Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts

As a preliminary note, I will mention that I (David) am going two weeks in a row. Kim has been working on Les Misérables and needs another week to get through it. Anyone who has taken a crack at that book will understand. Les Misérables is huge. It took me a solid week to get through that one, and that was when my wife was out of the country and I had totally uninterrupted, solitary reading time. Anyway, to give Kim a little more breathing room on Les Misérables, I’ll look this week at Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts.


This project doesn’t seem to have me run across a great number of fantasy works. There are a few here and there, but most (though far from all) of the books in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books are definitely literary realism. I am the first to admit, this is probably due to the preferences of the literary establishment as opposed to a proof about the quality of fantasy novels. There are plenty of amazing fantasy novels out there, they just don’t get talked about as much by ‘literary’ people. Frankly, I am just as bad as anyone else on this, so it was good to break out of my current comfort zone a little bit and look at Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Lydia Millet.)

I mean, what else could you call War with the Newts other than fantasy? Sure, it is written in as literary a manner as anyone could ask, full of themes about nationalism, corporations, consumerism, and the folly of mankind. Still, it is a book from the thirties about giant, intelligent (they learn to talk, study science, and many other things), bi-pedal newts. How else would you classify something like that?

Take one crusty sea-captain. Have him run across a sheltered cove of a tropical island where the remaining population of an ancient race of newt creatures can be found. For some reason, he takes a liking to the things. He forms a plan to form colonies of the creatures in various parts of the globe and use them to harvest pearls.

Of course, most of the book takes place in how mankind (somewhat predictably, though comedic to the extent that it isn’t tragic) then deals with the newts:

G. H. Bondy: ‘Gentlemen, let us forgo the idea straight away that we could possibly maintain our monopoly in Newts in the future. Unfortunately, under existing regulations, we can’t take out a patent on them.’ (Laughter) ‘We can and must maintain our privileged position with regards to the Newts in another way; an indispensable condition, of course, will be that we tackle our business in a different style and on a far greater scale than hitherto.’ (Hear, hear!) ‘Here, Gentlemen, we have a whole batch of provisional agreements. The Board of Directors proposes that a new vertical trust be set up under the name of The Salamander Syndicate. The members of this Syndicate would be, apart from our Company, a number of major enterprises and financially powerful groups: for example, a certain concern which would manufacture special patented metal instruments for the Newts – ‘ (Are you referring to MEAS?) ‘Yes, sire, I am referring to MEAS. Further, a chemical and foodstuffs cartel which would produce cheap patented feedingstuff for the Newts; a group of transportation companies which – making use of experience gained so far – would take out patents on special hygienic tanks for the transport of Newts; a block of insurance firms which would undertake the insurance of the animals purchased against injury or death during transportation and at their places of work; further various other interested parties in the fields of industry, export and finance which, for weighty reasons, we will not name at this stage.

Nor is the commercialistic exploitation of the Newts the only non-surprising way that man deals with the newts. Just consider this passage from a section of articles related to the development of the ‘newt situation’:

Their flesh has also been considered to be unfit for consumption and indeed poisonous; when eaten raw it causes acute pain, vomiting, and sensual hallucinations. Dr Hinkel established after numerous experiments conducted on himself that these harmful effects disappear if the cut meat is scalded with hot water (as in the case of some toadstools) and after thorough rinsing is pickled for twenty-four hours in a weak permanganate solution. After that it can be boiled or steamed, and will taste like inferior beef. In this way we consumed a Newt we used to call Hans; it was an educated and clever animal with a special talent for scientific work; it used to be employed in Dr Hinkel’s department as his laboratory assistant and could be trusted with the most exacting chemical analyses. We used to have long chats with it in the evenings, amused by its insatiable thirst for knowledge. We were sorry to lose our Hans but he had lost his sight in the course of my trepanation experiments. His meat was dark and spongy but there were no unpleasant aftereffects.

In short, the newts are exploited much as any other cheap labor source that society has determined is not a person has typically been exploited over time. In the interests of money (and poor judgment), newts soon outnumber humans by a frightening degree. I think you can guess what happens next.

For me, this book took a little bit to get going and did get a bit preachy at times. Still, once it did get going, I enjoyed the book immensely. Čapek creates a captivating world with these newts, one about which I was fascinated to read. Fantasy might not be my favored choice right now, but I did like War with the Newts

Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle

I doubt that the name Tillie Olsen is unfamiliar to most readers. Her story “I Stand Here Ironing” (which is included in the collection Tell Me a Riddle that I am actually discussing here) is one of the most widely anthologized stories around. For anyone who reads, Tillie Olsen just seems to feel like an old friend. That’s one reason I jumped at the chance to take a look at her collection Tell Me a Riddle.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Scott Turow.)

And, though this is a small collection, I was just as impressed by the other stories inside as I was (and was again) by “I Stand Here Ironing.” I kept pausing to sit and roll what I’d just read in my head, happening to flip to the bio and picture at the back as I did so. That’s when I happened to notice that Tillie Olsen was from Nebraska.

I did some looking, for some reason never having heard where Olsen was from. She was born in Wahoo (which I’ve been to numerous times), but she grew up in Omaha (where I lived for the better part of thirty years). She went to Omaha High School before having to drop out at 15 and work. That last part didn’t interest me as much, until I realized that Omaha High School was the original name of Central High School, where I attended.

It was just such a weird thing to suddenly realize, to think that she once even sat in the same classrooms I did, that I had this connection to someone I’d always felt a connection to…just because of her writing. The connection I feel to Olsen’s stories is still much more important, but it was all kind of a weird synchronicity kind of moment.

For me, the reason I find Olsen’s stories so magical is actually part of that odd experience. Her writing just seems to tap into something inside people, recognized like it’s always been known but never realized. We may not have lived the lives of Olsen’s characters…but we have felt their stories.

Just re-look at the opening section from “I Stand Here Ironing”:

            I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.

            “I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and who I’m deeply interested in helping.”

            “Who needs help.” … Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.

            And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.

There is such a tender bluntness to these words, a resignation yet an outcry to and against all that we cannot change in our lives. In short, Olsen zaps us right into the inseparable pleasure/pain that is our lives as human beings.

Now, don’t think that just because I only quote from “I Stand Here Ironing” that it is the only good story in the collection, or that it is the only one I wanted to talk about. I didn’t just jump for that one because everyone has read it already. Instead, there are only four stories here. I wanted to show what I needed to show and still leave the rest for you to find, if you haven’t already. You all deserve that. After all, there is just only so much Olsen out there for us to read. So many other things laid claim to her life.

Though, I have to stop before wishing it could have been otherwise for Olsen. The stories in Tell Me a Riddle are such that I hesitate to even wish something that could damage them. Olsen’s life was still part of her writing. If things had been better for her and she could have written more, who knows if we would have gotten something like “O Yes” or “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” She might have turned out many more masterpieces…or we might have gotten none of what we treasure so much.

Olsen’s talent was amazing. I may wish she had written more, but what she gave us is more than we can reasonably ask of anyone. Just pick up Tell Me a Riddle and I’m sure you’ll agree with me…presuming you haven’t read it already.

This was supposed to be Les Mis. Then it was supposed to be Charlotte’s Web. However, it is in fact The Lorax

Disclaimer:  I am currently attempting to watch the 2011 Jane Eyre since I’ve had the netflix dvd for 3 days now and would like to be able to get my next dvd, I will do my hardest to not confuse Jane Eyre with The Lorax.  If I suddenly wonder if the Once-ler is haunting Jane Eyre’s happiness, you will understand I am sure.

Now…the reason for my title.  Originally, I was attempting to read Les Miserables.  Then Saturday, Amelia woke with a cough.  No big deal.  Called the doctor’s office to be sure, but we all felt it was an upper resp infection.  4 hours later, my daughter is laying semi-conscious on the couch laboring to breath, panting in short breaths with a fever.  Another nurse call was made, this one telling me to get to the er after steaming Amelia in the bathroom first.  This was my first time in almost 5 years of needing to go to the ER for Amelia.  As you can imagine, this caused a great amount of fear and stress on Greg and I’s part.  We were sent home with an inhaler and super duty amoxicillin.   And we spent the next 3 days in a haze of medicine giving (ibuprofen alternated with tylenol for fever, amoxicillin twice a day, her inhaler every couple of hours and benadryl from time to time for relief of some of the symptoms) and random demands for a piece of toast.  Exhortations to eat, drink.  Getting her to rouse from the couch for a bath.  Basically my brain allowed me to the joy of watching tv as it was too tired to do anything else (I became oddly addicted to Gordon Ramsey’s Hotels from Hell and Hoarding during this time).  So, there went Les Mis finishing.  Then I decided, well I can do Charlotte’s Web, Amelia’s better enough for me to be able to read Charlotte’s Web.  I began it.  One chapter or two into it, Amelia in a burst of unforeseen energy ran it into her pit of do….um room and I have been unable to retrieve it.  There went Charlotte’s Web.  Luckily! I was able to track down her copy of The Lorax and read that for today.  Technically I have read it before, but not as a kid, only as a parent reading it to her child.  And I can assure you, there is an actual difference between reading a story to your child for their enjoyment and reading it to yourself for your own review.

The Lorax is a favorite of Lydia Millet.

I’ve heard that many state that Dr Seuss wrote The Lorax as an eco statement.  That might be the case.  The thing I love about Seuss is that he never talks down to kids.  I grew up reading ALL the time, and as such ran across more than one “morality” tale for kids.  The plot usually was “Little Jane is bad and doesn’t listen.  Little Jane gets sent to horrible orphan….oh wait sorry that’s Jane Eyre 😛 haha jk.  Honestly though, the plot usually was some kid be bops along and is generally a good kid.  But they don’t listen to the well meaning adults in their lives or the goody goody friends they have and DIRE CONSEQUENCES OCCUR.  But then some good grown up comes along and rescues them from themselves and they learn THE IMPORTANT LESSON OF LISTENING TO YOUR ELDERS.  Or some such crap.  Seuss never made me feel that way and still doesn’t as an adult.

The thing I look for in any story is _the story_.  I love any sort of narrative device, any sort of genre, IF THE STORY IS GOOD.  I don’t care about the fact that some author uses some fancy narrative trick, if there isn’t a good story behind that trick, the book is crap.  Seuss fulfills my good story love quite well.

The “nonsense” words he uses helps.  Thneeds are what the Truffula trees are used to make.  The Once-Ler comes and sees an idyllic place with beautiful Truffula trees and beautiful creatures cavorting around.  He manages to make a Thneed (the thing everyone needs!) from a Truffula tree and begins mass producing Thneeds, cutting down Truffula trees.  A little round mossy looking guy named the Lorax comes to warn him.  But the Once-Ler doesn’t listen.  Until the very last truffula tree falls.  Then the Lorax leaves a rock with the word Unless inscribed on it and disappears.  The way Seuss makes it a story that needs searched out by a young boy going to a house on the outskirts and paying with a variety of things including a nail, then the story itself with the nonsense words that end up being very lyrical when reading aloud.  When it comes off my tongue while reading to Amelia, it has a feel of a fairy  tale, not just a story book.  I loved having the experience of both reading this to a child for the first time and reading it individually as an adult.

I also am really happy that Dr Seuss ended up on these lists, even if it was just once with one book.  I think people forget about Dr. Seuss when listing favorite books.  I mean, they’re _kids’_ books right?  The literary devices and language that Seuss uses though, make him an author whose books shouldn’t be forgotten merely because one now can read War and Peace.

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz

I have to admit, the title alone of The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz piques my interest. Even before I knew what it was about, I was interested. Even better, the strange blend of the real and fantastic is well suited for what I expected from this wonderful title. I didn’t expect one thing and get another.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Judy Budnitz.)

Just take a look at this passage from “Visitation”:

            Gradually these disappearances ceased to make any impression on us, we became used to them and when, after many days, Father reappeared a few inches shorter and much thinner, we did not stop to think about it. We did not count him as one of us any more, so very remote had he become from everything that was human and real. Knot by knot, he loosened himself from us; point by point, he gave up the ties joining him to the human community.

            What still remained of him–the small shroud of his body and the handful of nonsensical oddities–would finally disappear one day, as unremarked as the gray heap of rubbish swept into a corner, waiting to be taken by Adela to the rubbish dump.

A father who shrinks away, ignored, and is eventually discarded in the trash is exactly the sort of strangeness stuck inside the mundane world that I was hoping for when I first read the title The Street of Crocodiles.

I’ve seen this book described as stories, but it seems to me to be more of a novel in story form. The stories are certainly stories, but there is a larger tale being told from the individual pieces. All of the stories describe this odd and at the same time both touching and disturbing world of the narrator’s childhood, as can be seen in this portion of “Mr. Charles:

And finally, when after sneaking from dresser to closet, he had found piece by piece all he needed and had finished his dressing among the furniture that bore with him in silence, and was ready at least, he stood, hat in hand, feeling rather embarrassed that even at the last moment he could not find a word which would dispel that hostile silence; he then walked toward the door slowly, resignedly, hanging his head, while someone else, someone forever turning his back, walked at the same pace in the opposite direction into the depths of the mirror, through the row of empty rooms which did not exist.

For me, that’s the overall story, that’s the thread that runs between the pieces.

Now, these stories seem deceptively simple. The language is straightforward and the prose seems easily accessible. However, for me, there was always something elusive as I read, something I couldn’t quite get a hold of. I’d think I’d have a handle on it but then, for some frustrating dream-like reason, I wouldn’t.

It reminded me a little of some of what goes on in “Cinnamon Shops.” The narrator gets sent on an errand and despite the time sensitive nature, he decides it is an opportunity to stop in these magical shops he always walks by. However, despite his familiarity with their location, he can’t find them:

Lent wings by my desire to visit the cinnamon shops, I turned into a street I knew and ran rather than walked, anxious not to lose my way. I passed three or four streets, but still there was no sign of the turning I wanted. What is more, the appearance of the street was different from what I expected. Nor was there any sign of the shops. I was in a street of houses with no doors and of which the tightly shuttered windows were blind from reflected moonlight. On the other side of those houses–I thought–must run the street from which they were accessible. I was walking faster now, rather disturbed, beginning to give up the idea of visiting the cinnamon shops.

In his search, he finds a high school where he frequently visits art classes and, still despite the time-sensitive nature of his errand, decides to pop in. But, just like the cinnamon shops, he can’t find the classroom. Instead, he finds himself in a wing of the school building that is completely unknown to him.

This confusion parallels what it was like for me to read The Street of Crocodiles. It seemed like I got what was going on, tender weirdness mixed in with the real world, but suddenly the path I was following went somewhere else entirely. These stories seem simple, but they are not. There is just a lot I didn’t grasp on this first reading…not to say that I wasn’t enjoying myself.

I expect that these are stories that I would need to read and reread quite a few times in order to fully appreciate. They don’t seem complex, until you try to understand. However, unlike other books I’ve said that about, I actually feel the need to come back and reread the stories of The Street of Crocodiles at some point. There seems to be something magical here that I haven’t gotten yet…and I want to get it.

Happy New Year! And Lord of The Rings

For this week, I read Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

I had dreaded attempting this one again, as I had already tried to read this several times and never made it past the first chapter.  It just seemed so…boring.  It actually made me a little sad, as I adore all three movies (though I’ve only seen them all like 3 times as watching them involves a major time commitment LOL).  This time though, since I was reading it to report back on it, I persevered.  And found past the first chapter, a treasure.

For all of you following along with what authors like what books when Dave and I write about them, Lord of the Rings was listed in the top ten for Chitra Divakaruni and Richard Powers.

As most people are familiar with the movies by now, I won’t go into too much plot recounting.

Basically, in The Hobbit (which I have yet to see the first one released in theaters), Bilbo Baggins lays hold of a ring.  He carries it back to the Shire, where all the Hobbits live (well most of them, LOTR goes into detail about where hobbits live, and let’s say that all the “normal” and “socially acceptable” ones live in the Shire).  Life is peaceful for oh, around 60 years or so.  Then it all begins to go dark.  Bilbo leaves the Shire and leaves the ring to his nephew Frodo.  And still things go on quietly for awhile longer.  Then all hell breaks loose.  It comes about that the ring is the one thing that can make Sauron victorious completely over the world again.  Frodo and others (The Fellowship) set off to attempt destruction of the ring.  Through it all, wars, battles, elves, Gollum, humans wanting the ring etc etc, Frodo carries on towards Mordor to destroy the ring.

The Lord of the Rings has so many things in it.  I think that explains it’s constant appeal throughout the decades.  There are heroes.  There are clear cut villains.  There are people who are neither good or bad.  There are people that are mostly good but do bad things and mostly bad but do good things.  It’s a tale not only about good triumphing evil, but about redemption.  There are battles, which Tolkien manages to suffuse with adrenaline, so that people don’t feel they are just reading a history account of some long ago battle.  There are elves, oh the elves, with their endless fascination not only for men in the series but for all of us that aren’t in the series.

I’m really not going into this very much, because Jackson’s movies have made the stories of LOTR so universal and so many others have commented countless times on the stories in the last decade that I don’t find much left to say.


I find it endlessly fascinating that the stories sprung out of Tolkien’s just wanting to make up a language, and writing stories about this world he just created.  It took him years and years to finish the book, and while people repeatedly attempted to find parallels between it and World War II which had just recently ended, Tolkien repeatedly denied that any one character represented any figure from the War (i.e. Saruman or Sauron representing Hitler).  Parts of it were written before the war, parts were written during the war.


Dave & I started this blog in May.  In May, we both each read one book, making 2.  In June, we both read 2 books each, so 4.  In July, Dave read 2 books and I read one, so 3.  In August, I read 3, and Dave 2, so 5.  In September, I read 1, Dave 3.  In October, I read 3 and Dave 1, so 4.  In November, Dave read 3 and I read Genesis, the beginning of the Bible, so um..we’ll say 3 🙂  In December, Dave read 2 and I finished Genesis and wrote about non book stuff, so 2.  We’ve read 27 books so far (which I might have gotten the math wrong so Dave can correct haha).  I remain very happy to have begun this project and can’t wait to see which books I discover that I really should have read before in my life in 2013.