Reading list, 2021

I read 91 books in 2021. An asterisk means I was rereading something.

January

1. Garth Greenwell, Cleanness

2. Thomas Rid, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare

3. James Swallow, Star Trek: Picard: The Dark Veil

4. Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other

5. Jonathan Metzl, Dying of Whiteness

6. John Gaskin, The New Inn Hall Deception

7. Joan Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean

8. Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies

February

1. Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn

2. Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room

3. Erin Monroe et al, Gorey’s Worlds

4. Matthew Lane, Power-up: Unlocking the Hidden Mathematics in Video Games

5. Julia Quinn, Romancing Mister Bridgerton

6. Leslie S. Klinger (editor), The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft

7. James O’Brien, How to Be Right

8. Ayad Akhtar, American Dervish

9. Ayad Akhtar, The Invisible Hand

10. Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced

11. Ayad Akhtar, The Who and the What

12. Ayad Akhtar, Junk

13. S. A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass

14. Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

15. Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions

March

1. Jonathan Aycliffe, A Shadow on the Wall

2. Una McCormack, Enigma Tales

3. Justin Torres, We the Animals

4. Jenny Offill, Weather

5. Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

6. Sue Black, All That Remains: A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes

7 Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

8. Angela Slatter, Sourdough and Other Stories

9. Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood

10. Anne Boyer, The Undying

11. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

12. Andrew Caldecott, Not Exactly Ghosts

13. Kage Baker, The Hotel Under the Sand

14. Andrew Caldecott, Fires Burn Blue

April

1. Danez Smith, Homie

2. Jericho Brown, The Tradition

3. TaraShea Nesbit, Beheld

4. Lou Cannon, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power

5. Michael Cooperson, Impostures by al-Hariri

6. Miriam Toews, Women Talking

7. Kevin Barry, That Old Country Music

8. Zadie Smith, Intimations

9. Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

10. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone*

May

1. Anne Carson, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy

2. Anne Carson, Antigonick

3. Oksana Zabuzhko, Your Ad Could Go Here

4. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets*

5. Rebecca Solnit, Whose Story is This?

6. Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life

7. Fran Lebowitz, Social Studies

8. Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

9. Nicole Chung, All You Can Ever Know

10. Becky Cooper, We Keep the Dead Close

11. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban*

June

1. Anna Wiener, Uncanny Valley

2. Margaret Rhodes, The Final Curtsey

3. Donna Zuckerberg, Not All Dead White Men

4. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

5. Leah Remini, Troublemaker

July

1. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

2. Anne Glenconner, Lady in Waiting

3. Rainbow Rowell, Carry On

4. Jason Schreier, Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry

August

1. Katherine Angel, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again

2. David Baddiel, Jews Don’t Count

3. Anna Fields, The Girl in the Show

September

1. Noah Hawley, Before the Fall

2. Carrie Fisher, Shockaholic

3. Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones & The Six

4. The Secret Barrister, Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies

5. Edouard Louis, History of Violence

6. Una McCormack, The Baba Yaga

October

1. Dayton Ward, Star Trek: Coda: Moments Asunder

2. Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West*

3. Lacy Crawford, Notes on a Silencing

November

1. John Boyne, A Ladder to the Sky

2. James Swallow, Star Trek: Coda: The Ashes of Tomorrow

3. Una McCormack, Star of the Sea

4. E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime

5. Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter (expanded edition)

6. Philip Purser-Hallard, Sherlock Holmes: The Vanishing Man

December

1. David Mack, Star Trek: Coda: Oblivion’s Gate

2. Reggie Oliver, A Maze for the Minotaur and Other Strange Stories

3. John Jackson Miller, Star Trek: Picard: Rogue Elements

4. Tommy Orange, There There

5. Laurie R. King, The Murder of Mary Russell

6. Deborah Eisenberg, Transactions in a Foreign Currency

Book Notes: A Ladder to the Sky

I’m a compulsive buyer of bargain-priced e-books; if I did nothing else with my free time I might possibly be able to keep up with my purchases, but since I also watch TV and play video games I’ve more or less had to accept that collecting books and reading them are fundamentally unrelated habits. Part of the problem is that once I’ve bought one book by an author I feel more comfortable buying another, even if I’ve never read the first one. So it was that when John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky was a Kindle deal last month I felt authorized to buy it because I already had his Victorian ghost story This House is Haunted, which I bought in August 2020 and haven’t even tried to read. (The only thing about that that surprises me is that I would have guessed I bought it earlier. Probably I had considered but skipped it in a previous sale.)

It wasn’t just having another book by the same author that drew me to A Ladder to the Sky, though. It’s a literary thriller with dark satirical elements, a “What if Tom Ripley was an aspiring writer?” deal. Maurice Swift wants to be a writer, and he can put sentences together well enough, but he can’t come up with an idea to save his life. So he steals them from others, even if he has to ruin their lives in the process. The novel is divided into three parts with two interludes. The first four sections show Maurice honing his sociopathic version of the craft and rising to great heights, while in the fifth his charade is inevitably crumbling.

I say inevitably, and the biggest drawback of A Ladder to the Sky is that the course of each section is pretty predictable; not only the fact but also the manner of the various betrayals is thoroughly telegraphed, though I’ll admit one aspect of the ending took me by surprise. Straightforwardness of plot wouldn’t be a problem if the book were dramatically richer, but most of the characters are two-dimensional satires of the parochial ruthlessness of writers. Maurice himself is a little more interesting; monstrous, to be sure, but there’s something fascinating in his detached intellectual curiosity about his own lack of emotional response. This might, I suspect have been a stronger book if Maurice had been put at the center from the start. Instead the first two thirds or so are narrated by other, generally less interesting characters, though an interlude from the perspective of Gore Vidal is delightful, irrespective of how much its Vidal is like the real one.

