Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Grief: Author Information


The Wikipedia entry on Andrew Holleran provides information about the author as well as useful Wikipedia links to other works and related topics.

Be sure to check out the Paul Morton interview with Holleran in Bookslut for March 2007; an external link is provided at the bottom of the the Wikipedia entry. It provides a good introduction to his ideas and themes.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Grief by Andrew Holleran

Grief. What is it? What effect can it have in our lives? In Grief, Andrew Holleran explores these issues. A middle-aged man who is gay grieves over the loss of his mother, who has recently died after an extended stay at a nursing home. He accepts a temporary teaching assignment in Washington, D. C., filling in temporarily for a faculty member who is on sabbatical, and rents a room in a house whose landlord is a friend of a friend. In his landlord's library he finds and reads the letters and journals of Mary Todd Lincoln and becomes consumed with interest in how she describes her experiences leading to eventual deterioration, unable to reconcile herself to the tragedy of the death of her husband, the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. As he contemplates her decline, he confronts other kinds of grief, such as the grief of middle-aged men like himself who can no longer enjoy the excitement and friendship of youth, and the grief of a whole community that has lost so many people to a ravaging disease.

In this powerful novel, Holleran explores grief in a number of manifestations. What do you think about this novel's view of grief? In what ways do the people depicted in this novel find it difficult or impossble to let go of a vanished past and move on? What does Holleran convey to readers about both the awareness and lack of awareness of the narrator and other characters? How does his view of grief compare with your own experiences of or observations about grief?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Night Watch: What to Read Next

Thanks to all who participated in our discussion of The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. If you have more to contribute, please do -- most of the discussion is in the comments to the first post. Next Wednesday, August 1, we will begin a discussion of Grief by Andrew Holleran -- please join us!

Besides Grief, what will you read next? Recommending books can be so difficult because often the only qualities that can be articulated and put into library catalogs and search engines are basic categories like setting and major character attributes. Much of what made The Night Watch unique and compelling, to my mind, are its portrayals of companionship, love, loss, and redemption, but those are not quite searchable qualities (though computerized "reader's advisory" databases such as NoveList and Library of Congress subject headings make an effort).

So here is a very selective list of titles, based on those more concrete aspects, that you might want to check out now that you've read The Night Watch. All but one are contemporary works of historical fiction, and all are either set in 1930s-1940s England or use homosexuality as a theme, or both. Enjoy!

  • First off, if you liked The Night Watch but haven't read any of Waters's previous novels, I recommend you do so (note that these are all set in Victorian England, not the 1940s):
    Tipping the Velvet

  • Women's Barracks by Tereska Torres
    Originally published, to much scandal, in 1950 and reissued with a pulpy cover that plays up the book as a lesbian melodrama, this is the autobiographical tale of female soldiers in the Free French Army in a London barracks during World War II. (Says the author, "there are five main characters. Only one and a half of them can be considered lesbian. I don't see why it's considered a lesbian classic. I find it maddening.") More details can be found in the article "O! What a Steamy War" by John Lichfield (The Independent, June 16, 2007).

  • Helen Carey has written a trilogy of novels about ordinary people in WWII London:
    Lavender Road
    Some Sunny Day
    On a Wing and a Prayer

  • Life Mask by Emma Donoghue
    Suspicions of a scandalous love triangle between two members of the nobility and a commoner erupt in 18th century England.

  • While England Sleeps by David Leavitt
    Issues of class and sexuality play out against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil war and the rise of fascism in Europe.

  • Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon
    The early 20th-century Jewish immigrant experience, from the Pale of Settlement to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, as lived by a young and spirited lesbian.

  • Forests of the Night: A Johnny Hawke Novel by David Stuart Davies
    For those who enjoyed the setting of The Night Watch and like mysteries and suspense novels, this is the first book in a projected series about a one-eyed private investigator in Blitz-era London.

  • The Night Watch on LibraryThing
    For hours of fun and perhaps even edification, take a look at LibraryThing!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Night Watch: "Conchy"

Several people have brought up Fraser in their comments. He would have been an interesting character to be inside of (as opposed to, for example, Julia, whom I found intriguing but a little too one-dimensional in her narcissistic chilliness, or Reggie), though I think Waters made a good choice to keep his true self at a distance from the reader.

Fraser can sometimes rouse himself to encourage his fellow prisoners to think critically, as when he chastises Duncan and the others for saying "it's someone else's war, not ours" -- "'...You're doing just what they want you to do.[...]You're giving up your right to think! I don't blame you, Pearce. It's hard, in here, when there's no encouragement to do anything else. When they don't let you listen, even, to the news!'" Then he picks up the newspaper that's had almost all the news articles clipped out and says, "'That's what they'll do to your mind,' he said, 'if you let them. Don't let them, Pearce!' He spoke very passionately, holding Duncan's gaze with his clear blue eyes[...]"

