Film Review: “Wine Country” (2019)

IMHO, any film that has both Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in it is worthy of celebration. So, when I heard that Wine Country had both of them in it, and that it had been directed by Poehler, I was thrilled. I read the criticisms of the film that said that it didn’t land as firmly as some might have wished, but I decided to watch it anyway.

And I did not regret it. The film is full of humour, warmth, and girl-power. What else could you ask for?

The film follows a group of female friends as they reunite for a celebration of Rebecca’s (Rachel Dratch) birthday. Each of them has a bit of baggage–emotional and otherwise–that they’re not really dealing with, and this ultimately creates the very friction and negative emotions the weekend is supposed to ameliorate. Through the ups and downs of the weekend, however, they ultimately discover that the strength of their collective friendship gives them what they need to endure all that life throws at them.

There’s a warmth at the heart of Wine Country that is in woefully short supply these days, either in the real world or in popular culture. So much comedy (and virtually all drama) is deeply cynical and always laced with at least a trace amount of venom. And, of course, our politics is about as toxic as it is possible to be. In the film, however, it’s always clear that these women truly love one another, and it’s worth pointing out that, with the exception of Jason Schwartzman–who turns in a solidly funny performance–the women run the show. There is, thankfully, no soggy romance plot to wade through, and while there are no real surprises in the plot, there are many genuine laughs throughout the film.

Despite its rather formulaic plot, there are some notable surprises. For one thing, Poehler gets to play it (mostly) straight for most of the film, and there is a resonance to her plight (she’s lost her job) that plays as sincere. And, perhaps most surprisingly, it’s Rachel Dratch who threatens to steal the show. I’ve long felt that she was one of the most underappreciated female comedians of her generation, and it’s a welcome change to see a film finally shine a spotlight on her considerable talents.

The rest of the cast is uniformly good, of course. You can always count on both Ana Gasteyer and Maya Rudolph can always be counted on; indeed, their feuding is one of the film’s central conflicts and its contours and resolution read as eminently believable. And both Emily Spivey (as Jenny, a shut-in with anxiety issues) and Paula Pell (as the lascivious and bawdy lesbian Val) delivered some of the downright funniest lines in the film. Of course, no review would be complete without mentioning Tina Fey who, like Poehler, turns in a relatively restrained and straight performance as Tammy, the owner of the bed and breakfast the women are staying in.

For me, the bottom line is that this is still a film about a group of women and their contentious but deeply-rooted friendship and love for one another. To my mind, the lukewarm critical reception the film has received revels a great deal about how we view women in comedy. Rather than embracing it as simply a good, simple comedy, there seems to be the sense that we can’t allow these women to just be ordinary. Once again, it seems to me, women are asked to bear the burden of what we as audiences and critics think they should be rather than what they are trying to be. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ghostbusters, which suffered similarly lukewarm reviews because, I’m convinced, critics just weren’t willing to give it any slack.

So, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Wine Country is a great film, it is a good film, with solid acting and solid writing. When the end credits roll, you feel good about the world and about what women can do when they embrace their collective strength in one another.

And sometimes, in my opinion, that’s good enough.

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Change is in the Air

Hello, dear readers.

I’ve got some great news. For some time now, I’ve been collaborating with my best friend on a series of erotic epic fantasy novellas that we’re self-publishing through Amazon. The series is titled “The Filliquian Chronicle,” and the first volume is already live (you can buy it here). We’re very excited to be starting this new part of our writing life, and we sincerely hope that you’ll join us, buy our books, and rate us on Goodreads and on Amazon.

So, what does this mean for this blog? Well, here are a few of the things that’ll be changing.

From now on, if you want to read anything related to fantasy that I’m writing, you’ll need to head on over to DarcyandWinters.com, our joint author site. In addition to stuff about writing, updates about our work, and samples, you’ll also find our ongoing reviews of works of fantasy (both written and visual) that tickle our fancy. Some of these will be new works, some will be old, and some will be in-between. Fantasy features that I wrote somewhat regularly here (e.g., my series on Tolkien, my blog posts on the works of Tad Williams, etc.) will stay here, but any future entries will appear on the new site. It’s still very much a work-in-progress, so please be patient with us!

Worry not. I’ll still be writing a lot for this blog, from now on I’m mostly going to focus on history, politics, historical fiction, and film and TV. I’m also going to make a concerted effort to post more frequently here. This will probably mostly take the form of reviews and personal essays. Ideally, I’d still like to post here three times a week, but that might not be feasible until I’ve built up a bit more of a library of content to share. Again, your patience will be much appreciated.

