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?