Strange Flowers: Style and Substance

It’s tempting to frame this review as a tug of war between style and substance. No one could ever deny that Donal Ryan writes beautiful sentences. It’s such a cliche to talk about lyrical prose in a review, but in fact you could pick up this book and turn to almost any page and find a passage that rises and falls like music. I loved every second I spent on Ryan’s paragraphs.

But what of the substance? Strange Flowers opens with Paddy Gladney, a rural Irishman, mourning this disappearance of his twenty-year-old daughter Moll. They know she has left on purpose — she took a bus out of town — but they do not know why. They search for her in Dublin but she is not to be found. And so they go one with their days, Paddy farming the land that his family has farmed for generations (although it belongs to the wealthy Jackmans), Kit keeping house. And then Moll returns. She has a secret, and as the years go on, it turns out that she has more than one. But the focus of the book isn’t really on Moll; it’s on the quiet hum of an Irish village as everyone works and lives and eats and prays over the course of decades.

One of Ryan’s talents is for making the mundane come to life, to feel almost mystical. Here is Paddy clearing a cobweb:

He found a spider’s web that stretched from behind the rearview mirror down as far as the gearstick and back along to the parcel shelf, and the sun that streamed in through the space where the slats were cracked lit the thin strands of it so it shone there silky in the shard of evening light, and the size of it and the intricate detail of it and the way it spanned out so perfectly from a central point made him shiver with pleasure and wonder, and it nearly broke his heart to destroy all that spider’s good work with one sweep of his arm.

In a similar vein, late in the book another character observes men repainting lines on the highway:

One of the men is carrying a steaming bucket and the other has a metal triangle at the end of a long handle, and with these things they’re painting white diagonal lines along the side of the road, on top of the ones that are already there, faded almost fully away. The man with the teaming bucket pours hot paint into the rectangle while his comrade deftly sweeps it along so that the lines are laid down in perfect palimpsest, new on old, and the way they work is almost hypnotic.

Maybe you like this sort of writing and maybe you don’t. I posted an excerpt on Facebook and one of my friends described it as “writerly.” He didn’t intend it as a compliment. I can see that Ryan’s prose might be easy to parody. But when I was reading this book I fell into the rhythms the way I might fall into a comfortable bed at the end of a long day. While I was reading this book I woke up looking forward to picking it up again — not because I wanted to know what happened, but because I wanted to read more of Ryan’s sentences.

But then I read the book again. During my second readthrough I was more accustomed to those lovely sentences, and some of the shine was off. Now I started to think harder about the plot. And I began to remember what frustrated me about Ryan’s last novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea. First, Ryan has a fondness for unexpected shocks at the end of a novel, giving his novels the feel of a shattered stained-glass window. The twist at the end of From a Low and Quiet Sea is fairly effective. But in Strange Flowers, we have two surprises, presented back-to-back in the last several dozen pages. This is at least one too many, particularly since as a reader I felt prepared for neither.

Ryan’s deeper problem is with character. In From a Low and Quiet Sea, to my annoyance, he struggled to develop fully fleshed-out female characters. In Strange Flowers, however, even the men feel unsatisfying. Paddy and Alexander, while both lovable, are too saintly to feel real. Ellen and Kit are ciphers. Worst of all, there is an emptiness at the center of this book where Moll should be. Moll is the character who brings all the others together; without her there’s no story. But she never comes to life. She is beloved, but she is also berated (I lost count of how many times other people yelled at her); she is described at various points as “a changeling” or “like an animal.” She says of herself that there was “this monstrous thing inside me.” Ryan may intend us to read Moll’s story as tragic, the way that this normal young woman sees herself as though “the devil was stuck in me,” but I was mostly confused by it. I was never sure how she felt about anyone, or about the choices she made to leave and then to come back. The surprises Ryan throws in at the end are, I believe, intended to clarify who Moll is, but they only muddle what we already know. She does not make sense as a character; she only makes sense as a plot device.

I wrote all of this, and I read over it again, and I thought, so this book is stylish but lacking in substance. I could quote it all day long, but I have no idea what Ryan is trying to say with all those beautiful sentences. On reflection, though, that isn’t quite right. The beautiful sentences serve to imbue the world he’s depicting with a magic and a grace that a more matter-of-fact tone could never convey. That, as much as anything, is what Ryan is trying to accomplish here: to show off this world, to lend dignity to Paddy and Alexander, to polish up a little Irish town and show it off. That doesn’t make the book’s flaws less real– the shocks at the end don’t work, Moll isn’t as developed as she should be — but it may offset them. Treating this novel as a battle between style and substance isn’t the right way to evaluate it. Here, the style and the substance are one and the same.

What I Read This Week

I read Evvie Drake Starts Over solely because I read Linda Holmes’s work religiously back when she was still writing recaps of The Amazing Race as Miss Alli at the late lamented Television Without Pity. You could definitely hear her voice in this book, and certainly some of the storylines and character relationships seemed to faintly echo what I know about her life. This novel is about a young widow whose secret (this is not a spoiler, the reader is in on it from the beginning) is that she was literally leaving her husband at the very moment she got a phone call that he’d been in a terrible car accident. After a year of struggling with guilt, a pitcher with a famous case of the yips moves into the guesthouse on her property. You can probably guess everything else that happens.

