I’ve expressed my admiration for Rick Atkinson’s books in the past. His Pulitzer-winning An Army at Dawn is a history of the Allied liberation of Northern Africa, told in a style that glides easily from the the humblest infantryman to the strategies of generals and presidents. He offers the reader a glimpse of what it was like on the ground, while also providing the big picture and dwelling on episodes and campaigns that are merely touched upon in broader histories and television documentaries. (Dawn also inspired me to enlist our readers’ help in compiling lists of World War II fiction and nonfiction.)As the second book in Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, The Day of Battle picks up where Dawn left off as the triumphant Allied troops consolidate their hold on Northern Africa and look to Europe for their next move, which after much strategic horse trading between the Americans and British turns out to be an amphibious invasion of Sicily followed by an advance up the “boot” of Italy, with further amphibious landings along the way.As it turns out, the Italian campaign was brutal and bloody, a halting effort with many stalemates along the way as the Germans dug in and the Allies time and again failed to take advantage of opportunities presented to them. In fact, among the may intriguing side plots that Atkinson covers was whether Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s obsession with seeing that American soldiers – and those under his command in particular – were credited for victories undermined the mission at hand. Clark’s penchant for victory parade photo ops is unnerving, though he was undoubtedly a talented general. Similarly, the complicated picture painted of Lieutenant General George S. Patton is riveting. “Few acts of corporal punishment would be more scrutinized, analyzed, and condemned than the two slapping incidents on Sicily in August 1943,” Atkinson writes of the actions that would derail Patton’s legacy, at least for a time, after he struck a pair of soldiers suffering from what we would now describe as post-traumatic stress disorder, who he saw as impugning the valor of more visibly wounded men. It is Atkinson’s rich telling of these episodes that make his work so entertaining and instructive. Other highlights – though they were horrors for the men involved – include landing by water at Salerno as well as the grueling back and forth struggle at Cassino and the destruction of the monastery that loomed above it.But readers with an interest in history will likely most value Atkinson’s frequent use of the soldiers’ own words. “‘Someday I hope we shall be able to fight downhill for a change,’ a captain in the 16th Infantry wrote his family.” “‘I’m a little tired,’ an Irish Guards sergeant confessed after emerging from the hellish Moletta gullies. ‘But then, I’m an old man now.'” “Another befuddled guide also led company A into a minefield. ‘We walked as men do in a cow pasture,’ said one man, ‘placing each foot carefully on a pre-selected spot.'”Immersed in the details of the war, it comes to seem incredibly remote from life in the present. Even when Atkinson describes what happened to various notable generals after the war, it is difficult to comprehend that they ever had lives outside of it, so total and suffocating was their experience. The same can be said of the enlisted men and the soldiers all the way up the chain of command. Perhaps Atkinson’s greatest accomplishment is to induce readers now, generations removed from World War II, to marvel at the realities of the fighting and suffering that went on in many now barely remembered corners of the world.
With 2007 in the rear view mirror, we now look ahead to a new year of reading, one packed with intriguing titles.Let’s kick off with a pair that Garth was already pining for a year ago:Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) won the Prix Goncourt and was a runaway bestseller in France. Not bad for a novel that runs over 900 pages. The Kindly Ones has been generating buzz on this continent for a while now, with Forbes asking “2008’s Hottest Book?” back in 2006. The delay, of course, is the translation, which many have suggested is quite an undertaking for this complex volume. Literature-in-translation headquarters, The Literary Saloon, meanwhile, has been following the progress, and recent accounts indicate that the going is slow. Many readers are hoping to get their hands on this one in 2008, but my sources at HarperCollins tell me 2009 is a likelier bet. Of course, you could read it in French.The other book, Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (we were 600 years off when we wrote about it last year), also lacks a release date, but its arrival seems somewhat more tangible in that the translator has at least been identified – it’s Natasha Wimmer. Late last month she told the Times’ book blog that she was just finishing up. She added, “Long stretches of the novel are set on the Mexico-U.S. border and inside a prison. And that’s not all. Bolano really gives the translator a workout. I also researched Black Panther history, pseudo-academic jargon (actually, some of that came naturally), World War II German army terminology, Soviet rhetoric, boxing lingo, obscure forms of divination and forensic science vocabulary, among other things. If that makes the novel sound like a hodgepodge, I promise it’s not. Even the most obscure detours are thoroughly Bolano-ized – filtered through his weird, ominous, comic worldview.” The Spanish speakers among us can already have this one in hand if they want.Already out or coming soon: 2006’s surprise Pulitzer winner for March, Geraldine Brooks, has another novel out that draws from both literary and literal history. Last time it was the Civil War and Little Women, with The People of the Book, it’s World War II and the Sarajevo Haggadah. If you want to learn more about the famed Haggadah and the real-life events that inspired Brooks’ novel, there was a recent New Yorker story on the topic (which is sadly not available online.)Roddy Doyle’s new collection of stories, The Deportees, includes one that revisits characters from his iconic novel The Commitments. Of the collection, The Independent writes, “Charm and animation are the qualities that count with Doyle’s deportees, as he goes about sticking up for disparaged incomers in a context of Dublin demotic exuberance.”Adam Langer decamps Chicago, the stomping ground of his last two novels, for his new book Ellington Boulevard, “an ode to New York” according to the catalog copy. The book, says The Daily News, “tells the story of one apartment before, during and after the boom years in city real estate. 2B is on W. 106th St. and a new landlord is looking to make a killing.”February: Lauren Groff’s debut, The Monsters of Templeton arrives on the scene with a nice boost from Stephen King, who way back last summer had this to say about the book in Entertainment Weekly: “The sense of sadness I feel at the approaching end of The Monsters of Templeton isn’t just because the story’s going to be over; when you read a good one – and this is a very good one – those feelings are deepened by the realization that you probably won’t tie into anything that much fun again for a long time.” That taken together with novel’s first line – “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” – is enough to pique the interest of many a reader, I’d imagine.In keeping with the theme of debut novels with impressive backers, Ceridwen Dovey, who grew up in South Africa and Australia, scored blurbs from J.M. Coetzee and Colum McCann for Blood Kin, which PW describes as “a parable of a military coup as told by the ex-president’s barber, portraitist and chef.” It sounds like it may share some territory with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Another novel of a regime and its hangers on.In The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt has crafted an “imagining of an unlikely friendship between the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla and a young chambermaid in the Hotel New Yorker where Tesla lives out his last days,” according to the publisher’s catalog description. Hunt was one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” in 2006. We can report that, anecdotally at least, the book is generating some interest. When we requested a galley from Houghton Mifflin a few weeks ago, we were told they were all gone.March: Tobias Wolff has a handsome volume of “New and Selected” stories on the way, Our Story Begins. The title story appeared in a 1985 collection, Back in the World, reviewed here by Michiko Kakutani.April: Interesting coincidence: Richard Bausch recently told Washington Post readers about his new novel, “It’s called Peace, and is set in Italy, near Mt. Cassino, in the terrible winter of 1944. Based on something my father told me long ago.” Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been reading about the battles that raged around Cassino in the winter of 1944, in Rick Atkinson’s excellent history of the liberation of Italy, Day of Battle. I would imagine there’s much for Bausch to draw from there.Keith Gessen, of n+1 fame will see his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, published in April. The LA Times, naming Gessen a “writer to watch,” offers back handed half-compliments, calling the book “a novel about, well, other bookish, male, Ivy League-schooled bohos in New York — their burning literary, academic and journalistic ambition, their pain. It’s a powerfully intelligent book that stylistically falls somewhere between a narcissistic wallow and a Tom Perrotta-style satire.” That may or may not be too harsh, as Gessen and company seem to inspire snark wherever they tread, but if anything, the discussion surrounding the book may be as fun to read as the book itself.Esteemed host of The Elegant Variation and friend of The Millions, Mark Sarvas will deliver his long awaited debut, Harry, Revised in April. He’s been keeping us up to date on his blog.Andrew Sean Greer also has a new book out in April, The Story of a Marriage. It’s set in 1950s San Francisco.You may have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Year’s End” in the year end New Yorker fiction issue. It’ll be collected with several other stories in Unaccustomed EarthMay: James Meek blew me away in 2006, with his odd and fantastical historical novel, A People’s Act of Love, which immersed readers in a world of post World War I Czech soldiers marooned in Siberian Yazyk among a mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. And let’s not forget the escaped convict who claims he is being pursued by a cannibal. Meek is back in May with a much more conventional sounding effort, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, about a journalist in the Afghan mountains covering the post-9/11 war and then back, trying to make sense of the “real” world upon his return.Tim Winton is a big name among Australian readers but not so much in the States. However, his rough-edged characters and windswept, lonely landscapes will transport nearly any reader to the remoter parts of Australia with ease. His latest, Breath, coming in May, offers big-wave surfers “on the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia.”June: Regular New Yorker readers may recognize the name Uwem Akpan. The Nigerian-born native of Zimbabwe landed a coveted spot in the Debut Fiction Issue in 2005 for his story “An Ex-Mas Feast,” and he was back again 2006 with “My Parents’ Bedroom.” Both stories appear in his forthcoming debut collection, Say You’re One of Them, which seems likely to fit in well with the mini-boom of African literature that we’ve seen over the last few years.Salman Rushdie’s forthcoming novel The Enchantress of Florence sounds very ambitious. Here’s a description from the Guardian: “Machiavellian intrigues of international high politics are scarcely the preserve of our century alone and in Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, the original master of unscrupulous strategy takes a starring role. This seductive saga links the Mughal empire with the Renaissance by way of an Indian princess, Lady Black Eyes, who finds herself central to the power struggles of 16th-century Florence. A virtuoso feat of storytelling, Rushdie’s novel also reflects on the dangers that come when fantasy and reality grow too intertwined.”July: Chris Adrian wowed readers in 2006 with his post-apocalyptic novel The Children’s Hospital. That novel’s ardent fans will be pleased to get their hands on a new collection of stories called A Better Angel. The collection’s title story appeared in the New Yorker in 2006.Western Haruki Murakami fans may have heard that another of his books has been translated. This one is a memoir titled – with a casual reference to another literary giant Raymond Carver – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. On his blog Ted Mahsun notes, “The book is about his experience running in marathons. He’s quite the accomplished runner, having run in the Boston, New York and Tokyo marathons, amongst others. I didn’t think it would get translated into English since a lot of Murakami’s non-fiction which have been published in Japan gets ignored by his translators.” It’s Murakami’s only other non-fiction to appear in English besides UndergroundAugust: Paul Theroux is ready to tell us about another of his epic train rides in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar. “Thirty years after his classic The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux revisits Eastern Europe, Central Asia, India, China, Japan, and Siberia.”Date undetermined: Garth enjoyed Gregoire Bouillier’s “refreshingly odd voice” in his quirky memoir The Mystery Guest. Another memoir, Report on Myself, which won the Prix de Flore in France is forthcoming in spring 2008, but a release date has not yet been indicated.Tell us about your most anticipated books in the comments.
As has been much noted elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal landed reclusive Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson to review a recent bio of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. New York explains how the review was arranged. Meanwhile, the New Yorker has John Updike reviewing the book.BLDGBLOG articulates why I love LA so much (and why it is quite possibly the greatest city in the country). For some of my own thoughts on LA, harken back into the deepest archives.Since almost the minute I finished An Army at Dawn, the first installment of Rick Atkinson’s three-part look at the liberation of Europe during World War II, I have been pining for the second book. And now I have it. The Day of Battle covers the war in Sicily and Italy and I will be reading it presently. (It was An Army at Dawn that inspired our lists of World War II fiction and nonfiction.)My alma mater is showing Google Books some love.