Monthly Archives: April 2019

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.

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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.

Reading History: “American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt” (by Stephanie Marie Thornton)

Warning: Full spoilers for the novel follow.

We seem to be living in a golden age of women’s historical fiction. Authors such as Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, Michelle Moran, and Stephanie Marie have done a great deal to excavate the experiences of historical women. These include the subject of today’s blog post, Stephanie Marie Thornton’s new novel, American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt.

The novel follows Alice as she negotiates her position as the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, particularly her tumultuous relationship with the Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth, her affair with Senator Bill Borah of Idaho, and her vexed relationship with her daughter Paulina.

Alice emerges from these pages as a woman determined to claim her own happiness, often in direct opposition to the wishes of the men in her life. Her thoughts crackle with intensity and verve, particularly as she chafes against the restrictions placed on her by society’s expectations. Indeed, one of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to convey the many ways in which women frequently faced restrictions that their male counterparts did not, particularly those women, like Alice, who occupied the upper echelons of society.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the interactions between and among the various members of the Roosevelt clan. Alice is particularly contemptuous of her distant cousin Franklin, and she is hardly more approving of first cousin Eleanor (the daughter of her father’s brother). Thornton reveals the extent to which the two halves of this American political family were frequently (and often vociferously) at odds and in doing so highlights the conflict between the political and the familial that was all too often a part of the American landscape.

Throughout the novel, Alice also struggles with her friendships with women. Whether that is the duplicitous daughter of the Russian ambassador, her best friend who ultimately has an affair with Nick, or her own cousin Eleanor (who sabotages her brother’s chances at election). she faces betrayal on multiple fronts. She also has trouble with her domestic arrangements, as Nick’s mother is a harridan of the worst type.

As for Nick himself, time and again, she must confront his infidelities, and the strange alchemy of their relationship–and it is clear that they truly love one another, despite all of the messiness of their relationship. Thornton does an excellent job exploring the strange ways in which the mind, and the heart, work when we are in relationships that we know are toxic but which are an essential part of who we are. Likewise, Thornton allows us to understand Alice’s desire for for true fulfillment that leads her to engage in an affair with Bill Borah. While we may not necessarily approve of this decision, we are allowed at least to understand it.

Much as she loved both Nick and Bill, it was undoubtedly her father Teddy (who hated that nickname) who exerted the strongest influence on her life. Throughout the novel, she yearns for his approval (he struggled with the fact that she reminded him so strongly of his first wife. The friction generated by their two competing (and larger-than-life) personalities persists, but eventually they find a way of embracing and expressing their deep, genuine love for one another.

The novel is compulsively readable, and I think it is not exaggeration to say that it is truly one of those books that it is impossible to put down. Thornton allows us to get a glimpse of early 20th Century America, an era of fierce politics, glittering society balls, and larger-than-life personalities. Through all of this, Thornton allows us to see Alice as a woman somewhat ahead of her time. Indeed, reading the book, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that Alice would have made a damned good politician had she turned her hand to actually running for office. As it was, she lived one of the most eventful lives of any woman of her era, beating breast cancer twice and living to the ripe old age of 96. Small wonder that many wits called her the other Washington Monument.

American Princess is my favourite Thornton novel so far (and I’ve loved them all), and I very much look forward to her next book, which will apparently be about Jackie Kennedy. I just know it will be great!

Reading History: “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation” (by Brenda Wineapple)

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

Going in to this book, I didn’t know a great deal about the circumstances surrounding the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and I knew even less about the reasons that drove the era’s legislators to this great length. Having read Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers, I’m happy to say that I now know a great deal more.

Wineapple populates her story with the giants of the era, men such as Thaddeus Steves, one of those who lead the charge for impeachment, Salmon Portland Chase, the cunning, Supreme Court justice who had ambitions of his own that coloured his perception of the case, and of course, Andrew Johnson himself. These were men of imposing personalities, and Wineapple does a magnificent job painting them in big, bold colors; they fairly leap off the page.

Ultimately, of course, the measure failed, but Wineapple makes the case that this had less to do with the merits of the impeachment articles (and the evidence for them) than with these personalities and their varied motivations and concerns. Essentially, it was felt that impeaching Johnson would cause irreparable damage to the Republican waiting in the wings to ascend to the presidency: none other than the hero of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant (who was also a prominent character in this unfolding drama). Rather than do so, they felt it was a safer bet to acquit Johnson and start over.

Given that the book is about impeachment, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between that time and our own and, especially, between the temperament of Andrew Johnson and our current president. Like Trump, Johnson was a blusterer and a bit of a megalomaniac, convinced that he was the victim of conspiracies and unwilling to acknowledge his own weaknesses and his part in his situation. The portrait that Wineapple paints is a very unflattering one indeed, and there are very good reasons for that. For, as Wineapple points out, Johnson was a a racist who built his appeal on stymying almost all measures that would have contributed to the betterment of people of color in the former slave states. Indeed, there were often times when he went out of his way to ensure that people of color understood that not only were they second-class citizens, but that their president had no interest in changing that.

The Impeachers does a fine job of providing the context that allows us to understand just why it is that this signature event in American history transpired in the way that it did. Despite the end of the Civil, many (including Johnson) felt that the United States was still a white man’s country, and that less effort should be spent in punishing the former Confederacy and more in ensuring that white citizens regained their former amity. The great tragedy of the whole affair is that it would be almost another hundred years before the desire for a better country for all would experience another great leap forward with the Civil Rights Movement on the 1950s and 1960s.

Though subsequent generations of historians painted the impeachment as a partisan affair, Wineapple argues that these arguments were themselves focused on a discrediting of the policies and mindset of the Radical Republicans. Her work allows us to see these men as visionaries committed to the idea that the United States could, in fact, be a more perfect union if only its leaders would have the will to do so.

Stylistically, Wineapple has a masterful command of both her materials and her language. While some books on history can be slow going even for those who love reading about the past, this is certainly not the case with The Impeachers. While reading it, I almost had the feeling that I was there in the moment, swept up in this epochal event, so adeptly does Wineapple capture the tenor of the times and the voices of her subjects.

By this point in 2019, it seems pretty clear that our own Andrew Johnson is not going to be impeached even though, as Yoni Applebaum compellingly argues in a recent issue of The Atlantic, there is very good reason to do so, the case of Andrew Johnson, as Wineapple presents it, serves as a warning of becoming too confident.

Le sigh.

Film Review: “Gloria Bell” and the Sublime Joy of Julianne Moore

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I have a confession to make: I’m a Julianne Moore fanatic.

I’ve loved her in every film I’ve seen her in: Safe, Far from Heaven, A Single Man, and Game Changer (in which she seemed to embody the spirit of Sarah Palin). Never once have I been disappointed by a Julianne Moore performance. And, having seen Gloria Bell, I’m glad to say that that that record remains intact.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I love a good, simple story simply told. Sure, I also love big epics and thundering blockbusters, but one can only watch so many of those before starting to feel a bit drained, a bit overwhelmed and frustrated by Hollywood’s seeming resistance to small films. Luckily, that seems to be changing.

Gloria Bell is a tidy little film, and what it lacks in bombast and narrative complexity it more than makes up for with a lean story, solid performances, and genuine heart.

Gloria has started to feel a bit stifled by her life: her ex-husband has remarried, her son seems a bit of a drifter who is clearly distant from his wife, and her daughter is preparing to embark on an international romance with a Norwegian surfer (and is pregnant to boot). Into all of this wanders Arnold (John Turturro), middle-aged man that she meets at a dance club, who has his own issues with his family. Thus starts a contentious relationship that forces Gloria to really think about what she wants from her life.

The film is refreshingly frank about Gloria’s sexuality. It manages to convey sex scenes that are sensual and not prurient, and it allows Gloria to take charge of the narrative in ways that women are (still all too consistently) denied in much Hollywood film. She wants to carve out her own sort of life, though it also seems that everyone in it doesn’t see things the way that she does. Through her understated performance, Julianne absolutely disappears into the role, to such a degree that we almost (but not quite) forget that it’s a star we are watching.

While at first Arnold seems to provide just the sort of escape she’s looking for, it soon becomes apparent that he has his own hang-ups and issues. While he refuses to introduce Gloria to his needy daughters, she makes every effort to include him in her family, an effort that he rejects (he even flees a birthday party without telling her where he’s going). Turturo does an excellent job conveying Arnold’s narcissism, and while we aren’t led to identify with him, we can at least have a bit of sympathy for his unenviable position. Thankfully, it doesn’t take Gloria long to realize that he has far too many issues and is far too controlling, manipulative, and self-centered, and we cheer her along as she reclaims her agency.

There’s no question that it is Moore that elevates the film from being simply ordinary. She is truly one of those actors who has what it takes to be more than a mere performer (though, of course, she brings a genuine warmth and sincerity to the role of Gloria). When she’s on screen you simply cannot take your eyes away; her charisma infects every scene in which she appears. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Moore is one of those rare (these days, anyway) actresses who actually qualifies as a genuine star.

However, the supporting cast is excellent as well, and Holland Taylor makes an understated yet affecting performance as Gloria’s mother. Michael Cera brings his signature blasé attitude and, as already mentioned, Turturro captures middle-aged male angst expertly.

Gloria Bell doesn’t break any of the rules, unless it’s through a refusal to give into the imperative to have a happy ending that would domesticate this free spirit. In fact, when she sprays him with his own paintballs and then goes to a wedding reception, where she begins dancing to her signature song (“Gloria”, obviously). In the end, she reclaims her agency, showing once and for all that she doesn’t need a man to be happy and fulfilled.

All she needs is her sublime, glorious self.

Reading History: Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement (David K. Johnson)

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

In Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement, noted historian David K. Johnson (known for his research on the Lavender Scare), does a deep dive into the world of physique magazines and the strong connection between capitalism and activism in the fledgling gay rights movement.

Johnson shows the extent to which these magazines provided a site in which gay male desire could have free rein, an important psychic and collective space in a culture and society that relentlessly pathologized and policed gay desire. As a result, these magazines also played a pivotal role in the coalescing of a specifically gay male identity, one that was unequivocally centered on erotic desire. Those who bought these magazines–and who wrote to them–recognized that they were part of something greater than themselves.

As Johnson amply demonstrates, it’s a mistake to keep consumption and politics separated; instead, we should see them as two streams that constantly fed into and reinforced one another in the years preceding Stonewall. Indeed, the owners of these magazines were often at the forefront court cases that were to have a significant impact on the trajectory of gay rights and, indeed, the very legitimacy of gay identity. Several cases went right up to the Supreme Court, which surprisingly frequently decided matters in their favour. One of the great strengths of Johnson’s book is that he brings to light these oft-forgotten cases.

Johnson doesn’t unnecessarily valourize these men and women (because yes, there were women who owned physique magazines). They were often at odds with one another (hardly surprising, considering the large personalities involved), and they were not always allies with one another. Despite their differences, however, they all played a part. Collectively, they forged important sites of resistance that continue to have an effect on our culture today.

The book also makes it clear just how ubiquitous was the condemnation of homosexuality in Cold War America. It’s one of those things that you probably know on a subconscious level, but which you can’t really grasp in its enormity until you read about it from a historian’s perspective. From our standpoint, it seems so silly that so many people in government and in society at large would have such bigoted ideas about people who happen to love differently than they do, but it does explain why it is that there are still far too many Americans who would like nothing more than to chase queer people back into the closet. In the era that Johnson documents, the post office was determined to crack down on what it termed “obscenity,” a ridiculously flexible term that allowed them to subject numerous individuals to state persecution.

It’s important to point out, as Johnson does, that this was very frequently a white gay male community. While some magazines did feature men of color, it was far more common for the era’s segregationist ethos to permeate its magazines. It’s actually rather refreshing to see a writer of queer history acknowledge the implicit (and often explicit) racism that has long plagued the LGBT rights movement.

Those with little familiarity with Cold War history, or with queer history, will learn a great deal from Johnson’s book. Though he primarily focuses on physique magazines, he also demonstrates that there were a variety of other print venues in which gay men found expression. There were even book clubs devoted to distributing gay-oriented books to (surprisingly large) numbers of subscribers. If anyone has ever told you that there weren’t gay people when they were young, you can simply brandish the examples that Johnson documents to show them just how wrong they were. Gay people have always existed in America, and it is important to recognize the many ways in which their experience has taken shape.

Johnson’s work does justice to an all-too-often ignored aspect of gay life in Cold War America. Just as importantly, it shows us the ways in which the the actions of Stonewall in 1969 did not emerge from a vacuum. Instead, it was a logical outcome to a gay community that had slowly been taking shape in the years after the end of the World War II and that, in the wake of Stonewall, would finally come into its own.