The Land Beyond The Sea: A Book Review

Historical fiction is a genre dominated by stories set in Europe. Whether you are looking for a  book about the rise and fall of fascism in Europe or a book about the military exploits of Roman soldiers, there’s no shortage of books to be had. Novels about Mansa Musa, history’s wealthiest man if we are to believe recent reporting, or the An Lushan revolt, history’s deadliest event if we are to believe Pinker and his ilk, are decidedly harder to find. Having said that, historical fiction is undergoing some profound changes as a genre and I am heartened to see new stories and voices coming to the fore. Readers interested in branching out, to learn about Middle Eastern history for example, would do well to check out Sharon Kay Penman’s The Land Beyond the Sea.

To be fair, Penman is not exactly a new voice. She has been writing since the 80s and has the large fan base to prove it. For the most part, her stories are set in Western Europe but the Land Beyond the Sea represents a marked departure in that is set entirely within the Levant. The story is told primarily from the perspective of the Poulains, a term that refers to Christian settlers during the time of the Crusades, and offers fascinating insight into many battles fought on behalf of the Holy Land. 

The Land Beyond the Sea covers a time period of roughly twenty years and, true to form, Penman makes use of multiple POVs in the book. Each character is interesting in their own right but three characters stand out as particularly interesting: Baldwin, Balian, and Sal-al-Din. All of them are real historical figures but Sal-al-Din is the one best known to contemporaries, though he is often referred to in Western literature as Saladin. He is known primarily for his military prowess, but Penman is careful not to depict him as infallible. I think what I like best about Penman’s depiction, however, is that Sal-al-Din is more than just a military general in her story. He is a man who is honorable to a fault, a commander so used to projecting stoic strength that he struggles to let his guard down even around intimates, and a man with sincere religious convictions who breaks bread with “enemies of the faith.” 

As Penman tells it, researching Sal-al-Din was not all that easy. Sure, there are plenty of sources but he is the devil incarnate in some sources and a flawless warrior-king in others. She opts for a more complex depiction, and I admire the research she put into Sal-al-Din’s backstory and those of his family members. Penman is so familiar with the key events in his life that she is able to quote directly from Sal-al-Din at times, and the story is all the more impressive for it. At one point in the book, Sal-al-Din takes the king of Jerusalem hostages and executes a captive right in front of him. Horrified, the king assumes he will also be executed and braces himself for the worst. Sal-al-Din is quick to put him at ease, however, and assures him that “kings do not kill kings.” It’s a great line and one that’s all the more interesting because it’s true to history.

Baldwin is Sal-al-Din’s chief antagonist for most of the story, but the two never get a chance to cross blades. Afflicted with leprosy early on in life, Baldwin is afforded few opportunities to prove himself on the battlefield. Keeping in mind that kings were often expected to lead their troops into battle in medieval times, his leprosy causes many to question whether he should be king. Despite many health complications, Baldwin rules over Jerusalem for almost twelve years. The longevity of his rule is a testament to Baldwin’s political acuity. He outmaneuvers his foes, those inside his kingdom and those alien, with impressive skill and leads his kingdom through numerous crises. 

Nonetheless, if there is any one character who stands out for bravery, it’s Balian. A soldier from an undistinguished background, Balian is tasked with defending Jerusalem after Sal-al-Din’s army succeeds in surrounding the city. He didn’t have to defend the city, he could have fled for safety with his family, and he took an enormous risk by agreeing to serve in this role, Sal-al-Din had promised to lay waste to the city once the people refused to surrender, which makes it all the more notable that he chose to stay and fight. In the interest of not giving away too much of the plot I won’t say more, but I can fully understand why Penman considers Balian to be one of the bravest individuals she has ever written about. 

Long story short, The Land Beyond the Sea is a great read and I recommend it to historical fiction fans interested in the Crusades, Middle Eastern history, or medieval warfare.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace and the Perils of Accuracy

FX has been on a good streak with shows. The People v OJ Simpson was a great show and I hear only good things about Snowpiercer. Because I liked The People v OJ Simpson, I decided to check out the second installment in the American Crime Story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Compared to The People v OJ Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is slow-going but it gets to be pretty good by the end. I don’t think it ever surpasses the People v OJ Simpson, but it’s definitely compelling television.

Like The People v OJ Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace takes place in the early 90s ad shines a spotlight on how the media covers important social events of the day. For the most part, the spotlight is not flattering, but that’s par for course in some respects. After all, everybody loves to criticize the media. Some more than others–cough cough, Donald Trump–but media critics can be found in almost every industry.