Evvie was a pleasant diversion from my other reading this week. I have a hard time with romance as a genre because it is a bit predictable for my taste — you see two characters and you know that by the end of the book they will be together in some form. In general, I don’t find that enjoyable. (Caveat: Last March I got depressed and read five and a half Bridgerton novels all in a row.) But I enjoyed this one, without being bowled over by it. I’d rather read Holmes’s recaps of The Amazing Race, to be honest, but she has moved on, and who can blame her?

Last week I complained that Summer of Blood, while striking and detailed, didn’t give me a lot of context about the fourteenth-century Wat Tyler Riots. Well, Rodney Hilton’s Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 made up for that and then some. Context, context that stretches back several centuries and across Europe, context as far as the eye can see. Which was great! Except that ideally, a book about a particular uprising would devote more than seven of almost 250 pages to the events of the uprising.

In retrospect, the best way to get what I wanted would have to read the first half of this book, then read Summer of Blood, then finish this book. Or, I don’t know, find a third book that manages to provide both historical context and narrative color and maybe mentions a woman at some point. I probably could have replaced both of these with Juliet Barker’s England, Arise: The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381 and I no longer remember why I didn’t. (I am now feeling the itch to add this to my reading plan, but do I really need a third book about Wat Tyler?)

Percival Everett’s The Trees was, like every other book I’ve read by Everett, an exercise in frustration. We are not on the same wavelength, Everett and I. This book is about a couple of Black detectives investigating a strange pair of murders in a tiny Mississippi town. In both cases, a White man was found brutally killed next to a the corpse of a Black man who seems to resemble Emmett Till.

Oh, where to start. I really wanted to like this novel — nothing in my literary life makes me feel guiltier than my failure to warm up to the work of Percival Everett — but as soon as I got a load of the names in the first chapter I knew I was going to have a problem. Silly names don’t amuse me (“Herbie Hind,” really?) and most of the attempts at jokes just fell flat. For me, at least.

I want to be clear, I do recognize that this is an accomplished book and that the author achieves what he sets out to do. The problem here is that I am not the intended audience of this book, and that is fine! I can see by scanning Storygraph reviews that it has found its intended audience. For me the humor is too broad and it doesn’t sit well next to the dark storyline. I didn’t even think the Trump jokes landed.

I was determined not to like Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney, but it won me over. It is a novel about two best friends who begin relationships with two very different men — but the book is more interested in their friendship than in their romantic lives, which is refreshing. I wasn’t wild about Rooney’s novel Normal People, and I thought Rooney’s logic about not translating this latest book into Hebrew was both shallow and performative, so I was rolling my eyes as I began the book. And I found the first hundred pages — when one of the main characters, Alice, who seems to be a Rooney stand-in, was at her most insufferable — a bit of a slog. But I really loved Eileen, the co-protagonist, and as the book continued I even warmed up to Alice. The most interesting parts of the book are the letters the two women write to each other, with exchanges not just about the men in their lives but about the world around them. Alice worries that her novel-writing and her romantic peccadilloes are frivolous in a world riddled with poverty and exploitation, and Eileen responds:

[T]here is nothing bigger than what you so derisively call ‘breaking up or staying together’ (!), because at the end of our lives, when there’s nothing left in front of us, it’s still the only thing we want to talk about. Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn’t it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it’s the very reason I root for us to survive—because we are so stupid about each other.

It reads as though Rooney is trying to convince herself of the importance of her fiction, and maybe she is. Or maybe it’s all a conceit. At any rate, Eileen gives both Alice and the reader quite a bit to think about in this book, as she repeatedly champions the importance of human connection.

At the end of the book, Eileen tells Alice, “If you weren’t my friend I wouldn’t know who I was,” and when I think about my two dearest friends I feel the same way. We met the first year of college and now I find it’s impossible to imagine a world in which I don’t know them. I can’t think who I might be without these friendships to ground me. “We are so stupid about each other,” Eileen says, and when I think of the mistakes I’ve made in my life, most of them were because my brain was clouded by my feelings for other people — my friends or my husband or my children. The argument of this book is that those mistakes are okay, or at least understandable — the “nicest reason you can imagine” for errors in judgment.

Nervous System: We Are Made of Star-Stuff

“The cosmos is within us,” Carl Sagan once said. “We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” Nervous System, by Lina Meruane, is a slim elliptical novel which takes this sentiment very much to heart. Ella, the main character, is a student of astronomy and she sees stardust and planets everywhere she looks. The novel abounds with scientific imagery: a mole on a neighbor’s cheek is like a star; Ella and her boyfriend El are an electron and a positron, each the other’s opposite; an MRI machine is a black hole.

