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A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War

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A reassessment of the nature of war and gender employs diaries, biographies, interviews, artwork, literature, psychology, and historical documents to illustrate the role of gender, sexuality, aspirations, and public personae in the causes and effects of war.

384 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1992

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About the author

Susan Griffin

69 books129 followers
Susan Griffin is an award winning poet, writer, essayist and playwright who has written nineteen books, including A Chorus of Stones, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Named by Utne reader as one of the top hundred visionaries of the new millenium, she is the recipient of an Emmy for her play Voices, an NEA grant and a MacArthur Grant for Peace and International Cooperation. Her latest work, Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy, on being an American Citizen has been called "fresh, probing" and "incisive" by Booklist.

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5 stars
210 (51%)
4 stars
112 (27%)
3 stars
63 (15%)
2 stars
20 (4%)
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5 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 51 reviews
Profile Image for Kend.
1,249 reviews68 followers
May 22, 2016
     Here's another book that I read for a class that I otherwise would never have attempted.  I'm glad, I think, that I put my head down and staggered through Susan Griffin's A Chorus of Stones, but it's a book that takes a toll.

     Here's a happy thought: a lot has already been written about A Chorus of Stones, so I don't have to waste your time harping on its disjointed style and how Griffin's stylistic choices reflect the missed connections in the interior life of the mind.  I don't have to annoy you with my gushings over how nice it is to see someone approach war as both a woman and as a sensitive soul, how impressed I am by the level and intensity of research that went into this book, and how generally well-written the book is (independent of its disjointedness).

     My experience with this book hinges on having read much of it while rattling around in the back seat of a fifteen-passenger van, the great Southwestern deserts jumbling together outside of my window.  I will forever connect its content with my trip to the Nevada Test Site, not only because I happened to bookend the trip with the (actual) book, reading it on the ways there and back, but because much of Griffin's writing centers on the history of nuclear weaponry.  She is concerned with secrets--the secrets and lies we tell ourselves, bury within ourselves, and broadcast to others--and how these secrets affect relationships.

     This is a woman's book.  I don't know that I'd call it feminist, although Feminist theory would certainly find a lot of meat to chew amongst its pages, but it relies heavily on the testimony of women, the (suppressed) expression of womanhood, the crises of growing up from girl to woman.  I ended up being fairly surprised that we were required to read this book for a class on the Technological Sublime, simply because the high proportion of woman/gender-related material to technology-related material overwhelmed the flavor of the book, in my opinion.  Perhaps that was the point--to speak of technology entirely within the context of the people affected by it.  But I didn't really see technology as the point--or even a primary theme--within A Chorus of Stones.  Technology, when it appears, has the effect of background radiation--it creates a hostile environment in which the foregrounded people move and relate to each other across a backdrop of pain and destruction.  It's an emotionally devastating book, and not the sort of pleasurable read I would generally pick for a road trip.

     Worth reading?  Absolutely.  Just not in the car, on the way to tour the most irradiated spot on the planet.  Not in the sun, or at sunset, with the joshua trees black against the indigo sky.
Profile Image for Nick DeFiesta.
126 reviews22 followers
January 25, 2022
This book is so hard to describe. I've tried to explain it to friends over the course of reading it, with limited success. But I'll try again here.

A Chorus of Stones is about how our private lives are seamlessly connected with public happenings. How a secret imposed by a nation — about how a nuclear bomb is built or a people commits genocide — ripples outward, stifling the lives of individuals far from the event. And how, in turn, the shame that we impose on an individual — for their homosexuality, their femininity — can have society-wide effects. It's about trauma and gender, grace and horror, war and the stories we tell ourselves and our children.

That's not super pithy (or honestly even that useful, I'm sure). And it fails to capture what reading A Chorus of Stones is like. Griffin writes in fragments, separate chunks weaving together seven or eight narratives at once, drawing out the interconnected themes between her family history, Nazi Germany, the introduction of planes into warfare, cell biology, and more. It has the effect of beautifully arguing Griffin's central thesis without any of the classic indicia of argument. You leave the book not with a bullet pointed list of takeaways (obviously, if my useless description above is any indication) but with a deeper sense of humanity.

