Letters From a Lost Generation – Literature and War Readalong December 2014

Letters From a Lost Generation

Vera to Edith Brittain

Malta, 15 December 1916

I do wonder if I shall ever see Edward again; it is very hard that we should be the generation to suffer the War, though I suppose it is very splendid to, & is making us better & wiser & deeper men & women (at any rate some of us . . .) than our ancestors ever were or our descendants ever will be. It seems to me that the War will make a big division of ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the history of the World, almost if not quite as big as the ‘B.C.’ and ‘A.D.’ division made by the birth of Christ  . . . ( . . . )

I finished reading Letters from a Lost Generation on December 22nd. Only when I put it aside and picked up Testament of Youth did I realize that Vera Brittain’s fiancé Roland Leighton was shot exactly 99 years ago and died on December 23rd 1915. When I chose the book I didn’t know about this; reading it exactly during that time made it even more moving.

The first half of the book contains mostly the letters between Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. There are a couple of letters between her and her brother Edward and between her and their best friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, but the major part is the correspondence between Vera and Roland.

Reading these letters was very difficult. They are not graphic or gruesome at all – at times I wondered whether the four men really served in the trenches – but they are so unbearably tragic and sad. These five people were such close friends, that each time one of them dies, they all suffer terribly. Since Roland is the first to go and seems the one everyone liked the most, his death overshadows all the later letters. He’s mentioned constantly, quoted, remembered, and after a while I started to feel the loss almost as badly. No wonder people still visit his grave in France.

After Roland is killed Vera dedicates herself with even more verve to nursing. She first stays in England but then moves to Malta and later to France.

What spoke to me is the way they deal with grief. It shows how very important it is when you lose someone you love to know exactly what happened. In each case, and also in the case of friends who are not as close, they try, like detectives, to find out what happened. It’s particularly painful for Vera to know that Roland was wounded on the 22nd and only died one day later, after having been conscious the whole time, but didn’t write her a goodbye note. They find out later that he took an unforseen turn to the worse and might not have known he was going to die. Other aspects of his death become painful only later. Some of the friends are wounded and killed during battles, not so Roland. His death is rather an accident and Vera sometimes wishes that he’d died in one of the big battles so that his death would forever be linked to that name.

What I found extremely shocking is that Roland’s clothes – the stinking, muddy, bloody uniform and shoes – were sent to his family. I’d never heard of anything like this before. Vera describes the particular stench and the horror of the sight in great detail and I felt so sorry for them. How cruel and thoughtless. In Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room is a scene in which the sister takes out Toby’s clothes and speaks of the stench of the trenches. I’m pretty sure Pat Barker was inspired by the description of Roland Leighton’s clothes.

Letters from a Lost Generation is an important document on how the perception of the war changed. The four men signed up enthusiastically, spoke about honour and glory. Even war is glorified. The longer the war takes, the higher the losses, and the more futile it all seems, the more that perception changes.

Reading about the work of a nurse was especially interesting and showed to some extent why it was possible for so many people in England to ignore the mutilations. By the time the wounded men arrived, they had already been patched up as good as possible.

Another aspect that struck me is how humble the five friends were. None of them complained much or made a big fuss. Not about the cold, the mud, and the rain, nor about the battles and the fear of death. Not even when they are wounded.

I still wonder how Vera Brittain managed to survive the death of the four people who were closest to her. After the war she met the writer Winifred Holtby who became her best friend and helped her to overcome her grief. Sadly Holtby too died an early death in 1935. Another great loss for Vera.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection of letters this quickly and as soon as I finished the book I started Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth. I want to know more about her, about them. Letters from a Lost Generation is as important as it is beautiful and moving. It’s a document of deep and heartfelt friendship, a testimony of grief, loss and sorrow, and a valuable contribution to understand a generation and its motives.

Other reviews




Letters from a Lost Generation was the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is The Disappeared by Kim Echlin. Discussion starts on Tuesday 31 March, 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Best Books 2014


I had a feeling this wasn’t a good reading year, but when I went over my posts I saw that I was wrong. I’ve read some outstanding books some of which will stay with me for a long time.

Best Literary Fiction


Here’s what I wrote about Susan Minot’s Evening

It’s not easy to capture the beauty of Susan Minot’s gorgeous and ambitious novel Evening. If Virginia Woolf or Proust had written page-turners, that’s what it could look like.

In beautiful prose which explores how memory and consciousness work Evening captures the story of Ann Grant’s life. It is 1994 and Ann is terminally ill; she’s lying in her bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. Scent transports her back in time. The morphine induces hallucinations, which are rendered in brilliant stream of consciousness paragraphs. These chapters and paragraphs, are very short, fragments only; the main story however simply moves back and forth between 1994 and 1954, the summer in which she met Harris Arden.

It’s a beautiful book and strangely uplifting. Possibly because it testifies how intense an interior life can be and that nothing is really lost. Everything we’ve ever experienced, imagined or dreamed is still somewhere. In its best moments Evening reminded me of Virgina Woolf’s The Voyage Out, in which we often see people or houses from outside. They are motionless or sleeping, but we catch a glimpse of their inner lives, which are rich and deep and passionate.

My review

The Killer Angels

Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels is the only Literature and War Readalong title that made the list.

Here’s what I wrote:

Books are not always the way we expect them to be. Still, I’ve only rarely been this wrong. I was afraid Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winner would be dry, heavy on tactics and military jargon. It wouldn’t have been too surprising if it had been like that, after all, Shaara tells the story of the three-day battle at Gettysburg. But The Killer Angels is anything but dry or heavy. It’s a beautiful, lyrical novel, which focusses much more on the moods and emotions of the main characters than on tactics.

I don’t know what other books the year will bring, but I have a feeling this one could make it on the Best of List. I love books which are rich in atmosphere, capture quiet, introspective moods and manage to bring the most different characters to life. I certainly didn’t expect to find all that in a war novel. The Killer Angels is a gorgeous book on an awful subject, reading it felt like seeing all the major participants of the battle during their most intimate moments. I’m grateful to Kevin who said I would be missing out, if I didn’t read it. He was right.

My review

The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth 

Here’s what I wrote:

It took me far over two months to decide whether I wanted to review The House of Mirth or not. For some reasons, I found this book profoundly disturbing.

While reading  The House of Mirth I felt like I was watching a fly getting trapped in a spider’s web. At first, when they notice that they are trapped, they wiggle frantically, hoping to be able to free themselves but, in doing so, entangle themselves even more. Comparing the stunningly beautiful Lily Bart to a fly isn’t doing her any justice, but the way she’s trapped by the society she lives in, and the way in which she tries to free herself, is not much different from the poor fly. I’m still a bit shocked. I knew nothing about The House of Mirth and to find that Lili Bart is just as tragic – maybe even more so – as Effi Briest or Mme Bovary (only without the adultery), came as a huge surprise.

My review

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams

Ellen Gilchrist’s In the Land of Dreamy Dreams is the best short story collection I’ve read this year and one I want to read again some day.

Here’s what I wrote:

I came across Ellen Gilchrist by chance. I was looking for books set in New Orleans and saw one of her short stories Rich in an anthology. I wasn’t familiar with her and looked her up and finally ordered a used copy of her first collection In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. It’s very rare that I read a whole short story collection in a few days, but I did in this case. There was a unity of setting, mood and atmosphere, and even one returning character that it read almost like a novel in stories.

I haven’t read anyone quite like Ellen Gilchrist but she still reminded me of a few authors. Tennesse Williams came to mind – A Streetcar Named Desire as much as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone – because of the setting and some of the older characters. But she also reminded me of Julie Orringer whose intricately woven sentences and lush descriptions are similar and there’s some of Yoko Ogawa’s cruelty in this collection as well. Funny enough Ogawa’s last short story collection has the English title Revenge. One of Gilchrist’s best stories is called Revenge as well. Coincidence? Who knows.

If you like rish, complex short stories, full of allusions and sensual descriptions, sometimes mean, sometimes dreamy – then do yourself a favour and get a copy of this wonderful book.

