The Wars in the World of Literature

With tomorrow being America’s Memorial Day, I want to mention some of the most memorable novels set in wartime.

Many of those books show the awfulness of war, while some glorify it. A good number of fictional works focus on the people doing the fighting; others focus on civilians and how they’re affected — whether those civilians are in/near the carnage or far away on the home front. Some wartime novels are written by military veterans and might even be semi-autobiographical, while others are by writers who get their battle “experience” via research. Many wartime books are of course dramatic, visceral, and heartbreaking — and sometimes darkly humorous.

One great novelist who turned to wartime scenarios again and again was Erich Maria Remarque. His World War I-focused All Quiet on the Western Front is justly famous, but Remarque also authored several exquisitely written WWII-set novels that pack an immense emotional wallop — including Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

Then there was Remarque’s Nazi-concentration-camp-placed Spark of Life — one of a number of novels, such as William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, with a Holocaust theme.

Other compelling wartime novels include (to name a few) Elsa Morante’s History, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare, and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific (all WWII); Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (Spanish Civil War); L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside and Willa Cather’s One of Ours (WWI); Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Geraldine Brooks’ March, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (America’s Civil War); Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Napoleon’s invasion of Russia); and Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality (Scotland’s 1679 Battle of Bothwell Bridge).

As one can see from the above paragraph, plenty of women have written riveting wartime novels.

Then there’s fiction that includes main or supporting characters dealing with war-caused physical injuries, post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, and more. Among those novels are Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, and M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.

Which war-related novels have you found most memorable?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

53 thoughts on “The Wars in the World of Literature

  1. Being a reader who has never been interested in reading stories and novels about war, there is one book that a cherished high school English teacher turned me to that totally changed my views. That novel is “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, an author who is now in my top ten favorites. The novel is so genuine and covers a lot of things that someone who didn’t know much about World War II like myself would not even think was a factor in being a soldier in this setting. I’d love to hear your opinion on the novel if you;d read it, Dave!

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    • Thank you, burningrose!

      I haven’t read “The Things They Carried,” but now that you and Shallow Reflections (in an earlier comment) mentioned it, I will look for it during a future library trip. Your description of it was excellent and intriguing! And great that a teacher you had recommended it!

      Just the thought of novels about war is off-putting, but, as you know, the best books on that topic can be compelling and inspiring (along with depressing).

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  2. Our 11th-grade class just finished up “A Separate Peace”, where the Second World War plays an important backdrop for the central story of private high school adolescents–one the most athletic student; the other, new and naive. And while not front and center, the war permeates every chapter and diffuses through the text to give it its visceral emotion.

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      • Great to hear from you, Eric, and thanks for taking the time to comment! I know you have an extremely busy schedule teaching abroad.

        I’ve heard very good things about John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” Glad you mentioned it, and it seems like a novel that 11th-graders can really relate to.

        Excellent question in your second comment. I have a feeling that quite a few novels use war as a backdrop without depicting things on the front lines. For instance, if I’m remembering right, L.M. Montgomery’s “Rilla of Ingleside” focuses almost 100% on the home front in Canada while a major character is in Europe fighting during World War I. Yet that terrific novel in no way sanitizes the awful effects of war.

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          • Interesting, Eric. I can’t think of anything in “Rilla of Ingleside” that would cause it to be censored. Maybe because it’s a YA novel that’s basically antiwar and includes the death of a beloved character? Of course, a lot of modern YA books take on heavy topics, but L.M. Montgomery’s novel is from many decades ago.

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  3. Hi Dave,
    I enjoyed Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, an early (1923) anti-war satirical novel from the then Czechoslovakia set in WWI. It is very funny, and the character Švejk can be seen across Eastern and Central Europe, as he’s been the inspiration for many bars. The word Švejk is also used in the Czech Republic as a verb “to Švejk” to indicate behavior similar to Švejk’s, who arguably used enthusiastic but badly executed acquiescence to defy authority. The question for some is whether he was cunning or a genuine idiot that incidentally subverted authority.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, damoneramone!

      I’ve heard great things about that book, and your excellent description would make anyone want to read it! Satirical antiwar novels (“Catch-22,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” etc.) can be hilariously effective — as can protagonists who passively-aggressively defy not-deserving-of-respect authority.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dave,

    I’ll apologise in advance for the length of this comment, however your topic made me think of so many books. In fact, it seems that most books seem to mention at least one war or another. Including the Barbara Vine novel that I’m currently reading which has the main characters being inconvenienced by WWII.

