The real Andersonville,  photographed  from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

The real Andersonville, photographed from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

This year I set myself a goal of reading fewer but longer books, and to get the year started I decided to tackle a monster: Mackinlay Kantor’s 750-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel Andersonville. It took me exactly a month.

I first heard of Kantor’s Andersonville in the early 90s, when TNT aired its own Andersonville mini-series. Reviewers in the Civil War magazines I read condemned the mini-series for grossly exaggerating deliberate Confederate brutality, and compared it—unfavorably—to Kantor’s book, which they implied did the same thing. Both accusations, as it happens, are correct—for reasons I’ll get into—but I spent the next twenty-five years assuming Kantor’s book was a straightforward Yankee screed. Only in the last few years, when I discovered that he was also the author of a children’s book on Gettysburg that I had loved as a kid, did I first become mildly curious about, then genuinely interested in, and finally decide to read Andersonville.

I’m glad I did. Andersonville is a good book, if perhaps not a great one, and poses interesting questions for readers and writers of historical fiction.

The story of Camp Sumter

“Andersonville” is the popular name for Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp constructed in southern Georgia in early 1864. (The first prisoners arrived on this day 155 years ago.) Over its year and a half of existence, Andersonville received 45,000 Union POWs, who arrived by train from all theaters of war. 13,000 of them died.

Kantor sets out to tell the whole story of Camp Sumter. He begins with the land itself, exploring the woods and fields through Ira Claffey, a local planter whose three sons have all died in the Confederate army and whose plantation teeters on the edge of collapse through lack of manpower and cash. Ira meets a Confederate surveying crew looking for land for a new prison camp. They settle on a valley on the banks of Sweetwater Creek and construction begins. By the time the camp is finished and the prisoners have begun to arrive, we still have a good 600 pages to go.

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The novel excels in its narrowly focused sketches of incidental characters and the world in which they move. While Ira Claffey and his family’s losses frame the whole narrative, other characters flit in and out of the story—a white trash boy who joins the Georgia Reserves (just like Georgie in my novel Griswoldville) and becomes a guard; Captain Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born commander of the stockade; a local Presbyterian minister who tries to organize charitable donations for the prisoners; one of the camp surgeons; and many, many of the Union prisoners.

The prisoners’ chapters are particularly poignant, as they often give a prisoner’s entire life story up to his time in the camp. One harbors intense homesickness to get back to the German immigrant girl he fell in love with; another, having fled his intensely religious father, has become a prodigal son and falls in with the stockade’s villains; another has become deranged since his capture at Chickamauga and has turned informer for the Confederates, a status he comes to abhor; another is an Irish immigrant sailor trying desperately to dote on his underage boy lover; another, who learned criminality and murder at a young age in the immigrant slums of New York, gathers similarly cutthroat survivors to himself to form a gang; another, the scion of a privileged and worldly Jewish family, retreats inward, losing himself in prolonged reminiscences of his travels. Still others form pairs or trios, sometimes merely on the basis of having the same home state, to try to help each other survive. A few try to tunnel their way out, with tragic results.

And many historical figures—from the obvious Confederate officers like Wirz or his superior, General John Winder; to prisoners like Red Cap, a drummer boy who did clerical work for Wirz; diarists John Ransom and John McElroy; violent “Raider” William Collins; and Boston Corbett, a religious fanatic who, after his release, would become the man who killed John Wilkes Booth—wander in and out of the story. Even those characters that only appear for a single chapter are finely drawn, their life stories familiar, their fates worth worrying over.

The novel unfolds in an elephantine mid-century modernist style, a style that reminded me quite a bit of both Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead and any number of William Faulkner’s books, if you can imagine that combination. Kantor is also interested in typically mid-twentieth century issues—nihilism, the meaninglessness of suffering, whether religion does or does not have anything to offer, and weird sex. He does not use quotation marks and his studies of the characters often freewheel into pure stream-of-conscious remembering.

It’s dense, it’s heavy, but the sheer accumulation of detail adds steadily to the book’s power. One comes to feel the world in which the novel takes place and to sense the immense variety of the people who live in it, of all the fully lived lives coming together in this particular place in southern Georgia. It’s powerful.

Unfortunately, it can also be punishing, something Kantor surely intended but that wears on the reader after a while. When one particularly prominent character is—apparently—shot at random by a guard, Kantor diverts us from his fate for a good twenty pages before revealing that, yes, he was killed instantly. Many of the deaths in the book, of young men wasted away to nothing by starvation, exposure, and diarrhea, moved me; that one felt like a cruel trick.

After the Raiders

Kantor also never entirely overcomes one particular narrative hurdle: What happened while all those prisoners were in Andersonville? Not much, honestly, and so large parts of the book depict people simply existing. Life in the camp was a continuous struggle, so there’s narrative meat there, but it drags in places, particularly once Kantor has finished with the most notorious incident in the camp: the trial and execution of the Raiders.

The Raiders were Union prisoners, many from New York City, who recreated the predatory gang environment of their urban slums and lived off of their fellow soldiers and prisoners through theft and murder. In response, a band of prisoners calling themselves Regulators tried to create a system of mutual protection and law enforcement and ultimately fought a battle with the Raiders. Having received permission from the Confederate authorities at the camp, a jury of recent arrivals—theoretically less biased—tried the Raiders’ ringleaders and their most violent enforcers and sentenced six to hang.

A true story, and a gripping one—right? Kantor capably dramatizes the incident with a steady drip of violence from the Raiders, futile resistance by the other prisoners, and a gradual increase in tension that finally explodes in the prisoner-on-prisoner war and the hangings. But the first batches of prisoners arrived in the late winter and early spring of 1864, and the Raiders were tried in July, making the Raiders’ run of the prison dramatic but short. With this out of the way, we’re still less than halfway through the camp’s history and only halfway through the book. The rest is good, but it never quite regains the narrative momentum of this solid third of the story.

In the end, relief finally comes for the addled, dropsical, hopeless prisoners when a large number are transferred to other camps in order to reduce overcrowding. General Winder, the general in charge of Confederate POW camps and the obvious villain of the piece, dies in South Carolina. The war nears its end. From here the story becomes somewhat unfocused, seldom revisiting Camp Sumter’s stockade and giving only the vaguest sense of how things end for a number of characters, finally concluding with the surviving Claffeys—defeated, returned to the United States once more—hiring on their former slaves as sharecroppers and watching the empty prison overgrow and crumble.

Character assassination?

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Andersonville was published in 1955, just ten years after the end of the Second World War. That conflict, in which Kantor worked as a war correspondent, looms over this novel in obvious ways. An overpopulated prison camp in which a third of the inmates, who arrived by rail, died of disease, starvation, and at the hands of guards—and commanded by a German-speaking officer in a gray uniform? At the end of the novel, when Union cavalry officers arrive to arrest Wirz at his home, a more or less explicit discussion of the Nuremberg defense occupies the conversation. Camp Sumter will always look a little different since Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz joined it in the rearview mirror.

Kantor does depart from many of the immediate post-Civil War accounts of the prison by humanizing Henry Wirz—somewhat. He is a wildly exaggerated, hysterical, aggrieved man impotently trying to work out his frustrations, especially with a wounded arm that refuses to heal and a chain of command that gives him very limited real authority in his own camp. The result is his mismanagement of the prison, especially in times of prisoner unrest. Wirz’s immediate superiors, on the other hand, especially General Winder, are depicted as sadists intentionally trying to turn Andersonville into a charnel house and starve the Yankees—all propagandistic mischaracterizations originating immediately after the war.

The broader South, as seen through the Claffeys, is complicit as well. Their grief and bitterness at their terrible losses have seeded a deep desire to kill northerners at every opportunity. And though Ira Claffey in particular feels intense discomfort with the camp and the way honorably surrendered enemies are being treated, he and the others of his class are ultimately frozen into inaction by their ambivalence. And so the Yankees starve and waste away. Kantor explains Andersonville as the result of dark, archetypal resentments that somehow bring the cruelty of the camp into existence.

