Friday, May 21, 2010


I am working on a new blog project about which I am excited. So excited that I want to completely focus on it. As such, this ole blog is going to take a break. I will update when the new blog launches.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A good Civil War read

My sister now lives in Atlanta, which means I visit fairly frequently. Not as much as I would like, but I have certainly spent some time there. On one of the visits, we traveled out to the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, and learned about the precursors to the Battle(s) of Atlanta, but I had not seen anything in town about the fighting in and around Atlanta. As Russell Bonds notes in the beginning of his War Like a Thunderbolt, most people's (including my own) idea of the war in Atlanta comes from Gone with the Wind. Unlike Antietam or Gettysburg, there is no park or memorial to the battle of Atlanta despite its importance in history.

Bonds argues that without Sherman's victory in the four battles of Atlanta in mid 1864, Lincoln would have lost the election to McClellan and the Confederacy would have likely survived. The soldier vote was crucial to Lincoln's success and flush from the victory in Atlanta, the Army came out fully for Lincoln, which must have stung former General McClellan.

The book is part military history and part social history. Bonds makes good use of maps, which is always appreciated and keeps the narrative from becoming too bogged down in detail. I also appreciated that he let the soldiers speak, and didn't focus exclusively on the generals, as some historians are wont to do. On the generals side, we see the test of wills of General Sherman on the Union side, and General Johnston and then Hood on the Confederate side. Aside from one close run battle east of the city, Sherman's leadership was critical to the victory.

The question of Sherman in Georgia is of course a controversial one. He is still disliked by many in the South for the March to the Sea. Bonds take a even handed approach to the controversy. He points to his great success as a military leader, but criticizes many of his brutal actions, like shelling the civilian areas of the city for over a month, expelling the populace and then ensuring that the city was destroyed.

In Sherman, you can see beginnings of the idea of crushing an enemy by breaking the will of the civilian populace. The Germans developed this further by submarine warfare and the Allies in World War 2 took it even further by the bombing campaigns. It is easy to criticize these approaches, but they have a point. By ending the war sooner, do they save more lives than they take? The longer wars last, the more vicious they become, so there is some merit to Sherman's idea.

This is a long book so realistically, it will only appeal to people interested in the Civil War, Atlanta, or, at a stretch, the 1864 Presidential campaign. If that describes you, by all means pick this one up.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book trade bonanza at Powells

Oh man did I score at Powell's yesterday. I brought in a stack of books and received just under $50 in credit. Having not bought books in awhile there were so many to pick up. Here was my haul.

American Rust by Philipp Meyer. This one gets compared to McCarthy and Lehane and also wound up on a number of best of lists for 09. Looks promising, in a bleak, makes-you-wanna-die kinda way.

Warlock by Oakley Hall. I've been meaning to get a copy of this and then all of a sudden Steve recommended it. It is currently in a NYRB classics edition, but lucky me, I found a used copy of an earlier edition.

Nightmare Alley by William Gresham. After Dirda gushed about it, I needed it. And there it was! The very last copy. I felt special.

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Supposedly the Vietnam novel. We shall see.

Cthulhu's Reign by collected authors. Yes, well, one of these things is not like the other, I guess. With all that literary goodness, I needed a little profane to balance out the sacred.

Why no love for nonfiction? I have SO much nonfiction out from the library that I am feeling a little under the gun on that front.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I must get my hands on this one

Silly me, I have been away from the Washington Post book reviews for the most foolish of reasons. I lost my RSS feeds and neglected to add them. Thanks to Omnivoracious, I caught this Dirda review of a NYRB Classics release of William Lindsey's 1946 novel Nightmare Alley. The man knows how to sell a book:

While I've known for a long time that William Lindsay Gresham's "Nightmare Alley" (1946) was an established classic of noir fiction, I was utterly unprepared for its raw, Dostoevskian power. Why isn't this book on reading lists with Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts" and Albert Camus' "The Stranger"? It's not often that a novel leaves a weathered and jaded reviewer like myself utterly flattened, but this one did.

How can you not want this book right now?

On the "huh, isn't that interesting tip" we have this:

Still, the most notable factoid surrounding him involves his wife, Joy Davidman, the dedicatee of "Nightmare Alley." She left Gresham, traveled to England and there met, and ultimately married, the novelist, scholar and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. Did Lewis, I wonder, ever read "Nightmare Alley"? His books frequently address the problem of human pain, of temptation and sinfulness, of damnation.

The Republic of Suffering

Drew Gilpin Faust's award winning The Republic of Suffering is quite the read. She looks at the Civil War, and by extension war itself, from the viewpoint of death. Each chapter in the book is concerned with a different aspect. In one she describes the "Good Death," that the soldiers desperately hoped to have. She details the challenges of burial, identification, mourning and making the right memorials.

