Literature and War Readalong 2014

The Black FlowerThe Killer AngelsMarch

Toby's RoomPrivate PeacefulFear

Undertones of WarMy Dear I Wanted To Tell YouPhoenix and Ashes

The LieFlight Without EndLetters From a Lost Generation

The books for Literature and War Readalong 2011 and 2012 were following the different wars in chronological order. This year, 2013, we focused on different countries and wars we hadn’t covered so far. Next year will be about genre and WWI.

I was afraid a whole year dedicated to WWI books would be too much, especially since a lot of blogs run events for the Centenary, that’s why I decided to start with three novels on the American Civil War, one of which was part of 2011’s readalong, but had to be postponed. After that it’s all about WWI and to make it more interesting, I’ve included different genres: Memoir, letters, historical fiction, literary fiction, a children’s book and one fantasy novel. I hope there will be something for everyone among these titles.

The Black Flower

January, Friday 31 

The Black Flower by Howard Bahr (US 2000), American Civil War, Novel, 272 pages

The Black Flower is the gripping story of a young Confederate rifleman from Mississippi named Bushrod Carter, who serves in General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee during the Civil War battle that takes place in Franklin, Tennessee, in November 1864. Written with reverent attention to historical accuracy, the book vividly documents the fear, suffering, and intense friendships that are all present on the eve of the battle and during its aftermath. When Bushrod is wounded in the Confederate charge, he is taken to a makeshift hospital where he comes under the care of Anna, who has already lost two potential romances to battle. Bushrod and Anna’s poignant attempt to forge a bond of common humanity in the midst of the pathos and horror of battle serves as a powerful reminder that the war that divided America will not vanish quietly into the page of history.

The Killer Angels

February, Friday 28

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (US 1974), American Civil War, Novel, 355 pages

The late Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1974) concerns the battle of Gettysburg and was the basis for the 1993 film Gettysburg. The events immediately before and during the battle are seen through the eyes of Confederate Generals Lee, Longstreet, and Armistead and Federal General Buford, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, and a host of others. The author’s ability to convey the thoughts of men in war as well as their confusion-the so-called “fog of battle”-is outstanding. This unabridged version is read clearly by award-winning actor George Hearn, who gives each character a different voice and effectively conveys their personalities; chapters and beginnings and ends of sides are announced. Music from the movie version adds to the drama. All this comes in a beautiful package with a battle map. Recommended for public libraries not owning previous editions from Recorded Books and Blackstone Audio (Audio Reviews, LJ 2/1/92 and LJ 2/1/93, respectively).

March

March, Monday 31

March by Geraldine Brooks (Australia 2005) American Civil War, Novel, 304 pages

Brooks’s luminous second novel, after 2001’s acclaimed Year of Wonders, imagines the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. An idealistic Concord cleric, March becomes a Union chaplain and later finds himself assigned to be a teacher on a cotton plantation that employs freed slaves, or “contraband.” His narrative begins with cheerful letters home, but March gradually reveals to the reader what he does not to his family: the cruelty and racism of Northern and Southern soldiers, the violence and suffering he is powerless to prevent and his reunion with Grace, a beautiful, educated slave whom he met years earlier as a Connecticut peddler to the plantations. In between, we learn of March’s earlier life: his whirlwind courtship of quick-tempered Marmee, his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau and the surprising cause of his family’s genteel poverty. When a Confederate attack on the contraband farm lands March in a Washington hospital, sick with fever and guilt, the first-person narrative switches to Marmee, who describes a different version of the years past and an agonized reaction to the truth she uncovers about her husband’s life. Brooks, who based the character of March on Alcott’s transcendentalist father, Bronson, relies heavily on primary sources for both the Concord and wartime scenes; her characters speak with a convincing 19th-century formality, yet the narrative is always accessible. Through the shattered dreamer March, the passion and rage of Marmee and a host of achingly human minor characters, Brooks’s affecting, beautifully written novel drives home the intimate horrors and ironies of the Civil War and the difficulty of living honestly with the knowledge of human suffering.

