The Civil War: A Narrative (Three Volumes – 2974 pages)

This magnificently written trilogy of books on the American Civil War is not only a piece of first-rate history, but also an excellent work of literature. The late Shelby Foote brings an accomplished novelist’s descriptive power to this grand epic. This immense three-volume set should be on the bookshelf of any Civil War buff. It is the definitive example of narrative history and creative non-fiction.

I started reading this 2,934-page trilogy on June 6, 2007 and have completed it in September 2008. This is not a reading assignment to tackle in a single season. I read 27 other books while reading through this great work. I will review each book of the trilogy separately. I have since read the series again. I also purchased the audio book from Audible.com. It takes over 150 hours to listen to the three book set.

The Civil War: A Narrative–Fort Sumter to Perryville, Volume One. The book covers the beginning of the war through December 1862. The late Shelby Foote writes with a down home, comfortable style that is like he is sitting beside you telling a story. Make no mistake, he is a southern and tells the story from a southern point of view. The book is a work of creative non-fiction. It is a first class narrative. It is the example of how to write history.

Many students of the Civil War are limited in their knowledge of the war to the major battles of Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, Iuka, Antietam (Sharpsburg), etc. (battles in 1861 -1862) or the generals. Foote covers all the battles. And he covers what takes place in between the battles though with minor battles that tend to be brushed over with the simple reference to their being fought buy others.

I admit some parts of the book were a struggle for me to get through. The time between the campaigns and battles, the endless maneuvers and debates were challenging. Once he moved on to the next battle or fight, the action and pace of the book picked up. Foote shared enough strategy and tactics as well as some of the intellectual processes the key players used to help us understand what leadership on both sides will do under such situations. At times it was like reading the strategy behind a chess game. The back stories of the political considerations were actually enjoyable at times and problematic to boring at others.

I recommend The Civil War: A Narrative–Fort Sumter to Perryville, Volume One to any American or person with an interest in American history. Yes, the battles may seem to be repetitious. Yes, the politics and maneuvers do at times get somewhat dry. They must be included to tell the entire story. We need know the story well to know who we are as a people.

I wish the editor had placed better divisions in the book. Even knowing the history of the civil war well, I had trouble at times with where we were at what battle. Many of the battles are referred to by their southern name, usually the nearest town e.g. Sharpsburg instead of their northern name e.g., Antietam, usually the nearest body of water.

The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian covers from December 1862 and the Fredericksburg Battle to the Meridian , Mississippi campaign and the US Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant General. The late Shelby Foote continues writing in a down home, comfortable style that is like he is sitting beside you telling a story. Again, I point out as in the review of volume one, make no mistake; he is a southern and tells the story from a southern point of view. The book is a work of creative non-fiction. It is a first class narrative. It is the example of how to write history.

Foote covers all the battles. And he covers what takes place in between the battles though with minor battles tend to be brushed over with the simple reference to their being fought.

As in volume one I admit some parts of the book were a great struggle for me to get through. At times between the battles it was boring. The time from Fredericksburg to Vicksburg and Gettysburg took forever to cover. Foote occasionally repeated himself and would chase rabbits. The time between the campaigns and battles, the endless maneuvers and debates were challenging. Once he moved on to the next battle or fight, the action and pace of the book picked up. Foote shared enough strategy and tactics as well as some of the intellectual processes the key players used to help us understand what leadership on both sides will do under such situations. At times it was like reading the strategy behind a chess game. The back stories of the political considerations were actually enjoyable at times and problematic to boring at others.

I recommend this to any American or person with an interest in American history. Yes, the battles may seem to be repetitious. Yes, the politics and maneuvers do at times get somewhat dry. They must be included to tell the entire story. We need know the story well to know who we are as a people.

Again, I wish the editor had placed better divisions in the book.

The Civil War: A Narrative, Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox. Shelby Foote takes the Civil War and scrutinizes it in a writing style that feels as if you are hearing news from the front in an ongoing war. This book is not for the mildly curious, you will get bored and overwhelmed by the dates, names and places. This volume is longer than either of the first two volumes. But to military history, history, or civil war buffs, it is as detailed and factual as you could want. This is truly a definitive work on the War Between the States.

