Andersonville

The real Andersonville,  photographed  from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

The real Andersonville, photographed from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

This year I set myself a goal of reading fewer but longer books, and to get the year started I decided to tackle a monster: Mackinlay Kantor’s 750-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel Andersonville. It took me exactly a month.

I first heard of Kantor’s Andersonville in the early 90s, when TNT aired its own Andersonville mini-series. Reviewers in the Civil War magazines I read condemned the mini-series for grossly exaggerating deliberate Confederate brutality, and compared it—unfavorably—to Kantor’s book, which they implied did the same thing. Both accusations, as it happens, are correct—for reasons I’ll get into—but I spent the next twenty-five years assuming Kantor’s book was a straightforward Yankee screed. Only in the last few years, when I discovered that he was also the author of a children’s book on Gettysburg that I had loved as a kid, did I first become mildly curious about, then genuinely interested in, and finally decide to read Andersonville.

I’m glad I did. Andersonville is a good book, if perhaps not a great one, and poses interesting questions for readers and writers of historical fiction.

The story of Camp Sumter

“Andersonville” is the popular name for Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp constructed in southern Georgia in early 1864. (The first prisoners arrived on this day 155 years ago.) Over its year and a half of existence, Andersonville received 45,000 Union POWs, who arrived by train from all theaters of war. 13,000 of them died.

Kantor sets out to tell the whole story of Camp Sumter. He begins with the land itself, exploring the woods and fields through Ira Claffey, a local planter whose three sons have all died in the Confederate army and whose plantation teeters on the edge of collapse through lack of manpower and cash. Ira meets a Confederate surveying crew looking for land for a new prison camp. They settle on a valley on the banks of Sweetwater Creek and construction begins. By the time the camp is finished and the prisoners have begun to arrive, we still have a good 600 pages to go.

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The novel excels in its narrowly focused sketches of incidental characters and the world in which they move. While Ira Claffey and his family’s losses frame the whole narrative, other characters flit in and out of the story—a white trash boy who joins the Georgia Reserves (just like Georgie in my novel Griswoldville) and becomes a guard; Captain Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born commander of the stockade; a local Presbyterian minister who tries to organize charitable donations for the prisoners; one of the camp surgeons; and many, many of the Union prisoners.

The prisoners’ chapters are particularly poignant, as they often give a prisoner’s entire life story up to his time in the camp. One harbors intense homesickness to get back to the German immigrant girl he fell in love with; another, having fled his intensely religious father, has become a prodigal son and falls in with the stockade’s villains; another has become deranged since his capture at Chickamauga and has turned informer for the Confederates, a status he comes to abhor; another is an Irish immigrant sailor trying desperately to dote on his underage boy lover; another, who learned criminality and murder at a young age in the immigrant slums of New York, gathers similarly cutthroat survivors to himself to form a gang; another, the scion of a privileged and worldly Jewish family, retreats inward, losing himself in prolonged reminiscences of his travels. Still others form pairs or trios, sometimes merely on the basis of having the same home state, to try to help each other survive. A few try to tunnel their way out, with tragic results.

And many historical figures—from the obvious Confederate officers like Wirz or his superior, General John Winder; to prisoners like Red Cap, a drummer boy who did clerical work for Wirz; diarists John Ransom and John McElroy; violent “Raider” William Collins; and Boston Corbett, a religious fanatic who, after his release, would become the man who killed John Wilkes Booth—wander in and out of the story. Even those characters that only appear for a single chapter are finely drawn, their life stories familiar, their fates worth worrying over.

The novel unfolds in an elephantine mid-century modernist style, a style that reminded me quite a bit of both Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead and any number of William Faulkner’s books, if you can imagine that combination. Kantor is also interested in typically mid-twentieth century issues—nihilism, the meaninglessness of suffering, whether religion does or does not have anything to offer, and weird sex. He does not use quotation marks and his studies of the characters often freewheel into pure stream-of-conscious remembering.

It’s dense, it’s heavy, but the sheer accumulation of detail adds steadily to the book’s power. One comes to feel the world in which the novel takes place and to sense the immense variety of the people who live in it, of all the fully lived lives coming together in this particular place in southern Georgia. It’s powerful.

Unfortunately, it can also be punishing, something Kantor surely intended but that wears on the reader after a while. When one particularly prominent character is—apparently—shot at random by a guard, Kantor diverts us from his fate for a good twenty pages before revealing that, yes, he was killed instantly. Many of the deaths in the book, of young men wasted away to nothing by starvation, exposure, and diarrhea, moved me; that one felt like a cruel trick.

After the Raiders

Kantor also never entirely overcomes one particular narrative hurdle: What happened while all those prisoners were in Andersonville? Not much, honestly, and so large parts of the book depict people simply existing. Life in the camp was a continuous struggle, so there’s narrative meat there, but it drags in places, particularly once Kantor has finished with the most notorious incident in the camp: the trial and execution of the Raiders.

The Raiders were Union prisoners, many from New York City, who recreated the predatory gang environment of their urban slums and lived off of their fellow soldiers and prisoners through theft and murder. In response, a band of prisoners calling themselves Regulators tried to create a system of mutual protection and law enforcement and ultimately fought a battle with the Raiders. Having received permission from the Confederate authorities at the camp, a jury of recent arrivals—theoretically less biased—tried the Raiders’ ringleaders and their most violent enforcers and sentenced six to hang.

A true story, and a gripping one—right? Kantor capably dramatizes the incident with a steady drip of violence from the Raiders, futile resistance by the other prisoners, and a gradual increase in tension that finally explodes in the prisoner-on-prisoner war and the hangings. But the first batches of prisoners arrived in the late winter and early spring of 1864, and the Raiders were tried in July, making the Raiders’ run of the prison dramatic but short. With this out of the way, we’re still less than halfway through the camp’s history and only halfway through the book. The rest is good, but it never quite regains the narrative momentum of this solid third of the story.

In the end, relief finally comes for the addled, dropsical, hopeless prisoners when a large number are transferred to other camps in order to reduce overcrowding. General Winder, the general in charge of Confederate POW camps and the obvious villain of the piece, dies in South Carolina. The war nears its end. From here the story becomes somewhat unfocused, seldom revisiting Camp Sumter’s stockade and giving only the vaguest sense of how things end for a number of characters, finally concluding with the surviving Claffeys—defeated, returned to the United States once more—hiring on their former slaves as sharecroppers and watching the empty prison overgrow and crumble.

Character assassination?

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Andersonville was published in 1955, just ten years after the end of the Second World War. That conflict, in which Kantor worked as a war correspondent, looms over this novel in obvious ways. An overpopulated prison camp in which a third of the inmates, who arrived by rail, died of disease, starvation, and at the hands of guards—and commanded by a German-speaking officer in a gray uniform? At the end of the novel, when Union cavalry officers arrive to arrest Wirz at his home, a more or less explicit discussion of the Nuremberg defense occupies the conversation. Camp Sumter will always look a little different since Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz joined it in the rearview mirror.

Kantor does depart from many of the immediate post-Civil War accounts of the prison by humanizing Henry Wirz—somewhat. He is a wildly exaggerated, hysterical, aggrieved man impotently trying to work out his frustrations, especially with a wounded arm that refuses to heal and a chain of command that gives him very limited real authority in his own camp. The result is his mismanagement of the prison, especially in times of prisoner unrest. Wirz’s immediate superiors, on the other hand, especially General Winder, are depicted as sadists intentionally trying to turn Andersonville into a charnel house and starve the Yankees—all propagandistic mischaracterizations originating immediately after the war.

The broader South, as seen through the Claffeys, is complicit as well. Their grief and bitterness at their terrible losses have seeded a deep desire to kill northerners at every opportunity. And though Ira Claffey in particular feels intense discomfort with the camp and the way honorably surrendered enemies are being treated, he and the others of his class are ultimately frozen into inaction by their ambivalence. And so the Yankees starve and waste away. Kantor explains Andersonville as the result of dark, archetypal resentments that somehow bring the cruelty of the camp into existence.

That makes for compelling literature but it doesn’t reflect reality and, thanks to the much wider readership awarded this Pulitzer Prize winner than any of the primary sources it was based upon, it has permanently skewed perceptions of Wirz, Andersonville, and what happened there. Subsequent dramatizations, including the TNT miniseries, have gone further. It is very difficult to watch that film version of Wirz without thinking of an unhinged Nazi commandant, a far cry from the pathetic figure in Kantor and the real person buried several layers down.

Good reading

So I finished reading Andersonville deeply conflicted. It is certainly a powerhouse of a novel, a modernist monument to what the written word can do in spinning whole lost and forgotten worlds into existence through an act of imagination, and its depiction of conditions in the camp, especially as the helpless prisoners weaken and die, is moving throughout—manifested as dread at the beginning of the novel, horror in the middle, and resignation and grief at the end. But it is also clearly a product of its time, obsessed with the things that preoccupied the post-World War II literary elite, and has only reinforced century-old myths and slanders about many of the people involved in the camp. As I wrote on Goodreads, “Four stars seems too low, but five is certainly too high.”

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

It’s a good book, but if you don’t want to invest the time and effort (literally—this book is a doorstop), check out William Marvel’s Andersonville: The Last Depot, an award-winning history published by Chapel Hill. Marvel includes all the major incidents dramatized in the novel, with special attention given to the Raiders, and assesses the charges eventually brought against Wirz at his trial, where he was convicted and hanged. It’s a well-researched, fair history of the camp from beginning to end.

Finally, nothing can substitute for a visit to the camp itself. I made the trek several years ago and have not forgotten it. Even the remoteness, a good forty minutes away from the nearest interstate, made an impression, and then there was the camp itself, with a few sections of recreated fenceline, the postbellum monuments, and the cemetery. If you’re interested in this topic, by all means read Kantor’s Andersonville, but make time to see the real place with your own eyes.

They Shall Not Grow Old

“Mind the wire.”

“Mind the wire.”

Last night I finally got to see They Shall Not Grow Old, a First World War documentary directed by Peter Jackson. It was magnificent—the best World War I documentary I’ve seen. Nothing I can say to recommend the film is as powerful as watching it, so: Go see it.

