The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War by Howard Bahr

I have a new favorite book. And as is typical of my favorites, it must come with a disclaimer for those of you who don’t like to be pushed out of your comfort zone: it is heartbreaking, beautiful, and tragic.

The main story of this novel only spans the 48 hour period before and after the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee. Bushrod Carter is a college educated man and seasoned veteran of the Civil War at age 26; he’s been actively fighting for the Confederacy since the war began in 1861. His two childhood best friends, Jack Bishop and Virgil C. Johnson, have been with him for the past 3 years, and all have managed to walk out of each battle unharmed. Through a series of flashbacks throughout the book, we see the history of the three men, what they were like as children, certain events that shaped their outlooks, and mostly, how deeply they care about and love each other as brothers.

The strain of the prolonged fighting has taken its toll on most of the men by the time they approach Franklin and there seems to be a blanketing sense of hopelessness about the troops. Bushrod has adopted a coping mechanism in which he retreats into his “Other” self whenever he goes into battle or when faced with the horrible aftermath. He refers to the dead as the “Departed” and treats them reverently, always asking for permission to take their clothing or accoutrements and then thanking them for it. The men are exhausted and Bushrod is particularly struggling because each time he falls asleep (even when he’s standing upright) he is plagued with dreams in which Jack and Virgil C. are dead.

The foreshadowing is heavy (but well done) and it is clear from the very beginning that there will not be a happy ending. And if you know anything about the Civil War, you know that the Confederates were basically massacred during the brief (but extremely bloody) battle at Franklin. The men obviously know that they don’t stand a chance, but line up and prepare to march into battle nonetheless. Bushrod despises killing and is trembling so severely that he cannot load his musket. Jack is at his side and loads it for him.

Carnton Plantation

Meanwhile, John McGavock has been informed that the Confederacy will be using his home, Carnton Plantation, as a field hospital. He and his wife, Carrie McGavock, stoically accept their fate and begin readying themselves and the house for the wounded. (Carrie McGavock is the central character in Robert Hicks’ Widow of the South, but she plays a secondary role in this novel. I am a fan of Widow, so it was interesting for me to see her from a different perspective.) Carrie’s young cousin, Anna Hereford, is also present on one of her yearly visits and in an unexpected twist of fate, finds herself thrust into the job of field nurse. After the battle, a wounded Bushrod is carried into Carnton and left at the foot of the stairs, and it is here that he meets Anna. They are from very different backgrounds and Anna blatantly states that under different circumstances, she would have never given him the time of day. As it stands, however, at this precise moment, they are perfectly attuned, each making the other whole during the most trying time of their lives. 

Everything I’ve said so far is really just the beginning, the relationship that develops between Bushrod and Anna is the heart of the story, but there is so much more happening simultaneously. The antagonist of the novel is a conscripted soldier named Simon Rope who had a run-in with Bushrod and his friends several weeks prior and who means to take revenge on them all. Also, Anna has been instructed to watch over and protect the McGavock children, Hattie and Winder, who are locked in the only room of the house that is not serving as a hospital, while also helping take care of the soldiers. I won’t go into any further detail regarding those storylines so as not to give too much away.

Back porch of Carnton

 

I absolutely love this book. I am amazed that such a small and concise story can have such a strong emotional impact. Bahr captures the irony and contradiction of the war perfectly, and his writing is downright poetry. The battle itself is not described, but the grounds, atmosphere, and attitudes of those involved are vividly brought to life. I have visited the Carnton Plantation, so I could clearly envision the surgeon’s table and the bloodstained floors, the hallway clogged with dead and dying men, the beautiful porch with the sky blue ceiling on which dead famous generals were laid out.

Even though I was dying to find out what happened next, I found myself going back and re-reading paragraphs because they were just so beautiful. The grisly scenes of death and destruction are punctuated by tender moments of unfettered love and compassion and agonizingly poignant writing. There is a lot of symbolism and many references to animals, which I found particularly moving. There is a scene involving a wasp that is trapped in the McGavock house amongst the wounded men that broke my heart. Another one of my favorite paragraphs that I read over and over is this one between Bushrod and Anna:

She turned then, and all at once they were standing so close that she had to tilt up her face to look at him. “Give me your hand,” she said. “Please.” So he put out his right hand, palm up, and Anna settled her own in it like a bird alighting. Bushrod thought of when he was a boy and sometimes a chimney swift would come in through the hearth; when that happened, he would always be the one to catch it, he loved to wrap his hand around it and feel the softness and the little hammer of the swift beating heart. Outside he would open his hand; for an instant the bird would lie blinking in his palm, then flicker away so fast he could never find it in the sky. He half-expected Anna’s hand to do the same, but it lay still, and he closed his own around it.

