Saturday, March 14, 2009


As I frequently advertise I am not a huge fan of reading. I don't love it and I never have. In fact, I faked loving it as a kid so I could look smart. But I still read. It's important to me, and I find it to be rewarding work at times but never "fun". I'd rather be watching tv or skinny dipping or something. I have read/listened to a few books in the last 2 and a half months, and I'm trying to keep better track of what I read, so I thought I'd write about them since the experiences I have with books (and media in general) usually notably affect me and how I look at the world. Most of these books were for my World War I class and the others were books I listened to at work.

The first book I read this year was Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, a memoir detailing Brittain's life during the first World War as a volunteer nurse. It's a heartbreaking story as she loses the men in her life; her best friends, her brother, her lover. I was inspired by her will to work, to do everything she could to help the war effort as long as her friends were out fighting. A volunteer nurse's life was not easy and she managed to make it through 4 years of service, working in London, Malta and finally on the Western Front in France, right behind the lines. She had to deal with trials specific to her sex, the fact that she was torn between duty to family and duty to the war effort. She lost everyone she loved and yet she kept going. She was as much of a soldier as any man. She made me realize that as a woman I have as much duty and ability to go out into the world and make a difference as any man. She taught me that losing yourself in work, even for the most selfish reasons, can make enduring pain and suffering possible, and that hard times are what form us into remarkable people.

Rebecca West was another remarkable author from the Great War period. Her book Return of the Soldier was written before the end of the war and takes place just before the Battle of the Somme. It is about two incredibly selfish women who are thrown a curveball when the husband of one (the other woman is his cousin) returns from the war with shellshock and amnesia. I hated those women. They only saw themselves as objects in this man's home, prized possessions. The great part is when they find out that he had been in love with a poor woman years before and he can only remember her. He only wants to see her. We learn they had had a misunderstanding and an argument and had become estranged (she never got his letters for some reason). So they find this woman and bring her to the house and he is like a boy again. And he hates his annoying wife. They figure out what might bring his memory back and the question is raised as to whether or not they should try it. If he does get his memory back he will go back to war and likely die (especially, as the author and the readers know, the Battle of the Somme will begin immediately in his future, a battle with one and a half million casualties). But the annoying wife doesn't care. She is simply jealous of this other lower class woman in her home and would do anything for her husband to be able to remember her, his wife. It's a sad little novella, but I loved it.

I bought this book on audio after seeing the author, Sarah Vowell, on the Daily Show. I loved how geeky and smart the she was and I knew I'd appreciate her enthusiasm with the assassination of presidents. She goes on a veritable pilgrimage to anything associated with Lincoln, McKinley and Garfield and their assassinations, and while a lot of times I thought "Why another boring plaque in some obscure part of Washington??" I loved Vowell's commentary on American history and how eerily repeatable it is. (She spends a whole chapter pointing out how similar the situations leading to the Spanish American war and the Iraq war were.) I also loved how she made these trips all over the Eastern United States just to experience the things she had so easily read in history books. I want to do that. I also learned a lot about American history, which is always valuable.

I also listened to High Fidelity while walking to an from work for a couple days. It was a fast listen, and I appreciated how messed up and unromantic the characters and plot were, how relationships take work and effort and energy to maintain. I of course liked all the music and pop culture references, and the whole thing wasn't much unlike the movie, which I kind of love.

I most recently read another short novel by a woman author from the World War One era called Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Kathrine Anne Porter. It is a fiction, but based on the author's experiences at the end of the war when she caught the Spanish flu. Much of it is written in a stream of consciousness style that reflects the fluidity of the character's dreams while suffering the flu. She is a journalist in Denver and meets and falls in love with a soldier named Adam. She falls ill and he stays by her side until he leaves to get food and people come and take her away to the hospital. They never get to say goodbye and they won't allow him to see her in the hospital. She almost dies; in fact, Porter was in the same situation where she was so ill that they initially left her on a gurney in the crowded hospital corridor to die. Somehow she recovers after weeks of delirium. I loved most the liminal space she finds herself after coming out of her delirium. She dreamed she was dead, she accepted that she was dead, and suddenly she was forced back into the living world with everyone congratulating her for not dying and she didn't want to be there. After her experience Porter said that she had died already and wasn't afraid to do it again. Another incredible woman.

Well, so those are some of the books I've read since the new year. I also read Watchmen, but I don't really have much to say about it, so I'll refrain right now. The notable thing about that experience was that I read it in one 7 hour sitting. I knew I wouldn't finish it otherwise.

I bought 3 more audio books today and I'm excited to get through them and write about what I thought. One is called Stiff and it's about dead bodies, another is The Story of Philosophy and the third is called This is Your Brain on Music. Looking forward to all of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment