Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Reading Life AUDIO Version

I read Pat Conroy's latest book, My Reading Life, last year (2010) when it first came out and wrote a post about it that you can read here.  I just finished listening to the audio version which I downloaded from my public library onto my iPod.  I loved it.

At first Conroy's voice sounded almost jarring.  His voice has an effort to it, a strain at times, that reminded me of someone who doesn't talk much who is made to talk much.  It wasn't  annoying or detrimental to the listening experience, just surprising.  I suppose it has been over 15 years since I saw him give a riveting talk to an auditorium crammed full of adoring fans in Charlotte, NC.  It looked forward to hearing his voice every time I got into my car.  I tend to listen to audio books only in my car (and sometimes on the treadmill).

During his reading of this audio book, there were times when Conroy sounded like he was detached and others when his personality shines through with excitement and aliveness.  At the end of his reading is a brief interview with Conroy where he talks about, among other things, the importance of libraries in his life. We also learn that his wife doesn't like to spend money and checks out audio books from their library for road trips. I love learning those little details about a beloved author's life.

If you're in a reading slump, My Reading Life is a great choice to get you back in the game. It'll re-ignite your passion for reading and turn you on to some great books. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Part 3 (The General): Washington: A Life

Washington crossing the Delaware...with artistic license.

I've been blogging about Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life section by section.  Chernow breaks Washington's life into five major parts:
  1. The Frontiersman
  2. The Planter (or, The Planted on my ebook version)
  3. The General
  4. The Statesman
  5. The President
  6. The Legend

Today's post is on The General.  This section of the book covers Washington's time as the commander in chief of the continental army, from 1775 to 1784. This post is in no way a comprehensive overview of Part 3: The General, because there is just so much packed into this section, but what follows are some highlights.

There are two big take-aways for me from Part 3: The General.  
The first is that by serving as commander in chief Washington was forced to engage with a wider variety of types of people than most gentlemen of his time and class, which helped him become more egalitarian, or at least less of a class snob.  As Chernow says, the continental army was a working laboratory for melding together citizen soldiers from various colonies and classes, creating a composite American identity.  Washington didn't cause this melding, but he held the army together against tremendous odds for the melding to occur.  Washington initially surrounded himself with officers of his own class and thought that officers from New England, specifically Massachusetts, were too close to their men. In a letter to his cousin he referred to the enlisted New England men under his command as “exceedingly dirty and nasty people.” When the issue of allowing blacks to serve in the army was first brought up, Washington--a slave owner--said no way. He eventually outgrows these opinions and stances out of both necessity (he needed men) and experience (direct observation).  He came to see his dirty and smelly troops as great men who endured unspeakable hardship for the cause and showed great loyalty. He eventually allowed free blacks to serve in the army. He even received Phillis Wheatley, a slave, as a social equal after she had written a poem about him and he wrote her a letter. Although Washington grew uneasy about owning slaves during this time, his feeling was mainly economic, it seems. He eventually re-writes his will to free his slaves, but only after Martha dies so she can enjoy the fruits of their labor. His treatment toward the Native Americans were brutal, slash and burn policies. According to Chernow, Washington's horrific treatment of Native American populations set the tone for the way future presidents would treat Native Americans.
The second take-away was that by being in charge of the continental army, Washington not only understood intellectually but felt viscerally the need for a strong central power to run the government.  This need arose from the never ending desperation for more troops and more supplies for those troops. Congress wasn't very effective during the war years because most colonies withheld resources for their own use. They still regarded the welfare of their colony as the priority.  As a result, the colonies were not providing the men or the supplies needed to fight the war. It was a miracle that Washington was able to hold the army together with no draft, enlistments of only one year, and a congress and colonies that regularly did not come through with supplies and promised resources.  In the spring of 1775 Washington estimated that he needed 20,000 men to fight; he got 14,500. By August 1776 the British had 32,000 troops and Washington had 10,500. Men signed up for one year enlistments. During some battles there was only enough gun powder to supply 40 bullets per man, during another battle only 9 per man. Most of the time the troops were hungry (sometimes starving), lacked proper clothing (some wore rags that barely covered their bodies and had no shoes), and often went without pay for months. This at a time when American farmers were selling their crops to the British, who could pay more.

