Literature and War Readalong December 28 2012: Dispatches by Michael Herr

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Dispatches is a book I wanted to read  ever since it has been mentioned in the comments of other posts and after having read Tim O’Brien’s astonishing The Things They Carried. It’s the only book on the Vietnam war we are reading this year and I’m very keen on finding out how it will compare to O’Brien’s masterpiece.

Herr was a front-line reporter in the Vietnam war and has participated in the writing of movie scripts like Apocalypse Now and Platoon.

Here are the first sentences

There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now, that it wasn’t real anymore. For one thing it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Fenchman, since the map had been made in Paris.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 28 December 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Jean Giono: To the Slaughterhouse – Le grand troupeau (1931) Literature and War Readalong March 2012

There are so many different ways to write about war. Some novels focus on the experience of the soldier, some will focus on what the civilians go through, some move back and forth between the front lines and the home front. While Jean Giono’s Le grand troupeau – To the Slaughterhouse does move back and forth, the book is still completely different from anything else that I have read so far.

Giono’s technique does need some getting used to. What he describes is equally beautiful and horrifying. The result may very well be one of the most radical anti-war books that I have read.

If you are looking for an action-driven novel, this isn’t one to turn to, Giono’s novel is far more like the description of paintings. I was reminded of Otto Dix’ WWI paintings more than once. Some of the very visual descriptions in this novel are as graphic and gruesome as Dix’ work.

The war has come to a little village in the French Provence region. All the men are drafted and go to war, leaving the women, old men, children and animals behind. Some of the men are shepherds. They have to abandon their herds. Left on their own,  the animals are endangered, they have accidents, get wounded. One day a massive herd enters the village. It’s an awful sight. So much suffering, so much pain.

Julia’s husband Joseph has gone to war, as has her sister-in-law’s young lover, Olivier. The story moves back and froth between life in the village and the men. It’s more a series of pictures than a real story. Very powerful and graphic pictures.

Giono chose to show us how war affects the body. It’s not the fighting he is interested in but what happens when someone is wounded. How the wounds fester, how the juices flow out the dead bodies. The rats which are always mentioned in WWI novels are present here as well but we see how they eat the faces of the dead men.

I had a faint feeling in my stomach for most of the time while reading but I saw what he wanted to achieve and I thought the idea was amazing. He didn’t stop at describing the horrors of the war and what it did to the bodies of the men, he described the beauty as well. The scents in the air, the taste of food, the beauty of the landscape.

There are hunting scenes and scenes of slaughter and the bodies of the dead animals resemble those of the dead and wounded men.

Human beings and animals both suffer pain, their bodies are vulnerable and frail, they can be killed and harmed and wounded and the result will be the same. At one point he goes one step farther, describing how the earth suffers too, when her body is ripped open by explosives. Giono includes the entirety of creation in his novel and shows that every being existing in this world, wants beauty, love and tenderness, shelter and food and when this is not provided, when aggression is let loose, the body is harmed, wounded and the being ultimately dies.

It’s a highly symbolical novel, with a profound message of peace. It was hard to read but I am glad I did. It really would be hard to find a more eloquent anti-war statement and a book which manages like this one, to show, that since we all, animals and human beings alike, suffer pain, we are equal. This profound message makes To the Slaughterhouse not only a plea for human rights but for animal rights as well.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

To the Slaughterhouse is my fourth contribution to the War Through the Generations Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.

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To the Slaughterhouse was the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Helen Humphreys’ Coventry. Discussion starts on Monday April 30, 2012.

Literature and War Readalong March 30 2012: To the Slaughterhouse – Le grand troupeau by Jean Giono

Jean Giono’s To the Slaughterhouse – Le grand troupeau is the last WWI novel of this year’s readalong. Giono is one of the great French writers, famous for books like L’homme qui plantait des arbresThe Man Who Planted Trees, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Que ma joie demeure orLe hussard sur le toit – The Horseman on the Roof which has been made into a successful movie. His books are deeply rooted in the South of France and he is often compared to Pagnol.

I try not to be too enthusiastic this time, but, let me just say, cautiously, I think, this should be a good book. At least he is an author who has never disappointed me so far and I’m even planning on (re-)reading a few of his other books this year, like Colline, Un de Baumugnes and Regain, the so-called Pan trilogy. Giono is famous for the way he describes the joy of life and that’s why I’m particularly interested to see how he treated such a bleak subject.

Here are the first sentences

Last night they watched as all the men left. It was a thick August night smelling of corn and horse-sweat. The animals were harnessed in the station-yard. The big plough-haulers had been tied up to the shafts on the carts; their solid rumps held back the loads of women and children.

The train moved off quietly in the night, spattering the willow trees with embers as it took on speed. Then all the horses started moaning together.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 30 March 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2012

People have been announcing their challenges and events for 2012 for a while now so it was about time to let you see the list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong.