It goes without saying that free and independent media plays an extremely important role in a democratic society, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace avoids any over-the-top anti-media tirades. Instead, the show takes a more nuanced approach and explores issues related to media ethics.

Some organizations completely eschew ethics and release everything they get a hold of, Wikileaks being the most notorious example, but most major media outlets adhere to some set of ethics. Ultimately, however, there is no governing body that polices media outlets when it comes to editorial decisions and every individual outlet must self-police. I think almost anybody who watches The Assassination of Gianni Versace will come away with the impression that self-policing often fails. 

There may no better example of this than Episode 3, A Random Killing. Gianni’s killer came very close to being captured by the police after he killed Lee Miglin. As the show tells it, Gianni’s killer manages to get away, however, because a local radio outlet breaks the story that the police are tracking him by means of a car telephone. He immediately proceeds to disable that car phone and then hijacks a car from a random civilian who he murders execution-style. Much to my surprise, these events weren’t just made up for the show. Granted, we can’t know for sure that Gianni’s killer actually heard the radio announcement, but it is fact that a local outlet broke the story of the live tracking and that Gianni’s killer went on to commit two more grisly killings because he managed to evade capture. 

From an accuracy standpoint, it’s hard to fault the radio outlet. After all, the police really were tracking Gianni’s killer with the car phone and did have plans to arrest him. From a moral standpoint, however, I think the radio outlet was very much in the wrong. The outlet succeeded in giving listeners the inside scoop, but they failed to consider whether the story deserved widespread dissemination. As a result, a serial killer was able to escape justice and went on to kill at least two more people. A terrible tragedy could have been avoided if the outlet had taken greater heed of the perils of accuracy, and I am glad the show creators included this plot detail as it does a great deal to enrich the show’s story. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that the show blunders into the same trap as the radio outlet when it comes to issues of accuracy.

Just to be clear, there is plenty about The Assassination of Gianni Versace that is disputed or inaccurate. However, it does get one very important fact right: the identity of Gianni’s killer. This matters a great deal because Gianni’s killer seems to have been motivated primarily by a desire for fame. Simply put, he wanted his name to be well-known and he considered murder an expedient way to achieve notoriety. By choosing to use the actual name of Gianni’s killer, the show gives him exactly what he wanted.

To be fair, Gianni’s killer is dead so it’s not like he’s rejoicing about his increased fame. Nonetheless, the decision of the show makers to use his actual name is not without consequence. If many viewers are like me, they knew next to nothing of Gianni’s killer before watching the show but now know about some of the most intimate aspects of his life. The show never glorifies Gianni’s killer and his victims do get significant screen time–with the exception of William Reese, we get a decent amount of backstory for all of his victims–but I do think the show could have benefitted by better considering some of the perils of accuracy. All in all, I did enjoy the show and I think there is a great deal about the show that is worth commending. Despite certain misgivings with the show, I recommend it to anyone interested in social history or media ethics.

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The Tempest at Dawn: A Book Review

I bought The Tempest at Dawn I don’t even know how long ago. Whenever it was, it was not something I started right away and many months passed before I opened the book. To be honest, I forgot I had it on my Kindle and it wasn’t until I started browsing through my catalog recently that I rediscovered the book. I knew very little about the novel or the author, but I find early US history interesting so I decided to check out the book.

The prologue places the readers in Antebellum Virginia, and we get a vague sense that civil war could erupt but it still feels remote and unlikely. With the first chapter of the book, we jump back about forty years or so and we are soon introduced to the two primary characters in the book, James Madison and Roger Sherman. Having majored in history, I was already vaguely familiar with James Madison, but I can’t say I knew much about Roger Sherman before reading this book. Of the two, Sherman comes across as the more compelling character but Madison’s political philosophy, regarding government structure at least, is more sensible. Who knows, that could just be my own biases at work, though. In any case, both are interesting characters in their own right and the clash between the two makes for compelling reading. 

Madison is an erudite optimist who is convinced that history offers the best guidance when it comes to the structuring of government and has spent poring over ancient tomes to discover the best form of government. He considers the Articles of Confederation an abysmal failure and hopes to replace it with a more centralized, more powerful government. Sherman is not altogether convinced that the Articles of Confederation have failed, but he is adept at sensing political currents and quickly realizes he can do more to shape the structure of the next government if he is in the building making suggestions as opposed to lobbing stones from outside the building. While he respects Madison’s intellect, he is far more interested in what people want in the here and now, regardless of whether or not it has worked in the past.

