Skimmings

2013-07-21T00:00:00Z Skimmings Arizona Daily Star
July 21, 2013 12:00 am

"Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care"

By Scott McGaugh

Here's what a real Washington scandal looks like:

Many Union soldiers wounded at Bull Run, the Civil War's first major battle, had to walk some 20 miles to the nation's capital in search of medical care.

Hundreds too badly hurt remained behind, some for as long as a week, until they were carried off and treated.

Hardly any thought had been given to tending to wounded troops. More than 1,500 soldiers seeking treatment overwhelmed Washington's four hospitals as well as an inexperienced military medical corps.

President Abraham Lincoln was among those who watched bloodied soldiers walk the streets in search of shelter.

Newspaper accounts of their plight enraged Americans.

The military debacle in Northern Virginia in July 1861 revealed more than a fundamentally flawed and unprepared Union army, historian Scott McGaugh writes.

"Its medical department needed new leadership, organization, resources, and perhaps most importantly, the authority to adequately prepare, deploy and treat the wounded in battle."

Central to the life-saving changes that followed was a military doctor who had spent more than a decade in army outposts around the country.

Jonathan Letterman, a native of Canonsburg, Pa., educated at Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College, knew all too well how commanders and the military bureaucracy could treat doctors with disdain and ignore their advice about hygiene and nutrition.

In "Surgeon in Blue: Jonathan Letterman, the Civil War Doctor Who Pioneered Battlefield Care," McGaugh blends the doctor's personal history with an examination of medical practices of the era and an overview of key Civil War battles.

McGaugh provides telling details within a concise narrative to give Letterman's personal story the context necessary for appreciating his influence.

Bull Run did not convince all military officers that planning for the care of casualties should be part of overall battle strategy.

As important to Letterman in changing perceptions was the new surgeon general, William Hammond, who had an ally in the new top Union commander, Gen. George B. McClellan.

Hammond respected Letterman's organizational skills and gave him greater and greater responsibility for determining how to anticipate and meet the needs of wounded troops.

By the time Union and Confederate forces clashed in September 1862 at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Md., Letterman's reforms were taking hold.

Illness among troops had fallen after weekly baths were ordered, for example, and cases of scurvy began to recede once fresh vegetables were routinely provided.

The construction and maintenance of latrines were given more attention.

Another key change: Officers were being held accountable for the health of their men.

Antietam provided evidence of the effectiveness of Letterman's new ambulance system and the pre-battle planning in which he organized a network of hospitals using barns, farmhouses and other suitable structures.

He needed those facilities: By some estimates, 21,000 or more soldiers in blue or gray were killed or wounded.

What lay ahead for Letterman? Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg - and more bureaucratic infighting.

By following Letterman from one bloody battle to another, McGaugh's well-researched book adds a sobering tone to the 150th anniversary of a conflict that advanced medical care at a terrible cost.

Douglass K. Daniel, The Associated Press

"My Education"

By Susan Choi

Our first glimpse of Regina Gottlieb is as a graduate student in her first days at a prestigious university.

Somewhat naïve and more than a little intimidated by the sea of bright lights around her, Regina is drawn to a notorious and notoriously handsome English professor whose reputation has been both burnished and tarnished by rumors of sexual misbehavior.

Nicholas Brodeur, Regina muses when she first sees the infamous academic, was "certainly the best-looking man I had seen to that point in my life."

So enthralled by Brodeur and his dangerous aura that she enrolls in a seminar for which she is severely underqualified, Regina soon becomes Brodeur's teaching assistant and is drawn into his innermost circle.

There, "My Education" by Susan Choi, takes an abrupt and unexpected twist by thrusting Regina into a torrid affair not with Brodeur, but with his beautiful and charismatic wife, Martha, also a professor at the university.

And the novel itself becomes an exploration of love, loss and obsession.

Choi, whose previous novels have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and for the PEN/Faulkner Award, is at her best when describing the soul-consuming, life-spinning vortex of Regina's desperate, needy love for Martha.

The young student ignores the realities of her lover's world - the husband who was once Regina's mentor, the infant son who still needs tending, the housekeeper who views her with suspicious disapproval.

All that matters is her hunger for Martha.

"My adoration for her was so unto itself it could not refer outward, to other affairs between women or even between human beings," Regina recalls of her descent into heedless desire.

"It was its own totality, bottomless and consuming, a font of impossible pleasure that from the start also bore down on me like a drill until it at last accomplished a permanent perforation."

Choi wields a dazzling dexterity with language, spicing the novel with gems of precisely-crafted phrasing and slivers of insight into the human psyche.

Here, she captures the intensity of utter, bereft agony familiar to anyone who has been on the wrong side of a love affair.

"I slid down, into dusty unregarded margins, and was left behind and forgotten by the flesh part of me, which went on. But the flesh part did little apart from go on. Waking in the morning I was conscious I had woken, a pain so intense that it solved its own problem. It gouged like the edge of a spoon scraping flesh from a pelt, and destroyed what could feel it."

Ultimately, however, the novel suffers from the self-absorption of its central characters.

Although painted as alluring, magnetic women, Regina and Martha emerge as selfish and unlikeable, only dimly aware of the impact their actions have on the lives of those around them.

Even Regina's eventual awakening rings hollow, a redemptive act negated by an all-too-facile infidelity.

Monica Rhor, The Associated Press

"Massacre Pond"

By Paul Doiron

Elizabeth Morse, who made her fortune selling worthless herbal remedies to the gullible, is buying up huge parcels of timberland in Eastern Maine with the hope of persuading the federal govern- ment to turn it into a national park.

The locals, from the politicians and timber barons to the poachers and sawmill workers, don't like it one bit.

She's put land they've fished and hunted for generations off-limits. Worse, she's killing forestry industry jobs.

So trouble is sure to come to the backwater of lakes and forests patrolled by Maine game warden Mike Bowditch, the hero of three earlier crime novels by Paul Doiron.

It does so in the form of intruders who slip onto Morse's property, shoot some moose and leave the carcasses for scavengers.

The story was inspired by a failed attempt to create a North Woods National Park and by the unsolved 1999 "Soldiertown moose massacre," the worst wildlife crime in Maine history.

However, Doiron has fictionalized all the details, moving the location far to the southeast.

Warden Bowditch itches to dive into the investigation, but his boss, the self-serving Lt. Rivard, keeps him on the periphery with make-work assignments.

Trying to live down a reputation for insubordination, Bowditch seethes but follows orders.

Naturally, trouble finds him anyway.

Before long, someone shoots up Morse's palatial home, victims with two legs start piling up, the press questions the baffled investigators' competence, and one of Bowditch's buddies, wildlife poacher Billy Cronk, emerges as a suspect.

Doiron fashions a tense and clever mystery peopled by characters you could well meet by wandering into the wrong Down East bar.

As usual, he peppers his superbly well-written yarn with evocative descriptions of the state he and Bowditch call home, including this passage about nightfall in the forest:

"A stillness surrounds you that makes every stray sound - even an acorn dropping, every chipmunk peep- seem overly loud. The birds go quiet. Sometimes you'll hear a distant crashing that makes your heart stop; a buck has caught your scent and gone leaping off into the brush before you can spot the white flag of his tail."

Bowditch's personal life has never been smooth; his father turned out to be a killer in "The Poacher's Son" (2010).

This time, his troubles include an unrequited love for a friend's daughter and the troubling behavior of his seldom-visited mother.

Despite the distractions, he cracks the case, but only at considerable cost to himself and people close to him.

Bruce DeSilva, for The Associated Press

'My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles'

By Peter Biskind

Orson Welles would enter the trendy Los Angeles restaurant Ma Maison through the kitchen, thus avoiding being seen arriving by wheelchair. His girth as wide as his talent, the director of 1941's "Citizen Kane" sat in a mammoth restaurant chair with his toy poodle, Kiki. Eager for almost any kind of work in the early 1980s, the one-time boy wonder behind the film regularly declared the greatest ever made had become a living symbol of how Hollywood could abandon its geniuses.

For years, the writer and director Henry Jaglom joined Welles at Ma Maison nearly every week. He was Welles' unofficial agent and representative, trying to get his friend's movie projects off the ground. Over lunch, they discussed practically anything and Welles offered seemingly unguarded observations, at times humorous and profane, in spite of the presence of a tape recorder.

On actors: "English actors are more modest than Americans, because they've never had ('method' acting teacher) Lee Strasberg to teach 'em that they know better than the director."

On gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper: "You don't know the power those two cows had in this town! People opened the paper, ignoring Hitler and everything else, and turned right to Louella and Hedda."

On the Irish: "They hate themselves. I lived for years in Ireland. The majority of intelligent Irishmen dislike Irishmen, and they're right."

Decades after Welles' death in 1985, author Peter Biskind presents the transcripts from those recorded lunches. Welles appears uncensored - and it's not a pretty sight. Fascinating, amusing and eye-opening, to be sure, but "My Lunches With Orson" is yet more evidence that one of the wonderful minds of theater and film was in a creative death spiral in his final years.

Lightening up their chats are his tart appraisals of stars like Laurence Olivier ("seriously stupid"), Norma Shearer ("one of the most minimally talented ladies ever to appear on the silver screen"), Humphrey Bogart ("both a coward and a very bad fighter"), Spencer Tracy ("I hate him so ... he's one of those bitchy Irishmen") and Joan Fontaine ("just a plain old bad actor ... she's got four readings, and two expressions, and that's it").

He has praise for many others, including Clark Gable (not bright but "terribly nice") and Carole Lombard ("I adored her").

Welles' taste in movies can be surprising. Among his many dislikes are the American films of Alfred Hitchcock, whom he considered burdened by egotism and laziness. Of "Rear Window," one of Hitchcock's most popular films, he says, "Everything is stupid about it." Worse, he adds, is "Vertigo." Fortunately for his sake, Welles did not live to see "Vertigo" replace "Citizen Kane" last year as the best film ever in the decennial Sight & Sound poll of film critics.

The star of this engaging book, as he was in nearly everything he did, is Welles. Like Falstaff, a character he loved to play, he is witty and vain - and, in the end, a tragic figure.

Douglass K. Daniel, The Associated Press

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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