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.
by Sergey Grechishkin
Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Read: March 19 – 26, 2018
I would spend hours by the balcony window, watching smoke rise from the power station chimneys on the horizon and listening to the suburban trains chug by in the distance. Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.
This is the kind of thing that you expect a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union to be full of — a grim skyline, yearning for something unobtainable, a general malaise. But in Sergey Grechishkin’s book, you don’t get a lot of that — yes, it’s there, to be sure (how could it not be?), but there’s so much more.
Grechishkin writes with a vivacity, a thorough-going sense of humor, a spark of hope that you don’t expect — and are frequently surprised by. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the USSR in the 70s and 80s, but he paints a picture of a life with hope. The book focuses on his childhood — particularly school ages — we get a little before, we see him briefly in University, with a hint or two about what happens next. But primarily we’re looking at his time in school. This coincides with the time of Leonid Brezhnev (at least the tail end) through the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev, with all the changes those days entailed. It’s not an incredibly political book — but it’d be difficult to discuss life under these various leaders without mentioning them and the way each government was different from the previous.
A word about the humor — which is all over. We’re not talking Yakov Smirnoff, first off. Secondly we’re not talking about anything that makes light of the hardships, or denies them. But comments that can talk about the hardships in a way that is above to find the humor in the human condition or something else we can all relate to: like
So many Soviet friendships and even families have been formed while standing in lines.
Nothing major — just a quick smile as you read. At other times, he’ll deliver a hard truth about life in the USSR through a joke. Like here, when describing how they couldn’t process the appearance of Western athletes on TV during the 1980 Olympics criticizing their governments:
For those lucky Soviet citizens who were allowed to cross the border, any sort of misbehaving while abroad or giving the slightest hint at being unhappy with the Soviet workers’ paradise would mean no more trips anywhere except to camping locations in eastern Siberia.
You laugh, and then you realize that he’s talking about a harsh or sad reality while you’re laughing. I don’t know how many times I’d think about something being funny or actually be chuckling at something when I’d catch myself, because I realize what he’s actually getting at.
The jokes slow down as he ages and the narration becomes less universal and more particular to his life — looming chances of being sent to Afghanistan, and other harder realities of adulthood on the horizon. It’s still there, it’s just deployed less.
While narrating his life, Grechishkin is able to describe living conditions, schooling, medical care, shopping, food, friendships, family life, dating, Western movies, crime, the role of alcohol in society, political dissidents, and so much more. I enjoyed his discussing the experience of reading George Orwell (via photocopy) or listening to Western pop music — learning that LPs were “pressed at underground labs onto discarded plastic X-ray images.” You can do that? That sounds cool (and low-fidelity). Almost everything in the book seems just the way you’d expect it, if you stopped to think of it — but from Grechishkin’s life experience it seems more real.
This is one of those books that you want to keep talking and talking and talking about — but I can’t, nor should I. You need to read this for yourself. If only because Grechishkin can do a better job telling his story than I can. You really don’t think that this is the kind of book you can enjoy — but it is..
Did I have a happy childhood? Well, it was what it was. From a nutritional and a relationship standpoint, it wasn’t particularly great. But it also wasn’t awful or tragic. It was, when I look back on it now, normal.
Normal was a word that showed up more than once in my notes — despite everything around him, his childhood seemed normal (and its only now that I remember tat the word is in the title). I’m not saying that I’d trade places with him, his life was not easy — or that there weren’t kids in Leningrad who suffered more forms of deprivation or oppression (not to mention kids in less well-off areas in the USSR). But on the whole, he had a childhood thanks to a caring family, a good school, and good friends. Everything is Normal shows how against a bleak background, a normal life can be possible. It does so with heart, perspective, humor and a gift for story-telling. Exactly the kind of memoir that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I received this book from Inkshares in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.
We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover (yet, publishing companies spend big bucks on cover design/art) (also, this has a great cover). But, the opening sentence(s)/paragraph(s) are fair game. So, when I stumble on a good opening (or remember one and pull it off the shelves), I’ll throw it up here. Dare you not to read the rest of the book.
from Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid by Sergey Grechishkin:
n.: the most popular form of Soviet humor, a short story or dialogue with a punch line, often politically subversive. “Being simultaneously independent from and parasitically attached to mass cultural production and authoritative discourse, the anekdot served as a template for an alternative, satirical, reflexive, collective voice-over narration of the Soviet century.”
Many of the anekdots under this book’s chapter headings were once punishable in the USSR by up to ten years of forced labor under article 58 of the criminal code (“ Anti-Soviet Propaganda”). This article was used freely to put critics of the Soviet government behind bars. Today, of course, things are very different in Russia. Now it’s article 282.
Maybe it’s just given the subject matter, I was expecting something dreary or earnest or incredibly serious — or all three, but man, I cracked up at that last sentence. I tell you, my friends, this book is going to have to work for less than 4 stars from me at this point.
by Charles St. Anthony
Kindle Edition, 62 pg.
Read: February 2, 2018
This is a combination of memoir of a Lyft/Uber driver, and a guide to starting/surviving/thriving as one in a tough market. A memoir/guide written by a humorist, it should be stressed, so there’s plenty of humor infused throughout. That right there sounds like a winning book — and Uber Diva almost was one.
Sadly, it came across as a pretty good first draft or a series of short blog posts. Every chapter — almost every paragraph — could’ve used just a little more. A little more detail, a little more context. A few chapters read like a thorough outline rather than actual prose — just a series of bullet points along a theme. A little more expansion, a little more time spent with each idea and this would’ve been a whole lot of fun. As it is, Uber Diva is frequently worth a chuckle or wry smile to oneself, but it’s never enough to satisfy
I’m not crazy about St. Anthony’s organization, either — I’m not sure it ever made that much sense. Particularly, the jump from his opening to the rest just didn’t work for me, it was a jarring tonal shift. The first chapter would’ve fit better as a closing or penultimate chapter, if you ask me.
There’s a lot to like here, but it feels undercooked. It’s enjoyable enough — especially, I bet, for Lyft/Uber drivers — but it could’ve been so much better. A little more revision, a little expansion and I bet I’d be talking about a good read, rather than one that’s just good enough.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the author in exchange for my honest opinion.
Like every single year, I didn’t read as much Non-Fiction as I meant to — but I did read a decent amount. These are the best of the bunch.
(in alphabetical order by author)
My original post
Nathaniel Barber has a real gift at taking embarrassing (mortifying?), frustrating, and/or inexplicable episodes from his life and turning them into amusing tales. Some of the best descriptive passages I read this year — no matter the genre. I won’t promise you’ll like every story in this collection of short autobiographical pieces, but you’ll like most of ’em — and you will find something in the rest to appreciate. Fun, heartwarming, and disturbing — sometimes all at once.
As Carl Trueman asked Jacobs, how do you give this book to someone with that title? It’s a shame you can’t give it as a gift without implicitly insulting someone, because this needs to be given to everyone you know — especially everyone who spends any time online. Entertaining, convicting, convincing, challenging. This is as close to a must read as I came across last year (maybe in the last two).
by Andy Martin
You know how many times I’ve tried to write about this book? I read it back in January and am still enthused about it. Part literary criticism, part author biography, part fan letter — Martin follows Lee Child through the writing of Make Me, and delivers one of the most enjoyable reads from last year — easy. It’s like the one of your favorite DVDs with a fantastic set of commentaries and special features, but somehow better (for one thing, it’s not like Martin’s drowning out the best scenes with his blather). It reminds me of talking about Child/Reacher with a good friend (which I do pretty frequently) — but Martin’s more erudite than either of us. Just so much fun.
Unlike the Jacobs book, I do know how to give this to people — and I have. The writing could be sharper — but the story? It’ll reshape the way you think about the Holocaust — not by lessening the horror, but by broadening your view. This story of survival is one that will stay with you.
by Isaac Alexis, MD
Kindle Edition, 100 pg.
Read: December 12, 2017
I wanted to use science to heal people and simultaneously teach them about how their bodies functioned and how to properly take care of their bodies. I also wanted to make a difference in the lives of people who traditionally did not have access to care to begin with. So I chose correctional medicine. It had its challenges but also opportunities to save many lives. In my opinion, it also had areas that seriously needed to be addressed.
Years after this decision, Dr. Alexis has turned to writing, using his experiences and point of view, to discuss some health tips and suggestions to help teens through some hot-button and pressing issues.
After a quick autobiographical chapter, the chapters revolve around the treatment of one particular patient, and then using that patient’s particular diagnosis (or lack thereof) and struggle as a launching point for health tips and/or discussion of some of the struggles that young people (or everyone) go through related to STDs, Drug Abuse, Gang Membership, etc.
There is so much energy, so much care, conviction, expertise behind this book that it’s a shame I can’t heartily endorse it. There’s a lot of heart here, and I admire that. But it’s just not that well written. Maybe it’d be more correct to say that it wasn’t that well-edited and re-written.
First of all, it needs a thorough editorial pass on basic grammar. But it needs some work on structure, too. Within the various chapters, things can seem to be randomly organized with a lack of transitions, or foundation for some of what he’s talking about. That page count of 100 pages should be 150 at a minimum — he really needs to flesh out everything just a bit. He’s got the material, he just needs to work with it a bit more so his readers can better understand both his experiences and perspective. The nature of the facility he works at — and its relation to other prisons and hospitals, is a good example — I think I have a decent idea how all that works out, but it takes using information from all parts of the book to come up with my guess; that shouldn’t be, I should’ve been given a one or two (or more) sentence description of that so I can appreciate his struggles to provide adequate care.
Now, what he doesn’t need to give us more of us medical jargon — often he’ll unleash a couple of paragraphs of almost non-stop medical terminology. This is not a bad thing, but I think he could help the non-informed reader a little bit more than he does with some of those streams of terminology. What I eventually decided is, the book reads like a transcript of someone telling stories about his life to a new friend, people just sitting around a table swapping stories. The hopping around, the unclear writing, and so on come across just the way people talk. If you think of it that way, the book is a lot easier to take.
If you can find some way (my suggestion or something else that works for you) to overlook/make your peace with Alexis’ style, you’ll probably enjoy this book. You can even appreciate the book without that — it’s just harder. Alexis writes from conviction and passion — with a healthy dose of morality. There’s a lot to be gained from this book. I liked Life and Death Behind the Brick and Razor, but it woulnd’t take much to make me like it sooo much more. He has important things to say, I just wish the book did a better job of providing the platform.
Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for this post and my participation in this tour — I appreciate the opportunity, but my opinion remains my own.