Here it is, three-quarters of the way into January, and I am just rolling up with my “Best Reads of 2018” list. Hypocrite that I am, I hounded (or at least politely invited) other military wives and female veterans to submit their lists, while slowly considering mine. I loved all the lists that came in–varied and fun, with some women echoing the same books in list after list–Tara Westover’s Educated, anyone?–in a way that was informative as to the trends and movements of the past year.
I was comforted by the suggestion that my belatedness may simply be a serial-blogger trait, for Jennifer Orth-Veillon of the WWI Centennial blog also, rather recently, sent me her own list. This encouraged me to write mine up now as well. So here we are, recommending!
In her typical fashion, Jennifer’s list is in-depth and thought-out, and I admire her for this personal quality that cannot be curbed even when someone asks for a “short list.” I’m sharing hers here now, finally, and mine as well, and then I think we can officially send everyone off on a Happy New Year of enjoyable and varied reading.
JENNIFER ORTH-VEILLON‘s Most-Recommended Books of 2018:
1. The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason. Before the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Vienna was home to the world’s most dazzling intellectual and cultural circles. Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Leon Trotsky, and Theodor Herzl rubbed elbows at smoky cafés during the day.Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, and Gustav Klimt might have been found together watching waltzes at evening parties held in opulent houses. Adolf Hitler, an aspiring painter, lingered bitterly at this society’s edge. Austrian author Karl Kraus, in his obituary for the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, described the country as the “laboratory for the Apocalypse.” Into this world was born the precocious, awkward Lucius who couldn’t have been less interested in society, art, or politics. Breaking free from his rich, influential family’s obsession with status and tradition, Lucius went to medical school where, before he gets a chance to put his hands on patients, joins the military and is sent to a rural Carpathian village to serve as a “doctor” to Empire soldiers fighting the Russians. He leaves, believing that his family will finally embrace him as a glorious war hero, but when he arrives the village, Lemnowice, he realizes he has no idea what to do with the wounded patients who have been abandoned in a falling-down church in sub-zero temperatures. His guide, a rifle-bearing nun, Margaret, teaches him how to operate, amputate, and prevent lice infestation. Together, they make a formidable medical team working in unimaginable conditions. When they begin treating Horvath, an amputee for what will become known as “shell shock” and PTSD by analyzing his drawings, the nun and unofficial doctor fall in love. The Winter Soldier gives readers an unflinching look at medicine in wartime as it delves with virtuosity into the details of sucking chest wounds and gangrene. Mason, who is a psychiatry professor at Stanford, also sheds light on the first discovery, acknowledgment, and treatment of the invisible wounds of the psychic trauma from war. From catastrophe and hardship rises a riveting story full of suspense, beauty, and heartbreak.
Listen to NPR’s great interview with Daniel Mason for more about The Winter Soldier here.
2. Transcription by Kate Atkinson. Like Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel, Warlight, Transcription by Kate Atkinson takes on the murky underbelly of England’s WWII-era spy network. Julie Armstrong is an aimless young woman at the outbreak of war and is lured into joining M15, the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency. Her main task is to transcribe conversations held in an M15-bugged apartment that serves a meeting place for enemy affiliates. Her first major physical assignment is to pass as an anti-Semitic German sympathizer to infiltrate a group that wants to aid Hitler in bringing down European Jews. She succeeds and moves on to other assignments, which involve murder and bloodshed. When the war is over, the ghosts – real and imagined –haunt her present life working in a TV production studio. She dates, goes to parties, and seems to enjoy her life as a young single professional woman with the exception that she is always expecting someone to come and take revenge for her wartime work, someone to “finish her off.” Some critics have compared Atkinson’s work to Alice in Wonderland and rightfully so; the first chapters take us down a rabbit hole as they vacillate achronologically through five decades. At times, the reading gets frustrating as characters and plotlines just seem to just…go away unfinished only to surface again in the most improbably places. However, this feels more like technique than disorganization. As anyone who has read a good espionage novel knows, spies live their lives in shadows instead of sunlight. When the light gets too bright and shade goes away, they have to choice disappear in all of their contours and forms.
3. The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy. Another WWII book, this time set in wartime Holland. A young boy, Jacob Koopman, from a prosperous, seemingly happy family loses his brother in the great flooding of Rotterdam, which was unsuccessfully implemented to prevent the Nazis from taking over the important port. Shattered by the loss, he begins to help his Uncle Martin, a member of the Dutch Resistance, carry out violent missions on the Netherlands’ complicated network of waterways. He becomes jaded when he loses his mother in an Allied raid on their town and joins the German Navy. An expert boat handler, he becomes the Nazi’s star submarine maneuver when he blows up a British ship carrying thousands of men and becomes subsumed by guilt. While he is receiving his highest-order medal for the operation, his uncle comes to see him under the guise of a Nazi and helps him escape. In a harrowing trek across Germany back to the Netherlands during which almost dies several times, he witnesses the horrors of Hitler’s Genocide. Like Mason’sThe Winter Soldier, The Boat Runner spares no detail as he describes the violent scenes of war. The book carries a strong moral message, but it has enough grit to make it a riveting tale about war crimes and the impossibility of redemption.
Jennifer Orth-Veillon holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Emory University and curates the WWrite blog from the perspective of a writer, scholar, teacher, and French-English translator specializing in the literature of war and the experience of the American veteran. She has led writing workshops for veterans on university campuses and has taught over twenty courses on different modes and mediums for war veteran memoirs. For two summers she served as a teaching assistant to Dr. Mark Facknitz’s James Madison University’s summer abroad program on the Great War and modern memory, which took place at various WWI memorial sites in France, Belgium, and England. In her writing and research, she seeks to understand the complexity of war through its shifting place in cultural memory and history.
Andria here again. Hello. Well, a huge amount of my reading time this year has revolved around my son’s fifth-grade Battle of the Books team. I am one of the two parent coaches, along with a mom named Miss Hester. I am envious of her literary name. Anyway, Miss Hester and I, along with the TAG teacher and twelve fifth graders, have been reading 40 (forty!) classic YA novels and we spend Friday afternoons discussing the books and quizzing each other. It is delightful. We will take it to the mat against other fifth-grade teams from throughout the region at Colorado College in April.
I have been impressed to see the range of (often very serious) topics these books cover and the way these 10 and 11-year-olds process them. Also, just seeing these kids read forty books on their own time outside of school is pretty inspiring. (The school loans out all of the books, so cost is not an issue.) We have read a novel set during Hurricane Katrina. Books that deal with alcoholic parents (yikes!). Books about the Civil Rights Movement. Native American cultures. Slavery. Girls living under the Taliban.
I was excited to discover that the novel Fish in a Tree features a main character who’s a military brat and who has managed to hide her severe dyslexia because of changing seven schools in nearly as many years.
Some discoveries: Fifth graders are very goofy but can be quite serious about books. Fifth grade boys look like tiny babies compared to the girls. Bridge to Terabithia is every bit as phenomenal a novel as it was when I was in fifth grade and Where the Red Fern Grows is still gonna make you cry like a baby.
Alright! On to grownup books: I don’t think I can hold a candle to Jennifer here, but in any case, here were some of my best reads and listens of 2018:
- The Russians.
This is not meant to sound in any way pretentious. I wanted to try to recapture my early love of big Russian novels this year (Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, and a new addition, novels and stories by Turgenev–I liked Fathers and Sons very much), and so far it has been working great, although it may be more of a five-year project. I’m very much looking forward to reading some critical studies of these novels once I’m finished, but I’m making myself simply absorb the work first (especially enjoying all of the often-very-funny character studies) as a sort of odd backwards motivation. (One of my favorite insults from Karamazov is when one character refers to Alyosha as what my version translated as, “a little religious weirdo.”)
