A casualty is readied for transport from the front line during the battle for Guadalcanal. (Library of Congress)
For this Memorial Day, a reminder from one of our great novelists of warfare and what it does to the men who take part in it, willingly or not:
This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE.
That’s from James Jones’ The Thin Red Line (1963) which follows the battle for a fictitious Pacific island and draws heavily upon Jones’ combat experience during World War II. Although his dedication shows a tongue planted firmly in cheek, the novel that follows is one of the deepest felt, most bruising things a man ever put to page.
German soldiers march through Paris, June 1940 (German Federal Archive)
Sometimes it can just take you a while to get around to that book that everybody has been reading. Anthony Doerr’s fairly beloved novel All the Light We Cannot See has been hanging around on the bestseller lists pretty much since it was published last summer, and for good reason. It’s not just the France-during-the-occupation setting or the gorgeous language, though both of those attributes help, of course. It has a magic to it, plain and simple.
All the Light We Cannot See is available in hardcover everywhere, with a paperback edition scheduled for this December; my review is at PopMatters:
Like many great novels of the Second World War and other epic clashes of civilizations, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a story of the grandeur of terror. At least it begins that way. It’s August 1944 in Saint-Malo, a venerable seaside town on the northwestern coast of France. The Allies have landed and are steadily punching their way out of Normandy. The war is nearing another crescendo of death…
Jack O’Connell faces down a sadistic prison guard in ‘Unbroken’ (Universal Pictures)
Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken has been sitting atop the bestseller lists for close to 200 weeks now, which is no surprise, given its incredible true story of Louis Zamperini, who went from a record-breaking performance running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics to being a brutalized Japanese prisoner of war. Angelina Jolie’s (yes, she directed) take on the book is respectful and professionally done, but never quite gets at what made Zamperini such a survivor.
Unbroken opened wide on Christmas Day. My review is at Film Racket:
If one learns anything from a handsomely-told World War II survival fable like Unbroken, it’s that if you are marooned at sea for weeks and then tossed into a brutal prison camp, it’s best to do so with an Olympic runner by your side…
Here’s the trailer:
Matt Damon and George Clooney in ‘The Monuments Men’
During the latter part of World War II, as the Allies were advancing across Western Europe, special detachments of experts known as the Monuments Men fanned out with lists and a mandate to keep their own soldiers from demolishing cultural artifacts and finding those works that the Nazis had tried to keep for themselves. George Clooney’s attempt at turning that sliver of history into a cool, guys-on-a-mission film sadly falls apart almost before the opening credits begin.
The Monuments Men is playing now. My review is at Short Ends & Leader:
The film assembles a dream assemble and then abandons them without a story to work from. Clooney’s lack of control over his material is evident from the beginning. Playing team leader Frank Stokes, Clooney gets his presidential assignment (a bungled, laughable scene with one of the more comical FDR impressions seen on film since Annie) and starts getting the band together. Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), art restorer James Granger (Matt Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and the just generally artsy Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). (Later on, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin join the gang for some Continental color.) This should be basic stuff, a few character-establishing moments and team-building quips, plus the easy comedy of watching the academics struggle through basic training before their mission. But Clooney muffs almost everything from the start…
A couple of the actual Monuments Men with a stolen Rembrandt found in a German salt mine.
The trailer is here:
‘Generation War’: A Drink, For Tomorrow We May Die
Five friends meet for one last night together before three of them head off to war. It’s not the newest of premises but what gives the nearly five-hour epic Generation War more of a kick is that it’s about five German youths who will be hurled into the morally-devastating crucible of World War II.
It’s playing now in limited release and should hit DVD soon. My review is at Film Racket:
Controversial but also hugely popular in Germany, where it aired as a TV miniseries, this dynamic story about five friends sucked into the bloody maw of the Second World War is in line with earlier efforts to fit big-screen ideas and scope into a small-screen format. Much like those Herman Wouk adaptation epics of decades past, Generation War uses carefully pigeonholed and typecast characters as chess pieces to be moved about the broad, years-spanning story to cover as many points of interest and historical drama as possible. This produces a somewhat mechanical narrative, something that the hardworking cast resists as best they can, continually hitting high strumming notes of melodrama amidst the exploding shells…
The trailer is here:
Just in time for readers everywhere to get ideas for gift-giving and to also realize exactly how few new books they have gotten to in the past year, The New York Times just released its annual 100 Notable Books list. It’s a daunting list, to be sure, and not always entirely justified—Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is somewhat inexcusably not on the list, while Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs takes up a not entirely necessary slot—but here’s a few of their selections that look best suited for catching up on in the long cold month of January:
All That Is – by James Salter. (Knopf, $26.95.) Salter’s first novel in more than 30 years, which follows the loves and losses of a World War II veteran, is an ambitious departure from his previous work and, at a stroke, demolishes any talk of twilight.
Duplex – By Kathryn Davis. (Graywolf, $24.) A schoolteacher takes an unusual lover in this astonishing, double-hinged novel set in a fantastical suburbia.
Empress Dowagar Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China – by Jung Chang. (Knopf, $30.) Chang portrays Cixi as a proto-feminist and reformer in this authoritative account.
The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking – by Brendan I. Koerner. (Crown, $26.) Refusing to make ’60s avatars of the unlikely couple behind a 1972 skyjacking, Koerner finds a deeper truth about the nature of extremism.
I’ll be contributing as usual to the Best Of Books features at PopMatters, which should run towards the end of the year.
J.D. Salinger: Was he writing more books all those years up in New Hampshire?
Shane Salerno has mostly been a screenwriter for flicks like Armageddon. So it was surprising to hear first that he’d been working for nine years on a documentary about J.D. Salinger and second that he had some pretty large bombshells to drop about the infamously reclusive late author (i.e., new books!).
Salinger opened this week and is being promoted for a potential documentary Oscar nomination that it won’t quite deserve. My review is at Film Journal International:
Although Salinger contains several acute insights about the author’s psychology, its tendency to get as overly excited as the distributor’s heavily hyped publicity campaign sometimes cheapens the whole affair. It’s clearly a labor of love for Salerno, an action-film scribe (Savages, Armageddon) who reportedly spent nine years doggedly digging up material. But he teases out bombshell fragments about the possibilities of new Salinger writings with all the subtlety of a rocket-propelled grenade and resorts to laughable recreations with an actor who looks nothing like Salinger himself…
The trailer is here: