Review: Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

A portrait of a young man and his times, Jacob’s Room is Virginia Woolf’s first truly experimental novel. E.M. Forster wrote of it, “amazing…a new type of fiction has swum into view.” Impressionistic in style, experimental in approach, the narrative is as inspired now, as it was when it first appeared.

I have read that Jacob was very much inspired by Woolf’s brother, Thoby,who died of typhoid when he was 26, and now I see why- there are a lot of parallels between his and Jacob’s life and fate.

This is a very interesting novel, in that you can see Woolf experimenting with her “voice” as a writer, which she obviously perfected later on. Right now, I think she peaked at Mrs. Dalloway, but I haven’t finished reading everything she’s ever written yet.

Nobody really knows who Jacob is, which makes this book even more interesting. Jacob is kind of like this otherworldly ghost, flitting about the novel, not quite within the grasp of the reader, let alone the other characters. We only see little flashes of his perspective, certainly not enough to “know” him. Everybody is thinking about him, everyone is calling him, but he never comes. He’s too busy going around and doing all the things, being a bit of a prat and boating in the nuddy to notice.

The writing is, as per usual for Woolf, absolutely beautiful. I have marked out several beautiful passages in my copy, which is always nice to do when you’re reading… it always tells me that I’m enjoying it. 2015-08-30 14.46.35

It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows. And why, if this — and much more than this is true — why are we yet surprised in the window corner by a sudden vision that the young man in the chair is of all things in the world the most real, the most solid, the best known to us–why indeed? For the moment after we know nothing about him.

Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.

However, this book is quite slow, and not as well executed as her later experimental works, which is totally understandable. Some of the characters weren’t fully fleshed out, while some were totally real… The woman in the train carriage and Fanny Elmer I especially liked, as they felt absolutely tangible, as if I’ve met them before, as if they were some part of me.

Then the ending… it killed me. I knew how it ended, having read so much about it through researching my thesis, but oh man… when it happened, it was a kick in the guts.

I do think this little novel deserves a bit more attention than it gets, though not as much as  I wish Between the Acts would get, coz that novel was like being repeatedly slapped and it was a thoroughly good slapping. I don’t know that I would re-read this in the next few years, but perhaps after a while, since the writing is so gut wrenchingly gorgeous.

4/5 stars

Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us.

War Series #3: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien

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So, I’m guessing you’re surprised. Tolkien, you say? But The Lord of the Rings is fantasy! It’s set in a medieval-ish world called Middle Earth, involves a Dark Lord, wizards, dwarves, hobbits, elves and a really sexy man called Aragorn! How could this POSSIBLY be on your list of War books?

Maybe I just really like talking about Middle-Earth. Maybe I actually have a point. Maybe I’m just crazy.

My thesis is on the depictions of shell shock/psychological trauma in WWI literature. So basically, I read the fiction, pick the traumatic bits out that affected the characters, look for symptoms of shell shock and see how the world/author treated them. I then read memoirs and do the same thing. THEN I go and read personal diaries of Australian soldiers and see how their writing differs from the depictions of trauma in texts intended for public consumption.

Am I making sense?

So, if we do this to The Lord of the Rings, we get a very interesting little case, backed up by Tolkien himself.

This is Tolkien, looking rather dashing in his Officer’s uniform. He fought in WWI, lost most of his friends and generally had a very rough time, as can be expected.

We have Master Frodo Baggins. He also has a generally rough time of it, as he sets off to take The One Ring to Mt. Doom. He gets stabbed, grabbed by giant monsters, loses his Grandad-figure, is betrayed x 2, leaves his friends behind, gets bitten by a giant homicidal spider, molested by Orcs… then finishes that up by getting his finger bitten off before being surrounded by MOLTEN LAVA ON AN EXPLODING MOUNTAIN. All the while, carrying a ring made by a Dark Lord that makes him go crazy. Do you even blame him for getting PTSD?

We then have Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s faithful servant. He pretty much epitomises the stereotypical English Tommy. Faithful to his friends, from an agricultural background and generally a good person. He’s having to do things that totally go against his nature, while also serving his “Officer”, Frodo.

We have Merry and Pippin, the good mates that go off to war together while not really knowing what they’re in for, get separated but do everything they can to get back to each other. They prove themselves in battle and go home heroes.

