Archive for the ‘Americana’ Category

Wendell Berry introduces us to a young man I understand to be a mainstay of his fiction, Nathan Coulter, with the word ‘dark’:

Dark. The light went out the door when she pulled it to. And then everything came in close around me, the way it was in the daylight, only all close. Because in the dark, I could remember and not see. The sun was first, going over the hill behind our barn. Then the river was covered with the shadows of the hills. Then the hills went behind their shadows, and just the house and the barn and the other buildings were left, standing black against the sky where it was still white in the west.

I hedge my description with the words ‘(as) I understand’, because Nathan Coulter: A Novel is my own rather carefully chosen introduction to Wendell Berry the writer, Wendell Berry the novelist, and Coulter and his kin. That first paragraph sets some of Berry’s major literary artifacts in their place, what with its mention of darkness and light, house and barn, sun, hills, river, and shadows. Always shadows.

41MBsJd4dfLAs I’d been warned, the pace of Berry’s fiction-writing pen is a slow one, perhaps as befits the pace of the rural Kentucky life he describes. Yet slow never need mean shallow, in fact just the opposite.

Already, a newbie to Berry and Berrian fiction, this reader can see that things in Berry’s world—in Nathan Coulter’s world—are rarely as they appear to be, seldom as an outsider might presume them to be on first evidence. The holy are not necessarily so, the profane more insightful and even merciful than expected, the shadows sometimes full of light as well as darkness.

I can hardly wait for whatever happens next.


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51-77jM2bAL._SS300_Elizabeth George Speare’s fine novel of a Barbados-born teenager who lands in chilly New England—a bit frosty in more ways than one—makes for fine young adult reading. It was also a treat for this comparative geezer, who will soon live near Wethersfield, Connecticut, the principal location in which this novel’s drama plays out.

I would recommend this novel to any young reader. It packs in enough layers of real life without the added burden of tedious ideological pleading.

Even as it entertains, the book provides a helpful narrative introduction to America’s pre-Revolutionary life in the northeast corner of these colonies and even to some of our once-upon-a-time and enduring political dynamics. Instruction like this goes down sweetly.


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An odd sensation grips this reader as he negotiates Zakaria’s 2008 cheerfully globalist 51rKArW6ZKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_work (an updated edition appeared in 2012) in the Era of Trump amid the Rise of the New Nationalisms. As a sympathizer with Zakaria’s internationalism, I acknowledge that the sureties he dispenses are now all contested. Or, perhaps, shouted down. We are the worse for it.

Everybody’s rising. Or almost everybody.

This is the opening shot of Zakaria’s Post-American World, for he argues in his first chapter (‘The Rise of the West’) that modern history has seen three great risings: that of the Western World, that of America, and—under our feet—the rise of the rest. Zakaria’s globalist outlook is evident from the start:

Power is shifting away from nation-states, up, down, and sideways. In such an atmosphere, the traditional applications of national power, both economic and military, have become less effective … At the politico-military level, we remain in a single-super-power world. But in every other dimension—industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural—the distribution of power is shifting, moving way from American dominance. That does not mean were are entering an anti-American world. But we are moving into a post-American world, one defined and directed from many places and by many people.

If this sounds threatening to, say, American readers, well, that’s the problem!, Zakaria might say. We have won the battle of ideas and structures, but we cower like losers. (more…)

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I never blog about stuff like this.

But the reports and video coming out regarding a passenger’s forceful removal from an aircraft at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport yesterday have me incensed. (more…)

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One wonders how the course of an epic war takes shape in the remembering mind. It is so easy to move to Normandy and the push across Europe towards Berlin. Yet Normandy and the reconquest of Europe came late in the war and were impossible without the unsung precursors. Like the invasion of Sicily and the hard slog up the Italian boot at a time when it was still possible to underestimate the enemy and, later, convenient to forget places like Anzio and Montecassino.

51kz5col-nl-_sx313_bo1204203200_In The Day of Battle, as elsewhere, Atkinson’s writing is not only fueled by the very best research. It also goes down smoothly as such a tale can.

The struggle that had begun in September 1939 was more than half over; yet if both commanders and commanded intuited that they were nearer the end than the beginning, they also sensed that less than half the butcher’s bill had been paid in a bloodletting that ultimately would claim sixty million lives: one life every three seconds for six years. They also knew that if the Allied powers—led by the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union—now possessed the strategic initiative, the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan still held the real estate, including six thousand miles of European coastline and the entire western littoral of Asia.

Atkinson exegetes the butcher’s bill as few other military historians can.

