Friday, June 13, 2014

A First World War Reading List

In Belfast World War 1 has never been "the forgotten war" because of the slaughter that took place
in the first week of the Battle of the Somme...
I sometimes wish I still worked in a bookshop. Back in the day I was part of the first crew that opened the Barnes and Noble flagship store on 82nd & Broadway. (This was the store that supposedly put the Upper West Side landmark Shakespeare & Company out of business - the story of which became a bit of an anti-corporate cause celebre and later the Nora Ephron movie You've Got Mail.) I rose up the hierarchy and although I never became a manager at B&N I was trusted enough to set up the book displays on the 2nd floor. In these displays I had free reign to promote neglected authors, foreign language writers and just generally have fun influencing the buying habits of an influential segment of the New York population. It was solely down to me, I think, that Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell became big names and I know for a fact that we were the first bookshop in America to sell Samuel Beckett's Dream of Fair To Middling Women (I ordered 20 of them and sold them all in a day). 
...
I can't do that anymore but I do have a blog and today I'd like to get you interested in 10 world war one books that I like and which you might not have read. In a couple of weeks it'll be 100th anniversary of Franz Ferdinand's driver turning left instead of right and stalling the car in front of Gavrilo Princip who had just come of a bakery with a roll in one hand and a pistol in the other...
...
1. The Great War And Modern Memory - Paul Fussell. A classic dissection of the Great's War's influence on the history and culture of the entire twentieth century. 
2. Goodbye To All That - Robert Graves. What life was like before and after the trenches for one British soldier. 
3. Regeneration - Pat Barker. My favourite World War 1 novel. It justly won the Booker Prize. 
4. The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchmann. How the whole thing kicked off. 
5. The Strange Death Of Liberal England - George Dangerfield. A history classic that no one reads anymore but everyone should. 
6. All Quiet On The Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque. A brilliant look at the lives of ordinary German infantrymen on the line. 
7. A Farewell To Arms - Ernest Hemingway. An American volunteer medic on the Italian front. 
8. The First World War - John Keegan. A comprehensive history of the major battles and theatres of the war. 
9. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War - Christopher Clark. Another view about how it all kicked off. 
10. The Penguin Book Of First World War Poetry. An excellent cheap collection of the best WW1 war poems. 

50 comments:

Steve W said...

I was in an airport bookshop in-between flights just a few weeks ago and had a sneaky read through some of the Penguin collection. The little I read was great, I still regret not buying it, but at some point you have to read the books you have already bought, and unfortunately my queue has grown quite long.

adrian mckinty said...

Steve


Its a really great little book. A bit depressing - obviously - but well worth reading.

Cary Watson said...

Good list. I'd add Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Sassoon, and Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger. Junger's memoir is an outlier because it's written from the German side, and also because he seemed to absolutely love the violence and bloodshed. I've read a lot of WWI memoirs and he's the only who enjoyed the conflict. Junger evidently went on to become one of the giants of German literature, but I've only ever seen Steel available in translation.

Dana King said...

Good timing, for me, a least. I recently read Max Hastings's excellent history of World War II, INFERNO, and Thomas Ricks's THE GENERALS. Between the two of them, I came to realize my knowledge of the First World War and the Korean War were both lacking. Thanks for setting me up for the first.

Alan said...

Adrian,Great list and I would second the addition of "Storm Of Steel"as bizarre as it's theme is that manliness,meaning and bravery are achievable through violence it might help explain the allure of war to some.The poetry collection is sad and wonderful and it's influence was widespread ,a pity less so in Germany.I am sure given more time you would have rose in Barnes and Noble high enough to crush book critics and lay the foundation for Northern Irish literature.Great to here your lighter voice today.Best Alan

seana graham said...

Thanks for the list--most though not all are known to me, but I haven't read that many. I want to do some reviews of WWI books for a website I'm writing for this year, so this will help.

Two I've read that I'd include, one fiction, one not:

The novel is A Very Long Engagement by Sebastian Japrisot,

The nonfiction is Testament of Youth by Vera Britain.

I'd also suggest finding the part in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon about Gavrilo Princip and that fateful day in Sarajevo to those who haven't read it.

