Tuesday, December 21, 2021

2021 Favorite Books


Of the books I read in 2021these are the ones that stand out in my mind as the year comes to an end.



Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, Ty Seidule (2020)

Ty Seidule grew up idolizing the Lost Cause and Robert E. Lee. The infatuation lasted until somewhere in his Army career when he began looking at the Confederate symbols and traditions embedded in American life and the institutions he served. This memoir provides extensive detail about how those symbols and traditions became part of the the American story rather than evidence of treason. Writing as a retired general with 40 years of service, Seidule contrasts the idealized history of his southern hometowns and the Antebellum South against the brutal reality of slavery and the lingering consequences of racism into the the following centuries. He does the same with his alma mater, Washington and Lee University, which he describes as “the shrine of the Lost Cause” and the Army which continues to glorify Confederates up to the present day. He notes especially how the myth of Robert E. Lee is woven into the atmosphere of the US Military Academy at West Point where Seidule served as history professor in the years prior to his retirement. That chapter is particularly interesting in that Seidule details the hostility in the decades following the Civil War (memorialized in those years as the “War of Rebellion”) toward the graduates who betrayed their oath of allegiance to the US when they served the Confederacy and shows how that hostility faded into accepting treason as less than consequential. Seidule also shows that, contrary to the traditional biographies, Lee’s choice was not ordained by family and geography. The Lee family was far from wholly secessionist and many of his fellow Virginians serving in the US Army remained loyal. If you are a Southerner who grew up steeped in Confederate traditions and cannot understand why that history is no longer acceptable, Robert E. Lee and Me provides a well-documented examination of why that change is taking place.

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, Tony Horwitz (2019)

In the mid 1850s, as the US was fracturing through the years leading to secession and civil war, Frederick Law Olmstead traveled through the South looking to explore the growing divisions with the leading men of the region with the hope of finding some common understanding that would bridge the divide. His travels were documented in a series of articles published by the New York Times and offer a picture of a nation at odds with itself. His journals also reveal his appreciation and understanding of landscape that later informed his later career as a pioneering landscape architect. Author Tony Horwitz follows Olmstead’s routes in 2016 with much the same intent: to look across the divide that separates Americans in the second decade of the 20th century. Like his predecessor, Horwitz examines the American South in some detail, spending much time meeting and talking with people very different from himself. He writes with empathy and understanding, willing to hear out what others think and believe without judgment. He often disapproves of what he sees and hears but follows their logic and context to see where the ideas come from. He also quotes liberally from Olmstead’s writings and is especially cognizant of Olmstead’s attention to the details of nature and humans’ interactions with their environment. Spying on the South fascinating, both as history and a snapshot of modern America and the link between the two.

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, Heather Cox Richardson (2020)

An illuminating history of the enduring paradox of American history, where the liberty and equality for all espoused in the nation’s founding documents is based on the subordination of some. While the Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal” that equality is limited to white males and is based on the denial of equality for certain classes of people: women, Blacks and other minorities. The paradox flourished in the early 19th century as southern planters and their political allies asserted the superiority of their slave labor system and ultimately refused to accept election results in 1860 that threatened the survival of that system. Along the way, southern oligarchs accorded some privileges for lower class whites who were warned that any change in the system would come at their expense Although the South lost the military conflict and the federal government made serious efforts toward supporting equality and political participation of the newly freed slaves, the trope continued into the west under the guise of the hard-working independent westerner and hostility toward foreigners and labor organizers who would redistribute the wealth in their own interests. It waned considerably after the New Deal and WW2 when Americans saw the value of active government but found new momentum during the Civil Rights era and blossomed under Ronald Reagan and Movement Conservatism. Richardson’s analysis is thorough and well-argued and points to the conclusion that Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of a “new birth of freedom” at Gettysburg remains unfulfilled more than 150 years later.

Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy The Nazis, Jeffery H. Jackson (2020)

Riveting story of Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, avant-garde French artists and lovers living on the occupied Channel Island of Jersey off the French coast during WW2. Although the Channel Islands were British territory, proximity to France enabled German troops to occupy the islands in 1940. Schwob and Malherbe had relocated to Jersey after actively participating in the robust and iconoclastic artistic movements that emerge in France after the first World War. The two women were openly lovers in that environment and and developed an intimate, gender-fluid body of work that was well ahead of its time although not widely recognized beyond their artistic community. Their life on Jersey removed them from that milieu to a more isolated life. Once war broke out and German troops took control of the island, they began their resistance by leaving small notes, leaflets and photmontages in German (Suzanne was a fluent German speaker) addressed to rank and file German soldiers questioning the war, mocking Nazi leaders and urging mutiny. They were not the only resisters on the island but they were fortunate to have the wealth and privacy to conduct their campaign and made effective use of their tresources to challenge the occupation for four years until caught by the Germans. Imprisoned for almost a year and condemned to death for their activities, Schwob and Malherbe took full responsibility for their work and managed to confound the Germans with their matter-of-fact acceptance of their fate, refusing even to ask for clemency, which was granted over their refusal, as the war was coming to its inevitable end in the spring of 1945. Author Jeffery Jackson presents a lively account of the two women drawn from a variety of sources, clearly linking their resistance activities to their art and their interpersonal relationship. Although history has tended to recognize Schwob as the primary artist, Jackson describes a full partnership and collaboration that made their work so effective. The cover quotes historian Douglas Brinkley describing “every page” of Paper Bullets as “gripping”. This book lives up to that praise.

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, Fred Kaplan (2014)

An impressively detailed biography of America’s sixth president. JQ Adams didn’t get much attention in the history I learned as a child, I got a bit of appreciation of him in my college diplomatic history of the US course but can’t say I was in any way knowledgeable about him beyond that and the disputed 1824 election that made him president for a single term. Fred Kaplan rectifies that deficiency with a thoroughly documented history of Adams’ life. Kaplan presents Adams as a man whose destiny was set by his birth but also a man who rose to the occasion during a life of public service. Adams was a dedicated diarist throughout his entire life, beginning at age 14 when he accompanied his father to Paris when the latter served as an American representative there during the Revolution. The diary entries, along with his prolific correspondence, provide an unvarnished view of Adams’ hopes, fears, beliefs and tribulations the early years of the American Constitutional experiment. Adams life was unique in many ways and while he is remembered as the sixth president, those years rate only 38 pages out of 570 total. I come away from this history thinking of Adams as a cross between two other one-term presidents: James Buchanan and Jimmy Carter. Like Buchanan, Adams brought a wealth of experience to the office, although Adams’ tenure is not regarded as the disaster that Buchanan made of his time in office. Like Carter, Adams left office poorly regarded but earned a reputation for integrity and service in his post-presidential years. Aside from the depth of his research, Kaplan presents the story in an easy to read style that always left me looking forward to the next chapter whenever I had to put I down.

The Gun, The Ship and the Pen: Warfare Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World, Linda Colley (2021)

Although the United States has one of the world’s oldest constitutions, it was hardly the first and certainly not the last. Linda Colley explores the rise of the constitutional era that began in the late 18th century, starting with Corsica and ending with the Japanese Constitution of 1889, a period that continues to influence aspiring nation builders into the modern era. She notes that the nature of warfare that emerged in the late 18th century involved both large land armies and powerful navies, both expensive and difficult propositions. Constitutions provided rulers with the ability to raise revenue and call on citizens/subjects for service. At the same time citizen/subjects could assert some claim to their own rights in return for their treasure and blood. Some constitutions, as in the US, were formal affairs while others, like the system of government for Pitcairn Island were drafted by outsiders. In all cases, constitutions formalized powers and rights but in to widely varying degrees. Constitutions were also a means of defense—a nation with a formal governing document could assert its legitimacy and independence in a world of predatory great power colonialism. Some were more successful than others. Hawai’i managed this feat for decades but in the end still fell victim to US annexation. Linda Colley presents all this in a lively and thorough history that makes easy reading of what would otherwise be a rather obscure and dry topic.

The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and he Forging of American Science, John Tresch (2021)

This biography of Edgar Allan Poe puts him in the middle of the philosophical and scientific debates of the early 19th century. In this telling much of Poe’s work reflects the emerging knowledge and discoveries that expanded human understanding beyond the traditional religious/mystical beliefs that were accepted wisdom in earlier times. Not only did Poe incorporate much of this emerging knowledge in his stories and poems, he also engaged fully in the scientific debates during a time when the difference between learned scientist and well-informed amateur was ill-defined. Author John Tresch illustrates Poe’s active participation in scientific discussions with extensive citations from and analyses of his works and notes that while Poe respected the scientific method of observation and measurement, he also advocated using imagination and creativity as an important element of scientific discovery. Among the ideas that Poe theorized or advocated were the nebular theory of star formation, the impact of industrialization on the earth and an early version of the big bang theory—all refined and more fully developed by scientists in the century following Poe’s death. While recognizing Poe’s personal shortcomings that have tarnished Poe’s reputation, Tresch’s biography balances that narrative with much evidence that Poe was well-regarded by many and recognized as a talented genius even by his enemies during his lifetime.


