Timothy Findley: The Wars (1977) Literature and War Readalong April 2013

The Wars

Is it possible to write about WWI – including the trenches, the incapable high command, shell shock, gas attacks, rats, mud, facial wounds, the immense body count – and still be original and have something profound and thought-provoking to say? Before reading Timothy Findley’s  The Wars I might have said “possibly” but after finishing it, I have to say “definitely”. This novel proves that in the hands of a powerful writer anything can become extraordinary.

The Wars has an episodic structure but still tells a coherent story, exploring what happened one day, during WWI, when young Officer Robert Ross, broke the ranks, committing an act of total insubordination, shot another officer and freed dozens of horses. How did it come to this? The story is told in a circular way, starting with the end, withholding all the vital information, and then moving back to  the beginning, unfolding every step which led to that fatal day.

I said in my intro post that I was worried the book would contain a lot of animal suffering and it did but in an unusual way. The strength of Findley’s work is that he manages to show, just like Coetzee – another defender of animals – that, at the end of the day, animals and humans are equal. Both feel pain; their lives are precious and must be protected. Being alive is nothing short of a miracle.

This first quote is central in the book and illustrates perfectly what kind of person Robert Ross is

In another hole there was a rat that was alive but trapped because of the waterlogged condition of the earth that kept collapsing every time it tried to ascend the walls. Robert struck a match and caught the rat by the tail. It squealed as he lifted it over the edge and set it free. Robert wondered afterwards if setting the rat free had been a favour – but in the moment that he did it he was thinking: here is someone still alive. And the word alive was amazing.

The instances in which animals die at the hand of men who have gone crazy or are saved by compassionate men are numerous. Madness is an important topic in this novel. Not just in the sense of war is madness but because people lose their minds during battle or under attack. And often they take it out on weaker ones. Wounded Germans, prisoners or animals.

Many of the soldiers in the book question the decisions of their superiors

This – to Bates – was the greatest terror of the war: what you didn’t know of the men who told you what to do – where to go and when. What if they were mad – or stupid? What if their fear was greater than yours? Or what of they were brave and crazy – wanting and demanding bravery from you?

Life in the trenches is constant terror, trying to stay sane and attempting to survive.

Robert had only taken eight hours sleep in the last three days. He was living on chocolate bars and tea and generous portions of rum which he took from the supply wagons. His body was completely numb and his mind had shrunken to a small, protective shell in which he hoarded the barest essentials of reason.

The novel is divided in many short chapters which could be read separately but definitely work as a whole. This isn’t a collection of snapshots, it is a novel but this approach of unfolding the story in short chapters, which change point of view, narrative technique, tone and mood, make every part very powerful. Findley is probably one of the most assured writers I’ve read. This could have been difficult to read but most chapters contain strong and expressive scenes. There is far more show than tell in this book, which makes it accessible but also painful. Death, pain, loss and grief are described in a civilian setting and during war, and finally illustrate that love is all that counts. War is mad, inflicting pain is mad and treating people without respect is mad as well.

What came as a surprise were the many funny moments in this book. Rodwell is an officer who saved some injured animals after an attack

“Where did you find the hedgehog?” Robert asked.

“Under a hedge,” said Rodwell.

Everybody laughed.

“I suppose that means you found the bird in the sky,” said Devlin.

“Would that I had, Mister Devlin,” said Rodwell. “No sir – I found him with the hedgehog. They were crouched there side by side when I got them by putting out my hand to secure the toad. We were all there together, you see. It was a popular hedge just at that moment.”

There are many other funny moments. I was glad for those, otherwise the book would have been really dark.

The Wars is populated by likable characters which makes it a painful read. There are not many men or animals who survive in this book. It’s not too gruesome as wounds and pain are not dwelt on but it has many explicit moments which make it an equally beautiful, powerful and painful read.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Buried in Print

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

The review is also a contribution to The Canadian Book Challenge.


The Wars was the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel All That I Am  by Australian writer Anna Funder . Discussion starts on Friday 31 May, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Songs of Love & Death edited by George R.R.Martin and Gardner Dozois

Songs of Love and Death

It took me over a year to finish this anthology. No wonder, Songs of Love & Death is quite chunky, over 600 pages. The individual stories are all rather long, around 50 pages each. The subtitle of the book is All-Original Tales of Star-Crossed Love which is not entirely accurate as most stories have a happy ending.

While I didn’t like all of the stories equally, I liked that there were so many different genres or rather sub genres of fantasy and romance. Historical Romance, Sci-fi Romance, Dark Fantasy, High Fantasy. Most of the authors were new to me but there were also people like Neil Gaiman, Peter S. Beagle, Lisa Tuttle and Tanith Lee.

Many people bought this anthology for Diana Gabaldon’s story A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows. It’s a tale set in her Outlander series with characters who are important in the series or rather back story of some characters. I can’t say I liked it much. It’s the story of an RAF pilot on a mission to Poland. His plane crashes and he somehow lands in another time. He tries hard to get back to his wife and young son. I suppose that when you are familiar with the series that it’s an interesting story but when you are not it’s not very gripping.

That’s a problem of some of the other stories too. Many of the authors write series and the stories are set in those worlds. Reading just one small story about those worlds can be a bit confusing. Fortunately most writers submitted an original standalone story.

Each story comes with an introduction, naming the author’s genre and most important work. It’s certainly the first time that I have read sci-fi romance. It wasn’t my cup of tea but quite interesting.

These were my favourite stories:

Jim Butcher’s Love Hurts tells a tale of love sickness with an interesting twist.

Carrie Vaughn’s Rooftops is nothing special as story but the voice is charming and made me buy the first in her Kitty Norville series.

M.L.N. Hanover Hurt Me is a horror story dealing with abusive relationships. Really good.

Robin Hobb’s Blue Boots was just a very lovely love story set in pre-industrial England.

Neil Gaiman’s The Thing About Cassandra is typical Gaiman. So original. A story with a really stunning twist that shows that you have to be careful when you make things up.

Lisa Tuttle’s His Wolf was my favourite. It’s some sort of werewolf story but including a real wolf. The story as such is so realistic, the characters so well drawn, one forgets easily that it’s fantasy.

Peter S. Beagle’s Kaskia is a sic-fi story. Very eerie. Has the computer come alive or what is going on here?

Yasmine Galenorn is another writer I didn’t know. Her Man in the Mirror is a very unusual ghost/horror story of a man trapped between the worlds. It has a bittersweet ending.

I was quite disappointed in Tanith Lee’s story Under/Above the Water, and didn’t really understand Marjorie M. Liu’s dystopian vampire story After the Blood. Too bad, both stories are very well written.

With the exception of a few stories the anthology is much more romance than dark fantasy. If that is your thing, don’t miss it. But even if you prefer Dark Fantasy and Fantasy you will still find at least half a dozen really great stories. I guess what I liked most and what made this overall a really enjoyable experience was to discover so many new subgenres. That was really fun. A bit like eating a box of Quality Street.

Delia has reviewed this a while back here.

A warning for the George R.R.Martin fans – he is only the editor, he didn’t contribute to the collection.

I’m Back – Moroccan Impressions


I’m back. Almost. It seems that whenever I travel somewhere my body returns earlier than the rest. So while I’ve been back for a couple of days, I’m still somehow stuck in Morocco. Peculiar. Does that happen to anyone else?

I enjoyed it a great deal but it was stressful. We did such a lot and met so many people as we travelled with different people who knew other people in Marrakech and Essaouira. I suppose I’ve seen a few things tourists usually do not see like work shops in which they make wooden boxes and furniture and such.

The temperature was quite high in Marrakech, 38°/100°, while it was cool and very windy in Essaouira, 19°/66°. I was worried it would be too cold in Switzerland but the last couple of days the temperature was around 25°/77°.

I took a lot of pictures in Marrakech but hardly any in Essaouira. What follows are just a few impressions.



The top picture and these pictures show the famous place, Djemma el Fna, in the heart of Marrakech. The city is divided into two halves, a modern one and the old part with the Medina and covered souks. The place is just located in front of the souks, in the old town. A feature of Marrakech that I like a lot is that there are ramparts around the whole of the old town.

During the day there is some activity but it’s at night that the place really comes to life. I wouldn’t say that it’s a beautiful place as such but it’s incredibly interesting as time seems to have come to a standstill here. There are numerous people performing acts with animals, like medieval jugglers, others are selling things, offering henna tattoos. At night hundreds and hundreds of food stalls offer various food. Mostly grilled meat, fish and vegetables. The place is quite noisy as people laugh and shout, drums and flutes are ebing played. It’s picturesque and colorful to say the least.


The Jardin de Majorelle which belonged to Yves St Laurent, is a big attraction and very beautiful. Since I’ve been there ten years ago it has been redecorated and the colors were stunning and intense.


I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many and such big Bougainvillea bushes.


It’s lovely to stand under the bamboo and listen to the wind softly rustling in the leaves.


There are various ponds and fountains in the garden.


The main colors the buildings are painted in are Yves Klein blue, yellow, green and white.


Hotel Garden

We stayed in a Riad in the heart of the medina. A stunning place which received a lot of media coverage in Germany and Switzerland. It belonged to the German ambassador in Marrakech and was transformed into a guest house after his death. This is the hotel garden.


The center piece of the hotel garden.

Roof of Riad

A view over the roof of the hotel.


The entrance to the souks. For some vendors business was a bit slow that day.


One of the many beautiful gates in the medina.

The medina is a giant market. You can find a lot of lovely things in many different materials. Woodwork, spices, fabrics, jewellery, food.

Cat in Medina

This little kitty was sleeping peacefully in the middle of the poultry market. I didn’t take pictures of the market. It wasn’t a pretty sight.


This is a sight you don’t see every day. On the road to Essaouira you find Argan trees. The fruit look like big olives. They are used for making argan oil which is very fashionable at the moment. Even big cosmetic lines like L’Oréal use the oil. It can also be used like olive oil for salad. It tastes very different though, a bit like walnut oil.

The goats climb these trees as they are very keen on the fruit. Along the road you will see many a tree covered in goats. So funny.


I didn’t know goats could climb so well.


Essaouira is located on the Atlantic ocean. This is the view from the hotel room. The guest house we stayed in belongs to Swiss people who built it two years ago, practically into the ocean. At night the waves can come as high as the second story windows.


The streets in Marrakech and Essaouira are swarming with cats. Most of the cats I saw in Marrakech were very ill and starving. In Essaouira you always saw some food that was left for the cats. They looked quite healthy. I saw numerous boxes like this one with many kittens. The cutest was a box which three female cats shared with their offspring. A total of 16 kittens. Unfortunately it was impossible to take a picture. They moved too much.

That’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed it.  I might share a few pictures from Essaouira in another post.

I’ll be visiting your blogs shortly. I noticed some of you were busy.

Moroccan Literature and A Blogging Break

Picture taken from www.trekearth.com

Picture of the Kashbah Aït Benhaddou taken from http://www.trekearth.com

This is just a quick post to let you know I’m taking a blogging break. I’m not sure for how long but I will certainly be back in time for the readalong at the end of the month.


Some of you know that one of the reasons for the break is that I’m travelling to Morocco. To Marrakech to be precise. The first time I’ve been to Morocco was in part because of so many European and American writers like Paul Bowles, Elias Canetti, Esther Freud, who loved Morocco and especially Marrakech. The way they described the city made me think I would love it. At first I was disappointed as it was so different from what I had imagined but then I went back and saw the “real” Marrakech and fell in love. I wonder how it will be this time. This trip will be special as I’m travelling with someone who has been there before, someone who has never been there and someone who was born there. It will be interesting to see the city through so many different eyes. From Marrakech we will travel to Essaouira which is on the coast and stay there for a couple of days.

I’m looking forward to this trip as the temperature here is still around 6°C/42,8°F, while in Morocco it should be around 27°C/80,6°F.


Another reason why I wen to Marrakech for the first time was Elizabeth Fernea. While studying at the university I took a course on travel memoirs written by cultural anthropologists. One of the titles that made a huge impression was A Street in Marrakech. I’d love to read it again. It’s a fascinating account and a well-written book that captures the magic of living in another culture and the sorrow to leave it again.

The other day I thought it was appalling that I haven’t read any Moroccan writers other than Tahar Ben Jelloun. There are so many, however not all of them have been translated. To put myself in the mood for the trip I compiled a small list.


Tahar Ben Jelloun – Leaving Tangier

Ben Jelloun is probably the most famous Moroccan writer. His books are short and lyrical. He has written a lot. Many of his books have been translated.

Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Lalami is  new to me. Her books received much praise. She lives in the US and writes in English but was born in Morocco.


Mohamed Choukri – For Bread Alone

Mohamed Choukri’s autobiographical novel is a classic. It has been translated by Paul Bowles. It’s an account of poverty and hardship, written in powerful prose.


Fatima Mernissi – Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood

I bought this years ago but have still not read it. Mernissi writes in English. I’ve read other memoirs by women who grew up in a harem. They are worth reading as we discover a world we would otherwise never see.