It was not easy to compile this list as the books needed to fulfill different criteria one of which was length. I didn’t want to include too many books over 300 pages. The only novel over 500 pages will make up for its length by being very readable.

The other criterion was the country. Like last year, I wanted to include books from as many different countries as possible. I know it looks as if there were more British books than anything else which is true, still I managed to include books from 8 different countries.

I will also join Anna and Serena for the War Through the Generations Challenge that is dedicated to WWI this year. My introductory post is due later this week. The first three novels in the readalong will also count for their challenge.

I have been asked whether it is possible to join but read something different. Since strictly speaking a readalong implies that people read and discuss the same book, it’s difficult but as I’m starting a Literature and War Project I thought of a good solution that will serve anyone who wants to join –  myself as well as I may be in the mood to read more than one novel focusing on war. The idea would be that anyone can join during the last week of the month and either participate in the readalong or review any other war themed book that will then be added to the project page. The objective of the page is to cover many different countries, wars, themes and even genres. For the War Through the Generations Challenge I will for example read a children’s book and maybe a crime novel set in the trenches. Next year I would also like to read a Sci-Fi novel like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War that has been suggested by Max from Pechorin’s Journal. And finally I would like to read more non-fiction.

This year’s readalong will not always take place on Fridays but alternate between Monday and Friday depending on whether the Friday is during the last week of the month or not.

January, Monday  30

Helen Dunmore Zennor in Darkness , 320 p., England (1993), WWI

Spring, 1917 and war haunts the Cornish coastal village of Zennor: ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy-fever. Into this turmoil come DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda, hoping to escape the war-fever that grips London. They befriend Clare Coyne, a young artist, struggling to console her beloved cousin John William who is on leave from the trenches and suffering from shell shock. Yet the dark tide of gossip and innuendo means that Zennor is neither a place of recovery nor of escape …

February, Monday 27

Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way , 295 p.,  Ireland (2005), WWI

I discovered the book thanks to a comment from Danielle (A Work in Progress)

One of the most vivid and realised characters of recent fiction, Willie Dunne is the innocent hero of Sebastian Barry’s highly acclaimed novel. Leaving Dublin to fight for the Allied cause as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he finds himself caught between the war playing out on foreign fields and that festering at home, waiting to erupt with the Easter Rising. Profoundly moving, intimate and epic, A Long Long Waycharts and evokes a terrible coming of age, one too often written out of history.

March, Friday 30

Jean Giono:  Le grand troupeauTo the Slaughterhouse 224 p., France (1931), WWI

Conscription reaches into the hills as the First World War come to a small Provençal community one blazing August. Giono’s fiercly realistic novel contrasts the wholesale destruction of men, land and animals at the front with the moral disintegration of the lonely and anxious people left behind. Yet not all is despair. The novel ends with a message  of hope.

April, Monday 30

Helen Humphreys: Coventry,172 p., England (2008), WWII

Another book discovered thanks to Danielle (here)

On the night of the most devastating German raid on Coventry, two women traverse the city and transform their hearts. Harriet, widowed during WWI, is “”firewatching”” on the cathedral roof when first the factories and then the church itself are set ablaze. In the ensuing chaos she helps a young man, who reminds her of the husband she has lost, find his way back home where he left his mother.

May, Monday 28th

Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls From The Air, 208 p., England (1942), WWII

I owe the discovery of Balchin to Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) who reviewed two of his books here and  here.

With ostentatious lack of concern, Bill Sarratt, his wife and her lover spend the war wining and dining expensively, occasionally sauntering out into the Blitz with cheerful remarks about the shattered night-life of London’s West End. But beneath the false insouciance lies the real strain of a war that has firmly wrapped them all in its embrace. Wit may crackle at the same pace as buildings burn, but personal tragedy lurks appallingly close at hand.

June, Friday 29

Len Deighton:  Bomber, 532 p., England (1970), WWII

This book is a suggestion from Kevin (The War Movie Buff). It is by far the longest on the list but it should be a very quick read.

The classic novel of the Second World War that relates in devastating detail the 24-hour story of an allied bombing raid.

Bomber is a novel war. There are no victors, no vanquished. There are simply those who remain alive, and those who die.Bomber follows the progress of an Allied air raid through a period of twenty-four hours in the summer of 1943. It portrays all the participants in a terrifying drama, both in the air and on the ground, in Britain and in Germany.In its documentary style, it is unique. In its emotional power it is overwhelming.Len Deighton has been equally acclaimed as a novelist and as an historian. In Bomber he has combined both talents to produce a masterpiece.


