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Bookish: War Letters

I’ve been struggling with this column on the literature of war for well over a month. How can I do these books, and this huge subject, justice? Yet my mind keeps returning to the idea; I find myself compulsively reading on the topic. So, I’m forging ahead, adequate to the task or not, because such […]

War reporter Martha Gellhorn and husband Ernest Hemingway with General Yu in Hanmou, Chungking, China, 1941.

War reporter Martha Gellhorn and husband Ernest Hemingway with General Yu in Hanmou, Chungking, China, 1941.

I’ve been struggling with this column on the literature of war for well over a month. How can I do these books, and this huge subject, justice? Yet my mind keeps returning to the idea; I find myself compulsively reading on the topic. So, I’m forging ahead, adequate to the task or not, because such books have never been timelier or more important.

In recent months we’ve seen (or, depending on your point of view, not seen enough of) the horrors involving Israel and Gaza. The total death toll since the beginning of the Iraq war has now topped 500,000 by most estimates. We’ve just engaged in a new conflict in the Middle East, this time to combat ISIS. These days, war is a constant for the United States and in many other countries throughout the world. I’m not aiming at an overtly political piece here; this isn’t an op-ed column as such. But the substance of my reading life in the last 12 to 18 months is inextricably linked to these ongoing conflicts. I find my thoughts on the books and on war as a state of being are likewise connected.

Of course, war is nothing new — it’s long been a staple of both literature and human interaction. Has anything else, excepting possibly love, inspired and ignited so much art in any genre? In the world of fiction, particularly, war has been the crux of so many well-regarded and much read works over the past decade or so. Quite possibly the most popular war novel ever is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It is a book I love and one, I would argue, that contains the finest first two pages in contemporary American literature. In fact, the Vietnam War spawned a huge amount of both reportage and fiction from the late 1960s and continuing up to the present. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn was just published in 2011 but, by all accounts, was three decades in the making. Going further back, we have All Quiet on the Western Front and most of T.E. Lawrence’s writings. Hemingway, Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Dalton Trumbo — all of them wrote well on the topic. Tug the thread and the literary tradition goes all the way back to Homer, Virgil. Start a list and the subject’s so vast, you’re bound to leave important something out.

I’ll keep my own tally to war novels I’ve read in just the last few years: works by Nathan Englander and Dave Eggers; David James Duncan and Daniel Alarcon. Matthew Eck’s The Farther Shore is a short, sharp and dismal novel, and not enough readers know about it. Boubacar Boris Diop has written, poignantly, about the atrocities in Rwanda. T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It Until It Hurts centers not on conflict itself, but on the aftermath of war. The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, is set in Kandahar and notably narrated by a woman. Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days is likewise told from the point of view of a mother whose son was involved in the Osama Bin Laden raid. Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio is about a Canadian soldier deployed in Afghanistan whose life unravels in many ways. Ben Fountain’s and Kevin Powers’ books, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Yellow Birds respectively, both won critical acclaim. (Powers himself is an Iraq War veteran.)

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All of this goes to show there is no shortage of new writing about war — about its camaraderie and implicit dangers, its sadness and far-reaching arm. Another thing plainly evident in this list: nearly all of these books about war are written by men. Which makes sense, to a certain degree, considering the fact that, while the consequent effects of wartime are certainly shared across population categories, women’s direct participation in military conflict is still relatively new.

Given the predominance of men’s voices here, I’m somewhat surprised when I look at my favorite nonfiction books regarding war, to realize that two of the three on my list were written by women, and written long ago. I am an unabashed fan of the NYRB Classics series. The imprint covers so much ground, and has saved so very many fine books from obscurity, that I probably could read from its list alone and be content. This series is rich in good writers who I’d have otherwise missed. Take Vasily Grossman: He has several books included in the catalog, but his most impressive work is Life And Fate. This book about World War II weighs in at 871 pages and ends in 1960. One of the first embedded journalists, Grossman traveled with the Red Army for a long time, and his wartime account was deemed so dangerous by the Soviet government that, not only was the book banned, the typewriter it was written on was confiscated. It’s a great read: if my house were on fire, I would run back in to save this book.

