An American Editor

July 24, 2013

On Books: A World on Fire

It has been a long time since I last reviewed a book. It is not that I haven’t been reading; rather, it has been a long time since I read a book worthy of my expending the effort to write a review. Most of what I have been reading would fall into the 3- to 3.5-star category at best. The remainder generally would be 4 stars with a few pushing 4.5 stars. (For a refresher on my rating system, see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I).)

At long last, however, I have hit the jackpot with a genuine 5-star book: A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman (2011; ISBN: 9780375504945).

As long-time readers of this blog know, I like to read nonfiction as well as fiction. Each serves its own purpose for me. Fiction’s role is primarily to entertain me. A particularly well-written novel may stay with me (two good examples are the mystery novels by Vicki Tyley and the historical fiction by Shayne Parkinson, both of whose books I have reviewed; just do a search on their names. Other excellent writers whom I have reviewed can be found by searching for the On Books tag), but its most important function is to be entertaining.

Nonfiction’s purpose, on the other hand, is primarily to educate me. It is a bonus when a nonfiction book not only educates me but entertains me. Such is the case with A World on Fire.

America’s Civil War has been the topic of thousands of books. One would think that, as one would also think true with books about World War II, that by now there was nothing new to discover or learn about the Civil War. But Foreman shows that there is still more to learn about the Civil War.

Rather than repeat the stories of the various battles (was this one more important than that one?), Foreman tackles the diplomatic front, concentrating on England. At the time, England was sympathetic to the Union cause but economically bound to the South. The economic ties were such that it was accepted wisdom that once the Confederacy declared itself an independent nation, it would become one on the world stage because the world powers — primarily Britain, France, Russia — would extend recognition to the Confederacy.

This belief, which was held in both the North and the South and even privately by Lincoln, was based on Britain’s need for the South’s cotton and France’s Southern leanings. More than 4 million Englishmen were economically dependent on Southern cotton (which is what led to Southerners declaring that “cotton is king”. The declaration came about in response to the question of whether Britain would recognize the South as an independent nation or remain neutral). The failure to maintain steady access to cotton would cause a major economic disruption in Britain.

But Britain abhorred the South’s commitment to slavery. It also did not want to encourage rebellion for fear it would encourage rebellion in its own colonies. England was in a diplomatic predicament. It is this story that Foreman tells.

Interestingly, Britain and France had agreed that they would only recognize an independent South together; neither would act on its own. It was this agreement, coupled with Britain’s unwillingness to take sides that kept the South from gaining international standing as a separate country.

What the South wanted was for Britain to break the North’s blockade of Southern ports. Britain was the undisputed naval power and probably the only country that could do so. That could only occur if Britain was not neutral. Britain feared getting involved for many reasons, not least of which was a fear of losing Canada and possibly the Caribbean in a war with the North.

Foreman tells of England’s struggle to remain neutral, and why it was such a struggle. It was not just a struggle philosophically; it was a struggle also because of the ineptitude of William Seward, America’s secretary of state, and Charles Francis Adams, America’s ambassador to the Court of St. James — and because of the South’s refusal to state publicly that slavery would end. Of course, Lincoln hadn’t yet so declared, which posed a quandary for Britain.

Seward believed that if he could make Britain an enemy of the United States, the Southern states would give up their secession to return to the fold and make a unified fight against Britain. Seward also believed that Canada should be part of the United States, not a British colony. Consequently, Seward was always threatening Britain with war and conquest of its North American colonies. The British struggled to deal with him. Adams, who was part of the Adams presidential dynasty, also disliked Britain and let his dislike color his actions.

Seward was also arrogant in his belief of America’s superiority. Contrary to reality, which was that America was, at best, a fifth rate military power, Britain was, by world agreement (except for Seward and much of the anti-British American press), the first-rate military power. Seward’s egotism, arrogance, and belligerence strained British-American relations.

Britain was also crucial to the South. Not only was Britain a primary market for Southern cotton, but the South had neither weapons manufacturing plants (they were all in the North) nor warship-building capability or expertise. Britain had both, and the South wanted access to them; Britain could be a help or a hindrance to the South.

The South also was arrogant. It was the common belief in the South that Britain would do whatever the South wanted because “cotton is king.” The South did not reckon with Britain’s keen antislavery beliefs and how much they shaped British policy toward the Civil War. Even those of the working class who were losing their jobs because of the cotton shortage were disinclined to support the South because of slavery.

Foreman’s coverage of the history of British-American relations during the Civil War is thorough and eminently readable. She writes as if she were a novelist. The prose is fluid and fact-filled. She makes the frustrations of the British, the Union, and the Confederacy seem alive. A World on Fire provides a new-to-me perspective of the Civil War. I found the book hard to put down. I also found it fascinating how much effort Britain and its citizens put into getting Lincoln to view the war as a war of emancipation and how much they pushed the South to give up slavery as a pariah institution.

If you are looking for a different perspective on the American Civil War, this is the book to read. If you are looking for a well-written history, this is the book to read. If you are just looking for a well-written book to read, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War is highly recommended.

September 14, 2011

Worth Noting: The Arranger by L.J. Sellers

Sometimes I hate picking up a new book — when I discover that I have to fight with myself to put the book down, the times when I find I can’t go back to work or can’t go to sleep because the book has grabbed me and simply won’t let me go. Such is the case with The Arranger, the new thriller from L.J. Sellers.

