Literature and War Readalong May Wrap up: The Sea and Poison


Shusaku Endo’s novel The Sea and Poison proved to be a challenging read which is also reflected in the fact that some reviews will still be posted. I will of course link to them once they are done. For the time being you can always read Novroz’ review which complements my own very well.

For the time being thanks a lot for those who already participated. I know that the idea of reading about vivisection held some readers back but it isn’t a graphic book at all. Nevertheless it is a depressing book that seems to center on two major themes, one of which hospitals and their staff, the other war crimes.

What depressed me was the description of the hospital and the doctors. My late mother spent more time in hospitals than outside, so I have had my fair share of contact with doctors and most of them were not like Suguro but rather like Toda or Hashimoto. Doctors in hospitals that is. I’d like to emphasize this. Doctors who stay in hospitals after having been interns follow another agenda. A hospital in many cases isn’t much different from a Corporate Company. It’s all about results and money and hierarchy. What I didn’t know at the time of my reading is the fact that Endo suffered all his life. He was very ill, had tuberculosis and some of the treatments described in the novel in great detail were treatments he had to undergo regularly. For anyone interested in this background here is an interesting analysis.

Thanks to Kevin who did some research and added them in his comments, it became clear that the book was based on facts and that there had indeed been American POW on whom they performed vivisections. Here is the link he added to the comments section.

This leads us to the biggest problem of this book, as Kevin and Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) pointed out and which was probably the base for my doubting the incident. Why did Endo chose to describe the vivisection as if it had been performed under anesthesia when it is apparently well-known, that like in Germany, the vivisections were performed without the prisoners being anesthetized? I have no answer to this question and don’t want to start speculating.

Does anyone have an idea?

Literature and War Readalong April Wrap up: The Winter of the World

As usual this is the time to thank those who read along and/or showed an interest in this monthly activity.

From the comments I can deduce that we all thought pretty much the same about this book. It was a mixed bag or, to quote litlove, “a curate’s egg”. True. There was much to like in this novel but also many things that didn’t work. The descriptions of the battle scenes were graphic but well-rendered, the close look at facial wounds and the reconstruction that followed were detailed. We get a feeling for how harrowing these were but also a lot of admiration for those who tried to help, the nurses and doctors alike.

Equally well done was everything that was tied to the grave/burial of the unknown warrior or soldier. (I don’t know if anyone was thinking of this book when watching the Royal Wedding that took place in Westminster Abbey were the soldier is buried).

What we all had our problems with was the story itself. At the center of this novel is a passionate love story that leaves behind considerations of friendship and decency. If you were among the readers who have difficulties to imagine such a strong passionate love at first sight story, the novel was pretty much doomed. But also if you could accept this as a premise, like I could, you had to be able to “feel” this passion. While I got a feeling for Alex, Clare left me completely unfazed. She is a great nurse and, in this function, an admirable character but the abuse story and her feelings for Alex weren’t well rendered. At one moment I was suspecting Carol Ann Lee to want to tell us that Clare acted the way she did, because she had been abused, that ultimately she was devoid of real feelings. That’s a type of explanation I do not like at all.

I also think, as did the others, that some episodes and narrative devices should have been left out.

I still have a few novels of WWI on my TBR pile but I’m glad that we move on anyway.

Looking back, the novel of the four I liked the most was Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon. However if I had to recommend one to someone who has no idea about WWI, I think I would recommend Strange Meeting.

Which was your favourite? Which one would you recommend?

Literature and War Readalong February Wrap up: How Many Miles to Babylon?

I wanted to thank all of you who have participated this month. I loved the book and enjoyed the discussions.

Even though there is also a friendship at the heart of How Many Miles to Babylon? this book is totally different from Susan Hill’s novel Strange Meeting which we read in January. As you can easily see my review doesn’t emphasize the role of the friendship between Alec and Jerry as much as Anna’s or Danielle’s (and here as well) does.

I realized when reading the other posts and a few of the comments that some had a bit of a problem with this novel. There were different reasons for this. For one Alec doesn’t appear to be a very likable character, he was even called a coward by some. For several reasons I never thought of him like that and was wondering why. I realized that from the start, I was totally fixed on his going to be executed. I saw him like some Breaker Morant character (which he isn’t) and thinking he did something that would have this consequence set the tone for me from the beginning. Another point of criticism which, with hindsight, seems fair, is the fact that the WWI elements are toned down. WWI seems to serve more as a pretext for the tragic story and to write about Irish history. WWI itself is rather just a backdrop. I did not mind this at all but can understand that this can bee seen differently.

I think we all equally agreed that the mother in this book was an extremely negative figure, the whole family situation, as Kevin pointed out, is highly dysfunctional.

What I couldn’t really solve was the question about the title. Why did she choose this nursery rhyme as the title for her novel? In an article on the net I found one tiny hint, saying that it did underline the relationship between the soldier and his superior.

On Wikipedia I found this list which enumerates how many times the rhyme has been used in popular culture

In popular culture

In literature

In film

In popular music

  • It is parodied as “How many miles to Babyland?” on Lenny and the Squigtones– a comedy album by the characters Lenny and Squiggy from the 1970s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley”.

This is quite a considerable list. It eludes me why this rhyme is so popular with writers and I am still open for any interpretation why Jennifer Johnston chose it as her title.

Literature and War Readalong January Wrap Up: Strange Meeting

I just wanted to thank all of those who have participated either through reading, commenting or reviewing Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting. I think it was quite a success and everybody liked the novel. Various comments either on my or on other sites showed that there is a great interest in this novel and in the topic of WWI in general. I’m glad I chose a succession of WWI novels to start with as it will be interesting and thought-provoking to compare them.

Susan Hill’s novel is unique in so far as the biggest part of the novel takes place in a rest camp, off the front line. We approach the trenches very slowly. Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues aka All Quiet on the Western Front is much harder to read because of the importance of combat. We have a sequence in which Paul Bäumer is on leave and he does feel as lost as Hilliard on his stay in England. The isolation of the soldier who returns from combat to his home is a common theme. It’s very hard to imagine what it must have been like. They couldn’t speak and no one wanted to listen anyway.

Birdsong came to my mind as well, while reading. It’s an outstanding novel in many ways as good as or better than Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. There is much more emphasis on combat in Birdsong. Regeneration and its sequels are mostly exploring shell shock.

When reading the next novel in the readalong we have to bear in mind that the two main characters in Strange Meeting were both officers. This is important as this will not always be the case in all the novels we read and the life of an officer and a simple private was certainly much different. The main character in All Quiet on the Western Front is just a simple private.

One topic that we discussed and which I found interesting was the question whether Barton’s very explicit letters wouldn’t have been censored. I was wondering as well and luckily Susan answered this question by pointing out that Barton actually writes in one letter, that – because they are officers – their mail isn’t always censored.

Danielle pointed out in her post how very young Susan Hill was when she wrote this book. I think this explains the very fresh tone of Barton in some places. I had totally forgotten that all the Susan Hill books that I have read so far were the work of a much older woman.

Anna’s quote in her review reminded me that a big part of the book is dedicated to the devastation of the earth, the landscape, the animals. This is an important part and has also been emphasized in the comments. The French landscape still bear traces and I am not only talking of the memorials and cemeteries. The trenches were long, deep, the constant shelling ripped the earth apart. The horror of this war has not only wiped out a generation of young men but transformed and marked the earth forever.