Monday, 16 December 2013

Research Corner #4: WW1 Reading Pt 1

Quite a novel Research Corner, this one, in that it's the first one in which I'll be talking about something that anyone other than me might actually consider research.  No visits to Moroccan tanneries, then, and in fact no holidaying whatsoever, just me tearing through a whole pile of books as if my life depended on it.

So here's a little information about the reading that's going into my nascent historical sci-fi novel, currently going by the working title of To End All Wars.  Due to my habit of going at numerous books at the same time and so still having most of my reading on the go, this isn't actually that impressive a list, but I'm sure I'll do a part 2 at some point.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Up until recently I was describing To End All Wars to anyone who'd listen as "Regeneration meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind", and I only gave it up when I realised just how few people had heard of Pat Barker's 1991 masterpiece.  I'll happily admit that Regeneration - which charts the real-life period during 1917 when Siegfried Sassoon was treated by army psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, amongst other cases of WW1 fall-out - is a huge influence on what I'm hoping to do.  I've a tendency to be a bit sniffy about literary fiction, in some kind of weird inverse snobbery, but Regeneration makes its way easily into my all-time top ten, and it was a joy to have an excuse to re-read it.

Over the Top: Great Battles of the First World War by Martin Marix Evans

A bit of a let down, this one, despite the author's marvelous middle name.  It's possible that writing about war is liking dancing about ice-fishing, but it's definitely true that writing a book about battles without lots and lots of pictures and diagrams leaves the reader with a headache and not much else.

It occurred to me after I watched the film of Catch 22 that it only made sense if you'd read the book, which in turn made a great deal more sense for having watched the film.   I'm starting to think that something similar goes for WW1 texts; the overview stuff like this is dry and fussy if you haven't read anything told from a soldier's point of view, which in turn gives little sense of the wider war unless you happen to know a bit about what battles happened when and where and why.

 Loos 1915 by Peter Doyle

One of the main aims of my research-a-thon has been to establish just when and where the opening sequences of To End All Wars can be set without breaking history too badly.  There was a point where I was almost convinced that it would end up being the lesser known battle of Loos, hence my spending £10 on a hardback history book.  Doyle's work does a great job of setting up the back-story to the battle and then falls down a little once the actual fighting kicks off, for much the same reasons as Over the Top.  In fact, strangely, it works much better as an overview of the first half of the war than as an insight into the one particular battle that it's supposed to be about.

Either way, it convinced me that Loos was no use whatsoever for my purposes, so I suppose it was £10 well spent.

True Stories of the First World War by Paul Dowswell

This was a present from Jobeda, and - despite the slightly trashy implications of the title - turned out to be a bit of a treat.  It's short at 132 pages of largish print and its focus it relatively narrow, but for the kind of anecdotal history it is, it's told with a surprising degree of insight and outrage, and ended up being quite a good introductory-level overview.  In fact, I suspect that sticking with more traditional histories would have left a hole in my reading, since True Stories takes for its focus some of the less widely discussed events and aspects of the war.  A good, fun (as far as the word can possibly apply) jumping off point, then, for anyone with a loose interest in WW1 wondering where to go next, or perhaps a good Christmas present for a curmudgeonly grandparent.

Flanders by Patricia Anthony

My other trek into fiction-reading as research, coupled with an interest in seeing whether anyone else had taken a serious stab at WW1 genre fiction (that being how Flanders seems to be classified) - and though not quite the stunner that Regeneration is, Anthony's book still pretty much blew my socks off.  It's a gorgeous, grotesque, meandering, intricately detailed novel describing one US volunteer's experiences on the Western Front, as well as his visions of a beatific yet purgatorial afterlife - this being, presumably, why the book was released under a genre imprint, though it's a pretty damn tenuous classification if you ask me.

Anyway, I seriously recommend this, whether you're interested in the war or not, though good luck finding a version with a cover that wasn't Photoshopped together by an eight year old.*

World War One: A Short History by Norman Stone

 Of the overview histories, this is the best I've found so far, a solid and comprehensive look at the war that's short and easy to digest for the amateur scholar or lazy, half-arsed novelist both.

That said, there isn't a lot else I have to say about it.  Um ... I like the cover image.  But shouldn't the horse have a gas mask too?  Or, you know, not be on a battlefield in the first place.  (All else aside, good luck finding a successful cavalry charge anywhere in the annals of World War One.) 

Damn it, thinking about this has reminded of me of what an awful film War Horse was.  Let's move on, shall we?

One Man's War: Letters From a Soldier Killed at the Battle of Loos by Harold Chapin

Obviously part of the point of this post is that some of these books will appeal to people who aren't studying WW1 or planning to write a novel set during it.  Of the ones that fall into that category, I'd recommend this to almost everyone.  It does what it says on the tin, it costs seventy seven pence* and, Chapin being a playwright, it's a beautiful bit of writing that's by turns fascinating and heart breaking.  These are Chapin's letters to his wife, mother, mother in law and infant son, and out of those you can guess which ones tend to leave you choking up the most.  (Hint: it's not the ones to his mother-in-law.)

* This is the least awful one I could find, and it's still pretty damn awful.

** Which, thinking about it, seems a little cheeky since - aside from a very minimal introduction - this is entirely the work of someone who clearly won't be seeing a penny from it, (the clue to that fact being in the title.)  Still, profiteering from the work of war casualties aside, it's not a lot of money.

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