“There isn’t always an explanation for everything.”

61h05xx7u-lBooks on Tap read A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway  at Champion Brewery on November 2. Ostensibly a novel about an American ambulance driver and English nurse who fall in love at the Italian Front during World War I, it was quickly recognized as “one of the few great war stories in American literature.” The plight of the main character, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, closely mirrors the author’s experience in Italy during the war. They both drove ambulances, served briefly (Frederic seems to fight for two days within the book), suffered severe knee injuries in a mortar attack which left the men around them dead and received Italian war medals. They then both fell in love with a nurse while recovering in Milan, but in Hemingway’s case the affection was not shared.

Not all participants had read Hemingway previously and those who had didn’t recall all the details of this book. The first thing we discussed was the tone of the novel. Like Hemingway’s other works, it is terse but in this case it is not evocative. Two of us listened to the audiobook, where the repetition wasn’t as noticeable and the rhythms of the conversations tended toward the lyrical. The realism of the book is overshadowed by the drippy dialog between Frederic and nurse Catherine (we wondered if the author was capable of writing a female character) and the lack of urgency in the interpersonal relationship. However, the scenes of the retreat and river escape aligned with our pre-conceptions of Hemingway’s style and conveyed his message about war. Some readers compared these scenes to The Revenant book and movie and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

There is room for ambiguity in the realistic description of war. No one seems to care about the cause of the conflict and the Italians differ in opinion on tactics and leadership. The unceasing rain, while historically accurate, also emphasizes the long slog characteristic of this war and the ultimate interiority of the main characters, cloistered in hotels and hospitals. Catherine claims that the war will never end and their unborn child will become a general. Frederic and an Italian priest contemplate the end, saying “It is in defeat that we become Christian. . . I don’t mean technically Christian. I mean like our Lord. . . We are all gentler now because we are beaten.” Through unimaginable bloodshed, we earn acceptance and humility.

Mysteries abound in this novel. Why was Frederic in Italy before the war? Was he really studying architecture? Where did they find the money to stay in Switzerland for months? Why were they estranged from both families? Perhaps the biggest mystery is Catherine. Does she truly love Frederic or is this a relationship of convenience, swept up in the war. How could a women who worked a dangerous, arduous job, an atheist who lived independently from her family be as clingy and afraid of upsetting her partner as Catherine was? Her obsession with thinness made us wonder if Hemingway or Frederic were the misogynist.

The ending was so abrupt that some audiobook listeners weren’t sure that the novel had ended. However, another reader pointed out that the ending is fitting – this self-absorbed couple doesn’t have a future and may not have been in love. One astute reader shared her favorite alternate ending, available in some paperback editions: “When I woke the sun was coming in the open window and I smelled the spring morning after the rain and there was a moment, probably it was only a second, before I began to realize what it was that had happened. And then I knew that it was all gone now and that it would not be that way any more.”

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Battle of Caporetto map and more on the Italian Front.
Other works
WWI reading list
Confidential to Will: Is this it?

Books on Tap Information:

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Previous titles

“You only need one ray of light to chase all the shadows away.”

18774964Brown Baggers met on October 20 to discuss Fredrik Backman’s wildly popular debut novel A Man Called Ove. The book follows a recently widowed and retired 59-year-old man who is a bit of a curmudgeon while he figures out what to do next with his life. It has sold nearly three million copies worldwide.

Most readers enjoyed Ove and his adventures. While some felt the character was too curmudgeonly, most liked his bad attitude and after a discussion, decided he might fall somewhere on the autism spectrum and be a bit OCD.

Readers thought this book was poignant, and said it had them laughing and crying at the same time — a rare occurrence when reading a novel. 

They mused over Sonja’s motivations in marrying such a thorny character as Ove. Maybe she liked how odd he was. But most decided she needed to be needed as completely as Ove needed her. This was also reflected in the career she chose, as a teacher for difficult and special needs children.

The novel skips around in time, but it didn’t bother readers. They enjoyed how the author used this device to set up his big reveals and slowly unfurl Ove’s backstory.

Readers who had seen the movie adaptation felt it was remarkably well done and approved of the casting. News had recently been released that Tom Hanks would play Ove in the American adaptation, which stirred more discussion from the group.

More Information:
Author Bio
Interview with author
Other works by author
Swedish film adaptation

Other Titles Mentioned:
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

Brown Baggers will meet next on Thursday, November 16th at noon to discuss Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. The following meeting will be on December 21st at noon to select books for the next 12 months. Join us for a holiday potluck and some lively voting.

New Historical Novels

Looking for a new read featuring characters from history? Here are a few recently received historical novels about women.

The Other Alcott – Louisa May Alcott’s younger sister May, perhaps the inspiration behind Little Women‘s Amy, is the protagonist of this novel.
All That Makes Life Bright – Follow the life of Harriet Beecher as she meets her future husband and builds her life as a writer.

I, Eliza Hamilton  – Alexander Hamilton is all the rage right now, so if you’d like to learn more about that period grab this novel that has his wife Eliza as the strong-willed main character.

Caroline: Little House, Revisited  – This tale is told from the point of view of Laura Ingall Wilder’s mother Caroline, as she sets out west while pregnant.