That makes for compelling literature but it doesn’t reflect reality and, thanks to the much wider readership awarded this Pulitzer Prize winner than any of the primary sources it was based upon, it has permanently skewed perceptions of Wirz, Andersonville, and what happened there. Subsequent dramatizations, including the TNT miniseries, have gone further. It is very difficult to watch that film version of Wirz without thinking of an unhinged Nazi commandant, a far cry from the pathetic figure in Kantor and the real person buried several layers down.

Good reading

So I finished reading Andersonville deeply conflicted. It is certainly a powerhouse of a novel, a modernist monument to what the written word can do in spinning whole lost and forgotten worlds into existence through an act of imagination, and its depiction of conditions in the camp, especially as the helpless prisoners weaken and die, is moving throughout—manifested as dread at the beginning of the novel, horror in the middle, and resignation and grief at the end. But it is also clearly a product of its time, obsessed with the things that preoccupied the post-World War II literary elite, and has only reinforced century-old myths and slanders about many of the people involved in the camp. As I wrote on Goodreads, “Four stars seems too low, but five is certainly too high.”

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

It’s a good book, but if you don’t want to invest the time and effort (literally—this book is a doorstop), check out William Marvel’s Andersonville: The Last Depot, an award-winning history published by Chapel Hill. Marvel includes all the major incidents dramatized in the novel, with special attention given to the Raiders, and assesses the charges eventually brought against Wirz at his trial, where he was convicted and hanged. It’s a well-researched, fair history of the camp from beginning to end.

Finally, nothing can substitute for a visit to the camp itself. I made the trek several years ago and have not forgotten it. Even the remoteness, a good forty minutes away from the nearest interstate, made an impression, and then there was the camp itself, with a few sections of recreated fenceline, the postbellum monuments, and the cemetery. If you’re interested in this topic, by all means read Kantor’s Andersonville, but make time to see the real place with your own eyes.

2018 in Books

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Even if not for movies, 2018 turned out to be a great year for reading. Per my accounting on Goodreads, I read 95 books—a personal record. Most of it was good, a few things were great, and very few stinkers made it into my reading. You can see everything I counted toward my Goodreads reading challenge here.

For this year-in-review rundown of my reading, I’m going to try to keep things positive and focus on favorites. I use the word favorites purposefully—I’m not declaring these the “best” books of the year, but the ones I enjoyed, benefited from, or stopped to think about the most, with plenty of overlap in those three categories.

I will address the two worst books I read this year, but I’m going try to keep it brief. Because that’s all they deserve.

I’ve sorted things into three broad categories: fiction, non-fiction, and kids’ books. And because I can’t keep these things to a set number, you’ll find a top ten—in no particular order—with a few runners up in most of them. I also have a list of things I revisited.

Enjoy! If y’all are looking for something good to read in 2019, I hope you can find something in these lists.

Ten fiction favorites:

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Last Stand at Saber River, by Elmore Leonard. An excellent western, pitting a Confederate veteran returning from the war with his family against a pair of brothers attempting to steal his land with the Union as their excuse—all of which an amoral storekeeper works to manipulate to his advantage. This might sound like a collection of western staples, but the plotting, pacing, characterization, and the strength of Leonard’s writing set this apart. A really good good guy, some really bad bad guys, and a wonderfully realized western setting. I enjoyed this immensely.

The Line that Held Us, by David Joy. A gripping tragedy set in the mountains and hollers of Jackson County, North Carolina. Dark and suspenseful but with some hope of redemption. This is one of the best novels I read this year; I’ve picked up Joy’s two previous books and hope to read them soon, too. Read my full review here.

Unknown Soldiers, by Väinö Linna, trans. by Liesl Yamaguchi. One of the best war novels I’ve read, Unknown Soldiers follows a Finnish machine gun company through the Continuation War against the Soviets (1941-44) and has a huge flock of finely drawn, interesting characters. Linna evokes every bit of the pathos and tragedy of modern warfare in a moving and action-packed novel. Read my full review here.

Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard. It is apparently the incorrect opinion among Leonard fans, but so far I don’t actually like his crime novels as much as his westerns. This is the exception—and I loved it. Freaky Deaky follows a pair of ex-hippie ex-lovers who try to revive their Weather Underground-style terrorism for fun and profit. A parallel plot follows Chris Mankowski, former Detroit bomb squad technician turned sex crimes investigator, as he begins a new relationship and crosses paths with the terrorists. It’s hard to summarize, but it’s wonderful to read and really funny. Here’s Leonard himself reading the first chapter.

Above the Waterfall, by Ron Rash. Perhaps my new favorite novel by Rash. Read my full review here.

The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh. Think Barton Fink crossed with Bernie. One of the funniest, blackest, most shocking comedic novels I’ve read, a blistering send-up of Americans’ unhealthy refusal to confront death. This was just the second book I read this year, and it was never in danger of being unseated from among my favorites. Read my full review here.

The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. I don’t think I’ll ever make myself watch the movie, but an old episode of the First Things podcast featured an interesting segment on the spiritual power and sacramental physicality—often manifested as grossness—in this novel. It’s not the best written piece of fiction you’ll pick up, but it’s gripping and powerfully creepy, building a deep sense of dread because of human weakness in the face of supernatural evil. Father Karras’s struggles with his own faith should prove familiar to a lot of readers, and the subtle grace that comes through and finally offers salvation and redemption makes the book moving as well. To summarize from my short Goodreads review: “Brutal, gross, terrifying, and—surprisingly—uplifting.”

The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin Jr. The most delightfully and wonderfully weird book I’ve read in years. Part Chaucer, part Narnia, part Lovecraft, the novel follows Chauntecleer, king of a barnyard full of animals, in a struggle against Wyrm, an ancient force that threatens to wreck creation. A strange and gripping meditation on good and evil, love, beauty, creation, leadership good and bad, and populated with strange and memorable characters. Perhaps my favorite is Mundo Cani, a depressed dog almost pathetically devoted to Chauntecleer but who possesses a surprising reserve of courage. If you want to read a fresh, beautifully written fantasy that is by turns charming and dark, but beautiful and weird throughout, definitely pick up The Book of the Dun Cow.

The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. A classic. I had only read the abridged, illustrated version as a kid and finally got around to the real thing this summer. That’s probably providential; it’s so good that if I had read it before I wrote Griswoldville I might not have tried. Read my full Goodreads review here.

Favorite of the year:

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The Good Shepherd, by C.S. Forester. I picked this up because it’s the basis of Tom Hanks’s forthcoming film Greyhound. I’d never read anything by Forester—creator of Horatio Hornblower—and was blown away by this book. The story, set in World War II, follows Commander Krause, captain of a US Navy destroyer on convoy duty in the north Atlantic during the height of U-boat activity. As the novel begins, he comes to the bridge after a few scanty hours of rest. After his convoy blunders into the middle of a wolf pack, Krause will barely sit down, much less sleep, for the next several days.

The novel is intensely interior, with almost no characterization or backstory for anyone else on the ship. Even his own backstory—with a dead end position in the navy, a tragically failed marriage, and a transfer from San Diego—doesn’t come in until over halfway into the book. Things come to the reader as they come to Krause. Throughout, the reader thinks through what’s happening with Krause, doing the hard work of calculating speed, fuel, distance, the number of ships and depth charges remaining, where the U-boats are, how fast their torpedoes can travel—and on and on. It’s an incredibly cerebral novel that is also physically exhausting. I was tired when I finished it, a sensation I haven’t experienced since reading Deliverance ten years ago. It’s a rare accomplishment for a work of fiction.

The Good Shepherd is a great look at the guts and endurance it took to ferry supplies across the Atlantic during World War II, but the primary reason to read it is that it’s an excellent and unusual novel. It also has some wonderfully evocative religious overtones, as scripture springs uninvited into the devoutly religious Krause’s mind, sometimes in the middle of torpedo attacks. Check it out if you’re at all interested in the underappreciated side stories of World War II, or if you plan to see Tom Hanks’s film adaptation this spring.

