Category Archives: Books and literature

The Circle: Movie and Book review

The Circle is a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers. I suppose you could say it’s both dystopian and futuristic; it has a 1984/Brave New World vibe. I found it more or less by accident, and liked it so much I recommended it to my wife and daughter. They both read it, and liked it as much as I did, and so, last Friday, we decided to go together to see the new movie based on it. The movie was quite good too, though we agreed it wasn’t quite as effective as the novel. I should point out that the movie got horrible reviews, with a very low score on Rottentomatoes.com. And also that liking the novel is, apparently, exceptionally uncool. Guilty as charged: I liked both movie and novel a lot, and think the critics that didn’t like either are wrong. I will add that the theater was packed when we saw the movie, and, shamelessly eavesdropping as people left, heard enough to think that pretty much everyone who saw it the same night we did liked it too. Found it as chilling as we did.

I’m going to take it a step further. I think it’s an exceptionally prescient and important novel. I think the questions it raises are important ones, and exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves right now. So there.

The Circle is a high tech company; that’s its name. It combines the best features of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Paypal, Amazon, and any five other exceptionally big, hi-tech companies. It’s the coolest place to work you could possibly imagine. It offers the best benefits–dorm-like housing, gyms, off-the-charts health care–provides the best after-work social life, and sells the best products. Today, you may have an Amazon account, a Facebook account, a Twitter account; you probably have thirty internet accounts, each with its own password. The Circle gets rid of all that inconvenience; you get everything through The Circle.

Mae Holland is a young woman, bright and ambitious, working in a dead-end temp job. But she has a friend, Annie, who works for The Circle, and who gets her an interview. Which she aces. Next thing you know, she works in Customer Care. Better money than she’s ever made in her life, plus they extend her health benefits to cover her parents. This is huge, as her father suffers from MS. Mae is ecstatic.

Except, it turns out, her social score is kinda low. She goes home weekends, to help her Mom; she’s a no-show at various Circle parties. Her bosses notice, and she’s called on the carpet; kindly, of course, but firmly. After-hours social events are, of course, completely voluntary. But a low social score is, hmm, a matter of concern.

Circle-world is a place where everything is enumerated, evaluated, rated, assessed. Every customer care interaction is scored on follow-up customer surveys, and she’s encouraged to follow up on the follow ups, inquire about low scores.  She’s also given a side responsibility; product surveys, attitude polls. Plus, you know, there are all these parties she has to get to. She acquires a boyfriend, Francis, who, after love-making, wants to know how he did. What’s his score? And who gets real whiny if he doesn’t get a perfect 10. It’s not worth the hassle telling him he’s closer to a 3.

The tone of the novel is matter-of-fact and straightforward. Eggers specializes in scenes that are both comic and kind of horrifying. Mae is our window into this company, and her character serves Eggers well. She loves the place. She’s a compelling character, and we want to shake her; we want to shout ‘run!’ But she doesn’t. Whatever unease she may feel, she works off by kayaking. Or in love-less, frantic, self-destructive sex with Mystery Man, Kalden. We can absolutely see what makes Mae the most all-in Circler of them all. Though we’re worried to death for her.

But there are warnings. Not just Kalden; Annie, her friend, who landed her the gig, is clearly losing it. And Mae’s specifically warned by her ex-boyfriend, Mercer. Mercer’s kind of a doofus; he makes chandeliers from deer antlers, and is pretty much a Luddite. Or at least, an anti-Circle version of one. Mercer is close to and wonderfully kind to Mae’s parents. But Mae wishes he’d just stop pestering.

The Circle has a political agenda, too. The company has three CEOs, one of which, Eamon Bailey, is, of course, like, the perfect boss. Kind, generous, endlessly sympathetic, a plausible surrogate father for all the young Circlers. And Eamon is the main spokesperson for the multiple uses for SeeChange, a small, easily overlooked digital camera with excellent video and audio pickup. Eamon urges followers to put SeeChange cameras everywhere, every public place. SeeChange, he says, will end both government tyranny and terrorism, through complete, radical transparency. He also urges all politicians to go transparent; wear a SeeChange camera 24/7. People behave better, he says, when they know other people are watching. He suggests that transparency is a basic human right. Privacy is Theft becomes one of the company’s slogans. (Sharing is Caring is another). And Mae, to set an example, goes transparent too. Wears a camera everywhere; is on display, on the internet, always. A more-aware ramped-up Truman Show.

Okay, spoiler alerts. All these policies and devices are revealed publicly, in a big  Circle auditorium (which in fact, is not an arena, but a proscenium, the one public space configuration that most emphasizes performer domination and control. Bailey’s radical democracy looks a lot more authoritarian the more we interrogate it). Anyway, Mae introduces a new Circle innovation; using SeeChange to find missing miscreants. It becomes a game; let’s see if we can find this fugitive from justice, everyone! And they do, in less than ten minutes. Then the crowd insists that Mae use that technology to locate Mercer, who has become something of a hermit. (Of course they all know about Mercer; they know everything about her). And all those busy SeeChangers out in the world find where Mercer’s holed up. Panicked, he gets in his truck, tries to escape, run away from all the cameras and drones. And Mae doesn’t call it off. And he runs his truck off a cliff.

To people who essentially live virtually, for whom the internet and it’s many uses and possibilities, I can see how this movie could be seen as a gratuitous attack on the coolest thing on the planet. I think that may explain at least some of the bad reviews. But Eggers is on to something; people do not necessarily act better when they know people are watching, especially when they’re part of a crowd. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes dozens of instances where people’s lives have been ruined by the collective judgment of internet users. And we may not have quite reached the point of The Circle‘s notion of radical transparency, and SeeChange cameras may be a few (very few) years off, but everyone has cameras, and it’s much much more common nowadays for particularly shocking (but context-less) images to go viral. Dr. David Dao was, no doubt, treated shabbily by United Airlines, but United flies millions of passengers around the world without untoward incident. Should the company pay? Undoubtedly. Should it be hounded out of business? Am I an old, clue-less white guy intimidated by technology? Of course I am. How implausible is the fictional Circle? Not remotely. Is Eamon Bailey something of a cartoon villain? Okay, sure. So’s Big Brother.