This book is like nothing else.
97 reviews5 followers
February 2, 2010
This may be one of the best books I have read in a long time--Susan Griffin weaves her personal/family story with the stories of "ordinary" people affected by negative events like nuclear power testing as well as the lives of historical figures. At the center of it all are the secrets and lies that families and individuals construct which plant seeds that affect future events and lives. It's journal format with entries on the development of nuclear weapons and cell biology are juxtaposed with the historical events like Nagasaki, the holocaust, and other events as well as the lives of historical figures including Teddy Roosevelt, Gandhi, Himmler (SS military officer under Hitler), Trenshard, and Hemingway among others. Beautifully written, insightful, disturbing, enlightening--I highly recommend!! (I've ordered all her other books which look equally provocative!)
Profile Image for Ryan Mishap.
3,356 reviews59 followers
January 11, 2014
"It is perhaps a choice each of us makes over and over, even many times throughout one day, whether to use knowledge as power or intimacy."

Imagined history. Philosophy of the body inextricable from the trauma of the mind. To call this nonfiction wouldn't be entirely accurate--more like she took the facts and a philosophy and made them art.

The premise is simple, but a mere curtain covering the window and what we see beyond it is huge: the traumas of war, like the personal traumas each of us experience, are writ on the body (ours, the earth) and can be felt by all. These traumas reverberate across time, history, cultures, psyches, and in our bodies.

"The requirements of gender are like the omnipresent yet partly hidden plans of a secret bureaucracy....And is there not shame at the core of all one learns as one learns propriety? The body a terrain of forbidden acts. Hungers, expressions, evidences of flesh permeating an atmosphere of denial. Shame commingling with skin, cells, bone, even breath. If the shame is intense enough it outlives anyone it touches. I am still thinking of gender. How shame drives this unbending structure to which we must mold ourselves."

"The physicist David Bohm speaks of an illusory perception that we have of nature shaped by our fragmentary thought. Because we think in a fragmentary way, we see fragments. And this way of seeing leads us to make actual fragments of the world."

"The story of one live cannot be told separately from the story of other lives. Who are we? The question is not simple. What we call the self is part of a larger matrix of relationship and society."

"The Greek word for courage in battle...translated as virility or manliness. Throughout the battle of Troy men are unmanned by fear. It is a curious habit of mind that can imagine a man unmanned by the nature of his own feelings."

On soldiers in battle:

"Not the idea of death but a wall of flame, not the abstract notion of sacrifice but the bodily knowledge that just under your foot, as you take your next step, there may be a mine. Contrary to all your training, your body bends over as if to protect what is vital, your hands spring to catch your body as it falls, your eyes shut, as something flies into your face. You are caught between these two, forced into a no-man's-land between the social body and the body your were born with which is too much like a woman's body. If you turn one direction you betray the honor of your gender. You are, as Homer said, unmanned. But your body of birth will not obey.....But your mind will not admit complaint. You cannot put what you are feeling into words. You were among the bravest, after all...."

"The attack on the Iraqi tribesman reminds me, of course, of...My Lai. I remember looking at the photographs. Small children, infants lying face down, flesh ribboned open and bloody. The face of a young woman about to be raped and the unspeakable pain of her mother beside her. The sergeant who led this attack was prosecuted. But there were many other incidents that never came to trial. And perhaps a pattern that was never exposed drifts even now into the future we occupy."

"The stories we tell ourselves, particularly the silent or barely audible ones, are very powerful. They become invisible enclosures. Rooms with no air. One must open the window to see further, the door to possibility."

