Category Archives: Great Books

The Freshest Advices, May 10, 2024

Hello again. It’s been 8 months since I’ve written in this space (not counting two editorials), so it’s good to be back in between podcasts and other duties as assigned. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Baseball, and Trying to Watch Baseball: The Beloved Braves got off to a hot start, despite losing Spencer Strider for the year, but at this moment they’ve cooled off considerably and let the Hated Phillies (HPs) catch and pass them in the standings. We’re now looking up at the HPs from second place. I doubt that will hold for the season, but if it does, I’m fine with that. Maybe we can reverse the trend from the last two years and go into the postseason as a Wild Card team, make the HPs sit around for a week as their reward for winning the division, and then beat them in the best-of-five second round. Between now and then, we will pray to Hermes, the Greek god of coaxial cable, that Comcast and Bally Sports can work out their problems so that long-suffering fans can actually watch the team again. More than any other league, Major League Baseball makes it incredibly difficult to actually watch the sport. From regional sports networks like Bally that are forever fighting with carriers Comcast and DirecTV, to Friday games on Apple TV, Saturday games on Fox or FS1, Sunday games on ESPN, and whatever games aren’t blacked-out in your region on the expensive MLB app, baseball can be harder to find than Uncle Pootsie’s dentures. Of course, if the Braves continue to play like they did in Los Angeles last weekend, we’ll pay Comcast to keep them off the air and set fire to our remotes in protest. Stay tuned.

Books, Books, and Books: If you’ve been listening to the recent Off the Deaton Path podcasts—and of course you have—then you know I’ve read some great books this year: Michael Thurmond’s new take on Georgia founder James Oglethorpe, Jerry Grillo’s biography of Johnny Mize, the Big Cat, David Henkin’s fascinating exploration of the origins of The Week, Pulitzer-Prize winner David Blight’s uncovering the unexpected history of Yale and Slavery, John O’Connor’s Secret History of Bigfoot, Clayton Trutor’s award-winning Loserville, and Elizabeth Varon’s pathbreaking biography of Confederate general James Longstreet.

What else have I been reading in 2024? The history of the British monarchy fascinates me—as does the death of famous people—and Dr. Suzie Edge has become a Tik-Tok star because of her incredible knowledge on the history of the Royals and all the horrible ways they’ve died. Check out her recent Mortal Monarchs: 1,000 Years of Royal Deaths.

Staying with the theme, if, like me, you’ve always wanted to get a peek behind the curtain at your local funeral home—or even if you haven’t—I highly recommend Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons From the Crematory. Yes, it’s every bit as gruesome as you’d think but endlessly fascinating.

Speaking of gruesome, who knew that Joseph Stalin, in addition to being one of the most vicious tyrants in world history, was also a voracious reader? And he wrote in his books, many of which have survived and are preserved in Moscow. It’s all detailed in Geoffrey Roberts’s Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books.

Speaking of Stalin, I also read The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy’s 1952 Joseph McCarthy-era campus novel that a recent New York Times article proclaimed as the novel that explains the current crisis in American higher education. To quote from the NYT: “Every squawking buzzard in American public life — every quarrel about race, class, sex, foreign policy, pronoun usage — takes wing from or comes home to roost on campus. The crisis is permanent, structural, a feature of the conflicting expectations we impose on our schools. There is a vast body of scholarship to explain why this is so. Academia is a serious place, and it takes itself seriously. But it is also, like Hollywood or Washington, profoundly ridiculous — the kind of symbolically overburdened, sociologically peculiar environment that can only really be understood through satire. Luckily, we have an entire literary subgenre, the campus novel, to fulfill that requirement.”

McCarthy’s book is one very notable contribution to that subgenre and it captures the anti-Communist frenzy of the early 50s quite well. My favorite campus novel remains 1954’s Lucky Jim by Kinglsey Amis.

A strong runner-up, however, also read recently, has to be Julie Schumacher’s hilariously funny Dear Committee Trilogy: Dear Committee Members, The Shakespeare Requirement, and The English Experience. The trilogy follows the travails of Jason Fitger, a sad sack, rumpled aging professor and chair of creative writing and literature at Payne University, “a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the Midwest.” For all that our college campuses are ground zero for the country’s culture wars, Schumacher’s trio of books will give you a cringe-worthy too-real-for-comfort look at the smallness and silliness of cut-throat university politics and the personalities that engage in them.

