SEPTEMBER BOOK REPORT (9/13…Nazis, Research and Grandpa Ford)

The Scarlatti Inheritance, Robert Ludlum (1971)

If the Nazis hadn’t existed, surely popular fiction writers would have needed to invent them. Exist they did, however, and, as they can never meet too many evil ends, stuff like this always goes down easy with me. This is a particularly compelling example–Ludlum was an able practitioner of this sort of thing in his heyday, from whence this derives. I read it a month ago now, so I don’t exactly remember much about what happened–for that you need at least a touch of art–but there was a whole good-vs-evil thing going on and good triumphed in the end, albeit wearily and not without cost. Never make it on telelevision these days with that kind of outmoded thinking, but I enjoyed the ride.

Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle For a State, Mark Christ (2010)

Fiction research for me. On that level a gold-mine for anyone looking for info on the subject of the title. It’s just what it says–a straightforward account of the major military events in a relatively under-reported theater of the Civil War. The battles at places like Pea Ridge and Arkansas Post didn’t end up being the stuff of legend, but they were not without significance. The Union’s ability to dominate the region with relative ease thanks to a handful of able commanders who, at one point, included William Sherman in the midst of recovering the reputation he had more ore less put in jeopardy with a less than stellar performance at Shiloh, certainly made life easier for U.S. Grant elsewhere in the West, rendered Confederate sympathizers in Missouri and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) impotent and cut off yet another potential source of valuable resources from the main body of the Confederacy. Christ employs a modest, unassuming style that probably won’t excite anyone who isn’t already interested in the subject but stays refreshingly and reliably on course for those who are.

 Pappy: The Life of John Ford, Dan Ford (1979)

This life of the great director was written by his grandson and published only a few years after Ford’s death. Recent times have brought forth longer, scholarly bios by critic/historians Scott Eyman and Joseph McBride. Although I’ve read plenty of Fordian criticism and scholarship, I haven’t read the major bios as yet (an oversight I hope to soon correct). But, however fine they are and however much fleshy detail they add to this bare-bones account, this is still an immensely valuable book for anyone even remotely interested in John Ford or, for that matter, the twentieth century movie business with which the director was even more intricately intertwined than I had imagined. Dan Ford is clear-eyed about his grandfather’s enormous strengths and weaknesses and offers a host of anecdotal detail exemplifying each.

Better than that, this account moves. Sometimes rapidly, sometimes langorously, catching a rhythm not unlike Ford’s own films. That’s a rare quality in any genre. Exceptionally so in biography, that most inherently disjointed form. It makes Ford’s life and work of a piece without straining for effect, reaching a visceral and emotional apex near the end with Dan Ford’s account of happening upon his then aging grandfather, drunk, depressed, long past making movies, collapsed on the floor of his beloved, creaking yacht (soon to be sold as a relic at fifteen cents on the dollar) and wrestling him to bed. As he left the room, the grandson, assuming the old man was dead to the world muttered some appreciative words about his grandfather’s genius and staggering legacy.

Ford immediately said: “I heard that.”

By then, the reader knows the man well enough to be surprised if he hadn’t.

This account is especially strong on Ford’s time in the OSS, which began frankly before there even was an OSS, lasted through World War II, and explains why Ford’s groundbreaking documentary film crew was ultimately connected to one major event after another: Pearl Harbor (aftermath), Midway, North Africa (highlighted by a hiliarious and finally moving account in which Ford’s crew turns a German prisoner they’ve captured over to a French officer and then–on Ford’s command–wrests him back when the Frenchman starts verbally and physically abusing him, finally turning him over to the Americans– a sequence that will surprise no one who has seen and grasped the better parts of The Prisoner of Shark Island, made in 1936 and, like a lot of Ford’s films, about the past and the future in equal measure) not to mention D-Day and Auschwitz, with side excursions into Burma and China.

Fascinating life and Dan Ford does full justice to it.

In the end, though, John Ford is a person of interest because of his art–his status as a world class filmmaker–and his grandson does well on that count, too. I didn’t agree with all his assessments of individual films, but Ford’s reputation wasn’t nearly as secure when the book was written as it is now (when it still isn’t entirely secure as no artist’s can be if his art has politics in it, not to mention art) and, even on this front, where it’s probably least valuable, the book is as good a starting point for a critical assessment as any.

Highly informative and just as enjoyable then–I hope the later bios live up to the same standard.

NOTE: I’m about to begin reviewing books for BroadwayWorld.com. I’ll post an announcement here when I submit my first review, which will be of Scott Berg’s 38 Nooses and should be up next week.

AUGUST BOOK REPORT (8/13-Civilization Preserved, As It Should Be…By Cigar-Chomping Generals and Lady Novelists)

Men of Fire: Grant, Forrest, and the Campaign That Decided the Civil War, Jack Hurst (2007)

An admirably lucid account of an extremely significant but rather dry subject.

