Kate Saunders: Five Children on the Western Front (2014)

Five Children on the Western Front

Five Children on the Western Front is a delightful story inspired by E. Nesbit’s famous children’s book Five Children and It. I’m still surprised how much I loved this book. I’m not always keen on sequels of classics, but since I haven’t read Nesbit’s tale yet, I couldn’t compare. And I’m aware that the main character of the book “It” – or Psammead -, the sand fairy, is Nesbit’s creation and not Saunders’, nonetheless her book offers many new elements.

When the five children were younger, they had many adventures with a furry, snooty creature they discovered in a gravel pit. The sand fairy was able to grant wishes and those wishes, which were always over at sunset, transported them back and forth in time. Often with hilarious consequences.

But since then many years have gone by. Cyril, Anthea and Robert are in their twenties, Jane is about sixteen, and the youngest, the Lamb, is eleven and not even the youngest anymore. There’s a sixth child, the nine year-old Edie.

The younger kids were often jealous of their siblings’ adventures with the sand fairy and are overjoyed when they discover the grumpy creature in their gravel pit. It’s the beginning of WWI and the sand fairy is stuck in their world. He cannot go home, he cannot make any wishes. Or only accidental ones. The kids take him home and hide him in a sand bath on the attic.

Like in the first book they have many hilarious adventures. They are even more mysterious this time because the sand fairy can’t control them. Some of the adventures are more troubling than funny. Cyril has enlisted and is soon followed by Robert. More than one wish transports them to the trenches where they become witnesses of the horrors.

The beginning of the book was so lovely and light, I was a bit afraid it wasn’t showing the proper respect for the war, but it turned darker and darker, showing the danger, the seriousness and the consequences of the war. Death and facial disfigurement are as much part of the tale as the changing times— women who leave their homes to become nurses, the first opportunities for women to study medicine.

I’m amazed that Kate Suanders was able to combine two such different moods. The characters are so endearing and their affection for each other is heartwarming. I didn’t want the book to end and will certainly read Nesbit’s story. The sand fairy is such a great creation. He has telescopic eyes, the ears of a bat, long, gangly limbs and a rotund body. He’s smug, nosey, grumpy, selfish and mean. There’s a reason why he returned during the war. He’s done a lot of bad things in his lifetime and has to make amends.

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Kate Saunders wrote an interesting afterword in which she writes how she got the idea. She loved Five Children and It as a child and, later in life, realized that these Edwardian children would be part of the generation that had to go to war and was so heavily decimated. Losing her own son at the age of nineteen, helped her give the book emotional depth.

I really recommend this novel. It’s charming and sad. I thought she did well not to modernize it. The children sound like children of the time, which gives the story a nostalgic feel.

I only hope I won’t think differently about it once I’ve read E. Nesbit’s story.

Have you read E. Nesbit? Which of her books do you like best?

Guest Interview at Postcards From Asia

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I was very honoured when one of my favourite bloggers, Delia from Postcards from Asia, asked me if I would like to take part in her guest post series.

In her interviews she asks questions about favourite books, books that we’d take to a desert island, books that made us cry . . .

If you’re interested you can find the interview here.

I always enjoy reading Delia’s thoughtful posts and the events we organized together were some of the best blogging experiences I had. I hope we’ll do that again soon.

Emil Hakl: Of Kids and Parents – O rodičích a dětech (2002)

Of Kids and Parents

I have Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog to thank for bringing this little gem to my attention. Since he’s hosting an Eastern European Literature Month this March, I thought it was fitting to choose Hakl’s novel as my first contribution.

Emil Hakl is a Czech writer who has published poetry, short stories and novels. His novel Of Kids and Parents won prizes and was even made into a movie called Of Parents and Children.

A forty-year-old son and his seventy-year-old father spend an afternoon and evening walking through Prague, stopping at different pubs and bars, drinking heavily, and talking about everything. There is nothing these two men don’t find worthy as a topic of conversation. Air plane types, nasty drinks, WWII, women, ambition, history, trees, cooking . . . They exchange stories of their lives, tell each other anecdotes, reminisce, quarrel about who knows more about something, who has the better taste. The language is hefty, the way they talk very open. After only a couple of pages two very distinct characters come alive. And we feel we are there with them, downing one juniper brandy after the other, mocking other patrons, and living an intense moment of authentic communication.

