The Long War Is Over

I think the irony of the Civil War is that there was rarely a time when people either North or South were very happy with their government.  The Confederacy tried to unite states who were seceding from the Union because they did not want to be united, a paradox that haunted them while in the North Lincoln had to walk a tightrope between the radical abolitionists who wanted to crush the South and its tradition of slavery and the Democrats who had no real interest in freeing slaves, but only wanted to bring the South back to the Union.

And in the midst of all the political wrangling on both sides, soldiers–mostly farm workers and shop clerks–slaughtered each other.  Americans all, yet so entrenched in their regional loyalties that they could imagine killing another person to protect those positions.  Did they ever wonder at the futility of killing another man much more like him than any politician or military strategist?

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson is a one-volume powerhouse that manages to cover major battles, political events and home life in enough detail to bring the mid-19th century alive.  Famous people like John Brown, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are presented with sincere respect and empathy so we see beyond the stereotypes they have become.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read nearly 900 pages that wasn’t related to a boy wizard and his friends.  I’m sure there are details that have escaped me particularly related to particular battle movements, but I feel like I have a better overall understanding of the Civil War as well as larger political problems related to a failure to compromise.  Indeed, both sides rejected compromise on key issues, leading inexorably to war despite protests otherwise.  And, the final outcome was not predestined, the way hindsight might suggest.  McPherson suggests that all the explanations for why the North prevailed fail to take into account contingency, “the recognition that at numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently” (p. 858).  Understanding the Civil War, according to McPherson, requires the narrative approach that he adopted, and I agree.  In the midst of all his details and examinations of various arguments, he tells a great story complete with engaging characters and cliffhangers.

This volume is not for everyone…and a long winter might be a better time if you choose to tackle.  I struggled to find time to read in the midst of summer activities.  But now it lays beside me, complete, and I face the age old question: what should I read next?  But that question is for another blog post.



Update From Bottle Tree Farm(s)

We’re still deciding on the “s”…some of it may depend on the availability of domain names.

It is a beautiful Sunday morning at the farm and I was checking in on my online classes so, since I’m tethered, I thought I’d do a quick farm update.  This weekend was all about the chickens.  We had four in our pen in Williamsburg.  They had an automatic door so it was easy for them to get in and out, and since they live on the compost pile, food wasn’t a problem.  The SmokehouseUnfortunately, they had also discovered how to escape and when we went home last week, I discovered three of them roosting outside of the pen.  (Chickens are really good at getting out but not so good about getting back in.) It was time to bring them to the farm.

We’re using part of the old smokehouse, which took me several days of work to clean out.  The pen was easier, and now they are happily scratching away and clucking contentedly.  Chickens evidently deal with change pretty easily as I’ve even found three eggs in the past 24 hours.

Bob is making trips back and forth to the convenience center; there was lots of plain old junk and trash in the smokehouse. But there were a few treasures as well: bee smokers, two file cabinets filled with interesting stuff, a metal table, buckets, several tool boxes, and lots of other interesting bits.   We donated the two lawn chairs to the chickens for roosting, along with two crutches.  (The former owner was a doctor.)  The center section is next and it is similarly filled, as is the dairy barn.  The secret is to just hack away a bit at a time without thinking too much about the big picture.

I am especially excited about the library.  I spent some quality time in there on a cold, rainy day last week, getting organized by figuring out where various collections would go: education, history,  and nature are my three big groups along with lots of fiction, of course.  I have the next group of boxes ready to go inside and unpacking should go much more quickly.  After years of having books everywhere, including the linen closet, I find myself just standing in the room looking at the spines and imagining all the hours of reading ahead of me.  The same rule goes there as with the farm: a bit at a time.

I did take a day away from revisionist history to read The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.  It was refreshingly good with its insights into history, religion and politics.  It makes connections between the past and present in ways that would make people like James Loewen (Lies My Teachers Told Me) happy.  I did find the story a bit thin in some places with a reliance on coincidences that were a bit too coincidental.

Now, it’s back into history with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It is a bit depressing really, especially when you consider that the attitudes and ideas he discusses are still very much part of our lives even now as reflected in all the budget conversations and deliberations that are going on.  I’ll leave you with this story from Weekend Edition about the school funding fight in New Jersey.

