Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Kings Mountain by Sharon McCrumb

This is what I would call a narrative history - the events and the names of people are real - but the words and many actions come from the imagination and supposition of the author. I saw the 'Battle of King's Mountain' reenacted on the television series "The Revolution" - so I could easily picture in my own mind the action taking place. This is the back story. What these men - all volunteers - endured on the march over the mountains to and from the battle site is incredible. The great anger on both sides led to a virtual massacre of the British troops who were not about to give up to men they considered so inferior to their trained and uniformed army. It's well known that the Americans had the advantage in the site and the fact that they fought like Indians against the robotic formations of the British gave them a huge advantage. Well worth the read.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers: A Ballad Novel (Ballad Novels) by Sharon McCrumb

This book is also about an actual event but the author imagines virtually all the events surrounding the 1920's trial of a woman of the Tennessee mountains who was charged with the murder of her father. The plot deals mainly with the big city reporters - and one lad representing a local paper - who covered the trial. The ways in which they manipulate the facts to fit a preconceived idea of what the public wants and what will induce that public to follow events avidly are really the main story. Reading, one can't help reflecting that nothing has changed since the Spanish American War - often called 'Hearst's War' because the war mongering newspaper editor whipped people into a nationalistic frenzy - to the present day. Readers are ruthlessly manipulated - and to hell with the truth.We still deal with it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Guest of Honor

by Deborah Davis

This slim volume is an account of what happened when Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T.  Washington to have dinner with him and his family at the White House.

It also, in the  initial chapters, recounts the lives of both men - Booker T. who was born a slave and educated himself and TR who was born an aristocrat from a monied background. I had already read much about TR but very little about Booker T. The biographical accounts for both men are extraordinary - just as these two men themselves were.

The news of the dinner, which occurs well into the book, was received by the public as scandalous - even in the North and especially in the South. The general public was stirred into a frenzy by the media, (sounds familiar), which built up and kept the ‘scandal’ going with scurrilous cartoons and text.

Both men were astounded by the ruckus - even Book T. who was used to ‘walking on eggs’ where whites were concerned.  Though in England, he had been invited to Tea by Queen Victoria, he expected no such respect in his home country. TR however was surprised and appalled. He had been using Booker T. as a consultant on the appointment of southerners to various government jobs in an attempt to exclude the most intractable racists. The relationship was not publicly known but after the dinner brouhaha, it continued with greater secrecy.

Now, one hundred years later, we have a black president living in the White House. Things have changed. Right? They have, haven’t they……………….?

The Glory and The Dream

by William Manchester

Published in 1973, it is now out of print and accordingly is relatively high priced. Luckily I snagged this tome from a used book website for a pittance. When it was delivered, I was intimidated by its size. Not only was it two thick volumes but the text, though not small, was dense and the paragraphs long. Formidable! I ‘tackled’ it and found that each evening, I looked forward to reading it, as one would a good novel.

It covers our American history from 1933 to 1973 - forty very eventful years encompassing the Great Depression and three wars. Since I was born in 1931, all the historical names - places, politicians, events - were familiar to me. What was fascinating were the nuances and machinations behind these events. Sometimes the details were jaw dropping. "I didn’t know that" - went through my mind many times as I read accounts of  the background of events I remembered. The author, who died in 2004, explored the culture of the times as well as events and politics. Those parts are great fun.

The Depression, Roosevelt, World War II, Truman, the atom bomb, the Korean War, Eisenhower, the years of post war affluence, Kennedy, Viet Nam, Johnson, Nixon. It covers the McCarthy era with an account of how everyone was cowed by the man who was an obvious charlatan. Even the United States Army backed off over special treatment demanded for David Schine, one of McCarthy’s minions. It was attorney Joseph Welch who eventually brought McCarthy down with the words “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

The politics then was as dirty as it is now. Some things never change. In a sense, it’s a ‘tell all’ book because it records all the political maneuvering behind decisions through these forty years and the social changes in mores, manners and morals. The latter passages have an almost ‘gossipy’ feel.