Lastly, appearances. This blog’s appearance is a bit out-of-date, so over the next couple of weeks I’m going to experiment with some new looks. I hope you like the changes!

I look forward to continuing to build this blog. I really do enjoy maintaining it, and it remains a fundamental part of my mission as a public intellectual. As always, I’m tremendously grateful to those of you who have commented on and shared my work over the last several years. Here’s to several more to come!

Film Review: “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)

I briefly thought about including Bohemian Rhapsody as part of my “Queer Classics” series of blog posts, but after a lot of thinking I decided to just give it a regular “film review” designation, mostly because the queer content is so understated that one would be forgiven for not even being able to notice it at all.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is essentially the story of how Freddie Mercury, played with almost unearthly accuracy by Rami Malek, became the lead singer of Queen. It follows a pretty traditional biopic structure, with the meet-cute between Mercury and the other members of the band, their trials and eventual triumph, their feuds with one another and, of course, their reconciliation. Oh, and there is some indication that Mercury was gay.

I do see the criticisms that some have lodged that the film pathologizes queerness by attributing the band’s feud to the sinister machinations of Paul Prenter, who leads Mercury into the sinister world of queer desire. More significant, I think, is the fact that Prenter is such a thinly-constructed character that we struggle to understand why it is that he would have such an outsize influence on Mercury, to such an extent that he basically abandons his bandmates. As queer villains go, he’s not even that interesting (which is a shame, because Allan Leech is a decent actor). If they were going to make the queerest character a villain, you’d think they would have at least made him compelling.

Indeed, one of my frustrations with the film stems from its narrative incoherence. It can never really decide whether it wants to be a biopic of Freddie Mercury (which seems its primary interest), the band Queen (which it sort of is), or both (which it really fails to do because it can’t find a balance). The rest of the band emerge as half-characters at best, not insignificant enough to fade utterly into the background yet with no real depth either. A generous reading of the film would say this is a deliberate attempt to show the vexed nature of the band’s relationship, but I’m honestly not sure the film deserves that much.

Likewise, it can’t really seem to decide how to express Mercury’s sexuality. Though the film seems to want to argue that Mercury was gay, to many (including me) this seems to ignore the fact that he was most likely bisexual (bi-erasure is a real thing, y’all). It was also frustrating that the film gave so much narrative time to the fictional character of Prenter and all of his chicanery when that time would have been better spent fleshing out the relationship between Mercury and his partner Jim Hutton. The fact that it doesn’t says a lot about how narratively lazy the film is, and how uncertain it is about what role Mercury’s sexuality played in his life and how it should be represented in the present.

At the formal level, the film is exquisitely shot, and as I was watching it I kept hitting the pause button so that I could simply take in the beautifully composed shots. Given the grossness of Bryan Singer, I’m reluctant to belabor this particular point, but I console myself with the fact that there are others, including the cinematographer, who no doubt helped to get the film’s perfect looks.

Similarly, the performances are almost uniformly excellent, but of course it is Rami Malek who really steals the show. This is definitely one of those cases where an actor is very deserving of his Best Actor Oscar. Malek doesn’t just perform the role of Mercury; he literally seems to embody him. In fact, there were several times in the film when I could swear that I was watching Mercury himself. Whatever the weaknesses of the script, Malek does a great deal to make up for it, and he deserves a lot of credit for making the film work as well as it does.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that Bohemian Rhapsody is exceptional for being so unexceptional. It doesn’t really break any of the established rules for biopics, and that’s okay. If you go in with a reasonable set of expectations for what you’re about to see, then you probably will not be disappointed.

Reading History: The Tragic Daughters of Charles I (by Sarah-Beth Watkins)

My thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book for review.

I have to confess that when it comes to English royalty, I’ve never been much of a fan of the Stuarts. Somehow they lacked the charismatic panache that characterized their successors the Tudors, or the operatic tragedy of the Plantagenets. They just seemed rather bland in comparison to all of this.

Recently, however, I’ve taken an interest in them. They embodied all of the contradictions of the era, drowning in opulent wealth and yearning for absolute power yet struggling with the financial and political limits imposed by Parliament. Given these contradictions, is it any wonder that one of them, Charles I, ended up losing his head to the executioner’s axe?

Sarah-Beth Watkins takes as her subject the doomed daughter of this doomed monarch. As the title of the book suggests, Charles’ daughters fared little better than their father. Several died before they reached the age of 20, and those that lived to be older, Mary and Henriette, died before they reached 30, the former from smallpox and the latter as the result of a stomach ailment (and possibly poison).