The one I've been meaning to read for a long time but haven't gotten to is Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Birdsong and the others in that sequence, which I think are Girl at the Lion d'Or , Charlotte Gray, and Green Dolphin St, are the best of Sebastian Faulks I think Seana.A good popular middlebrow writer.

Anyway, did everyone else have to do Wilfred Owen at school?

I did, and so did my kids. He and John Steinbeck really seem to connect with teenagers. Teenage boys I mean.

seana graham said...

Brendan, I really liked Faulk's Engleby, though I imagine it is not for everyone. Though as you mention teenage boys, I assume there are some who would relate to it.

adrian mckinty said...

Cary

I've read the Sassoon but not the Junger. I'll have to see if I can find a 2nd hand copy of that lying around. It sounds really interesting.

adrian mckinty said...

Dana

The Generals is one of the best books I read last year. It'll become a set text at West Point, Annapolis etc. but I was a little surprised it didnt get shortlisted for the Pulitzer to be honest - a very good and a very important book.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

I was a pretty good salesman back in my bookshop days. I remember betting someone that I wd sell everyone copy of Philip Roth in the fiction section by the end of my shift and I did. Although to be honest selling Philip Roth on the Upper West Side wasn't exactly like selling fridges to the Eskimos.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yeah someone mentioned Birdsong on twitter. I think I read it a few years ago but it didnt leave much of an impression unfortunately.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

Yup Birdsong, maybe I'll check it out to see if I really did read it or just imagined reading it. Occasionally a book or two slips through the cracks in my book reading journal...

My kids dont seem to study any poetry that was written more than 30 years ago alas.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Do you mean all of the Regeneration trilogy Adrian? I can't separate them in my mind.


I read All Quiet on the Western Front as a kid. It was one of those books that people had in their houses, even though my dad and mum left school at 13 and 15 , and were halting writers, they were great readers.

I can't remember it much though. An open air latrine scene sticks in my mind.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Maybe I shld also have mentioned Wade Davies's Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest - which has some very fine chapters about the Western Front.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

The whole trilogy is good but I liked the last one best. It had some really funny lines in it too. Do you remember the prostitute describing a couple of her eccentric clients to Prior?

seana graham said...

I like Wade Davis so maybe I will try that one. But there are a lot here I'd like to read. We read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. I liked it a lot, although liked is not quite the right word. I remember the gas.

Only slightly off topic--I just finished Life and Fate and for some reason it has reminded me of some other book about the Eastern Front in WWII, but I can't come up with it. I'd be tempted in fact to think it's the same book, but I think the only part I read was the very beginning and it starts with some soldiers who are sort of pinned down (?) in a city which is at least very much like Stalingrad. I don't even know which nationality the soldiers are, but it's very bleak, like the battle is just about coming to an end. Does this sound at all familiar to anyone? The only other clue is that it's another fairly longish book.

Brendan O'Leary said...

I remember the gay sex scenes which I found rather ... confronting. There's me exposed as a conservative prude.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Europe Central by William Vollman? Dont remember much about that book but I'm pretty sure there was a Stalingrad section a bit like that.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

The gay sex scenes were all pretty brief if I recall. There was that one patient who heard one of the other officers talking about the working class soldiers as scum etc. & concocts a plan to sexually humiliate him as a punishment?

Brendan O'Leary said...

Oh, looking them up, I see that was the middle book, The Eye in the Door.

After reading Regeneration, I wondered if my grandfather had been in Craiglockhart in between his medals at Paschendaale. We only found out about those after he died, but whenever he met my Scottish wife, he would mention that he'd been in hospital in Edinburgh during the war.

The tour guide in Belgium suggested we look up his medical record. I asked one aunt but she told me another one had destroyed the record because it mentioned he'd been treated for syphilis on the boat back to Australia.

Brendan O'Leary said...

I'm fascinated by the pre WW1 Western world. Our perceptions now are so informed by both world wars we can't really unimagine the world before without the help of really good writers,

Joseph Conrad's European stories are good on that. I also really enjoyed Germania by Simon Winder which might not be everyone's cup of tea.

Alan said...

