Wednesday, April 25, 2012

civil war - the ken burns treatment

I just wrapped up the comprehensive and remarkably riveting Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War. Burns makes use of 16,000 archival photographs often set to a sad but sweet melody called "Ashokan Farewell" by Jay Ungar. There are wonderful insights from the writer Shelby Foote, historian Barbara J. Fields, and the narrators are divine casting from Morgan Freeman to Arthur Miller.

 First, some favorite quotes:

The last words of Stonewall Jackson: "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees." He also said that he'd always hoped to die on a Sunday.

A soldier regarding his uniform: "I got the best suit of clothes i've ever had in my life."

"It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." — Robert E. Lee, at Fredericksburg.

And then there are the facts: Following the Civil War, albumen glass negatives (photograph negatives) were reused as greenhouse windows. So, if you were in a greenhouse that used these negatives as panes you would see a history of the war and it's people through the sunlight. There's also a metaphor in that, over time, these panes will eventually find their subjects erased from the exposure to sunlight.

At the Battle of Shiloh, Nathanial Bedford Lee escaped the last shots by grabbing a soldier and holding him up behind him to take the bullets.

Stonewall Jackson rode with an arm raised to keep balance.

Abraham Lincoln's wife Mary never recovered from the assassination of her husband. She was committed by her sons to an asylum and passed away there.

The Siege of Vicksburg (Mississippi) ended with surrender on July 4. The city would not celebrate July 4 for eighty years in memory of the siege and their surrender. And this siege has more to it. They ran out of food and resorted to domestic meat and shoe leather. The news was printed on the back of salvaged wallpaper. Over 500 caves were dug into the yellow clay hills as hide out residences. Slaves operated them and there were attempts to make them more comfortable with rugs, pictures, and furniture. The Union soldiers called the town "Prairie Dog Village" after seeing the caves.

The documentary probes questions about our wars since and left me personally grateful for basic facts such as personally never having to run for my life. I was disappointed by the fleeting coverage of Sherman's March which remains the story I heard most as a southerner. Essentially, Sherman made it his goal to burn through Georgia and South Carolina. He took homes over as his temporary residence, collected family valuables for his own use, and set fire to many of the homes after his stay. It was a deeply personal attack on the southern people which is still relayed today in oral storytelling for its haunting nature. Still, there were so many revelations in the viewing of this documentary. It was impossible to not find myself repeatedly moved by the photographs, the stories, and, most of all, by the letters home.

Friday, April 20, 2012

the pulitzer prize awards no one

Not since 1977 has the Pulitzer Prize opted to not elect a winner in the fiction category and this year the reasoning is as terse as then.

How come I wonder if everyone is actually thinking 2012 was a bum year for fiction? And, this is where the center of the frustration lies. That's what the final vote came down to. None of the three nominees were deemed worthy which is rather depressing when David Foster Wallace, Karen Russell, and Denis Johnson are in the match.

Read what the jurors had to say here.

light years - james salter

A review...

In this lesser known novel by the A Sport and A Pastime author, James Salter analyzes marriage and the merits of independence vs. dependence. But, the novel is really a study of time. We know these characters through pin-points over twenty years. The writing is often stunning particularly as the characters travel through Europe in search of themselves and their true happiness. Salter is often oblique but because of this spare hand, some choices really mesmerize. He pays great attention to the changing of seasons and these shifts mark big changes for the characters. They are either skating on a frozen lake or swimming in it, red-faced from the sun. Amongst the despair of a tumbling marriage, there are the great joys of children, the family dog, and nature. The simple gifts of the earth don't go unnoticed. In the end, Salter is an ambassador for less is more. This book certainly achieves more because of what it holds back. There is something classic and mythical about his voice but also his subjects. The many lavish dinners and conversations that stretch over many pages are all in service of philosophy. He is also aware of the senses. During a tense conversation over the telephone he has our protagonist noticing that maids are dropping brooms in the hall. A lesser writer wouldn't have considered that in real life it's agonizing and yet real to have some awful sound obstructing the news you need to hear.

Nedra and Viri, our leads, betray one another. The center of the family breaks. As they fall apart and look for lovers, they realize the temporary exchange of their new lives. Lovers fade in and out or are incomparable to the first. They are becoming aware that happiness isn't coming to them. They are desperately looking for it. And then death comes. Nedra spends the bulk of the novel considering herself tough as a man but then, as she gets her freedom, she becomes intimate with other fears: poverty, loneliness, and rejection. Still, she surfaces the most. She realizes the love of her children can sustain her and give perfect love. Viri realizes too late that all he ever wanted was his children "to grow up in the happiest of homes." Which, as it turns out, was not their fate. He tries again by marrying badly to a woman who is not just obsessive but finds his role in her life as her only joy. He is wrecked by the anxiety of failure.

In the end, the novel has some moments of feeling slight. I was thrilled by the set-up for Franca, one of their daughters, but felt her character dropped off. We see her lose her virginity to someone she's met once and is too nervous to hold a conversation with so the result is chilling. Then, she peters out for the rest of the book returning but always at a great distance. The other daughter, Danny, is explored a touch more than Franca. Still, these girls are the descendants. I have to argue that there was an opportunity missed in their development.

Examples of favorite sentences and passages:

"Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives."

"Her father's suits were laid on the bed to be taken by the Salvation Army, his shirts, his empty shoes. The earth had thudded down on the crypt where he lay. All the ornaments, hats, belts, rings--how plain and cheap they seemed without him."

"Beneath their brilliance women have a power as stars have gravity. In the bottom of her cup lay the warm, rich silt."

This book isn't for everyone. It's a book for writers. And readers who are willing to spend some time and absorb slowly. The story is an abstract one that is not driven by twists and intricate plotting. It unspools.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

the ogeechee - jack leigh

The photos above are by Jack Leigh (8 November 1948 – 19 May 2004) of Savannah. Best known for the "Bird Girl" photo on the cover of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, his work touches on all aspects of the low country region. He died right as I was graduating college and his gallery was soon shut down thereafter. He's buried in Bonaventure Cemetery, the most beautiful cemetery by my books, and fitting as it was the original home of the "Bird Girl" until it had to be moved to the Telfair Museum due to several attempts of robbery.

These shots are culled from "The Ogeechee: A River and it's People." In the collection, Leigh talks with locals and learns how exactly they live off the land and water. Those who live by the river journey into town every so often for little more than coffee, cigarettes, and conversation. Muck running, baptisms, bluegrass dance parties, and beating snakes out of a canoe are all covered in text or beautifully photographed. Below is a quote that sums up so much of why I've not just taken comfort in water but also why memories of times spent through one's life at the river, lake, or beach have a certain sort of sweetness. Water is lands aisle seat after all, the big escape, the uncertain expanse of possibility.

"There's something timeless about the river that allows you to take your problems to it, and your problems become part of that timeless feeling. Then those problems don't look so large, and you can sort things out."

- George Darden, Resident of Hancock County/River Lover