Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I, by Mark Twain*****

automarktwainoneInitially I was surprised not to have seen the autobiography of such a famous individual before. Twain, I learned at the outset, composed his memoir with the stipulation that it not be published until 100 years following his death, because he wanted to be entirely frank about some situations and persons without incurring the displeasure of them, their children, or their grandchildren. Twain died in 1910, and his memoir had been finished just four months. For those of us living now, it was worth the wait. Although I was fortunate enough to snare the DRC for volume 3, I had to go out and hunt down volumes 1 and 2. It’s well worth obtaining and reading for those with the attention span and literacy skills it requires.

There is a lot of material here, and you may be tempted to sample bits here and there using the table of contents. I strongly advise against it. Some of Twain’s most brilliant writing regards things you would not expect to care about. The dispute with a landlord in Italy as his wife lay dying in the villa has the full intensity, concentration, and fire he has to offer. Although I will never know for sure, I suspect that Twain was one of those rare individuals who became even more savagely articulate when angry. The heat of his rage is tremendous and oh so eloquent.

A lot of this writing is gut-bustingly funny, but some of it is also really subtle, and if you rush, you may miss it. I enjoyed reading what he thought of Jay Gould and John Rockefeller; of President Theodore Roosevelt; and of Satan, for whom he confesses that he feels a tremendous sympathy. In other passages he becomes poignant, particularly in speaking of the deaths of his wife and daughter. Nobody but Twain could say it just like this.

Should the reader ignore my advice and choose to jump around, thus missing occasional references to things mentioned earlier in the text, at least do this: be sure to read his remarks about dueling.

The memoir is not linear. He tried several times to sit down and write his life end-to-end, and destroyed some drafts; others he merely abandoned, and they made the assembly of the autobiography, most of which he dictated, all the more complicated as a result. The University of California has done a splendid job of isolating the random repetitious bits at the back of the book in an appendix, while putting the rest of it together in a way that while not linear, makes sense. There are a few interesting photos at the end as well.

Those engaged in the teaching of college level creative writing, of simile, metaphor and other figurative language may indeed want to read this magnificent memoir and pluck some favorite passages for use as examples.

Twain’s life story is not for those with limited focus or who need immediate gratification with minimal effort. This volume, all 738 pages apart from the appendix, kept me company at bedtime when everyone else in our home had the lights turned out and I was the only one still awake. In those small quiet hours I studied the prose of the master, and occasionally had to leave the bedroom in order to laugh out loud, lest I wake my spouse. I would be sorry to have finished, but volumes 2 and 3 still await my attention.

For those that love the English language, and for those with an eye for history, this memoir is not to be missed!

Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, by Saloma Miller Furlong*****

bonnetstringsA few years ago I read and reviewed this author’s first memoir, Why I Left the Amish. Her reasons were compelling, some of them inherent in the Amish tradition, others probably atypical of most Amish families, but all together they provided a powerful impetus, that little voice inside all but the dullest that cries out, “Man the life boats! Save yourself!” I understood, having read it, why Furlong would choose to bail, but I was left with other questions, mostly regarding a gap between the end of the book and the author’s biographical blurb. Happily, I heard from her a couple of months ago; she had written a sequel, and this is it. She volunteered kindly to send it in my direction for a chance to read and review, and it is just as riveting as the first.

The first volume dealt with the horrifying domestic abuse within her family, and the failure of the church to deal with it. Furlong wondered whether she might have remained Amish had she not dreaded her home life, or at least many aspects of it, so tremendously.

It also dealt with her independent nature and intellectual curiosity (my own terms, not hers). Why would the Amish so persistently seek to stamp out the desire of some of its own members to seek higher education, I had to wonder. Would they not want Amish nurses, professors, plumbers, electricians?

The e-mail I received from the author mentioned a PBS miniseries in which she was featured, The Amish followed by The Amish: Shunned. Once I finished reading Bonnet Strings, I decided to hold my review until I could view these productions, some four hours all told. Between what she tells us in this second memoir and what is said in the miniseries, I understand. Not that I know what it is like to be Amish; far from it. But I see now why they set such strict parameters in order to preserve their culture.

The metaphor the Amish use for the individual is that of a grain of wheat. The church is a loaf of bread, and one person can’t be in that loaf without crushing out their individual needs and desires. I have heard of other cultures abroad that take this approach—the Chinese come to mind—but for a quarter million such people to be here in the USA with its John Wayne culture of independence is remarkable indeed, and it is clear to me now that to permit its members to put even one toe into the world of freedom, independence, and yes, greater risk, is to invite its youth to leave and not return. But ninety percent of Amish children grow up to be Amish. They stay Amish. And I really think the twin practices of shunning those—even one’s own children or yikes, parents!—when they leave, combined with the standing offer of reconciliation upon return, is the powerful engine that sucks many of those that have departed back into the fold.

Furlong has been independent and living in Burlington, Vermont, has built new friendships and has a serious boyfriend, but she goes back to the Amish when they come for her. She recounts how it is almost as if a mental switch has been thrown, and she suddenly no longer feels she has a choice. Until I watched the documentaries to accompany the poignant and visceral material in her memoir, I thought this was crazy. But the combination of religion, family, and the fact that there is another language, that old German dialect spoken only by the Amish, weaves a powerful spell. It is as if a voice says, “We know you in a way no one else can.” Saloma goes back to live in her old home town once. Others go back multiple times before they are able to tear away. Actually, our author made a pretty good job of it compared to others that tear themselves away, and in the end is happier that she has returned once in order to put to rest her own doubts, her own questions about whether, once out of her father’s home, she could become a successful Amish woman.

Her memoir is punctuated with memories scribed by her husband, David Furlong, who was a part of her journey out into the world. He provides a different perspective, perhaps closer to what the reader might have seen.

In reading the memoir, it occurred to me that the practice of shunning creates selective breeding. If those that become independent are allowed to return to the community at will and be welcomed, allowed to mix and mingle, then before you know it, they would intermarry. And though science has still not teased apart the mystery of which qualities in us are inbred, and which are the result of how we are raised, the stunning level of passivity among those that remain in the community is remarkable. And it is those truly passive folk that have babies, babies, and more babies. I suspect that this is how they have managed to not only not die out, as those of us on the outside would have anticipated, but thrive and grow.

With a thoughtful memoir such as Bonnet Strings, I like to read the foreword and introduction, read the book, then go back and reread both of them again. The producer of the documentaries wrote the foreword, and she mentioned that Saloma has taken the time—some thirty years–to let her experiences gel. The memoir, therefore, is not written for a therapeutic purpose, but rather to provide an account, both of the strengths and tenacity within the Amish culture, and of the resilience required of those that simply cannot find a place within it.

Because there is no middle ground. There probably never will be.

This articulate, engaging memoir is available for purchase right now. This is a great way to spend your own holiday weekend, and it would also make a terrific gift. Fascinating!

U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition, by Bruce Catton****

usgrantandtheamericanmilThis brass-tacks biography of US Grant, who served as America’s finest Civil War general and also two terms as US president, was originally written for young adults. Now it is something of an anomaly, and yet not a bad read for the right audience. Thank you, thank you to Open Road Integrated Media and to Net Galley for providing me with the DRC. This book will be for sale in digital format November 3.

Reading this nifty little book reminded me—not entirely happily—of how much sturdier literacy in the United States stood during the 1950’s, when this biography was originally written, compared to now. True, it was a less egalitarian, less inclusive school house that could throw this level of reading at its teenagers, and that is a different debate for a different day. Right now, I just have to tell you that Catton’s boiled-down biography is going to be over the heads of most high school students. In addition, there are a couple of slang terms no longer in use that may confuse the reader. I understood one of them—and I was born in the late ‘50’s—but another phrase left me scratching my head. My two fields, when teaching, were literature and US history, primarily the American Civil War and government, so if I don’t get it, then high school kids will miss some of it also. The book could be used for honors students, most likely, but is no longer ideally suited to high school students.

However, I can see its use today for community college students, and also for adults who are not doing research and don’t care to see Mr. Catton’s sources or argue his perspective. He takes a few enormously controversial aspects of Grant’s life and makes his own pronouncements, some bold, some bland, with absolutely not one shred of evidence to back them up, apart from his own excellent reputation, and so scholars in the field are more likely to find his Civil War trilogies more satisfying than this little nugget. But for the history buff who just wants a thumbnail sketch, one book and we’re finished thanks, this could be it. It is certainly less of a meal than Grant’s own memoir; also, unlike Grant’s inarguably excellent memoir, Catton addresses the rumors about Grant and liquor that Grant himself refused to even discuss.

Catton focuses primarily on the Civil War years, which I believe is the right way to remember the man, but he also talks about the setting into which Grant was born, and in a relatively short amount of text provides us with the lifestyle and expectation of the average American farmer, which is what the vast majority of Americans were at that time. He carries us through Grant’s time at West Point, then through the wars with Mexico.

He takes apart and casts aside, brick by brick, the nasty allegations that Grant’s detractors made then and in contemporary times, and shines an authoritative light on them. What about Grant and the booze? Was Grant really a bad businessman who lost his own money and that of other people? Was he really Grant-the-butcher, as a brief but ugly period in revisionism charged, willing to plow willy-nilly into any and every battle regardless of the number of soldiers’ lives lost? What about his presidency, and the scandal that clouded it?

