Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Smith’s Grant is a powerful entry in this revisionist movement. Meticulously researched and annotated, written in an easily accessible, readable, and entertaining style, Grant is arguably the most complete biography of this complex man ever written. Though he admits to having a positive view of Grant, Smith’s lens is absolutely clear, and he unhesitatingly details the aspects of Grant’s life and personality that are less than flattering. Instead of using Grant’s defects of character as a means of demonizing or maligning him, or even as points requiring apologia, however, Smith reveals them to be what such failings usually are: part of the human condition in a man who was much greater than the sum of his parts.
Most fascinating for me was Smith’s careful attention to Grant’s two terms as president, a period that is often curiously neglected by historians and biographers alike. Traditional wisdom paints Grant as one of the most incompetent chief executives in US history, but the facts show something quite different. President Grant emerges as a man determined to insure the execution of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments throughout the United States, and to protect the rights of freedmen under the law, particularly in the postbellum south, long after the American public at large had lost interest in ensuring the civil rights of African Americans. Grant also enacted fundamental reforms in the government’s policy towards Native Americans preferring peace (albeit on American terms) to what he knew could easily become a war of extermination. During the economic crisis of 1873, Grant vetoed a bill to inflate the dollar by pumping unredeemable paper currency into circulation, and enacted legislation to return to a policy of specie-backed currency. His administrations were also responsible for the ground-breaking Washington Treaty between the US and Great Britain, breaking the Whiskey and Gold Rings, and the first survey of the Panama isthmus with the object of digging a canal. Far from being a political nonentity controlled by his cabinet, Grant was instead a deeply involved and tremendously active and effective president, and one who was unafraid to take full and final responsibility for his policies.
With Grant, Smith has written what I believe to be the seminal work to date on U.S. Grant, and done so in a superbly readable style. It is history that reads like a great novel: gripping, intense, and utterly, wonderfully human. Perhaps it is this that sets Smith’s work apart, for Grant is a truly humanistic book which brings its subject to vivid life, and gives the reader a real sense of who he was, not just as a soldier, general, president, and writer, but as a man. Wonderful, wonderful book. Buy it.
Friday, June 25, 2010
What have I been reading lately?
What am I reading now?
What will I read next?
Saberhagen Redux: This past weekend I tore through Jack Williamson’s Lifeburst, a good, old-fashioned space tale. Williamson was, literally, a Grand Master of SF, publishing his first story in 1928, and his last novel in 2005. Prolific and versatile, Williamson’s body of work traces the evolution of modern science fiction. He has been one of my favorite SF writers for many years. That having been said, Lifeburst was just fair. The antagonist, a “Seeker” is a member of a biomechanical race designed as weapons in some forgotten war long ago, immediately bringing to mind Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers, and frankly, Saberhagen does it better. Williamson’s story is an almost archetypal SF bildungsroman centered on a highly capable and resourceful young man, and Williamson carries it off as if he’s done it a hundred times before. Which he has, and often with far more skill. Still, I took this one off the pile because I wanted a fun read, and it was definitely that, and comforting in its familiar progression. Even Grand Masters have to pay the rent, Readers Mine.
Unconditional Surrender: Sunday night I finally picked up Jean Edward Smith’s Grant, and now I’m thoroughly sucked in. This is a great biography, and a great book. The research is meticulous, the scholarship of the highest caliber, and it grips the reader like the best of novels. I’ve read many biographies of US Grant, and none have been as well done as Smith’s. I’m only a couple of hundred pages into the book, so I don’t want to rave too much, lest it fall apart and disappoint, but I think this is that rare perfect diamond of a biography which will become a seminal work on the life of Grant. More on Smith’s Grant later, but this one’s worth buying. In hardcover.
