Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War – Tony Horowitz.

Although a bit dated now that it’s 20 years old, this still stands as one of the best, recent books about the Civil War. But it’s not your standard rehash or reviewing of the 1861-1865 war. Instead it views the war through the prism of the 1990s South, where in some places you would think the war ended a week ago and in others every reference to the war is carefully buried and hidden behind more marketable local history.

Horowitz, a Virginia native who returned to the States after over a decade abroad, travelled through the South in 1994-95, visiting many of the most important war sites and talking to folks to try to figure out what the war meant 130 years after its end. It’s a very interesting book to read as a Northerner because I can’t help but think many of the people Horowitz talked to during his trek are nuts. It’s not me at my most tolerant, but I’ve always been in the “Shut Up, You Lost The War” camp. I don’t have a lot of patience for people who look (now) 150 years in the past and think that was a better time that needs to be remembered and even celebrated. There are plenty of "southern" traditions that can be carried forward without honoring things that were directly tied to the war (i.e. the Confederate battle flag) or believing that anything Northern is evil because of what happened to your great-great-grandfather.

Two disclaimers. 1) You can find nut jobs in any part of the country, from all political and socio-economic perspectives. It’s not just the South. They get more attention, though, because of our nation’s history and how they’ve clung to the differences that literally split the country for four years. 2) I think things have changed even more since the book was published. Yes, the South is still, mostly, politically controlled by deeply conservative people who use the memory of Southern values and Northern aggression and appeal to “states’ rights” to gain and maintain power. But we’re another generation down the road. History has faded a little more, southern cities are often barely distinguishable from their northern cousins, accents get worn away, and while racism isn’t gone, it gets pushed a little deeper into the closet, taken out only when certain relatives come to visit and even then only reluctantly.

Still, the folks who sit around celebrating the glory of the Confederacy are nuts. Sorry.

Other than that unsettling bit, the part of the book I found most interesting was how many accepted truths of the Civil War were beginning to be rethought, debunked, and rewritten just as Horowitz was taking his trip. Careful examinations of both the written records of battle and the physical qualities of the battlefields were revealing how many stories written by both Union and Confederate survivors and sympathizers often did not reflect what actually happened during the hostilities. Not major changes like, "The Union actually won this battle even though it was generally accept to be a Southern victory." But rather the specifics of battles like Corinth in Mississippi and even Gettysburg were being shown to have occurred very differently that the long accepted histories. I’m far from a Civil War historian, but it would be very interesting to read one of the classic recountings of the war that was written before 1990, and then another written more recently that takes this new research into account. Funny how even a "modern" war can have its history change as time passes.

The New Republic: A Novel (P.S.) – Lionel Shriver.

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives – Steven Levy.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks, reading-wise. I normally have a book or two each year that I start, can’t get into, and give up on. I’ve had two in the last two weeks. “The New Republic” got fantastic reviews, won some awards, and had been on my To Read list for a while. I think I picked the wrong week to try to read it1, because it just didn’t connect. I gave it 20 pages and tossed it aside. I think I’ll give it another shot at some point, because I love the idea it’s based on.

As for “In The Plex”, Levy’s look at the rise of Google, I was surprised I couldn’t get into it. I’ve read three of Levy’s tech-geek books and enjoyed each of them. Where his other books were light and fun, this felt more like a business book, and just did not grab me. I tried for nearly 200 pages, but did not find the story terribly interesting. You can only read so many words about how the engineers at Google tweaked their ad algorithms to get better results and not get frustrated. Perhaps the better, more interesting story was deeper in the book. But I couldn’t take another chapter about the math of Google’s rise. Maybe it’s just because I’m an Apple fan and feel indifferent towards Google, but I liked Levy’s books about the iPod, the Mac, and the early days of the home computer a lot more.

Tenth of December: Stories – George Saunders. Saunders is a genius. Literally. Which makes it tough to write about his work, since I’m obviously not going to come close to matching his words. That task is made doubly hard since this is a collection of short stories. It’s always hard to write about short story collections, as they may have nothing to do with each other but I somehow have to find connections.

Here there are connections, though. Most of the stories are about finding identity in the modern world. Whether through moral stands or finding the right mix of pharmaceuticals, Saunders’ characters are all faced with moments in which they can either carve out their niche or fade into anonymity. Plus each story is a little dark, a little twisted, and, at some point, kind of painfully fun.

  1. And stop sniffing glue.