Runners up:

  • Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. A withering satire of the modern press, c. 1938, Scoop follows William Boot, a young man mistaken for his fashionable novelist cousin and sent to the impoverished African state of Ishmaelia to cover a war. Scathing in its critique of the media, modernism, statism, and propaganda, and also laugh-out-loud funny. Comparable to the earlier Black Mischief, which is also blisteringly satirical toward European hubris, but even funnier.

  • A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh. Waugh in a more morally serious mode, dramatizing the disasters unleashed on both the innocent and the guilty by selfishness and infidelity. Read my full review here.

  • The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog, by Dave Barry. A hilarious dose of lighthearted, touching Christmas nostalgia from a kid’s-eye perspective—if that kid is young Dave Barry. A lot of fun to read aloud; I had to stop a few times to catch my breath, I was laughing so hard.

  • Fools and Mortals, by Bernard Cornwell. An interesting departure for Cornwell, from sociopathic historical hardasses to the world of Shakespeare. Engaging, a brilliantly detailed historical world, a good plot, and, importantly, a lot of fun. I’ve previously blogged about it here.

  • Gunsights, by Elmore Leonard. I believe this is Leonard’s last western, and he goes out with a bang. Exciting action and suspense, believable character-centered conflict, and a realistically detailed and well-realized historical setting, plus some barbed commentary on the way the media attempts to shape events in the name of coverage.

Ten non-fiction favorites:

Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, by Prue Shaw. An excellent look at Dante’s work by a scholar with a lifetime of experience, winsomely presenting Dante’s genius and beautifully written.

The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes, by Carolyne Larrington. An excellent guide and introduction to the religious and mythic landscape of the Norse, with a careful presentation of often tricky or widely misinterpreted material by a good scholar. The best book of its kind that I’ve come across. Read my full review here.

Semmes: Rebel Raider, by John M. Taylor. A shorter version of Taylor’s biography of Raphael Semmes, a commerce raider for the Confederate navy whose activities severely disrupted Northern shipping and business. I enjoyed this little biography so much I wrote a very long review of it here last month.


Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick Deneen. A strong, much-needed, perceptive diagnosis that most of our proposed cures for the illnesses of our time are actually just part of the illness. Deneen daringly questions Lockean liberalism, especially the concept of the autonomous individual, and convincingly argues that both “sides” of our political divide today are fighting over the same vanishing patch of turf. I’ve previously blogged about this book here.

A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of England, by Marc Morris. A detailed and deeply researched new biography of Edward I. Worthwhile if you’re at all interested in High Medieval Britain, Scotland and Wales, or medieval kingship and military history at all. Read my Goodreads review here.

A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. A lyrical, wistful recounting of the author’s youthful walk across Europe from the English Channel to Constantinople. (This volume, the first of three, ends with his journey into Hungary.) Especially interesting as Fermor made his trip just as the Nazis rose to power, so this travelogue takes the reader through a lost world in more ways than one. You can read my thoughts on the book while I was reading it, with some generous excerpts of my favorite passages, here.

Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, by Helen Castor. An excellent entry, brief but insightful, in the Penguin Monarchs series. Read my full review here.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson. I mean to review this more fully at some point, but this is a rewarding dig into what makes human beings tick and how to resolve some of the issues that plague anxious modern people. 95% common sense, eloquently expressed, supported, and argued for, with about 5% Jungian hoodoo that is nevertheless interesting. I think it says more about our culture than Peterson that he has become controversial.

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, by Alan Noble. A much needed meditation on Christian accommodation of the prevailing culture, resulting in a thin, shallow, brittle, commercialized, commodified faith that will not disrupt the world but follow after it, pulling on its apron strings. Concludes with calls for “disruptive” habits—personal habits, including even simple things like prayer before meals, and church habits, like more regular and more heavily emphasized sacraments and giving greater space to solemnity, reclaiming worship from the rock concert. Resonated quite a lot with what I had already read by Deneen (see above) and Scruton (see below), and with James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, which I read a few years ago. Noble gave me a lot to think about, especially as troubled as I’ve been by the state of American Christianity for some time.

Favorite of the year:

How to Be a Friend, by Cicero, trans. Philip Freeman. In the words of Albert Finney’s elderly gamekeeper in Skyfall: “Sometimes the old ways are best.” This is a new translation, in a nice bilingual edition from Princeton UP, of Cicero’s essay De Amicitia (On Friendship). I’ve been meaning to do a full review and recommendation since I read it, but unfortunately I finished it at about the busiest time of the semester. Suffice it to say that Cicero offers a lot of wisdom here that we could stand to recover or, at least, refresh ourselves on. True friendship is a discipline, something purposeful, and cannot demand evil, immorality, or injustice in its name. True friends should help each other to virtue—iron sharpening iron—which means that they should be devoted to something larger than themselves: truth. Good friendships, in Cicero’s estimation, must be founded on truth. In our “post-truth” age, this ancient message is the healthy counterprogramming we need. Pick this up and read it as soon as you can.

Runners up:

  • On Human Nature, by Roger Scruton. An excellent series of lectures examining what it means to be human—that is, crucially, a person—and what obligations that places upon us. Insightful and especially relevant.

  • The Demon in Democracy, by Ryszard Legutko. A powerful one-two punch with Why Liberalism Failed, Legutko’s book expands on Deneen by examining Western liberalism and Communism as rivals for the same basic ground, philosophically and politically speaking, which is why both tend toward tyranny, authoritarianism, and the suppression of traditional institutions.

  • The Year of Our Lord 1943, by Alan Jacobs. An interesting look at the lives and thought of five Christian writers and their responses to the pressures of the Second World War. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, by Peter Kreeft. A freewheeling discussion on our intuitions of transcendence through our lived experience. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • Finnish Soldier versus Soviet Soldier: Winter War 1939-40, by David Campbell, illustrated by Johnny Shumate. A brisk, informative, lavishly illustrated examination of what combat was like during the Winter War. Read my Goodreads review here.

Worst reads of the year:

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. This book is garbage. A “hot mess” or a “dumpster fire” for the meme-addled. It’s a judgment on our culture that it’s become as popular as it has. Lazy, poorly written, overindulgent, philosophically and morally bankrupt, with insufferable characters, a contrived plot, and a completely phony moral platitude tacked on at the end, this book has skated by on the black ice of its pop culture “references,” the most vacuous and ephemeral brain candy available. Read some of my early reactions in my Goodreads review here. In April I was a guest on the Sectarian Review for a discussion of Ready Player One—primarily the film version; you can listen to that here.

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The Terminal List, by Jack Carr. I wanted to enjoy this book, because it’s in a genre I’ve enjoyed and I was intrigued by the fact that it was written by a former SEAL. While true, its author’s service was essentially a gimmick used to sell the book, along with the handful of passages redacted by the Department of Defense. The “too hot for TV!” tactic. Unfortunately, this is a poorly written and plotted mess, with serious pacing, characterization, and tone problems, loads of typos (in a professionally edited and published book!), and sometimes incomprehensible description.

The biggest problem for me, though, was its complete lack of reflection on the meaning of its story. SEAL James Reece miraculously survives an ambush that wipes out everyone in his entire unit but himself and a buddy. Upon making it home, the buddy mysteriously commits suicide and Reece starts getting ominous results on medical tests. Then Reece’s family is murdered and he sets out for revenge. Turns out that the ambush was a setup to wipe out SEALs and other special forces personnel who had been illegally used for pharmaceutical testing, a project sending kickbacks to a powerful, ambitious, high-ranking female politician with her sights set on the White House. Doesn’t sound familiar enough? Well her husband is also a former politician who was disgraced because of sexual scandal. Hm.

Turns out everyone—including the SEAL commanding officer—was in on the plot, and Reece laboriously kills all of them, working from a list kept on the back of one of his dead daughter’s crayon drawings. Not only is it obvious and manipulative, it’s a chore to read.

