On the Nightstand



            Autumn.  It’s a wonderful autumn, with cooler days (from the hundreds down to the nineties), changing leaves (brown, from lack of water), and wildly confused garden flowers that are uncertain whether to bloom or die, so do a bit of both.  But before we know it, there’ll be jack o’lanterns on the lawns, dark cats and owls slipping through the scary nights, tots dressed like princesses and skeletons in search of free candy, and the aromas of cassoulet and red beans with rice, simmering on the stove.  Thanksgiving and Christmas will be on us before we know it.

I personally celebrated the arrival of autumn by going to Phoenix, Arizona to see the leaves change and to smell the smoke of a thousand fires and look for the scarecrows in the fields.  I was misinformed – Phoenix is in the desert.  All I saw was rocks, interspersed with cactus.  And, this is important, I spent a few days with some wonderful writers, who inspire me with their works and with their cheery optimism.  So, what better time to start piling up books to read during the ever-longer nights?  I can’t think of one.  So, on to another episode of On the Nightstand.

If this is your first visit to On the Nightstand, the books we review are rated by how well they keep you awake.  A 20 watt book helps you drop right off (unless it’s so bad that you stay awake to nit-pick it to death) and a 100 watt book keeps you awake all night, turning page after page after page.  With that, let’s see what’s …

                                                                  On the Nightstand

Just Finished:


       Us, by David Nicholls.   This is a romance, plain and not so simple.  Douglas, on page one, listens as his wife, Connie, says “I think our marriage has run its course.  Douglas, I think I want to leave you.”  After twenty years of loving, caring, and raising their son Albie, Connie drops the bomb that she still is the free spirit artist who ditched Angelo the artist to marry Doug the professor.   Doug seizes on the words I think and sets about the business of saving his marriage, a task not made easy by Albie, who thinks Doug is a philistine on matters of art, literature, architecture, and politics, yet isn’t too proud to want Doug to foot the bills.  Nicholls is the author of One Day , and this is a worthy follow – on.  90 watts

        When we Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro.   London detective Christopher Banks becomes the most celebrated solver of mysteries since Sherlock Holmes, but his most challenging case takes him back to Shanghai, where he lived as a young boy until the day when his parents disappeared.   He returns to solve the diplomatic dispute between the city’s leaders and the Japanese, who are on the verge of war, but the object of his quest is really to find his missing parents, a search that is frequently interrupted by the demands of a grateful host.  In each of his novels, Ishiguro writes of something that is just beyond reach, and Orphans continues his experiment into the unanswerable question of how to recover from life-changing loss.  85 watts.

     Crusoe’s Daughter, by Jane Gardam, author of Old Filth.  She is just fun, no matter what she writes.  In this early Whitbread winner, the author’s favorite, we live with Polly Flint who at age 6 is dropped off by her seafaring father to stay with two spinster aunts and their rough-at-the-edges housekeeper.  Polly is soon orphaned when her father perishes at sea; she stays the rest of her life, immersed in Robinson Crusoe and his life of self-privation after being marooned.  To say more would spoil your reading of this essential book.  100 watts.


      Storm over the Land, Carl Sandburg.  This is Sandburg’s unannotated history of Lincoln in the Civil War. It is written in a somewhat dated but very populist voice, moving from event to event and anecdote to anecdote in a driven manner that ends, of course, with the murder of the President shortly before the last rebel army in the field advises the confederacy to ask for terms.  It is a kindly volume, unsparing in its sad criticism of the foolishness of the south’s rush to war and the equal foolishness in the north to not engage in war for much of the first three years.   80 watts.

Meuse – Argonne, 1918 (America’s Deadliest Battle), by Robert H. Ferrell.   Despite its clunky subtitle, this is a very penetrating and scholarly work written by a professor at Indiana University.   With solid support in the military records, Ferrell demonstrates that the United States was not ready to enter World War I in April, 1917, and continued to be not ready until after the war, at the cost of 117,000 deaths and twice that many wounded, almost half of which were sustained in the last six weeks of the war when most American troops went into combat for the first time.  Forgotten today by most Americans, the Meuse – Argonne remains the largest battle in American military history, with more than 1,200,000 doughboys in combat.  It was so large that every household knew, personally, someone who fought there, most of whom had been trained for bayonet warfare in what they soon were to learn was a war of machine guns and artillery.  The book is a riveting 100 watts. If you detest military history, American history, or the relentless grind of confusing combat, this book is so well written that it still is a solid 90 watts. One century after the launch of the First Great War, this book reminds us that, sadly, we have forgotten why we went, in the words of the camp tune of the day,  over there.

     They Called Them Soldier Boys, by Gregory Ball, the history of the 71st Brigade, 36th Division, in World War I.  This is a rare study of a battle that in many ways would shape the experiences of the men who would lead Texas in the next forty years.  Dr. Ball has correlated the demographics and anecdotes of the 5000 cowboys and farmers from North Texas who found themselves swept up in World War I, only to be set down on the brutal Hindenburg line near Reims, France, where for four years the Germans and French had killed each other in an area not much larger than present-day San Antonio, Texas.  Although it depends heavily on the division’s own after-action report and newspapers of the period and suffers from a lack of accounting for the experiences of the larger armies around them, in particular the French Fourth Army (Army Group Center) to which it was attached, it is thorough and troubling, a history that should be read to understand Texas’ mis-placed sense of exceptionalism and victimization that continues a century later.   85 watts.

In the Queue:

     Here is what is stacked up next to my nightlight.  One of them is a carry-over, something I intended to read sooner but got waylaid by something else burbling to the top of the nightstand.  All in good time…


Letters from Liberia:  The Adventures of an Ebola Medical Volunteer, Dr. Joe Spann, MD.  I think I have a pretty good idea what this is about….

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro, which is set in an apocalyptic post-Roman era, post-Arthurian era dawn of the Viking invasions in England.

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Saturday, and

The Watchers, by Stephen Alford, a history of Queen Elizabeth I’s spies who for more than forty years worked in the shadows to save her from the religious plots against her life.

And there will be more.

Please send me a comment or an email about these reviews or nearly anything else to do with letters, books, or the literary world.  If there’s a book you want me to review, send it to me or let me know (no guarantees; I’m writing, teaching, and fighting for desk space with JuneBug the writing cat).  If there’s a book you think the world should know about, mention it here or on my FB page, Jack Woodville London, and we’ll let the world know.

Until next time, so long.   Now for some pumpkin pie….


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