Driss Chraibi’s novel Mother Comes of Age is another classic which I’ve bought some time ago. It is said to be one of the most important Moroccan books.

I hope this post will tempt the one or the other to pick up a Moroccan writer in the future.

I know that some of you are curious to see what books people will read when travelling or on holidays. While I have a kindle I will not go anywhere without real books. These are the candidates I’m taking with me:


I’ve already started Asmara et les causes perdues. Jean-Christophe Rufin has won the Prix Goncourt for his novel Rouge Brésil or Brazil Red. Unfortunately Asmara hasn’t been translated.

burning bright - ron rash

Ron Rash has been on my radar for a while. Before reading his novel The Cove I wanted to explore his shorter fiction. Burning Brigth has received some prestigious prizes.


I just received Brian Kimberling’s first novel Snapper from Random House and since it sounds so good, I’m going to read this soon.

You certainly wonder why I’m not taking any of the Moroccan books. I’m weird that way, I keep those for when I’m back.

Take care everyone. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Literature and War Readalong April 29 2013: The Wars by Timothy Findley

The Wars

On my intro post to the Canadian Book Challenge John, the host of the challenge, suggested I read Timothy Findley’s The Wars. There are quite a few Canadian WWI novels and this is said to be a Canadian classic.

Tomothy Findley wrote novels, plays, short stories and non-fiction. Many of his novels received prestigious prizes.On the back of my copy it says that he is Canada’s greatest living writer. That was back when the book was printed, in 2001. Findley died in 2002.

I must admit the first sentences make me feel anxious. Horses in WWI novels and movies are hardly ever a cheerful thing.

Here are the first sentences

She was standing in the middle of the railroad tracks. Her head was bowed and her right front hoof was raised as if she rested. Her reins hung down to the ground and her saddle slipped to one side. Behind her, a warehouse filled with medical supplies had just caught fire. Lying beside her there was a dog with its head between his paws and its ears erect and listening.


The discussion starts on Monday, 29 April 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Karen Thompson Walker: The Age of Miracles (2012)

The Age of Miracles

Ever since Jacquelin Cangro reviewed The Age of Miracles, I felt like reading it. I assumed I would like it but I didn’t expect that I would love it so much. It may seem odd to love an “end of the world” story but The Age of Miracles is so much more. It’s as much the story of a disaster as a coming-of-age tale, an exploration of how we adapt to change and a meditation on the fragility of life on earth. Plus the tone of the whole book is lovely and nostalgic.

The Age of Miracles is told by 11-year-old Julia, an only child who is a bit of a loner and a keen observer. Suddenly, one day, they hear on the news that the rotation of the earth has slowed down and as a result the days have grown longer. At first this is minimal but gradually the days and nights extend until, at the end of the novel 72 hour days are followed by 72 hour nights.

The consequences are massive. Many animals and plants die. After a few months, it’s dangerous to go out during daytime as the sun’s radiation can be fatal. Plants only grow in hot houses, people need protection at all times.

Early on the government decides to disregard daylight and to stay on the usual 24 hour clock time. Opposing groups find this unacceptable and adjust to the sunlight. They stay awake longer, sleep longer. Soon there is hostility between those groups and most of the day timers flee after a while and live in communes outside of the cities.

Julia describes all this in great detail. She’s worried but is also surprised how quickly people get used to these changes. But there are many other things on her mind. She was always a loner but the slowing makes her lose even more friends. She is secretly in love with Seth Moreno who is also a loner  which makes it difficult for them to become friends but once they overcome some obstacles, they spend every minute together.

The tone of Julia’s voice and some hints, indicate that she tells this story looking back. It’s the grown-up Julia who tells about the year during which the biggest changes, in the outside world and in her personal world, take place. It’s the year of her first love, of the near collapse of her parent’s marriage and also the year in which everything anyone took for granted disappears forever.

I know that some people found the book alarming because it obviously touches on subjects like climate change and natural disasters. I was more touched by Julia’s personal story, by the tone of her voice which was infused with sorrow. There are as many scenes of great beauty as there are scenes of damage and loss. Ultimately this is a melancholic story about a long goodbye, goodbye from people, things and habits.

When I started reading, I was a bit afraid, the book would be gimmicky. It’s not. It’s a quiet, moving tale. The unusual event is just a means to tell a much deeper story; a story of change, loss and sorrow inherent to all of our lives.