Minnesota Author: Ethan Rutherford

HL Hunley Confederate Submarine
HL Hunley Confederate Submarine

Reading the author bios at the end of The Best American Short Stories 2009 gave me a Minnesota angle to discuss the collection: Ethan Rutherford.

Ethan Rutherford is a fiction writer who lives in Minneapolis and teaches writing and literature at Macalester College. His short story, “Peripatetic Coffin,” was included in the 2009 Best American Short Stories collection.

The subject of the story, Ward Lumpkin, is a confederate soldier serving on the H.L. Hunley, the infamous Civil War-era submarine deployed by the rebels to break the Union blockade of Charleston.

“The question I struggled with, the question that kept me interested, was what gets someone–voluntarily–aboard an invention like this? Another friend told me about the bombardment of the city, and it was the relentlessness of this bombardment that allowed me into the story,” Rutherford writes about his story.

What makes “Peripatetic Coffin” equally compelling and jarring is the modern tone with which Rutherford writes the story. The dialogue feels right at home in a collection of stories from 2009 yet provides a strange counterpoint to the era during which the story takes place. Somehow, Rutherford makes it work.

The collection is edited by author Alice Sebold and includes stories from authors such as Alice Fulton, Richard Powers, and Annie Proulx.

All in all, they were a great read.

4 Books I Just Bought, Can’t Wait To Read, But Probably Won’t Get Around To For Another Year

I just bought four books (actual, real books…not eBooks) and I’m pretty excited about diving into them but who the hell am I kidding? I’ve got seven books I’m currently reading, so it’s probably going to be next March by the time I get around to these four.

Anyway, these are the books that have just struck my fancy:

This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science Of A Human Obsession

I’ve been fascinated with the effect music has on us not just emotionally but physically as well since reading Music, The Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain, so it’s no surprise that This Is Your Brain On Music caught my eye.

From Publishers Weekly: Think of a song that resonates deep down in your being. Now imagine sitting down with someone who was there when the song was recorded and can tell you how that series of sounds was committed to tape, and who can also explain why that particular combination of rhythms, timbres and pitches has lodged in your memory, making your pulse race and your heart swell every time you hear it.

Remarkably, Levitin does all this and more, interrogating the basic nature of hearing and of music making, without losing an affectionate appreciation for the songs he’s reducing to neural impulses. Levitin is the ideal guide to this material: he enjoyed a successful career as a rock musician and studio producer before turning to cognitive neuroscience, earning a Ph.D. and becoming a top researcher into how our brains interpret music. Though the book starts off a little dryly (the first chapter is a crash course in music theory), Levitin’s snappy prose and relaxed style quickly win one over and will leave readers thinking about the contents of their iPods in an entirely new way.

The Artist, The Philosopher, and The Warrior

Now to the history books, starting with Italy, one of my favorite places. The top of the cover of The Artist, The Philosopher, and The Warrior cites “Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the world they shaped.” That was enough to sell me this book.

If you subscribe to the theory that great individuals shape history, the Leonardo Da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia are certainly three prime candidates for the shaping of the Italy of the Renaissance period and of Western civilization.

Amazon’s book description: The Renaissance was a child of many fathers–none more important than the three iconic figures whose intersecting lives provide the basis for this astonishing work of narrative history: Leonardo Da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli and Cesar Borgia. Each could not have been more different. They would meet only for a short time in 1502 but the events that transpired, would significantly alter their perceptions–and the course of Western history.

In 1502, Italy was riven by conflict, with the city of Florence as the ultimate prize. Machiavelli, the consummate political manipulator, attempted to placate the savage Borgia by volunteering the services of Da Vinci as Borgia’s chief military engineer. That autumn, the three men embarked together on a brief, perilous, and fateful journey through the mountains, remote villages and hill towns of the Italian Romagna–the details of which were revealed in Machiavelli’s often-daily dispatches and Da Vinci’s meticulous notebooks.

In a book that is at once a gripping adventure story and a trenchant analysis of how men make history, The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior limns each man’s personality, their interactions, and the forces that shaped their world. Superbly written, meticulously researched, here is a work of narrative genius–whose subject is the very nature of genius itself.

The American Civil War: A Military History

I’ve been looking for a concise history of the American Civil War for years so when I saw The American Civil War with John Keegan, one of the foremost military historians, as the author, I had to buy it.

