There’s so much more I want to say, but I ran out of time — and went on pretty long already. It’s really bugging me all the things I wanted to talk about, but didn’t. There may be a follow-up. I updated this slightly after posting thanks to a comment from the publisher.
by Janet E. Croon, ed.
Hardcover, 480 pg. (includes an 8-page photo insert)
Savas Beatie, 2018
Read: May 1 – 28, 2018
When he was twelve, LeRoy Wiley Gresham, of Macon, Georgia starts keeping a daily journal (well, as close to it as anyone really ever does). The year is 1860 and he and his father are headed to Philadelphia to consult with leading doctors about LeRoy’s medical condition, which local physicians have been unsuccessful in dealing with — the book contains a medical foreword and afterword that will explain these circumstances better than LeRoy ever does (partially because he doesn’t have the whole story). From Philadelphia they return home and to talk of succession — it’s not long before the Confederacy is born and Fort Sumter is fired upon. This is the setting for these journals — published for the first time this year.
LeRoy was born to be a Southern Gentleman and was raised as such — and between the War, his age and disease, he never really had an opportunity to examine his upbringing. As such, he is incredibly partisan, shows nothing but contempt for the Union, Lincoln, the Union Army, etc. The language and attitudes he uses toward his family’s slaves (and pretty much everyone’s slaves) is par for the course during the Civil War, readers need to remember this going on. He is also a pretty astute observer and realist — when the tide begins to turn for the Confederacy, he’s aware and his upfront about it (there are even traces of “I told you so” to his writing when it comes to certain strategies).
Meanwhile, life continues — people go to school, crops are grown and harvested, babies are born, people die and are married, kids get pets. LeRoy’s family were staunch Presbyterians, his father a leader in the local church — presbytery and synod meetings are also reported on.
For LeRoy, the years after his return from Philadelphia (and those leading up to it, really) are also years of deteriorating health, bouts of pain, and ineffective treatments. Those who put this book together have determined (and it seems only likely) that there are two major health problems going on here — a horrific leg injury sustained when he was 8 and tuberculosis. Neither did him any favors — his life wasn’t going to be easy just with the injury, but TB made it short. Tracing the worsening of each is tragic — and LeRoy dies not long after the end of the War.
All of these topics are detailed and recorded — almost every day — in a few brief sentences. Sometimes it can be jarring the way he’ll go from casualty numbers, to talk about his coughing, to a comment on peach harvests and the book he’s reading in a paragraph a little briefer than some of the longer ones in this post. But that’s just what was on his mind that day. Sometimes there are strange doodles or other things recorded, lists of Bible questions, practice trials of his own developing signature and other things like that (often with photos included).
The War reporting is going to get the bulk of each reader’s attention. Which is completely understandable — and it gets about half of the space of the book, the other topics compete for the other half of the space. His information (as the wonderful footnotes demonstrate) is frequently mistaken — and he knows his, and will often speculate about as he reports what the newspapers say. We’re used to news stories developing over minutes and hours, LeRoy had to be content with learning about something days after the event, and then still learning details weeks later. His frustration about that is seen occasionally — especially as te War grinds on and it’s harder for newspapers to be printed and delivered (paper itself becomes scarce). At one point there’s such an outbreak of smallpox that there’s no one available to bring his family their newspaper, so they have to send someone to retrieve it — LeRoy’s utter disgust at that is both hard to believe and completely human. “Fascinating” doesn’t come close to reading his perceptions and understanding the events that are history to us – talking about famous battles as they’re happening and news is getting out. His account of Sherman’s March is incredible – and adds so much perspective to the contemporary reader’s own understanding.
Normally, this writing would be something I’d pan and complain about. But this was never intended for publication — that’s clear — it’s a young man’s private journal and reads like it. You see a growth in his style, his way of thinking — and reading. But it isn’t an easy read with a strong narrative pulling you along. It’s repetitive, full of details that mean only something to him, stupid humor written for an audience of one (which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate his wit). Don’t expect to enjoy this read, to find a style that will grab you (or really, any style at all). It’s authentic — and not authentic in a “so well researched and told that it might as well be the real thing” way, but in a this is what this person thought and recorded about others’ thoughts in the 1860s to himself — it’s completely honest (well, there might be some self-deception/self-aggrandizement at work, but not much).
I grew to really like LeRoy — his attitude, his quiet faith, his patience, his stupid jokes, his intelligence. You watch someone’s life day-to-day for a few years and you almost can’t help it. His death — which I knew was coming before I opened the book, and knew was nigh given the date (and lack of pages left in the book) — struck me hard. I couldn’t believe it, really, but I got emotional in the last couple of entries.
