HamnetMaggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is, to me, the ideal kind of historical fiction. It fills in the gaps of what we know in a reasonably plausible way. It gives us characters who feel of their time but also not so very distant from us. And it tells a story that I cared about. Granted, it doesn’t have the level of scope and detail of, say, a Dorothy Dunnett novel, but I wouldn’t want all my historical fiction to have that same level of scope and detail. This is a story about a family that happened to live in the past, not a sweeping narrative about important people doing significant things.

Although, of course, Hamnet’s father is an important person. But his place as the preeminent playwright in the English language, the William Shakespeare, is hardly relevant to the plot. Until the final moments of the book, his career is mostly what keeps him from his family, not something anyone in the book talks about or cares about much.

The book begins by telling the story of William’s wooing and eventual wedding to Agnes Hathaway (known to history as Anne) in parallel with the story of the plague hitting the young family, specifically, the youngest daughter Judith, twin sister to Hamnet. O’Farrell reminds us in the historical note that opens the novel that Hamnet died at age 11 and that his father wrote Hamlet four years later. So the shape of the plot is already known to us.

But the plot isn’t what is important to the novel, although here, as is so often the case for me lately, I appreciate that O’Farrell does care about story, not just mood and setting. The important thing about the book is seeing that people of the past experienced tragedy in much the same way we do. It is an obvious truth, to be sure, but I think it’s easy to forget when we just look at numbers and names in a history book, even when those names are familiar to us, that the people did not experience these deaths as history. They were personal, just as the many deaths of our own contemporary pandemic this year are not just current events, they are personal tragedies.

The book also shows with great poignance that people manage tragedy differently. For me, these chapters toward the end of the book are what elevated it beyond just very solid historical fiction. The characters, William and Agnes in particular, but also their daughters Susanna and Judith, share the same grief, but they each carry it in their own way, in ways that the others do not or cannot understand fully. Again, tragedy is a personal process. Yet, it can also be shared, must be shared.

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When I read classic novels, I often find myself having to put myself in the mindset of a different time, reminding myself that attitudes commonly understood to be wrong today were less well understood then. In a lot of cases that means deciding to what degree I’m willing to overlook instances of casual racism or sexism or anti-Semitism around the edges of otherwise excellent books. And sometimes, I come across books where the objectionable elements are closer to the heart of the story. That was, to some degree, the case with Love, by Elizabeth von Arnim. But, based on my limited reading of her work at this point, von Arnim is a the kind of writer (also evidenced in The Caravaners) who doesn’t seem interested in telling readers what to think or even necessarily showing her own hand. And I think that helps keep her books from seeming too altogether out of step with the times, even when the characters are having to grapple with the expectations of their era.

Published in 1925, Love is the story of two couples, both with great age differences. In the case of the main couple, Catherine and Christopher, the woman is considerably older. The secondary couple, Virginia and Stephen, involves a younger woman and an older man. You can guess which is more societally acceptable.

To my eye, both couples get off to a shaky start. Christopher falls head over heels in love with Catherine, having seen her from a distance at multiple performances of the opera The Immortal Hour. Gradually, he comes to sit near her, and eventually he follows her home. Frankly, he becomes, at best, a pest, and at worst, a stalker. He means no actual harm, but it’s unsettling. And Catherine is, at first, unsettled by it, in part because of the age difference (she is in her late 40s and he is in his 20s). but also because, having been a widow for 10 years, she seems to have no particular inclination to marry again.

Throughout their relationship, the age gap is an issue. People are confused when they see them together, making wrong assumptions about their relationship. Catherine does not have the energy of a 20-year-old, and Christopher feels hemmed in at times. The love, I think, is sincere, but it is limited. And I think von Arnim wants us to see the ambiguity of their situation. Any sense that their relationship is a scandal is treated as ridiculous (the fact that Virginia and Stephen’s marriage is considered respectable is noted more than once as a reason to accept Catherine and Christopher). But there is reason to wonder whether this particular couple has any hope of being happy together in the long term.

