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Archive for the ‘War/Military’ Category

AbovetheEastChinaSea

Above the East China Sea is a profound statement about the sorrow of war. It is both an eerie ghost story and a story about the love in families, especially between two sets of sisters, alive seventy years apart and both torn from their closest sibling by war.

Modern day Luz is a military child, stationed on Okinawa and emotionally pummeled to the point of suicide by the recent death of her sister, Codie, in Afghanistan. Her family now consists only of her and her mother, who has left on a TDY (temporary duty). Luz is alone in a new place and has no family or friends around, a very plausible illustration of how isolated military families can be.

Parallel to Luz’s story is the wrenching tale of Okinawan Tamiko, who was a teenager at the time of the World War II battle of Okinawa. In the litany of horrors of World War II, the Battle of Okinawa isn’t well known, but it killed more people than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs combined and caused unimaginable destruction and deprivation for the Okinawan people and the permanent destruction of their traditional Okinawan way of life.

As the book starts Tamiko seems to be a hostile, even evil, ghost bent on Luz’s destruction for her own ends, but as Luz learns more about her past and forges a connection with local Jake, the reader receives hints about the mysterious connection between Tamiko and Luz. Okinawa is portrayed in its lush tropical beauty with its proud past, uneasy relationship with Japan and current heavy U.S. military presence.

Like Sarah Bird’s other book about U.S. military family life, The Yokota Officers Club, many details of military life ring true. For example: clothes from the BX are lame (a claim my children have made all their lives), “we’re not racists, but we are rankists,” and military kids have the “CGI ability to constantly splinter and then reconstitute on a spot halfway around the world” and even the claim that “military kids enlisted at birth.”  Like The Yokota Officers Club, Above the East China Sea emphasizes the importance of siblings for children who move every few years and can’t form lasting friendships — “the question that military kids hate the most…Where are you from? Where is your hometown?” Luz says,  “Codie was my hometown.”   She was “my sister who always took care of me” and “the only person on earth who really knew me, who would really, truly care if I vanished.”

Try Above the East China Sea if you like compelling historical novels about young women’s lives in a time of war like Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I also recommend it for people interested in the lives of contemporary military families, who may also be interested in a recent Association of Library Services to Children blog post about serving military families in the public library.

Check the WRL catalog for Above the East China Sea.

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spyIt was a cause celebre in France and much of the liberal Western world, a scandal that exposed cultural divisions thought to have resolved years before.  It discredited a government, tarnished the honor of an entire army, and inflamed relations among already-antagonistic neighbors. It elevated some men and broke others.  It brought infamy on an obscure little island off South America, and led to the creation of a new country.  And it was, and is, a drama suited for a novelist such as Robert Harris.  It was the Dreyfus Affair.

Harris begins his telling of the story with the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was convicted of espionage and treason.  In it’s immediate aftermath, Georges Picquart is elevated to the decidedly sordid world of French counterespionage. Picquart’s new department had just achieved an astounding success, ferreting out Dreyfus’ plot to sell secrets to the hated Germans, and providing the evidence which convicted him. The antisemitism whipped up by leaders in all areas of French life would cool as Dreyfus was shipped off to serve his life sentence on Devil’s Island, and the Army could return to planning their next attack on Germany.

But Picquart begins uncovering inconsistencies and hidden files, and even more frightening, evidence that there is another spy in the French Army – or that the wrong man was convicted. His efforts to investigate are stymied, until it is plain that something more than a botched trial has happened.  When he is disgraced and transferred to a dangerous colonial post, he becomes convinced that corruption at the heart of his beloved institution now threatens the ideals of France, and he embarks on a dangerous course.

Harris uses all of the staples of the spy thriller to unpack this story. The secret codes, forgery, surveillance, plots and counterplots, paranoia, and red herrings could easily have been created out of whole cloth. But Harris does not deviate from historical accuracy; the drama of the story stems from the inner workings of Georges Picquart’s mind and from his growing conviction that justice and balance must be restored by one courageous person. In the background is his knowledge of Alfred Dreyfus’ plight – the lone prisoner on Devil’s Island, with guards forbidden to speak to him, his tiny hut surrounded by a wall, his every letter censored or withheld at whim, the Dreyfus’ family’s unshakeable faith that his innocence will come to light – and the urgency of freeing the wrongly convicted man.

So how did the Dreyfus Affair accomplish all that I claimed in the first paragraph? It was the openly anti-Semitic fervor of the Catholic Church that led to the definitive separation of Church from the French government. The affair caused several parliamentary governments to fall, and the senior officers of the Army were forced to retire. And for one journalist covering the breaking of Alfred Dreyfus, it led to an inescapable conclusion – for Jews to be safe, they had to have their own home. Thus was born Theodor Herzl’s push for a Zionist movement, which led to the creation of Israel.  All this because a few men decided that it was easier to persecute a Jew than take a few simple steps to solve a real crime.

Check the WRL catalogue for An Officer and a Spy

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“Dad carried a war in his skull.”

“His soul is still bleeding. That’s a lot harder to fix than a busted-up leg.”

ImpossibleKnifeMemoryHayley’s former soldier father has nightmares and rages. He drinks and he takes drugs. He can’t keep a job for more than a few days–all classic signs of PTSD.  He spent years dealing with his demons by staying constantly on the move as a long distance truck driver, with Hayley along being “unschooled.” Now they have settled in Hayley’s late grandmother’s house, and seventeen-year-old Hayley is attending high school for the first time.

This is a dramatic set up and The Impossible Knife of Memory lives up to it. Hayley has a strong voice–her depth and basic decency shine through until I was despairing at the traumas life threw at her. At high school she calls the teachers and the other kids “zombies”–lifeless apparitions with perfect exteriors who are only pretending to be human. Then she reconnects with Gracie, an old kindergarten classmate from when Hayley’s grandmother was alive. She also meets unique and funny Finn and starts to fall in love, but Hayley is terrified of trusting him. She slowly begins to learn that everyone carries their own burdens and might be able to help with hers.

Since Hayley is seventeen the war in Afghanistan has been running almost her entire life. Her earliest childhood memories are of seeing her father off to war, and welcoming him home. As her father’s physical and mental condition deteriorates she says about her early life, “My dad was a superhero who made the world safe” but she knows now that he himself is far from safe.

A heartrending but ultimately hopeful book, try The Impossible Knife of Memory if you read other wrenching teen novels like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green or if you’re interested in the effects of war on teens such as Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. There are also details of military lifestyles like her family’s struggles to find someone to mind Hayley after her mother dies, and the camaraderie from her father’s old soldier friends.

Check the WRL catalog for The Impossible Knife of Memory.

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grantEvery so often, I feel the need to revisit older books that have been sitting on the shelves for a while unread. When my mother was doing some cleaning up at her house, she offered me a box of books that she was going to get rid of, and among them were several of Bruce Catton’s magisterial works on the American Civil War. A few years ago, I read Terrible Swift Sword (first published in 1969), part of Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War. This past week, I picked up Grant Takes Command, the third book in the Ulysses S. Grant trilogy, started by Lloyd Lewis and completed by Catton.

Grant Takes Command follows the career of General Ulysses S. Grant from the Battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863 through the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination. Over the course of the book, we see Grant revealed as both a superb, and often lucky, commander as well as a family man, who wrote regularly to his wife, and had her with him at various points of the campaign. Catton does not shy away from pointing out Grant’s failures as well, but compared with the rest of the Union generals, it seems clear that it was Grant’s confidence and tenacity that brought the war to a close. Grant appears to be one of the few generals on the Union side who managed to walk the treacherous line between politics and the war. The close relationship between Lincoln and Grant comes through here; Grant was the only commanding general who Lincoln seems to have completely trusted, and Grant clearly respected Lincoln.

Catton does an excellent job of portraying both the macro- and the micro- aspects of wartime for soldiers and commanders alike. He makes use of diary accounts and of the voluminous correspondence surviving from the war, not only official communiques but letters from officers, enlisted men, politicians, and civilians. These vignettes help us see beyond the maps showing sweeping troop movements, illuminating the daily lives of those at war.

I think that a particular interest here for me is that when Grant became commander of all the union forces he moved his headquarters to the Army of the Potomac, fighting Lee in Virginia. The last two thirds of Grant Takes Command are, as a result, set in Virginia, and knowing the places that Catton writes about, and in some cases having walked the ground, added an additional dimension to the story.

Catton is an able historian, and better yet, is an excellent writer of narrative. You may know how the story ends, but the journey from Chattanooga to Appomattox with Catton as your guide is one not to be missed.

Check the WRL catalog for Grant Takes Command

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gettysburgHow many schoolchildren do you suppose have memorized The Gettysburg Address, then forgotten it? How many adults can complete the phrase “Fourscore and …”, but don’t understand what Lincoln meant by it?  Jonathan Hennessey, author of this sesquicentennial interpretation of Lincoln’s immortal speech, does both students and adults an immense service in breaking down the speech line by line to show what a radical statement the Gettysburg Address really was at the time.

Abraham Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg four months after the three-day long bloodletting that is called the high tide of the Confederacy.  He was added to the program as a courtesy, but audiences nonetheless expected the kind of hours-long oration that served as inspiration and entertainment in the pre-broadcast days.  Lincoln had proved himself a master of the craft during his debates with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 campaign for the Illinois Senate seat, and was expected to use the forum to extol the Union effort.  Instead, in just 272 words he reiterated a vision which turned a common notion of the Civil War on its head.

The fourscore and seven years he referred to takes us back to the Declaration of Independence, not to the Constitution.  The Constitution was the root document cited over and over again in the escalating debates that led to the War.  Was the Constitution a compact voluntarily entered into by sovereign entities who could withdraw over differences of policy? Or was it the contract by which a single unbreakable entity was formed?  But Lincoln saw the Constitution as an outgrowth of the purposes of the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration as a testament to the values which created a uniquely American people.  The Gettysburg Address is his case for that interpretation.

The speech led listeners through American history from 1776 to 1863, forcing them to recall the political compromises, sectional divisions, and bloody skirmishes which had presaged secession then blossomed into an unequaled bloodletting on American soil.  By walking modern readers through those same questions, and bringing then-current events in (what did the California Gold Rush have to do with slavery?) Hennessey shows that the War was an organic part of all that had come before.  But he doesn’t stop at 1861 – he also carries the reader through the chaos and disaster of a battle that neither side sought nor wanted, and on to the tragic end of Lincoln’s life.

Aaron McConnell’s vivid illustrations are a perfect complement to the text, adapting styles from each historical period and pulling complex and dynamic action scenes together with simple but affecting drawings of contemplative landscapes to build an emotional impact into the story.  He uses a nameless, voiceless African-American woman touring contemporary Washington DC to create an overarching visual narrative, then plunges into the events and ideas Hennessey lays out.  Together, they teach an accessible but not dumbed-down lesson in American history.  The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation is a terrific resource for students wanting a survey of the issues and an illuminating read for adults looking to make deeper connections to their understanding of history.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation

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armsI frequently confess in these pages my bypassing of the great works of Western literature, of which A Farewell to Arms is undoubtedly one.  In this case I think I have a good reason: my best friend in high school became a Hemingway fanatic, quoting from Carlos Baker’s collection of Hemingway letters, insisting that we couldn’t use straws to drink our Coke because that isn’t what a “Hemingway man” would do, pulling non sequiturs from the stories into our ordinary conversations.  I dutifully read The Sun Also Rises for English class and completely didn’t get it, but I also knew I’d have to come back to Hemingway eventually.  Then Stephen Colbert’s Book Club “did” A Farewell to Arms (satirically making the most of the same Hemingway cliches my friend was guilty of misunderstanding) and it reminded me of my long-standing obligation.

The book is set during the endless stalemate along the Isonzo River. Along with the unusual setting (few people paid attention to the Italian front), Hemingway took a further step into unexplored territory by giving his main characters a kind of ironic immunity to the war.  Frederick Henry, a semi-autobiographical figure, is an American in the Italian ambulance corps, a witness to but a kind of bystander to combat.  Catherine Barkley is a British volunteer nurse, physically protected from the worst of combat’s random destruction.  Neither is unaffected by the war, but they don’t have the emotional patriotism that binds and drives the Italians.

Combat catches up with Henry, though not in the heroic manner he might have hoped.  Catherine transfers to the hospital where he’s being treated and the two become tender and enthusiastic lovers. Then Catherine gets pregnant and the rehabilitated Henry is sent back to the front just as the Italians are routed in the Battle of Caporetto.  Henry decides to desert to Switzerland, which proves a healing refuge for the two. Then both Catherine and the baby die in childbirth, and Henry learns that his “farewell to arms” does not render him immune from heartbreak and loss.

Superficially, this is a quick read.  Hemingway’s famously terse language is on display, even in the most intimate moments between Henry and Catherine.  His use of the word “fine” covers everything from Henry’s quarters to the wine they drink to Catherine’s idea of herself as wife and lover.  Critics have written this off as Hemingway’s ideal of the taciturn alpha male and a docile female in his thrall, but it seems to me more an inability for either of them to articulate the depth of their love for each other because the war has taught them that their world is a tenuous place.  But a passage where Henry describes taking Catherine’s hair down is rich in imagery and desire that he couldn’t have expressed aloud.  I also doubt that a misogynist detached from his emotional life could have written it.  A fast reader would miss the import of those flashes.

As far as readers go, I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that most high school students have the intellectual and emotional capability to understand the issues that writers like Hemingway wrestled with, and my high school friend was a perfect example of that.  It is only in subsequent years as he’s experienced deep love and the loss of that love, death, disappointment, and the unexpected beauty of a world he did not know as a teen that I think A Farewell to Arms could have the emotional power I as an adult first-time reader experienced.  I hope he finds that same power in the books he’s reading now.

Check the WRL catalogue for A Farewell to Arms

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lynnExcoriating. Funny. Philosophical. Cynical. Crude. Lyrical. Obnoxious. Charming.  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk manages to be all of these and more in a powerful story that encompasses about five hours in the life of one nineteen year-old boy/man.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, and in Texas Stadium eight enlisted men are sitting in the freezing rain waiting for the biggest moment of their young lives.  Along with Destiny’s Child, Bravo Squad (which isn’t its real name, but that’s what everyone calls them) are to be featured in the Dallas Cowboys halftime show.  Why this particular group of eight?  Because they were involved in a brief firefight in Iraq, Fox News caught in on videotape, and they are now bona fide All American Heroes, complete with medals pinned on by President Bush himself.  A two-week national tour to build support for the war, a few hours with their families, the halftime show, and Bravo is headed back for the war zone.