    I thought of both “Gone with the Wind” and “Catch-22”. Both brilliant in very different ways.

    John Jakes’ epic “Kent Family Chronicles” spans more than 100 years of America’s early history, and covers the War of Independence, the Civil War, and battles with both the Indians and the Mexicans. It’s an entertaining blend of history and fiction.

    Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong” is kind of wayward and rambling in places, however his description of the WWI trenches and mines is so harrowing and claustrophobic that it will stay with you for a while.

    Similar to “Gone with the Wind”, in Louis de Bernieres’ beautiful “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, WWII seems to happen around the characters, rather than to them.

    Alan Moorehead’s “Gallipoli” is a non-fiction look at WWI in general, and the Gallipoli landing in particular. It tells the story both from a soldier point of view, and from the people in charge, making the decisions that would cost so many lives.

    Lastly, this week’s title is obviously taken from the HG Wells novel which we’ve discussed over the weekend. Thankfully, the “War of the Worlds” isn’t a real war, but it was terrifying nonetheless. And even more scary that we didn’t really win. We just got lucky!

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    • Thank you, Sue!

      Yes, as you observantly note, the title of this blog came from the H.G. Wells novel — I guess my only reference to one of the many fictional wars in literature (The Battle of Hogwarts in “Harry Potter,” the epic battles in “The Lord of the Rings,” etc.).

      As you note, there are certainly plenty of real wars depicted in novels. “Kent Family Chronicles” seems to cover several of those wars in of itself!

      And thanks for mentioning and describing several other books! I especially want to get to “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” in the not-too-distant future.

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      • Yes, fictional wars can be fun. “A Song of Ice and Fire” comes to mind. Martin has been terrific at creating this big, varied world, with a long violent history. I’m not sure why so many people are fighting to rule over parts of this world, but I’m glad that they are, because it makes for some enthralling reading.

        I can’t wait to hear what you think of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • From what I’ve heard from you and others, George R.R. Martin depicts violence quite vividly. He and Cormac McCarthy (“Blood Meridian,” “No Country for Old Men,” etc.) could have quite a discussion about that.

          Will hope my local library has “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” If not, a music store… But, seriously, I look forward to discussing it after I read it!

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          • I’ve only read the one McCarthy (“The Road”) and it was vivid and graphic, but had a very different violence to “ASOIAF”. I’m looking forward to getting to the other McCarthy novels and will let you know how they compare. Martin has a style of violence that doesn’t seem real. I don’t feel like I care about it, at least not with any depth. I don’t often say this, but the adaptation is even better than the books. During last season, one of the bad guys was killed so horribly, and I was cheering at my TV like it was a football match. I can’t imagine doing that with Cormac’s characters.

            I would LOVE to hear that you found Captain Corelli’s mandolin in a music store!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Sounds like Martin’s violence is more cartoonish in a way? McCarthy’s mayhem can feel sickeningly realistic and quite 21st-, 20th-, or 19th-century American. And it’s interesting when a screen adaptation might be better than the book(s). It does happen! And Martin (I think) is involved in writing the TV series? If so, then he’s one-upping himself. 🙂

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              • Sue, I was just at the library looking for several war-related books mentioned by various commenters this week. The only one I found was…”Corelli’s Mandolin”!

                Now third in my reading queue — after two books I’ve had for a number of weeks that I haven’t had a chance to get to yet.

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              • Dave, if I’ve given the impression that Martin’s violence is cartoonish, then I’ve done him a great disservice. It’s not that the violence isn’t serious, it just lacks the intimacy that other writers (like McCarthy) create. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s a fantastical world, with a lot of fantastical things going on. Everything in those books feels like it’s happening to someone else, and therefore you don’t empathise, or ‘feel’ the violence. And then you can cheer when horrible things happen. But no, not funny or cartoonish at all. I feel bad that I’ve made it sound like that, and hope that my clarification hasn’t made it worse. I believe that Martin was involved in parts of the series. It’s one of his excuses for not finishing the books. But the series has deviated so far from the books that I’m not sure how much involvement he still has.

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                • “Cartoonish” was totally my misinformed concept; nothing to do with what you said, Sue. Heck, I need to read the book(s) in question before having a tentative opinion like that. 🙂

                  Great comment!

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    • Thank you, Shallow Reflections!

      I haven’t read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but it’s now on my list. (I also just looked up that John Boyne novel on Wikipedia.) It does sound really compelling.

