Michael Shaara: The Killer Angels (1974) Literature and War Readalong February 2014

The Killer Angels

Books are not always the way we expect them to be. Still, I’ve only rarely been this wrong. I was afraid Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winner would be dry, heavy on tactics and military jargon. It wouldn’t have been too surprising if it had been like that, after all, Shaara tells the story of the three-day battle at Gettysburg. But The Killer Angels is anything but dry or heavy. It’s a beautiful, lyrical novel, which focusses much more on the moods and emotions of the main characters than on tactics.

I liked the way this was told. We have seven different POVs, each chapter told by another person. That way the narrative constantly  switches from the Confederate Army to the Union Army. On the Union side we have Chamberlain and Buford, on the Confederate side we have the POVs of Lee, Longstreet, Fremantle, Armistead and a spy.

Gettysburg is said to have been the decisive battle. It was lost by the Confederate Army who had been mostly victorious so far. The way Shaara tells this, I got the impression that the defeat was due to a large extent to General Lee’s unfortunate belief in assault warfare. His second in command, Longstreet, cautions against it, but to no avail. It seemed that while Lee was one of the most beloved Generals, he was very old-school in his tactics. Longstreet wanted to be defensive and was proven right in the end. The battle cost the lives of numerous soldiers, many officers and many, many horses.

The amazing thing in this novel is that Shaara writes so well about moods and emotions. We see the men mostly before or after the battle. The way they experience life in the army, the apprehension and exhilaration before the fight. How they experience the weather, the other men. Politics are present but in the background. Everyone on both sides thinks it’s about slavery but we come to realize that it’s not. Slavery is a symbol for a way of life. In a way it’s a battle of change versus tradition. I never really saw it that way. And the book made me understand why the South fought. They were scared to lose their way of life. If they had known how to stay the way they were – big plantations, old money, traditions – without slavery, maybe they wouldn’t have minded so much. And they certainly didn’t like being told how to live. Fremantle is an interesting character, because he’s a British journalist and the way he compares the South to Britain is interesting and sheds light on many aspects.

I’m certainly no expert on tactics but I was wondering whether the terrain wasn’t to some extent responsible for the defeat.

While I liked this book a geat deal, I have one reservation. I had to check up on Shaara because the way this was written, how it glorifies some aspects, made me think that, while familiar with life in the military, Shaara doesn’t sound like someone who has seen action. And I was right. He served before the war in Korea but not during the war.

I will leave you with three quotes, which capture the mood of this book.

Chamberlain on his own

Isn’t that amazing? Long marches and no rest, up very early in the morning and asleep late in the rain, and there’s a marvelous excitement to it, a joy to wake in the morning and feel the army all around you and see the campfires in the morning and smell the coffee . . .

Lee on his own

The night air was soft and warm. Across the road there were still many fires in the field but no more bands, no more singing. Men sat in quiet groups, talking the long slow talk of night in camp at war; many had gone to sleep: There were stars in the sky and a gorgeous white moon. The moon shone on the white cupola of the seminary across the road – lovely view, good place to see the fight.

Chamberlain again – in a crucial scene that explains the title of the book.

Once Chamberlain had a speech memorized from Shakespeare and gave it proudly, the old man listening but not looking, and Chamberlain remembered it still: “What a piece of work is man . . . in action how like an angel!” And the old man, grinning, had scratched his head and then said stiffly, “Well, boy, if he’s an angel, he’s sure a murderin’ angel.” And Chamberlain had gone on to school to make an oration on the subject: Man, the Killer Angel.

I don’t know what other books the year will bring, but I have a feeling this one could make it on the Best of List. I love books which are rich in atmosphere, capture quiet, introspective moods and manage to bring the most different characters to life. I certainly didn’t expect to find all that in a war novel. The Killer Angels is a gorgeous book on an awful subject, reading it felt like seeing all the major participants of the battle during their most intimate moments. I’m grateful to Kevin who said I would be missing out, if I didn’t read it. He was right.