Very little action happens in Nervous System. If you sketch out the plot beats they seem barely enough to flesh out a short story. Ella struggles to finish her astronomy dissertation. She wishes she could get sick, so she could be relieved of her teaching duties; then she does become ill, a mysterious lesion appearing on her spine, and she regrets her wish. She allows her father to pay for her studies but worries that she is wasting his money. The major events in her life — her mother’s death, a breakup, a move to another country — are hinted at rather than expanded upon. Nearly everything that might be of ordinary interest happens off-stage.

What Meruane wants to write about instead are illnesses and injuries. Each chapter centers on the maladies and mishaps of a different character, and each chapter has a scientific title and theme, such as “stardust” or “gravity.” Sometimes the theme illuminates the characters beautifully. Associating Ella with black holes and El with explosions gives the reader an interesting window into their relationship. At other times the theme falters — associating the milky way with Ella’s stepmother and her breast cancer struck me as, let’s say, overly literal.

Peppered throughout the book are asides about astronomy, or — as Ella corrects El at one point — “extraterrestrial planetary sciences.” These seem like digressions, but feature some of the most arresting writing in the book. For example, Ella ponders the universe:

An old cosmologist conjectured that after the big bang there must have been other, smaller explosions that produced infinite pocket universes scattered through space. Some empty and others saturated with matter, some eternal, others ephemeral, others that were expanding too quickly and violated the human laws of physics. But why would they be so different? Ella thought. Why was it only humans who were lucky enough to live in a space specially designed for them? A space, a planet, that humans seemed intent on destroying. 

Life on earth was composed of 82 percent plants, 13 percent bacteria, and the remaining 5 percent included everything else. Of that everything else, only 0.01 percent was human. And still, that 0.01 percent was finishing off the other species. It was even finishing off itself.

When I finished Nervous System, what stuck with me were not the moments with doctors in hospitals, not Ella’s flailing love life nor her flailing career, but the side notes about stars and planets. These seeming diversions are as central to Ella’s story as her dissertation or the scans of her spine. The universe is part of her. She is part of it.

“What mistakes could we repair?” Ella’s father asks late in the book. “Which one would you start with?” He’s talking about the damage done to the planet, but he’s also talking about Ella and about his own life. It’s a metaphor, sure. But it’s more than that. It’s also a suggestion that learning what has gone wrong with the planet will illuminate what has gone wrong with Ella. She is a way for the universe to know itself, and for us to know the universe. Can the damage to Ella or to Earth be undone? Who can put them right? “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” wrote Carl Sagan. “In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

What I Read This Week

In Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Dan Jones tells the story of the Wat Tyler riots in a brisk 238 pages. It sounds a bit cold-hearted to describe a book about an event in which many people died as entertaining, but at the very least this account is gripping. Jones’s strength is in setting a scene. His description of the plundering of Savoy Palace, for example:

Greater and greater discoveries were made. Barrels of gold and silver plate were turned up. Some were dragged up to the roadside and smashed, and others rolled down to the riverside gates and hurled into the Thames. Jewels were stamped on and crushed into dust to ensure they could not be rescued or reused. Gilded cups were beaten out of shape by rebels wielding swords and axes. That which could not be adequately mangled or smelted on the bonfires was thrown into the sewers. 

Jones also has an eye for the telling detail: the Flemish wife struggling with an axe to avenge herself on her husband’s murderer, the bishop-turned-battler who holds a condemned rioter’s head to prevent it from hitting the ground as he is dragged to the gallows. Jones makes it easy to develop a mental picture of the confusion and mayhem that roiled England during the revolt. (In fact, I’m not sure I needed quite so many images of botched beheadings.)

Although Jones is a great storyteller, he falters when contextualizing the riots. In particular, the numbers he gives are often fuzzy and imprecise, or outright missing. He tells us that the tax that initially provoked the rioters was intended to be a crippling four or five groats per person, but that Parliament reduced it and also asked the church to pay a third of the reduced total. But he doesn’t tell us what they reduced it to! My back-of-the-envelope math suggests about two groats per person, but I still don’t know whether that would have been a devastating increase or just an annoying one. I also didn’t get a good sense of the size of the mobs compared to the rest of the commons. Was this a small group of troublemakers, or were large portions of the villages involved?

Finally, I would like to have known more about what women were doing — were any of them in the mob? Were they providing some kind of homefront support? — as well as religious and ethnic minorities. Jones does suggest at one point that the Flemings in particular were seen by the mob as immigrants stealing their livelihoods (which, yes, makes the mob sound like a big bloody MAGA rally) but again, this was something that was hinted at rather than developed. The book is vivid and even thought-provoking at times, but I didn’t feel that I got enough information to truly understand the significance of the uprising.

Mona Awad’s All’s Well is a darkly comic novel in which a woman turns pain and resentment into something akin to a superpower. Miranda, the protagonist, is a drama professor at a small college where she is directing a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. She’s also getting over a bitter divorce, and perhaps most importantly of all, riddled with pain stemming from an accident that destroyed her acting career. A meeting with three strange men begins to heal her, and even to offer her some measure of power.

It’s how she uses this power that provides most of the interest of the book. Miranda is angry, and she wants to get what she believes she deserves. Is that success? Is it dominance? Or is it vengeance? I was at times reminded forcibly of Daenerys Targaryen managing her dragons.