There are a couple of directions you can take a documentary on a topic as big as World War I. The one I think most of us are used to, courtesy of Ken Burns and the History Channel (once upon a time, anyway), is a God’s eye view, with talking heads by historians, maps, photos and sometimes reenactments and, depending on the subject, real historical footage. This approach mirrors the top-down narrative approach of most historical books on topics this big and historically remote.

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They Shall Not Grow Old takes a different tack, one I’ve appreciated more and more since discovering Sir John Keegan in grad school. In his seminal, discipline-changing book The Face of Battle, Keegan sought to explore not the cause-and-effect relationships leading to entire wars or even particular battles, but instead the “what was it like?” experience of combat. This gives us a grunt’s eye or worm’s eye view, a view in which the concrete details of daily existence—or the end of existence—are the focus, as they were for the people living through it. What was the weather like? How did it feel to be there? How much could you see? How did you sleep? What did you eat? And when? Did your boots rub and make blisters? How did a trench smell? What did it sound like? Perhaps most importantly—who were these soldiers?

They Shall Not Grow Old narrows its focus from the entire war to the lived experience specifically of British soldiers on the Western Front. Jackson, in a special behind-the-scenes feature that played after the end credits at the showing I attended, said his aim was to present “an accurate but generic depiction of combat” for this subset of soldiers. The film is the better for it, I think, in the same way that Dante or Jane Austen have told us so much about the human condition by minutely examining and dramatizing their tiny corner of the world. The effect of a film like this would not have been as powerful had it tried to encompass all the nations that fought.

The big draw is the scrubbed up and colorized footage from the war, and rightly so. Jackson and his team have done something really remarkable here. By slowing the old film’s framerate, stabilizing shrunken and jittery old film prints or negatives, and repairing scratches and dust, the footage ceases to be an artifact and becomes footage again—a view of people, like us, going about their business, like we do. It’s a cliche, but this hundred year old footage comes to life.

Jackson, assisted by foley artists, has also added sound to the film, further enhancing the sense of what it was like. Perhaps the most impressive feat is adding voice to the silent footage. Jackson enlisted forensic lipreaders to discern what, exactly, the men in the footage were saying (my favorite: “Hi, mum!”) and then, in some impressive historical detective work, figured out what regiments the men belonged to and hired actors from those respective parts of Britain to record the dialogue. Mutters, giggles, coughs, exclamations, jokes, and even mundane talk—a sergeant pointing out where to lay down a load, an officer reading a pep talk to his company—all make it real.

Finally, the film features no talking heads by academics or novelists, no narration by voiceover artists, but instead a audio montage of actual World War I veterans recorded during the 1960s and 70s. You’re seeing the world they saw, as much as they saw it as Jackson could manage, and hearing them describe it themselves. It’s a profoundly unselfish way to tell the story, stepping back as much as possible and bringing the audience to the past, not subjecting the past to the present.

The end result is impressive and profoundly moving. Even those of us who have been moved by these photos and jumpy old newsreels have never experienced them like this. Over the course of the film, you feel like you get to know some of these anonymous faces; something of the character, the feel of the British tommy comes through, and when they suffer and die you feel it with them. The audience I watched the film with laughed with the soldiers, chuckled at their antics, cringed at their injuries, and cried when tragedy struck.

This film presents the kind of understanding—of these men, of their lives, of what they lived through—that you can otherwise only get from memoirs and makes it graphically real. Jackson and his team deserve all the praise they’re getting.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a fitting monument to a vanished generation. Go out and see it as soon as you can.

What readers say about Griswoldville

Griswoldville has been out for a little over three months now, since the beginning of September, and the first reader reviews are coming in! It currently has 4.5 stars on Goodreads and five at Amazon. Here’s a little of what readers have said in their reviews:

Wayne, who is not only the first reviewer to post on Amazon but also the descendant of a soldier killed in the Battle of Griswoldville, calls the novel “beautifully written and compelling.” He writes:

Although I often have been disappointed with historical fiction, and generally read non-fiction, I decided to give Griswoldville a try. The historical background is familiar to me, particularly since I lost a 55 year old great-great grandfather in that tragic battle. [Jordan] Poss relates this American tragedy in a compelling, insightful manner. He advances the narrative wonderfully through compelling, very realistic characters. His prose is poetic at times, but spare and real.

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Jay, friend of the site and frequent fellow guest on Sectarian Review, reviewing Griswoldville on Goodreads, calls it “particularly readable” and “a distinctly Southern tale,” “a solid novel that should provide several hours’ pleasure to academic and amateur history buff alike.”

Rob, a South Carolina native reviewing the book on Goodreads, enjoyed “how the author took a footnote from history and turned what has been deemed an insignificant ‘battle’ into the most significant point of one man's story.” He writes that Griswoldville “captured so well the rural south that I grew up knowing, with all its joys and all its faults”:

Growing up as a young southern boy I often fascinated over what I would have done had I lived during the Civil War, and I was drawn to the gallantry and the heroism of soldiering, of war, and of battle. Poss does a great job of recognizing that thinking within all boys as he creates the character of Georgie Wax. It was easy for me to put myself in the shoes of Georgie with all of his thoughts and uncertainties. I love how Poss develops this character throughout the novel. I found myself revisiting my "growing up years" as I wrestled with life alongside Georgie Wax. This was a novel that resonates with the experience of every boy, no matter when you grew up.

He also enjoyed “the biblical theme of redemption which “was woven beautifully into the narrative” as well as Georgie’s relationship with his grandfather, Fate: “This relationship is important to me because it was my relationship with my own grandfather that was the most significant of my young life. The beauty of this relationship brought tears to my eyes!”

Amazon reviewer HuntSouth writes that “it was difficult to set this book aside” and that they loved “the readability of this book, the beautiful word smithing, and the challenge it lays out to me—to discover more about the events and the books described within it.” HuntSouth particularly appreciated Georgie and Fate, the narrator and his grandfather:

The realities of farm life and the rigors of army life, Georgie’s love of all things chivalrous, heroic and adventuresome combine to make Georgie a wholly believable militiaman, by the time he is thirteen. You will love him, his family and the nobility with which Jordan Poss imbues him. Poss is so descriptive—without being wordy—that you will carry the picture of this north Georgia setting with you, fondly. His vast vocabulary and knowledge of unique Southern practice and history come through seamlessly on every page. Responsibility, family, boyish idealism, honest emotion, the profane and the sacred all come together in a highly readable book for lovers of good storytelling.

I’m grateful for these readers, the time they invested in my story, and their kind, generous reviews, and thankful as well for everyone who has told me in person how much they enjoyed the book. Please leave a review for Griswoldville if you’ve read it, and if you haven’t, please pick up a copy! It’s available in both paperback and Kindle formats at Amazon. Enjoy!

2018 in Books

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Even if not for movies, 2018 turned out to be a great year for reading. Per my accounting on Goodreads, I read 95 books—a personal record. Most of it was good, a few things were great, and very few stinkers made it into my reading. You can see everything I counted toward my Goodreads reading challenge here.

For this year-in-review rundown of my reading, I’m going to try to keep things positive and focus on favorites. I use the word favorites purposefully—I’m not declaring these the “best” books of the year, but the ones I enjoyed, benefited from, or stopped to think about the most, with plenty of overlap in those three categories.

I will address the two worst books I read this year, but I’m going try to keep it brief. Because that’s all they deserve.

I’ve sorted things into three broad categories: fiction, non-fiction, and kids’ books. And because I can’t keep these things to a set number, you’ll find a top ten—in no particular order—with a few runners up in most of them. I also have a list of things I revisited.

Enjoy! If y’all are looking for something good to read in 2019, I hope you can find something in these lists.

Ten fiction favorites:

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Last Stand at Saber River, by Elmore Leonard. An excellent western, pitting a Confederate veteran returning from the war with his family against a pair of brothers attempting to steal his land with the Union as their excuse—all of which an amoral storekeeper works to manipulate to his advantage. This might sound like a collection of western staples, but the plotting, pacing, characterization, and the strength of Leonard’s writing set this apart. A really good good guy, some really bad bad guys, and a wonderfully realized western setting. I enjoyed this immensely.

The Line that Held Us, by David Joy. A gripping tragedy set in the mountains and hollers of Jackson County, North Carolina. Dark and suspenseful but with some hope of redemption. This is one of the best novels I read this year; I’ve picked up Joy’s two previous books and hope to read them soon, too. Read my full review here.

Unknown Soldiers, by Väinö Linna, trans. by Liesl Yamaguchi. One of the best war novels I’ve read, Unknown Soldiers follows a Finnish machine gun company through the Continuation War against the Soviets (1941-44) and has a huge flock of finely drawn, interesting characters. Linna evokes every bit of the pathos and tragedy of modern warfare in a moving and action-packed novel. Read my full review here.

Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard. It is apparently the incorrect opinion among Leonard fans, but so far I don’t actually like his crime novels as much as his westerns. This is the exception—and I loved it. Freaky Deaky follows a pair of ex-hippie ex-lovers who try to revive their Weather Underground-style terrorism for fun and profit. A parallel plot follows Chris Mankowski, former Detroit bomb squad technician turned sex crimes investigator, as he begins a new relationship and crosses paths with the terrorists. It’s hard to summarize, but it’s wonderful to read and really funny. Here’s Leonard himself reading the first chapter.

Above the Waterfall, by Ron Rash. Perhaps my new favorite novel by Rash. Read my full review here.

The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh. Think Barton Fink crossed with Bernie. One of the funniest, blackest, most shocking comedic novels I’ve read, a blistering send-up of Americans’ unhealthy refusal to confront death. This was just the second book I read this year, and it was never in danger of being unseated from among my favorites. Read my full review here.

The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. I don’t think I’ll ever make myself watch the movie, but an old episode of the First Things podcast featured an interesting segment on the spiritual power and sacramental physicality—often manifested as grossness—in this novel. It’s not the best written piece of fiction you’ll pick up, but it’s gripping and powerfully creepy, building a deep sense of dread because of human weakness in the face of supernatural evil. Father Karras’s struggles with his own faith should prove familiar to a lot of readers, and the subtle grace that comes through and finally offers salvation and redemption makes the book moving as well. To summarize from my short Goodreads review: “Brutal, gross, terrifying, and—surprisingly—uplifting.”

