Sunday, January 15, 2017

General William Tecumseh Sherman, prose stylist

I spent November and December of last year reading the memoirs of General Sherman, reminding myself that the country had been through some pretty bad times before the election of 2016.

Sherman has a fascinating reputation. If you're from the south, he is a brute, inflicting needless cruelty on a civilian population on his March to the Sea. Otherwise, he is known as a brilliant strategist, a fighter, fiercely loyal, but perhaps a little unhinged. Reading his own words, I was struck by his intelligence and unrelenting belief in the rightness of the Union cause.

Sherman describes his early life in very light strokes. There is not much that is personal, only the highlights. He went to West Point, noting that he was not valued as much of a soldier, but he was a very good student. Unlike Grant, whose standing was at the bottom of his class, Sherman graduated number six in his class and would have been fourth had it not been for numerous demerits received in other areas (apparently tidiness was not among his strengths).

Sherman's early career took him to the Indian wars in Florida and service along the southern coastal forts. He spent the Mexican War in California, then a remote outpost, when San Francisco was a fledgling city. He wrote the report - sent by boat around Cape Horn to Washington - that announced the discovery of gold in 1848. He resigned from the army and went into banking for awhile. Then, he became the superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary and Military Institute (later to become Louisiana State University), a post he held when the Civil War broke out. One of the things that recurs in his memoirs are the various meetings and correspondence he held during the war with people he formerly knew as friends at West Point and during his years in the south.

Admittedly, I am basing my view of the historical Sherman on what is the one-sided version of events he offers in his own memoirs. Still, I came away with a deep admiration of the man. From the beginning, he was reviled as "insane" when he offered his opinion on the number of troops it would require to hold the central theater of the war in Kentucky and Tennessee. He was basically a nobody - not expected to do well - but ended up, alongside Grant, as the savior of the Union - its most brilliant battlefield general. He was fiery and unforgiving, never shy about letting people have it when they questioned his prosecution of the war or his motives.
You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. ... But you cannot have peace and a division of our country.
There is something wonderfully bracing in Sherman's vision of war, even as he acknowledges its inhumanity. To him, war was not grand, glorious, or heroic. It was cruelty and it was destruction, and he never pretended otherwise. You always see him taking the long view and weighing the logic of trying to fight a war of half-measures against an implacable enemy that would take "mercy" as weakness, and waging total war that would be the speediest and surest way to end it, possibly saving countless lives that would be lost in a prolonged struggle. Whatever else one may think of his March to the Sea, the boldness and success with which it was carried out are remarkable. Sherman's genius for the logistics of moving an army across enemy territory for many hundreds of miles with no supply line open behind him is probably unmatched in military history.
I considered this march as a means to an end, and not as an essential act of war. Still, then, as now, the march to the sea was generally regarded as something extraordinary, something anomalous, something out of the usual order of events; whereas, in fact, I simply moved from Atlanta to Savannah, as one step in the direction of Richmond, a movement that had to be met and defeated, or the war was necessarily at an end. 
One thing that is certain, Sherman was a superb writer. His descriptions and his correspondence snap with energy. He imposes order on chaos with words. And sometimes, he is sublime, as in this description of the morning his army departed Atlanta for the long, dangerous trip into the unknown. It approaches poetry.
We stood upon the very ground whereon was fought the bloody battle of July 22d, and could see the copse of wood where McPherson fell. Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city. Away off in the distance, on the McDonough road, was the rear of Howard's column, the gun-barrels glistening in the sun, the white-topped wagons stretching away to the south; and right before us the Fourteenth Corps, marching steadily and rapidly, with a cheery look and swinging pace, that made light of the thousand miles that lay between us and Richmond.
...Then we turned our horses heads to the east; Atlanta was soon lost behind the screen of trees, and became a thing of the past. Around it clings many a thought of desperate battle, of hope and fear, that now seem like the memory of a dream; and I have never seen the place since.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Escape!

Well, if Americans have anything in common right now, it might be a sudden desire to escape -- the election, the country, the planet. You might pull one of those off, but only temporarily. I spent a wonderful 10 days in London, but of course, books are often the most reliable escape hatch (not to mention, more affordable), always within arm's reach.

You can't get much further away than falling into one of China Miéville's worlds. The really good writers transcend their genres. Miéville's fantasies are densely detailed and wildly imagined places, fully-realized with their own culture, politics, history, and beings.