I’m also still working on The Television Genre Book, edited by Glen Creeber. I’m happy to report that, after the introductory chapter, the book has become far more readable. It still drags at times, and occasionally sinks into the impenetrable mire of academese, but overall it’s proving to be a handy introduction into the field of TV genre studies. Of necessity, the generic categories used are very broad and general, and seem to me to be a bit out of date. Then again most of my TV watching life has been during a period of increasing generic hybridity (I can do academese too, by the way). In other words, I grew up watching shows that tended to mix and match different genres, making easy pigeonholing of the shows as “cop show” or “science fiction” or “horror” very difficult. Most interesting thus far are the bits I’m learning on the history of generic development as TV broadcasting evolved in response to new technologies, economic realities, and social changes. Still, this one’s definitely an I’m-reading-this-because-it’s-good-for-me/I-need-the-information-in-it book.
What’s Next? Soon, it’s honeymoon time, Readers Mine, two weeks at the beach with very little to do but walk, read, eat, love, and live, so I would venture to say that Allan Quatermain may come back on the scene, or maybe even Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which has been on the pile for a few months now. So many books, so little time…. YEA!!
Thursday, June 17, 2010
What have I been reading?
What am I reading now?
What will I read next?
(Thanks again to Librarian Who for turning me on to this weekly writing exercise.)
Lost Worlds and Hair Gel: Allan Quatermain and friends have once again succeeded against seemingly impossible odds in Allan and the Holy Flower. By now, Readers Mine, you know that I find H. Rider Haggard thoroughly enjoyable, and think he possesses far more literary merit that he is usually given credit for. That being said, I’m going to skip over him this week as there are still four more novels in the omnibus I’m reading, and therefore plenty of opportunity to rave about Haggard on future W3dnesdays, and I really want to get to Stacey Abbott’s Angel.
I have begun to refer to this slim (less than 110 pages) volume as “The Pocket Guide to Angel,” which is exactly what it is. Abbott has provided a concise critical overview of the series while maintaining a highly readable, informative, thought provoking, and entertaining style throughout. Abbott examines the intricacies of the Mutant Enemy writing staffs over the course of the show’s five seasons, the use of multiple and mixed genres, the portrayal of masculinity and male friendship, and ties all of this together to demonstrate that, far from being yet another cookie-cutter sexy vampire TV show, Angel pushes the boundaries of its medium to repeatedly ask more of the viewer than passive reception, and continues to richly reward critical study. This book was a joy to read, something that seems to be far too rare in the realms of academic writing, and illuminated not only the show itself, but also the methods used to critically examine a television show. Abbott’s book has made me determined to re-watch Angel from start to finish, and is an indispensible starting point for critical analysis of the series. Go and buy it.
On Deck: Unfortunately, Leonard F. Guttridge’s life of Stephen Decatur Our Country, Right or Wrong is turning out to be far less of a good read. Commodore Stephen Decatur was one of the most famous commanders in the early United States Navy, and a fascinating character, but Guttridge makes little attempt to relate Decatur’s life to the historical context in which it was lived. Stephen Decatur’s history is inextricably intertwined with that of the early US Navy and with the rapid changes which took place in the politics, economics, and military of the young United States during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Indeed, the very act of creating the standing navy to which Decatur would dedicate his life was the cause of ferocious debate and one of the core political differences between Republicans and Federalists. One of Jefferson’s first acts as president was to mothball the service’s existing capital ships and halt new construction in favor of an ill-conceived idea to rely on scores of light gunboats to protect the coast. Guttridge fails to provide even the slightest detail on this fundamental (and fortunately short-lived) change in naval policy, and the reader is left to wonder how and why Decatur has suddenly gone from commanding oceangoing warships to overseeing the construction and outfitting of small craft. Guttridge continues as he begins, and provides almost no historical background with which to understand the circumstances of Decatur’s career. Worse, Guttridge succumbs to the temptation of imagining what people may have felt or done or who they might have talked to in an effort to dramatize his story. If you’re interested in this period of American naval history, I recommend skipping Our Country Right or Wrong and picking up Ian W. Toll’s Six Frigates, which while having a broader focus, also manages to give as much real detail on Decatur’s life as Guttridge’s entire biography.