It’s been more than three decades since I read All’s Well That Ends Well. I’m sure I missed allusions and references that might have enriched the book for me. (I did recognize nods to MacBeth, and I don’t think it’s an accident that Miranda shares her name with the daughter of The Tempest‘s Prospero.) As it was, I mostly found the book an exercise in frustration. Miranda’s complaints about her disappointments in life grated on me, and although I could sympathize with her chronic pain and her truly terrible doctors, I found it hard to sympathize with her disdain for her students. And while the book is clearly intended to be humorous, I didn’t think it was all that funny. To my ear, it was more mean-spirited than amusing. This novel is original, but it made for a deeply unpleasant reading experience.

Several People Are Typing, by Calvin Kasulke, has a ludicrous premise, but it manages to be both amusing and weirdly touching. The premise is that a staffer at a PR firm, Gerald, has gotten stuck in his company’s Slack, and he can’t escape. He has become pure intellect and spirit, capable of working in the Cloud but unable to do anything with his body. It’s ridiculous, but somehow it works. It is perhaps a sad commentary on our times that becoming trapped in Slack, unable to leave, doesn’t sound so far-fetched.

The entire novel is told in the form of Slack messages; the chapters are various Slack channels. The Slack conversations will have a ring of familiarity if you’ve spent any time working at an office in the last couple of years (the main difference I noticed: my office uses far more emojis than the office in the novel, but I suppose that’s hard to replicate). I was startled to see how revelatory banal conversations about clients and work product could be.

Because of the format, Several People Are Typing is a remarkably fast read, and although it is at times laugh-out-loud funny, it can also be sweet and introspective. Slack comprises “the daily outrages and minor amusements and short videos and updates from people whose worldviews are impossible to comprehend and people whose worldviews are uncannily aligned with your own, brand new each morning like a fresh loaf of the same bread, like the rising sun,” says Gerald, “the sublime plopped right next to everything else.” By the end of the book, I was getting a bit tired of the shtick, and I would have excised at least one of the subplots, but you know what? I laughed and I got really invested in Gerald’s happiness and what else can you ask for from 249 pages of faux Slack messages?

The Vixen: What We Talk About When We Talk About the Rosenbergs

Sixty-eight years ago the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons paid a visit to a female prisoner in Sing Sing. The prisoner was Ethel Rosenberg, and the purpose of the director’s visit was to convince her to save her own life by giving up information on Russian spy operations and anyone else who might be involved. Ethel flatly refused (as did her husband, Julius). The couple jointly issued a statement avowing that “We solemnly declare, now and forever more, that we will not be coerced, even under pain of death, to bear false witness and to yield up to tyranny our rights as free Americans. Our respect for truth, conscience and human dignity is not for sale.” Less than a month later, Ethel and Julius would die in the electric chair.

Ethel Rosenberg is not a character in Francine Prose’s The Vixen, but her memory hangs over it like a vigilant ghost. The protagonist, Simon Putnam is a young Jewish man with a faint connection to the Rosenbergs; his mother and Ethel had been schoolmates. After graduating from Harvard, Simon takes a junior editing position at a publishing house that is well-regarded but is also hemorrhaging money. His first big assignment, he learns, will be to edit a more commercial novel than the house usually publishes: The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic, about a woman who spies for the Russians. The woman — Esther Rosenstein — is clearly modeled after Ethel, while being nothing like her. Where Ethel was a dowdy homebody, a doting mother, Esther is a sexpot with a vicious streak. To edit the novel would be to taint the late Ethel’s reputation — but what choice does Simon have? So he begins the job, hoping to nudge the book into a less tawdry direction. “Keep our memory bright and unsullied” — Ethel’s final admonition to her attorney — rings in his ears like a mantra. And as he works with the author — a mysterious, alluring young woman who lives in a mental asylum — he starts to unwind the secrets behind the novel.

The Vixen is a coming-of-age novel, and for Simon, coming of age means recognizing the layers of artifice that comprise adulthood. At the beginning of the novel, he rues that so much of his life — his very name — seems to conceal who he is. By the end, he is forced to grapple with the idea that everyone lies and conceals. His bosses and coworkers speak from behind façades, and no one is troubled by the idea that an injustice is being done to Ethel, a convicted spy, a Commie. Simon’s Ethel may be more real than Esther Rosenstein, but she is less useful than the titular vixen, who offers a chance to titillate readers while simultaneously educating them on the evils of Communism. In the currency of the Simon’s workplace, truth is far less valuable than perception. The world in which he moves offers no room for nuance.

