Friday, March 02, 2007

Sides delivers a compelling history of the Southwest; Auster stumbles

Books now read in ’07: 17
Title: Blood and Thunder
Author: Hamilton Sides
Genre: History
Date Completed: 2-27
Pages: 402

It is fitting that Kit Carson, who achieved mythic status in his own lifetime, emerges today as the focal point and foundation of Hamilton Sides’ extraordinary history of the taming of the Southwest, Blood and Thunder. Sides weaves a compelling narrative with the skill of a novelist and with an artist’s eye for detail.

Sides opens his history with Carson, who as a teen fled Missouri and an apprenticeship as a saddlemaker for New Mexico, and concludes more than 400-pages later with his death. In between, of course, Carson was a mountain man, scout, Indian fighter, rancher and Union soldier. He was also a tool of the U.S. Army as it starved the proud Navajo into submission and herded them into an ill-considered experiment in reservation life at Bosque Redondo.

This was not a proud moment in U.S. history and no one, on either side of this grand struggle, completely escaped the taint of this shameful episode. Still, if there were no heroes, there were heroic moments and Carson inhabited more than his share of those.

Carson isn’t the only colorful figure to inhabit this book. There is also the Pathfinder, John Charles Fremont and his wife, Jessie; General Stephen Watts Kearny; the Navajo elder Narbona and the great Navajo warrior Manuelito; as well as mad John Chivington, who was responsible for the Sand Creek massacre.

Sides has given us the definitive history of the taming of the Southwest in this sweeping, compelling history.

Books now read in ’07: 18
Title: Travels in the Scriptorium
Author: Paul Auster
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 3-1
Pages: 145

Is Paul Auster bored? That’s what I wondered after reading this ironic exercise in authorial onanism. There is an old man in a room. Who is he? Why is he there? Is he a prisoner? The old man, soon dubbed Mr. Blank, does not know any more than the reader about his predicament. Ultimately, we do learn that there is a purpose behind his habitation of this room, but I am not all certain it is worth 145 pages to uncover that secret. A disappointing effort from a gifted novelist.

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