A Prose Poem: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The year is moving right along, and I have finished my first book.

I decided to start with a “challenging” book this year.James Agee and Walker Evans combined stunning words and arresting images to share the lives of cotton tenants in 1936 Alabama.  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been on the shelf for awhile. I was not prepared for the flowing prose and was actually considering putting it aside.

I picked this up because it seemed like a good companion to JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy that I read at the end of 2016. It provides some historical context of the culture that Vance describes.

The prose tumbles along, piling up details and impressions, swirling the story into the midst. Sometimes, it made for daunting reading and I would look ahead for the next break. Other times, I found myself in the flow, not worried so much about exact meaning but absorbing impressions as I rode along the natural energy of the words.

The book is, at its core, the story of three families living as cotton tenants in Alabama in 1936. The book has elements of an ethnography with detailed descriptions of homes, clothing, education and work. But Agee weaves in his own musings about his role in the process and his relationships with the families. And then he seems to leave the path altogether and it may take a moment or two or more for the reader to find herself.

For instance, at one point, he took a break from the main narrative to record his angry responses to a survey from The Partisan Review. An odd distraction. Agee is curmudgeonly towards everyone it seems, except Walker Evans and the three families they profile in the book.

Bruce Jackson in the Winter 1999 edition of Antioch Review wrote:

Some critics write about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a book out of control, a book that is nearly-great but missed it for this or that reason, a book that suffers from excess. One wrote: “When one first reads Famous Men, many passages may strike one as pretentious, mannered, precious, pompous, pontifical, smug, self-righteous, self-indulgent, willfully obscure, doctrinaire, self-congratulatory, sophomoric, belligerent; even Agee’s self-abnegation, self-loathing, and modesty may offend.”

Yes, but.

And there was definitely a Yes, but, for me. I wanted to wade in this book even as there were times when I thought I would just stop. After all, I wasn’t really reading for a climax or the solution to a mystery. I kept going though and am glad I did.


Leaderships Lesson from Rebel Yell

NB: Cross posted from In Another Place, my professional blog

I have been fascinated with the Civil War since first seeing Ken Burns’ epic documentary. Moving to Virginia fueled that fascination, and I have visited many of the battlefields.

One of the most intriguing characters that came out of a war full of intriguing characters was Stonewall Jackson, an odd stiff man who seemed to only come into his own when in the midst of the war. Beyond the battlefield, he was  unsuccessful in many ways. He often let his strong ethics get in the way of his relationships. His tenure in both the military and VMI was fraught with somewhat silly arguments with others. It was only when he found his place in the war that he began to shine as a strategist, warrior and, ultimately, a leader. After his death, even those in the north admired him for his tenacity and religious fervor. Abraham Lincoln, on reading a northern editorial about Jackson, wrote, “I sought my state-room, to weep there. Is it wrong, is it treason, to mourn for a good and great, though clearly mistaken man?” (p. 558).  And, Henry Ward Beecher, ardent abolitionist and editor of The Independent, called Jackson, “Quiet, modest, brave, noble, honorable, and pure. He fought neither for reputation now, not for future personal advancement.” (p. 559).

S.C. Gwynne‘s recent biography of Jackson, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, dissects the man, getting beyond the legend to reveal a loving husband and father and a loyal friend to those who get past the prickly exterior.

But Gwynne also highlights some essential leadership lessons that can be taken from Jackson’s life. One of those is the power of belief to drive men to do more or less than they might otherwise do. He speculates on why groups of soldiers might advance or retreat, writing:

Belief counted for a lot–in one’s general, in the caption in front of you brandishing his gleaming sword, in the bravery of one’s fellow soldiers, in the idea of winning itself…Though it is impossible to measure the effect of Jackson’s growing reputation as a winner on his men, it was undoubtedly strong (p. 321).

Often being a leader means having to influence people to do things they wouldn’t do naturally. When visiting the now peaceful battlefields, I find it unfathomable that soldiers on both sides, having witnessed the carnage of previous fights, were willing to continue to march into these battles. Yet, several times in Rebel Yell, Gwynne comments that the men of the Stonewall Brigade seemed, despite the deprivations and horror, happy as they followed the man who made them victorious against all odds. There is a lesson here for all of us who lead: build confidence by creating opportunities for success.