The book handles personalities of both individuals and cultures and their effects on the war. The reading can be slow going at times as armies march toward each other and the order of battle becomes established with the commanders’ names and stations, but the battle details seem incredibly well researched and the accounts of soldiers/officers bring home this conflict.

This book is well worth the effort to read, it imparts a sense of what the United States has survived and clarifies many historical perceptions of the era and the people involved in this massive conflict.

Once more I wish the editor had placed better divisions in the book.

A last thought – I have never read a better, more vivid, more understandable account of the savage battling between Grant’s and Lee’s armies. Shelby Foote stays with the human discord and distress, and unlike most Southern commentators, he does not take sides. In objectivity, in range, in mastery of detail in beauty of language and feeling for the people involved, this work surpasses anything else on the subject. It stands along the work of the best of them. These three books are my all time favorite books/book series.

Poem: Ode to 1965 to 1974

Ode to 1965 to 1974

She dreamed of changing the world.
Went roller skating on Friday night.
Desperately wanted a boyfriend
And friends who cared
That always treated you right.
Saturday nights double-dating
At the drive-in movie theater.
Sunday mornings in church
And attending Sunday school.
Then come Monday morning
Back at school not knowing you were cool.

Growing up so fast
You were as pretty as could be
Yet never realizing
You were the one
All the girls wanted to be
When boys got their driver’s license
They had their day dreams about you

They played their guitars
On weekends and after school.
To have you as their first lover
Many boys would dream
After the drive-in movie
There was pizza or ice cream.
President Nixon made no more sense to us
Than had LBJ
We all hoped the war would end
And the draft would go away
Our political commentators
Were Tom and Dick Smoothers
And Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, too
Somewhere we grew up
And turned into “the man”
Our dreams were gone away
No longer was there a plan
There’s still time to regain the passion
We had back in our youth
So many still ask,
“What is truth?”

© 2011 by Jimmie A. Kepler

Review: Clapton: The Autobiography

Biographies are a passion for me. I approach each with an open mind ready to hear the writer’s story. My interest in music, love of rock and roll, and respect for great guitar musicianship lead me to read Eric Clapton’s autobiography.

Sex, booze, drugs and rock and roll fill the celebrated guitarist’s autobiography. As he retraces his career, from the early stints with the Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek and The Dominoes to his solo successes, Clapton also devotes great detail to his drug and alcohol addictions.

You get the back-story of his life as you learn he was raised by his grandparents. You learn that his mother was 15 when she became pregnant with him and that his father was a Canadian soldier. He struggles all his life with his background.

A major influence/obsession in his life was Pattie Boyd (former wife of Beatle George Harrison). His relationship with the Boyd for whom he wrote Layla culminated in a turbulent marriage. He spends great detail on their relationship as well as other female relationships.

I enjoyed reading about how he taught himself to play the guitar. I learned that he never learned to read music. He describes his playing style as a variation of the folk music claw-hammer style. He says he uses the top two strings of his guitar for the bass line, the middle two strings for rhythm, and the bottom two strings for playing lead guitar. He shares how he selected his guitars. We learn how the gauge of the strings and the distance between fret and neck influenced his ability to play.

You get the story of his son Connor, his accidental death, and the song Tears in Heaven.We learn of the impact of the death of Stevie Ray Vaughn on his life.

Clapton warms to the subject of his recovery, stressing its spiritual elements and how he started the Crossroads Clinic in Antigua. He eagerly discusses the fund-raising efforts for his Crossroads clinic and the Crossroads Guitar/Music Festivals he used to raise money for the clinics. Sharing this personal journey into addiction and recovery is therapeutic for him.

His reflecting is filled with humility, particularly in the form of unhappiness with his early successes. He professes ambivalence about the famous Clapton is God graffiti, although he admits he was grateful for the recognition from fans. At times, he sounds more like landed nobility than a rock star. He shares about his collection of contemporary art, enthusiastically defending his hunting and fishing as leisure activities, and extolling the qualities of his quiet country living. But both the youthful excesses and the current calm state are narrated with a charming tone that pushes Clapton’s story ahead of other rock and roll memoirs. This is a well written book that is worth the purchase price and time you invest in reading.

