Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Armistice Week III: World War I Books

This week I’m blogging on Armistice Day and the Great War. Today, a few book suggestions for anyone who wants to read more about that war and its after-effects.

To begin with, you must read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. In this far-from-dull history of the war’s beginnings, Tuchman paints a picture of Europe on the eve of war which includes not only the salient political facts, but the atmosphere of the times. I’ve read this book two or three times at least in the last 45 years, and may do so again, although I rarely re-read books.

For a straight-out history of the entire war, I’m departing from my usual practice and recommending a book I haven’t yet read, John Keegan’s The First World War. Having read other works of Keegan’s, notably The Face of Battle, I feel confident in recommending it, and have just ordered a copy for myself.

Why should we read about this war? Well, you can get in ahead of everyone else who’ll be reading about it about four years from now when the centennial comes along. Seriously, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory shows us why. Fussell describes how the experience of the war influenced much of British, European and American writing for decades afterwards. I don’t read a lot of literary criticism these days, but I believe I will also re-read this book before long.

But perhaps you prefer fiction? When I looked at the Guardian’s list of 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read, Fussell’s thesis was borne out by the large number of these books (chosen by a group of British critics/reviewers) which dealt with the Great War. One of the classics, which I had not read until last year, is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Here’s a link to my Goodreads review. This book has been filmed several times, but I have not seen any of the films yet.

Two American classics that I read so long ago I can’t really write coherently about them now are A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway of course) and John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers. Perhaps less well-known here is Englishwoman Pat Barker’s excellent Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. I haven’t yet read the third book, which won the Man Booker Prize, but the titles will link you to my reviews of the first two. Wilfred Owen, one of the poets I posted about yesterday, is a character in Regeneration.

I must confess that much of my reading these days consists of mystery novels, but there is much to be learned from them as well. Anne Perry, famous for her Victorian mysteries, has written a five-volume mystery-espionage series set during World War I, beginning with No Graves as Yet. Charles Todd, Jacqueline Winspear, and Carola Dunn all have series that take place in the aftermath of the war – Todd’s and Dunn’s in the late ‘teens and early twenties, Winspear’s in the late twenties and early thirties but harking back to events of the war. Todd also has a new series featuring Bess Crawford, a nurse, which is set during the war. The series are all quite different from each other, so I’d advise trying one of each to see if you like it. I’ve enjoyed all three, but your results may differ.

Tomorrow: a few films of World War I.

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