Throughout their young lives, both Mary and Henriette faced struggle and difficulty, particularly once they were married to foreign princes: Mary to William of the Netherlands and Henriette to Philippe, brother of Louis XIV. Both also found themselves at the center of politics, first as their brother attempted to regain his throne and then, after his restoration, in the feuds and jostling that inevitably arose between the powers of Europe. In a bitter twist, Mary survived to see her brother return to the throne but died shortly afterward.

Given that she lived the longest and was married to the brother of the King of France, Henrietta’s life takes up the latter half of the book. Though plagued by personal sadness–her husband was abusive and paid more attention to his male lover than he did to her–she was nevertheless a savvy political player and a valuable ally for her brother at the heart of the French court. Through her closeness to both her brother and her brother-in-law the king, she was able exert a formidable influence on politics, and one can’t help but wonder how much more she would have been able to accomplish had she but lived longer.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. The prose is, unfortunately, rather clunky, and it lacks a certain dynamism. One learns a lot from the book, but I found it very easy to get bored while reading it. I strongly suspect that this has to do with the fact that there just isn’t a whole lot of material due to the very young age at which these women died.

Relatedly, the author tends to use far too many long quotes from primary sources. One gets the sense that she felt pressed to fill out the book to a standard length. While, of course, it is customary to include at least some quotes from letters, diaries, etc., the sheer length of the ones in this book become distracting after a while, and they certainly break up the momentum of the narrative.

That being said, the book is a serviceable introduction to these tragic young women. While their own lives were cut tragically short, those of their descendants would go on to be rather illustrious. Mary’s son William would in fact go on to become King of England as William III, while Henrietta’s descendants would go on to sit on the thrones of several different countries. Through their children, the tragic daughters of King Charles found their own form of immortality.

Book Review: “It Came from Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office” (by Dale Beran)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing a free copy of this book for review.

Sometimes, you read a book that shines on a light on some of the most unpleasant parts of our culture and society, and you suddenly feel as if you have fallen into an utterly unfamiliar world. It Came from Something Awful is just such a book.

Dale Beran takes us deep into the dark, sinister, bleakly cynical parts of the internet that many of us would probably never explore on our own. Here we find the truly toxic, nihilistic folk who inhabited spaces such as 4chan, primarily young men dissatisfied with their lot in life and determined to take it out on whomever got in their way. He draws fascinating (though not always sustainable) connections between the counterculture of 1960s and the present, showing how the relentless ability of capitalism to commercialize resistance has generated precisely the feeling of nihilism that has become so toxic and that has left a generation of young men feeling powerless, angry, and dangerous.

Beran’s book succeeds the most when he is detailing the complex history and terrifying personalities that inhabit this online world. While some of the names are familiar, others are less so, and it is clear that he has a very close inside knowledge of this strange new world that most of us have probably never encountered. He doesn’t let himself get too bogged down in the technical aspects of it, either. His is very much a story of a generation of young men who, confronted with profound inequality and the growing power of various social movements, found solace in the ability to take nothing seriously.

Until, of course, they did. As Beran explains, as the 2000s wore on, the bleak cynicism expressed by these young men became ever more vitriolic and dangerous, until at last it burst into the open with the murderous rampages that became so much an unfortunate part of the American landscape. And then, of course, there was the greatest troll of them all, Donald J. Trump, who was the apotheosis of those mens’ desires, the cure (it seemed) for everything that ailed them.

At times, Beran’s argument seems to mistakes his premise for his conclusion, i.e. he goes in with the conclusion that Trump was brought into power by these men, and that is what he proves. However, I think that the title (and the book’s big argument) may be overstating the case that a bit. There’s no question that a very visible part of Trump’s support came from just the sort of young men that Beran profiles, but I was left wondering just how many of these people actually voted, and how many of them just amplified Trump’s brand and normalized him for those who actually did vote for him.

Relatedly, it sometimes felt as if Beran’s political leanings were encouraging him to deflect the blame for the rise of the alt-right everywhere but on the men themselves: neoliberalism, capitalism, Hillary Clinton (because of course), and the advent of the internet and the anonymity that it provides. In my view, there is a very distinct difference between providing an excuse for someone’s behavior and explaining it. The former implies an abrogation of guilt, while the latter is an attempt to aid in understanding. Certainly, Beran wants to accomplish the latter, if for no other reason than that we must continue to address the societal forces that rendered the alt-right possible. However, he is not always as successful as I think he should be in blaming these men for their own horrible impulses.

