Monday, February 27, 2017

American Lion: A Review of Jon Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson

American Lion.
Source: https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51IJontUykL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Old Hickory.

War hero.

Rebel.

Orphan.

Soldier. 

Dictator.

Father figure.

Slave owner.

Devoted husband.

Defender of the people.

Breaker 
of the bank.

Honorable.

Random face on the $20 bill.

President.

Andrew Jackson.

In American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Jon Meacham has the tall order of trying to present a president who, from what I can tell, was a conflicted and controversial figure in his own time.  How does a historian reconcile the disparate accounts, first person and second person and third person records of an individual’s life, and then turn around and present the truth as far as they are able to a general readership?  This is the problem of any historian.  And Andrew Jackson certainly did not make it easy for his future biographers. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Done Too Soon

Sadly, it happens more often than I would like to admit.  You’re reading a great book—wonderful in fact—with an intriguing premise, a good cast of characters, and a nice grasp of Style.  The only problem?  The end. 

Now, the end of the book, if the book is good, is always the worst part.  Because the goodness and enjoyment of the book ends when the story does.  But the real tragedy is when a book’s end comes far, far too soon.

The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha is either the first or second Lloyd Alexander book I ever read. (It’s a tossup between this and The Arcadians, but since I read—er, devoured—both of them within a 48-hour period, but I can’t remember which one I technically opened first.)  It holds a special place in my heart with all Lloyd Alexander books, because not only are they wonderful books, but because I discovered them by chance during a rather difficult, lonely time in my adolescence.  Lukas-Kasha, the Arcadians, Prydain, Vesper Holly…all were a source of comfort and cheer that I needed badly.

If you have read C.S. Lewis’ installment of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy, then you may also enjoy The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha.  In my imagination they take place in very similar settings: both are rags-to-riches stories of a boy living in an ambiguously historical setting, pulled by extraordinary circumstances into an adventure involving horses, dangerous girls, and pseudo-Arabian Nights kingdoms.

Lukas is the town’s ne’er-do-well street urchin in a vaguely medieval town.  His only friend is Nicholas the blacksmith, a sort of enabler who gives Lukas money without making him do anything to earn it.  Lukas very wisely decides to invest said money in a traveling sideshow when the magician Battisto the Magnificent promises a “marvel to change his life.”  Battisto dunks Lukas in a tub of water.  Lukas comes up for air…in the middle of a sea.  He makes it to a strange shore where he finds himself in the Arabesque kingdom of Abadan. 

He’s still damp with saltwater when he’s crowned King Kasha of said Abadan as part of a prophecy about the next ruler rising out of the ocean.  All is going swimmingly,* with Lukas-Kasha eating, loafing, and wearing gaudy clothes to his heart’s content, until he starts acting a little bit too much like a responsible monarch for the likes of his evil vizier Shugdad.  When Lukas-Kasha flatout refuses to declare war against the neighboring Bishangaris, Shugdad orders his assassination.

Lloyd Alexander’s picaresque stories usually involve many of the same character types.  Lukas is the ordinary boy who comes of age through being swept up in an adventure against his will.  Shugdad is the evil criminal mastermind, with an assortment of goons that are characterized by hostility, cunning, or ignorance.  Among Lukas’s friends are the pompous but goodhearted scholar (Locman the court astrologer), the rogue (thief and poet Kayim), the dignified warrior-girl Nur-Jehan, and the rambunctious kid (Haki). 

But Lukas-Kasha holds one major difference: its ending.  I won’t say exactly what happens, but when it does happen, it’s abrupt.  As I reread it recently, I really wished that this was the first of a series and not a standalone novel.  And I wasn’t quite sure why Alexander hadn’t done it; he certainly wrote plenty of other series.  Maybe there was a deadline for publication he was trying to reach. It’s possible he didn’t enjoy writing it or was too excited about another story to leave it open-ended for a sequel. 

Whatever the reason, as it is, the ending makes this book more existential than the majority of Alexander’s other books of a similar genre.  It’s possible this was Alexander’s intention all along: though this is an adventure novel, many of the themes have a serious, if not darker side.  Is the purpose of leadership to give power to the leader, or for the leader to serve the people he/she leads?  What use are riches if it’s as common as dirt?  How do you defeat evil while staying good? 



*Pun intended.  I apologize.  

Monday, February 6, 2017

Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Estate, good-fame,
Plans, credit and the Muse,--
Nothing refuse.

'T is a brave master;
Let it have scope:
Follow it utterly,
Hope beyond hope[.]

from "Give All to Love" by Ralph Waldo Emerson