His last entries are followed by the text of his obituary from the Macon Telegraph and a letter that his mother sent to her sister which filled in some details about his last days and condition. That letter is a great touch and helps you see that a lot of what you had learned about LeRoy from his writing was also seen by his family — it wasn’t just LeRoy’s self-image. You also see that LeRoy’s critical gaze, which is displayed frequently, was a family trait (but pretty understandable in the context)
The effort putting this book together — transcribing, deciphering, tracing the family members and friends — the medical research to diagnose LeRoy all these years later) — I can’t fathom. Croon deserves so much more reward than she’ll likely ever receive for this. Really, I’m in awe of her work. The Publisher’s Preface, Introduction, and Postscript (and aforementioned Medical Foreword/Afterword) are must-reads and will help the reader appreciate LeRoy’s own writing and Croon’s efforts.
Every so often, reading my email can be surreal — getting a request to read and post about this book was one of those times. The same form has led me to read a book about a P.I. with a talking (and sentient!) arm, a crime solving frog, and a werewolf rock star — and now, this literally unique book?* I’ve rarely felt so inadequate to the task. What do I know from historic diaries? Here’s what I can say — you have never read anything like this — it will appeal to the armchair historian in you (particularly if you’ve ever dabbled in being a Civil War buff); it’ll appeal to want an idea what everyday life was like 150 years ago; there’s a medical case study, too — this combination of themes is impossible to find anywhere else. This won’t be the easiest read you come across this year (whatever year it is that you come across it), but it’ll be one of the most compelling.
It feels stupid putting a star rating on this — but, hey, that’s the convention, so…no doubt about it:
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for this post and my honest opinions.
* Which is not to say that there weren’t merit to these books or that there weren’t others — of comparable quality to this. I could provide lists.
If someone knows just two names from the US War for Independence, they’re George Washington and Benedict Arnold. We should all probably know a few more, but most of us have those two in our mental arsenal. He’s easily the most famous traitor since Judas Iscariot — his name is synonymous with the act.
But how many of us know just how he betrayed the American forces? How’d he get to that position? What happened to him afterwards? This book answers those questions — and a few others you hadn’t thought to ask.
The story is just tragic, really. That’s not an apologetic for the guy — don’t make misunderstand me. But there’s just something about his floundering for significance and success that just strikes you as sad — he’s like Forrest Gump, but without engendering any good will anywhere.
I want to read more about Arnold after reading about this — something I never expected.
As they have every time I see them interact with Christianity, these authors just don’t get it. They seem to misunderstand the New Light/Old Light controversy and American Puritanism. It’s a very minor point in this narrative, but as trends go, it’s pretty annoying.
This is a pretty compelling story and the book seems longer than it is — that’s not long as in boring, but long as in it covers a lot and you’d think it’d take at least 20 more pages to fit it all in. This brief biography of Arnold is this series at its best — a brief introduction of something most of us should know about told in a way that you can digest easily, that will drive you to read more.
Series: in60LearningKindle Edition, 45 pg.
Read: May 4, 2018
The Roaring Twenties are frequently considered one of the more exciting periods of American history — it’s right there in the name after all. The cultural, economic and political changes that characterize this decade are the fodder for all sorts of reflection and analysis. This volume in the series attempts to be an introduction and a survey to this. And it is — just an uninspired and very surface-level one.
Something that most people forget — or misunderstand — is that Prohibition came from Progressive roots — sadly, this volume repeatedly attributes it to others. I’m not sure why — the moral/political battles of yesteryear don’t have to look like those of today.
Finally! There’s a Bibliography! I’ve lamented the lack of one of these in every installment in this series. Now we finally get one — it’s not long, but it’s robust enough to equip someone to start looking into the topic in more depth on their own. Bravo!
This isn’t the series at its best — I’m not sure what it was I didn’t like. It was . . . just dull? Lifeless is a better description. It covered the basics, but didn’t seem to want to do anything else — this series, when at it’s best seems like it’s a compression of something longer and more detailed. But This one almost seemed like it was stretching to fill the pages. Still, that Bibliography is worth at least a half start.
by The Babylon Bee
eARC, 208 pg.
Read: May 13, 2018
I’m pretty sure my introduction to the concept of satire came from the works of “Jovial” Bob Stine (this was before he discovered you could make a bazillion dollars selling horror books to kids) — The Sick Of Being Sick Book, The Cool Kids’ Guide to Summer Camp, Don’t Stand in the Soup, and How to be Funny. I hadn’t thought of him for years. Until I read How to Be a Perfect Christian, that is.
I’m not trying to suggest that this book is the equivalent of satirical children’s books from the early 80’s and late 70’s. But it’s exactly what someone who grew up reading that kind of thing should read. Also, I’m glad I got to spend a few moments remembering Jovial Bob Stine, and I wonder if I still have those books somewhere (and how un-funny would my own kids think they are).
If you’ve ever read anything from The Babylon Bee, you know what to expect from these guys. If you haven’t — you either should, or maybe this isn’t the book for you.