We learn a lot about these two men. The stories of their lives, how they were marked by their times, what they think about current politics. They don’t always see eye to eye with each other. The father often interrupts the son to add some piece of information. The son gets upset because the father’s too loud, too unselfconscious. Nonetheless they are always attentive and genuinely interested in each other. They know each other’s tastes and foibles and they care about each other.

While we follow them on their walk, we get introduced to a Prague that’s far from the Prague a tourist would see. They don’t walk down big streets lined by Jugendstil houses, but down alleys that reek of piss and whose recent industrial buildings are already in decay.

Both characters think of themselves as ordinary but the way they talk, the way they see things, and the intensity of their interest in everything and everyone makes these two men far from ordinary.

Here are a few samples.

“So, what’s new?” I asked

“Nothing’s been new in this world for more than two billion years, it’s all just variations on the same theme of carbon, hydrogen, helium, nitrogen,” Father said.

 

“I’ve been saying to myself for a long time now that one of the few dignified forms of employment in this world is to be a hired killer, too bad I didn’t take it up when I was young,” Father said, “I don’t mean in relation to this lot, a hired killer has to be free of all emotions and that’s what’s nice about it . . . You sure don’t want any chicken?”

 

“I remember it like it happened the day before yesterday because it was the first time I’d seen real tanks. What a rush! The motors roared, smoke hung above the woods, the tanks rumpled along one after another, and still there was no end to them! And we stood until the afternoon. Granddad shook his fist at the but I waved at them, secretly so he couldn’t see it . . . . I remember one tiny officer with a moustache and one of those broad flat caps of theirs who kept looking round at us from an armoured car and he just couldn’t get it: grandfather threatening, little boy waving . . . “

 

While reading this I was wondering if there are similar books out there from a mother/daughter point of view. I’d be glad for any suggestions/recommendations. It would be interesting to see how they compare in terms of topics, setting etc.

As I said, I’m really grateful Stu suggested this book. I loved every moment of it. It’s so rich, intense, and full of life. But also highly intelligent and lucid. It says a lot about being human and getting older. About history and how it repeats itself again and again. And about the humans who think they are the crown of creation while they are not. And I shouldn’t forget to mention that, at times, it’s a very funny book.

Ferdinand von Schirach: Tabu (2013) – The Girl Who Wasn’t There (2015)

Tabu

I bought Ferdinand von Schirach’s last novel The Girl Who Wasn’t There  –  Tabu (Taboo) when it came out in German, but didn’t feel like reading it until now. Meanwhile it’s available in translation and I’ve seen a few reviews on English blogs.

Since I liked his first books  Crime – Verbrechen, Guilt – Schuld, and The Collini Case – Der Fall Collini I was looking forward to The Girl Who Wasn’t There. I didn’t expect a crime novel per se, as von Schirach, even when he writes about crime, is more interested in justice and human dignity than crime-solving or reasons for committing a crime. He recently published a book of essays, which all circle around the idea of human dignity. No surprise then that Tabu wasn’t a “proper” crime novel. So, that’s not the problem I had with this book. My biggest problem was the style and that I felt he didn’t really have a story, only themes he wanted to explore.

Interestingly the reception in English-speaking countries – by professional critics and bloggers – is far more favourable than the reception in Germany. Could it be that the translation improved the text? I don’t think that’s the reason but you never know.

I like spare prose and it served von Schirach well in his first two story collections. His prose was still quite alright in The Collini Case, but it drove me up the wall in this novel. The prose isn’t only spare but clumsy. His overuse of parataxis and short main clauses just didn’t feel right. Parataxis is often used to convey a feeling of alienation. Of course, if a character, like the main character Sebastian von Eshburg, feels dead inside because his father committed suicide when he was only a kid – there must be a feeling of alienation, nonetheless, I would have hoped von Schirach would have tried to convey it in another way.

The book is divided into several parts; each has a color as its title. The longest parts tell about von Eschburg’s childhood and how he became a famous artist. Then we see a man being questioned and threatened by a police man. The next part has another narrator – defence lawyer Biegler. That part is much more lively. Biegler is a lusty, driven man. An interesting character. He accepts to defend von Eschburg, who is accused of murder, because he suspects von Eschburg has confessed a crime he might not have committed. The last parts are dedicated to the trial and its outcome.

