Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.
Pericles, Funeral Oration ( delivered in Athens 2500 years ago and a source of inspiration for Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)
Memorial Day is almost over, and I’m finally getting to my Monday blog post — so this will be short. (I guess I should have written it ahead of time!) I’ve just returned from my son Charlie’s college graduation. He’s now on a cross-country road trip, starting in Ithaca, New York and ending in San Francisco. His first stop was Gettysburg, where he saw as much of the battlefield and monuments as he could until the sun set. To coin Lincoln’s phrase, it seems “altogether fitting and proper” that Charlie visited Gettysburg on the day that has been set aside to honor those who died while serving in our armed forces.
Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, is a modern classic. I have to admit I’ve never read it, but my husband (a true Civil War buff) says it’s well worth reading. My list of favorite war novels includes books about the Civil War, and World Wars I and II as well:
Corelli’s Mandolin (Louis deBernieres) There’s just a touch of magical realism in this lovely novel about a Greek island that’s occupied by the Italian army during World War II.
City of Thieves (David Benioff) During the siege of Leningrad, two Russians must carry out an impossible task — or face execution.
Restless (William Boyd) An English woman learns that her mother is a White Russian who was recruited by the British as a spy. From the New York Times: “Boyd has written a crackling spy thriller, but more than that, he has evoked the atmosphere of wartime espionage: the clubby, grubby moral accommodations, the paranoia . . .”
The Absolutist (John Boyne ) From Publishers Weekly: “In this relentlessly tragic yet beautifully crafted novel, Boyne documents the lives of two inseparable men navigating the trenches of WWI and the ramifications of a taboo involvement.”
Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks) A young Englishman falls in love with a married French woman during a business trip to France in 1910; they meet again, during World War I. I read this for the first time about 15 years ago, and have never forgotten the vivid scenes of trench warfare, or the love story.
The Widow of the South (Robert Hicks) Based on the true story of Carrie McGavock, who tended the graves of the 1,500 soldiers buried on her family’s land. We visited the actual site in Franklin, Tennessee last fall.
A Very Long Engagement (Sebastian Japrisot) A French woman who doesn’t believe her fiancé was killed in the First World War embarks on an investigation and discovers the corrupt system the French government used to deal with soldiers who tried to avoid combat.
Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) I don’t know how many times I read this book as a teenager, but my old paperback copy is falling apart. I can even remember the first sentence, without looking: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”
The Invisible Bridge (Julie Orringer) The best World War II novel I’ve read in the past few years. From the Chicago Tribune: “Set largely in Hungary, with Paris, the city of light, serving as a kind of Byzantium for several characters who spend hopeful, youthful years there in the opening chapters of the novel, The Invisible Bridge is a tale of war-torn lovers, family and survival of the luckiest rather than the fittest.”
The Caine Mutiny (Herman Wouk) An old favorite, The Caine Mutiny takes place on a Navy warship in the Pacific. I’ve loved all of Herman Wouk’s books — The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, and two wonderful (and unappreciated) coming-of-age stories — Marjorie Morningstar and City Boy. (No, they’re not war novels, but since I’m touting Herman Wouk I have to mention them!)
I’ve read very little fiction about the more recent wars. On my list are Matterhorn by Karl Marantes (Vietnam), The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Iraq), and Redeployment (Iraq and Afghanistan). I read Sparta by Roxana Robinson, about Conrad, a young veteran returning from Iraq who has difficulty readjusting to civilian life. Conrad is a classics major at Williams College from an upper-middle class (and decidedly unmilitary family) from suburban New York City. When he comes home suffering from PTSD, his family is too bewildered to offer any meaningful help. The book was insightful in many ways, but I couldn’t fathom the idea that a family like Conrad’s would abandon him to the bureaucracy of the VA.
Our next national holiday is July 4. I plan to read a contemporary war novel by then and let you know what I think. If you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.