Profile Image for Denise Walderich.
13 reviews1 follower
April 8, 2009
This book changed my way of thinking about war as "other." I was reminded of a line from a song by Ferron: "Where does the evil live in me?" Some rare books create a paradigm shift in my core beliefs. This is such a book.
Profile Image for Sirpa Grierson.
434 reviews33 followers
May 21, 2008
Although the first 270 pages of the narrative is well-written, I wasn't drawn into it. But I loved the final section, "If: Notes Toward a Sketch for a Work in Progress." I love writing in fragments. Noting glimpses. At this stage of my life I have come to reaccept the idea that when you discover yourself within the lines of a text, a work of literature has the possibility of becoming the urbs quadrata, a templum from which to examine the cosmos and counteract time.

"For she can make another kind of descent, into the depths, and return, resurrected." 311

We spiral through life as we evolve to consciousness. Earthlife is so fleeting. Wordsworth was right, in saying that "elsewhere" is our setting. "I belong either no place, or in two places at once. This I have come to understand both the freedom and the strange vulnerability of exile." 293

This is the story of the feminine spirit and its resilience.

"A new story of The Arabian Nights arrived in the mail yesterday. I open it. Read the beginning. Read abut Sheherazade. How she tells stories to save herself, and the world she loves." 363.
Profile Image for Elise.
11 reviews
January 2, 2010
This is one of those books that is hard to understand. It's not the language. Usage and wording are pretty much simple and straightforward. But the content! It just jumps back and forth all the time -- there are about five events occurring simultaneously on one page; on the next page, three of the five events are explained in detail; a chapter later, one of the five events that has not been mentioned again emerges. Whenever I encounter a situation like this, my racing mind jolts to a stop so that it could give itself time to process all the information.
Though mind-boggling, it is certainly a very interesting read -- a mix of history, psychology, and memoirs. To sum it up, it was good while it lasted. Though I would never pick it up for "leisure reading", it is a good choice if one is looking for something to analyze.
406 reviews31 followers
October 9, 2010
"Our Secret" never fails to elicit in me new ways to see the world, the population, my students, my family, myself.
Profile Image for Richard Gilbert.
Author 2 books31 followers
August 4, 2015
A mesmerizing mosaic made of different but reappearing elements including: snippets on cell biology and missile technology, WWII's savage war on civilians, the secrets people carry about emotional and other abuse, and the Nazis, especially Heinrich Himmler, chief architect of the Holocaust and his very strict, self-denying, Germanic childhood. This is an extended meditation on suffering and how it leads to more suffering, especially in the mass violence of war.
Profile Image for Keenan.
307 reviews9 followers
November 12, 2018
A Chorus of Rainbows: A Review
A Chorus of Stones meets Gravity's Rainbow

In the laboratories of one Laszlo Jamf, the compounding of various resins leads to a chain of microscopic events, which yields a stability non-existent in the original materials. For the first time, a plastic has been developed which is fully erectile: Imipolex G

Ivan Pavlov, the eldest of eleven children, was born in Ryazan, Russian Empire. Although able to read by the age of seven, Pavlov was seriously injured when he fell from a high wall onto a stone pavement. I am picturing Ivan as he sits in the hospital, looking at the white plaster of his cast. Stuck and confined, perhaps he wonders if he'll feel more unhealthy just by being present in the hospital. Perhaps he's conditioned to feel that way.

At the same time, but 100 years later, Slothrop had scored only a couple of days ago when the rocket hit. The first guided missile is developed in Germany, during World War II. It is known as the Vergeltungswaffe, or the Vengeance weapon. Moreover, Slothrop's "scores" always precede (by two to ten days) the arrival of the rocket at the same location. The rocket's rush comes swelling. Erection. Raketemensch, Slothrop the Rocketman, wears his Wagnerian costume. The Rescorla–Wagner model tells us that learning is conceptualized in terms of associations between conditioned (CS) and unconditioned (US) stimuli. Custard pie. Fuck the war.

We keep secrets from ourselves that all along we know. Denial. When my father was still a small boy, his mother did something unforgivable. My father was not allowed to cry over his lost mother. My father's name was Tyrone. When I discovered him once again, in the retirement home off the coast of Maine, I found that the only thing he recalls is a smell, the breath of the Forbidden Wing. Is it possible he was deconditioned, beyond zero?

