I don’t know if it happened before or after September 11. It might have been last year when Ed got home from the Fire Academy that’s located so close to Gettysburg. Or did it start exactly a year ago when Samantha and I attended the annual Memorial Day event at Eternal Valley? Or maybe it simply just falls under the category everything else has these days: old age. And with everything else that means an appreciation of history is on the top of my list.
The first thing I started reading was the periodical entitled, Civil War Times Illustrated. My smart nephew Alex L. was selling me several magazines for his school and, as it turned out months later, this was the only one I am still looking forward to receiving. Biographical stories about Generals and Presidents accompanied by news clippings, memoirs, letters and pictorials account for 90% of the text while the remaining 10% or so is dedicated to announcements for sight seeing trips and advertisements for memorabilia. It’s definitely more interesting in the restroom facilities than the usual year-old People magazine taken from the office “recyclable” pile.
The best book I read last year was a national bestseller a few years back, Sebastian Faulks’, Birdsong. It was the first book I can remember reading that gave such a mind-numbing yet beautiful account of World War I tunnelers. Starting with a love story the book is much in the vein of other romantic novels but swiftly turns to the war for the majority of it’s story and finishing with present day. And although it did finish there I had an impossible time not visualizing the fearsome accounts from the tunnelers while dismissing the love story. It wasn’t frightening or bathed in overwhelming blood shed. It was interesting. Which meant it wasn’t what I expected and led me to want more.
As is my habit I was reading something else at the same time that I would have to say I only forced myself to complete because I adored the film. That book was Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Only the most patient of reader that needs symbolism and metaphors above all reality may enjoy this one. If you are still interested, or disagree with me, stop by any of our local libraries and you will undoubtedly find at least one copy, collecting dust, for a buck donation. I’d have to say that the cover is very attractive.
The next book I read was almost the complete opposite. That book was Louis De Bernieres, Corelli’s Mandolin. Another national bestseller from the early 90’s the release of the film, and my mother with the master’s in English Literature recommendation, was enough for me to pick it up. Telling of the Italian occupation of a Greek island during World War II it also begins rather romantically. In fact my only disappointment in the book was that it was more about the romance between the two main characters than it was for some of the other, equally if not more charismatic, war-torn characters. I’ve heard that the film’s rendition is tiresome but since I loved this book, and Nicolas Cage, I can’t help myself but feel I have to rent it and give it a shot as well. It’s collecting dust at Video Depot.
Now that pretty much brings us up-to-date. I told my mom that I was interested in further accounts of different wars. She gave me the Vietnam story, Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. I have just recently begun the former. Crazy Cacciato is walking from Saigon to Paris, some 8600 miles, in either an attempt to go AWOL or (re) gain his sanity. So far it’s written in pretty tight, crisp sentences. I can feel the rain and the wet socks and the blisters and the leech on my tongue. It was originally published in 1975 and won the National Book Award. The latter was published in 1948 and the dust jacket promises that Norman Mailer is the “best writer in America” and “for sustained terror and accurate translation of complete physical exhaustion, this has no parallel in American literature”.
I’m embarrassed to admit that even though I felt that I knew a lot about literature this genre had never interested me before. They were “boy” books. Not for the faint of heart. Not what I wanted to think about. A snippet about the war in the background of my Amy Tan novel was enough. I would read a classic love story along with a modern. A Russian novelist along with a biography. A murder mystery along with a suspense. But never before had I picked up a war novel. And another first is reading it along with another war novel. You learn something new every day right? Especially when you start reading a little history.