Thursday, April 14, 2005

HISTORY: "Now He Belongs to the Ages"

It was Good Friday, 140 years ago. The war had been over for five days, ever since Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to U.S. Grant. Grant, merciless in battle, refused to live up to his nickname of "Unconditional Surrender." Instead of exulting over his defeated enemy, he offered generous terms that allowed the former soldiers and officers a chance to retain their dignity and their hope of getting in a crop in time so they wouldn't starve the next winter.

Nevertheless, the dissension was far from over. Northern fanatics wanted to crush the South. Southern fanatics wanted revenge. And President Lincoln wanted a peaceful night out at the theater.

You know what happened there. He lay wounded and dying for nine hours, then he too surrendered.

In honor of our greatest President, let me quote his own words. The occasion was his second inaugural, March 4,1865.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. 

. . . Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. . . . Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

Monday, April 11, 2005

FAVORITES: Some Nonfiction I Love, Part I

If I wait until I have thought of and filled out all the categories, I'll be 90 when I post this. (Damn. I'm more than halfway there. Hmmm.) So I've decided to post this in bits and pieces.

So, here are some of my favorite books, conveniently sorted into categories. With notes, naturally. These are not The Best. They're the ones I return to over and over, seeking wisdom, comfort, laughter, whatever it is that books give me.


John Keegan, The Face of Battle -- Fascinating look at how ordinary soldiers experienced battle -- what they saw, heard, felt -- in three of the great battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the first day of the Somme in WWI. Keegan writes elegant prose, and the ideas are astonishing. There are also a couple of chapters looking at historiography and the future of battle. Try to get one of the editions with photographs.

Priscilla Robertson, An Experience of Women. Well-written history with plenty of insight into both culture and character. It covers women's lives in Italy, France, Germany, and Great Britain during the 19th century. I also treasure it because it was one of the first books I ever worked on. (Also one of the most perfectly presented mss. I've ever handled.)

Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror. Such a classic it's almost embarrassing to include it, but I like Tuchman's writing, and the period fascinates me.

Carolly Erickson, Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England. I've done a lot of research into this period, and this book covers the ground thoroughly, from political movements to personal lives.

Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots and The Weaker Vessel (or anything else, really). She's a much better writer of history than of mystery.

Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. The last czar and his family epitomize the tragedy of disconnection. Essentially pleasant, well-meaning people who genuinely wanted the best for their country, they nevertheless could not understand the implications of their behavior or perceive the damage they were doing, and they died for their ignorance. I find the DNA discussions (and the implications of identifying the Romanovs' bodies) absolutely riveting.

Norman MacLean, Young Men and Fire. Lyrical, dark, tragic, compulsively readable.


Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (and anything else). Oliver Sacks sees his patients in humanistic, spiritual, and scientific frameworks. This triple view gives rise to extraordinarily nuanced and profound writing about what it means to think, to feel, to remember, to forget.

Richard Preston, The Hot Zone. It's terrifying! It's educational! It will make your breath come short! Oh, and his other books -- American Steel, for example -- are equally good.

Dr. X, Intern. I know it's outdated. I read it when it was new (say, about 1965), and he'd been a practicing doctor for a while then. But this account of an intern's training (taken from a series of taped diary entries) has the immediacy and impact of watching it all happen live. A friend tells me that this book was written by Dr. Alan E. Nourse, who became a science-fiction writer. That information (which is readily confirmed by a Web search on Nourse) has solved a mystery that lasted forty years. Now I feel weirdly happy.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

CALIFORNIA: Some Quotations

I'm not the first person to try to understand this place. Here are comments from a few others who came, saw, and marvelled.

"CALLIFORNIA, a large country of the West Indies... It is uncertain whether it be a peninsula or an island."—Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1st Edition (1771)

(Thus the title of Elna S. Bakker's indispensable study of the state's natural history, An Island Called California.)

