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.

Book Review: The Kindest Lie


The most frustrating sort of book is the book that you desperately want to love but simply can’t. Sadly, this is the sort of book that The Kindest Lie was for me. It seemed to have so much going for it: the intersection of the personal and the political; timely themes about race, class, and identity; a protagonist with a secret and ambivalent feelings about her childhood home.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out between me and this book, and I’m sad about it.

I had two issues: first, the characters never came alive for me; and second, the author did not trust the reader and this grated. (Well, two-and-a-half issues, because the ending felt unearned but I would have forgiven that if the characters and writing had worked.)

First, the characters. I just never got the feeling that the characters had been deeply imagined. I did not learn anything about them that wasn’t required for the plot. Ruth, the protagonist, makes decisions that make sense for the plot the author has in mind, but don’t add up to a coherent character — especially not one as smart as Ruth is supposed to be. And I defy anyone to read this novel and explain the marriage of I found myself applying a version of the Julie Taylor test — could I imagine these people’s lives outside the confines of this book? I could not. I experienced these characters the way I experience mannequins in museum dioramas. I found it very difficult to invest emotional energy in stick figures.

Secondly, the lack of trust in the reader. I found this immensely frustrating because every time I started thinking about the deeper issues that the book raised — and these are vital issues that we should all be thinking about! — the author told me exactly what to think. This passage, for example, in which the author essentially highlights a section of her book and writes “IRONY” next to it in all caps:

Ruth had made a vow to never become the girl the world expected her to be, the one who slept around and got pregnant by a guy who walked away. Yet that’s exactly who she had become. Her mother’s daughter. Her greatest motivation to excel in school and become successful had been the driving desire to reverse that fate.

Similarly, near the end of the book the author explains the meaning of Christmas to her readers. No one who has watched and comprehended It’s a Wonderful Life should need this spelled out to her:

She had attached almost every grievance in her life to someone here. But on Christmas, everything came into focus more sharply and she saw them all with new eyes—their flaws and their beauty—and she chose to appreciate them because, in the end, they were family.

These are conclusions the reader should be drawing for herself, and if you as an author read your chapter and worry that the reader won’t get it, the solution is not to write it out in explicit detail (unless, I suppose, you are actually composing a Sunday School lesson).

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. I very much wanted to like this book. The questions that the author wants to ask are interesting and important. But these flaws are, for me, fatal to a work of fiction. If the themes of the novel — questions about Blackness in America specifically, and questions of identity generally — are what draw you to this book I think you are better served by the novels of Yaa Gyasi and Brit Bennett.

On Blake Bailey and Philip Roth

One morning in April, I was a quarter of the way through the new Philip Roth biography, contemplating Blake Bailey’s take on Roth’s first marriage. I had been a huge fan of Bailey’s work for years — I’d read all his previous biographies, I’d read Richard Yates’s novels largely because he had been Bailey’s subject, and I’d long believed that that Bailey’s life of John Cheever was one of the four or five best biographies I’d ever read. But the Roth book was beginning to unsettle me. As best I can tell, neither Roth nor his first wife covered themselves in glory during this marriage. Still, I was beginning to be a little annoyed that Bailey seemed to not quite understand how unkind and self-centered Roth’s behavior toward his wife was. He seemed much more forgiving of Roth’s excesses than his wife’s. The perils of an authorized biography, I thought. But I was beginning to actively dread the Claire Bloom section.

Then–that very morning–this news broke. Credible accusations against Blake Bailey — that he’d groomed his middle-school students, that he’d harassed and assaulted them when they were older, that he’d raped two women. I felt sick. But the news explained so much! More than that, it cast an entirely different light on Bailey’s depiction of Roth’s first wife, and it made me question the portrayal of all the other women in all the other biographies. I found myself in the perverse position of wishing to reread and reevaluate all of Bailey’s books, and yet also not wanting to read another word by him.

I’ve seen some people argue that Bailey’s sins have nothing to do with the book he wrote. A stranger posted a grumpy Oscar Wilde quote on my GoodReads commentary on Roth and Bailey: “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” That may be true as far as it goes, but when you are looking for someone to offer an analysis of an author’s life — and especially when that author has had, let’s say, contentious relationships with women — surely his own attitudes toward women are relevant. How can you look at the very plausible accusations against Bailey, and think, yeah, this is the guy I want to declare that Philip Roth is not misogynistic? How can you trust Bailey when he assures you that Roth’s first wife was an unreasonable shrew?

W. W. Norton dropped the Roth book within days of the accusations. But Bailey’s found a new publisher: Skyhorse Publishing, the house that has also brought you the memoirs of Woody Allen and Roger Stone. One wonders what Bailey thinks of being among such illustrious company–certainly being published by Skyhorse won’t do much to burnish Bailey’s destroyed reputation among the literary elite; all hope of a Pulitzer seems to be gone, and it’s unclear whether Bailey will ever again have the opportunity to write another of his magisterial biographies.

For myself, I haven’t read a word of the Roth bio since that morning in April. But I think it should be read, though not right now, and perhaps I will even finish it myself one day. Roth was, despite his many faults, an important writer of the twentieth century, and Bailey did have access to sources that no one may ever see again, or at least not for a very long time. Still, Bailey’s take on Roth can never again be thought of as definitive, and in the future it should be read with an eye toward what we are willing to forgive of men we consider geniuses, and how we determine who these geniuses are in the first place. Because it seems to be the case that the gatekeepers who anoint our brilliant writers are often themselves men who treat women very badly indeed. It is just possible that this clouds their judgment when they come to consider misogynists who happen to construct sentences well.

Book Review: Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

Cover of Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

I’ve always had a bias toward secondary sources. I’m not proud of this. But something in me seeks the highlights, looks for someone to explain a text to me instead of puzzling it out myself. So when my husband and I sat down to plan to vacation in Greece this September, to celebrate both the end (ish) of the pandemic and our newly empty nest, I immediately sat down and composed a twenty-two-book reading list because of course I did. And I left off Homer and Sophocles and Aristotle because. Because I don’t have time. Because how good are the translations anyway? Because will I even understand it without a good teacher? Because do I even have a good idea of what I should read? Because I have four months and I just need a survey of the main points.

I chose Thomas R. Martin’s Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times to get a quick overview of the history of ancient Greece, because I haven’t really studied it since I took  Search (a two-year-long survey of western civilization at Rhodes College) in 1990. And if an overview is what you’re looking for, this is the book for you.

The sheer sweep of this book can be sobering. America’s piffling 240-odd-year history looks paltry indeed, set against Greece’s history, which begins before people were bothering to write things down and is still going on these several thousand years later. This 283-page book covers roughly four thousand years, give or take, although it really zeroes in on the Archaic and Classical Ages (750 to 323 BCE).

Martin surveys the major highlights of ancient Greek history as well as a few biographical sketches and a few paragraphs on major philosophers and playwrights. Reading this book can be an exercise in frustration at times, because you get interested in something (the Peloponnesian War was much more interesting then I remembered it being, and Alcibiades was a hot mess, y’all) and then Martin briskly moves on after a page or two.

Martin does a great job of pointing the reader toward additional resources. He especially encourages us to read primary sources: Plato! Aristotle! Herodotus! Thucydides! But as I said above, my brain immediately goes to the books that will explain the primary sources to me instead of the sources themselves. (In a passage apparently directed specifically to me, Martin scolds, “The best way to learn about ancient Greek history and form one’s own judgments is to study the ancient evidence first and then follow up on particular topics by consulting specialized works of modern scholarship.”) But I’m probably not going to read the works of Plato before September, nor will I most likely get around to the Greek playwrights. I feel bad about that. I did not appreciate Plato’s Republic or Oedipus Rex when I read them in college, and now that I have the right perspective for them I don’t have the mental energy to apply to them. At least that is what I tell myself.

But how amazing it is that scraps of philosophy and history and plays have survived thousands of years so that Socrates and Aeschylus and Euripides can continue to talk to us. What a miracle that we can still find so much of what they say relevant! Or maybe it is just proof that human beings never change, not really — over dozens of centuries we just keep making the same mistakes, or at least the same choices, over and over again.

Rethinking Clarence Thomas

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas
When I think of Clarence Thomas my first thought is not of the man himself but of Anita Hill. I vividly remember sitting in my dorm room between classes, watching her testimony, quivering with outrage. Even before Hill came forward, I had thought that Thomas should not be confirmed, given the American Bar Association’s tepid recommendation; after she came forward, I was exasperated by the way the overwhelmingly male Senate handled the allegations. When Thomas was confirmed, I bemoaned the Supreme Court’s fate to my friends. “He’s going to be on the Court forever,” I said. “He’s going to be there when we’re his age.”

Clarence Thomas was 43 then; I am 48 now. Justice Thomas is, as I predicted, still on the court, and I have spent the last twenty-eight years rolling my eyes at him. “He doesn’t even ask questions during hearings,” I say when his name comes up. Or: “His wife is terrible. Imagine if Michelle Obama hired an aide who had written ‘I hate whites.’” Or, before Antonin Scalia’s death: “He just repeats whatever Justice Scalia says.” I was quite sure where I stood on Clarence Thomas, and I saw no reason to reconsider my opinion, until I read Corey Robin’s The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.

Let me be clear: I still don’t think he should have been confirmed, and I am still mad about Anita Hill. I still think he’s been a participant in some of the most pernicious decisions the Supreme Court has ever made. And yet. I do not agree with every word of this book, but it is an illuminating and path-breaking book that should be read by everyone with an interest in the Supreme Court — even, and perhaps especially, by liberals. This is a short book with a lot to say, and it is worth a careful read. Corey Robin’s thesis is that Clarence Thomas’s jurisprudence is fundamentally misunderstood and (here’s the provocative part) rooted in large part in Thomas’s commitment to black nationalism. He makes it clear at the outset that he doesn’t agree with Thomas’s legal philosophy, but he is writing an analysis, not a takedown.1

Robin’s distinction between Thomas’s skepticism of political–i.e., voting–rights and his embrace of economic rights is compelling and insightful: Thomas believes that African Americans will always be hopelessly outnumbered in the political realm, but they can make money in a (by Thomas’s lights) neutral market and use that money to wield government influence. Thomas, in other words, is leaning in on Citizens United. “If the currency of politics is money,” Robin writes, “if the primary movers of politics are men of means, what better argument could there be for African Americans of few means to withdraw from politics? Why not concentrate instead, at least for the time being, on accumulating wealth in the market? That way, African Americans might return to politics one day, only this time as men of money rather than as a movement of masses.”

Thomas focuses not on the rights of black defendants, Robin argues, but on the rights of the black community to be protected from criminals of all races.2 Thomas’s position is that the black community, in the main, suffers less from overpolicing than from neglect by the police. Robin identifies the inherent contradiction between Thomas’s limits on state power in, say, second amendment decisions while simultaneously championing harsh policing at the expense of individual rights. Again, Robin argues, this strand of Thomas’s thought goes back to his belief in personal economic empowerment as a long-term racial strategy: Thomas’s jurisprudence “empowers the policing and punishing elements of the state. But that is only a means to an end. The utopian vision that Thomas sees beyond the carceral state is the creation of a new generation of black patriarchs–terrifying enough to make their children cry and thereby to teach them how to survive another chapter in America’s long history of white supremacy.” But it’s hard to read this chapter without thinking of the many people of color who have died at the hands of police even when they have not been convicted of any crimes, but this isn’t addressed and I’m not aware of any comment Thomas has made specifically about, for example, Black Lives Matter. To my mind, this was the weakest part of the book, and I don’t think Robin sufficiently answers the question of how someone motivated by black nationalism could be so quiescent in the face of racially disproportionate policing practices.

