“The American Paradox,” lectures by Heather Cox Richardson

If you haven’t been receiving Heather Cox Richardson’s daily email “Letters from an American,” you’ve been missing out. She’s also been producing (prodigiously) several series of lectures on YouTube, including “American Paradox,” which we’re told follows the main themes and points of her recent book, How the South Won the Civil War. The paradox Richardson refers to is baked thoroughly into this country: that “all men are created equal” but that “all” doesn’t mean “all”; non-white men, and non-men, as well as certain classes of men, have been excluded from the beginning, and quite purposefully so. As we’ve moved as a country toward the idea that more people should receive equal chances in life, there has been a traditional pushback that is still alive and well, based in the fear that more equality for some people somehow means less equality for the original “all men,” meaning white men with a certain amount of money and power. Richardson portrays these points through storytelling, beginning well before the founding of the U.S., and catching up with Trump’s presidency. This lecture series has nine installments of about an hour apiece.

I listened to Richardson speak while working around the house, which means she didn’t always have my total attention, but I still got a lot out of the experience. I love her infectious enthusiasm for her subject – I feel there’s nothing so inspirational as an expert really excited about their field, and she definitely qualifies. As she occasionally reminds us, she delivers these lectures without notes. It’s astonishing the depth of her knowledge, and I am very comfortable with the trade-off that she is sometimes unsure of a precise date. I also really love the connections Richardson makes across disciplines (something I’ve been working to show my students this past semester), like noting the trajectory of Shakespeare’s playwriting career against world history and technologies, as in: The Tempest‘s setting in the Bahamas places that late-career play in time, as England colonizes that part of the world, a project made possible by new designs in sails and therefore in the shapes of boats. Literature, world history, and shipbuilding technologies are all a part of the same story! This exhilarates me. She also includes references to popular books, movies and television at different points in history, noting their subtle political or ideological contributions to culture, which is a method I recognize from Stamped, where I also appreciated it.

The central paradox in our country-as-concept didn’t feel like a new idea to me, but I think she presents it so logically that this series could serve as an introduction. (Who doesn’t hear the irony in “all men are created equal,” I don’t know, but I guess they’re out there.) For me the most exciting aspects of these talks were Richardson’s mastery of her material, how neatly she integrates interdisciplinary material into a single thread, her avid storytelling, and the big-picture perspectives she brings (which is what I love most about her email Letters). She is definitely, as my father says, a “history wonk,” a geek (I say in the most loving spirit) who excels at and loves storytelling. As my father again notes, this can “result in some enthusiastic ‘really cool!’ diversions into personalities and anecdotes that risk diluting her narrative,” and she sometimes has to pause to clarify that a story might be ‘really cool’ in terms of research and meaning-making, while being abhorrent in terms of what actually happened. This can be a bit jarring, but I think if we accept Richardson’s history-geekness, we can appreciate what she has to offer, which is an extraordinary body of knowledge and ability to draw connections and see patterns, and a boundless, contagious love for her work. I’d take a history class with her any day.

If you’re still learning our history (and who isn’t?) and if you feel that it sheds light on our present and future (which I think it certainly does), I highly recommend Richardson’s expert teachings, free and online for the taking.


Rating: 9 mules downstream.

From Hell: Master Edition by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

From this list of horror novels (linked from Shelf Awareness, and thank you for that), I found From Hell, which has been a wild ride. It’s a graphic novel, it’s historical fiction, and yes, it’s horror, but none of these terms suffice. The master edition I invested in was totally worth it for the 40-page appendix (in tiny type) explicating every smallest point of the novel itself, and detailing all the research involved, where fact meets fiction, and Moore’s reasoning behind the conclusions he’s drawn. The meticulous and thoroughly-explained research was its own gripping story, and Moore’s voice in that appendix is frequently hilarious – when’s the last time I laughed out loud at an appendix?! – self-deprecating, clever, and smart. I marvel at what feels to me like rather a new form. (The only comparison, obviously, is the Maus books.)

