>An Interesting Article on the Origins of Academic Fear

>My reader Richard sent me a link to an article that finally answered my questions about why academics in this country are so terrified of political engagement and of fighting for their rights:

Universities stand as cowardly, mute and silent accomplices of the corporate state, taking corporate money and doing corporate bidding. And those with a conscience inside the walls of the university understand that tenure and promotion require them to remain silent.

Read the entire article here.

Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants: A Review, Part II

In the first part of this review, I discussed the numerous historical errors that Ken Follett makes in his novel about World War I. This author tortures and murders facts of history with a terrifying abandon. By the end of this very long book, I thought that nothing else could possibly shock me until I encountered a description of “surly Russians” engaging in group sex in broad daylight in the streets of Petrograd. And then engaging in more public sex with children.

However, Follett’s complete disregard for historical facts is not the only problem with this book. His entire understanding of important events in history is extremely limited and often naive. In Fall of Giants, World War I and the two Russian revolutions are a result of backroom deals between inept diplomats and bored society ladies.

”On or about December 1910 human character changed,” Virginia Woolf once said. Since then, volumes have been written on the profound ideological shift that was caused by the advent of Modernity. The unwieldy, otdated empires of the Romanovs, the Habsburgs and the Hohenzollerns could not adapt to these radical transformations and had to plunge into suicidal warfare, social unrest, and revolutions. Follett’s grave intellectual limitations (and what else can be said about someone who relies as much as he does on silly cultural stereotypes?) prevent him from realizing that the events he describes are too important to be addressed in a superficial manner. This writer is, unfortunately, too self-assured and condescending to consult the existing body of scholarship on the events of 1914-1919.

I do not recommend this book to anybody. Not only will you not learn any reliable information about this period in history, you will not even have a good time. If the first part of the book is at least marginally entertaining, the second half of it is excruciatingly boring, long-winded and extremely repetitive.

My Husband Doesn’t Help Me Around the House

One of the things that annoys me the most is to hear women say that their husband or partner helps them around the house or with the baby. This way of framing the issue presupposes that housework and child-rearing are a woman’s responsibility and she should be grateful if a man condescends to participate in these activities.

My partner doesn’t help me around the house. He takes care of his responsibilities, as the adult that he is, and I take care of mine.

It might seem like a small thing, but the language we use to discuss certain aspects of our lives ends up shaping the reality we create for ourselves.

>Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants: A Review, Part I

If you were one of those people who eagerly awaited the release of Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy), you are in for a nasty surprise. This book (which is supposed to be the first in a trilogy) is nothing whatsoever like The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Even though those books could teach you absolutely nothing about Medieval history, they were highly entertaining. I read both of them in a couple of days and enjoyed myself immensely.

The annoying aspects of Fall of Giants are many. I have already written about Follett’s complete disregard for facts in his depictions of the Russian Orthodox Church and the history of Russia. He also bases his book on the most tired and silly prejudices about the nations he discusses. All Germans are “orderly”, “well-organized”, punctual, and prissy. All Russians are “surly”, “primitive”, “barbaric”, “corrupt”, violent, alcoholic criminals. All Russian women are, of course, drunken whores. The only marginally acceptable Russian is the character who is obsessed with moving to the US. All Austrians are effete, perverted, weak, hysterically aggressive, unreasonable idiots. The French are weepy and useless fools. The French women are also all whores, but at least they whore around while sober. And, of course, all Jews know and help each other, forming a sort of an international Jewish mafia. All British people are insanely promiscuous (don’t ask.) The culmination of the British promiscuity is reflected in a scene where the sister of an English earl (sic!) gives a hand-job to a German attache in the opera-house behind the backs (literally) of her brother the earl, Lloyd George, and foreign dignitaries. To top it all, there are the saintly Americans who, after torturing themselves over it for hours, decide to send invading troops to Mexico in order to bring peace and democracy to the wayward Mexicans. To the Americans’ huge surprise, Mexicans are not overjoyed about the invasion and fail to be grateful to their caring neighbors to the North.

