Mrs Gaskell and Me by Nell Stevens (2018)

I’m not sure where I came across a review of Nell Stevens’ charming book but I’m so glad I did. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a book as much and as unreservedly as this one.

Mrs Gaskell and Me – Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart is a unique genre blend between memoir and fictionalised biography. The memoir tells us of Nell Stevens’ struggle to write her PhD on Elizabeth Gaskell and her tumultuous love story with a guy called Max. The fictionalised parts are Nell’s attempt to imagine a possible love story between Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell and Eduard Norton. Gaskell and Norton met in Rome. Gaskell’s Charlotte Brontë biography was just being published and she had fled Manchester to avoid the complications the publication might bring. She assumed, and later found out she’d been correct, that many people would disagree with her and even threaten to sue her for libel.

The book moves back and forth between chapters based on Nell’s life and chapters based on Elizabeth Gaskells’. Sometimes when books alternate like this, one has favourite sections but, in this case, I liked them both a great deal. I enjoyed reading about Gaskell’s time in  Rome, the people she met, the conversations she had. I know Nell Stevens took a lot of liberties but since I’m not that familiar with Gaskell’s life, I didn’t mind. From what I know, I’d say what Stevens imagined might not have happened like this, but it sounded plausible. She didn’t invent an affair but the story of two soulmates. Under other circumstances, at another time, they might have become lovers. Norton also fascinates Gaskell because he is American. America is her dreamscape, so to speak. A place that she imagines often and hopes to see some day. Meeting a soul mate is something that can have a deep impact; in Gaskell’s case, the impact was deepened further because they met abroad. Rome transformed and inspired her. Rome as a special place for writers and artists at the time, is the central theme of Nell’s PhD.

Having worked on a PhD myself, I recognized so many of the struggles. Finding a theme, keeping motivated. It’s so well described. Add to that, in Nell’s case, a complex love story. Max, like Gaskell’s Eduard Norton, is from the US. They met in Boston and while Nell knew immediately, she wanted to be with Max, he initially hesitates. The ups and downs of their story complicate the work on her thesis even more.

I loved this book for many reasons. I enjoy books about writers and literature. I enjoy memoir and the combination of the two works very well. I could relate to the way Nell Stevens tried to get inside of Gaskell’s head. She wrote those parts in the second person, as if she was addressing her. I remember battling with a paper on Voltaire’s Zadig. It was laborious and frustrating. Like Nell, I was very fond of my subject and while our professor told us to refrain from using biographical material for the interpretation of texts – especially of that era – reading about Voltaire’s life, discovering a kindred spirit, helped me. After a while, I felt I really knew him. At some point, I started a conversation with him in my head and funny enough that gave me an entry point to the analysis of Zadig.

Academic writing, love, the meeting of kindred spirits, and the importance of travel, are but some of the main themes.

Whether you’re a fan of Gaskell and like books about writers, or whether you enjoy memoir, there’s a huge chance, you might enjoy this book. It’s engaging, quirky, interesting, and at times very moving. Mrs Gaskell and Me, is Nell Steven’s second book. Her first, Bleaker House, about how she tried to write a novel, is also a memoir. I’m certain, I’ll read that too eventually.

 

 

 

Amy Liptrot: The Outrun (2016) – Wellcome Book Prize 10th Anniversary Tour

I was so pleased when I was invited to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize 10th Anniversary Tour and review one of the titles. There are so many literary prizes, but the Wellcome Prize is one of the most interesting to me because it is given to books that illuminate the many ways that health, medicine and illness touch our lives. 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of this prestigious award. Over the last decade, the prize has gone to a variety of titles from novels (Mend the Living, Maylis de Kerangal) to memoirs (The Iceberg, Marion Coutts) to popular science (It’s All in Your Head, Suzanne O’Sullivan).

I was offered to choose from the 2016 short list, including its winning title It’s All in Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan.

