A Russian fairytale

The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, translated by Jennifer Bradshaw

miracle-and-grief

Leonid Borodin was a writer, Soviet dissident and Christian. He was born in Irkutsk – one of those areas of Russia only familiar to me through the board-game Risk! He was imprisoned twice, the second time after the English publication of his writing in the mid 1980s. He died in 2011. Quartet books have recently republished The Year of Miracle and Grief in a handsome quality paperback, and I was sent a copy.

One summer, a twelve-year-old boy comes to a railway town on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where his parents are to teach at the school. He soon makes friends with the other local children, and spends most of his time outdoors, fishing, swimming, making rafts, building dams, doing boyish things until suppertime.

He is mesmerised by the beauty of the lake and mountains, and keeps finding his eye drawn to a lonely crag with a straggly pine tree on it. The rocky outcrop is known as Dead Man’s Crag – his friends warn him against going up there however the boy, (who is unnamed) feels compelled to try. He scrambles up to the ledge only to discover an wizened old crone sitting there. Once she’s scared him half to death, she introduces herself as Sarma, great grand-daughter of the Great Sibyr. She forces him into a cave, telling to go down to the bottom and return to tell her what was happening.  He goes in, down many stairs before arriving in an immense hall:

On a high-backed throne set on a small rocky platform sat an old man. At least he seemed to me to be very old under the thick white beard which fell to his chest. His clothes, halfway between a smock and a cloak, were navy blue, and against this background the white beard looked like sea foam…  White eyebrows covered his eyes. The face looked sad and austere.
At his left hand, her head leaning on the armrest of the throne, sat a little girl of eleven or twelve. Her dark chestnut hair was hanging down from the armrest and the old man’s hand was resting on the child’s knees. The armchair she was sitting on was somewhat smaller than the throne, but its back was just as high. On the little girl’s left, with his head resting on outstretched paws, lay a small black dog with a brown patch above his eyes.
And all three of them . . . were asleep.

Sarma had flooded the valley to make Lake Baikal in retribution for the Prince who lived there accidentally letting her son die. Ever since she has held the Prince and his daughter Ri captive, unable to forgive, still grieving. The boy, naturally, falls for Ri and begs Sarma to let him come and visit again. After many visits he tries to persuade Sarma to set Ri free, and Sarma bargains – accepting her terms will change his life totally.

Rooted in local myths of the origins of this bleak and beautiful landscape this fairy-tale is, like all the best of its kind, strong on the consequences of dealing with magic. There is a price in suffering to pay for changing the equilibrium. Borodin was a Christian, and so the fairy-tale almost becomes a kind of parable about forgiveness and grief.

Where this book excelled for me though was in the descriptions of the ever-changing moods of the lake and its environs, going from transcendent beauty to stormy waves to icy danger. The translator, Jennifer Bradshaw has done a great job here. For instance, one day:

The water no longer looked like glass. I had the feeling that an immense blue tablecloth had been stretched out between the four points of the compass and that beasts were walking underneath it, unable to reach the shore. The smooth shining waves were not lapping against the bank but flowing on to it in a film of transparent sky blue.

From the start, we know that the boy survives all his trials, as the story is recounted by an older and wiser self. This degree of hindsight and first-person narration gives a totally different slant on what happens, it’s not as immediate as a certain other tale I’ve read recently involving magical sleeping beings in a cave deep under a hill I can think of (Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen that is); they do share the love of landscape though.

If you love Russian landscapes and fairytales this story, at first deceptively simple but then complex underneath, may be one for you. (8/10).

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Source: Review copy – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, Quartet paperback, 190 pages, republished Nov 2013.

The grown-up conclusion to Garner’s Weirdstone trilogy

Boneland by Alan Garner

boneland
Last month I was privileged to attend a lecture given by Alan Garner, and came home enthused to read everything he has written, starting with the ‘Weirdstone Trilogy’.  I’d read the first two books as a child in the late 1960s, and re-reading them now was a joy which I wrote about here.

Boneland, the final part of the trilogy, although again set around Alderley Edge and featuring Colin (and Susan) is a completely different animal, yet it does cap off the story that began with a retelling of the Legend of Alderley Edge and the chamber of sleeping knights who lay under it, waiting until they are needed.

In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and The Moon of Gomrath, twins Colin and Susan aged twelve by the end, had some fantastic adventures with wizards, dwarves, elves and battled an assortment of nasty demons and goblins. They never questioned why they had been lucky enough to get a glimpse of this hidden side of our world and Susan had seemed to be very attuned to it in particular.

In his lecture, Garner told us he was quite sick of them, so didn’t write any more adventures. But he didn’t kill them off either, and when fifty or so years later, someone said something to him, it had sparked off an idea about them which lead to Boneland.

He told us he’d been inspired to write about what might happen to someone in later life who has had such magical experiences as a child. Wouldn’t real life just be so mundane in comparison – is normal life worth living after that?  He noted that CS Lewis never dealt with that in Narnia – indeed Lucy and co live out full and long lives through the wardrobe before trooping back through it and resuming their childhood.

Lovell TelescopeBoneland starts several decades after the original adventures. Colin is an astrophysicist working at Jodrell Bank (home of the iconic Lovell Telescope (right) at Alderley Edge).  Colin lives alone in an eco-pod. He is also an ornithologist, expert cook and carpenter, has many degrees – you would call him a savant.  His social skills are appropriately limited, and despite an eidetic memory, he can’t remember anything from when he was younger than thirteen.

Susan has disappeared, and Colin is obsessed by searching for her in the stars, believing her to have become a star, maybe one of the Pleiades, but it is breaking him.

Eventually, persuaded, he succumbs to psychoanalysis, ministered to him by the unconventional Meg Massey. She, being a black-leather-clad motorbiker in her spare time, effectively fulfills his fantasies and transference duly occurs. She seems too good to be true though – Is she an angel of mercy there to help him through his breakdown, or is she a witchy echo from the past?

Garner intersperses the main story with that of a stone age shaman, who collects bones and makes cave paintings – on Alderley Edge, his story paralleling with Colin’s. You can sense them gradually coming together as Colin realises the answers are to be found on the Edge.

This is a challenging novel to read. Garner’s prose is stripped back, the dialogue-driven passages are nothing but – the reader has to fill in all the gaps – and there are a lot of them. It’s not really quotable. With perseverance, however, all the pieces do start to fall into place. But when Garner does allow himself to describe the scene, the text is rather beautiful as in these examples:

The note of the wind changed, the stresses of the girders and of the dish made their own music as the telescope tracked, slowed to the measure of the Earth’s turning, and the motors died near to silence.

So the day shrank and night stretched. The clonter of the cobbles in the river was silent, and the river fell to sleep. Then was the time when day and night were the same, and the sun tipped towards death.

With Boneland, Garner may have completed his Weirdstone trilogy and achieved closure for Colin, yet I found I was left with a lot of questions.  Re-reading parts to help write this post a couple of weeks later, I find that understanding is percolating through, like ancient waters seeping through rock. To quote the blurb, the novel celebrates ‘the enduring resonance of myth‘, and how that collides and interacts with real life.  Although I would always advocate reading a trilogy in its entirety starting at the beginning, Boneland can stand on its own – but you would be missing a real treat if you didn’t read the other two.

As for Boneland, it is continuing to grow on me (8/10) 

You can also read Ursula K Le Guin’s rather brilliant review from the Guardian here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Boneland (Weirdstone Trilogy 3) by Alan Garner. Fourth Estate paperback, 160 pages.

Britten centenary – my memories of Noyes Fludde …

brittenThis weekend marks the centenary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten. Radio 3 is celebrating with ‘Britten 100’, a weekend of programmes. I thought I’d celebrate too with some personal memories from my younger years of listening to and performing some of his works…

In 1966, the Canadian conductor Arthur Davison, who had made his home near Croydon, started up a series of children’s concerts at the Fairfield Halls. These popular concerts were full of light classical music, held on Saturday mornings and my brother and I went each season.  I’m sure that Britten’s Young persons guide to the orchestra would have featured.