Their story gets me every time, especially when they get split up. Tolkien perfectly captures the pain and loneliness this must have caused men on the Front, whether it be their good friends or their brothers. Are they alive? Are they dead? Will I die here alone and they won’t know? Tolkien himself understood this perfectly, I’m sure. He lost all his friends, bar one.

I’m not going to go into all the characters, or we’d be here all day… Not that I’d mind, but explaining that to my professors would be difficult.

“But sir, I really needed to explain how Gandalf is the General, with Aragorn his second in command!”

Not going to happen.

We also have the Nazgul, which Christopher Tolkien says was based off seeing (and fleeing) German soldiers on horseback, wearing gas masks. They make a sound similar to a shell screeching overhead. The sound of the Nazgul make people cower in fear- just like a shell.

One photo is Passchendaele. One is The Dead Marshes. Both have lots of mud and lots of dead bodies, and both stretch on for what felt like eternity. Both were horrible, horrible places to be. Tolkien was at the battle of The Somme, which was very much the same experience.

But back to Mr Frodo.

Frodo starts out as quite a nice Hobbit- he’s friendly, enjoys the company of his friends, a pint of beer and all the lovely, Hobbitty things that Hobbits do. Once he begins the mission, he thinks he’ll drop the Ring off in Rivendell, go home and all will be grand. Similar to men going off to the War, thinking they’d be home by Christmas. Once it becomes apparent that this isn’t going to happen, we start to see a very different Frodo emerge.

The new Frodo is a angrier and harder. He’ll turn on Sam if he’s pushed too far, or for no reason at all. We see parts of the old Frodo, particularly in his treatment of Smeagol and the mateship he has with Sam… but this is often overshadowed by lots of time spent brooding, not taking care of himself (eating or sleeping) and staring into space. On the way to Mt Doom, he experiences periods of temporary blindness, moments of violence, uncontrollable shaking, exhaustion and anxiety. Once he’s home, instead of adjusting back to life in The Shire like his friends do, Frodo becomes withdrawn and becomes a pacifist. He’s also struggling with horrible flashbacks and nightmares. His wound from the Morghul blade is still bothering him and he marks anniversaries of his most hopeless moments.

Frodo exhibits pretty much all the classical symptoms of shell shock. Tolkien treats him very sympathetically, which makes me love him even more. The men experiencing shell shock often didn’t get sympathetic treatment, as the medical world and the army generally believed them to be liars, weak or un-manly. Shut up and put up, you dirty shirker, basically.

“There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not be the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

Poor Frodo.

If you haven’t read this series, you should definitely consider it. I’m a big fan of the movies too, so watch them as well!

I adore Tolkien and think his work is an absolute marvel- there’s an amazing amount of depth. It’s not just a story of war and I haven’t even scratched the surface- this is just one theme running through! This is a long book but it’s totally epic (literally and figuratively). It involves a ton of mythology, history, linguistics, relationships… I could go on and on.

Reading this as a War novel requires deeper thinking than what is on the surface. I hadn’t really even thought about it and this is what I do! There’s plenty of information out there if you’d like to learn more about this- ask me in the comments if you’d like any help!

Home is behind
The world ahead
And there are many paths to tread
Through shadow
To the edge of night
Until the stars are all alight

Mist and shadow
Cloud and shade
All shall fade
All shall – fade.

Vault Review- War Series: Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James

I’v18114136e been reading loads lately, but nothing that I’d consider blogging about… Textbooks mostly. Joy!

Last night, I was dealing with a whole lot of “OH MY GOD WHAT THE HELL, MY BRAIN IS IMPLODING” sort of angst and felt I needed an escape. I didn’t want to escape so much that I’d stop thinking about my uni, so picked a book relating to my subject matter.

As most of you probably know, this week the world has marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One. I’ve always been fascinated by this conflict, so much so that I’m completing my honours next year on WWI fiction. So, in light of this, I thought I would do a series on books in this genre!

Silence for the Dead is set in England in 1919. It’s a sort of modern take on the gothic romance novel, which surprisingly works really well for this story. You know how I love a good ghost story!

Kitty is a young woman with a secret so bad that she has lied her way into a position as a nurse in a remote mental institution which looks after shell shocked men. The house itself hides as much fear and instability as the men it houses… but is there something more menacing than bumps in the night happening at Portis House? Who is the mysterious Patient Sixteen?

I loved this book. It was the perfect antidote to brain freakout (somewhat ironically). It’s a really quick read and one that had me totally engrossed from start to finish. I’ve never read anything by Simone St James before and had only bought this because I saw it on a blog!

I loved pretty much all the characters, which I found well drawn and relatable. My only criticism is t that there was an awful lot of them and I began mixing the minor character’s names up.

The romance was also convincing and well done. I don’t want to give too much away, but Jack is a SEX GOD. (This doesn’t mean there’s lots of sex in this book- there isn’t.)

Factually, there were a few issues, but for this type of book I won’t get too pedantic. The author did well with the somewhat tricky mix of subjects.

I’m giving this one a 4.5 stars, because it had me totally engrossed from the get go. I’ll definitely keep this one to read again and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more from this author!

Review: The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter

In this informative, timely and often harrowing study, Elaine Showalter demonstrates how cultural ideas about ‘proper’ feminine behaviour have shaped the definition and treatment of female insanity for 150 years, and given mental disorder in women specifically sexual connotations. Along with vivid portraits of the men who dominated psychiatry, and descriptions of the therapeutic practices that were used to bring women ‘to their senses’, she draws on diaries and narratives by inmates, and fiction from Mary Wollstonecraft to Doris Lessing, to supply a cultural perspective usually missing from studies of mental illness.

Why am I reviewing an academic textbook? That’s not fun fiction-y goodness!

I’m going to do it anyway. I thought this book was fantastic, especially if you’re at all interested in women’s literature, the history of psychiatry, the history of patriarchal society and the history of mental illness. It’s really fascinating, I promise!

I was only really meant to read a couple of sections of this, but ended up going back and reading the whole thing, because it was really well written, really well researched and just all round fascinating. I had never really considered the history of mental illness and how it was treated, but this has definitely changed my outlook. It’s interesting how many things have changed around the treatment and perceptions of mental illnesses… and unfortunately, how many things have stayed exactly the same.

The “hysterical woman” has infiltrated popular culture, literature and the general societal opinion of women. We are still seen by some as mentally weaker, more prone to hysterics and less able to compete against men intellectually. Men are still seen as the dominant sex in many cultures and classes all around the world- whether we like to admit it or not. This idea has been around for millennia, but came to a head in the dawn of psychiatry in the early 19th Century, when women were treated very differently to their male counterparts.

There are some pretty shocking sections, but nothing too graphic. I felt more pity and anger than revulsion- some of the “cures” were simply barbaric and so counter intuitive! Some were so disgusting that I wanted to cry for the women who were forced to endure them. Doctors and society in general had such skewed ideas about what women were going through in their lives and how the brain works. Showalter argues that many women were driven to “hysteria” through pure boredom- not hard to imagine, considering how cloistered women were during the Victorian era and into the 21st century.

If you’re at all like me and are fascinated by shell shock and war trauma, there’s a fantastic section on the similarities between veterans with shell shock to female hysteria patients. Some of the treatments used on both sexes were disturbing, especially when you read further about how sure the doctors were of their having “cured” people by using them. There’s a story about one man who was suffering from mutism and nightmares after being in the front lines for months on end, who was treated by a doctor who zapped him with thousands of electric shocks in the mouth until he spoke. The doctor considered the man’s lack of war dreams a “success”… disregarding the fact that the nightmares now involved being given electric shocks in the trenches. Terrifying.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t review or recommend the textbooks I read for university on my personal blog, but I’m making an exception for this one- hell, I bought my own copy! It’s a really accessible and interesting look at women’s experiences of mental illness since 1830, with a great many literary references- I have a long list of books I would like to chase up and read after seeing them in here!

5/5 Stars

Top Ten Tuesday: Books for Readers Who Like War Literature

There are a breed of humans, like myself, who really like war literature. I don’t even really mind what war it is. I love it so much I’ve written about it on my blog, for assignments and currently working on … Continue reading

Review: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon

The second volume of Siegfried Sassoon’s semi-autobiographical George Sherston trilogy picks up shortly after Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man: in 1916, with the young Sherston deep in the trenches of WWI. For his decorated bravery, and also his harmful recklessness, he is soon sent to the Fourth Army School for officer training, then dispatched to Morlancourt, a raid, and on through the Somme. After being wounded by a bullet through the lung, he returns home to convalesce, where his questioning of the war and the British Military establishment leads him to write a public anti-war letter. Through the help of close friend David Cromlech (based on Sassoon’s friend Robert Graves) a medical board decides not to prosecute, but instead deem him to be mentally ill, suffering from shell-shock, and sends him to a hospital for treatment. Sassoon’s stunning portrayal of a mind coming to terms with the brutal truths he has encountered in war—as well as his unsentimental, though often poetic, portrayal of class-defined life in England at wartime—is amongst the greatest books ever written about World War I, or war itself.

Siegfried Sassoon is my favourite war poet. I love the man. I’ve heard he was a bit of a monster to live with, which does come through in his work, but I’m enthralled by the way he writes. This “memoir” is set from 1915-1917 as “George Sherston” navigates the horror and trauma of the trenches.

I haven’t read the first section of these fictionalised memoirs, Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man, because it really didn’t appeal to me and because this section is far more relevant to my needs. At first, I thought this might end up being a problem, but after some initial confusion over people who had obviously been introduced in the first book, I was fine. People come and go very quickly in this memoir.

When the blurb says this book is unsentimental, it means it. Sassoon frequently gets you to start liking a soldier he introduces, before giving you the details of their death at the end of the paragraph. It’s like being repeatedly punched in the stomach. To me, it shows his skill at grabbing the reader’s attention and emotions in a really short space of time, then twisting them. It’s written in a similar vein to his poetry, in many ways. 

I found it interesting to see the war from a first person perspective of an Officer, who is quite tough but has sympathy for the men under his control. He feels for the dead German soldiers he comes into contact with, realising that they’re really no different to himself. He is also sympathetic to the mental anguish suffered by many of the men around him, though he maintains a tough stance. You can feel his frustration when he goes home to friends and family with a rosy view of the war, while he becomes increasingly disillusioned.

As this is a thinly veiled autobiography, it’s easy to spot the people he’s referring to. Cromlech is obviously Robert Graves, a man who Sassoon has really mixed feelings about. Having read Graves’ Goodbye to All That, it’s a stark contrast of opinion- Graves thought Sassoon was wonderful, while Sassoon says some rather harsh things about Cromlech/Graves.

I was repeatedly shocked by the honesty and horrific descriptions of war in this book. I’ve become used to many Modernist books that skirt around the issues rather than dealing with them head on. Sassoon barrels in headfirst, with descriptions like this:

“I can remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from the soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accusing gesture. Each time I passed that place the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the War. Who made the War? I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud-stained mind. But I only laughed mentally, for my box of Stokes gun ammunition left me no breath to spare for an angry guffaw. And the dead were the dead; this was no time to be pitying them or asking silly questions about their outraged lives. Such sights must be taken for granted, I thought, as I gasped and slithered and stumbled with my disconsolate crew. Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull.”

Eeeech.

I love how Sassoon deals with his anger about the war, his feelings towards the home front and the Army in this book. He is obviously still angry while he was writing, as he should be. I don’t blame him at all. He’s furious about the actions of the British Army generals, for making decisions that needlessly cost the lives of thousands of men. He’s hurt by the lack of understanding he encounters at home. He’s struggling to find a way to understand the deaths of the men around him, and how he is still living when they are dead. There are wonderful passages throughout about the futility of trench warfare, which are absolutely spot on and delivered in a wonderfully poetic way.

I wouldn’t recommend this to you if you’re a particularly squeamish individual, but if you’re okay with the quote above, you should be fine. Sassoon pulls no punches, but this gives the novel an extra dose of reality.

For me, it was a really nice change to read a war novel that wasn’t written in a Modernist style- the pages of this book practically turned themselves! This was an absolute treat, coming straight off reading Ford’s No More Parades!

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. There’s a few slow sections, but for the most part it goes along at a cracking pace. It’s likely that I’ll end up reading the third novel, as it deals with the time that Sherston spent in Craiglockhart hospital, getting treatment for his shell shock.

3.5/5 Stars

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War Series Review: Bid Me to Live by H.D.

It is 1917 and Julia Ashton lives in a shuttered room in Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury. A young wife, no longer happy, she mourns the loss of her baby, and lives that war-time life of love and death as her poet husband, Rafe, comes and goes from the trenches of the First World War. In this “Other Bloomsbury”, a world of make believe, where the actors play at life and sex, Julia refuses to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity, her failing marriage and her private world of pain. Then into her trance-like state breaks Frederick, the writer with the flaming beard and the driving, volcanic genius. Only when she flees the fog and fever of London to seek a new calm in the wild countryside of Cornwall, can Julia face the truth about herself, her marriage and her future with the forceful Frederick.

The blurb of this book says pretty much all I need to say about the plot of this novel. In my opinion, this synopsis gives too much away, but it’s the only one I could find for this book! It’s a bit sad how under appreciated H.D. is. I think her work is as good as Virginia Woolf’s, yet she’s largely unknown. H.D. was part of the Imagist group of writers, alongside D.H Lawrence, Richard Aldington, Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound. They moved in similar circles to Woolf, however the Imagists weren’t in the famous Bloomsbury Group, but were a group of their own.

H.D. (or Hilda Doolittle) was born in America but moved to England after she left college. She had been in a relationship with Ezra Pound, who dubbed her H.D., but they had broken apart, though remaining friends. She married the poet, Richard Aldington, who is portrayed as Rafe in this novel. In fact, a lot of the Imagist group is portrayed in this novel, as it’s a very thinly veiled autobiographical work or Roman-a-clef. Frederick is D. H. Lawrence, Vane is Cecil Gray, the eventual father of her child. All of the characters are based on the people in her life, who were impacting on her experience… even Aldington’s mistress, Dorothy Yorke, who is called Bella in Bid Me to Live.

Queen’s Square in 1812… 105 years too early but that’s the best I could find!

This is an intensely clever book, with smatterings of Greek mythology and references to art, poetry and music throughout. I recommend having at least a passing knowledge of Greek myths and classical poetry before getting into this, as it helped me a lot! I did have to Google some things so that I could get the full picture, but I learnt quite a lot during this process. It’s quite a scandalous novel, as it throws quite a bit of shade on some people portrayed. I really enjoyed some sections of this book more than others, especially the beginning. She gives one of the most emotional scenes of a soldier leaving for the trenches that I’ve ever read- it brought me to tears.

Now there was nothing but the rough khaki under her throat.

Her chin brushed buttons, her thin-clad chest felt buttons, he was holding her too tight.

She didn’t say anything. Then she said, “Go away, go away, or it will be too late”

“Too late,” he said, “it’s damn near too late- and if-“

“Don’t say it,” she said. “Don’t say anything”

“Just this,” he said, “wear this for me, one out of suits with fortune, who would give more- who would give more- but that-“

She was crying on the pillow. He didn’t see me crying. She heard the front door thud, like the front door thudded when there was a thick fog. (pg. 29-30)

It also has one of the saddest returns of a soldier that I’ve read, apart from that of The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West. I had tears in my eyes as I read it, as her struggle to accept the changes in her husband and the disintegration of their marriage carried on throughout the chapters.

You could not argue. His moods were more violent. He was not really the young officer on leave; that was not Rafe. Then if that was not Rade, well, let it be not-Rafe; the disintegrating factor was the glance; the look, the throwing aside of the uniform and the turn of the head, a stranger standing over by the book shelf, was Rafe Ashton. That is my husband, that is the man I married. The stranger became singularly strange, his language, his voice, the thing he brought into the room. Well, can you blame him? (pg. 45)

H.D and Aldington had a tempestuous writing relationship. He didn’t see much value in women’s writing, thinking that “women are incapable of the indirect method… [they are] writers belonging to the great second class” (1 Jan. 1914) H.D. targets both Aldington and Lawrence’s opinions on female authors several times in Bid Me to Live, most notably:

“You can’t light a fire unless the altar is there. You are right about man-is-man, woman-is-woman…But, Rico, I will go on and do it. I will carve my pattern on an altar because I’ve got to do it. You jeered at my making abstractions of people- graven images, you called them.” (pg. 164)

But what draws me to this book is H.D. herself. She’s a fascinating woman to look at. She travelled and lived all around Europe with her life partner, Annie Winifred Ellerman (or Bryher), for over 28 years. She lived as cousins with Bryher, who married twice for convenience. Bryher and her second husband, Kenneth, adopted H.D. and Cecil Grey’s daughter, Perdita, since Gray got cold feet during the pregnancy. She wrote poetry, studied Greek mythology and became mentally unstable. Bryher lovingly cared for her and quietly worked in the background to help her writing get recognition, even though they no longer lived together after 1946. Bryher herself is a fascinating woman- she even helped over 100 Jews escape the Nazi regime, until she had to flee them herself.

H.D. (left) and Bryher in 1930

The afterword in my edition (Virago Modern Classics) is a lovely missive written by Perdita on how she connected with this novel, finally understanding why her father was never spoken of. She seems to have had a childhood filled with love- two mothers and an adoptive father who thought the world of her. She still wished to know her father, though he was a taboo topic with H.D. and Bryher said he was a “bad man”. She did meet Gray eventually when she was older, but he never acknowledged her as his daughter. Perdita remained struck by the what if’s as she read this novel, as I did. What if H.D.’s first baby wasn’t stillborn? What if Aldington had not been unfaithful? What if Hilda’s relationship with Lawrence hadn’t quickly fizzled out? What if Gray hadn’t run away while H.D. was pregnant?

H.D and Bryher in their old age… I just love this photo.

My criticisms of the novel are relatively minor. I sometimes became confused by who she was speaking about, as she sometimes used nicknames or pet names without any previous indication as to whom that related to. Sometimes I couldn’t quite follow the text through its dream-like sequences, but I think on further re-reading (which I’ll have to do for uni) these will become slightly more easy to follow. This sort of thing is pretty common in novels like this, with an experimental style… I find it too in some of Woolf’s works as well. It takes some getting used to. There was also a fair bit of French in the beginning, but I just asked my mum what it meant or used a French dictionary… I don’t know French at all!

I also felt that the beginning of the novel was more streamlined and less confusing than the middle and end, but I think that was intentional. As Julia’s world gets shaken up, her narrative voice is shaken with it. It makes for some confusion, but I got the gist of what was going on most of the time, even if it took a couple of re-readings of paragraphs.

Another forewarning is that this book is a bit of a pain to get a hold of. To buy it on The Book Depository or Amazon, you’re looking at upwards of $95AUD, which is freaking ridiculous for a 190 page novel that should, by rights, be worth $20AUD. I managed to find it second hand on Better World Books, for the grand total of $7.50US. They don’t seem to have any copies at the moment, but better book finders than me will surely find it in a library or other second hand bookshop!

I firmly think that it’s not literary value that stops this book being well known- at least as well known as some of D.H Lawrence or Ford Madox Ford’s works. I believe that it’s because she was a female and was eclipsed by her male counterparts. It’s a sad thing, as so many other female novelists have received the same treatment. There’s fair chunks where Julia relates times where the men are talking shit about her work, and I don’t doubt for a second that she encountered this a lot in her life.

Hopefully, her work will become more widely available in the future, as it would be a perfect shame to let this book, and H.D. herself, fade into obscurity. This book was a challenging read for me, but one that really felt worthwhile. I’m looking forward to reading some of her poetry next, and have The Gift sitting here, which I finally (!) found at my uni library, in the wrong section, while I was looking for something else! Huzzah!

3.75/5 Stars

Edit: After reading this book perhaps 10 times over the course of this year, my rating has changed considerably. This book is pure and utter magic, and has transformed my life and reading mentality. The experimental prose takes a fair bit of getting used to, but once you understand (if that’s entirely possible) it, the flow and poetry of it is stunningly beautiful.

4.75/5 Stars

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Review: The Lost Diggers by Ross Coulthart

I was given this absolute monster of a book for Christmas after asking for it when I visited the Remember Me exhibition at the State Library of NSW in November. I think it’s the biggest book I have EVER owned, it seriously must weigh a few kilograms! It made for a very interesting reading experience, trying to work out how to read it in the most comfortable way possible! I guess this is what you would call a coffee table book, but that seems a bit light for the actual content of this book- to me, coffee table books are reserved for pictures of fashion or art, not photographs of long dead men (some of which who died in horrific circumstances).

The actual photographs in this book are AMAZING. I did think of rating this at 5 stars just because of the sheer greatness of the photographs, but decided to review as a whole. They have been beautifully presented and perfectly set out through the book. I really like that they have enlarged certain pictures to highlight details and explain how they have identified some of the diggers. The pictures are 1000% the reason why this book is amazing if you’re interested in this topic.

The research methods in this book are really interesting (to someone who does ANZAC research, and probably to the ordinary observer) and are fully explained. I really enjoyed seeing the way they discovered the identities of some of the men in the photographs and I enjoyed learning their stories. I also liked the level of community involvement in the research and stories of these men, and that they followed up on the lives of those who lived. Some stories broke my heart, but others made me think that there is perhaps some good that came from such a horrible situation.

My major gripe with this book is that the commentary tends to err on the emotive and self serving. There are a lot of references to Channel 7 (an Australian television station), who I believe commissioned the documentary that accompanies this book. There’s also a lot of references to the Facebook page for this project. This book was published in 2012, when I’m sure the Facebook page was very active. As of the time of my writing this review, there has been no activity since November, and that was an advertisement for another book that Ross Coulthart was involved with editing. That’s two months of inactivity, even with these photographs being on tour around the nation. This is why I don’t think a book like this should mention it’s Facebook page, it can render sections of the book irrelevant.

I also didn’t like how emotive the writing became at many points. I wish they had let the photographs speak for themselves, rather than to speculate and project the author’s feelings on the photographs. It was little things like the author saying “He must have been feeling incredibly sad at the moment his photo was taken and thinking about wanting to go home”. We have no idea what the soldier was feeling- perhaps he was feeling tired and was thinking about needing to pick up a pair of new socks! It’s a bit of a historian’s rookie error, and it repeats over and over throughout the book.

I know he is trying to make the men seem more tangible and understandable to the reader, but I believe that the photos really could have been left to speak for themselves. One only has to look into the eyes of some of the men to see the pain and hardship they have been enduring, without Coulthart telling us what he thinks they must have been thinking and feeling. He spends far too long arguing what certain men were, be it shell shocked, twins, brothers, young, old… When it comes down to it, we just can’t know. In some cases I agree with him, they definitely look like something is missing behind their eyes, or that they look like they were perhaps suffering from PTSD… but there are a fair few variables to consider before making those claims.

I did enjoy this book and I don’t regret getting it at all. I’ll definitely be picking this up over and over again to look at the amazing photographs, but in future I will be paying very little attention to the accompanying text. I would definitely recommend this if you’re interested in the ANZACs, the Thruiller photographs or World War One, but mainly for the amazing quality of the photographs. As far as I’m aware, there is no other book that has all the photographs displayed in such a coherent and high quality manner, so I say go for it!

Here are a few of the photos included in the book- my personal favourite is the second one!

3.5/5 stars

The Remember Me: The Lost Diggers of Vignacourt exhibition is at The State Library of New South Wales until the 18th of January 2015, so if you’re in Sydney and want to see it, you had better get a wriggle on! It’s definitely worth the trip and it’s totally free.

War Series Review #5: Time and Time Again by Ben Elton

It’s the 1st of June 1914 and Hugh Stanton, ex-soldier and celebrated adventurer is quite literally the loneliest man on earth. No one he has ever known or loved has been born yet. Perhaps now they never will be.
Stanton knows that a great and terrible war is coming. A collective suicidal madness that will destroy European civilization and bring misery to millions in the century to come. He knows this because, for him, that century is already history.
Somehow he must change that history. He must prevent the war. A war that will begin with a single bullet. But can a single bullet truly corrupt an entire century?
And, if so, could another single bullet save it?

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Alternate histories can be fun. It’s a pretty good way of learning about history and considering all the possibilities… what if something changed? How would that affect the future?

I found the premise of this book to be good… what would happen if we went back and stopped the bullet that killed Franz Ferdinand? Unfortunately, the rest of it fell flat for me, and became overly predictable. I still enjoyed the writing and parts of the story, but didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped to. The cover definitely drew me in, isn’t it cool?

It’s a little bit history, a little bit sci-fi and a little bit dystopian, which all worked surprisingly well together. The research in this is very good, giving you the definite sense of time travel. I quite liked the villain and the dystopian aspect of the book, but they weren’t there for long enough to impact the story enough for me.

To highlight how predictable this book is, just sit back and have a think about what could happen if you changed a major historic event like the beginning of World War One.

Thought about it?

You’ve probably got the right answer.

I rated this 2.5 stars, because I felt there weren’t enough consequences for some of the actions in this book, I wasn’t overly fond of the protagonist and I think it was just too predictable.

The rest of my review this time contains spoilers, because I’ve found it too hard to review this without giving something away! I think this book is best read without knowing much more than this, so if you intend on reading this, please don’t read any further!

The rest of you…

I borrowed this from a friend, as I really wasn’t sure that I’d like it enough to spend money on it, but the premise sounded interesting and it’s set in one of my favourite time periods. I’m now glad I did borrow this, as I definitely would have been annoyed if I’d spent $30 on this book.

I was really disappointed. Like I said, I think the premise is good, but it just fell flat for me. Maybe I’ve watched too much Doctor Who, but as soon as they mentioned going back in time to stop the bullet that killed Franz Ferdinand, I knew exactly what would happen. It’s fairly obvious… you’re going to cause big problems. Like wiping yourself out of existence, or making everything worse than it was before, wiping other people out of existence. And I was right.

McCluskie was an interesting villain, as it’s unusual to have an elderly female professor as the evil figure. You’re built up to tolerate her, but not like her particularly, which I also found interesting. It’s a bit of a change from the obviously evil character or the good one that turns out bad. I figured her out pretty quickly, which I was a bit disappointed in… I would have liked more of a surprise. I also think we maybe should have had more time with her, to let her do her villainy thing more thoroughly.

I didn’t really connect with Hugh- so much so that I just had to look up his name, even though I finished it not even 12 hours ago. Either that or my literary Alzheimers is coming on strong today. But no… he just seemed a little bit thick, a little bit too self righteous and just not relatable. We kept being told he’s “dishy”, heroic and very clever, but he really didn’t show it to me.

I liked the idea of going back in time with all your futuristic equipment and the problems that could cause, but I think that angle could have been dealt with more thoroughly… like, actually having consequences for someone coming across your futuristic things. That would have been cool, but it wasn’t really a problem. The fear was there that it would become one, but it never eventuates.

I think Bernadette should have had more consequences… actually, her appearance was around the point that I stopped enjoying the book. Hugh became even more annoying than he was before, with his crappy pick up lines and insta-love.

The future girl was really cool, I enjoyed her and how the dystopic future was built around actual historical figures. I wish she’d been around for longer. Actually, I wish the whole middle bit was cut, so no more Bernadette, with more emphasis on the beginning and end. It almost feels to me like there were three sections to the book, all being different.

So I rate this 2.5 stars. I liked the beginning and the end, I liked the premise, I liked the villain and I liked the cover. I just feel a bit disappointed in the predictability of the plot and how annoying the protagonist was. It’s a bit of a shame, as I really wanted to like this book. But, if you’re ever given the opportunity to time travel, keep this book in mind!

War Series #2: Maus by Art Spiegelman

My main focus is on World War One literature, but I’m not one to deny any decent war lit! 

I heard about Maus earlier this year and thought it sounded really interesting. It’s the first graphic novel I’ve ever read, so I was interesting to see how well I liked it. My hopes were not high, but I wanted to buy it as a gift for a student and thought I should check it out first.

9780141014081

 

Maus comes in two volumes, but I read the complete one because that was the only one in the store. I think that’s probably better, but I’m an impatient thing.

Maus is a comic book/graphic novel (I know nothing about the difference between the two!) about Spiegelman’s father’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps. The characters are animals, however. Jews are Mice, Germans are cats, Polish people are pigs and there’s a quick cameo of a French Frog. 

I think that the use of animals helps to separate yourself from the reality of the Holocaust. If you find yourself queasy when confronted with texts about this horrible part of history, you might find this easier to swallow than say, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account. Using animals definitely softens the blow, but it is still very confronting at certain points. This isn’t a negative- I would have been very annoyed if this tried to look at the Holocaust through rose tinted glasses, which I was afraid it would. 

I know there are people offended by the Polish/Pigs thing, but I really don’t see how many other domestic animals he could have used without equal offence. Horses maybe, but I don’t know if they’d have drawn well. 

I found it interesting that it jumps backwards and forwards between the camps and present day. It deals with the ongoing effects this event had on those who survived it, which is unusual and not something many people tend to consider. 

My only little issue was that I thought it would be in colour. It’s in black and white. It suits the nature of the text, but I would have liked colour.

I know that this genre scares people, and I completely understand why. Yes, it can be a very brutal and confronting genre of literature to read. I think that we must take the good with the bad in the world and it is a rare war story that has absolutely no positives whatsoever. Often, mateship is the defining positive in stories, as it is in Maus. 

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Holocaust and anyone looking to dip their toes into war literature!