David Madden

The saga of Hattie Shepherd, an African American who leaves Georgia in 1925 in pursuit of the American dream in Philadelphia, may sound as if it would be made of common elements. But the talent of her creator, first-time novelist Ayana Mathis, is uncommon, as the opening pages of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie—an Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection—make clear.

Her preacher in Georgia declared the North to be “a New Jerusalem,” but Hattie’s long road of trouble and travail over six decades begins very soon after she arrives in Philadelphia, where her twin babies become desperately ill. “She pressed her cheeks to the tops of their heads. Oh, their velvet skin! She felt their deaths like a ripping in her body.”

Out of fear that her nine later children and her grandchildren will fail to survive in a world of hatred and poverty, Hattie becomes a hard, demanding woman. Mathis dramatically shows this shift through the perspectives of 12 different characters. The author’s electric style is both tough and compassionate, creating almost unbearably poignant moments.

Mathis moves the reader from Hattie’s perspective to the story of her grown son Floyd, a horn player, 23 years later. Then the focus shifts to Six, a preacher; then to the child Ruthie; and on to eight more of Hattie’s descendants. But Hattie is a vibrant participant in the drama of each separate narrative. In fact, the dialogue throughout is achingly real. This is a novel of distinctive and haunting voices that yearn for love. 

The Promised Land of the North fails Hattie and her family. What succeeds is the culture of a people, of a family, that has struggled to endure.

The saga of Hattie Shepherd, an African American who leaves Georgia in 1925 in pursuit of the American dream in Philadelphia, may sound as if it would be made of common elements. But the talent of her creator, first-time novelist Ayana Mathis, is uncommon, as the opening pages of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie—an Oprah […]

The war that interests Americans most profoundly, the war with which they identify most intimately, even personally, is the Civil War. Thousands of books have responded to that abiding interest. Armed with these four new releases, readers can march confidently into the sesquicentennial, the four-year-long 150th anniversary of the war.

A MORAL AWAKENING
Since many books on the Civil War are so similar, books that provide fresh perspectives are always welcome, especially during the anniversary now under way. The freshest of the four books in hand is America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield. The list of his previous books is impressive—seven major books and eight edited works on race and religion in the rural and urban South, past and present. Now he poses a crucial question for the Civil War sesquicentennial: “Can anyone say anything new about the Civil War?”

Goldfield’s unique argument, brilliantly executed in a distinctive style, is that one effect of the Second Great Awakening was to create a religious fervor that enflamed secular debate over slavery and economic forces from the 1830s to the end of Reconstruction. Contrasting concepts of good and evil across the nation led to the failure of the American experiment, and religious and political bombast lit the fuse at Fort Sumter. Out of the human carnage and destruction of the war that ended slavery evolved the great Northern industrial success and the still-lingering religion of the Lost Cause that kept the South in relative ignorance and poverty until the late 1960s.

A TURNING POINT
Readers will find another fresh take in 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart. Plenty of historians have focused, with various emphases, upon the fateful year of 1861, but Goodheart wants us to know about some little-known actors in the dramatic effort to remake the country. He shows us a nation that had strayed from the vision of the Revolution into a country where democratic morality and liberty would prevail, with a cast of characters that includes an acrobatic militia colonel, an explorer’s wife, a regiment of New York City firemen, a close-knit band of German immigrants and a young college professor, James J. Garfield, destined to become our second assassinated president.

Goodheart's initial inspiration was the discovery in 2008 of a huge trove of family papers in the attic of a ruined plantation house in Maryland—13 generations, 300 years of American history. While his narrative will appeal to the broadest audience, scholars would do well to delve into this excellent, well-researched and convincingly argued study of those months in which forces tending toward either war or peace clashed in a final battle in which war prevailed. But ultimately, the winner was the conviction of many kinds of people that a second American revolution demanded the freeing of the slaves.

