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.

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.

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.

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.