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John Adams

David McCullough writes about interesting people and events, and we love to read about them. Harry Truman, the Wright Brothers, the Johnstown Flood, Theodore Roosevelt are all his subjects. And I think his biography of John Adams (and his wife, Abigail) is the best one we have.

I first decided I should read the biography from a friend who gushed about it back in the early 2000s, when it came out. Later the wonderful and richly rewarded HBO miniseries with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney caught my attention and wouldn’t let go. Suddenly I had to reconcile my old ideas about Adams with this new version: How could I possibly admire or respect a U.S. president who agreed to block free speech? How could I relate to a man who often gave in to emotional and exaggerated outbursts? Did my William Daniels–inflected idea of Adams as an unstoppable but annoying patriot (“Sit down, John!”) have some truth to it? It was high time to find out.

What I didn’t expect was how much I would grow to like John Adams the man. Idealistic, first and foremost, and honest. Amazed at his good fortune in marriage and grateful of life’s blessings. A most loving husband and father. Impassioned about human rights and the future of the country. Unrelentingly sacrificing in service to his country. A loyal-to-the-end friend. But also imperfect: irascible, demanding, a little too pompous and self-aggrandizing.

But what a fabulous wit! So many words he wrote, so many letters sent to Abigail and others, that you might find more collections of his writings than good biographies (kind of the opposite of Washington). In fact, the entry for Adams in Wikiquotes is pretty extensive. Here are just a few of my favorites:

But America is a great, unwieldy Body. Its Progress must be slow. It is like a large Fleet sailing under Convoy. The fleetest Sailors must wait for the dullest and slowest. Like a Coach and six—the swiftest Horses must be slackened and the slowest quickened, that all may keep an even Pace.

Thanks be to God, that he gave me Stubborness, when I know I am right.

My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office [the vice-presidency] that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate.

Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.

McCullough does due justice to all the pieces of Adams’s character, and he does so in a  highly engaging, unceasing manner. He begins his narrative with intimations of what we will discover about Adams—his love of words and his service to country. From that coldly brutal ride from Braintree to Cambridge, the talkative but frugal man emerges from McCullough’s description and we feel we know him within just four pages. “John Adams was . . . a great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest, and everyone knew it.” McCullough has much more to share with us, though.

We learn of his revolutionary fervor, his favorable and sustaining marriage, his lack of pretense in dress and material things, his undying friendship, and especially his abiding duty to country, even when it repeatedly kept him away from his beloved family and farm. McCullough takes us through the frustration with a snail-like Congress, the isolation of diplomatic positions in England and France, the celebrated friendship with Jefferson and marriage with Abigail, the accomplishments of the Dutch loan and the Treaty of Paris, the boredom of the vice-presidency, and the embroiled presidency during the birth of the two-party system in the new country.

For some reason, in McCullough’s telling, I don’t care that Adams couldn’t possibly live up to the ideal presidency that Washington had established before him. I don’t care that Adams often exaggerated his importance or contradicted himself. His life reads a bit like my sister’s; as flawed as both were, they nevertheless refused to compromise their principles of honesty and family and loyalty.

How can you not love someone like that?

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His Excellency: George Washington

Ron Chernow’s biography of our first president boasts 800+ pages and seems to leave no stone unturned in Washington’s life. Chernow’s writing is a bit more than utilitarian, his insights are helpful for the bigger picture, and his story includes surprises and textbook facts alike. I highly recommend it if you want to know a good deal about the foundingest of our fathers.

 

Joseph J. Ellis’s biography, however, called His Excellency: George Washington, was a much better read. In just 275 pages, he thrilled me with his writing, with a condensed—and therefore more concrete—story and time line, with a great appreciation for his subject, and with a deep understanding of the time in which he lived.

Chernow and Ellis tell similar stories, of course: about an inscrutable man whose temperament of stoicism concealed strong passions, about the stages of his life (youth and early adolescence, the Revolution, retirement after the war, and as President), about the historical accomplishments and political acrimony of his times. Both confront his ownership of slaves, in both the context of the 18th century and the confines of his character. Chernow provides much that is personal—Washington’s constant dental problems, his strained relationship with his mother, his careful attention to dress and home furnishings, his joy and anguish over children and grandchildren, and his confused heart concerning Sally Fairfax. Ellis mentions these only briefly and instead focuses on GW’s public persona and significance to Americans and history. In short, it’s as if Chernow sat in dozens of dusty rooms, reading everything there is to read about our first president, and then itemized it all for us, while Ellis shares a good story and perspective about his pal, George Washington.