Pointsman had learned that when a buzzer or metronome was sounded in subsequent time with food being presented to the octopus Grigori in consecutive sequences, Grigori would initially salivate when the food was presented. The faithful octopus would later come to associate the sound with the presentation of the food and salivate upon the presentation of that stimulus. Pointsman salivates for human subjects. A Pavlovian breakdown?

The great general Agamemnon abducted Clitinmynestra when she was already married. He had slain her husband and then torn her child from her (the text as set down by Euripedes (the great tragedian) reads from her breast) and smashed it to the ground before her eyes.

That's just how things are, I say to myself.
Profile Image for JP.
434 reviews7 followers
September 7, 2020
You have to read few hundred books to come across a pearl like this..
Is it a poetry or fiction or non fiction or explaining the reality in prominent people or portraying the real incident in true way or evaluating self portrait or a science book on evolution or a book on missile or teaching of wisdom or autobiography.
No author would have so much guts to put an entire dish in one plate to surprise the reader.
Once you read this book it will erase all the book in terms of presentation.
If you read this book, then you definitely will be searching for her other books on library or in book store or online.
It resonate in you for your lifetime and you definitely feel against the concept of war.
Reviewing will become absurd and it expose your innocence towards this world..
This book find a prominent place in your book shelf and you definitely hide it Coz not to lose it..
One of the "Wonders of the world!"
4 reviews
October 16, 2017
I just wrote a review of another book and discussed how I hate the numerical review system because it is too one dimensional to describe books with complex ideas, and my sentiment echoes for this book.

I have never read anything quite like this book. Griffin is fascinating and has such a unique perspective. She makes a great case for pacifism and for showing how oppression during childhood (specifically the emotional oppression of males) can lead to dissociation in terms of denial leading to not fully embracing or even realizing the consequences of their actions.

I read this book alongside The People's History of the United States, and I found them to compliment each other well (this was unintentional but I am glad I did). Susan Griffin writes about the patriarchal components to the system at hand starting with the cell and working up to the major history. Looking at the history of US wars as in People's History allowed to understand the system on a more human level, something I think Howard Zinn, the author of People's History, fails to do.

My main criticism of Griffin is the lack of cohesive style at times. Sometimes reading it I tried to connect the dots and had trouble doing so. This made me doubt myself at times, thinking I was just missing the hidden link in the syllogism, but I tend to make connections fairly easily so if that is the case, there needs to be a good background given for the average person to understand.

However, after thinking about it, it may have been intentional to indicate the dissociative nature that patriarchal and war culture demands in all of us. I just wish feminist literature would embrace the connections of everything, especially from an ecologist like Griffin, because we so rarely see that in our segmented version of society and education, something which I learned from her in another essay she wrote.

However, this book should be mandatory reading in this day and age, especially with the politician we have elected as our presidency recently, because I think it will give a much more encompassing perspective to how he got to be where he is so hopefully we can work towards a less war torn society.

Profile Image for Robert Wechsler.
Author 12 books125 followers
June 30, 2022
This engaging, original, meandering history and memoir takes the reader through the lives of a variety of individuals related to modern warfare, especially Gandhi, Goebbels, and Sir Hugh Trenchard, the “father” of the RAF. But Griffin’s family is at the center of her travels, and amazingly this works for the most part.

I had two major problems with the book that prevented it from being another of the wonderful times spent with a brilliant, fresh-thinking woman’s mind. One is Griffin’s mysticism, which I do not share, and which colors both her ideas and her prose. The second is the book’s final section, which shares few of what I think are the book’s best qualities. I recommend this unique work, and realize that many people will not share my reservations. A 3.5.
Profile Image for Victoria Haf.
280 reviews77 followers
July 11, 2017
Este libro está escrito de manera fragmentada (más o menos como woman and nature pero un poco menos) y mezcla autobiografía con la historia de la guerra. Es interesante porque aunque habla de hechos históricos y personajes, es una visión de la guerra más íntima donde enlaza, como la historia y los secretos y la cultura, nos afectan de manera personal. Hay muchas historias muy devastadoras y por momentos se vuelve bastante pesado pero está bueno
306 reviews13 followers
May 27, 2021
I loved this book. The juxtaposing of history, autobiography, science in the way only a poet and radical feminist like griffin could do. I’ve only ever read ‘Woman and Nature’ before over 30 years ago and it had a profound impact on me as this book has.
Profile Image for Virginia.
16 reviews3 followers
April 18, 2021
I am only a few chapters in but it is giving me a lot to think/feel about.