This was a bad enough book for artistic reasons but it crossed the line into morally bad territory. What The Terminal List and Ready Player One have in common is a gross indulgence in fantasies that simply affirm or titillate the reader. In Ready Player One it’s an affirmation that all the ephemeral video game crap you love matters—matters more than anything else in the world! It then titillates its reader with the adulation and glory heaped upon its protagonist. In The Terminal List, it’s an affirmation that all your darkest suspicions about elites and globalists are true. The titillation comes in the elaborate and gleefully relayed revenge killings.

Carr invites us to participate in Reece’s campaign of gruesome revenge, which is otherwise fairly standard for a thriller, but by making his villains obvious proxies for real world people, he’s inviting the reader into an obsessively imagined murder spree—and invited them to enjoy it along with him. That’s not a good habit of mind to cultivate, and in Carr’s book the resentment—of the Clintons, of Washington insiders, of the objects of paranoia like Big Pharma, and even of fellow SEALs who just haven’t seen as much action as Reece—drips from every page. It’s not just a bad book, but an ugly one.

Read my much shorter Goodreads review here.



Old favorites that I reread this year. Several of these I revisited after more than a decade (or two). Others I listened to on my commute. All were worth it—check any of these out. They’re great.

  • The Aeneid, by Virgil, trans. by David Ferry. A solid new translation in blank verse. I read this shortly after my grandfather died, just before Christmas 2017, and it resonated powerfully with me, something I blogged about here (the most popular post of the year, incidentally).

  • The Earliest English Poems, ed. and trans. by Michael Alexander. A great collection of Old English verse, including riddles, epic (The Battle of Maldon), religious poems (The Dream of the Rood), elegies (The Seafarer and The Wanderer), and much more. Good translations with good scholarly apparatus like notes and introductions. Alexander’s translation of Beowulf is also worth seeking out.

  • Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. Reread for the first time since high school, when I read it because Stephen King featured it so prominently in Hearts in Atlantis. Far, far more powerful than I gave it credit for back then. Justly regarded as a classic. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • The Screwtape Letters and The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis. I listened to both of these as audiobooks. The Four Loves is an early version of the talks that eventually became the longer, expanded book of the same title, read by CS Lewis himself in recordings made for American radio during the 1950s. He’s great to listen to. The Screwtape Letters was the second audio version I’ve listened to, after John Cleese’s wonderfully manic and wrathful recording (now very hard to find). This version was read by prolific British actor Joss Ackland, whose wry, self-satisfied bass gave a new spin to Screwtape as the smug bureaucrat who can only be roused to wrath out of self-interest. A great performance of a great book.

  • A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Also an audiobook, brilliantly performed—accents and all—by Barrett Whitener. Reading the book is indispensable—no performance can be as funny as how Toole’s book will play out in your head—but this was really enjoyable.

  • The 39 Steps, by John Buchan. I reread this for the first time in ten years in preparation for a podcast discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation. The 39 Steps still works—a fast-paced adventure thriller that you can read in one or two sittings. You can listen to our discussion of the film, with reference to the book as well, here.

  • The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele. Reread for the first time since perhaps fourth grade. My copy still had an old Garfield bookmark and a sheet of stickers in it. Anyway, a very good Civil War novel for children, capturing some of the messiness in the South, particularly in areas politically divided between secessionists and unionists. Read my Goodreads review here.

Favorites kids’ books:

Every night before bed I read a chapter or two to my wife from a book we’ve selected—something fun and relaxing, with a dash of adventure, often for kids or young adults. I also read a lot of picture books to my kids, which has been a refreshment after the last few years of Serious Adult Literature. These are the best of this year’s lot, in no particular order:

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  • The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli. This was a nice surprise—a novel neither my wife nor I had heard of, that we only discovered while looking through a list of Newbery Medal winners (1950). This is the story of a spoiled noble boy crippled by illness who learns humility through acceptance of his condition and his submission to the practice of an art. Also nice as a medieval novel for young readers that doesn’t present a lot of Dark Ages stereotypes, but brings the reader into that world on its own terms. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. A gripping adventure story, part Robinson Crusoe, part Jack London (take your pick), part Lord of the Flies. Hatchet tells the story of a boy, already stressed by his parents’ divorce, who finds himself stranded in the Canadian wilderness following a plan crash. I blitzed through this in a few days during breaks at work—it’s excellent.

  • The Hawk of the Castle, by Danna Smith, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. A medieval picture book about falconry, following a falconer and his daughter on a hunting trip. Based on the author’s own experience with falconry, and lovingly—and beautifully—illustrated. Read my Goodreads review here.

  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis. For whatever reason, I’m just now getting around to reading all of the Chronicles of Narnia, and this stands out as one of the best entries in the series (though my favorite is probably still The Silver Chair). An epic sea voyage with allegorical, chivalric overtones—one part Faerie Queene, one part Odyssey. It’s great. Reepicheep, the embodiment of honor and chivalry, is perhaps my favorite character, but everyone has a chance to shine in this one and some parts are profoundly moving.

  • In Grandma’s Attic, by Arleta Richardson. A wonderfully fun, funny, and gentle collection of frontier stories presented as the reminiscences of a grandmother. Reminded me somewhat of Little House on the Prairie, but more episodic and with a nice dash of more specific religiosity. My wife’s grandmother read these to her growing up. There are ten in the series, so there’s plenty more to enjoy. Read my short Goodreads review here.

  • Shakespeare’s Spy, by Gary Blackwood. The final volume of a trilogy following a young boy, originally tasked with stealing a well-protected copy of Hamlet, through his apprenticeship and finally membership in Shakespeare’s company of players. A fun, kid-friendly introduction to Shakespeare, drama, and the Tudor world. I’ve blogged about this series here before, in this post about Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals.

Favorite of the year:

John Ronald’s Dragons, by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. A beautifully illustrated picture book about the first half of JRR Tolkien’s life, from his childhood, through World War I, to his professorship at Oxford and the creation of The Hobbit. I’ve previously reviewed this wonderful book on the blog here.

Looking ahead:

I was going to conclude with a section on my two favorite new writers—meaning dead guys I’ve just discovered—of 2018, but this post is quite long enough. I’ve set myself a lower bar for my Goodreads challenge this year, for three reasons: my wife and I expect our third child this year, which will, naturally, affect my time—and sleep schedule; I aim to read a few longer, heavier books I’ve been meaning to get to; and I want to set aside time to work on new writing projects. We’ll see how all that goes this time next year. In the meantime, I’ll keep posting.

Thanks for reading! Happy new year!

Semmes: Rebel Raider

CAPTAIN Raphael Semmes and his executive officer, John McIntosh Kell, aboard the CSS  Alabama  in Capetown, South Africa, August 1863

CAPTAIN Raphael Semmes and his executive officer, John McIntosh Kell, aboard the CSS Alabama in Capetown, South Africa, August 1863

I’ve studied infantry combat a lot and while you can never grasp every subtopic in your field, I’ve grown keenly aware of one big weakness in my studies—naval history. I’m trying to fix that, and just last week I ran across John M. Taylor’s Semmes: Rebel Raider at my local used book store. This book, otherwise an impulse buy, suggested itself for three reasons: I’m interested in the Civil War, I’m belatedly trying to learn as much as I can about maritime military history, and I also passionately enjoy short biographies of the sort that Paul Johnson writes. They’re a demanding form, the sonnet to the full-length biography’s epic, and push their authors to, in the words of Herbert Butterfield, “search . . . for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.” Happily, Taylor’s Semmes proves excellent in all three regards.

Raphael Semmes (1809-77), unlike the names Lee, Jackson, or Stuart, is probably unfamiliar to anyone with a less than an enthusiastic interest in the Civil War. Indeed, in the last round of protests of Confederate monuments, Semmes didn’t possess the notoriety to inflame even today’s protesters: “Although the protest was supposed to happen around 5 p.m.,” a Mobile news outlet reported regarding the city’s Semmes statue last year, “it appears the group never showed up.”

