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Posts Tagged ‘WWI’

In more than one article where he’s asked about favorite books, Michael Ondaatje cites J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country.  That was more than enough endorsement for me to add it to a list of books to look for . . . and then I found it on our ramble through the used bookshops of Portland at the beginning of the summer. I read it today and it was just the balm I needed after a tough couple of weeks of hard thinking at work about my research project and the new semester and at home about my project for my final year of grad school.

It was also the perfect book to read after The Secret Lives of Color. In A Month in the Country, the main character, Mr. Birkin, is a WWI veteran who arrives in 1920 in a northern English village called Oxgodby, where he’s been hired to uncover a medieval painting whitewashed over centuries earlier in the local church. As he works he notes various pigments, like ultramarine and hematite and verdigris, and as he commented on their richness, colorfastness, scarcity, or cost, I understood.

Both Birkin’s work and that of his fellow veteran and “southerner” Mr. Moon are funded by the recently deceased Adelaide Hebron, whose last wishes include hiring someone to uncover the artwork and to find the tomb of her ancestor Piers, who was excommunicated and so isn’t buried in the churchyard. Moon, an archeologist, suspects the meadow also holds even more ancient remains and the foundation of a much earlier church, dating back to the 7th century. He stays in a tent (and a hole he’s dug under it), Birkin stays in the bell tower, and between them they work and observe the locals and discuss the vicar, Rev. Keach and his lovely young wife, Alice, who seem mismatched. Which of course provides room for speculation, but there’s no sappy or simple love story here. Just tension, well told.

Birkin ends up being absorbed into village life as he is pressed into officiating local cricket matches and looked after by the stationmaster, Mr. Ellerbeck, and his family. As their teenaged daughter Kathy notes, “Mam says you’re over-much on your own and traipse around like a man in a dream and need to be got into company.” They are “chapel” rather than church people, and out of appreciation for their kindness and their generosity (Mrs. Ellerbeck feeds him regularly) Birkin ends up attending their Wesleyan services and helping with Sunday school. He even takes an uncomfortable turn at preaching in a nearby chapel when Ellerbeck is overextended, and helps his new friends shop for an organ for the chapel in the nearby town, in scene which is a hilarious send-up of sectarian snobbery.

The humor, the portrait of village life, the commentary on post WWI England’s cultural, social, and religious landscape, and the mysteries of Birkin’s and Moon’s work are all delightful. The story is certainly entertaining, but the deeper threads about healing from war wounds visible and invisible, and finding one’s way in a world that seems both completely changed in some ways and very much what it’s always been in others, make for a thoughtful read that explores the kind of “big T” truths that I enjoy in fiction.

Moon tells Birkin, as summer draws to a close and their work is nearly done, “You can only have this piece of cake once; you can’t keep munching away at it. Sad, but there it is! You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.” Later than evening, Birkin reflects on this and thinks, “And he was right — the first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.”

That’s what A Month in the Country is about — that feeling, and how we respond to it. Birkin has decisions to make. Moon has plans. The story ends without our knowing precisely what they intend to do, but with a delicious sense of “a precious moment gone” as Carr writes. This is a book I’ll read again, and one that I picked up at just the right time.

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My bookclub read Mrs. Dalloway this month. I read it, and other work by Virginia Woolf, in college, but re-reading it was enjoyable. I remembered the book generally, but re-reading it I was struck once again by Woolf’s creativity and daring. She addressed things that we are still struggling to talk about today — gender roles in society, mental illness, post traumatic stress, income inequality and its impact on opportunity. And she did it in a beautiful, poetic book with some very memorable characters who are also reflecting on what they’ve done with their lives, and how they’ve fared in terms of love and family.

To me, the way that Woolf juxtaposes Clarissa Dalloway’s inner life with the other characters’, is brilliant. She compares the constricted life of Clarissa as a society hostess with the limits that restrict Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran whose promising future is strangled by mental illness; Miss Kilman, whose class, intellectual ability and fervor, and appearance place her firmly outside Clarissa’s and her daughter Elizabeth’s social orbit; and Peter Walsh, whose passions and probably bad luck seem to have limited his ability to achieve his full potential in life.

