Friday, September 21, 2018

The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason

A good name is more desirable than great riches; 
to be esteemed is better than silver or gold. 
Proverbs 22:1

What is honor? Once lost, can it be regained? At what cost? Is Pacifism equal to
cowardice? A.E.W. Mason's 1902 novel The Four Feathers seeks to answer these questions.

It took me a while to become invested in this novel, but I'm glad I stuck with it. The story
begins in 1870 with veterans of the Crimean war seated around a table together. As they discuss their past battles, a young, sensitive boy listens to their stories and wonders if he can successfully join in the tradition of his military ancestors.

Although Harry Feversham follows in their footsteps, he has no taste for military life. When he leaves the army, he is branded as a coward and must regain his honor in the eyes of those he loves. Since it takes him six years to do that, you won't find a lot of fast-moving action in this book. But if you enjoy better-than-average writing and some good ideas to chew on, you'll appreciate this book, which has been the source of at least four movie adaptations. 

My one quibble with the book is that in order to exonerate Harry Feversham, Mason depicts career military men as less than human. Early in the book a group of them is described as men of one stamp; no distinction of uniform could obscure their relationship—lean-faced men, hard as iron, rugged in feature, thin-lipped, with firm chins and straight, level mouths, narrow foreheads, and the steel-blue inexpressive eyes; men of courage and resolution, no doubt, but without subtleties, or nerves, or that burdensome gift of imagination;

Still, I enjoyed the book a great deal, especially because of the excellent narration done by Ralph Cosham. 


Blessings,

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Is There Anybody Out There?

Hi, blogging friends! I haven't had any comments for a couple of months and wondered if something somehow changed in my settings. Can someone please try to leave a comment to show me that it is working? If there's a problem, can you let me know at worthwhilebooks-at-gmail-com? Thanks!


Friday, September 14, 2018

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillie - Part Two

In last week's post I described G.I. ingenuity in prisoner of war camps. This week I want to focus on just one aspect of The Barbed-Wire University, the importance of the printed word.

Whereas European POWs could order books from home, it was not until March 1945 (after the war in Europe had ended!) that the British Red Cross even began planning to send books to the Far East. Book lovers had had to fend for themselves throughout the war. In some camps libraries were formed. The only requirement for membership was to contribute a book toward the stash. But prisoners were often forced to hand over their books to the censor shortly after capture.

The assortment of available books was eclectic to say the least. Fiction by A.J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier and Richard Llewellyn were in demand, but bored men would read whatever they could get their hands on. Stephen Alexander remembers reading Gone with the Wind, War and Peace, The Musical Companion, Life of Samuel Johnson, some Dante, and The Oxford Book of English Verse. Childhood favorites such as Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, and Winnie the Pooh were in high demand as read-alouds: As they lay exhausted and starving in their makeshift huts, Alice's transportation to a world of shrinking bodies, summary executions and exotic creatures from which there appeared to be no escape, must have seemed less of a flight of fancy than their own transformation from guardians of one empire to slaves of another. (544)

Artist Ronald Searle held onto his precious books as long as possible, but when forced to march in temperatures of 105 degrees, he lightened his load by discarding his least favorites and by removing the covers of his most treasured volumes. In some Thai camps books were in such short supply that they were cut into pieces so that 12 men could be reading the book at the same time.

Those who loved books had to protect them from smokers who used every piece of available paper to make home-made cigarettes. Paper was so scarce that the chaplain had to give permission for them to use pages of the Bible for this purpose, "after they read it, of course." I found it fascinating that pages of the Bible went up in smoke before any pages containing recipes since food fantasies were everyone's favorite mental escape.

Also of interest is this article on How WWII Turned Soldiers into Bookworms.

Blessings,

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies - Part One

Many books about WII prisoner of war camps emphasize the tortures, deprivations, and hair-raising escape attempts; Midge Gillies offers a different aspect of POW life by highlighting the daily activities of the captured allies. What did they do when they weren't obsessed with surviving? Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

One Far East POW described their work as "soul-destroying, heart-breaking labor" for which they were paid ten cents a day. Survival was as much about finding mental release as physical endurance. In many detention camps the men turned towards books and classes to relieve their minds of their suffering. By learning new skills and uncovering talents, they stole back some of the months and years that the war had robbed them of. Study kept boredom and depression at bay and it offered a hope that the years in captivity would not be entirely wasted.

Author James Cavell wrote of his POW experience in WWII: "Changi became my university instead of my prison. Among the inmates there were experts in all walks of life -- the high and the low roads. I studied and absorbed everything I could from physics to counterfeiting." Amid the hundreds of skills that soldiers imparted to one another were sewing, Roman history, Arabic (and a dozen other languages), pig-farming, accounting, painting, chess, shorthand, and acting. (Denholm Elliot and Clive Dunn pursued acting careers after the war.)  POWs from many different backgrounds enriched each others' lives with their treasure troves of knowledge. 

Painting done in captivity by Terry Frost
Terry Frost had enjoyed art as a hobby before becoming a European POW. In camp he was invited to join a group of artists. Frost later described the camp as a 'university' where he found a pleasure in reading and listening to music and poetry. Painting portraits introduced him to men he might not otherwise have spent time with and who assumed that, because he could paint, he would enjoy other art forms. One man invited him to listen to Beethoven on a Red Cross gramophone. He went to poetry readings and all kinds of plays, and listened to different kinds of musical instruments. He heard (read out loud) books sent by the Red Cross, anything from the classics to an autobiography of Henry Ford. Frost absorbed geography through a map on the wall. All around him men were studying and it was impossible not to be sucked into the process. As he lay on his bunk he listened to someone reading Paradise Lost, while he tested a man in the bed behind him on his German verbs. In the background there was a constant sound of men gambling. (pp. 244-245)

It is important to remember the huge difference between the prisoners held by the Germans and those held by the Japanese. European POWs had access to books, letters from home and Red Cross parcels - and a one percent death rate. Some of them studied law, took exams in the mail and became lawyers after the war. Most POWs in the Far East had few books, letters and packages and twenty-five percent died from malnutrition and tropical diseases. It was a good thing that Gillies wrote of the European prisoners in the first section of the book because once she described the deprivations of the FEPOWs, the others' hardships appeared trivial in comparison.

A fascinating book!

Blessings,