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Review of “The River War” by Winston Churchill

220px-Churchhill_03The River War:  An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan was Winston Churchill’s second book, long out of print but brought back by print on demand.  He was a lieutenant in the 21st Lancers, a British cavalry unit with the Egyptian Army at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan on September 2, 1898.  This is history made  more exciting than adventure fiction by one of the best writers the English language has produced.  With a historian’s attention to detail, Churchill relates nearly a century of warfare and political maneuvering as Egypt dominated a land mass three times its size containing a thousand miles of the Nile River.  Egyptian rule was based on slavery as they taxed their Arab subjects to collect slaves from the black population of the southern swamps.  A series of self proclaimed khalifas, or Muslim leaders emerged to challenge Egypt, and in 1896 their rule threatened Egypt itself as jihadists surged north.  Britain had sent a series of military leaders to bring order to the chaos, and finally mobilized an army to back up the Egyptians and they plunged south along the Nile and the Desert Railway.

Even the young Churchill was a consummate writer.  Thoroughly researched, The River War has 22 maps, dozens of tables listing units, staffing, supplies and casualties, dispatches between the various leaders, transcripts of debate in Parliament, newspaper accounts and other background material.  It has no index.  All this background can be used as reference, or ignored.  Churchill’s prose carries this fascinating story along so well I ripped through it in a couple days.

The best part is Churchill’s eye witness account of the Battle of Omdurman.  A cavalry charge with sabers and pistols into the teeming center of the Dervish army; reading it, I was there!

I bought this book as research for my novel The Devil on Chardonnay, which deals partly with war in Sudan.  I have read Churchill’s history of World War II, and consider it one of my favorites; it’s five volumes.  The younger Churchill is wordier than the mature Churchill, and his prose can be a bit flowery.  I skimmed some of the history in the first hundred pages.  I give this book a 4 star rating.

Here’s an excerpt:  “The real Soudan, known to the statesman and the explorer, lies far to the south–moist, undulating, and exuberant.  But there is another Soudan, which some mistake for the true, whose solitudes oppresses the Nile from the Egyptian frontier to Omdurman.  This is the  Soudan of the soldier.  Destitute of wealth or future, it is rich in history.  The names of its squalid villages are familiar to distant and enlightened peoples.  The barrenness of its scenery has been drawn by skillful pen and pencil.  It’s ample deserts have tasted the blood of brave men.  Its hot, black rocks have witnessed famous tragedies.  It is the scene of the war.”

 

 

The Devil on Chardonnay cover art

coverThe cover art for my new novel The Devil on Chardonnay has just been submitted.  Steve Meosky, the cover artist is still working out colors and detail but I thought readers might enjoy seeing the evolution of a book cover.  Chardonnay is a beautiful 120 foot sailing yacht built early in the last century and in this adventure she is sailing toward the volcano Pico on the island of that name in the Azores.  Much of the plot of The Devil on Chardonnay takes place on this vessel and in the Azores.

The Devil on Chardonnay

My next book is almost finished. The Devil on Chardonnay thrusts Boyd Chailland into an adventure on the world stage. A secret vaccine; jihadists in Sudan, crooked bankers in South Carolina, and a dead viral researcher in the Seychelles are just the beginning. The real action starts when Boyd, a female FBI agent, and a banker sprung from the federal pen at Leavenworth sail on a 120 ft. sailing yacht from Charleston to the Azores during hurricane season with the notorious European merchant banker Michelle Meilland. The Devil on Chardonnay has location, quirky characters, action, and a bio-warfare threat that could happen tomorrow. The action climax takes place here, in the Azores, on this volcano. I lived there for two years and my story will give the reader a sense of that wonderful, out of the way paradise.

Schadenfreude

During the early 1990’s when I was trying to find a literary agent for my second book, The Other Pilot, I bought a copy of Literary Marketplace. Using the new internet, I found many of the agents had web sites. Several stated that they didn’t consider schadenfreude. I had never heard that word before, so I looked it up. It means “just deserts,” or enjoying the pain of others. I didn’t understand why agents would bother distancing themselves from it. Now, in the full measure of time, it’s clearer. Schadenfreude is at the core of the commercial literary marketplace. Virtually all genre fiction depends on schadenfreude as a plot tool to generate emotion. Let’s have a look.