CCF11232013_00000First performed in 1957, Noyes Fludde by Britten is a setting of the Chester Miracle Play of the story of Noah’s Ark for principal singers, plus a children’s chorus and orchestra, supplemented by recorders, handbells, organ and trumpeters. The part of Noye (Noah) was written for English bass Owen Brannigan, and the Fairfield secured his services to sing Noye in their production in 1968.  The production involved all the local schools in Croydon, and was repeated regularly for many years.

CCF11232013_00002I was in it twice.  The first time in 1971 as part of the children’s chorus of animals and birds that trooped down through the audience, two by two, to take our places in the ark.  Dressed in brown tunics and tights, we all had headdresses made by the local art college. I was a cuckoo!

It must have been one of Brannigan’s last performances. Already in his sixties, he was in a car crash in 1972 and never fully recovered, dying in 1973.  It was great fun, and the hymn Eternal Father which is incorporated into the work has been one of my favourites ever since.

The second time was 1976, and this time I was playing violin in the orchestra which comprised members of Croydon Philharmonic supplemented with members of the Croydon Schools First Orchestra. It was a real community performance – with children and adults performing and playing side by side.  There were handbell ringers and trumpeters in the Royal Box, the massed recorders of Croydon Schools in the choir stalls, and presiding over it all was Arthur Davison.

arthur davison

For a busy conductor, he did a lot for children – conducting the Croydon Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (CYPO) in both its regular rehearsals and school holiday orchestral camp-type sessions. He was a larger than life character, in size and manner, and was a hard taskmaster – but when we played well he was appreciative. I ended up as principal second violin in CYPO, and was consequently always seated directly in front of him.  I can still recall him barking at me at one orchestra school, ‘I can’t see you,’ referring to my overlong and floppy fringe – which I got my mum to trim (that was brave!) back home. The next day, he grinned at me.

Bringing us back to Britten, one of the pieces we played during one season of the orchestral school, was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes which I love. They were a joy to play, and remain a joy to listen to.  I shall leave you with a Youtube clip played by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.

A novel about men and their ‘work’ – it must be Magnus Mills!

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills

explorers millsMills fifth novel is another very dark and subversive comedy about his speciality – men and their work.  This time though, it’s not about manual labourers, white van-men, bus drivers or any of their ilk; instead, he’s taking on expeditions to destinations unknown of the beginning of the last century. Mills’s satire this time initially targets the race between Scott and Amundsen to reach the South Pole – his subjects are not usually so obvious.

Two teams are involved in a race (except that it’s not a race – Oh yes it is!) to reach the ‘Agreed Furthest Point’.  One led by gentleman explorer Johns and made up of volunteers with a veritable herd of mules. They are finally ready to set off from the bunkhouse.  Scott Johns makes a speech:

 ‘Now it’s far too cold to stand her making speeches. I’ve no time for such flummery, so without further ado I think we’ll make an immediate start. I want to say, however, that I believe you have all been well chosen. I could not wish to begin an expedition such as this with a finer set of fellows. In Chase, for instance, we have one of the best navigators of our age. As you know, his excellent guidance brought the Centurion to this forsaken shore without a single fault, and I am relying fully on his judgement over the coming weeks as we head for the interior. Likewise, I regard Scagg as a most able deputy, and if anything should happen to me he will, of course, take command. As for the rest of you, well you are competent individuals without exception. You all know where we’re going and why we are going there. It may take a good while, but I am confident that we’ll achieve our goal as long as each of us pulls in the same direction. Now Scagg, the blockhouse has been left in a fit state, I presume?’
‘Yes, Mr Johns. Everything’s in order.’
‘All right then. Lock the door will you, and we’ll go.’

The other is led by Tostig with a professional crew of five. They have just ten mules and are incredibly well organised.