The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin Jr. The most delightfully and wonderfully weird book I’ve read in years. Part Chaucer, part Narnia, part Lovecraft, the novel follows Chauntecleer, king of a barnyard full of animals, in a struggle against Wyrm, an ancient force that threatens to wreck creation. A strange and gripping meditation on good and evil, love, beauty, creation, leadership good and bad, and populated with strange and memorable characters. Perhaps my favorite is Mundo Cani, a depressed dog almost pathetically devoted to Chauntecleer but who possesses a surprising reserve of courage. If you want to read a fresh, beautifully written fantasy that is by turns charming and dark, but beautiful and weird throughout, definitely pick up The Book of the Dun Cow.

The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. A classic. I had only read the abridged, illustrated version as a kid and finally got around to the real thing this summer. That’s probably providential; it’s so good that if I had read it before I wrote Griswoldville I might not have tried. Read my full Goodreads review here.

Favorite of the year:

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The Good Shepherd, by C.S. Forester. I picked this up because it’s the basis of Tom Hanks’s forthcoming film Greyhound. I’d never read anything by Forester—creator of Horatio Hornblower—and was blown away by this book. The story, set in World War II, follows Commander Krause, captain of a US Navy destroyer on convoy duty in the north Atlantic during the height of U-boat activity. As the novel begins, he comes to the bridge after a few scanty hours of rest. After his convoy blunders into the middle of a wolf pack, Krause will barely sit down, much less sleep, for the next several days.

The novel is intensely interior, with almost no characterization or backstory for anyone else on the ship. Even his own backstory—with a dead end position in the navy, a tragically failed marriage, and a transfer from San Diego—doesn’t come in until over halfway into the book. Things come to the reader as they come to Krause. Throughout, the reader thinks through what’s happening with Krause, doing the hard work of calculating speed, fuel, distance, the number of ships and depth charges remaining, where the U-boats are, how fast their torpedoes can travel—and on and on. It’s an incredibly cerebral novel that is also physically exhausting. I was tired when I finished it, a sensation I haven’t experienced since reading Deliverance ten years ago. It’s a rare accomplishment for a work of fiction.

The Good Shepherd is a great look at the guts and endurance it took to ferry supplies across the Atlantic during World War II, but the primary reason to read it is that it’s an excellent and unusual novel. It also has some wonderfully evocative religious overtones, as scripture springs uninvited into the devoutly religious Krause’s mind, sometimes in the middle of torpedo attacks. Check it out if you’re at all interested in the underappreciated side stories of World War II, or if you plan to see Tom Hanks’s film adaptation this spring.

Runners up:

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  • Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. A withering satire of the modern press, c. 1938, Scoop follows William Boot, a young man mistaken for his fashionable novelist cousin and sent to the impoverished African state of Ishmaelia to cover a war. Scathing in its critique of the media, modernism, statism, and propaganda, and also laugh-out-loud funny. Comparable to the earlier Black Mischief, which is also blisteringly satirical toward European hubris, but even funnier.

  • A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh in a more morally serious mode, dramatizing the disasters unleashed on both the innocent and the guilty by selfishness and infidelity. Read my full review here.

  • The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog, by Dave Barry. A hilarious dose of lighthearted, touching Christmas nostalgia from a kid’s-eye perspective—if that kid is young Dave Barry. A lot of fun to read aloud; I had to stop a few times to catch my breath, I was laughing so hard.

  • Fools and Mortals, by Bernard Cornwell. An interesting departure for Cornwell, from sociopathic historical hardasses to the world of Shakespeare. Engaging, a brilliantly detailed historical world, a good plot, and, importantly, a lot of fun. I’ve previously blogged about it here.

  • Gunsights, by Elmore Leonard. I believe this is Leonard’s last western, and he goes out with a bang. Exciting action and suspense, believable character-centered conflict, and a realistically detailed and well-realized historical setting, plus some barbed commentary on the way the media attempts to shape events in the name of coverage.

Ten non-fiction favorites:

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, by Prue Shaw. An excellent look at Dante’s work by a scholar with a lifetime of experience, winsomely presenting Dante’s genius and beautifully written.

The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes, by Carolyne Larrington. An excellent guide and introduction to the religious and mythic landscape of the Norse, with a careful presentation of often tricky or widely misinterpreted material by a good scholar. The best book of its kind that I’ve come across. Read my full review here.

Semmes: Rebel Raider, by John M. Taylor. A shorter version of Taylor’s biography of Raphael Semmes, a commerce raider for the Confederate navy whose activities severely disrupted Northern shipping and business. I enjoyed this little biography so much I wrote a very long review of it here last month.

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Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen. A strong, much-needed, perceptive diagnosis that most of our proposed cures for the illnesses of our time are actually just part of the illness. Deneen daringly questions Lockean liberalism, especially the concept of the autonomous individual, and convincingly argues that both “sides” of our political divide today are fighting over the same vanishing patch of turf. I’ve previously blogged about this book here.

A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of England, by Marc Morris. A detailed and deeply researched new biography of Edward I. Worthwhile if you’re at all interested in High Medieval Britain, Scotland and Wales, or medieval kingship and military history at all. Read my Goodreads review here.

A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. A lyrical, wistful recounting of the author’s youthful walk across Europe from the English Channel to Constantinople. (This volume, the first of three, ends with his journey into Hungary.) Especially interesting as Fermor made his trip just as the Nazis rose to power, so this travelogue takes the reader through a lost world in more ways than one. You can read my thoughts on the book while I was reading it, with some generous excerpts of my favorite passages, here.

Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, by Helen Castor. An excellent entry, brief but insightful, in the Penguin Monarchs series. Read my full review here.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson. I mean to review this more fully at some point, but this is a rewarding dig into what makes human beings tick and how to resolve some of the issues that plague anxious modern people. 95% common sense, eloquently expressed, supported, and argued for, with about 5% Jungian hoodoo that is nevertheless interesting. I think it says more about our culture than Peterson that he has become controversial.

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, by Alan Noble. A much needed meditation on Christian accommodation of the prevailing culture, resulting in a thin, shallow, brittle, commercialized, commodified faith that will not disrupt the world but follow after it, pulling on its apron strings. Concludes with calls for “disruptive” habits—personal habits, including even simple things like prayer before meals, and church habits, like more regular and more heavily emphasized sacraments and giving greater space to solemnity, reclaiming worship from the rock concert. Resonated quite a lot with what I had already read by Deneen (see above) and Scruton (see below), and with James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, which I read a few years ago. Noble gave me a lot to think about, especially as troubled as I’ve been by the state of American Christianity for some time.

Favorite of the year:

How to Be a Friend, by Cicero, trans. Philip Freeman. In the words of Albert Finney’s elderly gamekeeper in Skyfall: “Sometimes the old ways are best.” This is a new translation, in a nice bilingual edition from Princeton UP, of Cicero’s essay De Amicitia (On Friendship). I’ve been meaning to do a full review and recommendation since I read it, but unfortunately I finished it at about the busiest time of the semester. Suffice it to say that Cicero offers a lot of wisdom here that we could stand to recover or, at least, refresh ourselves on. True friendship is a discipline, something purposeful, and cannot demand evil, immorality, or injustice in its name. True friends should help each other to virtue—iron sharpening iron—which means that they should be devoted to something larger than themselves: truth. Good friendships, in Cicero’s estimation, must be founded on truth. In our “post-truth” age, this ancient message is the healthy counterprogramming we need. Pick this up and read it as soon as you can.

Runners up:

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  • On Human Nature, by Roger Scruton. An excellent series of lectures examining what it means to be human—that is, crucially, a person—and what obligations that places upon us. Insightful and especially relevant.

  • The Demon in Democracy, by Ryszard Legutko. A powerful one-two punch with Why Liberalism Failed, Legutko’s book expands on Deneen by examining Western liberalism and Communism as rivals for the same basic ground, philosophically and politically speaking, which is why both tend toward tyranny, authoritarianism, and the suppression of traditional institutions.

  • The Year of Our Lord 1943, by Alan Jacobs. An interesting look at the lives and thought of five Christian writers and their responses to the pressures of the Second World War. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, by Peter Kreeft. A freewheeling discussion on our intuitions of transcendence through our lived experience. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • Finnish Soldier versus Soviet Soldier: Winter War 1939-40, by David Campbell, illustrated by Johnny Shumate. A brisk, informative, lavishly illustrated examination of what combat was like during the Winter War. Read my Goodreads review here.

Worst reads of the year:

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. This book is garbage. A “hot mess” or a “dumpster fire” for the meme-addled. It’s a judgment on our culture that it’s become as popular as it has. Lazy, poorly written, overindulgent, philosophically and morally bankrupt, with insufferable characters, a contrived plot, and a completely phony moral platitude tacked on at the end, this book has skated by on the black ice of its pop culture “references,” the most vacuous and ephemeral brain candy available. Read some of my early reactions in my Goodreads review here. In April I was a guest on the Sectarian Review for a discussion of Ready Player One—primarily the film version; you can listen to that here.

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The Terminal List, by Jack Carr. I wanted to enjoy this book, because it’s in a genre I’ve enjoyed and I was intrigued by the fact that it was written by a former SEAL. While true, its author’s service was essentially a gimmick used to sell the book, along with the handful of passages redacted by the Department of Defense. The “too hot for TV!” tactic. Unfortunately, this is a poorly written and plotted mess, with serious pacing, characterization, and tone problems, loads of typos (in a professionally edited and published book!), and sometimes incomprehensible description.

The biggest problem for me, though, was its complete lack of reflection on the meaning of its story. SEAL James Reece miraculously survives an ambush that wipes out everyone in his entire unit but himself and a buddy. Upon making it home, the buddy mysteriously commits suicide and Reece starts getting ominous results on medical tests. Then Reece’s family is murdered and he sets out for revenge. Turns out that the ambush was a setup to wipe out SEALs and other special forces personnel who had been illegally used for pharmaceutical testing, a project sending kickbacks to a powerful, ambitious, high-ranking female politician with her sights set on the White House. Doesn’t sound familiar enough? Well her husband is also a former politician who was disgraced because of sexual scandal. Hm.

Turns out everyone—including the SEAL commanding officer—was in on the plot, and Reece laboriously kills all of them, working from a list kept on the back of one of his dead daughter’s crayon drawings. Not only is it obvious and manipulative, it’s a chore to read.

