Tag Archives: non fiction

Two Witnesses at Gettysburg: Whitelaw Reid’s Account

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War journalism is not something I’ve read/written about before but I am killing two literary birds with one stone by analyzing an account of the Battle of Gettysburg.  With an essay based mid-term tomorrow in my journalism class, I hope that writing down my thoughts will prove to be sufficient preparation.  Moving on…

Two Witnesses at Gettysburg is, as the title states, composed of two accounts of this battle.  Specifically, I read Whitelaw Reid’s perspective .  Whitelaw Reid was an American politician and newspaper editor from Ohio.  He was working for the Cincinnati Gazette when he was assigned to accompany the Union army and write a report on the Battle of Gettysburg.

To fully appreciate Reid’s story, it is important to have the context of war reporting during his time.  Journalism in America during the civil war was in its infancy.  Reporters were figuring out what it meant to effectively report on wars.  Being influenced by English writers, journalism at the time tended to be ponderous and flowery in style.  Additionally, news took a lot longer to reach the general public since many people could not afford to send telegrams.  Thus, people were not concerned about the quality of reporting at the time; they were more concerned about hearing any sort of news from the front lines. Reid enters the stage during this time as one of many journalists that were sent out to report on the events of battles as they unfolded.  Though there were many journalists present during this war, Reid’s account is the most revered.

Reid himself was a republican, and a Union supporter.  Unlike modern journalism which has a neutral tone and focuses on facts relevant to the story, Reid did not hesitate to insert his strong opinions throughout his account and let his bias show.  It is first clear that he is a Union supporter by aligning himself with the Union army uses the pronouns “us” and “we.”  His bias towards the Union was further strengthened through his primary use of sources: Union generals and officers, as well as other reporters that were associated with the Union.  Though he is biased towards the Union, he does not spare them from criticism as well.  At one point, he criticizes drunk Union soldiers and stragglers as he is on his way to Gettysburg.

Despite his clear sympathy towards the Union, Reid was still able to capture the full picture of the battle.  He laid out what he saw as he saw it, sparing no details.  Sometimes, his obsession with detail can veer towards verbosity.  The scene at the end of the battle where he picks a flower spotted with the blood of the fallen soldiers is one example of where his style slides from journalism to poetry.  While this style was common of war reporters at the time, Reid differs from the norm in that he avoids glamorizing the battle.  A common criticism of journalism during his time is that war was glorified.  Reid however includes the suffering and pain the soldiers were going through.  At the end of his account, he goes on to describe how disappointed he is in the Union army for General Meade not pursuing Lee, even though they did win the battle.

It is clear through Reid’s account that he was an avid reader.  His literary style influenced him to not only capture every detail of the actual war, but include small details, such as the blood spotted flower, that stick with the reader.  Overall, it is clear why his account is still read and used as an example of journalism during the civil war.  While Reid is biased and verbose at times, his report is rich in detail and gives an insight into key aspects of civil war journalism.  I would never have picked this book up to read on my own, but those who enjoy war reporting or are interested in how journalism in the US has evolved over time will find interest in Reid’s account.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

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“Cotton Tenants” By James Agee

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James Agee, a poet that graduated from Harvard University, was never to witness his account “Cotton Tenants” finally published three years ago. As a reporter for Fortune magazine in 1936 (in the midst of the Great Depression), he was recruited to stay with sharecroppers for eight weeks and record how they worked and lived. Accompanied by the photographer Walker Evans, their assignment lead to Agee’s book “Let Us Know Praise Famous Men.” Before the book was published however, Agee submitted the “Cotton Tenants” essay to Fortune magazine. His document was a richly detailed account of the daily lives of three sharecropping families accompanied by Walker’s photographs. The article was originally rejected and not published until 2013.

Having lived with and been in close contact with these three families, Agee’s account is surprisingly distant in style. He writes as if he is a fly on the wall. His tone is neutral and the content is rich descriptions of the families. The text is divided into chapters that focus on different aspects of their lives: business, education, shelter, leisure, clothes, and so on. It’s as if he was a researcher studying the behaviors of a unique species.

