Is This What Blogs Are For?

7 Feb

Are you having a bad day? Have you ever had a bad day? If you would answer yes to either of those questions, go ahead and read a book about World War I.

Unless you have been exposed to poison gas that melts your lungs, or spent a good amount of time in a trench rife with disease and three feet deep with mud that is loaded with bloated, rotting corpses, or witnessed 60,000 casualties in a single day, or survived five years of trench warfare only to lose your life to an influenza pandemic mere weeks after the war’s end, then it seems like you are having a really, really good day.

That’s how I always feel after a World War I book, and I keep reading them. Maybe I like the feeling, or maybe I expose myself to the awful stories because I’m so far removed from what those men experienced that feeling vaguely troubled for a few days is the closest I’ll ever get to suffering with them. Plus if we don’t read about it we’re going to repeat it and no one wants that.

I KNEW a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Siegfried Sassoon

Crude, but effective.

I thought a year or two ago that the account I read of Waterloo was so devoid of any relief that it must be the most tragic thing ever to have happened to a pair of armies. The scene opens with a totally silly British upper class waiting eagerly at ostentatious vacation homes in Brussels for Napoleon’s army to close in on the city and engage the mostly British allied army gathered there. It is that same ridiculous human condition that brought spectators with picnic lunches to the Battle of Bull Run. Their perfect blindness up until the last second is idiotic and horrifying. 75,000 casualties come as a complete shock.

The book I read about Waterloo was An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer, a British writer from the early 20th century. I like her because she was famous for her “penchant for meticulously researched historical novels.” The Waterloo book is not a witty mystery or romance like most of her other works, probably a pet project of hers that she took her time on and didn’t make any money on. I decided to read it once I learned that it is still considered “one of the most historically accurate and vividly narrated descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo,” comes with a “formidable bibliography” and has been used as a textbook.

In spite of all those glowing and scholarly words in quotation marks, the cover of the book looks like this:

infamous army

“I can’t believe we wore the same dress.”

And that is the kind of cover that makes me feel like a tool for opening it. Why would anyone disguise a depressing and well-written Waterloo book as a romance? There is a soldier in the book who is probably based on a few real people but isn’t one, and he has a high-strung girl waiting for him. Does he survive? Maybe, maybe not. The author looks in on him from time to time, but the war is undoubtedly the protagonist. I guess Heyer was type-cast as a romance writer and can’t even break away posthumously.

The WWI book I just read is a recent deal. It’s written by a present-day countess in England whose castle is the inspiration for the show “Downton Abbey.” She’s not a great writer but she wanted to tell people about the real family that lived and still lives on that estate, which isn’t called Downton Abbey in real life. (I’m sure she also wanted to make money.) The fifth countess (the author is the eighth or ninth) turned the mansion into a hospital during the Great War for injured soldiers who were lucky enough to make it back to England alive. After the war, her husband discovered King Tut’s tomb. There is not an ounce of fiction in this book; it is a biography of the fifth countess based on extensive research and has a ton of photos and letters and information about the war from the British perspective.

The cover looks like this:

carnarvon

“Ugh. I can smell poor people.”

I suppose I was just surprised and a tiny bit chagrined to find myself reading another battle book written by a woman and hidden behind a flourishy and prettyish cover. Is it because the authors are female and their efforts to write about war are not taken seriously? Or is it because they want to trick women readers into thinking the book is like a Jane Austen novel? I’m just asking. Put some blood on that pretty cover. The book is teeming with it. It’s false advertising.

Anyway, if you read these books, or other heartbreaking books about war, maybe you too will feel like you were born at the right time and all your days are good. At any rate you will be more learnèd which is always nice.

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