Thrillers depend more on villains than they do heroes. It’s easy to craft a good guy, much harder to create a creditable villain. The easy way is to paint a vague picture of the villain and then spend effort on the cruel evil deeds he/she does and the suffering they cause. Then, at the end, you roast your villain in a fire or flay them with rusty knives; payback is a bitch. That’s schadenfreude.

Romance novels need villains too, though their evil deeds are interpersonal rather than violent or lethal. Still, the twist at the end involves someone getting what they deserve while the heroine rides off with the handsome prince; schadenfreude.

Detective novels, police procedurals, war; all schadenfreude.

Literary fiction does not, usually, involve this plot device. Thus, those agents excluding schadenfreude from submission were excluding genre fiction. They were limiting their agency to non-fiction, which is a much steadier source of income for agents than fiction, and literary fiction, which is notoriously risky for agent and publisher. But, literary fiction is where the fun is, and agents are usually English majors and fancy that they will discover, nurture and bring to market the next Hemingway. They don’t want to be bothered by cheap tricks.

Unwittingly, in my novel Bookman, I used schadenfreude in an unusual way. I made Phil, the protagonist, into a complete jerk, and piled misdeeds and mistakes on him like a Judas goat. He did everything wrong, then when he got his face busted by a sadistic Memphis policeman, the reader felt a certain satisfaction, and Phil could repent and become a sympathetic character. Writing the misdeeds was fun. Bookman is literary fiction. Gone with the Wind is considered literary fiction, or Southern fiction. Recall that Rhett finally leaves Scarlett, and all the female readers sigh, “she had it coming.” Literary agents would love to have a piece of that schadenfreude.

Ed Baldwin Reviews All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Politics is a recurring play; always new, and always the same. Robert Penn Warren introduces us to Willie Stark, small town lawyer with the gift of reading the mind of the crowd. His rise to power, and his use of that power as governor of Louisiana is all about smoky back rooms and unsavory deals as he evolves from idealist to corrupt politician. Narrated by Jack Burden, an over educated newspaper reporter from an upper crust family searching for the truth in politics and his own life, we follow Willie’s rise and fall. Ann Stanton, Jack’s childhood sweetheart finds Willie repugnant, until he finds something unsavory in her father’s background and uses it for leverage, then she finds him attractive. Jack refuses when Willie first tells him to find some dirt on Governor Stanton. Willie responds, (paraphrasing) “from the stink of the ditty to the stench of the shroud” man is born in corruption… There’s always something.” And, indeed there is. Politics is finding the dirt, and using it. Adam Stanton, a successful surgeon and Ann’s idealistic brother, is tempted by pride to lend his good name to Willie’s massive hospital edifice, but is repelled by using “dirty money.” Willie tells him politics has to use bad to make the good, because there isn’t anything but bad.

Read this book for Willie Stark’s speeches; you’ll think of Bill Clinton. You’ll see Lyndon Johnson in Willie’s triangulations to stop an opponent and get legislation passed. See the adulation of the crowd as people see one of their own in the big house; it’s Barak Obama. All the King’s Men is the thinly veiled story of Huey Long, two time governor of Louisiana. It is necessary reading for anyone who wants to understand politics, or run for office.

Read it for the story! It’s fun from the opening drive down a blacktop country highway all the way to the gunshots in the State House at the end.

The minor characters and place descriptions make this story, and are what make it Southern Fiction. Sugar-Boy drives his Cadillac down those back roads like a crazy man; Tiny Duffy sets up the appearances and handles the sleazy tricks; Sadie Burke, his secretary and sometime lover, is always good for a jaded one liner, and dozens of other characters take us back to the South of the 1930’s. Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.

Bookman published!

My first novel, Bookman, published in 1990 and still available in paperback through Amazon is now published in ebook format for Kindle at Amazon. This is a naughty book. Over the past 22 years I’ve given copies away to people I’ve met in the Air Force, friends, neighbors, and people in our church. Some have been silent on whether they liked it or not. It’s a harsh tale; southern gothic, I suppose. A redneck boy makes good as a door to door salesman, but not without having to learn some things the hard way. In the end it turns out to be a different tale than what one might have thought at first. Have a look.