 I feel like I’m doing a terrible job expressing how moving this novel is. The story is gripping, intense, sad, funny, and thought-provoking all at once. The hook doesn’t fully sink in until the battle begins (about 75 pages in), but once it does you will not be able to put it down. Bushrod is a very interesting character and I savored every single second I had with him. The novel is divided into several parts and at the beginning of each part, Bahr includes actual lines from Bushrod’s Commonplace Book, a letter to his mother, and even faculty minutes from the time he and Jack were suspended from the University of Mississippi in 1859 for drunken, unruly behavior; all of which makes him that much more realistic. It is very obvious that the author loved and respected these characters and I think he did a wonderful job of paying homage to the sacrifice that they all made. 

The Black Flower is a heavy, bittersweet and heartbreaking read. Even though I knew how it was going to end, I still felt like I had been punched in the gut when the time came. I cried and was left with a hollow feeling for a few days afterwards, but it was completely worth it. My favorite novels are the ones that evoke sincere emotion; this one has major emotional impact and the awe-inspiring, heartfelt writing is icing on the cake. Even if you don’t typically like Civil War novels, I think you will be blown away by this book. I borrowed it from the library, but will be purchasing my own copy because I want it on hand for whenever I get the urge to go back to certain passages, not to mention numerous re-reads in the future. Bahr has two other Civil War novels, The Year of Jubilo and The Judas Field, which I look forward to reading.

I painted a peacock!

This weekend I finally got to hang out with my dear friend Crystal, at which time we painted peacocks and drank beer. It was fantastic.

I think I’ll hang it in my kitchen. Most of my friends and family refer to my taste in home decor as “unique,” “unusual,” or “eccentric,” and I doubt this will do anything to change that ;)

Outlander revisited

I recently finished my first “re-read” (via audiobook) of Outlander. I typically re-read my favorite books and there are undoubtedly some that withstand the test of time better than others, so for that reason,  I was a bit reticent going into Outlander again. I probably love this series more than anything I’ve read to date, and I didn’t know what I would do if it had somehow lost it’s magic.

I went into the initial read blindly; I had read no reviews or summaries and thus had no subconscious bias based on other people’s opinions. I had no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to find myself completely waylaid. Typically, I’m a pretty reserved person, but Outlander brought out the hyperactive, excitable, flailing-arms, high-pitched squealing fangirl in me like no other. I was obsessed with this book and thought of nothing else for months after the initial read. I cursed the unfairness of a life that forced me to leave my house and go to work while I was right smack in the middle of major Jamie and Claire drama! How cruel that my boss did not understand the gravity of my situation!? On the job, I was jittery and sleep-deprived and desperate for an open ear to listen to me ramble on and on about all the incredible things that had just happened. (Keep in mind, I was completely ignorant of the online fanbase at this point in the game.) Just recently, I cleaned out my old-emails and came across several that had been written during that time period. Bless my poor friends who had to endure my madness…

(click to enlarge)

Also during that time period, I had to help my brother and sister-in-law paint their new house. I had my nose buried in the book while waiting for the paint to be mixed at the store; and once we actually got to work, I painted faster than I’ve ever painted before! I was flying from room to room, unscrewing and removing light switch and outlet plates at lightening speed and futilely attempting to motivate the others with rapid hand claps and shouts of “Chop-chop, people! Let’s get this done!!” Afterwards, I declined a complimentary dinner and sped home so that I could get back to 1700’s Scotland.

As crazy as I was, I loved every minute of that euphoria. It still amazes me that a book can evoke so much emotion and make me so darned happy. While on the surface, it appeared to be making me regress in both intellectual ability and emotional age (what with all the girlie squeals and the extreme new-found boy crush); in reality, it was making me smarter. I learned so much history and increased my vocabulary with this book, and it spawned an interest in a country that I probably never would have even thought about otherwise. Of course, that feeling can almost never be re-captured after the first time, no matter how resilient said story may be. Therefore, I didn’t expect to revive that first time high and only hoped for at least another spirited experience. As you may have predicted, I was much relieved to find that Outlander still has what it takes to make me a very happy girl. Suffice it to say, it will still plaster a huge, goofy grin on my face :)

I was able to listen better and pay more attention to details this time around since my brain wasn’t hijacked by newbie mania. What struck me the most during my second go round was the emphasis on how young Jamie was. I knew all along that he was 23 years old of course, but I suppose I didn’t pick up on the multiple references to how young he appears, or the fact that Claire is sometimes caught off guard by his youthfulness.

I took a lot more notice of Frank this time. I had initially found him very distant and cold, but now have a different impression. I saw more clearly that he was quite loving with Claire and simply very dedicated (with a tendency towards complete immersion) to his research. I must say that I am notorious for switching “teams” upon second reads: I switched from team Edward to team Jacob and I switched from team Bill to team Eric (although, I watched “True Blood” for the first time in between those re-reads and I have to admit that Mr. Skarsgard had something to do with that about-face…). While I did see Frank in a more agreeable light, it definitely wasn’t enough to sway me from team Jamie. It did however, force me to much more critically evaluate Claire’s decision to abandon Frank. I’ve always found Claire to be a bit selfish, but I now see her decision as more foolhardy and callous. (It worked out in the end of course, so I can’t say that I blame her for it…)

I didn’t shed a tear during the Wentworth scene with Jamie and Black Jack Randall (compared to my first read when I WEPT LIKE A BABY). I understand Claire’s “solution” to Jamie’s depression at the abbey much better this time as well. The first time around, I was so emotionally drained and my mind so muddled that after the opium abbey brawl, I found myself blinking dazedly and thinking “wait….what the hell just happened?” but I was too excited to jump into Dragonfly in Amber to go back for clarification.

After finishing An Echo in the Bone, I consistently told people that the first book was my least favorite and that this is the rare series that gets better and better with each additional book. While I still believe the latter part of that statement to be true, I can not believe that I ever uttered the words “least favorite” and “Outlander” in the same sentence! It is so not my least favorite, I really can’t choose the “best” one because they are each so wonderful in their own way. Each book builds upon the last and weaves each thread tighter and those thousands of pages together are what makes the characters so richly realistic.

I’m starting to gush…so brace yourselves…but as I’ve said before, I feel like I know these people, actually I feel like I’ve known them my whole life. I’m constantly comparing this series to a real-life relationship: you enter into a whirlwind courtship, you’re madly in love and can see or think of nothing else, and then you settle into it, get comfy and feel like you’ve know that person (*cough* or character) forever. Seriously though, all of you hard-core fans out there, can you remember the time before you met Jamie and Claire? ;)

Anyhoo, I’ll wrap this up by saying that Outlander is a classic, it will never get old or lose it’s magic and I should’ve never doubted that (however tiny that doubt may have been). It’s the unique book that simultaneously stimulates both my giddy inner fangirl and my studious inner historian. You’d think that after a year of reading this series and writing multiple blog posts (well, basically a whole blog) about the same characters, that my excitement would have quelled at least a bit, right? Well, I’m still in love and still a loyal devotee and I think it speaks to the quality of the writing. Next up: the audio version of DIA.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I discovered a lovely new food blog, Brown Eyed Baker, and absolutely had to make her “Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes” for St. Paddy’s day this year. They are labor intensive, but bake up beautifully and the idea of a spiked cupcake (Guinness in the cupcake, Jameson’s Irish Whiskey ganache in the center, and Bailey’s Irish Cream icing) definitely peaks everyone’s curiosity. I had never had Bailey’s prior to this recipe and came to realize it’s not one of my favorites, therefore I’m not a huge fan of the icing. I do, however, love the cupcakes with the ganache filling and will make these again with a plain icing.

St. Patrick’s day is shaping up nicely for me, Dropkick Murphys are on NPR as I type and Flogging Molly and the Pogues are on constant replay on my Zune. Tonight I’ll raise my glass and say a toast to you all :) For now, I’ll leave you with an Irish proverb that struck me as most appropriate for today’s holiday:  A narrow neck keeps the bottle from being emptied in one swig.

Magners Glasgow International Comedy Festival

One of my best friends from college, Carla Rhodes (not to be confused with my blog buddy Carla, whom you’ll know from comments on this site), will be performing at the Magners Glasgow International Comedy Festival next week! While I’m super jealous that she’s getting to go to Scotland, I’m also super proud and happy for her! She’s a fantastic performer with a very unique act: ventriloquism, comedy, and rock and roll all in one. If any of you will be in Scotland on March 19 at 8:30, you should totally go see her :)

 As a side note, I’ve instructed her to look for sexy red-headed men in kilts, take pictures and send them my way. (I’m cautiously optimistic; when Rachel was living in New Zealand, she had a Kiwi friend with long red hair – who supposedly did an amazing Scottish accent – and I repeatedly asked her to dress him up in a kilt and send me pics…but apparently she never got around to it.) Is that a weird thing to ask of someone? I dunno, but I’ve got my fingers crossed ;)

Check her out at carlarhodes.net and see her interview (with her puppet, Cecil) for the Glasgow International Comedy Festival blog here.

An Outlandish diversion: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

You can learn a lot from the Outlander series. Being the huge nerd that I am, I keep a pocket notebook with me while I’m reading and jot down little bits of information or words that I can look up later. During my initial read of Outlander last year, I took particular notice of the brief description in Chapter 8 of Colum MacKenzie’s physical ailment:

“Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome. I had never seen a case before, but I had heard it described. Named for its most famous sufferer (who did not yet exist, I reminded myself), it was a degenerative disease of bone and connective tissue. Victims often appeared normal, if sickly, until their early teens, when the long bones of the legs, under the stress of bearing a body upright, began to crumble and collapse upon themselves.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)

I did a little research and discovered that the most famous sufferer, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, was quite the interesting character and a very talented artist. Born in 1864 to an aristocratic French family, Henri’s upbringing was privileged, albeit wrought with a multitude of health conditions attributed to the fact that his parents, the Comte Alphonse and Comtesse Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec, were first cousins. Since he was physically unable to participate in the common games and activities of other children his age, he focused on his artistic talents and later became a widely respected Post-Impressionist painter.

He moved to the Montmartre section of Paris and became immersed in the bohemian art scene that included such famous artists as Degas, Cézanne, Seurat, Renoir and Van Gogh (whom he would later exhibit with). He was a friend of Oscar Wilde and subsequently painted a portrait of him, as well as Vincent Van Gogh. He was a fixture amongst the bawdy Paris nightlife and began a series of paintings featuring prostitutes of Montmartre. Around this time, the Moulin Rouge opened and Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to paint a series of posters to promote the cabaret.

One of his most famous paintings features Louise Weber, who went by the stage name “La Goulue” and was arguably the most famous Cancan dancer – and a personal favorite of Henri – at the Moulin Rouge.

"La Goulue arriving at the Moulin Rouge" (1892)

 Many of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings were looked down upon as a result of their seedy and often risqué subject matter. Personally, I love his vibrant  artwork and view it as an interesting and often unglamorous glimpse into the realities of life in Paris during a time of incredible artistic creativity. Speaking of unglamorous and realistic, check out this one…

"Rue des Moulins: The Medical Inspection"

 Here are a couple of my favorites, including this self potrait in a crowd…

"At the Moulin Rouge"

"The clownesse Cha-U-Kao at the Moulin Rouge" (1895)

…and “In Bed”, (a print of) which will hopefully hang in my guest room one of these days…

"In Bed" (1893)

Henri was a very prolific painter, creating over 700 paintings and thousands of drawings during his abbreviated lifespan. To help him cope with constant mockery regarding his appearance, he took to drinking and was an alcoholic for most of his life. He had a customized cane that could be filled with alcohol so that he would never be without a drink. He was briefly institutionalized before his death at the age of 36. If you enjoy his artwork, you can see more of it here.

It’s quite a leap from the Scottish Castle Leoch in 1743 to bohemian Paris in the late 1800’s, but a most satisfying and visually appealing one, wouldn’t you agree?

The Thistle and Shamrock Radio Show

As I’ve said before, I’m a slave to the NPR and probably wouldn’t make it through a workday without it. Even though I listen to it for a good 40 hours a week, I was pleasantly surprised today to discover a new (to me!) radio show called the Thistle and Shamrock. Good ol NPR, now you too will help foster my obsession with all things Outlander.

Here’s the description from the home page:

One of NPR‘s most popular music programs is created in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands. When you turn your radio on, you’re there too. On The Thistle & Shamrock®, award-winning radio host Fiona Ritchie explores evolving music from Celtic roots in Europe and North America. You’ll hear well-established and newly emerging recording artists along with in-studio guests, all surveying familiar territory and leading you to more distant landscapes and genres…Thistle is your weekly bridge between the established architects of Celtic roots music and the rising generation of musicians.

If you’re interested in Celtic music, you should go to http://www.thistleradio.com/ and check the list of streaming stations to find one near you, or you can listen to the latest shows on the website or download podcasts. I was excited to stumble upon this show and thought I’d pass it along :)

The Long Way Round

I’ve had quite a few crushes in my life, most being relatively short-lived, but a few have stood the test of time. My longest running (still in progress) crush is on Ewan McGregor. I first saw him in “A Life Less Ordinary” and “Trainspotting” (yep, even liked him in that film) in high school and I was instantly in love. “Big Fish” is my favorite movie of all time. He’s gorgeous and from various interviews I’ve seen and heard, I find him to be down-to-earth and hard-working. And of course, he’s Scottish. Believe it or not, long before I ever met Jamie Fraser (yes, I’m talking about him as if he’s a real person), I used to say that I was partial towards Scottish men.

