Storybook war


On this day in 1863, elements of Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and elements of the Union Army of the Potomac, under the still new command of George Meade, clashed on the hills north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This meeting engagement would concentrate both armies into the hills and farmland around the town and, by its end on July 3, become the biggest, bloodiest battle fought in North America.

To commemorate the battle I’ve been reading Cain at Gettysburg, a 2012 novel by Ralph Peters and the first in a five-book series concluding with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Peters tells the story from multiple points of view on both sides, from Lee and Meade and their subordinates to the sergeants and privates doing the fighting, and is particularly good at evoking the mixed emotions—the sudden and jarring confluences of excitement and horror, irritation and affection, exhilaration and pathos—that characterize battle. It’s excellent so far.

I wanted to point out this passage that I read last night. It’s narrated from the point of view of a German immigrant private, a utopian socialist and idealist who fled Europe for the United States after military defeat in the revolutions of 1848. Now serving in the 26th Wisconsin, as his regiment passes through Gettysburg on the way to the line on the first day of battle he sees a collection of Confederate prisoners. Peters writes:

For all his professed hatred of those who had forced war upon the country, Schwertlein empathized with the captive soldiers. He had never been a prisoner, but he knew only too well how men felt when they gave all they had, yet were condemned to failure. War was a sorrier business than storybooks told.
— Ralph Peters, Cain at Gettysburg

That last line is the stinger in the passage.

It also neatly expresses a large part of the trajectory of my own interests, studies, and writing. Like a lot of young boys, I became interested in military history through stories of heroes—brave men worth emulating. I still believe in those, and believe wholeheartedly in emulating the great departed (as I’ve written before, Lee is one of mine), but my studies have sobered me on war proper. I’ve learned that the glory of war is like the light of the moon—a reflection of something else, in this case the reflected glory of the handful of men who accomplish great things in those awful circumstances. Our admiration is itself a giveaway. Why else would heroism stand out if it weren’t against the odds and in spite of every conceivable misery—and the scads more modern man has spent all his energies creating?

I mention this because over the course of the holiday week we’ll get plenty of rah-rah, support-the-troops sentimentality without a lot of consideration of what it is we’re supporting or why they need support. (Or, if you really want to play with fire, whether we should.) The flagwaving, fireworks, Lee Greenwood, and beer commercials are fine, but absent a sense of the misery and tragedy of war—its barely fathomable sorriness—such commemoration will only give us storybook images. And, what is more, we won’t understand any side, even our own.

For my part, I’ve tried to convey a little of all this in my own Civil War novel, Griswoldville: what the war was like, how it wore men out and used them up, destroyed them body and soul, and just what it’s like to lose—something our success-obsessed culture can hardly conceive of, much less understand.

Cain at Gettysburg does it exceptionally well. Check it out.

Spring reading 2019


Although my spring semester was incredibly busy and stressful, I still made time to read. So while this blog was only updated intermittently while I worked on bigger projects, my reading never abated.

Here’s my spring reading list—“spring” here meaning something roughly analogous to my spring semester, from New Year’s to last weekend, May 11, just before our summer session began. The only organizing principle is that the books on this list are presented in the order I finished reading them.

Finally, anything I’ve reviewed, whether briefly on Goodreads or in more detail on my blog here, I’ve hyperlinked. Enjoy!

Spring Reading, January-May 2019

A few superlatives, just because

Best reread: It’d ordinarily be a very close race between Inferno, the first third of my favorite book, and All Quiet on the Western Front, which was for many, many years my favorite novel. Acknowledging the greatness of those two, though, I have to give this to A Study in Scarlet, which I read for the first time since 9th grade and enjoyed just as much. A small masterpiece of misdirection, tension, and suspense.

Biggest surprise: Tom Holland’s slender little volume for the new Ladybird Expert series, Æthelflæd: England’s Forgotten Founder. I was passingly familiar with Æthelflæd as Alfred the Great’s daughter, who married into the Mercian royal family and eventually ran the place, but had no idea what a fascinating and varied career she had as “the Lady of the Mercians.” Pick this up for a short, beautifully illustrated window into an important side-story of Anglo-Saxon England.