Grant is one of my heroes, and I appreciate the way Catton defends him here. I particularly was interested in his very convincing defense of Grant as businessman. I found Catton slightly abrasive in his tone toward Grant’s defense of the rights of African-Americans during Reconstruction; it was clearly this, rather than anything else, that caused the glow of his wartime glory to dim, because the Klan and Southern white reactionaries were absolutely hell-bent on creating a stratified society in which the Black man did not have equal rights to those of Caucasians, and one determined U.S. president was not able to stem that tide. That’s really what Grant was up against, and what tarnished his reputation. Catton feels he should have been more, um, “flexible”. I personally am pleased that he was willing to ride his principles to hell and back if need be…and that was about what happened.

I find it so sad, so ironic that the vast overload of expensive cigars sent to General Grant by patriotic admirers are what most likely lead to his death; throat cancer checked him out of this world only 48 hours after his memoir was completed.

Although there are no citations for the facts provided in the text, there is a nice little index that will prove useful to students.

Recommended for adults at the community college level, and to history buffs who just want to read one relatively simple biography of Grant.

Confederate Bushwhacker: Mark Twain in the Shadow of the Civil War, by Jerome Loving *****

confederate bushwhacker Good things come to those who wait. Jerome Loving established his credentials as an academic and historian a long time ago. I haven’t read the other biographies he has written, but they’re going on my list now.

Here’s what you have to know going into it: if you are looking for the sound bite, the cut-to-the-chase, you can’t have that wish. Loving uses induction rather than deduction, and brick by brick he builds toward his conclusion, taking the time to set context in a way that only a specialized biography such as this one, which focuses on the single year 1885, can do. And since I received this gorgeous little hardcover book as a First Reads giveaway, I was impatient at first. “What the heck. Where’s the bushwhacking? Where’s Grant?”

Uh uh uh. No. Go back, reread. Everything that is in this book is there for a reason. If you hustle through the first part to get to the second, you may leave too many holes in the foundation. Do you want the wall to fall down? Of course not.

What I noticed, as I marched through with my sticky notes, is that the clusters were initially sparse, as the stage was set, and then suddenly ramped up around page 100, and by the end of the biography I was putting a sticky on every page and sometimes on facing pages.

I could tell you what he has to say; I went back and looked at all of those notes, but then, why would I wreck it for you? An author who builds up to the last page does not need a reviewer to hand over his punch line for him.

Instead, I can tell you that this is a careful, painstaking, well-documented analysis of a complex character. Twain’s ideas evolved between his 20’s and the end of his life, and of course, for most of us they do, but perhaps because his mind was open and searching, or perhaps because of his great fondness for “Sam” Grant, he watched what took place–including the Haymarket martyrdom, which I never knew had been an interest of his–and revised his ideas accordingly. Smart people can do that.

Perhaps the greatest measure of the success of this work is that it not only makes me want to see what else Loving has written, it also makes me want to revisit Twain. I had avoided much of Twain’s philosophical writing because of his anger toward the “damn human race”, to which I am much attached, thanks. But I want to see more about the connection between the events that played out during this time period and his changing perspectives.

One small correction is in order to Loving’s work, though I know this is a tiny, picky detail: Loving states that a huge redwood tree had been named for Grant. Ahem. It is a Sequoia tree. It is immense, but it is General Sherman’s that is the largest in the entire world. Sequoias belong to the same family as redwoods, but they are different. Having driven several days from Seattle to Southern California to see the tree; survived a four-car pile-up, rescued my luggage, bandaged and iced myself and my children, hired a rental car and driven onward to fulfill my mission, I can’t let it go by without mentioning it. Two great huge trees in honor of my two favorite American generals of all time. Sequoias. A hint is that they are located in Sequoia National Park. Makes sense, no?The biggest tree in the world!  50%

If you are reading this exclusively for the Civil War aspect, I will tell you that most of the book is not devoted to that time period; it says it is about 1885, not 1865, and when examining the book’s jacket, a knee-jerk reaction will leave you dangling. There is a small but meaty portion in which Twain discusses his part in the American Civil War, but this is not a Civil War history.

For those who read memoirs and biographies as rapaciously as I do, this is a must-read. For those who enjoy American history and literature, and most of all Twain, it is highly recommended. If you like Grant and maybe have even plowed through his remarkably readable autobiography, even better! But you can easily understand this book without it.

Many of my First Reads will eventually be given away to my daughter’s school or some other good cause. Not this one; it will retain a place of pride in our home library. Thank you for writing it, Mr. Loving, and thanks to the University Press of New England for the free copy.