Robin’s argument that Thomas’s decisions are motivated in large part by black nationalism and a deep-seated belief that racism is a permanent feature of American society is often convincing and always interesting. At times I felt he was stretching to make a point, or working too hard to make Thomas’s worldview seem consistent. And, frustratingly, Robin does not discuss Thomas’s decades-long second marriage to a white woman with a bent for right-wing conservative activism; she barely merits a mention. How does Thomas reconcile his belief in inherent white racism with his marriage to a white woman? How has Virginia Thomas influenced his views? There’s got to be a story there — it’s hard to believe that Thomas has completely compartmentalized his work from his home life, given his wife’s abiding interest in politics. And yet there’s no hint of it in Robin’s book. To me this felt like a missed opportunity. Anita Hill gets slightly more attention — Robin points out that (a) journalism since the infamous hearings has established the truth of Hill’s accusations but also (b) Thomas himself sincerely believed in his own innocence. But I would have loved a chapter about Thomas’s approach to cases that involve sex discrimination, and how that might intersect both with Robin’s theories about his approach to racism and with Thomas’s response to Hill’s allegations.

Still, Robin has done good work here. Perhaps because of Thomas’s rocky start to his Supreme Court tenure, liberals have a tendency to write him off as a Scalia clone, someone who functions as a reliable conservative vote without having much of interest to say himself.3 Robin has made the case, I think, that Thomas grounds his opinions differently than other conservative justices do, even if they ultimately arrive at the same result. At a minimum, a good-faith liberal reader would be hard-pressed to walk away from this book without taking Thomas’s philosophy seriously and considering the challenges it poses to progressive thought. “We may wonder whether we’re not trapped in the same historical moment as he, making sense of the same defeats of the last century in not dissimilar ways,” Robin writes. ” . . . And then we may come to a realization: that the task at hand is not to retrace and rebut his moves from premise to conclusion, but to go back and start again with different premises.”


 

1 From my point of view, the book treated Thomas very fairly and engaged earnestly with his ideas; I would love to have a conversation with a conservative reader to learn whether they felt the same way. Did Robin do a good job presenting Thomas’s thinking or did he put his thumb on the scale?

2 For a different spin on a similar argument, see James Forman Jr.’s excellent Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

3 Robin points out that conservatives often made the same sorts of criticisms of Thurgood Marshall–and so one has to wonder if the tendency to dismiss Thomas is an objective assessment or the product of unconscious bias.

The 2019 Books that I Loved

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2019 could have been written by Gary Shteyngart. The president tried to buy Greenland this year. Who could have imagined reading that sentence four years ago? In 2019 the septuagenarian president’s staff photoshopped his head onto the body of a young Sylvester Stallone and then got all huffy when none of us believed it was real. In 2019 an Oscar-nominated actress went to prison for paying someone to sweeten her daughter’s SAT score. 2019 gave us an eight-way tie for first in the National Spelling Bee. Twenty-eight different people decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2019.1 In 2019 Jeffrey Epstein–credibly accused of sex-trafficking minors to a number of high-profile men–died while in police custody, spawning a thousand different conspiracy theories that spanned the entire political spectrum.2 Britain and Israel both spent most of 2019 trying to sort out who should run the countries and neither of them seem to have come up with a satisfactory answer, although Britain did manage to find time in its busy schedule to yell at its newest duchess–a biracial divorced American–for various imagined transgressions. In 2019 someone inexplicably agreed to marry Stephen Miller.3

And it wasn’t just the news that was weird: in 2019 my personal life was also extremely–well, let’s just say eventful. In April, right before the Game of Thrones premiere, my husband and I were smugly congratulating ourselves on weathering some family medical storms when we got a phone call that sent everything spiraling into chaos all over again.4 And still there was more: If you had told me on January 1 of 2019 that in less than a year I would be living in a different house in a different city with a different job, I would not have believed you. And yet here we are.

And so in 2019 I used reading mostly as an escape: with a couple of exceptions, I responded most strongly to non-fiction that allowed me to imagine a different reality and fiction that held out the prospect of a happy ending or, failing that, that offered me a pleasantly whimsical world to inhabit for a few hours. 2019 was not a year when I went in search of deep character development or narrative realism or emotional truth. In 2019 I wanted to play pretend.

Do not take that to mean that my favorite books of the year offered nothing more than escapism. No, the best books gave me everything: a different world, yes, but also beautiful prose and vividly drawn characters and original thoughts that made me put the book down and stare dreamily into the distance. What these books all have in common is that I’m still thinking about them now, weeks or months after I read them.

The list, in the order that I read the books:

  • Bowlaway, by Elizabeth McCracken. It’s about candlepin bowling, and family, and marriage, and love. Some people didn’t like it because it isn’t super-plotty, but I loved hanging out with McCracken’s characters.
  • L. E. L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”, by Lucasta Miller. If you read Miller’s The Bronte Myth, then you know to expect great things from her latest. I have never been a scandalous woman, to my eternal regret, but this book let me imagine what it might be like to be one.
  • Golden State, by Ben Winters. I have been a Ben Winters fan since his Last Policeman trilogy. In this book he pays as much attention to plot and story as he does to world-building and the result is a captivating thriller in a world where lying is one of the most serious crimes you can commit.
  • City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Look, I get it, Gilbert is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I love her characters and I found this book wildly engaging, a story about a fun, naughty girl who unashamedly loves sex. It reminded me a bit of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet, but to be totally honest, I enjoyed this one more.
  • The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, by Brenda Wineapple. Does impeachment even matter if the president is not removed? In this account of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, Wineapple makes the case that it does. She must have started this book before January 2017, because there’s a lot of research here — but it still made for awfully comforting reading while the debate over the current president’s impeachment swirled.
  • The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. A follow-up to Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Is there a bit too much fan service in this novel? Does Atwood channel Katniss Everdeen to an excessive degree? Yes and yes. I loved it anyway. I liked the way Atwood bounced off the television series, making some plot points canon while refashioning others, and you know what, the hopeful ending may not be realistic but I’ll take it.
  • Sontag: Her Life and Work, by Benjamin Moser. There are few things I love more than big fat literary biographies. This one is smart and insightful and well-written, and will make you–as Jamaica Kincaid says–never want to be great. Sontag was a marvelous writer who was also a toxic parent, friend, and lover, and this book will make you consider, among other things, whether the one was worth the other.
  • Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. OK, this one wasn’t escapism so much. On the other hand I think this is the first time I’ve ever had a best book list with two sequels on it.5 Maybe in 2019 I was trying to travel back in time? At any rate, this is Strout’s follow-up to Olive Kitteridge, a collection of short stories centering on one difficult woman that was my favorite book of 2008. The first book was insightful about love and marriage; this one is insightful about old age, loneliness, and coming to terms with yourself as you approach the end of your life.
  • Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe. This is a pretty amazing account of a murder in 1972 that would only be solved thirty-plus years later. I cared about the victim, and I especially cared about her children, and I even found myself caring for the murderers. Along the way I learned a great deal about the IRA and “The Troubles,” about which I knew virtually nothing before.
  • The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin. I have been angry at Clarence Thomas since I watched his hearings in my dorm room in 1991.6 Now that I have read Robin’s analysis of Thomas’s judicial philosophy, I am not less angry, but I do take Thomas more seriously as a thinker. Robin’s argument is that far from being a faint echo of Antonin Scalia, Thomas has developed his own strain of conservatism grounded in black nationalism. Maybe this is not an uncommon thesis among Supreme Court watchers–I don’t read legal journals so I don’t know–but it was new to me and I found it fascinating. Another book that wasn’t really an escape to a different world, but there’s nothing I like more than a fresh perspective on a subject I thought I’d made up my mind about.

1 Although that may seem like a humorous exaggeration, it is the actual number.
2 I have to be honest, you guys, I think he probably killed himself.
3 This seems like a life mistake on par with marrying Anthony Weiner, but the heart wants what it wants.
4 Pro tip: Never smugly congratulate yourself on weathering a storm! It only tempts the universe.
5 It’s probably also the first time my list has featured three Elizabeths, but I haven’t actually checked.
6 I am also still mad at Joe Biden for the way those hearings were run, but that’s a story for another day.

What I Read This Week

I do not think there is a theme to the books I finished this week. Maybe difficult people? Because certainly all four of these books feature people who are, to varying degrees, prickly and capricious.

My favorite of the bunch is probably Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, which describes how the author–a classics professor–allows his father to audit his seminar on Homer’s Odyssey. The two men also go on an Odyssey-themed cruise, which sounds cool until it ends in disappointment — they don’t make it to Ithaca! — but is ultimately less interesting than the class. In my GoodReads review I said that this book filled me with wistfulness, and it did; I suppose this is appropriate for a book that features the Odyssey so heavily. But how I would love to take a good lit class now — I suspect I would get much more out of it than I did when I was actually an undergrad. I admit, though, that although this memoir made me want to take up the Odyssey again (maybe I’ll learn ancient Greek, I told myself) I have never quite enjoyed epic poetry as much as I probably should.

I also finished up two big fat biographies this week. I can’t remember why I initially decided to read Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, by Joe Hagan; I suppose it got a good review somewhere interesting, but I am not usually a Rolling Stone person and don’t know that much about music so it’s not the kind of thing I ordinarily pick up. This started out as an authorized biography, but it isn’t what I would call a hagiography and I believe Wenner disavowed it before it was published. And it certainly makes Jann Wenner sound like an absolutely repellent person. That is probably unfair, but I do think it is safe to say he and I would get along poorly. The book itself is well-written and researched and all that but I did get awfully tired of hanging out with Wenner.

The second big fat biography, which took me weeks to read, was the Robert Blake book on Benjamin Disraeli, the Victorian novelist/prime minister. I loved this book to bits. Partly because I am a Victorianist at heart, partly because Disraeli himself was such a fascinating person, and partly because Blake is an interesting writer. I found Disraeli’s relationship with his wife, and his proud but ambivalent feelings about his Jewish ancestry to be the most captivating threads in the book; I was also intrigued by his work as a novelist, and I may even pick up Coningsby at some point.

(I will probably never pick up Coningsby any more than I will read the Odyssey in ancient Greek, but I’m letting myself pretend.)

But in the end Blake’s asides were my favorite parts of the book. This quote, for instance, weighs heavily on my mind as we begin the long road to the 2020 presidential election:

This is the eternal cry of the diehard whether of the Right or the Left — that the way to his party’s political salvation is to adhere more rigidly than ever to the very principles on which it has suffered defeat. All leaders hear that cry often before their careers end. Most of them ignore it.

And this one, which feels less ominous, but which seems like an appropriate idea to keep in mind as I dive into The Old Curiosity Shop in April:

To modern minds the Victorians had an almost morbid preoccupation with death — and no one more so than the ruler who gave her name to the era. Yet perhaps the emotionalism, the tears, the locks of hair, the keepsakes, the plumed hearses, crape, black-edged paper and the rest provided a relief which our stiff upper lips and requests for no mourning and no flowers do not quite give. We laugh at Victorian inhibitions about sex. Are we not equally inhibited about death?

(It is illustrative of the current state of the American presidency that the quote about politics feels more ominous than the one about death.)

Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Fated Sky was just a treat. This is the second book in her Lady Astronaut series; the high concept here is that a meteor hits the earth in 1952, accelerating climate change and pushing the United States and other nations to colonize space. And the urgency of the situation means that women and minorities can participate in NASA’s work at the highest levels much more fully than they could in our 1952, although not without some friction.

I liked the first book in the series, The Calculating Stars, a bit more than I liked this one; by necessity, it has more world-building, which is my favorite part of this series. I also felt that The Fated Sky was just a wee bit tokenish, and I questioned whether racism and sexism could really be pushed aside as easily as they sometimes seemed, even in a true international crisis like the one in the book. But it is still a wildly entertaining story with a really engaging main character, and I cannot wait until the third book comes out next year.