Read in 2014

2014 began with a lot of talk about #readonlywomen. I didn't want to commit to that, but it made me want to keep track of what I did read. I've never done this before and some things surprised me more than others. Here, then, without comment, is the list of the thirty books I read this year. Is that a lot? A little? I'm not sure. 

1.    Miss Anne in Harlem, Carla Kaplan (nonfiction)

2.   Going Clear, Lawrence Wright (nonfiction; ebook)

3.   Wild, Cheryl Strayed (memoir; ebook)

4.   The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud (fiction; audiobook)

5.    Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, Sylvia Townsend Warner (fiction)

6.   Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner (fiction)

7.   The Golden Bowl, Henry James (fiction; audiobook)

8.   The Fiery Trial, Eric Foner (nonfiction; for teaching; skimmed final chapter)

9.   Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee (fiction, for teaching)

10.  Summer Will Show, Sylvia Townsend Warner (fiction; re-read)

11. The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan (nonfiction; audiobook)

12.  The Circle, Dave Eggers (fiction; audiobook)

13.   Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi (fiction, for teaching)

14.  The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (fiction)

15.  Aleta Day, Francis Marion Beynon (fiction)

16.   William—an Englishman, Cecily Hamilton (fiction)

17.   All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque (fiction)

18.  Stoner, John Williams (fiction)

19.   The Vacationers, Emma Straub (fiction)

20.  Harlem Hellfighters, Max Brooks (graphic novel)

21.   The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (fiction; audiobook)

22.   Remapping the Home Front, Debra Rae Cohen (nonfiction)

23.   My Education, Susan Choi (fiction)

24.    Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (fiction)

25.   The End of War, John Horgan (nonfiction)

26.  The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman (nonfiction; audiobook)

27.    The Elements of Academic Style, Eric Hayot (nonfiction)

28.    Inferno, Dante (poetry; audiobook)

29.  The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore (nonfiction)

30.    The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters (fiction; audiobook)

William—An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton (1919)

William—An Englishman is a pitiless book. “Pitiless” is not a word I often use, but it came to me when reading this tale of a couple of ordinary bourgeois bohemians on honeymoon in Belgium in August 1914. Hoping for a quiet three weeks, they avoid the papers until it is too late: the War breaks out and William of the title and his bride are caught behind German lines. It’s the first Persephone Book and remains a bestseller for them.

William and Griselda’s first encounters with violence are pitiless and painful to read. The young couple are so appealing, so naïve, so idiotic, and so very like many of us who have never experienced war. It’s an uncomfortable reading experience, and I oscillated between thinking that this discomfort was a gimmick and thinking that it made the book deeply moving and effective as war literature.

A moment that struck me as particularly terrible is also one of the subtler moments of the book. William and his wife have been taken prisoner, forced to witness the assassination of several Belgians, and then separated. Forced to repair the railway lines, William breaks free during a moment of chaos and goes house to house in search of his wife. He finds her, terrified, cowering in the upper room of one of the village houses, a shadow of her formerly brave, suffragette self:

His heart cried out to him that she had struggled merely as a captive, had been restrained by brute force from escaping—but his own eyes had seen that she turned from him as if there was a barrier between them, as if there was something to hide that she yet wished him to know…

And suddenly, as Hamilton writes a few sentences later, seeing the effect of a sexual assault on his wife, the phrase “licentious soldiery” takes on meaning.

I cannot quite say, with Nicola Beauman (the publisher & author of the preface), that this is a masterpiece. I will say that it held my attention, disturbed me, made me think about war and how we talk about war from our safe home. The satire on Bloomsbury socialism and the way that suffragettes spoke of their struggle as a kind of Civil War is pretty devastating.

The book falls apart at the end. And yet, even there, William’s upsetting encounter with a traumatized soldier who must narrate all that frightens him about the air raid they must endure together is terrific and terrifying and claustrophobic in all the right ways.

Plus, the fact that Hamilton wrote this in her tent during war service (after a few years as a volunteer in a Scottish hospital, she became an organizer for concerts at the front) adds much to the book: I share Beauman’s sense that the book is full of an amazing, quiet intensity.

Some of the writing is very beautiful. All of it is strong—although I occasionally wished she would cease explaining and essaying, I almost never flinched at a misstep.

I do not know if I will teach it in the fall in my World War One class or not.