Archive for May 2009

Vicksburg, 1863, by Winston Groom

May 27, 2009

This is by the author of Forrest Gump. I heard an interview with him about it, and it sounded good. On finding the book at the store, I saw lots of maps, which is a good thing in a Civil War history.

Schade, this is an odd and frustrating book. It is not a detailed account of the Battle and Siege of Vicksburg. About one-third of the book is of that sort, but the rest is filler. The author oddly starts with a 20-page chapter about the causes of the Civil War that adds nothing to what a tenth-grader would know. There are chapters and chapters about preliminary battles and operations, but unfortunately none of these seem to lead forward to the climactic battle itself. One can easily get lost and bored. The nice maps at the front of the book are of no use for many of the battles described, such as New Orleans, Ft. Donelson, and Shiloh.

The chapters on the siege are good. Groom describes how the citizens had to build caves to live in to get away from the Federal shelling, and how they resorted to living off their dogs, cats, and mules before it was over.

The book has an index, but no source notes (though there is a bibliography). The amateur historian’s treatment would be tolerable if Groom told a good story, but he does not.

How glad I was to read Lincoln’s words, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” but there were still 50 more pages to slog through!

Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, by Ross Douthat

May 27, 2009

I heard a podcast of Brian Lamb’s interview with Douthat, who has recently been hired by the New York Times to write an op-ed once a week (replacing Bill Kristol). Since he’s only written two columns for the Times so far (though he’s been with the Atlantic for several years), they spent much of the interview on this book, his account of his time at Harvard c. 1998-2002.

The book’s strongest chapter is the first, in which Douthat describes the disparate characters in his dorm and the university’s diversity policy that threw them together like the stereotypical platoon in a World War II movie. The university can only do so much, though, and self-segregation is inevitable in the cafeterias, at parties, etc. There are other chapters on rushing the final clubs, college politics, and romance. The book has a modular quality; you could rearrange the chapters at whim without changing it. Still, most of it is very good. The description of his summer job at National Review, and a night out on the yacht with WFB, if slightly off-topic, alone nearly justifies the effort.

Douthat describes Harvard as a meritocracy, where all students are strivers from the same types of elite high schools, no matter what their ethnic background (but not everyone can get in the final clubs, as he finds out; in that way, the old aristocratic character of the university lives on). Only one chapter deals with academic content–mostly grade inflation. There is a relatively weak chapter on the living wage controversy, which apparently seemed very important at the time, but was soon forgotten; maybe that was his point.

He ends with wistful regrets at leaving this special world, a Brideshead without the Marchmains. I hope he’s moved on by now.