Vicksburg, by Donald L. Miller****

4 stars plus. Donald Miller’s treatment of Vicksburg is one of the best I’ve seen to date; it’s clear, easy to read, well documented, and in parts, vastly entertaining. Thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The siege and battle of Vicksburg was the single most significant event in the American Civil War. When the Union emerged victorious, it seized control of key arteries of commerce, food, and military supplies by capturing access and use of the Mississippi River as well as an important railroad that ran east to west. It liberated vast numbers of slaves, and it dealt a savage blow to the morale of diehard Southerners who believed the city and its fort unassailable. The fall of Vicksburg cut the Confederacy in two, and it made communication between the two halves slow and difficult. It also sealed President Lincoln’s election and provided him with a second term he might otherwise not have gained. I knew all of these things before I began reading Miller’s work, but I found a tremendous number of details I didn’t know about, and more importantly, I gained a much solider sense of context.

Many prominent works on Vicksburg are also Grant biographies, and that usually suits me fine, because Grant is one of my greatest heroes. However, those that read about Vicksburg solely within that framework lose out on the progress made—and sometimes lost again—by the Union Navy and others. Though I had read James McPherson’s work on the Union Navy, there is a lot more detail provided here by Miller. The rivers that surrounded Vicksburg are confusing as heck, and this played a big role in lengthening the fight, but at the same time, it can also confuse readers. It certainly did me. For example, when those traveling on rivers go “above” a certain point, what does that mean? I always assumed it meant north, but sometimes it doesn’t. I had never heard or read the term “Brown water navy,” (or if I did, I had thoroughly forgotten it), and this is a key aspect of the story. For the first time I have a solid grasp of the route used by the Union navy and army.

Readers should know that Miller is fond of including gore. I don’t know whether this is because college students are easily bored, and the consideration of Grant calmly conveying orders while spattered in brain matter is just more attention-getting than the same information without the gore, or whether Miller feels compelled to use these details to drive home the horror that heroes were forced to look beyond in order to be effective, but there it is, and so if you are inclined to take a book with you on your lunch break, you may want a different one then.

One of the aspects I appreciate most is the emphasis Miller places on the role of slaves during this critical time. If the waters were inscrutable, the land was little better in places, with thick, tropical foliage, snakes, leaches and other hazards. Those that lived nearby had an incalculable advantage, but local whites used this knowledge to confuse and obfuscate troops they considered to be enemies. Slaves, on the other hand, understood how important a Union victory would be, and they provided information that would have taken a lot longer to obtain without them. This is material that other writers often mention briefly but treat as a side issue. Miller goes into specifics, gives concrete examples, and shares the respect that Grant gained for his newly emancipated spies, guides, and soldiers.

The chapter titled “The Entering Wedge” is where good prose and information become solid gold. During this section of the book and the chapter after it, I did a lot of rereading for pleasure. There are excellent quotes throughout the book, and the author wisely focuses on those that are little seen in other books, providing a freshness and you-are-there quality at times that I haven’t seen for a long time.

At one point, during a passage discussing the caves that housed soldiers as well as local families affected by shelling, I realized that these must surely be part of the national park dedicated to this event, and I searched the web for images of them; sadly, because of the very soft earth in and around Vicksburg, (most likely the same soft earth that enabled the river to continuously change course,) those caves are all gone, washed away by hard rain. There’s a photo of a modern version based on the information available, but that’s not the same thing. Rats.

I nearly gave this book five stars, but there’s a surprisingly disturbing part toward the end that left me deflated and scratching my head. There are pages and more pages devoted to ugly rumors that seem to begin and end with Cadwallader. Although the author repeatedly reminds us that these statements are “unsubstantiated” and “controversial,” he nevertheless devotes a whole lot of time and space to them, and what’s more they are near the end, where the reader is most likely to recall them. Overall, he seems harder on Grant than most are, but up to this point he was fair, weighing his weaknesses while acknowledging his strengths. Why he would do a hatchet job on this iconic hero in closing is a mystery to me. Then the very end of the book is given to a Confederate.

Nevertheless, this is a strong work for those that know the basics and want the details. I don’t recommend it to those new to the American Civil War; if you are just getting your feet wet, read McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, or explore the excellent historical fiction of Michael and Jeff Shaara, Shelby Foote, and E.L. Doctorow. But for those that are well-versed and in search of new information, I highly recommend this book.