Hurst centers his telling of the Union campaigns to capture Forts Henry and Donelson in the winter of 1862–less than a year after Fort Sumter and the full weight of Confederate secession brought on the Civil War–around the personalities of Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest, with plenty of additional background on their various superiors and key subordinates thrown in for good measure.

Good decision, because in the Henry and Donelson campaigns, the personalities were far more influential than the military tactics.

In the end the military struggle for the heart of the Confederacy–then still in its crucial, defining infancy–came down to who wanted to fight and who didn’t.

On the Union side, those who wanted to fight were Grant and the able commander of the world’s first ironclad fleet, Andrew Foote, who, at Fort Henry, ended up carrying out history’s first successful assault on a fortification by sea (or, in this case, the Tennessee River). On the Confederate side, there was Forrest, who, fortunately for the future of the country (and perhaps the world), was then an obscure cavalry colonel.

That the book lacks a certain pace is entirely due, I think, to the discursive subject matter. As long as Hurst can stay with the men of action the story moves. When, of necessity, he takes some time off to study the less interesting men–the men dedicated to inaction, who were everywhere and central to the moment and therefore cannot be ignored–then even Hurst’s considerable narrative skills (which include a lot of apt, often stinging, psychological insights into the key players) can’t keep this key bit of history from flagging a bit.

The book is eminently worthwhile and valuable, though–not only to afficionados of its somewhat obscure subject or readers who just like to enjoy a beautifully turned sentence (of which Hurst provides many).

Hurst is far too honest to make the common mistake of ginning up false excitement out of military operations that were, for the most part, rather pedestrian, marked more by colossal Confederate incompetence than any brilliance on the Union side.

But his skill and patient attention to all the sordid, behind-the-scenes maneuvering pays off in the end. Without stating it in so many words, the author makes it eminently clear that, had Ulysses S. Grant been a Union cavalry colonel and Nathan Bedford Forrest in charge of Confederate forces–or even if the two men had been evenly matched as theater commanders–the outcomes of the battles that essentially doomed the Confederacy from the start might well have been reversed.

In an age when generals are routinely chosen for their real or (more usually) presumed mastery of corporate or political intrigue rather than combat skills, this finely wrought narrative is a worthy reminder that, should we ever find ourselves in a position where the notion of taking and holding ground is restored to its once vital significance, we had best choose our leaders wisely.

And to remember that favorable outcomes tend to hang by a thread in any case.

Grant’s reward for “exceeding” his authority and taking Henry and Donelson in record time was, after all, to be threatened with arrest by jealous superiors.

Proving once again that some things never change.

Airs Above the Ground (Mary Stewart, 1965)

Popular fiction, British Lady Novelist Division.

I hadn’t read anything by Stewart since I was a teenager when I inhaled a couple of her Camelot novels. I certainly would have read the rest had I been able to get my hands on them. Somehow I didn’t, but this popped up from someplace in the last few years (no idea where as I didn’t buy it) and I held onto it out of respect for those happy memories.

I have to say that the pace I remembered from those other novels (which were written later) and had reason to expect was the Stewart norm based on that memory plus numerous viewings of The Moon-Spinners (the Disney movie based on her source novel) was relentlessly absent from the first two-thirds of Airs Above the Ground. Stewart takes her sweet, ver-r-r-r-y deliberate time with a setup that involves a missing Royal Lipizzan stallion, a small Austrian circus and a female veterinarian becoming gradually aware that her husband is–heart be still!–a secret agent for Her Majesty’s Government.

She makes up for it in the end.

In days of yore, even British Lady Novelists carrying the weight of Civilation knew how to write action and Stewart wrote it as well as anyone going, civilized or not. The last seventy pages turn over rapidly to a comfortably satisfying conclusion, with a couple of memorably hair-raising sequences along the way….

All of which leads me to conclude something I would have had a hard time believing when I was half-way through this.

I just might get around to those other Camelot novels yet!

 

ON TO SHILOH…

Back in 1989, I left Memphis one morning and decided to visit the national park that commemorates and preserves the Civil War battlefield at Shiloh, which I consider one of the more intriguing–and somewhat neglected–moments in American history.

The park is beautifully preserved but the battlefield itself is hard to get a grip on because it ranged over miles, back and forth, for two days. No way to see it except via the driving tour.

In 1989, I was just over half-way through the 20-stop tour (stop 11 as it turned out–and I was getting out and walking at every one…ah, Youth!), when my car refused to start back up.