My review

Molly Fox's Birthday

Deirdre Madden was another great discovery this year. I absolutely loved. Molly Fox’s Birthday 

Here’s what I wrote:

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book by a new-to-me author and felt like reading everything she’s ever written.

Molly Fox’s Birthday is a wonderful celebration of the interior life, art, theatre, friendship and it’s an exploration of how daily life, despite the struggles, doesn’t have to turn into something dull and devoid of authenticity. There’s always meaning, you just have to look for it.

My review

The Very Dead of Winter

I hadn’t heard of Mary Hocking before and have to thank heavenali who hosted a Mary Hocking Week for the discovery.

Here’s what I wrote:

I really liked The Very Dead of Winter are great deal. Not only for its wry humour and psychological insight, but also for some lovely descriptions. It’s not a flawless novel, there are a few instances of shifty point of view, but that didn’t diminish the experience one bit. I’ll certainly read more of Mary Hocking, might even re-read The Very Dead of Winter.

My review

The Warden

After reading Trollope’s The Warden I wasn’t sure whether it would make it on the list but I must admit- it’s a memorable book.

Here’s what I wrote:

Memory is a funny thing. For years I have been haunted by a sensual impression of a place. I remember being in England and walking along a row of houses. It’s a very peaceful, mild, warm autumn afternoon. The houses are part of a larger compound, overshadowed by a huge cathedral. I remember walking away from the cathedral close and coming to a small river that was flowing through the grassy meadow, on the same level as the soil. There were weeping willows and sheep. Walking around that place was like visiting a time long gone. These haunting images returned periodically. The light outside of my windows sometimes triggered the memory. It was always nice to go back in my mind, the only trouble was – I couldn’t remember where this had been. I’ve been in England many times, stayed there for a couple of months or weeks. I’ve visited many places and many cathedrals, but as much as I thought about it – I had no clue where I’d been on that warm autumn afternoon. Not until reading The Warden. The moment I opened the book and read the description of Barchester I knew – this is where I had been. But how could that be? Barchester doesn’t exist. Although I like to keep the introduction of a book until I’ve finished it, I had to read it to find out more. In the introduction I learned that Trollope based Barchester on Salisbury and Winchester. I immediately went online and looked up photos of Salisbury cathedral, the cathedral close and the meadows around and, yes, indeed, that’s where I’ve been some years ago. I found it pretty uncanny that Trollope was so capable at describing a place. I still don’t know why I forgot that the images were images of Salisbury. I’ve never forgotten a place like that. Maybe because it was so dreamlike?

I’m glad I read The Warden. It made me remember my stay at Salisbury and I loved the descriptions. I liked his choice of themes and think they are just as important today as they were then. I also think he’s a wonderful satirist.

My review

Weights and Measures

This too will stay with me. Joseph Roth’s Weights and Measures – Das falsche Gewicht is such a powerful short novel.

Here’s what I wrote:

How does an upright, steadfast man survive among corruption, hypocrisy, and crime? Roth’s answer to this question, which lies at the heart of Weights and Measures – Das falsche Gewicht, is pretty simple: he doesn’t. Either he is tainted or he will go down.

What I liked most is how Roth used the descriptions of the place and the weather to show Eibenschütz’s emotions and to underline the wild remoteness of this region. There were many beautiful small scenes and episodes. Eibenschütz is upright and stiff, but he’s also very emotional and feels deeply. His life as a soldier sheltered him emotionally; experiencing heartache and passion, unhinges him. When he falls in love he discovers nature. Before his “awakening” nature is just a phenomenon he sees but barely notices. The changing seasons bring rain or snow, breaking ice or sunshine, but that doesn’t affect him. Once he’s “awake” he feels the seasons, feels he’s part of it.

My review

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Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek was another winner.

I often read the best books of the year in December. Sometimes they don’t make it on the Top 10 list because I read them so late in the year. Luckily I’ve read Elizabeth Taylor’s fifth novel  A Game of Hide and Seek  just in time. This is my third Elizabeth Taylor novel and every time I read her I’m amazed to find out again how good she is. As much as I liked Blaming and Mrs Palfrey at the ClaremontA Game of Hide and Seek is even better. It’s larger in scope, richer in themes, with many more protagonists, and stretches over decades. The mood and atmosphere reminded me a lot of Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer and David Lean’s movie Brief Encounter, both of which are favourites of mine.

I’m aware I wasn’t able to capture this book because it contains so many themes (childhood, first love, passion, married life, women’s rights, work, education, memory, growing older . . .) and is so rich— there’s a wonderful, bitter-sweet love story, accurate descriptions of a period, lifelike, flawed characters, and humourous observations. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I even added it to my list of all-time favourite books.

My review

Best Mainstream Fiction

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

I read  Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls in January but it’s still present as if I’d read it a couple of weeks ago. It’s such a lovely book.

This is what I wrote then

I’m not sure what exactly made me love this book so much. Was it the elegant writing, the dreamy mood, the sense of seeing a long-gone world, the tragedy of the story or the characters?

I loved the way DiScalafani captured the setting and the period. I liked how she showed the end of an era without turning this into a mournful book, but into one that shows that people can free themselves from their stifling upbringing if they are true to themselves. Thea is a character who is true to herself at all times. This comes at a cost but one she’s aware of and willing to pay.

If you like a rich, beautifully told story, with mystery and a lush setting, if you are fascinated by the Great Depression and big Southern Families and enjoy a coming-of-age story, which is at times quite steamy, then I’m pretty sure you’ll love The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls.

Best Crime

It was a great crime reading year. I can’t say I’ve read anything that I didn’t like to some extent, so the choice wasn’t easy but my two favourite books this year were

The Winter of the Lions

Jan Costin Wagner was a real discovery this year. I’ve read his first three. They are all good but I only reviewed this one.

Here’s what I wrote:

What made me love Wagner’s books even more was his writing style. This is crime at the literary end of the spectrum. The sentences are short, spare, and very precise.

As if all of this wasn’t enough there’s a haunting atmosphere in every book and the Finnish setting is another bonus, especially since each book takes place during another season. I loved to read about the long nights in winter and the endless days in summer.

Should you wonder why a German author chose to set his books in Finland —Wagner is married to a Finnish woman and spends half of the year in Finland.

This is one of the best crime series I know. Haunting, atmospherical, with philosophical depth and impeccable writing.

My review

Dead Scared

S.J.Bolton is certainly one of my favourite crime writers and I’ll read all of her books eventually. Still, this was the best so far. I loved it.

Here’s what I wrote

Dead Scared was my third novel by S.J. Bolton. It’s the second novel featuring Lacey Flint and DI Mark Joesbury. I liked Sacrifice and Now You See Me a lot, but I really loved Dead Scared. I think it’s one of my all-time favourite crime novels. It’s got everything I like in a plot-driven crime novel. Great setting, evocative atmosphere, appealing characters, a well-paced plot and a really great story. For once she didn’t even stretch believability all that much.

My review

Best Sci-Fi

Fuzzy Nation

I loved John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation. Funny, entertaining and thought-provoking with one of the best beginnings ever.

Here’s what I wrote:

Fuzzy Nation isn’t only an adventure story, in which cute little animal-people are suddenly in great danger and other people have to make some tough decisions, it’s also an exploration of what makes a human. Is it understanding, intelligence, dexterity, the aptitude to use machines or language? In any case, once you’re declared a sentient being, you have the right to possess things. Before that, everything you own can be taken and destroyed.

 Here’s the review

Best Children’s Book


I’ve read so many children’s books this year that I didn’t even get the time to review them. Two stood out Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock and David Almond’s Skellig.

Here’s what I wrote about Skellig:

I often think that the best books for children are not just books for a particular age group but timeless tales for any age. Just think of Antoine de St Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It’s a children’s book but it is so much more. And so is Skellig, David Almond’s wondrous, lyrical novel of love and healing.

Skellig is such a magical book. Lyrical, spiritual and philosophical, but very realistic too. It’s an elusive book, that is hard to describe without breaking its spell. It’s a story of love and loss, grief and joy, inspired by tales of angels, the evolution of birds and William Blake. Every reader interprets Skellig in another way. After I finished it I’m still not sure what Skellig is but it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to feel how inspired David Almond was when he wrote this novel. Skellig is pure magic; an image, a deeply haunting feeling, that carries a truth that predates words. I think it took courage to write a book like this and to leave so many questions unanswered. David Almond seems to have been sure that even if we didn’t “get it” intellectually, we would still be able to understand it on an emotional level. I really love that.

And the review

Best Non-Fiction

It's Easier Than You Think

It’s Easier Than You Think by Sylvia Boorstein.

I didn’t review it but it made a huge impression on me. Especially the parts about impermanence. I told all of my friends about it, urging them to read it.


Elizabeth Taylor: A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)

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I often read the best books of the year in December. Sometimes they don’t make it on the Top 10 list because I read them so late in the year. Luckily I’ve read Elizabeth Taylor’s fifth novel  A Game of Hide and Seek  just in time. This is my third Elizabeth Taylor novel and every time I read her I’m amazed to find out again how good she is. As much as I liked Blaming and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, A Game of Hide and Seek is even better. It’s larger in scope, richer in themes, with many more protagonists, and stretches over decades. The mood and atmosphere reminded me a lot of Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer and David Lean’s movie Brief Encounter, both of which are favourites of mine.

The main story of A Game of Hide and Seek is the love story between Harriet and Vesey, an unfulfilled love story that lasts a life time. They meet as children when Vesey spends his summer vacations at his aunt Caroline’s house. Caroline is the best friend of Harriet’s mother Lilian. Caroline and Lilian are very modern, emancipated women, former suffragettes and, when younger, spent some time in prison together. Lilian is surprised to see that, in spite of their battles, the younger generation goes back to old ways.

“It took us years to get rid of those cumbersome skirts and now you go all meekly back in them like a herd of sheep. And all this make-up. You look like a woman of uneasy virtue,” Lilian had said with vague distress.

Harriet is very different from her mother. She has no ambition and fails in school. When the book starts, she’s about eighteen and helps Caroline with her paper work. In the evenings she often plays hide and seek with Vesey and his small cousins. When they are in each other’s presence, they are both awkward, muted by their feelings, exhilarated and fearful at the same time.

Harriet is mortified by her feelings because Vesey is such an imperfect person. He likes to provoke, is careless and selfish. He even manages to upset Caroline and her husband although they are the most tolerant people one could imagine. One of Caroline’s mottos is “houses are for people” – not the other way around- , which means, she doesn’t care whether its appearance is neglected. It doesn’t have to be clean, it has to be welcoming. The children and dogs are allowed to do everything they want. Nobody has to follow strict rules. The only thing she’s insisting on is vegetarianism. When Vesey and Harriet take out the children, Vesey reveals his recalcitrant character once again and orders steak for them. It’s the final transgression and he’s sent back home immediately. Harriet will never recover from this loss. She will never find anyone she’ll love as much.

A few years later Harriet works a sales girl. She’s part of a tight-knit group of women; some have boyfriends or fiancés, others have lovers. They tease Harriet until she meets Charles who’s much older and quite rich. Harriet likes him and finally marries him. They live in a big house and have one daughter, Betsy. Life is quiet. But then Vesey reappears. He’s become an unsuccesful actor, living under precarious conditions as his family doesn’t support him. All the feelings Harriet had been able to contain, break free.

The love story between Harriet and Vesey is one of the most intense and mysterious I’ve come across in literature. With only a few words, Elizabeth Taylor manages to convey the intensity of their feelings, the turmoil, the confusion that keeps them apart at first and then draws them to each other almost violently.

“His climate!” Harriet thought, staring down at the fire until her eyes smarted. The word expressed something of her feelings at being with him: how she had loved, when she was young, merely to stand close to him. When he had drawn away, he took something miraculous from her.

It is amazing how multi-layered the characters are although there are so many. Everyone is wonderfully well rendered. The main and the minor characters alike. Interestingly they are all flawed but even the most mundane person is fascinating because we see their strengths and their shortcomings, their hopes and lost dreams. Thanks to the number, there are many different themes and moods. Scenes in which Betsy, Harriet’s daughter occupies centre-stage, are light and playful. Harriet’s and Vesey’s scenes are often melancholic and nostalgic. I couldn’t think of any other novel in which even the minor characters come alive like this and whole lives are rendered in a few sentences. Lilian and Caroline’s friendship for example, their struggle for women’s rights, the way they live their lives – it only takes up a dozen pages but we feel we know them.

A part I enjoyed a lot was the part in which we see Harriet as a sales girl. It’s interesting to read about the work conditions of these early professional women. The camaraderie between the women is touching; their little ruses funny.

Their hours were long; they went up to the elevenses at ten, were often missing while they cut out from paper patterns, set their hair, washed their stockings, drank tea. Nothing was done in their own time that could be done in the firm’s. They were underpaid so they took what they could; not money in actual coins, but telephone-calls, stamps, boxes of matches, soaps; later when these were marked down as soiled, they bought them at the staff-price, a penny in the shilling discount.

The end of the novel is as mysterious as the love story between Harriet and Vesey.

What contributes to the scope of the novel is that we first see Harriet as a young woman and then as a middle-aged wife and mother, looking back, reminiscing, comparing how she thought of middle age and how she lives it now that she is in her forties.

I’m aware I wasn’t able to capture this book because it contains so many themes (childhood, first love, passion, married life, women’s rights, work, education, memory, growing older . . .) and is so rich— there’s a wonderful, bitter-sweet love story, accurate descriptions of a period, lifelike, flawed characters, and humourous observations. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I even added it to my list of all-time favourite books.

Have you read Elizabeth Taylor? Do you have a favourite Elizabeth Taylor novel?

Literature and War Readalong 2015 – Mini Edition

Literature and War Readalong 2015

For some of you it may come as a surprise that next year’s Literature and War Readalong contains only four titles, but I felt we needed a change. That’s why I chose only four books, from four different countries, focussing on three different wars. The list should appeal to those interested in international literature, books by prize winners, novels on international conflict, modern classics, books that have been made into movies and a lot more.

The Disappeared

March, Tuesday 31 2015

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin (Canada 2009), War in Cambodia, Novel, 336 pages.

Here’s the blurb:

After more than 30 years Anne Greves feels compelled to break her silence about her first lover, and a treacherous pursuit across Cambodia’s killing fields. Once she was a motherless girl from taciturn immigrant stock. Defying fierce opposition, she falls in love with Serey, a gentle rebel and exiled musician. She’s still only 16 when he leaves her in their Montreal flat to return to Cambodia. And, after a decade without word, she abandons everything to search for him in the bars of Phnom Penh, a city traumatized by the Khmer Rouge slaughter. Against all odds the lovers are reunited, and in a political country where tranquil rice paddies harbour the bones of the massacred, Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But there are wounds that love cannot heal, and some mysteries too dangerous to know. And when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers a story she cannot bear.

Haunting, vivid, elegiac, The Disappeared is a tour de force; at once a battle cry and a piercing lamentation, for truth, for love.

Literary fiction of the highest order, this is an unforgettable novel set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s savage killing fields.
Novel Without A Name.
May, Friday 29 2015

Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Huon Thu huong (Vietnam 1995), War in Vietnam, Novel, 304 pages.

Here is the blurb:

Vietnamese novelist Huong, who has been imprisoned for her political beliefs, presents the story of a disillusioned soldier in a book that was banned in her native country.

A piercing, unforgettable tale of the horror and spiritual weariness of war, Novel Without a Name will shatter every preconception Americans have about what happened in the jungles of Vietnam. With Duong Thu Huong, whose Paradise of the Blind was published to high critical acclaim in 1993, Vietnam has found a voice both lyrical and stark, powerful enough to capture the conflict that left millions dead and spiritually destroyed her generation. Banned in the author’s native country for its scathing dissection of the day-to-day realities of life for the Vietnamese during the final years of the “Vietnam War, ” Novel Without a Name invites comparison with All Quiet on the Western Front and other classic works of war fiction. The war is seen through the eyes of Quan, a North Vietnamese bo doi (soldier of the people) who joined the army at eighteen, full of idealism and love for the Communist party and its cause of national liberation. But ten years later, after leading his platoon through almost a decade of unimaginable horror and deprivation, Quan is disillusioned by his odyssey of loss and struggle. Furloughed back to his village in search of a fellow soldier, Quan undertakes a harrowing, solitary journey through the tortuous jungles of central Vietnam and his own unspeakable memories.


