What I Read This Week

So many biographies read as if they were written by the subject’s defense attorney. Frederick Crews’s Freud: The Making of an Illusion feels like it was written by a prosecutor. Everything Freud did is pulled apart, every inconsistency noted, every sin meticulously documented. I wasn’t a quarter of the way through the book before I started to feel a little sorry for Freud, and by the halfway point I was actively constructing a defense strategy in my head. This is not my usual reaction to criticisms of Sigmund Freud!

Look, Crews is probably right about a lot of what he says. I am not an expert on Freud, but the research certainly seems solid. I do not find it difficult to believe that he fudged data, that he exploited his subjects, that he used lots and lots (and lots) of cocaine, that he had an affair with his wife’s sister. But without any counterbalance at all, with no sense of what Freud was like as a human being, it just reads like a brief for the prosecution, and 700 pages is a very long brief indeed.

By contrast Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth exudes empathy to spare. What struck me the most about this book is that Smarsh seems to have a bottomless well of compassion for her flawed family; her upbringing was messy and unstable and I would not begrudge her some bitterness but none is apparent. Instead, she calmly points out the socioeconomic factors that combined to complicate her parents’ lives:

To be made invisible as a class is an invalidation. With invalidation comes shame. A shame that deep–being poor in a place full of narratives about middle and upper classes–can make you feel like what you are is a failure.

No one around me articulated these things, let alone complained about them. The worker who feels her poor circumstances result from some personal failure is less likely to protest, strike, or demand a raise. Further, the Midwestern Catholic ethos that surrounded me as a child defaulted to silence. Our sense that our struggles were our own fault, our acceptance of the way things were, helped keep American industry humming to the benefit of the wealthy.

Smarsh is right, of course, but I sometimes wondered if her clinical analysis of the invisible forces shaping her parents’ lives masked a more personal sense of betrayal. Can all this intellectual and emotional distance be the real story? She doesn’t owe anyone an explanation of her feelings; she is entitled to keep her emotional life as private as she wants, but I could not help but muse about whether she had really discarded all that childhood baggage.

Smarsh uses a framing device in this memoir that seems to be somewhat polarizing, based on my perusal of the GoodReads reviews: she frames it as a letter to an unborn child, a child whom, she concedes late in the book, will never be born (not because she will never have children but because she will never have that particular child). This grates on a lot of people, and it did grate on me at first, but by the end of the book I had entirely come around on it.

Finally, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is the best novel I’ve read in a while. I did not expect that! I’ve only read one other book by Shamsie, A God in Every Stone, which I found dull and forgettable. But I was determined to give Home Fire a shot because it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I am glad that I did. It’s an utterly beautiful novel, consistently captivating, and it held my attention until the very last page.

Home Fire is a very modern story: the story of three Pakistani siblings living in London. One joins an extremist group (think ISIS), one tells the authorities, one can’t forgive her sister for betraying her brother. Nothing could be more current; it felt ripped from the headlines, especially since I was reading and writing about Hoda Muthana at the time. But Shamsie bases her story on the plot of Antigone, a play written in 441 B.C. To me this was a powerful reminder of why fiction matters: a work more than two thousand years old can still feel relevant, can still have something to say so long after its author has turned to dust.

What I Read This Week

I expected that Adrian Tinniswood’s Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household would be about royal servants. Alas, it mostly was not, no doubt in part because those who serve the British royals have been, ah, strongly discouraged from spilling what they know. Witness–for example–the sad tale of Marion Crawford, the governess to the future Queen of England and her sister, whose multiple memoirs–it will not surprise you to learn that Princess Margaret was a biter–caused her to be cut off from her former charges without so much as an annual Christmas card or even a wreath at her funeral.

But I already knew about what had happened to Crawfie, just as I already knew about Lady Flora Hastings (Queen Victoria accused her of being pregnant out of wedlock, when in fact she was suffering from cancer) and Sarah Churchill (a childhood playmate of Queen Anne who lost her position, for reasons that are minutely detailed in The Favourite). In short, I would have enjoyed Behind the Throne much more if I hadn’t already consumed so much media about the British Royal Family. As it was it served only as a mildly entertaining diversion.

Elmet, by Fiona Mozley, made quite a splash when it was published a couple of years ago, making both the Women’s Prize longlist and the Booker Prize shortlist. It’s a novel about class and poverty and family with a gothicky vibe: it is set in Yorkshire, but it reminded me forcibly of the Ozarks, where I grew up. Some have taken issue with Elmet‘s depiction of child abuse but for me the dark-fairy-tale quality kept it from being misery porn in the way that, say, A Little Life was.

The writing is beautiful and if I had had a less stressful week I might have fallen in love with this novel. As it was I struggled to focus and I only liked it. But I so felt Cathy when I read this:

I told her that I was hardly ever angry and then she told me again that she felt angry all the time.
She told me that sometimes she felt like she was breaking apart. She told me that sometimes it was as if she was standing with two feet on the ground but at the very same time part of her was running headlong into a roaring fire.

Cathy, of course, is talking about something specific in that passage but it did make me think of all the news stories about the anger of women in the past few years. I have different problems than Cathy does but boy do I feel like I am running headlong into a roaring fire some days.

I found myself very frustrated by Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. Horne’s argument is that the primary motivation of the American Revolution was not a desire for political freedom but the colonists’ desire to preserve slavery. The thesis is so provocative and intriguing, the research is so impressive. But the presentation of the argument is strident and one-sided, to the point that it becomes difficult to take Horne’s argument wholly seriously. He makes so many good points! Yes, large sectors of the American economy at the time did rely upon slavery. Yes, the British government was pursuing abolition throughout its empire. And Horne is right to draw attention to the way colonists rhetorically compared themselves to slaves when they argued for rebellion in the years before 1776. But on the other hand Horne doesn’t seem to grasp the nuances of British history — I took issue with his account of the Jacobite rebellions, for example — and he gives short shrift to facts that do not serve his thesis.

But Horne’s thesis — poorly presented though it may be — remains a genuine contribution to the way we think about the Revolutionary War. If you’re only going to read one book about the causes of the American Revolution, this should not be the one. But read in tandem with a more conventional account (maybe Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution), it would serve as a useful corrective to the rah-rah depictions of the American colonists as devotees of freedom.

Reading Roundup

childrens-crusadeThe Children’s Crusade, Ann Packer — I’ve had a soft spot for Ann Packer ever since The Dive from Clausen’s Pier pulled me out of a horrendous reading slump a few years ago. The Children’s Crusade is a solid read, consistently interesting with compelling characters. (Maybe the mother could have been a shade less self-centered and the father a shade less selfless, but I’m quibbling.) It wasn’t really a standout read for me–I’m not sure how well I’ll remember it in six months–but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Girl at War, Sara Nović (quote) — Set in what was Yugoslavia, just as the civil war breaks out. I was pleasantly surprised by this one — I had expected it to be a sort of issue-of-the-week girl-at-warnovel, but it was much more than that. The writing is elegant, and I found that the protagonist really came to life. Nović resisted the urge to soften some of her main character’s sharp edges, which only made the novel feel more real. Some absolutely devastating scenes, and some beautiful ones.

My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout — Beautiful! The best 2016 book I’ve read so far. It’s a very short novel — only about 200 pages, and many of those pages have only a few lines on them. But every word is well-chosen. I know that a lot of lucy-bartonreaders disliked the brief chapters and the lightly-sketched incidents, but to me the vignettes gave the novel the effect of a verbal mosaic, and at the end I thought the portrait drawn of Lucy Barton was nearly perfect. It is similar to the way that Strout built the character of Olive Kitteridge in her eponymous novel, except that Olive Kitteridge is made up of short stories rather than paragraphs. (I can see similarities to Rachel Cusk’s Outline as well, which I also love.) Highly, highly recommended if this is your sort of thing.

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and greek-fireChemical Warfare in the Ancient World, Adrienne Mayor — I always find Mayor’s thoughts interesting, but she does have a tendency to overinterpret. For example, because Hercules used fire in his mythical battle with the Hydra, “projectile weapons tipped with toxic or combustible substances must have been known very early in Greek history.” Well, maybe. Or maybe the mythmaker had a vivid imagination? Mayor’s interpretation is plausible, but “must” seems a bit strong to me.

No Fond Return of Love, Barbara Pym — British comfort food. I only wish I’d thought to make myself a pot of tea before I no-fond-return-of-loveread it. It’s my first Barbara Pym, and I will definitely check out more of her work. I do think that the comparisons to Jane Austen on the back cover of my edition were a bit overblown. What it reminded me of more than anything was early P. D. James, except without the murders. (That is a high compliment. I think P. D. James is hugely underrated as a writer.)

The Royal Experiment: The Private Life of George III, Janice Hadlow — More Brits, these of the royal variety. This is a biography of George III, with special attention to his family life. In other words, it is exactly the kind of thing that I eat up royal-experimentwith a spoon. George III was a better father than most of his ancestors, which was a low bar to clear. Interestingly, rather than being a negligent, distracted parent, which one might expect–after all, he was the King of England–he was in many ways the original helicopter parent, so devoted to his daughters that he couldn’t bear for them to marry for decades after they came of age. I found it a fascinating book, if a bit long.

river-whiskeyIf the River Was Whiskey, T. C. Boyle — I like short stories and I like T. C. Boyle (although I miss the days when he went by T. Coraghessan Boyle, if only because “Coraghessan” is fun to say). But this collection didn’t quite do it for me. I think in his shorter work Boyle has a tendency to be weird and/or clever just for the sake of being weird and/or clever. I rarely feel a connection to his stories the way I did, for example, to San Miguel. He’s always worth reading, but nothing here excited me.

Reading Roundup

gap-of-timeThe Gap of Time, Jeannette Winterson (quote) — Very moving retelling of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. If I have a complaint, it is that it felt too short. Some of the ideas in the second half of the book didn’t quite have time to breathe. Still highly recommended.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore (review) — Beautifully observed, heart-breaking character study. This one will stick with me for a long time.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro — Oh, Kazuo Ishiguro, how you try my patience! I was the world’s greatest Ishiguro fan for years. Read everything he wrote. Multiple times. Swore I would find his grocery lists interesting. Then came Nocturnes, a collection of five novellas which I have read twice and just cannot enjoy. But everyone is buried-giantentitled to an off day, right? Still, I was nervous enough that I put off reading The Buried Giant for a year. A year. That is a lot for someone with no impulse control. And I am sad to report that my fears were justified: The Buried Giant just didn’t work for me. I found it slow and overwritten. How could the man who gave us The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go produce this? Total disappointment. (Having said that, I might wait a year or two and then give it another go. Sometimes a book is just bad for a particular time in your life, not bad per se. Of course, that is what I said about Nocturnes.)

Saint Mazie, Jami Attenberg — I really enjoyed this book, although for some reason discovering at the very end that Mazie was based on a real person dampened my enthusiasm a saint-maziebit. But I really did enjoy the time I spent in Mazie’s company: she was a charming companion even when she faced heartbreak. Pete Sorenson (the character who, in the novel, finds her diary) says, “I just wanted it to go on and on. I wanted her to live forever.” Me too, Pete.

The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker — I was really excited about this one, despite waiting five years after purchasing it to actually read it. As it turns out, though, I am just not that interested in linguistics. Good to know, I guess. I am pretty sure this is my problem, not Steven Pinker’s — the book is well-written and he does a good job of clearly explaining the technical jargon that inevitably comes up in a book like this.stuff-of-thought And to be fair, the chapters on naming and swearing did hold my attention. (I’ll be scheduling a therapy session to figure out why, exactly, those were the only two topics that caught my interest.)

Also, that is one super-ugly cover.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway — I first read this for my very favorite college class, a history seminar on American expatriates in Paris. It was my introduction to Hemingway, except for a couple of short stories in high school, and I really sun-also-risesloved the way that he wrote. I still do, although I really wrestle with his sexism. I think he writes women terribly, and I don’t think Brett Ashley holds up particularly well. I still think his best book is A Moveable Feast, which purports to be a memoir but is really just about as fictional as any of his novels.

Reading Roundup

The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham (quotereview) — Beautiful and memorable, somewhat marred by a heavy-handed ending.

v-for-vendettaV for Vendetta, Alan Moore — I loved Watchmen when I read it several years ago, but I disliked V for Vendetta. Part of it was the art; it was often so dark I could barely make out what was happening, and even when it wasn’t I found it aggressively ugly to look at. But I also thought the story glorified violence to a degree that made me uncomfortable. Not my cuppa.

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, Anita Anand — I adore reading sophiaabout the British monarchy, India, and the suffragist movement, so I ate this up with a spoon. I’d never heard of Sophia Duleep Singh before; she had a fascinating life and this book was riveting. I especially enjoyed learning more about the British suffragist movement, as I wasn’t nearly as familiar with its history as I am with the history of the American suffragist movement. On that note, one quibble: I really with the author hadn’t insisted on referring to Sophia and her fellow activists as “suffragettes,” as that was a term coined by the opponents of women’s suffrage and used to belittle the movement; I much prefer “suffragist.”

the-friday-gospelsThe Friday Gospels, Jenn Ashworth  — I don’t know when exactly I picked up this odd little book, or who recommended it to me, but I did enjoy it. I always like novels that take religion seriously. I could quibble with some of the plot points — a lot of them, actually — but in this case I preferred to just let go of critical analysis and live in the characters’ world for a while.

Planetfall, Emma Newman– Well-written, character-driven planetfallscience fiction. I enjoyed the first two-third, felt vaguely let down by the final third. But Emma Newman is a writer to watch.

year-in-the-lifeA Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, James Shapiro — provides fascinating historical context for Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. I especially enjoyed the discussion of As You Like It.