The novel itself is a fictionalized version of the Jack the Ripper murders, their investigation, and the conclusion(s) drawn and not drawn in 1888 and the years that follow. I entered this reading not knowing much about Jack the Ripper – I knew he was a historical serial killer in London who targeted poor sex workers, did terrible things to them, and was never caught; I think I would have figured his victims at five. That’s about it. I’m not at all sure that a reader more knowledgeable of these events would be a better reader of this work; I had plenty to help me along with the included appendix, although I think I would often have been lost without it. At least, I would have missed many of the subtler references. I strongly recommend the master edition for this reason. On the other hand, with nearly 600 pages, this large-format, hardback work is indeed a phonebook, and I confess I had a few physical difficulties with it: not only size and weight, but somewhat hard-to-read printing (both the tiny-print appendix and the hand-lettered graphic novel) on glossy pages that threw some glare. I had to use more light than I usually do to read. Totally worth it, though.

Jack the Ripper is an interesting case, because it’s very well-known (even if you know as little as I did, you’ve certainly heard of it), but not well-understood. As Moore lays out here, there have been umpteen theories and suspects offered, but few solid conclusions; and now too much time has passed, and we’ll never know who really dunit. There is also something tantalizing about the time period (late nineteenth century) and the intersections of historical figures, of which Moore takes full advantage – those opportunities are clearly part of what’s drawn him to this subject matter. As he writes in a second (graphic) appendix, sort of a meta-narrative about JtR history and research and the birth process of this book, Moore was in 1988 “thinking seriously about writing something lengthy on a murder. The Whitechapel killings aren’t even considered. Too played-out. Too obvious.” And yet here we are.

It is one of Moore’s theses that “in many ways, the 1880s contain the seeds of the twentieth century, not only in terms of politics and technology, but also in the fields of art and philosophy as well. The suggestion that the 1880s embody the essence of the twentieth century, along with the attendant notion that the Whitechapel murders embody the essence of the 1880s, is central to From Hell.” Indeed, this is not just a fictionalized account of a series of brutal murders (and the conspiracies and power structures that executed them), but a carefully research account of 1880s English society, including the roles played by the royals, the Freemasons, law enforcement, medicine and technology, homophobia, misogyny, and economic forces. It is a broad investigation into history across traditional academic disciplinary lines (which is a special love of mine), and again, that appendix makes it a rich study to dip into, leaving me with high confidence in the facts that serve as structure to this fiction. It is broad and rich in concept, too, part ghost story and philosophical probe. There are depths to be plumbed here; a person could write a dissertation on this surprising book.

There’s plots and there’s plots!

I’ve been writing about Alan Moore as if he’s the author of this book – because I understand that he’s the storyteller, and clearly he’s the voice of the appendix. The other listed author is Eddie Campbell, who I understand is responsible for the graphic art itself. He is referred to in the appendix as a separate entity, often humorously: “I have decided to ignore the increasingly surly protests of my co-author, Brisbane’s own Mr. Campbell, and make Victoria herself the instigator of events.” Notably, Campbell is credited for fastidious research for his visuals: “Suffice it to say that any adequate appendix listing Eddie’s sources in the way that I am listing mine would be twice as long as this current monstrosity, which in itself looks set to end up twice as long as the work to which it refers.” The appendix’s self-deprecations amuse me. “[There is another source] to which I would refer the interested reader (I assume there’s only one of you).” I am very open to the occasional self-reference, as when a character in the story predicts: “Mark my words, in ‘undred years there’ll still be cunts like ‘im, wrapping these killings up in supernatural twaddle, making a living out of murder…” and the appendix: “Abberline’s eerily precognitive comments are my own invention. They are also, in their way, a form of shamefaced apology from one currently making part of his living wrapping up miserable little killings in supernatural twaddle. Sometimes, after all you’ve done for them, your characters just turn on you.” You get the point: I am tickled by this narrative voice, and tickled by the research narrative in itself. I can scarcely imagine this book without Moore’s appended guidance; I wouldn’t have gotten half as much out of it.