This was a bad enough book for artistic reasons but it crossed the line into morally bad territory. What The Terminal List and Ready Player One have in common is a gross indulgence in fantasies that simply affirm or titillate the reader. In Ready Player One it’s an affirmation that all the ephemeral video game crap you love matters—matters more than anything else in the world! It then titillates its reader with the adulation and glory heaped upon its protagonist. In The Terminal List, it’s an affirmation that all your darkest suspicions about elites and globalists are true. The titillation comes in the elaborate and gleefully relayed revenge killings.

Carr invites us to participate in Reece’s campaign of gruesome revenge, which is otherwise fairly standard for a thriller, but by making his villains obvious proxies for real world people, he’s inviting the reader into an obsessively imagined murder spree—and invited them to enjoy it along with him. That’s not a good habit of mind to cultivate, and in Carr’s book the resentment—of the Clintons, of Washington insiders, of the objects of paranoia like Big Pharma, and even of fellow SEALs who just haven’t seen as much action as Reece—drips from every page. It’s not just a bad book, but an ugly one.

Read my much shorter Goodreads review here.

Rereads:

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Old favorites that I reread this year. Several of these I revisited after more than a decade (or two). Others I listened to on my commute. All were worth it—check any of these out. They’re great.

  • The Aeneid, by Virgil, trans. by David Ferry. A solid new translation in blank verse. I read this shortly after my grandfather died, just before Christmas 2017, and it resonated powerfully with me, something I blogged about here (the most popular post of the year, incidentally).

  • The Earliest English Poems, ed. and trans. by Michael Alexander. A great collection of Old English verse, including riddles, epic (The Battle of Maldon), religious poems (The Dream of the Rood), elegies (The Seafarer and The Wanderer), and much more. Good translations with good scholarly apparatus like notes and introductions. Alexander’s translation of Beowulf is also worth seeking out.

  • Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. Reread for the first time since high school, when I read it because Stephen King featured it so prominently in Hearts in Atlantis. Far, far more powerful than I gave it credit for back then. Justly regarded as a classic. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • The Screwtape Letters and The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis. I listened to both of these as audiobooks. The Four Loves is an early version of the talks that eventually became the longer, expanded book of the same title, read by CS Lewis himself in recordings made for American radio during the 1950s. He’s great to listen to. The Screwtape Letters was the second audio version I’ve listened to, after John Cleese’s wonderfully manic and wrathful recording (now very hard to find). This version was read by prolific British actor Joss Ackland, whose wry, self-satisfied bass gave a new spin to Screwtape as the smug bureaucrat who can only be roused to wrath out of self-interest. A great performance of a great book.

  • A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Also an audiobook, brilliantly performed—accents and all—by Barrett Whitener. Reading the book is indispensable—no performance can be as funny as how Toole’s book will play out in your head—but this was really enjoyable.

  • The 39 Steps, by John Buchan. I reread this for the first time in ten years in preparation for a podcast discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation. The 39 Steps still works—a fast-paced adventure thriller that you can read in one or two sittings. You can listen to our discussion of the film, with reference to the book as well, here.

  • The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele. Reread for the first time since perhaps fourth grade. My copy still had an old Garfield bookmark and a sheet of stickers in it. Anyway, a very good Civil War novel for children, capturing some of the messiness in the South, particularly in areas politically divided between secessionists and unionists. Read my Goodreads review here.

Favorites kids’ books:

Every night before bed I read a chapter or two to my wife from a book we’ve selected—something fun and relaxing, with a dash of adventure, often for kids or young adults. I also read a lot of picture books to my kids, which has been a refreshment after the last few years of Serious Adult Literature. These are the best of this year’s lot, in no particular order:

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  • The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli. This was a nice surprise—a novel neither my wife nor I had heard of, that we only discovered while looking through a list of Newbery Medal winners (1950). This is the story of a spoiled noble boy crippled by illness who learns humility through acceptance of his condition and his submission to the practice of an art. Also nice as a medieval novel for young readers that doesn’t present a lot of Dark Ages stereotypes, but brings the reader into that world on its own terms. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. A gripping adventure story, part Robinson Crusoe, part Jack London (take your pick), part Lord of the Flies. Hatchet tells the story of a boy, already stressed by his parents’ divorce, who finds himself stranded in the Canadian wilderness following a plan crash. I blitzed through this in a few days during breaks at work—it’s excellent.

  • The Hawk of the Castle, by Danna Smith, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. A medieval picture book about falconry, following a falconer and his daughter on a hunting trip. Based on the author’s own experience with falconry, and lovingly—and beautifully—illustrated. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis. For whatever reason, I’m just now getting around to reading all of the Chronicles of Narnia, and this stands out as one of the best entries in the series (though my favorite is probably still The Silver Chair). An epic sea voyage with allegorical, chivalric overtones—one part Faerie Queene, one part Odyssey. It’s great. Reepicheep, the embodiment of honor and chivalry, is perhaps my favorite character, but everyone has a chance to shine in this one and some parts are profoundly moving.

  • In Grandma’s Attic, by Arleta Richardson. A wonderfully fun, funny, and gentle collection of frontier stories presented as the reminiscences of a grandmother. Reminded me somewhat of Little House on the Prairie, but more episodic and with a nice dash of more specific religiosity. My wife’s grandmother read these to her growing up. There are ten in the series, so there’s plenty more to enjoy. Read my short Goodreads review here.

  • Shakespeare’s Spy, by Gary Blackwood. The final volume of a trilogy following a young boy, originally tasked with stealing a well-protected copy of Hamlet, through his apprenticeship and finally membership in Shakespeare’s company of players. A fun, kid-friendly introduction to Shakespeare, drama, and the Tudor world. I’ve blogged about this series here before, in this post about Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals.

Favorite of the year:

John Ronald’s Dragons, by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. A beautifully illustrated picture book about the first half of JRR Tolkien’s life, from his childhood, through World War I, to his professorship at Oxford and the creation of The Hobbit. I’ve previously reviewed this wonderful book on the blog here.

Looking ahead:

I was going to conclude with a section on my two favorite new writers—meaning dead guys I’ve just discovered—of 2018, but this post is quite long enough. I’ve set myself a lower bar for my Goodreads challenge this year, for three reasons: my wife and I expect our third child this year, which will, naturally, affect my time—and sleep schedule; I aim to read a few longer, heavier books I’ve been meaning to get to; and I want to set aside time to work on new writing projects. We’ll see how all that goes this time next year. In the meantime, I’ll keep posting.

Thanks for reading! Happy new year!

2018 in Movies

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

2018 was not, by several reckonings I’ve read or heard, a great year for movies. There was a good bit of dreck, but a lot more sameness. Even the prestige Oscar-bait movies all look similarly tortured, similarly target the same progressive boogeymen, and look similarly self-congratulatory. And Lord help you if you’re pretty well burned out on superheroes. I’m getting close. I saw Black Panther, which was apparently a civic duty, but couldn’t muster the gumption to see Infinity War until this week. Still underwhelmed.

But there was good stuff mixed in there—and if you enjoyed the things I was just complaining about, more power to you! Seriously. I try not to begrudge people their entertainment, but I do wish we got more movies like the ones below.

Here are the five movies, in roughly ascending order, that I enjoyed most this year, along with a few honorable mentions and—to keep things positive—movies that looked good, that trusted friends recommended, but that I just haven’t had the chance to see yet.

A Quiet Place

John Krasinski in  A Quiet Place

John Krasinski in A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place proved the most pleasant surprise of the year for me. I’m not much for horror—and apparently neither is John Krasinski,* the writer, director, and star of the movie. I think that’s a strength. Krasinski’s entry in the genre emphasizes character over gore, relationships over creature effects, and atmosphere over cheap jump scares, the things a talented outsider can bring to freshen up a genre piece. As it happens, the few horror films I like are the ones that slowly build dread—a more powerful emotion than horror, I think—through character and atmosphere.

It helps that Krasinski has fashioned a classically cinematic movie. With the dialogue mostly stripped out, A Quiet Place has to rely on that ever rarer of commodities—visual storytelling. It’s a spectacularly well made movie, visually and technically, with an excellent sense of place (always an asset in horror, c.f. The Shining), and evocative sound design. But the real strength, what gives the technical accomplishments life, is the performances. Krasinski and his wife, Emily Blunt, portray a committed, nigh desperate couple trying to raise a family in a world controlled by unstoppable monsters with powerful senses of hearing. Krasinski and Blunt are excellent, as are the kids—almost always a weak point in this kind of movie.

A Quiet Place’s depiction of a family also sets it apart. The nameless family we follow through the movie is intact, led by a husband and wife who need and rely upon each other, as stable as can be expected, and attempting to carry on in the face of a situation in which other people would give in to despair. Indeed, we see exactly two other people in the film, one of whom has reached that point. The easy Hollywood route—the cliched route—with a screen couple in a situation like this would be to emphasize preexisting rifts and have plenty of screaming matches, maybe an adultery subplot, but Krasinski and Blunt emphasize—touchingly, movingly—the ordinary: a husband and wife looking after their kids and preparing for the arrival of another in a hostile world. Which is what men and women have been doing since Eden.

I think the film also does something interesting in exposing a philosophical fault line among its viewers. The people who asked, bewildered, “Why would you have a baby in a world like that?” don’t get it. The answer is Because life is worth it, utilitarian arguments be damned. It’s a terrifying and starkly beautiful vision. I’ll refer y’all to this outstanding piece by Sonny Bunch for more.

*I can’t talk about this movie without reflexively referring to Krasinski’s character as “Jim.”

The Death of Stalin

Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in  The Death of Stalin

Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin could have gone wrong in so many ways, it’s amazing it works so well. Trickiest of all is its premise. This film stages the aftermath of the death of one of history’s greatest mass murderers—a man whose war against reality took the lives of at least twenty million of his own people; who oversaw one of the largest and most brutal concentration camp systems in the world; who led his country first into an alliance with and then in a war against Hitler, a war that killed another 11,00,000+ of his soldiers and as many as twenty million of his own civilians; who enslaved over half of Europe in a campaign of political suppression, ethnic cleansing, and murder—as a comedy.

There is a lot to laugh at in socialism or communism generally and even the Soviet Union specifically—the Russians under the Soviets had a famously mordant sense of humor—but the risk is that turning these events into effective comedy will trivialize Stalin’s unbelievable evil. Astonishingly, the film manages this tightrope walk brilliantly.

