Monthly Archives: June 2013

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

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Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

1998. Vintage Books. Paperback. 406 pages.

Recommended by: my co-worker Kim

Backstory:

When author Tony Horwitz is awakened one morning by the gunfire of reenactors near his Virginia home, his childhood interest in the Civil War is reignited. He does a trial run of sorts: spending a chilly night and tiring day with some hardcore reenactors. And then he decides to spend a year exploring the Civil War: the places where battles were fought and also how the Civil War permeates the lives of people today. In particular, Horwitz hones in on the Southern perception of that history and of the Confederacy.

Review:

Confederates in the Attic is a thoughtful travel memoir that takes in the spectrum – from the ridiculous (Cats of the Confederacy) to the sobering (a Kentucky town is divided by a murder where the instigating factor was a Confederate flag).

I liked how Horwitz is honest about his reactions to the people he interviews, but at the same time lets them speak for themselves. The lady who started the Cats of the Confederacy isn’t turned into a caricature. Horwitz doesn’t simplify the emotional and societal complexities surrounding that murder in Kentucky: a young white man driving a pickup truck with a Confederate flag in the flatbed is pursued by four black teenagers in a car, one of whom shoots and kills the pickup driver. The teenagers claim that the man, Michael Westerman, shouted a racial epithet at them while at a gas station. Michael’s wife, passenger in the truck, denies that she or Michael said anything. In the aftermath, neo-Confederate and Southern pride groups claim Michael as a new Confederate martyr and hold rallies in their name. The local high school’s move to remove the Confederate flag as its mascot becomes a bitter battle. Horwitz interviews many of the people involved as well as other denizens of the affected town and exposes the town’s seemingly intractable societal and racial divide that surrounds this flashpoint.

One of my favorite chapters was “The Civil Wargasm”, where Horwitz and hard-core reenactor Rob Hodge haul themselves on an epic week-long tour of battle sites in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. At the conclusion of their trip, Horwitz joins in on the annual recreation of Pickett’s doomed charge in the battle of Gettysburg. He is on the brink of at last feeling the “period rush” the reenactors talk about, when the clamoring of observing tourists distracts him.

A lobster-red woman in a halter top matched Rob stride for stride, carefully studying his uniform.

“What are you guys?” she asked.

“Confederates,” Rob mumbled.

“Ferrets?”

“Confederates,” Rob repeated.

“Oh,” the woman said, looking underwhelmed.

p. 278

The chapter on the prisoner of war camps – specifically that of Andersonville – was also very interesting to me. When I was in eighth grade, our classes combined for a mock trial of Andersonville’s commander, Henry Wirz, who had been charged and convicted for war crimes after the Civil War. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure we found him guilty as well, though I’m not sure if the teachers let us decide on the sentencing. In his visit to the site of Andersonville, Horwitz finds several passionate people eager to defend Wirz and blame everything on the North. Horwitz tries to suss out the truth of the situation, some middle ground between Wirz as monster and Wirz as saint. But I was perhaps most struck by the tragic fact that after the war ended and the prisoners were released from Andersonville, hundreds of them died in a steamship accident as they were headed home. That’s the kind of history that is just heart-breaking.

I don’t mean to imply that the book is episodic in nature by highlighting specific chapters. Again and again, in different variations and faces, Horwitz describes how people and communities interact, reenact and repurpose history in the present-day lives. The penultimate chapter takes Horwitz to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, where Civil War and Civil Rights historical markers and sites share space, and this provides another angle on this theme.

I am definitely quite out of my element when it comes to Southern culture and ideas. I watched Gettysburg in middle school and cheered on the 23rd Maine, which was led by Joshua Chamberlain, future governor of my home state. I felt like reading this book gave me some additional insight into one aspect of the South, beyond what little I have experienced personally. And then overall, I found it an enjoyable thought-provoking book by an author whose work I would definitely pick up again.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

50 Books Project – “Read it if you like historical nonfiction or the Civil War. Otherwise, it may not hold your attention. I thought Horwitz´s writing style was similar to Bill Bryson”

Maggie Reads – “It is the friendship between Horwitz and Hodge that provides comic relief throughout Confederates in the Attic. Readers will find the humor sustains their disbelief during the racism encountered as an uncivil war between black and white emerges.”