From Publishers Weekly: American scholars tend to write the Civil War as a great national epic, but Keegan, an Englishman with a matchless knowledge of comparative military history, approaches it as a choice specimen with fascinating oddities. His more thematic treatment has its shortcomings—his campaign and battle narratives can be cursory and ill-paced—but it pays off in far-ranging discussions of broader features: the North’s strategic challenge in trying to subdue a vast Confederacy ringed by formidable natural obstacles and lacking in significant military targets; the importance of generalship; the unusual frequency of bloody yet indecisive battles; and the fierceness with which soldiers fought their countrymen for largely ideological motives.

Keegan soars above the conflict to delineate its contours, occasionally swooping low to expand on a telling detail or a moment of valor or pathos. Some of his thoughts, as on the unique femininity of Southern women and how the Civil War stymied socialism in America, are less than cogent. Still, Keegan’s elegant prose and breadth of learning make this a stimulating, if idiosyncratic, interpretation of the war.

Revolutionary Deists: Early America’s Rational Infidels

The title Revolutionary Deists simply struck me as ammunition against the rewriting of our history as embodied in the belligerent idiocy of the Tea Party.

Amazon description: For some eighty-five years–between, roughly, 1725 and 1810–the American colonies were agitated by what can only be described as a revolutionary movement. This was not the well-known political revolution that culminated in the War of Independence, but a revolution in religious and ethical thought. Its proponents called their radical viewpoint “deism.” They challenged Christian orthodoxy and instead endorsed a belief system that celebrated the power of human reason and saw nature as God’s handiwork and the only revelation of divine will.

In this illuminating discussion of American deism, philosopher Kerry Walters presents an overview of the main tenets of deism, showing how its influence rose swiftly and for a time became a highly controversial subject of debate in the colonies.

The deists were students of the Enlightenment and took a keen interest in the scientific study of nature. They were thus critical of orthodox Christianity for its superstitious belief in miracles, persecution of dissent, and suppression of independent thought and expression.

At the heart of his book are profiles of six “rational infidels,” most of whom are quite familiar to Americans as founding fathers or colonial patriots: Benjamin Franklin (the ambivalent deist), Thomas Jefferson (a critic of Christian supernaturalism but an admirer of its ethics), Ethan Allen (the rough-edged “frontier deist”), Thomas Paine (the arch iconoclast and author of The Age of Reason), Elihu Palmer (the tireless crusader for deism and perhaps its most influential proponent), and Philip Freneau (a poet whose popular verses combined deism with early romanticism).

This is a fascinating study of America’s first culture war, one that in many ways has continued to this day.

All The Good Stories Suck

Ernest Hemingway Fishing Michigan Trout Image

I was catching up on MPR Midmorning podcasts recently and they were talking literature…can’t remember precisely what literature but that’s beside the point.

Some guy called in to complain that his high school lit teachers were always pushing books that were so depressing. If they’d assigned more uplifting stories, he argued, English classes might’ve been more interesting.

It sorta gave him the feeling that his teachers were trying to push some kind of agenda.

Yeah, that’s right, high school English teachers are secretly plotting to force depression on our children.

What the guy clearly never grasped was the fact that the vast majority of the really, really good stories are downers.

Think of all the literature you’ve read and list on one hand the uplifting stories and on the other the depressing stories. I’ve done this exercise many times (because I”ve made this argument many times) and the only uplifting example I can ever think of is E.M. Forster‘s A Room with a View, and that’s not even nearly his best work.

Ernest Hemingway–one of my favorite authors–was plagued by depression (and committed suicide himself), so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that his work reflects that tone. Yet though such masterpieces as The Sun Also Rises and Old Man And The Sea are decidedly not uplifting, I’ll take the insight they provide into the proverbial human condition any day of the week.

If you pay close attention to most Hollywood movies, you’ll notice that most of them have a happy ending tacked onto the end.

The hero comes back from seeming death.

The guy gets the girl.

Love is requited.

But those endings don’t feel right because they are not the natural ending of the story. All the good stories suck because they’re real, because they reflect life; and in real life, the hero often dies, the guy often doesn’t get the girl, and love remains unrequited.