The director, Armando Iannucci, is also the creator of Veep, and so knows a thing or two about political satire. His approach to the humor of Stalin’s death is to play it straight—no one in The Death of Stalin is laughing about anything, and yet it is uproariously funny. The absurdity of life under communism, of the violent ideological whiplash caused by sudden reverses of supposedly infallible policy, of the grotesque toadying of Stalin’s subordinates even as the Man of Steel lies in a puddle of his own urine, of the comically self-serving narcissism of virtually every character—all factor into the comedy, not to mention the dark zingers the characters shoot back and forth and the Office-worthy awkward moments that ensue.

That both the comedy and tragedy work is due to the performances, which Iannucci’s documentary-style, improvisatory camerawork and editing allow to shine. Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin is an excellent Molotov, the most self-deluded true believer among the Soviet inner circle. Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter’s Lucius Malfoy) proves a delightfully crass and bro-ish Marshal Zhukov, the man who captured Berlin. Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough stand out in small roles as Stalin’s children, Vasily, who surely never forgot that his father refused a chance to exchange for him when he was captured by the Nazis, and Svetlana, who eventually defected to the United States. But the film’s strongest performances are the central three: Jeffrey Tambor as Georgi Malenkov, Stalin’s weak, malleable heir apparent*; Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD and a true devil in his own right, a serial rapist and mass murderer; and Steve Buscemi as a surprisingly great Nikita Khrushchev, a resentful, put-upon brute simultaneously chafing at and fearful of Beria’s power now that Stalin is dead.

While these magnificent bastards kiss butt, comically debase themselves, and jockey for a chance at greater control of the post-Stalin Soviet Union—and, to reiterate, this is all hilarious—The Death of Stalin never loses sight of the horrible, ironic tragedy of the story it’s telling. When Beria orders an end to political executions, one unlucky prisoner is shot after the order to stop is given and his executioner doesn’t quite catch it. While Beria plots against his rivals with an underling in the basement of the Lubyanka, prisoners are shot, tortured, and rolled down the stairs tied to logs behind him.

On a grander scale, The Death of Stalin portrays a system proclaiming peace at perpetual war with itself, that, in its pursuit of pure equality, has created the zero-sum game it accuses capitalism of creating. But it’s not just an indictment of a system, our culture’s current default critique of everything: The Death of Stalin depicts the rot of people, the moral decay of little daily choices, from Stalin and his lieutenants down to radio station managers and the lowliest Red Army privates. Everything in this film—everything—comes at someone else’s expense. It’s a nasty object lesson, but one we need more than ever.

The film does take historical liberties, but this isn’t the place for hashing that out. It’s worth watching, not only as a politically canny satire or historical comedy, but as an indictment against ideology, the abandonment of truth, and the worship of man in the place of God.**

*I watched The Death of Stalin for the second time while reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life a week or two ago. Afterward, I read this in his Rule 11: “And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.”

**The reaction of Khrushchev and company to the arrival of formerly exiled Orthodox bishops at Stalin’s funeral is worthy of a gang YouTube comment atheists, a subtle point of satire of its own.

Mission: Impossible—Fallout

Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in  Mission: Impossible—Fallout

Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible—Fallout

The best action movie of the year doesn’t feature any superheroes. Mission: Impossible—Fallout* is both a great new entry in one of the most consistently excellent series yet running and a solid sequel to the last one.

Since III but certainly since IV (Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol), the Mission: Impossible series has done two things exceptionally well: stage impressive practical stunts and make them matter to the plot. Far from the extraneous, time-wasting chaos of Transformers or self-indulgent cool of The Fast and the Furious franchises, Mission: Impossible’s action scenes advance the plot and are mostly real, refusing to lean on CGI as a crutch.

Fallout takes this to even greater extremes, with Tom Cruise doing scores of sunset parachute jumps to film the HALO dive sequence, racing against traffic in Paris for a motorcycle chase, doing his own helicopter flying, and actually dangling from a cliff over a Norwegian fjord (standing in for Kashmir) in the climax. The much ballyhooed shattering of Cruise’s ankle comes during a pretty standard footchase through London that, to the producers’, director’s, and Cruise’s credit, is far more exciting than it has to be.

And that’s what sets Fallout—and its predecessors—apart: the filmmakers care. You can’t take that for granted in our era of lazy cashgrabs and paint-by-numbers sequels.

It helps, of course, that Fallout has a good plot, with interesting development of the previous film’s villain (Sean Harris) and femme fatale (the excellent Rebecca Ferguson). Ving Rhames has an expanded role, as does Alec Baldwin, whose sinister bureaucrat from the previous film has an important role to play here. Henry Cavill, with his Justice League-wrecking mustache, is a physically imposing, resourceful, intelligent—and therefore threatening—villain. The film also resolves the Mrs. Hunt situation introduced in JJ Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III, explaining what happened to that hastily introduced and abandoned love interest, both paving the way for Hunt and Ilsa Faust to have something going on in future installments and giving the franchise a bit more of a solid footing, continuity-wise.

Well plotted, solid acting by a veteran cast (even Simon Pegg’s relative newcomer Benji has been in four out of six of these now), and exciting, believable action—you could do a lot worse for pure entertainment.

*They need to find a better way to punctuate these titles. I shouldn’t have to use order of operations to remember what goes where.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in  Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado

I love the last few Mission: Impossible films, but if you want that kind of thrilling action with a bit more real-world gravitas and ethical exploration, Sicario is the franchise to beat. Sicario proved a surprise hit when it came out three years ago, with an intriguing look into a complicated, morally dicey world given life by excellent writing and plotting. The writer, Taylor Sheridan, has emerged as one of most interesting talents in the last few years, with both Sicario films to his credit as well as Wind River and Hell or High Water. The performances were excellent as well, with Josh Brolin’s cagey CIA operative Matt Graver and Benicio Del Toro’s former cartel hitman Alejandro offering black and gray contrasts to the white morality of FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, outstanding again). Thanks to the writing and performances and Denis Villeneuve’s direction, I’ve seldom been as tense as long as I was when I first watched Sicario.

This year’s sequel, originally simply titled Soldado, further complicates the world of the first film, first by expanding its scope, with events driven by terror attacks in middle America and Graver operating as far away as Somalia, and second by removing the first film’s conscience, Kate Macer. This film revolves around Graver and Alejandro, with side stories following an aspiring teenage sicario (Elijah Rodriguez) and the spoiled daughter (Isabela Moner) of a cartel don the US government has decided to take down. I don’t want to explain much more about the plot, but its tense blend of immigration politics, the war on drugs, government corruption on both sides of the border, the power of money, and the personal stakes involved in this kind of amoral Realpolitik challenge the characters to deal with the consequences of their actions. Even in a world already driven by revenge, Graver and Alejandro rely more and more on force—the only tool left to them, the laws all being flat. They ultimately choose different paths. I’m not sure either ends up happy about it.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado features a new director (Italian director Stefano Sollima) and cinematographer (Dariusz Wolski, replacing the legendary Roger Deakins) but the film is perfectly matched stylistically and especially tonally to the first one. If you’re looking for an engaging action drama that poses some hard questions about chaos, the line between good and evil, and our relationship to a government that increasingly solves its problems by killing people, Soldado is the next film you should check out.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh in “The Gal who Got Rattled,” the fifth story in  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh in “The Gal who Got Rattled,” the fifth story in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is my favorite film of the year. Hilarious and moving, beautiful and bleak, eerie and warmly romantic, this film shows Joel and Ethan Coen at the height of their powers, masters of the film medium. And they not only demonstrate their virtuosity technically and artistically, but they show that, coupled with their storytelling skill, they have something to say. This is not just art for art’s sake.

This film is an anthology, a collection of six short stories—presented literally so, with a hand opening and turning the pages of an illustrated book of Western stories as the film progresses. Each is markedly different from the others in style and tone. The first, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is almost a self-parody—intentionally so. Its verbose, aw shucks protagonist wends his way across a stereotypical Old Hollywood Western landscape, singing and engaging opponents in banter that shows off his vocabulary but that almost immediately descends into comical violence. The cherry on top is a country musical number with a tinge of the supernatural.

“Near Algodones,” about a hapless bank robber who isn’t hanged for a crime he committed but is for one he didn’t, is essentially an extended joke, complete with punchline, but it features a pinch of pathos at the end that prepares the way for the later stories. “Meal Ticket,” the bleakest of the set, is a mood piece. It follows a pair of traveling performers, an armless man who recites long passages from the classics (Harry Melling) and the man who cares for him (the great Liam Neeson, in an almost wordless performance). The story creates such a powerful sense of pathos and sadness, such a keen sense of the long years of this pair’s sad routine, that there’s almost no way it could have ended satisfactorily. It’s the most overtly tragic and least humorous of the six.

My two favorites come sandwiched in the middle. “All Gold Valley,” based on a short story by Jack London, tells the story of an old prospector (Tom Waits) seeking out and, despite some rather serious obstacles, finding a rich vein of gold. In this story the Coens show off their underappreciated skill of making people going through processes—just working on stuff—not only interesting but gripping (c.f. Llewellyn and Chigurh preparing their motel rooms in No Country for Old Men).

The longest, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” based on a short story by Stewart Edward White, is the most sincerely moving. The story of a star-crossed man and woman on the Oregon Trail, it carefully builds a warm and involving relationship between two lonesome people who find, in each other, hope for something more. The landscapes—western Nebraska prairie—are stunningly shot and flat out beautiful. The performances by the leads—Zoe Kazan as Alice and Bill Heck as Billy Knapp—are wonderfully subtle and understated, as is that of Grainger Hines as Mr. Arthur, another in the Coens’ fine lineage of taciturn men who, when the crisis comes, get crap done. And Alice and Billy’s dialogue, in a sincerely presented religious conversation, introduce what I think is the heart of the whole film: the uncertainty of the ephemeral, fleeting world we travel through (what better image could you hope for than a wagon train?), an uncertainty that means our only hope can come in the world of the transcendent. The story tragically and movingly underlines the point at the very end.