Let’s just say that I never got to finish the tour and my sporadically starting-and-stopping vehicle finally gave out completely in Iuka, Mississippi, at around 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. The only place that was open was a pawnshop. The owner was behind the counter talking to a customer. When I walked in, he asked if he could help me. I explained that my car had broken down about a half-mile up the road.

Then he asked where I was trying to get to.

I told him I was headed for Florida.

At which point he proceded to completely ignore me for about fifteen minutes, evidently hoping I would go away.

Finally, perhaps sensing that I wasn’t likely to leave when there was literally no place else to go, he turned back to me and said, rather icily:

“What part of Florida?”

“Tallahassee,” I said.

From then on, he couldn’t have been nicer.

Turned out I was from the right part of Florida. The northern part–which is the Southern part.

I always got the impression that if I had said Orlando I would have been left to rot and if I had said Miami I might have been thrown in jail.

Eventually, when it was determined my car was not going to start again without some new parts, the pawnshop owner (who, when he heard I had been in Memphis, told me he had been on the car lot the first time Elvis bought a Cadillac for a stranger) offered to put me up at his house. He was very concerned about me having the stay in “the nigger motel” (the town’s only motel was owned by Pakistanis and, evidently, Elvis hadn’t made much impression on the pawnshop owner after all.). I was finally able to assure him it was okay but I imagine he thought less of me. (I also did not mention that my niece Candy’s husband Billy lived in Iuka. I did not mention this partly because they were going through a nasty divorce. Also partly because the last time I had seen Billy a couple of years earlier, Candy was set to take me to the tourist part of town on some expedition or other–Mud Island if memory serves–and, just as we were ready to pull away, he had leaned in the car window and basically said “Watch out for the niggers down there…Because whatever they do to her, I’ll do to you….You hear me?”)

I heard him. And I made up my mind if I was ever in Iuka, I wouldn’t bother to let him know.

While the pawnshop owner was calling around to arrange for a tow truck and a ride to the motel, his customer (who was still hanging around, probably because I was the story of the year–it’s like that in small towns) sidled over and asked, in all earnestness:

“The Cubans ain’t taken over Tallahassee yet have they?”

I assured him, that to my knowledge, they had not.

Three days later, I left Iuka with a new fuel pump and lots and lots of, er, interesting memories.

And the certain knowledge that, someday soon, I would get back to Shiloh–the battlefield just north of the town where they were still pretending the Civil War never happened–and finish that driving tour.

Twenty-three years later, some day came:

 

No sense starting a tour of the battlefield where they fought for the soul of the nation without my stopping to pose at the monument to my namesake…

...And marking his headquarters

…And marking his headquarters

No doubt he would be proud of my reading ability….

A replica of the church for which the battle was named…I caused much laughter by cracking my head on the five-foot high doorway (I mean after it was determined that I hadn’t suffered a concussion or anything…I’m SURE nobody was laughing before that!)

Sorry, sore noggin or no…I can’t resist a pulpit!

“Verily I say unto you, thou must exchange the God of Wrath for the God of Love!”…or something along those lines…good sermon for battlefields once they’ve been memorialized!

The field where the Confederate army, marching north from Corinth, Mississippi, surprised the Union army and began driving them back toward the Tennessee River…Within an hour, the survival of the Union–and the careers of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman–were all seriously in doubt.

By mid-morning, Union troops were in full retreat on both right and left flanks and the Confederates–having lost time while their starved troops stopped to plunder the abandoned Union camps–were again pushing hard on the center…They arrived at the open field to the left and swarmed the approach to the Sunken Road with every expectation of more Union panic, more Union retreat and certain destruction of the Army of the Tennessee ….

The view from the other side…Just past the Sunken Road, where the men from Iowa took their stand behind a line of trees…From this ground–known ever after as the Hornet’s Nest–they withstood four major Confederate assaults over eight hours…and broke the back of “the Cause” in the Western theater.

Stalking the line!

Shading my eyes while reading the monument to the Iowans who, in April of 1862, probably saved The Great Experiment…But if you want to consider it a salute, I can assure you I won’t mind.

Eventually, the Confederates brought up enough artillery to blast the Union troops out of the Hornet’s Nest. Most of the defenders escaped, the remnant surrendered…By then, the tide had been stemmed.  That evening, Sherman would approach his commanding general and say, ‘Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?’ ‘Yes,’ Grant would reply, ‘lick ’em tomorrow, though.’…The following day, the Confederates would retreat across the same ground.

 

...To valor

To valor…

Bloody Pond….where soldiers from both sides drank and bathed in the blood-stained water.

Where the dead rest…in peace I hope.

I hope it’s not twenty-three years before I get back again…but at least I can finally say I saw the whole thing once!

Tomorrow….I conclude my Southland tour with the Alabama Theater and Gone With the Wind.

(Photos, as before, courtesy of Dan Watson)