AT WAR WITH LINCOLN
Coming out of the bicentennial of his birth in 2009, it is altogether fitting that books on Lincoln, who remains the major Civil War figure, remain at the forefront of our consciousness. Although many books have collected Lincoln’s speeches and writings, Harold Holzer’s claim for Lincoln on War is that it is the first book to collect the president’s writings on the Civil War. In fact, he creates a very useful context for the Civil War pieces by including writings from Lincoln’s earlier life as well. The speeches, letters, memoranda, orders, telegrams and casual remarks are in chronological order, and Holzer, major-domo of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, comments upon and interprets each entry. The collection “embraces the soaring, practical, comic, distraught, and hectoring,” with topics including tactics, military strategy, the responsibilities of overseeing an army and even Lincoln’s interest in military technology.

In his introduction, Holzer notes that “Abraham Lincoln’s official White House portrait still dominates the State Dining Room.” And so, one hopes, his words still ring in the ears of the presidents and statesmen and women who dine there, such as this famous line: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

PICTURING THE CIVIL WAR
Not so well remembered is the statement by Robert E. Lee emblazoned on the back of The Civil War: A Visual History: “I wish that I owned every slave in the South. I would free them all to avoid this war.”

The Smithsonian has dared to add yet another lavishly illustrated picture book to the hundreds already on coffee tables and shelves—and it is one of the finest in every respect, especially the vivid page designs. Many of the best photographs, newspaper cartoons, maps, drawings and paintings are seldom seen in other books, so that for the general reader the images taken together will provide a fresh impression of every aspect of the war and Reconstruction, including the role of black soldiers, spies, politics and the home front. New photographs show galleries of uniforms, flags, pistols, artillery and other artifacts of the time, such as medical instruments. Two-page spreads provide timelines for each year, and the text that weaves in and out among the well-designed pages gives an excellent gallery of people and a summary of the war.

The first three books mentioned here may inspire readers to meditate on the war and its legacy, while the Smithsonian’s visual history may stimulate the commemoration impulse. Living in a time of civil wars that affect us all, we do well to experience our own in books such as these, especially during this major anniversary. As Shelby Foote said, the Civil War is “the crossroads of our being.”

The war that interests Americans most profoundly, the war with which they identify most intimately, even personally, is the Civil War. Thousands of books have responded to that abiding interest. Armed with these four new releases, readers can march confidently into the sesquicentennial, the four-year-long 150th anniversary of the war. A MORAL AWAKENINGSince many books […]

Every decade or so, I find a novel that I sense, just by reading the basic description, will become unforgettable; after reading only 20 pages of The Gendarme, my impression was confirmed with great force. For this decade, and this reader, The Gendarme is that extraordinary, unforgettable novel, set during the Armenian genocide, a divisive, ever-evolving controversy among nations.

When he first looks into Araxie Marashlian’s eyes, one blue, one green, Ahmet Khan knows immediately that her effect upon him will be lasting. Seven decades later, when he is dying at the age of 90, she remains unforgettable. Ahmet, a Muslim gendarme guarding the exodus of Armenians out of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and Araxie, one of thousands of Christian Armenians forced to walk more than a thousand miles toward Armenia, are as mismatched as her exotic eyes.

A first-time novelist, Mark T. Mustian made the brilliant artistic decision to develop two disparate narratives in alternate chapters: the progress of Ahmet’s battle with a fatal disease in America in the present and the progression of the death march of Araxie’s people until they bog down in Aleppo in Syria in the past.

Scenes set in the present, mostly in the hospital, reveal Ahmet’s fears as a dying 90-year-old and his strained relationship with his daughter. Scenes in the past, during the horrendous march out of Anatolia and into the ancient city of Aleppo, dramatize his faltering efforts to win Araxie’s love and his conflict with Mustapha, a vicious fellow gendarme. But from the first few pages, Mustian meshes Ahmet’s agony in the present with his desperate attempts to recapture in fine detail his submerged memories of Araxie. The unusually fast-paced, crystal-clear and fine-tuned style Mustian has forged to render internal and external events is superb.

