War Novels

1/2 cup oats, 1/2 cup skim, dash of vanilla (I don’t know that the vanilla adds much flavor, but it’s fun to put in), small spoon of brown sugar, and many, many frozen berries.  Nuke for 2.5 minutes, and then add a spoon of peanut butter on top.

The food bloggers tell me the peanut butter is for protein, but I mostly like the way it melts and puddles over the entire bowl.  And yes, this oatmeal does keep me full for a good four hours.  I could likely run a triathlon on this oatmeal (given I had teammates to do the swimming and biking (Mom??)).

I’m eating said bowl of power oatmeal on our front porch, watching the heat creep up in shimmering waves.  It never did storm last night, despite my dramatics.

Both of my grandfathers served in WWII, but I don’t personally know anyone who has died serving their country.  I know I’m lucky in that regard, and this fine Memorial Day, I’m feeling extremely grateful to all of the American men and women who have served and lost their lives as a result.  Sitting legs crossed, oatmeal bowl propped against Mac, it’s hard for me to imagine ever doing anything that brave.  Mostly, I suppose I like to read about acts of heroism, real or fictional.

Here’s a list of war books I’ve read and enjoyed (as much as one can enjoy such a book):

1.  The Book Thief.  Friends, I don’t know that you’ve been lucky enough to listen to one of my rants concerning this book.  It’s easily the book I most often recommend to other people.  The force of my recommendations have even tended toward the creepy.  Think slipping a copy into someone’s house via cat flap.  It’s that good.  It’s about a girl who steals books against a Nazi Germany backdrop.  Simple enough, but when you consider that the book is narrated by death, and that the format of the book is perhaps one of the most unusual and most poignant you’ve ever come across, you realize that the magnitude of the story is much greater than you initially thought.  Ignore the fact that the book is shelved under “young adult.”  It should be shelved under “everyone.”

2. All Quiet on the Western Front.  This was one of the books we discussed in my “Atrocity and Modernism” literature class.  I took the class while studying abroad in Salzburg last fall.  It’s the story of a group of German friends who are pushed to war by their parents, and by their schoolteacher because war is viewed as a glorious, noble venture.  The young men quickly realize that the glories of war are far overshadowed by the traumas, by the tragedies, and by one’s inability to ever go back to one’s prewar life.  This book was gathered and burned in Nazi Germany for depicting war in a negative fashion.

3. The Red Badge of Courage.  I hated this book when I was forced to read it in 8th grade.  The only thing I liked was that we got to choose scenes to act out and film.  I remember staggering about the schoolyard, pretending to be a shot and delirious Jim: “No-no-don’t tech me-leave me be-leave me be.”  As 8th graders will, we seemed to have more bloopers than actual solemn footage in our video.  It was shocking, when, three years later, I was assigned the book in an American literature class.  It was devastating when, saturated in the newness of college, I was assigned the same old book my freshman year.  Admittedly, I grew to like it a little bit, mostly because the protagonist, Henry, is so darned relatable.  He’s stuttering, he’s scared, he’s desperate for glory but not brave enough to grasp it.  He thinks, in short, the way I’m sure many, many Civil War soldiers thought.

4. For Whom the Bell Tolls.  This is the first (and last, at this point) Hemingway I ever picked up of my own power.  It was a struggle at times, but it’s difficult, as much as I sometimes want to, to dislike Hemingway.  He has an economy of words that is truly admirable.  And what’s even more admirable, the story doesn’t suffer for lack of telling.  Placed during the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls depicts American dynamiter Robert Jordan’s quest to blow up an enemy bridge.

5. The English Patient.  I read this book long before seeing the movie, and although the two are entirely different in form, the basic feel is the same.  They are about a badly burned and dying man who is taken care of by a Canadian nurse in an Italian villa.  Also living in the villa is a mysterious thief who claims connection to the patient, and an Indian who’s job it is to defuse the hundreds of mines embedded in the surrounding countryside.  The story is a twisting series of flashbacks that reveal the characters’ roles on the Northern African World War II front.  It’s a lovely heartbreaking story, and for once, I think I can recommend both book and the film equally.

6. John Adams.  Another book I’ll recommend until I’m blue in the face.  Yes,  it’s technically a life-spanning biography, and not a war novel, but as John Adams played such a large role in the American Revolution (the instigation of, and the recovery from), and since so much of the book deals with said Revolution, I’m happily including it here.  Best biography I’ve ever read.  Hands down.  If you know who David McCullough is, I’m sure you know why: The extent of his research is enormous, and he arranges it masterfully so that the book reads not only as a chain of life-defining events, but as a thorough character study.  With this biography, I am converted; John Adams will forever remain my favorite Founding Father.  Because despite his  learning, his admirable sense of justice, and his ever-expanding ambition, Adams could be pompous, foolish, and stubborn.  He knew it, too.

7.  Gone With the Wind.  Everyone should read this at least once in their lives.  I think it’s expected that the novel is sentimental, telling of the terribly beautiful Scarlett O’Hara and her 1000-page-long pining for the married Ashley Wilkes (while all readers root for Rhett Butler instead).  What’s unexpected is how accurate a portrayal of the Civil War it is.  No history class I’ve ever taken has done better.  Battles are described in desperate fury, and even more memorably, the destruction of the South is depicted from a Southern point of view.

8.  Little Women.  I’ve read this book once a year since I was in third grade.  So I’m at about thirteen reads.  This is another novel that isn’t quite a war novel, but that concerns war enough for me to include it here. Little Women  is about four girls growing up during the Civil War: their struggles, their triumphs, their first dealings with wealth and love and adulthood.  Despite my thirteen readings, I seem to find some new bit of commentary every time I read through.

9.  Atonement.  I was really going to stop at 8, but then I remembered Atonement.  It’s about a lie told when one is a child, and how that lie comes to haunt people, and to impact their lives for years to come.  Written by the always good Ian McEwan, this book is on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Novels.  It deals with WWII, both the fighting and the nursing parts of it.  Warning: the ending will rip your heart out, but it’s very, very worth the read.

Aslan Reapproaching

I am afraid I may have forgotten what it’s like to be a reader.  I’ve forgotten, beginning with my transition to the freedom of college, what it’s like to stay up until the wee hours, submerged completely in a book.  I’ve forgotten about “the point of no return,” which I not-so-cleverly used to call that precipice you find yourself crouching on late at night, knowing  you can either turn back to the comfort of pillow and sleep, or plunge into the abyss, not to emerge until you’ve read the very last page.

Books were everything when I was younger.  There was little TV, few movies, and absolutely nothing more important than going to bed as early as possible, that I might read a few hundred pages before falling asleep.  I remember vividly the night when I, in my haste to hide my reading light from suspicious parents, pushed my lamp down on top of the stack of books on my nightstand.  A few seconds later, confident that Mom had retreated back down the hallway, I pulled the lamp back up, only to discover that the heat of the bulb had partially melted the protective plastic on the book’s cover.  The elementary school librarians never quite recovered from that incident.

Then there was 5th grade, when I actually got a check next to my name on Mrs. P’s behavioral chart for immersing myself too deeply in a book.  She was calling us up to her desk, one by one, to hand in an assignment.  I was reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  It was my favorite part, when Mr. Beaver says, in a curiously intriguing voice, “They say Aslan is on the move-perhaps has already landed.”  All of the sudden, my friend Jessica, sitting behind me, whacked me on the back, and I watched in confused horror as Mr. Beaver wavered and then retreated to a thin mirage in the corner of my consciousness. Mrs. P, despite Jessica’s rather violent warning, had reached my name on her list, looked up to see that I was too far gone to hear and respond, and simply skipped over me with quiet disapproval.  Now that I was aware, all I could do was watch helplessly as the H’s, and then the M’s and the N’s walked up to her desk, shooting me sympathetic glances as they went.  I stayed after the bell to talk to Mrs. P, clutching C.S. to my chest for courage.  She informed me that she had already marked the chart, and that I was up to two checks for the week.  One more and I would be staying in for recess.  And no, Mr. Lewis would not be joining me.

A little of the old Holly came back last night; I stayed up until one, poring over the last hundred pages of Gone With the Wind.  I felt like myself last night, burritoed into my covers, listening to the comforting sounds of the Beagle Next Door shuffling around in our bushes, and pressing my nose into the rough pages of the book whenever my eyes started to close.  I felt like the girl who stuck mozzarella cheese into Drew Steinert’s yogurt cup, and then dared him to chug it.  I felt like the girl who would inaugurate the deathly sledding hill in our backyard, even though it petrified me to do it.  I felt like the girl who used to spend hours locked in my room, acting out Little House on the Prairie with my American Girl Dolls.  I felt, for the first time in years, that if I could relive that scene in 5th grade, even now with my sophisticated twenty-one years of age, I would behave in exactly the same way.  After all, witnessing Aslan’s approach will always be more important than a great many things, recess included.