The Iraq War and Fiction

For most wars in our history there has been great literature produced. We can all name one or two definitive novels of wars past, such as The Red Badge of Courage for the Civil War, All Quiet on the Western Front for World War I, War and Remembrance or The Naked and the Dead for World War II, and The Things They Carried for the Vietnam War.

For a few years now we have been seeing fiction about the Iraq War experience. The question is, have we yet found the definitive novel? What do we look for in defining a war’s experience? Stories of the war? Stories about the people who fought that war? Stories of what it is like to come home, having fought such a war? In the case of the Irag war, we are offered a variety of fiction from which to choose.

Fives and Twenty-fives, by Michael Pitre, tells the story of three soldiers from a construction battalion that spent its time filling potholes in the roads in Iraq. The title is based on the technique used to ensure you keep your distance from the bombs that may be lurking in those potholes. A New York Times notable book for 2012, it was cited for its careful character studies, especially of an Iraqi soldier working for the Americans and his somewhat divided loyalties.

Fobbit, by David Abrams, tells the story of soldiers who spend all of their time in the relative comfort and safety of a forward operating base (FOB), rather than the front lines of the war. His unusual, but likely realistic interpretation, is that not everyone in uniform is a hero. More darkly humorous than most of the current books on the Iraq war, some have compared its satire to the formidable Catch-22.

The novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, offers yet another view of the war. Fountain takes the country as a whole to task for its all-too-easy celebration of the war’s heroes (walking them out at the halftimes of football games), while having little at stake in the war. Only one half of one-percent of Americans ever served.

One of the best Iraq War novels so far has been The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. It is the  beautifully written story of two very young soldiers who become friends during their first deployment in Iraq, and the tragedies that ensue. A story that moves back and forth almost jarringly between scenes of horrifying and ill-defined battles in Iraq and moments spent back home, it leaves the reader with a deep sense of how hard it is to shake the war experience and just go on living.

Finally there is Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award for fiction. While the writing does not perhaps rise to the level of The Yellow Birds, the stories are nonetheless grittier, and filled with an even deeper sense of the war’s—of any war’s—horrors and effects on its participants.

Doubtless there will be much more fiction produced about the Iraq War. What have you read? What do you think are the best works so far, the ones you would recommend?

Why We Are Still Here

Yesterday I was working with a woman who needed help applying for jobs. Both of the jobs were in housekeeping, and both required an online application. The woman was not at all comfortable navigating the online environment, but the two employers allowed no other avenue for applying.
I spend most of my days doing one thing and another involving online technology, whether it’s entering book records into an online catalog, posting library events on social media, or dealing with the library’s business via e-mail. We got one application filed, but at a certain point in the next one I hit a snag I could not get past. I tried answering the questions on this page several different ways, but I kept getting the message that ‘There are errors on this page.’ It was very frustrating, and in the end the woman I was helping left to call the employer and tell them there seemed to be a problem with their application process.
But the larger point I took away from this experience—and it is certainly not the first time I have observed this—is that we are fast moving towards a digital world that disenfranchises many people. Sure, our kids have long since incorporated most technologies into their daily lives, perhaps too much. And we as adults are mostly comfortable using Websites and e-mail and smartphones. But what about all those people who, because of education, economic status or other factors, simply have not learned about these things? Do we just leave them behind?
Ever since I have worked in libraries (29 years now) I have been hearing that libraries are obsolete and on their way out. This is said mostly by people who don’t know much about libraries, but it still bothers me to hear it repeated from time to time. When I spend an afternoon working with someone like this woman yesterday, it reminds me again of one of the more important reasons we are here, and why we will need to be here for quite a few years to come.

Corporate Authors?

When my daughter was younger, she read through the entire Warriors series of books, those epic tales of tribes of feral cats and their many adventures. The books are written by Erin Hunter, and at one point during her fascination with the series I learned that Erin Hunter is not a person—it is the name used by a group of six experienced children’s book writers who share authorship of the books.

I pointed this out to a co-worker the other day, and she said, Oh, like Nancy Drew? She then informed me of something I had never known—that Carolyn Keene, author of those great old mysteries for young readers, was also not a real person, but a corporate name for a group of authors who wrote the books. They were another product in what was known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate, founded by Edward Stratemeyer early in the 20th century.

It was Stratemeyer’s idea to employ groups of authors to turn out book series for kids. All of the authors, who were originally paid $125 per book, were required to give up all rights to the books. Over the years Stratemeyer Syndicate authors produced the book series The Bobbsey Twins (Laura Lee Hope), Tom Swift  (Victor Appleton), The Hardy Boys (Franklin W. Dixon), and of course Nancy Drew, in addition to several other less well-known series. A study in 1922 found that the overwhelming majority of books that children were reading in America were produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

In my years I have learned to deal with the idea that the books of some authors, such as Margaret Truman or Elliott Roosevelt, were all written by ghost authors. It happens. But when I was a kid, avidly reading the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, I had distinct images of what Franklin W. Dixon or Victor Appleton looked like. They meant a lot to me. So now, at this late age, it is not easy to be so disillusioned.

What do you think? Does it matter whether the authors we loved as kids are real people or not?


Thanks to the Municipal Library Consortium’s decision to subscribe to LibraryElf, it is now easier than ever to keep track of all your library materials.

Who uses Elf?

  • Anyone who wants to reduce overdue fines
  • Families with children and lots of books
  • Individuals with several library cards
  • Anyone who requests a lot of holds


What’s delivered?

  • Email and/or RSS alerts before items are due
  • Email and/or RSS alerts on overdue items and holds
  • Consolidated list of yours or your family’s library loans and holds
  • Cellphone text message alerts for holds
  • Real-time checking by browser




Go to and click on “Library Elf” to sign up today!


Libraries and Tax Forms

As recently as the 1980s there were several places around town where taxpayers could find the forms needed for annual filing. Among these were public libraries, post offices, even some grocery stores! In time, all but one of these has abdicated this responsibility–the public library. The problem is that it is not in anyone’s core mission to provide tax forms, nor are there laws specifying where they can be found. So if the U.S. Postal Service decides not to bother, they have that right.

Public libraries work more closely with their clientele. We understand people’s needs, and so we have never stopped providing tax forms. But providing this service is dependent upon the state and federal government sending us forms to distribute in the first place. For the past several years, both have been cutting back on what they will send us. Missouri especially has greatly curtailed the forms they make available, while the federal government has been cutting back a little more slowly.

However, we just received notice from the Internal Revenue Service that due to recent budget cuts, they really need to transition to electronic filing more aggressively. They are sending us significantly fewer forms this year. Most troubling is the fact that they will not send any instruction booklets for the 1040 and other basic forms. For years we have been working with library patrons to show them how to visit the IRS Website and print out the forms they need. But printing out whole instruction booklets can get pretty expensive. Of course there’s the option of finding the booklet online and reading through it while you work on your forms, but that is not an option for people who are either not online at home or who simply do not know how to use the Internet.

On one hand we see it as a good idea for the IRS and state governments to transition to online filing: it saves tons of money and it saves tons of paper. Every year, libraries throw out or recycle boxes and boxes of forms nobody needed. But even though many millions of Americans have long been comfortable using online resources, there are still significant numbers of our fellow citizens who are not. We hope we will be able to go on helping them, but sometimes it seems like the ‘powers that be’ make it awfully hard to do that.

Good Enough for Me . . .

We have long pondered the question of how old to say Webster Groves Public Library is. This is an important question, because we are, by most measures, the oldest public library in St. Louis County, rivaled in the region only by the older St. Louis Public Library. Last year we completed a comprehensive history of the library which shows that Webster Groves Public Library has been around in one version or another since 1884.

It was in 1884 that a group at First Congregational Church started a public reading room. By 1893, that reading room was moved to a larger space within the Church’s new sanctuary. It was open to the public until 10 at night six days a week. When First Congregational Church tired of providing a public reading room, the mantle was taken up by the ladies of the Monday Club of Webster Groves. In 1911 they opened their club building, which included space for a public library. This library was reported on in the annual reports of the Missouri Library Commission, which called it either The Monday Club Library or Webster Groves Public Library.

It wasn’t until 1927 that the citizens of Webster Groves passed their first tax levy for public library services, and in October 1928 the library building in Frank Hamsher High School was dedicated. This begs the question–do we count our history from 1884 or from 1927? Counting from 1884, we are by far the oldest library in St. Louis County. Counting from 1927, we are rivaled by Kirkwood, where they passed a library tax in 1924.

I just noticed that St. Louis Public Library is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. They are counting 150 years from 1865, when a members-only, subscription library was created in the city of St. Louis. It wasn’t until 1893 that a tax levy was passed to support a public library. The way I see it, if it’s good enough for St. Louis Public Library, it’s good enough for us.

Thus Webster Groves Public Library is 131 years old, far and away the oldest public library in St. Louis County. Too bad we are still years away from a sesquicentennial celebration or any other milestone. But it’s still nice to know.

Foodie Movies

I saw a movie last night called Chef, a 2014 release starring Jon Favreau, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johanssen, Sofia Vergara and about a dozen other people. It was pretty good, not great, but enjoyable mostly for the wonderful scenes of food being prepared, which is a kind of theater enjoyed by a certain type of viewer–namely, foodies.

Over the years there have been a number of great food movies. The first I remember is the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast, based on a novel by Karen Blixen (most famous for Out of  Africa). There was also Big Night, from 1996, starring Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci as brothers and partners in an Italian restaurant. In 1994 Ang Lee gave us Eat Drink Man Woman, about a Chinese restaurant owner dealing with his three independent daughters.

These were all good movies, memorable mostly for their scenes of what many critics call ‘food porn’: lovingly rendered closeups of cutting and sauteing and displaying food on plates in splendid, colorful, steamy profusion. For this alone, most of these movies are watched again and again by foodies.

I wonder if I’m missing any? Do you know of any other great food movies? How about great scenes of food in otherwise not foodie movies?