Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

TDF/2 Stages 19 and 20: Shiloh

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Friday afternoon I drove to Savannah, Tennessee, to spend a couple of days at the Shiloh battlefield. It is my custom every summer to read about the Civil War — more than once I’ve read Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the war, and I’ve read McPherson’s one-volume history as well. Hattaway and Jones’ How the North Won is a great military history of the war, and David Potter’s The Impending Crisis is the best history of the events leading up to it. This summer I focused on Shiloh, reading Cunningham’s Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, Daniel’s Shiloh: the battle that changed the Civil War, Sword’s Shiloh: Bloody April, and other works.

So I had been planning to make a visit to the Shiloh battlefield for some time, and this weekend turned out to be my best opportunity. Of course, it also turned out to be the hottest weather of the year for the area — high temp on Saturday was 99 degrees, with a heat index of 109. I got up at 5 AM to ride my 16 miles for the TDF/2 Stage 19. It’s pretty flat country, so it was an easy ride across the Tennessee River bridge, down toward the battlefield, and back to Savannah.

Tennessee River

I had originally planned to ride the LHT around the battlefield, carrying my cameras in the panniers, but the weather changed my mind. Instead I drove, carrying a cooler with Powerade in it and all my gear in the car. I used the excellent War College guide to the battlefield, following the book’s chronological tour of the first day’s action. After two months reading about it, it was very moving to see the actual locations. At times it was almost overwhelming to stand in the places I’d read about. The battlefield is phenomenally well marked; veterans erected markers at the sites of all the major actions only decades after it occurred, and there has been little development to encroach on it. Everywhere you look there is a tablet or monument commemorating an event that took minutes, or hours. Lives were lost and changed at a breathtaking rate in this place.

Shiloh - Cloud Field

Below is a view of Shiloh Branch. The Confederates came up this narrow little ravine and attacked Sherman and McClernand’s positions at Shiloh Church — it’s only a few hundred yards to the north. Accounts from just after the battle say that you could have walked anywhere in the area without touching the ground by stepping on bodies. I met a family with fishing poles and a cooler, going to spend the day in this shady spot. They had twin boys about 5 years old dressed in camo overalls, who were very curious what I was doing down by the creek.

Shiloh Branch

Late in the day (I spent 9 hours in the park) I wound up hearing a ranger give a tour of the National Cemetery at Pittsburg Landing, on the high ground where Grant’s forces spent the night of April 6 before pushing the Confederates back the next day. I was a little embarrassed to find myself getting choked up thinking about the young men who didn’t come back from this spot almost 150 years ago.

Shiloh National Cemetery

I rode the bike down again on Sunday morning and rode through the major roads of the battlefield. It was the last stage of the TDF/2, and instead of ending at the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe, I found myself in this place where nobody really won. It did lead to Grant taking command of the Union armies, and Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas, the freeing of the slaves, and a fundamental change in the relationship between federal government and the states. For the people fighting, many of them teenage boys, it just demonstrated that war wasn’t going to be as glorious as they had thought. Iowa’s monument below shows Fame inscribing the names of those boys.

Shiloh - IA monument

End of the semester…

Friday, December 8th, 2006

Give or take.  At least, classes are over now, and I’ve graded pretty much everything before the final.  Well, I do have to grade one set of scientific paper analyses, about 30 of them, but they’re only about 2 pages each.  That needs to be done ASAP, so people can see the comments before the final on Monday.  Meanwhile, I’ve done some Christmas shopping (How did I survive before there was Amazon.com?).  And tonight Robin and I are going out for sushi with the Hills.

What I’m reading lately:

Inez del Alma Mia, by Isabel Allende.  I read her Zorro: Impieza la Leyenda last year, so I thought I’d read her newest book in Spanish also.  It’s good, and eventful enough to hold my interest even when I have to refer to a dictionary a couple of times per page.  One nice thing about reading a novel in Spanish is that it takes me about 20 times as long as reading one in English, so I don’t have to search for something new to read as often.   I’d like to say I’m building my vocabulary, but that would be assuming that I have a memory.  Eventually, after looking up something enough times, I do start to recognize it, though.  “Lodo” is mud.  “A pesar de” means “In spite of”.  An “espada” is a sword.  And so on.

Cloud Atlas

Monday, November 20th, 2006

I haven’t been writing about books I’m reading for a while; a while back I actually kept a running commentary for over a year on all the books I’d read, but I got tired of that.  So I’m just writing about this one because it’s so striking.  I was at Barnes and Noble looking for something to read, and this book just jumped out at me.  It’s Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.

It’s structurally interesting, to start with.  I’m a sucker for books within books; one of my all-time favorites is Freddy’s Book, by John Gardner, in which an English Lit professor giving a talk at a small liberal arts college spends the night at the department chair’s house.  The chair’s son, Freddy, is a giant, huge and painfully shy.  Never comes out of his room.  Somehow the visiting prof makes contact with him, and the giant shoves his manuscript out the bedroom door.  The rest of the book is Freddy’s manuscript, about King Gustav I of Sweden and the devil.

So Cloud Atlas takes this structure to the extreme.  It starts with the “Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” a nineteenth-century traveler’s tale.  This is interrupted in the middle, and the next section is in the 1930s in England, where a young composer finds that diary in a private library.  This section stops suddenly, and we have a later character reading the composer’s letters, and so on.  Six narratives in all, the latest one taking place in a sort of cyberbunk future in the center of the book, after which we go back picking up the endings of the others in reverse order.

As Robin pointed out, author has tremendous skill with narrative voice, which changes dramatically in each of the segments.  The relationship among them is somewhat cryptic to me, but I plan to re-read it — we’re going to do it for book group next time.  I’m looking forward to reading it again more carefully, as the first time it was kind of a page-turner — I wanted to see what the ending of each story would be.  Next time I’ll be able to parse the relationships among them better.