In the interests of not giving away any important plot points, I won’t say who gets the better of the argument, but I think their clash makes for interesting reading because it’s still relevant to modern-day politics. The question of who we can make a deal with and when we can make a deal is fraught with ethical considerations, and the Tempest at Dawn explores these issues with grace and sensitivity. Moreover, I really appreciate that the author did not try to elide the issue of slavery as it relates to the Constitutional Convention. It is worth noting that pretty much every country in the world had slavery at the time of the Constitutional Convention, and the peculiar institution was supremely important in post-Revolution America. Some because they thought it morally abhorrent and wished to abolish it, some because they thought it a benign practice and wished to preserve it. Best does a good job of how explaining how the Founding Fathers grappled with the issue and, ultimately, navigated around the issue during the convention and I’d say he did a great job of threading the needle were it not for the epilogue.

In the epilogue, Best veers dangerously close to lost cause mythology and even dabbles a bit in the faithful servant trope. I concede I probably care about these things more than other readers, but I have other misgivings with the epilogue that are a bit more basic in nature. To me, the primary purpose of an epilogue is to tie up loose ends and/or provide some measure of closure. An epilogue doesn’t need to tie up every single loose end–that would be an especially difficult, perhaps impossible task in many historical novels–but the epilogue can be useful opportunity to tie up the simple ones. One of the simple loose ends in the book is whether or not Madison marries the woman he meets during the Constitutional Convention. The book has over twenty characters and keeping track of everybody gets difficult at a certain point. Yes, readers can control F search in their Kindle or flip through a bunch of pages to see if the woman he briefly talks to during the convention is the same one from the epilogue, but I think that’s an unnecessary hurdle for readers. Moreover, it’s not one that would provide much clarity anyway, since the woman he met had a fairly common name. I personally would have appreciated if Best had been a bit more explicit in the epilogue as it regards the identity of the wife, but it’s an admittedly minor grievance. Despite a weak epilogue, I think there is much to enjoy in The Tempest at Dawn and I recommend the book to anyone interested in American history or political history.

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I Spy a Good Show: A Review of Netflix’s The Spy

When I first read about The Spy, I remember thinking that it was impressive that Sacha Baron Cohen learned Syrian Arabic for the part, but I didn’t feel any burning need to watch the show. I kind of just went huh, that’s cool to myself and then moved on with my life. What with cv19, I am indoors a lot more than I used to be so I decided to check out Netflix’s bountiful offerings. As someone who finds it really hard not to binge a good series, I figured it would be smart to find a miniseries to sink my teeth into, rather than a multi-season epic that would probably destroy my sleep cycle. The Spy kept coming up on the list of best miniseries on Netflix so I decided to check it out and I am really glad I did.

James Bond films would have us believe that international espionage consists mainly of glitzy parties, casual sex, high-octane car chases, frenetic fisticuffs, and diabolical plots to destroy the world. The Spy would have us believe otherwise and gives audiences a much grittier depiction, one less glamorous but more grounded. To be fair, there are many edge-of-your-seat moments in The Spy and I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers played up the drama surrounding certain events for the sake of the audience. However, what makes The Spy different than the typical Bond film is these sequences aren’t exciting so much as they are exhausting. 

Exhausting has negative connotations, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean that in a bad way. Part of what makes The Spy compelling is that we know from the very first episode that Eli Cohen, the protagonist of the show, gets captured by the Syrian government. As a result, every time we see Eli put himself in danger, we have to think to ourselves: is this how he gets caught? Any relief we feel when he survives a brush with danger is fleeting because we know every success only encourages him to take greater risks. And boy, does he take some great risks. He doesn’t just pop into Syria for a quick peek–he ends up living there for nearly half a decade, brushing shoulders with some of the dangerous people in all the country and building a facade so consuming it ends up, well, consuming, him.

Reading some reviews online, I notice some critics took issue with the depiction of Eli Cohen and contend that the show writers should have done more to develop Eli as a character. To some degree, there is validity to this criticism. There are only a few episodes in the series and Eli gets precious little time to be himself–rather than his altar alias, Kamel Amin Thabbet–or spend time with family. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing we know Eli primarily as a spy. I think in some respects, it makes for a more honest depiction. Eli has to play the part of his altar alias so much that it becomes him and his downfall is all the more brutal because of it.

His handlers should have stepped in before he was caught, but they do as much to enable his downfall as Eli’s penchant for risk-taking. Eli has given them such great information, has triumphed in the face of such spectacular odds, they convince themselves Eli can’t be caught. This delusion proves deep-seated and, ultimately, tragic. In an odd twist of fate, Eli becomes so valuable to the state of Israel that he becomes expendable. His eagerness to serve dooms him, and the Israeli Intelligence Services lose their golden goose because they are unwilling to quit while they are head. Instead of pulling Eli out when he relays extremely privileged information, they encourage him to discover even more privileged information even though they can do nothing to protect him once the Syrians start wondering who is leaking the privileged information. Sure, he’s their hero, but that just means he has the honor of taking more risks on their behalf.

The question of how we treat our heroes is an important one then as much as now. Many of the same people who are lauding frontline medics for their selflessness in the fight against cv19 are loathe to practice social distancing measures themselves. In some cases, they flagrantly violate them. One has to wonder if we perhaps ask too much of our heroes.

The Spy probably isn’t for everyone. It’s hard to imagine the show has much viewership in Syria, which is ironic considering the trouble Sacha Baron Cohen went through to learn the lingua franca, and it has flown under the radar with a lot of American viewers also. The Spy is not as action-packed as a modern Bond film, nor is it as heady as a John le Carre adaption, but it’s worth checking out and I recommend it to all viewers interested in Israeli history, Syrian history, or foreign espionage.

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A Review of Strongbow’s Wife

*I received this book in exchange for an honest review*

Strongbow’s Wife is a quick, easy read. Frank Parker clearly knows the era well and the research he put into the novel is admirable. I think the story, however, is a bit too lean and would have been stronger if the pacing weren’t so breakneck. 

By and large, I think historical novels tend to revolve around romantic storylines or some type of key event. As far as romance goes, there’s not much of it in Strongbow’s Wife. Truth be told, I don’t think that’s a great loss as I have never been one much for love triangles and literary courtships can be a bit formulaic. Nonetheless, a romance angle might have been a good way to spice up the story as it lacks a big event. Technically, the story has many notable events. The decision of the king to annex Ireland, the battles to take control of Ireland, and the pacification process are all alluded to in this story. Unfortunately, they all get short shrift. Sure, they get mentioned by the protagonist but the protagonist isn’t personally involved in any of these events so they are all tangential to her own story arc. 

I suspect the reason the author did not insert Strongbow’s wife into these situations is that it would have been ahistorical for him to do so. I respect his commitment to the historical accounts, but historical fiction does leave room for imagination. Had the novel included more than just one POV, I think it may have been possible to depict some of the important events in more depth and give readers a bit more to latch on to.

To be fair, there are plenty of great historical novels that are told exclusively from one perspective. The Moor’s Account and The Kingmaker’s Daughter are good examples of this. I think the reason these novels work well from a reading standpoint deals with the narrative decisions of the author. In the Moor’s Account, Lalami uses the first-person narrative to add more depth to the protagonist’s world view and give him more agency than he is credited with in primary sources. Sure, her telling diverges from the official account given to court authorities but never in ways that are unrealistic. In some respects, the account that Lalami offers is more trustworthy than the one passed down to posterity. 

For the most part, the protagonist of Strongbow’s Wife is a mystery. Yes, she reflects on some of the changes wrought by the foreigners in Ireland, but this mostly happens in the form of a few rhetorical questions. Even death gets short shrift in the story. Characters die or disappear, but we don’t learn much about how that makes the protagonist feel. The climax of the book is the death of a character we hardly knew and lacks much-needed oomph because we lack a strong connection to that character and the protagonist.

Ultimately, Strongbow’s Wife fails for me because it’s not fleshed out enough. To be truly compelling, the story needed to either go deeper with the first-person POV or it needed to offer more POVs. Parker has created a good skeleton for a story, but it needs more heft. To be fair, readers who want a quick rundown of the colonization of Ireland will probably enjoy this read. There’s pretty much no bloat with this read and we cover a pretty large expanse of time in just a few pages. Personally, I like having something to sink my teeth into and I think the story would have been stronger had we not rushed through so many important events. Parker is a prolific writer and I suspect he will put out more work soon. If he can resist the urge to skim over the important happenings, I think his other novels will be much stronger.

The Mule Spinners’ Daughter: A Challenging but Rewarding Read

When I first started The Mule Spinner’s Daughter, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it. A great deal of the story is written in non-standard English and the book isn’t set against the backdrop of any big historical event so it feels more like a social drama than an HF novel. The Mule Spinner’s Daughter is a sometimes challenging book but it is a rewarding read, and I am glad I stuck with it to the end.

Set in a rural village in 19th century England, The Mule Spinner’s Daughter is a multiple protagonist novel. I tend to gravitate to multiple-protagonist novels so I did not consider this a deal-breaker but I can understand why others might, especially if that style of story-telling is combined with occasional time skipping and unfamiliar diction. Truth be told, I think the story could have done without the time skipping as flashforwards tend to deflate narrative tension. Having said that, I suspect most readers won’t mind as many stories do not rely unfold on a chronological timescale.

Nonetheless, Griffith’s diction does set The Mule Spinner’s Daughter apart from many contemporary books. Instead of saying about, characters say abart and instead of saying after, they say arter, and they often use three words instead of one or two. To be fair, Griffith did not do so simply to set his book apart–he did so because he wanted to use time-appropriate language. It took some getting used to but once you get past the first few chapters, it’s easy to enough to understand. To my surprise, I came to enjoy the unusual turns of phrase. I think it gave Griffith a chance to not only show off his chops as a writer, but to also add some spice the narrative. It gave the book a very historical feel and I think that’s something that matters a lot to historical fans.

Even readers who care little for mood and atmosphere will appreciate the humor in The Mulespinner’s Daughter. The scene with Pud, the police officer, and the British ladies had me in stitches and a great lampooning of formal sensibilities. The truth strength of The Mule Spinner’s Daughter lies in Griffith’s narrative choices, though.

The police officer’s investigation helped give the story some narrative thrust but the John Wroe storyline is where everything really came together for me. The Wroe cult is mentioned early on in the book, but I assumed it would be unimportant from a plot standpoint. Following a disastrous wedding, the Wroe cult takes center stage in the climax of the book and I really appreciate how everything came together in such a logical way. I could completely understand why each character decided to seek out John Wroe–some because they are desperate for comfort and some because they are outraged by his predatory ways–and I also understood why the other characters tried to hide the truth about John Wroe. The race to get to Dover made for exciting reading and serves as a great example of how a story does not need duels or sword fights to be exciting. I recommend The Mule Spinner’s Daughter to anyone interested in the Victorian era, historical romances, or social dramas and I will be sure to keep an eye out for more of Griffith’s work in the future.

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All Soul’s Rising: All Kinds of Poetic But Pretty Confusing

High school English was an interesting time for me. I have always enjoyed reading but I mainly read science fiction and fantasy at that time. Mainly science fiction, to be completely honest. Once I entered high school, I was forced to read a wider variety of genres and engage in more critical analysis. No longer could I just read a book–I had to analyze the symbols and crystalize my interpretation in written form. I didn’t much enjoy it at the time, but I will admit I am a better reader for the efforts of my English teachers. Moreover, I also understand better that certain books have a very niche audience. All Soul’s Rising is one of those books.

Bell is a very talented writer and I applaud him for exploring a subject often overlooked in English fiction. The Haitian Revolution had a profound impact on world history–try to list even five other slave revolts that led to permanent independence for an entire country–but it has yet to receive much attention in historical fiction circles. I picked up All Soul’s Rising specifically because I wanted to learn more about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the struggle to free Haiti from slavery, but I think that was a bit misguided on my part.

That’s not to say Bell dropped the ball when it came to research. I have only a cursory understanding of the Haitian Revolution but as far as I know, he didn’t include anything that would have scholars up in arms. He did, however, write his story in a way that the narrative will be accessible only to a select reading group. 

Hardcore literary fiction fans will probably find much to enjoy in All Soul’s Rising. Bell clearly put a great deal of thought into every turn of phrase, and his poetic prose will undoubtedly appeal to English professors and professional linguists. I can recognize that Bell employs some really great literary devices in All Soul’s Rising, but I just didn’t understand what was going on for most of the story. 

If I were given a test on the book, I would struggle to name a single character in the book besides Toussaint L’Ouverture and I knew about L’Ouverture long before I read the book. I can remember certain scenes very well, the scene where the aggrieved wife attacks her husband’s slave is very poignant and a great example of Bell’s skill with prose, but most of it went over my head. Some narratives were easier to understand the others and while I understood almost none of the chapters told from the perspective of L’Ouverture’s friend, I did understand some of the chapters told from the aggrieved wife’s perspective. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I retained much information about the book once I finished it.

