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Archive for July, 2010

I recently found myself sick in bed for a week with bronchitis. My reading list for this time was dictated not by what was really interesting to me but by what I could manage to lift and hold open. So, presidential biographies were out and chick-lit was in.

I read three books in as many days: Julie and Julia, The Devil Wears Prada, and Confessions of a Shopaholic.

And I hated them all. And I hated the next with more fervency than the last. By the time I got to Confessions of a Shopaholic, I was so sick of whiny women who put themselves in situations they didn’t want to be in that I hoped with every fiber of my being that the Shopaholic’s love interest (the rich guy whose name I’m not inspired to look up) would leave her broken-hearted at the end of it, causing her to re-evaluate her life and become a less whiny, less shallow, less annoying person.

I expected to really like Julie and Julia. A book about a woman who blogs her way through a year cooking out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking sounded just up my alley — a project, a blog, a throwback to the 1960s. And to be truthful, I didn’t so much hate it as I found it needing more Julia Child. And less of Julie Powell cursing and drinking and crying. She portrayed herself in a very realistic way, for which I give her props (it’s hard to be honest about yourself, certainly). But her honesty, instead of endearing her to me, made me feel like I could never, ever get through a meal with this woman. Her selfishness was what defined her to me and I felt like there was no way she and I could ever be friends. Truly, we don’t read books just to read about people we like, but I needed companionship while I coughed and swilled NyQuil. Not work. And reading about Julie Powell felt like work.

Which is why I thought that I would enjoy The Devil Wears Prada. I enjoyed the movie (which, of course, is never a good indicator of the quality of the book) and I looked to it for good company. I figured Miranda Priestly would be like Meryl Streep’s embodiment of her: the surely evil magazine editor who still has a small grain of humanity buried somewhere deep inside; I thought surely Andy would be like Anne Hathaway: the non-fashionista who takes the fashion assistant job only to almost lose herself to a world she hated and only pulls back from the precipice at the last minute. I have been there, Andy — I’ve slaved away at a job that I took because I thought I could do it as a stepping stone, and I watched myself slip farther and farther away from the person I wanted to be as a result. I quit. I regained myself. I survived. I came out stronger. Like Andy. However. The empathy and humanity that radiated from the movie was absent in the book. Andy of the book became a much worse person than Andy of the movie; Andy of the book felt gossipy and mean and cutthroat. The part where I saw myself in the movie melted away in the book, and the empathy I felt for Andy dissipated quickly as she became sharper and almost cruel at times.

And then came Confessions of a Shopaholic. I know plenty of people who like these tales of the chronic overspender with the overactive imagination — how many sequels did this book spawn? — but I knew by the end of the first chapter that this book and I were not made for each other. Rebecca drove me crazy as she lied and connived and conducted herself completely without scruples. I wondered how she managed to still have a job and friends, and when she triumphed at the end of the book, I felt cheated. In my eyes, she had won while being completely undeserving of her victory. I’m not implying that every book needs to be based on some kind of 1950s overmoralizing in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve. I just hate that chick-lit seems to be based around the principle that women should be rewarded for being stupid.

When I finished these three I vowed I was done with chick-lit for the foreseeable future, so when I managed to regain enough strength to be able to lift a hardcover, I moved on to the true story of a Mormon woman trapped in an abusive marriage who escaped polygamy with her children and started her life over. But the story of Carolyn Jessop is a story for another blog post.

The moral of the story is I need to know better than to read chick-lit, even when I am in a medicinal phlegmy haze.

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I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of reading historical fiction. I hate how it’s not footnoted, how it’s not clear what the sources are, how it’s not obvious what is real and what is the product of the author’s imagination. However, I had been promising my dad that I would read The Killer Angels for about ten or twelve years now, and as it’s a little faster read than the other literary promise I made him (yes, Dad, I will tackle The Lord of the Rings again someday!), I decided to give this book a go.

The Killer Angels is Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning fictional recount of the Battle of Gettysburg. Fought in the Pennslyvania countryside in July 1863, this Union victory is as ingrained in the American consciousness as the pivotal battle of the Civil War. News of the South’s retreat from Gettysburg came out just as news came from Vicksburg, Mississippi, that the city had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. The war, which had looked so bleak for the North, had turned a corner after July 4, 1863.

Shaara follows men on both sides, introducing the reader to men whose names should be familiar: Lee, Longstreet and Pickett for the South; Chamberlain, Meade, and Hancock for the North. He details the horrors of war — piles of bodies, rotting horseflesh, hunger, heat, exhaustion, fear — and illustrates the glories — honor, camraderie, bravery, loyalty. He puts you in the minds of the men, and even if you don’t come away agreeing with them, you understand why they fought, what they were fighting for, and why they made the decisions they made.

I have to admit I was extremely entertained. I am not a military historian but I understood the troop movements, the charges, the victories and the losses better than I have ever understood a battle before. I closed the book with an understanding of not just what happened, but why. I was impressed by Shaara’s evenhandedness, as he favored neither side explicitly and succeeded in simply telling a story from multiple perspectives.

My issue with the book is, again, the issue that I have with historical fiction: where is the line between Shaara’s imagination and the actual historical fact? The narrative brings you into the minds of General Longstreet, General Lee, Colonel Chamberlain, but what of it comes from the men’s letters and what of it comes from Shaara’s suppositions? He states at the outset that his book draws heavily on the letters of the men who served and not other people’s interpretations of the battle. And surely, footnoting a novel at the end of every paragraph to point out why the author knows that Lee thought this or Chamberlain thought that would get tedious to the casual reader. However, my doubt caused me to think that what I really need to do is read more on Gettysburg. I need to finally read the biography of Lee I bought two years ago that draws on his own letters as well. I need to do my research and see what is true about the characterization of these men.

And perhaps that is what historical fiction is all about — finding an element of a story that intrigues you to go out and read more about the actual event. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that say that Gettysburg is what first captured their imagination about the Civil War, and how many people say this book is what led them into a life of re-enacting, of academia or simply of being a “Civil War Buff.” So if this book, this short, readable book, can do that, it has succeeded.

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