The two most significant and lasting impressions I have from Ellis’s book are his writing and the acrimony of the political scene during the nation’s first years. Although Chernow certainly included the disagreements, maneuvering, attitudes, and deceit in the power struggles of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and GW’s administration, Ellis’s condensed approach helps those attitudes sound familiar, that is, more complicated than the press would have you believe.

Anyone who thinks the Founding Fathers were all of one mind and friends all around just doesn’t know her history. Many of the men behind the familiar names resorted to venom and dastardly deeds (of varying degrees) to promote their arguments and win political fights. Benjamin Franklin’s nephew hated GW with a passion, publishing virulent and spiteful diatribes in his newspaper. Thomas Jefferson, GW’s secretary of state, encouraged and helped to spread all kinds of innuendo and false rumors about Washington’s monarchical tendencies. Thomas Paine wrote a perfectly nasty essay about Washington, Patrick Henry never supported him, and his once good friend, James Madison, eventually turned on him, too.

Through all the muck and mire, Washington maintained a dignity and honor that has yet to be matched by his successors. In fact, Ellis acknowledges the “marble” qualities of the man in his preface, where the writing first engaged me and where he announces his hope to illuminate the man behind the monument:

If you went to the Tidal Basin or the Mall you could read the magic words on the Jefferson or Lincoln Memorial. . . . But there were no words on the Washington Memorial. . . . Jefferson, it seemed, was like Jesus, who had come to earth and spoken directly to us. Washington was like God Himself, levitating above it all. Or, as I eventually came to describe him, Jefferson was like one of those dirigibles at the Super Bowl, flashing inspirational messages to both sides. Washington was aloof and silent, like the man in the moon.

You might wish to regard the pages that follow, then, as my attempt at a lunar landing.

Ellis’s engaging language includes a lucidity in his themes that comes to the fore in chapter 6. There he states the astonishing success and accomplishments, as well as the abiding and lasting effects, of Washington’s presidency: “Washington’s core achievement as president, much as it had been as commander in chief of the Continental army, was to transform the improbable into the inevitable.” As Ellis sees it, “everything he did set a precedent”—the cabinet system, the veto, foreign policy, the State of the Union, and much more. Additionally, Washington tried (but failed) to establish Native Americans in “secure sanctuaries,” he made provisions in his will to set his slaves free, and he remained cautious during the French Revolution, as word of the Terror crossed the Atlantic and Jefferson’s “hopelessly romantic illusion” led him to dangerous thoughts.

After reading these two biographies, I’ve acquired a real appreciation and admiration for what I consider our last great president. For me, his successors, even the great ones, will never match him.

 

George Washington: A Life

Like so many others, I’ve become quite concerned lately about the increased political divide in the United States, especially because it seems to influence and form social and cultural divides as well. To try to understand—and bridge the gap between—my more conservative friends and family, I decided to spend time learning about what I kept hearing was the crux of our political divide: states’ rights vs. federalism. And being a history and book nerd, I started by reading about the Founding Fathers.

That led to my current reading project of presidential biographies. Not surprisingly for a blogger who posts so erratically and seldom, I took a year and change to make my way through Ron Chernow’s 900-page Washington: A Life. Yet I so enjoyed what I learned about our first president that I added Joseph J. Ellis’s His Excellency George Washington for good measure. I highly recommend both of these books, Chernow’s for its thoroughness and completeness, and Ellis’s especially for the writing. (See my next post for my review of Ellis’s excellent, and decidedly shorter, biography.)

When I asked a docent at the National Constitution Center several years ago to recommend a good Washington biography, he said to try Ron Chernow’s. Thus my project began, and I’m now a big fan of GW (as I affectionately call him, even though it always sounds like I’m talking about the bridge over the Hudson). Chernow thankfully (because it’s what I was hoping for) removes the mythologizing and hagiography that has always surrounded GW, instead rendering him as a reticent, principled, ambitious man who nevertheless used all his talents to set a most righteous and powerful example of leadership for a new country that would not have survived without him.

I made so many notes that I’d love to share with you about GW and his character, as portrayed by Chernow—trivial but interesting facts (e.g., he was the only president to lead an army while serving as president, when he led 13,000 soldiers to western Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion), personal notes that help us understand his humanity (e.g., he married Martha for practical reasons, even though his heart was tied to his friend’s wife)—yet below are ones I found most impressive about him.