Toby's Room

April, Monday 28

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker (UK 2013), WWI, Novel, 272 pages

Pat Barker returns to the First World War in Toby’s Room, a dark, compelling novel of human desire, wartime horror and the power of friendship.

When Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, another secret casts a lengthening shadow over Elinor’s world: how exactly did Toby die – and why? Elinor determines to uncover the truth. Only then can she finally close the door to Toby’s room. Moving from the Slade School of Art to Queen Mary’s Hospital, where surgery and art intersect in the rebuilding of the shattered faces of the wounded, Toby’s Room is a riveting drama of identity, damage, intimacy and loss. Toby’s Room is Pat Barker’s most powerful novel yet.

Private Peaceful

May, Friday 30

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (UK 2003)  WWI, Children’s Book, 192 pages

Heroism or cowardice? A stunning story of the First World War from a master storyteller.

Told in the voice of a young soldier, the story follows 24 hours in his life at the front during WW1, and captures his memories as he looks back over his life. Full of stunningly researched detail and engrossing atmosphere, the book leads to a dramatic and moving conclusion.

Both a love story and a deeply moving account of the horrors of the First World War, this book will reach everyone from 9 to 90.

Fear

June, Friday 27

FearLa Peur by Gabriel Chevallier (France 1930)  WWI, Classic, Novel, 320 pages

It is 1915. Jean Dartemont is just a young man. He is not a rebel, but neither is he awed by authority and when he’s called up and given only the most rudimentary training, he refuses to follow his platoon. Instead, he is sent to Artois, where he experiences the relentless death and violence of the trenches. His reprieve finally comes when he is wounded, evacuated and hospitalised.

The nurses consider it their duty to stimulate the soldiers’ fighting spirit, and so ask Jean what he did at the front.

His reply?

‘I was afraid.’

First published in France in 1930, Fear is both graphic and clear-eyed in its depiction of the terrible experiences of soldiers during the First World War.

The Lie

July, Monday 28

The Lie by Helen Dunmore (UK 2014) WWI, Novel, 304 pages

Set during and just after the First World War, The Lie is an enthralling, heart-wrenching novel of love, memory and devastating loss by one of the UK’s most acclaimed storytellers. Cornwall, 1920, early spring.

A young man stands on a headland, looking out to sea. He is back from the war, homeless and without family.

Behind him lie the mud, barbed-wire entanglements and terror of the trenches. Behind him is also the most intense relationship of his life.

Daniel has survived, but the horror and passion of the past seem more real than the quiet fields around him.

He is about to step into the unknown. But will he ever be able to escape the terrible, unforeseen consequences of a lie?

Undertones of War

August, Friday 29

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (UK 1928) WWI, Memoir, 288 pages

In what is one of the finest autobiographies to come out of the First World War, the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden records his experiences as an infantry subaltern in France and Flanders. Blunden took part in the disastrous battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, describing the latter as ‘murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes’. In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, he tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Blunden’s poems show how he found hope in the natural landscape; the only thing that survives the terrible betrayal enacted in the Flanders fields.

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You

September, Monday 29

My Dear, I wanted to tell you by Louisa Young (UK 2011) WWI, Historical Fiction, 336 pages

A letter, two lovers, a terrible lie. In war, truth is only the first casualty. ‘Inspires the kind of devotion among its readers not seen since David Nicholls’ One Day’ The Times

While Riley Purefoy and Peter Locke fight for their country, their survival and their sanity in the trenches of Flanders, Nadine Waveney, Julia Locke and Rose Locke do what they can at home. Beautiful, obsessive Julia and gentle, eccentric Peter are married: each day Julia goes through rituals to prepare for her beloved husband’s return. Nadine and Riley, only eighteen when the war starts, and with problems of their own already, want above all to make promises – but how can they when the future is not in their hands? And Rose? Well, what did happen to the traditionally brought-up women who lost all hope of marriage, because all the young men were dead?

Moving between Ypres, London and Paris, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a deeply affecting, moving and brilliant novel of love and war, and how they affect those left behind as well as those who fight.