It’s hard to think of these men as men – they indulge in the timeless adolescent male hobbies of insults, play wrestling, lusting after women, and eating and drinking everything in sight.  There’s no question that Iraq has changed all of them, but Billy in particular has matured beyond his nineteen years.

A restless, somewhat rebellious and indifferent student, Billy was no star in high school, and when he committed an act of vandalism he was told to join the Army to avoid prosecution.  But whatever it was – training, maturing, innate courage – Billy was a leader in the firefight and was awarded the Silver Star.  But he also lost a friend and mentor, and while the fight itself seems unreal he remembers every detail of Shroom’s death.  Now Billy is questioning everything he sees in his country.

Because there’s no question that Bravo is being used.  Used by politicians looking for a cheap way to bolster their troop-loving images, used by the Cowboys’ owner to prove his patriotism, used by a movie producer looking for a big score, used by a megachurch preacher looking for street cred (this guy? Fountain doesn’t exactly say), used by ordinary people to demonstrate their love of country.  All this, as Billy points out, for a bunch of guys making under $15,000 a year.  It’s hard to tell which is the most insidious, but Bravo rolls with the attention in their best All American Hero fashion, revealing their true selves only in front of each other.

In some ways, Billy’s interior monologue sounds a little too mature, but I doubt he’d be able to articulate the things he’s thinking.  He’s observant and aware, understands that there is much he doesn’t know (like how someone can just up and buy a professional football team), and understands just as well that there’s no way he is ever going to move in the rarefied circles of people who attend state dinners with Prince Charles, own huge corporations, or even those who will pay $700 for a leather jacket with the Cowboys logo on it.  He’s also hungry for relationships that mean as much as the love he carries for Bravo’s dead and wounded, and there’s a remote possibility that he may have found it in Texas Stadium.

Billy is an unforgettable character, partially because he has an uncomfortable way of looking at his fellow Americans and partially because the reader wants so much for him to survive and succeed.  Ben Fountain gives him some wonderful lines (“Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.” And of Texas Stadium, “Give bigness its due, sure, but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job.”).  Fountain also renders the conversation of the people Billy meets in a phonetic shorthand offset from the regular text, just as the flow of cliches must sound to someone who hears them ad nauseum.  The story’s pacing makes it difficult to put down – it’s as fast a read as any thriller – but Fountain’s language deserves close examination, or even multiple readings, to catch his observations and intentions.  One warning for those who might mind: Billy and his comrades are pure id – all those insults and all that lust is as crude as you can imagine.

Check the WRL catalog for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

It will also be available as a Gab Bag in April 2014.

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imageI hadn’t meant to write about The Monuments Men, which, thanks to a movie starring the dapper George Clooney, already has an impressive reserves list. But I keep running into folks who say, “I had no idea there was a book!”—a statement that brings out the evangelical librarian in me. So: there is a book! And if you’re at all interested in the intersection of art and WWII, then you’ll enjoy learning where history and the movie overlap, and where the truth has been stretched to fit a different story.

Nazi art thefts during WWII were meticulously planned and immense in scope. After the war, 400 tons of artworks removed from museums and private collections were found in salt mines and castles, the best of them earmarked for Hitler’s proposed Führersmuseum, never built. But while the scale of art plundering was unprecedented, so were the preservation efforts of museum curators and the military, especially the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit, known as the Monuments Men.

Eventually, 350 men and women from 13 countries served, but at the beginning, there were only a handful: as of D-Day, eight men to inspect every important monument between the English Channel and Berlin. They expected to do conservation triage—follow after the front-line soldiers, survey liberated towns for damaged sites, and organize emergency efforts to protect works from exposure or keep Roman ruins from being used as parking lots for tanks. They didn’t expect that so many masterpieces would be missing completely. As the war drew to an end, their mission morphed into a treasure hunt for artworks and other valuables stashed in hiding places throughout Europe.

Possibly the most bizarre of these was at Bernterode: underground, in a sealed room, a circle of regimental flags surrounding the coffins of Frederick the Great and former German President von Hindenburg. The most exciting cache was at Altaussee, where the paintings were a survey of Art History’s greatest hits, and the mine was packed with bombs.

Edsel’s account follows several of the Monuments Men, drawing on their writings and interviews with surviving officers. It was lonely work, each man improvising on his own without much support or even assigned transportation. The work of identifying and returning artworks continued until 1951, while questions of rightful ownership concern the courts to this day. (For a taste of postwar Monuments work, the National Archives has a fascinating article about the myriad political and logistical issues raised by those coffins alone.)

Check the WRL catalog for The Monuments Men.

The Monuments Men in Italy had a slightly different chain of command, and Edsel covers their exploits in a second book, Saving Italy.

