Sunday, February 19, 2012

Generally Speaking

now reading: Grant: A Biography by William S. McFeely

In my prez bios project, I am on president #18, one Ulysses S. Grant. Of course, trivia lovers among you may know that he was not in fact named Ulysses S. Grant, rather, his name was Hiram Ulysses Grant and the (senator? congressman?) who got him into West Point mucked up his name and it kind of went from there. Anyway, I am a little past halfway through this book and as usual it is interesting learning about the president's formative years, rise to fame and greatness, and place in the swirling events of history. I continue to love this reading project. As for Grant in particular....

He was quite the popular hero. I have always been fascinated/skeptical when it comes to the voting-public-enthalled-by-a-general thing (like, what exactly makes a general qualified to be president? no one can say), but it happens every few presidents, even though it hasn't worked in my lifetime (yet), most prominently when some people bandied about Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf's name but that was a total non-starter.

This particular biography actually qualifies for two of my reading projects, as it is also a Pulitzer Prize winner; howEVer, I am actually not sure if I think it's superb, so far. It's interesting, but not really drawing me in more than any other biography, as you might expect a Pulitzer winner to do. The most interesting thing about this book  so far is how William S. McFeely is the first biographer I've read who actually calls out "great war leadership" for what it is: getting men to kill other men. At first (the earliest chapters in the book) I was excited because I thought he was actually going to go with that thought and try to make people see how stupid and murderous war is, but instead he goes down a different path of kind of making it Grant's flaw that only leadership in war could bring out his talents as opposed to business or politics or whatever he tried as a young man.  I suppose it was shocking enough for some academic writer to actually call a spade a spade (war is senseless murder) and that's why he doesn't really go any further and indict everyone responsible (i.e., people who might be reading his book).

McFeely is totally defensive of (#18) Grant's role in (#17) Andrew Johnson's presidency, and it's interesting to contrast this point of view with the biography of Johnson I recently read that explains what a raw deal Johnson got from the Congressional Republicans in the early days of Reconstruction.

As usual, I continue to see how large the story of slavery and blacks in America looms in the history of the United States, despite how thin of a thread it is in the tapestry of many of my school social studies textbooks. The story of race relations in the U.S. is so not just one thread. It deserves all the study activists try to give it and more.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Other Books, Same Authors

now finished: Other Voices, Other Rooms  by Truman Capote
now reading: Grant by William S. McFeely

Careful readers may recall my first post-War and Peace project on this little Lit Supp blog o' mine.  I suppose you'd have to be something like a careful reader just to even be reading this blog today after so long a hiatus on my part, but that's not the point.  In 2007, I embarked upon my long-contemplated A-to-Z Reading Project, in which I chose a book from one new-to-me author for each letter of the alphabet (apart from my sorry, sorry, I'm SORRY OK Gao Xingjian for 'X' issue). It took a little longer to complete than I had originally contemplated, what with the whole being-in-law-school thing and all, but I eventually finished and then chose my top half, thirteen of those authors that I would like to read again.

The winners were: A-C-D-E-F-I-L-R-S-U-V-W-Y  (runners-up: H & J). I have since read a second book from three of them. After starting with Martin Amis' The Information for the original project, I returned to him and read Money. I was  not that enthralled with Pico Iyer's Cuba and the Night during the project, but was happy to leave his novels behind and delve into his travel narratives with Video Night in Kathmandu -- this was the Pico Iyer I knew I loved from back in my days when we had him on The Savvy Traveler. And I read E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, which I found as pitch perfect on ever page as A Passage to India, my introduction to him.

Now, here in Phuket of all places, I have lain on a beach and in two days devoured Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms. I am surprised this book is not more famous than it is. I can see why the literary world must have been so excited to have him become one of its darlings a few decades ago. The writing is so good. It's just a marvel. He evokes people in a place and makes you ache for them. This book is also so bold and so saucy, in its way, and you might say a kind of wistful evocation of Capote himself. It's definitely something any of the millennials who think they discovered gender should read. But mostly it's just harsh yet subtle, breezy yet powerful, and naively wicked, much like many of its characters.

There were times I was doing something else during the day and wanted to get back to reading because I was truly worried about what was going to happen to Joel Knox (Samson). (I know, right? As if I could do anything about it by hurrying back to 'save' him - it's already there in the book. Duh. The mind does strange things.)  Capote evoked a sympathy in me that I haven't felt in a very long time. I also have an incredibly vivid picture in my mind of the house, garden, and surroundings of The Landing. Powerful, I tell you.

That's A, C, F, and I revisited. The plan is that after I read these 13 again, I will again whittle it down to a top half and choose six authors, then read a third book by them. Then a final round of three before I select a winner. It's definitely getting harder now to contemplate eliminating authors from the running!

Of course, I also have to alternate with my other reading project, the Prez Bios, in which I am on #18, Ulysses S. Grant. And that is what I am reading now, to be followed by my revisiting Philip K. Dick.