Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “civil war”

Jen K’s #CBRIV Review #44: The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Inspired by a true events though much of the novel is conjecture. The Civil War from the perspective of a black woman working as a spy in Richmond. Worth the read, especially for someone who enjoys historical fiction.

Valyruh’s #CBR Review #73: The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Pearl’s The Dante Club is a rousing success, both as an historical novel and as a murder mystery. But what elevates this novel above the rest, I felt, was Pearl’s decision to use The Divine Comedy of 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri not merely as a literary device to drive his murder plot, but as the underpinning for a broader investigation of a number of critical issues of the time. This novel takes place in Boston in 1865, where the aftershocks of the civil war are still very much in evidence.  Racism is still rampant, crime and violence is widespread and growing, religious and ethnic intolerance is pervasive, and the hidebound Harvard Corporation—a favorite target of Harvard graduate Pearl—has a stranglehold on the cultural, religious, and academic life of the city. Just the kind of issues Dante himself tackled in his famous poem.

Several of the top literary minds of the city have come together to help one of America’s most beloved poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, complete the first-ever American translation into English of Dante’s Commedia, a poetic trilogy detailing Dante’s metaphorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and ultimately Paradise. What makes Dante’s work unique is that it was the first serious literary work to be written in the Italian vernacular common to the people of that country—and thus accessible to them–as opposed to the Latin used among Italy’s elites. In racing to finish their translation, Boston’s Dante Club (as Longfellow and friends dub themselves) must fend off repeated sabotage efforts on the part of the Harvard Corporation, which sees the release of Dante’s masterpiece to the general American public as diluting the academic waters and threatening especially the so-called classical education which Harvard sees as its special preserve, and would keep for America’s elites alone.

It turns out that someone is murdering Boston’s top citizens in precisely the horrific ways described by Dante as he visits the tortured souls in Hell, and the Dante Club feels obliged to use its familiarity with the poem to anticipate and trap the killer, whom they call “Lucifer.” They eventually team up with Boston’s first non-white policeman, a former soldier of mixed race who has a fine investigator’s instinct but is hobbled at every turn by the prejudice surrounding him. It becomes a race to find Lucifer’s Dante source before the Club members themselves are targeted for the punishments of the “Inferno.”

Adding extra depth to the plot, I thought, were the pages Pearl devoted to harrowing first-hand accounts of civil war battle and the post-traumatic stress that afflicted so many of the survivors of that war upon their return to civilian life. My only complaint is that Pearl’s inexperience as a novelist at the time he wrote The Dante Club made for a certain anti-climactic weakness in the final pages of the novel following the denouement, but that didn’t significantly detract from the overall success of the novel.

I must confess that I was shocked at the number of readers of this book who complained of too much detail, too many literary references, and just plain boredom with Pearl’s writing. This is not your average “page-turner,” to be sure, nor is it intended as a light read. Indeed, to the author’s credit, he has taken his time and done meticulous research to be able to craft his novel for authenticity of detail on every front—from the sights and smells of 19th century Boston, to the literary circles of Longfellow and company, to the speaking style of his many different characters, down to the creative if gruesome specifics of the murders themselves. That authenticity of detail only enhanced the story, while providing much food for thought.

Finally, I would just say that you don’t have to be a lover of Dante to enjoy this book, but you will be by the time you finish it.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #64: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Mr. Ondaatje’s award-winning fourth novel, Anil’s Ghost, is exquisitely written and has been haunting me for days as I pondered how to write this review. The book is about horrific ethnic/religious warfare. It is about government tyranny we Westerners can only imagine. It is about a beautiful nation which has yet to discover its national identity after centuries of manipulation and exploitation and division through colonial rule. It is about two brothers who took different paths for dealing with the insanity that reigned in Sri Lanka during a 26-year “civil war” during which the world basically turned a blind eye to mass abductions, rapes and murders, economic and social dislocation and forced exile. It is about hopelessness. It is also about courage.

The Sri Lankan-born Canadian author lovingly introduces us to his land and his people, taking us on a guided tour of the island-nation’s natural beauty and ancient history, but he also reveals to us a land scarred by madness. Brothers Sarath and Gamini are born privileged but in the face of the widespread poverty and unending violence in their country, each rejects the money-making orientation of their wealthy parents. Sarath becomes an archeologist, turning his eyes away from the madness and into the safety and beauty of the past, and Gamini becomes an emergency doctor, submerging himself up to his eyeballs in the blood and gore of the victims while keeping himself too exhausted to contemplate the reality he is living.

Ondaatje centers his story around Anil, a young Sri Lankan expatriate, a forensic pathologist who has lived for years in the West, and has been deployed back into Sri Lanka as part of a UN human rights mission. The Sri Lankan government assigns the archaeologist Sarath to oversee the idealistic Anil, whom he at first accuses of being like “all those journalists who file reports about flies and scabs while staying at the (tourist) Galle Face Hotel. That false empathy and blame.” But Sarath is slowly, ineluctably drawn into Anil’s increasingly dangerous mission and together they attempt to unravel the identity of a burned skeleton found interred in a government-protected sixth century archaeological burial site. If the skeleton can be proven a recent victim of violence and its identity confirmed, there will exist solid evidence to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable.

Along the way, we meet Sarath’s mentor Palipana, an old blind wise man who has withdrawn from the insane terror around him into his own jungle paradise, and the “eye painter” Ananda, who used to sculpt and paint the eyes (considered the souls) onto Buddhist idols before retreating from that same insane terror which took his beloved wife and becoming a drunk. Ananda is recruited by Sarath and Anil to reconstruct the skull of their skeleton, thereby setting the stage for a rapid and terrifying climax to their mission.

Although Ondaatje clearly seeks to portray the horror that has been visited upon his country, and to hold a mirror up to the rest of the world which failed to intervene against that horror, he also wants us to know his country in all its beauty, nobility, sacrifice and courage. I could quibble with some things in the novel, such as his inclusion of flash-backs to Anil’s just-ended love affair back home which offers absolutely nothing to the story, but in sum, I would argue that this is a novel both beautifully and horribly relevant to today’s world, where the tyrannies and the mass graves and the terror are still waiting to be intervened against.

CommanderStrikeher’s #CBR 4 Review #21: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

*Audiobook Review*

With this review I am caught up to the books I am currently reading.  I am determined not to get behind ever again!


I told my mother the title for this book and she literally laughed until she cried.  For a solid five minutes.  I have never seen her laugh that hard in my life. I couldn’t describe the book to her because I was worried that I was going to kill her.


I liked this book, but I didn’t love it.  I thought the premise was interesting.  It is a detailed biography of Abraham Lincoln, and from time to time, he goes to hunt vampires.  This is from the author of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, a similarly silly concept.  Silly as the concept sounds, this was a pretty serious book.  When Abraham Lincoln was a boy, his father owed money to a vampire.  The vampire collected by killing Abe’s mother.  Young Abraham then dedicated his life to the destruction of the bloodsucking menace.  He discovers that slavery is basically a cover for feeding vampires.  Yep, the confederacy is backed by vampires.  Explains a lot, doesn’t it?


I would recommend this book to anyone who likes alternative history, civil war history, or vampire fiction.  However, with the movie coming out next month, I am curious to see if this will be one of the rare cases where i like the movie better than the novel.


3/5 Stars


ElCicco#CBR4Review#20: True Grit by Charles Portis

True Grit, a 1968 novel by Arkansas native Charles McColl Portis, is a highly regarded piece of modern American fiction. It has twice been made into major motion pictures and once filmed for TV.

True Grit tells the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross, circa 1875 Arkansas, who is set on avenging her father’s death at the hands of Tom Chaney, a hired hand. Mattie is a self assured, strong-willed young woman of Christian morals. She has a head for business and is unafraid to make judgments and see her decisions through to completion. When word of her father’s murder while on a business trip reaches home, there is no question that Mattie will take charge. She is the eldest child and her mother is too overcome to handle matters. Mattie travels to Fort Smith to see to her father’s body and his business deals (missing his funeral) and then sets down to getting justice. Frustrated by the slow response of law enforcement to her father’s murder, Mattie decides to hire someone to help her track down and kill Tom Chaney, who has fled into Indian Territory.

Mattie is a singular character. Though a young girl, she bosses about as if she were a man twice her age. And she gets her way most of the time. She gets the business deal she wants on the horses her father had purchased, and she hires US Marshal Rooster Cogburn to pursue Chaney with her in tow. She is determined to hire Cogburn because, according to the sheriff, he of all the marshals is the meanest. “He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” Mattie observes Cogburn giving testimony in court, where the defense attorney for outlaw Odus Wharton implies that Cogburn is an outlaw himself for his excessive force and shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to law enforcement. For Mattie, this means, Cogburn has “true grit”.

Mattie’s plan is complicated by the arrival in Fort Smith of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who is also after Chaney for murder. LaBoeuf is a bit of a dandy, and Mattie’s initial impression is that he is arrogant and rude. He does himself no favors by trying to convince Mattie to return home and let the professionals do their work. He wants to work with a Federal Marshal like Cogburn, but Mattie tries to brush him off and tells him to find his own Marshal. Their first conversation is combative but also an opportunity for Portis to show his flair for humor. After Mattie insults LaBoeuf’s investigating skills by pointing out that in four months of searching, he hasn’t found Chaney yet, LaBoeuf says, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.” “One would be as unpleasant as the other,” Mattie replies.

Eventually, Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf set out together into Indian Territory, although the two men do try to leave Mattie behind and LaBoeuf especially loathes her presence on the journey. Both Cogburn and LaBoeuf are concerned with money, and the three cannot agree on the question of whether Chaney, once apprehended, will be remanded to justice in Texas or Arkansas. Mattie has very definite ideas of what should happen to Chaney — death, and if there is to be a trial, it should be in Arkansas.

While searching for Chaney, the reader learns a bit about the backgrounds of Cogburn and LaBoeuf. Cogburn is 40-ish and fought alongside Jesse and Frank James under Capt. Quantrill in the Civil War. Quantrill was known for the war crimes he committed against civilian populations, and it is hinted that Cogburn might have been involved in one of the worst at Lawrence, Kansas. His work history after the war involved a variety of trades and illicit activities. He became a Federal Marshal after an employer brought him up on charges in Reno. The Marshal there recognized Cogburn from their youth and got him a job. LaBoeuf, on the other hand, was too young to get involved in the war until the very end, missing out on any important action, much to his disappointment. LaBoeuf has a glorified view of the war and fighting, which is perhaps easier to have when you haven’t seen the fighting. He remarks that he nearly cried when he heard the war was over. He is disgusted by Cogburn’s past (riding with Quantrill) and by his current behavior — siding with Mattie against him and engaging in excessive drinking.

As far as I’m concerned, Mattie is the most interesting character and the one who possesses “true grit.” It is hard to like her sometimes. She’s judgmental and can be obnoxious in her dealings with others, but she knows her purpose and is incredibly brave. I also find it interesting and funny that she frequently threatens to call in her lawyer to deal with those she feels are not being fair with her (i.e, giving in to her demands). Her confidence in the value of a good lawyer is especially amusing in her exchange with the outlaw known as Lucky Ned Pepper. When he discovers that LaBoeuf shot his horse, Lucky Ned says, “A man from Texas has no authority to fire at me.” Mattie responds, “I know nothing about that. I have a good lawyer at home.” Ned then asks about the fate of some of his other men and Mattie says, “They are both dead. It was a terrible thing to see. I was in the very middle of it. Do you need a good lawyer?” Later she adds, “My lawyer has political influence.”

True Grit has some interesting things to say about frontier justice (or injustice) and what I would call “American character.” Those in charge of law enforcement and justice are often unjust and guilty of lawbreaking themselves. Mattie, who puts so much stock in her lawyer’s abilities to protect her family’s property, leaves him out of her search for criminal justice and is only too eager to become a vigilante when it comes to avenging her father’s death. I think that that kind of thinking is widespread today. We are often called a litigious society and we still see today that people with guns are eager to take the law into their own hands (think Trayvon Martin). The resolution to this story and Mattie’s fate made me think of “an eye for an eye” in a very literal way. Mattie makes a physical sacrifice and seems to have no regrets about any of her actions.

The epilogue to this edition was written by Donna Tartt, a lifelong fan of the book along with several generations of her family. Tartt writes that True Grit was taught in one of her high school lit classes, and as I read the book, it occurred to me that this actually could be “youth lit.” True Grit really is an American Classic and a great read.

TheFatling’s #CBR4 Review #3: March by Geraldine Brooks

I probably should have written this review right after I finished the book.  It might have squeaked by with two stars, but the longer I thought about Geraldine Brooks’ March, the angrier I got.

More!  Some PG language!

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