Most Civil War histories discuss the belief of both sides that the war would be over quickly, won by their side of course. Faust explores what this meant for the aftermath of the bodies. Neither side was prepared to deal with the dead bodies. The systems in place to identify and properly bury dead soldiers did not exist. Civil society and capitalism in the North took advantage of their greater resources to step in where the could, but those in the South were less lucky.

Faust takes advantage of the fact that people of the 19th century were much more likely to write diaries, letters and memoirs than their 21st century counterparts. Much of the book is given to quoting the soldiers and their families as they wrestle with what the war wrought. She tells tragic tales of parents, siblings and spouses seeking out their lost loved ones.

The book ends with the problems of what to do with the dead. I was sad to read that one of the reasons for the construction of national cemeteries was to prevent the desecration of the dead after the war.

This is by no means a happy read, but it is an good one. Those who blithely cheer on when the threat of war is on the horizon would do well to read this book and ponder it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Some nice looking scifi on the horizon

Amazon has a page of summer fiction treats up. It includes the new Mieville called Kraken, which looks great. This one is set in a version of our London, but with plenty of Mieville madness. If you haven't read him, definately give Perdido Street Station a try. Just hold your nose if the bug sex bothers you.

On the Kraken page, I see that Charlie Stross has a new Laundry book coming out. This one is called the Fuller Memorandum and I will be reading it for sure. The books read like a cross between the Sandbaggers and the Office and Stross brings it of perfectly.

William Gibson has a new one. I go hot and cold on Gibson, but I will keep my eye on it.

Now here is a book I want. Neil Gaiman gathered some of his story making friends to create an anthology called Stories. Writers the likes of Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates and Lawrence Block serve up some new tales. Two catch my eye. One is a tale by Joe Hill called "Devil on the Staircase" and Gaiman's is a skeery sounding one called " The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains."

Well that should set us up for most of the summer.

Steampunk zombies in Seattle

Well, I am slowly emerging from my reading funk. I had an opportunity to focus on reading yesterday. I managed a charity golf tournament, which mostly means waiting for the people to come back, so you can hand out prizes. Anyway, there was a lot of reading time. One of the books I read was Cherie Priest's Boneshaker. Her prior work has mostly been in Southern gothic horror. Here she takes a different tack with a steampunk science fiction tale.

If you don't know steampunk, it is a style of science fiction usually set in the 19th century that uses high technology based on the tech of the day. So there are dirigibles, babbage engines, and various steam powered mechanisms. Priest's tale is set in a Seattle devastated by a steam powered drill machine meant to explore for gold in the Klondike. The machine went wild one day and wrecked much of the city. Even worse, it released a gas, called the blight, that killed many and turned others in zombies. The outside world protected itself by throwing a wall around Seattle.

15 years later the son of the man whose Boneshaker wrecked the town heads back in to clear his name. His mom, with whom he has a tenuous relationship, chases after him. The two quests give Priest the chance to show off her creative world building, with Confederate (the war has been going on for nearly two decades) airships, cyborgs, hellish factories designed to bring clean air into the Blight-infected Seattle and all manner of odd characters.

In the end, I liked the world more than the story itself. I liked the plot of the mother seeking our her son, but thought the son's wanderings were less interesting. Priest is working on another book in this world, which I will most likely try.

By the way, the book had one very nice design element I appreciated. To give the book a nice steampunk patina, the text is printed in a sepia color. It is quite attractive and subtle.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Another unfinished book

Man, I am having the hardest time getting into a read these days. I started a science fiction novel earlier this week and ended up putting it down. Allen Steele's Coyote is the first of (at least) seven of novels about interstellar colonization. The opening is fun. It starts in the late 21st century when an authoritarian government rules what is left of the United States (New England and the West Coast have split off.) The government is a spoof of the angry white male forces that were growing in strength in the early Bush years. Said nasty government plans to colonize the stars but a rebellion steals the star ship, even sneaking on some dissidents to start anew.

This was all well and good, but there was a bit too much bloat in the writing for my taste. Many reviewers compare the book to Heinlein and Pournelle, which is apt. In that era of scifi, ideas counted more than writing, and that seems to be the case here. To be fair, this book is actually a collection of short stories, rather than a single work.

Reaction to these endless series is hard to judge. I love the overly wordy Malazan novels of Steven Erikson, but I completely understand why the books might put off some people. I might have been better served starting this book somewhere where I could give it more attention.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My musical obsession of the day

Sleigh Bell's awesomely electronic Crown on the Ground. Described by Brack as Tegan and Sara x DMX x My Bloody Valentine. Ideal for turning way up. I am blanking on the album cover they are referencing. Is it Bob Seger?