The novel is horrifying, as is appropriate for its subject matter. It is complex in its explanation of the murders, conspiracies, investigations and cover-ups, including that supernatural angle. I think it’s a hell of a wild ride in itself, but it was the additional material that made this one a complete standout for me personally.


Rating: 9 points of research, decision, and imagination.

Auberon by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Early in listening to this novella, I was pleased to be returned to the world of Corey’s imagination (and guided by the familiar reading voice of Jefferson Mays, thank goodness). By the time I looked up and saw that it was half over, I felt a little perplexed by the failure of the plot to draw me in. By the end, I felt frankly disappointed. It was a mildly entertaining return to the worlds of The Expanse, and I do not regret it, but this installment is not a stand-out. I recommend it for completist fans only; Auberon is not a good representation of the extraordinary power of this series.

Auberon is a recently settled planet, even more recently under the control of the far-reaching arm of Laconia. The novella begins when Laconian Governor Rittenaur arrives to take power, hoping to establish a firm but not abusive government. His wife, Dr. Mona Rittenaur, is to take over research operations. In an early scene (and one of the more gripping ones), a sinister older man named Erich with one bionic arm threatens the new Governor, referring to an old Earth western frontier tale: “silver or lead?” he asks, meaning will this leader be purchased by bribe or take a bullet? In the end it is a different vulnerability entirely that will expose Rittenaur to the forces on Auberon.

I found Erich’s scenes (and the bionic arm itself) the most compelling parts of this story. The characters of Governor and Dr. Rittenaur, and the moral challenges they each face, were perhaps meant to be the central and most moving bits, but I found they both fell a little flat, perhaps for lack of development. The original/central foursome of The Expanse–Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex–captured my heart completely (and make the whole series work), because they are complex, loveable but conflicted, deeply, fully developed as characters with backstories. A little more investment in the Rittenaurs might have made this novella work, but such is the challenge of the novella-length story. (For the record, Corey has sometimes knocked this shorter format out of the park. Just not here.) For me, Auberon didn’t really work. It was a fine few hours, but like I said, I don’t especially recommend it. I’m looking forward to the next Expanse novel or novella, though! This one just whetted my appetite again.


Rating: 6 automatic movements.

Barbershops of America: Then and Now by Rob Hammer

Barbershops of America is a photographic tribute to a profession, an aesthetic and a community institution. Photographer Rob Hammer documents both “the old timers… like dinosaurs about to go extinct” and “the next generation,” in two distinct sections covering more than a thousand shops all over the United States. Images are only infrequently interrupted by quotations from barbers and their customers, so readers of this coffee-table book will revel most in the visual: elderly barbers and young, tattooed ones; beat-up barber chairs and decades of detritus; colorful signage, diverse clientele and what Hammer recognizes as the soul of these storied spaces. This collection of glossy documentary art is for lovers of culture, local color and traditions passed down across generations.


This review originally ran in the November 3, 2020 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 6 cool vintage chairs.

movie: Roald Dahl’s The Witches (2020)

I recently assigned my Comp I class a book, movie, or television review, and then went looking online for examples of movie and TV show reviews, since I don’t so much specialize in those. I came across a review of a new production of one of my favorite childhood reads: Roald Dahl’s The Witches. (Dahl remains a favorite.) The TV channel who *exclusively* owns this movie offers a free trial, so off I went.

This version blends live-action and special effects to land in a place that is visually rich and simple at the same time. It’s rather beautiful (and often horrifying), but a little cartoonish. Anne Hathaway is the Grand High Witch, Octavia Spencer is Grandma, and Chris Rock narrates as the voice of the older version of the Boy; the Boy himself is played by Jahzir Bruno. The Grand High Witch has a vaguely Germanic accent (nope, wrong again). I found this movie visually pleasing, scary in all the right places, and generally a good, nostalgic return to the novel that I grew up with and loved so much. It matches the book fairly closely, with only a few variations. The pet mice from the book here become a single mouse with a backstory that the novel did not supply. And I regret that they cut the logical argument about (spoiler here; highlight to read white text) the fact that the witch-mice will be twice as dangerous as they were in womanly form, and thus will need to be swiftly dealt with as they were in the hotel, but I guess no one will miss that who doesn’t remember the novel. (The 1990 film version, which I have not seen, changed the ending. That, I don’t think I could forgive.)