The minor characters are also wonderful — Septimus’s Italian wife Rezia, Clarissa’s husband Richard, Hugh Whitbread, Sally Seton, Lady Bruton. While the style of the book doesn’t call for full character development, I feel Woolf paints exquisite miniatures of each, and we get glimpses of their humanity, their longings, their minds, their limitations in the details she portrays — Peter with his pocket knife, Clarissa mending her dress, Richard bringing Clarissa flowers, Rezia making a hat, Lady Bruton holding court at lunch before consulting Richard and Hugh about her letter and then, snoring on her couch. Woolf creates these portraits with prose that is somewhat strange and quite lovely, a little like poetry, a little like a dream sequence in a film, such as this passage where Septimus is in a park waiting until it’s time to go on to Harley Street to see a new doctor:

“He had only to open his eyes; but a weight was on them; a fear. He strained; he pushed; he looked; he saw Regent’s Park before him. Long streamers of sunlight fawned at his feet. The trees waved, brandished. We welcome, the world seemed to say; we accept; we create. Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks — all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.”

Mrs. Dalloway is a sad book, but that was the point — to help readers feel. As writer and scholar Maureen Howard wrote in her forward to the 1981 Harcourt paperback edition, “As readers of Mrs. Dalloway fifty years after its publication, we see that the novel endures. We admire the originality of concept, the brilliance of style, but it is the feelings in the book that remain so very fresh and we wonder that Virginia Woolf had to ask herself ‘How can one weigh and shape dialogue till each sentence tears the shingles in the bottom of the reader’s soul?'”

 

 

 

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I found this book as I find many — I was checking in returns at the library. I’m interested in Tolkien, and have read a number of books by C.S. Lewis. Both offspring the Elder and the Younger have to read Lewis for courses this semester. And the Elder has told me repeatedly, no other fiction satisfied him once he read The Lord of the Rings books in his early teens. I’ve also long been interested in WWI. My grandmother brought Vera Brittain to my attention when I in college, and I have always been fascinated by the literary response to war.

But let me get back to the book at hand, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. The point of my digression is that I was primed to really enjoy this book. I found myself marking pages as I read, which is usually a good sign. For example, I was interested in this: “The conceit of the intellectual elites of the day was that science, and the technology it underwrites, could solve the most intractable of human problems.”

Which is where we are again today — I touched on that a bit in my review of It’s Your World. We believe we can solve poverty, illness, and even conflict. And we can — potentially. We are to some extent. The Computer Scientist quoted some of the latest Harper’s Index last night, which notes, “Estimated percentage change in the rate of extreme poverty worldwide over the past twenty years : –66 Chances that an American believes the rate has “almost doubled” over that period : 2 in 3.” We humans are a complicated lot — we believe we can do anything if we set our minds to it and we also believe we’re screwing everything up. Perhaps because for every person working on ending human suffering there seems to be another who is profiting from it, and it’s hard to tell which is prevailing in the daily stream of bad news.

Loconte goes on to explain however, that Tolkien and Lewis saw in trench warfare “the horrific progeny of this thinking,” about science’s potential, and thus endowed their fictional characters more realistically with “a tragic mix of nobility and wretchedness” which they related to “the Fall,” which Tolkien claimed “lurked behind every story.” But, it seems a bit of a leap of logic to me to suggest that because science was supposed to be man’s salvation, WWI’s betrayal of that idea caused a loss of faith in mankind, and Tolkein and Lewis, because of their exposure to this, created characters who are both heroic and flawed. I’m not sure all of that follows, necessarily, and even if I agreed with the logic, it’s a very incomplete picture.

Also while Loconte correctly notes that many Christian denominations went awry in supporting eugenics and nationalism and endorsing WWI, I think it’s also over-simplifying to say that the war “instigated a new season of religious doubts.” As this British Library article notes, there were many social and cultural causes for the decline in organized religion both before and after the war. But organized religion is not the same as faith, and while I am sure it’s true that many people struggled with faith in the face of such horrors, others discovered it, or found it strengthened. Churches changed over the ensuing decades, sometimes for the better (like not preaching eugenics anymore), sometimes for the worse (like supporting white supremacy). But religion didn’t die, nor did faith.

And many religious thinkers, or writers influenced by faith, born before, during, or after WWI, continued to focus on how we should live  — Tolkien and Lewis, yes, but also (in no particular order, and not meant to be a comprehensive list) T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, Rumer Godden, James Joyce, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Sayers, Paul Tillich, Wendell Berry, Donald Hall, Jane Gardam, Alan Paton, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr. Loconte declares faith rare among “the literarti” which is an overgeneralization. Sure, there were a lot of secular writers in the early to mid-20th century, but those for whom faith mattered are hardly lightweights or unknowns.

The most interesting parts of A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War are the sections where Loconte talks about Tolkien’s and Lewis’s friendship, and other friendships that sustained them as writers and thinkers. I wish those sections had been longer. Also, the book is so heavily footnoted that I began to wonder what Loconte himself thought; was this book simply a review of others’ theories or his own?

So, I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t love it. However, it made me think and got The Computer Scientist and me talking about how combat impacted his thoughts on faith, and any book that sparks conversation can’t be all bad.