‘You know, it’s marvellous the organisation that’s gone into this voyage of ours. Quite exhaustive! Every aspect was planned beforehand, right down to the finest detail. For example, how do you think the weight of a water canister compares with a tin of biscuits?’
‘No idea,’ said Snaebjorn.
‘Have a guess.’
‘I’ve just told you I don’t know.’
‘Identical,’ Thegn announced. ‘They both weigh exactly the same.’
‘Really.’
‘Within an ounce. Apparently there were such huge logistical demands to be met that for purposes of simplification all items were classified in fixed units of weight. You could substitute a folded tent, say, with a coiled rope and it would make no difference to the overall load. The exact method used is described in the Ship’s Manual, if you’re interested.’
‘I’ll bear it in mind.’
‘Appendix B.’

Tostig’s team had arrived first, and have chosen to take a route along a dry riverbed making good progress. Johns’ team though, choose a different route entirely going over rocky scree. This terrain is monotonous and energy sapping in the extreme, yet Johns and his men manage to keep up with the others. They bicker all the way, yet that reserve of British stiff upper lip stands them in good stead.

And so it goes on. Day after boring day. They all inch towards their goal. You wonder when something is going to happen, and when it does, it comes completely out of left-field, and things turn even darker, more surreal and twisted than before. To tell you more would completely spoil the plot.

Mills’s deadpan humour is not to everyone’s taste, but if you haven’t tried one of his novels, at under two hundred pages, this is a quick read.  I loved it. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2005). Bloomsbury paperback, 192 pages.

50th Anniversary of the Assassination of JFK

The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo

jfkI was just three and a half when JFK was assassinated, so I remained blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had happened on 22nd November 1963.  They say it’s one of those events that everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

I’ve checked my late Mum’s diaries and she didn’t comment, (in fact hardly any events in world politics made it into them). I asked my father (who was 84 on Monday- Happy Birthday Dad!) what he was doing. – he remembers it as a badminton night, and is sure they’d have heard the news over tea before going out to play that evening.

So, fifty years later we are remembering Kennedy’s untimely death. Jonathan Mayo, who has already done a ‘Minute by Minute’ treatment for the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, has done the same for JFK. It is going to be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on the 22nd at 6pm.

The book takes the timeline from just before Kennedy’s arrival in Texas in the evening of the 21st of November and follows through chronologically until the evening after JFK’s funeral on the 25th.  Mayo tells the story of everyone who was involved in the story, however small their role. It is, Mayo says:

The story of what took place in Dallas is not just about President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald; it’s also about the scores of people who were drawn into the developing drama. Some are famous, some obscure, but it affected them all, putting them in unexpected situations, and sometimes making them behave in unexpected ways. This book is full of stories that I hope will restore the impact of the assassination.

There is no room for conspiracy theories in this book which tells it as it happened.  This immediacy gives it the feel of a thriller.

I had no idea that there was no love lost between Kennedy and Johnson, and the Texas Governor Connolly, and that it had been considered dangerous for Kennedy to go to Dallas.

I was amazed to find that DJ John Peel had been in Dallas at the time, and was just feet from Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him, whereas Alastair Cooke had declined to go on the trip being fed up of Democratic politics, and had remained in New York.

Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie still in her blood-stained outfit beside her. Photograph by official White House photographer, Army Capt. Cecil W. Stoughton

Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie still in her blood-stained outfit beside him. Photograph by official White House photographer, Army Capt. Cecil W. Stoughton

I was saddened to hear that JFK’s back-brace for chronic back pain, held him in a position where the second bullet was able to hit his head.  We share Jackie’s pain as she steadfastly stays in her pink Chanel suit, even when they reach Andrews Air Force Base saying ‘No, let them see what they’ve done.‘ when it was suggested that she change her dress. I really felt for her, Robert, and her children.

As for Lee Harvey Oswald – well, he was obviously a wrongun’! Enough said.

There was so much I didn’t know about the events in this book. The only thing missing in this book were some more photographs.  Adding the famous ones like that above, the Jack Ruby one, Oswald posing with his gun, etc. would have given it just that little extra to make it an exceptional read.  The minute by minute format gave it real pace, and unlike those difficult novels (and a certain recent Autobiography), the fact that the events unwind in the present tense generated a real sense of suspense and anticipation.  No matter what you think of JFK, this book gives a fascinating insight into some truly sad days. (9/10)

See also DoveGreyReader for another excellent review of this book.

