I’ve not been doing a good job reviewing books that I’ve read so I decided to chat up some with “mini-reviews” of several books that I’ve enjoyed this summer. I still need to finish up with at least one more post on my nine days in NYC and hopefully write about a few more things going on in my life other than drowning in sweat after having finished mowing the lawn. Anyway, here are mini reviews of a few of the books I’ve been reading this summer:
Pat Conroy, South of Broad (2009). I listened to this book on Audible, which is a task as it is quite long and there were sections that I went back and listened to a second time. It is the story of Leo King and his friends, who were all thrown together during desegregation in Charleston in the late 1960s. When we meet Leo, we realize he is a fragile high school student who will be a senior. His older brother has committed suicide, which has haunted Leo (and we don’t learn of the reason until late in the book). The first part of the book tells about the meeting up of this group of friends that include people from the Charleston gentry to African-Americans, to orphans and poor-abused whites (Sheba becomes a movie star and Trevor a musician and both are haunted by an estranged father that keeps in the shadows). The second part of the book is 20 years in the future, where the movie star comes back to Charleston to seek the help of her friends to find her gay brother who has disappeared. They all head to San Francisco and find Shela’s brother who is dying of AIDS and bring him back to Charleston. The book then jumps back to 1969 and high school football, before jumping back to the present in Charleston with Sheba and Trevor’s crazy father and a city that endures the fury of Hurricane Hugo. This book deals with a lot of sensitive topics: child abuse, ecclesiastical abuse (by a priest), the struggle with race and class in the American South, AIDS, and local issues like Hugo’s destruction. Like all his writings, Conroy gives us wonderful descriptions of South Carolina’s Low Country while weaving wonderful stories.
Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York: Broadway Books, 2001), 474 pages. My daughter gave me this book for Father’s Day… Although skeptical at first, thinking that since it came out a few years after “How the Irish Save Civilization,” those of us with Scottish blood and hubris would naturally think we’d have a hand in creating civilization. The book rose above hubris, showing how Scotland rose above the warlord era of the Clans to become a modern nation and then (mainly through immigration and education), shared such a vision with the rest of the world. A lot of this book goes into politics, especially around the Jacobite rebellion in 1845, an attempt to place a Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charles) back on the throne for Great Britain. The attempt failed. Unlike a lot of mythology that shows the era of the clans (the chiefs were essentially warlords) to be glamorous, Herman dispels this myth and also dispels the idea that all the Highland Clans supported the Jacobite efforts (the MacKenzies, my main clan, were divided). Instead of this being a Scottish rebellion, Herman suggests it was more of a civil war. After 1745, Scotland began to value education and attempted to provide public schools for all children. The Scottish Universities begin to rival Cambridge and Oxford and at times were even better. The Scottish Enlightenment and its aftermath were felt throughout the Western world (David Humes, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, etc). Although I would have liked to have seen more treatment of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, Herman does admit its influence into the Declaration of Independence. Another area in which the Scots excelled was trade and Scottish companies were the leaders in fostering trade throughout the British Empire and around the globe. After discussing the Scottish Enlightenment, the growth of Scottish Industry (for a century, Glasgow led the world in tonnage of ships built) and trade, he discussed the role various Scots played around the world. He ends the book discussing the economic downturn in Scotland as industries moved elsewhere and what its future might be. Herman also discusses the rise of Scottish pride (thanks to the pens of folks like Sir. Walter Scott) and how the how “tartan” thing became accepted and reinterpreted in Scotland and throughout the world. Although the book was written more than a decade before the Scottish failed vote for independence, Herman makes the case that Scotland has long been tied to Great Britain and would suffer if such ties were severed.
William Zissner, editor, Extraordinary Lives; The Art and Craft of American Biography (New York: American Heritage, 1985), 252 pages. Zissner, best known for his book On Writing, has been a favorite author on writing for me. He died a few months ago. Upon his death, I decided to see what I haven’t yet read of his and came across this book which he edited. In the mid-80s, he brought together six major biographers to lecture on their craft at the New York City library. Zissner edited the lectures and wrote the introductory chapter and published this book. What excites me about this book is that I have read extensively the work of two of the biographers (David McCullough, and Robert Caro). At the time of the lecture, they both had done a major work and was working on others, but they were still new at their craft. McCollough had not yet published his major work on John Adams (he had published his work on Theodore Roosevelt and was working on his biography of Harry Truman) and Caro had just published his first book on Lyndon Johnson’s early life (he has since published three more and hasn’t yet gotten to Johnson’s presidency). Other biographers included are Paul Nagel (The Adam’s women), Richard Sewall (Emily Dickerson), Ronald Steel (Walter Lippmann), and Jean Strouse (J. Pierpont Morgan and the family of Harry and Henry James). There is some good stuff in this old book, especially if one is considering the task of writing a biography.
Quote: "In fact, the coexistence of these two biographies (Morris' and McCullough's biographies on T. Roosevelt) illustrate an important point, which is that there is not just one true story about any of these lives; there are instead versions of the past..." (Strouse, p. 166)