Friday, May 31, 2013

An Open Book

An Open Book, Monica Dickens

Audrey asked the other day, "Are you interested in the biographies of the authors you read?  Does reading a biography enrich your reading of the novels or the poems, or does the work stand on its own?"  It was an opportune question, since I was already reading this autobiography.  I'm very much interested in reading about the authors I enjoy.  Usually, though, I turn to books about an author after I've read much if not all of her or his own work.  With Monica Dickens, I started reading not fiction but memoir, with One Pair of Hands, her account of working as a cook-general.  When I saw that she had written an autobiography in addtition to her memoirs and novels, it seemed like a good idea to read that before going on to her other work.

The first lines of this book are a clear statement of what it will be: "This is not the whole story of a life.  It is an attempt to capture some of those elements of it which are the origins of the books that I have written."  Her family is perhaps the most important of those elements.  She belonged to two eccentric extended families that mixed English, French and Germans.  Her father, half-French through his mother, was a grandson of Charles Dickens, though as a child Monica did not understand or appreciate her literary heritage.  Her mother Fanny's parents, originally from Germany, settled into English country life (by way of Cuba) on an estate in Somerset, where Monica and her sister spent summers and holidays with a host of cousins (her only brother, the oldest child, was away at school and then naval college).

Monica called her parents by their first names from a young age. "It is only now that I am surprised at how progressive they were about it."  She writes movingly about their close relationship, which lasted throughout their lives.  It was rooted in the love and security they gave her in childhood:

Apart from the bourgeois entrenchment of the large Runge and Dickens families, there was the strengthening reassurance of parents who thought you were all right, and frequently told you so.  Fanny was too small and bony for bosomy cuddling and knee-sitting, but if you hurled yourself into her arms, she would pat you on the back, after she recovered her balance, and hum at you.  She never sat still for very long, but Henry was in one place for hours, reading or making lists or cutting out jigsaws from posters pasted onto plywood, his lap always available as an extra piece of warm furniture . . . I did not really want them to change, and they did not even try to change me.  If I was scowling and sullen, it was not, 'Don't behave like that.' It was, 'She's scowling and sullen.'

She had another source of that love and reassurance in the well-named Nanny Gathergood, who "did gather good out of her warm, unselfish heart and heap it on our family" in the 30 years that she spent with them.

In contrast to her parents, the extended family was less supportive when Monica's life did not follow the usual pattern of début, marriage, and children.  Feeling lost and drifting, she discovered a vocation in work, first in cooking and then in nursing, as well as friendships she had not expected.  It was finally in writing that she found her real work.  In this book she talks about how she came to write One Pair of Hands, her first book, published when she was just 24.  Its immediate success brought her magazine and newspaper work, including a column in Woman's Own for 20 years.  But not all the family approved: "Some of the Dickens aunts were outraged that I had played fast and loose with the name . . . Charles Dickens was expected to be the last family member to appear in print."

Her writing then becomes another major element of the story that Monica is telling here.  She discusses the inspiration for books, her first ideas or the suggestions from others.  She talks about research, including a very unsettling section about shadowing case workers from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children on home visits and in court.  She writes about reactions to her books, especially to her memoir of nursing in World War II, One Pair of Feet, which got her banned from work as a nurse for some time.  After this autobiography was published in 1978, she wrote another seven books, the last published after her death in 1992.

Despite the extensive discussion of her writing, there is almost nothing about her own reading, though her father loved to read aloud, and she herself learned to read before she was four.  I am always curious about what other people read, and I missed that - particularly in a book that is so much about books.  There were other gaps, things I wanted to know more about.  Her family was Roman Catholic, and there are references to attending Sunday Mass, regular confession and so on, the practice of religion, but there is nothing of faith, belief.  Perhaps that was too personal a topic.  I felt that she also glosses over her marriage to Roy Stratton, an American naval officer whom she met on a plane from Glasgow.  Three pages later, she arrives in America and they are married (in the Roman Catholic Church).  "An ageing G.I. bride [at 36], I may have been the most insular Englishwoman who ever ventured, for love, into the New World."   I was surprised at a later reference to Roy's son, who married soon after they did and made them grandparents around the time they were adopting two daughters from England.  That is the first indication that Roy was previously married, but no further information is given, perhaps to protect his and his family's privacy (an unfamiliar concept in many autobiographies today).