Leading Soldiers, Leading a Nation

GW loved order, and as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he demanded it of his officers and soldiers. He asked much of them, but fought all kinds of administrative battles for them, too. He led by example in bravery, loyalty, leadership, and respect. This defining culture of the Continental Army molded the character of the new country they fought for, “preventing the Revolution from taking a bloodthirsty or despotic turn,” as the French Revolution did later.

No doubt because of his frustrating experience of leading an army of ragtag soldiers mixed with independent (states’) militias without anywhere near enough materials (guns, ammunition, supplies, horses, etc.) and without much if any money from the newly formed Congress to pay his officers and soldiers, GW became a leading proponent of a strong federal government (but he wouldn’t call himself a Federalist). He wanted the new nation to form an executive branch that could take charge of paying its creditors, develop a national currency, and collect revenue from states. He also wanted some organized regulation for trade among the states and with other nations, and he fought for the development of a national military and navy.

Obviously, because he was the first president, he established a number of precedents for the U.S. presidency. Many of these stand to this day:

  • Advice and consent from the executive branch would be written rather than in person (his first use of that executive action didn’t go well when he appeared in the Senate chambers).
  • He assumed the role of chief actor for the United States in foreign affairs.
  • He interpreted the Constitution’s mandate that the executive branch provide information to Congress about the state of the Union, which he did in a formal address to that body, creating the State of the Union Address, and including the presence of leading figures of all three branches of government when his cabinet and the Supreme Court Justice came along.
  • The wrangling between the executive branch and Congress over Indian affairs led to a ruling from his cabinet that became executive privilege, or the decision on what secret and confidential materials should be shared with the legislative branch.

As far as Chernow’s writing, I’m pleased to say that I found few awkwardnesses or errors (I’m a manuscript editor by trade). His writing is serviceable and intelligent, smart but not overwhelmingly so, with clear language, no flaunting or high verbiage; the flow is good, and the structure really sound. But there’s no sparkle, no distinction to the writing. I enjoyed his habit of mixing facts with his own supposition and speculation, for instance, when he describes an event in GW’s youth that might have been an early indication of his later, famous character. And his attention to the more personal details of GW’s life—his friendships, his love of dancing and flirting, his dentures, his wardrobe and appearance—work very well toward his stated goal: “Readers, instead of a frosty respect for Washington, will experience a visceral appreciation for this foremost American who scaled the highest peak of political greatness.”

Reader, I did.

 

 

Boy Snow Bird

A year or so ago I decided to try a book club, something that appeals to me but that I just can’t seem to keep going. Something about having to complete my reading within a given time frame never seems to work for me. But the few meetings I attended9781594633409 were really quite interesting, and the books we read were invariably of a calibre that suited me. One of those was a book called Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.
After reading it and discussing with the group at the book club, I was certain that my sister, a professor of rhetoric and comp (plus literature and other disciplines that fall under the “English” rubric in education nowadays), would love it.

And so she did. In fact, she recently mentioned that she’d taught the book to her classes this year. Since she’d spent time studying and planning her discussions from the book, I asked her to write some thoughts down and share them here with you. Therefore, the following post about the Oyeyemi book is by my guest blogger, JaneE Hindman.

I’m not spoiling much by telling you that author Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel Boy, Snow, Bird (2014) spins off from the traditional Snow White folktale in order to deliver its very modern story of race, beauty, deception, and identity. You’ll read at least that much of the story in the summaries from Goodreads, Amazon.com, or even the book cover itself. And once those details are revealed, it’s pretty obvious that Oyeyemi is referring to the fairy tale when she assigns the name “Snow” to the protagonist’s stepdaughter; the book’s title is the names of its three main characters in the order you meet them, Boy, Snow, and Bird. In another somewhat obvious move, Oyeyemi’s very first sentence initiates this novel’s frequent and often enigmatic references to mirrors: “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy” (3). Clearly and from the outset, we see that, in the world of Boy, Snow, Bird, appearances are deceiving.

What is less obvious and what I definitely don’t want to spoil for you is your discovery of the myriad ways Oyeyemi reinvents Snow White, its plot line as well as its primary characters (mother, stepmother, daughter), symbol (the mirror), and theme (beauty, vanity, and their consequent competition among women). Part of the fun—not to mention the genius—of the novel is unraveling, paging back to review, grinning and nodding at, and sometimes being surprised by all the other ways Oyeyemi works the well-known tale. But perhaps I can enhance your experience without spoiling the surprise by providing just a little overview of the novel and then focusing your attention on some key questions.

