Memorial Day weekend isn’t only about BBQ, base tans, and the beginning of summer. It’s also, and actually primarily, about remembering those who died in the country’s armed forces, and therefore a perfect time for picking up a book that centers on those very men and women, or versions of same. But if you’re like me, war isn’t exactly your favorite thing to think about (or talk about, or read about), especially on a nice long weekend. After all, war novels have a reputation for being hyper-masculine, mega-violent, and most importantly, sort of old-fashioned. But not all war novels are War Novels, so if you think you hate them, consider these possibilities for your holiday reading.
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
First of all, if you like being up on the book of the moment, this is it: a debut that pretty much everybody has been talking about. Oh, and it just won the Pulitzer. The novel follows a double agent in the Southern Vietnamese Army, and like any good thriller, a lot of balls get thrown up into the air quickly. But the most exciting thing about this novel is the voice, rhythmic and whirling, sometimes funny, sometimes incredibly dark, always captivating.
Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
All of Sebald’s novels are partially about war, partially about memory, partially about movement, but this one may confront the Holocaust–or at least its emotional aftermath–most directly. I’d say it’s unlike any war novel you’ve ever read, but the thing is, it’s also unlike any novel of any kind you’ve ever read. Unless you’ve read others of Sebald’s books. In that case, you know what I’m talking about.
The People of Forever are Not Afraid, Shani Boianjiu
This novel, written by a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, details the lives of three girls after their conscription to same. It’s sort of like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? but with guns and guards and tear gas. So, I approve.
The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway
The war in question in this hilarious SF novel is the “Go-Away War,” which happened sometime before the post-apocalyptic present, and had something to do with our nameless narrator and his pals, and which featured reality-erasing bombs. There are mimes. There is kung fu. Cuba is part of the UK. Basically, it’s a crazy adventure that you’ll probably like no matter how you feel about war.
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
For those who prefer their war as a side dish to their romance.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
No matter what their literary tastes, pretty much everyone seems to like this book about a nine-year-old girl running around stealing books in WWII Germany, her every move being narrated by Death. It’ll light your heart up as if you had a little book bonfire of your own.
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
You may not like war, but do you like video games? They’re essentially the same thing in this classic of SF, though technically the virtual battles are in preparation for one big one: humanity against a race of insect-like aliens. But this book is a delight: a coming-of-age story about a kicked-around kid saving the world, a boarding school novel in space, and a testament to the fact that if you’re smart enough, you can do pretty much anything.
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie is remarkably adept at multiple-perspective novels, and this one, which tells the stories of three very different people (Ugwu, a young houseboy, the wealthy and “illogically beautiful” Olanna, and English expat Richard) during Nigeria’s Biafran War, and the triumphs and devastations they experience. Honestly, if it were up to me, you would read everything by her, regardless of subject matter.
The Time of the Doves, Mercè Rodoreda
A gorgeous novel that spans some 30 years in a mere 208 pages, telling the story of Natalia, a shop girl in Barcelona during and in the years surrounding the Spanish Civil War. Much more about the internal life of Natalia as she is victimized by men and circumstance–and what she does in the face of these hardships–than anything else, which makes it a must-read for all of those who read for quality of mind before anything else.
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Nope, not joking. After all, this is a war trilogy, and certain things about the current state of affairs make a national reality show that is also a violent suppression tactic to keep the citizens in line seem not that far off.