Wednesday, December 31, 2014

This week: wrapping up with history and science

This last week in 2014 I am spending with Lives of the Planets, a natural history of the solar system. It's proving to be the most enjoyable science book I've encountered in months, and will probably take me into the  New Year.  The last few weeks have been varied:

* Amazing Grace,  a history of William Wilberforce and his quest to end the British slave trade,  proved fascinating if disappointing. It's a chatty, casual kind of history, and refers to various historical personalities as freaks, nuts, and creeps. Mr. Wilberforce is such an engaging character, though, that this story of his and his allies' campaign against institutionalized evil  succeeds nonetheless.

* Galileo's Finger reviews the ten most important concepts in science,  moving from the practical to the abstract. I bought this several years ago, and found it considerably more daunting than expected,  more technical and focused on areas of science I don't have a great deal of interest in, like energy and physics. (There is a reason most of my science reading is in natural history or animal behavior!)

* Why Things Bite Back looks at the many ways that technological solutions to problems cause problems of their own.  It's not an anti-anything book, but the idea delivered is that life is complicated and there are  no easy fixes.

My last Great War read turned out to be photo-heavy: Homefront, 1914-1918 looks at the lives of British civilians during the war. The author makes the curious claim that the standard of living for British subjects increased during the war, which no one would predict (aside from arms manufacturers)  I'm not sold on that. Most interesting to me was the chapter on labor during the war; I've always assumed working conditions declined during the two world wars, given the booming demand and the presentation of both as  dire national crises; who could go on strike when the Future of Civilization is at stake?  Not only did strikes occur throughout the war, but some sectors found success in them.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Gray Mountain

Gray Mountain
© 2014 John Grisham
384 pages

 In late 2008,  New York’s financial sector and the economy built around it began hemorrhaging jobs. Among the casualties were the junior ranks of  lawyers at Samantha Kofer’s firm,  including herself.  Reduced from six figures to none in a blink of an eye, the only thing Samantha was left with was the promise of health insurance – if she agreed to a year of pro bono work while the economy healed.  Leaving New York behind for a small mining town in Virginia,  Samantha discovers  a different world, one of grinding poverty amid the mesmerizing beauty of the mountains.  Having never stepped inside a courtroom before,   she is introduced to the spectre of ordinary law: helping real people with real problems. Every aspect of Gray Mountain is one Grisham has played with before, in The Street Lawyer, The Rainmaker, and The Pelican Brief;   despite those successes, however, the story never takes off here;   there are pieces of a good story, but no structure. Throughout, Samantha's attention is taken up with a handful of small cases, while an epic trial builds in the background. The suspense bursts with a plot twist that could have gone places, but instead leaves Samantha leading the reader in circles as she tries to make up her mind -- which she never does.  The chief problem is that Sam isn't especially active in the story; she is passive and ambigious; things happened around her and to her, but she doesn't know what to do herself, so she just drifts back and forth with the tide until the sun does down and the novel is over, with the great conflict never having been realized.  If the aim of the novel was to depict a young professional adapting to strange new circumstances and developing some measure of self-direction, the execution is lacking.  The only passion here is Grisham's own: he's  no stranger to political themes in his work, but Gray Mountain is as subtle as a strip-mine in indicting Big Coal.  If the denizens of town aren't dying of blacklung, they're being run over by coal trucks, struck by flying  boulders from the mines,  or being driven into bankruptcy by the coal companies' lawyers. The economic devastation of the Appalachians -- the tragic ruin of its people and the mountains --  is a story that needs to be told but having Snidely Whiplash as a villain won't invite anyone to consider people's plight here; it's a case of preaching to the choir and running off the visitors.  The backdrop and some of the minor threads go a long way to making this of interest, but Gray Mountain remains second-rate. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Mission Accomplished

To Be Read Takedown Challenge

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (7/18/14)
The Vikings, Robert Ferguson (6/7/14)
Power, Inc; David Rothkopf (6/14/14)
An Edible History of Humanity, Tom Standage (7/8/14)
Small-Mart Revolution, Michael Shuman (7/12/2014)
The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond (5/29/14)
Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton (7/21/14)
Earth, Richard Fortey (9/7/14)
Good Natured, Frans de Waal (6/27/14)
Galileo's Finger, Peter Atkins (12/23/14)


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Great War: A Christmas Pause

At the beginning of January, I decided to devote part of the year's reading to the Great War, in recognition of its 100-year anniversary. I created a list of books that would address some areas of the war I was wholly ignorant of, given that I tend to focus on not only the western front, but aeronautics.   Early this morning I finished Homefront, 1914-1918,  and with it, this year's Great War reading will be drawing to a close.   2015 will bring plenty of reading in this area -- a great many books were published this year and will be next year that I'm excited about -- though I don't know if I'll be doing as many as one per month.

