Personal Update: The Cost of Living

On a typical day, I very much enjoy being a homeowner. Rent becomes a mortgage payment, I have a yard the kids can play in, and I don’t need to worry about people above me getting rowdy.

But inevitably things break, and then there’s no maintenance staff like in my old apartment building who will take care of it at their expense.

A few days ago the dishwasher decided to stop working. I’ve already fixed it once about a year ago with a new part from the manufacturer, and that was $75. So my wife and I figured this time we might as well just get a new unit (the old one is about 10 years old, I believe).

So all told I’m out about $800 for this thing. That includes tax, delivery, installation, and hauling away the old unit. I could probably install it myself but then I’d have to deal with the headache of getting rid of a very large, very heavy appliance. I guess I’m willing to part with about a hundred extra dollars for convenience.

In the meantime, until we can get the dishwasher delivered and installed, we’re left to wash dishes by hand, like some kind of Stone Age cavemen!

But on the bright side, my sister and her family are hoping to move back to the United States this summer after living abroad for the last 10 years, so that’s something to look forward to. My youngest brother graduated college and is getting ready to start his career as a teacher, and he also plans to get engaged to his girlfriend soon!

So despite the frustrating financial setbacks, and the reminder that merely living is expensive, there’s things to look forward to and be happy about!

In writing news, I ran another ‘free download’ promotion for my books on Amazon, resulting in nearly 400 downloads! Hopefully some of the folks who got my books will actually read them, and maybe I’ll get a review or two out of it.

I hope you all had a good weekend, and as always thank you for reading! Happy Monday!

Review: ‘The Return of the King’

Yes, it’s finally time to review the third and final installment of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy! I keep saying it in each of the previous parts of this review series, but there’s really almost nothing bad about these movies. I’ll take it one step further: there is almost nothing about these movies that is not excellent. Not just that it’s not bad, it’s superb. Sublime.

This is the film that was nominated for and won eleven Academy Awards! That’s tied for the most of all time with such timeless epics as Ben-Hur and Titanic and the highest clean sweep. It also won four Golden Globes and was the first fantasy film ever to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

The Return of the King will go down in history as one of the greatest films ever made in any genre, period. In my opinion, it is a must-see, which of course makes the rest of the trilogy required viewing. There simply is no reason to deprive yourself of this visual masterpiece.

In this film, the scope now lands on Gondor and Mordor itself, as Gandalf and what remains of the Fellowship has saved Rohan from corruption and invasion, and Frodo, Sam, and Smeagol trek ever closer to the ashen lands of the Dark Lord. We get to witness Sam battle an ancient, giant spider; we see a massive siege that is broken, then reinforced, only to be broken yet again; we watch as Aragorn the King leads a hopeless battle against the armies of Mordor in a desperate bid to help Frodo and Sam deliver the Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it.

And finally, we get to see peace. Aragorn reclaims his kingdom and redeems his bloodline. The hobbits return to the Shire. All is well in the world, but this world is no longer for Frodo. Having been a Ringbearer, he feels it his duty to leave Middle-Earth behind so that others may shape its fate, and so he sails into the West with Gandalf and the Elves.

“I will not say do not weep; for not all tears an evil.”

I mean, come on. Have you ever heard a more emotional, powerful farewell? This is yet another example of a theme of Tolkien’s writing that I’ve hit on in every post, and that is a sense of hopeful sorrow. The recognition that tragedy, calamity, and sorrow necessarily exist in the world, which makes the good and peaceful times feel all the sweeter. It’s okay to cry sometimes, because sometimes tears must fall.

And by the way, now would be a good time to listen to the Academy Award winning song “Into the West” by Annie Lennox, played during the closing credits of The Return of the King.

Now in my last post, I did not have much to say regarding the charge of the Rohirrim at Helm’s Deep, and a reader pointed that out. I purposefully did not say much about that because I’m about to say quite a bit about the Rohirrim now!

As the armies of Mordor assault Minas Tirith, the Rohirrim of Rohan arrive to break the siege. Theoden King rides at the head of his army, and when he sees the vast host before him, he feels fear grip him. And if he’s feeling fear, then he knows his men must feel the same. So he turns and delivers a bone-chilling, spine-tingling speech:

“Arise! Arise riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken; shields shall be splintered! A sword day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now! Ride now! Ride! Ride to ruin, and the world’s ending! Death! Death! Death! Forth Eorlingas!”

