Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A life of David Foster Wallace, by D.T. Max

I really liked this journalistic account of the life of David Foster Wallace. Its primary focus is on how his professional and personal life resulted in the publication of his novels and nonfiction, so a lot of it is about the publishing industry, universities where Wallace worked, and his literary friendships. Some of the reviews I read on Goodreads seemed to think the book wasn’t long enough, but it satisfied me — I did not want to read a long scholarly biography or extended analysis of his early childhood, etc.
A lot of this book is sad, though. It made me realize how private Wallace was in his life, and how little I knew about him (despite being a big fan) when he was alive. A lot of the revelations here involve his somewhat troubled personal life. I guess it should have been obvious to me that whoever wrote “Infinte Jest” would not be Mr. Happy Happy Normal, but I always liked to think of Wallace as living a life of basic contentment and balance. This book shows that wasn’t the case, at least part of the time, and in detail. On the whole though, I enjoyed this book, it was very readable, and it will certainly enhance my understanding of Wallace’s work. While I was reading it, I found myself constantly going back to my bookshelf to pull down Wallace’s work, and I can’t think of a better compliment to a literary biography than that. 

Books History

To End All Wars, by Alan Hochschild – Favorite Nonfiction of 2011

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.