The protagonist of Boy, Snow, Bird, eighteen year-old Boy, embodies the blonde beauty so many young women long for. Her pulchritude doesn’t save her from familial hell, however; motherless from birth, Boy is raised by her routinely abusive father. A rat catcher by profession, Boy’s father seems to despise just about everything about Boy, but most especially her beauty; when Boy’s boyfriend Charlie answers the ratcatcher’s question about whether Charlie finds his daughter pretty, he responds, “More than just pretty, sir. I think she’s beautiful” (125). After Charlie has said goodnight, Boy’s father forces her to say she’s ugly. Worse, he binds her to a chair and threatens to deface her by allowing one of his rats to bit her face repeatedly. Soon thereafter, Boy runs away from home for good. She touches down in Flax Hill, a small Massachusetts town populated with artisans who create luxury items of great beauty. Boy soon meets Arturo, a widower, and his six-year-old daughter Snow; shortly thereafter, Boy marries Arturo and becomes Snow’s stepmother.

In these events, of course, we encounter several elements of the traditional Snow White story: a widower father is left with a young beautiful daughter, Snow, whose beauty and innocence endear her to all. The young girl remains motherless until her father remarries his second beautiful wife. But soon after Boy and Arturo’s wedding—when Boy receives a gift from Clara, an “estranged” sister that neither Arturo nor his parents nor Snow has ever mentioned—the plot thickens, as they say. Eight months (and only 18 pages) later, Boy births a child, “and then there was Bird in my arms, safe and well and dark” (136). This is the point at which Oyeyemi clarifies just how and most especially why she has appropriated the Snow White folktale. Yes, stepmother Boy declares that “Snow is not the fairest of them all” (150), and yes she sends Snow away from home. But why does she do that? That is the question.

When I taught Boy, Snow, Bird in my Women’s Literature college class in spring 2016, my students insisted that—just like the evil stepmother in the original version of Snow White, not to mention Walt Disney’s version—Boy sends Snow away because she’s jealous of Snow’s innocence and beauty, of the attention Snow receives. But I disagree. I asked my students to reconsider Boy’s early relationship with Snow. Did she seem envious of Snow? I directed them to Boy’s claim that “what I felt for the girl wasn’t all that distinct from what I felt for her father” (114). When do those feelings change? When does Boy begin to think that “Snow is not so wonderful as everybody thinks she is”? (145) What’s different? We discussed several other questions as well, such as, What does Snow actually look like and why is she so treasured in her family? What specific aspects of her “beauty” do her father and especially her late mother and her living grandmothers treasure? How do the latter respond to Bird?

In light of those details, especially the reactions of the grandmothers, I asked my students—and ask you, too—What is Boy doing when she sends Snow away? How does Oyeyemi change the elements and motives in the well-known fairy tale? Why has she changed them in the ways that she has? What is she trying to tell us by making those changes? In other words, what is Oyeyemi’s primary purpose or message in using the Snow White tale in the ways that she does?

What family legacies is she defying, reversing even? And what about Boy’s role as a mother? What legacy of her own parenting is Boy reversing in the ways she chooses to raise her daughter Bird? What does she prioritize in the environment she creates for Bird? What about Olivia Whitman’s (Arturo’s mother) and Julia’s (Snow’s birth mother) roles as mothers? What does each of them prioritize in the environment they create for their children? And how does the story tie in to the history informing Black women’s role as mother not just to their own children but also to countless generations of white children? How is Boy’s choice informed by that history?

These are the questions I find fascinating and essential to consider as we make meaning from Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel. Read this book and then tell me what you think. I look forward to working through them together.

Washington in NYC

The first book in my presidential biography project is, fittingly, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. I started this hefty tome the day after Presidents Day, and I suspect I’ll need lots of ideas for posts about it before my final review: at 900+ pages, it’ll take some time to read!

How coincidental (sorta) that I found myself running into Washington during a short visit to New York City. “Well, duh!” you might say, given the connections Washington had to the city and the area, not to mention his significance as the first president of the United States. Honestly, though, 240 years later, we don’t really think so deeply about the names of streets and squares and bridges when we travel over them.

