Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Abraham Lincoln: The War Years - Winner, History, 1940

Abraham Lincoln: The War Years by: Carl Sandburg
Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1939

Well, I'm finally back.  I have actually been trying to finish this book (for the second time) for the past month and finally had to give it up.  Sandburg has an incredible knowledge of the life of Abraham Lincoln.  In addition to other books on Lincoln and his family, Sandburg wrote Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and  Abraham Lincoln: The War YearsThe Prairie Years is in two volumes with a total of eleven hundred pages.  The War Years (the one that won the Pulitzer) is four volumes and more than twenty-four hundred pages.  I almost made it through the first volume, but this book is TEDIOUS! What Sandburg has written is more a history of the Civil War from the Union perspective and less a biography of Lincoln. I'm not sure if it is because Lincoln did not leave extensive personal records or if it is just how Sandburg wrote, but the book seems very detached from Lincoln, as if most sources were those who observed the man and not from the man himself.  I often felt as if I was looking in through a window at Lincoln instead of standing in the room with him, if that makes sense. 

Interestingly, I realized, as I was preparing to write this blog, that the book did win for History and not Biography.  The entire time I was reading it I thought it was supposed to be a biography, and that might have affected how I viewed it.  This book would be useful to a researcher looking for facts on the Civil War, but the researcher should be aware that Sandburg relies heavily on The Diary of A Public Man, an anonymous diary printed in the 1860s that contained supposedly eyewitness accounts of a Washington insider.  The diary is used sparingly today by historians, who prefer to rely on sources that can be more clearly traced.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Confessions of a bad blogger...

I have been away for a little while and noticed some increased activity on the blog, so I wanted to just post a little note to say that I have not gone away!  Those who have followed my blog for a little bit have heard this before, but I am having another one of those semesters.  I'm taking an amazing class that requires me to read a novel from a different genre of fiction each week.  I hoped to be able to fit some Pulitzer winners in there, but there are other criteria that have stopped me.  I finish my masters in December, so I will be back on track then.  In the meantime, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

R.E. Lee: A Biography - Winner, Biography, 1935

R.E. Lee: A Biography
By: Douglas Southall Freeman
Charles Scibner's Sons, 1934

I will not deny that I was dreading this read, but I am happy to say that Freeman's biography of Robert E. Lee was one of the most enjoyable early-Pulitzer biographies that I have read.  I had to get the 4-volume set through interlibrary loan and, so, had only a very limited time with it.  I managed to get through 2 of the volumes before the due date and was truly sad that I had to turn it in before I could finish the other two.

R.E. Lee, FOUR VOLUME SETThe life of Robert E. Lee was fascinating to read about. I had always known that he was a great man and a great general that the North really could have benefited from having. I also knew that one of the most devastating things about the Civil War was that the people fighting against each other knew and loved people on the other side. As Lee made a career the in the United States army prior to the war, it was interesting to see the Northern and Southern men he fought beside before the country divided.

In the introduction to the biography, Freeman notes that he tried to write this biography of Lee focusing only on the things that Lee would have been aware of at the time.  Many books on the Civil War try to cover what was going on on both sides at the same time, and I am left endlessly confused (I ran into this problem with Battle Cry of Freedom, my next review).  By focusing on Lee's view of the war, I found it much easier to follow what was going on.  I like following one side at a time so that I can really get to know the characters involved.  Another thing that helped me follow the battles was the fact that almost all of the ones described in the first two volumes took place in Virginia, where I currently live. I have been many of the areas where Lee fought, and that helped me visualize what was going on.  I would be curious to see how the focus on Virginia would read to someone unfamiliar with the state.

As I read, I began to get the feeling that Freeman might be from the South.  It is well known that Lee is idolized by many in the Southern states, even today.  So, I was not surprise when, after reading the book, I looked and found that not only was Freeman a Virginian, but he was also the son of a Confederate soldier.  The Wikipedia entry on Freeman states, "Freeman's treatments of the American Civil War are often cited as examples of the Lost Cause movement, emphasizing the glory and nobility of the Southern generals and the futility of their fight against the power of the North. While Freeman certainly does emphasize the nobility of Lee's character, he does not say that Lee made no mistakes, nor does he say that the North only won because of superior numbers."  I must say that I agree with this.  The writing is enjoyable and very informative.  I also found that many things he stated fit with other books I have read on the Civil War from later years.  But his background does mean that we should remember that the lenses through which he looks might be a bit rose-colored. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Killer Angels - Winner, Novel, 1975

The Killer Angels
By: Michael Shaara
McKay, 1974

I'm not sure if I have mentioned that I decided to start reading the Pulitzer winners by subject instead of in order by year.  I found that I was reading on all these random subjects and not being able to tie things together.  So, the subject of the moment is the Civil War.  I recently finished Toni Morrison's Beloved (winner, 1988) and Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels (winner, 1974) and am currently in the middle of a massive, 4-volume biography of Robert E. Lee by Douglas Freeman (winner, 1935).  I think this will help me as I read through the Pulitzer winners to also gain a comprehensive knowledge about certain subjects.

