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Book Reviews

By Anne Downey '95G

Book cover photos by Mark Corliss
(Book titles are linked to online booksellers. Also check Dimond Library's online card catalog for these titles)
Reviewed in this issue:
    Soldiers, Sailors, Slaves and Ships
    Lost Geography
    Sam the Cat
Book cover

Soldiers, Sailors, Slaves and Ships:
The Civil War Photographs of Henry P. Moore

By W. Jeffrey Bolster and Hilary Anderson
The New Hampshire Historical Society, 1999

Jeff Bolster is an associate professor of history at UNH, specializing in African American and maritime history, and Hilary Anderson is curator of the New Hampshire Historical Society with expertise in material culture and the interpretation of visual images. They collaborated on this book in conjunction with a winter 2000 exhibit of Henry Moore's photographs at the Museum of New Hampshire History. If you missed the exhibit, the book has 48 of the Concord artist's Civil War photographs, as well as two fine essays, "Strange Familiarity: The Civil War Photographs of Henry P. Moore" by Bolster, which provides a historical context for Moore's work, and a biography of Moore, "Just the Man We Want: Henry P. Moore," by Anderson.

In 1862 and 1863, Moore made at least two trips to the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina to photograph the Third New Hampshire Volunteer Regiment, which had left Concord in 1861 to join the Union offensive. While other photographers followed soldiers into battle and recorded the carnage, Moore posed the New Hampshire soldiers in his makeshift studio. He photographed them smoking, playing dominoes and writing letters home, surrounded by various props: seashells, palmetto fronds, parlor furniture. The result is a strangely domestic portrayal of life during wartime. Moore, very much the entrepreneur, "capitalized on his culture's fascination with the value of domestic tranquility," Bolster notes.

The most striking images are the photographs Moore took of the slaves who lived on the islands. His purpose in photographing them was probably profit; he may have had customers interested in purchasing photographs of the exotic "other." Moore captured his subjects at a rare period in American history. As Bolster writes: "With one foot in slavery and one foot in freedom, [the black slaves] were key players in a great social experiment managed by well-intentioned missionaries and bureaucratic soldiers -- a 'rehearsal for reconstruction' of the nation without slavery." As H.P. Moore followed his instincts and photographed the black residents of the Sea Islands, he recorded the swan song of slavery and the troubled development of a multiracial republic."

Book cover

Lost Geography

By Charlotte Bacon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000

At one point in assistant professor Charlotte Bacon's debut novel, her character, 18-year-old Hilda Campbell, has a vague sense she is missing something important. What she missed is "the twinge of excitement that she got from reading books: a sense of the world's fullness, intricacy, dark patternings." Bacon's readers will feel that sense of excitement as they turn the pages of either her 1999 short story collection, A Private State (reviewed in the Spring '99 issue of this magazine), or this new novel, Lost Geography.

The novel is far-ranging in setting—from the farmland of Saskatchewan, Canada, to the cities of Toronto, Paris and New York -- but it isn't place that matters as much as the interior landscapes of her characters' consciousnesses. The novel begins with the courtship of Margaret Evans and Davis Campbell, and goes on to tell the stories of three more generations of Campbells, and the forces that drive them away from each other and their birthplaces. Bacon explores what happens to people when they are severed from their roots -- how they wear their heritages, what they carry with them. As one character tells his son, "Stories do not have to be precisely located to be useful. . . . They don't have to conform to regular geography."

Bacon's characters define their personal geographies by the way they look at their situations, how they explain things to themselves. These imprecise mappings are lovely and lyrical, and they make Bacon's fiction a deep pleasure to read. Take this passage, for example: "[Margaret] marked her pregnancy and Hilda's birth as the start of the silence between them. Nail, rope, tea, hay: words so solid they were practically tools, that was the kind of language they most used once the baby was born. Partly they hadn't time to talk. Partly it was that they lived sparsely and used everything, even words, as if they had to be hoarded, like matches. But they grew quiet, too, because they became better at reading signs and gestures -- the speed of a knife scraped on a plate, the curves of a particular sigh. Words came to feel inexact. The bend of Davis's neck as he washed himself for dinner told Margaret all she needed to know."

Book cover

Sam the Cat and Other Stories

By Matthew Klam '86
Random House, 2000

You might say that Matthew Klam's fiction is an acquired taste. His young male narrators are unattractive at best. Edgy, insecure and preoccupied with sex, they haven't a clue how to manage a relationship with a woman, or even what a woman is, other than an assembly of parts. His women characters are equally unlikable. There is no one in his fiction you would want for a friend or even a neighbor.

But like many acquired tastes, you'll find yourself becoming addicted to his fresh, provocative and often hilarious depictions of people trying to negotiate the territory between the ideal and the real. While you might read one Klam story and think, "What an odd, unsavory situation," the strength of this collection is that you can fully explore his eccentric but always interesting preoccupation with people behaving badly. And you can't help but be delighted by the way he tells his funny, sad and troubling stories: his peculiar perspective, unflinching insight and unexpected stream-of-consciousness riffs.

For example, in the title story, narrator Samuel Beardson talks about his obsession with his girlfriend's behind: "You walk into a supermarket or restaurant, your girlfriend goes in first, and you're looking at her ass. And you say to yourself, 'Isn't that the most beautiful ass? That's mine. It's beautiful.' Like it's going to save you. An ass isn't going to save you. What's it going to do? Hide you from the police? Call up your boss when you don't feel well?"

Klam's characters tend to speak as if they are observing themselves from a distance, recognizing that they are poised on the brink of disaster, but powerless to pull themselves back. Here is the narrator of "Issues I Dealt With in Therapy," as he rises to give a wedding toast for an old friend and realizes he has no idea what he is going to say:

"I put the water down and grabbed the mike stand. I'm going to faint, I thought. No. I'm going to explode from my bowels. And then I'll faint -- . 'Bob,' I said, and waited for his expression to change. No change. He was looking at me like I was a stain on your carpet that you scrubbed and it got worse. Ah, what the hell. I raised my empty glass and the place got silent. 'How come you never call me back anymore, you fat, pusillanimous, popcorn-eating, obsequious, spermy, whoring, curry-barfing ass licker?' "Had I gone too far?"

In 1999, The New Yorker numbered Klam among the 20 best young fiction writers in America. His story "The Royal Palms" (included in this collection) won the O. Henry Award, and his nonfiction has been featured in Harper's and The New York Times Magazine. Critics and readers alike are wild about his stories. This collection will show you why. ~

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