On the whole, I'm generally pleased with how the year went; I covered some new ground, even if I didn't read two books I've had 'intentions' of reading for far too long now, La Feu and The Great War in Modern Memory.  Below are this year's and possibly next year's lists:

1. The Great War, John Keegan
    I started off with a survey of the war to set the big picture.

2. Forgotten Voices of the Great War, Max Arthur
Before getting distracted by all of the more detached histories, I wanted to encounter the soldiers speaking for themselves. Forgotten Voices uses the letters and diaries of British, American, and German soldiers and civilians to deliver a chronicle of the war as it unfolded.

3. An Ice Cream War, Max Boyd
The sole fictional entry, this was not an intended read;  I grabbed it just to fill some time. It does have the novelty of being set in southern Africa, on the border of British and German colonies.

4. Conscience, Louisa Thomas
Conscience is the story of a pacifist who resisted the war's fervor despite having brothers in uniform.

5. The White War, Mark Thompson

It wasn't until May that I started really learning about different theaters of the  conflict,  beginning with the commendable White War, a history of the Italian front.  Although depressing, considering how truly -- astonishingly -- purposeless each of the twelve major campaigns between Austria and Italy were, the book threw a lot of light on a dim area for me.

6. The Great War at Sea, A.A. Hoehling
Not the book I'd intended to read on the naval war, but it served well enough.

7. Castles of Steel, Phillip Massie
Another naval war survey, this massive tome focused on the British-German war and included some avitation to boot.

8. The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen
Like An Ice Cream War, this was a case of my running out of time and just grabbing a smaller work from my home library.

9. Collision of Empires, Prit Buttar
Collision examines the first few months (ending in December 1914) of the war in the east. Its take on the preparedness of the major powers is quite thorough, but once the conflict starts there are precious few maps and a massive front being considered.

10. The Unknown War, Sir Winston Churchill
A more thorough survey of the Eastern Front,  Unknown War brings a lot of dramatic narrative (and some kid gloves) to the table.

11. Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western Front,  Anthony Fletcher
A return to the soldiers, this is an intimate history of six men and their families through the war, taken from the letters and journals of the men and boys at the front.

12. Gallipoli, Alan Moorehead
The most narrowly-focused of the books I read, Gallipoli handily delivered a sense of the battle's potential and horrific waste.

13. Homefront 1914-1918, I.F.W. Beckett
This light pictorial history of the British homefront completes my reading for the year. The use of photos is lavish, the subjects being people, letters, and government notices.

As mentioned,  I will be continuing to read in this theme next year.   Here are some of the books which I have captured my attention...

1. Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria in WW1, Alexander Watson
2. A Box of Sand: the Italo-Ottoman  War 1911-1912, Charles Stephenson
3. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, Eugene Rogan
4. Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire,  Joshua Sanborn
5. Pyramids and Fleshpots: The Egyptian, Senussi and Eastern Mediterranean Campaigns, 1914 - 16, Stuart Hadaway
6. The Other First World War: The Blood-soaked Eastern Front, Douglas Boyd
7. The First World War in the Middle East, Kristian Ulrichson
8. Prelude to the First World War: The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913, Edward  Robert Hooton

These are either new releases or will be published next year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

This week: Christmas

With the fourth Sunday of Advent behind us, I suppose it is  liturgically safe to bid one and all a MERRY CHRISTMAS.  I work all of two days this week, the rest of the time being spent feeling somewhat sorry for those in the kitchen.  (I may make a tomato pie, out of solidarity.) With the year’s end closing, I’ve decided to put aside all other reading and focus on Galileo’s Finger, so I can finish off that to-be-read list, that ‘read-what-you’ve-got-before-buying-anything-else’ challenge I imposed on myself back in May, before 2015 starts.   I’m halfway through, presently, and that’s further than I forged ahead the first time before getting distracted. (I'm started a thirty-page chapter on "The Quantification of Beauty". ) December has been a strange month to end the year with, what with all the devotionals and YA literature, but I was in the mood for outdoorsy stories and those were the ones which came to mind. It’s not over yet, though.  There's the Finger and at least that little book on the British home front during WW1 to look forward to. 