That Semmes is relatively unknown is strange—he was the most successful commerce raider before the era of the submarine—but not inexplicable, traits that could apply to his entire life. Born in Maryland, he joined the US Navy as as midshipman at 17 and spent almost all of the next forty years in the service, first for the United States and then for the Confederacy. Though a practicing Catholic from the South, he married into a Protestant family from Ohio and relocated to Alabama, where he tried to pursue both his naval career and a law practice. (This is not as strange as it might sound; lots of pre-Civil War military officers had side gigs, some of them much shadier than lawyering.) One can see his expertise in the law stemming from his strictly observed Catholic faith and Southern code of honor as well as his naval experience. After losing one of his first commands, the USS Somers, to a storm during the Mexican War, Semmes asked for, received, and was exonerated by a military investigation. His expertise in maritime law would prove useful for him during the height of his career.

semmes taylor.jpg

He served in and out of active duty in a variety of capacities—commanding naval artillery under General Winfield Scott in Mexico, a duty which acquainted him with Captain Robert E. Lee of Scott’s staff, commanding a store ship, working for the Lighthouse Service as both an inspector and Washington bureaucrat—until the secession crisis in 1860. An ardent secessionist, Semmes believed the Southern states lived under a tyranny crafted to benefit the industrial classes of the North and, especially, New England. When the Southern states began to secede following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Semmes resigned his commission and immediately accepted a position in the fledgling navy of the Confederate States of America.

After a variety of peacetime assignments (it is often forgotten that several months of peace separated the secession of the first seven Confederate states from the outbreak of war), Semmes was sent to New Orleans to take command of the CSS Sumter, a converted steam cruiser. When Semmes embarked from New Orleans in June 1861, it was the last time he would see the South for over three years.

Semmes immediately proved his mettle. He deftly escaped the Union blockade at the mouth of the Mississippi and began a rapid series of raids on northern merchant shipping. Semmes, suspicious as he was of the New England commercial class, was well-suited to the task, and captured eighteen American ships in six months. Without a friendly port to which to send captured ships, Semmes removed their crews, any useful cargo, and burned them. Of the eighteen he captured, only seven were sunk in this way, but he had sent a clear message and would have an outsize influence. Semmes’s raiding not only hurt the northern economy but also tied down valuable naval resources; “by the end of 1861 Semmes was being pursued by half a dozen vessels that otherwise would have been tightening the blockade of Southern ports (36).”

In serious need of repairs, Semmes brought the Sumter into port at Gibraltar in 1862 for refitting. There the Union navy caught up to him and kept watch for him to depart British waters. Eventually, with the Yankees too close and the estimated repairs to the Sumter too expensive, Semmes paid off his hired crew and he and his officers sailed to England, where they took command of the ship that would create his legend—the CSS Alabama.

Was there ever such a lucky man as the Captain of the Alabama?
— Admiral David D. Porter, US Navy

In a cruise that lasted just under two years, Semmes and the Alabama ranged from the Azores to the Caribbean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope twice, crossed the equator four times, and sailed as far east as Vietnam, a voyage of 75,000 miles without a stop in a single Confederate port. Along the way he captured 64 northern merchant ships, burning 52, causing nearly $7 million dollars in damage to northern shipping. Throughout, despite pursuit by the US Navy, Semmes eluded his enemies through a skillful combination of cunning, local intelligence, daring, and—once in a while—luck. Think JEB Stuart crossed with Captain Blood.

The Alabama’s cruise ended at the Battle of Cherbourg in June 1864, when the USS Kearsarge threatened to box the Alabama in and Semmes offered single combat. The Kearsarge sent the Alabama to the bottom. Semmes and his officers, rescued by a British yacht, escaped to England. Though Semmes would later claim the Kearsarge had an unfair advantage in that it had primitive armor plating—chains draped along the sides of the hull near the engine—the Alabama was in bad repair, much of its powder was wet, its shells had defective fuses (a problem for Lee at Gettysburg as well), and, most importantly, it did not need to engage the Kearsarge.

Taylor makes this seemingly unnecessary engagement understandable, because he makes Semmes understandable. Chivalrous to a fault, Semmes took extraordinary care over the legality of his seizures and chafed at northern accusations that he was no more than a pirate. He lived by a strict code strongly inflected both by his Southern culture and his religion and held himself to a high standard. That the Yankees he captured did not confirmed his prejudices against the northern industrial and commercial classes. He was appalled to capture multiple northern vessels to find that their captains enjoyed the services of “stewardesses” or “chambermaids.” Their true function could not be clearer to Semmes. “These shameless Yankee skippers,” he wrote after one such capture, “make a common practice of converting their ships into brothels (77).”

“Old Beeswax”

“Old Beeswax”

Taylor’s attention to Semmes’s character and beliefs make this short book (the main body of the text is 110 pages) especially valuable. Semmes—a short, aloof man who waxed and twisted the ends of his mustache (his men called him “Old Beeswax”), who smacked his lips as he talked, who seemed to take no special notice of anything happening below the quarterdeck but always knew what was going on aboard his ship; a strict disciplinarian; a gentleman who took pains to reassure his prisoners that they would be treated well; a Catholic who kept a shrine in his quarters; a crafty, intelligent, and aggressive raider who nevertheless had a wry sense of humor—is as colorful and timeless a seafaring character as any invented by Sabatini, Stevenson, Conrad, CS Forester, or Patrick O’Brian.

But he is also a man of his era. He not only believed in the legality of secession but came to believe it necessary: the north had a Puritan-bred culture of alien moneygrubbers that was incompatible with the older traditions of the agrarian South. He was a 19th century culture warrior. Though he only ever owned a few personal servants, he favored the expansion of slavery to provide a bulwark against the north’s economic oppression. His wartime raiding was not only his military duty, it was an opportunity to stick it to the New Englanders he held ultimately responsible for the crisis. He did not soften these attitudes post-war, either: “Avoiding the false humility and the evenhanded praise of friend and foe that would mark later memoirs,” Taylor writes,

Semmes portay[ed] the war as a struggle between good and evil in which the South is on the side of the angels. He repeatedly compares the South’s struggle for independence with the English civil war two centuries earlier. He likens the South to the king’s Cavaliers, the North to the barbarous Roundheads. As for slavery, Semmes could not conceive of blacks’ prospering in a situation where they were left to their own devices (106-7).

Taylor lays all of this out clearly and succinctly. He also writes elegantly, relating the entire career of the Sumter and the Alabama without turning the central 70 pages of the book into a litany of names, dates, and naval jargon—a striking achievement. Some passages, such as the duel with the Kearsarge or Semmes’s several daring escapes from the Union navy, are even exciting.

It’s also witty and fun, finding ways to portray the human side—that is, the absurd and surprising sides—of the war. For instance, after overtaking the Ariel, a steamer owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt bound for Panama and, presumably, the gold fields of California, Semmes discovered that instead of a haul of gold and goods “he had on his hands a packet with some five hundred passengers, including a rather embarrassed company of U.S. Marines.” When Semmes finally bonded the Ariel and let her go, the female passengers gave him three cheers. Another time, Semmes captured a ship with a personal “stewardess”—“a category of passenger of which Semmes was quite disdainful”—to the captain aboard:

In the case of [the Yankee captain’s] companion Semmes’s attitude was fully reciprocated; she was so reluctant to board the Alabama that the Confederates had to tie her into a boatswain’s chair to transfer her to the raider. Once on the Alabama, however, the feisty Irish-woman, whose name is lost to history, marched up to Semmes and denounced him as a pirate! This was one charge for which Semmes would never stand still; when the woman refused to stop her tirade, Semmes ordered that she be doused with water—the only time he treated one of his female prisoners so roughly (73).

If there is one flaw in Semmes: Rebel Raider, it is that the introductory chapter on Semmes’s pre-war life and the final chapter on his post-war career are too short, too cursory. This is more a problem with the final chapter, which passes from the publication of Semmes’s memoirs in 1869 to his death in 1877 with no description of anything in between. But this is a minor problem and natural to the form, which must be selective, and there are full length biographies of Semmes—including one by Taylor—for these details.

