Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Civil Wars – The past week or so has been spent in one of my American Civil War phases. Seriously, I go through times where I just can’t get enough on the subject, which are almost invariably followed by periods of total disinterest. It’s a fascinating period, but there’s just too much stuff out there, much of it written with only the smallest nod to historical fact. American history, and particularly the history of the American Civil War, is too often an ideological battleground (i.e. Texas School Board) rather than a well reasoned, well researched examination of the past. Thus, I was more than a little excited when British military historian John Keegan published his one-volume The American Civil War late last year. Keegan is something of a favorite of mine, and one of the most influential historians of the late 20th century. He is the author of several seminal works including The Face of Battle, The Mask of Command, and the absolutely indispensible A History of Warfare, among others.
Unfortunately, his best work may be in the past. Recent books have been uneven at best, and The American Civil War is no exception. It is repetitive, sometimes several chapters in a row containing paragraph-length restatements of earlier points that all too often seem to have been directly copy/pasted into place. I have no problem with an author reinforcing a point, but directly restating it again and again, often with little or no effort to make it fit into the structure of the current topic, gets old. I began to wonder if Keegan was writing chapters so far apart in time that he could not remember what he’d written previously, and if his editors hadn’t just rubber stamped the work since Keegan’s name pretty much guarantees sales. Far more disturbing were the apparent errors of fact that popped up throughout the work. I say apparent because Keegan’s prose often became so convoluted and poorly written that a single sentence could have multiple interpretations, one of which usually was simply historically inaccurate, and the others just really poorly expressed. Not good for a history. Overall, The American Civil War was disappointing, although even here there are undeniable moments of keen insight and true brilliance. The psychological aspects of the war revealed in how each side treated the other’s dead, for example, is Keegan at his best. Most of the book, however, is Keegan at his most slap-dash.
Rampant Colonialism – After all that brother-against-brother action, I thought I’d take a break by picking up the “white man’s burden” by revisiting an old favorite: H. Rider Haggard. I’d picked up an Allan Quatermain omnibus edition of the novels Marie, Child of Storm, and Finished (collected under the title of The Zulu Trilogy) a few months ago and put it on the pile, picking it up again Sunday night. What a blast. It’s probably politically incorrect as hell, and I’m well aware of the racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and imperialism that are part and parcel of these works, but man, I love Rider Haggard and Allan Quatermain! Pure adventure stories and historical romances that often drift into the genre of fantasy, told in intelligent prose and narrated by the quintessential gentleman-adventurer. Fast paced, gripping stories of an Africa that never really existed, but which also reveal the author’s deep love for the country, and, for a man of his era, a deep respect for the African peoples and their traditions. I would even go so far as to argue that Haggard’s women are unusually strong and intelligent, though admittedly it is assumed that they should be so only within traditional gendered socio-sexual roles (how’s that for academic-speak?). The novels are a romp for me, but I think they have more merit than they are usually given, and are written with more intelligence, and require more of the same from their readers, than their modern equivalents.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this collection, however, is the warning the publishers felt it necessary to tack onto the title page: “This book is a product of its time and place and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relationships have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work.” It’s the publishing equivalent of “the following does not necessarily represent the views of the producing company, its members, or affiliates” that we see on every DVD, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on a book before. Not even on, say, Mein Kampf. Why on Haggard? I don’t think that’s quite right. Then again, the fact that it comes with a warning can only encourage kids to read it, so by all means….
Coming Soon – I’m not really sure. I’ve just received Jack Campbell’s final installment in his Lost Fleet military space opera hexology, Victorious, so that’s pretty high on the list, or I may continue with my current Civil War kick with Jean Edward Smith’s Grant, which, having dipped into the introduction, looks very promising. Then again there’s also plenty more on the pile, so much will depend on my mood when Allan Quatermain has once again disappeared into the veldt. Very comforting to have a pile waiting though!
Monday, May 10, 2010
Sometimes things look like beginnings or endings, but, upon closer inspection, Readers Mine, they turn out to be the middle of things. That’s my life lately: I’m right smack dab in the middle of things, and that’s a good place to be.
Wedded Bliss – First and foremost, I got married 9 days ago. I’ll spare you considerable sap and corn and just say that I cannot remember a happier day in my life. After 38 years I found my Best Beloved Mockingbird, and honestly, the ceremony on May 1st just formalized the commitment and vows we’d made to one another some time before. I am insanely lucky, and she is a grace in my life. (Trust me, someone who will spend a week sleeping on a hard recliner in a hospital room so I wouldn’t be alone and scared is not someone I intend to let get away if I can help it!) I chose a titanium-ally wedding band as a symbol of it all: it will get scratched, dinged, possibly even develop some minor dents, but it will never break. She wore blue, and remains beautiful.
School’s End – For a few months, anyway. Yep, that’s right, another semester at the community college wrapped up neatly in a 4.0 bow. (I know, it’s bragging. I’m proud. Suck it up and deal, I’m sure life will right-size me if my head starts to swell too much.) In fact, this marks the end of my career at this particular institution of higher learning. God willing, I’ll be donning a cap and gown (well, the gown anyway) Wednesday to receive a “congratulatory scroll” from the college president, and in 8-10 weeks I’ll receive an Associate of Arts Degree in the mail so I can start planning my I-Love-Me Wall. Turns out that if you show up for class, do the work, aren’t in an altered state or hung-over, and make school a priority, you can do well. Who knew?
An Academic Stake – So, now that classes are over it’s time to start writing. I’m presenting a paper at the Fourth Bi-Annual Slayage and Whedon Studies Association Conference on the Whedonverses, to be held at Flagler College in St. St Augustine, Florida on June 3 – 6. I’m presenting Friday morning, and am pretty excited about it. The Whedonians are a good group of folks, and I hear the keynote speaker on Sunday is really going to knock our socks off.
One of These Days, Alice – We’re off to a late honeymoon at the end of July. Two full weeks at the beach, and all of it paid for and them some after a year-plus of saving. Amazing how the lack of financial worry can make a vacation so much better! It leaves so much more time and energy available for more important things… like staying in bed.
School Daze – Then it’s time for the fall and a new school. Where is still up in the air. My first choice school has until May 15 to let me know if I’m in or not, and appears to be planning to draw out the suspense until the last damn minute. Still, I’ve already been accepted to two other fine universities, so I’ll have a place to hang my academic hat in 2010-2011 no matter what. Wildcat, Terrier, Spartan, or Ram, there’s some sort of totem animal in my future.
So that’s it. I am in the middle of things, and loving every single minute of it. It’s all a gift, and I try to remember that, even when I’m absolutely batshit.