It’s dark today, dark like the sky’s about to burst into storm, which is weird because it never never ever goes daytime-dark or rains one drop in this town from May through October.  Still.  It’s dark, and I’m reading Roxana Robinson‘s SPARTA.

9780374267704_p0_v1_s600-220x330SPARTA is my latest favorite book of 2014.  If you’re a reader, you can’t stop reading.  If you’re a writer, you can stop trying to figure out how gracefully, and naturally, Robinson eases the narrative through time.  As if that’s not enough, I’m learning more than I knew (and I thought I knew a good deal) about the early stages of the Iraq war —- from a smart young Marine’s perspective — and about ancient Sparta.  Most importantly, which I did not expect, I’m learning how and why we choose to place our faith, or time, our allegiance, here or there.  Robinson opens the 4th chapter with this:

The difference between a cult and a religion depends on what’s being worshipped.  It’s a question of whether or not the object is divine, and whether or not the worship is excessive.  But the definition of divinity is subjective, so the answer will depend on who you ask.  Zoroastrians or Jews, for example, might consider Christianity a cult.  Civilians might consider the Marine Corps a cult.  But true believers know that what they follow is a religion.

Becoming an initiate into anything involves instruction, ceremony, belief.  It means yielding certain personal freedoms in exchange for the power, knowledge, privileges, and protection offered by the group.

It’s that last sentence that stings.

It’s like Robinson hit me with a bat with my often-vehement rejection of groups, of organized religion and clubs of any/all kinds.  Organizations are inherently both inclusionary and exclusionary.  Such dichotomy.  I forget who said, “I’d never want to belong to a club who would have me as a member,” and while that’s funny, it’s also something I feel deep down.  I find myself recoiling at the idea that I’m “in” somewhere.  A church group.  A golf club.  A tennis team.  A dinner table.  In essence, belonging to a group makes me feel I’ve failed somehow, that I suddenly have to exclude what’s “other” and, frankly, it’s the “otherness” that I’m most drawn to, most interested in, most desiring of knowing.  The minute I’m accepted or “in” somewhere —- and of course it feels great to be accepted, included, wanted —- I can’t wait to get the hell out.

We’re Catholic, you’re not. We’re Jews, you’re not. We’re poor, you’re not.  We’re Republicans, you’re not.  We’re gluten-free, you’re not.  We’re educated, you’re not.  We’re not educated, and you are.  —— the list goes on and fucking on –—– I’m reminded of going out to dinner with my kids when they were young.  “Why are you talking to those other people?!” they would say, cowering, embarrassed.  And I would think, “Because they are so interesting!”

In THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joan Didion mentions Roxana Robinson, that maybe she could call Robinson, that she’s met her briefly and believes that Robinson knows something she doesn’t know about grief.  I can see this while reading SPARTA.  That Robinson knows something I don’t know: about grief; about what it’s like to be estranged from the world that’s most familiar to us; about what happens to us when we know we can never get that world back again.  How do human beings survive (and even thrive) after that?

This is one of those books that makes you think you’re reading about a young Marine and his time in Iraq, but really you’re learning about your own humanity.  Questioning your beliefs.  Both the story and the writing are outstanding.  If I had 5 stars, I’d give this book every single one, and maybe even one more.


How do you feel about groups?  Do you like being “one of them” and protected, or do you rebel like mad?