Category Archives: Book Column

How the South Won the Civil War – A BOOK REVIEW

How the South Won the Civil War presents an answer to a singular question – how is it that the hateful thinking and racist political motivations of the Civil War-era South are still around? History professor Heather Cox Richardson does a wonderful job in presenting an answer and helps shed light on many forgotten events, people and politics. Many history books (trying to present a new slant or case) wind up being too academic. Too stuffy. People won’t want to read them. This history book isn’t one of those. There is a mastery to the logic and sources that Richardson presents and the writing is compelling and well done (and at only 272 pages, many of which are citations and sources, it’s totally manageable).

book cover for How the South Won the Civil War
The cover design was done by Kathleen Lynch.

No spoilers here, but in How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America Richardson shows, that just as the post-Civil War South was failing, those still waving the Confederate flag found a new home for their thoughts and beliefs – out West.

The premise is that the genteel individualism/states rights thinking of the South was easily transplanted and fit nicely with the narrative of rugged individualism and manifest destiny that the West was using to fuel its growth. So the picture book illustration of the rugged cotton farmer being the backbone of the U.S. became the illustration of a rugged cowboy surviving on his own and protecting what’s his.

So while both pictures touted things like family, strength and individualism, in practice they were both built upon a foundation of slavery, racism and taking things from “the other”. Richardson’s argument was a new one to me and there is plenty to think about.

How the South Won the Civil War starts way back at our country’s founding showing (again, in practice) how the “ultimate paradox” was present in forming our country. It’s the whole “All men are created equal” being written by a slave owner argument. The policies and legislation made up through the Kansas Act, Red Summer after WWII, the politics of the late 1960’s through the 1980’s, etc. allowed for this paradoxical thread to weave in and out and continue up to the most recent presidential election.

And that’s one thing I appreciated about what Richardson has created. It’s not just an origin story. It’s not just a snapshot. Using very conversational language and plenty of sources, she is able to show that what happened hundreds of years ago created a nation with race-issues and ideologies that we are seeing play out today.

It doesn’t matter your background, your current politics or your opinion on how things are going in our country. This book is one you should read. It’s a healthy conversation to be a part of. Whether you agree, disagree or just have tons of questions, it’s a book that will have you underlining and scribbling in the margins.

I am giving this book 3 out 5 stars and recommend it to anyone who enjoys history books or finds themself having difficult conversations about what’s happening in the U.S. these days.

Mailchimp Book Festival 2020

The folks at Mailchimp held an online book festival earlier this month called ‘By The Books’. At first I thought it kind of weird that an email newsletter company would be hosting/coordinating such an event, but once I scrolled through and took in some of what they had shared, it was pretty cool. The voices they are featuring seem to point to the fact that they ‘get books’ and understand the role that books play in our lives and communities. I thought this was just an underwriting/sponsorship thing, but I think I was wrong.

I clicked throughout Mailchimp’s ‘By the Books’ festival site and thought there were some interesting essays on there. I won’t name my favorites yet, as I didn’t read them all. But I felt it was time well spent on the handful I did read. It’s worth clicking through to scroll and see if anything piques your interest.

I will say: go ahead and maximize your browser window once your on the site. Things will just visually line up better. It will help in navigating the site too. While I was taking in ‘By the Book’, I was on three different screen sizes and got disoriented a few times.

(Pro Tip: if you click on the three colored rectangles in the top right of their screen the page will just give you a straight list to run down)
Cover design for Big Friendship was done by Elizabeth Spiridakis Olson.

‘By the Books’ featured a collection of books (with links to buy) curated by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow. The selection is really broad in scope and quite refreshing. Friedman and Sow also do a podcast together called Call Your Girlfriend. I am guessing they spun that series into a book as they have just released Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, published by Simon & Schuster. It seems to be in the same vein as their podcast.

The festival also hosted a pop-up version of the Longform Podcast for this event and it’s called The Books That Changed Us. So far three episodes are on the site (you have to click on the ‘Listen’ menu item).

But do check out the essays as well as the author conversations (just keep scrolling down on that main page). The videos are interesting too, if you haven’t seen them before. The ones I watched are a few years old and have been on YouTube for a while. But it was nice to see them again and have them curated here.

I had heard that ‘By the Books’ was created to help fill the vacuum left when the Decatur Books Festival had to cancel this year. If that’s true, that’s very cool.

This was an event I hope other brands and companies think about doing. Extra attention and spotlights are something all authors could use right now. It’s hard enough to get ink for new books and voices any time of the year. During an election year? Three times as hard. Getting publicity during THIS election year with everything else going on? It’s going to be tough (unless your name is Bolton or Mary Trump or Michael Cohen.

So keep reading and sharing book blogs. Start your own book blog! And check out Mailchimp’s ‘By the Book’ offerings. They can’t replace the Decatur Book Festival or the Alabama Book Festival, but it’s fun to hang out there for a bit.

Hope you are doing well these days and are surrounded by some good books.

Just Mercy is Free to Watch

The movie Just Mercy has been made “free to rent” on just about all of the major streaming platforms. I have not watched the movie (released in 2019) yet, but if it’s half as powerful as Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 book, which it’s based on, then this is something that could help open a lot of eyes and connect a lot of dots for people right now.

I know Just Mercy is one of those books that once you read, you can’t help talking about and recommending to folks.

Just Mercy

Anyway, just wanted to share this news so you can watch the movie, if you haven’t seen it. I’ve checked three movie streaming platforms and they’re all promoting it as ‘free to rent’. I am not sure if the streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) will get it. Though I doubt it.

And do go read the book, if you haven’t already. It’s very well done and scary how recent it all takes place. This country should be past all of this. We’re better than this.

You can follow up with Bryan Stevenson (who speaks in Birmingham pretty often during non-Covid19-times) over at the Equal Justice Initiative’s website. They’re based in Montgomery, Alabama.

Be well.

What Makes a Nonfiction Book a Favorite?

We’re in the homestretch of Nonfiction November and Leann from There There Read This is hosting this fourth week’s topic of Nonfiction Favorites. Here is the prompt:

We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorite.

I have to admit that this one took some thought. It’s not an exact science for me. While the subject matter probably is the most important factor, I really enjoy it when an author has a specific lens they are looking through and makes that fact clear up front.

A few examples might be when a serious data scientist writes about romance and dating, in Dataclysm; or an engineer tackles something as mundane as a paper clip, like in The Evolution of Useful Things, or a historical writer tackles all of the insane (sometime literally speaking) details swirling around the birth or the Oxford English Dictionary, in The Professor and the Madman. All of these offer a unique perspective and some fresh light on the topics.

And, while all of the facts and data should be there and correctly referenced to give validity to the nonfiction book, I want to feel like I’m at a dinner party, sipping a drink, listening to someone share their experience and expertise. Non-fiction books get a bad rep because people automatically assume they’re going to be crammed full of stilted writing and beating the reader over the head with supporting facts. The bad ones do and often resemble text books. But put a creative writer in the hands of a good editor and you can get a real gem.

The last thing I really enjoy in a good non-fiction book has to do with page design. There has to be room on the page to make notes! And highlight and underline and circle and argue! As much as I appreciate books, I am of the mindset that to internalize what you’re reading/learning you have to chew it up before you swallow. This just goes better if there’s room for you in the book you’re reading. Plus, it’s just fun to pull a book off the shelf, after a few years, and skim back over your notes and thoughts.

Big maps and a good bibliography go a long way with me as well. Those aren’t ‘must haves’, like the above points, but for a nonfiction book to become a favorite, but they sure are nice. As much as I like a well cross referenced and annotated book, with a strong bibliography, I’m not really a fan of footnotes. I’d rather have all of the notes and “for further reading” information collected at the back of the book. That might seem picky, but it’s nice when you don’t have footnotes tugging at your eyeballs pulling you out of the immediate narrative all the time.

Hope your Nonfiction November is going well. Find a good book and stay warm!