The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” uses the Coens’ skill for humor and dialogue to cast the themes of mortality and the brevity of life in pretty stark relief, showing us out the door—quite literally—with a pair of closing doors, not to learn what happens on the other side in this life.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs offers not only a great set of varied but thematically unified stories, but it’s also a cinematic delight. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, working with the Coens for the second time (after Inside Llewyn Davis) composes the vast deserts and grasslands beautifully. Look for the lone trees on the horizon in “Near Algodones” or the beautifully untouched, Edenic “All Gold Valley.” The standout is probably “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” with its gorgeous twilight wagon circle (see above) and a genuinely exciting and terrifying action scene—comparable to Rooster’s showdown in True Grit*—at the end. Carter Burwell’s score is also excellent, incorporating folk songs and western motifs while being wholly original and appropriate to the tone of each short.

I can’t speak highly enough of this one. If you haven’t seen it, go out and watch it as soon as you can. If you’ve already seen it, watch it again—it rewards reviewing.

2018 may not have had a lot of good movies, but its good ones were great.

*There are a couple of True Grit Easter Eggs—such as an appearance by Mattie Ross’s boarding house nemesis Grandma Turner—sewn throughout Buster Scruggs. It’s a lot of fun.

Honorable mentions:

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First Man—A solid, unexpectedly emotional depiction of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. I saw this film with several other dads and there wasn’t a dry eye among us at the end. The depiction of mid-1960s NASA is great and should deepen our appreciation for the men who flew to the moon on the power of vacuum tubes and reel-to-reel tape, and Ryan Gosling’s intensely interior performance is Oscar-worthy. Ignore the completely fabricated controversy—something I hope the trolls who ginned it up will suffer consequences for—and watch this when you get the chance.

Crazy Rich Asians—Romantic comedies, as a genre, have been in rough shape, torpedoed if not completely sunk by the deconstructive, improvised Apatow comedies of a decade and a half ago. Crazy Rich Asians stands to revive the genre. It’s light, fun, and follows interesting characters in an interesting and unusual locale. Its subtle explorations and affirmations of family, marriage, and fidelity are also welcome.

The Incredibles II—A worthy follow up to the original. If it lacks somewhat in freshness that can only be because of the flux of superhero movies that have arrived in the intervening years—something these characters probably helped make possible.

Outlaw King—The okayest historical epic in years. I eagerly anticipated this one and liked it, but couldn’t overlook some of its glaring problems, particularly in terms of pacing and characterization. And while it does have a few serious historical blunders, the film has its heart in the right place and is a more authentic depiction of the medieval world than we’ve gotten in years, and so I still appreciate it for what it is. You can listen to Coyle and I discuss the movie on City of Man Podcast here.

Ant-Man and the Wasp—Here’s my nod to Marvel. Ant-Man is a curiosity to me: I never look forward to an Ant-Man movie, and so far I haven’t made it to a theater for one, but I enjoy them a lot when I finally see them, and I enjoyed the heck out of this year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Maybe the low expectations are the key.

2018 films I missed but hope to catch in the new year:

  • Ralph Breaks the Internet

  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

  • BlacKkKlansman

  • Annihilation

  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

  • Der Hauptmann (The Captain)

And finally…

Older movies I just saw this year:

Here are a couple of solid movies I saw this year and want to say a word or two of praise for. They are, by pure coincidence, all World War II movies, but pretty drastically different from one another.

1944—Perhaps the most unusual movie I saw this year, 1944 is an Estonian film that depicts both sides of the war, changing sides and perspectives completely at the halfway point. Estonia, one of the small, vulnerable Baltic states, was the object of Soviet aggression well before World War II, and when the Nazi-Soviet alliance broke down Estonian volunteers found themselves in both the Red Army and the SS. The film explores one of the war’s side stories—how a small country caught between two evil superpowers picks its poison. It’s a moving, unromanticized look from the vantage of a nation that will be defeated no matter who wins.

Talvisota (The Winter War)—One of the best war films I’ve ever seen. This is the story of a fictional squad of Finnish reservists called up to defend their country against Soviet invasion during the Winter War of 1939-40. Harrowing and unromantic. I wrote a lengthy Historical Movie Monday post on this film if you want to know more.

Darkest Hour—This technically came out last year, in late December, and I’ve already blogged about it, but I’d like to get one more good word in for it before the year is out. It’s great—a brilliantly cinematic drama with powerful performances. Watch it if you haven’t.

Looking ahead

I hope y’all have had a great year and a blessed Christmas holiday, and that you’ve enjoyed some good movies along the way. Thanks as always for reading, and I hope y’all have a happy new year!

Semmes: Rebel Raider

CAPTAIN Raphael Semmes and his executive officer, John McIntosh Kell, aboard the CSS  Alabama  in Capetown, South Africa, August 1863

CAPTAIN Raphael Semmes and his executive officer, John McIntosh Kell, aboard the CSS Alabama in Capetown, South Africa, August 1863

I’ve studied infantry combat a lot and while you can never grasp every subtopic in your field, I’ve grown keenly aware of one big weakness in my studies—naval history. I’m trying to fix that, and just last week I ran across John M. Taylor’s Semmes: Rebel Raider at my local used book store. This book, otherwise an impulse buy, suggested itself for three reasons: I’m interested in the Civil War, I’m belatedly trying to learn as much as I can about maritime military history, and I also passionately enjoy short biographies of the sort that Paul Johnson writes. They’re a demanding form, the sonnet to the full-length biography’s epic, and push their authors to, in the words of Herbert Butterfield, “search . . . for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.” Happily, Taylor’s Semmes proves excellent in all three regards.

Raphael Semmes (1809-77), unlike the names Lee, Jackson, or Stuart, is probably unfamiliar to anyone with a less than an enthusiastic interest in the Civil War. Indeed, in the last round of protests of Confederate monuments, Semmes didn’t possess the notoriety to inflame even today’s protesters: “Although the protest was supposed to happen around 5 p.m.,” a Mobile news outlet reported regarding the city’s Semmes statue last year, “it appears the group never showed up.”

That Semmes is relatively unknown is strange—he was the most successful commerce raider before the era of the submarine—but not inexplicable, traits that could apply to his entire life. Born in Maryland, he joined the US Navy as as midshipman at 17 and spent almost all of the next forty years in the service, first for the United States and then for the Confederacy. Though a practicing Catholic from the South, he married into a Protestant family from Ohio and relocated to Alabama, where he tried to pursue both his naval career and a law practice. (This is not as strange as it might sound; lots of pre-Civil War military officers had side gigs, some of them much shadier than lawyering.) One can see his expertise in the law stemming from his strictly observed Catholic faith and Southern code of honor as well as his naval experience. After losing one of his first commands, the USS Somers, to a storm during the Mexican War, Semmes asked for, received, and was exonerated by a military investigation. His expertise in maritime law would prove useful for him during the height of his career.

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He served in and out of active duty in a variety of capacities—commanding naval artillery under General Winfield Scott in Mexico, a duty which acquainted him with Captain Robert E. Lee of Scott’s staff, commanding a store ship, working for the Lighthouse Service as both an inspector and Washington bureaucrat—until the secession crisis in 1860. An ardent secessionist, Semmes believed the Southern states lived under a tyranny crafted to benefit the industrial classes of the North and, especially, New England. When the Southern states began to secede following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Semmes resigned his commission and immediately accepted a position in the fledgling navy of the Confederate States of America.

After a variety of peacetime assignments (it is often forgotten that several months of peace separated the secession of the first seven Confederate states from the outbreak of war), Semmes was sent to New Orleans to take command of the CSS Sumter, a converted steam cruiser. When Semmes embarked from New Orleans in June 1861, it was the last time he would see the South for over three years.

Semmes immediately proved his mettle. He deftly escaped the Union blockade at the mouth of the Mississippi and began a rapid series of raids on northern merchant shipping. Semmes, suspicious as he was of the New England commercial class, was well-suited to the task, and captured eighteen American ships in six months. Without a friendly port to which to send captured ships, Semmes removed their crews, any useful cargo, and burned them. Of the eighteen he captured, only seven were sunk in this way, but he had sent a clear message and would have an outsize influence. Semmes’s raiding not only hurt the northern economy but also tied down valuable naval resources; “by the end of 1861 Semmes was being pursued by half a dozen vessels that otherwise would have been tightening the blockade of Southern ports (36).”

In serious need of repairs, Semmes brought the Sumter into port at Gibraltar in 1862 for refitting. There the Union navy caught up to him and kept watch for him to depart British waters. Eventually, with the Yankees too close and the estimated repairs to the Sumter too expensive, Semmes paid off his hired crew and he and his officers sailed to England, where they took command of the ship that would create his legend—the CSS Alabama.

Was there ever such a lucky man as the Captain of the Alabama?
— Admiral David D. Porter, US Navy

In a cruise that lasted just under two years, Semmes and the Alabama ranged from the Azores to the Caribbean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope twice, crossed the equator four times, and sailed as far east as Vietnam, a voyage of 75,000 miles without a stop in a single Confederate port. Along the way he captured 64 northern merchant ships, burning 52, causing nearly $7 million dollars in damage to northern shipping. Throughout, despite pursuit by the US Navy, Semmes eluded his enemies through a skillful combination of cunning, local intelligence, daring, and—once in a while—luck. Think JEB Stuart crossed with Captain Blood.

The Alabama’s cruise ended at the Battle of Cherbourg in June 1864, when the USS Kearsarge threatened to box the Alabama in and Semmes offered single combat. The Kearsarge sent the Alabama to the bottom. Semmes and his officers, rescued by a British yacht, escaped to England. Though Semmes would later claim the Kearsarge had an unfair advantage in that it had primitive armor plating—chains draped along the sides of the hull near the engine—the Alabama was in bad repair, much of its powder was wet, its shells had defective fuses (a problem for Lee at Gettysburg as well), and, most importantly, it did not need to engage the Kearsarge.

Taylor makes this seemingly unnecessary engagement understandable, because he makes Semmes understandable. Chivalrous to a fault, Semmes took extraordinary care over the legality of his seizures and chafed at northern accusations that he was no more than a pirate. He lived by a strict code strongly inflected both by his Southern culture and his religion and held himself to a high standard. That the Yankees he captured did not confirmed his prejudices against the northern industrial and commercial classes. He was appalled to capture multiple northern vessels to find that their captains enjoyed the services of “stewardesses” or “chambermaids.” Their true function could not be clearer to Semmes. “These shameless Yankee skippers,” he wrote after one such capture, “make a common practice of converting their ships into brothels (77).”

