Cushman, Stephen. Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle. (1999) — I have tried to read this book for years. It does, after all, focus and reflect on the Battle of the Wilderness, one of “my” battlefields around Fredericksburg. I’ve written a book about it and have given plenty of tours there. So, I wanted to like this book—really, I did. But as marvelous as Cushman is as a poet, his prose is just plain boring to read. He reflects on history as a philosophe, sapping any narrative power history might have as a story or a human drama and sapping away any sense of wonder the landscape itself might hold. He looks at it from many, many angles—signs, ancestors, reenactment, newspapers, memoirs, fictions, the ground itself, and more—all of them remarkably boring. I suppose, I’ll even keep throwing myself at it the way Ulysses S. Grant threw his troops against fortified Confederate positions. Like Grant, I need to find a way to break through or go around. I just hope I have better luck than Grant did.
DeBlieu, Jan. Hatteras Journal. (1987) — There are few places I love more than North Carolina’s Outer Banks, particularly the stretches of shoreline along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore along Bodie and Hatteras islands. DeBlieu captures perfectly the rejuvenating power of that shoreline: “Between boundless horizons my possibilities seem boundless, and my most pressing problems with in size.” The chapters of DeBlieu’s book could almost stand alone as individual essays, each one portraying a particular snippet of island life: hurricanes, sea birds, fishing, history…. She offers solid factual information in the spirit of a trained naturalist, but she captures the poetry of the place, too, through her own lyrical writing. “The coast is not a place where you can easily ignore the elements,” she writes:
Storms can be seen for miles advancing like spreading stains. The sea sloshes dark and broody beneath a pastel dawn, or flaccid and green below thunderheads. The wind, when it cannot be felt or heard, imposes its presence by jostling bushes and whipping whitecaps on the sound. And yet the clearness of the light, the constant swish of the surf, and the yield of the sand underfoot spark a sensuousness….
Larkin, Emma. Finding Orwell in Burma. (2004) — Just before he died, George Orwell was working on a manuscript that recounted stories from Burma, a place he’d served, as a young man, in Britain’s colonial police force. “What was it that had made him trade his career in the colonies for that of a writer?” Larkin asked. “And why, after nearly a quarter of a century away from Burma, did he look to the country for inspiration while he lay on his deathbed?” Larkin decides to go to Burma to find out. What she finds is a chilling third-world version of 1984: a repressive totalitarian government constantly hovering over the shoulders of its citizens. Now called Myanmar, the country has one of the world’s worst records of human rights abuse. Yet she also begins to realize why Burma proved so transformative for Orwell. “[H]is time in Burma was a major turning point in his life,” she writes, “marking his transformation from a snobbish public-school boy to a writer with a social conscience who would seek out the underdogs of society and try to tell their stories.” Having just read Road to Wigan Pier, where that social conscience was on full display, I was really curious to see what helped shape it. Great read. (As a journalism prof, the discussions of/reflections on Myanmar’s repression of free speech had a lot of impact on me, too.)