Sarah Vowell, author of, among others, Assasination Vacation and The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, both funny and thought-provoking looks at history and politics, once said, “I think about the Civil War every day.” I often think about her thinking about the Civil War when I contemplate my own fascination with the subject, and what better time to have such thoughts than during the sesquicentennial years of those epic events (the most recent being the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” originally delivered on November 19, 1863).
I think my favorite book about the Civil War(along with McPherson’s epic “Battle Cry of Freedom”) has to be “Confederates in the Attic,” by Tony Horwitz. The intrepid author explores the new South in search of the old – and his findings are instructive, amusing, at times horrifying, but always engaging. He marches with Civil War re-enactors, bushwhacks through snake-infested undergrowth in search of forgotten monuments, dares small-town biker bars to interview locals, and attends Sons of Confederate Veteran’s meetings, along with traipsing through battlefields from Manassas to the Wilderness. It is a great read.
Currently, I am listening to an excellent Teaching Company Course entitled “The American Civil War,” taught by Professor Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. I admit, I thought I had very little of substance (there is always more detail to absorb) to learn on the topic, but very quickly learned otherwise. The approach takes one from the intensely battle-focused approach of McPherson to a more comprehensive overview of the context of the war. Despite this, I was still surprised to find a mere 30 minutes devoted to Gettysburg, but Gallagher makes the point that, at the time, Gettysburg was not perceived with anything like the importance we assign to it today. Still, I have an urge to re-read The Killer Angels (another favorite Civil war book).
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I still remember the first George Saunders story I read, “Sea View.” I still remember how strange, how surprising and disorienting, I found his writing style. It was as if something brand new had come into the world, maybe the way Keats felt “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,”
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken
In a now familiar set-up, the reader is drawn into a dystopian, slightly surreal (sometimes more than slightly) world of ordinary people who struggle to get through a day where the deck is stacked against them, often at the mercy of petty bureaucrats or corporate tyrants, just trying to hang onto pointless, humiliating jobs, often in what seem to be a cross between amusement parks and reality TV shows. Now, I’ve read most, if not all, of his stories (frequently in The New Yorker and most recently reread them in The Tenth of December. I enjoyed revisiting some of these, the brilliant and poignant Puppy, the moving, redemptive title story and some others. They have very different writing styles, but I rank George Saunders right up there with Alice Munro for his mastery of the form and for his generous view of humanity: while describing evil actions, no-win situations, sad losers, he can bring you to another level where your perspective is not the only one, where you can glimpse more than what your circumstances dictate. As Jennifer Egan wrote, his work is “emotionally piercing.” As Kafka said, “Art should be an axe to the frozen sea within.” Saunders does that.
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The Writer’s Almanac recently featured some biographical details about Harold Pinter. Of particular interest was Pinter’s memory of the opening night, in 1967, of The Homecoming as “one of the greatest theatrical nights of his life.” The audience hated the play, but as Pinter said, the actors “hated the audience back even more….By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated…There’s no question that the play won on that occasion.”
Given our experience with this play, I can vouch for the hatred we felt; however, I have since reconsidered, as in this post from 2006:
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A waste of time. It’s too bad because there are some decent plot elements, and the viewpoint of an upper-crust black man, a law professor (as is the author) and son of a judge, with homes in DC and Martha’s Vineyard, is a welcome one. There are some dramatic moments, what with the horrific murder of the Pastor; the unjust arrest of our Professor by local police after he is attacked by thugs (reminiscent of the incident involving Henry Louis Gates); the intriguing car chase on the Vineyard; and the denouement during the hurricane. Unfortunately, any drama built into the story is muffled by the plodding narrative style. Time and again, the author tells us what this person is like, tells us what the men in his family are like, tell us what his marriage is like (over and over again) – he never shows us through dialogue or actions. The consequences of this type of writing are cardboard characters with no life in them. He tries to tie Kimmer’s affair to his own obsession with the mystery his father left behind, but, by my reading, there are problems with the marriage from the beginning of the book. I don’t believe in Kimmer, nor in Mariah, the sister obsessed with the idea that the Judge was Mariah, nor in Addison. The best characters are the law school faculty members, but even there, the relationships seem forced, as well as inconsistent, and motives do not appear to flow logically from character. I also wish the chess analogy had been more elegantly done – it seems like a fine idea tortured to fit the story. Perhaps a decent editor could have helped streamline the novel and improve the author’s style. Once there were great editors who helped writers achieve their vision – no more, it seems.
