Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's practice of scorched earth warfare in his march across Georgia is an example of humiliation beyond defeat. Ab...moreUnion General William Tecumseh Sherman's practice of scorched earth warfare in his march across Georgia is an example of humiliation beyond defeat. Absolutely punitive, the practice sought to reverse the arrogance of secessionism and the crime of shattering the union by destroying the economy, transportation, class, culture, and cities of the Confederacy. We feel the effects still, recognizing the difficulty of renewal and recovery after thorough defeat. As it is with other firestorms, landscapes and populations bear historical scars. We recognize PTSD today, but reading by E. L. Doctorow is a reminder that it is likely to have been a constant sickness emergent from all wars.
Sherman knows this and begins his march to the sea as a way of breaking the will of the south, in part by its sheer audacity, in larger part by its uncompromising cruelties. It is clear that what has been created in the action is something that cannot be led, even by Sherman. The war is a dark forest, and the march is an excavation or an incomparable clearcutting. Its long tail is described as a living organism of many segments, comprising more than 60,000 troops, thousands of freed slaves and other hangers-on. Publishers Weekly called its episodic stories "kind of a grim Civil War Canterbury Tales." The march is a huge creeping segmented insect, irresistible and terrible. Updike called it "a floating world. It devours people and takes over their lives, digests their possessions and identities, and it carries the reader inevitably forward.
Sherman's brilliant musings, vignettes of experiences among civilians, soldiers and slaves, the military moves and strategies -- are all dramatic and superb. Their destinies are suddenly entwined and common. Doctorow allows multiple voices to speak their truths without judgment, though most reasonable voices are heard from the Union side. Reading this book occasionally caused me to think about the title of a book by Chris Hedges: War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. Ironically, having seen its meaninglessness, Sherman might agree. This is a superb novel, probably Doctorow's best, full of questions that cannot be asked or even tentatively answered except in the dread of war. (less)
The Cumberland County Library asked me to speak to their book group, part of the North Carolina Humanities Council "Let's Talk About It" series devote...moreThe Cumberland County Library asked me to speak to their book group, part of the North Carolina Humanities Council "Let's Talk About It" series devoted to Civil War fiction. I began by talking about the challenges to the reader in The Killer Angels: keeping the geographies and personalities clear, clarifying and grasping the perspectives of North and South, and the simple disadvantage of knowing how the battle comes out. But I also introduced some special challenges to reading about the Civil War itself.
Old data say that 620,000 died; new data (9/21/2011) put it at 750,000. Using the first numbers, think of this: 204,000 were deaths in battle; 314,000 were deaths from disease (scurvy, typhus, dysentery, pneumonia, malnutrition): and the Union Army recorded 25,000 deaths in Confederate military prisons. (The Confederacy had poor medical service, so its losses to disease and wounds were worse. Farm boys were especially vulnerable.) Using losses and days, one table provides the deaths-per-day of American wars: For example, in World War II, 416 died each day. In Vietnam, an average of 26 died each day of the war. In the Civil War, 600 people died each day. At the Battle of Gettysburg, the topic of this novel, the 26th Regiment of North Carolina lost 714 of 800 men, 584 on the first day of fighting. The 24th Michigan Regiment lost 362 of 496 men. The 1st Minnesota Regiment lost 82 percent; the 141st Pennsylvania lost 75.7 percent. Losses were equivalent to 2% of the US population. More than 3000 horses were killed at Gettysburg.
Although The Killer Angels attends to the generals and colonels in command, none of this blood is missed. The generals could walk or ride to the front line, could see the enemy in its camps, and had clear ideas of imminent reckonings. Shaara is simply brilliant in opening the hearts of his military men, allowing us to grasp their allegiances and to see them weep. To the generals, this is a moral war as well as a mortal one, and therefore it is filled with ambiguities and tensions. It is fought on American soil. It is fought against former comrades and friends. It is not about territory, kingship, faith, incursion, or transgression. It is largely about punishment, fragility, and shattered interdependence. It is leaden with variables: tactics, troops, geography, weather, arms, food, sleep, leadership, trust. History, memory, bravery, courage, resolve, loyalty, friendship, and respect are all played out, literally, on the field.
