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From the Archives: Summer Reading 2012 Continues

Jeffrey Eaton, Editor-at-Large

The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, should be read in summer, preferably around the Fourth of July when the battle was fought, but does that make it a “summer read”? Unlike most of the books recommended by my colleagues in this feature, the story of Gettysburg should probably be read as far away from the beach as possible. If you don’t have access to the cicada-bedecked Pennsylvania countryside, just wait for a record-breaking heat wave on a weekend when your air conditioner is broken and you’ll feel like you’re right in the middle of the action.

The battle itself was, as they say, the high-water mark of the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee’s army had invaded the North, mostly to give his home state of Virginia some relief from the hosting the opposing armies. But he immediately lost track of the opposing Union army when his cavalry, for hotly debated reasons, got stuck on the wrong side of it and out of communication range. When the two armies met at the tiny college town of Gettysburg, neither side was prepared for the clash, though the characteristic attitudes of the two armies – hyper-aggression for the Confederates and extreme caution for the Union – guided the action.

The Killer Angels is a very fast read and the principle characters are entirely believable, both as human beings and historical personages. Their portrayal is also historically accurate; without claiming to be an expert myself, I can at least confirm that Shaara’s dialog and characterizations comport precisely with the dialog presented in Shelby Foote’s massive trilogy, The Civil War, a Narrative. After reading The Killer Angels you could have every confidence that you knew what you were talking about regarding the Battle of Gettysburg.

Compared to Foote’s magnum opus, The Killer Angels is successfully driven by the characters, and not by the technical details of troop dispositions. We are presented with the colorful personalities of Colonel Chamberlain, the cerebral professor of rhetoric and hero of Little Round Top, the mulish and forthright General Longstreet, the aristocratic and remote General Lee. Here, for example, is how foppish and flamboyant General Pickett has one of his aides inform Longstreet that he and his division have arrived at the battlefield at the end of the second day’s fighting:

“General Pickett’s compliments, sir. He wishes to announce his presence on the field.”

Longstreet stared, grunted, gave an involuntary chuckle. “Oh grand,” Longstreet said. “That’s just grand.” He turned to Sorrel. “Isn’t that grand, Major? Now let the battle commence.” He grimaced, grunted. “Tell General Pickett I’m glad to have him here. At last.”

Fairfax had a wide mouth: teeth gleamed in the moonlight. “General Pickett is gravely concerned, sir. He wishes to inquire if there are any Yankees left. He says to tell you that he personally is bored and his men are very lonely.”

Longstreet shook his head. Fairfax went on cheerily: “General Pickett reported earlier today to General Lee, while General Longstreet was engaged in the entertainment on the right flank, but General Lee said that General Pickett’s men would not be necessary in the day’s actions. General Pickett instructs me to inform you that his is a sensitive nature and that his feelings are wounded and that he and his division of pale Virginians awaits you in yon field, hoping you will come tuck them in for the night and console them.”

“Well,” Longstreet mused. “Fairfax, are you drunk?”

“No, sir. I am quoting General Pickett’s exact words, sir. With fine accuracy, sir.”

There were 165,600 men involved in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Shaara breathes life into their disparate stories, particularly the friendship between Lee and Longstreet, which was painfully strained during the battle.

Right now we are one year into the four-year-long 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Specific anniversary dates for Stonewall Jackson’s wild run up and down the Shenandoah Valley have been zipping by daily. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg isn’t until the first few days of July 2013, but if you give The Killer Angels a read this year you’ll have a fine jump on all the forthcoming articles, reenactments, and fanfare – and know exactly why the battle deserves to be long remembered.

Elisa Gabbert, Contributing Editor

I love books about youth and malice – children bearing witness to acts of brutality, committing those acts themselves, or simply getting their first glimpse of the common cruelties of adult life. That psychological shock adds much needed darkness to the coming-of-age genre, which too often focuses on teenage sex over deeper-cut losses of innocence. In summer, especially, when light beach reading is in order and nostalgia hits a peak, young-adult adventure, fantasy, and/or romance novels are popular with everyone. Allow me to suggest these three novels as an alternative to the latest YA bestseller, each a classic or near-classic that features shrewd young characters confronting evil and heartache (in the heat of high summer, no less).

