Monthly Archives: October 2013

“The Men Who United the States” by Simon Winchester

One Christmas, my uncle gave me what he referred to as “the ABCs of science fiction: Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke”, along with a long-term loan of the entire Foundation Trilogy.   I’m not here to review Asimov’s work or bore you with my love of classic sci-fi.  However, the Foundation Series fascinated me, even at a young age, mostly because of the fictional field of psychohistory: a combination of mathematics, sociology and statistics that could predict the future, at least in sufficiently large groups of people.  The momentum of history, as described by Asimov, is vast, impersonal and nearly impossible to change without immense effort by millions.  Yet in extraordinary cases, it is possible for the course of history to be altered by an individual, one who could not be predicted  – although in Asimov’s case, doing so required a mutant with psychic powers.

On a smaller (and less fantastic) scale, Simon Winchester’s The Men Who United the States is the account of many such individuals, who by their collective actions altered the course and development of this country – some well-known, some mostly forgotten.  Part history, part memoir, part love letter to America, it’s the story of the people who made this country what it is through their accomplishments. Winchester paints a portrait of an America dependent on the actions of hundreds (if not thousands) of motivated individuals – the absence of any one of whom would have sent the country along an entirely different path.  He also gives credit to the visionaries and dreamers, those who first proposed the innovations and explorations, not just those who brought said visions and dreams to fruition.

The narrative is organized around the five classical Chinese elements: wood, earth, water, fire and metal, each element the focus of a particular phase in America’s exploration, development and exploitation.  There’s a lot of temporal overlap and fuzzy boundaries between the sections, being thematic rather than sequential, and yet it’s really a brilliant way to chart the nation’s progress, preventing information overload and offering new insights into a familiar tale.  Interwoven with the historical aspects are more personal ones, anecdotes from Winchester’s own decades of exploring the country and his perspectives on the people and places he describes, bringing all the mystery and wonder to life.  At times, this delightfully roundabout narrative can be deceptive – many interludes appear to be completely off-topic at first glance, and yet there is always a larger point to be made as Winchester meanders through both time and space.  In the process, he poses some very difficult questions that strike at the very heart of the American identity, about both our origins as a nation and our movement forward.

As I’m sure regular readers of this blog have noticed, I’m a sucker for books that tell me new and interesting stuff about the things we take for granted – for further proof of this, look at my post from September 18th.  The general trajectory of this book in particular isn’t necessarily new, nor is some of the information offered – but the insights presented are, with many unfamiliar stories to go with familiar faces in a fascinating juxtaposition of the well-known and the obscure (whether deserved or not).  It’s certainly not the history you learn in school – I doubt any of my elementary teachers would have included the bits about syphilis.  In addition to being fascinating and informative, Winchester’s prose is also sharp, dry, evocative and funny – among many examples, he defines boustrophedon in the context of the serving patterns of flight attendants.

As a country, America is unique, in that most of the ties that bind us together as a nation had to be artificially created.  Winchester looks behind the scenes of US expansion and development to the individuals who made such things possible.  The narrative is both personal and national, all at the same time, bringing important figures to life and contextualizing them within the greater scope of history.  Granted, a lot of the innovations and discoveries he describes would probably have been made at some point, by someone, but in no way does that diminish the achievements of those who were first.

Among this paean to American unity, Winchester never ignores the downsides of progress, the divisive nature of some of these inventions, or the uglier sides of history.  From Asian carp as an invading species, infesting the Great Lakes via man-made canals to the rape of our natural resources to technology that divides more than it unites (looking at you, Internet!), he presents an even look at how far we have come and where we are going, both positive and negative.

This book is philosophy as much as it is history, giving an insightful new slant on the defining characteristics of America, something I would certainly be hard-pressed to do.  But then again, to steal from Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the reason I can’t see it “is the same reason people in Trafalgar Square can’t see England”.  Winchester became a naturalized citizen in 2011, in a ceremony aboard the USS Constitution, thus bringing an outsider’s insight, perspective and appreciation of the nation to the table, alongside a very real love for and pride in his adopted country.  It’s a hymn to E pluribus unum, a celebration of all the good in American history, while in no way ignoring the bad.



