My rating: 5 of 5 stars
An Epic, American Wives’ Tale
Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist will make you cackle aloud in your living room — and weep without shame wherever you wind up reading it (perhaps, like me, pulled over on the side of the road because you couldn't wait to finish a chapter, or slow-walking through Target and running into a couple of end-caps with your cart). Golden Richards might have four wives and 29 children, but he’s not exactly a paragon of organization or attentiveness, and his big family is starting to unravel as we meet him. There's a lot going on, as one might imagine, so although you're looking at a nearly 700 page book, it moves quickly, and the shenanigans that some of the kids get into and the ridiculous situations in which Golden winds up will have you barking with laughter, especially in the book’s first half. But be careful, for there is a small, viscous streamlet of grief running through the threads of the brisk story Udall unfurls, and it pools from time to time, taking over a paragraph, a page, an entire chapter that will take your breath away and stick with you even as the story moves away. By the end, I was just a puddle of pure emotion: giddy, grief-stricken, enthusiastic, solemn. It was quite an afternoon!
What really pushes this story to a new level, though, is the love. The simple humanity that radiates from every page - not perfect, not always profound. No one is truly evil or angelic and mistakes - big ones - abound. And yet. Udall gently enchants you, seeks to place into your hands and heart the very human urges of the key characters. This isn’t the story of some cult-like oddity, no (even though it sort of is - polygamy and fundamentalism is one of those sensational story lines that Americans can't seem to leave alone). These are people, living the best way they know how; Goldy and Chick and Bev and Glory and Rose and Tricia. Rusty. June. Udall manages to crowd your heart somehow with them all. You have little choice but to acquiesce and throw the doors and windows wide by the time they truly come a-knocking, slipping into the parlor of your heart before you know it, straining that space, forcing it to grow, endure, expand. I really think we could start to heal the deep divides amongst us all if only everyone would read this book and let its lessons in.
It’s that good. Good God Holy Mary Lord Almighty, is it good. (And there’s even an ostrich in it!) Happy reading.
I read Udall after finishing Souad Mekhennet's absolutely mesmerizing I Was Told To Come Alone, which made for an unusual, unplanned pairing. But the book gods, as I've mentioned already, have been with me this week, and I wound up finding some synchronicity between them both: namely, they insist on reminding their readers that we're all human, even if we want desperately to dehumanize the people who hurt or terrorize or shock or mistreat us and/or those we love. A message that I know I need drummed into me during these deeply divided days: these chasms that seem so uncrossable - they CAN be conquered. If we're all being honest, they really must be conquered if we're all to find a way forward. Udall offers this through his fiction, while Mekhennet has a true set of tales to tell. Her book is really remarkable. I can't believe I didn't know it was out there in the world until I stumbled across it last week. Here, learn a little more about it:
I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Mekhennet’s Book is Required Reading for the Global Book Club We're All In
Souad Mekhennet’s memoir of working to uncover and understand the agendas of global jihadists is one of the most important books of our time. Her tenacity and resolve to follow the story where it leads rather than map the narrative and then supply the evidence she prefers illustrates why the world continues to need trained and dedicated journalists. Mekhennet’s deep knowledge, both experiential and academic, as well as her insistence on treating all sources and ideas fairly (and challenging them all, too!) allows her to operate in an almost hallowed space - able to access high level jihadi contacts while reporting for several of the world’s most influential Western publications.
Mekhennet's ability to encourage sources and relentless campaign against taking the path of least resistance are not the only aspects of her work that makes it so compelling; I would be remiss not to point out her ninja word skills. Some sections are crafted with tension of an action thriller - I dare you to try putting the book down as she lights up the trail to identify that infamous British terrorist known as Jihadi John - and other portions stand out for their poignancy. Her ability to recognize the deep grief at the core of many of her sources without falling into sentimentality is a wonder, and her tendency to obliquely challenge the reader to recognize the shared humanity of so many deeply different people, bounds and rebounds across the book's pages, gaining strength as it goes. When she comes to you in the end with the suggestion that it's not religion or politics that divide us so deeply, but rather that the great struggle of our time is between those who build bridges and those who will not, there's only the tiniest of clangs as the entire conversation she's shared is suddenly reframed and refocused - a warm little slap on the cheek rather than a chilled blow to the side of the head - because Mekhennet has set herself -and by extension, you, the reader - up so very well.
Anyone interested in “why they hate us”, whatever “they” you wonder about, look here. Anyone who wants to start to try and understand the landscape of 21st century geopolitics and religion, begin with this - the water is warm, the reading is easy, and the revelations are plentiful. There are nuanced, honest, and important answers to be found and a barrage of insights illuminated.
My only regret is that I didn’t know this book existed until the other day. It deserves the world’s attention and certainly grabbed my own. Happily, finishing the book doesn't mean finishing with Mekhennet - she's working for The Washington Post in national security these days, and she's quite prolific. Seek her out and continue to enjoy her talents.
What's Next? My Book Week Ahead:
You know, it is just anyone's guess! I really do want to dig into the new Le Guin, I'm reading a really refreshing little memoir called The Fluency of Light, plus the other memoirs I ordered are just burning a hole on my bedside table:
|aren't they beguiling?
But I also finally started Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey (first female translation in modern times!), which came out in November and has the literary world a-flutter, and fresh off the presses, Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists and Katherine Arden's The Girl in the Tower have been patiently waiting for me. So you'll just have to come back next week and see what stuck, I suppose!
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