July, Monday 30

Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain – Kuroi Ame, 304 p., Japan (1969), WWII

I saw the book mentioned on Rise’s blog (in lieu of a field guide) where is was mentioned by Gary (The Parrish Lantern)

Black Rain is centered around the story of a young woman who was caught in the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. lbuse bases his tale on real-life diaries and interviews with victims of the holocaust; the result is a book that is free from sentimentality yet manages to reveal the magnitude of the human suffering caused by the atom bomb. The life of Yasuko, on whom the black rain fell, is changed forever by periodic bouts of radiation sickness and the suspicion that her future children, too, may be affected.

lbuse tempers the horror of his subject with the gentle humor for which he is famous. His sensitivity to the complex web of emotions in a traditional community torn asunder by this historical event has made Black Rain one of the most acclaimed treatments of the Hiroshima story.


August, Friday 31

Aaron Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim, 208 p., Israel (1999), WWII

Aharon Appelfeld was the child of middle-class Jewish parents living in Romania at the outbreak of World War II. He witnessed the murder of his mother, lost his father, endured the ghetto and a two-month forced march to a camp, before he escaped. Living off the land in the forests of Ukraine for two years before making the long journey south to Italy and eventually Israel and freedom, Appelfeld finally found a home in which he could make a life for himself. Acclaimed writer Appelfeld’s extraordinary and painful memoir of his childhood and youth is a compelling account of a boy coming of age in a hostile world.


September, Friday 28

Richard Bausch: Peace, 171 p., US (2008), WWII

This was a suggestion from Sandra Rouse in a comment on one of this year’s readalong posts. 

It’s Italy, near Cassino. The terrible winter of 1944. A dismal icy rain falls, unabated, for days. Three American soldiers set out on the gruelling ascent of a perilous Italian mountainside in the murky closing days of the Second World War. Haunted by their sergeant’s cold-blooded murder of a young girl, and with only an old man of uncertain loyalties as their guide, they truge on in a state of barely suppressed terror and confusion. With snipers lying in wait for them, the men are confronted by agonizing moral choices…Taut and propulsive – Peace is a feat of economy, compression, and imagination, a tough and unmistakably contemporary meditation on the corrosiveness of violence, the human cost of war, and the redemptive power of mercy.

October, Monday 29

Maria Angels Anglada The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz, 128 p., Spain (1994), WWII

In the winter of 1991, at a concert in Krakow, an older woman with a marvelously pitched violin meets a fellow musician who is instantly captivated by her instrument. When he asks her how she obtained it, she reveals the remarkable story behind its origin.

Written with lyrical simplicity and haunting beauty—and interspersed with chilling, actual Nazi documentation—The Auschwitz Violin is more than just a novel: It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of beauty, art, and hope to triumph over the darkest adversity.


November, Friday 30

Gert Ledig The Stalin Front  –  Die Stalinorgel , 198 p., Germany (1955), WWII

1942, at the Eastern Front. Soldiers crouch in horrible holes in the ground, mingling with corpses. Tunneled beneath a radio mast, German soldiers await the order to blow themselves up. Russian tanks, struggling to break through enemy lines, bog down in a swamp, while a German runner, bearing messages from headquarters to the front, scrambles desperately from shelter to shelter as he tries to avoid getting caught in the action. Through it all, Russian artillery—the crude but devastatingly effective multiple rocket launcher known to the Germans as the Stalin Organ and to the Russians as Katyusha—rains death upon the struggling troops.

December, Friday 28

Michael Herr: Dispatches, 262 p., US (1977) Vietnam

This novel has been suggested by at least three people. Kevin (The War Movie Buff) and Max (Pechorin’s Journal)

If you’ve seen the movies Apocalypse Now and Platoon, in whose scripts Michael Herr had a hand, you have a pretty good idea of Herr’s take on Vietnam: a hallucinatory mess, the confluence of John Wayne and LSD.Dispatches reports remarkable front-line encounters with an acid-dazed infantryman who can’t wait to get back into the field and add Viet Cong kills to his long list (“I just can’t hack it back in the World”, he says); with a helicopter door gunner who fires indiscriminately into crowds of civilians; with daredevil photojournalist Sean Flynn, son of Errol, who disappeared somewhere inside Cambodia. Although Herr has admitted that parts of his book are fictional, this is meaty, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Vietnam.

I hope that many of you will feel tempted by the one or the other title on the list and am looking forward to great discussions. The books are all very different in tone, style and themes. As always there are a some I can hardly wait to read.

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How does the readalong work?

This is just a quick info for those who are new to blogging and /or the readalong.

I will review the book on a set date during the last week of the month. If you choose to read along you can either participate in the discussion in the comments page or post a review on your blog. I will add all the links to the reviews at the bottom of my posts.

The books are usually announced with some additional information or a short introduction at the beginning of the month.

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This post will be copied into the Literature and War Redalong 2012 page so you can find it again at any time.