Literature and War Readalong November 2011 Meets German Literature Month: The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll

I’m not sure all those who follow me for the Literature and War Readalong did notice that there was a change of title. It just didn’t feel right to read an American author depicting the Civil War during German Literature Month. This means The Killer Angels are postponed (?).

The choice for this month’s readalong is Heinrich Böll’s The Silent Angel aka Der Engel schwieg. This novel, by my favourite German writer, is a unique book. I will explore this in more detail in Thursday’s post on Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur aka On the Natural History of Destruction.

Here’s the blurb for Silent Angel

The first novel by the Nobel prize winner, never previously published. Written at the end of the Second World War it describes the death and destruction faced by the people of a city ravaged by war.

The readalong is not taking place on Friday but on Saturday 26 November. Anyone who wants to participate just leave a link in the comments section of my post, I will then add it to my post. Those who have no blogs are welcome to leave longer comments or send me an e-mail with their thoughts before Saturday and I will add them to my post. Should anyone prefer questions instead of freestyle, let me know. I could send out questions but give me time until Wednesday 23 November.

Watch out for Wednesday’s giveaway…

Joseph Roth, Irmgard Keun, Christa Wolf Giveaway -The Winners

It’s my pleasure to announce this week’s winners who have been drawn by random.org list generator.

The winner of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March is – megan

The winnder of Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight is – Susanna P. from Susie Bookworm

The winner of Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth is – Litlove from Tales from the Reading Room.

Happy reading, megan, Susanna and Litlove!

Please send me your contact details via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com.

The giveaways are part of Lizzy and my German Literature Month in November.

The next giveaway will take place on Wednesday 2 November.

Should anyone want to participate in the organized Effi Briest readalong, please leave a comment or sign up here and we will send you the questions for week 1. 

Tatjana Soli: The Lotus Eaters (2010) Literature and War Readalong October 2011

Soli’s debut revolves around three characters whose lives are affected by the Vietnam War. Helen Adams comes to Vietnam in the hopes of documenting the combat that took her brother from her. She immediately attracts the attention of the male journalists in the region, and quickly falls into an affair with the grizzled but darkly charismatic war photographer Sam Darrow. As Helen starts to make her own way as a photographer in Vietnam, drawing as much attention for her gender as for her work, Darrow sends her his Vietnamese assistant, Linh, a reluctant soldier who deserted the SVA in the wake of his wife’s death. While Linh wants nothing more than to escape the war, Darrow and Helen are consumed by it, unable to leave until the inevitable tragedy strikes. The strength here is in Soli’s vivid, beautiful depiction of war-torn Vietnam, from the dangers of the field, where death can be a single step away, to the emptiness of the Saigon streets in the final days of the American evacuation.

For one reason or the other I had a hard time getting into this novel. I struggled for almost 100 pages but all of a sudden I was hooked, fascinated and almost entranced. And I wanted to talk about it. I don’t always feel the urge to talk about what I’m reading but with this book, I felt it because the topics Soli chose are still as conflicting and important today, during any war, as they were at the time, in Vietnam.

The book starts in 1975 with the fall of Saigon and then switches back to 1963 and the moment when the young photojournalist Helen Adams arrives in Vietnam to cover the war. Helen is keen, eager and ambitious and a sensation as she is one of the first women photographers to want to cover a war.

Helen’s character is complex and interesting and through her we see the fascination and problems of this dangerous profession. Helen’s character is based on the stories of real photographers, one of them Dickey Chapelle, one of the first female war photographers who was killed in action.

There aren’t many professions that I find as problematic as war photographer and the novel does a fantastic job at letting us look into their world.

Helen knows from the start that if she wants to become a famous photographer, shoot interesting pictures, she must follow the men into combat. This is not only dangerous, it’s also voyeuristic because the photographers take pictures of everything. Dying soldiers, executed Vietnamese, piles of bodies, screaming children, in short, people during their final moments. They often wonder whether they are more than just vultures, whether it is justified to do what they are doing. On the other hand they get addicted to the high they experience in the heat of the action and the exhilaration that follows an incredible shot that will go on the cover of a magazine and will be seen by the whole word.

Helen and the others constantly oscillate between two states of mind, the selfish drive and the urge to help and reveal to the world what is going on. It seems as if this was a very addictive job and when the novel nears the end and at the same time the end of the war, there is a feeling in the air as if a party was over.

The danger cannot be underestimated. Not only the soldiers, whom Helen gets to like, are killed, many fellow photographers lose their lives as well. One could say the better the picture, the more dangerous the situation was for everyone involved and especially for the subjects.

An older woman from the group, a mother or aunt, screamed and ran forward toward the alcove, and one of the soldiers shot her. Captured on film. The curse of photojournalism was that a good picture necessitated the subject getting hurt or killed.

I was wondering why I always find it much more problematic when someone shoots a photo of a wounded or dying person but have far less of a problem when a reporter only tells or writes about it. Maybe because the dying people lose their privacy. In order to get a good shot, the photographer needs to focus on the pain, to invade the space of the other.

A the heart of The Lotus Eaters is a complex love story or rather the story of a love triangle. I was far less interested in that aspect of the book and that’s maybe why I didn’t like the beginning so much as it focuses a lot on that story line.

Soli manages to give a good feeling for the war. She captures how the war and its perception changed over time, shows how different its meaning was for those abroad, the Americans and Europeans who lived in Vietnam,  as well as for the Vietnamese people. In the beginning the presence of the French can still be felt.

The Americans called it “the Vietnam war”, and the Vietnamese called it “the American war” to differentiate it from “the French war” that had come before it, although they referred to both wars as “the Wars of Independence”. Most Americans found it highly insulting to be mentioned in the same breath with the colonial French.

The descriptions of the city, the country and the jungle are vivid and evocative. For that alone the book is worth reading. I equally liked how she managed to show what it meant for women to cover war. There are no women soldiers and when the female photographers follow a group into combat, they are the only women present which was problematic as well. There were sexual tensions and the fact that the men felt responsible for the women, furthermore they didn’t want to be seen injured or wounded by women.

When Helen goes back to the US for a while, in the late 60s, she tries to make people understand why she does this job. Helen explores her reasons very often and at one point she has to admit it is also because she excels at what she is doing.

“I just went as a lark. It turned into something else. What do you do if you have a hazardous talent, like riding over waterfalls in a barrel? A talent dangerous to your health?” After the question came out of her mouth, she felt embarrassed.

I’m glad I read The Lotus Eaters.  It has many beautiful passages and is very thought-provoking. It gives an in-depth view of one of the most dangerous professions without giving any easy answers. It’s up to the reader whether he thinks they are purely adrenaline addicted vultures or whether they are doing a heroic and admirable job.

I often wonder whether we need those pictures. Do we need to see the horror in detail, up close? Does it help stop wars? In one instance Helen says that every good war picture is an anti-war picture. Is that true and does it justify what they are doing?

I’m curious to hear what others thought.

Other reviews:

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

 

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Serena (Savy Verse & Wit)

Wednesdays are wunderbar – Joseph Roth, Irmgard Keun and Christa Wolf (English or German) Giveaway

Today we have a different kind of giveaway. The books are personal contributions and that is why you can win them either in English or in German. The giveaway is part of Lizzy and my German Literature Month in November.

The books I selected are the following:

Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March (1932).

The Radetzky March is one of the very great novels of 20th century literature. It’s a swan song, a melancholic depiction of the end of an era.

The Radetzky March can fairly claim to be one of the great novels of the last century. Its theme, beautifully articulated, is the end of an era. His anthem for a vanished world has the intense, fleeting beauty of a sunset’ Sunday Telegraph ‘He saw, he listened, he understood. The Radetzky March is a dark, disturbing novel of eccentric beauty… If you have yet to experience Roth, begin here, and then read everything’ Eileen Battersby, Irish Times ‘The true reading pleasure afforded by the rich environment Roth captures may well have increased over time, while the schisms at the heart of Europe continue to fascinate. It seems that we are rediscovering in twentieth-century Central European literature classics for a new millennium.”

Book number two is After Midnight (1937) by Irmgard Keun.

Keun was a very successful writer until the Nazi’s came. Her novel After Midnight and all of her other works (the most famous is The Artificial Silk Girl) were confiscated and banned. She flew from Nazi Germany together with her lover Joseph Roth. Keun is a tragic figure. In and out of psychiatric hospitals, alcoholism… Her biography is as fascinating as her novels. There is a lot of her own life in the novels too.

What I like a lot about her writing is that it seems so deceptively simple while in reality it is full of explosives. In After Midnight a young woman with the voice of a child describes the most upsetting things. It’s a lucid depiction of the ascent of Nazism and shows, like not many other novels, how and why the Nazi’s were so successful. The fact that a very simple, almost simpleminded girl tells the story makes it an uncanny read.

In 1937, German author Irmgard Keun had only recently fled Nazi Germany with her lover Joseph Roth when she wrote this slim, exquisite, and devastating book. It captures the unbearable tension, contradictions, and hysteria of pre-war Germany like no other novel. Yet even as it exposes human folly, the book exudes a hopeful humanism. It is full of humor and light, even as it describes the first moments of a nightmare. After Midnight is a masterpiece that deserves to be read and remembered anew.

The third book is Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth (1979).

No Place on Earth is a special book for me and a special book for this event. It is my favourite Christa Wolf and its topic fits nicely into our event as it depicts an imaginary encounter between Heinrich von Kleist and the poet Karoline von Günderrode. Von Günderrode is hardly read anymore although she was very influential. She was the friend of Bettina von Arnheim (born Bettina von Brentano, sister of Clemens Brentano) who wrote a book about her which is really wonderful. Von Günderrode and von Kleist never really met but – that’s what Christa Wolf imagines – if they had…. Who knows, they might not have ended their lives. Both authors committed suicide at an early age and are seen as victims of the circumstances in which they lived. In Wolf’s novel they are given the opportunity to meet and to find that they are kindred spirits. It’s a very poetical novel and I would wish that whoever wins it will like it as much as I did.

This fictionalized account of an encounter in 1804 between the poet Karoline von Gunderrode and writer Heinrich von Kleist is pieced together from extracts of actual letters. In real life, both committed suicide some years after the events in this book.

If you would like to win one of those books, or enter for more than one, please let me know which ones you would like and why you would like to win them. Also indicate if you would like the book in English or in German. There is only one little condition – you should be a participant of German Literature Month.

The giveaway is open internationally, the books will be shipped by amazon or the book depository. The winners will be announced on Sunday 30 October 18.00 – European – (Zürich) time.

Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern – Group Read Week III (Part 5)

The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson ebook

This is the last week of Carl’s R.I.P. VI group read of Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern. This week’s questions have been provided by Heather. Here is the link to the other posts.

Looking back on the novel, I would say this was a very mixed bag for me. I was really curious to read the end for many reasons. I wanted to know how it all tied up and I also thought that I could only say whether I really liked the book once I finished it.

Those who have not read the book at all, shouldn’t read the answers. They contain spoilers.

1. Now that it’s all said and done; what did you think of the book? Did you see the ending coming?

It was a mixed bag. I liked some parts a lot but after having finished I must say, I didn’t like the end at all. The story of the bones was too predictable, the missing girls a bit of a plump red herring and Rachel’s end was far from realistic.

2. What do you think of the characters? Lawrenson took us on a twisty little ride there, I had trouble deciding who was good and who wasn’t for a while there! What do you think of Dom? Of Sabine? Rachel?

I still think Dom was an insufferable character and what he says about Rachel’s death doesn’t even have to be true. Rachel was a troubled mind but we never really know why she became the way she is.

3. Pierre was such a conflicted character. In the end, do you think he killed Marthe and Annette, or did the fall to their deaths because of their blindness?

I’m pretty sure, he killed them. It goes well will all the other cruelties he committed.

4. The book is being compared to Rebecca and Daphne du Maurier’s writing. Do you think the book lives up to that description?

I didn’t see Rebecca in it at all. It’s decidedly not in the same league.

5. Did you have any problems with the book? Narration? Plot? The back and forth between two different characters and times?

I had a huge problem with the police procedurals and the cancer story. They just didn’t sound realistic. This book overflows with descriptions and details but all we get is the word “cancer”. That’s too easy. To feel at least a little bit realistic, we should have heard what type of cancer. Colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, non-small cell lung cancer, leukemia, glioblastoma… What did she have? I think you get the drift. If you can’t call a tree a tree but tell your readers it’s a fig, it’s a pine, it’s a …. then you should be a bit more explicit than that when it comes to an illness like cancer, especially when the person dies of it. This was not believable for me and spoilt the ending of the book.

6. Do you think Lawrenson tied both stories together well in the end? Is there anything she could/should have done differently?

The best part is Bénédicte’s story. I like that ending very well but, as said before the solution to the “serial killer” and Rachel’s end felt wrong, like a cheap trick.

7. One problem I had with the novel is the reliability of the narrators. Do you think any of them were telling the truth? Which ones?

I think Bénédicte and Eve are probably the only truthful ones. Dom’s story could be true or not.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Clemens Meyer and Berlin City-Lit Giveaway -The Winners

It’s finally Sunday again and here are our three lucky winners drawn by random.org list generator.

The winner of Clemens Meyer’s short story collection All the Lights, courtesy of And Other Stories, is

Rise from in in lieu of a field guide

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation which we give away courtesy of Portobello Books has been won by

neer from A Hot Cup of Pleasure 

City-Lit Berlin, a contribution from Oxygen Books goes to

John (I think your site isn’t up and running yet?)

Happy reading, Rise, neer and John!

Please send me your contact details via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com.

The giveaways are part of Lizzy and my German Literature Month in November.

The next giveaway will take place on Wednesday 26 October.

Btw. Those who won can participate again. 🙂

Tao Lin: Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009)

Sometimes I forget  something very important that I want from literature. I read books, I like them but at the end of the day, they are often far from our lives and certainly nothing new. And then I come upon a book like Shoplifting From American Apparel and all of a sudden I know what I was looking for. Books that look at contemporary life in a revealing way and are written in a very distinct voice.

Tao Lin was first only well-known in underground circles but starts to get more and more appreciation from everywhere. He is also known as the writer of a blog called Reader of Depressing Books. The title has changed meanwhile but the blog still exists as you can see here: Tao Lin’s Blog.

Lin has published poems, short stories, two novels and this novella.

The book tells about two years in the life of a young writer. It’s mostly set in Manhattan but some of the chapters take place in other cities.

If it was only a writer’s story it wouldn’t be that special but it’s also an exploration of relationships, alternative lifestyles and the meaning of happiness. The characters question what our society takes as a given. Forms of living, culture and social conventions are explored and this with a total absence of sarcasm or cynicism which is refreshing.

Sam is a young writer. To make a living he works in a vegan restaurant but he has hardly enough money to buy things he likes. Shoplifting has become a habit for him. Getting caught seems to be part of it. Everything in  his life seems to be changing constantly. He goes through phases. At the beginning of the book he sees a girl called Sheila and his best friend is Luis, who is a writer as well. Their friendship takes place in cyberspace, on Gmail chat. They both blog as well. They met once but did not have all that much to say to each other although they can chat for hours.

“Do you think in five years the national media will create a stupid term like blogniks to describe us?”

A year later he is seeing Hester but they drift apart very soon. His best friend is Robert, with whom he goes to parties.

This book is rooted so deeply in contemporary life that it’s almost eerie. Sam meets the DJ Moby, he drinks smoothies, eats organic and vegan food, chats online and writes a blog. He sees friends and wonders if they are happier than he is. Some of his relationships take place in real life others are limited to cyberspace.

The dialogue is one of the best elements in the novel. It sounds very authentic with its frequent use of “like” and “or something”.

“I played video games,” said Luis. “Perfect Dark. I killed people for two hours then I got bored. I know what you mean by impossible.”

“This is fucked,” said Sam.

“You know those people that get up every day and do things,” said Luis.

“I’m going to eat cereal even though I’m not hungry, “said Sam.

“And are real proactive, ” said Luis. And like are getting things done, and never quit their jobs. Those people suck.”

“We get shit done too, ” said Sam. “Look at our books.”

“I know but that brings in no money, ” said Luis. “Are we, like, that word ‘bohemians’. Or something. Our bios: ‘They lived in poverty writing their masterpieces.'”

But more than dialogue, many of these exchanges are intimate conversations in which people listen to each other and take each other seriously.

I liked this book so much because it’s fresh, irreverent and looking at other ways to live, far from the mainstream but the characters are not self-destructive nor cynical or sarcastic, like they are in so many other books about young writers. Apart from the shoplifting, Sam is quite tame. And the shoplifting is not so much delinquency as silliness. The characters are insecure and floating but very close to their feelings. They can talk about their emotions and dreams and wishes. And even when a relationship has come to an end and they have nothing much to say anymore, they can put this into words. This doesn’t mean they are happy all the time, on the very contrary, they feel often sad and lonely but they express it, they don’t just act it out.

I also liked that there are references to so-called high culture standing next to the references to pop culture. Sam tests what works for him, in music or literature but doesn’t feel tied down by something being called “classic”. I read somewhere that Tao Lin also uses his books as a means to raise awareness for alternative lifestyles. It’s interesting to see how many times food is mentioned and what type of food. The way he writes about it makes it sound playful, not preachy at all. This made me think that there was once a time when writers felt they had a responsibility, that they should contribute to making this world a better place. I think Tao Lin can bee seen in that tradition.

I want to read more of Tao Lin and am very curious where he will go from here as a writer.

Have you read him?