Overall, however, I found Beran’s book to be compulsively readable, mostly because it confirmed so many of the things I already suspected to be true. From GamerGate to PizzaGate to the march on Charlottesville, the men that he chronicles in It Came from Something Awful are truly a pestilence, and we must continue to fight them. If we don’t, we run the risk of continuing to allow them to control the contours of the debate. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. While that is true in some instances, I do worry that books like this contribute to that unfortunate trend of giving these unsavory people exactly the sort of attention that they crave. It is, unfortunately, the inescapable double-bind of the world that we live in. If it does nothing else, Beran’s book provides us a valuable form of understanding.

It’s up to us to do something with it.

Reading History: “Alexander the Great: His Life and Mysterious Death” (by Anthony Everitt)

By this point, I’ve read numerous biographies of Alexander the Great. Some, such as Mary Renault’s The Nature of Alexander are quite hagiographical, while more recent offerings from classicists such as Paul Cartledge and Robin Lane Fox take a more balanced view. Anthony Everitt’s new book, Alexander the Great: His Life and Mysterious death falls mostly into the latter camp. While on the whole he is fairly complimentary of the Macedonian king and conqueror, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out of some of his significant shortcomings.

Everitt documents Alexander’s life from beginning to end, from his youth in the unruly court of his father Philip to his final days in Babylon. We see him in battle (frequently), and in love (less frequently). We learn of his tempestuous relationships with both his mother Olympias and his father Philip, as well as the many men that surrounded him (and a few of the women).

As was the case with Everitt’s last book on the history of Athens, there were several times when I felt myself growing bored. Part of this is his style, which tends to be very unimaginative and dry, and part of this has to do with how he organizes his narrative. There are times when the book seems like little more than a recitation of the events of Alexander’s life, with only slight glimpses into the more personal aspects.

What he lacks in stylistic grace, Everitt makes up for in rigour and detail. He provides voluminous (some might say exhausting detail) of the various battles that Alexander waged in his attempts to bring the world under his dominion. Everitt argues that Alexander was driven by pothos, a desire to attain the unattainable, and that this was what accounted for his seemingly never-ending desire to embark on the next battle, the next voyage to the unknown.

On the whole, Everitt argues that Alexander deserves the appellation “the Great.” This was a man, after all, who radically reshaped the Mediterranean world, with consequences that would extend far into the future. At the same time, he doesn’t gloss over those instances when Alexander’s behavior was truly terrifying (and terrible), those times when he allowed his anger to get the better of him and committed acts of truly terrible barbarity and atrociousness.

My greatest complaints with the book are twofold. As I alluded to earlier, Everitt doesn’t really pay very much attention to Alexander’s personal life. While he is fairly upfront about the fact that Alexander almost certainly had a sexual relationship with Hephaistion and, later, with the eunuch Bagoas, there’s no real sense of what these men meant to Alexander emotionally. Everitt argues that his avoidance of this subject stems from the sources, and though that’s a fair point as far as it goes, it ensures that Alexander remains something of an enigma, forever hovering just beyond view.

My more significant complaint about this book is how little I felt I learned from it. There were very few revelations in Everitt’s biography that I hadn’t encountered before, and while this isn’t a deal-breaker as far as my enjoyment of the book goes, it does make me wonder why, exactly, we needed another biography of one of the world’s most famous figures. For that matter, I’m not exactly sure why the title makes such a point of mentioning his death, since Everitt clears up the “mystery” fairly quickly, positing (reasonably) that it was probably due to malaria rather than a sinister act of poisoning.

To my mind, one of the most poignant parts of the book comes at the very end. Everitt reminds us that, though we have a fairly copious amount of material from the ancient world dealing with Alexander’s life, there is very little about the Persians that he conquered. Almost the only direct access we have to the Achaemenid dynasty is from the Greek perspective, and Everitt forces us to wonder exactly how our perspective on Alexander might have been very different had we had more from the Persian point of view.

All in all, this is a very serviceable biography of one of the ancient world’s most famous conquerors. Those looking for a no-frills exploration of his life will find that here, while those looking for more original takes would probably do better to look elsewhere.

A Requiem for Appalachia

How 2016 permanently damaged my relationship to my home, my family, and my roots.


It was the day after the election in 2016, and I was talking to my Mom. “I’m sorry that your candidate lost,” she said, “and I know how sad you must be. But I want you to know that no matter what that we’re still family.”

Coming from my staunchly Republican mother, this was an olive branch, and in better circumstances I might have been more willing to receive it in the spirit with which it was no doubt intended. However, I was (I’m sure) very surly about it. Still, it was a small island of security in a world that suddenly seemed as dangerous as it had when I heard of the murder of Matthew Shepard almost twenty years earlier.