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Jacket (1)I’ve written before about a Civil War novel that explores the effects war has on the survivors, but from the Confederate point of view. Although “nostalgia” knows no faction, race, or even gender, authors can explore how time and place affect the treatment sufferers face. Dennis McFarland has chosen to focus on the experiences of a Union private. In doing so, he brings to life such diverse topics as military hospitals, baseball in the Civil War era, and the sacrifices made by one man for the wounded veterans of the Army of the Potomac.

Summerfield Hayes is nineteen years old when he enlists in the Union Army. It is Christmas 1863, and the casualty lists have reflected the appalling toll—after battle deaths at Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and countless others, and losses from disease, there is no false sense of glory. Summerfield’s sister Sarah is distraught when he makes his announcement. The two have relied on each other since the deaths of their parents three years before and are closer than most brothers and sisters. She isn’t the only one unhappy with his enlistment. Summerfield is a star player for the Eckford Club base ball team in that championship year, and the team’s fans want him to continue his pitching and hitting for the club. But Summerfield is disturbed by the way his home life is progressing and determines that enlisting is the only cure.

Within five months of his enlistment, Summerfield is cast into the Battle of the Wilderness, a chaotic clash that marked the first battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The dense woods and narrow roads did not allow large units to maneuver, so the battle devolved into a never-ending series of hand-to-hand clashes. Many of the wounded were lost when the woods caught fire and they could not escape. Comrades were separated and wound up fighting alongside strangers. Summerfield endures the battle but wakes up to find himself alone and wounded, his last memory of a man on horseback ordering him left behind. He stumbles through the woods in search of help but wakes a second time in a military hospital outside Washington. The hell of battle is replaced by the hell of bodies destroyed in every conceivable way, suffering men treated with varying levels of competence and compassion.

Worst of all, no one seems to know who Summerfield is—he is unable to speak, unable to hold pencil and paper. Every attempt to make him speak fails and aggravates his wounds. He has many torments, but few consolations—one is the soldier in the bunk next to his, but who suffers from Soldier’s Disease in addition to his amputated arm. Another is a grey-bearded man who visits him almost daily, reading to him from Dickens, talking to him, and caring for him when the nurses can’t. As Summerfield heads to a crisis—what will the medical staff do with him when he’s cured, will he be treated as a deserter?–the old man becomes his advocate and comforter.

From vivid descriptions of camp life and battle and of New York’s bucolic urbanity, to Summerfield’s internal struggles with his battle injuries, to the way base ball was played—no limit on pitches!—McFarland brings 1864 to life. Innocence sits alongside experience, and compassion goes hand in hand with cruelty, but few people have the clarity to tell which is which.  McFarland does a wonderful job of making that a universal and timeless struggle.

Check the WRL catalog for Nostalgia

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soldierIn one life, Mark Helprin is a writer of fantasy; in another, the writer of fiction that alternates between overwrought and stunning. A Soldier of the Great War is a wonderful realization of the latter.

The story of Alessandro Giuliani, a 70-year old veteran of World War I, is told by the old man himself to a much younger companion. Like the Wedding Guest, Nicolo Sambucca finds himself in company with The Ancient Mariner (although through the Mariner’s charity), where he receives an education in Italian history, politics, and the wonderfully indeterminate study of aesthetics. It is Alessandro’s own story, told by him for the first time as the two trudge across the Italian hills to their separate destinations.

The child of privilege, Alessandro took advantage of every opportunity to immerse himself in art and literature in school, while making time for mountain climbing and horsemanship.  From an early age he also took risks, and each risk prepared him to face more difficult challenges. As he enters his young manhood, he also extends that risktaking to courting women, with whom he falls in love easily.

Since the story takes place in the first part of the Twentieth Century, and since the title references The Great War, we know that Alessandro is headed into the maw of World War I. Although he joins the Italian Navy, he winds up serving both in trenches and on mountaintops, and fighting against both the Austro-Hungarians and his fellow Italians. Blown by the winds of fate and battle, he travels from the Mediterranean to Vienna, from lonely outposts to crowded hospitals, and through despair, love, rapture, and loss before finally returning to his beloved Rome.

But Alessandro’s destiny is not always as random as it seems.  Back in Rome, a twisted dwarf named Orfeo Quatta is pulling strings that affect Alessandro’s life and the lives of hundred of thousands of men. The senior clerk in the Giuliani family law firm, he was displaced by the typewriter but wound up at the Ministry of War, where official documents are still executed in skilled penmanship. But Orfeo is the only person who sees the originals, so he changes the texts to suit his whims, and his revised orders extend the war and increase the suffering of soldiers and civilians.

In his travels, Alessandro meets many people, but Helprin succeeds in creating in each a layered character who instructs Alessandro in his search for beauty. Despite the senseless violence, cruelty, and degradation of the war, Alessandro’s search for beauty, and for the God he sees in beauty, continues. Helprin captures Alessandro’s life in an effusion of language rich in imagery and philosophy, layered with drama and irony, creating a love story with a hero in love with life and with being in love.