Happy reading, merry Christmas,  and don't eat too much!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Brian's Saga, continued: Winter, River, and Return

Brian's Winter /  The River / Brian's Return
© Gary Paulsen 1996, 1991, 1999

            Hatchet told the story of a young teenager named Brian who survived a crash landing in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.  Forced by the pressing urge to avoid death to become student of the landscape and a tinkerer, Brian discovered and invented ways to provide food and shelter for himself for over two months in the wild. The story ended when he triggered an emergency transmitter, and for some readers this felt like a bit of a cheat. What would have happened had Brian not stumbled upon the transmitter in the plane wreckage?  Brian’s Winter is an ‘alternate’ history that picks up after his dive into the lake to rummage through the plane, and sees him continue to mature as a woodsman, as he must to survive the Canadian winter. As with Hatchet, Paulsen takes readers through Brian’s thinking as ideas come to him, and as he struggles to turn them into fact. The River is the first sequel to Hatchet, and begins with a trio of men from the government asking Brian to return to the wilderness, this time with a psychologist in tow. They want to understand the mindset that makes survival possible -- how can it be taught, ahead of time?  Their mission goes the way of most well-thought plans: within days, the psychologist is in a coma, and Brian must construct a raft and get his deadweight companion back to some semblance of civilization before he dies.  Brian's Return is a sequel to both of these,  and depicts Brian's inability to cope within the zoo that is domesticity after having sucking all of the marrow out of life for months in the wilderness.  After realizing the woods are in his bones, he decides to return -- and there the novel ends.

     Although these three books don't complete Brian's saga (there is a fifth novel, Brian's Hunt), I bundled them together here because the last two are so minor. Brian's Winter is  almost as fascinating as the original novel, forcing Brian to adapt to completely new circumstances.  The larger animals that ignored Brian in Hatchet, like bears,  become far more interested in him as summer gives way to fall and they must prepare for hibernation. In addition to having to learn new skills -- weatherproofing his shelter,  creating winter clothing out of rabbit skins, fabricating snowshoes --  Brian takes on larger challenges, like hunting moose and deer. He does this not for sport, but out of necessity:  the Canadian winter storms are so savage that he is safer taking the occasional big kill than risking exposure every day looking for rabbits and grouse.  In River and Return,  river navigation gets some attention but wilderness survival plays second fiddle to the book's respective little plots.  Far more interesting than the plot of Brian's Return, I thought, was the author's note that almost everything that happens to Brian within the novels in the wild happened to him during his twelve years of living in the wilderness, including deer jumping into his canoe and skunks rescuing him from bears.  Brian's Winter  is a strong sequel to the fascinating Hatchet, but the other two seem more like extras than anything else.


Lord of the World

Lord of the World
© 1908 Robert Hugh Benson
352 pages

At the turn of the 21st century, war between the states of Europe and the East threatens; at the midnight hour, however, comes an obscure American politician, a senator of no fame, whose cosmopolitan charm allows him to calm the troubled diplomatic waters and prevent a century of peace and prosperity from being overturned by strife.  Hailed as a savior, the rising star becomes a pivotal figure in world affairs – but the epitome of modernity, this senator has a far darker role to play in cosmic history. He is the Antichrist, and his triumph means the end of the world is at hand.