Other reviews


The Killer Angels is the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the American Civil War novel  March by Geraldine Brooks. Discussion starts on Monday 31 March, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Lucie Whitehouse: Before We Met (2014)

Before We Met

Lucie Whitehouse’s latest novel Before We Met, was a quick, fast-paced read. The book falls under the sub category of “domestic noir”. I didn’t even know that a sub-genre like that exists before I read Marina Sofia’s take on the term “chick noir”. I’m not sure I’m happy about these labels either. The only thing “domestic noir” tells us basically, is that it’s a married woman who gets in trouble. Before We Met was compared to Gone Girl, but since I haven’t read it that wasn’t something that made me pick it up. But when I saw Lucie Whitehouse compared to Nicci French in Guy’s review, I knew I had to read it as I’m a huge Nicci French fan. There are similarities, although, funny enough, the husband/wife duo Nicci French rarely write about married women. Their protagonists are mostly single women. The similarity is in the writing, and the pacing. Lucie Whitehouse and Nicci French both know how to write an engaging, well-plotted story that moves forward at a steady pace.

Hannah is a Brit who works in New York, where mutual friends introduce her to Mark who is British as well. Their relationship and the speed with which it develops catches them both unawares. Hannah didn’t really think she was the marrying kind, but handsome, attentive Mark wins her over and within a couple of months they are married. Mark is the owner of a successful British company, located in London. Hannah has a succesful career in New York. After they get married, she decides to relocate and follows Mark to London.  At the beginning of the novel they have been married for eight months. They live in a beautiful, huge house and are very happy together. Hannah is a little worried because she ‘s still not found a job but other than that everything is great. Until the day Mark doesn’t come home from a business trip.

That he doesn’t come home and tells her on the phone he’s lost his cell phone, is annoying, but it doesn’t alarm Hannah. What alarms her though is to find out that Mark has emptied her bank account and that a mysterious woman calls at his office.

I can’t write much more as the less you know, the more you will like this novel. It has quite a few unexpected twists and turns. For every explanation Hannah finds there’s a new unanswered question and in the end she doesn’t know whether she’s being protected or whether she is in danger.

As I said at the beginning, this was a quick read. It’s suspenseful and the writing is very smooth, very readable. My only negative comment would be that I found some of Hannah’s’ decisions not clever, but people react in strange ways under stress.

John Scalzi: Fuzzy Nation (2011)

Fuzzy Nation

Sometimes I’m easy to please. It took John Scalzi less than one page to win me over with his novel Fuzzy Nation.

See for yourself:

Jack Holloway set the skimmer to HOVER, swiveled his seat around, and looked at Carl. He shook his head sadly.

“I can’t believe we have to go through this again,” Holloway said. “It’s not that I don’t value you as part of this team, Carl. I do. Really, I do. But I can’t help but think that in some way, I’m just not getting through       to you. We’ve gone over this how many times now? A dozen? Two? And yet every time we come out here, it’s like you forget everything you’ve been taught. It’s really very discouraging. Tell me you get what I’m saying to you.”

Carl stared up at Holloway and barked. Carl was a dog.

The idea that the book is told by a main narrator whose best friend is a dog to whom he speaks as if he was a human, amused me so much. The best thing however was that the whole book didn’t disappoint. It was not only a fun and charming read from beginning to end, but interesting and thought-provoking as well.

John Scalzi is said to be the most accessible Sci-Fi author writing today. I can see why. Not only does he write in an engaging way, but he has a knack for dialogue and great characters and a wonderful sense of humour. He’s also far more accessible than others because his world-building is minimal. Just a touch of description here and there to set the scene, but nothing that over stretches your imaginative muscles. As much as I like sci-fi, when the world-building is too detailed, my eyes glaze over and I simply can’t see the worlds that are described. Another reason why Scalzi is easy to read is his use of older material, which we may be familiar with. Fuzzy Nation, for example, is a “reboot” of Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper.

The central theme of Fuzzy Nation is the question: What makes a sentient being? Jack Holloway is a contractor for ZaraCorp a huge corporate company who exploits foreign planets. While working on the planet Zarathustra, Jack accidentally explodes a cliff and discovers a seam of unimaginably precious jewels. Legally, ZaraCorp is allowed to exploit this seam and give Holloway his share, but only if the planet is really not populated by sentient beings. So far only two other sentient species have been found in the universe.

Jack lives outside of the city, in a tree house, high above the raptors who populate the forest below. One day cute furry creatures come to stay at his house.  Jack is amazed how intelligent they are, but when his ex-girlfriend , biologist Isabel, tells him she thinks they are not animals but people, Jack is reluctant to accept that. He would never harm the Fuzzys. He would never harm any animal, but he doesn’t think they are people. After all, they don’t speak. Or do they? In any case, it would be awful for him, if they really were people, because he would lose the prospect of making millions.

Fuzzy Nation isn’t only an adventure story, in which cute little animal-people are suddenly in great danger and other people have to make some tough decisions, it’s also an exploration of what makes a human. Is it understanding, intelligence, dexterity, the aptitude to use machines or language? In any case, once you’re declared a sentient being, you have the right to possess things. Before that, everything you own can be taken and destroyed.

I have discovered a new favourite author and I’m sure I’ll read more of his novel in the future.

On Émilie de Turckheim’s Le Joli Mois de Mai (The Beautiful Month of May)

Le Joli Mois de Mai

Aimé, the narrator of Émilie de Turckheim’s short, dark, mean novel, cannot tell a story. Or that’s what he tells us. He’s not cultured, hasn’t had an education and, frankly, he seems a bit simple. A simpleton even. But it’s his story and his voice, which make this novel such a fun read, infused with black humour and full of absurd, comic situations. Just like child narrators and teenagers à la Holden Caufield, Aimé sees through the hypocrisy around him. He’s very literal and the way he unveils how people  lie with clichés and empty rhetoric, makes you laugh and gasp in horror at the same time.

You could call Le Joli Mois de Mai a very dark crime story. Monsieur Louis is found dead in the woods, a bullet in his throat. How did he die? And will he be the only victim? These are the questions we ask right away. And Aimé is willing to answer, only in his own time, and before we know the truth, we will hear a dark story of a teenage mother, abuse, violence, alcoholism and exploitation.

Monsieur Louis is dead and he has left a will. Five people will inherit everything. It should be surprising for the five heirs that Aimé and the horribly disfigured Martial, who have been living with Monsieur Louis, don’t get anything else than the right to stay at Monsieur Louis’s house. The five people who inherit the pension, the hunting grounds and the wood are a shady couple, an ex-policeman, an ex-soldier and a gay brothel owner. Greed clouds their judgment and influences their behaviour; they never wonder why would Monsieur Louis leaves everything to people he hardly knew.

I enjoyed finding out. I loved the way Aimé tells his story with so much naiveté and uncanny truthfulness. I laughed out loud quite few times, it’s so funny. It’s a shocking story, told in some of the blackest humour I’ve ever read.

The bad news – the book hasn’t been translated into English.

I first read about the author on Emma’s blog (Book Around the Corner). She’s reviewed one of her other books, Héloise est chauve (here). It sounds excellent as well. I hope Émilie de Turkheim will be translated. She’s a terrific writer. The voice was amazing, the way the story was told was shocking, funny and captivating. Her style is unique and from what I can see, all of her books are very different.

Literature and War Readalong February 28 2014: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

The Killer Angels

Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels is certainly one of the most famous novels about the American Civil War. Or rather about the decisive battle of Gettysburg that cost 50,000 lives. As far as I’m informed this was the battle that changed everything. While the Confederates were less numerous, they still won most battles so far. Gettysburg would change all that. I’m interested to see whether I will like a book that focuses on one battle only.