Karamazov has been my favorite so far, which surprised me (I was sure I’d love Anna Karenina best again), but it’s so intense and spiritual and grief-filled a book–composed in very large part of people having arguments with each other–that I’ve really enjoyed it, switching back and forth between the audio version and the written. (Learning that I could speed up the reader’s pace on Audible has also been a boon for me.) Even though I’m keeping myself from any critical commentary until I finish, I did remember that Dostoyevsky wrote it, in isolation, after the death of his beloved three-year-old son, and so a scene where Alyosha watches Elder Zosima interact with a woman who has recently lost her child was quite devastating to read, but so beautiful for its still-raw feel and its sheer compassion. The mother is distraught. She’s left home and traveled three months on foot to get to Zosima, whose powers of healing are legendary.
I can’t forget him. As if he’s standing right in front of me and won’t go away. My soul is wasted over him. I look at his clothes, at his little shirt or his little boots, and start howling. I lay out all that he left behind, all his things, and look at them and howl….If only I could just have one more look at him, if I could see him one more time, I wouldn’t even go up to him, I wouldn’t speak, I’d hide in a corner, only to see him for one little minute, to hear him the way he used to play in the backyard and come in and shout in his little voice: ‘Mama, where are you?’
[aw crap, now I’m all teared up again]
But here is the beautiful part; Zosima tells her, “This is the lot that befalls you mothers, on earth. And do not be comforted, you should not be comforted, do not be comforted, but weep.”
Do not be comforted, but weep. Though much editing surely took place later, it is like reading Dostoyevsky working through his grief in real-time. The bitterness of the passage feels so human. It’s such an extraordinary book.
2. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (audio book)
Yes, you’re saying, what other new gems have you discovered for us, Andria, with your finger on the pulse this way? I guess I spent a lot of time trying to catch up on reading I felt I should have done long ago! In any case, I want to read Smith’s Feel Free but felt that I should read White Teeth first, and so that’s where I started.
Actually, I’m recommending this mainly because I am listening to the audio book version and it is absolutely the funniest thing I have listened to in a long time. If you need a listen that will make you laugh out loud every single session, this is the one. I drive all around town in my dirt-streaked van just chuckling away. The voice actors– Lenny Henry, Ray Panthaki, Pippa Bennet-Warner, and Arya Sagar– are incredibly talented and their delivery is superb. Hearing Pippa Bennet-Warner lower her voice into the dispassionate shrug of teenage Millat Iqbal or the creepily cerebral and self-amused Marcus Chalfen is really a delight.
Sometimes I long for a little more actual connection between the characters, but the novel is so funny it’s hard to mind.
Some of my favorite lines:
— “Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”
— “That girl,’ tutted Alsana as her front door slammed, ‘swallowed an encyclopedia and a gutter at the same time.’”
–“He had an absolute empathy for everybody, Magid. And it was an unbelievable pain in the arse.”
–“Girls either wanted him or wanted to improve him, but most often a combination of the two. They wanted to improve him until he justified the amount they wanted him.”
In any case, it’s an intelligent book that’s been an enjoyable diversion during a year that has often made me want to stand on street corners like its character Mad Mary and shout at complete strangers: “WHAT’S DE SOLUTION?”
3. Other favorite reads:
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (young Irish immigrant and his partner who fight in the Indian Wars and American Civil War; written entirely in the first-person with no changes in POV and in a very conversational, casual style). I liked this one enough to buy it for two people for Christmas.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Spoils by Brian Van Reet
Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy (terrific, gripping, sometimes very wry and hilarious, a hostage story that’s a little reminiscent of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto or even Francisco Goldman’s The Ordinary Seaman)
Those were my favorites.
It’s almost February. Happy New Year!
P.S. Personal Goals/Resolutions for 2019:
- Finish my novel.
- Make better use of daily writing time and don’t squander it by coming home and playing son’s drum set all morning. (This is, paradoxically, at odds with resolution number three,
- Get better at playing the drums.)
- Play trombone well enough to perform in the annual “Trombone Christmas” at the mall, with Nora.
I’m trying to keep these achievable, although #1 may actually be the death of me.