In the little Pennsylvania town where this reviewer grew up, twenty-two names adorn the WWII memorial in the main cemetery. Two of these fell in Italy. Curiously, both were women: Carrie Sheetz, a nurse whose station was bombed by a rogue German fighter trying to escape pursuing allied planes at Anzio; and a certain Josephine Strohecker, who perished in Naples.

Atkinson provides a context for understanding such unsought sacrifice on the part of so many citizen soldiers.

This second entry to the Liberation Trilogy is a gift to those who remember the unsung fallen.

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I had often heard of ‘Ernie Pyle’ from people who had been around to read his newspaper columns during ‘The War’ and—more often—from those whose parents had done so. But it was not until a solemn stroll through Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific brought me unexpectedly upon Pyle’s gravesite that he became a real human being to me. Ironically, for me he was humanized in his death. It is a sentiment that Pyle might have been expected to appreciate, for he humanized the American fighting man and woman precisely in their deepest extremis.51stormosil-_sx312_bo1204203200_

I immediately ordered this remarkable collection of Pyle’s columns, filed from a very mobile front as it made its way across Europe and towards Berlin.

It took a bit of time for Pyle’s writing to grow on me. His vocabulary, his pacing come—after all—from a different generation’s English. But grow on me it did.

By all accounts a complex man and by some accounts a troubled one, Pyle shines no light in these dispatches on himself. His singular focus is on the American GI and sailor. The title of this compilation might suggest a romantic touch. Yet romance is not what Pyle brought to war, and certainly not to his supremely empathetic picture of the American warrior in an epic conflict that not one of them had invited to interrupt his life.

I am tempted to say that every American school child should be required to read this book.

But that will never happen, and is hardly worth the words.

The good news is that some of us, more often than not those who have slowly grown to appreciate the citizen soldier with all his warts, will pick up and read this extraordinary collection of journalistic snapshots. Some of us will pause quietly at the end of one or more of the book’s 35 chapters. To wonder, perhaps, how we would have performed under similar duress. To honor those who endured. To grieve those who did not.

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From this reviewer’s, anything with the late David Halberstam’s name on it is ipso facto a worthy read. This aching recounting of a war no one saw coming and nearly everybody forgot is no exception.

51zmq1uhxsl-_ac_us436_ql65_In his introduction to The Coldest Winter, the author alludes to the ‘colossal gaffe’ of Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s omission of South Korea when drawing America’s Asian defense perimeter. Sadly, the Korean Conflict was to offer a strong roster of competitors for ‘greatest colossal gaffe’ status. Per Halberstam’s statistics, the chaotic war without the title would claim 33,000 American lives alongside of 415,000 South Koreans and perhaps a million and a half Chinese and North Koreans.

Of the titans who come off badly, flailingly, blindly, Douglas MacArthur holds pride of place in Halberstam’s telling. The Coldest Winter complements other histories of the conflict by shining a light on an enduring tragedy: the intelligence to understand what the Chinese were willing to sacrifice for control of the peninsula was there to see. Military leaders on what would become a frigid field of battle saw it, often, but could not convince their leadership—particularly egotistic, far-away MacArthur—that it was there, right in front of them.

Halberstam is also merciless with the China hands who in his telling held on far too long to vain hopes that Chiang Kai-Shek was something other than a spent force and that an enduring Communist rule over the mainland China was a fact on the ground that would not be bombed or wished out of existence.

This decidedly non-specialist reviewer found Halberstam’s narrative of ‘the early Kim’ fascinating in light of contemporary developments in North Korea’s ‘Hermit Kingdom’.

A cold winter unfailingly causes an ache in the bones. Perhaps none so deep and enduring as the ache David Halberstam recovers for our consideration and our memory in his masterful The Coldest Winter.

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As the son of a Northwoods mother, I was drawn to this book as one part of my family’s reengagement with this marvelous corner of America.61vdhu3rnnl

James Brakken serves up a delightful tale of the villains and the honest men and women who logged the region in the 1880s, sadly virtually leveling it in the process. It was (and is) a cold place where big hearts and stout arms were necessary to survival. Loggers, shopkeepers, prostitutes, churchmen, hunters and fishermen of both Scandinavian descent and Ojibwe ethnicity collaborated (or failed to) in circumstances where the careless felling of a pine or a particularly bad snow could turn matters to life-and-death-in the blink of an eye.

The Treasure of Namakagon has the feel, in this reader’s hand, of a labor of love. Simply and appreciatively told. Spare and honest, like a reliable Northwoodsman.

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If from our increasingly remote distance, anything about the Allied victory in World War II looks inevitable, read Rick Atkinson’s compelling history of the 1942-43 North Africa Campaign and be disabused of that fiction.518XZOezryL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

In prose that easily absorbs the non-specialist reader (as this reviewer is), Atkinson shows what a paltry and untested force America was able to field alongside of a decidedly unsung British deployment in what became what must have seemed like it would never be: a defeat of a strong German force within convenient range of the German homeland.

Before this could happen, the green American forces needed to lose their triumphalism and their British allies needed to learn how to fight to a win on an inhospitable battlefield that was complicated by both weather and colonial legacies. Many American readers (again, I am one) will be surprised by the complex French role at this early stage of the war, a story I will not spoil for potential readers in this short review.

Among military historians, it seems, two temptations are to be avoided. The first is to chronicle a conflict as though the evolving technology of weaponry were the main thing. The second is to paint the war in terms exclusively of the ideas and decisions of generals. Atkinson has become a great writer of military history in our time because he brings mastery of both of these elements to the more interesting story of the soldier whose prospects for life and death were shaped by those less personal forces.

Although Atkinson is serially quotable, the first paragraph of the book’s prologue captures his touch for the human drama of war and its cost:

Twenty-seven acres of headstones fill the American military cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia. There are no obelisks, no tombs, no ostentatious monuments, just 2,841 bone-white marble markers, two feet high and arrayed in ranks as straight as gunshots. Only the chiseled names and dates of death suggest singularity. Four sets of brothers lie side by side. Some 240 stones are inscribed with thirteen of the saddest words in our language: ‘Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.’ A long limestone wall contains the names of another 3,724 men still missing, and a benediction: ‘Into Thy hands, O Lord.’

The toll was emblematic of a principle point of Atkinson’s book: America only really began to act like a world power on North Africa’s regrettable battleground. This stepping into a space that history had prepared for her marks, in retrospect, the turning point of this vast, global conflict. Churchill’s eulogy for the campaign proved right: The victory that awaited at the end of it was in fact ‘the end of the beginning’.

The genius of Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn lies, in part, in the author’s ability to help the reader understand why this was so while never losing sight of the boy from Iowa crouched in terror as the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht threw its best at him and his buddies, then eventually collapsed in ignominy as claims of invincibility came in for severest re-negotiation so very far from home.

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Rarely do I come away from reading a book with the sense that form has perfectly matched function and that the book has changed my mind.

Both of these things are true of Donald Kraybill’s, Karen Johnson-Weiner’s and Steven Nolt’s bravely titled The Amish.

51gbdbjwyhlTrue to its subject, the book is a gentle read. It invites the reader into to increasing levels of understanding of this odd people, The Amish. Though it brings to bear upon its topic social-scientific, historical, and religious-studies rigor, it does so with a profound respect for the Old Order Amish themselves. As a result, the Amish come into clearer focus as fellow human beings who have chosen a certain lifestyle in a world that offers them alternatives. Caricatures fade amid the careful instruction of the authors.

The authors divide 21 rich chapters among five sections: I. Roots, II. Cultural Context, III. Social Organization, IV. External Ties, and V. The Future.

In the view of this reader, the authors’ Big Idea is remarkably simple: the Amish are not anti-technology, anti-modernity, or for that matter anti-anything.

Rather, with a view to preserving certain non-negotiable values, the Old Order Amish self-consciously negotiate the degree to which they will engage the offerings that a modern and post-modern world would thrust upon them.

When I was growing up on the boundaries of the Amish in Central Pennsylvania, it was common to snicker at the hypocrisy of this strange tribe. They would not have phones in their home, but would sneak down to the phone shack at the end of the driveway to make their calls. They would not own cars, but would contract ‘English’ drivers to haul them about.

Kraybill and his co-authors explain that ‘hypocrisy’ is an unpromising explanation for such admittedly negotiated solutions. Is it not closer to reality on the ground to understand that the Amish may treasure uninterrupted and intentional family life in a way that makes using the phone a choice (though it may involved walking 100 yards through the snow) rather than a mindless response whenever the thing decides to ring in the bosom of the family’s space? Gently (there’s that word again), the authors lead one to see the sense of such a complex network of negotiated settlements with a wider world that has made other choices.

Though the authors clearly admire the Old Order Amish, they are realistic about the challenges any community (in this case, a broad network of distinct and interlocking communities) faces in a world where the mainstream declares itself both obvious and inviolable.

The Amish is a work of gentle history, a moniker I choose not chiefly because the object of the authors’ research is a people attempting to remain gentle, but rather because the authors have demonstrated that history and sociological analysis need not reduce the human objects of their research to less than they are. In real life. Quietly. Along the margins of our frenzy.

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