A few years back I saw the TV mini-series Gettysburg, which is based on this novel. It’s quite long but I enjoyed watching it and might rewatch it this month. It has a great cast: Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Sam Elliott

Here are the first sentences of the novel

He rode into the dark of the woods and dismounted. He crawled upward on his belly over cool rocks out into the sunlight, and suddenly he was in the open and he could see for miles, and there was the whole vast army below him, filling the valley like a smoking river. It came out of a blue rainstorm in the east and overflowed the narrow valley road, coiling along a stream, narrowing and choking at a white bridge, fading out into the yellowish dust of June but still visible on the farther road beyond the blue hills, spiked with flags and guidons like a great chopped bristly snake, the snake ending headless in a blue wall of summer rain.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (US 1974), American Civil War, Novel, 355 pages

The late Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1974) concerns the battle of Gettysburg and was the basis for the 1993 film Gettysburg. The events immediately before and during the battle are seen through the eyes of Confederate Generals Lee, Longstreet, and Armistead and Federal General Buford, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, and a host of others. The author’s ability to convey the thoughts of men in war as well as their confusion-the so-called “fog of battle”-is outstanding. This unabridged version is read clearly by award-winning actor George Hearn, who gives each character a different voice and effectively conveys their personalities; chapters and beginnings and ends of sides are announced. Music from the movie version adds to the drama. All this comes in a beautiful package with a battle map. Recommended for public libraries not owning previous editions from Recorded Books and Blackstone Audio (Audio Reviews, LJ 2/1/92 and LJ 2/1/93, respectively).


The discussion starts on Friday, 28 February 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Anton DiSclafani: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls (2013)

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a refuge of privilege in a land devastated by the Depression. Thea Atwell’s arrival late in the summer season causes a ripple of intrigue and speculation. But even the most scandalous rumour cannot come close to the truth that destroyed her family, and brought her here. Fearless and unbroken, Thea soon finds that there is no banishment from secrets and temptations. Poised on the brink of adulthood, the events of that year will change the girls of Yonahlossee in ways they will never forget.

I’m not sure what exactly made me love this book so much. Was it the elegant writing, the dreamy mood, the sense of seeing a long-gone world, the tragedy of the story or the characters?

Anton di Sclafani’s (Anton is a woman, btw) novel Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is set in 1930, in North Carolina, in a boarding school for rich girls. The Great Depression is in full swing and the rich families of the South, who send their girls to Yonahlossee, are hit hard. Many a girl has to leave the school because their parents lost everything. Thea, the fifteen-year-old narrator of this novel, has been sent away by her family because of something terrible she did. What exactly this was and why the consequences were so terrible, will be revealed bit by bit all through the novel. When Thea arrives in Yonahlossee, she thinks it’s for a summer vacation, but her family wants her to stay at least a year. She comes from Florida and while her father is a doctor there’s a lot of family money coming from citrus plantations. Thea isn’t an only child, she has a twin brother, Sam. They have never been apart and being separated from her twin is what is hardest on Thea at first. But Thea is also not used to other people. Her family lived a sheltered, secluded life and other than her aunt, uncle and cousin Georgie, she never met people. The twins were home schooled.

Thea is surprisingly good at fitting in and making friends at Yonahlossee. And because this is a riding camp, she can pursue her only passion, which is riding. Thea is not only a passionate rider, but a gifted one. She’s reckless too and at times also cruel.

It’s not difficult to find out what Thea has done. What could make a rich family send away their daughter? The other girls at the school know it as well. Boy trouble. How far it went and why it’s not only a scandal but a tragedy is something they will not find out. At first we think Thea is sorry for what she did but when she falls in love at Yonahlossee and is prepared to disregard all sense of decorum once more, we become aware that maybe it wasn’t so much what she did but its aftermath that she regrets.

I loved the way DiScalafani captured the setting and the period. I liked how she showed the end of an era without turning this into a mournful book, but into one that shows that people can free themselves from their stifling upbringing if they are true to themselves. Thea is a character who is true to herself at all times. This comes at a cost but one she’s aware of and willing to pay.

If you like a rich, beautifully told story, with mystery and a lush setting, if you are fascinated by the Great Depression and big Southern Families and enjoy a coming-of-age story, which is at times quite steamy, then I’m pretty sure you’ll love The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls.