Friday, January 23, 2009

Winter reading

There’s rarely rhyme or reason to what I read, although I do it all the time. I wish I were disciplined enough to have a rhyme or reason, but mostly just grab whatever interests me. Here’s a rundown of what’s been going on since Jan. 1.

I started the year tying up a couple of loose ends, most notably Annette Gordon-Reed’s “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008), a highly detailed account of the extended slave family that surrounded Thomas Jefferson and included Sally Hemings and her children by him. I’ve mentioned this book before, but for some reason it got put down and not picked up again so I still had a chapter to go.

Now I’ve finished it and am looking forward to a sequel that will examine the lives and times of those who descend from Jefferson and Hemings. This book more or less ends with the death of Jefferson and the dispersal of the family --- his own children into freedom by one route or another; most others sold to clear at least some of the debt Jefferson built over a lifetime.

It was interesting to hear Gordon-Reed, a professor of Law at New York Law School, as a commentator on National Public Radio’s coverage of the inaugural Tuesday.

THAT LED once I figured out where I’d put it to a quick reread of Tony Horwitz’s perceptive and funny “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War” (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998). I’d read this first when it was published and it’s held up remarkably well despite the ground-shifting events of the last 10 years.

It’s worth noting, considering its title, that Horwitz’s book was not received especially well by some --- and his wry account of Alberta Martin, who as a young woman married a very old Confederate veteran (more than likely a deserter) and thus became the iconic last surviving Confederate widow at the time the book was written, generated a lawsuit encouraged by the Sons of Confederate Veterans alleging that he had ridiculed her (which he hadn’t).

I especially enjoyed accounts of his travels, trials and tribulations with Robert Lee Hodge (that’s Hodge on the cover), a hard-core Civil War re-enactor; and a chapter on Shiloh, where many young Lucas Countyans fought and some died.

STILL IMMERSED in the past, I picked up David L. Holmes’ small volume, “The Faiths of the Founding Fathers” (New York & London: Oxford University Press, 2006), especially interesting now because of the role religion played in the 2008 elections. I’m at kind of a disadvantage because the book and I are not in the same place this week, but the most perceptively entitled chapter was something like “The Past is a Foreign Country.”

Holmes’ answer to the question asked often in recent history, “Was the United States founded as a Christian nation?” might be summed up as, “Well, sort of but probably not exactly in the sense you mean.” Our founding fathers and mothers, for example, would not have heard or understood the phrase “born-again Christian.” Pietism, the base for great 19th century Protestant revivals and a founding principal of many current denominations, had not yet spread widely.

So the founders who were devout --- Samuel Adams, John Jay, Patrick Henry and others, including the spouses of many who were not so devout --- were for the most part members of the orthodox and established (tax-supported) denominations of the time, Congregational in New England, Anglican in the mid-Atlantic and southern states. And even those who were not devout remained for the most part within the denominations where they’d been raised and if asked if they were Christian, more than likely would have answered, “certainly.”

This was, however, the age of the Enlightenment --- when reason rather than faith was most highly valued in what might be called intellectual circles. Anything that could not be supported by reason --- including basic tenets of orthodox Christianity such as virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, resurrection --- was dismissed or altered to fit into a framework called deistic.

So other founders --- Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe among them --- most likely would be classed as deists. John and Abigail Adams were Unitarians, although most certainly Christ-centered Unitarian, a concept foreign to many who now find themselves within the Unitarian Universalist denomination but also quite different from orthodox Christianity.

It seems most likely, Holmes suggests, that neither today’s most conservative religious conservatives nor most liberal liberals are going to find quite what they’re hoping to find in the religious convictions of our forebears.

Holmes does offer one of the most coherent explanations of deism that I’ve read, so that makes it especially worthwhile for those interested in getting into the heads of great figures in American history.

THEN I BOUGHT Sarah Lyall’s “The Anglo Files,” subtitled “A Field Guide to the British,” New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008. It’s an at-times funny and well-written book that will carry you through it quickly written by a New York Times staff writer assigned to that newspaper’s London bureau.

However, Lyall, who is married to an Englishman and it would seem most likely intends to remain a resident of the U.K., has chosen to dwell on just about every cliché regarding the British that’s out there --- casual approach to dentistry, fondness for eccentricity, obsession with class and cricket, and so on. Which is too bad because it makes “Field Guide to the British” a vast overstatement.

FINALLY, Shreve Stockton’s brand new “The Daily Coyote,” subtitled “A Story of Love, Survival, and Trust in the Wilds of Wyoming” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008). I’m just not into books about cute animals, so quite frankly would not have not picked this one up had it not been set in and around Ten Sleep, Wyoming, a small town at the west base of the Big Horns. My great-grandfather died on a ranch near Ten Sleep in the 1930s; a great-aunt and great-uncle lived out their lives near and in Ten Sleep; and I really like Wyoming, although I’ve spent more time on the Buffalo than the Ten Sleep side of those spectacular mountains.

Stockton, a city girl who fell in love with Wyoming while on a Vespa trip from San Francisco to New York, moved to Ten Sleep on a kind of whim --- a rental house was available there and she took it even though her earlier trek through the state been on the more northerly route down into Sheridan.

Romance blossomed between Stockton and “Mike,” a trapper/shootist paid by the state to exterminate vermin that threatened livestock in the region. And it was he who gave her the tiny coyote pup, the only survivor from a den he had exterminated.

The book, which contains many lovely photos of the coyote pup named Charley as well as the Wyoming landscape, revolves around the trials and tribulations of raising as a pet a creature born to be wild. It grew from Stockton’s popular Web site/blog, also called “The Daily Coyote.” I enjoyed the book, but felt a little sorry for poor Mike whose personal demons, most involving the accidental death of a daughter, were fully aired as were the ups and downs of the Shreve/Mike romance.

Stockton has taken some grief for adopting a wild critter as a pet, but as she points out quite rightly, had she not agreed to do that the pup would have been killed and once raised by humans Charley, could never return to the wild. Nor does Stockton in any way advocate coyotes as pets for the general public.

So there you have the reading list for the first half of January.

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