The Vixen is also a potboiler. You get the idea that Prose had a lot of fun writing the very bad excerpts that she scatters throughout the novel. But her own book — though better written — has as many shocking plot points as the book she is parodying. To be sure, lurid twists are not the point of the book. Prose’s focus is not so much on the twists themselves as on how Simon deals with them. Her real interest is in how Simon’s perspective shifts as he sees those around him in a new light. “Narrative turns on those moments,” writes Simon. “The shock of finding out, the quickened heartbeat when the truth rips the mask off a lie. The friend who is our enemy, the confidant revealed as a spy. The faithless lover, the demon bride. The maniac faking sanity. The deceptively innocent murderer. We enjoy these surprises. We demand them. They delight the child inside us, the child who wants to hear a story that turns in a startling direction. In life, it’s less of a pleasure. There’s none of the bubbly satisfaction of finding out who committed the crime. An opaque curtain drops over the past, obscuring whatever we thought we knew.” Simon spends most of the novel reevaluating what he thought he knew, and then reevaluating his reevaluations.

And yet the realist portrait of Simon sits uneasily inside the frame of a sensationalist novel. Simon is minutely drawn, and I felt that I knew him inside and out — but he is the only character in the book who doesn’t feel like a caricature or an archetype. The villains practically twirl mustaches. Other characters are pushed off-stage as soon as they’ve outlived their usefulness. That’s frustrating, and it also muddles the message of the book. The truth Simon pursues lies in the gray areas, but the people he meets lack any gradations. They are mere rotters, manipulating Simon into acting against his own moral code.

Simon can’t keep the memory of Ethel “bright and unsullied,” of course. That’s not a spoiler; that’s just history. The Rosenbergs may have maintained their innocence up until their executions, but today even their sons acknowledge that Julius probably provided some intelligence to the Russians. Soviet papers made public in recent years reveal that Julius had a codename. So did Ethel’s brother and his wife. Ethel did not. Given the Rosenbergs’ close relationship, though, it beggars credulity she knew nothing about his activities. It’s admirable that the couple refused to give up their friends in the face of death, it’s true that they didn’t give away the atomic bomb, but can they be called entirely innocent? Their story is complicated. And that, perhaps, is the point of The Vixen: truth isn’t a matter of yes or no, true or false; it has subtleties and shadings that cannot be seen in the glare of the everyday world. I only wish more of the characters reflected the complications of reality.

What I Read This Week

If you want a brisk recap of 150 years of English history, and you’re steeped in Shakespeare’s history plays, John Julius Norwich’s Shakespeare’s Kings is the book for you. Norwich moves quickly and his summations of history are lively and opinionated. If it’s been a while since you’ve read Henry V and its ilk, though, many of the references may be lost on you, as they often were on me. Norwich assumes that these plays are as known to you as they are to him, and he knows them very well. It would not be a terrible idea to have them on hand as you read.

Norwich is clear about his feelings about the men and women (mostly the men) who populate the plays. He likes Thomas More and Henry V; he has a sneaking regard for Richard III, despite his probable murder of his nephews; and he despises Henry VI, to the point that I was beginning to feel a bit sorry for the unfortunate king. Norwich regards Henry’s reign as “perhaps the saddest half-century in English history,” and speculates on how he met his death: ” One would love to think the doomed King showed as much spirit at his end as his last great vituperative speech suggests; alas, it seems unlikely.” Even in the epilogue Norwich circles back to Henry to make one more jab.

I do wish Norwich had not confined himself to such a narrow theme, because his focus on Shakespeare’s kings means that many fascinating personalities are under-discussed. For example, Margaret of Anjou holds much more interest than her husband, the hapless Henry VI, and I wanted to learn more about her. For the record, I was also not impressed with Norwich’s offhanded dismissal of Elizabeth of York’s claim to the throne because she was an “eighteen-year-old girl.” She might have been very capable — did he learn nothing from the life of Margaret of Anjou? — and she could hardly have been worse than Henry. You don’t catch him calling the young men in the book “boys.”

Still, Norwich’s willingness to make judgments on his subjects keeps the book interesting.

I didn’t enjoy Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness as much as Shakespeare’s Kings. On paper I should have. I adored Wonderfalls back in the day, and the Ozeki novel has a superficially similar premise: a young person discovers that objects are speaking to him/her, and chaos ensues. The difference, I think, is that Wonderfalls had a sense of humor. The writers knew it was ridiculous even as they used the nonsense to tell serious stories about the lead character’s life. It was silly and somber, light and dark — the contrast made it work. But you will find little wit in The Book of Form and Emptiness. Instead it offers one fast-moving calamity after another: real-world disasters like death and depression and mental illness and job loss and parenting struggles, coupled with a teenage boy insisting that scissors are telling him to stab people. (We’re supposed to believe him.)

Another difference, less significant, problem is that parts of this book are told from the point of view of a sentient book. I find myself uninterested in the inner lives of novels. Wonderfalls never asked me to consider how it would feel to be a wax lion.

There are some wonderfully written passages here, and some darkly whimsical moments that worked (the father’s death in the first chapter, for example, in which a driver mistakes him for garbage because he was lying on the ground “covered in crows”). But I could never get past the relentless fanciful misery.