In the sprawling city of New Crobuzon humans, humanoids, cactus creatures, flying monsters, demons, dimension-spanning freaky-spider "Weavers," and AI junkyard dogs pursue their individual and intersecting destinies. It is in some ways a very familiar urban landscape, but interspersed with such mind-bendingly alien perspectives and surreal description that you'll be knocked refreshingly off your axis. It combines aspects of steampunk, action-adventure, the occult, horror, picaresque, and tragedy. As with all his novels that I've read, Perdido Street Station is highly-recommended.

Next, I returned to another of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon, and his delightful historical novel, Gentlemen of the Road (or "Jews with swords," as he likes to call it). This swashbuckling adventure is set in the Caucasus mountains in the days when warring khans ruled (around 950 AD). Two unlikely Jewish bandits have partnered up, finding themselves embroiled in a fight to restore a young prince to his rightful throne, which has been usurped by a treacherous villain who wiped out his entire family. It is action-packed and sparkles with Chabon's signature wit and memorable characters.

My all-around literary balm for whatever is ailing me is Shakespeare. I got to see A Comedy of Errors in the place it premiered in 1594 (!) while in London -- the Hall of Gray's Inn. It was farcical and bubbly, given a screwball-comedy vibe by the musically-inclined cast of the Antic Disposition Company. At home, I'll be seeing Macbeth and Titus Andronicus this month, and meanwhile, I just started James Shapiro's The Year of Lear, which is fantastic so far. I'm learning so much about the writing of Lear. Very cool.

I hope you find your own great escapes. Try to get as far away as possible.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Felix Holt: The Radical

By Mайкл Гиммельфарб (Mike Gimelfarb) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Granted Felix Holt is not considered to be one of George Eliot's best novels. It has an extraordinarily convoluted plot, turning on the most arcane of laws of inheritance and entail on the one hand, some rather startling coincidences on the other hand, and prickly protagonists with whom it is hard to quite fall in love. Still it is the last major novel of Eliot's that I had not read, so I was looking forward to diving in.

Eliot never met a difficult subject that she didn't face head on -- child murder, alcoholism, domestic abuse, the status of Jews in England, suicide, and in this case, political reform and riots. Don't ever think you're "escaping" the modern world by delving into Eliot's Victorian novels.

Felix Holt is set in England after the Reform Bill of 1832 expanded the franchise to more voters. The radical of the title is an idealistic man who believes in workers' rights and education as the path to creating a more equitable society. He eschews anything that smacks of aristocratic or even middle-class pretensions. His refusal to wear the cravat of the "gentleman," even though he is educated and possesses the qualities that could help him rise in station, is a symbol of his dedication to bettering the world, not just leaping at the opportunities that could selfishly propel him to a comfortable life. He meets the beautiful and extremely status-conscious Esther Lyon, the daughter of a dissenting preacher, who desperately wants to escape the barrenness of her provincial life. Their relationship is very much a foreshadowing of Gwendolyn Harleth and Daniel Deronda in Eliot's final novel (Daniel Deronda). Felix's idealism and unselfishness has the uncomfortable effect on Esther of making her aware of her own pettiness and snobbery, chipping away at her supposed superiority.

The plot unwinds in rural England, where politics in the parliamentary election following the Reform Bill take a nasty turn. Electioneering tactics involve inciting a mob mentality to intimidate voters by "buying" their favor with free drinks at the local pub. The candidates are shady or glibly opportunistic -- even the so-called Tory-turned-Radical, Harold Transome, who arrives with his newfound wealth from the east. Remind you of anything?

Here is part of a speech by Felix, who is trying to talk sense to people during the election about all the promises being made:
How can political freedom make us better, any more than  religion we don't believe in, if people laugh and wink when they see men abuse and defile it? And while public opinion is what is is -- while men have no better beliefs abut public duty -- while corruption is not felt to be a damning disgrace -- while men are not ashamed in parliament and out of it to make public questions which concern the welfare of millions, a mere screen for their own petty private ends -- I say, no fresh scheme of voting will much mend out condition. [Felix Holt: The Radical, Chapter XXX]
And this from the same chapter:
But there are two sorts of power. There's a power to do mischief -- to undo what has been done with great expense and labour, to waste and destroy, to be cruel to the weak, to lie and quarrel, and to talk poisonous nonsense....Ignorant power comes in the end to do the same thing as wicked power, it makes misery.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Summer Reading Picks - Westerns

 I just  finished my first summer reading, Ivan Doig's memoir, This House of Sky, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1979. Doig grew up in small-town Montana with his widowed father in the 40s and 50s, bouncing around from ranch to ranch in the areas around White Sulphur Springs and Dupuyer. 


Beautifully written, it vividly describes the lives of hardworking sheepherders, cowboys, and ranchers who battled a hard land, but mostly it chronicles the life of his father and intrepid grandmother, who held together family life after the death of his young mother. Doig gently picks apart the threads of his earliest memories and pieces them together with stories he heard from his family, to recreate a moving portrait of a time and a landscape that he left for a different kind of life.

I've read one other Doig book, The Whistling Season, a novel that evokes some of the same gentle nostalgia as his memoir. I've been thinking of my own fascination with the history of the West and the books that have informed and inspired it. These aren't "genre" Westerns (although I've read some Louis L'amour and Zane Grey along the way). If you're looking for summer reading with a Western flavor, here are some of my favorites in no particular order.


  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMutry - It actually took me awhile to get to this one, but it seems too obvious to leave off. My husband would say these cowboys talked way too much about their "feelings" (based only on the TV interpretation), but it's a classic for a reason. An epic tale of the west with a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, the tangled lives of cowboys and the women they love, a man in search of his runaway wife, and a prostitute with a heart of gold.
  • The Englishman's Boy and The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe - This Canadian writer probably flies way too far under the radar. These stellar novels are part of a loose trilogy set mostly along the Montana and Canadian border. The first one follows a boy's dark adventures among wolf hunters and horse thieves in 1870s Montana, and stretches to 1920s Hollywood where a screenwriter has tracked down the old man to tell his story for a film. The second is a post-Civil War tale of two English brothers who travel to Montana to search for their youngest brother, who has disappeared into the wilderness. They are part of a motley crew traveling on various missions of their own, including a woman who is trying to avenge her sister by tracking down the suspected murderer. Vanderhaeghe died in 2012 but not before finishing the third in this set, A Good Man, which I hope to read soon.
  • Little Big Man by Thomas Berger - This novel was the basis for the Dustin Hoffman movie, but you should read the book. It's as funny a story as can be that begins with a young boy's family being massacred by Indians. Endlessly entertaining, Jack/Little Big Man's adventures among Indians, the U.S. Calvary, gunfighters, and outlaws is irreverent and epic in scope. He claims to be the only white survivor of Little Bighorn.
  • The Son by Philipp Meyer - Another novel that begins with a white boy's family being massacred and himself taken into captivity by the Comanche. It couldn't be more different. Viscerally detailed, it chronicles the history of a Texas family from the 1800s through 2012. I wrote a lengthier review here of this brilliant novel.
  • The Border Trilogy, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy - I wandered into McCarthy when I read the first of the trilogy, All The Pretty Horses. Since then I've read nearly all of McCarthy's work from his early dark and twisty Appalachian novels to his Western masterpieces, including the gorgeous, mythic, and hair-raising Blood Meridian, which I'm contemplating reading again this summer. Because it's awesome.
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather - Cather is another of those writers I've read extensively. She's masterful in writing about the lives of prairie people, particularly women, but this historical novel is set in the desert southwest, mostly New Mexico. It tells the story of the Catholic priests who started the Spanish missions among the native Americans. It's cast of characters includes Kit Carson and many other rascals and cheats.
  • Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson - I loved this novel of 1980s Montana -- a gripping story about a very flawed, but also admirable man, who tries to save people as a social worker, but can't control his own broken personal life, his runaway daughter, or a young kid on the lam with his fugitive father.
  • White Crosses by Larry Watson - Yet another story set in Montana on the border near Alberta. A contemporary tale of scandal in a small town, featuring a mystery, a protagonist with dubious motivations, and a wonderfully complex and textured writing style. 


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Great Books I Hate: Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte (Wikimedia Commons)
I was pretty sure I read this novel a long time ago. I even remembered disliking it, which means I must have read it, right? And much like The Great Gatsby (another great book I hate), I thought I should revisit it as a mature adult, and not as a harried college student or doltish middle-schooler. After all, I have a graduate degree in English Lit, a love of 19th century British novels, and Charlotte and Anne Bronte are both among my favorites, so Wuthering Heights would seem to be squarely in my wheelhouse. The first thing that struck me was that I remembered nothing about the narrative structure and the various characters relating the story (dopey Lockwood, annoying Nelly, that sap Isabella). If I never read it, why did I have such a visceral sense of having disliked it? Puzzled, I kept plugging away, and gradually came to believe that I must have blocked it out as one does a childhood trauma. Good lord, I hate this novel.

