Jackson-The Iron-Willed Commander by Paul Vickery was just published this week by Thomas Nelson Publishing. Vickery opens with Jackson’s inauguration on March 4, 1829. The scene he portrays is a tumultuous one, with the rough and tumble Jackson and his like-minded followers “invading” Washington’s elite society. It is an appropriate opening to this short biographical sketch of a man best know for his bold, everyman approach to life. The rest of the book proceeds as flashback to his childhood and military career.
Paul Vickery, Professor of History at Oral Roberts University, has written what can best be termed a short primer on Andrew Jackson’s military career, with the greatest emphasis placed on his defining battle in New Orleans at the close of the War of 1812. The 19 short chapters can be grouped together roughly as follows. 1-4 deal with his childhood as an orphan and his growth into turbulent manhood. He is presented as likable troublemaker who is quick to defend his honor with a duel. In chapters 5-11 we see his development into a leader of men and a competent military man. 12-17 deal with the build up, conflict, and aftermath of The Battle New Orleans, which took place on January 8, 1815. Finally, the last two chapters discuss his elevation to the presidency and his legacy.
History, written well, can be just as thrilling as a fast-plotted action novel. I have read many books that treat history like a detective novel and that are able to hold the reader’s attention all while educating him. Books like,Guns, Germs & Steel, First Family: Abigail & John Adams, The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way and Tyndale all manage the balance between page turner and academic work. While many books can master one of the two, most cannot combine both.
My most recent historical read is The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. The book chronicles the story behind the 15th century discovery of an ancient text. In 1417 a papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, made an amazing discovery in a German monastery. What he found was a manuscript of a long-lost classical poem, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of the Universe”). Greenblatt tells this tale as a way of supporting his primary thesis: that Lucretius’s poem is the origin of the Renaissance and, in effect, our modern world.
Yesterday, I stumbled upon an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes, by Dwight Allen. As a fan of King since adolescence I started reading the article with an admittedly biased viewpoint against the writer’s premise, but a I continued I had to give credence to some of his points. King can be formulaic; some of his characters are stereo-typed and yes there is a fair amount of “popcorn film” schlock in many of his works. But when one has written as much as King I would venture to guess these occurrences are bound to pop up. Allen doesn’t begrudge King his success, but he does have a problem with the recent trend of critics claiming that King’s work can be seen as literary.
For Allen, literary fiction takes on a decidedly elitist persona and he just can’t see how a genre writer can also be literary. First, let’s establish what exactly literary fictionis. To be considered literary, a work must be critically acclaimed, or serious; it is often a complex, multi-layered work that deals with universal dilemmas.
I remember vividly the first time I read one of Robert Ludlum’s novels. I was in high school and had stumbled upon The Bourne Identity. The book oscillated between a plot moving at a frenetic pace and a series of flashbacks allowing you to slow down and get a deeper sense of who Bourne was, and why he did what he did. I came to appreciate the flashbacks almost more than the forward plot. The Bourne Identity wasn’t the only one of Ludlum’s novel to employ this technique. It was something that kept me coming back to him throughout my teenage years.