Phoenix and Ashes

October, Friday 31

Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey (US 2004) WWI, Fantasy, 468 pages

In this dark and atmospheric rendition of the Cinderella fairy tale, an intelligent young Englishwoman is made into a virtual slave by her evil stepmother. Her only hope of rescue comes in the shape of a scarred World War I pilot of noble blood, whose own powers over the elements are about to be needed more than ever.

“A dark tale full of the pain and devastation of war…and a couple of wounded protagonists worth routing for.”

Flight Without End

November, Friday 28

Flight Witout End – Die Flucht ohne Ende by Joseph Roth (Austria 1927) WWI, Classic,  144 pages

Flight Without End, written in Paris, in 1927, is perhaps the most personal of Joseph Roth’s novels. Introduced by the author as the true account of his friend Franz Tunda it tells the story of a young ex-office of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the 1914- 1918 war, who makes his way back from captivity in Siberia and service with the Bolshevik army, only to find out that the old order, which has shaped him has crumbled and that there is no place for him in the new “European” culture that has taken its place. Everywhere – in his dealings with society, family, women – he finds himself an outsider, both attracted and repelled by the values of the old world, yet unable to accept the new ideologies.

Letters From a Lost Generation

December, Monday 29

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.

I think the list is very different from the last years. The one or the other title like Mercedes Lackey’s book is a bit of gamble but I tried to make the list as diverse as possible.

I hope that many of you will join.

Elizabeth Bowen and Irish Short Story Week

Elizabeth Bowen Collected Stories

I just wanted to let you know that Mel’s Irish Short Story Week is upcoming in March. Because it was such a success in the last couple of years the week has been extended to a whole month and therefore runs from March 1 until March 31 2013.

I discovered some great new writers like Órfhlaith Foyle and Kevin Barry last year, but I also rediscovered old favourites like Elizabeth Bowen. I read a few of her short stories and had sworn I would read more. This year I’m planning on reading several of her stories contained in the Collected Stories which seems to be a great collection.

To stay in line with this month’s theme my Literature and War Readalong, which takes place at the end of the month, also features a book by Elizabeth Bowen – The Heat of the Day.

Because I loved the stories I read last year so much I also got her book Love’s Civil War which contains letters and diary entries and Victoria Glendinning’s biography which was recommended by Mel u. I might start the one or the other or even both.

For more details and Irish reading suggestions please visit Mel u at The Reading Life.

Orfhlaith Foyle

Literature and War Readalong 2013

The Yellow BirdsThe Flowers of WarThe WarsThe Heat of The Day

Children of The New WorldThere Is No TimeDeath of the AdversaryGrey SoulsEverything FlowsThe Sorrow of WarAll That I AMWinter in Wartime

It took a long time to compile the reading list for the Literature and War Readalong 2013 but I must say, I’m pleased with the result.

In 2013 we will be reading 12 books  from 12 different countries, written in 8 different languages and covering 6 different wars.

I think it’s the most diverse list so far. I also tried to take different events into account which should allow people to pick a book for the readalong which will also count towards other events. There is an Irish author for March, a Dutch author for June, German for November, and a Canadian and an Australian choice for the respective challenges.

And here goes the final list

The Yellow Birds

January, Monday 28

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012), 240 pages – US – Iraq war

LONGLISTED FOR THE GUARDIAN FIRST BOOK AWARD 2012 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER An unforgettable depiction of the psychological impact of war, by a young Iraq veteran and poet, THE YELLOW BIRDS is already being hailed as a modern classic. Everywhere John looks, he sees Murph. He flinches when cars drive past. His fingers clasp around the rifle he hasn’t held for months. Wide-eyed strangers praise him as a hero, but he can feel himself disappearing. Back home after a year in Iraq, memories swarm around him: bodies burning in the crisp morning air. Sunlight falling through branches; bullets kicking up dust; ripples on a pond wavering like plucked strings. The promise he made, to a young man’s mother, that her son would be brought home safely. With THE YELLOW BIRDS, poet and veteran Kevin Powers has composed an unforgettable account of friendship and loss. It vividly captures the desperation and brutality of war, and its terrible after-effects. But it is also a story of love, of great courage, and of extraordinary human survival. Written with profound emotional insight, especially into the effects of a hidden war on families at home, THE YELLOW BIRDS is one of the most haunting, true and powerful novels of our time. ‘THE YELLOW BIRDS is the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab Wars.’ (Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities ) ‘Kevin Powers has conjured a poetic and devastating account of war’s effect on the individual.’ (Damian Lewis, star of Homeland and Band of Brothers ) ‘Inexplicably beautiful’. (Ann Patchett, Orange Prize-winning author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder)

February, Thursday 28

The Flowers of War aka Jingling Shisan Chai by Geling Yan (2006), 256 pages, ChinaChinese/Japanese war

December 1937. The Japanese have taken Nanking. A group of terrified schoolgirls hides in the compound of an American church. Among them is Shujuan, through whose thirteen-year-old eyes we witness the shocking events that follow. Run by Father Engelmann, an American priest who has been in China for many years, the church is supposedly neutral ground in the war between China and Japan. But it becomes clear the Japanese are not obeying international rules of engagement. As they pour through the streets of Nanking, raping and pillaging the civilian population, the girls are in increasing danger. And their safety is further compromised when prostitutes from the nearby brothel climb over the wall into the compound seeking refuge. Short, powerful, vivid, this beautiful novel transports the reader to 1930s China. Full of wonderful characters, from the austere priest to the irreverent prostitutes, it is a story about how war upsets all prejudices and how love can flourish amidst death.

March, Thursday 28

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1949), 336 pages, IrelandWWII

It is wartime London, and the carelessness of people with no future flows through the evening air. Stella discovers that her lover Robert is suspected of selling information to the enemy. Harrison, the British intelligence agent on his trail, wants to bargain, the price for his silence being Stella herself. Caught between two men and unsure who she can trust, the flimsy structures of Stella’s life begin to crumble.

April, Monday 29

The Wars by Timothy Findley (1977), 240 pages, CanadaWWI

Robert Ross, a sensitive nineteen-year-old Canadian officer, went to war – the War to End All Wars. He found himself in the nightmare world of trench warfare; of mud and smoke, of chlorine gas and rotting corpses. In this world gone mad, Robert Ross performed a last desperate act to declare his commitment to life in the midst of death.The Wars is quite simply one of the best novels ever written about the First World War.

May, Friday 31

All That I Am by Anna Funder (2011), 384 pages, AustraliaWWII

Anna Funder, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and author of Stasiland, offers a thrilling tale and powerful love story that tells the heroic and tragic true story of the German resistance in World War II in All That I Am.

When Hitler comes to power in 1933, a tight-knit group of friends and lovers become hunted outlaws overnight. United in their resistance to the madness and tyranny of Nazism, they must flee the country. Dora, passionate and fearless, her lover, the great playwright Ernst Toller, her younger cousin Ruth and Ruth’s husband Hans find refuge in London. Here they take breath-taking risks in order to continue their work in secret. But England is not the safe-haven they think it to be, and a single, chilling act of betrayal will tear them apart…’The strengths of Funder’s writing are emotional and imaginative. In what she has to say about love, loss and betrayal there is profound truth’ The Times

June, Friday 28

Winter in Wartime akak Oorlogswinter by Jan Terlouw (1972), 220 pages, NetherlandsWWII

Near the end of World War II, 14-year-old Michiel becomes involved with the Resistance after coming to the aid of a wounded British soldier. With the conflict coming to an end, Michiel comes of age and learns of the stark difference between adventure fantasy and the ugly realities of war.

July, Monday 29

Children of the New World aka Les enfants du nouevau monde by Assia Djebar (1962), 233 AlgeriaFrench/Algerian war

Assia Djebar, the most distinguished woman writer to emerge from the Arab world – and a top candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature – wrote “Children of the New World” following her own involvement in the Algerian resistance to colonial French rule. Djebar’s novel sheds light on current world conflicts as it reveals a determined Arab insurgency against foreign occupation, from the inside out. However, Djebar focuses on the experiences of women drawn into the politics of resistance. Her novel recounts the interlocking lives of women in a rural Algerian town who find themselves joined in solidarity and empower each other to engage in the fight for independence. Narrating the resistance movement from a variety of perspectives – from those of traditional wives to liberated students to political organisers – Djebar powerfully depicts the circumstances that drive oppressed communities to violence and at the same time movingly reveals the tragic costs of war.