Overall I didn’t care for this book. I’m familiar with von Schirach’s themes by now and I found the essay collection more interesting than this novel. The style, as I said, is annoying in German. Nonetheless there were parts I liked. Biegler’s chapter is great because Biegler is a great character. I also enjoyed reading about von Eschburg’s childhood because the setting von Schirach chose – the Swiss Graubünden region – brought back childhood memories.

Unfortunately I can’t say this is a must read. It has interesting elements but that wasn’t enough for me. Since some of the main topics are important – violence, the representation of sex and violence in art, sex trafficking, torture – it could still be a good choice for a book group.

A last comment on the title. The German title refers to the main theme, while the English title refers to the alleged crime.

The Girl Who Wasn't There

Literary Lost – Viewing Television Through the Lens of Literature

Literary Lost

Years ago I caught two episodes of Lost on TV and thought it might be a series I’d enjoy. Only it was aired too late for me, so I gave up. A while ago I discovered Sarah Clarke Stuart’s book Literary Lost, which analyses the use of works of fiction in the series. Those familiar with Lost probably know that far over 70 books are used, mentioned, discussed, and alluded to in the series.

Some of the books are important because different characters read them. Others have influenced story lines. Others have the same themes and motives. The books are mostly literary fiction.

Some of the most important books which are used repeatedly are the following: Heart of Darkness, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe, Watership Down, Moby Dick, Lord of the Flies, Our Mutual Friend, Of Mice and Men, A Wrinkle in Time, Ulysses, The Odyssey, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Stand.

Some books that are equally important but not mentioned as often are: The Brothers Karamazov, Slaughterhouse Five, The Third Policeman, The Invention of Morel, Everything That Rises Must Converge.

The Crying of Lot 49 is never mentioned but it’s narrative plays an important role for those trying to understand the end of Lost.

After I started reading the book, I finally also started to watch the series. I must say, looking at it from a literary perspective makes for really exciting watching. With the exception of Adolfo Bioy Casares The Invention of Morel, I think I own almost all the books that are important in the show and have read many. Just last week I finished The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Sarah Clarke Stuart writes in Literary Lost that the series’ use of books was so influential that it has turned non-readers into readers, rekindled the interest of some who stopped reading, and has even led to higher sales for some books like Flann O’ Brien’s The Third Policeman.

Lost has also led to special book clubs in which people don’t only discuss the series but the books that are featured. It’s not surprising that there were challenges to read all of the titles.

Sarah Clarke Stuart’s book does more than just add another layer to the viewing experience. It shows that some TV series can offer more than pure escapism and are exciting narratives in their own right. She shows that Lost is a great example of a neo-baroque series:

In the case of Lost’s hyperconscious literary references, “nostalgic reverence” is usually the motive. The on-screen appearance of a book suggests certain themes, while paying homage to that particular work. Furthering the postmodern understanding of Lost, more than one academic observer has identified the “neo-baroque” qualities of the show, using the model that Angela Ndalianis provides in her book Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment. Intertextuality is a central prong of her neo-baroque construct; she explains that a text’s allusions create “folds” and “labyrinthine” impression. Neo-baroque narratives draw the audience into potentially infinite or at least multiple directions that rhythmycally recall what Focillon labels the “system of the labyrinth”.

Of course there are similar books on other TV series. I’ve got one dedicated to Six Feet Under (Reading Six Feet Under – TV to Die For) and at least half a dozen who study Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one or the other focussing on Veronica Mars.

I know this is a bit of a disjointed post, but I just wanted to share my enthusiasm for the series and the book. I was hoping that someone might be tempted to watch/re-watch Lost and that we might be able to discuss some of the topics and books. Or that those who love the series but were not aware of Literary Lost might pick it up.

I was wondering if anyone has read Bioy Casares The Invention of Morel. It’s the book mentioned in the series I’m most tempted to read at the moment.

Have you watched the series? Did it make you pick up some books?

Literature and War Readalong March 31 2015: The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

The Disappeared

Kim Echlin’s novel on the war in Cambodia is the first title of this year’s Literature and War Readalong.

I chose The Disappeared for various reasons the most obvious being that we haven’t read anything on the war in Cambodia so far. The fact that it was nominated for many awards and has been translated into 19 languages made it a worthy choice as well. Another reason was that it came highly recommended by one of my favourite bloggers (Gavin from Page247) who sadly has stopped blogging in 2013.

Kim Echlin is a Canadian author, journalist, and educator. She has published a couple of other novels before The Disappeared and a new novel is due this year.

Here are the first sentences

Mau was a small man with a scar across his left cheek. I chose him at the Russian market from a crowd of drivers with soliciting eyes. They drove bicycles and tuk tuks, rickshaws and motos. A few had cars. They pushed in against me, trying to gain my eye, to separate me from the crowd.

The light in Mau’s eyes was a pinprick through black paper. He assessed and calculated. I chose him because when he stepped forward, the others fell back. I told him it might take many nights. I told him I needed to go to all the nightclubs of Phnom Penh. The light of his eyes twisted into mine. When I told him what I was doing, the pinprick opened and closed over a fleeting compassion. Then he named his price, which was high, and said, I can help you, borng srei.

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

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin (Canada 2009), War in Cambodia, Novel, 336 pages.

After more than 30 years Anne Greves feels compelled to break her silence about her first lover, and a treacherous pursuit across Cambodia’s killing fields. Once she was a motherless girl from taciturn immigrant stock. Defying fierce opposition, she falls in love with Serey, a gentle rebel and exiled musician. She’s still only 16 when he leaves her in their Montreal flat to return to Cambodia. And, after a decade without word, she abandons everything to search for him in the bars of Phnom Penh, a city traumatized by the Khmer Rouge slaughter. Against all odds the lovers are reunited, and in a political country where tranquil rice paddies harbour the bones of the massacred, Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But there are wounds that love cannot heal, and some mysteries too dangerous to know. And when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers a story she cannot bear.

Haunting, vivid, elegiac, The Disappeared is a tour de force; at once a battle cry and a piercing lamentation, for truth, for love.

Literary fiction of the highest order, this is an unforgettable novel set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s savage killing fields.

*******

The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 March 2015.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Deborah Levy: Swimming Home (2011)

Swimming Home

Picture this—A dark road in a mountainous area, in the South of France at night. It’s summer. The sound of insects in the dark. A couple is talking in a car. The woman, Kitty Finch, is driving the car. The conversation is slightly off. The atmosphere brooding. That’s how Deborah Levy’s novel Swimming Home begins. Then it rewinds and we learn how the two people ended up in the car together. In the first chapter a red-haired woman swims naked in a pool. The people who have rented the villa to which the pool belongs are watching her. They have no clue who she is. Finally, Isabel, a war correspondent, and the wife of a famous poet, Joe, jumps into the pool, grabs the young woman by her ankle and forces her to leave the water. Other people have watched the scene. An elderly therapist,who rents the villa next door, Joe, the famous poet, Laura and Mitchell, family friends, and Nina, Joe’s and Isabel’s teenage daughter. Kitty Finch tells them that there was a mix up in the dates. Jurgen, the caretaker of the villa, has made a mistake. They are all enthralled by Kitty Finch, her striking red hair, her beauty, her green finger nails and the fact that she skinny dips in the pool of strangers as if it was the most natural thing in the world. But what is even more surprising – Isabel offers her a spare room.

Inviting a mysterious stranger is daring at the best of times, but inviting someone who behaves as oddly as Kitty Finch is downright reckless. Soon it’s obvious that her presence upsets an already fragile balance and people start to show what they were hiding behind their masks. The reader senses—something bad will happen.

Writing more would spoil this wonderful book. I truly admired Deborah Levy’s understated style. The book felt fresh, uncluttered, like a well-aired room. Everything she writes reminds you of something but proves to be very different in the end. People never say what you would expect them to say. On the other hand Swimming Home was one of those books I couldn’t read without being constantly reminded of other books or movies. I suppose that’s because the setting, the South of France, is so charged with meaning. I was reminded of Françoise Sagan’s novel Bonjour Tristesse, which has equally unhinged characters, desire and raw emotions at its heart. The movies La Piscine, starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, and Swimming Pool, starring Charlotte Rampling, came to my mind as well.

I also liked that Deborah Levy used so many point of view characters. The POV changes in every chapter and it’s not always clear who is the main character. Kitty Finch who serves as a catalyst for each of the other characters or Nina, the teenage daughter on whose POV the book ends? Or the poet who seems to occupy the emotional centre?

I’ve owned a copy of this novel for some time, but Violet‘s recent post was the reasons I picked it up finally.