My favorite book of the week turned out to be Kia Corthron’s Moon and the Mars. This bildungsroman begins in 1857 when its protagonist, Theo — a half-Black, half-Irish girl growing up in New York — is seven and ends when she is thirteen. (The epilogue is set fifteen years later.) Moon and the Mars was a slow burn — for the first hundred pages or so I was frustrated by spending so much time in a seven-year-old’s head. Young Theo is endearing and cheerful, but also exhausting and hyper (as someone who has raised three seven-year-olds, this tracks). But as I continued to read I began to appreciate what Corthron was doing, contrasting the happy, chatty Theo with the dangers of slavery smoldering around her. Just when I thought the book was painting entirely too rosy a picture of Theo’s life, she has a breathtaking encounter with a slave girl that shakes her own complacency. And tension continued to build as I watched the years tick by, aware that war was coming, crossing my fingers that Theo would emerge unscathed.

As Theo grows older, and the national crisis grows more acute, the book really comes into its own. Dickensian in scope, this novel captures what it must have felt like to grow up in such a tumultuous era, in a world where Theo’s own identity puts her in peril. It’s tempting to draw comparisons to today’s political and social climate — indeed, it’s nearly impossible to avoid — but I think it’s also useful to think of this book as being about the time it is set in, because these years were the crucible for the mess we find ourselves in today.

The exposition sometimes feels a bit clunky — in the epilogue Theo rattles off Civil War statistics as if she’d just Googled them — and the imagery can sometimes feel a bit on-the-nose. One section ends with Theo trapped in the street, literally caught between her Irish family and her Black family — but it’s all so well rendered I couldn’t begrudge it. I rarely say this about an almost-six-hundred-page book, but Moon and the Mars earns every word of its length. If you’re going to read one tremendously long novel from 2021, make it this one, not Crossroads.

Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne

I was raised Southern Baptist, in rural Arkansas. I was never a very good Southern Baptist; I expressed skepticism about the Trinity at five and shortly thereafter announced that I would not go to Heaven unless I were guaranteed a steady stream of reading material. I also once described the Three Wise Men as “sexy,” which got me in serious trouble with the Sunday School teacher. In middle school, I went through a devout phase in which I read the Bible in its entirety twice, hoping for an epiphany that did not come. By the time I was in high school, I was referring to myself as an “omnist,” a word which I believe I made up to indicate my belief that all religions were a little bit right (in this I anticipated The Good Place); by the time I was in grad school I had joined a Unitarian church solely so I would not have to describe myself as a Baptist. I’ve been happily Jewish now for nearly half my life.

That is the context in which I read Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. I have spent my entire life baffled by religious fundamentalism. How can people like my parents — whom I know to be intelligent and sincere — believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and believe in it so strongly that their belief has become the bedrock of their existence? How is it that they stand in front of me, clearly cherry-picking which bits are to be taken literally and which bits should be interpreted or ignored, insisting in all seriousness that they would never do such a thing? I have read so many books on modern evangelical Christianity, and none of them have unlocked this puzzle for me.

Jesus and John Wayne did not, I fear, come any closer to explaining this phenomenon to me. But it is a good book, with useful things to say, and I recommend it as a book on modern fundamentalism, not the book. I think Kristin Kobes Du Mez is entirely correct about the appeal of the tough, scrappy Donald Trump to evangelicals. Her thesis — that “understanding the catalyzing role militant Christian masculinity has played over the past half century is critical to understanding American evangelicalism today, and the nation’s fractured political landscape” — is well-argued and completely valid, as far as it goes. She gets a lot right here — I recognize my parents and my high school classmates in her description of the evangelical community’s steady march to the right. (My parents, for example, have moved far right on abortion, guns, and the military over the past two decades, all while insisting that they are standing still.) Du Mez is mostly correct, I think, that evangelicalism is partly cultural and political, although I think she does underplay the role of theology. The teaching of evolution, for example, remains a hot-button issue among the people I know precisely because of their theological beliefs. Harry Potter remains controversial for the same reason.

My worry about this book is that an unfamiliar reader might walk away from it thinking that the riddle is solved. Militant Christian masculinity isn’t the whole answer; it isn’t even half of it. It’s the women who are the backbone of the church, not the men. And while, yes, it’s true that women uphold half the patriarchy just as they uphold half the sky, it’s also true that women’s experiences within the church encompass far more than a reactionary definition of gender roles

There is much about evangelical life and culture that is not plumbed in this book. Could a reader who was not brought up in a fundamentalist church read this book and understand the appeal of a church home, a church family? A belief system that insists on its own absolute correctness about, well, everything may be bad for the world but it feels utterly comforting when you are inside it: Going to a church potluck can feel as soothing as sinking into a warm bath. Du Mez misses the terror of change that, in my opinion, has escalated the desire to cling ever more fiercely to a half-remembered past that never really existed. Class and income level play a greater role than Du Mez accounts for; I recall many sermons that centered on the idea that the congregation might be financially poor but were actually better off than wealthy heathens. I would like to have read more about the overt disparagement of critical thought in evangelical communities, which makes it harder to leave but also harder to understand the world as it really is.

