Sunday, October 15, 2017

APRIL 1865 by JAY WINIK (2001)

The subtitle of this excellent history is "The Month That Saved America." This was the month in which Lee surrendered to Grant, which would not have happened if Lee had found his food supplies where he expected them to be and if he thus could have joined up with Johnston. It was the month that Johnston then surrendered to Sherman, overruling the orders of Confederate President Davis, who wanted the army to scatter and become guerilla fighters. extending the war for years, if not decades. The other Confederate generals then surrendered one by one. It was also, tragically, the month President Lincoln was assassinated, which could have plunged the Union into chaos and disarray, but the transition of power to the Vice-President was smoothly accomplished. If Lincoln had been killed before the Confederate surrender, the terms for peace would not have been so gracious and just, creating even more difficulty in bringing about a reconciliation of the divided nation.

Jay Winik's account of this extraordinary month is as engrossing as any novel and as well written, in vibrant and graceful prose. This is a history book written for non-historians and historians alike. It is as well documented as the driest history tome but presented in a style easy to understand for the history-ignorant. The author seamlessly includes character sketches and background histories of the primary participants, which make the account more personal and immediate. This book earns my highest recommendations.

Democracy is a bold endeavor, not easily achieved and maintained on a large scale with a diverse, and often culturally divided, population. The coming-together of the American states following the Civil War to form one nation which still endures is something of a miracle. It would surely have been easier if Lincoln had lived to oversee Reconstruction, but it was accomplished, nevertheless.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A. LINCOLN by RONALD C. WHITE, JR. (2009)

It is gratifying when all your preconceived notions about a famous man are confirmed. This biography corroborates my previously held opinion that Abraham Lincoln was probably the best president our fortunate country has ever elected. That the book is widely accepted as one of the best biographies of Lincoln and that it is obviously highly researched by a well-known historian allow me to accept it as factual. Even though it becomes obvious that White is a Lincoln fan, he does not hesitate to recount the instances of mistaken thinking or actions.

White spends little time in telling us about Lincoln's youth or personal details of his life. Lincoln was very reticent about such things and relatively little is known. Instead White concentrates on Lincoln's actions and writings as a politician and as president, basing his conjectures about the President's thoughts on what was done and said rather than on his own suppositions.

One unusual aspect of the book, and one that was particularly interesting to me, is that White spends a significant portion of the book in analyzing the rhetoric of Lincoln's speeches and writings. Lincoln was largely self-educated, but his mastery of the English language would seem to indicate the highest level of scholarship. That he was a voracious reader is well documented, and that his favorites included the King James Bible and Shakespeare comes as no surprise when one considers the rhetorical devices he utilized. One cannot help but be reminded that today we have a president who depends on television for his knowledge of the world and who has difficulty in forming a coherent sentence. Alas.

When one thinks of Lincoln, the first thought of most is naturally that he is the man who freed the slaves, but he did much more than that, his primary goal being to preserve the nation as one whole rather than as a loose confederation of independent states. It appears to me that he deserves all the accolades we have since awarded him.

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And he really was Honest Abe. Many who knew him, including even political enemies, remarked on the fact.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL by HARRIET JACOBS (1861)

This is the memoir of a former slave, written after she had escaped to the North and gained her freedom. It highlights the female experience of the master-slave relationship and its sexual component. This is a very short account, and it unfortunately does not have the ring of authenticity of Twelve Years a Slave and other first-person slave accounts. It was edited and prefaced by a white woman, and I'm afraid she may have altered the content while she was correcting the grammar.

Even if this story is embellished, it does add another dimension to the aspect of the degradation inherent in slavery.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

SEVEN SHORT REVIEWS

It is my habit when I finish a book to stack it on the corner of my desk until I complete a review. Right now I have seven books there, and I keep getting further behind, so I have decided to just write these very short review all in one post.