Cuyahoga, Pete Beatty (2021)

A lively tale set in the frontier towns Ohio City and Cleveland in the mid-1830s. Told mostly in the local vernacular from the Ohio City side of the Cuyahoga River, the story features a cast of unique characters, including a horse and a good-natured ox, who fit well into the raw, undefined spaces of a still developing country. Much of the focus is on the extraordinary feats of Big Son and his quest to find a place in a society that doesn’t quite know what to do with him. His brother Meed (short for Medium Son) narrates the story and fills in the detail for all the others. The two towns are rivals but also understand their interdependence and there is much debate bridging the river that separates them—whether it should be one bridge, two bridges or no bridge—along with some humorous but practical observations about the utility of coffins. The plot twists and turns among characters and events and unfolds imperceptibly into a surprising but not unbelievable conclusion.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, V.E Schwab (2021)

Desperately seeking escape from an arranged marriage that would consign her to the confines of her small, early 18th century French village, Adeline LaRue makes a deal with a “god that answers after dark.” She gains her freedom and never-ending life at the cost of her identity: fated to not be remembered by anyone she meets. Adeline becomes Addie because she can no longer even speak her given name. She exists across the succeeding centuries free of all entanglements save for occasional visits from the dark god who is always seeking her surrender, which she stubbornly refuses to give, until she is unexpectedly recognized and remembered by Henry, a young book store clerk in 21st century New York. V.A. Schwab builds this narrative through the centuries in parallel with the unfolding relationship between Addie and Henry who has his own dark secret. The historical interludes bring Addie into the present, establishing her as a resourceful woman, able to navigate both the advantages and tribulations of near invisibility and her ongoing relationship with the dark god. When the stories come together in New York, Addie is both vulnerable, wily and able to engage the dark god on his own terms. A clever story, well-executed that compels the reader’s interest.

Big Girl, Small Town, Michelle Gallen (2020)

A week in the life of Majella O’Niell in Aghybogey, Northern Ireland. The Troubles ended a few years before but not so long ago. It’s still a presence. Her father disappeared during the violence and his brother died assembling an IRA bomb. People still get “lifted” by the security forces. Majella’s life is mostly simple—work, her alcoholic enfeebled mother, their house in the Catholic sector, her bedroom and the unanswered questions about her grandmother’s murder. Work is an eight hour or longer shift to 2 AM taking orders, frying chips, talking with and reacting to customers and the goings on outside of a fish and chips shop named A Salt and Battery, and interacting with co-worker Marty (including the occasional post-shift shag in the storeroom). The shop gives author Michelle Gallen ample opportunity to introduce a wide variety of characters whose lives chronicle life in post-Troubles Northern Ireland. The town and landscape are also well-rendered. It’s all kind of gray and worn but still full of life despite an uncertain future. Best of all, Majella is likable, practical, dedicated, irreverent and in one memorable scene, strong enough to eject a drunken “lover” threatening violence against her mother from their house. Time flows naturally so the story feels like you are sharing Majella’s week from inside her head.

How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pham Yang (2020)

Lucy and Sam are the young (early teen) daughters of a itinerant Chinese miner and prospector during the California Gold Rush, about the lowest caste in that society. Their mother, Ma, is long gone and when the father Ba dies, the two girls abandon the hostile mining town/camp environment on a stolen horse with their father’s remains. With that murky beginning the story begins to emerge. Each sibling develops essential survival skills. Younger sibling Sam learns to pass as a boy and is proficient and clever. Lucy is smart and practical. Once what’s left of Ba is buried, the story shifts to an earlier time where we learn how Ba and Ma came together and how Lucy found an education. The parents make plans, and accumulate savings which are all lost to an angry anti-Chinese mob when times go bad. Another time shift fills in Ba’s story, including how he met Ma and their dark secret. A final jump in time finds Lucy hovering on the edge of acceptability and Sam returning form a log absence and hounded by creditors. Throughout this odyssey, author Yang demonstrates that Lucy, Sam, Ba and Ma are outcasts from society, at the mercy of whatever society wants from them. The book’s epigraph says it clearly: “This land is not your land”

The Committed, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2021)

This follow-up to Nguyen’s acclaimed novel, The Sympathizer, finds the nameless narrator of that novel, a confession written in a re-education camp, writing a confession about his life as a Vietnamese exile in Paris. Free of the re-education camp, the narrator is still haunted by the ghosts of his victims and the French colonialism and his uncertain place in the world. No longer the committed cadre double agent of The Sympathizer, the narrator becomes part of the Vietnamese diaspora in Paris and enters the world of “the Other”, living in France but not French. The colonial mentality that gripped his native land remains a fact of life as he wrestles with the contradictions that are readily apparent to a man “with two heads” who is able to see both sides of any situation. Filled with subplots and well-crafted characters, The Committed explores questions of identity, colonialism, racism and ideology in a taut, engaging narrative.