The Wordy Shipmates – 4/5 Stars
I wonder how many people know that if you’re from parts of the country, you’re basically not taught about the Puritans at all. You get the same kind of education that Sarah Vowell talks about early in this book with discussions about “the first Thanksgiving” and plenty of other oblique, but not entirely in depth look into the early colonialization of New England. In the South, you’re mostly taught about Jamestown, or your own respective colony (if you had one). In high school you read The Crucible, and that’s basically it. Sarah Vowell has the complete love affair with the Puritans that a lot of people do. It’s not so much a love for exactly what they stood for or anything like that, but discovering that a group of people from England not only had rich inner lives that were way more interesting and scandalous that you’d have imagined, and that they wrote extensively about this in journals, pamphlets, sermons, books, and all kind of other writings opens up a world to you. Not only this, but as Vowell mentions, later writers DEFINITELY knew about the Puritans and borrowed from them extensively, continued their legacy, and carried on so many of their ideas so that they carried. The same experience you can have reading a document from say James Madison, where he expresses an idea so clearly and succinctly as if he were writing today you can have reading a piece from Winthrop or Bradford.
Sarah Vowell borrows heavily from some of the main writers about Puritans, namely Perry Miller, whose book Errand into the Wilderness is your go-to guide for a solid understanding of Puritan writing. He also edited several anthologies of Puritan writing. I also recommend the writers William Cronon, Francis Jennings, and Sacvan Bercovich too if you want some more amazingly in depth and readable criticism. For her part, Vowell’s book touches on many of the main points and does what a good contemporary writer does, shows us the relevance to us now as her main throughline. We didn’t spend enough time in 2008, and still haven’t, really unpacking “A Shining City Upon a Hill” which has, as Joseph Ellis among other have pointed, more than one meaning that we should try to make sense of, and we are still in the trauma-laden years of post-Reagan, post-Bush, post-Bush, and post-Trump to really fully unpack more of our history. In the next few years, many of us will be spending a lot of our energy fighting against further late-stage rewritings of history to further whitewash what is already deeply whitewashed.
Sarah Vowell is keen on the fun parts of history, the weirdness of diving into the past, especially the writing of the past, and at least narrating the discomfort all of us deserve to feel about it. Here, that project is spent mostly with Bradford and Winthrop–Winthrop for cursing us with the central metaphor, and Bradford for providing a very readable memoir of the early plantation. She covers a lot more ground than this, but does spend a long time here.
Partly Cloudy Patriot – 3/5 Stars
Steel and Other Stories – 3/5 Stars
A haphazard collection of Richard Matheson stories that uses the title story being adapted (for a second time) as the reason to repackage a handful of stories from Matheson. A few of the early stories were interesting and strong. “Steel” takes on the idea of technology’s impact on humans, and plays off boxing stories and their tropes. Other stories sometimes explore interesting ideas, and sometimes don’t. Matheson stories are often a mixed bag in and of themselves, and this collection is a mixed bag of mixed bags. At his best, he’s a master of playing in the tropes of a given genre or subgenre, like westerns, or exploring the contours of a nightmarish scenario. At worst, they read like warmed over Twilight Zone episodes, many of which these are.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies – 4/5 Stars
This small collection of stories is very good. One thing that makes it sing so well is how focused the writing is, how willing to take chances it is, and the fact that the stories are linked via the overarching theme. So many of the stories provide a voice to a character who is looking for a way to live their life in a dignified and private way but end up butting up against the social pressures and structures they have found in their lives, whether that’s the structures of the church, families, racial pressures, or plenty of other elements. My favorite of the story, in part because it felt downright indulgent and sultry, was the story about how to have an affair with a church-going man with a wife. It’s borrowing heavily (and riffing appropriately) from Lorrie Moore’s “How to be an Other Woman” but takes ownership of that role a little more than in Moore’s story.
“Is it better to have the one big hurt of your father not being around and not all those little hurts that come when he disappoints you? Or is it better to have a piece of a father, hurts and all?”
Going Solo – Roald Dahl – 3/5 Stars
It shouldn’t surprise that the sequel to Roald Dahl’s Boy, where older boys torture younger boys by making them warm up toilet seats in the middle of winter, where a boil is lanced (but man I bet it felt good) and adenoids are cut out without pain meds, involves among other things what it’s like to be in a horrific plane crash, racist descriptions of living in colonies, and a poor dog being killed by a Green Mamba snake, and well, it doesn’t surprise me.
This book is a brutally told, hilarious at times, and a deeply cringing memoir by a writer I love, and who seems, as more is revealed about him, to be a more or less awful person. I could handwring more about that if I wanted, but basically whatever you say about Roald Dahl in criticism is probably right.
Rocket Ship Galileo – 3/5 Stars
Rocket Boys gives way to Space Nazis.
That’s the log line of this early Robert Heinlein novel. Actually, I just looked it up and it’s his first novel. So what do we have here? A handful of high school boys are making careful calculations while testing prototype backyard rockets they’ve been designing. One of the boys’ uncles who just happens to be a world-renowned astrophysicist and nuclear scientist happens by and gets clipped by exploding debris from the launch. He tells them that he admires their moxie, has worked out an impossible space fuel calculation, and asks them to ask their parents if he can take them to space. They do, some complications arise, but they make. So we have a wildcat rocket crew making it to the moon, whereupon they’re immediately attacked by Nazis posing as a British space crew. Space battles, moon colonies, and other things abide and we have our adventure. At times this is this the most ridiculous novel I’ve ever read, and sometimes merely the most audacious. It’s as good as it is bad ultimately.
V2 – Robert Harris – 2/5 Stars
Is this a novel? I dunno. A bunch of things happens in connection to the late WWII Nazi campaign to devastate London via V2 rockets. So what we get here is a blend of Gravity’s Rainbow, Black Out, and Cryptonomicon, but with all the fun parts erased out for little boring conversations about feelings and not enough rockets blowing up and being interesting. It’s oddly short, not super inventive, I am sure probably more or less well-researched, and disparately narrated. And it jumps around a lot. It might work as a treatment for a tv show, but see those other novels first in terms of tone and fun.