The Killer AngelsMichael Shaara's The Killer Angels, on which the 1993 movie Gettysburg was based, is a historical novel that gives the story of the Battle of Gettysburg through the perspectives of several different individuals on both sides of the war.  I was afraid that I would have trouble following the story as I have trouble envisioning war maneuvers in my mind and keeping track of who is fighting for which side.  I was listening to the audio version of the book, so when, in the beginning, the key players for each side were listed, I wrote them down so I could keep track.  This helped me immensely.  I found that even though I did not always follow exactly what was happening in a battle, Shaara's writing made clear which events were good and bad for each side. 

The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the detail provided about the lives of each of the individuals whose perspectives Shaara used to tell the story.  He showed their human sides and truly made me care about people on both sides of the battle.  I especially enjoyed the depiction of Lee, which I felt fit perfectly with the description I am reading in Freeman's biography from 1934.  The Killer Angels is a useful read for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of the Civil War as many of these men had fought together in the United States military before the war and cared about each other. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beloved - Winner, Fiction, 1988

By: Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf, 1987

Toni Morrison is a name that is often thrown around in literary circles, and, as I had never read anything of hers prior to this, I looked forward to reading (or listening to, which I ended up doing) Beloved to see what the talk was about.  The story of Beloved focuses mainly on a runaway slave, Sethe, and her daughter, Denver, as they try to make a life for themselves in Ohio in the years following the Civil War.  Though Denver was not born until after her mother's escape, they both spend their lives dealing with the physical and psychological effects of slavery.

Many images brought forth in Morrison's novel are painful to read about, but it is important that we understand, to the extent possible, the horrors and human toll of slavery.  Morrison's writing is poetic and full of imagery that is beautiful but hard to understand at times.  Because I was listening, there were times that I found myself completely lost.  I thought I had missed something and went to Spark Notes online to make sure I knew what was going on.  Towards the end of the book, Morrison begins shifting more and more between different perspectives.  I think that if I had been reading the book this would have been clearer.  What I did love about listening to Beloved is that it was read by Toni Morrison herself.  I believe that there are emotions that only an author can put into the reading of his or her own text, and this recording was no exception.  I would definitely recommend this book for more mature readers.   There are books that have been written throughout history that might not be the most enjoyable to read but are vitally important.  Beloved is not my favorite book, but I do believe that, for the sake of understanding our past, it is important.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Still Reading!

For the family members and a few friends that constitute my readership - I promise I'm still reading.  I just finished an insane class, so I now have time to devote to fun reading before the fall semester starts.  Right now I am listening to:

Beloved (Paperback)
By:  Toni Morrison

I am reading:

R.E. Lee: A Biography
By: Douglas Southall Freeman

I would like to make it through all 4 600-page volumes, but we'll see about that...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family - Winner, History, 2009

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American FamilyThe Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
By: Annette Gordon-Reed
W.W. Norton & Co, 2008

The controversy surrounding the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings, had its beginnings while Jefferson was still alive, but has to the forefront of Jefferson scholarship in recent years with the development of DNA technology that could potentially support or disprove (or muddle!) the controversy.  Annette Gordon-Reed's book, The Hemingses of Monticello, is her second on the subject - the first being Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997).  Her first discussed the specific relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.  The Hemingses of Monticello examines the vast interconnectedness between the two families leading up to Jefferson and Hemings and on a little further into the decendents, especially of Hemings. 

There are a LOT of names, places, and dates in this book.  Gordon-Reed clearly did a great deal of research into the papers of Thomas Jefferson and those around him.  She places a heavy emphasis on the need to recognize slaves as people with real feelings and reactions during this time period, which I found to be very interesting.  I do think it is important to always remember that, but I also think that in her attempt she also dismisses the historical fact of the law and slavery as not necessarily accurate depictions of how life really was.  In do this, she often seems to place the social values of today on characters living in a different time and social context.  While slaves were human and had true human emotions, white society treated them as if they were less than human (often regardless of personal beliefs).  White men felt that they could take advantage of slave women because slave women were not as human as they were (in their own eyes).  This is what truly made slavery such an abomination.  Gordon-Reed, though, tries desperately to prove, using the social logic of today, that Jefferson must have loved Hemings. 

When I was in college I wrote one of my major papers on this subject and use Gordon-Reed's first book as one of my sources.  Because of that, I was very interested to see what more she had to say.  While the stories of the two families and how they come in and out of each others' lives is very interesting, she can be repetitive and a bit tedious.  Gordon-Reed makes many assumptions along the way based on deduction but not necessarily fact, which continually reminded me that, as unsatisfying as it is, we will probably never really know what happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.