Speaking of campus politics in popular culture, check out Lucky Hank, an 8-part TV series that aired on AMC last spring and again this winter. It starred Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Caul Saul) as Hank Devereaux, the English department chair at a small Pennsylvania college, based on Richard Russo’s 1997 novel, Straight Man. The casting was spot-on (watch for Tom Bower, who played Mary Ellen Walton’s husband Kirk on The Waltons 45 years ago, as Hank Devereux Sr.) and the acting brilliant, perfectly capturing the personalities at play in the modern academy. I haven’t read Russo’s book, so I’ve no idea how faithful the show was to it, but we’ll save the subject of turning books into other mediums—or using another author’s book as the basis for your own—for another blog post.

Okay, maybe just a little bit about books adapted into movies. I recently re-read Richard Adams’s Watership Down, first published in 1972 and then turned into a 1978 animated film, a 1999-2001 TV series, and a 2018 animated re-boot. I haven’t watched any of them and probably won’t, because I love the book too much as a book to have it filtered through another lens. I first read this novel in Ms. Hewitt’s 11th-grade literature class at South Gwinnett High School in 1981 (God bless you, Ms. Hewitt, wherever you are), and re-read it two years later after my first year at UGA. The novel had a huge impact on me at that time, and I’ve hesitated to re-read it as a full-blown adult for fear I would find the whole story disappointing and not what I remembered. Turns out, the opposite is true—the book spoke to me much more now, 40+ years later, than it did then, sometimes in profoundly moving ways. This is the power of re-reading: the book hasn’t changed, but you have, and what you bring to it has altered, matured (hopefully), and deepened with the passage of time. In all likelihood, I’ll read it again in 10 years, if not before.

Great Books: Just recently I finished reading Montaigne’s Essays. Michel de Montaigne was the famous 16th-century Frenchman who practically invented the literary form we know today as the essay. Writing in his famous tower almost 450 years ago, Montaigne wrote mainly about himself—his mantra being “What do I know?”—and in so doing he wrote about all of us as well. Sarah Bakewell, in her award-winning 2012 book, How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer described it this way: “The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. . . thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves; they diarize and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of the self. . .By describing what makes them different from anyone else, the contributors reveal what they share with everyone else: the experience of being human. This idea—writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity—has not existed forever. It had to be invented….it can be traced to one person: Michel de Montaigne.”

The essays are at once easy and difficult to describe. Montaigne set about examining his interior life in 107 essays that have titles like “Of Friendship,” “Of Liars,” “Of the power of the imagination,” “Of drunkenness,” “Of books.” As Clifton Fadiman described them in The Lifetime Reading Plan, “They are formless, they rarely stick to the announced subject.” In fact, Montaigne may start off writing about the subject in the title of the essay, and then for the next dozen pages he may write about body odors, strange people who turn up at his house, the way his servants talk, or how he can’t eat certain foods. One essay that is ostensibly about the Roman poet Virgil discusses the size of Montaigne’s sexual organs and the pros and cons of marriage. They are literally all over the map, and loaded with quotations from his other reading, usually the ancient Greeks and Romans. Fadiman again: “Montaigne is not only the first informal essayist but incomparably the best. He writes as if he were continually enjoying himself, his weaknesses and oddities and stupidities no less than his virtues.”

All of which is why he’s read as avidly today as he was in his own time. The Essays went through multiple editions in French in Montaigne’s own lifetime and were first translated into English by John Florio in 1603. Readers have included Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and Aldous Huxley. Quoting the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Voltaire and Denis Diderot saw in him a precursor of the free thought of the Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau rightly considered Montaigne the master and the model of the self-portrait. Flaubert kept the Essays on his bedside table and recognized in Montaigne an alter ego.” Many others still do right up to the present day.

Here are some of his bon mots:

“I used to mark the burdensome and gloomy days as extraordinary. Those are now my ordinary ones; the extraordinary are the fine serene ones.”

“It is a rare life that remains well ordered even in private.”

“I set little value on my opinions, but I set just as little on those of others.”

“Old age puts more wrinkles in our minds than on our faces.”

“I am all in the open and in full view, born for company and friendship.”

“It is impossible to discuss things in good faith with a fool.”