The movie takes the same essential scenario as the novel, but creates a filmic narrative around it. Mae’s two love interests disappear–there just isn’t time for Francis, who is in any event an essentially comedic character. If the movie had gone for satire instead of cautionary tale, Francis might have worked. As it is, I didn’t miss him–he’s completely absent. Kalden likewise goes away, sort of; in the book, he is eventually revealed to be Ty, the Circle’s Founder and one of its three CEOs. That revelation comes much earlier here, and Mae and Ty don’t have a romantic/sexual relationship. Biggest of all is this change: Mae isn’t a Circle-worshipper in the movie. She actively wants to destroy it. And does, but that’s creepy too; she wins by buying in most completely to Eamon’s doctrine of radical transparency.

The casting is well-nigh perfect, with Emma Watson as Mae, Tom Hanks (who else?) as Eamon, John Boyega as Ty, and Bill Paxton, in his last screen role, quietly superb as Mae’s father. The one misstep, I thought, was Ellar Coltrane as Mercer, who never really found his footing in the role. Best of all, IMO, was Scottish actress Karen Gillan as Mae’s friend, Annie. In the book, Annie ends up in a coma, but it doesn’t really have the resonance of the movie, where we can read Annie’s self-loathing self-destruction in the actress’s face. That’s what movies are great at; faces.

The movie’s good. It’s great to look at, beautifully acted, and tells the story of The Circle with economy and dispatch. I found it almost as chilling as I found the novel. I did find the novel a bit richer, but that’s often the case of novels-turned-movies. Above all, I found myself cherishing privacy more than ever. I’m a fairly social person, I think, and I love social media. Up to a point. Any tool can be abused, including, of course, the most powerful tool of them all. The internet. Can we love it, and also find it terrifying? I rather think we can, and should.

The Circle: Book Review

Dave Eggers’ The Circle would have to be described as a dystopic sci-fi novel, though the future it describes is likely no more than five years or so off. It’s the story of an extremely nice, hard working, basically decent young woman named Mae Holland, and the great job she gets at the best company on the planet. She’s healthy and bright; she kayaks for relaxation. She has long since put her cynical sad-sack boyfriend behind her. She’s moving up.

The company she works for is called The Circle, and it combines the best features of working for, say, Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and any five other forward-thinking tech companies. Her best friend, Annie, has risen to a top executive position there, and gets Mae an entry-level job at CE, which stands for Customer Experience.

And Mae loves it. She loves her job, loves the company. Her father is very ill with MS, and dealing with insurance companies and arranging every aspect of his care has become her mother’s full-time occupation. The Circle puts him on Mae’s insurance, and suddenly, he’s getting the best health care on the planet. (Though he is expected to show some gratitude for it). The Circle is as interested in Mae’s social life, in what she does for relaxation and fun as it is in her work product, and opportunities for recreation abound. She’s making good money, and doesn’t have much to spend it on, so completely does The Circle see to her every need. And she rises in the company, eased along by her boss, the pleasant, genial, forward-thinker progressive Eamon Bailey, one of the Three Wise Men who run the place.

Eamon, in fact, believes in the possibility of human perfectability, and thinks it can be hastened along through technology. He thinks it can be accomplished through a kind of hyper-transparency. He wants cameras everywhere. He gets politicians to wear cameras 24/7. What do they have to hide? After all, Secrets are Lies, Privacy is Theft, Sharing is Caring. Don’t people behave better when they’re being watched? Isn’t it, therefore, in the best interests of all mankind if we’re all watched, everywhere, all the time? And can’t small, plantable, easily transportable cameras, with excellent sound and HD pictures, monitored on the ‘net, be put everywhere? Who could possibly object?

Eamon’s goal isn’t a totalitarian state. It’s a kind of totalizing democracy. The democratization of ubiquity. And so, so achievable. And Mae loses herself in his vision.

Really, The Circle is the story of a nice girl, a deserving young woman, who gets a great job, loves it, is great at it, and advances. It’s the story of a great company, that takes terrific care of its employees, and is genuinely committed to doing good in the world. It’s the story of technological whizzes re-inventing mankind.

And so, you think, there’s got to be a plot twist somewhere. It’s going to turn out like, I don’t know, Soylent Green. This utopia can’t be what it seems to be. There’s a catch. But there isn’t. At the end of Brave New World, everyone really is happy. At the end of The Circle, Mae and Eamon and the other Wise Men really are exactly what they seem to be.

And if we readers find ourselves completely terrified by it, that’s our fault, of course.

Joe Pickett novels: book(s) review

I’ve been reading a lot lately. Not writing, actually, as followers of this blog will have noticed; hand cramps. But I’ve always loved good books, and I’ve come across a writer and a series that are real corkers. And so I’m here to tell you about them.

Joe Pickett is a game warden, living in Saddlestring, a small town in Wyoming. He absolutely loves his job; loves hiking and horseback riding, loves hunting and (especially) fly fishing. He even enjoys riding into hunting camps and checking everyone’s hunting licenses. And Joe’s a good guy. Bit of a doofus sometimes, but devoted to his hyper-competent wife, Marybeth, and his three daughters. And the various horses and dogs that fill out the Pickett household.

He’s also exceptionally good at solving murders. In fact, he’s a bit like Miss Marple; his home community is an amazingly murderous place. But because he’s of that community, a local in good standing, he’s able to notice vagaries of behavior (or misbehavior) that suggest, well, untoward acts.

Miss Marple, though, sat back and ever-so-keenly, observed. Joe blunders into various fraught situations, has misadventures, and somehow survives them. He makes a lot of mistakes. But he’s so good-hearted, so resolutely honest, he wins our heart, and he solves a lot of crimes. He’s also aided by his best friend, Nate Romanowski, a former Special Ops whiz now living as a master falconer/off-the-grid survivalist, an exceptional shot with an oddball huge pistol. Who enjoys climbing trees in the nude, and communing, underwater, with fish. Nate’s a tremendous character, a wonderful sidekick.

And from time to time Joe’s asked to investigate some remote corner of the state by Wyoming’s flamboyant and eccentric Governor Rulon. The governor is Joe’s protector, though he could also teach a master class in plausible deniability. But his heart’s occasionally in the right place, and though he’s devious and unreliable, he’s also the reason Joe manages to keep his job. (Among other peccadilloes, Joe is terrible at getting along with sheriffs. Or, mostly, the FBI. Or bureaucrats of all stripes).