The way Follett panders to his American readers is so obsequious that it borders on disgusting. Unlike those nasty Europeans and tyrannical Mexicans, America (meaning, of course, the US) is “rich, busy, exciting, and free.” There is no anti-semitism (once again, this is taking place in 1914), workers have amazing working conditions, are rich, and enjoy running water and electricity at home. Of course, each worker has at least two rooms all to himself. (I guess, Upton Sinclair is not to be trusted in his accounts of the horrible living conditions of immigrant workers in the US at the turn of the century.) American women are not subjected. They are all independent, “free”, and have exciting careers. I wonder what happened since 1914 to change all that. Possibly, an explanation will be forthcoming in the next two books in the trilogy. The only problems that exist in the godly America are caused by the surly, criminal, promiscuous immigrants who keep trying to take advantage of the saintly Americans.

If you think that the above-mentioned things are enough to put you off the book for good, just wait for the second part of the review where I will tell you why the book is even worse than what you might have imagined based on the first part of the review.

>When Was the First Time You Used the Internet and the Cell Phone?


The very first time I accessed the Internet was in 1995. Obviously, I used a dial-up connection, which was excruciatingly slow. It never took less than 15 minutes to get connected and the connection had a tendency to get interrupted whenever somebody tried to make a phone call to my phone number. Or even the neighbors’ phone number. (The way telephones in Ukraine worked was by connecting neighbors’ phones with each other. Whenever you picked up the receiver, your neighbors’ phone got disconnected and they couldn’t make or receive phone calls.) The web offered very little content at that time. Still, I was really impressed that, while sitting in my apartment in Ukraine, I could have a conversation with people across the world. It felt like something magical. Every time when I was waiting for the dial-up to connect me, I kept wondering what it would feel like if the connections were faster and only took about 5 minutes or so. I also liked imagining what the web would look if anybody could place any kind of information they wanted there.
As for the cell phones, I resisted them for a very long time. The idea that people would be able to locate me at any given moment made me feel extremely uncomfortable. It also felt like such an incredible drag to have to figure out what all the buttons meant and how all the cell phone’s functions worked. Finally, in 2000 I let my sister give me the most basic cell phone in existence as a gift. Today, if somebody were to deprive me of my Internet access and my BlackBerry for three days, I would start experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms.
What are you first memories of using the Internet and the cell phone?

>Cold War Mentality in Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants

>I can never say no to my readers, so after getting several requests for a review of Ken Follett’s new book Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy) I started reading it. The book is almost 1000 pages long and I will post a review as soon as I’m done. For now, I wanted to discuss this curious phenomenon that I have been noticing for a while where English-speaking writers fall into an outdated and ridiculous Cold War mentality whenever they write about Russia. I shared a while ago that I feel a deep-seated postcolonial resentment against Russia. Even so, things that Follett writes about that country are completely wrong and often offensive.

Take, for example, Follett’s description of the Russian Orthodox Church. I’m no fan of the ROC. Today, they represent a very conservative and stifling force within Russia. During the Soviet era, Russian Orthodox Church collaborated with the KGB, betraying the confidences of their parishioners. Still, this doesn’t mean that accusing the ROC of every sin under the sun is either reasonable or acceptable. The following passage in the novel is so blatantly wrong that it’s scary:

I went to the church and told the priest we had nowhere to sleep.” Katerina laughed harshly. “I can guess what happened there.” He was surprised. “Can you?” “The priest offered you a bed—his bed. That’s what happened to me.” “Something like that,” Grigori said. “He gave me a few kopeks and sent me to buy hot potatoes. The shop wasn’t where he said, but instead of searching for it I hurried back to the church, because I didn’t like the look of him. Sure enough, when I went into the vestry he was taking Lev’s trousers down.” She nodded. “Priests have been doing that sort of thing to me since I was twelve.” Grigori was shocked. He had assumed that that particular priest was uniquely evil. Katerina obviously believed that depravity was the norm. “Are they all like that?” he said angrily. “Most of them, in my experience.”