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Source: Publisher (thank you). To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo, pub Nov 13 by Short Books. Hardback 288 pages.

The TBR Triple Dog Dare

For the past three years, CB at Ready when you are, CB has hosted a TBR Dare, made into a Dog Dare in honour of Dakota, his Bassett Hound.  This year the Triple Dog Dare will be, so he says, the last one.  I’ve signed up again for the full three months – will you?

Triple Dog DareIt’s very simple. Read only books already in your TBR pile or reserved at the library from Jan 1st 2014 until March 31st if you can.

You can have exemptions for book club books, or any other scheduled reads that you need to do. You don’t have to stop acquiring books either – you just have to resist reading them.

With those little exemptions, I’ve managed the full three months for three years on the trot now – here’s to the fourth!

 

YA books and sex!

I wasn’t going to write a post featuring the book below as it was a DNF (Did not finish) for me, but it did raise questions and I wanted to ask your opinions, especially after I heard someone calling for debate on lowering the age of consent to 15 on the radio this morning …

My daughter, now 13, is getting into reading teen romances and has been a fan of Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, and Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson diaries for a year or two now. I’m always on the lookout for new authors to introduce to her and came across the following book on a review list – the text description said 12+ …

When it happens by Susane Colasanti

when it happensThis is a book about a girl who is looking to find love – and has a clear idea of who will fit the bill, but ends up falling for the complete opposite. Set in NYC, senior year of high school, with the Battle of the Bands as a backdrop.

When it arrived there was a sticker on the front cover saying ‘Contains explicit content’. I visited the UK publisher’s website and there it says 14+, so I started to read the book to see what that was. I made it about a third of the way through, and skimmed the rest.

I found there was a lot of sex talk and it seemed that most of the characters were only after one thing which was more to do ‘it’ – sex, rather than find ‘it’ – love, although being a teen romance, that true love is found too in the end. OK – they are all in their senior year at High School, so the place is likely to be seething with sex, but there are references to girls doing it since they were 14 etc. Within the first few chapters, Sara, the virginal lead character was getting instruction on how to put a condom on – educational, yes, but any romance was spoiled.

Definitely one for older teens I thought.

Contrast that with …

Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

billy and me

The debut chicklit novel by the wife of McFly’s Tom. It’s about a young woman coming to terms with being the girlfriend of a teen heartthrob actor and the scrutiny that she as the WAG is exposed to. It’s pure fluff – chaste and charming, yet it is specifically marketed as chicklit.

I got sent a copy by Penguin (thank you), and after my 16yr old niece recommended it, I was more than happy to let Juliet read it, and she enjoyed it too.

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I love reading YA fiction for myself now, but I usually stick to books with a fantastical element of some kind.  As a teenager, I went straight from children’s books to adult titles – there were few written for teens in the 1970s, but I got largely sucked into science fiction then.  The only romances I read as a teenager were the Regency ones of Georgette Heyer – so this is a new area for me, and I have to admit…

I’M CONFUSED!

Naturally, I want to encourage my daughter to explore and find books she wants to read for herself, (with just the occasional nudge from me). I don’t want to censor her reading – I think she has good taste in that regard, but I want to canvass your opinions too.

How is it that a teen book can be more explicit than chicklit?
Can you recommend any good teen authors who deal with sex in a less in your face way?
Or, am I too prudish and worrying too much?
Do share your thoughts!  Thank you.

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To find out more on Amazon UK, please click below:
When It Happens by Susane Colasanti, Scholastic paperback.
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback

Woman, interrupted …

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

The Pumpkin Eater

This painful novel, her seventh published in 1962, is widely regarded as Penelope Mortimer’s most famous. It was filmed with Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch and James Mason in the leading roles and, it is the Oscar-nominated Bancroft who graces the cover of the Penguin that I inherited from my Mum.