STONER by JOHN WILLIAMS (1965)
William Stoner is a college professor who passively allows others to determine the course of his life, except in matters of intellectual and academic integrity. This would first appear to be a very sad story, because Stoner dies alone and unremembered, but it refuses to be sad because the title character is not regretful about his life. This novel is deceptively simple and affected me deeply, and I'm not really sure why.

TOM JONES by HENRY FIELDING (1749)
A re-reading, first read in the '60s. A rollicking adventure about a young scamp whose amorous lusts and high spirits get him into all sorts of scrapes. In spite of his faults, he has a sweet nature and a good heart and wins fortune and true love in the end. This is a very amusing novel, with many laugh-out-loud bits. Like its hero, it is sweet and good-hearted.

THE FORGETTING TIME by SHARON GUSKIN (2016)
A page-turner novel about reincarnation and remembering a past life, along with a companion story about dementia and forgetting a life in progress. It's an interesting scenario and competently written, but is ultimately forgettable. I had to refresh my memory about it and I only finished it a couple of weeks ago.

BLONDE by JOYCE CAROL OATES (2000)
A novelized biography of Marilyn Monroe. Oates is very sympathetic to her subject, and what emerges is a tragic picture of a little girl lost who was abused and taken advantage of all through life. This account is intriguing and reasonably well done, but I don't think it should be taken as an accurate assessment. And at 700+ pages, it drags on too long.

RISE OF THE ROCKET GIRLS by NATHALIA HOLT (2016)
The non-fiction account of the women hired by the Jet Propulsion Lab from the 1940s through today, first as human computers and later as computer machine operators. While it is important to recognize the contributions of women to the history of space flight, this book could have been much better if the author had concentrated on personalizing only a few of the women instead of fleetingly glancing at so many. None end up being memorable.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by ANN LECKIE (2013)
This novel won both the premier science fiction honors, the Hugo and Nebula, as well as the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the BSFA Award. I was thus convinced I would really like it. But no. I found it unimaginative and boring. The hero, who is an Artificial Intelligence in a human body, might as well have been a fully human former soldier bent on vengeance for an act of treachery. It would have made no difference. I am not a fan of the kind of political/military action adventure that seems to be the popular trend for sci-fi these days.

DESCENT INTO HELL by CHARLES WILLIAMS (1937)
I expected something quite different from this novel, which is billed as a "supernatural thriller." It is barely a novel, with only a spare framework of a plot, and the supernatural bits are of the mystical, religious kind. It follows one character's ascent into salvation and another's descent into perdition. According to Williams' philosophy, salvation is achieved through the assumption of the burdens of others, and the descent into hell is caused by the total preoccupation with self. This is a book to be read seriously for enlightenment rather than lightly for entertainment.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

NEWS OF THE WORLD by PAULETTE JILES (2016)

News of the World is a deceptively simple story of an old man's journey to return a young girl to her relatives after she has been ransomed from her Kiowa Indian captors. Their travels through dangers in Reconstruction era Texas would seem almost a cliche, somewhat reminiscent of the plot of True Grit. It is rescued, however, by the depth of characterization, the authenticity of the dialogue, and, most of all, by the poetic language of the telling.

Captain Jefferson Kidd is a 71-year-old war veteran who rides from one small Texas town to another to read the newspapers of the day to audiences willing to pay to be transported outside their troubled lives. He stays away from political news to concentrate on the wonders taking place around the world. He reluctantly takes on the task of transporting 10-year-old Johanna from Wichita Falls to her relatives near San Antonio, even though she has forgotten her language and life as a white girl and is trying to escape to rejoin her Kiowa "family." Beset by dangers from nature and from the lawless elements which have flourished, nurtured by a lack of government stability, the old man and the frightened girl form a bond of trust and love.

As a native Texan, I am particularly aware of the inaccurate pictures of the state often found in novels. Jiles has the vernacular of its uneducated populace just right. Her landscape description, which are woven seamlessly into the narrative, depict an accurate picture of the regions passed through, in language which is original and beautiful. This is one of those books which are easily visualized and heard, not just appreciated intellectually.