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This short novel is from Europa Editions, a publisher I’ve praised on the blog many times for bringing terrific international fiction to American readers. When I ordered The Red Collar for my library’s collection I tagged it as a book I was especially looking forward to and it was just as I’d hoped. If you had to explain to someone what it means to be human you could give them this book.

Jean-Christophe Rufin is one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. He’s also a diplomat, who served as France’s ambassador to Senegal and an accomplished novelist who has twice won the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s major literary awards. I’ve never read his work before.

The Red Collar is about Wilhelm, a briard sheepdog mix, who followed Jacques Morlac when he was mobilized to fight in the French army in 1915. When the book opens, Morlac is in prison and Whilhelm is outside “baying relentlessly.” Major Hugues Lantier du Grez is the officer investigating Morlac’s case. When he arrives in the village to question Morlac and determine his fate, Lantier is taken with the dog’s loyalty.

Through his interviews with Morlac, we learn that Lantier witnessed an extreme act of canine bravery and loyalty in his childhood, that predisposed him to admire Wilhelm. Rufin writes of Lantier, “He had joined the army to defend order against barbary. . . .It wasn’t long before war came along and showed him that the opposite was true, that order feeds off human beings, that it consumes them and crushes them. But deep down and in spite of everything, he was still bound to his vocation. And that vocation had its origins in the actions of a dog.”

We also learn that Morlac feels respect for Wilhelm but no particular affection, even though the dog followed him all the way to Macedonia and is responsible for the events that led to Morlac’s Legion of Honor, the highest military commendation in France. Lantier finds out that Valentin, Morlac’s pre-war love and the mother of his child, has not seen him since his return from the war, and has a connection to Wilhelm as well. Through these three lives, and Wilhelm’s, Rufin compares human and animal nature, explores the hopes and disillusionment of the people sent to fight in WWI and the civilians they left behind, and most of all, dissects the concepts of faithfulness and pride.

This compact, beautifully written book is a gem. Rufin manages, in a very entertaining story, to distill the human heart. He gets to the essence of human experience as manifested in philosophy, politics, and love. And he pays tribute to dogs’ faithfulness. All in 150 pages. A terrific read.

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I feel like a bit of a Scrooge when I don’t love a book someone else has recommended to me as wonderful, and even more so when the rest of the book world has mostly raved about it too. Recently I felt that way about All the Light We Cannot See. It’s been a tough winter around here and I’ve been in a slight reading funk — several books I thought I’d like I didn’t even try getting through. But Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud was one I was sure I’d like, based on a library colleague’s hearty endorsement in a book chat session, so I stuck it out. It’s a novel featuring a real historical figure, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, over the course of several months in 1914. The novel’s narrator is Thomas Maggs, only surviving son of a pub owner who drinks too much. He’s got a lame foot and his mother wants him in school, since his foot will prevent him going to sea like so many other local boys.

There are some interesting things going on here — the real story of Mackintosh’s life, told as the boy learns it himself; the friendship between the misfit boy and the misunderstood artist, and the war with Germany creating paranoia and xenophobia in a small village on the Suffolk coast. Freud brings the atmosphere to life, as well as the country and seaside. That said, most of the characters just weren’t compelling enough for me to care what happened to them. Thomas’s family seemed like characters I’ve seen before — the tragically drunken father, the abused but long-suffering mother who protects the kids, one sister who goes into service and another who pines after her fiancee, presumed lost at sea. But doesn’t pine so much as to not get up to a little recreational fun with the soldiers billeted in the pub. Even Mackintosh and his wife, true though their story may be, seemed to be typecast in the midst of all this — foreigners (even though they’re only from Scotland) suspected of spying, the brilliant man whose rejection bruises his ego to the point of impacting his ability to work, the wife who carries him through.

My immediate reaction to the ending was to dislike it strongly. On reflection, half a day later, I still think it was rushed and unbelievable, but at least it felt fresh and new compared to the rest of the book. And yet — for some reason I spent my rare spare time with this book for several nights, and stayed with it through the end. Freud’s writing drew me on somehow.

Did you read this book? Did you like it more than I did? Leave a comment and tell me what I’ve missed.

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For some reason I’ve always been a sucker for letters. I love sending and receiving them, and I love reading them — not only family letters, but also collections of letters from historical figures and fictional letters in epistolary novels like Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. It’s a love story about a poet, Elspeth, who lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and receives a fan letter from an Illinois college student, David, in 1912. They begin a faithful correspondence and through their letters, fall in love. When David volunteers for ambulance service (before America formally enters WWI), they finally meet.