In the days following, however, I continued to stew about this exchange. I harbored suspicions that my parents voted for Trump, but it was one of those cases where I just didn’t want to know. They’d expressed enough skepticism about him that I held onto a faint sliver of hope that they might have voted for Gary Johnson. Needless to say, such hopes were vain (though this wouldn’t be confirmed for some time), but at that point it was easier to pretend that they hadn’t voted for a man so loathsome and so antithetical to the values that I held dear.

Finally, a few days later I told my mom how I really felt. I confessed that, for the first time since I heard about the murder of Matthew Shepard, I was afraid of living in my own country. I don’t normally cry in front of people (though I sob at commercials and movies and books when I’m by myself), but I lost it then. I just…couldn’t hold it back anymore. She seemed to understand exactly where I was coming from, and she even offered to wear rainbow bracelets as a sign that she still very much loved and supported me, her gay son.

At the time, and to some degree in the present, I thought that was a great step forward. I have to admit, though, that some part of me thought (and thinks): well, that sort of gesture means a lot, but it’s not enough.

And it never will be.


I’ve long struggled with this aspect of my relationship with my parents. I’ve been staunchly liberal since before I went to college, and after I came out I became even more so. I was the kind of screaming, hair-on-fire liberal that many people mock, and many, many conversations with my parents (particularly my mom) ended with us screaming at one another. Sometimes, it seems that we’re just too temperamentally similar to ever really be able to discuss stuff like this.

At least, not if we want to continue speaking to one another afterward.

Things were pretty ugly in 2004, when Bush and his “God, guns, and gays” campaign swept him through his re-election. I knew that my parents voted for Bush both times, but the second time really hurt. It hurt to know that my parents, with whom I am very close — I’m an only child, after all — could vote for someone who would take specific actions that would hurt me and the people that I care about. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t get them to understand how their electoral politics threatened my day-to-day life. It’s not that I ever doubted they loved me; it was just…they didn’t understand how their political choices contradicted their personal feelings for me.

To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure that I ever got over that completely, and 2016 just brought all of those old emotions and all of that unresolved bitterness out into open again.

Well, sort of in the open anyway.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for me to have the types of conversations with my parents that I need to have. I tend to get very emotional about politics — that tends to happen when legislative agendas affect your life on a regular basis — and I don’t always approach differences of ideology with as much tact and patience as I should. This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that I’m a first-gen college student, and this has created something of an intellectual divide between my parents and me. They think I look down on them because they don’t have college degrees, and I find it frustrating that they don’t seem able (or willing) to speak the same language that I do.

The other important thing to remember is that it’s very hard for me not to come across as contemptuous of people with whom I vehemently disagree. I recognize this about myself and do what I can to combat that tendency, but it is increasingly difficult to have meaningful conversations with people who know so little, not because they aren’t intelligent, but because their information diet is so unhealthy. Unfortunately, this makes most such exchanges with my mother extremely emotional.

Recently, I had another of those very emotional conversations, and it went about as well as could be expected. But then, maybe that’s not fair. While there are still a lot of unresolved issues from 2016 (and heading into 2020), we at least agreed to begin opening the channels of communication, not necessarily in an effort to change our vote, but to at least help us understand one another better.

It’s not ideal, but it’s a start.


In the years since 2016 I’ve struggled with a profound sense of alienation. Every time I go back to West Virginia, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m entering a foreign country, one where I’m viewed with suspicion and even outright dislike. I am, after all, all of the things people in working-class areas have been taught to hate: college-educated, queer, in an interracial relationship. Is it any wonder that I feel like a stranger in my own home sometimes?

Indeed, it seems like every time I go home I’m confronted with the blistering reality of just how far people in my state are willing to go in their retreat into ignorance.

These incidents are wide-ranging, but they happen with alarming regularity: the guy at my father’s work who told him that Michelle Obama’s book Becoming was underselling (categorically false by any measure); my friend’s coworkers who claimed that Jordan Peele’s Get Out was racist (the skewed perspective that enables such a belief is staggering); and the revelation that one of the two news stations that my parents and friends frequently watch is owned by Sinclair Media. 

For someone who once harbored dreams of returning to Appalachia to teach after finishing my graduate work, this is tremendously frustrating. How can I ever hope to find a place for myself there, when seemingly everyone bends over backward to drown themselves in ignorance?

It’s hard to accurately put into words the pain I feel each and every time I go home. I can’t shake the sense that most of the people there would be quite content if I didn’t exist. And, while I still feel a peculiar lightness in my chest when I behold the breathtaking beauty of those hills and hollers, those rivers and streams, I can’t shake my awareness of the hatred and intolerance that all too frequently take root there.

