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Ocean of Fire by T. Neill Anderson

Ocean of Fire: The Burning of Columbia, 1865 by T. Neill Anderson.

If you’re a Civil War buff, even a little inclined in that direction, you must read this somewhat fictionalized story of General Sherman’s capture of the city of Columbia, South Carolina during his “March to the Sea” and the subsequent conflagration that burned the city to the ground. I say “fictionalized” because the author has filled in dialogue and even thoughts that he could not be privy to but could reasonably assume from the available sources. However, the events and characters in the book are real, and their actions are as verified as possible.

Mr. Anderson says that he “relied heavily on the moving, haunting, and tragic first-person accounts of Emma LeConte, Joseph Le Conte, and the Reverend Anthony Toomer Porter.” Indeed, the book basically focuses on the stories of Emma, her father Joseph, and the Rev. Porter. And their stories were moving, haunting, and tragic. I kept picturing the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind as I read about how Columbia burned in much the same way as her Georgia counterpart.

General Sherman, who famously said “war is hell” and who determined to make sure it truly was for the areas of the South that he conquered, has a lot to answer for in the hereafter. He and General Ulysses S. Grant “believed that the Civil War would end only if the Confederacy’s strategic, economic, and psychological capacity for warfare were decisively broken.” (Wikipedia, Sherman’s March to the Sea) Perhaps they were right. The girl, Emma, is pictured in this book as harboring a “white-hot hatred” for the Yankees,and none of the Southerners whose stories are featured are ready to surrender, either before or after the burning of their city which they, of course, blame on the drunken Yankee army. There is some possibility that the Confederates themselves were responsible for starting the fire. No one really knows, and the book doesn’t settle the question.

Another mystery is left unsettled, and I would really like to know the answer: who was the mysterious soldier named Charles Davis? Was he possibly a Confederate spy or did he work for the Yankees? After the city’s collapse he seems to have mysteriously disappeared. Where did he go?

Ocean of Fire is T. Neill Anderson’s second book of his Horrors of History series. The first book in the series, which I have not read but should, is City of the Dead: Galveston Hurricane, 1900.

The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Sheve Sheinkin, National Book Award Finalist and Newbery Honor Winner for Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.

I’ve never heard of Port Chicago or the Port Chicago 50. So Mr. Sheinkin’s tale of 50 black seamen who defied orders to load dangerous munitions onto ships during World War II and who were subsequently tried and convicted of mutiny was a revelation to me. It’s a story of the civil rights movement before there really was a civil rights movement, or at least before the part I knew about.

I knew about Truman’s order to integrate the U.S. armed forces. I knew about Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggles of the 1960′s. But way back in 1944, at the height of World War II, when the outcome of the war was still in question, a massive explosion on the docks at Port Chicago in San Francisco killed 320 servicemen, many of them black Navy men who were segregated and assigned the dangerous job of loading bombs and ammunition onto ships for the war effort in the Pacific. These men, both the ones who died and the ones who escaped, were never trained to handle explosives. They were ordered to load and load fast, and their white officers made bets on which division or work group could load the most cargo in a day. Almost all of the stevedores who were handling this ammunition under very unsafe conditions were black.

A few weeks after the explosion, the men were ordered to go back to the very same work of loading ammunition under the very same conditions. When they refused the order, they were tried for mutiny, a crime which in the naval code carried a possible death sentence. Most of the men who were “on strike” backed down when they were threatened with the firing squad, but fifty of them did not.

The author’s sympathies are completely on the side of the alleged mutineers, with good reason. They do seem have been mistreated and subjected to unnecessarily dangerous working conditions. Their crime, disobeying a direct order, didn’t really rise to the level of mutiny. (Mutiny: “an unlawful opposition or resistance to or defiance of superior military authority, with a deliberate purpose to usurp, subvert, or override such authority.”) The defense argument when the men came to trial was that there was no plan to subvert or override authority, just a refusal by a bunch of traumatized men to return to loading ammunition under the very same conditions that caused the original explosion.

I found myself in sympathy with the Port Chicago 50, too, even as I could see the reasons that impelled the Navy authorities to bring the men to trial. The United States was at war. The military was a segregated force, wrong but true. Even though the black seamen who were loading the ammunition were treated abominably and the working conditions were hazardous, their work was a necessary part of the war effort. No member of the armed forces can be allowed to disobey orders from a superior officer with impunity. However, the Port Chicago 50 were right about the stand they took, and they were brave to take it. So, I stand conflicted and confused as to what I think about the entire episode.