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes – In this magical novel, a group of children on their way from Jamaica to England are taken captive by a pirate ship. For the most part, they adjust quickly to their new life, despite the expected hardships – they sleep in the gallows with the cockroaches, but only the oldest girl is wise enough to fear their captors. Especially remarkable are Hughes’ descriptions of the uncanny inner lives of the children – how opaque their motivations from the outside, but how strange and familiar and frightening within. Take, for example, the day Emily “suddenly realized who she was”:

First, what agency had so ordered it that out of all the people in the world who she might have been, she was this particular one, this Emily: born in such-and-such a year out of all the years in Time, and encased in this particular rather pleasing little casket of flesh? Had she chosen herself, or had God done it?

At this, another consideration: who was God? She had heard a terrible lot about Him, always: but the question of His identity had been left vague, as much taken for granted as her own. Wasn’t she perhaps God, herself?

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers – Though not, perhaps, as fully realized or complex as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, this short novel is a fascinating portrait of an independent young mind trapped in the wrong town at the wrong time. Upon seeing her brother and his fiancée together – “the two prettiest people I ever saw” – and learning they plan to live in another town, 12-year-old tomboy Frankie is forced into a sudden realization of her self and its circumstances, similar to Emily above. But for Frankie, this awakening is acutely painful, because she just as quickly realizes that her own lot is both undesirable and inescapable. Like that, her world changes, but she cannot change the world, because she is still just a girl.

The Quick & The Dead by Joy Williams – A marvelously funny novel to savor sentence by sentence, The Quick & The Dead follows three teenage girls – Alice, Annabelle, and Corvus, who become friends despite having little in common besides being motherless – and other members of their “karass,” as Kurt Vonnegut would have it (“a group of people linked in a cosmically significant matter”). It’s been years since I read this, and I do not recall the intricacies of the plot, but I do remember in cinematic detail Chapter 38, in which Stumpp, proprietor of the Wildlife Museum, encounters a surly Emily Bliss Pickless, Grade 4, and offers her a ride in his limousine. It’s a fine example of Williams’ crisp and shimmering prose:

The doors floated softly open. Emily placed the sign inside and threw her faithful bicycle in without ceremony. “Where’s the driver?”

“I like to drive it myself.”

“These things are supposed to have drivers. That’s why people have them. Does it have dual air bags?”

Poor tyke, Stumpp thought. Everything she was learning was beside the point, though everything anyone learned proved to be beside the point. How false and full of pretext is all that we accomplish. Little Pickless made him dwell on the undwellable.

“I’ve got airbags in here for twelve people.” Car would float away like a zeppelin if they started to go off.

“Do you know twelve people?”

“I do not,” Stumpp said.

“I didn’t think so. I’m going to sit in the back.”

“Lovely,” Stumpp said.

“Can a person make tea back here?”

“They can, actually.”

“This is very nice.”

Gratitude flooded Stumpp’s tired heart. Little precursor. Wee mahout. Form the mover of all things. Time mixed up, almost flew right past, the whole shebang. No need for time to be dark, could be bright, transcendent. Pickless, was it …

Adam Golaski, Contributing Editor

Begin, as I did, with a bear beneath “that dresser”—Poems from Children’s Island, by Sasha Chernyi, translated by Kevin Kinsella. The poems are for children, but they’re not sing-song gross-outs or dull-paced primers. Chernyi’s poems are funny and blunt. A child scolds her (stuffed?) bear:

Do you know what you look like?
A sad dog that chased a hedge hog:
All covered in dust,
In spider webs,
With scruffs on his nose…
Like a devil in the woods
They draw in pictures.

