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Uncertain Glory by Lea Wait

Uncertain Glory is middle grade historical fiction set in Maine as the Civil War is about to begin. Joe Wood is a sixteen year old newspaper publisher, with his own printing equipment, a newspaper that is has built up a small but faithful readership, a few printing jobs on the side, and a large debt that is due in just a few days. Joe borrowed the money to buy his printing press and other materials, and now he’s working hard to pay back the lender.

Until now the news in Joe’s sleepy town of Wiscasset, Maine has been just that–slow and sleepy. But now, in April 1861, things are stirring. Nell, a young spiritualist, has come to town to give readings to people trying to contact their loved ones “on the other side.” And there’s talk of war as the country heads for a violent confrontation in South Carolina.

The story moved a bit slowly for me. Perhaps it was the story, or maybe just my mood. At any rate, I wasn’t drawn into the time period and the characters and their stories as I often am in the best historical fiction. Joe, his best friend Charlie, Owen the colored boy who helps out at the newspaper office, and Nell the medium were all a little insipid and dull. I would say that rather than being character-driven or plot-dirven, the story was “history-driven”, and although I like history, I didn’t find much new or exciting in the book. Others not as familiar with Civil War history or those who want a book that focuses on the role of Maine soldiers and civilians in the war might find it fascinating.

I did like the details of the work it took to publish a newspaper back in the days before computer typesetting or even linotype. It takes the boys hours and hours to set the type to print even a small newspaper:

“Even with Owen’s and Charlie’s help, it took all of Monday afternoon and evening to write up the news, set it in type, and print it on both sides of a two-page Herald.”

Then they have to go out and sell the paper door to door themselves. The amount of work it took to do anything 150 years ago must have bred patience. And now I can type up a blog post in half an hour, and I think that’s a long time.

I’d recommend Uncertain Glory to those who have an interest in the Civil War time period and to those who might enjoy the story of an enterprising young man. The story of Joe’s industry and of what it took to run a business is worthwhile and might be inspirational for some young entrepreneur of today.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson.

Speaking of hurricanes, as I was a few dye ago, Mr. Larson also wrote Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, about the infamous Galveston hurricane of 1900. The Devil in the White City, set in about the same time period, The Gilded Age 1893, is about a very different kind of man-made disaster, a “perfect storm” of assassination, serial killing, and inflated ambition.

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” ~architect and world’s fair designer Daniel Burnham.

The plan for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Americas, was no little plan. Daniel Burnham and his partner John Wellborn Root were the lead architects for the fair, which was seen as Chicago’s and indeed the United States’ opportunity to outshine and outdo the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889-90. The pièce de résistance of the Paris Exposition was French engineer Gustave Eiffel’s La Tour Eiffel, at the time billed as “the tallest edifice ever erected by man” and still to this day the tallest structure in the city of Paris.

“The most marvelous exhibit of modern times or ancient times has now just closed successfully at Paris. Whatever you do is to be compared with that. If you equal it you have made a success. If you surpass it you have made a triumph. If you fall below it you will be held responsible by the whole American people for having assumed what you are not equal to. Beware! Take care!” ~Chauncey Depew, New York railroad tycoon upon the awarding of the world’s fair to Chicago.

So a fantastic, superlative, financially successful, and hugely admired show and exposition was the goal. And Burnham and Root had less than two years from the awarding of the fair to Chicago to put this grand spectacle into place. This half of the book was fascinating and informative.

Intertwined with the story of the building and opening of the world’s fair was the much darker story of a serial killer who operated a house of horrors in Chicago only a few miles from the fair itself. The house of horrors was ostensibly a boarding house/hotel, but it had a number of rather macabre features, such as gas jets in some of the rooms, controlled by the proprietor, and a walk-in furnace in the basement. This part of the story depressed me. Such evil in the shadow of such an ambitious endeavor!

At any rate, the book gives a vivid picture of turn of the century Chicago and the height of the Gilded Age. Mr. Larson is an excellent writer, and if the descriptions of murder and mayhem were a bit too vivid at times, it could be blamed on the actual historical material. Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes, was an evil man, a sociopath and a man who delighted in deception and murder. How could a book that is partly about his crimes be anything but lurid and depressing?

Does anyone in or from Illinois have a suggestion for my Nonfiction of the States list that would be more representative of the state, not as depressing, but still just as interesting and informative?

Other nonfiction books set in about the same time period (1890-1910), with overlapping characters and events:
American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu.
Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt.
Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson.

Related fiction, 1890-1910:
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. This book is the fictional version of The Devil in the White City, except I don’t remember the World’s Fair figuring into the story, and Carrie doesn’t get murdered. She just gets seduced and ruined. Reading these two books together, The Devil in the White City and Sister Carrie, would produce an excellent book club discussion.
Unleavened Bread by Robert Grant.
Beautiful Dreamer by Joan Naper. Reviewed at Reading the Past.
The Great Wheel by Robert Lawson. Newbery honor fiction about an Irish worker who helped build the great Ferris wheel in Chicago in 1893.
The Pit by Frank Norris. Wheat speculation and the commodities market in Chicago.

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.

Poetry Friday: Hosie’s Aviary by Tobias and Leonard Baskin

Hosie’s Aviary is a book of bird poems and drawings. It’s a lovely collection, a family project, and a delight to the ear and the eye. For example, the poem “EGRET”:

Long hair
and pencil bill,
does this egret write poems?

Leonard Baskin was planning and studying to become an Orthodox rabbi like his father until at age 14 he saw a sculpture demonstration in Macy’s department store, and he began studying art instead. Baskin became a famous sculptor and also illustrated many children’s books; however, it was for Hosie’s Alphabet (Viking), text written by his children Hosea and Tobias and by Lisa, his second wife, that he received a Caldecott Honor in 1973. In 1979, Mr. Baskin illustrated and published Hosie’s Aviary, also published by Viking Press and also written by his children Tobias, Lucretia, and Hosea, and by Lisa Baskin.

Leonard Baskin, who died in 2000, seems to have been a fascinating man. He was a friend of Ted Hughes, for whom he illustrated the poetry collection, Crow. The first Crow poems were written in response to a request by Baskin, who had at the time produced several pen and ink drawings of crows. Hughes’ wife, Sylvia Plath, dedicated one of her poems, “Sculptor”, to Leonard Baskin. Mr. Baskin was the sculptor for one section of the memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington, D.C.

Tobias Baskin, who just happens to have been born the same year I was, became a “self-directed learner” much like his father. He is now a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In the following video, he gives an acceptance speech to a homeschool group called North Star in Massachusetts which gave him an award for self-directed learning, or as he says, for dropping out of high school:

Tobias Baskin, 2010 from North Star on Vimeo.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Have I mentioned before on this blog that I don’t really care for verse novels? Yeah, I’ve said it several times.

Anyway, if you do like stories in verse form, or if you don’t, but you really, really like basketball, you might want to check out Kwame Alexander’s basketball slam/rap/verse novel, The Crossover. Josh Bell and his twin brother, Jordan, are both basketball phenoms. Josh, the narrator of our story and author of all the poems in the book, is particularly talented, and he even has a nickname that supposedly indicates just how good he is on the court: everyone calls him “Filthy McNasty” because his “game’s acclaimed/so downright dirty, it’ll put you to shame.”

Between the basketball jargon and the rap feel to some of the poems and the high school and jazz slang, I got a little lost. But I’m not the intended audience for this book. I did like the family values and the picture of forgiveness and reconciliation that is featured. I didn’t like wandering through the verse, trying to translate it into a story.

Here’s a sample, and you can see for yourself whether The Crossover would suit you:

Basketball Rule #1

In this game of life
your family is the court
and the ball is your heart.
No matter how good you are,
no matter how down you get,
always leave
your heart
on the court.

Showoff

UP by sixteen
with six seconds
showing, JB smiles,
then STRUTS
side
steps
stutters
Spins, and
S
I
N
K
S

a sick SLICK SLIDING
SWEEEEEET
SEVEN-foot shot.

What a show-off.

L is for Lyrics

“Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you.” ~Winnie the Pooh

Lyrics: a set of words that make up a song, usually consisting of verses and choruses. The writer of lyrics is a lyricist.