As a 21st-century reader, I found Virginia and Stephen’s relationship far more upsetting than Catherine and Christopher’s possibly too rash and fleeting courtship. Stephen met Virginia when she was just five years old and he was the 34-year-old curate of the parish and He “had his thoughtful eye on her from the beginning” and proposed when she was 18. Catherine was uneasy but gave her consent to the marriage, and the couple did seem very much in love. Today, of course, this would be perceived as a likely case of grooming, and, although I’m not sure von Arnim would characterize the relationship that way, she leaves readers a lot of reasons to be troubled by it. In particular, Virginia seems fully indoctrinated in Stephen and his mother’s way of doing things. When she does speak up in contradiction to either of them, it feels like a great triumph. And I think we’re meant to notice it, even if we also believe that the couple sincerely love each other in some kind of way.

There’s a lot of talk in the book about different forms of love, and I think that, regardless of what characters say about it, the book tells its own story. That love is powerful and pleasing and something to be cherished, but also powerful and pleasing and something to be cautious of. Regardless of how our understandings of love have changed over time, I think that will always be true.

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Lonesome Dove

Larry McMurtry’s 1985 western is beloved by many readers, as we were reminded in the many stories written about his recent death. It had been on my radar to read for many years, and prior to McMurtry’s death, Dorian’s praise for the book put in on my library holds list. And a week’s staycation gave me time to read it. At more than 800 pages, it requires some time, but it also reads pretty quickly, once it gets going.

The novel follows a pair of former Texas rangers, Gus and Coll, as they lead a team of cowboys on a journey to take a massive herd of cattle north from Texas to Montana, where, they’ve been told by a fellow former ranger, they will find a beautiful, untouched country to make a fortune as ranchers. It’s a long journey, fraught with physical peril, but the personal drama is perhaps even more gripping and painful.

It’s tempting to read this as a tribute to the hardy souls who “settled” the American West, but I think McMurtry is up to something far more interesting and ambiguous. For one thing, there is the constant presence of Indians. I had a lot of misgivings about this, particularly because McMurtry does not give any of the Indian characters an inner life, and the only one that gets a name is among the most brutal characters in the book. But, particularly toward the end of the book, the Indian presence is a constant reminder that these lands were already settled, and the white presence there could be seen as both foolhardy and destructive. One group of Indians we meet is devastated by poverty, and there are numerous mentions of the declining numbers of buffalo.

That is, perhaps, me reading into the text what I want to see, but a lot of the story points in the direction of the settling of these supposedly untouched lands being a fool’s quest. Lots of characters don’t want to go, and those who die along the way often have random and meaningless ends. Plus, there’s a lot of talk about whether and why they should keep going — for some, it’s almost a compulsion, and not really a healthy one.

That’s not to say that there isn’t heroism, but the heroism is not about settling land, it’s about people taking care of each other. Maybe that means making a daring rescue, or keeping a friend from falling off his horse when he goes to sleep, or giving some young cowboys some extra cash on their first trip to down. A lot of what I liked about this book was in the ways characters looked out for each other.

And, ultimately, it is the characters the make this book. The novel has a large cast, and although I couldn’t consistently keep all the minor characters straight, that’s only because there were so many of them to remember. Each person is individualized, and most are given inner lives and moments to shine. Given the setting, I was impressed at the variety among the small number of women characters. There are some wonderful comic moments that exist side by side with moments of great agony. The full gamut of feeling. All of which make this a great read.

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The Witch’s Heart

I know very little about Norse mythology. In fact, to an embarrassing degree what I do know comes as much from Marvel movies as anything else. But that gave me enough to know that a witch in a long relationship with Loki would probably have an eventful life.

