Assia Djebar: Children of the New World – Les enfants du nouveau monde (1977) Literature and War Readalong July 2013

Children of The New World

Assia Djebar’s novel Children of the New World – Les enfants du nouveau monde is set during the Algerian War of Independence or Algerian Revolution which lasted from 1954 – 1962. If you are not familiar with this war wikipedia gives a short overview. It was a so-called decolonization war between France and Algeria. The war was fought in many different ways, guerrilla warfare, maquis fighting, terrorism and extensive use of torture on both sides.

The war in Algeria is still controversial in France. While it is meanwhile called “a war” and not only a “pacification intervention” – or whatever euphemism was chosen at the time – many of the aspects of the war are still not spoken about openly. One of them being the “interrogation techniques”.

It was a complex war that ripped apart the Algerian society. I think Assia Djebar showed this well in her novel. She chose to write Children of the New World as a series of vignettes, each with the name of a protagonist as title. Upon closer inspection we see that these are not individual stories but that each is a piece of a puzzle forming a kaleidoscopic canvas, which is apt and nails the Algerian society of the time. This was a society that resembles a broken pot, still held together at the seams, but the cracks showed and covered it like spiderwebs, ready to burst at any moment.

I have read the one or the other critique of this book stating it wasn’t really about the war, which puzzles me no end. The war is everywhere in this book, in every page. Every relationship is influenced or distorted by it. Neither love nor parenthood, nor friendship, nor anything else is free of the war’s influence.

We don’t see the fighting, that takes place outside of the city, in  the mountains, but the people see burning farms from afar, they see bombs fall and at the opening of the book, one falls on a house in the city, killing and old woman.

The book also shows how hostile this society was and how it was almost impossible to make a difference between enemies and allies. There were so many good and bad people on both sides. Not every Algerian was for the Algerian cause, not every French person was against it and many on both sides were against the use of torture and violence.

I have never read about any war in which torture was used this extensively. This becomes clear in the book too, although, mercifully, we find no descriptions, but we hear of people who don’t survive interrogations, of others who hear them scream in their own cells.

As said, the war is omnipresent in this book but Djebar transcends it and gives us more than just a society at war with itself and its oppressor. It shows a traditional society undergoing change and what this change means, notably for its women. I loved the many different descriptions of women’s lives. The diversity is amazing and in its best parts Djebar’s writing is as detailed as a documentary.

This was Assia Djebars third novel and it’s said that it’s not her best. I suppose that is correct as there are many structural problems. Djebar makes intense use of analepses , still I got the impression there were a lot of time-breaks that were not entirely wanted.

I’m curious and want to read another of her novels some day. She’s an interesting writer, with a raw unpolished force that I found quite refreshing.

For those of you interested in movies on the Algerian war – here’s a list that will also guide you to some of my reviews.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)



Children of the New World – Les enfants du nouveau monde was the seventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWI novel Grey Souls aka Les âmes grises by French writer Philippe Claudel . Discussion starts on Friday 30 August, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Jim Butcher: Strom Front (2000) Book One of the Dresden Files


I didn’t see this coming. A while back I reviewed Simon R. Green’s Something From the Nightside. A so-called Paranormal-Noir or Paranormal hard-boiled detective novel. I enjoyed Green’s book although I knew that his Nightside novels  were often compared to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and that most people thought Butcher’s series was superior. I was very keen on trying Storm Front, the first Book of the Dresden Files and see what I would think. I was convinced I would like the Dresden Files much better.  Well . . .  I didn’t. And that for a simple reason: I found it too silly. It’s not without merits, I can see the appeal because, even more than Green’s Nightside novels, this is classic hardboiled detective terrain. Only the detective is a wizard. Even that would be OK but the magic that is used in this book did just not work for me. Dresden often conjures up things, and casts spells, and to do so he uses some fake Latin which was really painful to read. Ventas! Fuego! Scorpis!  . . .  Most of it sounded like some kind of Esperanto. I can’t help it but I’ve had a classic upbringing, I had to learn Latin and some old Greek at school, sloppy fake Latin conjuring is just not going to do it for me. I see that part of it is meant as a parody (or at least I hope so) but that didn’t make it any better.

The story as such was interesting enough. Harry is called by the police to help in the investigation of a grisly double murder. Two people have literally been turned inside out and it is obvious that the perpetrator used powerful black magic. At the same time Harry is  hired to look into the disappearance of someone’s husband who has been dabbling in magic.

In typical hardboiled style, women are after Harry, he gets beaten up more than once, the mob takes an interest in him, the Council of the white mages suspects he is the killer and so on and so forth. Some of it is quite amusing. Harry has a ghostly assistant who resides in a skull and who likes to chase girls. Some of the repartee with clients, journalists, police is amusing too.

Some people complained that Green squeezed the same amount of story that takes up 350 pages in the Dresden Files into barely 200 pages. I must say, I liked the condensed  approach much better. After I finished Something From the Nightside, I felt compelled to read the next in the series. I don’t think I’m going to read Book Two of the Dresden Files.

Why We Write – 20 Acclaimed Authors on Why and How They Do What They Do

Why we Write

Twenty of America’s bestselling authors share tricks, tips and secrets of the successful writing life. Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a novel or even a story knows how exhilarating and heart breaking writing can be. So what makes writers stick with it? In Why We Write, twenty well-known authors candidly share what keeps them going and what they love most and least about their vocation. Includes answers from authors such as Jennifer Egan, Jodi Picoult, David Baldacci, Ann Patchett, Sue Grafton and James Frey.

Meredith Maran has asked 20 highly acclaimed writers how and why they write. The outcome is an entertaining, thought-provoking and insightful collection of essays by today’s most successful writers. While many of the authors collected here are not among my favourites – I’m even pretty  sure that I will never read them – it was still interesting to read about their routines and techniques, and how they felt about what they were doing.

Each chapter opens with a quote from the author’s latest work. This is followed by a brief introduction written by Maran and a section containing important dates and a list of publications. After this the author writes about his or her vocation, the way he writes, what it means for him to write. The best part however is the end of each chapter in which the author provides advice. Not all of these contributions are equally interesting, but since they were all written by the authors themselves it was still fascinating.

The chapters I liked best were the ones written by Jennifer Egan, Mary Karr, Terry McMillan, Sue Grafton, Ann Patchett, Sara Gruen and Walter Mosley.

There is always a debate whether or not you should write an outline for a novel and I wasn’t surprised to read that Jody Picoult sketches everything in advance, tailoring every scene. I was astonished to find out how much Walter Mosley has written. I always thought he was a crime writer only but, no, he has written Science fiction, non-fiction and even Erotica.

Some of these essays are very open. Baldacci, for example, knows exactly that he will never win a Pulitzer and admits in all honesty that he is paid to deliver often and quickly and that this doesn’t allow polished writing.

There were some interesting bits about movie deals too. Did you know that a writer sells his book twice? First he gets money for the film rights and later, when the movie is shot, he will get another, bigger portion. Selling the film rights seems not to signify that there will be a movie.

Jennifer Egan’s essay may be the most interesting one because she speaks so openly about how painful it can be to write. She had panic attacks and severe depression during the writing of some of her books. Contrary to what most people think, her favourite book, the one she thinks is her best is not A Visit from the Goon Squad but Look at Me.

I’ll leave you with a few quotes from the “advice” sections:

Meg Wolitzer

Writing that is effective is like a concentrate, a bouillon cube. You’re not just choosing a random day and writing about that. You pick ordinary moments and magnify them-as if they’re freeze-dried, so the reader can add water.

Jennifer Egan

You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.

Sue Grafton

There are no secrets and there are no shortcuts. As an aspiring writer, what you need to know is that learning to write is self-taught, and learning to write well takes years.

Kathryn Harrison

At the end of each workday, leave yourself a page marker, an instruction that tells you where to start the next morning, so you’re oriented immediately when you sit down at your desk.

Sebastian Junger

Don’t dump lazy sentences on your readers. If you do, they’ll walk away and turn on the TV. You have to earn your paycheck by earning your reader’s attention.

Mary Karr

Any idiot can publish a book. But if you want to write a good book, you’re going to have to set the bar higher than the marketplace’s. Which shouldn’t be too hard.

Walter Mosley

Don’t expect to write a first draft like a book you read and loved. What you don’t see when you read published book is the twenty or thirty drafts that happened before it got published.

Why We Write is surprisingly rich, a book you can pick up again and again and you’ll always find something interesting. Even the authors I would normally not read had something valuable to offer. I loved to see how different every writer’s personality is and how this shined through in what they wrote. There are well-behaved writers, caustic ones, matter of fact ones, highly inspired people and some irreverent ones like Mary Karr.

Alexis M. Smith: Glaciers (2012)


The books I enjoy the most connect me to something inside of me which is elusive and hard to reach because it deals with those fleeting feelings that are hard to put into words, those emotions which escape before we can describe them. Glaciers is a book like that. It has a dreamlike quality but at the same time the descriptions are crispy-fresh, delicate but with sharp contours; the writing is cool but never cold, fragrant but not overpowering.

I hadn’t heard of Alexis M Smith before reading the review of Glaciers on Litlove’s blog (here). Smith is one of the Tin House New Voices and since Tin House is the only magazine I read regularly I was particularly keen to discover this author.

Summarizing this book isn’t doing it any justice. Not much happens. It’s pure slice of life writing. The book describes a day in the life of library worker Isabelle.  She was born in Alaska, dreams of going to Amsterdam but lives in Portland of which she says

“Walking home, she thinks Amsterdam must be a lot like Portland. A slick fog of a city in the winter, drenched in itself. In the spring and summer; leafy undulating green, humming with bicycles, breeze-borne seeds whirling by like galaxies. And in the early glorious days of fall, she thinks, looking around her, chill mist in the mornings, bright sunshine and halos of gold and amber for every tree.”

We follow her through a whole day, see her small rituals at work, her love for vintage clothes and postcards, her dreamlike states in which she imagines another life for herself and for other people. She’s in love with Stoke but he doesn’t seem to love her back. She meets her best friend Leo and they spend an evening at a party with quirky artists and actors and they all tell each other stories.

In a few flashbacks we learn about Isabelle’s past, her family, her passions, her fears. In only one day Isabelle experiences more emotions than many people in months. There is happiness and love, despair and disappointment, hope and elation, fun and routine. And stories, stories, stories.

I’ve read similar stories but what really makes Glaciers stand out is the writing. Smith uses almost no conjunctions, the sentences are stripped of anything superfluous but it still feels colourful, albeit in a gauzy kind of way. It’s the bookish equivalent of cherry blossoms. Am I making any sense? Be it as it may,  I really hope many of you are going to read this little marvel and will enjoy it as much as I did.

Will Schwalbe: The End of Your Life Book Club (2012) A Memoir

End of Your Life Book Club

Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club is one of those books that needs a review because it’s hard to tell from the blurb what it is about. Sure, it’s about books and the love for books and a beautiful friendship between a mother and son, but more than that it’s about an amazing woman and her terminal illness. People who pick this up may think, like I did, that it was to a large extent about books, which isn’t the case. Books are mentioned on every other page, but the largest part is about Schwalbe’s mother, her life and her battle with pancreatic cancer.

Will Schwalbe and his mother always loved to read and discuss books, but when she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and has to undergo regular chemo therapy, they decide to use the time they spend together at the hospital discussing books they have both read and that’s how they start The End of Your Life Book Club. The beginning of each chapter is dedicated to the book they have been reading and the discussion they have. The book choices are varied and I loved reading about them. Continental DriftCrossing to Safety, The Painted Veil, Olive Kitteridge, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Brooklyn,The Elegance of the Hedgehog are but a few books they read, discuss and enjoy.

After this usually brief paragraph about books, Schwalbe leads us directly to his main topic: his mother. His mother must have been a very courageous woman. She travelled from one hot spot to the next for the Women’s Refugee Committee. She helped refugees all over the world and put herself in great danger to do so. She was a fighter but at the same time she was a genuinely kind woman and to read about her and the love the people felt for her is quite beautiful.

What will not be everyone’s cup of tea is the detailed description of the therapies, the side effects and the battle to just live a few months longer. Pancreatic cancer is mostly terminal and most people don’t have much more than a few months after the diagnosis. Schwalbe’s mother was lucky, she lived a full two years. Years that she lived to the fullest, not missing any opportunity to enjoy life and do good. This is quite admirable. I liked her belief that you should never look away from what is bad in our world but always strive to do good.

I feel heartless writing this but the book did not work for me. I have no problem to read about terminal illness. I read the memoir written by Susan Sontag’s son and found it excellent. So that’s not the reason. And of course I love reading about books but in a way, I felt this memoir was too personal. There were too many details added that just didn’t mean anything to me, because it’s not my mother or someone I know. She ate this and liked it, she drank that and couldn’t swallow… She saw these friends and those grandchildren… There were just too many mundane and ordinary details that are only significant when you know a person. Since they wrote a blog about her illness to keep family and friends updated, I suspect, large portions of this book were based on those entries. This may be a reason why the writing was a bit bland.

