Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front
by
Erich Maria Remarque

Rating:

On the cover of my copy of All Quiet on the Western Front, it also says “The Greatest War Novel of All Time.” I don’t know if I’ve read enough war novels to be an expert, but I can tell you it is one of the most powerful and moving books I’ve read.

German trench warfare. Image: Wikipedia

This is the story of World War I trench warfare and of Paul Baumer, a nineteen-year-old German soldier who has enlisted in the army. He and his schoolmates joined up at the recommendation of their schoolmaster and in short time must face the reality of a ruthless war. The novel mostly takes place on the front, where Paul and his comrades are fired upon and shelled and do the same to their French enemies in what becomes one of the most famous stalemates in history. Paul narrates his experiences and the deep bonds he develops with the men in his platoon, including the already close friendships with his boyhood friends and Albert Kropp, their superior.

One of the most intense times occurs after a brutal period when Paul returns home on leave. He describes his feelings of severe disconnection in seeing his family, whose lives, although by no means easy, are in stark contrast to what he has experienced. His father wants to know all the war stories, but Paul refuses, knowing that if he spoke about them, they’d be out there and would torment him forever. His mother, sick with cancer, wants reassurance that it’s not too bad on the front. Paul knows they will never understand what he and the other soldiers have gone through and so he lies to her, heart breaking at the pain of it.

On the night before leaving home again, Paul lies in his room,

I bite into my pillow. I grasp the iron rods of my bed with my fists. I ought never to have come here. Out there I was indifferent and often hopeless—I will never be able to be so again. I was a soldier, and now I am nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, for everything that is so comfortless and without end.

I highly recommend All Quiet on the Western Front. Erich Maria Remarque was in combat during World War I and was wounded five times, the last time severely. You can read more about him on this Wikipedia link.

As you can see by the list below, there are many war novels out there and I have only read a fraction of them. Which ones have you read?

Great war novels, BCM links

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Read but not reviewed, Goodreads links

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

Other war novels with Goodreads links

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Covenant with Death by John Harris
The Debacle by Émile Zola
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Empire of The Sun by J.G. Ballard
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
From Here to Eternity by James Jones
The Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
The Hunters by James Salter
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Regeneration by Pat Barker
Restless by William Boyd
The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

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A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms
by
Ernest Hemingway

Rating:

Each time I re-read a favorite classic, I finish with a new appreciation for the story and the author. It was no different this week when I picked up A Farewell to Arms. It’s such a well-known book, it’s tempting to think, “Oh, I already know that story. Why re-read it?” Why? Because each time you are guaranteed to get something different out of it. It had been at least twenty years since I had read A Farewell to Arms and I can’t remember if I’d read it only once or twice before. I have always liked Hemingway’s writing style and find his stories easy to read, but full of deeper ideas and feelings. And who doesn’t like a wartime love story?

This is a love story about Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver serving in the Italian army during World War I, who falls in love with a young English nurse, Catherine Barkley. Their relationship is just getting underway when Henry is badly wounded and sent to a Red Cross hospital in Milan. Catherine soon follows and the two begin a romance that is wholly defined by the circumstances that surround them.

This is a commentary on war as much as it is a romance, however and Hemingway used his own experiences as an ambulance driver during the war to tell it. He was badly wounded, just as Frederic Henry was, and recuperated for six months in Milan, where he fell in love with an American nurse named Agnes von Kurowski. They had planned to marry, but the relationship ended when Hemingway was sent home and she became engaged to an Italian officer.

Here’s a picture of (a very handsome) Hemingway while recuperating in Milan:

Photo: Britannica.com
Photo: Britannica.com

And here’s the (very pretty) nurse Hemingway fell in love with:

Agnes von Korowsky Photo: Wikipedia.org
Agnes von Korowsky Photo: Wikipedia.org

In his book, he talks about the Italian countryside in typical Hemingway style, describing the color of the sky, the sparkling water and the mountains above. And then he adds the Italian troops trying to fight against the Austrians, in impossible mountain terrain. Many of his characters question the purpose of the war. One of the drivers puts it plainly, “If everybody would not attack the war would be over.”

Henry sees the war clearest when he returns to duty:

Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

It’s this new understanding of the war that drives Henry’s decisions for the rest of the story, and when it ends in a hospital in Switzerland, Hemingway leaves the reader to think about how things might have been different, without the backdrop of war.

I enjoyed all of A Farewell to Arms, but the most exciting scene occurs late in the book and involves a rough trip in a rowboat on Lake Maggiore, which borders both Italy and Switzerland. This picture helped me imagine what would seem an impossible voyage.

Lake Maggiore Photo: Wikipedia
Lake Maggiore Photo: Wikipedia

If you’re a movie lover, you may be interested to know that there are two film versions of A Farewell to Arms:

  • In 1932, starring Helen Hayes, Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou. Directed by Frank Borzage. Screenplay by Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H.P. Garrett. It won two Academy Awards, one for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. The film was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Art Direction. Click here to visit IMDb for a full description of this film.
  • In 1957, starring Rock Hudson, Jennifer Jones and Vittorio De Sica. Directed by Charles Vidor and John Huston. Screenplay by Ben Hecht. Vittorio was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Visit IMDb for more information on this later film.

If you’re a Hemingway fan, you may enjoy the following:

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
“Hills Like White Elephants”
A Moveable Feast
The Old Man and the Sea

The Sun Also Rises
“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”


A Farewell to Arms, like other Hemingway stories and novels, is deceptively simple, with complex ideas, definitely worthy of a re-read or two! I may soon be returning to other Hemingway favorites. Who are your favorite authors? Do you have a favorite re-read? Has your experience been different each time?

Thank you to the following sources: Wikipedia.org and Biography.com.

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The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells pic
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by
Andrew Sean Greer

Rating:

What would you do if you discovered yourself living different lives during different times? What if, in these other lives, you had the chance to fix things, to point others towards happiness, or to alter your own life? What if you found a chance at happiness in one of these alternate lives, a chance that has been lost in your present life? These are some of the central questions Greta Wells must contemplate in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.

I loved this very original story by Andrew Sean Greer, in which Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941. In her modern world, Greta has just lost her adult twin brother to AIDS. Her long-time lover, Nathan, has left her and Greta is impossibly lost. Feeling hopeless, she agrees to electroconvulsive therapy and is surprised to find herself living both similar and different lives in these earlier times. During this twelve-week period, Greta receives twenty-five procedures and cycles between her three “impossible” lives. Early on, Greta wonders, “So maybe I can perfect their lives. And maybe, while I’m missing, they can perfect mine.”

These lives all take place in her Patchin Place apartment in Greenwich Village and Greta finds things that are both familiar and unknown about her circumstances. In her 1918 life, she has been unfaithful, in 1941 she has been betrayed and in both she watches as her brother Felix struggles to find a way to reconcile his homosexuality with what the times expect of him. Greta sees the relief and euphoria of one war ending and understands how only she can know that another war is coming.

Greta describes the 1918 soldiers returning from war and celebrating the future:

These same soldiers would come home, never speaking of what they’d seen, and marry those girls and raise children, and they would send those children off to war again. With Germany, again. We would be here again, in this parlor singing this same song. I stood there, in wonder, at the madness of it all.

While this is technically a story about time travel with well-placed historical references that really take you there, it’s mostly a story of love, understanding, forgiveness and second chances. I think the author does a great job showing Greta’s desire to get it right with Nathan, in at least one of her lives. She works hard, too, to create happiness for Felix by steering him towards the right people and encouraging him to acknowledge his homosexuality to her. In addition, Greer shows Felix’s personal pain of not fitting in, but desperately trying to do the right thing. These double-layered efforts fit just right with the twin relationship between Greta and Felix.

I’ve read some reviews complaining that the story is confusing. Its complexity did not bother me and, once you get the characters and their lives down, the story drives itself. I felt invested in all three time periods.

Here are some of the things I liked about the book:

  • Greta’s relationship with Nathan in 1941. Her capacity for forgiveness in this time period is very moving.
  • Learning about Patchin Place in New York. It’s fun to imagine what this part of Greenwich Village looked like then and Google Maps shows a great picture of the gated entrance.
Patchin Place in 1910
Patchin Place in 1910
Patchin Place now
Patchin Place now
  • The secret key and room in the Washington Square arch.
  • Greer’s use of three different clocks at the beginning of each chapter, with different times on each face. I can’t figure out what the different times mean, but I like thinking about them anyway.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“There almost has to be a heaven, so there can be a place where all things meet.”

“We are so much more than we assume.”

“What is a perfect world except for the one that needs you?”

“Mark your hour on earth.”

“I understood nothing, Felix. But it was a great show.”

A little bit of fantasy, a little bit of history, a little bit of sadness, and a lot of hope and understanding – this is a great read!

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