A Ladder to the Sky is never less than elegantly written– the writers’ witty attacks on each other’s achievements may not be profound, but they’re certainly entertaining– and the plot flows along well enough that its predictability never becomes a crippling flaw. Overall it’s a book I’m very glad to have read, and I suspect I’ll pick up others by Boyne if I see them on sale. I may even read them.

Lisey’s Slog

On first reading Lisey’s Story was one of my favorite Stephen King novels, as it’s one of the author’s own favorites, and though an attempt to reread it a few years back didn’t go well I’m still fond of the book in theory. So I was looking forward to the Apple TV+ adaptation. That King was scripting it himself was a double-edged sword; it guaranteed a comprehension of and fidelity to the source material that you don’t always get with King adaptations, but King is not a distinguished screenwriter, and eight episodes for a 500-page novel is more than enough rope for a writer who loves a digression. The surprise, then, is not that the first two episodes of Lisey’s Story are an elegant-looking exercise in tedium, but that King feels less to blame than director Pablo Lorrain.

King can be faulted for the lack of narrative focus and the failure to structure the story into coherent episodes, but it’s Lorrain chilly cinematography, bland direction, and indifference to soundtrack that leave the series feeling like a long low-key dream sequence. The abrupt time jumps are surely in King’s script, but it’s Lorrain who fails to offer any visual or directorial cues as to when we’re flashing back or moving forward. And it can only be Lorrain who apparently told Julianne Moore and Clive Owen to emote as little as possible, though I can’t imagine what his reasoning was. Joan Allen and Jennifer Jason Leigh are given a little more leeway as Lisey’s sisters, but the only person actually allowed to act is Dane DeHaan, who makes full use of the opportunity to embody the psychotic folksiness of Jim Dooley.

The one upside of the blanket of indifference that Lorrain has thrown over the production is that the excessive quirkiness of most King characters is thoroughly smothered. (I also appreciate that only one performer so far has attempted a Maine accent; the one who does is predictably terrible.) But as the scenes rolled over me like waves of nothing, I started thinking that a few of those overwrought verbal tics might almost be preferable. I don’t know why anyone who hasn’t read the book would stick with this; I don’t even know how they’d follow the plot, though I thought the same thing about people understanding Game of Thrones without reading A Song of Ice and Fire, and they obviously did. I couldn’t swear that I’ll watch more, though it might make appropriate background noise while I’m playing a video game or doing housework. I’ve started rereading the book, and this time I’m enjoying it more than on my aborted reread of a few years ago. Certainly it deserved better than becoming the TV equivalent of elevator music.

Book Notes: Pre-Posthumous Joan Didion

I’m never quite sure whether to regret that Joan Didion stopped producing new work before the rise of Donald Trump. It would be easy to say that in times like these the need for her incisive insight is greater than ever, but I don’t know that that’s true. When things get terrible, it’s obvious that they’re terrible; when an intellectual culture degrades, it needs no Didion come from the pages of the NYRB to tell us this. “Fixed Opinions,” her essay on the determinedly infantile political discourse of the post-9/11 United States, is an effective piece of writing, but it doesn’t read with the urgency of something only Didion could say.

Regrettable or not, Didion’s retirement seems to be, as she might put it, the new fact on the ground. After Blue Nights in 2011, which felt like a valediction (and, dare I suggest it, seemed a work of less supreme control than the rest of Didion’s mature output), there have been 2017’s South and West: From a Notebook, trunk material drawn mostly from a June 1970 road trip through the southern United States for a piece that didn’t ultimately come together, and now Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a haphazard assemblage of twelve previously-published but uncollected pieces dated between 1968 and 2000, supplemented (a less charitable person might say “padded out”) by a Hilton Als introduction that is appreciative, basically insightful but not especially dazzling, and does little to clarify why these twelve pieces in particular appear between this set of covers.

The first six, all from 1968, appeared in Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne’s Saturday Evening Post column “Points West.” Didion is not at her best in the short form of a magazine column, and 1968 was before the deeper sense of disorder chronicled in “The White Album” had fully permeated her style and leavened the wittily chilly but superficial conservative skepticism of her early style, but these are fine work nonetheless, and have much in common with the pieces collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I particularly enjoyed “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice,” in which Didion turns on her own extreme reaction to being rejected by Stanford the same vicious irony she aims everywhere else:

I went upstairs to my room and locked the door and for a couple of hours I cried. For a while I sat on the floor of my closet and buried my face in an old quilted robe and later, after the situation’s real humiliations (all my friends who applied to Stanford had been admitted) had faded into safe theatrics, I sat on the edge of the bathtub and thought about swallowing the contents of an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin. I saw myself in an oxygen tent, with Rixford K. Snyder [Stanford’s Director of Admissions] hovering outside, although how the news was to reach Rixford K. Snyder was a plot point that troubled me even as I counted out the tablets.

The rest of the book consists of three introductions (to a collection of Mapplethorpe photos, a memoir by Tony Richardson, and a keepsake edition of three short stories by Didion herself), a lecture titled “Why I Write,” and two essays from The New Yorker. The introductions are unexceptionable, though even with a writer as gifted as Didion one is reminded of Stephen King’s observation that “you have never seen a book entitled One Hundred Great Introductions of Western Civilization or Best-Loved Forewords of the American People.” Didion’s comments on her own writing are rewarding for devotees as insight into her development and for the strange intoxication of her sharp-edged prose, but one can certainly sense why none of this material has been collected before.

The essays from The New Yorker are sharper, more substantial work. “Everywoman.com,” the only piece in this volume I’d previously read, is the closest thing in it to Didion’s mature journalism, a consideration of the Martha Stewart phenomenon written before the insider trading scandal. The other New Yorker essay is “Last Words,” a consideration of the posthumous publications of Ernest Hemingway and the larger problem of what to do with the material a great writer leaves behind after death. It’s a passionate essay, and yet one can’t help but feel, to build on a point that Als makes in his introduction, that Didion’s own writerly identity, and her similarities with Hemingway, are leading her toward a position that would leave the larger culture poorer for the theoretical benefit of those who are forever beyond actual benefit.

The irony of reading “Last Words” in its present context is that, while Didion is alive and (presumably) approved which pieces appeared in this collection and which did not, Let Me Tell You What I Mean has a similar air of the posthumous rag-bag, and its inclusions and exclusions are baffling. Gathering the Saturday Evening Post columns, which would otherwise be inaccessible outside of well-stocked libraries, is noble enough, but why none of the uncollected essays from The New York Review of Books? There’s only so much room in the collection, which is formatted, like South and West, Blue Nights, and The Year of Magical Thinking, as a tiny hardcover with wide margins, but surely an audience for whom these four late publications are Didion deserves a better ratio of substance to style? Anyone who admires Didion will buy this book and be glad to have done so, but those who know her ouevre well enough to know what it omits may be frustrated by those omissions.

Book Notes: The Angel of the Crows

This morning I finished Sarah Monette’s latest novel, the second published under the pseudonym Katherine Addison. I still haven’t read the first, The Goblin Emperor, but I’m a great admirer of the The Doctrine of Labyrinths, an epic fantasy series published under her own name that’s as much about the mental traumas of its half-brother protagonists as it is about the fates of nations. I also quite enjoy her Kyle Murchison Booth stories, period horror tales in the mold of Lovecraft and M. R. James but with a modern psychological touch. At its best, Monette’s work breathes new life into familiar tropes of popular genre fiction, which more than compensates for recurrent issues with narrative momentum and structure. Alas, The Angel of the Crows has an abundance of the latter and not much of the former.

The premise is doubly high concept: ” ‘Fantasy Sherlock Holmes’ meets ‘Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper.’ ” Dr. J. H. Doyle returns from an encounter with a fallen angel in Afghanistan bearing a limp, a deeper spiritual wound, and at least one terrible secret. Doyle soon finds lodgings with Crow, an unconventional angel who assists the police and the public in solving bizarre crimes. The dynamic between Doyle, wounded, private, world-weary, and honorable, and Crow, unearthly, curious, naive, and blunt, is the novel’s strongest feature; this would, frankly, be a better book if it had more irrelevant dialogue and less plot. The Ripper murders are used to provide a connective tissue, but the bulk of the text is given over to retellings of three of the Holmes novels (no love for The Valley of Fear) and a couple short stories. Fantasy elements are sprinkled in, and some outdated attitudes toward race and ethnicity are adjusted, but there’s nothing especially clever about how Monette reworks the canon. There’s also remarkably little ratiocination, and what there is is rudimentary.

Even the fantasy elements feel perfunctory, with an emphasis on breadth rather than depth, as if Monette has invented just as much as she needs to push the story along and doesn’t want us to linger or look below the surface. In addition to three varieties of angels there are vampires, hemophages, werewolves, hell-hounds, and more, but only the angels and to a much lesser extent the vampires are developed in ways that make them more than stock fantasy creatures. I can’t help feeling that less would have been more in this case: the angels are really all the novel needs from a perspective of world-building, and what’s done with them is intriguing but underdeveloped.

The deepest problem is that, for all that there are six distinct major plotlines here, there’s no single story that needs telling. The recastings of the Holmes canon feel dutiful rather than inspired, and the Jack the Ripper thread, after several passages in which the characters awkwardly attempt to fit the senseless, deranged brutality of the Whitechapel murders into the world of the period detective story, is resolved in an astonishingly abrupt and perfunctory manner. Some important character developments grow out of that resolution, and those sequences are effective on a sentimental level, but as the climax to a novel that has put more emphasis on plot developments than on character, it’s lackluster.

That’s the paradox of The Angel of the Crows: it’s rich in incident and each section is briskly paced and eminently readable, yet it somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. This material might have been better served by being split into short stories and novellas, though I suppose that would only serve to highlight how uninspired the individual pastiches are. In the Kyle Murchison Booth stories, Monette reworks the tropes of the antiquarian ghost story to get at different types of human frailty, but all she does here is rearrange century-old plots and sprinkle some magic on top. I can only hope that if she writes more in this universe, which there’s certainly room to do, she’ll focus on developing story concepts that play to her strengths rather than her weaknesses.

Unliving History

If science fiction is as much about the present as the future, then alternate history is as much about the actual past as the imagined one. That Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham, is alternate history as wish fulfillment (or, to echo Laura Miller, as fan fiction) is both more obvious and less interesting than just what kind of wish fulfillment it is. Although this version of Hillary wins the 2016 election, that development occurs only in the last ten pages of the novel and is almost an afterthought. The emotional engine of this peculiar, stilted book is not so much a desire for Hillary’s victory as a desire for her to be morally deserving of that victory, to be worthy in all senses of the historic role of first female president. The intellectual and historical contortions involved in producing that outcome are a reminder of how limited and fragile the role of women in American political life still is.

Rodham‘s conceit, that Hillary declines Bill Clinton’s proposal of marriage and becomes a politician in her own right, doesn’t emerge until more than a third of the way through its 421 pages. First comes a long, dreary summary of their relationship: a passion simultaneously physical and intellectual, but riven by his infidelities and by hints of corruption and worse. Given the novel’s thesis that Bill Clinton is nothing but a political and moral liability for Hillary, the question of why their marriage has endured is obviously an important one, but this material, which is most at odds with the novel’s faux-political-memoir tone, is awkward and deeply unconvincing. Several reviewers have expressed discomfort with the sex scenes, but as Andrea Long Chu astutely observes in an otherwise dogmatic review, the problem is not that the reviewers are prudish but the novel is; a description of sex in which the most explicit word is “erection” doesn’t capture anything about passion. The attempts to convey intellectual ferment through snatches of dialogue are likewise artificial; they suggest only the author’s diligent research into period-appropriate one-line topics.