Of course, there are freaks and criminals everywhere, but this blanket accusation of mass pedophilia amongst the priests of the ROC is not sustained by any kind of historic evidence. The priests of the Russian Orthodox Church are not only allowed to marry, they are required to do so. This suggestion that the ROC priests molest their parishioners’ children en masse is simply wrong.

Follett also states that the ROC priests massively collaborated with the secret police during the tsarist regime. As I said, such collaboration with the secret police did, in fact, take place. However, it happened during a completely different time period and under completely different circumstances. I’d never even heard of any suggestion that the priests of the Russian Empire collectively betrayed secrets told to them in confession to the tsar’s secret police. This is a figment of Follett’s unhealthy imagination.

This tendency to collapse historic periods in Russia into one huge mess is evident in many other aspects of Follett’s novel. He doesn’t seem to realize that serfdom (the Russian equivalent of slavery) was abolished in 1861. The nobles who owned peasants before serfdom was abolished did, indeed, torture, maim and kill their serfs almost indiscriminately and sometimes with no punishment. That, however, became impossible after 1861. At the turn of the XX century, the relationship between the nobles and the peasants, while still problematic, was in no way similar to the way it was in the pre-1861 era.

Another facet of Follett’s annoying Cold War mentality is his tendency to present all Russians as heartless, vile jerks. There is a scene (that takes place in 1914) when a police officer assaults and tries to rape a young woman in the streets of St. Petersburg. The narrator makes a very weird statement about how “no Russian would address a peasant . . . courteously.” This is, of course, ridiculously wrong. There always were many people in Russia who would address anybody in a courteous way. Suggesting otherwise, is simply offensive.

Thankfully, the young woman who is assaulted by the police officer is saved by a character whose kindness, helpfullness and charitability turn him into some kind of a Jesus-like figure. So who is this Christ-like character who roams the streets of St. Petersburg saving damsels in distress and offering his assistance to anybody in need of it? Who is this Savior of the poor and Redeemer of the downtrodden? The answer is obvious. He is an American from Buffalo and against the background of the vile, abusive, nasty Russians, he offers an example of what a good human being looks like.

So if you thought the Cold War is over, read Follett’s book and think again.

>Did Google Images Go Back to Its Original Format?

>Or am I going crazy? It seems like Google Images mostly went back to its original format and abandoned the idiotic experiment it undertook last week. If so, it must have happened in response to a huge popular outcry against the silly and cumbersome transformation of the Google Image search engine.

I’m extremely glad that I can go back to using it unimpeded by useless experimentation.

>The Beautiful Literature of the Indian Subcontinent, Part II

I’m sure I don’t need to remind anybody about the existence of the inimitable Salman Rushdie. Sadly, more people know about the fatwah against him than have actually read his beautiful The Satanic Verses: A Novel.

If you were told that this novel is filled with hatred against Islam, don’t believe that. No book has taught me to respect Islam more than this one. The rage that informs this novel is not directed at Islam. It is rather addressed to the British Imperialism.

Rushdie possesses a sense of humor that is absolutely unique and this is what makes his books so great.

Other great books by this author inlcude Midnight’s Children: A Novel and Shame: A Novel.

Arundhati Roy is not only a fantastic writer but also a political activist. She is an author of a great novel The God of Small Things: A Novel but she has also written important political treatises, such as The Cost of Living, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire and Power Politics (Second Edition).

Sara Suleri was born in Pakistan and now lives in the US. This talented author of Meatless Days was my professor at Yale. She is the main reason why I know so much about the literature of the Indian Subcontinent and why I love it so much.

As a scholar of literature in English, she also wrote The Rhetoric of English India and Boys Will Be Boys: A Daughter’s Elegy.

Many of the very few pleasurable moments I experienced at Yale had to do with Professor Suleri and her great class on the Literature of the Empire.

I’m sure most of my readers have heard of Aravind Adiga, whose novel The White Tiger (Fifth Impression) has sold an incredible number of copies all over the world.

