“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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World War I and America

wwi&a logo

JMRL is delighted to have the opportunity to take part in the national initiative World War I and America. This initiative coincides with the 100th anniversary of the nation’s 1917 entry into the war, and seeks to explore its lasting legacy.

We hope that you will join us in one or more of the events planned in this series:

Reading Lists:

To learn more about World War I, check out the audiobooks and ebooks in our OverDrive collection.

Featured Events:

Read Local: William Walker’s Betrayal at Little Gibraltar
Sunday, October 22 at 2pm
Central Library
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, join local author and educator William Walker as he discusses his book about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, Betrayal at Little Gibraltar.

Page to Screen Movie Night
Wednesday, October 25 at 7pm
Gordon Avenue Library
Paths of Glory (1957)

Central Film Series
Thursday, October 26 at 7pm
Central Library
War Horse (2011)

Books on Tap
Thursday, November 2 at 7pm
Champion Brewing Company
Discussion of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Veterans and Mental Health
Sunday, November 5 at 2pm
Central Library
Join us for a presentation about mental health by the Mitchell Hash Foundation. The Mitchell Hash Foundation helps those who struggle with thoughts of suicide as well as educates the general public about suicide. This talk will focus on the mental health needs of veterans.

WWI and America Book Group
Tuesday, November 7 at 11am
The Haven
Join retired JMRL librarian and Vietnam veteran Bob Bjoring to listen to and discuss selected stories from the World War I and America reader in conjunction with veteran war experiences. No registration necessary. The World War I and America reader is also accessible online.

Film Screening and Discussion – All Quiet on the Western Front
Monday, November 13 at 6pm
Northside Library
Screening of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and discussion led by University of Virginia Associate Professor Carmenita Higginbotham.

The Human Side of War
Wednesday, November 15 at 6pm
CitySpace
Charlottesville High School students present excerpts from videos and podcasts produced in partnership with local Vietnam veterans.

Books Sandwiched In
Friday, November 17 at 12pm
Northside Library
A book review, usually of non-fiction titles, presented by a guest speaker. It is not necessary to have read the book to attend the program. Independent scholar Rick Potter will discuss the history and provide context for the book.
The Englishman’s Daughter: a True Story of Love and Betrayal in WWI by Ben Macintyre



These programs are part of World War I and America, a two-year national initiative of The Library of America presented in partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and other organizations, with generous support from The National Endowment for the Humanities.

“In defending himself from death, he lost his grip on life.”

2475251Books on Tap read The Cellist of Sarajevo  by Steven Galloway at  Champion Brewery on April 6. The novel follows three characters as they make choices while living in Sarajevo while the city was under siege from April 1992 to February 1996 during the Bosnian War. The titular cellist and one of those main characters are based on real people. Vedran Smailovic did play for 22 days to publicly protest the bombing of 22 civilians in a breadline. However, The Cellist of Sarajevo angered him. Galloway was inspired to create the character Arrow after reading an 1992 AP article about a 20 year-old female sniper.   In the novel, Arrow tries to distance herself from the murders she commits, while preventing a sniper from the other side from killing the cellist while he plays for  22 days at the site of the bread line bombing. Elsewhere in the city, Kenan risks his life to traverse the city to gather water for his young family and his cantankerous neighbor.  Dragan, who has sent his wife and son to live a few hours away in Italy, still works at a bakery, but has to live with his sister because his apartment was destroyed by a bomb. While most of the novel revolves around the interior choices the characters make to maintain their humanity against the backdrop of the destruction of their civilized city, the physical risks they take on their journeys throughout the city maintain narrative tension.

To begin the conversation, we tried to remember what we knew about the Bosnian war and the limits the UN faced in guarding civilians. We also wondered if readers in Galloway’s native Canada would be more familiar with the history because Canadian troops and leaders were heavily involved in the UN Protection Force charged with peacekeeping in the area. Galloway intentionally does not provide the reader with extensive background information about the Siege or his characters in order to expose the survival conditions that existed in the city and the basic humanness of each person in the book.

The destroyed buildings and infrastructure and the murders that the main characters witness while on the streets of Sarajevo underpin the randomness of war and the seeming powerlessness of humans. However, we discussed the choices that each of them make to reaffirm their humanity. Dragan both chooses to see the city he remembers and its current bombed-out iteration. He chooses both to be annoyed by his brother-in-law and to risk his life to ensure that a stranger doesn’t die alone in the street. Kenan chooses to gather extra water for his elderly neighbor and not to go into the hills like his friend. Arrow chooses to kill the sniper trained on the cellist, despite her initial hesitation and also chooses not to kill the elderly man her new commander demands she shoot. That man clearly has ties to Arrow’s enemies in the hills but she knows that the killing has to stop with someone and she would rather die than continue to be a machine of death. Continue reading