What I Read This Week

Our Country Friends is a novel by Gary Shteyngart that tackles coronavirus head-on. It’s March 2020, and a racially and culturally diverse set of friends are waiting out the pandemic at a country house. They live there for several months, coming together and breaking apart, sometimes at odds, sometimes enjoying each other’s company, sometimes gritting their teeth and rolling their eyes.

The whole time I was reading this book I kept felt like I was missing something. I don’t mean that I was missing plot points — my attention didn’t really wander and I always knew what was going on — but I felt like there was some big thematic something that was lurking in the background that I wasn’t picking up on. My suspicion is that there are allusions and references to Russian novels that I am not getting because I’ve really only read The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, and those were both a long time ago. (Someone on Litsy suggested that the book is modeled on Uncle Vanya and — maybe? I don’t know, it’s also been a long time since I’ve read Uncle Vany.)

But I didn’t get whatever point of reference there was, so I can report that this book is — fine. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I didn’t really buy that the kid was only eight, but I developed a fondness for Vinod. Maybe someday I’ll see a production of Uncle Vanya and everything will click and I’ll revise my mental rating. Or maybe the discussion during the Tournament of Books will illuminate it for me. Until then, it’s a solid three stars.

Madhouse at the End of the Earth is Julian Sancton’s account of the Belgica, a Belgian ship captained by Adrien de Gerlache, a 28-year-old man determined to achieve glory for his homeland by exploring Antarctica. De Gerlache and his crew — including the famed Roald Amundsen — lose time, encounter various setbacks and in the end are forced to spend almost a year stuck in Antarctic sea ice. Most of them do make it back to Europe eventually, and de Gerlache and some of his crew now have namesake islands and landmasses in Antarctica.

I have always had a thing for books about nineteenth-century seafaring — beginning with Mutiny in the Bounty, which I read approximately one thousand times when I was growing up — and so I enjoyed this account, although conscience compels me to report it isn’t as vibrantly written or as eventful as Hampton Sides’s In the Kingdom of Ice, an account of a North Polar expedition gone horribly wrong. The book is filled with interesting characters; besides Amundsen, there is the ship’s doctor, Frederick Cook, who comes across as proactive and energetic and a little bit full of himself (he would later spend several years in prison for fraud) and de Gerlache himself, who seems hubristic, unwise, and far too young to be in charge of the Belgica. The best adventure books keep you tense and attentive even when you know how they end, and I certainly was holding my breath as the crew attempted to break their ship out of the sea ice.

Alison Weir’s biography of Katherine Swynford, Mistress of the Monarchy, is absolutely delicious if you’re into biographies of medieval noblewomen. Katherine Swynford was the longtime mistress of John of Gaunt, who was Richard II’s uncle and adviser, and Henry IV’s father. Gaunt was a very powerful man in his day, second only to the king, and his affair with Swynford was quite the scandal at the time.

There’s not a great deal of evidence about Swynford’s life: we don’t have letters or papers or a will or personal possessions or even any recorded words. Given all of that, Weir does a masterful job of cobbling together a four-hundred-page biography. As usual with Weir, I question some of her conclusions. I think she has a tendency to interpret evidence in the way that will make her happiest. In the case of Swynford and Gaunt, she is very invested in the idea that they were a true love-match. She is also attached to the notion that Gaunt was deeply in love with his first wife and would never have cheated on her. These beliefs affect the way she interprets every scrap of data, and lead her to insist upon “facts” that she can’t possibly establish as firmly as she thinks she can. (At one point, she refers to her belief that Gaunt would not have lied to the pope about his sex life as “watertight” evidence. Personally, I feel that the pope might be one of the first people you would lie to about your sex life.)

So I’m not convinced that Swynford and Gaunt are the great romance that Weir wants them to be. These were two wealthy, ambitious people who seem to have been rational actors. They may have begun their affair out of love (or lust) but once they had children there were plenty of political and financial reasons for them to continue a partnership, romantic or not. That doesn’t make them, or this book, any less fascinating.

What I Read This Week

Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife is one of those books I would never have picked up were it not for the Tournament of Books. Alas, I wish I could say I’m glad I stumbled onto it but in fact this book and I did not get along. It is the story of a scientist, Evelyn Caldwell, whose pathbreaking research into clones has led to awards and acclaim. But her personal life is unhappy — her husband Nathan has left her for another woman. Not just any other woman, but a literal Evelyn clone. And — we learn in the first few chapters — the clone is pregnant, and Nathan is dead.

It’s an intriguing premise, if a bit on the soap operatic side. But I could not get invested in this novel, because I never believed in any of the characters. Martine and Seyed and Nathan all behave in ways that advance the plot but don’t make sense. The world-building, too, was puzzling and inconsistent. But what frustrated me most of all were the pains the author took to tell me what to think about Evelyn’s actions. She might as well have put up a neon sign that read “THIS IS A BAD SITUATION.”

In fairness, I do think Gailey nails Evelyn’s voice and personality. She is the only character with much development at all, but Gailey seems to thoroughly understand her. Still, if you want to read a novel about personhood and identity, I would choose Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Klara and the Sun before this one.

The Confession of Copeland Cane, by Keenan Norris, also frustrated me. It is the story of a Black California teenager who is recruited by a prep school. He navigates the social and educational hierarchies of the school while also negotiating aggressive policing, incipient eviction, and ultimately political protests.