The Book Every Democratic Consultant Must Read

I was delighted to read the New York Times article about psychology professor Drew Westen‘s new book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

In a nutshell, Westen’s argument is that Democrats lose elections because they make the fatal mistake of trying to appeal to the electorate’s reason, rather than their emotions. Democrats present their case with facts and logic while Republicans say that something just feels wrong or right.

The contrast between the two approaches is evident in their candidates. For the past two presidential elections, the Democrats ran two wooden candidates  with little emotional appeal in Al Gore and John Kerry who both nevertheless nearly won (and a lot of people believe they did win).

Both Gore and Kerry should have crushed George W. Bush, but they failed because they failed to push the electorate’s emotional buttons. The Bush camp, on the other hand, presented their candidate as an ordinary guy with whom you’d like to share a beer. The Bush camp succeeded in putting a dress on Kerry and portraying him as an effeminate wimp, eliciting an negative emotional reaction from a public scarred by 9/11. And the Bush camp pushed the emotional fear button every chance they got by raising the terrorist threat level every chance they got.

It is telling that the last Democratic president fully understood this. President Bill Clinton famously said, "I feel your pain." President Clinton, then and now, frames issues in emotional and moral terms; Republican proposals and ideas "are just plain wrong."

At the end of the day, Republicans simply understand marketing far better than do Democrats. Any student who’s taken Marketing 101 should be able to explain to you that at the end of the day, people make purchase decisions based more on emotion than on facts or logic.

It’s a point I’ve been shouting for years to any Democrat who would listen. The Democratic Party needs to seriously recruit marketers into their campaign infrastructure.

Links for March 2, 2006 – Podcasts & Book Publishing

  • – Podcast transcription search engine.
  • – Blog-to-book publishing software. Extracts your blog posts and formats them in a book format that you can then sell.
  • – These are the podcasts of science fiction writer James Patrick Kelly. two-time winner of the Hugo award

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A Scanner Darkly

This is totally cool. There’s a new movie coming out called that’s based on the novel by science fiction writer . He’s the same mind that brought us and the classic (upon which . A Scanner Darkly is written and directed by and, like his previous , is done using the animated technique called rotoscoping.

Anyone who knows me knows I love animation and this movie looks awfully cool. The movie has the same and  that’s probably because it looks like Linklater got Bob Sabiston, the animator who worked on both and the Schwab commercials, to work on A Scanner Darkly. Watch the trailer below or for a longer trailer in QuickTime format–it’s worth the download time.

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Gerhard Weinberg & The Secret Dialogue Of Footnotes

I’m one of those geeks who reads books with two bookmarks. Not always, but I’ll decide whether I need two bookmarks when I start a new non-fiction book by scanning the footnotes section.

I read footnotes. There, I said it.

I have one bookmark to mark the page I’m currently reading and the other to hold my place in the footnotes. And I read a lot of history. In history books, authors will often use footnotes not just to cite source material, but to expand upon or further clarify points made in the book proper. It also often leads the reader to other great books of which they wouldn’t have otherwise known.

I am currently reading A World At Arms by Gerhard Weinberg, which is a very good comprehensive history of World War II. It is one of those books that you plow through because it is thorough and exceedingly informative yet, while clearly written, the writing is not exactly a breeze to get through.

Including footnotes, the book is 1,125 pages long.

So, yesterday I was reading a passage about espionage and signals intelligence that discussed the rivalry between British intelligence agencies, how those rivalries often lead to disaster, and how those disasters were used by one intelligence agency to discredit another. The footnote to this passage made the point that the similarities of the rivalries between intelligence agencies in Germany, Britain, and the US "simply cries out for a comparative analysis."

It sounded to me like a plea. So it occurred to me that Weinberg was using his footnotes not simply–as he’d been doing throughout the book–to inform the reader that there is a dearth of scholarly investigation to the subject matter at hand, but to alert and encourage scholars themselves to fill in the sketchy areas with their own research and analysis.

After all, despite the fact that I’m reading the book, A World At Arms is not a piece of popular history in the tradition of such historians as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, and Michael Beschloss. It is meant for scholars.

I was rather delighted when it dawned on me that he was speaking to his fellow historians and encouraging them to fill in the dark spots of our collective knowledge. It is a beautiful thing when the human need to discover is so clealy illustrated and even more pointedly so, when seen within the context of the oppressive societies of World War II, where that need would be largely starved.