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.

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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.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “I Want to Live!” (1958)

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve been wanting to watch I Want to Live! for quite some time now, if for no other reason than that it’s referenced twice in The Golden Girls (always a solid reason to watch a film, IMO). Well, I did, and I have to say, I was enraptured from the first scene to the last.

The film centers on Barbara Graham, a woman accused of murdering an elderly widow. When she is convicted by the court, she must do all she can to try to save her own life, not just for her own sake, but also for her son’s.

From its first canted shots, I Want to Live! wears its noir-ness on its sleeve. It has an almost morbid fascination with the lurid and the macabre, whether that be the seediness of the underworld or the minutiae of the execution that occurs at the film’s conclusion. As with any noir, there is a palpable sense of unease that saturates the film, a sense that not all is as it should be, that we in the audience are looking in on a dark world, a sinister place of crime and death.

A significant source of this unease is the way in which the sound design and the camera work in sync to convey this sense of a topsy-turvy, uncertain world of criminality and vice. In one early scene, for example, the frantic editing combines with the ecstatic music to conjure up an almost ecstatic embrace of the sensational. This is a world where the excitement of the underworld is always tinged with menace, whether that be from the cops or from its own denizens.

At the same time as it is a noir, it is also very much a melodrama. Though Barbara tries to find happiness and fulfillment in the domestic bliss of marriage, it turns out to be something far more unsatisfying. Her husband is both physically abusive and a drug addict, and her dire financial straits lead Barbara right back into the world of crime and deceit that proves to be her undoing. Though she might be a murderer, the film invites us to feel for her by showing her as both a devoted mother and a woman wrongly accused by her criminal compatriots. And, in keeping with melodrama’s obsession with time (see the work of Linda Williams for more on this), it is always/already too late for Barbara to be saved, despite the ever-present hope of a reprieve from the governor. The last few moments of the film are an agony to watch, as time slowly ticks down until the fateful execution. By the end, the film has utterly convinced us that Barbara is the victim of her own story.

Though she’s not everyone’s cup of tea, Susan Hayward owns the screen, portraying a woman who’s tough as nails and yet has an inner softness. Hayward manages to capture Barbara’s swings between fierce independence and vulnerability, between strength and despair. The brilliance of Hayward’s performance in this film comes from her ability to embody the two poles of femininity that are such a key part of postwar film noir, the femme fatale and the good girl, sometimes in the same scene. She has some of the sharpest lines of the film–her waspish tongue gets her in trouble more than once–yet she can also deliver lines filled with tearful pathos, the anguish of a mother parted from her child, the terror of a victim going to her own death.

Fictional it may be, but I Want to Live! makes an eloquent case for the abolition of the death penalty. Just as importantly, it also exposes the ways in which both men, and the institutions that they dominate, care more for headlines and public affirmation than they do about the actual pursuit of justice. By the end, we come to see Barbara as a woman ensnared by these systems–particularly the press–and her ultimate defeat at their hands gives the film’s message just that extra bit of bite that makes it truly effective.

All in all, I very much loved I Want to Live!, and it definitely deserved its Oscar nominations.

Reading History: “The Huntress” (by Kate Quinn)

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

I’ve been a fan of Kate Quinn’s historical novels for some years now. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when she moved away from antiquity and the Renaissance into the 20th Century, but then I read The Alice Network, and all of my doubts were utterly swept away. The novel kept me captivated from the beginning to end.

Having been quite thoroughly convinced that, in Quinn’s capable hands, even modernity could make for good historical fiction, I waited for the release of The Huntress with baited breath. And, once again, I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel centers on the woman known as The Huntress, a Nazi who was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of several children in the last days of the war. She comes into the life of young Jordan, an aspiring photographer living in Boston, in the form of Annalise, her father’s wife-to-be. She is also pursued by Tony (an American), Ian (a Brit), and Nina (a former Russian fighter pilot), who each have their own reasons for wanting to pursue this dangerous and deadly woman. Gradually, their fortunes will coincide with that of this ruthless killer, and none of their lives will remain the same.

The story of a Nazi murderess is, sad to say, incredibly relevant to the United States in 2019. As several of the characters point out, the US in the aftermath of World War II was far more interested in rooting out communists than in hunting down Nazis, and Quinn ably captures the struggles (financial and emotional) that devoted Nazi hunters had to endure as they sought justice from those who perpetrated the horrors of the Holocaust. Fortunately, Quinn’s novel is also unequivocal in its denunciation of The Huntress, and there were several moments in the novel where I truly wished that she would be struck down in the cruelest and most violent way possible. I suppose that’s a good feeling to have when it comes to Nazis, right?

As she always does, Quinn manages to create kick-ass female characters, ones who are willing and able to set out on paths that are very different from the ones that society expects of them. In that sense, the novel really reminded me of a film from the 1930s or the 1940s, when female stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford kicked ass and took names. Jordan, as a young woman coming of age in the aftermath of the Second World War, faces intense pressure to give in to the cultural imperative to get married, have children, and settle into peaceful domesticity, but she would much rather be out taking photographs like her idols. Right up until the end, she refuses to be put in any of the boxes that society has for her.

Of course, the most kick-ass of all the characters is Nina, a complicated and conflicted heroine if ever there was one. As she claws her way into the ranks of the Russian air pilots, she finds herself falling for another woman named Yelena, and their passionate (though brief) affair provides some of the most moving scenes in the entire novel. There aren’t very many people who can capture same-sex desire in a way that isn’t either sterile or prurient (and this is particularly true of queer women), but somehow Quinn manages to do just that with Nina. While she eventually comes to have feelings for Ian, the novel makes it clear that it is Yelena who owns a piece of her heart that she can never quite bring herself to give in the way that she did when she was young. And while some might hope that she stays with Ian past the novel’s end, I for one hope that she finds happiness, somehow, with Yelena.

I thus especially enjoyed the ways that the novel gives free rein to women’s sexual desire. The novel isn’t erotica, obviously, but boy does it really capture the power of sexuality to impact people’s lives, both men and women. Quinn doesn’t romanticize sex, however, and she makes clear that sometimes it’s okay if people submit to desire even if they have no intention of getting married. Sex is often far messier, and more complicated, than we realize.

What really set this novel apart, however, was that it avoided the ease of a simple happily-ever-after ending. Sure, the main characters are all still alive, and they are all together, but it remains unclear whether things will stay that way. Nina, in particular, might decide to go off and search for her long-lost Yelena, or she might be happy with Ian. Jordan will probably be happy with Tony, but it may be that she’ll find someone else. The point is that we do not know for sure, and it is this narrative indeterminacy that I found especially refreshing.

Lastly, I just want to say how much I enjoyed the novel’s reflections on the nature of photography and how the camera has the ability to capture truths that we may not notice with the naked human eye. As a scholar of visual culture, the question of whether (and to what extent) the camera can capture objective truth is one that I have thought about a lot, and let me tell you, Quinn gets to the heart of the question. When Jordan captures her stepmother’s face showing its true colours as a ruthless hunter, it shows us just how powerful a photograph can be, how easily it can expose parts of ourselves that we would rather remain hidden. It’s an unsettling thing to think about, precisely because it tears away the illusions that we have about ourselves and how we present ourselves to the world.

I truly cannot say enough good things about this book. It reminds us of why it’s important to not forget history, to remember those who have given so much to rid the world of evils like the Nazis. If you take my advice, you should go out as soon as possible and buy The Huntress. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

A Tale of Two Endings: “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Green Book”

When Green Book was announced as the winner of the Best Picture at this year’s Academy Award, one could practically hear the collective groan that went up. The film, many argued, was too simplistic and too banal in its exploration of race relations in America, particularly when compared to other films such as Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk. G

Having now seen it, in conjunction with Barry Jenkins’s new film, I can say that those frustrations are justified.

If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, chronicles the budding romance between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), which faces an existential crisis when the latter is accused of having raped a woman and imprisoned. The film toggles between past and future, showing the beginnings and flourishing of their romance, as well as the struggles they face after he goes to prison.

It probably goes without saying that, in If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has managed to recapture the same sort of magic that he brought to his Oscar Award winning Moonlight. The film is visually lush, with a color palette that makes the texture of fabric sensible to our own fingers, inviting us to experience the rich, deep love between the film’s two leads. The score is hauntingly beautiful, likewise invoking the exuberant joy of first love.

Yet it is precisely the films exquisite beauty that makes its ending that much more tragic. Having confessed to the rape in order to avoid even harsher punishment, Fonny must now spend several years in prison. Still, the two of them attempt to make the best of this awful situation, and Tish brings their son to regularly see his father, and the film ends with this haunting tableau: a family united yet also irreparably shattered by the violence of the state.

Of course, we’ve been primed for this unhappy ending throughout the film, for Jenkins makes the canny choice to intersperse the film’s lush colors with moments of black and white photography depicting the depredations of a police state that sees black bodies as little more than prison fodder. Though we want Fonny and Tish to find a way out of this dreadful situation, we also know that it can never be.

As I sat in the theater watching that family manage to claw some sort of love and unity out of this horrid situation, I was struck by how the ending tears apart the Hollywood myth of the happy ending, for though they are united in their love of each other, they are separated by the institutions that have oppressed people of color and by the banal pettiness of racism.

The next day, I saw Green Book, and wow, what a different film. Tony (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer who is employed by renowned musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to be his driver as he makes a tour of the Deep South. Though clearly racist himself, as they journey through the south Tony gets a clear sense of the tremendous toll this takes on his employer. He gradually comes to recognize the terrible injustice of Dr. Shirley’s life.

Let me say upfront that the film is not nearly as bad as I had thought it would be, and I think it might be overstating it to say that it is explicitly racist. I don’t think it would be going too far, however, to say that the film is disingenuous in the extreme, and I can understand why many were upset that the film won out over such contenders as Roma, The Favourite, and BlacKkKlansman.

For one thing, the film isn’t about race relations, or the black experience in America, or about black people at all, really. What it is about is one white man’s journey to understanding the injustices that black people face. Let me be clear. This is not at all the same thing as focusing on Dr. Shirley’s experience, precisely because so much of the film is about, and told through, his perspective. Of course, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find a Hollywood film channeling our present anxieties about racial strife through the eyes of a white man.

More irritatingly, one of the film’s central conceits is that Tony has a salt-of-the-earth wisdom that is superior to the more educated one possessed by Don. In one particularly notable scene, Tony actually has the gall to claim that he is more authentically black than his employer (because he likes fried chicken and knows who Aretha Franklin is), and the film doesn’t really make any effort to show either Tony or the presumptive viewer how utterly ridiculous that claim is.

Most frustrating, however, is the ending, in which  is exactly what you would expect from a liberal film from the early 1990s: after returning to NYC, Tony invites Don in to enjoy Christmas with his family. While at first Don demurs, at the end he knocks on the door, is admitted, and is welcomed into Tony’s family. Now, to be clear, the film has gone out of its way to show how everyone in Tony’s family except for his wife is as virulently racist as he is, and somehow the film seems to want this ending to do the heavy lifting of making us believe that they have all had a moment of enlightenment. Such naivete is both laughable and incredibly frustrating.

Through this narrative closure, the film promulgates the idea that somehow, if everyone just puts their minds to it, the film suggests, everything will be okay, no tearing down of institutional racism needed! So predictable is it, and so heavy-handed in its delivery, that I actually groaned when I realized what was about to happen. Surely, I thought, this can’t be how they intend to end this film. Alas, it was.

Let me be clear: the ending isn’t bad in and of itself. It’s okay sometimes to go to movies simply for the pleasure of feeling good. What frustrates me, though, is that the film remains so resolutely and frustratingly wed to Tony’s perspective. Everything hinges on his “acceptance” of Don, who remains a shadowy and elusive presence right up until the end.

I suppose I wouldn’t be as annoyed as I am had not Green Book not won the Oscar for Best Picture, a category in which If Beale Street Could Talk was not even nominated (when it clearly should have been). It is tremendously frustrating to once again see a film that takes the easy out when it comes to issues of race in the United States win the Best Picture, a frustration made that much worse by one Academy member’s huffy claim to The New York Times that he voted for Green Book because he was tired of being told how to vote by those outside of the Academy.

These two films, with their radically different endings, make different demands on us as viewers. Beale Street forces us to reckon with the consequences of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies, which cannot be waved away by the banalities of a Hollywood ending. Green Book, on the other hand, reassures us that everything will be all right, so long as good white men like Tony take it upon themselves to not be racist.

In 2019, we deserve better from Hollywood than the triteness of Green Book. Thank goodness we have If Beale Street Could Talk.

Book Review: “The Last Tsar’s Dragons” (by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple)

Note: I would like to thank NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book to review.

I have to say that the title is what drew me to this strange but enjoyable little novella. How on earth, I thought, can one make dragons relevant to the Russian Revolution?

Somehow, mother and son team Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple weave together myth and history into a compelling tale of the last days of the Tsar Nicholas II and his family, their relentless hatred of both the Jews and the peasants, and their eventual fall from power.

Several notable historical figures appear in the story, including the “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin, the tsarina Alexandra, the man who would later become Leon Trotsky, and a nameless functionary whose narration bookends the story as a whole.

Of these, arguably the most compelling–and repelling–character is certainly the nameless functionary whose point of view bookends the novella. He is ruthless, vicious, and utterly willing to do whatever it takes to see to it that he advances up the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy, even if that means betraying his own wife (or engage in the murder of Rasputin). He is the only character whose narration is in first person, and this provides us an uncomfortably intimate glimpse into a psyche that is fundamentally twisted and ruthless.

Though the novella is largely driven by such characters, the authors also have a gift for capturing a fascinating mix of the fantastic and the historical. One gets a sense of the political and social ferment affecting Russia on the eve of the Revolution, as various parties struggle to cope with a country–and a world–that seems to teeter on the brink of absolute collapse. Furthermore, they also manage to bring into the open the toxic antisemitism that was such a prominent part of Russia at the time (and since).

All in all, I found The Last Tsar’s Dragons to be an intriguing tale, and it was rather refreshing to see a story told successfully in the form of the novella. At the same time, however, I for one am left hungering for more, precisely because the central conceit begs so many questions. Where did the dragons come from? Were there other places that used them other than Russia? If not, why not?

Perhaps the authors will one day pursue these questions, but in the meantime, we can savour what they have provided us, a glimpse into how the real world of history might have been impacted had the mythical played a larger part in it.