Goosebumps every time. But that speech isn’t even my favorite part of this scene. No, my favorite part and favorite character in this scene is actually the nameless soldier below.

Watch this scene here and skip to the 4:45 mark. Here you see this nameless soldier, baring his teeth and growling like a savage beast as he urges his horse forward, overtaking the riders in front of him, sword in hand. He’s only on the screen for about two seconds, but a picture is worth a thousand words and this one here could fill a book.

What I see when I watch this is a broken man. I see a soldier whose young wife and children were slaughtered in their home by invading orcs and Uruk-hai while he was patrolling the plains of Rohan. He returned to a burned out husk of a house and corpses that no man should ever see, leaving him hollow. Adrift, empty, without a reason to live. But that emptiness soon gave way to hatred and vengeance, filling him with renewed purpose.

When Theoden King called for soldiers to ride to Gondor, this man did not obey out of any sense of loyalty or duty. He’s never cared about Gondor, and he cares even less now. At this point, he doesn’t even give a damn if Sauron wins the war and envelops the world in darkness because darkness is already all that is left to him.

No, this soldier is not here to fight for what’s right. He’s here for vengeance. He’s here to die. He doesn’t want to be part of the victory feasts; he wants to be part of the songs sung for fallen comrades. He came to die in battle, but not before taking at least twenty damnable, wretched orcs to the grave with him.

That’s why he’s growling and urging his horse to the front without any regard for his own safety. He wants to be the first rider to hit the orcs so that no one else can kill the creatures that are his to kill.

Later in the battle, after crashing through the orc lines and killing every orc he sets his eyes on, he does indeed die, slain by a Haradrim archer from atop an oliphaunt. Finally he has found peace, and can reunite with his family in distant lands beyond the vision of even the Valar. At least, that’s the ending I give to this nameless soldier’s story.

Finally, the movie is famous for “multiple endings”, there being three places where, if you haven’t read the books, it seems that the movie has ended. But I like this storytelling device. All throughout the movie there’s been multiple storylines, and so each storyline needs to conclude separately.

Aragorn’s story concludes as he reclaims the throne of Gondor and marries the woman he loves: Arwen, an elf and the daughter of Elrond. Frodo and Gandalf’s story concludes as they sail into the West, leaving Middle-Earth forever. And at last Sam returns to his wife and children in Hobbiton, and he declares, “Well, I’m back.”

And life goes on, just like that. Sam was a part of one of the greatest quests and adventures in history, and now his closest friend and mentor have both departed this world. But Frodo left Sam his book, the same book that Bilbo left to Frodo, so that Sam can continue their story. And so it is Sam who left us the story of The Lord of the Rings.

Befitting the longest movie of the trilogy, this post ran quite long! There’s not much else to talk about regarding the movie. What else can I say that eleven Academy Awards hasn’t already said? I hope you enjoyed this series and reading some of my thoughts on this timeless epic (believe me, I could fill a book with my full thoughts).

I may continue to share my thoughts on movies that I like, we shall see! But for now, thank you for reading and for sticking around this long!

Review: ‘The Two Towers’

Welcome to the second part of my review of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy! As I mentioned in Part 1, these reviews are specifically about the films, not the books. So please don’t be upset if I talk about something that’s not in the books or neglect something that is in the books!

The Two Towers picks up where The Fellowship of the Ring, both the movie and the Fellowship itself, ended. Frodo and Samwise have begun their journey to Mordor alone; Pippin and Merry have been captured by Uruk-hai soldiers who believe they possess the Ring and are being carried to Isengard.

Gandalf was slain by the Balrog of Moria (or was he???), Boromir fell in a hopeless defense of the hobbits, leaving just Aragorn the Ranger, Legolas Greenleaf, and Gimli son of Gloin to chase after Merry and Pippen.

I said it about the first movie, I’m about to say it about this movie, and I’m going to say it about the third movie, but there’s truly nothing about the film that I can criticize. Casting, acting, costumes, sets, makeup, the script, the soundtrack, special effects, stunt doubles, choreography. Literally all of it is excellent.

