News, schools, and views from a uniquely Lowell perspective

Civil War Book-Signing Event Tomorrow

Sarah Vowell, author of, among others, Assasination Vacation and The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, both funny and thought-provoking looks at history and politics, once said, “I think about the Civil War every day.” I often think about her thinking about the Civil War when I contemplate my own fascination with the subject, and what better time to have such thoughts than during the sesquicentennial years of those epic events, with next year bringing the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

I think my favorite book about the Civil War(along with McPherson’s epic “Battle Cry of Freedom“) has to be Confederates in the Attic, by Tony Horwitz. The intrepid author explores the new South in search of the old – and his findings are instructive, amusing, at times horrifying, but always engaging. He marches with Civil War re-enactors, bushwhacks through snake-infested undergrowth in search of forgotten monuments, dares small-town biker bars to interview locals, and attends Sons of Confederate Veteran’s meetings, along with traipsing through battlefields from Manassas to the Wilderness. It is a great read.

Tony Horwitz has written a new book about John Brown, called Midnight Rising, and is actually in Chelmsford tomorrow in a joint appearance with this wife and fellow-author Geraldine Brooks, whose novel March, imagines the story of the Father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. This event will be held at Chelmsford High School, tomorrow, May 12th, at 11:00 am.

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1Q84 – possible spoiler!

I’ve been reading Haruki Murakami’s novels and short stories for a long time and have often struggled with how to describe his works. His understated writing style, slight, not-always-apparent playfulness, and ultimate compassion for the human condition combine with a fearless creativity (one of his stories features a giant, talking frog) to compel the reader’s concern for the central character–often a subdued Japanese everyman/woman, usually living alone in a cheap, high-rise apartment, who gets caught up in events and forces that are beyond his or her control. The man in the aforementioned story, for example, just comes home to his apartment after a routine day, a briefcase in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other, and there is the frog. Giant. Talking. There is often a mystery at the center of Murakami’s fiction. Often the mystery is left unexplained at the end. The bewildered protagonist struggles to understand what is happening, but never does. The reader can relate. A sort of dreamy vagueness pervades some of the works and can leave a reader vaguely dissatisfied, which is how I have felt occasionally upon finishing one of his books. Yet, the unsolved mysteries represent a reality that the characters have to deal with whether they understand them or not, which is how life is, really.

In Murakami’s latest,1Q84, a blockbuster that weighs in at 900 plus pages, there are plenty of mysteries, lots unsolved at the end (again, like life), but the story is anything but dreamy. The two central characters, Tengo and Aomame, are both caught up in dangerous missions, they both sense that they are in some kind of alternate world (the extra moon in the sky is a clue), and they are both trying to find each other before it is too late. There is an Orwellian subtext, but I have to admit, I didn’t think of it that much. The story itself pulls you in and keeps you engrossed until the end.

It’s a big book, and this is a short review, but I found this latest work of Murakami to be amazing. It was gripping, suspenseful, shocking, bizarre , and, finally, quite moving. After all, life can change quickly, a metaphorical second moon can appear in our skies at any moment and utterly change our version of the universe. And, in Murakami’s world, there are people who accept reality, whatever form it takes, and deal with it, and find that they can protect themselves, their inner selves and integrity, despite what outside forces seem to prevail. There is something rather beautiful in that.

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April, 1865

I finally finished my Lowell Reads Lincoln book, April, 1865, by Jay Winik (my three online classes are cutting into my reading time), and I ended up liking it despites some reservations about his repetitive, often hyperbolic prose style. (I really think there are not enough good editors around). His reasearch does seem to have been extensive, and his book is a useful consolidation of many scholarly points about the end days of the Civil War. His thesis seems to be that the month of April, 1865 was a turning point in the nation’s history, and that it didn’t have to turn out the way it did. He mentions several times that the words ‘nation’ or ‘national’ appear nowhere in the Constitution and that prior to the Civil War, the country was invariably referred to in the plural as “these United States” or “the United States are” with the emphasis on the plurality, the independence and the sovereignty of the individual states. Indeed, there were many secessional movements before the Civil War, including one engendered in New England over the War of 1812. Who knew? So, the Civil War itself seemed to create, out of bloodshed and carnage, a national identity where there was none before; in fact, it appears that “the Confederate national identiy in 1861 was actually far stronger than any collective American identiy alive at the time of the Constitution” (47). Winik cites many historical examples where a civil war left a country ripped apart, beset by partisan acts of terror and guerrilla warfare, the fear of which haunted Lincoln’s last days, and he highlights the magnanimity of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Sherman and others in settling the terms of peace so that there were no vicious reprisals against the losers. What he does well is restore the tension and suspense of those last days, where it was by no means certain that the war would end, that Lee wouldn’t have a lucky break and get away from Grant, that partisan bands wouldn’t take to the hills or to Texas to continue the fight as was urged by the Confederate president. He ends by noting one of the first uses of the United States in the singular when, after the war, a noted historian’s 1834 work was edited to read, “the United States is…” Pretty remarkable.

