Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Othello by William Shakespeare

IAGO: Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.

Reading my review of Othello from years ago, I'm amazed at some of the things I said: I failed to see, for instance, that Iago's many rationalizations for his hatred of Othello are far less than the sum of their parts.  Or how highly I thought of Othello himself, who now seems, though noble and capable, short-sighted and overconfident in not just his powers but the very stability of his nature.  Like Julius Caesar who calls himself the "North Star" because he doesn't change, Othello's belief in his own stability (and Iago's) becomes dangerous.  It's Iago who doesn't change, because what he is is a nullity, a living paradox: "I am not what I am."  He's so theatrical that I begin to wonder if there is anything beneath his playacting, if even his hatred for Othello is not another kind of act.

I admit that Othello is not my favorite of the tragedies.  It doesn't have the scope of Hamlet or King Lear, or the sheer poetry of Macbeth.  For that reason, I'm really excited to teach it, which I never have before--I think it'll force me to find new things to admire about it.  It's got a few really nice moments: Iago's salesman-like manipulation of Roderigo with the simple phrase, "put money in your purse"; Desdemona's mind-boggling shock at the idea that Iago's wife Emilia considers herself to be sometimes motivated by lust, like men are.  I have always felt that the best lines are Othello's final speech, which seem like a desperate attempt to manage his own legacy, or perhaps his conception of himself:

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

"Speak of me as I am," says Othello--but what is that?  Iago has reduced him to almost nothing; and these last words give the impression of a man who knows that his words are all that is left of him.  He is reduced, at last, to this final speech.  He tells a story about killing a Turk, but he's really talking about himself.  Is he the noble Venetian or the traitorous foreigner?  When nothing's left of him but these words, in a way, he can be both.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

He said, "It's savage and superstitious to accept the world as it is.  Fiddle around and find a use for it!"  God had left the world incomplete, he said.  It was man's job to understand how it worked, to tinker with it and finish it.  I think that was why he hated missionaries so much: because they taught people to put up with their earthly burdens.  For Father, there were no burdens that couldn't be fitted with a set of wheels, or runners, or a system of pulleys.

But instead of improving the world, he said, most people just tried to improve God.  "God--the deceased God--was a hasty inventor of the sort you find in any patent office.  Yes, He had a great idea in making the world, but He started it and moved on before He got it working properly.  God is like the boy who gets his top spinning and then leaves the room and lets it wobble.  How can you worship that?  God got bored," Father said.  "I know that kind of boredom, but I fight it."

Charlie Fox's father--that's what he's called, Father, by everyone, not just his children--is a brilliant but arrogant man.  He keeps his kids out of school, not wanting them to be corrupted by consumerist ideals.  He is a gifted inventor, working as a kind of handyman for a wealthy asparagus farmer in Massachusetts.  But he believes that he is the only one who sees America, and the world, for what they are, a man more capable than God himself, because God's inventions never seem to work properly.  It's the kind of arrogance that can only be sustained by brilliance, because it often seems like he might actually be able to back up the things he says about himself.

Increasingly disgusted by the commercialism of the developed world, Father decides to take his family to the wilderness of Honduras.  He's something like Sam Pollit of The Man Who Loved Children, in that his all-enveloping narcissism acts like a black hole for his family to fall in, but whereas Pollit is all progressive fantasy and high-mindedness, Father is closest to the kind of doomsday preppers you see stocking their bunkers with creamed corn and assault rifles.  In Honduras, he tells his children that America has fallen into war and been destroyed:

"Right now," Father said dreamily, "someone over there in America is painting yellow lines on a road, and someone else is wrapping half an onion in a blister of supermarket cellophane, or putting an electric squeezer down the garbage disposal and saying, 'It's busted.'  Someone's just opened a can of chocolate-flavored soup in a beautiful kitchen, because he can't get his car started, to eat out.  He really wanted a cheeseburger.  Someone just poisoned himself with a sausage of red nitrate, and he's smiling because it tasted so good.  And they're all cursing the president.  They want him re-tooled."