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Sorry, everyone – no review this week!

My profoundest apologies, everyone – even though we only have one event this week (due to start right about … now), we’ve been insanely busy here at the Booksmith, between past events and upcoming ones, and just selling wonderful books.  Unfortunately, this has seriously cut into my reading and reviewing time – there’s just not enough time in the day, sometimes, especially with all the amazing titles we have to choose from.

Last Wednesday, we had Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly here to sign their incredible novel, The Tilted World, and on Friday, Academy Award Winner Octavia Smith was here to sign her new mystery, Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit (pictures here:  Next week, former Chancellor of the University of Mississippi will speak at the SEC Headquarters downtown and sign copies of his memoir, The Education of a Lifetime.

Today, master storyteller Dolores Hydock and musical wizard Bobby Horton are here to sign and perform an excerpt from their incredible new collaboration, A Sweet Strangeness Thrills My Heart: The Journals of Sallie Independence Foster, 1861-1887.  Just twelve years old when the Civil War broke out, Sallie Foster comes to life through the work of these two amazing artists, the words of a young girl living through turbulent times set to period music, camp songs and original tunes.  I’m extremely excited about it this, but then again, my parents raised me on Three On A String.

And don’t even get me started on November!  We’re booked solid for practically the entire month, with Lee Smith, Daniel Alarcón, Margaret Wrinkle, Fannie Flagg, Joshilyn Jackson, Jonathan Miles, John Besh and more!

So, this week is a break to catch my breath and catch up, but I promise that I’ll have a review next Wednesday.  Until then, happy reading!


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Lee Smith – “Guests on Earth”

I’ve always loved the short story “Babylon Revisited” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Based in part on events from Fitzgerald’s own life and his relationship with his daughter, Scottie, it’s a painful look at the aftermath of the Jazz Age and the human wreckage left in the wake of the Roaring Twenties.  However, as brutal a deconstruction as the story is, it’s still fiction, an idealization despite the ominous air of uncertainty hanging overhead.  Charlie Wales, the protagonist and a Fitzgerald stand-in, has not escaped from the Crash unscathed, but even though his wife is dead (destroyed by their hedonism and instability)and his daughter is being raised by others, he is still relatively whole and functional, with the promise of a future beyond the immediate bleakness.  In reality, Scott was still a barely functional alcoholic and Zelda, although shattered, was still very much alive, drifting in and out of institutions, instead of being written neatly (and conveniently) out of the plot.

Zelda, the real Zelda, with all her glamour, charm, untapped talent and terrifying unpredictability, dances across the pages of Guests on Earth by Lee Smith, a constant in the lives of all the residents at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.  Here, we see a broken, post-Jazz Age Zelda, but still an enfant terrible and still innately fascinating to those around her (although that could just be the attraction of her reputation).  The entire novel traces a twisted path leading up to the night of the 1948 fire that killed her, along with eight other female patients in the locked ward of the hospital.  And yet, despite her overwhelming presence in the book … this is not really Zelda’s story, despite the narrator’s claims to the contrary.

The orphaned daughter of an exotic dancer from New Orleans, Evalina Toussaint is just thirteen when she is also sent to Highland, having already seen a great deal of trauma in her young life; nearly a decade later, she returns, several months before the fire and Zelda’s death.  Although the narrator, she never sees herself as the hero of her own story, likening her role in the novel to that of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.  Perhaps this is fitting – although a musical prodigy and talented performer in her own right, Evalina never sets out to take the spotlight for herself.  She prefers the role of accompanist – to elevate someone else with her talent, always choosing to remain in the background.

This decision affords Evalina a unique perspective as an observer into the lives of others, and provides her with the fuel for devastatingly accurate insights into society, into life and into mental illness.  The novel is a series of her flashbacks, significant moments , memories burned into her brain.  Highland Hospital is her home, more than anywhere else.  For other patients, time spent at the hospital is a mere interlude before they return to the real world, an intermezzo as Evalina describes it.  In contrast, her intermezzo is the years she lives outside the hospital.  With a few exceptions, she bears witness solely to what occurs there, giving her a front-row seat to devastating tragedy.