Naturally it’s a star-crossed love — Elspeth is married, for one thing, and she has never left Skye because she’s terrified of being in a boat. Other plot twists I won’t reveal conspire to separate the lovers. The book alternates between their letters and those of Elspeth’s daughter Margaret and her fiancee Paul, a pilot in WWII. Margaret discovers her mother’s wartime romance when a bomb reveals the letters, hidden away in their Edinburgh home for years. Elspeth’s reaction to the bombing is to go to London. In the face of this unexpected behavior, Margaret decides to learn about her mother’s life before she was born.

As Margaret reconnects with Elspeth’s family in Skye and discovers a side of her mother she has never known, Elspeth writes letter after letter trying to track down what happened to David. By the end of the book the mystery is solved, once again entirely through letters.

This was a quick read, and I enjoyed it well enough, but the ending was a bit tidy for my liking. I think I would have enjoyed the physical look of the letters on the page more than I did the e-book, which I downloaded from my library. But if you like epistolary or historical novels and/or Scotland, you will probably find Letters from Skye appealing.

 

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This weekend I finished the very unusual novel (one of two with this title released last month) Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I’d only ever read a short story of Atkinson’s, in an anthology called Earth. I enjoyed this book not only because it’s incredibly original — more on that in a moment — but also because it melds interesting characters, compelling ideas, and rich writing.

Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, is born over and over. Not into different lives, not reincarnated into new existences, but as herself, in her family and place and time (a moderately prosperous British family in the early 1900’s — she’s a child when her father goes off to the Great War and a young woman when WWII begins). Her life(ves) turn on circumstances that she can recall or sense, so sometimes she manipulates events to prevent untimely death. Sometimes things are beyond her control but still turn out differently. As she lives longer and grows up she begins to sense the nature of her strange reality.

Readers never get a sense that she completely grasps it, nor are we ever sure exactly which existence trumps the others; right up until the end, this novel is a puzzle. At least for me it was — I found it endlessly fascinating but was never sure I’d got it assembled in my mind perfectly. If you require a novel with a straightforward chronological narrative, or at least easy to digest flashbacks, you may be befuddled. But if you’re willing to let those trappings go, this is a really intriguing book.

Ursula is a great character — bright and capable and mostly quite brave and independent-minded. Different, marked not only by her strange deja-vu lives but as her father Hugh describes her, “watchful, as if she was trying to drink in the whole world.” And its a world in the throes of change: the world wars, the ushering in of the modern era’s new moral, cultural, and political realities. Atkinson mines all of that rich historical context and also plumbs Ursula’s relationships and her emotional life from various angles: Ursula as daughter, sister, niece, friend, lover, aunt. In this regard Atkinson reminds me of Jane Gardam.

This is a book you will likely want very much to discuss when you finish. Beyond the obvious questions about how much we control our own fate, Atkinson also looks closely at human nature. What makes a person act horribly to those closest to him or her? Why do we insist on labeling each other and boxing ourselves into social roles and expectations? Why are there dictators? Wars? Why are some people driven by ambition and others by purer motives? Does love ever exist in its purest form, and what is it exactly?

As I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in the questions and quandaries of Ursula’s fictional world I had our own very much in mind. At one point in the novel Ursula is a warden in an Air Raid Precaution unit. It’s a diverse group of volunteers from different walks of life, different ages and backgrounds, who come together to keep the people in their small sector of London safe, making sure everyone observes the blackout, takes shelter during raids, and is properly identified in case of injury or death. They respond to the horrors of the Blitz night after night. Ursula’s senior warden in a retired hospital matron and WWI nurse veteran, Miss Woolf. She’s unflappable and she keeps them focused on the higher moral ground at one point noting “it is intolerance that has brought us to this pass.”

It’s easy to think that was a different time, that there’s nothing comparable to such selfless service today — except there is. A Holocaust survivor, Irene Butter, spoke in Concord last week about her life, and the Concord Monitor noted, “Ten years ago, she also helped found the Zeitouna Project,” a group of women, Jews and Arabs, who are “refusing to be enemies.” In the UK, Faith Matters is working “to reduce extremism and interfaith and intra-faith tensions and . . . develop platforms for discourse and interaction between Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish and Hindu communities across the globe,” responding this week to the anti-Muslim backlash after the extremist murder of a British soldier.

And of course, people are still working to assist the Boston bombing victims, people impacted by the Oklahoma tornado, and in quiet, less newsworthy ways, people in their own towns and cities every day who need help: homeless people, the elderly, those afflicted with cancer or mental illness or other health challenges, victims of abuse and violence, and others who need a helping hand. I’m grateful for people who are willing give of themselves to do what’s right. And for literature that helps us understand and discuss human nature at its best and worst.

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