Two Reviews

Coming off my recent back-and-forth with Jennifer Howard about Henry AdamsDemocracy, it was fun to think about Thomas Mallon‘s new novel, Watergate, which I reviewed for the Barnes & Noble Review. Mallon has a long view on D.C. political history—his 1994 novel Henry and Clara is sparked by the Lincoln assassination and 2008’s Fellow Travelers is set in the McCarthy era—and Watergate benefits from that knowingness. The novel doesn’t sensationalize the events of the break-in, the way a lot of historical novelists might be tempted to; in fact, it barely depicts them. What Mallon focuses on is much the same thing Adams did: The internal scheming and positioning that define the federal city’s culture.

Watergate isn’t hurting for attention—at least not from where I sit inside the Beltway. It would be a slightly more fair world, though, if Lia Purpura‘s new essay collection, Rough Likeness, picked up some of the same heat. (I reviewed it for the Minnapolis Star-Tribune.) It’s a collection of 18 short lyric essays on subjects that have little in common except Purpura’s interest in studying them with an electron microsope’s intensity: buzzards, tools, advice columns, a sign on a bridge, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Against ‘Gunmetal,'” an essay about cliche, is one of the best things I’ve read in the young year, and since it’s available online I feel less bad about quoting it at length; here she’s questioning why that particular gray we call gunmetal gray has earned that militaristic adjective:

It’s the color of a well-used plumber’s wrench. A perfectly battered railroad tie. I try on: A burnt-spoon sky. Below a sky where we sat down, under wrench-colored clouds. Before the sky opened and a rain as hard as railroad ties fell . . . It’s the color of a cataract (which very like “promontory” is not much in use, ever-nailed as both are to the nineteenth century, provenance of the Lake District poets). It’s a kinked intestine-gone-bloodless-pale sky. Translucent, unfeathered, fallen-chick silver. Powdered zinc. Stripped olive pit. Dirty-kid water in a porcelain tub. Colloidal and swirly as milk in tea. Farinaceous. Clayey. Grime in pressed tin. So why “gunmetal?” If it’s something about the act of smithing, why not things from the worlds of cooper, tinker, wainwright, glazier? The throwback quality’s engaging, authentic—the forging, the shine, the added bluing, the blacking, the browning—but mostly, I think, it’s rugged and hip to suggest you know something about guns; enough at least to toss a likeness around. You have to like a likeness to toss it (note kids running, jostling, outshouting each other as they reach a car, after school: I call shotgun!—not side saddle! not the seat next to my mom).

Purpura talks a little more about the book in the video below:

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