But he's also full of doubt, as in the final prison scene in 1944, when the bombs are falling close by and he says to Duncan: "'Don't you think I never wonder, about -- about fear? It's the very worst thing, the very worst thing of all. I could take any amount of tribunals. I could take women calling me gutless in the streets! But to think to oneself, quietly, that the tribunals and the women might be right; to have the suspicion gnawing and gnawing at one: do I truly believe this, or am I simply a -- a bloody coward?'" This scene ends with the two men lying together in Duncan's bed even after the All Clear has sounded, taking comfort in the ordinary human contact denied to everyone in the prison setting -- extraordinary circumstances heightening the impact of two people reaching out to each other in really such a simple way. "They settled back into an embrace -- as if it were nothing, as if it were easy; as if they weren't two boys, in a prison, in a city being blown and shot to bits; as if it were the most natural thing in the world."

What is Fraser really like? In the 1947 section, released from prison, he was annoying Vivien (and this reader) as she tried to accomplish her secret quest give back Kay's ring, and he stood up Duncan that same night. He's basically a normal young man (upper class, like Kay and Julia and unlike the other main characters), a reporter now, representing a more fortunate life despite his past life as an inmate. Perhaps with him the Pearce siblings will find some happiness at last.

Comment on this storyline below, or participate in the discussion on the initial Night Watch post.

And for some historical context on this storyline, here are a few resources (to access some, you will need a valid BPL card to get into our subscription databases):

  • "Prisoners of Conscience" by Juliet Gardiner (History Today, November 2004)


    "The London tribunal [before which people explained why they should be exempt from military service] which sat in Fulham was notorious, and so was the Newcastle-based Northumberland and Durham one. The chairman, Judge Richardson, was reported to have insulted Jehovah's Witnesses mocking 'you might pray and preach, but what good do you do?' and one day delivered the opinion that 'I am certain, as sure as I sit here, that if Christ appeared today he would approve of this war'."


    "There was no such thing as a typical Conscientious Objector. A Mass-Observation survey in July 1940 concluded that most 'have occupations where particular intelligence is required, or a higher standard of education ... and even highbrow tastes in cultural matters'." This included "a tendency to be vegetarian, love their mothers, love animals, [though] not all these things are unconventional." In fact, a wide range of professions were represented among COs of the era.

  • "Harry S. Truman and the Issue of Amnesty for Conscientious Objectors" by Andrew J. Dunar (Peace & Change, July 1991)

    A detailed article about President Truman's attitude towards conscientious objectors in the U.S. during World War II and its aftermath, when a high-profile amnesty campaign tried for years to free still-imprisoned COs.


    "By most measures, America's treatment of COs during World War II had been harsh. COs were four times as likely to be arrested as during World War I, despite the dismal civil liberties record of the Wilson administration. Violation of the Selective Service Act, a misdemeanor during World War I, had been upgraded to a felony. Prison terms had increased from a maximum of a year to an average of more than two and a half. Comparison with Canada and Great Britain showed other democracies more tolerant in granting CO status, more benevolent in administration of alternative service programs, and less likely to restrict civil rights of COs after the war. Even the most progressive improvement in the treatment of COs--the establishment of CPS camps in which civilians supervised COs in forestry camps and public hospitals--was but a qualified success and seemed to some 'an experiement in democratic suppression of a dissident religious minority in time of war.'" [emphasis mine]

  • "Conchie": The Wartime Experiences of a Conscientious Objector by Ernest C.T. Spring

  • "Forgotten Women of World War II: Wives of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service" by Heather T. Frazer and John O'Sullivan (Peace & Change, Fall 1978)

  • "Conscientious Objector in World War II" by Jack Powelson (The Quaker Economist, Feb. 15, 2004)

  • And if ever you're in Leeds, you could visit the Second World War Experience Centre, which "collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and encourages access to the surviving material evidence and associated information of the men and women who participated in the war in whatever capacity, whether military, civilian or conscientious objector."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Night Watch: Odds and Ends

A few housekeeping items...

  • You may not realize that you can subscribe to the RSS feed of this blog/discussion (unfortunately, the comments will not appear in your feed reader, just the posts, so you'll still want to visit the site frequently to see what everyone's saying!). A number of free web-based feed readers are reviewed in this article and this article. Wikipedia of course has an informative entry for aggregators/feed readers if you're not sure what I'm talking about.