Joe’s also very bad with trucks. It’s a running joke in the series; how many state-issued trucks he ruins. Never mind, though; Governor Rulon generally gets him a new one.

Oh, yes, I forgot one of the series’ most memorable characters; Joe’s mother-in-law, Missy. She’s beautiful, well groomed and sleek, and also an utter sociopath. Her superpower is marrying up. She finds a wealthy man, seduces him, marries him, gets her attorney to draw up a pre-nup leaving the man’s fortune to her, and then she’s off to hunt down the next, even richer one. When necessary, she also has been known to add homicide to her repertoire. She also thinks her daughter Marybeth is too good for Joe, and urges Marybeth to divorce the bumpkin. Which she never does; not even tempted; Joe and MB are solid. Still, what fun during family holidays.

The Joe Pickett series is written by a Wyoming native named C. J. Box, who is, as it happens, also married with three daughters. And they’re wonderful fun.

I’m completely bonkers over these novels, as you may have guessed by the fact that I’ve devoured seventeen of them in two weeks. They’re exciting, beautifully paced, genuinely mysterious. And Box’s prose, though generally sturdy and straightforward, has lovely moments of genuine lyricism.

I like the books, in part, because I’m a Westerner myself, and recognize the landscapes and people he so memorably describes. But I’m also a political animal, and each of the books has a political dimension. Of course, one of the main characters is a Governor, so there’s some partisanship built into his interactions with the other characters. But many of the mysteries also have politics at the periphery (or at times, even the center) of their stories. Environmentalists are frequently villains in the novels, but not always, and Joe’s something of an environmentalist himself.

But I like that. I like the idea that politics matters, that political disputes can be folded into the texture of a mystery series. That political differences can even lead to violence, at times.

I imagine that Joe’s position on gun control is pretty resolutely Wyoming–Joe owns a number of guns, with which he’s frequently called upon to defend himself. As he’s fond of saying, “it’s about to get real Western around here.” And violence ensues. Just like it does for the Good Guys in most detective novels.

But Joe’s not a detective. He’s a game warden. And a terrifically drawn and utterly compelling central character for a series of mystery novels.  Very very highly recommended.

Book Review: Seveneves

Neil Stephenson’s Seveneves is one of those science fiction novels that invades your dreams and your subconscious. Days after you finish it, you find yourself thinking about it, and the implications of this scene or character or situation. Even finishing the book can be difficult; I found myself reading the last 100 pages at a snail’s pace, because finishing it meant I would have to stop reading. (Rereading, of course, is a possibility, but lacks the same sense of discovery).

It’s a somber book, appropriately, tragically heartbreaking. It’s also a book in love with technology. Stephenson has imagined his world so perfectly, you can sense his excitement over having created it. He’s not just interested in how stuff works, but also in what it looks like. A scene where a young woman waits for public transit to pick her up and deposit her somewhere else, that simple a scene, can be exhilarating. It’s also a book where, for the first two thirds, the title, Seveneves, makes no sense whatsoever, and thereafter makes perfect sense–is, in fact, the perfect title. And that moment of discovery comes at the moment of greatest despair, which also becomes the moment of greatest possibility.

And it’s a science fiction novel (or is speculative fiction the preferred label these days?), set entirely on Earth or in our planet’s general vicinity. It has space travel–a lot of space travel–but all of it close to home.

The basic premise couldn’t be more terrifying. Something, some Agent, splits the Moon. Shatters it. (The characters briefly speculate about the nature of the Agent, but without reaching any conclusions). The Moon, as it disintegrates, starts throwing off meteorites, which Earth’s gravity captures. Scientists (including one science expert character clearly modeled on Neil DeGrasse Tyson), calculate that it’s just a matter of a couple of years before all of the Moon comes crashing down, leading to catastrophe. In other words, the Moon’s destruction will wipe out all life on the planet Earth. If humanity is to be saved, it will have to be in space.

And so plans are made to build a large expansion onto the International Space Station. And to create smaller craft, which they end up calling ‘arklets’ for a group of young people, carefully selected from every culture on earth, representing earth’s diversity, with the ability to ‘swarm’ in order to dodge space rocks.

And in the meantime, we’re given time and space to imagine it; the ultimate Armageddon. The near-complete extinction of, not just the human race, but all life on Earth. It’s a staggering thought, shattering. Wisely, Stephenson allows us to experience it as we would–by showing the connections between a few characters and their immediate families. A woman and her fiancee; a man and his new wife; a young woman and her father and brothers. That’s how we would feel about it; that’s what the novel does.

I mean, we all come to this earth knowing that we’re going to die. But we do count on that three-score and ten. We want to make plans, excel at something, achieve, leave a legacy, if only a legacy of family and love and marriage. We are pretty well inured to dying. But life doesn’t strike us as hopeless. We do set goals, and take pleasure in achieving them. What if we were robbed of all that? What if we knew it was all going to end, for all of us. Strangely enough, as I read, I thought of Tom Lehrer, the great comic pianist/singer, and his cheerful, upbeat song about thermonuclear holocaust: “We’ll all go together when we go.” What if that were our reality? Still could be, obviously.

Could this work? Stephenson estimates that, after the initial bombardment, it would take Earth approximately 5000 years to cool down enough to sustain life again. Well, could humanity survive 5000 years in space? Could we work out some kind of artificial gravity, enough to keep bone density compatible with homo sapiens survival? Could we find shelter, from cosmic rays if not honking big pieces of moon rock? More to the point–and this is the saddest part of the novel–could we get along? Could we keep from killing each other? Could we survive mentally?

I don’t want to give away much in the way of spoilers. Suffice it to say that the novel seems both implausible and, just barely, possible. And it’s ultimately extraordinarily optimistic, even in the midst of terrible tragedy. That may be among it’s most remarkable achievements; that it’s ultimately kind of upbeat in tone.

I like science fiction. I also don’t keep up with the genre, and it may well be that there are ten other sci-fi novels out there as good as this one that y’all are going to tell me about. Still, this one is extraordinary. Just a superb read. Treat yourself.

Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, book review

On July 4, 1788, in Poughkeepsie, New York, the good citizens of the town gathered together for a patriotic celebration and parade. The parade culminated in a giant bonfire. And at the top of the bonfire, they carefully placed a copy of the proposed Constitution of the United States. And everyone cheered as the Constitution went up in flames. Why would they do this? Why, for obvious reasons. These were freedom loving people, patriots all. And this newfangled Constitution thing was the most obvious possible threat to American liberty.

Reading this story was just one of the many pleasures of Pauline Maier’s splendid new book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. Maier’s book is exhaustively researched; as such, it’s full of surprises. We tend to think of our Constitution as kind of miraculous, as divinely inspired, even. Certainly nobody at the time thought so. Even it’s strongest defenders were convinced that it was a deeply flawed document, and in many cases, the best defense that could be mustered for it added up to ‘let’s try it, and in time, we’ll see clearly enough–and can amend–its most serious flaws.’ Heck, we could probably do worse, all things considered.

I did not know, for example, how much the Federalists (that loose coalition of people who fought for ratification), feared Patrick Henry of Virginia. Virginia was the ultimate swing state–the most populous in the union, the United States could not plausibly survive without it, and the ratification vote was likely to be very close indeed. And in part, that was because of Henry, Mr. “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death” (which he almost certainly never said). Henry was an extraordinary orator, inexhaustible and eloquent, and fiercely opposed to the Constitution. The fear was that that, all by himself, he could sway undecided delegates by the bushelful. And it turns out that what Henry probably wanted was essentially two independent American nations, one in the North and one in the South, with the Southern confederation retaining the peculiar institution of slavery.  I say ‘probably’ because he never quite was able to make that case explicitly–he seems to have been aware that it was too radical for most of his fellow delegates. So he limited himself to tying the convention in knots.

There was a general consensus that one fellow delegate might have the knowledge and eloquence to combat Henry, James Madison. Madison was not, however well, and initially didn’t even think he could manage to attend the ratifying convention. And when he did show up, his illness weakened him to the point that he was difficult to hear, apparently. (He was a slight man, physically, anyway). But even on the written page, Madison’s intellect just shines. The Virginia debate between Madison and Henry becomes one of those time machine moments; you wish you could have been there. (Understanding that Henry and Madison each spoke for hours at a time, in that multi-clause, densely punctuated 18th century prose).

The specific issues that the various ratifying conventions had with the Constitution read oddly today, though Maier does a brilliant job of putting them into context. In many instances, anti-Federalists were animated by local concerns, with issues specific to their own circumstances. One of the biggest worries is the brief reference in Article 2 Section 3 about ‘direct taxes.’ Those who opposed the Constitution often cited that provision as particularly odious. They felt that state legislators were more likely to tax people fairly, because of their close acquaintance with their circumstances; even then, the federal government was seen as too distant from citizens’ concerns. Nobody knew what ‘direct taxes’ were, or how they would function, but still they were feared. (Needlessly, as it happens; direct taxes were hardly ever collected, only at time of war, and were eventually superceded by the federal income tax after the passage of the 16th amendment).

Another major concern had to do with the office of Vice President. That office was seen as unnecessary and dangerous–in fact, the fear was that the Vice President would become uncontrollably powerful. That idea is amusing to us today. But since the Vice President breaks a tie in the Senate, and since the presumption was that Senators would disagree about everything, Anti-Federalists thought the VP would be breaking ties all the time, giving him near-dictatorial powers.

The biggest issue raised in all the ratifying conventions had to do with amendments. Pretty much everyone agreed that the Constitution was flawed, and would need to be amended. New York recommended dozens of amendments. For one thing, the Constitution didn’t have a proper bill of rights. And every state took issue with some provision or another, direct taxes being particularly controversial. So delegates at those state ratifying conventions had to decide; should they ratify now and amend later, or should they agree to ratify only if certain amendments were agreed to beforehand.

Our constitution might look very different today if those ratifying delegates had insisted on amendments as a precondition to ratification. Fortunately, no state did, though the margin was razor-thin in some states, most particularly New York, Virginia and Rhode Island.

If you love the Constitution, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. But don’t look for evidence of divine inspiration or miraculous interventions. Such were never part of the writing of the Constitution or of its ratification. Instead, what we had were a large number of intelligent and thoughtful men with very different agendas and priorities, arguing, discussing and eventually compromising their way to a document that none of them thought perfect, but which all agreed was probably the best they could come up with, given their circumstances. And it’s served us well. That’s miracle enough for me.

 

The Underground Railroad: Book Review

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is one of those novels that you don’t want to read too quickly, lest you deprive yourself of any of its pleasures, lest it break your heart. It’s beautiful, lyrical, as intellectually engaging as it is powerful emotionally. I don’t know anything else like it. The cliché here would be that I ‘couldn’t put it down.’ In fact, I frequently put it down, because it so often overwhelmed me.

Its subject, is, obviously, slavery and the Underground Railroad that conveyed escaped slaves north to freedom. It’s an historical novel, with the most resolute of protagonists–an escaped slave named Cora. But I can’t help myself from calling it a kind of science fiction, or at least speculative fiction. It’s built on two conceits; that the Underground Railroad really was a railroad, a subterreanean network of tunnels and tracks, with trains that take desperate fugitives from state to state. And second, that the experience of African-Americans differed radically from state to state, with each place exploring a different American possibility. It’s somehow a fabulist novel that doesn’t feel fabricated, an alternate history that feels like the most exacting and ruthlessly honest commentary on the actual history of America and race.

Cora begins in Georgia, living on a plantation owned by the Randalls, ferocious and brutal and corrupt, the worst plantation owners imaginable. Cora’s mother, Mabel, escaped, when Cora was just a child, and she resents it, being abandoned  like that. But what’s remarkable is that Mabel really did escape; she wasn’t brought back in chains by the ruthless and brilliant slave catcher, Ridgeway, to be tormented and brutalized and murdered like all other Randall escapees. (Eventually, we learn Mabel’s story, and it’s heart-breaking).