I’m also reading The Television Genre Book, edited by Glen Creeber. There is a lot of good information in this book, but at times it is the exact opposite of Stacey Abbot’s Angel when it comes to readability. I’ve set myself the task of reading two (short) sections a day in this one, and to this point “task” is the right word. Again, good and accurate information, but often presented in a fashion that my father would have called “deadly dull.” Still, this text was recommended as a good primer, at least until David Lavery’s Television Art comes out….
Next On the Pile: I’m thinking its time for a dip into SF with Jack Williamson’s Lifeseed, and more adventures with Allan Quatermain await with The Ivory Child by H. Rider Haggard, but I’m definitely thinking that the next book is going to be on the lighter side of things.
Lastly, Readers Mine, my apologies for the delay in wrapping up my Slayage posts. I really will get that posted ASAP!
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Personal Impressions: Mockingbird and I arrived a day early to settle in and theoretically have a chance to see some of St. Augustine, and were picked up at the airport by one of the conference organizers, Tamara Wilson, who Mock’ has known for a few years now and who I’d met at last year’s PCA South in Wilmington, North Carolina. The hour drive let us catch up on what had been a busy eight months for all, and time spent in Tamara’s company is always fun. This go round we got to meet Tamara’s other half, Jim Wilson, who turns out to be both a MST3K fan, and to have been a non-traditional student like yours truly. Fun, brilliant, funny people, though I really would pay good money to see Jim (who’s at least as tall as my own 6’4”) riding that little kanji-covered scooter of theirs to work!
What stands out in and around the conference sessions proper are the people I met. At the Thursday night reception Matthew Pateman commented on how many people seem to have a very personal connection with Joss Whedon’s works in one way or another, including him (and including me, for that matter). Maybe this goes some way to explaining the passion these people bring to their study of Whedon, and to how wonderfully willing everyone at Slayage 4 seemed to be to make new friends, and welcome new faces. A lot of Whedon’s work has community at its core, and everyone I met last weekend seemed to be an enthusiastic participant in creating, growing, and tending this particular community of scholar-fans/fan-scholars, and in keeping it healthy and welcoming, of which more later. Don’t get me wrong, there was ego and ambition aplenty at Slayage 4, but it seemed to be the healthy kind and well balanced by humility, humor, and a deep support for one another.
Highlights of this atmosphere include: David Lavery and the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” revealing Joss Whedon’s consistent interest in “poo” across numerous interviews. Nikki Stafford trying (and failing utterly) to keep a straight face while citing Wikipedia, followed by Matthew Pateman’s response of “Wikipedia: the 21st century equivalent of ‘a bloke at the pub told me’.” Mike Starr’s eerily accurate impression of Spike’s singing-voice at the sing-along Friday night, as well as the even eerier fact that every male in the room (myself included, O’ Readers Mine) seemed to have a deep familiarity with the lyrics to “Mandy.” When Alyson Buckman could not be present due to illness, Rhonda “the Mother of Buffy Studies” Wilcox happily stepped up and presented her paper. David “If Rhonda is Momma Then I Must Be Dad” Lavery took time to carefully consider what to recommend to me as reading for someone just starting to learn about television studies, and the two of us discovered that we have similar feelings about the Confederate States of America. Then there was the meeting of the G3 over university café sandwiches where Mike Starr, Marcus Recht, and I examined global issues and in the great tradition of international diplomacy identified several problems, solved none of them, and then broke for smokes and chewing gum. Sunday afternoon wrapped up the conference with lunch for 30 and goodbyes where I’m afraid I gushed a bit in thanking everyone for a wonderful weekend.