2016 Shortlist:Playthings by Alex Pheby; The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink; Neurotribes by Steve Silberman; Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss; The Outrun by Amy Liptrot.

There were many books on the list I felt tempted to read but I decided to choose Amy Liptrot’s memoir The Outrun because I was interested to see how the wild, as the blurb says, restored her life and renewed her hope.

At the age of thirty, after ten years of hard binge drinking, Amy returns to Orkney. Ten years earlier, she’s left the Scottish island in search of a more glamorous life in London. As soon as she arrived in London, she started to party, hang out with people in parks, take drugs and binge drink. It often seemed as if she was homesick.

But sometimes a smell in the air would remind me sharply that I was living in England. This leafy country with its red-brick skyline was not my home. I yearned for the open skies and grey stone of Orkney. I missed the curlews and oyster-catchers, even the black-backed gulls. Sometimes I’d be walking down Bethnal Green Road, surprised by the tears rolling silently down my face. (p. 37/38)

Although I’d left, and had wanted to leave, Orkney and the cliffs held me, and when I was away I always had, somewhere inside, a quietly vibrating sense of loss and disturbance. (p.50)

At the beginning of the memoir, she’s out of rehab and back where she came from, on Orkney. Bit by bit, we learn about her chaotic life in London, the excessive drinking that often ends with her blacking-out. When she is getting worse and worse, her boyfriend leaves her, she looses her job, and her apartment. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough and her drinking intensifies even more. Often she wakes up in places and with people she doesn’t know. Often, she starts drinking again right after waking up to fight a terrible hangover.

I heard it said that in London you’re always looking for either a job, a house or a lover. I did not realise how easily and how fast I could lose all three. (p. 43)

Reading about her excesses made me wonder how it was even possible that she managed to give up drinking. For years there was nothing else in her life but one bottle after the other. People started to avoid her because she was loud and rowdy, destroyed things, lost things, had accidents. She was such a mess.

My behaviour brought tension into the household: unpredictable noise levels; Tuesday night parties with strangers, men I brought home; leaving my handbag outside the front door and possessions trailing up the stairs. These episodes were followed by the depressive shadow of my hung-over days in bed.  (p.56)

And then, one night, something terrible happens and this might very well have been the deciding factor. While she did stop drinking occasionally and tried to stay away from alcohol before, it never lasted long. But after that night, which was a wake-up call for her, she enters a day rehab. One week of detox, assisted by Librium, was followed by twelve weeks of group therapy. One of the hardest things, in my opinion, is that she wasn’t allowed to stay at the rehab center but had to go home and face temptation every night. She lived over a pub in Hackney Wick. I don’t know Amy, but reading about this and knowing she made it, made me proud of her. It sounded like such a hard thing to do.

Once the program at the rehab center is finished, she returns to Orkney where she tracks birds, swims in ice-cold water, watches the night sky.

The descriptions of this harsh but beautiful landscape are amazing. Especially so, because we see them through Amy’s eyes whose every sense seems to reawaken now that she’s off the booze.

I loved this memoir so much. I could quote endlessly from it and I’m in awe because the fight is so intense. As Amy writes, even 20 months after she quit drinking, she still fantasizes about drinking all the time.

Through repeated use of the drug, our neural pathways are scored so deeply they will never be repaired.I will always be vulnerable to relapse and other kinds of addiction.

I’m crying. I’m sober, twenty months and eight days now, and I like the changes happening in my life but I’m still often frustrated about not being ‘able’ to drink. I’m sober but I would like drink.It’s a painful paradox to live in. (p.180).

It’s only towards the end of the book, and a long stay on Orkney, and a winter on her own on a much smaller island, Papa Westray, that the alcohol slowly lets go of her. There’s so much hope at the end and such a keen appreciation of life and nature. I also loved what she wrote about finding a new identity. For ten long years, her identity was rooted in her drinking. What would be left after that was gone?

I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s an amazing insight into someone’s addiction and recovery and a fabulous account of life on Orkney. I could see the many migratory birds, feel the icy cold of the water, the force of the gales, and the beauty of the constellations in the night sky.

