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Memorial Day Reads

Paul Fussell died in 2012. Many obituaries have been written, all worth reading (The Guardian’s here and the New York Times’ here).

I tend to read by subject. I’ll travel to France, say, and when I get home I’m reading Lunch in Paris, The Greater Journey and My Life in France. I get home from Turkey and suddenly I’ve got books about Turkey backing up on the Kindle app on my iPhone, Ataturk, Birds Without Wings, The Oracle of Stamboul, A Fez of the Heart.

So when I heard the news about Paul Fussell, I was transported instantly back to that year that I was reading about World War II. Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, and The Last Battle led me to Bill Mauldin’s The Brass Ring, everything by Ernie Pyle and Stilwell and the American Experience in China. (Reading really is the true perpetual motion machine.)

So today, I’m remembering Paul Fussell, who wrote about a different kind of war. The Guardian said it best:

The US writer Paul Fussell’s 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory was, according to the British military historian John Keegan, revolutionary. Fussell, in what he called “an elegaic commentary”, shaped a picture of the horrors of the first world war, and the cold stupidity of its leaders, made more trenchant by his own experiences in the second world war. He also used the writings of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and others to show how the romanticising of the war and its heroes provided the creative spark for modernism, and the sensibility of disillusion and distrust of authority that characterised the so-called “lost generation”.

(And of course after reading The Great War and Modern Memory I had to look up Rupert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, who led me to Wilfred Owen and Randall Jarrell. You want to talk about the glory of war? Go read Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner” first.)

I’m a huge Barbara Tuchman fan, but I read Fussell before I read Tuchman, and Fussell colored my view of World War I so strongly that Tuchman’s WWI books are my least favorites.

I remember particularly Fussell’s Thank God for the Atom Bomb. The title essay is the grunt’s eye view of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The title comes from a line from another book by another author, Goodbye, Darkness by William Manchester, another grunt’s eye view of the war in the Pacific.

Sacrifice takes on a different meaning for you, when you’re the sacrifice.

In a 1997 interview in The Atlantic , Fussell said

I had an abusive letter just yesterday that objected very much to my “lack of patriotism” and my willingness to traduce the United States. I don’t think I do that at all. I like the United States so much that I wish it would grow up.

Me, too.

Coffee Table Books for December 14

These are all (I hope) of the books mentioned on the air during Coffee Table this morning. For Christmas gifts for friends and family, as follows:

Tom likes Alcohol Can be a Gas by David Blume.

Amy likes The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Samantha loves her new cookbook, Fish Without a Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore.

Pam likes Diapering the Devil by Jay Hammond (So do I. If you want to know how and why you get a PFD every October, start here).

Mark likes Simple Food for the Good Life by Helen Nearing and is also reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the one about the Great Game, aka covert ops between Russia and China in the late 1800’s.

Mike made Bill Moyers’ The Conversation Continues sound like a must-read, and the perfect bedside book.

Caroline recommends local author Dottie Cline’s children’s book, Raven Paints the Birds, and the coffee table book Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds That Built Them by Sharon Beals, which she says is gorgeously photographed. I went and looked, and she’s not lying.

photo by Sharon Beals

Trish likes Mary H. Perry’s Onward Crispy Shoulders, and I must say she had me at the title.

Mike likes Alaska fiction, in this case Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kanter and 2182 Kilohertz by David Masiel.

Al recommends Charles Brower’s autobiography, Fifty Years Below Zero, another great title.

Dave likes John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar.

Host Aaron is reading The Hunger Games, and both he and engineer Terry read Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander at my instigation (she said proudly) and loved it.

More Terry picks:
A Voice in the Box, the autobiography of Bob Edwards, a voice you will recognize if you’re a long-time listener to NPR.
The Colorado Kid by Stephen King, a departure Terry says from King’s usual weird scary stuff.
A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester (big thumbs up from me here, too).
Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, and
The Thousand-Mile War by Brian Garfield, which Terry says he got from the list of Alaska history books at the end of Though Not Dead. Yay, somebody read it!

My recommendations:

The Chrysalids by John Brunner. Classic dystopian if-this-goes-on science fiction. Substitute global warming for a nuclear holocaust and it reads as prescient today as it did sixty years ago, and it has a couple of strong female characters that could be taken as models for Katniss Everdeen.

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker. A chief of police in rural France deals with wine, cheese, drug dealers and Nazis. A marvelously realized setting, terrific characters, an interesting plot that doesn’t cheat, and my new favorite crime fiction series.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. A sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with murder thrown in. Turns out Mr. Darcy was James’ model for Adam Dalgleish.

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by Christopher Hitchens. Irascible author and essayist gives Tom Paine’s manifesto a biography. Anything either guy writes is pure gold, Hitchen’s historical context is matchless, and it’s only 133 pages long.

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. Vividly detailed recreation of a woman, a place, and a time. I’d travel in time back to her Alexandria, so long as I’d had all my shots.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel. Harvard government professor explores the answers to questions like “What wounds deserve the Purple Heart?’ and “Did those A.I.G. executives deserve their bonuses?” Where headlines and philosophy meet. This would make a great book club book. I may choose it for mine.

Inside the Sky by William Langiewiesche. A collection of essays on flight and flying. Topics include what’s going on inside the tower, meteorology, storm flying (on purpose!), and the last chapter is a mesmerizing examination of the Valujet crash in Florida. The perfect gift for the pilot in your life, and let’s face it, what Alaskan doesn’t have at least one of those?

Oh, and a recommendation I made last year for Aaron’s mom: Great Maria by Cecelia Holland. A strong woman in medieval Italy goes after what she wants and gets it. Aaron’s mom, if your son forgets for the second year in a row, buy it for yourself, it’s a great read.