Slow Reading Plus Loving My Library

Finished The Accidental Tourist and liked it more than A Spool of Blue Thread: maybe a stronger plot with clearer connections between the characters.

Anne Tyler tells human stories with characters that verge ever so slightly on the stereotype. The Leary siblings in The Accidental Tourist seem almost too quirky, tied as they are to the past and their own routines and needs. It makes personal relationships difficult and marriage almost impossible unless the spouse understands those needs and can make accommodations in the name of love. Macon Leary has gotten out, it seems, until an almost unspeakable tragedy leads to the end of his marriage and his return to the arms of his sister and brothers. It takes Edward, his dog, to help him reconnect to an unlikely “fixer” who helps him really see the world outside the cocoon he has built.

Now I’m working through Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne. A think book but Gwynne knows how to tell a story. He fits in the details and yet balances them with human interest. Even the battle descriptions, usually a turn off for me, are well written. I’m reading it for the nonfiction “challenge” on Library Thing but decided it’s more important to me to read slowly than finish it by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, kudos to my library: when I was in a couple weeks ago, the librarian turned me on to their digital magazines. WOW! I’ve printed a few recipes from Bon Apetit, read a feature about Joy Mangano in Good Housekeeping, and enjoyed browsing the other available subscriptions. It’s a wonderful service, easily accessible from my laptop or iPad.

We got about 10 inches of snow and ice during the big storm. Enough to keep me tucked inside: made beef stew and the most amazing Liege Waffles from King Arthur Flour. They were delicious made in my plain old waffle maker and I’m looking forward to toasting them for breakfast this week.

Mid-January Reading Review

I have completed five very different books so far this year, including one audio book:

Here are my impressions:

Library of Souls

Library of Souls is the third book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. Ransom Riggs weaves a fascinating tale of a world beyond our world where human beings with “peculiar” characteristics live in time loops. Jacob Portman discovers these peculiars, their mentors and his own peculiarity in the first book of the series, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. There are evil forces at work and the children fight them in the second and third books. The books are illustrated with antique photographs that Riggs has borrowed or collected. Story and photos intertwine in interesting ways and I found myself wondering about the writing process. Did Riggs look for the next photo or write the next section and then look for a photo that added interest?

I was a little taken aback by the violence: evil is really evil here, chasing the peculiars to drain their souls, and there are scenes of torture. The good guys use one of the bad guys in a similar way and Jacob sees the fear in the creature’s eyes. It lives but only just and Jacob understands that even this horrible beast who would eat him if it got the chance has a bit of its own spark of life and humanity. This is a young adult novel and I think this particular point would be an important one to explore if you are reading the books with young people.

Crossing to Safety

Crossing to Safety is a story of friendship and marriage. Four people, two couples, who connect across their lifetimes as they find their passions, even as they encounter their own limitations. Larry Morgan, who with Sally makes up one couple, narrates the story, focusing his attention on a few seminal events that define the relationships among the four and often help illuminate the marriage of Sid and Charity, their larger than life friends who pull Larry and Sally into their orbit when they meet in Madison in the years before WW II. I found the narrative quietly compelling. The drama has a cerebral quality as Larry examines the relationships and his own trajectory as a writer. We see how money and family affect the group as well as their aspirations for their respective spouses. Stegner is a master of setting and allows it to play a large, sometimes active role, in the story.

Bitter Seeds

I found Bitter Seeds in my Audible feed so downloaded it for a recent road trip. I’m honestly not sure when I bought it or what attracted me to it. I am familiar with the theory of alternate history but haven’t read much and don’t think I realized that was the genre. It was not what I was expecting at all: a dark fantasy set during World War II. I found it fascinating even if it was sometimes a bit too violent for my tastes. There was also a psychologically disturbing edge to the narrative: children raised in a purely evil environment, taught to fear failure, trained only to kill.

I’m not sure I’ll read the next two books in the series or not. It reminds me a bit of Steig Larsson’s books: an evil, cynical world that repels and yet attracts as the author weaves a compelling story amongst the evil. This isn’t gratuitous violence but a narrative of good and evil where neither side really wins. I listened to all three of Larsson’s books and was fascinated by them.

