Len Deighton: Bomber (1970) Literature and War Readalong June 2012

It is very rare that I abandon a book. Often I regret this persistence when I finish it anyway and have to find out that it simply isn’t good. Sometimes I’m incredibly glad I went on. Len Deighton’s Bomber was one of those. I struggled badly for 150 pages and the idea to have to go on for another 400 seemed daunting. But it was worth the effort, it really was and looking back, I have to say, how lucky this was part of my readalong or I would have given up and missed out greatly. Bomber is amazing. It’s maybe not refined and highly literary but it’s a huge achievement. Not only because it is extremely accurate and detailed but also because it’s very engaging and admirably well constructed.

Bomber is an epic. A book with a huge cast and numerous different settings and story lines. Deighton really needed 150 pages to set the scene and introduce everyone, including the different aircraft. That part was really challenging to read as there were so many names and one had to try to constantly picture a map to see where they were located. Once the set up was done, the story moved on nicely, all the different story lines were tied together, the characters had become more than just names but people with a story.

Bomber tells the story of a bombing raid that takes place on June 31st 1943. Deigthon deliberately chose a date that doesn’t exist, knowing well that his book felt so realistic and authentic that people would always end up assuming it was non-fiction.

The 31st is a full moon night and all the crews get ready for a night of bombing and fighting. The target is the city of Krefeld in Germany. The planes take off from Warley Fen, head towards Krefeld and have to try to not get shot down before they have dropped the bomb. But before they can drop a bomb

First the PFF Mosquito aircraft will mark the target with red markers. Their gear is much more accurate than anything we have, so their reds are what the Finders must look for. The Finders will put long sticks of flares over the reds. Mixed in with the Finder aircraft there are Supporters – and these are mostly crews on their first couple of trips – who are carrying only high-explosive bombs. That’s because incendiaries could be mistaken for red markers.

What you just read is part of the instruction the pilots receive before flying off. But this part is more than that, it points towards the core of the book because the tragedy of the story has it’s source in the fact that, due to many unlucky circumstances, the markers were dropped on the wrong targets and what was bombed was the small city of Altgarten. No factories, no strategic points, just civilian buildings.

The first third of the book, sets the scene, the next third describes a lot of action and how the mistake happened and the last third is describing the drama in the air and on the ground in a very graphic way. I had to swallow hard a lot of times.

What I liked is that Deighton described a wide range of German characters, from the fanatic Nazi to the likable soldier. The portraits are nuanced and we get a feel for the diversity of the people.

The British crews are equally diverse but for other reasons. There are also Canadians and Australians, upper class and lower class men, married guys and womanizers, men who just do their duty, cowards and heroes.

In the death scenes Deighton’s sympathies clearly lie with the German civilians and the British bomber crews. Each part has one or two main characters and a lot of secondary characters and the fate of the main characters is equally sad in all the parts. I cannot go into too much detail, if you want to read it, you want to find out for yourself who will survive and who will die.

I’ve read a few harrowing accounts in the past and the one or the other book has depressed me incredibly. Bomber didn’t depress me but it brought a few tears to my eyes, a thing that rarely if ever happens to me unless something sad happens to an animal.

Bomber offers an interesting mix of emotional story telling, accuracy and numbers. We are informed of everything. How many people were involved, how many died, how many were injured, how many bombs hit target, how many were jettisoned, how many missed or didn’t go off and so on and so forth. At the end of the book were also informed about each and every surviving character’s future. It’s as if Deighton wanted to answer each and every question someone reading his novel might have.

If you ever wondered what it is like to be in a city which is bombed, this book will bring you close to this experience. If you ever wondered what it is like to be in plane on a bombing raid, this book will allow you to experience this as well.  In any case, if you are interested in WWII and how it was fought in the air, this is the book you should read.

If you’d like to find out a few things about Deigthon and his other books don’t miss visiting the Deighton Dossier. It is a site dedicated to Deigthon’s work and it is done with a lot of passion.

Other reviews (I’m somewhat doubtful that there will be any)


Bomber was the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain. Discussion starts on Monday July 30, 2012.

Contemporary Art: Noriko Kurafuji, Ye HongXing and Carlos Aires

The ART Basel is one of the biggest art fairs in the world. Meanwhile it is a week-long event which takes place all over the town. Smaller and bigger venues show contemporary and classic art. I used to work in a gallery while I was still in school and during my years as a student and my interest in contemporary art has never ceased. Every year I discover at least one painter or artist who really amazes me. This year one of them was Japanese painter Noriko Kurafuji whose flower paintings are some of the most beautiful paintings I’ve seen in recent years. I’m looking forward to an exhibition which will take place this summer.

What I like in contemporary art is the experiments with different media. From the point of view of the technique this years discovery was the work of Chinese artist Ye Hongxing. You may not see it well but these Buddha “paintings” consist of stickers for children. When you approach the work you see that the stickers which have been divided by colors show figures like Tweetie or Hello Kitty and many others like this. A religious symbol becomes upon approaching a reflection of our consumer society.

The idea to cut out smaller pictures from vinyl records and to arrange them in order to form a bigger whole is pretty amazing too, I thought. This work called Face to Face with Death is from Spanish artist Carlos Aires.

I saw the three artists in a parallel art show called Scope, not at the main ART fair.

Katie Ward: Girl Reading (2011)

Katie Ward’s Girl Reading is called a novel which is slightly misleading as what it really is, is a collection of seven episodes with a similar theme which are tied together by the last one. Each of the episodes or scenes is set in another time and place, 1333, 1668, 1775, 1864, 1916, 2008, 2060. The way it is tied together, with a final scene set in 2060, gives the whole book a futuristic finish. I knew all this before I started the book but what surprised me was the writing which is quite dense, elaborate and heavily influenced by other books and tales, and, of course, paintings as the linking idea are portraits of reading women or girls seen through the ages.

Most of these “stories” are mysterious, that’s why I chose to call them episodes. They are like small windows that open up on scenes set in the past. We hardly ever get all the background information and often don’t know what will happen to the characters later.

Each of the scenes describes the challenges of women in their respective time and the girl or woman chosen for the portrait is mostly not exactly in line with what is expected of a woman at the time. The fact that the challenges and problems women face stay so similar from the 14th to the 21st century is somewhat unsettling.

Of the 7 stories or episodes I really liked four a lot. The first one, set in Siena, and the second, set in the Netherlands, were not so much to my liking nor was the last set in the future. In the case of story 1 and 2 I had a feeling I have read the exact same stories before, especially the second which was very similar to Girl with a Pearl Earring. Too similar.

I thoroughly enjoyed story 3, set in 1775 in which a female painter comes to the estate of a noble woman to finish the portrait of her lover. The lover, a woman as well, has left and the abandoned one is depressed and morose.

Story 4, set in Victorian England, was another favourite despite the fact that it resembled Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. It’s a tale of two psychic twins. One becomes a photographer, while the other tours the world as a famous medium. It’s a wonderful story and the decor, clothes, atmosphere, are lush and evocative.

Story 5 is another wonderful story. The girl in the center will be a painter in the future but at this point in time she is a slightly silly young girl, infatuated with a painter. What is wonderful is the intensity with which she experiences life. Everything she does – smoking, drinking, falling in love – she does for the first time and savours every minute. Even being heartbroken as it seems.

While I liked some of the stories, I think story 6, set in a Shoreditch bar in 2008, was the most original and rounded of the stories. We get to know much more about the character in this story than about any other of the characters. She is a young black Tory who wants to become member of the Parliament. At the same time she has to decide whether she should get married or not. I liked the way she was described and how descriptions of the most mundane struggles, like wearing shoes which were new but painful, were interwoven with heavy decisions.

I enjoyed some of the stories a lot but as a novel Girl Reading didn’t work for me at all. While the last story, set in the future, gave it an interesting twist, it didn’t manage to really tie them all together. As a whole I found the book a bit artificial which is certainly due to the elaborate and somewhat forced writing. On top of that a few of the stories were too similar to other books I’ve read to be entirely satisfactory.

I’ve read the book along with Rikki and am looking forward to hear what they thought.

Rikki (Rikki’s Teleidoscope) First impressions, Stories 3 and 4, Stories 5-7

If anyone else has read this I would like to know which of the stories you liked best and whether this worked as a novel for you or not. Looking back, I think that story 6 was my favourite because it was the only one that didn’t feel like a pastiche.

If you’d like to see the paintings the stories are based on here is the link to Katie Ward’s site where you find the links.

Japanese Literature Challenge

Every year the Japanese novels I read are among my favourites. While I missed Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge last year, I’m very keen on participating this year. It is a 7 month long challenge which has started this month and runs until January 30 2013.

I’m not going to share a proper list at this point although I have a pile with interesting books. Mostly in French or German translations which makes it tricky to find the English titles and, as so often, they do not even exist in an English translation.

A few of the translated choices are

Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain.

Soseki Natsume’s Kokoro

Lady Sarashina As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in 11th Century Japan.

I already know that one of my first contributions will be the July title of my Literature and War Readalong.

Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain is said to be one of the most important novels which have been written on Hiroshima.

If you participate in the Japanese Literature Challenge you might consider joining us in reading this novel.

The discussion is due on Monday, July 30 2012. An introduction post to this novel will follow shortly.

Harry Mulisch: The Assault – De Aanslag (1982)

The execution of a collaborator and Nazi retaliation on the family of twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk have lasting repercussions in Anton’s life as he learns, through chance encounters, the truth of one harrowing night. 

Harry Mulisch is an author I have wanted to read for a long time. I know he is said to be one of the most important Dutch writers.  The Assault – De Aanslag is one of his most acclaimed novels and since it isn’t as long as The Discovery of Heaven, which I’d like to read sooner or later as well, I thought it’s a good starting point.

The book is told in a prologue and 5 sequences, each set in another year, 1945, 1952, 1956, 1966, 1981.

During the course of one single night, in the famine winter 45, just before the end of the war, the life of Anton Steenwijk, a twelve year-old boy, is changed forever.

The prologue describes the location. We get to know that the Steenwijk’s live in Haarlem, in a detached house, part of a housing project with three other houses. They are small but stately houses. At the beginning of sequence one, the family sits together in the darkened dining room, the only room they still inhabit in the icy cold apartment. Anton is reading, his older brother Peter is doing his home work, the mother spools wool and the father is trying to instruct them. A peaceful moment and despite the hunger Anton is enjoying it.

When they hear shots outside in the street, the peaceful moment is interrupted brutally. Looking out of the window they see that someone has been shot down in front of a neighbour’s house and immediately after this the neighbours come out and drag the man to the front of  Steenwijk’s house. Peter is the only one to react. He runs out and discovers that the man is a well-known police inspector and Nazi collaborator. He tries to drag the man away but before he gets very far, a group of Nazis approaches.

We learn later, that in those days, whenever a Nazi or a collaborateur was shot dead, the Nazis would severely punish those living in the houses close by.

This is exactly what happens. At the end of the night Anton’s parents and brother are shot and the house is destroyed. Anton is brought to his aunt and uncle who live in Amsterdam.

How do you go on living after something like this? How do you cope?

Each of the subsequent scenes shows us Anton at another point in his life. There is no conscious coping at first. It is as if he was numb and had forgotten everything right after it happened. His feeling for time is distorted. Whenever he thinks of that night he doesn’t feel much and thinks it’s much longer ago than it really is. Still the event seems to be guiding him in all of his choices and it is impossible to leave it behind for good. It is as if a secret force was at work and pushing him towards people who will help him uncover what happened really.

Survivor’s guilt may be an important theme but morality and fate or destiny are even much more important. While it was a pure coincidence that the dead man was shot in front of Korteweg’s house, Korteweg’s chose to drag him and leave him in front of Steenwijk’s house. Why? And if those who committed the assault had known that almost a whole family would be erased, would they still have done what they did? All these questions that Anton will start to ask many years later will be answered in the novel.

The book explores the question whether it is morally acceptable to commit a crime which will have severe consequences for others, in order to prevent bigger crimes and it explores also how people live with a trauma and repression. It shows in a very subtle way that although you may not be conscious of it, the trauma still lingers and wants to be acknowledged and express itself. It will find ways to make you pay attention. Pretty much like the elements in a dream which will return as long as you have not resolved some interior conflicts. The trauma can even make you choose a profession and it expresses itself in illness and accidents.

The way Mulisch shows the complexity and symbolism in which our subconscious tries to get our attention is amazing. What is equally wonderful is how evocative and expressive his descriptions are. When we open that book, we sit there with the family in the darkened room. We see the flickering lamp, feel the rough wool of an old pullover on our skin, the hunger churning in our bellies.

I didn’t like all of the parts equally well but one thing is for sure, part I 1945, is an amazing piece of literature and as a whole it is well worth reading.

I have read Harry Mulisch for Iris Dutch Literature Month. If you’d like to discover more Dutch books, make sure to visit her blog.

Has anyone read this or another of Mulisch’s book?

Alice Hoffman: The Ice Queen (2005)

I don’t know many writers whose first sentences draw you into a novel like Alice Hoffman does

Be careful what you wish for. I know that for a fact. Wishes are brutal unforgiving things. They burn your tongue the moment they are spoken and you can never turn them back. They bruise and bake and come back to haunt you. I’ve made far too many wishes in my lifetime, the first when I was eight years old.

This is the lesson the narrator learns when she is still a little girl at the beginning of Alice Hoffman’s novel The Ice Queen. In a moment of intense anger she wishes her mother dead. A few hours later she and her brother are informed that their mother has died in a car accident. This freezes the narrator’s heart. Nobody will ever be allowed to approach her emotionally, she is shut down. She will live like a spectator, never get involved. When she is older she becomes a librarian, lives with her grandmother, has a lover, a policeman. Apart from being interested in all the possible ways someone can die, her life is uneventful. When her grandmother passes away, she decides to leave New Jersey and move to Florida where her brother lives.

She finds a job at the local library and resumes her uneventful life until she is struck by lightning. That changes everything. She joins a local support group and makes friends with a fellow lightning strike victim, Renny. When she hears of Seth, the man who is called Lazarus, because he returned from the dead, she starts to develop an obsession and finally follows him until he lets her into his house and his heart. The relationship they begin is one of intense passion and not very healthy. They are both initially trying to hide dark secrets from each other but ultimately their relationship will help them reveal and accept them.

The Ice Queen is a peculiar story. To some extent it is a re-imagination of  Andersen’s fairy tale The Ice Queen but many other tales have been incorporated and are mentioned throughout the book. Beauty and the Beast is as important as Amor & Psyche. And fairy tales are also present as topic. The narrator speaks about them, mentions them.

The main character isn’t very appealing, I can’t say I ever sympathized with her and her life much but I learned a world of things I didn’t know about lightning strike victims. How tragic it is, how much your life can be altered by it, the wounds, the scars. The worst that happens to the narrator is that she looses the ability to see the color red. This triggers the love story with Seth because she dresses and behaves differently just because all that was formerly red to her looks white. It’s amazing to imagine something like this and I found it fascinating to see the world described through the eyes of someone who sees white instead of all the shades of red. While it seems visual problems are common in lightning strike victims,  I’m not so sure something like this could happen but I was equally not sure that people could get so-called lightning figures that make them look as if whole trees had been burned into their skin. But then I looked it up and as amazing as it may seem, the phenomenon, which is called Lichtenberg figures, really exists (the link will guide you to some photos).

While as a whole this is one of the rare Alice Hoffman novels that didn’t work for me so much, there were a lot of amazing elements, as usual. One of the main characters, Renny, believes that every person has a defining secret and that it makes him or her tick. It’s an interesting concept and the novel elaborates on it.

I also liked the aspect that the narrator is a librarian and that for her each library card represents a person’s secrets. She thinks the information on it is as personal as diary entries.

What people read revealed so much about them that she considered our card catalog a treasure house of privileged secrets; each card contained the map of an individual’s soul.

I have read quite a lot of Alice Hoffman’s novels and find her a fascinating writer. Unusual and captivating and highly quotable. This isn’t one of her best in my opinion but it’s not bad at all. I just didn’t care much for the narrator and the story is based more on themes than plot which makes it somewhat disparate.

Of all the Hoffman novels I read so far I liked Seventh Heaven, Turtle Moon and The River King best. Second Nature and Here on Earth follow closely but I cared less for Practical Magic and Illumination Night.

Which is your favourite book by Alice Hoffman?

The review is a contribution to Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. I am glad I made it. I had a list with several books and wanted to read at least one. I’ve read one and half. While book two – Patricia Mc Killip’s Solstice Wood – is much better than The Ice Queen, I will not be able to finish it this month.

Paris in July 2012

Paris in July was one of the events I enjoyed the most last year and I’m really glad that Karen from Book Bath and Tamara from Thyme for Tea are organizing it again.

The rules are very simple. If you’d like to join all you have to do is review a French book or movie or write about something French. Music, art, cuisine. Anything you like. It’s not a challenge so you don’t need to commit to anything. Details can be found here Book Bath and here Thyme for Tea and here is the sign up.

I’ve been reading quite a lot of French books recently which I haven’t even reviewed yet, so this is certainly something I’m going to do.

While we are free to choose any French books we like, I will focus on books set in Paris. Possible choices are

Zola’s The Belly of Paris – Le ventre de Paris

Fred Vargas’ Have Mercy On Us AllPars vite et reviens tard. You cannot go wrong with Fred Vargas. She is one of the best crime writers writing today. If you haven’t read her yet, just pick any of her books.

Tatiana de Rosnay’s The House I LovedRose. While she is known as a French writer, this is one of the books she has written in English. It’s a historical novel set in 19th century Paris during the time when the city was undergoing major changes.

I hope to review a movie as well but I’m not sure yet which one it will be. Maybe it’s time to re-watch the movie which is possibly my favourite French film.

I know I will not be able to be as active as last year as July is also Spanish Literature Month.

Are you going to join? Do you already know what you will read?