The Fifties

David Halberstam, The Fifties (1993, New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 800 pages including index’s and notes, plus 32 pages of black and white prints.

 

The decade was 70% completed when I was born. I have no recall of the 1950s, even though I was born late in the decade. Having now read this massive history, I now feel as if I lived through the decade.

Halberstam begins his story with Truman’s election of 1948, the Soviet test of a nuclear weapon in 1949, and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. The short time the United States had as the leader of the world and the only nation with nuclear weapons had come to an end. We were beginning a new era, the Cold War. The uneasy situation with the Soviets would remain throughout the decade and Halberstam ends this book with the story of the U2 being shot down over Russia (which ended Eisenhower’s quest for a nuclear treaty) and the planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

A lot happened in the 1950s and, as Halberstam points out, much of what occurred in the 60s had its roots in the 50s. From music to Vietnam, civil rights to foreign policies, the sexual revolution to television, space and science to the rise of suburbia, McCarthy to Kerouac, the 60s (and 70s) grew out of seeds planted in the 50s. Halberstam follows these developments through vignettes, stories of what was happening. In ways, the stories can stand alone, but taken together they paint a picture of vibrant decade that too often has been portrayed as sleepy.

Many of the people whom Halberstam writes about are well known and became even more famous in the 1960s (Richard Nixon, Hugh Hefner, Marlo Brando, Marlyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, among others). Others were less well known, but their ideas caught on as they developed fancy car designs, hotel and restaurant empires, housing tracks, and pushed America into a consumer culture. As I approached the end of the book, I was shocked to see one such individual that I knew personally. Kensinger Jones (pages 629-635) spent his retirement years on a farm south of Hastings, Michigan. He was a member of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings while I was pastor. Unfortunately, he was unable to be very active due to health issues, but I often visited with him and his wife Alice and enjoyed our conversations. Ken Jones was responsible for a series of Chevrolet ads that weren’t designed to “sell cars, but to sell dreams.” These ads were essentially a mini-story told visually as the consumer was encouraged to “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.” While Ken certainly appreciated the power of the image, as Halberstam notes, he also appreciated the written word. After he could no longer attend church, he would read my sermons and often wrote notes of appreciation. And he was an author himself. I have two of his books on my shelf today.

Toward the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, there were those who suggested it was a shame there was the 23rd Amendment that kept a President from running for a third term. Eisenhower, whom it seems in Halberstam was never sure if he wanted to be President, would have nothing to do with such talk. He didn’t want a third term nor did he think anyone should be President over the age of 70. I wonder what Ike would think about our last election with both candidates over the 70 mark?

This is a wonderful book with many great stories. Even those who have no memories of the 1950s will find themselves entertained and will learn how this decade influenced future decades in America.

The Social Media Gospel

Yesterday’s worship service focused on our responsible use of social media. Here is a review of a book that reminds the church how we might use such media in a positive way. Click here to read yesterday’s sermon, “A Light in the World”

Meredith Gould, The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways, second edition (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 180 pages, index and notes.

 

This easily read book encourages churches to support social media as a way to expand their communication and outreach. Sadly, it is four years old. The digital world is rapidly changing as new venues come online and changes are made to existing ones. The author, a committed Roman Catholic, writes for an ecumenical audience. She often quoting those from other Christian traditions. The forward for this edition is even written by the Reverend David Hansen, a Lutheran pastor in Texas.

The book consists of three sections with a number of helpful appendixes. In the first section, which I found most helpful, she debunks the idea that social media destroys community. Instead, it creates new types of communities. She also has a brief chapters on generational differences, learning styles, and personality types. She helpfully points out that what one person finds annoying could be what draws another person into the community (22). Such a reminder is helpful, for it is too easy to let the most outspoken critics drive us, which often leading to inefficient efforts that fail to accomplish anything. A little grace by all of us goes a long way toward accomplishing the church’s mission.

Gould provides an interesting take on the old 80/20 rule. She suggests that 80% of our content on social media should be about building community and only 20% to be about promoting and reporting on the news of the organization. I have heard similar ideas from several other sources writing about business use of social media, one of which suggested that you try to build up your reputation (or brand), offer five helpful solutions for every “sales pitch” you make. A second interesting “rule” (which she credits to Jakob Nielsen) is the 90/9/1 Rule. 90% of the people observe your social media presence, 9% occasionally participate by commenting or interacting, and 1% dominate by providing most of the content and comments. She suggested the 1% are important for they are our ambassadors/evangelists, but that we also don’t forget that we may be reaching a lot more people than those who participate. (26)

There were a number of other gleaming I found helpful in Gould’s opening section. She suggests that technology provides a means to prepare people for the sacraments, but it does not replace or provide the sacrament. (10)  There is still need for real presence within the community. I also found it helpful how Gould describes the development of online communities. Online, things move approximately three times faster than in the real world. People engage much quicker and they also stay engaged shorter periods of time than they might in the face-to-face world. (31)

The second section of this book offers guidelines into developing a social media strategy and provides a basic overview for top mediums of social media: blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat. For each of these groups, she provides suggestions on ways the church might use them to further its mission. While she does not suggest that the church attempt to use all of these mediums, but to pick those which would best for the church’s situation (there are helpful questions that can guide such decisions), she is a big fan of Twitter. While she doesn’t suggest that Twitter is for everyone, she tells of her “conversion.”

The final section of the book is titled “Making Social Media Work.” There are several helpful chapters here that focus on how social media can be integrated into a church’s communication strategy, how to develop content (and share it on multiple platforms), handling burnout, best practices for social media use and how to handle online conflict. As for creating content, it needs to be short (according to her suggestion, this review is about 250 words longer than it should be J).

While I found parts of this book dated and a little elementary, Gould provides useful tools to help congregations discuss this new world in which we live. And, as for it being elementary, I must remember that may not be the case for everyone. After all, I’ve had a blog for over 15 years, have served churches with websites for 25 years, and have been on Facebook for nearly a dozen years. Others may find this book to be right at the level as they began engaging in this new online world.

Love Your Enemies

Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America for the Culture of Contempt (HarperCollins, 2019), 243 pages, index and notes.

 

In this year’s January Series from Calvin College, I heard Brooks speak. Much of his presentation, it appears, was taken from this book which was released in mid-March. I’m glad it is in print for I was impressed with his talk and liked how he addresses the lack of civility in American political discourse. What bothers Brooks isn’t anger. Anger can be effective in the right circumstances. Nor is he bothered by arguments. That, too, can be productive. He doesn’t even want us to tolerate each other for that seems to be a way to look down on others. Brooks argues for us to love everyone, especially our enemies. What frightens Brooks about American society is the rise of contempt for “the other.” When we get to a point where we wish our enemies would disappear or go away, it’s easy to consider them less than human. Then we have a real problem. Brooks’ points out how this is a problematic for both sides of the political spectrum in America today. Looking back at the 2016 Presidential election, he points to Clinton’s comments about the “deplorable” folks behind Trump, and to Trumps many comments in which he belittled or attacked the dignity of “others.”

 

Brooks is an economist and the director of the American Enterprise Institute, which he describes as a “center-right” think tank. He often draws from economic principals in a making a case for having a diversity of opinions at the table. He believes in competition in both the business world as well as in the marketplace of ideas. When there are more ideas and choices being discussed and debated, the chances of us coming up with a better solution increases. But when voices are silenced and viewed with contempt, we will all lose because the best ideas may be kept from rising to the top.

 

Brooks begins his book by examining the rise of contempt in our culture. He draws from many fields to make his case. He insist that those on both sides of most arguments have values and to treat the other side as someone without values is the beginning of a culture of contempt. Our problem intensifies (and is undermined) when we use our values as weapons. He suggests that we all make friends and really listen to those with whom we disagree. Not only will this help us sharpen our own views, we might learn something.  He also encourages his readers who feel they don’t like the other side to “fake it,” noting that just forcing a smile can help change our own outlook and help us to relate to others.

 

The book ends with five rules in which we can resist the culture of contempt in our society.

  1. Resist “the powerful” (especially those on your side of the debate). When you just listen to the politician or the news media you agree with, you are easily manipulated. He encourages us to stand up to those who belittle others, especially those with whom we agree. It’s easy to stand up to those with whom we generally disagree.
  2. Get out of our bubbles and listen to and meet those from the other side. How else will we hear diverse opinions?
  3. Say no to contempt and treat everyone with love and respect even when it is difficult.
  4. Disagree better. Be a part of a healthy competition of ideas.
  1. Tune out: disconnect from unproductive debates. Brooks sees social media as a problem for our democracy as we find ourselves in constant debates in which no one changes their minds. Sabbaticals from such dialogue can be helpful to our own well being.

 

Brooks is a committed Roman Catholic and while his faith is displayed throughout the book, he also demonstrates his openness to others. He is a good friend of the Dalia Lama from whom he has learned much. At the end of the book, he encourages his readers to become “missionaries” as we help with love and kindness to provide an alternative for the contempt in our society. This is a useful and timely book. I highly recommend it and hope it becomes a best seller. Interestingly, Brooks is donating all the profits for his book to the American Enterprise Institute. That’s an example of someone living the missionary life!

Three Books: The Republic for Which It Stands, Meet You in Hell, & Atlas of a Lost World

I am heading to a conference at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian Conference Center in North New Mexico, so there will be no sermon this week. Instead, let me catch up by providing three short (for me) book reviews of works I recently read (or listened to the unabridged audio book).

Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford, 2017), 928 pages

This book is a part of the Oxford History of the United States collection. Richard White is a noted Western United States historian and author of It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West (Oklahoma, 1991).  It’s a massive book that begins with the death of Abraham Lincoln and ends with the election of William McKinley.

White merges together two eras that are often separated by historians: reconstruction and the Gilded Age. He makes the case that the two should be connected. This was the age that America was rising to its world prominence. It was also an age where the country was growing rapidly, especially through immigration. As a uniting theme for this period, White choses the home. The home found itself under attack as the country shifted from the home being the basis of the economy dependent on small farms to a nation of industry where workers toiled for wages. Although politicians on both sides of the aisle would lift up the home as the ideal, the home (as the White Protestant ideal) was under attack and rapidly changing during this period. Economically, this was the period of the gold standard. White’s knowledge of the West, where mining had a vested interest in bimetallism (using both gold and silver for currency), helps him to navigate this debate. Another economic concept that was highly debated was the meaning of labor. As the economy changed from farming to industry, who free were corporations and workers to collectively bargain. This leads for long discussions about court decisions, especially around the 14th Amendment.

 

In the book’s forward, it was noted that a grammatical change occurred within America following the Civil War. Before the war, people would say, “The United States are…”  After the war, people would say, “The United States is…” During this era, in which America filled in the vast territories of the West with states, the United States became the country we know. Only a handful of states were added after 1896.

 

I enjoyed this book, but then this is the period I have studied the most. My first college class, taken in the summer between high school and college, was a history class that focused on United States and Europe from the 1870s through the First World War. And I would later write a dissertation in this era, focusing on the church’s role in the Nevada mining camps. White covers a lot of material in this book (and his lists of sources at the end of the book could keep a historian busy for a lifetime). This is a wonderful addition to the Oxford History of the United States collection.

 

Les Standiford, Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America (Broadway Books, 2006), 336 pages

I listened to an unabridged copy of this book.

This was my third book by Standiford and I have enjoyed them all. I have twice read Last Train to Paradise, which is about Henry Flagler and the building of the East Coast Florida Railway to Key West. I have also read The Man Who Invented Christmas which is about Charles Dickens and the publication of A Christmas Carol.  As with his writings of Flagler, in Meet You in Hell, Standiford turns again to industrial titans of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, looking at the partnership between Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. When Carnegie merged his steel empire with Frick’s coal and coke (a purified form of coal used in steel making), a mighty industry began that eventually led to the corporation known as United States Steel. But it wasn’t a smooth partnership. The two were willing to stab the other in the back, which led to bitter conflicts in both business and in politics (their last great rivalry was Frick opposition to what became the League of Nations, while Carnegie supported the effort to bring nations together in order to end war. Although a “peacemaker”, Carnegie made a lot of money supplying steel plates for the American navy.

The title comes from a request from Carnegie to meet with Frick shortly before his death. Frick’s responded back, “I’ll meet you in hell,” noting that he felt that was both of their destinations in the life to come.

The highlight of this story is the 1892 Homestead Strike. The strike occurred while Carnegie was summering in his native Scotland. Frick played hardball with the miners, bringing in Pinkerton’s which led to a bloody stand-off. Frick himself was even shot, but not by a striker. An anarchist attacked Frick following the strike. To the workers Frick became a hated man. Many thought it would have been different had Carnegie had been at the helm.  In fairness to Frick, Standiford points out how Carnegie also undermined unions even while speaking positively about them.

In addition to providing insight into their business partnership, this book provides short biographies of both men and covers their life after they had made their fortunes. Carnegie went on to build libraries and establish foundations. Frick established a top-notch art gallery in New York and also a large park in Pittsburgh.

In the last chapter, Standiford attempts to link the early 21st century with the ending of the 19th century. While there are similarities (little wage growth for workers, few union members, expansive growth and income for corporations and management), I think he’s stretching it as we are in completely different economies. Still, as one who has read several books about Homestead, I enjoyed and learned much from this book.

 Craig Childs, Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America (Pantheon Books, 2018), 270 pages.

Like the above two books, this is also a history book, but it goes back a lot further and covers a time frame that extends from roughly 30,000 years ago to 12,000 years ago, at a time where North America big game hunters were going after mammoths animals that make the modern day bison appear puny, The book is also a travelogue in which the author spends time on the Bering land bridge and popular hunting areas from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico and east to the Florida panhandle. At each site, Child’s informs the reader about the tools used to hunt the animals and theories as to how they lived, while imaging what it the area would have been liked during the ice age. Childs and his companions suffered to cross Alaskan mountain ranges and to deal with a buggy and wet campsite in Florida. On another occasion, they play-act the last great hunt of the beasts who were gone from the Americas over 13,000 years before Europeans arrived. At another site in Northern Minnesota, Childs freezes his butt off camping in the winter.

Atlas of a Lost World was interesting. I learned a lot about tool making and Childs personal relationships (he and his wife split up somewhere between Alaska and Florida, I’m not sure where), but I felt the book lacked a purpose that could have strengthened it. Childs does attempt to link the dying off of the great mammals with climate change, but that seems a little stretched. Certainly, the reader comes away from the book understanding that change is constant on earth, as species die and others adapt.

Childs is an accomplished outdoorsman, but I question his knowledge of poisonous snakes in the Southeast. He seemed to be overly concerned with the deadly poisonous cottonmouths (water moccasins) dropping from trees into boats. These snakes aren’t known for climbing trees. There are several types of water snakes, some with similar markings to the cottonmouth, who do climb trees, but they are not poisonous. Of course, it’s more exciting to worry about a poisonous snake dropping in one’s boat. A cottonmouth might still fall into a boat, but not from a tree. They are known to sun on logs and if you bumped the wrong log with your canoe, the snake might slide off in an attempt to get away from you and end up where you don’t want him.

This is my third book by Childs, who is by training a water hydrologist. The first book I read of his is my favorite, The Secret Knowledge of Water. I later read The Soul of Nowhere In this work, he studies another long-gone group of people, the Anasazi, whose civilization flourished until around the year 1200, when they seemed to die out, although they are probably the ancestors of the Hopi, Navajo, and other Native American tribes in the American West.

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University Press, 1988), 282 pages including notes, index, and some photos included within the text.

This is a complicated book. Lane weaves together personal experiences in the mountains and deserts, along with his mother’s dying, reflections on his vast knowledge from early Christian history, and the theology of an unknowable God. The writing is dense and I found myself reaching for both a regular dictionary as well as a Dictionary of Church History. His thesis is that “apophatic tradition, despite’s its distrust of all images of God, makes an exception in using the imagery of threatening places as a way of challenging the ego and leaving one at a loss of words” (65). Apophatic theology, also known as “negative theology.” focuses on what we don’t and can’t know about God. As Lane points out, this is the God of Sinai represented by a dark cloud over a mountain. Such theology causes one to empty oneself (as the desert and mountain’s force us to do) as we seek God. Apophatic theology is the opposite of kataphatc theology (positive theology). Lane places kataphatic theology on the mountain of transfiguration, where Jesus with Moses and Elijah, were revealed in their glory. While these two traditions are in tension, Lane focus is on the former as he explores the “fierce landscapes” of the Sinai, South Asia, the Ozarks, and to the desert southwest of the United States.

Lane ends his Epilogue with the story of western travelers to California who became lost in what is now known as Death Valley in 1849. Most of the group died of hunger and as they finally found their way out of the basin, they said, “Good-bye Death Valley. He links that to a Spanish term used also to describe the place, la Palma de la Mano de Dios or the “the very palm of God’s hands” (232). While “fierce landscapes” may seem like places where God is absence, that’s often not the case. From scripture stories about one finding strength in the wilderness, to story of the early desert fathers, to our own walks through desolate places, we may find that instead of being abandoned, that we were all along being held in God’s hand.

This is my second book by Lane. Twenty-some years ago I read an early book of his, Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. I found much to learn in both.

Write Your Book in a Flash: A Review

Dan Janal, Write Your Book in a Flash: The Paint-by-Numbers System to Write the Book of Your Dreams-Fast! (TCK Publishing, 2018), 180 pages.

I was skeptical as I began flipping through this book. It was easy to skim and in 30 minutes, I had hit the highlights. Could it really help a writer accomplish a goal of publishing a book? I decided to read the book closer and to do the opening exercises with a book project I had considered several years ago.

You may or may not know that I led two different congregations as they left an older landlocked facility and built a new campus. Both experiences were a blessing as people caught the vision and experienced what can be best described as a miracle. While I don’t want to do this again, at one point I had considered consulting other churches considering such a move. Write the Book in a Flash was what I needed to help focus my thoughts. The book is written primarily for people who are involved in consulting and contract work to build their legitimacy. While I am not sure I would enjoy such consulting today, a book about moving churches could be a gift to the larger church, helping others in their own building projects.

I was amazed at how Janal’s methodology helped me frame my thoughts and ideas as I wrote my 400 word executive summary, a 50 word back cover summary, came up with a working title, profiled my ideal reader, and outlined the chapters. I feel confident that if I had a block of uninterrupted time, perhaps two weeks, I could complete this book and the final project would run between 125 and 150 pages.  Write Your Book in a Flash is a workbook designed for the person interested in conveying their knowledge in a particular field.

Write Your Book in a Flash is not going to help you write the great American novel. This isn’t about creative writing. It’s about technical writing that can help your reader and, if you so desire, help you reach more clients. The book assumes its audience can already write clearly (and the book doesn’t cover grammar and plot lines and other necessities). This is a book to help people in further their influence and build their “brand.” Janal practices what he preaches as this book is an extension of his efforts to work with potential experts in different fields develop their own books. At the end of the book are advertisements for his other endeavors.

To find the book: http://geni.us/writeyourbookm

Publisher’s website:  https://www.tckpublishing.com/

For full disclosure, I received a free copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.

Burden: A Preacher, A Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South

Courtney Hargrave, Burden: A Preacher, A Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South (New York: Convergent Books, 2018), 227 pages, no photos or index, 22 pages of notes and sources.

Michael Burden, a troubled young man, came under the spell of John Howard, a leader within a section of the Ku Klux Klan. Howard had purchased an old movie theater across from the courthouse in Laurens, South Carolina. With Michael’s help, they partly restored the building and opened within it a Ku Klux Klan museum, a store called the “Redneck Shop,” and a center for Klan meetings and recruitment. Standing in opposition to the theater was David Kennedy, the African-American pastor of the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church. The confrontation between the church and community against Howard and his museum and store made national news in the 1990s. This is their story.

The story has a twist. When Michael Burden falls out with John Howard after his marriage to a woman with two children, he finds himself without a job and locked out of his home. Broke and with nowhere to go, the Reverend David Kennedy steps in to help. This act of grace is the centerpiece of this multi-dimension story of redemption. The story caught the attention of Andrew Heckler, who had a vision of bringing it to the theater. The movie was released in 2018

Courtney Hargrave, a journalist and former ghostwriter, researched and wrote the book that was released in conjunction with the movie. Heckler wrote the forward for Hargrave’s book. Hargrave’s writing is crisp and reads easily. She provides enough background to the various phases of the Klan to help the reader understand the fractured history of this homegrown American terror group. She provides local historical background of white supremacy in Laurens, a town named for a slave trader and the location of lynching activity in the first half of the 20th Century. She delves into the relationship between Burden and Howard providing a case study of how older Klansmen befriend and then use lost youth to further their misguided mission. Her accounts of Reverend Kennedy’s actions show the struggle of those within the African-American community to provide the needs of their own constitutes while showing love to their enemies.

I would have liked to have learned more about the thoughts and feelings of white residents who were not involved in the Klan, especially white churches. Hargrave primarily focused on the New Beginning Church, making the battle between them and Howard. I found myself wondering if more churches, African-American and Caucasian, were involved. Although she doesn’t say so in the book, I know the author’s time was limited as she was under pressure to publish the book before the movie was released. I question if the lack of time and also the movie’s plotline (which needs to simplify the complexity of the story) might have played a role in the way she tells this story.

Hargrave’s writing reminds the reader the role race plays with groups that feel disenfranchised in America. Laurens is an upstate South Carolina town that has been gutted of its industry and hasn’t received the influx of new industry as have other communities in the region such as Greenville and Spartanburg. For those with little hope, it is easy to fall prey to organizations like the Klan. I recommend this book. Not only do we witness someone radically living out the gospel and fulfilling Jesus’ command to love and do good to our enemies, we also gain insight into how a person like Burden might be drawn into an organization like the Klan.

I doubt I would have read this book had it not been for meeting Ms. Hargrave at a reading in Savannah late last year. The story caught my attention. I’m glad I picked up a copy and I hope the book finds a wider audience. I recommend it.

Grant (A Massive Biography)

Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin, 2017), 1074 pages including bibliography, an index, and 16 pages of black and white photos.

U. S. Grant is an amazing story. Even how he came upon his name (which was latter joked to be Unconditional Surrender Grant) is an interesting story. At the dawn of the Civil War, Grant was broke, having failed in several business attempts. He had been dismissed from the army due to his drinking problems. Eight years later, after having led the Union forces to victory, Grant is the President of the United States. In this massive biography, Ron Chernow tells Grant’s story. Chernow challenges many of the presuppositions that are often held about Grant such as his military achievement was due to his superior numbers and that he, like his presidency, was corrupt. While acknowledging the truth of the Union superiority in numbers and the corruption of his administration, Chernow believes that Grant was a superior officer and he, himself, wasn’t corrupt. Grant’s greatest fault, according to Chernow, was his loyalty to friends. It appears Grant best action and clearest head was in the chaos of battle. In his private life he often overlooked the faults of his friends and was too trusting. In battle, he had no problems removing ineffective commanders.

 

Grant is certainly a study in complexity. His father was overbearing, a successful businessman, and a strong abolitionist. His wife, Julia, came from a Southern Planter family and his father-in-law remained an unrepentant Southern even as he lived in the White House during Grant’s presidency. The two families hated each other. His father, who was critical of his son’s failures before the war, was proud of his son during the war even while he attempted to use his son for economic gain. His father, in business with two Jewish merchants, sought to benefit from Grant’s position in the western theater in order to acquire cotton. Grant became so mad that he banned all Jewish merchants from the army’s camp (a ban that was later rescinded). Grant would have to deal with embarrassments from his family for much of his life.

 

Grant was a graduate of West Point and served in the Mexican War (and later admitted that he felt the war was unjust). After the war, he served in California and Washington Territory, before coming back East as a civilian. At the beginning of the Civil War, he volunteered as an officer and joined in Ohio.

 

Grant rose to prominence following his wins in the Western theater of the campaign (where he became close to Sherman), he didn’t meet Lincoln until he was being made the General of the Army. In this position, Grant was able to coordinate the movements of all the armies of the North with a goal of not defeating the South on the battlefield, but of defeating the Confederacy. While much of the war had been fought with armies working independently, Grant, in 1864, coordinated the attacks on all fronts, a strategy that kept the South from shuffling troops from one front to the other and led to the end of the war.

 

Grant knew many within the leadership of the Confederacy. He had been a good friend of James Longstreet since their time at West Point and after the war, the two continued their friendship. He had met Lee in Mexico, but unlike other Union generals wasn’t intimated by him. Grant’s strategy was to always keep pushing. Even if he lost a battle, he would quickly regroup and attack again, before his enemy was able to rebuild his troops. Often, in battles such as Shiloh, the first day was lost but because of continuing the attack instead of withdrawing from the field, victory (or at least reaching objectives, which he saw as more important) were achieved on the second day. During the war, Grant despised the guerrilla tactics of John Singleton Mosby, but after the war he, too, became friend and supporter. Mosby would later become the United States ambassador to Thailand. Grant and Lee had only one additional meeting after the war. Lee called on Grant about a railroad project and didn’t laugh when Grant suggested the two of them had done enough destroying of railroads for them to become builders. While Grant wasn’t intimidated by Lee, neither is Chernow, who challenges a lot of presumptions held about the Southern General.

 

I found many interesting insights into this book. One was how Lincoln feared that Grant might decide to run for the presidency in 1864, something Grant denied. In many ways, he was a humble man. But he was married to a former Southern Belle, who delighted in the spotlight. I was also amazed that after Hayes’ presidency, who had announced early on that he would only serve one term, Grant considered (and other pushed him) to return to the White House. But his attempt at a comeback failed when the Republicans chose Garfield.

 

While Grant’s presidency had its corruption, which Chernow deals with, I felt he tended to sweep allegations of Grant being beholding to business leaders (many of whom had given him homes and money) under the table. Chernow paints a picture of the President who was concerned about Reconstruction and the danger of losing that which so many men had given their lives. He was very concern about the way the “old south” was rising through the Ku Klux Klan. As a General, Grant found that black soldiers were just as good as white soldiers. It bothered him when he learned of former black soldiers being lynched in the South, yet he was also concerned about overusing force. Interestingly, Sherman, who was seen as less generous than Grant as he swept across Georgia and South Carolina during the war, took the side of the South after the war. Sherman suggested leaving states to work out their own laws. Grant knew that such a tactic would end up with a South in which African-Americans would be no better off than before the war and saw the government had a role to play in reducing violence.

 

It was interesting to learn how Grant had his eyes on the United States acquiring Santa Domingo (today’s the Dominican Republic). He was also ready to go to war with Mexico, if necessary, to force the French out. Others in his cabinet had eyes on Cuba and it was even suggested that Great Britain give the United States Canada as payment from the damages of the British built Confederate ship, Alabama.

 

After his second term, Grant became the first American president to make a round-the-world trip. It started out as a rest in Europe, but ended up being a diplomatic mission as Grant visited Egypt, India, Thailand, China and Japan. Coming back to the United States, Grant saw what financial security he had to evaporate overnight in a Ponzi scheme. Friends stepped in which allowed him to have a house in which to live. Mark Twain, who had befriended Grant, worked with him to write a biography. Grant, suffering from throat cancer, finished the book right before his death. Twain, who published the book, was able to present Julia with the books royalties of nearly half a million dollars, making it one of the most successful books of the 19th Century.

 

Chernow deals with Grant’s drinking, suggesting that during the war he generally refrained from drinking in front of his troops (his drunken accounts were when he was away from the front). Grant had aides and a wife who worked hard to keep him from drinking. It appears Grant was mainly a binge drinker. As long as he avoided alcohol, he was okay, but once he started drinking he continued until he was extremely drunk.

 

This is a well-researched study. Some may suggest that Chernow, in challenging many of the Grant myths, is playing in revisionist history. But it’s important to remember that many of the Grant myths that rose in the 19th Century at a time when the United States wanted to move beyond reconstruction. At this time, revisionist histories such as the “Lost Cause” movement became popular and united “white” America behind myths such as benevolent masters and the states’ rights.

 

If you have time, I recommend this book. I listened to this book on audible (48 hours long—that’s a lot of time in the gym), but also read sections of the book at the same time.

The Preacher’s Letter

Billy Beasley, The Preacher’s Letter. (Little Elm, TX: eLectio Publishing, 2018), 265 pages

 

Troy Dawkins is a middle aged kid trying to figure out life. He lives a solidarity life with his dog, Max, working as a bouncer at a bar in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. He’s a man with secrets in his past, who keeps most people an arm’s length away. At the insistence of his mother, he attends church one Sunday where he hears the new minister give a message that he finds disturbing and lacking of grace. While many in the congregation love their new pastor, Troy suspects something is wrong. Writing to the new minister, he receives a reply that is so upsetting to Troy that he barges in to his office and confronts the minister to his face. By the end of the book, the minister is knocked off his pedestal and Troy has a new love interest. And it’s Christmas.

 

While my short summary of the book may sound corny, as if it could be a script for a Hallmark Christmas movie, Billy Beasley is a talented storyteller. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Troy’s past and how a freak college injury kept him from playing professional baseball. And also we learn about a woman he once loved and the tragedy around her death. We also learn about the angels who look over Troy: David, from a former pastor, and Mabry, his college English professor who owns, with her husband, the bar where Troy works. Tory also befriends Suzanne (or she befriends him), who is the wife of the minister, and Stacey, a rising star in the world of Christian music. Billy weaves everyone’s story into the book, along with some real life places on Carolina Beach such as Britts Donuts (if you ever had one of their donuts, you’ll never forget it) and Snows Cut Bridge. The story is filled with wonderful descriptions of coastal North Carolina.

 

My main critique of Billy’s story is that the two main characters are presented as good and evil. The preacher, Alan Matthews, appears one-dimensional. He’s almost Puritanical in his lifestyle, although we learn late in the book that things are not always as they seem. Alan has an over-sized ego that craves the spotlight. He wants to be seen as right. He likes his high salary. We get a hint that Matthews wasn’t always this way, from conversations he has with his wife, but at the time this story occurs, he appears to be uncaring and sinister. Standing opposite to the minister is Troy. While there are more dimensions to his character, he comes across as almost always doing the right thing. He mostly responds in a manner that is well thought out and considerate of others, traits that serve him well as a bouncer. While Troy is a likable character, few people are so good nor are few as sinister as Alan. Most of us live our lives somewhere between the two extremes.

 

This work of fiction addresses the trough question of what the church is to be about. Matthew’s puritanical views on sex and alcohol are contrasted with those of the former pastor, David, who lifts up a vision of a loving community caring for people. Readers who have suffered from the hands of churches that seem more concerned on behavior and appearances instead of loving and accepting people will find much hope in this book. Of course, on the opposite end, those who argue for the church to maintain strict purity standards may find their position challenged.

As a disclaimer, I have known Billy Beasley since the fourth grade. This is his second book and I have enjoyed both of them.

To the River

Olivia Laing, To the River (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2011), 281 pages, a few black and white photos.

 

The first sentence of this book, “I am haunted by waters,” jumped out at me. I’d read it before. It’s the ending line of Norman MacLean’s novella A River Runs through It. I was shocked that she doesn’t list MacLean in her bibliography even though in a later chapter she links him with Hemingway with “swift trout.” (55). Even if she hasn’t read the book, she’s probably seen the movie. It took me a while to get over this neglect (or was she snubbing) of an American author. A second problem I had getting into this book is that I expected her to be traveling through York. After a while I googled and learned that Laing’s river is one of a number of rivers in Great Britain named Ouse. My lack of knowledge of British geography led to this confusion.

 

Laing sets out to walk the banks of the River Ouse in Sussex. It’s not a long river and in a roughly a week’s time she covers the river that has been altered extensively in history. The one black and white photo of the river in the book looks like an irrigation canal in the American West. Over time, the river has been straightened. Its outlet has also been altered as Britain’s, for centuries, tried to create a usable harbor at its mouth. Silting and the longshore current quickly blocked such harbors. However, this altered river has played a major role in English history. Under her waters, Virginia Woolf drown herself by pocketing stones in her dress to pull her under.  In the 13th Century, the Battle of Lewes was fought along its banks. At one time, it was thought to be a location of a fossil providing scientists a link in human evolution, but eventually the “find” was proved a forgery.

 

Laing walks the banks of the river, staying in old homes and lodges near its bank, musing about history and development, nature and literature, religion and archeology. Laing’s writings displays a depth of knowledge as she not only has an understanding of a battle in the 1200s, but expresses a horror that the bones of many of those who were buried in mass graves ended up in the fill used by those constructing railroads in the 1800s. She introduces her readers to authors such as John Bayley and his wife Iris Murdoch, who both swam in this river. Bayley wrote about his wife’s Alzheimer’s, which allows Laing to explore the role of memory. She’s been doing throughout her walk as she explores the “ghost” along the river. She does not limit her discussion of memory to humans as she also explores how sea trout move up fresh water rivers to spawn. Another author she explores Kenneth Grahame, allows her to explore the role of grief following the author’s son, who like Virginia Woolf, also committed suicide. In addition to modern authors, she also ties in stories of Greek gods along with older British author’s such as the Bebe and the author of the ancient Domesday Book, published shortly after the Norman Invasion. As she weaves other stories into her own, Virginia and Leonard Woolf are always a close by as a common thread that ties everything together.

 

The deeper I read into this book, the more I enjoyed Laing’s key insights into the world in which she was traveling. She glimpses birds and animals, observes the changing of the weather, and watches other people as she makes her way along the path. She also brings in her own history and relationships into the story. The Ouse, she confesses on the first page, is a river that she has returned to many times. Her historical understanding of all that has happened along the Ouse is refreshing and made me want to keep going. For a river that I knew nothing about, I am glad to have taken this journey and recommend it for others.