A Spool of Blue Thread

A Spool of Blue Thread is a story of a house and the four generations of the Whitshank famly who live there. It’s a house born of obsession with perfection that houses a sour marriage at the start and then later a large typical family with love and petty jealousies and memories. Each character brings a bit of a surprise and we can find something to like in each one so ultimately this is a story of redemption. It was an enjoyable if not riveting read and as I headed to the last page, I felt like I wanted more answers. But, it occurred to me that the answers simply weren’t there: the characters didn’t know then and so we couldn’t either.

Venetian Betrayal

I discovered Steve Berry last year when I found The Charlemagne Pursuit on my shelf. In the tradition of The DaVinci Code, Berry writes historical thrillers that play on ancient conspiracies brought into the modern world. Venetian Betrayal did not disappoint although I’m starting to grow weary of some recurring devices including supposedly dead people who turn up alive just when you need them. And this book seemed even more violent with the evil dictator seeming to just shoot everyone who angered her and finding other creative ways to kill those who oppose her. The bodies really piled up. Despite its length, I read it in a day, skimming through some of the sometimes complicated history related to the conspiracies.

On a personal note, I checked this out of the library: these kinds of quick reads don’t need to be on my shelf OR my Kindle!



Five Favorite Books from 2015

In the spirit of LibraryThing’s Top Five Books for 2015, here are mine:

  1. A Man Called Ove: I just finished this in preparation for a book club I’m attending next week. What a wonderful uplifting read! At its heart, it is about how doing the right thing can bring joy and love when you are least expecting it. And, I want my epitaph to read, “You are not a complete idiot!” Read this book now…easy storytelling style that masks profound ideas about life. I’m still thinking about it, laughing a bit but also musing on its lessons.
  2. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: I LOVED this collection of long, newsy, thoughtful letters exchanged over the course of a decades long friendship. There is lots of talk of food and cooking but also comments about movies and books, political diatribes, and personal insights into the lives of these two fascinating women.
  3. American Gods: Gaiman combines storytelling and mythology to create a tightly woven tale that sprawls across America. His control of language provides a fluid foundation for an intriguing, innovative story. I read several of Gaiman’s books this year. Neverwere was another wonderfully magical story. Anansi Boys is on my to read list for early 2016.
  4. Two Years Before the Mast: Who knew? This has been sitting on my shelf for awhile, purchased during a time when I felt like I needed to read some classics. I avoided it but once I dug in found it a thrilling memoir of life at sea. Dana moves between gritty details and high minded musings as he narrates his coming of age story.
  5. A Confederacy of Dunces: This is another book that has been on the shelf for awhile. I just adored this crazy story, often laughing out loud! Toole uses New Orleans the way Gaiman used America: an active participant in the story, landscape grown large.

I had a great reading year: my goal was 75 books and I ended at 97. I think you can view the list here. Almost a third were books that have been knocking around for awhile and some of them went into the donation box.  I reconnected with audio books, working my way through Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mystery series. I’m going to join the 75 books challenge again this year but add some more professional reading into the usual mix of history and fiction. I just started Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower Your Students by Pernille Ripp and am joining the online book club. And I am finishing up Library of Souls, the third book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. It feels weightier than the previous two: more serious but also denser in the prose.

I’m planning on a weekly blog post on this blog: reading reviews mostly, maybe some music and travelogues as well. Happy New Year and may 2016 be your best year ever.

A Little Suspense At the End of the Year

I joined the 75 book challenge at LibraryThing and made it to my goal by mid-October. About half were my “own tomes,” that is books I have owned for some time. Most of those ended up on the give away pile to open some shelf space for more books. The suspense mentioned in the post title is whether or not I can get to 100 by December 31. I am currently at 93 so, with lots of free time over the long holiday break, it is possible: I am in the midst of three books right now: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, the audio version of Angela’s Ashes, and Angela Thirkell’s High Rising. That leaves me just four to go, and I have a list started:

  • Last Bus to Wisdom, Ivan Doig’s last book before his death earlier this year
  • Armada by Ernest Cline (I LOVED Ready Player One and this promises the same thrilling narrative)
  • Either Brooklyn or Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, the book club selection for a book group I’ll join during a visit to a friend in early January
  • Shadow Scale, Rachel Hartman’s sequel to Seraphina, which I read earlier this year
  • Library of Souls, the third book in Ransom Riggs’ series of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children

None of these are lengthy and all promise to be good reads. To be honest, I probably won’t finish Thomas Hardy. It’s been languishing for awhile and it isn’t necessarily figured into the total.

Or…I could just keep reading Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series. I had The Charlemagne Pursuit on my shelf for a long while and it is one of those historical thrillers that I just couldn’t put down. I’ve now moved pretty quickly through The Templar Legacy and The Alexandria Link. But, I think these may the kinds of books that could quickly get old so I think I’ll work on the list above and tuck in another Berry now and then through 2016.


Small Print, Lots of Names, Too Many Details

During March, I plunged into reading, tackling some two serious reads as part of several challenges on LibraryThing. I blogged about the idea of reading challenges on my education blog. “Gamifying” reading can be a way to expand your reading options or, in my case, dig into some of the many books I have purchased and never read. There are lots of books on the shelves these days.

Here’s the list. I’ve marked the challenge books:

Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men were both long, serious books, but also incredibly engaging. Well written narratives with, whether fiction or non, compelling characters who show the full range of human emotion, inspiration and ambition. I filled in with more light reads although Grasshopper Jungle, a dystopian, end-of-the-world young adult book, managed to provide some real insight into the teen heart and mind within its dark comedic tone.

By the end of the month, however, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish the last challenge book I had planned for the month. A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin met the challenge of being about someone who was part of WW I but was much longer than I thought. I’m old school that way: I judge a book by its girth in the physical world. I haven’t gotten used to judging it by its dots. I dove in with just two days until the end of the month and enjoyed what I read but then stalled out when it became clear that I was not going to meet the challenge. I’ll get back to it but for now with Spring luring me into the garden, I just don’t have time to dig in the way I need to for such a tome.

Since I try not to bring screens to bed, I needed an analog book to read. In the spirit of World War I and feeling a little guilty about Helprin, I picked up The First World War by John Keegan. I bought this book after reading Ken Follett’s The Fall of Giants, thinking I wanted to know more about WW I. While the content was interesting and the book was well written, it had small print, lots of names, too many details for me to really enjoy it. I’m still not sure I know how the war started except that the nations had all geared up for war so any excuse would have probably led to the disaster. I really felt like I needed an atlas, a primer in pre-WW I nations and a “who’s who” list. I may get back to it some day but for now, it’s way MORE than I want to know.

Fortunately, I was saved by a trip to the Green Valley Book Fair near Harrisonburg, Virginia. My trip yielded a small pile of books, and I started reading The Heart of Everything That Is, a biography of Red Cloud, in the hotel room that evening. It was an engaging, sometimes irreverent history, unbiased in its brutally honest depictions of both white and Native Americans. I finished it quickly and then discovered I didn’t have the energy to go back to the two WW I books that were waiting.

So, prompted by a drive across the state that went through Prince Edward County, I picked up Israel on the Appomattox, the story of a community of freed blacks created near Farmville. It’s been on the shelf for some time now. So, I’m one chapter in and just mired in the small print, lots of names and too many details.

I love history and historical fiction so what’s the problem? Why the Red Cloud bio but not the WW I history? The purpose of the text seems to be the difference for me. The biography included historical details, but the primary focus of the book was to tell the story. Not every thread was pursued, not every moment of every event filled in. We didn’t get a long bio of every person mentioned but followed a few important figures.  And, I didn’t have a sense that there was going to be a test at the end. In the end, I probably remember more of the details that were included in The Heart of Everything That Is (because there weren’t quite so many of them), and I have a good general sense of what happened in the mid-19th century American west.

I may be ready for WW I and Prince Edward County at some point in the future, but not right now…my free reading time is often limited to before bed, and small print, lots of names and too many details are not really appealing. I feel like I am completing required reading rather than really enjoying myself. I want a light but interesting story that is engaging but not overwhelming. Maybe I’ll try WW I from a different angle. At the book fair, I found Elsie & Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson. It’s the true life story of two women who worked as ambulance drivers during the great war. It’s got a welcoming cover, a decently sized font, and the first prologue is immediately engaging:

Eighteen-year-old Mairi and thirty-year-old Elise Knocker, divorcee and mother of a young son, were madcap motorbikers who had met while roaring around the Hampshire and Dorset lanes, and had competed in motorbike and sidecar trials for the last year.

Here’s history wrapped in a story with the kind of compelling characters that made Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men such riveting reads.