Published in 1908, Lord of the World is a piece of Catholic fiction driven by conflict between Christian tradition and modernity. The prevailing drives of the 19th century seem to have achieved fruition in Lord of the World; democracy has triumphed over monarchy, social programs and psychology over religion, and --   in general – the material over the spiritual. Europeans across the board are irreligious, with the exception of what is left of the Catholic church, concentrated in Ireland and the City of Rome.  There is a religious sentiment alive in the Europeans, a worship of the human soul, a sense of human beings as divine; this ‘humanitarian’ religion achieves deliberate expression when the American becomes President of Europe and institutes, French-revolution like, a Cult of the Supreme Being – a Cult of the Human.  Initially harmless, it quickly becomes the state religion, mandatory and supreme. Catholic resistance is answered by the obliteration of  Rome, and a new pope-in-exile flees to Judea, there to await the end.
Although the depiction of an Antichrist figure and the ‘Endtimes’ may bring to mind thoughts of the Left Behind series. Lord of the World is far better done.  Each viewpoint character struggles with self-doubt; even the man who ends as Pope begins questioning his own faith.  The spirit of Antichrist is patently seductive;  this 'dystopia' is a progressive dream-world,almost like Star Trek's Earth but without warp drive. But whereas Star Trek's humans have a 'more evolved sensibility'*, Lord of the World's humans are just like us; imperfect.  When a few disturbed individuals mount another failed Guy Fawkes plot against the center of the new cult, Westminister Abbey, the new European president' response, and that of his followers, is far from humane. Violence fills the streets, and a vicious persecution of all remaining Christians ensues.  Simply 'believing in themselves' did nothing to better the people of Earth; it is in fact their perfect faith in themselves that makes them so vicious. Utterly convinced that their cause is righteous,  those who oppose the dream count for nothing, and no action against them is beyond the pale.  Even as the world at large becomes increasingly awestruck by the dear leader's accomplishments, the most idealistic of the viewpoint characters find their faith in him shaken by his cold-blooded savagery.

A century after its publication, Lord of the World seems in part prophetic. Christianity has waned fast in Europe, and rampant consumerism abounds worldwide.. Moderns chase material hopes instead of spiritual succor, ignoring practical philosophy and religion alike for the distracting allure of stuff. From Benson's point of view, however, the west today is not as in as dangerous a position as the west of his book; we are in no danger of being fulfilled. Every commercial and every election reveal our constant frustration and dissatisfaction;  Benson's dread was a drowsy contentedness with the way things are that masks spiritual hunger, something definitely not present in our own lives.  The meat of Lord is not hackneyed attempts to force current events into the poetic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures, or  action movie thriller antics like the Left Behind novels, but soul-searching. While Benson's Antichrist allows everyone to reassure themselves of man's moral perfectibility, his Christian characters understand human nature as frail. When an English priest  arrives in the City of Rome, where many of the trappings of modernity are kept outside the city walls to preserve the interior, he breaths a sigh of relief at the messiness of it:

Yet Percy, even in the glimpses he had had in the streets, as he drove from the volor station outside the People's Gate, of the old peasant dresses, the blue and red-fringed wine carts, the cabbage-strewn gutters, the wet clothes flapping on strings, the mules and horses -- strange though these were, he had found them a refreshment. It had seemed to remind him that man was human, and not divine as the rest of the world proclaimed -- human, and therefore careless and individualistic; human, and therefore occupied with interests other than those of speed, cleanliness, and precision.

Rome's Christianity assures the priest that while he is not perfect, he does not need to be. Human redemption does not stem from machine-perfect order.   Just as The Iron Heel put forth numerous arguments for a democratic-socialist state in the context of a revolution against corporate rule,  Lord's searching sets two different perspectives about human nature against one another; one, optimistic but unyielding; the other, pessimistic but forgiving.  The moral discussion is the heart of the book, though there are minor points of interest for those interested in comparing 'futurist' or alternate histories. Aspects of it are very dated, like the heavy use of zeppelins and telegraphs, and Benson's belief that total command economies would triumph is not dissimilar to H.G. Wells and Jack London's futurecasting, though he's more skeptical about its merits. One peculiarity of this being Catholic fiction is the fusion of the church's foes -- Freemasonry and Marxism have merged here, and Mason lodges have taken over most churches.  I don't know if anyone takes the freemasons as seriously as the Catholic church does, with the exception of the freemasons themselves.

Lord of the World is an altogether different 'endtimes' story, more theologically driven than driven on action.  It is far more humane than 1984 or Brave New World -- whereas those and other dystopias invent worlds where the human spirit has been utterly crushed by systems, in Lord things are more promising. Man is far from God, yes, but not abandoned; unlike those thrillers, where man is left alone to fight against a machine beyond his fathoming, the persecuted Christian remnant awaiting salvation in Nazareth have the hope of resurrection;   God is with them throughout the struggle; as St. Paul noted, even if they die it will be to their gain; even if the world perishes, it will be reborn anew.

For me, Lord is provoking, finding as I do some limited appeal in both temperaments.  Believing in one's self, one's own power is invigorating, and yet it is all too easy to become self-righteous or fatigued by the challenge.  On the other hand,  there is a certain comfort in accepting that one will never be perfect, and such an attitude can lapse into chronic indulgence and excuse-making. Either way, there's a lot of food for thought.