In defiance of this dissatisfaction, I’m conducting my own form of therapy through long walks, cold swims and methodically reading old journals. I’m learning to identify and savour freedom: freedom of place, freedom of damaging compulsion. I’m filling the void with new knowledge and moments of beauty. (p.180)

Don’t miss visiting the other blogs. You’ll discover many amazing books.

I’d like to dedicate this review to my beloved cousin, Olivier, who suffered from the same addiction as Amy but sadly didn’t make it.

Marguerite Duras: The War – La douleur (1985) Literature and War Readalong April 2017

Marguerite Duras’ affecting book The War – La douleur  is a collection of texts based on her war diaries. Before beginning my review, I have to mention that I’ve read the French edition and don’t know how close to the English it is. It seems that the two last texts, two short stories, have been left out in the English edition but I could be wrong. I’m not going to review them here. Each of the texts covers another time period.

1945

La douleur – The pain is the first text in the book and is also the longest and appears to be the only one that she left as she found it. Duras said that she couldn’t remember writing this diary and that, to her, it seemed more powerful than any of the literary texts she’d ever written. La douleur, which was written during April 1945,  describes in painful details, how Marguerite Duras waited for the return of her husband, Robert L., a member of the resistance, who had been deported to Buchenwald in 1944.

Duras managed to convey the anxiety of those waiting and the incredible difficulties to take care of someone who came back. They knew to which camp Robert had been brought and so, knowing the Germans had lost the war, they followed the news closely and went to the centres to which those who returned came and questioned them. Duras knew that Buchenwald had been liberated, but she didn’t know if by that time Robert was still alive. Once she found someone who had seen him, there was still the fear that he might have been among those shot by the fleeing Germans. Why, she wonders did they shoot them just minutes before the arrival of the Allies? In Buchenwald alone 51,000 were shot, while 20,000 survived. Possibly, he was among the survivors but if so, he might still die of exhaustion or an illness. A little later, when they hear that the German cities are literally burning, another anxiety joins the fears she had before. He might be trapped in a fire storm and get killed that way.

In the end, two of her friends travel to dacha (Robert had been moved a few times) and bring him back. Before they arrive, they warn her – she might not recognize him. The tall man weighs a mere 38 kilograms and looks horrific. He’s very ill and his survival is almost a miracle.

1944

Monsieur X – Pierre Rabier is the second text in the collection. It describes the cat-and-mouse game a Gestapo official plays with Marguerite Duras. He pretends her husband hasn’t been deported yet, meets her often, wants to have an affair with her. He may think he’s the stronger one, but Duras plays a game with him as well. She learns everything about him and later uses it to help sentencing him to death.

After the war

Albert des capitales and Ter le milicien both describe how Duras and other members of the resistance take part in torturing and forcing people to give them information that will lead to their or other people’s sentencing. In these two pieces she changed names and wrote about herself in third person, calling herself Thérèse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I’m familiar with Marguerite Duras and love her writing but I still thought this would be just another WWII memoir. It isn’t. Most memoirs fous either on the war – on the battle field or the home front – or on the camps. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir by someone who was waiting for someone and about the challenges of the return. There’s so much going on in these pages. Every day, there’s a new anxiety regarding her husband and every day the people in France find out more details about the war. The French sent 600,000 Jews to the camps. One in 100 came back. They didn’t know any details about the camps until the end of the war. Other arresting details capture that for France the end of the war also meant the end of the occupation. Or what it was like to see Paris at night illuminated again.

As I wrote before, some of the texts deal with what happened to collaborators. Duras seems to have taken an active part in their arrest and punishment. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done. I can absolutely not imagine myself watching someone being tortured or even torturing someone.