Best Biography of 2019: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

According to Kate, by Chris Enss***

Kate Elder, better known as Big Nose Kate, was a colorful character in the mercurial Wild West. Together with her paramour—possibly her husband—Doc Holliday, she shot, swindled and burned her way through Kansas, New Mexico, Texas and other parts of the American Southwest. My thanks go to Net Galley and Two Dot Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Enss is a capable writer, and I enjoy seeing women about whom little has been written brought to the foreground. Enss amassed a fair amount of material on her subject, but some of it was contradictory, and the greatest contradictor of all was Kate herself, who decided to tell her own life story when she was too old to recall everything properly. Enss tells the reader in the title and introduction that she is telling Kate’s story from the subject’s point of view, and she adds numerous footnotes explaining  conflicting information throughout the narrative.

I read things I had never known before about this time and place, and general historical knowledge is where Enss shines best. For example, a ‘soiled dove’ was allowed to own real estate, whereas married women of the time were not. There were a number of financial advantages to owning a house of ill repute. Kate grew up in a middle class household and was not without choices, but she didn’t care to be married off in the way her family had proposed. In the end she was both a shrewd businesswoman and an adrenaline junkie, one that made a point of having at least one loaded gun handy when a situation called for it. I enjoyed reading about it.

Unfortunately there is a lot of conflicting information and the gaps in the story are numerous. Anytime I start seeing the words “might,” “must have, “ “likely” and so forth, I pull back from the narrative. I can’t get lost in a story when I have to mentally filter the things that are known to have happened from the things nobody knows for sure.  I think Enss has done as good a job as could be done with the documentation available, but Kate is a hard nut to crack.

What I would love to see is historical fiction written with Kate as the protagonist, viewed through the eyes of a feminist writer such as Enss. With historical fiction one can freely fill in the gaps, provide dialogue, and make notes at the end of the story letting the reader know what she has invented or changed.

Those with a special interest may want to read this biography, but I see it largely as a niche read.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela*****

This magnificent collection took 10 years to organize, collecting Madiba’s letters from the many points where they were received, and from the prisons–where many of them were not mailed out, for various technical reasons that were a poor disguise for censorship. The preface suggests that most people will want to flip through it rather than reading it cover-to-cover, but I am a habitual cover-to-cover sort, and so I read the first 50 pages in sequence. And the book’s editor is correct. This is not a cover-to-cover read.

Nevertheless, I am struck immediately by the dignity with which Mandela communicates with his captors. Time and again he writes to them in a courteous, civilized, and highly educated hand about the various ways in which his rights under South African law are being violated and what he is requesting they do to remedy it. He is persistent. He forces them to treat him as a human being. Mandela was an attorney, but he was also possessed of social instincts that nobody can teach anyone. And although I never met him, everything I have read–which is a good deal, where this man is concerned–convinces me that he was also a very nice person.

This is a tome, and it’s a treasure. I am glad I was denied a galley because this is the sort of volume I want as a physical copy. In the end my son purchased it for me for my birthday, and so I thank Benjamin. What a treasure.

If you are looking for just one book about Mandela’s life, read his hefty autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. However, if you are a collector of books about South Africa, or about civil rights in general, or of course, about Nelson Mandela, go out and get this book now.

Conversations with RBG, by Jeffrey Rosen*****

This is the RBG book I’ve been waiting for. My huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers for the review copy. This book will be publicly available November 5, 2019.

Justice Ginsburg wants us to know that the sky is not falling. Though progressive thinkers see great cause for concern, primarily within the executive branch of the federal government, the U.S. Constitution hasn’t changed, and the Supreme Court, she insists, is made up entirely of strong legal minds that revere it. Precedents are still the basis of future rulings; the overturn of precedent is rare and unusual. But for activists—and she loves us—she also points out that public opinion is what alters the course of the law. Congress makes laws based on what their constituency desires. So she isn’t suggesting we put away our pussy hats and our picket signs; she just wants us to know that our advocacy works, and she appreciates everything we do to further women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights.

Twice previously I read other books about RBG; one is a popular biography that I enjoyed, but that didn’t go deeply enough into Ginsburg’s legal ideas, and the second is just dross, minutiae gathered from her high school year book and whatnot. Whereas part of me just wants her to write an autobiography, I have to recognize that she is very elderly, has faced health challenges lately, and to stand a chance of writing any sort of memoir, she’d probably have to resign from the Court. And goodness knows, I want her to stay there, ideally forever. Instead, Rosen’s series of interviews with this feminist icon serves nicely.

Rosen has been friends with Justice Ginsberg for many years; they were drawn together initially through elevator discussions of opera. His chapters are brief but meaty, organized around key rulings and topical interviews. Rosen explains succinctly at the outset how this friendship formed and grew, but he doesn’t get windy or use the opportunity to aggrandize himself. He keeps the focus strictly on his subject. The interviews flow in an agreeable manner that is literate without being verbose or Byzantine.

We live in politically polarized times, and so even when I am reading about a political figure that I admire, I generally expect my blood pressure to rise a little, perhaps in passionate agreement. But if anyone in this nation has the long view of history and the key domestic issues that have unfolded, particularly with regard to the rights of women, it is RBG. And although I am not as senior a citizen as Justice Ginsburg, many of the changes she mentions that have occurred over the decades are ones that I can also attest to, though I hadn’t thought of them in years. For example, when I came of age in the 1970s, it was still not unusual to try to enter a bar or club only to be barred at the doorway because women weren’t allowed inside. (“Gentlemen only, Ma’am. Sorry.”) I had forgotten about these things; as her recollections unspool I see that she is right. Change happens, but lasting change happens slowly. We are getting there, at least with regard to women’s rights and gay rights. Issues of race and class are something else entirely, and she points up specific instances where justice has not progressed and change is imperative. I could say more, but none of it would be as wise or as articulate as when Ginsburg says it. If you’ve read this far in my review, you should go ahead and order this excellent book now. I highly recommend it to all that are interested in social justice, both formal and informal.

Four Hours of Fury, by James M. Fenelon**

I love good military history, and so when I saw this title I requested and received a review copy, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It’s for sale now, but I can’t recommend it to you.

One of the first things I do when I read a new author in this genre is to check notes and sources.  A first rate military historian will have multiple sources for each fact cited, and a reasonably good one will have a variety of sources, primary sources being most desirable.

Fenelon doesn’t do this. Much of his information hangs on a single source, and often these are not well integrated. This is the first time I have seen military history published by a major house, that uses Wikipedia as a source. All of the history teachers I know send their students back to do a rewrite if they hinge their citations on Wiki, and if teenagers aren’t allowed to do it, I cannot think why Scribner permitted it.

What drew me to the book is the paratroopers. There seems to be a spate of these coming out right now, and I find it fascinating subject material. There’s also a trend, of which this book is also an example, of embracing the brave German troops against whom American forces fought, and not unnecessarily, either. I could get behind this trend more easily were it more universal, but somehow U.S. historians are quick to recognize the shared humanity of former enemies that are Caucasian, and others, not so much. If I could see one, just ONE WWII history that recounts kind of brave actions on the part of the Japanese during this conflict, I would be a good deal less cranky.

Be that as it may, this book is inadequately researched and inadequately documented. It’s not professionally rendered, so if you want to read it, do so critically and evaluate as you read. Get it free or cheaply; don’t pay full price.

Queen Meryl, by Erin Carlson**

I read this biography free and early thanks to Net Galley and Hachette Books.

I have enjoyed Streep’s movies and her feminist moxie since the first time I saw her, and so I figured this would be a good fit for me. Sadly, there’s nothing new here at all. There’s no depth of analysis, no stories of inner struggle or insight into her development. The overall tone is uniformly adulatory, which is fine as far as it goes; I don’t enjoy seeing a journalist do a hatchet job on a performer, so if she has to lean in one direction or another, I’m glad it’s on the positive side. But once again—I have seen every single thing in this book somewhere else already. I knew about the friction between Streep and Dustin Hoffman (who is also a great favorite of mine,) and I knew she takes roles that show strong women. I knew she wanted to sing, and she did it in Mama Mia. Readers that have followed this actor’s career over the decades with a magazine article here and there can’t expect to cover new ground. It’s shallow and superficial for the most part, and for me, the only good thing is that I didn’t pay for this book.

Streep’s fans that haven’t followed her career in the press may find more joy than I do here; nevertheless, my advice is to read it free or cheap if you decide you want it. It will be available to the public September 24, 2019.

The Lazarus Files, by Matthew McGough*

It’s almost as if two crimes are committed inside these pages: the first is the premeditated murder of Sherri Rasmussen, and the second is this atrocious book.  How many writers can take a compelling story—that of a cop killing her romantic rival, and her arrest and conviction—and make it this dull? So I still thank Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy, but nothing and nobody can make me read anything written by this author again. It appears that very few reviewers even forced themselves to finish it; those of us that soldiered on till the end either deserve commendations for our determination, or a mental health referral for not cutting our losses.

The book’s beginning comes the closest to competent writing as any part of this thing. We get background information about Sherri and John’s courtship and marriage, as well as John’s relationship with the murdering woman he scorned, Stephanie Lazarus. Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying this part is well written. Even here, there are serious issues with organization and focus, yet I continue, believing that when we get to the meat of the story where the truth is revealed and the killer arrested, tried and convicted, it will be worth the wait. In that, I am mistaken.