It is non fiction, it is written in an oddly disjointed style. It is about ... yeah, that's the strangeness of it because I suspect it is about whatever the reader decides it is about. She discusses the evolution of weaponry, the nature of cells, secrets, our propensity for denial, nuclear weapons, her family, Enrico Fermi, Himmler, Paul Tibbets & Thomas Ferebee. She shares stories of Hiroshima survivors.

But she presents it all in such a way that speaks to my innate sense that Everything is One Thing and that when little old me is agitated, I disturb the peace of the Universe.

While relating a personal experience she reflects, "Time was not passing. It had become a more flexible element." Yes, always, but we seldom perceive it so.

She tells us about Mitsukuni Akiyama, who witnessed the Hiroshima blast. She tells us he said of that moment that "he felt an eerie silence. Sound and color stopped. Then it was as if an instant of time had frozen and within that instant, 'a fraction of a thousandth of a second' -he called it- he said that, 'an unimaginable number of incidents took place.'"

And that just struck me as absolute, objective truth. It will take me a while to get through this book because I have to pause and consider what I have read.
Profile Image for Wyndy KnoxCarr.
102 reviews1 follower
November 2, 2018
I got tired of waiting for Susan Griffin’s latest book - Strong Man, - to come out, so I went back and read A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, her 1992 contemplation on many things, including “the loss of manhood…A kind of force field of fear” as compared to “the topic of masculine strength which dominates the shared imagination does not have to be mentioned. Rather the ground of this obsession is as if a part of the natural foundation of existence. Metaphors of manly performance permeate language.” (p. 217).
She, like Ursula LeGuin, born and raised in Berkeley and Napa, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, who lived in Berkeley most of her writing life, sees worlds through a terribly truthful, “female,” sexual and gendered lens unlike any ever, it seems, seen through before. But it was not nonexistent - just not ever published or publicized and more often shamed, ignored, denied and ridiculed as thoroughly as Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Cassandras, prophets, one and all. Bring the truth out, be put to shame, then “history is written by the victors,” as the “story of the hunt is told by the hunters, not the fallen lions.”
There is something about this earth-moving, always-summer, shape-shifting and brilliantly risky place that brings out the Prophetic Prospectors in us, or lures the “strange, but true” to the ocean’s edge. It is a land of possibility.
What are our “Metaphors of womanly performance” that “permeate language” and our shared and remembered mythology? I like the part of Cassandra’s story where “She grabbed an axe in one hand and a burning torch in her other, and ran towards the Trojan Horse, intent on destroying it herself to stop the Greeks from destroying Troy. The Trojan people stopped her … The Greeks hiding inside the Horse were relieved … but they were surprised by how clearly she had seen their plan to defeat Troy.”
Cassandras, prophets, one and all. Bring the truth out, people, what you “clearly see” and your heart moves you to tell. Be ridiculed, be ready to be run down or laughed at as we stand in silence or tell and listen to each other, saying “look me in the eye,” even if our moon is obscured in a cloudy sky…
Profile Image for Dusty Brown.
264 reviews
February 6, 2023
Author is a leading feminist
Effects of war
Interestingly written
Euripides wrote "Only a madman depopulates and plunders cities....He who does so creates a desert in which he'll perish." Putin's War in Ukraine!
Profile Image for Danna.
45 reviews15 followers
July 3, 2007
When something or someone affects you very deeply, it's very difficult to articulate or explain the emotions you feel. This is exactly how I felt (and still feel) after reading A Chorus of Stones. Griffin explores war and violence on the grand and personal level, she delves into the underbelly of humankind, especially what is kept secret, what is denied, what is allowed, in brilliant stream-of-consciousness prose which at some point I realized followed the structure of the atom. This makes perfect sense, especially since the book's primary "character" is the atom bomb, and the events and historical figures, however directly or tangentially connected (Boer War & WWI officers, Rita Hayworth, Himmler, Gandhi, Los Alamos scientists & their families), explicate the reality of harnessing the atom for destruction.
Profile Image for Angie.
325 reviews10 followers
July 28, 2009
4 1/2 An insightful meditation on war. The author weaves her personal life, her family's history, and the experiences of soldiers, German and British leaders, and others, to discuss the changes in war as reflected in changes in society beginning in la belle epoque. Has an interesting last chapter that includes entries from Griffin's journal about the interesting format of the book and a bonus piece on Hemingway, which repeats again the book's conclusions. But Hemingway and his discontents are not so easily explained away by the existence of the "other" within each of us. Bad last example, in my mind, that leads less to the conclusions the author wishes us to draw. What she says feels right in every other case, and the consequences are frightening.
Profile Image for Anne Sanow.
Author 3 books33 followers
November 14, 2008
Wow--I seriously cannot believe it took me this long to know about this book and read it! (Thanks to Geoff and David for the recommendation.) In Griffin's own words: "All official history accompanied by another history. That history which is told by word of mouth. The stories we pass between us." Brilliantly weaves a meditation on both world wars, the development of the atom bomb, the first Gulf War, Hemingway, Himmler, a Jewish woman who leaves behind an art catalogue of her life before Auschwitz, and so much more.
Profile Image for Mbarron.
13 reviews3 followers
May 19, 2010
Griffin has a way of presenting private history as part of public history that breaks down boundaries between genres. She is willing to do thinking/writing that must in some measure be costly to her on a personal level: imagine 8 years of thinking about your dysfunctional family, defined by its secrets, the development of nuclear weapons (much of that accomplished secretly), and the German SS. Then imagine finding a style of non-fiction writing that allows you to lay out the pieces, but allows the reader to click them into place in the process of reading.
Author 2 books
July 26, 2007
This collage investigates "the private life of war," juxtaposing biography of important warmongers, research on war, German childrearing methods, and Rita Hayworth(!), scientific history into cells and technology, and Griffin's own biography in order to explore and understand how war and genocide happen. It's a wonderful artful book. I've taught it, read it, loved it. I'd recommend it to anyone -- be ready to come face to face with understanding the radical other of destruction.
Profile Image for Shirley.
295 reviews8 followers
Currently reading
January 1, 2015
Not really reading this yet, but wanted to file a note with it as a TO READ. I found it referenced in a note on the back of a birthday card with I think Pat Mahoney's writing (dead now many years) while I was cleaning--Her note: "A friend passed on to me a very intriguing book-- A Chorus of Stones: A Private History of War, by Susan Griffin. Best way to describe it is some weaving of inner/outer events of war--both proximate and remote."
Profile Image for Cortney.
333 reviews
March 1, 2016
This book was on my "books to read" list from my college lit days. Definitely need focus and energy to complete this one. Psyche insights and history lessons throughout were very informative and well covered. I honestly ended up scimming most of it to get a grasp of what Griffin was getting at. Interesting thought that individual private suffering, secrets, and lies reflect that of the grand public.
Profile Image for Shayne.
172 reviews10 followers
September 20, 2009
I had some trouble getting past the disjointed writting style of the author. The stories were touching and opened up new thoughts about my past and my current experiance as a soldier, and with a son as a soldier. Though I at times had difficulty understanding the connection between the stories that she was telling.
Profile Image for Betsy.
43 reviews3 followers
July 2, 2007
Absolutely beautiful book that taught me so much about the connectedness of history and people and evil and good. I love the way she writes, prose in short doses, each passage so powerful.
65 reviews
September 24, 2007
this is one of the most important books I know. it offers a disturbing, probing, and radical analysis of how and why humans both make and tolerate the making of war.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 51 reviews

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