Archive for the ‘Twentieth Century’ Category

A century ago, the art of letter writing was dominant. Correspondence formed the most effective way to communicate, and people wrote letters with the frequency that people write emails today – but perhaps with more thought, more feeling and more emotion than the technological form into which letter writing has evolved. Letters From a Lost Generation provides a heart-wrenching example of how letters can bring people to life again. As a reader, you feel like you are usurping on some of the most touching, private moments of the writers’ lives. It makes you feel incredibly privileged, but it also ensures that you experience all of the emotions which passed between the correspondents.

This book is a collection of letters between Vera Brittain, a VAD during the First World War, and her fiance, Roland Leighton, her brother Edward Brittain, and two of their friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. Unlike any of the fictionalised accounts of the Great War, this book was all the more poignant because the words were written whilst the war was raging. Tragically, one by one, all four of the young men are killed. The style of the book means that as a reader, you are acutely aware of when their voices fall silent. It is as if you are seeing it all through Vera’s eyes, and feeling her anguish.

The infant relationship between Vera and Roland is the one I found most tragic. The two were so young and had barely had the chance to get to know one another. I remember feeling a similar feeling of loss when I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It was a sense of anger at the sheer waste. A waste of years, a waste of love and a waste of the future. The first half of this book is dominated by the correspondence between the two, and when Roland is killed, one day before he was due to return home on leave, I had to put the book down in tears.

The book’s themes are pride, loss, maturing and change. All of the key players start out young, idealistic and eager. But as their letters show, this deserts them little by little as the reality of war starts to show. And yet, as public school graduates, officer classes, none fully allow despair to slow them. All of them bravely face their own deaths in their individual ways. Vera acts as their rock and confident, staying with them until their short lives are terminated.

I would be hard pressed to find a more personal account of World War I.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-349-11152-9
Publisher: Abacus
Year: 1998
Date Finished: 30 April 2008
Pages: 415
Challenges: 5/8 of category 7: Books with WWI as a theme for the 888 Challenge


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Child 44 is Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, and it is an incredible way to launch one’s career as a suspense writer. Set in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and connected with real events, the book is intensely disturbing and totally gripping at the same time. What struck me most was how terrible the life was for every citizen of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It was like a different world and it was a wonder that people survived through it.

The story follows the fall of Leo Demidov, who holds a high ranking position in the MGB but becomes the object of hatred of one of his subordinates. His fall from grace finds him investigating a murder in a country where officially murder did not exist. Crime was an aberration which was generally ignored or brushed aside without even the semblance of justice, for fear that its presence would question the perfection of the Communist ideal, where because everyone was equal, crime was unnecessary and therefore was naturally eliminated. But idealistic Communism is an impossible proposition when faced with the worst aspects of human nature, and the crimes Leo finds himself faced with are callous, horrific and terrifyingly regular.

This book oozes paranoia and suspicion, which is why it is so disturbing. It seems that within Soviet Russia, there was no such thing as trust, friendship or love because a simple word to the authorities spelt doom for anyone, irrespective of innocence or guilt. The state apparatus apportioned guilt to anyone who did anything even slightly suspicious. If you looked the wrong way at the wrong person, it could mean death. If you treated a pet belonging to a foreigner, you were a spy. If you even thought negative thoughts about the regime, or were indiscreet enough to mutter them, your future generally comprised of hard labour in a gulag, or execution.

Irrespective of the bravery of Leo and his wife beneath such a hostile regime, the message that stood out so strongly for me in this book is that without trust, without care of another and for another, without confidence, then human life is simply a shadow. It is almost not worth existing, when your entire life is spent wondering whether a misplaced word would result in your arrest. This story is the tale of the absolute worst of human nature. It is brutishness, selfishness, paranoia, hatred, fear and vindictiveness laid bare. I am only pleased that as the story progressed, some of the better sides of human nature began to show out otherwise it would have made for grim reading indeed.

I had to suspend my disbelief a little for the ending. After the man hunt mounted to catch Leo and Raisa, I felt it ended a little suddenly and a little more tamely than I would have thought. I can see that the author has left a couple of hanging threads for the next novel in the series which is fine, but after the pace and excitement of the whole novel, without giving a spoiler, the final pages fell a little bit flat for me. Also, I found myself a little irritated by the style of the dialogue. Rather than

“putting conversation in inverted commas, as is normal”

the conversation was written

– In italics and not marked in inverted commas

Just like uppercase letters are generally read as shouting, in my mind the dialogue throughout felt like it was being whispered or spoken a long distance away. Although perhaps that was the intention.