As Alexander Hamiliton wrote: "We begin to hate the country for its neglect of us."

Why was Washington even given the job as top dog?
  • He was from Virginia, which was the most populous colony.
  • Southern colonists thought New Englanders were obstinate and prone to extremism and feared a northern general would turn despotic and conquer the south.
  • He was rich and congress thought that would make him immune to bribery.
  • He had served in the military for five years and had combat leadership experience from the French & Indian Wars.
  • He served as a Burgess for 16 years.
  • He didn't toot his own horn but let others make the argument for him, so he didn't seem power hungry. This last reason became a bit of a hallmark for Washington’s political career: he didn't seem to actively seek power, but let it come to him.
Washington became the face of the cause overnight. Before their was a flag, seal, constitution, or nation, there was George Washington. As early as 1778 he was considered the country's “political father.”

It had to be really hard for Chernow to write this section because there is just so much going on militarily, politically, and socially. I think he strikes a good balance between keeping the focus on Washington and providing information about why Washington does what he does, how he handles situations, and how what he learns impacts his view later when he serves as president.

What kind of leader was Washington?
  • He deferred major decisions to congress, insisting that military leadership must always defer to civil authority.
  • He surrounded himself with men that he felt were better educated, often younger men.
  • Out of necessity he used secrecy and deception well, even on his own people. Military leaders have long relied on secrecy and deception to protect the element of surprise and strength levels, but Washington really, really needed to keep information about his army's capacity under wraps, even from his own officers at times. How else could you fight against the world's greatest military power at the time (Great Britain) without sufficient man power or gun power (see above)?
  • He was a firm leader who punished wrong doers. One common punishment from the period was “Riding the Wooden Horse”: a man's arms are tied behind him and he's made to straddle a high saw horse and weights are tied to his dangling feet. Men “bite the bullet” to help with the pain. Whippings were dealt out and sometimes the death penalty was awarded. But his men came to love Washington and one visitor to a winter camp observed the general playing catch with his men for hours. He fought in the thick of battles.
  • He didn't respond to detractors or publicly speak against personal “competitors,” rather he patiently waited and let them eventually burn themselves out or fade away. And instead of demonizing Great Britain, he studied it and tried to understand why they were having problems and challenges.
  • He made some big mistakes. Jefferson's assessment of Washington as a general was that he was good if all went according to his well-thought-out plans, but that he was “neither quick nor nimble” and lacked the gift of spontaneity and found it difficult to improvise on the spot—which is crucial in a combat. Washington's strength was “prolonged deliberation and slow, mature decisions," but these were luxuries seldom permitted in the heat and confusion of battle.
  •  He successfully handled at least two mutinous uprisings. (See the link below regarding his eye glasses.)
    Here are a few odds and ends about Washington and this chapter:
    • His relationship with his mother continues to be rocky: he wrote hundreds of letters during the war years, but not a one to his mother who files a public claim for financial help. A friend of Washington's stops it before it becomes public to avoid embarrassment.
    • Washington created the Purple Heart award, which was giving only to non-coms and enlisted men, not officers.  The award fell out of fashion and was revived in 1932.
    • He gets reading glasses in 1783. Read about their importance here.  And this might have been from a prior section, but Washington did not wear a wig. He simply powered his hair, which was a popular hair style for gentlemen.
    • He gets reimbursed for his wartime expenses: 10,404 pounds.
    • 200,000 Americans served in the army; 25,000 died from combat and disease. About 5,000 were black men (6-12%).
    • Washington had 18 servants during the war and a French cook.
    • He saw the best and the worst of human nature during the war—from Benedict Arnold to soldiers that defiled the corpse of a child to farmers that sold their crops to the British while their own starved to heroism on the battle field and sacrifice on the home front. He saw much more of human nature that he ever wold have had he stayed secluded on his plantation socializing only with other gentlemen and ladies.
    • The weirdest thing about this section is that Chernow almost casually includes Washington's problem with his teeth toward the end of this section. Washington had problems with his teeth during his early days in the army when he was a young man. By 1773 it was “agonizing” for Washington to chew his food. After all the description of Washington's entertainment at Mount Vernon and dinners during the war, I thought it odd that Chernow doesn't discuss this earlier. By the time of his inauguration, Washington has only one working tooth. He bought teeth from poor people, including blacks. This was apparently common at the time. For someone to be in such ceaseless pain for decades, I was surprised that Chernow didn’t' discuss it earlier.
    Washington's false teeth

    I'm still enjoying reading about Washington, but am going to take a break from this biography for at least a few weeks. There are a few books that I'm chomping at the bit to get to and I'm woefully behind (i.e., haven't started!) on reading War and Peace for the Books on the Nightstand read-along.

