Category Archives: spain

War and letters and stories.

I had a rough start with For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.  As his is typical style, it was written in a matter of fact, moment by moment description, in this case mostly from the voice of Robert Jordan, an American fighting with the revolutionary guerillas in the Spanish Civil War.  But, Hemingway accomplished his goal and while reading it I felt like I was there with him, moment by moment, which is probably also the reason why I never made it past 3-5 pages when reading it before bed and why it took multiple in-flight reading swathes of time and my break from school to finish.
About two thirds of the way through, Jordan spends time reading the letters found in the pockets of a dead opposing cavalryman, which spurs on one of the longest inner conversations that the reader hears in the story. The entire account is fascinating, and is Jordan thinking about who and why he has killed.  Here are a few excerpts:
“You never kill anyone you want to kill in a war, he said to himself,” (302)…
“How many of those you have killed have been real fascists? Very few. But they are all the enemy to whose force we are opposing force,” (304).
“Listen, he told himself. You better cut this out.  This is very bad for you and your work,” (304).
I would argue, and actually don’t think it’s that controversial of a theory, that the reading of his dead enemy’s letters were what brought on his mental struggle with the death that accompanies war.  What I find interesting about this, though, is that it comes back to the core of my own beliefs: once you know someone’s personal story, even the bits of daily minutia detailed in letters Jordan read, it is near impossible to view them in the same way.
I struggle with war because whenever I read about it.  I am constantly thinking about the lives of the lost–on either side–and generally it is the daily minutia that destroys me.  The first time I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., it was the displays of the personal effects those sent to concentration camps gave up: the piles of brushes and razors, the pile of shoes.
This is what creates empathy in literature and I why I plead with people to read…and write.  To me, reading is the great metaphor for understanding humanity and a reminder for me to remember that everyone in front of me has a story–whether it’s a student who is driving me crazy, the driver who is honking at me to walk faster through a crosswalk, a stranger I pass on a run.
The interesting part of this excerpt from the book, though, is that Jordan says that thinking in this vein is very bad for his work–which is true.  To fight for his cause in this context, personalizing the enemy would lead to failure.  He talks himself through the fact that he must do what he is doing to create a better world for the future: and yet, there are people fighting on the other side who believe the same thing, whether it is war on a national level or between two people.  And sometimes, looking back, there is a clear, right side.  Sometimes there isn’t.
I wonder a lot about the fact that throughout history, it has come down to fighting to achieve freedom. I wonder a lot about what this says about us as people.  I wonder about what would create a world (or nation or state or city or home) without violence.  I don’t think it’s possible to live without conflict, but I wonder what it would take to teach us to handle it differently. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be writing about it as many of my recent reads have been about war, both fiction and non fiction, adult and young adult.   I have no answers and it only gets more complicated, but reading and writing is the only way for me to work through it all.

on finding kindred books and getting lost in them.

“I couldn’t help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.” 
For this post, I opted not to go into coming of age, falling in love, the making of villains or a well developed mystery.  I opted not to study characters. Rather, this post is more of a space to catalogue some of my favorite parts of a recent favorite book. 

For quite a few months, I looked at The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon every time I went into a bookstore. The back blurb promises a historical setting and a mystery (a literary genre I have recently remembered that I love, though my ability to log incredible hours with CSI, The Closer, Law and Order, Lie to Me and Bones should have been the first clue) among other things you’ll read about below.   But since I currently have no less than 20 in my apartment that I haven’t read, I obviously have no business buying new books.  My lucky day occurred when two of my high level readers actually requested that I buy it for my classroom library. Done. And read it immediately.  Sorry kiddos.

Some books are a commitment: you go into reading knowing it’s going to be work, but worth it.
Other books are entertaining. Others offer new perspectives. And some are kindred. 

Usually I reserve the work kindred who the few souls in the world who love the same things I love, whose hearts break over the same things in the world, who derive joy from the same pastimes. But while reading The Shadow of the Wind, I realized that books can be kindred, too: stories that hold so many loves of my life within its pages that it is impossible to put down and tragic when it ends.  

Why this book is kindred:

1. It takes places in Barcelona.  Sigh. That city stole my heart last August and I loved that I could picture all of the streets, that I understood references to Las Ramblas, Els Quatre Gats and Tibidabo (sigh).  I love that the characters lived in the neighborhood where I stayed.  (“This city is a sorceress, you know, Daniel? It gets under your skin and steals your soul without you knowing it,” page 480.)

2. This is the first line: “I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”

3. It is a book about people who love books: “Bea says that the art of reading slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.” 
“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”

4. It is a book about a book that changes people: “Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.”

So. I hope that you find a book so worthy of getting lost in.  And if your name is Alison Covey, you should probably visit your local library right away and borrow this particular book right away.