The novel is well-written but I’m not sure what it’s bringing to the table that is new. It’s supposedly set in the “very near future,” but it might as well be the present for all I could tell. I liked Copeland well enough, and I like Jacqueline, who provides the frame of the book, but I didn’t feel that I got new insight on structural racism or police states or the failures of the media; I would just as soon reread The New Jim Crow. I don’t want to be too hard on the book; it may be the victim of my dystopia fatigue as I read through the Tournament of Books longlist, which this year features one dark take on modern times after another. I do think Keenan Norris is massively talented.

David Green’s The Hundred Years War: A People’s History was a refreshing distraction from the other books this week. Granted, the story of peasants dealing with the Black Death and the miseries of war wasn’t exactly uplifting, but it was a bit of a relief to be reminded that pandemics and political turmoil aren’t confined to twenty-first century America. Each chapter in this history takes up a different topic — ranging from peasants to kings to women to prisoners of war — and describes how the subject was impacted by the Hundred Years’ War. The book is filled with interesting facts and people. Some were new to me: for example, my heart really went out to Charles of Orleans, who spent twenty-five years as a political prisoner. Others I had heard of but only half-remembered. I feel certain I read some of Christine de Pizan’s work in college but I now really want to learn more about her.

For this most part, I found this book riveting and informative, in particular the final chapter on the national identities that were forged in the crucible of the war. Green does have a slightly annoying habit of repeating his main points several times throughout a chapter — well-connected prisoners could be used as political bargaining chips, who knew? — but this is a forgivable flaw in a book that made me reflect on the roots of historical change, and served to remind me that humanity has survived the likes of the Trumpists before, and will no doubt do so again.

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.

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?

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.

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.

 

What I Read This Week

I did not notice until just now that three of the four books I finished this week dealt with race. This was pure serendipity, one of those happy accidents that occurs when you read as much as I do. Of the three, Jane Harris’s Sugar Money seemed the least successful to me: I was hoping for something plotty and complicated, like Harris’s previous novel Gillespie and I. Sugar Money is the story of two brothers sent to Granada, where they were raised, to rescue several dozen slaves. It is a straightforward adventure tale for the most part, given additional weight and emotion by the relationship between the two brothers and by the brutality of slavery. It isn’t a bad book; in particular, I thought the character of Lucien, the younger of the two brothers and the narrator was well-developed and realistic, although sometimes his voice sounded a bit off to me. (Was I influenced by my knowledge that the author is a white woman?) But it wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. That’s probably not fair to Harris, who did not swear out an affidavit guaranteeing me the sort of book I wanted, but I was left unsatisfied.

The New Negro, a biography of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be, if quite a bit longer than anticipated. It was a reading chosen for Black History Month, and then it stretched far into March. On the one hand, I had not heard of Locke before I read this book and I learned a ton about him; on the other, 873 pages of small print is a really long time to spend with someone you’ve never heard of previously, even if you should have. 

Locke, it turns out, was a prominent African-American philosopher who worked in the first half of the twentieth century. He focused on aesthetics and culture and influenced people like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Stewart writes, “Locke’s New Negro advanced a new paradigm — that one was both assimilated and non-assimilated, culturally American, but psychologically Block; and thus, what that meant was that one was thoroughly modern in a complex way.”

Locke was gay and his personal life was messy and unsatisfying — in this he reminded me a bit of Edward Lear’s life as depicted by Jenny Uglow in her recent biography. The two men were very different (although I suspect they might have enjoyed each other’s company) but alike in their frustration that they could not have full personal lives in that era.

Heads of the Colored People, a story collection by Nafissa Thompson-Spires, was another disappointment, albeit a slight one. I  love short stories, but most of these did not quite work for me — I felt that Thompson-Spires was working a little too hard to come up with a twist or a clever ending. The standouts, for me, were “Belles Lettres” (I do love a good epistolary story), “This Todd” (a story about a woman with a very specific romantic type), and the title story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology.”

I wasn’t really crazy about the story “Suicide, Watch,” but it did have a great first paragraph:

Jilly took her head out of the oven mainly because it was hot and the gas did not work independently of the pilot light. Stupid new technology. And preferring her head whole and her new auburn sew-in weave unsinged, and having no chloroform in the house, she conceded that she would not go out like a poet.

There was a lot here that I didn’t love, but I like the author’s somewhat askew perspective on life and I will happily pick up her next book.

Finally, Nicholas Nickleby. I think I have read this immense novel four or five times now. The first time I read it I was so young I was actually worried that Madeline Bray would have to marry Arthur Gride. (Spoiler alert: Edith Wharton would have made her, but Dickens doesn’t.)

I cannot think of a book in all the literasphere that puts me in a better mood than Nicholas Nickleby. It is not by any means Dickens’s best work; it probably isn’t even in the top tier. Madeline Bray, the love interest, barely exists; she may be the least interesting character in all of Dickens’s oeuvre. (Madeline is such a nonentity that I would suspect Dickens of parodying popular romantic tropes, except that’s not really how Dickens rolls.) But on the other hand, for my money Nicholas Nickleby is the funniest of Dickens’s novels, and it certainly has a good heart. I could do without the chapter near the end of the book where Kate and Nicholas congratulate each other on their high-mindedness, but I will never not enjoy Wackford Squeers getting the beating he so richly deserves, and the Mantalinis and the Infant Phenomenon still make me giggle even though I really should be above such things.

 

 

 

 

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.