This history of World War I — To End All Wars by Alan Hochschild — was my favorite nonfiction book of 2011. I don’t usually think of World War I much, yet it was an astounding conflict in so many ways, with its vast loss of lifeless and the almost pointless way it started. I wasn’t really sure how the war ignited before I read this book, and now that I have more detailed knowledge, I’m not sure I can explain it any better. Basically, Austria invaded Serbia, and the rest of the countries of Europe really wanted to go to war, so they all jumped in.
Hochschild uses a smart structure for his history: He focuses on people in Britain, switching between the points of view of the generals running the war and the anti-war protesters trying to stop it. There’s plenty of futility to go around on all sides: The generals don’t understand that they can’t take out machine gun nests by throwing infantry and cavalry at it. Meanwhile, the conscientious objectors are trying turn public opinion that seems absolutely gung ho for war.
Hochschild tells the story through just a few characters, including the Pankhurst family, a mother and her daughters who were radical suffragettes — bombing buildings and rappelling into parliament — before they split over the war issue. The mother, Emmeline, became a fervent war supporter, while one of her daughters ran a prominent anti-war newspaper.
Finally, World War I has popped up in some uniquely personal contexts for me. My husband has been working on a history of his grandparents, who came to the United States from Ireland in 1913. His great uncle John came to the States around the same time, but was drafted and sent back Europe to fight with the Americans in 1918. Back in Ireland, the Easter Rising, which eventually led to the country’s independence, happened in 1916, right in the middle of the war.
On a lighter note, World War I is figuring heavily in the new season of my favorite TV show Downton Abbey.
I would strongly recommend this book to people who are interested in history but who find traditional scholarly treatises to be dull and plodding. This book is anything but.
I wrote this book talk on “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” by David Mitchell. What is a book talk? It’s a short presentation a librarian gives when she’s suggesting books for recreational reading. I learned how to give book talks in the Adult Services class at the University of South Florida’s library school, a class taught by the exemplary Dr. Kathleeen de la Pena McCook.
I don’t work in public libraries now, so I don’t have cause to write many book talks, and I wrote this one only because I liked the book so much and would like others to read it. Librarians, steal this book talk!
Book Talk on “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” by David Mitchell (paperback)
David Mitchell is one of those authors who seems to enjoy defying easy categories. In the course of a single book, he can go from historical adventure to detective mystery to science fiction. Or, he might write an autobiographical novel of a boy growing up in England in the 1980s against the backdrop of the Fauklands War. And then there are the literary critics who love him: He’s written five books, two of which have been finalists for the Man Booker Prize. They praise his unorthodox approach to narrative and timeline.
His latest book, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” is a traditional historical novel. It takes place on Dejima, a trading island off the coast of Japan at the end of the 18th century. Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk, arrives at the island charged with rooting out corruption at the trading company. His job is to reconcile the books between the Dutch traders and their Japanese hosts, keeping a special eye out for embezzlement and thievery. While working on Dejima, he falls in love with a young Japanese woman, Orito Aibagawa. Orito is studying with the island’s physician in order to become a midwife. She’s a smart, independent young woman who lives in a culture that admires conformity and submission.
Of course, any sort of relationship between the Japanese and foreigners, aside from trading, is forbidden. A romance between Jacob and Orito is impossible. But about halfway through the book, another plot reveals itself: There is a great evil hidden on the Japanese mountainside, in a shrine ostensibly devoted to the prayers of monks and nuns. Orito and Jacob must find a way to oppose that evil and bring it to an end. This struggle propels the rest of the novel forward.
So this is a very literary author taking a different tack and writing something that is essentially historical fiction. Still, most critics gave the book a rave. And well they should have, because “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is an engrossing read that like its author seems to enjoy crossing boundaries. At its heart, it’s a love story, though an unrequited one. It’s also a masculine adventure story, much like “Master and Commander,” told from the point of view of men seeking fortune and pursuing acts of bravery. It’s also high literary fiction, with lush and intricate descriptions of 18th century Japan, the land of a thousand autumns, from which the novel gets its name. Consider immersing yourself in the world of “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.”