Joe Small, unofficial leader of the group called the Port Chicago 50: “I realized that I had to work. I wasn’t trying to shirk work. But to go back to work under the same conditions with no improvements, no changes, the same group of officers that we had. . . . Improve working conditions this is what I, personally, was after. And desegregation of the base.”

Steve Sheinkin also wrote Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, a book I reviewed last year when I was reading and reviewing Cybils nominees for YA nonfiction.

QOTD: Who is a person from history that you respect? Why? Is there any historical figure that you admire while at the same time you acknowledge the person’s faults?

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller, sixth grade language arts and social studies teacher at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller, Texas.

Ms. Keller’s thesis can be summarized in two sentences: To make children into lifelong readers, surround them with books and let them read whatever they want to read. Treat them like readers, and they will become readers.

I’ve been following this plan in our homeschool for about twenty-five years now, with mixed results. Most of my eight children are readers. Several of them are voracious readers, the kind I am and the sort Ms. Miller describes herself as:

“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill reader. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person whom family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. (It was Johanna Spyri.)”

However, even with all this reading environment and encouragement and, yes, pressure, I have one child who does not see herself as a reader (she reads, just says she hates to read) and another who has quit reading for pleasure for the last two or three years at least. Unfortunately, Ms. Miller’s book gave me very few ideas about how to re-awaken the love of reading in my son or how to instill a love for reading in my daughter. I already let them read pretty much anything they want to read. I already suggest books for them, buy books for them, borrow books for them, encourage them to read about subjects they love, and show them daily how much reading means to me by reading as much as I can, anywhere I can. Our house is full of good books.

The Book Whisperer is a very public school, teacher-ish, kind of book, but it is a good resource for teachers of reading in school settings. It did spark a couple of ideas in this homeschool mom mind of mine: I could have a time (half an hour? an hour?) each day when we participate in ye olde public school D.E.A.R (Drop Everything and READ). I could require them to read 40 books for the school year (a requirement Ms. Miller has for her sixth graders) and see what happens. I could keep giving my daughter piles of books that I think she might like until she finds one she loves. It hasn’t worked yet, but it might still click one day.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

With the (winter) Olympics coming up and my aforementioned current interest in the 1930′s, The Boys in the Boat was just the ticket for reading on a very cold day in January. The nine Americans in the title were: Don Hume, Bobby Moch, Stub McMillin, Johnny White, Gordy Adam, Shorty Hunt, Roger Morris, Chuck Day, and Joe Rantz. They were the crew of an eight-man shell for the University of Washington. Their coach was Al Ulbrickson, and George Pocock, famous for building racing boats for Washington and for many other championship rowing teams, was their mentor and the builder of their shell, the Husky Clipper.

The story focuses on crew member Joe Rantz, since he was the member of the Olympic team that the author first met and from whom he heard the story of the “boys’” journey to the Berlin Olympics. I put “boys” in quotation marks because by the time their story was published last year (2013), the boys in the boat had all passed on. But Mr. Brown got to interview some of them before they died, and he spent a great deal of time researching the backgrounds of the boys, talking to family members, reading journals that some of the boys kept, and preparing to write an inspiring and flowing account of their rise to glory at the Olympics.

One of things that the book emphasizes is that rowing is not easy:

“Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body. . . And rowing makes these muscular demands not a odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite. . . The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Royal Brougham marveled at the relentlessness of the sport: ‘Nobody ever took time out in a boat race,’ he noted ‘There’s no place to stop and get a satisfying drink of water or a lungful of cool, invigorating air. You just keep your eyes glued on the red, perspiring neck of the fellow ahead of you and row until they tell you it’s all over. . . Neighbor, it’s no game for a softy.’”

I was filled with admiration for these college boys who practiced in rain, sleet, wind and snow to go to a total of two races: one in their own Washington waters against arch rival, the University of California, and the other in Poughkeepsie, competing against California again and against all of the East Coast teams who saw the westerners as country cousins who were out of their league in the East. The persistence and fine-tuning of the team and its precise movements required all that the nine member team could give, mentally and physically–and then, a little more.

The book also made much of the contrast between Depression-era country boys struggling in Washington State to get an education and make the Olympic team at the same time, and Hitler’s desire to make the Berlin Olympics into a showcase for the Nazi regime in Germany and the Aryan youth of Germany who would be competing for the glory of the Reich. The impending war serves as a focus and a frame for the story, even though the boys in the boat were completely unaware of the imminent approach of a world war that would change all of their lives.

Some interesting mentions in the book:

Actor Hugh Laurie’s father, Ran Laurie, was member of the British eight-man crew at the 1936 Olympics.