Quibbles aside, I very much enjoyed this book.  It is more serious in tone than One Pair of Hands, but always entertaining and frequently very funny (which is why the section on child abuse is so jolting).  I agree with the cover blurb from the Daily Express, "A rare slice of social history and a warm self-portrait."   I realized about half-way through the danger of reading a book about an author's books: I wanted to read all the books she was writing (about).  I couldn't resist Flowers on the Grass, because her description reminded me instantly of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life:

Ever since I started to write, perhaps before that, I have been intrigued by the idea of alternative lives.  At any moment of any of our days, there are choices . . . What about the choices we don't make?  What happens to those alternative selves?  Is it possible they have some sort of shadow existence alongside the one we know, and are in some way realized? . . . That would make it easier to understand why certain people and places, glimpsed at the periphery of your own life, are recognizable.

I am also particularly intrigued by The Listeners, written from her experience with The Samaritans, a suicide-prevention group, which she discusses in some detail.  In working with this group, she seemed to have again found a sense of vocation, of calling.

Between the books I already have on the TBR stacks, and the ones that I couldn't resist adding, I think this will be a Dickens year.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

An eventful cruise aboard a yacht called Dolly

Dolly and the Bird of Paradise, Dorothy Dunnett

Dorothy Dunnett used to relax from writing her intricately-plotted, multi-character historical series with urbane, inscrutable heroes by writing intricately-plotted, multi-character mysteries with an urbane, inscrutable hero.  The central character of the Dolly books is Johnson Johnson, a tall man with a set of bifocal glasses that effectively screen his face and his thoughts.  He is a world-renowned portrait painter (like Lady Dunnett herself), and a yatchsman, whose boat Dolly plays a big part in the series.  Most of the stories are set on the water, in locations like Ibizia, the Hebrides, and in this book, Madeira and the Caribbean (idyllic settings for tax-deductable research, as Lady Dunnett admitted).  For Johnson, both his work and his hobby provide cover for his other career, in British Intelligence.

Each of the seven Dolly books has a different narrator, a young woman, the "birds" of the American titles (each book has at least two titles, and some have three - this book was also published as Tropical Issue).   Most of them are stand-alones, and except for two they can be read in any order, keeping a couple of things in mind.  First, the publication dates don't match the internal time-line of the story.  This book, Bird of Paradise, was the sixth published (in 1983), but it's the first of the series, filling out the background hinted at in the previous books.  And each book is of the time it was written.  So Dolly and the Singing Bird, the first published in 1968, is very much a book of the 1960s (Johnson does the Watusi!), as Bird of Paradise is of the early 1980s, yet the action in Bird of Paradise takes place before Singing Bird.  It may sound confusing, but it really matters just with the last two books, the only two that are connected.

The "bird" of this book is Rita Geddes, who arrives at Johnson's studio flat one day.  A well-respected make-up artist, working with private clients as well as in film and TV, she is there to prepare TV personality Natalie Sheridan for a photo shoot.  The photographer Ferdy Braithwaite has borrowed the flat because his own studio is being re-wired.  The flat's owner is nowhere to be seen.  He is recovering from serious injuries sustained in a plane crash.  His wife Judith, who was travelling with him in the private plane, was killed, along with the crew.  Disregarding his physical and emotional condition, Natalie forces an introduction on him, bringing Rita in as well.  Later, they meet again on Maderia, where Rita is now working for Natalie at her villa.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, because the fun of the Johnson books is meeting the woman telling the story, figuring out who she is, and watching her try to figure Johnson out, while a complicated plot involving international intrigue unspools around them.  Johnson can be as opaque and maddening as Lymond at his worst, though the narrators have their own secrets too.  He shares with Lymond not only a love of the sea and ships, but also cat-like reflexes and the skillful handling of weapons.  He has a caustic tongue and a wicked sense of humor, which sometimes finds expression in pranks to rival the roof-top chase in Lyon or Nicholas's theft of the ostrich.  Unlike Lady Dunnett's other heroes, though, he seems to lack a real fashion sense,  frequently appearing in elderly cardigans and woolly vests that he is accused of knitting himself.

It's been a good while since I've read these books, and I really enjoyed meeting Rita and Johnson again.  In fact, I might find myself back on Dolly again before too long.