September, Wednesday 30 2015

Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész (Hungary 1975), Holocaust,  Novel, 272 pages.

Here is the blurb:

The powerful story of an adolescent’s experience of Auschwitz by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertész.

Gyuri, a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew, gets the day off school to witness his father signing over the family timber business to the firm’s bookkeeper – his final business transaction before being sent to a labour camp. Two months after saying goodbye to his father, Gyuri finds himself assigned to a ‘permanent workplace’, but within a fortnight he is unexpectedly pulled off a bus and detained without explanation. This is the start of his journey to Auschwitz.

On his arrival Gyuri finds that he is unable to identify with other Jews, and in turn is rejected by them. An outsider among his own people, his estrangement makes him a preternaturally acute observer, dogmatically insisting on making sense of everything he witnesses.

A Time To Love and a Time to Die

November, Friday 27

A Time to Love and a Time to DieZeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben by Erich Maria Remarque (Germany, WWII, Novel, 384 pages.

It’s interesting to note that the German title isn’t as corny as the English one. It means “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” not Love and Die.

Here is the blurb:

From the quintessential author of wartime Germany, A Time to Love and a Time to Die echoes the harrowing insights of his masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front.

After two years at the Russian front, Ernst Graeber finally receives three weeks’ leave. But since leaves have been canceled before, he decides not to write his parents, fearing he would just raise their hopes.

Then, when Graeber arrives home, he finds his house bombed to ruin and his parents nowhere in sight. Nobody knows if they are dead or alive. As his leave draws to a close, Graeber reaches out to Elisabeth, a childhood friend. Like him, she is imprisoned in a world she did not create. But in a time of war, love seems a world away. And sometimes, temporary comfort can lead to something unexpected and redeeming.

“The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure.”—The New York Times Book Review


I will anounce each title with some additional information about six weeks before the discussion date. I hope you like the choices and will join me whenever you can.

Philip Teir: The Winter War (2015) – Vinterkriget (2013)

Philip Teir

On the surface, the Paul family are living the liberal, middle-class Scandinavian dream. Max Paul is a renowned sociologist and his wife Katriina has a well-paid job in the public sector. They live in an airy apartment in the centre of Helsinki. But look closer and the cracks start to show.

As he approaches his sixtieth birthday, the certainties of Max’s life begin to dissolve. He hasn’t produced any work of note for decades. His wife no longer loves him. His grown-up daughters – one in London, one in Helsinki – have problems of their own. So when a former student turned journalist shows up and offers him a seductive lifeline, Max starts down a dangerous path from which he may never find a way back.

The Winter War is Philip Teir’s first novel but already he’s been hailed as one of the most important young Finnish writers. In a press release, which announced the translation of his book into English, I saw him mentioned as a Swedish author. That’s a bit embarrassing. Philip Teir is part of the Finland Swedish minority in Finland. He writes in Fenno Swedish and his book has been published by a Swedish publisher, nonetheless he was born and lives in Finland.

The title of the book is symbolic and alludes to the Winter War (Talvisota in Finnish – Vinterkriget in Swedish), in which Finland fought against Russia, after having been invaded by Russian forces in 1939. In the book however, the war is mentioned but it isn’t a topic. The major topic is the end of a marriage, embedded in a family story.

I wasn’t so keen on the book at first, because I wasn’t keen on the first narrator, Max, but the book alternates between four narrators: Max, his wife Katriina, and the daughters Helen and Eva. As soon as the book started switching to other narrators, I found it very captivating and was even a little sad when I finished it.

Max is a sociologist and when the book starts he struggles to write a book on Edvard Westermarck. He’s just turning 60 and about to start an affair with a much younger woman. Katriina is on her way to the Philippines to recruit nurses. When she finds out about the affair, he reaction is not exactly as Max imagined it would be. Helen is working as a teacher and has assigned her class to read a novel on the Winter War. When their grandmother has a stroke, it hits her the hardest. The youngest daughter, Eva, lives in London. She studies at an art school and meets people who have joined the Occupy movement.

Teir is a journalist and at times you can feel that. He even indicates his sources at the end of the book, names the authors and ideas which have influenced him. The result is a book that feels uncannily life-like and contains a lot of interesting ideas. I didn’t know Edvard Westermarck but he sounds like a real pioneer and fascinating person. I also enjoyed learning more about the Occupy movement. The thoughts on contemporary art were just as captivating.

The Winter War tells the story of a family in crisis. Each member is unsettled by something and has to make decisions. Not only about marriage and divorce but about choices of profession, ideologies and ways of life.

I was wondering how typical this family was. They live together and come together for important things like birthdays, the illness of the grandmother, the marriage of one daughter, but they each seem to live a completely independent life and have the most profound experiences on their own.

What I liked is that the person who seems the most fragile and directionless is ultimately the strongest and sanest. Maybe Teir wanted to say that those who think they have to make decisions that last a life time are the least suited for our society and only those who embrace flexibility and change are capable of navigating contemporary life and its difficult choices.

Teir has been compared to Jonathan Franzen and I can see why. There are similarities. I enjoyed reading this novel and if you like Franzen, you should pick it up. The Winter War is a highly entertaining, charcater-driven novel of ideas; just don’t expect stylish writing, elaborate descriptions or strong atmosphere.


I’ve read the German edition of this book. Finland was the guest of honour at the Frankfort book fair 2014 and Teir’s was one of 120 new translations. I bought a few more and hope to review them soon. Sadly most haven’t been translated so far. I like the German cover and the paper they used for this edition is simply gorgeous and lovely to the touch (Munken Premium).

German Literature Month – Winner Announcement

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Some of you will remember that we announced two special giveaways at the beginning of German Literature Month.

Two people will win two sets of books. One will be the winner of the “Pick and Mix Category” and the other will be the winner of “Best Post”.

While I will let Lizzy announce the winner of the “Pick and Mix Category”, I’m announcing the winner of the “Best Post”.

It wasn’t easy to find a winner because there were so many outstanding posts, but we both named the same without much thinking.

And here goes:

Winner of the category “Best Post” is Thomas (Mytwostotinki) for his post on Ostende. 1936, Summer of Friendship.

The Hottest DishesJust Call Me Superhero

Congratulations, Thomas, you have won two books by Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine and Just Call Me Superhero. Thanks to Europa Editions for their generosity.

Literature and War Readalong December 29 2014: Letters From a Lost Generation by Vera Brittain and Four Friends

Letters From a Lost Generation

Letters from a Lost Generation is the book I’ve been looking forward to all year. I love reading letters and this collection has been on my radar for a long time. Vera Brittain was a nurse during WWI.

The letters have been written between her, her fiancé, her younger brother, and two of their best friends. All four men died in the war. I don’t know how she survived such loss. Vera Brittain later wrote her memoirs Testament of Youth, based on her wartime experience.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Letters from a Lost Generation by Vera Brittain and Four Friends (UK) WWI, Letters, 448 pages

Nothing in the papers, not the most vivid and heart-rending descriptions, have made me realise war like your letters’ Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton, 17 April 1915.

This selection of letters, written between 1913 & 1918, between Vera Brittain and four young men – her fiance Roland Leighton, her brother Edward and their close friends Victor Richardson & Geoffrey Thurlow present a remarkable and profoundly moving portrait of five young people caught up in the cataclysm of total war.

Roland, ‘Monseigneur’, is the ‘leader’ & his letters most clearly trace the path leading from idealism to disillusionment. Edward, ‘ Immaculate of the Trenches’, was orderly & controlled, down even to his attire. Geoffrey, the ‘non-militarist at heart’ had not rushed to enlist but put aside his objections to the war for patriotism’s sake. Victor on the other hand, possessed a very sweet character and was known as ‘Father Confessor’. An important historical testimony telling a powerful story of idealism, disillusionment and personal tragedy.



The discussion starts on Monday, 29 December 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.