A Few More Non-Gardening Books
Some more books I’ve read recently:
Gettysburg: the Last Invasion, by Allen Guelzo
This retelling of the pivotal American Civil War battle is engrossing even for people with little interest in military history. What I found most absorbing was the political divisions within the Union’s Army of the Potomac.
Most of the Northern officers were supporters of George McClellan, who had been just recently dismissed as commander in the east by President Lincoln. Like McClellan, these officers abhorred Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and did not want to upset the social order of the South. McClellan went on to challenge (unsuccessfully) Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential election.
Loyalty to McClellan often meant a reluctance to pursue an aggressive strategy against the Confederate army. McClellan’s replacement, George Meade, was himself a McClellan sympathizer. If it hadn’t been for an insubordinate general, the battle might not have been joined at all.
It’s amazing that after the second day of the battle, Meade wanted to retreat. He called a council of war to diffuse responsibility for the move, but his generals balked. The union victory would not have occurred if they had been compliant.
Another interesting aspect of the battle was the fact that many of the Union soldiers were German and Irish immigrants (including the German revolutionary and Lincoln supporter Carl Schurz, who went on to become a notable American reformer). Some of the Yankee officers had great disdain for these immigrants in the ranks.
Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh
In the middle of the 19th century, Queen Victoria was the biggest opium pusher in the world. To a great extent, opium financed the British Empire. It was grown in India, then a British colony, and sold in China. When the Chinese tried to stamp out opium imports, the British waged two Opium Wars, which were justified under the doctrine of Free Trade.
Flood of Fire is the third book of Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. The trilogy focuses on the pivotal role that India, under British domination, played in the First Opium War. If you want to read Flood of Fire, I would strongly recommend you start with the earlier books, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. The first two books set the stage for war, which actually breaks out later in the third.
Ghosh tells his story through a cast of compelling characters: a young peasant widow, a Bengali soldier in the British Army, a disgraced Brahmin, a rich Parsee merchant, a ruthless British businessman, and a mixed race American ship’s carpenter secretly passing for white.
These characters inhabit vividly drawn worlds, including a merchant sailing ship, a Bengali village, an Indian regiment in service to the British Army, and Calcutta in the days when England ruled the world. Like Salman Rushdie, another Indian author, Ghosh is drawn to the mixing of languages, foods, customs, and loyalties. A great deal of this mixing happened at the time portrayed, which makes for a pungent and fascinating stage on which this story unfolds.
My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
This is the first of Ferrante’s four Neapolitan Novels. They are about two young girls, Lila and Lenu, growing up after World War II in a poor neighborhood of Naples. Both are intellectually gifted. They become intimate friends and jealous competitors – at school and in the business of growing up.
The novel traces their lives from childhood into the first years of adolescence. By the end, they are headed in different directions. Lila is fearless and charismatic, yet she gets married at the age of 16. Lenu is more cautious, but against great odds she is on a path to higher education and escape from the old neighborhood.
The girls’ neighborhood is a place of poverty that feels disconnected from the wider world, even from the other parts of Naples. This gradually changes with the new postwar prosperity. As the girls mature, though, they become aware of the legacy of loan sharks, black marketeers, police informers, and violence that surrounds them. Ferrante has a unique gift for depicting the inner world of these young people on their voyage to adulthood.