The Pumpkin Eater is the story of a woman on the verge of a breakdown, marital and emotional. It starts with the a woman, Mrs Armitage (we never hear her forename), visiting a psychiatrist:

‘When I was a child my mother had a wool drawer. It was the bottom drawer in a chest in the dining-room and she kept every scrap of wool she had in it. You know, bits from years ago, jumpers she’d knitted me when I was two. Some of the bits were only a few inches long. Well, this drawer was filled with wool, all colours, and whenever it was a wet afternoon she used to make me tidy her wool drawer. It’s perfectly obvious why I tell you this. There was no point in tidying the drawer. The wool was quite useless. You couldn’t have knitted a tea-cosy out of that wool, I mean without enormous patience. She just made me sort it out for something to do, like they make prisoners dig holes and fill them up again. You do see what I mean, don’t you?’
‘You would like to be something useful,’ he said sadly. ‘Like a tea-cosy.

She is in her late thirties, and has an unspecified but fairly large number of children by several fathers of ages from just three up to late teens. She is currently married to Jake who is a £50,000 per annum screen-writer and is as prone to having affairs as she is to having babies. It is when she meets the husband of an actress with whom Jake has apparently had an affair on location that things come to a head.

When they married, Jake was not yet successful. Many thought him mad to take on an already twice-married woman with a whole brood of children, and then adding to it. For Jake the reality of what he has let himself in for results in him having to work extremely hard to support them all, and although he says he loves her, he relieves his stress with little affairs. Having married too young, she has been happiest when pregnant and surrounded by her babies – it’s what she does best.

The book is in turns shocking, funny and moving as their emotional baggage ripples through this dysfunctional family towards its surprising conclusion.

Mortimer Family

The Mortimer Family, Penelope is at the back.

I can’t say I particularly enjoyed reading The Pumpkin Eater, but neither did I dislike it. Mortimer’s writing of the narrator Mrs Armitage, despite her melancholia, has bite and some black humour. I had heard before reading that the novel was very autobiographical – Mortimer had six children by four fathers herself, and her marriage to John Mortimer was tempestuous. It almost felt as if you were prying into her own relationships, so it wasn’t entirely comfortable to read. (7/10)

For another take on this novel, read the review by Alex in Leeds

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Source: Inherited. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, NYRB paperback, 222 pages.

Incoming and Quirky Book Suggestions for Christmas Gifts

I couldn’t wait to see if anyone was going to get me any of these books for Christmas, so I bought myself some early prezzies. I wanted to share them with you though as they are rather different to the usual books you get at this time of year, and I thought they would make ideal gifts…

P1010908 (2)

Just for this post, title links in the text will take you via an affilliate link to Amazon UK. So, from left to right, we have:

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evilby Stephen Collins. This large format hardback is a graphic novel, beautifully illustrated in pencil. It is an adult fairy-tale, about the fastidious island of Here which is beardless, when one day a bald man sprouts a beard – what are they going to do? I’ve heard the names Seuss, Dahl and Orwell cited as authors with styles and themes in common. It immediately reminded me of Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (my review of that here). The Gigantic Beard has been shortlisted for Waterstones Book of the Year 2013 – I can’t wait to read it.

(Published by Jonathan Cape, May 2013, Large Hardback –  240 pages, RRP £16.99)

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s. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst. This book is going to be a voyage of discovery to read. It comes shrinkwrapped, in a black slipcase, with a paper label sealing the book in. All you can see of the book is the spine which says ‘Ship of Theseus – V.M.Straka’ and it has a library label complete with Dewey Decimal number.

I bought two copies. One to read, one to keep – as this looks like becoming a collector’s item. If you do buy it for anyone – do ensure it’s still shrinkwrapped – for open it up and all sorts of things will fall out: letters, tickets, postcards etc – as you can see in the picture above. This novel wouldn’t be the same as an interactive one – even with pop-ups for the bits inside. It’s a beautiful production with amazing attention to detail. JJ Abrams is behind hit TV series Lost, the new Star Trek films, and the forth-coming Star Wars VII. I’ve only read the first few pages – and it is going to be very strange. The pages are covered in scribbles by two students of Straka, there are footnotes galore, and all those bits to fall out – they all have their part in the story of finding out who the elusive author really is! It will appeal to anyone who likes a puzzle, and those who enjoyed Mark Z Danielewski’s experimental novel House of Leaves.I think it’s going to provide me with hours and hours of fun.

(Published by Canongate, 29th October, Hardback 472 pages. RRP £28).

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Letters of Note compiled by Shaun Usher. This is another beautifully produced large hardback book, which has come out of the blog of the same name. Letters of Note collects ‘correspondence deserving of a wider audience’ – be it the Queen sharing her recipe for drop scones with President Eisenhower, to Virginia Woolf’s letter to her husband before committing suicide, and Francis Crick writing to his son about cracking the structure of DNA – each letter is reproduced from the original where possible, set into context by some short explanatory text and is accompanied by a transcript and superb photographs. Some of the letters are from centuries ago – others are more recent; all are fascinating, and many are historically significant too. It is a book to be savoured – I’m going to read just a couple of letters each time I open it to make it last as long as possible. Recommended for … anyone!

(Published by Canongate Unbound, 26th October 2013, Large Hardback, 384 pages, RRP £30).

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So those are my quirky Christmas book picks – I’m going to have fun reading them. Obviously, all of these books are available at discounts off the RRP from that on-line store, but they are available at other proper bookshops too!

‘A Duty-Dance with Death’ – ‘So it goes’

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut This was our book group’s choice for discussion in November. Whilst it’s fair to say that whilst nobody loved it, and some didn’t get on with it at all, it did provoke some good discussion. I quite enjoyed it, and would certainly read more by Vonnegut. My only previous experience with him was having read Breakfast of Champions as an older teen – and having to make sure my parents didn’t see the diagrams, (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean!).

vonnegut 2

S-5 is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as it builds in autobiographical elements of Vonnegut’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW, escaping death by hiding in the cellar of ‘Slaughterhouse-5’. Other themes are time travel, alien abduction and living an otherwise normal life!  Vonnegut sets it all out on the book’s title page after the title and sub-title The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death:

A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers come from.
Peace.

Before we get to the story of the man in question, the introductory chapter introduces the narrator – clearly a metafictional version of Vonnegut himself, explaining his writing of the book:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’
‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’
‘No. What do you sau, Harrison Starr?’
‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Then the narrator tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who as a young soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, returns to a normal and rather dull life in America. He becomes an optometrist, marries, and lives into his old age and senility. However Billy is convinced that he’s become a time traveller, slipping up and down his timeline as a result of being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he was kept in a zoo, and gained their ability to see in 4D – so he could be in all times at once.

This means that the novel goes back and forth with Billy. But is he travelling in time? Or is it just memories coming to the fore of a brain with dementia, or schizophrenia? We discussed these elements at length in our book group – it was obvious that Billy thought he was time-slipping, that he really was abducted by aliens – some were happy to accept that. Others including me, took a rational view.

Given that the novel was published in 1969, and it being most of the group’s first experience of him, we wondered how much the time-travel and alien themes were linked to any trippiness of the time…

Something the narrator does throughout the novel, which we all thought worked really well, was that every time someone dies (which is a lot), the paragraph ends with the phrase ‘So it goes’. This becomes a real mantra and emphasises the inevitability of death – one way or another.

One fact that surprised us was that more people died in the bombing of Dresden than were killed in Hiroshima. For us subsequent generations who didn’t live through WWII,  the nuclear carnage is seen as the greater tragedy. The bombing destroyed over 90% of the city of Dresden.

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

As if Vonnegut’s anti-war messages about the damage that can be wreaked by conventional weapons weren’t enough, he makes his selection of the novel’s subtitle perfectly clear too. Billy the teenaged PoW is introduced to some English officers in the prison camp:

And he said, ‘You know, we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘ “My God, my God-” I said to myself, “It’s the Children’s Crusade.” ‘

Despite the novel being written in short sections, jumping back and forth through time, snapping from one theme to another, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes even beautiful, Vonnegut’s writing is always interesting: ‘Four inches of snow blanketed the ground. The Americans had no choice but to leave trails in the snow as unambiguous as diagrams in a book on ballroom dancing – step, slide, rest – step slide rest.’

This was a surprisingly moving book to read, and a good book group choice. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-dance with Death, Vintage paperback, 192 pages.