August, Friday 30

Grey Souls aka Les âmes grises by Philippe Claudel (2003), 208 pages, France  – WWI

This is ostensibly a detective story, about a crime that is committed in 1917, and solved 20 years later. The location is a small town in Northern France. The war is still being fought in the trenches, within sight and sound of the town, but the men of the town have been spared the slaughter because they are needed in the local factory. One freezing cold morning in the dead of winter, a beautiful ten-year old girl, one of three daughters of the local innkeeper, is found strangled and dumped in the canal. Suspicion falls on two deserters who are picked up near the town. Their interrogation and sentencing is brutal and swift. Twenty years later, the narrator, a local policeman, puts together what actually happened. On the night the deserters were arrested and interrogated, he was sitting by the bedside of his dying wife. He believes that justice was not done and wants to set the record straight. But the death of the child was not the only crime committed in the town during those weeks.

September, Monday 30

There’s No Home by Alexander Baron (1950), 288 pages,  UKWWII

‘An unqualified masterpiece … as acute a study of the psychology of war as fiction offers us’ Guardian It’s 1943. The allied invasion of Sicily. In a lull in the fighting, an exhausted British battalion marches into the searing summer heat of Catania, to be greeted by the women, children and old men emerging from the bomb shelters. Yearning for some semblance of domestic life, the men begin to fill the roles left by absent husbands and fathers. Unlikely relationships form, tender, exploitative even cruel, but all shaped by the exigencies of war. Centred around a love story, between Graziela, a young mother, and Sergeant Craddock, whose rough attempts at seduction are vindicated by his sympathy and the care he shows for her malnourished child, There’s No Home offers an unerringly humane and authentic portrayal of the emotional impact of war.
Everything Flows
October, Monday 28
Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman (1961), 320 pages, RussiaPost-War

Ivan Grigoryevich has been in the Gulag for thirty years. Released after Stalin’s death, he finds that the years of terror have imposed a collective moral slavery. He must struggle to find a place for himself in an unfamiliar world. Grossman tells the stories of those people entwined with Ivan’s fate: his cousin Nikolay, a scientist who never let his conscience interfere with his career, Pinegin, the informer who had Ivan sent to the camps and Anna Sergeyevna, Ivan’s lover, who tells of her involvement as an activist in the Terror famine of 1932-3.

Everything Flows is Vasily Grossman’s final testament, written after the Soviet authorities suppressed Life and Fate.

November, Friday 29

Death of the Adversary aka Der Tod des Widersachers by Hans Keilson (1942), 224 pages, GermanyWWII

My enemy – I shall refer to him as B. – entered my life about twenty years ago. At that time I had only a very vague idea of what it meant to be someone’s enemy; still less did I realise what it was to have an enemy. One has to mature gradually towards one’s enemy as towards one’s best friend.

1930s Germany; the shadow of Nazism looms. Pictures of the new dictator, ‘B.’, fill magazines and newspapers. Our hero is ten when his world begins to change dramatically. Suddenly, the other children won’t let him join in their games. Later, he is refused a job on a shop-floor. Later still, he hears youths boasting of an attack on a Jewish cemetery. Both hypnotised and horrified by his enemy, our hero chronicles the fear, anger and defiance of everyday life under tyranny.

Written while Hans Keilson was in hiding during World War II, this novel is a powerful account of what he outlived. Painful, trenchant and streaked with dark humour The Death of the Adversary is a rediscovered masterpiece.

December, Monday 30

The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu by Bao Ninh (1991)  240 pages, VietnamVietnam war

Kien’s job is to search the Jungle of Screaming Souls for corpses. He knows the area well – this was where, in the dry season of 1969, his battalion was obliterated by American napalm and helicopter gunfire. Kien was one of only ten survivors. This book is his attempt to understand the eleven years of his life he gave to a senseless war.

Based on true experiences of Bao Ninh and banned by the communist party, this novel is revered as the ‘All Quiet on the Western Front for our era’.