Review: White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

He had seen men enslaved, and seen death in battle on a terrible scale. So when a young, unknown poet named Emily Dickinson wrote to ask whether he thought her verse was “alive”, Thomas Wentworth Higginson – a critic for The Atlantic Monthly and a decorated Union veteran – knew he was seeing poetry that lived and breathed like nothing he had seen before.

Higginson was immediately awed by Emily Dickinson, and went on to become her editor, mentor, and one of the reclusive poet’s closest confidantes. The two met only twice, but exchanged hundreds of deeply personal letters over the next twenty-five years; they commented on each other’s work, mulled over writers they admired, and dazzled each other with nimble turns of phrase. After she died, he shepherded the first collected edition of her poetry into publication, and was a tireless champion of her work in his influential Recent Poems column for The Nation.

Later generations of literary scholars have dismissed Higginson as a dull, ordinary mind, blaming him for the decision to strip some of the distinctive, unusual structure from Dickinson’s poems for publication. However, Brenda Wineapple offers a portrait of Higginson that is far beyond ordinary. He was a widely respected writer, a fervent abolitionist, and a secret accomplice to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry; wounded in the first year of the Civil War, he returned to service as colonel of the first federally-authorized regiment of former slaves. White Heat reveals a rich, remarkable friendship between the citizen soldier and the poet, a correspondence from which Dickinson drew tremendous passion and inspiration – and which she credited, more than once, with saving her life.

Brenda Wineapple is the author and editor of five books, including the award-winning Hawthorne: A Life and Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The American Scholar, The New York Times Book Review, Parnassus, Poetry, and The Nation. She teaches in the MFA programs at Columbia University and The New School in New York.

The Martian Chronicles

Preface: I own the Bantam Books paperback edition, printing number 68 in 1988. It includes the story where the blacks (African-Americans) get fed up with the south and head to Mars. Some editions have this story edited out. The removal of the story was for political correctness and to not offend some racial groups.

I first read The Martin Chronicles in the 1980’s. I continue to come back from time to time to dip (to use a Bradbury phrase) into the wonderful writing and story telling of Ray Bradbury. He set the standard high when he wrote The Martian Chronicles. The book has one of the most important set of observations about our human issues ever written in either science fiction or science fantasy form.

Like many of Mr. Bradbury’s works, The Martian Chronicles is short story collection He turned them into a novel by writing a few transition stories to fit with ones he had already written. He wrote these short stories in the late 1940s. That was a time when we knew almost nothing about Mars. He uses Mars as the backdrop for a more serious look at issues and questions including hate, war, lack of forethought, and greed. Mr. Bradbury visualizes an amazing future. He sees what can be when humankind operates at our best. He appeals to our better selves to build a better future.

The book covers a period from 1999 through 2026. It begins with the first manned expedition to Mars from Earth. The American astronauts find Martians on the first journey to Mars. The complications of the first four expeditions come from the interactions between humans and Martians. The complications are unexpected and fascinating.

In the book, much of the human colonization of Mars brings those who want to recreate Earth against those who appreciate what is special about Mars. Therefore, exploitation versus conservation is one theme in the book. There are magnificent stories in here against racism, censorship of books, and war.

Near the book’s end are three stories about a variety of meanings of loneliness. They are wonderful. The first looks at men and women seeking each other out when there is no other company. The second considers the loss of a family and how to cope with that. The third looks remorsefully at the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

The last story in The Martian Chronicles, “The Million-Year Picnic,” makes me very melancholy. From that story, you will be able to answer “Who are the Martians?”

Do not let the fact that Bradbury mainly writes science fiction and fantasy keep you from reading this master story-teller. Read Bradbury for his great story telling, dialogue, and writing.

Summary: Light in August – Chapters Twenty and Twenty-one

As with the second part of the novel, Hightower’s narration stands between the central story involving Joe Christmas and the outer frame story about Lena Grove.

By aiding with the birth of Lena’s child and then by attempting to save Joe Christmas, Hightower has re-entered the stream of life. And even though Hightower failed Christmas, he has achieved a type of salvation for himself. He does not realize this until later on in the evening when he begins to review his whole life. Never before had Hightower examined his own motivations. But suddenly the meaning of his life evolves in front of him.

The use of the wheel image re-emphasizes the essential structure of the novel. The novel itself is seen in terms of circular images, and it is through this wheel image that Hightower sees man cannot isolate himself from the faces surrounding the wheel. Man must become part of the community and must assume responsibility not only for his own actions but for the actions of his fellow-man.

Until the last pages of the novel, Hightower can never bring into a complete unity the two divergent accounts of his grandfather’s death. He delights in the account of his grandfather being shot from a horse while brandishing his sword during Van Dorn’s cavalry raid, but in the more realistic account, he realizes that his grandfather was killed by a shotgun while stealing chickens, and moreover, probably killed by some frightened woman. This last account, given by Cinthy, the Negro slave, finally succeeds in becoming the realistic view as Hightower attains a more rational grasp of life.

In both the opening and closing chapters, Lena is seen on the road. The only difference is that in between these chapters, Lena has acquired a baby and Bryon Bunch.

Since the novel closes with the emphasis on Lena, the reader is gently led away from the horrifying tragedy of Joe Christmas, and the final emphasis is on the renewal and continuance of life in the person of Lena’s baby.

And that concludes the reviews of the twenty-one chapters in William Faulkner’s Light in August.

Summary: Light in August – Chapter Nineteen

Chapter nineteen’s narration from the viewpoint of the town. After the last chapter, in which Joe found a certain peace within himself, he then returns to the community and apparently allows himself to be captured. Since none of the action is from Joe’s point of view, the reader must speculate about what caused him to make a break after he had apparently given himself up and decided to accept his punishment.

The first explanation is offered by Gavin Stevens, a new character who functions as a type of commentator on the action. This character, Gavin Stevens, will appear often in some of Faulkner’s later novels, but what the reader should remember is that any new commentator can give only partial reasons and partial motivations for the actions. However, Stevens’ view that Christmas’ actions were a result of the conflicting elements in his blood is to a large degree the correct interpretation. But Stevens is closer to the truth when he speaks of the role played by Mrs. Hines and how she and her husband, old Doc Hines, set peaceful elements into conflict.

In the preceding chapter Joe had realized that he could gain peace only in isolation and could never be accepted by the society as part white and part Negro. Joe no longer rebels against the conflicting elements in his blood until the arrival of old Doc Hines, and then the grandfather’s wild rantings and ravings cause Joe to despair, especially since his own grandfather is the chief person demanding Joe’s immediate death.

It has also been developed throughout the novel that women function as a type of destruction to Joe’s sense of order. Thus, having accepted his destined place in life and having accepted his death, the visit of Mrs. Hines probably set warring elements into conflict again. We must assume that she told him of the Reverend Gail Hightower, since Joe did go there when he escaped from the sheriff. Through Mrs. Hines, Hightower’s house functions as a type of haven for Joe where he can find some type of sanctuary from the influence of women.

Whether Joe knows of Hightower’s past tragedy with women is not important, since Joe does feel drawn toward this man who has also suffered at the hands of the community. At Hightower’s, Joe’s failure to fire the pistol and his submitting to the horrible atrocity show that he accepts his death in Hightower’s house as an escape from the destructive forces of the society and of women. It is as though Joe wills his own death in a sanctuary away from the influence of women.

Hightower’s attempt to help Joe Christmas by saying that Joe was with him on the night of the murder represents High-tower’s re-entry into life. Previously, he had rejected life and wished to live in total solitude. But he has just delivered Lena’s baby that day and has seen how great life can be, even for an old man; thus, his attempt to save Joe is his recognition of his responsibility to life and is also his hope to help another isolated person (Joe) discover the same thing.

Even this close to the end of the novel, Faulkner introduces a new character in the person of Percy Grimm. In later years, Faulkner commented that he did not realize at the time that he was creating a little Nazi Hitler. But the way Faulkner develops these secondary characters attests to his greatness. Grimm, as his name suggests, represents the horrible atrocities which man can commit against his fellow-man.

But Grimm is also another person who stands outside the mainstream of the community. Even though he was able to get some men to follow him, no one seems to be as cruel as he. His enthusiasm for his perverted aims far exceeds any normal reaction. After his castration of Joe, one of the men with him becomes sick and vomits, suggesting that even the average man who condescends to follow Grimm cannot withstand the brutality of his last act.