Some of this deals with my own shortcomings as a reader. When I read Thurston and Morrison and Fitzgerald in class, I struggled to intuit the deeper meaning of their words on my own and had to rely on my English teachers for guidance. I think some of it also deals with Bell’s choices as a writer. For the most part, Bell doesn’t really write about documented incidents. Sure, the story recounts a few revolts and some skirmishes but the great battles and the high-stakes negotiations are given relatively little attention. Instead, Bell asks us to imagine how people from various walks of life might have experienced the Revolution. As a result, we get more a social history rather than a traditional history. 

The drawback to this approach is that readers don’t have much to latch on to and I think it’s compounded by Bell’s choices as a writer. The protagonists think in broken English and their private musings don’t always follow a logical train of thought. Moreover, the characters tend to be isolated from the most important happenings of the Haitian Revolution. Not just in a physical sense. In a temporal sense also. Consequently, we learn a great deal about what a person in the late 1700s might have spent their time thinking about if their life was violently upended but we don’t learn much about what happened during the Haitian Revolution. 

To some, this is appealing. It can be a great way to explore overlooked narratives. But I think it’s worth noting that some narratives offer more insight than others. Reading about people involved with the Normandy campaign–whether it’s because they clean the gear or because they determine the strategy—will probably teach me more about the event than reading about the family that hid themselves in an isolated cabin for the duration of the campaign. Both can be enjoyable reading experiences but if I spend all my time with that family and the story ends with family still in hiding and the family rarely interacts with anybody outside the cabin, the family hasn’t really given me new insight into the Normandy Campaign. Rather, I have gained new insight into what it’s like to spend a lot of time in a closed space with a small group of people isolated from the outside world. Much as I enjoy immersing myself in unfamiliar worlds, I read historical fiction because I like to read stories anchored in something tangible. 

Ultimately, All Soul’s Rising is more about prose than plot and I struggled to enjoy it because prose is not enough for me. To enjoy a story, I need to understand the events of it or, at the very least, understand why those events matter. For the most part, I didn’t really know what was going on in All Soul’s Rising and pretty turns of phrase couldn’t make up for that. 

Boardwalk Empire: Boring at Times, But Pretty Good Overall

The Prohibition era has inspired plenty of books and movies but as far as I know, it hasn’t inspired that many television shows. Boardwalk Empire is a welcome addition in that respect and the critical success of HBO’s show is just another example of how historical fiction is finally coming into its own as a genre. While it will probably be a while until book stores carve out a specific section for historical novels, I think shows like Boardwalk Empire help broaden the fan base for historical fiction and I hope more outlets start putting out content for history buffs. Having said that, I do think Boardwalk Empire leaves a bit to be desired in terms of entertainment value.

When it comes to production design, the show gets everything right. The costumes are stunning and the attention to detail is impeccable. From an acting standpoint, there’s really not much to criticize either. Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Michael K. Williams, and crew all turn in great performances. Even late entrants like Jeremy Wright and Erik Harvey hold their own. In some cases, they steal the show. Unfortunately, the show lacks a compelling protagonist. Boardwalk Empire is filled with a vast assortment of fascinating characters–Richard Harrow, Chalky White, Dr. Narcisse–but none of them get nearly as much screentime as Nucky Thompson and that’s a shame because Nucky is by and large an unrealized character.

Steve Buscemi does a great job portraying Nucky, nobody who has seen Fargo can deny that Buscemi is a talented actor, but the character just never gets fleshed out. Towards the end of the first season, Nucky does have a revealing heart to heart with a love interest but moments like this are few and far between. By and large, when Nucky is on screen he is barking commands or negotiating illicit deals. This is interesting every now and then, but it gets a bit dry after a while. Nucky’s remarks aren’t especially witty and he’s not all that charming either. Most of the time, he comes off as rude or selfish or both. The great lines in the show belong to other characters, I ain’t buildin’ no bookcase for example, and Nucky really doesn’t have much of an arc. He starts out as a gangster who always delegates the killing to others and then becomes a ganger who often delegates the killing to others. If that shows growth as a character, it’s not the kind that especially interesting.

When it comes to plot, the show doesn’t really grow much either. For the most part, the plot of season 1 revolves around a failed hit on Nucky. As for season two? Another failed hit. Season three? Another failed hit. Season 4 is the only entrant to diverge from that pattern but by the time we get to season 5, we’re back to another failed hit.