Brendan,U.S. Public Education is much less demanding than Brit/OZ schooling.We read Owns et al.in University.As for The battles of the Somme,Paschendale and Ypres they were barely mentioned .After all everyone knows "The Yanks Saved Europe from the "Huns."Adrian mentioning the "Upper West Side" is not fair ,I just got a craving for a real bagel but not the New Mexican variant.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

If you can find the George Dangerfield book I think you'd really enjoy it - it captures beautifully that period 1910 - 1914 in Britain before the Gotterdamerung.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Even tougher to get a decent bagel in Melbourne. There's this one famous bakery called Glicks in East ST Kilda that sells excellent challah but their bagels are a monstrous fraud.

seana graham said...

Vollman is a good guess, but it isn't that. I feel like it was someone like Hermann Broch, but I don't think that's right either.

trevor said...

You might find this of interest
https://www.facebook.com/GreatWar100

John McFetridge said...

"Selling Philip Roth on the Upper West Side," would make a good title for your Brooklyn hipster novel.

Maybe use a pseudonym...

Brendan O'Leary said...

John, surely "Their Bagels are a Monstrous Fraud" would be the doorstop blockbuster that would propel Adrian to the top rank of hipsterdom?

Joe Velisek said...

Adrian -

Unknowingly we must have crossed paths on the Upper West Side. I lived at 88th & Bway in those days - above the Palmer Pharmacy. Spent a lot of time in the Shakespeare store and the B&N when it opened.

Small world and all that.

Echoing several months back I would add a World Undone by GJ Meyer to this list.

Seana -

Read A Long Engagement - different but I enjoyed it.

Pulled out Birdsong a year or so ago to reread it - and I didn't finish it the second time around.

For whatever it's worth.

Joe Velisek said...

P.S. For Fiction I would suggest -

A Soldier of the Great Way by Mark Helprin

After the War by Richard Marius

In Westchester Cty as I write - Manhattan tomorrow.

seana graham said...

Well, not everything stands up to a second reading, does it?

I think I am going to try and get to the Fussell and the Grave first, and then see whether there is still time or interest left in 2014 for more.

Anonymous said...

a recent favorite of mine: Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

adrian mckinty said...

Trev

Thanks for that.

adrian mckinty said...

John

Indeed. It cd be one of those "failure memoirs" too which are always really about eventual success - irritatingly enough.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

And dont get me stated on the cheesecake.

adrian mckinty said...

Joe

I worked for Shakespeare and Company for about three months before leaving to join B&N. She was beatified in the media that lady (and got a very flattering portrayal in that Nora Ephron movie) but she paid me 4.25 an hour which I think was under the minimum wage at the time. At B&N I got a starting pay of 5.75 an hour plus time and a half overtime and double time on holidays.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Fussell and Robert Graves are both excellent choices.

adrian mckinty said...

Anon

Boyden? Shall check it out.

Alan said...

Adrian ,No mention Of "Guns Of August"? I remember her overview of the key players and her sheer narrative ability made a living sketch of a world whose "Magic Mountain " was about to crash.Oh.I told my wife about the "bagel and the monstrous fraud " and I have not heard her laugh like that for a longtime.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Guns is the fourth book on the list!

Alan said...

Adrian,Sorry too much time contemplating bagels must have addled myo eyesight.Best Alan

Tom and Linda said...

We're headed to Belgium next month so studying a little about WWI - currently in Guns of August. It makes the whole thing a little more understandable but what a real lesson in unintended consequences. Geez.

adrian mckinty said...

T&L

Surely if all the Great Powers had seen what wd be the result 5 years later they all wd have done everything they cd to avoid the war?

Tom and Linda said...

BTW - I would add Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World as #11 to the list although it might be covered by your #1.

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Gareth Healy said...

Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day by Joseph Persico was a great read...highly recommended...

adrian mckinty said...

Gareth

Ooh yes, I read a review of that one and it sounded terrific.

Poignant and so so sad.

Anonymous said...

I think Dubray books in Grafton Street have stolen your list and are using it for a display of books about WW1!
(They do have 'The Sun is God' on order and 'In the morning I'll be gone' on the shelves though!

adrian mckinty said...

Anon

That is very cheeky of them I must say.