And so, Cora grows up a loner, a watcher, a fierce defender of her meagre belongings, but friendless and gossiped-about in slavery’s traumatized and treacherous culture. Then one night, Caesar, newly arrived at the Randall plantation, approaches Cora, the only slave he can trust, he says, and tells her he intends to escape, and wants her to come with him. He knows, you see, a station master. He can find his way to the Railroad.

And so, to South Carolina, a bastion of racial enlightenment, a place where blacks are allowed jobs and wages and an education, and even something resembling freedom. A real home. A paradise, pretty much. Until Cora learns the truth behind the benevolence and the real purpose behind the free medical exams she’s treated to.

The reality of slavery is, of course, economic. In King Cotton, the South had the perfect cash crop, the key to ever-increasing prosperity. Cotten needs tending and picking, and profit margins are greater if you don’t intend to pay your workers. But they came to understand that while African blacks make good workers–and can always be bred, increasing the labor market supply–they couldn’t really be trusted, could they? To remain placid and pliable. And in some areas, they had begun to increase in numbers; to outnumber whites. This wouldn’t do. Steps needed to be taken. South Carolina, priding itself in its sophistication and erudition, made the scientific choice. Forced sterilization. And other medical experimentation, to learn about infectious diseases and further deplete black numbers.

And as Cora contemplates her situation in oh-so-benevolent South Carolina, the implacable Ridgeway shows up, captures Caesar. Cora barely escapes alive. And she’s not expected on the train, and has to go wherever it’s heading. And that, it turns out, is North Carolina.

North Carolina is cruder, more direct. Reluctantly, its white citizenry has decided to bite the bullet, and pay its cotton pickers; not the black ones, of course, but impoverished European imports. That, again, leads to a superfluity of blacks, and a final solution. Cora barely survives, hidden, like Anne Frank, in an abolitionist’s attic.

And so on. Each state confronts the same demographic/economic problem, and each state deals with it differently. South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana. Yes, even a Northern state like Indiana. And each solution, in each state, is horrifying. At one point, Cora discovers books, and sees her own situation as analogous to Gulliver, and I buy that; the places Gulliver visits are grotesque, but illustrative.

And Cora is extraordinary. She’s a practical young woman, a farmgirl, hard working and determined and strong. She loves to read, especially loving Farmer’s Almanacs, for their pragmatism. She’s not terrifically romantic, but does fall in love, twice, with both relationships ending in horror. She’s a survivor. She’s also completely unimpressed with white society, and its protestations of civilized sophistication. She learns the Declaration of Independence, and considers it vicious nonsense. She’s an astonishing creation, and when the book ended, I did cry out, vocally: ‘no!’ I so wanted to spend more time in her company.

And the book’s ferocious and philosophical villain, Ridgeway, the slave catcher, is an equally astonishing creation. He’s a murderer, of course, many times over. But he’s also, in his own way, a thoughtful man, a man who sees his society clearly, and sees as well the necessary function of someone like him. He holds the Randalls in utter contempt, but is content to work for them, because the pay is good, and the work essential. Slavery is the key to Southern society. Not allowing slaves their freedom is the key to making the peculiar institution work. He is the face of white slavery, with all its intellectual pretensions, and quite possibly the scariest character in any novel I’ve read, because he’s also rounded, nuanced, complex. Smart. Evil? Well, obviously, but then this book redefines evil. Slavery isn’t just one evil though. It’s manifestations are legion; it infests American history and promise like demons infesting the Gadarene swine.

I haven’t read Colson Whitehead before now, and now intend to buy all his books and read them straight through. What a remarkable talent. What a story! What a rich and powerful and strangely compelling novel.

 

The Statesman and the Storyteller: Book Review

The period of American and world history from 1894-1904 marks, in a very real sense, either the anomalous beginnings of American imperialism, if you don’t think the US has remained particularly imperialistic, or the America’s debut on the world stage, a spotlighted position we have yet to repudiate or give up, if you rather think we haven’t given it up at all. Mark Zwonitzer chooses to examine that wonderfully contested history by focusing on two men, John Hay and Samuel Clemens. Hay and Clemens were about the same age, and came from similar backgrounds; small towns lining the banks of the Mississippi. They both arose to prominence and wealth from humble beginnings, and were deeply devoted to their wives and children. Both men lost children, and were prostrated by grief. Both emerge, in Zwonitzer’s narrative, as admirable men. And they remained friends, cordial, though infrequent correspondents. But as Hay once wrote: “No man, no party, can fight with any hope of a final success against a cosmic tendency; no cleverness, no popularity, avails against the spirit of the age.” As Zwonitzer puts it: “John Hay had learned this lesson early, and accepted it as an article of faith. He was not a man to fight a ‘cosmic tendency,’ and this served him well. Sam Clemens was less sure of this lesson. He learned it the hard way, and as you will see in the story that follows, kept unlearning it.”

John Hay was one of two personal secretaries to Abraham Lincoln, along with his close friend John Nicolay. After Lincoln’s assassination, Hay and Nicolay wrote the first biography of Lincoln, a multi-volume work that established the pattern for subsequent Lincoln biographies. Hay also was a poet of some distinction, especially known for a collection called Pike County Ballads; humorous verse written in dialect. Hay made his fortune the old fashioned way; he married into it. This gave him the freedom to pursue a career in government, and he eventually became US Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and finally, US Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He was, in short, the Secretary of State during the Spanish-American War, and the diplomat who laid the political framework for the building of the Panama Canal.

Sam Clemens, of course, was primarily known, both in his lifetime and today, by his pseudonym, Mark Twain. As the book begins, Clemens was embarked on a desperate quest to salvage his family finances, a world-spanning lecture tour. This is the Mark Twain of the popular imagination; the cigar-smoking, white-suited contrarian, the witty, somewhat cynical humorist. He was, in 1894, dead-broke, having blown a sizeable fortune on an ill-conceived printing device. He insisted, as a point of honor, on clearing the entire debt himself, without resorting to bankruptcy proceedings. But proceeds from the tour were disappointing, as were sales from his published account of the voyage. (Although he did finally pay off his creditors, he never really did learn his lesson; he was still making bad investments practically on his deathbed).

Zwonitzer’s book cuts back and forth between the two men over the last ten years of Hay’s life, during that period when Hay was accommodating and enabling and administering the colonialist impulses of Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Hay was an able administrator, in part because he was almost ego-less about it. His job was to serve as an extension of the President, and it was a job he devoted himself to, even at the cost of his health. And so Hay made himself indispensable, as the United States intervened in Cuba, appropriated Puerto Rico, swallowed Hawaii whole, captured Guam and Samoa, and ignored the democratic wishes of the freed Philippines, waging a savage war of conquest, so as to Christianize a nation full of Christians, and to govern a people too stubborn to realize they were ungovernable. And that’s without mentioning the US actions in Panama, actions applauded, at the time, as lacking even the tiniest vestige of legality.

John Hay was surely one of the most able men ever to serve as Secretary of State. He was certainly one of the most consequential diplomats in US history. And I wouldn’t say that Zwonitzer’s book demonizes him; quite the contrary. At the same time, his legacy is a troubling one. Teddy Roosevelt was an extraordinary man and a remarkably impactful President. He also believed in (and wrote books arguing for) the inherent racial superiority of Anglo-Saxon peoples, and the God-given requirement that that superiority gave white men: to govern. One of the saddest chapters in the book describes the Filipino diplomat, Felipe Agocillo, who came to Washington desperate for some kind of recognition of the capable, functioning government established by his boss, Emilio Aquinaldo, and hoping for some Filipino representation, at least, on the commission that would decide his country’s fate and future. He was never so much as allowed to present a letter to that effect to John Hay. His people were incapable of self-governance. Too brown of skin. Period. The Philippines would be administered from Washington.

And Sam Clemens, as he traveled with his ailing family from Italian villa to English country estate to US rental property, kept in touch with world events. And though he couched his criticisms in bitter irony, Mark Twain’s writings reveal how heartsick and furious he was with it all. Twain knew better than to publish all his writings from that period–in any event, he’d promised his beloved wife, Livy, that he would exercise some restraint. Even so, it’s remarkable, to see how willing Clemens was to take on the ruling ideology of his own age, how furious he was with the hypocrisy of American Christians and the complacent American acceptance of the most heinous war atrocities committed by our troops.

When most Americans think of the Spanish-American war, we generally think of two things, if we even give that particularly obscure conflict any attention at all. First, we may be able to dredge some memory of the phrase ‘Remember the Maine,’ though we likely don’t remember what that was about. And second, we might remember Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders capturing San Juan Hill. We don’t choose to think about our utterly unjustified invasion of the Philippines, or the brutal savagery of our war against the subsequent insurgency. We don’t think about water boarding, or the way US commanders justified the slaughter of eleven-year-olds, or our massacres of women and children.

Mark Twain was there. He was horrified and appalled on our behalf. Here’s what he wrote about it, in The War Prayer:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

We’ve forgotten John Hay, and though we still remember Mark Twain, we’ve generally forgotten the lonely, righteous anger of Sam Clemens. Mark Zwonitzer reminds us of them both, and the ways in which they were connected. And the specific points on which they differed, as friends. What a splendid achievement.

The Jungle Book: Movie Review

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In fact, I loved both Jungle Book story collections. When I was eleven, Disney’s animated Jungle Book movie came out, and I remember my reaction: ‘not as good as the books.’ Even as a child, I understood what ‘the Disney’ version of something meant: sugary sweet, and off-puttingly comedic. I remember being particularly turned off by Baloo, who went from Mowgli’s brave and wise teacher to a bumbling goofball. Still, I only had to sit through the movie once, and afterwards, I still had the books.

So when I saw the trailers for the new Disney Jungle Book, I was genuinely thrilled. Through the miracle of CGI, we had a jungle that looked like a jungle, a tiger that looked like a tiger, all surrounding a single human child actor. It looked fantastic. And I hoped, desperately hoped, that the story would return to the Kipling source. That this would be an unforgettable Jungle Book.

It’s not. It looks great. The voice actors were superbly cast, and the animal characters’ CGI popped. The action sequences, if too frequent, were at least genuinely exciting, and the jungle locations were superbly rendered. The child actor, Neel Sethi, was suitably intrepid as Mowgli, and the biggest threats to him, the tiger Shere Kahn and the snake, Kaa, were both terrifying creations. I especially appreciated how smoothly the movie handled the transitions between animal characters talking anthropomorphically and then, those same animals growling and howling and snarling.

It’s still disappointing. The images compel; the story does not. It’s just another Disney bowlderization of a classic tale. And it got worse the longer the movie went, finishing with an ending that was just a complete mess.

In fact, I found the film all the more disappointing precisely because it looks so great. For the first third of the movie, the images distract us from the weakness of the storytelling. And then Baloo shows up (wonderfully voiced by Bill Murray, to be fair), and sings “Bare Necessities” and I threw up my hands. It wasn’t going to be special after all. It really was just going to be a remake of a mediocre late-60s Disney exercise in cultural appropriation. It looks so terrific, I expected more. All I got was ‘Bare Necessities’ and King Louie (Christopher Walken voicing that annoying monkey like a half-Mafiosa/half-African warlord).

The turning point, I think, is Kaa. Scarlett Johansson gives every sibilant full value, creating a mock-sympathetic, utterly hypnotic python sociopath. Kaa’s only in one scene, but it’s terrifying and creepy and fun in equal measure. That scene, with Mowgli in Kaa’s clutches, was the high point of the movie. And then Baloo showed up and sings that dumb song, and the movie went straight to heck. Nothing after the Kaa scene really worked at all.

And it could have. With that cast, and that technological magic, and that director, and that story, this could have been lovely. I wanted it to be lovely. I cheered when it was lovely. And then the studio . . . stopped trusting the material. And it turned into just another movie. Basic Disney template.

I’m being too harsh, I think. My wife and I showed up way early, and saw at least ten trailers for other movies, all of them kids’ movies. And they all looked dopey and bad. There’s an Angry Birds movie for example that, based on the trailer, I would sooner face the electric chair than sit through. There’s a Robinson Caruso thing, told from the perspective of the animals on his island. Stunts and falls and fart jokes. Jungle Book, of course, also has anthropomorphic animals. But, as weak as I found it, it’s still way better than the movies with which it seems to be competing. That’s worth remembering.

But that doesn’t make The Jungle Book any less disappointing. It’s a movie that does some things so spectacularly well, it’s all the more discouraging that all that beauty, all that skill, is in the service of a story that’s so pedestrian. Especially since the original tale, the one Kipling wrote (probably for his dying six-year old daughter), is so magical and wise and good. What a shame.

The High Mountains of Portugal: Book Review

I know I’m not alone when I say that Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was one of my favorite novels of the last twenty years. A boy on a lifeboat with a tiger; what a spectacular premise for great fiction. But it wasn’t just a white-knuckle adventure yarn. It was also a thoughtful meditation on world religion, an exercise in unreliable narratives and narrators, a mystery and a puzzle. And then Ang Lee turned it into a movie as rich as the novel itself. It’s also the last novel I read aloud to my children, before they, inevitably, grew, left, scattered.

So to say that I eagerly anticipated reading Martel’s latest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal would be an understatement. I read it with great interest and enjoyment, though it’s certainly a slighter work. When I say that it is one of the stranger novels I’ve read in my life, I don’t mean that as a criticism or dismissal. I just want to describe accurately my experience with what I found to be a very weird book. Let me add, as well, that I couldn’t put it down, and have been thinking about it for days.

It’s essentially three connected novellas, entitled Homeless, Homeward, and Home. They’re narratively and thematically connected; they’re also all three about exploring possible spiritual relationships between humans and chimpanzees. Chimps are not monkeys, but apes, and are the closest mammals genetically to human beings. As such, they’re our closest evolutionary cousins. Hominids may have split from our ape relatives as recently at six million years ago. At least one question this novel poses, therefore, has to do with the religious connections between men and apes, especially as it might emerge in a theologically Christian context.

The first novella, titled Homeless, begins in Lisbon, with a young man named Tomas, in 1904. Tomas works as a researcher, and makes very little money at it, but he is from a prominent family. His Uncle Martim, who loves him dearly and who he loves in return is the only member of his family still living. Tomas’ father, his girlfriend, Dora, and their son, Gaspar, all died in quick succession a year earlier. Since that time, crushed, destroyed by grief, he has been unable to walk forwards. He only is able to walk backwards.

He has become obsessed by a diary found in his research, by a priest from the previous century. Ulisses, this priest, created some object of singular religious devotion, he thinks, probably a crucifix. He is desperate to find it. He has decided that this religious object must have ended up in the church of a small village in the high mountains of Portugal. He has gotten a short leave of absence from work, and has persuaded his uncle to lend him a car, which he intends to drive on his quest. Most of the novella, then, has to do with Tomas’ journey, in a car he is barely able to drive, to find a crucifix made by Father Ulisses. That journey, both comical and horrifying, is at the heart of the novella. I must apologize now for this spoiler, but it’s necessary: when he finds the crucifix, it is not of Christ, but of a crucified chimpanzee. I’ll let it go at that.

In the second novella, Homeward, Dr. Eusebio Lozora works as a pathologist in the basement of a hospital, on the last day of the year 1938. He’s catching up on work; writing up some autopsies. On that night, he is visited by two women. The first is his beloved wife, Maria, a relentless unorthodox theologian, much feared by the local priest. She has come to a realization about Jesus’ miracles, and can’t stop herself from stopping by his office and telling him about it. And it genuinely is an extraordinary new reading of the gospels. Heavily informed by the works of her other favorite author, Agatha Christie.

Who murdered Jesus of Nazareth? We all did.

It is not the guilt of the Jews that goes down through history, it is the guilt of us all. But how quick we are to forget that. We don’t like guilt, do we? We prefer to hide it, to forget it, to twist it and present it in a better light, to pass it on to others. And so, because of our aversion to guilt, we strain to remember who killed the victim in the gospels, as we strain to remember who killed the victim in an Agatha Christie mystery novel.

It’s very long, Maria’s exegesis, and takes up at least half of the novella. And then, she brings him a present; the newest Agatha Christie novel. And he is overcome with gratitude and love.

And then she leaves, and he is alone with his thoughts and his new novel. And then his second visitor knocks on his door, another woman named Maria, a good deal older than his wife, from the same village visited by Tomas in the first novella. And she has brought a body with her, and wants him to autopsy it. Her dearly beloved husband. And the autopsy becomes increasingly surreal and strange. And inside that body, curled up inside it, (and again, I apologize for the spoiler), he finds the deceased body of a chimpanzee.

In the third novella, Home, a Canadian politician, Peter Tovy, in the early 1980s, is incapacitated with grief when his wife dies. Barely able to function, he accepts a position on a junket to Oklahoma, where he visits an animal refuge. He becomes obsessed with a preternaturally self-possessed chimpanzee. On a whim, he buys it. He then turns his life upside down; quitting his job, selling his Canadian home (too cold for a chimp, he thinks), and moving to his ancestral home, a small village in the high mountains of Portugal. And in a very real sense, the chimpanzee becomes more than his companion, certainly a good deal more than a house pet. The chimpanzee becomes his guru. And when his grown son comes to visit, Odo, the ape, becomes beloved by them both.

I won’t give away the ending of the third novella, except to say that, narratively and thematically, it ends up, in an odd sort of way, tying all three stories together. Also, as strange as they are, these three stories have kept me up three nights in a row. So I blog, not so much to review this book, but to discharge it. It is, in any event, an extraordinary accomplishment.

 

The Witches: Book Review

Stacey Schiff’s last book, Cleopatra: A Life, made the kind of splash historians dream of, including a much publicized sale to Hollywood. Her latest, The Witches, about the Salem witch trials, has received mixed reviews, and doesn’t seem to have had the same cultural impact. But it’s quite brilliant. I wouldn’t call it the definitive study of Salem–she acknowledges her considerable debt to John Demos, both personally, and for his wonderful Entertaining Salem–but I found it an extraordinary achievement, superbly researched and written.

She begins by acknowledging the hold the Salem witch trials still have on our collective imagination.

Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional tensions imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories.

