Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

So is there no fact, no event, in our private history, which shall not, sooner or later, lose its adhesive, inert form, and  astonish us by soaring from our body into the empyrean. Cradle and infancy, school and playground, the fear of boys, and dogs, and ferules, the love of little maids and berries, and many another fact that once filled the whole sky, are gone already; friend and relative, profession and party, town and country, nation and world, must also soar and sing”

The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1837

I recently read this beautiful essay by Emerson for the first time and it reminded me of my book club’s third choice, Out Stealing Horses, which I have been meaning to get to since it was among the Best of the Millennium by The Millions.

The plot involves Trond Sander looking back at a summer when he was 15 through the eyes and wisdom of a 67-year-old man at the turn of the millenium. The past is set during the Second World War when Norway was occupied by the Germans but the most moving portions involve Trond’s heart-breaking relationship with his father. The book is not just about growing up, both as a child and as an adult, but also manages to deliver a meditation on living with nature, the importance of physical work and the joy and pain of love and loss.

I loved the lyrical language for which credit needs to go both to author, Per Petterson, and translator, Anne Born:

“I picked up the jug and poured a little milk into my cup. That made the coffee smoother and more like the light and not so strong, and I shut my eyes into a squint and looked across the water flowing below the window, shining and glittering like a thousand stars, like the Milky Way could sometimes do in the autumn rushing foamingly on and winding through the night in an endless stream, and you could lie there beside the fjord at home in the vast darkness with your back against the hard sloping rock gazing up until your eyes hurt, feeling the weight of the universe in all its immensity press down upon your chest until you could scarcely breathe or on the contrary be lifted up and simply float away like a mere speck of human flesh in a limitless vacuum, never to return.”

The language is also very sensual and captures the sight, sounds and smells of living in the woods:

“The sun was high in the sky now, it was hot under the trees, it smelt hot, and from everywhere in the forest around us there were sounds; of beating wings, of branches bending and twigs breaking, and the scream of a hawk and a hare’s last sigh, and a tiny muffled boom each time a bee hit a flower. I heard the ants crawling in the heather, and the path we followed rose with the hillside; I took deep breaths through my nose and thought no matter how life should turn out and however far I travelled I would always remember this place as it was just now, and miss it.”

I don’t want to give away the ending but the novel manages to finish on a perfect note, and the last sentence in particular bought tears to my eyes as it captures what Trond has to teach us about life.

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Have been reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This is not something I would normally choose but was picked by my book club and proved to be surprisingly enjoyable. An endorsement on the cover from Elizabeth Gilbert had always caused me to run a mile from this book as I hate memoirs/self-help tomes that bash you over the head about teaching you a lesson.

As is obvious from the title,  the book is set in Guernsey, but what may not be so obvious is that it takes place just after the island’s occupation by the Germans during the Second World War. Although I am English, this was something I knew very little about, and am ashamed to say that I knew nothing at all about the Todt workers, the slave workers sent over from Europe by the Nazis.

Despite these serious issues, the book also manages to be really funny, especially in the letters written by the heroine, Juliet Ashton. She manages to perfectly capture the tone of English sarcasm, no mean feat given that the book’s author, Mary Ann Shaffer, was American.

Living in New York I was particularly interested in Juliet’s impressions of her American suitor:

“He’s always had more than his fair share of what we call cheek and Americans call can-do spirit.”

Another reason I loved the novel is because the characters are passionate about reading, using the book club of the title as an escape from the horrors of Nazi occupation. As Eben Ramsay, one of the Guernsey residents, writes to Juliet:

“We clung to books and to our friends.; they reminded us that we had another part to us. Elizabeth used to say a poem. I don’t remember all of it, but it began “Is it so small a thing to have enjoyed the sun, to have lived life in the spring, to have loved, to have thought, to have done, to have advanced true friends? ” It isn’t.”

My only quibble with the book is that it is totally in the form of letters, but the only really distinctive voice is Juliet’s, so sometimes you get confused about which character is actually writing.

A reaction from the people of Guernsey can be found here.

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