October 23, 2011

Book 38: The Killer Angels

The Killer Angels
Michael Shaara

This book is the second installment of the Shaaras' Civil War trilogy but, though it covers the pivotal events at Gettysburg in July 1863, it was actually the first to be written. And, though Shaara's son Jeff pulls the trick off admirably in his own work, The Killer Angels does an impeccable job of getting to the hearts- and souls- of leaders both in blue and in gray. Even readers with little previous knowledge of the battle itself or even of military strategy can jump directly into the heart of the action, and despite the meticulous research that makes the book so plausibly realistic, it is immediately accessible. Accented with the occasional map, the narrative clearly traces both larger strategies, primarily through the eyes of Robert E. Lee, and the terrors of direct combat. Indeed, though it is truly moving to sense Lee's achingly portrayed heartbreak, the most emotionally riveting scenes belong to corporal Joshua Chamberlain on the Union's extreme left flank, who experienced the horrors of war firsthand. Shaara has taken events that are seared in to the popular American memory and has thoroughly reinvigorated them, and while the book is certainly a novel and contains some speculation, it presents a readable history that reminds us that history is not the work of predestined events but, rather, reflects the outcomes of an impossibly tangled web of human actions. The prose reads nearly flawlessly, completely subservient to its narrative, a technique particularly apt for this story, the scene is set with crystal clarity, and the characterization is believable, consistent, and sympathetic. Beautiful and moving, The Killer Angels is a powerful testament to the humanity of history.

Grade: A

October 18, 2011

Book 37: Gods and Generals

Gods and Generals
Jeff Shaara

This is the book that made Jeff Shaara famous, a chronologically-minded prequel to his father's famous intricate look at the Battle of Gettysburg, and though it has some missteps, it is easy to see why the Shaaras are many historians' dirty little fiction secret. To start, however, this is not a book for those uninitiated to the events of the Civil War; indeed, for readers new to the conflict, a primer is almost certainly necessary to make any sense out of the jumbled events at hand; this confusion, however, is also one of Shaara's greatest strengths, as Gods and Generals provides a personal, close view of pivotal figures in the Virginia campaigns leading up to Gettysburg. That the action can sometimes become a bit frantic reflects not a fault of the author, but rather his ability to bring the fight down to the individual level, focusing on the commanders at the thick of the action, placing words in their mouths and thoughts in their heads until they become as real as any fully-fictional character. The approach may seem a bit disingenuous, as it sticks as closely to the facts as possible, but overall it makes the somewhat abstract concepts of old-timey warfare a bit more palatable for modern readers more used to, say, bombing raids than the antics of Jeb Stuart's cavalry. Shaara concocts an interesting mix of strategic scheming, hard-fought battle scenes, and introspection, and keeps the plot moving even as the armies aren't; strangely enough, some of the most interesting scenes in the novel take place away from the battlefield, while the author slowly probes the minds of American history's eminent figures.

While Shaara's talent and approach are no doubt commendable, the novel does suffer some hang-ups. It is often difficult to tell what, precisely, is happening at a given moment, and though this may accurately reflect some of the fog of war, readers can become confused and may benefit from a handy reference volume. Additionally, Shaara can occasionally become hampered by the actual flow of the real events he represents in his novel, and his cast of main characters feels uneven as he focuses on Lee and Jackson, the South's brightest lights, and resigns himself to less important Northern counterparts. It is not so much that the book biases itself toward the South, though Shaara's opinions about the highest echelons of Northern generalship are strongly and repeatedly stated, but rather that the preface sets up a more balanced vision of the conflict, one that is not matched by the contents therein. Perhaps the author's greatest accomplishment is to so deeply humanize each and every one of his characters that battles seem almost incidental to the grander narrative of the book; and, like the faults of the book's triumphant realism, this grand achievement also ultimately hampers the work by focusing exclusively on those in command. Even the great and terrifying battle scenes are relayed, with a few excellently executed exceptions, by those removed from command, and though readers are up close and personal with the war, they are safely shielded from battle, making the book seem unfocused and choppy. Shaara's depictions of Joshua Chamberlain's exploits at Fredericksburg showcase his undeniable talent for relaying the terror of battle, and his prowess at psychological profiling, but ultimately the book rings a bit hollow. Gods and Generals is satisfying and a very competent personalization of the Civil War, but it does not consistently reach beyond the grasp of cold fact that can, at times, dampen its effects.

Grade: B+

October 10, 2011

Book 36: Battle Cry of Freedom

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
James McPherson

The task of writing a one-volume history of what is almost certainly the most talked about period in United States history can't be a particularly enviable task, and to do so without being rigidly polemic, insufferably academic, or unremittingly dense seems nearly impossible. James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom defies all of the odds and presents a readable, informative, and comprehensive tome that manages to remain interesting and accessible despite retaining an extremely high educational value. Perhaps the best and, sadly, most distinguishing feature of the book is McPherson's reluctance to use it as a self-aggrandizing platform or a sharpening block for any particular axe; though he obviously advocates slavery as the leading cause of the conflict and takes other critical liberties throughout the text, he does not allow a particular thesis to dominate his work. Moreover, the author is keenly aware of his purpose, and makes a special point of noting where numbers are estimates and, much more vitally, where scholarly opinion differs upon a particular point. This book is very much in conversation with the long and contentious, varied histories of the Civil War in its many aspects, and as a standalone, introductory volume this self-awareness raises it to heights of great achievement.

Nor is the text boring, or the prose labored; indeed, I had nearly given up hope on decently written intellectual books, but McPherson balances his intricate knowledge of the topic with a view of the larger picture. Though the narrative thread can become admittedly knotty at times, particularly in discussions of mid-century politics (yikes!), that is more an inevitable facet of the historical period than a fault of the author, and McPherson does an admirable job making a party system that continues to baffle bonafide historians almost understandable to the layman. Strictly military folks may be disappointed in the book's lengthy focus on the build-up to the war, as may those new to the complicated politics of the antebellum era; though it takes up a healthy portion of the book it still feels abbreviated, and McPherson would have done well to include more concrete explanations of, say, the provisions within the Compromise of 1850 rather than resting so heavily on tangled, incomprehensible implications. And while McPherson does a brilliant job adding chapters examining developments and effects on the respective home fronts during the actual war, these occasionally break up the narrative and the effect is not quite as seamless as one could hope. For what it is, however, this history is incredibly well-executed, a historical overview of a complex, overwhelmingly studied, and vital period of United States history, perhaps its most important test other than the initial push for independence. In Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson has created an ideal one-volume history for academic and more casual readers alike; though it necessarily has its flaws, the book deservedly takes its place as the go-to single volume history of the Civil War.

Grade: A