A Memorial Day Book List

30 May

I am finally back on the blog after a whirlwind week at BEA (and a few days of recovery), and I’ve got some recap posts coming soon. But as it’s Memorial Day (even though it’s very late on Memorial Day), I wanted to post in honor of the holiday. I spent the afternoon with my parents, and in case I haven’t said it before, my dad is recently retired from the military. He spent quite a lot of time in war zones over the years and, while this holiday is not as much about him – he’s not dead after all – I think it’s important to keep in mind that I easily could’ve been thinking of him on this day, rather than on Veteran’s Day in November, had a bullet or a bomb gotten him instead of someone else. (He’s got a good sense of humor about today though – as I said goodnight to him today, I said, Happy Memorial Day! Glad you’re not dead! and he replied, Glad I’m not dead too!).

That being said, my parents and I were discussing books about war in honor of my trip to BEA and the holiday and I thought I’d list a few of my favorites here. (My mom was horrified to discover that I’ve not read one of her favorite books, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, about WWI, a gap I’ll need to rectify). Obviously there are a lot of books about war in the world, but I’m including here my favorite books involving American soldiers and both nonfiction and fiction appear here.

  1. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Mari Remarque. I count this World War I novel, written from the point of view of a young German soldier, among my top five favorites of all time; the thing that most captured me about it was that, even though it was told from the side of the “enemy,” the experiences of individual soldiers were the same no matter what side they fought for. At once graphic and emotionally powerful, I read this for the first time early in my high school career and it’s never left me.
  2. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. I’ve reviewed this book on my blog, and I picked up a copy of Marlantes’ new nonfiction book, What It’s Like to Go to War, at BEA. Despite the weight of this Vietnam tome, it was a fast read and an honest and true account of the ironies of war.
  3. War by Sebastian Junger. This is one of those that I read last year and didn’t review (because I suck ;)). But it’s all the more poignant to include it on this list because Junger’s partner in writing this and filming the accompanying documentary, Restrepo, Tim Hetherington was killed in April covering the clashes in Libya. The book and film were strictly about documenting what life was like in Afghanistan’s deadliest war zone. They didn’t take sides and, in that way, created a microphone for the soldiers without inserting political commentary.
  4. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Again I reviewed this book earlier this year, and while it may not seem like it fits in with the rest of the books on this list, I included it because the events of the novel are structured completely and entirely on the events of the Civil War. One of those classics I’m happy to have read and enjoyed so thoroughly.
  5. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. One of O’Brien’s many books about the Vietnam war, this is the one that seems to be most well-known. It was originally published in bits and pieces, the chapters serving as standalone stories. The structure of the book is what I enjoy most about it: each chapter can be read as an individual story, or the collection can be taken as a novel with each narrative tying together with the rest of them to create a larger story and message.

Even though this is only a list of five, a few things strike me as I’m finishing this list. One: while there are two Vietnam books on the list, every other book is from a completely different conflict. Two: each of these books is not about the larger scale of the wars they depict; they are each about the individual people and soldiers that the war touches. No sprawling histories or breakdowns of the larger political decisions here. In my mind, the thing we should focus on most on Memorial Day is the soldiers, not the countries or the presidents or the dictators.

What books would you add to my list? Any World War II books I’m missing? How about Revolutionary War or even the Korean War? Are there even any novels about the Korean War?

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12 Responses to “A Memorial Day Book List”

  1. Kerry May 30, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    I just finished Johnny One-Eye, which is one of the only Revolutionary War books I’ve read recently (and it was good, too!). I do remember reading Soldier’s Heart years ago, which is also Rev War, though YA. And 1776 by David McCullough for non-fiction.

    For World War II, I really liked The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan (also non-fiction).

    I used to work for a military history company and found myself inundated with military books, but sadly didn’t get around to reading nearly as many as I’d hoped to.

  2. Anna May 31, 2011 at 3:35 am #

    You can tell your mom that I, too, am horrified that you haven’t read Johnny Got His Gun! πŸ˜‰ Definitely one of my favorites.

    Oh, and Catch-22! That’s a fantastic – and depressingly hilarious – WWII book for ya!

    • Rachel June 2, 2011 at 10:25 am #

      I will be sure to let her know :).

      I read Catch-22 in high school and I absolutely despised it! Hahaha. To each his own.

      But out of curiosity, would you classify Kavalier and Clay as a WWII novel?

      • Anna June 2, 2011 at 10:46 am #

        Nah, Kavalier and Clay is set during WWII, but its actions are so far removed from the war that I wouldn’t call it a “WWII book.”

        More of a WWII book is Slaughterhouse-5 (but I can’t remember if you’re a Vonnegut fan or not…).

        But really, try to read Johnny Got His Gun (preferably on an empty stomach – it’s grisly). It’s short and a pretty quick read and it really gives an interesting perspective on WWI and war in general.

        • Rachel June 2, 2011 at 10:53 am #

          I think you’ve been trying to turn me into a Vonnegut fan for years. I just keep putting off reading him. I’m picking up both Slaughterhouse 5 and Johnny Got His Gun this weekend :).

          • Anna June 2, 2011 at 11:19 am #

            Yup, that’d be me. I’m always trying to turn people into Vonnegut fans!
            Be careful, though, those two books in one weekend could push your cynicism off the charts!

  3. Jessica May 31, 2011 at 5:28 am #

    I have only just read All Quiet on the Western Front on holiday and I would put that in my top ten books ever easily. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks I would put in there, I know the first section is mostly some English guy bonking a married French women but the war parts and the aftermath are heartbreaking. Also I would put in In Memory of the Forest by Charles Powers. Its set in Poland in 1994 so not an obvious war book but its about the after effects of WWII on the second generation in Poland.

  4. Greg Zimmerman May 31, 2011 at 9:26 am #

    If you’ve got a spare month or two, Herman Wouk’s two books – Winds of War and War and Remembrance – do a really good job of chronicling WWII from the soldiers’ and their families’ perspectives. But they’re about 1,000 pages each. But they’re really good.

    And thanks for reminding me I still need to read Matterhorn.

  5. Colleen May 31, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    Great list!

    I recently read and reviewed You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon – it is a collection of short stories about families based in Fort Hood, TX. Some stories take place in Iraq and/or Afghanistan but most take place on base and chronicle the effects of war on that homefront. I posted my review in honor of Memorial Day – it seemed appropriate.

    • Rachel May 31, 2011 at 10:22 am #

      I’ve heard great things about Fallon’s book. I think it’s in my bookcases somewhere actually. I’ll definitely have to check it out. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Biblibio June 3, 2011 at 7:26 am #

    I find it interesting that the one book by a woman author is the one that deals least directly with the fighting in the war, but the numerous other issues. The war genre is often thought of as only including strictly combat books, but I think including something that does indeed steep itself in war (without actively fighting) is an inspired choice. Wonderful list.

  7. americanbookjunkie June 9, 2011 at 9:19 am #

    I recently read Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman–it’s long (WWI), but it’s good! Definitely put the whole war in perspective for me. And then, if you’re looking for something lighter and slightly less…factual…there’s Fall of Giants by Ken Follett πŸ™‚

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