Each poem is paired with its handsome Cyrillic original and a sketch by Jessica Seamans. Further pleasure is had from the book’s overall design and the texture of its letterpress cover. Lightful Press impressed me once before with Liz Waldner’s Play; I say pay attention. (And: A poster of Gabrielle Bell’s adaptation of Chernyi’s poem “Green Verses” is worth a look / read. I bought one to hang in my daughter’s bedroom, but lost it at O’Hare!)

Follow the Chernyi with The Other Music, a selection of poems by Francesca Aguirre translated by Montana Ray. Personal unhappiness hints at bigger problems. The poem “Justice and Liberty,” in which she writes that “we are the maimed of an unusual war” and that “we defend the dictatorship of our own helplessness” might be about betrayal in general, or betrayal by the people under Francisco Franco (her father was executed under Franco). The selection—presumably made by Ray—moves from clearly personal poems to poems that hint outward; it’s a nice progression.

…and then a secret admirer sent me a box of books, several I’ve since read / am reading. I’ll wrap up with Poems from the Sanskrit, translated by John Brough and published by Penguin Classics in 1968. Many are devoted to the love of women (“The clear bright flame of man’s discernment dies / When a girl clouds it with her lamp-black eyes” [Bhartrhari] ), some, to critics (“A critic is a creature who has views/ quite like a camel’s: flowers and fruit he scorns. / In the flower-garden of the honeyed Muse / He starves unless he finds a meal of thorns” [anonymous]), but my favorites are about poverty. These are surprising. Most are defiant, the poet not desiring to change his place with kings, but this one, by an anonymous poet, is heartbreaking:

“Give me that bit of rag; or take the boy
And try to keep him warm.” “The ground this side
Is bare, and there’s at least some straw at yours.”
The burglar who had quietly entered heard,
Threw over them the ragged cloak he’d lifted
Elsewhere, and crept away again, in tears.

Lisa Peet, host of Like Fire

Everybody’s got an endless summer in them: a couple of months when time was elastic, stretching out ahead and behind in equal measures, when your mundane physical needs faded into the background. You fed your body and head and soul with whatever was at hand and didn’t think about it much. Those tastes stay with you, too, and while you can never relive those days completely, you can call them up long distance and reminisce a bit when the weather is right.

Mine was the summer I turned 17, my best friend and her cousin and I on our own in a Vermont resort town condo. It was the middle of a long adolescence that was remarkably free of any concerned adult presence; looking back now I’m horrified, but at the time it was sheer bliss. We had no bank accounts, no car, and a rotating series of unskilled service jobs that we inevitably got fired from for showing up with no shoes or not showing up at all. We ate out of cans, hitchhiked everywhere, took whatever drugs crossed our paths, and read constantly.

There wasn’t YA lit when I was a YA. There were a few books that fell into that category, I suppose, but they were fewer than now, and far, far more unhip. Instead, we had paperbacks handed over by cooler older brothers and sisters, or chunky hardcovers liberated from our parents’ shelves. We never had money or vegetables or clean clothes, but there were always books in that summer house, and we passed them around and read out loud and gifted each other with petty thefts: Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Diane di Prima, Tom Robbins, Sylvia Plath, Erica Jong, John Brunner. Far and away my favorite of the bunch, though, was Joan Didion.

Didion was the bookish teenage hippie-punk girl’s externalization of all the pop culture accouterments of summer. You had the Pacific Ocean, Sunset Boulevard, convertibles, sunglasses pushed up on a head of blond hair, but instead of the Beach Boys and the Eagles, neither of whom mattered to me at all, I had Play It As It Lays and The White Album. The attitude was not laid back but vaguely skittish and high-maintenance, which suited me just fine. And easily the best book of that whole hazy, literarily greedy summer, in my opinion, was Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Not one of the collection’s essays was less than ten years old, and some were nearly 20. But every one of them was a revelation of the first degree; every one knocked me right upside the head in one way or another.

