Blogs: Books & literature

Photo of Appomattox re-enactmentI am endlessly fascinated in reading about America’s Civil War. So now that we come to the end of the four-year observance of its sesquicentennial, I feel inclined to say a few thoughts about it.

The observance began in April of 2011 which actually is beginning to feel like a long time ago to me. That has given me an appreciation for what it might have felt like to those who lived through it, although I suspect it must have seemed much longer to those folks who served and those who suffered the loss of loved ones.

During these four years there have been numerous special observances at battlefields and re-enactments across the nation. And this period of remembrance has also sparked a good deal of publishing about the war, its battles, and the personalities who shaped the conflict. Yet after 150 years, people are still asking themselves about the war’s causes and ultimately what the meaning of the war was for us as a nation.

April 9, 1865 is generally recognized as the date the war ended. This was the day that General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Federal forces under the command of Illustration of Grant and Lee at AppomattoxUnion General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Due in part to delays in communications and in part to southern determination, it took a while for all Confederate forces to surrender in places as far-removed as Florida, Texas and territories west of the Mississippi; and it wasn’t until November that the Confederate ship C.S.S. Shenandoah ended its around-the-world raids before surrendering in Liverpool, England.

For some great books on the Appomattox campaign, I'd suggest checking out Bruce Catton's class A Stillness at Appomattox or the more recent Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the end of the Civil War by Elizabeth R. Varon. For a shorter account of the campaign with lots of color illustrations and maps, take a look at Appomattox 1865: Lee's Last Campaign by Ron Field.

 

 

 

cover of novel Ross Poldark; links to item in catalogSome years ago I read Ross Poldark by Winston Graham.  I fell headlong into the story and quickly recommended the novel to my dad who shared it with a friend.  The three of us have varied reading tastes, but share a love of fine historical fiction and each of us read the entire series (12 books!). I’ve been rereading it, and it's just as wonderful as I remembered. Why? 

Let’s start with the fabulously good dialogue and concise description. Graham reveals character and relationships in deft strokes. Add a strong sense of place and accurate historical cover of Poldark DVD series 1; links to item in catalogdetails which bring to life the social upheaval in Cornwall and England from 1783 - 1820's: the corn riots, smuggling, the vagaries of mining, the effects of industrialization and the Napoleonic wars. 

In the first novel Ross Poldark returns home after fighting in the American colonies to a world where nobody is much interested in or affected by the war he fought in. He’s been gone so long that everyone close to him thinks he died. What does he find? His father dead and buried, the house he inherited in a squalid state. I’m not even going to tell you what his sweetheart has done!

In 1975 the BBC adapted some of the early Poldark novels into a tv series which was wildly popular In June 2015 PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre will air a new BBC production starring Aidan Turner as PoldarkI plan to watch it with my dad, so we can compare the screen versions to the novels we love.

Come meet the dashing war veteran for yourself. 


 

Cathedral bookjacketI’ve never written a novel or a short story (unless you count the required writing course I took about a million years ago as a freshman in college) but in some ways, I think that it might be harder to write a short story than a full-fledged book. A short story has to suck you in immediately, tell a full plot in a small number of pages, and shoot you out at the end with a quick climactic pay-off. A great short story will stay with you forever. Raymond Carver’s "A Small Good Thing" with a young boy’s unpicked up bakery cake has been part of my very soul since I first read it years ago.

The past few months, I’ve read several collections of really amazing short stories. When I did a search in our catalog, I found that there have been a ton of short story booksSingle, Carefree, Mellow bookjacket published in the last couple of years; I checked a bunch out and found a bounty of vivid stories that I find myself still thinking about weeks after reading them. Kelly Link’s stories in Get in Trouble are a feast of surreal images that are also weirdly believable. Katherine Heiny writes about infidelity in her collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, but she does it in a refreshingly nonjudgmental way. And then there are always my old favorites, Flannery O'Connor and Peter S. Beagle.

If you're in the mood for a short story or two or three, try one of these collections.

Mr. Mac and Me book jacketWhen a long-awaited book finally arrives, it’s hard not to place high expectations on its performance. So when I finally had a copy of Esther Freud’s latest book Mr. Mac and Me in my hot little hands, dreams of a great story, pristine writing and new lands to explore were circling above my head. As a fan of Esther Freud (see Hideous Kinky and The Sea House among others) I was not disappointed on any front.  