Monday, May 27, 2013

What Maisie Knew

What Maisie Knew, Henry James

I bought a copy of this book because of a fictional recommendation.  In Penelope Lively's How It All Began, Charlottte, the central character, is re-reading it, and her thoughts made me want to read it too:

Actually it was not so much Henry James that she had wanted as a novel that would feed thoughts about the versatility of fiction, promoted by that conversation with Anton about the need for story. Story, yes, indeed, but the fascination of story is what it can do.  Henry James can tell it through the eyes of a child, and make you, the reader, observe the adult chicanery and betrayals of which the child is unaware.  Charlotte needed to remind herself of the sleight of hand whereby this is done.

I was at a bit of a bookish loose end last week when I read a mini-review of the new film version of this book in The New Yorker, which says it lacks "any approximation of James's wickedly funny voice."  That sent me off to the TBR shelves in search of my copy.

The Maisie of the title is a small child when the story opens, caught in the nasty and protracted divorce of her parents, Beale and Ida Falange.  The judge awards them joint custody, each parent to have the child for six months at a time, turn and turn about.  He has no way of knowing that they have failed at parenting as well as marriage. Both want the child only as a weapon to use against the other parent.  Each tries to make Maisie an ally, to fill her with stories about the other's crimes, to pump her for information to be used against the other.  Maisie very quickly learns to defend herself against this by playing dumb, by refusing to be drawn.  In reality she is very much aware of what is going on, she is bright and observant, and she knows far more than her parents realize.  She knows, though she doesn't understand all the sordid implications of what she knows, of her father's new friends, her mother's constant escorts - while the reader does all too well.  Maisie remains innocent, hungry for love and affection, hopeful and optimistic, smoothing over difficulties and trying to keep the peace.  James managed to create this believeable and fully-realized character, one who grows over the course of his story, without making her a Pollyanna or a plaster saint.

She is however too good for her parents.  Once they realize that she won't be used as a weapon in their battles, they shift tactics.  Rather than trying to keep her from the other, both try instead to dump her on the other.  Both parents have re-married, her father to Maisie's former governess (now known as Mrs Beale), and her mother to the younger Sir Claude.  Neither marriage is happy, though the two step-parents are very fond of their new daughter.  In fact, their mutual affection for Maisie draws them together and into a deeper and dangerous relationship.  Eventually both her natural parents abandon not only their daughter but their second spouses as well.  Maisie is left to her step-parents, but her governess Mrs Wix, is in love with Sir Claude herself, and refuses to leave Maisie with Mrs Beale, whom she considers a bad woman.  Maisie, who loves all three of her protectors, must eventually choose between them.  Whatever choice she makes will be a difficult one, not least because none of the three has any money.

I've mentioned before that I find James's complex language difficult.  With this book, I sometimes had the feeling that I was reading in a foreign language, gathering the sense of the words without necessarily understanding their literal meaning.  At other times it felt like I was wrestling with the text, trying to figure out what exactly James was saying (and I all but gave up on his Preface).  Here again though the story carried me through, all the twists and turns as Maisie moved between her families.  I wanted to know what came next, and that she would be safe, from her unspeakable parents and also from her step-mother.  I never trusted Mrs Beale, and though Maisie believes absolutely in her love, I thought it more a means to an end - to marriage first with Beale and then Sir Claude.

This story reminded of my favorite of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, Early Autumn.  In that book he becomes involved with the Giacomins, Mel and Patty, who are using their fifteen-year-old son Paul just like the Falanges did Maisie, first playing keep-away and then tag, you're it.  Though Patty initially hired him, Spenser makes Paul his real client.  He tells Paul that he needs to "Be autonomous, be free of them, depend on yourself. Grow up at fifteen," and then he helps him do that.  That's not an option for Maisie, unfortunately.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries, Angela Thirkell

When I discovered Angela Thirkell, back in 2000, and then quickly became obsessed with her Barsetshire books, I was lucky enough to find most of them here in Houston - some used, many new.  Since then they have all but disappeared, at least from our stores.  Though I own almost all the Barsetshire series, I always check in used-book stores, and sometimes one of the later titles turns up (often Close Quarters, for some reason).  The other day at Kaboom Books, when I saw a Carroll & Graf edition of Wild Strawberries, I nearly leapt across the aisle.  I had a copy of this once, but I gave it away in one of my periodic clear-outs (along with Pomfret Towers), because I remembered them as a bit tiresome, compared with my favorites.  I would never do that now, knowing how hard it is to find her books.  I've particularly wanted to find this one again, since the different posts about the gorgeous new Vintage editions made me wonder if my opinion of it would be different now.

The Barsetshire novels often center on one of the county families, and this is the first book to feature the Leslies, whose estate at Rushwater is in West Barsetshire.  The head of the family, Henry Leslie, is married to Lady Emily, a granddaughter of the Earl of Pomfret.  They lost their eldest son in the Great War, but his son Martin, the heir to Rushwater, lives with his grandparents.  There are two other sons (John and David), and a daughter Agnes, married to Robert Graham, who appears I think exactly once in the entire series but whose presence looms large.  As the book opens, Robert is in South America on War Department business, and Agnes and their three children are staying with her parents.  The Leslies have also invited Robert's niece Mary Preston to spend the summer while her mother goes abroad.  John and David live in London but often come down to Rushwater for the weekend.  John is a widower still grieving his young wife.  David, with oodles of charm and talent, is a dilettante who can't settle down to anything or anyone.  Mary quickly falls for him, though she can't help but appreciate John's quieter kindness and good nature.

Romantic complications aside, the summer is a busy one at Rushwater.  There are visitors, including the unwelcome Mr Holt, a rather boring expert on gardens and a professional houseguest.   More visitors arrive when the Vicar lets his rectory for the summer to a French family, the Boulles, with whose children Martin finds a common interest.  There is the annual tenants' concert, and Lady Emily and Agnes, with Mary, are also planning a great celebration for Martin's 17th birthday.  In Thirkell's later books, she would use this to bring together characters from across Barsetshire, giving them (and us) a chance to meet again, to catch up on family and county news, and usually to abuse the Bishop of Barchester and his wife.  But to my surprise, that doesn't happen here.  The only recurring character that I noticed, Lady Norton (better known as the Dreadful Dowager), is only mentioned in passing; she doesn't even appear on-stage, let alone at the party.  [N.B. I'd forgotten this book was only the second of the Barsetshire series, after High Rising, so she didn't yet have her large cast of characters.]

This is very much a Leslie book, which is partly why I had decided I didn't need to keep it.  Actually, Martin Leslie is one of my favorite characters in the later books, after he inherits Rushwater.  But I find his grandmother Lady Emily and his Aunt Agnes rather annoying at times.  At least in this book everyone seems to find them annoying at times, starting on the first page with the Vicar, but mother and daughter are so charming that everyone forgives them.  For me Lady Emily's daffiness wears after a while, as does Agnes' woolly-minded adoration of her unruly children, to whom she is contstantly cooing "Oh, wicked ones, wicked ones."  Her children play large parts in the later books, and I much prefer Clarissa in this one, plump and silent.

But in the end this book is more about Mary and Martin, and I enjoyed their stories, and the summer at Rushwater House.  I'm glad to have this back on my shelves, next to Pomfret Towers, and there they will both stay this time.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bruce Catton and Ulysses Grant

Grant Takes Command, Bruce Catton

It was Bruce Catton who really introduced me to the American Civil War, though in a sense I grew up with the war.  As a child living in Georgia, I camped with my Girl Scout Troop at Stone Mountain, the Confederate Mount Rushmore, with its giant bas-relief of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.  When family visited, my parents took them and us to every battlefield and plantation historic site within driving distance.  But it was finding Catton's three-volume history of the Federal Army of the Potomac on my parents' shelves many years later that brought the war alive for me, introduced me to military history, and made me a student of this four-year fratricidal conflict.

Catton, who was born in 1899, also grew up with the war, hearing stories from the veterans in his small Michigan hometown. After serving in the First World War, he became a journalist, working in newspapers before he became the founding editor of American Heritage magazine in 1954.  He was not an academic historian, but his many books about the Civil War were meticulously researched and documented.  Though he won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1954, his work was often labeled "pop" history (a dismissive term still sometimes used for historians who aim at or accidentally reach a wider non-academic audience).  Catton wrote in a relaxed, colloquial, but never sloppy style, and his narrative voice is unmistakable.  To my mind, he is the Anthony Trollope of historians.  He wrote complex narratives with a large cast of characters, moving his central story forward with frequent digressions to follow subplots, all of which come neatly back to the main theme.  He had a journalist's eye for description, for the telling detail, for the apt anecdote.  Writing about a war unprecedented in the slaughter of young men, he wasn't afraid to include the lighter moments that came even in the midst of desperate battles, while never playing for jokes.  He constantly brought in the common soldier's point of view, quoting diaries and letters as well as reminiscences written many years later.