So I confess that I felt an immediate personal connection to George when I hopped off the N train to meet my sister at Union Square and discovered the impressive monument to him there. I mean, how often do you run into the subject of your current book when you’re just meeting a friend in the city?

The statue of GW, situated on the south end of the square, was commissioned and sculpted by Henry Kirke Brown, who had already done an impressive statue of De Witt Clinton, U.S. Senator and governor of New York who made the Erie Canal happen. (Presidential side note: Brown’s assistant, John Quincy Adams Ward, was presumably named for the sixth president.) Brown depicted Washington on Evacuation Day, when the British left the city and GW led the Continental Army across the Harlem River and all the way down to the Battery. (Based on that Wikipedia entry, I’m looking forward to reading about this event!)

The monument belongs to the New York City Parks system, and its description of the monument reminded me that the statue (and park) became a spontaneous memorial after the 9/11 tragedy. It also was the scene of the largest (at that time) public demonstration in the nation, when massive crowds gathered to show support and loyalty to the Union after the assault on Fort Sumter. Check out the archival photos showing the monument in its previous location in this article from the New York Times.

It seems that George (I confess to an affection that makes it difficult to refrain from using his first name, although I think he’d be appalled by it) has been memorialized in several other spots in the greatest city in the world: In the Village there’s another square named for him (and it’s so ingrained for New Yorkers that Henry James gave his excellent novel that name), and I highly recommend a visit to see the stunning arch.

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Washington Square arch

Down on Wall Street, another statue of GW, this time horseless, stands in front of Federal Hall, where he took the oath of office as our first President. And, of course, I can’t forget that beautiful bridge that leads us into and out of the city every time we visit.

Washington may have been born in Virginia, fought for and represented his home county and state, but we New Yorkers know his roles as first U.S. president and leader of the Continental Army in the Revolution were his crowning achievements and should be remembered, even when we’re just meeting a friend for lunch.

Reading Presidential Biographies

In an age when presidential election campaigns provide as much fodder to The Daily News and Entertainment Weekly as they do the New York Times and Time magazine, it seems quaint to celebrate our presidents as individuals. So much spin, empty promises, and inanity!

Yet today is President’s Day, when we in the United States celebrate our presidents, and I can’t think of a better time to announce my new reading project. In an effort to better understand the men who held the office, the office itself, and even our nation’s history, I’ve decided to read a biography of a baker’s dozen of our presidents.

I chose them according to my own interests and what I already had on my bookshelves, and I intend to read them in chronological order of the presidents’ terms in office. I expect some will take me quite a few months to read, so I make no promises to complete this project in any particular timeframe. Instead, I plan to read as much and as willingly as I would any other nonfiction book, perhaps occasionally interrupting it for a good page-turner or classic children’s novel. And the list here may change, since I have more than one biography of a couple of the presidents represented, and I may decide to change out LBJ for Nixon or Jackson for Quincy Adams or perhaps some other substitution.

As it stands today, I’ll  read the following biographies:

  1. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
  2. John Adams by David McCullough
  3. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis
  4. James Madison by Richard Brookhiser
  5. Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini
  6. With Malice toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates
  7. Grant by William S. McFeely
  8. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
  9. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  10. Truman by David McCullough
  11. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917–1963 by Robert Dallek
  12. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of an American President and Presidential Power Ever Written by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  13. Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age by Jimmy Carter

If you’ve read any of these volumes or want to read along with me, I’d be delighted to share perspectives with you.

A Christmas Carol and Other Stories

I’m a sucker for those Facebook posts that ask, How many of these classic novels and works have you read? I click through to them and check my progress all the time. As I browse through the lists, I inevitably find ones I know very well but never really read. A couple years ago I was rather surprised to realize “A Christmas Carol,” one of the most popular things Charles Dickens ever wrote, was one of those I’d never read. Since I’ve been on a Dickens kick—one a year—for several years now (see my thoughts about The Pickwick Papers), I decided it was high time to read his Christmas stories.

9780375758881I’d picked up a nice volume of stories from our local library’s used-book sale, and decided to save it for the end of the year, when the Christmas message would be most appropriate. After all, I know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge—because of the wonderful movie version I own—as well as I know all the other Christmas movies I watch every year. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t  share a little more about the movie versions of “A Christmas Carol,” since so many people nowadays know the story through them rather than by reading Dickens’s words. The book I’d found had an introduction by John Irving, and even he suggested that discussion of “A Christmas Carol” has to include a nod to the film versions that everyone knows so well.

When I was little, I remember being scared and then bored by a black-and-white version on TV. Or maybe it was the Mr. Magoo version that bored me. But those versions, cartoonish or scary or boring, were how I learned the story. Then, in the early 1980s, I stumbled on the best version ever made. It starred George C. Scott and brought the story to life for me in a way very few productions of anything ever had before or since. Before I get carried away about how much I love this TV production, I will let Louis Bayard, a much better writer than I, explain why it’s the best version ever. A few years back he wrote a wonderful essay on Salon about the story and I love his essay so much that I read it every year before I watch the DVD. (So I’m a bit anal and OCD, so sue me.)

So, having a great deal of love for the story without having read Dickens’s original, I had some trepidation about actually cracking the cover of the book and reading the story. Not to worry, though: The story bears up quite well! All of my favorite lines and scenes are here, especially in Scrooge’s office with his nephew Fred and Bob Cratchit (although he’s not named until later in the story), with Mr. Fezziwig’s family, and when the redeemed Scrooge shows up at Fred’s for dinner. Some of the oddities of the film productions are a little more understandable now, since they were simply being faithful to the written words, for example, when Scrooge tries to smother the Ghost of Christmas Past with the cone she (he?) wears.

I must say, however, that I found the Dickens of “A Christmas Carol” much less precise than I’ve come to expect in the novels. The descriptions seem less evocative than I’ve grown used to, and the sentences seem to ramble without purpose—as opposed to the rambling sentences that always carry you to a delightful chuckle or exacting observation of a character.

This less purposeful writing rambled even further in “The Chimes,” the second story in the collection. Honestly, I couldn’t say what exactly happened to Trotty in this story. I think he experienced some supernatural, out-of-body event such as Scrooge had, but the descriptive passages were full of vagueness about how exactly it came about. From what I could tell, Trotty had the chance to see how his daughter and friends would fare in life if he were to die on the present Christmas Eve. Once he was convinced he’d died and all is lost for his daughter, he was brought back to the present and given another chance to make the best of his life.

Although all three of these Christmas stories exhibit some sort of supernatural phenomenon that brings about a reckoning for the protagonist in order to allow for his redemption, “The Haunted Man” I found much more interesting than “The Chimes.” The protagonist, Redlaw, is so devoted to a life of the mind that his spirituality must be awakened, yet the Phantom takes rather drastic measures to do so: he removes Redlaw’s memory of any sorrow in his life. This story is one I should reread, as I had such trouble following what exactly was happening and who was who. But the idea of an intellectual needing the prodding to attend to his sorrow and spirituality intrigues me.

So if my comments here seem vague and unhelpful, blame it on Dickens. Or maybe it was because I kept falling asleep over the stories. Whatever the reason, I wouldn’t say they’re the best of Dickens, but they’re worth trying out, especially at Christmas.

(This will go into the Likes list, since I love “A Christmas Carol” but the other two stories would probably be on the Meh list.)

Who Loves Book Clubs?

A few days ago I attended my first book club meeting. I’ve always loved the idea of people reading books together. I used to love reading books with my classmates and friends in school, sometimes jumping ahead of the class assignments because the story was so compelling, frequently gaining great perspectives in the conversations in class as we discussed each chapter. It seemed so much more intense than the competition my sister Judy and I shared in elementary school, where we raced each other to the end of our Nancy Drew mysteries to see who could finish first.

So you’d think I’d have joined a book club a long time ago. Maybe I’m a bit of a snob, wanting to avoid the bestsellers, “chic lit,” or mundane choices so many book clubs seem to select. It’s probably more that I didn’t want to add stress to my personal life by reading on any schedule but my own, and, truth be told, I do like picking my own books to read; the jumps from Civil War to E. R. R. Martin to William Faulkner can lead to some fascinating coincidences and parallels.

Nevertheless, I’m on a drive to get out of the house and meet more people, learn new things, yada yada. So off I went to the gathering last Wednesday, organized by a local bookshop called Buffalo Street Books. It was pretty much what I expected: several people who’d read the book gathered for an hour or so to talk about it. The participants, I noticed, represented several types that readers often fall into. The moderator was the bookstore owner, an articulate and well-read person, not discernibly (from what I could tell) well versed in literary terms yet aware of common tropes and themes. Two younger women, I think, are English teachers, probably of middle-school students, and full of enthusiasm for the experience of reading, if barely articulate about literature and how to describe their enthusiasms. The one man in the group was the resident bombastic know-it-all, someone who publishes a little and boasts a lot about the authors he’s met. And the last woman struck me as a mix of the others, but in even measure and therefore the most interesting to me: enthusiastic about reading, articulate and well-educated, aware of back stories of authors (sometimes important in fiction discussions), and perceptive about themes, symbolism, and metaphors. She’s why I will return for next month’s discussion.

I had decided to attend without having read the book because, well, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? The book they’d all read in November was Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is a slim little novel that sounds delightful. Everyone in the group liked it very much, although one woman who admitted she’s not much into fantasy or magical stories seemed confused about several elements. Having read a few Gaiman titles myself, I expect I’ll enjoy this one, too. And now that the awkwardness of not being able to participate in the discussion is over, I know what our next book is and can read it by early January to join in the talk.

I have to admit that I’m not excited about the selection (The Good Lord Bird by James McBride), mostly because I hated the author’s memoir, The Color of Water. Yet I will remain optimistic, if only because this month’s book is fiction (a requirement for the group) and because it won the National Book Award. (I tend to read prize-winning books because, in my experience, they really are better than a lot of other stuff out there.) Besides, the group also selected February’s book, which sounds utterly fascinating: Hild by Nicola Griffith.

What kind of book club experiences have you had? What should I expect in the coming months?

Edgar Allan Poe: Poet and Prophet

One of my favorite fellow book blogs, Interesting Literature, posted on Edgar Allan Poe when I was reading Matthew Pearl’s The Poe Shadow, so I thought a reblog of his would be a helpful way to get into the Poe spirit while you wait for my review of Pearl’s book. Enjoy! (And consider following Interesting Literature: you won’t be disappointed!)

Interesting Literature

There is a story that, while serving as a young cadet, Edgar Allan Poe was expelled for reporting to a military march wearing nothing but a pair of white gloves. It appears that this is an urban legend, but there are many aspects of Poe’s life and work which are true, and often surprising. He was a pioneer of the short story form, and wrote short stories in a whole host of new genres. Helped to develop and, in a sense, invent several modern literary genres. He even anticipated an important scientific theory of the twentieth century. And then there were the snails…

Poe1Poe was going to be named Cordelia, if he’d been a girl. His mother, an actress, had portrayed the Shakespeare character in a production of King Lear. But when Poe was born (in 1809), and was most definitely a boy, he was named Edgar instead…

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Civil War Road Trip to Shiloh

I didn’t realize it at the time, but about a year and a half ago another one of my literary fascinations snuck up on me. Mike and I were driving to North and South Carolina to visit family, and we’d just passed road signs for another Civil War national battlefield. I was struck by the number of them and remarked that taking a road trip through the South to visit them would be a cool way to learn history and see more of the South. He agreed, and I guess we tucked the idea away somewhere.civil_war_road_trip

When I later promised my sister I’d definitely attend the Memphis music festival with her in May 2013, I started thinking about a trip to Memphis. Beyond the Graceland, Sun Records, and civil rights locations we’d want to see while there, I realized it might be a good chance to begin a Civil War road trip. But where and how to start?

The Complete Civil War Road Trip Guide

I searched for a guide to the battlefields on Amazon, and found Michael Weeks’s The Complete Civil War Road Trip Guide. I couldn’t have been more fortunate, as this book is an excellent guide for all a newbie or seasoned historian could want when visiting the Civil War battlefields.

As Weeks describes in the front matter, his book provides 10 major tours that take in highly significant sites as well as a number of smaller ones (smaller in significance, that is). Each tour provides an overview of the area’s Civil War history, short descriptions of the major players in the battles and events for that tour, a geographical explanation of the tour, and then lengthier descriptions of each stop along the way: the events that occurred there and what to see. He includes sidebars with addresses, phone numbers, and visiting hours for museums, historical markers, parks, and centers for these sites, adding helpful information on what they offer visitors (e.g., an interpretive film or driving tour). Finally, each section ends with helpful info about bed and breakfasts (some of which are part of the Civil War history) and the availability of hotels and motels.

Weeks’s obvious fascination with Civil War history shines through in his short overview of how Memphis and the surrounding area had fared in the Civil War. It grabbed me by the collar and didn’t let go. Thus, I returned from the fall run of the Friends of the Library book sale with the first volume of Shelby Foote’s three-volume Civil War: A Narrative and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.

Probably the most fascinating event that I’d encountered in Weeks’s book was the battle at Shiloh, a little spot named for the church that sat there. Shiloh was the first of the dramatically tragic battles of the war, shocking the nation (or both of them, depending on your perspective) in its staggeringly high loss of life (at the time). Grant received a good deal of criticism for his absence from the battlefield (his headquarters was nine miles away), and the Confederate attack that started the battle came as a complete surprise to the Union soldiers encamped near the Shiloh church. Nevertheless, the Confederates’ beloved general, Albert Sidney Johnston, died in the battle and one Union division under Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss fought fiercely, allowing more Union troops to race to the rescue overnight, thus providing a Union victory. If you can call such loss of life—the casualties over two days totaled 23,000-plus—a victory.

The road trip we took this past spring was wonderful. Weeks’s guide was instrumental in finding and knowing about the places we visited, even though we veered occasionally from the two tours we followed, finding more gems along the way. In fact, we learned that the Shenandoah Valley tour is full of great sites and stops, so the only fault I might have with Weeks’s tour in that area is that you should set aside an extra day or two for any diversions you want to take in (e.g., Lexington offers much more to see than Weeks mentions, such as the VMI museum with lots of Stonewall Jackson materials and Jackson’s house itself).

Shiloh: A Novel

Soon I learned that Shelby Foote had written a novel about the battle, and I had to have it. -2Called simply Shiloh: A Novel, the book tells the story of the battle in seven chapters, each one told from the perspective of a different participant, alternating between Confederate and Union armies. (Actually, the first and last chapters follow the same character, and one chapter uses the voices of several men in one Union squad from Indiana.) In this case, this conceit works well to tell the battle story and to humanize it.

The battle begins with Johnston’s aide-de-camp, Lt. Palmer Metcalfe, describing the Confederates’ short march from their camp to the early-morning surprise attack on the just-barely-awake Union soldiers. It continues with Union adjutant Capt. Walter Fountain, stationed beside the church and near Sherman’s headquarters. Then we follow Pvt. Luther Dade, a Confederate rifleman, into the attack on the Union army, surprising them at breakfast; Dade’s injuries in the fight lead him across the battlefield in a search for a doctor, crossing the peach orchard and ending when he witnesses the death of General Johnston. Union cannoneer Pvt. Otto Flickner describes the harrowing experience of the Hornets Nest, late in the first day’s fighting, which concluded with Prentiss’s surrender to the Rebels. As night descends, Sgt. Jefferson Polly, a scout with General Nathan Bedford Forrest, takes us on a reconnaissance near Pittsburgh Landing, where Union gunboats carrying General Don Carlos Buell’s troops disembark overnight with the support the Union needs to win the battle. In the morning, the men from one squad in the 23rd Indiana, under the command of Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace, assume they’ve marched from the east to surrender with the rest of the Union army; instead they overrun the Confederates on the field. The final chapter, once again told by Lt. Metcalfe, provides a thrilling scene—involving the reckless Nathan Bedford Forrest—of the Confederate army in retreat.

Foote began his work as a novelist, rather than an academic historian, and Shiloh is a great introduction to his skills as a storyteller. If you who saw his contribution to Ken Burns’s PBS documentary, The Civil War, you’ll recognize his uniquely Southern and articulate voice in this novel. That voice uses Southern expressions and almost-obsolete terms that invoke the times and the scenes. Here’s just one example of what I love about Foote’s writing:

There was a gang of Federal soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the field beyond the tents. I thought it was the whole Yankee army, lined up waiting for us. Those in front were kneeling under the guns of the men in the second line, a great bank of blue uniforms and rifle barrels and white faces like rows of eggs, one above another. When they fired, the smoke came at us in a solid wall. Things plucked at my clothes and twitched my hat, and when I looked around I saw men all over the ground, in the same ugly positions as the men back on the slope, moaning and whimpering, clawing at the grass. Some were gut-shot, making high yelping sounds like a turpentined dog.

My fascination with the Civil War continues to grow, and I’m certain the serendipity of starting with these two books has much to do with that. In fact, I’ve purchased several other novels of the Civil War (novels by Jeff and Michael Shaara) and have already begun reading Foote’s massive history. You’ll hear more about that when I’ve finished reading it.