“If you do not know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you, don’t bother your head about it.”

“If your doctor does not think it good for you to sleep, to drink wine, or to eat such-and-such a food, don’t worry; I’ll find you another who will not agree with him.”

“On the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting on our own rump.”

I suggest Donald Frame’s translation, first published in 1958. The Essays are broken up into three “Books” that run to well over 800 pages. You need not read them from start to finish; as Fadiman noted, “you may wander about almost at will in Montaigne. He should be read as he wrote, unsystematically.” Alas, I’m too structured for that—I read one Book each year over the last three years, consuming the elephant in small bites.

However you decide to read him, I highly recommend making Montaigne and his Essays a part of your life, slowly, over a number of months or years. Consume him at your leisure, the way Fadiman suggests. You’ll discover, as so many others have over the last 400+ years, a kindred spirit who “appeals to that part of us more fascinated by the questions than the answers.”

Pulitzer Prizes: Finally, the 2024 Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week, and hurrahs are due to Director Lisa Bayer and the University of Georgia Press, publishers of this year’s winner for poetry, Tripas: Poems, by Brandon Som. Anytime a university press publishes a Pulitzer winner it’s a big deal, and when the winners are published by our good friends at UGA Press, it’s even better. Congratulations, one and all.

Stay safe, and until next time, thank you for reading.

The Freshest Advices, April 6, 2023

Item: Play Ball: It’s April, and Major League Baseball has returned, complete with a pitch clock, larger bases, and other rule changes designed either to speed up the game or otherwise make it more exciting for the casual fan. So far our beloved Braves are off to a very hot start and look better than the hated Mets or Phillies (the reigning National League champions who finished a distant 3rd place in the NL East)—and better than the version that won the 2021 World Series. Time will tell, but this should be a fun season.

Item: Hoops: In the meantime, I hope you didn’t miss the Women’s Final Four in college basketball or the championship game between LSU and Iowa, instant classics all. Angel Reese, Georgia Amoore, Aliyah Boston, and Caitlin Clark, are all superstars right now, with many years and great games ahead of them in the WNBA–whose season starts May 19 by the way, with 40 games on the schedule this year. Our Atlanta Dream opens the season on Saturday, May 20, at the Dallas Wings, 1pm on ABC. Don’t miss it.

Item: More Hoops/Football: Speaking of college basketball, just one observation—uninhibited by the thought process—about the men’s final, featuring the exciting San Diego State Aztecs. Their run to the final was great fun to watch and they’re an explosive team. But they were a 5th seed and I kept wondering, if they win the championship, can we really believe that they were the best team in all of college basketball through the year—or just the best team over a number of weeks, during the tournament? Doesn’t matter, right, if they win the championship game? Except that I kept thinking that the college football playoffs are about the expand to 12 teams, and it’s inevitable that a low seed with 3 losses during the regular season will get hot for a few weeks and win it all by beating a previously unbeaten team. Will they really be the champions? Or just a hot team at the right time? Yes to both. I get that it’s much more unlikely in college football that a team with three losses will upset an undefeated team on a neutral field, but it’s bound to happen eventually—like a 16th-seed beating a 1-seed in basketball: it’s only happened twice, but it has happened. It will happen in college football too, and it will dilute the sport, no doubt about it. But it’s inevitable. Then again, my team has won back-to-back championships under the current system, so I’m prejudiced. Moving on…