A few years ago at work, my female co-workers and I were having a conversation about movie star crushes, naming our favorites and picking our “free passes” (other people do this, right? If not, it’s a fun way to pass the time…). I chose Ewan McGregor and one of the girls was like “What?! But he looks so ordinary, like you could find a Ewan McGregor look-alike walking around on any college campus!” After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said “Well, I don’t know what college YOU went to, but please take me there… now…” (Bridget? Markita? Do you remember this? Just thinking about it is making me laugh :) )

I recently stumbled upon “The Long Way Round”, a documentary about Ewan and his best friend, Charley Boorman, riding motorcycles around the world from London to New York. It was made in 2004 and aired on TV here in America, so it must have slipped past me since I was in college and without cable at that time. I added it to my queue and didn’t really know what to expect; a movie star roughing it on a motorcycle for months? When my husband saw what I had selected, he gave a big, exasperated sigh and said “Great…you only got this so you could sit and watch Ewan McGregor for 12 hours, right?” I admitted that, of course, I had gotten it because of Ewan, but convinced him that the reviews were good enough to give it a go.  He reluctantly agreed, and after the first episode, we were both seriously surprised and HOOKED! 

The show documents everything from the initial planning stages to the welcome home party in New York. They take classes on how to ride on off-road terrain, how to perform basic medical treatment, and how to react in extreme danger/crisis situations (which is hysterical).  Once they get on the road, they meet some truly unique characters and encounter genuinely dangerous terrain, particularly in Mongolia and Russia. There were moments when I was on the edge of my seat. They stay with complete strangers that they’ve just met on the street, bravely sample indigenous food, and partake in the rituals and customs of the locals.

The relationship between Ewan and Charley is the most endearing thing I’ve seen in a while. They seem to really love each other, and if they’re just acting and it’s all a farce, then they both deserve Oscars in my opinion. Charley is hilarious and outgoing; and Ewan is incredibly charming and good-natured. Before departing, they travel to Ewan’s hometown in Scotland and visit his parents and his grandmother, and you just fall head-over-heels when you see him interact with his family.

The scenery is amazing and what sets this travel documentary apart from others is that you’re seeing it from the road, going through border checks and traversing back roads in a realistic way that you don’t normally get. Ewan and Charley are at times in giddy disbelief that they are actually living out their fantasy of being the first people to travel around the world on motorbikes. My husband loved this show, and I think it has a strong appeal to men because it’s basically the embodiment of every young boys’ dream: hitting the road with your best friend, pushing yourself to the limit, and rolling carefree to wherever the road takes you.  It’s a classic adventure and road-trip story in one.  

Another aspect of this film that I found interesting was the idea that a hugely famous movie star would be so willing to open himself up like this and literally put his life on the line. Ewan and Charley were so trusting of total strangers and stayed with some very shady people (Ewan was terrified a few times, thinking they were going to be murdered in their sleep, which was most entertaining to watch!). How insane would it be to be filling your tank up with gas and randomly bump into EWAN MCGREGOR, who just happens to need some food and a place to stay for the night? Dang…why wasn’t I living in Russia back in 2004…. Anyways, my point is that most actors in his position would have  never considered such a trip. It gave me a lot of respect for Mr. McGregor and made him seem like a real, nice, everyday person. It sounds silly, but I feel like my 14 year (?wow?) crush is validated, since he’s more than just a pretty face. (I’m saying that in contrast to my other long-time crush on David Duchovny…ugggh…I shudder at the thought…)

Apparently they enjoyed the trip so much that they made a second documentary in the same style where they ride through Africa, called “The Long Way Down.” We’ll be watching it soon. I highly recommend this series, it’s so much fun and you get to look at and listen to a sexy Scotsman for 12 hours. If you aren’t already in love with Ewan McGregor, you will be at the end of this show.

Oh yeah, there is a brief snippet in the “Extras” section, where the camera is on Ewan holding a puppy (possibly in Mongolia, judging from the background). The puppy is nipping at his beard and he’s giggling and the exchange seems to go on for a long time – it was probably only a minute or so, but long enough that my husband said “geez, how long is this going to last?” I said “I don’t know, but I could watch Ewan McGregor holding a puppy all day long…” We both got a good laugh out of that, so I thought I’d share ;) I am also going to take this opportunity to post a few gratuitous photos…

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This year for Valentine’s Day, I made my husband a “box of chocolates” ( it’s really a box of cupcakes with candies and chocolates on top, see?) and he gave me the audio versions of Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber!! The prospect of a 32 hour audio book frightens me, but I’m excited to get started. Thanks, hubs!