Semicolon – “Another theme is the disappearance of many historic Civil War sites, overtaken by highways, office parks, and suburbs. Horowitz mourns the loss of these sites as he acknowledges its inevitability.”

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Mondays with Bean

Okay, I’m calling this post “Mondays with Bean” in case this turns into a regular feature but it may not, depending on interest. Anyway, I know a lot of book-lovers also love seeing pictures of our furry companions. I introduced my cat Bean to the blog last fall and she hasn’t been on the blog since so let’s fix that, because she’s adorable.

Here’s a fun video I stitched together of Bean chasing a ball:

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Fifty Fashion Looks that Changed the 1960s by Paula Reed, Design Museum

IMG_9737  2012. Octopus Books. Hardcover. 112 pages.

Backstory:

This was just a book I spied in the new non-fiction section of my public library. There was one for the 1950s and one for the 1970s as well. But I’ve often admired the ‘mod’ style of the 1960s, even if I’m not much of a vintage shopper or fashionista myself. And this seemed like a fun, light book to flip through before bed.

Review:

The fifty “looks” described in this book include singers, models, actresses, movies, fashion photographers, designers, stylists, magazines, and boutiques. Fifty Fashion Looks is not a coffee-table size book, but about the size of a regular book. The layout of the book is very simple: description on the left, photograph on the right.

IMG_9740In this way, the book gives the reader a quick cram course in the who’s who of 1960’s fashion. It’s a starting place for a novice fashion hobbyist / student. According to the book, London took center stage in the fashion world during this decade, but this also was the decade that Milan fashion house Missoni got traction and Finnish company Marimekko rose in prominence.

Some people mentioned in the book I knew already, such as Jackie Kennedy, Dusty Springfield, Janis Joplin, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, and Twiggy. (When I was little, my parents named our pet ferret Twiggy.) I’d heard of the movies Blow-Up, La Dolce Vita and Bonnie & Clyde.

But there were plenty of people who I didn’t know at all, or only had a vague familiarity with, such as non-Twiggy models Jean Shrimpton (‘The Shrimp’), Veruschka, and Penelope Tree.

Shrimpton

Jean Shrimpton

Veruschka Safari

Veruschka, wearing YSL safari outfit. (This photo is not in the book).

Penelope Tree

Penelope Tree

An interesting excerpt about Penelope Tree:

London might have had ‘The Twig’, but New York had ‘The Tree’. ‘She’s perfect. Don’t touch her,’ said [photographer] Avedon to an editor who suggested tweaking her look. Tree relished the possibilities a fashion career offered escaping her conventional background. ‘People thought I was a freak. I kind of liked that.’ When John Lennon was asked to describe her in three words, he is said to have replied: ‘Hot, hot, hot, smart, smart, smart!’

Her relationship with [photographer] Bailey and her fashion career ended abruptly when late-onset acne left her with scarring. She has recently told Louise France in the Guardian: ‘I went from being sought-after to being shunned, because nobody could bear to talk about the way I looked.’

p. 76

I thought the fact that her career ended due to acne was interesting – I’ve wondered if that kind of thing happened.

The book also made me curious about fashion photographers David Bailey and Richard Avedon. As the book’s layout only allowed for one photo per ‘look’, the photos for Bailey and Avedon were photos of them, not photos by them. Their style was described, but I wanted to see for myself, and found these great photos online.

Of David Bailey, Reed writes: “His images had an engaging and uncompromising toughness: black and white, minimalist and very graphic” (p. 32).

Bailey Caine

Michael Caine – photo by David Bailey

Bailey Shrimp

Jean Shrimpton – photo by David Bailey

The image I found of the Michael Caine photo is not great quality, but it just oozes such cool. And the Shrimpton one is just so lovely.

Of Richard Avedon’s photography style, Paula Reed writes: “He was the 60s frenetic energy in human form. As his friend and fellow fashion photographer Lillian Bassman once said, ‘Did you ever meet Dick? He was always jumping around.'”

Richard-Avedon-19 ????????????????????????????????????????????????????Avedon couple

Anyway, I had fun looking through this book and it was a great launch-pad for exploring more of the styles and fashions online. When I went back to the public library this weekend, I saw that the other two in the series were no longer there, but I think I may check them out someday.