Freud’s latest tells the story of thirteen-year-old Thomas Maggs, who lives in the Suffolk coastal town of Walberswick under the watchful eyes of an overprotective mother and an unpredictable father. Thomas’s father runs the local pub and helps himself freely to the goods. Times are not good. Business is far from booming and World War I looms ahead. When not in school, Thomas spends his time helping out at the pub, assisting the local rope maker ply his trade and exploring the countryside. He is also a talented artist who frequently sketches ships and dreams of escaping by sea. His life is changed when  Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret move to town. The renowned architect of the Glasgow School of Art is down on his luck and hoping some restorative time at the seaside will change his fortunes. A quiet, contemplative relationship develops between Mackintosh and Thomas, an association that will be deeply affected when the war finally comes to town.

Freud’s family has its own history of life in Walberswick. Her paternal grandfather Ernest, also an architect, spent years living in the village and transforming local cottages with his Bauhaus-style designs. Her father, the painter Lucien Freud, spent time there as a child.  And Esther Freud herself owns a home there, her second in fact. The first house she purchased in Walberswick was the former pub, known in this book as the Blue Anchor.  

Freud, the author of eight novels, is an extraordinary writer. She particularly excels is her descriptions of the physical world. The village and its surroundings act as characters equally as important as Mr. Mackintosh or young Thomas Maggs. As Thomas and Mr. Mac and the others who populate Walberswick move towards their prescribed destinies, readers have the pleasure of witnessing the development of a relationship both strikingly subtle and completely life changing. Mr. Mac and Me is not the perfect read but it does exactly what I want a book to do for me:  introduces me to new people and new places and provides me with much appreciated and invaluable food for thought.

Postscript:  Sadly, a fire at the Glasgow School of Art in May of 2014 destroyed a portion of the school’s west wing which housed the Mackintosh Library.  The library is expected to reopen by 2018.

Have you ever wondered if you have what it takes to be a good terrorist? Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing wondered that too. In December 1983, a bomb was set off in Harrod’s Department store in London.  The media said it looked like an amateur job.  When she read this, Lessing was curious: what is the difference between an amateur terrorist and a professional one?  And if you WERE an amateur, how did you get better?

 

The terrorists in this book are strictly small time, a group of 4-6 people thrown together by need and the desire to fit into something ‘big’ like the IRA or the Soviet Communist Party.

Except for the main character, Alice, who is telling the story.  Oh, Alice believes in the necessary destruction of society but until that happens she is busy cleaning up, making their squat livable, smoothing out relations with the ‘real’ communists living next door and cooking kettle after of kettle of her nourishing vegetable soup.  

But when bomb-making Jocelyn moves in, the focus shifts from theory to the practice.  As in  practice makes perfect. As in people injured, killed, even their own members. Each member of the group is now forced to evaluate just how ‘good’ they really want to be.

This book is a fascinating read because of the dead-pan realistic writing told through Alice- what she thinks , what she feels, what she denies.  Will she be able to live up to her ideals?  Does she have what it takes to be 'good'?

Happy National Poetry Month! Probably because "April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain" we celebrate poetry in April. There are many ways to do this, but one of my favorite ways to have a poetry experience recently is to listen to readings and discussions on PennSound, a project of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at University of Pennsylvania. This online resource is an archive of both new and historical recordings, an excellent podcast, and many other things as well. It's pretty amazing to be able to listen to a recent reading by one of my favorite poets, or listen to scholars and poets discussing a close reading of a poem, all while I'm doing the dishes or sweeping the floor at the end of the day. Just take a look at PennSound's authors page, and scan this enormous list for a poet you'd like to hear.

The library also has quite a few collections of poetry that you can listen to, either in audiobook CD form or downloadable or streaming audio! I recently discovered the Voice of the Poet series of audiobooks on CD, featuring poets reading their work; it includes a number of great American 20th century poets.

Happy listening!

Eilean Donan Castle, Lochalsh, Scotland. Photo by Dave Conner.I’ve been in Scotland twice, but the last time didn’t count as I was there for literally five minutes. Fortunately I’ll get to spend more time there this spring and I can’t wait.  Hiking! Pub crawling! Trading insults with my Scottish pal! It doesn’t get any better than that.  My departure date is still a wee while off, though, so I’ve had to settle for immersing myself in books, music and film to satisfy my impatient desire to be in Bonny Scotland.  If you, too, are longing for the land of whisky, thistles and tartan, try out some of the following:

Burns: Poems book jacketWhen I was in my teens and twenties, I used to fairly loathe poetry.  I either had no idea what it meant or thought it was mostly really soppy.  I guess I’ve mellowed some as I’ve aged because now I think that Robert Burns penned some really good verse.  There are many collections of his poems, but the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition claims to have the “most essential of the imHer Majesty, Mrs. Brown dvd covermortal poems and songs.” To hear some of his songs and poetry sung, check out There Was a Lad.  For a selection of bagpipe tunes (yes, there really is more than one piece that can be played on the bagpipes), check out Duncarron:  Scottish Pipes & Drums Untamed.

For some Highland eye candy (not to mention a yummy accent), there’s nothing better than Billy Connolly in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown.  I was envious of Judy Dench for years after I saw that movie.  If you’re more interested in the beauty of Scotland found in nature, clap your peepers on Visions of Scotland.

For two lovely books of travel, read H.V. Morton’s classic In Search of Scotland and Scotland: The Place of Visions by Jan Morris. Morton is one of my favorite travel writers – his humor and storytelling prowess make reading about his adventures in his native Britain and elsewhere a true pleasure.  If you just want to look at gorgeous photos of Scotland, check out Morris’s book, but really, read the text as well!  Morris is a keen observer and a wonderful writer.

So get out your kilt, pour a wee dram and settle in with a book, cd or dvd.  You’ll be away to Scotland in no time at all! 

cover image of anne sexton love poems

Mug shot of B. Traven a.k.a. Ret Marut (Otto Feige) after his arrest in London, 1923When reading The Man Who Could Fly and other stories  by Rudolfo Anaya, a famous Chicano writer, I came across the name B. Traven. He was a German/American writer who inspired one of Anaya's stories entitled “B. Traven is Alive and Well in Cuernavaca.”  I couldn’t wait to know more about this intriguing character.  

B. Traven (1890-1969) is considered one of the most international literary mysteries of the twentieth century, because he refused personal data to publishers. Author of 12 fiction novels and several short stories, most of his books were originally written in German and were first published in Germany.  His real name, date place of birth and nationality are still begin questioned, which makes me think that he might be hiding his identity on purpose to gain more public attention or as a kind of strategic marketing maybe?

I became a bit obsessed with trying to know more about Traven. My quest began with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a book that was adapted to a film of the same name. The film won an Academy Award in 1948; another of his remarkable works is The Death Ship”: The story of an American Sailor  written in German and then translated into 12 languages including English. Both books led to him to international popularity.

It’s estimated that he used at least twenty seven aliases and many researchers are convinced that he is more than one person.

It’s amazing how books connect us with other important events and characters. I started by reading a Chicano writer and followed my curiousity to learn about B. Traven. Something else I found out going through this journey is that Macario, one of my favorite movies ever, was adapted from a short story by B. Traven --  or whoever the real person was. 

Black River bookjacketThough I don't read a lot of typical Westerns, I love authors who experiment with the form. I enjoy Mary Doria Russell's approach to iconic stories of the Wild West (Doc and Epitaph) and I've always appreciated how Kent Haruf could take the stoic and hard-bitten cowboy out of history and place him in the modern world - in his stories set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.

Sadly, Kent Haruf died in the fall. But according to Ron Charles of Washington Post's Book World, with Black River, S.E. Hulse is poised to take up Haruf's torch. As a Haruf fan mourning the loss of an author who could capture a depth of character in just a few lines of dialogue, I immediately placed Black River on hold. I tried not to see the very young looking author photo on the back - how could she possibly write with the gravitas of Haruf?

I'm glad I didn't let my biases stop me. Black River is a beautifully taut and painful story of an embattled man who has lost everything. After the death of his wife, Wes Carver returns to the small Montana town where they met. At a time when he should be mending his troubled relationship with his stepson, he is instead intent on one thing - preventing the parole of a man Wes guarded years before while working at the local prison - a man who took something essential from Wes.

There are authors who can keep you emotionallly attached to a character even as you're mentally exhorting him to take another course of action. S.E. Hulse seems to have that knack. I hope you enjoy Black River as much as I did.

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