Thursday, July 30, 2009

Two suggestions for the Southern Reading Challenge

Because of Infinite Jest and Infinite Summer, I'm further behind in my reading than I'd like. And while there isn't a chance that I'll get to either of the books below before the Southern Reading Challenge ends mid-August, that doesn't mean some of you might not want to take up one or both of these in the next couple of weeks, or at some point in the fall. Not everyone wants to limit themselves to books with a lot of marketing buzz behind them, right?

Both Charles Hudson's The Packhorseman and Mary Ward Brown's Fanning the Spark were published earlier this year by The University of Alabama Press; they were catalogued at the library here last month.

I read Mary Ward Brown's first story collection in the late 80s and have considered myself a Brown fan ever since. I look forward to reading her memoir. Hudson I've not heard of before, but the bio on the back cover says he's an emeritus professor of anthropology and history from the University of Georgia and a scholarly writer.


According to Amazon:

In April 1735, twenty-year-old William MacGregor, possessing little more than a bottle of Scotch whiskey and a set of Shakespeare’s plays, arrives in Charles Town, South Carolina, to make his fortune in the New World. The Scottish Highlands, while dear to his heart, were in steep economic decline and hopelessly entangled in dangerous political intrigue. With an uncle in Carolina, the long ocean voyage seemed his best chance for a new start. He soon discovers that the Jacobite politics of Scotland extend to Carolina, and when his mouth gets him in trouble with the Charles Town locals, dimming his employment opportunities, he seizes the one option still open for him and takes a job as a frontier packhorseman.

Soon young MacGregor is on the Cherokee trail to Indian country, where he settles in as a novice in the deerskin trade. Along the way William learns not only the arts of managing a pack train and trading with the Indians, but of reading the land and negotiating cultural differences with the Cherokee—whose clan system is much different from the Scottish clans of his homeland. William also learns that the Scottish enlightenment he so admires has not made much headway in the Carolina backcountry, where the real challenges are to survive, day to day, during the tense times after the Yamasee War and to remember that while in Indian country . . . it is their country.

A scholar of the native Southeast, Charles Hudson has turned his hand to this work of historical fiction, bringing to life the packhorsemen, Indian traders, and southeastern Indians of the early 18th-century Carolina. With a comfortable and engaging style, Hudson peoples the Carolina frontier with believable characters, all caught up in a life and time that is historically well-documented but little-known to modern popular readers.

Again, from Amazon:

In 1986, after years of publishing stories in literary magazines and periodicals, Mary Ward Brown published her first book, the story collection Tongues of Flame. It soon received regional and national attention, and the following year won the PEN/Hemingway Award for fiction. Mary Ward Brown was sixty-nine years old. Though she would go on to write and publish many more stories and a well-received second collection, It Wasn’t All Dancing, Mary Ward Brown’s late acclaim hardly hints at the rich and varied life that prepared the way for her success. Fanning the Spark is the story of her life as a writer—her upbringing in rural Alabama; the joys of college, marriage, and motherhood; the sorrows of becoming a widow; and a lifelong devotion to writing, writers, and literature, and the company of those who shared those loves, nurturing and feeding her interior life in the face of many challenges, losses, and obstacles, both emotional and material. Here, in prose every bit as eloquent, evocative, and incisive as her stories, are her remembrances of loved ones; her letters fraught with worry to her son in Vietnam; periods of emotional isolation and unbidden silence; her invaluable friendships with renowned writers, editors, and agents; her love of community and place; and immeasurable delight with every award, speech, and public reading, the many recognitions she has garnered late in life. Above all, it is the story of the competing demands of art and of life, the constant struggle between her need to write and the practicalities of family, duty, and day to day living.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ellie's New Books


What more proof do you need? Ellie is in want of an intervention program. There's no way she's going to read all the new books she's accumulated over the last few weeks.

(I may have to help her out a bit.)

The Lagoon and Other Stories. Janet Frame

Henrietta's War. Joyce Dennys

Fantastic Night and Other Stories. Stefan Zweig

So Many Books. Gabriel Zaid

The Children's Day. Michiel Heyns (review copy)

Wait Until Twilight. Sang Pak (review copy)

The Shooting Party. Anton Chekhov

The Blind Side of the Heart. Julia Franck

The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster. Kaye Gibbons

The Man Who Was Thursday. G.K. Chesterton

The Collected Stories. Amy Hempel

The Sentinel. Rebecca West

The Owl Killers. Karen Maitland

Monday, July 27, 2009

Popcorn, bears, feral hamsters

So while the guys were on Mount Mitchell last week fending off the bears* they'd convinced themselves would never bother coming into camp for discarded popcorn kernels** (hahahahahaha) and I was at home being all like gainfully employed and stuff***, I eschewed the bottom step at the campus parking deck and came down on the outer edge of my foot, thereby spraining my ankle**** and laying to rest any notion of mountain goat agility that I'd previously nurtured inside my head*****.

Ouch******.