Angrboda, the witch in question, is the main character of Genevieve Gornichec’s novel inspired by Norse mythology. Angrboda is mentioned in the Norse Eddas and, based on my small amount of reading, Gornichec is building on the little bits of presented available about her as the mate of Loki and mother of monsters.

As the book begins, Angrboda has just come back from the dead at the hands of the Aesir (i.e., Odin and the o,ther gods). She retreats to a cave in the forest where she eventually encounters Loki, who comes and goes, much to the annoyance of Skadi, a huntress who loves Angrboda and takes care of her when her husband will not or cannot. As Angrboda raises her three unusual children, she finds that her connection with Loki and his place as Odin’s blood-brother makes a quiet life, safe from the Aesir, impossible. And then there are the prophetic dreams.

The middle section of the book puts Angrboda in a state of dreamlike wandering, with Ragnarock always on the horizon. The section was perhaps the least easy to enjoy, but, on reflection, it was effective at showing the passing of time and the general weirdness of Angrboda’s situation. And there is a lot of weirdness in this book, as is appropriate for a book inspired by Norse myth. This is a story where a guy gives birth to an eight-legged horse and everyone just pretty much shrugs.

Not being familiar with these stories, I had a good time seeing how they unfolded, and I’ve enjoyed looking up some of the characters to see where the author got her inspiration. I’d recommend this book to people who enjoyed Madeline Millar’s Circe and similar retellings of myths. This seemed like a much loopier story to me, but I think that could be because the stories it’s based on were new to me. I’ve heard about Circe enough that the weirdness feels pretty ordinary. Not so here.

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Mexican Gothic

I was recently chatting with a friend about how I was bored with books that are all atmosphere and pretty writing, without much actual story. (This was in relation to a book I gave up on that had the premise of a thriller but mostly involved people going on walks and thinking about things in evocative prose.) So it’s a good time for me to read Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a book that is pretty much exactly what it claims to be.

The book’s main character, Noemí Taboada, is a 1950s socialite who loves parties and flirting but dreams of becoming an anthropologist, even though her father sees little value in giving her that advanced education. But he agrees to do so if she will just go and check in on her cousin Catalina. Catalina has recently (and suddenly) married a man from a wealthy English family that built a house in the Mexican countryside and built a fortune mining silver on the property. Noemí’s father has become worried because Catalina sent a strange letter asking for help. Perhaps Noemí can figure out what’s going on.

From here, we get exactly what you’d expect. A creepy old house, a family with strict rules to follow, a mysterious illness, hints of bigger secrets. It’s all enjoyably creepy. And Moreno-Garcia does a nice job planting all the clues to what is really going on without giving away the whole story too quickly. It’s the kind of thing where when the big revelations start to happen, I would think, “Oh, I knew it had something to do with _____, but I wasn’t sure what.” or “I thought ____ must be behind this, but I didn’t know how.” That, to me, is a sign the author is playing fair without being obvious.

So, on the whole, I found this a pretty fun story. I wasn’t quite sure at the end how some of the history/mythology/magic/whatever really worked, but that could be because I was caught up enough in the suspense of the moment that I was reading quickly and missed a couple of crucial details along the way.

The main thing that kept this from being a great, great book was that I found Noemí kind of a dull heroine. She’s got all the right qualities on paper — spunkiness, intelligence, free-spiritedness, etc. — but it all ended up making her feel rather generic. Her interest in anthropology could have set her apart, but it didn’t really lead anywhere much (when it could have been crucial to the plot). The more interesting characters are from the family Catalina has married into, because they have more internal conflict. And it’s kind of a shame that the white characters are the more intriguing ones. But I suppose in Gothic fiction, the villains are often more exciting.

Anyway, it’s a solid Gothic/sensation novel pastiche. I really like the approach of taking that type of story and bringing it into new settings and cultures. Although I know Mexico has its own literary traditions that are worth delving into and building on, it’s fun to see new takes on the literary forms and traditions that I already know and love.

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X

In this autobiography (as told to Alex Haley), Malcolm X says “My whole life had been a chronology of changes.” Yet, too often, he, like so many historical figures, gets frozen in amber, depicted in a single moment in time, when, in reality, people’s ideas evolve over time, and no one moment is likely to be representative of the whole.

That is certainly true of Malcolm X, and well-captured in his autobiography, which was published in 1965, months after his assassination. He goes from shining shoes in clubs to dealing drugs on the streets to finding Allah in prison. And then he becomes a powerful spokesman for the rights of Black Americans. That part is well known. But I think a lot of people, especially white Americans, don’t realize just how much his views about race also evolved.

So often, Malcolm X is presented as the violent counterpoint to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The latter preached love and unity, while the former preached hate and separation. But most who are familiar with the full story know that when Malcolm X went on pilgrimage to Mecca, he was transformed, almost as thoroughly as he was in his prison conversion to Islam. It’s not that he ceases having sharp words for American whites or being willing to respond to violence with violence. He just recognizes that whites are not, by definition, the devil, and some are indeed willing to support Black people’s fight for their rights.

I realize that all this makes it sound like, as I white lady, I came to like Malcolm X only because he stopped preaching hate toward white people. The truth is, that probably does enter into my feelings about him. But I also liked him all along for his curiosity and discipline and willingness to throw himself into whatever he was doing. The chapter where he starts reading in prison is riveting — he’s so alive with curiosity! His passion makes him seem like an intense person to know, but also someone worth at least knowing about.

But it’s in the latter half of the book, where the beliefs he’s built his life on start to fall apart, that he becomes a truly remarkable person. His crisis of conscience when he realizes that Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, was not the man Malcolm thought he was rings true to anyone who has been disappointed by a once-respected leader. Yet, here again, Malcolm’s curiosity and discipline see him through and take him to Mecca for the Hajj, where he is able to see people of different races interact peacefully and lovingly. And it is his willingness to respond to new information that really impressed me.

In the book, he says:

Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.

What important words!

Haley structured the book so that we experience Malcolm’s evolutions in thinking right along with him. In the chapters where he is committed to Elijah Muhammed, we read only words of respect and admiration, with only the slightest hints that it won’t last. In the epilogue, Haley explains that he had to convince Malcolm that this was the right approach, and I think it was. It allows us to see how thoroughly he was changed when we’re right there with him.

Yes, he continued having sharp words about America and the systemic racism that endures in our country, but time has shown how much he got right. He even condemns the use of the term “reverse racism” at one point. I had no idea that phrase had been in existence for so long! He also got right how he would, sadly, be remembered by too many:

He [the white man] will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of “hatred” — and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race.

Posted in Biography, Nonfiction | 10 Comments

The Kindest Lie

This debut novel by Nancy Johnson is a thoughtful exploration of issues related to race and class in the early Obama years, but it’s also pretty frustrating and ultimately not especially rewarding. 

The book’s main character, Ruth Tuttle, is a Black woman who left her small Indiana town to attend Yale and eventually became a successful engineer (although she’s currently questioning whether she’ll ever advance as much as she deserves). She and her husband are talking about having a baby when Ruth realizes she can no longer ignore a secret she’s kept for years — that she had a child while still in high school and that the baby boy was adopted. Ruth returns to her hometown to see what she can learn about her son’s fate.

Meanwhile, an 11-year-old white boy who goes by Midnight is trying to understand his own future. His father has lost his job, so Midnight lives with his grandmother, but there’s talk of a move to Louisiana. It all has left Midnight bewildered and confused.

The book mostly focuses on Ruth, with occasional chapters showing Midnight’s perspective. These Midnight chapters tended to put the brakes on the narrative because, as intrigued as I was by the idea of presenting a poor white kid’s perspective on the economic downtown, the connection to Ruth’s story seemed weak. But by the time the connection became more clear, I was frustrated with Ruth’s storyline as well.

Ruth herself seemed unrealistically obtuse a lot of the time. Her desire to learn what happened to her son was completely understandable, but she never once seemed to imagine the next steps and focused only on what it would mean for her. It felt like this drive was more necessary for the story than any realistic motivation. 

And that was the case for a lot of the characters’ motivations in the end. The book started out seeming like an interesting exploration of choices and regret and family and community pressures (reminding me a bit of Britt Bennett’s The Mothers), but it ultimately seemed constructed to create conversation rather than to tell a story, with the characters and plot points there to check certain issue-related boxes rather than to be actual living breathing people.

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The Department of Historical Corrections

The first story in this collection by Danielle Evans begins:

When Lyssa was seven, her mother took her to see the movie where the mermaid wants legs, and when it ended Lyssa shook her head and squinted at the prince and said, Why would she leave her family for that? which for years contributed to the prevailing belief that she was sentimental or softhearted, when in fact she just knew a bad trade when she saw one.

I mean … that’s pretty great, right? This story, “Happily Ever After,” was, in the end, one of the less memorable stories in the collection, but being a lesser story in a collection like this not much of a criticism. The five stories and one novella all involve characters trying to navigate how their self-perception does and does not match up against the way others perceive them or, indeed, how they actually live. So there’s a story about a college student being excoriated for a wearing a Confederate flag bikini when a photo of it is posted on Instagram, an artist making a project out of apologizing to all the women he’s wronged, and a photographer who feels out of place at a friend’s wedding because she suspects the bride is jealous of her friendship with the groom. Often, the situation at the center of the story draws the main character into their memories, of a disabled sister or a lost friendship, perhaps, something that didn’t turn out the way that wanted or a loss that informs how they see the world today.

These stories are rich in their explorations of the many layers of people’s lives. And they’re rich in memorable moments and images. Two women photographed going down a waterslide, a woman left with a baby on a bus, and the image that the narrator in the title novella had to close her eyes and merely listen to.

Probably my favorite story was “Anything Could Disappear,” about a young woman on a bus to New York who gets left with an abandoned baby who has no identifying information. Somehow, watching her cobble together an impossible life with some success filled me with hope, as did the story’s conclusion, when she realized how impossible that life was.

And, of course, there’s the final novella, which makes up about half the book. The main character in the novella works for a government agency tasked with correcting incorrect historical information as they find it, usually by telling a more complete version of the story that includes the more racist aspects of history that many don’t want to look at. The work is, naturally, controversial, and not all of the agency employees agree on how to go about it. In fact, much of the story centers on a conflict between the narrator and a childhood friend with very different attitudes toward the work. Both of them are Black women, and their professional differences are rooted in different (and evolving) ideas about how to live in the world as a Black woman. And the ending …

A lot happens in these stories, but they are, at heart, character studies. They’ve beautifully crafted, with care for who these people are, whether they are at their best or at their worst, likable or not. They’re great.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 4 Comments

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

In 1972, Jean McConville, a Catholic mother of 10 in Belfast, was taken from her home, in front of her kids, and never seen again. This being Belfast in the 70s, her disappearance was assumed to be related to the Troubles. She was at the time rumored to have informed on the IRA to British authorities, and that was pretty much the worst thing a person could do. And, given those circumstances, no one would share what they knew.

This book is not so much about McConville’s murder as it is about the circumstances and political landscape that allowed such as murder to happen and remain unsolved for decades. Author Patrick Radden Keefe describes how the Irish Republican Army (most specifically the Provos) operated in Northern Ireland, as they sought reunification with the Republic of Ireland and the end of British rule. It is a complicated history, much of which I was not familiar with, but O’Keefe focuses on a handful of principal players, showing how they got involved with the movement and how their participation evolved as time went on.

There is very little about Jean McConville herself in the book. In fact, if the book could be said to focus on a specific person above all others it would be Dolours Price, whose face is on the cover. Dolours and her sister Marian were members of the Provos and part of a 1972 car bomb attack in London, for which she was imprisoned. After a lengthy hunger strike, followed by anorexia, she was granted compassionate release from prison. Another key figure in the book is Gerry Adams, the former leader of the Sinn Féin political party who many claim was an IRA leader. (Keefe seems to take this view, although Adams denies involvement and was not interviewed for the book.)

Much of what the IRA did was shrouded in secrecy. Even long after the Troubles, people who were involved were reluctant to share what they knew. But a group of scholars from Boston College, with the help of historian and former IRA member Anthony McIntyre, collected a series of oral histories. Those interviewed agreed to share only if their stories would remain sealed until their death. For me, this part of the story was especially fascinating. There’s the desire to get a secret off your chest, a desire perhaps to place blame where it belongs, and a desire to avoid retribution (whether social or physical). The Boston College archive seemed like a perfect solution. But, for families like the McConvilles, how could those secrets possibly remain in an archive, especially when those secrets might help them put their mother’s lost body to rest, finally?

I’m sure there’s a lot of subtext and political complications that went over my head, as a reader with little more than a rudimentary knowledge of Irish politics. But this book did fill in some of the gaps in my understanding. And, because Keefe focuses on the experience of people at the heart of the conflict, I could follow the narrative he lays out well enough. There are some mysteries that aren’t entirely solved, some facts that are disputed, and ethical question on top of ethical question. There are some clear moral wrongs in this book (I don’t think there’s any question that Jean McConville’s death was among those clear wrongs), but there are also a lot of grey areas. It seems like a book on this period that doesn’t have grey areas would be getting it wrong.

Posted in Nonfiction | 4 Comments

Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times

My church has been doing a series of book studies over Zoom. Past selections focused on issues of racial justice, but this book by Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, took a wider view, looking at how to be more loving in general. Each chapter poses a question (such as What is love? How do I find the energy to keep loving? Do I have to love even my enemy?) that Bishop Curry then attempts to answer by telling stories from his own life and sharing ideas from scripture as well as other writers and thinkers who’ve addressed the topic. It makes for good discussions because the questions are ones most people have had to grapple with in one way or the other, and the use of personal stories encourages others to share their stories as well.

You can tell from reading this that Bishop Curry is a good preacher because he combines personal anecdotes, the Bible, and other texts just in the way that my favorite preachers tend to do. He makes clear that these questions, while they seem to have simple answers, are not so easy to live out. He talks about his own efforts to live a life of love when he because the first Black Episcopal bishop of North Carolina, navigated the disputes over gay marriage within the Episcopal church, and stood alongside the water protectors at Standing Rock. He focuses on stories, rather than lectures, because, as he says, “Stories are a way to dig into politics without family members feeling attached and on the defensive—a truth force, not a truth bomb.”

He also doesn’t use love as an excuse to allow serious wrongs to go unchecked. Instead, he urges readers to remember the humanity of everyone involved and speak up in a way that focuses on love and avoids contempt. (And, yes, this is easier said than done.)

For me, though, the most useful part of the book may be the short appendix on developing a rule of life. Like a lot of Christians, I’ve gone through phases with my spiritual disciplines. sometimes maintaining a solid commitment to prayer, study, and so on, and sometimes being more lackadaisical toward one element of my spiritual life or another. As with a lot of disciplines, it’s easy for me to say, when I can’t do it perfectly, that it’s hardly worth doing at all. Bishop Curry encourages readers to be realistic, to know what we can fit into our lives and come up with a few habits that can help us live into one to three of our core values. This rule doesn’t have to just be about spiritual practices—it might include committing to movement every day. Whatever rule we establish should fit on a single sheet of paper. This seems like a good thing to be thinking about for this final stretch of Lent, especially as many of us start thinking about making our first tentative steps out of isolation and into more in-person community.

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion | 2 Comments