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Wednesday, May 2, 2018


Varina by Charles Frazier

Whether its history, biography or historical fiction the devastation of the American Civil War is widely read and known about but not always and not about  everyone who was there.  Charles Frazier, author of best seller Cold Mountain, takes us back to those awful days and introduces us to a teenage girl who lived surrounded by the people, events and consequences of that awful war.

Her name is Varina Howell.  With a financially reckless father she agrees to wed the much-older widower Jefferson Davis, perhaps giving her stability and the ability to help her parents. Davis is a wealthy Mississippi planter and slaveholder.   Davis pursue politics and Varina find herself in Washington  where he husband is a key figure as a Congressman and leading figure in several administrations.

   Davis is eventually appointed president of the Confederacy, putting Varina in the middle of things. For Civil War “buffs” the details of the war as seen thru Varinas life  will likely not reveal much that is new. It is her life, experiences and thoughts that grab the reader.  The Confederacy falling, her marriage in tatters,  her rescue of a black child being beaten on the street of Richmond, later raising that boy with her own children is only the beginning. Later she and her children escape Richmond and travel south on their own, now fugitives with “bounties on their heads, an entire nation in pursuit.” This is the story of  one woman’s tragic life and is epic in its breadth and intimacy.

Because her twilight years were more interesting to Frazier, he decided against using a traditional biographical approach to tell Davis’ story. This bothered me at first. I like and need chronology to keep track of things in any story. I’ll let the author explain in his own words…

“I decided early on that I didn’t want the structure to be based on the calendar,” he said. “I wanted it to be based on memory and association. I wanted that back and forth, push and pull, jumping through time.”To reveal her tale, Frazier drew on a real person from her past. During the last year of the war, the Davis family took in a young mixed-race boy and raised him with their children. That boy, known as Jimmy Limber, was taken away when the family was captured by Union soldiers as they tried to flee to Cuba. He never saw Varina Davis again. And his fate remains a mystery. For his  novel, “Varina,” Frazier creates James Blake, the adult version of that boy. Blake, who is a teacher, becomes the book’s driving force as he tracks Davis down and pushes her to help him understand his past.

The book’s chapters alternate between the two adults and Davis’ life in New York and flashbacks that reveal her childhood, her marriage and particularly the harrowing journey she and her children took as they fled Richmond after the Confederacy collapsed. The narrative jumping around can be frustrating at first but in the end the reader realizes that this is an exploration of  Varinas memories, her feeling of complicity and realizations of the moral depravity of slavery and it consequences in her own life.

Having previously read and reviewed the story of the Grimke sisters (The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kid   ) this book was an interesting counterpoint.  Varina is a feminist in her own right. She is conflicted. She made  tough choices. And most interestingly was and is still denigrated by those who wish her husbands cause had prevailed….This is a most fascinating and revealing novel/ biography. I highly recommend it.....
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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm

The Last Lion: Winston Churchill  is a trilogy of biographies covering the life of Winston Churchill. The first two were published in the 1980s by author and historian William Manchester, who died while working on the last volume. However, before his death, Manchester had selected Paul Reid to complete it  the final volume...
The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm was published in November 2012.
"[Reid's] palpable enthusiasm at thinking about Churchill demonstrates once again...the grip this iconic figure can still exercise on the imagination....Reid...use[s] his journalist's eye to pick up on small details or points of color that illustrate a wider truth." (Richard Aldous, New York Times Book Review )
"Mr. Reid...following Manchester's lead,...dutifully includes both the admiring and disparaging remarks of Churchill's colleagues and contemporaries, presenting everyone's take with equanimity." (Wall Street Journal )
"Reid has produced a third Last Lion...that is both magisterial and humane. Cue the trumpets." (Vanity Fair )
"It's a must-read finale for those who loved Manchester's first two books." (USA Today )
"Masterful... [and] breathtaking....Reid...finished the race with agility, grace, and skill....This is a book that is brilliant and beautiful, evocative and enervating." (Boston Globe )
"Those who want a detailed account of Churchill's two terms as prime minister and leadership during World War II will find this book a literary feast.....It's a worthy finale to an exhaustive portrait of one of the last century's true titans." (Washington Times )
Reid has written a thorough and complete analysis of these years, and it is a worthy finale to the first two volumes." (Terry Hartle, Christian Science Monitor )
"The third and final volume of a massive work of biography is a tribute not only to Manchester but also to Reid, whose courage in accepting the job is matched by his success in telling the story." (Richmond Times-Dispatch )