The next nonfiction book on my shortlist is The Face of War, a collection of war reporting written and compiled by Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn wrote about the Spanish Civil War in 1937, as well as the wars in Latin/South/Central America in the 1980s. Born in 1908, she was married to Hemingway for about five years and considered herself a resolutely anti-war writer. She covered various conflicts in Java and Vietnam, Finland and El Salvador, but more than that, she captured the lives of people who were left to occupy the ravaged margins of those wars.

Finally, I’d call your attention to Ruth Gruber’s writing. She was born in 1911 and served as a foreign correspondent, primarily in the role of photographer, for the New York Herald Tribune for more than thirty years. She is best known for her portrayal of the horrors of Jewish life during the second World War. I was so struck by her images and text, I sent a note of appreciation to Gruber about six months ago, mailed to her Upper West Side, New York City address. Her agent responded and said that, due to her age (103), she no longer corresponds directly with readers. Still, he added, she was pleased I had enjoyed her work. Look her up – Gruber’s is a legacy of wartime reporting worth remembering.

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

Bookish: On Men, Women and Searching for Common Ground

The popularity of any single book is a mystery to almost everyone in the book industry – from writer to agent to editor to publisher sales representatives to booksellers to customers. Who knows what makes us love what we love?  When something hits, everyone asks, “What went right?” But you can’t reliably game the odds […]

Katharina Fritsch, Herz mit Zähnen (Teeth Heart).

Katharina Fritsch, Herz mit Zähnen (Teeth Heart)polyester, paint, 1998-2004.

The popularity of any single book is a mystery to almost everyone in the book industry – from writer to agent to editor to publisher sales representatives to booksellers to customers. Who knows what makes us love what we love?  When something hits, everyone asks, “What went right?” But you can’t reliably game the odds on what’s going to resonate with readers. There are so many wrong turns a book can take – even supposed sure-things. Mostly, when something strikes it big, we are left shaking our heads in wonder. Likewise, an author’s lack of success often has little to do with the relative quality of the writing. The truth is, there are so many good books that never see commercial success.

Recently, I have had the good fortune to read two great collections of essays back to back. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me. And based on the glowing reviews and, in the case of Jamison’s new book, a spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list upon its debut, I’m not alone: readers in large numbers have already found their way to these titles.

Good books are inevitably compared to what’s come before – it’s an easy shorthand approach to putting new writing in context. A lot of very positive reviews of Jamison’s book have likened her to Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. On their face, such descriptions are complimentary and all to the good. Yet, I keep thinking to myself that Solnit, rather than Jamison, would be the better exemplar of that type. Like Didion and Sontag, Solnit is omnivorous in her interests, responsible for a wide-ranging assortment of nonfiction books with nothing in common but the acuity of the mind behind them. Then again, why must one great female essayist be compared to another at all? These new books by Solnit and Jamison have nothing to do with each other.

men explain things to me empathy exams

Actually, on second thought, that isn’t exactly true.

The Empathy Exams deliver on the promise of the title. Jamison’s pieces center on the question: How do we view others’ pain and empathize, or not, with it? Within that sphere of inquiry, though, her essays cover a lot of ground. One of my favorites involves an ultra-marathon, called the Barclay, in which the point of the race is that very few of its uber-fit contestants actually finish. I also love her essay about the so-called West Memphis 3 (WM3). In the wake of their convictions for killing several young boys, the three young men of the WM3 became a cause celebre: Movies were made; Eddie Vedder and other high-profile celebrities got involved in advocacy for their release. Jamison tells the story without leaning one way or the other as she recounts the details of the case. Her account is moving and full of sadness for everyone involved. She’s adept at telling us a story about a story without telling us what to believe. Other pieces in her collection are much more personal in content and tone: her recollections of being robbed and having her nose broken; essays about time spent living in a foreign country, and about her work as a medical actor, and how those scripted personalities invaded her own life and mind.

The Solnit book, Men Explain Things to Me, is harder to categorize neatly. The first and title essay is both hilarious and maddening in its brutally accurate rendering of how some men treat women. The rest of the essays are in some way about violence — most often, violence done at the hands of men. As a man, her book is hard to read, because the facts are hard to argue. Yet I could feel my resistance as I read: No, that is not me. These aren’t men I know. But again and again and again it is. Or, at least, the sort of man Solnit offers up for view is part of us. The truth is inescapable: Men commit acts of violence against women, children and one another. It’s men’s aggression that forces women to walk strategically to and from their cars at night.

Solnit comes armed with a slew of statistics. She also tells stories of things that have happened to her or her friends. And yet, she is not interested in making monsters of men. Rather, she uses these bare facts as a lens for the rest of us to see what we’d rather not face, to sketch out a philosophy about cultures of violence among men that’s rooted in lived experiences.

I walked away from Solnit’s book with one question, in particular, rattling around in my head. In an essay on violence against women on college and university campuses, she asks (and I paraphrase): “Why do we have seminars warning women and scaring women and educating women? Why do we tell them not to be alone or not to leave their drinks alone on a table? Why do we tell them to lock themselves in? Why aren’t there more seminars with men, saying, ‘Don’t do this. It isn’t okay.’”

book-jackets

After these essay collections, in an attempt to balance the scales of my reading, I turned to some fiction.  While doing time in the fifth layer of hell – a very long line at Minneapolis’ Lake Street post office – I was delighted to dip into the wicked and funny prose of Muriel Spark. Her portrayal of women in the 1940s in England reads as honest and real. Her novella, The Girls of Slender Means, is set during the war; as you make your way through the story, you bear witness to something awful that happens to characters you’ve come to love.  That got me thinking about storytelling, and what separates the very real from make-believe. What is harder to digest: that which we know to be true or a story we have been told?

From Spark, I moved on to Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, a novel first published in 1932 about poor sharecroppers trying to make their way in hard times. Page by page, I found myself thinking of James Agee and Walker Evans’ 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Just last year a new book was published, written by those same men. Cotton Tenants: Three Families (Melville House) essentially serves as an addendum to the original text, but an important one, for the unflinching view on poverty and on the lingering harm such want inflicts on all involved.

So – fairly dark. All of it, real life and fiction, both.

But that’s not all I’ve been reading. I’ve been making my way through an old biography of the Negro league legend, Josh Gibson. In memory of the great Peter Matthiessen, I also began his most recent, and last, novel, In Paradise. There’s another I’d recommend to you, but it’s only available in Canada. For months, I have been wondering why Keith Hollihan’s wonderful novel, Flagged Victor, has not been published in the United States. Silly American publishers: stop being silly. Publish this book here and now.

I have also been listening to some old music from the band, Okkervil River. They take their name from a story by Tatyana Tolstaya, and because of my love for the one (the band), I have been led to the other. That is how it sometimes goes. Okkervil River has this one song that I could listen to on a loop: it weaves together the Beach Boys tune, “Sloop John B,” with the story of John Berryman and his death. There are some great Minneapolis references in the song, too. I admit, that last is an odd segue, but one that somehow works in the context of all these stories.

Finally, I am crashing through Rafael de Grenade’s Stilwater (Milkweed Editions), in which Arizona-born de Grenade takes off for the wilds of Australia to work on a remote cattle station. Her tale is so readable and the landscape so other (to me), that I want to do nothing but immerse myself in it. I have to force myself to slow down, to give myself space to allow myself the pleasure of her world seeping into my own — if only in my mind.

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

Lost in the Stacks

There are currently 24 books sitting atop my bedside table. One on baseball, a chronicle of a Great Lakes storm in 1913, short story collections I’ve been told I must read (Phil Klay’s Redeployment and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol), a meditation on the color blue. There’s a mess of novels in various states of progress–or […]

Thomas Allen, Teeter, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Foley Gallery.

Thomas Allen, Teeter, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Foley Gallery.

