The best stories on how people and societies grapple with the end of wars

The Books I Picked & Why

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

By Tony Judt

Book cover of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

Why this book?

My own background, process, and style have me reaching for ever-tinier stories that I think I can go deep on, in order to hopefully excavate something larger. Judt’s Postwar is the opposite: a colossal swing at a multi-decade period across European history. In this, he synthesizes political, economic, social, and cultural histories to guide the reader through Europe’s development after World War II. It’s a book where you find yourself going over each line a few times in order to make sure you’ve wrung all meaning from it and every sentence returns you to your notes.

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The Emigrants

By W.G. Sebald, Michael Hulse

Book cover of The Emigrants

Why this book?

Part of Sebald’s value (or the value of his project) is his deep exploration of German guilt, societally after World War II and in his father’s Wehrmacht service. Often, this guilt is explored through the self, in the associative vines that have him examine art, architecture, and history, to name only a few of the digressions one might encounter in all his worthwhile books. The explicit focus, as it were, of the Emigrants is on four uprooted Germans. It’s the saddest of his novels in my mind thanks to this displacement and the characters the reader comes to know.

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The Long Take: A Noir Narrative

By Robin Robertson

Book cover of The Long Take: A Noir Narrative

Why this book?

Of course, the guilt that exists after wars isn’t relegated to those who commit horrific crimes. It exists on the level of the individual, too, one who’s asked to take part in violence, a changing act, and who then must go back to wherever they have left. Robertson’s The Long Take is only one (particularly good) example of this type of narrative, set in post-war San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. It’s a gorgeous book and feels utterly coherent.

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By Inger Christensen, Susanna Nied

Book cover of Alphabet

Why this book?

It’s maybe inaccurate to describe this (not too) long poem as a society grappling with the aftermath of a war. There isn’t much grappling to be done, and it only partly exists after a war is through, to the extent a war like the one Christensen describes is ever through once it’s been started. It’s instead a litany of loss, of those things that can’t be reclaimed, which should instead be protected through the avoidance of war.

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Whereas: Poems

By Layli Long Soldier

Book cover of Whereas: Poems

Why this book?

Wars take a long time to end. Work is done to bury the loss, grief, and guilt described above as quickly as possible. Oftentimes the forces that stand to profit from this forgetting succeed, except among those groups which are either ignored or for whom the loss is too deep. What Layli Long Soldier’s brilliant Whereas discloses is how the acts of government, the papers generated like planks over a well, seek to hide that grief and loss, and how those groups might reclaim the stories those papers hope to disappear. 

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