There were the pieces that spoke to me as a nascent writer: This was how you could tell a story without selling out, this was how you could find your voice as a smart woman who didn’t take shit from anyone. When she wrote of Hollywood or Las Vegas and called out “mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendants with amyl nitrate poppers in their uniform pockets,” I swooned a little. Her work was more Rolling Stone than New Yorker, but it carried a certain stamp of approval that lived outside of rock’n’roll. Didion occupied the world of adult respectability, but she got to make her own rules. And that, as far as I was concerned, was all I aspired to.

But it wasn’t just the journalism that got me. Slouching Towards Bethlehem has some of the best advice writing around—certainly for young women of a certain age and temperament, but after 30 years of on-and-off rereading, I’d venture to say they speak to most of us. “On Keeping a Notebook” was a sweeping affirmation of the journals and sketchbooks I’d kept since I was old enough to write, an impulse I’d been questioning in my new-found cynicism. Who wanted to read that crap, anyway? And Didion’s reply: Write it all down, because I was weird and unique, and it was OK to think so: “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” Her tale of moving to New York as a nervous young publishing peon, “Goodbye to All That,” hit an electric nerve of presentiment. That would be me! Without the failure and retreat, of course, but with the clear-eyed powers of observation and affection for my younger self. And best of all, “On Self-Respect.” Why this isn’t required reading for every 16-year-old in the world I do not know. It’s no exaggeration to say that essay shaped me and continues to do so, that I carry around a kernel of it in me always. I reread it periodically, waiting for the flinch, the eyeroll, that patronizing reflex of marveling how very young I was then. It has never come. Instead, Didion reaches across more than 50 years to remind me: “That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.”

I have that sentence underlined in my paperback copy of the book, inscribed affectionately on the inside cover by that best friend—who is in fact still my best friend. And Slouching Toward Bethlehem is still a book I’ll come back to, especially on a summer afternoon. Sure, Didion can weigh on you a bit in the dullness of late fall or winter, the way she’s so nervy and pronouncement-prone. But then you forget for a while, and summer rolls around again and you’re distracted, maybe tired, sitting on the back porch with a vodka and cranberry juice, and all you want is a little slice of summers that have gone before to pull you back into the proper mode. There she is, reminding you that “nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.” And she’s right.

Kennen McCarthy, Compositor

A large draw of summer reading for most, I think, is escapism, a window into a world different from the normal day-to-day. So what could be further from the life of an average person than the mind of a criminally calculating user of people? Tom Ripley is a sociopath, and while it’s tough to sympathize with him, Patricia Highsmith’s sharp characterization in Ripley’s Game allows us to understand him.

The victim in this game is Jonathan Trevanny, who is living long-term with leukemia. He’s subtly encouraged to believe that his health has taken a turn for the worse after Ripley lets slip an invented rumor to a gossiping mutual acquaintance. This sets the foundation for Trevanny’s future descent. Ripley uses Trevanny’s resulting doubt to deliver him into the hands of Reeves Minot, a colleague in crime in need of an innocent to commit an arranged murder.

Why should Tom Ripley take all of this risk when he has an ideal life lined up, one that is contingent on reputation and social standing? Because he is compelled to manipulate people, to look into the workings of a human mind and use that understanding to make something happen. His game with Trevanny begins as a cruel joke in retaliation for Trevanny’s derisive snort in Tom’s direction at a party. It almost seems as if he hadn’t intended Trevanny to fall headlong into the trap. Perhaps the outsider’s insight into human nature is better than even he understands.

From there, the question is, what is Trevanny’s ultimate motivation? After the rumor he leaves his native France to consult some doctors in Germany, and they certainly don’t give him good news, but no one tells him he is going to die at any particular time. Had the fabricated gossip so strongly shaken the faith in his continued life? Is it greed, the comforts the offered money will bring in? Or is he, as Tom Ripley postulates to himself, just easily pushed or pulled in any direction? Whatever the cause, he falls in line with Reeves’ and Ripley’s plan, and toward the end of the novel, Jonathan, numbed by the import of his dealings, has very little feeling left within him. It seems Ripley’s prognosis was correct.

There is real tension in some scenes. Characters in the Ripley series always seem only just able to keep dangerous situations from spilling out in all directions and revealing their tangled entrails. Highsmith’s action scenes aren’t the string-you-along kind; they’re procedural and seem designed to end quickly. Take Jonathan Trevanny’s murder of a mafia button man – his side of the arrangement with Reeves – marking his change from workaday guy to something more sinister:

Jonathan had to make an effort, without bumping anyone, to stay just behind Bianca. There was a flight of steps up. The crowd, perhaps eighty to a hundred people, flowed together more tightly in front of the stairway, and began to creep upward. Bianca’s grey topcoat was just in front of Jonathan, and they were still a couple of yards from the stairs. Jonathan could see grey hairs among the black at the back of the man’s neck, and a jagged dent in his flesh like a carbuncle scar.
Jonathan had the gun in his right hand, out of his jacket pocket. He removed the safety.

Jonathan pushed his coat aside and aimed at the centre of the man’s topcoat.

The gun made a raucous ‘Ka-boom!

Jonathan dropped the gun. He had stopped, and now he recoiled, backward and to the left, as a collective ‘Oh-h-a Ah-h-h!‘ rose from the crowd. Jonathan was perhaps one of the few people who did not utter an exclamation.

Bianca had sagged and fallen.

An uneven circle of space followed Bianca.

A touch of suspense, a few quick but precise details, and then Ka-boom. The deed is done. The clipped nature of the action serves to highlight the true drama of the story, the psychological ramifications of manipulating and being manipulated. Highsmith’s murders are casually explicated; the true gruesome dealings are going on in the minds of the key players.

We see Trevanny follow the path laid out for him, and hear him suss out his actions as they happen. Even the only lightly-sketched Reeves Minot’s motivations for leading a shady life are accessible to the reader. It’s perhaps Highsmith’s greatest success that not only do we grow to understand Ripley’s machinations, we enjoy them. It’s wonderful escapism. This is a window that one might be glad to climb back through, dazed, to find they are still sitting up in bed by the lamp.
Justin Hickey, Contributor

Loving nature writing, and non-fiction in general, became a wholehearted endeavor when I discovered the slim paperback of Gordon Grice’s The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators. Like one of the beasties described within, it awaited me in the first kitchen I shared with co-workers and the occasional nutjob. “I hunt black widows,” Grice begins. “When I find one, I capture it.” His terse, hard-boiled prose often threads a path to lyricism: “…I raise a generation or two in captivity. The egg sacs contain multitudes of pinpoint cannibals.” In under three hundred pages, Grice shows us some of the reddest teeth and claws that our basements and backyards can offer.

“Mantid” is my favorite chapter. He describes the oval eyes and spindly body of the praying mantis as a match for the classic “little gray alien.” Yet we are closer kindred to the mantis, in terms of navigating visually, than we are with our best friend, the dog, who hears and smells a world we’re blind to. And no discussion of this garden goliath would be complete without a glance at its sex-life. You may (or may not) have wondered why females of the species devour the male’s head during copulation. That the male’s reproductive wiring runs through the base of his body is key. The brain serves only to regulate his love-making. Without it (having offered his head as a betrothal snack), he becomes a much more focused lover.

Equally evocative chapters describe the surrounding lore and habits of black widows, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, canids, pigs, and the grotesquely poisonous brown recluse spider. The bite of this latter creature causes necrotic lesions, and its venom can disrupt an immune system over time. Grice explains this with casual wryness. Reading him is like bonding with that hypnotically cool uncle whom you only see at extended family barbeques. But let the super-squeamish beware: he unhesitatingly bottles insects together for the thrill of their battle. Under the porch, Karma readies a stinger with his name on it.

Summer Reading Begins


Image “By 19:44, 20. Apr 2004” by Sannse, (Diskussion (english wikipedia) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons