A Great Year for Good Reads

I’ve found a lot of great reading this summer, more than enough for several winters. For one thing, I found a box of American Heritage — about forty volumes — for eight bucks, and, you collectors out there will appreciate this: it’s bone dry.

You find boxes like this all the time, but the slightest bit of moisture and they’re moldy stinky trash.

I opened the first one and there’s an article by Barbara Tuckman about Vinegar Joe Stilwell and Chiang Kai-shek. Bingo. And one about the legal battle over Cornelius Vanderbuilt’s last will and testament.

I’ve mentioned a few book titles like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Maine Memories, and The Lobster Coast.

This weekend I was in Montague at a dealer where the books were three for a buck. I selected The Gladiators by Arthur Koestler, a very interesting guy, it turns out, tho I didn’t know it at the time. I’m just interested in historical fiction about Rome to stimulate my imagination for my opera about Rome.

Number Two was Ordeal by Slander by Owen Lattimore. I thought he had done a translation of Homer’s Iliad, but that’s Richard Lattimore. Owen Lattimore was FDR’s liaison to Chiang Kai-shek during the war and was accused by Joe McCarthy of being the number one Soviet agent in the US.

And the third great read for 33.3 cents was Letters of a Civil War Nurse, one of those accounts historians cherish, a firsthand account of some historic event, what’s known as a primary source.

Cornelia Hancock was a young woman from New Jersey who bluffed and blustered her way to the battlefield at Gettysburg three days after the battle, determined to help the wounded. Her letters to her family and friends provide an eyewitness account of the carnage there.

Every building in town had been converted into a hospital and the wounded had been spread out into acres and acres of ‘hospitals’ that didn’t even have tents.

“As we drew near our destination,” Miss Hancock writes, “a sickening, overpowering stench announced the presence of the unburied dead, on which the July sun was unmercilessly shining, and at every step the air grew heavier and fouler until it seemed to possess a palpable horrible density that could be seen and felt and cut with a knife.”

There’s a whiff of this amazing narrative, which continues when Cornelia Hancock begins work at the “contraband” hospitals for the slaves freed by the Union Army, where conditions were deplorable.

“When you see the men in charge here,” she writes, “you could not help thinking where are all those good abolitionists that do so much talking and so little acting.”

I’ll have some more selections from Cornelia Hancock coming up. What a find!