“Old Beeswax”

“Old Beeswax”

Taylor’s attention to Semmes’s character and beliefs make this short book (the main body of the text is 110 pages) especially valuable. Semmes—a short, aloof man who waxed and twisted the ends of his mustache (his men called him “Old Beeswax”), who smacked his lips as he talked, who seemed to take no special notice of anything happening below the quarterdeck but always knew what was going on aboard his ship; a strict disciplinarian; a gentleman who took pains to reassure his prisoners that they would be treated well; a Catholic who kept a shrine in his quarters; a crafty, intelligent, and aggressive raider who nevertheless had a wry sense of humor—is as colorful and timeless a seafaring character as any invented by Sabatini, Stevenson, Conrad, CS Forester, or Patrick O’Brian.

But he is also a man of his era. He not only believed in the legality of secession but came to believe it necessary: the north had a Puritan-bred culture of alien moneygrubbers that was incompatible with the older traditions of the agrarian South. He was a 19th century culture warrior. Though he only ever owned a few personal servants, he favored the expansion of slavery to provide a bulwark against the north’s economic oppression. His wartime raiding was not only his military duty, it was an opportunity to stick it to the New Englanders he held ultimately responsible for the crisis. He did not soften these attitudes post-war, either: “Avoiding the false humility and the evenhanded praise of friend and foe that would mark later memoirs,” Taylor writes,

Semmes portay[ed] the war as a struggle between good and evil in which the South is on the side of the angels. He repeatedly compares the South’s struggle for independence with the English civil war two centuries earlier. He likens the South to the king’s Cavaliers, the North to the barbarous Roundheads. As for slavery, Semmes could not conceive of blacks’ prospering in a situation where they were left to their own devices (106-7).

Taylor lays all of this out clearly and succinctly. He also writes elegantly, relating the entire career of the Sumter and the Alabama without turning the central 70 pages of the book into a litany of names, dates, and naval jargon—a striking achievement. Some passages, such as the duel with the Kearsarge or Semmes’s several daring escapes from the Union navy, are even exciting.

It’s also witty and fun, finding ways to portray the human side—that is, the absurd and surprising sides—of the war. For instance, after overtaking the Ariel, a steamer owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt bound for Panama and, presumably, the gold fields of California, Semmes discovered that instead of a haul of gold and goods “he had on his hands a packet with some five hundred passengers, including a rather embarrassed company of U.S. Marines.” When Semmes finally bonded the Ariel and let her go, the female passengers gave him three cheers. Another time, Semmes captured a ship with a personal “stewardess”—“a category of passenger of which Semmes was quite disdainful”—to the captain aboard:

In the case of [the Yankee captain’s] companion Semmes’s attitude was fully reciprocated; she was so reluctant to board the Alabama that the Confederates had to tie her into a boatswain’s chair to transfer her to the raider. Once on the Alabama, however, the feisty Irish-woman, whose name is lost to history, marched up to Semmes and denounced him as a pirate! This was one charge for which Semmes would never stand still; when the woman refused to stop her tirade, Semmes ordered that she be doused with water—the only time he treated one of his female prisoners so roughly (73).

If there is one flaw in Semmes: Rebel Raider, it is that the introductory chapter on Semmes’s pre-war life and the final chapter on his post-war career are too short, too cursory. This is more a problem with the final chapter, which passes from the publication of Semmes’s memoirs in 1869 to his death in 1877 with no description of anything in between. But this is a minor problem and natural to the form, which must be selective, and there are full length biographies of Semmes—including one by Taylor—for these details.

And speaking of “natural to the form,” Semmes’s relative lack of fame—strange but not inexplicable, as I said at the start—is due to his line of work. As a captain in a small, weak navy whose ports were all blockaded, forced to operate for years at a time without a trip home, sailing aboard a British-built ship with a hodgepodge crew of Liverpudlians and other foreigners, and commanding a few hundred rather than thousands of men, Semmes “had no legion of postwar admirers” and had won his victories at sea in what “has been perceived as a land conflict,” leaving “no ‘Little Round Top’ or ‘clump of trees’ to mark them (vii-viii).”

Semmes: Rebel Raider is an excellent short introduction to the tiny Confederate navy, to the complexity of the Civil War political scene, to the ways in which global warfare could effect events in the United States and vice versa, and to one of the great maritime commanders who is less well known than many of his contemporaries in the infantry and cavalry.

The Line that Held Us

It’s been quite a while since a novel has gotten its hooks into me the way The Line that Held Us did. Set in the rural North Carolina mountains near where I went to high school, this story by David Joy opens with an accidental killing that leads to lies, more lies, and ever more violence—including murder.

the line that held us.jpg

Darl Moody is hunting on another man’s property, hoping to shoot an out-of-season buck for some extra meat, when he spots what he takes to be a wild hog rooting around the forest in the twilight. He shoots it and finds that he’s actually killed Carol “Sissy” Brewer, a simpleminded man he knew in high school. Like Darl, Sissy was poaching—ginseng, in this case. Darl is terrified. He’s not only accidentally killed a man while committing a crime himself, the victim is a Brewer, and the Brewers are a white trash family known for their independence and violence. Sissy’s brother Dwayne is a ruthless giant who delights in provocation and cutting people down to size, and he’s the devoted protector of his little brother. If Darl confesses to the killing he’ll go to jail—and he’ll have to contend with Dwayne.

Faced with this dilemma, Darl tries to wriggle his way out of it and calls up his best friend, Calvin Hooper. After a lot of begging, Darl convinces Calvin to help him cover up the killing, and they bury Sissy in one of Calvin’s fields.

This accident and their response to it set in motion a cycle of lies, suspicion, and violence. Dwayne, whom we first meet bullying some bullies in the Franklin Walmart, proves an excellent detective and wreaks terrible vengeance as he works his way toward the truth of what happened to his missing brother. Darl and Calvin, for their part, repeatedly double down on their lies, seeking refuge in the continually shrinking cover of untruth and exposing themselves and the people they love to more and more danger.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot, but it surprised me several times—again, something I haven’t felt in a lot of my recent fiction reading. And I haven’t felt such a keen sense of dread in a long time, either. Both of these things—the surprising turns and the steadily mounting dread—stem from the powerful characters Joy has created.

Darl and especially Calvin feel like real people; I pictured them as some of the guys I grew up and went to high school with. I know the type—think of an Appalachian Llewellyn Moss—and their actions are authentically motivated and true to life. They’re independent minded but bound by bone-deep obligations to the land and their families. Perhaps the only tie that proves stronger is their friendship. Joy develops real and recognizable secondary and tertiary characters, especially Coon Coward, the old loner, fiercely protective of his ginseng patch, upon whose property the story’s tragic hamartia begins.

But the real standouts among the supporting characters are the women—the mothers, sisters, and aunts that shore up mountain communities: “For as tough as the men were in these mountains,” he writes, “the women had always been stone. They were used to loss, accustomed to never having enough. They were fit for the harshness of this world.” Chief among them is Angie Moss, Calvin’s girlfriend. Angie embodies a seemingly paradoxical pair of hillbilly qualities: intense personal independence and unshakeable loyalty to other people—in this case, Calvin, and, as we find out early in the book, their unborn child. Angie plays a small but crucial role in the book, raising the stakes both for Calvin, whose lies ensnare him and then threaten to undo his world, and for Dwayne.

Dwayne is an Old Testament prophet, moved to wrath by love.

For Dwayne Brewer is the most arresting character in the book. Scarred by his upbringing but defiantly embracing it, a bundle of ideals and resentments, violence and tenderness, Dwayne quotes the Bible with the facility of a seminarian and believes unyieldingly in the rightness and immutability of God’s law, but leaves no room for forgiveness. He is an Old Testament prophet, moved to wrath by love. His sole motive in life is to protect his beloved brother; deprived of that, his mission becomes to foretell and inflict as much suffering on the transgressors as possible. He’s at his most terrifying when he has a point.

These character traits and bonds of loyalty and obligation drive the novel. Calvin helps Darl cover up his manslaughter out of brotherly love. Angie finds deep reserves of steadfastness, endurance, and courage out of love for her unborn child. And Dwayne wreaks the havoc he does out of love for his dead brother. And all of these characters—with the exception of Angie—wrestle with the consequences of their misplaced and disordered loves.

In a novel so attentive to the damage done to relationships and human lives by one primordial sin, the ensuing deceit, and the inevitable death and damnation that must come without an unforeseen and un-hoped for mercy, it cannot be coincidence that one of the protagonists is named Calvin.

The Line that Held Us is dark; violent; grotesque in the right ways and the right places, with torture, exhumations, and brutality I haven’t even mentioned; elegantly written, with an evident love for the mountains in which it takes place; and utterly gripping. I lost sleep—and at the busiest time of the semester—to finish this book. If you want a hard look at some of the places we can go out of love and loyalty, pick it up.

*****

You can watch Joy read the first chapter of The Line that Held Us and discuss the book as a whole here. I’m not surprised to learn that Joy is a fan of Ron Rash, as am I, and he also mentions Cormac McCarthy’s Lester Ballard in describing Dwayne. A good interview, well worth watching if my review has piqued your interest in this excellent novel.

Outlaw King on City of Man Podcast

Chris Pine and Florence Pugh as Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh in  Outlaw King , directed by David Mackenzie.

Chris Pine and Florence Pugh as Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh in Outlaw King, directed by David Mackenzie.

The much anticipated (by me, at least) medieval film Outlaw King dropped on Netflix Friday. The next day, Coyle Neal of the City of Man Podcast and I sat down to talk about it. Was the film just meh? A giant turd? A bloody muddle? A merely gorier Braveheart reboot? A flawed but interesting depiction of a narrow slice of medieval history? Or was it some combination of all five? Listen in to find out, and to hear Coyle and I discuss the complexity of medieval politics, the roles and difficulties of medieval kings, and the unavoidable Braveheart comparisons. (Click through for my Historical Movie Monday post on that movie from this past Spring.)

I’ve embedded the episode in this post via the Stitcher player, but you can also listen in on iTunes and other fine podcasting media. As always, I had a ton of fun and am honored to be a guest on the show. Hope y’all enjoy!

Chappaquiddick

Last night my wife and I watched Chappaquiddick. I’d been curious about the movie since I first heard of it last year and had hoped to catch it in theaters earlier this year but never got the chance. I’m glad I finally saw it—it was worth the wait.

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Chappaquiddick dramatizes one week in the summer of 1969—the same week, coincidentally, that Apollo 11 launched, reached the moon, and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon’s surface. The weekend of the launch, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy attended a party with several friends and staffers and “the Boiler Room Girls,” young secretaries who had worked on his elder brother Bobby’s abortive presidential campaign. (By the time of the events depicted in Chappaquiddick, Bobby had been dead just over a year.) Late in the evening, Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year old secretary, left the party. About an hour and a half later, Kennedy drove off a bridge into a tidal pond. The car flipped and came to rest on its hood and roof, upside down in the water. Kennedy got out—how remains unclear—walked back to the party without attempting to get help from any houses he passed, and enlisted the aid of friends Joe Gargan and Paul Markham. After attempting to get into the partially submerged car, Gargan and Markham told Kennedy he should contact the authorities immediately and rowed him across the channel to Edgartown, where Kennedy went to his hotel room and went to bed. He didn’t contact the police until 10:00, by which time the car and Kopechne’s body had been discovered. The subsequent scandal consumed much of the next week and threatened to end Kennedy’s career.

The film dramatizes all of this in an unsensational, straightforward style that only makes it more powerful. Its cinematography, editing, design, and costuming are just right, nailing a feel of period authenticity without overindulging in 1960s clichés. It feels authentic and the time period carefully informs the plot—several characters bring up the Apollo 11 landing as a potentially useful distraction.

The film is interestingly cast, but all of the actors work well in their parts. Ed Helms (The Office’s Andy Bernard) plays Joe Gargan, an old Kennedy friend, “the only brother I have left,” according to Ted, who becomes disillusioned as a result of the carefully stage-managed scandal. Gargan is the soul of the film and Helms plays him well, as a loyalist whose conscience hasn’t completely calcified, and who pays a price for it. Jim Gaffigan, America’s favorite comedian, plays US Attorney Paul Markham, one of the two men Kennedy first trusted his story with. One especially interesting choice is Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption’s Byron Hadley) as Robert McNamara. Brown makes the weedy nerd, who tried to run the Vietnam war on stats, into a powerfully intimidating presence. (See below.) Bruce Dern as Joe Kennedy, Ted’s wheelchair-bound father, is especially good with just a handful of scenes and barely three lines. Of all the characters who hold Ted in contempt, it’s Dern’s Joe Kennedy that packs the hardest punch.

The star, and the performer who makes the whole thing work, is Aussie actor Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy. Clarke’s Kennedy is profoundly galling—a cocktail of impotent resentment and entitlement, vulnerability and grandstanding, loyalty and bottomless dishonesty. He’s also stupid. Some stretches of the middle of the film play like black comedy, as if this were a real life political scandal created by the Coen brothers. Kennedy claims to have a concussion and to be on sedatives. “Did anyone actually consult a doctor?” one of his staffers says when a New York Times reporter immediately sniffs out the deception. When old Kennedy stalwarts enter the picture to lend their help to “protect the senator”—a phrase that grows creepier the more it is repeated—genuinely capable men like Robert McNamara seem barely able to conceal their disdain for Kennedy, especially as his lies and miscalculations begin to pile up.

Chappaquiddick’s Ted Kennedy lives in the shadow of three older brothers, all dead, all more favored by his once powerful father Joe, and while the film makes this clear right from the opening credits, it doesn’t attempt to make this an explanation or excuse. It’s simply part of who Ted Kennedy is, as much as his sailboat regattas and faithful buttkissers, and what the film dramatizes is how he chooses to live with that.

What we see him do is avoid reality by walking away from the accident and refusing to report it for nine hours, shift blame by laying the burden to report the accident on Gargan and Markham, and scramble to place his contradictory half-truths and lies in the order most advantageous to him. While he talks a lot about doing “the right thing,” it’s only talk. He even comes close to using the phrase “alternative facts” at one point and, at the end, offhandedly says “I don’t know what’s right anymore.” And he never passes up an opportunity to make the death of Mary Jo Kopechne through his own negligence broader systemic problems, about his family’s legacy, about him. When he asks Gargan to prepare a resignation for him ahead of a live TV statement, he discards it and instead tries to raise political support from his viewers. Kopechne’s parents watch in silence.

And that team of capable people does rally to protect the senator. From the local sheriff to insiders in the Massachusetts DMV to former cabinet members, a Yankee good ol’ boy network comes to the aid of this shortsighted, petulant, deceitful man-child and tries to help him escape the consequences of his actions. It’s as well-crafted a depiction of the rot in our political system as we’re likely to get, so we should learn from it.

But, importantly, it’s not just a story of a crooked politician and the mafia-like cabal of enablers that kept him in office, it’s a story about the voters. The film’s sting is in its finale, as archival man-on-the-street interviews show Massachusetts voters considering the story and, mostly, saying that they would reelect Kennedy. And they did, over and over again.

Chappaquiddick’s most important lesson seems, to me, to be that while political corruption is inevitable, and there will always be Ted Kennedys, the reason it’s inevitable and the reason they stick around is because we allow them to. Gargan, Markham, McNamara, and the others were the most visible parts of the coverup, but Ted Kennedy’s real enablers were us.

Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity

One of my favorite series of books right now is the Penguin Monarchs, an ongoing set of short biographies of (almost) every ruler of England since the tenth century. The series includes forty small, handsomely designed matching hardbacks with custom jacket art and, underneath, the relevant monarch’s signature embossed and gilded. The dynasties are color-coded in bands across the spines. No set of books could have been more carefully calculated to appeal to me. It’s a little short on the Anglo-Saxons and Danes—including only Athelstan, whose story is excellently retold by Tom Holland; Æthelred, a forthcoming volume by Richard Abels, a biographer of Alfred the Great; Cnut; and Edward the Confessor—but otherwise wonderful.

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The series has also interested me because the books are so short—90-120 pages maximum for the body of the text, with a few pages of endnotes or further reading and a small index. For some of these rulers, the relative dearth of sources lends itself to a terse, concise treatment. Despite the immense power he wielded, Cnut, for example, simply goes missing from the available historical record for years at a time, so that an honest biographer must pass over large parts of the man’s life in silence.

But for other monarchs, especially those nearer the present, the writers’ questions must be different: How do I get everything in? or, better, How do I get in enough to suggest the whole picture without leaving out so much that I do violence to the subject? which is really two interlocking concerns.

It’s a tricky balance, and I think of the eighteen volumes from the Penguin Monarchs I’ve read so far, none has managed it quite as well as Helen Castor’s Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity. In this brisk, elegantly written life, Castor covers all the major conflicts, events, and personalities of the queen’s life and reign, having taken as her organizing principle Elizabeth’s insecurity or, put another, slightly more psychological way, her anxiety. And justly so—Castor begins with the execution of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, shortly after Elizabeth’s birth.

When the present queen ascended the throne in 1952, prime minister Winston Churchill noted that she, “like her predecessor,” Elizabeth I, “did not pass her childhood in any certain expectation of the Crown.” Indeed, that is one of the attractions and points of interest of the lives of both women. But it’s an otherwise superficial parallel. Elizabeth I lost her mother to the axe on her own father’s orders when she was only three months old. Through her girlhood her father, his cronies, and parliament strove publicly to declare her legally a bastard and deprive her of the rights of succession. As a teenager she had to duck and weave through a series of political and religious upheavals, first one direction under her younger brother Edward, then another under her elder sister, the Catholic Queen Mary. She was, on top of everything, a woman in a world driven by men. By the time she came unexpectedly to the throne aged 25, she was already a veteran, a canny survivor, a hunted outsider, and she brought those instincts to a position of immense but tenuous power.

Castor takes these early circumstances and deftly builds a character study of an Elizabeth defined by her insecurities. Furthermore, she does so without resorting to cheap psychoanalysis, romanticism, or any more guesswork than necessary with such a famously reticent subject, a woman whose mottoes included Video et taceo—“I see and keep silent.” Elizabeth, as Castor depicts her, is both calculating and guarded; keenly, almost painfully conscious of public image and political theatre, which she uses to her own advantage and for her own survival; silent on her father’s role in her mother’s death, but willing to use his memory to shore up her power; alive to the dangers of suitors, rivals, fanatics like the Puritans among her own subjects, and larger predators like the King of Spain, and active in espionage to forearm against these threats; heavily reliant upon a tiny handful of totally trusted advisers for political advice, military intelligence, and emotional support; and cautious in the extreme, preferring procrastination and purposeful inertia to rash decision making. Not for nothing could she be painted calmly resting her hand on a globe while storms wreck Spanish fleets outside her window, or wearing a magnificently tailored dress with a coiled viper on her sleeve and her cape covered in eyes and ears—a powerful and deadly queen of spies.

Throughout Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, Castor shows us these character traits in action, but in no crisis are they more pronounced than during the long imprisonment of Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. For a book of this size, Castor gives a remarkably clear and understandable synopsis of the events that pitted these two women against each other, and when the fatal moment comes and Elizabeth signs Mary’s death warrant, the reader almost feels her desperation at having been forced into such a decision.

Castor handles all of this very well, but I would, perhaps, like to have seen more of a moral reckoning with Elizabeth’s execution of Mary beyond the quandary into which Elizabeth was forced. The Penguin Monarchs volume on her elder sister Mary points out that while she could have had Elizabeth executed as a threat, she did not, and that Elizabeth, though she hemmed and hawed, did not scruple to spare her cousin when the time came. That’s a striking contrast, and a potentially damaging one. I would also have liked to see more on Elizabeth’s preemptive invasion of Ireland and some of England’s early efforts at colonization in Virginia. But I would hate to see such a trim, carefully constructed narrative bogged down by extra side stories.

Otherwise, I have no complaints. This short biography is fast-paced, readable, well written, and insightful. It’s a model of the kind of historical writing Herbert Butterfield described in the quotation I shared recently: “The historian is never more himself than when he is searching his mind for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.” Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, in under a hundred pages, gives the reader a real sense of the Tudor era’s complexity and danger and a sympathetic portrait of a sophisticated, secretive, and great queen. It’s magnificently done.

Do check it out if you can get ahold of it, and look into the other volumes of this excellent series.