Tag Archives: war

The Distant Land of My Father – Bo Caldwell

My favorite moment in Caldwell’s novel of political upheaval in China during the 1930s, and the corresponding personal upheaval in a small American family living there, comes late in the story. The heroine, Anna, is a young adult living in Pasadena, and has a job at the Huntington Library ( a real place for those of you who aren’t in Los Angeles). Anna’s job is to read letters and documents from local estates that have been left to the Huntington, and make notes of information relevant to Pasadena’s history. If I were to invent the most perfect job in the world it would be no different from Anna’s.

Caldwell clearly feels similarly, because The Distant Land of My Father reads like a story created from journals and correspondence. The narrator focuses in and out, from micro images of a mother’s hairclip or a Chinese wax seal that seem pulled from an attic inventory to factual historical events, straight from newspaper clippings or soldier’s letters.

As a lover of details, I found The Distant Land of My Father’s slow pace and quiet tone soothing, although I could imagine more active readers growing restless. Caldwell describes Chinese breakfast menus and South Pasadena gardens with the same tone as she depicts the horror of political prison camp and Japanese bombing. It’s slightly disconcerting. In the end, the story of personal forgiveness is less interesting than the details surrounding it, but this is worth a read for any fans of Pasadena or Shanghai. It’s really a story of cities.

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World Without End – Ken Follett

Much like In the Woods, World Without End also starts with some children of the British Isles having an intense experience in a forest. The similarities end there. World Without End is a much more externally based bit of story telling.

Ken Follett is a writer of historical fiction based in the middle ages. He’s most well known for The Pillars of the Earth, which tells of the building of a cathedral, from the  structural details to the social consequences.

World Without End is a sequel to Pillars, taking place two centuries after the building was completed and following the lives of the people in the town as they plot, scheme, build and romance against a backdrop of plague and warfare. The dialogue is awkward and the characters are cartoonish. One can easily see a casting agent perusing weaselly mustached cowards and meat faced bullies  to play the villains in the movie version. The heroine is so good as to be almost irritating and everyone in-between is a bit of a sheep.

There is a love story, (several in fact) and lots of medieval sex, with Follett taking the time to work a bath in to the story each time. Apparently he’s concerned that all his detail of moist clefts and engorged shafts might not be as appealing if they weren’t both freshly washed.

The building and fighting facts are good even if the sex scenes are not. I feel much more prepared should I find myself facing the challenge of rebuilding a stone bridge in a fast moving river so that the fleece fair can take place as planned. I also have a much more coherent plan to fight the French. Now what’s this painful swelling in my armpit?

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A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

The thing that I have always liked about Hemmingway’s narrators is that they come off as trustworthy, not as people, for they are all heartbreakers and gamblers and drunks, but in the relationship between reader and story-teller. I don’t feel the need to second guess the facts as they are presented. That, more than anything else has always made me love Hemmingway, despite the various politically incorrect failings so often associated with his work. He may be sexist, but he’s honest, and I can work with that.

A Farewell to Arms is about war, of course, and that it is terrible, as one would expect. The interesting thing about Hemmingway’s war novels as compared to say, the work of e.e. cummings or Wilfred Owen is that Hemmingway lets the reader in on the delights of war as well as the misery. His male characters bond and march and enjoy the landscape while drinking and joking and just generally being manly. Few other authors can write a man-friendship with such insight and authenticity. The conversations between Henry and his friend Rinaldi are just about perfect dialogue, summing up the whole novel in a few pages of discussion. Sex, love, war, religion and death, interspersed with insults, like a conversational Cliff’s Notes.

It might be possible to be so in tune with the male psyche and still understand women, but Hemmingway isn’t the right person to demonstrate such a talent. Catherine, the love interest, is needy and shallow. Her conversations with Henry are pale and pointless when compared to those he has with male characters. The story ends with the typical punishment of a female character, drawn as tragedy but really there as a release from commitment and the boredom of a happy ending.

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Double Review by me and Anna-Claire Simpson: The Painted Bird – Jerzy Kosiński

Only two books have ever traumatized me to the point where I really wish I could unread them. One is It by Stephen King. The puppy in the freezer scene haunts me about once a month. The other is the The Painted Bird. The world is a fairly hideous place. I recognize that, but Kosinski’s world removes even the slightest atom of decency from the story, leaving the reader gasping for air in a brutal, vile death chamber. Really, this book is abusive.

Here’s what Anna thinks.

Another book I read a lifetime ago, but the images that pop out in my head from this nightmare of a novel cannot be scrubbed away by time or even the strongest mental detergents.
Like Sade’s “Justine,” or Voltaire’s “Candide,” but featuring a poor little gypsy/Jew boy lost and at the mercy of one backwoods Eastern European village after another during WWII. Oh my god, what horrors await this child as he is passed around: orphaned, expelled, sold, exploited. He is witness to some of the most disgusting sex stuff I’ve ever come across, and I’m a 30 year old woman living in the sexually desensitized 21st century!
As Kosiński’s anti-Semitic Europe psychologically rapes this fictional boy, I’m reminded of a line from Hannah and Her Sisters, when Max von Sydow’s character Frederick says about a TV program he saw on Auschwitz: ‘The reason they can never answer the question “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is “Why doesn’t it happen more often?”‘
I think Kosiński makes a valuable comparison between the cruelty of the uneducated, possibly inbred country bumpkins in his novel and the “civilized” and highly structured cruelty of the Holocaust’s masterminds. Not that there is no hope for humanity, but our (the grand “our”) capacity for hope greatly exceeds the frequency with which we acknowledge not only our history of ambivalence, but the how we perpetuate all manner of physical and psychological violence on humans we consider on the fringe of society.
Oy vey. Read this one with a REAL STRONG drink. An Irish Car Bomb???

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