The past - whether the Civil War, the 1950-s, or more recent - continues to influence who we are, according to these new books.
By Jay Winik,
HarperCollins, $32.50

There are brief intervals in history when everything seemed at risk. Think of September 1940, when Hitler was poised to cross the English channel and only the Royal Air Force could stop him. Or August 1914, when the world rumbled toward a war that statesmen could not prevent. Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant account of that crisis, The Guns of August, demonstrated just how compelling history can be when treated as a narrative by a gifted writer. Jay Winik drives that lesson home, again, in April 1865: The Month That Saved America.

The superficial view of the Civil War is that it all ended once Lee agreed to Grant’s terms at Appomattox Courthouse. But the war actually went on. Other Confederate armies still in the field engaged Union troops in what could have been a long guerrilla war — a 19th-century version of Vietnam. And the assassination of Lincoln incited the passion for retribution. Some people in the North wanted to hang Jefferson Davis, then Lee, and then keep hanging.

But the better angels of our natures, in Lincoln’s phrase, prevailed. How they did so is the meat of a narrative that mixes compelling characters, shrewd insight, and lovely, lyrical writing.

By Anita Shreve
Little, Brown and Company, $24.95

Think back to high school: Remember the couple so inseparable, so in love that you couldn’t picture one without the other? Surely they were fated to spend their lives together.

So did they marry, have children, and live happily ever after? Or did they eventually break up, find other partners, and move on?

At a literary festival Linda Fallon encounters the reclusive poet Thomas Janes. The two have a history together, reaching beyond her Peace Corps years in Kenya to high school in Hull, Massachusetts, where they first fell in love. So much has happened since: Both have married, but not to one another. Both have had children and experienced tragedy. Both are spouseless at the moment and presumably free.

At this point, the reader might sniff a romance. But Anita Shreve, author of the bestselling novel The Pilot’s Wife, does not write romances in any conventional sense. Her exquisite stories are simply too haunting, too harrowing. Here she works backward in time like an archaeologist, delving layer by layer into her characters’ shared past to uncover the choices that have led to the present. None were simple or direct; Shreve knows that being in love is the most complex and difficult thing most of us will ever do. And although we know — or think we know — the outcome, this story holds surprises right down to the last paragraph. Man or woman, it’s a hardhearted reader who will emerge unshaken.

By Stanley Williams and Fen Montaigne
Houghton Mifflin, $25

When Stanley Williams tells someone he is a
geologist, that pretty much stops conversation. But if he describes himself as a volcanologist, he has someone to talk to. Surviving Galeras is the story of Williams’ life and work around volcanoes, for which he feels both a scientific curiosity and a primal fascination. This attraction has killed several of his colleagues, and almost himself as well.

But, then, volcanoes have long been a source of fascination — with all that power coming from the bowels of the earth, how could they not be? Pliny the Elder, one of the great brains of Rome, found Vesuvius irresistible, went too close, and perished at Pompeii.

The science has gotten better since then, but volcanoes still kill. When Mount St. Helens blew in Washington, it killed 58 people, including a volcanologist there to study what was, according to Williams, a modest event. A Mount St. Helens occurs somewhere in the world every 10 years. The kind of event that almost cost Williams his life happens every day.

Commonplace, perhaps, but still awesome in the true sense of the word — as this book forcefully drives home. — G.N.
By Terry Ryan
Simon & Schuster, $24

Poets have always been poor. Had Keats and Poe lived in the age of advertising contests, they could have learned from the example of Evelyn Ryan. For almost 20 years she supported 10 children and an alcoholic husband by writing those short verses, jingles, and pithy and punning little paragraphs that used to fuel contests and newspaper poetry pages.

Anyone can dream of winning a contest. Mrs. Ryan worked at it, scavenging drawers full of box tops, coupons, and other “proofs of purchase,” and keeping pen and notebook handy should inspiration strike. It almost always did. When the clothes washer or family car sickened, or the bank threatened foreclosure, she would dash off another couple of lines, another 25 words on why she used Pepsodent or Oxydol. The major home appliance, the year’s supply of soap, the cash prize would show up in the nick of time.

Her story might have become an Angela’s Ashes with box tops. But Mrs. Ryan was almost unfailingly cheerful in the face of circumstances that would send today’s woman to a good lawyer or shrink. The author, the sixth of those 10 children, has inherited Mom’s attitude and talent to become a San Francisco writer and cartoonist.

According to an epilogue, the other children are also thriving. Mrs. Ryan won that contest, too. —

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