Why the gushing? Readers Mine, I’m an undergrad (granted an older, slightly grizzled undergrad), and I was mixing with people who tend to have bowls of alphabet soup trailing along after their surnames, and who are truly well educated, frighteningly intelligent, and highly experienced. Deep waters. Yet I never felt anything less than welcome, or that anyone wished me anything but the best. Maybe it says more about me than anyone else, but I had this image of academic conferences as being places of vicious career politicking, dark ambition, and general meanness. Instead I encountered something quite different: genuine warmth and welcoming, and an intense desire to bring in newcomers and give them support and encouragement, to help them and the entire field of study grow together, and to guard against becoming exclusive and excluding while maintaining the highest quality of scholarship. The effect of such an atmosphere is electric, inspiring, and deeply moving. This is the kind of scholar I want to be, and the kind of people I want to be associated with professionally and personally. I still have a long row to hoe to get there, but now I know what I’m sowing, and why.
Next time: details of the conference proper and (hopefully) and wrap up of Slayage 4.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Grab a tall drink and a comfy chair Readers Mine, this one is apt to get a bit long.
As you may know Mockingbird and I spent last weekend in St. Augustine, Florida attending the 4th Biannual Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses (Slayage 4, or SC4). Mock’ was one of three keynote speakers, and I made my first academic presentation, and (long story short) both went very well. This was my first Slayage and the location was incredible, so there are rather a lot of impressions to get down here.
Flagler College hosted the conference, and local chairs Tamara and Jim Wilson did a truly phenomenal job of making us feel welcome and keeping things running throughout the three days of the conference proper. The main buildings of the college began their existence as the Ponce de Leon Hotel, built by Henry Flagler in 1887, with help from Charles Tiffany and Thomas Edison (I kid you not). It is a glorious pile of poured concrete and terra cotta, with wonderfully fantastic Hispanio-Moorish lines, copper gutter spouts in the shape of dragons’ heads, and lavishly decorated interiors including the largest collection of Tiffany glass on the continent, and wall and ceiling murals where all that glitters actually is gold… or silver. The place is just incredible, and made more so by our bright and witty student tour guide, Marissa. The kicker is that they actually use this building for classrooms, student dorms, and the college cafeteria. I am told that when the girls upstairs get to running up and down their dorm corridors, the 9 Tiffany chandeliers in the room below (valued at between $1 – 18 million each) sway prettily.
St. Augustine has many other attractions as the oldest continuously inhabited town in the US. The Castillo de San Marcos was Spanish, then English, then Spanish again, then American, and still stands today. There are cemeteries dating back to before the American Revolution that today are cool oasis shaded by great oaks and Spanish moss, bronze plaques and historical markers every ten feet, statues, cannon, and one Saturday night while we were there, reenactors with morions, pikes, and harquebuses fleeing a British invasion. I am told Matthew Pateman, in from the UK for Slayage 4, was rather nonplussed at being told to run for his life because “the British are coming!” The Old Town is lovely, cobbled, and commercialized, but then again, it’s nice to have lots of air conditioned stores in Florida in June. The people and businesses in St. Augustine were fantastic, with special mentions going out to the Hot Shot Bakery and Café, who opened early and on Sunday just for us Whedonites, keeping us fed and caffeinated for remarkably reasonable prices. Another favorite was Anastasia Books, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Stetson Kennedy. While I didn’t get to meet Mr. Kennedy, his wife is a delightful woman, and very proud of her husband, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Florida and was responsible for bringing many Klansmen to justice. Plus, their bookstore has a selection that is both broad and deep, particularly their history and SF sections. Mrs. Kennedy was delighted that a flock of scholars had descended to further serious study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and lamented, “here I am stuck with all of these Twilight books!” ‘Nuff said.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Interstellar Wars: Last weekend I took a break from all things Whedon in the evenings by reading Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet: Victorious, the final volume of Campbell’s 6-part series dealing with John “Black Jack” Geary. Geary was a naval officer 100 years ago during the outbreak of a vast interstellar war between two human polities, the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds. During the first action of the war, his ship was destroyed and he jumped into an escape pod and cryogenic sleep only to be awakened after a century to find humanity still at war with itself and himself, through a series of disasters, in command of the last great Alliance Fleet, deep within Syndic territory. His job: get the fleet home and win the war.
