April 1865

68DB0566-689B-492E-AAA9-4F55D7E19B50This is historical storytelling at its best. I learned more about the end of the Civil War than in all my previous reading, mostly because that always stopped with the surrender at Appomattox, which was only the beginning of the end. This book goes well beyond that, reminding us that there were still several Confederate armies in the field, and none of them were aware of what Robert E. Lee had done. The author’s descriptions of the fall of Richmond, Va. were, I thought, particularly poignant. Also included are mini-bio’s of the central figures of this national drama: Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Sherman, Davis and Booth. It is writing of the highest caliber and a pleasure to read. I’ll wager that even people who know little or nothing about the Civil War would enjoy it.

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Pegasus Descending

7D001F30-7661-4D7A-95B5-C12295547EE2Back when detective Dave Robicheaux was a drinking man, his friend was murdered in Miami by some bad dudes. Dave was a witness to the killing from a bar across the street, but he was too drunk to do anything about it. This ranks fairly low on the long list of things that haunt detective Dave, but haunt him it does.

Twenty years later Dave is sober and the bad guys responsible for the killing have moved their operations to southern Louisiana, right in Dave’s backyard. Though they get what’s coming to them in the end, their date with justice is not the over-riding focal point of this book. It’s a somewhat complicated tale of a young woman’s suicide and the murders of a derelict and a college frat boy. The events are inter-related and Dave is tasked with the job of figuring it all out. Which he does, because he’s Dave. Dave’s life-long pal Clete Purcel moves in and out of the narrative, causing Cletus-style mayhem wherever he goes, escaping with his life by the thinnest of hairs, thanks to who else but Dave.

Every James Lee Burke story must have a societal evil to attack, be it corporate indifference, systemic corruption, individual greed or, as in this case, entitled college boys. This go-round the author’s righteous anger is directed at fraternities, which he sees as cesspools of racist, homophobic misogynists who think the normal rules don’t apply to them because of their privileged place in white Southern society. Having been a member of a fraternity at a large southern university myself I feel I must take issue with Mr. Burke’s hypotheses because that was not my personal experience. But whatever. With every Robicheaux mystery you have to tune out the moral indignation and just go with the story, and this one is another enjoyable page turner. From Mr. Burke I have learned to expect nothing less.

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Team Of Rivals

5D6B1411-317A-4EFE-AA47-366B66409AB0I bought a hardcover copy of this book for $2 at the library bookstore thinking there was about a 10% chance I would read it and a far less chance that I would like it. I have seen the movie Lincoln and knew it was based on the book, and though it was enjoyable to watch Daniel Day Lewis bring Lincoln to life and win an Academy Award for his performance it seemed to me the movie, taken as a whole, was somewhat dull. So I was expecting a book of 750 pages about Lincoln and his cabinet would be the same, but probably magnified. I’m happy to say I was wrong.

Up until this point my Civil War reading has concentrated on the military campaigns and the men who fought them. This book spends very little time in that arena. The Vicksburg siege, for example, is dealt with in a single paragraph. The book is the story of the challenges Lincoln faced in managing the egos of the brilliant men he chose for his cabinet, most of whom were opposed to his election in 1860, but all of whom, with one exception, came to respect and admire him over the course of his first term. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln is just short of saintly as she describes him. He is brilliant, wise, thoughtful, humble, gentle, shrewd, weary and patient with almost everyone except his generals, who, until the arrival of U.S. Grant, cost him many nights sleep with their reluctance to fight. When dealing with the conflicting viewpoints of emotional people, an almost daily occurrence, he comes off as nothing short of masterful. Abraham Lincoln’s presidency had to be the most difficult in U.S. history; FDR’s being the one possible exception.

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The Stranger

6D98BC29-3457-40FA-972D-E5D483E65810The Stranger is one of those books where after I finish it I have to read about it to better understand what it was I just read. It’s the story of a young man named Meursault who lives in French Algiers and seems to care about nothing or no one. He is emotionally vacant, callous, indifferent and easily bored. His own mother’s death fails to move him. But surprisingly he has a girlfriend who wants to marry him and he holds a steady job. He commits a murder for no apparent reason other than he may have been drunk on wine and it was hot and the sun was dazzlingly bright at the beach on that particular day. He feels no remorse or guilt and the motive for the crime is never explained. The rest of the book concerns his trial, where his shortcomings as a human being before and after the crime are as much a charge against him as the murder itself. The jury finds him revolting and condemns him to death.

The Stranger is a short novel at 122 pages and the writing is sparse but very readable. It one of those stories that stays in your head after you finish it. It does in mine at any rate. This is the second time I have read The Stranger. It’s not out of the question I could someday go for the hat trick.

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Invisible Monsters Remix

imageInvisible Monsters is the first book by Chuck Palahniuk (pronounced Paula-nick. You’re welcome) I have read. It’s the story of a fashion model who is horribly disfigured when she is shot in the face. After she’s released from the hospital she hooks up with a man and a woman and they travel around posing as high-end real estate prospects so they can steal drugs from the bathrooms of wealthy people. As the story goes along we find out that the woman is really the model’s brother she thought was dead, and the man is the model’s former boyfriend to whom the two women feed female hormones without his knowledge. Oh, and if that’s not enough, it turns out the model shot herself in the face, on purpose. I understand Mr. Palahniuk is known for his bizarre stories and I gather he has something like a cult following. Unfortunately he is just too weird for my taste and I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of his work. It’s a shame too because he’s a very good writer. I require characters I can like or at least care about a little bit. The three misfits in this story have no redeeming qualities whatsoever that I could see.

Then there is that annoying thing with the chapter placement, where he jumps you from Chapter 1 to Chapter 39 then back to Chapter 2 then to Chapter 42 and so on. I couldn’t figure out the point of it. Maybe Mr. Palahniuk just likes to fuck with his readers.

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Natchez Burning

imageGreg Iles is a wordy fellow. His book Natchez Burning is 788 pages long. That’s a lot. And it’s the first book in a trilogy, which is a daunting proposition. I enjoyed Natchez Burning well enough, but like all the other Iles books I’ve read, it left me with the nagging feeling that I could have been doing something better with my time. My father used to equate reading fiction with watching TV. He considered both a waste of time, though in his later years when he had a lot of time on his hands his prejudice against television did wane somewhat. I think about that whenever I read a Greg Iles book, as I also do with Stephen King and, to a lesser extent, James Lee Burke. I haven’t decided yet if I’m in for the long haul with two more volumes of similar length. It’s a major commitment, and this is not Lord of the Rings caliber writing we’re talking about here. On the other hand, it is pretty good writing, and the man tells a story that keeps the pages turning.

The issue central to this book is a series of unsolved murders of black men in the late 1960’s. This is the Deep South, so naturally the KKK plays a major role, as does a particularly violent splinter group called the Double Eagles. Our hero, the mayor of Natchez and former novelist Penn Cage finds himself waist deep in the investigation of these crimes, which did not get the attention they deserved 50 years ago because of complicity by the men in authority at the time. Natchez Burning peels back a few layers of this onion, but it leaves many loose ends, as you would expect. If it didn’t, the 1600 pages of the next two books would be awfully dull.



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Deranged Man Yells At Clouds

For months now Sean Hannity has been heaping praise on his idol and BFF President Trump, giving him all the credit for the meteoric rise of the stock market. But somehow the correction that’s occurring this week, the one that everyone knew was coming, is Barack Obama’s fault. Mr. Hannity explained how the market slide is due to artificially cheap money, which we have “because the Obama economy was so weak all of these years.” Thank you, Adam Smith.

My wife has watched Hannity’s show almost every night since she drank the Fox News Kool-Aid sometime in 2016. She watches him on an iPad with headphones since I refuse to abdicate our TV to this kook. (I mean Hannity, not my wife.) Every now and then she’ll mutter “wow” in response to the latest hysterical news about THE MEMO or the sinister workings of the Deep State. It angers me that she believes everything this huckster says, unconcerned with how he bends the truth and invents facts to support his wacky theories. And I take no comfort in knowing that shes’s not the only one.

In the forty-five years since I started paying attention there have only been a few times when it felt like national politics had a direct impact on me. The era of the Vietnam War draft was a nervous time. When Dick Nixon fought like a cornered wolverine during the Watergate scandal it felt like the country was being ripped apart. To me it feels much the same today. This man we elected president has divided us like no politician I have ever seen, and he seems to revel in it. The people who support him lap it up, and Hannity wields the biggest megaphone of all of Trump’s disingenuous cheerleaders.

Sometimes I catch my wife glaring at me with her headphones on and her iPad on her lap, and when I see that look I know Hannity has scored yet another scoop that somehow eluded every other news organization in the world and and he’s practically shouting the sordid details directly into her susceptible brain. My refusal to watch this nightly farce only reinforces her opinion I have become the worst thing a person can be these days – a goddamn leftist. Never mind that it’s not true. Without even trying I have somehow become the enemy, and it’s Sean Hannity’s fault. Ted Koppel famously told Hannity he thought he was bad for America. Five nights a week I witness the proof of it, right in my own living room.

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