The title of the novel comes from a letter F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter in 1940, shortly before his death: “The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”  While his words strike me to some degree as stones cast by the resident of a glass house, its nevertheless an apt description of many of the characters – they are condemned to follow orders they don’t understand and can’t comprehend, and yet are compelled to obey.  Zelda, seen through the eyes of Evalina, remains as elusive as ever, governed by rules outside of her control, enigmatic and inscrutable … and yet heartbreakingly human.  Evalina herself is occasionally mystified by her own actions, reminding the reader that she, too, is a patient and not merely an observer.

The full story of the night of March 10, 1948 will probably never be known.  The mystery of the fire remains unsolved to this day,  yet with this novel we get a tantalizing possibility – one look at what might have been.  With Guests on Earth, Lee Smith paints a fascinating, richly detailed,  and empathetic picture of the lives of broken individuals, Zelda and Evalina among them.  In this beautiful, heart-breaking story, there is no condemnation, no judgment – only sympathy.

And she’ll be here to sign it November 6th!


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Robert Inman – “The Governor’s Lady”

I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but not very much from fourth-grade Alabama history has stuck with me over the years.  In my defense, it was quite some time ago, and my love of history didn’t really hit until much later, my third-grade obsession with Life Through the Ages aside, and anyway, that was both ancient history and world history.  Totally different, at least when you’re nine.  Plus, being forced to spend Labor Day weekend memorizing the rivers and lakes of Alabama while at the beach rather skewed my perspective on the whole subject.

One of the few things that did stick was Lurleen Wallace, wife of George C. Wallace, and Alabama’s only female governor to date.  To a fourth-grader (and now, really), it seemed like a cop-out – basically, her husband couldn’t serve consecutive terms, so they found a loophole, and she served in his place, even running on a platform of “Two Governors, One Cause”.  It just felt wrong, on so many levels – she was governor in name only, with her husband calling all the major shots.  This isn’t the place for me jump on my feminist soapbox (I try to avoid that; see my post from April 24 on The Girls of Atomic City), and I know that there’s plenty of debate over how much power she actually exercised while in office, but her tenure wasn’t exactly a shining model of female leadership.

With that lesson in mind, an initial reading of the back cover of The Governor’s Lady by Robert Inman sent me swooping back into the past, with a scenario not too dissimilar: the wife of a former Southern governor, following him into office while he runs for president.  Yep, that rang a few bells.

I was in for a pleasant surprise, however: despite the surface similarities of the plot, Cooper Lanier is not Lurleen Wallace.  All appearances to the contrary, she at least has no intention of being reduced to a figurehead while Pickett, her husband, calls the important shots from the campaign trail.  Up until this point, she has gone along with his plans (for the most part), even when she found herself drawn back into a life she never wanted.  As a freak snowstorm blankets the state, Pickett tries to hold onto the reins of power and relegate Cooper to the sidelines.  He’s conveniently forgotten that, as much as his wife despises political games and has distanced herself from the backroom dealings of the capital, she can still play them – very, very well.  Cooper has been underestimated and manipulated for quite some time, and she will fight to keep it from happening any longer.

As the daughter of both a beloved two-term governor and his kingmaker wife (a formidable political mastermind in her own right), Cooper grew up hating politics, viewing it as a thief, stealing everything and everyone she valued, and every step she took was to get away from it: career, marriage romance.  Somehow, however, she ends back in the heart of power, walking in her parents’ shoes, a role she vowed never to take on, but one with heart-breaking differences.  Part of the novel is that story, the strange and difficult journey she took to come full circle, back to the governor’s mansion she sought so hard to escape and the political machinations she despises.  The rest is her quiet (yet earth-shaking) rebellion, refusing to be defined and controlled by others any longer.