Emily Bronte was a great poet, a visionary, a square peg in a round hole, no doubt, and for her personally, I have a great deal of admiration. I can only speculate that she died partly from the effort of repressing the consuming rage that would have burned Haworth to the ground, but for her writing Wuthering Heights.

This novel is full of really awful people -- in particular, the romantic duo of Heathcliff and Catherine. Heathcliff makes Lord Byron look like Mr. Rogers. Case in point: Byron loved his dogs so much he wanted to be buried beside his Newfoundland. Heathcliff. Hung. A. Puppy. (Did they leave that part out in the Olivier movie version?) Emily was also a great lover of animals, so I'm guessing she had a point to make about Heathcliff's brutishness. But why are there readers who think he's romantic? (Fellas, if you ever meet a woman who claims to love Heathcliff, run.) He's no Byronic hero. He's not even funny. Actual Byron was a hoot. (“I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law.”) Shakespeare gave his villains all the best lines, but Bronte's Heathcliff  is a cursing crashing boor/bore when he isn't mawkishly blubbering nonsense about Cathy.

There's also nothing sympathetic about Heathcliff. He was lucky enough, as a poor orphan, to be plucked out of the gutter by a generous benefactor. But of course, the other kids were mean to him. If that's the worst thing that happens to a dude in the 1800s, you'll never make it in a Dickens novel. Hell, Emily had it harder than that. (She was a bad-ass. Her sister Charlotte said she once cauterized her own wound from a dog-bite with a hot fire iron.) And his tormented love for Cathy? Oh, boo-hoo. This is what T.S. Eliot would call the absence of an "objective correlative." None of Heathcliff's "sufferings" are enough to account for his overwhelming nastiness. The object of his affection is just as wince-inducing as he is. It's as if Bronte set out to create a Rogue's Gallery of hateful characters.

What was Emily up to here? Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar suggest that it is a novel not so much about people as "forces or beings," and that Catherine/Heathcliff are just two halves of one consciousness. Heathcliff is the imaginative "whip" of the powerless female -- a sort of wish fulfillment of the lady who has to sit by the fireside while her other half can go running out on the moors and knock heads together. I imagine a lot of genteel women in the 19th century would have liked to do that, so if you look at Heights not as a novel, but a psychological portrait of frustrated and oppressed womanhood, it at least makes more sense. But it certainly doesn't make it lovable.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Winter Reading: Fervor, fairies, and women who run with wolves

Time flies when you're reading good books, so I really have to schedule some no-fails for the winter. When you're lolling in the sun with a margarita, lesser works will suffice, but cold, dreary days call for something so engaging you forget the ice melt drips crystallizing on the floor and the the itchy layers of swaddling required to ward off icy fingers and toes.

Russian novels always seem like a good fit for the cold season. I read Tolstoy's Hadji Murad, which is about as long as some chapters in War and Peace -- bite-size Tolstoy for those with commitment issues. This slim novel tells the story of a historical Avar guerilla fighter who both fought against and with the Russians in their campaigns to quell the hostile people of the Caucasus in the 19th Century. Tolstoy was inspired by his experience serving in the Russian army at the time. It pits Christian Russia against the Muslim tribes in what is now Dagestan and Chechnya. Tolstoy's admiration for the struggle of Murad as a man of faith (even though not his own) comes through.

Another exploration of faith, Marilynne Robinson's moving and beautiful Lila rounds out her trilogy of novels centered around the quiet, and often troubled lives of two pastors in the small town of Gilead. These are books that take seriously the questions of Christian doctrine, and how it plays out in the lives of two families. They are anything but dry. Robinson's characters contend with faith and doubt, alienation and communion, family ties that bind, but that can't always hold together. Grave, honest, and lovely, Robinson's writing feels like a priestly blessing. She is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. In Gilead, the aging pastor John Ames narrates his life story for the young son that he knows he will not see into adulthood. Lila is the story of his young wife and how their unlikely marriage came to be.