Write a Book!

Anyone can write a book, it’s easy. Selling books is what’s hard. I’ve written three novels, a screenplay, a textbook, and a bunch of short stories. Some of that has been published, some not. I’m working on it. I’ve sold books door to door, owned a publishing company before the ebook revolution made it easy to self publish, owned a retail bookstore where I lost my shirt, and now published an ebook and a new paperback. It’s a challenge. I’d like to hear from others trying to peddle their wares. Any pointers?

Is James Lee Burke the new Faulkner?

James Lee Burke writes genre fiction; mystery/thrillers. But, one could argue that is mainstream fiction today. People don’t read a lot of literary fiction anymore. Though Burke’s fiction follows a predictable story line, and Faulkner’s certainly didn’t, they’re both telling tales about American culture in their own day. Through Faulkner’s window in The Sound and The Fury we see a formerly aristocratic family in the final stages of deterioration in a culture on auto pilot since the Civil War. Fast forward 85 years and Burke is showing us Clete Purcell struggling with his PTSD and drug addiction while Ozone Eddy and No Duh Dolowitz do dirty tricks for the mob in New Orleans, and Dave Robicheux records how the swamp smells on a foggy November morning while he’s trying to figure out who dropped a whore imbedded in a block of ice into the bayou. Each gives us an accurate picture of their time. What do you think?

Reading About The New South

What is The New South? Hey, we’re building airliners in Charleston, refine most of the nation’s oil, are becoming the preferred location for global auto companies, and are bedding down retirees from everywhere with our year round golf courses and agreeable tax structures. There’s all that activity, and yet, there’s still that magnolia, with those big fragrant flowers, and the air is soft, and the people are…well, that’s why we read about the South.
So, what are the roots of Southern Fiction? Read this:
“General Hood and his staff came galloping up, dismounted and joined us. Mary gave him a bouquet. He unwrapped a Bible which he wore in his pocket carefully–he said his mother gave it to him–and he pressed a flower in it.
She stood somewhat apart, rather as a spectator of this scene. She had refused to appear the night Hood came to tea. Now as they passed, Dr. Darby introduced the general. After he had mounted his horse–before he rode away–he looked at her, turning his horse as he did so, and he said something to the doctor which caused the latter to smile. The surgeon came back for more adieus, and she walked up. She asked eagerly, ‘What was that he said to you? About me?’
Only a horse compliment–he is a Kentuckian, you know. He says, ‘You stand on your feet like a thoroughbred.’”
Southern Romance fiction? A bodice ripper from Southern Historical fiction? No. That’s an eyewitness account of General John Bell Hood’s regiment riding through Richmond in 1863 to meet a Federal advance across the Rappahannock. It’s in Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, a diary that contains a daily account of her life as the wife of a plantation owner who became a colonel in the Confederacy and eventually a general. Her diary is the basis of most of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, and many other Southern Fiction stories. I think it the foundation of Southern Fiction because it has so many stories, so much dialogue and place description. It sets a certain flavor and tone.
We Southerners don’t wish the South had won the Civil War, and we for sure wouldn’t want to do it again. Mr. Lincoln taught us that lesson well. But, there was a gallantry there that we still admire. People in the north have forgotten the Civil War. There are people in the South who can take you to a spot and tell you what their great great grandfather did when he wore the butternut and grey uniform.
Faulkner wrote of decay, and Robert Penn Warren wrote of corruption in government, and James Dickey wrote of grotesque characters. We new authors of the New South are over all that; there’s action here, and optimism. And, that magnolia still smells so sweet it darn near makes you sick.

The Evolution of Southern Fiction

Southern Fiction has evolved since William Faulkner’s opaque gothic stories about a dysfunctional culture adrift and decaying in a post Civil War world.  I still enjoy the old style southern writing; Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is my favorite book, but there is much more now.  That’s what this blog is about.  We’ll look at the new Southern writers, especially those that write action or adventure fiction, like James Lee Burke, and, of course, Ed Baldwin.  Open for discussion also will be the Romance writers and the Historical fiction writers, especially discussions about how the new writers mimic and draw from the old style authors and those historians like Shelby Foote who presented the details of our southern heritage in such an interesting, literary style.