Louis Zamperini (Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand) is mentioned once in this book, as possibly the only athlete on the boat to Europe for the Olympics who had a bigger appetite than rower Joe Rantz.

Swimmer Eleanor Holm was expelled from the U.S. Olympic team for drunkenness on the boat over, after an all-night party with some journalists, who then proceeded to make headlines with The Eleanor Holm Story in newspapers all over the United States.

The coxswain for the team, Bobby Moch, found out for the first time in a letter from his father just before he left to go to the Olympics, that his relatives in Europe, whom he had never met, were Jewish, and therefore that he was of Jewish heritage.

Hitler’s pet filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, made a well-regarded propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics, called Olympia. The film was secretly funded by the Nazi government, and it was shown all over the world to great acclaim.

All in all, The Boys in the Boat is a great book for anyone interested in sports stories in general, rowing in particular, the rise of Nazism, the 1930′s, Olympic history, and just plain inspirational stories of perseverance and courage. If there were a few extraneous details, they were details that I enjoyed learning. And the prose was well above average.

House-Dreams by Hugh Howard

House-Dreams: The story of an amateur builder and two novice apprentices and how they turned an overgrown blackberry patch, ten truckloads of lumber, a keg of cut nails, and an antique staircase into a real home by Hugh Howard.

I’m not a home builder or a designer, so I’ll admit I skimmed through a lot of the more technical passages in this story of a man and his quest to design and build his own house. I’m also not an architectural elitist, so I sniffed and rolled my eyes at some of the author’s more pretentious statements about building a house designed to fit into a milieu of nineteenth century American architecture. However, since I’m in the beginning stages of own home remodeling project, a lot of the commentary and advice here was quite pertinent to my own situation.

Because we had a house fire in December, we’re going to have to replace the roof, the attic, and the kitchen in our house. We’ll also be getting new flooring throughout the house, and we may remodel one of the bathrooms while we’re at it. Any advice?

Mr. Howard’s house with its solid maple wood floors, antique staircase, Rumford fireplace, grubka stove, and marble countertops is way out of my league, but I did pick up a few tips:

1. Watch, learn and ask questions. Mr. Howard is a self-taught builder and designer. He asked a lot of questions at hardware stores.

2. Expect the job to take longer than you expected and to cost more than you budgeted. I sort of already knew this bit of house-building/remodeling wisdom.

3. Enjoy your home. I am totally overwhelmed with the thought of even as small a home-rebuilding project as we will be doing. However, I am determined to enjoy re-making our forty year old house to suit our current and anticipated needs. I’ll try to update you on our progress here on the blog.

In the meantime, I’ll take any advice you have on kitchen flooring, countertops, cabinets, bathroom flooring and other fixtures, roofing, and living room walls and ceilings. I might as well cast a wide net.

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

“Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced.”

I like spy stories, especially true spy stories. Author Ben MacIntyre’s story of Eddie Chapman and his activities as the consummate double agent for Britain during World War II is particularly fascinating because it’s well-researched and full of details that were gleaned from recently declassified MI5 files.

So, first, I had to get straight the difference between MI5 and MI6:

“The Security Service (MI5) is the UK’s security intelligence agency. It is responsible for protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, against the major threats to national security. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) operates world-wide and is responsible for gathering secret intelligence outside the UK in support of the government’s security, defence and foreign and economic policies.”

Well, that’s clear, but I can see how during a war like WW II when the outside threats (of German infiltration and even invasion) were quickly becoming inside threats, the lines would get a little blurred. Anyway, Eddie Chapman worked for MI5 because he came to England as a Nazi spy and saboteur. When he reached Britain, parachuted in by his German employers, he immediately reported to MI5 about what the Germans had taught him and what they wanted him to do while he was “in the field.” (The Nazi wanted him to sabotage and blow up a factory where British warplanes called Mosquitos were being manufactured.)

Mr. Chapman is an interesting character, a very flawed hero. He was “a man who kept every option open, who seemed congenitally incapable of taking a bet without hedging it.” Terence young, the filmmaker, who had known Chapman before the war, wrote to MI5 officials about Chapman,”One could give him the most difficult of missions knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probable that he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out. . . . He would then carry out his [mission] and return to the official whom he had robbed to report.” Chapman had a girl in every port, or country, and he seduced each of them into thinking that she was the only one. But when none of his long-term partners was available, he found it necessary to visit prostitutes or find a new paramour. He performed some incredibly valuable missions of misinformation and spying for the British, but he was paid mostly by the Germans who believed that he had done great things for their side.

