At the end of 2009 I pledged to read 25 books and read biographies on Presidents Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson and Van Buren. As 2010 draws to a close I feel a slight triumph in the fact that I exceeded my book count by nine books but slight defeat in the fact that I only got through three presidents this year.
Aside from the 34 books I finished this year, I started at least six more I didn’t finish for one reason or another. The most significant of these was The Last of the Fathers: James Madison & The Republican Legacy, a book I struggled with from January to July before giving up on it. If I hadn’t spent those months mired down in a very long and dense study of Madison, I might have gotten through my presidential pledge this year. I also started and got about halfway through All the President’s Men, Dracula, The Count of Monte Cristo (I blame not finishing this one on the fact that I had a lousy translation), Emma and Richard Ford’s Independence Day. I plan to get back to all of these someday (except maybe Independence Day, even if it was one recommended by Josh Ritter).
I also read my first book entirely on my iPhone (The House of Mirth) and my first book about parenting (I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids: Reinventing Modern Motherhood).
The best non-fiction I read was The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed; the best fiction I read was The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth.
And the last book I read was 1906, by James Dalessandro. I bought this work of historical fiction about the San Francisco earthquake and fire before we went to San Francisco in August, and ever since we got home I’ve been looking forward to it. I’m smitten with San Francisco in a way I’ve never fallen for a city before, probably because I had so much time and license to wander around and get to know it during my week there without a lot of structure or formality. Thus, the fact that Dalessandro makes San Francisco into a character in the novel delighted me no end, as most of the streets and neighborhoods he talks about were places I’d either been or knew about in relation to the places I’d been. His main character, besides the city, is a fictional newspaperwoman who narrates the story in first person and switches to third when something happens while she’s somewhere else. Her omnipresence is a little distracting at the outset but ultimately forgivable.
My issue with the book is my issue with all historical fiction — how do I know where the line is blurred between the history and the author’s imagination? Dalessandro absolves himself from this problem by denoting who and what was real, fictional and composite in his afterward, and then makes the following statement: “The events are real: this was San Francisco, and this is what happened. I deferred, at every juncture, to a simple notion: that no one named Rhett Butler fought in the Civil War, nor was he acquainted with a woman named Scarlett O’Hara and yet, where would our understanding of that turbulent moment in American history be without them?”
First of all, Dalessandro flatters himself — nay, is delusional — if he thinks that his novel has anywhere the sweep or cultural impact of Gone with the Wind. Second, the difference between Gone with the Wind and 1906 that he seems to overlook is that Margaret Mitchell did not set out to document a history of an event — she based her story on her grandparents and wrote to leave a legacy of her perceptions of southern life. His book is closer to a work like The Killer Angels, in that he has placed his characters in the midst of one important historical event. The difference, of course, is that while Shaara works mainly with the men history left him, Dalessandro takes the events he wants to write about and makes characters who work for him. Third, I resent the implication that Gone with the Wind is a necessary cog in understanding the Civil War. Perhaps it is enlightening in the quest to understand the proliferation of the Lost Cause theory and is responsible in part for said theory’s continued prevalence in our national story, but if he truly thinks that Gone with the Wind is the be-all, end-all of understanding the Civil War, perhaps I don’t want history from this author after all.
However, as with The Killer Angels, I have to conclude that Dalessandro’s story makes me want to delve into this horrific event and make out for myself where he tells the historical truth and where he embellishes for the sake of his narrative. I think if I weren’t such a nut about historical accuracy I would enjoy historical fiction more, and most of the time I was able to set aside my nuttiness and just enjoy the story. Because it is, after all, a fairly well-written and tense story about a horrible natural disaster mangled by the men who should have been solving problems, not making them.
So with that I close the year of 2010 in books, and look eagerly to 2011. I don’t anticipate having the time or energy to read 34 books — I’ll be lucky if I crack 20 — but I’m looking forward to what the year holds, and to chronicling it here. Happy New Year, friends.