This is not to detract from an incredibly exciting book and a fantastic first novel. I’ll be on the lookout for this author in the future.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-1-84737-127-0
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Year: 2008
Date Finished: 23 April 2008 (at 3.00am!)
Pages: 469
Challenges: 4/8 Category 1 of the 888 Challenge: Crime Fiction; S from the A-Z Challenge; 2/8 from The Pub Challenge

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A Farewell To Arms

A Farewell to Arms is an unusual book. The storyline is simple enough, but the style of writing took some time getting used to. This is the first Hemingway novel I had ever read so I wasn’t prepared for it, but after reading the introduction in the edition which I own, the word ‘detachment’ stood out to me. The story began and I felt like I was outside looking in. Despite being written in the first person, you never feel like you have got into the mind of the protagonist. There is a wall there between his feelings and you as a reader which never really comes down even as the story turns into tragedy.

Because of this, I found it one of the strangest love stories I had ever read. The love between Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley plays out in an almost childlike way. This impression was heightened by the continual repetition in the dialogue, or the descent of the dialogue into a long rambling paragraph of ‘he said’, ‘I said’ not unlike a child’s journal. It was when I switched from seeing the book as a detached narrative and began seeing it as a story from the heart of a child, that it really began to move me.

Despite their trials, the relationship between Catherine and Frederic is steeped with innocence. The war goes on, but neither character is ever truly a part of it. What they are part of is a strange world filled with the mystery of an overwhelming love for one another, and the war does little more than get in the way of that. Despite danger and risk, both characters continue to talk about the ‘fine time’ they are having or the ‘grand adventure’ that it all is. Nothing sullied can touch them – neither cruelty, injustice, war or death. Because of this, Hemingway’s conclusion is all the more tragic because

[The world] kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry

I enjoyed viewing World War I from a different angle again – this time the battle in Italy against the Austrians which tends not to be the focus of most WWI novels. Henry’s experience during the retreat is poignant – you so want him to escape and return to Catherine. But Hemingway’s intention is not to build anticipation or fear that he won’t. This part of the story simply serves to place a surmountable barrier in the way of Catherine’s and Frederic’s love which makes their reunion all the more wonderful.

There was little true character development of any but the main characters, and even those two were not developed deeply. I get the sense though that characterisation was not his priority. Because this story is semi autobiographical, I get the sense that Hemingway simply needed to ‘get it out’ and in doing so, contemplate his experience, his loss and mortality. In such an exercise, the characters were incidental.

Rating: 8/10
ISSN: 1753-3120
Publisher: Vintage (promotional copy from Paperview UK Ltd)
Year: 2005
Date Finished: 20 March 2008
Pages: 252
Challenges: 4 of category 7: Books with World War I as the theme for the 888 Challenge

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All Quiet on the Western Front

I would hail this book as one of the most evocative accounts of the First World War ever written. I was almost speechless when I finished it. There were passages which I found myself reading a second and third time because of their beauty. The story itself is similar to so many others – a young man grows into an old man as he experiences the war. His comrades become his only family and by the end, all hope for a future is lost along with the tens of thousands of lives. The difference with All Quiet on the Western Front is that the young man is from the ‘other side’. He is a ‘Hun’, a German, and yet his experience and suffering is identical. Upon reading this book so close behind A Long Long Way, the futility of the whole event becomes brilliantly clear.

It is little wonder this book was banned by the Nazis in the 1930’s. It does not glorify the war. It does not make the Germans out to be a master race or an invincible war machine. Rather, it shows them up as terrified boys who want nothing more but for the whole thing to end, but who cannot see an end and ultimately do little more than wish for their own. The reflections of the narrator are often bitter. The emphasis is on their living for the moment, enjoying what little they can scrounge, because they know that their mortality is finite and it is usually a matter of luck that they wake to see the sun rise.

One of the most incredible scenes was during the first battle early on in the book where the troops are subjected to the anguished sound of injured horses screaming. The scene consolidated the fact that no matter which side you were on, ultimately everyone suffered.

“You want to get up and run away, anywhere just so as not to hear that screaming any more. And it isn’t men, just horses.”

Every participant is like one of those horses – “…what have they done to deserve that…it is the most despicable thing of all to drag animals into a war” – they are all helpless, all dragged in, all frightened to die.

Once again, this book follows a trajectory downwards. It starts with some hope. There is levity among the group at the beginning. But as the war drags on…

“Our hands are earth, our body mud, and our eyes puddles of rain. We no longer know if we are alive or not.”

They are no longer boys with hopes, dreams, futures or lives. They become the earth which is where they all ultimately fall.

This is an incredible book which should be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever seen war as a positive thing.

Rating: 10/10
ISSN: 1753-3120
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
Date: 1994
Date Finished: 13 March 2008
Pages: 197
Challenges: 3 from category7: Books with World War I as the theme from the 888 Challenge; 1920’s in the 8 Decade challenge.

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Long Long Way

So many books written about World War I recount the misery, horror and subhuman conditions the soldiers were forced to endure on the Western Front. A Long Long Way continued this tradition, but despite having read a lot about the period, having visited the battlefields of Belgium and having studied the Great War at length, it never reduces the shock and sadness.

This story is about a very ordinary Irish boy. Willie Dunne is no-one special. He is a lad from Dublin who never grew quite tall enough to follow his father into the police force, so who opted to sign up when war was declared. What followed was a sad progression as he matures on the battlefields, and each horror he is forced to endure removes one more slice of idealism from his personality until all that is left…is nothing.

My heart ached for Willie. Caught up in a war which, in reality had little to do with Ireland, by the close of the book he struggles to find any purpose whatsoever for continuing to fight. But fight he does because everything else is lost – his companions, his leaders, his hopes and his dreams. The story is set with the secondary backdrop of the struggle for and against Home Rule in Ireland which peppered the twentieth century. While death was wreaking havoc in Belgium, it hadn’t turned it’s eye away from Ireland and the differing perspectives of that struggle cause a once close family to fall apart.

The book is written like poetry. Although it is standard prose, so many of the turns of phrase are beautifully poetic that it seems wrong to ignore them. From the tadpoles appearing like “rusty commas” to the snow laying over everything “in impersonal dislike”, Barry’s writing is exquisite. It is the kind of book you have to go and read again, not for the story, but so you can go back and pick up all of the beautiful use of the language again.  For the story is heartbreaking, and yet one can’t help feel a sense of relief at the tragedy. The ending is absolutely right, despite causing me to cry. It couldn’t have ended another way.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-571-21801-6
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Year: 2005
Date Finished: 7 March 2008
Pages: 292
Challenge: 1 of Category 7 of the 888 Challenge: Books with World War I as the Theme

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The Nuremberg Interviews were conducted by Leon Goldensohn during the trials of 1945-1946. Gathered together and finally published by his brother, Eli, and carefully edited and annotated by Robert Gellately, this primary historical source makes for chilling reading. Goldensohn, an American Jewish psychiatrist, was present at the prison and conducted interviews with many of the defendants and witnesses of Nuremberg. What results is a story of banality, in some cases inhumanity, weakness, bombast and fear. Through questioning, the personalities of the leading players came out, sometimes to terrifying and devastating effect.

I did not know all of the defendants or witnesses, but those that I did know – Goering, Ribbentrop, Jodl, Keitel and Franck among others, were suddenly given colour. To hear their own words was chilling. Most begged innocence. Most exonerated themselves of any responsibility for the mass murder and horror of the Second World War. Most chose to blame those players who were dead – Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler. And most were clearly lying and delusional.

The most frightening of all was the interview with Rudolf Hoess – Kommandant of Auschwitz prison. His account of his responsibilities and the cool detatchment with which he spoke of them made me feel physically ill. I had to put the book down halfway through the chapter because I couldn’t stand reading further. To think that humans could be so detached in the face of suffering and murder, as attested to by his own words, was almost impossible.

This is a valuable historical source. It makes for incredibly compelling reading – if nothing else to find out how utterly ordinary most of the people involved with Hitler actually were. They didn’t appear to be monsters. They didn’t appear large as life. They just seemed like very ordinary (or often weak, snivelling or pathetic) men who for some reason, ceased to think like civilised human beings when it came to genocide.

A must for any historian of World War II. But be prepared.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 1-8459-5014-3
Publisher: Pimlico
Year: 2006
Date Finished: 29 December 2007

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