Grant Takes Command is the final book in a three-volume biography of Ulysses S. Grant, focusing on his military career.  (Catton was chosen to complete the trilogy after the author of the first volume died.)  When I was reading John Jones' A Rebel War Clerk's Diary, my confusion with the lack of maps or notes led me to read with my National Geographic Atlas of the Civil War close at hand.  Its brief summaries of major battles made me curious to read more, particularly about the last years of the war, and there on the TBR shelves was this book, just exactly what I wanted.  (I had read the second volume, Grant Moves South, in my pre-blogging days.)

This book covers Grant's military career from late 1863 to the end of the war.  It opens in July, just after his great victory at Vicksburg.  With the equally important Federal victory at Chattanooga in November of that year, Grant became the military hero of the North, its most successful general and its best chance of winning the war.  Congress voted to revive the rank of Lieutenant General, last held by George Washington, and in March of 1864 Grant was promoted and made general-in-chief of the Federal armies. Following his career in 1864 and 1865 really gives a good overview of the war in general, because even when he wasn't in the field, as with Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas, he was still in charge, in frequent contact with his commanders across the entire front.  But Grant did spend most of his time in Virginia, facing Robert E. Lee and his army, taking his own men into some of the worst fighting of the war, at the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.  He famously said that he would "fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."  It took much longer than that, and many thousands of deaths, before he finally brought Lee to surrender in April of 1865.

Here Catton was writing a life, not strictly military history, and like all good biographers he wanted (in the words of  historian Paul Murray Kendall) "to elicit, from the coldness of paper, the warmth of a life being lived."  First, Catton let Grant speak for himself, quoting frequently from Grant's own words, his letters and dispatches as well as his later Memoirs, and his reminiscences in Around the World with General Grant.  Catton also paid close attention to the people around Grant, his "military family."  Whenever possible, his wife Julia joined him in camp, bringing one  or another of their sons with her.  Grant's aid Colonel Horace Porter wrote that they "were a perfect Darby and Joan," who in the quiet evenings sat together holding hands, "looking shy and mildly fussed if anyone noticed that they were doing it."  Grant was an attentive father, as much as he could be while absent in the field, constantly worried that his children weren't getting a proper education.  He didn't want his sons wasting their time on music or dancing, though he didn't object to it for his daughter Nellie.

Grant's marriage to Julia and their family were the center of his life, the balance for everything else.  Catton gave equal attention to two other crucial partnerships, with Abraham Lincoln and William T. Sherman.  In Grant, Lincoln found the general that he and the country so desperately needed. He told one of his secretaries, "I'm glad to find a man who can go ahead without me . . . He doesn't ask me to do impossibilities for him, and he's the first general I've had that didn't."  Grant later said of Lincoln, "He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known."  The second partnership, with Sherman, became a major factor in the eventual Union victory.  After Grant's promotion, Sherman took over his command in the western theater, but they continued to coordinate their military movements in Virginia and Georgia. Sherman once wrote Grant," I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come if alive."   Or as he once more bluntly put it: "He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now, sir, we stand by each other always."

Bruce Catton was probably never near the cutting-edge of Civil War scholarship, but his books are well-researched, neatly organized, and eminently readable.  I'm glad to have them on my shelves, and to see that so many are still in print - now considered classics.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Civil War diary from the heart of the Confederacy

A Rebel War Clerk's Diary, Vols. I & II, John B. Jones

My father gave me these two books several years ago, and since he never follows my blog I can admit that at the time, I didn't think I'd ever read them.  Though I've lived half my life now in the South, when it comes to books about the Civil War, I prefer the Northern perspective (possibly from reading Gone With the Wind at an early age, when we were living in Georgia.  My mother had forbidden me to read it; I was ten, and I didn't realize the futility of trying to hide a book that size under a mattress).

But I kept these books on the TBR stacks, and then reading George Templeton Strong's diary of the Civil War made me more interested in first-person accounts of the war, particularly diaries.  When I finally sat down with John Jones's, I ended up reading through both volumes in just a few days, fascinated by seeing familiar events unfolding from such a different angle.  Jones was a Southerner by birth, living in New Jersey but working in Philadelphia, where he published a pro-Southern newspaper, the Southern Monitor.  When war broke out in April of 1861, he feared that he would be liable to arrest as a prominent Confederate sympathizer.  He fled south, leaving his wife and five children to follow later.

Stopping first in Virginia, which had not yet left the Union, Jones watched as a convention met and eventually chose secession.  To provide for his family, he decided to seek a post in the new Confederate government.
"At fifty-one, I can hardly follow the pursuit of arms; but I will write and preserve a DIARY of the revolution.  I never held nor sought office in my life; but now President Tyler and Gov. Wise say I will find employment at Montgomery."
Jones travelled to the first capital of the Confederacy, where he was appointed a clerk in the office of the Secretary of War.  When the government offices were transferred to Richmond, Virginia, he moved with them.  His family joined him there, and eventually his two sons also found places in the government (which kept them out of the army).   From the heart of the Confederacy, in one of the offices central to the Rebel war effort, Jones watched President Jefferson Davis, the three Secretaries of War he worked under, generals including Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, members of the Confederate Congress, and officials from every level of the government.  For his work, he had access to official correspondence and state papers, many of which he had to summarize or draft responses to.  He wrote about all of this in his diary, which he stated more than once he kept with the full knowledge and approval of the President and the Secretary of War.  He often quoted the President's letters, and sometimes copied them whole into his diaries, which makes an interesting contrast with Harold Holzer's book about Abraham Lincoln's mail, Dear Mr. Lincoln.  I can't believe that Jones ever showed his diary to Davis or his superiors, or some of his franker comments might have cost him his job, if not landed him in jail.  On the other hand, he was completely loyal to the Confederate cause, which he saw as a war to preserve slavery and Southern independence, the birthright of the American Revolution.  He owned no slaves himself but was fully committed to the slave system.  I found it interesting that in contrast to Strong, Jones never used the n-word, only the term "negro."

Jones and his family lived in Richmond throughout the war.  They faced the constant threat of Federal invasion, and despite their exempt places his sons were sometimes required to join home guard units to defend the city.  Many of the entries detail the hardships the civilian population suffered.  It was often difficult to bring goods and food into the city.  Speculation and inflation drove prices to unbelievable highs, while salaries sank with a Confederate currency that constantly fell in value. In official papers and in articles that he wrote for the city's newspapers, Jones frequently called for government control and rationing, with prosecution of speculators and hoarders.  His own family benefited from his government contacts, which allowed him to buy food at reduced price or in effect on the black market, which Jones justified out of necessity.  He constantly put the blame for shortages on Jewish merchants, and I was taken aback by the blatant anti-semitism in so many of his entries.  The second Confederate Secretary of War, Judah Benjamin, was Jewish, and he went on to serve as the Secretary of State in Davis's cabinet.  I wonder if Jones kept his attitudes toward Jews for the privacy of his diary.

Another frequent target of Jones's ire was the large number of able-bodied men not serving in the Confederate forces.  As in the North, those liable to the draft could hire substitutes to serve for them.  In addition, the Confederate Constitution exempted many government positions from service, and farmers and industrial workers could also be excused.  But manpower shortages became so dire in the last two years of the war that there were calls to arm even the slaves, with the promise of freedom after the South gained its independence.  Jones frequently railed against the rich slaveowners who hired substitutes, while poorer men fought on their behalf in a war over slavery, and he also wanted the young men in cushy government jobs sent out to the army - though not his own sons.  He never explained why they should have been safe, exceptions to his own arguments.

In all of this, Jones's diary makes for much grimmer reading than Strong's, yet it does have its more human, even light-hearted moments.  Jones turned the backyard of their rented house into a garden, out of necessity.  His family needed all the tomatoes, cabbages and beans he could grow, but he loved every moment he spent there and took great pride in his harvests.  When his daughter's elderly cat died in 1864, he wrote,
"I sympathize with Fannie in all the grief natural on such an occasion; but really, the death of the cat in such times as these is a great relief to me, as he was maintained at the cost of not less than $200 per annum." 
I couldn't help but empathize with him at that moment, a man willing to spend what little they had on a family pet, and appreciating how much her cat meant to his daughter.  There was also the time he opened an old trunk, the key of which had been lost for many years, to discover it contained among other things "several books - one from my library, an octavo volume on Midwifery, 500 pages, placed there to prevent the children from seeing the illustrations . . . "  Obviously a more successful tactic than hiding it under a mattress.

Unlike George Templeton Strong, whose diary lay undiscovered in an archives for decades, John Jones decided to publish his after the war.  He apparently revised and expanded it from his original notes, but he did not live to see its publication in 1866, having died a few months before.  I hope that his book helped his family as much as Ulysses Grant's posthumous Memoirs did his.  I'm sure though that not all the reviews were positive.  Of all the Confederate leaders, only Robert E. Lee escaped his frank criticism or blame.