Troutbirder writes “I really enjoyed this book!  Was the writing as brilliant and engaging as that of William Manchester?  No, but then not everyone can  do A+. This was more like B+ but still worth it.”
About the Authors
William Manchester was a hugely successful popular historian and biographer whose books include The Last Lion, Volumes 1 and 2, Goodbye Darkness, A World Lit Only by Fire, The Glory and the Dream, The Arms of Krupp, American Caesar, The Death of the President, and assorted works of journalism.
Paul Reid is an award-winning journalist. In late 2003 his friend, William Manchester, in failing health, asked Paul to complete The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm. 
On the lighter side you can scroll back to the top and click on the picture of the guy in the pink shirt and Minnesota Gopher hat to other blog and some ripostes from Winston Churchill.....:) 


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Madisons Gift

Historian and novelist Stewart  gives American a needed lesson on how a President can accomplish much by working with others.  It was James  Madison’s ability to forge working bonds with other founding members of the new American government, even if they did not always see eye to eye that stands out in this biography.  Discreet, generous and not at all egotistical, unlike others then and now he dit much to forge the documents that framed a new government, He refused to take credit, rather conceding the “work of many hands and many heads” in the forging of the Constitution.  Soft-spoken, he was overshadowed by the more dynamic personalities of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe.  Yet the complement of their respective qualities resulted in brilliant working relationships during the course of Madison’s political career.

A wonderful biography of a very smart President.  Let us hope we shall see his like again. We surely could use it in these very different times….

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
In simple terms, the book is the fictionalized history of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina (Nina), who were at the forefront of the abolitionist and women's rights movements in its early beginnings before the Civil War. As young girls and women they grew up on a slave holding plantation in South Carolina.   In alternating chapters  is the intriguing narrative of Sarah and a young slave, Hetty, who was given to Sarah as an 11th birthday present. Sarah despises slavery, even at that early age, and out of principle attempts to reject the gift.

Much of the Grimkés' story is historically based: Kidd has fleshed out mountains of research — facts, figures, dates, letters, and articles — into a believable and elegantly rendered fictional first person account of Sarah's life. But though Hetty was real, her story here is almost entirely fabricated — and perhaps because she is mostly a product of Kidd's imagination, Hetty's character seems truly inspired.

A key moment in the book comes with the discovery that Sarah has taught Hetty to read — a criminal offense in antebellum South Carolina. Punishment is cruel for both girls; Sarah is banned from her favorite things in the world: her father's library and his books. Hetty is whipped.

Meanwhile, Sarah's family ridicules her hope to study law, labeling it unseemly because she is a woman. She is shattered and cowed by their conviction that being a woman means she has no right to ambition. Overcoming that obstacle is a long, painful journey full of self-doubt; she'll face prejudice toward her sex the rest of her life, even as she eventually  creates a national following for her abolitionist crusade. Sarah may read, think, or speak — as long as she doesn't make any men uncomfortable by doing so. Her younger sister is also highlighted.  Sarah is the thinker. Her younger sister Nina is the doer.  They make a great team.

I would strongly suggest that your read the author’s comments at the end of this wonderful novel before starting on the book story itself. It’s fascinating and will help clarify where historical facts and the author imagination stand. I also found it interesting that the author tells how she ran across the Grimke sisters story  in a Chicago exposition of “one hundred of the most influential women in American History.” The two sisters certainly deserved much more notice in the annals of American History textbooks than they ever received. For my part between 1964 and 2004 when I taught units on the people and events leading up to the Civil War to high school students I always included their neglected story. Now I’m every glad that Kidd, a wonderful writer,  has brought that story to a much wider audience. I strongly recommend it to everyone…


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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

We Are Soldiers Still

I had just finished reading We Are Soldiers Still - A Journey Back To The Battlefields of Vietnam. The book is by Lt. General Harold Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway. Why go back and read about a long ago, divisive and disasterous war? Simply because there are still lessons to be learned.

For me, an interest in the recent appearance of this particular book began several years ago with a movie. The title of the movie was We Were Soldiers - And Young. It was based on the book of the same name also written by Moore and Galloway. It starred Mel Gibson as the young officer Moore, who's task was to convert the 7th Regiment (Custer's old cavalry unit) into an effective component of the new airmoble 1st Cavalry. That division was about to be sent and tested in Vietnam.

An old Irish folksong "Gary Owen" was the 7th's marching song and greeting.. The 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) division would mount a fleet of helicopters instead of horses.

The 7th regiment was soon shipped in its entirety to the escalating war South Vietnam. There they were quickly helicoptered into the Ia Drang valley with the mission to locate North Vietnamese forces and to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail. The idea for airmoble unit was to be able to chose its own time and place for battle. In that valley, they were immediately surrounded and attacked by hidden and well entrenched regular forces of the regular North Vietnamese army. That army had been moving south to reenforce the Viet Cong .
With great difficulty and heroism, the 7th held its own, under Moore's brilliant leadership, against an attacking force that greatly outnumbered them.

Several days, later a sister unit from the 1st Cav. that was moving into the same area was ambushed and basically wiped out. That, of course, never appeared in the newspapers of the time. Fifty thousand Americans were killed in this war before it was over seven years later. Moore was obviously a fine man and a great leader. I'm sure there were many others like him. The movie as movies are wont to do, elicited a strong surge of patriotic emotion, during the battle scenes. One's fellow countrymen, putting there lives on the line to protect our freedom, it seemed . And yet. And yet walking out of that theater I couldn't help but thinking..... what a waste. What a godawful waste.... The wisdom of hindsight perhaps
I had remembered a Christmas family gathering a few years before, where I met my cousin who had just returned from Vietnam. He was a civil engineer working on water projects in Saigon. Today, I guess, he would be called a "civilian contractor." He had utterly shocked me with tales of massive corruption in South Vietnam's military government. How the Americans had to bribe people left and right to accomplish anything. How, except for some of the Catholic minority, the people despised that government and regarded them as lackeys for the American "colonialists," who had replaced the "true" nationalists. A generation later, Moore kept a promise he had made to his men, that someday they would return to that battlefield, to make peace within themselves and to their fallen comrades. After years of difficulties that promise was kept and a number of these heroes returned to the Ia Drang Valley. One of those heroes is pictured here, at that place and that time. His name was Rick Riscorla. A generation later, he was the new chief of security at the World Trade Center. There he died after his actions saved the lives of thousands of people on that fateful day. Hal Moore, Joe Galloway, and many of their comrades were to return to Vietnam. There they met and befriended some of the soldiers they had fought. Moore's counterpart in the NVA was among them. In fascinating detail we learn of the strategies of each side. More importantly, we read of their hopes, dreams and illusions. Given the delusions, that have at times colored our own foreign and security strategies, it is a tale well told and worth learning from. General Hal Moore follows up on the Vietnam war in We Are Soldiers Still - A Journey Back To The Battlefields Of Vietnam.
I highly recommend it. A few days ago an American aircraft carrier docked at a Vietnamese port. American tourists now flock to the country. America seems now wary of Chinese ambitions in the South China sea. So are the Vietnamese. How times have changed......

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Lost in the Wild

In the wilderness, one false step can make the difference between a delightful respite and a brush with death. Survival  stories are one of my favorite genres.

On a beautiful summer afternoon in 1998, Dan Stephens, a 22-year-old canoeist, was leading a troup of  boy scouts deep into Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. He stepped into a gap among cedar trees to look for the next portage—and did not return.

Three years later, Jason Rasmussen, a third-year medical student who loved the forest’s solitude, walked alone into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on a crisp fall day. After a two-day trek into a remote area of the woods, he stepped away from his campsite and made a series of seemingly trivial mistakes that left him separated from his supplies, wet, and lost, as cold darkness fell.

Enduring days without food or shelter, these men faced the full harsh force of wilderness, the place that they had sought out for tranquil refuge from city life.   Lost in the Wild takes readers with them as they enter realms of pain, fear, and courage, as they suffer dizzying confusion and unending frustration, and as they overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles in a race to survive.

This true adventure book  hit me hard several ways. As a youngster Jack London’s  Call of the Wild brought me close to the Artic Wilderness and much later filmmaker author Jon Krakow brought me up and back down Mt. Everest attementing to rescue stranded, trapped and dying climbers. My own experience taking my teen age boys into Minnesota BWCAW (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) brought many personal wilderness memories  back to life as exemplified by problems and dangerous choices revealed in this riveting book. Another connection for me was  when the deputy sheriff who led the various joint agency  rescue teams turned out to be a former student of mine. His name was Steve V.

Real People Real small mistakes can cascade into life or death survival choices. This is not the fake survival stuff you see on T.V. Enjoy! But be careful not to get lost.....

