Historian Geoffrey C. Ward has written a beautiful, sonorous cover article for this weekend’s New York Times Book Review on Drew Gilpin Faust’s somber new The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.
It’s a picture-perfect essay, but in fact readers of the Book Review aren’t necessarily satisfied with eloquence; we also wish to be broadened and enlightened by the articles we read here, and I strain to find the slightest note of urgency or surprise in Ward’s essay. Instead, it’s as proper and solemn as a placard in a battlefield museum, and the Faust book under review appears to be similarly a pure throwback to the comfort of popular history. Even with its emphasis on suffering (hardly an original take on Civil War history), does this book offer anything that you won’t find in a Ken Burns DVD boxed set? And does this article, as well-written as it is? Fire up the fife-and-drum soundtrack, because the accompanying Editor’s Note in today’s publication reveals that Geoffrey C. Ward was actually the primary writer for Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series. I don’t blame Ward for repeating himself with this essay, but I do blame the publication’s editors for considering Faust’s coffee table book fresh enough for the cover of a 2008 New York Times Book Review.
Maybe they should have given the cover to Ken Kalfus’s review of All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well, and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, a novel by Tod Wodicka that aims for a more original spin on historicism with its tale of “Burt, a medieval re-enactor whose fanatic refusal to live in the historical present has brought pain to the people around him”. This is no rave review (Kalfus calls the book “a Black Death of a chore to read”) but at least the book seems to put the human impulse to glorify history into some kind of ironic context. I have one complaint with Kalfus’s work: his summary of the plot suggests that Wodicka must have been inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which is also about a modern man (modern for Cervantes, anyway) who yearns to live in the age of chivalry. But Kalfus fails to address this obvious reference point, leaving the reader unsure whether it relates to the book or not.
Or maybe I would have given the cover to Michael Gorra’s satisfying review of Tahmina Anam’s A Golden Age, a novel that chronicles the difficult independence of East Pakistan and its rebirth as the nation of Bangladesh. Like Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, this is a novel of recent history based in the imagination and research of a young writer who did not live through that history, and like Adichie this author appears to have only partly succeeded in her difficult mission. Gorra scolds her harshly for making one “silly mistake” (some characters go to see the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor film Cleopatra in 1959), though he happily reveals that the book saves itself by the end. What I like about this book (and this review) is that it concerns a moment in world history that we don’t already know everything about. Civil War books make good Father’s Day gifts, which is why there are so many of them, but they are generally devoid of new information, whereas books like Anam’s A Golden Age might actually help some of us become more knowledgeable about the world we live in. That’s why I’m planning to read this book myself. As for Faust’s Civil War book, I’ll probably get it for Father’s Day.
Troy Patterson’s review of Adam Langer’s Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat is appealing enough, and Brian Morton’s review of Alfred Kazin: A Biography is passionate and effective (though I struggled through several confused paragraphs before figuring out that I wasn’t reading about a biography of Elia Kazan, which was entirely my own fault). Charles McGrath’s consideration of Ezra Pound: Poet by A. David Moody feels familiar (do we have to hear again about il miglior fabbro?) but has its moments. I enjoy watching William Vollmann’s new Riding Toward Everywhere get skillfully trashed by J. R. Moehringer for most of the right reasons.
Alan Light’s review of two rock-star memoirs, Slash by Slash and The Heroin Diaries by Nikki Sixx, is predictable and undistinguished (as was Light’s lightweight biography of the Beastie Boys). I do not agree with him that those of us who read rock biographies do so for the scenes of drugs and depravity; personally, I read them for insight into the creative process. As for these books themselves, they don’t seem likely to stack up next to our better rock star autobiographies (Poison Heart by Dee Dee Ramone, No Blacks No Irish No Dogs by Johnny Rotten, Chronicles by Bob Dylan). But if I don’t end up getting Drew Gilpin Faust’s Civil War book for Father’s Day, I wouldn’t be surprised if I get Slash instead. Actually I’d like that better.