Biggest letdown: Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House. Some genuinely great moments of suspense and supernatural dread did not make up for the meandering plot and, especially, the tedious characters.

Best western: True Grit, which could also vie for best reread. But is it even fair to pit anything else against True Grit?

Best general non-fiction: I’m going to declare a tie between Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism and Peter Kreeft’s Symbol or Substance? I posted a full review of Kirk’s book yesterday but I’m still mulling Kreeft’s book, which is, like most of his work, brilliant and deeply challenging. Coming in at a close second to these two is Roger Scruton’s How to Be a Conservative, which is an excellent recent meditation on the subject.

Favorite classic: Again, I could give the nod to Inferno here, but this time around I’ll give it to How to Keep Your Cool, a new translation of the Roman stoic Seneca’s treatise De Ira (On Anger). A must read for anyone who appreciates Stoic philosophy, struggles with their temper, or both—like me.

Best Elmore Leonard: I’ve been on an Elmore Leonard kick since reading this piece from University Bookman last summer, and it’s been great. While I’ve decided I much prefer his westerns to his later crime novels—with a few exceptions—my favorite Leonard read this spring was an outlier even by that standard: The Moonshine War. A brisk, suspenseful story set in rural Kentucky during Prohibition, The Moonshine War is fun, has rousing action and interesting characters, and—almost as a bonus—presents these Appalachian archetypes without a lot of crass hillbilly stereotyping. It’s a blast. Check it out.

I read the whole thing: Ages ago, I used to give myself the I Read the Whole Thing Award for massive books I’d finished. Atlas Shrugged, City of God, War and Peace—I’ve read every word. This spring that book was Andersonville, Mackinlay Kantor’s monumental Civil War novel. I reviewed it at some length here.

Currently reading

A few books I'm currently reading as we head into the summer:

  • Normandy ‘44: D-Day and the Battle for France, by James Holland—A new history of Operation Overlord and the Normandy campaign, which lasted for almost two and a half months following the initial invasion. I received an uncorrected proof as part of a Goodreads giveaway; the book comes out in its final version next month.

  • The Holy Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction, by Joachim Whaley—So far, another good volume from Oxford’s VSI series. This one is jam-packed with information, covering as it does over a thousand years of central European history.

  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer—I’m not much for novels written about classic characters by later fans, but this one, in which Sherlock Holmes beats his cocaine addiction with the assistance of Sigmund Freud, looked intriguing. It’s decent so far, but—barring some kind of monument plot development in the final third—good, not great.

Stuff I'm fixing to begin reading:

  • Lee, by Douglas Southall Freeman

  • The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols

  • The Vanishing American Adult, by Ben Sasse

  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (third or fourth attempt, as this is one of those books I’ve never been able to get into)

I also intend to crack open another volume in my project to read some massive books this year, both fiction and non-fiction. I’ve tackled Andersonville; I’m considering Lonesome Dove, Gone with the Wind, and Kristin Lavransdatter for the next read. We’ll see.

In the meantime, thanks for reading! And as always, if you’re looking for something good to read yourself, please check out one of my novels. You can find out about them right here.

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!

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.

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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.

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

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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!

The penalty for ignoring two thousand years

The penalty for ignoring two thousand years is that you get stuck in the last hundred.

The Paris Review has shared an interesting piece from their archives, an undated letter between Donald Hall, their first poetry editor, and founding editor George Plimpton. The subject is poetry, and while the discussion suggests the mid- to late-1950s very specifically, Hall makes points about art, sincerity, and fakery that are still timely. Most striking is his assertion that you can't produce good art without attending to the tradition you find yourself in. From near the end of the letter:

You must understand that art is nothing to these men, nor history. The penalty for ignoring two thousand years is that you get stuck in the last hundred. They have the specious present of the barbarian. Art in this century demands a sense of the tragic dignity of history. These poor bastards are stuck in the last third of the 19th century and I swear they don’t know that anything happened before that. 

Belong to a tradition. Embrace it. You'll produce better art and not "get stuck in the last hundred years," an eternal provincialism that will render you irrelevant faster than any particular subject matter could.

That line on "the penalty for ignoring two thousand years" is wonderful. But as far as penalties go, even being stuck in the last hundred years is probably optimistic now. Even my sincerest, hardest working students, who come to me so profoundly ignorant of the past, are often stuck in the last five. 

Naturally, C.S. Lewis's introduction to St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation came to mind, as it so often does when I try to encourage people to read the old stuff. Making a point broadly similar to Hall's, Lewis writes that

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

See also my thoughts from a few weeks ago on the value of studying the past, complete with two thousand year-old references to Polybius and Cicero.

Hall died last week aged 89. 

Uproot evil in the fields you know

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Alan Jacobs, a scholar and writer I particularly admire, has an interesting post on Tolkien and the possibility—nay, inevitability—of healing in his works. In discussing the way that "all victories over evil are contingent and limited and temporary . . . and the forgetfulness of all the races of Middle Earth tends to reinforce those limits," Jacobs quotes Gandalf from near the end of The Lord of the Rings

Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
— Gandalf in The Return of the King

This is a frank, humble assessment of what people can do about evil. This has been on my mind a lot recently, both for longstanding reasons of my own and as I've been working over a post on the resilience of Marxism as an ideology despite its body count. Even beyond Marxism or leftism generally, people of all political persuasions tend to take concrete political or legal problems and abstract and universalize them immediately—as step one of the debate. All problems therefore become existential problems. All mistakes or disagreements become signs of fatal bad faith. All problems become problems that threaten the very fabric of the universe. You don't have to look far to find examples.

Gandalf's words here also happen to harmonize with a theme I've been mulling over for a work-in-progress: a novel about guilt and original sin, "a story with no good guy" as I've described it to a friend. What do to about evil—not just "systemic" evil, the activist concern du jour, or evil as it exists in the whole world, but evil in my own life? That's uncomfortably close. But a humble recognition that we can't solve all problems is the first step to solving some of them. Rather than aiming high, at unachievable universalist goals, find an evil in your neighborhood, something you can actually do something about, and face it. Or, as Admiral McRaven and Jordan Peterson have put it recently, "Make your bed" and "Clean your room."

Finally, also harmonizing with Gandalf, is this challenge from St. Paul that has goaded and bothered me since I rediscovered it last fall:

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
— I Thessalonians 4:11-12

Jacobs concludes his post by reflecting on how "tricky" Gandalf's vision is: "neither . . . succumb to despair (like Denethor) nor indulge the presumptuous delusion that one’s victories can be everlasting, but rather . . . live, simply, in hope." If there's a more necessary countercultural message today than "lead a quiet life," "mind your own business," "uproot evil in the fields you know," and "live in hope," I don't know what it is.

Unknown Soldiers

Last week I reviewed the Finnish film Talvisota (The Winter War) for Historical Movie Monday. At the time I had just started reading a novel taking place a year and a half after those events: Väinö Linna's Tuntematon sotilas, or Unknown Soldiers in its most recent English translation. I finished it earlier this week. It's one of the best war novels I've ever read.


Unknown Soldiers follows a company of Finnish machine gunners through the Continuation War, from the beginning in the summer of 1941 to ceasefire in September 1944. The Finns coordinated their invasion of Soviet Russia with the German invasion, Operation Barbarossa, making the Finns ostensible German allies though they were never fully incorporated into the Axis. The goal was to recapture land taken from Finland by the Russians during the Winter War and occupy other territory to be used for postwar bargaining following German victory. 

None of this matters to the characters in Linna's novel. Not really. They know about most of this political background and occasionally discuss it, but their war is earthy, small-scale, and intensely personal. They are less concerned with Hitler's eventual success against Stalin than with how to handle the weight of a machine gun while marching, how to get enough to eat, how to make some extra cash while the war keeps them from home, how to keep out of the way of officers, and how to stay alive.

The novel begins and ends with the war. After a brief introduction to most of the major characters—there is no single "main" character—the machine gun company assembles and boards trucks for the front. They don't know where they're going or why at first, and a brief passage on God's destruction of a patch of forest through a wildfire is the last bit of omniscience we'll get until the very end. We experience the fog of war with the characters, seldom knowing any more than they do and taken by surprise just as often as they are. 

The characters are wonderfully drawn, and have apparently become bywords for particular kinds of people in Finland. Linna ranges up and down the chain of command, giving us moments with everyone from the company commander to new privates who arrive at the front a few years in. Lieutenant Lammio, a potential martinet but otherwise harmless, becomes company commander after the respected previous commander is killed just a few days into the war; in his new position, his negative traits come to the fore. Ensign Kariluoto, another officer, is naive and detached and has the novel's only real love story, budding from his infatuation with Sirkka, a hometown girl. There's Hietanen, a bluff, good-humored jokester who is nevertheless painfully shy around women, and Vanhala, a giggler, both of whom sober up over the next three years, especially as they rise to positions of leadership and find themselves tested. Lehto is aloof, a gruff, tough fighter, and Määtä, a short, quiet man, never shirks from hauling his squad's machine gun, quietly earning the respect of every man in the company. Lahtinen is a communist sympathizer who, like most Marxists, annoys his friends by interjecting mindless revolutionary formulae into ordinary smalltalk. Honkajoki is an eccentric trying to build a perpetual motion machine and who carries a bow and arrows. Mäkilä, the company quartermaster, is obsessively stingy with the men's gear: "He kept the shelves in impeccable order," Linna tells us, "stocked with all the finest equipment, unmarred by any worn-out items—which he distributed to the company." 

The novel is also, I should point out, wryly funny.

My two favorite characters were Rokka and Koskela. Antero "Antti" Rokka is an older man—in his early- to mid-thirties—a husband and father, a veteran of the Winter War, and a refugee from Kannas, part of the Finnish territory taken by the Russians. He has the most personal stake in the success of the invasion, and only when it becomes clear, in the last quarter of the book, that he'll never see his old farm again is his chipper, folksy demeanor shaken. He has no time for formalities and routinely offends superiors with a knowing "Lissen here." He is also the best soldier in the company, never shrinking from combat, and, in one famous episode, ambushing and wiping out a platoon of more than fifty Russian soldiers with just his submachine gun. (This incident, far from being a proto-Rambo bit of action, is based on an actual incident in which a soldier named Viljam Pylkäs gunned down over eighty Russians.) By the end of the novel, when he's one of the only major characters left, I really dreaded for his safety.

Koskela, on the other hand, is an officer who achieved his rank through merit, during the Winter War. He's strong, silent ("quiet Koski" is a nickname used a few times throughout), courageous, leads by example, loved by his men—all the qualities of a Greek hero without the arrogance or ostentation. As a leader, he also sets himself apart through the crucial ability to know what matters and what doesn't, an ability Lammio, who tries to court martial Rokka at one point, lacks. When leadership of the company finally devolves onto Koskela at the end of the book, as the Finns retreat from Russia and face encirclement, Koskela acts quickly and decisively and his men follow. It's a really stirring portrait of manhood and leadership.

Linna also has a lot to say about courage, but shows what courage really means in modern war. For every death-defying one-man charge on an enemy bunker by Koskela there are two or three small moments borne of split-second decisions by men forced into a corner: Lahtinen staying behind with a machine gun while his buddies evacuate wounded men, or Hietanen finding almost accidental courage in the face of a Russian tank attack: 

It was as if his entire consciousness had been frozen. It refused to consider the significance of these angry blasts, as if shielding itself from the terror such considerations would induce. Hietanen darted quickly behind the upturned roots.
Just then he heard Rokka's voice yelling, "Now shoot like hell!"
Hietanen was panicked and trembling with anxiety. The urgency ringing in Rokka's cry struck his over-excited consciousness as a warning of some new, unknown danger. Then he realized that the call was intended for the others.
It occurred to him he did not know if the mine was functional or not. He didn't know anything about it except that it was supposed to explode under pressure. It was a little late for sapper training, however. The time was now or never.
A vision of the tank tracks rolling beneath their fenders flashed through his mind. Right there ... right there ... And then he threw. The weight of the mine made aiming next to impossible, and a kind of prayer-like wish flickered through Hietanen's consciousness as he hurled it. . . . Only then did the precariousness of his own position suddenly dawn on him. Would the tree base be enough to protect him from the force of the blast? He sank down behind it, opened his mouth and pressed his hands against his ears.
Two seconds later, it was as if the pressure of the whole world suddenly descended upon him. He didn't experience the explosion as a sound, but rather as a numbing, thudding blast
and then his consciousness went dim.
When it returned, he saw that the vehicle was still, titled slightly to one side. . . . He just lay there, looking back and forth at the tank, then at the men, who were yelling at him, "Yes, Hietanen! Woo-hoo! Bravo, Hietanen!" The praise was all wasted, however; Hietanen couldn't hear a thing.

All the danger, brutality, humor, courage, excitement, dread, horror, irony, and businesslike slogging mirror the war and Finland's role in it. It's excellent.

A Finnish machine gun position overlooking no-man's-land, February 1944. Source:  SA-kuva , the Finnish Defense Forces Wartime Photograph Archive.

A Finnish machine gun position overlooking no-man's-land, February 1944. Source: SA-kuva, the Finnish Defense Forces Wartime Photograph Archive.

I could say more about the plot, but the plot doesn't really matter. The war is, for the characters, a string of violent incidents that gradually winnows and thins the ranks, and that's what Linna, who lived through the Continuation War himself, shows us. He presents military life and war unromantically, as ceaselessly hard work with limited resources, work that can turn deadly with no warning. By the end of the war, even evacuation by ambulance isn't safe. The much-ballyhooed "random" deaths of George R.R. Martin's characters have nothing on Unknown Soldiers, and these soldiers' deaths are the more pitiful when they come because we care so much about them.

Unknown Soldiers has a well-deserved place in the pantheon of great war literature. It has the grim, clear-eyed detail of All Quiet on the Western Front and the sense of sheer, exhausting labor of The Naked and the Dead. But the novel Unknown Soldiers reminded me of most was Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn. Like Linna, Marlantes was a veteran of the war he wrote about and based his novel on his own experiences. Like Unknown Soldiers, Matterhorn takes a worm's-eye view of the conflict, bringing the reader into close quarters with a large cast of characters for hundreds of pages. And it's worth the trip.

Closing notes

Linna published his novel in 1954. It was first translated into English as The Unknown Soldier in 1957, and again in 2015 by Liesl Yamaguchi, which is the version I read. I neither speak nor read Finnish, but I understand this new translation is more faithful to the original than the first English version. Yamaguchi undertakes the thankless task of communicating the many local dialects and accents of Finnish, and mostly succeeds; Rokka's woodsy twang, to give one example, is instantly recognizable, though some of the others' slangy talk is distracting.

There have been three film adaptations: in 1955, a Finnish classic that airs every December on Finnish Independence Day; in 1985; and again in 2017, a version shot using natural light that looks strikingly beautiful. The 1955 original is available in its entirety on YouTube. The newest version is not apparently available on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere yet, but here's the trailer and a clip of Rokka's one-man massacre of that Russian platoon.

Tom Wolfe, RIP

Tom Wolfe, journalist, novelist, and gadfly of both professions, died yesterday at the age of 88.

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I first discovered Wolfe through his fiction. I have no idea where I heard about it or why I started it, but I read The Bonfire of the Vanities as a freshman or sophomore in college. It was a massive novel in tiny print—even tinier in the mass market paperback I had—that I plowed through an hour or two at a time in the university snack shop. As soon as I was finished, I picked up A Man in Full. I read these just in time for I Am Charlotte Simmons to come out, which was one of the first novels I ever bought in hardback.

But this latter I gave up on about halfway through. I could take Wolfe's minute inspection and heightened dramatization of big city, upper class hypocrisy, manipulative identity politics, art world fraud, and even stud farming, but the underbelly of college education hit too close to home. It depressed me. Some of his essays, especially "Hooking Up," a prophetic look at the emerging sexual ethics of 21st century America, depressed me too. Later, as I finished grad school, I returned to Wolfe and read The Right Stuff, which is still one of my favorite books. But, I'm sorry to say, my foray into Charlotte Simmons in the fall of 2004 is the last of Wolfe's fiction that I read.

I wasn't the only one to be put off by Wolfe's work. I chose the word gadfly above for a reason. Wolfe had the ability to make people uncomfortable, an ability by turns enviable, by turns dubious but, I think, necessary. Each of his books provoked outrage from some quarter, whether the precious heights of the modern art world or apologists for latter day university debauchery. I hesitate to call him a journalistic Socrates—it's the kind of comparison I'm sure he could turn on me and make me sound ridiculous—but there was something of Socrates in his way of life: the suit, the ties and pocket squares, a strange man on a laser-guided search for unquestioned assumptions and hidden foolishness. And, of course, Socrates provoked outrage, too.

Controversy aside, Wolfe was unmatched as a writer. Since discovering Bonfire in college, I've revered him. The tone and sheer volume of his prose mesmerized me, brought me into a dreamlike state in which he seemed to telegraph his story directly into my brain, without intervening paper and ink. There was probably a word per page of that book that I had never seen before, but which I understood intuitively from the way he used it. Any writer who wants to see, know, and understand the power of the precisely chosen word would do well to pick up some Wolfe and read. His style, vocabulary, and command of the language were unmatched and will probably remain so for a very, very long time.


Spring reading 2018


Ages ago, when the world and the internet were young, I kept track of my reading by blogging seasonal lists. This post is the first in a revival of that tradition. 

A couple of notes: I've hyperlinked any title that I've blogged about previously. You can see my Goodreads annual reading challenge here, where you can click on any book from this list and, more likely than not, see a sentence or two that I've written about it by way of review.

My winter and spring reading, in order by completion, from January 1 to May 11, 2018:

  • Helena, by Evelyn Waugh
  • The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh
  • John Ronald's Dragons, by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
  • The Aeneid, by Virgil, translated by David Ferry
  • The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes, by Carolyne Larrington
  • Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh
  • Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen
  • Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  • No Man's Land, by Simon Tolkien
  • A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh
  • Heroides, by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell
  • Wars of the Roses: Stormbird, by Conn Iggulden
  • Utopia, by St. Thomas More, translated by Paul Turner
  • Fools and Mortals, by Bernard Cornwell
  • Cnut: The North Sea King, by Ryan Lavelle
  • Shakespeare's Spy, by Gary Blackwood
  • Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, by Prue Shaw
  • Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh
  • Striding Folly, by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Nobody Comes Back, by Donn Pearce
  • How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life, by Seneca, selected and translated by James Romm
  • The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, by Evelyn Waugh
  • Fallen Land, by Taylor Brown
  • Munich, by Robert Harris
  • Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford
  • Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen
  • The Earliest English Poems, edited and translated by Michael Alexander
  • A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  • Black Mischief, by Evelyn Waugh
  • Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien
  • The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, performed by Joss Ackland
  • The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty
  • The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis, performed by the author (original radio version)
  • Richard I: The Crusader King, by Thomas Asbridge
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, performed by Barrett Whitener
  • Finnish Soldier versus Soviet Soldier: Winter War 1939-40, by David Campbell

A few superlatives, in brief:

Funniest: Three-way tie between The Loved One and Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh, and A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole.
Best surprise: The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. Surprising in that it was both scary and profoundly moving, even uplifting.
Worst all-around: Ready Player One, by far. A lazy, narcissistic, masturbatory vomit of pop-culture garbage. It kept me turning pages but I was annoyed all the way through.
Favorite kid's book: John Ronald's Dragons, a delightful, beautifully illustrated picturebook biography of JRR Tolkien.
Scariest: Lord of the Flies barely edges out The Exorcist, because while demonic possession is terrifying, a demon-possessed person doesn't feel as righteous as an anonymous member of the mob does as it metes out violence.
Favorite classic: The Aeneid, with the Seneca anthology How to Die a close second.
Favorite non-fiction: Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. A masterful, well-written introduction to the Commedia.

Stuff I'm currently reading as we head into the summer:

  • The Art of Living, by Dietrich von Hildebrand with Alice von Hildebrand
  • The Cold War: A World History, by Odd Arne Westad
  • The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli
  • Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, by Etienne Gilson

Stuff I'm fixing to begin reading:

  • Unknown Soldiers, by Vaino Linna
  • A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, by William R. Trotter
  • The Terminal List, by Jack Carr

And, of course, I'm working on Griswoldville and have some reading to do for a couple of history- and education-related projects I'm pretty excited about. More on all that later. In the meantime, I hope you've had a great spring and have a fun and literary summer!