There were also aspects that were especially interesting for me, as a French person, because the liberation and its aftermath, the coming to power of de Gaulle have led to problems France is battling to this day. Marguerite Duras mentions that de Gaulle only wanted to emphasize that the Allies won the war. He didn’t mention the camps, nor did he want them mentioned because it had to be about glory not about pain. Possibly this explains the choice of title because she thinks you have to discuss the pain. You have to hear the people who suffered. I’m afraid that the logic behind not mentioning the camps isn’t only linked to “glory” and such. If you don’t talk about the camps, you don’t need to talk about those who were deported to the camps and the people who sent them there. Ultimately, this leads to the refusal to admit responsibility and the denial that there were collaborators.

French politics aside, this is one of the most important WWII texts I’ve ever read. The writing is tight, evocative and detailed, just what I had expected from Marguerite Duras.

 

Other Reviews

My Book Strings

 

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The War – La douleur is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next readalong is dedicated to war poetry. Discussion starts on Wednesday 31 May, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Literature and War Readalong April 2017: The War – La douleur by Marguerite Duras

Usually I like to say a few introductory words about my readalong titles, but I’m in bed with the flu and my head feels like it’s filled with cotton. The book has to speak for itself. Luckily, I found the first pages of  the translation of Marguerite Duras’ The War – La douleur online.

Here is the beginning:

I found this diary in a couple of exercise books in the blue cupboards at Neauphle-le-Chateau.

I have no recollection of having written it.

I know I did, I know it was I who wrote it. I recognize my own handwriting and the details of the story. I can see the place, the Gare d’ Orsay, and the various comings and goings. But I can’t see myself writing the diary. When would I have done so, in what year, at what times of day, in what house? I can’t remember.

One thing is certain: it is inconceivable to me that I could have written it while I was actually awaiting Robert L.’s return.

How could I have written this thing I still can’t put a name to, and that appalls me when I reread it? And how could I have left it lying for years in a house in the country that’s regularly flooded in winter?

The first time I thought about it was when the magazine Sorcieres asked me for a text I’d written when I was young.

The War is one of the most important things in my life. It can’t really be called “writing.” I found myself looking at pages regularly filled with small, calm, extraordinarily even handwriting. I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed.

April

Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right, the sitting-room door and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit center as soon as he got here. “I’m back — I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible. He’s coming back, anyway. He’s not a special case. There’s no particular reason why he shouldn’t come back. There’s no reason why he should. But it’s possible. He’d ring. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Lots of other things like this do happen. In the end they broke through at Avranches and in the end the Germans withdrew. In the end I survived till the end of the war. I must be careful; it wouldn’t be so very extraordinary if he did come back — it would be normal. I must be careful not to turn it into something extraordinary. The extraordinary is unexpected. I must be sensible: I’m waiting for Robert L., expecting him, and he’s coming back.

The phone rings. “Hello? Any news?” I must remind myself the phone’s used for that sort of thing, too. I mustn’t hang up, I must answer. Mustn’t yell at them to leave me alone. “No, no news.” “Nothing? Not a sign?” “Nothing.” “You know Belsen’s been liberated? Yes, yesterday afternoon…” “I know.” Silence. “You mustn’t get disheartened, you must hold on, you’re not the only one, alas — I know a mother with four children…” “I know, I’m sorry, I haven’t moved from where I was. It’s wrong to move too much, a waste of energy, you have to save all your strength to suffer.

She said, “You know Belsen’s been liberated?” I didn’t know. One more camp liberated. She said, “Yesterday afternoon.” She didn’t say so, but I know the lists of names will arrive tomorrow morning. I must go down and buy a paper and read the list. No. I can hear a throbbing in my temples getting louder and louder. No, I won’t read the list.

