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on November 17, 2016
In the preface of BURNING THE DAYS, James Salter explains that this book—a recollection, not a memoir—originated with “The Captain’s Wife”, which was “a kind of personal essay” that Esquire published in 1986. According to Salter, Joe Fox, his editor at Random House, liked this essay, which had a lyrical and elegant tone and conveys the experiences of Salter in his twenties when he was a pilot in the air force and in love with the wife of a close friend. Fox urged Salter to write more and—voila!—BURNING THE DAYS.

Salter is a wonderful writer. Here, for example, is a typical Salter paragraph… this one from the chapter “Icarus”, in which his primary subject is learning to fly.

“Early flights, the instructor in the rear cockpit, the bumpy taxiing on the grass, turning into the wind, tail swinging around, dust blowing, and then the abrupt, wild sound of the engine. The ground was speeding by, the wheels skipping, and suddenly we were rising in the din to see the blue line beyond the field boundary and below, the curved roofs of the hangars falling away. Now, fields appeared, swimming out in all directions. The earth became limitless, the horizon, unseen before, rose to fill the world and we were aloft in unstructured air.”

BURNING THE DAYS has two sections. In the first, Salter discusses his family, his career at West Point, and his experiences as an air force pilot who moves from base to base, switches from freighters to fighters, and eventually flies combat missions in Korea. “Burning the Days”, the final chapter in this section, describes the life of an established pilot who is part of a highly specialized subculture that has its own rhythms, values, and heroes. Altogether, this first section of BTD is brilliant and cohesive and is surely one of the best memoirs I’ve read.

Meanwhile, the risky second section of this book, while retaining Salter’s wonderful lyricism, lacks the arc of a single narrative. Instead, this four-part section reads like highly accomplished magazine articles that are unified only in voice. In these four standalone pieces, Salter writes about his friendship with the once popular novelist Irwin Shaw, his adventures over a lifetime in Paris, the frustrations of a screenwriter in the movie business, and the friendships and projects that became Salter’s life in book publishing. Section two is lovely but also disjointed. It reads long.

My edition of this memoir has a back-cover blurb that declares “…BURNING THE DAYS is marvelous both for its powers of recollection and for the way it structures its memories into a dazzling meditation on time, desire, pleasure, and regret.” This is spot-on.

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VINE VOICEon August 28, 2015
James Salter died two months ago, having lived a full life, to the age of 90. I only recently became acquainted with his work, having read his classic, published in 1967, A Sport and a Pastime: A Novel (FSG Classics), a title inspired by a verse from the Koran, implying the very transient nature of life. His novel is a wonderfully sensual telling of an early love affair with a young French woman, "... the flash of an elegant calf, and you are tumbled into unbearable love." In his summing up, he states: "Ironically, the portrait I made of her she never read." Yes, ironic indeed, but fortunately it is not always true: some do read, and find the yearnings metaphorically expressed by a magnolia tree with its fragrant blossoms.

Salter was born James Arnold Horowitz, in New York, into a Jewish family with Eastern European origins. His father had graduated from West Point at the end of the First World War, and James, with the change in last name, would graduate from his father's alma mater at the end of the Second World War. The first half of the book are his recollections from his West Point days and his subsequent military career. Although missing the big war, he would go on to3 be a fighter pilot in the Korean War. His hero was Antoine de St-Exupéry, a French fighter pilot and writer, most famous for Wind, Sand, and Stars as well as the children's classic, The Little Prince. Pilots today are in danger of obsolescence, with computerized drones on the one hand, and the fear of a human pilot deliberately flying the plane into a mountain or an ocean. St-Exupéry however, as well as Salter, flew during the glory days, pre-GPS; pilots were indispensable, and their courage and intellectual capacity were the difference between life and death. Salter's prose on flying, I feel, is the equivalent of St-Exupéry, brilliant and thrilling.

Unmentioned though is the work of another French pilot and writer, the pied-noir, Jules Roy. And I feel the deficiency critical. Roy flew on bombers, and participated in the fire-bombing of Dresden, and later wrote an account of it, the sardonically entitled La vallée heureuse. Roy at least reflected upon what was happening on the ground; Salter never did. True, Salter was a fighter pilot, in combat with the MIG's over northern Korea, but he never once mentions the fate of the "grunts," the infantry, as they raced up and down the peninsula, before reaching deadlock. [Note: my next review, the first one I will post of a movie, will be of Hearts And Minds (Blu-ray + DVD)which provides much insight into the fate of those on the ground.] Salter mentions that he was in uniform from 17 to 31, and that he was asked by a woman at a cocktail party why he had spent so much time in the military, and he never provider her, nor the reader of "recollections" a real answer.

The second half of the book is after his resignation from the military, due, in part, to the success of his novel. His ticket is "punched," and he enters the literary world. Salter provides a string of anecdotes, a "celebrity-culture" type of account of the literary world, but with sparkling prose and, at times, incisive character summations. He was probably closest to Irving Shaw, a writer I have never read, who had fled America for Europe after being "black-listed" during the McCarthy era. Overall, there was the feel of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition,but instead of the `20's and Paris, it ranged over all of Europe, in the `50's and `60's.

In terms of prose that resonated, he said of St-Exupéry: "He disappeared in July, 1944, his aircraft one of the many simply lost without trace in the great sweep of the war. Blue sea of glittering beauty, the sea of which Cervantes fought and where history was born- somewhere within it lie the bones of this secular saint." The sea is the "mother sea," the Mediterranean. He quotes St-Exupéry, but never reflects on his own actions: "Fighters don't fight, they murder." More pleasantly, and resonating even stronger: "Much has faded but not the incomparable taste of France, given then so I would always remember it. I know that taste, the yellow headlights flowing along the road at night, the towns by a river, the misty mornings, the thoughts of everything that happened there, the notes that confirmed it and made it imperishable."

Towards the end, I felt the anecdotes increasingly choppy and ill-formed. Yet he grabbed my attention with a dinner with David Halberstram, and the subject of John Paul Vann, which Neil Sheehan would write much more extensively about in A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam .On the other hand, no "bon mots" of critical insight were provided, and that is my central complaint: a summing up should probe deeper into the issues of motivation. Overall, 4-stars.
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on December 18, 2014
James Salter is a wonderful writer and his life has been wonderfully exciting. These memoirs reflect his adventures in war and peace, and that is at the same time the strength and the weakness of this book. It beautifully describes episodes and events, from dogfights with Russian Migs to meetings with literary luminaries, from the boredom of pilots waiting for their next sortie, to friendships with extremely interesting people. It is therefore much more episodic than for instance his masterpiece "All there is", and in reading "Burning the days" I sometimes had the feeling that I was jumping from one, admittedly beautiful, ice floe to another, searching for a connecting line. However, Salter's writing is so beautiful, his controlled use of the language so superb, and the life he describes so interesting that this book richly deserves four stars.
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on May 24, 2013
"Burning The Days" is not a marvel all the way through. BUT, there are luminous passages that will make you gasp. At one point, I thought I'd burst into tears at the magnificence of Salter's wording. Other times, I was simply in awe.

The first half of the book about flying is the best. The last several pages in the flying section are fantastic!

When Salter begins recounting people ( and places) he remembers- as he gets a bit older- after his flying career has ended, the book could bog down. However, this second part of the book is "saved" by the author's extreme honesty. The interesting "thing" to me is just how much Salter is willing to divulge about himself-- as he captures others' lives.

Regarding Salter's great sentences, words seemlessly flow. You don't get the feeling that he's trying to put words that will amaze on the page. For these marvelous sentences alone, scattered throughout the book, "Burning The Days" is absolutely worth it.
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on April 27, 2016
The writing is compelling, I was never bored reading it and looked forward to getting back to it. His writing flows smoothly. He omits all substantive mention of his relationship with his wife and children, maybe with the exception of his daughter's death. His failure to address his life as a husband and father was obviously a conscious decision. I would have respected him more if he simply said he was a terrible husband and father, or even if he explained why he decided not to write about that aspect of his life. I didn't expect a faultless hero, but I also didn't expect this fault of his to be so grossly unaddressed.
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on October 7, 2016
If you love words as Salter does, crisp or mulled, sipped or drank but never gulped, always from very good casks, you'll enjoy this book. It is filled with so many people and memories that one can only marvel at his memory and the breadth of his life. Besides words, he is addicted to people who were somewhat famous or should have been,and especially to women. It is something of connective tissue to many of the books he's written, most of which I've read, so there's that if you are a devotee, but I think it can stand on its own.
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on December 30, 2009
Every James Salter book is brilliant, but to me, Burning the Days is the very best.

In this "recollection," Salter shares his personal memories in exquisitely written descriptions of experiences with intriguing people and time spent in fascinating places all over the world. As in all of Salter's work, each word matters. Many sentences take my breath away.

In the preface he writes:

"If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house. Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly. Visitors come and go. At some windows you may wish to stay longer, but alas. As with any house, all within cannot be seen."

This is a perfect description of Salter's selective moments, a book "only about certain things, the essential, in my view, the world as it was, at least for me."

My original copy is so covered with underlines and comments around the margins that it's almost unreadable. Subsequent copies are scrawled with notes as well. This is a book that stays with me. Each rereading brings surprises and reveals nuances about this exceptional writer and fascinating man. Every page is filled with ideas and stories and influences that make a very different time in American life come alive. I especially love way he writes about New York in the 1950's and '60's, and about his relationship with Irwin Shaw. There is, of course, so much more that is memorable.

Burning the Days is a treasure.
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on September 1, 2015
The writing in this is delicious. This is a memoir of James Horowitz AKA Salter's early life, years at West Point, career as a pilot in the Korean War and this his years as a writing. To me, the best parts are the years at West Point and his years in the service. It begins to bog down toward the end. That being said, you will not find a more lyrical writer.
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on September 25, 2015
A very acute and senstive view of a man's life who, regretfully, always seems to be a number two (but likes it). The beginning which is a flashback to World War II in the Pacific is truly memorable. I want to read his other books, and I am sorry that he passed away recently and can't comment on his prior work.
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on May 16, 2006
I love Salter's fiction. After reading "Burning the Days", his autobiography (memoirs if your prefer), I'm not sure that I like the man - but the book review should have nothing to do with that personal opinion.

Salter's writing style is unusual. The syntax often makes one stop and reconstruct, thus stop and think. On rare occasions it's nonsensical. I particularly was annoyed with the confusion of general pronouns among mixed proper pronouns, the result being that I couldn't figure out who he was talking about. That said, his use of the language is superb. It's there in all of his work. And he's a wonderful "observer and describer" of people and things.

His life story is, of course, fascinating. Raised in privilege in NYC. West Point. Combat jet fighter pilot. Author. Director. Screeenwriter. Literary socialite. World traveler.

His singularly candid recounting of his years at West Point was excellent in quality and style. He gives West Point to us warts and all. And his internal struggles. Loathing it, living it, finally loving it.

The tales of flight are absolutely riveting. Nobody does it better. True storytelling that sometimes touches your heart, and sometimes raises your heartrate with the tension. In reading these memoirs I found that as I had suspected, his first novel, "The Hunters", was largely autobiographical. For me, this only adds to the greatness of that work.

The writing years seemed to be a little slower reading. At least for me. And I can't decide whether Salter was indulging in a little "name dropping". In any case, he travels in high company. He is loyal to and generous to his friends. Plenty of saucy tales, no vulgarity. Well done.

I do not share his love for Paris. Salter breathes it. Perhaps it rejected me, as Salter claims Rome rejected him. No matter - Salter is an accomplished individual, in a wordly way, and travels in circles far above the heads of most of us. He does not claim to be atheist, but his overtures toward God (or gods) are tenuous and ambiguous. As I wrote earlier, I'm not sure I like him - but I savour his work.

This is an unusual autobiography of rare quality. Generally, Salter presents himself as he often presents his fictional characters. If you've read any of his novels, you understand what I mean.

This autobiography is not for the People magazine crowd. It is thoughtful and broad in scope, spanning an accomplished man's life. I recommend it.
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