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As one who treasures and reveres books, who grew up reading and rereading the classics of childhood (Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Little Women), I often wonder if kids will continue to read these books, or indeed any books. Thus, I was heartened by a 10-year old houseguest who came with her I-phone, of course, but also with three library books: The Art of Racing in the Rain, Small as an Elephant , and another that she was disappointed in so I didn’t get the title. We agreed that is usually worthwhile when you enjoy an author to seek out other books by that person, but sometimes you just don’t like the other books as well.
C.L., a young person of strong opinions, was forthright about not feeling that she has to finish a book if she’s not liking it. (I should take her advice as I am still struggling through The Emperor of Ocean Park.) Despite having red hair, she was never able to get into Anne of Green Gables, and admitted to not liking “the classics.” I mentioned how all the kids have Kindles now, and she informed me that for her age group, that fad has passed. “Sure, back in third grade, a lot of kids had them, but now? No Kindles, no Nooks, they are all back to carrying regular books around.” Another of her rules for living is not to keep books. She never rereads a book, she declared, so is happy to pass them on to others. Mi caro esposo who had just moved my library of 25, or possibly more, boxes of books for me, gave me an expressive look. I am still planning to reread most of my library if I live long enough, so I was unmoved.
I read half of The Art of Racing in the Rain during C.L.’s visit, and she, saddened by my lack of a large library in my new town, generously offered to leave it for me. As it turns out, my library does have the book, so I put a hold on it and am looking forward to finishing it off, and hopefully discussing it with my bookish young friend during a future visit. In the meantime, I have a feeling that the next generation may reject some of the technological advances embraced by their elders (Facebook, for example), which may include the e-book.
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Short-story Thursdays recently supplied a pair of short stories by J. M. Barrie (“A Powerful Drug” and “The Inconsiderate Waiter”). I enjoyed both, especially the latter, which is funny and charming and ultimately heart-warming.
Barrie’s whimsical writing, buoyant and sly, both cynical and not (this last insight borrowed from another SST reader), is a delight. He lets his characters show themselves, which is a writerly gift (exemplified by Jane Austen) that cannot be over-praised. So many authors pound away at their material, deadening the senses with their heavy-handed pronouncements and creaking plot machinery (sadly I’m thinking of the book I am currently reading, or enduring, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”) In any case, thinking of Barrie got me thinking of Peter Pan and my favorite quote therein:
“What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Wendy Moira Angela Darling,’ she replied with some satisfaction. ‘What is your name?’
She was already sure that he must be Peter, but it did seem a comparatively short name.
‘Is that all?’
‘Yes,’ he said rather sharply. He felt for the first time that it was a shortish name.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Wendy Moira Angela.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Peter gulped.
She asked where he lived.
‘Second to the right,’ said Peter, ‘and then straight on till morning.’
‘What a funny address!’
Peter had a sinking feeling. For the first time he felt that perhaps it was a funny address.
It makes me sad that children don’t read Peter Pan anymore, thanks to Disney, I guess.
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I’m not really writing about Fitzgerald, but, in fact, he and Zelda make an appearance in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I just finished, and they seem more interesting than the subject of the novel which is, of course, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and by extension, Hemingway himself. I disagree with the author’s choice to use the first-person narrative to tell Hadley’s story, it comes across as unoriginal and banal, as if she took the known facts and connected them like a dot-to-dot drawing. I started to think, yes, Hemingway was a cad, but Hadley just isn’t that interesting; in fact, without her relationship with him, why would we care about her? By contrast, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, told in the third person, is both more nuanced and satisfying. McLain can write and there are some poignant moments as the marriage unravels (Pauline was quite a character!), but, on the whole, I couldn’t wait to get it over with. It felt to me as if the writer hit upon this great idea for a novel and then just went through the motions, not truly caring about her subject. Even Paris comes across as dull and uninviting. Enter the Fitzgeralds, with their brittle, bright spirits, adding some much-needed drama and intensity. The gatherings at Cap d’Antibe are well rendered, bringing to mind Tender is the Night. A recent New Yorker article by Giles Harvey (Cry Me A River, 032513 issue) details several recent tell-all memoirs by young published writers who went off the rails after early success. Harvey makes the point that this approach has actually led to renewed interest in and opportunities for these authors and adds that Fitzgerald tried the same tactic in 1936 when he wrote a personal essay, “The Crack-Up,” about his flagging career prospects. (Of course, Fitzgerald managed to confess his sorry state in a philosophical way, with an “urbane, self-inspecting tone,” a far cry from the contemporary examples). Within a year, he was invited to Hollywood to try, unsuccessfully as it turned out, his hand at screenwriting. Sad to think of Scott and Zelda so diminished, but the seeds of tragedy were there at Cap d’Antibes, as McLain is able to show in her novel. Perhaps she just chose the wrong subject for her talents?
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