 

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

La douleur  – The War by Marguerite Duras, 217 pages, France 1985, WWII

This 1944 diary of a young Resistance member, written during the last days of the French occupation and the first days of the liberation, is only now being published – Duras says she forgot about it during the intervening years, and only recently rediscovered it in a cupboard. The loneliness and ambivalence of love and war have appeared in Duras’ work before, from The Lover to Hiroshima Mon Amour, in which a Frenchwoman reveals to her Japanese lover, after the bomb, that she was tortured and imprisoned in postwar France for her affair with a German soldier. In the first section of The War, Duras the heroine waits for her husband to return from the Belsen concentration camp. When De Gaulle (“by definition leader of the Right – “) says, “The days of weeping are over. The days of glory have returned,” Duras says, “We shall never forgive him.” It’s because he’s denying the people’s loss. When her husband returns, she has to hide the cake she baked for him, because the weight of food in his system can kill. (We are spared no detail of his physical degradation, even to being told the color of his stools.) When he is stronger, she tells him she is divorcing him to marry another Resistance member. In the second section, set earlier, at the time of her husband’s arrest, a Gestapo official plays a cat-and-mouse game with Duras, to whom he’s attracted, preying on her desperation to help her husband. In the third section, post-liberation, she switches roles, becomes an interrogator as Resistance members torture a Nazi informer. She also half-falls in love (with characteristic Duras dualism) with a young prisoner who childishly joined the collaborationist forces out of nothing more than a passion for fast cars and guns. In her preface, Duras says it “appalls” her to reread this memoir, because it is so much more important than her literary work. Certainly, like everything she has written in her spare, impassive voice, the book is at once elegant and brutal in its honesty: in her world, we are all outcasts, and the word “liberation” is never free of irony. A powerful, moving work. (Kirkus Reviews) –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 28 April 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Uwe Timm: In My Brother’s Shadow – Am Beispiel meines Bruders (2003)

in-my-brothers-shadowuwe-timm

Maybe you’ve never heard of Timm’s novella The Invention of Curried Sausage. If you haven’t, do yourself a favour and get it because it’s marvellous. Possibly because I loved that novella so much, I stayed away from In My Brother’s ShadowAm Beispiel meines Bruders, although I’d been keen on reading it since it came out in 2003. There’s not one reader or critic who doesn’t think it’s essential reading. But we all know how it goes – everyone praises something, and one has read another book by an author that one loved  . . . I’m glad I finally overcame my reluctance because if ever a book was essential reading – then it’s this one. And for many reasons, not only as a brilliant WWII and post-war memoir.

In his memoir In My Brother’s Shadow, Timm doesn’t only try to reconstruct his brother’s life and find out who he really was, but examines his own family and the German post-war society. Timm was born in 1940, the third and last child of his parents. His sister and brother were both over sixteen years older. His brother Karl-Heinz was his father’s favourite. When Karl-Heinz was severely wounded and later died in 1943, on the Eastern Front, in the Ukraine, his father was devastated. The older son was everything he’d wished for. He would take over his business. He was courageous and heroic, unlike little Timm who’s squeamish and dreamy.

Although soldiers weren’t allowed to write a diary, Karl-Heinz did and after he died of his wounds, it was sent back to his parents.

When he’s almost sixty and both of his parents and sister dead, Uwe Timm, rereads the diary and the brother’s letters and decides to write this memoir.

It is clear from the beginning that he doesn’t consider his brother to be a hero. He’s too shocked by some of the diary entries. They are cold and devoid of any compassion with the soldiers and civilians he kills. Karl-Heinz is a member of the SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (Skull and Crossbones). One of the SS’s notorious elite divisions. But what shocks Timm even more, and that’s because it’s also part of the post-war mindset, are the omissions. He knows his brother was present when some of the most horrific extermination operations went on, but he doesn’t mention anything. And in the end, he even stops writing his diary because, as he writes, it doesn’t make sense to write about awful things.

Reading Timm’s account, you can feel that he was ashamed and horrified that he had a brother like this. And he’s ashamed and horrified because of the way people spoke right after the war. Many found it perfectly OK that Jews were killed and were only angry about losing the war. Many others said they “didn’t know” but it was clear they had only chosen not to know.

The silence and passivity of the masses disgusted Timm. He also found out that many soldiers were given a choice whether they wanted to be part of a firing squad or not. Hardly anyone said no. Interestingly though, saying no, had absolutely no consequences. They didn’t choose to fire people because they were scared but simply because they wanted to.

Timm also explores his father’s authoritarian education methods which were pretty typical for that time. Kids had to obey and if they didn’t  they were slapped, hit or worse. Psychologists have found out a long time ago that this “black pedagogy” as it is called was one of the reasons why Hitler and Nazism were so successful.

While the book is harsh on his family and many other Germans, it still captures the suffering. His family, like so many others, lost everything when Hamburg was destroyed in ’43. For many years they lived in a cellar.

In My Brothers’ Shadow is also amazing as a book about writing a memoir. What it means to dig deeper and find family secrets. It’s not surprising, he was only able to write about everything so honestly, after his parents and sister were dead.

Uwe Timm is a wonderful, stylish writer that’s why this memoir has many poetic elements. It is a fascinating and touching story of a German family.

One thing that Timm’s elegant and poignant memoir illustrates admirably well – silence is political. Looking the other way is not innocence it’s complicity. This should be self-evident, unfortunately, it wasn’t then and it’s still not now. I’m glad I finally read this memoir. Especially just after Kempowski’s novel. They are great companion pieces.

Do You Remember the First Book You Bought?

Nuvat the Brave

I still remember that day as if it had been yesterday. I was nine years old and already an avid reader. I had a little bit of money, pocket money I hadn’t spent on comics and some of the sour gums I liked to eat. It was strange to go to school on a Saturday afternoon. Usually that’s when school was off, but it was a special day, a special occasion, and I was keen on spending what little money I had saved.  I still see the entrance of the school, smell the linoleum floor, and heavy chalky air. No other school ever smelled as chalky as this. The display tables took up all the space of the entrance hall and my heart began to beat incredibly fast as soon as I was close to them. I wouldn’t be able to buy a lot. I had to choose carefully and wisely. It wouldn’t be enough money to buy more than one or two books.

The used book sale was a charity event. Children had brought the books they didn’t want anymore, and the school library had contributed those, which were not circulated any longer. There wasn’t a lot I loved more than books, not even at the age of nine. My mother always bought me the latest children’s books and the old classics. Whenever she heard that someone sold the books of their older children, she bought those too. That was wonderful and I loved it, still nothing could compare to that day and the used book sale in my elementary school because that day I bought my very first book.

I still have it somewhere in the attic. It’s torn, the spine is broken, the pages are loose, but the linen cover is still intensely blue and the little Inuit boy in his canoe is still standing upright on the front cover promising a tale of adventure and a world I didn’t know, a world long gone by now. The title was simple, embossed in bold, black letters: “Nuvat the Brave“ by Radko Doone —or rather “Nuvats grosse Fahrt“ in its German translation. It was one of the books the library discarded, an old book that no child had ever checked out.

The book wasn’t only the first book I bought, it opened a door to something, which I have been passionate about ever since – foreign cultures, the promise of strange and haunting tales, other life styles and mysterious rites and habits. A whole wide, wondrous world for me to discover.

Which was the first book you bought?

Literature and War Readalong August 29 2014: Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden

Undertones of War

Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War is one of the most famous WWI memoirs. Blunden was a poet who enlisted at the age of twenty and took part in the battles at the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. My edition, which is The University of Chicago Press edition, contains a number of his poems. It will be interesting to compare the accounts of the trenches with the poems inspired by the landscape.

Here are the first sentences

I was not anxious to go. An uncertain but unceasing disquiet had been upon me, and when, returning to the officers’ mess a Shoreham Camp one Sunday evening, I read the notice that I was under orders for France, I did not hide my feelings. Berry, a subaltern of my set, who was also named for the draft, might pipe to me “Hi, Blunden, we’re going out: have a drink.”; I could not dance. There was something about France in those days which looked to me, despite all journalistic enchanters, to be dangerous.

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

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.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 29 August 2014.

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