“Ah! the brethren,” says a backslidden character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. “No doubt they pray for me, weep for me, for they are good people in their way. But what was I to do? How could I go on with the thing once I had lost my faith in it?” I feel this — but even more, the enduring question for me has always been: why am I the only one? why don’t more people lose their faith as well? At one point in my life I had fiery arguments with my parents about Christianity. I’ve stopped that; now I tiptoe around their beliefs. I cannot see what they see, and they cannot see what I see. We might as well be looking at two entirely different landscapes. You could read this book and think of all or most of the evangelical leaders as cynical villains. I think this is a mistake. The tragedy of many of these ministers — fallen or otherwise — is that they are well-intentioned and they believe what they say. Some of them, many of them, have torn themselves apart because they so desperately want to believe. Some of them are hypocrites, yes; but a lot of them are just miserable and confused.

“Appreciating how this ideology developed over time is also essential for those who wish to dismantle it,” Du Mez concludes. “What was once done might also be undone.” I’m not sure I agree. Although this book is well-written, illuminating, useful, if incomplete, I don’t think it comes any closer to showing how fundamentalism can be undone. Du Mez’s own book demonstrates that while fundamentalism may purport to be based on the unchanging inerrancy of the Bible, it is in fact a protean belief system, one that can be twisted into whatever it needs to be. In the Seventies the Southern Baptist Convention was pro-choice! When I was growing up our preacher talked about his pride in American democracy; now “constitutional republicanism” is all the rage. A decade from now, this belief system could transform itself again. Evangelical Christianity was here before Trump, and it — maybe smaller, maybe less powerful, maybe pointed in a different direction — will no doubt survive him. 

Book Review: We Germans

I’ve said that I am tired of World War II novels, and I am. I am positively allergic to all references to the “Greatest Generation” (if this generation was so great, why didn’t it do more about racism and sexism when it got home from the war?). We Germans is a different take on the war, though, and worth your time (at 197 pages, it won’t take up much of it).

The novel is told in two alternating perspectives: that of an ordinary German soldier, Meissner. who is ultimately captured and spend a couple of years in a Russian prison camp, and then marries and lives out a long life, and that of his British grandson, Callum, who writes of his grandfather as fondly as you might write of yours. (The author’s biography notes that his mother is German, and it’s not hard to imagine that Callum’s perspective might be the author’s, at least to some extent.)

Meissner is harder on himself than his grandson is. “[E]ven if all you did in the war was serve lunches at a quiet rubber factory in the middle of Germany, your meals fed workers whose rubber went into tyres that were fitted to trucks that carried people to their deaths,” Meissner says. ” . . . And I didn’t make lunches; I wore a uniform and fought, to the best of my ability.” But Callum shies away from this: “although you could legalistically tease out varying degrees of culpability, I’ve got no taste for it.” Where Meissner says ruefully that only the heroes — the conscientious objectors — emerged from the war unscathed, Callum concludes that “World history impinges more on some lives than others. Because I was born in the 1980s and not the 1920s, the worst my times have done to me is lose me my first job, in the 2008 financial crisis; they’ve never sent me to Russia to dig holes and kill people.”

As I read this novel I frequently thought of my grandfather, an American soldier who was captured and spent about a year and a half in a German prison camp. What if Grandpa had met Meissner in the 1940s? Each might have tried to kill the other. What makes the German soldier in this book different from my grandfather, of course, is that he fought for Hitler’s Germany while Grandpa fought for Roosevelt’s United States. Meissner notes that even during the war he realized he would someday have to account for his complicity, and yet he remained in uniform, doing his duty. And he comforts himself with the small atrocities, perpetrated by the Russian army, that he was able to prevent. He wasn’t a hero, but he wasn’t a sadist. He fell in love, he raised a family, he adored his wife. Isn’t that enough? he asks. “How can I be an evil man?”

It’s a complicated question, more complicated than we usually pretend. If we hold Meissner responsible for Hitler’s actions, must we also hold American soldiers — both of my grandfathers — responsible for the internment of the Japanese, the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? (But the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved lives by ending the war, I hear you protesting. If Hitler had won, how would we be explaining away the Holocaust?) Can we say that one side’s hands are dirty and the other side’s hands are clean, just because one side was unquestionably worse? If the United States had been gassing millions of people, how can we be so sure that our ancestors would have resisted? Is it fair to judge Meissner’s performance on a test that neither we nor our grandfathers ever had to pass? After all, world history has brought to our generation a pandemic, an authoritarian American president, and desperate refugees, and our response to these things has not covered us in glory.

I feel that I should condemn Meissner, who helped prop up Hitler’s regime. But I find it hard to do so without condemning the whole world. “I just hope that my grandparents’ world wasn’t razed to the ground,” Callum concludes, “but ploughed under, like clover is to enrich the soil.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I am not optimistic. If history teaches us anything, it is that humanity does not learn. 

Greece Reading List: The War That Killed Achilles

Book number two in my Greek history reading list! The first book was Thomas Martin’s Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, which was both a good overview and a tiny bit frustrating when I got interested in the Peloponnesian War and Martin was ready to move on before I was.

After briefly touching on about a dozen different topics with my first read, I was excited to dig into a specific topic. Caroline Alexander’s The War That Killed Achilles was a reread for me; I finished it almost exactly ten years to the day after the first time I picked it up. I had remembered it being more about the war itself and less about the Iliad (I was partly led astray by the subtitle, “The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War”). Still, I appreciated this book more this time around, even though it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. There’s an argument to be made I really should have read In Search of the Trojan War instead of this one, because it seems to be more about archaeology and history whereas this book is very focused on the Iliad. But the Iliad is so worth reading about! Since the first time I picked this book, I have read The Song of Achilles, a brilliant novelistic take on this story, and having that in the back of my mind really enriched Caroline Alexander’s commentary here.

Alexander isn’t interested in writing about the ruins of ancient Troy or the historical roots of the myths around the Trojan War. What she wants to write about is War with a capital W, and how the themes of an epic poem about ancient war still resonate. In some ways, Homer’s work even anticipates the spectacle of modern warfare. This passage reminded me forcibly of sitting in my office with coworkers in 2003, watching a video of bombs being dropped on Iraq:

Yet, as the Iliad makes clear, notwithstanding the attractions of their abode above the clouds, the gods cannot tear themselves from the world of men. This is not only because mortals provide the savory savory burnt offerings and sacrifice they find so gratifying but because the lives and deeds of men are objects of endless fascination to them. The war at Troy provides the gods with excitement and stimulation. Seemingly, they cannot get their fill of watching it, arguing about it, and participating in it; the Trojan War is the best show playing.

The War That Killed Achilles is uneven; sometimes I wished for a clearer thesis or a bit more of a narrative flow. Sometimes it felt as though Alexander had forgotten that her readers did not know the plot events and characters of the Iliad as well as she did. One chapter is devoted entirely to Alexander’s own translation of a scene from the Iliad, which felt jarring and a little self-indulgent. But overall this is a moving and thoughtful discussion of the themes of the epic, and Alexander makes her case that the work is not simply a celebration of valor in glorious battle. “The Iliad . . . never betrays its subject, which is war,” Alexander writes. “Honoring the nobility of a soldier’s sacrifice and courage, Homer nonetheless determinedly concludes his epic with a sequence of funerals, inconsolable lamentation, and shattered lives. War makes stark the tragedy of mortality. A hero will have no recompense for death, although he may win glory.”

Henry III and Simon de Montfort

I’ve read two biographies by Darren Baker recently and it pains me to report that I am not a fan. What I was looking for was a couple of approachable books about Henry III and Simon de Montfort, who both sounded like compelling subjects. Having found this pair by Baker, which were described as engaging and which seemed to have a very clear thesis and point-of-view, I thought I’d hit the jackpot.

Alas. There are two issues here, I think, and they are present in both books. First, although Baker’s writing is certainly not academic, it is also not clear. Granted, he was not assisted in his task by thirteenth-century parents, who seemed to delight in naming their children Edward, Eleanor, Richard, and Henry. But Baker did nothing to clearly differentiate between all of the Edwards and Eleanors and so I was forever flipping back to remind myself of whom he was writing at any given moment. This is just a symptom of the larger issue: Baker struggles to give the reader context for anything that happens, and so the reader struggles to understand why, for example, Henry III is suddenly being held captive in his own tower.

Secondly, Baker has an odd fixation with the idea that Henry III was a great king. Look, you guys, I am not claiming to be an expert on the medieval British monarchy but I have now read two books by Baker that make this argument and I am not at all convinced. I’ll grant you that Henry was pious and a lover of the arts, and that he seems to have been relatively generous and charitable. Still, if I were to use two words to describe Henry III, “hot mess” would leap to mind long before “great king.”

I have often said that if George W. Bush had just been allowed to become a baseball commissioner, he would have led a happier if relatively more obscure life and spared the country an absolute disaster of a presidency. Henry III was much the same case. He was born to be an artist. If only fate had not intervened and made him king at the age of nine, he might have been a happier man, and England might have been the better for it. Unfortunately, though, he came to the throne at a young age, his mother abandoned him soon thereafter, and he was subsequently raised by courtiers to believe that he was born to rule. And so he seems to have grown up to be a spoiled and entitled adult, constantly running out of money, rarely thinking through his actions, and often making decisions out of fits of pique instead of any kind of strategy or principle.

(To give Henry his due, he loved Westminster Abbey and his attention to it is much of the reason that it is as beautiful and well-kept as it is today, and I sincerely respect that because it is one of the most glorious buildings I have ever set foot in.)

As for Simon de Montfort, I never got a good sense of him because Baker — even when ostensibly writing a biography of Simon de Montfort — is far less interested in him as a person, and never makes an effort to look at him without applying the prism of Henry III’s perspective. I often had the feeling that Baker was repurposing his Henry material into a second book.

So this brace of books was disappointing. After getting a very good grounding in Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children, I don’t feel that I’ve learned a huge amount about this period. Which is a shame, because the rise of Parliament and the captive monarchy seem both interesting and significant.

I was tempted to find another biography of Henry III — I did, after all, read four books about Alfred the Great all in a row — but as it turns out I do not have the same investigative zeal for Henry and Simon. For now, I am moving on to Edward I, but I’m prepared to backtrack once David Carpenter’s two volumes on Henry III are complete.