    Thursday, February 10, 2011

    'Matterhorn' Wins Colby Award

    'Matterhorn' Wins Colby Award

    Karl Marlantes
    Matterhorn was one of my favorite novels from 2010 (you can read my post on it here).  Actually it's on my Best of 2010 list, tied for first place with Emma Donoghue's Room. (Note: The list is in my mind, not on this blog.)  Matterhorn is coming out in paperback in May 2011 and I hope more people will be willing to pick it up in then.  I've tried to hand-sell it at the bookstore where I work with only a few takers.  Even regulars who've enjoyed other books I've recommended are not willing to give it a try.  Yet.  The subject and size of the book seems to intimidate people.  Some people have wrinkled their nose at me when they hear "Vietnam."  The only people I've come across--in the flesh, anyway--who have read it are Vietnam vets or their children.  Just the other day I was talking to a guy who loves Tim O'Brien and when I asked if he's read Matterhorn yet, he said, "Oh, that really big book? No."  His no was final and he moved on to talk about O'Brien's "non-Vietnam" books.  Sigh.

    I'd love to see a city or town choose Matterhorn as their community reading book. It would be an appropriate selection in this time of war and it could also contribute to discussions of race.

    Tuesday, February 8, 2011

    Battle Scars by Meghan O'Brien

    Several times over the last twelve months or so this novel caught my eye at the bookstore where I work.  One of the main characters is a woman dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) from her experience as a solider in Iraq.  There's not a plethora of novels featuring women in the military, which is one reason why this novel stayed on my mind.

    I needed to take a break from reading about George Washington and decided to give Battle Scars a try.  It ended up being just what I needed: a pleasant and emotionally comforting love story about two women that also gives a snap shot of how one veteran is pro-actively trying to heal her PTSD in a healthy way.

    Ray McKenna served in the Army.  While in Iraq her unit's humvee rolled over an IED.  Ray's leg was broken in the attack.  She was serving as a medic and before she could reach the first soldier to provide aid, she was captured by insurgents and held captive.  During captivity she witnessed a fellow soldier's decapitation.  This information is presented during conversation or flashback; there is no violence depicted in the novel.

    The action of the novel starts about two years after Ray's ordeal in Iraq.  She's just moved to Bodega Bay in northern California where she plans to eventually build her life anew.  For now she's isolating with her therapy dog Jagger, a Great Dane.  Ray's only regular interaction with another human is her weekly video session with her therapist. The therapist suggests Ray take Jagger to the vet for a base-line check-up and as a way for Ray to make contact with the outside world.

    The vet is Dr. Carly Warner, a woman who lost her partner and their unborn child in a car crash five years ago.  Carly is a lesbian.  Ray is straight.  Things change.  Their mutual love of dogs is what leads them into a friendship that eventually blossoms into love and then a romantic relationship.  Carly had been doing agility training with her dog, Jack, who is scheduled to compete in an agility competition. As Ray and Carly become friends, Ray takes over working with Jack on the agility course due to Carly's long hours at work.  It's nice to read a novel with such such responsible dog owners and well behaved dogs.

    I am no expert on PTSD but have some familiarity with it and thought Ray's struggles with it were well done. I really liked both of the main characters (and their dogs!) and how they and their relationship were developed. And although I'm not a fan of romance novels, either gay or straight, (reading sex scenes is not my cup of tea), the steamier scenes didn't seem hokey.

    Oh, and a really refreshing aspect of this novel for me was the lack of the obligatory gay-bashing scene or homophobic oaf.

    If anyone knows of novels featuring women in the military, I'd love to hear about them.

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    The Planted: ebook typos

    It feels like I've been reading Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life for months now.  I really am enjoying it, but January was a bit of an odd month for me reading-wise and I recently had a snag that delayed my reading of it for a few days. Here's the story.

    Last weekend my partner and I went out of town for the weekend to celebrate our ten year anniversary.  I took along my Kobo, hoping to get some reading in and at least finish The General section of the book.

    The copy I was reading was one I downloaded from my public library.  I knew the due date was approaching, but assumed I'd be able to read it past the due date, just like I can still listen to overdue audio books as long as I don't sync my ipod with my computer (not that I make a regular practice out of such shifty behavior, mind you).  I thought I'd be safe as long as I didn't sync my Kobo.  I was wrong.

    On Saturday night I was all ready to curl up in front of the fireplace in the cabin we rented and read a bit, but when I clicked on Washington I got a most unwelcome message, a message notifying me that the content was locked.  Damn technology.  It made me laugh; I did it to myself after all. I tried reading something else, but nothing really grabbed me because I had my heart set on George Washington.  I'd left him at Valley Forge in the winter of 1778 and was anxious to get back to the, um, action.
    "To see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie upon, without shoes ... without a house or hut to cover them until those could be built, and submitting without a murmur, is a proof of patience and obedience which, in my opinion, can scarcely be paralleled."
    -George Washington at Valley Forge,
    April 21, 1778

    I didn't have my laptop with me to renew the ebook and when I got home on Monday I had to get back into the queue of people who've placed holds on the ebook.  Turns out I am number nine of nine, which meant I'd be waiting months.  Eek.

    Next I checked online for the actual book and lo-and-behold the hard-copy of the book was actually on the shelf!  The library was already closed for the night, so I tried to reserve it online.  Fail.  Because I had a hold on the ebook, the system wouldn't allow me to place a hold on the hard-copy of the book as well.

    So, the next morning I headed off to work and then called the library after they opened and asked the librarian if she'd please put the book on hold for me. Sure, no problem, she said.  Great, thanks!

    My plan was to head straight to the library when I got off at 3pm, but I live in the Chicago area and at 2pm the snow of the predicted blizzard had started falling and the wind was already strong.  Instant blizzard.

    I called the library to see if they were closing early and, alas, they were already closed and left a message saying they'd be closed on Wednesday due to the blizzard.  Grrr.

    Knowing that I probably wouldn't be able to get to work on Wednesday made me want the book even more.  Anyway, my normal 15-20 min commute took about 80 min (and it would have been a lot longer if I'd left work much later than 3, so I'm not complaining).  On this slow drive home I resolved to suck it up and purchase the ebook.

    Eventually I made it home and, with the lights flickering & threatening a power outage, downloaded the ebook.  I crossed my fingers and thought it would be rather funny if the power went out just as I was trying to purchase the ebook (especially considering I work at a bookstore and could have simply bought the book there!).  But the power held out and thankfully we didn't lose it during the storm unlike the 80,000 or so people in the Chicago area that did.

    Snow day! 
    So, I got to read more about George as General last night while the twenty inches of snow came down.  What's surprising is that there are some glaring typos in this version of the ebook, which is in ePub format (downloaded from Borders).  The first version that I had been reading, the library version, was in Adobe digital editions format.  I didn't notice any typos in that one.  Not that I'm an eagle eye for that sort of thing, but this version that I purchased has some very noticeable typos and one whopper so far.  Part II in this version is presented as "The Planted" rather than "The Planter."  It made me laugh, but--wow--that's pretty glaring.  Other typos are things like a year missing a number (178 instead of 1778).  The type spacing is nicer in this version, though: it fills the span of the screen and is easier on the eyes.

    This difference in ebook quality of the same ebook is making me a bit curious about the production of ebooks and its also triggering a fear of mine:  how do I know the ebook version is the same as the actual book?  How easy is it to manipulate etexts, whether by accident or maliciously?  How do you know an ebook is as the author intended?  After all, how easy was it to print a version of Huck Finn without the N-word?  Just do a search and replace.  That's it.  I am reading Washington: A Life in ebook format for the convenience. Its easier to tuck my little Kobo into a bag/purse rather than a 900+ page book.  But I'm still skeptical about ebooks as a trustworthy format.
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