And it’s more than just the atmosphere. West Virginia is currently in the throes of the natural gas boom, and it’s like a knife to the heart to see the ways in which the gas companies are destroying my beloved hills and clogging those rural country roads. I kid you not, I see about a hundred trucks a day pass by my parents’ house, a constant reminder of the perils of this industry.

Yes, I realize that these companies frequently bring jobs to the area, but I have to wonder: at what cost?

Some things, it seems to me, are beyond price.


About a year ago, I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. At first I liked what I was reading, if for no other reason than that it’s still very rare to find a book written by a person from Appalachia that gains nationwide attention. However, I soon realized that the book, while ostensibly a memoir (and hailed by many in the punditry as a sort of Rosetta Stone of how to understand Trump’s America) was actually just a conservative manifesto dressed up as a memoir.

Like Vance, I have a conflicted relationship with my Appalachian roots but, unlike him, I don’t embrace a firmly conservative perspective about what to do about it. In fact, I actively reject it. It is the cynical conservative movement that makes it possible for the West Virginia state government to continue to sell out to fossil fuel companies while defunding education. It’s the cynical conservative members of the state legislature (to say nothing of the governor) who continue to sell their constituents hatred of all kinds while defunding their future and that of their children.

Yet I do agree with Vance in one key respect. 2016 made me confront, for the first time, a truly uncomfortable truth about my fellow Appalachian residents: that their independence can be their own undoing. Thus, while their independent, stubborn streak has frequently been a source of strength in dark times, recently it has taken a distinctly ugly turn. It has slowly become a canker, eating away at the soul of Appalachia. What was once a place that welcomed the stranger had now become a wasteland of hatred, where delegates can joke on television about drowning their hypothetical queer children and Islamophobia is peddled at the state house.

Is it any wonder I hate going home sometimes?


What’s the takeaway from all of this? I’m honestly not sure. NPR has recently done a series of snapshots of situations similar to mine, and while it was validating to see others struggling to find common ground with families and friends who have become strangers, in other ways I find that even more depressing. What it reveals is that the fundamental ties of what bring us together as a country have broken down even further during Trump’s time in office.

There’s no question that the fraying of the social fabric is a real and present danger in this country, and Appalachia is one of those places (I think) where that fraying is most visible. The thing is, though, that people there have to make the conscious choice to do the right thing, to take the higher road, to become a place of welcome rather than retrenchment and resentment. And, while I know there are people there who do exactly that–you’d be surprised just how many queer people there are in West Virginia–sometimes I worry that they are too few to stem the tide.

For me, the aftermath of 2016 has made it impossible — for the foreseeable future — to move back to state that I once called home. I know that might seem silly and naive to a lot of people, but I just don’t have the energy to move back to the state that continues to be one of the bastions of support for Trump. How can I ever hope to feel at home there, when it is so clear that so many of the people I once thought to help have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don’t want it and are in fact likely to become even angrier should I be foolish enough to offer it?

I don’t know what the future holds, either for myself or for the region I called home, but there are times when I have hope that somehow there will come a time when it will be possible for me to return there without that feeling of loss, despair, and anger. Perhaps in ten years, or twenty, when the Trump fever has broken and things have been returned to a state of quasi-normalcy in the country at large.

Still, I worry that something has been irrevocably lost, something irretrievably broken in these dark times.

I mourn for a world that I’ve lost.

But then, perhaps it wasn’t ever really there.

Reading History: “Circe” (by Madeline Miller)

Warning: Full spoilers for the novel follow.

When I had finished The Song of Achilles, I felt bereft. Here was this extraordinary author who managed to hit all the right notes I look for in historical fiction, and now I had nothing more to look forward to! Fortunately for me, Madeline Miller had just released a new book, Circe, and I devoured it even more quickly than I had her debut novel.

While Song had touched me because of its sensitive yet frank depiction of physical and emotional love between two men, Circe was something else, a tale of one woman’s desire to both understand and, ultimately, become the mortals whom she has spent so many hours and encounters, both good and bad. It is a novel about the nature of mortality and the burdens associated with being a child of the gods, at once a story of tremendous suffering and exquisite love.

Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios, but from the beginning she feels that she is not like the other petty gods and Titans that surround her. When she discovers that she actually has magical abilities, the stage is set for a confrontation with her fellow immortals and, ultimately, her father. She is ultimately banished to  a distant island, where Circe encounters many of the famous figures of mythology, including Jason and Medea, the wily hero Odysseus and, eventually, his son Telemachus. As the years go by, she feels herself increasingly drawn to these mortals until, as the novel reaches its conclusion, she must decide whether she will become one of them or retain her immortality.

It’s always a challenge (I think) to write a convincing fictional account of the ancient pantheon that isn’t simply a parody or attempts to poke fun at the gods that we (in a world that still straddles the line between scientific rationalism and Christianity) see as little more than fairy tales. Fortunately, Miller has a knack for conveying the gods in a way that makes them both utterly realistic and yet fantastic at the same time. Her Olympians are, I think, very much in keeping with what the Greeks themselves imagined, full of spite and cruelty, yet also inescapably compelling.

As she did in The Song of Achilles, Miller manages to capture the beautiful yet brutal world that emerges from the words of the ancient Greeks. When Circe wanders through the halls of her father’s palace, or when she embraces the lonely bleakness of her isle, Miller allows us deep, piercing glimpses of these places as Circe herself would see them. In the process, we come to not only understand the woman herself, but also to appreciate the lushness of the prose through which that experience is conveyed.

Circe shares with Song a deep, rich awareness of the power of language to move us, to make us look at and think about the world in new, exciting and (sometimes) uncomfortable ways. Like Mary Renault–with whom she is often compared–Miller has the knack for conveying the foreignness of the ancient world that does not efface or detract from its ability to draw us into it.

Circe, however, is in many ways a very different novel than its predecessor, if only because it seems so focused (refreshingly) on a woman (even if she is a demigoddess). Circe is far from perfect, and Miller doesn’t try to idealize her. She is rebellious, prone to making foolish decisions,  and, despite her divine parentage, fundamentally curious about the mortals that the gods have in their thrall. Indeed, it is her desire to understand humans–in all of their beauty and ugliness, their loves and their hates, their kindness and their cruelty–that allows her to keep going despite all of the betrayals and heartbreak she faces.

And that, to me, is the novel’s fundamental purpose: to probe at what it is that makes us human. Because of her quasi-divine status, Circe has a perspective on the foibles of mortals that we lack, simply because we are imprisoned within our own perspectives. More than that: we are imprisoned in time. Circe recognizes that the one thing that humanity cannot escape is its mortality, and it is the one thing that will always structure (and doom) her relationships with her mortal lovers. While she is fated to continue marching through this world, she must contend with the inescapable fact of losing them.

Ultimately, it is this focus on mortality that gives Circe’s decision to abrogate her immortality and use her magic to become one of them. One can debate whether her choice to do so undercuts her power as a strong female character, but to me that rather misses the point. By the end of the novel, Circe has seen enough of the cruelties of the gods to know that she no longer wants to be one of their company, and she has at last found a man who will love her as she deserves to be loved. The fact that he is a mortal finally forces her to make the choice that seemed obvious from the very beginning. In the end, Circe becomes a mortal not just because she loves Telemachus, but because she finally recognizes that humans have an ability for compassion that the gods simply cannot. It is this recognition, even more than her love that ultimately drives her to give up her immortality.

And now that I’ve finished Miller’s sophomore effort, I think I feel even more devastated than I did when I finished, knowing that it was going to be quite a while before I saw something else from this very talented author of historical fiction. All I can say is that Circe is a must-read for anyone who loves the ancient world and its reception in the modern one. With this book, Madeline Miller shows that she truly deserves recognition as one of the finest historical novelists writing today.

I just hope that we don’t have to wait too long for Miller to offer us more of her inimitable vision.

Reading History: “Templar Silks” (by Elizabeth Chadwick)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book to review.

When his lord Henry, the Young King, dies of dysentery William Marshall goes on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in order to atone for the sins he, and his young master, committed. Once in Jerusalem, William finds himself more and more ensnared in the politics of Outremer (the name used in medieval France to refer to those French territories, such as the Holy Land, that were beyond the sea).

Central to the novel is William’s affair with Pascia de Riveri, the concubine of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The two of them feel an immediate attraction for one another, and Chadwick compellingly conveys the deep and powerful sexual bond they share. Sex scenes are notoriously easy to do badly, but the novel avoids this, straddling the fine line between the prurient and the genuinely sensual and erotic. What’s more, she makes it clear that William sees in Pascia not just an object of his desire, but a woman with whom he genuinely wants to build a future. For her part, Pascia emerges as a woman very conscious of the role that she plays in this world; for all of her seeming self-assurance, she knows that she remains beholden to the patriarch for what little worldly power she has.

Chadwick acknowledges that much of the novel’s narrative is fictional, since we do not really know what Marshall did during his sojourn in the Holy Land. That being said, she is adept at providing a compelling and richly layered portrait of the land and the key political players, ranging from the strutting but incompetent Guy de Lusignan, the noble but dying King Baldwin (known to many as the Leper King), the worldly and urbane Patriarchh Heraclius and, most importantly, Paschia de Riveri herself. These are men and women who are contradictory and rich as any to be found in historical fiction.

I was particularly drawn to Baldwin, the doomed king who nevertheless does everything in his power to do right by his people. I’ve always been fascinated by this figure, ever since I saw him portrayed (hauntingly) by Edward Norton in the 2005 Kingdom of Heaven. For William, he is one of the few people in the Holy Land who seems to possess both nobility and honour, though he is hampered by his physical ailments from being the king that his land needs. As a result, William can only watch helplessly as the matters careen out of control after the king’s death, until he at last takes the opportunity to go back to his home.

The novel is largely framed as a flashback as William lies dying in his home in England. Indeed, some of the most moving moments of the novel occur as he confronts the fact that he must soon leave behind his earthly responsibilities, and it is clear that William truly loves his wife, the woman with whom he has built a life. However, he holds a secret from her–one that has to do with the Templar silks of the title–that will stain their last hours together. Passionate, headstrong, and deeply honourable, Marshall emerges from the novel as a man that you can definitely cheer for. He’s not perfect by any means, but is still a man who does everything he possibly can to protect those that he loves.

Chadwick has a keen eye for physical and atmospheric detail, and I really felt myself immersed in the beautiful but deadly world of the Middle Ages. I was particularly impressed with her ability to draw out the small details that make a novel truly shine: the rich, loving relationship between Willim and his younger brother Ancel; the smells and tastes of a different world; the small dog (named Pilgrim) that joins William and his company on their journey to the Holy Land.

All in all, Templar Silk is a poignant and exquisite exploration of the power of one important man’s attempt to make sense of his life. This is highly recommended for anyone who loves the medieval period, as well as for those who love their historical fiction leavened with equal doses of politics and passion.

Book Review: “I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution” (by Emily Nussbaum)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for generously providing me a copy of this book to review.

There’s a peculiar joy that comes from reading sound media criticism. A very few people can somehow capture their intellectual passions in a way that makes their work intelligible for mainstream audiences (something that a lot of media scholars struggle to do).

Thankfully, Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for The New Yorker, has done just this in I Like to Watch: Arguing my Way Through the TV Revolution.

The book is a collection of pieces, most of which Nussbaum wrote for various publications and a few that she wrote especially for the volume. Some are simply short reflections of a particular TV series, while others are more in-depth explorations of a particular series or showrunner (her lengthy piece about Ryan Murphy is one of the best in the collection). Though they vary in subject matter, they are united by Nussbaum’s distinctive voice and intellectual clarity, as well as her deeply personal encounter with the medium.

What I particularly enjoyed about the book as a whole was its willingness to look at television series that fall squarely outside the quality TV designation that seems to be all the rage (or was, at any rate) among those who think and write about television. Indeed, she begins the book with an anecdote about how it was watching Buffy, the Vampire Slayer that drew her into wanting to write about television.

Some of my favourite pieces in the collection focus on these “bad” texts, including Sex and the City, Behind the Candelabra (the HBO film about Liberace), Hannibal, and sundry others. However, she also gives sustained attention to more traditionally quality TV, and her essay on The Sopranos is particularly compelling and insightful. I also loved The Sex and the City essay, which makes the compelling case that this HBO series deserves just as much credit for vaunting HBO into the upper echelons of television production as more male-oriented series.

While most of the essays in the book focus on contemporary television, some also delve deeper into TV’s past, including a particularly erudite exploration of “bad fandom” and All in the Family. Thus, one of the through-lines that runs through the entire book is Nussbaum’s interest in fandom, both her own and that of others. All too often, fandom is something to be confessed to, rather than embraced and celebrated. The fact that Nussbaum, writing for one of the premier intellectual publications in the country, so openly embraces her own identity as a fan is refreshing.

Nussbaum’s style is nuanced and deeply thoughtful yet very accessible. If I have one quibble with her, it’s that I sometimes feel that she (like many mainstream critics) seems to believe that her realizations emerge out of a vacuum, when in fact there are huge bodies of scholarship conducted by television and media scholars that often reach the same conclusions that she does. Since this seems to be a problem with many working for mainstream publications–not just television critics–I won’t be too hard on her.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this foray through Nussbaum’s encounters with television. Highly recommended.