Six books that span the centuries; the thread that connects them is history. And war. The Hundred Years War. World War I. World War II. The Vietnam War. The Iraq War. Hell, hellish and more hellish. The fact that most of these books are fiction does not make them any less horrific or any less (or more) true. After all, much of the “history” we read these days is revisionist, so it verges on fiction anyway.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. Kindle, 784 pages. Published 1978. 5 stars.
This was a painstaking reading journey through the Black Death, the infernally corrupt Roman Catholic Church, the Hundred Years War and the age of Chivalry. I’m a slow reader. This one took me six weeks. Absolutely worth it! No one but the sublime Barbara Tuchman could make the Middle Ages palatable and she makes it a revelation. Well-deserving winner of the 1980 National Book Award for History, this is an important read to set the stage for all that comes after. Tuchman dryly acknowledges that the 14th century was “a bad time for humanity.” By the way, nothing about this book is more brilliant than the title. We can take a look in the mirror of the 1300’s and see ourselves. “A sense of overhanging disaster…expressed in prophecies of doom and apocalypse.”
The Winter Soldier: A Novel by Daniel Mason. Audiobook, narrated by Laurence Dobiesz, 336 pages. Published 2018. 3.5 stars.
The year is 1915 and the setting is northern Hungary. Protagonist Lucius Krzelewski, a medical student, has abandoned his upper-class life in Vienna to enlist in the army and finds himself the only doctor in a small village hospital for soldiers on the Eastern Front. This is a war story and a love story and it is nicely told. It is also a story of the first glimmers of understanding PTSD, or “shell shock” as it was referred to in WWI and WWII. The author, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, is a gifted writer and I look forward to reading all his books.
Lilac Girls: A Novel by Martha Hall Kelly. Audiobook, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Kathleen Gati, Kathrin Kana and Martha Hall Kelly. 497 pages. Published 2016.
I thought this would be history lite, given that the WWII novel begins as an almost flippant chronicle of New York socialite Caroline Ferriday’s fairy-tale life. The fairy tale ends abruptly as the story shifts to Ravensbrück concentration camp and the horrific medical experiments conducted on the women imprisoned there. I was two-thirds through the book before I realized that while the book is, indeed, fiction, the characters were real people who came together in the most extraordinary ways. I didn’t love Kelly’s writing style – this is not great literature – but the stories told bear stark witness to the monstrous crimes against humanity of the Nazi regime.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene. Audiobook, narrated by Joseph Porter. 180 pages. Published 1955. 3.5 stars.
The novel is set in 1950’s Saigon as the French begin to back-pedal from their failure in Indochina and the Americans blithely step in. What could possibly go wrong? Greene’s protagonist is a British journalist with few if any redeeming qualities but whom the author gives a moral imperative to pass judgment on the “quiet American”. Diplomat Alden Pyle represents everything the author despises about the United States’ heavy-handed entry into this geopolitical quagmire. The book was criticized for being anti-American, which it is, but it is also well-written and provides a glimpse into the pre-Vietnam War era.
The Sympathizer: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Audiobook, narrated by Francois Chau. 384 pages. Published 2015. 3 stars.
A more contemporary riff on the Vietnam War, also anti-American, which is probably why it was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The author, whose family fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, seems deeply conflicted about the land of his heritage and the land where his family struggled and prospered, and these themes weigh heavily on his book, which is advertised as a “spy thriller” but is anything but thrilling. The story is framed as a lengthy confession by a Communist double agent who has long served a South Vietnamese general. There is a rambling and resentful sub-plot during which the spy is asked to consult on a film about the war, which Nguyen cheerfully admits is his “revenge” on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. There is also a great deal of casual racism against the Caucasian race. Were the term “black” substituted every time for “white”, I wonder how many awards this book would have won. Cynical, alienated and over-rated, but it gets 3 stars for style. The guy can write.
Redeployment by Phil Klay. Audiobook, narrated by Craig Klein. 306 pages. Published 2014. 4 stars.
Different decade, different war. Same horror. The short stories in this collection are like rosary beads, each one a meditation on the unthinkable damage war does to those sent to fight. A Dartmouth graduate, Klay served as a Marine lieutenant from 2005-2009 and spent thirteen months in Iraq. This book is, roughly, to the Iraq War what Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was to the Vietnam War. Each is a beautifully written missive sent to shatter any misguided romantic notions we may harbor as to what went on. Highly recommended.
Next week: some classic book looks…