The series is pretty standard military space opera, with some good hard science and theoretical naval tactics thrown in, and it starts off really strong. By the third volume, however, it’s getting a bit formulaic. Geary and his fleet face seemingly impossible odds only to emerge victorious after a brilliant battle to sail on into the next book. Major characters don’t die, and you can always count on the good guys to win. Campbell throws in some romance and politics, but it seems tacked on, and is obviously merely a device to move the story along to the next battle sequence. The battle sequences, however, are well written, and Campbell builds tension well.
Over all the series is good Brain Candy for the Military SF fan, and Victorious was a fun read after so much research, writing, and school, but Campbell’s characters are becoming more and more plastic, while actually losing depth. Campbell plans to continue writing in this ‘Verse, however, and the first three books of Lost Fleet were good enough that I’m unwilling to write him off just yet, so… we’ll see.
Allan and the Vampire: Okay, I may have just found the title for a foray into some weird fan fiction. Currently I’m reading Angel by Stacey Abbot from the TV Milestones series, and Allan and the Holy Flower by H. Rider Haggard. I enjoyed getting into the world of Allan Quatermain so much with The Zulu Trilogy collection, that I ordered another omnibus, and dove into it the night we returned from St. Augustine. So far there’s been a wandering American saint, a Zulu witch doctor, an English orchidologist, a Hottentot named Hans, a Portuguese slaver, and an Arab pirate, and I’m 50 pages into the book! No worries though, what Allan and his companions can’t handle themselves, the Royal Navy can, and freedom and liberty in South Africa will be preserved under the Union Jack. Rule Britannia. (I think maybe I enjoy these tales a bit much. Can you be a “liberal imperialist”? [The answer is: yes. Very liberal country, Imperial England.])
On to Stacy Abbot’s Angel. I usually try to avoid having more than one book going at a time, but sometimes it happens, and this thin little volume is well worth it. This is probably the best introduction to the academic study of Joss Whedon’s series Angel that I’ve run across. Abbot Looks at the show’s production history, writing system , its mixing of different genres, its depictions of gender and sexuality, and how and why it should be considered a television milestone. Furthermore, though this is an academic work published by a university press, Abbot’s writing is clear, informative, and enjoyable. While I doubt I have the knowledge base (yet) to get the most out of this little book, I am learning a tremendous amount from it about Angel, and about examining television critically. As a fan, it’s always exciting when something comes along that deepens your appreciation of a show and demonstrates that it is something more than “just a TV show.” Stacy Abbot does both with Angel.
Back to the title of this section. Seriously, Angel teams up with Allan Quatermain, or even Allan Quatermain foils Angelus, depending on the timeline. How cool would that be?
Next on the pile: Lots of stuff. I picked up a couple of hard to find novels by Jack Williamson at Anastasia Books in St. Augustine, as well as Leonard F. Guttridge’s biography of Stephen Decatur, Our Country Right or Wrong, and there is still Jean Edward Smith’s Grant on the shelf. One of the next will certainly be The Television Genre Book, edited by Glen Creeber. It’s been recommended to me as a good introduction to television studies and should be coming my way through the inter-library-loan system any day now. Since I’ll have to return it in a timely fashion, this one will jump to the top of the list. Last, but not least, there are four more Quatermain novels after Allan and the Holy Flower, and let’s not kid ourselves, I’m having way too much fun with those to quit now.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
It has been an eventful month since I last posted here, Readers Mine, and I suppose I should apologize for not living up to my good intentions of posting weekly at minimum. What’s more, this current post promises to be short and to serve as more of a teaser than a true update. This week, I hope to engage in a flurry of writing here and try and catch up on ever so many things, including:
- Slayage 4
- W3 Wednesday
- Yet another blogosphere iPad review
- Airline travel
- Academic plans
- Shout outs to fine folks in St. Augustine, Florida
…or some combination of the above.
Solomon’s Reads. You’ll notice that the list of blogs I attempt to keep up with has grown, mostly through the addition of the works of a couple of friends from Slayage. I promise not to become one of those people who list 300 blogs, but these additions are pretty good ones, I think, and you should definitely check all of them out.