Friday, October 31, 2014

Nonfiction RC #12

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War - Drew Gilpin Faust., 2008,

This is a somber but fascinating study of mass death and how Americans coped with it during and after the American Civil War. Faust spends nearly zero time on the politics or reasons behind the conflict, which is a plus given the huge literature on causes, aims, and battles. Instead, Faust wants us to see the war from the point of view of people who participated in it. We post-moderns have different views of death from our 19th century forebears so we need historians to teach us what mourning and grieving meant to people back then, to describe the reality of bodies of slain soldiers left on the field of battle for weeks and the experience of their families members swarming the field and trying to find the remains of their husbands, sons, brothers.

For instance, Faust discusses the 19th century concept of the good death.  Such a death occurred at home, in the bosom of family, aware death was approaching, expecting to live in the hereafter because of firm Christian belief, giving last wishes, a decent burial. Death in battle made mock of this: far from home, among relative strangers, in an instant pulverized into nothing by a shell. The normal patterns of mourning and grieving were disrupted. Death and its aftermath became not at all what they were supposed to be.

Tens of thousands solider and civilians resisted dehumanization caused by mass death. Soldiers would try to identify their comrades and made notes as to where they buried the fallen, hoping the family members could return and find the body and recognize it. They left notes in bottles on bodies. Families arranged for bodies to be shipped home. The funeral industry developed embalming methods An industry came about that manufactured ID badges. Civilians too gathered information to turn over to authorities after the war. The government established cemeteries to acknowledge that the dead were not just the responsibility of their families, but of the nation for which they died. After the war, about 300,000 Union dead were located and reburied by soldiers. The League of Southern Women organized a similar effort on a private basis.

Still, about half the dead were not identified. There were many errors, such as men reported dead who walked in the door after the war. Tens of thousands of ordinary people didn’t have sure knowledge of what happened to their loved ones. Many people held out the fantastical hope that the person would return. Closure was impossible, since the acceptance of the reality of the death is uncertain when there are no remains. No wonder they tolerated the public and private corruption of the Gilded Age – they had other things on their minds. Death became a cultural preoccupation for many grieving families, and spiritualism grew in popularity.

About 620,000 soldiers were killed, which reckons to 2% of the population. In fact, we can’t rely on figures because of the failure of Union bureaucracy to keep an accurate count at the time. Uncounted too were deaths whose wounds whose complications didn’t kill until years after the war.  The federal government did not have the resources to keep track of who was killed and where they were buried. Furthermore, there is no way to count civilian deaths. The number must have been in the thousands due to stray bullets, errant artillery shells, epidemic diseases that spread from army camps, food shortages and hardships especially in the South. Guerilla warfare in which neighbors killed each other in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and northwestern Virginia and West Virginia. The death rate was very different in the North and South, higher in the South because huge armies were created from a small population. About 20% of Southern men of military age died in the war.

Faust approaches her material as a humanist, but as a historian she is impressive as well. She draws on primary sources. She provides fact-based examinations of how the dead were identified (only about half the time, sadly) and how the funeral business grew. She also examines the changing relationship of the individual and the state. That is, if the individual was going to die for the country, the country had better attend to the dead with national cemeteries and taking on the duty of informing families of the death of their loved ones. Government never felt this fundamental obligation to those who served before - there are no national graveyards for the who died in the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mount TBR #24

I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.

Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round – Emma Lathen, 1966

In the glory days before the oil shock of 1973, Michigan Motors aims to turn the Big Three into the Big Four. Trouble is that first it must mend its reputation which was sullied by three of their top executives going to prison.

The trio that was convicted of price-fixing has just been released from the joint. Rumor has them either welcomed back or shunned by the company. Our series hero, investment banker John Thatcher, is also worried about the future of the company. He’s been sent to the Motor City by his employer, Sloan Guaranty Trust, to investigate the prospects of the company, if any.

One of the ex-cons, the talented and forceful Ray Jensen, is found shot and stuffed into the back seat of a limousine. Suspects abound. Wahl took Jensen's place and has no plans for demotion. Krebbel, the new president, wants to minimize messes and move on. Jensen's wife and her lover, another company exec, have an obvious motive. Jensen’s jail bird buddies and their wives fret about being abused again.

The novel has a couple of problems. It’s more a novel of manners than mystery since there are no clues. Granted, it is like a golden age mystery in that the reveal strains credulity. Picking knits, I have to say that I’m from near Motown. I was disappointed in the authors when they created the Grand Island Tollway in Detroit when actually the Grand Island North and South Toll Bridges are in Western New York. Also, there is no Elwood Street and Sebago Road intersection in Detroit since the former street is in a northern suburb and the latter road does not exist in that metro area. Disappointing since even before Google, accurate and complete paper maps existed for writers and editors to consult.

Her sarcastic digs at car guys typify New York City attitudes about Detroit, even in its heyday. The PR field and its practitioners are energetically mocked. In this outing, her dry, witty dialogue reveals character and moves the plot. The prose style is stylish, like a Talk of the Town piece in the New Yorker. I think the characterization of the hero works best. Thatcher is an updated version of the gentleman detective. He is intelligent and talented but doesn’t make a big of show of it. He does get off sharp nifties when the situation calls for it. He genially carries on even when Lathen puts him in zany situations.

Emma Lathen was in fact two women. Mary Jane Latsis was an economist and Martha Henissart an economic analyst. So when they are talking about business conditions from the late Sixties to the early Nineties, they know what they are talking about. They wrote under a pen-name in order to protect professional associations, mostly captains of industry with fragile egos.

Monday, October 27, 2014

European RC #6

I read this for the European Reading Challenge 2014.

The Snows of Yesteryear - Gregor von Rezzori

Gregor von Rezzori was born on 1914 in Czernowitz, Bukovina in Romania, now Chernivtsi, Ukraine. He spent his childhood in Bukovina, though he did time as a recalcitrant schoolboy in an Austrian boarding school. These five autobiographical essays cover five people who influenced his emotions and attitudes: nanny, mother, father, sister and governess. This detailed story is full of interesting details about a young person’s discovery and creation of self. The author has some curious ideas about  Freudian theory and palmistry, but he also makes the sociological observation that we are also influenced by the times in which we grew up, an idea that readers born in the Fifties connect with whole-heartedly. He’s writing about people’s lives after the social fabric of the Austro-Hungarian Empire unraveled due to World War I.

His writing is marked by keen powers of observation. As a child, he and his nanny Cassandra developed a language that only they understood. Ruthenian, by the way, refers to varieties of Eastern Slavonic spoken in territories controlled variously by Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine.

She spoke both Romanian and Ruthenian, both equally badly—which is not at all unusual in the Bukovina—intermixing the two languages and larding both with bits from a dozen other idioms. The result was that absurd lingua franca, understood only by myself and scantily by those who, like her, had to express themselves in a similarly motley verbal hodgepodge. Even though it may be questioned whether I was actually fed at Cassandra’s breast, there can be no doubt that linguistically I was nourished by her speech. The main component was a German, never learned correctly or completely, the gaps in which were filled with words and phrases from all the other tongues spoken in the Bukovina—so that each second or third word was either Ruthenian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Armenian or Yiddish, not to forget Hungarian and Turkish. From my birth, I heard mainly this idiom, and it was as natural to me as the air that I breathed.

Oy, the diversity of middle and Eastern Europe! Enjoying this memoir would be readers who like to read about cities that have three or more names.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Nonfiction RC #11

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014

Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s – Frederick Lewis Allen

The title makes sense in light of the fact that Allen published this in 1931. It has been popular ever since due to its well-organized coverage of the topics, its engaging mixture of the era’s silly and serious sides, and the lively fluent writing style. Any reader who want to improve her cultural literacy will get much out of Allen’s even-handed examinations of Woodrow Wilson’s tragedy, Harding’s nature as the empty suit that became president, the years of exuberant Coolidge prosperity, the revolution in manners and morals, the revolts of the highbrows such as H.L. Mencken, the crazed bull market and the subsequent crash that changed everything. Allen’s sense of humor is evident without being cute.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

War Challenge #21

Read for the War Challenge with a Twist 2014 at War Through the Generations

World War I and The American Novel – Stanley Cooperman, 1970

The 20th century began in the US and Europe with an optimistic view of material progress and peace. These bright hopes were shattered by World War I. Death and injury and disfigurement, industrialized warfare, the complicity of the clergy and bombastic jingoes, and the political lying and betrayal of Wilson all contributed to the cyncial feeling that the war was futile and the war aims hypocritical.

This aim of this book is to describe the war and the subsequent disillusionment as they were perceived by American writers. This book will call to mind Paul Fussell’s seminal The Great War and Modern Memory (1976), as it is largely literary criticism and cultural history. Also like Fussell’s book, it is highly readable, because it was written before the grating jargon of Theory became the norm in English departments.

Cooperman discusses novelists of the 1920s such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Cummings, Cather, and many others who have been forgotten. His examination of Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers is sympathetic, insightful, and critical. I think people who have already read the major primary sources (One of Ours, The Enormous Room, Soldier’s Pay, A Farewell to Arms) would get much out of this literate and interesting examination of the impact of WWI on American life and thought.