I reviewed Sellers’ writing earlier, calling her a 5-star indie author. (See On Books: Detective Jackson Grows and Grows for my earlier review.) The Arranger simply cements her 5-star status.

The Arranger stars Lara Evans, a homicide detective in the “Detective Jackson” series, now retired and working as a freelance paramedic. I don’t know how Sellers came up with the idea of a series of games as the framework for the story, but I found it reminiscent, in a very broad sense, of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

The Arranger is different in every way from the “Detective Jackson” series, but it is as satisfying as any book in the series. The characters are well-formed and interesting. The story is compelling and believable. The writing is gripping and refused to let me go. The ending had a twist, one that I never expected. Let me clarify, however, that this is a thriller and not a mystery. The difference is that in a mystery the author tries to keep you guessing who is the bad person; in the thriller, it doesn’t matter if you know or if you figure it out early in the book. What counts in a thriller are the relationships and the causes and effects.

In The Arranger, Sellers has written a top-notch thriller. If you like thrillers, The Arranger is a 5-star-sure-to-please-can’t-put-down read. As with all her books, it is available at the author’s website and at ebookstores.

May 18, 2011

On Books: Honor Killing & The Thousand Autumns

This time it is a two-for-one review: one nonfiction, Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard, and one fiction, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. Let’s begin with Honor Killing.

In the annals of American jurisprudence, one lawyer stands above all other lawyers in popular mythology: Clarence Darrow. Darrow was the most successful and popular lawyer of the 20th century. Every move he made was followed by national press. His legal exploits covered the gamut of supertrials, including the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder of a cousin, in which Darrow’s clients pleaded guilty and he spoke for several days to save them from the death penalty. Darrow was also noted for representing union members at a time when union busting was a government policy. And he was most famous for defending the Tennessee school teacher, Scopes, in what was billed as the trial of the century — the great Monkey Trial of evolution vs. creationism in which his opponent was the great orator William Jennings Bryan.

Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard discusses Darrow’s last major case. Darrow was desperate for money, having lost his fortune in the bad investments and the collapse of the stock market, and so when he was approached in his retirement to defend Thalia Massie in Hawaii, he hemmed, he hawed, he accepted.

Thalia Massie was the daughter of penniless socialites who lived off the charity of relatives. But a socialite she was. And she was married to a U.S. Navy officer. The incident occurred in 1931 Hawaii. On the U.S. mainland, also in 1931, the racial prejudice was directed against blacks and an accusation of assaulting and raping 2 white women was made against 9 young black men, collectively known as the Scottsboro Boys. In Hawaii, the prejudice was against the native Hawaiians, by the oligarchs who controlled the economy and by the U.S. Navy.

Until I read Honor Killing, I admit I was unaware of the extent and depth of the prejudice against the Hawaiians. Honor Killing was an eye opener. The Massie trial was the culmination of a concerted effort by the white community to convict a group of native Hawaiians of raping Thalia Massie, a rape that never occurred, and the killing of one of the Hawaiians when a conviction was not gotten. Darrow was hired to represent the whites in the murder trial.

Honor Killing is a well-researched and well-written book. For my taste, too much time was spent by the author laying out the social, political, and economic environment in which the trials were held, but that was not enough to deter me from enjoying the book. Essentially, the attempt by the white community to convict the Hawaiians was largely politically motivated and was the Hawaiian Scottsboro Boys trial. Although the prosecution of the Hawaiian defendants preceded the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, you could easily substitute the participants in one trial for the participants in the other.

Honor Killing is a 5-star book and worth reading to get a better understanding of how racial prejudice in the early decades of the 20th century manifested itself and the expectations of the white citizens to be believed even in the face of directly contradictory evidence. As one person noted, evidence doesn’t matter.

David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet takes us to late 18th century/early 19th century Japan and the Dutch trading post at Nagasaki. At first I had trouble with the writing style, but after spending 15 minutes reading the novel, the style grew on me — so much so that I had difficulty putting down the book. Jacob De Zoet is one of the best novels published by one of the Agency 6 (Random House) I have read in years.

The story takes place in Dejima, which is the location of the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki harbor. De Zoet is a young man who has agreed to give 5 years of his life to the Dutch East India Trading Company in hopes of making his fortune and being able to return to The Netherlands to marry his sweetheart. The story is about his rise and fall, along with the rise and fall of Dejima and the Dutch East India Company, between 1799 and 1801.

The book provides an insight into Japan’s self-imposed insularity and the how Japanese society functioned at the time. In addition, it well illustrates the European attitude toward Asians.

The cast of characters is varied, covering the spectrum of who one may well have encountered at the time. De Zoet’s original plans are altered, however, after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, a disfigured midwife who is also a pupil, by special dispensation, of Dr. Marinus, who is part of the Dejima personnel. This encounter changes everything for De Zoet and ability and inability to deal with the intrigue and social customs that surround him forms the basis of the story.

Jacob De Zoet is historical fiction at its best. This, too, is a 5-star book and one worth spending the inflated price that has been artificially set as a result of the agency pricing scheme. It has been my policy not to buy Agency 6 ebooks except for rare instances, and this was one of those rare instances. I made the plunge because of the many positive remarks the book generated on an ebook forum. Well-crafted and well-written novels are becoming scarcer, but David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet demonstrates that such books are still available.

Both Honor Killing and Jacob De Zoet are books worth buying and reading in any format.

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