Check the WRL catalog for A Soldier of the Great War.

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illbeseeingyouThis novel reveals its story through letters.  Glory, a 23-year-old, very pregnant mother of an energetic two-year-old son,  picks Rita’s address from a hat at a 4-H meeting.  The intent was to have women select an anonymous pen-pal to help ease the stress of their “situation,” that is, being at home while their husbands are at war.  Glory introduces herself in January, 1943, and tells Rita that if they are going to correspond, they should get to know each other.

Rita replies to the letter a few weeks later and we discover she is a middle-aged professor’s wife from Iowa who loves to garden.  Her husband as well as her newly turned 18-year-old son have both volunteered to serve in the war.

Both women seem to understand the same loneliness and feelings of not fitting in with their community – and they develop a deep friendship through their correspondence.

I enjoyed the intimacy of the letters.  The annoying neighbors, the new friends, what grows well in the gardens, the recipes that stretch the rations, the gossip of their community, the good memories, the very ordinary details of life fill each letter.  I was almost as excited as the characters to start a new letter and find out what would be revealed next.

There is also a bit of romance, lots of family drama, and heartbreak of celebrating holidays without loved ones. Be sure to have some tissues handy because some of the letters will surely break your heart.

Pick this book up if you enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Plot-wise it is very different.  But I was reminded of “Guernsey” while reading I’ll be seeing you – I suppose it’s the glimpse of what happens on the homefront and the fact that both books are written through letters being passed back and forth.

Questions for discussions and a conversation with the authors are included at the end of the book.  The conversation was particularly interesting — co-authors Hayes and Nyhan wrote the book without ever having met in real life!  They only knew each other through phone calls and emails.  Perhaps this is what gives that sense of authenticity to Glory and Rita’s letters.

Check the WRL catalog for I’ll be seeing you

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butlerWe’ve had plenty of blog posts about Robert Olen Butler’s work, and if you go check them out you’ll see the incredible range and imagination that characterizes his work.  (We don’t yet have a post about A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the short story collection that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.  Alas, another sign that none of us can read or write about everything we’d like to.)  With The Hot Country, Butler’s narrative skill takes off in a new and wholly unexpected direction.

War correspondent Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb has traveled to hot spots all over the world, but this time he’s covering one close to home. It’s 1914 and the U.S. has invaded Mexico in response to a diplomatic slight, and Kit is there to report on the heroic measures of the U.S. military. But Woodrow Wilson’s policy is to hold the port town of Veracruz, so there isn’t a whole lot for Kit and his colleagues to write about, except maybe the sporadic attacks on Marines visiting the local brothels.  (He’s still got to get that one by the censor.) Unlike his more staid colleagues, he goes out looking for material, and finds a big story that illustrates the turbulent background of Mexican politics.

Kit also learns that a German ship anchored in the harbor and reputed to be carrying arms to the Mexican army may have a dangerous cargo. Keeping in mind events taking place far away, Kit decides to dig deeper. As the nature of that cargo becomes more and more apparent, he takes it on himself to investigate further, then to act on his discovery. His efforts take him out of the city and into the Mexican hinterlands, where he barely escapes with his life. The scoop he carries is so explosive that he must cross the desert into the United States one step ahead of Pancho Villa’s men, and file from the first U.S. telegraph office he finds. But the response is far different from the one he expects.

Although the story is a genuine thriller, Butler makes Kit a dynamic character changed by the events he is part of. Although he is a war correspondent, it isn’t until his Mexican experience that Kit understands that he isn’t an immortal bystander, and the realization humbles him a bit. Kit is also the son of a renowned stage actress and readers come to understand how his upbringing has created the man he is—a restless chameleon entranced by words, capable at fighting but incapable of long-term relationships. In the course of the story, he also comes to grips with the fact that his mother is aging, and that the path she’s chosen has led her into a situation from which he cannot rescue her.

The Hot Country is followed by The Star of Istanbul, which has Kit heading across the Atlantic to cover the Great War, but getting sidetracked by historic events.  Its excellent reviews were what got me interested in reading the first of Kit’s adventures. At the same time, I’m hoping that Butler continues to allow his magnificent imagination to continue exploring the unexpected.

Find The Hot Country in the WRL catalog

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Cellist

Babette from the library’s Outreach Services Division provides today’s review:

Everyone has a list of “Books to Read.” Remarkably, there are titles that seem to remain on “the list” but are repeatedly overshadowed by the stream of newer items added to “the list.” For me, The Cellist of Sarajevo was one of those books. Having just completed this book, I urge you to push it to the top of your list and read it. This story puts a human face on war. It explores how individuals, innocent bystanders, attempt to live their lives in the midst of war, challenged daily to perform basic tasks which can have life or death consequences, and strive to maintain their sanity and a semblance of humanity despite the danger, destruction, and chaos brought into their everyday existence.