* Star Trek: First Contact

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


© 1987 Gary Paulsen
195 pages

Hitching a ride on a small plane to meet his father in Alaska,  young Brian is left alone thousands of miles in air when his pilot succumbs to a heart attack.  The thirteen-year old is no pilot, but as he numbly sits taking in his perilous condition, he realizes he has to do something if he doesn't want to perish once the plane runs out of gas and careens into the thickly wooded Canadian wilderness. Taking his life into his hands, learning through trial and error how to control the plane in the air, when the time comes the young boy will guide the plane's failure with some measure of intelligence, sending it into a lake where he may scramble out into the water and swim for life.  Still alone, he must somehow  survive in the wild until help can reach him -- armed only with native brightness,  vague ideas about nature gleaned from various movies, and a little hatchet. Hatchet is the gripping story of a young man's endurance.

Although eventually rescued, Brian's summer sojourn in the wilderness is wrought with peril. From the moment he lands, he is assailed by woodland creatures great and small -- skunks, porcupines bears, wolves, and clouds of mosquitoes.  Struggling against feelings of hopelessness and despair, as well as against repeated injuries -- he really doesn't know what he's doing --   the young man slowly gains the experience and strength of spirit needed to prevail.  A boy accustomed to being taken care of his parents must build shelter, must find food, must outwit prey and predators alike. Nothing will be done for him, and he cannot stay still for a moment. Thrust into the struggle for existence, realizing it in full,  Brian quickly becomes a woodsman;  his senses and memory sharpened by necessity allow him to piece things together, allow him to invent solutions and find resources.  Some are encountered only by accident, as when he throws his hatchet at an invasive creature and the tool creates a shower of sparks upon crashing into a flint-flecked stone face. Other lessons he takes from experience, from long hours spent in observation, from series of mistakes. But he learns!  A primitive lean-to becomes a more sophisticated shelter, grubbing around for berries leads to fishing and hunting,  and timidity turns to courage.  This fantastic tale of adapting to the wilderness, of thriving against the elements, is not romanticized, however; even when he creates some measure of comfort for himself,  misery and disasters are never far away. It's an adventure, but one harsh and wild.

The Sea Wolf, Jack London
My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George

Sailing from Byzantium

Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World
© 2005 Colin Wells
368 pages           

       Isaac Asimov referred to Byzantium as a forgotten empire, lost and dismissed to the western mind as a decayed remnant of a once-great power. But Byzantium had a greatness of its own that inspired civilizations around it, even its enemies. Sailing from Byzantium  examines the literary, political, scientific, and other influences the Eastern empire had on the western Renaissance,  Eastern Europe, and even the nascent Islamic civilization.  Though somewhat impaired by being name-dense and not giving sketch of the Byzantines in brief, Sailing  does deliver a sense of the eastern empire as an inspirational fount during the long millennium that followed its western antecedent's demise.  The three civilizations drinking from its waters took different elements of the Empire home with them, with some sharing; to the Italians, Byzantium was the temple of Greek civilization, its scholars the teachers of the first medieval humanists, including by extension Erasmus.  Islam cut its imperial teeth when it seized some of the East's richest provinces, and  Byzantine notions about politics, law, and the aesthetics of royalty became incorporated into the Islamic civilization as it came of age. This lessened somewhat after the conquest of Persia, pursued after Constantinople proved too tough to crack.  The Russians, too, were initially rivals of their southern neighbors, making their introduction with a good old-fashioned Black Sea raid;   having common enemies and rivals, however, pushed the two together, and  as the tribe of Russians matured into a state of their own, their religion was that of Byzantium's. Later, once Constantinople had fallen to the Turks, Russia would even claim to be the inheritors of the Empire; just as it moved from Rome to Constantinople, so it now had moved to the third Rome, Moscow.  The marriage of a Russian potentate to a Byzantine princess even attempted to give such a claim practical validation. In examining the Byzantine influence on these three powers in turn, Wells not only demonstrates the richness of its culture, but pries open worlds probably mysterious to western readers,  connecting exotic history with some slightly more familiar. It's quite fascinating, though readers would be better served reading an overview of Byzantine history before launching in. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
© 1896 Mark Twain
455 pages       