Shaara's brilliance lies in his use of the monologue, diary- and letter-like personal perspectives out of the minds and perspectives of Chamberlain and Longstreet (the most compelling of the book), and Lee, whose portrait is the most detailed. He is a living saint to his men; they pause, applaud, cheer and sing for him. Bands strike up martial music in his presence. He is a source of tragic awe. General Longstreet sees him arrive early on the morning of the terrible third day of battle:
Lee came out of the mists. He was tall and gray on that marvelous horse, riding majestically forward in the gray light of morning outlined against the sky, the staff all around him and behind him. Lee alone in the center, larger than them all, erect, soldierly, gazing eastward toward the enemy line. He rode up, saluted grandly. Longstreet rose. Lee rested both hands on the pommel of his saddle. The mist thickened and blew between them; there was a ghostly quality in the look of him, of all his staff, ghost riders out of the past, sabers clanking, horses breathing thick and heavy in thick dank air.
Lee is flawed and failing, and costs the Confederacy the battle, and that costs the Confederacy the entire war. But this novel exists far apart from the idea of victory and loss: it is about tension and conflict that rends flesh and bone as it rends society and human nature. This is the finest Civil War novel, based on the opinions of others. It is among the strongest, fateful, inevitable war novels I have read. It is deeply compelling, grounded on history, but not on history alone. Though it is clearly and fastidiously based on documentary sources, what Shaara tells here lives and breathes. It is what cannot be told in archives, tables, maps, or (in Edmund Wilson's words) patriotic gore.
No brother, no sister, I find this novel about filial bonds to be almost exotic and inexplicable. But Doctorow, like Roth, gives us a life to read and...moreNo brother, no sister, I find this novel about filial bonds to be almost exotic and inexplicable. But Doctorow, like Roth, gives us a life to read and it is, briefly, ours. (I have never met Mr. Doctorow, but I have in fact met his brother. Really.) This is a New York novel, but it is also a novel of obsessive collecting, and -- despite the openness of that city and the grandeur of a Fifth Avenue house -- it is about a life of claustrophobic nearness, mistrust, and disconnection from the world. Part of the world does come into the Collyer brothers' house, but it can never displace the irrationality and insularity of the two men who live there, among newspapers by the ton, multiple pianos, an automobile in the dining room, and an impenetrable dark. A fine book by one of America's greatest writers. (less)
An exhausting read, completed for a Let's Talk About It conversation to occur in New Bern on September 12, 2011. There is a 250-page novel somewhere i...moreAn exhausting read, completed for a Let's Talk About It conversation to occur in New Bern on September 12, 2011. There is a 250-page novel somewhere inside these 500+ pages, and it is a sorry thing that Malone did not cut the excess, the smartass dialogue, the Southern flamboyance, and the multiple characters whose contributions to the narrative are negligible clutter. The redemption comes from the women, the fine court scenes, and the persistent (but too often obscured) theme of conscience throughout the book. For a book about race, too small a voice is given to African-American characters; for a book about capital punishment, too little attention is given to the deep roots of injustice; and in a book about the conventions of racism, the swampland of vile politics is not drained. Having both brains and spine, the main character does not need the lip. Malone, however, is beguiling to readers of New South fiction, a brand I have unfortunately found to have both light charm and even lighter consequence. Still, I think we will have a good conversation, with enthusiastic readers, in whom I take constant delight.(less)
Against expectations, I read this book as rapidly as I could, following its inevitable word cadences, complex and exquisitely honed. On nearly every p...moreAgainst expectations, I read this book as rapidly as I could, following its inevitable word cadences, complex and exquisitely honed. On nearly every page I wanted to rush forward, but the structure and evolution of each crafted sentence kept me from it and taught me a reader's patience. In this way it is close to the first book of Cormac McCarthy's brilliant trilogy, so strong and compulsive. But in its own way, this book is more furious, darkened and storm-driven by a human hardness even McCarthy does not touch. As I read to the end early this morning, I recognized that it is Faulkner whose power is echoed in the prose, in the fabric of guilt and cruelty, and the inner chasms created by blood relationships. And so I was lost to it: if Faulkner had written about west Texas, he might have written this. Even taken up a second time, this book would run like a stallion, and I would struggle to hang on.