The book ends with Watergate which is presented here as an incredibly ‘bollixed’ up plan that - in detail - reads like a Keystone Cops comedy of errors. Hindsight shows it as terminal stupidity which was destined for failure from the beginning and it was so unnecessary, since Nixon was at the height of his popularity. The book ends before Ford’s presidency. I closed it with regret and wished for more.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dakota Blues by Lynne Morgan Spreen

This first novel by Spreen held my interest from beginning to end. The author was brought up in North Dakota but this doesn’t mean it’s a memoir. It does mean that she has a fine sense of the place and its people. The main character is Karen, a fifty year old woman, who goes home for her mother's funeral in North Dakota. Karen has a high pressure job and while there she is informed that she has been 'let go'. To make matter worse, she's in the throes of a divorce.

When she is about to return home to California, she is persuaded to drive a camper belonging to a ninety year old woman, who is in ill health and who wishes to see her new great granddaughter. Reluctantly she agrees to sidetrack to Denver and leave the woman with her daughter, with the promise that then the camper will become her property and she can proceed to California.

Gradually her impatience gives way to a curious bonding with the woman. At that point, it turns briefly into a 'road trip' story with an unlikely duo. The two meet assorted people at the various campgrounds and even have a narrow escape in one instance. After finally depositing her companion in Denver Karen drives on to California, faces what awaits her and makes a decision - a surprising resolution to her problems.

I look forward to another book by this author.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power by Thomas Meacham (A Pulitzer Prize winning book)

Most of us see the 'founding fathers' as graven stone images - or stiffly portrayed in old paintings. They put together the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with skill, dignity and equanimity.  Right? Wrong. Birthing a nation can involve long & arduous labor. This book presents a view of events as they really happened. There were prickly personalities, feuds, anger and personal animosity - just as we see in politics today.

There were two 'parties' then - as now. These were the Federalists and Republicans. The conservative Federalists leaned toward a reunion with England or a monarchy type of government and the more liberal Republicans toward a freely elected, representative government. Jefferson personified the latter view. It caused breaks with many of his former close friends - John Adams among them. (Adams succeeded George Washington as our second president). 

An extremely controversial act was passed during the presidency of John Adams - the Alien & Sedition Act. It provided for anyone who criticized the president or the government to be liable to fines and imprisonment. It's hard to believe it was signed by Adams. It was clearly a templet for dictatorship. Jefferson rescinded it upon ascending to the presidency and pardoned those who had been imprisoned.

His administration was notable for some outstanding achievements. He quickly seized upon the purchase of Louisiana when the French offered it for sale at a 'bargain' price, roughly doubling the size of the country. He also commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition to the northwest, establishing a claim to that region.

What makes this a good read is the fact that you are drawn into the personal lives of these iconic figures. You see them - warts and all. It was astonishing that so many men of brilliance lived and worked in one time period. 

Jefferson was beset by doubts and lack of confidence - a conflict between modesty and a desire to see his name writ large in history. Jefferson's wife extracted from him a deathbed promise not to marry again. (This wasn't quite as selfish as it sounds - her own mother died when she was two and she was brought up by a succession of stepmothers. Evidently she wanted to protect her own children from a similar situation). He never did marry again but was not celibate. While serving as the country's representative in France, he carried on a long standing affair with a married Italian aristocrat and notably fathered several children by his slave, Sally Hemmings.

Jefferson viewed slavery as a vice that should be eliminated - and yet he never freed his own slaves. He did free the children he had with Sally Hemmings when they reached the age of twenty one. After his death, Jefferson's daughter gave Sally a house and she was in effect freed.

 Jefferson lived into his eighties in reasonably good shape with intellect intact. Memorably, both he and John Adams (with whom he had repaired differences later in life) died on July 4th, 1826 - the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.