Real People, Real History, Real World

I finished Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen. I read the first edition, published in 1995.  I was particularly taken with his description of the more recent past and how poorly books address it: that “recent past” in 1995 was my own childhood: Vietnam, the energy crisis, and environmental degradation.  No wonder my generation tends to be a bit more cynical than say my Boomer friends who grew up with Howdy Doody and “I like Ike!” No textbook, no matter how rosy its outlook, can put a positive spin on Nixon or, for that matter, Love Canal.

There’s an update and I took a glance at the comments in Amazon.  Mostly, Loewen gets accused of his own left wing, anti-American, anti-white-male bias, a charge he anticipates and even tries to address in the book.  For instance, after revealing the people behind the caricatures of Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, he suggests that seeing them as real people means that we provide authentic role models to students who might help them as  they face their own decisions and the potential consequences: “For when textbook authors leave out the warts, the problems, the unfortunate character traits, and the mistaken ideas, they reduce heroes from dramatic men and women to melodramatic stick figures.  Their inner struggles disappear and they become goody-goody, not merely good” (p. 27).  What Loewen argues for throughout the book is simply a more realistic viewpoint.  We don’t need to go from America the perfect to America the horrible; instead, we need to learn a realistic view of our nation that, like many others, struggled in sometimes incredibly hypocritical ways to define and practice its values, a struggle that continues today and in which every citizen can play a role.

I do wish he would reconsider the title: the book is really about textbooks, not teachers, who while they do have some control over how they teach, often have no control over what they teach. But Lies My Textbook Told Me just isn’t a snappy a title, is it?  This is another one of those complex issues that gets simplified by being laid at the door of the teachers.

Reading Review

Despite the busy-ness of March, I have been reading and listening to books.  I enjoyed another Flavia de Luce mystery, A Red Herring Without Mustard, read by Jayne Entwhistle.  Fluff but the chemistry and culture keep me coming back.  As for reading, I made it through Outlander although I’ll admit to skimming the last 75 pages or so and am wondering about reading the next one in the series, of which I have all of them on the shelf.  I was put off by the sadistic violence and found the main character to be more annoying than inspiring.  Plus it was just too long.  My other fictional foray wasn’t much better:  I wallowed in Pat Conroy’s gorgeous, thick prose in South of Broad but found the story to be somewhat cliche with a little sexual perversion thrown in to spice things up.

Fortunately, my history reading has been a bit more riveting: I loved Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis, finding it fascinating after the John Adams biography, and finally picked up Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington by Daniel Mark Epstein.  I loved the way Epstein merged politics and poetry and described both men with sympathetic affection.

Now, it’s Loewen and textbooks with Zinn seeming to be the next logical choice.  I may stick with nonfiction for awhile although I’ve got Ken Follett and Jonathan Franzen in the basket by my chair in the library just waiting for the house to get warm.  Aaah…so much to read, so little time!  But for now, I’ll hit post as we are heading to the ferry.  Happy reading!

Reading Around

Another two months have past…I haven’t been writing but I have been reading.  With six weeks left in the year, I only have nine books to go to complete the 75 book challenge, which won’t be a problem since almost everything that has been keeping me busy for the past three months will be over.  Who knows…maybe I’ll dive into John Adams or the History of London.

So, what have I been reading?  Oh, all sorts of stuff and I’ll do the speed dating version of reviews.  For tonight, we’ll do the fiction:

Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver: Took awhile to get going but was fascinating with its portraits of Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo

Dune Road, Jane Green: Older chick lit, only a little bit predictable

Winter Garden, Kristin Hannah: Older chick lit as well but the backdrop of the Seige of Leningrad raised it up a notch and the ending was a pleasant surprise

Girls in Trucks, Katie Crouch: Funny, a little heartbreaking, maybe a little cliche, but a good read

Guardian of the Horizon, Elizabeth Peters:  I almost never read these.  Barbara Rosenblatt does the audio versions and she’s terrific.  But I’ve listened to enough of them that I could imagine Rosenblatt’s voice while I read the words.  I love it; a mystery series that has yet to get stale for me.

Serena, Ron Rash: I just don’t know what to think: a powerful novel, great writing, but the violence overwhelmed me.  I was interested in the historical aspects of the founding of the Great Smokies National Park and was fascinated by the story, but the female protagonist seemed somewhat flat in her single minded devotion.  I know, not a ringing recommendation, but I think I would recommend it.

Elements of Style, Wendy Wasserstein:  I wrote a short review on LibraryThing but after a few days, I realize I mostly just couldn’t sympathize with these selfish people.  Is this really what New York was like circa 9/11 even with the expected exaggeration?