Cooper isn’t blameless for her life’s direction and the breakdown with her husband, something she comes to acknowledge as the novel unfolds.  She always had power over the course of events, she just rarely chose to exercise it, letting herself be swept along with the current and take the path of least resistance.  She couldn’t have changed Pickett’s nature, perhaps, but she could have left, or tried to change his mind, or refused to play his games.  She didn’t have to acquiesce.  She also failed to recognize his steamroller tendencies from the beginning (clearly evident when they met, especially on their first date), and married him in no small part because at the time, he bore absolutely no resemblance to her father, and had nothing to do with politics.  And Cooper realizes this, accepting her own share of responsibility.  There are no heroes or villains here; just people, who are far more complicated than they first appear.

In the end, the novel focuses on agency: the choice to act, or not act, or to simply react.  The greater part of Cooper’s life was spent either in stasis or reaction: she defined herself only in opposition to forces in her life, the sum of what she was determined not to be, rather than what she was or could become, and what she didn’t want, rather than what she did.  Before her inauguration, all of her choices were made to distance herself from politics and her parents’ legacy – to run away from her past, without any specific goal to run towards.  As governor, with power in her own right for the first time, she learns to act.


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“Last Chance for Justice” – T.K. Thorne

Last Chance for Justice by T.K. Thorne is a book made all the more notable for what it isn’t rather than what it is.  It’s not a treatise on the Civil Rights movement, or an in-depth analysis of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Church bombing, or a crime drama.  There are other books that deal with those topics, at considerable length: stories that have already been told and explored in depth.

Instead, it is a concise and clear account of the investigation into the bombing, after the case was re-opened in 1996.  It is the story of the intense, focused work and determination, combined with a healthy dollop of luck, that resulted in the convictions of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, two of the four perpetrators (of the other two, Robert Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985; Herman Cash died in 1994, never having been charged).  It is the tale of the remarkable partnership between FBI Special Agent Bill Fleming and Sergeant Ben Herren of the Birmingham Police Department (and later FBI analyst), as they sifted through mountains of evidence and tracked down innumerable leads to arrive at the truth.  More than anything else, however, the book is about the process of the investigation, rather than the result.

I love crime shows (okay, I might be a little addicted), but even when the writers throw in ambiguities and loose ends, complicating the plot, they’re almost always … certain.  This isn’t Law & Order (forgive me, Dick Wolf), where the case gets wrapped up in an hour, despite all the surprising twists and shocking turns.  It’s not Criminal Minds, trying to get inside the head of a killer, to figure out why someone does horrible things: for once, the motive behind the crime is pretty clean-cut.  It’s not even Cold Case, where after X number of years, the case still gets solved in an hour.  This investigation was a long, painstaking, drawn-out process of elimination, following up dead-end after dead-end to eventually arrive at the truth.

Thorne, herself a former captain with the Birmingham Police Department, humanizes the investigation, painting clear portraits of everyone involved, and yet manages to keep her narrative as objective and straightforward as possible.  Her account is unashamedly matter-of-fact, following the evidence trail and laying out the sequence of events as clearly as possible.  There is no speculation here (unless it pertains to the investigation), and very little judgment.  She makes no pretense of getting inside the perpetrators’ heads, sticking completely to the facts.

Over a decade later, it’s tempting to take the investigation, trials and convictions for granted, even now, just past the 50th anniversary of the bombing.  Thorne’s clear, concise prose, as precise and direct as a legal brief, is almost misleading, tricking the reader into seeing the whole process from start to finish as a fait accompli.  In fact, the exact opposite was true, which is really the whole point of the book.  After thirty-plus years, this case could have easily languished in obscurity, spent forever labeled with a question mark.  Even once Herren and Fleming began work, there was no guarantee that they would successfully be able to bring the case to trial – let alone get a conviction.  The sheer amount of evidence they had to sift through was daunting, setting aside all the numerous and considerable roadblocks in their way.  Along the way, there were innumerable points where the investigation could (and almost did) fail, shut down by the lack of evidence.  This is a story that desperately needed to be told, to be shared.

Could this case have been successfully brought to trial at any time in the thirty-plus years before it was re-opened?  Would it have resulted in a conviction?  I don’t know.  The passage of time was both the enemy and the ally of the investigators in this particular situation, and it would be so easy, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, to treat the outcome as inevitable, to believe that justice would have eventually been served.  Failure was not only an option, it was a very real possibility, making success all the more remarkable … and memorable.


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