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.

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