Jean Giono: To the Slaughterhouse – Le grand troupeau (1931) Literature and War Readalong March 2012

There are so many different ways to write about war. Some novels focus on the experience of the soldier, some will focus on what the civilians go through, some move back and forth between the front lines and the home front. While Jean Giono’s Le grand troupeau – To the Slaughterhouse does move back and forth, the book is still completely different from anything else that I have read so far.

Giono’s technique does need some getting used to. What he describes is equally beautiful and horrifying. The result may very well be one of the most radical anti-war books that I have read.

If you are looking for an action-driven novel, this isn’t one to turn to, Giono’s novel is far more like the description of paintings. I was reminded of Otto Dix’ WWI paintings more than once. Some of the very visual descriptions in this novel are as graphic and gruesome as Dix’ work.

The war has come to a little village in the French Provence region. All the men are drafted and go to war, leaving the women, old men, children and animals behind. Some of the men are shepherds. They have to abandon their herds. Left on their own,  the animals are endangered, they have accidents, get wounded. One day a massive herd enters the village. It’s an awful sight. So much suffering, so much pain.

Julia’s husband Joseph has gone to war, as has her sister-in-law’s young lover, Olivier. The story moves back and froth between life in the village and the men. It’s more a series of pictures than a real story. Very powerful and graphic pictures.

Giono chose to show us how war affects the body. It’s not the fighting he is interested in but what happens when someone is wounded. How the wounds fester, how the juices flow out the dead bodies. The rats which are always mentioned in WWI novels are present here as well but we see how they eat the faces of the dead men.

I had a faint feeling in my stomach for most of the time while reading but I saw what he wanted to achieve and I thought the idea was amazing. He didn’t stop at describing the horrors of the war and what it did to the bodies of the men, he described the beauty as well. The scents in the air, the taste of food, the beauty of the landscape.

There are hunting scenes and scenes of slaughter and the bodies of the dead animals resemble those of the dead and wounded men.

Human beings and animals both suffer pain, their bodies are vulnerable and frail, they can be killed and harmed and wounded and the result will be the same. At one point he goes one step farther, describing how the earth suffers too, when her body is ripped open by explosives. Giono includes the entirety of creation in his novel and shows that every being existing in this world, wants beauty, love and tenderness, shelter and food and when this is not provided, when aggression is let loose, the body is harmed, wounded and the being ultimately dies.

It’s a highly symbolical novel, with a profound message of peace. It was hard to read but I am glad I did. It really would be hard to find a more eloquent anti-war statement and a book which manages like this one, to show, that since we all, animals and human beings alike, suffer pain, we are equal. This profound message makes To the Slaughterhouse not only a plea for human rights but for animal rights as well.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

To the Slaughterhouse is my fourth contribution to the War Through the Generations Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.


To the Slaughterhouse was the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Helen Humphreys’ Coventry. Discussion starts on Monday April 30, 2012.

Muriel Spark E-Book Giveaway and Readalong Plans for April and May

With my own Literature and War Readalong and Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge which has just started, April and May look like busy months but in a very good way. Since I’m quite excited about some of the events I wanted to share them with you. There are some great readalongs taking place and it would be nice if the one or the other reading this would join as well.

April Reading Along with Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

The first readalong is Frank Delaney’s Ireland which im going to read together with Mel u from The Reading Life. The choice is inspired by his Irish Short Story Month. We will read and post on it either in week 2 or 3, in April. Should you want to join us, please leave a comment on my or Mel’s blog.

Emma from Book Around the Corner is hosting a yearlong book club and I’m going to join for the next book which is Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures. The readalong takes place on Thursday, April 26.

In May I’m going to join Bettina (Liburuak) for a readalong of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The readalong takes place on May 31st. Details will be announced on Bettina’s blog, beginning of May.


As you know, Muriel Spark week, hosted by Simon (Stuck in A Book) and Harriet (Harriet Devine’s Blog) is going to take place from April 23 – 29.

Open Road Integrated Media has just released eight of Muriel Spark’s novels and I’m very glad that I have the opportunity to give away two e-books.

The first e-book I’m giving away is the famous The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It’s a book I personally liked a lot.

If you would like to win this e-book, just leave a comment. The giveaway  winner will be announced next Tuesday, April 3 2012.

As I said before, Open Road Media offers two e-books. Which one will be the second book is up to you, that’s why I included a poll. Please vote for the second book you would like to be given away.

Please don’t click the category “other”. I couldn’t get rid of it but it doesn’t exist.

The book with the highest poll result will be given away next week.

The poll has been moved and can be found here

Once Upon A Time Challenge VI

I’m so glad that Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge has started. I have been looking forward to it since weeks. Every since I have finished Robin McKinley’s Chalice and was in the mood to read more fairy tale retellings and fantasy.

If you want to know the details of the challenge, do please visit Carl’s blog. You have different challenge levels and four genres to choose from: Fairy tales, Folklore, Mythology and Fantasy. The challenge runs from March 21st to June 19th. There will be two readalongs as well. The first one in April – Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, the second in May – Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I would love to join for Mistborn.

I will be busy in the next few months and so I decided to do The Journey which is only one book.

One reason why challenges are so much fun is the fact that one can make a list. Although I have only committed to one book, I may read more. I want to focus on fairy tale retellings and fantasy this year and here a few of my possible choices.

Ash by Malinda Jo

The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy

Solstice Wood by Patricia McKillip

Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffmann

How about you? What are you going to read?

Irish Short Stories by James Stephen, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Orflaith Foyle

As you may know, Irish Short Story Week has been extended until the end of the month and maybe beyond. The week 23 – 29 has two parallel themes, Fairy Tales and Emerging Women Writers. I chose to read three stories for this week. A fairy tale, The Enchanted Cave of Cesh Corran by James Stephens which can be found in his book Irish Fairy Tales. Then, after Mel suggested it, I read  Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Midwife to the Faeries which I found in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2011), edited by Anne Enright. The last story I read has been reviewed by Mel as well and there is a guest post of the author on his blog today. The story is Somewhere in Minnesota by Orflaith Foyle, found in the New Irish Short Stories (2001), compiled by Joseph O’Connor.

While the three stories I have read this week are quite different in tone and content, they all had something in common. They were highly disturbing. Maybe not so much the fairy tale by James Stephens, although it was certainly unusual as far as fairy tales go.

Stephen’s tale The Enchanted Cave of Cesh Corran contains a few elements typical for Irish fairy tales. There is some sort of other world and fairies but both have nothing in common with what we know from fantasy stories that claim to be influence by Irish folklore. The world in this tale is rather coarse and crude. The army chief Fionn and his men, among them Goll who hates him but serves him nonetheless, are resting near the cave of Conaran, King of the fairies. Conaran hates Fionn more than anything else and has waited for an occasion like this. He lures the men into the cave, casts a spell and calls his extremely ugly daughters to finish them off. His daughters are fairies but with whiskers. They are as fierce as they are cruel, no fair maidens at all. I won’t tell you how the story ends but there is fighting involved. It’s nothing like any other fairy tale I’ve read before, it felt very archaic but was humorous as well. It depicted a world in which hatred and friendship go hand in hand and can change at any moment. It depicts an insecure world in which life isn’t worth much.

This last element was equally present in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s excellent story Midwife to the Fairies. This is a haunting and mysterious story, a story which reads as if someone had mixed Shirley Valentine with a tale of some archaic, fierce fairies. The story begins as an interior monologue. A woman, a midwife, sits in front of the TV with her husband on a Saturday night. The voice sounds uneducated, working class but very intimate as well. Late at night someone knocks on the door. It’s an emergency and they need a midwife at once. It does seem unusual that these people wouldn’t go to a hospital but the man is forceful and she follows him into the night. What awaits her is a depressing scene. A young woman, a girl really, is about to give birth. There is a crowd in the house but nobody cares about what is going on. The midwife helps her and delivers the tiny, premature baby. What follows is sad and shocking and involves a crime. What was interesting was that the story was broken up. On every page there were bits of a fairy tale in italics. One can read only those parts and the parts together form a whole tale which mirrors the one we read. Unwanted pregnancies are a frequent theme in Irish stories. I’m not even sure, if abortion is not still forbidden in Ireland or most certainly has been much longer than in most other countries. Unwanted pregnancies is the core theme of this disturbing story. What was really disturbing was the way the people handled this. The midwife, the man, the woman giving birth and her relatives, they all pretended it didn’t happen. The fairy tale that was told in parallel had the same theme. It’s not a pretty fairy tale at all. On the contrary it contains a very shocking element as well. Fairy tales like dreams are a to a certain extent a means to express the hidden, the suppressed. Pairing these two tales made this a powerful and uncanny short story.

The third story I read, Orflaith Foyle’s Somewhere in Minnesota, wasn’t less disturbing. A young woman, an artist, sits in a diner, somewhere in Minnesota. She has run off. The woman behind the bar and a man are drawn to her. They say she triggers an urge to protect her. The young woman’s face looks bloody and destroyed, someone must have beaten her up. They assume a man has done this to her and so do we for a while. We find out that the truth is very different. There are allusions to a troubled childhood, abuse, brutality. This in itself has the power to disturb but what is far more disturbing is that the two people who pretend they want to help her, appear to be turned on by the fact that she may have been beaten by a man.

With these three tales I have moved far away from the beauty of the three other stories I have read but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like them. All of the stories I have read were very well written and powerful.

I read the three stories as a contribution to Irish Short Story Week hosted by Mel u from The Reading Life.

Reviews and further suggestions can be found here.

If you are interested, you can still participate in Irish Short Story Week which has been extended.

Mel and I are planning on reading Frank Delaney’s Ireland together and post on it either during week 2 or 3 in April. Is anyone interested in joining us? Let us know and we can plan which date would work best for all of us.

IRELAND travels through the centuries by way of story after story, from the savage grip of the Ice Age to the green and troubled land of tourist brochures and news headlines. Along the way, we meet foolish kings and innocent monks, god-heroes and great works of art, shrewd Norman raiders and envoys from Rome, leaders, poets and lovers. Each illuminates the magic of Ireland, the power of England and the eternal connection to the land.

Returning to Virginia Woolf

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Alexandra Johnson’s books and Virginia Woolf is an author who is central in them or perhaps it is because of Sigrun’s (sub rosa) Virginia Woolf project which I like to follow, whatever it is, Virginia Woolf was often on my mind lately.

I have this odd habit that when I like an author a lot I try to keep at least one of his or her books for later. There are a few authors whose complete works I have read but, due to my reluctance to run out of books to look forward to, they aren’t numerous.

Virginia Woolf is one of those authors where the thought I may finally have read all she has ever written fills me with a certain apprehension. While I’m still keeping Moments of Being for later, I have finally started The Voyage Out, the only novel I hadn’t read yet.

It’s funny to return to her and finalize the reading of her novels with the first book she wrote. It feels as if I had completed a circle. I started reading Virginia Woolf with Mrs Dalloway. I didn’t know that Mrs Dalloway was a returning character. I didn’t even know that Virginia Woolf had any returning characters. But here she is, in The Voyage Out, Mrs Dalloway, in all of her “glory”. Was she always this obnoxious? Frankly, I don’t remember. What I remember of my first Virginia Woolf novel was how much I liked the style.

The Voyage Out is very different from later books but at the same time it contains so many aspects typical for Virginia Woolf”s writing. I know many people read the body of work of an author they cherish chronologically but in her case, reading backwards wasn’t a bad choice. One could too easily overread important aspects of this early novel or, as was done when it was published, dismiss it as being nothing special.

Reading The Voyage Out makes me realize once more what I like the most about her writing. Yes, the style, especially in the later novels, is fantastic, with its flow of interior monologue, the way she uses time and how she describes the passing of time. But there is something else that stayed with me forever since the day I have read Mrs Dalloway. Her writing has an exhilarating quality, an effervescent intensity of feeling that made me think of a German expression which I adore: “Champagner Wetter” or “Champagne weather”. Champagne weather is used to describe a very fresh but sunny spring morning on which the air is still cool, nature has returned to life, the first tentative, tiny leaves appear, the first blossoms can be seen. It’s already a bit warm in the sun but still chilly in the shade. It’s like drinking the first glass out of a freshly opened, nicely cooled Champagne bottle. It bubbles and goes to your head. Virginia Woolf’s novels are full of scenes conveying the mood of champagne weather.  

I will write a “proper” review once I have finished the book but I’m enjoying it too much to wait until then. So far I can see that the story is told chronologically and sequentially, nothing daring really. But there is already a very striking way of writing about people’s interior lives. One of the main themes is the role of women and the way they are treated or rather mistreated by society. Parts of the novel reminded me of E.M. Forster, others of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Rachel, one of the main characters, has a lot in common with Isabel Archer. Still there are scenes which are already typically Woolf. She had a very particular way of showing the passing of time or how the interior worlds of people coexist. There is a wonderful scene towards the middle of the novel in which we see a hotel at night.  First we see it from the outside, all its windows are illuminated, the people are getting ready to go to bed. Later we approach and enter the building, brief glimpses into the various rooms draw pictures of the inhabitants. At the end of the scene, they are lying in their beds, separated only by thin walls, dreaming or just sleeping, drifting off into unknown territory, as if on a big ocean liner. It is a recurring scene really, as the book starts with the voyage on a ship.

It is possible that I will start rereading her books in chronological order when I have finished The Voyage Out and Moments of Being. My favourite of her books are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Flush. I didn’t like The Years or The Waves much and can never even keep them apart. I also didn’t care for Orlando at all. Not sure why, it’s generally a favourite of many people but I remember I found reading it was painfully boring. Jacob’s Room and Between the Acts were two I liked but the memory of them is barely more than a vague impression.

I often hear people say, they are intimidated by Virginia Woolf, just like many are intimidated by Proust or James Joyce. For those who didn’t dare reading her so far, The Voyage Out and Flush are excellent starting points.

Have you read The Voyage Out or any other of Virginia Woolf’s novels? Which is your favourite?

Jacqueline Winspear: Maisie Dobbs (2003) The First Maisie Dobbs Mystery

I’m not sure who mentioned Maisie Dobbs first. Either Danielle on A Work in Progress or Kailana on The Written World. Whoever it was I’m glad she did as Maisie is an amazing heroine. I really like her and the way she goes about her job. The period details are captured in a very descriptive way, reading often felt like watching a movie.

The story begins in London, 1929. Maisie Dobbs has opened her first office. She is a private investigator and psychologist who has been trained by a master of the art, Maurice Blanche, a friend of Lady Rowan, on whose estate Maisie used to be a maid.

Her first investigation leads her to follow the wife of Christopher Davenham. He suspects her to have a lover. What Maisie finds out is quite different from what Davenham and the reader think and will lead Maisie to investigate a crime and confront her with her own past.

The second part of the novel rewinds to 1910-1917. In 1910 Maisie is just a girl who lives alone with her father after her mother has died. She is unusually intelligent and her parents wanted to send her to college later but the mother’s illness has swallowed up all of their money and Maisie is sent to Lady Rowan as a maid. They soon find out about Maisie’s fondness for reading and learning and give her a private tutor, Maurice Blanche. Blanche is a special fellow with an eye for people and an unusual capability of seeing behind the masks.

Maisie finally goes to university and is about to embark on a splendid academic career when WWI breaks out. Like so many other young women she volunteers as a nurse and is sent to France where the man she has recently fallen in love with is serving as a doctor.

Maisie’s life story, the crime and its solution are all rooted in WWI. While I didn’t think the crime was gripping I thought the way the book revealed what happened to Maisie during the war was suspenseful. I truly admired the way it managed to convey an idea of WWI. Maisie and many other characters still suffer from various ailments or traumas. This, for example, is Maisie at the beginning of the novel.

Lucky, thought Maisie. Except for the war, I’ve had a lucky life so far. She sat down on the dubious oak chair, slipped off her shoes and rubbed her feet. Feet that still felt the cold and wet and filth and blood of France. Feet that hadn’t felt warm in twelve years, since 1917.

Facial wounds play and important role. The wounds and how society and the wounded handle them. But the horror of the trenches, the constant rain, mud and cold are rendered as well.

It’s certainly a novel that appeals to many people. To those who like cozy mysteries, to those who are interested in WWI. Fans of the upstairs-downstairs theme will love the middle section. Maisie Dobbs is a likable and clever character and to get to know the way how she reads people is fascinating. Her way of working is a mix of psychological analysis and psychic abilities that I enjoyed a great deal.

There are by now 9 books in the series and the fans and followers are numerous.

Because of its lovely design and a lot of information it is worth to visit Jacqueline Winspear’s Website.

If you are interested, March is Maisie Month on Facebook.

Maisie Dobbs is my third contribution to Anna and Serena’s War Through the Generations challenge.

Irish Short Stories by Kevin Barry, Elizabeth Bowen and James Joyce

I had some plans for Irish Short Story Week but as usual I ended up reading mostly something else. I discovered two new short story collections which contain a wide range of stories. One is The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story(2011), edited by Anne Enright, the other one, New Irish Short Stories (2001), was compiled by Joseph O’Connor.

Anne Enright’s introduction to The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story was particularly interesting as she writes about short stories in general and underlines that the Irish have a very distinct short story tradition. Here is my favourite quote from her introduction:

I am not sure whether the novel is written for our convenience, but it is probably written for our satisfaction. That is what readers complain about with short stories, that they are not “satisfying”. They are the cats of literary form; beautiful but a little too self-contained for some readers’ tastes.

Kevin Barry is a writer I wasn’t familiar with. He is one of a very few who has a story in both collections. I read one from New Irish Short Stories called Beer Trip to Llandudno. What a hilarious story. It tells about a trip of a group of fortysomething men who regularly take trips to towns and cities just to sample the local beer. They move from one bar to the next and from pub to pub. Drinking beer is more than a hobby, it’s a religion. They take it extremely seriously and discuss the taste and flavour in minute detail. At the end, they rate the beer according to a complicated system. Of course, the more beers they have sampled, the more they are drunk and the trip gets farcical. If the story had ended there it would have been amusing but Barry goes much farther than that. He manages to convey a whole life in a few random sentences, in one or two allusions to side stories, he shows us more than a few guys on a beer trip but a group of human beings who have suffered, hoped, lost their dreams and  adjusted to life in various ways. Still, despite a lot of heartache and disappointment, they have kept their joy of life, their humour and their enthusiasm. Barry has only written one novel so far, City of Bohane which came out last year. Needless to say that I ordered it. This is a writer with a rare gift and I would love to read his novel.

Here’s the mini-blurb

This is the cool, comic, violent and lyrical debut novel from one of Ireland’s most talented new writers.

Elizabeth Bowen’s Summer Night is one of her most famous short stories. I found it in Anne Enright’s collection. It’s a beautiful, evocative story that takes place on a summer night in the Irish countryside. At the beginning a woman speedily drives a car through the landscape, seeing the sun go down and how everything is transformed by the softness of the light. Only the houses on a hill in the distance are still bathing in the sunlight. That’s where she is going but we do not know it yet. The point of view changes after a few pages. We do now see a scene in a large country house. A phone is ringing. The point of view changes again and another phone rings. We meet the people in those other houses, we know that they are linked to the woman in the car who is the one ringing but we don’t know what is going on. It will take the whole 30 pages of the story for us to find out the secret at the heart of the story. The character descriptions are masterful and the dynamics between the people very complex and subtle but what I liked most about the story was the description how the summer night transforms the surroundings, how the changing of the light seems to cast a spell over the landscape.

James Joyce’s Araby was the third short story I read. It was actually a re-read. I wasn’t aware when I wrote my introduction that Araby was the short story which was the reason why Dubliners is one of my all-time favourite books. I don’t want to write too much about it, I’m afraid my words would dispel its magic. It’s an enchanting, lyrical story that has a lot in common with Elizabeth Bowen’s Summer Night. I would call both stories, twilight stories. Twilight because at one point they describe the light at sun set but also because everything is half-hidden, half revealed. The feelings are hinted at, nothing is in the open. While Bowen’s story is a summer story, Araby is set in winter. What is interesting is to imagine the two stories like paintings. One is a softly colored summer painting, the other captures the darker colors of winter.

If you like, you can read Araby here.

I read the three stories as a contribution to Irish Short Story Week hosted by Mel u from The Reading Life.

Reviews and further suggestions can be found here.

How is your Irish Short Story Week going? Have you found anything interesting?