Based on a real life event, The Cellist of Sarajevo is the story of a cellist who, in the midst of the Bosnian war, witnesses from his window a mortar attack that kills twenty-two people standing in a breadline. In an act of respect, defiance, or an attempt to bring some peace and beauty to his war-ravaged town, the musician embarks on a daily ritual of playing his cello in the town square, in plain sight of enemy combatants, for twenty-two consecutive days. Also featured in this story are three ordinary townspeople: Arrow, a young woman sniper dispatched to protect the cellist; Kenan, a family man who dutifully procures water for his family and an elderly neighbor; and Dragan, a baker who remains in Sarajevo to protect his home and belongings after sending his wife and son to seek refuge away from the city. The lives of this four-some intersect and have profound bearings on their existence, although each is not aware of this.

The author’s beautiful prose poetically describes the setting, daily existence, and thoughts of the four main characters. The reader is compelled to reflect on each sentence and ponder the images conjured up in his or her mind. I listened to this story as an audiobook, which has the added bonus of cellist Sarah Butcher playing Albinoni/Giazotto: Adagio in G minor, the adagio featured in this story. Whether you check out the audiobook, as I did, or the book, I urge you to push The Cellist of Sarajevo to the top of your list and read it. You will be glad you did.

Check the WRL catalog for The Cellist of Sarajevo.

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook.  For book groups, it’s also available as a Gab Bag.

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OperationYesBo Whaley lives on an Air Force base in North Carolina. His father is the base commander, which just makes life complicated, especially when most of the kids in his class also live on base. To make life even more convoluted, his cousin Gari arrives from Seattle to live with him because her mother is being deployed to Iraq. They are assigned to the same class to help Gari fit in, but things go badly between them from the start.

The only good thing that is happening to Bo is his new teacher. Ms. Loupe, who is in her first year of teaching, has a tattoo and is young enough to have been taught by the principal. For Bo the best thing about her is her passion for theater. She engages the class in improv involving a beaten up couch, and Bo discovers in himself a talent for acting that previous teachers had seen as a propensity to talk and goof-off in class. His enthusiasm grows until he discovers that the big theater camp that the teacher is planning will be held next summer. He will be gone then, when his family is sent to their next military assignment, which makes Bo furious with the military lifestyle.

Ms. Loupe also gets the class working on a project to send supplies to her brother, who is stationed in Afghanistan. When her brother is declared missing in action, Ms. Loupe is understandably distraught, and Bo’s whole class want to help. In the most moving part of the book Bo, his cousin Gari, Ms. Loupe’s entire class and finally the whole community find a way to work together and, if not fix the unfixable, at least make things better. In the process they learn about each other, themselves, friendship and community.

In turn hilarious and heartbreaking, Operation Yes is aimed at middle grades, but has a lot to offer adults. As a librarian I love the literary profanity that the school librarian indulges in : “‘Frog and Toad!’ Miss Candy said. ‘Not again!’” or “Green Eggs and Ham!” I am doing a project on books featuring children with parents in U.S. military, and some of these books are impossible to get through without crying. Operation Yes is definitely in this category. Read it for a moving portrait of a community coming together or an accurate depiction of the military family lifestyle.

Check the WRL catalog for Operation Yes.

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MansSearchforMeaning

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”

If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.

It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.

The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:

I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.

Check the WRL catalog for Man’s Search for Meaning.

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YearoftheJungle

Suzanne Collins achieved fame through her dark and dystopian Hunger Games series. Her latest offering is neither a dystopian tale nor a children’s fantasy series; instead she has written a picture book. Year of the Jungle is four-year-old child’s view of Suzanne Collins’s own experiences when her father was deployed to Vietnam in 1968.

Because Year of the Jungle is the newest book from a bestselling author, it has garnered a lot of attention. One review said that it would “bewilder” its intended audience of small children. Considering that over two million American children have had a parent deployed since 9/11, it must be a familiar story to many. Of course not all of them had exactly the same experience as Suzanne Collins, but many have had similar enough experiences that they will not be bewildered by this book.

Suzy hears that her father “has to go to something called a war,” leaving her not knowing “what anybody’s talking about.”  She also learns that he will be in a jungle. Suzy knows about jungles from cartoons so she pictures her father in a happy place among her favorite cartoon characters. In a strong portrayal of a small child’s misunderstanding of the passage of time, Suzy is confused about the length of the year he will be away. The book portrays Suzy’s growing unease as adults give her unlooked-for sympathy, showing how adults can make things worse, even though they are trying to be kind. Suzy loves getting her father’s postcards, but they start coming less frequently and start to change. But for a child about to turn five the most devastating thing is the realization that he sent a birthday greeting to the wrong sibling.  In the illustrations the cartoon jungle full of round and smiling animals changes into a far more sinister place with images of violence and fear.

It is hard not to speculate how Suzanne Collins’s early experiences influenced her imagination when writing her undoubtedly dark and violent Hunger Games series. As an excellent writer she has captured and condensed a world of childhood experiences into a very few words. James Proimos’ illustrations are of a rough cartoonish style that at first glance I didn’t find very attractive, but they do a great job of capturing Suzy’s innocence and her unusually early realization of the dangers of the world.

This is a picture book designed to be read aloud, and a parent or caregiver can judge if it is the right book for their child. I think it could be useful for young military children as it is ultimately comforting when her father returns safely, although it is so dark in places that an adult should read it first and decide if it is appropriate. I also recommend it for adults who are interested in Suzanne Collins, military children’s experience, or a darker picture book.

Check the WRL catalog for Year of the Jungle.

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RUFThis hard-hitting historical novel is a “companion book” to the Edgar award-winning Code Name Veritywith which it shares a World War II setting and a handful of characters.

Rose Justice is an 18-year-old American pilot with England’s civilian Air Transport Auxiliary. Only recently arrived in England, she’s chirpy and excited about her work and a little naïve. She dismisses rumors of terrible things happening in German prison camps as propaganda. And one day, returning from a flight over France, she flies off course—while tipping a bomb out of the airmay I add—and suddenly two Luftwaffe jets are escorting her into Germany. Mis-classified with a group of French political prisoners, Rose is sent to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück.

She has entered a different world. In six months, from September 1944 to March 1945, Rose has any remaining naïveté starved and frozen and beaten out of her, until the appalling becomes ordinary. She is taken under the protection of the Rabbits (we would say “guinea pigs”): Polish prisoners, mostly students, on whom the camp doctors have run unconscionable medical experiments. The Rabbits know that they will all be executed eventually, but various means of evasion may keep them hidden away for another week, or day… in perpetual hope that the war will end and someone will survive to let the world know what happened in this place.

Rose’s narrative is written after she escapes Ravensbrück. A survivor in a sort of post-war limbo, Rose is also concerned with how to return to “real life.” Having sworn to herself and others to “tell the world” about the atrocities at the camp, she isn’t even able to describe the experience to her family. The Doctors’ Trial at Nuremberg suggests one path to closure by way of judgment and retribution, but Rose is looking for other ways to redeem her experience.

A poet as well as a pilot, she creates a pilot’s metaphor—lift and weight, thrust and drag—to describe the forces that fueled her survival during and after the prison camp. Obviously, Rose Under Fire is a story carrying a lot of weight. It’s the strong relationships between very different women—women from the French resistance, Night and Fog agents, Girl Scout saboteurs and Soviet bomber pilots—that give the novel lift as well.

Check the WRL catalog for Rose Under Fire

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barbariansOh no! Andrew is posting another Terry Jones book!

Much as the barbarians at the edges of Rome’s noble empire did, you’ll just have to get used to it. (Except that there was a seemingly never-ending supply of barbarians and this is running up on the end of Jones’ books.) So.

History. We all know who writes it, and in the case of the Roman Empire there is little doubt. Their portrayal of the people and territories they conquered is an unrelenting narrative of a superior culture overwhelming illiterate untutored savages and bringing the light of Civilization into their benighted lives. One of the ways they succeeded in creating this narrative was by destroying all evidence to the contrary. But, like murder, history will out, and medieval historian and humorist Terry Jones has taken the heavy lifting done by specialists, collated it and brought it to life in an entertaining way.

To hear them tell it, the Romans were surrounded by enemies actively seeking the destruction of their city and way of life. But looking at the maps and the archaeological evidence, it seems as though the Romans, in a never-ending quest for return on investment, were the ones actively seeking conflict. And boy, did they get it. And boy did they get their return on investment. The gold of the Celts and Dacians, wheat from Egypt, religion, knowledge, and military technology from Greece, slaves from all over the empire, foreigners brought into citizenship by enlisting in the Roman army–the benefits all flowed into the coffers of Rome. But the price to the Romans was also steep.

They required a certain amount of stability to ensure that the stream of money didn’t slow, and that the expenses of running the empire didn’t get out of hand. Conquest and prizes caused runaway inflation. And new ideas might give people dangerous thoughts that had to be controlled. The easiest way to do that was to stifle the kinds of questions that generate creativity and change. Sons were forbidden to leave their fathers’ professions. Incredible inventions were suppressed and inventors killed. The libraries of Carthage were destroyed or dispersed, the Punic language eliminated and all of Carthage’s knowledge lost to history. (Except one important element, which Rome faithfully copied.)

Culture by culture, Jones takes us around the edges of the Roman empire, showing that art, learning, technology, law, and military skill exceeded that of Rome. What those cultures didn’t have was a deep-seated need to conquer any perceived threat to their home, which was what relentlessly drove Rome on. In doing so, Rome got to tell their side of the story for nearly three millenia; now, with the benefit of skepticism, scholarship, and science, those “barbarian” contemporaries can begin to assume their place on the stage.

Terry Jones’ Barbarians was published to accompany the BBC series of the same name. Although the video isn’t widely available, the book more than makes up for the lack.

Check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Barbarians, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

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