The Potential Problem with First Person

I seem have to stumbled into a mystery series cycle lately. I read the first two books in the Josiah Reynolds series, set in Lexington, Kentucky. The main character is a middle age beekeeper whose sleuthing begins after a body is found in her beehive. I also read the first book in the Jesse Watson series, set in Stanardsville, Virginia. Jesse is a single 30-something who moves to the mountains with her parents and takes up work with a private investigator.

Both are written in the first person so we hear both the thoughts and the voices of the women. In both cases, we learn a lot about the women, including their past and their relationships with the other characters as both of them are part of ensembles. While the mysteries form the centerpieces of the stories, they are enhanced by these other relationships.

Neither character is all that happy: Josiah’s late husband had had an affair with a younger woman before he died, and she struggles with finances as she tries to keep up her house and farm. Jesse ends up in the mountains because there seems nothing to tie her down in Newport News. No boyfriend and no real work prospects.

Jesse is a bit more dramatic and immature than Josiah that makes her seem younger than 31. She sometimes seems like a middle schooler mooning over boys. But Josiah is also somewhat abrupt and often rude even with those who are her close friends. She only seems happy with her bees.

And, there’s my problem…I just don’t really like these characters. I don’t care which main Jesse ends up with but am mostly just bored with the obsession. And while I identify with Josiah a bit better, I still find myself feeling frustrated with her stubbornness. I’m wondering if this feeling comes from the use of first person…just too much of their presence as part of the mystery and their personal problems since the stories themselves were interesting and kept my attention. In the case of Josiah Reynolds, I immediately bought and read the second book since the first ends with a real cliff hanger that I didn’t see coming.

Meanwhile, I am almost done with Book Eight of the Maisie Dobbs’ series by Jacqueline Winspear and may read the rest of them in a Maisie binge since my library has all of them. The series has some similarities with the other two: a female detective, a small entourage, mystery interwoven with personal. Granted, it has the added interest of being set in England in between the wars so there is an historical aspect that appeals to me. And the main character is much more reflective and serious than the other two. Not much screaming or crying going on.

It also uses third person narration: we are told the story by a narrator rather than hearing from Maisie herself. While the omniscient narrator lets us into her thoughts and we mostly see the world from her perspective, we aren’t hearing her stream of consciousness the way we are with the other two.

Finally, it may just be writing style that influences my opinion here*. There is an elegance to Winspear’s prose that seems to match the elegance of the main character and the world in which she lives. The third person narration helps to add to that elegance. The other two books are less precisely crafted. And, their style matches that of their characters, seemingly always just on the edge of losing control of themselves, their lives and, in the case of the authors, their stories.

*I realize the next mystery on my list dispels this theory. I love Dave Robicheaux  and just dive into the thick language of James Lee Burke with all its slow southern description. And, it’s written in first person.


I have been reading a bit in this new year, but it seems to take me a long time to finish a book with just a few minutes here and there. Work has kept me busy, and we filled the last three Saturdays with beekeeping classes. And, truth be told, the books I have read were good but not the kind of page turners that seem to keep me glued to the chair, swearing that I would stop at the end of the chapter and go do something productive.

Until now, that is. I finally started Game of Thrones, a five-book series that came highly recommended by a reading friend. I bought all five books in a Kindle bundle but wasn't sure I would like them as they seemed more violent than I liked. Finally, last week, I decided to get started. And, I'm hooked. I finished the first one early this morning and am already part of the way through the second one. I keep saying I'm going upstairs to do some cleaning but then the next chapter pulls me in.

The books are reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell and JRR Tolkien, mixing fantasy with royal feuding to create a compelling story. I always think of Cornwell as a man's writer with great swashbuckling heroes who are never happier than on the battlefield with its clashing swords and swarming hosts. But, Martin also finds a place for the women: conniving mothers of young kings but also brave women who face their fears and take their places among the men in battles and castle halls.

I recommend them with the warning that you won't get much else done…now, really, I'm going upstairs to clean.


My Favorite Books So Far in 2012

I’ve read two books in the past week that I would declare to be my favorites so far…The Night Circus and The Family Fang.

Interestingly enough, both deal with the complicated relationship between parents and children as the latter attempt to extricate themselves from the situations in which they have been put by their parents.

In The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern creates a magical world based on a deadly compettion. In The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson describes a family where the parents put their children at the center of their art in the hopes that they won’t kill it. And, at the end of each, it is love that saves the children and allows them to live beyond their parents’ machinations.