Strange Flowers: Style and Substance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nervous System: We Are Made of Star-Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.