If you’re interested in World War II, British intelligence services, James Bond and the like, espionage, or just morally ambivalent characters, Agent Zigzag is a good read. MacIntyre does tell what happened to the major players in this episode of double and even triple cross after the war was over, and the index is useful for finding specific incidents and information if you’re studying the era and the subject.

12 Books about Books that I Still Want to Read

By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life by Ramona Koval. Reviewed by kimbofo at Reading Matters.

Bequest of Wings: A Family’s Pleasure with Books by Annis Duff.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves by jacques Bonnet, reviewed at Stuck in a Book.

Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill. Recommended by Beth at Weavings.

Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passions by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern. Recommended at Book Psmith.

A Passion for Books by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan. Recommended by FatalisFortuna.

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea. Recommended at The Book Lady’s Blog.

Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth D. Samet. Also recommended at Random Wonder.

Walking a Literary Labyrinth by Nancy Malone. Recommended at Indextrious Reader.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson.

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes.

Buried in Books: A Reader’s Anthology by Julie Rugg, reviewed at A Bookish Affair.

Don’t all of these sound delicious? What are your favorite books about books?

12 Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. Recommended at Book Diary.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher.

Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with his Father’s Questions about Christianity by Dr. Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton by Joseph Pearce.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, reviewed at Semicolon.

Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson.

The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong, featured at Semicolon.

C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath.

Saving a Life: How We Found Courage When Death Rescued our Son by Charles and Janet Morris.

Beautiful Nate: A Memoir of a Family’s Love, a Life Lost, and Heaven’s Promises by Dennis Mansfield.

Two biographies (Chesterton and Lewis), two autobiographies/conversion stories (Denise Chong and Rosaria Champagne Butterfield), two memoirs of the loss of a son (the last two on the list), a couple of inspirational apologetics titles (Boyd and Wilson), exposes of Scientology and of poverty in Mumbai, a narrative history of the assassination and death of President James Garfield, and a memoir of Rod Dreher’s encounter with death and community in small-town Louisiana: those were my favorite nonfiction reads this year. I recommend any or all of them, if you’re at all interested in the subject matter. Ms. Butterfield’s conversion story and Mr. Wright’s book about the history and inner workings of the Scientology movement were particularly thought-provoking.

Cybils YA Nonfiction Trio

The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb.

The Nazi Hunters tells the story of how, in Argentina in May, 1960, a crack Israeli spy team captured the infamous Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews and other people during World War II, and took him back to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. The story could have been an exciting and thought-provoking read, but unfortunately the pacing of the story was uneven and off-putting. I never got to know the members of the Israeli team well enough to remember which was which, and the author was unwilling or probably unable to help to understand the mind and motives of Eichmann and his family members either. This book is adapted from Bascomb’s adult nonfiction book, Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. Maybe more somehow would have been better, and I would have developed an interest in these characters by reading the adult version.I don’t think teens will be intrigued by this YA abridgment, and I’d point anyone who was interested in another direction.

Wild Animal Neighbors: Sharing Our Urban World by Ann Downer.

The author focuses on various animals, one per chapter, that have adapted to living in urban areas and tell the story of how they have managed to co-exist with humans in cities –or not. The animals Ms Downer highlights are: bears, raccoons, mountain lions, crows, coyotes, flying foxes, turtles, and alligators. The alligator chapter interested me the most because the gators in question live and sometimes stroll down the sidewalks in Houston where I live. However, her diagnosis of the “alligator problem” seems inadequate: “For the residents of Houston, the best weapon against gators may prove to be greater understanding and appreciation of these amazing creatures—and a lot of caution and common sense.” Really? I can agree with the “caution and common sense” part, but I plan to follow the Pearland (suburb of Houston) Parks and Recreation Department instructions: “Don’t tease the gators, don’t feed the gators, and if you hear an alligator hiss, you’re too close.” My appreciation for alligators, and other wild animals in cities, will be strictly photographic in nature, thank you. Other people’s photographs.

Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley.

If one were researching the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and/or the French Resistance during World War II, this memoir would certainly be a helpful resource. However, just for reading, it’s a little dry, and the author leaves out key transitions and information that would make her story more understandable. There’s an odd sort of summary at the beginning of each chapter, and then the chapter itself backtracks in time and fills in more detail for each episode in the life of this intrepid heroine. Fans of Code Name Verity might enjoy reading about a real WWII agent and comparing her adventures to the fictional ones. I just wish someone else had written and organized the story of Ms. Cornioley’s life as a resistance fighter to make it more coherent and more evocative of the spirt of the times.