I guess if there’s something to ding the movie for, and it’s the same issue with the book, it’s the scenes with Treebeard and the Ents. These scenes, much like the Ents themselves, are slow, drawn out, and a little boring. Now they did a fantastic job with the special effects here, and some timely jokes from Pippen break up the boredom, but it’s hard to take the Entmoot scenes from the book and do anything fun with them.

Of all the movies, this one is probably the most ‘action packed’. The skirmish between Warg riders and the Rohirrim was great, and the epic battle of Helm’s Deep and the Ents’ attack on Isengard were visually stunning. Ten thousand Uruk-hai soldiers charging a fortress in the rain at night, with arrows falling like rain drops and flaming torches illuminating the battlefield was simply amazing.

I really loved how the nation and the people of Rohan were portrayed in this film. A strong, sturdy people who practically live in the saddle, the distinct Anglo-Saxon culture and architecture, the fierce, fighting spirit of their men and women. Eowyn is such a great character. I know Tolkien gets knocked for the dearth of women in Middle-Earth, but the women he does include prominently are simply fantastic, great role models. Eowyn is brave, she is loyal, she is loving, she is fierce and heroic, full of sorrow and hope.

If only she could cook a better stew!

My favorite scenes both include a timeless speech from Theoden King, just before and at the end of the battle of Helm’s Deep. His ‘where is the horse and the rider’ speech and the ‘what can men do against such reckless hate’ speech.

Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow. How did it come to this?

Theoden is a tragic character, a weathered old king desperately hoping that his reign will not be the final chapter of his people’s history. He is full of sorrow but also a warrior’s wrath, which is why at the end of the battle he seems to be giving up. But Aragorn appeals to his fighting spirit, implores him to ‘ride out and meet them’ instead of waiting for death to come to him. This awakens Theoden as he takes his royal guard on a suicide charge into battle, buying just enough time to be saved by the timely arrival of Gandalf the White and the rest of Rohan’s army.

“So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?”
“Ride out and meet them.”
“For death and glory?”
“For Rohan. For your people.”
“Yes. Yes! The Horn of Helm Hammerhand shall sound in the deep one last time! Fell deeds awaken! Now for wrath, now for ruin, and a Red Dawn!”

I still get goosebumps watching those scenes, even years later and knowing the script word-for-word.

Can I also say how glad I am that they stuck to the ‘old English’ dialogue from the books? It’s not exactly like that, but it has an old, ‘bygone era’, ‘people don’t talk like that anymore’ feel to it for the most part. The more flippant scenes have a modern flair to the script, but these serious, pivotal scenes are well done with writing that feels appropriate for the gravity of the situation.

This ran long so I’ll wrap it up. But be warned that when I do The Return of the King it’s gonna be a loooong post! I hope you enjoyed my review of The Two Towers, feel free to mention your own favorite parts or dislikes about the film in the comments!

Happy 200th Birthday – Ulysses S. Grant

On this day 200 years ago, one of America’s greatest heroes was born in a cabin in Ohio: Ulysses S. Grant.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, then you know that Grant is one of my favorite Americans in its history. He’s on my personal Mount Rushmore, along with George Washington, Lewis B. Puller, and Frederick Douglass.

And that surprises a lot of people when I tell them this for the first time. “But Grant was a terrible general!” they say. “He was a drunk, and he just ordered men to their deaths. He was a corrupt president too, and I’ve read somewhere that he owned slaves!”

But the simple fact is that he was none of those things. I’ve written about it somewhat extensively before so I won’t launch another full post about Grant’s reputation. Suffice it to say that Grant suffered through a rare instance of the losers writing history.

Pro-Confederate organizations, like The United Daughters of the Confederacy, spent decades and thousands of dollars constructing the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative after the Civil War. they erected dozens of monuments to the Confederacy and packed universities with pro-Confederate professors, all to advance the idea of the noble South fighting valiantly against all hope for their rights to own slaves as sovereign states.

As a direct result of this, the man who conquered the Confederacy was the primary target of their slander and libel. And thus the mainstream view of drunk, corrupt, simple-minded Grant the Butcher was born.