The funny thing is, Boardwalk Empire doesn’t lack for compelling characters or interesting arcs and it’s a very creative show when it comes to characters other than Nucky. Agent Nelson, Richard Harrow, and Dunn Purnsley all have great character arcs. Certain characters don’t change much, Al Capone and Eli Rothstein for example, but they have great screen presence and take part in some really interesting scenes. Unfortunately, they’re all bit characters and they play second fiddle to Nucky in most cases. It’s frustrating just as much as it’s puzzling. Everybody who works on the show is incredibly talented, and the show could have been so much stronger if Nucky was a supporting character rather than the main character. Then again, just giving him more backstory and making him less abrasive might have done the trick also. In any case, the show is still worth watching and I recommend it to anyone interested in the Prohibition era.

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Check Out Calling Crow While You’re Self-Isolating

As of this writing, 49 states have reported at least one case of CV-19 and considering how fast the virus is spreading, it is very likely that most of us will spend the next few months self-isolating. What with all the extra time I now have, I have been reflecting more on the books I have read and I decided to write about Calling Crow this week. Whereas many historical novels focus upon the trials and tribulations of kings and queens, Calling Crow takes place in the American South of pre-Columbian times, a land where kings and queens do not exist. Instead, there are chiefs and mystics. The latter plays an important role in the story and gives readers a hint of the two events that will shape the plot of the story: a foreign invasion and a devastating pandemic. 

Calling Crow, the protagonist of the story and the inspiration for the title, hopes to become Chief one day and looks forward to the day he can marry his childhood sweetheart. After neatly resolving a conflict with a neighboring village, Calling Crow is quickly elevated to Chief but he has little time to celebrate because he is soon informed of a strange sighting. Mountain People have returned from the Far South and claim to have seen things that defy conventional explanation. Nobody in the village knows what to make of their “cloudboat” sighting but Calling Crow believes he has an obligation to investigate. 

Worried there might be a supernatural calamity afoot, Calling Crow enlists the help of the village mystic and consumes a noxious drink to travel to the spirit world. When it comes to my own writing, I tend to stay far away from magical divinations, but the novel’s brief turn towards fantasy works well because it foreshadows key plot points in a way that’s intriguing without being over-the-top. During Calling Crow’s drug-induced vision, readers are introduced to an eerie entity known only as the Destroyer. The identity and the motivations of the Destroyer are a mystery to us just as much as Calling Crow, but Calling Crow feels compelled to discover more.

Convinced he cannot do without going to the Far South himself, Calling Crow informs the villagers he will personally investigate the matter of the cloudboats and travels south with a handful of trusted warriors. Calling Crow underestimates the danger involved with getting close to the cloudboats, and they are taken captive by a strange white-skinned people who speak an unknown language called Spanish. 

Calling Crow’s captivity dramatically changes the direction of the story and author Paul Clayton introduces us to a fascinating pageantry of characters, some indigenous and some European. In the interests of not revealing all the story, I will avoid delving deep into the details but Calling Crow eventually escapes slavery and makes it back to his village after many years away. 

The village folk are pleased to see him again, but they do not know what to make of his ordeal or his unexpected return. Everyone assumed he was dead so a new Chief was elected and his former wife found a new husband. Calling Crow expected to be welcomed back a savior, but he is derided as a crazed fool instead. They have no interest in changing their comfortable lifestyle on account of some shadowy menace nobody has ever heard of and some people begin to question his sanity. After all, none of them have ever beheld the Spanish explorers so his stories regarding horses and cannons and rifles strike them as fantastical. 

Calling Crow is tolerated at first, but it does not take long for him to wear out his welcome. A strange sickness is stalking the village, one unlike any they know and one that did not exist before Calling Crow returned to the village. Men and women, young and old, are all susceptible and the sudden specter of death leaves everyone unsettled. Healers are powerless to help the afflicted, and many fear for their health. Aggrieved and angry, the villagers turn on Calling Crow and he is forced to flee the very same village he tried so very hard to save.

Calling Crow had no idea he could transmit smallpox to others simply by returning home and it’s not until he leaves that he realizes he is the Destroyer. The irony of this will be apparent to anybody who reads the book to completion and gives the book an ending both powerful and insightful. I highly recommend Calling Crow to readers interested in North American history, pandemic history, or indigenous history. Check out the book from your local library or find it on Amazon.

History as a cudgel

I knew I was going to major in history from the first day of college but I was interested in politics long before that. Whenever possible, I like to combine these two interests so I was much intrigued when I saw a Hillsdale College ad for a free online course titled Congress: How it Worked and Why it Doesn’t.

Truth be told, I had never heard of Hillsdale College before I saw the ad but I didn’t consider that to be all that notable. After all, there’s plenty that goes on in the world of online universities that I know nothing about. Moreover, I am always on the hunt for new podcasts so I figured I might as well give Hillsdale College a chance.

I only had to listen for a few minutes before I realized the courses offered by Hillsdale College, those related to Congress at least, aren’t really intended as history classes. Rather, they are intended as an introduction to strict constructionism. As far as judicial philosophies go, strict constructionism can lend itself to some extreme interpretations but it’s very popular with John Birch conservatives and serves as the bedrock for many legal opinions. I personally don’t subscribe to strict constructionism but everybody is entitled to their own world view. Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend Hillsdale College’s Congressional history class.

It’s important, of course, to engage with differing view points and I appreciate that Hillsdale College doesn’t charge a listening fee. I don’t appreciate, however, their appreciate their attitude toward history. In all fairness, there is no one way to study history. Personally, I find it helpful to visit historical sites and to acquaint myself with secondary and primary sources. To research the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, I read primary sources like Cortes’ Letters to the King, Diaz Conquest of New Spain, Sahagun’s Florentine Codex, but primary sources come in many forms and styles. Not every primary source has the same impact on history and there are few that can measure up to the Constitution when it comes to American history.

Considering its hallowed place in American history, it’s quite understandable that Americans of various political persuasions hold the Founding Fathers in high esteem. Few can deny that Thomas Jefferson was an eloquent writer or that George Washington was a talented battlefield commander. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember these people lived in a time far removed from our own and that they could not have predicted the rise of the internet any more than they could have predicted the climate-altering consequences of oil dependency. In my mind, this means we have to sort things out for ourself and draw upon the advice of cyber experts and climate scientists when drafting legislation pertinent to those issues.

The lecturers at Hillsdale College, however, hold a different opinion and mention in their lectures that we ought to oppose the Clean Water Act, and similar types of progressive legislation, to stay true to the wishes of the Founding Fathers. Nevermind that we are not given any hard evidence to back up the idea that the Founding Fathers would be opposed to legislation intended to protect the environment and preserve our health–we are simply expected to trust that the Founding Fathers were monolithic in their thinking and their goals. After all, the lecturers wear fancy suits and have gray in their beards so we ought to trust them when it comes to matters like history and law. 

But what about the environmental scientists and the public health experts who must have some thoughts on the Clean Water Act? If we are to believe the lecturers at Hillsdale College, their input is not germane. Instead, we must enact legislation only if we are absolutely certain the Founding Fathers would have done the same. If we subscribe to this world view, history is little more than a cudgel that we use to beat back progressive impulses. It’s all too easy to imagine how such a philosophy straightjackets government and nullifies some of the most consequential legislation of the 20th century. After all, the Clean Water Act and Social Security and the Civil Rights Act are all equally invalid should legislation be bound by the dead hand of the past.

I see little good in this but I was curious to learn why the lecturers at Hillsdale College believe otherwise. I figured I would start off by learning a bit more about the qualifications of the professors so I went to the home page and navigated to the faculty section. To my surprise, it was not clickable. I figured it was maybe just some issue with Chrome so I tried on Safari. Safari didn’t work either and while I figure the information will eventually be provided to the public, I decided to do some digging. What I found was very interesting and very illuminating. 

Located in Michigan, Hillsdale College is not a nationally accredited college and does not receive federal funds. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Hillsdale College lacks for money though as it receives generous support from wealthy donors. To be fair, pretty much every university in America accepts charitable contributions. But whereas most universities rely on a robust alumni network, Hillsdale College relies upon a very different group: wealthy conservatives who have never set foot on campus. To convince these donors to open up their checkbooks, Hillsdale College advertises on Fox News and courts contributions from the Koch network. The Center for Public Integrity, Politico, and the Chronicle for Higher Education all have some great reporting on the subject and I encourage anybody interested in the school and its connection to Trump world to delve deeper into the issue.

All in all, I wouldn’t call the Hillsdale College classes bad. I just don’t think they are particularly informative. Maybe I just need to listen to more of the episodes, I listened to about an hour worth of content before I had to throw the towel in, but I can’t say it’s a high priority for me. There are so many better educational resources out there, not to mention more entertaining ones, and it will probably be a while until I get around to checking out more of the courses offered by Hillsdale College. Fingers crossed they have better content by then.