      It’s definitely almost a necessity for a war novel to be told through the lens of one or of a small number of characters. It of course humanizes/personalizes things and gives readers a focus, which is better than a book just being a blur of battles and nameless soldiers.

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  5. Hi Dave, this is quite a good topic for this Memorial Day, but it’s hard for me as yet to come up with any books other than those you and others have mentioned (obviously, “War and Peace,” one of my favorite novels.) However, I think I mentioned a few years ago on your blog about Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer.” The small paperback book I have includes drawings by John Groth. Twain was asked if he was going to publish it, because his daughter and a few others said not to because it would be considered as sacrilege. His reply was: “No. I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead.”

    Both my father and eldest brother were Civil War buffs, something I became as well. We lived not all that far from Gettysburg, so I’ve been there often, and it never fails to leave me in tears every time when thinking about the loss of lives on both sides. I took a course in The Civil War at UT at Austin, where I was the only Yankee in the class. We had to read six books from a list given out by the professor and write a book report on them all. They were all nonfiction, but the one I loved most was “Mary Chesnut’s A Diary from Dixie,” which read like a novel and gave me a perspective on how the War (and slavery) looked like from the Confederate side, especially by the wife of one of the most highly placed politicians under Jefferson Davis.

    Favorite war movies include those about The Civil War: “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals,” and “Glory;” WW1: “All Quiet on the Western Front;” and WWII: “The Longest Day” and “A Bridge Too Far.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lib!

      A very perceptive quote by Mark Twain (who had many perceptive quotes). In his later years, Twain definitely wrote some scathing stuff (antiwar, etc.) that didn’t get widely seen, or get published at all. But even his popular “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” contained incredible antiwar satire (though the Bing Crosby movie unfortunately sanitized that novel).

      I was also a Civil War buff as a kid, too dumb at the time to be totally aware of the massive carnage of that war. But, unlike many of the wars the U.S. has been involved in since, eradicating slavery was a just cause. (Of course, slavery was replaced by Jim Crow, lynching, the imprisonment of a horrendously disproportionate share of African-Americans, and so on.)

      Yes, many memorable war movies over the decades. In the fantasy realm of made-up wars, the (partly computer-created) battle scenes in “The Lord of the Rings” films were jaw-dropping.

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      • Dave, I wonder if kids today can tell the difference between CGI violence and the reality of war. I hope so. I’ve been fortunate (?) enough to have grown up and lived in areas that our country experienced warfare — not just Gettysburg, but Manassas, VA, and Stone Mountain, GA. Louise and I went to a diorama at Stone Mountain, that was so pro-Confederate and anti-Sherman, that we laughed (sorry to say) during the whole thing. I’ve now lived for many years in an area that was engaged in the Revolutionary War: Valley Forge National Park, Washington’s Crossing, and even the Battle at Brandywine, just down the road from me, that occurred on 9/11/1777.

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        • Kat Lib, I imagine most kids know the difference between CGI war and real war on an intellectual level (certainly my 9-year-old daughter and her friends do), yet subconsciously there must be some desensitizing going on when movie watchers see computer-generated carnage.

          You’ve definitely lived near reminders of the reality of war. (Including an earlier 9/11!) And pro-Confederate stuff is always so dismaying. People who favor that of course argue it’s history and heritage and blah blah blah but it really is all about racism, white supremacy, and white “resentment.”

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          • I’ve found myself musing about war a lot lately, perhaps because I fear we’re heading for one that will hit us much closer to home than the ones we’re still (!) involved in the Middle East. Trump seems to have backed off his isolationist campaign rhetoric to embrace sending even more troops into Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see us engaged with North Korea any day now. I bought the epic documentary Ken Burns produced on The Civil War, and was unable to watch it all the way through, because the images were so disturbing. I definitely found it easier to read somewhat dry history books about that war, as well as many others — obviously if one is a history major there’s really no way to avoid the subject (this is by the way a sad commentary on humanity). I also seem to be in one of those reading gaps that we discussed in last week’s column. I’ve starting reading several books recently and have set them aside for no apparent reason.

            On a more positive note, I’ve been working on the mini-travelogue of my European trip in 1969. I also just received a coloring book of paintings from the Museo del Prado, which features some of the works of Goya, El Greco and Valesquez, my favorite museum I’ve ever been to. It’s somewhat of a stress reliever, as well as giving me some creativity in the colors I choose to use, which often don’t look anything like what the artist had in mind! 🙂

            Sorry if this comment is a little disjointed. My ability to concentrate is about nil right now, but I still can enjoy my correspondence with or phone calls with old and new friends, my yard with all the big trees, the many birds that come around (I’m still waiting on the hummingbirds), and of course my dog and cat.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thanks for your comment, Kat Lib!