Despite Agee’s lush detail of aesthetics, there are several aspects of the southern sharecropper experience that he left out. One notable omission from his account is dialogue. It is clear that Agee is trying to take a neutral stance and avoid bias or sounding political or condescending, which could explain this decision. Another is not addressing the experience of freed slaves-now sharecroppers. However, he does address in the introduction that to write of the African American experience during this time would mean a whole new book entirely.

Although it is clear that Agee desperately seeks to remain neutral in his account, the descriptions of poverty, child labor, and the squalor the tenants lived in make it impossible for the reader to not feel a sense of empathy for the family. Despite avoiding political activism, “Cotton Tenants” manages to expose the dire state white sharecroppers were caught in. As readers, we can’t hear the stories the families tell, but we get an almost voyeuristic look into the exact layout of their houses, down to the oil-stained tablecloths where they gather for dinner. We can almost taste the grimy lard soaked sorghum that most of their meals consist of. We can almost feel callouses develop on our hands as we learn the grueling labor of picking cotton. We aren’t let in on the conversations, but Agee stimulates the other senses with such attention to detail that the reader is left saturated with the sharecropper’s experiences. Agee doesn’t tell, he shows, which makes him an effective storyteller and this account an overall insightful and engaging account.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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“I am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

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Have you ever read a book that (figuratively) slapped you in the face and made you realize the true scope of your privilege?

“I am Malala” does just that, which is why I think this book should be required reading for high school English classes.

Most people are probably somewhat familiar with Malala Yousafzai, or at least have heard of what happened to her.  At age 15, she was shot point blank by a Talib, survived, and went on to be the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace prize.

Part history of Pakistan and the rise of the Taliban, part family saga, and part memoir, “I am Malala” is an engrossing look into the Muslim world that shatters the stereotypes and prejudices Americans hold against the Middle East.  Malala was raised in a world where women serve their husbands and children, but her father made sure she was educated.  When the Taliban took over Pakistan and started to suppress the rights of all citizens, especially women, Malala stood up for her right to have access to an education.

Ever since 9/11, many Americans have upheld the stereotype that all Muslims are American hating terrorists.  “I am Malala” shows true insight into what it’s like to live in a Muslim country under the control of a small group of violent fundamentalists.  With the frightening increase in attacks against Muslims in recent news, this book shows the humanity and innocence of most of the Middle Easterners, as well as the fact that Islam is a religion that promotes love and peace, just like Christianity.

This book is heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting.  Malala wanted an education, something that most people from western countries can easily obtain and often take for granted.  Because of that, she was shot by a terrorist on her way to school one day.  This happened less than three years ago.  It is chilling that this kind of violence, especially directed towards a young girl, is still going on in the world.  Amazingly, Malala survived and was only fueled by the attack to fight harder for women’s education.  She is only 17, but has already proved to be an incredibly brave and strong woman.  Her persistence in seeking peace and access to education is inspiring.

Why should this book be required for English classes? Because it shatters the prejudices against Muslims, inspires you to stand up for what you believe in, and makes you appreciate that you can go to school without fear of being targeted by terrorists.

I give this book four out of five stars for its engaging writing and inspirational message.

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A Book Review, Diet Update, and Other Musings

The first five days of my cleanse went very well.  Then, I had the Travis County Youth show on Friday with my goat class.  Overall, the day was chaotic and tiring, but my students had a great time and one of them won a 5th place award for showing her goat.  I was very proud of all of my students.  I had been running around all day however, smelled like all kinds of animal feces, and was covered in sweat.  Also, I was starving.  So I rewarded myself that night with pizza and beer.  I feel kind of like a hypocrite now, but in my defense, I’ve been eating so healthy every day besides that one incident that I don’t think I need to do the cleanse anymore.  Right now, I’m eating mostly vegetables and to treat myself, I have a glass of wine or a couple chocolate covered almonds.  Because of this, I’m satisfied and don’t feel like I’m depriving myself of the pleasure of eating  food.  Also, giving myself a treat now and then is only motivating me to work out more.

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Besides my food roller coaster last week, I read “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed.  In case you haven’t heard, her book is being made into a movie this year.  I’m a firm believer of reading a book before seeing the film adaptation.  When I worked at a book store over the summer, this memoir was flying off the shelves.  Thus, I decided to check the book out myself.  Quick summary: a woman dealing with the death of her mother and recent divorce decides to hike the Pacific Coast trail in California.  Verdict: it was a fast, entertaining read.  I did not enjoy the first chapter at all, but later I found it was necessary to Cheryl’s emotional journey to share so much about her mother.  The book was sad at times, but overall uplifting. The message was that no matter how far you’ve fallen, it’s never too late to pick yourself up and start over.  It will be interesting to see how this book is adapted, since Cheryl’s emotional journey is more important than her actual journey (in my opinion).

Well, that’s been about all that has happened to me the past week.  This week, it’s my goal to start writing more, either on this blog, or start keeping a list of stories/anecdotes that I write.  My other goal is to find some literary publications I can start submitting my writing too.  Even if nothing gets accepted, it will be good experience.  One thing I’m worried about is that I’ve lacked motivation for writing recently.  Sometimes I have a life experience that prompts me to immediately write about it.  However, nothing really exciting has happened lately.  I guess all I can do now is keep reading and living life until that “AHA!” moment occurs.

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The Man Who Lived

Are you a history buff?  Or an athlete?  I am neither of these things, so when I picked up the book: “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” I was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.  The basic outline: a mischievous boy named Louis Zamperini learns to control his undiagnosed ADHD by running, makes it to the Olympics, becomes a pilot in World War II, spends weeks stranded in the Pacific ocean on a raft, then is captured by the Japanese and is thrown into a multitude of POW camps.  Talk about worst-case-scenario.  Because it is a fascinating true story and is extremely well written, I think few people would be disappointed in this book.

There are five main sections to this book, and each part I had a different experience with.  I read the story of Louis’ path to the Olympics earlier this year when I was still motivated to work out everyday.  Getting up at 6 am and reading this book while on the treadmill was inspiring.  I could relate to Louis’ extensive training and desire to reach his goal (although my goal was a lot smaller–just to get in shape).  The second part is mainly about Louis joining the air force and talks extensively about the unreliable, faulty planes they used.  I have to admit, I found this part to be the most boring because I have no interest in machines whatsoever.  The whole time I thought: “Good gracious! Fix these planes already!  If so many people are dying from avoidable technical issues, do something about it!”  The third section was the most exciting and terrifying.  I could just picture Louis out in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by a persistent circle of sharks waiting for a chance to attack.  I have a terrible fear of sharks, so I couldn’t imagine how you could keep calm in that situation.  By the end of the raft journey, he literally had to hit great white sharks over the head that were jumping up to try and eat him!  The fourth part was about Louis’ experiences in the POW camps he was sent to.  This part was hard to read, because it was disturbing to read about how awful and sadistic people can be.  When you think of World War II, you think of the atrocities the Nazis committed, but some Japanese militants were just as horrible towards their prisoners.

My favorite part of this book though was the very last part: the aftermath.  You can imagine that after all the events Louis went through, he would suffer extreme PTSD.  He certainly did.  It’s rare that you hear about what happens after a war, so I’m glad the book addressed what happened to Louis when he returned home.  I’ll let you read the book to find out, but I will say that he was never the same person.

Why should you read this book?  Well, it provides an in-depth, fascinating, true account of what one prominent American soldier experienced during World War II.  If you are like me and would rather learn about history through personal experiences rather than solely facts, this is a book for you.  It shows a side of World War II you don’t hear about that often.  And it is simply a captivating story.

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