Review 1850: Simon the Fiddler

I read Enemy Women a while back, another Jiles novel set during the American Civil War. Simon the Fiddler is set towards the end of the war and in its aftermath.

Simon Boudlin is a master fiddler who has been playing in East Texas trying to dodge the conscription men. He has a dream of earning enough money to buy a piece of land and settle down with a wife. However, the conscription men get him, and he finds himself toward the end of the war on Brazos de Santiago in the Confederate Army.

The men are soon in a strange position, because the war is officially over but no one has disbanded them. Then for no apparent reason, the Union army attacks them, resulting in many casualties. Later, we learn the attack was made because Union General Web wanted to earn some glory in battle. The Confederates manage to gain back their island, and then they surrender.

Simon, along with several other musicians, is asked to play for the officers during a celebration of the end of the war. So, it’s a mixed group of Union and Confederate musicians who play. Then, Simon spots a girl. She’s the Irish governess for General Webb’s daughter. Her name is Doris, and Simon learns that the General doesn’t let any young men near her.

Simon teams up with three of the musicians to form a band. Their plan is to go to Galveston and make money. So, they steal a boat and navigate to the ruined city of Galveston—Simon; Patrick, a boy boudrain player; Damon, a penny whistle player; and Dorotheo, a guitarist. But all the time, Simon is planning to buy his land and marry Doris.

This is a wandering tale full of incident and the flavor of a largely untamed Texas. It is written sparely, with occasional lyrical descriptions of the beauty of the Texas landscape. I liked this novel a lot and plan to look for more by Jiles, particularly News of the World, which I have managed to miss.

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Review 1491: Grant

Ron Chernow has become one of my three favorite biographers, along with Doris Kearns Goodwin for political figures and Claire Tomalin for literary ones. Although both Grant and Alexander Hamilton are of a length that could seem forbidding to some readers, they are unfailingly readable and interesting.

Chernow’s main thrust is that Grant has long been misrepresented and his legacy misunderstood. I can testify to this by my personal experience in school, where he was characterized in exactly the terms spelled out in this book. We were told that he was a drunk whose presidency was riddled with corruption. His contribution to the Civil War was virtually ignored.

Poor Grant! Chernow sets us all straight. Yes, Grant had a problem with drink. He, in fact, got drunk after a small amount of liquor. This was a problem he fought all his adult life and conquered during his presidency. After he was made to resign from the army early in his career for being drunk on duty (a claim Grant, who was very truthful, said was not true), enemies found it convenient to claim he was drunk on many occasions when he had not touched a drop.

Chernow’s coverage of the Civil War makes very clear how much the nation has to thank Grant for its end, after a series of generals got nowhere against Lee. In fact, in his time, Grant was considered one of the greatest generals of all time, whereas his legacy has been disparaged, with prominent Southern historians claiming his success was only because the North had more resources available than the South.

The implication I always took away from Grant’s presidency was that he must have been corrupt if his administration was. First, administrations had been rife with corruption since Jackson’s. Second, although Grant believed in the patronage system, the idea of awarding positions because of merit was actually a new one, and Grant did award many positions for that reason. Last, like many very honest men, Grant tended to trust too easily, with unfortunate results.

Although many of the positive results of Grant’s administration were nullified by subsequent changes when Reconstruction was eliminated, Chernow documents many benefits for black Americans and in Grant’s attempts to help Native Americans, Jewish Americans, and others. Grant’s administration gave the vote to black men and wiped out the first incarnation of the Ku Kluxers.

Chernow has written a rivetting book that has convinced me that Grant is one of our most underrated and misrepresented presidents. He was a great man.

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Review 1377: Lincoln in the Bardo

The title Lincoln in the Bardo is the first tip-off that this book is unusual, for it refers to a Tibetan concept of immediate life after death. The novel is set in a graveyard after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy, and is narrated by a host of ghosts who don’t know they are dead and are clinging to their worldly concerns. It is also moved along by quotations, some real, some fictitious, by accounts of the time, letters, and historical accounts.

The ghosts in the graveyard are grotesqueries who physically manifest the obsessions they had in life. The two most important ghosts in the novel, for example, are Hans Vollman, who sports an enormous erect penis because he died before he could consummate his marriage; and Roger Bevins III, whose sensual nature is indicated by his multiple eyes, noses, and hands. Okay, this can be comic. It is certainly an amusing idea. But after a while, I began to miss the subtle humor that seems to have deserted us in recent years.

The thrust of the plot is that children aren’t meant to linger in the Bardo or terrible things happen to them. However, Lincoln arrives early in the novel to visit his son in his grief, and he says he will return. Vollman, Bevins, and their friend, the Reverend Everly Thomas, become determined to help Willy leave, and to do so they must get Lincoln to return to the tomb and release him.

This novel is wildly original. Aside from the characteristics I’ve mentioned, it is written more like a screenplay than a novel. It also resonates deeply in its themes of grief, Lincoln’s worries about the war, and the concerns of life affecting the afterlife. Still, I was repelled by how crude and crass it is at times. I also felt that the novel was much longer than it needed to be. You get the idea about the ghosts fairly quickly, but the supernatural chatter becomes boring after a while.

I read this for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1329: Varina

Cover for VarinaVarina is one of those books that makes me wish Goodreads allowed half stars, because it is better than the books I’ve given three stars (my okay or ho-hum rating) but it’s not quite as good as many books I’ve rated four stars. It is interesting, though, the story of Varina Davis, Jeff Davis’s young wife.

The novel begins when Varina, or V as she is called, as an old woman meets James, a young African-American boy she raised with her own children. At the time of the fall of the Confederacy, Jimmy was taken from her after she was captured.

James comes to see V because he remembers very little of that time and has read some things in a book he wants to ask her about. She is happy to see him, because all of her children have died. He is the last one left. The novel skips backward and forward through incidents in her life as she and James hold a series of conversations.

I found this novel both interesting and touching. I know very little about Jeff Davis and knew nothing of his wife. V seems to have been an unconventional and spirited woman. She led a difficult and sad life.

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Day 1211: Days Without End

Cover for Days Without EndI so much enjoyed Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side when I read it for my Walter Scott Prize project that I was excited to see his Days Without End on the shortlist, too. Again, his protagonist is an Irish immigrant to the U. S., but this time a man, Tom McNulty.

Tom and his best friend, John Cole, enlist in the army sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. Their job in Daggsville has disappeared with the miners. That job, which they have had since they were boys, was to dress up like women and dance with the miners.

Tom and John enjoy the army but have some difficult experiences when their unit is sent west to deal with Native Americans. After some brutal experiences, they leave the army, taking with them a little Native American girl they call Winona. Although she is purportedly their servant, they treat her as a daughter.

Tom and John are lovers, and they have adventures that have raised some skepticism among other bloggers, particularly when Tom goes back to cross dressing to entertain miners in Grand Rapids. Some commenters did not believe this act would be accepted so easily during that time. I’m not sure what I think about that, except that Barry presented it in a convincing way.

In Tom, Barry creates an engaging character, and his descriptions of events, many of them horrific, as Tom and John go from serving in the Indian Wars to the Civil War, is masterful. However, none of the other characters in the novel were fully developed, including John.

This lack, and my doubts about the probabilities of some of the situations in which the pair find themselves lessened my enjoyment in this novel. It is certainly worth reading, but I didn’t like it as much as On Canaan’s Side.

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Day 1023: The Second Mrs. Hockaday

Cover for The Second Mrs. HockadayBest Book of the Week!
Shortly after the American Civil War, Placidia Hockaday begins a series of letters to her aunt about the peril she finds herself in. But she refuses to say exactly what happened. While her husband, Major Gryffth Hockaday, was away fighting for the South, Placidia had a child and is being accused of murdering it. But at first, all she wants to talk about in her letters is her first meeting with Major Hockaday and the circumstances of her wedding. She was a naive 18, and he was twice her age and a widower with a baby son. They knew each other all of one day.

Eventually, we learn that Placidia, or Dia, as her family calls her, does not know how her baby died. It seems obvious that her real crime is her pregnancy and her refusal to name the father of her child. All she will say is that she cannot betray someone who helped her. Rumors are rampant.

Susan Rivers is pretty clever about how she spins out her story, although at times I got impatient with Dia’s relatives’ squeamishness in avoiding reading her diary of the time. Her son has found it written on the backs of the pictures in a copy of David Copperfield, and the contrast between the picture captions and the content of Dia’s diary provide a note of irony and a whole other level of information. Nevertheless, we are completely captured by the story of her difficult life during the war, as she slowly and with great suspense works her way to the point.

Dia has been left without enough support on a remote farm in South Carolina after only being married a few days. She soon dismisses the slave woman caring for baby Charlie when she sees her smack him. Eventually, she is left with too little help on a farm that is repeatedly looted by deserters and bandits, as well as undergoing normal threats to agriculture by the weather.

link to NetgalleyThis is a powerful novel. If I have any complaints about it, it is for Dia’s devotion to her husband after he leaves her without word or enough help for several years and then, upon returning home and hearing rumors of her illegitimate child, apparently turns her over to the authorities without even speaking to her. Then she decides not to tell him what happened for his own sake.

Told in a series of letters and diary entries, this story gripped me from the first page. it is a forceful depiction of the vicissitudes of war on the innocent civilians and a great character study of a strong woman.

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Day 965: Strange Company

Cover for Strange CompanyI read about half of Strange Company but decided not to finish it. It just wasn’t the book for me. I thought it might be interesting because it is about Native Americans during the Civil War.

Roderick “Dhu” Walker is a member of a group of the Cherokee Nation called the Pins, for pins they wear under their lapels. They are traditional Cherokees on the side of the Union who begged the government to protect them from the Confederates under the terms of their treaty. The government did nothing, though, and the Confederacy has forced the Pins to fight on its side.

Before a battle in Missouri, some of the Pins decide not to fight but instead to kill Confederate soldiers during the battle. Dhu kills a couple men but mostly because they get in his way while he’s trying to escape. Later, though, he is captured by the Confederates as a deserter.

As a prisoner, Dhu is teamed up with a Union soldier and forced to fight him at the instigation of Captain Gordon Early. This amusement is only stopped by the intervention of the Colonel. When the Union soldier, Ben Lacey, tells Dhu that Early is off to escort a load of gold from Mexico, Dhu talks Ben into escaping with the idea that, along with some other Cherokees, they’ll intercept the shipment.

The novel moves along fast enough but does little else. There seems to be no idea of characterization. Sentences are short and choppy. Although the writing is grammatical, it is not polished by any means. Any metaphors are clichés. In short, the novel is not very good. If you are interested in reading a Western, you’ll be much better off with one of the “Related Posts” at the bottom of this post.

Disclosure: This eBook was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Day 733: Little Women

Cover for Little WomenOver the past months I have occasionally reread a childhood favorite to see what I think about it now. The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, for example, came through with honors. Not only were both beautifully written, but I found them as entertaining as an adult as I did as a child.

Little Women doesn’t fare quite as well. I found some of the same parts of it affecting as I did when I was young. Who wouldn’t sympathize with these girls, bravely coping without the things their friends have, doing without their father for over a year, getting along as cheerfully as they can? However, as a child reading the book, I didn’t notice that almost every chapter ends with a moral lesson.

The novel covers about 12 years in the lives of the March family, beginning during the American Civil War. For the first half of the novel, Mr. March is away as a chaplain for the Union army. The main character is Jo March, at the start of the novel a tomboyish, gawky 15-year-old who loves writing and putting on plays, reading, and writing stories.

Her older sister Meg is more ladylike and laments having to wear old things to parties. Beth is the third sister, who is too shy to go to school. Amy is the youngest and a little spoiled. Although there are certainly events in their lives, the story is about how Marmee, their mother, raises them all to be good, productive women.

One of the closest relationships in the novel is the friendship between the family and their neighbor Laurie, a rich young man being raised by his grandfather. This and other relationships are warm ones, and the Marches all seem like real people, as do their friends.

If Alcott could have let up a bit on the moralizing, I would have enjoyed the novel more. The other two novels I mentioned earlier also have moral messages, but they leave the reader to figure them out themselves. Still, I’m sure any young girl reading this novel would be as drawn by it as I was years ago.

My comments have made me wonder what I would think of Eight Cousins, which was actually my favorite book by Alcott when I was a child. I’m a little afraid to find out.

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Day 720: Galway Bay

Cover for Galway BayGalway Bay is fiction based on the stories of Mary Pat Kelly’s great-great grandmother about leaving Ireland in the first half of the 19th century to come to America. The novel covers a lot of ground—the iniquities of Ireland’s Anglo-Irish landlords, the Great Famine, early Chicago, the American Civil War, the Fenian Brotherhood—and ends with the Chicago World’s Fair.

Honora Keeley is a young girl living in a fishing village on Galway Bay when she meets Michael Kelly and they fall in love at first sight. They want to marry, but they have to convince Honora’s family, because Michael owns nothing but his horse. However, he earns enough to marry by winning a horse race in Galway.

Honora’s sister Maire, who was married the day Honora met Michael, is soon a widow after her husband dies in a fishing accident. On Honora’s wedding night, Maire saves Honora from the landlord’s droit du seigneur by volunteering in her stead. I’ll say something about this later.

Michael is no fisherman. Honora and Michael have a tough enough time of it farming but are making out okay when the potato blight hits. The behavior of the landlords and the British government during this time is shameful, and Kelly depicts it vividly. After several years of the blight and other misfortunes, Honora finally is able to convince Michael to leave for America, to Chicago, where his outlawed brother Patrick is said to reside.

Although this novel has a fairly good story, there is something about the narrative style that bothered me. It is told in first person, but in a modern style that is not convincing. Many things happen, but I didn’t ever feel as if I understood much about the characters’ personalities. Especially early on, when we are getting to know the main characters, often opportunities for revealing dialogue turn into storytelling episodes, where we hear another Irish legend. Everyone has one or two identifying characteristics, but they don’t feel like real people. I think the novel may have been more successful in the third person.

Finally, I was highly skeptical of whether droit du seigneur would have occurred in the 19th century, as it is usually associated with Medieval times. I’m sure this event is based on family legend, but I think Kelly could have treated this one with a little skepticism, especially as the lord’s behavior is abetted by a priest. I attempted some research on the topic and was surprised to find a lot of discussion about whether it was ever actually practiced at all. But with one exception, the references were to Medieval mainland Europe, not the British Isles. That exception was a Facebook page about Ireland, but I was unable to find the actual reference on the page to see if it cited any sources. I have read several history books about Ireland and took a graduate course in Irish history, and I have never heard anything about this, although the other abuses are well known. (I have since found one source for this alleged practice, Arthur Young, the author of a book called Tour of Ireland in 1780, who stated it was commonly practiced in rural Ireland. He is listed in Wikipedia as an agriculturalist who traveled to observe agricultural practices. Still, with this little information, we have no idea if his statement is based on rumor or fact, and this report is 50 years or so before the time of this novel.)

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Day 655: The Night Inspector

Cover for The Night InspectorWilliam Bartholomew is a survivor of the American Civil War, but in many ways he is also a casualty. His face was destroyed, so he wears a mask, but he also bears less discernible scars from his work as a sniper for the Union army.

Bartholomew is working as a commodities trader when he meets the writer Herman Melville. He has read and admired Moby Dick, but the novel was mostly met with mockery by the critics and ignored by the public. Unable to take care of his family with his earnings as a writer, Melville takes a job as a deputy customs inspector.

Bartholomew has a relationship with a Creole prostitute that he considers deeper than the usual one of client. She asks for his help in a venture that seems laudable but is illegal. To pull it off, he must involve Melville.

At first, I wasn’t sure where this novel was going. It is dark and sometimes disturbing, and I even thought it might become a mystery. It does not, but it fully captures the consciousness of a man who is tough but has had to fight to keep from being shattered by circumstances, his own actions, and his conscience.

It is also a vehicle for depicting Melville. There, I was not so sure it was going to be successful in making Melville interesting until the denouement of the novel.

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