Thankfully, over the last 25 years Grant’s reputation has undergone a historic review, with renowned historians such as Ron Chernow and Ronald C. White leading the charge. And as we move further away from the inflamed passions of the 1860’s, as we read and write more unbiased books about Grant, we are able to get a fairer picture the man. Flawed, of course, but far from the blood-thirsty villain we’ve been raised to believe.

If you’re interested in reading about Ulysses Grant, the aforementioned authors are a great place to start. I personally recommend Chernow, as I prefer his writing style and feel like it’s easier to digest than most biographies.

Anyway, Happy Birthday Ulysses! I truly believe, and will say it with my whole chest, that he was one of America’s greatest heroes. It’s difficult to imagine how different American history and even world history would be without his Herculean efforts during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

And hopefully I’ll live long enough to see this personal view become the mainstream view.

“The Last Kingdom”: Review

After a hiatus from this show, due mostly to uncertainty about whether I even wanted to finish it, I finally watched the final season of The Last Kingdom on Netflix.

Based on the books by Bernard Cornwell, the show is a historical fiction that follows Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg through the reigns of King Alfred the Great and his son Edward the Elder. The overarching story is Uhtred’s quest to regain control of Bebbanburg, the fortress that by birthright belongs to him but was stolen by his uncle during the Viking invasions.

Overall I thought the show was done well. The atmosphere was largely dark and gritty. Plenty of battlefield violence as well as some grotesque murders, but nothing over the top. The casting was excellent, and while Alexander Dreymon’s version of Uhtred was at first a little bland and boring, he eventually hits his stride and gives us a great performance.

My favorite characters in the show were the Saxon kings: Alfred and Edward. Rarely emotional, they were played as crafty, master politicians, delicately balancing a dozen issues while also fighting off great Viking armies. The castings for these two roles were excellent, and I especially appreciated how neither king was portrayed as a wholly good or bad guy. They sometimes made immoral or unethical decisions, while other times they acted uprightly, usually doing whatever advanced their goal of a united England under one Saxon king.

Brida, a childhood friend and former lover of Uhtred, was one of the most important characters in the show, and that was unfortunate. She was played well by the actress but my God that character was boring. Two-dimensional and flat, constantly going in circles. I won’t describe exactly why I didn’t like her because of spoilers, but I felt like she held the show back and was one of the main reasons I almost gave up watching.

I really enjoyed the ending and how the show was concluded. I’ll talk briefly about that in a moment if you want to hear what I have to say, but obviously there’s gonna be spoilers. So if you don’t want to see any spoilers, if you think this show might be for you, stop reading after this paragraph! I do recommend the show to fans of the genre (gritty, Medieval historical fiction) and the books as well. Definitely worth your time.

Anyway, about that ending, as you can probably guess, Uhtred finally recovers Bebbanburg at long last. King Edward the Elder, who helped Uhtred recover the fortress because it also helped his dream of uniting England, congratulates Uhtred after the battle and tells him about a ceremony he’s planned so Uhtred can swear loyalty like a proper lord.

Uhtred, after spending his entire life swearing loyalty to Saxon kings for one reason or another, after a lifetime spent in pursuit of taking back his lands, informs the king he struck a secret bargain with the king of Scotland, who had fought against them at Bebbanburg. He told the Scot king that he would not swear loyalty to any king so that neither England nor Scotland would view Bebbanburg as a threat to their borders. He would be independent, free, a local king, just as his ancestors had been.

Edward seethes internally, barely constraining an explosion of anger as Uhtred turns his back on the king and rejoins his men in celebration. After five seasons of Uhtred constantly being used by other, more powerful men, it was nice to see him finally stand on his own two feet and put a king in his place.

Weekend Update

It’s been a pretty crazy week here, one for the family record books! For one thing, we all came down with Covid. Yes, after two years it finally got us. The kids are both fine, showing almost no symptoms, and I’ve only dealt with a slight cough and congestion. The wife got it the worst, unfortunately. She was cooped up in bed for a couple days, but she’s doing much better now. So thankfully that seems to have run its course in our household by now, and also that I was able to work from home while we were sick and recovering.

