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Unlike some other bloggers, I’ve never been much into old year wrap/new year wish posting.  My memory just isn’t good enough to accurately summarize the past, and I can’t think of anything to say about the coming year except that I am sure it will somehow find a way to be more absurd than the one just finished.

I will say this, however:  It is official port-swiller policy to refer to “twenty-twelve” and not to “two thousand twelve”.   Violators of this policy will be prosecuted and subject to fine, imprisonment or both.

Thank you.

Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

I hope each and every one of you had a very merry Christmas (still in progress, of course) and a happy New Year.  Judging by the traffic meter, you certainly weren’t spending your hols hanging around here.  All was well with the port swiller family, apart from my eejit-like leaving of my winter coat (with my car keys in the pocket) at the vast yet secure land-holding known as Fort LMC, a mere couple hundred miles away, after we had gone there to celebrate the new year.  Heigh-ho.

At any rate, ol’ Robbo spent a great deal of time last week curled up on the sofa with a number of good books.  Allow me to briefly share my thoughts about them.

1.  The collected works of Charles Portis.  The more I read of Portis, the more enthusiastic I become about him.  Portis wrote five novels altogether; Norwood, True Grit, Gringos, The Dog of the South and Masters of Atlantis.  (I read the lot.)  None of them ever made that much of a splash apart from True Grit, which quickly got lost in the Hollywood movie hoopla, and for a long time they remained out of print.  (Portis, evidently, was not interested in playing the publicity game and, in fact, actively avoided any press interest in himself.)  We must thank the Coen Brothers and their remake of True Grit for convincing the Overlook Press that it would make economic sense to re-release the complete set of books.   All of the novels are basically stories of searches – for money, for lost loves, for revenge, for explanations of the insanity of life.  True Grit is the outlier of the lot because of its historickal setting.  The others are all more or less set in the 50’s and 60’s.  Each one follows the paths of collections of doofuses, con men, cult crazies and/or hippies as they try to get on in the world.  The last three novels, in particular, focus on people convinced that their circumstances, usually quite pathetic, are controlled by some overarching secret possessed by “Them”, whether they be space aliens, the Rothschilds or lost civilizations.   These books are very, very funny and I would recommend them very highly.

2.  Chickamauga and Chattanooga: The Battles That Doomed The Confederacy by John Bowers.   In The Dog of the South, two of the characters get into an argument about whether Confederate General Braxton Bragg lost the Civil War by failing to crush Rosencrans’ army at the Battle of Chickamauga.  This prompted me to pull out Bowers’ book, which I’ve had on my shelf for ever so long but had not read before.   I must say that if I had a dime for every battle that’s been described as the one that “lost” the War for the South or “won” it for the North, I’d probably have at least, oh, a buck-forty, maybe a buck-fifty by now.  Bowers’ thesis is that Bragg had a golden opportunity to chalk up a signal victory and that he blew it by failing to push against George “The Rock of Chickamauga” Thomas’ rear-guard defense aggressively enough, allowing the Union Army to withdraw in order and settle in at Chattanooga.  This is fair enough.  However, Bowers goes on to state that such a victory would have left Lincoln with no choice but to enter into a brokered settlement allowing the CSA to gain its independence.  Here I think the book is at its weakest, because Bowers never sufficiently cites the basis or bases for this statement and, frankly, I don’t much buy it.  Chickamauga represented a major check on the Union’s first movement into Georgia, but by September of 1863 (when it was fought), the evidence was mounting that Lincoln’s Anaconda Plan was beginning to bear results and that the War was, in fact, winnable.  If anything, the pressure to settle had been at its highest earlier that summer prior to Gettysburg and Vicksburg.  (It would spike again in the fall of 1864 when Grant was bogged down in front of Richmond and Petersburg, but by then Sherman was rolling through Georgia.)  Would the destruction of Rosencrans’ army have changed things?  Well, shoulda-woulda-coulda, I suppose.  But never mind.  The book is a good introduction to these two fights, taking an almost chatty narrative tone  and not getting too tangled up in details.

3.  The Revolution in Virginia, 1775-1783 by John Selby.  If it’s details you want, this is the book for you – a massive, comprehensive survey of the transformation of the Old Dominion from favored Crown Colony to the Great Commonwealth of Virginny.   Since there was not much fighting in Virginia except at the very beginning and very end of the War, Selby focuses primarily on legal, political and economic development during that period, as the good people tried to figure out how best to establish a representative government.   What fascinated me most was what a truly small number of men were responsible for so much of it: Patrick Henry, George Mason, George Wythe, various members of the Lee family, Washington and, of course, Thomas “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants” Jefferson, whose precipitate flight into the nearby woods when Banastre “Bloody” Tarleton and his Dragoons came a-calling at Monticello in the spring of 1781, frankly, made me snigger.  I don’t suppose that I would recommend this book to anyone who isn’t both a history nerd and a fan of Virginia.  However, if you are one or both of those, you’ll like it a lot.

4.  Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather.  My third Cather novel and perhaps the tightest of all her narratives that I’ve read so far.  The story is set in 1856 in a small community in the mountains near Winchester, Virginia.  Sapphira is the imperious wife of a solid but somewhat humble miller and is the owner of a larger slave establishment than anyone else in the immediate neighborhood.  (The miller himself and their daughter are something close to proto-abolitionists.)  The plot, which remains very much at the personal level throughout,  focuses on the relationships between the slaves and their masters and among themselves, culminating in a crisis in which the miller’s rakish nephew sets his sights on a particularly attractive young slave named Nancy.  I gather from what biographic knowledge I have that Cather based the book on a story or stories she had heard as a young girl in the same neighborhood.  As with her other work, the period details are exquisite and her fascination with frontier living is readily apparent.   This may have been her last novel – it was certainly one of the latest ones.

So there you have it.


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January 2012