Of course, my appreciation of this novel is helped immeasurably by my inclination to like books that convey that simple dignity and goodness are values which receive their rewards.

This is a lovely book. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2017. I highly recommended it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

AMERICAN PSYCHO by BRET EASTON ELLIS (1991)

American Psycho is one of those books that are either considered ultra-cool and cutting edge or disgusting and pornographic, depending on the reader.

Parts of the book are very, very funny, in a darkly satiric way. The narrator is a young Wall Street executive who is obsessed with wearing the most stylish and expensive clothing, having the most well-toned and groomed body, buying the most exclusive furnishings, dining at the newest and most fashionable restaurants and dancing at the current "in" clubs. He and his male friends are so similar in all ways that they frequently mistake one for another. They constantly play one-upmanship, always striving to have the best, the most fashionable, the most expensive. One of the hilarious episodes involves their comparison of business cards to see whose is most elegant.

Along with being conspicuous consumers, they are all without empathy. They tease the homeless on the street by offering them money and then snatching it away. They are mysogynistic, valuing women only for their physical appearance. One says, "A good personality consists of a chick who has a little hardbody and who will satisfy all sexual demands without being too slutty about things and who will essentially keep her dumb fucking mouth shut."

The humor comes from the very banality and sameness of the men's personas and from the narrator's obsessive observations of the brand names of every item of clothing worn and every grooming aid and every restaurant and club. All this is clever, if a little repetitious, but then........

Gradually the narrator's reporting extends to his sexual encounters and his forays into torture and murder. Just as the narration of the yuppy lifestyle is detailed and specific, so too are the more disturbing aspects. Ellis elaborates in great detail about who puts what appendage where in the sex acts, which almost always veer into the convoluted and perverse, particularly in the threesomes. Even more disturbing, the sex often descends into torture and ultimately murder, also recounted in specific detail. Maybe I am showing my age and uncoolness, but I think Ellis goes too far. He could have preserved his theme and style of obsessive behavior without being so graphic. I personally was not titulated, but I believe some sick individuals might be. Truly, these scenes of torture and murder would be the verbal equivalent of snuff films, and those are outlawed, aren't they?

I would be hesitant to recommend this book to anyone, even though it does have something to say about the state of our culture and is often very clever. It is possible to interpret the book in such a way that the disturbing parts didn't really happen, but were instead in the narrator's imagination. Whatever? It is just too much.

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Here is the most disturbing thing about this book, to me. The psycho narrator's hero throughout, the man he most admires and wants to emulate, is Donald Trump. This was written in 1991. Now what does this tell us about our President?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

MARY BARTON by ELIZABETH GASKELL (1848)

This novel by Elizabeth Gaskell tells a story that is surprisingly relevant today about the tensions between the have and have-nots, in this case between rich mill owners and poor workers, some who are just barely getting by and some who are actually starving after being laid off. Her heroine, Mary Barton. the daughter of a trade union activist, has rejected a working class suitor because she is also being courted (in secret) by the son of the mill owner. In the midst of a stormy labor dispute, in which the trade unionists are humiliated and disregarded by the mill owners, her secret sweetheart is found murdered. Mary is then torn in two because her rejected suitor is accused yet she suspects that her father actually committed the murder.

Gaskell's plot is intricate, suspenseful, and not what one usually expects from a Victorian writer. She is realistic rather than melodramatic, as Dickens was. Some of her descriptive writing is beautiful. The one disappointing aspect of the book is that she pulls back somewhat in casting the rich mills owners as unfeeling villains. She was herself of upper middle class, as were most of her readers. I imagine that is why she hedged her bets somewhat in her criticisms.

Gaskell is often relegated to a second tier of importance in the rankings of Victorian writers. I believe that this book, and others of hers, should place her in first-tier status.