Item: Books, or A Case of Serendipity: I recently bought a copy of T.J. Stiles’s 2015 book, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History. As I was putting it on the appropriate shelf in my office, I noticed immediately beside it my copy of Evan Connell’s 1984 best-seller on Custer, Son of the Morning Star, which has been hailed as a masterpiece. I remember buying the book as an undergraduate at UGA just getting interested in history. Why had I never read it? And who was Evan Connell? I remember reading articles in the mainstream media (like Time magazine) about how this unusual book and author surprisingly took the literary world by storm that year. I did the usual Google searches on Connell and found myself fascinated by what I discovered. Suffice it to say, Connell is considered a writer’s writer, at home in nearly every genre, from fiction, essays, and short stories, to history, biography, and poetry. The contemporary of Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, and John Updike labored in comparatively undeserved obscurity, but hiding in plain sight was part of his deliberate brand. Connell, who died in 2013 at age 88, was a lifelong unmarried loner, the opposite of a self-promoter, who hated publicity and never courted the spotlight. He granted few interviews (none on camera) and if there’s a picture out there anywhere of him smiling, I’ve never seen it. He never did public readings of his work, never spoke publicly about his writing, never taught classes about writing or literature. He lived in the Bay Area much of adult life, spent some time in local watering holes, and formed few permanent attachments. He died alone in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And yet his novels reveal a remarkably penetrating insight into human relationships that are astonishing for someone who seemed to spend most of his life shunning them. His 1959 novel Mrs. Bridge (a National Book Award finalist) was praised as a masterpiece of spare, lean, concise story-telling, with not a spare word in it, as was his 1969 follow-up, Mr. Bridge. I bought and devoured them both and wished for more. I finally also read Son of the Morning Star (published by then-little-known North Point Press in Berkeley, now owned by FSG) and found it beautifully written and moving as well. The New York Times called it “impressive in its massive presentation of information” and added that “its prose is elegant, its tone the voice of dry wit, its meandering narrative skillfully crafted.” The Washington Post said it “leaves the reader astonished,” and the Wall Street Journal called it “a scintillating book, thoroughly researched and brilliantly constructed.” I can confirm that all of this is true. Happily, for people like me who are fascinated by him, there’s a new literary biography of Connell out by Steve Paul, Literary Alchemist: The Writing Life of Evan S. Connell, published in 2021 by the University of Missouri Press. And so, through the serendipity of shelving one book, Evan Connell is now on my list as a favored author whose writings I plan to work through patiently and in their entirety, one bite at a time. I’ll be spending considerable time with him in the coming years. If you love the power of words, I invite you also to get to know this talented, mysterious man in the only way we can—through his writing.

Item: Bourbon: Speaking of Evan, Evan Williams has long been known among bourbon lovers as one of the best low-priced (read “cheap”) bourbons on the market. This is especially true of Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch, which I highly recommend. The date comes from the year that Williams founded Kentucky’s first distillery. If you’re keeping score, this particular batch is 78 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley, and 10 percent rye. For those uninitiated, enjoying bourbon whiskey is quite simple: pour it into the appropriate glass, either over a few cubes of ice or without, then a) see the bourbon, b) smell the bourbon, and c) taste the bourbon. This one is aged 6-8 years, so you will see a nice copper bronze in your glass. You will smell charred oak, caramel, and vanilla. You will taste all three plus brown sugar and a flash of heat as it goes down. Nicely priced and packaged, widely available, and back up to 90 proof (previously 86), this is a great entry-level bourbon that I highly recommend for the upcoming Kentucky Derby Day—or any upcoming day, actually. As always, I am not getting paid to endorse this product, but I should be.

Item: This week in Literary History: On April 3, 1783, 240 years ago, Washington Irving (not to be confused with famous cricketer Irving Washington), another of my favorite authors, was born in New York City, the youngest of 11 children. He will become the first American author to gain critical and popular fame in this country and in Europe. Charles Dickens, another favorite, said of him: “I don’t go upstairs to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm.” On April 6, 1895, author Oscar Wilde is on trial in London for sodomy and gross indecency. He was accused on the stand of having written the story, “The Priest and the Acolyte,” a story of a love affair between an Anglican priest and a 14-year old boy (it was actually written by John Francis Bloxam). Wilde denied authorship and when asked if the story was immoral, he famously replied, “It was much worse than immoral. It was badly written.”

Item: Currently Reading: The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope (originally published in 1867), the final volume (of 6) in the Barsetshire series that begins with The Warden (1855) then continues with Barchester Towers (1857), Doctor Thorne (1858), Framley Parsonage (1861), and The Small House at Allington (1864), chronicling the always interesting goings-on in the fictional county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester during the height of the Victorian Era. The county is peopled with delightful almost-living characters like The Rev. Mr. Quiverful, Mrs. Proudie, Sir Omicron Pie, Dr. Fillgrave, Sir Abraham Haphazard, Sir Raffle Buffle, and many, many others. The series is beloved by Trollope fans, who are legion, ranging from actor Alex Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi), who never travelled without a Trollope novel, to economist John Kenneth Galbraith, to author Sue Grafton. It’s taken me 14 years to read the series, not because the books are hard to read—just the opposite; one critic said they’re like eating peanuts, hard to stop—but because I let too many years elapse between volumes. After this, it’s on to Trollope’s 6-volume Palliser series, which I hope to finish in half the time. Maybe I’ll read those straight through? At any rate, Trollope is also one of my favorite authors, not only for his wonderful books but because of how he wrote them. He famously kept to a disciplined schedule, putting in 3 hours at his writing desk every day before going to his real job at the Post Office, where he is credited with introducing the ubiquitous red pillar mailbox to the United Kingdom (seen here). His literary output was prodigious by any standards: 47 novels, 42 short stories, 5 travel books, 2 works of non-fiction, and an auto-biography. I intend to read them all.

Item: Finally, this little gem from columnist Giles Coren of The Times of London: “I’ve always thought of art as culture for people too thick to read books. The super-rich invariably collect paintings but I’ve never met one who could quote Milton.”—Coren, in The Times of London, February 27, 2023. Ouch.

Until next time, thanks for reading.

Podcast S6E1: Star Trek, Horrifying Cliches, & Goodbye Georgy Girl

This week Stan looks back at one of the most popular TV shows ever, a Mad magazine cartoonist who left his mark on the holidays, a critical day in the American Civil War, a milestone birthday of a legendary football coach, one of the most momentous days in Olympic history, Travis McGee novels, and much more.

The Indefatigable Dr. Ferling

John Ferling, Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781 (Bloomsbury, 2021, 701 pp., $40)

John Ferling, professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia, is one of the most prolific historians writing today—and one of the best. This is John’s 15th book on the colonial and Revolutionary period, and his 10th in the last 21 years. This volume, covering the last three years of the American Revolutionary War, weighs in at 561 pages of text and nearly 150 pages of notes and bibliography.

Long-suffering readers and listeners of Off the Deaton Path know that John and his work have been featured no less three times before, including a two-part interview.

By my count, this is John’s third book that focuses on the military phase of the Revolution, following Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford, 2007), and Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (Bloomsbury, 2015). Of course his biographies of George Washington and John Adams cover the war years as well, as does his political history of the war, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford, 2003), and his prosopography, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2000). Yet he never repeats himself, always offering fresh insights and interpretations.

How does he manage to do this? Here’s what I wrote in a review of his dual biography, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation (Bloomsbury, 2013): “How, one might ask, does Ferling keep plowing the same ground and still have something new to say? Part of it is simply attributable to his maturity as a scholar. Unlike others who leap from one time period to another with each book, Ferling has spent his entire professional life laboring in the vineyard of the Founding era. Ferling isn’t just dabbling in this period; he knows it as well as anyone can who is now two centuries removed from the time about which he’s writing. He is well versed in what the Founders wrote, what they read, what they believed, and what they hoped to achieve. But he’s not awe-struck by them. Simultaneously, his reflections on people and events have deepened with the years, as he himself has aged. As should happen as we grow older, his own insights about human nature reflect his growth as a human being; he’s more empathetic, more forgiving of human foibles and less harsh on their failures, though he isn’t afraid to point them out and to hold men and women accountable for not only what they achieve, but what they fail to achieve.  He knows what it’s like to live life, make mistakes, and have regrets. It’s the primary reason why people in their 20s shouldn’t write biographies.”

Rick Atkinson, the author of The British Are Coming: The War for America, 1775-1777 (Henry Holt, 2019), the first volume of his Revolutionary Trilogy, recently told me that he believes some subjects are bottomless. No matter how much is written about some historical periods and people, historians hundreds of years from now will still be producing books on Abraham Lincoln, the Second World War, and the American Revolution.

John Ferling’s masterful prose, in this and all his books, bears this out. As prolific as John is, I have no doubt that other volumes will follow, all exquisitely written, exhaustively researched, and deeply analytical.

Americans are endlessly fascinated by those who fought and won the Revolution, and that first greatest generation has no finer historian than the indefatigable Dr. John Ferling.

Podcast S4E7: Item! Stan Lee and the Golden Age of Comics

Stan talks about This Week in History (including King George III, AIDS, RFK, Mount Everest, & Charles Dickens), remembers a record-breaking baseball player, highlights new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf, and spotlights an incredible and historic collection of golden-age comic books about to hit the auction block–and the influence of comics in his own life.