Kevin suggested this book and I think after having read a few US novels on the war in Vietnam it’s about time to read one written by a Vietnamese writer.

The rules are still the same. At the beginning of the month, I will post a quick introduction to the book and who likes, can readalong, and either just join the discussion or post a review on his/her blog as well. I will, as usual link to all the reviews.

Gert Ledig: The Stalin Front – Die Stalinorgel (1955) Literature and War Readalong Meets German Literature Month November 2012

The Stalin Front is one of the most unsparingly honest accounts of the Eastern Front. It’s accurate and graphic in its depiction of the horrors of the battle field. The wounds, the cold, the fear and the utter uselessness of it all is captured in spare prose. It’s hard to find another novel which is as explicitly anti-war as this book. Interestingly it is exactly this unpolitical but strong anti-war statement for which Ledig would be criticized later. In his book there are no beastly Nazis or inhuman Russians, but living, breathing, suffering humans, some German, some Russian. At the end of the day, it’s not important. What is important is to show that war is awful, that it saves nobody, literally rips apart the “good” and the “bad” alike and turns each party into a suffering mess.

Ledig chose a rather impersonal way to tell his story. Most of the people in this novel have no name – with the exception of the Russian officers – but are introduced with their ranks. This makes it easier to follow them and also helps to keep the story at arm’s length at first. Later in the story, with little remarks here and there, which reveal the men’s unique stories and characters, we start to see them not only as ranks but as individuals. There is for example the Major whose every hope is crushed when he is informed that his wife and only child have died.

The central story, set during two days, somewhere near Stalingrad, focuses on the defense of a hill. This is a totally futile and senseless thing to do. The Germans can’t keep the hill, their lines have been broken through by the Russian tanks but the orders are clear; they have to stay. The losses on both sides are equally heavy, morales are low everywhere.

I was afraid The Stalin Front would be hard to read but it wasn’t. It was a surprisingly quick read and although it is very graphic it was bearable because Ledig isn’t a manipulative writer. It’s much more as if he had painted with words and I was often reminded of the work of Anselm Kiefer.

Ledig’s book was successful when it came out but soon forgotten because it was considered too dark, too bleak. There is no hope in this book, no heroic figures, there isn’t even right or wrong, just suffering and futility. The absurdity is underlined by small things. Seeing the tanks approach and knowing there would be certain death, many of the men try to escape. Some cross the line and flee to the Russians, others desert or simply look for an outpost which is farther away from the front line. Doing this without explicit order is like deserting. Although everything collapses, the hill is lost, most of the men will die, the high command gives stupid orders like fighting to the last moment and has people who try to save their lives courtmartialled.

The Stalin Front has been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front and I agree, it is equally good but even less sentimental as Ledig chose to have more than a handful of main characters and did not just focus on one person. This makes identification more difficult but I was glad for that. It may sound weird but I really liked this book. I think it’s important and should be much more widely read. No matter what reasons contribute to starting it, ultimately, war is ugly for all the parties involved. The Stalin Front exemplifies this eloquently and forcefully.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Richard (Caravana de recuerdos)

Rise (in lieu of a field guide) – not part of the readalong per se but worth reading all the same.

*******

The Stalin Front was the eleventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Discussion starts on Friday 28 December, 2012.

Japanese Literature Challenge

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

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

A few of the translated choices are

Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain.

Soseki Natsume’s Kokoro

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Frazier: Cold Mountain (1997) Literature and War Readalong December 2011

The last book of this year’s readalong, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain,  is the only book on the American Civil War.

Cold Mountain juxtaposes the stories of Inman, a Confederate soldier, who was badly wounded at Petersburg, and Ada, the woman he loves, who waits for him in Cold Mountain. It describes Inman’s slow and long return to Cold Mountain and how Ada copes on her own after her father has died.

I have only just finished this book and I am still a bit stunned. This is an extraordinarily well-crafted novel. The structure is interesting from the beginning on. The chapters alternate between Inman’s and Ada’s point of view and are symmetrical. Motifs and themes that are described in one chapter will be echoed in the next. This is fascinating. At the beginning, for example, we see Inman at a hospital. He was badly wounded and most of the time he is lying in bed and watching the world through a window. The window is like the frame of a picture.

That summer, Inman had viewed the world as if it were a picture framed by the molding around the window. Long stretches of time often passed when, for all the change in the scene, it might as well have been an old painting of a road, a wall, a tree, a cart, a blind man.

In the next chapter we see how Ada struggles. Her father has died and left her nothing but a farm. The farmhands have all gone, either to war or they are hiding. Ada has lived almost all of her life in Charleston and has only lived in Cold Mountain for a few years, because her father was ill, and the mountain air was thought to be beneficial. She can sew, paint, play the piano and loves to read but never in all of her life has she worked with her hands. She doesn’t know how to keep the farm going, how to produce anything. She spends long stretches of time sitting in a chair, reading and staring through a window that starts to look like a frame, the sky outside like a painting.

There is nothing that Inman experiences, that Ada’s story doesn’t echo and vice versa. They both struggle to survive, they both find unlikely friends. I liked this structure a lot but there is more to this novel. It’s exceptionally well written. Words are chosen carefully, the prose is crystal-clear and manages to paint a picture of a breathtaking landscape that we see change with the seasons.

Maybe Ada would have starved or contracted an illness and died if Ruby hadn’t turned up at her farm. From that moment on her life is changed forever. Ruby has never read a book but she is so resourceful and attentive to every little detail of nature, one almost expects her to spin straw into gold. There is nothing she cannot use, mend, transform. And she knows how to teach Ada to become as capable as she is. All Ada knew so far was a life of leisure and that life now turns into work. It’s interesting to see how useless money has become during the war and how valuable it is to be able to produce your own food.

After a while, when plants grow and they have produced all sorts of things, the women are not only independent but almost completely self-sustaining. And they have become very close friends. They sit on the porch at night and Ada reads to Ruby. They talk and sit like an old couple. Content. At least Ruby is, Ada still longs for Inman.

After a while I started to dread his return. Their life seemed so peaceful, I couldn’t imagine how Inman would fit in. What would happen, would Ada send Ruby away, would they live together?

All this time Inman is walking and hiding. He is constantly in danger, he is a deserter after all and the country seems to have become lawless. Anyone can shoot you at any time. That’s what happens to him anyway. He is taken prisoner, shot and left for dead. He finds refuge with an old woman, who, like Ada and Ruby, lives completely on her own, with a little herd of goats.

This is a very powerful episode. The war is constantly present throughout the book. Inman remembers the battles, the dead men, the wounded. The butchery. But nowhere is this as much in the foreground as when he speaks with the old woman. I’m not very familiar with the American Civil War and the impression I got from reading Cold Mountain was that maybe initially there was a cause but very soon there were a lot of lawless people attracted who came in for the change and the freedom to go about killing people as they pleased.

While Ada and Ruby live an almost sheltered life, Inman, in crossing the country, sees the many faces of this war. The poverty, the illness, people who die for no reason, the cruelty, the violence. His own biggest fear however is that he is too damaged to live a happy life with Ada. The old woman says something that made me think and I wondered whether this is really true:

That’s just pain, she said. It goes eventually. And when it’s gone, there is no lasting memory. Not the worst of it anyway. It fades. Our minds aren’t made to hold on to the particulars of pain the way we do to bliss. It’s a gift God gives us, a sign of His care for us.

Something that struck me more than anything, besides the beauty of the language, the artful structure and the wonderful complexity of the characters, is how American Cold Mountain is. It’s a hymn to the landscape and the history of the country, that includes everything, the mythology of the Cherokee, the stories of the settlers, the possibilities that this country offers to resourceful people.

Cold Mountain is a stunning novel and I’m sorry, I feel haven’t done this book any justice. It’s a complex, rich and a very rewarding book. It’s rare that I feel envious of characters in a book but at times I thought that there could hardly be a better life than the life led by Ada and Ruby.

If you have seen the movie, it is still worth, reading the book. It is so much richer.

*******

Cold Mountain was the last book of the Literature and War Readalong 2011. The first book of the Literature and War Readalong 2012 is Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness. The discussion takes place on Monday, January 30 2012.

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.

*******

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.

*******

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