Styling itself as a guide to sanctification — there’s even a handy ruler at the end of each chapter helping the reader to note their progress — How to Be a Perfect Christian is a hands-on guide to making progress in Cultural Evangelicalism. There’s a chapter on picking the right Church (what can they do for me?), what things to volunteer for at church (minimum of work, maximum of exposure/attention), how to use social media (if your Quiet Time doesn’t result in an Instagram post, was there a point?). There’s a wide variety in the types of jokes here: there are dumb and obvious jokes, some subtle, some clever — all pointed. Which is the idea, they’re pointed so they can deflate contemporary American Evangelicalism — its cultural (sociopolitical/cultural) manifestations, anyway.
Yes, sometimes the prose contradicts itself — because the target or punchline on page 70 is different than the target or punchline on page 47. But that’s okay for two reasons — 1. the jokes land on both pages 70 and 47 (these numbers are made up, by the way), and 2. this books isn’t really trying to make a coherent, consistent argument. At least not for the first 98%, anyway. But the jokes are funny — not all of them laugh out loud funny, but they’ll elicit a chuckle or a grin. Some might just leave you with a general sense of amusement. Most will find a way to strike home (and there are a few duds — but everyone will have their own list of duds, I don’t think there’s one in the book that everyone will dislike).
More importantly, everyone will find themselves at the receiving end of the serrated edge of the satire more often than they’d like. But not in a guilt-inducing way, but in a — “hmm, I should probably work on that” kind of way. Which, I trust, is the point.
The last two percent (for those clever enough to do the math) that I pointed at earlier? Yeah, that’s what the whole book driving toward — the lampooning is for fun but there is an overall point under-girding everything. A point, that’s both well earned, and very needed, by cultural Christians, sincere and thoroughgoing Christians, and a waiting world.
Solid satire — laughs with an edge — directed toward a deserving target. The conclusion was equally on-point and earned. I honestly expected less from this book — yes, I knew there’s be good laughs along the way and that the necessary sacred cows would be shot at — I just wasn’t sure if The Babylon Bee could pull off a piece this long, and count the whole thing as a pleasant surprise.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from WaterBrook & Multnomah via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.
by Barb Taub
Kindle Edition, 175 pg.
Read: April 13 – 14, 2018
Barb Taub, a former Midwest newspaper columnist turned blogger, has released a collection of (I think) previously published and/or posted columns and blog posts around the family-related themes — kids, relationships, life, travel, holidays, pets, and death.
You know how there are hard-boiled mysteries, noir mysteries and cozy mysteries? This feels like cozy humor. (I’m sure there are better designations/genre labels, but I don’t know them). There’s nothing offensive, nothing boundary pushing, nothing upsetting — just amusing anecdotes, a slightly off-kilter look at life, and a way with words. Simple entertainment — pretty much what you’re looking for in a collection of humor, right?
I wouldn’t recommend sitting down and reading this cover to cover. Sample from it, a little here and a little there over a few days. Taub has a couple of phrases that she really likes, anecdotes that she returns to often (for different ends sometimes) — and I don’t blame her for doing so, when it works, it works. But when you read them too close together, it takes a way from the moment. But that’s a minor quibble.
This is a simple, straightforward, collection of amusing, occasionally heart-warming, pleasantly humorous pieces. I feel obligated to say something else about it, but I can’t think of anything else to say. Taub’s a funny woman, if you like reading funny things, you should read this book.
Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book by the author in exchange for my honest opinion and this post. I appreciate it, but this simple act didn’t impact my opinion.
“The final story, the final chapter of western man, I believe, lies in Los Angeles.” – Phil Ochs
This chapter epigraph reflects the obsession that so many have with Los Angeles, which is why we have a book about its founding, and not the founding of Seattle or Topeka.
When this book says “Before the Birth of Hollywood,” it means it — it starts as far back as 8000 B.C. with the Chumash people, tracing the various Native American groups to control the area, before eventually getting to the Spanish explorers and their descendants. From there they trace the various phases of Spanish rule of the area, followed by the Mexican rule and then eventually the transition to U. S. rule.
Through each era, the authors explore the cultural, religious, and economic lives of those in the greater L.A. area. I was vaguely aware of the Spanish and Mexican rule, but it didn’t take much reading in this book to realize how vague my awareness really was. This is truly interesting information, and I’d probably enjoy reading longer works on it.
I do have one quibble with the book — when discussing the ways the Spanish brought their own culture to the region, the book states: ” Spanish settlers, who had arrived in America to claim the land for themselves, converted the aboriginal people to Christianity and put them to work. There is some debate over whether they were forced into being baptized or impressed by the skills possessed by the Europeans and lured into doing so with the promise of knowledge and protection.” That bothers me. Why are those the only two options? Why couldn’t the converts be converted because they were convinced of the truth of Christianity? Or because they realized their own understanding of religion was deficient in comparison?
Quick read, that gives (at least) the impression of some sort of depth to the very focused topic. An easy read that offers a good deal of information that’s easily digested in a few minutes. Again, footnotes/endnotes and/or a bibliography/suggested reading list would be welcome additions to this book so the reader can follow up with something more in depth. Another good entry in a very helpful series.