My posts during April form part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. I will be writing to a theme: book genres, largely taken from the comprehensive Goodreads list.
As someone who seeks to avoid violence on page or screen, I have read a lot of books about war. On reflection, with the sole exception of "Red Storm Rising", they've been books about people who have been affected by/involved in war.
I've previously acknowledged that my main interest is reading about people, how they behave and interact with one another. The background against which you place their stories could be considered as adding colour, but extreme situations, like war, provides an opportunity to view people when challenged in the most visceral manner.
There has been some form of armed conflict going on throughout most of my life, and that's before I consider the two world wars which affected my parents' and grandparents' generations. I spent my childhood in countries which were suffering from either civil unrest or civil war. I was never in a war zone - but I know how even this limited experience impacted on me and perhaps this is what's drawn me.
I cannot avoid sounding obvious and trite here, but war changes people. In Kevin Powers "The Yellow Birds" we read a first person account of a young man going to war. Of the close friendship he develops and the promise he is forced to give to his friend's family to keep him safe. We hear about the crushing boredom of war, the dehumanising of the enemy, alongside the unimaginable horror that we ask young soldiers to face and participate in. This tale of war's crushing impact on two young American men fighting in Iraq was some of the most powerful and painful reading I have ever experienced.
Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy did the same for British young men in the First World War. The first book, based in a hospital treating soldiers suffering from shell shock is harrowing in its description of electric shock therapy (ECT). But probably equally shocking to current generations is the knowledge that the type of treatment provided was almost entirely dependent upon each soldier's social class. Talking therapy was only available to the posh boys, the officer class - it was straight to ECT for the enlisted men.
Even in Stephen Ambrose's jingoistic book "Band of Brothers" you learn - very quietly - of the treatment newbies receive when they join our heroes, Easy Company. The veterens, the ones who've survived, don't want to befriend them ... because it hurts too much when you watch your friends die. By the way, don't let the book put you off the mini-series which is some of the best television I have ever seen in my life.
But what about just war? How do you make describing it interesting, not dull. Descriptive but not gory. How do you make it a worthwhile read and not a straightforward recitation of facts? I read "Red Storm Rising" some thirty years ago, but a copy is still on my bookshelves. I remember nothing of the characters, what I do recall is the build-up and the process of going to war. What it involves in terms of moving men and machinery. The practicalities of the endeavour. I began to see why tactics - and the study of historical battles - were so vital. Unsurprising, perhaps, as Tom Clancy started out writing war games.
I read "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" when everyone was recommending it and struggled to understand all the hype. In particular, the sections describing the fighting, I found utterly turgid. Many reviewers have suggested that de Bernieres wanted us to experience how bogged down the fighters felt in the physical conditions, but I just struggled to stay awake. McEwen - by contrast - wrote of the withdrawal and then evacuation at Dunkirk in "Atonement" in the most gorgeous prose. He wasn't painting a pretty picture - far from it - but the scene was vivid and brought alive in a way I never felt about Corelli.
There were so many other books I'd could've selected for this post, something I feel is a sad reflection on the state of our world. No wonder the creating of other worlds in fantasy and science-fiction has proven so popular.
Is war a subject you avoid when you read a synopsis of a book? Or do you feel that its a subject that has to be read in order to learn?