'Moonrise beside Mt. Diablo' photo (c) 2013, David McSpadden - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

America by Paul Simon

Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies
And walked off to look for America.

“Kathy,” I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitch-hike from Saginaw.
I’ve come to look for America.”

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, “Be careful, his bow tie is really a camera.”

“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat.”
“We smoked the last one an hour ago.”
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field.

“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America

© 1968 Words and Music by Paul Simon

The Top One Hundred Song Lyrics that Work as Poetry

K is for Kyrielle

“[P]oetry can do something that philosophy cannot, for poetry is arbitrary and has already turned the formulae of belief into an operation of faith.” ~Charles Williams

kyrielle: derives from the Kýrie, which is part of many Christian liturgies. A kyrielle is written in rhyming couplets or quatrains. It may use the phrase “Lord, have mercy”, or a variant on it, as a refrain as the second line of the couplet or last line of the quatrain. In less strict usage, other phrases, and sometimes single words, are used as the refrain. Each line within the poem consists of only eight syllables.

This poetic form, with its repetition of the “kyrie”, seems appropriate for this Good Friday when we remember the Lord Jesus in his suffering and death.

'Crucifixion by Mia Tavonatti' photo (c) 2011, Rachel Kramer - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/A Lenten Hymn by Thomas Campion

With broken heart and contrite sigh,
A trembling sinner, Lord, I cry:
Thy pard’ning grace is rich and free:
O God, be merciful to me.

I smite upon my troubled breast,
With deep and conscious guilt oppress,
Christ and His cross my only plea:
O God, be merciful to me.

Far off I stand with tearful eyes,
Nor dare uplift them to the skies;
But Thou dost all my anguish see:
O God, be merciful to me.

Nor alms, nor deeds that I have done,
Can for a single sin atone;
To Calvary alone I flee:
O God, be merciful to me.

And when, redeemed from sin and hell,
With all the ransomed throng I dwell,
My raptured song shall ever be,
God has been merciful to me.

Robyn Hood Black is hosting Poetry Friday at Life on the Deckle Edge on this Good Friday.

J is Just for Fun

“I shake the poems like doormats. Phrases tumble. Some are swept past the margins and stay there. A few find places in other poems. Some spots need a bit more mystery, and I nudge them around corners, away from the bright light, to let shadows do their work.” ~Jeannine Atkins

Ogden Nash is one of my favorite poets. I have a theory that making us laugh at ourselves and at the world we live in is one of the important functions of poetry. Mr. Nash certainly makes the laughter and the fun of poetry evident.

For instance, there’s this poem in which Mr. Nash volunteers his definition of marriage: humorous, insightful, and eminently debatable.

For pure fun, Custard has always been one of my favorites.

And here I posted about Mr. Nash’s poem, Very Like a Whale, in which he makes fun of Byron’s similes.

Now, here’s another Ogden Nash poem, just for fun during Poetry Month:

Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man by Ogden Nash

It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission
and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from
Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as,
in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don’t bother your head about the sins of commission because
however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be
committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up
the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you
haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every
time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill;
You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round
of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the
unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of
sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. ~Martin Luther

Poetry Friday: I is for Imagery

The Destruction of Sennacherib
by Lord Byron (George Gordon)

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

Or if you don’t care for Byron’s use of simile and metaphor, try Ogden Nash’s send-up of Byron, Very Like a Whale.

Michelle H. Barnes has the Poetry Friday Round-up today at Today’s Little Ditty.

H is for Haiku

“When poets put away childish things, they will put away poetry.”
“The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”
~Gilbert K. Chesterton

haiku: a Japanese verse form of three unrhyming lines in five, seven, and five syllables. Haiku usually aims at creating a single, memorable image.

'Rosemary Apple Butter Grilled Cheese Sandwich' photo (c) 2012, Kitchen Life of a Navy Wife - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/If Not for the Cat
by Jack Prelutsky

If not for the cat,
And the scarcity of cheese,
I could be content.

More cheesy haiku.

Grilled Cheese Haiku
by Matt at Mental Floss

golden delicious
warm cheese melts me to my soul
i’ll have another

Did you know that April is National Grilled Cheese Month? What do you put on your grilled cheese sandwich (besides cheese)?