  • We heard from a reader who tried repeatedly to submit a comment that never came through. If that's happened to you, please email your comment to bookdiscussions@brooklynpubliclibrary.org and we'll post it from there.

  • And don't forget that in just a couple of weeks, we will begin our discussion of Andrew Holleran's Grief, a brief but deeply affecting portrayal of love and loss.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Night Watch: The Love That Dares Not...

According to Lillian Faderman in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, wartime in the U.S. offered a more tolerant atmosphere for lesbians, especially in the military. This was in contrast to the 1930s, when a greater awareness of the existence of homosexuality (no longer did the true relationship of two close female friends go unsuspected) ratcheted up hostility towards same-sex partnerships. In The Night Watch, we get a sense of the war years as a time for boundaries to be crossed, including extramarital affairs and areas where lesbians could exist with some amount of freedom, like working the ambulance "night watch." (For me, though, one of the gaps in the story was how exactly Kay and Helen got together -- Helen never having been with a woman before, and there being no easy way for Kay to figure out which "sort of love" she gravitated towards.)

While Helen lives in fear of being found out, it is still relatively easy to speak innocently to her coworker about the "friend" she lives with, and even her and Julia's vulgar neighbor doesn't speculate salaciously about the nature of their shared living arrangement -- the "eunuchs upstairs," he says about them.

The all-female representations of the universally human pathos of relationships -- for example, being in love with someone who doesn't love you, as Kay experiences with Helen, as Helen ends up doing, and as, we eventually learn, Julia has done with Kay -- make this a book that, indeed, writes lesbians back into history but avoids being of niche interest.

What do you think Kay's future holds? Mickey's? As their 46-year-old friend Binkie says, "'Tell me truly: doesn't the life we lead ever get you down? It's all right when one is young. It's positively thrilling when one is twenty! [...] But one gets to an age where one sees the truth of it. One gets to an age where one is simply exhausted. And one realises one has finished with the whole damn game...You wait till you're my age [...] and wake every morning to gaze on the vast tract of uncreased linen that is the other side of the divan. Try being gallant to that...We shan't even have children, don't forget, to look after us in our old age.'"

Kay, after all, has no financial obligation to work, so what will she do now? Will the return of her ring, and with it the reminder of an intense time long gone, spur her to action of a more fulfilling sort than "getting up a girl" in movie theaters?

Friday, July 6, 2007

Upcoming Chat Book Discussions

We're still doing The Night Watch here, but in the meantime I want to announce the three upcoming chat discussions that will be facilitated by a New York Public Library librarian throughout the summer.

This information, as well as the log-in, is on the Book Discussions and Author Chats page on NYC's Summer Reading website.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Welcome again to Brooklyn's online book discussion, Brooklyn Book Talk. Various BPL librarians are leading these discussions, and each month features a new title chosen by a different librarian. The titles can range from classics to contemporary fiction, drama and non-fiction. We are hoping that you will find these discussions entertaining and educational.

Today we begin a month of discussion of The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. This is also a title on NYC's Summer Reading booklist for adults.

Sarah Waters is an English writer renowned for her detailed and entertaining works of historical fiction. She has been publishing since 1998, with her four novels thus far each winning numerous prizes and accolades. Her first book, Tipping the Velvet, was adapted as a BBC drama in 2002, Fingersmith (2001) was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and Waters was named one of Granta's twenty Best of Young British Writers in 2003. Her most recent work, The Night Watch, takes place in the years just after and during World War II and marks the first of her books to depart from a Victorian London setting. Waters began writing novels after doing her PhD thesis on lesbian historical fiction and becoming intrigued about the struggles and passions of queer women of past eras, the late 19th century in particular.

The Night Watch centers around four young Londoners -- Kay, Duncan, Helen, and Vivien -- in different periods in 1947, 1944, and 1941. Rather than take up space going through the plot here, I refer you to the Wikipedia entry for the book.

While there is much to talk about in this, Waters's darkest and most complex novel to date, to begin our discussion, I want to bring up the most obviously unusual aspect of the book -- the reverse narration. Since I had read some reviews (and the summary on the book itself!), I was well aware that the story would move backwards and that the end of the first section (taking place in 1947) would be the end point of the story itself. In other words, the last view we have of the characters comes only a third of the way through the book. I had worried about losing the drive to finish, since I already knew what would "happen" to everyone, but the rich plot and Waters's fine writing meant I had no trouble keeping the book open. In fact, I did a fair amount of flipping back and forth while I read.

What did you think? Did you have trouble following the story as it developed (or "undeveloped")? Why do you think Waters chose to use the reverse narrative?

Please read our Discussion Guidelines before participating.

Additional resources: