Sunday, June 29, 2014

Lincoln's secretaries & defenders

Lincoln's Boys, Joshua Zeitz

I came across this book in Barnes & Noble, and the cover immediately caught my eye:

I know something of John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln's two presidential secretaries, from reading about his administration.  I even have a book about the diary that Hay kept during his White House years, on the TBR stacks.  It was the subtitle of this book that made me pick this up, "...the War for Lincoln's Image," and the inside cover blurb that sold me:
John Hay and John Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln's presidential secretaries, were his close confidants in the darkest and loneliest days of the war.  They enjoyed more access, witnessed more history, and knew Lincoln better than anyone else outside the President's immediate family . . . But when Lincoln died, their task shifted as they became key players in the struggle over his legacy . . . They became, in effect, America's first modern presidential historians and biographers, the originators of the image of Lincoln that subsequent generations would internalize - a humble man with uncommon intellect and talent, A Great Liberator who rose from obscure origins on the prairie . . . 

In this book, Joshua Zeitz weaves together four themes: biographies of John Hay and John G. Nicolay; a history of the Lincoln administration (from the secretaries' points of view); and an account of their efforts to define and protect Lincoln's legacy, culminating in a 10-volume biography of him, published in 1890.

Hay and Nicolay (known as George, his middle name) came from origins as obscure as Lincoln's.  Both were from Illinois, already close friends when they met Abraham Lincoln and came east with him after his election to the presidency.  They were young men, Nicolay 29 and Hay only 23, but they wielded considerable power under Lincoln, to the disgust and jealousy of many in Washington.  As the presidential secretaries, they controlled access to the president, and he sent them out as emissaries and spokesmen.  They lived in the White House, just down the hall from the family's quarters.  In hourly contact with Lincoln, watching his administration of the government and the war, they developed a great admiration and love for him, and an enduring loyalty.  They also became close to his oldest son Robert, a young man their age, in a friendship that lasted their whole lives.

I enjoyed the first half of the book, learning more about Nicolay and Hay, and their experiences in the war.  I found the second half of the book was even more interesting.  After Lincoln's assassination, both entered the diplomatic service, with postings to France and Germany.  Both married and had children.  Hay's wife was the daughter of a railroad magnate, from whom she and her husband inherited millions.  That fortune freed Hay from any need to work, though late in life he returned to the diplomatic service, first as Ambassador to Great Britain and then as Secretary of State, under President William McKinley.  I was charmed to read that Hay charmed Queen Victoria, who supposedly said that he was her favorite American ambassador.  Hay was also a well-known author of poetry and short stories, many of which were set in the rural Illinois where he had grown up.  Mark Twain was among those who admired his work.

But both Hay and Nicolay would become much better known for a work of history, their monumental biography of Abraham Lincoln and a collection of his papers, published in 1890.  From the moment of Lincoln's death, people began to write biographies, in the early years portraying him as a martyr to the Union cause.  His former law partner William Herndon was determined to write about the "real" Lincoln, digging up lots of juicy stories in the process, but he was frustrated by Robert Todd Lincoln's refusal to allow access to his father's papers.  These had been removed from the White House shortly after the President's death, and they remained closed to outsiders until 1947.  At the same time, Joshua Zeitz argues, the history of the Civil War was being re-written as the country turned away from the turbulence of the Reconstruction era.  The focus became reconciliation, and the bravery of both Federals and Confederates in the war.  The role of slavery in the war itself was downplayed, emphasizing instead the romance and nobility of the Southern Cause (sometimes dubbed the "Moonlight and Magnolia" version of history, or the "Gone With the Wind" version).  In this process, Lincoln was often portrayed as a weak president, controlled by radical anti-slavery forces, lacking the capacity or the intellect for the presidency.

Hay and Nicolay wanted to correct what they saw as the false versions both of the war and of Abraham Lincoln.  Crucially for their work, they were given access to the Lincoln papers.  Robert Todd Lincoln trusted them with his father's legacy, but he also demanded editorial control.  This exclusive access, combined with their personal knowledge of Lincoln and his administration, and their own archives, made their work ground-breaking, and central to Lincoln scholarship even today.  Amazingly, this massive work was serialized in a magazine, over four years.  It's impossible to imagine a modern audience patiently reading monthly installments of a serious work of history, for so long.

I found this book very interesting and informative.  Joshua Zeitz balances the different elements well.  He focuses more on John Hay than on John Nicolay, perhaps because Hay was more prominent.  As a long-time student of Lincoln, and a reader of biographies, I especially enjoyed the discussion of how biography is written, and how the understanding of Lincoln's in particular has changed over the years, as well as how we as Americans remember the Civil War.  I don't think that I will tackle the ten volumes of Hay and Nicolay's work, but I see that there are abridged editions, and I'm curious now to read some of their own writing on my favorite President.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Finally connecting with e-books

I've mentioned before, here and in comments on other blogs, that I don't use an e-reader.  I bought a Nook a couple of years ago, in anticipation of downloading all the free classics available through Google Books and Project Gutenberg.  But though I happily crammed it full of books (eight by Charlotte M. Yonge alone), I found it very difficult to read them.  The lines and lines of text don't hold my attention like words on a page do.  I'd quickly lose interest and go off to look for a "real" book.  Two years later, I still haven't read a single book on it.

All that has changed, thanks to my new smart phone.  I got it two weeks ago, in preparation for a trip, so that I could access my work email while I was out of the office.  When I was in the Verizon store, the very helpful salesman told me that they had some Samsung tablets that they were giving away that day.  There were still a couple left, and he asked if I wanted one.  At first, I thought I didn't.  The smart phone was a big step for me, and an expensive one, and I wasn't sure I needed a tablet too.  But it's free, he kept repeating.  And finally I thought, well, if it's free (which it was, but there's a small monthly fee).

I was playing around with the smart phone, feeling a bit dumb as I tried to work things out, when I stumbled into Google Play Books.  And there were a few that I had downloaded, back when I first got the Nook, including Emily Eden's Letters from India and Miss Eden's Letters.  I had found them impossible to read because the e-text was badly garbled, with footnotes randomly appearing in the middle of unrelated pages.  But in Play Books, as you may know, they are scanned texts, so they look like real books, with pages that "turn" as I read.  I immediately started Miss Eden's Letters, though I'd have sworn I'd never read a book on a phone (with a small screen and my bad eyesight).  I was thrilled to discover that they look even better on the tablet, and I've been happily downloading even more "books" to my virtual library.  I've also started Sara Jeannette Duncan's An American Girl in London, another text that was hopelessly garbled on the Nook.  (This book has apparently become so rare that it isn't available through interlibrary loan.)

I've downloaded some of the Gutenberg and Girlebooks books(?files?) as well, but they are the straight lines of text. I think it's the look of actual books in the Google versions, with their margins and pages, not to mention their illustrations, which makes them so easy for me to read.  Perhaps reading them will help me transition to the other kind of e-books.  I hope so, since most of Charlotte Yonge's works are in that format.  But in the meantime, I have a virtual stack to look forward to.  And years after everyone else, I feel like I've finally joined the 21st-century reading revolution.  Just in time, too, because between new reading glasses and a senior discount that I didn't ask for (and don't qualify for), I was definitely feeling a bit of a relic.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The folklore of two worlds

The Folklore of Discworld, Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson

This book was such a delight.  I have read and re-read Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, but only one of the companion books, The Art of Discworld (written with Paul Kirby).  Then, just in the space of a week, I found not only this book, but also Turtle Recall, the actual Discworld Companion.  Both are revised editions, incorporating material from the most recent books in the long-running series.  I don't think I'll be sitting down to read the Companion, but I've already been dipping in and out, looking up my favorite characters, like Anoia, the Goddess of Things That Get Stuck in Drawers.

The subtitle of The Folklore of Discworld is "Legends, Myths and Customs from the Discworld with Helpful Hints from Planet Earth."  The chapters deal with different elements of life of the Disc, starting with "The Cosmos: Gods, Demons and Things."  Later chapters cover the various species of beings (including the hilarious Nac Mac Feegle); the witches, especially those from Lancre and the Chalk, who feature in several of the books; and of course DEATH himself.  The authors cite examples from the Discworld stories, explain their context in those books, and then connect them to beliefs and practices here in our world.  I have never studied folklore myself, but many of the narrative and the practices discussed were familiar to me, and I enjoyed learning more about them.

Jacqueline Simpson wrote in her Preface,
      So when Terry invited me to join him in exploring this incredibly rich network of links, I had only one misgiving.  Is it wise to explain so much?  Might it not be best to let readers enjoy the glimpses and hints and clues half-understood, and gradually make their own discoveries? 
      But as Terry has said elsewhere, a conjurer is more entertaining than a wizard, because he entertains you twice: once with the trick, and once with the trickery.
For myself, I don't think it has diluted the magic at all, to understand more about the elements that Terry Pratchett weaves together in creating his world and its many characters and settings.  In fact, I came away impressed with the breadth of his knowledge.

The book includes a bibliography, in part as Terry Pratchett says in his Preface, "because people who love books always want to recommend them to other people at the least excuse."  Discovering that the bibliography includes They Fought Like Demons, a history of women soldiers in the American Civil War, was just icing on the proverbial cake.  The authors cite statistics from that book in a section on "Female Soldiers," like Polly Perks and her companions in Monstrous Regiment - which, coincidentally or not, was my introduction to Terry Pratchett's books, and still one of my favorites.

The only trouble is that now I want to sit down with Guards! Guards! and read my way around the Disc.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A quartet of books, in brief review

Summer has definitely arrived here in the Houston area.  We've had our first days in the 90s, and the humidity feels like 110%.  These first really hot and humid days leave me feeling a bit muddled and vapourish.  I think it's the process of acclimatizing again to the long months of summer heat.  It's good for reading, because I tend to lounge around, but not so good for coherent writing.  Added to that, there was a week of binge-reading Harry Potter, followed by a week of binge-watching "Royal Pains" on Netflix, coping mechanisms in part for the stress of putting on workshops and trainings at work.  Too many hours of TV have also left me feeling a bit mushy, mentally.  So I thought I'd try some brief discussion of the books that have piled up, waiting for posts.

Henrietta's War, Joyce Dennys

I first learned of The Bloomsbury Group's books from blogs, but I honestly never expected to find them in Houston.  I underestimated the bookstores!  The cover of Henrietta Sees It Through caught my eye at Half Price Books.  And while I said before that I had read enough about World War II for a while, there was no chance I was going to leave it on the shelf.  Just from paging through it, I could tell it was along the same lines as The Provincial Lady, with elements of Angela Thirkell's war-time novels.  However, once I realized it was a sequel, with my compulsive need to read stories in order, I had to get the first book, Henrietta's War.  For the first few pages, I was afraid it might be a bit twee for my tastes.  Though I am an Enthusiastic Capitalizer myself,  too many Capitals in a book does not always bode well.  But I quickly became fond of Henrietta and her doctor husband Charles, even before I found them reading Trollope as an antidote not just to the evening news, but even an air-raid.  The books consist of letters that Henrietta writes to her Childhood's Friend Robert, serving in the armed forces.  She downplays them as "the trivial doings of protected people in what is called a safe area!"  But they're funny and full of life, with all the quirks of her small village community, and I am looking forward to her further adventures.

Drawn from Memory and Drawn from Life, Ernest H. Shepard

These went on my reading list as soon as I read Claire's reviews.  I knew of Shepard from my copy of The Wind in the Willows, with his illustrations, but I knew nothing about him.  The first volume is an account of his childhood in Victorian London.  Published in 1957, it covers roughly a year around 1887, when he was 7 and 8.  He introduces us to his parents, his sister Ethel and brother Cyril, their nurses Martha and Lizzie.  He describes their house and the neighborhood, as well as events like Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and his first ecstatic visit to the pantomime. Though Shepard tells us in a Preface that his mother became ill and died a couple of years later, when he was 10, his life during this year was filled with love and security, and with fun.  I knew from the start of his mother's death, but the sudden shift forward in a later chapter to 1916, and a description of finding his brother's grave in France, took me completely by surprise and left me feeling strangely bereft.  The second book begins with his mother's death, and the ways that the family coped with that devastating loss.  It moves at a faster pace, as it covers his life between ages 10 and 24, focusing particularly on his education as an artist. Here again though the Great War looms, as so many of his friends and fellow students are introduced with their deaths foreshadowed.  That melancholy is balanced in part by the fun that Shepard and his fellow students found, particularly at the Royal Academy; and also by his account of falling in love with one of those students, his future wife Pie.  Both books are wonderfully illustrated with Shepard's drawings, including some saved from his childhood, which show his talents at a very young age.

Random Harvest, James Hilton

I was introduced to Random Harvest with the 1942 film, starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson.  It was on the Turner Classics Movie channel one night, and though I knew nothing about it or its stars, I watched it straight through. I was completely caught up in the story, and when I saw in the credits that it was based on James Hilton's novel, I made a mental note to find the book.  I've made the same mental note every time I've watched the film (which will be shown again next week).  It was reading a review of the book on Another look book that finally motivated me to order a copy. Since I had seen the film, I knew the central plot, and the big twist. But the film tells the story in chronological order, and mainly from the point of view of Charles Rainier.  We meet him first in 1919, a patient at the Melbury Asylum, a casualty of the war who cannot remember who he is, even his name.  The book is narrated by a man named Harrison, who meets Charles Rainier on a train in 1937, and only gradually comes to hear his story.  Harrison's first-person narration frames two third-person narrative sections, where Rainier is telling his own story.  As I was reading, I kept wishing that I didn't know the ending, that I was discovering the story for the first time.  Though it's a general principle with me that "The book is always better,"  here I think that the film does capture the essence of the book, its emotional heart.  I'm looking forward to seeing it again, now that I've read this.  I'd watch it just to listen to Ronald Colman's beautiful voice.  I've since learned that he himself was gravely wounded in the Great War, which must have helped him connect with his character in this film.