Adiga is a cosmopolitan in the true sense of the world. Born in Madras, he later emigrated to Sydney, Australia. Then, he went to Columbia University to get a degree in English literature. He also studied at Magdalen College in Oxford. Now, Aravind Adiga is living in Mumbai where he writes his beautiful novels.

His novel The White Tiger: A Novel (Man Booker Prize) won the Booker Prize in 2008 and became an international sensation. Adiga is an author of an unassailable integrity. His portrayal of India doesn’t shirk away from presenting his readers with the harsh realities of this country.

Adiga also published Between the Assassinations, a collection of interlinked short stories.
Shaila Abdullah is originally from Pakistan. Her novel has a lot in common with Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist that I reviewed recently (Part I is here and Part II is here.) It deals with the painful consequences of the tragedy of 9/11 for the New York based Muslims. The novel is beuatifully nuanced and very powerful.

>The Beautiful Literature of the Indian Subcontinent, Part I

>In one of my recent posts, I mentioned my opinion that the best literature in the English language today comes out of the Indian subcontinent. Now I want to introduce you to some (just some for now, and maybe more later, because there are just so many of them) of my favorite authors who are Indian or Pakistani by origin. They live all over the world and create literature of unimaginable beauty and power. When I had to complete a Minor in English literature as part of my PhD program, I, of course, chose the literature of the subcontinent. Formerly, Great Britain had to rely on the colonies for its riches, its food, its clothes, its very subsistence and its economic hegemony. Today, the English-speaking world has to rely on the former colonies to provide it with culture and literature.
1. The amazing Bapsi Sidhwa was probably one of the first writers from India that I ever read. Cracking India: A Novel is a very powerful story of the Partition of India that took place after the Independence in 1947. The story is narrated by a Parsee girl Lenny in a way that is both touching and profound. Lenny is probably one of the most memorable characters of young girls that one encounters in literature. And I say this as somebody who sepecializes in the female Bildungsroman and has read many novels narrated by a similar narrative voice.

The movie Earth by Deepa Mehta is based on this book, and both the movie and the book are definitely worthy of attention.

If you are interested in the Partition and want to learn more about it, I definitely recommend this book.

2. Rohinton Mistry is a writer I love passionately. He was born in Mumbai but now lives in Toronto (a fellow Canadian, no less!). His A Fine Balance (Oprah’s Book Club) is a book a reread on a regular basis even though it is over 600 pages long. It is so beautifully written and the characters are so endearing that even if you never considered travelling to India, after this book, you absolutely will. If you are put off by this book being part of Oprah’s Book Club, don’t be. This writer is simply fantastic.

Even now as I’m writing this post, I have to fight off the temptation to leave it and go read Rohinton Mistry yet again. 🙂

3 Amitav Ghosh is an Indian-Bengali author who, in my opinion, writes in the most lyrical voice of all the writers I have mentioned so far. I absolutely love his Sea of Poppies,set in 1838 against the backdrop of the Opium Wars, and his equally great The Shadow Lines that takes place in the 60ies and deals with issues of national and cultural identity.

Amitav Ghosh seems to be able to write pretty much in any genre he approaches with equal success. Be it a Bildungsroman, a historic novel, an epic, he always creates works of literature that capture your imagination for years to come.

4. Of course, I know that the Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, and not in the Indian Subcontinent. I also know that he is rumored to be a very condescending, mean individual and a total male chauvinist. However, nobody writes about the post-colonial experience better than this writer. He is a descendant of Indian immigrants to Trinidad, and that’s why I feel he belongs on this list.

When I first read Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and his biographical The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel, I could not believe that this writer from Trinidad described my Ukrainian post-colonial experiences so well. It was from Naipaul that I learned how post-colonial experience transcends ethnic, national, religious, and linguistic borders.

Unlike so many of the contemporary writers who simply butcher the English language with no compunction, Naipaul cultivates an inimitable style that is incredibly beautiful. If you are looking to improve your writing style in English, look no further than this great writer.

(To be continued. . . I’m only just getting started here, my friends.)

>Mystery Fiction of Summer 2010

>As I mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of the mystery genre. This summer, several of my favorite mystery authors released their new books. In this post, I will share my impressions of these new mysteries.

1. Tess Gerritsen writes very hardcore detective mysteries. For some reason that I haven’t yet been able to identfy, American female mystery authors write books filled with scenes of unimaginable cruelty, torture and all kinds of horrors in a way that no male writer has been able to equal. You often encounter the following type of sentence in Gerritsen’s work:

Entrails glistened in her gaping abdomen, and her freshly thawed flesh dripped pink icemelt into the table drain.

Or the following:

THE MAN’S LEGS were splayed apart, exposing ruptured testicles and the seared skin of buttocks and perineum. The morgue photo had flashed onto the screen without any advance warning from the lecturer, yet no one sitting in the darkened hotel conference room gave so much as a murmur of dismay. This audience was inured to the sight of ruined and broken bodies.

If you are not bothered by these quotes and like really suspenseful mysteries about serial killers, check out Gerritsen’s The Apprentice (Jane Rizzoli, Book 2)or The Keepsake: A Novel. This summer, Gerritsen released her new Ice Cold: A Rizzoli & Isles Novel. In my opinion, this is maybe her most suspenseful novel so far. The ending, however, is a bit disappointing. There is also a lot less gore in this novel, probably because of the new TV series based on Gerritsen’s books.

2. Lisa Gardner is another mystery author who writes really hardcore stuff about serial killers,
child abusers, and scary stuff like that.

Her new Live to Tell: A Detective D. D. Warren Novel is probably her best novel so far. Many people say that they find the setting of this new novel (a pediatric psych ward for psychotic and sociopathic children) too disturbing. So beware: this book, as well as any book by Tess Gerritsen are not for the squeamish.

If you don’t feel disturbed too easily, though, this is a great mystery that is suspenseful, engrossing, and makes you want to gulp it down in one sitting.

3. This is a new author I only just discovered. The Dark Vineyard: A mystery of the French countryside is only the 2nd novel in Martin Walker’s mystery series featuring Bruno, a police officer from a small French village of St. Denis.

The Dark Vineyard: A mystery of the French countryside is as unlike the hardcore mysteries of Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Gardner as anything you can imagine. Even though it is a novel about a crome being investigated, it’s a lot more centered on the very French joie de vivre (enjoyment of life). Characters in this novel share endless bottles of wine, engage in the wine-making and wine-selling process with glee, prepare delicious meals, and start numerous love affairs.

This is a really calm, relaxed and fun mystery novel that will make you desperate to travel to France as soon as possible.

4. I already wrote about the incomparable Tana French here and here. I’m still hoping that one day she will dare to abandon the pretense of writing mysteries and start writing novels.

In her most recent book Faithful Place: A Novel, she more or less does just that. Only the most innocent of readers will not be able to guess who the murderer is very early in the book. But the identity of the killer is completely secondary here. What mattters is the author’s beautiful command of the English language and her talent for creating unique and engrossing characters. Tana French is masterful at creating a character who is a total jerk and making the readers cares what happens to him anyways.

5. Richard North Patterson became famous for writing really great courtroom dramas, such as Degree of Guilt, Eyes of a Child, Caroline Masters, The Outside Man, and others. Then, something happened  and he started writing incredibly boring and convoluted political thrillers. As a result, he lost a huge chunk of his fan base (including me).

Now, Richard North Patterson is trying to return to the courtroom drama genre that made him famous. In the Name of Honor would be good if only it weren’t so similar to a host of other books dealing with the same topic. Of course, if you never read another courtroom drama that has to do with soldiers who fought in Iraq, are suffering from PTSD, and are killing each other as a result, you might enjoy In the Name of Honor. However, after I read John Lescroart’s much better Betrayal (Dismas Hardy), I was pretty bored with Patterson’s book on the same topic.

Still, I’m glad this author is finally making his way back from the horrible political thrillers he kept writing for a while.