Friday, June 12, 2009

This Means War

At my son's last non-tournament baseball game, I was doing the usual: asking people what books they were reading while we all tried not to choke on infield dust the kids kicked up. One dad confessed that he was reading a "chick book," Margaret Atwood's THE ROBBER BRIDE. It fell into the chick book category because the three primary characters were women, and so was the antagonist.

(Minor digression: in grad school, the English professors would play a game called Humiliation. To win the game, you had to name the most famous book you'd never read, like MOBY DICK or DAVID COPPERFIELD. Now who said academics aren't fun? Anyhow, I have never read one single word of Margaret Atwood.)

"Then I must be reading a guy book," I answered. I'm on page 266 of Roger Crowley's EMPIRES OF THE SEA, a history of the siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto, and there hasn't been one single woman yet. Instead there are Ottoman Turks and Knights of Saint John and pirates and popes and sultans. (This was another book billed as "exciting as any thriller" on the cover by no less than John Julius Norwich, author of the 736-page A HISTORY OF VENICE, but that must be because EMPIRES is only 291 pages--a mere novella in Norwich's eyes.)

Are war history books necessarily guy books? While I'm not crazy about EMPIRES and only found it exciting when I got to Lepanto, there have been many battle histories I've loved. NELSON'S TRAFALGAR: THE BATTLE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD by Roy Adkins is flat-out thrilling. Weapons and ships hadn't changed much between Lepanto (1571) and Trafalgar (1805), which is what made Nelson's tactics so brilliant. I also loved Richard Zack's THE PIRATE COAST, a history of Jefferson's war with the Barbary Pirates and the real reason the Marines sing about the "shores of Tripoli."

Maybe books set in wartime are guy books if you're actually in the battle and chick books if you're fleeing or sitting at home--think VANITY FAIR or GONE WITH THE WIND. Then there's the unclassifiable MARCH, where the guy goes to battle (somewhat) but behaves like a woman.

"We could have peace now, if we didn't love war so much," reads the bumper sticker. And we humans do love a good war! Even if you don't go in for war books, chick books would also go nowhere without a conflict. Is fighting for oil any dumber than the plot of BRIDE WARS? Do humans come off worse in the Crusades than in DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES? Give me a good naval battle any day.

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