, born in 1939, is a British archaeologist and Professor Emeritus at Oxford University. Read about 100 pages of this so far. One thing that’s fascinating, which I knew of before, is the technique where they can do radioactivity tests on ancient people’s bones to see what their diets mainly consisted of. Crazy.
When I was in my late teens and twenties, I played a lot of strategy and simulation games on the computer. I wasn’t very good at them – my space empire never conquered the galaxy, the city I was mayor of was in bankruptcy, etc. But I have rarely played any since I lived briefly in Minnesota in 1995-1996. I’ve been wanting to get back into them for a while, but it just never happened until now. I’ve been testing the waters in a couple games, but the one that really intrigues me is Europa Universalis IV, a strategy game where you manage any country in the world between 1444 and 1821. You can even choose to play as the Iroquois or Aztecs and develop power to counter-colonize Europe. The game is insanely complicated too, with a multiple tutorials (which I didn’t find very helpful), but also a 92-page PDF manual. Actually, the manual is well written, and the author obviously knows their history, but also writes in a tongue-in-cheek style that acknowledges the problems of history.
So, I started out in 1444 as the Ottoman Empire, which the manual recommended, due to the Ottoman Empire’s strength at that time. Needless to say, I didn’t manage my empire very well, and within five years I was deep in debt, some of my provinces were under rebel control, and I didn’t have a clue what to do with my huge, treasury-draining standing army other than stamping down unrest. My philosopher-advisor was highly praised for raising production capacity, but I was producing nothing but interest on my debts. Feeling the need to go to war for no reason other than the fact I had tried everything else, I couldn’t figure out how to launch an attack on a rival. I knew I had to declare war before attacking, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that. My highly paid advisors offered no counsel on how to use the game’s interface.
Frustrated, I closed the game and abandoned my aged, incompetent sultan to fake history. Today I will try again.
Currently listening – Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part, by composer Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion. The latest album from the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Shaw’s creativity is astonishing.
Singing bowls are inverted or standing bells, and come in many shapes and sizes, but unlike regular bells that are struck, singing bowls are played by rubbing a mallet along the inner rim, creating long, undulating resonances. Metal bells originated in China in the 16th century BCE, but singing bowls, which are often known as “Tibetan Singing Bowls” or “Buddhist Singing Bowls”, and used in spiritual practices and New Age music, have a bit more of a hazy origin. Some point out that singing bowls were originally used for food, but others argue that there would be no need for food bowls to be so thick. Most historians believe singing bowls are actually a modern phenomenon, being invented in the last century or so.
I discovered singing bowl music when I was doing Apple Music searches for ambient soundscapes. These days I’m not even a marginally religious person, but I found the resonances of singing bowls to be hypnotic, beautiful, and anxiety-reducing. When I’m stressed or just need to center myself, I put on my singing bowl playlist. I’m sure there’s some pretty cheesy New Age music using singing bowls, but I listen to the good stuff of course.
I find long, circular resonances extremely captivating, and I turn the music up loud until I can feel the vibrations in my skin. Scientists have studied the physics of singing bowls, and I don’t quite understand it, but it sounds pretty insane.
Currently Reading – Daredevil, The Man Without Fear, Books 1 and 2, written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Alex Maleev. Well, after 3 years and over 400 books read, I seem to have burnt out at last on literary fiction. I can’t seem to bear the thought of opening a novel. So, I’m gonna read some comics and nonfiction for a while.
Late in his life, the French writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) suffered debilitating financial difficulties, irrelevance with the critics, and a string of unsuccessful plays. Despite this, his art and his vision of it became ever more sophisticated. In letters to his lover, Louise Colet, Flaubert claimed there is “le seul mot juste,” or “the unique right word,” and repeatedly declared that there is no such thing as a synonym. In my thirties, as a young writer looking to Flaubert for what he had to teach, I disregarded this central idea. I chose vagueness, not understanding the importance of precision. Besides, I told myself, you can never control how a reader interprets your words anyway!
What a fool I was. I know now that when dealing with the ambiguities literature MUST deal with, an author has to be as precise and clear as they can be. Vagueness is not the same as ambiguity. And despite an author’s inability to control how a reader interprets their work, isn’t it advisable to be as concise as possible with one’s ideas to limit the flowering of false interpretations and impressions? Of course, sometimes vagueness comes into vogue, as evidenced by the successful career of Ernest Hemingway, who never deigned to describe a color in his life. For Hemingway and his dutiful readers, there is only one shade of blue, or of any color, no color has gradations. While I understand Hemingway’s point, his slavish devotion to his method is hidden beneath a veil of cartoon realism. Literature cannot fully represent human reality, yes; but should we accompany the rubbery boundaries of literature with language that just ‘makes do?’
There really is the right word for every situation. But keep in mind Flaubert himself did not use the word “perfect”. There is no “perfect” word. But there is the word that works better than any other.
Currently watching – Taste of Cherry, directed by Abbas Kiarostami, 1997. Born in 1940, Kiarostami was an Iranian filmmaker and pivotal member of the Iranian New Wave of the 60s and 70s, examining political and philosophical issues in poetic, allegorical films. Taste of Cherry is a bit of a cult movie, and tells the story of a man looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. It won the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, and I have read multiple essays gushing about the performance of the film’s star, Homayoun Ershadi, who apparently burns up the screen in this complex, enigmatic role.
Currently reading – The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud, translated by John Cullen, 2015. Born in 1970, Daoud is an Algerian writer and journalist. This book retells the story of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, but from the point of view of a brother of the unnamed murdered Arab.
The American writer Rachel Kushner was born in Eugene, Oregon in 1968. She was the daughter of two scientists, got a “job” sorting books at a Feminist book store when she was 5, and entered UC Berkeley as a Freshman at age 16. She got her MFA at Columbia. She is the author of three novels: Telex from Cuba (2008), an examination of pre-Revolution Cuba; The Flamethrowers (2013), a panoramic depiction of the 1970s New York art scene; and The Mars Room (2018), a fugue of a novel that paints a picture of the despairing lives trapped in down-and-out San Francisco and the California penitentiary system.
Like many contemporary writers, Kushner’s work is socially conscious. She is more morally ambiguous and frank about the complexities of social problems than many other writers, but, at the same time she is – obliquely – more furious, probably because she’s usually the most knowledgable person on the subject. She also walks the walk – Kushner advocates for incarcerated people, has taught classes in correctional facilities, and deeply researched America’s incarceration system, covertly touring prisons as a pretend correctional student. The Mars Room, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, was the result of Kushner’s research and advocacy. And while Kushner herself might have a clinical mind guarding her caring heart when it comes to her subject matter, the voices of her characters show no restraint – they are desperate, gone from cold survival in their outside lives to eternal, calculating minutes in prison.
Kushner has repeatedly named Don Delillo as a major influence in her writing, but her style is much less starchy, and her characters leap off the page. While many contemporary writers depicting the present (or relative present ) tend to either crowd their fiction with disposable ephemera or place their stories in timeless settings that feel modern, Kushner however takes a slice of California between 2003 and 2008, and completely envelops it in an impervious amber of language. The Mars Room’s reality feels as interminable as its characters’ prison sentences, and its moral questions equally intractable.