Reading Lately: Amber Sparks

LastMassIredell

Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015

I recently read Jamie Iredell’s Last Mass, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s my favorite kind of history: biased, personal, messy, bizarre, and fragmented—because ALL histories are biased, personal, messy, bizarre and fragmented but most historians pretend otherwise. This is history with balls.

Iredell explores the history of colonial California (and particularly the highly controversial figure of Father Fray Junipero Serra) pretzeled in with his own Catholic upbringing in California. It’s a stunning and moving and funny book about who gets to tell the stories, and how the stories get told—as well as the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who we want to be. I’d read anything Iredell wrote, honestly—he’s that good—but certainly this book is mandatory reading if you care about what history means for everybody, and what religion doesn’t mean at all.

Iredell explores the history of colonial California (and particularly the highly controversial figure of Father Fray Junipero Serra) pretzeled in with his own Catholic upbringing in California. It’s a stunning and moving and funny book about who gets to tell the stories, and how the stories get told—as well as the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who we want to be. I’d read anything Iredell wrote, honestly—he’s that good—but certainly this book is mandatory reading if you care about what history means for everybody, and what religion doesn’t mean at all.

The fractured and fragmented, almost free-form way the book is structured sets up a sometimes jarring series of observations and memories. Layer upon layer, Iredell does such a deft job of setting down the sediments of history that you almost don’t notice until the full weight of the past falls on you. The way he does it here is some kind of spell, or a prayer at least:

In Castroville, Ford station wagons packed with bodies—the wheel wells and fenders muddied from artichoke field soil—sparked rear bumpers along the asphalt. My parents are human, and thus stereotype-capable. I heard, “Castroville’s getting to be full of Mexicans!” California was once Mexico, and before that Nueva España, and before that filled with groups of natives with—for the most part—mutually unintelligible languages. And Indians and Spaniards became mestizos. And Africans and Spaniards became mulattoes. And white people in places like Arizona and California—and good god here in Georgia, too—still complain that Mexicans are coming into the west, as if they weren’t there before, haven’t been there for centuries.

 

One of the things that impressed me most about the book (aside from the magnificent, lush writing, paired with wry asides, that’s pretty typical of Iredell) is the way he manages to convey this huge love for his Catholic family and for his native California—while also very frankly and honestly discussing the brutal and oppressive history of the religion and the region. He does this in part by talking about his own failings, too, as he tries to write this book during a retreat in the mountains on the other side of the country. The humility is raw and breathtaking, and often quite funny. There are no angels in this book.

 

 

Amber Sparks is the author of the forthcoming short story collection THE UNFINISHED WORLD AND OTHER STORIES, due out from Liveright in January 2016. You can find her in Washington, DC IRL, or online most days @ambernoelle on Twitter.

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