Helen Humphreys: Coventry (2008) Literature and War Readalong April 2012

Helen Humphrey’s novel Coventry starts with a woman and a young man standing on Coventry cathedral, on November 14, 1942. Harriet and Jeremy are fire fighters. It’s an eerie night, almost beautiful.

The moon is full and bright and the ground below the cathedral is white with frost. Harriet has never seen anything so beautiful. The ground glitters like the sea and smells of earthy cold.

This is the night in which Coventry cathedral will be bombed and most of the city destroyed. But when the bombs start falling and even after most of the destruction, Harriet still sees beauty.

The leaves have burnt black on the trees. The limbs are twisted and full of clothes, caught there like strange birds in the upper branches. The clothes must have blown up there from a bomb blast.

Harriet remembers the morning of November 14. How beautiful it was, all sun, and only a little wind to remind her of autumn. It was a thursday, early closing. She had gone round to the shops before lunch, and she had felt lucky because she was first in line at the butcher’s and got sausages.

Until this evening Harriet didn’t feel touched by the war. She is disappointed by it but not devastated. She will not, as she believes, suffer like she did in the last war when she lost the man she loved.

After the brief initial chapter, the novel moves back to 1914. A young Harriet sees her husband off to war. The very same morning, after returning from the train station, she meets Maeve, and lives a moment of intense friendship with the young woman. Harriet will not see her husband again. He goes missing in the trenches. And until the night of November 1940, she will not see Maeve again either.

Unbeknownst to all of them, the young man on the roof with Harriet, is Maeve’s son. The story of the two women’s lives will unfold during the novel, interwoven with the story of this tragic night in which the three fight in parallel and together, for their survival.

Harriet has never loved again and Maeve who left Coventry shortly after having met Harriet, gets pregnant. She doesn’t even know which one of the slodiers she was seeing is the father.

Most of the chapters focus on Harriet and Jeremy who flee from the burning cathedral, roam the streets, hide in shelters, run from the bombs and burning debris. They are looking for Maeve and their houses, anxious to discover how much they might have lost. The destruction is incredible, the sight of so many dead people is terrible but it’s even more harrowing to hear voices coming out from underneath demolished houses and not be able to help, to stand by and hear them suffocate. There are many descriptions of people whose life is snatched away within a second. One moment they are talking, shaving, walking, the next moment they are gone.

Coventry is a lyrical novel, written by a poet, telling the story of a poet who is trying to make sense. Since the tragic loss of her young husband, Harriet has written condensed descriptions. They shield her from emotion, give sense. That’s what she will do in the future as well. After the terrible night in which Coventry is destroyed, she will become a poet.

While Harriet paints with words, Maeve captures everything that has happened with her pencil. Already when they met in 1914 she was drawing constantly.

I’m in two minds about this book. It’s an intense description of what it meant to be in a city undergoing such massive destruction. This is well captured, at the same time, the addition of descriptions like the ones above, hold the horrors at arm’s length. I’m interested in the depiction and description of war. How do you put it into words, how do speak about the unspeakable? I think this was one of Helen Humphrey’s intentions, to show how a poet would write and feel about this horrible night. That’s why, more than a book about Coventry’s ordeal, this was for me a book about the birth of a poet. And that’s precisely what troubles me. I’ve read other books by Helen Humphreys and liked them, but in this case I feel the writing is too lyrical and esthetic for its topic. And there is the coincidence at the heart of the story, the fact that the young man Harriet spends the night with is Maeve’s son. Unfortunately I really don’t do well with this type of coincidence.

Coventry is a beautifully written book, the novel of a stylist but some rough edges would have given it a whole other dimension that would have been more appropriate for the subject. Still, and this may seem paradoxical, it is a book I would like to read again, if only for its language. Maybe I’m not doing it justice, maybe I’m just not used to someone describing war in such a lyrical way and depicting people who are so caught in their inner lives that they seem ultimately untouched by the collective experience of destruction.

I’m very curious to see what others thought.

Other reviews

Additionally to his review Tony has written an interesting post on his hometown Coventry and the Coventry Cathedral. It’s well worth reading.

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

TBM (50 Year Project)

Tony (Tony’s Reading List)


Coventry was the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Nigel Balchin’s Darkness Falls From the Air. Discussion starts on Monday May 28, 2012.

Tracy Chevalier: Remarkable Creatures (2009)

On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, Mary Anning learns that she has a unique gift: “the eye” to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious authorities on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. After struggling through cold storms, landslips, and other natural threats, her challenges only grow when she falls in love with an impossible man.

l often say I don’t like historical (genre) novels but I will not say this anymore. I may not pick them up frequently but when I do I often enjoy them. Even more so when they open a door to a world that fascinates me and of which I didn’t know a lot. Tracy Chevalier’s book Remarkable Creatures was exactly one of those books.

In the early 19th century the little working-class girl Mary Anning helps her family make a living with “curies” – curiosities – she finds on the beaches of Lyme Regis. Uneducated as she is, she doesn’t know a lot about fossils, she only knows that the rich people who come to stay at Lyme Regis give her money for her finds. Elizabeth Philpot who has moved to Lyme Regis with her two sisters is equally attracted by fossils. She is an unmarried woman who due to her unpleasing looks and the lack of money has no chance of ever finding a husband. When she meets Mary she is immediately aware that the girl has a gift. Where others see only stones and rubble, little Mary spots fossils. The two become friends and Elizabeth mentors the girl and helps her to sell her finds to a good price. When Mary makes a revolutionary discovery, the fossilized skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus, it is Elizabeth who fights for Mary’s right to be rewarded and acknowledged as the finder.

The book tells the life story of these two women in alternating first person narratives. It desribes their struggles, their failure at finding love and their fight for recognition. This is a time in which the idea of evolution, the fact that there once have been species that are now extinct, is thought to be blasphemous and heretic. And it’s even more problematic to acknowledge that women could contribute to science. Mary Anning’s discoveries are “remarkable” to some and shocking to many others.

This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded, was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all of the animals He created. If He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff.

I was completely captivated by this story. The descriptions are so well done. Tracy Chevalier has a gift to bring the past to life. I already noticed that when I read Girl With a Pearl Earring. The period detail seems extremely well done. I have always been fascinated by fossils and delighted when I found some but I never bothered to read much about them. I had never heard of Mary Anning before and loved to be introduced to this amazing woman and her story.

I expected something slightly different though. I thought this would be a novel about a friendship which it is to a certain extent only not the type I had in mind. I’m obviously used to modern-day friendships with the emphasis on discussion and soul-baring. There is none of this in this book. Their friendship is expressed in silent company, not conversation. More than anything else, these two women form a little support group. Both have not been treated kindly by society and could be called outcasts. Elizabeth maybe less than Mary but still to some extent as well. Both are trapped by their respective class and their gender and if it hadn’t been for the fossils and their attachment to each other, they would have lived sad and lonely lives.

The melancholy mood and the evocative descriptions of the setting, the beaches of Lyme Regis, the weather, the danger of being killed in a landslip fascinated me even more than the story of these two women. The cover of the book captures some of this very well. A lonely rather rough-looking beach and two figures completely absorbed by what they see.

I’ve read that others found the book to be flat or lacking. It wasn’t any of this for me. I liked it a great deal and would highly recommend it to those who like Tracy Chevalier’s books.

Have you read this or other books by Tracy Chevalier? Which is your favourite?

Here is the link to Tracy Chevalier’s blog and a video in which you can see the beaches and listen to her talk about the creation of the book and why she chose to tell this story. It’s quite fascinating.

The book is part of a readalong hosted by Emma (Book Around the Corner). Unfortunately the book didn’t work for her. You can find her impressions here.

Muriel Spark: Territorial Rights (1979)

I have been looking forward to Muriel Spark Week hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book  and Harriet from Harriet Devine’s Blog. I liked both of the Muriel Spark novels I’ve read so far,  The Girls of Slender Means and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It was about time to read another one. Territorial Rights had been on my piles for a while and that’s why I decided to read it.

Sadly this book did not work for me and if it hadn’t been for Muriel Spark Week  – and if I was not a notorious book-finisher – this would have been a DNF for me. But first things first.

Territorial Right is set in Venice and as a Venice novel it is remarkably well done. I was there, I saw the streets, the canals, the piazzas, the palazzi, the churches, the street cafés and the back gardens. I enjoyed the descriptions a lot.

Now take this setting and throw in a motley crew of people, all magically coming to Venice at the same time. They know each other either from Paris, England or Bulgaria. They do not only know each other but they are all connected and even fleeing from each other only to bump into each other in Venice. Hmmmm. Add a dark secret that is hidden by two elderly women owning one of the local pensions, murmur of political machinations, drug dealers, an unfaithful husband, an elderly  woman wo likes young men, a Bulgarian artist in exile who jumps in the canal because she finds out she has been in bed with a Jew, a rich art dealer who is in love with a young man who disappears while his father abandons his lover for his sons ex-lover…

All is resolved in the end. Nothing was as it seemd at first. We find out what was hidden in the garden and get to know the past and the future of each character. Does it sound quirky? It sure was.

I think there is a lot going on in this novel that mirrors unresolved conflicts in Spark’s life and I’m sure from what little I have read after finishing the book that it would be interesting to analyze it in the light of this. Little incidents like the girl jumping into the canal to clean herself after having had sex with a Jew are meaningful when you know Muriel Spark had a falling out with her son because he was an Orthodox Jew and she a devout Catholic (as read on Wikipedia).

Since this is a very well written book, I can see how it could appeal to someone else. It’s a must for those who love novels set in Venice.

I hope others have been more successful in their book choices. Despite not having liked this, I will certainly read another of her novels soon.

Has anyone read Territorial Rights? Did you like it?

“This book has scarred me for life” or On the Negative Impact of Books

When I was younger I believed that books could change your life. To the good or the bad. My belief in the power of the word was almost infinite.

I suppose this belief in the power of books lies behind censorship, banned and burned books and the like. I also suppose that each of the parties banning, burning or forbidding books have different reasons. I personally think very little of banning books. I still belive in their power though.

While reading Nick Hornby’s House Keeping vs The Dirt I was reminded of this when he mentioned he bought Georges Bernanos’ book Journal d’un curé de campagne or The Diary of a Country Priest due to a negative amazon review. He posted the review but the way he wrote about it made me think, he made it up. Being the curious person I am, I checked and to my amazement there it was. On amazon.co.uk

1.0 out of 5 stars Dont read this book, 17 July 2003
By A Customer

This book has had an enormous impact on my life. Having had to read it as part of my French A level course (in French!)it left me psychologically scarred. Grinding through each passage was like torture, making me weep with frustration and leaving me with a long-burning and deep-felt resentment against my French teacher and the A level exam board. This resulted in a low grade for my French lit paper, which offset a decent language paper, resulting in a ‘C’ which wasn’t good enough for my chosen university. So I had to switch from French to business studies, so changing the course of my life. To say I detest this book is an understatement. So he’s dying, but the main protagonist is a drearily introspective little creep. The pace is crawling and the whole vibe simply turgid.

Is he really serious? I don’t know but it made me think of books that had a negative impact in my life and I found three. One was a one of my parents’ books. A short story collection with illustrations by Japanese painter Hokusai. I think it was relatively valuable and I was forbidden to touch it. Like Bluebeard’s wives,  I disregarded the interdiction and opened the book. Finding the book with wide open pages  – I had run off to hide – told my parents later that I had been at it. I don’t think I was punished. It wasn’t necessary as the drawings had terrified me enough. The ghostly figures haunted me in my dreams. Mind you, the drawings, not the text. I was too small for reading.

But what about the written word? What about stories? Have there been books that had a huge impact? Yes, I would say so. I have read two books as a young teenager that had a profound impact. I think they managed to take away my innocence forever. Maybe it was about time. The world isn’t a perfect place and there are a lot of bad things happening, the sooner you face it, the better. While I know why the first one had such a negative impact, I’m not so sure about the second anymore.

Choderlos de Laclos’ famous epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses or Dangerous Liaisons (1782)  was the book bomb that blew up in my young girl’s life. Before reading it I had thought that people fell in and out of love, unfortuntely often not at the same time which could cause great heartache but that was about the most negative I was aware of. That someone could pretend to be in love, to manipulate and deceive in order to achieve something was a concept that was utterly new to me. New and deeply shocking. I remember I was really depressed and became quite mistrustful. There is also a make-believe friendship in the book which meant you couldn’t even trust friends. Once your eyes are open you start to see and my teenage self became aware of similar things happening around me. In the end I was glad I had read Les liaisons dangereuses. Better to learn from a book than through pain and heartache. I must add as well that I loved this book. I was shocked and depressed but also fascinated and amazed by the story.

The second book was not a novel but a philosophical text by Julien Offroy de La Mettrie. The idea that we are just machines acting and reacting, not much different from a robot, as he described it in Machine Man – L’homme machine (1747) – depressed me incredibly. After having read it, life felt quite pointless for a while and I had to come to the conclusion that he was maybe just plain wrong, before I could enjoy it again.

I wonder if it’s a pure coincidence that all the examples which had a negative impact on my life are from the 18th century? And three of the four examples are French books.

Luckily some books have had a very positive impact but that will be the topic of another post.

Have you ever read a book which had a major impact? And what do you think about banning books?

Dangerous Liaisons (Penguin Classics)

Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games (2008)

I bought The Hunger Games long before even part II and III were out but never read it. Too much hype. Not that there is less of it now but I’d like to watch the movie and figured, I should read the book before. I finished it in barely two sittings and even spent one night dreaming of it.

I went through a few different phases while reading it and finally I had to admit that a lot of the problems I had with the book were entirely mine and resulted in some misconceptions. Sometimes we expect something from a book or a movie that isn’t there. I’m not the only one, I saw this reflected in a few of the reviews I’ve read so far. This isn’t a poetical fantasy story, nor a subtle YA coming-of-age novel. The Hunger Games is a dystopian adventure/action story. Following the logic of adventure and action movies and books, there isn’t a lot of introspection. Switching from Virginia Woolf’s world of characters with a rich inner life, I felt a bit lost at first but once I saw the book like a new take on an old theme, namely gladiators in a dystopian setting, I started to enjoy the ride.

A modern-day gladiator novel is pretty much what The Hunger Games is. When you’ve learned Latin in school you are familiar with the expression “Panem et Circenses” meaning “Bread and Games/Circuses”. The story plays in a distant future, in America, in the country of Panem. There are a lot of other elements taken from roman history: the Capitol, some of the names like Octavia, …

The 24 tributes of the 12 districts of Panem, 12 boys and 12 girls are sent into an arena where they fight against each other until there is only one survivor left. The games are not only shown on TV but they must be watched. The questions the book could have asked but only brushes is “Would you kill to survive?” and “How does it affect you to be forced to witness killing on a regular basis?” or “Are these killings murder?”.  The book can lead to this type of discussion but it doesn’t really look into those questions at all.

Katniss, the main character, volunteers in order to save her sister. She prays that her best friend Gale isn’t going to be sent in with her. Since there can only be one survivor it would mean she might have to kill her best friend. The boy chosen instead, Peeta, isn’t a much better choice as he saved her life once. She can only hope that either she or Peeta will be killed by someone else before the last fight.

The arena is a vast landscape with forests and lakes, bushes and caves. The game masters can change the weather, they can send wild animals, ice and storm, fire and frost. This adds to the difficulties. Only those who are skilled in all sorts of survival techniques, those who know how to hunt and hide will make it.

It is a quick read and I was captivated, not so much because I wanted to find out who will survive, no, there was no suspense in that department. It’s pretty clear from the start but it isn’t clear how they will survive. And I was interested to see whether Katniss would have to kill someone as well. And if and how it would affect her.

The Hunger Games is a page-turner, exploiting and re-inventing the gladiator theme, with some surprising ideas thrown in but I still have a few reservations.

Did there have to be a love story and did it have to play such an important role? I’m not going into details as that would be a major spoiler.

And the writing? That was a problem. I’m not a native English speaker and can be more tolerant occasionally but nothing could make me miss the fact that it’s not very well written. There is a constant use of present tense, hardly any subordinate clauses, a very limited vocabulary and a lot of repetition. I’d like to emphasize here that this isn’t typical for YA novels or dystopian novels. I’ve read several that were very well written.

As I haven’t read Battle Royale, I can’t compare but the violence in The Hunger Games is minor. Nothing very shocking. It’s more the thought that they are so easily ready to kill each other that is shocking.

I think, if you know what to expect, you will enjoy this novel as it is fast-paced, captivating and I personally liked the main characters. Just don’t expect anything poetical or introspective. The emphasis is on action not on ideas or feelings.

Will I read the next one? I have already started.

If you would like to read other reviews here is the link to Iris’ very interesting post. She has included a huge number of other reviews.

Ferdinand von Schirach: Crime – Verbrechen (2009)

Are they true? Are they not? The discussion of Ferdinand von Schirach ‘s stories circled to a large extent around these questions  in Germany  and what the respective answers might mean. For the book. For life. And human nature in general. In English speaking countries there is no emphasis on whether they are based on true cases or not. People admire the crisp, precise, unadorned prose, the philosophical background, the look into human depravity, into guilt, gruesome crime and its possible punishment. They are seen as literature and not as true crime accounts. I find this interesting. In this faz interview von Schirach says that all the cases happened and are true. A lot has been changed to guarantee anonymity of the people involved but other than that, this is what happened. Does it matter? Maybe not.

Von Schirach is a famous German defence lawyer. His grandfather Baldur von Schirach was even more famous. He was one of the Nazi criminals convicted in Nuremberg.

The stories in Crime – Verbrechen are astonishing. Some are shocking, some made me laugh, some are puzzling, others thought-provoking, even very touching at times. Often the person who sets out to commit a crime isn’t the person the lawyer in the story will have to defend. Somewhere along the line, the roles are reversed. The initial victim can become the perpetrator. This happens especially in those cases in which silly small-time-crooks inadvertently attack a “big fish”. Some of those stories are hilarious.

But there are stories in which a lot of pain and cruelty pushes a person over the edge. As von Schirach writes in the introduction, this is what the stories are about; the tipping point. We are all, as he says, walking on thin ice, but not all of us make it to the other side. The moment when the ice crashes, is the moment he is interested in.

Punishment is one of the key themes of all of those stories and surprisingly, for various reasons, not many of the delinquents get sentenced. The book, being written by a defence lawyer, gives a lot of insight into the German criminal system, comparing it to other systems, showing how it has changed over time, how it has become more just but much more complicated as well.

I cannot write all that much about the individual stories as that would spoil the fun of discovering what happened. I’m glad I discovered the review of the book on Lizzy’s blog last year.

Some of the stories are gruesome but the majority is just absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking. Many give insight into the German society, it’s problems and challenges; many illustrate that some people are just born unlucky.

Crime was von Schirach’s first book. It was an immense success in Germany and translated into 30 languages. One of the stories of the collection have been made into a movie Glück – Bliss by none other than Dorries Dörrie. It’s in the cinemas in Germany right now.

Another short story collection Guilt – Schuld and a novel Der Fall Collini have followed. Guilt just came out in English.

Der Fall Collini which Die Welt calls a”cristal clear story of disconcerting amorality” will certainly be translated very soon. I want to read both, Schuld and Der Fall Collini. And watch the movie.

Have you read von Schirach or heard about him?

Giveaway Winner – The Day the World Ends – A Collection of Poems by Ethan Coen

As promised, I’ve drawn the winner of the poetry collection The Day the World Ends courtesy of Crown Publishing.

random org. list generator has decided. The winner is

Guy Savage (His Futile Preoccupations)

Congratulations, Guy.

Pease send me your address via beautyisasleepingcat@gmail.com