Self-Storage: A Novel, Gayle Brandeis: The main character was disarming in her honesty and full on approach to life.

Sitting With the Hummers

As you can see, dear readers, I have taken something of a hiatus from this blog and from my online life in general including nings and twitter and facebook.  A new “part-time” job began in July but June was filled with preparations and travel.  My first month on the job included lots of travel as well and I was just getting caught up when August, with its double whammy of beginning-of-school-year training and beginning-of-college-year, took arrived, something that always seems to catch me off guard.  Suddenly, it’s the second week of September.  And, there’s some light…literally, it’s early evening and I’m enjoying my little courtyard where the hummingbirds dodge and parry as they grudgingly share a feeder.  After months of seemingly non-stop work, I’ve got some breathing room, some precious minutes between moving away from work and starting dinner, and in an effort to revive these ailing pages, I’ve decided to post a blog entry.  Oh, Joy!

N.B. In the interest of transparency, that paragraph and many of the following ones were written four days ago.  I am just getting back to this draft now so I’m still kind of looking for that breathing room.  Next week holds some promise.  I am, however, sitting in the same courtyard sitting on the Adirondack chair that I managed to finish painting, listening to the fountain with no real sign of the hummingbirds yet.

Three days agao…Meanwhile, despite all, I have been reading.  Well, most of July was spent listening to other people read, but I’m counting it.  I made it through all three of the Stieg Larsson books that way.  The narrator, Simon Vance, was great; the Swedish place names tumbled off his lips and I was glad to hear them rather than having to figure them out on my own from text. I found this Google Map of the various locations though and that helped with my non-existent knowledge of Swedish geography.

They were a bit difficult to listen to in terms of content but I got used to it and a friend remarked that Larsson was really a feminist, and I believe that’s true in the most fundamental way.  Even the main male character, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, doesn’t necessarily treat women all that well at least outside of the bedroom but I suppose he would think of himself as a feminist by allowing women to be free. But maybe that was just an excuse for his own philandering.  Hmmm…

I was fascinated with the real main character, Lisbeth Salander, and her head-on approach to life. I couldn’t help but bristle at the all-too-real depiction of public education painted by Larsson.  Her unusual gifts and unwillingness to compromise her values put her at odds with the very people who could have protected her.  As the school year begins, she is a reminder to all of us that we owe every kid our attention and non-judgmental support. And, who knows, maybe her fascination with Fermat’s last theorem will help make math cool.

The books kept me going as the miles of road stretched ahead of me and for that I’m grateful.  I also listened to Star Island, the new book by Carl Hiassen, a perennial favorite, and just finished House Rules by Jodi Picoult.  Both were excellent in their own ways.  Hiassen is wickedly funny with his portrait of young idols gone bad and the system that supports them.  I laughed out loud a lot at this one.  Picoult was very different.  A mystery in its own right as well as a thoughtful portrait of Aspberger’s syndrome.  It was read  by the Audible Books ensemble so rather than one reader providing multiple voices, various voices took over for Picoult’s sections which were each narrated by one of five characters.  It worked as it made these sections quite distinct, and highlighted the distinct perspectives of each character.

I have also been doing “real” reading, by which I mean holding an analog book (and I’d even include my Kindle here since I’m holding it and reading text).  I’ve read everything from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, which I’m not completely sure I understand, to British mysteries (mostly Martha Grimes and P.D. James) more than I’ve read all my life, and, in light of the controversy over the Koran burning, a very interesting piece of non-fiction called The Faith Club.  It features three women–a Christian, Jew, and Muslim–who come together to write a children’s book about religion and find it much more difficult than it seems, forcing them to examine their own beliefs and prejudices.  Highly recommended!

Here’s the whole list for 2010.  I’m up to 52 and easily on track to finish 75 books by the end of the year.  I haven’t tackled the big boys yet–McCullough’s John Adams and Inwood’s A History of London.  I need a read-all-day kind of vacation but I don’t see it happening any time soon.  So, maybe I’ll make them the first two books of 2011 when the colleges are on break.  In the short term, my book group is reading The Sparrow.  I went ahead and added the second book, Children of God, to my Kindle as well.  So, the minute I finish Anne Perry’s No Graves As Yet, I’ll start reading.

The photo a day plan has failed.  I made it until June and then things just fell apart.  Now, I can’t even locate my camera!  But, in looking for early photos of our beloved black lab Ivy who we lost this summer (16 years and several months…she had a GREAT life!), I’ve gotten access to the digital photo archives for the Richardsons that started with our Sony Mavica some time in 1996 or 97.  It will include our Lewis and Clark photos, only a very small few of which are on the web.  I’ll save the stories of that trip for another post but let’s just say that Kinko’s was pretty much the only Internet access in those days and they charged $12 an hour! I’m hoping to find some time soon to start going through them and may start my own “picture a day” project that pulls things from the archives.  There’s also a drawer full of digital video tapes that could yield some gems.

I’ll keep you posted.  And, I’ll go ahead and post this so I don’t go another four days!

A Slightly Disturbing Coincidence

On April 2, I posted to this blog that I had started reading Rebel, the first book in the Starbuck Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell’s Civil War series and decided to make Civil War books my theme for April.  Later that same day, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell declared April to be Confederate History Month and set off a firestorm over his failure to mention slavery.  He has since apologized. I’m sticking with my plan although and have read two books so far.

I sort of feel sorry for McDonnell.  I think he really was interested in promoting all the Civil War history that can be found in Virginia.  Just today, I was in Spotsylvania county and right along Route 3, in amongst the commercial district, is Old Salem Church, site of a Civil War battle that was part of the Chancellorsville Campaign.  The Civil War Album has good pictures, including the monument to a New Jersey unit that overlooks busy Route 3.   There are signs of the war everywhere in that part of Virginia.  I’d be happy if people did come and visit them because it might mean they will continue to be preserved.  In a rapidly expanding section of the state, it’s harder and harder to justify saving fields and viewscapes so any focus on the war would mean more preservation.  It’s a piece of history that is essential to an understanding of contemporary events.  According to historian Shelby Foote it changed the verb tense from the United States are to the United States is.  A defining moment.

In addition, the battefields are cemeteries as well.  I just finished Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, a fascinating examination of a rather odd topic.  Many bodies were simply never recovered and ended up victim to spring plowing. A culture in which death was a marked event–women wore mourning clothes for a year after the death of their husbands–was stunned by the sheer carnage of the war.  Yet they tried to maintain their practices, and after the war was over, the Union made a concerted effort to locate, identify, and, if at all possible, return bodies to their families, a massive, expensive undertaking.  The victors made no such efforts for Confederate soldiers, leaving it up to southerners to make efforts to bring their loved ones home.  The prodigal sons were not welcomed home with great rejoicing and, even though slavery ended, essential questions about states’ rights were never resolved.  There are places where the whole thing still rankles a little even after 145 years and a monument to the victors forever overlooks the defeated land.

Today, I picked up the Hornet’s Nest by Jimmy Carter, which I found at the Book Exchange, my paperback book exchange store.  I guess I missed the subtitle or was in a Civil War fog because I thought the book was about the Battle of Shiloh.  Turns out it’s actually about the Revolutionary War with a focus on a battle in northern Georgia.  A quote from The Wall Street Journal says that the book is about a piece of history “overlooked by Massachu-centric historians.”  There’s another bit of North/South rivalry.  Jon Stewart can make fun of it being so long ago but you know what they say about forgetting history.

I’m not sure I’m going to keep reading Jimmy Carter’s book.  Frankly, so far it’s not very good historical fiction.  There’s a lot of friendly lecturing from a Whig about the political situation.  I know that he needs to fill in the context but good historical fiction manages to do that in a more subtle way than simply having a character parrot definitions and describe situations.  I almost never abandon a book once I’ve begun, but I’m not that far along and I have a collection of Civil War essays along with two more Cornwell novels that fit the theme.

April also includes Earth Day and I’ve got several environmentally themed books including Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition by Wendell Berry on the pile.  There’s also Whose Woods These Are, Michael Frome’s history of the national forest service and Mountain in the Clouds: A Search for the Wild Salmon by Bruce Brown.   Both of these came from Moyer’s Book Barn in Strasburg, PA.  I grew up nearby and when I was home in March, my parents and I took a tour of our old stomping grounds.

Historical Fiction Mysteries

Well, the sick husband passed the cold along to me so I’ve spent a lot of time in bed for the past 72 hours.  I finished the Wyeth biography (really terrific read) and then puttered over the books to decide what to read next.  I found two mysteries that seemed like perfect sick bed reading: The Apostate’s Tale by Margaret Frazer and The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, which features Abigail Adams.  I’ve finished the former and am half way through the latter.

Dame Frevisse is the sleuth in The Apostate’s Tale, the 18th book in the Sister Frevisse series.  She’s a nun at the priory of St. Frideswide.  The portrait of life in a 15th century priory was well drawn, and her characters were compelling.  She let us into the thoughts of both Dame Frevisse and the apostate nun who returns to the priory, dragging the outside world with her.  The side tale of a young woman considering becoming a nun is interesting in its portrait of life choices for women in that time.

The main problem I had with the book was that I had solved the mystery long before she did.  There was lots of internal questioning that seemed tedious and repetitive and you wondered that she hadn’t put it all together since the path seemed pretty clear.  But I’m willing to forgive that since the prose was good and I read these more the historical views rather than the mystery.

The Abigail Adams mystery is promising.  Whereas the Frevisse mystery did not refer to politics at all, this story is completely tied up in politics, set as it is in 1773 Massachusetts.  The Boston Tea Party looms on the horizon.  Both real and fictional characters include British army officers, Sons of Liberty, wealthy merchants and slaves.  Of course, Abigail is the sleuth and she manages to charm merchant and Army officer alike.  The author depicts daily life with careful detail and is particularly insightful about the relationships of owners and masters and their slaves and servants.

I have not had any luck figuring out the mystery.  There are lots of players and it can be a bit complicated with family connections.

Not sure what’s next after this one…I haven’t made much of a dent in the pile that I assembled in December.  John Adams still sits there.  Maybe that’s the natural follow up, a nice blending of my two latest themes: biographies and mysteries.  It’s just so imposing.  Similarly, I’m interested in the history of London that’s on the pile, but it just seems like too  much of a commitment.  I wonder if you tend to read shorter books in a year when you’re doing something like the 75-book challenge?  I do take that a bit into consideration.

Sunday Morning Reading Round Up

Stayed home from church and with a sick husband sleeping on the couch, I did one of my favorite things: escaped back to bed with a big mug of coffee and a book.  In my younger days, there was nothing more wonderful than a morning spent in bed with coffee and books.  This morning, it was Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, Merryman’s biography of this iconic Pennsylvania painter.  I feel a connection with the Wyeths as I lived in Chester County and frequented the Brandywine River Museum.  This past December, my parents and I headed down and were treated to a tour of the Wyeth gallery with Victoria Wyeth, Andrew’s grand daughter.  She was charming, funny, and incredibly knowledgeable.  I’m enjoying the biography and after reading four of them so far this month, I can say that I prefer the “illustrated” style where pictures are included throughout the text rather than the more typical practice of dumping them together in one central location, like a scrapbook within the textbook.

Now a moment of honesty:  I really struggled with that last sentence as I wonder if a real book reviewer would use the word “enjoy” or worry about how the pictures are handled?  And, why do I care what a real book reviewer would do?  Well, yesterday I made a point of watching a panel on book reviewing that had been conducted during the Virginia Festival of the Book that centered on the business of book reviews.  The main theme was that book reviewing was never a lucrative profession and it was becoming less so with the move towards the Internet, neither of which were a surprise.  What did surprise me and made me nervous about that sentence was their negative reaction towards all the amateur book reviewers out there.  Katherine Weber, in particular, seemed to feel like amateurs were more about commerce than good reviewing.  I’m not completely sure I got her point but decided that I needed to read more “real” book reviews (as opposed to my fellow bibliophiles at LibraryThing) to see if I can determine for myself what makes a worthwhile, non-commercial review.  I’ll spend some time today with the New York Times Review of Books.  Meanwhile, I’m going to plug along with my pedestrian ways.  I have found that knowing that I’m going to be writing about the books makes me read a bit more seriously, something else the reviewers talked about.

Of course, there is the possibility that they simply feel a little threatened by all the book reviewers out there.  They did agree that there were some very well written amateur reviews but that it was often difficult to find them among the growing dross.  I was reminded of the commercial for a job site where the tennis court is overwhelmed by everyone and the professional player was lost amongst the crowd.  But the beauty of book reviews on the Internet is that you are not restricted to the few people that the newspaper or magazine decided was a good reviewer.  It takes longer to explore on your own, but the journey takes you some interesting places and, in the end, you get to choose the people you want to read.

I’ve been reading away…since my last post, I finished Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts.  I also had several road trips and listened to The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag, an absolutely marvelously presented audio book, written by Alan Bradley and read by Jayne Entwhistle.  I got online this morning to download the other one in the series, The Sweetness At The Bottom of the Pie, and am wondering if I have time to get in a walk before book group.

I’ve completed 18 books so far…right on track for the 75 book challenge!