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Istanbul / Jordan Trip Day 5 (Mt. Nebo, the Dead Sea and camels)

Hopefully, my posts on my trip aren’t getting tiresome. I know a few people who are enjoying them (including my parents, hi!) so I will keep writing them.

Anyway, now for the Jordan part of the trip. The morning after our late-night arrival in Madaba, my sister and I took a public transport van to Amman to pick up a rental car. I finally got to take a good look at Jordan in the daylight. It was quite the drastic difference from the rainy urban scene of Istanbul.

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Photo taken from the car ride.

My sister admirably navigated the Nissan through the confusing roundabouts of Amman back to Madaba. We picked up lunch – rotisserie-style chicken that came wrapped in flat bread with fries and served with this magnificent thick garlic paste/sauce (my internet research says this is probably the sauce called toum).

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In the afternoon, we drove to see Mt. Nebo, the place where the prophet Moses died. Groups of school kids tried to get our attention by saying words to us in English, which we ignored, and they roamed on, giggling at their boldness. There were of course plenty of tourists. The church there was closed for repair, but there were some mosaics on display that were pretty cool and a taste of the kind of ancient art we were to see later at other sites in Jordan.

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After leaving the site, we went down the road a little ways to find a better vantage point to see across to Israel and the Dead Sea.

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Then we began driving down the hills toward the Dead Sea. We spotted Bedouin tents and livestock, and on the road that ran along the Dead Sea, I even got a decent shot of a boy riding a camel.

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We parked at a resort and paid their beach access fee. Using a resort’s beach on the Dead Sea instead of a public beach meant access to shower facilities, for rinsing off the salt. As advertised, the Dead Sea was amazingly bouyant, and it was awesome just to effortlessly float on my back. Trying to swim felt weird. Jen got some salt in her eye which was unfortunate. We didn’t stay long as it was close to sunset. Rinsing off took away much of the salt, and my skin did feel different and softer.

On the drive back to Madaba, we were all thrilled when a small camel herd crossed the road in front of us. Even my sister, who had been in Jordan for a little while, said she hadn’t seen camels herded across a road before.

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My friend Jen took this lovely shot.

My friend Jen took this lovely shot.

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Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Lonesome_Dove  1985. Pocket Books. Mass Market Paperback. 945 pages.

Recommendation from: Capricious Reader

Backstory:

I have had Lonesome Dove on my to-read list for a couple of years, assured by several bloggers that one didn’t need to be a lover of westerns to love Lonesome Dove. Last December, I bought Lonesome Dove from a public library’s book sale room. For my trip to Istanbul and to Jordan, I didn’t plan on reading much, so I wanted to bring only one book, preferably long, preferably mass market, and preferably an already used and worn copy that I could just toss carelessly into my bag if needed. Lonesome Dove fit the bill. I only read a little of it on my trip, in the end, but I read enough to know I’d made the right choice. I raced through the rest in the couple of weeks following my return to the States.

My prior experience with Larry McMurtry was minimal: I’d seen the movie The Last Picture Show, based on one his books, and co-adapted to a screenplay by him. Last Monday was his 77th birthday, so I figured it was about time that I reviewed this Pulitzer-winning classic.

The story is this: Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, former Texas Rangers, decide to drive a herd of cattle from the small outpost of Lonesome Dove, Texas to the new frontier of Montana. Cowboys, sheriffs, outlaws, tough frontier women and prostitutes populate the sprawling cast of characters.

Review:

Lonesome Dove is prefaced by the following quote by someone named T.K. Whipple: “All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” I love this quote, especially the last part. It just completely set me up for McMurtry’s superb storytelling, bringing me fully into his imagination of life in the wild West.

I read Lonesome Dove for hours at a time. Like all good epics, it takes the reader through a range of emotions – it can be very funny but it can also completely devastate you. At one point midway through the novel, several characters are killed suddenly and it really hit me in the gut. They were minor characters but so well-drawn, and I had been looking forward to their continued adventures in the novel. Then suddenly they were all dead and from then on, I realized that no character was safe, that not even their ambitious endeavor of a cattle drive was safe from failure. (I should add this warning: this book does have a few very violent and disturbing scenes.)

It’s an interesting dynamic in Lonesome Dove: on the one hand, the characters will act heroically and seem the stuff of legends at times, but the characters are also people stuck in emotional ruts, not really able to transform themselves for the better. The ending of the book was sad, not because of particular deaths (although those were a factor), but because most of the still-living characters remain frustrated and disappointed with each other in the end. Their victories over life-threatening situations seem hollow because they are all still so dissatisfied. The ride into the sunset is not all it’s cracked up to be.

There are so many things I could discuss about this book, especially with others who have read it. I’d love to compare reactions to certain characters and certain plot turns in the book. Also, while Lonesome Dove felt incredibly authentic in its setting and details of the cattle drive, was anyone else wondering about the lack of railroads mentioned in the book? I believe the book takes place a couple of decades after the Civil War, and the first Transcontinental Railroad was built in the 1860’s. I love the book so much that this wasn’t a real detraction, but it did seem like an omission.

I’m going to add this book to my Classic Club list. I mainly was keeping the list to books older than myself, but Lonesome Dove is so obviously a classic that I have to break that ‘rule’ and add it.

Excerpts from other reviews:

Farm Lane Books – “The book started off very slowly – it took me about 300 pages to begin to engage with the characters, but once this happened I found them to be some of the most vivid I’ve ever read about.”

Life with Books – “I laughed, I cried, I wanted to be a cowboy.”

Steph Su Reads – “A writer can write as much as he or she wants on the setting, but it is the people in LONESOME DOVE that really make you feel the dust between your teeth, snowblindness in your eyes, wet boots and socks through powerful Midwestern storms.” [This review also makes a good point about the PoC characters].

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Istanbul / Jordan Trip Day 4 (Hagia Sophia, Istiklal Street, Taksim Square)

On our last day in Istanbul, we finally made it inside the famous Hagia Sophia. Prior to planning this trip, this famous building (once a church, then a mosque, now a museum) was one of the few tourist sites that I knew about in Istanbul. It was absolutely clogged with tourists. Because of this, and perhaps because it is no longer used as a house of worship, Hagia Sophia lacked – for me – the serenity of the mosques we had visited in the previous days. Hagia Sophia was also undergoing some interior renovation, which probably contributed to my feeling underwhelmed by it. I felt like I became a tourist automaton – shuffling from view to view, pointing my camera where others were pointing their cameras.

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There were several mausoleums for sultans’ families on the grounds of Hagia Sophia. We were much more taken by these tiny architectural beauties.

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After this visit, we crossed the Golden Horn to the New District, taking the Tunel Funicular up to Istiklal Street, a pedestrian and tram thoroughfare that was lined with major retail stores, a couple of churches, some consulates, and an elite and grand high school. We stopped in a few shops and also at a century-old Catholic church (brand-new by Istanbul standards).

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Istiklal Street

Our last stop in the New District –  before backtracking the way we came –  was Taksim Square and the Republic Monument. The Monument depicts Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, as a military hero on one side and as Turkey’s first president on the other. We had read about Taksim Square’s historic role as a location of rallies and also read of the violence there on May 1, 1977 that had led to the deaths of over 30 people (the exact number is disputed). The day we were there, it had just the normal foot traffic of a significant site in a busy city. As of today, of course, Taksim Square has returned to the international headlines. I don’t have to have visited a place to feel concern for the people who live there, but my visit to Istanbul has definitely added an extra layer to that concern.

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Republic Monument in Taksim Square.

After lunch at a waffle bar, we went back to the hostel to gather our things, and then took our last ferry ride across the Bosphorus. We sat at tables in the below decks with other passengers. An older man sitting across from us asked where we were from. When we said we were from the United States, he showed us the front page of his newspaper; it showed a water cannon blasting Turkish protesters. In his limited English vocabulary (still better than our small collection of Turkish words), he tried to express his feelings about the state of Turkey’s democracy. We could only respond inadequately with sympathetic looks, and he concluded by saying “thank you, thank you.” He was quiet for a bit and then repeated to us “Turkey – no democracy”, and then stopped again with a “thank you.”

The trip by public transport to the airport was long, but we finally made it. Our flight to Amman was shared with a sizable group of Americans on a Holy Land tour. From the Amman airport, we took a cab to the nearby town of Madaba, which was to be our home base for the Jordan trip.

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