What I most missed is one of my favorite details from the novel, although I think I may give it more significance than Dahl necessarily intended: all the ways that witches can disappear children, with examples, as told early in the story by Grandmother. I guess it would have been hard to put that in to a film version, and we get a parallel story instead, that of Grandma’s childhood friend Alice. It’s something I missed, though.

This film does bring race into the story in a way (as far as I know) entirely new to Dahl’s work, and I dug it. It’s just a bit under the surface, but the boy and his grandmother are Black, living in Alabama in the late 1960s, and the fancy seaside resort where they go to stay (and then encounter the massive coven of witches) is a former plantation. They are reminded that perhaps they don’t belong there – for class reasons, of course. The film makes no more of this, but there’s plenty to sit with, anyway.

Perhaps not a masterpiece of film, but a fine story to sink into for an evening. Good for nostalgia; makes me want to go back and read some Dahl all over again. I think I’d started with The BFG.


Rating: 6 drops.

The Book of Rabbits by Vince Trimboli

Disclosure: Vince is a colleague and a dear friend.


A slim poetry collection with a story at its center: Mary Toft was a young peasant woman in 18th-century England who became famous after she gave birth to more than 15 dead rabbits. The sensational story had doctors scratching their heads and the whole country riveted, until it was found to be a hoax. (This is a true story.) Throughout The Book of Rabbits, Trimboli pokes and prods at this history, questions of gender, womanhood, motherhood, class, family, agency… Some poems deal directly with the woman and the rabbits, while some approach its themes from more oblique angles, but the questions raised by Toft’s story are always present. Part of his concern is who gets to relate these events to us, centuries later. Toft herself was illiterate, at any rate in a time when women’s voices were not much valued.

A foreword by Nancy Lynée Woo gives some of this important background information on Toft’s story – I think the reader needs it – and also describes and assesses the collection some, in ways I found very helpful (because you know poetry still intimidates me). I’m a little tempted to just reprint her whole foreword here as a review, if that weren’t a copyright violation!

I love the variation of forms. There are a handful of haikus, some prose poems (some segmented), and some in different shapes on the page. There is no shortage of lovely, surprising, and thoughtful images: as Catherine Venable Moore states in a blurb on the back cover, “Rare is the poet who sees fire opals in a case of deli meats.” I puzzled over some poems, and I took advantage of having excellent access to the poet himself (Vince and I talk several times a week and sometimes daily) to ask some questions. A few poems included a pronoun whose antecedent was unclear; I considered possibilities and then asked. The author confirmed that that ambiguity was purposeful, as I suspected… I often appreciate syntactic ambiguity, but sometimes I’m not sure it’s intended. I figured it was here. “Some say this is the easiest part of being human,” Trimboli writes, in a section involving several actions; what is ‘this’? Ambiguities like this both thrill and unnerve me.

I’ve heard Vince read from this book a handful of times, so a number of these poems felt familiar, which doesn’t mean I’m not still grappling with what they mean. But I know that I love how he pushes against the gendered tensions of control, choice, and voice. There’s plenty to keep coming back to here, for someone like me who puzzles over poetry.

Some of my favorite poems are “This Is a Story About Poverty,” “Notes from a Field Trip to the Slaughterhouse,” “The Fourth Dream: Deus Ex Machina,” and of course a longtime favorite, “Haiku: Anatomy” (which confused a male undergraduate of mine this semester – naturally). I love lines like…

meats too rich for her purse

postpartum change purse

all pearls are traumas

fear is as much a part of hunger as the eating

And I think there’s a lot here to think about. Glad to know you, Vince.


Rating: 8 gossamer sacks.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Liz recommended this book to me (in the audio format) as an excellent, succinct, accessible history of racism (including its purposeful invention) and antiracism, and she was (as usual) right. This is an outstanding introduction to, or review of, the concepts of race and racism in this country, in the context of world history. It’s truly for everyone: those new to such a history will find it manageable, and those not new will learn something new or at least have that larger picture – race in America within world history – clarified in useful ways. The audiobook is just four hours long, and every minute of it is engrossing. I wholeheartedly second Liz’s recommendation.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is a “remix” of Ibrim X. Kendi’s highly-regarded Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It’s approximately half the length (300 vs. 600 pages). I have not read the latter, fuller version, but my father should be finishing it anytime, and he’s appreciative; perhaps he’ll give us a review to partner with this one. Tables of contents show that the content of each books lines up neatly; they do appear to be two versions of the same material, and I think it’s a real service to give both versions to the world. For this remix, Kendi is joined by young adult novelist Jason Reynolds, who also narrates the audio version (excepting the introduction, delivered by Kendi). It’s my impression that Reynolds does the remixing of Kendi’s original work, bringing his facility with younger readers. The book is labeled for ages 12 and up, but to characterize this as a book for younger readers is too limiting; it’s great for adults, too.

The opening chapter begins,

This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitution (that too), a court case or two, and, of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!). This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book.

And I want to start there because I’m interested in that characterization of what makes a history book. Between you and me, I would like to assert that this is a history book, but I get what the authors are up to here: for those younger readers (or for all of us!), they’re trying to distance themselves from the dry and boring history book, the traditional history book, that separates “history” from what matters in the here-and-now. I think this is a history book, in all the best ways – one for history books to emulate.

Having gotten that out of the way: five sections organize the broad scope of this history. They are organized by years. “Section 1: 1415-1728” opens with “The Story of the World’s First Racist.” (In Stamped From the Beginning [SFtB], Part I is titled “Cotton Mather.” He is not the world’s first racist – that title goes to Gomes Eanes de Zurara.) “Section 2: 1743-1826” corresponds to SFtB‘s “Thomas Jefferson.” “Section 3: 1826-1879” corresponds to William Lloyd Garrison; “Section 4: 1868-1963” is W.E.B. Du Bois, and “Section 5: 1963-Today” is Angela Davis. Those section headings from SFtB appeal to me. Obviously the date ranges handle more than the lives of each individual, but I appreciate the choice of an individual for each section of history, and of the progress of racism in America. Methodically, then, Kendi & Reynolds move through history from the 1400s, and Zurara’s invention of racism (in Europe), to the present day. They hit the highlights in terms of events, personalities, laws, cultural shifts, and theories of race and racism and antiracism, the intellectual arguments offered for why some people should be kept under the boots of other people. I love that they note the markers in media and art for racist thinking, too, commenting on the timing and context of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, Birth of a Nation, Tarzan, and Planet of the Apes. I’m a big fan of spotting the connections across (what we think of as) disparate threads of history and study: movies, literature, history. I think it deepens our understanding of each to see how they fit together.

I found Reynolds’s audio narration completely lovely, and would listen to anything else he reads.

I understand that SFtB is an excellent, deep, rich, dense study. I know I have a lot to learn from it, and I hope to get to it sooner than later. The work of a book like that is important. But I’m so grateful that Stamped exists, too. It’s a truly masterful achievement to make such a swath of history so accessible in just 300 pages, and there are some pretty involved theories and concepts expressed here in a package that I think anyone can grasp (again, it’s labeled for ages 12 and up). I think this book is likely to reach even more people than SFtB. As Liz suggested, I can realistically recommend this one to my first-year college students. This is a book for anyone and everyone. It proves, through history and observations and stories, that we are not living in a post-racial world; racism (and a caste system based upon race) is alive and well in this country and culture, even if it’s learned to disguise itself – that just makes it more important that we learn how to recognize it in its trickier forms. Stamped is the book to help us begin that work. Recommended for everyone.