The edition I read is from Time-Life Books, part of their series the "Collector's Library of the Civil War."  Other than a brief note on the author, the diary was not edited, simply re-printed from the 1866 volumes.  I will be checking to see if another edition is available.  It would have been helpful to know more about some of the people that Jones mentioned, and also to have some perspective on his criticism.  I am also interested to know just how much revision he did prior to publication.  The author's note states that he "added assertions based on hindsight - the diary's major weakness. . . "   Despite its weaknesses, I am glad to have read this and to have watched the events of war unfold from a new perspective.

One crucial year in the Civil War

Rise to Greatness, David Von Drehle

Over the past couple of weeks, I've read two very different books about the Civil War, and started a third.  I'm not sure what sparked this little read-athon.  I've all had these books on the TBR shelves for a while; maybe it was just their time. Or maybe reading about the First World War sent me back to a more familiar conflict.

The first, Rise of Greatness, is subtitled "Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year."  That year is 1862, which was indeed a momentous year in the Civil War.  This is a general overview, a month by month account, "as much as possible from Lincoln's point of view."  When 1862 began, the Union war effort was stalled, and Confederate hopes of European recognition and intervention were high.  The Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, was a political appointment whose department was notorious for its corruption and incompetence.  In the east, Federal General George B. McClellan, the "Little Napoleon," openly snubbed Lincoln and refused to share military information with him.  The rise to greatness that David Von Drehle charts is Lincoln's own, as he grew into the unprecedented challenges of a presidency amidst civil war.

That war was not just between north and south, Federal and Confederate.  Lincoln faced divisions within the North, as radical Republicans pushed him to abolish slavery while Unionists in the critical slave-owning border states like Kentucky warned that would push them into the Confederacy.  There were no guarantees that the armies in the field, who enlisted to preserve the Union, would fight to free the slaves.  Northern society remained deeply divided over slavery, with many blaming abolitionists for the conflicts that led to the war in the first place.  Lincoln's Cabinet mirrored these divisions, and he also had to deal with a Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, who was already angling for the Republican presidential nomination in 1864.

One of Lincoln's first steps was to educate himself more deeply in military matters.  He was always a master of self-study, a true autodidact, though also willing to learn from others with more knowledge or greater experience.  What he learned over the next few months, primarily from books on military strategy borrowed form the Library of Congress, enabled him to assert his constitutional authority as Commander in Chief.  With a new Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, he began to set policies and strategy, and to find generals who would carry them out.  Some of the war's worst fighting came in that year's battles, at Shiloh, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and especially Fredericksburg.  General after general came and went, and one stayed: Ulysses Grant.  "I can't spare this man," Lincoln once said. "He fights."

Over the course of the year, Lincoln also came to recognize the role that slavery played in sustaining the Confederate war effort.  As Eric Foner argued in The Fiery Trial, Lincoln believed with many of his fellow Republicans (and most Democrats) that since slavery was protected by the Constitution, he could not interfere with it where it already existed.  However, he came to believe with many others that he could use his wartime powers to abolish slavery as a military necessity.  That step might also influence Britain at least against intervention or assistance (France meanwhile was playing a dangerous game in Mexico, where Napoleon III had put the Austrian archduke Maximilian on a puppet throne).  Lincoln first discussed emancipation with members of his cabinet in July.  He issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 23rd, and he signed the final formal document on January 1, 1863.

All of this took place against a background of personal tragedy for the Lincoln family.  On February 20th, their third son Willie died of typhoid fever.  He was Lincoln's favorite, many said the most like him.  Lincoln's own deep grief, mostly silent, was made even more difficult by his wife Mary.  Already extravagant, she was determined to make her mark as First Lady, and she seems to have crossed over the line into compulsive or addictive behavior.  One friend of the family remembered a bill for three hundred pairs of kid gloves.  To finance her extravagance, there were rumors that the president's wife was forging bills and taking kickbacks.  She also became obsessed with spiritualism, trying to contact Willie's spirit, falling victim to more than one charlatan.  The séances that she held at the White House made the President a target of ridicule from all sides.  It's impossible not to feel sympathy for Mary Lincoln in the loss of her son, while at the same time wishing someone could have sat her down for a serious talk and some professional help.

David Von Drehle is an editor at Time magazine who has written several other books, including a history of the Triangle fire (now on my library list).  This book is a good introduction to a very complicated year.  He puts the events, political and military, in context without overwhelming the reader, and he also manages a large cast of characters, deftly keeping them distinct.  He has an eye ear for the telling anecdotes, much like Lincoln himself.  His narration is brisk and even a bit breezy at times, which it makes for a lively story.