The author wanders anywhere and everywhere, apparently unwilling or unable to exclude one single fact about anyone, even those tangentially involved. Why do we need pages and more pages devoted to the life and times of people the victim barely knew? To add insult to injury, many of the facts he’s uncovered are inserted into multiple places in the narrative in a way that emphasis doesn’t justify.  It appears as if he is attempting to reveal a cop cover-up, but his inner attorney forces him to equivocate, hinting throughout without ever reaching the punchline. He infers that maybe Sherri’s husband John knows more than he’s saying, but again we see innuendo everywhere without an accusation being made outright. The writing is riddled with clichés. In many places he tells us how one character or another feels, or what they are thinking, and yet there are no citations anywhere for anything; this is a cardinal sin in writing nonfiction. I go to check the notes at the end of the book and there are none. The copious gushing over Sherri’s excellent character and intelligence, while it sounds warranted, is salted so liberally over 597 interminable pages makes me wonder if there is a connection between the author and the victim’s family, but again, if it’s true, he doesn’t say so. All told, it’s a very unprofessional piece of…writing.

By the time I consider abandoning this thing, I have put in the time required to read over a hundred pages, and so I see it through. I skip the section about the murder of someone else; had it shown up before I was completely disgusted, I’d read it in case it provides strong evidence to back up what the author is inferring but not saying, but as it is, I just want to get to the meat of the matter and be done with this thing.

Imagine my surprise when the Rasmussen murder case is not reopened, and Lazarus is not investigated, arrested, tried and convicted until…the epilogue.

There is not one redeeming feature of this book. It’s a train wreck from the start to the blessed ending. If I feel this way after reading it free, how might you feel if you paid money for it?

Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, by Fredrik Backman***

Purely by serendipity, Backman’s collection of essays came out in the US as my own son is initiated into fatherhood. My thanks go to Atria Books for the review copy; it’s for sale today.

Backman is known to me as a fiction writer, and I have read most of his novels, which are beloved worldwide. Here he delivers nonfiction with the same gently philosophical voice.  Despite the title, the essays are written for adults; this is not a children’s book.

Backman waxes eloquent on diverse topics, and it sounds sweetest—as always—when he focuses on what real men do. For example, all his life, he says he has been told to stand up like a man, but he wants his son to know that a real man should also know how to “stay seated, shut up and listen.”  Women the world over, myself among them, cheer this, and in saying it Backman helps make the world a better place. Other parts are funny as heck, as when he describes trying to change a diaper on an airplane.

The book’s only weakness is the overuse of the words “stuff” and “crap,” throughout the text, and knowing the author’s signature style, I suspect that this began as deliberate repetition for emphasis and as a form of figurative language that somehow didn’t translate effectively.

That said, it’s a sweet little book and a good read, and its timing begs for it to be a reverse-Father’s Day gift in the US, from fathers –or better still, grandfathers—to sons.

Nanaville, by Anna Quindlen*****

Author Anna Quindlen is queen of all things warm and wise, and so it’s not surprising that her ode to grandmothering  hits just the right note.  I was lucky and read it free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it would have been worth the purchase price had it come down to it. This friendly little book is available to the public now.

Quindlen’s memoir can double as a primer for her peers that are new grandparents also, but that’s not where its greatest strength is found. The most resonant aspect is that common chord, the eloquence with which she gives voice to our common experience. It makes me feel as if she and I are sitting together with our baby pictures—the grandbabies and our children that created them—and as she speaks, I am saying, “I know, right?” I chuckle as she recounts trends in the advice given by experts to new parents:  when our first babies were born, we were told to put them to bed on their stomachs so they wouldn’t spit up and choke to death on it; then later children slept on their sides, which seems like a safe bet either way, but babies don’t stay on their sides very long; and now babies are supposed to be safer on their backs. And she voices so well the pride we feel when an adult that we have parented turns into a wonderful parent in his own right. And I nod in agreement as she says of her toddler grandson, “No one else has sounded that happy to see me in many, many years.”

Quindlen speaks well to the ambivalent moments as well, to the need to hold our tongues when we want to offer advice that hasn’t been requested; at the same time, there’s the relief that comes of not being in charge of all the big decisions.  And I echo the outrage that she feels when some ignorant asshole suggests that our biracial grandchild is not part of our blood and bones. (A jerk in Baby Gap wants to know where she got him; she replies that she found him at Whole Foods.)

Unequivocally joyful is the legacy grandchildren present. “I am building a memory out of spare parts…someday that memory will be all that’s left of me.”

And then, there are the books:

“’In the great green room…’

“’Mouse,’ Arthur says.

“’There is a mouse,’ I say…falling down the well of memory as I speak, other children, other chairs.”

Go ahead. Read it with dry eyes. I dare you.

Quindlen is writing for her peers. If you aren’t a grandparent and don’t expect to become one anytime soon (or perhaps at all,) then this memoir will probably not be a magical experience for you. But the title and book jacket make it clear exactly where she is going, and I am delighted to go with her.

Highly recommended to grandparents, and to those on the cusp.