Rating: 9 privileges.

A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Having loved Yuri Herrera’s trilogy of novellas, I was excited to learn he had a new book out this year, his first nonfiction, and again translated by the outstanding Lisa Dillman. A Silent Fury is a slim history of a 100-years-ago tragedy in Herrera’s hometown of Pachuca, Hidalgo, in central Mexico. It is minimalist because records are minimal, but it is lyrical and powerful in its minimalism, and a righteous fury does shine through it. I’m ready to follow Herrera (and Dillman) anywhere.

The El Bordo mine, owned by a subsidiary of the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company, caught fire on March 10, 1920. Within hours, the company estimated that “no more than ten” men remained inside, and that they were certainly dead; they ordered all three mine shafts sealed. Six days later, when the mines was reopened, seven men came out alive. Some eighty-seven were dead.

The story is full of problems, horrors, holes. How did the fire start? When did the fire start? What made the company so sure there were no survivors (when they would turn out to be so horrifically wrong)? How many died because of their decision to seal the shafts? What responsibility does the company bear? (The appointed investigation would go out of its way to swear up and down that the company was blameless.) There exist almost no documents bearing the voices of mine workers, survivors of the fire, or families of those lost. Herrera pieces together what he can from a case file and a few news stories.

But there are also oral accounts, given by miners and their families, and it was through these that I learned about the fire: there are at least two crónicas, one by Félix Castillo, the other by José Luis Islas; and a novel by Rodolfo Benavides. All were written years afterwards.

This book, like those accounts, refuses the judicial truth that reduces this history to a file in the archive. But none of these words are mine.

Instead, Herrera writes, he reconstructs events using the accounts available, choosing the most credible version where there are several, and pointing out contradictions and omissions. “Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.” For me, then, this book is in part a commentary on what history is. There is certainly commentary; it is not literally true that none of these words are Herrera’s. Of the surviving seven miners who came out of the sealed shaft after six days, the company’s doctor and local officials agreed

that the miners were “in a perfect state of health and had no internal or external injuries,” save for the fact that a few were in “an advanced state of starvation.” They really said that: in a perfect state of health but starving to death. Rarely has a boss expressed so honestly what, in his opinion, the perfect worker is like.

We hear Herrera’s quiet (but not silent) anger again when he recounts the struggles of the family members of the dead miners, in a section titled “The Women’s Fire.” Wives, common-law wives, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers were asked to prove their relationships to the deceased, in order to qualify for compensation. “Every single one of the qualified witnesses called in to vouch for the truthfulness of their testimony was male.” This kind of simple sentence communicates a great deal of emotion.

Silence is a recurrent thread in this story. The title occurs verbatim in just one moment: in a photograph of the seven survivors, Herrera tells us that “they don’t look like they just escaped from hell… with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”

I say again: they sealed the mine shafts on nearly one hundred men, for six days.

This book is deeply moving in its brevity, with a clear grasp of the power of white spaces, what is left unsaid – silence. Herrera is the right writer to probe this story again. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking.


Rating: 8 signatures.

Stillicide by Cynan Jones

This minimalist meditation on climate change and human choices offers stark realism, haunting characters and lovely lyricism.

Cynan Jones (Everything I Found on the Beach; Cove) beautifully reprises his distinctive voice and poignant themes in Stillicide, a novel of climate change and human relationships. This novella-length meditation excels in its thoughtful considerations, quietly lyrical language and memorable lines and characters.

Water is rare and sought after. A water train has replaced the old pipeline to bring this commodity into cities, which are resented by the surrounding countryside. The train is armed: “Deer. Dog. Man. If it was still alive and present when the water load passed, the defence guns of the train would fire automatically.” In the opening chapter, a marksman stands by as additional security, life and death in his hands. Meanwhile, the authorities plan to replace the water train with a new and wider corridor, to drag an iceberg overland into the city. “A gash cut through the city,” this will displace many residents; protestors gather.