And speaking of “natural to the form,” Semmes’s relative lack of fame—strange but not inexplicable, as I said at the start—is due to his line of work. As a captain in a small, weak navy whose ports were all blockaded, forced to operate for years at a time without a trip home, sailing aboard a British-built ship with a hodgepodge crew of Liverpudlians and other foreigners, and commanding a few hundred rather than thousands of men, Semmes “had no legion of postwar admirers” and had won his victories at sea in what “has been perceived as a land conflict,” leaving “no ‘Little Round Top’ or ‘clump of trees’ to mark them (vii-viii).”

Semmes: Rebel Raider is an excellent short introduction to the tiny Confederate navy, to the complexity of the Civil War political scene, to the ways in which global warfare could effect events in the United States and vice versa, and to one of the great maritime commanders who is less well known than many of his contemporaries in the infantry and cavalry.

An exclusive excerpt from Griswoldville


In case you missed it, a few days ago I made an excerpt from my newest novel, Griswoldville, available on my website. Click here to read it, or click here for more information about the novel.

The excerpt is two short chapters from Part III: Miles Gloriosus. The narrator, Georgie Wax, has been conscripted into the Georgia militia along with his grandfather, Lafayette “Fate” Eschenbach, and his cousins Wes and Cal. While their grandfather has experience in a wartime militia from decades before, Georgie, Wes, and Cal have a lot to learn, and find that war is not as glorious or as fun as its reputation suggests, and the cost of war is enormous.

If you’ve been following this blog, the excerpt includes the section about heraldry I wrote about here several months ago.

Give the excerpt a look! I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please do get yourself a copy of Griswoldville. It’s a story that’s been interesting and important to me for a long time, and I’m excited to have finished the book and finally made it available.

As always, thanks for reading!

Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity

One of my favorite series of books right now is the Penguin Monarchs, an ongoing set of short biographies of (almost) every ruler of England since the tenth century. The series includes forty small, handsomely designed matching hardbacks with custom jacket art and, underneath, the relevant monarch’s signature embossed and gilded. The dynasties are color-coded in bands across the spines. No set of books could have been more carefully calculated to appeal to me. It’s a little short on the Anglo-Saxons and Danes—including only Athelstan, whose story is excellently retold by Tom Holland; Æthelred, a forthcoming volume by Richard Abels, a biographer of Alfred the Great; Cnut; and Edward the Confessor—but otherwise wonderful.

elizabeth penguin monarchs.jpg

The series has also interested me because the books are so short—90-120 pages maximum for the body of the text, with a few pages of endnotes or further reading and a small index. For some of these rulers, the relative dearth of sources lends itself to a terse, concise treatment. Despite the immense power he wielded, Cnut, for example, simply goes missing from the available historical record for years at a time, so that an honest biographer must pass over large parts of the man’s life in silence.

But for other monarchs, especially those nearer the present, the writers’ questions must be different: How do I get everything in? or, better, How do I get in enough to suggest the whole picture without leaving out so much that I do violence to the subject? which is really two interlocking concerns.

It’s a tricky balance, and I think of the eighteen volumes from the Penguin Monarchs I’ve read so far, none has managed it quite as well as Helen Castor’s Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity. In this brisk, elegantly written life, Castor covers all the major conflicts, events, and personalities of the queen’s life and reign, having taken as her organizing principle Elizabeth’s insecurity or, put another, slightly more psychological way, her anxiety. And justly so—Castor begins with the execution of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, shortly after Elizabeth’s birth.

When the present queen ascended the throne in 1952, prime minister Winston Churchill noted that she, “like her predecessor,” Elizabeth I, “did not pass her childhood in any certain expectation of the Crown.” Indeed, that is one of the attractions and points of interest of the lives of both women. But it’s an otherwise superficial parallel. Elizabeth I lost her mother to the axe on her own father’s orders when she was only three months old. Through her girlhood her father, his cronies, and parliament strove publicly to declare her legally a bastard and deprive her of the rights of succession. As a teenager she had to duck and weave through a series of political and religious upheavals, first one direction under her younger brother Edward, then another under her elder sister, the Catholic Queen Mary. She was, on top of everything, a woman in a world driven by men. By the time she came unexpectedly to the throne aged 25, she was already a veteran, a canny survivor, a hunted outsider, and she brought those instincts to a position of immense but tenuous power.

Castor takes these early circumstances and deftly builds a character study of an Elizabeth defined by her insecurities. Furthermore, she does so without resorting to cheap psychoanalysis, romanticism, or any more guesswork than necessary with such a famously reticent subject, a woman whose mottoes included Video et taceo—“I see and keep silent.” Elizabeth, as Castor depicts her, is both calculating and guarded; keenly, almost painfully conscious of public image and political theatre, which she uses to her own advantage and for her own survival; silent on her father’s role in her mother’s death, but willing to use his memory to shore up her power; alive to the dangers of suitors, rivals, fanatics like the Puritans among her own subjects, and larger predators like the King of Spain, and active in espionage to forearm against these threats; heavily reliant upon a tiny handful of totally trusted advisers for political advice, military intelligence, and emotional support; and cautious in the extreme, preferring procrastination and purposeful inertia to rash decision making. Not for nothing could she be painted calmly resting her hand on a globe while storms wreck Spanish fleets outside her window, or wearing a magnificently tailored dress with a coiled viper on her sleeve and her cape covered in eyes and ears—a powerful and deadly queen of spies.

Throughout Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, Castor shows us these character traits in action, but in no crisis are they more pronounced than during the long imprisonment of Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. For a book of this size, Castor gives a remarkably clear and understandable synopsis of the events that pitted these two women against each other, and when the fatal moment comes and Elizabeth signs Mary’s death warrant, the reader almost feels her desperation at having been forced into such a decision.

Castor handles all of this very well, but I would, perhaps, like to have seen more of a moral reckoning with Elizabeth’s execution of Mary beyond the quandary into which Elizabeth was forced. The Penguin Monarchs volume on her elder sister Mary points out that while she could have had Elizabeth executed as a threat, she did not, and that Elizabeth, though she hemmed and hawed, did not scruple to spare her cousin when the time came. That’s a striking contrast, and a potentially damaging one. I would also have liked to see more on Elizabeth’s preemptive invasion of Ireland and some of England’s early efforts at colonization in Virginia. But I would hate to see such a trim, carefully constructed narrative bogged down by extra side stories.

Otherwise, I have no complaints. This short biography is fast-paced, readable, well written, and insightful. It’s a model of the kind of historical writing Herbert Butterfield described in the quotation I shared recently: “The historian is never more himself than when he is searching his mind for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.” Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity, in under a hundred pages, gives the reader a real sense of the Tudor era’s complexity and danger and a sympathetic portrait of a sophisticated, secretive, and great queen. It’s magnificently done.

Do check it out if you can get ahold of it, and look into the other volumes of this excellent series.

Griswoldville has arrived!

I'm thrilled to announce that the long-awaited day is come: my latest novel, Griswoldville, is now available! You can find it in both paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.


A lot has happened since I started working on this project several years ago and in the two years since I began the actual writing. Work has slowed almost to a stop several times, especially with the birth of our second child last summer. But I'm thankful to say that with a little time set aside and with the support and encouragement of my family, especially my wife, Sarah, I've gotten the thing written, revised, designed, and published, and I'm excited to make it available to my readers.

The story is set in my home state, Georgia, during the American Civil War, and follows a family of the yeomanry—the class of small family farmers that made up the vast majority of white Southerners—through the travails of the war. That narrator, Georgie Wax, is the eldest of three brothers and is tasked with looking after the family farm when his father leaves for the war in the summer of 1861. His maternal grandfather, Fate Eschenbach, moves in with them, and together they take care of the hard work necessary to survive, right up until they are drafted into the state militia.

With Sherman's western army closing in from the north in the summer of 1864, Georgie, his grandfather, and their friends and family are set on a collision course with the ugly truth of war, combat, and the toll taken by both on ordinary people.

The book's description, from the back cover:

Madison Co., Georgia, 1864—14-year old Georgie Wax has spent the three years since his father left for the war looking after the family farm. With his mother and young brothers, Georgie and his grandfather Lafayette “Fate” Eschenbach have brought in the crops every fall, slaughtered the hogs every winter, and kept the farm running as the faraway war stretches on longer and longer and his father seems ever farther and farther away.

But when the enemy reaches their own state, Georgie and his grandfather are called up to the militia to protect Georgia against the invaders. Drilled mercilessly, mocked for lack of experience, and put to work at manual labor, Georgie finds war isn’t the adventure he imagined it to be. Only with Atlanta fallen and the enemy on the move will Georgie, Fate, and their fellow Georgia militiamen find a chance to prove themselves and save their homes from destruction—at a railside factory town called Griswoldville.

I hope y'all enjoy Griswoldville! If you do, please do me the favor of writing a short but honest review. As always, thanks for reading!

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, edited by Verlyn Flieger, is the latest Tolkien napkin doodle to get its own book.

aotrou itroun cover.jpg

I'm being jocular, of course, and this Lay is a welcome edition to the available work of Tolkien, but when I turned it up online that was the first thing to cross my mind. Christopher Tolkien and the Tolkien Estate have taken some flak for mining the master's unpublished papers, presumably as a cash grab.

Delving too greedily and too deep, if you will.

As it happens, I don't think this criticism is fair, and I'm glad that even slender volumes like this one (just 106 pages) and The Story of Kullervo continue to come out, for reasons I'll get into later.

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun is a 506-line poem based on Breton myth, particularly Celtic stories about witches and changelings. It's a lay, meaning a narrative poem longer than a ballad and shorter than an epic, composed in iambic tetrameter couplets, a format most famously used in the lais of Marie de France, a twelfth-century poet. Tolkien wrote this poem in 1930, apparently in the middle of writing The Lay of Leithian, which the editor has established thanks to Tolkien's own careful notations of the dates of completion of several different manuscripts. 

Tolkien wrote the poem following a period of intense study of Celtic myth and legend, and the Lay is rooted in the stories of Brittany, a continental outpost of the Celtic Fringe. Gwyn Jones, familiar to anyone who has studied the Viking Age, published the Lay in Welsh Review in December 1945.

The Lay tells the story of a Breton king and queen who cannot have a child. The king eventually seeks out an enchantress who gives him a potion which, after he spikes his wife's drink with it, allows the couple to conceive and bear twin children. The witch accepts no payment—always a danger sign in this kind of story—and a short time later the king, pursuing a white deer to help satisfy a strange craving of his wife, stumbles upon the witch, who now demands payment. He refuses, insists he will be immune to her vengeful witchcraft, and slowly succumbs and dies over the next three days, after which his wife dies as well. 

The story is slight but evocative, and Tolkien's poetry is wonderful to read. Here's the king pursuing the deer (ll. 259-276), just before he encounters the witch for the second and final time:

Beneath the woodland's hanging eaves
a white doe startled under leaves;
strangely she glistered in the sun
as she leaped forth and turned to run.
Then reckless after her he spurred;
dim laughter in the woods he heard,
but heeded not, a longing strange
for deer that fair and fearless range
vexed him, for venison of the beast
whereon no mortal hunt shall feast,
for waters crystal-clear and cold
that never in holy fountain rolled.
He hunted her from the forest eaves
into the twilight under leaves;
the earth was shaken under hoof,
till the boughs were bent into a roof,
and the sun was woven in a snare;
and laughter still was on the air.

Beautiful, eerie, atmospheric, expressive of the king's character—his own desire to run down this deer is about to ensnare him—and not a little unsettling, with that laughter hanging in the air behind him as he unwittingly leaves the ordinary world behind.

The main text itself is about twenty pages long. The rest of the book is taken up with antecedents: two ballads, a fragment, and earlier handwritten and typescript versions of the final published poem. The ballads, which are thematically linked (Christopher Tolkien refers to them as a diptych), tell two stories of corrigans—female nature spirits that seek to replenish their dwindling ranks by either seducing mortal men or stealing human children. Here are the first three quatrains from The Corrigan I, in which a woman finds her child swapped for a changeling: 

'Mary on earth, why dost thou weep?' 
'My little child I could not keep:
A corrigan stole him in his sleep,
And I must weep.

To a well they went for water clear,
In cradle crooning they left him here,
And I found him not, my baby dear,
Returning here.

In the cradle a strange cry I heard.
Dark was his face like a wrinkled toad;
With hands he clawed, he mouthed and mowed,
But made no word.'

I particularly enjoyed the two ballads. They're short, atmospheric poems that evoke the dangerously blurry boundary between the everyday and supernatural worlds, a theme not so much running through as saturating Celtic myth.

The editor, Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger, helpfully lays all this out in her introductory material, explanatory notes, and critical apparatus. By printing the published version of the Lay first and following it with the ballads and earlier drafts, Flieger shows how Tolkien dabbled with some ideas he had encountered in his reading of Celtic myth at the time and, gradually, reworked some Breton legends and made them his own. She offers particularly keen insights into the ways in which Tolkien, in the final version of the Lay, pitted pagan and Christian elements against each other—the witch's laughter versus hymns, the witch herself versus the Virgin—to shape a powerfully resonant but economical story. 

Which is why I appreciate works like The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun being made available. If you have an interest, like I do, in the ways writers and artists consider, rework, and riff off of their inspirations until something original emerges, books like these and the aforementioned Story of Kullervo—also edited by Flieger and also worth reading—are opportunities to see that artistic process in action.

Because what Tolkien did with the myths he loved was not simple regurgitation, which tends to be how people talk about his medieval influences. While a case can be made that the corrigan of the ballads or the fay or witch of the Lay proper are the literary grandmothers of a character like Galadriel, these poems are important on their own, not just as raw material for The Lord of the Rings. It is interesting in and of itself to see how Tolkien read voraciously—whether Celtic, Germanic, or Finnish legend—absorbed what he was interested in, and let it inform his creativity. His was a mind awake and open, endlessly curious, receptive to ancient storytelling traditions, and he didn't mind a lot of hard work.

As an aside: Ted Nasmith, the illustrator whose paintings graced the paperback copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that I read in high school, has three works based on Aotrou and Itroun that you can look at on his website.

My top nine Civil War novels


For the upcoming release of Griswoldville, here's a list of my personal favorites from the vast body of Civil War literature. This is by no means an exhaustive list—there's a lot of good stuff out there and plenty I still haven't read, like Thomas Keneally's Confederates, Mackinlay Kantor's Pulitzer Prize-winning Andersonville, or even Gone With the Wind—but simply a list of the books I've been most moved by, have most enjoyed, and have most often returned to over the years.

So here, in no particular order, are my nine favorite Civil War novels, with a few honorable mentions or bonuses thrown in just because:

Rifles for Watie, by Harold Keith

rifles for watie keith.jpg

My mom ordered Rifles for Watie from the God's World Book Club flyer when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I remember plowing through the novel, simultaneously disappointed that it did not take place in the Civil War I was familiar with—the Eastern Theatre—and fascinated by the war it did depict. Rifles for Watie is a story of intrigue, in which Jeff Bussey, a young Union soldier, infiltrates the Confederate Indian cavalry of Stand Watie, a Cherokee leader. Watie hopes to acquire repeating rifles for his cavalry troopers, and Jeff, despite the friendships he has formed, must stop him. The novel respectfully depicts the Cherokees, their attitudes toward the war, and the chaotic Western Theatre, and is unusually realistic for children's fiction thanks to the author's many interviews with elderly Civil War veterans. Rifles for Watie won the Newbery Medal in 1958. 

Also recommended: The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele, about a young pro-Confederate Tennessean who discovers his brother has joined the Yankees; G. Clifton Wisler's Red Cap, the story of a drummer boy imprisoned in Andersonville; and Brotherhood, by Anne Westrick, a daring novel about a boy in post-war Richmond who finds his humanity tested when his brother joins the Ku Klux Klan.

Shiloh, by Shelby Foote

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If you find yourself daunted, as I do, by the sheer size of the late Shelby Foote's three-volume, 2,900 page, 1.2 million word The Civil War: A Narrative, start with Shiloh instead. Shiloh is a short, beautifully written and poignant novel taking place across about three days but encompassing the beginning of the war, the secession crisis, and the conflicts within the United States as a whole. Told through multiple points of view, from commanding generals on down to yeoman privates and a squad of volunteers, Foote's novel gives you glimpses of all the major events of the battle through several interpretations, and hints broadly, because of the battle's course and results, at what the outcome of the war must be. More importantly, it brings you into the battle, giving you that difficult to achieve feeling of what it must have been like, to make you understand the experiences of the soldiers themselves. A great book.

Also recommended: Shelby Foote also edited Chickamauga and Other Civil War Stories, a collection of short stories from authors including Ambrose Bierce, Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Eudora Welty. More about Bierce below.

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara

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I came to The Killer Angels through Gettysburg, the 1993 film adaptation. As a kid I had a VHS copy of the movie, recorded off TNT, which I watched on a near endless loop, but when I finally read the novel I found the only thing superior to the film. Shaara's book is much like Foote's Shiloh in that it is the dramatic, beautifully written story of a single battle that, through its multiple points of view, offers a sweeping look at the whole war. But it differs from Shiloh in its scope thanks to the sheer scale of the battle, the largest ever fought in North America, and in the thoughtful, melancholy introspection of its major characters, especially James Longstreet, Lewis Armistead, and Joshua Chamberlain. One of the most popular Civil War novels ever published, justifiably so, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975.

Also recommended: Promise of Glory, by C.X. Moreau, covers the September 1862 Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) and owes a lot to The Killer Angels in terms of structure, focus, and tone. Promise of Glory doesn't reach the heights of Shaara's work, but it's a solid fictional recreation of another important moment of the war.

The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane

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Justly regarded as a classic, The Red Badge of Courage suffers somewhat from its near constant presence in high school reading lists. This is the story of Henry Fleming, a young Union army private, and his experiences during the (unnamed) Battle of Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863. While Crane was not a veteran of the war, he did his homework and crafted a short novel of unflinching psychological realism, capturing every vicissitude of dread, cowardice, and reckless courage over the day or so that Fleming wanders through the battlefield. While this novel clearly made later works of grim, realistic war fiction like The Naked and the Dead possible, Crane's story is apolitical, unembittered by ideology, and narrowly focused on one thing—courage—and what it means. Actual veterans praised Crane's work, and it's still worth reading a century on.

Also recommended: Ambrose Bierce, an older contemporary of Crane and a veteran of the war's western theatre, wrote a number of short stories based on his experiences. "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" is an early stream-of-consciousness story about a Confederate saboteur who is about to be hanged, and "Chickamauga" depicts the horrific aftermath of battle as seen by a child.

Traveller, by Richard Adams

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Probably the strangest book on this list, and one of the strangest I routinely recommend, Traveller is the story of Robert E. Lee—as told by his horse. Adams, who is most famous for his other animal epic, Watership Down, retells the course of the war through a goodhearted but ignorant animal witness. It sounds goofy, but the story works well because it brings a fresh sense of pathos to the war through a narrator who only half understands what is going on. In a half-comic, half-tragic irony, Traveller ends the war thinking his side has won, and the note of triumph he brings to his storytelling only deepens the reader's sense of loss. Surprisingly engaging, and even more surprisingly moving.

Also recommended: For another outside angle on a major Civil War figure, read A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, by Stephen Harrigan. This novel offers a portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a young, ambitious frontier lawyer and brims with colorful real life characters and incidents even if the narrator, a failed New England poet, is fictional. Though the story transpires decades before the war, this novel, like Traveller, is freighted with irony and sadness because of what we know is coming.  

Woe to Live On, by Daniel Woodrell

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Like Rifles for Watie, mentioned above, Woe to Live On tells a story from an out-of-the-way corner of the war, one where most of the usual narratives and assumptions about North and South don't apply. Set in Missouri, the novel follows Jake Roedel, son of a German immigrant, his best friend Jack Bull Chiles, their planter friend George, and George's slave Daniel as they fight with a group of Bushwhackers, Confederate guerrillas led by Col. William Quantrill, in the confused, morally grey irregular warfare of the back country. Rivalry with other fighters, the Lawrence Massacre of August 1863, liberation, friendship, love, death, and birth all play a part in this dramatic, surprisingly funny, and moving novel. Woe to Live On is also the basis of Ride With the Devil, a film adaptation directed by Ang Lee.

Also recommended: While taking place postbellum, True Grit, by the great Charles Portis, is deeply informed by the war. The narrator Mattie's father was a Confederate veteran, as is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, who refers to hanging Judge Parker as "an old carpetbagger," lost his eye while fighting with Quantrill in Missouri.

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

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A combination of Homer and Appalachian family lore, Cold Mountain tells the parallel stories of Inman, a Confederate soldier returning to his home in western North Carolina as a deserter in late 1864, and Ada, his beloved, who is working desperately to keep her farm afloat after the unexpected death of her minister father. Episodic in the manner of the Odyssey, with grotesque and monstrous dangers along the way, Cold Mountain is full of brilliantly realized characters and evokes both a real time and place—and their dangers—as well as the world of myth. It's a magnificent novel, full of longing, hope, melancholy, and meditation on danger and death, and deservedly won the National Book Award in 1997.

Also recommended: The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers, tells the story of the teenage wife of a Confederate officer who is recalled to his regiment the day after their wedding. Through letters, diary entries, and court records, a mystery involving adultery, slavery, hidden pregnancy, and murder uncoils across the decades following the war. I didn't quite buy the ending, but the novel is a powerfully evocative and brings postbellum piedmont South Carolina to life.

The Black Flower and The Judas Field, by Howard Bahr

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These are the books I've most recently discovered, and how I missed them until two years ago I don't know. The central event of each is the disastrous 1864 Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, a few hours of appalling waste that shape the rest the characters' lives. The Black Flower, Bahr's first novel, takes place over the day of the battle and follows Bushrod Carter, a teenage private, and Anna Hereford, a young woman staying with cousins at a house near the center of the battlefield. The Judas Field is the post-war story of Cass Wakefield, a middle-aged veteran, as he accompanies a dying friend on her quest to find the bodies of her brother and father. Both are powerful, beautifully written works that evoke the time and place well and bring home the war's horror, pain, and overwhelming loss—the war's fruits for most of the ordinary people who took part.

Also recommended: The Year of Jubilo, by Howard Bahr, the second book of this loose trilogy, centers on the return of Private Gawain Harper to Mississippi after the war. Harper hopes to marry his sweetheart, but her father will only consent if he helps kill the brutal leader of the local Home Guard. Another vivid evocation of early Reconstruction.

Griswoldville is in the final stages of proofing and will be available soon. I hope you'll read and enjoy it, and that you'll check out some of these other great books as well. Thanks for reading!

A good visit with The Front Porch Show

Last week I had the pleasure of joining Aaron, Tombstone, and Just Jeff for two segments of their Front Porch Show, the weekly podcast about everything. Click through to listen at their website, or one of the several podcasting services they air on including Spotify and iTunes, or see the embedded Stitcher link below. We talked about historical movies—what makes them good, what makes them bad—my books, and especially what the life and death of Cicero can teach us about virtue in politics today (with all due caution, of course). Had a great time. Thanks for having me on the show!

A good visit with Impolitic Podcast

Last week I was honored to be invited onto my old classmate Paul Matzko's Impolitic Podcast. Paul's show offers up "friendly arguments" between a libertarian (himself) and a socialist (his co-host, Sean). Paul asked me (a conservative) to substitute for Sean this week and we had a fun, freewheeling conversation about my books, historical fiction, World War II as "the Good War," Charles Portis, conspiracism, the Babylon Bee, and the soft censorship of the internet age. 

You can listen by subscribing to Impolitic on iTunes, clicking through to the Impolitic blog, or listening via Stitcher below. Enjoy, and thanks again, Paul!