For a while, Father's project is a smashing success.  Deep in the Honduran jungle, he makes a functioning village with scraps and raw materials, bringing comfortable housing and irrigation.  His crowning achievement is a giant refrigerator that uses heat power, which he calls "Fat Boy."  But the resonance with the names given to the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan--Little Boy and Fat Man--foreshadows not only the fate of the refrigerator but Father's entire project.

The narrator, Charlie, is thinly written.  As the oldest, he's both suspicious of his Father's abilities, but also captivated by them, but swings between these two extremes according to Theroux's needs.  And yet, it's hard to imagine another character as vivid or powerful as Charlie's father, who sucks in every available breath of air.  (The fact that Sam Pollit wasn't the only strong character in Christina Stead's novel is one of the things that makes it so incredible.)  The novel is exactly as compelling as the character is, and it's hard to look away as both hurtle toward disaster.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

"I like Los Angeles." In Los Angeles she was always a child. She swam the length of Marjorie's mother's pool, skimming its blue bottom in her two-piece bathing suit. The shadow of Caroline, half-asleep on her inflatable raft, was a rectangular cloud above her. Their father was just at the water's edge in a lounge chair reading The Godfather. 
Commonwealth intertwines the story of two families, split apart and merged together when the mother of one and the father of the other fall in love, leave their spouses, and marry. The children (four from one marriage, two from the other) are thrust together in a darker, modern day Brady Bunch scenario, and the novel tracks them from infancy to adulthood.

The family saga layer of this novel is fantastic. There is mystery and intrigue, the characters are sufficiently fleshed out (none of them is too saccharine or awful), and the narration weaves through time effortlessly without losing the reader. But because it's Ann Patchett, there is a layer of darkness running under that narrative that makes it that much more compelling. There were subtle moments--the casual mistreatment of a sibling--and overarching tragedies that hold the book together and make it pack a serious emotional punch.

The sibling and step-sibling relationships in this novel are simultaneously perfect and heart-breaking. They're brutal and loving within the space of a paragraph, and the every day cruelties and kindnesses that come with those relationships are perfectly captured. Those ties become especially valuable and fraught in divorced families, and Patchett nails that tension. There is a central betrayal (revealed on the back of the book, but I won't describe here because I wish I hadn't known going in) which is artfully described in all of its guilty splendor and ripple effects. One of my favorite moments, late in the novel, came when two of the sisters are navigating the inevitable and painful aging of a parent. One of them has spent the day bossing everyone around and subtly sniping at every turn, but after a particularly painful moment, her sister gives us this:
Franny gave her sister a tired smile. "Oh, my love," she said. "What do the only children do?"
"We'll never have to know," Caroline said.
The torturous unconditional love of sisters (and brothers and step-siblings) is woven throughout and is just brutal enough that it manages not to be cliche.

I loved this one. The story was fabulous and dark and emotionally engaging, and the many, many lives impacted by the divorce and other assorted tragedies are beautifully captured. I was especially impressed by how nuanced all the various family relationships were able to be.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Heirlooms by Rachel Hall

The baby carriage and the layette of gowns and sweaters she’d assembled were taken away while she convalesced.  For this Sylvie is grateful.  The dogs are gone, too, and though she doesn’t ask about them, for a long time she will expect their sharp energetic barks, the frantic swinging of their tails as she moves about the yard.

This collection of linked short stories won the GS Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction run by BkMk Press last year.  I received a copy for entering the contest and not winning, so there may be some sour grapes involved in my reading.  Heirlooms follows an extended family of Jewish refugees through their escape from Europe in the 1930s and into the generations that succeed them in both America and Israel.

I most liked the early stories that dealt with surviving and escaping the rising tide of anti-Semitism in France.  Hall captures the way that petty jealousies and fears can make minor disputes life threatening under the right political situations.  These are the stories that most made me think about America’s current treatment of refugees and how our own pettiness is affecting people.  There is also a wonderful story at the end of the collection in which the adult granddaughter of the survivors becomes entangled in the grief of a makeshift gang who mourn the death of a member by building a tacky roadside memorial on her lawn.

The book is weakest in the way that linked short story collections are often weak – stories that advance the larger narrative but don’t work very well as stories on their own.  There are also moments when I am disappointed that Hall has cast her net so widely: by following the characters for three generations she has diluted the power of the early stories as much as she has extended it towards hope.

However, I enjoyed the collection for its high points, early and late.  Hall has tackled large ideas and embedded them in the lives of real people, succeeding in getting us to remember the past and think clearly about the present.  I can stand losing to that.
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop:  A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang

I don’t want to hear people saying that they don’t want to be role models.  You might already have my son’s attention.  Let’s get that clear.  When I’m telling him “don’t walk that way, don’t talk that way,” you’re walking that way and talking that way.  Don’t just be drug dealer, like another pusher.  Cut the crap.  That’s escape.  That’s the easy way out.  You have the kid’s attention.  I’m asking you to help me raise him up.

Those lines are from DJ Kool Herc’s forward to this comprehensive, scholarly and deeply opinionated history of hip-hop.  Chang begins before the beginning, establishing that each of the big three fathers of the genre – Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Africa Bambaata – are West Indian immigrants and that their approach to music grows out of the highly political practice of sound system dances in Kingston and other cities of Jamaica, and continues through to the more pleasure centered work of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre.

Chang is not simply examining the roots of the music here, but arguing that hip-hop has always been a political voice of the black community.  He persuasively argues that both MCs and DJs have been heavily involved with street gangs and have consistently worked as part of anti-violence strains within those gangs.  He places hip-hop within the context of African American self-help tradition arguing that often the message of rap is confused by the fact that the intended audience is black youth who experience street violence from a different perspective than white critics.  He sees the primary work of hip-hop through the 1980s as voicing positive alternatives for embattled communities.

Chang’s is a fan’s perspective.  He makes no attempt to hide his love of the music and chooses the artists he focuses on accordingly (plenty of Public Enemy, very little Tupac).  However, his primary focus remains the music’s social impact and Chang does an excellent job of placing variations of hip-hop in historical and cultural context.  In that sense, the book becomes a vivid social history of the 1980s and I had a wonderful time reliving moments I had lived through but perhaps not given proper attention.  If you want to rethink Eleanor Bumpers and Michael Stewart in addition to Flavor Flav and Ice Cube, you will want to read this book.

Chang is especially strong on hip-hop’s meaning to other minority communities and writes with clarity and insight about the tensions between blacks and Asians in the 1980s – in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles.  He is weaker when discussing the images of women in hip-hop and I couldn’t help get the feeling that he was letting his love of NWA get in the way of his analysis of their music.  It is important to look at misogyny in hip-hop within the context of misogyny in pop music generally (“Runaround Sue” anyone?) but Chang doesn’t go there.

The book includes an extensive appendix that lists supplemental readings, films and an extensive playlist of music for each chapter.  His music recommendations alone are worth the price of the book. 

There is no doubt that the history and significance of hip-hop will be subject of ongoing debate and I will leave the details of that debate to those more knowledgeable than myself, but clearly this is a book that will be important to that debate for some time.
The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman

This novel combines two of my loves – detective stories and New York City history.  Although it clocks in at over 400 pages (and does not need to) I finished it in a couple of days.  It is the kind of book that leads me to plan on reading one chapter before turning out the light and then reading four.

In fact, an ocean liner, The Normandie, did burn in NY harbor while being converted into a troop transport ship in early 1942, adding to the already hysterical fear gripping the city after Pearl Harbor.  The ensuing investigation showed that the fire was accidental, not sabotage, but led to a secret agreement between the US Navy and organized crime to keep the NYC docks free of both sabotage and labor disputes for the duration of the war.  The history includes Albert Anastasio joining the army, Meyer Lansky getting into street brawls with German sympathizers in Yorkville and Lucky Luciano transferring to a prison closer to the city so he could better supervise his dockworkers.

To this history, Fesperman adds a varied cast of fictional characters and the expert plotting of a professional.  Chief among the characters is Danziger, the letter writer of the title – an elderly Jew who makes a living writing letters in one of his 5 languages for fellow immigrants.  The profession of letter writing allows Danziger access to any number of secret relationships at the same time it helps him hide his own past.  Danziger gets mixed up with Woodrow Cain, an NYPD detective recently transplanted from North Carolina with baggage of his own.  Detecting, both professional and amateur, ensues in complex and entertaining ways as Fesperman imagines both Murder Incorporated and the NYPD investigating the fire on The Normandie.

The weakness of the book is the detective.  While a very sympathetic character, Woodrow Cain never seems fully fleshed out.  He is a single father with a hostile father-in-law and a tragic past, but much of that comes across as information.  Fesperman avoids any of the clichés that mark the rural-southerner-in-the-city trope – Cain is not slow of speech, not an unfashionable dresser, and he doesn’t have a font of homespun wisdom to draw on.  But neither does he have any real feeling for his hometown:  he remembers few people, longs for no particular food, misses nothing about the climate or the countryside and is rarely cowed by pace, size, music, economy or language of his new home.  In short, he is not a clichéd southerner because he is not much of a southerner at all.
There is much about Cain’s background – his estranged wife, his struggles to find babysitting for his daughter, his new love-life in the big city, but most of that complicated his present as much as making him come alive.  It is those details that seemed to push the novel past the 400 page mark unnecessarily,

However, I hope it also set up possible sequels.  The war that has only just begun will be long and surely Woodrow Cain will have other cases worthy of Mr. Fesperman’s attention.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

But once in a while, I see a child crying with the deepest of desperation, and I think it is one of the truest sounds a child can make. I feel almost, then, that I can hear within me the sound of my own heart breaking, the way you could hear outside--when the conditions were exactly right--the corn growing in the fields of my youth. I have met many people, even from the Midwest, who tell me that you cannot hear the corn growing, and they are wrong. You cannot hear my heart breaking, and I know that part is true, but to me, they are inseparable the sound of growing corn and the sound of my heart breaking. I have left the subway car I was riding in so I did not have to hear a child crying that way. 
I had high hopes for this book.  I remember enjoying Olive Kitteredge, and especially enjoyed the ways in which the Maine town became its own character; I was hoping Strout would do the same with New York City. Instead, she's given us a series of vignettes that don't quite hold together as a novel. Her individual sentences are emotionally evocative, and some of the chapters could stand alone as poignant short stories, but I didn't feel like the pieces fit together quite right.

That being said, there were some powerful moments--the kinds of snippets you would write down to use in the novel you're planning in your head. Lucy's childhood was dark and violent, and the ways its imprint surfaces in her adult life are so true they're hard to read:
But there are times, too--unexpected--when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can't possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don't know how others are. 
Strout captures the paradox of being alone in a city full of people, of sensing the underlying connectedness of humans while still feeling utterly isolated. Also the phrase "the shape of sweaters newly arrived" is lovely and an example of the cadence of Strout's prose at its best.

I'm torn about this book. Aesthetically, I loved it. I dog-eared every other page and re-read some sentences over and over and over. But it felt like a collection of beautifully written moments, that don't hang together as a cohesive whole. As long as you go in with that expectation, it's enjoyably sad and beautiful enough that it's definitely worth reading.

Book 12: The Devil of Nanking, by Mo Hayder

I don't even know where to begin with this one. The onus might be on me for expecting a thriller to be more than it ever meant to be, itself. But maybe not - the author's note at the end of the book indicates that Hayder does honestly care about getting the word about the rape of Nanking out there into the world.

I'm ahead of myself. The Devil of Nanking, as one can presume, is about the Japanese atrocities committed during its invasion of China in World War II, atrocities that Japan has never officially recognized. Indeed, to my understanding, most Japanese citizens either downplay the extent of the atrocities, or deny that they happened at all. As these events pass out of living memory, this is denial strategy will allow Japan to completely sweep the rape of Nanking under the rug of history within its borders.

Serious stuff. Which is why it's so freaking bizarre that Hayder only spends perhaps a third of her novel following the narrator telling the story of the rape of Nanking. By far the bulk of the novel is dedicated to Grey, a British woman seeking film footage from Nanking, and who finds work at a hostess club frequented by the yakuza, and who has some sexual trauma in her past and present. Grey's story involves cannibalism as a route to eternal life, and a weird backstory that comes across as an anti-abortion parable. Needless to say, it is not nearly as interesting at the rape of Nanking material, and is so frivolous as to be offensive (Grey often comes across as a more-tormented-than-usual manic pixie dream girl) in its pairing with the real-world atrocities Hayder claims to be interested in spreading the knowledge of.

Book 11: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Good Lord, was I ever not expecting this book. Despite winning the Man Booker prize, the Sellout was not on my radar at all. (I say this as if I can recite the last twenty Man Booker prize winners.) My uncle's brother was reading it over Thanksgiving, and then my mother-in-law gave it to me for Christmas. I was like, eh, ok, well, I guess I'll get to this sometime when the library is slow to fulfill one of my holds.

The Sellout is the most biting, most open-eyed, and funniest critique of racism in America that I have ever run across.

There is no way for me to adequately review this book. It is so incredibly dense, so layered in its writing, that anything I say will just take up time you should spend getting a copy of this book. The narrator - never properly named, in what I assume is a nod to the Invisible Man, which I should probably re-read at some point in my life - re-segregates his hometown in an attempt to get his town back on the map, and owns a slave. It's just the weirdest set-up. Here, stop reading me and read some of the Sellout.

In all its years of existence, Dum Dum Donuts has never been robbed, burglarized, egged, or vandalized. And to this day, the franchise's art deco facade remains graffiti and piss-stain free. Customers don't park in the handicapped spot. Bicyclists leave their vehicles unlocked and unattended, stuffed neatly into the rack like Dutch cruisers parked at an Amsterdam train station. There's something tranquil, almost monastic, about the inner-city donut shop. It's clean. Spotless. The employees are always sane and respectful. Maybe it's the muted lighting or the bright decor, whose color scheme is designed to be emblematic of a maple frosted with rainbow sprinkles. Whatever it is, my father recognized the donut shop was the one place in Dickers where niggers knew how to act.

(My apologies - in my classroom, I always sub in the word "gentleman" for the n-word, but vulgarity is so central to Beatty's novel that I'd be doing a disservice by editing here.)

[My father] sat at the table nearest to the ATM and said aloud, to no one in particular, "Do you know that the average household net worth for whites is $113,149 per year, Hispanics $6,325, and black folks $5,677?"

"For real?"

"What's your source material, nigger?"

"The Pew Research Center."

Motherfuckers from Harvard to Harlem respect the Pew Research Center, and, hearing this, the concerned patrons turned around in their squeaky plastic seats as best they could, given that donut shop swivel chairs swivel only six degrees in either direction. 

Beatty sustains this tone and pace for nearly 300 pages. I can imagine reading this book over and over again and never discovering - or truly appreciating - every joke, reference and pointed observation in it. And, of course, jokes are nothing without an actual meaning behind them; and no one escapes blame in the Sellout. Race relations are everyone's problem in this country, and everyone is accountable in Beatty's reckoning.

The Sellout is currently one of the five books you can vote for in the One Book, One New York event that the NYC government is promoting right now. I actually cast my vote for Between the World and Me (maybe I'm wary of satire being misinterpreted? maybe I just really appreciate Coates's reasoned approach to the world?) but the more people that read the Sellout, the better the world will be.

Book 10: The Great American Whatever, by Tim Federle

When I think of my teenage years, the word shame comes to mind almost immediately. I had braces, glasses, a dorky haircut, a love for comics back when that was not something you were allowed to love, my voice cracked for something like five straight years, I was five two until the tenth grade; I could go on.

The beautiful thing in so many recent YA novels is that the characters are seldom crippled by their shame. I've noticed that the books aimed at even younger readers follow suit - my son will be four in less than two months, and so many of the books I've read him have the underlying message, "It's totally OK to be a weirdo." (Odd Duck is one of the best of the bunch in this regard, and the Tacky the Penguin series, while repetitive, is likewise charming.) I don't remember this being the case in the books I read as a kid. Sure, Encyclopedia Brown was a weirdo, but in a super-human way; Gom Gobblechuck was an outcast but it's OK because he was a magician.

The Great American Whatever centers on Quinn Roberts, a gay teenager who hasn't left the house in months and has never even kissed a boy and whose mother is morbidly obese and on disability and there isn't a lick of shame in his character. As close as Quinn comes is crippling guilt about the death of his sister - the inciting incident in why he hasn't left the house in months - and that eventually gets burned off in the course of the novel.

The Great American Whatever is a great little read, with quirky characters who never get to Juno-burger-phone levels of precious. Quinn inhabits a flawed world, but it's one that he's created for himself through his own neuroses. He hasn't gotten into a summer film camp because he's too lazy to write the application, not because the spot went to a kid from a privileged background. After being paralyzed by the idea of coming out to his best friend, the response is, "Duh." It's a nice alternate reality from Trump's America, but one that, thanks to books like this for the YA audience, doesn't feel completely unlikely.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Executing Freedom: The Cultural Life of Capital Punishment in the United States by Daniel LaChance

Freedom from caprice and freedom from injustice, the Court discovered, could sometimes come at the expense of one another. The system they ultimately approved did nothing to resolve the conundrum. Indeed, its unsolvability, and the Court's refusal to acknowledge it, would profoundly shape the exercise of capital punishment in its revived form. A civil libertarian commitment to negative freedom underlay, in the end, a modern death penalty riddled with internal tensions.

I had both excitement and trepidation about reading this book: On the one hand, a history of the death penalty taking a novel approach; on the other hand, much like my reaction to literary criticism, I had a kind of anti-elite bias against anything that refers to itself as a cultural history (WTF is the point of a cultural history, I thought to myself).

In the sense that I still don't know what to do with a cultural history (or literary criticism for that matter), my trepidation was fair. However, in the sense that I don't even care because this book was so interesting and thought-provoking, my fears were completely unfounded.

LaChance has written a book that explains the cultural meaning of the death penalty over the last fifty (or so) years. And referring to books, movies, newspaper articles, even Dexter, he has placed the death penalty within specific U.S. cultural tensions. I read him as developing two narratives that counter-balance each other: One is a kind of liberal-elite-ambiguity narrative. The other is a moral-clarity-hero narrative.

The first narrative is about contradictions within liberal thought. Thus, he discusses the post-war era, where faith in experts (owing to their perceived role in engineering the victories of World War II), was high. We believed in the ability of government and collective action to solve problems. Thus, looking to In Cold Blood (among other sources), LaChance shows how crime was seen as a failure of the State, and how a better (and achievable) State could solve the problem of crime. Criminals were not criminals out of choice, but as a consequence of failed (but fixable) social institutions. Thus, we simply needed to make our social institutions better.  Here, the death penalty represented a relic of a distant past--a blunt tool that failed to recognize that an individual's crimes were less about the person's flaws than about society's flaws.

This narrative began to unravel, however, as we devoted more attention to white, young serial killers, who seemed to have every benefit of modern society and nonetheless chose to kill. Faith in the potential of institutions began to be replaced with a fear that modernity hid some kind of unease. LaChance writes, "In an era when elite faith in rehabilitation was peaking, inexplicable acts of multiple murder by young white men exposed a nihilism that was at stark odds with the technocratic confidence of the age." This complicated the view of the death penalty as unnecessary, and left liberal thinkers in an undecided space about both the death penalty and social problems in general.