The subsequent chapters focus on different characters and their perspectives. A construction worker for the new iceberg path wonders if his work is for good or ill, and contemplates the work of his partner, who makes flowers from refuse to plant “in the cracks of the kerbs.” A young nurse contemplates an affair; an older nurse lies dying. A boy chases a stray dog through the streets. An elderly couple on the coast refuses to move inland even as they see the future approaching. These perspectives note where the natural world still gleams in a city increasingly dry and dusty–aphids, butterflies, the rare deer, “sparrows and pigeons, as if from nowhere.” A professor finds evidence of an endangered species in the iceberg’s path, and with it hope: “A dragonfly could stop an iceberg. For a while at least.” Many of these characters remain nameless, so that even in their specificity they stand in for a larger human experience, and the effect is that this thirsty world is a little blurred.

Stillicide is a sobering consideration of a possible near future, and a moving work of fiction. Jones is easy to appreciate also for his writing, for the poetry in “the contained clatter of the runnelled rain.” The marksman guarding the water train, where the novel both begins and ends, drives home questions about what to value and protect, and when to let go. This is a quiet masterpiece of language, imagination and grim possibility.


This review originally ran in the October 26, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 drops of water.

Stella by Takis Würger, trans. by Liesl Schillinger

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced reader’s copy of this book for review, originally intended for Shelf Awareness.


Takis Würger imagines a relationship between an inoffensive, rather boring young Swiss man and a German Jewish woman in 1942 Berlin. Friedrich is Würger’s fiction, but the young woman he meets as Kristin is a real historical figure. As a novel, Stella might have worked out in its handling of the troubled love affair, which deals with the layers of mystery and (dis)honesty we wrap ourselves in, set within a developing, expanding, horrifying Holocaust. But this story is too intertwined with those horrors, without adequately dealing with them, and I was left disturbed and unable to recommend it.

The novel opens in Friedrich’s privileged but lonely childhood, his father mostly absent and his mother drunk and abusive. As Hitler rises to power in Germany – a place that is both geographically nearby and psychically distant to the child – his mother, German by birth, is excited, eventually to the point that she leaves her family to go to Munich and cheer the Nazis on. Friedrich, now a young man, decides he wants to see Berlin. He is curious, detached, like a tourist. He notes that the cook in his childhood household – who was kind to him when his mother was not – is Jewish, but seems unmoved.

In Berlin, Friedrich explores, halfheartedly studying drawing; he is bored, until he meets Kristin: she models for his drawing class, she tutors in Latin, she sings in a nightclub. He’s enchanted. She comes to live with him in his hotel room, but remains mysterious; she goes out alone during the days. Eventually she confesses that her name is really Stella, and she is the daughter of “three-day Jews,” who attend synagogue only three holidays per year. This deepens her mystery but does not solve it. Friedrich gradually comes to understand that her freedom to move around Berlin is continually purchased by her betrayal of other Jews in the city. He feels something about this, but the reader feels that he does not feel enough.

The digest-style injections of 1942 current events, month by month, are a wise choice; they keep us rooted in the wider world and horrors of this setting, when Friedrich is in real danger of forgetting them.

Stella has a tone of listlessness or ennui, of not quite caring enough. The publisher’s copy presents this as “a tortured love story against the backdrop of wartime Berlin [that] powerfully explores questions of naiveté, young love, betrayal, and the horrors of history.” As a consideration of young love, it could have been moderately successful. But the use of that backdrop makes me very uncomfortable. To wield the power of the Holocaust to tell such an uninspired story as this one feels inappropriate. That the narrator loves a woman who causes perhaps hundreds of deaths feels like something that should have been dealt with in some way. The heavy moral questions aren’t addressed at all. I don’t necessarily need for Stella’s character to have been wholly condemned; to make her situation complex and make the reader grapple with that would have been a literary feat. But that’s not attempted. It’s just a facet of her life that is brushed over like her hairstyle and her Latin tutoring gig. I don’t think the novel lives up to the weight of its context; I think it might be exploitative. I’m not able to recommend it.


Rating: 3 random billy goats.
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