What actually distinguishes Bill and Hillary’s relationship in Rodham is that it’s the only one in which a man demonstrates intense physical desire for her. There are other boyfriends before and after him, but their attraction to her seems more dutiful, more subordinated to idealized romance. Given where this portrait of Bill Clinton ultimately goes, that’s probably meant to reflect well on the other men, but readers less eager to envision a Hillary surgically excised from the man with whom she has spent two-thirds of her life may note an unintended consequence. This is a view of the Clintons’ relationship that could have come from the crudest Hillary-hater: that they stayed together because he wanted her when no one else did, and that that was only because he wanted every woman he saw, whether she wanted him or not.

That “whether she wanted him or not” is key, because the most important thing about the Bill Clinton of Rodham is not that he’s a serial philanderer and a pig, which the real Bill Clinton unquestionably is, but that he’s also plainly guilty of sexual assault. (The novel’s preferred framing is “credibly accused of sexual assault,” but it exists in that heady intellectual space where a credible accusation is any accusation that’s not obviously false, and where credibly accused means presumptively guilty. One wonders what Sittenfeld makes of Tara Reade.) One of the things that pushes the novel’s Hillary to break up with Bill in 1974 is an encounter with a woman who accuses him of forcing himself on her. Given the novel’s quirk of renaming every character who isn’t an elected politician, she isn’t called Juanita Broaddrick, and the timing is off, but that’s the obvious point of comparison. The novel Hillary of 1974 doesn’t know what to make of that claim; by 2015, she’ll be more confident.

Before 2015, though, the novel makes a stop in 1991, when the Anita Hill hearings and Illinois Democrat Alan Dixon’s vote to confirm Clarence Thomas provide a launching pad for law professor Hillary Rodham’s political career, as they did in the real world for Carol Moseley Braun. Braun also seeks the seat in the novel, and the decision to run against her is one of the few flaws the fictional Hillary is permitted to have, and one of the few moments where daylight seems to exist, however fleetingly, between the narrator and the author. That this moment feels pro forma is a sign of Sittenfeld’s ill ease at giving this Hillary any complexity, but more than that it’s a sign of how unable she is to write about political compromise on a level of issue rather than image. She understands the superficial bad optics of a white woman appropriating a black woman’s challenge to a white man’s dismissal of another black woman, and can capture the white woman’s naive ignorance of those optics, but that’s about as far as she can go. Literally the only thing the novel mentions about Moseley Braun other than her race is that she shows up late to a fundraiser but is an impressive campaigner when she does get there. If Sittenfeld had made any effort to imagine the Clinton vs. Moseley Braun campaign on a substantive level, this reliance on stereotypes about black people being late would be at least a little less offensive than it is.

The other strand of Hillary Rodham’s 1991 life is her quasi-romance with a married colleague. All they ever do is hold hands– you can see why I call the novel prudish– but nonetheless Hillary holds herself morally culpable as if they were having a real affair– you can see what I mean about ill ease with complexity. She ends the relationship when she decides to run for office. That this colleague eventually commits suicide for reasons unrelated to Hillary is, I can only guess, meant to create a sort of parallel to the suicide of Vince Foster, but his character is so thinly drawn that the effect is one of mawkish sentimentality: this is just another tragedy for poor unlucky-in-love Hillary.

By 2015 Hillary Rodham is, like Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Her main opponent, however, is not Bernie Sanders, who goes unmentioned in this novel, but Bill Clinton. In the novel’s universe, Bill’s political career went just as it did in ours until the 1992 campaign, when his 60 Minutes interview about Gennifer Flowers fell apart because his wife, lacking Hillary’s composure, broke down crying, dooming his campaign. Disgusted at his loss, Bill left politics, moving to California and becoming a billionaire venture capitalist. Then, in 2015, he re-enters politics and, despite salacious rumors about drug-fueled Silicon Valley sex parties and darker ones about a history of sexual assault, he becomes a strong contender for the Democratic nomination, one whose supporters express their opposition to Hillary by chanting “Shut her up!”

I think it’s important, especially given how few reviews have done so, to stop a moment and underline what ludicrous bullshit every bit of that is. Unnecessary parallels with real events are a fixture of cheesy, plot-driven alternate history, but the extent to which this novel remixes 2015 with Bill Clinton in the role of Donald Trump is breathtakingly bizarre, especially since Trump himself appears in the novel, in the unlikely (by which I mean “impossible”) role of a Hillary surrogate. A sequence where Hillary accepts an endorsement from Trump that is drawn verbatim from Trump’s own anti-immigrant announcement speech is the capstone of a self-indulgent reworking so complete that “through the looking glass” doesn’t begin to cover it.

I hold no brief for Bill Clinton. The nicest thing I can say about him is that given the state of the country in the 1990s he was probably the best the Democrats could have hoped for, and I’m not even sure I believe that. But to portray him as a man whose entire political career could hinge on his wife’s demeanor in one interview, a man who would turn his back on public service after one failed primary campaign, a man who would indulge gross misogyny at his own political rallies? To take at face value every sexual allegation that emerged from the fever swamp of Arkansas politics? I don’t have to think highly of Bill Clinton to recognize that this is pure scapegoating, an almost ritualistic separation of everything that’s undesirable about “the Clintons” as historical figures into a saintly fictional Hillary and a devilish fictional Bill. That the real Hillary has a complicated political history of her own is, in a context where you can simply wish any unpleasant events away, no problem at all.

In the novel’s 1992, George Bush and Dan Quayle were reelected. The Democrats took back the White House in 1996, but Jerry Brown’s one-term presidency was followed by two terms of John McCain. The 9/11 attacks still happened, and the Iraq War apparently did as well, because the snippet from Trump’s repurposed announcement speech still talks about how we should have taken the oil when we left. But even though this Hillary was a senator in 2002, there’s no mention of how she voted on the AUMF, or of any effect that vote might have had on her political future. That Trump quote is the only appearance of the word “Iraq” in the novel, and Hillary Rodham’s great political error in the 2000s is not a vote but a quote: Sittenfeld hamhandedly relocates Hillary Clinton’s 1992 remark about baking cookies and having teas into Hillary Rodham’s abortive 2004 run for the presidency. She runs for president again in 2008, seeing herself (in one of the novel’s rare nods toward anything like political realism) as a potential VP candidate at best, but somehow, as in real history, she and Barack Obama become the front-runners and have more or less the same race they did in our 2008. Hillary Rodham does not, however, became Secretary of State, thus neatly erasing the invasion of Libya, the Benghazi attacks, and the private email server from her history.

Let me be clear: I think that all of these “scandals”– the Iraq vote, Libya, Benghazi, EMAILS!!– range from overblown to complete garbage. But they did happen, and they’re as much a part of why people reacted to Hillary 2016 they way they did as Clinton baggage and rank sexism. A Hillary who, despite 24 years in the Senate, is essentially tabula rasa is an utter fantasy. There’s a scene where a Rodham aide responds to Obama’s 2008 landslide by saying, “And all these years I believed Americans were more racist than sexist.” Rodham replies, “Did you really? … Given when the Fifteenth Amendment passed and when the Nineteenth did?” Leaving the historical illiteracy to one side (the real Hillary, I hope, also knows why the Reconstruction Amendments were possible and when the Voting Rights Act passed), what that exchange misses about 2008 is the contrast between Obama’s theoretically-transformative novelty and Clinton’s potentially-stagnating experience. That was a myth– Obama was always going to be the same kind of Democrat as Clinton– but it was a convincing myth because Obama had been on the national stage for all of two years before he began running for president. What Rodham attempts to do is to make Hillary 2016 into the same kind of empty vessel, empty not just of past actions she might have to explain away, but also of nuanced positions on any current issue.

This is where the absence of Bernie Sanders from the novel’s 2015 becomes significant; in the absence of a candidate who creates a meaningful ideological contrast with Hillary, the campaign can rest on the image-driven level where Sittenfeld is most comfortable. In an interview, she responded to a straw-man version of this criticism by acting as though she was being asked to turn the novel into a white paper, but there’s a large excluded middle between “really nitty-gritty with various Supreme Court decisions” and the ideological wasteland of Rodham. What made Hillary Clinton different from other first ladies (like Laura Bush, the subject of Sittenfeld’s roman a clef American Wife) was that she got into the political rather than limiting herself to the ceremonial and the uncontroversial, that she cared about the “nitty-gritty.” To create a Hillary free to think purely for herself and then not allow her to think anything beyond a few liberal bromides is as great an insult to the actual woman as the implication that she’d be better off without her husband of forty-five years.

The author doesn’t, I should make clear, have any obligations to Hillary Clinton, who has chosen to be a public figure, and is thus fair game for almost anything, even as an absurd a love letter as this. But there’s a bitter irony in the fact that Sittenfeld, who obviously cares about how unfairly our discourse treats female politicians, is at such pains to make Hillary Rodham almost preternaturally moral. The novel’s climax is a debate speech where Rodham calls out the public obsession with her “likability,” but what is this novel except an extended argument that people ought to like her? She is allowed token flaws– elbowing out Moseley Braun, accepting Trump’s endorsement– but the novel rushes past these matters so quickly there’s no time to take them seriously as compromises. Far more space is spent on her compassion– the bond she forms with a cancer patient who visits one of her rallies– and her diligent scrupulousness.

Freeing Hillary from Bill Clinton doesn’t just separate her from his moral failings. It also takes away the figurative asterisk that will forever remind us that the first female presidential candidate from a major party was also the wife of a former president, just as many of the first female members of Congress were wives and daughters of male politicians. It’s an ugly truth, but it is a truth, and I’m not sure that Rodham does us any favors by ignoring it. Would Hillary Rodham, or any other woman, have been a credible presidential candidate in 2016, let alone 2008? The fact that 2020, a year in which an unprecedented number of women were running for the Democratic nomination, quickly became a race between two elderly white men suggests a dispiriting answer. I can only echo Nora Caplan-Bricker’s observation that the best comparison to Hillary Rodham might be Amy Klobuchar.

I’ve said very little about Rodham as an example of the novel form, because it barely is one. Its voice is unquestionably that of a political memoir, full of trivial scene-setting, stilted dialogue, and abrupt summation, and light on unvarnished human emotion. I don’t know whether Sittenfeld meant even the most intense moments of Rodham’s life to feel curated, as if the narrator is carefully controlling for her reader’s expectations, but that’s the effect. A more sophisticated novel would generate at least some irony around this, but I think we’re meant to take Hillary Rodham at face value. If Sittenfeld had embraced the cod-memoir angle and fleshed out the underexplored aspects of Rodham’s life at the expense of the flabby soap opera of her relationship with Bill Clinton, this might have worked as a formal experiment. As it stands, I’m left with the impression that she simply couldn’t find a voice for Hillary Rodham without aping the tone of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs. That’s the novel’s greatest flaw: it wants to create a Hillary who stands alone, but its protagonist is every bit as artificial, and every bit as defined by her relationship with Bill Clinton, as the one in the popular imagination.

Big Finish in Brief: Torchwood Soho and Blood on Santa’s Claw

One of the ways Big Finish has worked around availability issues with the main cast of TV Torchwood is by elaborating on the Institute’s history, from its founding by Queen Victoria to an American outpost in the 1970s to the last hurrah of Torchwood One under Yvonne Hartman. Perhaps the most prominent addition, though, is Norton Folgate, a 1950s Torchwood agent played (to the hilt) by Samuel Barnett. Norton is gay, sarcastic, playful, and, in true Torchwood fashion, utterly coldhearted when he needs to be. Big Finish have thrown into pretty much every Torchwood sub-range at one time or another, but he’s so much fun that I’m never sorry to hear him turn up. And now he has his own spin-off, with frequent foil Andy Davidson along for the ride.

In addition to Norton and Andy, Parasite also introduces two new characters, Torchwood operative Lizbeth Hayhoe (Dervla Kirwan) and journalist Gideon Lyme (Joe Shire). It shouldn’t be difficult for a three-disc story to make consistent and effective use of four characters, but the only real drawback of Parasite is that its structure is messy. It doesn’t help that for some reason each disc is divided into two episodes, even though that means that a couple of them are only twenty minutes long and all three mid-disc cliffhangers feel forced. Two of the six episodes jump to a different chronological moment to show events from a particular character’s perspective, and while it’s done effectively enough I’m not sure that level of detail was necessary. At another point a science fiction plot device is used to, essentially, put Andy and Gideon on pause for a while so Norton can shape events by himself.

I think the underlying problem is that there isn’t really enough plot here for a three-disc story. The same was true of Outbreak and Believe, the other two Big Finish Torchwood mini-series. I suspect there’s a budgetary trade-off that requires box sets at this length whether or not there’s sufficient incident to warrant them. If you described these events in a linear fashion, with a flashback or two as appropriate, you’d have a tight two-disc release. But honestly, when the characters are as much fun as this, I don’t mind the muddle. Norton and Andy’s comic double act is well-established at this point, and Joe Shire nails both Gideon’s exasperation at being caught up in their antics and his deeper weariness as a black man in 1950s London. Dervla Kirwan does what she can as Lizbeth, but all she really has for characterization is “competent woman undermined by sexism,” which is a well Big Finish has gone to several times in recent years (River Song, Helen Sinclair, Constance Clarke). Don’t get me wrong: that’s an important story to tell, but it should be the story, and it should form part of the characterization, not all of it.

After a fairly lighthearted first couple discs, the story takes a darker turn in the first half of disc three. I’m not sure it’s quite as dark as it thinks it is– Torchwood has certainly been to worse places– but it creates an appropriate counterbalance to the whimsy. That’s also what makes Norton Folgate work as a character: no matter how flamboyant his dialogue, no matter how arch Barnett’s delivery, there’s a ruthlessness to him that saves him from being a gay stereotype and makes him the perfect Torchwood character. I’d love to hear more of Torchwood Soho. I suspect a move to multiple single-disc stories would help to resolve its growing pains.

I’m going to say more about the plot of Blood on Santa’s Claw and Other Stories than I typically would, because my issue with it is that I think a lot of what happens is predictable, and you can’t talk about why things are predictable without giving away what they are. As the “and other stories” in the title suggests, this seems to be another anthology of one-part stories, with established writer Nev Fountain joined by three newcomers. Seems, that is, unless you bother to spend even a few seconds looking at the contributors’ names, in which case you will probably deduce that Al(an) Terigo, Su(san) Dennom, and A(ndrew) Lias are not new writers at all, but pen names. (I suppose we’re lucky they only needed three, or we might have been introduced to Nomia DePlume.) And, noticing the pen names, you may suspect that the reason for them is that the four stories are not as unconnected as they appear.

I could, perhaps, forgive the predictability if the twist were executed with elan, but as the revelations are handed out in part four, you don’t feel like an elegant tapestry has just been revealed; you feel like three stories that were pleasantly quirky in their own distinct ways have been raggedly stitched together for the sake of playing a game with the listener. The reveal about the mysterious new companion who was already an established part of the TARDIS crew in episode one works better; it was painfully obvious given the lack of a proper introduction that Something Was Up with him, but the explanation of what that is ties elements of the previous episodes together with a neatness that the connections between episodes themselves don’t offer.

I’m critiquing the whole for being less than the sum of its parts, but the parts themselves are rather nice; taken as two one-parters and a two-parter with callbacks it works well enough. The conceit in “Blood on Santa’s Claw” is pretty self-consciously wacky, and it doesn’t even lead to many good jokes, but I admire its oddball ambition. “The Baby Awakes” is the best story in the set, a nice slice of science fiction about designer babies that offers character work for Peri that Nicola Bryant… well, she does her best with it, but she shares with Janet Fielding the unfortunate habit of responding to emotionally heavy scenes by increasing the pitch and volume of her delivery rather than imbuing it with genuine feeling. The second disc throws in some Gallifreyan lore that isn’t any more interesting than any other Gallifreyan lore we’ve ever heard about, but the action is brisk and there are some good character moments for the Doctor and Peri. Like Parasite, Blood on Santa’s Claw and Other Stories hasn’t found the most natural form for the story it’s telling, but like Parasite, it has such a distinctive charm that I can’t help enjoying it anyway.

Nobody Knows Anything

I never watch the party conventions. I don’t pay attention to political speeches even when they’re of potential historical significance (my high school American history teacher frowned at us when no one in the class had watched Bush’s speech announcing the Iraq War, but I was and am unrepentant), so I’m certainly not going to watch a convention. Journalists provide breathless coverage of the conventions because they’re one of the key rituals of the election calendar, but like most rituals they have no evident impact on real-world events. Pundits spend a lot of time debating whether this or that will “move the needle,” even though they know any shifts in polling will be fleeting. That’s especially true of Biden vs. Trump, where the polling has been remarkably stable for months. This is deeply frustrating to horse race journalists, for whom the story of an election year is not who wins and what the consequences of that victory will be in the following four years, but the ebb and flow of the campaign itself. They’re like food service workers chatting about how bad the lunch rush was that day, because it’s there to talk about, not because it’s going to have any effect on annual profits.

