Sunday, August 06, 2017

Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls

There's not much I can add to the critical acclaim this biography has already received. For pure reading enjoyment, it is one of the best books of its kind. You feel as if you're as close to an understanding of Thoreau as a 200-year gap makes possible. Walls gives us a well-rounded portrait of the man and the writer in all his genius and eccentricities.

Here, you see both the Thoreau who was socially awkward and prickly, who once accidentally set his beloved woods on fire, right beside the warm, energetic Concord citizen who cheerfully led the children out berrying and taught them about nature. If you needed a shed built, a house lot surveyed, a cellar stoned, or a plant identified, Thoreau was always there.

The dreaming Transcendentalist was the same man who figured out a better manufacturing process for the family's pencil business -- who could build his own boat, bed, chair, or house. He grew and entered prize-winning melons at the county fair, made a living as a surveyor, helped runaway slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and stood up for John Brown, even as the fiery abolitionist was being hanged for treason after the raid at Harper's Ferry. But he was still always the dreamer and philosopher -- turning his minute observations of the natural world into ecstatic nature writing, poetry, scientific inquiry, and spiritual epiphany.

One of the most moving things about Thoreau was his continuing struggle to confront and respond to a world that was deeply troubling. His Walden years weren't about becoming a hermit and disengaging -- he was trying to learn how to live a different life, an honest one, that didn't lend support to a culture already turning to overconsumption and indifference to the environment and to a government exterminating Native Americans, making unnecessary wars of conquest, allowing slavery to exist and expand. Walden was a two-year experiment which Walls' book illuminates as only one part of his extraordinary American life.

Walls is often dazzling in her ability to describe the line of Thoreau's thought, as here, when he is contemplating the changing world in the face of industry and commerce.

As the raw wound of the railroad's "deep cut" thaws and flows, he sees in the flowing sands the canvas of creation, revealing the great truth that we live not on the surface of a dead planet but in and through a living earth, like a leaf unfolding.

 And after reading 500 pages of Thoreau's biography, you feel as if you're just embarking on a journey -- being led back into his writing, and ready to tackle the most primary source of all -- the Journals that Thoreau kept for almost all of his adult life.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Henry David Thoreau, July 12,1817

Walden Pond, 2013

Not by design, but reading new biography by Laura Dassow Walls. Thoreau: A Life

Happy 200th Birthday!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Peacock and Vine: Byatt on William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

Peacock and Vine is a long, thoughtful, and loving essay by A.S. Byatt musing on two famous designers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book itself is a beautiful object, with glossy pages and gorgeous prints and photographs.
Victoria & Albert Museum, "Trellis" wallpaper by William Morris.

Englishman William Morris was the main influence on the Arts and Crafts movement, a return to traditional methods of producing textiles and decorative art. His designs feature intricate patterns of floral and animal prints and other folk motifs, hearkening back to Medieval and Renaissance styles. He was closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Sometimes the association was a little too close, considering Morris's wife Jane's relationship with Rossetti, who among other things, liked to paint her.

Byatt explains how she came to understand Morris in a kind of counterpoint to the southern aesthetic of the Spaniard Mariano Fortuny, who lived and worked in his 13th-century Venetian palazzo with his wife and artistic partner Henriette Negrin. Fortuny worked as a painter, photographer, etcher, theatrical designer, and couturier. One of his most famous designs is the Delphos dress.

Victoria & Albert Museum, "Delphos" by Fortuny
Fortuny was inspired by the simplicity of ancient Greek designs and the idea to "free" the female form from corsets and layers of undergarments.

Byatt's wonderful novel The Children's Book, focused on a community of artists during the same period (William Morris makes an appearance), and this book is another product of her interest in the question of how great art is made.

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


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.