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@Barrie Summy

Monday, February 26, 2018

Troutbirder Goes on Broadway

It was the spring of 1959 and leaving St. Paul Union Deport the senior class of Harding High school was heading east to Washington D.C. and New York City by train. I was on board playing poker in the Dome throughout the night. Perhaps I was a youthful version of Sgt. Bilko as the cards kept falling my way. My only other memory was seeing the forges light up the hillsides as we passed thru Pittsburg. In Washington, we saw all the famous sights. Unfortunately, we missed seeing “Ike”  in the White House as he was busy warning the nation against endless wars and the military industrial complex taking over. That hasn’t gone so well….:(

More famous places to see in New York followed. There was a real sense of vibrancy and excitement there.  Staying at the Roosevelt Hotel an evening out to world famous “Coney Island” was planned. Everyone was excited except me.  My mom had advised me that this night might provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a Rogers and Hammerstein musical. The name was “Flower Drum
Song.”. That morning before our tour bus left, I asked the man behind the counter if two tickets were available. “Not a chance,” he replied.  “It’s booked up months ahead, of course, there might be a cancelation. Check back about 5 o’clock.”  I did but no luck. Then Plan B appeared. “If you want to see a Broadway play, one recently opened right across the street from your first choice and within walking distance. It’s called The World of Suzy Wong."   To this day I can still claim I’ve been to a play on Broadway…..

Actor William Shatner has a unique place in the history of the romantic novel The World of Suzie Wong. Shatner, known for starring as Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek T.V. series, was the first man in the world to “woo” Suzie Wong in the original stage version. Shatner, 27 won the heart of a decent Hong Kong prostitute played by Vietnamese-French actress France Nuyen on Broadway between Oct. 14 1958 and January 2 1960.

I have no real memories of the play itself except between the acts I bought a couple of very small glasses of orange juice for the outrageous price of two dollars a glass. Apparently, the play was roundly panned by the big city critics so it didn’t last very long.  Later, yet a movie version was produced starring handsome William Holden.  I advised my mom against seeing that movie having giving her a somewhat sanitized version of the plays plot along the lines of “love conquers all”



Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Dovekeepers

There is only one ancient source on the story of the Jewish Uprising culminating in the stand at the fortress of Masada. Its veracity has been questioned by recent archaeological evidence. Still the story, whether entirely true or not, is an inspiring one. Novelist Alice Hoffman in The Dovekeepers tells the story from a feminist perspective. Hoffman is a prolific author whose books are both widely loved and frequently damned. Mix feminism with frequent doses of mysticism and controversy may be the result.
The Dovekeepers follows four very different women from the second destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to the final suicide at the fortress of Masada. There a disparate group of men and women chose death over slavery. Strong stuff indeed. ( A view across the desert of the Dead Sea from the fortress of Masada).

I found the book a little too  long at points. This is because some the points of the beautifully evocative writing are repeated to often, losing their power in the process. Also because  mixing in  dreams, visions and confusing allusions doesn’t always  work for me.  Still  much else about this novel is very good, from the characterizations to the contrast between the shabby, hungry refugees and the magnificence of Herod's abandoned palace at Masada. All in all though I think this book is  well worth reading.....

Monday, February 5, 2018

Storm Front

I’m not often a mystery/thriller type of reader but I managed to get seven book report credits out of twelve required by my 11th grade English teacher for reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes.  Still later, writers like P.D. James, John le Carre, Tony Hillerman, Patricia Cornwell, Scott Turnow and  John Grisham caught my eye. So there I was in a small waiting room at Mayo Clinic waiting for my wife on the 2nd day of three days of testing, apparently looking really bored. A kind secretary noticed and offered access to the departments   lost and found collection of mysteries  This was a first time read of John Sanford. A Pulitzer prize winning journalist and  highly successful author of  mysteries. His stories are often placed in a Minnesota setting. Hey! I live in Minnesota and frequently pick out books with settings I’m familiar with. Set it in Paris (I’ve been there twice) and if the murder takes place on the steps  of the Opera, I’ve been there chaperoning  a class of high school seniors eating a bag lunch. I can still  see it clearly….


Which brings me to John Sanford’s Storm Front.
When John Sandford is traveling around Minnesota, he's got one thing on his mind: Is this a good place for a crime? A veteran thriller writer with more than 40 novels to his name, Sandford has staged crime scenes all across the state, from the North Woods to the Mall of America.  
In this one an ancient relic in unearthed during an archaeological dig. A Minnesota college professor who finds it, returns it to the Gopher State naturally and is followed by two conflicting Israelis ( a Mossad agent and a member of the agency responsible for protecting ancient relics, along with several Hezbollah terrorists, a Turk and several thieves who want to make a killing moneywise or otherwise. The relic could change the world's history as we know it. Virgil Flowers, southern agent of the Minnesota BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) is put in charge.
This is good stuff.  Stephen King describes it as unapologetic guy fiction.  Stop! There is such a thing as Chick Flicks and I've be reading a lot of Victorian and Jane Austin lately so lets all keep and open mind.  It's not smarmy. It's gritty but not in the category of a President claiming "locker talk" to justify grabbing women's privates because he is rich and famous.  I enjoyed the book and will likely find some more  by Sanford at our local library....:) 


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@Barrie Summy