This first narrative is counterbalanced by the second: the hero of moral clarity. So, where liberal thought about the death penalty suffered from indecision, doubt, and ambiguity, a cultural phenomena emerged: the vigilante hero represented by Dirty Harry. Vigilante films represented a push against moral ambiguity by representing moral clarity untethered by liberal-elite social mores.

LaChance follows these narratives to the present day.

In the moral-ambiguity narrative, a fear arose that social engineering deprived people of their individuality. Movies and novels like A Clockwork Orange or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, represented a push back against social engineering and the kind of conformity it implies. These media symbolized the plight of the individual v. the society. In this regard, the death penalty came to represent a person's individuality. The individual's act of murder, both in choosing to commit a violation against the social order and in accepting the consequences, rebelled against a society of conformity.

This man knows the difference
between right and wrong.
In the moral clarity narrative, DAs who zealously sought the death penalty began to fill the role of the vigilante hero popularized in movies like Dirty Harry. LaChance describes how media depictions of death-seeking DAs described the DAs as maverick heroes, intentionally obtuse about resisting a broken court-system that coddles defendants. In rejecting the broken court system and seeking the death penalty against defendants, these vigilantes represent the Good in a corrupt, morally relativistic society.

The moral-ambiguity narrative continues with a discussion of death penalty movies from the 1990s and 2000s, which  LaChance points out were whitewashed, conveying that, as a society we had overcome the racialized mob justice of the past (LaChance, of course, points out how problematic the whitewashing is). However, more important for LaChance's narrative, these films humanize the death row inmates by being narratives of rehabilitation and remorse. The plot arc of, Dead Man Walking, for example, is one of spiritual and moral revelation. LaChance points out how this humanizing aspect of the films, consistent with the death penalty's symbolic assertion of individuality, had the effect of ignoring the important dehumanizing parts of executions. In this regard, the death penalty becomes the catalyst for death row inmates to go on their spiritual journey.

The moral clarity narrative continues with a discussion of the nuclear family and its relationship to the victims' rights movement that began in the 1980s. As social issues arose in the post-war period, social-conservatives came to view the cause of these issues as erosion of the heteronormative family unit. This was relevant for the death penalty because the death penalty came to represent a defense of the family unit. That is, the rise of the victims' rights movement correlated with the rise of "protecting the family" as a social movement. Victims' rights arguments were phrased in terms of protecting the family, or in terms of how crime violated the sanctity of family. And thus, starting with the 1980s and the victims' rights movement, we see a gradual shift from prosecutions being on behalf of the state towards prosecutions being on behalf of the victims.

Where will this all go? LaChance predicts that on a long enough time line, defense of the death penalty will eventually give up, not because of a moral victory from abolitionists, but in grudging acceptance that bureaucracy and legal challenges will always prevent the death penalty from living up to its promise of retribution: "It will end not in fire but in ice, when those unmoved by exonerations or botched executions or evidence of race disparities give up on it."

This was a great read: LaChance's discussions of movies and novels were interesting and accessible (he often refers to media so ingrained in pop-culture that even where I hadn't seen a movie I understood enough about the movie to follow along). You do not need to know anything about the death penalty or criminal justice to enjoy this book (though I think it also speaks to anyone who has familiarity with these issues).

And I think writing this review actually answered my question at the beginning. What does one do with a cultural history? One understands a little better. I feel I understand the death penalty a little better because of this book, and that is enough to justify reading it, no?

There's another reason that cultural histories, or at least this one, are worth reading. This book shows how, in a sense, no debate is an island. Views of the death penalty are not held in isolation, but are part of an entire system of thought (on both sides). Thus, a discussion about the death penalty (or any particular issue) is really a debate about something bigger. In light of our recent, divisive election and liberal attempts to understand "what went wrong," I can't help but wonder if we're all missing the big picture as we argue about the details: when we argue about the crowd size at the inauguration, what are we really arguing about? I don't know, but LaChance's book has reminded me that even a seemingly discrete issue is part of a broader context.