The depth of California is extraordinary: it is the high tower and the bottomless pit, Babel and Gehenna. The land itself said as much, giving the state the highest and lowest points among the continental states and placing them so close together that they could hardly escape notice.—Wilson Carey McWilliams

You don't have to enjoy being miserable anymore; you're in California now.—Matthew Fisher

Here is a climate that breeds vigour, with just sufficient geniality to prevent the expenditure of most of that vigour in fighting the elements. Here is a climate where a man can work three hundred and sixty-five days in the year without the slightest hint of enervation, and where for three hundred and sixty-five nights he must perforce sleep under blankets. What more can one say? ... Nevertheless I take my medicine by continuing to live in this climate. Also, it is the only medicine I ever take.—Jack London

Californians try everything once.—T.J. MacGregor

When asked to comment on the fires ravaging his state, Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger said "These fires are fantastic. I promise the people of California that my term will be non-stop action and excitement—keep it coming, we're gonna have earthquakes and monsoons, we are gonna make California the number one action state in the country."—Tina Fey

About the only part of a California house you can't put your foot through is the door.—Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

California is a queer place—in a way, it has turned its back on the world, and looks into the void Pacific. It is absolutely selfish, very empty, but not false, and at least, not full of false effort.... It's sort of crazy-sensible. Just the moment: hardly as far ahead as carpe diem.—D.H. Lawrence

In California everyone goes to a therapist, is a therapist, or is a therapist going to a therapist.—Truman Capote

Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.—Don DeLillo

Whatever starts in California unfortunately has a tendency to spread.—Jimmy Carter, a remark in cabinet meeting, 1977

There is a theory that almost anything that's fun is going to be ruined sooner or later by people from California. They tend to bring seriousness to subjects that don't deserve it, and they tend to get very good at things that weren't very important in the first place.—Calvin Trillin

California can and does furnish the best bad things that are obtainable in America.—Hinton R. Helper

The devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant, nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again.—George F. Kennan on California's resemblance to heaven.

I am beginning to think that everyone in California is here by mistake.—Woody Allen

He was wearing a hat and a necktie so he couldn't have been in California long.—Dorothy Hughes

Did California cause any of this? No, though it does seem to draw to it people with unusual inclinations.—Jessamyn West

California is often compared to a lodestone, or a magnet, or the moon drawing the tides. On occasion, California is fancifully described as an enchantress—Circe, or one of the Sirens or the Lorelei. Every utopian name imaginable has been applied at some time—Atlantis, Arcadia, Avalon, the Garden of Eden, El Dorado, the Elysian Fields, the Garden of the Golden Apples, the Happy Valley, the Isle of the Blest, the Land of Milk and Honey, the Land of Prester John, Mecca, the New Jerusalem, the Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan, the Promised Land, the Terrestrial Paradise, and Treasure Island.—Dora Beale Polk

Essentially California developed outside the framework, the continuum, of the American frontier. The difference is that between a child raised in the home of his parents, with relatives and familiar surroundings, and the child taken from his home at an early age and brought up in a remote and different environment.—Carey McWilliams

What’s the answer to my state? There must be an answer to everything but for California I can reach no conclusion. Statisticians have tried. Even the Heaven on Earth Club has tried. But California continues to erupt.—Max Miller

Friday, April 01, 2005

PASSING BELLS: As John Paul II Lies Dying

I am praying for his peaceful death and his joyful entry into Heaven.

And after the rejoicing, I suspect that Mary is going to give him a little lecture on birth control and abortion, and Jesus one on liberation theology.

I have not always agreed with this Pope. But I honor his courage, his intelligence, his joyful spirit, his honesty, and his moral clarity about things like war, capitalism, and totalitarian regimes. The first Polish Pope, the first non-Italian in 500 years, made public apologies for the Church's role in persecuting Jews and Galileo. He changed the Church. He changed the world. Skier, poet, actor, scholar -- Karol Wojtyla was an extraordinary man, and John Paul II was a very great pope. No matter how strongly I disgreed with his views, I never, for one moment, doubted either his personal integrity or his profound compassion.