Co. Aytch by Sam R. Watkins
3 words: unflinching, immediate, direct
I seriously love a conversational first-person narrator. So when we were visiting Kennesaw Mountain battlefield and I saw Sam Watkins quoted all over the museum and then saw his book blurbed as one of the most compelling memoirs of the Civil War… I was there.
I nearly bought a copy right there in the gift shop.
But then I thought: audiobook.
And, in retrospect, that might’ve been a mistake. The thing is this: Watkins is a Southerner. And the narrator of the audiobook? Pure Yankee. It created kind of a strange disconnect.
But that’s my only quibble with this book.
Watkins wrote one doozy of a narrative.
Although he wrote this memoir a couple of decades after the war, his story feels fresh and honest and unflinching.
And there are moments that’ll rip your heart out. Moments like when he describes the horrible death of a fellow soldier in vivid detail, then states simply, “I loved him. He was my friend.”
And then he picks up the narrative as the army marches on.
There were moments I halted what I was doing, to just pause and feel all the feels.
Watkins doesn’t sugarcoat a thing. He lets us know how horrible that war was. He unsparingly describes the fury and the horror at the Dead Angle at Kennesaw.
(When we saw that place during our visit, I stood and gaped. It was hard to believe that soldiers mounted an attack on that ground. Sobering stuff, my friends.)
And call me weird, but I find it strangely comforting when someone speaks the full truth about something horrible. So I found Watkins’s memoir both moving and refreshing.
Anyone else like the full honest truth in their books?
|(photo credit: By Daderot – Daderot, CC0, https://commons.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21104068)|
He’s a big old important secondary character in the Hamilton story, but in Vowell’s book, he’s at center stage.
OK. All you Hamilton freaks… I know you’re out there. What’re you reading to go along with the soundtrack?
Black Hawk: An Autobiography by Black Hawk
3 words: personal, dramatic, frank
While on a recent road trip, the Dear Man and I noticed a fair number of references to the Black Hawk War. And then we realized that we were living right in the middle of a place filled with history, and we knew precious little about it.
Being industrious, curious types, we set out to fix that.
The Dear Man asked the Librarian if she’d considered reading Black Hawk’s autobiography.
Flash forward one week, and I had a copy in my hands.
Flash forward another week, and he also had a copy in his hands.
And then we started learning all kinds of cool stuff about a nearly forgotten period of history.
If you’d asked me what I had on the Black Hawk war, I would’ve said, “Um… young Abraham Lincoln?”
Cuz, YEAH: dude served in the Illinois militia (never saw battle, but buried some scalped soldiers).
The cool thing about this book is that it’s told in Black Hawk’s words. Or at least, sort of. My only real complaint with the book is the inclusion of way too many exclamation points and italicized words for emphasis. And in some places, I doubted that Black Hawk would have spoken in the way the words were written on the page.
But at least we get his viewpoint.
And that’s explanation enough for this book to still be in print more than 175 years after its initial publication.
This is a book that doesn’t go down easy.
I found myself seething at the way Black Hawk’s people’s land was taken from them.
I kinda got worked up.
Then I recalled the passages where they’re doing the scalp dance, and I shuddered.
Then I thought about them approaching the militia with a white flag of peace and being fired on. And I got worked up again.
It was fascinating to see the episodes through Black Hawk’s eyes, and to understand it from his perspective. He’s narrating the story as an older man, near the end of his life, and while he’s faced plenty of hardship, his spirit is still lively.
Besides describing the battles and difficulties faced by the Sauks, Black Hawk also paints a detailed picture of their daily life.
Visiting the Hauberg Indian Museum, located at the Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island, Illinois, reinforced the descriptions of the Sauks’ annual cycle of farming, hunting, and trading. The museum has a fine display, some great artifacts, and some really good maps that helped us find our way to the area nearby where Black Hawk was born and lived.
We read the Donald Jackson edition, which is also the edition on display at the Hauberg Museum, so it’s got some decent cred.
The thing I liked about this edition was Jackson’s terrific introduction. He sets the scene, including some unexpected details, such as a riveting description of Black Hawk’s hair in comparison with the hairdo of Andrew Jackson.
And Donald Jackson analyzes the validity of the autobiography and its various versions over the years, and that’s good stuff, too.
So… what books have inspired you to take to the road?
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
3 words: literary, straightforward, ambitious
Before listening to his autobiography, here’s what I could’ve told you about Benjamin Franklin:
- That electricity thing with a kite
- That quest for self-perfection
- Philadelphia boy
- Dude went to France
- Poor Richard’s Almanack
- That really bad hair
As I listened, though, I remembered what I’d known and forgotten:
- Founded one of the first lending libraries in America
- Worked as a printer
- Known for his writing (oh, thank goodness!)
- Self-made man
And I learned things I never knew:
- Dude was a wise, wily politician
- Not into church-going
- Founded a fire department in Philadelphia
I found his autobiography a rather uplifting reading experience. Granted, his life could be considered a success, but he describes his mistakes with honesty and humility. He owns that crap.
And his writing is clean and surprisingly straightforward for its day. I was prepared for all kinds of flowery speech, but he preserved us from that fate. (This might be one of the reasons this book is still so widely read.)
My favorite section was the part where he describes his plan to become a better person by observing the 13 virtues he identified and worked on, one by one: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.
Oh, I liked this part a lot.
I had all kinds of happy little flashbacks to reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Her formula for happiness is “being happier requires you to thinking about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”
It appeals to me so strongly, that “atmosphere of growth” stuff. And Franklin’s life embodied that concept.
So hanging out with him while he told his life story was pretty darn inspiring. While I scrambled eggs, he described figuring out how to set up a fire department and save lives, all while living a life of frugal, tranquil sincerity.
So yeah, inspiring and enjoyable. Glad I read it.
|Watergate tourist. I know: sad.|
|Witch House, Salem (photo credit: Library of Congress)|
detailed, narrative, dense
unexpected!) was accused of witchcraft (and later released).
vaguely horrifying and mostly thrilling. It may have been the high point of the
book for me.
ago, I read Saint-Exupery: A Biography by
Stacy Schiff, and it was one of those remarkable reading experiences where a
book just drew me into its world and I wanted to stay there.
new book, The Witches, enticed me powerfully.
Schiff has become a Name in the world of biography writing, and I was excited
at the thought of reading another one of her books.
I got into this book, and I felt frustrated.
why: Schiff does a masterful job of gathering and presenting an immense array
of research, so she is able to present a wonderfully detailed account of the
events of 1692 in Salem. She places the reader in the scene, which is a
was bothered by the lack of analysis of why
this group of adolescent girls was twitching and writhing and accusing
others of being witches—and why innocent people were confessing to being
was no sense to it! And it was really bugging me.
realized that as a reader, I needed some interpretation along the way, to help
explain the madness that was taking place in Salem—to cut my irritation with the
utter nonsense of the situation.
arrived in the final chapters, where Schiff explains some of the possible
reasons for the witch accusations and trials. But I’d
just experienced over 300 pages of descriptions of utterly bizarre behavior
without much of an explanation. I was worn out and slightly peevish.
having been said, I don’t want to undercut the book overall. Beyond being a
magnificent researcher, Schiff has a delightful writing style—and even manages
to add some humor occasionally, despite the grimness of her subject matter.
summer took in thirteen-year-old Martha to see to her cure. She cantered,
trotted, and galloped about the Mather household on her ‘aerial steed,’
whistling through family prayer and pummeling anyone who attempted it in her
presence, the worse houseguest in history.” (21)
devil aimed to destroy the villagers because they bickered among themselves and
their ministers. (In fairness, were those the criteria, Satan would have had
his choice of New England congregations.)” (303)
to love the experience of reading this book. But I merely liked it. I remain un-bewitched.
history of genealogical nerdiness is indeed quite something
triumphant, character-driven, family
McCullough is one of my guys. Two of his books appear in my blog banner, which
I realized only when I was reading his latest, about the Wright brothers.
|(courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)|
Wilbur and Orville, we go back a ways, too.
years, I’ve gotten all misty-eyed and boring at cocktail parties* every
December 17, because I regale anyone within earshot with the news that it’s the
umpteenth anniversary of the first powered flight.
and “Kill Devil Hills.”
the life of any party.
book had me all in a flutter. The
flutter was worth the while.
is a wonderfully comforting writer, who is a master of his craft. His sentences
other thing that makes him comforting is that he tends to tell the heroic
stories, in a tone that’s relatively wart-free. He’s not out to tell how the
Wright’s competitors tried to make them out as mean-spirited moneygrubbers
whose protection of their patents bordered on the obsessive.
book is about their hard work and their triumph. And it’s very much about their
personalities and their family.
man married, and they lived with their father and sister. Which sounds kind of
horrid, except that it sounds like they had rather a happy home life.
were quiet fellows who largely kept to themselves, at least until fame struck.
are quiet, wonderful moments like this one, when Wilbur was about to take off
on a demo flight in France:
at six-thirty, with dusk settling, Wilbur turned his cap backward, and to Berg,
Bolée, and the others said quietly, ‘Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.’” (p.
those words made me stop and clap a hand against the center of my chest and do
the heartstruck look.
is a pleasant, talented author, and he’s writing about these quirky fellows
whom he finds pleasant and talented himself, so it’s a whirlwind of goodness.
despite the theme of flight, McCullough keeps it down to earth:
nephew Milton, who as a boy was often hanging about the brothers, would one day
write, “History was being made in their bicycle shop and in their home, but the
making was so obscured by the commonplace that I did not recognize it until
many years later.’” (p 113)
heroic, and stoic.
cocktail parties like the plague. But anywhere else I am, I bore people with
this December 17 business. Avoid me on that date.
the Lusitania by
immediate, tragic, anecdotal
lived my entire life as a Lusitania ignoramus.
you’d’ve asked me what I could tell you about it, I’d’ve said “British ship
sunk by the Germans during World War I. Americans on board, so the U.S. entered
sort of right. Partial credit. Actually, it took 2 more years for the U.S. to
declare war. (Who knew?!)
is an Erik Larson book, which often means we’re gonna have dual narratives.
This one’s no exception. Except: Wait—there’s more!
we’re on board the Lusitania; on
board the U-boat that sunk the ship; hanging out in the code-breaking room in
England; and eavesdropping on President Wilson, who’s wooing his second wife. And
there are some side trips to shipping offices, too.
main storyline is, as expected, onboard the Lusitania,
which (didn’t know this, either) had an unusually large number of children and
babies aboard during its last voyage. (Sad, guys. This stuff is sad.)
did some fine research, so we get to hear the story from several of the
survivors. He paints a detailed picture of life on the ship.
maybe this is just me, but one thing I expected from this book—since it’s
tragedy and it’s true, and I love that stuff—didn’t actually happen. I thought
I’d become slightly obsessed with the topic, Googling and YouTubing and looking
up other books about the Lusitania.
the ideal audience [pretty sure I am] or because Larson’s narrative didn’t completely
pull me in to the story. Unlike every time I’ve read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, the classic
account of the sinking of the Titanic,
Dead Wake didn’t make me feel like I
was there. I’m beginning to think there’s something about Larson’s style that just doesn’t
jibe with me.
a fine book in many ways, and I liked it rather much. But I really wanted to
experience, guys, even though the book is sad. I picked up this book before
bedtime one night, and ended up reading way later (way later) than I’d planned.
before, I know this story.
goodness’ sake, we all do.
|(photo courtesy of the John F. Kennedy
Presidential Library and Museum)
Hill’s other book Mrs. Kennedy and Me and loved it. So I
wondered if this book would feel redundant. But its focus is quite different.
While the first book dealt with his working relationship with Jacqueline
Kennedy, this book is all about the trip to Texas in November 1963. And it’s filled with
photos, many of which I’d never seen.
lot of books about JFK, I tend not to focus on those days in November. Other
than William Manchester’s remarkable The Death of a President, I’ve focused on the president’s life rather than his
Hill’s book brings the behind-the-scenes perspective to the story makes this
book different. It feels like someone describing a death in the family.
And it’s heartbreaking.