Having immersed himself and the reader in memories of his bizarre, wondrous love affair, Ahmet sets out to find Araxie and ask her forgiveness for failing to protect her from maltreatment by his countrymen. Mustian has imagined a final chapter that is inventive, unforgettable and shockingly surprising, for both Ahmet and the reader. One can only eagerly await what he’ll come up with next.

 

Every decade or so, I find a novel that I sense, just by reading the basic description, will become unforgettable; after reading only 20 pages of The Gendarme, my impression was confirmed with great force. For this decade, and this reader, The Gendarme is that extraordinary, unforgettable novel, set during the Armenian genocide, a divisive, […]

At 528 pages, Rich Boy is a Space Age version of a Victorian family saga, with the great difference being that the family is not upper-class English but Philadelphia Jewish. Perhaps it is more apt to call this novel an inflated Great Gatsby, with Robert Vishniak climbing the socio-capitalist ladder all the way up and into the Bernie Madoff Manhattan era. Sharon Pomerantz is no Fitzgerald, nor is she a Dickens, but devoted readers of lengthy novels tend not to quibble.

The family expects favored son Robert to escape from their poor neighborhood and use his considerable charm and intelligence to move through prestigious New England schools into a room at the top, where he will hold his own with other Reagan-era financial wizards.  Pomerantz takes Robert through success in Wall Street buildings to the point when “the lobby looked like the cleanest of ghost towns.”

Inherent in all such high flights out of the slums is the problem of how to shuffle off the early self. There is always the chance one will happen to meet again the girl one left behind, the person who will reawaken the old self that did not especially want to pursue the rich and famous version of the American Dream. That’s what happens to Robert, who comes to see just how rich he was as a poor Jewish boy: “And for a moment, a strange and wonderful moment, Robert Vishniak knew where he belonged.”

Readers will enjoy this journey through the labyrinth of episodes of class conflicts, sexual escapades, financial schemes and, of course, romantic love that Pomerantz spent a decade constructing. Her publisher, Twelve, offers only 12 books each year, and they considered Rich Boy special enough to choose it as this year’s only novel. It is not to be missed.

 

At 528 pages, Rich Boy is a Space Age version of a Victorian family saga, with the great difference being that the family is not upper-class English but Philadelphia Jewish. Perhaps it is more apt to call this novel an inflated Great Gatsby, with Robert Vishniak climbing the socio-capitalist ladder all the way up and […]

What if some, or even a few, of the legends that keep Lincoln's legacy alive and vibrant for us were exposed as fabrications? In Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President, Edward Steers Jr., author of two highly acclaimed books on Lincoln's assassination, raises and analyzes questions about Lincoln in chronological order. Among the things Steers considers are whether Lincoln was born in a cabin, who his real father was, whether he really said all the things he's famous for saying, what happened to the pages missing from John Wilkes Booth's diary, etc.

In the book's introduction, respected Lincoln historian Harold Holzer discusses not only the legends, myths and hoaxes about Lincoln, but also the issue of factual refutations dug up by historians. He observes that the George Washington myths that Lincoln heard and read about and took as gospel truths inspired Lincoln himself to become the kind of man about whom myths are made. One might take that thought further and suppose that myths make the man: Historians will cherish facts; the people will welcome facts while cherishing myths.

What if some, or even a few, of the legends that keep Lincoln's legacy alive and vibrant for us were exposed as fabrications? In Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President, Edward Steers Jr., author of two highly acclaimed books on Lincoln's assassination, raises and analyzes questions about Lincoln in chronological […]

One of the latest and most absorbing of the hundreds of collections of Civil War photographs is Historic Photos of Gettysburg, with text and captions by John S. Salmon. Although one photograph shows the crowd engulfing Lincoln, no close-up photograph was taken of him as he gave his famous address. Even so, his benevolent spirit pervades the 200-plus images in this book.

One of the latest and most absorbing of the hundreds of collections of Civil War photographs is Historic Photos of Gettysburg, with text and captions by John S. Salmon. Although one photograph shows the crowd engulfing Lincoln, no close-up photograph was taken of him as he gave his famous address. Even so, his benevolent spirit […]

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