              Yes, Trump’s fake antiwar words of his campaign seem to have gone by the wayside. 😦

              Images of war are indeed highly disturbing, and so much of the worst stuff is undoubtedly censored by the government and the mainstream media. Reminds me of the “Johnny Got His Gun” novel in which the hideously maimed-by-war protagonist wants to be displayed to show people the horrors of war, but “the powers that be” don’t allow it. It would be too honest and effective — and harm political ambitions and arms manufacturers’ blood-drenched profits.

              Good luck with the mini-travelogue of your 1969 Europe trip, and I’ve heard adult coloring books can be fun and stress-relieving. Never tried one, but I know a cartoonist (via Facebook) who has created one.

              Nature, friends, and animal companions do help at a time like this — a time that seems to get ever worse. Earlier this afternoon, I saw on my FB news feed that Trump might have decided to pull the U.S. out of the worldwide climate accord. If so, absolute insanity.

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              • Yes, along with the birth control mandate, the opening of relations with Cuba, and anything having to do with the Obamacare. He’s on a mission to change everything Obama accomplished during his 8 years. Not to mention the good relations with Germany, and our other G-7 nations. Absolutely despicable!

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                • You’re right, Kat Lib — it’s like Trump and other far-right Republicans want to erase Obama from the history books. Heck, Obama isn’t even that liberal — more a centrist. But he’s a Democrat, and a person of color — both unforgivable “traits” to the evil GOP crowd.

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  6. Howdy, Dave!

    — Which war-related novels have you found most memorable? —

    Ralph Waldo Emerson bigly and wisely averred in “Self-Reliance” that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, which has given me all the license I need to rank the nonviolent Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as the most memorable politician in the world of fact and Henryk Sienkiewicz’s violent “Trilogy” — “With Fire and Sword,” “The Deluge” and “Fire in the Steppe” — as the most memorable novels in the world of fiction. (This apparent contradiction intracranially has been aided and abetted by the concept of doublethink explored by George Orwell in his very memorable war-related “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”)

    And as I indicated in conjunction with your “Top-Ten Time! (Our Favorite Novels)” blog post a couple of months ago, I also am a big fan of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which both Kira and you already have mentioned this week.

    Meanwhile, I won’t say anything about the apparently unhistorical wars at the center of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series (“Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire,” “Second Foundation,” “Foundation’s Edge” and three other books I have not yet read); Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series (“Dune,” “Dune Messiah,” “Children of Dune” and three other books I have not yet read); and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (“The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King”). However, they all were pretty memorable, too.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • Thank you, J.J.!

      Yes, perpetual war in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” 😦 And then there are apocalyptic novels that became apocalyptic because of war — as in Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” and its devastating radiation.

      I STILL need to give Henryk Sienkiewicz a try…

      Glad you mentioned fiction containing fictional wars in addition to fiction containing nonfictional wars! To your great list I would add the seventh “Harry Potter” book and its epic Battle of Hogwarts.

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      • — And then there are apocalyptic novels that became apocalyptic because of war — as in Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” and its devastating radiation. —

        I haven’t read Nevil Shute’s book, but I have seen Stanley Kramer’s film, which is among the all-time champs, with Gregory Peck in one of his best movie roles.

        — I STILL need to give Henryk Sienkiewicz a try… —

        If you can get to “With Fire and Sword” in 2034, then you will be just in time for its publication’s sesquicentennial!

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        • I haven’t seen the “On the Beach” movie, but — with that story line, that actor, and that director — it must be amazing.

          Ha! If I don’t get to “With Fire and Sword” by 2034, the presidencies of Trump, Jared, and Ivanka will be even more difficult to endure during the next seventeen years…

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  7. Thanks for including Rilla of Ingleside–one of my personal favorites! I’d add Vanity Fair (Napoleonic wars), And Quiet Flows the Don (WWI and Russian civil war), The Unknown Soldier, Life and Fate, and The Cross of Iron (WWII), Alexievich’s Zinky Boys (Soviet war in Afghanistan), and Politkovskaya’s A Dirty War and A Small Corner of Hell, and Babchenko’s One Soldier’s War, all about the Chechen wars. War literature is one of my favorite genres, so this has given me new books to ponder!

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    • Thank you, elenapedigo!

      “Rilla of Ingleside” might be my favorite “Anne of Green Gables” sequel. (“Anne’s House of Dreams” is in the running, too.) L.M. Montgomery nails the awful effects of war on the home front, and also doesn’t hesitate to show what can happen to someone on the front lines. Plus that memorably loyal dog at the train station!

      I appreciate your very impressive list of war-related novels, several of which I hadn’t heard of. I have some additional future reading to do. 🙂

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  8. I had not thought of “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” in YEARS, Dave.

    “Cold Mountain” is an amazing novel. I recommend it highly. It’s one of the ones that stay with you for a long time!

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      • Fixed, lulabelle!

        And thanks for seconding Susan Moore Jordan’s recommendation of “Cold Mountain.” (Actually, you may have recommended that novel in the past!) Now very high on my lengthy to-read list!

        “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” is an absolutely heartbreaking novel — in a must-read sort of way.

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  9. I think Catch-22 is one of the most brilliant, most darkly hilarious novels ever written. Slaughterhouse Five was also funny in a dark way. All Quiet on the Western Front was horrifying and haunting, as was Atonement. Ian McEwan is one of my favorite modern authors.The YA novel Code Name Verity got a lot of praise but I hated it. I recently read the companion novel to it, Rose Under Fire and I liked it much better. Life After Life and its companion novel, A God in Ruins both deal with war and I liked both of them fairly well. I’m not interested in anything that glorifies war. I strongly believe that war is hell.

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    • Thank you, Kira!

      “Catch-22” IS an incredible novel. It practically defines “darkly humorous,” or, rather, “darkly hilarious.” And, as you alluded to, “Slaughterhouse-Five” is indeed funny and devastating at the same time.

      “Atonement” is VERY well-written but incredibly disturbing. The young character who causes all the havoc in the novel really got on my nerves.

      Last but not least, I totally agree that anything (including literature) that glorifies war is disgusting. Even in the case of the rare wars that are justified. So much hellish death and destruction in every war, as you note.

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  10. That’s a great list, Dave. I would add (even though it’s probably become controversial) Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” (Civil War) for its description of the destruction of Atlanta, if nothing else; Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” (Civil War) which I had to put down frequently because it painted such a gripping picture of the awfulness the main character had to endure, and the ending completely broke my heart. Another book I found riveting was Philip Caputo’s “Indian Country” about a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD some ten years after his tour of duty and how this illness nearly destroyed him and those he loved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan, for the kind words and the mentions of those three books! “Cold Mountain” is definitely on my to-read list; it sounds VERY intense. Great brief descriptions of the books you named, and, yes, “Gone With the Wind” is very controversial because of its racism.

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      • Dave, I agree with your thoughts about “Gone With the Wind,” which I only read once, but I’ve seen the movie multiple times (once in Atlanta, where the crowd booed loudly about anything having to do with Yankees and especially Sherman’s march). It took me a long time to actually get the connection of the KKK with Scarlett’s assault by a black man — or am I not remembering that correctly? I started to watch the movie based on “Cold Mountain,” and didn’t much care for it, but I know both of my sisters absolutely loved the book.

        Susan, thanks for mentioning “Indian Country.” I’ll have to ask my girlfriend if she’s read this. She’s a clinical psychologist whose practice is dedicated to veterans suffering from PTSD, some who go back to Vietnam, so I’m sure she’d find this fascinating. She was telling me the other night about an evaluation she had with a new client, who opened up to her for almost 3 hours about feelings he had that he’d never expressed to anyone ever. These are the most rewarding moments for her, as sometimes she starts doubting her ability to get through to all if her patients.

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        • Thanks, Kat Lib!

          Being in that Atlanta audience must have been a rather dismaying experience.

          It’s a shame some excellent novels are problematic when it comes to racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and so on. One has to sort of compartmentalize and enjoy what there is to enjoy in the book and be disgusted with the rest.

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        • Hi Dave GWTW is the only one I can think about , normally I avoid such books . Reality is tough enough with Steve Bannon as the President .
          Had guests last 3 days it was awesome and haven`t done any reading.

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          • bebe, I can totally understand not reading a lot of war-themed novels. I read them sparingly myself. They certainly can be depressing, and we’re already getting plenty of depressing in real life — thanks to BT (Bannon-Trump), among other loathsome “leaders.”

            Nice that you’ve had guests the past three days!

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