So to what theory does she subscribe? Essentially none of them, and all of them. But if I had to paraphrase her final conclusions, she attributes the trials to, well, humanity. Constantly, page after page, chapter after chapter, Schiff puts us in the position of the men, women, and (particularly) teenaged girls of Puritan Massachusetts in the last decade of the seventeenth century. She asks us to imagine ourselves in their situation. She describes sympathetically and imaginatively the human impact of Puritan theology; the guilt, the insistence on constant self-examination, the constant, unremitting daily chores and obligations. The fears, the tensions, the cold and dark corners of the town and of townspeople’s imaginations.

It could be us. It could be me, my friends, my neighbors. Paranoia and suspicion rising from threats, real and imagined, overreacting, underthinking, giving way. As with the Know-Nothings, as with the Japanese internment camps, as with Jim Crow laws and commie scares and, today, anti-Muslim rants from prominent politicians. Still, I kept thinking, reading Schiff’s book, I get it. It makes sense to me, in human terms. The central conundrum of Salem was simply this: sober, intelligent, well-read people, testifying under oath in a court of law, who believed with all their hearts and souls that lies told under oath would condemn them to eternal damnation, told the court that they had, personally, flown miles on sticks, crash-landing in meadows, attending meetings chaired by the devil, to whom they had sworn allegiance. And Schiff believes, and reading her, we believe, that those testimonies were believed to be accurate and factual, not only by the jurors, but by the testifiers themselves, at least while they were testifying.

Some years ago, I acted in a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I played Giles Corey; obstreperous ‘more weight’ Giles Corey, who stubbornly refused to speak the pro forma and meaningless words that, by law, began all criminal proceedings. And was pressed to death for that refusal. I’ve been a Giles Corey fan ever since, as well, of course, as a massive fan of Miller’s superb play. Miller wrote it in the midst of the McCarthy committee hearings. Having refused to name names, thus risking imprisonment, he wrote. His play is not only a dramatic and theatrical triumph, but also an act of moral conscience and defiant citizenship. It’s a genuinely great play. Historically, though, he got most of it wrong.

John Proctor, Miller’s protagonist, was sixty years old, and not a particularly important member of the Salem community. Also, more specifically, a man who certainly had not had an affair with Abigail Williams, who was not a prominent accuser and who was in any event eleven years old. He also accused his wife, Elizabeth Proctor, something the Proctor in the play refuses to do. In reality, the central figure among the accused wasn’t Proctor, but George Burroughs, a charismatic and superbly qualified minister, and Indian fighter, and something of a muscular prodigy; also a man who abused his wives sufficiently to be prosecuted for it. The Chief Justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, in charge of prosecuting and sentencing witches, was not Thomas Danforth, it was William Stoughton, who was also Massachusetts’ Lieutenant Governor. And Tituba was probably not Black. And most of what we know about the Salem witch trials comes from a character Miller doesn’t even put in his play, Cotton Mather, whose role in the trials went a good deal beyond that of chronicler.

The more significant, and probably controversial point, though, is that the teenaged girls at the heart of the Salem witch scare, the girls who writhed and twisted and pointed fingers, Abigail Hobbs and Mercy Lewis and Betty Parris and Ann Putnam Jr. and Mary Warren and the rest of them, may not have done so maliciously. For Miller, the girls were liars, knew they were liars, and kept on lying because they were afraid of Abigail Williams. Schiff doesn’t think so, and I believe her. She describes the symptoms of something called conversion disorder, a malady that previously went under the over-broad rubric of ‘female hysteria.’ Schiff doesn’t exactly blame this particular disorder for the trials, but she offers it as a possible explanation for the girls’ conduct. Above all, though, she treats all the characters in the story with compassion. She sees the events not as melodrama, with carefully defined villains and heroes (as, frankly, Miller tends to), but as tragedy, as a deeply human and terribly distressing combination of factors.

If the book has a villain, it’s probably William Stoughton. He was the most forceful personality in the room, the most impressive and fearsome politician in Massachusetts. He was also a man of infinitely malleable convictions, having taken multiple sides in every political controversy of his age. He was a survivor, a wily old bear who could make any position seem unassailable. So why, on this issue, did he become so unbending, so ferociously inexorable? Why, on this one issue, was he so unwilling to listen to those few timorous voices wondering if it was possible that quite so many New Englanders were witches, or if entirely spectral evidence could be enough to condemn otherwise upright people to death for consorting with Satan?

Rebecca Nurse was twice acquitted. Both times, Stoughton interrogated the jury. Were they certain? Had they considered this evidence, or that testimony? Perhaps they should deliberate some more? The third time, the jury took the hint. And Rebecca Nurse, the very picture of a virtuous Puritan matron, was hanged for witchcraft. Despite the considered opinion of the most respected Boston ministers, Stoughton admitted the most questionable kinds of evidence. And given a chance to show clemency, everyone convicted received the harshest possible penalty. And 20 people were executed.

None of them witches. And we need to keep that in mind. Because witches and witchcraft and enchantments and spells and incantations are frequent memes in our popular culture. And that’s fine, if kept resolutely in the realm of fantasy fiction. But as many as a hundred thousand innocent people were killed, most of them from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Twenty were killed in New England, plus those who died in prison, plus Giles Corey. The citizens of Boston and Salem were not actually plagued by witches; no one with superhuman powers lived in those communities, nor, in fact, in any communities in the world, ever, anywhere. Bridget Bishop was a woman in her fifties, unkempt, belligerent, often homeless, brash and outspoken. She was one of the first ‘witches’ killed from Salem. Sarah Good was younger; another homeless woman, sullen, dependent on the reluctant charity of hard-hearted Puritan farmers, a lurker and a mutterer, probably disturbed; another woman hanged in Salem. That’s who ‘witches’ were; women outside the mainstream of society. Only after the disposable women of the community were disposed of did the good citizens of Salem and Boston and Andover turn to the Martha Coreys and Rebecca Nurses and John Proctors; respectable, but somewhat litigious people, who had made enemies with scores to settle.

The story of Salem is the story of innocent people unpardonably persecuted, and unjustly prosecuted. It’s the story of American paranoia run amuck. It’s human beings doing what humans do; overreact to scary events. It’s also a story that Americans have reenacted far too frequently, as have the citizens of every other culture on earth. Schiff’s book avoids facile conclusions, and easy judgments. It’s a wise and judicious and thoughtful and superbly written book. I can’t recommend it too highly.