And, as you might have gathered by the above (and the end notes), I spent an inordinate amount of time with David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

I'd not intended to take part in Infinite Summer (the library copy was checked out and I never finished The Recognitions after starting that group read last December), but IJ was available after we returned from a week at Atlantic Beach and I decided to at least take a quick look at the book--for future reference-- since everyone's posts on IJ were so interesting and reading it didn't seem to be taking up all the oxygen in their reading rooms.

And I found I liked it. So much so, that even though I started the project three weeks late, I'm now only 30ish pages behind schedule--I hope to be completely caught up by the weekend.

And I hope to have become a regular blogger (again!) in the meantime******.

*actually only one bear, but big enough to count as two, and "fending off" means shining the flashlight right in its eyes in the middle of the night

**particularly popcorn kernels put in the ashes under a heavy grill near the tent

***"stuff" meaning tending to Ellie et al. and taking out the garbage and eating popcorn shrimp one night and actual popcorn for all meals the next two days

**** taking pride in an eversion ankle sprain when 85 percent of all people who sprain their ankle take the easy path down the inversion trail--is that wrong? or simply patently pathetic?

*****surefootedness surely not a trait anyone outside my head would ever apply to me

******dreams die hard

Monday, July 20, 2009

Andrew Jackson, the American Lion


While I was taking American history in high school we had a student teacher who was so terrible that when I brought in a cousin's college history text to show (after class! I'm not at all confrontational!) that what he'd previously told us about Pocahantas marrying John Smith was wrong, wrong, wrong, he refused to even entertain the possibility that he didn't have his facts straight; if I'm remembering correctly, he'd "learned" about the pair in a song when he was growing up and that trumped any mere textbook that might indicate otherwise.

And then in college I somehow failed to take the first survey class in American history. I decided a few years back that there was no reason for me to continue to be so overwhelmingly ignorant about pre-Civil War America, that surely I could work in a bit of history instead of focusing entirely on fiction for the rest of my days.

I've enjoyed all the history that I've read since then, as well as many of the Teaching Company's lectures, with my highwater mark being Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton. And I was much taken back in March by Jon Meacham's American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House -- which won the Pulitzer for biography in April for its "unflinching portrait of a not always admirable democrat but a pivotal president, written with an agile prose that brings the Jackson saga to life" -- particularly because of the historical insight it lent to South Carolina governor Mark Sanford's then on-going battle against being forced to accept federal bailout money. Sanford, old boy, I thought, how 'd South Carolina fare in the nullification battle with President Jackson? What on earth makes you think his ideas have lost any of their punch in the interim?

And Rick Perry with his talk about secession? Yet another governor who ought to spend time studying Andrew Jackson.

"Nullification was, Jackson said, 'incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.' Had a single-state veto been an option 'at an earlier day, the Union would have been dissolved in its infancy,' Jackson said. The War of 1812 -- Jackson's true fire by trial, and the theater from which he rose to power -- might have been lost: 'The war into [which] we were forced [in order to] support the dignity of the nation and the rights of our citizens might have ended in defeat and disgrace, instead of victory and honor, if the states who supposed it a ruinous and unconstitutional measure had thought they possessed the right of nullifying the act by which it was declared and denying supplies for its prosecution.' The Constitution, he said, 'forms a government, not a league. . . . It is a government in which all the people are represented.' "

Meacham has provided a biographical portrait of Jackson, however, not an academic tome on his policies and politics, and so much attention is given to Jackson's private life during his White House years, to the influence that the gossip of the times had on his inner circle, that I sped through the book much more quickly than I'd expected. I suspect it's the behind-the-scenes aspects of the book that led the doctor whose office I was in earlier in the summer to tell me that he was reading "the most wonderful book" and to ask me if I'd heard of Jon Meacham's American Lion.

Because I'm participating in the Pump Up Your Book blog tour, I have received two copies of American Lion to give away. I'll be accepting entries until August 4, the birthdate of our current president (as well as my own daughter!), at which time I will let Claudius (who was born in Waxhaw, same as Andrew Jackson!) select the winners.

Leave me a comment if you'd like to have your name entered in the drawing--and I'd appreciate it if you'd also let me know what your favorite historical biography happens to be.

And for my own future reference, I'm posting Jon Meacham's recommendations for historical biography, taken from the recent bookcentric issue of Newsweek:

The Last Lion: Vision of Glory. William Manchester
Robert Kennedy and His Times. Arthur M. Schlesinger
Matthew Arnold. Lionel Trilling
Huey Long. T. Harry Williams

Sunday, July 19, 2009

(Story of my life)

. . . . Having come to the conclusion that there was so much to do that she didn't know where to start, Mrs. Fowler decided not to start at all. She went to the library, took Diary of a Nobody from the shelves and, returning to her wicker chair under the lime tree, settled down to waste what precious hours still remained of the day.

--Richmal Crompton, Family Roundabout

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

There are more books to contemplate than stars in a night on the high seas. In this immensity, how is a reader to find his personal constellation, those books that will put his life in communication with the universe?

--Gabriel Zaid

Monday, July 06, 2009

Fiction and poetry are the only way one can stop time and give an account of an experience and nail it down so that it lasts for ever.

--Rebecca West