Given a Republican convention renominating Donald Trump, the effects of this approach are disconcerting, to say the least. That pundits can with watch a performance that alternates between obvious violations of federal law and chants of “Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood” and respond with “Interesting strategy, let’s see how it plays in the Midwestern battlegrounds” is a major part of why we’re in this mess in the first place. In 2016 the press abrogated their duty to treat Trump’s conduct as dangerous because they were so certain the voters would reject him that they scrutinized Hillary Clinton as if she were the president-elect; now that Trump is the incumbent they’re so desperately afraid of getting it wrong again that they actively look for opportunities to treat as a serious contender an incumbent who’s badly behind in the polls and is currently bungling multiple national crises. This is an outgrowth of the ingrained belief that being allied with neither political party is the same as being neutral. But of course it isn’t that simple. Speculating endlessly about the existence of shy Trump voters gives intellectual cover to people who might otherwise have decided that he deserves to be despised. Repeating “Trump could still turn it around” often enough can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The latest flurry of panic is about a single post-convention poll in which Trump is up by two points, and about the possibility that the ongoing violence and unrest in Wisconsin might benefit him. There are arguments against this panic (it’s one poll that still shows him down by six at what should be his high-water mark, the previous round of protests and looting in May hurt rather than helped him), but here’s the reality: nobody really knows what effect anything will have. The single most important lesson of 2016 is not about racism or economic anxiety or sexism or the Midwest or the Electoral College or Russia. It’s about how little is predictable in a hyper-polarized environment where people are constantly bombarded with information from dozens of different low-quality sources. Pundits have learned to give the impression that they’re savvy, but all they really know how to do is make facile comparisons to previous election cycles. The favorites right now, for obvious reasons, are 1968, when a Republican won during a time of unrest by making law and order one of his slogans, and 1988, when the Republicans kept the White House after a Democratic challenger who was painted as soft on crime collapsed in the polls following the Republican convention.

Someone remarked on Twitter recently that the Trump era has given the left an insight into what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety. (I won’t even get into what it’s done to those of us who were already chronically anxious.) Perhaps the most important thing about coping with anxiety is learning not to let it paralyze you, because then your paralysis is just one more thing to be anxious about. When you allow a piece of news that might be good for Donald Trump to stop you from working to defeat him, you’re guaranteeing that it’s good news for him. And the upside of “nobody knows anything” is that most good news in a competitive election is equivocal. Take those historical comparisons. What if the best comparisons are not 1968 and 1988, but 1992, when a summer of unrest was followed by the ouster of a Republican incumbent, and 1980, when an incumbent who squeaked into office against an unpopular opponent lost resoundingly? And what if the parallel to 1968 is not “the Republican wins” but “the challenger who was vice-president to an extremely popular president wins because the incumbent couldn’t maintain order”?

I have no idea what’s going to happen in November. Nor does anyone else. The left should be preparing itself both psychologically and practically for the possibility of a loss, because that’s what everyone should do before every presidential election. But it should also be preparing itself for, and working to ensure, a victory. It’s hard to stay positive these days; the fact that this election is within ten points is depressing for anyone with a progressive sense of what this country should stand for. But you have to fight the war where the front lines are today, not where you’d like them to be tomorrow. One way or another, this moment will pass; to give in to a sense of defeat is to surrender your chance to influence the moment that will follow.

Running Away from the Consequences

[This review reveals more about something that happens near the end of the story Thin Time than I would like. I’ve been as vague as I can, but it’s something that’s impossible to discuss at all without making it easy to guess some of the specifics.]

Part of the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Big Finish was the rescheduling of some of the final monthly range releases. What was originally planned as a run of four for the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, and Marc was broken up, apparently because one of the stories in the second half bore an unfortunate resemblance to world events. So we’ve gotten Time Apart and Thin Time/Madquake now, with the other two to follow sometime in 2021. It’s a logical division point, since these two follow the characters on their separate journeys after the Doctor departs in Conversion, and the ending of Madquake sees them reunited to, presumably, travel together again in the remaining stories. Time Apart is a collection of four one-part stories featuring the Doctor at different moments in Earth history, while Thin Time also follows the Doctor; Madquake shows the companions coping with being left behind.

I’m a big fan of Big Finish’s anthologies of one-parters in principle, but in practice they often show up the perils of the twenty-five minute drama: it’s very hard to find a meaningful role for the Doctor, his companion(s), and multiple guest characters and also tell a story of any complexity. Having the Doctor on his own in Time Apart eases that pressure. These four stories aren’t deep or complicated by any means, but they never feel rushed, even the one of the four that doesn’t quite work.

Things start strong with Steve Lyons’ “Ghost Station,” a spooky, melancholy two-hander where the Doctor helps a border guard in an East Berlin underground station solve his partner’s murder. Given that I’ve said it’s a two-hander, you may be thinking there aren’t exactly a lot of suspects, but Lyons still finds a way to a surprising, emotionally resonant finale that earns its guarded optimism. The follow-up, Jacqueline Rayner’s “The Bridge Master,” finds the Doctor in a medieval village, cursed to die so his shadow can protect the village by guarding its newly-built bridge. This is standard fantasy-with-an-SF-explanation territory, and it doesn’t have much to offer in the way of surprises, but it’s pleasant and well-paced, and the way the resolution embodies the Doctor’s optimism and the theme of forgiveness is a nice touch.

In “What Lurks Down Under” by the late Tommy Donbavand, the TARDIS lands on a ship transporting a group of convicts to Australia. Almost everyone onboard has fallen into a mysterious trance. The reason why leads to one of those scenarios where the (quasi)-companion can give a heartwarming, thematically resonant speech to the antagonist. This has been done better elsewhere, but it works well enough here. The same can be said of the Doctor’s gentle refusal to take the quasi-companion along with him. The collection comes to an anti-climactic end in Kate Thorman’s “The Dancing Plague.” At 21 minutes it’s perhaps the shortest Doctor Who story Big Finish have ever produced, but it’s not short enough to make the ending come off as intended. It’s the kind of thing that would sound clever if I described it to you, but experienced as the payoff to a full narrative it’s limp, and makes you wonder why they bothered. If there were any substance to the guest characters or any evocation of the setting it might matter less, but everything feels very run of the mill.