From page 271: "Fire was one of so many things that could render a man helpless, and now, as Karel reached the corral fence and circled around to the gate, his brothers' eyes unblinking and tepid and fixed on him, he reckoned that family was another. A man couldn't any more choose which one he was born into than he could will it to stay together when so many things abraded and raveled the fibers that were meant to keep it bound. Try to hold it all together with force, with a harness and a hard hand the way their father had, and it grew so thick with the cordage of resentment that you couldn't even get your hands around it." (less)
This is the book I am taking with me to recommend when I speak to library and museum groups, and it is one that I would ask my students to study. It i...moreThis is the book I am taking with me to recommend when I speak to library and museum groups, and it is one that I would ask my students to study. It is a fine reading experience, and it causes the reader to want more of Solnit's other diverse writings. This is not fiction, but the book has a compelling narrative, telling sequential stories of disasters -- floods, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, monstrous explosions -- from the humane, constructive side, where experiences are rarely recorded. And, it is in a sense an "anti-fiction" because the truths Solnit tells undermine the official responses to sudden devastation, especially those that suggest the worst about human nature. Each of her chapters addresses spontaneous human recovery in contrast to governmental malfeasance and lofty ignorance. (Think of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, and the inept arrogance of the Bush administration.) In all of these cases, Solnit finds that it is human altruism, crafted improvisation, and collective courage that leads to community survival in times of complete loss. "In disaster we need an open society based on trust in which people are free to exercise their capacities for improvisation, altruism and solidarity. In fact, we need it all the time, only most urgently in disaster." (p.127) As the second sentence in this quotation implies, this book is an articulation of human integrity and the basis for cooperation among strangers in times of necessity. In these settings, competition is not a useful part of the struggle to survive. Reclaiming humanity is required for that. "What begins as opposition coalesces again and again into social invention, a revolution of everyday life rather than a revolt against the system." (p.285) I want librarians to read this book particularly because it emphasizes the value of integrity, of leading a life in public fearlessly. Toward the end of the book, Solnit writes, "It will require a world in which we are each other's wealth and have each other's trust. This world can be made possible only by the faith in social possibility that understanding ourselves in past disaster can give us and by the embeddedness in place and society that constitutes a sense of belonging." (p.308) This tells of a collective heroism that evolving out of a dire challenge. The book reminds me that we require the same kinds of face-to-face claiming of our strength in the face of arbitrary political disasters and perversions of the democratic process. This is a book that expands our awareness of the human capacity for courage and self-definition in times of need. It stands against the elite assumption that people need to be saved from the chaos of themselves. (less)
This is where one might well start in reading the Frederick Troy series, since it is the chronological foundation of these novels, even though the boo...moreThis is where one might well start in reading the Frederick Troy series, since it is the chronological foundation of these novels, even though the books have not been written sequentially. My interest in the era leads me to Blitz books, and this one added to my knowledge of the period and the psychological complexity of Britain's state. Though it is fiction, it tells very well, with close observations that only fiction can offer. Lawton is very strong in this capturing, and the reader is part of his captivity. The book begins in Europe, with Hitler taking Austria, then moves its multiple strands of storytelling to England, where they play out. The reader needs to accept a high incidence of coincidence, irresistible sexuality, and the rights and powers of huge wealth. But there is plenty of kitchen-sitting, pub-talking, and murder under the bombs.(less)
I hung on to this book through about five dollars in library fines, hoping for the best, and it has been somewhat worth it. The tone sounds like The S...moreI hung on to this book through about five dollars in library fines, hoping for the best, and it has been somewhat worth it. The tone sounds like The Shipping News, and its setting in Nova Scotia during WWII come clearly into focus. But there is also the same kind of dreaminess (the young woman who attracts the narrator chooses the career of professional mourner), and the same kind of home-made characters. The narrator writes in a naive, sort of doofy voice; the events are over the edge of likelihood. Now I think it may be very much like The Shipping News. I'm a little sorry to have given my time to it, having read the great Proulx tome.
A follow-up, August, 2011: I found a review of this book in an old NYRB and as I read the review, it dawned on me that the book sounded familiar, but vague. Ah, yes. I actually read the book just a few months back. And, based on the review, it's not a book I would have chosen to read. (less)
Of the dozen or two best novels I have read, two are by John Williams. The first is Stoner, an "academic" novel, and this is the second. It also fits...moreOf the dozen or two best novels I have read, two are by John Williams. The first is Stoner, an "academic" novel, and this is the second. It also fits on a shelf of best novels that happen to be westerns, along with the Men in Buckskin Tales by Frederick Manfred, the Cormac McCarthy trilogy, and McMurtry's work in the Lonesome Dove series. (There are not many more on that shelf, even when I put all my best novels on it.)
This novel is about the lost time of a fresh America, full of challenging unknowns in the distance, a landscape without end or solace, fragile animals waiting for brutish men, and the smallness of human aspirations on the plains and in the mountains. It is also about a young man who seeks himself there, testing the possibilities of his life, learning what he had not expected to learn, and moving forward toward understanding what he has done. It's a mature, brutal, and uncompromising work.
Michelle Latiolais, who writes the introduction here, notes that Williams wrote three novels, each in a different genre, and each a work that transcends the limits of its category. Now, on to Augustus, the third of his books, a history.(less)
Lawton writes engrossing crime/spy/war/London fiction. The series has engaged me -- more than I had anticipated -- and I am eager to read the next two...moreLawton writes engrossing crime/spy/war/London fiction. The series has engaged me -- more than I had anticipated -- and I am eager to read the next two or three.(less)
This is an extraordinary novel, progressively more complex, superbly written, and deeply satisfying to complete. Its protagonist does not draw empathy...moreThis is an extraordinary novel, progressively more complex, superbly written, and deeply satisfying to complete. Its protagonist does not draw empathy or engagement -- he is painfully isolated and indifferent through most of the novel -- until his entire life is revealed to us and he finally rescues himself from hollowness and isolation. As I experienced Susan Choi's subtle and revealing sentences, her immense illuminated paragraphs, and her intimate nuances of diction and situation, her mastery became clear. Among the few comparable novelists I thought of early in the book, Saul Bellow's focused work, and John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom books seemed similar: a living person described from within, no revealing detail omitted. But Choi is richer, I think (it has been years since I read Bellow and Updike). She tells her story knowing the reader will stand outside in judgment, but even so we are brought into gradual complicity and essential discovery. (less)
This concluding novel is the best of them, despite the excellence of its predecessors. It's immersive because the complexities of character and plot e...moreThis concluding novel is the best of them, despite the excellence of its predecessors. It's immersive because the complexities of character and plot evolve so deliberately. It's about information, the loss of personhood, the slow growth of trust, and the fragility of self under the animosity of the state.
Here is what I wrote about Lisbeth Salander for an audience of readers this evening.
"Lisbeh Salander is a brilliant misfit, created and isolated by the despicable behaviors of abusive men, nearly all hidden from public view by deception and power. She is a child when damaging acts are forced upon her; Larsson’s novels are about the recovery of an adult self that transcends victimization and seeks resolution. Though nearly invisible, she is an enigma – every person in her world reacts to her -- and cultivates the qualities that sustain secrecy.
She has an extraordinary intellect, capable of reorganizing patterns and seeing relationships among patterns; physical dexterity and grace; courage, resolution; hardness covering extreme vulnerability. She is sexually intense and willful, but not loving. She is exceedingly slow to trust and therefore lacks all that trust allows: humor, communication, friendship, intimacy, warmth, and conviviality. She actively denies these things and keeps them outside her life.
Her computer skills allow her to find not just information but to reconstruct the logics and traces of other lives, to understand what other people know and how they communicate. The computer extends her mind and has no limit. She is capable of extraordinary analysis, but also can go beyond solutions to the moral core of behavior, where she recognizes a deeper kind of entirely just resolution.
She is an anarchist, freely crossing boundaries, responding to no authority, allowing no external power to affect her. However, she is a severe judge of others. Because she stands outside order (police, law, family) she is capable of a more pure sensibility of what justice means. In this, she is more willful than reasonable, more dedicated than logical: at times, she is a remote catalyst or provocateur of justice. In most ways, she is relentless, suspicious, and uncompromising."
And (forgive my length) here is what I wrote about Mikael Blomkvist.
"… an investigative journalist whose profession is his life, piercing and exposing corruption, undoing lies and deceptions, displaying an absolute intolerance for injustice and secrecy. He considers himself and his fellow journalists to be agents of democracy, public conscience and trust. He is patient, self-critical, independent, and devoted to uncovering and nurturing truth, an evolving entity.
He embraces journalism as a way to capture and hold events up to light. Writing is a way to describe both what he knows and what he does not know. A parallel skill to Salander’s expert hacking, his writing is a force of consciousness and memory as he practices it. It sets the world right, as he sees his job to be. Writing conquers power and wealth, and is a force for change.
Unlike most journalists, he is accorded respect by the police and the government. He is single-minded in his heroism. In the presence of information, he is able to evaluate it and contextualize it instantly.
While he is sexually voracious and has multiple partners, he is also respectful of rules and privacy. His partners covet him and feel compelled by him, but they also find him to be somewhat aloof, not monogamous, diverting and satisfying, but insufficient for the long term.
The men in the novels can be evaluated by their stance toward Lisbeth and their culpability in her history of brutal treatment. The strongest men respect her courage and admire her, though she stands apart from them. Their evolution and humanity is marked by awareness of the truth about her experiences. Among other men – brutes, murderers, and sadists -- perversion and amorality are sanctioned; women are destroyed and discarded without thought. In contrast, Blomkvist lives for integrity, to right the unjust world." (less)