 In 1428,  a young French teenager arrived at the court of Robert Baudricourt and announced that she and he were to be allies in a mission from God: a mission to save France from conquest and disillusion.  The girl, Joan, was to lead an army to the besieged city of Orleans, but she needed first men to take her to Chinon, the residence of king in exile. Skeptical at first, then persuaded by an apparent prophecy,  the astonished Baudricourt sent Joan on her mission, where she took center stage in a complete reversal of the ninety-year conflict between the nobles of England, Orleans, and Burgundy.  Though eventually captured and burned alive by a small council of hostile Anglo-Burgundian partisans,  within a few years of her death Paris was captured,    England’s alliance with Burgundy abandoned,  and France on its way to salvation. Joan would be hailed as France’s savior, declared a saint by the Church, and serve as a icon of hope to the French French in World War 2. Perhaps more remarkable than her military victories, however, is her complete conquest over the melancholic heart of one Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

 The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is a  biographical novel,  the story of her life as told through a childhood friend.  Sieur Louis de Conte thought she was a marvel even as a child, enchanted with her dreams and startled by her courageous intelligence. When the local priest attacked a 'fairy tree' that the children enjoyed spending time in, delighting in the company of gentle spirits, she argued him into abashedness.  When she confided to Louis that God had spoken to her in a vision and told her she must inspire the dauphin -- the rightful heir to France's throne, disavowed by his mother in the Treaty of Troyes -- to claim his crown by leading an army against the English, he was among the first to join her. Fighting in her every campaign, and then infiltrating Rouen during her trials, securing a position as an assistant court clerk, Louis delivers a full account of her life.  Based on Twain's twelve years of research into  her life, it's remarkable in many respects.  It's easily the most personable biography of Joan I've read;   Louis allows the reader to not just admire her from afar, or idealized her as a remembered saint, but to love her as a friend.  Such adoration is startling from a man like Twain, known for his irreverence and cynicism.  There are traces of the familiar Twain here,  as Louis describes how men are inheritors of their beliefs and foibles, repeating a sentiment expressed more stridently in Connecticut Yankee in  King Arthur's Court.  But this is a story replete with the miraculous;  Joan's visions extend not just to commanding her to battle and giving her moral courage, but she's an intermittent prophet, predicting her own death within a year and -- at the trial -- announcing to her captors that within seven years' time,  disaster will strike and English power in France will be broken for a thousand years.  Louis does not doubt Joan's word; he has no reason not to believe, for throughout the tale she demonstrates foreknowledge. 

Joan's story is easy to enrapture; how could a girl so dramatically change the course of history? There are circumstances Twain overlooks, of course;  the Duke of Bedford is mentioned, but not his marriage to a Burgundian princess that knit England and Burgundy's interests together, turning a French succession war into a very happy phase of England's on-again, off-again attempt to secure its ancient territory in France by subduing the whole of France.  And yet Joan inspires, both as an ideal -- the quinessence of strength, wisdom, courage, innocence, and purity, all at the same time --  and in practice. The trial transcripts do reveal a staggeringly intelligent and feisty woman.  Yes, her family had repute on its own; Jacques d'arc was no struggling peasant, but a man commendable enough to be named the mayor of a village he had immigrated to, how much of his strength had he imparted to Joan, and how much did she create from her own life?  Even if Joan were the purest of fiction, this tale would be a lovely one,  depicting as it does how a band of grizzled war veterans who had known only defeat could become pious, reverent, and driven in her presence; how  masses could leapt to their feet and throne to touch her banner, fixating on a child as their hope. We are strange creatures, we humans, strange and marvelous. Such is are The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.    Highly recommended for anyone interested in Joan or the tender side of Mark Twain.



The Strange Career of Jim Crow

The Strange Career of Jim Crow
© 1955, 1965 C. Van Woodward
245 pages

            Fifty years ago, racial and civil unrest swept the United States as organized resistance to the morally outrageous and legally dodgy practice of segregation strengthened throughout the country. Ten years before the Civil Rights movement hit its apogee, C. Van Woodward penned a history of segregation as public policy that offered grounds for hope. Far from being a natural and deeply rooted product of the South, Jim Crow laws were a relatively new creation. Dating in the South only to the late 19th century, Jim Crow’s claims to southern stock were shallow indeed, and could theoretically be destroyed as quickly as it had been instilled.

            Laws prescribing racial separation were not native to the South, Woodward writes, and would have been utterly untenable in the plantation atmosphere where blacks and whites alike ‘worked’ together.  Blacks and whites were accustomed to one another, familiar even. In the north, however, blacks remained a strange ‘other’ that whites sought distance from, and so codes prevented too much social mingling between the two races.  Northerners visiting the South immediately after the war were astonished by the lack of racial uproar.  It took decades for the dust to settle after the war,  for a new universal race-relations norm to be established throughout the region;  unfortunately for blacks, and for the country, such norms were set in an atmosphere toxic to harmony.

            The latter half of the 19th century was one of constant, dramatic change; the pace of the industrial revolution quickened, throwing all the developed world into an uproar. Millions streamed from the farms into the cities,  national economies reeled in prosperity and fraud; an entire economic system was being rebuilt in the United States as power shifted fully from the farms to the factories, from plantation lords to captains of industry and coal-barons.  Black Americans would feature in this chaos,  as they were seized on as a pliable voting bloc. The alliances that courted them were both strange and hopeful. Not only did the old plantation caste solicit the support of their former slaves against their mutual antagonists, the burgeoning commercial and industrial class that had its own means of exploitation, but the Populists sought to unite poor blacks and whites alike against their foes, both the plantation elite and the railroad titans.  But blacks, like any Americans, could not be counted on to vote universally alike, en bloc – and if they could not be conveniently used , the reconstructionists had little interest in bothering with them. When the old aristocracy returned to the ballot boxes and overturned many of the laws and institutions that maintained civil rights,  nothing was said.  At the same time, the United States had become a global empire,   seizing Cuba and the Philippines from Spanish hands; its civil and military leaders were cast into the positions of being the white masters of colonial inferiors. Just as the power of the slaveholder poisoned him against his fellow man, so to did colonial power poison the soul of America in general,  penetrating not just in the extremities of empire, but shaping racial attitudes in the heartland. As the United States’ leadership grew accustomed to seeing itself as a superior white few managing with benefaction the affairs of a colored multitude, and having to endure the multitude’s constant ungrateful troublemaking,  racial relations in the United States took a dive.  Race codes multiplied and strengthened within a generation’s time.

     That it happened so quickly gives Woodward hope;  surely peace and justice could be restored as quickly as the northerners had adopted the plantation mindset; surely southern society could dismantle its codes as quickly as it had put them up. Segregation could be a momentary madness, a fever like Prohibition;  hate need not be the last word. Indeed, in the reprint of Strange Career produced in the 1960s, Woodward is able to track the history of the Civil Rights movement. Over a half-century old at this point, Strange Career remains of interest to American historians interested race relations, but especially southerners curious about reconstruction; both will find this look at politics and culture quite insightful. 


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

This week: Christmasish

It's been a quiet week for me, most of my time being spent in bed -- stomach viruses are no fun at all! I've been too weak and bedridden to do any real reading, though I did finish two short Christmas-related works. The first was The Forgotten Man of Christmas, ostensibly about Joseph, but more about the spiritual import of his dreams. Relatedly, The Handmaid and the Carpenter is a novel based on the relationship between Joseph and Mary, which I found little of interest in. The characters are neither true to tradition nor to life, as Mary acts like a 21st century teenager -- sensual and flighty.  Joseph, for his part, is no more likable, being an overly strict scold and a pious fraud, revealing on his deathbed that he never believed that bit about Mary and the Holy Spirit. "It was a Roman soldier, wasn't it?" he asks. I suppose it's nice that he raised Jesus as a son despite believing he was cuckholded, but there's little inspirational about it. The prevailing spirit of the book is one of resignation; Mary resigning herself to being married,  Joseph resigning himself to being the dutiful partner to a ditzy harlot. Rather disappointing for a Christmas read.  

Now recalled to life, covered from that little bug, I'm within a hairsbreadth of finishing The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc;  when I broke away to go to work, she was just about to be fixed to the stake.  After that will be Sailing from Byzantium, and I'll be investigating Kent Haruf's Plainsong, per WordsandPeace's recommendation.  I should be thinking about seriously digging into Galileo's Finger, at least if I want to wrap up that TBR list before the year's end.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Wild Birds

The Wild Birds
© 1989 Wendell Berry
160 pages

            Within the membership of Port William, a close knit farming village, lays another  more intimate still. It is the membership of a neighborhood of families who, working adjoining lands, make it their business to help each other through life. They help sow one another’s fields, and help reap them.  Hannah Coulter, the story of a young widow adopted into this private membership, introduced it; in Wild Birds, Wendell Berry delivers six stories about its other members,  advancing through the years, and delivering a sense of real people developing through time and through their relationships with one another.  The young mature into older adults; Wheeler Catlett opens the piece as a young newlywed, tasked yet again with hunting down his drunken uncle, and closes it as an older  lawyer contemplating retirement.  There's a prevailing theme of coming of age and owning one's responsibilities here, though as always Berry creates a sense of timelessness: his characters have moments in which every season of their life is being lived simultaneously  This is best exhibited in "The Boundary", which for me is the most tender piece I've ever read by Berry, about an aging farmer who decides to go on one last patrol of his fields to inspect a boundary fenceline. Leaving home, he departs from his wife with  a hug, noting that she seems to have changed while he held her from schoolgirl to grandmother, a lifetime lived in one another's embrace. As he eases down a hill he scrambled down as a child, he relives the many times he and his fathers before him, and he and his sons after that, had walked those paths before, tended those places together.   Berry is a master at creating intimacy, inviting the reader to draw close to his characters, so endearing even in their flaws.  To read these stories is to take a deep draft of the milk of human kindness, to be loved almost by an author who delights in stirring one's soul and bringing to remembrance a sense of being at home in the world.  

Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry
Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry

Friday, December 5, 2014

Where the Red Fern Grows

Where the Red Fern Grows
© 1961 Wilson Rawls
245 pages

“I suppose there's a time in practically every young boy's life when he's affected by that wonderful disease of puppy love. I don't mean the kind a boy has for the pretty little girl that lives down the road. I mean the real kind, the kind that has four small feet and a wiggly tail, and sharp little teeth that can gnaw on a boy's finger; the kind a boy can romp and play with, even eat and sleep with.”

Few books bring back memories of boyhood as swiftly as Where the Red Fern Grows. I can still remember my third grade teacher beginning to read this out loud, and my having chills as soon as the narration opened on an older man rescuing a tired hound dog and fingering a trophy on the mantle, thinking of two dogs he had loved fiercely as a child.   Where the Red Fern Grows is a classic story of a boy’s yearning for puppies, and the adventures taken on once such friends were found.

 Billy Coleman, the narrator, is a remarkable boy:  raised in the wooded foothills of the Ozarks, a hunter and trapper from the day he could walk, he wants nothing more than a faithful hound at his side.  The price of a hound bred for hunting matches that of a mule, though, and is beyond his family’s means. Undaunted,  Billy earns money  hunting crawdads, picking blackberries, and selling small furs until he has the funds – and then, when there is delay about sending off for the puppies, takes off into the wilderness and advances into the big city of Tahlequah to take delivery of them personally.   Training them personally, teaching them every trick he’s heard of and witnessed in his long hours watching and trapping on his own,  he and they become an inseparable trio, utterly devoted to one another. When the hounds Big Dan and Little Anne tree their first raccoon, Billy keeps his promise to them  to ‘take care of the rest’ by laboring several days and nights at the tree, hatcheting away, and when his strength fails he prays for more.  The dark nights and fast-moving creeks of the Ozarks provide danger aplenty, but they whether it together, even becoming regional champions of coonhunting. Every story has its ending, though, every childhood must end, and so does Billy’s in a violent altercation with a mountain lion. Billy himself survives, but his remembers the losses.

 Where the Red Fern Grows has a brutal ending, especially for young boys who, like me, doted on their own dogs, and felt the desperate pain of separation from them when life’s twists and turns made it so.  Reading now as an adult, I expect the ending, and so it is not quite gut-wrenching. Rather, like the narrator, the ending frames all of the fond memories that unfold in the story that is told before, putting them into focus. I only read this book once or twice in my youth, during the early 90s, but its scenes have buried themselves in my brain. For me this was a visit with an old friend, whose face I have not seen in decades, but not forgotten a line of.   The boy is everything a boy could hope to be -- courageous, intelligent, and beloved, with a pair of friends and a family who cannot be bettered.  This is a book filled with love and adventure, and often the two are intertwined to great effect.  It's also a look back at an America with a frontier, where civilization is contained within scattered sanctuaries and the woods filled with danger and excitement. There are few stories that can be more enticing for a young reader, especially boys!