The Doctor’s solo journeying comes to an end in Thin Time, when his arrival in a celebrated novelist’s London home on Halloween 1892 lands him smack in the middle of an alien presence’s invasion of our dimension. The Doctor soon discovers that reality itself is up for grabs, but what will be the cost of putting things back to the way they should be? Thin Time is a thin story as far as plot development goes– it’s largely a matter of finding ways for the Doctor not to achieve anything until the correct resolution dawns on him right at the end– but it manages not to feel thin. Its attempt to build emotional resonance around one of the guest characters is too earnest; all it does is tip the reader off that a tragic twist is surely coming down the line. The information about that twist ends up being delivered by a prominent Doctor Who character who has been recast for this release. My problem here isn’t so much that the new actor does a bad impression (it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either), as that they give a weak performance. That’s the peril of transitioning impressionists from comedy bits and audiobook narration to full-cast drama; someone who can sound like (for an example, not the person recast here) Nicholas Courtney when delivering a couple lines of dialogue here and there is not going to be able to play a scene as well as he does. And the scene here is of no small emotional import; having it poorly done has major implications even if you buy its dramatic logic– which I don’t, but more about that later. There are other characters who could have delivered this same message without any recasting being necessary, to a point where one wonders whether this was less a creative decision and more a trial balloon.

Madquake is by Guy Adams, who also wrote Conversion, and like Conversion it starts off seeming like it might be a strong, quiet character piece, and then part two turns into a standard runaround with a returning monster. The first half is very nice; Marc, Nyssa, and Tegan are coping in their different ways with the Doctor having abandoned them, and Marc is also questioning his own humanity in the face of his near-conversion into a Cyberman. I could wish that Marc showed even the remotest sign that he used to be a Roman from the first century BCE, but I suppose it’s time to give up on that. Callanna, the planet where the Doctor left them, has a healing, therapeutic atmosphere, but Tegan’s in no mood to have the edge taken off; she just wants to leave and get on with her life. Nyssa has faith that the Doctor will come back. But if the Slitheen have their way, there might not be anything to come back to…

Look. Having the Cybermen in Conversion at least made some narrative sense. There didn’t need to be an action-driven confrontation with them, but they were undeniably pertinent. Dropping a comedy monster from 15 years ago into a story about grief doesn’t make a lick of sense. Nor does holding back their presence until the cliffhanger of a two-part story when they’re on the cover and in the cover blurb. The use of the Slitheen here isn’t badly done or anything, though playing them straight as cruel hunter villains only underlines that whether you loved or hated them in “Aliens of London”/”World War Three” they were clearly designed to walk the line between creepy and funny. The problem is that they take over the story so completely that there’s no emotional development or resolution at all, and therefore no point to all the character work in part one. Everyone is still where they were when the Doctor left, and now he’s back they’ll presumably be expressing to him all the emotional beats they expressed here.

I’ll say this for part one of Madquake, though: it’s the only time out of all four discs of these two releases that I felt like the emotional stakes were being taken seriously. The Doctor feeling so overwhelmed that he abandons his companions on a random planet ought to be a huge deal, but the scripts and Davison’s performance in Time Apart and Thin Time never suggest that he’s feeling or acting particularly outside the norm. Occasionally he’ll say something wistful about being alone or about having suffered losses, but there’s no attempt to grapple with this specific situation. As I’ve said before, I applaud Big Finish for trying to do arc storytelling, but an arc isn’t something you can push into the background whenever it suits you. Time Apart shouldn’t be four stories that could fit anywhere into the Fifth Doctor’s life, but it is. The final scene of Thin Time, where [SPOILER] warns the Doctor about the consequences of what he’s done, falls flat not just because [SPOILER] is poorly performed but also because the portentousness of the scene doesn’t ring true to how casually the Doctor’s behavior has otherwise been treated.

The effect of all this is that these two releases feel less like a continuation of the arc and more like a hiatus in it to tell some standalone stories. They’re solid standalone stories, edging toward exceptional in the case of “Ghost Station,” but being positioned between weightier releases makes their unambitious adequacy that much more noticeable. It’s unfortunate that the ending of Madquake, which sets the arc back on track, won’t be followed up on for another five or six months. Here’s hoping it’s worth the wait.

Book Notes: Alan Bradley and Roz Chast

It was a productive weekend for reading; in addition to the Margaret Oliphant and Robert Shearman books I wrote about yesterday, I also finished Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in a series of fairly cozy mysteries about Flavia de Luce, a preteen girl in 1950s England for whom the word “precocious” might have been invented. She’s a talented amateur chemist, and when a mysterious stranger winds up dead at Buckshaw, her family’s country manor, she turns detective as well. I’m not averse to a cheerfully absurd old-fashioned mystery, but I’m not necessarily a great fan of them either, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about an eleven-year-old turning out to be a brilliant crimesolver. What saves the book is Flavia’s delightfully acerbic tongue, and the awareness of the tragedies of life that bubbles away just below the novel’s surface, which keep things from turning twee. The deductive leaps Flavia makes to keep the plot moving wouldn’t feel terribly plausible for any detective, let alone a tween on a bicycle named Gladys; they bring to mind a parodic exchange from a Dave Barry column (“How did you know Miss Prendergast never heard the cathedral bell?” … “You see, Lord Copperbottom is left-handed, so the gardener couldn’t possibly have taken the key from the night stand.”) But as ridiculously insightful detectives go, Flavia is definitely a keeper, and I look forward to buying the next entry in the series when I can get a good deal on the e-book.

The Roz Chast book is a short memoir about her elderly parents’ decline and death. Anyone familiar with Chast’s cartoons for The New Yorker will know that she’s capable of mining a lot of humor from that unpleasant subject, but Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is also a very sad and painfully honest book. In a mix of handwritten texts, illustrations, photographs, and cartoons, Chast explores not just the costs (both emotional and financial) of end-of-life care, but also her parents’ relationships with each other and with her. It’s a relatively brief book, but Chast makes every word count. There’s a lot of love on display, but no false sentimentality, about her parents or about herself. It’s a hell of a book, and I’d love to see her write another memoir like it some day, on whatever subject she might choose.