Initially I was going to write briefly about both books, but I had more to say about this book than I expected, so I'll put my thoughts about the second in another post.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Life after life

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

I loved this book, which was one of the most intense reading experiences I've had in a long while.  I started it on a Sunday afternoon, thinking to just try a few pages before I went on to finish some weekend projects.  I finally set it firmly aside about 9.30 that night, because if I knew if I didn't I'd still have been reading at 3 AM.  I took it to work with me, to read at lunch and on the commute home, and finished it Monday evening.  Those 529 pages just flew by.

I've been waffling a bit about this post, though, for a couple of reasons. First, because other people have already written wonderfully about this book, including Teresa at Shelf Love, Alex at Thinking in Fragments, and Helen at She Reads Novels.  But even more because in the end I'm left with so many questions, and with the feeling that I missed something major, that perhaps my reading was too literal, that I was too caught up in the complexities of the plot and the deeper meaning of the story eluded me - or I read right past it, too intent on what happens next.

On the surface this is the story of Ursula Todd, born on a stormy winter night in February of 1911, her parents Hugh and Sylvie, her brothers and sister.  It's not just one story of one life, it's a series, life after life.  Ursula's first life ends as it begins, when she is born with the umbilical cord choking her.  The doctor has been delayed by the storm, and Sylvie is caught in childbirth with only the family's maid Bridget to help her.  The women don't know what to do, how to save the newborn infant, who dies.  Two pages later, the scene is set again, re-set, but this time the doctor is there and the child, Ursula, is saved.  As she grows up, if (when) her life follows a path that ends in tragedy, the story goes back to that February night.  Sometimes the story resets to a different point in Ursula's life, to a different crossroads, so that she can turn to the left this time, rather than the right, follow a different path, until that story too comes to its end.

I found all these different stories fascinating in and of themselves.  Sometimes I could see an end approaching, and though I dreaded its coming, I was so curious to see where Ursula's story would begin again, and where it would take her next.  Two of the story lines I found so heartbreaking that I felt such a rush of relief when they ended, and she could escape to start somewhere else again.  One of these I thought turned on a very weak plot element, and strange as it may sound to talk of implausibility in a book like this, I found it difficult to accept a sexual assault on a staircase in the family home in broad daylight.  The consequences on the other hand I found all too plausible, and sad.

Somewhere along the way, as these stories diverged and converged, I began to wonder why all this was happening.  Who was shaping these events, or who was resetting the clock, God or History or Fate or Providence?  The opening scene, in a cafe in Munich in November of 1930, suggests some purpose.  It reminded me of Connie Willis's time travel novels, though, where the historians have learned that they cannot get close enough to major events to influence or impact them, they are simply pushed out into another less fraught time.  (I was also reminded of Terry Pratchett's Alternative Pant Leg Theory of History, not to mention Chrestomanci's Related Worlds.)  God or Fate seems to be pushing Ursula, but I was never sure what He or She or It was pushing her toward, except another chance at survival, at life.  And why Ursula in the first place?

It was interesting that Ursula herself develops a sense of previous lives, so that she learns to avoid some dangers.  It takes serious efforts to avoid some fates, such as the flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which costs more than one life.  On the other hand there seem to be some fixed points, which cannot alter, such as Pam's marriage and Hugh's death, and Lavinia Nesbit with her little cat brooch.  I am still haunted by Nancy's recurring fate, and by that of the fox (and disappointed that Maurice never ever in a single one of the many stories gets his just desserts).

The final pages brought even more questions.  Are others' lives repeating and changing along with Ursula's?  Isn't that what Sylvie's final experience with the scissors suggests?  What does Teddy's resurrection, so late in the book, mean for Ursula's story - and for Sylvie's?  Can the changes flow backwards?  Is there an end to this chain of lives?  For Ursula, it can't be with the events in Hyde Park, which seem fitting, if the story then circles back to the start, but goes so wrong. But then Ursula's experience with Frieda, with its choice of an ending, should be where the story goes wrong, if "something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed."  And what in the world is the meaning of that last chapter, with Mrs Haddock, which reprints word for word her earlier appearance?

I am clearly going to have to buy my own copy of this book, so that I can read it all over again, while I puzzle all these things out, or simply decide to live with the mysteries.  In the meantime, which of Kate Atkinson's books should I look for next?