In retrospect, it's as if I read by theme, but it was actually totally random. Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality is a historical fiction set in the late 1600s in Scotland during the Presbyterian uprising of the conservative Covenanters (some these days might say, right-wing extremists), who fought the Royalists over the right to re-install their particular brand of religion without any interference from the Crown. The hero is Henry Morton, by birth and nurture a more moderate Covenanter, who is torn between his loyalties to his own people and his love for the lady Edith, the daughter of a leading Royalist supporter. It's an adventure novel wrapped up is some very Scottian narrative fustiness, but the accounts of narrow escapes and battles are very good.

Next, I finally got around to Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, already a BBC-produced series, about pre-eminent English magicians working their arts during the Napoleonic wars. An alternate history that brings magic and fairies into the realm of politics and military enterprise, I thought it was great fun. It's quirky in its attention to historical detail while at the same time, completely fantastical, rewriting the battles of the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo by giving Wellington his own magician aide de camp and setting up a showdown between humans, magicians, and fairies in Yorkshire. Sly, funny and smart.

Finally, I actually read a new book -- a novel by Sarah Hall called The Wolf Border, about a biologist whose expertise on wolves attracts the attention of a rich aristocrat in Cumbria. The protagonist, Rachel Caine leaves her work on an Idaho Reservation to head up an eccentric project in her native England. Her skepticism is overcome by a personal crisis that drives her to take on the job of returning wolves to the wild on an English estate. I don't want to reveal too much about the plot, but I loved the setting in the Lake District, the complicated family dynamics, and the conservation aspect of the story. Hall's writing is sharp and engaging. She works the themes of nature and nurture, the instincts of human and animal, the fragile border between wilderness and civilization.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth


Paul Kingsnorth's novel The Wake is a work that takes seriously the importance of presenting a historical fiction in its world as accurately as possible. The opening is 1066, the year that William the Conqueror defeated the English King Harold at Hastings. To reflect the voice of his narrator, Kingsnorth created a "shadow" tongue -- a somewhat modernized version of Old English, using only words of Anglo-Saxon origin throughout. In the quote above, you can see the adherence to original spellings and there is little punctuation. At first glance, it is very foreign, but it takes surprisingly little time to familiarize yourself with the language and to fall into the rhythm of its cadence. If you've ever read Beowulf, it has the lyrical quality of the great epic.

1066 re-enactment by Guardian photojournalist Felix Clay
Aside from the brilliance of its linguistic choices, Kingsnorth creates a memorable character in Buccmaster of Holland (an area of eastern England known for its watery fenns), a man of status and wealth before the cataclysmic Norman invasion. Buccmaster loses everything, his wife, sons, house and land, and is forced to take to the forest as an outlaw. An adherent of the old ways and the gods who reigned before Christianity came to Britain, Buccmaster is determined to drive the French out  and take his revenge by killing every Frenchman he comes across. He becomes a "grene" man, hiding in the shadows of the forest, gathering his men, and stalking the Norman foe. He is led by the elusive and mythical Weland, whose mocking voice comes to him, guiding his actions, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in visions. Buccmaster feels himself "chosen" by the old gods to fight for England. His animosity for priests and the new Christ is almost equal to his hatred of his Norman overlords.
the bastard he cum north from the place where he had cwelled harald cyng and all the way he cum in blud his men they fucced all anglisc wifmen they cum to and cwelled them when done and all hams and tuns they beorned in ingenga fyr. the bastard cum up  to lundun fuccan and cwellan and beornan and the witan it seen what was cuman and it stepped baec and the last of angland that daeg was gan and we had a new cyng who spac not efen our tunge and ate not our foda and cursed us as hunds and curses us still
I don't want to give too much away about the novel or its narrator. It is profoundly disturbing in a way that historical novels often are not. Usually, we feel the comfortable distance between the past and present as something already finished -- antique, quaint, a lost world, decorated in the trappings of legend. And you would think that Kingsnorth's decision to create a foreign-looking language would serve only to heighten the sense that this historical moment is long past relevancy. Instead, it does the opposite. No matter how archaic the language, the circumstances of Buccmaster's dislocation and suffering, the violence described, the culpability of those bought by French gold, the betrayals, shock, and upheaval of Buccmaster's world are immediate and all too recognizable. It reminds me a lot of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, if that gives you an idea of its effect.

I highly recommend this novel for those who are interested in historical fiction, Anglo-Saxon England, or the unreliable narrator. The pleasure of the language is reason enough to read it, but the story itself is deeply engaging, not to mention, a bit terrifying.