So that was the crazy start to the week. Now imagine my shock when I looked out the window this morning and discovered snow on the ground. In April. How truly delightful. I’m sure it will be gone by the time this post goes live, but goodness!

In other news, or non-news, still no word from the publisher about my submission. Hoping to hear from them soon with one kind of answer or another, but it’s also only been two weeks so I’m trying to stay patient and distract myself.

The best distraction so far has been sports. It’s a fun time to be a sports fan: the NFL draft is just a week and a half away, the NBA playoffs began this weekend and featured a couple exciting games already, and the new United States Football League (USFL) had its inaugural games this past weekend. The level of play was obviously nowhere near an NFL game, but it was good football, there were some incredible plays, and best of all the team I chose to root for, the New Orleans Breakers, won their game!

Between Covid sickness and a mid-April snow, we’ve all been doing pretty well. Our dog Mr. Frodo has his surgery this week, so hopefully that goes well for him. Next week I’ll give an update about that. I also finally finished watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix, so I’ll probably share some thoughts about that, then I’ll get back to my series on the The Lord of the Rings movies.

As always, thank you for being a loyal reader of this blog!

Review: The Fellowship of the Ring

Two things have inspired this new series of blog posts: one was fellow blogger and author Berthold Gambrel’s series of reviews of 90’s action movies, and the other was a post on Twitter asking users to name four movies that they find to be flawless masterpieces.

And so, I intend to do a review of each of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, as well as a few other movies I really enjoy too. A quick reminder and point of emphasis, these reviews will be on the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, not the books. So I won’t be bringing up Tom Bombadil or anything else from the books that did not make it to the movies. First up is The Fellowship of the Ring.

When I say that I believe the The Lord of the Rings movies are flawless, I truly mean it. I do not think there is even one facet of filmmaking that could be improved upon: the casting, the script, the special effects, the actual acting, the camera work, the musical score, the sets, the costumes, nothing at all comes up lacking.

From the very opening of the film, you know you’re in for a sweeping epic. A dark screen with a hushed woman’s voice speaking in Elvish, then translating into English.

The World is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the Earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost. For none now live who remember it.

Goosebumps, even as I write it. A great monologue that perfectly captures the spirit of Tolkien’s world and his writing, which is an abundance of sorrow that leads to precious hope. Tolkien says as much in The Silmarillion when he writes that Nienna, one of the Valar (a race of gods in Middle-Earth), saw so much sorrow in the fate of the World that her song of mourning “was woven into the themes of the World before it began”, but that she also “brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom” for all those who call out to her.

The action comes quickly, as Frodo received the One Ring after Bilbo’s birthday bash, is told of its history by Gandalf shortly thereafter, and immediately begins his quest. Black Riders, Morgul blades, goblins and cave trolls, and orc raiders all accost him and the Fellowship throughout the movie, and we get some truly epic battles. Who can forget the iconic standoff between Gandalf the Grey, old and bent and perhaps weary, and the mighty Balrog, a demon of fire and darkness?

“I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun! You Shall Not Pass!”

Again, goosebumps. And again, what a perfect casting to have Sir Ian McKellen play Gandalf. Sir Christopher Lee had wanted to play this role, but he ended up portraying Saruman the White. Personally, I think either one would have been perfect for either role.

But my favorite part of the film, which involves my favorite character, is the last stand of Boromir (I’ve previously written about him here). A lot of people I know don’t like Boromir’s character, but to me he’s one of the most inspiring characters in the movie. A man of honor and great courage, he wants to take the Ring and use it against Sauron. The Ring knows this and works on his heart, finally convincing Boromir to try and take it from Frodo, causing Frodo to flee right into an orc patrol and thereby shattering the Fellowship.

But he gains instant redemption when he dies protecting Merry and Pippen, who to that point were a burden on the Fellowship rather than any help. It takes three arrows to finally bring him down, and as he lays dying he acknowledges Aragorn as his king.

The whole scene (his last stand and dying words) is fantastic. What I like most about Boromir is that he’s the only true Man in the Fellowship. Gandalf is a wizard, an ancient, powerful being. Aragorn is a descendant of a race of demigods, blessed with long life. But Boromir is literally just a man. A soldier fighting to protect his home from destruction and death, and its this very bravery and determination that the Ring uses to corrupt him. But despite his failure, he finds redemption in the end.

It can be hard to aspire to be a wise, masterful Gandalf, or a warrior-king Aragorn. But a brave and noble man, one who stumbles and falls but keeps getting back up? That we can be.

Boromir’s part in the story is a small, but important one. Indeed, his action may well have secured the Ring’s fate. Who knows what may have happened if Frodo and Sam did not go off to Mordor together and alone? Or had Aragorn, Gimlie, and Legolas not helped save Rohan because they were looking for Merry and Pippin?

If you read this far, I want to thank you! This was a long post since I’m discussing a greatly beloved topic, though I did try to keep it succinct. Next week, I’ll discuss a bit about the next movie in the trilogy, The Two Towers.

New Blog Posts to Come

Inspired by fellow author/blogger Berthold Gambrel, I’m going to try something new with my blog. He recently finished a series in which he breaks down some of the most memorable 90’s action films (you can read the last in the series here, posted just this morning), and that was fun to read. Therefore, in a break from the usual book reviews and updates on my writing, I’m going to do a short series on Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy, focusing on what I liked most about each movie, what I didn’t like, things I’d wished had been included from the books, and my absolute favorite moment in each film.

After that’s done, if I enjoy doing it, I’ll do the same for some other movies that are in my Top 10 list, films like Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, and Gladiator. And if you haven’t noticed a trend yet, yes, my favorite movies tend to fall on the “manly” side of things, though I do enjoy a good musical (The Greatest Showman, La La Land) or RomCom (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Morning Glory) from time to time, so I’m not just some caveman either.

But what would a blog post be without an update on my work-in-progress? As I mentioned last week, Evolved Publishing is opening up submissions today, so very soon I’ll be firing off that query email! But not before I double-check triple-check quadruple-check do one last check of the formatting to ensure it’s exactly how they want it!

Weekend Update: Some Progress

For a while now, my current work-in-progress Creed: Solomon’s Fortune has been giving me headaches. I think this was the toughest book I’ve written yet, and it took a long time for the full story to truly reveal itself to me. I took a couple breaks, jumped around in the timeline a bit, and just generally procrastinated.

But as I near the end of the first draft, I’m finally hitting my stride. I think the additions I made to earlier parts in the book have worked well and have helped the vision I had in my head flourish on the page. I brought in a second antagonist this time, and I also devoted more ‘screentime’ to the romance between two characters, allowing it to flow a bit more realistically.

But the prologue I added a while back, which serves to introduce the main antagonist, is so far my favorite change to the story. I’ve given this bad guy a lot more space in the pages than probably any other villain I’ve written, so the reader can get much more familiar with her. She’s quite like President Cyrus Arthur from Her Name Was Abby, but perhaps even more cold-blooded. You can read her introduction here.

Anyway, the story is rapidly approaching the climactic struggle and I can hardly wait to write it out! It should be an even more thrilling conclusion than the first Creed story.

However, I’m beginning to wonder if this should also be the final Creed book. With how difficult this second one has been, I’ve started to wonder if it’d be wise to attempt a third one. These have been unexpectedly tricky to write, and on top of that with each successive book it becomes even harder because there’s even less material to work with; the last thing I want is to write a book where the reader is left saying, “You literally just did this in the last book!”

So I’m now left tweaking the ending a bit. Whereas before it was going to be an open ending to segue into third book, I’m going to attempt a soft closing of the door so that the story is completed in case I do in fact shelve this series, but with a tiny opening to get my foot in the door, should I choose to continue this series.

Last of all, next week on April 4th I’ll finally be able to submit Creed to a publisher! Evolved Publishing is the company. Last year I submitted the entire His Name Was Zach series and they actually replied to me to request the full manuscripts. They rejected the series, but I did get to that second step with them so I’m hopeful that Creed will be more to their liking. But this is my last attempt at a traditional publisher for this series. If they don’t take it, I will in fact self-publish.

As always, thank you for reading and being a part of this writing adventure!

Book Review: The Memoirs of US Grant

I’d been meaning to read Ulysses Grant’s memoirs for quite some time. After reading two large biographies and a few analyses of his generalship in the Civil War, I had a pretty good portrait of Grant painted for me.

However, I wanted to get inside the mind of the man himself. I wanted to see how he himself viewed his legacy.

First, a little context. Grant wrote these memoirs while literally on his deathbed; he died 5 days after finishing final edits. A con man had swindled him out of his entire fortune late in life, leaving him nearly penniless. So Grant reached out to a publisher who had bought some Civil War essays from him and offered to write a memoir for them. They responded and offered him standard publishing terms, which Grant happily accepted.

Enter Mark Twain. He was enamored with Grant and when he heard Grant was planning to write a memoir, he went to visit him and asked him what terms the publisher had offered. The terms Grant had agreed to positively disgusted Twain; he believed Grant to be a living legend and worthy of far higher royalties than some country bumpkin. He tried to persuade Grant to let him publish his memoirs. But Grant was a man of honor, and having already agreed to terms with his publisher felt obligated to keep to the contract.

That’s when Twain slapped a check for $50,000 (roughly $1,000,000 today) on Grant’s table and told him that was merely an advance, with generous royalties to follow. Grant immediately informed his publisher he had to back out of their deal and moved forward with Twain. Anyway, on to the review!

It was very interesting to see what parts of his life Grant chose to emphasize, and which parts he downplayed. For instance, most students of Civil War era history know of Grant’s infamous General Orders 11. This was an order to remove possible Confederate spies from his Union camps which unnecessarily singled out Jewish merchants. This black spot on Grant’s record is discussed at length in most biographies but Grant did not even bring it up once.

(Which is unsurprising; I don’t suppose any of us would want to dwell on an action of ours we deeply regretted and that humiliated us whenever brought to memory)

What did surprise me is that Grant gave his family no more than a passing mention here or there. He loved Julia Dent Grant, his wife, with all his heart, and his children were precious to him. We know this from his letters that have survived. I would have thought he’d talk about them quite a bit at one point, but I suppose he thought the public at large cared only to read about his military adventures.

As a writer, Grant does an incredible job of painting a scene for the readers. You can almost see the topography of each battlefield as he describes rolling terrain, dense woods, a bend in a river, a beautiful farm house, a flat and arid desert. And he does it all in straightforward, simple language, the exact fashion in which he wrote his military orders as a Lieutenant General.

There also appears to be an ulterior motive for writing his memoirs: Grant was hoping to “clear his name”, so to speak. Even while he still drew breath, slanderers and libelists, political rivals and old battlefield does, were hard at work tarnishing his legacy, a job which unfortunately was done so successfully that only in the 20th century is Grant’s legacy beginning to recover in the eyes of the general public.

And so when it came time to write about his largest and most infamous campaigns, Grant always opened with a bit of background to the battle: discussing logistics, orders from his superiors, or orders issued to subordinates, that kind of thing. He was setting the stage and explaining his rationale for pre-battle actions. He would then describe the battle as he witnessed it, then close the chapter with some self-reflection, assessing his battle plans and the actions of his men, and offering justifications for what happened. Basically telling his critics, “This is why this happened so, and I dare you to find the flaw in my reasoning.”

Usually these ‘closing remarks’ only lasted for a page and a half, maybe two. But for the Battle of Shiloh, Grant went on for nearly six full pages in justifying what happened. This is because, despite it being a significant Union victory, Grant’s detractors used it as a cudgel to portray Grant as a bumbling, drunken fool who was saved only by reinforcements (which is not even remotely accurate). For instance, he was criticized for not having had his forces dig entrenchments when they arrived at Shiloh, but Grant points out that in 1862, no one would have opted to do so in his position because it wasn’t yet standard operating procedure. If Grant accomplished nothing else with his memoirs, he wanted to ensure that everyone got his side of the story of the Battle of Shiloh.

All in all, this book was an excellent read and exactly what I expected it to be. If you want to learn more of Grant, then in the words of famed biographer Ron Chernow, it’s a “must-have”. The edition I got was excellent as well for the annotations, which were almost a whole extra book to themselves. These were great because it told a little bit about any person Grant mentions by name, so you have a general idea of who he’s talking about. It would also clarify some of Grant’s inaccuracies on things like troop counts in a particular battle or the name of a creak or road.

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