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More civil war events at PML

Who was Ladd; who was Whitney? Why do they have a memorial downtown (the one in front of City Hall)? You can find out tonight at 7 pm, as the Pollard Memorial Library continues its exploration of Lincoln and the Civil War. You will learn how two volunteers from Lowell gave their lives early in the war, galvanizing the Union and “becoming icons for Lowell patriotism.” While at the library, you can visit the traveling Forever Free exhibit, which is there until June 25th. I urge you to look at the murals in Memorial Hall to see depictions of three key events in the Civil War: Fort Donelson, the Battle of Shiloh and the surrender at Appomattox.

Since the Lincoln Reads Lincoln book group meeting on May 26th which I attended, I’ve been immersed in one of the three chosen books, Jay Winik’s April 1865, which is a stirring account of the final days of the war. Winik’s point is that the end of the Civil War could have been much worse than it was, but thanks to the farsightedness and generosity of Lincoln, Grant, Lee and others, the South laid down its arms, turning its back on the temptation of guerilla warfare — a prospect much-dreaded by Lincoln. I’m still reading the book, and am planning to read the other two that were suggested: A. Lincoln, by Ronald C. White, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, by James McPherson. One of my favorite authors, the quirky Sarah Vowell who wrote The Partly Cloudy Patriot once said that she “thinks about the Civil War every day.” Lately, I’ve felt the same way, which feels timely since next year will mark the sesquicentennial of the war (that’s 150 years in case you were wondering or didn’t feel like doing the math).

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Lincoln, Lowell – loved it!

I went down to the Pollard Memorial Library this evening to join the Lowell Reads Lincoln discussion group, led by fellow-blogger, Richard Howe. This was an ambitious program with three books under discussion, but as it turned out, reading the book(s) was not a requirement to enjoying and participating in the conversation (due to frantic busyness, I was only halfway through one of the books). It seems that everyone has some set idea, some cherished notion or opinion, about Lincoln; perhaps, he is like our Shakespeare, just part of the air we breathe. In any case, digging down a bit beneath the folktales, legends and preconceptions made for a lively discussion, which I’m sure will be continued over on richardhowe.com. A highlight for me, besides sitting in a room with lots of historically-minded and knowledgeable folks, was the tour of the library given by one of the trustees, Rosemary Noon. I’ve been in the library tons of times, but seriously had never really noticed the portrait of George Washington hanging in the grand staircase, nor the portraits by Tarbell on the main floor (the frames are worth even more than the paintings). It was inspiring to hear how the trustees fought to retain the old building, despite pressure to move to a more efficient and convenient location. Memorial Hall on the second floor was viewed with new eyes, as we learned how it used to be before the fire (the grand chandelier, Pompeiian red walls, artwork) and how it got to be the way it is now. Learning about the Civil War murals was instructive (they came from a traveling circus!). There is a nice exhibit about Lincoln that should be seen as well as a newly restored portrait of the 16th president, positioned so he can glance over at that of the first. All in all, a great evening!

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Creative and humane stories

At the back of the library copy of Olive Kitttredge by Elizabeth Strout, there is an interview with the author at which Olive is present and, in truth, Olive is so real to me that I can very easily imagine the scene, especially where she tells Strout that something is “none of your damned business.” That’s Olive for you. (I’m a little afraid she might call me up if I say too much about her, except I don’t think she reads blogs). The imagined encounter is also a good illustration of the humor that can be found lurking throughout the book, even in some of the more difficult situations (I’m thinking of the hostage situation where Olive starts in about her religious mother-in-law for one). Another sly undercurrent occurs when Olive says to her husband Henry about the Kennisons, a retired couple from Massachusetts, that “she must spend her life making up for his boorishness.” You immediately think that the same could probably be said of Henry about Olive! For the truth is she is rather difficult.

The book is made up of thirteen stories, all set in a coastal town in Maine (Brunswick?) and all either revolving around or somehow alluding to Olive. While Olive is not quite the center of the book, somehow the web of stories brings her to the foreground, probably in a way that would seem odd to her, since she has trouble, in the beginning at least, of seeing herself through the eyes of others. The setting, if you’ve ever spent any time in Maine, is as real as Olive- with lobstermen, donut shops, church suppers, the wry humor of the people and the skeptical attitude displayed towards out-of-staters, those “from away.” On the other hand, as a friend pointed out, the human drama could be situated anywhere – the problems of marriage, children, aging, the dangerous reefs that must be avoided in any long-held relationship, the problem as well as the need of other people. Strout doesn’t say too much, but her methods bring a world to life and with it a connection to our own worlds – our own hopes and fears. Get to know Olive; she’s worth it.

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Kafka in New Orleans

In light (a poet’s light, that is) of the upcoming Super Bowl in New Orleans, Paul posts on RichardHowe.com about Zeitoun, a book by Dave Eggers that tells the story of a man who stayed behind after Katrina. I have been thinking about this book lately because I was also reading The Trial, by Franz Kafka and found eerie similarities between them. Of course, Kafka wrote surreal fiction and Egger’s narrative is about what actually happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American Muslim, but the sense of bureaucracy gone astray with devastating consequences is the same. Kafka, of course, prefigured much of the horrors of the 20th century in his dread-filled, often bleakly humorous works, but Zeitoun’s story is true and happened here. That’s what is so frightening. Check it out, if you wish to see what the unchecked power of the federal government can do to the individual. The word “Kafkaesque” can be applied here. I also recommend Spike Lee’s documentary:When the Levees Broke for an edgy, in-your-face depiction of the disaster. Sorry, Pats fans, but I’m glad the Saints are in – New Orleans needs the boost and, it gives us all a fresh chance to turn our thoughts to what happened there.

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Lowell Reads….a look back

Years ago (1999? 2000?), I was part of the group “Lowell Reads”, which was an attempt to have a community-wide book reading, with discussions and related activities. This was part of the One City One Book movement which started in Seattle in the late Nineties. The idea is to “build a sense of community and promote literacy.” As others have noted, these goals may be too ambitious; however, it was a lot of fun planning activities to go along with the book, and there were reading groups at the high school that got some young people involved. Our book was Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which with its overtones of terrorism and fear juxtaposed with the dreamy, slightly surreal progression of the plot and the beautiful dream that art can change hearts and minds, turned out to be a perfect choice. UML Professors joined in with informative sessions shedding light on some of the book’s themes, and the Lowell Opera Company (no longer active, I fear) performed some of the pieces mentioned in the book, which features a renowned soprano who ends up as one of the hostages. I remember loving the book, but never got around to reading any more by Patchett until I recently picked up Truth and Beauty, her 2004 memoir of a friendship (my review here). This got me wondering why I had never read any of her other novels and also why the attempt to do another citywide book never got off the ground. Part of the problem was choosing a book, then the driving force behind our group, Mary Johnson Lally, Director of the Pollard Memorial Library, retired, and the group just dwindled away from there. Still, the movement persists. Chelmsford has been doing it for a few years and has had some nice events to go along with the books. I went to a Bob Martin concert at the library that I think went along with reading Empire Falls and last year they had an art contest to coincide with their community reading of Three Cups of Tea. I wasn’t able to determine if this is a yearly event or what their book choices have been over the years or how successful it’s been; but I suppose it’s something that might work better in a smaller community. In any case, I’m going to read some more novels by Ann Patchett!

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A book and a movie

Coincidentally, I just read a book and saw a movie about the German occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II. Today, the islands, which are only about 8 miles from France, are littered with German bunkers and fortifications leftover from the war, but I, for one, never realized that the Germans had set foot on British soil. After Dunkirk, the British withdrew their soldiers from the islands which were promptly bombed and occupied by the Germans as a first step toward invading England. Hitler boasted that he was “wiping his feet on the doormat of England.” The occupation was harsh, including deportations, executions and concentration camps and lasted from 1940-1945. It makes for an interesting story and a chilling preview of what might have been if the Nazis had prevailed. more »

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Sunday book chat

Have you read The Help by Kathryn Stockett? It’s a book that seems to have gone viral since coming out earlier this year. Most of my book group friends have read it, and it does seem to be the type of book that lends itself particularly well to that format. Told in an engaging, if somewhat clunky, rotating-narrator style (at one point, the first-person approach is dropped without explanation for a 3rd person omniscient narrator), the book provides a window-in-time on Jackson, Mississippi, just prior to and during the Civil Rights movement. Follow the link to read my review or leave your own comments if you’ve read it. Despite my quibbles with some of the style and editing choices, the social observations of a place and a not-so-distant time in our history make this an important book as well as an enjoyable read.

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