Unusual Writing Style Choices

Matrix book cover

I can’t remember how I first learned about Lauren Groff’s novel MatrixWhat I do remember is being attracted to the subject matter. A story about a reluctant nun who uses her newfound role as abbess to build her abbey and protect the women in it. It deals with feminist themes during a time (England in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries) when women’s roles were limited, to say the least. After reading the novel, I can’t say that I’d recommend it to everyone.

On the positive side, it is extraordinarily well-written. The reader is absolutely immersed in the convent and the life of the sisters there — the cycle of church services, the prayer, the work. And you are immersed in the emotions of the characters as well. And while the novel is very feminist in its philosophy, it emerges gently from the experience of the main character Marie. I never felt like I was hit over the head with it. On the contrary, I often found myself trying to navigate what exactly the main character was aiming at ultimately.

Unfortunately, while the writing is excellent, it is also very laden with terms of the world in which it takes place. Many of these are understandable from the context, but many are left unclear. This pulled me from the story to try to figure out what was being said. And there were absolutely no quotation marks in the whole book. Dialog takes place in this odd sort of reported way without the use of direct quotation. And the text almost reads like it was written in first person, though it is not. I found this combination of style choices jarring, repeatedly taking me out of the story.

In the end, I have to say that I am happy to have read the book and I enjoyed it somewhat while reading it. However, I would not recommend it to the casual reader. This feels like a book that is best read in a college English class exploring feminist themes and/or medieval monasticism. So if those themes are your happy place and you enjoy exploring an unusual writing style, this book may be for you. Everyone else, I suggest giving it a pass.

A Complicated Man

Cover of the book American Lion by John Meacham

History is full of turning points. One such turning point in US history is the presidency of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States. Before him, the office was seen largely as administrative and inferior in role to the Congress. The government was largely elected and run by elites elected by a very small electorate largely made up of white male land owners. This left much of the population unrepresented. The slow change to larger enfranchisement started during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The presidential biography American Lion by John Meacham covers these years and Jackson’s role in them.

The book leans largely toward hagiography in the vain of much Lincoln biography. Jackson saw himself as a father figure to the nation, a champion and savior of the people, and the author shares this view with little exposition on the darker moments in his presidency. Regardless, this is a largely well-written overview of Jackson’s life as a US president.

Jackson saw the role of president differently than his predecessors. He saw a strong role for the president as the only federal office directly elected by all citizens. While this was not strictly true (and still isn’t) due to the electoral college, it is not entirely inaccurate either. At that time Senators were still elected by state legislatures. The election for president was the closest thing the country had to a national mandate. Our modern view of the role of president started with Andrew Jackson, and this book is an excellent introduction to this history.

The book is heavy on the Eaton affair and its affects on the first years of the Jackson administration. It also covers the main events of Jackson’s presidency in fair detail including the Bank War and the nullification crisis. It is regrettably short on coverage of the treatment of native Americans in general and the Seminoles and Cherokees in particular as well as the growing controversy over slavery. This last is an especially grievous oversight as Jackson himself was a slaveholder. I was left with the feeling that the author so admires the strengths of Jackson that he couldn’t bring himself to equally cover the flaws in his character and behavior.

Despite this shortcoming, the book is a good overview of the presidency of Andrew Jackson and illustrates how it was a turning point in US history. It does show Jackson as a complicated man with both strengths and flaws, though I feel it overemphasizes his strengths and too easily forgives his flaws. It rightly treats the subject as a man like anyone else but doesn’t go into enough depth on the darker more controversial aspects of the man and his presidency.

Reading a Banned Book

Cover of the book The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

With all the controversy over the graphic novel Maus after a school board in Tennessee removed it from its eighth-grade curriculum, I decided to read it for myself. I’d heard of the book and that it is the only graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, but I had never read it myself.

The book is the story of the author’s father in Poland during the Nazi rise to power in Germany, including his experience of the war in Poland and in Auschwitz. The Jews in the comic are mice, the Germans cats, and the Poles pigs. As you might expect, it is not a story with a happy ending.

In fact, the story doesn’t have much of an ending at all. And it is more than just the story of the author’s father. It is the story of how the author interviewed his father and came to learn about his experiences. Through the story we learn that in large part this was an effort of the author to learn about and understand his father in light of his own childhood with his father. And the telling is unflinching and real.

Perhaps this is why the book has been both used as a tool for teaching the holocaust in schools as well as made it the target of banning. It shows the brutality and cruelty of what really happened and how it affected not only those who went through it but the rest of their families as well, including their children born after the war. It is a story that still needs telling, and reading.

History Rhyming

Painting of the Webster-Hayne Debate

Many have reported on the fears of approaching civil war in the United States due to the conflict between the left and the right in politics. Talk of liberty and rights abounds with extremists vowing to take to arms to defend their freedom. As I continue to read about Andrew Jackson’s presidency, this sounds more like 1830 than 1860.

In 1830 there was a great debate in the Senate that started over a bill proposed to limit sale of lands in the West. This stirred up old sectional rivalries in the country and led to the Webster-Hayne debate. The West was opposed to the limit proposed as it would slow their increasing power which came from the population moving westward. The bill was proposed by a New England Senator whose interests were in industry and manufacturing, hoping to slow the migration of its population westward. A Senator from the South (Hayne) saw an opportunity to bring up his views on states’ right and nullification. The debates lasted from January to May 1830 and were very heated. Ultimately, the debate came down to liberty and the value of preserving the Union and whether they were compatible. Webster gave one of the most famous speeches in American history that ended with the line “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

The main division between North and South at the time was that the North was industrial while the South was agricultural. The North favored a high tariff to protect their manufacturing. The South opposed this as it made their goods more expensive to sell overseas. Of course, the evil of slavery made this division even harder to unravel. But what seems to have been overlooked in all the debate was the fact that these interests were made stronger by one another. The North needed the South and vice versa. The South grew the food and textiles that the industrial North needed to feed and clothe their workers. The North provided the goods and the transportation that the South needed to grow and sell their food and goods. Both sides let their rancor and partisanship drive a wedge between them.

We see the same happening today, though the divide is different. Today the division is largely between urban liberal politics and the more conservative politics of rural areas. Once again, both sides need each other and for similar reasons. Urban areas get their food from the rural areas. Rural areas rely on the urban centers to distribute their food and goods and to get them to market. Politically, we need to value both individual liberty (conservatives’ big issue) and community responsibility (the hear of the liberal view). But as in the 1830s, we are letting our party politics and partisanship blind us to our mutual dependency. This was perhaps summed up best by Edward Livingston, a Senator from Louisiana during the debates when he said, “The spirit of which I speak… creates imaginary and magnifies real causes of complaint; arrogates to itself every virtue—denies every merit to its opponents; secretly entertains the worst designs … mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of Heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable alternatives to party defeat; blind, vindictive, cruel, remorseless, unprincipled, and at last frantic, it communicates its madness to friends as well as foes; respects nothing, fears nothing.”

Unfortunately, Livingstson’s plea for cooler heads ultimately went ignored. The flames of discord continued to grow and led to the conflagration of the American Civil War thirty years later. I only hope that in this century, common sense and cooler heads will prevail.

Biographical Mixed Bag

Cover of the book American Lion by John Meacham

At the beginning of the year I started reading American Lion by John Meacham. I never really learned much in detail about Andrew Jackson or his presidency. I chose this biography after hearing the author interviewed by Brené Brown and listening to season one of his podcast Hope, Through History. I liked his approach to history, the way he made history approachable and relevant.

I have read the first five chapters and for me it is a mixed bag. I love what I am learning and how he uncovers the humanity in all the people involved. What I struggle with his the presentation. Rather than taking a strictly chronological approach in writing, the author goes back and forth using aspects and stories from the past to illustrate what is happening in the narrative. This is an excellent approach that I have appreciated in my other books. It creates a sense history as a living thing through story. But the writing is not very precise. I find myself confused at times between what is past in the story and what is the story being told. It leaves the narrative feeling disjointed and mixed up.

As a result, I considered giving up on it and finding another biography. I did some research and didn’t find much. This particular book actually won the Pulitzer Prize for history. And it is routinely praised as the best one-volume history of Jackson. So I think I will stick with it. Despite my struggles with the writing, I am finding myself enlightened both about Jackson and this time in my country’s history.

Lessons from History

Map of the US Presidential Election of 1824

It is often reported and lamented that today in the United States of America we are more divided than ever. We long for some long forgotten time when politics was more civil and less personal. While we do face unique political problems today, there never was a time of civil and less personal national politics. And the election of 1824 is an excellent example.

As I learned while reading the Jackson biography mentioned in a previous post, the presidential election of 1824 was extremely ugly. The two leading candidates were John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Adams was serving as Secretary of State, a role many previous presidents served in prior to being elected. Jackson was the hero of the battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812. These men did not like each other at all. Adams was allied to the strict and elitist version of republicanism that the first presidents had practiced. Jackson was a man of the people. Both men struck out at the other personally in the contest, even maligning members of each other’s families.

The election was complicated by two other men running for president, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. As a result, no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College votes. According to the constitution, the election was decided by the House of Representatives with each state’s delegation getting a single vote. Only the top three candidates were on the ballot, so Henry Clay was dropped.

Like Adams, Clay could not stand Jackson. It is widely thought that Clay made a deal with Adams to give him the election in exchange for being made Secretary of State. Jackson was the big winner in the popular vote with 41% to Adam’s 31%. Jackson even won 15 more votes in the Electoral College (99-84). Due to the machinations of Clay, Adams won the election and became the next president and named Clay as his Secretary of State.

This happened during a time in US history as more and more people were getting the right to vote. There was a philosophical shift toward popular rule and elections and away from powerful elites controlling them. As is often the case in transitional times, things were ugly. It is often said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. It certainly seems to me that our times could be considered to be rhyming with this time in history.

History is Personal

Portrait of US President Andrew Jackson

I tend to read three books at a time – one fiction, one history/biography/memoir, one business/science/psychology. This week I started reading a biography of US President Andrew Jackson. He is a controversial president whom many think was a terrible man. He was very popular and his presidency signaled a shift in our country. It’s even called the Jacksonian era. I never really learned much about him in school and decided to remedy that by reading An American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham.

The first chapter starts with him having learned at his home in Tennessee that he has been elected president in the fall of 1828. It was a bitter ccontest with John Quincy Adams, both candidates going after the character of each other. Adams’ side even went so far as to say some pretty horrible things about both Jackson’s mother and wife.

Just before Christmas, his wife of forty plus years, Rachel, had a heart attack and died a few days later. Family and country were everything to Jackson. This loss was devastating despite his victory in the election. He had expected to go to Washington with his wife. Now he was going as a widower.

Whenever I read about history, I do my best to put myself in the shoes of figures such as Jackson. How would it affect me to lose the love of my life just before embarking on the most ambitious part of my career? I felt it as a gut punch. There is a lot to dislike about Andrew Jackson as a person, but I simply can’t get over the depth of despair he must have felt even after such a victory.

I am only just starting to read this book, so I am sure I will continue to learn a lot about Jackson that I didn’t know before. Some of it may hit me like this experience. Some of it may make me angry. But I am certain that as I continue to apply empathy to all that I learn, I will better understand the history of this man and this time in my country’s history. This is what I mean when I say that history is personal.