Great War Novels for Veterans' Day

There are many ways to honor the men and women who put on a uniform and risk it all for the nations that send them into war in the name of duty and patriotism. One obvious way is to put their stories in writing—fiction or nonfiction—so that others can read and remember the sacrifices they made. Among literature’s many intrinsic values is its ability to give readers a sense of what other people experience, to help us understand, empathize, and learn from the thing that others have done.

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, I’d like to offer a very personal list of 11 great war novels to commemorate the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This is not your typical “best of” list. I’ve left out the obvious candidates—War and Peace, Catch-22, All Quiet on the Western Front, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Red Badge of Courage—on the assumption that you’ve already read those. Instead we’re offering a list of equally thought- provoking works that honor our soldiers as well as the friends and families left behind. They’re hardly unknown, but there’s bound to be a few here that you’re not familiar with. I begin with a a few focused on World War I:

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Regeneration by Pat Barker is the first book in a World War I trilogy based on the actual psychiatric treatment of British military officers suffering from shell shock, including poets Sigfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Barker’s technique allows her to describe the war through the words of those who suffered its unmitigated mental and physical horrors, and the physicians who struggled to help them.

A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot is a World War I epic about the murder of five wounded French soldiers by their own comrades, the coverup that inevitably follows, and the relentless quest of one of the men’s fiancées to find out what really happened. Like most of the great war novels, it brings a better understanding of both the horrors and kindnesses brought about by war.

August 1914 is the first installment in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s epic Red Wheel narrative about the events before and during the First World War. This first volume examines the assassination of  tsarist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, a key event leading to the 1917 Revolution, as well as the start of the war and the disastrous Russian offensive into East Prussia. Told through alternating viewpoints, many in sharp disagreement about the events, the book offers insights on political terrorism as well as war between nations.

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières is a tale of love and war during the Italian and German occupation of the Greek island of Cephallonia in the Second World War. Captain Corelli is a reluctant officer who gets caught in the worst kind of dilemma when he falls in love with a willful, beautiful young woman. The language is haunting, the mood overpowering.

Cold Mountain by Charles Fraser aims its spotlight on a disillusioned Confederate soldier who survives a wound that was expected to be fatal. When he recovers and is sent back to the front, he chooses instead to desert and embarks on a dangerous and lonely odyssey through the devastated South.

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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is set on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s. The principal character is “the Kid,” a 14-year-old from Tennessee who witnesses the violence that marked America’s expansion to the West when he hooks up with a gang of murderers who sell the scalps of Native Americans on a burgeoning black market.

History: A Novel by Elsa Morante is the powerful and unforgiving saga of a widowed schoolteacher’s attempt to raise two sons, one a teenager who treats war as his playground, and one born right after the war, the result of a rape by a Nazi soldier. Morante, who spent a year hiding in Italy during the Nazi occupation, is able to focus both on the political events driven by the powerful and wealthy and on the ordinary people struggling to stay alive.

Going After Cacciato is one of several Vietnam War books by Tim O’Brien. He’s better known for The Things They Carried, a short story that brilliantly shines a spotlight on the struggles of a group of infantrymen by examining the objects they carried with them. Going After Cacciato also focuses on the plight of the enlisted (usually drafted) men in Vietnam, this time by tracing the events that ensue after one of them decides to go AWOL and walk from Vietnam to France.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje tells the story of four damaged people living out the end of World War II in an Italian monastery: a nameless man critically burned, his Canadian nurse, a Canadian-Italian thief, and an Indian sapper in the British Army. Alternately haunting,  harrowing, beautiful, and disturbing, The English Patient slowly weaves these characters together, only to pull them apart in the end.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, published just last year, is a graceful novel about the impossible burdens faced by American troops in Iraq. Powers, who enlisted at age 17 and served as a machine gunner in the war, focuses much of the novel on a bloody and ultimately fruitless campaign to control the northern city of Al Tafar. His principal character, a 21-year-old private who feels little purpose or determination, is pushed by a sergeant who enforces his orders with punches and a commanding officer who gives pep talks reminiscent of Patton.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is a delightful book set just after World War II has ended, when civilians and soldiers alike are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.  Shaffer uses letters from the members of a most unconventional book group on the occupied Channel Islands to tell personal war stories that are both touching and inspiring.


Miriam Toews Keeps Getting Better

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Miriam Toews has managed to do the seemingly impossible: Write a novel about depression and suicide that is funny, loving, witty, heartbreaking, clever, and insightful, all while contributing to the public debate over an individual’s right to die with dignity. Toews has long been a best-selling, award-winning author in her native Canada, but readers south of the border have been slow to discover her. All My Puny Sorrows, her sixth and arguably best novel, should change that.

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Ali Smith—Scottish, 55, fearless—has already made a reputation as one of most ambitious, offbeat, and mesmerizing novelists of our time. Now she’s pushing it a step further with an unusual “seasonal” quartet. The first two volumes, Autumn and Winter, are already out, and you better hurry up and read them because you want to be ready when Spring arrives. And it won’t be long.

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I don’t normally use this space to review twenty-year-old books, but for Richard Russo, I’ll make an exception. Regular readers know I’m a huge Russo fan. He’s been a big influence on my own writing, and I thought I’d read everything he wrote. But last month a friend recommended one of his novels that I’d missed: Straight Man, published in 1997. It’s the funniest serious novel I’ve ever read.

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Let’s face it. For struggling authors, marketing and selling a published novel is at best a necessary evil—about as much fun as reading the Congressional Record (which, thankfully, I no longer have to do for work). We all tackle the marketing chores in whatever way we can because we know we have to, all the while hoping we’re not badgering and offending those on the receiving end of our too-frequent pitches.

But there’s one part of the process that is wonderful: Being a guest at a book club.

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So you devoured Elene Ferrante’s tetralogy and now you’re wondering what other international gems are out there—books so good you can’t believe you never heard of them. Well, look no further than Magda Szabó’s The Door. If you like Ferrante, I guarantee you’ll like Szabó.

Magda Szabó, who died in 2007 at age 90, was one of Hungary’s most important 20th century writers, widely read and admired at home but only recently getting the love and attention she deserves worldwide. The Door was published in 1987 but not translated into English until 2005, when it appeared in Britain. Last year, the New York Review Books classics offered it up to American audiences in a new, widely praised translation by Len Rix. We should all be thankful.

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Writing fiction will change the way you read it. I often make a point of reading like a writer (to borrow Francine Prose’s book title), examining what the author is trying to do and how she’s doing it, determining what works and what doesn’t (and why), and looking for how this can help improve my own writing. It doesn’t stop me from reading as a reader—enjoying good literature and losing myself in fictional worlds—but I rarely lose sight of what the author is doing to and for me.

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I just completed her latest novel, Improvement, and it is a stunning work, full of subtlety and insight, conveying an understanding of how ordinary people struggle to make something of their lives. Politicians who want to connect with “real” Americans would have a better chance of doing so if they studied Silber’s work, beginning with Improvement.

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hen I was in graduate school and working on an early version of my first novel, Hawke’s Point, my thesis advisor asked me if I’d read Richard Russo. I hadn’t, but when he said my writing reminded him of Russo’s, I rushed out to get everything I could lay my hands on. The advisor’s comment was reinforced when a reviewer of Hawke’s Point also cited a similarity to Russo.

At first, I didn’t really see it.

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I should have seen it coming. There were hints, but I made light of them, and took just a few tentative steps to deflect them. It wasn’t enough, and my problem persists: Readers of my first novel, Hawke’s Point, wanted to know a lot more about Mary Louise. Or more specifically, they want to know how I knew so much about Mary Louise. The men even want her phone number, as though I have it on speed dial.

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In fact, the opening was so good I couldn’t stop and quickly reread Wharton’s wonderful classic.

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I’ve been to a lot of book club meetings in my day, but never one quite like this, never one where the stakes were so high. This wasn’t going to be a casual conversation about books with a group of friends; this was going to be a conversation with eight strangers about a book that meant everything to me: Hawke’s Point, my debut novel published in 2014. Was I nervous?  You bet.

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When I told my wife and some friends that I was finally going to take their advice and read one of Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache novels, they all told me the same thing: You must read them in order!  So of course I started with No 2, A Fatal Grace, and then turned to The Beautiful Mystery, which is No. 9. Well, I’m here to tell you that despite what everyone tells you, you can read Penny’s novels out of order and still live to sing their praises.

But unless you’re also the ornery type like me, why would you? You’ll be doing yourself a favor to follow directions and start at the beginning with Still Life.

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So, I’ve been reading Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. I like to keep up with the latest fads and, as President Trump pointed out not too long ago, Douglass “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more.”

Douglass is probably the most famous abolitionist of all time, and his work was widely recognized in the years before, during, and long after the Civil War, including by President Abraham Lincoln, whose response to Douglass’s criticism was to invite him to the White House to talk about their differences. Over time they developed a strong friendship and at least a partial reconciliation of their views. Lincoln listened, changed, and came to appreciate Douglass, and the feeling was mutual.

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