I think this is a book which could be of great help if you have a friend or relative who has cancer, especially pancreatic cancer. It shows extremely well and in a lot of detail what can be done, what the side effects of some of the therapies are and when you have to decide to let go. As a book on cancer it’s great. As a book about one person’s mother, it’s too personal and as a book about books it is a let down. It says it’s about books and reading but they rather form a bracket around the rest.

Still I’ve discovered a few titles I didn’t know and would like to read:

Victor Lavalle’s Big Machine

Reynold Prices’s Feasting the Heart

Danyal Mueenuddin In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

There was also one book I know I will not be able to read and that is  Mariatu Kamara’s The Bite of the Mango (look it up and you’ll know why). Reading about it made me sick.

Have you read any of these?

Daniela Krien: Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything – Irgendwann werden wir uns alles erzählen (2011)


Daniela Krien’s debut novel Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything (German title: Irgendwann werden wir uns alles erzählen) was a success in Germany and has already been translated into 15 languages, one of which English. That’s why I thought I’d like to see for myself if it’s really that good. I’m not sure the book won me over as a whole, but I liked a lot of the elements and the end packs a real punch.

The narrator Maria is a young woman of 16 who is living with her boyfriend Johannes on his family’s farm. It’s 1990 and the Berlin wall has just fallen. The novel begins shortly before the reunification of Germany. What makes the story interesting is that it’s set in Eastern Germany and that we see the end of the former Democratic Republic through the eyes of the people who lived there. The author grew up in the country, in the former DDR, so she knows what she’s writing about.

It’s odd that Maria is living with her boyfriend’s family and not with her own but we learn later that the mother has been left and that Maria can’t stand her sadness anymore. It’s far livelier on the Brendel’s farm. But even though it’s livelier, there are tensions as well, and just like in her own family, there are family secrets.

Maria and Johannes are still going to school but Maria stays at home most of the time, hiding somewhere, reading Dostoevsky. She’s often sad as well, prone to mood swings, but she is a keen observer and a kind girl. She want’s to help and make her stay worthwhile for everyone.

Not far from the Brendel’s farm is the farm of the Henners. Henner is a forty-year old guy, a brute, as they say, a man whose wife couldn’t stand his company anymore and who has left him. He’s said to be violent and drinks like a fish. He comes to the Brendel farm occasionally because they have a small farm shop. Maria watches him and Marianne, Johannes’ mother. Marianne seems to have a bit of a crush on him. Maria herself is fascinated and before long, without thinking of the consequences, she’s having an affair with him.

Their love affair is one of those dark maelstrom passions. They try to fight it but to no avail. Maria feels extremely guilty, but at the same time she cannot let go. What they share is too deep. It’s passionate, violent, but it’s also more than that. Henner opens up, tells her his life story.

At first their affair is all about sex but later they are content to just read Dostoevsky and Trakl together. Henner even tries to get sober.

They way this is told is quite appealing. The beginning is strange but after a while, you feel sucked in and read more and more quickly.

I have never read a novel about the end of the former Democratic Republic from the point of view of someone who lived “over there”. I really liked how Daniela Krien captured this. Just imagine: one day the authorities decide that your country will not exist anymore. Even though it might be for the better, it would still be a shock. There are many small details which show that and they are well rendered.

I was surprised that Maria was allowed to live with her boyfriend’s parents and that they shared a room and a bed, but then I remembered that the attitude towards sexuality is said to have been much more liberal in the former Democratic Republic. I watched a talk show on German TV a few years ago with athletes from the ex-DDR and they mentioned that for them one of the strangest things was how sex was handled in Germany. They said they preferred partenrs who came from the former Democratic Republic because they were more liberated. Judging from this novel it certainly seems as if there had been quite a difference.

The title is a Dostoevsky quote taken from the Brothers Karamazov. The book contains a few quotes from Dostoevsky, others are taken from Hamsun. Henner repeatedly quotes Trakl’s poem Song in the Night. Trakl is an Austrian poet. His poems are beautiful but gloomy.

If you like dark love stories you’d like Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything. You might equally like it if you have an interest in country life or life in the former Democratic Republic of Germany. The style is quite simple, most sentences are short. It’s not subtle but it works. The whole story is carried by the narrative voice, which I found haunting. The end alone makes it worth to read the book.

Sarah Hall: The Carhullan Army (2007)


Set in the part of England once known as The Lake District and frequented by hordes of landscape hungry tourists, The Carhullan Army is narrated by a young woman who has adopted the name Sister. Britain after its union with the United States and numerous unsuccessful foreign wars, has found itself in the grip of a severe fuel crisis and the country is now under the control of a severe body known as The Authority. All fire-arms have been handed over to the Government and all women have been fitted with contraceptive devices; this Britain of the near-future is brutal and very-near desperate.Sister’s only hope — or so she thinks — lies in finding the Carhullan Army: a mythical band of women who lives a communal existence in the remote hills of Cumbria.

I came across Sarah Hall’s name many times in the past months. First I read a review of The Carhullan Army on Vishy’s blog (here) and immediately thought I’d love to read it. I later saw that Hall won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for The Carhullan Army, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Hameswater and was shortlisted for the Man Booker for The Electric Michelangelo. Her short stories are said to be very good too.

The Carhullan Army is a dystopian novel. It has been called A Handmaid’s Tale for our times. I can’t confirm whether that’s the case as I haven’t read Atwood’s novel yet, but it’s certainly not a genre novel, it’s highly literary.

The Carhullan Army  is set in a bleak Britain, which is ruled by the so-called Authority. The system has collapsed due to a fuel crisis. People live like cattle, sharing small apartments. Some things are strictly regulated like work and reproduction, others are forbidden, like leaving the town. People are depressed, many use drugs. Relationships collapse, love dies. “Sister”, how the narrator calls herself, can’t take this anymore. She’s heard of Carhullan. Somewhere in the mountainous region of the Lake District lives a group of women autonomously. They have a leader, Jackie, a very charismatic figure, but other than that, they are free. Sister doesn’t know that much about the place, only that what she has heard. The rest is a mix of her imagination, her hopes, her dreams.

The place sounded utopian, martial or monastic, depending on which publication was interviewing, and what angle they wanted to push.

Sister is sure that her life will improve and that the women will welcome her, commend her for her courage to leave. But things don’t exactly go like that. The way Sister is “welcomed” is a huge disappointment, a shock even. It will take more than simple resilience to come to terms with this. But once she’s proven she isn’t a spy, nobody is following her and that she’s truly interested in living at Carhullan, she’s accepted.

Sister is a complex narrator but Jackie, the leader, is even far more complex. What Jackie has created at Carhullan is as amazing as it is scary. The women are able to provide for themselves. They plant, gather, and hunt, and – even far more important – they have an army. An army which has been trained by ex-soldier Jackie who is a severe drill instructor. She’s fierce and demanding, charismatic and unforgiving. Most women know that they might need to defend themselves some day and for many it is a special distinction and a great honor to be chosen for the army, others however think Jackie goes too far. Sister would love to be part of the army, but she has to wait a long time.

In Jackie Sarah Hall has created a multilayered personality. She combines the traits of a cult leader, of a fanatic, a saviour, a soldier and a hero. She never questions the use of violence, which, for me, was the most difficult part of the book. I never thought this was a utopian society, but I never thought they were that misguided either. Given the circumstances the development was quite logical but they were not free. Every single of Jackie’s decisions is an answer to the Authority and the end of the book makes this very clear. Sister idealizes Carhullan when she goes looking for it, the reader thinks it’s ideal at first, but towards the end we understand that Carhullan is part of the system as well. There would be no Carhullan, at least not the one we see here, if the society had not reached an endpoint.

Here’s Jackie talking to Sister:

“…. I just want to get to the bottom why these things go on. I’m a dark fucking tourist, Sister, I like going to these places. It’s interesting to me. I’m interested in what holds people back. And what doesn’t. And how far these things extend….”

I think this illustrates my point. Jackie is raw, she’s violent and she’s never free of questioning the system, she has an urge to explore it and in doing so stays tied to it.

The Carhullan Army explores many other themes, Lesbian love, autonomous living, the nature of cults and fanatics, totalitarianism and terrorism. Sarah Hall writes well, her sentences are limpid, simple, yet her vocabulary is rich and evocative.

The story is told like a confession, which has been recorded. Some of the files are recovered, some are corrupted. I thought tha approach worked well.

It’s a book that made me feel very uncomfortable. I found it had a bit of a Lord of the Flies vibe. The place Sarah Hall describes isn’t a gentle haven, it’s a rough world, in which people have to fight for their survival. The harsh landscape, the difficult situation has changed them. They swear, they fight. They do have camaraderie and loyalty, even love,  but it’s all very raw.

I am glad I’ve read The Carhullan Army. I think it’s excellent and thought-provoking but it’s depressing as well. I wouldn’t want to live in neither of the worlds Sarah Hall has created.

Have you read any of Sarah Hall’s novels or short stories?