There are currently 24 books sitting atop my bedside table. One on baseball, a chronicle of a Great Lakes storm in 1913, short story collections I’ve been told I must read (Phil Klay’s Redeployment and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol), a meditation on the color blue. There’s a mess of novels in various states of progress–or stagnation. The Field Guide to Fields from National Geographic is on the stack, too, and oddly thrilling in its very straightforward explanations of bramble and sugarcane coupled with bright, inviting art. I give this number not as a bookish type of braggadocio, but by way of offering some concrete example of a reading life that has overcome its presumed owner. The animals have, quite obviously, taken over this zoo.

Let me take a step back. Until somewhat recently I was a professional reader. Or, at least, I was a bookseller, and part of that duty included giving suggestions to lots of kinds of readers. In any given hour, I might have dealt with a woman buying a present for her thirteen-year-old niece she calls “smart, like, very bright. But her parents are pretty conservative, so let’s stay away from  the vampires and any bad language.” Next through the door, I’d get a regular whose taste in reading material has no discernible pattern – something that makes helping him both difficult and pleasurable in equal measure. He’s the sort who shoots down eight or nine possibilities before we find the exact right book. (By “we” I mean that he found it. That’s perfectly fine.)  Finally, I’d have a book club come in, looking for suggestions for the upcoming year. It’s important to come up with a mix of things, titles they’ve likely heard about as well as things they’d not otherwise run across. And again, our success rate with those suggestions will be pretty low. That is almost always the case.

So, given all that, for the past 15 years I’ve needed at my professional disposal an at least competent understanding of: picture books, YA/teen lit, obscure translations, the latest shocking memoir on the New York Times’ list and enough other of-the-moment bookish trivia to come up with a fair response to anything else that a customer might hit me up about. Or, you know, they might ask me for “that book with the orange cover that was sitting right here two weeks ago.”

At the end of January I decided I was done with bookselling for now. Once a civilian reader again, I very quickly realized that in the past few years I had become a grazer of books, reading mostly in snippets and bits. I read lots of reviews, both in print and online. I started (and stopped) a lot of books. I was always armed with a long list of “Things I Should Definitely Read Next” filled with suggestions from both customers and publishers’ sales representatives. I don’t mean to overstate the job-related stress — no one’s long-term health or wellness is on the line in bookselling — but still. The gig comes with some pressure.

I’d developed this coping strategy over the last few years, where I attempted to read from three different categories at one time: I would pick up an ‘older’ book (generally fiction, in the neighborhood of the 1920s to1950s), at the same time that I was reading from one newish title (current frontlist to three years back) and one advance reading copy of some forthcoming book. The third type, especially, was an ever-shifting category, heavily influenced by sheer caprice (and pleas from a favorite sales rep to finish something and get back to them with a response). I also joined a book-club a couple years ago, a very cool group of men whose tastes diverge from mine in ways that are challenging and exciting. But I have to admit, in the context of everything else, even that modest reading commitment represented a loss of personal choice that I mildly resented.

Now, here I am, three months removed from all that. The newfound liberation of my reading life has now come to resemble the kind of unstructured anarchy any reasonable government (or parent) fears. It turns out, being able to choose whatever I want, whenever I want, from the vast world of literature is as paralyzing as it is freeing. There is something to be said for a restaurant with a very short menu. I know well from experience that I can only really handle three or four books at once — beyond that, characters and plot start to jumble in my mind; I lose track of dates and narrative sequence, not to mention names. While I admire a certain aesthetic that involves books on furniture or even becoming furniture I also recognize this: two ragged piles of 24 books on a nightstand isn’t conducive to good reading. Trying to do so much at once is a fine way to get nothing done.

I know that sounds like a bad proverb or something out of fortune cookie, but it’s nonetheless true of my reading life.

Thomas Allen, Topple, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.

Thomas Allen, Topple, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.

So. With all those piles, am I actually reading anything? Somewhat recently I finished John McPhee’s The Survival of the Bark Canoe, which seems like it should be an elegy, but it’s not. I crashed through Walter Kirn’s latest book, about his bizarre relationship with a German national who claimed to be a Rockefeller. Blood Will Out is not the second coming of In Cold Blood, but it is a revealing glimpse into the sort of world a person can create when they act with certainty and a willingness to prey on the good faith of other people. Also read recently: Celeste Ng and Scott Cheshire both have debut novels out, and both escape the first-book trap of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, so that they satisfy on nearly all levels.

Mostly, though, I’ve savored the time lately spent with Pinckney Benedict’s dogs of god. Published in 1995, I have no idea where I bought this book. (Magers and Quinn? Sixth Chamber? Powell’s? Maybe a yard sale? All fair guesses.) And how had I even heard of this title? I doubt it was the cover that convinced me to pick it up. It certainly wasn’t the Joyce Carol Oates blurb calling Benedict “…one of the most distinctive voices of his generation.” Actually, this is a book that would fit nicely with a lot of the rough and tumble stuff being published to much praise right now. Think George Singleton, Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock. Or, if those names are a bit obscure you could look to most anything hailing from the Ozarks or Appalachia or West Virginia: authors like Chris Offutt and Daniel Woodrell. It seems inevitable to compare such a novel as Benedict’s with those of the high priest of all things dark, menacing, gothic or in any fashion ‘manly’ – Mr. Cormac McCarthy.

I’m about 50 pages from finishing Benedict’s book as I write this, and in most ways it doesn’t much matter to me how it ends. I’ve enjoyed the time spent in its pages plenty already. But more than that, you have to admire a book sufficiently compelling to push past all the flotsam to get even a scattershot reader like me to pay attention.

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

There Is No Required Reading

I’m not interested in writing reviews of books, not in the usual sense, at least. I’ll be writing about reading here, but I won’t spend much time telling you what to read or what not to read. My reading life is messy, as haphazard as anyone else’s. There is no a-then-b-and-c to my choice of […]

Hans Weyandt. Photo: Ben Weaver

Hans Weyandt. Photo: Ben Weaver

I’m not interested in writing reviews of books, not in the usual sense, at least. I’ll be writing about reading here, but I won’t spend much time telling you what to read or what not to read. My reading life is messy, as haphazard as anyone else’s. There is no a-then-b-and-c to my choice of books. (If there’s any sense to it at all – and sometimes, there isn’t – the logic looks a lot more like a-q-d-b-y-c.)

I read for armchair traveling; I love travel guides, atlases and maps. Books have taken me to Poland, World War II-era France, Japan, Mississippi, Canada, Vietnam, Boston, Dublin and small towns in states, counties, provinces and countries all over the world. I like cookbooks, too. I dip into genres like mystery and true-crime. I read to make sense of things and to get totally lost. I read because it makes sense and because it, frequently, does not. I’m an ecumenical reader – I read magazines and newspapers and books in all of their ever-changing forms.

It was not always this way. My gateway to words didn’t come in a classroom. I did not hide in my bed at night to finish just one more chapter. My mother, with a decent amount of shame, once admitted that I really learned to read from the backs of baseball cards. When I was a kid, I did not love books and I did not love reading. (That’s not quite true: I loved Sports Illustrated.) But I was surrounded by the written word. Both of my parents are avid readers and their house, then and now, is filled with books. Reluctant reader or not, I had no choice, really. Their appreciation inevitably seeped into me.

In the past year, I have read more books than most of you. That’s just a guess and not a challenge – I was a bookseller until recently, and reading a lot is just an occupational fact. I’ve read travel writing and Midwestern family histories, war reportage and poems. I’ve read about football and poker and Hurricane Katrina. I’ve read about suicide and mythology and Houdini. So far, I’ve gotten through about two-thirds of E.B. White’s Stuart Little with my sons, six and four-years-old. White is a tonic for the soul — his language is precise and basic and, on page after page, charmingly old-fashioned.

There’s usually no particular rhyme or reason to the sequence of things I pick up. I just read because I do. You can find plenty of help, lots of recommendations, but we all must find our own way in the world of books. In this space, you won’t hear me saying anything like: “I hope for this to be a dialogue between myself and the reader(s).” And yet, I very much do want to hear from you about what you are reading, and also what you think I should read. If nothing else, my wish for this as-yet-undetermined bookish thing is that it not just be a place where I blather into the electronic black hole.

So, what are you reading?

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

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